Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Gentile Project

OUR BUS TURNED LEFT PAST HAIFA’S headland. A ship steamed towards its harbour, its decks weighed down with containers. Decades ago they would have been crammed with immigrants in search of a promised land.

But now, as I saw modern condominiums lining the shore, I could have been anywhere in the world. How had it come to this? How had a community, scattered across the world in a Diaspora, been able to colonise and create Israel, a modern state named after the prophet Jacob?

I remembered a book, Islam and its Discontents, written by the Franco-Arab scholar, Professor Abdelwahab Meddeb. Modern Zionism initially had nothing to do with Judaism, he said. The first notions of a Jewish homeland had originated in Protestant circles.

I remembered too the writings in Bitter Harvest by the Christian Palestinian historian, Sami Hadawi. He had argued that a Christian fundamentalist misinterpretation of the Old Testament was the source. He had questioned the premise that Abraham had been bequeathed a homeland exclusive to the sons of Isaac.

Hadawi had pointed out what he felt were its contradictions. God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis could never have been made to Jews alone. Ishmael was also the seed of Abraham, and God’s undertaking had to apply as equally to Christians and Muslims, as it did to Jews.

Had not the Hebrew Revelation said in Genesis?

…and in thee (Abraham) shall all families of the earth be blessed.

He had also argued that Israelite tenure of the Holy Land had never been unconditional. The covenant between God and the Israelites had been strictly dependent upon their obedience. Had Moses not warned the Israelites that if they did not obey Divine Law, a Diaspora would befall them?

There were no mentions in scripture anywhere of a third Israelite return to Judea. There was no basis in Old Testament or New Testament sources to justify a modern, ethnic Jewish state in Palestine, Hadawi had argued.

He had also added that Israel itself was a metaphor; there was an Israel ‘of the spirit’ and there was an Israel ‘of the flesh’.

I could not help but note that this view corresponded to voices within Orthodox Judaism, such as the Neturei Karta, a grouping that has largely been marginalised by the sweep of contemporary political Zionism.

These anti-Zionist Jews believe that their Creator, and not man, has the final say in the status of Israel: in other words, the present Jewish state has not come into being by fulfilling any injunctions of the Holy Books.

Three Oaths

I was told that the Haredim, the biggest Orthodox group within Israel, had had to do some nifty egg-dancing between the contradictions of classical Judaism and political Zionism. And this was best illustrated, I soon discovered, through the Three Talmudic Oaths located in the Tractate Ketuvot.

Derived from the angst and melancholy of the Babylonian exile in 587 BCE, and a message sent by Jeremiah to the elders, the Three Oaths were said to be the result of three divine vows between Heaven and Earth, and between the Creator and the Jew.

The first was that Jews should not descend upon the Holy Land by force; the second was that they should not rebel against host governments; and the third was that they should not prolong the coming of the Messiah by their sins.

When I researched the Three Oaths, I walked ingenuously into a theological firestorm.

In one reading I was informed that the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Holocaust had fully abrogated the Three Oaths. The modern state of Israel, I was hotly told, had not come into being by a Jewish betrayal of the Oaths, but rather, by a non-Jewish complicity.

On the other hand, Neturei Karta had said that the Three Oaths, and the Diaspora, were obligations intended to expiate Jews from the sins that had caused the Creator to exile them in the first place. Only when the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, descended upon Zion would the Diaspora end.

This view, of course, clashed with another one I encountered in the halls of Judaism. The Messiah would only come once Jews had lifted their own hands in the creation of a Jewish state, and the reconstruction of the Third Temple.

I retreated to the calmer realms of Professor Abdelwahab Meddeb where, according to him, the contemporary Jewish Zionist thesis had only gained momentum at the beginning of the 19th century after it had circulated in Protestant circles.

Shalom Goldman, professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University, is a Jew who agrees with Meddeb. Zionism, he writes, is the Jewish implementation of an idea that had been developing in Christian quarters for over 300 years.

The Egyptian scholar, Professor Adelwahab Elmessiri, corroborates Meddeb’s findings. He identifies Lord Shaftesbury and Laurence Oliphant, both early British Zionists, as being pioneers of the modern discourse.

Country without a nation

Shaftesbury was an Evangelist who had actively promoted the idea of an ethnic Jewish homeland. In July 1853 he had declared: “There is a country without a nation; and now God in his wisdom and mercy directs us to a nation without a country.”

Laurence Oliphant, who supported Shaftesbury’s views, authored The Land of Gilead in 1880. His book, which encourages Jewish settlement, often reads like a blueprint for the Nakba.

Other 19th century British personalities to support a Jewish homeland were Lord Lindsay, Sir George Gawlor, John Derby, Alexander Keith, Charles Henry Churchill and the author, George Eliot.

My own research led me to the 12th century and to the cell of the Calabrian mystic, Joachim of Fiore. His reading of the Book of Revelation had him claiming that the earth would experience three epochs, or dispensations. The return of the Jews to Zion would set the table for the coming of the final dispensation, and the rule of the Messiah.

This would see Jews being peacefully converted to Christianity instead of being damned. His motif of Jewish ‘salvation’ – one that would come to characterise modern Evangelism – contradicted the mainstream church’s view that Jews had been condemned to eternal exile.

I also arrived at the door of Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer. Salvation was by faith – his faith – and when Jews had politely declined to fall at his feet, a disillusioned Luther had condemned them to hellfire.

His strident views are the first mass stirrings of modern evangelism, and an ominous harbinger of the Nazi Holocaust.

The 17th and 18th centuries had their voices for a Jewish homeland too. Amongst them was the British MP, Sir Henry Finch, who spoke about ‘the world’s greatest restoration’. Napoleon Bonaparte was another who supported the idea.

But behind all the apocalyptic verbiage of those rooting for the creation of a Jewish homeland, there lurked a world view that implied Jews did not belong in Europe.

It was a jingoistic kind of Orientalism derived from the Middle Ages. It was the same outlook that had perceived the Saracen, or the Arab, as much of an unwelcome resident of the Holy Land as the Jew was of Europe.

I might be accused of cynicism. But it has to be noted that historians such as Robert the Monk, Guibert of Nogent and Baldrick of Bourgeuil – who recorded events of the First Crusade – felt that Arabs were a ‘vile and abominable race’ fit only for ‘extermination’.

This European anti-Semitism, extending to Jewish communities as well, had been preceded by a band of Crusaders massacring Jews living along the Rhine.


In the winter of 1097 famished Crusaders had roasted and eaten the flesh of the townsfolk of Mara’rat al-Numan on the Orontes River. They had reported that the children were particularly delicious. This group had believed that Arabs and Jews were the natural enemies of Jesus Christ.

Both Arabs and Jews were massacred in Jerusalem in 1099. Jerusalem was re-conquered by Saladin in 1187, and while Jews were sheltered by the Caliphs of the Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman dynasties, Diasporic communities living outside the Islamic realm were often persecuted.

Yet in spite of this, the Rabbis clung to their traditional beliefs. The Diaspora was by Divine Decree. It took the Dreyfus affair in France to inspire a secularist Theodore Herzl to write Der Judenstat in 1896, and to found the World Zionist Congress in 1897.

The British Balfour Declaration of 1917, supporting the idea of Jewish state in Palestine, and colonial opportunities afforded by the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923, were to open the political door further.

