The Economization of Military Coercion: The Jamal Khashoggi Affair – Part I of III

Ronan Farrow wrote about the collapse of American diplomacy and of American leadership in creating a liberal global world order; diplomacy had been militarized. Ben Rhodes also wrote about the destruction of diplomacy, but about the replacement of professional diplomacy with personal transactional gestures. In the current case of Jamal Khashoggi, what we are witnessing is the economization of both military coercion and diplomatic persuasion. There remain a few foreign proxy wars, but economic pressure, wheeling and dealing, have become the way international relations are primarily conducted while autocrats blithely ignore all civilized norms of international conduct in their conduct of domestic wars on their enemies.

Jamal Khashoggi believed, as many do, that America is the world’s richest, most creative, most influential and most powerful country, even as it has lost its position as a moral leader of the world. However, whatever America’s failures, Khashoggi was convinced that it is in America that the heart beat of the world still pulses. That is where Khashoggi chose to live in exile from his homeland in Saudi Arabia, though he planned to move to Turkey and marry Hatice Cengiz, a doctoral student in Istanbul.

However, Khashoggi could not escape Saudi Arabia (SA). The world of international norms is in great disorder. Putin hacks into the businesses and elections of Western countries with virtual impunity. States like Russia go abroad to poison and murder their critics while Trump insists that it is not his business since the poisoning did not take place on American soil. Khashoggi, in addition, was not an American citizen.

The possible evidence for Khashoggi’s murder: intelligence intercepts of SA intentions; camera pictures of Khashoggi entering but not leaving the embassy; the arrival on two chartered flights and the movements of the alleged 15-man hit squad, including an autopsy specialist, into and out of Turkey; three of the Saudi operatives included a close friend of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the head of security for MbS and an intelligence operative close to MbS; the repainting within the Saudi embassy; Turkish audio and visual recordings; even a watch recording of what happened to Khashoggi with sounds of a bone-saw transmitted to his fiancée. Then, after two weeks, instead of an outright denial, we are served a concocted story of rogue elements, an interrogation gone wrong and possibly a botched abduction, echoed by Donald Trump and Saudi allies in the region and the Muslim world.

This evidence all points to Saudi Arabia following the same path as autocrats and would-be autocrats in other states. And Donald Trump, President of the USA, which provides the military equipment to enable Saudi Arabia to carry on its war in Yemen, mouths empty words while Donald insists that, in America’s economic interests, the country he leads will do nothing effective. In the meantime, twelve million Yemeni mouths face actual starvation as fighting intensifies around the port city of Hodeidah in what UN officials warn may be the worst famine in a century.

Khashoggi, it must be remembered, has not only been a critic of SA, but had been a forthright critic of Trump even after Trump became president. SA is a close ally and major purchaser of billions of dollars of American military equipment.

In Canada, we experienced the wildly disproportionate and bizarre response to our Foreign Minister’s very justified twitter comments on Saudi Arabian human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic relations, cancelled business orders, stopped flights between the two countries and recalled the large number of Saudi students studying in Canada whose fees contributed significant income to Canadian universities. If states get out of line in the view of another state, if the latter state has the economic clout, it will avenge sleights seventy-seven fold. Following its domestic pattern of rounding up and jailing its critics and dissenters, has Saudi Arabia gone much further and taken one step too far in its widely believed initiative in using its consulate in Turkey and a 15-man hit squad to eliminate Khashoggi as a thorn in its side?

Though very knowledgeable, friendly and even devout, Jamal Khashoggi was not a saint. He was an accomplished journalist who once interviewed Osama bin Laden, an old friend whom he later lamented had “surrendered to hatred and passion.” More recently he covered Saudi Arabia. He used to be on the inside with the Saudi establishment, traveling with King Abdullah and enjoying a close friendship with the Saudi billionaire, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Khashoggi is rumoured to have not simply been employed as an “adviser,” but had been an intelligence officer working for Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, the head of Saudi intelligence. Except the Saudis had reservations about him. Khashoggi had once been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and, as NYT writers put it, had a “tangled mix of royal service and Islamist sympathies.”

Why he went into exile is unclear, though what is known is that, MbS, the new 33-year-old authoritarian reform-minded crown prince and close friend of an American “prince,” Jared Kushner, had Khashoggi’s column in a Saudi-owned newspaper canceled. Given the alleged murder of Khashoggi when he went to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to obtain some citizenship documents needed for his upcoming remarriage, the regime appeared willing to go far beyond the sanctions they had placed on his family in forbidding them to travel and the arrests of his associates. Khashoggi may have been more than just a critic of the regime who lived in exile; it is believed that he held many secrets.

Perhaps the reason for his believed murder was only that he was a very tenacious critic once he went into exile and had begun to set up a series of organizations – Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). Tracking the media in SA and reporting on its economic situation were both part of his agenda. The Saudi government felt very threatened, especially if Khashoggi had substantive backing from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi Arabia may largely escape the embarrassing situation it now finds itself in by pointing to some of its operatives, characterizing them as rogue, and sentencing them to “prison.” That line of propaganda has already started as President Trump, after speaking to the Saudi King, stated that the “journalist may be a victim of rogue killers – who knows?” Instead of offering soldiers in combat, states offer up their intelligence officers, first as public relations gestures, and then, if pressed too hard, as sacrificial lambs.

In an era in which we have witnessed autocrats, whether elected or coming into power by other means, war against their critics, MbS has run to the forefront and locked up not only women who advocated for women’s rights, journalists who reported on the deeds and misdeeds of his government, but their relatives and associates as well. MbS has also imprisoned businessmen and clerics who did not fall in line with the government.

On an official visit, the Saudi regime even kidnapped a former recipient of Saudi patronage, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, who held dual citizenship in both Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Hariri was only set free when he was forced to publicly resign and denounce Iran, SA’s rival in the region. The result: after protests by other states, particularly the US and Egypt, Hariri was released. Shortly afterwards, he was restored to his office with even greater popularity and, counterproductively, greater status for both Hezbollah and Iran. Saudi citizens were ordered to leave Lebanon.

Hariri fell into line to defend SA against the tsunami of a backlash against the regime in the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair. “The position occupied by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Arab and international societies puts it in the ranks of the central countries entrusted with the stability of the region and in support of Arab issues.” Harari reiterated that campaigns against SA constituted a breach of this stability. Lacking the in-depth knowledge of diplomacy conducted over a long period and the deep analysis of independent intellectuals, the whole quixotic episode rebounded and covered MbS with meringue pie.

Despotic one-man absolute rule is simply the most extreme version of the rise of autocrats. They operate in the realm of international politics through vendettas against their rivals and deal with others in the international arena, that is other states, as manipulatable by economic pressures as the regime uses coercion, through the military to crush its should-be satraps, and with imprisonment and murder to destroy its individual critics.

Mohammed bin Salman is not simply an “enlightened despot,” as Elliott Abrams dubbed him is his apologetic series on Saudi Arabia, even though MbS pushes through economic and social reforms to modernize his country. For the joining of “enlightened” with “despot” is an oxymoron. One cannot be a despot and be enlightened. The central tenet of the enlightenment is freedom – freedom to think and say, to associate and to advocate. That is why the alleged murder of Khashoggi is so depraved – it cuts to the heart of modernity. And it cuts out that heart when even the most central principles of the modern era are proven to be violable.

