Friday, May 31, 2013

Does freedom of speech include a right not to be criticized?

Jason Kuznicki offers one take on this perennial problem.  It might be worth noting that Kuznicki works at the right-wing Cato Institute ... but Cato's brand of right-wingery is the type that styles itself "libertarian"—which in this context means free-market fundamentalism combined (in genuinely principled cases) with commitment to individual choice and civil liberties.  I mention that only to highlight the fact that there are different ideological currents on the right, and some of them are quite un-conservative.  But wherever you're coming from ideologically, you can make what you will of this little quasi-parable.  I think it's smart and basically right.

—Jeff Weintraub

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen
By Jason Kuznicki on May 21, 2003

“I demand freedom of thought!”


“I think your marriage is a joke. A marriage of two men is like a marriage of a toaster and a blender.”


“You mean you disagree?”

“Yes, I disagree.”

“What do you have against freedom of thought?”

“Nothing. I just think you’re a bigot. That’s all.”

“You what??? I… I don’t like that you think that!

“I noticed.”

“You’re trying to go all thought-police on me, aren’t you?”

“No. I just think you’re a bigot.”

“Oh yeah? What are you going to do about it?”


“Look, not long ago everyone thought like me. I’m not so strange.”

“I didn’t say you were strange.”

“Do you think they’re all bigots, too?”


“I don’t like that you think that way.”

“I noticed.”

“But things have changed so fast.

“Yes. Yes they have.”

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and editor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

Brad DeLong revisits some 20th-century nightmares from which, perhaps improbably, we escaped

[I posted this in 2010, but a conversation with a former student leads me to think that it might be worth re-posting.]

Brad DeLong has just re-posted a review of Alan Furst's novel Dark Star that he wrote back in 2003. It's a wonderfully insightful and evocative review. And having read Dark Star a few years ago myself, on the recommendation of a good friend to whom I remain grateful for the advice, I know that Brad is right to describe it as "a very fine novel."

But it's also more than that. I will just quote the first three paragraphs of Brad's discussion, which zero right in on the key points:
When I talk to practically any of my undergraduates these days, I have a nearly impossible task to do when I try to convince them that the twentieth century has, after all, ended much better than it might have been. The half-full undergraduates talk of how wonderful and advanced our industrial civilization is, and how human progress to this point was nearly inevitable. The half-empty undergraduates talk about poverty in the developing world, inequality, and injustice, and seem deaf to the idea that the world we live in is much better than the world that we seemed headed for during the second quarter of this century. The Great Depression. Stalin's purges. World War II. Hitler's genocides—they have read about these, but they are not real, and the idea that for decades people thought that the forces headed by Stalin or by Hitler were the wave of the future (or the last chance to stop an even greater evil) does not penetrate below the surface.

So the next time I teach a course on the entire politico-economic history of the twentieth century, I think I may assign Alan Furst's novel Dark Star, for it does a better job than anything else I have read to catch the atmosphere of the days when Josef Stalin seemed to be the lesser of two evils—and it is a very fine novel besides.

This is not my judgement alone. Historian Alan Bullock calls Dark Star "a classic.... Furst brings to life better than most historians the world of fear in which so many human beings felt trapped." Reviewing it for Time, Walter Shapiro sees it as a "classic black-and-white movie that captures the murky allegiances and moral ambiguity of Europe on the brink of war.... Nothing can be like watching Casablanca for the first time, but Furst comes closer than anyone has in years." And a third reviewer calls it "exceptionally fine... Kafka, Dostoevsky, and le Carre..." [....]
Now you can read the rest of the review here ... and then read Dark Star.

—Jeff Weintraub

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Memories of the Baghdad Farhud of 1941

June 1 will mark the anniversary of the Farhud, a two-day pogrom in Baghdad that, in retrospect, signaled the beginning of the end of thousands of years of Jewish life in what is now Iraq.

That was a culturally rich and often flourishing history. In 1941, and as late as 1948, there were around 140,000 Iraqi Jews. By the end of 1951 roughly 120,000 had fled, mostly to Israel, and within a few decades only a few hundred remained in the country. For centuries Baghdad was a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population, like Alexandria or Salonika or Smyrna or Vienna, and during the first half of the 20th century about a third of that population was Jewish. In 2011, by contrast, there were somewhere between 7 and 12 Jews still left in the city, trying to live incognito for safety. (See the BBC report that year, by Hannah Marshall, on The Last Jews of Iraq, and a 2008 NYTimes report on the last Jews in Baghdad.) I don't know how many of them are still in Baghdad now.

The abrupt disappearance of Iraq's Jewish community is part of a larger story—the disappearance, by flight or expulsion, of the Jewish communities everywhere in the Arab world.  They numbered around 800,000 in 1948 and are now almost completely gone, with only tiny remnants left in a few countries and none at all in others. Iran's Jewish community, which numbered over 100,000 in 1948, has not disappeared so completely; but it is now down to somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000, depending on which estimates one follows. (For some details and elaboration, see the very useful website Point of No Return and two posts of mine here & here.)

In 2011, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Farhud, there was a BBC radio broacast about it (to which I was alerted at the time by Norman Geras) that included interviews with survivors. You can listen to it here:
"The Massacre of Baghdad's Jews"
Sarah Ehrlich, who put together the BBC broadcast, also wrote an account of the Farhud for the Jewish Chronicle (below). Her account, like the interviews, captures the shock and terror that victims of the Farhud still recalled many decades later. But as Norm pointed out in 2011, Ehrlich also heard stories of "Muslims acting heroically to save their Jewish neighbours". Still, the Baghdadi Jews never felt entirely secure again, and eleven years later they were almost entirely gone.

Was that outcome inevitable? Perhaps not. But the fact that essentially the same outcome happened everywhere in the Arab world, with variations only in timing and details, suggests that by 1941 the handwriting was on the wall. Did the Farhud sound "the death knell" for Baghdad's Jewish community, as Sarah Ehrlich puts it?  Yes and no.  The Farhud itself did not mark the end of Jewish life in Iraq. But in retrospect, as I said, it appears to have marked the beginning of the end.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  In 2008 I read a report in Ha'aretz about a (partly academic) conference in Tel Aviv on the Iraqi Jews ("Iraqi Jews at conference reject term 'Arab Jew'").  A number of the participants apparently emphasized the complex mixture of nostalgia, affection, anger, hostility, and regret that many Iraqi Jews feel about Iraq, their experiences there, and the way it all ended.  (Their feelings about their experiences in Israel are also ambivalent.)  But one passage made me laugh:
Another person got up and requested the floor: "I was born in Prague," he said with a smile. "But I must admit that, after two days of this conference on Iraqi Jews, I myself feel a longing for Baghdad."
The Jewish Chronicle
May 26, 2011
When Iraq had its Kristallnacht 
In 1941, Baghdad's Jews were the target of a horrific pogrom
By Sarah Ehrlich

For a dwindling number of Iraqi Jews, the holiday of Shavuot brings back each year the traumatic memory of one of the worst racial attacks in modern history.  [JW: To be honest, that formulation seems a little exaggerated, given all the other mass slaughters of modern history, though this pogrom was certainly bad enough.]  Over two days in 1941 around 800 Jews were murdered in their homes in Baghdad by a huge mob of Muslim rioters as the British army, forbidden from entering the city, looked on from the outskirts.

June 1 and 2 this year mark the 70th anniversary of what became known as the Farhud ("violent dispossession" in Arabic). As significant as Kristallnacht, the pogrom sounded the death-knell for the oldest community in the diaspora and was a clear demonstration of the hatred exported to the Middle East by Hitler. The Farhud brought to an end 2,600 years of Jewish settlement, yet little has been written about it, very little is taught in Holocaust studies about it, and the British role has never been fully investigated, although many survivors still bear a lifelong distrust of Britain.

The Jews of Iraq had been living peacefully for millennia in Baghdad since the time of Babylon and by 1941 numbered around 150,000, over a third of the population [of Baghdad]. Professor Heskel Haddad, now an ophthalmologist in Manhattan, was 11-years- old at the time and recalls a happy and secure early childhood. "We had many Jewish and Arab Muslim neighbours and we were very friendly with them. I was Jewish in religion but I felt very much Iraqi. I loved Iraq and I loved the people, whether Muslim or Jew."