The Ottoman Empire, which was regarded as the ‘sick old man of Europe’ at the start of the 20th century, had caught the attention of Britain, France and the Russian Czar. Turkey was at the juncture of Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

At stake were new colonies, lucrative trade routes, oil deals and control of the Suez Canal. To keep her Russian and French rivals at bay, the British had supported Istanbul. However, after the Ottomans had sided with Germany in the 1914-18 war and the Armenian genocide had reared its ugly head, the British Foreign Office had been forced to change tack.

Max Dimont, author of Jews, God and History, writes that this brief Ottoman dalliance with Germany had nearly derailed the Zionists. The Turks had declared Zionism illegal, had hung ‘allied (war) sympathizers’ for treason, and had deported 12, 000 Jews from Palestine for not being Turkish citizens.

Ironically, the Arab world was destined to be an unwitting tool of Zionism’s survival. The pan-Arabist camp had long hankered to topple the Turkish Caliphate. In 1917 a young British army officer, T.E. Lawrence, was directed to co-ordinate the Arab Revolt.

For putting the Turks to flight in Syria, Jordan and Palestine, the sponsor of the uprising, the Meccan-based descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Sharif Hussein ibn ‘Ali, was promised a pan-Arab Caliphate from Palestine to Yemen. This was done via the McMahon-Hussain correspondence.

Arab goodwill

But Arab goodwill towards Britain had already been betrayed by the Sykes-Picot Accord between France, Britain and Russia. This pact had divided Bilad al-Sham, the greater Middle East region, into chunks of post-Ottoman colonial real estate such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

For the Arab world previously unused to nation-state boundaries, and more accustomed to the loosely autonomous Turkish vilayets, or provincial sanjaqs, Sykes-Picot was to prove a shattering blow. When the Meccan Sharif claimed his pan-Arab throne, the British simply hurrumphed and looked the other way.

The weakening Turkish Caliphate was five years from its demise, and there was now a leadership vacuum in the Arab realm. Who were the independent Arab leaders?

The Wahhabi Ibn Sa’ud in the untamed Najd signed an agreement with the British, but did not take part in the 1917 uprising. Ibn Rashid of the Shammar region was pro-Turkish, as was Imam Yahya in semi-autonomous Yemen. Greater Syria and Iraq, though, were rudderless.

The Meccan Sharifs found themselves losing influence. Towards the end of 1918, Sharif Faizel Husseini (the second son of the Sharifian patriarch) met with T. E. Lawrence and entered into an agreement with Chaim Weizmann.

The Weizmann-Husseini agreement, as it was briefly known, stated that ‘all necessary measures’ should be taken to ‘stimulate the immigration of Jews’ to Palestine. Attached to the document was a curious Arabic codicil – almost an afterthought – written by Faizel in his own hand and signed by Weizmann:

Provide the Arabs obtain their independence as demanded…I shall concur in the above articles. But if the slightest modification or departure be made, I shall then not be bound by a single word of the present agreement…

Peter Mansfield in The Arabs claims that the Sharifs were prepared to give the Balfour Declaration a try to ‘help the progress of the Arabs’. Dr ‘Azzam Tamimi of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought, accuses Sharif Faizel Husseini of self-interest.

The agreement – widely scorned in the Arab realm – was never tested, and was soon a worthless scrap of paper. After being granted the throne of Syria in 1920, Sharif Faizel was summarily unseated by the French. As a sop, he was sent to rule Iraq, it taking the deaths of 10, 000 restless Iraqis to get him into power.

Described by T. E. Lawrence as a ‘brave, weak, ignorant spirit’ trying to do the work for which only ‘a genius, a prophet or a great criminal was fitted’, Sharif Faizel died in 1933.

He was a Franco-British puppet that had been foisted upon a country of which he was not a native. It was an arrangement that could not last. In 1958 his son, Sharif Faizel II, was killed in a military coup. Army rule would in turn be toppled in 1963 by the Baathists, from whose ranks would emerge Iraqi strongmen such as Saddam Hussain.


With Arab territories west of the Jordan falling under European dominion, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 merely compounded the humiliation. The dream of Arabs enjoying hegemony over the lands of the Prophet in the 20th century became as remote as the prospect of an Eskimo caliphate in Hawaii.

The memoirs of British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George mention that the Balfour Declaration was a gesture to Chaim Weizmann for his work on developing acetone, a chemical essential for manufacturing cordite. Cordite, used in fuses, had previously been produced by Germany – now at war with England.

Robert Fisk observes that both the Balfour Declaration and the McMahon-Hussain correspondence were instruments of British ‘political expediency’. The one was the result of the British needing Arabs to fight the Turks, and the other was the result of Britain needing Jewish patronage.

The Washington Report offers another take on how the Balfour Declaration came into being. It refers to the Zimmerman Note, a secret contingency brief dispatched from the German war cabinet to its Mexican ambassador in 1917.

According to The Washington Report, Germany had to keep the United States neutral at all costs, but failing that, a call had to be made for the restoration of Mexican sovereignty over New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

This encrypted note was intercepted and sent by German Zionists to the British, who allegedly used it to persuade President Woodrow Wilson to declare war against Germany in 1917, and to tip the scales in favour of the allies.

Another view is that Sir Mark Sykes, co-architect of the Sykes-Picot Accord, had pushed long and hard for the Balfour Declaration. In this version, Chaim Weizmann was waiting outside cabinet for a decision when Sykes came out to tell him: “Chaim, it’s a boy!”

Whatever the instrument of the Balfour Declaration, the outcome by 1918 was that Arab leadership had been duped. The McMahon-Hussain correspondence promising a pan-Arab Caliphate, and described by the Israeli historian Tom Segev as ‘evasive and amateurish’, conflicted not only with the Sykes-Picot Accord, but now also the Balfour Declaration.

Spectre of Zionism

So for its support of Britain in unseating the Turkish Ottomans, the Arab world would not only be visited by yet another colonialist, but also the spectre of Zionism.

As Karen Armstrong has said: ‘The dispossessed, uprooted and wandering Jew’ would soon be replaced by ‘the homeless, uprooted and dispossessed Palestinian’.

For those living west of the Jordan, this would mean displacement and disruption at the hands of the Zionists on a massive scale; first after 1948 and then 1967, when Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Syria’s Golan Heights and Egyptian-administered Gaza would be occupied by Israeli forces.

Today more than 5 million Palestinians are in what the late Professor Edward Said calls a ‘shattat’, or a scattering. More than half a million are exiled overseas in Europe and the United States; a million reside under sufferance in the 1948 territories, and about 3 million lives in Gaza and the West Bank.

Furthermore, over 50% of Jordanians (about 2 million) are of Palestinian descent. In Lebanon, half a million are still stateless refugees while the rest of the refugee population (another half million) is spread through Syria, Iraq and other Arab states.

We stopped at a traffic light. Everything seemed so reassuringly normal. Unlike in the old South Africa, I could see no signs of petty apartheid. ‘Jews only’ boards were not stenciled on to park benches. Our driver turned into a side road, and halted at the gates of a holiday resort. We were now at the site of Tantura village in the Haifa region, and as I was to discover, yet another hapless victim of the 1948Nakba.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Israel: Strange White Men

AS WE TRAVELLED ALONG THE BRIGHT Mediterranean coast, it belied the dark, cynical undertow of contemporary Israeli politics. Whilst most Israelis yearned for secure borders, Palestinians demanded liberation and national identity from within the same space.

