Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Jewish Kindergarten Attacked in Berlin

Police search the crime scene. The graffiti reads "[Get] out of here." (Spiegel)

Vandals defaced a Jewish kindergarten in Berlin with swastikas and antisemitic messages last Sunday. They also threw a smoke bomb into the building and apparently tried to set it on fire. The Chabad-run "Gan Yisrael" was unoccupied at the time. As of today, there are still no leads in the police's search for suspects (Berliner Morgenpost). However, most of the press has been reporting that the attack was carried out by neo-Nazis.

There has been a revival of Jewish life in Berlin over the past 5 years. The growth in infrastructure is due largely to the activities of Rabbi Josh Spinner, backed by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, on the one hand, and Chabad on the other. Spinner established a yeshiva in the eastern part of the city (Rykestrasse in Prenzlauer Berg), while Chabad has built a new synagogue, community center, and kindergarten in the west, not too far from the city's main traditional synagogue. They have been trying to meet as well as to stimulate the increased demand for Jewish religious life that has accompanied the immigration to Germany of Jews from the former Soviet Union since the early 1990s.

Neither the members of the yeshiva nor the Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal and his shluhim (lit., "emissaries" - basically young interns) hide their Judaism. The Israeli rabbi of the traditional Joachimsthaler shul, Rabbi Yitzhak Ehrenberg also walks around Berlin as if he were in New York or Bnei Brak. Aside from staying true to what they would do in North America or Israel, the rabbis have been trying to inspire their congregants to be public about their Judaism. There is no doubt, however, that attacks such as the one on the kindergarten will make those few religious Jews who do wear kippot in public reconsider.

Unlike the rabbis, the young hazan (cantor) of the shul, who hails from Har Nof in Jerusalem, slightly adjusted his wardrobe (at least when I last saw him several years ago), opting for a beige stetson in favor of a black Borsalino.

Many, though not all, Jewish institutions in Berlin are protected by two security details. City police officers maintain a 24-hour presence in front of the community synagogues, while Israeli security guards monitor all those who want to enter, during regular hours. I am surprised that the kindergarten was not equipped with surveillance cameras at the least.

To my knowledge, the incident has not made the pages of Ha'aretz, but the Jerusalem Post carried a wire report on it last Monday. Deidre Berger, the director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin Office, visited the kindergarten after the attack to express the organization's solidarity with the staff, parents, and children.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Making Hamas Palatable

Sergey Lavrov, 17 September 2004.
Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev

Until now, the Russians have maintained at least a posture of ambiguity about their position on the Mecca agreement and the resulting Palestinian unity government. That is to say, Russian President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov have pretended that they would toe the Quartet line, which demands that the Palestinian government recognize Israel before sanctions on it are lifted.

It seems that the Russians, too, have realized, like some of the European statesmen who have been pushing Israel to negotiate with Hamas, that the movement has no intention of conceding anything on the recognition front. To get around this significant obstacle, the Russians have now made it clear that they do not really care.

The real priorities for Russia lie in throwing a stick in the spokes of the U.S., and in ingratiating themselves with the Palestinians and their Arab supporters, at no real cost to themselves (the Russians could care less about what happens in Gaza, the West Bank, and in Israel). These aims require a lifting of the sanctions against Hamas - without placing such exacting requirements on the Palestinians as recognizing the existence of the Zionist entity. Hence, it is enough to dangle the promise of a cessation of Qassam firing - a hudna of unknown duration. If that doesn't work out, no one will ever really expect Russia to bear responsibility for its enforcement anyway.

Nevertheless, it must be at least a little embarrassing to have Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas's political wing in Damascus, say, in Moscow, that the organization will not recognize Israel, immediately after a Russian announcement of support. After all, according to a February 26 statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry,
There was reaffirmed on the Russian side the position in favor of the achievement of an inter-Palestinian consensus with due regard to the well-known criteria of the Middle East Quartet of international mediators and restoration of the Palestinians' peace dialogue with Israel on an international legal basis (emphasis added; Russian MFA).
To then have the organization's Gaza spokesman Ismail Radwan declare that "We have not given up in any way our position regarding the territory of Palestine," and a different Hamas figure announce that
[Hamas's] position is clear. All the land of Palestine [from the sea to the river] belongs to the Palestinians and Israel is the enemy. However, [Hamas's] political horizon offers a hudna for 15-20 years, in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, the return of the refugees and the release of the prisoners (Ha'aretz),
makes it difficult to render the Russian decision in terms consistent with Quartet policy. This is where Chirac comes to the rescue. In a move that is all too typical of his foreign policy in the Middle East, the French president has announced that he will push the E.U. to support the new unity government - no matter what, it seems. It remains to be seen which way the Germans will swing; the Christian Democrats are staking out a pro-American, anti-Putin position, while the Social Democrats have been following the old Schröder line (see my previous post on this).

ADDENDUM: Avi Isaharoff and Amos Harel argue not only that "Hamas is still Hamas" but that the organization has basically already defeated Fatah. There is no doubt that it will get only stronger in the future. Even if international sanctions persist, the money will come either from Iran or from the Saudis. My only hope at this point is that the Iranians pour so much of their oil revenue into Gaza that the mullahs go bankrupt.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Gaydamak Phenomenon

Arkadi Gaydamak (Channel 10 Screenshot: Lenta.Ru)

The Russian-Israeli billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak, known for his shady connections and political ambitions, hopes to establish a new political party that will focus entirely on social and economic issues, Ha'aretz reports. Apparently, Gaydamak "supports the market economy, increased taxation for high earners and a significantly stronger welfare state." Interestingly enough, he is coordinating his activities with that great apostle of social democracy, Bibi Netanyahu. The model for his party? Shas.