One month before the Farhud a violent coup brought a rabidly pro-Nazi lawyer, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, to power, forcing the country's regent, a friend of the Jews, to seek British protection. Rashid Ali brought to his side the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a man with strong ties to the Third Reich who had fled from Palestine.  [JW: After leaving Baghdad the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, lived in Berlin from late 1941 through the end of the war, made Arabic-language propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis, and helped raise Muslim SS troops in the Balkans.]  Together, they indoctrinated the country with Nazi propaganda; children in Iraqi schools were taught to praise Hitler and that Jews were the internal enemy; Radio Berlin began regular broadcasts in Arabic. Their aim was to rid Iraq of the British presence and turn the country's oil reserves over to the Germans.

Next, Rashid Ali ordered Iraq's military to destroy the British RAF base in Habbaniya, west of Baghdad –– a non-operational flight training centre equipped with antique planes, manned by cadets. Despite the odds, the Iraqi campaign failed drastically. With his forces humiliatingly defeated and British ground troops advancing on the city, on May 30 Rashid Ali fled the country leaving the capital in a vacuum.

The regent's return was announced two days later, to the relief of the Jews celebrating Shavuot. Their joy turned to horror however when the Muslims mistook their celebrations to be the result of the country's downfall at the hands of the British. A huge mob gathered, armed with knives, swords and guns, chanting "Ketaal al yehud" ("Slaughter the Jews"). Eleven-year-old Haddad was with his family having a festive meal. "Suddenly we heard screams, 'Allah Allah', and shots were fired," he recalls. "We went out to the roof to see what was happening - we saw fires, we saw people on the roofs screaming, begging God to help them. There was a guy across the street from our house screaming: 'Help me! Give me water!' and my father didn't let me give him water because he was afraid that I might be killed by the gangs. The voice of this man ended an hour or two later when I guess he died."

Salim Fattal was also 11, living with his family in the Jewish quarter of Tatran. Like everyone, they were completely unprepared for the violence that hit the city. "We were hiding with all the children and women in the cellar listening to the whistling of bullets around our house," he says. "We had no weapons and there were four men trying to defend 21 women and children with just some sticks and knives. We knew we couldn't defend the house against these armed invaders. It was terrifying."

Taken by surprise and with no protection, Jews either defended themselves with whatever they could find or else bribed Iraqi policemen to protect them. Fattal's mother found one near their alley and approached him with a parcel of money. The policeman agreed to stay with them until midnight.

The violence worsened during the night and the mob was soon in its tens of thousands, targeting every Jewish home in the city. The task was easy as a red hamsa - a traditional hand symbol - had been painted on the exteriors.

"We could hear screams from our neighbours which was a horrifying sound," continues Fattal, even now crying at the memory. "All of them all started to shout and scream and it would last for two minutes or so, and then the sound died. Then the same sound would renew from other directions. These voices have never left me. They were so strong, so close and so clear."

By the second day, Fattal could see from his balcony that the mob was attacking his neighbour's house. "We could see them right under our noses and if they had decided to attack us then, no one could have stopped them as it was very easy for the rioters to move from roof to roof. So we called our armed policeman from outside and begged him to fire a few bullets in the air to scare them away. Our policeman insisted on more payment and my Uncle Naim argued that we had already paid him generously. But our policeman kept repeating: 'How much will you pay?' while our situation was getting more and more threatening by the minute. Finally they agreed upon half a dinar per bullet. Had he refused, we would have taken his gun. The policeman fired two shots and paused and then two more shots, until he saw the rioters move away."

There were also accounts of Muslims acting heroically to save their Jewish neighbours. Steve Acre was nine at the time, living with his widowed mother and eight siblings in their landlord's house. "Our landlord was a devout Muslim called Hajji who wore a green turban, and when the mob came, he sat in front of them and told them that there were orphans in his house and that if they wanted to kill us, they would have to kill him first. So they moved on across the street."

Acre, who has been living in Montreal for over 50 years, sees Iraqi Nazism as the direct cause of the Farhud, but also blames the British for not having stopped it when it was within their power. "We always felt the British would be there in case there was a need. But unfortunately the British ambassador at the time did not want to send the forces into Baghdad. He just wanted to let the Iraqi army vent their frustration [at being defeated in battle] without them being involved, which was a difficult thing to understand later - how come nobody came to our rescue?"

Tony Rocca, who researched and co-wrote Memories of Eden with a survivor of the Farhud, Violette Shamash, agrees. "To Britain's shame, the army was stood down while hundreds of Jews were killed in rioting that raged over two days with damage estimated at £13 million by today's values. Archive material points to one man who deliberately kept the troops out. Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, Britain's ambassador in Baghdad, for reasons of his own, held our forces at bay in direct contradiction to express orders from Prime Minister Winston Churchill that they should take the city and secure its safety."

The violence was stopped only when it appeared the rioters were getting carried away and entering Muslim areas. A curfew was called, and Iraqi troops began shooting looters. But the death toll of around 800 and thousands more injured is a memory Acre can never forget. "When you hear yelling and screaming of women and children, it stays with you forever."

Witness on BBC World Service will be remembering the 70th anniversary of the Farhud on June 1. Listen online at Additional research by Tony and Mira Rocca

On the streets with Hungary's far right

It is useful to remind oneself occasionally that in parts of Europe today, active manifestations of anti-semitism and hysterical "anti-Zionism", along with tendencies to view them as respectable or "understandable", are not restricted to Islamists, some broader currents in some Muslim immigrant communities, and certain types of people who claim to be "progressive" or left-wing or "anti-imperialist".  In recent years, especially since the economic crisis hit, there has also been a resurgence of historically familiar far-right ultra-nationalist neo-fascist movements and parties that combine anti-semitic and anti-Zionist conspiracy theories with xenophobia and racist hatred for ethnic minorities like Roma (also called Gypsies).  Two of the most flamboyant examples, complete with uniformed paramilitary militias and enough electoral support to win seats in parliament, are Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary. 

Below is a piece about Jobbik, accompanied by an illuminating video, from Britain's Channel 4.  (Thanks to Adam LeBor for the tip.)  Read the text for introduction, but be sure to watch the video, which is informative.  As a Jobbik militia commander in Budapest explains to the interviewer:  "We have an internal problem that is Gypsy crime, and an external threat - the Jewish invasion. We know there is a global Zionist fund controlling the whole world, including the US and the EU."  A nice blending of global and local paranoias. 

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Regarding Greece, by the way, it seems fair to add that this year there have been increasingly vocal rejections of racism and anti-semitism from the more mainstream parties, including a rally in Thessaloniki in March, commemorating the deportation of Thessaloniki's Jews to Auschwitz, in which the Prime Minister conspicuously participated.

Channel 4 News
On the streets with Hungary's far-right

The far-right Jobbik party is hoping to become Hungary's second biggest political party at next year's elections but their manifesto is filled with vitriolic references to gypsies and Jews.

Jobbik currently holds 43 seats in the Hungarian parliament and two in the European parliament. In Hungary it has become a legitimate political force - although its anti-Semitic message has raised concerns across the globe.

The party is allied with the BNP [British National Party] through the Alliance of European National Movements, but is considerably more successful. One key difference is its ties to vigilante militias - think English Defence League, but sober and in military uniforms.

The nationalist militias descend on gypsy towns to intimidate and sow division - when banned, they simply re-form with new names and similar structures.

At a Jobbik protest against "Zionism and communism" a few hundred metres from the World Jewish Congress, Channel 4 News watched Jobbik's leader address a crowd containing uniformed members of the Magyar Nemzeti Garda and the more extreme Betyarsereg (Army of Outlaws). The groups took part in military-style drills, and members of Betyarsereg carried helmets and gas masks.

The gathering went almost completely unopposed, with a very light police presence - in Hungary paramilitary-style far-right rallies have been normalised.

Although he Jewish Congress is usually held in Jerusalem, it came to Budapest to draw attention to the rise of anti-Semitism and to send a message to Jobbik that they would not be intimidated.

Jewish leaders told me that Prime Minister Victor Orban assured them he had dealt with the problem of militias.

Nevertheless, those who came to view the rally were shocked by what they saw. At a training session for the Magyar Nemzeti Garda (Hungarian National Guard) militia, the group wore full military uniforms, displayed a clear military-style structure, but claimed it was not a violent organisation. It has taken part in distributing food and clothes to the homeless and given blood en masse to the Red Cross.

