Monday, September 24, 2007

Scattered Thoughts on Ahmadinejad

1. The clip of Ahmadinejad denying that there are homosexuals in Iran and the audience's reaction is still making me crack up every time I see it.

2. It wasn't nice or pretty, but Lee Bollinger did the right thing in basically humiliating Ahmadinejad with his introduction and questions.

3. Having said that, I still think Columbia erred in having the man speak at the university. My reasoning: people will believe the most ridiculous things when they are repeated often enough on television. That may sound cynical, but I think the billions of dollars spent on advertising back me up on this. Everyone knew that Ahmadinejad's appearance would draw international coverage, and that his performance would later be watched by millions on television. In effect, Columbia University's decision gave the man yet another opportunity to repeat his lies and idiocy in front of a prime-time audience.

4. Ahmadinejad is probably not all that interested in what Columbia University students think of him. His real intended audience: Arab masses and disgruntled elites (not the Iranian people). His message: Iran is the true protector of Arab and Muslim interests - whether it be in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, or Iraq. His implicit target: the autocratic, US-supported regimes in the Middle East.

Over and Done With

Coatsworth presses A. on the facts of the Holocaust, which C. points out are documented. Why is A. calling for more research?

A.: "I am an academic and you are as well. Can you argue that researching a phenomenon is over, done? There are different perspectives that come to light. Why should we stop the progress of science and knowledge. Do you ever take what's absolute in physics. Math, physics were proved wrong.”

Coatsworth points out that the facts of the Holocaust are well established. So questioning them sounds like denial

Some clapping.

A.: "I tried to uphold the rights of European scholars. There has been more research on physics than there is on the Holocaust. There’s nothing wrong with doing it [research.] Women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom. 90% of Iranians turn up for votes.”

Now he’s talking about executions. Says there is capital punishment in US too. People clap

A.: "In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country."

Boos from the crowd -- also laughs.

A.: "I don't know who told you that we have it. It's not a crime to be a woman. Women are the best creatures created by God."

Coatsworth asks what A. hoped to achieve by coming to Columbia.

"I've been invited by Columbia, an official invitation given. In Iran, when you invite a guest, you respect them. I wanted to go to the site of the September 11th tragedy to show my sympathy.”

C.: Why is your country seeking enriched uranium?

A. says program is within confines of law. The technology they have is for enrichment below 5% level, so it’s just for power plants.

A. asks how can US criticize Iran when it has nukes of its own.

A lot of applause.

A. tells a joke: “I think the politicians who are after atomic bombs...politically they’re backward, retarded.”

Coatsworth asks, “Is Iran ready to negotiate with the US?

A.: "Other than with two countries, we are ready to have friendly relations and talks. One of those two contries is the apartheid movement of South Africa, and the second is the Zionist regime. The US could actually be a good friend for the Iranian nation. Iranians could be some of the US’ best friends.”

Destruction of Israel?

Columbia is simulcasting around campus.

Students’ questions, taken, as A. requests in English, “one-by-one, please.”

Student: "Do you seek destruction of Israel?"

A: "We love all nations. We're friends with the Jewish people. There are many Jews in Iran living peacefully with security. [He says they have representation in the Parliament for the Jewish community.] Our proposal to the Palestinian plight is a humanitarian and democratic proposal. Nobody should interfere in the affairs of the Palestinian nation. Allow the Palestinian nation to decide its own future.”

The crowd is now excited.

Coatsworth: "Many people in our audience would like a clearer answer on that question."

Louder clapping.

Coatsworth: "Do you seek the destruction of the Jewish state."

C. asks for a yes or no answer.

A.: "You want the answer the way you want to hear it. This isn’t really a free flow of information.”

The crowd gets louder.

A. puts a yes or no question to Bollinger now, essentially, whether or not the Palestinian situation is a problem.”

A.: “"If someone comes and explodes bombs around would you treat them? Would you award them or would you name them a terrorist group? You would call them a terrorist, my dear friends.”

Some Iranians, he points out, were assasinated by a terrorist group.

A.: "Regretfully, that same terrorist group now today in your country is operating under the support of the US administration. Their camps in Iraq are supported by the US government. We were the first nation that objected to terrorism.”


He keeps interrupting Coatsworth.