There is no doubt in my mind that Gaydamak could earn a lot of votes in the next elections. Many towns in Israel today have charities and centers endowed by him, and many residents of the north remember his largesse during the Lebanon war. Gaydamak was able to step in where the government miserably failed people. Likewise, Gaydamak has been very active in the south, where, among other things, he paid for Sderot residents to take "Qassam vacations" in Eilat.

To get a sense of Gaydamak's political style, it is worth checking out an Israeli portal dedicated to him (supposedly by unconnected admirers). It features a video showing still shots of the billionaire in various leadership poses together with rabbis, politicians, and football players. The chorus of the catchy song in the background, which features the voices of several well-known Israeli musicians (or people who sound like them), speaks of "giving one's soul and one's heart."

I have long thought that Gaydamak was hoping to win a seat in the Knesset so that he could gain immunity from any future criminal proceedings against him. But even if he does not choose to run on his party's list, he is primed to exert tremendous influence on the Israeli political system. Confidence in the government and state institutions is at an all-time low. Social discontent is high, as are general feelings of insecurity. Both of these can be exploited by a populist outsider, such as Gaydamak, working in tandem with the self-styled Mr. Security, Netanyahu.

It is strange to think that less than a year ago, shortly after the last Israeli elections, many people thought that Bibi and the Likud were finished. Now, they are emerging as the big winners, precisely because they were not part of the current government, which is shaping up to be one of the worst in the country's history. Bibi opposed the disengagement from Gaza; today he can point to the Qassams and the abduction of Gilad Shalit as proof that he was right. Bibi was one of the few Israeli leaders who appeared like a statesman during the Lebanon war, and he emerged squeaky clean in its aftermath. And finally, whatever Olmert does, Bibi can continue to attack him for his failure to deal adequately with the treat posed by Iran.

The big loser, besides Kadima, is the Labor Party. Peretz's reign over Labor and his role in Olmert's government can only be described as disastrous. Would any ordinary Israeli be able to point at a single positive accomplishment by the Minister of Defense? And has Labor been able to exert any noticeable influence on the social agenda? Nyet and nyet - which brings us to Avigdor Liberman. Ha'aretz predicts that Gaydamak's new party would compete with Yisrael Beitenu for votes among Russian immigrants. But Gaydamak's appeal would be much larger than the Russians, and I see no reason why his party would not sit in a coalition with Liberman.

Of course, much depends on the ability of the current government to weather the storms that have been rattling its foundations at least since August. And there are two things that Olmert and Peretz do well: stay in power and eliminate internal rivals. But when they finally leave, they will take the whole ship with them. Sure, some deluded optimists will put their money on Tsipi Livni, perhaps supported by someone like Dalia Itzik. But when Olmert and Peretz turn off the lights, even Livni will not be able to avoid paying the consequences for her association with their rule.

Shelly Yahimovich

The real heroes of Israeli democracy - people like MKs Shelly Yahimovich (a tireless rookie Labor backbencher and former media personality who actually gets things done) and Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) - will not be able to counter the millions commanded by Gaydamak and co. I hate to say it, but I think Israel is headed for a Bibi-Gaydamak-Liberman-Shas government; and you can throw the settlers into that mix too. בתאבון (Bon appetit).

Sunday, February 18, 2007

One Last Pass Through the Dung Gate

For the past few days, the authors of this blog have been involved in a low-intensity dispute over one of the Old City of Jerusalem's many gates. In yesterday’s post, N asserted that the “Dung Gate” (שער האשפות) should be distinguished from the the Mughrabi ("Moors'") Gate (שער המוגרבים). As N pointed out, the “Dung Gate” – a name which originally appears in the Bible – is the southern entrance to the Old City and the Western Wall plaza. For those familiar with the area, it’s the gate that is usually used by buses and vehicles to enter and leave the area. Here's a good photograph taken from a Russian-language site for anyone wishing to refresh their memory:

The "Dung Gate"
What has so far eluded me and others involved in this blog is the distinction between the “Dung Gate” and the “Mughrabi Gate”. I am accustomed to hearing both names used interchangeably for the above gate. An Arab friend of mine who works as a lawyer in Jerusalem always referred to the “Dung Gate” as the “Mughrabi Gate”. Numerous websites, including the Wikipedia entry cited above, indicate that both names are used for the gate. The origin of the name שער האשפות (“Dung Gate”) is biblical. The Arabs of the area, however, refer to it as Bab al-Magharbe (Gate of the Maghrebins). An old map that my father retrieved for me from his Jerusalem-related mini-library attests to the fact that the “Dung Gate” was in fact referred to as the Mughrabi Gate:

The above map was scanned from a book originally published 1876 by the German travel writer Karl Baedeker. The original appears to have been published in English, rather than German, in London, under the name Jerusalem and its Surroundings. In the bottom left of the above map, the "Dung Gate" is labeled "Bab al-Mogharibe". The term "Dung Gate" is also included in brackets with the prefix "vulgar".

