Religion, Solidarity and Power: The Contemporary Scholarly Landscape

Religion, Solidarity and Power

by

Howard Adelman

This article is divided into two major parts. Part I is divided in three beginning with a prologue that sets the article amongst contemporary discussions of the relationship of the secular to the religious. The second section of Part I adopts a diachronic rather than synchronic perspective. Instead of orienting the reader within contemporary intellectual space, it offers a sketch of how our new secular religions that characterize our post-modern age emerged out of the trajectory of the past. The third part then sets this paper within the context of other papers discussed at the symposium where this paper was first presented.

Part II gets to the core of what this paper is about – the relationship of solidarity to power in the contemporary world and, more specifically, within the context of traditional religions in competition with contemporary secular religions, and all in competition with each other and with the only secular perspective that is truly idolatrous and not a religion at all. Part II then offers two very specific case studies which are seemingly peripheral to the central issues at stake in the Canadian 2015 political election, but which exemplify the nature of the contemporary struggle between the two dominant secular religions.

Part I: Framing

 

  1. Prologue: Locating this Article in Contemporary Scholarly Landscape
  2. A Philosophical and Historical Overview
  3. State, Society and Contemporary Competing Religions

 

Part II: Case Studies

  1. Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society
  2. The Issue of the Niqab in the 2015 Canadian Election
  3. The Issue of Syrian Refugees in the 2015 Canadian Election

 1. Prologue: Locating this Article in Contemporary Scholarly Landscape

Studies of the role of religion and religious symbols in public life have been legion. Some of my own writings (2011) on Quebec and French divisive debates over the hijab and niqab (Adelman blog, 12 October 2015) fit into this classification. The writings of Chidester (1991), Green (1996), Hams (1999), Miller (2005), Lambert (2008) and Fowler et al (2010), as well as many others, have covered the role of religion in political life in America, and certainly peaceful accommodation in civil society (Putnam and Campbell, 2010). We have always had studies of the role of religion in violent conflict by historians (Underdown 1986; Harris 1990; Wilson 1995; Shugar 1997; Martinich 2002) where profound conflicts over fundamental values were at the root of violent clashes. In our time, religious differences have been at the centre of violence in Yugoslavia (Babel 1992), Sri Lanka (Tambiah 1992) and Northern Ireland (Jordon 2013) as well as at work in the peace process itself (Brewer et al 2014).

Religious values, symbols and concepts permeate our secular politics as well (Sung 2007). In fact, if I interpret him correctly, Schewel (2014), who is part of this symposium, claimed that Christ was indirectly the first secularist. For if reconciliation between man and God could not be obtained in one’s lifetime in this world, then, “This created the idea of an autonomous and wholly secular plane of political existence and taught religion to abandon its claim to worldly power.” (p. 50) Nevertheless, even as modernity ushered in what were perceived to be the final stages of shoving religion to the periphery of political life, Elshtain (2008) and Gillespie (2008) documented how deeply religious conceptions underpin the very basis of contemporary politics.

We have also had writings on secular society, especially modernity, as also having its own religious and ethical foundations that provide the basis for cohesion and the peaceful operation of the polity. Traditional religion has also provided the foundation for contemporary culture. The studies of Bellag (1967) and Cristi (2001) try to document that this is not just an influence on secular culture, but has itself produced a civil religion on its own. On the other hand, there does seem to be an increasing trend towards the importance of religious strife in violent conflicts (Bibby 2001) and a wider and broader conviction that our contemporary culture is increasingly divorced from a belief in an unchanging sacred social order that is so characteristic of traditional religion.

On the one hand, religion seems to be everywhere; on the other hand, our society has become increasingly secular (Taylor 2007). Secular in this context refers to the privatization of religion as initially just another distinctive realm among many (usually focused on institutional attachments), a set of beliefs and practices that entail value priorities and even fundamental commitments, and then, in the case of traditional religion, its ostensible exile from the public sphere. For some, this also implied a trend towards extinction of religion from any influence in the public sphere at all.

Religions historically and currently have been a major source of both prejudice and warfare, as well as tolerance, the latter illustrated by Putnam and Campbell (2010). “America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity.” (1) And where is that religion to be found? Not just in churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, not just in civil society institutions, but as foundation stones for civil religion and for our most fundamental political institutions.

In this paper I try to do something somewhat different, though clearly complementary, analyzing not just a portion of civil society as a civic religion, but secular society as a whole as itself made up of several competing secular religions, each allied with different variations of traditional religion. They attempt, as religious and political theory have in the past, to reconcile cooperation and solidarity as the foundations for unity in tension with coercive power in a polity. Like traditional religions, the various secular religions include institutions dedicated to its operations, a set of beliefs and even an obligation on the individual to pay attention and participate in certain rituals and rites, including often forms of speaking.

I adopt an international studies perspective even when undertaking very specific case studies of conflicts. For although the contention for power is restricted largely to states, the real competition is global; the debate often becomes most heated over transnational issues even when the discourse is about one woman wearing a niqab at a ritualistic public ceremony when an immigrant is becoming a Canadian citizen. Sometimes those clashes are related to war. Sometimes only which and how many refugees will be received. But in all cases, conflicts over fundamental values are at stake that cannot be resolved by reference simply to empirical data.

At an annual meeting of the International Studies Association (ISA) in 1996, Andy Knight opined that the time was ripe to examine the role of religion in world politics. He stressed focusing on the connection between modern specific conceptions of world order and those embedded in various religious traditions in order to understand the way religious ideas could influence the shape of the international system on the premise that religious and spiritual forces shape our cultures and human institutions, not just political, social and economic forces. I myself have written on the conceptual relations with a focus on eschatology (Adelman 2004; 2011e), but more about the effect of religious conceptions in restoring peace than in bringing about conflict and violence.

Fox and Sandler (2004) articulated the importance of culture, religion and identity in understanding international relations. Just over a decade later, this sentiment was echoed this past year by Janice Stein, former Director of the Munk Centre for Global Affairs at the University Toronto. “Religion has become a major construct that needs to be seriously considered when intervening in cultural wars in foreign lands.” This is a very different conception of the role of religion in political life, for it is not about how religious ideas and concepts permeate current politics, but about how religion is an integral part of contemporary politics in the international sphere.

“Seventy years ago we made a deep mistake in thinking about the world; we didn’t foresee the importance of religion in politics. The post-war consensus was rather that secularization would continue to grow as societies developed and became more educated. As religious beliefs became a respected private matter, the secular liberal order would deepen and strengthen around the world. We now need to understand the important role that religion plays in large parts of the world, and build that into our foreign policy.” (Lynch 2015) Janice Stein reminds us that religious ideas, that the teachings of Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Bab, and Bahá’u’lláh, have not only influenced our conceptions of world order, but have also impacted on the organization of political battles on the ground in the contemporary era.

There is a third way to examine the relationship between religion and culture by pointing within civil society to a civil religion that mediates between secularism and religious tradition as we generally identify it. That civil religion exists alongside of and clearly differentiated from the churches, synagogues and mosques (Bellah 1967; Cristi 2001).

A fourth way looks at the secular non-religious sector as itself consisting of religions (Levinson 2013). In other words, whether encompassing only part of secular civil society or all of it, there exists a collection of values, beliefs, symbols, and rituals that are considered sacred for a particular segment of society and that are institutionalized within a collectivity that can contribute to fostering tolerance or intolerance.

The battle among religions, both traditional and secular, is international. It is domestic as well (Keating and Knight 2004). In my 2011 essays, I documented the differences between the Stasi Commission in France and the Bouchard-Taylor commission in Quebec over Muslim women wearing headscarves. Those differences reflected contradictions between the two dominant secular contemporary religions and the interpretation each gave to liberalism. Much of the French debate, unlike the Quebec one, related to a perceived threat of international Islamism; what was the proper balance between persuasion and protection? In the 2015 Canadian elections, that perspective was introduced into Canadian politics in a major way by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. So did the issue of humanitarianism versus security concerns in the differences over the issue of the Syrian refugees in Canada. (The niqab issue and the Syrian refugee issues will be discussed at the end of this essay to illustrate the warfare between two contemporary secular religions, each with a different set of traditional religious allies.)

Those four different approaches to examining the relationship between the secular and the sacred in contemporary society as it relates to international and domestic politics and particularly those events related to and involving violence are:

  1. The influence of religious concepts on modern secular society and politics;
  2. The role of religion in contemporary international and domestic politics as core religious tensions within that play out in contemporary religious/political wars as well as facilitating peace;
  3. A civic religion that exists between traditional religions and the state;
  4. Secularism itself as a religion and the interaction of traditional religions and various forms of religious secularism.

I am interested in the fourth approach, but one which subsumes the other three as part of the analysis.

Next: 2. A Philosophic and Historic Overview

Commentary on Bereshit 2

Commentary on Bereshit 2

by

Howard Adelman

In my comment on commentary last week, I set out a few of the premises of MY reading of the Torah:

  1. I believe in doing what commentators have done over the centuries, retelling the story in my own words.
  2. The story is about creation, about coming to be, about the beginning of that process through the interaction of God and earthlings.
  3. I pick up on one stream of interpretation that sees this creative activity, once nature has been organized, as the result of a partnership of a non-material Being and earthlings: “Let us create…” The process of creation is the story of the creation of two worlds, heaven and earth.
  4. I then take from this stream another even rarer stream – that the story is about God becoming; God not only creates history in partnership with man, but creates Himself in the process. God is
  5. Though I told the tale as if God is characterized as masculine without explication, this is also a premise that will be developed and explicated.
  6. I am fully within the tradition in seeing the narrative as being about tov and ra, goodness and evil.
  7. Then I became really idiosyncratic in depicting the character of God, for, in my understanding, God has the hubris to congratulate himself on what he does as Good, and in the case of creating human beings, as “very good,” a pronouncement that will soon prove to be not only very incorrect, but the first lesson: Let others pronounce and recognize the quality of what you do. It is not only a curse to make that pronouncement oneself, but it is itself a moral failing.
  8. So as I read the story, God in the process of co-creation has to also create the moral world and to make Himself as a moral being who has faith and compassion and a capacity for respect and reverence for the sanctity of life.
  9. But as I will again try to show, He only does so primarily through the mistakes of humans living in history as embodied creatures.
  10. God begins the process of creation by giving order to chaos; since humans are made in the image of God, they too have a responsibility to give order to chaos.

