Why Karzai Won’t Do as He’s Told


To some it may seem as if President Hamid Karzai has a death wish. The Afghan leader has lately begun sticking it to the U.S. and its Western allies — the only force protecting him from a surging Taliban, which hanged the last foreign-backed President when it reached Kabul in 1996. Having infuriated the Obama Administration by continuing to drag his feet on corruption — and then cozying up to Iran and China when Washington turned up the heat — Karzai ratcheted up the rhetoric last week. He accused the U.S. of trying to dominate his country, blamed the West for last year’s electoral fraud (which his campaign was accused of masterminding) and made comments that verged on sanctifying the Taliban insurgency as a “national resistance” against foreign invaders. The New York Times reported on Sunday that Karzai even threatened, during a meeting with Afghan parliamentarians, to join the Taliban himself if the West continued to pressure him.

But bizarre as his behavior may seem, there may be a method in Karzai’s madness. For one thing, he has begun denouncing the Western powers in his country because he knows he can — Karzai would have been cut adrift some time ago if there were any other viable alternative on whom the U.S. could pin its strategy. The wily President knows that the presence of foreign forces in his country is deeply unpopular, particularly when civilians are killed in the course of NATO military operations. Karzai, moreover, is humiliated and shown to be powerless when his protestations over such operations are ignored by his Western patrons. So while he may have been installed by a U.S.-led invasion, if Karzai is to survive the departure of Western forces, he will have to reinvent himself as a national leader with an independent power base. He’s obviously determined not to go the way of Mohammad Najibullah, the former Soviet-backed leader who was executed by the Taliban seven years after the Red Army withdrew. So from Karzai’s point of view, he’s pushing back against the U.S. not only because he can, but also because he must if he is to survive politically.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1977781,00.html#ixzz0kFaZnofpRead the rest here

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Obama Reproduces Bush’s Iran Failure


Iran diplomacy in Washington these days consists principally of coaxing the likes of Russia and China to support new sanctions – and persuading gullible journalists that Moscow and Beijing are “on board”.

On Friday, the US president Barack Obama told CBS television that Iran is trying to get the “capacity to develop nuclear weapons”, and that he and his allies “are going to ratchet up the pressure … with a unified international community”. Nobody sets much store by such talk, of course, because President George W Bush had been saying the same thing since 2006 with little effect.

Sure, Russia and China have agreed to finally discuss a Security Council resolution to increase sanctions first imposed three years ago over Iran’s failure to comply with all the transparency requirements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But Moscow and Beijing have also made clear that they don’t believe Iran is building nuclear weapons. Nor does the US, for that matter. The CIA’s assessment is that no such decision has yet been taken, and that Iran’s current nuclear efforts will simply give it the option to build nuclear weapons.

As a result, Russia and China have also made clear that they will block any new sanctions that inflict significant pain on the Islamic Republic, aware that the stand-off can only be resolved by dialogue, and that sanctions are unlikely to help.

Read the rest here

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Truth and Consequences in the Middle East

My latest on Tomdispatch:

Israel Won’t Change Unless the Status Quo Has a Downside

Obama’s peace plan is doomed because failure costs Israel nothing

Uncomfortable at the spectacle of the Obama administration in an open confrontation with the Israeli government, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman — who represents the interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party on Capitol Hill as faithfully as he does those of the health insurance industry — called for a halt. “Let’s cut the family fighting, the family feud,” he said. “It’s unnecessary; it’s destructive of our shared national interest. It’s time to lower voices, to get over the family feud between the U.S. and Israel. It just doesn’t serve anybody’s interests but our enemies.”

The idea that the U.S. and Israel are “family” with identical national interests is a convenient fiction that Lieberman and his fellow Israel partisans have worked relentlessly to promote — and enforce — in Washington over the past two decades. If the bonds are indeed familial, however, last week’s showdown between Washington and the Netanyahu government may be counted as one of those feuds in which truths are uttered in the heat of the moment that call into question the fundamental terms of the relationship. Such truths are never easily swept under the rug once the dispute is settled. The immediate rupture, that is, precludes a simple return to the status quo ante; instead, a renegotiation of the terms of the relationship somehow ends up on the agenda.

Sure, the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government are now working feverishly to find a formula that will allow them to move on from a contretemps that began when the Israelis ambushed Vice President Joe Biden, announcing plans to build 1,600 new housing units for settlers in occupied East Jerusalem. He was, of course, in Israel to promote the Obama administration’s failing efforts to rehabilitate negotiations toward a two-state peace agreement, a goal regularly spurned by Israel’s continued construction on land occupied in 1967.

Once again, as when Obama demanded a complete settlement freeze from the Netanyahu government in 2009, the Israelis will fend off any demand that they completely reverse their latest construction plans. Instead, they will shamelessly offer to continue their settlement activity on a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” basis, professing rhetorical support for a two-state solution to placate the Americans, even as they systematically erode its prospects on the ground.

There is, as former Secretary of State James Baker has noted, no shortage of chutzpah in this Israeli government. “United States taxpayers are giving Israel roughly $3 billion each year, which amounts to something like $1,000 for every Israeli citizen, at a time when our own economy is in bad shape and a lot of Americans would appreciate that kind of helping hand from their own government,” Baker said in a recent interview. “Given that fact, it is not unreasonable to ask the Israeli leadership to respect U.S. policy on settlements.”

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Israel’s Apartheid Without Consequences


Those who live behind its walls are still ruled by the Israeli state

From my latest in the National:

The former US president Jimmy Carter set off a firestorm in 2006 when he said that Israel would have to choose between maintaining an apartheid occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians. That Mr Carter brokered Israel’s most important peace treaty with an Arab country was immaterial; he was branded an enemy of Israel, an anti-Semite and even a Holocaust-denier.

Israel’s friends in the US reacted out of instinct, knowing that an association with apartheid – South Africa’s erstwhile system of racial oppression – would bring international condemnation and isolation. But there was no word of protest from that quarter last week when Israel’s defence minister said what Mr Carter had. “If, and as long as between the Jordan (River) and the (Mediterranean) Sea there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” warned Ehud Barak, speaking at Israel’s annual Herzliya security conference. “If the Palestinians vote in elections it is a binational state and if they don’t vote it is an apartheid state.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Mr Carter was arguing…

…It should come as little surprise that Israelis are cool towards Mr Obama’s peace effort: Israel’s cost-benefit analysis weighs against pursuing a peace agreement that carries risk. There are no consequences for maintaining the status quo. Unless Mr Obama and others can change that cost-benefit analysis, they’re wasting their time.

It wasn’t a moral epiphany that prompted Rabin to embrace the Oslo peace process; it was his reading of the geopolitical situation at the end of the Gulf War, and the assumption that Israel could not rely on unconditional US support. But Mr Sharon and Mr Netanyahu subsequently proved that Israel can, in fact, count on US support without concluding a two-state peace – it simply must go through the motions of a “peace process”.

The apartheid fear for Israeli leaders is not of the moral turpitude of maintaining such a system – which they already do – it’s a fear of this being recognized for what it is.

