Thursday, January 9, 2014

Israel Boycott Strikes at Academic Freedom. By Pierre Atlas.

Israeli Boycott Strikes at Academic Freedom. By Pierre Atlas. Real Clear World, January 9, 2014. Also at the Indianapolis Star.

Florida-Georgia Line: Get Your Shine On.

Florida-Georgia Line: Get Your Shine On. Video. FlaGeorgiaLineVEVO, February 25, 2013. YouTube.

Pharaoh and the Palestinians. By Stewart Weiss.

Pharaoh and the Palestinians. By Stewart Weiss. Jerusalem Post, January 9, 2014.


There are two axioms that I believe help to guide Jewish history along its twisting and tumultuous path. The first is that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The second is that nothing significant ever occurs in our national life that cannot be found in the Torah portion we read that week.
We are now smack-dab in the middle of the story of the Jewish experience in Egypt, which culminates in the Exodus (read about it this Shabbat in Parshat Beshalah) and the giving of the Ten Commandments (read it next Shabbat in Parshat Yitro). These events, recorded for posterity so long ago, remain to this day a road map for our struggle to overcome our adversaries and become a nation.
Pharaoh is the archetypal anti-Semite, the dictatorial and despicable poster boy for all the Jew-haters of future generations.
Ignoring the fact that Joseph brought immense wealth and prestige to Egypt, he rewrites history and accuses the Hebrews of being an alien, divisive “fifth column” that must be dealt with mercilessly. To divert attention from the real problems of his society, and to unite the populace by appealing to its basest instincts, he tells his people that the “Nation of Israel” (ironically Pharaoh is the first person ever to use that phrase) is “great and mighty from us!” In other words, the Jews are parasites; they take the land that is rightfully ours, and they suck the very life-blood out of it.
This approach to demonizing the Jews is exactly the course that the Palestinians and their many sympathizers have taken. They begin by denying any historical legitimacy to the Jewish residents of the land, maintaining that we have no ongoing connection whatsoever to Israel. There never was a Temple in Jerusalem; kings David and Solomon, the Prophets and the Maccabees never inhabited this part of the world; the Twelve Tribes – if they existed at all – lived somewhere in Europe.
And as for what to do with the mountain of archeological evidence, the accounts of the Bible, and the overwhelming opinion of historians that this truly is our ancestral land? That is cavalierly dismissed as “Jewish propaganda” and disregarded by the Pharaohs “who knew not Joseph.”
Their national mantra, one of which their pharaonic predecessor would surely be proud, is repeated so long and so intensely that even normally level-headed people begin to believe it: “The Jews stole the land and usurped its rightful owners.” From this canard flows all the evil that our neighbors perversely perpetrate upon us, what I call the “10 Plagues of the Palestinians”: the boycotts, the car thefts, the home invasions, the deadly rock-throwing at our vehicles, the suicide bombings, the drive-by shootings, the firing of rockets on civilians, the glorification of child-killers, the education to terror, the turning of so many beautiful Israeli families into blood.
All of these atrocities and more are blithely justified among the Palestinians as the rightful reward for those who took what was theirs.
OF COURSE, the greatest victims of all in this drama are the Palestinians themselves.
Their lives could be infinitely more rewarding and more productive if only they chose compromise over conflict.
They know that they – like their Israeli Arab brothers – would enjoy an immensely higher standard of living and quality of life if they ceased their extremism and met us halfway. But like Pharaoh, who remained impervious to the pleas of his own people to release the Israelites – “Do you not know that Egypt is lost?” the Egyptians said to him after the eighth plague – the Palestinian leadership is supremely steadfast in its stubbornness.
The secret to success in international relations – no less than in personal ones – is knowing when to let go and when to hang on. Just as Pharaoh could, theoretically, have saved himself and his nation from untold amounts of suffering if only he had acquiesced to Moses’s initial demand – “Let us depart for three days into the wilderness to serve our God” – so the Arab world, by consistently squandering its manifold opportunities for a peaceful settlement, has “upped the ante” and brought disaster upon itself. From their rejection of the 1947 partition plan to their “Three Noes of Khartoum” (“no peace, no recognition, no negotiation” with Israel) following the Six Day War, to the present- day refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state, the Palestinians have always taken – to their detriment – the most hard-line positions, and this, above all, has created the self-inflicted “Nakba” that they so often moan about.
ONE OF the more celebrated aspects of the Exodus story is God’s “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.” While this clearly creates certain theological difficulties – the denial of free choice being primary among them – it also serves to highlight the Almighty’s active part in the equation, and His determination to see His people achieve their goal of becoming one nation, under God, in their own land. At some point, God “allows” Pharaoh to fall victim to his own obstinacy, resulting in his demise and our redemption.
In like fashion, the Palestinians, too, suffer from a case of “hardening of the heart.” Just when reconciliation appears to be possible, they make sure to thwart it by coming up with some new demand that they know we can never meet. It might be a return to 1949 “Auschwitz borders,” or an insistence on reclaiming the Kinneret, or a demand for the “right of return” or the redivision of Jerusalem.
Whatever it is, it brings us back to our senses as we realize just how far this Arab entity actually is from desiring a true and lasting peace with its neighbors.
As Jordan learned when it stubbornly refused Israel’s peace overtures in 1967 and belatedly entered the war, resulting in the Jordanians’ loss – and our gain – of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria; and as Pharaoh learned when he reneged on his freeing of the Israelites and attacked us at the Reed Sea, resulting in the destruction of his army and the end of Egypt forever as a world power, there is a high price to be paid for making the wrong choices and for trying to block Jewish destiny.
Despite Israel’s readiness to bend – indeed, often to a fault – we will never abdicate our God-given right to recreate our eternal homeland. And it is this steely resolve that will win out in the final analysis. The end result of the Passover story, quite remarkably, is that “the man Moses was great in the land of Egypt, and great in the eyes of every Egyptian” (Exodus 11:3). Those who remain humble yet steadfast in their mission and who believe in the justice of their cause will not only see their efforts prevail; they will gain the grudging respect of even their bitterest enemies.