Its leader, Joseph, laid out the group's ideas to us: "We have a domestic problem that is the gypsy criminality and an external problem that is the Jew expansion."

When asked about the past suffering of Hungarian Jews, he replied: "If we want to remember victims, in my mind the holocaust is not the biggest tragedy. This has nothing to do with me. It doesn't interest me. I don't deny it, I'm just not interested."

Less than a century after Hungarian Jews were shot and their bodies dumped in the Danube by the Arrow Guard, fascist groups now openly wear the Arrow Guard logo, and statues of Hungarian nazi-Collaborator Miklós Horthy have been re-erected in parts of the country.

The militias play an important role for Jobbik, as we learned in small town of Gyongyospata, where a Jobbik mayor is now in charge.

Tensions in the town exploded in 2011. Nationalists blamed the small Roma population for the suicide of a local, and thousands of black-shirted militia members arrived to patrol the streets. Jobbik held rallies outside the homes of gypsies and there were violent clashes. In the aftermath the village became a party stronghold.

The Roma say they played no role in the man's death, and even brought us to meet his son, who confirmed their side of the story. They said over 2,000 journalists have been to the town but never sought to clarify the truth behind Jobbik's claim.

The difference in the Roma side of town is astonishing: the roads are unpaved and homes are run-down. The mayor says he is helping the Roma by providing work but many have already fled the town.

Across Europe, far-right organisations have been enjoying increased success on the streets or in the ballot boxes. Greece's Golden Dawn holds 18 seats in parliament and Bulgaria's extremist Ataka have 23 seats.

The deputy leader of Jobbik told Channel 4 News of his admiration for Ukip [Britain's UK Independence Party]. The parties have little in common but share their opposition to the EU, and both have made rapid gains off the issue.

Unlike Ukip, Jobbik plans to strengthen its ties to places the near East and, more specifically, Iran. The town of Tiszavasvari, the "Jobbik capital" has been twinned with the Iranian city of Ardabil. The partnership has been called an "anti-Semitic alliance".

In Budapest, the real-world effects of the party's extremist rhetoric is clear. A report prepared for the World Jewish Congress showed how spontaneous anti-Semitic attacks are growing.

Jobbik told Channel 4 News it now wants the secret service to start investigating Jewish people involved in public life in the country.

At the party's May day festival, Nazi-tattoo-wearing skinheads rubbed shoulders with ordinary Hungarians. The crowd swells to over 7,000 people, all gathered under the Jobbik flag to watch rock bands and listen to speeches.

While shooting our report, a simple shout goes up from one drunken reveller: "What are these Jews doing here?" And then a glass of beer is poured over me. I'm slapped in the head and the crew is forced to leave.

A small example of how speeches from a stage can translate into action on the ground. The worst violence came in 2009, though, when six gypsies were murdered in attacks involving guns, hand grenades and homemade explosives. Four nationalists currently remain on trial for these crimes.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood explains its position on the rights of women, homosexuals, and religious minorities

Below are some relevant portions of a piece that Jeffrey Goldberg did in March. Most of Goldberg's discussion focuses on this official statement issued by the Muslim Brotherhood, "Denouncing UN Women Declaration for Violating Sharia Principles". Whether you agree or disagree with them on these matters, it's useful to know what they actually think, so let's start with the Brotherhood's statement:
The 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), taking place from March 4 to 15 at UN headquarters, seeks to ratify a declaration euphemistically entitled ‘End Violence against Women’.

That title, however, is misleading and deceptive. The document includes articles that contradict established principles of Islam, undermine Islamic ethics and destroy the family, the basic building block of society, according to the Egyptian Constitution.

This declaration, if ratified, would lead to complete disintegration of society, and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies. [....]

A closer look at these articles reveals what decadence awaits our world, if we sign this document:

1. Granting girls full sexual freedom, as well as the freedom to decide their own gender and the gender of their partners (ie, choose to have normal or homo- sexual relationships), while raising the age of marriage. [....]

6. Equal inheritance (between men and women).

7. Replacing guardianship with partnership, and full sharing of roles within the family between men and women such as: spending, child care and home chores.

8. Full equality in marriage legislation such as: allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, and abolition of polygamy, dowry, men taking charge of family spending, etc.

9. Removing the authority of divorce from husbands and placing it in the hands of judges, and sharing all property after divorce.

10. Cancelling the need for a husband’s consent in matters like: travel, work, or use of contraception. [....]

In conclusion, we call on women's organizations to commit to their religion and morals of their communities and the foundations of good social life and not be deceived with misleading calls to decadent modernization and paths of subversive immorality. [....]
You can read the rest, if you like, but that captures the main thrust of the document. Here is Goldberg's account:
[Recently] the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt issued an extraordinary, and extraordinarily disturbing, rejoinder to the draft of a declaration calling for an end to violence against women that was eventually passed at the annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

In an official statement responding to the draft, the Brotherhood argued that, if approved, it would “lead to complete disintegration of society, and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies.”

The Brotherhood’s objections to this anodyne document were many. Some of the criticisms could be understood within a broader Egyptian cultural framework: The UN document calls for equality in inheritance laws, and no political party in Egypt has argued that daughters should have parity of inheritance with sons.

Other criticisms seem more retrograde. Still others are flat-out brutal. The Muslim Brothers object to the idea of “granting girls full sexual freedom” and to raising the legal marriage age, which in some countries is as low as 15. They believe that providing contraceptives to adolescent girls is dangerous, and that granting “equal rights to adulterous wives and illegitimate sons resulting from adulterous relationships” is reprehensible.

They believe, of course, that granting “equal rights to homosexuals” and “providing protection and respect for prostitutes” are terrible ideas. They are shocked by the argument that wives should have the right to file legal complaints against husbands for rape. They raised objections to the idea that men should share in housework and child-care responsibilities, and that men should no longer be allowed to decide whether their wives travel, work or use contraception. [....]

In sum, the Brotherhood’s rebuttal is a remarkable document and evidence that the movement simply cannot wait to wage war on women. Human-rights groups in Egypt have so far stopped Brotherhood activists from decriminalizing female genital mutilation, but women are losing on multiple fronts.

Mursi hasn’t fulfilled his pledge to appoint a woman as one of his vice presidents. When I last interviewed him, before he took office, I asked him if the Brotherhood could support a woman, or a Christian, for president.

“Which Christian?” he asked. I explained that I was asking a theoretical question. Could any Christian become president? “There are no Christians running for president,” he said. “This is a nonsense question.” So I asked him if he could support a woman for president. “Which woman?"

This tragicomic dialogue went on for some time, before I gave up.

Leaders like Jordan’s [King] Abdullah have been warning the Obama administration for some time not to trust the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded movements. They are, he said, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”  [JW: Of course, they would say that, wouldn't they? But that doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong.]  I suppose the saving grace of the Egyptian Brotherhood is that its leaders don’t even bother to dress like sheep.
By the way, it's worth bearing in mind that in the first parliamentary elections after the fall of Mubarak, in which the Muslim Brotherhood won just under half the seats, the opposition party that won the second largest number of seats (about 25%) consisted of Salafists who believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is too accommodating to "decadent modernization and paths of subversive immorality".  Between them, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Nour Party wound up controlling over two-thirds of the total seats.  The more secular opposition parties do have some popular support, but probably a good deal less than the Islamist parties, and at all events they're a long way from getting their acts together.

—Jeff Weintraub 

"Survivorship bias" and sampling error – Benevolent dolphins and World War II bombers

An item about designing US bombers in World War II (picked up by Andrew Sullivan) reminded me of some idle musings about dolphins that first occurred to me several decades ago (and that I once blogged about here).  It so happens that, at a formal level, both of these topics raise some of the same analytical issues.

I will start with my idle speculations about dolphins, shamelessly reproducing some thoughts I already posted, and then turn to the actual historical incident involving bombers.

=>  We constantly hear about how charming and likable dolphins are, and most of the time that seems to be true. Let me be clear:  I'm genuinely fond of dolphins, who are friendly and intelligent animals. What follows is a purely analytical puzzle.

In things I have read about dolphins, one piece of evidence offered to demonstrate their good-natured benevolence was the claim that dolphins sometimes save drowning sailors by pushing them in toward shore. That sounds nice of them, and I have no reason to doubt that there are such cases.