This is, of course, magnified a thousandfold when states and international Islamic organizations fall into line and follow the Hariri message of defending SA while characterizing attacks against SA as efforts to undermine the kingdom, and, hence, peace and security in the Middle East. (Cf. Arab News

  1. The UAE: Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, after defending SA’s role in the region as a protector of stability and a beacon for peace, characterized the attacks on SA as political incitement against the kingdom;
  2. Bahrein: King Hamad bin Al-Khalifa accused SA’s critics of trying to undermine the policies and sovereignty of SA;
  3. Egypt: The foreign ministry dubbed the charges against SA in the Khashoggi affair as “arbitrary” and urged waiting for the results of the investigation;
  4. Oman: The foreign ministry dubbed any judgment at this time as “hasty” and “premature.”
  5. Jordan: Media Minister Jumana Ghunaimat attacked the targeted rumours.
  6. The Palestinian Authority: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his absolute confidence in the Kingdom, under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Diplomacy now means rounding up economic dependents to defend the indefensible and outrageous. The Arab League chimed in, attacking threats to use economic sanctions against SA. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) called the Turkish-SA joint investigation as an expression of good intentions, warned against premature conclusions and insisted that the international media ensure accuracy and professionalism in their publications. Sheikh Dr. Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, the Secretary General of the Muslim World League (MWL) called the worldwide criticisms of SA a threat against SA and issued a categorical rejection of any threats against the Kingdom.

All of this backtracking and obfuscation following MbS’s adamant insistence that Khashoggi had left the embassy, subsequently amended to say that his security forces only intended to abduct the man, as if a forced disappearance was not a heinous crime under international law. In any case, this autocratic ruler and control freak professed that he knew nothing about the operation. Donald Trump bought it and insisted on the presumption of innocence, a serial liar who himself condemns others based on no evidence – the list is enormous – the New York five, eventually proved innocent, “crooked” Hilary.

Donald Trump had laid out the public relations escape plan – MbS told me flat out that they did not do it and I believe him – just as he had believed Putin’s denials, Paul Manafort’s insistence on his innocence, and the list goes on and on. In the meanwhile, Saudi authorities reminded its subjects that a 5-year jail sentence and a $3 million fine would be levied against “rumour mongers” lest public order be undermined.

Will the coverup work?

To be continued.


With the help of Alex Zisman



From Is to Ought

Ben Rhodes The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, New York: Random House, 2018.

In the Prologue of Ben Rhodes memoir, he describes how, in his last meeting with any head of state, Barack Obama passed the torch onto Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. “You’re going to have to speak out when values are threatened.” Trudeau promised that he would “with a smile on my face. That is the only way to win.” Obama was an American, a liberal American, who believed that morality framed coercion and military might. “American leadership depended on our military, but was rooted not just in our strength but also in our goodness.” (25) And that goodness was built into institutions and laws but backed up, if need be, by force. (48)

A smile would not do the job. Yet Obama, flummoxed in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and emergence of autocrats around the world, conscious that his best ally, Angela Merkel, had been severely wounded, could only reach out to a Canadian leader who led with a smile and not even a soft voice. Further, and more importantly, Canada did not carry a big stick.

The real mantle of leadership had been stolen by Donald Trump, a would-be autocrat. He was willing to meet with other autocrats around the world – without any preconditions – North Korean, Russian, Turkish, even Iranian. Trump was blasted in the liberal press for doing so. Yet, when Ben Rhodes joined the Obama presidential campaign, his Democratic contender also had promised to meet US adversaries without conditions. As Rhodes wrote, “[T]he reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is somehow punishment to them, which has been a guiding diplomatic principle of this [the Bush] administration, is ridiculous.” (12) Hillary Clinton, Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, disagreed. She called Barack Obama naïve. Republicans, the same ones who as sycophants and toadies, defended Donald Trump when he did it, called Obama much worse.

Diplomacy without preconditions was not the only tactic Trump stole from Obama. “Turn defense into offense.” (18) “Restore America’s standing around the world.” (22) When Trump ran on a version of the latter, Obama made fun of the slogan, “Make America great again.” “America had always been great,” insisted Obama.

There is, of course, a difference between Obama and Trump. For the latter, such diplomatic meetings are simply transactional and the Donald believed that he was and is master of the deal. Obama believed, and his legacy – the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate agreement for which leadership had been passed to China and Xi Jinping, the negotiations with the military junta in Myanmar – proved it, that diplomacy rather than inter-personal deals work. But a diplomacy capable of setting aside mindblinding and politically binding assumptions. In every single case, Donald Trump in his first two years in office proved that he was the master of and replacing professional diplomacy with personal transactional gestures.

The destruction of many of Obama’s overseas achievements had as much to do with personal animosity as Trump’s propensity for demolition, and both certainly more than the absence of any substance in his foreign policy. Donald Trump had been a leader in the blatantly racist “birther” movement, the false claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the US. Obama had folded before the media onslaught and finally acceded to releasing his longform birth certificate. That quieted but did not close down the flow of fake news. More importantly, a few days later after the birth certificate release, Barack Obama had his revenge at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In a series of spot-on jokes, he humiliated Donald Trump in the media and before the American public. “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter – like, did we fake the moon landing.” (132-133) Trump’s unwinding of Obama’s many successes was Trump’s revenge.

The Obama administration did have its own share of failures – dealing with Russia over Georgia (inherited from Bush), Crimea, the Ukraine and Syria, as well as Syria itself and, of course, the disastrous Libyan initiative, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the incoherence of the US policy towards Egypt, and the fiasco of Afghanistan that I wrote about in the Farrow book review. What is worse, Obama and Rhodes knew that, “the Taliban could not be defeated so long as it had political support in Afghanistan and a safe haven in Pakistan.” (73)

Obama had kept Robert M. Gates on as Secretary of Defence and initially backed the failed strategy of counter-insurgency in an arena in which it could not and did not work. Vice-President Joe Biden was the only individual in the administration who consistently and persistently opposed a troop surge and argued that the US military was jamming Obama. (65-6) So what was Obama’s rationale if America was not going to defeat the Taliban? “We need to knock them back to give us space to go after al Qaeda.” (75) The troop surge was approved.

But perhaps Egypt was even more telling than Afghanistan. Obama and Rhodes knew that in a repressive society like Egypt’s, a democratic election would probably lead to the victory of an Islamist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood. (54) Yet the Obama administration backed the removal of Mubarak and fell back on the position that America would “judge any political movement by whether they choose to act and govern in a way that is consistent with democratic principles.” (55) But what if that political movement, though noisy in its demonstrations, was marginal in its political depth and the real choice was between two other movements – one rooted in the military and the other in the religious establishment? How should America act when faced with a Hobson’s choice when, in the end, military coercion was the real and only power? That same effort to achieve a balance between two incompatible political perspectives would prove to be the root of the Obama administration’s enormous but fruitless efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It would also be at the root of Rhodes’s failure to comprehend the limitations of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Rhodes expends few words on the doctrine and I cannot elaborate n it here, but it is clear that he aligned with Samantha Power (82) and, to some extent, Susan Rice, who believed that the R2P had to be a bedrock of American foreign policy – that is, liberal state had the right to intervene with force when a state persecuted its own citizens or could not protect them from other s bent on destruction. Obama never bought into it. Rhodes in his book never explains why except to suggest that Obama was more a realist than the small idealist cohort he had working for and with him.

However, R2P was fundamentally flawed. This doctrine had originated as a Canadian initiative. It advocated the right of any foreign power to intervene when the government of a state targeted its own people. Within a very short time after its formulation, it was adopted by a unanimous vote of the United Nations. Except the vote was only unanimous because the heart of the doctrine had been cut out. Humanitarian intervention would only be permitted with the approval of the state being targeted. Once again, sovereignty trumped moral principles.

