Hanan Ashrawi – from pragmatism to extremism?

27 September, 2010 at 06:50 | Posted in Inter-faith relations, Israeli journalism, Israeli-Arab conflict, Politics | Leave a comment
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Dr. Hanan Ashrawi - leaving the pragmatic approach in favor of the extremists? (Image via Wikipedia)

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi - leaving the pragmatic approach in favor of the extremists? (Image via Wikipedia)

 

A friend of mine recommended I read a recent interview with the senior Palestinian activist, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi. Dr. Ashrawi gave this interview to the Israeli Maariv-affiliated local newspaper “Zman Yerushalayim”, issued in Jerusalem in Hebrew. Commenting in English on an interview published in Hebrew might seem a bit unfair, and yet Ashrawi’s statements have been heard in various languages from many Palestinian mouthpieces, and it is important to reveal the acute problems embedded in them.

Dr. Ashrawi is considered one of the most intelligent, eloquent and pragmatic among Palestinian activists. She seems like the ideal person with whom to reach a peaceful settlement and end years of misery. And yet, in this interview, and despite the resumption of direct peace negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian governments, Dr. Ashrawi joins the extremists among Palestinian Arabs. Her eloquent diplomatic language might fool certain people, but for the common Israeli, her words are frustrating and echoes some of the harsh statements of the 1964 Palestinian National Convenant.

“Everything can be worked out”

The interview starts from its end, the interviewer Eli Oshrov says he told Dr. Ashrawi at the end of the interview that the provisions she stipulated throughout the interview would be unacceptable to most Israelis. “Everything can be worked out”, she replies, but to be honest, I don’t see how, unless she was trying to present high Palestinian demands as a kind of tactic. If it is indeed a tactic, it is a dangerous one, and Ashrawi should do without it.

UN GA resolution 194

Dr. Ashrawi starts with the Palestinian demand to let the Palestinian refugees resettle in the Israeli territory, and cites the UN General Assembly resolution 194 from December 1948. Dr. Ashrawi reiterates an old Palestinian claim as if there were an international resolution ordering Israel to accept “the right of return” of Palestinian refugees. There is little truth in this claim. First of all, the resolution is merely a recommendation, not a compelling decision. The resolution does not talk about “right” of return, but merely calls for the repatriation of refugees who wish to live in peace with their neighbors. Needless to say, the Palestinian leadership did not accept the latter condition at the time, and the Jordanian Government ignored many other paragraphs in the resolution, like the call to allow free access to Jerusalem and Bethlehem and make them cities under international rule.  Furthermore, in December 1948, the State of Israel was about seven months old. The UN did not recognize it yet, and the resolution still uses the old British Mandate terminology. In 1949 the UN recognized Israel as a sovereign state and UN member, a recognition that makes GA resolution 194 obsolete, at least within the “Green Line” boundaries.

The war between Israel and its neighboring countries was still ongoing in December 1948 (even though it reached its last stages). It seems quite reasonable to call for the repatriation of refugees when a war is still ongoing or has just reached its end. It seems totally unreasonable to do so more than 60 years later, during 40 of which the Palestinian party called for “armed struggle” for the “liberation of Palestine”, contrary to the stipulations of GA resolution 194 that calls for restoring peace and establishing reconciliatory committee.

Ashrawi: Jewish state means racist state

When asked about the demand that the Palestinian leadership recognize the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, Hanan Ashrawi tells the Israelis, “if you insist on being racist and discriminatory, good for you”. She says she struggles for a secular Palestinian state, so she cannot accept a Jewish state. There are two problems here. First of all, Israel is a Jewish secular state. “Jewish” is a polysemy which refers to a nation, an ethnic group and a religion. The name “Israel” was chosen for the Jewish state in order to avoid confusion between the national and religious senses of the term “Jewish” (there were other reason for this choice too). Israel is defined in its basic laws as a Jewish and democratic state, which is exactly the formula which Ashrawi wishes to adopt for the future Palestinian state, while replacing “Jewish” with “Palestinian”. And there is another problem – in the basic laws of the Palestinian National Authority, Palestine is defined as Arab and Muslim. The Palestinian law, according to this document, is inspired by the shari’a, namely the Islamic religious law. So, like it or not, the Palestinian National Authority, of which Dr. Ashrawi is part, is not secular nor egalitarian with regard to Palestinian Christians. The Israeli law, by the way, is based upon secular doctrines, except for matrimonial law, in which religious law applies, but all religions have equal status for this matter.