What is missing from Baedeker map is a label indicating the location of the other Mughrabi Gate, the entrance to the Temple Mount, that N mentioned. This gate is very clearly designated in an Israeli map first drawn in 1936 by P.G. Salmon and updated and printed in 1970 by the Israeli Land Survey Department in 1970:

Those who know Hebrew will note that the "Dung Gate" is identified as such in the bottom left of the above map. Only the Hebrew term שער האשפות is used. If we trace the curved earthworks or ramp that leads from this gate upwards, we reach the entrance to the Temple Mount, which the map identifies as the שער המערביים, which essentially means "Gate of the Maghrebis" [Westerners, i.e. those coming from the West - the Maghreb]. [An interesting linguistic aside that I cannot help but insert here is that the Arabic letter غ, transcribed into English as gh and properly pronounced like a Parisian "R", is transformed into an ע (ayn) in Hebrew. Thus al-Maghrib - المغرب ("the West" in Arabic) is ha-Ma'arav - המערב in Hebrew.]

The fuss that is currently being made is, of course, about the ramp that connects the "Dung Gate" (or Mughrabi Gate or whatever) to the other Mughrabi Gate that leads up to the Temple Mount. The wooden ramp that has been in use for this purpose in the past, has now been torn up and the mound on which it rests is being leveled. Currently, excavations are underway to locate any artifacts before a new walkway is constructed. Here are several pictures taken by Amos last summer of the old wooden ramp that is now being torn down:

This shows the ramp pretty clearly; Kotel to the left, al-Aqsa to the right

Here you can see just a small part of the ramp but maybe also the gate that leads directly to the mount

Another view of the ramp

What we need now is another post summarizing the history of both gates - when they were built, when they were re-opened and when they were modified.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Monitoring the Jerusalem Excavations

The course of politically sensitive excavations in the City of David.

I think that I have finally arrived at a clear picture of the politico-archaeological situation in Jerusalem. Who could riot if everyone were forced to pick this story apart on a Friday night? We must distinguish between two archaeological projects currently active in Jerusalem.

The first is the construction of a bridge that links the Dung Gate (שער האשפות), off the south side of the Western Wall plaza, to the Mughrabi ("Moors'") Gate (שער מוגרבים), which leads to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount). There was some confusion in the press, and indeed on this blog, about the topography. The Dung Gate is not the Mughrabi Gate. Regarding this first project, I wholeheartedly agree with John: this is 100% kosher. As Haaretz put it in an editorial, this project is in line with the post-1967 status quo. The Israelis control the Mughrabi Gate, the only point of Jewish access to the Temple Mount holy site, just as they control, of course, the Western Wall plaza. This bridge connects those two points and simply replaces a condemned ramp. The excavations that accompany the construction of the bridge are salvage excavations, which as Gideon Avni of the Israel Antiquities Authority nicely explains, are "no different than any other salvage excavation conducted by the Antiquities Authority throughout the country." A perhaps more eloquent testament to the innocence of these excavations than the Authority's live web cam are the comments of Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, from the French Ecole Biblique in East Jerusalem. He told the BBC that the work was "completely routine."

"This work is not inside the Haram. It is outside, leading to the Moors' Gate. The earth ramp fell down and has to be replaced. I do not know why the Palestinians have chosen to make an issue out of this. It is a recognised Jewish area under the arrangements that prevail in the Old City. One can contrast this to the extensive excavations just round the corner in a Muslim area where huge pilgrim hostels from the 8th Century were revealed, with no protest. There has also been no protest over digs at the City of David nearby. There is absolutely no danger to the foundations of the al-Aqsa mosque since that is built on the huge Herodian blocks that are still there."

Interestingly, Murphy-O'Connor brings up a second excavation, one which he claims has not elicited a particularly ferocious reaction, that which is underway in the "City of David," south of the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount, to the east of the Green Line. The distinction between this excavation, which Haaretz termed "illegal," and the Mughrabi bridge project was pointed out in an earlier post by Amos. To my mind, this City of David excavation is, by contrast, morally, ideologically, and perhaps politically dubious. I hasten to add that what it has uncovered so far, part of a Second Temple era road that likely connected the ritual bathing pools of Silwan to the Temple Mount promises archaeologist a significant advance in our knowledge of the ancient city under Roman authority. Still, the project seems deeply flawed. It began under the direction of Professors Gabi Reich and Eli Shukrun a few months ago near the Arab village of Silwan. The same Antiquities Authority's Gideon Avni has called it "unlicensed." Yet the AIA has sanctioned an "exploratory" continuation phase rather than impose the customary restrictions on excavators who break the rules. From Haaretz, it seems, one can't get a clear idea of just "how" illegal this excavation is. To me, it doesn't seem kosher, though. First of all, the excavators are reported to be digging under the local Arabs' homes without any coordination with the owners of those homes. I can't imagine how this can be ethically justified. Second of all, one only needs to glance at the sources of funding for this project to see that the political guidance - or lack thereof - that looms behind the Mughrabi work simply isn't there in this case. One source is an organization called Elad [which promotes the acquisition of East Jerusalem properties by Jews - Amos], and another is the "City of David Foundation" [they seem to be the same organization - Amos]. Its founder, David Be'eri
"first visited the City of David in the mid-1980s, the city was in such a state of disrepair and neglect that the former excavations that had once been conducted were once again concealed beneath garbage and waste. The site was almost completely off-limits to tourists for security reasons, and in fact the first visit David'le made to the site was as an undercover commander of an elite military unit. Inspired by the historical record of archaeological discoveries made in the City of David in prior years, and by the longing of the Jewish People to return to Zion, David'le left the army to establish the Ir David Foundation in 1986 ('Ir David Foundation).
For those inciting Muslims in Israel, the territories, and the world to riot, the Mughrabi Gate work clearly provided enough of a pretext. It would be wise not to add more fuel to the fire with excavations such as this second one, which are not only illegal under Israeli law but also being promoted by organizations with explicit political agendas.