There was definitely no evidence of the idealistic Herzlian vision of Israel being a walled-in refuge for Jews, as well as a liberal European island of tolerance and enlightenment. The lofty mirage of that idyllic homeland had long since disappeared.

Ever watchful of critical scrutiny – expediently seen to threaten Israel’s very existence – Zionist PR men had been obliged to make use of offshore pressure groups to hasbara, or obfuscate, Israel’s consistent human rights abuses, and cavalier disregard of international law.

The task of continually re-inventing Israel1 to evade its detractors had chiefly fallen on the shoulders of the United States, Israel’s most faithful ally since 1967. Zionist pressure groups representing less than 1% of the country’s 300 million people – and certainly not all its diverse five million Jews – had put up camp at Capitol Hill.

It is AIPAC (the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) that spearheads Israel’s massive PR offensive. AIPAC is said to be influential way beyond its numbers. Former Republican congressman, Paul Findlay, says that AIPAC drummed him out of office in 1983 for not toeing the line on Israel.

Author and attorney Jeff Gates describes AIPAC as being a ‘foreign agent’ that dictates United States foreign policy.

Jeffrey Blankfort, former editor of the Middle East Labor Bulletin and radio show host, told me it was AIPAC who persuaded Congress not to punish Israel for selling military technology to apartheid South Africa during the sanctions era.

Candidates in primary and general elections in the United States are vetted by AIPAC office bearers for their views on Israel. Those regarded as sufficiently pro-Israel by AIPAC are granted campaign funding via ‘bundlers’, which are designated groups of funders.

AIPAC is also the brains trust behind the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) which it founded in 1985. More ‘academic’ in outlook than AIPAC, it was set-up by Martin Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel.

It was Indyk who framed the policy of ‘dual containment’ for Iran and Iraq during the Clinton administration.

Indyk, a vice-president and director of the Brookings Institute, now serves on the board of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy. Haim Saban, the centre’s funder, is an Egyptian-born Israeli. He is an avowed Zionist and media mogul who made his millions at Fox Media.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has been described by Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American Islamic relations (CAIR) as an institute that finds the worst possible quotes from the Arab world, which it translates into English.

On its board of directors is Steven Emerson (of Jihad in America fame). Its panel of advisors includes Professor Bernard Lewis (the original author of the term ‘clash of civilisations’), John Ashcroft, Ehud Barak and Paul Bremer.

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA) was founded in 1982. It claims to monitor the American press. If it detects what it perceives as anything unbalanced, it calls the journalist or writes letters to the editor offering ‘factual’ information.

CAMERA’S claims of neutrality are compromised by messages of support from people such as Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, whose objectivity on Israel has been openly questioned. In his book The Case for Israel, he suggests that Israel has a good human rights record.

The Palestinian Media Watch, an Israel-based organisation, was established in 1996 by the American-born Itamar Marcus. He is described by Wikipedia as ‘an Israeli political activist’.

The PMW focuses on the demonisation of Israelis and Jews, especially in the Palestinian education system. The PMW website is totally devoid of any balance; it does not examine Arab anti-Semitism in the Israeli curriculae.

The Middle East Forum is headed by Daniel Pipes, regarded by scholars and commentators such as Tariq Ramadan and James Zogby as an Islamophobe. On its website the MEF claims to work ‘intellectually, operationally and philanthropically’.

Pipes, an avowed political conservative and campaigner against what he calls ‘radical Islam’, gained notoriety through Campus Watch. This organisation was accused of ‘McCarthyism’ when it tried to black-list academics whom it considered anti- Israel.

Daniel Pipes is said to maintain a close relationship with Steven Emerson of MEMRI and is an active blogger.

Another renowned Israeli lobby group is the Anti-Defamation League. The late Dr Alfred Lilienthal, author of the Zionist Connection, claims that the ADL is the ‘most influential organisation’ in the United States. He accuses it of working closely with the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, ‘and sometimes with the FBI or the CIA’.

One group – hardly in the lobbyist category one must add – enjoys the dubious distinction of being rated as violent and extremist by the FBI. It enjoys the sorry record of having committed six murders and 18 terrorist attacks on United States soil alone.

More successful and enduring than any Islamic jihadist group, the Jewish Defence League was the spiritual home of the Hebron killer, Dr. Barusch Goldstein, and Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose political party, Kach, was even banned in Israel.

Another grouping to play a role, particularly in security affairs, has been the neo-con influenced Jewish Institute for Security Affairs (JINSA). It has been directly linked to former United States vice-president, Dick Cheney, and former Deputy Under-Secretary of Defence, Douglas Feith.

But all the above pales into insignificance if we consider the measure of Christian Evangelical support in the United States for Israel. Sometimes dubbed the ‘Kosher Nostra’, this group has the clout to stop the President it votes for in his tracks.

When President George Bush11 criticised Israel for its 2002 incursion of the West Bank, he received 100, 000 e-mails from the Evangelical lobby reproaching him. And when he mooted the Road Map, 50, 000 postcards saw him retreating from fully endorsing a Palestinian state.

This same group sent President Barak Obama nearly 30, 000 e-mails in March 2010 just before his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Indeed, as the late Reverend Jerry Falwell told CBS in 2003:

There are 70 million (sic) of us. And if there’s one thing that brings us together quickly it’s whenever we begin to detect our government becoming a little anti-Israel.

Christian-Zionist author Paul Merkley explains further13. Christian-Zionists are not knocked off their perches when Israel is denounced for rough treatment of Palestinians. Nor is it their concern when a politician gets caught for corruption, or when Mossad pulls off a dirty trick.

No, the Christian Zionist does not have to re-work the ethical Arithmetic when bad news appears, says Merkley. For the Christian-Zionist it is a requirement of faith to ‘prefer the blessing of Israel above all passing things’.

Across the Atlantic, Great Britain – the home of the Balfour Declaration – has played a leading European role in the international Israeli lobby since the 19th century and the petitions of Lord Shaftesbury, the famous Anglo-Zionist.

The Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), the Conservative Friends of Israel and Liberal-Democrat Friends of Israel all serve Israeli interests. The LFI has done this since the 1950’s. There is also the All-Party Britain Israeli Parliamentary Group and the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) that focuses upon the media.

For decades now, Zionist spin doctors and bribed shills across the world have callously played upon Holocaust guilt and paranoia to elicit international support. This lobby knows full well that no public figure enjoys being labeled anti-Semitic. By spuriously linking anti-Semitism to any criticism of Israel, it can bully opinion makers into silence.

Or as James Zogby of the Arab American Institute observes: the Zionist adage is to give the impression of being everywhere, and to say the same the thing everywhere.

The Zionist ‘behind every bush’ conspiracy in the Muslim and Arab world is a direct, if not unfortunate consequence, of this ‘let’s be everywhere’ dogma. The contemporary flames of Jewish anti-Semitism are fanned by the very myth-making of the Zionist lobby.

Zionist influence in the corridors of the United States political establishment is pervasive. Gush Shalom’s Uri Avnery once quipped that if the Israeli government ever wanted an American law to annul the Ten Commandments, at least 95 Senators would rush to sign the bill.