A.: "We live in the Middle East. For us, it’s quite clear which powers incite terrorists, support them, fund them. We're a cultured nation, we don’t need to resort to terrorism.”

Just a Word or Two More on the Weapons

Iran, A. claims, is one of the countries that has cooperated most with the IAEA.

Now, Columbia’s people are trying to cut him off.

He seems to have asked for some more time.

"We want to have the right to self-determination towards our future."

He says he wants spare parts for civilian aircraft.

Jennie thinks he looks dapper.

"We love all nations.”

People are clapping wildly!

A Defense of Holocaust Denial

Ahmadinejad says:
"Why isn’t there different research that can approach the Holocaust from different perspectives? We have to really be able to trace the event. There are a nmber of European academics who were sent to prison because they look at the Holocaust from different perspectives. I am told that there has been sufficient research on the subject. But he [ Coatsworth] disagrees. We still continue more research [on scientific topics. So why not the Holocaust?] If it is a reality, we have to still question whether the Palestinian people should be paying for it or not. Why are the Palestinian people paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with? They were living with the Jewish communities and with the Christian communities in peace at the time. Is this not a crime? Why should an academic like myself face insult when asking questions like this? I know there's time limits but I need time."

Ahmadinejad Lectures on Science

Now the man is well into his speech. In one section, he focuses on the "misuse of science by the big powers." Here are some excerpts:

“I believe that the biggest god-given gift to man is knowledge and science. Science has to combine with the purity of the spirit so that scholars can reveal the truth, and then use that truth to advance humanity's cause. It is necessary that big powers should not allow mankind to engage in monopolistic activities. [Science] must remain pure"

[Talking about how God loves scholars and scientists.]

"My main job is a university instructor. As President of Iran, I still continue teaching graduate and PhD level courses on a weekly basis. I believe tht I am an academic myself. I got a wave of insults and allegations against me. You know quite well that Palestine is an old wound, as old as 60 years. For 60 years these people are being displaced, for 60 years these people are being killed, for 60 years children in kindergartens, in schools, are inprisoned, being tortured,for 60 years, the slogan of expansionism from the Nile to the Euphrates is being chanted by different groups in this world."

Bollinger Calls Ahmadinejad Petty and Cruel

In opening remarks, Columbia Prez Lee Bollinger says to the Iranian premier, "Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."

Columbia Jewish Studies apparently gets a shout-out too.

Live from Columbia

Kishkushim, which can usually boast of at least one reader at Columbia, now has a woman in that university's main quad, Jennie C. I'm getting real time updates from her on the frenetic scene in Morningside Heights, which is unfolding as I write. Speaking of real time, the Columbia Journalism School students have set up a blog to cover the event, minute-by-minute.

I'm hearing from Jennie that a big contingent from Yeshiva University has taken the 1-2-3 train down to voice their opposition. On the other side, some interesting placards: "Ahmadinejad is bad, but Bush is worse." You can also see in one of Jennie's photos a sign that reads, "I support and welcome the president of Iran, seeker of truth."

Stay tuned for more...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Columbia University to Host Ahmadinejad

It looks like Columbia University will indeed play host to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the occasion of his visit to the UN General Assembly. From what I have heard, competition for tickets to the event is fierce. Everyone seems to want to hear this man speak. I think those responsible for this event are making a mistake.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger believes that he will be able to use the occasion to put "pointed and challenging questions" to Ahmadinejad. In particular, Bollinger seemed to have in mind the Iranian president's record of Holocaust denial. While I applaud the intentions of Bollinger and others, who want to use Ahmadinejad's lecture as a forum to critique the Iranian president's past remarks and the regime's policies, I fear that they are miscalculating.

All of us in the academy are interested in the free exchange of ideas and the pursuit of truth in which it is supposed to result. But we also accept restrictions on the search for knowledge. For example, ethical scholars will not use data acquired from medical experiments that were conducted on human subjects without their permission. The ethical test with respect to having Ahadinejad speak at Columbia University should not be based on his stance toward U.S. policy in the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin or China's Hu Jintao oppose many key aspects of American foreign policy. They also head regimes with less than stellar democratic credentials. But this is not the issue.