More facts on the Excavations near the Temple Mount

The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa (July 2006)

The Israel Antiquities Authority now has a live web camera on its website which broadcasts views of the excavation site from different angles. The webcam is actually not terribly enlightening for viewers not familiar with the area, but it is useful as a symbolic demonstration of openness and transparency. Unfortunately, the site seems to designed only for Internet Explorer. There are also two articles by senior archaeologists from the Antiquities Authority. One article, by Dr. Gideon Avni, seeks to explain why the excavations are being carried out now. He argues quite convincingly that the excavations are part of a salvage operation aimed at locating, documenting and preserving any artifacts at the site where the planned bridge is supposed to be constructed. Another source worth looking at is a Question and Answer session hosted by the Jerusalem Post with Dr. Eilat Mazar, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Erdogan's Remarks Cast Cloud over Meeting with Olmert

An anti-Israel and anti-Olmert protest in Istanbul, yesterday (AP)

One might be forgiven for wondering what the much-vaunted Turkish-Israeli alliance is all about, especially in recent years. Whenever Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan opens his mouth about Israel, he invariably has negative things to say. It is hard to recall one favorable public utterance about Israeli policy by Turkish officials over the past 5 years.

In recent weeks, however, it looked as if there had been a rapprochement of sorts. This warming had been preceded by the announcement of a new pipeline project. The Turks have also reached out again to American Jewish groups, some of whom have developed close ties to officials in Turkey, which they see as a crucial strategic ally of both the United States and of Israel. Only last week, the Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül held a meeting with leading American Jewish organizations to enlist them against a U.S. Congress resolution that would give official recognition to the Armenian Genocide (JTA; for more details on the resolution and meeting, see Genats-Lehayim).

It is hard to see what American Jewish organizations are getting in return for this strange pact, which essentially makes some of them complicit in the denial of one of the most horrendous crimes of the 20th century. It is nice to be able to boast of one's friendship with a majority Muslim but secularly-oriented country; a "moderate" state, in the fashionable vocabulary of today (this category includes countries such as Saudi Arabia). But the friendship sometimes appears rather one-sided. This became especially clear in the Lebanon war. Even before the summer of 2006, there were worrisome reports about public opinion in Turkey, which was very hostile to Israel and to Jews in general. Now, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert set to meet him, Erdogan has decided to weigh in on the al-Aqsa controversy and to pour a little more oil on the fire. (see our previous post on this incitement).

Olmert is in Turkey to enlist the country's support in efforts to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and in mediation with Syria to recover the remains of the late Israeli spy, Eli Cohen z"l.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Russia and the Mecca Agreement

Putin and King Abdullah (Photo: Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia)

It remains to be seen how long the Saudi-brokered Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas will last. The new unity government has not been formed yet, and the success of the transition to it represents the first test of this document. The other, equally significant test that the agreement faces is the international response.

The motivations behind the Saudis' mediation efforts were at least three-fold. For one, they continue earlier efforts by the Saudis, most notably the peace plan of 2002, to seize the initiative to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflicts, with an eye to both the Arab street and the West. Two, the Mecca agreement was an attempt to reassert Saudi influence over the Palestinians, especially as Iran and Syria have made claims to sponsorship over Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And finally, the Saudi government might be hoping to force the Americans and the Israelis to back down on their demands that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist, thereby providing a ticket for the movement's entry onto the world stage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, currently on a trip to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states has long been pushing for Israel to drop its objections to Hamas. He immediately hailed the Mecca agreement, and used the opportunity once again to undermine the policy of the U.S. and the EU. In so doing, Putin may be ingratiating himself simultaneously to the Saudis and to the Palestinians, as well as their backers. The question is now whether the Europeans, many of whom (with the exception of the Germans) have long been critical of the recognition demands anyway, will side with Russia or Israel and the Americans.

The Russian declarations about the Mecca agreement should be seen in conjunction with Putin's recent anti-American tirade at the Munich security conference. Russia is clearly trying to play spoiler wherever it can, in order to increase its bargaining power vis-a-vis the U.S., especially in the former Soviet Union but also when it comes to economic interests at large. But to be effective at obstructing American policy aims, Russia cannot do without the Europeans. We saw the potential of a Moscow-Berlin-Paris alliance in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since then, however, Franco-American relations have improved significantly, and the leading candidates for the upcoming French presidential elections are unlikely to move closer to Putin. In Germany, the return of the Christian Democratic Party, led by Angela Merkel, to power, has resulted in the reconstruction of the transatlantic alliance between Washington and Berlin, undoing the damage to it done by Gerhard Schröder's SPD government. Merkel, moreover, is deeply suspicious of Putin's ambitions and his moves in Russia, the Caucasus, and in East Central Europe. All this does not bode well for Russia's aims to get Berlin and Paris to play spoiler and obstruct American policy in the Middle East with it.