“Sovereignty is not based upon religion”

When it comes to the issue of Jerusalem, Dr. Ashrawi says “sovereignty is not based upon religion” but rather it is a political issue. Very well, but who says Palestinians have precedence over Israelis when it comes to sovereignty on Jerusalem? Dr. Ashrawi says the Western Wall (a.k.a. Wailing Wall) should be under Palestinian sovereignty. Why not Israeli? Dr. Ashrawi does not explain. She accuses Israel of behaving like an “occupying force” in Jerusalem, while ignoring the fact that all Palestinian Jerusalemites received permanent resident status in Israel, which means they are entitled to more-or-less the same rights as Israeli citizens (almost all of them refused accepting full citizenship and preferred to keep their Jordanian passports, until Jordan stripped them of their citizenship leaving them stateless). She says “why do you need a guard” at the entrance to the Western Wall site, ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of attacks on civilians, particularly suicide bombing, were carried out by Palestinians, even in holy sites and during holidays. She also ignores the fact that Israel respect the status of the Palestinian Muslim Waqf on the Temple Mount, allowing it to administer the place independently. The Israeli police is stationed outside the religious complex and confiscate prayer books from Jews who wish to visit the place. Jewish prayers are considered to be dangerous provocation, hence are strictly forbidden on the Temple Mount by the Israeli authorities. I wonder if the Palestinians showed similar respect to other religious and national groups should they gain control over Jerusalem.

So, Dr. Ashrawi, can we really work things out? Or perhaps someone on the Palestinian side should come up with more reasonable line of thought before making demands from the Israeli side?

Further thoughts about apartheid

23 September, 2010 at 12:38 | Posted in Politics | 2 Comments
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My first post on this blog deals with what I perceive as overuse of the term apartheid – overuse that amounts to abuse. I have noticed that many people who accuse certain countries or societies of practicing “apartheid” refer to the UN-brokered “International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid”, which was opened to signature in the UN headquarters in New York City on 30 November 1973. People often think of international treaties as some kind of holy scriptures, formulated by the word’s sages and acceptable on all. There are indeed treaties that almost became a modern version of the Ten Commandments, but these are few. In most cases, international treaties are documents that are meant to serve political interests of certain countries. Despite their legal language, they are not necessarily binding laws, especially in cases where many countries refused to sign the treaty. Actually, this is exactly the case of the “counter-apartheid treaty”.

The South African system of apartheid was condemned by nearly all countries in the world. This condemnation translated into strict international boycott. However, many of the countries that condemned the South African apartheid and used to boycott the South African government did not sign the “counter-apartheid treaty”. This fact becomes even more significant when considering that most of the non-party countries are veteran democracies.

 

Map from Wikipedia showing (in dark green) the countries that signed the "counter-apartheid treaty"

Map from Wikipedia showing (in dark green) the countries that signed the "counter-apartheid treaty"

 

Here is an incomplete list of such non-party countries: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, West Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Benelux countries, Scandinavian countries, Japan and several others. Also, when Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Greece became fully democratic, they did not accede to the treaty. How come such countries with respected record of fighting apartheid and racism declined to join a treaty countering apartheid? Actually, according to the data I could find, even post-apartheid South Africa did not bother to accede to this treaty. How can someone treat such a treaty seriously? Could it be that certain countries politically abused the just fight against racial discrimination in South Africa?

Listening to a nightly interview with Shlomi Eldar

21 September, 2010 at 00:50 | Posted in Israeli journalism, Israeli-Arab conflict | Leave a comment
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Shlomi Eldar, Israeli journalist covering Gaza Strip

Shlomi Eldar, Israeli journalist covering Gaza Strip (Image via Wikipedia)

I am currently listening to a radio interview of Kobi Meidan with Shlomi Eldar on Galei Tzahal. Kobi Meidan is one of the most prominent TV and radio interviewers in Israel, and Shlomi Eldar is one of the best and most appreciated among Israeli Hebrew-speaking journalists. Eldar has been covering the Palestinian Territories, particularly the Gaza Strip, for the Israeli Hebrew-speaking media during the past twenty years or so.

Shlomi Eldar is the perfect journalist – he is very courageous and extremely sensitive both to people as individuals and to public trends. He relies not on official statements or briefings but on information he collects meticulously with his bare hands and from ordinary Palestinians who act as his contact persons. He avoids falling into the trap of taking sides and preaching. He says he tries to capture the complex picture of this delicate Israeli-Palestinian situation, and in his case you can believe it because his reports leave you with clear deep thoughts rather than futile rage or stupid schadenfreude.