Ironically, as I will try to show, chaos and order turn out to be, not polar opposites which admit of degrees, but a process whereby chaos follows from order as well as precedes it. Put simply, as soon as we think we are on the verge of creating a new world order, beware for we will be introduced to a new type of chaos. This interpretation is offered, not because I have mastered Hebrew and Aramaic, know the Torah intimately and have thoroughly studied the commentators. It should be very evident that I do not write this commentary as a result of any claim to be an expert on either the text or previous commentators, but it is the way I find coherence and meaning in the text as well as a correspondence between what I read and how I interpret it.

The narrative does not move forward because men have an inherent propensity towards evil in the most customary interpretation. The new chaos emerges out of the limitations of what has previously been created. But, as in most traditional interpretations, it is about responsibility, beginning with God assuming all responsibility for what happens and assuming, because He is the creator, it must be good. Human beings initially assume none of the moral responsibility, but also assume that because God was the creator, what takes place must be good. Both have to learn that the true source of evil lies within this nearsightedness, this myopic view of the world.

So how do we reconcile Chapter 1 and chapter 2, for as everyone knows who reads the text, they appear to be contradictory? Chapter 2 begins with the consecration of the seventh day as a day of rest. The whole text is a process of embedding in the repetition of time, in embodied existence, the metaphor of the Torah story. But look how it starts, in complete contradiction to what I just wrote. Instead of a dynamic story about creation, that process is said to be finished; the heavens and earth were a totally completed product. The Torah is then not a tale of a process of both Heaven and Earth coming to be, but of what has been completed. Further, instead of worshiping and celebrating that dynamic process, the most celebrated day of the week emerges, shabat, the day that is said to be about rest. Further, it is rest, not creativity, that is made holy.

But read the text again. On shabat, God “rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” Not from the process. It was a day to look back, to reflect, to analyze what had just been completed. As we shall see, this applies to every new lesson and is why we read and re-read the text in an annual cycle. It is that reflection, that evaluation, which is holy. For it is a very different order of creativity, not one which ends as each of the first six days did in dogmatic conviction, but one which will challenge those dogmatic convictions in the most fundamental way. And the challenge is not one which proceeds sequentially – He created this, then He created that. Rather, it is about subordination rather than conjunction. Instead of this and that, we find: when this then that.  Each action has consequences.

Further, the Creator has a new name, Yahweh rather than just Elohim, the Lord God and not just God. He has a name with two yuds and two hehs, a God that doubles up on Himself, a world which is abbreviated and to the point as a yud, and open to interpretation as a heh. Instead of a story of coming into being, of creation, of bara, it is a story of fashioning, of constructing, of yatsar, in fact, of reconstructing. Words do not bring the world of material being into existence. Rather, through massaging words themselves, existence is given form and order. We are presented with a moral rather than a material order, the world of adam and not just adamah. The action, the verb is followed by its noun form. To die – a process – is followed by death, a final state. Ironically, that very fixed state will be the source of a new stage of creativity.

In reflection, as in commentary, the same story must be re-told, but now from a retrospective perspective. That retrospective focused on the last day of creation after God turned a planet into a thriving greenhouse from a moonscape. But suddenly instead of simple interpretation, we get a midrash, a story about the original story. In this version, God hives off a Garden called the Garden of Eden, seemingly rich and perfect in every way – most perfect because there is no apparent death, no awareness of death, just the richness of nature.

Second, instead of this day of rest being about a celebration about what had been created, God continues to create, but what God creates on the day of rest, on the day of reflection, on the day of re-examination, are not dichotomies and opposites, but particulars: the Garden of Eden first, then soon two unique and very different trees. But first the creation of earthlings is re-envisioned.

It is a very specific process: “the Lord God formed a man[c] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” It is also self-evidently a different process. First, man is formed, that is fashioned and shaped rather than brought into being through words, So the dichotomy of male and female become a story of priority and subordination. Because we are now in the realm of reflection, in the realm of historical reconstruction of what has already taken place, in the realm of midrash, Second, instead of apparent dichotomy, it is our reconstruction of original creation that is taking place. Equality is transformed into a moral hierarchy through a different kind of temporal ordering such as occurs in dreams as well as nightmares. Third, the dichotomy is internalized, for instead of two from one, we have one out of two, man made from shaping his earthliness at the same time as he is infused with God’s spirit. This will be a story not about the coming to be of a natural creature alongside all the other animals, but of a unique being, about what it is like to be made in the image of God.

But first the two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, two unique trees among all those that were created. Then the Garden of Eden is described as having four headwaters of one river. And we should recognize that we are being introduced to the four orders of interpretation, the four lenses through which the recreation of what has come about materially can be understood on the reflective plain. They are the headwaters of creative reflection:

  1. Havilah – gold, but also the precious onyx and aromatic resin – interpretation must be rich; it must smell right and sensible; it must pass the smell test;
  2. Gihon – comprehensiveness;
  3. Tigris – the boundary river for interpretation is not arbitrary, but has limits and is an example of order itself, not of sequential order but of framing;
  4. Euphrates – the longest of the rivers in Western Asia, u-fra’-tez, “the good and aboundingriver and, together with the Tigris, the defining river.

So in addition to interpretation being rich and sensible, in addition to it being comprehensive, it must have an order in space, a frame clearly defining an area of reflection, but, as well, an unfolding in time that goes on and on, an openness, a heh and not just a yud. We are now in a specific location of earth, in western Asia, but boundaried on the east to define the world of the Middle East.

We have our frame. What happens? Man is placed in the garden. Though resting from making the world, it is clearly a garden of enormous richness. The conversion of the natural world into a civilized and ordered one must be reconsidered, must be reflected upon, for that is the work of Eden. That is the work of shabat. But in doing this work, man is given a very specific warning – not a command. “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (TKGE), for when you eat from it, you will surely die.” But, of course, as in all such narratives, a warning is merely a prediction of what is to come.

Then we have a sudden disjunction, or, at least, the appearance of one. God discovers everything is not very good. For, as He observes, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helpmeet suitable for him.” Adam does not seem to feel he is alone. God recognizes it. But why is woman characterized as a helpmeet, an ezer to and for him? Does this simply mean she is a helper, or does it mean she is someone who will help him meet both himself as an other, both to see himself as an object of reflection and not just an agent, and the other as an agent and not just an objectification of himself? If eating of the TKGE means having sex, why is there a warning of the great risk of sex?

Suddenly another switch. We are back in the natural world of the garden. Or so it appears. Adam is doing his proper work, giving order to the world in terms of language. He is a botanist and zoologist naming the various species of plants and animals. Using language, he is re-creating the world as experienced in front of us into an intellectual order, into a taxonomy. But he is a nerd who does not even have the sense to know he is alone. But his dreams tell him. In his dreams, God took one of his ribs and made woman. Woman is made from tsela, from man’s protective but fragile shield, from that which gives the body its structure, from that which embodies flesh and internal organs. Woman was seen and imagined as a projection of one side of man. Which side? Surely not consciousness, not the scientific side that went around the garden naming the animals and plants. Not the conscious side that saw the world as objects needing to be ordered. It must be the side of which he himself was not conscious, the protected side, the hidden side, the side that he did not recognize, the side that felt but was not even recognized by the other side. Adam did not even know he felt lonely.

So in his dreams, Eve was projected to be a person of feeling, an .objectification of a side of himself that he did not recognize. Eve was feeling; he was thought. In his objectification, Eve was not recognized as a subject, an agent in her own right. And he did not recognize himself as having feelings, as having passions, as a man who would leave home and marry and thereby make himself whole again. Man, not woman, is a bifurcated being, a being with no intercommunication between his right side and his left side, a being who does not know he has desires, but in his conscious life thinks that he is only a scientist who gives order to the world by means of language.

As an arrogant aside, when I read the Talmudic commentaries, it seems that virtually all the commentators are as pedantic and nerdy and oblivious to the plain meaning of the text as Adam was to his own feelings. This is not entirely accurate. Many of the commentators do note specific technicalities of the text which have a mine of revelations. For example, Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Rabi Jose the Galilean, noted the rhythm within chapter two moving back and forth between what he thought was generality and particularity, much as I described the shift from chapter one to chapter two. Where I described disjunctions, he noted connections. And there are connections, but not simply a connection between generality and particularity, but between a depiction of a state of being and the content of that state.

For example, verse 6 described a mist or fog rising from the earth and watering the whole garden while verse 7 moves to God forming man out of the dust of that same earth. I read this as first offering a clue that this is a dream sequence – we are in a fog. In the content of that dream sequence, God is seen as making man alone, not man and woman, and in the dream, man is an earthling into whom the breath of the holy spirit must be breathed. That breath gives life to the “dead” being that Adam has thus far revealed himself to be. In the dream, there is the world that the conscious self does not recognize, his embodied being, his being as a man of desire and passions, a being when the air and the earth combined to form fire, to form what can never be given form, fire and passion, a world that is first glimpsed in the fog of dreams.

In this type of pilpul of literalness, of the detailed analysis of the bark and the leaves of each individual tree, we do miss the forest for a tree. We miss the sweep and scope of the tale, the richness, and sensuousness, is missed, the real understanding of the headwaters of the long river of life are be missed. It begins with the period before the conjoining of man and woman when both, not just Adam lacked any shame.

So sex, pain, temptation, desire and most of all death – not the objects of consciousness but the subjective state of experience – now has to be brought forth.

Next week: Sex and the Origin of Shame

Goals and Significance of the Iran Deal

Goals and Significance of the Iran Deal

by

Howard Adelman

This past summer, John Robson wrote an op-ed in the National Post (17 July 2015) claiming that, “those most determined to stop Iran from going nuclear are most unhappy with the deal.” He went from that assumption to its presumed opposite, asserting that those most committed to the deal then must have a very different agenda than stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He speculated that it might mean a desire to promote regime change provided that this happens before Iran goes nuclear in ten years. Or perhaps the real motive is a soft-headed rather than hard-hearted intent simply to delay Iran going nuclear for just ten years. (He did not write soft-hearted versus hard-headed, but if he so deliberately turns what is written on its head, he perhaps deserves the same treatment, even if only for a weak attempt at humour.)

