Saturday, June 18, 2011

Libyan Jews Reflect on Libyan Strife

Ha'aretz has an interesting piece up on the descendants of Libya's Jewish community and their thoughts about the ongoing unrest in their former homeland. The story of Libya's Jewish community is typical of Jews in the region -- a long (2,300 year old) history, marked by "periods of relative tolerance and bursts of hostility." In the 20th century, the "bursts of hostility" became more sustained, and huge numbers fled to Israel immediately prior to and after the War of Independence. The Libyan government itself instituted severe crackdowns on the Jewish population, confiscating property and stripping them of their citizenship.

This persecution accelerated with Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi's rise to power in 1969, though by this point there were only 100 Jews left in the country (the very last Jew left in 2003). In recent years, Colonel Gaddafi had discussed compensating these refugees, but notably appeared to exclude those who had fled to Israel. Other Libyan officials discussed a "right of return" for descendants of these refugees, though it appears few (at least in the Israeli community) are inclined to take up the offer -- both because it would transition them from part of a governing majority to a historically persecuted minority, and because they would almost certainly be forced to forfeit their Israeli citizenship.

Quote of the Weekend

Christopher Hitchens, reviewing David Mamet's The Secret Knowledge: "It has a long way to go before it can even be called simplistic."

Friday, June 17, 2011

"The Liberty To Do What We Ought."

New York state appears on the verge of recognizing gay marriage, and that has put opponents of LGBT equality in a bit of a panic. Take New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan:
Dolan equated the move to allow same-sex marriage to life in China or North Korea, where "government presumes daily to 'redefine' rights, relationships, values and natural law."

"Please, not here!," Dolan wrote. "We cherish true freedom, not as the license to do whatever we want, but the liberty to do what we ought."

Legalizing gay marriage is precisely akin to living under North Korean totalitarianism -- of course. But I'm more interested in that last line, that "true freedom" is not "license to do whatever we want, but the liberty to do what we ought."

Can you think of a more Orwellian definition of freedom? It is a definition of liberty that could only appeal to a tyrant. Indeed, it bears far more in common with the standards of "liberty" in places like North Korea than marriage equality ever could. After all, Articles 62-86 of the North Korea constitution contain many putative protections for human freedom and liberty, but all are circumscribed by various restrictions which demand that any such "liberty" be in furtherance of the normative principles of North Korean socialism (see, e.g., Articles 63, 64, 68, 81, 82, 84, and 85). The effect, of course, is that they don't have freedom or liberty at all.

In North Korea, they have only "the liberty to do what they ought." In America, we've charted a different path.

Not To Be Confused with the Shofar Note

Justin Elliott has a good glossary of terms from Islamic law that tend to be badly misused by right-wing anti-Muslim zealots (his source is Islam expert John Esposito of Georgetown University). We recently saw a sterling example of this courtesy of the Washington Times, which invoked the doctrine of "Taqiyya" in support of a bizarre theory that Anthony Weiner may have secretly converted to Islam.

"Taqiyya" is often described by the ignorant as a blanket dispensation to lie to nonbelievers; in reality, it is a limited Shi'ite Islam doctrine that permits one to deny being a Muslim where one's life is in danger or it would otherwise lead to severe persecution. In this, its closest historical parallel is probably to Marranos -- Spanish Jews who faked a conversion to Christianity in order to escape persecution during the Inquisition.

The UNHRC Gay Rights Resolution

The UNHRC passed today a South Africa-sponsored resolution supporting equal rights for all without respect to sexual orientation. The vote tally was 23-19, with three abstentions. I'm having trouble finding a precise listing of which countries voted in what way, but the line seems to be that most of the support came from Europe and the Americas (including the USA), while most of the opposition was concentrated in African and Islamic countries.

UN Watch quotes some excerpts from speeches by various UNHRC members -- South Africa apparently received criticism from other African states for its sponsorship of the resolution, which Nigeria asserted "90% of South Africans do not support". Mauritania wondered if this issue was really on par with such important issues as the rights of women, while Saudi Arabia -- currently facing widespread protests by women seeking the right to drive cars -- complained that it "is not acceptable and reasonable to impose views on other countries and that this is not only contrary to Sharia but also to all other monotheistic religions" (of course, many denominations of many monotheistic religions have no problem with gay equality).

As pleased as I am that the normally-repellent UNHRC managed to squeak past a worthwhile resolution, I have to ask why folks even care. In New York, there is a razor-thin vote coming up in the state Senate on whether to legalize gay marriage. That's an important vote, because the consequence will be the enactment of real rights for the gay and lesbian community.

Resolutions at the UNHRC don't do that. They don't have force of law, and they have no impact on anyone's rights or responsibilities. What they provide, at least nominally, is moral force. And moral force is only as powerful as the moral credibility of the body making the statement. This, the UNHRC lacks. And I see no reason to ascribe it any.