Because apartheid ought to have consequences. In fact, if he is to have any hope of having any positive impact on the Middle East, President Barack Obama will have to make sure that there are consequences for Israel maintaining the status quo — consequences of sufficient seriousness to change the Israelis’ cost-benefit analysis that makes maintaining the status quo preferable to changing it.

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Bracing for Israel’s Next Gaza Attack


This from my latest in the National:

There were no winners in the Gaza war that Israel launched a year ago today, but no shortage of losers. And failure to address its underlying causes – the economic siege through which Israel, Egypt and the US hope to force Hamas from power, and that organisation’s ability to respond by firing rockets into Israel – means that far from anyone learning the lessons of the brutal folly that was Operation Cast Lead, a repeat may be imminent.

Although it killed up to 1,400 Palestinians and left tens of thousands homeless while losing only 10 of its own men (four to “friendly fire”), one of the world’s most powerful armies failed to achieve its main objective – to destroy Hamas’s military and political infrastructure…

…But a year later, Hamas remains in uncontested control of the territory, and not only retains the capacity to fire rockets into Israel, but has forced Israel to consider releasing 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Operation Cast Lead also cost Israel dearly on the political and diplomatic front. Its senior officials have to think twice before visiting a number of western countries for fear of arrest on war crimes charges, and that even allies such as the US and Britain have urged Israel to investigate the war crimes allegations raised by Judge Richard Goldstone underscores just how sharply the operation tilted international public opinion against Israel. The European Union is now talking of recognising Palestinian statehood based on the 1967 borders, underscoring an impatience with the Israelis unknown during the Ariel Sharon era…

…Tempting as it may be to see the possible Shalit swap as a sign that Israel and Hamas are finally learning to engage and seek a more stable coexistence, that would be a mistake. Having failed to defeat Hamas and then been forced (by Israeli public opinion demanding the soldier’s safe return) to free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners is a bitter pill for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In the minds of Israel’s hawks, the country’s vaunted “deterrence” would require that Hamas be made to pay a heavy price for forcing the prisoner exchange on Israel. Giving Hamas a second victory by lifting the siege may be too much for them to countenance.

So it ought to surprise no one if, in the weeks and months ahead, there is an increase in Israeli air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza, while efforts to end the blockade are stymied, ultimately provoking Hamas to hit back with its own rocket strikes – opening another round of fighting.

Read the whole thing here

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How I Overcame My Jewish-Evangelical Upbringing and Learned to Love Christmas, Anyway

Guest Column: Gavin Evans Back in the day, when Gavin and I were young activists trying to change the world, the doorbell rang at our Observatory student house. I opened it to see a tall and handsome man in the silky purple shirt and dog collar of an Anglican Bishop. “You must be Tony,” said Bishop Bruce Evans. “I hope you’re going to make a mensch out of my son.” I was a little gobsmacked to hear +Bruce, as I came to know him, tossing out yiddish bon mots. But as his menschedik son relates here, many are the pathways of the lord, and all that….

The fundamentalist century

By Gavin Evans

So, Christmas and Hannukah have rolled past again, following in the wake of Eid and Diwali. Lots of celebrations all around and, perhaps, time to put a bit of religion back into the mix.

It is fitting to start with the obvious point that these festivals and commemorations are not all they seem. Take Christmas: the date of December 25 was chosen by the Romans sometime after 350 AD, probably to coincide with a pagan festival (and certainly not the birth date of the historical Jesus) – one of the many ways the Romans managed to wed Christianity with pre-existing Pagan traditions and beliefs. But Christmas only became prominent after Charlemagne was crowned on December 25, 800, and it took more than another millennium before the traditions of trees, and presents crept in (Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens did their bit) – and a bit longer before the North Pole Santa arrived. In other words, its connections with Christianity are tenuous, to say the least. It has become, essentially, a secular celebration – which is one of the reasons why I am happy to embrace its charms.

But this was not the way I grew up. I was raised on fundamentalism, and Christmas certainly wasn’t exempt. We were told the point wasn’t the actual date but rather that this was celebration of the birth of Jesus and that we give presents to remember that God gave his son for our salvation (I later discovered that other cultures – Spanish, for example – give their presents later as a celebration of the gifts given by the Three Wise Men).

Anyway, this stuff was as integral to my childhood as family meals: chapter-and-verse Protestantism complete with ‘born-again conversion’ (aged 8), tongues-sprouting ‘baptism in the spirit’ (aged 13), the promise of everlasting life with our Lord (heaven) and the perpetual fear of everlasting separation from his love (hell). Add to this the fact that my father, who went on to become an Anglican Bishop, was Jewish, and believed he was part of the God’s chosen people and that the creation of the state of Israel was the fulfilment of Biblical philosophy, and you might get the sense of why our upbringing was not entirely normal, if normality is measured by the going rate. So when I made my break, aged 17, it needed to be decisive, after which I drifted from open-ended agnosticism into soft atheism. But I have to say, it feels like much of the world is moving in the opposite direction.

The rise of fundamentalism

Religious fundamentalism is on the rise: you can see it in the variants of radical Sunni Islam feeding off the detritus of US foreign policy and of Zionist expansionism, taking hold of young hearts from the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa via Pakistan through Afghanistan, into the West and back to the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond. Up against it comes Shiite Islamism, given a foothold through the 1979 Iranian revolution and now spreading via Iraq while tapping into other conflicts in the Middle East, where both forms elbow out secular Arab nationalism to do battle with a revivalist form of Jewish radicalism, married to rightwing Zionism, with its most significant echo in the United States. There it thrives alongside an assertive Catholic backlash and the spread of literalist Pentecostal Protestantism, which is also on the march throughout Latin America, while making fresh inroads into China, Russia and Africa. Sometimes forgotten in all this Abrahamic ferment, is the growth of Hindu radicalism in India – part of the problem in Kashmir and not exactly helpful in easing tensions with Pakistan (and, as with other fundamentalist forms, it is strongly motivated by turning back advances made by Indian women).

I don’t want to paint these fundamentalisms with the same brush, to view them as no more than variants of the same doomed anti-modernist death rattle, but there are common elements. Look at millenarian movements throughout history and a common factor leaps out: their emergence from periods of social disruption and from challenge by rival fundamentalist energy. Part of their appeal comes from the certainty they offer in an uncertain world – immutable values, a return to godly ways, strict demands on lifestyle, the promise of everlasting life and everlasting punishment for the unfaithful. And yet, despite their claims, today’s variants are contemporary movements – of our time rather than of ancient times.

Islamism

The first sparks that gave rise to contemporary Sunni Islamism are sometimes attributed to the writings of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual force behind the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood whose commentaries on the Qu’ran and advocacy of Jihad and of the creation of world-wide Islamic Umma were a powerful influence on several variants of Islamism, including al-Qaeda. Qutb’s hatred of Western ways, and most particularly of the ways of Western women, was partly inspired by his spell in Greely, Colorado from 1948-1950 – hardly a liberated time or place, but deeply shocking for a virgin who complained about the “animal-like” mixing of the sexes – even in churches.