However, ignoring the extreme misrepresentation for the moment, just look at the bad logic. To repeat, he insists that, “those most determined to stop Iran from going nuclear are most unhappy with the deal.” But is it not more valid to assert that those most unhappy with the deal are more determined to continue economically crippling Iran so it is less able to pursue its hegemonic program in the Middle East and enhance its extreme antagonism towards Israel? Are these goals not the primary ones rather than any determination to stop Iran from going nuclear? The presumption that Netanyahu and his ilk are the ones most determined to stop Iran from going nuclear is a presumption, not a fact, and I would argue a false one. Further, even if it was accepted that the extreme opponents of the deal are the ones most determined to stop Iran from going nuclear – a very questionable assumption indeed – it does not follow that this is the reason that they are really unhappy with the deal. Nor does it explain their actions, particularly Netanyahu appearing before the American Congress to try to persuade Americans to kill the deal. Netanyahu said, “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political; that was never my intention.” But how else can one describe the enormous effort the Jewish state put in to killing the deal. Motives can be overdetermined – to kill the deal, to prevent Iran from becoming an even more powerful economic and military power in the region, and even, perhaps, to heighten the political schisms already in America.

The false assumptions and illogic in reasoning is also to be found in the characterization of the proponents of the deal. While those proponents, as I indicated in my last blog, have a modest agenda focused only on making sure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons and that they have no agenda beyond that, the argument that they must have another hidden agenda, such as an illusionary expectation of regime change, does not follow from the argument that the opponents of the deal are most determined to stop Iran from becoming nuclear. It is both logically and empirically possible that the proponents and opponents are equally, or almost equally opposed to Iran not acquiring nuclear arms, but either side may have additional, and often very understandable and even commendable goals separate from that one, such as the fairly obvious one, that Netanyahu also has the goal of keeping Iran crippled economically.

Now I wish that John Robson were just an extreme example of a critic who is both illogical and misrepresents reality, but, unfortunately, this is not the case. He may teach history in Ottawa and be a journalist and documentary filmmaker, but he also may be one of the poorest critics of the accord. He, however, has lots of company, though many do not defend that opposition on the basis of sheer partisanship that is immune to wrestling with facts and rational argument.

Take another critic of the accord, Shimon Kofler Fogel, CEO for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the Canadian counterpart to America’s AIPAC. At least in his op-ed alongside John Robson’s, he says what he believes is wrong in his view of the deal, that it fails to leverage the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran to reign in its hegemonic foreign policy goals and its extreme antipathy to Israel. He is absolutely correct. It does not do that. Further, all parties negotiating with Iran did not believe that was a feasible goal. But Fogel, though accurate about the non-achievement of the accord, is also guilty of false reasoning. If the weight of sanctions coerced the Iranian regime to come to the negotiating table, then, he argues, it follows that those conditions can and ought to have been used to modify Iranian foreign policy. But that does not follow at all, not only not for Iran, but for virtually all of the other representatives of the six nations negotiating with Iran.

The fact that Iran is the leading sponsor of terror in the Middle East (I personally think ISIS is, but Iran is horrible enough, and the point is not worth debating here), that it is a brutal regime with an enormous number of executions per year and extreme repression of its minorities, mainly Bahä.a’is, does not invalidate the value of the agreement. Fogel’s recommendation that relief from the sanctions should be tied to Iranian tangible progress on reducing Iran’s role as a state-sponsor of terror is disingenuous. For, to repeat, it was neither the goal of the negotiations nor one that any reasonably-knowledgeable person argues could be achieved by negotiations at this time. The agreement already allows for his other recommendations – continuing to define Iran as a state-sponsor of terrorism, continuing the criticism of Iran for its horrendous human rights record and the continuing use of sanctions for these reasons – quite separate from the provisions of the Special Economic Measures Act.

The goal of the negotiations with Iran was clearly spelled out in Obama’s first election platform, but particularly in the Prague Agenda articulated in an Obama speech in Hradčany Square of the Czech capital on 5 April 2009, which focused on Iran, not as a rogue state, not as a promoter of terrorism, not as a human rights abuser and, most of all, not as an intractable enemy of Israel. The focus was on promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy and reinforcing mechanisms in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Obama was intent on reducing the risks posed by nuclear weapons while simultaneously supporting and promoting nuclear energy as an alternative for peaceful purposes.

The Prague Agenda included a broad swath of goals, many since achieved:

  • Negotiating a new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals by 30%;
  • Cancellation of the Bush plan to deploy ground-based strategic missile interceptors in Europe;
  • Restricting the strategic use of America’s nuclear arsenal to deterrence only;
  • Banning nuclear testing for the future.

The Prague Agenda included further restrictions on North Korea and Pakistan, but these have notably not been achieved. However, the goal of rallying international support and engaging Iran to resolve the crisis over its military nuclear program has now finally been achieved after over five years of work. The Majli, the Iranian parliament has just endorsed the deal. So has the Obama administration. “My administration will seek engagement with Iran based on mutual interests and mutual respect. We believe in dialogue. But in that dialogue we will present a clear choice. We want Iran to take its rightful place in the community.” (my italics) Israel wanted no such result for this regime.

Making the world safer from nuclear terror and reigning in Iran did not supplant the need for deterrence and a strong regional strategy. (It may have had an inadvertent impact on it.) Further, the achievement of such a goal of eliminating the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power had to meet a number of criteria:

  1. The strongest inspection and verification system ever;
  2. Elimination of advanced centrifuges and a significant reduction of older models;
  3. A virtual elimination of Iran’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium
  4. Sanctions relief as a quid pro quo;
  5. Spelling out repercussions in case of violations.

A further word is needed on the prospect of regime change in Iran and transformation of its confrontational ideology. Paul Berman in The Tablet on 15 July 2015 focused on a single paragraph in Obama’s speech about the conclusion of the Iran deal. Obama stated in reference to U.S./Iran relations, “Our differences are real, and the difficult history between our nations cannot be ignored. But it is possible to change. The path of violence and rigid ideology, a foreign policy based on threats to attack your neighbors or eradicate Israel – that’s a dead end. A different path, one of tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict, leads to more integration into the global economy, more engagement with the international community, and the ability of the Iranian people to prosper and thrive.”

Paul Berman insisted that this one paragraph was crucial because, “if a change among the Iranians is not, in fact, possible, then Obama’s critics are right. The deal will turn out to be a disaster because, in the short run, it will strengthen the Islamic Republic conventionally and, in the long run, will strengthen the Islamic Republic unconventionally – and, all the while, the Islamic Republic will go on treading the dead-end path of violence and rigid ideology and the dream of eradicating demonic enemies. It is hard to imagine how, under those circumstances, the deal will reduce the chances of war. On the contrary, Iran’s endangered neighbors will contemplate their own prospective eradication and will certainly notice that time is against them, and they would be foolish not to act.”

It is one thing to argue that regime transformation may take place as a result of the deal and the insistence that it must take place or else the deal is more than worthless for it will enhance the prospect of war in the region. Obama made the former claim. Berman extracted from that slim possibility and transformed it magically into an absolute necessity. In that case, then the nuclear containment deal to peaceful uses is only as good as the strength of the possibility of transformation of the Iranian regime. That is clearly not Obama’s position.

It is and was certainly not the goal of the Iranians who stood steadfast in the opposition to the “arrogant” U.S., “the policies of which they viewed to be at 180 degrees to their own. The U.S. remained as the “Great Satan” ever after 18 months of negotiations. Israel remained its implacable enemy. Though Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisted that the deal was only about guaranteeing that Iran could continue its peaceful program of developing nuclear energy and had no wider goals, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani insisted there was another aim: opening a new chapter of cooperation with the outside world after years of sanctions. He predicted that the “win-win” result would gradually eliminate mutual mistrust. Similarly, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also saw the deal as going beyond the nuclear arrangements and hopefully could lead to greater regional and international cooperation.

What have Benjamin Netanyahu’s goals been in rejecting and criticizing the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program? Let me go back to his address to a joint session of Congress, not the one earlier this year, but the one he delivered on 24 May 2011 before the negotiations got underway and when the Arab Spring remained a gleam in many eyes, including Netanyahu’s. Though most of his address focused on the negotiations with the Palestinians, a small portion of his remarks addressed the question of Iran. Iran was depicted as the most powerful force in the Middle East opposed to modernity, opposed to democracy and opposed to peace. Here are Netanyahu’s words verbatim:

The tyranny in Tehran brutalizes its own people. It supports attacks against Americans troops in Afghanistan and in Iraq. It subjugates Lebanon and Gaza. It sponsors terror worldwide.

When I last stood here, I spoke of the consequences of Iran developing nuclear weapons. Now time is running out. The hinge of history may soon turn, for the greatest danger of all could soon be upon us: a militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons. (my italics) Militant Islam threatens the world. It threatens Islam. A nuclear-armed Iran would ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It would give terrorists a nuclear umbrella. It would make the nightmare of nuclear terrorism a clear and present danger throughout the world.

These were not Obama’s words, but those of Netanyahu. Then he came across as the most vocal champion of ensuring that a militant Iran did not possess nuclear weapons. Just over seven months later, in the 2012 new year, when the U.S. led the successful charge to impose new and tough sanctions against Iran’s oil and banking industry as the “only” diplomatic measure that could force Iran to the negotiating table, after President Obama signed legislation imposing sanctions against Iran’s central bank to impede Iranian oil sales and the EU put plans in place for an oil embargo, this goal was no longer sufficient for Netanyahu. The consequent weakening of the Iranian rial led Iran to state that it was willing to permit a visit by a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which, independently of the world powers, had suggested that Iran was working towards acquiring the ability to make nuclear weapons. As the goal of dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons came nearer, Netanyahu’s pitch shifted.

There was one discordant note at the time. Israel wanted the U.S. to warn Iran that if the sanctions and diplomacy failed to get Iran to abandon its nuclear program, the U.S. should warn Iran that the U.S. would resort to military means to stop Iran. While not ruling out such a possibility, the U.S. refused to threaten Iran if negotiations failed. In contrast, Netanyahu, while applauding the new economic sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s military nuclear program, insisted that only if the sanctions were combined with the threat of military action would the effort succeed. Netanyahu was proven wrong. It succeeded beyond most expectations. No threat of military action was necessary.

That note threatening military action grew far more shrill when Netanyahu, during the period in which he was struggling to put together a new coalition government, addressed an AIPAC Policy Conference in March 2013. After the usual praise for the President and Vice-President of the U.S., after the accolades to the government of the United States as Israel’s best and most steadfast ally, Netanyahu now insisted far more vociferously that sanctions were insufficient and that Iran needed to be militarily threatened.

