Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Gaza War - When Strategies Collide

A beautifully written and incisive article.

The trouble is that neither the Egyptians nor the Saudis seem interested in making Barack Obama’s life any easier these days. Both countries bitterly resented his support for the Morsi government, and the ineffectiveness of his support deepened their contempt without dulling their anger. They do not trust him over Iran, Syria or Iraq, and they increasingly feel that they must organize the defense of the region without deferring to him. They may take a certain grim satisfaction in his discomfort if a Washington failure to broker a Gaza cease fire makes the Obama administration look weak.

Unhappily for the Obama administration, the best way for the U.S. to hasten the arrival of a durable cease fire in Gaza is to promise a more robust and hawkish policy in the rest of the region. The Israelis will be more willing to make concessions on a Gaza cease fire if they believe that the U.S. will back them more effectively against Iran, and the Saudis and Egyptians are more likely to give ground in Gaza if the U.S. offers real support in the rest of the region.

This is the opposite of the way much of the left and the press understands how the Middle East works, but the new Middle East is a more complicated place than it used to be. The battle between Sunni Arabs and Israelis is no longer the most important issue on the table for key Arab governments as well as for Israel. While that old conflict has not disappeared, it has been eclipsed by the new conflict between a resurgent Iran and the leading Sunni Arab states.


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The Gaza War - When Strategies Collide
July 25, 2014

Many wars are fought over accidents and misunderstandings. This is not one of those times. With key interests at stake, the conflict in Gaza is likely to continue.

As the politicians, pundits, and foreign policy panjandrums of the world Western world wring their hands over the chaos and carnage in Gaza, it’s worth noting that there are solid reasons why peace is proving so elusive. Both sides have reason to think they can pull off a significant victory in the current round of fighting, and neither side thinks it can live with the consequences of a defeat. Until something happens to change the thinking on one or both sides, a cease fire will be hard to achieve.

HOPES FOR A WIN

Israel continues to fight because it believes that with more time, it can destroy enough tunnels and inflict enough damage on Hamas to significantly degrade the organization’s military strength and weaken it politically. Furthermore, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are, perhaps for the first time, quietly rooting for Israel to crush the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas. Given this, Israeli officials presumably think they have a golden opportunity for the extended and crushing war that they really need to inflict serious damage. Any war with the Palestinians involves political costs and setbacks for Israel, but at this particular moment, war in Gaza is less politically expensive than at other times. Given that Hamas is a significant and growing danger, Israeli leaders are likely to think, why not use the opportunity for all it is worth?

Hamas on the other hand is elated by its success in temporarily but significantly hampering operations at Ben Gurion Airport (arguably the most significant single Palestininan tactical accomplishment since the 1948 War). In addition its fighters have had unexpected success killing Israeli soldiers on the ground, and the Arab street is electrified by the conflict. The resulting publicity offers Hamas an opportunity to emerge from the isolation it faced after the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt. Since more Israeli progress on the ground will inevitably and tragically mean more civilian deaths, Hamas can also hope for big propaganda victories to offset any military setbacks that prolonged hostilities will bring. Hamas and its Turkish and Qatari allies can also hope that the longer the war lasts, the worse Egypt and Saudi Arabia will look. The Gaza war isn’t just a war between Israel and Hamas; it is a stage in the struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and its Arab opponents. The longer Hamas can bear up under Israel’s military pressure, the more success it has in the intra-Arab struggle.

The hope of victory is one reason the two sides keep fighting; both Israel and Hamas also believe that defeat would impose unacceptable costs.

ISRAELI FEARS

For Israel, there are three big reasons why losing is unacceptable. First, as a small country surrounded by enemies and facing hostile public opinion in the world at large, Israel’s security depends in large part on its reputation for military supremacy. That reputation, Israelis feel, deters many more attacks and keeps opposition passive and political rather than encouraging it to be active and military. This is an advantage that Israel will not lightly give up; hostilities are unlikely to end until and unless the Israelis feel they have made their point.

That motive is always present, but it became much more important after a rocket from Gaza caused a significant interruption in service from Ben Gurion Airport. People don’t travel much across Israel’s land frontiers; the airport is Israel’s vital link with the rest of the world. Hamas and anti-Israel forces everywhere were wildly elated by this success, and Israel’s enemies now think they can imagine a new strategy to drive the Jewish state to its knees by cutting it off from the outside world. Israeli defense officials likely feel that they must now do two things: eliminate the capacity of Hamas to repeat this attack, and make the consequences so wounding and expensive to Hamas as to reduce the attractiveness of repeat efforts. This new factor is a military game-changer, and it greatly raised the stakes of the conflict. (The biggest political mistake of the war so far? The American officials who banned U.S. flights from using the airport made a cease fire much harder to obtain.)

Second, there are specific political reasons why Israel is intent on hitting Hamas as hard as it can. Some of this is about Palestinian politics. Fatah may be corrupt, incompetent and in the eyes of many Palestinians fatally compromised by its willingness to compromise with Israel, but the more the ‘resistance’ path championed by Hamas looks like a historical dead end, the less Fatah’s flaws matter in the competition for Palestinian leadership.

But Israel is after much bigger game than Hamas in this war. Weakening Hamas isn’t just an Israeli project: Riyadh and Cairo are rooting for the Gazan terrorists to lose as well. This strange new band of brothers is Israel’s Plan B alliance in case the U.S. folds on Iran. The Saudis and their Egyptian allies also hate and fear Hezbollah; from an Israeli point of view a successful war against Hamas could be the first step in cooperative action against Hezbollah and, beyond it, Iran. Israel wants this war to go well because it could pave the way to more effective cooperation with the most populous and wealthiest of the Arab states.

It’s also worth noting, from the standpoint of very-long-term Israeli interests, that the willingness of the Saudis and Egyptians and their friends, even silently and tactically, to align with Israel is a promising sign that Israel may someday be accepted in the region. Israel has been given a chance to audition for the role of a tacit ally of the Sunni Arab world against both Sunni and Shia radicals; it doesn’t want to blow this chance and its desire to build its relations with neighboring Arab states may outweigh its concerns about annoying Europe or even the U.S.

The third big reason why Israel needs a win is the one that most of the press commentary focuses on: security. Hamas has developed a network of tunnels and a capacity to launch missiles against much of Israel. Israeli officials will want to see that capacity significantly degraded. From the Israeli point of view, the price of a war in Gaza is high, but the incremental political cost of a few more days of combat, could now be less than the benefits from substantial progress in dismantling tunnels, breaking up Hamas’ leadership and destroying its weapon and missile stockpiles.

Thus from an Israeli point of view, the costs of this particular war are lower than usual, thanks to the tacit Arab support from Hamas’ many Arab enemies, and the need for decisive military results is greater than usual. That would suggest that Israel is likely to want to continue fighting until either its goals are reached or it is clear that they cannot be within a manageable time frame or at an acceptable cost. That point doesn’t appear to have been reached yet.

THE STRATEGY OF HAMAS

Like Israel, Hamas’ war strategy seems to be guided by solid calculations about the organization’s vital interests, and the leadership appears to believe that this is a war that the movement can’t afford to lose.

The chief problem and the real enemy for Hamas is not, however, Israel. Israeli hostility is something Hamas understands and can deal with. The real problem for Hamas is the Saudi-backed Sisi government in Egypt. The current Egyptian government sees Hamas as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, and crushing the Muslim Brotherhood as thoroughly as possible is Egypt’s top priority these days. Egypt’s Saudi patrons feel the same way; the Muslim Brotherhood looks to the Saudis like a challenge to their claim to lead the forces of orthodox Sunnism—and Hamas in the past has been willing to ally itself with Saudi’s arch enemies in Syria and Iran.

The change in the status quo that led to war with Israel had nothing to do with Israel itself; what has happened is that Egypt has systematically intensified the blockade of Gaza, hoping to throttle Hamas, disrupt its support, and put enough economic pressure on Gaza to force Hamas from power.

For Hamas, the pre-war status quo was a death sentence, allowing Egypt to quietly strangle Gaza. The business networks dependent on smuggling were hurting, civil servants weren’t getting paid, and residents were increasingly unhappy with a lousy economy and no progress in sight. Hamas is a cornered animal striking out in desperation. A return to the status quo ante is not acceptable to Hamas, which feels it absolutely must gain some relief or it will go under.

There are reports of splits between the political and military leaders of Hamas in the run up to war, but it seems clear that whoever is now calling the shots in Gaza, so to speak, believes that Hamas is in a war for survival, and short of crushing defeat, Hamas is unlikely to accept a cease fire that restores the status quo ante.

Hamas wants a cease fire that will allow it to import enough goods into Gaza to keep the economy going and to allow it to rebuild its military stockpiles. If Israel and Hamas were the only two entities involved, this might not be so hard to arrange. They have had cease fires before, and while each hates the other and wants it destroyed, on a pragmatic, day by day basis, Israel and Hamas have managed to work things out for long periods of time.

The trouble is that it is hard for Hamas to force Egypt and Saudi Arabia to accept this deal. The Saudis and their allies are happy for Israel to pay the political price for a war against Hamas that they want the Jewish state to win. Meanwhile, it is Egypt that ultimately can decide on peace or war: when Egypt feels that Hamas has been weakened and punished enough that it’s OK to show it some mercy, then the balance of forces will shift and some kind of truce will become much easier to achieve.

Under the circumstances, Hamas’ strategy is a convoluted one: Hamas is trying to create such a hot crisis by staging a war with Israel that the U.S., Europe and an enraged Arab street will force Egypt and Saudi Arabia to give up their drive to starve Hamas out. That may yet work, but it is unlikely to work all that quickly. Neither Egypt nor the Saudis are particularly unhappy if Israel is getting bad press around the world; as far as they are concerned, if rampaging mobs burn every Israeli embassy in Europe, it is no skin off President Sisi’s nose.