The main topic of the interview with Kobi Meidan, to which I currently listen, is Eldar’s new documentary film about a Palestinian baby with serious genetic immunodeficiency who has been treated in Israel after his two brothers lost their lives to the disease shortly after their birth. Eldar says he became emotionally involved with the subjects of his films, to a degree that he made his best efforts to facilitate the treatment. He says he nearly abandoned the project when the baby’s mother said before cameras that she would happily send her child to be a suicide-bomber. Then he realized that he should understand the deep streams that cause this paradox of a woman trying to save her baby and at the same time wishes him to become a suicide-bomber rather than get angry and abandon the scene. Kobi Meidan suggested that the mother tried to be “more Catholic than the pope”, namely that she has to make extremist statements in order not to be suspected with collaboration.

Two very important points I heard in this interview relate to the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit in June 2006 and to “Operation Cast Lead” in December 2008. Eldar says he managed to reach the kidnappers of Gilad Schalit through one of his contact persons in Gaza. The contact person did not want to be the courier. “You Israelis are mad”, he said, implying that the Israel Defense Forces might relate him to the kidnapping and kill him. Eldar eventually convinced him. He came back with the following information: The kidnappers are confused and frightened. They want to end this affair as quickly as possible and ask for a low “price” (much lower than the current demands of the Hamas kidnappers, according to Eldar). Eldar further says that when he delivered this message to Israeli military officials they told him to mind his own business. This story reminded me of another report, according to which Israeli military investigators knew almost for sure that Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev had been killed during Hizbollah’s invasion into northern Israel in July 2006, i.e. Hizbollah kidnapped dead bodies rather than living soldiers, but this crucial information did not reach the higher-rank officials.

Apparently Israel has good intelligence, good professionals and it succeeded in having strong deterrence against its adversaries. This begs the question: why doesn’t Israel make wise use of these assets? Why does it let itself fall into traps set by organizations like Hamas and Hizbollah when it has all the information and measures needed to avoid them? Why does it let an Israeli soldiers remain at the hands of his kidnappers when it can end the affair within a short while? Why isn’t it more prudent about using force when it has the capability to carefully assess the benefit against the damage? In short – the brain is there, the means are there, so how come the decision making is so poor?

Shlomi Eldar went on telling about consequences of the bloodcurdling phone call he received while on air from Dr. Abu al-Aish, a Palestinian Gazan physician who used to work at Tel HaShomer medical center in Israel. Dr. Abu al-Aish told Shlomi Eldar with heart rending cries about the killing of his daughters from an Israeli shell, while Israeli television viewers hear it all live through their TV sets. Eldar says the then-Israeli Prime Minister shed some tears when hearing the broadcast. A ceasefire was declared the next day. Israel had every right to attack Gaza, Eldar says, pointing out to the Qassam rocket attacks on Sderot and southern Israel. But at the same time he said Israel used too much force. He says he was condemned for his view during the first days of Operation “Cast Lead”, but not after the phone call from Dr. Abu al-Aish. People like Shlomi Eldar can and should be more common in our society.

Time to be indigenous

17 September, 2010 at 09:23 | Posted in knowledge, Politics | Leave a comment
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A San (Bushman). Probably the most indigenous people in southern Africa.

A San man (Bushman) who pertains to what seems to be the most indigenous people in southern Africa. (Image via Wikipedia)

How long does it takes before a group of “immigrants” becomes “indigenous people”? In our days of post-colonialism, the term “indigenous” has taken all positive aspects that used to be associated with the word “pioneer”. These days everyone wishes to have deep roots stretching from his feet down to the bottom of the earth, and if s/he cannot find such roots, s/he would invent them. The truth is that people are not trees, and immigration is an essential aspect of our lives. Had it not been the case, we would all live in central Africa to this day. It is also a fact that many peoples who present themselves as indigenous had a history of colonialists. The most striking example is perhaps the Arab peoples. The heroic Arabic term futūħ can be described as a series of colonial conquests of people from the Arabian Peninsula who stormed the Fertile Crescent, North Africa and Persia during the 7-8th centuries CE. It took a few centuries before the vast majority of the Middle Eastern peoples gradually Arabized, either willingly or under pressure. But if the contemporary Middle East is to be regarded as indigenously Arab, then one has to admit that it does not take too long before the immigrant or colonial culture becomes the indigenous.

