Monday, September 30, 2013

The Alawites, Ethnic Cleansing, and Syria’s Future. By Franck Salameh.

The Alawites, Ethnic Cleansing, and Syria’s Future. By Franck Salameh. The National Interest, September 30, 2013.

Imagining a Remapped Middle East. By Robin Wright. NJBR, September 29, 2013.

The Border Between Israel and Palestine: The Elephant in the Map Room. By Frank Jacobs. NJBR, September 21, 2013.

Small Homogeneous States Only Solution for Middle East. By Mordechai Kedar. IMRA, April 1, 2011.

The Arab Collapse. By Ralph Peters. NJBR, May 20, 2013. With related articles on the possible fragmentation of the Middle East on ethnic and sectarian lines.


Whatever the outcome of the current Syrian crisis, the sectarian killings that have been raging for the past two and a half years, and which might have reached new paroxysms of savagery in August 2013, all bear the telltale markings of ethnic cleansing, impending fragmentation, and ultimately the Balkanization of a country formerly known as Syria.
“Ethnic cleansing” is not a phrase to be uttered in vain; its tortured tales are stained with heartbreak and bloodshed, its sad trails spattered with chronicles of dispossession and forced population movements. As a concept, “ethnic cleansing” traces its semantic origins to the Balkans during the early 1990s, but its inglorious history is as old as history itself, its deeds recorded in the sacred writs and annals of nations, its crimes premeditated, designed to eliminate undesired populations with the aim of building ethnically, religiously, or culturally homogenous regions in once mixed or disputed territories. Syria, as a complex of ethno-religious and linguistic mosaics, living a brittle and uneasy peace under the rule of an apprehensive and historically oppressed community, falls within the patterns of deeply divided societies susceptible to ethnic conflagrations. And so, since the early days of the insurgency in early 2011, Syria’s troubles were pointing in the direction of an impending sectarian boiling point. And Assad, a child of the catacombs, an accursed minoritarian, an Alawite upstart whose family made good and bequeathed him the throne of the Sunni’s overlord, was not about to throw it all away and deliver a redeemed community back to its oppressors. Some Pollyanna in 2011 might have thought it opportune to ride the winds of an ill-conceived “Arab Spring”, doodling some rosy freedom slogan on a wall in Daraa. But Assad’s appetite was not for self-immolation so as to feed the flame of someone else’s freedom. Safeguarding one’s own trumps all other virtues in the creed of persecuted Levantine minorities, Alawites included, and Assad was not about to betray that sacred writ. Indeed, he has yet to have a “bad day” as he continues to prosecute this fight for self-preservation, and as he forges on, coming ever closer to carving out an Alawite heartland. But that “bad day” came and went, with Obama’s posturing and abrupt retreat, and Assad triumphed yet again. Today, with the regional and international response to his brutality as incoherent as ever, Assad remains the winner of this conflict, and he endures, more determined, consolidating an eventual rump state.
The opposition to Assad remains a motley assortment of Islamists, with some reformers and liberals interspersed in-between, most of whom loathe each other, perhaps more than they hate Assad himself. What’s more, Assad’s military remains largely loyal and determined, his popular base remains intact and committed, and American policy—or lack thereof—remains his greatest ally, and so he remains firmly ensconced at the helm. Like his father Hafez before him, Bashar al-Assad is a skilled strategist and a patient master of time; he is wily, deliberate, coolheaded, and coldblooded; a crafty murderer and a seasoned statesman at once, qualities that a flamboyant hothead like Muammar Qaddafi, a kleptocratic oligarch like Zine al Abidine Ben-Ali, and a fossilized military veteran like Hosni Mubarak all lacked. And so it is unlikely that Assad’s fate will come anywhere near Qaddafi’s, Ben-Ali’s, or Mubarak’s—although predictions are the praxis of the foolhardy in the Eastern Mediterranean.
A medical doctor by training, Bashar al-Assad has a cruel and criminal mind with a tender, dorky patina and an endearing speech impediment. But it is a grave mistake to dismiss him as dim-witted, delusional, or an unwilling figurehead; nor is he a thug or run-of-the-mill despot lashing out arbitrarily and in despair. The fact that he has lasted this long, fending off legions of international jihadis and bottomless supplies of Saudi and Qatari petrodollars streaming into Syria, all speak to the possibility that Assad may be doing something right. What Assad began claiming in early 2011, about battling foreign Islamists, has become a reality. Even if this had not been the case then, today Assad is clearly fighting a sinister and determined coalition of vicious Islamists and triumphalist divine warriors.
Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and the reluctance and incoherence met in the world’s (especially America’s) response, clearly fit into his calculus and his adept reading of American policy. In fact, not only is Assad comfortable with Obama’s inaction—and lately, Obama’s decision to outsource America’s dealing with the Syrian crisis to Russia—but Washington’s (non)policy is an important component of Assad’s survival, and possibly his eventual triumph. The more mixed signals Assad continues to receive, the more emboldened he will become to finish the job.
In the end, partition, anathema as it may be to those still emotionally attached to the Sykes-Picot order, may end up being the more humane solution to the Syrian crisis. An undefeated Assad ruling over the entirety of Syria will likely be more vicious than the current chemical Assad. Conversely, a united (or even a fragmented) Syria under the bevies of jihadiscurrently roaming its landscape is a nightmare of apocalyptic ramifications; a horrifying prospect not only to Alawites, but also to moderate Sunnis, liberals, and minorities who are not particularly enthralled with the idea of an Islamist Syria. Jihadisare also a bane to Syria’s neighbors, diverse countries whose societies are as fragmented, disparate, and variegated as Syria’s.
For the time being, Assad’s most immediate concern appears to be maintaining control over the “north-south highway” linking Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Holding on to this corridor, and clearing out resistance or pushing it further east, is crucial to the fortification and safeguarding of the future state that he seems to be envisaging. It is not per chance that the most important battles raging in Syria today have been occurring along this corridor—for all intents and purposes, the eastern flank of the Alawite State.
