This page presents a selection of recent articles under my masthead

15 May, 2014

Sudanese atrocity renders Christian complaints insane

American Christians who feel they are being “persecuted” by their own society regarding such matters as TV science shows challenging their “creationist” beliefs, or by a US court legalizing gay marriage in Arkansas because, plausibly enough, there is no “rational” argument against it, might do well to take their eyes off of Fox News for a few moments and learn something about real Christian persecution in the 21st century. No, I don’t expect them to study the historical tragedy of the systematic destruction of millennia-old Christian congregations in American-dominated Iraq, let alone in Israeli-occupied Palestine, nor do they need to wade into the ongoing Christian-Muslim clash in Nigeria. No, a single case in Sudan reveals the worst example of Christian persecution since Nero first started feeding the faithful to his lions in the Circus Maximus.

As international wire services are reporting this week, Meriam Ibrahim, a 27-year-old Sudanese woman – who is the mother of a 20-month-old son, incarcerated with her, and who also happens to be eight months pregnant with her next child – was sentenced by a sharia court on Sunday to 100 lashes and then death by hanging. And, yes, extra points to you if you noticed that Sunday, May 11, was Mother’s Day in most of the world. Her offense: “Adultery” and “apostasy.”

Well, those are pretty serious charges, and I imagine that many an American Christian might also demand a harsh punishment for such crimes if they could bend the courts in their direction. After all, wasn’t it George H. W. Bush who opined that “I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots"? As the former president concluded: "This is one nation under God."

But issues of religious ethics aren’t always as simple as they seem in the light of the Bible or the Koran. You see, Ibrahim’s “apostasy” arises from the fact that her Muslim father abandoned the family when she was still a small child, and so her Christian mother raised her Orthodox – a faith that is regarded as an abomination in Muslim Sudan, which prescribes one religion and one religion only. The inevitable punishment for her crime: Death by hanging.

Now for the adultery bit: Upon reaching adulthood, Ibrahim married a South Sudanese Christian, who happens to hold a US passport. No matter that the marriage certificate is legal, and she has never been married to anyone else: According to Sudan’s version of sharia law, marrying outside the faith represents a clear case of “adultery.” Thus the 100 lashes. It was her own Muslim brother who denounced her to the authorities.

No matter that the US, Canadian, British, and Dutch embassies, along with the entire EU, have lodged a formal complaint with the Sudanese government. No matter that Manar Idriss of Amnesty International has issued the following protest:

The fact that a woman could be sentenced to death for her religious choice, and to flogging for being married to a man of an allegedly different religion, is abhorrent and should never be even considered. “Adultery” and “apostasy” are acts which should not be considered crimes at all, let alone meet the international standard of “most serious crimes” in relation to the death penalty. It is a flagrant breach of international human rights law. 

 Sudan map

Nope, it’s all too little, too late, and too inconsequential. The decision stands. As the Sudanese judge has pointed out to journalists, it’s not as if he didn’t give Ibrahim a chance. This morning, he pleaded with her for half an hour to say the hell to Jesus and convert to Islam. She merely responded: “I’m a Christian, and I have never fallen from the faith.” He then gave her three days to recant. She has not done so. Come to think of it, it sounds like Quo Vadis all over again, minus the lions and the bull.

Ibrahim’s case could set a precedent in Sudan, where there have been no recorded executions for apostasy since the current legal code was enacted in 1991. But flogging and even worse are frequently prescribed as a punishment for alleged sex crimes by women. The best known case was that of a pregnant 18th-year-old Ethiopian woman, who was initially sentenced to stoning for adultery, prostitution and “indecent acts” after being gang-raped by seven Sudanese men in 2013. Finally, they threw her into prison instead.

Speaking of bull, by the way, even a rudimentary awareness of the unfolding tragedy in Sudan this week could conceivably lead American Christians to ponder the true nature of their current complaints against their own astonishingly accommodating society. Let me suggest that 100 lashes and a noose are on a different level than irritation over a TV science show about the origins of the universe.

Now, am I urging some sort of US intervention in Sudan to “save” Meriam Ibrahim from her fate? Far from it. As even Time magazine admits this week in regard to Boko Haram’s mass kidnapping of Nigerian girls for the crime of attending school, “If the past dozen years and actions of the two most recent presidents should have taught us anything, it’s that the U.S. is not particularly adept at solving its own domestic problems, much less those in faraway lands.”

Quo Vadis 

Speaking of bull... Scene from Quo Vadis (Poland, 2001)

Actually, when it comes to defending the faith, it would be more than enough if American Christians would simply withhold their approval from policies that actively destroy the practice of their nominal religion in regions outside the United States. Take, for example, Syria, the “beneficiary” of untold millions of dollars in military aid to Muslim fundamentalist groups keen on toppling President Assad and driving out the religious minorities this Alawite dictator protects before setting up a Sudanese-style sharia regime of their own on America’s dollar. As Antoine Audo, the long-suffering Chaldean Catholic bishop of Syria, recently wrote in the Daily Telegraphfrom the ruins of his cathedral:

Until the war began, Syria was one of the last remaining strongholds for Christianity in the Middle East. We have 45 churches in Aleppo. But now our faith is under mortal threat, in danger of being driven into extinction, the same pattern we have seen in neighbouring Iraq.