But then I couldn't help wondering ... what if this is just a misleading impression created by sampling bias? That is, what if a dolphin sees a drowning sailor as a kind of bathtub toy, and enjoys pushing him (or her) around in the water in a spirit of good-natured play? And let's imagine—to continue the hypothesis—that such sailors would get pushed around randomly in different directions. That would mean that about a quarter of the sailors get pushed toward shore, while the other three-quarters get pushed either out to sea or parallel to the coastline. Well, the only sailors we hear from afterward are the ones who got pushed toward shore, right? The other 75% are eliminated from the sample, so to speak. So maybe this impression that the dolphins are doing it to help the sailors is just an unwarranted inference produced by systematically biased data? (After all, what have humans ever done for dolphins that would make them so eager to help us out?)

All this is just speculation, of course ... but I wouldn't want try getting an experiment designed to test this hypothesis approved by an IRB.

=>  Now to a case of real-life decision-making.  David McRaney runs a blog titled You Are Not So Smart that analyzes common forms of systematically misleading and self-deceptive thinking.  In a recent post he nicely explained how the hypothetical fallacy I just imagined would work in practice, using a concrete example from World War II.  The mechanism involved is one that game theorists call "survivorship bias".

During World War II, it seems, the US government put together groups of statisticians and mathematicians, collectively known as the Applied Mathematics Panel, to help the military solve tactical and technological problems.
One story in particular was nearly lost forever. In it, a brilliant statistician named Abraham Wald saved countless lives by preventing a group of military commanders from committing a common human error, a mistake that you probably make every single day.  [....]

How, the Army Air Force asked, could they improve the odds of a bomber making it home? Military engineers explained to the statistician that they already knew the allied bombers needed more armor, but the ground crews couldn’t just cover the planes like tanks, not if they wanted them to take off. The operational commanders asked for help figuring out the best places to add what little protection they could. It was here that Wald prevented the military from falling prey to survivorship bias  [....]

The military looked at the bombers that had returned from enemy territory. They recorded where those planes had taken the most damage. Over and over again, they saw the bullet holes tended to accumulate along the wings, around the tail gunner, and down the center of the body. Wings. Body. Tail gunner. Considering this information, where would you put the extra armor? Naturally, the commanders wanted to put the thicker protection where they could clearly see the most damage, where the holes clustered. But Wald said no, that would be precisely the wrong decision. Putting the armor there wouldn’t improve their chances at all.

Do you understand why it was a foolish idea? The mistake, which Wald saw instantly, was that the holes showed where the planes were strongest. The holes showed where a bomber could be shot and still survive the flight home, Wald explained. After all, here they were, holes and all. It was the planes that weren’t there that needed extra protection, and they had needed it in places that these planes had not. The holes in the surviving planes actually revealed the locations that needed the least additional armor. Look at where the survivors are unharmed, he said, and that’s where these bombers are most vulnerable; that’s where the planes that didn’t make it back were hit. [my boldings]  [....]

Simply put, survivorship bias is your tendency to focus on survivors instead of whatever you would call a non-survivor depending on the situation. Sometimes that means you tend to focus on the living instead of the dead, or on winners instead of losers, or on successes instead of failures. In Wald’s problem, the military focused on the planes that made it home and almost made a terrible decision because they ignored the ones that got shot down.  [....]
McRaney sums up the key analytical lesson, which is relevant and important in a wide range of situations.
The Misconception: You should study the successful if you wish to become successful.

The Truth: When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.
=>  More generally, you always have to compare, explicitly or implicitly.  And sometimes you have to compare what you see, and what you know actually happened, with what you can't see, or perhaps didn't even happen ... but could have happened.

The problem of "survivorship bias" is one specific instance of a larger phenomenon that analytical philosophers refer to as the problem of "counterfactuals".  For some other takes on the problem of counterfactuals, see here & here.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. [10/31/2016]: And check out this cartoon. (Thanks to Jacob Levy for the tip.)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

EU arms embargo for Syria ends

To be precise, the EU foreign ministers did not agree to end the embargo against arming any of the parties in the Syrian civil war (as implied by this New York Times headline).  But they failed to come to agreement about extending it.  So the EU-wide embargo has now expired, leaving individual countries free to make their own decisions.

This might turn out to be a big deal, and it might not.  Meanwhile, it does look like a potentially significant event, and one that exposes serious disagreements between different western governments about how to respond to the Syrian crisis.
BRUSSELS — Divisions among European Union foreign ministers on Monday prevented the renewal of the arms embargo on Syria, raising the possibility of a new flow of weapons to rebels fighting to bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and worsen,” William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said after more than 12 hours of stormy talks.

In a declaration, the European Union said member states that might wish to send weapons to Syrian rebels “shall assess the export license applications on a case-by-case basis” in line with the organization’s rules on exports of military technology and equipment.

The ministers did agree to renew all the economic sanctions already in place against the Syrian government.

But efforts to ease the arms embargo, led by Britain, exposed deep rifts on Monday over the issue of arming the rebels. [....]

Austria, the Czech Republic and Sweden came to the meeting strongly opposing arms shipments. They distrust large parts of the Syrian opposition and said they feared that the weapons would end up in the hands of jihadist groups.

France supported Britain in seeking to ease the embargo, but had called for a wider consensus. [....]
Concerns about jihadist elements among the rebels can't simply be dismissed. On the other hand, the perverse result of the present situation is that one side in the civil war, the Assad regime, is being heavily armed, supplied, reinforced, and otherwise supported by Russia and Iran and Lebanon's Hizbullah, while the most poisonous Sunni-jihadist tendencies on the rebel side have their own outside sources of support and reinforcements ... and the less extremist tendencies within the opposition are starved for arms and supplies.

So there are genuine dilemmas there. However, other arguments against lifting the embargo, which got predictably recycled during this conference, are absurd and dishonest.
There were also fears that Russia, which already sends arms to the Syrian government, would feel freer to send more.  [....]
In the real world, there is not the slightest sign that Russia doesn't already feel "free" to send as many arms to Syria as it thinks are necessary to help keep the Assad regime in power. In so far as there are prudential restraints on the quantity and quality of weapons it is willing to supply, the EU embargo hardly counts as a significant factor.
"I’m glad at the end of the day we were able to have a sanctions regime for all the other sanctions that were in place," Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign minister, said after the meeting.

Mr. Timmermans said none of the union’s member nations, including his own, intended to ship arms to the Syrian rebels immediately. But he warned that lifting the arms embargo could lead Russia to step up its arms shipments to the Assad government.

"The only effect you could have — let’s be realistic about this — is that it will stimulate the Russians to provide even more arms,” he said.
I'm groping for the right word with which to describe this pseudo-"realistic" argument, and I guess the best word would be "stupid". This is reminiscent of the fatuous arguments used to defend the policy of so-called "non-intervention" by outsiders during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. In practice, the result was that the Spanish Republic got no help from the western democracies, while the Franco forces got massive amounts of arms, supplies, military reinforcements, and other assistance from the Axis powers (only partly counterbalanced by assistance to the Republicans from the Soviet Union, which had its own unfortunate implications). A one-sided arms embargo simply favors the side whose foreign patrons ignore it.

If the Russians had been participating in an embargo against arming the pro-Assad forces in Syria, or even pretending to respect such an embargo, concerns like the ones expressed by Timmermans might almost make sense. But the Russians haven't been doing anything of the sort.

Even Timmermans must have realized how stupid he sounded, because he went on to add:
"But they’ve been providing so many arms that I’m sure even more will not make much of a difference."
=> As I said, the expiration of the EU embargo might or might not turn out to have significant practical consequences in the medium or long term. The US government appears to be internally conflicted about its Syrian policy and deeply reluctant to get involved, even indirectly. (That reluctance is certainly understandable, whether or not one thinks it is ultimately wise.)  As long as that remains true, hypothetical actions by some European countries probably won't alter the situation in any decisive ways. But stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Drop blasphemy charges against Sanal Edamaruku

Earlier this month Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, a high-ranking figure in the Roman Catholic Church, called for the world-wide repeal of laws against blasphemy. As I noted in a recent post (Pope Pius IX's "Syllabus of Errors" in retrospect), this was a significant event, but not as astonishing as it might once have been.  Part of the context for Scola's condemnation of blasphemy laws is the fact that in many parts of the world today, especially in some Muslim-dominated societies, blasphemy laws are frequently used to target and persecute Christians, including Catholics.  But Scola's statements were also a manifestation of a deeper and more comprehensive evolution in Catholic doctrine over the past century (especially since Vatican II), in which the Church has gradually moved toward a generalized embrace of the principles of freedom of conscience, religious liberty, and even the legitimacy and value of religious pluralism.  That's a momentous shift.

