Archive for December, 2008

As Bush exits, four high-profile (Jewish) felons hope for pardons

Posted in Media Watch with tags , , , , on December 31, 2008 by The 800 Pound Gorilla

20090129180055627_1The Jewish Daily Forward
December 31, 2008

Even the naughtiest Jews know the commandments against breaking the law. But for those who just couldn’t help themselves, the road to redemption — for the next three weeks, anyway — leads straight through the Oval Office.

The pardon season was kicked off with a high-profile Jewish story: President Bush’s pardon of a deceased non-Jewish air force pilot, Charles Winters, who illegally sent arms to the nascent Israeli government during its 1948 fight for independence. Among the remaining cases before Bush, four involve high-profile Jews who likely have a last chance at clemency with the traditional end-of-term pardons.

One of those, Isaac Toussie, is a member of the tight-knit Syrian community. Toussie had an initial pardon granted, and then rescinded, just before Christmas 2008.

Public campaigns have been launched on behalf of Jonathan Pollard, the Navy analyst who was sent to jail for spying on behalf of Israel, and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a leading neoconservative and former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney. Jewish philanthropist and former junk-bond king Michael Milken had his application for pardon submitted by Washington bigwig Ted Olsen.

Bush’s Justice Department has received a record number of requests for pardon — reportedly more than 650 — but the president has granted relatively few in comparison with his predecessors. Still, supporters of these candidates say that Bush may be the best chance these men have. Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel and a leader in the effort to free Pollard, said: “We have a president who’s a friend of Israel. This is the best opportunity we’ll have for a while.”

Each man has chosen a different path on his quest for clemency. For Libby, supporters in the media, including the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, are pleading the case for a pardon. Milken, perhaps hoping to rehabilitate his image, has given hundreds of millions of dollars to charity and has sponsored various Jewish institutions. Pollard has had politicians and rabbis go to bat for him.

The path that has received the most scrutiny thus far is that of Toussie. The Brooklyn real estate developer was sentenced to five months in prison in 2003 for mail fraud and for falsifying mortgage documents.

Toussie appeared to make an end run around the Justice Department, hiring former White House lawyer Bradford Berenson, who had access to people close to the president. It also turned out that Toussie’s father, Robert, had given nearly $40,000 to the Republican National Committee and to GOP candidates in 2008.

It was a tried-and-true recipe for gaining clemency: Obtain a politically connected attorney, mix in a sizable donation to the party in power and watch as the usual hurdles toward clemency are bypassed.

But when it comes to redemption, the president who giveth can also taketh away. Toussie was pardoned on the same day as Winters, December 23, but that was retracted a day later, when news got out about the political donations from Toussie’s father.

P.S. Ruckman Jr., an executive clemency expert who edits the Pardon Power blog and authored the forthcoming book “Pardon Me, Mr. President: Adventures in Crime, Politics and Mercy,” said that Toussie’s experience is not unique: He has found at least a dozen examples of signed presidential clemency warrants that were later voided, revoked or canceled. In almost every case, the subject was eventually pardoned by the same president who had done the rescinding.

“So Toussie still has a chance,” Ruckman said. “An eventual pardon by Bush would not be unprecedented.”

Toussie could not be reached for comment.

In the Jewish communal world, the case that has attracted the most attention is that of Pollard.

The former U.S. Navy analyst, serving life in prison for passing military secrets to Israel, has been at the center of a high-profile campaign for clemency since the mid-’80s. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former CIA director James Woolsey have all said that they favor a pardon for the ex-spy. Every Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin has appealed to America’s government for his release.

Pollard’s supporters argue that his 1985 sentence to life in prison was excessive. But officials in America’s intelligence community have long opposed clemency for Pollard, claiming he exposed vital details about how the United States gathers and uses intelligence.

Even with the difficulties these men face, obtaining a pardon from the president still might be easier than achieving redemption in the Jewish sense.

“Repentance and pardon is a divine issue, a matter of Jewish law, and it’s outside the purview of the traditional justice system,” said Lawrence H. Schiffman, Chairman of New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. “Could you use some type of Jewish barometer to determine whether a person would deserve a pardon in American law? The guidance would come from whether the person had done things to make restitution. A person must also show that they’ve separated from the illegal activity.”

The above article can be found at:

As Bush exits, four high-profile (Jewish) felons hope for pardons

True Blood Libel

Posted in Media Watch with tags , , , on December 8, 2008 by The 800 Pound Gorilla

December 5, 2008

What a medieval “anti-Semitic myth” has in common with HBO’s vampire series

All of a sudden, and quite out of the blue, life expectancy has lengthened — to forever. Vampires are everywhere again, from the high-haired matinee idols driving tween box office in the form of Twilight — a film written by a Mormon who thinks the beautiful are the damned, and forbidden love can wait — to the HBO series True Blood, which tries to reconcile a fabled genus of social outcasts with a very real one. In executive producer Alan Ball’s rendering, vampires are like gays (some of them even are gay), who have “come out of the coffin” to declare themselves your friendly neighborhood nightstalkers, thanks to a synthetic Japanese-manufactured blood cocktail that sustains them in lieu of the warm, vein-delivered stuff. It’s a clever political trope, even if flagrantly pilfered from the X-Men series. Though who among us would argue with Anna Paquin’s ability to finally get laid?

Any talk of glowering immortals stomping the earth in a state of High Romantic sturm und drang always puts me in mind of a different allegory — that of the Wandering Jew. Perhaps you’re familiar with this apocalyptic, anti-Semitic myth, which tells of a Jewish shopkeeper who, upon seeing cross-carrying Christ pause on his way to Golgotha, mocks the rebel rebbe: “Go on quicker, Jesus! Go on quicker! Why dost Thou loiter?” For his insolence, the merchant is admonished by Christ: “I shall stand and rest, but thou shalt go on till the last day,” an incantation that condemns him to an eternity on earth. The inspiration for this fable of Hebraiophobic comeuppance derives from vague mutterings in the Gospel of Matthew as to the presence of those who “shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”

Sightings of the Wanderer throughout history have been said to presage the End Times, and so naturally sightings have been scattered and frequent. In the lead-up to the last millennium, and in reply to the chiliastic rumblings emanating from the ranks of fundamentalist Protestantism, Free Inquiry’s Martin Gardner wrote a well-researched essay about this subject, explaining that, as the clock ticked closer toward 2000, “it would not surprise me to see a picture of the Wandering Jew on the front page of one of the supermarket tabloids.” Eat your heart out, Bat Boy.

There are plenty of variations on the Wanderer theme, beginning with one explaining that Joseph of Aramethea was the death-thwarting wraith, whose real name was Cartaphilus. Aramethea, said to be one of the last persons to see Christ alive, was rumored to be tromping around Europe by the 13th century when an Armenian archbishop relayed his sorry tale to Roger of Wendover, who duly recorded it in Flores Historiarum.

Since then, the Wandering Jew has come into continental vogue cyclically, usually at times of cultural and political crisis. Eugene Sue French’s serialized novel Le Juif Erant (1844-1845) came out in Paris just in time for revolution, and well within the actuarial windows of future eyewitnesses to Alfred Dreyfus’s notorious unpleasantness. In England, George Macdonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate (1876) envisioned the Wanderer as an Anglican minister overcome with grief about the Crucifixion and clearly in the wrong line of work since he could not pass a cross without wanting to mount and hug it until he collapsed to the ground unconscious. Wingfold finds true love, only to then agonize over the object’s impending demise. They both try to off themselves by self-immolation in an active volcano-it works for her, but not for him. Nevertheless, Jesus returns to pardon his erstwhile catcaller and carries Wingfold off to heaven to be reunited with his girl in what may be the Book of Revelation’s sole answer to the happy ending.