But this form of Sunni Islamism needed fertile territory to flourish, which was inadvertently fostered by the relationship between corrupt Saudi rulers and the deeply conservative Wahabi religious establishment, allowing them to control education, religious life and social life. Even today, this American ally is patrolled, literally, by religious police who rigidly enforce Sharia law. Women are banned from voting, driving, swimming in public and so on. But this was never enough. Some younger men, not least wealthy ones like Osama Bin Laden, wanted more. For a while, their urges were channelled in Afghanistan because fighting the Russians suited everyone. They had already made their mark by spreading their version of Sunni Islam via the Pakistani Madrassas to Afghanistan (with considerable help from Pakistan’s intelligence services). Once the Russians departed, they turned their eyes to the Americans and over the past decade the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian atrocities in Chechnya and, in particular, US backing for Israel against the Palestinians, have helped stoke the fire of this variant of radical Islam, providing local, regional and international causes to rally behind.

Certainly, there are major differences between variants of Islamism and I don’t want to fall into the Martin Amis trap of conflating them all into a single, demonised bloc (Amis even manages to put Shiite and Sunni radicals in the same pot, which is a bit like conflating Martin Luther with the Pope). For example, I see Hamas and Hizballah as essentially nationalistic political movements with a strong religious overtone (and they are vehement political opponents of al-Qaeda). In each region or area, the growth of Islamic-inspired political groups owes a great deal to local conditions. Nevertheless, there are common factors, worthy of generalisation. Its appeal is particularly strong to those who felt left behind or left out by the sweep of modernity or frustrated by powerlessness or fearful or resentful of its consequences.

In some parts of the world, a significant part of the motivation seems to be an antipathy to the enhanced position of women. Some of the most striking images I’ve seen are those of young, unemployed Indonesian Muslim men cheering when professional women were whipped for not being sufficiently covered up. Accounts of women in Taliban Afghanistan point to an obsession by the young men (who emerged as religious police) about countering advances in women’s lives introduced during the Soviet era: not just wearing of Burkhas (as if to deny not female sexuality), but even the education of girls.

Opinion surveys of young Muslims in the West consistently point to a sense of alienation from the prevailing motion of society – part of it but also apart from it. For these people, Islamism with its global vision, its stateless perspective of the Umma, and its radical vision of challenge, change and permanent struggle, offers something of the surety, definition and sense of purpose that Marxism offered earlier generations, but the parallel shouldn’t be taken too far. First, this is a religion; Marxism was merely quasi-religious in its tone. Second, the al-Qaeda variant of this particular religious movement claims to be committed to the destruction of modernity, holding up the horror of the Taliban Afghanistan as a success. It carries within its soul a profound antagonism to the liberation of women, and the young converts in Western cities are not immune to this particular appeal. The emergence of significant numbers of Burkha and Niqab-wearing women in Western cities surely owes something to this impetus.

Evangelical Christian fundamentalism

In one sense you could trace the origins of contemporary evangelical Christian radicalism to Luther and the rise of Protestantism but its more recent currents are drawn from 19th century revivalism and, more specifically, the rise of Pentecostalism in the southern American states at the turn of the 20th century. In addition to their Protestant Biblical fundamentalism with its literal heaven and literal hell, the Pentecostals were big on the ‘Power of the Holy Spirit’ (expressed through the ‘gifts of the spirit’ – tongues, interpretation, healing, exorcism and so on) and on interpretations of the book of Revelation emphasising the ‘Second Coming’.

But it was only in the 1960s that it burst its southern American banks and began outpacing all other Christian movements – both through its own denominations (the Assemblies of God, free Pentecostal churches and others which, together, now have over 150 million adherents) and through inroads into the Anglican and Catholic churches where the ‘charismatic movement’ took off in the early 1970s. Even in Britain, the most irreligious of all countries, evangelicals are on the rise – putting the squeeze on liberals and Anglo Catholics in the Church of England – while house churches and faith centres spread beyond the Anglican embrace. It became the most powerful force within late 20th century Christianity and few countries outside the Islamic world were spared. By the late 1980s it was also starting to become an important political force in the United States, and within a decade became the centre-point of Carl Rove’s strategy for creating a new, rightwing Republic coalition.

So what is the motive force behind this expansion? Again, it is hard to escape the view that the unsettled state of post-industrial capitalism has something to do with it: the breakdown in communities and community, the sense of relative decline, and disquiet about changes in gender relations, although here the starting point is different to that of Islamism. The mid-century dancehalls that so upset Qutb, with their immutable roles for boys and girls, are points of return rather than departure for today’s Pentecostals, who tell their women to make an effort to look beautiful and feminine for their husbands and prefer homemakers to career women, and demand that the man is master of the house and that part of the woman’s role is to honour and obey (and, of course, that the rod should not be spared on the children).

Religious Zionist fundamentalism

I don’t want to draw too direct a parallel with the rise of new variants of Jewish radicalism, because unlike Islam or Christianity, Judaism has long ceased being a proselytising religion (although it certainly did have a proselytising element for its first few thousand years). I am therefore not talking about the intriguing growth of some branches of Hasidic Judaism (not least the Lubavitch in New York and beyond).

Instead, what I am referring to is the shift towards greater religiosity among the heirs of Vladimir Jabotinsky: the Zionist right – a religiosity that is deeply political (as is Islamism and Christian fundamentalism). When I hear West Bank Settler leaders saying that every Jew knows in his heart that this land of Judea and Sumaria as well as Israel is theirs and that those who pretend otherwise are trying to silence the voice of God within them, it is eerily reminiscent of the way ‘backsliders’ were regarded in my evangelical upbringing. Here the idea is that Jewish ‘blood’ comes with a God-given spiritual knowledge of Jewish destiny through control of particular pieces of land – so land, blood and God’s spirit inextricably bound together. Recent genetic research suggesting a common ancestry of Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinians, going back 4000 years to their mythical common ancestor, Abraham, should be deeply unsettling to those holding this view, as should evidence produced by the likes of Schlomo Sand that the blood descendents of the Biblical Jews include today’s Palestinians, but science and fundamentalism seldom cross paths.

It is in this terrain – Israel and Palestine – where the millenarian obsessions of radical variants of the three Abrahamic religions coincide. For one thing, radical Christians, Jews and Shia Muslims are all big on prophetic arrivals or returns. For some Jews it is the arrival of the anointed one, the Messiah, who will gather the Jews back to the land of Israel, heralding a messianic age. For Shia fundamentalists it is the second coming of the ‘saviour Imam’ Mehdi, the 12th grandson of Muhammad, who will return to rule before Judgement day. For many evangelical Christians it is the second coming of the Jesus, an event seen within the context of an apocalyptic version of the final days – the Tribulation (when the Anti-Christ rules), the Battle of Armageddon (which takes place in Israel), the Rapture (where all the Christians ascend into heaven), Judgement Day and the end of the earth. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that their competing Apocalyptic visions become self-fulfilling prophesies.