This suggests that for Hamas as well as for Israel, the high price of a long (by Israeli-Palestinian standards) war may make sense. It will take time for the kind of political pressure to build that would lead Egypt to soften its blockade of Gaza; it’s hard to see a good reason (except for the obvious humanitarian one) why Hamas would give up before giving its strategy time to work.

WILL PEACE GET A CHANCE?

Many wars come about by accident or by misunderstanding. This particular war, however it was originally triggered, seems to be driven by the real interests of the chief parties involved. In such cases, peace is hard to make until the parties have seen how things go on the battlefield.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a long, drawn-out war. Gaza is a very small place and Hamas’ reserves are not very deep. It is not in Israel’s interests for the war to drag on and some more-horrendous-than-usual event could so shock public opinion around the world and in Israel itself that the calculus could change.

Nevertheless, the peacemaking wannabes have a tricky task ahead of them and the U.S. administration in particular will not enjoy some of the choices it must make. Barring a Hamas collapse, a political solution to the war involves getting not only Israel but also Egypt (and its Saudi backers) to accept some kind of arrangement that loosens the blockade enough to let Hamas survive.

The trouble is that neither the Egyptians nor the Saudis seem interested in making Barack Obama’s life any easier these days. Both countries bitterly resented his support for the Morsi government, and the ineffectiveness of his support deepened their contempt without dulling their anger. They do not trust him over Iran, Syria or Iraq, and they increasingly feel that they must organize the defense of the region without deferring to him. They may take a certain grim satisfaction in his discomfort if a Washington failure to broker a Gaza cease fire makes the Obama administration look weak.

Unhappily for the Obama administration, the best way for the U.S. to hasten the arrival of a durable cease fire in Gaza is to promise a more robust and hawkish policy in the rest of the region. The Israelis will be more willing to make concessions on a Gaza cease fire if they believe that the U.S. will back them more effectively against Iran, and the Saudis and Egyptians are more likely to give ground in Gaza if the U.S. offers real support in the rest of the region.

This is the opposite of the way much of the left and the press understands how the Middle East works, but the new Middle East is a more complicated place than it used to be. The battle between Sunni Arabs and Israelis is no longer the most important issue on the table for key Arab governments as well as for Israel. While that old conflict has not disappeared, it has been eclipsed by the new conflict between a resurgent Iran and the leading Sunni Arab states.

We must hope that American diplomats and other hopeful peacemakers grasp the new and sometimes counterintuitive dynamics of the region. Otherwise the Gaza war could drag on as the peacemakers chase red herrings and run up blind alleys. Fundamentally this war is one of the many dangerous consequences of the regional perception that the United States is in retreat; only by changing that perception can the Obama administration hope to stabilize the region and bring the killing, in Gaza and elsewhere, to an end.

Clausewitz wrote that in war, “the side that feels the lesser urge for peace will necessarily get the better bargain.” Both of the combatants are used to pain, loaded for bear, and feel their essential interests are in play. The most likely outcome is probably an uglier and longer war than usual, followed by another unhappy truce.

The most important battle you've probably never heard of

Great history article. I didn't know about Bouvines, or these other ones:

Five other obscure but decisive battles, chosen by historian Tom Holland
  1. Cap Bon (468): A Roman fleet sent to recapture North Africa from the Vandals was incinerated by fire-ships off the coast of Tunisia. This was the moment when the fall of the Roman Empire in the West became inevitable
  2. Qadisiyya (636): When an Arab invasion force wiped out the cream of the Persian army on the plains of Iraq, it not only doomed the venerable Sasanian empire, but played a key role in the emergence of Islam, ensuring its long-term future as the major religion of the Middle East
  3. Diu (1509): A key waymark on the rise of Europe to global power, the battle was fought in the Arabian Sea between an assortment of Islamic powers and a Portuguese fleet. Victory for the Portuguese enabled them to establish their Asian empire
  4. Cajamarca (1532): The ambush and capture of the ruling Inca emperor by Pizarro and his band of conquistadors was a key moment in ensuring that South America would end up Christian and Hispanic
  5. Koniggratz (1866): Featuring 250,000 men on either side, this decisive battle of the Austro-Prussian War established Prussia as Europe's greatest military power and cleared the path to German unification
At least I knew about these ones!

Five other decisive Anglo-French battles, chosen by historian Tom Holland
  1. Hastings (1066): 1066 and all that. Enough said…
  2. Trafalgar (1805): Had Nelson's fleet been destroyed, it is hard to see how Britain could have avoided invasion by Napoleon
  3. Relief of Orleans (1429): When Joan of Arc saved France, she ensured that Agincourt would not, in the long run, be decisive
  4. Quiberon Bay (1759): A battle won by the British in the teeth of gales and treacherous waters, it heralded the global supremacy of the Royal Navy
  5. Quebec (1759): The second decisive battle won by the British in the annus mirabilis of 1759, it ensured a largely English-speaking future for North America
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The most important battle you've probably never heard of
26 July 2014
By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

Exactly 800 years ago on Sunday, in a field next to what is now the airport of Lille, a battle was fought which determined the history of England.

Today few people in the UK have heard of Bouvines. It has none of the ring of an Agincourt or a Crecy. Probably that is because England lost it. But the battle of 27 July, 1214, was just as significant as England's later victories over the French. Maybe more so.

"Bouvines is the most important battle in English history that no-one has ever heard of," says John France, professor emeritus in medieval history at Swansea University.

"Without Bouvines there is no Magna Carta, and all the British and American law that stems from that. It's a muddy field, the armies are small, but everything depends on the struggle. It's one of the climactic moments of European history."

The story of Bouvines begins with hapless King John, and his determination to retake the French lands he had lost in Normandy and Anjou. His opponent was the King of France, Philippe-Auguste, equally determined to establish French power and prestige.

King John had alienated most of the English nobility. The barons were angry at the way he extorted money, and excluded them from court. They refused to fight his wars. So for his campaign of reconquest in France, John forged a European alliance. He recruited other enemies of the French crown - the German Holy Roman Emperor Otto and the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne - and devised a two-pronged attack.

While King John landed in La Rochelle and advanced from the south-west, his allies - with an English contingent under John's half-brother William of Salisbury - were to attack the French from the north. In the event King John's advance in the south made little headway, though it did divert a good chunk of Philippe-Auguste's army. The key confrontation was in the north, in that perennial European battle-zone - the fields of Flanders.

Today the village of Bouvines is a small community just outside the reach of the Lille conurbation and a few miles from the Belgian border. There is a bridge there over a small river called the Marque, today canalised but which 800 years ago sprawled over a large stretch of marsh.

King Philippe-Auguste's army had advanced east from Lille, planning to lay waste to the lands of Hainault which belonged to the Count of Flanders. Learning of the larger coalition army arrayed against him, the king turned back to Lille. But as his forces were crossing the bridge at Bouvines, the enemy caught up. They had come through a forest from the south.

The battle was fought on a hot Sunday afternoon and lasted four or five hours. "It would have been a real scene of butchery. In these early medieval battles, archery had not been fully developed so the killing was up-close. And the leaders were in the thick of it," says local historian Alain Streck.

One of the main weapons used by foot-soldiers was a pike with a hook, which was used to pull knights off their horses. The French king was himself unhorsed by this method, and only saved by his bodyguard.

It was a close-run thing, but in the end the French prevailed. The Count of Flanders was captured. The German emperor fled. Afterwards 700 captured mercenaries from Brabant were put to the sword.

"What told in the French favour was their unified command," says John France. "The allies were a coalition army that had only got together for the first time four days before the battle. In those days coalition armies like that were inherently unstable."

King John was not at the battle. He was still in the south. But his dreams of reconquest were dashed. He returned to England, humiliated and impoverished. Less than a year later - his barons increasingly belligerent and the French now revealing their own designs on the English crown - he was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which limited his power and formed the basis of English democracy.

"The road from Bouvines to Magna Carta was direct and short," says Sean McGlynn, an expert in the period at the Open University. "Bouvines was the last straw. If John had won the battle, Magna Carta could have been avoided. But it was the decisiveness of the defeat. All his taxation had gone to waste. He was weakened, and the barons saw their opportunity."

John France adds: "If the English and their allies had won at Bouvines, John would have had the plunder and the prestige. The baronial opposition would have melted away. This was that rare thing: a battle that was genuinely decisive."

And not just for the English. In France the battle is remembered today for exactly the same reason that it is forgotten in England - because France won. What followed Bouvines was a golden era for the French monarchy - the Capetian dynasty, to which Philippe-Auguste belonged, was the dominant force in Europe for the next 100 years.

"If Philippe-Auguste had lost, the west of France would have been English, the north would have been Flemish, and the east would have been German," says Alain Streck. "But he won. The contours of the French kingdom were set, and the Capetians were able to start organising a state. It was really the beginning of French national consciousness."

In 1216 Philippe-Auguste's son Louis was welcomed in London, receiving the homage of a third of the English barons and of King Alexander of Scotland. In the title of Sean McGlynn's book, it was "The forgotten invasion of England," and an English King Louis I was a distinct possibility. But King John died, and the barons deserted Louis for the boy-king, Henry III.

Eight hundred years on, the village of Bouvines has been marking the anniversary with re-enactments and other events. On Sunday there is a church service, attended by a government minister and representatives from France's two rival royal houses.

The battle of Bouvines looms particularly large in nationalist interpretations of French history.

After the defeat by the Prussians in 1870, there was a surge of French patriotism. The church at Bouvines was rebuilt with stained glass windows (now a national monument) recounting the story of the victory and in 1914 the 700th anniversary of the battle was celebrated with almost venomous anti-German sentiment.