Iran has made it clear that it will continue to defy the will of the international community. Time after time, the world powers have tabled diplomatic proposals to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully. But diplomacy has not worked. (my italics) Iran ignores these offers. It is running out the clock. It has used negotiations to buy time to press ahead with its nuclear program. Thus far, the sanctions have not stopped the nuclear program either. The sanctions have hit the Iranian economy hard. But Iran’s leaders grit their teeth and move forward. Iran enriches more and more uranium.  It installs faster and faster centrifuges Iran has still not crossed the red line I drew at the United Nations last September. But they are getting closer and closer to that line. And they are putting themselves in a position to cross that line very quickly once they decide to do so. Ladies and Gentlemen, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, we cannot allow Iran to cross that line. We must stop its nuclear enrichment program before it will be too late.  Words alone will not stop Iran.  Sanctions alone will not stop Iran. (my italics) Sanctions must be coupled with a clear and credible military threat if diplomacy and sanctions fail.

From March 2013 until November 2013 when the negotiators were on the verge of a tentative deal with Iran, and with the US Senate poised to authorize new sanctions, and after Obama phoned Netanyahu to ask him not to oppose the deal, Netanyahu did just that, openly opposed the deal by phoning all the other leaders asking them to block it. French President François Hollande agreed. The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, carried the message to his colleagues in the negotiations which bought time for Israel to take further steps to try to stop the deal after Netanyahu had failed to persuade John Kerry at Ben Gurion Airport not to loosen sanctions without the Iranians agreeing to halt the nuclear project altogether. The sticking points then were Iran’s stock of enriched uranium and the heavy water reactor at Arak that could produce plutonium from spent fuel.

The delay turned out to be temporary only. On 24 November 2013, an interim agreement, called the Joint Plan of Action, was agreed upon in Geneva that provided for a short-term freeze on much of Iran’s nuclear program in return for a decrease in the economic sanctions against Iran, the agreement to commence on 20 January 2014. Iran agreed not to commission or fuel the Arak heavy-water reactor or build a reprocessing plant to convert spent fuel into plutonium, agreed not to commission the Bushehr Nuclear Plant, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plan, the Isafahn uranium-conversion plant, the Natanz uranium-conversion plant and the Parchin military research and development complex. Iran also agreed to stop enriching uranium above 5% reactor-grade, and to dilute its stock of 20%-enriched uranium. As well, Iran agreed not to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and to leave half its 16,000 centrifuges inoperable, all this to be verified by more extensive and frequent inspections.

That is when Netanyahu first labelled the deal a historic mistake and became an implacable foe to the negotiations. But not because it left Iran as an implacable foe of Israel. Not because of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Those reasons would come later. At that point the deal was opposed because it did not dismantle Iran’s nuclear capacity altogether. In other words, Netanyahu now opposed Iran even having the ability to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Netanyahu had upped the ante and produced a deep gulf between Israel and the P5+1, for the premise of the negotiations from the get-go was that Iran would be allowed to use its nuclear knowhow and facilities for peaceful purposes. In his speech to the Knesset on the Plan of Action, Netanyahu admitted that sanctions without a military threat had, in fact, produced significant and successful results, but the deal was still bad because the results were not tangible. Effectively shutting down Iran’s nuclear military production was insufficient.

From then on, the line of attack grew more shrill, more definitive, and the grounds expanded until the bulk of the weight was not on the efficacy of inspections or the length of time Iran’s military nuclear program would be in place, though these were always there and were almost always deformed with less and less resemblance to the actual terms of the agreement. It soon became obvious and clear that Netanyahu was not really after an agreement that halted the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, but that he opposed the deal because Iran without nuclear arms would be an even more dangerous foe of Israel. However, preventing Iran from using its facilities for peaceful purposes had never been a premise of the negotiations or there never would have been any negotiations. Further, that goal of dismantling Iran’s nuclear facilities altogether had not been Netanyahu’s goal eighteen months earlier.

Netanyahu was now engaged in gross exaggeration if not an outright lie. “Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world .” (my italics) This is a bad agreement; this is a historic mistake. This became his mantra. Both were evaluations of a very dubious nature as more and more information emerged about both the Action Plan and the terms of the ongoing negotiations. Netanyahu’s efforts to weave his new critique and reconcile it with his old support for simply a ban on Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons was skating on thinner and thinner ice. The release of the final agreement in July allowed him to fall through the ice, but the freezing water has not reduced the pitch of his hysteria one iota. Netanyahu had established to any objective observer, as distinct from his horde of cheerleaders, that he was not the one most opposed to Iran developing nuclear weapons; he wanted to keep Iran impoverished for very understandable reasons given Iran’s irrational and extreme antipathy towards Israel.

The Niqab and the Canadian Election

The Niqab and the Canadian Election

by

Howard Adelman

Forgive me for jumping out of my series on the Iran nuclear issue. But the issue of the niqab on which the results of the Canadian election may turn, is too important, precisely because it is so unimportant. For non-Canadian readers let me provide the context.

The niqab is the veil worn by a very small minority of Muslim women in Canada. Zunera Ishaq became the unsought for central player when Stephen Harper refused to admit her into Canadian citizenship unless she removed her veil or niqab in the public ceremonial swearing of allegiance. Zunera’s niqab has a very wide slit; the forehead and upper cheekbones can be seen. Many of us have seen Saudi women at airports where the slit is extremely narrow and some where even the eyes are covered by a netting as in wearing a burka.

The political issue arose over whether, when a person applies to become a Canadian citizen, they will be permitted to wear the veil in the public part of the ceremony. Of course, this is not how the issue was raised as part of electoral politics. The situation was made out as if it is about women being “forced” to hide their faces when they wish to become Canadian citizens and whether a person who hid her identity in public could swear an oath of allegiance. Or, at least, this is how our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his partners in the Conservative Party in Canada framed the issue.

The following are the facts:

  1. Two women in Canada since 2011 have refused to take off their niqabs in the public ceremony, not in private, as a condition of becoming citizens.
  2. There is no law in Canada prohibiting the wearing of a niqab at the public ceremony where the citizenship oath is taken.
  3. The government of Canada issued regulations banning the wearing of face veils when taking the oath of citizenship in the public ceremony.
  4. Zunera Ishaq, clearly no wilting rose, took the Government of Canada to court over the issue.
  5. She won her court case and, just recently, in the Federal Court of Appeal, won again.
  6. The courts have ruled that the Canada Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects Zunera Ishaq from being forced to remove her veil during the public part of the ceremony and that she should be given the right to wear the veil in the public ceremony, become a citizen and be allowed to vote in the forthcoming election on 19 October.
  7. The latest ruling by the Federal Court of Appeal was on 18 September.
  8. The Government of Canada even lost the subsequent court case asking for a stay in allowing Zunera Ishaq her rights.
  9. Last Friday she exercised her rights, became a citizen and can vote in the elections on 19 October or in the advance poll.
  10. This is but one of a long series of cases where the current Government of Canada has sought through regulations to get around the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; the government has been thwarted at every turn by the Canadian courts.
  11. Note that, before participating in the public ceremony where the oath is taken, any applicant for citizenship must go through a number of steps to prove the applicant’s identity.
  12. Those steps include, in the name of the principle of political accommodation, that Zunera Ishaq remove her veil in private before a female official to establish her identity.
  13. The public ceremony is part of the ceremonial part of the occasion, one that if you ever attend is very moving for almost all participants.
  14.  The Conservatives, as part of the election campaign, promised to “rectify” the matter by introducing legislation within 100 days of taking office that will require those applying for citizenship to take off face coverings during the formal ceremony confirming citizenship.
  15. They promise to do this without first hearing from the Supreme Court of Canada whether such legislation would be legal under the Canadian Constitution and even though the party, if it wins the largest plurality of seats, will only be a minority government.
  16. The Conservative Party has also signalled that it even plans to introduce legislation banning any federal employee from wearing a niqab when serving the public.
  17. Further, Catherine Loubier, a spokeswoman for the Conservative Party, stated that the niqab issue was part of the Conservative “agenda” as a well-established principle of the party, and that the party has simply benefited from a “coincidence.”
  18. It appears that this may even be part of a future plan to allow a Conservative minority government to be defeated on such an issue and call an election to get a majority vote for the Conservative Party.
  19. The real issue is that Stephen Harper is the one really wearing a metaphorical niqab behind which he has been hiding to distract Canadians from really examining closely his mismanagement of the economy, his destruction of the “civil” dimension of the Canadian civil service and the myriad of other issues on which he has a deplorable record.
  20. In Canada, and in Quebec particular, the issue of wearing religiously identifying garments, particularly by civil servants serving the public, has become a contentious issue.
  21. In France, girls at school are banned from wearing a hijab, that is a headscarf, let alone a niqab. The Quebec Marois government which introduced the Charter on Quebec values and laws against the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols or garments was bent on banning the wearing of any ostentatious religious symbols by Quebec officials and others in particular situations; this was in the French tradition of religious secularism, laicité.
  22. The main opposition parties came out strongly against the Government position based, not on whether they liked or disliked women wearing the niqab, but on the basis of human rights and upholding Canadian law and the constitution.
  23. One possible result, as established by polls, is that support for the New Democratic Party in Quebec, where the party has most of their members of parliament and the vast majority of Quebec seats, has fallen precipitously; polls initially indicated that much of that shift favoured the Conservatives given the politics of fear and blanketing the airwaves with pictures of ominous happenings as a woman dawns a veil. More recent polls suggest a more significant shift to the Liberals. Since Justin Trudeau holds the same position on the niqab issue – namely that it is being used as a distraction and wearing it anywhere is a human right as interpreted by Canadian courts,
  24. The biggest irony of all is that a very feisty Zunera Ishaq donned the veil, not in the name of tradition, but in the name of her rights as a private person, in the name of the secular religion of Canada and against the advice and even pleas of family members.

One cannot but admire how Tom Mulcair as leader of the New Democratic Party has handled the issue as a matter of principle in spite of the political backlash against his and his party’s views. However, while praising his principles, one can also be disappointed in the way he handled the spin on the issue. He based his objections on two foundations – first on the rights of these Muslim women and the rule of law in Canada. Second, he attacked Harper for using such a politically miniscule issue to arouse ethnic and religious fears in Canada and a degree of hostility to Muslims that is beneath the surface. His principles may be admired, but his ability at political counter-attack, at counter-spin, may not be. In any case, he may have lost support in Quebec for a myriad of other reasons.