Most Christians who could afford to leave Aleppo have already fled for Lebanon, so as to find schools for their children. Those who remain are mostly from poor families. Many can no longer put food on the table. Last year, even amid intense fighting, you could see people in the streets running around endlessly trying to find bread in one of the shops.


As for me, I have to be careful walking around the city because of the risk of snipers and kidnapping. The fate of two priests snatched on the road from Aleppo to Damascus remains unknown. People fear for my safety and tell me to discard my bishop’s robes or hide away entirely.


But I have faith in God’s protection, hope for our future, and my love of this country and all its peoples will outlast this war.

Yes, yes, I know already: People like Audo and Ibrahim, who are both standing up for their beleaguered faith against inconceivable odds, aren’t “the right kind of Christian.” But this begs the question: Just what is “the right kind of Christian”? Is simply being “born again” à la Pat Robertson or John Hagee enough these days?

Syrian church

A bombed out church in Syria. 

I suppose it’s not up to me to say. But this wretched story in Sudan, and the facts about what’s been going on under our own noses in Syrian and Iraq, remind me of a passage from the Gospel of Luke:

When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are:

Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets.

But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity.

Now I don’t know if there’s a Jesus, or an afterlife. But I figure that, if there is, I’ve got a good idea who the Almighty is going to call onto the carpet – and who’s going to get a free pass to the right hand of the Father.

14 January, 2014

Does Parenthood make us happier? A new study says: Maybe

Do kids make people happier? Those of us without any offspring underfoot often get the hint from our own parents and child-bearing peers that we’re missing out on the experience of a lifetime. And perhaps we are – some of us, at least. But a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences yesterday suggests that many, and perhaps most of us, are actually better off just as we are.

The two-part study by Angus Deaton and Arthur A. Stone of Princeton University surveyed nearly three million persons. The first part studied 1.8 million Americans in the period between 2008 and 2012. Part two looked at 1.07 million persons from 161 foreign countries between 2006 and 2012. The results will surprise many.

In the two surveys, participants were asked how close their own experience approached what they regarded as an ideal life on a scale from zero (lousy) to a perfect ten. Overall, Americans with and without children averaged around seven percent. Looked at more closely, parents with children of all ages came out at 6.82 percent, whereas those without children topped them infinitesimally at 6.84 percent. Parents aged between thirty-four and forty-six were the happiest of all: 6.84 percent thought they were living near ideal lives, whereas childless persons in that age group landed at a slightly more morose 6.51 percent. “Among those [Americans] most likely to be parents,” the authors summarize, “life evaluation and all hedonic [pleasurable] experiences except stress are markedly better among those living with a child. However, within this group, people who live with children are more likely to be married, richer, better educated, more religious, and healthier, all of which have well-documented positive associations with evaluative and hedonic wellbeing.” So it’s too close to call, I’d say.

The results from overseas were similar. Aside from this slight age difference, the researchers found little variation across education, income, religious, and health distinctions in the developed countries. However, as in America, they did discover that parents are more likely to be stressed out and to experience more emotional highs and lows than those without children.

In poorer countries, the figures were much different: Across the board, parents in the developing world regarded life as difficult and unsatisfying. Despite incessant religious propaganda to the contrary, the more children they had to support, the less happy they were.

“We argue that the causal effect of children on parental well-being, which is the target for most of the literature, is not well defined,” the authors write. “Instead, we interpret our rich-country results within a theory of children and well-being in which adults sort into parenthood according to their preferences. In poor, high-fertility countries, we find evidence that at least some people have children even when it diminishes their personal well-being.”

So what does this study really tell us? It seems that not only is the blessedness of parenthood a tossup in the West, at least according to current psychological metrics, but we also still lack a language and a set of questions to measure its meaning and impact on us. It’s unlikely scientists will ever develop adequate metrics to measure the value of a child, or of human life itself – I for one hope they never do – but it’s refreshing to see psychological research being used to dispel outdated and frequently hurtful popular myths. Let’s have more of this, please.


31 October, 2013

NSA talking points shine light on agency's self-image

If you thought the testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA head Keith Alexander before a House committee on Tuesday was just a little too glib, it may be because the talking points they recited rolled over their lips as readily as the ABC song they learned in first grade. Last June, reporter Jason Leopold of Aljazeera filed a Freedom of Information request for the NSA’s talking points when dealing with the burgeoning scandal set off by Edward Snowden’s revelations on massive foreign and domestic spying by the secretive agency. And the official NSA memos, published today by Aljazeera America, sound bizarrely familiar to anyone struggling to keep track of the agency’s compulsive obfuscation.

The first talking point is standard spy talk:


The legality of the NSA’s operations is a big issue (although I can’t help feeling that the lady doth protest just a little too much):




The NSA’s efforts have been both successful and vital to global security:




Even discussing these issues in public is tantamount to treason, and we should all be ashamed of doubting their motives for a moment:






And so forth. No, there’s nothing particularly surprising about any of this. And yet, the memos give some intriguing insight into how certain too-clever-by-half memes are catapulted into public discourse. The NSA memos contain just such a meme for use in Congressional testimony, clearly labeled as a “sound bite that resonates”: 


Smoking guns and mushroom clouds, anyone? Seriously, the only thing that scares me more than this unprecedented power grab by a rogue spy agency is the likelihood that these guys really believe their own talking points, many of which have long since been discredited by new revelations into NSA sneakiness. If they do, we’re really and truly screwed.