Elsewhere in literature the image or palimpsest of the Wanderer has been “reclaimed” to self-aggrandizing effect, anticipating today’s sexy cool of angsty or amoral immortals. Benjamin Disraeli, England’s first and only Jewish prime minister, was equally assailed and envied in his time as a sinister “magician,” the Tory arriviste whose outsize ambition resulted in his owning the exclusive attention of one the most influential monarchs in history. Disraeli winkingly satirized himself-not to say his popular reputation-in the fictional character of Sidonia, a beside-the-scenes power broker who appears in three of the parliamentarian’s late novels: Sybil, Tancred, and Coningsby, in which he plays a major role. As Adam Kirsch points out in his recent, brilliant biography of Disraeli, Sidonia is the uncanny archetype for every post-Protocols “international Jewish mastermind.” He physically mirrors his creator in Iberian pallor, with an “impressive brow, and dark eyes of great intelligence.” Despite having the ear of every European diplomat, a bank account capable of rescuing gross national products (a task that often falls to him), and a sexual demeanor to parody Orientalist stereotype, Sidonia is afflicted with an acute disorder: “He might have discovered that perpetual spring of happiness in the sensibility of the heart. But this was a sealed fountain to Sidonia. In his organization there was a peculiarity, perhaps a great deficiency. He was a man without affections.” From Dracula to Barnabas Collins, vampires have warned their swooning prey not to get too attached….

“I am the Wandering Jew,” says George Eliot’s Herr Klesmer in her proto-Zionist novel Daniel Deronda (1876),

“flashing a smile at Miss Arrowpoint, and suddenly making a mysterious, wind-like rush backward and forward on the piano. Mr. Bult felt this buffoonery rather offensive and Polish, but — Miss Arrowpoint being there — did not like to move away.”

The difficulty of moving away is also, according to Wandering Jew legend, moored to an involuntary response: The unkillable shopkeeper is possessed of an irresistible charisma and glamour, just like True Blood’s Bill and Twilight’s Edward Cullen, who informs the unafraid new-girl-in-town Bella, “everything about me is designed to draw you in.” Here one recalls that Byron, one of the earliest international celebrities who made seduction and sport-*censored*ing seem Hegelian, served as the template for John Polidori’s foundational short story, The Vampyre. And Byron’s close friend and fellow radical poet was Shelley, who from a young, atheistic age grasped the abuses of enchantment, which he described with chilling precision in his first epic poem, helpfully titled The Wandering Jew (1810).

The future husband of the author of Frankenstein gave a sense of lyric tragedy to the medieval blood libel, naming his undead pale riding antihero Paulo, who bears the mark of a cross burned into his forehead and suffers from fitful bouts of depression. Shelley’s Wanderer is also the survivor of multiple attempts at suicide (lightning, volcano, cliffs) and when we first encounter him, he’s standing in a church watching a vestal virgin named Rosa offered up for sacrifice. He rescues her, falls for her, and, in the confines of his haunted castle, confesses his perfidious origins to her. Anne Rice might have easily given these strophes over to her Louis, the homoerotic Young Werther from Interview with the Vampire. A Cajun plantation owner in the late 18th century, Louis loses his family, then pines for death, whereupon he’s met and “turned” by the witty but conscienceless vampire Lestat, who’ll soon realize what a whiner he’s awarded limitless breath. Louis embodies the spirit of his age by being at odds with everything about it, and, rather like Paulo,

“pierce[s] with intellectual eye,
Into each hidden mystery;
I penetrate the fertile womb
Of nature; I produce to light
The secrets of the teeming earth,
And give air’s unseen embryos birth:
The past, the present, and to come,
Float in review before my sight…”

Sookie in True Blood can read people’s thoughts and glimpse the future-except when it comes to Bill. Though when she drinks his blood after being beaten within inches of her life, her senses grow keener. She eats her grandmother’s old-recipe sausage, saying she can taste the farm on which the pig was raised, even the soil that grew the herbs upon which it fed. What is this but penetrating the fertile womb of nature?

True Blood has its fun lampooning bigotry and the cant of civil rights movements. While it may not intentionally echo the Wandering Jew myth, the series is hardly immune from unintentionally trafficking in familiar anti-Semitic clichés. Vampires in this hyperrealistic drama seek entry into mainstream society and publicly refute all manner of paranoid fantasies humans have concocted about them. A comely blonde representative of the American Vampire League (Abe Foxman meets Ann Coulter) regularly holds forth on television against sulfurous Christian preachers who’ll not directly address the spawn of Satan, thank you very much, as well as jaded liberal skeptics such as Bill Maher. “We’re just like you!” she keeps saying, and it’s certainly true that vampires have a collective identity crisis. They have complicated and divisive takes on the issue of conversion and mixed relationships. They also have to compete with other ethnic and racial minorities for inclusion. A moralizing satirist would leave things right there, except that True Blood goes a provocative step further: All the paranoid fantasies vampires deny about themselves also happen to be true.

Despite their public relations claims to the contrary, vampires do continue to feast on humans (probably the creepiest anti-Semitic parallel of all is that they profess to enjoy infants’ blood the most). They do congregate in shadow-bathed “councils” overseen by “magisters” who uphold an archaic vampire law and hand down punishments for transgressors, all to ensure the tribal compliance to a timeless international conspiracy. They influence politicians and the media, and very probably led us into war in Iraq as a personal favor to Transylvanian hardliners.

It’d be ludicrous to suggest there was any underhanded motive on the part of the unambiguously progressive producers of True Blood. (When American Beauty won the Oscar for Best Screenwriting, Alan Ball made a double entendre of the term “acceptance speech,” and everything in his career and disposition makes good on that avowal.) But HBO’s blockbuster series about fangbangers in the bayou shows that camp postmodernism has a dangerous unintended consequence of draining the poison out of antique and pernicious cultural myths. And that kind of sucks.

This story can be found at:

True Blood Libel

The lowest of the low

Posted in Media Watch with tags , , on December 8, 2008 by The 800 Pound Gorilla

Abbas OlmertAl-Ahram Weekly (Egypt)
December 3, 2008

While Arab activists and intellectuals rally to the cause of Palestinian refugees, officialdom in Ramallah denounces their efforts, reports Khaled Amayreh

The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) has strongly denounced a recent conference on the plight of Palestinian refugees held in the Syrian capital, Damascus, organized by a coalition of factions and figures dedicated to the right of return, which according to organizers — amongst them Hamas — is the heart and soul of the Palestinian problem.

The conference asserted the centrality of the right of return and warned Palestinian, regional and international players that any resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict not including the repatriation of millions of uprooted refugees to their original homes and villages in what is now called Israel would be strongly rejected by the Palestinian people.

The PA didn’t specifically object to what was said in Damascus, although critics argue that President Mahmoud Abbas and his aides are not sincere about their declared commitment to the right of return. Indeed, Abbas reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on many occasions that the Palestinians would accept any “just and agreed upon resolution” of the refugee issue. This is a clear departure from the erstwhile Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) position that resolution of the refugee plight would have to be pursuant UN Resolution 194, which calls for both repatriation and indemnification.

Fatah spokesmen in Ramallah criticised the Syrian government for hosting the conference in the first place, saying Syria shouldn’t allow “coup mongers” (an allusion to Hamas) to attack the PLO from Damascus. They also lambasted two prominent Fatah leaders, Farouk Al-Qaddumi and Hani Al-Hassan, for attending. Within the Fatah hierarchy, Al-Qaddumi and Al-Hassan rank second and third respectively after PA President Abbas. However, because of their opposition to the “Oslo process”, and more recently to “excessive collaboration between the PA and Israel”, the Ramallah-based leadership has marginalised each.