All that begs the question, why does it all matter? What difference does it make if a person or a people is immigrant or indigenous? Actually it doesn’t. As I said, people are not trees, they wonder around all the time. Interestingly enough, the Apartheid regime in South Africa is often described as despicable discrimination of indigenous peoples by colonialists. The facts suggest otherwise. People of European origin have been living in South Africa for hundreds of years, and most people of African origin, particularly the Zulu and Xhosa peoples arrived in South Africa about the same time as the first Dutch settlers, after constant migration from central parts of the continent down south. Furthermore, had the Apartheid discrimination been based upon religion rather than race – suppose Christians of all races had been favored over non-Christians – would it make the discrimination less despicable?

Post-colonialist theories are a mirror-image of the colonialist ideas, and as we all know, the face reflected from the mirror is not much prettier than the one present before the mirror. Switching the villain-righteous roles between the “indigenous” (formerly known as “savage”) and the “colonialist oppressor” (formerly known as “pioneer”) leads nowhere. Also, ignoring the complexity of identity, whether it is an individual’s identity or a people’s identity, is just another form of oppression. Are the people called “African American” really African, having been born in North America to families who have been living in the “New World” for at least 300 centuries, and being part of a culture that is closer to European traditions than African ones? Is a French citizen who immigrated from Algeria a Frenchman or an Algerian? Considering the long French government of Algeria, is he really an immigrant? Where exactly should we draw the line, and more importantly, why should we draw it at all? If our objective is to minimize oppression of peoples and individuals, why do we need to divide them into “indigenous vs. colonials/immigrants” categories?

Needed urgently – Islamic minority culture

16 September, 2010 at 16:14 | Posted in Inter-faith relations, Israeli-Arab conflict | Leave a comment

London Central Mosque

London Central Mosque (by Tawil via Flickr)

The major problem of Muslims today, especially Sunni Muslims, is lack of minority culture. Minority culture is a set of rules, norms, workarounds and sometimes even philosophies, that enable a relatively small community to live in harmony, or at least in reasonable coexistence, with a surrounding larger community that holds different values and norms. Sunni Islam did not have the opportunity to develop a minority culture because Sunni Muslims became majority within a short period of time from the emergence of Islam. Even in the early days of the Arab Muslim caliphate, when Sunni Muslims did not constitute a statistical majority, they still held the Muslim empire’s governmental posts and populated its political and religious elites. Later on, as the empire’s non-Muslim inhabitants wished to become part of these elites, there were waves of conversion to Islam (and often also adoption of Arab culture), which made the Sunni Muslims a majority also in the numerical sense of the word.

The Shia and the faiths that split from it, like the Druze or Alawite communities, do have minority culture, as they found themselves somewhat isolated within the much larger Sunni community. A famous expression of this minority culture is the principle of taqiya, namely the right, maybe even obligation, of the believer to hide her/his religious affiliation and suspend religious practices in case of tension with the dominant or ruling community. The taqia principle evolved from a mean of survival to a whole philosophy and an essential part of the Shiite, Druze and Alawite faiths.

As for Jews, they have been living in minority communities for centuries until the establishment of the State of Israel. In fact, the emergence of the State poses difficult challenges to the Jewish religious community of Israel. Jews accustomed themselves to life as minority to a degree that they lack cultural tools to handle religious, ethical and practical issues when they form the majority. Prof. Yeshayahu Leibovitz addressed many issues of this kind in his book “Judaism, Jewish People and the State of Israel” (1975). He harshly criticized religious Jews who treat secular Jews in Israel as “gentiles”. He said, for example, that a religious policeman cannot switch shifts with a secular colleague in order to avoid working on Sabbath, because from the religious point of view, all Jews must observe the Sabbath on Saturday, while non-Jews, and only non-Jews, may chose to follow other customs. In practice, however, religious Jews in Israel do treat secular Jews in the same manner Jews in Europe or America treat the non-Jews, because the Jewish law is simply not built to cope with Jews being a  majority.

Christians live in various environments. The Eastern churches have rich minority culture, because they were indeed minority for many centuries, and some of them still are. But Christians as a whole, even in Western Europe were they have been a majority for a long time, have minority culture that dates back to the early days of Christianity. Furthermore, in modern times, religious Christian communities had to deal with European secularism that has made religious communities a minority within larger secular communities. In places where Christians turned from majority to minority, either due to vast secularism or due to demographic changes, they could borrow elements of minority culture from their ancient history or from Eastern Christian communities (despite the controversy over dogmas).

