Jacob and Esau: Part I Personalities

Jacob and Esau: Tol’dot – Genesis 25:19-28:9

Part I: The Character of the Two Brothers

by

Howard Adelman

The Godfather, the original 1972 movie, not the sequels, is a Francis Ford Coppola academy award winning film (for best picture, best actor – Marlon Brando as Vito, the Godfather – best adapted screenplay). It tells the story of a mafia family. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is the son evidently chosen not to end up a criminal, but destined for academia or a profession, though he initially appears in a marine uniform that adumbrates that he is not just an ethical and upright person, but one who has the koyach (koach in Hebrew), the strength, the guts, the determination, the will-power, to become the don of the Corleone family.

Michael has an older brother, Sonny (James Caan) who looks like he is an Italian redhead. He is the eldest and presumed heir of Vito, the underboss. He is very tough, but also very rash and not very reflective or calculating. He has an explosive temper. Courage, as Aristotle taught us, is a balance between being rash and being cowardly. Sonny was hot-headed. That characteristic gets him killed by a rival mafia family. (The other brother, Fredo (John Cazale), is the cowardly one who eventually betrays the family when he falls under the wing of Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), in real life, Bugsy Siegel, a Jewish mobster and Las Vegas manager of a gambling casino that he runs in partnership with the Corleone family. The tale is not only a story of a crime family, but an account of the politics of a family in rivalry with other crime families in a world that is “nasty, brutish and short.” Making it long and leaving a legacy requires cunning as well as physical strength, intellectual calculation as well as brute force.

Esau did not have it. His father may have loved him for his courage, for his dashing presence, for the fact that “his hunt was in his mouth.” But it is this very last trait that made Esau unsuitable for the responsibilities he would have to undertake. He did not have the power of speech. For what is important for a leader is what comes out of his mouth, not what he puts into it. And Esau, like Sonny, is too much of a womanizer. In the film, when Sonny speaks out of turn in a meeting with a rival mafia family, Vito rebukes him and suggests his affairs have made him soft.

Jacob is to Esau like Michael is to Sonny, only even closer. On the other hand, though, on the surface, the personalities of each of the pair seem to be similar, key differences in both the characters of each of the brothers and the nature of the relationship are crucial in understanding both the similarities and differences between and the two stories. Sonny saw himself as the protector of his smarter younger brother. But Jacob and Esau are not just brothers, but twins. Further, the struggle with one another supersedes any struggle with rival tribes. As is foretold to their mother, Rebekah,

“Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

One might think that the older one serving the younger would depict the older as the weaker, not the mightier. But the possibility is that the mightier will serve the weaker. So hold your judgement. Esau is the older, and Esau will end up serving the younger. But, as we shall see, Esau will remain the mightier, the one who lives by the sword. But the sword will end up in service to the savant.

Tol’dot is the parsha that tells how that came about. And the story starts with the struggle of the two twins in the womb and then their birth. “When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob.” (Genesis 25:4-26) Esau seemed to be like Sonny, rash, impulsive, all strength without the brains to match. Jacob seemed, to a greater extent, akin to Michael Corleone. But similarities can be misleading.

Jacob had his hand on his elder, fraternal rather than identical, twin’s heel. Instead of emerging from the womb after some interval, Jacob is usually portrayed as struggling to supplant and replace his older brother even when in the womb. But that seems to be at variance with the character of Jacob who is portrayed as bookish, retiring and very uncompetitive. In fact, the whole idea of Jacob supplanting his brother comes from their mother, Rebekah, not from Jacob. Jacob’s hand is on Esau’s heel because he will be the one in the end, best able to control and manipulate the passions. (As Rav Kook writes, the heel represents instinctive nature, for the Hebrew words for ‘foot’ and ‘habit,’ regel and hergel, share the same root.) Jacob will be the one able to calculate like his mother, able, as in Plato, to bring the wild horses under the control of the brain through the mediation of real courage.

Jacob means someone who follows at another’s heel. To follow at another’s heel is not the same as following in another’s footsteps and certainly not taking over those footsteps. Some have suggested that the meaning refers to Jacob as “heeled,” that is one who overreaches through cunning. But, as I will try to show, Jacob is initially anything but cunning. Calculating and cautious, yes, but cunning, no. Rebekah is the cunning one, not Jacob. It is she who will conceive the ruse to win Isaac’s blessing. Jacob is the epitome, not of one who insists that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for.” (Robert Browning from his sonnet, Andrea del Sarto) Jacob’ story is not a tale of a character who has zeal, deep passion and an ambitious desire to achieve lofty goals and aspirations. Like many characters in The Torah, he will be chosen to do so in spite of his personality that on the surface makes him out to be quite unsuitable to the task.

Instead, Jacob’s hand took hold of Esau’s heel rather than reaching out on its own towards heaven. Further, though Jacob will win his father’s blessing, he never supplants Esau. The two brothers go their separate ways. Besides, if the Torah meant supplant, then the Hebrew equivalent of the planta, or the sole of the foot, would have been used as a metaphor, not the heel. Jacob does not pursue his older brother’s birthright. He is commanded and guided by his mother to do so. Rather than charging out to beat his brother, Jacob is a momma’s boy. His victories come about by clinging to his brother’s heel, not by supplanting him. They come through some degree of calculation, not by energy and zeal, by obeying his mother’s commandment and not his own inner determination.

Later, he will not emerge as a victor when he wrestles with the angel. He prevails precisely because the match ends in a tie, with Jacob himself wounded and crippled. This is not the portrait of a person whose ambition leads him to supplant his brother. So Jacob is not really like Michael Corleone. When Jacob holds onto the heel of his brother in emerging from the womb, he is not trying to pull Esau back so he can get ahead of him, but clinging to Esau to allow Esau to drag him out of his cozy and protected cave. Jacob is clearly not someone portrayed as overreaching, but someone who depends on another for physical strength.

What about Esau? Is he a Sonny, rash and impulsive, to some degree thick, but very strong? Esau is even often portrayed as the epitome of evil. But there is no evil here. Rather, Esau is the heir of the personality of both Abel – a hunter – and of Cain, who was quick to become angry. Esau combines the traits of those founding brothers and rivals. But, in the tradition of Cain, and like his brother Jacob, Esau will end up a farmer yoked to the land until his restlessness sets him free to once again pursue adventure and daring.

Esau is confident, assertive and competitive, brash but not really rash. Wasn’t he rash in selling his birthright to Jacob in return for a good hot meal? No, he just gave little value to the distant future. He was a man of the moment, someone who liked the hunt and adventure. Aggressive and full of self-confidence, he did not need Jacob’s cautionary approach to ensuring his future. He was assertive and decisive, possessing the typical character of a first-born or only-born. He was a very skilled hunter and loved the outdoors. If he lived today, he might have become a great fighter pilot.

When the boys are grown up and Esau returns from the hunt famished, instead of Jacob simply sharing his meal with him, Jacob insists on a trade, offering him food in exchange for his birthright. Esau seems to have no problem with that. He was totally confident and reliant on his own inherent capacities, unlike his supplicant brother, Jacob. He was skilled in the ways of the world, confident in his ability to make a living. Why would he need to rely on the privileges and rights of primogeniture (bechorah)? He was internally motivated and needed no external props to let him get ahead. Further, the immediacy of life interested him far more than any long-range planning, necessary for one not as well endowed in the ability to make his way on his own. At the moment he was starving, not literally, but hungry for immediate experience of taste, smell and the texture of food. Further, Esau loved his younger brother in a way that Jacob did not reciprocate. As far as Esau was concerned, his brother needed the birthright much more than he did. So he gave it up in exchange for a bowl of hot soup.

This was not so much an impulsive act as a gesture of good will. It was not a rash act, but an action born of someone who is confident, and, unlike Jacob, self-motivated. Esau did not have to ask or rely upon someone else to tell him what to do. Self-reliant, self-motivated, he had full confidence in his own abilities. This did not make him impulsive. A skilled hunter has to be patient, possess highly developed hand-eye coordination, be very earthy and rooted to the ground rather than prone to flights of fancy, esoteric thinking and visionary dreams.

Esau may not have been a profound thinker, but he clearly was no slouch. He just loved action more than reflection, but he had to be of superior analytic skill to be a skilful hunter. He just loved the adrenaline-driven life of action. Essentially, he was a man for whom the excitement of the moment, the smells and tastes of a material and richly embodied life, counted much more than any calculation to protect long-term interests. He loved a driven, fast-paced life, one that led him to marry two Hittite women disapproved of by his parents. Although a hedonist and a materialist, he clearly is quite capable of thinking and reasoning. And there is no evidence of any evil whatsoever.

Further, Esau truly loved his brother. He might have become angry at his brother’s betrayal and his mother’s trickery, but he also proves very forgiving when the two brothers meet up once again after a separation of many years. In fact, Esau proves to be loyal rather than suspicious, trustworthy rather than an opportunist. He may seek to dominate and be restive with service, but that also makes him ill-equipped to rule over others. Esau is NOT evil. Only an elitist bookish nerd might consider him as an evil person. He is simply an extrovert, a man of few words and very driven, pushed by his inner compulsions and instincts more than careful deliberation. He is also very agreeable and personable, in contrast to Jacob, who is somewhat of a coward, calculating and clever in figuring out how to protect himself, but not driven to dominate or have power over others. Esau wants to experience life. Jacob wants to give in service to the future. Esau has a synchronic personality. Jacob has a diachronic one.

Before I try to defend that position any further and my interpretation of how Jacob succeeds through trickery in winning his father’s blessing ostensibly meant for Esau, in the beginning of the next half of this commentary, I will focus on the rewards themselves and analyze each of the blessings.

Turkish Foreign Policy

Turkish Foreign Policy

by

Howard Adelman

The main focus of Turkey’s foreign relations has been Syria and Iran, but also Iraq. Iran and its satraps (Assad’s Syria and a Shiite-led Iraq) form the main rival for Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been unwilling in the latter part of his rule to become an obsequious suitor in pursuit of full entry into Europe. Erdoğan no longer believes that this is doable, at least not on terms acceptable to him. Hence, in part, the turn eastward.

There are also Cyprus and Greece, Egypt and, of course, Israel. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, became one of many of Erdoğan’s regional archenemies after Sisi toppled the democratically-elected regime of Mohammed Morsi, the then Islamist president of Egypt. Egypt is now Turkey’s hegemonic rival to the south-west. Whereas it may seem that the two countries should be close allies, since Egypt has an authoritarian government that Erdoğan can only envy, and both now have IS in their entrance hall, the reality seems to be that the two countries for now seem incapable of combining forces to deal with common enemies such as IS.

Erdoğan is also not willing to surrender his effective control of the northern half of Cyprus if that is a condition for getting into the EU. It seems clear that, quite aside from the EU’s concerns with Turkey’s human rights record and the fear of adding 80 million Muslims to the European population base, Cyprus is a key wedge issue on which Europe will not and cannot surrender on Turkey’s terms. It is one thing to accept a de facto division of the island. It is quite another to reward Turkey with de jure recognition of the division at the same time as Turkey gains EU membership. Meanwhile, Turkey is consolidating its links with the Turkish half of Cyprus. On 17 October, Erdoğan inaugurated the very controversial $450 million pipeline link with Turkish-governed northern Cyprus.

However, Cyprus is no longer the wedge issue between the EU and Turkey. The key factor is the almost two million refugees in Turkey. Turkey opened its doors to the flight of Syrians (and Afghans and Iraqis) to the EU to send a clear message that the EU needs Turkey’s cooperation to manage the crisis. Merkel’s efforts to call Erdoğan’s bluff by agreeing to admit 800,000 still has to be played out, but it is clear that Turkey holds a sword of Damocles over Europe since it could easily send a million more refugees towards Europe.

At the same time, Erdoğan has been pushing for a no-fly zone over Syria, ostensibly to facilitate refugee return as well as supposedly create a zone free of “terrorists” (read Kurds, not just IS). One suspects that any no-fly zone would cage Russia in and provide greater freedom for Turkish forces to tackle Kurdish militants on the ground in Syria. The Kurds could not be protected by the Americans, not only from IS, but now from Turkey. Such a step would also give both IS as well as Turkey, a much freer scope for action on the ground, especially since, as part of this proposal, Turkey has offered to rebuild the infrastructure as well as housing for the returnees.

There is another problem in the Mediterranean other than Cyprus and refugees. Turkey’s relations with both Russia and the United States depend almost entirely on Erdoğan’s battle in Syria, first with the Kurds there, who Erdoğan feared were en route to forming a strong military and economic base to help undermine his control of south-eastern Turkey. Then there is Assad, who was built up by Erdoğan as Turkey’s main enemy, primarily because of Turkey’s rivalry with Iran. IS with its strong base now in Iraq and its newer controls over swaths of Syria, had, until only very recently, been ranked very much and far lower down as a third priority in Syria. In fact, Turkey has been accused of supplying arms and munitions to IS in the past. For example, in 2013 Eren Erdem and Ali Şeker, opposition members in the Turkish parliament, openly accused the Turkish government of supplying IS with the chemicals used in the attack on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Hundreds were killed in the chemical attack, which was initially blamed on Assad. Though there is evidence that Turkey provided continuing support to IS, more recently, this situation has been changing, but not enough to give up Erdoğan’s preoccupation with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds lest they encourage Turkish Kurds, by their example and material and military support, to pursue autonomy and, possibly, independence.