Jews taking issue with the programmes of AIPAC, the ADL, the LFI and other groups are attacked by these lobbyists for being self-loathing. Or, as Abraham Weizfeld complains: the Zionist lobby forgets about other Jews.

Jews in the United States, Britain and Europe do not unquestioningly support Israeli policies. Yet this is the impression that organisations such as AIPAC, the ADL and the LFI have created.

The truth is that Jews in the Diaspora have their voice of concern about Israel played down. Jewish clamouring for peace between Israelis and Palestinians is completely ignored by the lobbyists. As Not in My Name founder Steven Feuerstein has declared:

We criticise Israel because of, not in spite of, our Jewish values.

Even though the Zionist administration may appear to wag the President’s tail (Lilienthal cites a Pentagon joke that memos always have to be typed in triplicate with a copy going to Tel Aviv) it cannot hide that today’s Israel is an extremely costly project for the American taxpayer.

The World Policy Institute reports that in a decade from 1996 to 2006, this small country of about six million received more than 17 billion dollars in direct military aid alone.

Israel’s aid benefaction is legend, and the country receives more aid dollars from Congress annually than all of Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa combined. In fact, this tiny nation receives more aid from the United States and its Diasporic community than any other country in the world.

The late Yeshayahou Leibowitz, a renowned figure at the Hebrew University, and a former editor of the Hebrew Encyclopaedia, once fretted that Israel would collapse due to its reliance on Uncle Sam.

Yet this is what fuels the Zionist project. Those in the Diaspora must pay unconditionally for the protection of the nuclear-powered Zionist state – a David surrounded by a non nuclear-powered Arab Goliath, with Persian Iran now the bogey.

The former French Marxist Roger Garaudy, who turned Muslim and wrote The Founding Myths of the Israeli Policy, argues that the crux of the problem is the secular Zionist movement. It created a militaristic, nationalistic Jewish state at the expense of an Arab one in the very centre of the Arab world.

This was achieved, he says, purely through historical subterfuge, and not by fulfilling any Biblical prophecy. The truth of it – old-fashioned colonialism – was simply wished away by generating the founding fable that a wild, virgin soil was tamed by a superior civilisation.

Garaudy argues, with statistical proof, that before 1948 Palestine was a far cry from being an empty, barren land.

But this did not prevent Moshe Auman of the Israeli Academic Committee on the Middle East penning a 24-page essay entitled Land Ownership in Palestine 1880-1948. His document, in which author Mark Twain is prominently quoted, points to the savagery of the Arab natives and the bleakness of the country.

However, Mark Twain is about as reliable as Monty Python would be for writing a biography on the life of Christ. Twain’s accuracy of account in his 1867 Middle East travelogue, Innocents Abroad, is typified by his claims that he took a sword and tried it on a Muslim who ‘clove in twain like a doughnut’.

The Independent’s Robert Fisk in his Pity the Nation, comments that Auman’s real intent was to manufacture consent that Palestinian Arabs were backward, undeserving tenants of their land.

Auman is contradicted by one of the early Zionists, Asher Ginsberg, who toured Palestine in 1891 and observed that it was difficult to find uncultivated ground anywhere. The idea that a person could come and claim as much land as he wanted was not the case, he reported, using his Hebrew moniker, Ahad Ha’am.

No person epitomised the loftier ideals of Zionism more than Eliezer Ben Yehuda, and yet no person showed the rank disappointment of discovering that Palestine was an Arab homeland more than him.

Ben Yehuda, who revived ancient Hebrew as a modern language, could only describe his arrival on Palestinian soil in 1882 with feelings of dread. To him the Arabs were a fortified rampart that impinged upon his sacred dreams. He eventually left the Holy Land, saying that Jews should have a homeland, but not in Palestine.

Yet on the 15 June 1969, the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir still had the temerity to tell the British Sunday Times that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people. “It’s not as if we came and threw them out and took their country…they didn’t exist,” she proclaimed.

This contrived thesis of ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ has been indubitably, the most enduring Zionist myth. It does not warrant further comment – other than to observe that our apartheid-era history books, also worshipping the idol of nationalism, were imbued with exactly the same kind of doctrinal flatulence.

We had to believe that white men had tamed the wild, unpopulated southern African shores with their ships, ox wagons and blunderbusses. Only when the indigenous Nguni, Khoi or San tribes – boasting centuries of cultural tradition – met up with their European interlopers as naked, caterwauling savages did they enter the pages of history.

This separatism is fixed in a one-eyed worldview that automatically asserts the inherent supremacy of one culture over another. Its arrogance is often subliminal, the perpetrators peculiarly unaware of their insensitivity. This Orientalism is well exemplified by two 19th century English settlers who tried to walk across the Australian outback.

As they lay at death’s door choking in the sand, a group of well-fed and watered Aborigines shook their heads in amazement. Why had these strange white men refused their help?

People often comment that creed is at the centre of the impasse in Palestine. Religious zealotry is indeed a component of the conflict, but the real battle is about land. And despite the religious zealots, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is firmly in the political frame.

Moses Hess, regarded as the first Jewish intellectual to discuss political Zionism, was a contemporary of Karl Marx. He also predicted Germany’s intolerance of Jews. As a secular philosopher, his interest was neither the Torah nor the Talmud. He suggested that Jews should create a socialist commonwealth in Palestine. Hess’s work only gained currency after his death in 1875.

Theodore Herzl, author of the foundational political Zionist document, Der Judenstat, admitted quite happily in his diaries that he was agnostic and did not enjoy religious impulse. He even refused to circumcise his son.

Max Nordau, co-founder of the World Zionist Organisation with Herzl, went on to say that he found the Torah ‘rather repulsive’ and that Herzl’s book would replace it.

In the beginning the most determined opponents of political Zionism were not Arabs or Palestinians, but Jews. The Orthodox Rabbis of Europe’s ghettoes and rural shtetls fought tooth and nail against the idea from its birth.

Judaism’s greatest scholar, Maimonides, had listed 13 principles of Jewish faith in the 12th century; the 12th principle was that Jews had to wait for the promised Messiah. According to the Rabbis this had to occur before the ingathering of all Jews in the Holy Land.

What political Zionism did was to remove the concept of Messianic expectation from Judaism.

For the Rabbis it was a heresy of the highest order, and over 100 prominent Rabbis across the Jewish world condemned Zionism. In 1942 publications such as the New York Times were still arguing in their columns against the establishment of a Zionist state.

This led to fears expressed by people such as Hebrew University academic Professor Judah Magnes that Zionism would become the idol of the Jewish people. In other words, the proto-national identity of the modern Jew in Israel would see him worshipping not God, but the state.

Chicago University history professor, Bernard Wasserstein, writes that the greater part of Jewish immigration to Palestine was not motivated by Zionist conviction, but by circumstance.

Professor Wasserstein concludes that most arrivals re-invented themselves as Zionists only when they got to Palestine. And in the mould of nationalist myth-making, invested their own and their forefather’s presence in Israel with a retrospective meaning that was at odds with historical reality.

Even the ancient yeshivas, the religious institutions of Jerusalem, were not interested in Zionism, their focus more on the sacred stones of the city and their quasi-mediaeval lifestyle of prayer, reflection and waiting for the Messiah.