In September 2012, during a visit to the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI (now Pope Emeritus) defended these principles in sweeping and eloquent terms:
Religious freedom is the pinnacle of all other freedoms. It is a sacred and inalienable right.  [....]  Religious freedom is rooted in the dignity of the person; it safeguards moral freedom and fosters mutual respect.  [....]  A healthy secularity [....]  frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres.  [....]
=>  Do those ringing declarations include an acceptance of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression for non-religious people?  If the Church is really serious about having principled objections to blasphemy laws, one way to demonstrate this would be for the Vatican to use its influence to get Catholic organizations in India to call off the blasphemy prosecution against Sanal Edamaruku, head of the Indian Rationalist Association and an outspoken public intellectual.

Edamaruku was charged with blasphemy a year ago, fled when he discovered that police had turned up at his apartment to arrest him, and has been forced to live abroad ever since.  His application for bail was denied, so if he went home he would be imprisoned while waiting for his case to drag its way through the courts.

What did Edamaruku do?  In March 2012 water began to drip from the feet of a statue of the crucified Christ in a Catholic church in Mumbai.  Thousands of people flocked to the site to observe this miracle and to collect the holy water dripping from the statue, in some cases drinking it.  The church was promoted as a site for pilgrimage.  Edamaruku investigated the phenomenon, and demonstrated that the dripping water was caused by a blocked drainage system behind the base of the statue.  (For an explanatory video, see here.)

The fact that he had debunked this apparent miracle was sufficiently upsetting to some Mumbai Catholics that they used the blasphemy laws to charge him with "deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”—a crime under the Indian penal code.

It's hard to imagine a better example to illustrate the point that blasphemy laws are a generally bad idea.  And in this case the ones using the blasphemy laws to intimidate freedom of speech and open discussion are Catholics.  Well, what does the Vatican have to say about this?

=>  India has a problem with blasphemy laws and the mind-set behind them.  Those laws are mostly residues of colonial-era legislation, but they are definitely not fading away.  (India also has other problems involving religious bigotries and antagonisms, including occasional outbursts of large-scale inter-sectarian violence manipulated by political demagogues, but we can leave those for another discussion.)  Unlike the situation in many Muslim countries, where blasphemy laws are used almost exclusively against non-Muslims or Muslims that other Muslims consider insufficiently orthodox, in India members of many religious groups seem to be eager to take offense and to resort to these laws to launch accusations of blasphemy.  Legal prosecutions are often supplemented with other expressions of displeasure, including mob violence, death threats, and the like.

Sometimes accusations of blasphemy are used  to suppress or censor important literary and artistic works.  For example, n 1988 Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was banned in India even before the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie to be murdered, and it is still banned in India today. (In 2012, four authors attending a literary conference who read excerpts from The Satanic Verses aloud were threatened with arrest and left town.)  In 2006 one of India's most renowned modern artists, Maqbool Fida Husain, felt it prudent to flee the country after a sustained campaign of lawsuits, vilification, and intimidation directed against him, including death threats, attacks on galleries that displayed his work, and an attack on his home.  Hindu-fundamentalist extremists objected, among other things, to the fact that some of his paintings depicted Hindu deities in the nude (not unlike some classical Hindu religious art, by the way).  He died in exile in London in 2011.  And so on.

But sometimes blasphemy prosecutions are simply used to render superstitions immune from criticism.  I know the word "superstition" is a loaded one, but it's hard to describe the case against Edamaruku any other terms.  If some people want to get upset with him for debunking this bogus miracle, fine.  That's understandable.  But they shouldn't be able to use the law to threaten him with jail time for it.

Edamaruku, who was granted asylum in Finland, has been trying to rally public support in Europe to urge the Indian government to drop the prosecution against him.  As he said in an interview with the Guardian:
"There is a huge contradiction [between] the content of the Indian constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and the blasphemy law from 1860 under then colonial rule"  [....]  "It is an absurd law but also extremely dangerous because it gives fanatics, whether they are Hindus, Catholics or Muslims, a [license] to be offended. It also allows people who are in dispute with you to make up false accusations of blasphemy."
To be fair, the prosecution of Edamaraku was not initiated by the Indian Catholic Church per se, but by Mumbai-based Catholic organizations.  However, a public indication by the Indian Church that it opposed this prosecution could have a major impact, if only by giving political cover to the government for dropping the case.  And there have been international calls for the Indian Church to take this position, or to use more informal influences to get the instigators of this prosecution to drop their complaints, but so far it hasn't done anything.

Perhaps a friendly word from the Vatican would be helpful?  It would be the right thing to do ... and it might also be an indication that the Church's new-found opposition to blasphemy laws is genuinely principled and not purely self-interested.

=>  Meanwhile, anyone who is interested, Catholic or otherwise, can sign a petition asking the Indian government to Drop blasphemy charges against Sanal Edamaruku.

Yours for freedom of expression and elementary sanity,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  By the way, there are still blasphemy laws on the books in some European countries, as well as efforts in some other countries to smuggle them back in under the guise of treating speech, writing, or other forms of expression that offend religious sentiments as "hate speech".  In practice, most of those blasphemy laws are vestigial and unenforced, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to clean up the legal codes by getting rid of them, as well as affirming the principle of freedom of expression more generally.  The Netherlands and Ireland have been moving in that direction, and others should follow.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

Is the military balance in Syria swinging to Assad?

Battleground Syria: the frontlines of the fighting between the rebels and Assad’s forces
Graphic by Mark Oliver for The Telegraph.)

Maybe, maybe not.

From one perspective, the prospects for Assad and his regime might seem hopeless.  They have lost control of large parts of the country, and appear to have given up hope of retaking them any time soon; most of the Syrian population wants to see them gone, along with the great majority of other (Sunni) Arabs and the governments of Turkey,  most Arab countries; the US, and much of Europe; significant portions of their armed forces have deserted, and many of those that remain are too unreliable to risk using for serious combat; and so on.  But there are plausible signs that, despite all that, the regime feels its position is not just viable but actually getting stronger.

It might even be right, according to some analysts whose arguments are forcefully summed up in a recent Washington Post article by Liz Sly.  They argue that the regime has shifted its strategy toward consolidating control of those areas of the country it considers crucial, while temporarily abandoning the rest, and falling back on its core base of support in the country's Alawite minority, which provide it with reliable troops and paramilitary militias..
Pro-Assad analysts credit a major restructuring of government forces that has better equipped them to confront the insurgency. The ranks of the conventional Syrian army — weary, depleted and demoralized by defections, casualties and more than a year of continuous fighting — are being swelled by the deployment of some 60,000 militia irregulars trained at least in part by Hezbollah and Iranian advisers.

Most of the members of the National Defense Force are drawn from Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and they are regarded as more reliably loyal to Assad than the rank and file of the majority Sunni army, government supporters say.

“The army is 70 percent Sunni, and so the regime kept a lot of them in their barracks,” said Salem Zahran, an analyst and journalist who meets regularly with leaders of the Assad government. “The National Defense Force is made up of people who believe in the regime.”
(Not least because they are terrified of what will happen if it falls.)  Furthermore, the regime still has the only air force in the war and almost all the heavy weapons, which it can use to batter rebel forces and cities controlled by the opposition.  It is being heavily armed and supplied by Iran and Russia, and is getting valuable reinforcements from Lebanon's Hizbullah militia that outnumber and outweigh the smaller numbers of foreign Sunni jihadists fighting with the rebels.  As long as the US and other western counties are unwilling to match the assistance provided by Iran and Russia by arming the rebels, or to take other steps that would neutralize the regime's military advantages, such as no-fly zones, it can expect these advantages to continue.  And a number of factors make western governments reluctant to take such steps, including the presence of radical jihadist tendencies among the rebels—whose role, ironically, is enhanced by the unwillingness of western countries to arm and supply other factions in the opposition.. Meanwhile, the rebel forces remain fragmented as well as poorly armed.