Old Testament literalism

Another striking similarity between the religious-political fundamentalists of all three Abrahamic religions is their scriptural literalism. Speak in any depth to a religious Zionist radical and the argument will soon reach the point of the promises made by ‘G-d’ about the Land of Israel in the Tanakh, which is viewed as an immutable historical record – a view shared by Islamists and Christian evangelicals.

For anyone outside the religious realm, the idea of a collection of writings thousands of years old being passed off as an accurate historical document would seem absurd, but that was certainly the view I was raised with. It was only in 1985 – seven years after abandoning Christianity – that this was challenged. I was sitting in a detention cell in Johannesburg Prison when through a gap in the floor, a common law prisoner passed me a book on Biblical archaeology, written by a Christian with more than a passing a regard for truth. The only other book I had was the Bible and so I read both, and was surprised to find that a great deal of what I’d taken as historical record was nothing of the sort (for example the exodus from Egypt took over 100 years, and involved nothing like the numbers suggested in the Bible.

I followed this with further research and discovered there was no evidence for the existence of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Joseph, and very little of Moses (many non-religious archaeologists believe he was a mythical character, since no physical evidence like pottery shards or stone tablets have been found relating to him). Even the existence of King David is restricted to one, much-disputed non-Biblical inscription (the Biblical account of his life appears to have been boosted and changed over time, most notably by the priests under Judean King Josiah two hundred years after his supposed death) and there is also scant evidence of Solomon. In addition, the five Mosaic books were written by at least four authors between the seventh and fifth centuries BC (hundreds of years after the time of the Biblical Moses) and there was a great deal of chopping and changing in the books of the Old Testament, with new bits added, reflecting shifts in power, before the version we know today was more or less settled.

New Testament literalism

I went on to re-examine the New Testament and was even more surprised. I’d been raised with the idea that the Gospels were written by Jesus’ disciples shortly after his death. In fact, none of the Gospels was written by men who knew Jesus. The first (attributed to ‘Mark’ in the second century) was written at least 30 years after Jesus’ death and the others drew heavily from it – John’s Gospel may have been completed as late as 160 AD. I then discovered that six of the 13 the epistles of Paul were only posthumously attributed to Paul and that he probably had nothing to do with them – and also that bits were subsequently added to his epistles, including some of their most misogynistic directives.

It was only well into the fourth century, when the church was already deeply Romanised, that the books of the New Testament were more or less settled. Until then, there had been several competing Gospels (including the Gnostic Gospels of Mary – probably written in the early second century and proposing Mary rather than Peter as Jesus’ favourite disciple – and others such as Thomas, Philip and Judas) and competing views of the significance of Jesus among the Christian groups, not all regarding him as divine. It was only after the assembly of bishops in the Nicene Council in 325 ad, under the Emperor Constantine, that consensus was imposed. From then-on competing versions of the Christian story were suppressed, as were competing religions (including Greek and Roman Pantheism, aspects of which were absorbed into Christian practice – the veneration of the Virgin Mary as a kind of female deity, the promotion of Saints as demi-gods and pagan festivals like Christmas). The survival of the church owed a great deal to the patronage of Roman emperor whose conversion was probably one of political convenience rather than faith, who accepted the minority Arian Christian view that Jesus was a man and not part of God and who by today’s standards was a mass murder (a year after the Nicene Council he had his son and second wife executed).

I was also intrigued to find interpretations of Biblical books completely at odds with those I had previously received – not least on the Book of Revelation. I was raised on the idea that the writer’s apocalyptic visions referred to the imminent End of Times. In those days (the early 1970s) the Soviet Union figured strongly (as land of Magog from where the anti-Christ, Gog would emerge), although with its decline subsequent candidates emerged, including Europe and the United Nations. Anyway, revisiting this book, I found competing interpretations including those linking the prophesies to events in the first century, with the Emperor Nero as the anti-Christ. I also found a great deal of debate among early Christians as to whether Revelation should be part of the Biblical canon. Even Luther initially considered Revelation to be “neither apostolic nor prophetic” and stated that “Christ is neither taught nor known in it”.

Islamic literalism

Recent scholarship has also thrown into doubt the Islamic view that the Qu’ran was the work Muhammad (via Allah). Strong evidence has emerged to suggest it was compiled, and possibly written, after Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, and that much of it was drawn from pre-existing religious texts (including ancient heathen fables and myths and borrowings from apocryphal and Syriac Christian writings and also the Talmud and apocryphal Jewish writings, and possibly Zoroastrianism). Incidentally, he Jewish influence is hardly surprising because Islam emerged at a time of an anti-Christian alliance between Jews and Arabs. Additional evidence comes from the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a in Yemen where early fragments of the Qu’ran were discovered, diverging from the current version.

In fact, it emerges that we know very little about the life of Muhammad because it would seem that everything in the Hadith (his utterances on Islamic behaviour) is based on hearsay, written down well over a century later. You might think this would be disturbing to those believing that the Hadith reflected the actual words of Muhammad and that the Qu’ran was dictated to Muhammad in a cave by the Archangel Gabriel in God’s language, Arabic, but fundamentalists do not deal in debate. It is enough for them to point out that some of these ideas have been hijacked by Christians – proof enough of a Crusader agenda.

Atheist fundamentalism

Which brings me to another point – about the futile crusade of a new breed of atheist. Personally, I prefer the approach taken by that giant of evolutionary biology, Stephen J. Gould, who argued that religion and science occupy “non-overlapping magisteria”. But this is not the approach taken by the neo-atheists responding with such vigour to the spread of religious fundamentalism. To take some recent examples, there’s Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, a double-blast from Sam Harris – The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, but the one I will to refer to specifically is the daddy of the lot, Richard Dawkins’ best-seller, The God Delusion.

I don’t dispute the conclusions reached by Dawkins about the unlikelihood of the existence of a divine creator; merely to say I doubt he has persuaded any true believer to abandon God – not least because he doesn’t understand the religious mindset. Perhaps these weren’t things he encountered when getting his second class BA in zoology, or perhaps his logic is blurred by passion, but still, he ends up presenting a curiously superficial case. For example, he argues that if God existed he would need to have evolved, which, of course, is impossible because every effect must have a cause, and so on. The sheer stupidity of this argument is astounding: quite obviously, if you have faith in a divine, omnipresent, omniscient creator you do not consider this creator an evolved creation.

This relates to another flaw in the approach by of the most vocal contemporary atheists – their tendency to conflate evidence for evolution with evidence against creation. The Christians I grew up with – Biblical literalists all – were supporters of evolutionary theory. They saw it as God’s way of creating our world, and the six day creation of the Bible presented no problem, because, for them, the word ‘day’ was simply a translation of ‘period of time’, which could be a billion years. I mention this because it remains the majority position within Christianity. Creationism (viewed as a six-day wonder, 6 000 years ago) remains a minority taste. More of a challenge is to ask where the first strand of the building block of evolution, DNA, came from. Creation, say the theists. Chance, say the atheists: a mute point – a question of faith. This quandary goes all the way to the Big Bang. What preceded it? Stupid question, says science, because without space there can be no time. But it is in this nothingness, that this faith in a force that can create something out of nothing is so hard to dispel through rational argument. Matter cannot be created or destroyed; only changed from one form to another, says science. To which the religious mind says, yes, unless you are God.