Even if Damascus should fall to the rebels—keeping in mind that Damascus remains ultimately a prize of primarily symbolic, not strategic, importance—the Damascus-Aleppo highway would remain the more important rampart of the Alawite sanctuary and, perhaps equally importantly, its passageway to the Shiite areas of eastern Lebanon—namely the Bekaa Valley and ultimately the Lebanese port-city of Tripoli. That was the whole idea behind the battle for Qusayr this past summer, and Hezbollah’s involvement in that fight alongside Assad’s forces. Now, whether Assad overtly declares an Alawite canton or keeps feigning a desire for a whole, unified Syria, the battles around the aforementioned corridors and the maintenance of this side of Syria under Assad’s control are of crucial importance because: 1) keeping these regions will mean that Assad and his community have survived the Sunni onslaught, and 2) this prospective, armored, Russian- and Iranian-supported rump state will eventually become an important bargaining chip for Assad and his community should a peaceful negotiation for an end-of-conflict (and a return to a unitary Syria) become an eventuality.
Another issue of crucial importance in this calculus is not only the future of Syria alone, but the fact that Syria’s reconfiguration into sectarian mini-states will have an effect on the remainder of the Levantine mosaic. For, even if the rebels do not defeat Assad, they are likely to remain in their areas of influence—more or less as demarcated by the current front lines—preventing a reversion to a Syrian status quo ante. Furthermore, the Alawites and other Syrian minorities, having remained largely in Assad’s camp, have no place in any configuration of a future unitary Syria. This is an eventuality that Assad père had foreseen and began planning for in the early 1980s, after the Hama massacre.
One must not lose sight of the fact that, historically speaking, and contrary to prevalent belief, the Alawites wanted no part of the “Unitary Syria” that emerged out of Franco-British bickering in the Levant of the interwar period. Indeed, when the French inherited the Ottoman Vilayets (governorates) of Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo, and Alexandretta in 1918, they opted to turn them into six autonomous entities reflecting previous Ottoman administrative realities. Ergo, in 1920, those entities became the State of Greater Lebanon (which in 1926 gave birth to the Republic of Lebanon), the State of Damascus, the State of Aleppo, the State of the Druze Mountain, the State of the Alawite Mountain (corresponding roughly to what the Alawites are reconstituting today), and the Sanjak of Alexandretta (ceded to Turkey in 1938 to become the Province of Hatay.)
But when Arab nationalists began pressuring the British on the question of “Arab unity,” urging them to make good on pledges made to the Sharif of Mecca during the Great War, the Alawites demured. In fact, Bashar al-Assad’s own grandfather, Ali Sulayman al-Assad, was among leading Alawite notables who, until 1944, continued to lobby French Mandatory authorities to resist British and Arab designs aimed at stitching together the States of Aleppo, Damascus, Druze, and Alawite Mountains into a new republic to be christened Syria. Dismayed by the prospects of the Alawite State ending up as an addendum to a future Syrian entity, the elder Assad held repeated meetings with French diplomats and intellectuals, and dispatched a stream of memos to the Quai d’Orsay demanding that the State of the Alawite Mountain—given legal recognition in 1920—be attached to the Republic of Lebanon, rather than any future Syrian federation. In one such memo addressed to French PM Léon Bluhm, Ali Sulayman al-Assad argued that any future united Arab Syrian entity would put in place a regime dominated by fanaticism and intolerance toward non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities. He stressed that “the spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the Mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.” A united Syria, concluded Assad’s 1936 memo,
will only mean the enslavement of the Alawite people; [the French] may think that it is possible to ensure the rights of the Alawites and the minorities by treaty. We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality in Syria. […] The Alawi people appeal to the French government […] and request […] a guarantee of their freedom and independence within their small territory,” [in the confines of the Alawite Mountain.]
Echoes of this can be felt in Bashar al-Assad’s conduct today. Memories run deep in the Middle East, especially among persecuted minorities. The Assads remain haunted by the trauma and deprivation that have checkered their history. A mere generation ago, their daughters in a Syria dominated by Sunni Arabs were being sold into servitude, to suffer a lifetime of toils in the households of urban Sunni notables. This is not a past that the Alawites want restituted in a future Sunni-dominated Syria. And if it means breaking Syria in order to avoid such subjugation, then this is a small price to pay for Alawite dignity and security.
For nearly half a century, Syria’s Alawites have dodged persecution and humiliation, and they have safeguarded communal sanity and identity by dominating Syria. They did so by co-opting power centers and ruling a unitary state under the guise of Arab nationalism, an ideology that they flaunted with ostentation and bombast, even though they might not have been true believers. Today the lip-service that they paid to this failed ideology, and the image that they built for themselves as committed Arab nationalists, are coming undone. Ghosts of Sulayman al-Assad are coming back to life. And so, retreating to a fortified Alawite state may be the only option left in Bashar al-Assad’s bag of tricks. Anything less is tantamount to communal suicide. Anything feigning reconciliation, or power-sharing, or repackaging and brandishing once more vain Arabist credentials, will be lost on Assad’s foes. The Arab nationalist train, with its redeemed Alawite community, has already left the station, and a return trip does not figure on the schedule.
And so the battles that continue to rage on in Syria, and the cruelties that seem unlikely to abate, will be waged for the purpose of geographic, and demographic rearrangements—ethnic cleansing by another name. At the pinnacle of their power, the dynasts of the house of Assad had encouraged Alawite internal migrations to major urban centers such as Damascus and Aleppo. But they also maintained their traditional heartland and its Mediterranean littoral as almost exclusively Alawite—a core territory stretching from Tartus in the south, near the Lebanon border, to the outskirts of Turkey’s Antakya in the north. One might guess that of Assad’s main concerns today, besides the protection and reinforcement of the Alawite canton, would be maintaining safe havens and passageways for an Alawite “diaspora” scattered about the hinterland, laying down the groundwork for an eventual return and a secure “ascent” to the Alawite Mountain.