"It is quite extraordinary that in the two world wars Bouvines church was in the hands of the Germans - but they never pulled down the stained glass windows showing the German emperor in headlong flight," says Alain Streck. "Maybe they did not look hard enough!"

This year's commemorations are built around the inoffensive themes of "Europe, peace and youth".

The trouble with Bouvines is that "it does not fit into the modern European narrative", says John France. "Nowadays the EU has a huge budget for academic studies, but they have to comply with the theme of Europe as a big happy family. That is why Bouvines tends to get neglected."

But Bouvines was a turning point for Europe, and above all for France and England. England withdrew to its insular priorities and began adapting its institutions to the new internal balance of power. The French monarchy emerged enormously enhanced and Paris became the centre of a national life.

In the words of the French 19th Century historian Ernest Lavisse: "The two nations set off in different directions. England headed towards liberty; France towards absolutism."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Nick Cohen on the Left's hyprocrisy on Crimea

Three cheers for Nick Cohen, arch-exposer of hypocrisy.

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Noam Chomsky in the Crimea
The Spectator
Nick Cohen
3 March 2014

Go to London or of any other Western capital and here is what you will not see. You will not see mass demonstrations against the Russian invasion of the Ukraine swaying down the same streets in which the liberal-left marched against the invasion of Iraq. You will not hear prominent left-wing voices emphasizing that Putin is attempting more than an invasion; that the Russian Federation – and what a benign word ‘federation’ is for a revived Tsarist autocracy – is the last of the European empires, and is seeking to expand its borders, as empires always do.

In short, the activist left will not tell its followers that we are witnessing imperialism: not ‘cultural imperialism’ or ‘neo-colonialism’ or any of those other catchall, thought-forbidding phrases, but the real thing.

Ukraine has not committed crimes against humanity, so there is no duty on foreign states to intervene to protect its citizens. It does not menace its neighbours or threaten the international order by seeking to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Moreover anyone with a sense of history knows that Putin is invading a region where the Russian empire in its Stalinist stage persecuted and deported native and Muslim Tartars.

Yet the same people who are the first to shout ‘Islamophobia’ and pledge their allegiance to endangered minorities stay silent. Just as they stay silent about the Syrian atrocities, although they would have been the first to march if the West had intervened after the Assad regime used chemical weapons.

Justifications for these hypocrisies are hard to find. more

The Jews Who Fought for Hitler

The Finno-Soviet Winter War of 1939/40 is a fascinating bit of history, with Britain supporting Finland againt the Communist aggressors, and the Finns later fighting on the Eastern Front with the Germans against Britain's then-ally. The Germans rated the Finns as the only foreign contigent fighting with them whose soldiers were the equal of their own.

I hadn't thought about the possibility that Jewish Finns were fighting alongside the Germans on that front, but it did happen, as revealed by this fascinating article. I have excerpted the final paragraph.
The Jews Who Fought for Hitler: ‘We Did Not Help the Germans. We Had a Common Enemy’
03.10.14
By Paul Kendall
They fought alongside them, healed them, and often befriended them. But how do Finland’s Jews feel today about their uneasy—and little mentioned—alliance with the Nazis?
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[T]he Finnish Jews were on an impossible mission. Whatever they did there would always be one inescapable difference between them and their Finnish compatriots: the latter were fighting for their future, but, if Hitler had won, the Jewish soldiers would have had no future. What were they supposed to do? That is the question nobody can answer.

BBC accused of censorship in row over Free Speech show from mosque

You couldn't parody this - a program called 'Free Speech', held in a mosque, bails out of discussing Islam's attitude to homosexuality.

BBC accused of censorship in row over Free Speech show from mosque
Thursday 13 March 2014
The Guardian

Host of programme interrupted question about when will it be right to be Muslim and gay due to 'deep concerns' of mosque

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Israeli apartheid?

In some reading I was doing around the Mandela death, I came across a leading ANC communist figure, Arthur Goldreich, who was Jewish and a stern critic of Israel, one of those arguing that Israeli policy amounts to 'bantustanism'. Such a critique of Israel is obviously all the more stinging coming from a Jew, an anti-apartheid campaigner, a fighter in the Haganah, and a resident of Israel.

On a personal note, I visited South Africa several times in the 70s and 80s, and even as a kid, apartheid was brutally obvious, everywhere. I visited Israel in the 80s and saw nothing analogous whatsoever.

Anyway, I've just come across the article below, which suggests that integration of Arab Israelis has come a long way in the last generation.

A Real Arab Spring
By Normal Lebrecht
Standpoint Mag December 2013

Coming out of a movie last month in one of those edge-of-town malls that disfigure Israeli conurbations, I ran into a conga line of men, women and children shuffling their way into a McDonald's. The men wore T-shirts and jeans, the women flowery headscarves and varied outfits. Several danced along in silly conical hats. It was someone's birthday, by the look of it.

It took a second look to realise that the celebrants were a family of Israeli Arabs, descendants of the stubborn minority — some 150,000 Christians and Muslims — who refused to join the 750,000-strong Palestinian exodus in 1948. Today, by census, there are 1.6 million Israeli Arabs, some 20 per cent of the population. They enjoy full civic rights and a high level of prosperity. Beside the refugees, their lifestyle appears lavish.

As I drove through the Arab heartlands in Galilee, a hilly straggle of houses that I remember being blacked out at night for want of connection to the national grid has boomed into a noisy town with three-storey houses and an exclusive dealership in a European make of car much favoured by ultra-orthodox Jews.

Bars and restaurants on the Tel Aviv seafront are dotted with Arabs from Jaffa. On Friday night, the common day of rest, there are as many Israeli Arabs strolling along the promenade as there are Israeli Jews. When I remark on the phenomenon, young Israelis shrug as if my observation is too obvious to be worth mentioning. Integration has become a fact of life. Yet 25 years ago, Israeli Arabs were inconspicuous in Jewish towns and 45 years ago, as far as my memory extends, they were invisible.

In the first two decades of the state of Israel, until the Six Day War, Arab citizens were penned into pales of settlement, nervously watched by the security services. In the next two decades, they formed a no-man's-land between the Israeli state and the occupied Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, their resentful cousins. Torn between kinship and comfort, Israeli Arabs opted on the whole to put head over heart.

Over the past 25 years, normalisation has set in. Learning Hebrew at school as an obligatory second language, Israeli Arabs have made careers in most parts of the economy and in academic life. One of the most popular comedy series on commercial Israeli television is entitled Arab Labour. It makes merry with the tensions raised by a middle-class Arab family who move into an urban Israeli apartment block. In the episodes I have seen, Israeli Jews come off worst in the clash of cultures. One of the Arab actors, Mira Awad, has represented Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest. What could be more normal?

That is not to pretend that all is rosy. Israeli Arabs are subject to stringent airport and roadside security checks. Some complain of being treated as second-class citizens. A Jaffa driver told me his town had become overpriced and young men could not afford to buy a home. Economic progress and social participation, however, are positive indicators of how the country and the region might function if and when a peace agreement is reached. The Israeli Arabs serve, in this respect, as role models for a postwar utopia.

They also refute hostile clich├ęs. The novelist Linda Grant drew attention in the Independent in March to a book by a French academic, Diana Pinto, arguing that Israel is functionally autistic-high-tech and tunnel-visioned, unable to see "the Other". The vastly increased visibility of Israeli Arabs gives the lie to that theory.

It also confounds the perpetual accusation that Israel is somehow an "apartheid state". If Israel were indeed a society founded on racial supremacy and separation, there would be no Arabs celebrating birthdays in shopping malls, no strollers on the Tel Aviv prom, no automobile millionaires in Galilee and no property boom in Jaffa. The apartheid libel, a propaganda ploy of the pro-Palestine lobby and the anti-Zionist Left, denies the blatant reality that Israel is a fast-evolving, multicultural society with more tolerance for minorities than any of its neighbours (and most European states). The casual confidence of its Arab citizens is testimony to a healthy society.

Israel's overlooked humanitarian role in the Syria conflict

Interesting.

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Good By Stealth
By Tom Gross
Standpoint Mag December 2013

The media is full of stereotypes and mistakes about many issues. Yet years of experience as a foreign correspondent has led me to the conclusion that the prejudices and biases against the state of Israel are in a league of their own. There are notable exceptions, of course, but for some news outlets Israel can do no right.

Which is one reason why one of the more remarkable stories coming out of the Middle East over the last two and a half years has been largely overlooked: the bravery of Israeli doctors and civilians who have gone into war-ravaged neighbouring Syria to treat the injured, and feed and clothe refugees from all ethnic backgrounds.

Thousands of Syrian doctors have fled the country and hundreds have been killed as the Assad regime continues to bomb medical clinics as a means of terrorising population groups who oppose his government. Where they can, Israeli medics have gone in to help those few Syrian doctors still working. Other Israelis have defied the Jordanian authorities by helping Syrian refugees in that country.

Although they work independently of the Israeli government, the Israeli army has quietly supported their humanitarian actions, sometimes helping ferry them across the border. In addition to setting up field hospitals, they have brought food. The Economist pointed out in September that in Dera alone, the southern city where the anti-Assad uprising began, Israelis have distributed 300,000 meals to Syrians, as well as medication, mobile phones and chemical protection suits.

The more severely injured Syrians — particularly children — have been brought to Israel for specialised treatment, all at the expense of the Israeli government and Jewish charities. Syrians are taking a risk even entering Israel: the Syrian government makes it a crime for its citizens to go there.

One or two American news outlets have reported on the medical treatment in Israel (though not on the help being given in Syria and Jordan). In July, Jim Clancy of CNN went to the Rebecca Sieff Hospital in Safed (named after a member of the founding family of Marks & Spencer), where he noted that half of all intensive care beds were occupied by Syrian civilians wounded during the previous week alone.