Israeli Official Points to “Incitement” by Palestinians. By Jodi Rudoren.

Israeli Official Points to “Incitement” by Palestinians. By Jodi Rudoren. New York Times, January 6, 2014.

Israelis Document Incitement by the Palestinian Authority. New York Times, January 6, 2014. Also here.

NYT casts Israelis as victims of Palestinians who complain bitterly about oppression. By Philip Weiss and Donald Johnson. Mondoweiss, January 7, 2014.

Palestinian Children: When we die as martyrs. Video. noterrorhere, June 15, 2010. YouTube.

What If Israel Were a Jewish State? By Daniel Gordis.

What If Israel Were a Jewish State? By Daniel Gordis. Jerusalem Post, January 9, 2014. Also at

Movement on the Right. By David Brooks.

Movement on the Right. By David Brooks. New York Times, January 9, 2014.

A Kind of Racism We’re Not Used To. By Masha Gessen.

A Kind of Racism We’re Not Used To. By Masha Gessen. New York Times, January 9, 2014.

Israel in the Eye of the Hurricane. By Ofir Haivry.

Israel in the Eye of the Hurricane. By Ofir Haivry. Mosaic, January 2014.

The Middle East is imploding. America is pulling back. Time for a new regional strategy.

Map of Middle East Ethnic Groups. By Michael Izady. The Gulf/2000 Project.

The Culture of Rebellion in Syria. By Faysal Itani.

The Culture of Rebellion in Syria. By Faysal Itani. Atlantic Council, January 7, 2014.

The Women of Pussy Riot Fight On. By Masha Gessen.

Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (R) and Mariya Alekhina in a cafe in downtown Moscow, January 3, 2014.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “I Was My Own Person Again.” By Masha Gessen. Slate, January 9, 2014.