When Herzl visited Jerusalem in 1898 the chief Rabbi of the city, Rabbi Shmeul Salant, ordered that he be declared an unbeliever.

The shift from the sacred to the secular so condemned by the Orthodox Rabbis at the turn of the 20th century – and then, ironically, the Zionist use of the sacred to justify the secular – is precisely where Roger Garaudy believes today’s conflict has its roots.

He writes that with Zionism developing primarily as a nationalist-colonialist movement, its followers could so easily have settled in Uganda or anywhere else in the world. The Russian, Leon Pinsker, who penned Auto-Emancipation in 1882, was yet another who initially favoured territorialism.

The open question is whether an African or South American Zionist homeland would have created as much turmoil as Israel has done in the Middle East. Nonetheless, Palestine became the sentimental Zionist favourite.

As we have already mentioned, Christian fundamentalism has hugely bolstered this Zionist sentimentality. Its support of the Zionist cause, predicated by mediaeval Protestant writings, is based on the Book of Genesis where God is said to proclaim that those ‘who bless Israel’ will be ‘blessed’ themselves.

These fundamentalists, today known as Dispensationalists, claim that all Jews must return to Israel to build the Third Temple. This is so that the Messiah can appear.

The political mobilisation of this group began in 1973 in the United States. Ironically it was not the issue of the Messiah, but rather legalised abortion, that stirred it into action.

Menachim Begin, who signed the Camp David Accords with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, invited one of its figureheads, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, to Israel in 1978. In 1979 the Israeli government gifted him a million-dollar Lear Jet as a tribute for bringing Christian pilgrims – and donations – to the Holy Land.

In the same year Falwell founded the Moral Majority. With its pro-family, pro-life, pro-defence and pro-Israel policy, it helped Ronald Reagan into office in 1980. The Dispensationalist’s belief – that Jesus would only reappear when there was a Jewish state from the Nile to the Euphrates – suited the Israelis too.

But what was really important to Israel was Falwell’s constituency: millions of Evangelicals supporting West Bank expansionism as opposed to 100, 000 Zionist lobbyists. What was left out of the picture, though, was Falwell’s conviction that the anti-Christ would be Jewish, and that Jews would one day have to submit to Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Living in Dar ul-Shahadah

IN a world filled with acronyms and post-modernist quests for self-identity, we have to ask ourselves: what exactly is Dar ul-Shahadah?

Dar ul-Shahadah – the safe abode of Islamic witness – is a term coined by contemporary thinkers such as Professor Tariq Ramadan and Ebrahim Rasool. Ramadan, a grand-son of the Islamic Brotherhood’s Hassan al-Banna, is the most recognised voice of Muslim Europe.

Rasool, a son of the Cape Town soil and South African ambassador in the US, is a former provincial premier, parliamentarian and presidential advisor. A product of the anti-apartheid movement, he was in a group that broke away from the Muslim Youth Movement to form the Call of Islam in the 1980’s.

Directed by activists such as Faried Esack and Imam Hasan Solomon, the Call of Islam believed that South African Muslims should join the anti apartheid movement. They felt that Muslims should openly identify themselves with the objectives of the Freedom Charter.

Not everybody agreed with the Call of Islam’s integrationist principles at the time, and judging by recent events when Rasool was accosted at Gatesville mosque, there are today a confused few who still appear to have problems. But before we tackle that issue, Dar ul-Shahadah needs a little more definition.

Both Ramadan and Rasool say that as Muslim minorities in non-Muslim societies, we should have no conflict with our hyphenated existence of being Muslim-European, or Muslim-South African.

Ramadan says that European Muslims have to develop a ‘European Islam’, and Rasool asserts that as South African Muslims with a three-hundred year legacy, we can already lay claim to a distinct community profile.

For not only is Dar ul-Shahadah a safe abode of Islamic witness, it’s a space that signifies public identity and civic accountability. It’s a space where a new application of Sacred Law, the Fiqh of Minorities, shows up the exciting dynamism of Islam as it marches into the 21st century.

It’s a space where if our Islam is not threatened, and if we have civic freedoms, our responsibility is to be an upright citizen. As John Donne writes, “no man is an island”.

But being an upright, participatory Muslim citizen doesn’t mean pseudo-patriotism, two-piece suits, or agreeing with the west or supporting Israel. Nor does it mean that we have to stifle critical political engagement, or that we have to apologise for our values. Far from it.

It means that as franchised members of a society we’re an integral part of its diverse and challenging whole. We have to embrace it and become part of it. In Dar ul-Shahadah we live in a benign, as opposed to a threatening, space.

Having travelled to the Muslim world and to Europe, I can say that in South Africa we have one of the most evolved models of Dar ul-Shahadah. Our access to government and civic freedoms are the envy of all I’ve met. We’re one of the few Muslim minority communities who can actually have our destiny in our own hands.

I can remember interviewing Merve Kavakci, a Turkish MP. She was taken by the irony she could wear her scarf in South Africa’s parliamentary assembly, but not her own. Then what about Switzerland, the so-called bastion of political neutrality? Are minarets banned in the suburbs of Cape Town like they are in Zurich? And the veil? Is it forbidden in South Africa?

These are just some of the serious questions that those who tried to shout Rasool down during a Friday talk at Gatesville need to consider. The former premier, who was addressing the topic of Mandela Day, was accused of being responsible for legalising shebeens and gambling in the Western Cape.

That the accusations were as spurious as Monty Python’s dead parrot merely being asleep, need no further comment. Nor does their disgraceful conduct in the mosque. But what does need further comment is the hackneyed innuendo of state illegitimacy emanating from this group, many of whom were once associated with PAGAD.

PAGAD was founded on the principle of reducing Cape Town’s pressing problem of gangsterism and drugs. But when the masses abandoned the organisation as its leadership imploded, PAGAD became waylaid by a messianic obscurantism from which it has never recovered.

With a reactionary leadership on the ground besieged by reactionaries from within, PAGAD retreated into a “them” and “us” laager. We were either for or against PAGAD. There were no grey areas in between.

And it didn’t take too long before the association of unbelief, of being kaafir, was made on those public figures who disagreed with PAGAD’s modus operandi – murder and chaos cloaked with religiosity.

The calling of people kaafir enabled the inference that their blood was now “halal”. It manufactured consent for the bombing of the homes of people such as Shaikh Nazeem Mohamed, then president of the Muslim Judicial Council, and UCT’s Professor Ebrahim Moosa.

PAGAD’s extreme polarisation of principles (there’s only room for those Muslims who agree with them) reflects, by default, the ideas of the Egyptian polemicist, Sayyid Qutb. He wrote that there could only be a Dar ul-Islam or Dar ul-Harb, the House of Islam or the House of Hostility.

With Qutb we can immediately see the pitfalls. Where is there a genuine Dar ul-Islam today? The last Caliphate, the Ottoman one, collapsed in 1923. For most reasoned commentators Dar ul-Islam is more a hypothetical concept, but in Qutb’s eyes it’s a revolutionary reality in which jihad and the overthrow of even secular Muslim leaders is compulsory for all Muslims.

Military jihad may be relevant in Islam, but it’s certainly not one of its pillars – something that Qutb and his ilk so strongly suggest. The greater jihad, as the Prophet (s) told his Companions on the way back from a battle, is the one of the human soul.