The ethno-religious divisions of Syria. Map of the French Mandate. Wikimedia.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Global Slaughter of Christians, But America’s Churches Stay Silent. By Kirsten Powers.

A Global Slaughter of Christians, but America’s Churches Stay Silent. By Kirsten Powers. The Daily Beast, September 27, 2013.

“Thank God, There Are Almost No Jews in Syria Now.” By Lela Gilbert. National Review Online, September 14, 2013.

Silence is deafening as attacks on Christians continue to grow. By Lela Gilbert., September 24, 2013.

Lela Gilbert website.

The Barbarism of Modern Islamist Terrorism. By Brendan O’Neill.

I’m sorry, but we have to talk about the barbarism of modern Islamist terrorismBy Brendan O’Neill. The Telegraph, September 28, 2013.

The Unbelievable Savagery of the Kenya Mall Terrorists. By Alec Torres. National Review Online, September 27, 2013.


In Western news-making and opinion-forming circles, there’s a palpable reluctance to talk about the most noteworthy thing about modern Islamist violence: its barbarism, its graphic lack of moral restraint. This goes beyond the BBC's yellow reluctance to deploy the T-word – terrorism – in relation to the bloody assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya at the weekend. Across the commentating board, people are sheepish about pointing out the historically unique lunacy of Islamist violence and its utter detachment from any recognisable moral universe or human values. We have to talk about this barbarism; we have to appreciate how new and unusual it is, how different it is even from the terrorism of the 1970s or of the early twentieth century. We owe it to the victims of these assaults, and to the principle of honest and frank political debate, to face up to the unhinged, morally unanchored nature of Islamist violence in the 21st century.
Maybe it’s because we have become so inured to Islamist terrorism in the 12 years since 9/11 that even something like the blowing-up of 85 Christians outside a church in Pakistan no longer shocks us or even makes it on to many newspaper front pages. But consider what happened: two men strapped with explosives walked into a group of men, women and children who were queuing for food and blew up themselves and the innocents gathered around them. Who does that? How far must a person have drifted from any basic system of moral values to behave in such an unrestrained and wicked fashion? Yet the Guardian tells us it is “moral masturbation” to express outrage over this attack, and it would be better to give into a “sober recognition that there are many bad things we can’t as a matter of fact do much about”. This is a demand that we further acclimatise to the peculiar and perverse bloody Islamist attacks around the world, shrug our shoulders, put away our moral compasses, and say: “Ah well, this kind of thing happens.”
Or consider the attack on Westgate in Kenya, where both the old and the young, black and white, male and female were targeted. With no clear stated aims from the people who carried the attack out, and no logic to their strange and brutal behaviour, Westgate had more in common with those mass mall and school shootings that are occasionally carried out by disturbed people in the West than it did with the political violence of yesteryear. And yet still observers avoid using the T-word or the M-word (murder) to describe what happened there, and instead attach all sorts of made-up, see-through political theories to this rampage, giving what was effectively a terror tantrum executed by morally unrestrained Islamists the respectability of being a political protest of some breed.
Time and again, one reads about Islamist attacks that seem to defy not only the most basic of humanity’s moral strictures but also political and even guerrilla logic. Consider the hundreds of suicide attacks that have taken place in Iraq in recent years, a great number of them against ordinary Iraqis, often children. Western apologists for this wave of weird violence, which they call “resistance”, claim it is about fighting against the Western forces which were occupying Iraq in the wake of the 2003 invasion. If so, it’s the first “resistance” in history whose prime targets have been civilians rather than security forces, and which has failed to put forward any kind of political programme that its violence is allegedly designed to achieve. Even experts in counterinsurgency have found themselves perplexed by the numerous nameless suicide assaults on massive numbers of civilians in post-war Iraq, and the fact that these violent actors, unlike the vast majority of violent political actors in history, have “developed no alternative government or political wing and displayed no intention of amassing territory to govern”. One Iraqi attack has stuck in my mind for seven years. In 2006 a female suicide bomber blew herself up among families – including many mothers and their offspring – who were queuing up for kerosene. Can you imagine what happened? A terrible glimpse was offered by this line in a Washington Post report on 24 September 2006: “Twopre-teen girls embraced each other as they burned to death.”
What motivates this perversity? What are its origins? Unwilling, or perhaps unable, to face up to the newness of this unrestrained, aim-free, civilian-targeting violence, Western observers do all sorts of moral contortions in an effort to present such violence as run-of-the-mill or even possibly a justifiable response to Western militarism. Some say, “Well, America kills women and children too, in its drone attacks”, wilfully overlooking the fact such people are not the targets of America’s military interventions – and I say that as someone who has opposed every American venture overseas of the past 20 years. If you cannot see the difference between a drone strike that goes wrong and kills an entire family and a man who crashes his car into the middle of a group of children accepting sweets from a US soldier and them blows himself and them up – as happened in Iraq in 2005 – then there is something wrong with you. Other observers say that Islamists, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the individuals who attacked London and New York, are fighting against Western imperialism in Muslim lands. But that doesn’t add up. How does blowing up Iraqi children represent a strike against American militarism? How is detonating a bomb on the London Underground a stab at the Foreign Office? It is ridiculous, and more than a little immoral, to try to dress up nihilistic assaults designed merely to kill as many ordinary people as possible as some kind of principled political violence.
We have a tendency to overlook the newness of modern Islamic terrorism, how recent is this emergence of a totally suicidal violence that revels in causing as many causalities as possible. Yes, terrorism has existed throughout the modern era, but not like this. Consider the newness of suicide attacks, of terrorists who destroy themselves as well as their surroundings and fellow citizens. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were an average of one or two suicide attacks a year. Across the whole world. Since the early and mid-2000s there have been around 300 or 400 suicide attacks a year. In 2006 there were more suicide attacks around the world than had taken place in the entire 20 years previous. Terrorists’ focus on killing civilians – the more the better – is also new. If you look at the 20 bloodiest terrorist attacks in human history, measured by the number of causalities they caused, you’ll see something remarkable: 14 of them – 14 – took place in the 1990s and 2000s. So in terms of mass death and injury, those terrorist eras of the 1970s and 80s, and also earlier outbursts of anarchist terrorism, pale into insignificance when compared with the new, Islamist-leaning terrorism that has emerged in recent years.
What we have today, uniquely in human history, is a terrorism that seems myopically focused on killing as many people as possible and which has no clear political goals and no stated territorial aims. The question is, why? It is not moral masturbation to ask this question or to point out the peculiarity and perversity of modern Islamist violence. My penny’s worth is that this terrorism speaks to a profound crisis of politics and of morality. Where earlier terrorist groups were restrained both by their desire to appear as rational political actors with a clear goal in mind and by basic moral rules of human behaviour – meaning their violence was often bloody, yes, but rarely focused narrowly on committing mass murder – today’s Islamist terrorists appear to float free of normal political rules and moral compunctions. This is what is so infuriating about the BBC’s refusal to call these groups terrorists – because if anything, and historically speaking, even the term terrorist might be too good for them.