Pussy Riot’s Next Act: Exclusive Photos of Life After Prison. By Simon Shuster and Yuri Kozyrev. Time, January 9, 2014.

Russia’s Riot Girls, All Grown Up. By Cathy Young. Real Clear Politics, January 13, 2014.


The women of Pussy Riot made meaning out of a horrific experience in prison. Now, they’re launching another protest movement in Russia.

But prison is an object of almost universal fear and interest in Russia. The country has one of the world’s highest percentages of its population behind bars—not as high as the United States, but a key difference is that in Russia the risk of landing in prison cuts across class lines. No one knows the exact figures, but human rights advocates estimate that more than 15,000 and possibly more than 100,000 of Russia’s roughly 700,000 inmates are entrepreneurs sent to jail by competitors or extortionists. And then there are the political prisoners, a population that is growing despite recent high-profile pardons. Opposition activists are arrested seemingly at random; many of them are not leaders but ordinary grassroots activists or even one-time participants in a demonstration.
The goal of this tried-and-true Soviet tactic is to frighten people away from any and all opposition activity. It’s effective, but its flip side is that when Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova speak about the abuse of prisoners, they grab the attention of millions of Russians who fear winding up behind bars themselves. Since leaving prison, they have appeared in public wearing borrowed or donated clothes, all of them unfailingly trendy because the donors are their fans in the media and fashion industries. This sends a stark message: When two young, well-turned-out women talk about being subjected to what amounts to torture, they really call attention to the fact that it can happen to anyone.
Their high profile afforded some protection in prison—Alyokhina was not forced to work the extremely long hours of other inmates—but it also drew much unwanted attention. Prison authorities tried to ensure they were both isolated and scared; they threatened other inmates with retribution for associating with the women, whom they perceived as potential troublemakers, and rewarded them for harassing the Pussy Riot convicts. Alyokhina was threatened with bodily harm within days of landing in her dorm at a penal colony in the Urals in December 2012; she asked to be placed in protective solitary confinement.
Protective solitary differs from punitive solitary in name only—it is the same place, so cold that no amount of warm clothing can remove the chill. The fight for warmth is one of many battles for a semblance of physical comfort and human dignity that inmates face on a daily basis. Tolokonnikova and her lawyers battled the authorities for several long winter months before she was allowed to wear a warm kerchief instead of a chintz one; she fought a similar battle to wear warm boots in winter and light shoes in summer instead of the prison-issue shapeless plastic footwear, in which feet either freeze or swelter. The privilege of wearing what are known as “civilian” shoes was regularly revoked as punishment, not only for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova themselves but for other inmates, with the clear purpose of pitting the larger prison population against the activists.
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova try to talk about other inmates more than they do about themselves, in part because they are now free, and in part because they feel they were ultimately in a privileged position in prison. What they have disclosed of their experience opens the window on the hell that is the life of a Russian inmate. Prison stories are stories of humiliation, dehumanization, and constant physical hardship. While in solitary, for example, Alyokhina was subjected to gynecological searches whenever she left her cell to meet with her lawyer and again when she returned. She filed a series of complaints and eventually declared victory in a letter to a friend: “This went on for a month, and now I have finally managed to get this canceled. It was painful and disgusting, and anyway, no one can stand being subjected to ‘the chair’ 4 times a week.”
But Alyokhina’s first major battle behind bars concerned the most basic, most pervasive, and perhaps most pernicious practice of Russian prisons: the systematic denial of the right to wash. While the members of Pussy Riot were in pretrial detention in Moscow in the spring and summer of 2012, supporters paid the facility to allow the women to take more than one shower weekly. Once Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova arrived at the penal colonies, though, that option was no longer available. Like the other inmates, they were reduced to risking lice and other afflictions of dirt, and to feeling like the filth in which they were forced to live.
An official letter from the regional prison authority, stating that female inmates could wash their hair more than once a week, was the first of Alyokhina’s many wins on the personal hygiene front. Another was increasing the number of toilets and sinks in the dorms from two to eight, for a unit of 50 to 100 people—and, as important, getting the facility to put up partitions between toilets. Once Alyokhina, who was a journalism student at the time of her arrest, had fought and won her first battles, she became a full-fledged—and hyperactive—jailhouse lawyer. She challenged procedural violations in reviewing inmate infractions, helped inmates write numerous complaints, and collected bulging folders of information on working conditions in the colony.
* * *