The obvious lack of a middle road here contradicts the Qur’anic ideal of “ummatan wasatan” (the way of moderation) and the Prophet’s (s) well-known exhortations against extremism.

The grouping that attacked Rasool seem to have lost the plot of what it means to live in Dar ul-Shahadah. Do they want to impose their dictatorial, ill-formulated “Dar ul-Islam” upon all of us, no questions asked? A “Dar ul-Islam” where the blood of those who disagree with you becomes permissible? An “Islamic” system where the ends can always be twisted to justify the means?

When I think back on the infamy and terror of the PAGAD era, the alternative becomes too horrifying to contemplate.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Throwing Rocks at the Moon - The Question of Halal Water

It’s getting serious. I mean really funny. Or do I mean serious? No, funny. No, serious. The pessimism of certain scholars that we’re inherently wrongdoers, and that we have to be protected from their fears, has now reached epidemic proportions in the Muslim world.

No longer can we, the silent majority, be allowed to think for ourselves. Or at least that’s the impression I get. For nowadays whenever a missionary ecclesiastic exhorts me, for instance, to avoid “strange women” I’m always tempted to ask: could it be a reflection of the preacher’s own weaknesses?

It might be anecdotal, but I work at a radio station surrounded by women. Were I to literally apply the aphorism (and literal is what these preachers want) of “lowering my gaze” I would frequently crash into the walls and fall down the stairs.

To assume the worst of human nature and their Creator, as these Islamo-evangelists usually do, reflects a distrust that is disturbing. How many times have we been told that God becomes what we think of Him, and that people become (in our suggestive minds) what we think of them too.

I have no problem with anyone assuming that I’m a good-for-nothing (I probably am). But for me to presuppose the same of someone else? I would have to regard that as arrogance on my part. For who am I to judge? And so, if anyone wants to call me “judgemental” on the issue of halal water, let’s just say: I’m protesting.

The story begins when I was travelling on the Cape Town-Johannesburg route the other day. Sitting in South African Airways economy with my knees around my ears trying to slurp gravy with a fork 30, 000 feet above Kimberly, I noticed that the toothpicks were no longer halal.

You could imagine my surprise. I’d written an article about these toothpicks (kosher on one end, halal on the other). No longer could I feel safe removing raisin residue from my teeth after consuming things such as Woolworth’s halal hot-cross buns, or the stringy chicken of my airline meal.

However, my curiosity was aroused when I ordered some sparkling water from the stewardess. After taking a few exploratory sips, something caught my eye. Not only was this water kosher, it was halal. I now took a healthy slug. I could drink this beverage with a conscience as clear as the spring from which it had gushed.

But hang on Shafiq, I thought, this was unflavoured water. Water was H²O – the sum of two oxygen atoms and one hydrogen atom. No porcine influences or impurities here. Water emanated as rain from clouds. Every droplet – traditions said – was accompanied by an Angel on its way to earth. And once on earth, it filtered through sand and rock into streamlets, springs and mighty rivers.

Water was an act of God – the very source of life, the nourishment of the DNA of Adam. Water was what held the primal clay together into which the halal human soul was blown. Water’s causality was halal; its consequence was halal; its consumption was halal; its chemical constitution was halal – so where could it be haram?

Absolutely baffled that doubt – or shakk – had befallen the inherent permissibility of water, I consulted the law books. What would classical application of Sacred Law tell me?

I decided to consult the Shafi’i legal stream of thought. In Cape Town we are followers of this great scholar’s school. I accessed Imam Shafi’i through the 14th century work of Shaikh Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, his exposition based on the earlier 7th century interpretations of Imam Shafi’i’s pupil, Imam Nawawi.

What I learnt in summary was that 216 litres of water (two measured Iraqi barrels) did not become impure by mere contact with filth, but only so through a tangible change in taste, colour or smell. Foliage, bloodless creatures and even tea leaves (which could discolour water) did not constitute filth.

If the body of water was less than 216 litres it could become impure by contact with filth. But if indiscernible to the naked eye, and if the unobservable contact was unknown to the user of the water, it was not regarded as impure. Ignorance, scholars say, is not a sin.

I’m not a legal eagle, but if one considers that springs can produce thousands of litres a day, I struggle to see where impurities could linger. And before bottling, the water is filtered anyway – usually through reverse osmosis.

Manufacturers have to meet stringent international standards, even without halal and kosher bodies poking around their plants. Poisoning customers is not good for business.

As for the question of animal products in artificial flavourants or chemical additives: fructose, aspartame, citric acid, sodium benzoate, acesulfame K and CO² do not indicate that an unclean animal (a possible source of legal doubt) died for the cause.
So what could have the halal certification bodies been doing? If their sole purpose wasn’t to make money, which some would suggest, then their interest in bottled water can only be defined as a hair-splitting fanaticism.

Why fanaticism?

Well, it is fanaticism because the very principle of Islamic law (permissible before impermissible) has been turned on its head. The reversal of this axiom in Islamic law by modern halalisers is absolutely astonishing. Everything in the world, if these zealots are to be believed, is now haram until proved halal!

In other words, following the above logic, the water bubbling out the Franchshoek escarpment in divine ecstasy was not halal until a human inspector deemed it so.

With regards to this extreme legal absurdity, it was the noble Prophet (s) who proclaimed that Islam was a powerful thing, and that if we made it difficult, it would make itself difficult for us. It seems like we’ve arrived. I wait expectantly for the day when halal bureaucrats certify the gum on postage stamps.

But the upshot of it all, and the very grave reality, is that the seeds of insecurity have been sown in the mind of the South African Muslim consumer; a consumer facing growing lists of products deemed legally doubtful. First a trickle, and now an onslaught, the sultans of halal now tyrannise the supermarket shelves.

Of course, I’m not against halal certification. It is necessary, and it has its place. But surely there should be an urgent call for balance right now? Surely reason and responsibility should be the watchwords, rather than the current culture of theological pettifogging?

A’isha, the wife of the Prophet (s), once said that if the messenger of Islam had a choice, he would always choose the easier option. And while on his final pilgrimage, the Prophet (s) told his Companions to select pebbles the size of peas for pelting the Devil, one of the symbolic rites of the Hajj.

His biggest fear, he said, was ghuluww – or extremism. He did not want Muslims to be destroyed by extremism as other nations had been done before him. And so, small stones had to be used for the pelting. This Hadith, this Prophetic saying, contains such a powerful metaphor, but its underlying message of moderation in thought and deed appears to have got lost somewhere.

And unfortunately, it seems as if certain players in the burgeoning halal industry have picked up rocks rather than pebbles, and are now throwing them – not even at the devil – but the moon.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Jerusalem: The Stations of the Cross

“JUZ? You wanna juz now?” asked the shopkeeper with a knowing smile. Outside the Hashimi Hotel across the narrow street was a small cafe that squeezed oranges. I had discovered that it also juiced carrots. Fresh, sweet carrot juice had become my staple.

Carrot juice, which is full of beta-carotene, is a natural anti-oxidant – something that I needed to boost my immune system. The pollen, pollution and dust of a dry Mediterranean summer were beginning to clog my sinuses. A nagging post-nasal drip was fast inflaming the back of my throat.