Imagining a Remapped Middle East. By Robin Wright.

Imagining a Remapped Middle East. By Robin Wright. New York Times, September 28, 2013.

How 5 Countries Could Become 14. By Robin Wright. New York Times, September 28, 2013.

Robin Wright’s Audacious Remapping of the Middle East. By Martin W. Lewis. GeoCurrents, October 1, 2013.

Egyptian Xenophobia and the Misreading of Robin Wright’s Map. By Michael Collins Dunn. Middle East Institute, October 2, 2013.

The Border Between Israel and Palestine: The Elephant in the Map Room. By Frank Jacobs. NJBR, September 21, 2013.

Small Homogeneous States Only Solution for Middle East. By Mordechai Kedar. IMRA, April 1, 2011.

Arabs, Beware the “Small States” Option. By Sharmine Narwani. Mideast Shuffle, July 31, 2013. Also at Al Akhbar English.

The Arab Collapse. By Ralph Peters. NJBR, May 20, 2013. With related articles on the possible fragmentation of the Middle East on ethnic and sectarian lines.

Yossi Klein Halevi on “Like Dreamers,” New Book on Legacy of Israeli Paratroopers. By Michael M. Rosen.

Yossi Klein Halevi on “Like Dreamers,” new book on legacy of Israeli paratroopers. By Michael M. Rosen., September 22, 2013.

Yossi Klein Halevi interviewed by Rabbi Joseph Postasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack. Audio. Religion on the Line. WABC, September 29, 2013. Halevi interview starts at 69:53 in the audio file.

Seeing the Strengths and Pitfalls of a Whole Country in the Lives of Seven Paratroopers. Yossi Klein Halevi interviewed by Sara Ivry. Audio podcast. Tablet, October 1, 2013.

Rosen (Q) and Halevi (A):