Just a little over a year ago, 60,000 Kurds fled to Turkey in just 24 hours, a flight and influx that made the movement of refugees to Europe look like a slow motion operation. This is not because Kurds are in love with Erdoğan. It is because IS decided to run its own ship, abandon any reliance on Turkey’s support and attack the weakest areas in Syria, the villages and towns along the northern border with Turkey. Given the IS surprise victory in Mosul over the Iraqi army on 10 June 2014, and its acquisition of an enormous amount of American military equipment — AFV’s, American M1 and T-72M tanks, 4,000 IS militants in September 2014 turned from the IS victory in Mosul and seized dozens of villages that were predominantly Kurdish. Their prime target was the strategically-placed border town of Ayn al-Arab or Kobanî. Control of Kobanî was necessary for IS to consolidate its control over the north of Syria. Kobanî is located half way between Aleppo in the west, Syria’s second largest city, and Amude, Qamishli and Deirik in the north-east.

In spite of the danger IS posed to Turkey itself, especially in the long run, there is a great deal of evidence that Turkey’s security forces were supplying IS with arms and munitions even as the U.S. was ramping up its war against IS after deciding, reluctantly and tardily, to provide bombing cover for its allies in Syria. Those allies, as we shall see, included the Kurds. And the Kurds posed a central fear for Erdoğan lest the new strengthened semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq link up with a corresponding one in Syria to provide a border base for Turkey’s own separatist and militant PKK. At the same time, Turkey opened its border to the tens of thousands of Kurds in flight from Syria and surrendered over a hundred villages to the IS militants who randomly slaughter Kurdish civilians at will.

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s call for a concerted and coordinated international intervention to protect Kobanî from IS initially went largely unheeded, in good part because the PKK has been labelled a terrorist organization and the so-called Rojava Revolution to unite Kurds in an independent Kurdish state in the Middle East has been viewed as a threat to “stability” in that region. The defence of Kobanî in the fight against IS by Kurdish forces emerged as a turning point in the war against IS and the shift away from Turkey’s unabashed support for IS in opposition to the Kurdish militants within Turkey. Ironically, the eventual victory of the Kurds in the fight against IS from Kobanî meant that the Kurds were perceived as posing an even greater danger to Erdoğan.

With the losses in the June 2015 election and the strength of the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria, Erdoğan could not desist in once again resuming the war against the PKK. The irony is that this was taking place at the same time as the Kurds in the region were joining nationalist democratic struggles, struggles which recognized Kurdish autonomy, in an effort to protect the gains Kurds had already made in both Iraq and Syria. As they worded it in their September conference in Washington, they opposed “nationalism that separates peoples, identities, beliefs and cultures – rejecting racism and religious extremism.” At the Washington conference, they adopted a policy of establishing organizational and military, political and diplomatic alliances that recognized Kurdish autonomy within larger free and democratic states, such as their goal for Syria.  What began as a resistance against al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra terrorists morphed into a search for allies in the struggle against the even more virulent and extremist IS or al Daesh. In less than one year of warfare directly engaging IS, the Kurds suffered 3,000 casualties, almost 30% of them dead.

However, the Kurds had established themselves as the clearest and most disciplined fighting force in the Middle East, including even IS. They had been crucial to the victory over and reversal of the IS position in Mosul, gaining, at the same time, more territory and consolidating the Kurdish autonomous area in Iraq. But their most formidable victory that established the Peshmerga force as a significant military actor in the region was the Kurdish defence of Kobanî and the eventual retreat of IS at the beginning of 2015 from many of their gains in northern Syria.

IS felt certain of victory in Kobanî. They had modern tanks and artillery. They had 4,000 experienced fighters. They had swept most Kurds out of northern Syria in an exercise in very rapid ethnic cleansing. They, however, were not counting on the far poorer equipped Peshmerga Kurdish forces to make such a valiant stand in Kobanî. They had expected the Kurds to flee en masse from IS’s reputation of exacting revenge on any civilians that remained behind.

In what seemed like impossible odds, the Kurds held off IS for months until the U.S. finally offered air support that allowed the Kurds to push back the IS forces. Ironically, the Kurdish successes in both Iraq and Syria only left Erdoğan feeling more threatened. Further, Erdoğan had held off as long as he could in providing permission for the U.S. air force to take off from Turkish airfields, permission which he finally granted in late summer of 2015.

Tim Arango in The New Yorker (29 September 2014) had been very prescient about the fighting skills of the Kurds. In a 27 October 2015 article, he depicted the Turkish military attacks against Kurdish forces, not only in Turkey, but in Tal-Alyad, Syria, just after the Kurdish forces routed IS from that border town. Erdoğan was not satisfied with his cold and calculated move to once again take up the war against the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast. He was moving the war to the base of Kurdish strength in Syria, taking on the People’s Protection Units or YPG, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party in Syria. He had ostensibly warned the Kurdish Syrian military forces that they should not cross the Euphrates, that the river was Turkey’s red line.

In return for granting the U.S. access to air bases in Turkey, Erdoğan had already launched 400 sorties against Kurdish forces in Iraq. Just as Kurdish forces were pushing towards the IS capital in Raqqa, Erdoğan now turned his military against the Kurds in Syria, though ostensibly he was supposed to be targeting IS. That would come next, Turkish political leaders assured the Americans. IS could not be weakened if it only left the Kurds strengthened. The Obama regime seemed to avert their eyes as Turkey attacked its strongest ally in the Middle East next to Turkey itself, Egypt and, of course, Israel. However, the Kurds were the best fighting force on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. Would the U.S. allow one ally, that was a member of NATO, pulverize its other most steadfast ally in the region, now even more reliable than Israel?

Following Erdoğan’s enormous election victory on 1 November 2015, the situation became even worse as Turkey set out to weaken the Kurdish military totally within Turkey and in both Syria and Iraq with a barely disguised bid to create a buffer zone in the southeast border areas of Syria and Iraq to prevent reinforcements of the PKK entering Turkey and to disrupt the PKK supply lines. As rumours abounded on Remembrance Day 2015 that Erdoğan planned to hold a plebiscite on the presidency, the U.S. State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, repeated that the Kurds would be resupplied through Baghdad and not directly to either the Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq and clearly not directly to Syrian Kurdish forces. Nevertheless, the U.S. insisted that it continued to support the Kurdish attacks against IS. Turkey’s Prime Minister openly announced it had no opposition to supplying arms to the Peshmerga forces in Iraq via Baghdad, but was adamantly opposed to strengthening the Syrian Kurds at all.

As the war widens within both Turkey’s south east and in Syria itself, as the ostensible allies fight a two-front war – where there is no real front – against both IS and Assad, the issue is whether the Kurds will become the sacrificial lambs once again to the realist compromises of the great powers. It seems that the Kurds, as usual, have no reliable strong ally anywhere in the world.

But perhaps they have. In this balagan, a political mess that seems so characteristic of the Middle East, Israel appears initially only relevant as a distraction. When Erdoğan thinks he needs the Palestinians to rally his Muslim base in his own country and in the Middle East more generally, he will continue to use them to create spectacles, but ones without any true substance. Israel and Turkey are not “natural” enemies. Nor are they likely to become such given how Turkey is surrounded by real enemies. That is because Turkey’s policy entails an engagement, not only with the Islamic State (IS) that has recently made itself Erdoğan’s enemy, at the same time as all of the “allies” try to overthrow Assad. The only thing that seems clear is that the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria remain Erdoğan’s main preoccupation that colours and effects his relationships with Russia, the United States, countries like Saudi Arabia, and, as we shall see, Israel.

Next Blog: Turkey, the Kurds and Israel

Domestic Policy Issues in Turkey

Domestic Policy Issues in Turkey

by

Howard Adelman

As we approach the G20 Summit to be held on November 15-16 in southwest Turkey in Antalya, it is important to understand not only the outcome of the Turkish election, but the various foreign policy issues with which Obama and other leaders will have to wrestle. The war in Syria, the threat from IS, especially its control of one-third of Iraq, and other crises in the Middle East, are bound to be high on the agenda. Domestic policy in Turkey also cannot be ignored since police continue to arrest people – 18 IS suspects in Antalya (2 are Russian) – in the lead up to the G20. Moreover, there is an intimate connection between domestic and foreign policy since foreign threats, at the very least, are used to rally support for the President.

Economics

Though Turkey’s economic crisis was the main issue of the June election, Erdoğan almost singlehandedly shifted it entirely aside for the 1 November election. In June, 53% of voters put Turkey’s economic downturn as the number one priority. In September, only 12% insisted that economic problems were Turkey’s foremost issue. This was in spite of the fact that Turkey’s economic performance had not improved one iota since June. This seemed to belie Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s own statement twelve months ago, in anticipation of the Antalya summit and his role as chair, of the inseparability of economics and politics, and the depiction of the G20 as “the premier platform for economic and financial issues.”

The Great Recession in 2008-09 taught us that the solution to global challenges rests in global actions. The rise of the G20 is a manifestation of this spirit. As the major economies of the world, we adopted a more integrated, coordinated and effective approach to the challenges we have been facing. During these difficult times, the G20 has clearly demonstrated its capability as a global crisis resolution forum.

As the OECD Report on Turkey noted at the time, although, “GDP growth is projected to increase from 3% in 2015 to above 4% in 2017, as political uncertainties are assumed to fade, employment continues to rise, and the exchange rate depreciation and the gradual strengthening of global markets support export growth. The geopolitical crisis at the southern border and the associated influx of refugees pose challenges. Currency depreciation until October has strengthened price competitiveness, but has also weakened household confidence, created pressures on corporate balance sheets and added to already high inflation.”

Economic improvements in Turkey were premised on a further decline in the political troubles in the southeast. Those troubles increased as the war with the PKK was resumed. Turkey is now more involved in the military conflict in Syria than ever before. IS now poses an internal domestic threat to Turkey. Employment has not continued to rise. Trade imbalances persist. Inflation rates remain above targets. In this context, currency depreciation that led to weakened household and corporate confidence continued, and the very factors that usurped the focus on the economy of voters exacerbated the economic problems.

Rule of Law

The prosperity of Turkey cannot be separated from the status of the rule of law. As described in my last blog, the government seized the assets of Koza ĺpek Holdings and placed the assets in a trusteeship. While such seizures are sanctioned by law in cases of mental incompetence and in the case of minors, there is no legal sanction in Turkey – or in the rest of the developed world – for the arbitrary seizure of commercial assets without  legal due process. In modern Turkey, even when under a military dictatorship, this seizure of private property was unprecedented. When a company is implicated in criminal activity, Article 133 of the Turkish Criminal Procedures Code is applicable requiring a trial and a definitive judgment before an asset seizure can proceed. There was not even any presentation or even an allegation of intention to commit a crime. There was not even a hint that Koza ĺpek was engaged in narcotics, money laundering, human trafficking, prostitution, embezzlement, or espionage.

Once, the AKP was closely allied with the Gülenists who had been disproportionately represented among judges, prosecutors and the police. Erdoğan now considers them the enemy and he has been systematically purging the criminal justice system of Gülenists, especially ever since prosecutors began pursuing the AKP government for corruption. Ali Babacan, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister with an MBA from Northwestern earned with a Fulbright scholarship, put it very well just before the June elections: “Public trust in the justice system is in steady decline.”

In January of last year, the Turkish police stopped and searched three trucks in southern Turkey traveling towards the Syrian border. The trucks were accompanied by officers from Turkey’s military intelligence. They contained missiles, rockets, mortars, ammunition in crates with Russian Cyrillic markings. Bizarre! But perhaps not for the world of international espionage. What was truly bizarre was the subsequent purging of the police which had stopped the trucks. Those police and four prosecutors were even charged with espionage. The widespread belief was that the arms were intended for IS of all parties. Not so strange since the NYT just before the June election reported that tens of thousands of kilograms of ammonium nitrate fertilizer used for explosives were being transported from Turkey into IS-controlled sections of Syria.

Education

The purges in the criminal justice system and the attacks against the media documented yesterday were complemented by attacks against the universities, especially universities close to the Gülen community, such as ĺpek University in Ankara. University assets have been seized by amending regulations governing the Higher Education Board (YOK). On 2 November, a pro-government journalist listed, as next in line for seizure, Fatih, ĺpek, Zirve, Süleyman Sah, Mevlânâ, Turgut Özal and Istanbul Şehir universities as well as other media outlets – the Zaman daily, Samanyolu TV and Samanyolu Haber TV. YOK was evidently being empowered to close down and seize the assets of any private university if and when the university becomes “the focal point of acts against the state.”

Part of the reason for these seizures, and for the introduction of Arabic language training in Turkish schools from Grade 2 onward announced immediately after the AKP won the 1 November elections, has been the need to supply employment for the increasing numbers of graduates from Islamic universities, virtually the only graduates equipped to teach Arabic other than Syrian refugees. There was also an ideological issue of religion versus secularism in the public realm. Kemel Atatürk, the founder of modern secular Turkey had introduced the Latin alphabet 87 years earlier to the date of the 1 November election, and that change was made part of the Turkish constitution in Article 174.

Minorities and Rights

One of the positive outcomes for education, property as well as minority rights was the final success, after decades, of the Armenian community in Turkey getting back control and ownership of its children’s camp, Camp Armen. The Armenian Evangelical Church of Gedikpaşa was assigned the deed after an interminable court case. Whether this was simply a gesture for Westerners, and particularly Americans, to sell the image of the AKP as a party of tolerance and a protector of rights or not, it was a good first step. The real test will be whether all the other properties seized from Armenians will be returned or whether this restitution was merely a publicity stunt.

However, though non-Muslim minorities have realized this benefit, other Muslim groups have certainly not. The other major group under attack, besides the Gülenists, have been the Kurds. Not just members of the PKK. According to Ferhat Encű, a Kurdish MP for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), after the AKP victory, members of the Turkish gendarmerie went on the warpath against Kurds. “Many people throughout Kurdistan have been arrested wholesale lately. Some of them participated in the election campaigns for our party.” He claimed that the police “started the violence and conflicts… they murdered civilians knowingly and intentionally.” Seyfettin Aydemir, the co-mayor of Silopi, accused the police of firing on ambulances that raced to help the wounded. Young men were gunned down by Turkish snipers. Kurdish towns, such as Cizre, have even been bombed from the air.