Against this, Dawkins cites one of Bertrand Russell’s weaker arguments: the ‘celestial teapot’. It goes like this: if I said a celestial teapot was orbiting Mars but you couldn’t see it, nobody would be able to disprove me, “but if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.” Sounds reasonable until you consider that faith in God is nothing like belief in a celestial teapot – to most people the former seems more reasonable (which is why I have yet to meet a teapot-worshipper). In other words, Dawkins has made an elementary logical error – drawing an analogy between things that don’t belong together. What it suggests is a failure to understand why people believe in the first place.

Which is surprising, considering Dawkins’ own teenage spell of religious ecstasy. As he once put it: “At the age of about 13 when I was being confirmed, I did have a fairly active fantasy life about a relationship with God, and I used to pray and I used to have fantasies about creeping down to the chapel in the middle of the night, and having a sort of blinding vision and things.” Today, his view of the religious impulse coincides neatly with that of the born-again, Bible-based Christians I grew up with. They used to talk of a ‘God-centred gene’ in all of us – that we are all born with this longing for communion with our Lord. As a genetic fundamentalist, who reduces the cultural terrain to the odd notion of gene-mimicking ‘memes’, Dawkins rejects cultural explanations for religion and concludes that religion evolved through natural selection as a by-product of other needs. It boils down to this: we evolve to believe what we’re told by our elders because our elders are usually right, and those who believe what they’re told benefit from their experience. It sounds feasible until you ask why it was that religion, rather than something else, was passed on by elders.

Dawkins is oblivious to evidence against the notion (shared by Christian fundamentalists) that the religious impulse is universal. I could point to contrary examples in the advanced industrial world (40 percent of British people do not believe in god), but, more interesting, are the Piraha people of the Brazilian Amazon, who have no concept of god, the afterlife or the spiritual realm – and don’t even have the capacity for this in their language. What this suggests is two things: first, that the impulse towards spiritual belief is contingent rather than inevitable; second, that if fulfils a powerful cultural role and therefore is very widespread.

What could be the reasons for this? I would suggest the answer is found in the idea put forward by Gould of non-adaptive evolutionary side consequences (‘spandrels’). Evolution equipped us with large, imaginative, empathetic, creative, questioning brains that needed answers to questions ranging from ‘why are we here?’ to ‘what’s that big fiery ball in the sky?’ to ‘what happens to us when we die?’ The answers provided relate to the form and development of society, which is why beliefs shift from animism to pantheism to monotheism. Once formulated, these systems develop lives of their own while also changing according to the climate of the times. One reason is that human beings are social creatures, and religious belief systems play important roles within the fabric of societies – securing discipline, control and complicity and providing hope, purpose and direction, which is why they are perpetuated.

The new breed of militant atheist wants to create a world free from religious superstition, and they are right to point to the misery religion has caused. To take Christianity’s contribution, we could move from the Crusades, the Conquistadors and the Spanish Inquisition, step over its complicity in slavery, dictatorship, genocide and apartheid, and round off with more recent contributions to barbarity like, say, the Lord’s Army in Uganda. But then it is also worth mentioning that most of the charity work and voluntary community work throughout the world, and most of the money donated to charity, comes from religious people. And if we are to take the credit and debit accounting approach, it would be fair to mention history’s only example of a system where atheism was a founding principle – Soviet and Sino socialism – which did not seem to contribute to making people any happier with their lot – one reason why the churches (and congregations) are back with a vengeance in each of those countries.

But even if we could forgo compulsion and persuade everyone that their faith is a load of tosh, I’m not convinced the result would be a better world. Is Britain a happier place today than when 80 percent of its people believed in God? Are atheists more fulfilled than believers? Are they kinder, more altruistic people? The best we could say is, well, sometimes. But at other times the vacuum left by loss of faith is filled by nihilism. When I see the yobs from down the road coming down our street on a steaming attack, assaulting everyone in their path, just for the hell of it, I can’t help thinking that a bit of god wouldn’t be such a bad idea – and that perhaps the opiate of the people is not such a terrible thing after all.

A fundamentalist century

Unless, that is, it’s the form of opiate that turns people into addicts who will do anything to satisfy the urge. And I’m afraid that’s precisely the kind of religion we are seeing more of today, and which we’ll see far more of in future because there is sound reason to fear that climate change will exacerbate these tensions and encourage the spread of religious fundamentalism in ways we haven’t seen before. If the prognoses of climate scientists proves to be correct, then we’ll see famine, drought and starvation at unprecedented levels along with huge-scale human migration – from south to north, and, more specifically, away from equatorial and sub-tropical regions towards cooler climates. Europe may do the brunt of the absorption but in other parts of the world the impact may be even more profound. One of these will be the Middle East. Faced with drought, water shortages and the decline in agriculture, the region will not be able to sustain its current population, which means we can expect a Diaspora of Arabs and Jews, while those who remain will be compelled to fight over the scraps – village tap politics on a grander scale than currently seen in Darfur.

It is one of the sadder conundrums of the modern world that a time when extraordinary advances in science, technology and most of all collective economic and political will are needed to prevent climate change from threatening us with the global equivalent of meltdown, is also a time of rapidly spreading superstitions which aim to take us back to a world that never existed. So then, Happy Holidays.

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Why Obama Defaulted to Bush on Iran

This from my latest on TIME.com.

Having concluded that President Obama’s outreach has failed to halt Iran’s nuclear program, the final weeks of 2009 find his Administration focused on mustering support for new sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Iran’s rejection of the terms offered thus far by the U.S. and its partners has prompted Obama to largely revert to the Bush Administration’s approach of ultimatums backed by sanctions — with little obvious prospect of producing a substantially different result.

So how did he get here? In a nutshell, he allowed the Washington hawks, in concert with Israel and European hawks such as Sarkozy, to paint him into a corner by setting an artificial deadline on his diplomatic effort, and more importantly, basing them on the same demands as the Bush Administration which Iran had repeatedly rejected. Not only has Iran’s domestic turmoil limited its own regime’s room for maneuver, Iran’s opposition is as vehement as its conservatives in rejecting Washington’s demand that Iran give up uranium enrichment.

So Obama is going down the road of further sanctions, now, but it’s generally agreed that sanctions aren’t going to change Iran’s position. At which point those who set the time-limits on diplomacy will demand that Obama go to war….

Read the TIME.com piece here

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Hannukah Without the Taliban

In a country occupied by a Western power, the locals are faced with a choice. Some have opted to reconcile their own traditions with those of their occupier, borrowing from Western ways that open the path to philosophy and science, and integrating themselves into a wider culture. Others fiercely resist, waging a bitter and bloody war not only on the occupier, but also on those in their own community who seek to collaborate or integrate with the occupiers who are denounced as defilers.