For her part, Tolokonnikova had no intention of taking up prisoners’ rights. A philosophy student at Moscow State University at the time of her arrest, she thought of herself as a philosopher and an artist more than an activist, and in jail she planned to keep a low profile. “For a long time, I wanted to try to blend in, to be like everyone else,” she says. This was both a survival strategy and an existential approach: “I wanted to live a universal experience. I wanted this to have been not just Nadya Tolokonnikova's experience of prison but a human being’s experience of prison.” She was dispatched to work on the grounds, which can take many forms—often puzzling in their futility but effective as tools of intimidation and control. Mostly, inmates lug stuff around: anything from flour to dug-up dirt to rocks packed into giant black bags. As what seems to be a matter of policy, penal colonies do not have wheelbarrows or trolleys.
Tolokonnikova, too, came up against the facility’s hygiene rules. Once a week at Correctional Colony No. 14 (IK-14) in Mordovia, inmates were marched to a small common washroom, where about 100 naked women would use their elbows and fists to gain access to faucets from which water may or may not flow on any given day. Tolokonnikova sneaked about, secreting a towel and a plastic ladle beneath her uniform jacket and going to a washroom on a different floor, where the duty watchwoman was somewhat more relaxed. On “bath days,” Tolokonnikova hid from the guard who escorted the inmates to the common washroom. The young inmate tried to make herself invisible to spare herself the humiliation of fighting and failing to keep herself clean.
Yet Tolokonnikova, unlike Alyokhina, did not want to enter into constant confrontation with the prison authorities. Even the potential to leave the colony for occasional court hearings did not appeal to her. “I just want the time to pass quickly,” she said when I visited her in prison in June last year. “Anything that breaks up the monotony slows time down.”
Alyokhina would have had no way of knowing her friend felt this way at the time—inmates are not allowed to correspond with one another—but this attitude is exactly what she wants to take on as a prisoners' rights activist. “Many inmates say, ‘I just want my 14-hour workday and to be allowed to sleep the rest of the time so the days pass faster,’” she says. “This is the most terrible thing that happens to a person in prison: She refuses to live, she refuses to see that she is more than a body that is shuttled between the dorm and the factory. And it turns out not to be so difficult to give up thinking for yourself—suddenly it seems like not such a big sacrifice to make. The denial of freedom as a legal concept becomes a metaphysical denial of freedom.”
Tolokonnikova, the student of metaphysics, discovered this empirically: Her strategy of trying to live the life of a regular inmate forced her into a corner. Last summer conditions at IK-14 began deteriorating rapidly as the administration took on more and more orders for sewing police uniforms. Work hours expanded, as did the output requirements, and the hours allotted for sleep shrank. Inmates who failed to meet their production goals were beaten and denied access to food sent by friends and family—the only way to stay nourished in a Russian prison. When Tolokonnikova so much as tried to raise the issue with the warden, she was penalized too. For days she was locked out of her dormitory after work: She would have to remain outside, in a small fenced-in area, until lights out. This punishment was supplemented by so-called work in the woodshop; though the shop was equipped with a gas rotary saw, Tolokonnikova would be given a manual saw and required to stay in the shop until she had cut a thick log.
But the worst of the pressure was exerted through other inmates: as soon as Tolokonnikova so much as raised her voice in protest, others’ work hours would grow longer, too, and their access to food would be curtailed. It wasn’t just the responsibility for making fellow inmates' lives hell that weighed on Tolokonnikova—it was the knowledge that eventually they would not only blame her but kill her. The deputy warden told Tolokonnikova as much when she got up the nerve to ask him to cut work hours back to the legal maximum. “He said he would make sure I’d be all right for eternity, ‘because in the afterlife, everyone is all right.’” This was a death threat, hardly veiled. It was this that finally got Tolokonnikova to act—this and the inspiration she drew from a friend, a doll-maker jailed on drug charges.