Why should the LGBT community hinge the moral credibility of their case on the beliefs of the UNHRC? Why should they care about the perspective of a body in which a significant minority believes their equality constitutes "contempt to human rights" (Nigeria) or that they "jeopardize the entire human rights framework" (Pakistan)? Where tangible rights are on the line, one has to deal with repugnant minorities who have such views (presumably, some of the nay votes in New York have a similar perspective to that forwarded by Nigeria and Pakistan). But if all we're talking about is moral force, what has the UNHRC done to deserve the right to speak on the question?

Don't get me wrong: I'm happy this resolution passed. It's a good thing when any body (however narrowly) can commit itself on the record to supporting the equal rights and human dignity of all persons. But in terms of marking some sort of milestone or important accomplishment -- I don't see it. I don't believe in ascribing to the UNHRC that sort of normative legitimacy -- a legitimacy it has yet to, and I doubt will ever, earn.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Masterchef Bullet Points

Jill and I have caught up on Masterchef (we were about a day behind), so now I can share the thoughts we had as the beginning of Season 2 has wrapped up.

* I thought that the producers did a decent job with misdirection in the audition stage. Edgardo seemed like a lock to go through, between his Joe endorsement and his oh-so-cute elementary school students. But it was a no. Other surprises were the firefighter and the other (sweet meatballs) women for whom Joe was the only "yes" (and whom Gordon made beg for her spot before unceremoniously turning her down).

* Speaking of Joe, I spent most of the audition episodes hoping he'd start cutting on Graham (or as Jill and I have nicknamed him, Fluffy). Alas.

* I was rooting for an all-gator final between the Mississippi truck driver and the Florida construction foreman with an ailing wife. Alas, neither made it through day one of the competition.

* I'm sure editing has a lot to do with it, but Max is really shaping up to be an obnoxious villain. I hope he and Suzy go head-to-head soon. I also think it's funny how they're setting him up as the anti-Whitney (both very young, but while she was eager and bright-eyed, he's cocksure and arrogant).

* Speaking of Suzy, she's one of my favorites so far. I loved her mom impression ("You mean you want to be a servant!?"). I don't know what a neural engineer is, and find it a little conceptually creepy, but I'll say it's cool if it stops her from turning me into an android. She seems to have a talent. And, right after I remarked to Jill about how I hoped we'd have another Sheetal moment where she had to learn how to kill, she brightly announced her hope that she'd get to slaughter a live animal, which I thought was hilarious.

* Two other early favorites of mine: Alvin and Giuseppe. I could imagine classical chefs finding Alvin's fusion of science into the "art" of cooking to be blasphemous, but I found it really cool and the judges seemed to like it too. It's a skill that doesn't really lend itself to this style of competition though. Giuseppe just seems like a very genuine, likable fellow.

* Jury is still out on pumpkin hat. He's not as annoying as I thought he'd be, but I'm not quite willing to say he's in the clear yet. I've got my eye on him.

Caring About Dead Non-White Americans is so PC

Adam Serwer has a good column up about recent House hearings on radicalization occurring in American prisons. The House Republicans who called the hearings wanted to focus on Islamic radicalization in prison. The problem, though, is that the evidence seemed to suggest this wasn't a serious problem at all. Only one terrorism plot since 9/11 has involved individuals who became radicalized Muslims in prison; by and large Islamic radicals tend to be middle-class and relatively educated.

What is a problem is radicalization of White prisoners who fall in with far-right hate groups like the Christian Identity movement. And so, Democrats on the committee wanted to talk about that for awhile. But Republicans were less than cooperative: Committee chair Rep. Peter King (R-NY) dismissed concerns about far-right radicalization because such groups were not "allied with a foreign power", despite the fact that (a) al-Qaeda is, of course, a non-governmental terrorist organization and (b) modern terrorism hardly requires an alliance with a foreign power to wreak massive havoc in America. Like their radical Islamic counterparts, right-wing terrorists in the United States also have an agenda of bringing down our government and instilling a new regime hostile to the very ideas of American liberty and equality. It's unclear why this threat is less serious simply because it's "homegrown". Indeed, it was Rep. King himself who originally launched the highly criticized hearings investigating homegrown Islamic radicalization (despite little evidence here as well that this was a serious problem).

Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Lungdren (R-CA) was even more blunt, deriding the "political correctness" of those who thought that recruitment success by violent White supremacist groups in prison was a valid area of congressional concern. Apparently, it's "politically correct" to think that terrorism targeting Americans who are non-White, or non-Christian, or otherwise don't resemble Dan Lungdren, is something Congress might want to know about. Glad to know Rep. Lungdren has my back on this.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Happy Birthday, Blog!

This blog just turned seven years old today! I started it just before I entered college, and now it has gotten me past my graduation from law school! More than a little amazing, I think.

Every once in awhile, I browse through my old archives and read what I wrote 2 or 4 or 6 years ago. It's always quite a trip -- sometimes I can't believe how stupid I was, other times I can see the germination of some of my most important beliefs unfolding before me. It's actually really nice having this record of my thoughts available to me -- it's like my own personal, searchable memory bank.

In any event, a happy birthday to the blog, and a big thank you to my readers!

Pro-Israel Americans Find Obama Just Right

Greg Sargent reports on new polls indicating that most Americans think Obama is on-target with respect to his Israel/Palestine policy. Specifically, 50% of Americans think that Obama is "striking the right balance" in the conflict, while 21% say he shows too much favoritism to the Palestinians and 6% say he's unduly partial to the Israelis.