The HDP may have made a strategic error in the five months leading up to the 1 November elections by supporting the young Kurds who put up barricades against the police, but those activities in no way justified the systematic military attacks against Kurdish areas in south-eastern Turkey and the widespread abuse of human rights. For many, the unending curfews, arrests of politicians, attacks, torture and murder by Turkish security forces seemed to be an effort to intimidate voters who supported the HDP and signal the instability to follow if the AKP was not returned to power with a majority. After the military attack on Cizre, the 21 dead were all civilians; none were members of the PKK. This number does not include the large numbers who were arrested and tortured. Yet in Cizre, which in June had cast 97% of its votes for the HDP, the government decided for the 1 November elections, out of ostensibly safety concerns, that there would be no ballot boxes provided in the Nur, Cudi and Sur quarters of Cizre district in the province of Şırnak. 65% of Cizre’s Kurdish population lived in those quarters.

Domestic Terrorism

There are three sources of terror in Turkey: the PKK, IS and, the most dangerous and extensive, the state security apparatus. The biggest attack within Turkey, was the bombing of the largely Kurdish-led protest for peace in Ankara on 13 October. It was the largest terrorist attack in the history of the Turkish republic, Turkey’s 9/11. IS was blamed together with the PKK. But the PKK and IS are sworn enemies. Further, why would the PKK attack a mainly Kurdish rally? Why even would IS? And if the latter did, why did it not behave according to its own norms and broadcast its responsibility for the attack? Why, again, were security forces so absent from the demonstration? Why were ambulances impeded from aiding the wounded? Why had Turkey not classified IS as a terrorist organization until the courts ordered it to do so on 15 July?

What does seem clear, and as I tried to document yesterday, is that the huge victory of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) was in good part a result of the resumption of the war on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its alleged threat of terrorism. The AKP won both Kurdish votes and votes from the more right-wing nationalist MHP.

Corruption

In February of last year, one of the most respected international organizations dealing with corruption wrote an important report on Turkey. The Transparency International report indicated that the real catalyst for tackling widespread corruption in Turkey had been the effort of Turkey, beginning in 1999, to acquire full membership in the EU. The Report noted that efforts, both on human rights and in fighting corruption, had improved from the base line. Nevertheless, “the country faces high levels of corruption,” a situation that continues in spite of the adoption of an anti-corruption action plan in 2010 and a series of commitments in June 2012 to cover incrimination and presidential candidate funding. As the Report stated, “the country continues to be confronted with challenges of rampant corruption and existing anti-corruption measures are still in question.” Turkey lacks an overall strategy, coordination in the campaign and a system of transparency and accountability in the political system. Immunity regulations continue to protect high-ranking officials.

Moreover, corruption reaches the highest levels. At the end of 2013, the anti-corruption wolves were at the doors of the Presidential Palace. Erdoğan responded swiftly and decisively, not only by circling the wagons of his supporters, but by launching a counter-attack against his pursuers. 14 high-ranking officials were immediately purged. The judiciary, police forces and prosecutors offices were swept clean of critics and accusers of the government. Thus was the major motive in the general attack against the Gülenists.

One might think that Erdoğan had his hands full with IS now on domestic soil, with his domestic war against the PKK, with the stalled economy, with his efforts to promote Islam in the secular school system, with the increasing revelation of himself at the centre of a large-scale corruption operation, with his rivalry with the Gülenists and with his war against the critical media, that he would avoid any adventurism in foreign policy. In reality, all the domestic problems were interrelated and the distractions of foreign policy were important in diverting attention away from his domestic troubles as we shall see in the next blog.

Turkey’s 1 November 2015 Elections

Turkey’s Putin: The 1 November 2015 Elections

by

Howard Adelman

My main question is what the re-election of President: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP Party to a majority of seats in the special Nov. 1 election means for Israel. However, a quick summary of the Turkish election results that were widely considered to be an “earthquake” or a “tsunami” is necessary first.

Canada was not the only country that recently held an election that had entirely surprising and unexpected results that flummoxed all the pollsters. In the special election called by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for 1 November, the AKP ruling party, the party Erdoğan himself founded in 2001 and now led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, received almost half the votes and a majority of 327 seats in the 550 seat Parliament, but not the supermajority he needed to change the constitution to give Erdoğan a very significant increase in power. This was up from 40.8% of the vote and only 258 seats in the election just five months previously, those seats down from the 311 seats it had held in the previous parliament. Further, in order to dampen fears of a move towards Erdoğan authoritarianism, unlike the June elections, the AKP played down Erdoğan’s quest for increased powers, and, to that end, his participation in the election was actually significantly reduced.

Unlike Canada, where there was a ready explanation for the election results – votes won at the expense of the NDP as the Liberals replaced the New Democratic Party as the catalyst for change in voters’ minds. In Turkey, there was widespread evidence that, to some degree, the vote had been rigged, but the indications are that most of the shift was a result of an electoral shift between June and November.

June 7     Nov. 1   Seats  Shift

(to AKP)

AKP Party founded by Erdoğan 2001                              40.8%  49.47%  +59=327  +8.67

HDP – the Kurdish-dominated social democratic party   13.1%  10.75%   -21=59    – 2.35

CHP – Turkish secularist party; founded in 1923             25%     25.8%      +3=135

MHP – right-wing nationalist party                                   16.3%  11.9%    -40=40      -4.5

Two small parties; did not compete in the June election

(the small Islamist Felicity Party and the Kurdish

Islamist Huda-Par party)                                                    2%                                      – 2

97.2%                                -8.85

If the significantly increased voter turnout is factored in, the source of the shift in votes is somewhat clear. Yet many claim the elections were rigged. The evidence for rigged elections include the following:

  • The polls suggested that the AKP would improve its vote total, but only by 1-2%
  • The YSK, the Turkish Electoral Commission, closed its website and became incommunicable immediately after the election
  • 10 minutes after the first constituencies reported, the government Anadolu News Agency declared that 70% of the votes had been counted and that the AKP received 50% of the vote
  • There were reports of spikes in the votes of around 10% in many places, that is, where for a short period during the counting, suddenly the AKP was receiving 100% of the votes and its totals suddenly went up by 10%
  • Widespread rumours that the AKP got Syrian refugees to vote (even after the outflow to Europe, there are still over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country)
  • The AKP, an anti-Kurdish party, significantly increased its vote results in predominantly Kurdish constituencies
  • There were power outages in Kurdish areas
  • There was a 1.5 hour power outage in one area of Istanbul, an active anti-AKP area
  • Some routes to polls had been cut off
  • There were rumours that the voting bags were switched
  • There were rumours that the computers counting ballots were preset by the AKP

The incidents that had preceded the election were already ominous:

  • Immediately after the 7 June election, a regime of intimidation began, beginning with the termination of the cease-fire with the PKK, the Kurdish rebel force, with clashes that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of members of the PKK and over 100 Turkish soldiers after the PKK had been accused of killing two police officers for assisting ISIS, but for which the PKK never claimed credit
  • There had been 30,000 deaths from the Turkish-PKK war over the past 30 years and the war was now resumed with the peace process dashed to pieces, especially following the killing of 12-year-old Helin Sen by a police sniper bullet and 9-year-old Elif Şimşek by a Turkish rocket
  • Between the June and November elections, 159 Turkish security officials were killed as well as hundreds of PKK fighters and 81 civilians
  • Kurdish activists, many allied with the HDP, the predominantly Kurdish party that broke through the 10% minimal vote requirement in the last election, were arrested in sweeps across the country
  • Turkish officials released a video showing a Kurdish protester, labelled a terrorist, being dragged behind a police vehicle by a rope tied around his neck ostensibly to check that the body was not booby-trapped, though the body was already riddled with 28 police bullets; the body, as it turned out, was that of a relative of Leyla Birlik, a HDP deputy from Şirnak, a 24-year-old actor, Haci Lokman Birlik, who had performed in an award-winning movie, Bark (Home), about the lives of Kurds in Kurdistan; the incident echoed the August video of the bullet-riddled body of female PKK fighter,Kevser Eltürk (Ekin Van) stripped naked
  • Erdoğan repeatedly broke protocol applied to a Turkish president – halfway between a political leader and a ceremonial head of state – and urged voters to cast their ballots for the AKP
  • The AKP was widely accused of being corrupt and many investigations had been launched since the inconclusive results of the 7 June election
  • The most serious incident had been the bombing of the Ankara Peace Walk on 10 October with over 100 dead supporters of the HDP, the Kurdish-dominated social democratic party that had led the rallies; Erdoğan blamed ISIS, Syrian intelligence and Kurdish militants (PKK) for the attacks (the suicide bomber unit of IS, Dokumacilar, was specifically blamed); ironically, subsequently Prime Minister Davutoğlu said the bombings were an attempt to influence the 1 November elections
  • Unlike the usual pattern, as I mentioned in previous blogs, security forces were suddenly noticeable by their absence
  • After the blast, the security forces took a surprisingly long time to show up
  • Further, after the blast, ambulances were allegedly prevented from reaching the victims immediately
  • ISIS was blamed for the explosion, but never claimed credit as per its usual custom
  • The intimidation of the media had grown – following a mob attack on 28 October, a mob made up of police officers and government bureaucrats, the editors-in-chief of the Bugün and Millet dailies, and Kanaltürk and Bugün TV channels were fired; Koza Ipek Holding, which owns Ipek Media, was placed under government trusteeship for supporting “terrorism,” though it only openly supported the Gülenists; at the same time, pressure on the media increased exponentially with a mob attack on Ahmet Hakan, Hürriyet’s popular columnist, who was severely beaten
  • Of the six men arrested for Hakan’s beating, four were released immediately
  • The violence between ISIS and Turkish security forces had heated up with 2 police and seven Islamic State militants killed, 5 police wounded and 12 ISIS militants arrested on 25 October following a raid and firefight in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey with rumours of many more IS safe houses equipped with automatic weapons already established across Turkey
  • Erdoğan insisted that Kurdish militants and ISIS, as well as Syrian intelligence, were linked
  • School teachers from Western Turkey employed in the Kurdish-dominated southeast refused to report to work
  • On 27 October, Turkey attacked the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) (supported by the U.S.) in Tal Abyad, Syria to raise the spectre of Kurdish independence spreading to Turkey
  • At the same time, two days after the Diyarbakir shoot-out, on 27 October, Turkish security forces rounded up 30 alleged IS militants in Konya and Kumar.

However, there were many signs that, in fact, the AKP was moving back towards a more historic pattern of results:

  • The Canadian election had been fought on the grounds of change versus continuity with the question being which party would be chosen as the party of change; the Turkish election had been fought on the basis of stability versus chaos, and if stability was favoured, so, ironically, was the AKP
  • Following on the earlier 20 July IS (alleged) suicide bombing that killed 32 Leftists in Suruç en route to crossing the border to cross into Kobani and fight in Syria, the spark that restarted the Turkish civil war, the explosion in Ankara on 10 October killing 102 peaceniks lent credence to the order versus chaos campaign of the AKP, allowing the party to win support at the expense of both the HDP and the MHP
  • In the face of the renewal of the war with the Kurds, the Kurdish traditional pattern of division between the secular democrats and militants (the Hizb ut-Tahrir) versus the conservative religious Kurds, once again came to the fore
  • In October, the renewed conflict between Ankara and the PKK disrupted the school system in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region because many teachers from western Turkey refused to report to work, inducing fear in parents concerned with their children’s schooling; in a report of the teachers’ union (Ekitim-Sen), 89% of the teachers expressed their belief that schools could not function properly with the conflict underway with 42% seeking reappointment to another province and 41% insisting they would not work in the region even though there was a long waiting list of teachers seeking jobs
  • The HDP lost most of its support in its heartland, south-eastern Anatolia – 24% decline in Muş and a 15% decline in Bingöl
  • The CHP failed to form an alternative government, even though the Kurdish-dominated HDP was offered the post of Prime Minister and even though the nationalist right-wing MHP was offered the prospect of suing Erdoğan and his followers for corruption if they agreed not to bring the new coalition down in a Parliamentary vote
  • At the same time, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the MHP, rejected every offer of coalition with the AKP just as his hawkish stand against Kurdish nationalists was being usurped
  • Erdoğan’s persecution of the Gülen’s alleged network had increased, and legal proceedings were actually launched by the Turkish embassy in Washington to have a legal firm investigate the Gülen “netwok”
  • In Erdoğan’s attacks against the Assad government in Syria and the Islamic State at the same time, the actual main military attacks in late October were against Kurdish fighters in Syria
  • There were many rumours that if the AKP did not secure a majority in the 1 November snap election, another election would soon be scheduled, the fifth in two years, since Erdoğan could not be counted on to make a prudent rational choice
  • Turkish economic decline, that had so dominated the June election, was overshadowed by the increased focus on physical security in spite of the continuing decline of the lira in relation to the U.S. dollar and the poor results of Turkey’s balance of trade figures
  • Erdoğan was not only instigating polarization against his former Gülen allies and the Kurdish community (not just the PKK), but was fomenting both Sunni-Alevi and Muşlim-secular antagonism; the budget for the Directorate of Religious Affairs now was larger than that of 12 other ministries put together
  • As voters shifted to seeking security, they also looked more and more at strategic voting; the MHP, like the NDP in Canada, was left in an invidious position, for if the party contemplated a coalition with the AKP to ensure stability, the prospect of surviving as an independent party diminished, but if they insisted on remaining independent, then the voter base, which they shared with the AKP, would shift away from them to ensure an AKP majority – which is what took place, particularly since the AKP had adopted their hawkish position against any compromise with the PKK
  • The AKP had already stolen the MHP headliner, Tuğrul Türkeş, the son of Alparslan Türkeş, the founder of the MHP
  • The up-and-down, but overall down, decline in the Turkish currency reinforced the quest for security
  • Thus, in Canada, the external forces pushed for change, whereas in Turkey the demand for stability increased

Erdoğan had a powerful motive to rig the election – he was determined to get the country to switch from a parliamentary to a powerful centralized presidential system, but without the checks and balances of the U.S. and more akin to the Russian system. However,  he needed two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to change the constitution, highly unlikely under any scenario. But why were pollsters so wrong about the results for the Liberals in Canada and for the conservative AKP in Turkey, though it was more understandable in Turkey where the pollsters had to stop publishing polls ten days before ballots were cast? Why did pollsters in both countries fail to predict or even anticipate the real possibility of a majority for one party? In both countries, voters turned out in record numbers. Why did liberals win in one country and conservatives in the other, conservatives with an authoritarian bent?