“Every once in a while, the administration would do a sweep of my friends,” Tolokonnikova says. “People who had been seen talking to me would be told there would be trouble if they kept on, and they’d suddenly distance themselves.” At some points Tolokonnikova could not even ask a work-related question at the factory; other inmates would hiss at her to step away from their stations. But not the doll-maker—she was defiant in every way. For one thing, she continued to practice her art, carving her dolls even while standing in formation in the quad, or getting up in the middle of the night to paint; for another, she never abandoned her friend. Nor did she seem deterred by the physical hardships of colony life—not even on the regular occasions that the plumbing backed up, sending fecal matter flying into the living quarters, when she would be the one trying to unclog the pipes using a stick.
“For months I struggled with the idea of how to resist in these conditions, where anything I did would have negative consequences for other inmates,” Tolokonnikova says. “Finally I figured out that I needed to engineer my total isolation from other inmates.” A hunger strike would be her ticket, because an inmate who refuses food is automatically transferred to solitary. Tolokonnikova set about composing an open letter, though getting it out to the public would be extremely difficult. She passed paragraphs scribbled on scraps of paper surreptitiously to her husband and fellow activist, Petr (Petya) Verzilov, during his visits, and dictated other parts to him while prison staff were out of earshot.
The resulting letter was probably the most detailed and searing expose of Russian prison conditions since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Verzilov released it to the public on Sept. 23, the day Tolokonnikova declared her hunger strike.
Solitary confinement followed. In the cold, without food, and following a summer of sleep deprivation and poor nutrition, Tolokonnikova became very weak very fast. She was taken to a hospital that served several Mordovian penal colonies at once, which marked a final turning point in her evolution as an activist. At the hospital she met women from a women’s facility for repeat offenders, Correctional Colony No. 2 (IK-2). The stories they told—and the condition many of them were in—made the abuses Tolokonnikova had witnessed at IK-14 seem almost harmless in comparison. One woman from IK-2 said that for writing a complaint to a human rights commission, she had been punished by a year in punitive solitary, where the door to the street had been propped open in the dead of winter while the woman wore only “an orange dress and a pair of panties.” After she was seen talking to Tolokonnikova, this inmate was transferred out of the hospital back to IK-2.
Tolokonnikova made up her mind to use her skills and her access to the media to speak up for these women. She and Alyokhina began communicating secretly—passing messages through the lawyers they shared—to hatch a plan for a prisoners' rights NGO that they would launch as soon as they were released.
Before Tolokonnikova was released, though, she was transferred back to IK-14. Her friend the doll-maker was now in solitary for having spoken to a human rights inspector, who had come to the prison because of Tolokonnikova’s hunger strike. Tolokonnikova now had even more reason to fear for her own safety, but she was no longer allowed to see her lawyer or have any telephone contact with the outside world. She declared another hunger strike, demanding a transfer. She was finally transferred to a penal colony in Siberia, in a grueling three-week-long transport in an unheated train car with painted-over windows and only a hard bench to sleep on. Inmates dread these transports, during which they are cut off from contact with lawyers, friends, and family and consequently, from any source of food other than the prisoner's scant ration. Another hardship specific to the transport is the number of bathroom breaks—no more than three and often two a day, at a time chosen by the convoy. “I took a plastic bucket with me,” says Tolokonnikova, by that time a seasoned inmate. “I made sure not to drink much water. And it was fine.”
Tolokonnikova had made a breakthrough: Not only had she escaped IK-14, but she had also found her mission, making the entire prison experience meaningful. “I felt euphoric. During the transport, I was held over at some of the harshest pretrial detention centers in the country, and yet I felt I had been halfway released. I was my own person again.”