In May, the New York Times reported from Nahariya Hospital in northern Israel on a three-year-old girl being given skin grafts for horrific facial injuries she sustained during a government missile attack in Syria. In the next bed, the newspaper noted, a girl, aged 12, lay in a deep sleep, having been operated on for a severe stomach wound and a hole in her back. Next to her lay another Syrian girl, 13, recovering from over a month of operations for injuries to her face, arm and leg. In Wolfson Medical Center near Tel Aviv, the life of a four-year-old Syrian girl was saved by open-heart surgery. In another hospital, a Syrian mother gave birth last month, the first Syrian born in Israel.

Although there has been hardly any coverage in British media, one Palestinian website noted: "While the Arab countries make empty promises, the Israelis have crossed the border to provide assistance to the refugees, risking their lives without a word of thank you

Thursday, January 23, 2014

David Baddiel on Anelka's quenelle, and anti-semitism in British football

There's an excellent 5 minute Newsnight interview with David Baddiel at this BBC url, where he discusses Anelka's 'quenelle' gesture with his typical mix of astute commentary and gentle humour. As he says, Anelka's defence amounts to "oh no, it's not an anti-semitic gesture, it's a demonstration of support for my great friend (who is a tremendous anti-semite)", and as such is not a particularly coherent position.

Baddiel goes on to describe a Frenchman's response to his own Tweet on the subject, where Baddiel is told "you don't understand, [the quenelle is not anti-semitic, it is] just anti-French government. And anti the Zionist cabal".

He makes a number of other excellent points, definitely worth the time.

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Nicolas Anelka: West Brom striker defends "quenelle" gesture
BBC Sport
21 January 2014

Canadian PM Stephen Harper in Israel

Canadian PM Stephen Harper is visiting Israel, and I have never heard a Western leader make these kinds of statements of support. His three main points in a speech to the Knesset were:

1. Israel has a right to exist
2. Israel has a right to full participation in UN councils
3. He is not going to single out Israel for criticism

...and he fleshed out that last one as follows:
Harper to reporters: Ask some different questions about the Middle East
David Akin
Toronto Sun
21/1/14

[Harper explained to reporters] that there was no way he was going to single out Israel for criticism in any public forum [... H]e turned the tables: "Yesterday in the Palestinian Authority, no one asked me there to single out the Palestinian Authority for any criticism in terms of governance or human rights or anything else," Harper said, speaking about the press conference he'd held Monday in Ramallah side-by-side with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. "When I'm in Israel, I'm asked to single out Israel. When I'm in Palestinian Authority I'm asked to single out Israel and in half the other places around the world you ask me to single out Israel."

Some more detailed analysis:
Canada supports Israel 'because it is right'
20/01/14
Toronto Sun

Simon Kent reacts to Stephen Harper's historic speech in Israel, noting that Harper supports Israel 'because it is right'

Friday, January 03, 2014

Yahya Hassan - teen poet, Danish citizen, Muslim apostate

Interesting & brave guy. I first read about him here.

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Teen Poet Sparks New Debate on Islam in Denmark
November 6, 2013
Clemens Bomsdorf & Ellen Emmerentze Jervell
The Wall Street Journal

COPENHAGEN – Yahya Hassan was about 10 years old when cartoonist Kurt Westergaard attracted passionate criticism from Muslims world-wide with his cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb as his turban. It ran in a Danish newspaper.

Hassan – the 18-year-old son of Palestinian immigrants who are Muslims – is now creating his own brand of controversy in Islamic circles and elsewhere with a new book of poetry that was published in Denmark last month. The writing student’s self-titled book contains around 150 poems, many of which are severely critical of the religious environment he grew up in.

His book has been a surprise strong seller since it hit the relatively small Danish market Oct. 17, with 32,000 copies being sold in about two weeks. The publisher, Gyldendal, says books of poetry in Denmark are lucky to hit 500 copies. In televised interviews, Hassan has been anything but tempered in his comments about what he views as a culture of hypocrisy underpinning Denmark’s Muslim population. His words have prompted arguably the largest debate on religion in the small Scandinavian nation since the Westergaard cartoon.

Like Westergaard, Hassan’s safety is on the line.

After reciting one of his poems, titled “LANGDIGT,” or “LONG POEM,” (he writes in capital letters only) on a Danish television station a few weeks ago, he received 27 death threats and police are investigating what they perceive as the most serious ones.

Speakeasy caught up with Hassan about a week after his book was published. His black hair tied back in a ponytail, the young poet discussed his work as he worked through a pack of cigarettes.

At first glance, Hassan looks like a typical Danish teenager of Middle East origin. His white T-shirt is covered by an elegant dark coat; his stylish blue pants are paired with brown leather shoes.

“There’s something wrong with Islam,” Hassan, a self-proclaimed atheist, says. “The religion refuses to renew itself.” It needs a “reformation.”

His poems carry titles like “CHILDHOOD” and “DISGUSTED,” dealing with issues like the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, child abuse, and the interplay between violence and religion. Profanity and vivid analogies help carry his work.

A translated excerpt from “LONG POEM:”

“You don’t want pork meat,
may Allah praise you for your eating habits,
you want Friday prayer till the next Friday prayer,
you want Ramadan till the next Ramadan,
and between the Friday prayers and the Ramadans,
you want to carry a knife in your pocket,
you want to go and ask people if they have a problem,
although the only problem is you.”

Hassan’s biggest complaint seems to be with his own peer group. “There is a massive group of Arabs – Muslims — – that commit crime on a big scale. They steal things, they sell stolen things, or they deal hash. But how can you call yourself a Muslim if all this is forbidden?”

He is careful to clarify the target of his criticism. “I speak about the lower class, the ghetto areas.”

Hassan is a product of this culture, born in what he refers to a “lower class place, a ghetto” in Western Denmark. He says his parents, who came to Denmark from a refugee camp in Lebanon but consider themselves Palestinian, would talk about the horrors they left behind in the Middle East.

He dropped out of school at 13 and soon ended up “living out of a duffel bag” travelling from institution to institution because of behavior problems, including theft. During long periods of isolation – imposed by authorities and his father – he took time to read and grew to love literature, he said.

Danish media have already lauded him as a role model for his generation. Critics such as Tue Nexo Andersen, a literature professor at the University of Copenhagen, said Hassan’s longer works are “almost Walt Whitman-like.”

Hassan, however, knew that publishing his unfiltered thoughts on the Muslims would create problems. “I knew when I would tell my story would break many taboos and many people would get offended and my parents would get angry. But my premise was that I would have to tell it as it is.”

Hassan’s book was published in mid-October, but his name became popular earlier in the month after one of his first big interviews became an online sensation in Denmark. Politiken published a piece titled “I F***ing Hate My Parents’ Generation,” which became the most shared story to ever run on the Danish daily newspaper’s website.

The writer is quick to blame his parents and their contemporaries as the reason he got involved in robberies and quit school. He says his father was physically abusive in his ways of “reprimanding” the family, and the experience shows up in his writing.

Hassan’s parents could not be reached for comment, and have stayed out of the media spotlight.

But Hassan says his poetry is only a generalization, and he wants to move past debates about whether he is a racist or role model. “People can say what they want to about my poems,” he says. “They can call them Islam-criticism, they can call them poetry, but that has nothing to do with the author; it has nothing to do with me.”

In addition to targeting hypocrisy, his poetry, he says, speaks to the problem of Muslims “exploiting the society they live in.” On free speech, Hassan says “Muslims love to take advantage of (it), and as soon as there is someone else saying something critical against them, they want to restrict it.”

Kassem Rachid, an Imam from the Danish city of Aabenraa, said he respects the poet’s right to air his views, but prefers Hassan take a different route.

“I can understand that he grew up in a problematic surrounding, but that does not have to do with religion…of course I know families like the one he describes in his book, but those you find among immigrants as well as native Danes.”

Hassan welcomes dialogue, saying he didn’t become a poet to “build a career” and has “no political agenda.”

As for his harsher critics who have threatened to hurt him, Hassan says “I know these people.” After stubbing out another cigarette, he leans forward putting his elbows on his knees, shivering slightly in response to the cold Scandinavian evening setting in. “They can’t handle criticism…they’re not interested in dialogue.”

Monday, December 30, 2013

The mysteries of Azerbaijan - a Shiite nation embraces its Jews

Wow - I had no idea. Fascinating.

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The mysteries of Azerbaijan: A Shiite nation embraces its Jews
Jewish Journal
December 18, 2013
by Rob Eshman

Red Village rises up along the Qudiyal River like a Jewish Brigadoon.

To get there, you fly 13 hours from Los Angeles to Istanbul, then catch a three-hour flight to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan — a former Soviet country of some 9 million people on the Caspian Sea. From Baku, you take a bus past churning oil derricks and miles of empty desert, up into the Caucasus, through tiny villages surrounded by apple orchards. After two hours, you arrive in Quba, the capital of Azerbaijan’s northeast region. About a mile past an attractive central mosque, a simple steel bridge spans a wide, mostly dry riverbed and leads directly into Red Village.

One of the first things you see is a large brick building atop which sits — improbably, impossibly — a Jewish star.

About 4,000 people live in Red Village, every one of them Jewish. That makes Red Village the largest all-Jewish settlement outside the State of Israel.

This entirely Jewish town exists in an almost entirely Muslim country — ancient, placid, prosperous. It is also completely unknown to the majority of the world’s Jews. I had to see Red Village to believe it. I had to figure out: What’s the deal with Azerbaijan?

Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev convened 750 journalists, scholars, activists and scientists from around the world to participate in the annual Baku International Humanitarian Forum.

The invitation offered a chance to see for myself a country that, from what I’d heard over the years, has never quite fit the standard American perception of Muslim = Fanatic and Shiite = Really Fanatic.