Sunni Muslims are the mirror image of the Jews. They are very comfortable in the majority position, and feel like a fish out of water when they are minority. After all, they held this position of majority throughout the history of Islam until recently. The phenomenon of Sunni Muslim minorities in Western Europe and the Americas has become widespread during the 1900s, giving rise to an urgent need of Muslim minority culture. This is a challenge not properly addressed by Muslim leaders, in my opinion, and this is a major reason for ongoing violent conflicts between Muslims and their surrounding communities in places like France, Germany, Great Britain and Scandinavia, not to mention Israel. In Israel, the situation is especially delicate because Muslims see it as part of the “Islamic land”, even though Jews and Western peoples have equally important attachment to this territory.

Sunni Islam is currently in a position every faith would deem a success. It has hundreds of millions of believers, it control its holy places, including Jerusalem, where the Palestinian Muslim waqf de facto controls Al-Haram A-Sharif (The Temple Mount), despite the designation of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state of Israel. Muslims cannot expect being the dominant faith and culture everywhere. In fact, a good Sunni Muslim should say, “We, believers, have done everything we can according to our faith. The rest is for God to take care of”. Then again, such a statement can come only from the mouth of a believer that learned to act as part of a minority.

Exploring basic bias on Wikipedia

13 September, 2010 at 07:02 | Posted in Israeli-Arab conflict, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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An interesting way to examine the basic bias of editors in different Wikipedias toward a certain subject is to look at the initial edits of articles dealing with disputed issues. The first sentences of a new article resemble, in a way, a game of association. The initiator of the article tends to write the first things coming to he/his mind when he thinks about the subject. It is also interesting to see how long it takes before balancing information, or balancing changes to the phrasing, are introduced and how they are welcomed. In many cases

kineret

Sea of Galilee. Image by mprivoro via Flickr

such balancing information or edits are never introduced, and in some cases a fairly balanced text turns into biased one.

The followings are examples of initial edits of articles about certain subjects related to the Middle-East conflict from the Arabic Hebrew and English Wikipedia (all translated into English). Note – These are all obsolete versions currently found only in the “history” of the articles.