Naheed Nenshi, the Muslim mayor of Calgary and perhaps the most popular politician in Canada, offered a very spirited attack on the Conservative position. He did so, not because he is a member of any other political party to the best of my knowledge. He was just absolutely appalled by the position of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, Harper’s leading cabinet minister. Nenshi made the following points;

  1. He personally does not like the niqab and wishes people would not wear it.
  2. The wearing of the niqab may not be, for the women who wear it, a symbol of oppression and of masculine misogyny.
  3. The government’s position is contradictory, for in the name of supposedly protecting women against the oppression of their husbands, their families and their tradition, the government would adopt the position of oppression to tell women what they can wear in certain circumstances.
  4. The government has far more important issues to debate in an election than what two women in the last four years have chosen to wear at a public ceremony in which the oath of citizenship is sworn together with a larger group of applicants.
  5. Those issues include the disappearance of large numbers of aboriginal women, an issue on which the Government of Canada refuses to set up a Commission of Inquiry.

In spite of Nenshi’s intervention, and that of many others, including very articulate Muslim women who would never wear a niqab, polls initially indicated that a majority of Canadians, not just in Quebec, supported the Conservative Party position. Léger Marketing found 82 per cent were in support of the policy nationally, and 93 per cent in favour in Quebec.

I am not a political spin doctor. But I would have advised a slightly different approach than that of either Tom Mulcair or Naheed Neshi or Justin Trudeau for that matter. First, as Nenshi did, I would have indicated that I do not particularly like women wearing a niqab  – but because I enjoy seeing the beauty in a woman’s face. Secondly, even though tattooing has grown in popularity, I have a very much stronger distaste for people who adorn themselves with tattoos and have been an oppressive father who banned my children, while supported by me, from ever getting a tattoo. Nevertheless, I would never think of passing a law or regulation banning this form of ostentatious personal identification by a civil servant, a student or an individual seeking to become a citizen.

But a tattoo does not hide a person’s identity. In fact, it establishes it more clearly – ask the number of criminals who have been caught because they were identified by the specific tattoo they wore. True enough, but the criterion espoused by Harper was his personal distaste for the behaviour of women wearing a niqab, since objective evidence and fact establish unequivocally that it is not an identity issue. I once had a woman who wore a niqab to my class and never had any difficulty whatsoever in identifying her, in fact even less difficulty than identifying most of my students – I was very bad at that very important skill.

The basic point is that my personal distaste, whatever it is and however much anyone agrees or disagrees with it, should not be the basis for making Canadian law or regulations. Further, it is not only I who say so. The Courts of Canada have ruled on this issue over and over again. My position on tattoos may be very appealing, especially to a number of older people who are appalled at the increasing propensity of young people to wear tattoos. But when it comes to public space and civil discourse, it is none of my business.

Mulcair and Nenshi attacked Stephen Harper for introducing such a trivial issue in an election because it was being used as a wedge issue for those who feared the influx of Muslims into Canada. That may be the case, but a vast majority of Canadians support Harper’s position and I do not believe they are anti-Muslim. They are against the practice of women wearing niqabs. The political issue, as opposed to constitutional one, is to focus the debate, not on their personal taste, but on principles, the laws of Canada and the rights of women. But one can best, I believe, shift the focus of debate only once establishing an identity with those Canadians who are opposed to women wearing a niqab.

The courts can decide what is lawful and not lawful with respect to dictates of the government re requirements of dress or tattoos. My personal distaste is irrelevant. Rights are. Respect for differences is critical. What is most relevant is Stephen Harper’s and the Conservative Party’s effort on tramping on what I believe are prime Canadian values – tolerance, respect, not just acceptance, of others – and recognition that I should never make my personal tastes, whether for vanilla ice cream, diet colas or niqabs, a basis for making public policy.

Why did Harper adopt this position? He certainly used it to sew fear and division, but the incident really fell into his lap. It had long been Conservative public policy. Therefore, it is doubtful whether the debate over the wearing of niqabs at public rituals when swearing an Oath to the Queen was intended as a wedge issue, though it was certainly played up for that use.

The explanation however lies deeper. Stephen Harper is a classical small “l” liberal when it comes to the separation of religion from the public political sphere and from civil society. His prime enemy is not socialism or the nanny state, though these are lined up for extinction. His main enemy is the secular liberal religion of human rights. He is a traditional Conservative or classical liberal who believe that religious affiliation, beliefs and commitments belong to the private sphere. Harper is not a member of the secular religion of rights or humanitarianism. He deeply and sincerely believes in Machiavellianism as the guide to practice in the public sphere. Faith is a private matter. The public believes, especially Quebecers, that religion must be excluded from public life. Harper adds to that belief a conviction that the public realm is the sphere governed by power, not by faith, by manipulation rather than tolerance, reasonable accommodation and inclusion. Harper practices the politics of exclusion and works hard to divide the public polity to gain enough support, even if it is minority support, to defeat those who have faith in the liberal secular religion of rights.

he public sphere and especially political elections offer the arena where these secular religious wars are fought. Hopefully, Harper will lose this battle.

 

A Comment on Commentary

A Comment on Commentary

by

Howard Adelman

This past shabat we began again in the annual cycle of re-reading Torah. So we begin at the beginning which is about beginning. But it is an odd beginning because it is a repetition of what happened last year and the year before that and for over two millennia previously. To prove that, we discussed commentators from the last two millennia.

We could have discussed whether God created everything or just every thing, that is gave identity to that which was created, gave order. Genesis is not about the coming-into-being of the universe or even possibly many universes, but bringing order, understanding and even purpose, especially purpose to that material universe. So the issue is not about the material universe, that out of which something is created, but what was the motive or purpose or intent (each with slightly different meanings) of that creative activity. If the explicit question is about purpose, the implicit question is according to what principles or norms? For in articulating a focus on purpose, the emphasis is being placed on the normative rather than descriptive order of the universe, therefore “our” universe”, the universe experienced by man and in accordance with which humans lead their lives. Further, given an interpretation of that purpose and some understanding of those norms and principles, what can be anticipated?

Rabbi Splansky discussed a number of midrashim explicating possible understandings of that creation, in particular, why God suddenly refers to the plural, “Let us create earthlings …” In the Torah study group, the gentleman to rabbi’s right introduced another midrash, namely, that when God said, “Let us create man…” in the first use of the plural, the reference was not to his group of assistants – the angels – nor to a royal we, but to God and Man. God was addressing the being he was bringing into being as a partner in creation. Splansky had opined the evening before that man was the junior partner. So, in this interpretation, the “us” then is man plus the creature created who shall henceforth have some responsibility for creation.

In what sense is man the partner of God in creation? It is clearly a question that exercised most commentators. The answers varied, but no commentator takes seriously the option that creation did not have a purpose. In fact, Berkovits argues that, by definition creation entails purpose. Science is about causality, not creation. Science is about knowing and understanding the laws and causes in terms of which a previous state is transformed into a new state. Creation is, by definition, about purpose. So the disagreements among commentators are about those different purposes.

The Gaon, after dismissing arbitrariness as both contrary to the whole exercise and our understanding of Torah, defines two alternative purposes:

  1. sharing in God’s wisdom and thereby sharing in an appreciation of the mighty acts, the glory and the majesty of God’s kingdom with the consequence of inspiring awe in mortals;
  2. creating an incentive to obey God via an appeal to self-interest that can also serve a higher purpose; the emphasis then is on deeds rather than thoughts, on what humans can and should do versus the implied passivity of standing before God in awe.

This does not mean that if one chooses understanding creation in terms of purpose, the role of standing in awe before the wonders of creation itself is ruled out. It only means that the primary focus of the text is about figuring out the norms in accordance with which we are to govern our conduct and our lives. Moses Chaim Luzzatto, an eighteenth century member of an extended famous family of Italian Talmudists and himself a famous poet and dramatist, and, as well, a student of Kabala, also stressed that the purpose of creation was ethical, but ethics was defined as the search for perfection, very much in the Greek and Christian mould. The root of and the route for gaining perfection is service to God, defined as the only true good. The sole purpose of life is to rejoice in God’s perfection and to derive pleasure from God’s presence. The consequence of this surrender will be serenity in this world and entry into the world to come. But again deeds not just awe are involved, for to stand in awe before God’s perfection entails dedicating oneself to creating mitzvoth. The enemy to that quest for perfection and doing good deeds are desires which we must struggle to overcome. If this sounds akin somewhat to being born again in the blood of Christ, it is no accident.

Kaufmann Kohler, in contrast, is a rationalist and one of the early nineteenth century leaders of Reform Judaism. This is very evident in the selection from his works which begins with man rather than God. The stress is on self-determination and choosing one’s own destiny rather than following in the footsteps of God towards perfection or aligning one’s self interest with God’s purpose à la Gaon. The ideal is not a given, not planted in our nature, but that which must be discovered and defined by our actions. The voice of God is in our implanted conscience. There are no mystical visitations or hearing God directly. God is simply the ideal and we are commanded to walk with God who is righteous and just. But each individual has the responsibility of determining what God expects of him or her and how a self-chosen destiny is to be realized and enhanced.

Obviously as we trace through the positions of the commentators, they are all founded on understanding God’s behaviour as a well intended effort to lead a willing embodied partner on a righteous path. Ibn Gabirol was an eleventh century Spanish commentator and a poet like Luzzatto, but unlike him, he was on the side of rationalists. Rationalist moral thinkers saw the path of success through thinking rather than mystical revelation. For Ibn Gabriol, knowledge continued in the soul even after one died.

So in the ways of popular learning in the twenty-first century, those who wanted to study Torah are offered a smorgasbord of commentators to choose one’s own preference according to one’s taste. There was no effort to distil a set of coherent rules of interpretation of the Torah itself. For example, even though two of the commentators offered as food for thought were poets, there was no effort to uncover the poetic structure of the section. Instead, we are presented with a number of choices, but presented at random rather than in an organized offering. All commentators seemed to agree that creation was about purpose, was about finding meaning in existence. But what was the state of mind that best brought that about – rigorous study of minutiae or opening oneself to inspiration directly from God? Was the wisdom available for the improvement of man or simply to have a servant to give witness to God’s glory, to give God pleasure in the surrender of one’s will and in publicizing God’s role in the world.

Given that this was a Reform congregation and not a Hasidic study group, the latter option was unlikely to be taken up by anyone. In any case, the manner of study was unlikely to induce accepting such a purpose. Rather, like Berkowits, the inclination was likely to stress finding meaning and purpose in an otherwise material world of natural laws and probabilities so that even in defining that purpose, humans are partners of God. Holy Blossomers are hardly likely to surrender their secular faith in absolute self-determination, though quite willing to invert the master-servant relationship and assign God the role of a tour guide in a moral minefield. In that case, meaning itself is not found but intended and willed. As in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, we will ends in accordance with transcendental ethical laws, but ones which we find and create rather than ones that are the universal condition of having any morality whatsoever. The world of meaning is one in which we find meaning in our actions that are about the realization of a lofty goal.