Having naturally medicated myself, I felt much better. If one does not stray too much into the fatty zones of international fast food, the digestive system – the source of most ailments – adapts happily to locally grown foods, which help to cleanse the body of its phlegmatic humours.

I must say I enjoyed olives, or spooning chopped tomato, mint and cucumber salad onto my plate, or dipping coarse bread into olive oil and humus. The very thought of falafel, flame-grilled kebabs, kubbi, stuffed brinjal and schwarma did make the mouth water. But on this morning, Mediterranean cuisine was not on my ‘menu’. And lest it be said otherwise, I eat to live – I do not live to eat!

The Hashimi was close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was my intention to follow the route of the Christian pilgrimage. And although it was not a Friday, the day when the Franciscan monks would lead their weekly ceremonial procession, I was going to follow the Via Dolorosa from its beginnings near the Lion’s Gate to its climactic end, Christ’s empty tomb in the Holy Sepulchre.

Its stations defined by faith, The Via Dolorosa – literally the ‘Way of Sadness’ – is a route that marks fourteen Stations of the Cross, all which commemorate sacred incidents believed to have befallen Jesus on his way to Cavalry. The Hashimi is near to the Seventh Station, and so I retraced my steps back to the First Station.

Jerusalem was empty. A youthful figure sliding out of the shadows near the Lion’s Gate was mightily peeved when I said I did not want his services for 25 US dollars. I had a pamphlet and Bradt’s Palestine with me – and really – I was hardly going to get lost along the Via Dolorosa, the most famous thoroughfare in the Old City.

Station One, which marks where Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus, is said to have occurred where the school of ‘Umar now stands. It is about 300 metres west of the Lion’s Gate, and the crucifixion pageants usually started from within its courtyard, once the moat-encircled Roman fortress of Antonia.

The school was closed (my luck) and so I wandered past Station One, where Jesus picked up the cross, to the chapels of Condemnation and Flagellation. In Pontius Pilate’s era, they would have been part of the Antonia fortress.

These chapels stood partially over an old Roman pavement, the lithostratos. The Chapel of Flagellation, a 20th century building built over the ruins of another mediaeval structure, had been designed by the famous Italian architect, Antonio Barluzzi.

The Roman pavement, the lithostratos, ran west under the Via Dolorosa and reappeared again in the basement of the Ecce Homo convent. This now sub-terranean thoroughfare, which dated back to Hadrian in the 2nd century CE, provided interesting evidence of Roman street life.

On a previous visit I had seen these ancient stones, their striations cut for wagon wheels and the markings of games clearly marked on their weathered surface. Down in the Ecce Homo basement I could almost hear the urban din of Roman times – a cart laden with hay clip-clopping past children quietly playing hop-scotch, and off-duty soldiers throwing knuckle-bones in a boisterous circle.

I passed under the Ecce Homo arch, a place where Pontius Pilate had said ‘ecce homo’, as Jesus had passed by. However this arch, also built by Hadrian, was more a symbolic juncture than a historical site where a Roman governor had uttered that there was Jesus.

The Via Dolorosa made a sharp turn to the left. I stopped at the Third Station. A grey wrought-iron gate, centred with a small mediaeval cross, was the foreground to a white wall relief showing Jesus falling under the cross. This was the Polish chapel. A few metres on, a carving of Mary comforting her son topped a door that led into a tiny Armenian church.

Inside this building was an interesting 5th century mosaic, on which there were a pair of footprints in stone. These were said to be the Virgin Mary’s. But why super-impose an outline of a pair of sandals upon them? It was like adding glasses to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or giving the statue of David a pair of y-fronts.

The road took another sharp turn uphill, this time to my right. Here was
Station Five, the spot where Roman soldiers had been forced by Simon of Cyrene to help the now weakening Jesus carry his cross. An old doorway, with ‘Simon Cyrenao Crux Imponitur’ carved on its lintel, faced me. Also fixed in the wall was a left palm-print, said to have been made by Jesus when he leant to support himself.

Opposite Station Six the wares of a silver shop tumbled on to the pavement in a shiny cascade of censers, decorative coffee pots, devotional candelabras, crucifixes and rosaries. Called the Church of the Holy Face, Station Six belonged to the Greek Catholics.

It marked where St Veronica had wiped Jesus’ face, his features becoming imprinted in the cloth. The problem was that this station reflected the events of a 14th century tradition, but it did not detract from another tasteful Barluzzi chapel in what had been a Crusader monastery.

Station Seven brought me back to my starting point from the Hashimi. It remembered where Jesus had fallen, and another Franciscan chapel marked spot X.

Station Eight was a Greek Orthodox monastery and on its wall was a Latin cross marked with the Greek word ‘nika’. This was where Jesus stopped to console the wailing women of Jerusalem, telling them not to weep for him but for themselves.

I found Station Nine by turning off Suq Kahn el-Zeit and ascending a set of steps to the Coptic Patriarchate, which was actually on the eastern side of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A column marked where Jesus had fallen for the last time.

Retracing my steps, I entered the Suq Khan el-Zeit road again and turned right past the Alexander hospice into the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I had arrived. The last four Stations of the Cross lay inside this basilica that was not a soaring cathedral, but rather a clutter and tumble of mediaeval masonry.

Restored in some places, Christianity’s holiest building was equally a patch-work of pitted lime-stone, moss and weeds. The truth was that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had always been bedeviled by denominational turf wars. The Greek Orthodox, the Franciscans, the Armenians, the Ethiopians, the Copts and the Syrian Orthodox all jostled shoulder-to-shoulder for devotional real estate.

The Ethiopian church, representing an ancient Abyssinian sect, was the one that had lost most of its rights. Its cowled monks now lived on the roof. Just to lift a trowel or to raise scaffolding in this complex, I was told, could spark off a major conflict. A ladder left on a window ledge had remained in the same place since 1852.

Henry Stedtman of the Bradt Travel Guide had written that the visitor to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was always caught between ‘reverence and revulsion’. However, I certainly did not feel revulsion as much as I felt empathy. It reminded me more than anything else of the human frailty of our 15 year-old post-apartheid democracy in South Africa.

As a structure it was just as partly-repaired, yes. As a multi-cultural, multi-racial people we were as noisy, fractious and uneasy as the monks, yes. But in spite of all the tumult, the experience was as intoxicating and energising as it was confusing. And not unlike the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where its gate-keepers had always been a neutral Muslim family, I think that to really understand something so complex, you just had to be a part of it.

I stood in the courtyard on the threshold. This part of the Old City had been a sacred site for over two millennia. As a Christian monument it had stood, despite being destroyed twice, for 1, 600 years. Its history was as old as Second Temple Jerusalem.

Interestingly, when the Byzantine Empire had risen to ascendancy with its new capital, Constantinople, Jerusalem had not been a major metropolis at all. Two centuries after Hadrian had razed the Temple and expelled the Jews, Jerusalem had grown into a quiet Roman provincial town called Aeolia. The governor of the district had resided in his marble palace at the coast in Caesarea.

But the Christians had not forgotten, even if it meant that the Bishopric of Jerusalem had become a backwater. It took Emperor Constantine’s endorsement of the Christian creed in the 4th century, and the conclave of Nicaea in CE 325 shaping its Trinitarian ethos, to revive a sacred interest in Jerusalem.