A key factor is which party ran the best campaign. In Canada, that was an easy choice – the Liberal Party, even though all parties ran relatively solid campaigns. In Turkey, the issue was the opposite – which parties ran the worst campaigns? It is not simply that the HDP and the MHP ran very ambiguous and, therefore, unfocused and weak campaigns. The HDP was never clear enough about distinguishing itself from the PKK, though for the second time running, it still managed to come in above the 10% threshold. At the same time, the MHP was speechless as the AKP stole its thunder. Neither party was helped by the series of attacks on journalists and the free media, but that could not have been a major factor, in spite of how repulsive these attacks were, for they were aimed at Gülen supporters as well as the CHP that held onto and even slightly increased its support.

The biggest irony of the election was that the party that claimed victory, ran on a program of stability. Yet Erdoğan himself and his policies of polarization (a much more radical version of Harper’s) deepened Sunni-Alevi, Islamist-secular and Turkish-Kurdish polarization, with the enemies of the Islamic nationalists of the AKP all in the opposition seats. Voters who gave up their desire for political change bought into the promise of stability by voting for Erdoğan’s party, the almost singular source for the country’s continuing instability. If Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is true to his words in his victory speech, offering to end “polarization and tension,” I suspect he may be sending a direct challenge to his boss, Erdoğan, the mastermind of enhanced tension as the Machiavellian route to increased power.

Black Book: A Review

Black Book: A Review

by

Howard Adelman

This past Wednesday at Holy Blossom Temple, one of the best of the Holocaust historians, Michael Marrus, gave a superb lecture as part of Holocaust Education Week. His thesis was straightforward. The evidence was overwhelming to support the proposition that the Holocaust did not end with the conclusion of WWII. The sources of evidence he offered were quite varied and often complex.

Michael did not put forth the thesis that anti-Semitism, which had such a vicious expression in the Nazi murder of six million Jews, gradually morphed into a new alleged form of anti-Semitism – anti-Zionism and the disproportionate attacks against the Jewish State of Israel. Rather, Michael took up the historian’s argument that the Holocaust continued in the immediate aftermath of the war. As he began his lecture, there could be no focus on the Holocaust immediately after the end of WWII itself because neither the international community, nor the lands where those Jews were slaughtered, nor the Jews themselves, had any way to specifically identify what had happened to the Jews. The word “Holocaust” took a much longer time to settle into our language.

As Michael documented, for the USSR, the Jews who died sacrificed themselves in the fight against fascism. French Jews died for the greater glory of de Gaulle’s mythological re-creation and vision of France. There was then no discussion of the degree of collaboration, though many collaborators and alleged collaborators were dealt with swiftly and cruelly after the war. Nor did those creating the new myth of a France reborn from the resistance ever pay much attention to the fact that an estimated 15% of Frenchmen on average over the years were active or ideological collaborators, that almost 85% percent were standbys, that is, servile, reluctant collaborationists, who stayed out of the fray. Only perhaps .1% actually participated in the resistance. All of these figures fluctuated over the course of the war and shifted with its fortunes.

In Holland (a long time supporter of Israel), it is worthy of note, and of great relevance to the movie I will be reviewing, that one of the highest if not the highest proportion of the 140-150,000 native-born Dutch Jews and approximately 35,000 former German Jews were sent to concentration camps from Holland than from any other country in Europe. An estimated 75% died in the Holocaust. At the same time, Holland had fewer rescuers recognized as righteous gentiles by Yad Vashem than Poland, in spite of the number of killings and even pogroms in Poland in the immediate aftermath of the war. This discrepancy could be explained because the population of Poland was much larger than that of the Netherlands. [I expect Michael Marrus to correct me if these estimates are way off the mark.] More importantly, for the purpose of Michael’s lecture, the death of the millions of Jews was almost always made part of a larger story of valour and sacrifice. In the popular imagination, Jews were not killed because they were Jews. They were killed and were martyrs for a variety of different mythologies.

The overall numbers of Jews killed constituted a significant number, but still only a small number of the overall death toll from the war. In terms of survivors, the surviving Jews, the 200,000, were an even much smaller percentage. Besides, in a devastated Europe after the war, few had time to think about the death of the Jews, including the Jews themselves. Virtually everyone was focused on survival.

After the talk, a survivor came up to me and discussed her experience after the war, effectively confirming Michael’s thesis. Though she tended to stress the disinterest of the gentiles in what had happened to the Jews, I reminded her that I myself was preoccupied with other matters and had not paid much attention to the Holocaust from 1945 to 1960. In university as an undergraduate, the plight and flight of the Hungarians in 1956 and the Suez War, the fear of strontium 90 and the atomic arms race, were at the forefront of my mind. It was not until the Eichmann trial in the early sixties that the Holocaust come to the forefront of my concerns.

In 1960, my family with a newborn baby (Jeremy, now a renowned historian at Princeton University), took possession of a rented house at 586 Spadina Avenue; we rented the upper two floors to effectively reduce our rent while I was a graduate student. The landlord was moving to Montreal. It turned out he was a Holocaust survivor. He belonged to the small minority of Jews who survived the Holocaust when it reached Hungary in the final year of the war, though tens of thousands of Jews had died in Horthy’s forced labour camps before the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944. Only then did the wholesale deportation of most of Hungary’s 800,000 remaining Jews begin.

Our landlord was not just a survivor. He had compiled a book documenting what happened to memorialize the Hungarian Jews who had died in the extermination of the Jews of Hungary. It was called The Black Book. It had been self-published. As a condition of the rental of the house, I had agreed to make an effort to find libraries and individuals to purchase the over thousand copies he had stored in his basement. Though I am sure I did not try nearly as hard as he did, to the extent that I did, I found very few takers for the books, though I took a copy and read it. Was I appalled at what I read? Not really. It certainly made me weep, but my main reaction is that he could have used a good editor.

I only make this point to reinforce Michael’s thesis that the Holocaust did not end with the termination of WW II. It continued, not only with the physical persecution of returnees, with the resistance to giving up property to those few survivors, but in the second visitation of the Holocaust, the initial disappearance of the slaughtered Jews from memory and from history in the immediate aftermath of the war.

This is important. For in restoring the Holocaust to memory, and doing so in such a pronounced way, unfortunately a new heroic mythology replaced the previous repression. One dominant theme was that the gentile nations helped bring Israel into existence because of their guilt over the Holocaust, or, at least, over their guilt about the death of the six million whose slaughter still had no-name. Michael cited the Harrison Commission Report after the war. Harrison and his team visited devastated Europe and looked at the situation of the Jewish survivors after the war. In Michael’s recounting, as a result of the Harrison Report, the Jewish survivors were brought together into one camp under the auspices of the United Nation Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), treated much better and given a great deal of self-government within the camps.

I recalled another side of the Harrison Report. The reason the Jews were still in camps after the war is that no one wanted the remnants of the Jews of Europe. By 1947, the 200,000 Jewish refugees soon became a bone of contention between the United States, a country that wanted to settle them in Palestine, and Britain which did not. When I read the Report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine Report (UNSCOP), the minutes of its meetings and the diaries and memoirs of its members who participated in the Committee that would recommend the partition of Palestine, what stood out for me was that there was not one mention of the Holocaust or of the six million who died. The focus was on what to do with the 200,000 refugees that countries were still unwilling to resettle.

The belief that Israel was created because of guilt and as a recompense for the Holocaust, a myth shared by many if not most Jews, is just that – a myth. It is has no basis in historical fact. It is a myth perpetuated in many Holocaust films, perhaps most notably in the most famous one of them all, Schindler’s List. The film ends with the refugees leaving Europe as the wretched of the earth and reappearing coming over a hillside, healthy and alive in a reborn Israel that has arisen out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

Last night we watched a movie on Netflix that by chance was called Black Book, Zwartboek, not The Black Book. I had not caught the title of the movie before we began to watch it, though I noticed it had been co-authored (with Gerard Soeteman) and directed by the Dutch-Hollywood filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven on 2006. I recognized his name, but my shrinking brain could not at that time recall the names of the films he had directed. (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct) Further, it did not help that the selection of the film to watch yesterday evening was a matter of complete happenstance and was totally unrelated to Michael’s lecture earlier in the week and my discussion after the lecture. It was only after we finished watching the film that I learned that the title was Black Book.

As it turns out, Paul Verhoeven is my age, actually six months younger. He lived in The Hague during the war while I lived safely in Toronto. But though shaped by very different experiences, we have a number of personal historical factors in common. For example, we both switched careers at an early age – he went from a PhD in mathematics to filmmaking while I went from medical school into philosophy. He is mesmerized by religion, particularly Jesus. He even flirted for a short time with evangelical Christianity. But we are very different in our tastes – like my youngest children, but unlike me, he thinks Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the greatest thing since the invention of the bagel. Ignoring these differences, and some other coincidental similarities, quite aside from the radical differences in our experiences and expressions, I truly believe I can get inside Verhoeven’s head and see what he wanted to portray in the movie.

The movie is a classic Hollywood film in that the narrative pushes and, indeed, rushes the film forward, even though the mechanics of the plot are quite complex. But it is also a movie about character, about virtue and vice and the difficulty in distinguishing the two. Unlike a typical Hollywood narrative film, this one is rich in irony. Further, the film was inspired by real historical characters.

A kibbutz in Israel provides the frame of the film. It begins when a busload of tourists to a kibbutz in Israel disgorges a redhead and her Canadian pastor husband. Suddenly the visiting tourist recognizes the teacher in the kibbutz, Rachel Rosenthal, née Stein. As a spy for the Dutch Resistance, she infiltrated Nazi headquarters, under the assumed name, Ellis de Vries. The two women had been together in occupied Holland at the end of the war. We learn during the film that both had become intimate with the Nazis, but for very different reasons.

At the end of the film, we see the other half of the frame, which I will not give away. But one part I will describe. The movie ends, not only in revealing a key piece of information about the kibbutz that had been withheld from viewers, but it is clear that we are suddenly at the beginning of the start of a new war, the Suez War, and the message of eternal recurrence rather than a phoenix arising out of the ashes of the old is unequivocally broadcast.

The movie is at once a war action flic, a spy movie, a film about magic and deception and a detective whodunnit to discover who was behind one trap after another for the Resistance, even discovering that each disaster had been a trap. The movie is even akin to the serials we saw in Saturday matinees as children, often about a damsel in distress rescued by a hero when the heroine is tied down on the tracks as a locomotive approaches, along the lines of The Perils of Pauline from the silent film era. And the situation keeps recurring in different guises. After all, this film is not just a fictional narrative, it is pulp fiction, but a pulp fictional representation of reality with a very serious theme. The movie offers a profound exploration of morals and atrocities in Holland in the final year of the war and its immediate aftermath. As it happens, the most horrific scenes in the movie take place after Holland has been liberated by the Canadians. And the most painful moments come just before those scatological scenes, before liberation, when the anti-Semitism on the part of the Resistance is portrayed.

The final scenes are adumbrated when a farmer is hiding the main heroine, the Jewish Rachel Stein girl, alias Ellis de Vries, played brilliantly by Carice van Houten (to my grandson, Eitan, in Israel – yes, this is the same actress who plays Melisandre of Asshai in your favourite series, Game of Thrones). The farmer asks Rachel to say the Christian benediction for the dinner they are about to eat which she had just memorized. Rachel says it flawlessly and, in my mind, I commended the farmer for helping her develop her gentile disguise as a hidden Jew. But suddenly the farmer remonstrates her and insists that the Jews would not be in such trouble if they had followed their saviour, Jesus.

This coming Friday, I believe I will be writing about Rachel as I wrote about Rebekah this past Friday. Rachel married Jacob to become the mother of Israel. I believe the naming in the film is no coincidence. At the same time, Rachel is a universal character, echoing those lines in The Merchant of Venice. But instead of her eyes and her mouth being in common with non-Jewish women, it is her breast and her hips.

That scene, and the scene of the Resistance just before Liberation, reminded me of the role of Dr. N. S. Blom, the Dutch delegate on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Holland is generally lauded by Israel for its strong support of Israel after the war. Except Blom was one of two delegates on the Commission required to follow the dictates of the Dutch foreign office. (The other was the Australian delegate, John Hood.) Blom had strict instructions to abstain or vote against partition lest his vote alienate the Arab vote which Holland needed to support its colonial position in Indonesia. (Blom was an ex-senior Dutch foreign service officer who had served in Indonesia.)

By luck, only weeks after, the peace negotiations between the Dutch government and the Indonesian rebels seeking independence led by Sukarno broke down in July of 1947, Subsequently, there was an impasse between the Dutch and the Indonesians over independence. The Arab High Committee voted to lend its support to Sukarno for independence. Only then, just two weeks before the partition recommendation, was Blom freed up from the instruction to abstain and allowed to cast a vote supporting partition. The Dutch, as it turned out, had another, a darker side to their heroic support for Israel.