6 August, 2013

The USA might still be known as the land of the free and the home of the brave in some quarters, but it's time for a reality check: Another American nation is quickly outstripping it on both accounts. And I'm not just about drones, domestic surveillance, and indefinite detentions!

On Monday, Uruguay formally legalized gay marriage and gay adoption on a nationwide basis. Earlier this year it ensured full abortion rights for all women, and it is now poised to legalize the possession of up to 40 grams of cannabis per citizen per month, freely available for purchase in pharmacies.

Uruguay owes these remarkable achievements to its president, José Mujica (born in 1935), whose leftist Movement of Popular Participation (MPP) swept to power in 2005. A former guerillero of the leftist Tupamaros movement, Mujica was arrested numerous times, was shot by government troops and police on six occasions, and beginning in 1973 he spent fourteen years in military prisons, including two years at the bottom of a well. Freed in an amnesty in 1985, Mujica turned to legitimate politics and gradually worked his way through the system as an MPP leader, becoming a senator, government minister, and finally president in 2010.

While fairly popular among his countrymen and -women, not all Uruguayans are willing to follow Mujica the full nine yards – for example, a recent public opinion poll discovered that 62% of the population do not want to legalize pot. Mujica – who claims he has never tried a joint in his life – merely regards the move as a public safety measure in an effort to eliminate drug crime and suppress a 30 to 40 million dollar black market in the stuff. Would that our leaders could be so pragmatic.


The president may seem extreme by western hemisphere standards, and yet this coastal country of 3.3 million people has something of a tradition when it comes to reform. President José Batlle y Ordoñez (1903-1915) set the tone at the dawn of the twentieth century. Thus Uruguay became the first country in the world to abolish the death penalty back in 1907. It declared itself to be entirely secular in 1917, it was the first in that Catholic-dominated region to give women the right to divorce in 1913 and the right to vote in 1927. Neighbouring Paraguay waited until 1961.

Mujica is said to have the common touch, and it is truly impossible to imagine a president like him in the fleshpots of Washington with its multi-trillion dollar budgets. A farmer by profession, he has foregone the presidential palace for a remote farm, where he spends his spare time growing flowers. There, Mujica matches his progressive spirit with a downright ascetic lifestyle, driving an old Volkswagen Beetle and donating 87% of his income to charity. It’s not for nothing he calls himself “the world’s poorest president.”

And speaking of living brave and free – Mujica is also an atheist. And that fact doesn’t seem to have done him – or the Uruguayans – a bit of harm.the Uruguayans – a bit of harm.

20 September, 2012

Afghan women jailed for "running away"

It’s a joy to hear that the more than sixteen billion dollars in foreign aid we have invested in Afghanistan in just the last four years, let alone the unrelenting occupation of that unfortunate country, have at least bought a fair and equitable judicial system. The first solid proof of this came last December, when President Hamid Karzai announced that he would pardon a jailed woman accused of rape provided that she marry her attacker. The man had impregnated her and she gave birth in prison. Who knows how many years in the slammer she would have gotten otherwise. A bargain, wouldn’t you say?

Now news is coming out of Afghanistan that a full seventy percent of Afghan women being held in prison have been jailed for the crime of running away from abusive households. According to women’s affairs minister Husn Banu Ghazanfar, “Forced marriages, difference in age of couples, violence, divorce comments and several other issues are the main motives which force Afghan girls and married women to flee from their homes.”

And yet, the offence of running away from a violent husband isn’t even listed in the Afghan law books. Fawzia Koufi, chief of the Afghan parliamentarian commission for human rights, civil society and women’s affairs, told theKhaama Press: “This is a major issue and women are jailed over adultery after escaping from their home. If the government does not have a specific law in this regard then it should be referred to us in order to modify a regulation in a bid to clarify the rules and prevent misunderstanding and misuse by Afghan attorney and police regarding the Afghan women.” Good luck with that, sister.

According to figures collected by the International Centre for Prison Studies in 2011, upwards of 600 women are currently being held in Afghan government prisons.

The status of women is evolving swimmingly in other areas as well, as laid out in a new female code of conduct President Karzai endorsed in March of 2012. According to it, "women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with strange men in places such as schools, markets and offices. Beating one's wife is prohibited only if there is no 'sharia-compliant reason,' referring to the principles of Islamic law."

Of course, we’re always told that women’s rights will fall into the toilet if NATO leaves Afghanistan “before the mission has been completed,” but it looks to me like they’re already there – and are flushing down fast. Mission accomplished, Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama?

27 July, 2012

Africa's male circumcision campaign: Boon or boondoggle?

From Open Salon

Just imagine that a simple, harmless, one-time medical procedure could provide you, your loved ones, and all your neighbors with lifetime protection from a deadly epidemic. You’d sign up for it right away, wouldn’t you?

This is precisely what the World Health Organization, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and countless other NGOs and government programs are pushing on the continent of Africa: A comprehensive adult male circumcision campaign aimed at stemming the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemicAccording to the WHO, “Medical male circumcision reduces the risk of female-to-male sexual transmission of HIV by approximately 60%.” Moreover,

Medical male circumcision offers excellent value for money in such settings. It saves costs by averting new HIV infections and reducing the number of people needing HIV treatment and care. A one-time intervention, medical male circumcision provides men life-long partial protection against HIV as well as other sexually transmitted infections.