Al-Qaddumi said any resolution of the conflict with Israel ignoring or circumventing the right of return would be null and void. “There will be no solution to the Palestinian issue without the return of the refugees,” he said. Al-Qaddumi also attacked the Oslo Accords, saying that Palestinian factions ought to unite behind the resistance and the national constants of the Palestinian people.” But “resistance” is probably the last word the Ramallah leadership would want to hear. Indeed, the PA had undertaken to liquidate pockets of military resistance to the Israeli occupation, at least in the West Bank.

Hakam Balawi, a member of Fatah’s Executive Committee, lambasted Al-Qaddumi for giving a speech at the Damascus conference. “His speech didn’t represent the PLO or Fatah. His participation in the conference underscored his willingness to join forces that are interested in weakening Fatah,” Balawi said in printed statement e-mailed to journalists and reported by pro-Fatah news agencies. Balawi suggested that only the PLO had the right to make policy pronouncements.

A similar statement by Balawi targeted Al-Hassan, also a high-ranking member of Fatah’s Executive Committee.

Irked by the ostensible success of the Damascus conference, PLO figures held a one-day “mini conference” on the refugee issue in Ramallah earlier this week, with several speakers stressing the centrality of the right of return. Participants included junior representatives of Fatah as well as leading figures from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and smaller PLO factions.

One leftist participant, who didn’t want to be identified by name, told Al-Ahram Weekly that, “Fatah wanted to utilise the PLO against Hamas while some other PLO factions wanted Fatah to move away from the American-Israeli axis and re-embrace the traditional Palestinian national constants as well as reassert its commitment to the right of return.”

Leading Palestinian officials, including Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad didn’t attend.

Fatah’s dismay at the Damascus conference lies mainly in the conference’s “untimely” assertion of the right of return. The Fatah leadership in Ramallah realises that the right of return is an extremely contentious issue within the PLO, and even within Fatah itself, which could eventually cause serious internal divisions. Fatah is particularly concerned that Hamas, its main rival, stands to gain from any such divisions.

In truth, the PA leadership is facing a real problem reconciling its public pronouncements with regard to the right of return and its commitments under the peace process with Israel. In private conversations, PA and PLO figures, such as Yasser Abed Rabbo, acknowledge that the repatriation of millions of Palestinian refugees to their homeland in what is now called Israel is an unrealistic goal bordering on fantasy.

In 2003, Abed Rabbo, probably acting on instructions from late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, signed the so-called “Geneva Accord” with former Israeli cabinet minister Yossi Belin. The document effectively scrapped the right of return. Abed Rabbo then adopted the Israeli view, namely that the Palestinians couldn’t expect to have two states — a would- be Palestinian state on the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and an Israel that would have a Palestinian majority if the refugees were to be allowed back to their former homes and villages.

Now, however, Abed Rabbo and like-minded PLO figures are generally keeping their mouths shut on the issue of the refugees and the right of return. They know that the vast majority of Palestinians now look upon their views as not only too dovish but outright treasonous.

According to Hani Al-Masri, a prominent political analyst from Nablus, Abbas and Abed Rabbo and their allies realise that this is not the time to make “audacious utterances” about the right of return in the absence of substantive progress on other issues of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. “The Israelis are expanding the settlements on a daily basis, they are Judaicising what is left of Jerusalem, and they are narrowing Palestinian horizons in every conceivable manner. Under these circumstances, it would disastrous, even a political suicide, for Abbas to declare openly that he would be willing to compromise on the right of return.”

Asked if he thought that the PA was lying to the Palestinian people with regard to its commitment to the refugee cause, Al-Masri said: “Of course they are not telling the truth. They know deep in their heart that the peace process and the international atmosphere, and above all reality on the ground, won’t allow them to demand the full or even partial repatriation of the refugees to their original homes in Israel.”

Al-Masri said Abbas had already voiced willingness to scrap the bulk of the right of return. “The official PA position on the right of return has deteriorated to the bottom of the bottom. Right now, they are saying they would accept a ‘just and agreed-upon resolution’ of the refugee problem. In other words, Israel would have the final say,” Al-Masri said.

Palestinian intellectual and former Israeli Knesset member Azmi Bishara alluded to the inherent contradiction between PA pronouncements regarding the right of return and its actual policies. “If the right of return is negotiable and if continued, open-ended negotiation with Israel is the sole Palestinian strategy towards ending the conflict, this means that the PA will be willing to abandon the right of return.”

Bishara, who was addressing a Ramallah conference, via teleconference from Amman, said the main purpose of the current peace process was to enable the PA to find Arab cover for the effective liquidation of the right of return and other prospective concessions the PA would be forced to make. “Then Abbas would be able to claim that all the Arabs are standing behind him.”

This story can be found at:

The lowest of the low

Clive Hamilton & I: Getting Personal about Sex, Lies, Hate & Censorship

Posted in Etc., Media Watch on December 7, 2008 by The 800 Pound Gorilla

Dr Clive HamiltonA decade or so ago, I knew Clive Hamilton personally.

We met a few times through common involvement in environmental issues. He appeared to be a nice man with a good head for policy and commitment to progressive politics. When, in the mid 90s, he became Founder/Director of the Australia Institute, it seemed like an excellent initiative. Public interest think-tanks that develop new ideas and policy can play an important role in bringing about positive change. Australia has few such organizations. Overall, while I didn’t get to know Dr Hamilton well, I liked what I saw and supported the causes he made his own.

Protection of the environment is one policy area where I believe wise and effective regulation is merited – and more of it. Take global warming – an issue on which Dr Hamilton has worked hard throughout the last decade. I believe that the potential for human-induced global climate change is significant and poses unknown but alarming dangers to humanity’s future. Left to ‘the market’ alone, the necessary changes in human behaviour are unlikely to happen fast enough, if at all. Collective, political action is therefore needed, including stronger regulatory measures from governments. Personally, I’d like a global carbon tax, but that’s another discussion for another time…

I mention this to make it clear that my dispute with Clive Hamilton over Internet Censorship is not the quintessential stand-off between a sensible mainstream view and an “unthinking libertarian” who opposes regulation in almost every situation.

I may have ‘libertarian leanings’, but my concern is that regulation is applied only when circumstances demand – not on whim alone. Moreover, regulation must be appropriate. Sometimes (an example is prohibition of murder), regulation should be strict and rigorously enforced. In other cases I believe there’s a strong case for a hands-off approach. Unnecessary regulation is a nuisance; inappropriate regulation can be downright dangerous. It all depends on the specifics of the case.

Australia’s Dispute over Internet Censorship

In the run up to the last Federal election, just a few days before the poll, the ultimately victorious Australian Labor Party released a ‘Cyber-safety Policy’. Internet censorship via ISP-level ‘filtering’ was featured in the policy. The exact words were: “A Rudd Labor Government will require ISPs to offer a ‘clean feed’ internet service to all homes, schools and public internet points accessible by children, such as public libraries.”

Not surprisingly, few people noticed or discussed this policy at the time. There was plenty else going on… the Government was about to change.

Senator Stephen ConroyAfter Labor’s victory, Senator Stephen Conroy was appointed Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. It’s a crucial portfolio, especially given the Rudd Government’s welcome acknowledgement of the importance of the Internet to Australia’s future.

One might expect that most of  Senator Conroy’s attention these days is dedicated to the thorny issue of the promised new continental broadband rollout. If not, it helps explain why this policy may be going nowhere fast.

A national broadband upgrade is one policy for which the Rudd Government most certainly does have a mandate. Many Australians – including business interests – are dissatisfied with our broadband speeds, which are often well below world best practice. Improving the network is a complex task and requires skillful Ministerial oversight.