Finally, unlike the Arabs and the post-colonialists in the West, Germany's elite still believes that Israel as a Jewish and democratic state has a right to exist. Whereas among European and American academics, Israel is an anachronism or a great injustice (the Naqba is equivalent to the Holocaust, declares a recent op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor), German elites take very seriously the implications of Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel; a refusal which plainly reveals the maximalist intentions of large parts of the Palestinian nationalist movement unto the present day.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Factual Basis for the Blood Libel? Not Really

Blood Libel, Damascus, 1983 (Source: ADL)

I am almost starting to feel sorry for Professor Ariel Toaff. First, the professor's fellow Jews got all angry at him for claiming that the original blood libel accusations had some basis in the historical reality of the Middle Ages. In Israel, he complained, they had begun treating him "like Yigal Amir," the assassin of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z"l. Now he has begun morphing into Jesus; in an interview from Rome, Toaff told Ha'aretz that he "will not give up [his] devotion to the truth and academic freedom even if the world crucifies [him]." Seriously though, I am hoping that for his sake he stops saying stupid things and starts making sense soon.

The controversy began with the publication, in Italy, of Toaff's book Pasque di Sangue [Passover of Blood] a few days ago. The new work was praised in several Italian newspapers. Toaff, a respected medieval Jewish historian who specializes in Italian Jewry and is the descendant of an important Italian Jewish family, claimed that in his new book he had discovered evidence that some of the blood libels against the Jews in the early modern period (I've read report after report referring to the "Middle Ages"; but blood libels really took off in the late 15th century, and the one to which Toaff refers, in Trent, dates to 1475) had a factual basis.

Toaff's statements in the media have been widely interpreted as implying that some Jews actually sacrificed Christian children and used their blood for ritual purposes, most famously for baking matzot for Passover. Toaff, doing his best to reinforce the worst stereotypes about members of his profession, has done nothing to deny such conclusions, instead throwing tantrums about those maligning him and generally acting with no understanding of how normal people might perceive the kinds of statements he has been making.

Obviously, I have not read Toaff's book yet. But from everything he's said in interviews, I am having a hard time discovering what this "factual basis" of the blood libel might be. All I see is a number of vague statements, which are interesting but hardly amount to a real argument for the veracity of the blood libel.

So, for example, Toaff told Ha'aretz that
I tried to show that the Jewish world at that time was also violent, among other things because it had been hurt by Christian violence. Of course I do not claim that Judaism condones murder. But within Ashkenazi Judaism there were extremist groups that could have committed such an act and justified it.
The first part is an interesting contribution, though not terribly original in light of the work by Hebrew University Professor Israel J. Yuval on qidush hashem (lit. "sanctification of the divine name") during the Crusades. In a pioneering Hebrew article, Yuval speculated that the martyrdom by Ashkenazi Jewry, where Jewish parents killed their own children and themselves to avoid forced conversion or death at the hands of crusaders, might have led Christians to imagine that Jews would "sacrifice" non-Jewish children as revenge. This work is now available in the English translation of his book שני גוים בבטנך (Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 2006). The original article was published in Zion 58:1 (5753 = 1993); it's called הנקם והקללה, הדם והעלילה : מעלילות קדושים לעלילות דם ["Vengeance and Damnation, Blood and Defamation: From the Stories of Martyrs to Blood Libel Charges"].

So yes, this was a violent world. And yes, perhaps there were such "extremist groups." But if Toaff is so convinced of his claims, why say that they could have committed "such an act"? It doesn't inspire much confidence in his conclusions, and makes me suspect that Yuval was right on when he called "
Professor Toaff's interpretation ... trumped-up" (Ha'aretz).

Matters become even murkier when Toaff discusses the evidence he used to arrive at his interpretation:
Toaff said he reached his conclusions after coming across testimony from the trial for the murder of a Christian child, Simon of Trento, in 1475, which in the past was believed to have been falsified. "I found there were statements and parts of the testimony that were not part of the Christian culture of the judges, and they could not have been invented or added by them. They were components appearing in prayers known from the [Jewish] prayer book.
It's a very big step from liturgy to murder. Few people would deny that Jews, especially in the Middle Ages, often cursed Christians whom they saw as their oppressors, especially after the Crusades. Particularly in the Pesach liturgy, which recounts the liberation of Israel from slavery and God's bloody revenge against the Egyptians, there is no shortage of rather violent exhortations, such as the one recited before Hallel in the Seder:
שפך חמתך על הגוים אשר לא ידעוך ...
Pour Your wrath onto the nations who do not acknowledge you ...
And let's not forget that the first plague against the Egyptians is "blood." Or the use of red wine, which is dripped on the table for each plague. But is this evidence for the "ritual murder" of Christian children? It seems much more plausible to read such rituals as evidence for the sublimation of suffering and desires for revenge into ceremony. (The story of Trent 1475 has already been told, by the way, by
Ronnie Hsia, a very fine scholar at Pennsylvania State University, who, I was hoping, might come to Berkeley.)

In the Ha'aretz interview, Toaff claims that
Over many dozens of pages [he] proved the centrality of blood on Passover (...). [And that b]ased on many sermons, [he] concluded that blood was used, especially by Ashkenazi Jews, and that there was a belief in the special curative powers of children's blood. It turns out that among the remedies of Ashkenazi Jews were powders made of blood.
Again, yes, blood is important in the Passover haggadah. It's also important in the Bible as a whole. Is this evidence that medieval and early modern Jews transgressed the explicit prohibitions on ingesting animal (and, a fortiori, human) blood, not to mention the commandments against murder?