If this were contemporary Afghanistan-Pakistan, you’d know who was whom, right? But before you bite into that latke or sing the dreidel song, you may want to consider that in Judea in the second century BC, the Taliban role is played by the Maccabees. And it is the Maccabees, of course, who are lionized in the Hanukah tale.

In fact, they pretty much invented the holiday to celebrate their victory over the Greeks and all Jews who would embrace their ways, the “Hellenizers.” Hanukah is not mentioned in the Torah. It’s not really a religious holiday at all — the bubbemeis about an oil lamp burning for eight days was tacked on as an afterthought, and a way of smuggling God into what was a ritual celebrating a very temporal insurgent military triumph. Being what my son archly calls a “J-theist”, I’m not about to start trafficking in Biblical miracles (not that Hanukah is mentioned in the Jewish bible), but you have to figure that making a stash of olive oil burn for eight days while replenishments are cold-pressed and consecrated is uh, small potatoes compared with, you know, parting the Red Sea and such like. So the Jewish god really gets involved in such quotidian “miracles” as extending the life of fuel oil in to enable the proper observance of rituals in his honor in a temple recovered from defilers? You’d think if he cared enough to intervene at all, he might have prevented the defilers from taking over in the first place.

But let’s not even bother with quibbling over the details — and for more, here’s a really entertaining take on the same story by the militant atheist Christopher Hitchens (my own atheism, or J-theism as my son calls it, sees no good purpose served by militant proselytizing of skepticism, but that’s another story) — ithe Hannukah tale is a silly story. But it’s the idea of celebrating the nationalist and xenophobic version of Jewish identity enforced by the Maccabees that disturbs me.

There is, of course, a spectacular irony in the celebration of Hanukah in its contemporary incarnation as a kind of kosher Christmas that has everybody saying “Happy Holidays” to avoid giving offense. (I shouldn’t complain, would we even have South Park if it wasn’t for the fact that so many American Jews treat a Christmas tree as if it were the equivalent of a burning cross placed on their front lawn?). The irony, of course, is that celebrating Hanukah as a major religious holiday is the ultimate triumph of latter-day Hellenization. It hardly exists as a serious religious holiday — even when I was growing up in South Africa, the likes of Simchat Torah and Succoth were far more important. Yet today, in America, it appears to rank up there right after Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur and Passover as important Jewish holidays. The point, of course, is that this has only been done to compete with Christmas, to adapt Jewish tradition to make it fit the rhythms and rituals of the wider, non-Jewish society.

And most of us are de facto Hellenizers, living according to the ways of the wider society and integrating our Jewishness within that. So what to make of this Jewish holiday that celebrates an austere, inward looking, nationalist identity politics. (Frankly, if only most Jews knew how little Christmas really has to do with Christianity, they may not have been so spooked by it. The Catholic Church was nothing if not Hellenistic, in this respect, endlessly bending and adapting itself to incorporate the pagan rituals of those it was trying to convert.)

But don’t get me wrong; I love Hanukah. I love it mostly because I’m a sucker for lox-‘n-latkes and the communion around their consumption.

It does strikes me, though, that the Hanukah story is so patently Disney, and its purpose so negatively nationalist, that we need to consider just what it is about our Jewish identity that we want to celebrate. If I’m going to light eight candles in affirmation of my Judaism — boiled down, in a nutshell to Rabbi Hillel’s famous thumbnail definition of the faith, “That which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others; all the rest is commentary” — I don’t want to honor the Maccabee Taliban or their latterday incarnation who’re just as keen to police Jewish identity and enforce fealty to the nationalist vision that is modern Zionism. I want to honor those that exemplify an expansive, ethical Judaism that connects with a universal community of values and uses justice as its only benchmark.

Working with the format of eight candles, here’s a draft list of eight Jews for whom I’d be happy to light a yahrzeit candle to honor their contribution to enriching our identity through connecting it with and enriching a wider humanity. (There are, of course, hundreds more — send in your own!) But the point is that if you’re going to do Hanukah, think about what kind of Jew you want to be…


1. Marek Edelman

I can think of no greater example than Marek Edelman of a Jew whose life so eloquently combined the three essential principles of Hillel: That which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others; if I am not for me who is for me?; and, If not now, when?

A time comes in the life of every people, Nelson Mandela in 1961, when it faces but two choices: Submit, or fight. Marek Edelman confronted that choice head on in 1942, as a young activist of the Jewish Socialist Bund in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Together with others of the left and Zionist organizations (the Bund was anti-Zionist), he helped form the Jewish Fighting Organization that organized the heroic (and the word is not used lightly here) uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto against the liquidationist plans of the Nazis. His account, The Ghetto Fights, makes gripping and moving reading, and negates the myth that Europe’s Jews went meekly to the slaughter. He survived the uprising and the ghetto’s liquidation, escaping with assistants from the leftist partisans of Poland’s People’s Army to become a leader of the underground, and eventually participate in a second heroic rising, the 1944 general Warsaw uprising. In the ultimate triumph over Nazi designs, he chose to remain in Poland after the war, and kept fighting the good fight — from 1976 onwards, he became a labor activist, and eventually in 1980 a leader of the Solidarity movement that helped end authoritarian rule in Poland. As he noted of his early affiliations, “The Bundists did not wait for the Messiah, nor did they plan to leave for Palestine. They believed that Poland was their country and they fought for a just, socialist Poland, in which each nationality would have its own cultural autonomy, and in which minorities’ rights would be guaranteed.” And he remained true to that vision.

He watched, disgusted, as Israel pummeled the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in the Second Intifada, until he could contain his outrage no longer: In a move that infuriated the Israelis, who have constructed an elaborate — if ersatz — claim to be the heirs to the defenders of the Warsaw Ghetto, Edelman wrote a public letter to Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader then on trial for terrorism in Israel. It was the Palestinian fighting organizations, Edelman said, not the Israelis, who carry the mantle of the Warsaw Ghetto’s resistance. As Hillel said, that which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others. Edelman died last October.


2. Baruch Spinoza

The original secular Jew, the glorious apostate who not only gave us the ethical and rational foundations of contemporary Western philosophy, but also invited us to recognize Judaism’s god as so abstract as to make it equivalent simply to the connectedness of everything — nature and the universe. In other words, to see in Judaism’s abstract monotheism a move away from polytheistic traditions that empowered tyrants and an invitation to atheism (an invitation I’ll happily accept). He recognized religion as a human creation, and sharply criticized the idea of any people claiming to be the chosen of god. Of course he was excommunicated and his books were burned — an experience with which those deemed overly critical of Israel in the contemporary era are metaphorically familiar. But he didn’t relent, nor did he seek solace in any other religious community. Quite unique for his time, he chose to live as a free-thinking person of ideas.