Yet without having resolved the complex issue of the promised Broadband Rollout (it’s barely at Base One after a year in office) Conroy is increasingly becoming identified as the Minister for Compulsory Internet Censorship. Surely this is a distraction from his real job?

A month or two after the election, Senator Conroy suggested that the Government was going to bring in compulsory ISP-level Internet ’filtering’. That ‘clarification’ of the stated pre-election policy raised alarm bells in the community. Then he seemed to back down over compulsion. Now, in the last quarter of 2008, Conroy has made his intentions plain. He wants a compulsory ‘clean feed’ for everyone throughout the land. He wants it ASAP. And he wants to make an immediate start, by arranging trials with volunteer ISPs. These trials are due to begin by the end of 2008.

While there was some ambiguity in the wording of the ALP’s pre-election polices, I think its fair to say that “require ISPs to OFFER (a censored service)” has morphed into “require ISPs to OFFER ONLY (a censored service)”. That’s a fundamental shift.

There was no significant pre-election community debate about this issue. The Rudd Government has no clear mandate to introduce compulsory Internet censorship. If it does so, it’s going out on a limb, without the electorate’s prior endorsement and may well reap severe consequences at the next election. Proceed with mandatory Internet censorship, Mr Rudd, and you’ve lost my vote. I speak for myself, but there are plenty of others who feel the same way.

I do accept there are occasions when governments must act in the public interest, whether or not it has an explicit electoral mandate. That’s reality in a complex, fast-moving world. The economic crisis, for example, calls for unforeseen new initiatives. In emergencies, Governments may need to move fast.

Conroy's Internet Censorship Policy ExplainedBut where’s the emergency that calls for Internet censorship now?

To my knowledge, the Government has presented no spectacular new evidence to support the proposed change to mandatory censorship at the ISP level. On first glance, it seems the policy has been made on the run.

I suspect, but cannot prove, that the truth is even murkier and more unpleasant. I believe this is the resurrection of an agenda that suits particular powerful interest groups, both within and outside government. It is actually part of a global agenda.

These interest groups (which include elements within the mis-named ’security services’) won’t argue their case openly and explicitly in public. To do so would damage their interests, by exposing their overweening and largely unregulated power and their desire to accumulate more of it. So they’ve pushed this policy onto Rudd – just like they tried to foist it earlier on the Federal Coalition (as well as on former ALP Leader Kim Beasley). They’ll use any window-dressing arguments that work to help get their way.  Who knows, they might even encourage suitable ‘experts’ to give the government a little assistance, so Internet censorship better survives public debate and Parliamentary scrutiny?

I may be wrong about this, but I fear not. Whereas he proposed filter makes no real technological sense as means to secure the Internet against pornography, it would work effectively as a way of controlling access to information. Specific speeches or articles could be tracked and every occurence blocked. This could be done automatically and very effectively on searchable text.

At the very least, I believe we should not reject out of hand the possibility of a hidden agenda behind the push to censor the Internet.

The Moral Panic

Foremost among the arguments that are used openly in favour of ‘mandatory filtering’ is the proposition that the Internet is a dangerous world, replete with smut and vice. No normal people want this! Children are unquestionably at risk! There’s an epidemic of pure filth! Therefore the Government must act now!

Stephen Conroy - A Failed Minister?That’s about the intellectual level at which Senator Conroy has been pitching the case for Internet censorship. I may, indeed, be doing him a favour. The rare occasions when he’s reluctantly fielded critical questions on the topic, he’s made a hash out of it.

Let’s hope he’s not so incompetent when he argues the Government’s corner in the high-stakes poker game over the much-vaunted new broadband infrastructure. If so, heaven help us. The Telco bosses will swallow him whole.

But Senator Conroy has been lucky. The mainstream media, while covering the story to some extent, has yet to get really stuck into the Minister over Internet censorship. (It’s possible that may change – and change soon. We’ll see.)

The relative calm in the mass media contrasts with an extraordinary grass roots uproar that has issued forth from ordinary Australians, connected mainly via the internet, who express in websites, blogs, comments and other ways their profound opposition to the Rudd Government’s attempt to impose mandatory Internet censorship.

There’s no shortage of articulate critics of the Government’s plans – if the media wants to interview them. Electronic Frontiers Australia is running a superb campaign. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent articulate chorus from the pro-censorship lobby – rather belying the Government’s claim that it’s new policy is inresponse to public pressure.

On past performance, if Senator Conroy was forced to debate Internet censorship with articulate critics on anything resembling a level playing field, it would be like blood sport.

So when I heard Australia Talks – an ABC Radio National talkback show – was covering the topic, I wondered if Minister Conroy would debate, on air, with technologically-savvy, articulate critics.

I relished the prospect. But I was to be disappointed.

Clive Hamilton’s Key Role

At the beginning of the program, Australia Talks listeners were treated to some pre-recorded remarks from the Minister in a softball interview. Then Conroy vacated the scene entirely (perhaps he listened in?). The task of arguing the Government’s case was left to others – principally to Dr Clive Hamilton.

Clive HamiltonThe Government’s censorship proposals have an articulate spokesperson in Clive Hamilton.

He speaks reasonably and in a calm voice. Unencumbered with links to any religious denomination, he’s a secular humanist who’s argued in the past for a more ethical way of life. Dr Hamilton is someone any member of a decent Australian ‘working family’ could respect, whether religious or not.

A few years ago, Clive Hamilton and the Australia Institute first entered the internet censorship debate with some widely reported papers and media releases.

I corresponded with him at that time. I was keen to seek clarification of his position and also wanted to convey my deep concerns about the censorship proposal he was advocating. We had a brief exchange of emails, but neither of us were persuaded by the other’s arguments. Dialogue fizzled out.

It was during that exchange that I first heard the very persuasive case that Dr Hamilton uses again and again in this debate. He used it on Australia Talks last week.

The argument was re-iterated in Clive Hamilton’s recent article, which begins as follows (emphases added): “What’s so special about the internet? All but the most unthinking libertarians accept censorship laws that limit sexual content in film, television, radio, books and magazines. Yet the hysterical response from the internet industry and libertarian commentators to the Government’s proposal to require ISPs to filter heavy-duty porn shows how the internet has become fetishised.”

A friend of mine, who doesn’t use the Internet but has children who do, listened to Clive say something similar during the recent Australia Talks discussion. He found it a very persuasive argument and repeated it back to me afterwards.  Superficially, it is persuasive. What’s the big deal if we already censor other similar media?

But as I said in my correspondence at the time, I believe the argument is based on a false analogy. Dangerously false.

Hamilton’s Fallacy

To say why, I’ll give another analogy that I think is more appropriate.

But first, a word of caution. The Internet – and the World Wide Web which rests upon it and provides a user-friendly interface – are truly without precedent. There is no exact parallel in history and we should be cautious of all analogies. None of them really work – and the simple truth is that we must work out for ourselves the most appropriate social, cultural and legal ‘response’ to this new technology, conscious of the novelty of the situation. The past is only a guide. Analogies are useful only to a point.

Even so, were I to draw an analogy for the Web, I’d be more inclined to compare it to the postal service. In my correspondence with Dr Hamilton years ago, I may have used email as a comparison.

To my way of thinking, censoring the World Wide Web is more like censoring a public mail service. That’s because – unlike radio, TV, newspapers etc – the web is not a broadcast medium. Not in the main. It’s a narrowcast medium, in which different users choose their own material from a vast range.

Developing the mail analogy, the Web is more akin to millions of pigeon holes. Each user chooses which pigeon holes to open and explore. The range of possibilities is vast. He/she may visit – or – or something else again, millions of times over.