Thanks to the WHO’s lobbying and financing efforts, countries across Africa are submitting thousands of their male citizens to the operation. Uganda, which has a 6.5% adult infection rate, launched a giant voluntary circumcision program in 2010. In June, 2012, ten Zimbabwean parliament members announced that they would undergo circumcision to set an example to the population as a whole. More than a million Zimbabweans are living with HIV/AIDS.

This is indeed marvelous news. The way Bill Gates and the WHO describe it, circumcision sounds like the greatest invention since penicillin. And yet the story does raise a question: Is it true? Does circumcision really reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS, making it serve as a sort of invisible condom?

Stand proud 

In fact, the pro-circumcision consensus the WHO implies in its statements is largely imaginary. Medical experts the world over doubt the wisdom of the campaign, and some studies suggest it is actually counterproductive. In May of 2011, the Panos Eastern Africa NGO determined that misconceptions about the procedure – specifically the widespread notion that circumcision alone, without taking additional precautions, significantly protects people from HIV/AIDS – was actually encouraging the disease to spread in Uganda. In December of 2011, an article in the Australian Journal of Law and Medicine cited grave flaws in three studies supposedly proving the benefits of male circumcision in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa: “The trials were compromised by inadequate equipoise; selection bias; inadequate blinding; problematic randomisation; trials stopped early with exaggerated treatment effects; and not investigating non-sexual transmission.”

Furthermore, the authors discovered that

In the Ugandan male-to-female trial, there appears to have been a 61% relative increase in HIV infection among female partners of HIV-positive circumcised men. Since male circumcision diverts resources from known preventive measures and increases risk-taking behaviours, any long-term benefit in reducing HIV transmission remains uncertain. 

There is also a concern that the procedure itself can spread the disease among participants and their sex partners if it is not performed under completely sterile conditions and combined with qualified followup care.

So is the Great African Male Circumcision Crusade a boon or a boondoggle? In order to cast some light on what appears to an extremely murky and emotional issue, I contacted Dr. Ronald Goldman of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston to get some hard answers:

Dr. Goldman, a number of sub-Saharan African nations have begun a crash adult circumcision program aimed at drastically reducing the incidence of HIV/AIDS among their populations. Their leaders, encouraged by foreign governments and NGOs, have apparently convinced themselves that a circumcised penis is practically immune to the virus. What effect do you think the mass circumcision of African men will actually have on suppressing the illness?

Many professionals have questioned the reliability and validity of studies claiming that circumcision reduces HIV transmission. African national population surveys in eight countries found a higher rate of HIV infection among circumcised men compared to men who were not circumcised. There are at least 17 observational studies that have not found any benefit from male circumcision in reducing HIV transmission. Therefore, I do not expect a reduction in HIV transmission. It's even possible that the incidence of HIV transmission will increase because the mistaken belief of protection from circumcision will result in more risk-taking sexual behavior.

In the United States particularly, circumcision has long been regarded as a sort of “magic bullet” against disease and a host of other evils. Why do so many health professionals believe the procedure is so beneficial to society as a whole?

Actually, only a relatively few health professionals believe that circumcision has significant health benefits. Most doctors take a neutral approach to circumcision, following the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP is considered to be the highest authority on the subject, but their recommendations also have problems. For example, their current policy is not balanced and uses about ten times more space on the "potential benefits" than on the harm. In addition, there are many questions of harm that have not been studied. Because circumcision is common in the United States, there is a strong psychological motivation to believe it is harmless or beneficial.

 Stand proud.

Since circumcision is a religious duty among Jews and Muslims, do you see any religious ramifications to this policy? For example, could non-Muslims see it as a covert conversion campaign, or could the practitioners believe they are performing “God’s will”?

I don't think so. What is covert about the campaign is that circumcision is being promoted by circumcision advocates that have personal, religious, political, and financial conflicts of interest. They intended to find a benefit for circumcision, and they found it. As I have written elsewhere, there is a strong pro-circumcision bias among those who are circumcised, have circumcised sons, belong to circumcised groups, or have performed circumcisions.

What potential drawbacks or side effects do you anticipate from this wholesale circumcision campaign?

Many of the psychological, sexual, and social effects that I discuss in my book, Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma, could become more common as circumcision becomes more common. We expect that though men may choose circumcision now for themselves (based on misinformation about protection from HIV), the campaign is moving toward forcing circumcision on infants who will then have no choice. This is the source of the trauma. Imagine being forcefully held down and having the most sensitive parts of your genitals cut off. Trauma is remembered by the body and has long-term effects. Feelings, attitudes, and behaviors are affected. For example, some men are angry that they are circumcised. Other men are angry and don't know why. That repressed anger has many effects on their lives and the lives of others.

Condoms have proven to be vastly cheaper and far more effective than circumcision when it comes to reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS, and they also reliably prevent other sexually transmitted diseases as well as unwanted pregnancies. Why aren’t the UN and the Western nations showering Africa with condoms instead of removing men’s foreskins in what looks like an unprecedented social engineering experiment?

There is a lot of psychological motivation behind the advocacy of circumcision. Circumcision is traumatic. Psychologists know that there is a compulsion to repeat trauma on others. Some American circumcised men have placed themselves in administrative and research positions where they can act out this compulsion and influence many others to be circumcised. They are simply using the cultural beliefs and values (e.g, medical studies and authorities that claim that circumcision has benefits, etc.) to accomplish their goal.