After all, Iran, also a Shiite nation, lies just across Azerbaijan’s southern border. But while Iran is the Jewish state’s mortal enemy, Azerbaijan is Israel’s largest supplier of oil  and a major purchaser of Israeli defense technology. The Shiites of Iran would treat me, an American Jew with a passport full of Israeli stamps, as an enemy. In Azerbaijan, I was an honored guest.  

My visit was personally arranged through Azerbaijan’s Western Region Consul General, Nasimi Aghayev. I’m not the first journalist lured to explore Azerbaijan’s incongruities, but I do seem to be the first in my crowd. Few people I talked to about my travel plans beforehand had heard of Azerbaijan, and even fewer of its Jewish connection. 

You could fault Azeris for not getting the word out, but in the 22 years since it gained its independence, Azerbaijan has had to focus on rebuilding, not rebranding. 

What struck me first when I arrived in Baku is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a fast transition. Now that its tremendous oil and gas wealth isn’t being siphoned off to feed the Soviet empire, the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) has soared.

For most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Azerbaijan was under the rule of the Russian empire, which exploited its resources. When the tsar fell in 1918, Azerbaijan quickly formed a secular republic, the first Muslim majority country in the world to do so. Its parliament immediately granted women the right to vote — a year before the United States did. But the flowering of democracy, commerce and art was brief. The Bolsheviks arrived just 22 months after Azerbaijan declared independence, attacked what they called liberal and decadent Baku Muslims, crushing a rebellion and absorbing Azerbaijan into the USSR.

When Hitler invaded Russia, his brass ring was Baku’s oil, which provided more than 80 percent of the fuel for the Soviet war effort. In 1942, Hitler’s general staff gave him a cake in the shape of the Caucasus. Hitler ate the slice with “Baku” written on it. “Unless we get Baku oil,” Hitler said, “the war is lost.”

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Baku finally won its independence in 1991. Its first president, Heydar Aliyev, who died in 2003, and his son and successor, Ilham Aliyev, have managed to negotiate lucrative long-term oil and gas contracts that, for the first time, keep Azerbaijan’s money at home and have tilted the former Soviet satellite westward.

Oil money has enabled a modern, busy city with cutting-edge architecture and luxury stores to grow up around the well-preserved walls and narrow cobblestone streets of the Old City. Baku is a cleaner Tel Aviv surrounding a smaller-walled Jerusalem.

What’s even more surprising about Baku is its people. The majority are traditional but secular. Few women wear headscarves — the look is skirts and heels, more Westwood Boulevard than Riyadh. 

But Azerbaijan’s tolerance is not a Western import. It’s homegrown, even ancient.

“The multinational, multiconfessional society is one of our assets,” President Aliyev said in the conference’s keynote address. “All nationalities see their religion respected. … This contributes to the building of a civil society.”

For the Jews, that is remarkably true.

“There has never been anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan,” Arye Gut, the Azeri-born founder of the international association Israel-Azerbaijan (AZIZ), told me. Like many Azeris who have immigrated to Israel, he maintains strong personal and business ties to his home country.

In a meeting at his office, Ambassador Elshad Iskandarov, chairman of the State Committee for Work With Religious Organizations, pointed out with some understatement that Azerbaijan has resisted the increasing anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.   

Iskandarov, an urbane graduate of Columbia University, theorized that Azerbaijan’s location on the Silk Road international trade route long ago encouraged its people to accept all kinds of cultures. 

Or, as a Cambridge-educated Azeri told me later in my week there, “Our philosophy is, ‘Why fight when you can trade?’ ”

Like many Azeri officials I met, Iskandarov could rattle off the names of famous Azerbaijani Jews — who are pretty much the most famous Azerbaijanis, period — among them pianist Bella Davidovich, Nobel Prize physicist Lev Landau, Israeli singers Sarit Hadad and Yaffa Yarkoni, pioneering physician Gavril Ilizarov and chess master Garry Kasparov, who is half Armenian.

There is also writer Lev Nussimbaum, aka Essad Bey and Kurban Said, author of the most famous Azeri novel, “Ali and Nino.”

“The magic of this town lies in the mystical bond between its races and its people,” the book’s narrator said. “The race of a peaceful Caucasus is forged on the anvil of Baku.”

Iskandarov wondered aloud whether the nation didn’t share a lineage with the eighth-century Khazars who converted en masse to Judaism. Perhaps, the ambassador posited, Azerbaijani Shiites have Jewish blood.

“When we are talking about Jews,” he said, “this is tolerance of our own past.”

I asked how the government keeps extremist Islamic ideologies from taking root in Azerbaijan. Iskandarov pointed to his bookshelf, where there were thick tomes of sermons prepared by government-appointed imams and distributed to mosques — local imams were encouraged not to veer from these more liberal teachings. There is freedom of religion — but not too much.

Many countries, including Iran, say they love the Jews — it’s just Israel they can’t stand. Azerbaijan is different. It has strategic defense partnerships with Israel, and the two countries conduct $5.5 billion in trade annually.

Last year, Iran protested and even threatened “consequences” after the Azerbaijan foreign minister announced an official visit to Israel. President Aliyev refused to back down.

“I know who my friends are,” Aliyev said, “and who my enemies are.”

During the tsarist regime, Jews were not permitted to buy land in Baku. But a local Muslim stepped up and bought the property for what became one of the city’s two synagogues. On Friday night, as Sabbath services concluded, I went there to meet Milikh Yevdayev, chairman of the Religious Community of Mountain Jews.

About 10,000 of Azerbaijan’s 15,000 Jews live in Baku. The synagogues serve different groups — one is Ashkenazi style, staffed by a Chabad rabbi, and the other, the one I visited, is well-appointed and known as the New Synagogue, for the Mountain Jews. 

The Mountain Jews trace their lineage to ancient Persia. They speak Juhuri, a blend of Farsi and Hebrew; if you close your eyes, you’re back again on Westwood Boulevard. Historians believe the Mountain Jews first settled in the Caucasus in the fifth century. It is their descendants who settled Red Village.

“We live like brothers,” Yevdayev assured me.

On the wall of the synagogue are photos of the stout, middle-aged Yevdayev and other synagogue leaders alongside President Aliyev, as well as the country’s leading imam and the head of the Armenian church.

The $2 million it took to build the synagogue last year came directly from President Aliyev. Some 60 people attend Shabbat services weekly, and 300 on the holidays. Two schools, entirely paid for by the government, serve 300 students. The sanctuary has some local touches — a central pulpit, Oriental carpets, stacks of the local Jewish newspaper, which is printed in Russian.

Yevdayev is originally from Red Village. His daughter now lives in Brooklyn. I ask him if Jews are leaving Red Village and Baku for Israel and elsewhere.

“They go; they come back, they go — it’s not a trend,” he said. “You’ll see.”

The next day, I saw. Our bus of some 30 conference participants followed a new highway north from Baku into the foothills of the Caucasus. 

Quba is a medium-sized city, surrounded by pear and apple orchards. In 1730, the Khan Huseyn Ali decreed that Jews could own property in his district. Their settlement, Red Village, resembles a more prosperous version of the many small towns we had passed en route.

“There are many Jewish billionaires,” our tour guide informed us on the way up.

He wasn’t kidding. Since independence, Azeri Jews have flourished in business, especially in Russia, and they have spent millions restoring the old village, even buying up properties there as a link to their past. The soccer field and park look new, the stone, brick and wood homes refurbished. It was quiet — we arrived on Shabbat, when the cafes, restaurants and small businesses were closed. Azerbaijan’s Jews are as traditional, and as secular, as its Muslims.

Inside Red Village’s main synagogue, services were just letting out. There was a cacophony of kids and young men. The only sign that we were in the exotic East: Visitors are asked to remove their shoes, as in a mosque. The floor of the shul’s rich wooden interior is covered in Persian carpets.

Boris Simanduyen, chairman of the community, told us that until the Bolshevik Revolution, the town had 13 synagogues. Back then, the village was called Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Settlement) in Russian and had 18,000 residents. Now, Red Village has a Hebrew school with 60 students and three synagogues. President Aliyev’s administration pays for the heating oil for them all. 

Simanduyen is a serious elderly man who speaks not a word of English or Hebrew.  Through an interpreter he told me the town receives many visiting Jewish groups, people like me who can’t quite believe such a place exists. As if to offer more evidence, he called over a teenage boy who opened a prayer book and recited a Hebrew prayer at a breakneck pace. 

Outside the synagogue, we ran into a group of high-spirited boys, most wearing kippot. They posed for pictures, and shouted back “hello,” and “Shabbat shalom!” to our own greetings. 

“Our neighbors say, ‘Why do you send oil to Israel,’ ” our guide, a Shiite, said, summarizing the Azeri attitude toward the Jewish minority. “We say, ‘The Jews are our brothers. They make a big contribution to the economy and culture of Azerbaijan.’ ”

That contribution is beginning to extend beyond the historic. A subtext of every speech we heard and visit we made was that Azerbaijan is seeking international support for its ongoing conflict with Armenia, which, in 1992, fought a brutal war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and has occupied that region since, in contravention of United Nations resolutions.

The continued occupation by force of some 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory consumes Azeri political discourse. 

Near Quba, we pulled into a brand-new memorial complex of angular concrete and polished granite. Just beside it lay mounds of human skulls, recently excavated at the site of a massacre in 1918 of Muslim and Jewish residents by Bolshevik, Armenian and Christian forces. About 600 people were slaughtered by what our guide referred to as “Armenian gangsters.” The exhibit looked as if it had been airlifted directly from Yad Vashem.

In a meeting with Yevda Abramov, Azerbaijan’s sole Jewish parliamentarian, a big, deep-voiced Mountain Jew, we asked what message he wanted us to convey to American Jews.