Further, it could and never would be applied in the Chinese mistreatment of the Uyguars or even the military junta mistreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Sanctions certainly. But not coercive intervention. In the easiest situation possible, with a UN peacekeeping force on location and the government perpetrators on the ropes in its fight with a Tutsi-led military force, the world had failed to intercede and stop the genocide in Rwanda. Diplomatic exhortation and lofty principles were no substitute for action on the ground.

Perhaps Obama’s greatest success in the domestic arena – not the Affordable Care Act, but the salvaging of the world economy – was also his greatest failure and paved the way for the rise of Trump. This was in the domestic arena and not foreign affairs to which Ben Rhodes had dedicated his talents. The 2008 economic crash was a direct product of President Bush and, to some degree, his predecessors. Obama inherited an economic mess.

Ben Rhodes wrote the following words for Barack Obama. “Jobs have disappeared, and people’s life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet…So let’s be clear: What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.” (33) Ben made Obama sound like a Marxist. Talk about hyperbole! The 2008 economic crash, the greatest since the depression, was the final epitaph for capitalism, not just for a failure in banking regulation. Capitalism had completely failed. This is how the statement sounded.

However, the philosophy referred to was not capitalism but one version of it – trickle-down economics and deregulation. Further, even on that there was no final verdict. In fact, Barack Obama in part made possible the restoration of that capitalistic ideology to pre-eminence after two years of his presidency and totally cleared the road from any blockage to it by contributing to the election of Donald Trump. How? Precisely by overstating the failure and understating the consequences of the 2008 economic crash. Not just jobs, but hundreds of thoUSnds of them were wiped out. Millions of families not only faced foreclosure but were, in fact foreclosed upon when Obama bailed out the banks without helping those who bought homes that were now financially under water.

Ben Rhodes was a foreign policy speechwriter and adviser and was not up on domestic policy let alone economic policy. There is an enormous problem with trickle-down economics, but that was NOT the issue in the 2008 economic crash. Rhodes not only failed to hit the target, but grossly understated the effects on the average American just as he overstated the implications of the crash for capitalism. In his memoir, he never seemed to notice this oversight.

Unfortunately, the same disposition applied to foreign policy. When North Korea tested a ballistic missile in the very beginning of Obama’s presidency when he was in The Czech Republic, Ben Rhodes added a few sentences to Obama’s address to the Czech people. “I sat at my computer inserting a strongly worded warning to the North Koreans about the isolation they’d face for continued nuclear and missile tests.” (42)

When Trump was in the same position, he threatened fire and brimstone and then met with Kim and called him a wonderful guy who likes me. Greater isolation! North Korea had survived for years, though barely, against the greatest international deep freeze applied to any foreign state in the post-WWII period. And the country still persisted in its nuclear and missile development program. Rhodes’s and Obama’s threat rang totally hollow at the time. More significantly, eight years later, Ben Rhodes failed to notice let alone be self-critical of such a shortcoming. And this in spite of the deep faith of liberals, like Barack Obama, who held a progressive view of American history and “the capacity for self-correction” (43) to which Obama (and Rhodes) attributed America’s purported exceptionalism. But what if this purported exceptionalism rested as much on the failure of America to be deeply self-critical and to truly engage in self-correction at a fundamental level?

Louis Menard wrote a review of Rhodes’s book and claimed it traced the evolution of a political junky from an idealist to a realist. Unlike Farrow’s book, Rhode’s memoir is indeed a book in which observation and self-reflection are woven together by a fine writing style, but one which only records faces and clothes and settings when they are directly pertinent to the narrative. But Menard is wrong. The shock is that Rhodes never became disillusioned about his ideals. Tired, certainly. Sometimes depressed. At other times simply resigned. But he is indefatigable in holding onto his ideals. That is perhaps why Obama loved him. That is certainly why Rhodes worshipped Barack Obama.

As with his previous co-authored book with a former congressman, Lee Hamilton, (Without Precedent: Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission), Rhodes’s book is a very inside story, but of the day-to-day crises and pro-active stances of the Obama regime from the campaign through eight years in the White House. During that time, Ben Rhodes began working as a speechwriter and foreign policy advisor for Obama in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President and ended up serving for eight years as deputy national security advisor with oversight over speechwriting, public communications and relations as well as undertaking specific diplomatic missions himself.

During that time, according to Rhodes’s reflections on his service and the Obama administration, the arc of history did not move from idealism to realism but, rather, a realization that “the world (w)as (and is) a place that could – in some incremental way – change.” (421) As he ends his memoir, at “I was a man, no longer young, who – in the zigzag of history – still believed the end of his service to Obama, to the American nation and to his own ideals, in the truth within the stories of people around the world, a truth that compels me to see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be.” The book is not about the decline of his ideals, but increasingly focuses on the actual challenges to those ideals and the efforts made to overcome those challenges.

Holbrooke, with his idiosyncratic personal characteristics for a diplomat and his pursuit of realism in the conduct of foreign relations, was Farrow’s flawed hero. Barack Obama is Rhodes’s idol, an idol he did not worship from afar, nor even merely up close to reveal the crevices that began to appear on Obama’s boyish good looks, but one whose mind and heart and guts Rhodes entered into wholly and without reservation, even in the odd moments when he disagreed with his leadership on a particular issue.  Rhodes learned to focus on a small portion of the grains of sand on the earth than on the even greater number of stars in the sky.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Gangsters: Peaky Blinders – Part II of II

If I read the intention of the creator of the TV series Peaky Blinders correctly, for Steven Knight, gangsterism is a representation of the world writ small. He overtly expressed a wish to make the series larger than life, but as viewed by a ten-year-old. The series is also an enlarged life in another way in which the small confronted the large, as evidenced in many events in the film, including the final boxing match. Behind the façade of murders and scheming, lies the premise that ideas, ideology, and especially theology and biblical tropes rather than convictions, count. They are as living as the blast furnaces on that street in Birmingham.

At a dangerous and justifiably paranoid time of agitation and violence, when ideological factionalism set brother against brother, the deep bonds of blood brothers provided an extra source of strength. In the end, for Knight, this analysis of tribalism writ large is more important than self-interest, economics, class and balance of power – though all these additions play a very significant part in the drama.

The series, with four years under its belt and three more to go, ended a year ago in December 2017. Peaky Blinders is based as much on superstructure as plot or character or theme, on manipulative, self-perpetuating elites interacting with those with intimate social ties, though ones which shift and vary with context. In both cases, at both levels, they are in the end ethnic in the broader sense. However, the dynamism comes from Tommy’s (and sometimes Polly’s) initiatives in mobilization, ensuring participation and structuring the Shelby organization. Together, both levels reinforce the ethnicity and the different dynamics of oppression and how they interact.

Gender also plays a role as defined by the various female characters who had developed an unprecedented degree of independence during WWI when they ran things. Major female characters include Polly (Helen McCrory) with her organizational skills complemented by her Gypsy ability at “sight,” and Grace (née Burgess) Shelby (Annabelle Wallis) with her ability to work undercover while possessing a determination and a sense of sacrifice. This role may have been the one real sample of both poor characterization – her shift in personality from the first to the second series was both a cliché and implausible when she cheats on her husband – and possibly casting, for Wallis was cool as a cucumber as a British undercover agent, but cold and wooden when, out of passion, she betrays her husband for Tom Shelby.