It’s possible. But is that what the first two chapters of Genesis suggest?First, we begin with a paradox. The Hebrew suggests not a point of beginning – “In the beginning, God created…” nor even, as translated by Gunther Plaut, a reference to the moment before creation – “In the beginning as God was about to create…,” but as a progressive effort: “In the beginning of God’s creating.” We enter not at the very beginning point but into an action already in progress. The progress was about creating the world of heaven and the world of earth. And we are first told little about this fundamental dichotomy and the nature of heaven. The earth, we read, was however both empty and lacked any form. There was water but no light. The spirit of God hovered over the waters.

Now one can take this as a literal interpretation of the making of the material universe, as evangelical Christians usually interpret the text, or as about the nature of creativity itself and about the normative rather than the material world. Heaven is not the trillions of solar systems, the billions of galaxies with multiple solar systems, or even about the possibility of multiple universes. The heavens are not about the sun and the stars and the moon, but about that which is above, that to which we aspire, that associated with the basic character of air as opposed to earth and water. The heavens are about spiritual vitality. The first act of creation is allowing light to permeate the darkness over the face of the deep, not as a replacement for darkness, but as an alternate to it. So the first day of understanding creation is to comprehend the difference between day and night, light and darkness. It is to understand that the objective of creation if for humanity to lead an earth-bound life and to be a vehicle for God to live in the lower realm.

Is this a cognitive difference between knowledge and ignorance, between enlightenment and superstition? Or is it a differentiation between the act of discovery when one sees the light, when one breaks through a blindness and a blockage when mindblindness turns into insight? Or it a reference to both. At the very least there is the suggestion that knowledge, even if insufficient, will be a necessary foundation for what follows. Further, this knowledge is given a moral quality. If knowledge is good then ignorance is not bliss but is bad.

On the second day when the water below is divided from the water above, what can the metaphor mean, assuming we are all in agreement to reading the text as a grand metaphor. It is one that is hard for contemporaries to grasp since the image of the sky as a vault is not part of our experience where water seeps from above through the vault to form clouds and rain to fall down on the earth and waters below. But as a statement of meaning rather than as a depiction of a natural phenomenon, what is the meaning of separating the waters above and below? Are the waters from above the source of God’s tears when He will cry and cry out at the waywardness of the humans created? This is suggested in the previous verse which describes God moving over the face of the waters, not simply a movement, but a slight trembling and fluttering (m’rahaphet).  But it also suggests a hovering as a mother does over a newborn when the foetus will be separated out from the waters within and live outside of water in the open air and on solid ground. God hovers in anticipation. The tears shed are then tears of pure joy. Tears of joy pour forth when there is a horizontal separation and humans themselves participate in the act of creation. Tears of despair flood the world from above when humans participate in destructive behaviour. Hasidim celebrate to bring joy to God. That joy may be needed to bring some relief to God’s pain. But on the third day, the horizontal separation occurs when an infant is born and leaves its dark watery habitat to prepare for his life on earth. The waters first break, then there is the pain and then a very different kind of joy. It is the pleasure of fertility, of flowers growing and trees bearing fruit. What about the reference to light, to knowledge? The light is then divided itself into lights that serve to mark the separation of day and night, of knowledge and ignorance, so that even darkness has a light lest we live in the blackness of depression where we cannot glimpse an exit. Those lights mark out sacred days, those days that commemorate momentous steps in our collective coming to self-realization.  On the fifth day, the world of plants and animals is created, the world of instinct and natural propensities. It is on the sixth day that God creates man. And instead of saying, let water teem, let the land produce, let there be lights in the sky, let there be light itself, let there be a vault, we leave the world of letting be and enter the human world: “let us make earthlings in our image…” What is that imitation? It is to take custody and to govern the world that has been made. To keep it, to maintain it, to improve it. God created men and women to assume the responsibility of governing the world. So humans are created with an ethical and political responsibility and not just to “let there be.”  Why “us”? I have already suggested that this was because it was a collective responsibility, one which belonged to both God and humans. What was the division of responsibility? Were humans only responsible as helpmeets of God. Or was God in the position of a guide to the perplexed? Or did God have a greater responsibility in providing leadership. But if God knew the way, in what sense did the followers have any responsibility?

In Rabbi Splansky’s sermon on the previous evening, she had offered a midrash on the debate between Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. Not the one over whether the earth or the heavens were primary in the order of creation. (One answer: heaven is first in the normative world; earth is first in the descriptive or scientific world.) The biggest moral question of all was over whether it was worth it at all to have created humankind. The school of Shammai said that, “It is better for man not to have been created than to have been created.” The school of Hillel said, “It is better for man to have been created than not to have been created.” After first getting over my confusion in thinking the question about how I would vote in the current Canadian election, when I thought about whether I think  it would have been preferable for humans not to have been created as the debaters concluded after two-and-a-half years of debate, I, at first flippantly, decided that asking one to choose between a critical and depressed view of the creation of humans and one with an agreement with God that the creation was not just good, but very good, I wanted initially to side with God and take Shammai to task for conflicting with God on this conclusion and with Hillel for being weak in defending the counter position. Except that I am of the school that finds that God, most of the time, has bad judgement. So I should agree with Shammai.

I don’t and I did not. For I found the question a foolish one. Speculation about possible worlds belongs to fiction, belongs to the imagination. However, in ethics the goal is to use facts and science in combination with norms and guides of responsibility to make specific choices. It is not to pronounce on the character of human creation in general. That is a question we not only cannot answer, but we should not try to answer unless we are writing fiction. God’s basic propensity is revealed in verse 1. He wants to make moral pronouncements first, about the natural world, and then about the world as a whole. But if creativity is a process, if it is about developing a sense of care and responsibility, then premature moral pronouncements are distinctly unhelpful if not actually bad and harmful. In the Netflix series, “The Happy Valley,” the leading character, the policewoman, tells her junior officer: the worst mistake in policing is to make moral judgements before you have collected the clues and analyzed the case. Humans made in the image of God have this propensity, to generalize when generalization is neither demanded nor required, to draw conclusions prematurely, to evaluate and offer opinions that are self-referential, revealing more about oneself than about the matter-at-hand. In reality, it is one of the most basic acts of ignorance and lack of proper discernment. And God is the first to demonstrate it.

All this is but a prolegomena.

Next Comment: Verse 2

The Niqab and the Canadian Election

The Niqab and the Canadian Election

by

Howard Adelman

Forgive me for jumping out of my series on the Iran nuclear issue. But the issue of the niqab on which the results of the Canadian election may turn, is too important, precisely because it is so unimportant. For non-Canadian readers let me provide the context.

The niqab is the veil worn by a very small minority of Muslim women in Canada. Zunera Ishaq became the unsought for central player when the Stephen Harper refused to admit her into Canadian citizenship unless she removed her veil or niqab in the public ceremonial swearing of allegiance. Zunera’s niqab has a very wide slit; the forehead and upper cheekbones can be seen. Many of us have seen Saudi women at airports where the slit is extremely narrow and some where even the eyes are covered by a netting as in wearing a burka.

The political issue arose over whether, when a person applies to become a Canadian citizen, they will be permitted to wear the veil in the public part of the ceremony. Of course, this is not how the issue was raised as part of electoral politics. The situation was made out as if it is about women being “forced” to hide their faces when they wish to become Canadian citizens and whether a person who hid her identity in public could swear an oath of allegiance. Or, at least, this is how our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his partners in the Conservative Party in Canada framed the issue.

The following are the facts:

  1. Two women in Canada since 2011 have refused to take off their niqabs in the public ceremony, not in private, as a condition of becoming citizens.
  2. There is no law in Canada prohibiting the wearing of a niqab at the public ceremony where the citizenship oath is taken.
  3. The government of Canada issued regulations banning the wearing of face veils when taking the oath of citizenship in the public ceremony.
  4. Zunera Ishaq, clearly no wilting rose, took the Government of Canada to court over the issue.
  5. She won her court case and, just recently, in the Federal Court of Appeal, won again.
  6. The courts have ruled that the Canada Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects Zunera Ishaq from being forced to remove her veil during the public part of the ceremony and that she should be given the right to wear the veil in the public ceremony, become a citizen and be allowed to vote in the forthcoming election on 19 October.
  7. The latest ruling by the Federal Court of Appeal was on 18 September.
  8. The Government of Canada even lost the subsequent court case asking for a stay in allowing Zunera Ishaq her rights.
  9. Last Friday she exercised her rights, became a citizen and can vote in the elections on 19 October or in the advance poll.
  10. This is but one of a long series of cases where the current Government of Canada has sought through regulations to get around the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; the government has been thwarted at every turn by the Canadian courts.
  11. Note that, before participating in the public ceremony where the oath is taken, any applicant for citizenship must go through a number of steps to prove the applicant’s identity.
  12. Those steps include, in the name of the principle of political accommodation, that Zunera Ishaq remove her veil in private before a female official to establish her identity.
  13. The public ceremony is part of the ceremonial part of the occasion, one that if you ever attend is very moving for almost all participants.
  14.  The Conservatives, as part of the election campaign, promised to “rectify” the matter by introducing legislation within 100 days of taking office that will require those applying for citizenship to take off face coverings during the formal ceremony confirming citizenship.
  15. They promise to do this without first hearing from the Supreme Court of Canada whether such legislation would be legal under the Canadian Constitution and even though the party, if it wins the largest plurality of seats, will only be a minority government.
  16. The Conservative Party has also signalled that it even plans to introduce legislation banning any federal employee from wearing a niqab when serving the public.
  17. Further, Catherine Loubier, a spokeswoman for the Conservative Party, stated that the niqab issue was part of the Conservative “agenda” as a well-established principle of the party, and that the party has simply benefited from a “coincidence.”
  18. It appears that this may even be part of a future plan to allow a Conservative minority government to be defeated on such an issue and call an election to get a majority vote for the Conservative Party.
  19. The real issue is that Stephen Harper is the one really wearing a metaphorical niqab behind which he has been hiding to distract Canadians from really examining closely his mismanagement of the economy, his destruction of the “civil” dimension of the Canadian civil service and the myriad of other issues on which he has a deplorable record.
  20. In Canada, and in Quebec particularly the issue of wearing religiously identifying garments, particularly by civil servants serving the public, has become a contentious issue.
  21. In France, girls at school are banned from wearing a hijab, that is a headscarf, let alone a niqab. The Quebec Marois government which introduced the Charter on Quebec values and laws against the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols or garments introduced laws banning the wearing of any ostentatious religious symbols by Quebec officials and others in particular situations; this was in the French tradition of religious secularism, laicité.
  22. The opposition parties came out strongly against the Government position based, not on whether they liked or disliked women wearing the niqab, but on the basis of human rights and upholding Canadian law and the constitution.
  23. One possible result, as established by polls, is that support for the New Democratic Party in Quebec, where the party has most of their members of parliament and the vast majority of Quebec seats, has fallen precipitously; polls initially indicated that much of that shift favoured the Conservatives given the politics of fear and blanketing the airwaves with pictures of ominous happenings as a woman dawns a veil. More recent polls suggest a more significant shift to the Liberals. Since Justin Trudeau holds the same position on the niqab issue – namely that it is being used as a distraction and wearing it anywhere is a human right as interpreted by Canadian courts,
  24. The biggest irony of all is that a very feisty Zunera Ishaq donned the veil, not in the name of tradition, but in the name of her rights as a private person, in the name of the secular religion of Canada and against the advice and even pleas of family members.