Even if the kind of folk remedies to which Toaff refers existed, I am having a hard time seeing their connection to "ritual murder." This statement confused me further:
Toaff said the use of blood was common in medieval medicine. "In Germany, it became a real craze. Peddlers of medicines would sell human blood, the way you have a transfusion today. The Jews were influenced by this and did the same things.
So was the use of blood a Passover ritual or something that everyone did throughout the year? I am also curious how exactly Toaff was able to infer such things from sermons.

The kicker of the whole affair to me is the admission by Toaff, in the Ha'aretz interview, that he had
no proof of acts of murder ... [only that] there were curses and hatred of Christians, and prayers inciting to cruel vengeance against Christians. "There was always the possibility that some crazy person would do something."
A possibility that a crazy person might have done something does not constitute a factual basis for anything. In light of his own statements, Toaff's original claims strike me as incredibly reckless and irresponsible. I have nightmares just thinking about lecture courses where a professor teaching medieval European history tells a room full of undergraduates that "one Jewish scholar has recently concluded that the blood libel had some factual basis." Can anyone tell me that those students would not walk out of the room believing that Jews actually murdered Christian children and used their blood for Passover rituals? I guess every century needs its blood libel.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Inciting the Faithful: Construction near the Temple Mount

Al Aqsa from behind the wall (Summer 2006)

ADDENDUM: I wrote the post below before the riots that erupted on the Temple Mount on Friday. Protesters in Nazareth, meanwhile, carried signs calling on the Muslim world to react to the "Jewish assault on [al-Aqsa]."

There has been a great deal of commotion about Israeli construction and excavation projects near the Temple Mount in recent days. Accusations by the waqf and by various Palestinian groups that Israel is damaging the al-Aqsa mosque in particular or the Haram al-Sharif more generally are longstanding. In several instances in the past, Muslim leaders have complained about the "desecration" of these areas by the State of Israel or by Jews. All too often, these accusations have been utterly spurious, serving to incite Arabs in Israel and abroad.

This time around, there is controversy about two different projects. The first is the excavation of a tunnel under the City of David by two Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists. Archaeologists recently discovered what they believe to be a road used by pilgrims during the Second Temple era that led through Jerusalem and to the temple. They are planning to lay bare the whole road, from the village of Silwan to the Bab al-Mughrabi [Mughrabi Gate or Gate of the North Africans, also known as the "Dung Gate"] and perhaps even to the Temple Mount. It turns out that the excavations that have been going on recently are actually illegal under Israeli law, as it is proceeding without a license (Ha'aretz).

A different project is the construction of a new bridge to replace the old ramp to the Bab al-Mughrabi, which collapsed. It is important to point out that this gate, which in Hebrew is called the שער האשפות (Garbage or Dung Gate) is also the only one by which Jews and other non-Muslims can currently access the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif, whichever you prefer. All the other gates are open to Muslims only. It was to be expected that the inflammatory leader of the Islamist Movement's Northern Branch in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah, would protest any construction by Israel. But now even the Egyptian Foreign Ministry is weighing in. In a statement to the Israeli ambassador, the Egyptians declared that
the sacredness of the site makes any movement inside or around it a very sensitive issue for Arab and Muslim peoples, in a way that could cause the situation to explode (Ha'aretz).
Never mind that it is also Judaism's holiest site.

Interestingly enough, the waqf itself has not yet launched protests against this construction, which is taking place entirely outside the Temple Mount. The Islamist Movement seems to have taken the opportunity to incite its followers once again. This is in line with previous statements by the Sheikh to the effect that Israel was preparing to seize the al-Aqsa mosque.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Answering Ahmadinejad

The homepage of Yad Vashem's Farsi site

Yad Vashem recently launched a Farsi-language site with information about the Shoah. Since it went online about two weeks ago, more than 20,000 people have accessed the site, including 6,000 from Iran. This is equivalent to the number of people who access the English-language site every year, Ha'aretz reports.

For more details, see my post on Genats-Lehayim.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Another Day, Another Tragedy in Baghdad

Baghdad (Source: Perry-Castaneda)

Yesterday's suicide bombing in a Baghdad market was the worst such attack in the war. The bombing, which targeted a largely Shi'i neighborhood, claimed at least 130 lives. Local residents immediately blamed the U.S. for not providing them with enough security and for failing to implement the much-touted new security plan (New York Times). They are basically right. In recent weeks, the U.S. has put pressure on Jaish al-Mahdi fighters, forcing them to abandon neighborhood checkpoints and thereby reducing their ability to monitor security threats. Meanwhile, Sunni insurgent groups, in anticipation of an American and Iraqi Army offensive are trying to mount ever more spectacular attacks. As I have argued before ("Let the Militias Handle the Militias"), the U.S. needs to realize that it cannot compete with sectarian militias when it comes to providing security for their own people. Furthermore, by putting pressure on fighters affiliated with the Mahdi Army, the Americans are giving Moqtada al-Sadr a chance to evade real responsibility for the security and well-being of Iraqis. Instead, he can criticize the Americans from the sidelines and snipe at the government of al-Maliki. Even if the Americans prove somewhat successful, a single bombing can undo all of their best efforts. In any case, the Iraqi Shi'a are unlikely to credit the U.S. for even slight improvements in their lives.