That is one of the best elements in the film, the upturning of myths about the Resistance, including the one in his own 1977 heroic war epic, Soldier of Orange. Unlike that movie, The Black Book thrives on ambiguities and displacement, the magical inversions in which the best are revealed as among the worst and the worst emerge as virtuous souls, the cerebral underpinning made all the richer by the pulp realistic portrayal of death, of bodily functions and of the body itself. The film is not so ambiguous that it frees itself from the stereotypical vulgar Nazi war murderer, portrayed as Günther Franken as the deputy Gestapo chief, the Obergruppenführer, and a stereotypical villain in spite of Verhoeven’s insistence that all his characters are neither just good or bad. In fact, the ambiguity about Franken is that he is not just a crazy killer and a loutish pursuer of the female flesh, but that he is a thief and a crook to finance his life and planned escape after the end of the war, incidentally a far worse evil for Hitler’s regime than the cold-blooded killing of Jews and resistance fighters.

The film was justifiably voted as the best Dutch film ever and won numerous awards and three Golden Calves from the Dutch Film Academy. Many critics are bothered by the numerous coincidences that propel the plot – such as Rachel Stein as Ellis de Vries who first meets the head of the Gestapo, commander Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), accidentally on a train, a meeting which saves her from her Nazi pursuers. Coincidences do not bother me, any more than the coincidence of my discussing The Black Book on Hungarian Jewry lost in the Holocaust and then watching Black Book unintentionally three evenings later.  Coincidences are only a problem when they are improbable. And it was not improbable that Rachel would seek a haven and flash her smile at a German officer sitting alone in a train compartment in the search for an escape. Further, the series of coincidences are congruent with one dominant theme in the movie, the issue of moral contingency.

I have not really said much about the plot – it is such a plot-driven film that I do not want to spoil it, or the musical score and the cinematography and editing, but they all mesh together beautifully.

So don’t let anyone tell you that this is just a soapy melodrama. Watch the film if you have not already seen it.

Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

by

Howard Adelman

See Rachel Adelman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDz_isnR0RI) “Reading Rebekah Unveiled: A Study of the Female Ruse in Genesis” presented at the Harvard Divinity School last spring.

There is nothing original in my interpretation, in contrast to that of my daughter. I simply fuse her innovative reading with those of others and my own. I steal freely from my daughter, but I take full responsibility for what I have written. Though there are differences over the particulars, the general meaning is more or less clear and my take is not idiosyncratic. The parsha is called, “The Life of Sarah,” but it is really about her afterlife and the heritage she left behind, both through her only son Isaac and herself as resurrected in Rebekah. For the parsha is about both Abraham’s negotiations for a burial space for Sarah after Sarah died as well as about obtaining a wife for Isaac and its consequence. It is about the meaning of Sarah’s life as it is revealed in the unveiling of spirit as it is realized in history after her death.

Sarah dies in Kiryat Arba, in Hebron. Sarah is buried there in the Cave of Machpelah with the permission of the local people who offer not only the cave, but the field around it to Abraham who is by then a wealthy and notable person. However, Abraham refuses to accept the grave site as a gift and insists on paying for it. To repeat what I have written before, this is an axial moment of the shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Some of the local people of Canaan, specifically the Hittites, may have converted to the belief in a single God. Yet what is now called the West Bank is not seen as a place from which a proper wife can be found for Isaac. Isaac is not allowed to have a bride from the local people. The locals, even when they have adopted the beliefs of the Hebrews, are not into a contractual system. They look askance at getting 400 shekels from Abraham for the burial site. Ephron initially treats the offer as an insult. But Abraham insists on paying the money. He wants a contract, a quid pro quo. With contracts there is guilt, either before the law or in moral terms, for failing to fulfil the terms of the contract.

Yet, Abraham wants a wife for Isaac who does not have initially to be observant, but one who is akin to his own beautiful wife, Sarah, someone from his own homeland. Isaac really loved his mother. Three years after she died, he is still mourning her death. He needs a wife, but he needs a wife to replace and fill his soul as his mother had. His mother had been dedicated to him, her long promised son, born of her old age. But she could not prevent her husband from taking him off to sacrifice him. And she dies when her husband and son return. From the shock of his return? Is that why she dies? Or is she the real sacrifice so that her son may finally leave his studies and his prayers and go in search of a wife to replace the love she had for him. It is ironic that a child named after laughter turns out to be studious, pious and introverted.

Sarah’s death produces in her other-worldly nerdy son a desire for a wife, a desire for a woman that can fill his mother’s shoes. Isaac is a momma’s boy. Sarah sacrifices herself for the future of her son. And Abraham sends his most trusted servant to organize an arranged marriage between Isaac and someone from the homeland, the place of his and Sarah’s birth. Unlike the tradition of arranged marriages, this is a love story, a story of two who contract the marriage themselves in spite of whatever external arrangements have been made.

Eliezer, Abraham’s most trusted servant, travels to Mesopotamia to seek a wife for Isaac. Before Eliezer can arrange a shidduch, organize an arranged marriage, he sees Rebekah at the well at dusk when the women draw their water. Rebekah happens to be the niece of Abraham. the daughter of Bethuel, son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother, Nahor. Rebekah offers Eliezer not only water from her jar, but also water for all his camels. That is about 250 gallons; she has to draw all that water. Camels can really drink water! Eliezer is overwhelmed. Rebekah has passed the test of loving kindness.

Rebekah is unique in the Torah. She is the only one of the matriarchs who is given a family tree and is chosen as the real mother of the Jewish people. She is the essence of the Jewish people – giving to another out of sheer goodwill. Only then does Eliezer learn that she is related to Abraham. Rebekah’s older brother was Lavan. Eliezer tells Lavan of the dowry that awaits Rebekah if he agrees to give Rebekah as Isaac’s wife. But Lavan knows his sister’s character, her independence of mind, forthrightness and wilfulness, even though she is also kind-hearted. He knows he cannot force her to leave her homeland. And he asks Eliezer, what if she chooses not to come? Eliezer replies that it will depend on God’s will, with the implication that God’s spirit will speak through her actions. It does. She is asked whether she will go to a new land, to Isaac. She, without hesitation, says, “I will go.”

She and Isaac fall in love, but not because the two are related. That is only revealed later. But because they are related, the love may have come easier. Isaac falls in love with Rebekah. Rebekah in turn loves Isaac. The love seems instant. But is it? How does it come about?

Look at the way they first see each other. Isaac continues and is heir to the blindness of Adam and in his old age he will actually be physically blind when he has to give the blessing to one of his own sons. For when Isaac first sees Rebekah, he does not actually see her. He sees camels approaching in the distance and the picture is a haze produced by the sand of the camels’ feet. He sees patience and tolerance. He sees long-suffering and endurance. He sees the Ships of the Desert. In that haze is the hidden Rebekah, someone who is calm and collected, direct and responsive on the surface, but underneath is resolute and will never forget. She will protect and eventually realize what is deepest in her heart, not with malice aforethought, but through cunning and subversion. Finally, she will carry that burden of trickery on her shoulders so that her son Jacob will not be burdened with the guilt of tricking his father. She will be the true purveyor of what it means to belong to a guilt culture.

Isaac, on the other hand, is walking with his camels. Rebekah can clearly see him. She is struck in awe. She knows. But knows as Eve knew in a deeper way than requiring any direct test or examination. Though she has the ability of this inner sight, it is she who is attuned to the smell of the camels, the taste of the sand, and the rest of the unforgettable sensuous experience of that first moment.

Rebekah covers her face, but in embarrassment, not in shame. She is awestruck. And the gesture will adumbrate her whole marriage with Isaac. For although she never surrenders her esteem for him, for his holy ways, for his learning, she herself will reveal that she has a more direct access to God. She need not receive instructions or revelations from Isaac. She can get them directly from God. But she must also veil this non-rational, non-deliberative direct intuitive contact with the spiritual world. That part of herself must remain hidden from Isaac. She does not don a naqib because her parents tell her, but to hide her awe, to hide her embarrassment at her flushed cheeks and feelings, and most of all, to hide that SHE KNOWS. For a woman of audacity even as a young teenager, of decisiveness and one who clearly knows her own mind, she also has to hide her superior access to God’s word in spite of her enormous respect for her husband.

One cannot avoid that the story is about love. But what kind of love? For Rebekah it is love at first sight. This is the only real love story in the whole of Torah. Yet the section is called “The Life of Sarah”. Last week I jumped ahead to understand Sarah’s death to comprehend her character and the role she plays. But this tale ends up being about the lifelong love story between Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac loves Rebekah all his life. The parsha is not ostensibly about Sarah. Yet it is called the story of the life of Sarah when it is about what happens after Sarah dies. But it is a story of how love begins and grows between Rebekah and Isaac. He not only never takes another wife, he never sleeps with another woman. What has this love story to do with Sarah’s death?

Because Rebekah is very forthright, though also very modest, she literally falls for Isaac at first sight. She falls off her camel and then puts on her veil to hide her flushed cheeks. She is embarrassed at what she feels. She is also afraid – not of Isaac, but at what she is feeling. Instead of Abraham’s fear and trembling when he takes Isaac to fill the command of the sacrifice, we have awe and embarrassment.

Isaac, is also overwhelmed by her kindness, by her loving kindness, her hesed. Though she is described as beautiful, he cannot see that physical beauty since she wears a veil, but he does see the beauty of her character. The match is beshert. It was meant to be. So though there is an element of preparation, of calculation and judgement by Abraham’s servant, a response to what is observed, what basically happens is that each is struck with Cupid’s arrow. They barely talk to one another. He knows but requires evidence to come to that knowledge, the very evidence Abraham’s servant brings back to Canaan. It is akin to the same type of empirical evidence that will later fool him when he gives his blessing to Jacob rather than Esau. Though they love one another, Rebekah is also the trickster without whom Isaac could not have fulfilled his mission. Requiring evidence is Isaac’s weakness.

Rebekah, in contrast, knows directly. She does not need evidence. But why for Isaac is she the right one? She is a woman from Abraham’s homeland in Mesopotamia and not yet a follower of Abraham’s faith in the belief in the one God. Isaac is religious and sees her after he finished his afternoon prayers. He does not fall in love because she observes the same faith in the one God, but because she comes from the same homeland as Sarah. And because she is a very kind woman. She is sensitive. She can pick up social cues that go beneath appearances. But like Abraham, resolutely and immediately, she decides to leave her homeland as a young teenager to return with Isaac. She is very decisive. She is very straight. She knows what she wants. There is no hesitation. The spirit of Abraham is now to be transmitted through Rebekah even though Isaac is the pious one.

Isaac and Rebekah remain faithful to one another their whole lives. It is indeed a love story. But this is not because they were totally compatible. They are not. They come from opposite poles of human existence. They are two very different characters. Isaac is other-worldly. Rebekah is very grounded. Further, Rebekah has to trick Isaac – this other-worldly nerd – into giving his blessing to Jacob and not to Esau. Isaac is a social conformist who believes in continuing the tradition of bestowing the blessing on the older one. But Rebekah, like Abraham, is the rebel. Primogeniture be damned. She knows what social science and psychology will discover in the twentieth century, that first-borns tend to be rash and adventurous – they become the fighter pilots. Second-borns have a propensity to be more reflective, more contemplative, more cautious.

Rebekah chooses Isaac to get the blessing, not because she does not love Esau, her other twin and older son. But she is the one with common sense who recognizes the child who can best carry the future of a people on his shoulders. Rebekah is not only the epitome of loving kindness, but she is shrewd and calculating, careful to take into account the best interests of her family and both her children. She knows what Isaac can never know even with all his time spent in study.

Rebekah, however, is not the woman who divides her family, but the one who yokes the two different peoples that will arise from her children. As her name suggests, she is the link that ties differences together, between her and her husband and between her two very different sons. She recognizes the real differences between the twins. She is the true visionary. But she will pay for her sin of foresight by assuming the guilt for the trick played on Isaac. She remains to the very end a woman of virtue, a woman wiling to give of herself for the future.

The Intouchables

The Intouchables

by

Howard Adelman

The 2011 movie, The Intouchables is one of the best buddy movies I have ever seen. Until I saw it, I believed Hollywood was the master and virtually sole owner of that genre. But this is a French film. And, in its North American release, the French spelling of “untouchable” is left intact.  The movie itself is untouchable it is so touching. And do not let anyone tell you it is simply a sentimental male to male friendship version of the delightful, but relatively simplistic, relationship of Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy.

The movie is uplifting. It is funny. It is surprising and very irreverent. And it is a great study of two characters, two characters with apparently very opposite personalities who truly become best buddies through the means of a flashback on how they came together and grew together. And the story, as told, is totally credible, even from the first opening chase scene of French cops in pursuit of two men racing at high speeds on the highways and roads of Paris to the totally farcical ending of that scene.

When I was much younger and traveling through Europe with my oldest daughter and her three year younger male sibling who was just about to enter his teen years, we were driving a Volkswagen camper van. We were coming from Britain and made our first stop in France at a Versailles gas station. We filled up the tank – or the attendant did – and we offered him our Canadian visa card to pay for the gas. He looked at the card and said, “Non, non, d’argent.” Even I could understood that. Recall, these were the early days of credit cards and it was possible that foreign visa cards were not acceptable at French service and retail establishments even though the symbol stuck to the window of the station was a replica of the colours and stripes on a visa card and clearly said “visa”.