Therefore, according to this analysis, the regime is beginning to feel increasingly confident that it can stay in power, wear down the rebels in the long run, and eventually emerge victorious. The "goal is first to secure the center, and then strike out to win back the rest of the country, province by province."  (By that time, the country will be in ruins, and Syrian society will be irretrievably polarized by sectarian hatreds, but such is life.)

Perhaps that confidence will turn out to be justified. For the moment, my impression is that analyses pointing to a continuation of military stalemate and social meltdown in Syria still look most persuasive.

 => One analyst making arguments along these lines, though with an emphasis on the resilience and growing confidence of the Assad regime, is the generally acute Jonathan Spyer.  He is not willing to predict victory for Assad and his regime, but he argues that, at least for the moment, they are not on the ropes:
The imminent demise of the regime of Bashar Assad has been announced on numerous occasions over the last two years of civil war in Syria. But the regime has held on. Despite some advances by rebels in the south of the country in the early months of 2013, Assad shows no signs of cracking.

Indeed, in the last few weeks, the momentum of the fighting has shifted somewhat. Regime forces have clawed back areas of recent rebel advance. The government side, evidently under Iranian tutelage, has showed an impressive and unexpected ability to adapt itself to the changing demands of the war.  [....]

Assad’s forces carried out a strategic withdrawal. In effect, the regime ceded large swathes of northern and eastern Syria to the Arab rebels and to Kurdish separatists.  Assad held on to the cities of the north; the western coastal area; the area around the capital, Damascus; and the highways between all these.

The dictator and his Iranian patrons then settled down to a process of attrition – with the twin goals of preserving their own area of rule, and rendering ungovernable the area under rebel control. This latter goal was attempted through the use of air power, artillery and latterly ballistic missiles against civilian targets.  [....]

Damascus remains a fearsome prospect for any rebel force wishing to enter it. The regime has assembled a huge array of artillery and missile systems on Mount Qassioun, a strategically vital area of high ground over the city.  The regime has also entrenched its most loyal and able fighters, including the Republican Guards, the 4th Armored Division, elements of the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Alawite paramilitaries trained by Iran in the city.  [....]  Hezbollah fighters operating on behalf of the regime in the eastern part of the country and backed by regime air power have driven the rebels back in the Qusayr area in central Homs province. In so doing, they have ensured that the vital Damascus-Homs highway remains open (though with heavy losses, according to reports).  [....]

But the regime’s rallying has taken place not only on the battlefields.  Assad has from the outset possessed a clear narrative of the conflict, according to which his regime is facing attack from an alliance of jihadi “terrorists.”  The irony of this version of events is rich, given that the dictatorship in the not-at-all-distant past made ample use of Sunni jihadi clients, employing them to destabilize neighboring Iraq  [....]

The West’s preference to refrain from directly supporting the rebellion left a vacuum, which has been largely filled by Islamist fighters and transnational jihadi groups.  So the regime’s predictions now constitute a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It is an account of events that has some resonance beyond circles naturally sympathetic to Assad. The result is that morale among supporters of the regime has improved markedly in recent weeks.

The Assad regime has benefited on every level from the support of a determined international coalition, which has stood behind the dictator since the outset of the rebellion.  Russia, Iran, its proxy Hezbollah and the Maliki government in Iraq are all playing a central role. [By contrast, the] latest indications are that the US and the West still prefer to stay directly out of it, despite the obvious crossing of notional “red lines” regarding the use of chemical weapons.

It is thus likely that the Assad regime will be around for some time to come.

This regime may be a study in vileness from a moral point of view, but Assad and his allies over the last two years have shown what can be achieved when a clear strategic goal is wedded to a willingness to use the most ruthless and murderous of means. Only a comparable level of cohesion and commitment from the rebellion and its backers is likely to prove sufficient to finally terminate Assad’s rule.

This shows no signs of emerging.

Assad, then, isn’t winning – despite the new bullishness of his supporters. But right now, he isn’t losing either.
=>  On the other hand, one could also take a number of elements of this analysis and frame them in a somewhat different way, with more emphasis on the fact that Assad "isn't winning".  This is how David Kenner puts it:
After two years of crowing that the end of Bashar al-Assad was nigh, the official and popular perceptions in the United States and Europe of the Syrian president's staying power have shifted dramatically. There's a new narrative taking hold, fueled by both media reports and assessments by Western intelligence agencies -- that the Assad regime is largely stable, and making significant gains against the rebels throughout the country.
Not so fast. While the regime has made progress on a few fronts, its actual territorial gains are so far rather minor. And in other parts of the country, it's the rebels who are still on the offensive. The Syrian war isn't turning into a regime rout -- the stalemate is only deepening,
In northern Syria, the rebels continue to make slow progress against the remaining Syrian military outposts.  [....]  
The most active front where Assad is on the offensive is Qusayr, where rebel forces are defending the western city from a joint assault by Hezbollah and Syrian military forces. The battle has dragged on for six days, despite early regime claims of a quick victory, with Hezbollah suffering significant losses in the conflict. Given the balance of forces, Qusayr will likely eventually fall to Assad. But despite being regularly described in the press as "strategic" -- much like every other contested town in Syria has been -- it is not the only opposition hub for weapons flowing from Lebanon, and its strategic benefits went largely unremarked during the more than a year it was under the control of the opposition.
Elsewhere, Assad's victories have largely consisted of preventing the rebels from making progress. [....]

Assad also has a numbers problem. As this valuable article from the Washington Post's Liz Sly  [JW: the same article by Liz Sly quoted earlier]  makes clear, his gains have largely been achieved through mobilizing some 60,000 militiamen drawn primarily from the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs. The short-term benefits of that strategy are obvious -- but by increasing the sectarian nature of this struggle, Assad endangers his remaining Sunni support, which has been so vital to his family's dynasty since his father seized power in 1970. By relying solely on minority groups -- even with Hezbollah support -- it is unclear how the Syrian regime has the manpower to reclaim the large swathes of territory it has lost in the north and the east.
None of this is to say that the old conventional wisdom -- that Assad's fall was just around the corner -- was right all along. However, the narrative that the Syrian regime is making sweeping gains across the country is just as wrongheaded. What we are really witnessing is the beginning of a bloody conflict that, if the world does nothing to stop it, could continue for years on end.
At the moment, that looks like a safe bet.

—Jeff Weintraub

Adam LeBor offers some reflections on sex, violence, and dangerous women in the Bible

Some of those women are dangerous because of their sexual wiles, and they're often presented in an unflattering light—I guess Delilah is the most striking example. But others are presented as admirably heroic, courageous, and aggressive—even ferocious.

My friend Adam LeBor, an author and  journalist who lives in Budapest, is writing a series of thrillers about international espionage and skullduggery that feature a heroine named Yael Azoulay.  I haven't read any of these thrillers, but I did notice the piece below, in which he reflects on some of the the Biblical background and inspiration for his heroine.

Incidentally, Adam's discussion here focuses on two formidable women in the Hebrew Bible (or, as people in the dominant culture call it, the Old Testament ), Yael and Judith. But as he points out, the Biblical Yael makes her appearance in connection with the story of Deborah, the female prophet who led the Israelites in a successful war against the Canaanite king Jabin. In her own way, Deborah might also be regarded as one of those heroically formidable and dangerous Biblical women.

—Jeff Weintraub

(P.S.  Another part of the imaginative background to these thrillers, it seems, was Adam's experience as a journalist covering the some of the mass atrocities of the 1990s and the first years of the 21st century, including the Balkan wars and the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, and the world's failure to prevent or stop those atrocities.  He dealt with that subject in a book worth reading:  Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide. Sometimes real life is less inspiring and emotionally satisfying than fiction, as Adam suggests.)

Harry's Place
May 20, 2013
A modern thriller with biblical roots
By Adam LeBor

This is a cross post from The Times of Israel

Sex, murder, betrayal: the story of Yael, recounted in the Book of Judges, makes enthralling reading. I first heard of her deeds in a Jewish history lesson at school, more than thirty years ago, and Yael still captivates me.