When I turn on my TV or enter a newsagent, I know that what I’ll find is similar to what Dr Hamilton – or anyone else in Australia – will also experience. I get much the same mass media fodder as Clive, I imagine.

THe World Trade Center Imploding on 9-11But when I turn to the Internet, I go where I choose. I have no idea where Clive goes. That’s up to him. We may be using the same general ‘medium’ – but we’re likely to inhabit very distinct, essentially private universes when we use it. That’s very different from the situation when we both turn on the TV. In that case, in separate houses in separate States thousands of kilometres apart, we have a limited choice and  most of the programs are identical.

I know certain ‘standards’ are maintained in these public and broadcast media. Taken as a whole, the information industry and mass media deliver a shared portrayal of reality to millions of Australians.

Personally, I’m concerned about the level of effective censorship this conformism entails. Some rather important topics, such as the real truth about 9-11 and some of the events that took place during World War Two, are never subjected to genuine, open, balanced scrutiny in the western mass media or within the mainstream publishing industry. There is blatant bias in favour of some perspectives and against others. Clive, I guess, isn’t bothered by this phenomenon. He may well support it. I am bothered. I wonder why Clive’s not bothered – but that’s his business, I guess?

As there are only so many hours in the day and only so many worthy causes one can put time into, I haven’t spent much time campaigning to push back the boundaries of mainstream censorship in Australia (in bookshops. Newsagents, on TV etc). Correspondence with Philip Adams a few years ago gave me a taste of the condescending evasiveness one is likely to encounter. If Late Night Live won’t cover an issue as important as 9-11 in a balanced way, I think it’s a serious problem – and I support more balanced and accurate mass media coverage. But rightly or wrongly, I haven’t put a lot of energy into this myself.

The Web as Information Liberation

One reason why – the main reason – is the access I have to a free Internet.

Pressor Faurisson Beaten by Zionist Thugs in 1993Thanks to the Internet, I don’t need to wait until hell freezes over at the ABC or at News Ltd.

Instead, I can look inside many, many ‘pigeon holes’ to which I’d otherwise have no easy access.

Let’s take an example. If I learn that an elderly Professor of Literature in France has been repeatedly beaten up and arrested – and only recently had his home raided by police – I don’t have to put up with the minimal reporting or non-reporting of distorted reporting of this man and his plight in Australia’s mainstream media. I can check out the source material myself. I can read directly what he has written. In this way, I can get a better appreciation of what all the fuss is about – and form MY OWN view.

What’s more, millions more Australians have discovered the same thing. Of course, each of us looks into different topics – from aeronautics to algebra, bees to beetroot, Cairo to Chinese cooking.

The ability to research independently, using the internet, enabled me to run a website in the run up to the Iraq War in 2002/3. Among other things, it argued that:

  1. the invasion of Iraq was justified by blatant lies
  2. claims of Iraqi WMD’s rested on highly suspect (fabricated) ‘evidence’
  3. invading Iraq (and Afghanistan) was both illegal and immoral
  4. the occupation of Iraq would end up being a major disaster for Iraq and the aggressors
  5. the Iraq invasion – and the entire, bogus ‘War on Terror’ – was primarily orchestrated by Zionist (pro-Israel) interests

Half a dozen years later, only the last of these propositions remains contentious (although evidence in support has accumulated and gone mainstream).

Yet at the time, all these propositions were heresy in Australia’s public discourse.

During the run-up to the invasion, Australia’s newspapers and mainstream electronic media overwhelmingly parroted the official legend about Iraqi WMDs and an ‘imminent threat’. Of course the ‘War for Oil’ line spouted by the ‘official’ peace movement was reported too. But there was broad consensus that Iraq was a rogue State with WMDs. The notion that a real rogue State with genuine WMDs was, in reality, setting up another nation for its own sectarian gain, was never discussed by  our mainstream media.

Coffins of US soldiers killed in the illegal Iraq WarSo – how did I figure out a reasonably accurate take on Iraq and related issues while the mainstream media in Australia and most of the bums on seats in Parliament couldn’t or wouldn’t? Was I using Superior intelligence? Magic?

A bit of both, actually. Instead of only reading and listening to conformist media, I spent a lot of time reading intelligent analysis via the (magical!) Internet – trying to figure out the reality beneath the surface.

I was motivated to do this. I am passionately anti-war and have been throughout my adult life. I was appalled at the drift into yet another wholly unnecessary and evil war, based on absurd fabrications. I couldn’t leave the subject alone. (Incidentally, I ran my website from a shed in a paddock. At the time I didn’t even have broadband!)

Glancing through his website, I observe that Clive Hamilton has left these topics well alone. I can find remarkably little on that website critical of Australia’s swelling military budget, the so-called ‘War on Terror’ and the mass destruction of western civil liberties that’s been underway for several years. Perhaps I haven’t found the right pages?

Now, no single person or organization can work on every issue. Focus is essential. Who am I to criticize the choices Clive has made in his activism? I accept that no one has a monopoly of wisdom! I certainly don’t.

Australia’s New Memory Hole

But here’s the big difference in our respective positions.

I am no interest in restricting Clive Hamilton’s freedom to review whatever material he chooses.

On the other hand, he is vigorously promoting a Government-run system of censorship; if implemented, it will mean that at any time I may be unable to find some of the ‘pigeon holes’ I’d like to look inside.

The White House Basement Memory Hole Under George W. BushI won’t be notified that the pigeon holes have been blocked. I may never learn about them at all. Over time – if the government is serious about ‘cleansing’ Australia’s Internet ‘feed’ – there will be tens or hundreds of thousands of blocked up pigeon holes. I’ll have to go to great lengths to find them. Indeed, quite conceivably the very act of trying to find them may become an illegal act in due course.

Who’s to say that some of those pigeon holes may not be the ones that may help me obtain a more accurate take on reality than the Government, News Corp or the ABC – in the event of YET ANOTHER atrocious, illegal and immoral war?

Will the Government guarantee that? Will Clive?

I’ll re-iterate this key difference between Clive Hamilton’s position and mine.

Clive Hamilton wants to restrict what’s available to me via the Internet. I don’t want to restrict his access. Our positions are asymmetrical.

Clive claims to be protecting ‘victims’, but from where I sit, the scheme he supports will create millions of victims.

I’m one of them.

The Special Case of ‘Hate’

During the discussion on Australia Talks, Dr Hamilton said he doesn’t want political censorship on the Internet. He claims that he doesn’t believe the government’s ‘mandatory filetering’ is intended for that purpose. The censorship push is only about very nasty porn.

I have some skepticism about this. It’s partly the language he used. As I recall, Hamilton said he’d ‘even’ support freedom to view ‘hate sites’. His tone of voice clearly implied he considered such things odious – yet he stressed that that’s how tolerant he is – and how little we have to worry. Why – he’d even support access to hate sites!

But what is a ‘hate site’? The fact he uses the term suggests that Clive thinks he already knows. I make no such claim. In fact, I’ve come to reject the notion that it’s sensible to define or use the term. I think expressions like ‘hate speech’, ‘hate sites’ and ‘hate crime’ are sneaky absurdities, introduced into the language to do violence to our civil liberties. I believe they are routinely used to protect relatively privileged interests from scrutiny. The main beneficiary has been the Zionist Lobby.

Clive is entitled to a different perspective on this, of course. But here again there’s a huge underlying difference. He sees no problem, apparently, in categorizing speech and websites into two categories, ‘hate speech’ and ‘non hate speech’. The implication is that there’s an accepted consensus about what the terms mean. At the moment, he’s saying he doesn’t support censoring ‘hate speech’. But of course, with a ‘filtering’ system in place, it will be a very easy add-on for any Government. Overseas experience suggests it will happen.