I replied in English that I had no French money; I had not yet had a chance to go to a French bank to change dollars for francs – remember the days when there francs instead of euros. I even opened my wallet and my pockets as a gesture in mime to indicate they were empty of cash. He was clearly very disturbed and said, “Un moment.” I thought he went off to verify the card. He was gone for the longest time. Finally, he returned to insist he needed to be paid in cash and would not accept the credit card. I replied, in English, which he clearly did not understand, that I had nothing else with which to pay him.

My daughter intervened and took up the effort to explain our situation in French – she had gone to French school and was reasonably fluent. As the temperature of the discussion and its decibel count rose, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a French paddy wagon arrived. There had been no siren. Out of the back poured about sixteen French police fully armed with truncheons, body armour vests and helmets. My daughter then turned to them and repeated the explanation that she had been trying to deliver to the gas station attendant, but the exchange soon became as heated as the previous one. I started to laugh watching my fifteen-year-old daughter verbally deek it out with these French cops. I literally laughed so hard I had to sit down with my back against the van. Whenever I tried to stand and talk and intervene in the ongoing exercise in mutual misunderstanding, I would burst once again into uncontrollable laughter. Tears were literally flowing down my cheeks. After what seemed an interminable period, during which time I never could stop laughing, the police captain finally turned to the gas attendant and told him something with a Gaulic shrug. I interpreted the message to mean, “Accept the card.” Which the gas attendant reluctantly did and we went on our merry way.

Suffice to say that the opening scene of the movie and the chase scene ends up with the French police looking as foolish, but truly fooled, as that van full of armed cops pulling into that French gas station on the outskirts of Versailles. The memory is so vivid and so deeply part of our family lore that, when I see French cops, my smile is almost as large as that of the actor, Omar Sy who plays Driss (Bakary Bassan) in the movie. Omar Sy won the César Award for Best Actor based on his performance in Intouchables.

A buddy film need not be credible, only barely plausible. It can be either a hilarious farce or a light comedy. But this film was very real. It was and remains an honest buddy movie that made its comic moments even more delightful. And it felt authentic in spite of the matching of such an implausible pair. Perhaps it seemed authentic because the movie had two directors, not one, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. But the deeper reason was that the film was based on a documentary movie based on the relationship between Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his Algerian caregiver, in A la vie, à la morte.

Like many buddy movies, the characters are also different in age, class and race. One, François Cluzet as the rich Frenchman, Philippe, is an older very wealthy Frenchman and the other, Driss, an impoverished out-of-work and just out of prison Frenchman who immigrated as a kid from Senegal. Most of all, Philippe, is a quadriplegic who can only move his head. His body itself has lost all its powers of locomotion. In contrast, Driss seems to be almost all body – tall, lithe, all physical movement and somatic language, but with a smile as broad and open as Philippe’s is cramped and confined.

But these two unlikely true buddies most unexpectedly bond even as the friendship between an uncouth black immigrant’s child from the other side of the tracks working as Philippe’s caregiver grows and the servant gradually and voluntarily becomes the master of their often hilarious escapades together. In the movie, as is the custom in buddy movies, the relationship is frowned upon. After all, Philippe appreciates abstract fine art, opera and classical music. Some of the funniest scenes take place as Driss, in spite of himself, gradually acquires an appreciation of the “fine” arts while Philippe is released from the confines of his high-tech wheelchair to watch and experience a more Dionysian than Apollonian music and dance, and even use his new experiences to satirize the contemporary valuation of high art.

Normally buddy movies are asexual and totally sideline relationships with the opposite sex. This movie turns that sterile element of the genre on its head and the shaggy dog story running through the movie is all about sex between a man and a woman, with a lovely touch of whimsy in a back story told very briefly about a lesbian relationship. The buddy movie typically puts male Platonic relationships on a pedestal. This movie never displaces male-female relationships as the pinnacle of human experience, but not by idolizing it as Philippe did with his lovely, now dead, wife, but by fully embodying such relationships, by insisting they are fundamentally, though never exclusively, about men and women having sex, and sex of many varieties.

Norman Mailer’s Why We Are in Vietnam? A Novel, a road movie about a hunting trip of a father and son, was about the repressed and unacknowledged homosexuality underlying the bonding of men in times of conflict, violence and war. But there is not a single sign of homo-erotic love in the movie, even as the true love of Philippe and Driss for one another grows. Further, instead of allowing their repressed passions from aggravating one another and being transformed into dissing and teasing, the two challenge one another so that Philippe’s greatest success is in helping Driss overcome his fear of flying, both literally and even figuratively with respect to rising from his station in life that our lazy society permits and even encourages to remain frozen.

The movie even has symbolism, the ostensible sign of very high art, here in the form of a Fabergé egg, a bejewelled egg fixed in time and turned into a symbol of wealth but impotence, that Driss steals from Philippe near the beginning of the movie when he is being interviewed for the job. The egg reappears near the end of the film, but only after Philippe has been liberated to the extent possible from his stoic and immobile state. Most of all, the so-called repressed love that once had no name is the one relationship totally sidelined in the movie as, contrary to most buddy movies, earthy heterosexuality is celebrated even as the Dionysian wild man is as deprived of its deep joys as the character confined to a wheelchair. The female-male relationship is not simply used as a foil and contrast with the depth of feeling between two men.

The reason the film works so well is because it is not an escape fantasy, but an escape from the idols of the rich into the rich embodied life of those who struggle to survive and experience life in all its dangers. Further, the flow does not simply go one way. Driss, while uneducated and certainly unrefined, is a very bright and creative fellow who is also a quick learner and discovers both an appreciation of and how to use the refinements of the upper class for his own benefit.

I was brought up on buddy movies – Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello. The relationship between Huck and the escaped slave, Jim, as they travel down the Mississippi in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn made that Mark Twain novel one of my all time favourites. I never became bored by buddy movies. Who can forget such oldies as Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider or the only twenty-year old versions, The Fisher King, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction and Weekend at Bernie’s? Even female buddy films such as Thelma and Louise delighted me almost as much as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Whether in the form of a Western or an action film, a road – think Bing Crosby and Bob – or a cop movie – recall almost the first that I can recall, 48 Hours with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy – when well done, buddy movies can be among the finest expression of the cinematic art. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple was one of my all time favourites. The Intouchables perhaps tops them all in sophistication combined with earthy humour, with subtlety married to broad farce, with appreciation as well as satire.  It is no surprise that its original ten million or so dollars it took to make was rewarded with almost $500 million at the box office, not counting the rewards from watching the movie on the small screen via Netflix as I did in my second viewing the evening before last.

Watch it on Netflix. It won’t cost nearly as much as a Fabergé egg.

Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation

by

Howard Adelman

In a previous blog, I made a reference to Beasts of No Nation, a movie released in 2015, but on Netflix rather than in theatres.  It has justly been praised by critics and some have even mooted it for an Oscar. Other than deserving praise for raising the issue of child soldiers, Tom O’Bryan took an opposite stance and criticized the movie. His reasons:

The film

  • stereotypically omits to indicate that 30% of child soldiers return to the military units from which they flee;
  • does not acknowledge that many former child soldiers end up unemployed and/or as drug addicts;
  • ignores child soldiers in places such as Yemen since less than half the child soldiers in the world are in Africa;
  • omits female child soldiers when up to 40% of child soldiers may be girls;
  • repeatedly shows the ubiquitous stereotypical image of a child soldier clutching a weapon, a misrepresentative portrait since many are just couriers, carriers of goods and ammunition, cleaners or sex slaves.

Yet his article includes a picture of a truckload of Yemeni armed male children.

His thesis: “Policymakers and filmmakers alike have a responsibility to challenge such simplifications. For as long as our views of these children remain distorted by stereotypes, they will continue to cycle in and out of war.” Such films, he argues, distort disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs by perpetuating stereotypes. As a result, programs only rehabilitate child soldiers who turn in guns.

This is a silly review. It belongs to the ilk that argues that this film is faulty because it does not conform to the documentary the writer thinks should and needs to be made. O’Bryan, review the film, not your wishes. Fictional films are not intended nor should they be representative. Can you imagine criticizing Schindler’s List, a docudrama, because it fails to be representative of “Righteous Gentiles” and is not even accurate about what happened after the war to most of the non-Jews who offered assistance to Jews being persecuted by the Nazis. Further, Schindler’s List did not acknowledge the victims of other genocides or portray Righteous Gentiles who were female.

Inadequate policies were in place to respond to the problem of child soldiers before the film ever appeared. There is little evidence that films that omit other issues carry any responsibility for perpetuating such policies. There is evidence that stereotypes in film do have effects on social policy. But do we want a Platonic control of art to facilitate a certain form of social engineering? Did crime films result in or contribute to the shift from a penal-welfare response to treating criminality by means of a punitive-segregationist model based on retributive punishment and much higher rates of incarceration? Were the novels of Anthony Trollope that, unlike those of Charles Dickens, largely ignored the illiterate working poor as they focussed on the mobility, up and down, between the poorer middle class and the aristocracy, help perpetuate the impoverishment of the masses?

Does O’Bryan’s omissions of any reference to the cinematographic skills, vivid directing and rich imagination and love of striking images of Cary Joji Fukunaga lead to stereotyping what is required of movies? Does the portrayal of the Commandant in the film as both charismatic and strategic, horrific and sometimes genuinely caring, terrifying and tender, misrepresent typical commanders of child soldiers? One need only ask such questions to indicate how foolish they are. The power of the film comes in the acting, in the portrait of totalitarian rule on a microscopic level where idealistic slogans are but covers for the exercise of vicious violence. For me, the greatest value of the film was the revelation of how easy it is to destroy the veneer of culture and society that provides a child with a loving moral frame and turn him into a killer.

There is a place, however, for dissecting the implicit social messages of films like Beasts of No Nation, Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland, and Out of Africa. But it should not take away from the power of the film, the skill in making it and the art of the performances. I am the last to decry applying a moral compass to a work of art, especially a film that is about the destruction of any moral compass.  (See my critical review of The Wolf of Wall Street.) But there is a distinction between an aesthetic appreciation and a moral critique. And neither need hold the film responsible for distorted social policies.

Turn on Netflix and see the film. It is both a powerful story and a cinematic work of art.

Who Are the Real Child Soldiers?

A new film offers a powerful — but stereotypical — image of child soldiers. Here’s what it gets wrong.

  • By Tom O’Bryan
  • Tom O’Bryan is a U.K. Kennedy Scholar at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a U.S. State Department Young Leader, analyzing stabilization strategy and conflict zone transformation. He is also the co-author of Narrating the Arab Spring.
  • October 28, 2015 – 5:40 pm

Last week, Netflix released Beasts of No Nation, the “brutal tale” of Agu, a young African boy who joins the ranks of a rebel group after his father and brother are killed. Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel of the same name, the movie has already been tipped for an Oscar by movie critics.

Beasts of No Nation is sure to raise the profile of the harrowing issue of children pressed into combat: in less than two weeks, more than three million people have already tuned in online. For that reason alone it deserves a degree of praise. The film tells a powerful story about physical and psychological harm inflicted upon Agu as he fights under a ruthless officer (known simply as the “Commandant”) in a civil war in a fictional African state.

At the same time, however, the movie reinforces a number of common and unfortunate stereotypes about child soldiers. Such misconceptions have, in the past, led to flawed policies that have failed to address the issue. Suffice it to say that as many as three in ten former child soldiers in conflicts around the world end up returning to the rebel group they once fled — and that even those who don’t rejoin face long-term unemployment and above-average rates of drug addiction and suicide.

The portrayal of Agu in the movie hits every beat of the stereotypical African child soldier trope. He wields an AK-47 with which he kills a number of enemy combatants and civilians. He participates in a magic ritual that, his commanders assure him, will make bullets pass harmlessly through his body. Under intense pressure from his rebel peers, he consumes drugs before combat.

Certainly, there are child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa. Rebel groups and state militaries alike have depended on underage combatants in deadly wars in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.

But, as a result of this focus on Africa, the plight of child soldiers in the Middle East and Asia is neglected. It also reinforces the common perception of Africa as a wholly broken, war-torn continent.

In reality, fewer than half of the countries that have engaged underage combatants since 2011 are in Africa. A recent United Nations report points out that the nation now facing the biggest challenge with child soldiers is, in fact, Yemen.

As the country’s civil war continues, it is estimated that approximately one in three fighters in Yemen are children. In less than 30 days earlier this year, Houthi rebels, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a score of smaller militias recruited 140 underage boys and girls to join their ranks. Human Rights Watch has documented the Houthi rebels’ forced recruitment of children in the conflict, which now stretches back as far as 2009. The group is responsible for almost 90 percent of all recorded cases of child soldier abduction and enrollment in Yemen in 2014.

Beasts of No Nation is also somewhat off the mark regarding gender. Every single combatant depicted in the film is male. This includes Agu and all other child soldiers in the movie. There are few strong women characters: they are largely relegated to secondary roles as victims, prostitutes, and mothers, with little influence over the war itself.

In fact, analysts believe that forty percent of the child soldiers around the world are girls. Girls have played active combat roles in wars as far afield as Colombia, Liberia, and Uganda. Research on Sierra Leone’s civil war uncovered the story of one teenage girl who achieved successive promotions within the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Having finally attained the senior rank of commander — “deemed to be the pinnacle of success within the RUF” — she led an entire unit of child combatants. This girl’s experiences are not unique. There are many thousands of documented cases of girls serving as soldiers in wars across the globe.

The exclusion of girls from media coverage of child soldiers has distorted policymaking. Many well-intentioned disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs, which aim to help former child soldiers successfully transition back into civilian life, have prioritized boys over girls.