And whilst Constantine’s interest in Christianity appears to have been tempered by political expediency (he was only baptized on his deathbed) he did take a keen interest in its affairs, and provide generous funding. And whatever his personal or political shortcomings, Constantine’s role in establishing modern Christianity is undoubtedly one of his greatest contributions to history.

The Byzantine Empire’s official sanction of Christianity saw its devotional focus shifting from grottoes, catacombs, caves and private dwellings to official buildings and public spaces. From now on, one of mankind’s greatest civilisations, a civilisation renowned for its engineering and construction skills, would be responsible for church architecture.

The polytheists had their temples and altars, and Christianity needed to have a spiritual centre to where its Bishops and believers could gravitate to contemplate upon resurrection and salvation. Christ’s empty tomb, the epitome of his dramatic life events, was the ideal place. It was left to Constantine’s mother, Helena, to travel to the Holy Land to rediscover Christianity’s sacred locations.

Already aged, but fired up with an energy belying her 80 years, she was destined to become the pioneer of Christian monumental archaeology. Described by the ecclesiastical chronicler Eusibius as an extremely devout lady, her ultimate odyssey was a search for the true cross, the very wood upon which the body and limbs of Christ had been nailed in the Final Passion.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Israel: When the Gun Turns

If you're a budding student of surrealism, I would recommend Israel. It will prove to be your greatest project. I can assure you that Israel's bizarre political landscape will provide you with material beyond your wildest dreams.

Described by the Oxford dictionary as an “expression of the sub-conscious mind through imagery”, surrealism communicates its meaning through absurd, irrational and capricious nonsense. It is a metaphor in which nothing is what it seems.

And if we weren’t addressing one of the modern era’s most vexing conflicts, we would all be laughing by now. For the issue of Erez Israel, the “greater” Israel, is a serious one.

For those of us who might need reminding, Israel was the political end-result of a project; a project initiated by European Jewish secularists at the end of the 1800’s to create a Jewish homeland.

Whilst this aspiration (called Zionism) was initially seen as a noble end in itself, its means – the Palestinian people being displaced at the point of a gun – has become, as Nelson Mandela once said, one of the world’s biggest unresolved questions.

This is because for its most ardent and unbending disciples, Zionism in the 21st century has morphed into a golden calf. This is why in its inviolable, idolatrous name Gaza can be bombed and besieged, and why helicopters can murder Hamas leaders from the sky.

Zionist reasoning is that if you question Zionism, you strike at the heart of a mythical, homogenous “collective Jew”. That this “collective Jew” is an emotional red-herring, and that the idol is actually nationalism – and not Judaism – should be clear to all of us.

Nationalism by definition is a blind groupthink in which morality is suspended for the sake of a greater cause – in this case, power over Palestinians who pose a threatening counter nationalism by just existing.

This idolatry of Zionist nationalism was the biggest fear of Professor Judah Magnes at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in the 1950’s, who actively warned against Zionism becoming an idol of the Jewish people.

And as Chicago University’s Bernard Wasserstein noted almost 40 years later: Israel was founded on nationalism, and not religion. Religion, he says, only came into the Zionist frame after 1948 when Israeli nationalism had to be bolstered.

Yet it was the protagonists of this same secular ideology, atheists such as Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben Gurion, who incongruously insisted on declaring a “Jewish” (read religious) state in 1948. It was the equivalent, I was once mischievously informed, of a Mufti declaring an Islamic state in Ireland without believing in the Shari’ah.

However, Judaism as a great monotheistic faith is not the problem in the Middle East. Modern political Zionism, incapable of acknowledging its injustices and blind to its faults, thoroughly ridicules the sublime human values of Judaism. It is belligerent Zionism that opens the door to the unwelcome spectre of anti-Semitism.

Nonetheless, it is agreed now by most diplomatic players on the Levantine chess-board that Israel is a political reality. Even Hamas concedes this, although Likud’s constitution still doesn’t recognise a Palestinian state. But then again, that is just Israel.

However, as one of the world’s smallest countries with the best equipped army in the Middle East – and as the largest beneficiary of US aid – nuclear-powered Israel is a revelation of modern political science.

For how many nation-states in the 21st century can boast of four parallel legal systems within its territories?

Israel can. Israelis are governed by secular law, but issues of personal law are seen to by the Orthodox Rabbis. Israel’s parliament, the ever fractious Knesset, exists without a constitution to guide it.

Then there are the occupied zones. They are governed by military law, or as in the case of the old city of Hebron – where you have an occupation within an occupation – by military and civil law combined.

So when Hebron’s xenophobic settlers indulge in their sport of harassing Palestinians, the army has to stand by. This is because I’m told it has no jurisdiction over the settlers, who are governed by civil law. Palestinians, regulated by occupational military law, are far easier to arrest.

The fourth legal system – or what’s left of it – exists in the pockets of land still governed by the Palestinian Authority.

The final anomaly is the fact that Israel is the only modern nation-state in the world today without properly defined borders. The West Bank Barrier, the Apartheid Wall, is but the most recent example of an insidious territorial creep that has consumed Palestinian land for decades.

What prompted all these thoughts was when I started going through my photo archives the other day. After several trips to the region in the last decade or so, I have an eclectic mix of images, and decided to try and sort them out.

I hadn’t seen my pictures for years, but what kept appearing in the dusty negatives were frames of people wielding guns. I wondered why I had not previously been aware of this. Image after image revealed just how many Israelis – especially radical settlers – openly carried weapons.

With 1948 Israel and 1967 Palestine so geographically compact, and with seven different climate zones and so much to see, your visit often results in a sensory overload.

Perhaps that’s why I hadn’t taken too much note of the firearms. That and the fact that we South Africans, having only just abandoned Apartheid, were still probably desensitised to political violence.

Noticeable amongst my negatives, though, was the lack of arms in the Palestinian camp. The PA’s rag-tag platoons and Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades could not hold a candle to Israeli firepower.

And if ever the disproportionate nature of Israel’s hostility against Palestinians was seeking for definition, here it was in my files.

So what was the point of it all? Terry Crawford-Browne, an observer for the World Council of Churches to Palestine, put it this way: the guns (and checkpoints) were there to make Palestinian life as miserable as possible.

In other words, the military’s role was not just to fend off weakling Arab regimes. The army’s job was to enforce an occupation – to execute a spider-web of laws used to justify Zionist Apartheid, and ultimately in places such as East Jerusalem, to effect ethnic cleansing.

But here lies the rub. As Zionism becomes more and more unpalatable in the post Cast Lead era, and pressure against occupation and siege starts to bear, who will the IDF listen to? The doves, or the hawks?

In recent years a host of Israeli analysts have pointed out that a right-wing settler minority has quietly worked its way into the senior ranks of the IDF. The army has been taken over by extremists, said Gush Shalom’s Uri Avnery bluntly to me in an interview last year. The beast was in the belly.

If we consider that a 2002 Ha’aretz poll revealed over 70% of Israelis would be prepared to sacrifice West Bank settlements for peace, grave problems loom for Israeli leaders. This is because there is the very real prospect of factions in the IDF ignoring official orders.

For once, Palestinians could be spectators as ill-tempered Israelis turn their guns on each other – the one party wanting peace, and the other one abjectly fearing it. Indeed, when the gun turns in Israel (on the occupied West Bank) life is really going to be interesting.