Q. You end the book on a beautiful, upbeat note, with Yoel Bin-Nun leading an ecumenical group of secular and religious Israelis, right-wingers and lefties, on a re-enactment of the 1967 battle. Are you optimistic about Israel’s cultural, political, military, and religious future?
A. The answer is yes, with a sigh. The reason for that is it is going to be extremely difficult, but I deeply believe that we’re going to continue to pull through. Sometimes we’ll muddle through, sometimes we’ll surprise ourselves and be transcendent, and always with difficulty and often with suffering and struggle.
But yes, I try to keep myself out of the book as much as possible, but a writer obviously determines the narrative simply by the choices you make of what to emphasize. The fact that the last chapter of the book is about the emergence of the Israeli center is reflection of my own politics and certainly the sensibility in the book is what I believe to be true about Israeli society today. But after 45 years of vehement and often brutal disagreement between Left and Right, a majority of Israelis today are a little bit Left and a little bit Right at the same time. To be an Israeli centrist is very different from being a centrist in other political cultures. There’s nothing wishy-washy about being an Israeli centrist. Being a centrist in the Israeli context means you strongly embrace opposite principles. A centrist knows that the Left was right all these years in its warnings about the moral consequences of occupation and about the dangers of democracy. A centrist knows with equal passion that the Right was correct all these years concerning the illusion of trying to make peace with a national movement that doesn’t recognize our legitimacy. Those are key insights that are shouted past each other for decades because ideologues don’t listen to each other. But the good news about the basic health of Israeli society is that a majority of Israelis actually were paying attention all these years to the ideologues on the Left and the Right and were partly convinced by both sides. They’ve fashioned a new Israeli center which ironically enough the moderate wing of the Likud most represents. Sharon was the first one to understand the emergence of the Israeli center, and Netanyahu got it too.  So what most Israelis want today in a prime minister is a pragmatic hawk: they want someone who deeply distrusts the other side but is ready, if [he] discerns a genuine opening there, to make the deal. That to me is what at least the leadership of the Likud has become. There are elements in Labor that understand this, but most of Labor still doesn’t quite get it. Yesh Atid gets it. Kadima almost got it, and then went too far Left.
If you look at the Israeli political map through this lens, then you’ll see who’s successful and who isn’t. Labor, which is still in some way enchanted with the Oslo process—and I use “enchanted” in its various meanings—will not be trusted with the leadership of the country until it frees itself from that illusion. In the same way that the Likud will only be trusted if it proves that it really is free from the illusion of the complete land of Israel.
To bring this back to your question, the emergence of a new political sobriety in Israel that encompasses a majority of the population points to the possibly of a new cultural majority as well, a cultural majority that wants more Judaism in Israeli public life, but not in government. We want more Judaism in our schools, and less Judaism in the courts. And my sense is that is a majority position.
Q. I want to ask you about the role of Israel’s two main cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Obviously the climactic scene of the book takes place in Jerusalem, the beating heart of the Jewish people. But in many ways, the book revolves more around Tel Aviv, including in one passage where you describe it as “infinitely malleable…the center of Israel’s emerging film industry, of music and theater. For Arik Achmon, it was the launching place for Israel’s market economy; for Udi Adiv, headquarters of the coming revolution. Here Avital Geva was exhibiting with his friends, disrupting the propriety of the Israeli art world. And here Meir Ariel might somehow become Meir Ariel.” So from a geographic perspective, in what ways is this a book about Jerusalem, and in what ways about Tel Aviv?
A. That’s so interesting because I haven’t thought about it, at least not consciously, but it’s a great insight. For me, what this book really is about is the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams. It’s not Left and Right so much as religious Zionism and the kibbutz movement, or the settlements and the kibbutz movement, the two utopian, messianic streams within Zionism that wanted more than just a safe refuge for the Jewish people. That’s what these two ideological rivals have in common. For me, they’re part of the same ideological camp within Zionism, which is the camp of the anti-normalizers.
For the sake of the argument, let’s use Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to represent visionary Israel versus normalized Israel. I think the book in some ways is fairly clear-eyed about the dangers of utopian politics. When you combine politics with utopianism, the result is usually not happy, for a very simple reason: politics is the art of the possible, it’s dealing with the world as it is, and utopianism is the aspiration for world the way it should be. The place for utopianism or messianism is in one’s spiritual life, one religious life, not in one’s political life. Where Israel repeatedly got into trouble, for both the Left and the Right, was by linking utopianism to politics.
The problem though, and this for me is an open dilemma, is that so much of the vitality that I’m describing about the Israeli story owes itself to these various competing utopian dreams that have erupted within Zionism. And my question is can we conceive of a future Israel without a utopian dream? Given the precariousness of our situation, given the extraordinary dedication that’s required in order to continue to protect this project, I don’t know if we can do it through normalization alone. On the other hand, I have a great love for normal Israel, I would even say a veneration for normal Israel, for the ability of ordinary Israelis to lead their ordinary lives in the middle of an impossible situation. And Zionism spoke out of two sides of its mouth. It promised to create a society that would be a light to the nations, and it promised to normalize the Jewish people. It turns out that two aspirations, which are deeply imbedded in the Jewish psyche going back to biblical times, don’t necessarily work together in harmony.
So Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I live in Jerusalem, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in Israel but when I need to get away I go to Tel Aviv. I’m passionate about Tel Aviv.

Why Ted Cruz Drives Them Crazy. By Matthew Continetti.

Rebel Without a Caste. By Matthew Continetti. Washington Free Beacon, September 27, 2013.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Worst of Times in the Islamic World. By Nikhat Sattar.

The worst of times. By Nikhat Sattar. Dawn, September 27, 2013.

What Modern Humans Can Learn From the Neanderthals’ Extinction. By Annalee Newitz.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal with a young modern girl

What Modern Humans Can Learn From The Neanderthals’ Extinction. By Annalee Newitz. Popular Science, May 16, 2013.

How did humans really evolve?. By Annalee Newitz. io9, March 4, 2011.

The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived. By Clive Finlayson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Clive Finlayson’s Human Evolution Blog.

Those superior modern humans . . . By Clive Finlayson. Clive Finlayson’s Human Evolution Blog, June 11, 2013.

Volcanic ash layers illuminate the resilience of Neanderthals and early modern humans to natural hazards. By John Lowe et al. PNAS, Vol. 109, No. 34 (August 21, 2012). PDF.

Neanderthals . . . They’re Just Like Us? By Sarah Zielinski. National Geographic News, October 12, 2012.

Last of the Neanderthals. By Stephen S. Hall. National Geographic, October 2008.

Neanderthal. Wikipedia.

Rethinking “Out of Africa.” By Chris Stringer. Edge, November 12, 2013.

A Bone Here, a Bead There: On the Trail of Human Evolution. Interview with Chris Stringer by John Noble Wilford. New York Times, July 16, 2012.

What makes a modern human. By Chris Stringer. Nature, Vol. 485, No. Issue 7396 (May 3, 2012).

A Mysterious Fire Transformed Cahokia, North America’s Greatest City, in 1170. By Annalee Newitz.

Reconstruction of Cahokia

A mysterious fire transformed North America’s greatest city in 1170. By Annalee Newitz. io9, September 26, 2013.

A Mississippian conflagration at East St. Louis and its political-historical implications. By Timothy R. Pauketat, Andrew C. Fortier, Susan M. Alt, and Thomas E. Emerson. Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 38, No. 3 (July 2013).


A walled portion of the extensive Precolumbian civic-ceremonial precinct of East St. Louis, near present day St. Louis, Missouri, enclosed a cluster of as many as 100 small buildings or huts. The huts were associated with a walled ritual-residential zone or elite compound dating to the late Stirling phase (a.d. 11501200) and, importantly, were burned in a single conflagration. The burning of East St. Louis may have resulted from a ritual commemoration, an act of aggression, or an accidental fire; circumstantial evidence primarily supports the first scenario. With strongly diminished mound and architectural construction at the site in subsequent decades, and with the coeval disappearance of key ritual-residential buildings from the regional landscape after the burning, the ancient East St. Louis fire was part of a larger pattern of historical events that mark a downward turning point in the social and political history of Greater Cahokia.

Neandertals Made the First Specialized Bone Tools in Europe. By Marie Soressi et al.