 South Africa

From South Africa

As most people probably know by now, so-called female circumcision (a.k.a. female genital mutilation or FGM) is a much more radical procedure than the male version, frequently including the excision of the labia and even the clitoris. Do you see a possibility that government and NGO support for male circumcision could potentially water down campaigns targeting FGM?

I do not think so. I point out that the cutting of male and female genitals are qualitatively the same thing. The harm and violation start with the first cut.

If male circumcision is as harmful as you claim, does this mean that all male Jews and Muslims, not to mention tens of millions of Americans, are essentially “damaged goods” when compared to their non-circumcised contemporaries?

What circumcised cultures do not want to know is that a natural body part, in this case a penis, functions better than a surgically reduced one. We do not need studies to know this. It's just common sense. For example, if we cut off the thumb, the functions of the hand would be adversely affected. It's the same for the penis. Most American circumcised men (and doctors) do not know what they are missing. Based on recent reports, circumcision removes up to one-half of the erogenous tissue on the penile shaft, equivalent to approximately twelve square inches on an adult. Medical studies have shown that the foreskin protects the head of the penis, enhances sexual pleasure, and facilitates intercourse. Cutting off the foreskin removes several kinds of specialized nerves and results in thickening and progressive desensitization of the outer layer of the tip of the penis, particularly in older men.

The current African circumcision drive is being generously financed by the UN and WHO, foreign and national governments, and a variety of NGOs. It is big business for those involved and money, as they say, is the root of all evil. Would it be cynical to speak of a “circumcision-industrial complex” at work in Africa?

Certainly money is an important factor. An African official said, "Profiteering has trumped prevention." A WHO researcher said that billions of dollars have been wasted. The focus on circumcision reduces support for more effective measures.


From Swaziland

Has anyone, aside from yourself and a handful of other circumcision skeptics, openly challenged the policy and called for resistance?

There are very reputable researchers who have been published in foreign medical journals because the peer reviewers for circumcision articles submitted to American medical journals are circumcision advocates. They will not approve of an article that is critical of circumcision. The review process is as deeply flawed as the studies that advocate circumcision.

There are other serious problems that prevent a fair and open debate. Circumcision advocates have access to much money, and American media, reflecting the pro-circumcision bias of the culture, routinely ignore stories critical of circumcision and focus on reports of circumcision "benefits." Journalist regularly violate their professional principles and obligations to report different views on this controversy.

 Botswana circumcision

From Botswana

Finally, circumcision advocates are afraid to debate circumcision critics. This shows up at professional conferences where critics are not provided equal opportunity to participate. The upcoming international AIDS conference will include a one-sided commercial for circumcision. The lack of debate is also apparent in the media. For example, two circumcision advocates refused to debate me on two radio talk shows.

If the circumcision program is indeed misguided, what alternative advice would you give to African governments seeking a viable solution to the HIV/AIDS crisis?

Most HIV infection in Africa are transmitted by contaminated injections and surgical procedures. The advice is simple: sterilize any instrument that will be used on a person's body. Condoms are better than 99% effective, less invasive, and the cost of one circumcision in Africa can pay for 3000 condoms. Unlike circumcision, condoms also have the advantage of also protecting women, and there are no surgical risks and complications. Even the pro-circumcision studies recommend using condoms in addition to circumcisions. With a condom, circumcision adds no significant additional protection value even if the advocates' protective claims for circumcision without condoms are true.


Ronald Goldman, Ph.D. is a psychological researcher, educator, and Executive Director of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston, a nonprofit educational organization. Dr. Goldman is internationally known for his work on circumcision and is the author of Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma and Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective. He gives lectures on the psychosocial aspects of circumcision, counsels parents and circumcised men, and has participated in over two hundred interviews with broadcast and print media.


18 January, 2012

Why did Raoul Wallenberg have to die?

One of the final lingering questions about the Second World War might possibly find an answer in the coming months. It concerns a Swedish architect and hobby diplomat who single-handedly turned what we think we know about twentieth century history entirely on its head. Most of us have long since forgotten him, but we do so at our own risk.

Raoul Wallenberg was a hero in an age of villainy. The 31-year-old Swede was horrified by the bloodletting he witnessed in Europe, particularly among the Jewish population of eastern Europe. He had studied architecture in Ann Arbor, and later worked for a lumber company in South Africa and for a Dutch bank in Haifa, Palestine, where he first encountered Jewish refugees from Germany. In 1942 and 1943, working for his family’s banking business, SEB, he travelled to Hungary, where he experienced fascism and government-orchestrated anti-Semitism firsthand. He also visited Berlin in 1938, where he insisted on rescuing a German-Jewish engineer from a concentration camp.

It was only his family connections, and his single-minded ambition to put an end to the slaughter, that enabled Wallenberg (who himself had some Jewish ancestors on his mother’s side) to have himself appointed First Secretary of the Swedish mission to the fascist, Nazi-allied Hungarian government. Arriving in Budapest on July 9, 1944, and financed by the American War Refugee Board, which sought to rescue Jews through neutral states like Sweden, Wallenberg presented the Hungarians with a list of 800 Hungarian Jews possessing some sort of (usually tenuous, if not downright imaginary) relationship with Sweden, whom the Swedish government promised to accept within its borders. He also worked together with the Swedish Red Cross and Swiss authorities, who likewise saved many thousands of Jews and other enemies of the Third Reich.