3. Albert Einstein

As a Central European Jew coming of age in an era of swirling anti-Semitism, Einstein was initially an enthusiastic proponent of setting up a Jewish refuge in Palestine. But his Zionism was tempered by a hostility to nationalism. And the reality that a Jewish state would have to be built over the resistance of the indigenous Arab population gave him pause: “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state,” he said in 1938. “Apart from practical consideration, my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain — especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state.” This put him ultimately in the camp of the likes of Martin Buber, who believed that the Jewish values of the Zionist project required that it create a unitary democratic state with the Palestinians, rather than a separate Jewish state. “The State idea is not according to my heart,” Einstein said in 1946, in answer to a question about whether resettling Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Palestine required a separate Jewish state. “I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with narrow-minded and economic obstacles. I believe it is bad. I have always been against it.” When the state was created in 1948, they offered Einstein the presidency. He declined. What he had imagined as a refuge from persecution had turned into simply another vessel for the nationalism he despised. In the final media interview published before his death, Einstein lamented, “We had great hopes for Israel at first. We thought it might be better than other nations, but it is no better.”


4. Martin Buber

The early Zionist philosopher who moved to Palestine in 1938 was one of the most prominent advocates, in the years before Israeli statehood, of the idea of a single, binational state for Jews and Arabs founded on the basis of equality. The partition of Palestine, he said, could only be achieved and sustained by violence, which he abhorred. For Buber, the Zionist idea was premised on it fulfilling the Biblical injunction to be a “light unto the nations.” But the dominant strain in the Zionist movement was the opposite, to make the Jews “like the nations.” In this schema of “normalization,” the Jews simply had to acquire a territory and a common language, and the rest would take care of itself. He saw this as a reflection of a longstanding tension inside Judaism: The powerful consciousness of hte task of maintaining truth and justice in the total life of the nation, internally and externally, and thus becoming an example and a light to humanity; and the natural desire, all too natural, to be ‘like the nations.’ The ancient Hebrews did not succeed in becoming a normal nation. Today, the Jews are succeeding at it to a terrifying degree.” He advocated Jews and Arabs creating a single democratic state in Palestine in 1948. And he warned that those who sought simply sovereignty for a Jewish majority state of Israel were making war inevitable. Referring to the Arab population of Palestine, he asked, “what nation will allow tiself to be demoted from the position of majority to that of a minority without a fight?” He warned that the the path taken in 1948 would extinguish the progressive potential of the Zionism he had embraced.


5. Ray Alexander

As a young activist in the South African liberation movement, I’d come to know of Ray Alexander as a living legend who, as a young immigrant from Latvia had set about organizing women workers in the food canning industry in Cape Town, and had dedicated her life to their struggle. A lifelong communist, she was now living in exile in far-away Lusaka, but maintaining a central role in the leadership of the liberation movement as an active member of the ANC’s Revolutionary Council. When I finally met her, in 1989, I couldn’t believe how this icon of the struggle sounded exactly like my bubba, speaking English with a thick, thick Yiddish accent . Like me, she had started her political life in the Zionist movement, and recounts her political evolution in this extensive historians’ interview. I love this tale from her days as a teenager in Latvia in the 1920s: “Earlier, at school, I had been a Zionist with my older sister Getty and brother Isher. I often helped the Zionist organisation with office work. When the Jerusalem University was opened — it was in 1926 — the Zionist organisation made a big celebration of it. They invited our school to send a speaker. I was chosen. I prepared my talk on higher education. I made an observation that we are celebrating the opening of the university in Jerusalem, but if there would be a university opened in Timbuktu we should celebrate it as much. Because wherever a university is opened, it is a big candle to lead to a better understanding between human beings. My teacher in algebra was a very strong Zionist, she did not approve. She came over to me after I finished speaking and she said: ‘How dare you compare Timbuktu to Jerusalem. Do you know where Timbuktu is?’ I said: ‘Yes, it’s in Africa, central Africa.’ I said to her: ‘What’s your objection to Timbuktu ? People are living there too.’ ”


6. Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel, the great chronicler of America’s story spent his life collecting and amplifying the voices of ordinary Americans on the issues that defined their life and times; it was as if he lived the Brecht poem “Questions From a Worker Who Reads” (Who built the seven towers of Thebes? / The books are filled with names of kings. / Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone? / In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished / Where did the masons go? … Caesar beat the Gauls / Was there not even a cook in his army? Philip of Spain wept as his fleet was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears? etc.) Studs Terkel’s life was spent chronicling the history of our times through the lives of the ordinary Americans who made it, taking to heart every verse of Woodie Guthrie’s. “This Land is Your Land”. And Studs’ work for me captures the very essence of a tradition that gave ordinary people the potential, by teaching them to read and write (albeit for purposes of studying the Torah), to understand and make their own history.


7. Joe Slovo
When Joe Slovo died, the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party, of which he was the Secretary General, wanted to put a single word epitaph on his headstone: “Mensch.” The only problem was that it would not be understood by the Party’s African working class rank and file. But it was absolutely true. A nice Jewish boy from Joburg who became the best-loved white person in South Africa because of his unfailing commitment to the liberation struggle, Joe personified for me the idea that the calling of a good Jew in South Africa was to fight for justice for all — the mainstream Jewish organizations in South Africa missed the point, choosing quiet quiescence and occasional quiet pleading in response to some especially noxious instance of anti-Semitism. Joe knew that anti-Semitism in South Africa was part and parcel of the racist colonial order, and the best place to fight it was out in the forward trenches of the national liberation movement. He may have been the movement’s most senior ideologue and one of its top strategists, but when I had the pleasure of meeting him in the late 1980s, we ended up playing Jewish geography.

8. Primo Levi

I wept with joy when I first read Primo Levi (The Periodic Table on a flight from Johannesburg to London in 1989). His was, for me, a matchlessly inspiring example of being Jewish in the world rather than separately from it. A man of science and ethics, fully integrated into Italian society and its most progressive elements, he found himself in Auschwitz not as a result of a Nazi roundup of Italian Jews, but because he was a captured in the course of his work as an anti-Fascist partisan fighter. When the Germans occupied Italy in 1942, he responded as a Jew — not in any narrow, tribal sense (indeed, he never identified as such) but in the expansive, moral sense; in other words, he responded as any decent person with a love of justice and freedom, by joining the partisan underground. Not any separate Jewish organization, but the partisans bound by a common, universal ideology of justice and freedom, in which any Jew should feel comfortable. As did a lot of Italian Jews of his generation: The filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, most famous for The Battle of Algiers, and also a partisan, was once quoted as saying “I am not an out-and-out revolutionary. I am merely a man of the Left, like a lot of Italian Jews.” Yet, once captured as a leftist partisan, it was the Nazis who reduced Primo Levi’s identity to that of a Jew, in a “racial” sense. His writing — by far the most compelling tales of life and death in Auschwitz — chronicles the Holocaust experience with both scouring emotion and the cool eye of reason, always seeking its universal meanings and implications. His audience, always, is a global community of likeminded rather than one defined on any narrow nationalist basis — Zionism had little use for Primo Levi; his work was only translated into Hebrew after his death. Indeed, he seems to resist the temptations of nationalism — of allowing the Nazis to succeed in defining him against his own instincts — remaining intensely universalist in his outlook, although deeply rooted in its specificity: He loved Italian Jewry and its unique history, of which he was an exemplary product. Also, while he writes what for me are the most profound and compelling first-hand accounts of — and meditations on — life in the camps, he is at once the quintessential Holocaust writer but never simply a Holocaust writer. He returns continually to explore the magic of science and humanity in everyday life and work, the ethics and values that took him, as an Italian Jew, into the mountains with the anti-Fascist partisan resistance. The profound effect of the Holocaust on Primo Levi’s life was central to his work, but his life continued after the Holocaust. It did not end his life, literally or figuratively — he went on exploring the universal human condition, a vital presence in the wider world for whom he saw the Holocaust, and his own experience of it, as a teaching moment whose meanings were universal.