One cannot but admire how Tom Mulcair as leader of the New Democratic Party has handled the issue as a matter of principle in spite of the political backlash against his and his party’s views. However, while praising his principles, one can also be disappointed in the way he handled the spin on the issue. He based his objections on two foundations – first on the rights of these Muslim women and the rule of law in Canada. Second, he attacked Harper for using such a politically miniscule issue to arouse ethnic and religious fears in Canada and a degree of hostility to Muslims that is beneath the surface. His principles may be admired, but his ability at political counter-attack, at counter-spin, may not be. In any case, he may have lost support in Quebec for a myriad of other reasons.

Naheed Nenshi, the Muslim mayor of Calgary and perhaps the most popular politician in Canada, offered a very spirited attack on the Conservative position. He did so, not because he is a member of any other political party to the best of my knowledge. He was just absolutely appalled by the position of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, Harper’s leading cabinet minister. Nenshi made the following points;

  1. He personally does not like the niqab and wishes people would not wear it.
  2. The wearing of the niqab may not be, for the women who wear it, a symbol of oppression and of masculine misogyny.
  3. The government’s position is contradictory for, in the name of supposedly protecting women against the oppression of their husbands, their families and their tradition, the government would adopt the position of oppression to tell women what they can wear in certain circumstances.
  4. The government has far more important issues to debate in an election than what two women in the last four years have chosen to wear at a public ceremony in which the oath of citizenship is sworn together with a larger group of applicants.
  5. Those issues include the disappearance of large numbers of aboriginal women, an issue on which the Government of Canada refuses to set up a Commission of Inquiry.

In spite of Nenshi’s intervention, and that of many others, including very articulate Muslim women who would never wear a niqab, polls initially indicated that a majority of Canadians, not just in Quebec, supported the Conservative Party position. Léger Marketing found 82 per cent were in support of the policy nationally, and 93 per cent in favour in Quebec.

I am not a political spin doctor. But I would have advised a slightly different approach than that of either Tom Mulcair or Naheed Neshi or Justin Trudeau for that matter. First, as Nenshi did, I would have indicated that I do not particularly like women wearing a niqab  – but because I enjoy seeing the beauty in a woman’s face. Secondly, even though tattooing has grown in popularity, I have a very much stronger distaste for people who adorn themselves with tattoos and have been an oppressive father who banned my children, while supported by me, from ever getting a tattoo. Nevertheless, I would never think of passing a law or regulation banning this form of ostentatious personal identification by a civil servant, a student or an individual seeking to become a citizen.

But a tattoo does not hide a person’s identity. In fact, it establishes it more clearly – ask the number of criminals who have been caught because they were identified by the specific tattoo they wore. True enough, but the criterion espoused by Harper was his personal distaste for the behaviour of women wearing a niqab, since objective evidence and fact establish unequivocally that it is not an identity issue. I once had a woman who wore a niqab to my class and never had any difficulty whatsoever in identifying her, in fact even less difficulty than identifying most of my students – I was very bad at that very important skill.

The basic point is that my personal distaste, whatever it is and however much anyone agrees or disagrees with it, should not be the basis for making Canadian law or regulations. Further, it is not only I who say so. The Courts of Canada have ruled on this issue over and over again. My position on tattoos may be very appealing, especially to a number of older people who are appalled at the increasing propensity of young people to wear tattoos. But when it comes to public space and civil discourse, it is none of my business.

Mulcair and Nenshi attacked Stephen Harper for introducing such a trivial issue in an election because it was being used as a wedge issue for those who feared the influx of Muslims into Canada. That may be the case, but a vast majority of Canadians support Harper’s position and I do not believe they are anti-Muslim. They are against the practice of women wearing niqabs. The political issue, as opposed to constitutional one, is to focus the debate, not on their personal taste, but on principles, the laws of Canada and the rights of women. But one can best, I believe, shift the focus of debate only once establishing an identity with those Canadians who are opposed to women wearing a niqab.

The courts can decide what is lawful and not lawful with respect to dictates of the government re requirements of dress or tattoos. My personal distaste is irrelevant. Rights are. Respect for differences is critical. What is most relevant is Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party’s effort on tramping on what I believe are prime Canadian values – tolerance, respect, not just acceptance, of others – and recognition that I should never make my personal tastes, whether for vanilla ice cream, diet colas or niqabs, a basis for making public policy.

Why did Harper adopt this position? He certainly used it to sew fear and division, but the incident really fell into his lap. It had long been Conservative public policy. Therefore, it is doubtful whether the debate over the wearing of niqabs at public rituals when swearing an Oath to the Queen was intended as a wedge issue, though it was certainly played up for that use.

The explanation however lies deeper. Stephen Harper is a classical small “l” liberal when it comes to the separation of religion from the public political sphere and from civil society. His prime enemy is not socialism or the nanny state, though these are lined up for extinction. His main enemy is the secular liberal religion of human rights. He is a traditional Conservative or classical liberal who believe that religious affiliation, beliefs and commitments belong to the private sphere. Harper is not a member of the secular religion of rights or humanitarianism. He deeply and sincerely believes in Machiavellianism as the guide to practice in the public sphere. Faith is a private matter. The public believes, especially Quebecers, that religion must be excluded from public life. Harper adds to that belief a conviction that the public realm is the sphere governed by power, not by faith, by manipulation rather than tolerance and inclusion. Harper practices the politics of exclusion and works hard to divide the public polity to gain enough support, even if it is minority support, to defeat those who have faith in the liberal secular religion of rights.

The public sphere and especially political elections offer the arena where these secular religious wars are fought. Hopefully, Harper will lose this battle.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal – Part II

The Iranian Nuclear Deal – Part II

by

Howard Adelman

The Significance of the Agreement

Was this the “the most significant and tangible progress that we’ve made with Iran” since Obama took office? Or was the agreement a “historic mistake”, a loss of momentum towards capitulation by Iran or the readiness to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities by the allies? Without question it was the most significant agreement since there had been none for decades. Its projected impact was presumed to be very large whether one approved or disapproved of the deal. The real question is whether the agreement represented progress or a historic mistake.

Canada took a position somewhere between Netanyahu and Obama by emphasizing scepticism and withholding its support of the agreement until such time as Iran granted “unfettered access” to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Further, Canada waited to see whether the verification promised in the deal was fulfilled. Although the Harper government said it had been moving economic self-interest to the front in its foreign policy, in the case of Iran, Canada closed its embassy and delayed the gold rush of opportunities as western companies sought to establish a foothold in the opening with Iran. At the same time, Canada abandoned its political lockstep link to Israeli policy, hence losing any advantage by the delay.

Why then did Avi Benlolo of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center support the Canadian position since Canada supported the interim agreement if full transparency and verification resulted. Benolo was far more critical of the agreement and accused the P5+1 of being suckered by Iran’s new smiling diplomacy while Iran retained its deep antipathy to the West and remained determined to develop nuclear weapons while it bought the necessary time to progress towards that goal. For Benolo, the Iranian retreat had to be surrender, not just of the entire nuclear program, but of the support for terrorism. Canada stipulated no such conditions.

Certainly, the agreement does nothing substantive to curb Iran’s rogue status in the international community. However, the interim agreement opens wide such a possibility. The real substantive dispute is whether the interim agreement denies Iran the right to enrich uranium or whether it reified Iran’s right to enrich uranium, as President Rouhani declared? Uranium enrichment can produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) used as fuel in civilian nuclear reactors, or highly enriched uranium for fissile material for nuclear weapons. John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, claimed that Iran was not given any inherent and unfettered right to enrich uranium, but concedes that Iran will likely be given a limited, completely verifiable right to have a very constrained program of enrichment for peaceful (medical) purposes.

This was not a zone of creative ambiguity because Iran retains the right to enrich uranium to 5% purity for peaceful purposes, but is explicitly denied the right to enrich uranium to 20% purity to enable Iran, with banks of centrifuges, then to increase that uranium readily to 90% purity for weapon’s grade purposes. The agreement does NOT enshrine an apparent promise that at the end of the process, Iran would be entitled to enrich uranium as it wants, when it wants and as much as it wants. Such a charge makes nonsense of the plain text of the agreement.

In a more modest but very severe criticism, did the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) shred six United Nations Security Council resolutions that required the Islamic Republic of Islam to abandon its enrichment program and reprocessing facilities? Not as I read the intent of the agreement that followed the interim one. Further, the UN resolutions demanded only that Iran “suspend” its nuclear enrichment program, embark on a course of confidence-building measures, suspend the construction of heavy water plant at Arak for producing plutonium and ratify the IAEA additional protocol. Iran did all of these.

The first three points were already part of the interim agreement. The UNSC nonbinding resolutions required a suspension of Iran’s enrichment, a reconsideration of its decision to build a heavy-water nuclear reactor, and Tehran’s implementation of “transparency measures” providing inspectors with access to non-nuclear facilities, procurement documents, and the opportunity to interview certain Iranian officials. This is precisely what the interim agreement achieved. Perhaps, these successes may be inadequate, may cover up for a long term malevolent intent, but they seem clearly to fulfil both the letter and spirit of the UNSC resolutions. Previously, Iran had accelerated work on its uranium enrichment program (it had stopped in November 2004) and stopped voluntarily adhering to the Additional Protocol. The interim agreement seems to fulfil the aims of the UNSC resolutions in accordance with the goals of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006.