“Please present the Armenian holocaust against us,” he said, then launched into a tirade on the “double standard” in how the world only cares about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and ignores Armenia’s occupation of Azeri land. 

Abramov raised his considerable voice. “The Armenian lobby prevents a just solution!” he said.

Of course, as in any tribal-religious-political conflict, the Armenians level their own accusations of land grabs and massacres.  Azerbaijan, a country suffering from occupation, has allied itself with Israel, a country trying to extricate itself from being an occupier. The situation is not as ironic as it seems when you look at a map. Squeezed between Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist Russia to the north and Iran’s mullahs to the south, Azerbaijan sees in Israel a natural ally also ringed by enmity. 

Israeli military technology and know-how is helping the once-poor Azerbaijan develop an army that can credibly threaten to take Nagorno-Karabakh back by force. In exchange, one expert told me, Israel gets to park drones and perhaps even launch operations right at the edge of the Iranian border.

“The Almighty presented us with oil, but not with neighbors,” Abramov said with a sigh.

And, just like Israel, Azerbaijan’s historic feud with its neighbor constantly threatens to keep dragging it into the bloody past, even as it carves out a uniquely promising future.

Political strife has challenged Azerbaijan’s journey to full-fledged democracy. Earlier this year, the government announced the results of its presidential election before it was held, making the country a punch line on “The Daily Show.” But in their 21 years at the helm, the Aliyevs have transformed a communist police state into a catpitalist, struggling semi-democracy — all the while negotiating a treacherous neighborhood. 

 “Don’t write off Azerbaijan just yet,” Matthew Bryza, former United States ambassador to Azerbaijan, told CNN last month.

Indeed, the country’s long history of tolerance may yet ensure its success.

In Baku, I told Ambassador Iskandarov how much I’d enjoyed the local food, a blend of Persian and Turkish cuisines. He told me I should really visit the best Azerbaijani restaurant in the United States — Baku Palace, in Brooklyn. Its owner, he said, is a Jew.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The real story of Christmas: from sun-worship to Sinterklaas

Interesting history. Love the bit about Jews at Chinese restaurants.

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The real story of Christmas: From sun-worship to Sinterklaas
Haaretz 24/12/13
By Elon Gilad
The first Christians wouldn't recognize today's Santa-centric holiday, let alone figure out what that tree is doing in the living room.

History doesn’t record when the first Christmas was celebrated, but it was probably sometime in the fourth century CE, in the Roman Empire. What's sure is that the first historic record of the holiday is a calendar dating from 354 CE, belonging to a rich Roman Christian named Philocalus.

That calendar tells us that on the same date - December 25 - another holiday was celebrated, marking the birth of Sol Invictus, “the Unconquered Sun.” That was a new pagan cult, worshiping a new sun deity.

Both these holidays coincided with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which had been celebrated from December 17 to December 24th. That was a festival celebrating the god Saturn, which – as we will see - contributed heavily to latter-day Christmas traditions.
 
Why December 25? 

Scholars differ on why December 25, was chosen as the birthday of Jesus, since it apparently wasn't. Hippolytus, in the second century, was probably the first to propose this date. The New Testament doesn’t tell us when the birth took place: and the only clue the text gives us - "some shepherds staying out in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8) actually implies that the birth took place in the spring or summer, as sheep would have been kept indoors during the cold winter nights.

Most probably that date was based on the birth-date of Sol Invictus, which is marked on the Winter Solstice - when the sun overcomes darkness and the days begin to get longer.

The sun is born 

Early Christian symbolism would often liken Jesus with the sun. As Christianity developed, becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, many pagan traditions were assumed . This is blatantly clear in the case of Christmas, which took on many of the traditions of Saturnalia, most notably the traditions of gift-giving and merrymaking.

When the Germanic tribes adopted Christianity and with it the holiday of Christmas, they too contributed to the traditions of the holiday by incorporating aspects of the pagan winter festival Yule into the Christian holiday. Most notable of these are the veneration of evergreens, which would with time morph into the Christmas tree; the traditions of holly and mistletoe decoration; and a wild hunt of flying creatures led by the long-bearded god Odin, who is believed to have been the prototype of Santa Claus.

A Greek bishop merges with Odin 

Another aspect that Christmas adopted from the Germanic Yule is heavy drinking. Though this is not associated with Christmas anymore, during the Middle Ages drinking was a major part of the holiday. In general Christmas during the Middle Ages would have been very foreign to a modern-day observer - it was mostly a festival of drinking and revelry, much closer to Saturnalia than our modern Christmas.

It was during the Middle Ages when the veneration of Saint Nicolas, a third to fourth-century Greek bishop living in what is today Turkey, developed into the holiday figure of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.

St. Nicolas was said to have given gifts to children and thus was considered the patron saint of schoolchildren. According to tradition, Sinterklaas would come from Spain on a steamboat accompanied by a mischievous Moorish helper called Zwarte Piet. This helper would kidnap bad children and report to Sinterklaas on good children, who would then receive gifts on Dece,ber 6th, which was Sinterklaas' feast day.

Later, during the Reformation, many Netherlanders stopped celebrating the saints’ feast days, and the gift-giving associated with Sinterklaas migrated from December 6 to Christmas.

Christmas is banned, the people are unimpressed 

In the English-speaking world, the Protestant Reformation was even more radical, abolishing not only saint feasts but going as far as banning Christmas itself.

In the wake of the English Civil War, Christmas was abolished in 1647, though many outright acts of protest followed, with people defying the Puritans and continuing to celebrate the holiday, albeit in a less public manner.

Even after the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, celebration of Christmas wasn’t completely restored to its former glory.

At roughly the same time, the tradition of setting up a tree in one’s home and lighting candles began to spread in Germany. The concept spread among European nobility during the 18th and 19th centuries, reaching the lower classes only in the late 19th century.

The huge success of Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" in 1843 greatly contributed to popularizing Christmas, and gave it much of the qualities we associate with it today: a holiday centered around the family, as opposed as a community holiday celebrated in church.

The book also contributed to the popularity of the phrase “Merry Christmas,” which appears many times throughout it. That very same year the first commercially printed Christmas cards were printed and sold, bearing that wish - "Merry Christmas".

Meanwhile in 1823, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (that’s the poem starting with “'Twas the Night Before Christmas”) by Clement Clarke Moore was published in the United States. This contributed to the spread of Santa Claus, at this point merging the serious Dutch Sinterklaas with the jolly English personification of Christmas known as Father Christmas, and gift-giving in the English-speaking world.

Come the Chinese restaurant 

This emphasis on gifts led merchants and manufactures to decorate their stores and ads with Christmas themes, hoping it would be their products that would be bought and gifted. By the mid-19th century people began to complain that the holiday was losing its “true meaning” in face of commercialization.

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law that officially made Christmas a secular federal holiday.

This coincided with a mass influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants into America. Finding shops closed on this day and not celebrating Christmas themselves, they found themselves going to Chinese restaurants that stayed open because their owners didn’t celebrate Christmas either. Moreover, the Chinese restaurants were located nearby, as Jewish, Chinese and other poor immigrants tended to live in the same slums.

This is the origin of the Jewish-American tradition of eating at Chinese restaurants on Christmas.

Many of the most popular Christmas carols were written and composed in the 19th Century: “Silent Night,” originally in German in 1818, “O Holy Night,” originally in French in 1847, “Joy to the World,” originally in English in 1839, “Jingle Bells,” also originally in English, in 1857, and “Deck the Halls,” originally in Welsh in 1877, to name a few.

These began to be superseded after the advent of the radio and the phonograph by popular Christmas songs especially during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Many if these were written by Jews, among them: “Sleigh Ride,” written by Mitchell Parish, originally Michael Hyman Pashelinsky, in 1948, Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" was written and composed by Sammy Cahn (b. Samuel Cohen) and Jule Styne (b. Julius Kerwin Stein) in 1945. Irving Berlin (b. Israel Isidore Beilin) wrote “White Christmas”, and Johnny Marks wrote both “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree."

Christmas broadcasts began in earnest during the second half of the 20th century, most notably Frank Capra’s “It's a Wonderful Life” from 1946 and “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which first aired in 1965.

In recent years Christmas has become a battleground for the opponents of the separation of church and state, who oppose the public endorsement of the Christian holiday by government and public companies and conservative Christians, who believe a “War on Christmas” is being waged. The liberals claiming the worship of Jesus shouldn’t be forced on them and the conservatives claiming that their right to worship freely is being infringed upon. But if the Protestant Reformation with all its power couldn't manage to stamp out the holiday spirit, grousing in the op-eds section of the press isn't likely to either.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Iran nuclear deal - pro & con

Interesting pro & con juxtaposition.

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Iran deal: should we embrace it?
Jewish Chronicle
28/11/2013

Part 1 - YES by Lawrence Freedman

It is possible to imagine a better deal — it always is in a negotiation — but, in practice, this outcome exceeded expectations.

The expert consensus is that its key elements — no extra centrifuge activity, existing stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium neutralised, work on the Arak heavy water reactor suspended — will add significantly to the time it would take Iran to produce the fissile material needed to produce nuclear weapons, even if there is no further deal after six months.

The verification measures are intrusive and will give inspectors access to all the key facilities.

The sanctions relief is also not trivial and could be worth some $7 bn.

By itself, however, this is not going to make much difference to Iranian national wealth, especially in the absence of more fundamental reforms of the Iranian economy.

This creates a breathing space, providing the time to see if a comprehensive settlement can be negotiated. If the provisions of the interim agreement are honoured, there should be a growth of confidence and trust on both sides. These final negotiations will, however, be hard to conclude in the time available.