Neandertals made the first specialized bone tools in Europe. By Marie Soressi et al. PNAS, Vol. 110, No. 35 (August 27, 2013). Also here.

UC Davis research finds Neandertals, not modern humans, made first specialized bone tools in Europe. UC Davis News and Information, September 19, 2013.


Modern humans replaced Neandertals 40,000 y ago. Close to the time of replacement, Neandertals show behaviors similar to those of the modern humans arriving into Europe, including the use of specialized bone tools, body ornaments, and small blades. It is highly debated whether these modern behaviors developed before or as a result of contact with modern humans. Here we report the identification of a type of specialized bone tool, lissoir, previously only associated with modern humans. The microwear preserved on one of these lissoir is consistent with the use of lissoir in modern times to obtain supple, lustrous, and more impermeable hides. These tools are from a Neandertal context proceeding the replacement period and are the oldest specialized bone tools in Europe. As such, they are either a demonstration of independent invention by Neandertals or an indication that modern humans started influencing European Neandertals much earlier than previously believed. Because these finds clearly predate the oldest known age for the use of similar objects in Europe by anatomically modern humans, they could also be evidence for cultural diffusion from Neandertals to modern humans.

Maximum Bibi. By Daniel Levy.

Maximum Bibi. By Daniel Levy. Foreign Policy, September 27, 2013. Also here.

Peace in the Middle East? Not if Benjamin Netanyahu has anything to say about it.

Are Young Women Really Racing to Syria’s Front Lines to Wage Sex Jihad? By David Kenner.

Are Young Women Really Racing to Syria’s Front Lines to Wage Sex Jihad? By David Kenner. Foreign Policy, September 26, 2013. Also here.

Obama’s Myopic Worldview. By Jackson Diehl.

Obama’s myopic worldview. By Jackson Diehl. Washington Post, September 26, 2013. Also here.

Obama Doctrine a negative turn for US foreign policy. By Linda Chavez. New York Post, September 28, 2013.

Trouble at the core of U.S. foreign policy. Editorial. The Washington Post, September 25, 2013. Also here.

In what may be the most morally crimped speech by a president in modern times, Mr. Obama explicitly ruled out the promotion of liberty as a core interest of the United States.

There Is No Such Thing as the “Traditional Male Breadwinner.” By Stephanie Coontz.

There Is No Such Thing as the “Traditional Male Breadwinner.” By Stephanie Coontz. Time, September 23, 2013.

Families and Work Institute’s Ideas Video Series with Stephanie Coontz. Video. FWIChannel, September 16, 2013. YouTube.

Families and Work Institute website.


If we’re ever going to fix our problems accommodating both work and family in our lives, we have to stop thinking that the dilemmas we face today stem from the collapse of the traditional male-breadwinner family. There is no such thing as the traditional male-breadwinner family. It was a late-arriving, short-lived aberration in the history of the world, and it’s over. We need to move on.
For thousands of years, any family that needed to work understood that everyone in that family needed to work. There was no such term as “male breadwinner.” Throughout the colonial America era, wives were called “yokemates” or “deputy husbands.” When men married, they didn’t do it because they had fallen helplessly in love. They did it because they needed to expand their labor force or their land holdings, or they needed to make a political or military or business alliance, or they needed a good infusion of cash, which was why they were often more interested in the dowry than the daughter. Male breadwinner was a contradiction in terms — there was no such thing. Males were the bosses of the family workforce, and women and children were the unpaid employees.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that a bare majority of American children came to live in a family where the husband earned the income, the wife was not working beside him in a small business or on a farm or earning income herself, and the children were either at home or in school and not working in a factory or in the fields. That family form then grew less common during the Great Depression and World War II, but it reappeared in the 1950s thanks to an unusual economic and political situation in which real wages were rising steadily and a government flush with cash was paying veterans benefits to 44% of young men starting families. This was a period when your average 30-year-old man could buy a home on 15% to 18% of his own salary, not needing his wife’s. That era is gone — for good. And yet the U.S. formulated its work policies, school hours and social-support programs on the assumption that this kind of family would last forever, that there would always be someone at home to take care of the children and manage the household.
Today in a sense we’ve gone back to the future. We’ve gone back to the two-earner family but forward to a world where men and women now earn separate incomes and have equal legal rights. Increasingly, they want equal access to the rewards and challenges of both paid work and family. Yet many policymakers and business leaders are still stuck in that blip in time when women were only marginal members of the workforce and men were only marginal members of the family. The only major change we’ve made since the 1950s is passing the Work Family Leave Act, which offers unpaid leave that lasts only 12 weeks and is available to only half the workers who need it. Our policies are so inadequate and so far behind the rest of the world that the best claim we can make is that we’re 181st in the world; 180 other countries have better work-family policies than we do.
We have to get rid of the embarrassing disconnect between our outdated policies and the realities of our family lives, where 70% of American children grow up in homes where all the adults work outside the home. We are now 13 years into the 21st century. Isn’t it time to stop acting like it’s still the 1950s?

Why My Brother Shouldn’t Go on Birthright Israel. By Daria Reaven.

Why My Brother Shouldn’t Go on Birthright Israel. By Daria Reaven. Muftah, September 26, 2013.

Regular Iranians Speak Directly to America. By Max Fisher.

“You’re not the boss of the world”: Regular Iranians speak directly to America. By Max Fisher. Washington Post, September 27, 2013. Also here.

CNN’s “Open Mic” in Tehran: Iranians Tell It Like It Is. By Nima Shirazi. Muftah, September 27, 2013. Also at Wide Asleep in America, CASMII.

Open Mic: Tehran. Video. CNN, September 25, 2013. YouTube.

Russia’s Coming Implosion. By Clifford D. May.

Après Putin, Le Déluge? By Clifford D. May. National Review Online, September 26, 2013. Also at Real Clear World.