Jerusalem
Arabic Al-Quds is one of the biggest cities in Palestine, named Urshalim in the ancient scripts of the New Testament and the Torah. Its oldest remains go back to 3,000 before the Birth. Al-Quds is the most common name for Jerusalem among Arabic speakers. The use of Palestine could indicate non-recognition in Israel, but not necessarily.
Hebrew Yerushalayim is the capital of the State of Israel. It is one of the oldest cities in the world. The holiest city for Jews and Christians and third in sacredness to Muslims after Mecca and Medina. Yerushalayim is the Hebrew name for Jerusalem. The article seems to open with a political statement, though Jerusalem is indeed the Israeli seat of government. The remark about the status of Jerusalem in Islam might be an allusion to the Israeli-Arab conflict, but not necessarily.
English Jerusalem is a city straddling the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. Prior to the 1967 War, Jerusalem was divided, with the Western half in Israel and the Eastern half in the West Bank. East Jerusalem was occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, and then in 1981 Israel declared the whole of Jerusalem to be its “eternal capital” and annexed East Jerusalem to Israel. This act however has not been recognized by the international community; therefore most countries have their diplomatic missions to Israel in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. The English text seems to be the most neutral; however it deals almost entirely with the political aspects of Jerusalem, rather than its geography or population, i.e. Jerusalem is perceived more as a “political problem” than an actual city.
Golan Heights
Arabic A Syrian land on the southwest part of the Syrian Arab Republic. The Israeli military managed to capture it and control it since the War of 1967. Israelis see great importance in controlling Hadbat al-Jawlan for its advantage in overlooking the State of Israel. It does not require more than standing on the edge of the plateau to cover the Israeli city of Tel Aviv with a naked eye, due to its height advantage. Hadbat al-Jawlan is the normal name for this region among Arabic speakers. The text includes an error – Tel Aviv is too distant from the Golan Heights to be seen from there in any way. Only political and military aspects are mentioned.
Hebrew Ramat Ha-Golan is a flat plateau located on the border between Israel, Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli part of the plateau was captured from the Syrians in the Six Day War, then recaptured in the Yom Kippur War. Geographically speaking, the plateau is delineated in the west by a 1700m fall to the edge of the Kinneret and River Yarden. All geographical names used are the most common among Hebrew speakers. The political status of the region is described carefully. There is a geographical description of the region.
English The Golan Heights is a plateau on the border of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. One of the territories captured by Israel during the Six-Day War, the Golan Heights are currently under Israeli control, though claimed by Syria. Formed of volcanic rock it rises up to 1700 ft above the surrounding land, it drops off to the west to the Sea of Gallilee, the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret, and to the south to the Yarmouk River. The Sea of Galilee and Lake Kinneret are two names for the same geographical entity. Mentioning them as separate entities is probably an error. It is unlikely that an Arab would use the name Kinneret.
Shabaa Farms
Arabic Shabaa Farms is a region at the southmost edge of Lebanon, within the official borders of Lebanon. The Zionist army refrained from handing it over to the government and state of Lebanon following the Israeli withdrawal from the south. The issue of the Shabaa Farms still triggers problems, opinions and discussions regarding the legitimacy of its occupation, while the Lebanese Arabs reject its remaining occupied and Hizbullah keeps public confrontation to liberate it. The official Lebanese-Syrian position is presented. There is no reference to the backstage conflict between Syria and Lebanon or to the UN position. The terms used when referring to Israel indicate non-recognition. The area itself and its population are not mentioned or described.
Hebrew The Shabaa Farms are at the border junction of Syria, Israel and Lebanon, between the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights and the Lebanese village of Shabaa. The region stretches on 25 sq km, 14 km long and 2.5 wide in average. The region’s height is 150-1880m. The land in this region is fertile and well-watered, and it used to include 14 farms growing barley, vegetables and fruits. The region is today under Israeli control, as it captured it from the Syrians in the Six Day War. The region was annexed to Israel in 1981 as part of the application of the Israeli law on the Golan Heights. The dispute over the region started in 2000 with the IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the UN declaration that Israel had withdrawn completely from Lebanon. Hizbullah claimed that the Farms are Lebanese soil and saw them as a pretext to continue its attacks on Israel, despite the complete withdrawal.  Many international bodies asked Syria and Lebanon to All geographical names used are the most common among Hebrew speakers. The political status of the region is described carefully. There is a geographical description of the region.
English The Golan Heights is a plateau on the border of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. One of the territories captured by Israel during the Six-Day War, the Golan Heights are currently under Israeli control, though claimed by Syria. Formed of volcanic rock it rises up to 1700 ft above the surrounding land, it drops off to the west to the Sea of Gallilee, the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret, and to the south to the Yarmouk River. The Sea of Galilee and Lake Kinneret are two names for the same geographical entity. Mentioning them as separate entities is probably an error. It is unlikely that an Arab would use the name Kinneret.

Source and Reliability

7 September, 2010 at 17:09 | Posted in Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Truth vs. Verifiability

When I’ve got acquainted with Wikipedia in 2006, neutrality (NPOV in the Wikipedian jargon) was the key word. WP was presented as a glorious return to the age of enlightenment and modernism. We all carry at least one or two piece of human knowledge, and WP is the table on which these pieces are put together to form a complete picture. Things changed when people started to contest the reliability of WP. Then, the idea of sourcing the information grew more and more prominent. At first it was a logical demand to back any claim or data with reliable sources. Fair enough. Then one of WP’s basic rules changed – WP was no longer about TRUTH but about VERIFIABILITY. You could claim that there is not much difference. After all, if you cannot verify a piece of information, how can you say it is true? And if you cannot assure its truthfulness, it is not within the hardcore of human knowledge (i.e. it might be true, but it is not part of the confirmed sum of human knowledge).
And yet, three problems remained and developed –

 

Wikipedia's classical approach: Conflating the pieces of knowledge; Too often do people try to force their own home-made puzzle

Wikipedia's classical approach: Conflating the pieces of knowledge; Too often do people try to force their own home-made puzzle

 

  1. What is a reliable source?
  2. Should the information be presented as the sources present it?
  3. What is “Undue Weight”?

(1) What is a reliable source?