Over the next several months, Wallenberg and his staff of 300 – mostly local Jews – issued over 20,000 Swedish passports to Hungarian Jews, thus saving them from certain death. At the same time, he cooperated closely with leading members of the local Jewish community and also used his considerable diplomatic skills to drive a wedge between Hungarian fascists, many of whom had doubts about the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policy and saw the tide of war turning against them, and their more fanatical German allies. His influence over Hungarian dictator Miklós Horthy also helped stop the transport of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Thanks to Wallenberg’s direct and indirect actions, some 70,000 Jews survived the Budapest ghetto. No one knows for sure, but is is possible that Wallenberg saved up to 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the gas chambers and the bullets of Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen.

Jews in Budapest

Jewish couple in Budapest

In November of 1944, Wallenberg personally – and at appalling personal risk – rescued 200 Jews from a Nazi death march. Even though SS Holocaust coordinator Adolf Eichmann raved against “that Jewish dog, Wallenberg,” and swore he would have him shot, the diplomat miraculously continued his work without disruption.

Despite what you might think from the movies, Holocaust is a story of murder, not heroism, and not even Wallenberg could avert the ultimate disaster of Hungarian Jewry: In January of 1945, armed members of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross party, which had seized power in October of 1944 and was now about to be run out of the capital by the approaching Soviets, slaughtered up to 20,000 Jews on the bank of the Danube after first stripping them naked and then tossing the bullet-ridden bodies into the icy river. But Wallenberg was there too, pulling as many Jews as he could out of the killing zone, and even reclaiming their clothing.

 Budapest Jewish memorial

Just shoes - Budapest's Jewish memorial on the banks of the Danube

But the Swede’s incredible luck was quickly running out. On January 13, 1945, Raoul Wallenberg left Budapest to meet the regional Red Army commander, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, who had just arrived in southern Hungary. He hoped to convince the marshal to liberate the Budapest ghetto as soon as possible in order to prevent even more murders at the hands of the fleeing Arrow Cross militia. Marshal Malinovsky received him cordially. Wallenberg had his doubts, though. “I don’t know if they are protecting me or guarding me,” he told a friend in those confusing days. “I don’t know if I’m a guest or a prisoner.” On January 17, Nikolai Bulganin, Stalin’s deputy defense minister, issued a warrant for Wallenberg’s arrest. The Swede would never return to Budapest, nor would he ever taste freedom again.

Wallenberg’s fate remained uncertain throughout the Cold War, rather like Princess Anastasia and other cold cases. For years, Soviet officials claimed that he had either fallen in battle somewhere around Budapest or that he had died of a heart attack in a Moscow prison. It wasn’t until the Gorbachev era in the late 1980s that the Soviet government began releasing information. In 1989, Wallenberg’s half-siblings Nina Lagergren and Guy von Dardel, who had been demanding answers since the 1950s, received the diplomat’s passport, clothing, money, and personal diary from Moscow.

The post-Soviet government opened an investigation in 1991 together with Swedish investigators. Both sides issued a final report in 2000: Raoul Wallenberg presumably died in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison on July 17, 1947. Probable cause of death: A bullet to the back of the neck, the standard execution method for suspected foreign agents. The Swedish version of the report surmises that Stalin ordered the execution personally. Wallenberg’s American connections (e.g. with the War Refugee Board and the Organization of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA), as well as his contacts with the British and Swedish secret services, were probably his undoing. But it was more than just that. The trouble with Wallenberg is that he wasn’t very particular about which Jews he helped keep alive. A Soviet military intelligence report from February 1945 stated: “Instead of protecting the Soviet Union’s or Hungary’s interests, the Swedish Red Cross is protecting enemies of the Soviet Union and of the Hungarian people or is providing them with asylum or protection.” People were shot for far less in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The announcement of Wallenberg’s "liquidation" remains controversial, however. It is possible – but not proven – that Wallenberg lived on for several years as a Gulag inmate under a different name. The Swedish version of the report states that “the burden of proof that Raoul Wallenberg is dead lies with the Russian government.”

Now, in 2012, the Swedish government is looking for solid answers. Foreign minister Carl Bildt is sending one of his top diplomats, Hans Magnusson, Sweden’s director of international development cooperation, who already examined Wallenberg’s fate in the 1990s, to Moscow one last time. “We have asked him to go there to see if he can find something,” Bildt told reporters yesterday, the sixty-seventh anniversary of Wallenberg's disappearance. “But we don’t have high expectations.”

But some of us still do. What we want to know is: Why did Bulganin have Wallenberg arrested? Why did Stalin have him shot? Who else was involved in the Jewish rescue operation? What role did Himmler and the senior SS leadership play in all of this? If the Nazis really were determined to exterminate every last Jew on the planet, then why did they ever let Wallenberg get away with his utterly implausible errand of mercy?

Now, in the one hundredth year of Wallenberg's birth, I think it’s time we found out.

13 March, 2011

Abortion in Ghana claims women's live

by Judy Mandelbaum
The Scavenger

You’d think sub-Saharan African women had enough to worry about, but a study by the US-based Guttmacher Institute reveals that botched back-street abortions are claiming a large number of lives in Ghana – even though abortion, while nominally banned, is actually legal in many cases.

According to the report, “more than one in 10 maternal deaths (11%) are the result of unsafe induced abortions. In addition, a substantial proportion of women who survive an unsafe abortion experience complications from the procedure.”