In the case of websites critical of the ‘official’ narrative of World War Two, if they disappear from Australia’s web, the public will face a double whammy.

First, we’d have to notice they are missing (it would be as though books have been removed from the shelves of a library and catalogue entries deleted. How do we know what was there originally?) Next, we’d have to campaign against the ban on any given site.

Such a campaign itself may well be defined as ‘hate speech’ and criminalized – which would probably include blocking web coverage of the debate. In Finland, a country that mysteriously chose to implement internet filtering, one of the sites on the (leaked) banned list was a site opposing Internet censorship. In Turkey, where Internet censorship was also introduced recently, Index on Censorship reports “there are more people working on censoring the Internet than developing it”.

Kafka and Orwell would appreciate these tales.

Getting Personal

At this stage in a rather long article, I’ll stop writing in the third person and address Dr Hamilton directly.

I’m going to get personal.

I trust, Clive, that I’ve given some indication about why I’m so concerned about the Internet Censorship issue?

You are advocating a system that entails people I don’t know – and have no reason to trust – systematically blocking off pigeon hole entrances in the gigantic, evolving global library known as the World Wide Web. You’re out to restrict my access. By contrast, I’m not trying to do any such thing to you.

Why are YOU trying to restrict my freedom – and that of other Australians – in such a way?

I’ll go further. How dare you!

What About Porn?

Now to the phenomenon you claim is at the heart of the case for compulsory Internet censorship – pornography.

Mating NudibranchesFirst, I’m not persuaded by the claim that internet pornography is, in reality, a significant social crisis in contemporary Australia. There are undoubtedly many people looking at porn on the internet. But where are all the casualties? Where’s the solid research that demonstrates real and serious harm? Where the academic consensus that this is a serious problem?

Please bring forward your evidence. Let’s have it all debated, discussed and exposed to public scrutiny! How about an open Senate Inquiry into this specific topic – if there’s really enough basis for concern to merit the time of our busy politicians?

Second, what makes you think it’s remotely feasible to block the web’s pigeon holes so successfully that the Internet will be ‘safe’ (whatever that means) for the young and vulnerable? Even your fellow censorship advocates admit the proposed mandatory ‘filter’ will be very ‘leaky’. Isn’t there a risk of misleading parents, if the Government falsely pretends that the Internet has been rendered ‘safe’ via a leaky filter?

Third, what’s wrong with the current situation? For several years, Internet filters have been available, free of charge, to those Australians who want to install them on their family’s own computers. Why doesn’t that suffice? I know uptake has been low – but doesn’t that suggest most Australians don’t share your obsession with censoring the Internet? Why are you so concerned to make censorship compulsory for ALL Australians?

We probably differ over the definition and dangers of pornography, Clive.

Frogs MatingAs time goes by, you increasingly strike me as a bit of a prude.

I wonder if the censors will share your values? How many will the Government need to employ? (there are tens, hundreds of thousands of websites to review). What will the selection criteria be for a censor? Will prior experience be an advantage? How will the censors themselves be protected from the ‘damage’ you allege pornography causes? How to avoid recruiting people who just want to watch lots of porn (legally) in air-conditioned offices at the taxpayer’s expense? Or doesn’t it matter? The mind boggles at the practicalities of this crazy scheme.

Anyhow, here’s another question.

Who the hell are you to determine sexual morality for ALL Australians? Who is Senator Conroy, for that matter? Who are the porn-monitors? Who are ANY of you to perform that role?

Why do you seek to impose standards on me that I may well not share?

Do this for your children by all means – especially when they are little. But leave me out of your moral regime. I’ll make my own decisions, thanks. I don’t want you – or anyone else – telling me what to see and what not to see.

What I choose to view does you no direct harm. Please butt out of my private life!

If you experience more authoritarian urges, try re-reading John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty! Refresh your memory on the principles that underpin liberal democratic society.

I don’t intend to defend ‘child porn’ or any of the other very exotic phenomena that apparently strike you, Clive, as the gravest dangers of the moment. I’ll just point out that there are already laws in all jurisdictions against child abuse. If pictures of abuse are posted on the web, the criminals make it all the easier for law enforcement agencies to arrest them.

Let’s Talk About Hate

If obscenity is the issue, can we discuss real obscenity?

How about illegal wars, based on lies, wars in our own times, that this country participates in and/or supports?

These are wars in which innocent people – many, many people including many, many children – have been and continue to be killed, maimed, suffer poverty and disease, all as a direct consequence of armed assaults by Australia’s ‘allies’.

These appalling and entirely avoidable obscenities don’t seem to bother you much, Clive, judging by your website. Yet you’re shocked about pornography on home computers.

For what it’s worth, I think you have your priorities backwards. I think they are seriously screwed up.

Would you agree that if ‘hate speech’ has any meaning at all, it is ‘hate speech’ to promote illegal wars based on lies?

If not, why not?

If so, why aren’t you concerned about the proliferation of such ‘hate speech’ in the mainstream media, every time there’s another war in the offing in the middle east?

A Likely Victim of Depleted UraniumWhy do you agonize publicly over the fate of children exposed to the ‘plague’ of porn on the Internet – but say little, as far as I can see, about children who are victims of depleted uranium dropped by Australia’s military allies with the connivance of our own Government? Why aren’t you using your advocacy skills to lambast our mass media for helping to sell wars based on lies? How do you choose your priorities?

The bottom line, of course, is that you are free to pursue your own interests and concerns. But start impeding MY opportunities to do the same and you become my opponent.

Actually, I’m disgusted that you even try, without adducing compelling evidence of the alleged net social benefit. The ‘evidence’ you have come across may persuade you, but you’ve clearly not persuaded the majority of people actively concerned about this issue and you haven’t persuaded me. Why not try again? Are you a democrat – or an authoritarian?

Your grubby desire to restrict the freedom of your fellow Australians without good cause revolts me.

A child casualty of the Iraq WarYou fret like the Reverend Fred Nile over photos you’ve seen of men and women with semen on their faces. Dear me. Why not change the page?

How about real children with their arms or legs blown off, in Palestine, Somalia, the Lebanon or Afghanistan? Why DON’T we Australians see MORE of those pictures which show the direct consequence of our own nation’s foreign policy?

You seem to think there’s too much shocking material in the media. I think there’s not enough of what we should find truly shocking. You obsess about illicit sex. I’m more concerned about unnecessary death.

You are quite entitled to believe your moral perspective is well-considered.

So are the rest of us.

In Conclusion

Clive, please keep your hands off all the entrances to all those pigeon holes – the millions of them that make up the ever-changing World Wide Web! That’s public domain. Back off!

The Government’s Internet Censorship plan, for which you have become the most visible apologist, is counter-productive, unreasonable, divisive and outright dangerous.

Clive Hamilton - A Progressive or Totalitarian Legacy?If your role as Public Advocate No 1 for this scheme becomes the crowning achievement of your career – the key policy change for which you can later claim major personal credit – then I believe you will leave a sorry legacy.

History will remember you as fondly as it recalls the enthusiastic commissars, who started tidying up the means of communication – and history itself – on behalf the Soviet regime, once the Leninists consolidated their power.

You’re not my Big Brother, Clive. The impersonation ill becomes you.

Why not lighten up and take a holiday?

Alternatively, get back to issues that matter to all sentient Australians, issues on which there’s strong and growing consensus for intelligent new policy – issues such as climate change policy or the current economic turnoil.

I don’t ask you do this for me, Clive. I’ve no right to make demands on your time.