If diplomacy does fail, those who believe that any negotiations with this regime are doomed to failure must not assume that military action offers a reliable alternative. It could also well fail, especially if attempted by Israel alone. Iran has a distributed and defended nuclear infrastructure that cannot be taken out with one “surgical” blow. Sustained strikes might set the programme back a number of years, but the short-term costs could be extremely high — Iran’s regional supporters would exact revenge.

For some the details of the agreement are almost irrelevant because the real objection is to the mere fact of diplomatic engagement with such an obnoxious regime. On this view, Iran has been given an undeserved legitimacy which will encourage it to continue to follow its malign foreign policy. This critique tends to include a routine reference to Munich and appeasement.

Against this, all we can note is that some sort of shift has been taking place in the Iranian power structure, marked by the election of President Hassan Rouhani last June.

It is too early to say whether this will lead to a more moderate course in Iranian foreign policy. Hardliners in Tehran are unhappy and may well try to derail further negotiations while urging continuing strong support for Iran’s regional allies, such as Hizbollah and President Assad of Syria. This is not an argument to abandon diplomacy, but it does warn against overselling the agreement. It is by no means clear where and how this process will conclude. All we can say is that it has not started with a sell-out.

Sir Lawrence Freedman is Professor of War Studies at King’s College London

Part 2 - NO by Saeed Ghasseminejad

Last Friday, Iran was on the verge of economic collapse. It was suffering from high unemployment, high inflation and negative growth. It was totally isolated and running out of cash as it fought a Vietnam-type war in Syria.

In a word, it was desperate.

Despite their immensely strong bargaining position, the US and the West accepted a deal that neither stops Iran’s nuclear programme nor rolls it back.

In fact, by failing to address the entirety of the programme, leaving the capacity to build a bomb intact and opening the flood-gates for Iran to return to international markets, the agreement actually facilitates the country’s nuclear ambitions.

Of the three parts to Iran’s military nuclear programme — uranium enrichment (creating the fissile material), weaponisation (constructing the bomb) and building the delivery system — the deal addresses neither the second nor the third phases, and is not tough enough on enrichment. Uranium enrichment above 5 per cent will be temporarily halted, but Iran can keep its 5 per cent-enriched stockpile, which can easily be used to create 20 per cent-enriched uranium — the level required for a nuclear weapon — at a later date. And although Iran cannot add new centrifuges, it will keep around 19,000 centrifuges intact and in working order.

The agreement gives the International Atomic Energy Agency better access to the operations at Iran’s known nuclear facilities and therefore makes it easier for the world to detect an attempt at nuclear break-out. This is a significant concession, but there is barely any reference in the deal to Iran’s past military nuclear activities, which effectively leaves the weaponisation and delivery system programmes free to steam ahead over the next six months.

Barack Obama’s administration estimates that the sanctions relief is worth around $7bn. This is likely to be a wild underestimate. Iran expert Mark Dubowitz has calculated that through the repatriation of frozen assets, gold transfers to Iran in exchange for its oil and natural gas sales, petrochemicals exports and the lifting of sanctions on the Iranian auto sector, the value relief will come closer to £20bn.

With Western companies now scrambling to do business with Iran, President Hassan Rouhani is correct to have said that, thanks to this deal, the wall of sanctions will collapse in the near future.

All of this means that in six months, Iran’s economy will no longer be collapsing. If Mr Obama could not stop Iran when the country was on the rack, why we should believe he can do it when Iran is up and running again?

Over the next six months, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will respect the deal that his foreign minister has signed, but he will not go further.

He will come back with a stronger hand and will not need to offer any more than what has just been offered.

Despite the official rhetoric, it appears that US does indeed accept a nuclear-capable Iran and its efforts now are focused on preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. This is a very dangerous road.

Many say that the cold war between Iran and US has just ended. They are wrong: it has just started. The mullahs in Tehran will use their nuclear capability to blackmail the West. The first installment is worth at least $7bn and a free hand in Syria — in six months’ time we see what the second installment looks like.

Saeed Ghasseminejad is co-fonder of the Iranian Liberal students and Graduates and PhD student in Finance at City University of New York.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The Greatest Enemy of Privacy Is Ambiguity

Superb article.

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The Greatest Enemy of Privacy Is Ambiguity
If we can't define what it means to be left alone, don't be surprised when the government comes knocking.
J.M. Berger
31/10/2013
Foreign Policy Mag

The details of who is listening to what and who knew may be decidedly unclear, but it's hard to escape the clamor over one of our most cherished possessions: privacy.

But that word, and the concept behind it, is fluid, subjective, contextual, and self-referential -- shifting sands that have come to the forefront in our torturous public debate about NSA surveillance.

In their formative years, most people discover the dictionary game -- in which you look up a word and then look up all the words used in the first word's definition.

Properly executed, this exercise teaches us something important about the power and challenge of language -- how some of our most important words drift into meaninglessness because their definitions are circular, while others bloat into unmanageable complexity due to the number of additional, definable terms needed to describe them.

Depending on what dictionary you choose, the word "privacy" has multiple definitions, and the border between one and another is not always clear. Random House provides the following three definitions that are relevant to our current national drama:

1. the state of being private; retirement or seclusion.
2. the state of being free from intrusion or disturbance in one's private life or affairs: the right to privacy.
3. secrecy.

"Intrusion" and "disturbance" are highly subjective, and privacy as the state of being private or in reference to one's private affairs immediately invokes the circular problem. As an adjective, "private" offers up five more definitions, four of which are relevant to this discussion:

1. belonging to some particular person: private property.
2. pertaining to or affecting a particular person or a small group of persons; individual; personal: for your private satisfaction.
3. confined to or intended only for the persons immediately concerned; confidential: a private meeting.
4. personal and not publicly expressed: one's private feelings.

There is a long road from "belonging to a particular person" to "personal and not publicly expressed." The definitions of intrusion and disturbance take on a similarly wide range. We don't have to take this game to its invariably frustrating conclusion to grasp the point.

Countless volumes have documented the history of privacy as a concept, from open-air latrines to individual bedrooms. The idea of privacy many of us grew up with -- the proposition that people are entitled to locks on a door -- has few precedents in the long history of mankind, and it has mutated considerably in my lifetime.

Locks are devices that protect our physical selves, our belongings, and our "privacy" -- the idea of secrecy pertaining to what actually goes on behind those closed doors. But within a generation, many of our most cherished secrets have migrated from the physical realm to the immaterial.

Our secrets are now represented as data, in an unfathomably complex infrastructure of servers and lines of communication (and we didn't need the NSA leaks to let us know that the locks on those doors are not deadbolts).

But secrets are no longer something we scrupulously hoard. They have become currency. We barter personal data for convenience on a near continual basis, whether by using a bank card, providing an email address in exchange for a coupon, applying for a mortgage, managing a Facebook page -- or supporting a phantasmagoric government mandate of zero-tolerance for terrorism.

The ethereal web of our intertwined personal currencies has now reached a tipping point, and it's time to start making tough choices.

Unlike paper money, each datum we spend is not a discrete, anonymous unit. It is collected, stored, aggregated, and analyzed to create a set of increasingly accurate inferences about personal thoughts and preferences that people never intended to disclose.

The debate is arguably already out of control, the product of a media and social media machine that chews up issues, spits them out in wads on the sidewalk, and proudly points at them, saying "Look what I did!"

But it's still worth trying to nail down concrete definitions that can enable us to talk about exactly what it is that we want and what we fear.

The most relevant definition of "privacy" at play in current events -- debates over NSA surveillance, stop-and-frisk, the NYPD's massive intelligence apparatus, and the FBI's widespread use of informants -- is this: "the state of being free from intrusion or disturbance in one's private life or affairs," with "private" defined as "personal and not publicly expressed."

This sets up three basic questions we need to answer, just to get started:

1)      What is public expression?
2)      What is intrusion?
3)      What is disturbance?

Let's look at each in turn.

Public Expression

Almost everyone agrees that our personal information -- whether thoughts, views, or phone numbers -- is entitled to some sort of protection. But we engage in a wide variety of transactions in which the line between public and private is ambiguous or inconsistent.

The cell phone is the exemplar of the spiraling complexity of this question. Although it is by no means the only place where privacy transactions occur, the tradeoffs one accepts in carrying and using a cell phone in a typical manner are breathtaking.

Your cell phone number is "private" by default -- which is to say unlisted. This protects you from the most gross and unsubtle level of intrusions and disturbances -- unsolicited calls and texts from total strangers.

But you continually barter your cell phone's information in exchange for services, and the information you offer is increasingly comprehensive.

For starters, your service provider unavoidably has access to your number, which means they can (and do) call and text you with sales pitches, surveys, and billing reminders. That's the tip of the iceberg.

If you keep GPS and WiFi turned on, enabling a host of services, your carrier has access to your precise location at virtually all times -- and not just longitude and latitude. This data is easily and automatically correlated to the kind of places you visit -- what grocery store you use, which restaurants you visit, what bookstores you patronize.

If your email and social media accounts flow into the phone, that's a whole new level of information for barter: the books you order online, the news sources on which you rely, who are your friends and where do they live and what are their phone numbers, email addresses, and social media accounts.

Each piece of data by itself is relatively limited in what it says about you, and each feels innocuous when you give it up. Of course, you provide an email when ordering from Amazon.com. Why wouldn't you? And checking Facebook or Twitter on your phone is just so convenient. All it costs is your account information.

For the most part, we presume, this information just dumps into an anonymous sea of data, disassociated from our individual lives, or at least from any important aspect. But regardless of whether this is true, simply owning and using a cell phone represents a continual disclosure of information -- an expression of thoughts, views, and preferences.

Is this expression public? Not exactly, but it's not private either.