Limiting the scope of “reliable sources” to written material excludes abundance of “analphabetic” information, which is quite valuable, especially for regions in the world with short tradition of literacy. There is also the category of blogs and forums which stands in-between, and they are becoming a significant source of information. Also, a lot of valuable information can be gathered today by creating photographs and films. Can a Wikipedian say “I’m not sure about whether this statue has a bird on its shoulder, let me go there and take a picture of it in order to settle the argument”? That’s quite unclear. Can a source in Arabic be considered reliable on the English WP, considering the fact that only few of English-speaking Wikipedians can read Arabic?
Furthermore – Are legal advices reliable sources? Are UN resolutions reliable sources? Surely they are reliable sources when referring to the position of the certain jurist or this particular international organization, but can I say that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China and justify my claim with UN resolutions? Clearly the facts on the ground suggest otherwise, but only few countries and international organizations recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan) as a state, and I even saw a respectable British expert on international law claiming ROC (Taiwan) was not a state. Most of us, including the Wikipedians among us, think of legal advices and laws as something that directs our lives, but are they reliable sources about reality, or are they merely respectable opinions about how reality should look like? I don’t know if it should surprise you, but many Wikipedians think that an essay by a distinguished professor is a reliable source about reality.

(2) Should the information be presented as the sources present it?

Sources often use terminology which is not neutral. This is natural. Many sources reflect official positions. The choice of words is one of the means to convey positions, even when the content of the text is meant to be informative. For example, I once translated news items from various sources about life in the Middle East for a certain magazine. The magazine devised an informative report from this collection, but it changed the original terminology into such that would reflect the editorial opinion. What about Wikipedia? Should it reiterate the terminology of other sources? And if so, how should it treat different terminology in different reliable sources? How should it treat two similar situations that are described in different terminology due to political circumstances. For example, the situation in the Golan Heights is quite similar to the situation in Ceuta and Melilla (to the best of my knowledge and judgment) and yet the situation in the Golan Heights is often described as “occupation” due to lack of international recognition in the Israeli administration there, while Ceuta and Melilla are described as legitimate Spanish territories due to lack of international recognition in the Moroccan claim that they are occupied territories which belong to Morocco. The facts on the ground are similar, the widespread opinion about each case is different. What should prevail? Going back to Taiwan, until the mid-1970s the Republic of China was recognized as the legitimate Chinese government, while the People’s Republic was considered an occupying force. The change in US policy, reversed this “situation” while the facts on the grounds remained almost the same.

(3) What is “Undue Weight”?

Undue Weight, according to Wikipedia, is an over-representation of fringe theories or views held by small minorities. The idea that the world is flat is given as an example for such insignificant view (nowadays of course). But let’s travel again to Ceuta and Melilla. Is Morocco view of these territories as occupied a fringe theory or a view of small minority? Morocco is quite alone in this claim (maybe backed by some other Arab countries), but is this statistical fact enough to dismiss the Moroccan government view as insignificant? So far, Wikipedia (at least its English version) fails to answer this question.

Apartheid denial

5 September, 2010 at 09:22 | Posted in Israeli-Arab conflict, Politics | 1 Comment
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Excessive, almost abusive, use of the word “Apartheid”

South African patriots, as well as human rights activists throughout the world, should be very concerned about the abuse of the word “Apartheid” and the excessive comparison of the South African dark page in history to conflicts and problems elsewhere in the world. While comparisons and analogies are necessary tools for understanding phenomena and problems and choosing the right way to deal with them, they are too often abused for propagandist purposes. In fact, this is why Jews are shocked when the Holocaust is compared with other events in history or recent time. Most Jews (and many non-Jews as well) regard such a comparison as taboo, because even in cases where it is justified to a certain extent, and perhaps even useful for stopping a tragedy, it is still likely to herald a future abuse of the memory of the Holocaust and its victims (who, by the way, include many non-Jews as well).

Labeling Israel by efficient propaganda

Multilingual signs in Israel for serving all communities vs. old sign in South Africa for a different puprose

Multilingual signs in IL for serving all communities vs. old sign in SA for a different purpose

The main victim of the abusive use of the word “Apartheid” is currently Israel, mainly due to the efficiency of the Palestinian campaign groups in Europe. This situation is hardly new. In 1975, Arab countries were able to pass a strangely phrased resolution at the UN General Assembly, arguing that “Zionism is a form of racism”. The General Assembly did not term other nationalist movements “racist”, which begs the question, if Quebec nationalism, for  example,  is okay, let alone Palestinian nationalism, why not Zionism? And how should one settle this resolution with GA resolution 181, which implies Zionism is legitimate and welcomed? I suppose erring is human – In 1991 the General Assembly revoked the 1975 resolution. By the way, the GA never declared Bolshevism as a form of racism or oppression. I wonder why.