Do it for the sake of the children!

Kristallnacht in Hebron

Posted in Media Watch with tags , , on December 2, 2008 by The 800 Pound Gorilla

kristallnacht_hebronAl-Ahram Weekly (Egypt)
November 27, 2008Unconcerned about arrest by the police or prosecution by the Israeli justice system, fanatical Jewish settlers in the Palestinian town of Hebron (Al-Khalil) have been attacking Palestinians, damaging and ransacking their property, exactly like Nazi thugs did to Jewish-owned property in Germany 80 years ago.

The settlers, who claim to be acting in the name of true Judaism, espouse a messianic doctrine advocating violence and terror against non-Jews in Israel-Palestine for the purpose of creating a pure Jewish kingdom that would be ruled by Halacha, or Jewish religious law.

The settlers, who represent the core of religious Zionism, believe that the ethnic cleansing of non-Jews in the Holy Land will eventually usher in the messianic age and accelerate the appearance of the Jewish Messiah, or Redeemer, who would bring about redemption for Jews and rule the entire world from Jerusalem.

In recent weeks, these thugs have been attacking Palestinian homes, smashing cars, vandalising property and fostering a general atmosphere of fear and terror throughout this town of nearly 200,000 people.

Al-Ahram Weekly has inspected the damage inflicted by settlers and spoken with thoroughly terrorized victims who complained that the Israeli authorities and army were effectively giving the paramilitary terrorists a carte blanche to terrorise Palestinians. “They [the settlers] are Nazi, and if there was a stronger epithet, I would not hesitate to use. You can’t imagine the ugliness and brutality of their behaviour,” said Ahmed Al-Jamal, a frequent target of settler terror and vandalism.

“Every Friday night and Saturday, dozens of settlers, including kids, descend on our neighborhood to smash our cars, windows and property and shout ‘Death to the Arabs!’ This is their way of sanctifying the Sabbath and pleasing God.”

Al-Jamal said dozens of settlers, some of them masked, last week attacked his and his brother’s and neighbour’s homes around 2.30am, smashing windows and windshields of parked cars. “We informed the police, and the police told us they would look into the matter. This is pretty much what they have been telling us since 1970 when these ‘Nazis’ came to live here.”

Mohamed Daana, who lives in Wadi Al-Nasara, located just south of the Jewish colony of Kiryat Araba, said he submitted at least 500 complaints to the Israeli police in a desperate effort to put an end to settler violence and terror against him and his family.

“The last time I went to submit a police complaint in Kiryat Araba one policeman took me to the next room and told me ‘I want to advise you, there is no point in submitting all these complaints. We simply can’t do anything to help you. The settlers control the state and the army can do little to protect you from them.'” Asked what he would do next to protect his family, Daana said, “I have no choice but to remain steadfast. A harmful neighbour will either die or move away,” said Daana quoting an old Arabic proverb.

Last week, dozens of young settlers, many of them wearing masks and armed with submachine guns, rampaged through the Khaled Ibn Al-Walid neighbourhood, not far from the colony of Kiryat Araba. There the settlers, who reportedly were dressed in religious attire, vandalised a Muslim cemetery and scrawled the Star of David on Muslim graves.

On the walls of the Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Mosque, the rampaging thugs scrawled the following phrase: “Mohamed is a pig.” This is the new slogan the settlers are mouthing to offend and provoke the Palestinians. The other slogan is “Mavet le Arabim,” or “Death to the Arabs!”

These obscenities are infuriating the Palestinians who warned that settlers were trying to instigate a religious war in the Middle East. “What does the Prophet Mohamed have to do with the conflict? Why are they deliberately provoking us? We have never, and never will speak ill of their prophets and religious figures,” said Hassan Jaber, a neighbour of the mosque.

“When someone touches a Jewish cemetery anywhere in the world, the Jews make a big outcry about anti-Semitism. But when Jews commit blasphemous acts against Islam and Christianity, it is freedom of speech.”

This is not the first time self-righteous settlers, who claim to be following the Torah, seek to offend Muslim religious sensibilities. According to local Palestinians, settlers have markedly escalated their anti-Islam discourse, mainly by way of scrawling sacrilegious epithets that are deeply offensive to the Islamic faith, such as cursing the Arabic name of God (Allah) and the Prophet Mohamed. Several years ago, a Jewish immigrant from the former Soviet Union pasted on the doors of Arab stalls and shops in downtown Hebron drawings depicting the prophet of Islam as a pig writing the Quran.

Such sacrilegious acts generally go unpunished by the Israeli government, allowing the settlers and their supporters to feel powerful and immune from government action.

The bulk of Jewish settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories follow the teachings of Abraham Kook, the first rabbi of Israel, who taught that Jews should seek to expedite the appearance of the “redeemer” or Jewish Messiah by way of carrying out acts of violence and bloodshed. In 1994, a Jewish settler terrorist, an American immigrant by the name of Baruch Goldstein, murdered at least 29 Arab worshipers who as they were praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque.

Goldstein, who was eventually killed by survivors, became a national hero among religious Zionists and Jewish extremists in general, and his tomb in Kiryat Araba became a pilgrimage site for religious Zionists from around the world. The settlers adopt a manifestly genocidal ideology with regard to how non-Jews living in Israel ought to be treated.

This ideology, which settlers say is based on the Talmud and is taught at the Mirkaz Harav religious Zionist college in Jerusalem, gives Palestinians in Israel-Palestine three choices: first, comprehensive enslavement whereby non-Jews, or “goyim,” would have to accept their inferior status, second, outright expulsion, “lest they remain a thorn in your side,” and third, Old Testament-style physical extermination.

The settler community in Hebron is not large in terms of numbers. According to Israeli government statistics, no more than 500-600 settlers and Yeshiva (religious school) students live in the old quarter of Hebron among the town’s 180,000-200,000 Palestinian inhabitants. However, thousands of Israeli soldiers and paramilitary troops guard and protect the settlers around the clock, with the chief method of protection taking the form of making large parts of the town off-limit to Palestinians. In other words, 200,000 are held hostage to the whims of 500-600 thugs who demand that non-Jews be enslaved, expelled or exterminated.

Needless to say, this causes immense hardship to Palestinian inhabitants whose freedom of movement and economic activities are harshly restricted. In some cases, a Palestinian living, say, in the vicinity of the Ibrahimi Mosque, is forced to travel several miles in order to get home from a nearby school or grocery store. The reason for such draconian restrictions is to make ordinary life so unbearable for ordinary Palestinians that they would leave their homes “voluntarily” so that the settlers could then seize them without the need of murdering the inhabitants.

As usual, the Israeli government continues to treat the settlers with the greatest temerity, refusing to take decisive action to stop their almost daily acts of violent and terror against Palestinians.

There are three main reasons contributing to the soft-glove policy towards the settlers. First, many of the soldiers serving in the occupied territories, particularly in the Hebron region, are themselves settlers and reluctant to arrest their colleagues. After all, the soldiers and settlers often have the same rabbi and attend the same Yeshiva, and worship at the same synagogue. Moreover, soldiers who are also settlers are effectively answerable first and foremost to their local rabbis, and only secondarily to their army superior. Second, the Israeli state itself views the settlers as a strategic asset that will prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state, guaranteeing the continuity of Israeli control over the West Bank. This is despite all official propaganda that Jewish settler violence is carried out in spite of the government. Third, the proximity of the upcoming Israeli elections, slated to take place on 10 February, makes the government, especially Defence Minister Ehud Barak (head of the Labour Party) think twice before alienating the settlers, even by carrying out High Court rulings.