The female cast also includes: Ada Thorne (Sophie Rundle) with her independence and ideological commitment, even as she shifted, in this case, totally plausibly and convincingly, to capitalism from her communism in the opening series when she was enamoured with Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg), a communist agitator whom she married and whose baby she had; and Lizzie Stark (Natasha O’Keeffe), the loveable prostitute rather than adulteress (John 7:53 – 8:11) who had no need of the historically real Josephine Butler who agitated on behalf of prostitutes, for Lizzie was accepted as an individual in her own right, even if not as a bride for John Shelby (Joe Cole).

The fantastic women also include Linda Shelby (Kate Phillips), a true Christian who works hard to get the eldest Shelby, Arthur (Paul Anderson), on the straight and narrow, but becomes a Shelby and falls to the lure of alcohol and drugs; Esmé Shelby (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), a loyal and loving wife to John Shelby even though the marriage was arranged to cement an alliance between two gypsy clans; May Fitz Carleton (Charlotte Riley), the epitome of loneliness and wealth, a horse trainer who is grounded rather than aloof, privileged but aching for dynamism instead of the straight-laced life, hence her deep love of thoroughbreds – and, paradoxically, Tommy Shelby.

The cast also includes Princess Tatiana Petrovna (Gaite Jansen), a White Russian duchess who cannot be trusted at all – a characteristic of the aristocratic classes that runs through the series – for she, without any scruples, is manipulative and ruthless, degenerate and capable of cold-blooded murder, with the same gift of sight as the royal Romani, Polly, while as calculating and clever as Tommy Shelby. The very opposite foil for the Russian duchess is Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy), a communist union boss who proves to be as determined and disciplined as Tommy Shelby. There was a real Jessie Eden who founded mass trade unionism for women in Britain. The character in Peaky Blinders is a worthy tribute, especially when she bargains for equal pay for women with Tommy Shelby. In fact, and more generally, it is worth watching Peaky Blinders for the gender angle alone, an angle usually given only a passing glance in a gangster movie.

Peaky Blinders is not a historically accurate TV series. For example, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), the leader of the Peaky Blinders, claimed that he (and Churchill) fought at the Somme and Verdun when Winston Churchill had temporarily left politics for active military service following his role in championing the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign. However, no British soldiers were involved in the Battle of Verdun, the largest and longest battle of the war; it was a French-German battleground that went on for ten months in 1916.

There are other historical errors and oversights, as well as many implausible dramatic touches. Peaky Blinders was a real Birmingham gang in the 1890s with the usual well-dressed, powerful and ruthless mobsters, but, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, none with the intellectual capacities and emotional range of Tommy Shelby. Further, the gang had disappeared by the 1920s. And even then, gangs consisted of “toughs” rather than mobsters engaged in organized crime. On the other hand, Billy Kimber (Charlie Creed-Miles), who is killed at the end of the first year’s series, was a real historical character who controlled race courses. As in Peaky Blinders, he was murdered.

Nevertheless, the series goes beyond being terrific and enters into the realm of speculative historiography in trying to portray that history in terms of underlying competing forces. Further, just as leaders of gangs try both to avenge their fathers and exalt their memories, statesmen are little different. Winston Churchill in one of his published speeches said of his own father, Lord Randolph, when he died, “All my dreams of companionship with him, of entering Parliament at his side and in his support were ended. There remained only for me to pursue his aims and vindicate his memory.”

In the opening episode of Peaky Blinders, the British government, via orders of Winston Churchill, presumably then in his capacity as Minister of Munitions, was sending machine guns to Libya in 1919. There is no explanation of why Britain would be doing this. But any superficial knowledge of history suggests that Britain was supplying those arms to Italy to support its colonization of that country, the legacy of which remains with us to this day. Italy then controlled the coast of what is now Libya; it did not control the hinterland. British assistance was critical in the Italian Tripolitania and Cyrenaica campaigns.

Much more locally in terms of historical realism, as a result of the industrial revolution, Sparkhill was developed in 1890 with industries and working-class housing. It even had its own pub like The Garrison. Settled initially by immigrants from Ireland, in our time Pakistanis would take their place. The area was annexed by Birmingham in 1911 and Sparkhill evolved into an inner-city area one year after Libya was first colonized by Italy. In 1919, a factory of the BSA Company located in Sparkhill had an exclusive contract to refurbish and dispose of surplus munitions, including Lewis guns left over from WWI.

Just as the gangs in Britain recruited mercenaries to their ranks in rivalries with other gangs, Italy employed mercenaries from Somalia and Eritrea to expand its empire. The world of domestic gangs mirrored the imperial struggles in the larger world and played bit parts in those struggles. The recruits were also vicious killers. Just as the factory workers were organized by the communist party of Britain, supported by Russia (another element woven through the series), and went on wildcat strikes and participated in general strikes, the Arabs revolted in 1919. Italy needed guns to put down the rebellion. And Britain needed to keep the stolen guns out of the hands of the IRA then conducting a civil war in Ireland, another thread in the TV series and a link to real historical events.

As the forces of nationalism, of fascism, of communism, of imperialism, rivaled one another, they also do so in Peaky Binders as a critical ingredient in the background. Locally, gangs were rooted in ethnicities – Gypsy, Irish, Jewish, Italian – internationally the rivalries were rooted in nationalities dressed up in ideologies. But the gangs on the ground in Britain were inherently capitalist, which gave them the economic push to advance their success.

The local scale reflected the international one. In 1922 in Birmingham, there was a truce between Billy Kimber, the historical real leader of the successor to Peaky Blinders, and the Sabinis. Just as in the series, gangs made temporary truces to advance their positions against other rivals. The Sabinis historically were the kings of the racehorse gangs controlling betting and racing in southern England. This Italian gang reputedly had 300 Sicilian “soldiers.” Nightclubs served as fronts for its backroom activities of extortion and robbery, and the gang was protected by police in its pay.

On the international scale, recall that Benito Mussolini, based on the theories of the philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, became Prime Minister of Italy in 1922 when Churchill had been elevated to Secretary of State for the Colonies. Mussolini was the first major leader in the post-WWI period to apply the principles of fascism and is erroneously often given credit for inventing that ideology. The British aristocracy, upper classes and wealthy industrialists largely remained silent backers of the fascists through the Economic League, an organization that plays an important part in the series in exchanging support “in high places” to Tommy Shelby at critical points in return for “favours,” namely targeted killings.

Founded in 1919, the Economic League in Britain was also a historical entity, a real McCarthyist entity organized by aristocratic landowners, industrialists, intelligence and army officers to counter lower class “subversion” and attacks on the free enterprise system of wealth accumulation. It was founded by Reginald Hall, who had been Director of Naval Intelligence under Winston, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. In 1925, as depicted in the series, the Economic League played a critical role in breaking the United Kingdom general strike of 1926 depicted in the third series.

In the second series, Churchill directs Campbell, then a Director of Intelligence, to find an assassin. Campbell traps Tommy Shelby into carrying out the assassination of Field Marshal Henry Russell. John Shelby initially drops an explosive device through the letter slot, and this seemed to shift the place of the assassination to Epsom Downs so that Tommy Shelby could escape the trap set for him by Campbell.

I presume, but I am not sure, that the Field Marshall was Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, who was a Unionist politician briefly and played a role in the suppression of the IRA in the 1919-1921 war. He was assassinated in June of 1922 by two IRA gunmen, not the Peaky Blinders, and it was on his doorstep, not Epson Downs. Poetic license?