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The Fiction at the Heart of Obama’s Afghan Surge

My latest in the National on Obama’s planned Afghan surge begins thus:

As he prepares his Tuesday speech to present Americans with his plan to increase troops in Afghanistan, the US president Barack Obama could be forgiven for feeling like the economist in the old joke that finds him marooned on a desert island along with an engineer, a chemist and hundreds of cans of food but no way of opening them. The engineer gets to work trying to fashion tools for the job; the chemist tries combinations of salt water and sun to get the tins to rust. Having had no luck, they ask the economist to lend the insights of his profession. His answer: “Assume a can opener…”

The “can opener” in the assumptions of the Afghanistan exit strategy that Mr Obama will propose is the Afghan security forces. The president faces the unenviable task of trying to bridge the competing demands of a military commander on the ground who has warned that 40,000 new troops are needed simply to halt the Taliban’s momentum, and of a Congress controlled by his party but increasingly sceptical of the strategic purpose and economic viability of continuing a ground war in Afghanistan.

At the same time, he has to answer the question so acutely posed recently by the defence secretary, Robert Gates: “How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended?” (The Afghans and their neighbours expect that, sooner or later, the Americans will go – which is why the Taliban profits from the hedged bets of so many key players on and around the battlefield).

Mr Obama’s answer: sending more troops to Afghanistan is, in fact, an exit strategy, because those troops will slow the Taliban’s advances, providing time to train Afghan forces to take over the fight, allowing the Americans to leave. That argument allows Mr Obama to send reinforcements and at the same time answer domestic demands for an end to a war that America can no longer afford. (Last week, Democrats in both chambers tried to underscore that point by introducing legislation to impose new taxes on Americans to finance the war).

The problem, of course, is that Mr Obama’s Afghan security forces may be about as hypothetical as the proverbial economist’s can opener.

Currently, some 94,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops have been trained by the U.S., and Gen. Stan McChrystal wants to bring that number up to 134,000 by next October, and eventually to 240,000. Leaving aside the fact that McChrystal is envisaging an army on a scale that the Afghan state could never afford to maintain, there’s plenty of evidence that the “Afghanization” strategy which will form the centerpiece of Obama’s rationale for escalation is just as fictitious as the “Vietnamization” strategy of four decades ago.

In a blunt assessment of official statistics, Gareth Porter points out that one in four combat soldiers of the ANA have left the force in the past year. Of the 94,000 already trained, only 39,000 are deemed combat ready, and of those, a lot fewer are ready to stand and fight against the Taliban. Ann Jones offers some lively insights into men joining up for the pay and weapon they get from ten weeks training, then going home to their villages — although sometimes they return for another bout of salaried training, under a different name:

Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn’t the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to “operate independently,” but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of “Basic Warrior Training” 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it’s a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin — the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets — and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

The idea that there are 240,000 Afghans out there with the hearts and souls of Prussian military cadets, who simply need U.S. training in order to turn into the politically neutral professional military who will put their lives on the line for the Karzai state and its infidel patrons is, to put it mildly, somewhat fanciful.

Don’t take my word for it, check out this video made by a Guardian crew of an Afghan military unit being mentored by Marines.

To the extent that the ANA can yield professional fighting forces, most of them are ethnic Tajiks. Indeed, much of the ANA’s leadership is Tajik, and fought under the rubric of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. And as Gareth Porter points out, they see the Pashtun population as supporting the Taliban — and are viewed with suspicion and hostility by the Pashtuns. Porter argues that building up the ANA on the basis of the present political battle lines is a recipe for a rerun of the intra-mujahedeen ethnic civil war that followed the collapse of the Soviet backed regime in 1992.

The idea that there is a professional military willing to fight the Taliban on behalf of the new state at any time in the foreseeable future is wishful thinking, yet it’s the centerpiece of Obama’s new strategy.

Related myths abound: My favorite is the idea that Pakistan is only coddling the Afghan Taliban because it fears that the U.S. is going to once again abandon Afghanistan, and that therefore, if America signals “resolve”, the generals in Rawalpindi will go to war against the Afghan Taliban. That, too, derives from an inability of the U.S. leadership to see itself as those in the region see it: Pakistan’s leadership sees the American presence as the problem, not the solution. The generals who run Pakistan want the U.S. to leave, although not precipitously, because that’s the key, in their minds, to tamping down their own domestic Taliban insurgency. Even if they did want the Americans to stay, moreover, the Pakistani leadership understands all too well that no foreign army is going to stay in Afghanistan forever. America’s long-term economic slide makes expeditionary wars an increasingly untenable burden.

Pakistan will continue to nurture the Afghan Taliban precisely because it remains their preferred option for exerting long-term influence in Afghanistan. That much should have been abundantly clear to all but the most deluded in Washington by now.

Instead, it looks like we’re going to be fed a pile of myths about the Afghans taking responsibility yada yada yada. Nothing like this is going to happen. What’s Obama going to be saying a year from now?

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When Obama Meets His Banker


An assortment of European leaders gathered last week at a tepid commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Twenty years ago the collapse of communism was hailed as the final triumph of western liberal democracy, which would sweep aside the vestiges of authoritarianism everywhere. So the downbeat tenor of this year’s anniversary was hardly surprising, since it hasn’t quite worked out that way: not only has authoritarianism proven remarkably resilient, but the western economies have suffered a near cataclysmic collapse as a result of allowing their bankers too much freedom and creativity.

Barack Obama didn’t go to Berlin, but this week he visits China – arguably the big winner from the global economic changes that began in earnest in 1989. China certainly passed through its own dramatic convulsion in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, but that anniversary went largely unmarked in June. Nor should anyone expect that Mr Obama will bring it up; or, for that matter, the execution last week of nine Uighurs accused of fomenting deadly protests in Xinjiang this year. Telling your bank manager to stop beating his wife is hardly prudent when you’re running an $800 billion overdraft.

The twist, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is that most of the countries thus liberated from authoritarian one-party rule are currently struggling to emerge from recession, while China – with a self-appointed ruling party that ruthlessly defends its monopoly on power – has been such a rip-roaring capitalist success that it feels compelled to protect its investment in the US by advising the Obama administration to rein in deficit spending. History, it seems, has a wicked sense of humour.

The Chinese leadership have always understood that successful capitalism is not contingent on democracy. In their immediate neighborhood alone, authoritarian regimes in Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore are spectacular capitalist rags-to-riches stories. So they surged along the capitalist road without relinquishing their absolute political control. Eastern Europe got freedom, goes the saying, China got rich.

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