Most Americans in general sympathize more with Israel than with Palestine (a 48/11 split in favor of Israel), and if we restrict the poll to those persons, 49% still say he's striking the right balance (with 38% saying he's too favorable to Palestinians).

Notes After Not Watching the GOP Debate

I didn't watch the GOP debate, so I'm mostly forming these thoughts from reading the conventional wisdom that is floating around the blogosphere. The consensus seems to be that the big winners last night were Romney and Bachmann, and the loser was Tim Pawlenty. To me, that means there is one winner: Mitt Romney. And, much to my surprise, he seems to be committing to the "one sane man" strategy, hoping that the rest of the GOP field shreds itself apart appealing to the Tea Party and Romney ends up shooting up the middle on the strength of the remaining moderates plus folks who still understand that electability is a thing.

Folks keep saying that Bachmann is like Sarah Palin, but with actual campaign skills and the ability to not constantly shoot herself in the foot on television. My comparison, of course, was that Bachmann was like Palin if you injected a metric ton of LSD straight into her eyeballs. The word is that Bachmann managed to acquit herself quite well on stage, sounding professional and well-briefed. And if so, hey, good for her. But I still am dubious she can maintain a gaffe-free campaign, particularly in the general. There's no way she'll win her own state (Minnesota) -- she currently trails President Obama by a landslide 56/35 margin, and her favorables in that state are 33/59. She's not just unproven at winning beyond her conservative suburban Minnesota district, she is proven to be massively alienating to the broader center -- in fact, last year 56% of Minnesotans said they were "embarrassed" by her.

Ultimately, then, while I do think Bachmann could be a primary player, I can't see her actually taking the prize. And that gets us back to where we started -- who else but Romney? If T-Paw can't gain any traction -- and it looks like he can't -- there just doesn't seem to be any other remotely viable candidate in the Republican primary who could bring him down.

Monday, June 13, 2011

YIISA Shuts Down

The Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Antisemitism (YIISA) is shutting down after Yale University decided not to renew the program, citing low course enrollment and a dearth of quality, high-placing scholarship produced from the Initiative. The decision has engendered some controversy, with people insinuating that YIISA is actually closing down because academics want to suppress the study of anti-Semitism (and particularly anti-Semitism in the Muslim world).

I mentioned once that one of my scholarly ambitions was to do work at YIISA, so I'm obviously disappointed it is closing. That being said, I'm inclined to accept Yale's explanation for not renewing the program. As I wrote over at Engage:
I’m not happy that YIISA is closing — I was very much an admirer of their project, and in particular I thought David Hirsh produced some stellar work for them. But I, too, recall being surprised at how little published scholarship was coming out of the institution. It seemed to be punching academically well beneath its weight, and I can’t be too surprised it isn’t being renewed as a result.

Is there a solid claim that the inability of scholars of anti-Semitism to place their work in top journals is in part a function of academic norms whereby anti-Semitism isn’t seen as a “real” topic worthy of study? Yes, perhaps. But I don’t think this is the whole story. For one, we’ve definitely seen a fair number of scholarly monographs being published on the topic, giving an opportunity to bypass perhaps biased journal editors. For two, Hirsh’s great work notwithstanding, a lot of the published academic work on anti-Semitism I have read has not been particularly impressive in quality. Reading the contents of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism, I haven’t been blown away by many of the pieces, or wondered why the pieces haven’t been placed in more reputed journals.

The fact of the matter is that a lot of the scholarship I've read in this field has not been of particularly high quality. Professor Hirsh is a notable exception, and his article Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections is simply magnificent. But when I had browsed YIISA site I had found myself seriously disappointed in their overall product. And ultimately, Yale isn't going to keep funding a center that isn't world-class. It's up to those of us who do work in this field to start producing good work, and get ourselves noticed for the quality of our scholarship.

Muslim Heterosexual Agenda

Much like Barack Obama, it turns out that Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) is a secret Muslim.
When looking broadly at the Anthony Weiner-Huma Abedin union, we have to wonder if the coupling of a Jewish American man and a Muslim woman of her pedigree was fostered by love or by a socialist political agenda.
It is also important, when looking at this situation, to remember that observant Muslims practice Taqiyya , an element of sharia that states there is a legal right and duty to distort the truth to promote the cause of Islam.

(Correction: Paragraph removed for inaccuracies. Apologies are issued and we regret the error. The Communities)

Given the defense articulated by the Imam, which would be offered only for a Muslim man, we must believe this opportunity to remove this Muslim woman from a union with an non-believer would be quickly taken. Therefore we must consider that Mr. Weiner *may* have converted to Islam, because if he did not, we have to consider the unlikely, that being that Ms. Abedin has abandoned her Muslim faith, even while she still practices.

The Washington Times went a pretty deep on this one, even for them. And you have to wonder what was so far off target that they were forced to remove it even as they breathlessly wonder about whether Taqiyya is prompting everybody to lie about Weiner's secret conversion (because who has ever heard of an interfaith couple?).