What matters most, in the context of an invitation extended by a university, is Ahmadinejad's public denial of the Holocaust in the past. This is not because the Holocaust is inherently "sacred." The same would apply if Ahmadinejad denied that the French Revolution never happened. Rather, his pseudo-academic initiatives to question a supposed "taboo" on free inquiry into the genocide of European Jewry (read: his effort to engage in willful distortion and negation of a subject whose historicity has been confirmed by thousands of scholarly publications) challenge the core of the university's guiding principles. The public sphere that the university presents is not a free-for-all open to every crackpot and conspiracy theorist with a fondness for spinning yarns. Such a model of the university would drive the pursuit of truth into intellectual bankruptcy. Professors and students would be occupied permanently with fending off unlimited attacks from those unbound by the chains of logic, procedure, respect, and the standards of academic disciplines. Unfortunately, the very admission of such individuals into the world of scholarship bestows credibility on them.

While I would not equate Wolf Blitzer of "The Situation Room" with the academy, I think it is worth watching his interview (see YouTube box above) with Holocaust denier David Duke to see how damaging it can be to give people like these even a modicum of respectability. They do not deserve to enter our classrooms and lecture halls.

Unfortunately, Proverbs gives conflicting advice. In 26:4 we read, "Don't answer a fool according to his foolishness, lest you too will be like him," while 26:5 tell us "Answer a fool according to his foolishness, lest he will appear clever in his own eyes."
משלי כו:ד-ה
אַל-תַּעַן כְּסִיל, כְּאִוַּלְתּוֹ: פֶּן-תִּשְׁוֶה-לּוֹ גַם-אָתָּה.
עֲנֵה כְסִיל, כְּאִוַּלְתּוֹ: פֶּן-יִהְיֶה חָכָם בְּעֵינָיו

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Plot Thickens

I'm not seeing reports anywhere that elaborate on the Washington Post's claim that US and Israeli intelligence collaborated on an investigation of a potential Syria-North Korean nuclear partnership. The story is fascinating, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out tomorrow and in the coming days. These leaks, most importantly, that "the United States is believed to have provided Israel with some corroboration of the original intelligence before Israel proceeded with the raid," are far more interesting than the blather we're hearing from Benjamin Netanyahu, who blithely confirmed the fact of the raid today despite the government and defense establishment's efforts to keep this hermetically sealed.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Webb Amendment Fails

I wrote recently of Sen. Jim Webb's amendment to a Senate defense bill aimed at reforming the practice of redeploying national guardsmen on overseas tours after exceedingly short stays stateside. Well, the Democrats failed today for the second time to muster the 60 votes necessary to cut off debate and take a vote on the measure. I'm pleased to see that Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) showed up this time, fitting a vote against "supporting the troops" into his busy campaign schedule (which includes photo-ops with the Schiavos). The Republican filibuster is a sign of the hardening of positions on the war in Iraq as we head into a presidential election year. Yesterday, I heard a Berkeley undergraduate, one of the many handing out fliers on Berkeley's Sproul Plaza, asking passers-by, "What do you think it will take to stop the war." I'm glad I wasn't asked, because my answer might have been misinterpreted: nothing will stop the war short of a presidential election. This isn't a Congress that is about to force the White House's hand in Iraq, not when it can't get right the treatment of reservists.

Monday, September 17, 2007

European Division on Iran

It looks like Sarkozy and Kouchner have dramatically re-oriented French foreign policy on Iran. For the first time, the U.S. is getting rhetorical support from Europe in its attempts to ratchet up the pressure on the Iranian regime. The Germans, on the other hand, have been far more reluctant to endorse calls for more aggressive economic sanctions lately - in part, because as one of Iran's biggest trading partners, they have the most to lose.

In light of all this, I continue to be amazed by what passes for analysis at the Süddeutsche Zeitung. While the commentator acknowledges that German "skepticism" is based on economic interests, there is no attempt to explain Kouchner's logic or French interests in the matter. Instead, we get a vague mixture of a morality that sees all threats of military force as taboo and the condescension at which the German center-left excels: "Klug war es nicht" ([Kouchner's statement] was not very clever).

Definition of Nationalism

Is this definition complete? Please let me know. Thanks.

Nationalism is the conviction that by virtue of any combination of the following:

1. common language

2. shared “culture” (broadly defined, may include religion)

3. blood-ties

4. geographic proximity

you and a large group of other people belong on the same team.

Further, that you should be ruled by teammates, preferably in the framework of a polity composed largely of team-members.