McGill University Professor Myriam Denov conducted extensive field research on this issue in Sierra Leone and discovered that “most girl [soldiers] experienced systematic exclusion from DDR.” While many boy soldiers received counseling and access to education, female child soldiers received no such support. This exclusion is driven largely by the stereotypes that Beasts of No Nation reinforces. Broadening our conception of child soldiers to incorporate girls will be key to tackling rampant levels of recidivism for children formerly associated with armed groups.

The movie also overreaches in its depiction of Agu’s role as a fighter. “I will train him to be a warrior!” roars the Commandant upon first discovering Agu roaming the forest alone. His soldiers present Agu with a machete, which he uses, under duress from the Commandant, to hack an enemy soldier to death. His superiors reward him for the deed by giving him a gun of his own.

The ubiquitous image of a child soldier clutching a weapon is misrepresentative. In reality, many children abducted by armed groups never even touch a gun. Instead they play a broad range of other roles: preparing meals for the group, cleaning around the camp, performing forced sexual favors for the other combatants, or being sent on excursions to spy on enemy forces’ movements.

Driven by the stereotypical image of child soldiers as combatants, many DDR programs have required children to turn in weapons in order to benefit from the rehabilitation services offered. Experts believe that, on average, this policy excludes more than eighty percent of the minors associated with armed groups. This helps to explain the high likelihood that these children will fail to successfully reintegrate into their communities and subsequently be forced to return to life with the rebels.

Beasts of No Nation represents a missed opportunity to challenge the stereotypes that exclude thousands of children in conflict zones from rehabilitation programs. Policymakers and filmmakers alike have a responsibility to challenge such simplifications. For as long as our views of these children remain distorted by stereotypes, they will continue to cycle in and out of war.

Canadian Conservative Refugee Policy

The Baby Killer?

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday, I discussed Chris Alexander’s after-the-election defence of Bill C-24 and, in particular, the issue of two classes of citizenship. Today I want to concentrate on his defence of his role as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in the Harper government in the formation of its Syrian refugee policy. In the seven minute and forty second interview, most of the time he discussed refugee policy rather than the citizenship issue. Let me offer his interview in as verbatim form as I could manage, and then follow up with my commentary after parsing what he said.

According to Chris Alexander, “We started bringing Syrian refugees to Canada on a large scale in January, but nobody covered it at the time. Somehow it became divisive that we hadn’t brought them all by the middle of the election campaign.”

“This conflict in Syria has been going on for four years and I will say in front of any camera to any journalist that this is the worst conflict of recent times, much worse in terms of loss of life than both Iraq wars, all three Iraq wars if you count the current one, much worse than Afghanistan during our time there in terms of loss of life, and the media coverage, the public attention to it, has been lacking since 2011.”

3. “These are the biggest terrorist organizations in the world. Yes, the international response has been weak because there is no appetite for it after two wars in Iraq and a long campaign in Afghanistan, but we need to pay attention.”

4. “And when these refugees and migrants showed up in Europe in massive numbers, it wasn’t a surprise to me. We have been tracking this, we have been trying to respond, we have been trying to encourage other countries to respond in an organized way resettling larger numbers of refugees to save lives and to ensure that people didn’t have to cross the Mediterranean and lose their lives at great risk.”

5. “But none of that generated any profile. Instead I still get people coming up to me saying you hung up on Carol Off. That’s the story that people insist on telling, that we are cold-hearted Conservatives, that we have never done the right thing.”

6. “And it’s wrong. And you’ve got to look at the facts. You’ve got to look at who showed leadership.”

7. “There are still more Syrian refugees in this country than Barak Obama has brought to the United States. Has anyone covered that fact?”

8. “It’s a question of communication and responding to accusations, absolutely… Certain messages weren’t delivered and certain accusations were allowed to stand.”

9. “We’re still the party that sees reality as it is, doesn’t want to go on some hippy-trippy jaunt down memory lane and put marihuana in the windows of every store. We’re trying to deal with the real issues that Canadians are facing.”

10. “I’ve heard the Liberal leader say that we should not use the word ‘terrorism’ on several occasions. They are just misunderstood people.”

11. “And it pains me as a person who spent six years on behalf of Canada and the United Nations in Afghanistan and who worked two years as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to try to get a better response to Syrian refugees to bring 23,000 Iraqi refugees to Canada. I have never seen one article written about that in this country.”

12. “Cost, safety, operational standards for which Canada is renowned are all issues. We have the best record in the world for refugee resettlement because we do it well, we meet certain standards. We check out who people are. We make sure that human smugglers aren’t involved. We make sure identity theft isn’t involved. We make sure people are whom they say they are. We make sure that criminals don’t benefit from Canada’s generous refugee policies and when you start moving large numbers of people in short periods of time, all of that can be compromised. So I would urge the government to do more on Syria but do it carefully and ensure that Canada’s best traditions and high standards are respected.”

a) Did the Conservatives start bringing Syrian refugees to Canada on a large scale in January?

  1. b) Did they receive no coverage of their activities on behalf of Syrian refugees?
  2. c) Did the issue only become divisive during the election campaign?
  3. d) And was that because the Conservatives had not brought all the refugees to Canada by the middle of the election campaign?

In 2013, Canada pledged to take in 1,300 Syrian refugees over the next twelve months. It took the government 20 months, virtually to the end of 2014. The government promised to bring in only 200 government-sponsored refugees and 1,100 sponsored privately by groups or individuals. However, given the deficiency of visa officers in the field and processing officers in Winnipeg, private sponsorships were taking 12 or more months. In the first eight months of 2013, only 9 Syrian refugees were resettled in Canada. Under pressure from the NDP immigration critic, Alexander kept obfuscating on the number of arrivals, and his inadequate replies received wide coverage.

By mid-2015, Alexander could only confirm that there were 1,297 Syrian refugees physically present in Canada as of July 2 even though 1,012 Syrian refugees made inland claims and were not resettled but arrived here and claimed asylum. Though the pledge to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years was signalled in January 2015, only in the beginning of July of 2015 did Canada announce that it was preparing to substantially increase the number of Syrian refugees this country will accept. The Conservatives planned to bring 10,000 more Syrian refugees over three years, or 3,300 per year. Most of those were expected to be privately sponsored. “To meet those kinds of targets,” Mr. Alexander said, “Ottawa is looking to a broader range of Canadians to step up and privately sponsor asylum seekers.” That announcement was widely covered in the media, but it was an announcement about an announcement, for the formal announcement was not expected to come until late summer or the fall.

The initiative was said to be on a par with “one of our large, national efforts in response to a serious crisis on par with our response to the Vietnamese boat people [60,000 over 18 months when the number of refugees was less than half those from Syria], Idi Amin in Uganda in 1972 [7,000 of the accounted for approximately 43,000 Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin] and the 1956 crackdown in Hungary [37,000 of 200,000 refugees over only six months].” How 3,300 per year of 4 million refugees could be said to be on a par with the numbers Canada took in these other movements is beyond comprehension.

The issue did not become a big one until the picture of the little three-year-old’s body on the beach appeared in all the media around the world at the end of the first week in October, but no one, absolutely no one, criticized the Conservatives for not having brought all the refugees to Canada by the middle of the election campaign. The Conservatives were criticized for the stinginess of their Syrian refugee policy.

2. Chris Alexander did say a number of times that the Syrian conflict was the worst in the last few decades. But to say that the media did not cover the conflict is absolute nonsense. Amelia Smith in her study, “Mapping Syria through media coverage of the conflict,” indicated a number of problems covering the story. Though in 2011, Western media dedicated “a healthy amount of coverage” to Syria’s conflict, and though the new media were used extensively, in the last two years, there has been extensive coverage, contrary to Alexander’s assertion. However, there has been a distinct tendency to reduce the conflict to a battle between ISIS and the Assad regime. Further, there has been too little coverage of the international humanitarian work and of the tremendous refugee burden that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have born. But all have been covered. However, the most serious problem is the high risk to journalists. Syria has been designated as the most dangerous country for journalists in 2012, 2013, and 2014, somewhat limiting the amount of coverage.

3. Alexander claimed that al-Qaeda and ISIS are the biggest terrorist organizations in the world. There are well over 100 terrorist organizations. Hezbollah and Hamas are each larger than ISIS or al-Qaeda. The Taliban may be larger. ISIS may, however, be the most notorious. In any case, the Assad regime has killed many more Syrian civilians than even ISIS.

4. To say that Canada has been a leader in encouraging Syrian refugee resettlement is laughable if it were not so tragic. In terms of witnessing, Canada has settled at most 13,000 refugees worldwide each year over the last three years. Excepting years when we resettled disproportionately high numbers of refugees, Canada generally took 10% of the refugees scheduled by UNHCR for resettlement. The United States takes by far the most. Of the 21,154 Syrian refugees put forward by UNHCR for resettlement in 2014, Canada took barely 1,000 or less than 5%, an appalling figure in comparison to our past historical record. The UNHCR urged countries to resettle only 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. Canada’s response – not 10,000 per year as would be expected from past practice, but 10,000 over three years. There is no evidence that Canada provided any leadership in advocating higher refugee numbers; practice indicates quite the reverse.

5. No one said that the Conservatives were cold hearted or never did the right thing. The Conservatives were accused of a woefully inadequate response to refugee resettlement though a reasonably humanitarian response to donations overseas re Syrian refugees. Further, late in the game, the Conservatives were commended for finally waving the requirement of UNHCR approval for refugees scheduled for resettlement, of waving the requirement that all forms by private sponsors had to be precisely accurate before they could be considered, for finally greatly increasing the number of visa officers in Lebanon and increasing the processing officers in Winnipeg. But it was all very tardy and seemed to be only a response to enormous pressure.

6. “You’ve got to look at the facts. You’ve got to look at who showed leadership.” If you do, you would have to conclude that it was definitely not the Conservatives.

7. Alexander asserted that Canada took in far more Syrian refugees than Obama ever did. While I think the Obama record on Syrian refugees has been appalling, and by September 2015, the U.S. had only resettled about 1,500 Syrian refugees in total, fewer than Canada, in December 2014, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Anne Richard, announced that the United States would resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2015. As of 7 October 2015, 19,646 Syrian refugee names had been submitted to the U.S. for resettlement. So although the United States had been very tardy, and though its current response has been very inadequate, it is just not true that Canada took many more Syrian refugees than the U.S. We took more, but not even considerably more let alone many more.

8. Alexander insisted that the problem was inadequate communication on the part of the Conservatives. The problem was inadequate and very tardy response by the Conservatives.

9. “We’re still the party that sees reality as it is, doesn’t want to go on some hippy-trippy jaunt down memory lane and put marihuana in the windows of every store.” In every store window!!! Come on! If Alexander is representative, he not only indicates that the Conservatives do not see reality as it is, but cannot distinguish fact from fiction.

10. Alexander insisted that Justin Trudeau would not use the term ‘terrorism,’ but insisted that the terrorists were just misunderstood people. Perhaps Alexander was not in the House of Commons on 19 February 2015 when Trudeau began his speech as follows: “Mr. Speaker, I do not have to tell anyone in the House today about the threat of terrorism and the fear it can instil within those who have witnessed it. We all remember clearly the feelings we had in October as we heard and learned that an armed man had entered Centre Block with the intent to kill. We are still thankful for the heroism shown by our security services that day in keeping us safe during a difficult and confusing time. Coming as it did only days after another, shameful, attack on members of our military, it was a horrible reminder of the murder in cold blood that some people are capable of committing. No matter the motives, terrorism is designed to make us freeze in fear. It is designed to make us constantly question not only our own safety, but also the democratic institutions we have established to keep us safe. It is designed to make us question what is familiar and to suspect what would normally be insignificant. Terrorism is designed to take us so far that we question everything we have built and everything that is good in our fair, just, and open society. That is the point of terrorism, and it is when we willingly walk over that edge of our own accord that terrorism is ultimately successful.”

Hardly an avoidance of the word “terrorism”.

11. Alexander claimed to never have read one article about the 23,000 Iraqi refugees Canada resettled. Perhaps that is because 23,000 were not resettled. 23,000 was the target by the end of 2015. I guess he had not read on 7 January 2015 the news service reports that sympathetically indicated how the Syrian war hampered Iraqi refugee resettlement, etc. Either Alexander does not look for the reading material, does not read it when he finds it, or cannot read.

12. “Cost, safety, operational standards.” Finally some honesty! These were Alexander’s and the Conservative’s repeated reasons for the tardy and inadequate intake of Syrian refugees. The Conservatives would bring them in, as long as the budget was not burdened. Further, the department of Immigration’s ability to interview, process and resettle those refugee, as well as the ability of settlement agencies and Agreement Holders to perform, had been severely compromised in the effort to balance the budget while lowering taxes.

The next shibboleth was the security issue. But as virtually any scholar knows who has studied the issue, coming to Canada as a refugee is the worst route for a terrorist to seek entry into a country. A refugee is too well documented. Enter as a tourist, as an investor, as a student. The terrorist threat is a red herring when it comes to the admission of refugees. In any case, all the political parties buy into the need for security clearances.

The third factor is the elaborate bureaucratic procedures that now cloud and delay sponsorship under the guise of “operational standards”.

The bottom line: Chris Alexander is a serial exaggerator, a serial distortionist and contortionist, systematically engaging in hyperbole totally unsupported by facts. Canada has not been a “model of humanitarian action.” Far from it. It has been a model of a miserly approach to the Syrian refugee issue.

Second Class Citizenship

Second Class Citizenship

by

Howard Adelman

Does Bill C-24, “Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act,” mean that dual citizens have become second class citizens? Chris Alexander, the former Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in the Harper government, lost his Ajax seat in the last election by a landslide, falling short by about 10,000 votes. In contrast to the period when he was in a position of authority and avoided the press like the plague – and then often got in trouble when he met with or talked to the media – after his defeat, Chris Alexander consented to a street interview that was aired on CBC’s Power and Politics. It was a fascinating interview. Alexander vented his spleen in an eloquent and loquacious, even if very faulty, defence of himself as a minister in the Harper government.