But why would Churchill organize such an assassination in the first place? At the end of 1921, the British and the provisional Irish government signed a treaty to create The Irish Free State. Just as in Peaky Binders, efforts were made by the Economic League to sabotage both this treaty and British relations with the USSR by pinning the blowing up of the train carrying arms to the Italians in Libya onto the communists who were funded by Moscow. Churchill was adamantly opposed both to Irish independence and British relations with the communist USSR. The assassination of Wilson helped ignite the Irish Civil War in 1922.

Plausible, but I am doubtful if it was historically true, but it could have been. In any case, if Tommy Selby knew of this and revealed this British scandal, the results would have been far more devastating in Britain than the Contra Scandal was years later in America. This meant that Tommy Selby did indeed hold a Sword of Damocles over the power of the upper classes.

Even more realistic is the later plot in the series when Winston allegedly wanted to subvert the Labour Government of Ramsay MacDonald who had taken power in 1924. That government sought to forge closer ties with the USSR. Churchill was dedicated to “strangling Bolshevism in its cradle” and freeing Britain of communist-controlled unions. An incident in which the Reds, financed by Moscow, would be blamed for blowing up an English train could easily have brought down the MacDonald government.

Peaky Blinders is about rejecting genteel multiculturalism at the same time as one takes the centre of politics to be about identity rather than class or capital. Thus, in voting, people vote and sacrifice for their tribe even if against their self-interest. In this model of politics, we have a reflection again of the rising right as was the case one hundred years ago. We also have a situation where politics is a matter of traps, of Machiavellianism and deceit as necessary means to get out of blind ends.

They are traps because, whether in the Ukraine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Brexit, vicious gangs in the Philippines, nuclear proliferation, climate change debates pitching jobs against apparently doomsday scenarios following climate change, two opposing and mutual exclusive alternatives are put forth. Tommy Shelby’s brilliance is his ability to think non-ideologically and laterally for a way out of the trap, in his case, much worse, more of a tunnel. If you are innovative, if you are clever enough, if you are far-seeing, there is often a third way around a trap.

Is the international system merely one alliance of gangs at war with a different set of ruthless allies? Donald Trump would have us believe not only that it is so, but that this is the only reality.  He would have us all believe that we are trapped with no exit from the forces of bigotry and self-interest.

Gangsters: Peaky Blinders – Part I of II

If you are going to understand Noah and his character, if you are going to understand the building of the ark and the flood that followed, if you are going to understand the Tower of Babel (Migdal Bavel) tale and effort to have everyone speak the same language and have the same thoughts in contrast to a world of linguistic differences and tribal warfare, if you are going to understand Noah’s downfall afterwards as a vintner and drunk, if you are going to understand why Ham, who saw his father naked and spread the word (he was a snitch), and Shem and Japheth covered up their father and refused to look at what was in front of their eyes, if you want to understand the world they inherited and the role Abram played, in contrast to Noah’s expression of the banality of goodness, to radically change it you have to understand what immediately preceded it all.

What preceded it all was the fifth generation after Cain killed his brother, Abel. You have to understand the generation of a murderer like Lamech. And to understand Lamech, it is helpful to understand both gangsters and how they are portrayed in movies and television series.

In Genesis in the accounting of Cain’s descendants (Genesis 4:17- 22), Cain begets Enoch (cities are formed) who begat Irad who begat Mehujael who begat Methusael who begat Lamech (a gangster) who begat Jubal (a nomad) and a brother who played music and, via a second wife, Zillah, Tubal-Cain who was a blacksmith forging instruments of copper and iron. Seven generations in all.  It is the sixth that interests me here, five generations after Cain.

Lamech confessed to both his wives, Adah and Zillah, that he killed someone who had wounded him, as well as a second person, a younger lad for bruising him. (4:23). Then he pronounced the rule that governed his conduct. “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-seven fold.” (4:24) Was killing people who slight or cross him revenge for what Cain did, for what was done to Cain (possible), or was it a vow made that, in contrast to God who would only deliver punishment sevenfold, he was far more ruthless and would do so seventy-seven fold?

First, vengeance was possible because of superiority in armaments. Lamech had a son who forged advanced weapons of metal. Of the blacksmith’s two step brothers, one was a nomad and the other a musician, alternative lifestyles where success is not pursued as a life goal, or, at least, success measured in material accumulation and social as distinct from artistic status.

There is a parallel development. Adam and Eve had a third son besides Cain and Abel. His name was Seth and he had a son Enosh, which means man. From the first line of births emerged a search for recognition and status and a willingness to murder if necessary for it, as well as two alternative anti-social paths into aesthetics or a nomadic life. From the second line emerged man proper (the meaning of Enosh) who was the first to invoke the Lord by name. He was religious. We thus have four lines:

  1. An industrial inventor, and the gangster who was not only dependent upon him, but like him, for he eschewed aesthetics, travel and religion;
  2. A musician;
  3. A rootless nomad;
  4. A religious man.

The inventive industrialist or businessman is simply the acceptable side of the gangster. Both have in common a search for status and recognition. Both also have in common a determination to achieve their objectives and often to sacrifice social norms to do so. Both sides can be expressed as two sides of the same Janus-faced character. Gangsters live by revenge and killing. Businessmen try to achieve the same results within the realm of society’s laws. And there is the range in between.

To flesh out the meaning and significance of this way of life, it is helpful to go beyond the terse language of the Torah to the tough world of gangsters. One series that surpasses The Godfather films is the Netflix British series, Peaky Blinders, set firmly in the industrial town of Birmingham with the lead Gypsy gangster of the family, “the godfather,” Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy. (I have yet to see The Wire or Boardwalk Empire or Hell on Wheels so I cannot make any comparison to those series.) However, rooting the series in the immediate post-WWI period, in the poverty of the twenties, in the PTSD of the survivors of the war and, most of all, in the rivalries between Imperial Britain, Communist Russia and, more removed, the evangelical America and its ineffectual efforts at prohibition, offer a very distinctive flavour and larger than life sense to the narrative.

Given the series brilliant cast in all of its characters, given the settings, the music, the cinematography and lighting, the costumes, the direction and, most of all, the brilliant script, even if you watch Peaky Blinders as simply a gangster film, it is well worth the time. But at least pay attention to the oxymoron of the title which, in literal terms refers to the peaks of workers caps and the razors sewn into them by the gangsters to blind their opponents. But peaky refers to a glancing look into that of which we are also blind.

Tommy Selby is often portrayed walking down a road in Birmingham with blast furnaces in the background. It is a depiction of hell. It is where he belongs, but also aspires to leave and enter the normal world of purportedly non-vengeful civility. He learns that the world he aspires to join is akin to the same one he occupies, but his is naked.

In the series, the gangster life is both ascetic and carnal. Like Lamech, monogamy was not part of the equation, even in the case of Tommy Shelby who had a deep love for his first girlfriend before he went off to war and for his wife Grace (Annabelle Wallis) – the meaning of her name is patently clear. He met his wife when she was serving as a spy for the British Secret Service, like Zillah, the shady. Grace dies when she tried to shade Tommy Shelby from being murdered by someone seeking vengeance.

What stands out in Tommy Shelby’s character is his inventiveness, his industriousness, his creativity, his ability to respond quickly, not only to opportunities but to moments that would bring anyone else to the point of despair. And it is clear that Tommy Shelby is after the material accoutrements of power and position, and loves the adoration and respect he receives from those who both respect and fear him. He is also determined. What he so explicitly lacks is any respect for God or fear of death – a characteristic that makes him so successful as a gangster. As Polly Shelby (Helen McCrory), his aunt, says, when you stick your head in a noose and come out the other side, then you are free. For you are totally unafraid to die. All life after the noose is a bonus.