In the long term, Russia’s prospects look dim.

Who Are the Real Suicide Bombers? By John Hinderaker.

Who Are the Real Suicide Bombers? By John Hinderaker. Powerline, September 27, 2013.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Civil War in Islam. By David Gardner.

A schism in Islam is ripping the Middle East apart. By David Gardner. Financial Times, June 14, 2013.

Islam’s Civil War. By William S. Lind. American Conservative, September 24, 2013.

America can win it by staying out.


President Barack Obama’s decision to send unspecified “direct military support” to Syria’s rebels may have as its proximate cause the now firm US conviction that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against them. But it will be seen across the Middle East as a choice by America to throw its weight behind a Sunni alliance against Iran-led Shia forces across the region – a conflict in which Syria is the frontline.
How could it be otherwise when, after two years of dither, the White House moved on the same day as a conclave of Sunni clerics meeting in Cairo declared a jihad against what it called a “declaration of war on Islam” by “the Iranian regime, Hizbollah and its sectarian allies”? Or, as former president Bill Clinton put it, chiding Mr Obama’s hesitation over Syria, “now that the Russians, the Iranians and the Hizbollah are in there head over heels, 90 miles to nothing.”
While his words revive memories of the western contest with the Soviet Union in the Middle East, the cold war was straightforward in comparison to the Sunni-Shia conflict driving events across the region, not just in the Levant but from Turkey to the Gulf.
This primordial struggle within the Muslim world dates back to the great schism inside early Islam at the end of the 7th century. A latent contest between the Shia minority and overwhelming Sunni majority has reignited in the past three decades – and western leaders brought up to distinguish black hats from white tend to see just a blur of turbans.
When the region was bound into a cold war straitjacket, even tumultuous conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 or the mainly Muslim-Christian civil war of Lebanon in 1975-90 could be constrained. The sectarian viciousness of the current Sunni-Shia battle knows no boundaries. It is bursting through the arbitrary borders drawn by the British and French a century ago.
First Lebanon, then Iraq and now Syria have all been convulsed by ethno-sectarian civil war. But what had been a Sunni-Shia subplot in the drama burst on to centre stage after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. That catapulted the Shia minority within Islam (a majority in Iraq) to power in an Arab heartland country for the first time since the fall of the heterodox Shia Fatimid dynasty in 1171. It thereby tilted the regional balance of power in favour of the Islamic Republic of Iran – Shi’ite, Persian, with ambitions as a regional hegemon to rival Israel – and fanned the embers of the Sunni-Shia stand-off into millenarian flame.
Iraq became a sectarian bloodbath, grinding minorities such as its ancient Christian communities between the wounded identities of the Sunni and Shia. Syria, similar in its ethno-sectarian make-up, is heading the same way. But sectarianism is the consequence not the cause of this conflict, which started as an Arab spring-inspired civic uprising against the Assad clan, which has built a lucrative tyranny around its Alawite minority sect, another esoteric offshoot of Shi’ism.
Now, the decision of Iran and Hizbollah, its Lebanese paramilitary proxy, as well as the Shia Islamist government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, to help the Assads crush Syria’s predominantly Sunni rebels has polarised the region and set the scene for a car-bombing contest from Beirut to Baghdad.
In 2006, when Hizbollah was able to appear as the champion of Arabs and Muslims, Sunni and Shia, after holding its ground against Israel in a five-week war, a Syrian Sunni town near the Lebanese border called Qusair took in hundreds of Shia refugees. Last week, Hizbollah fighters stood in the rubble of Qusair, which they boasted of liberating from Sunni jihadi fanatics.
Sunni hierarchs hitherto at odds closed ranks: Abdelaziz al-Sheikh, the Wahhabi mufti of Saudi Arabia; Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of Cairo’s al-Azhar university; and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, all chanted from the same prayer sheet to denounce Hizbollah and Iran. On Syria’s eastern border, rebels killed dozens of Shia they dismissed as “apostate rejectionists”, as the old Wahhabi poison about Shi’ite “idolaters” oozed north from the Arabian peninsula. It is contagious.
An underexamined aspect of Turkey’s present crisis, for example, is the deteriorated relations between the increasingly Sunni ruling party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the minority Alevis, a heterodox and varied Shia sect of up to a fifth of the population. Mr Erdogan’s initiative to make peace with Turkey’s Kurds has as its subtext drawing Syria’s and Iraq’s Kurds into a Sunni Turkosphere. With the Shia Alevis, by contrast, dog-whistle politics are the order of the day. His government wants to name a third bridge over Istanbul’s Bosphorus after Selim the Grim, Ottoman Sultan and the first Caliph, who massacred the Alevis during his war against Safavid (and Shia) Persia in the early 16th century.
This, then is the arena Mr Obama, and his post-imperial British and French allies, are entering. Their timing – just after the Hizbollah siege of Qusair – looks deeply suspect in a suffocatingly sectarian environment.
Giving rebels the chance to tilt the battlefield against Bashar al-Assad’s savage regime and draw support away from Sunni jihadis on the rebel side is still worth a try. Standing back, and subcontracting arming the rebels to Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Qatar has contributed to polarised extremism. Despite support from Russia and Iran, the Assads cannot win, as their dependence on Hizbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shows. There is a certain school of realism that believes it is better to let the Shia Islamists of Hizbollah and al-Qaeda sympathisers such as the rebel al-Nusra front fight it out, like scorpions in a bottle. But Syria is not some sort of jihadi fight club that can be contained.
Afghanistan, in the mountains of central Asia, incubated al-Qaeda and 9/11. Leaving Syria to its present devices will create an Afghanistan in the eastern Mediterranean.