If any of the previously cited criteria do not apply, you must strive to build institutions, start movements, and create ideologies or narratives to make sure that all those whom you want on your team (for whatever reason) really do speak the same language, share a common culture, blood-ties, and/or geographic proximity, while others, whom you do not want to play with, are excluded.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Changing Course in Iraq

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) (Photo credit:

Don't hold your breath. After two grueling days of Gen. Petraeus' Congressional hearings and several more of the candidates' blustering responses, the change, if any, in the U.S. mission in Iraq is likely to be zilch. The WaPo ran a story today that outlines the insurmountable political obstacles to a fundamental change of course. Yet change, we're told, is on the horizon: Petraeus vowed to begin "redefining the mission" in December, shifting forces from a combat role to a more supervisory one. Nevertheless, the troop levels are expected to stay above 100,000 until at least June 2009.

While one can only expect promises of "redefining the mission" to follow in the proud Bush administration tradition of "redefining success in Iraq" -- or redefining "optimism," that distinctly American, uniquely malleable virtue -- the real changes in the conduct of this war might fly below the radar. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has long decried the practice of extending reservists' tours through administrative gimmicks. As a friend and fellow graduate student explained to me before he left for Iraq last Spring, guardsmen were until quite recently allowed to return to civilian life for two full years for every year they spent deployed. Today, that allowance has been reduced to one year. We are now witnessing a further erosion of the distinction between professional soldier and weekend warrior. The guardsman returning from Iraq after a year-long tour is simply transferred to another unit heading back to Iraq, in the process spending a nominal amount of time stateside. The "unit" gets a year off, but he gets to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan for a second consecutive year.

Webb recently led a bipartisan delegation to Iraq, and he appears poised to see his amendment on troop rotation passed into law. This will be a significant victory for all Americans interested in seeing support-the-troops-style sloganeering backed up with compassionate treatment for the uniformed.

More Speculation on the Israeli Airforce Raid

As our commenters have observed, the Israelis have been surprisingly disciplined so far in maintaining silence on the air force raid in Syria that took place earlier this month. Meanwhile, in the American press, the North Korean angle is getting a great deal of coverage.

One of the theories that is gaining increasing traction is that the Israelis targeted an incipient nuclear weapons program, which the North Koreans had just provided to Syria. I continue to be skeptical of this theory, if only because the person behind it seems to be John Bolton. This crank has been a fanatical opponent of the sensible rapprochement with North Korea from the beginning. He is now seeking to undo the one foreign policy success that the Bush administration has to show for itself - the neutralization of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program (something that could have been achieved two terms ago, had it not been for people like Bolton).

If North Korean nuclear weapons were involved, I would expect to see a lot more serious reactions from Christopher Hill and the White House. As it stands, we only have Pyongyang's condemnations to go on, as well as reports of a North Korean ship docked at Tartus. The only North Korean connection that makes sense to me is a shipment of Scuds or other missiles that had been approved a long time ago, before the deal with the U.S. Who knows, perhaps Pyongyang even tipped the Americans off beforehand.

It is obvious that all people in the U.S. and Israel with access to real intelligence on this matter are keeping absolute silence. In fact, based on a conversation with someone close to a Western intelligence agency, it appears to me that almost everyone is in the dark about what happened. However, we are getting some news via the German "spy ship" to which Hazbani alluded several times earlier. Der Spiegel is apparently set to publish a story quoting German military sources, who observed two Israeli F-15s entering Syrian airspace and "being surprised by the speed at which the Syrian air defenses recognized them," Haaretz reports (Hebrew only, at this time). Apparently, the Germans believed that the target was a weapons shipment to Hizbullah.

We may never know what happened, though I believe that in this day and age, it will not take much longer for someone to leak the details. Jeha earlier commented that the raid may have had something to do with the Lebanese presidential elections (so, in other words, some kind of anti-Hizbullah action or operation against other pro-Syrian elements). I am not sure Israel would be maintaining this kind of secrecy in that case, and I don't think we would have seen such a big operation either.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Recent Israeli Air Force Action

I am fairly confident that the recent incident on the Turkish-Syrian border, where Syria alleges it repulsed an Israeli fighter jet from its air space, will not result in military retaliation by Damascus. However, this latest incident might very well be used as a pretext by Syrian proxies in Lebanon and in the territories to attempt some kind of "counter-attack." If successful, such an attack might very well lead to an escalation of Syrian-Israeli tensions.