Tommy Shelby’s inventiveness, his creativity, his ability to plot and scheme in the face of the maneouvers of more powerful adversaries, however, proves over and over again to be insufficient. He is merciless, he is ruthless, in his efforts. And what seems to make it all possible is that he was a tunneller or sapper, the most dangerous military assignment in WWI, a war hero in WWI in France, practiced in the arts of digging tunnels under his enemies and blowing their tunnels up. But a tunnel collapsed on him. However, he was resurrected from what seemed a certain death.

Tommy Shelby, like Lamech, would not and did seek the favour and acknowledgement of God. Nor would he succumb to self-pity like Cain when God recognized another. Further, like Adam and Eve, like Cain who would lie to God and say he did not know where his brother was after he had killed him, Tom Selby could really lie. In fact, his whole art of fighting his rivals depended on deceit and trapping them. Hence the ending of the fourth series which I watched last evening. But in one other and more important respect he was very much like Cain. Cain also uttered the categorical imperative of the foundation of gangsterism – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is more than an oxymoron; it is a double entendre.

The question is very ambiguous. On the one hand it could put forth the conviction that my brother’s well-being is not my responsibility. I am not my brother’s keeper. On the other hand, there is the implication that being one’s brother’s keeper is a moral norm which God would impose, namely, that we are responsible for everyone else on the planet. We are our brothers’ keepers. But there is a third meaning – I am my brother’s keeper because it is only my blood brothers whom I can trust. Everyone else is potentially my enemy. Anyone who hurts or threatens my kin will be killed. Anyone who insults or slights my kin may also be killed. For what we want for our family is respect.

The most successful gangsters are the ones who are their brother’s keepers and build the family criminal business on the foundation of an enormous pool of trust between and among brothers and, more broadly, others who become part of the family. Lose that family, lose that trust and you open yourself to becoming a victim rather than a winner – again see the final episode of the first four series. Gangsterism, in the end, is a family business. To avoid Cain’s fate, to avoid his father’s fate that was built on the destruction of brotherly love, to avoid becoming like his father, a rootless traveller who would easily cheat his own children, he develops this third expression of brotherly love into a fine art.

Unlike Cain, no burden was too great to bear, no weighty decision and no brutal beating. Cain cannot settle down and become a successful farmer but must expose himself to a brutish world. God offers Cain protection; no one will kill you, God promises. Anyone who does will be avenged seven times. But for Lamech, he will be the avenger. If anyone tries to kill him or his family, he will be avenged seventy-seven times. Further, like Lamech, Thomas Selby is continually and repeatedly addressing his brothers and other family members; “Hear my voice. Hearken unto my speech.” Not God’s. The family meetings, the one-on-one asides, are all critical to the operation of the family business.

If one son is a musician, Lamech is at base a poet, a creative artist. In the Torah, what we read is an ode of Hebrew parallelism in rhythm, sentiment and style. It matches the practical choices of two roads that diverge in a wood and Tommy must always choose one, and never the obvious one. There is a rhythmic pacing caught on film in the collective walks of the women and men down the road of the blast furnaces or housing estates of Birmingham. Among such ruthless gangsters, it is almost shocking, but totally convincing, how much sentiment and caring ties them all together. Further, each even dresses in a paradoxical style, of higher and richer style as they rapidly grow wealthier, but never leaving behind the working class caps that define their socially low origins.

The family business is originally based on illegal numbers and betting. Through the series, it gradually morphs into more and more legitimate businesses as they acquire pubs and then racetracks and then industrial factories and housing estates. Always, they are practical. Always, they pursue the thing of this life and disdain any so-called higher calling. In fact, the most despicable characters in the series – the head of the British secret service, Chief Inspector Chester Campbell played by Sam Neill and Father John Hughes (Paddy Considine), a corrupt priest and child molester – are not the most sinister ones.

Though sinister, the Cockney leader of the Jewish gang on Canary Wharf in London, Alfie Solomons, and Charles “Darby” Sabini, the leader of the largest Italian mob in London, are not despicable. They weave their respective Jewish and Catholic religions into their murderous lives but make no claim that they are acting on behalf of God. Chief Inspector Campbell (promoted to Chief of Staff for British Intelligence in the second series) and Father Hughes are outright hypocrites. As Chief Inspector Campbell intones, “I have the love of God, and the certainty of salvation,” even as his fury, resentment and betrayals shame the devil.

Tommy Selby never makes any such claim. When his older brother Arthur, under the influence of his wife, wants to move in that direction, Tommy Shelby subverts it with the attraction of money, of sex and of brotherly solidarity.

Aside from the absolutely marvellous acting among the many varied characters – other than Tom Selby, I liked who played the Cockney London gangster Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy) with a pithy richness and a vocabulary derived from both the Torah and the streets, and Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody), the Italian gangster from New York bent on revenge for the death of his father and brother at the hands of the gypsy gang, the Peaky Blinders, led by Tom Shelby. The story is triply rich because it is: a) historically rooted and b) reflects the view that the so-called civilized world is simply the world of family rivalries writ large and with a genteel patella. (See Part II of this blog)

For example, in the fourth and last episode of the series, with each series consisting of eight 45 minute episodes, Vicente Changretta, if you google him, was a leader of the Changretta mob in New York involved in the illegal liquor business during prohibition and in a continuing rivalry with Al Capone’s mob. Vicente went to Birmingham, England, the city controlled by the Peaky Blinders, to attend his cousin’s wedding. He and his son, Angel, were gunned down by the local Birmingham mob in their conflict with an Italian mob from London. This was the source of the vendetta and Luca Changretta’s determination to avenge his brother’s and his father’s deaths and became the most serious threat to the Shelbys and their family business.

To understand the real depth of the series in both actual history as well as profound myth, it is important to trace the full range of how this series is written both into real history as well as a universal trope of mankind. (Part II)


With the help of Alex Zisman

Donald Trump and UNRWA: Part V – Impacts on Israel and the Palestinian Authority

Israel and the PA agree on at least one issue. Providing funding of the refugees through UNRWA is primarily a political rather than an economic issue. Israel in the past was willing to set aside its political principles, correct or not, whether you agree with them or not, in favour of ensuring that funds flowed through UNRWA for the benefit of the Palestinian people. This appears to no longer be the case. It has never been the case with the Palestinian government which would rather stand on principle than accept the temptation of a pot of gold.

Though the Palestinians in general and the Palestinian refugees in particular have been most affected by the American cancellation of its contributions to UNRWA, many states have been affected as well, most specifically, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Nir Barkat is the outgoing mayor of Jerusalem. A few days ago, he announced plans to terminate the services of UNRWA in the city. For him, there are no refugees living in Jerusalem. Those in the one refugee camp, Shu’fat, are on the other side of the separation barrier. Camp Aida is 2 km. north of Bethlehem and a km. north of Beit Jala, again on the other side of the separation barrier. These refugee camps are not considered to be integral to Jerusalem, the city considered part of Israel by the current Israeli government. All residents within Jerusalem, including Palestinians in East Jerusalem, carry an Israeli identity card.