As in most of Africa, abortion had been banned in Ghana for many years. That all changed a quarter of a century ago when a new abortion law passed the country’s parliament. “The abortion law in Ghana, enacted in 1985, states that an abortion performed by a qualified medical practitioner is legal if the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or ‘defilement of a female idiot;’ if continuation of the pregnancy would risk the life of the woman or threaten her physical or mental health; or if there is a substantial risk the child would suffer from a serious physical abnormality or disease.”

According to figures from the Ghana Maternal Health Survey, 7 percent of pregnancies are terminated by abortion, and 15 percent of women aged between fifteen and forty-nine have undergone the procedure.

In 2006 the GMHS issued “guidelines for comprehensive abortion care, including counseling and the provision of contraceptives; [they] define mental health conditions that could qualify a patient for an abortion; and call for expanding the base of abortion providers by authorizing midwives and nurses to perform first-trimester procedures.” % The decision to abort a fetus is always tragic for all concerned, and nowhere more so than in a profoundly religious society like that of Ghana. And yet, 40 percent of all pregnancies in Ghana are unwanted.

The reasons Ghanaian women give for ending such a pregnancy, despite the profound social stigma involved, include insufficient financial means to care for a child (21 percent) and the need to continue working (9 percent). In 6 percent cases, women cite partners who either reject the child or deny paternity. 

Remarkably, hardly anyone in Ghana is even aware of the 1985 abortion law. The GMHS discovered that as of 2007 only 4 percent of women knew that abortion was legal. Among educated women, i.e. those with a high school education and higher, the figure was a mere 11 percent. % As a result, relatively few women go to a hospital or clinic to have the procedure performed. Even more surprisingly, in one clinic surveyed only half the personnel was aware that abortion was legal.

According to the GMHS, 57 percent of Ghanaian women turned to a doctor to perform their abortion, whereas 16 percent sought a pharmacist and 19 percent either turned to a friend or relative or performed the abortion themselves. 4 percent went to traditional practitioners and 3 percent turned to nurses or midwives.

This trend is clearly an improvement over the results of a study from southern Ghana made in 1997/98, where it appears that only 12 percent of women seeking an abortion turned to physicians, while two thirds went to untrained practitioners.

Sadly, this is hardly a surprise. In an earlier report, the Guttmacher Institute found that of the 5.6 million abortions performed across Africa in 2003, only 100,000 occurred under safe conditions.

Illegal back-country abortions can be harrowing. In 2007, a 22 year-old Ghanaian woman called Gloria described her own self-abortion to BBC Radio: 

"The first method I used were the leaves of the bush plant mixed with kawa, a local stone… We ground them together and inserted it into the uterus.” But that method did not work and in a small, quavering voice, Gloria said: "Then we inserted the branch of the bush plant and the blood started coming in 15 minutes."

Gloria's second abortion was only four months ago. First her friend gave her melted sugar with Guinness. No effect. Then 10 paracetemol tablets ground up with local gin. Still nothing. "Finally, we tried a broken bottle ground up with seawater and "Blue", a washing detergent, which we soaked in a cotton cloth and inserted into my womanhood," she confessed. "By doing that the foetus came. I bled and bled and bled for more than five days."

Severe complications from botched procedures are rampant in Ghana and treatment is scanty. “Of women who experienced a problem following their abortion, 41% received no treatment. Almost half (47%) of women with a problem received antibiotics, and 19% received an unspecified treatment.”

Ghana clearly has a long way to go to provide its women with comprehensive reproductive healthcare, and it should be obvious to everyone by this time that foreign aid programs - whether "faith-based" or otherwise - that de facto exclude abortion services and condoms are most definitely not part of the solution. % In order to close the healthcare gaps so painfully highlighted in this and other reports, the Ghanaian government is focusing on a four-prong program:

  • Address unmet need for contraceptives and barriers to contraceptive use
  • Educate young people in the areas of reproductive health and safe sex practices
  • Raise awareness about Ghana’s abortion law in order to reduce the number of women seeking abortions from unconventional practitioners
  • Conduct more research on women’s living conditions and on the cost-benefit ratio of unsafe abortions and improved reproductive health measures

Unsafe abortions are by no means the only problem facing Ghanaian women. According to USAID, the AIDS prevalence among the country's 23 million population stood at 2.3 percent in 2005 and is regarded as stable, which is something of an African success story.

Some 320,000 people in Ghana are HIV positive. But by making advances in these areas, Ghana and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa can reduce at least some of the challenges facing women in an economic and social environment that is already challenging enough as it is.

For more on reproductive healthcare in Ghana and elsewhere in the world, check out the Guttmacher Institute website.

March 1, 2011

Rape still used as a weapon of war in Congo

by Judy Mandelbaum
Open Salon

With global media attention focused on the revolutions in the Arab world, it's all the more important to shine some light on other news stories that refuse to go away, as much as we would like them to. These unphotogenic events include the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

The vast DRC is a festering wound in Central Africa. As I wrote in this space back in 2009, “[w]ith at least six million dead and up to 1,500 new victims added each day, along with untold millions of injured and displaced, it represents the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War and rivals the Holocaust in terms of sheer cruelty. The difference is that it didn't happen seventy years ago. It's happening right this minute.” The situation has improved little since I wrote those words. In some areas, it has even grown worse.