The incident took place on Thursday at dawn. Only the Turks and Syrians so far have released information based on first-hand observation as well as their own agendas. So far, the Syrians have alleged that the plane dropped munitions on a deserted area, while the Turks have displayed a jettisoned F-15 fuel-tank. Israeli sources have remained silent about the news, and the U.S. has not commented either.

What is the meaning of this report? I think we can safely discard the preposterous web of conjectures spun by Joshua Landis to allege a neo-con, North Korea connection. This is obviously about issues much closer to home. In an earlier post on Thursday, Landis asked, with faux exasperation, "What is this about?" and answered that "One has to believe it is an intentional provocation." This again seems to me off the mark.

I think there are two possible explanations for this incident. The IAF pilot was either engaging in a routine reconnaissance flight over Syria and due to an operational failure strayed into territory covered by the country's anti-aircraft installations, or, more likely, this was an operation designed specifically to test the current state of Syrian anti-air defense. In the latter case, we have to ask whether the IAF's performance can be judged a success. The pilot involved (so far, we know of only one plane, but there were probably others) escaped without harm or damage to the plane but was forced to jettison cargo and munitions, probably to speed up the getaway. On the other hand, given the expectation before the summer that there might be a war between Damascus and Jerusalem, it might have been preferable to avoid detection entirely, or at least to avoid giving Syria concrete proof that an incursion had occurred.

With evidence in hand, Syria is likely to do the most it can in the diplomatic realm to force Arab states to take rhetorical "measures." This could be detrimental to Israeli and American efforts at the upcoming peace conference, and it might serve as a handy diversionary measure by Iran and Syria at the UN. Turkey, too, is in an awkward position, as the Israelis most likely did enter the country's air space. We can expect some grandstanding from them, as they try to appease the Syrians and the Arab states, who will seize the opportunity to condemn Turkey for its collaboration with Israel.

There are some who see this incident as related to American plans for an aerial raid on Iran, or a joint Israeli-American offensive against Syria. I don't think either of these conclusions apply, but there is no doubt that Israel, the U.S., Syria, and Iran are paying especially close attention both to the actual evidence being reported and to the gains they may harvest through the information war in the media and the diplomatic sphere. Turkey, too, is doubtlessly probing carefully what Israel and/or the Americans might be up to.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Norman Finkelstein

Anyone who believes that it is unfair that Norman Finkelstein did not receive tenure should read the man's review of Jan Gross's Neighbors. This piece of tendentious and antisemitic garbage, which he proudly published in a right-of-center Polish newspaper, should have been enough to sway any university committee against giving Finkelstein tenure.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Another Temple Mount Controversy on Horizon

It's all very curious, and I'm certainly not at a vantage point to figure it out. It would be disappointing to see the credibility and prestige of Israeli archaeology squandered. The AFP reports:
Doubts over 'second temple remains' in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israeli officials cast doubt Friday over claims that
remains of the second Jewish temple might have been found during work
to lay pipes at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem.

"If that was the case, the antiquities authority, which has an
observer on site, as well as police, also monitoring the work, would
have stepped in," said archaeologist Dan Bahat, a former excavations
official in Jerusalem.

On Thursday, archaeologist Gaby Barkai from Bar Ilan University told
local television that "a massive seven metre-long (23 feet) wall" had
been found, and urged the government to ask the Muslim religious
authorities to stop laying pipes.

Bahat said he would visit the site, but accused nameless
archaeologists with a nationalist agenda of "waging a politically
inspired campaign, systematically for several years, to strengthen
Israeli control over the esplanade".

The police spokesman for the city, Shmulik Ben Rubi, said police had
not been asked to intervene in the pipe-laying work has would have
been the case normally in the event of an archaeological discovery.

A spokeswoman for Israel's antiquities authority refused to comment.

Israeli television said the pipework carried out by Muslim religious
affairs authority, the Waqf, is about 1.5 metres deep and 100 metres

The holy site in east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed unilaterally
after capturing the Arab sector of the city in 1967, houses the
Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock and is the third holiest site in
world Islam.

Jews venerate the site as the Temple Mount, where King Herod's second
temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. It is the holiest site in

All that remains today is the temple's Western Wall, or Wailing wall.