Overtly, cancelling the American contribution is designed to shift the concept of “the right of return” further from central stage. Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly in September of this year was entitled, “Jerusalem is not for sale.” According to Abbas, speaking on behalf of the PA, “A very important point. The American administration said the number of refugees is only 40,000. O brother, how have you calculated 40,000? Ask UNRWA. Of course, they now do not want UNRWA. They want to get rid of it so that the refugee issues will end forever. The agency was established in 1949 to help refugees until their issue ends. Until now, their issue has not ended. From the 13 million of our people, 6 million are refugees. Not 40,000 as they say in the American administration. They are also abrogating facts. They calculate and decide to abrogate the agency and the world will listen to it. No. That will not happen.”

In contrast to the Abbas appeal to what he regards as high principle, the mechanics of implementing the Barkat plan on behalf of Israel are grounded, simple and have long been proposed, but heretofore resisted by Israel lest economic assistance for Palestinian refugee fall on Israel’s shoulders. Under Barkat’s plan, schools and medical services proffered by UNRWA would be shifted to municipal authorities. According to Barkat, those living in East Jerusalem, “are in fact residents of Jerusalem with an Israeli ID card. As such, [they] are entitled to [services] of the State of Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality.” UNRWA would no longer have any role in Jerusalem as the education, health and welfare ministry of Palestinian refugees in East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has a radically different approach as might be expected. On the one hand, the PA had always been attracted to the idea of obtaining its hands on the funds provided to UNRWA that service Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But it will not, in its words, sell out its principles for a bag of loot. What are those principles:

  1. The PA regards cutting the assistance to UNRWA and Palestinian hospitals in “occupied East Jerusalem” as an assault on the principle of self-determination applied to the Palestinian people additional to closing the PLO office in Washington, American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the move of its embassy following such recognition, and the shifting of the right of return, Jerusalem and security off the agenda of the peace negotiations.
  2. The PA will not accept the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court that Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem can be divided vertically between the buildings on the surface and the land beneath and instead accuse Israeli settlers and even the Israeli army of trampling daily “on the holiness of holy sites, including the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.”
  3. The PA will not consider the division of East Jerusalem along the lines presumed by Barkat or even any split between Muslim areas of the old city and the rest; “Peace in our region cannot be realized without an independent Palestinian State, with East Jerusalem as its capital and with all of its holy sites…. East Jerusalem that was occupied in 1967 is our capital.”
  4. The PA insists that, “the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) [is] the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and will consider all aid supplied to Gaza, even for the sake of the refugees, must go through the PA rather than Hamas; this includes oil shipments from Qatar, but does not insist that aid flowing through UNRWA go via the PA.

Even though, in ideal terms, the PA wants funds destined for UNRWA on behalf of the refugees to flow through the PA, it does not champion such an outcome. On the other hand, for the PA, the deprivation of funds for and through UNRWA is one step too far in the deprivation of the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination by humiliating the PA in offering those funds as a temptation. “While we welcome all the economic and humanitarian support to our people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip through the legitimate Palestinian institutions, we refuse that this support be considered a substitute to a political solution.”

It is surprising that such a conviction seems to be held even more strongly than threats to cancel existing funding if the PA does not give up its financial support of those labeled terrorists by Israel and martyrs by the PA. With absolutely no recognition of any contradiction, popular resistance, as the PA labels it, is an integral part of its commitment to peace. On the one hand, the PA insists: “We will reject and we reject the use of force and violence.” On the other hand, Abbas insists, “I pay tribute to our honorable martyrs and courageous prisoners. Israel considers them criminals. Why? It has thousands of people who have attacked everyone? They are heroes. Why is Rabin’s killer considered a hero and we, our group, is considered criminals? I salute our heroic martyrs and heroic prisoners.”

There is a blatant irony of course. Israel will now support cancelling UNRWA funding even if it means strengthening the independence, unity and integrity of the Palestinian Authority. The PA, on the other hand, stands on principle and will not even consider the possible temptation of funds and reinforcing itself as the single and unified authority of the Palestinian people even though it is in an existential conflict with Hamas. But irony is the rule rather than the exception in ME matters and particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Fern Mednick

My mother and my Aunt Gladys were not only sisters, they were best friends. They had worked along side one another as teenagers and took holidays together as older adults. Because I have often been out of the country, we have spent only about 60 Passover dinners with the Garelick family, the married name of my aunt. Yesterday morning, not long after my blog was sent out, I received a phone call from my late Aunt Gladys’ son-in-law. We shared the same name, Howard. He was in his car on his way to the Baycrest palliative care unit. Fern, my first cousin, my Aunt Gladys’ only daughter, Howard’s wife, had just died. An official notice of death and her picture can be found on the Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel web site.

Fern will be buried this morning. The shiva will be held at her daughter Jordana’s home, where, for the last decade or so, we have celebrated Passover and broken the fast on Rosh Hashana, succeeding the rituals once conducted in her parents’ home. I will spend the rest of this week there saying Kaddish each evening. It will be a very different time than the ones spent watching the two daughters of Jordana and her husband, Bram, and the two daughters of Jordana’s brother, Avi, and his wife, Jessica, perform and dance and sing at every festival. Rachel, Amy, Sammy and Leigh will miss having their Bubbie in their lives when they pass into their teenage years.

Fern had a brother, Steve, her only sib. Steve is married to Carol. They too have children. And grandchildren. They too will be at the funeral along with other friends and relatives.  But the focus will be on the begats, on those whom Fern and Howard begat.

Fern and Howard had three children. In addition to Avi, the eldest, Jordana, the youngest, there was Danny, the middle child. Fern has been a physiotherapist and Howard remained an athlete to this day. Avi, their son, was a champion swimmer who went to an American university on a swimming scholarship. Though Danny was born with handicaps in the use of one arm and leg, he swam and went horseback riding. He was always taught to do the best he could. And he did. He matured to become a confident adult who was self-reliant with an amazing warm and wispy smile. Jordana, who was for a few years my youngest children’s Hebrew teacher and subsequently the principal organizer for the TV show that I produced and hosted, first became a teacher and is now a personal trainer.

The horrible irony was that the mother in this very fit family in every sense of the word, that Fern, my smiling cousin who competed with her mother Gladys in baking the best deserts I ever ate, particularly the cinnamon buns of my Aunt Gladys, died of Parkinson’s disease. Since she fell backwards on the stairs after working out in her basement a few years ago, we have watched her body betray her, gradually at first and then far more swiftly this past year when she has been unable to walk, dress, feed herself and, in the last few months, had become a crippled and bent over version of her former lively and energetic self.

My brother Al would have been 82 in three days. This same month, 4 days earlier, but in 1999 and not 2018, my brother died. It was a horrible death that took over a year as a blastoma ate away his brain, his senses, his motor controls, his memory and his thought processes. At the end, for months he was in a coma.

This morning I had a dream. I was sleeping in someone else’s bed in a house that was like the one we lived in when I was ten years old. I had heard a loud noise on the stairs. My wife did not wake up in the narrow bed on which we were sleeping. She continued to sleep under her covers with her back to me. And, try as I might, I could not remember who my wife was.

I went out of the room. My younger brother, Stan, appeared from another room. Together we went to find the source of the noise. It was my older brother noisily coming up the stairs. But he did not look like Al. He looked like my grandson Jacob, a bit confused and lost. And I suddenly noticed that my brother Stan looked like my grandson, Micah. But he did not act like the bouncy Micah we both knew. Jacob and Micah’s middle brother was Sasha. I must have looked like him. When I checked in a mirror, he was very angry. He looked enraged.