The Reception in Iran

The agreement had a fiery reception in Iran, only second to the one that greeted the agreement in the United States. On 23 June 2015, three weeks prior to the signing of the agreement, the Majlis, Iran’s Parliament, passed The Government’s Obligation Act to Protect the Nuclear Rights and Achievements of the Iranian Nation (the Iran Nuclear Achievements Act – INAA) by a vote of 213 to 10. The Act provided that all sanctions be lifted on the day Iran began to comply with the obligations of the Agreement, a requirement that the JCPOA definitively did not make. However, there was nothing in the agreement that contradicted the Act’s requirements on inspections restricted to nuclear facilities but banning access to military bases and security sensitive areas because the Act also provided that such access conform to Supreme National Security policies. Therefore, the steps to obtain such approval were included in the agreement. More importantly, the Act only required that the agreement be submitted to the Majlis, not endorsed by that body.

Less than a week after the deal was signed on 14 July 2015, the Majlis set up a special commission to examine the JCPOA with a vote on its report scheduled just after the deadline for American Congressional approval. However, two days before the deal was signed, President Rouhani signed the law safeguarding Iran’s nuclear achievements and ordered the relevant ministries to implement INAA, in effect, JCPOA. The hardliners in Iran, parallel to the hardliners in the U.S., were denied a voice to a great degree to articulate their strong opposition because the Supreme National Security Council issued a directive to media outlets to avoid representing Iran as divided about the deal and, therefore, avoid permitting the hardliners – the fundamentalists, authoritarians and militants – to criticize the deal and insist that the agreement crossed the red line of the Supreme Leader. By 3 September, the Supreme Leader weighed in and reversed the intent of the legislation and determined that the Majlis should make the final decision, not the government on its own; Majlis approval now seemed to be required.

But the make-up of the Special Commission, while giving the opposition a strong voice, still seemed to assure that the agreement would be approved. The Majlis 15-member Special Commission for examining the nuclear agreement consisted of a clear majority of moderates: 6 members representing not only the United Front but the Combatant Clergy, the Pathfinders and the Resistance Front. They were opposed by the 6 members of the Stability Front, the party of extremist fundamentalists. However, the opposition on the other flank to the so-called moderates were the Reformists (2 seats) and independent (1 seat) who were expected to support the moderates on approving the deal. In any case, the Majlis was very weak relative to the Executive branch of government and the Executive Branch was fully committed to implementing the deal.

The Reception Elsewhere and in the United States

I have already referred to the overwhelming opposition to the deal In Israel. However, in Europe the agreement had vast support. Further, 70 nuclear non-proliferation experts endorsed the agreement. So did the United Nations Security Council in a unanimous vote. The agreement, however, was vociferously and overwhelmingly opposed by Republican majorities in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate where the vote on the deal was scheduled for September. A two-thirds vote would have to be mustered to overthrow a Presidential deal since the Senate had already surrendered its power to formally endorse the agreement.

The key players were 28 Jewish Congressmen; all but one were Democrats or independents who support the Democrats. There were 19 in the House and 9 in the Senate. The huge lobbying effort of AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), the Jewish pro-Israel lobby group and the outspoken voice of Netanyahu who addressed a joint session of Congress, was not able to dissuade 19 of the 28 Jewish congressional members from endorsing the agreement. Congress thus could not muster the votes to defeat a Presidential override of any act to delay or defeat the agreement.  In effect, without a formal vote, the deal was sealed on 17 September, the agreed allotted time for the opposition to see if it could muster sufficient votes to override the agreement.

Setting aside the actual legislative victory of sorts, why is there a plethora of institutions, politicians and pundits in the United States even opposed to the agreement? Am I missing something?  No. The critics play on ambiguity. They say that the agreement enshrines Iran’s right to enrich uranium, as if this was a problem. The agreement does say explicitly that Iran has the right to enrich uranium to 5% for peaceful purposes. Iran does not have the right for further enrichment. Obfuscating this difference just confuses the public for political purposes. John Kerry did not say that Iran had no right to enrich uranium. He said that Iran had no right to enrich uranium to weapons grade, a very different matter. The reality is that Iran was within 6-8 weeks of a breakout point. If the negotiations had failed, the choice then was bombing the facilities or merely increasing sanctions. If the deal succeeds, Iran will be much further back, but will have acquired access to funds and a restored faith in the Iranian rial so the economy will improve spectacularly. But this is what the P5+1 want as well as Iran – for that would help solidify support for the agreement. Further, if the new transparency reveals cheating, the sanctions would be quickly re-imposed, the rial would plummet in value and Iran would be even worse off than it is now with dashed domestic hopes and a restive public.

If the deal had not been made, following the pattern George Bush did in 2003 when he rejected Iranian overtures to make a deal in the expectation that the Iranian regime would collapse, the results would have been disastrous. When Bush scuttled a prospective deal, Iran did not collapse. Iran has almost 20,000 centrifuges rather than the less than 200 it had ten years ago. Iran would be able to approach the breaking point without breaking into the production of nuclear weapons, thereby keeping the rest of the world on tenterhooks. If Israel attacked and even succeeded, Israel would likely be labelled the rogue state, not Iran. More seriously, Iran would feel free, and China and Russia would support Iran, to complete its nuclear program in order to defend itself against future attacks from Israel. The nascent hope is that the Iranian population will turn to greater trust in dealing with the rest of the world. Iran could come out of the cold.

The Danger to Israel and Saudi Arabia

This is precisely the real danger for Israel and the Gulf states. They do not want a more powerful non-nuclear Iran. After all, Iran is the main supporter of Assad in Syria, sponsors Hezbollah in Lebanon, has made the Iraqi Shiite-dominated regime in Iraq a satrap, supports subversion in Bahrain, and is a supporter of Hamas. Retaining the sanctions and fencing Iran in is more important for Israel than reversing Iran’s direction towards an ability to make nuclear weapons. The agreement is seen as a golden opportunity to improve relations with the West, strengthen the regime and improve the support of moderates by Iranians. But that is the real threat for Israel.

Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesman, says on CNN that, “Of course, we want to see diplomacy succeed. Of course, we’d like to see a peaceful solution. Israel, more than any other country, has an interest in a successful diplomatic outcome ultimately. We’re the first people on the firing line,” he is being somewhat disingenuous. Yes, Israel does want a proper deal, but not only to stop but dismantle Iran’s nuclear program. More importantly, and understandably, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, want a weaker Iran. Parts of the domestic population who have been persecuted for years – the Bahá’is for example – concur. However, the United Arab Emirates had long before concluded that even the interim agreement reinforced “the stability of the region” while Bahrain welcomed the removal of fear.

The reality is that without Israel’s screams as well as threats, it is questionable whether the rest of the world would have been nearly as sensitive to the developments in Iran. Did Netanyahu build on this diplomatic success in making the world keenly alert to the Iran nuclear threat not only to Israel but to all of the Middle East and the rest of the world?  The world answered Israel’s call to impose severe sanctions. Chalk two up for Israel’s diplomatic success. However, Israel’s belligerency, its full frontal assault by all its ministers using inflammatory rhetoric against the agreement rather than reasoned debate, may not be seen just as Israel serving as bad cop, but as Israel performing a spoiler role.

This criticism of Israel does not mean that I am no longer sceptical about Iran’s intentions. They have been clear. Iran wants to retain the ability to maintain a short gap between a break out point and their existing facilities. Their negotiating stance attempted to keep that time line as short as possible while the P5+1 strived to lengthen it enormously. The issue has not been over the actual production of nuclear weapons, but reducing significantly the capacity to move to a breakout point in short order.

Since the Iranians had achieved the status of a near-nuclear power, it was an optimum time for Iran to negotiate an ending, if possible, to their economic straightjacket. Israel and Saudi criticism was that relief from sanctions, though amounting to only six billion spread over six months as a result of the interim agreement, and fifty billion at the end of the rainbow of a full agreement, was too rich a reward for signing the agreement. Iran’s achievement had reached a tipping point – either the large possibility of a bombing raid on its nuclear facilities or a diplomatic agreement. That is why the Saudis and Israel dubbed the agreement as a capitulation to a charm offensive and fraud by Iran (Minister of Defence for Israel, Moshe Ya’alon) and characterized the interim agreement as a cosmetic rather than a substantial agreement. However, Saudi Arabia was eventually persuaded to come around and support the deal. Israel alone remained the outlier.

Understandably to some degree! After all, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, continues to call Israelis rabid dogs, expresses the desire to see not only Israel disappear, but for Iran to be the agent for that event as he reiterates his desire to wipe Israel (which he repeatedly describes as a cancer) off the map. The Saudis too wanted a total dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program. The Israelis and Saudis had good reason to fear that P5+1 would be satisfied with sufficient dismantling to lengthen the time between a resumption of its program and the ability to make a nuclear weapon only a year. For Israel and Saudi Arabia, this was insufficient. They wanted enough dismantling of the production capability to make it unviable. The intelligence services of the U.S. advised the President that such a goal itself was not viable, but the program could be sufficiently dismantled and disabled such that, with inspections and oversight, the possibility of Iran resuming a nuclear military production program would be significantly reduced and, in any case, risked bringing a huge and perhaps even stronger sanctions attack against Iran. This persuaded Saudi Arabia to change its stance.

The Implications

So the devil is in the details of a final agreement; the number of centrifuges permitted – less than 6,000 – making enrichment past 5% both prohibited, but also a trigger for an immediate resumption of sanctions; the dismantling or conversion of the Arak facility to a light-water reactor rather than one capable of producing plutonium; the elimination of all uranium enrich stocks above 5%.

Israel lost its diplomatic battle in a second sense. Few believe Israel could or would now cross not only the Americans but every one of the world’s great economic and military powers and bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. But Israeli leaders continue to bellow and blow exhibiting petulance instead of considered criticisms, sound bites linked to insults, accusations and aspersions rather than a policy alternative. A more careful course of diplomatic discourse would have been welcome. At the same time, Israel used the back door to offer comments to improve the interim deal. Do those complaints advance or harm the country’s national interests? Is perpetual petulance and in-your-face bellyaching really a constructive form of diplomacy? Israel performed any presumed role as the bad cop like an amateur stage performer.