Jabin, the king of the Canaanites, had cruelly oppressed the Israelites. Deborah, the Hebrew prophetess, summoned Barak, her general. She told Barak that God had ordered him to lead an army of 10,000 men against Sisera, Jabin’s military commander. The battle took place and Barak’s soldiers duly routed Sisera’s forces. Sisera fled to the tent of Heber, whose family was allied with Jabin, believing that he would find sanctuary there. This was a mistake.

Yael, Heber’s wife, welcomed Sisera inside, and gave him a drink of milk and a blanket. Sisera fell into a deep sleep. When Barak passed by, looking for Sisera, Yael ushered him inside. There was Sisera, dead, with a tent-peg rammed through his head.

Yael may have been even more ruthless. An alternative version, told as a poem, the Song of Deborah, in Judges chapter 5, recounts that Yael crushed Sisera’s head and then he fell at her feet – thus, Yael despatched the general while he was still awake and standing. According to the Gemara, Yael slept with Sisera seven times to completely exhaust him before she killed him, which certainly would do the trick, especially after fleeing a battle.

We will never know exactly what did or did not take place in that tent, but either way, Yael was clearly not a woman to be messed with. I began to look at the nice, north-west London, Jewish girls in my class in a whole new light. The school camping trip suddenly seemed less appealing.

The story of Yael was also a revelation in another sense. It made me realise that the Bible and its contemporaneous literature were rich in powerful human stories with a contemporary resonance. Think of the anguish of Moses, forbidden to enter Israel, or King David, despatching Uriah to the front to be killed, so that David may take his widow, Bathsheba, as his wife.

The story of Judith, for example, may be the world’s first behind-enemy-lines spy tale. Judith was a brave and beautiful widow. When Holofernes, one of Nebuchadnezzar’s generals, laid siege to her home town and cut off the water supply, the people wanted to surrender. Judith crossed the lines and entered Holofernes’ camp. Pretending to be a defector, she ingratiated herself with him. Judith was even more ruthless than Yael. When Holofernes was drunk, Judith cut off his head and returned home, carrying it in a bag.

There is something both immensely appealing and also unsettling about women such as Yael and Judith. Their stories completely subvert our expectations of Biblical women, who, like Sarah, the wife of Abraham, are often marginal figures, mentioned mainly for their children, or lack of them. But Yael and Judith act, seize control and dispose of the enemy with a cold, precise, efficiency.

As the late Tikva Frymer-Kensky, a noted Biblical scholar, noted of the second, poetic, account of Yael, “Her deed is clearly heroic: she is a ferocious woman warrior, offering milk in a princely bowl, taking a tent-peg and hammer in her hands and crushing Sisera’s head. Nothing is said about blankets or sleep.”

The story of Judith, in particular, has fascinated artists through the ages. She has been immortalised by poets, writers and painted by Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Gustav Klimt.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio (PD-art)
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio (PD-art)

The Biblical Yael inspired Yael Azoulay, the heroine of my new series of conspiracy thrillers. Yael Azoulay works for the United Nations, brokering the secret deals behind the scenes that keep the wheels of superpower diplomacy and big business rolling. Yael is a modern woman – a 21st century heroine, haunted by her past, with a complex identity, but one firmly rooted in Israel.

Yael Azoulay is also rooted in my own journalistic experience. My time as a reporter in Yugoslavia, covering the Balkan wars, gave me an inside view of superpower diplomacy and UN peacekeeping operations and the catastrophic compromises that result – nowhere more than Srebrenica, in Bosnia, where UN peacekeepers stood by as Bosnian Serbs led 8,000 Muslim men and boys to their deaths. That led to my non-fiction book, Complicity with Evil, which investigated the UN’s failure to prevent genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.

Then my imagination went to work. What if there was someone working for the UN with a powerful moral drive to do good, yet who was forced to operate in the shadows? Even to kill? Thus was born Yael Azoulay. Centuries after the Biblical Yael lured Sisera into her tent on a false promise of sanctuary, the question of whether the ends justifies the means is still a powerful engine for an gripping story.

A short story by Adam LeBor featuring his biblically-inspired heroine, The Istanbul Exchange: A Yael Azoulay Short Story can be downloaded free of charge in all formats as an e-book from the Harper Collins website.

Adam LeBor’s thriller of international espionage, The Geneva Option, published by Telegram in the UK and HarperCollins in the US, sees Yael Azoulay take on a brutal conspiracy to control Africa’s natural resources.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Nasrallah commits Hizbullah to all-out war for Assad in Syria


From today's New York Times:
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The leader of the powerful Lebanese [Shiite] militant group Hezbollah decisively committed his followers on Saturday to an all-out battle in Syria to defeat the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. [....]

“It is our battle, and we are up to it,” the leader, Hassan Nasrallah, declared in his most direct embrace yet of a fight in Syria that Hezbollah can no longer hide, now that dozens of its fighters have fallen in and around the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr. Outgunned Syrian rebels have held on for a week there against a frontal assault by Hezbollah and Syrian forces.

Hezbollah has essentially become the ground assault force for the Syrian Army, an unprecedented role for the group, in the battle for Qusayr and Homs Province, which links Damascus with the government’s coastal strongholds. [....] Hezbollah is also fighting near Damascus, Mr. Assad’s other top military priority, around the Sayida Zeinab shrine, a holy site particularly revered by the group’s Shiite Muslims. [....]
The fighting in Syria has already begun to spill over into Lebanon, as part of a region-wide sectarian polarization over the Syrian civil war.  Hizbullah's increasingly open and active involvement in Syria has accelerated this process. In Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, for example, there have been growing clashes between Alawite militias sympathetic to the (Alawite-dominated) Assad regime and Sunni militias sympathetic to the (overwhelmingly Sunni) Syrian rebels. Today there was a warning shot in Beirut:
Two rockets crashed into southern Beirut suburbs controlled by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah on Sunday, wounding four people in what appeared to be the first attack on the group’s Beirut stronghold in more than two years of sectarian tensions here over the civil war next door in Syria.

It was unclear who fired the rockets, which Lebanese authorities said came from the hills southeast of the city. Syrian rebel leaders denied involvement. But some rebel commanders threatened last week to hit the area in retaliation for Hezbollah’s growing role in the fierce battle for the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr. Just a day before the rocket attacks, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, declared that his forces would fight to the end to support their allies in the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. [....]

Reflecting Lebanon’s deep divide over Syria, some mainly condemned Sunday’s attack, while others blamed Hezbollah’s plunge deeper into Syria. [....] “Lebanese citizens and leaders should be awakened by this warning before Lebanon explodes,” the country’s mufti, Sheik Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, a Sunni, told Lebanon’s LBC television. [....]
Nasrallah is unabashed. It's clear he believes that keeping the Assad regime in power, preventing the emergence of a Sunni-dominated Syria, and thus preserving the key supply route from Iran to Hizbullah add up to a life-and-death matter for Hizbullah. Here are selections from a longer report on his speech in Lebanon's Naharnet::
Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah stated Saturday that the resistance will win the battle against the “United States, Israel and the Takfiris just like it emerged victorious in previous wars,” assuring that he will not allow the “breaking of its backbone.” [....]

Nasrallah remarked: “The Takfiris are the most prevailing group in the Syrian opposition.” [....]

[JW: Technically, "takfiris" are Muslims who accuse others of not being real Muslims. Nasrallah is using that term here to refer to radical Sunni jihadists, such as al-Qaeda, who are anti-Shiite as well as anti-American, anti-western, anti-secular, anti-modern, anti-Israel, and anti-semitic. At the height of the fighting in Iraq during the past decade, for example, Sunni jihadists murdered tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiite civilians as part of an unsuccessful effort by the so-called "insurgency" to restore the dominance of the Sunni Arab minority over Iraq.]

Nasrallah considered that what is happening in the neighboring country is very crucial for Lebanon, explaining that through the stand his party is taking, it is defending Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. [....]

“The events in the last couple of years have proved that there is an axis led by the United States while the rest are working under its orders. Everyone knows this axis is supported by Israel while al-Qaida and other Takfiri organizations from around the world were paid to take part in it,” he detailed.

[JW: That's a ludicrous idea, of course. But whether Nasrallah is being simply dishonest when he makes this claim, or genuinely delusional, is an open question.]

Hizbullah denied its involvement in Syria for some time, quietly burying fighters killed in the fighting there.