Last week, the Israeli High Court ordered the state to vacate Jewish settlers from an Arab building they had seized after forging ownership documents. However, the settlers and their supporters, including 48 Knesset members (out of 120) and former ministers, vowed to confront the army and police “be it as it may.” Moreover, the settlers were planing to hold a large rally in Hebron to protest against the court decision and to underscore their determination to have their way.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, the godfather of Jewish settlements in the West Bank who is falsely portrayed as a man of peace, was quoted as saying during a visit to London last week that “Israel will find it difficult to evacuate the settlements without civil war.” Yossi Sarid, a former minister, spoke of “a state within a state that has arisen in the territories.”

Writing in Haaretz on 21 November, Sarid wrote, “a new custom has come to the country: High Court rulings are one thing, reality is another. One has not the slightest thing to do with the other. The settlements and the outposts are planted firmly in place and refuse to be uprooted; private land of Palestinians is being freely stolen; whole neighbourhoods born in sin are being populated; homes that have been stolen are filled with people; a brazen fence stands according to its original, arbitrary plan with only minimal changes.”

Sarid’s remarks may even be an understatement of reality.

One noted Israeli journalist intimated to this writer last week that Israel was facing two nightmarish scenarios in light of the settlers’ determined refusal to leave the West Bank: “We have two alternatives, either we go into civil war or become a fascist or Nazi state. These two choices are becoming starker with the passage of each day.”
This article can be found at:

Kristallnacht in Hebron

Obama’s Home Shul

Posted in Media Watch with tags , on December 2, 2008 by The 800 Pound Gorilla


The Jewish Daily Forward
November 26, 2008CHICAGO — On a recent Sunday afternoon at a historic Chicago synagogue, the sanctuary was packed but the mood was restrained: A longtime congregant had died, and about 300 people had turned out for his funeral service. But amid the solemnity, the occasional mourner discreetly pulled loved ones out to the synagogue’s front steps to snap cell phone pictures of a large brick house, mostly obscured by shrubs, across the street.

Such scenes have become commonplace in recent months at KAM-Isaiah Israel, a Reform congregation in the Hyde Park neighborhood. The dome of the historic Byzantine-style synagogue looms over the red-brick house where Barack Obama has lived for the past three years, and from which he made the short trip across the street to deliver an early political speech to a Jewish crowd.

Now that Obama is an international figure — and the block is home to the urban White House of the president-elect — congregants and guests arriving for a Sabbath or funeral service have to work their way through an extensive cordon of Secret Service and local police.

The intense security that surrounds not just the Obama home, but also a few nearby blocks, makes visiting the synagogue a complicated affair: No unauthorized cars can enter the area, and the hearty pilgrims who park blocks away and enter by foot are subjected to checkpoints. But for a congregation that prides itself on having remained on Chicago’s largely black South Side when most Jews moved to the northern suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s, the excitement about its neighborhood — indeed, its block — producing the country’s first black president far outweighs the hassle of parking.

“I’ve been channeling my parents lately, because 50 years ago, this was the dream,” said Roberta Siegel, an active KAM-II member whose father was the president of Isaiah Israel (prior to its merger with Kehilath Anshe Ma’arav, or KAM) in the 1950s. “A commitment was made to keeping this an urban middle-class community.”

Indeed, the synagogue stands today as a living symbol for a kind of historic black-Jewish cooperation that the presidential election both recalled and vindicated, given the high rates at which Jews voted for Obama.

Inside KAM-II, the two communities are living side by side. On the morning of the funeral, a crowd of mostly older Jewish congregants gathered in the sunny social hall to hear a professor from the nearby University of Chicago speak about Martin Buber and the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the same time, the domed sanctuary was occupied by a small black Christian congregation called City of Faith, which holds weekly services in the building. In a synagogue classroom, children from the two congregations worked on a quilt together as part of a community arts program called Poetry Pals. This sort of cross-pollination has touched Obama’s life in the neighborhood, as well: His daughters went to preschool at the nearby Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School.

Several of KAM-II’s congregants and leaders, including the synagogue’s emeritus rabbi, Arnold Jacob Wolf, and current president, Larry Bloom, know Obama personally and have supported him from the outset of his political career.

When Wolf met Obama for the first time at a fundraiser for the fledgling politician’s state senate campaign, he told the Forward, “I said, ‘Someday you will be vice president of the United States,’ and he said, ‘Why vice president?’”

Bloom, a former city alderman, said that he used to introduce the candidate to locals on commuter train platforms when he was running for state senate. In the days before the area around the synagogue was a no-drive zone, Bloom sometimes parked in the driveway of the parents of Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett on his way to synagogue.

“This is a congregation where the question wasn’t, ‘Are you going to vote for Obama?’ The question was, ‘What state are you going to help canvass?’” said Darryl Crystal, the synagogue’s interim rabbi.

Crystal and others at the synagogue say that they have gotten used to life with the Secret Service, which has increased its force around Obama’s house several times over the course of the past year. As the Forward reported at the time of the presidential primaries, for several months Secret Service agents had the key to the synagogue and permission to use its restrooms at any time of the day or night — which sometimes led to them tripping the alarm. Now, however, they have their own facilities.

“You don’t often see the same person,” Bloom said of the agents. “They change the guard every 45 minutes.”

Of Obama, he said, “We know when he comes and goes.” On one memorable occasion, the motorcade rolled out half an hour before Kol Nidre services began.

This closeness to fame has hit no ordinary synagogue. The imposing building was constructed in 1923 by renowned Chicago architect Alfred Alschuler, at a time when the Hyde Park community was prospering thanks to the expanding University of Chicago.

In the 1950s, the city’s Jews began moving en masse to Chicago’s northern suburbs. During that era, the spiritual leader of KAM, Jacob Weinstein, was nationally famous for his social activism. He campaigned successfully to keep the synagogue in the city, but the membership dropped to around 350 families from around 1,000.

“Jews left the community in droves,” said Nancy Perelmuter, the widow of the rabbi who came to take over the Isaiah Israel congregation during those years. “The president of the congregation wrote a letter to my husband, asking, ‘Do you really want to come?’”

When the two congregations merged in 1971, the combined membership rose to about 930 families and KAM moved into Isaiah Israel’s historic building. The congregation became a gathering place for Jewish intellectuals from the University of Chicago. Today, the university’s president is among the members; the magazine rack in the lobby, rather than holding synagogue bulletins, boasts an array of leftist intellectual publications, from Dissent to the Journal of Palestine Studies.

The joy over Obama’s election comes during a rough period for KAM-II. The most recent rabbi left on a sour note this spring after a six-year stint during which he and the congregation frequently clashed, and his predecessor was not rehired after three years at the synagogue. Crystal, who took over the congregation last July, will, per his contract, move on next summer.

The synagogue has lost some congregants because of the tumult — about 475 families currently belong, down from an average of about 500 in recent years — but it also continues to face the obstacle that it has been struggling with for 50 years: Most of Chicago’s Jews live on the city’s north side. About half the congregation’s new members live outside Hyde Park. In addition to that, a few newcomers have been deterred, at least initially, by the security around the synagogue.

“I put off joining, because it took me awhile to figure out how to approach the building and how to get in,” said Alyssa Luboff, a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. Luboff attended a recent Friday night service geared toward new members, with her three small children in tow. “I still haven’t figured out how to park,” she said.

Bloom said that he has heard from both potential new members who come to the synagogue to peek at the house across the street, and from those who say that they security has them nervous about coming. For his part, he said, he tries to look at the situation from a different point of view: Obama’s.

“When Sarah Palin said she knew about Russia because you could see it from Alaska, I wanted to say, ‘Obama can see a synagogue from his house; he obviously knows Jews,’” Bloom said.
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Obama’s Home Shul