Each vendor of convenience requires you to express something about yourself -- sometimes individually, such as when you type in an address for GPS navigation, or in aggregate, such as when you use the Google Now phone app, which scans a broad spectrum of your data in order to inform you what restaurants are nearby, the gate from which your next flight will depart, and when your packages will arrive.

Based on the privacy settings you have selected (or failed to select), you disclose information so rich that it's hard to truly appreciate how much it says about you.

You also allow certain groups of companies to share that data with other companies and services. Each time you do anything with your phone, you give up a little shred of data, or perhaps a whole bucketful. Few people are rigorous about tracking where that data goes and what a company does with it.

Intrusion


You have expressed information by using your phone, and while it's not exactly public, it's also not secret. It's been given to a third party on the basis of an explicit contract that dictates how the information can be used -- even though you probably haven't read it.

When you agree to the terms of service for Google Now, for instance, you explicitly agree to let it analyze your life and draw inferences about you. It then serves those inferences back to you in the form of reminders and helpful prompts, such as how long it will take you to get home from your current location using your normal mode of transportation.

This situation gets dicier when you agree to share information with companies that share with third parties. If you spend a few minutes Googling information about where to buy widgets and click onto a few promising sites, you will probably notice that ads for widgets miraculously start displaying on other websites you visit.

This feels intrusive, at least depending on how you parse the definition, but you agreed to this, either explicitly by okaying a terms-of-service contract, or implicitly by enabling cookies in your web browser.

If you're not careful about settings and practices, you might later find emails about widgets in your inbox, or tweets and Facebook posts about widgets in your timeline, a higher degree of intrusion. If you're extraordinarily careless, you might get robotic phone calls about widget bargains in your area.

Most people tolerate a certain amount of intrusion in exchange for convenience, a fact that is cited by some defenders of the NSA's massive data collection program, who argue that American citizens have consented to this collection by voting, or failing to vote -- in the same way that they may or may not read the terms of service for Google Now.

While there is some validity to this argument, democracy is a very indirect form of consent, full of complications and considerations. And consent to intrusion is not the only issue at play.

Disturbance

Where the NSA differs substantially from Google or the phone company is its potential for disturbance -- which is almost never consensual. One might support stop-and-frisk as a policy, but nearly everyone would opt out for themselves, given a choice.

No one disputes that telecommunications and Internet service providers can and do use your data in intrusive ways. But they have neither a compelling motive nor a commercial interest in disturbing your private life.

In contrast, government surveillance is entirely predicated on an intent to disturb.

One of the primary reasons for surveillance is to determine whether the government should actively interfere in your life -- by arresting you, infiltrating your social circles, freezing your assets, taking away your security clearance, prohibiting you from air travel, or even targeting you for death.

For the vast majority of people, government data collection is used to rule out such disturbances. For a much smaller number, that data will be used to justify hostile action.

And for a smaller number still, the data will be used to justify that which is unjust -- disturbances of people who have been wrongly identified as a threat. This can mean anything from an intrusive investigation to a wrongful arrest, or even a targeted killing.

The government is not simply collecting data, it's using that data to judge the people represented therein, whether as potential targets for military action overseas or for a referral to the FBI.

Collecting data -- the focus of most NSA debates -- carries different considerations than using that data to judge people.

For many, the act of collection is enough to constitute an intrusion. But judgment is inextricably tied to disturbance, a much more serious issue.

For nearly everyone in the world, the NSA's judgment is "we're not interested." But when the stakes are so high, who wants to be judged at all?

All of this takes place in deep secrecy, which is also reasonable cause for concern. Complicating matters further still is the method by which the vast majority of such judgments are rendered. Here, we veer into entirely new and largely untested waters.

Judgment by Inference

There are two reasons the NSA wants so very much data. The first reason is prosaic. If the data has already been collected, it can be searched almost instantaneously, as opposed to starting with a phone number or email, obtaining a warrant, then waiting for one or several service providers to return the requested information days or even weeks later.

The second reason is exotic and far more problematic.

If someone picks up your cell phone and reads everything on it, they will likely come away with a rich portrait of your life and personality. But -- law and conscience aside -- it's physically impossible for the NSA or Google or anyone to manually read each subscriber's content.

It's different when you collect a massive amount of data. Even when the content of communications is not reviewed, an analyst can use complicated mathematical techniques to draw inferences about individual users.

These algorithms are difficult for non-mathematicians to understand, but not necessarily difficult to employ. It's not totally clear what the NSA is doing with the data it collects, but it is clear this type of analysis is part of the agency's toolkit.

The tools that allow Amazon.com to accurately guess what books you would like can also be used to infer your race, religion, sexual orientation, and political party, even though you have never provided that information to the company.

It's possible to do the same thing with the largest source of data the NSA collects (as of the latest disclosures). Known as metadata, this information ignores the content of your communications -- such as an audio recording of a phone call -- and instead focuses on who you call, when, where, and for how long.

On the face of it, this seems less intrusive than listening to the content. But content-free metadata can be used to make inferences about your religious or political views -- even if you never explicitly stated them during the call. Metadata is currently being used to determine whether callers are probably terrorists.

In theory, the massive quantities of data collected should make these inferences pretty accurate, but the degree of certainty will never reach 100 percent. More troubling, there are no public records about exactly what the success rate is. Ninety-nine percent? Sixty-five percent? Twenty? Does the NSA itself even know?

Instead, we're asked to have blind faith in the power of math and the integrity and competence of a government that all too often disappoints us in spectacular fashion.

Where do we go from here?


So far, the privacy debate sparked by the NSA's surveillance program has foundered in a morass of emotional reactions, bad and incomplete information, and personality-driven analysis. On Twitter and on TV, heated reactions fly as each nugget of new information emerges, and theses are rewritten each time the picture changes.

But the discussion is equally hobbled by the rapidly changing landscape of privacy definitions and expectations, layered onto a woefully outdated legal framework.

The Fourth Amendment's guarantee against "unreasonable searches and seizures" is more ambiguous by the day, setting an extremely subjective standard (reasonableness) for searches of what the Constitution's authors certainly understood as material things.

A concept that would have been foreign to our forefathers now dominates the debate over privacy. Who owns our personal data?

Ownership is crucial to both the legal and philosophical questions raised by the development of social media and by the NSA's surveillance collection, much of which is informed by a 1979 Supreme Court ruling, Smith v. Maryland, which in its most simplistic dimension ruled that companies own most of the data we share with them.

When Smith v. Maryland was written, "metadata" consisted mainly of paper sheets listing phone calls that had been dialed, which typically had to be correlated with subscriber information through manual searches of large printed directories. The contents of a phone call were ephemeral if not purposefully recorded, compared to the contents of an email, which persist indefinitely on servers.

Today's metadata is richer and more informative, and it can be processed using instantaneous analytical techniques that were only science fiction in 1979. Even today, we can barely grasp how much personal information metadata reveals.

Rather than embark on a new round of laws and court rulings that cover the current technologies and will require revision in another 10 or 30 years, it's time to start thinking about underlying principles.
  • What is privacy? Do we define privacy in its strictest sense as "secrecy," or broadly, as being free from intrusion and/or disturbance in our individual lives?
  • When we share information with a third party, do we automatically forfeit secrecy? Is providing information to a company a limited form of public expression? And if so, does that mean the information is no longer private?
  • Who owns the data we provide to companies? Can we take our data back after bartering it for a service?
  • Companies like Amazon and Google use algorithms to make inferences about our preferences -- what we like to read, where we like to go, and where we get our news and information. Can the government access these inferences, along with the data that lies beneath them?
  • Are such inferences an acceptable pretext for starting an investigation?
  • How do we define intrusion and disturbance, legally speaking?
  • How much intrusion are we willing to tolerate when there is no unjust disturbance? Regardless of how one defines it, most people tolerate intrusion on a nearly continuous basis, in exchange for services or simply due to thoughtlessness. When the government intrudes on our privacy, is that the same kind of barter on a society-wide basis? Should we require a more explicit form of consent?
  • Regardless of where we fall on the question of intrusion, should we focus government oversight more intensely on disturbances, such as wiretaps, physical surveillance, arrests, and investigations? Isn't that where the harm is most imminent and grievous?
  • If our data is fair game, what about the government's? Shouldn't we force the government to disclose in broad numbers how many conversations it actually listens to, how many of those conversations involve American citizens, how many investigations are opened as a result of mass surveillance, and how many of those leads ultimately prove pertinent to national security?

The answers to these questions will determine the direction of policies. If we want broad changes to government surveillance practices that protect as many people as possible, we have to focus on intrusion. If we want narrower changes designed to protect most people while preserving the utility of these techniques for law enforcement and counterterrorism, we need to focus on disturbance.

This question will only become more pressing. While mass collection of data is still primarily the province of counterterrorism, it is almost impossible to imagine that it will not find applications in more ordinary law enforcement -- the war on drugs, gun control, fraud detection, drunk driving, and more. It would be foolish to defer dealing with this issue until local police are using predictive algorithms to search car trunks and correlate high school truancy patterns with the likelihood of drug use.

In an age of reactionary politics and infamous gridlock, it may be too much to expect that the U.S. government can tackle these issues in a responsible and comprehensive manner, but if we fail to do so, we are only delaying the moment of truth. These questions will continue to return, in murkier and more complex forms.

It may be satisfying to demand quick fixes in reaction to specific programs, policies, and technologies, but such correctives do little to address the underlying ambiguities that stem from our loose definition of privacy, and our urgent but as yet inchoate expectations of control over our personal information.

For those who worry about government power, ambiguity is a far greater enemy than any individual or institution, even if corrupt. We will never have a government entirely free from honest mistakes and intentional overreach. But when we fail to define our expectations, we invite abuse and make accountability next to impossible.

If we can't clearly articulate what we want and need, don't be surprised when the government takes full advantage of the gaps.