One of the disappointments of the young 21st century is that H.L. Mencken was not around during the presidency of George W. Bush. He would have had what soldiers call a “target-rich environment.” Mencken would have understood Bush’s invasion of Iraq as a world-class blunder, one so dumb only a boob from the deepest, darkest Bible Belt could have made it.
One can imagine what Mencken might have written of Bush’s neocon advisors: perhaps something on the lines of “A cracker barrel of backwoods Arkansas faith healers, card sharps, and carnival side-show barkers, galvanized with the sheen of the garment district, clustered about the head of their moon calf . . .”
In Heaven, which may bear a resemblance to Mencken’s Baltimore, we shall know.
It is therefore ironic that Bush’s Iraq debacle may have opened the door to the possibility of American victory in the Middle East. How has this miracle come about?
One of the unanticipated and unintended results of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was to reignite the latent Sunni-Shiite civil war within Islam. As David Gardner wrote in the June 15 Financial Times, the invasion “catapulted the Shia majority within Islam”—a majority in Iraq—“to power in an Arab heartland country for the first time since the fall of the heterodox Shia Fatamid dynasty in 1171. It thereby . . . fanned the embers of the Sunni-Shia standoff into millenarian flame.”
Fighting for a sect or a religion is one of the most powerful contributors to Fourth Generation war, war waged by entities other than states. So powerful is religious war that it can sweep states away altogether, as has happened in Syria. Gardner writes, “The sectarian viciousness of the current Sunni-Shia battle knows no boundaries. It is bursting through the arbitrary borders drawn by the British and French a century ago.”
The harsh fact is that extensive Fourth Generation war in the Islamic world is inevitable. As descendants of Western colonies, most Islamic states are weak. Their legitimacy was open to question from their founding, in part because their boundaries seldom lie along natural divisions in the cultural geography. Sects, tribes, and ethnic groups overlap. Frequently, representatives of one tribe or sect—often a minority—form the political elite. They treat the state as a private hunting preserve, stealing such wealth as it has while supplying government as incompetent as it is corrupt.
On top of weak states has been laid a demographic bomb, in the form of vast populations of young men with nothing to do and no prospects. So what will they do? Fight.
They will fight us, they will fight their neighbors, they will fight each other in supply-side war, war occurring not as Clausewitz’s politics carried on by other means but war driven simply by an over-supply of warriors. If this sounds strange to moderns, it would have been familiar to our tribal ancestors.
Finally, we think of jihad as something waged by Islam against non-Muslims, but quite often it has been between one Islamic sect and another. Now Islamists are once again declaring jihad on each other. In June the New York Times reported on an influential Sunni cleric who “has issued a fatwa, or religious decree, calling on Muslims around the world to help Syrian rebels . . . and labeling Hezbollah and Iran”—both Shi’ite—“enemies of Islam ‘more infidel than Jews and Christians.’” David Gardner’s Financial Times piece tells of a “conclave of Sunni clerics meeting in Cairo [that] declared a jihad against what it called a ‘declaration of war on Islam’ by the ‘Iranian regime, Hezbollah and its sectarian allies.’”
How should the West react to all this? With quiet rejoicing. Our strategic objective should be to get Islamists to expend their energies on each other rather than on us. An old aphorism says the problem with Balkans is that they produce more history than they can consume locally. Our goal should be to encourage the Muslim world to consume all its history—of which it will be producing a good deal—as locally as possible. Think of it as “farm to table” war.
All we should do, or can do, to obtain this objective is to stay out. We ought not meddle, no matter how subtly; if we do, inevitably, it will blow up in our faces. Just go home, stay home, bolt the doors (especially to refugees who will act out their jihads here), close the windows, and find a good opera on television—perhaps “The Abduction From the Seraglio.”

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ramallah, Gaza, and the Palestinian Identity Crisis. By Ramzy Baroud.

A Tale of Two Cities: Ramallah, Gaza, and the Identity Crisis. By Ramzy Baroud. The Palestine Chronicle, September 13, 2013.

John Kerry’s Middle East Obsession. By Robert Kaplan.

John Kerry’s Middle East Obsession. By Robert Kaplan. Real Clear World, September 26, 2013.

Islamist War on Christians. By Lee Habeeb.

Islamist War on Christians. By Lee Habeeb. National Review Online, September 25, 2013.

Tormenting the Souls of Religious Arabs: “Arab Spring” Degrades into Sectarian Counterrevolution. By Nicola Nasser.

Tormenting the Souls of Religious Arabs: “Arab Spring” Degrades into Sectarian Counterrevolution. By Nicola Nasser. The Palestine Chronicle, September 20, 2013.

The Two-State Solution Died Over a Decade Ago. By Ilan Pappe.

The Two State Solution Died Over a Decade Ago. By Ilan Pappe. The Palestine Chronicle, September 26, 2013. Also here.

Oslo Failure Finally Acknowledged Two Decades Later. By Iqbal Jassat. The Palestine Chronicle, September 15, 2013.

It’s now clear: the Oslo peace accords were wrecked by Netanyahu’s bad faith. By Avi Shlaim. The Guardian, September 12, 2013.

Arafat’s Camel. By Avi Shlaim. London Review of Books, October 21, 1993.

The Morning After. By Edward Said. London Review of Books, October 21, 1993. Also here.

Syria’s Refugee Problem and the West. By Daniel Pipes.

Syria’s Refugee Problem and the West. By Daniel Pipes. National Review Online, September 25, 2013.

Two Miserable Decades. By Jonathan V. Last.

Two Miserable Decades. By Jonathan V. Last. The Weekly Standard, September 30, 2013.

Don’t worry, it was even worse in the 1970s. Or was it?

Back to School. By David Gelernter.

Back to School. By David Gelernter. The Weekly Standard, September 30, 2013.

A reclamation project for higher ed.

Hassan Rouhani’s Jewish Problem. By Max Fisher.

Hassan Rouhani’s Jewish Problem. By Max Fisher. Washington Post, September 26, 2013. Also here.