But the movement stopped hiding its dead when its leader Sayyed Nasrallah on April 30 paid homage to fighters killed across the border.

"Syria has true friends in the region who will not allow Syria to fall into the hands of the United States, Israel and Takfiri groups," he said in a televised address. [....]
In short, according to Nasrallah, over the decades:
"We have lost thousands of martyrs and we consider that through our stand we are defending Lebanon, Palestine and Syria."
=>  Hussein Ibish's tart retort on Facebook: "Nasrallah lies".

Precisely. Nasrallah's claim turns reality upside down. And the fact that it sounds even half-plausible to many Lebanese only shows how easy it can sometimes be for societies in distress (and I don't just mean Lebanese!) to get suckered by flagrantly dishonest propaganda. The unaccountable state-within-a-state that Hizbullah has been able to build up and maintain, with a militia more powerful than the Lebanese Army, actually poses great dangers for Lebanon. Among other things, it means that Hizbullah can, on its own initiative, drag the whole country into wars that most Lebanese don't really want to fight. Hizbullah did that in 2006, when it dragged Lebanon into a destructive and totally unnecessary war with Israel. (I suspect some people may have forgotten who started that war.  It wasn't the Israelis.)  And Hizbullah is now doing its bit to embroil Lebanon in the Syrian civil war.  Stay tuned ...

 —Jeff Weintraub

Who has been committing war crimes and other atrocities in Syria?

The short answer, unfortunately, is that forces on all sides of this complex and chaotic civil war, which increasingly includes foreign fighters as well as Syrians, have been committing war crimes and other atrocities.  And those are obviously difficult to monitor very precisely from the outside.  But according to Human Rights Watch, it would be misleading to simply assume that the Assad regime and the opposition are equally guilty.

At a recent conference in Doha,
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, said the regime was responsible for the overwhelming majority of human rights abuses since the fighting broke out.
That would presumably include executions, massacres, and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, all of which have been in the news lately.  There is also the widespread use of torture, an old specialty of the Assad regime that has escalated recently:
She said HRW had recently found torture devices used by the regime — included devices used “to stretch people to death.” HRW had not found a basis for allegations of widespread rape, she said.
It seems that the rack never goes out of style.  Then there's another factor:
The Syrian regime has carried out indiscriminate and sometimes deliberate airstrikes against civilians that have killed at least 4,300 people since last summer and that amount to war crimes, an international human rights group said Thursday.

Human Rights Watch said Syrian fighter jets have deliberately targeted bakeries, bread lines and hospitals in the country's northern region.

Parts of northern Syria — especially areas along the border with Turkey — have in the past months fallen under the control of rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, including several neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, the country's largest urban center.

"The aim of the airstrikes appears to be to terrorize civilians from the air, particularly in the opposition-controlled areas where they would otherwise be fairly safe from any effects of fighting," Ole Solvang of the New York-based group told The Associated Press.

These attacks are "serious violations of international humanitarian law," and people who commit such breaches are "responsible for war crimes," the group said.

Solvang led the HRW team that inspected 52 sites in northern Syria and documented 59 unlawful attacks by the Syrian Air Force. At least 152 people were killed in these attacks, according to an HRW report released Thursday.

In most of the strikes, the regime planes appear to have had no military target in sight, such as armed opposition supporters or rebel headquarters, when they dropped their weapons on civilian areas, the group said.

The 80-page HRW report said that across Syria, more than 4,300 civilians have been killed in attacks by Assad's jets since last July.  [....]
Of course, it's hypothetically possible that the rebels might be doing the same thing if they had an air force.  But they don't.  And so far, according to all indications, massacres of civilians by the rebels have not matched those by government forces, including the sectarian Shabiha militia.  But if this bloodbath goes on long enough, generating increasing inter-sectarian hatreds in the process, the key phrase might turn out to be "so far".

=>  And at the moment there is no end in sight for this conflict, so things are likely to get even worse.  At the same conference in Doha, Salman Shaikh, director of the Doha Center of the Brookings Institution, issued the following warnings:
The killing of civilians in Syria “is going to on for a very long time,” he said. “Many more are going to die in the months and possibly years ahead.”  [....]

 He said that not only was Syria “on the abyss,” but that after two years of civil war, there was growing danger that the fighting could draw in “the entire region."  [....]
That sounds right, I'm afraid.

—Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why do Turks claim to hate us so much (according to opinion polls)?

Speaking of Turkey (which I did earlier today) ... I recently noticed a guest post on the very interesting Ottomans and Zionists blog that raised some perplexing questions.  The writer of that post, Alexander Slater, asked the question "Are Turks and Americans Friends?", based on the Turkish results from the Pew Research Center's 2012 Global Attitudes Survey.  Of course, results from public opinion polls always have to be taken with a grain of salt and interpreted with caution.  Nevertheless, these results are striking enough, and odd enough, that they might be worth pondering.

A few months ago, in March, Slater spent two weeks traveling in Turkey as a participant in "an intercultural exchange run jointly by the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center. [....]  The Pew survey results paint a very different picture than what I saw and heard during our travels."

Let me just quote Slater's summaries of some of the findings (which you can double-check against the Pew Survey report, if you like).
According to the survey, only 15 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States. Even fewer—only 13 percent—indicated they have a “favorable view of the American people.” (This was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed. By contrast, 32 percent of Egyptians and 39 percent of Chinese—nationals of countries with arguably more contentious relations with the United States than Turkey—had a favorable view of Americans.)
What makes those Turkish figures especially striking is that in many countries where anti-Americanism runs rampant, respondents often tell pollsters that although they hate the US government and its policies, they think the Americans are OK as people. Whether or not they actually believe it, that's what they say when surveyed. Not only didn't Turkish respondents draw that distinction, but they actually expressed a less favorable opinion of the American people than of the US overall.

And in public opinion polls in numerous other countries over the years, respondents often claim to admire American democracy—42% of Egyptians in this Pew survey, for example—while disliking the people who actually run the American government.  (Many Americans feel that way, come to think of it.)  Not these Turkish respondents.
[A]ccording to the Pew survey, only 14 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ways of doing business.” (Like the results discussed above, this was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed.)  [....]  According to the Pew survey, only 13 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ideas about democracy.” (This was the second-lowest rating, ahead of only Pakistan.)  [....]
And so on.  If we believe the survey results, they don't like anything about America, Americans, American society, or the American way of life.

This is peculiar.  Of course, I appreciate that people in Turkey, like people in a lot of other countries, have a wide range of grievances against the US, real and imagined.  Many of them, for example, are still angry with George W. Bush about the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath.  Turks have always tended to believe that the US unfairly sides with Greece regarding controversies between the two countries, just as Greeks have always tended to believe the opposite (and there are grains of truth in both attitudes, though both are overdone).  More religious and socially conservative Turks, the sort who support the Islamist AK Party, no doubt resent the long period of friendly alliance between the US government and the secular Kemalist establishment, whereas I know that a lot of secular Turks believe that the US government has (somehow) been promoting the coming to power of Erdogan and the AKP.  Broad sectors of Turkish public opinion have become very hostile to Israel, for various reasons, and some of that hostility no doubt rubs off on the US by association.  Etc., etc.

But can any of those factors, or all of them put together, begin to explain why public attitudes in Turkey would be more thoroughly and pervasively anti-American than public attitudes in, say, Egypt??  (And that's ignoring the fact that it would also be easy to rattle off reasons that Turks might have for feeling more well-disposed toward the US.)

No, it doesn't make any sense.  Furthermore, various other bits of information and evidence make it hard for me to believe that the overwhelming majority of Turks are really that hostile toward America, American society, American democracy, the American people, and everything else about America.  And although I've only visited Turkey once myself, about a decade and a half ago, no American I've ever read or spoken to who visited Turkey has reported encountering the kinds of broad-based anti-American sentiments that the attitudes expressed in these survey results would suggest.  Frankly, my (highly non-expert and subjective) reaction is to suspect that many of these survey respondents didn't really mean it, or at least that they exaggerated the intensity of their anti-American feelings when talking to the pollsters.  But then why would they do that?

So as I said at the beginning, I'm totally perplexed.  But what do I know?  For the moment, I will just report these survey results, whatever they might be worth, as a curious puzzle to consider.  More mysteries of public opinion polling ...

—Jeff Weintraub