In the meantime, Sunni insurgents are pursuing a policy that will only accelerate the efforts by various militias working in tandem with Iraqi government ministries to "cleanse" Baghdad of its Sunni population. Likewise, the recent escalations in Kirkuk by Sunni terrorists there will embolden Kurdish security forces to assert a more aggressive posture there. Already under pressure, the Sunni Arabs and the Turkmen in the city will inevitably face suspicion and outright hostility by their Kurdish neighbors.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Globalized Islam: Watching Central Asia

Olivier Roy

Olivier Roy, lecturer at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Sciences-Po), gave an interesting seminar here at Berkeley on January 25. Roy is the author of several important books on contemporary Islam and Islamist movements, including, most recently, Globalized Islam: the Search for a New Ummah (Columbia University Press, 2004). In his talk here at Berkeley, he presented some of his most recent research, which compares Islamist movements in Western Europe with their counterparts in the former Soviet Union. Here, I will deal less with the comparative aspects of his scholarship and instead summarize some of his observations about the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

In the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many observers imagined that the Central Asian republics would opt for neo-Communism and/or a strict secularism along the lines of Turkey. There was and remains a consensus that the ex-Soviet -stans would fight radical Islam. At first glance, this is indeed what appears to have happened, with some success. The local Islamist movements that emerged immediately after the USSR's collapse have been largely defeated. But Roy pointed to two separate phenomena which suggest that these societies are increasingly being drawn into the orbits of Saudi Salafism, on the one hand, and Western-exported political Islam on the other. Let me begin with the latter.

By political Islam, Roy means ideologies which advocate the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate with borders that might range from Europe to the far East. The main group aiming for this goal in Central Asia is the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), which is today an illegal mass youth movement in Uzbekistan, where it boasts several thousand members. Hizb was founded in the 1950s and once had its base in Beirut. However, it now has a center in London, where its members have tried to avoid overt political activity. There is also a significant base in Australia. Roy believes that the Uzbek branch of the movement came from London sometime in 1996 or 1997. It achieved a breakthrough in Uzbekistan, spreading primarily among secondary school students. Unlike the Western European Hizb organizations, it is possible to talk to members of the party in Uzbekistan, whereas in the UK and elsewhere they have gone completely underground and do not publicize their headquarters. However, the movement faces repression from the authorities - repression which often attracts further adherents as family members of jailed or killed members join the party.

The other phenomenon, which is, at least for now, antagonistic to Hizb-ut-Tahrir is that of increasing numbers of Saudi-trained imams and teachers entering state institutions. All of the Central Asian republics kept the muftiat system of the Soviet period, i.e., an official clergy granted a religious monopoly by the state. (In fact, this is actually not all that different from the situation in much of Europe, most notably in France and Germany, where only official "churches" receive state-funding and the right to build houses of worship, while other groups are often classified as "cults").

Ten years ago, Roy says, it was a common place that the Central Asian dictators would want to employ only low-level clergy with relatively little knowledge, basically to maintain a rural Islam untouched by radical ideas - he referred to it as "folkloric Islam." But this is not what has happened at all. Rather, a slew of young, sophisticated, Salafi (or Wahabi) clergy, who speak Arabic fluently after years of study in Saudi Arabia, have entered the official religious institutions. Furthermore, all the money coming to train future Muslim leaders in Uzbekistan is coming from the Saudis. And the Central Asian governments are entirely unconcerned about this. On the contrary, leaders such as the Uzbek Islam Karimov are leaning more and more on Islam as a bulwark against democratization and reform, which they see as their real enemies. Karimov sees the social views of the Salafi clerics as congruent with his own. He is marshaling Islam to promote "authentic, traditional Uzbek values," according to which women should stay at home while men go to work. In Tajikistan, the president Emomali Rahmonov and the state clergy are even discouraging women from going to the mosque.

These two different groups - Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Salafi clerics - are antagonistic as they basically compete for the same target group. Ideologically, too, Roy explained, the Salafis actually reject Hizb-ut-Tahrir and political Islam as "innovation": "The Prophet does not speak of ideologies" they might say in response to Hizb which describes itself as "a political party whose ideology is Islam." So far, the clerics have also stayed away from activity that might challenge the state. They are not political Islamists but conservative religious leaders. Ironically, according to Roy, a similar tendency can be observed in Western Europe. Here too most of those appointed to the official clergy have been the most conservative and orthodox clerics who are close to the Muslim Brotherhood or to authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes. It is obvious that Roy believes that this amounts to playing with fire - both in Europe and in Central Asia. While a ruler such as Karimov might think that he is co-opting the fundamentalists, he might soon find himself co-opted by them.

In a future post, I hope to describe another tendency antagonistic to both of these - the inroads made in Central Asia (and the rest of the former USSR) by various Christian groups, ranging from Witnesses to Korean Baptists; this phenomenon finds its counterpart in the conversions to (Salafi) Islam in Western and Eastern Europe. By next year, you should be able to read all about it in Roy's forthcoming book.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Iranians in the Gaza Strip?

Scenes from Gaza

The Israeli government has long maintained that Iran is directly involved in funding and training Hamas's military wing. Debka has frequently made sensationalist claims about the presence of Iranian agents in the Gaza Strip. Today, it was Fatah's turn.