Fern’s death makes me angry. I should not feel anger, but I do. Yesterday, I tried to recall memories of when I babysat her and her brother, Steve. I tried to recall our times together when they were children and I was a teenager. I could not. I could remember our families together at many seder tables, but no sooner did the memory come up than it was crowded out by images of my cousin crippled up in her wheel chair. I could remember Fern and Howard coming up to the cottage with Jordana and Bram and loads of bread, bagels and sliced deli meats. I could remember Fern going for a swim. But those memories seemed so fleeting compared to the ones of this last year.

I am angry that the latest memories are so painful and push aside the earlier very happy moments. I am angry that it is not only my memories of my cousin, but that so many other parts of reality have been forced out of place. Her death in my mind expands into historical significance.

In economics, higher interest rates reduce or “crowd out” private investment and, hence, growth. Similarly, bad memories reduce our ability to access the good ones which encourage us to thrive. Fortunately, Howard, who, over the last few years, spent time with Fern in the care unit of Baycrest every day, has recently discovered a new vocation – teaching music appreciation in a novel way. He now has his first paid gig at Ryerson University. Fortunately, as well, at the funeral and at the shiva, the family will regroup. Together, the good memories will come back and we will all rejoice in Fern’s life.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Donald Trump and UNRWA: Part IV – Right of Return and Hamas

Hamas, Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement, took over the Gaza Strip through the ballot box in 2007. It was founded when the PLO in the late 1980s began considering making peace and recognizing Israel. Other than the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that informs its ethics and conduct, unlike the PLO, Hamas has a historical reputation for honesty and integrity. It also adamantly opposed, not simply the recognition of Israel, but Israel’s existence. Hamas has fought three major wars with Israel in a decade in power.

Hamas is most closely associated in ideology with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which occupied Gaza until 1967.  For many observers, the puzzle is why Hamas has been so dogmatically antithetical to the existence of Israel when it initially was supported by Israel as an alternative to the PLO because Hamas was not then belligerent in its dealings with Israel. That was clearly Israel’s mistake, for its 1988 charter explicitly states as its goal the elimination of Israel. That is why Hamas has been so unswerving on insisting on the right of return, for Hamas agrees with Israel that the return of millions of Palestinians would mean the end of Israel.

Initially, when its military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, engaged in cross-border raids and suicide bombings, Israel branded Hamas as a terrorist organization. That was soon after its founding shortly after the First Intifada However, during the Second Intifada at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Hamas became more of a standing army in Gaza, initially by launching rocket attacks against Israel and, once it took control of Gaza, engaging in open warfare. When Israel moved from reprisals to invasions after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas, instead of trying to construct a peaceful polity side-by-side Israel, used the territory as a launching pad for military excursions across the border.

There have been many discussions about why Ariel Sharon decided to uproot the Israeli settlements in Gaza and launch a unilateral withdrawal, or, as it was called, a disengagement. Demographic consideration was the main one, that is, keeping Israeli control only in areas with a preponderance of Israelis. Hamas dubbed it an “expulsion” or Hitnatkut.

The idea of unilateral withdrawal was first proposed by the Left in Israel in the conviction that, once the government in Gaza assumed responsibility for the territory and its inhabitants, it would be tamed by its new responsibilities. Sharon’s son, Gilad, took credit for proposing the plan to his father. Hamas would be less prone to engaging in military activities. Ariel Sharon adopted the idea in 2003 and had it approved by the Knesset in 2004.

The expectations proved to be wrong, especially after Hamas won the elections in 2006 and broke with the Palestinian Authority in rejecting the Oslo Accords and any reconciliation with Israel. Truces were OK, but not peace.

Why then did the Palestinians in Gaza give Hamas their support when opinion surveys showed that a majority of Palestinians in Gaza supported peace with Israel? There are several reasons. First, though a majority of Palestinians in Gaza supported peace and many Gazans wanted to continue their practice of working in Israel, a majority of Palestinian refugees opposed making such a peace. Palestinians with refugee roots constituted over half the population of Gaza. A very large majority of the indigenous population of Gaza supported peace to offset the majority of Palestinian refugees opposed to peace.

However, the attitude to Israel and the fundamentalist religious streak do not alone account for the rise to power of Hamas. Hamas defined itself as honest, as the champion of the rights of the downtrodden and deprived and as an alternative to the corrupt and condescending PLO rooted much more strongly in the indigenous population.  In January 2006, Hamas won a plurality of seats from Gaza to the Palestinian Parliament. Economic pressure tactics by financial donors then became serious and further aid was made conditional on recognition of Israel and the adoption of non-violence. Instead, Hamas upped the ante and by 2007 had taken over control of the security forces in Gaza in the 2007 Battle of Gaza. The economic pressure tactics did not work and, in fact, helped bring about the opposite, a government in Gaza committed to belligerency against Israel.

When the PLO and the Palestinian Authority civil servants were ousted from their positions in Gaza, Israel with the backing of the U.S. and Egypt, imposed a blockade. Successive efforts of Hamas to forge a reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority have been unsuccessful. Even when agreements were signed, there were claims by each side that the other was not living up to the terms of the reconciliation agreement.

At a deeper level, Hamas had won status as the authentic representatives of the Palestinian soul even when this was at odds with any pragmatic peace agreement. The Hamas network of social services on the ground helped it earn the trust of those most in need, aided considerably by extensive external support from Turkey with the accession of Tayyip Erdoğan to power.

A final factor at a deeper level made Hamas more intransigent. If Abbas in the West Bank had a record of minimizing the Holocaust and of latent antisemitism. Hamas had a record of Holocaust denial and of blatant antisemitism. Hamas declared war on UNRWA in 2009 when it planned to include references to the Holocaust in its text books. UNRWA ran two-thirds of the schools in Gaza and Hamas accused UNRWA of running a rival government. What would have happened if we had succeeded in redirecting funds for UNRWA to the government of Gaza as part of the peace process and ending the preservation of Palestinian refugees as a separate constituency?

erhaps the results of Hamas control would have been no different since UNRWA folded under Hamas pressure and deleted the “offensive” passages from its text books. Further, this breakout towards independence stood out as an exception, for none of the UNRWA schools in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria had made any such effort. This was also true of the schools under UNRWA auspices in The West Bank then controlled by the IDF with regard to security.

UNRWA tried to introduce objective history However, UNRWA folded in other ways, in allowing its schools and hospitals to be used by Hamas militants as “safe havens” for arms and soldiers who had been wounded as well as for planning operations in its successive wars against Israel. The effort to make UNRWA more independent and objective backfired and UNRWA operations de facto fell under the thumb of Hamas in total contradiction to its supposed international control.

Hamas efforts to control UNWRA reached a successful pinnacle in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s cancellation of American grants to UNRWA. The sweeping cuts were used to lay off mostly excess staff and reduce the payroll to bring wages more in line with prevailing Gazan wage scales. The UNRWA Gaza headquarters were seized in reprisal. Most of the international staff and the families of international staff members fled to Israel. This forced UNRWA to issue a statement that its Gazan headquarters had been “partially occupied;” in reality, the Gaza headquarters then came directly under the control of Hamas.

In open breach of an impartiality rule supposedly governing UNRWA, Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, visited the seized headquarters, even though Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the EU and the US, was explicitly banned from entry. In sum, the cancellation of US donations to UNRWA had resulted in enhanced control of the portion of UNRWA serving the largest numbers of Palestinians.

In ten years, from 2008 to 2018, U.S. contributions had shot up from $96 million to $350 million and from 12% of its budget to almost 30%. That era ended abruptly in August. The indirect result was the integration of UNRWA operations in Gaza into one under the control of Hamas, even if formally kept separate. It is difficult to see at this point how this could possibly benefit the peace process.


With the help of Alex Zisman