Banalizing “Racism” then moving on the “Apartheid”

Time goes by, and the term “racism” became too banal due to overuse. When the adjective “racist” is used to describe even a person who prefers feeding only white street-cats on his porch, it is hardly surprising that campaigners look for another word with stronger impact. But how this affects the way we view Apartheid in South Africa’s history and our ability to learn the lesson? Sadly, it means that we are going to become indifferent to this word, treating it as another buzz word of political mouthpieces.

Common errors about “Apartheid”

Talking about Apartheid, it might be useful to shed light on some common errors. I found some of these reading an article by Leila Farsakh on Le Monde Diplomatique.

  1. Apartheid is not about “colonialists” versus “indigenous peoples”. It is about profound racial discrimination and segregation. If the French Government decided to segregate and discriminate Muslim Algerian immigrants in the same manner dark-skin people were discriminated in South Africa, would it not be Apartheid?
  2. To continue the first point above, dark-skin and white-skin peoples arrived in South Africa more-or-less at the same time in history. The former came via land from the north, the latter came by ships from the south.
  3. The Arab population of Israel/Palestine cannot be called “indigenous”, because many of its members are descendants of immigrants from other parts of the Middle East. Of course the Arab culture and ethnicity has been part of this country from ancient time, but so has the Jewish culture and ethnicity, and even to a greater extent.
  4. The population of Israel/Palestine was indeed very small when the Zionist movement started advocating for a Jewish homeland. It was not empty of course, but it was not very populated either. Furthermore, most of the initial Zionist territorial demands were rejected, first when the 1917 Balfour Declaration was limited to a territory of approx. 27 thousand sq km, then when it was further limited to about 55% of this territory in 1947. Eventually Israel was recognized on land stretching on approximately 21 thousand sq km. The reason for these limitation was indeed the fact that the local Arab community has its rights too, including the right for self-determination.
  5. One cannot judge an action or a policy unless considering the circumstances surrounding it. I don’t know about the specific circumstances in South Africa, but I do know that Arabs regarded themselves as enemies of Israel and Zionism. Arab Palestinian leaders went as far as developing deep relations with the Nazi-Germany and about 20 years later declared that “armed struggle” was the only way to “liberate Palestine”. Strong suspiciousness toward Arabs in general is an extremely sad, yet hard-to-evade, consequence. However, when the late Egyptian President, Anwar A-Sadat, took a noble courageous step and talked with the Israeli People from the Knesset’s podium, Israel was washed with wave of tolerance and even enthusiasm toward the Egyptian and Arab culture, and Israeli citizens were willing to accept almost all of the Egyptian demands.

Some interesting quotes

  • Mohammed S. Wattad, Zafed Law School, SPME Legal Task Force

    (…) I came to realize that those who argue of Israel as a regime of apartheid – even if they have a good argument, and I do not believe so – still do not have sufficient evidence, based on the reality and facts on the ground in Israel. Among the weirdest arguments against Israel I heard of Israel granting its Arab population a different marked passport than the one granted to Israeli Jews. Moreover, it has been argued that a regime of segregation exists in Israel public transportation, public educational institutes etc. Such arguments only prove that the presenters of Israel as a regime of apartheid lack the basic knowledge of what have been taking place in reality.

  • Ontario, Canada: “MPPs unite to condemn ‘odious’ Israeli Apartheid Week” (“The Star”, by Robert Benzie, Queen’s Park Bureau Chief, 25 February 2010)

    ‘Resolutions in the Ontario Legislature send a message. They are about moral suasion,’ said [MPP Peter] Shurman, adding ‘it is close to hate speech’ to liken democratic Israel to apartheid-era South Africa.

  • Irshad Manji: Modern Israel is a far cry from old South Africa (The Australian, 9 February, 2007)
  • (…) Of course, certain Israeli politicians have spewed venom at Palestinians, as have some Arab leaders towards Jews, but Israel is far more complex – and diverse – than slogans about the occupation would suggest. In a state practising apartheid, would Arab Muslim legislators wield veto power over anything? At only 20per cent of the population, would Arabs even be eligible for election if they squirmed under the thumb of apartheid? Would an apartheid state extend voting rights to women and thepoor in local elections, which Israel didfor the first time in the history of Palestinian Arabs?

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