According to members of the Presidential Guard or National Security Force, Fatah succeeded in apprehending 7 Iranians and in seizing large quantities of light and heavy weapons after storming the Islamic University in Gaza this Thursday night. Even if this claim, reported by Ha'aretz and the BBC, turns out to be wrong, and I have a strong feeling that it's a Fatah propaganda campaign, one could well regard tonight as another watershed moment. Both Hamas and Fatah appear to be getting large supplies of weapons - Hamas from Iran, and Fatah from the United States with the consent and passive assistance of Israel and Egypt. Perhaps tonight a "preventive battle" is being fought by one side or the other - Hamas could end up depicting its attacks on the Presidential Guard and the alleged arms convoy as a counter-strike against a planned coup. Fatah, for its part, may be raising the specter of Iranian involvement to galvanize Arab and Palestinian support for itself.

What is clear is that this conflict has intensified greatly in past months, surprising many veteran observers. The details of the clashes that broke out between Hamas and Fatah followers last month in the Gaza Strip were not widely reported. Ha'aretz, with its veteran Gaza reporters, Amos Har'el and Avi Issascaroff, was one of the few news sources to describe the viciousness of the unfolding civil war in detail. They described several cases of Hamas fighters surrounding the houses of Fatah-affiliated people, of executions and of torture (one teenager reported having acid thrown in his face after he was taken prisoner).

One of those targeted was Sufian Abu Zaide, a leading Fatah moderate from Gaza, whom I once had the pleasure of hearing, along with Issascaroff, at a conference organized by the Herzog Center at Ben-Gurion University in 2005. Abu Zaide is a member of Muhammad Dahlan's generation: he spent the first intifada in an Israeli prison in Beer Sheva, learned Hebrew, returned to Gaza in the early years of Oslo and maintained close ties to Israelis. As soon as the second intifada broke out in 2000, Abu Zaide left for the UK to begin studying for a Ph.D., which he eventually completed. Last month, Abu Zaide was kidnapped by Hamas, but was later released. What was supposed to be his future home was also leveled by Hamas members. Since then, he returned to Ben-Gurion another time to speak at another Herzog Center conference.

The latest events, and Hamas's role in breaking off the truce that was supposed to be brokered, first by Damascus, then by Riyadh, serves as yet more proof of the futility of negotiating with the movement at this stage. Contrary to the expectations of a number of supercilious observers, Hamas has not turned into the Turkish Welfare Party to which many compared it. Being allowed to participate in politics did not convince Hamas to disband its militia, just as political participation has failed to convince Hizbullah to disarm. Instead, Hamas has ended up using the weapons of its "resistance" against its political rivals. Contrary to what some British legislators have claimed recently, this development is not a response to the isolation of Hamas by western governments. Hamas is flexing its muscles - perhaps, in its view, pre-emptively - because it can. Even before Hamas came to power, the military balance of power in Gaza was in its favour. If Hamas had wanted to break out of the isolation supposedly imposed on it, it could have done so by renouncing its commitment to the destruction of Israel.

Iranian Involvement in the Karbala Operation?

We still do not know all the details about the bold January 20 attack on a secure American compound, which killed five American soldiers in Karbala. Investigations are ongoing, and it is obvious that the Americans do not want to give away too much information about the tactics used by the attackers and about the compound itself.

Noah expressed concern earlier about the change in U.S. policy on Iranian operatives in Iraq. It is possible that these policy changes came in response to intelligence about increased Iranian involvement on the ground in attacks against American forces. In the wake of the Karbala raid, speculation immediately mounted about the possibility of direct or indirect Iranian involvement - mainly because of the mission's success and precision. Sunni insurgents were ruled out from the get-go, as it is highly unlikely that they would have been able to operate in the area.

But the evidence for Iranian involvement - at least those bits released to the press - is highly circumstantial. It revolves, on the one hand, around the use of SUVs, uniforms, and weapons that only American troops in Iraq employ, and, on the other, around the ease with which the convoy of 9 to 12 operators were able to penetrate the compound (New York Times). Some of this information has been released by Iraqi officials rather than the U.S. government. This makes it all the more suspect.

It is possible that the Iranians had a hand in this. But it seems far more likely that Iraqis orchestrated the attack. One of the details that emerged in press reports was that the militants spoke "perfect English" and looked like Americans, leading Iraqi guards to wave them through without questions. It seems rather more likely that they were waved through by Iraqi soldiers involved in the attack. American investigators on the ground are heavily leaning toward this policy, as statements by an unnamed U.S. military official in the NYT suggest:
"We’ve got to be very careful as to who we define as our allies, and who we trust and who we don’t,” the military official said. “Was the governor involved? Were the Iraqi police that were on guard complicit or just incompetent?”
It is, however, far more convenient for the Bush administration and the Iraqi government to blame the attack on the Iranians. No doubt the Iranians are up to no good in Iraq; but using them as a smoke-screen to protect the administration of al-Maliki (for whom Mahdi Army involvement would be a profound embarrassment) seriously endangers the lives of American soldiers.

If Iran was indeed involved, the U.S. should bide its time and pick the right moment for an appropriate response - perhaps a response that could be blamed on Sunni militias or al-Qaeda. In any case, given the nature of the evidence released so far, the Karbala incident must not be used in arguments for a war with Iran.