The interview, well worth watching, can be heard and seen here:

http://globalnews.ca/news/2301750/watch-out-of-parliament-but-unrepentant-chris-alexander-slams-hippy-trippy-liberals/; Please also check Power and Politics.

A number of topics were discussed in that interview, but in this blog I focus on only one, the very first issue that seemed to have gotten under Alexander’s skin during the election. (In a subsequent blog, I will focus on his defence of his record on the Syrian refugee issue.) One of the provisions in Bill C-24 that the Liberals, who supported the legislation, promised to amend when elected, was the circumstances and the method by which the Government of Canada could strip a Canadian of his or her citizenship. (See “Act to amend the Citizenship Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts,” Bill C-24 that was given royal assent 19 June 2014.)

The criticisms of the revocation of citizenship provision referred to in the House of Commons debates and on the hustlings seemed to irk him the most, though perhaps being called a “baby killer’ in the critique of his handling of the Syrian refugee crisis was emotionally more painful. In any case, Alexander was clearly very bitter about the way that the issue of stripping Canadians of their citizenship became an election issue, the way the item was understood and communicated, and, even, that it became an election issue at all.

There were parts of Bill C-24 that were uncontentious, such as the retention of citizenship for those born abroad to Canadians in service to their government referred to as stateless or lost Canadians. There were also many other parts of Bill C-24 that the opposition parties had criticized, including the extended time it would take under the Bill for an applicant to become a citizen. Thus, for example, under the old legislation an applicant could apply for citizenship after three years of residence in Canada; under the new Citizenship legislation passed by the government, it would take at least four years. For a student who had attended post secondary education in Canada for three years, she must first find a position and then apply for permanent residence. The application process would take a year on top of the three years she had already spent in Canada, assuming she even obtained a permanent job as soon as she graduated. Then and only then would the four year period of required residency start. She would not get credit for the time she studied in Canada or for the time it took for the file to come to the top of the pile. In other words, she would have to be in Canada at least eight years before she became a citizen. None of her previous residence in Canada would count either partially or fully towards the new requisite four years of required residence in Canada.

These and other provisions of the Bill were much criticized in the debate in the House of Commons and subsequently during the election campaign. But the one I want to concentrate on is the one that Chris Alexander offered as his primary item to defend his record as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. In that street scrum, Alexander took issue with the opposition’s campaign focus on the provision in  Bill C-24 that gave the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration the authority, unilaterally and without a judicial process, to strip dual citizens of their Canadian citizenship if they were found guilty of terrorism and if they could be deported to another country where they had, or were entitled to have, citizenship.

Alexander harrumphed about even talking about second class citizens. “That concept does not exist in Canadian law. It should not exist in political debate. We did not introduce it into the debate. When it was introduced by the party that won the election, we did not counter it enough. But it is painful to see people stoop to those levels and for it to go unanswered by the other political participants and by commentators and media. We do not have room in elections for poison like that. And people deserve in an election to know what the law actually says, what protections they enjoy in this country, opportunities they enjoy in this country more than almost any other country in the world. That failed to be communicated.”

In his screed, Alexander began on a conceptual level, denying that two classes of citizenship were even applicable to the issue since the provisions in the Citizenship Act do not use that term. He also criticized even the propriety of raising the issue as something to be debated. The Conservatives had not introduced it into the debate and he implied that the opposition was hitting below the belt in making it an issue. He accused the Liberals of introducing the issue into the election, though Tom Mulcair was also a leading opponent. He was critical of his own party for not countering that argument, but he seemed even more critical of the media for taking up the issue. Then he characterized the way the issue was raised as “poison.” Finally, he insisted that Canadians deserve to know what the election law says and what protections Canadians enjoy. As Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, he never assumed responsibility for any failure in communication. That failure belonged in the cloud. “It” failed to be communicated, not, I failed adequately to communicate to the Canadian public.

The whole interview resembled somewhat Richard Nixon’s speech after he lost the election to be President in 1962 when he declared, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” To clarify:

  1. What does Bill C-24 say about the issue?
  2. What protections do Canadians enjoy under the legislation?
  3. Was it “poison” to introduce the issue into the election?
  4. Were the media guilty of taking up the issue, but only by repeating the opposition’s claims rather than clarifying the Tory intent?
  5. Were the Liberals responsible for introducing the issue into the campaign?
  6. Was the issue one that was appropriate to be debated as an election issue?
  7. Is characterizing the issue as one of introducing two classes of citizenship incorrect or even “poison”?

Alexander insisted that, “the people deserve in an election to know what the law actually says.” I agree. So, I believe would every Canadian, whether defending or opposing the law. But try to understand what the law actually says. As the Conservatives wrote it, it is difficult to understand except for those with expertise in Immigration law. And the Immigration Law Section of the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) was adamantly opposed to many sections of the Bill, especially the revocation provisions. (For its detailed critique, see http://www.cba.org/CBA/submissions/pdf/14-22-eng.pdf.) The people in Canada do deserve to know what the law states. But the convoluted prose and the whole style of the writing makes only one thing clear: the law was not intended to be read by the ordinary citizen.

What every Canadian deserves to know, what they can know and what the government helps them know are three very different things. Certainly, Chris Alexander as the ostensible author of the Bill, never made even an effort to state clearly what this provision in Bill-24 said. How did Chris Alexander interpret the Bill, specifically the revocation clauses? Though he did discuss the issue of residency requirements and the broadly supported re-acquiring of citizenship for those who inadvertently lost it, the main divisive issue was revocation.

In the debate when Alexander introduced the Bill for third reading in the House of Commons, he discussed the time line for an application and the residency requirements as well as the restoration of citizenship to children of Canadians born abroad. However, in his speech introducing Bill C-24, he said nothing about the revocation clauses. There was and remains a consensus about what the bill intended. As is currently the case, citizenship can be revoked if it was obtained by fraud, though this has been admittedly a very dragged out process as can be seen even in the cases of alleged former Nazis accused of war crimes. The revocation terms of the law explicitly now included Canadian citizens who served as members of an armed force or organized armed group engaged in armed conflict with Canada, were convicted of treason or of a terrorism offence (or an equivalent foreign terrorism conviction) and given a sentence of five years or more, but only provided they were dual citizen and, also, provided that they did not become stateless as a result, for then the law would be in breach of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

As the opposition member and immigration critic, Philip Toone, said in the House of Commons, “The minister can now decide, based on a balance of probabilities, to revoke the citizenship of a Canadian, without that person having the right to appeal, the right to natural justice or the right to present evidence to a judge. Only the minister, in his little office, with documents in front of him, on a mere balance of probabilities, can revoke an individual’s citizenship. It is beyond comprehension why the minister would want such a responsibility, because in our legal system people have the right to be respected. In this case, there is a risk of abusing that right. Once again, why create a situation where rights can be abused?” As he went on to say, the bill will almost certainly be challenged in court and, if the government’s past record is any indication, the Courts will rule that the law is in breach of the rights of citizenship.

Does the Bill introduce two classes of citizenship? Virtually every analysis and critique of the law says that it does. In fact, even the existing law, arguably, can be said to have two classes of citizens, those who acquire citizenship by birthright and those who become naturalized Canadians during their lifetime, except it is argued that those who acquire citizenship by fraud never truly became a citizen. Of course, a charge of false representation is inapplicable to Canadians who enjoy citizenship by birth. The irony is that the new law allowed revocation of citizenship even to Canadians who acquired citizenship by birthright if they, through their parents, enjoy dual nationality or the right to claim dual nationality. Further, the Canadian citizen may not have any real ties to another country even if he or she was born abroad but came to Canada as a young child.

So the law changes the classes of citizenship. Revocation applies to any citizen, whether citizenship is acquired by birth or by nationalization, provided that the person enjoys of could enjoy dual nationality. So it seems unequivocally true that the law creates two classes of citizens by implication. Why does Chris Alexander have a problem in understanding this? Is he obtuse? What something means does not require that meaning to be explicitly articulated if that is its plain meaning.

Further, as the Canadian Bar Associated stated it, “revoking citizenship in other circumstances [than fraud] poses fundamental constitutional challenges. Targeting dual nationals for citizenship revocation results in differential treatment based on ethnicity or national origin and therefore implicates section 15 of the Charter. Canadians from countries that do not recognize dual nationality would not be subject to the provisions. However, Canadians whose ancestors came from countries that recognize dual citizenship and pass citizenship to generations born abroad would face the prospect of revocation. Entire ethnic or national communities would either be subject to the provisions or not. Gradating the rights of Canadians on the basis of the laws of another state creates different classes of citizens. It is unfair and discriminatory.”

The charge of two classes of citizenship was broadly raised by law societies and human rights groups. Thus, for example, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) launched a constitutional challenge to the new Citizenship Act for relegating over one million Canadians to second-class status. The lawsuit argued that the Bill C-24 “creates a two-tier citizenship regime that discriminates against dual nationals, whether born abroad or in Canada, and naturalized citizens. These Canadians will now have more limited citizenship rights compared to other Canadians, simply because they or their parents or ancestors were born in another country.” The issue of two classes of citizenship was raised right across the country by law societies and civil rights groups.

The CBA asserted that banishment, that has not been in common use since the Middle Ages, is one of the most serious punishments that can be inflicted on a citizen. Even if it were to be restored, surely it should be undertaken only with the strictest protections. So the biggest conflict was not even over who could be targeted for revocation, but who decides, on what grounds and by what process? In Bill C-24, the decision is placed in the hands of the Minister (or his delegate), thereby leading to the fear of an indiscretionary use of power, particularly since the individual will not have a day in court or even a hearing before being issued a revocation order. Essentially, the Conservatives determined that this process would be less costly and quicker, and this is the core difference between the members of all opposition parties who held the rights of an individual citizen to be the foremost concerns, while the Conservatives believe that the voice of the people, their elected representatives and appointed Ministers should have that power.

Given the uproar over just these two issues – to whom does revocation apply and who makes the decision – who would expect the issue not to be introduced into the election debate. And it was, loudly and forceful by Tom Mulcair as well as Justin Trudeau who was accused by Alexander of being the sole culprit.  So how could anyone who believes in free speech insist that it should not “exist in political debate”? Did the Tories not counter the argument? They did so during the passage of the Bill, subsequent to its passage and during the election. Did they do enough?

Alexander said that Trudeau had introduced the issue just before the televised debate on foreign affairs. Quite aside from whether he did and how he did, it was the Tory government at the end of September that initiated steps to strip Zakania Amara, leader of the Toronto 18, of his citizenship after he pleaded guilty to plotting to bomb downtown Toronto and was sentenced to life imprisonment. As the Harper government put it, Amara, who holds Jordanian citizenship, would be free to walk the streets and travel with a Canadian passport after serving his sentence and Amara would become eligible for parole in 2016. Further, at the beginning of October, the Harper government attempted to strip Saad Gaya of his citizenship though he was born in Canada, arguing that Gaya “retroactively” became a Pakistani citizen.

The opponents of the bill, not just the political opposition parties, charged that the provisions of Bill C-24 on revocation made those born outside Canada, those born in Canada but who had a second citizenship or were able to obtain one, would be open to being stripped of their citizenship. Those critics insisted that such a decision could be made arbitrarily since the law authorized the Minister or his delegate to make the decision on his own. Contrary to the claim that raising the issue was poison, Alexander revealed an even more stubborn mindblindness to the democratic deficit that grew under the Tories. Further, he never adequately defended the provision because it is difficult if not impossible to find a legal justification under contemporary principles of natural law.

As the Immigration caucus of the Law Society of Canada insisted, citizenship is not like a car license that can be revoked for misbehaviour, nor a privilege subject to revocation except where fraud was used to obtain it. Bill C-24, rather than imitating the provisions of other Western countries, was an outlier in its revocation provisions. Once a criminal justice system punishes someone, he should not be subject to double jeopardy. If a person commits fraud and lies to obtain citizenship, then the punishment is directly related to the fraud and can be meted out by the courts. As with all human rights arguments, the issue is not just the alleged terrorists targeted by the law, but other Canadians – one million of them – who could be subject to that law. Dual citizens and people who have immigrated to Canada can have their citizenship taken away while other Canadians cannot. That is the meaning of two classes of citizenship.

What seems clear is, however loquacious and even at times eloquent Alexander was on the issue, what he said obscured issues, deflected any blame and reinforced his self-righteous stance. He proved either that he did not hear or understand the criticism raised, or, more likely even, seemingly was simply incapable of understanding them. Instead of respecting his critics while disagreeing with them, he berated them and insisted their criticisms were initiated for political motives. But evidence suggests his amendments were introduced for political reasons. After all, a majority of Canadians favoured stripping convicted terrorists of their citizenship. Last November, after the killing of a soldier on Parliament Hill and then the killing of the terrorist, a national poll found that just over half of respondents supported new anti-terror legislation and another 22% were critical , but because they wanted Canada to go even further.

Did Alexander truly believe that it is ok to remove the citizenship of Canadian-born Saad Gaya who was convicted of terrorist activities for his role in the Toronto 18? Did he really believe it was proper to retroactively regard him as a Pakistani citizen even though his own parents lost their Pakistani citizenship when they first came to Canada and he was born and raised in Canada? The opposition claimed that the courts would find those provisions in the bill to be null and void. The provision was introduced as a wedge issue to play up the Tory claim that they were strong on terrorism. Are Canadians with another nationality (and those who are eligible to obtain another nationality) now second-class citizens, even if they were born in Canada? Under Bill C-24, their citizenship can be stripped.

So why is Chris Alexander such a sore loser? He just doesn’t get it and never got it.