According to IRIN News, mass rape as a weapon of war is on the increase in South Kivu region in the eastern part of the country, with more than 200 men, women, and children being treated for rape by the aid organization Médecins sans Frontières since January 1. On just four days in February, at least 56 persons were raped in the villages of Misisi/Milimba, and Bwala/Ibindi. “The survivors told MSF they were taken hostage, undressed and tied up with ropes. Women, men, and children were systematically beaten and raped. All their belongings were stolen.” Local officials and aid workers have not seen anything like this since the high point of the Congolese civil war in the 1990s.

Who is behind these attacks? In Congo, it seems there's nothing new under the sun. MSF suspects men from the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération de Rwanda (FDLR), an organization implicated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide that has been operating in the eastern DRC ever since. The FDLR and the Mai Mai rebels have been blamed for at least 3,000 reported rapes in 2010 and for more than 300 perpetrated in the Walikale region over a three-day period last August.

Why do the rebels treat civilians this way? According to Maurizio Giuliano of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kinshasa, "[t]his is not about opportunistic rape, …it is a strategy. In this kind of attack, it is not only women that are targeted, but their families and the whole community.” In fact, local warlords require a terrorized population to maintain their own power and ensure a cheap labor force for the multinational mining operations in the region. 

In 2007 the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative estimated that “as many as 70% of girls and women [in some regions of the eastern DRC] between the ages of ten and thirty have been raped or sexually mutilated. The uncommonly brutal nature of the crimes leads to a host of health problems for the survivor.” ß But the problem in South Kivu and elsewhere in Africa is not just the prevalence of marauding soldiers, but a society where women lack agency, particularly in times of war and social unrest. “Blurred lines of ‘consent’ add to women’s vulnerability,” says Claudia Rodriguez, humanitarian affairs officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the region. “In some areas of South Kivu a woman is the property of her husband’s family or becomes property of the community if her husband leaves or dies. Any man in the extended family or in the community can have access to her without the woman being able to refuse. The notion of consent is non-existent and therefore cases are not reported as violations. Other factors inhibiting reporting of such crimes include shame and the fear of being rejected and stigmatised.”

Rape makes this situation even worse. As Katie Thomas, an Australian-based psychologist specializing in trauma, writes in Forced Migration Review: “Women and girls who have experienced sexual violence have learned that the world is not safe for females. While an ethnic or national enemy can be avoided in a post-conflict scenario, it is not possible to avoid all males. Even though a woman or girl may be able to acknowledge intellectually that the men in her community may not pose a threat to her, she must still cope with fear and traumatic memories as she interacts with men on a daily basis. This can have a significant impact on her capacity to deal with those in her community.” In the meantime, local human rights activists are regularly threatened with violence and murder.

Congo's sorrows go back at least as far as the age of King Leopold and Joseph Conrad, when perhaps ten million Congolese were essentially worked and starved to death during the so-called scramble for Africa to meet Europe's insatiable demand for rubber and other precious raw materials. But the exploitation never ended. Today, “blood minerals” such as uranium for nuclear power plants and coltan for computers and cell phones continue to fuel an endless civil war. Sixty-four percent of the earth’s coltan reserves are located in the DRC, and I think it's safe to say that people today pay even less thought to the origin of the coltan in their iPhones than 19th-century Whites paid to the provenance of the cotton in their underwear. The human consequences of this lack of curiosity, however, are largely the same.

Events like those in South Kivu are likely to continue until we start asking how many people had to be raped and murdered in order to get the latest high tech toy into our hands.

October 29, 2010

Revisiting Herbert Asbury's "The Gangs of New York"

by Judy Mandelbaum
Open Salon

Anyone born after, say, 1985 can be excused for believing that the title The Gangs of New York refers solely to an almost-great film by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis rather than to what may be the most alarming history book ever written about New York City or any other town in the world.

The young muckraking author Herbert Asbury published his shocker in 1928 after plowing through entire libraries on the lookout for news clippings and police reports chronicling the lurid underworld that once held America’s premiere city in its grip. His book isn’t a sociological treatise, but rather an inventory of “the more spectacular exploits of the refractory citizen who was a dangerous nuisance in New York for almost a hundred years, with a sufficient indication of his background of vice, poverty, and political corruption to make him understandable.” To re-read it is to rediscover the corrupt and delirious world of Boss Tweed and P.T. Barnum and the colorful neighborhoods of the Bowery, Hell’s Kitchen, and of course the infamous Five Points. And as you might expect, the dominant colors in these neighborhoods were brown and red: brown for mud, and red for blood. 

October 4, 2010

Turkish filmmaker releasing Gaza Flotilla revenge thriller

By Judy Mandelbaum
Open Salon

We all know by now that Youtube has made illegal military assaults and human rights violations risky for the perpetrators since the new technology makes it possible for the entire planet to view and review them at leisure. But it looks as if good old-fashioned movies can have the same effect. Israelis reacted with outrage over the weekend when they heard the news that the Turkish Pana Film production company is producing a big budget feature film inspired by the IDF assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on May 31, which led to the deaths of nine Turkish citizens and touched off a serious diplomatic conflict between the Jewish state and Turkey.

Some scenes of Valley of the Wolves – Palestine are currently being filmed aboard the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, where the assault took place, and recreate the bloody event. (In the movie version, the Israelis attack the Turkish activists while they are praying.) But the film, a spinoff of Turkey’s popular anti-Israeli and anti-American TV series Valley of the Wolves and a subsequent feature film by that name, goes on to imagine the film’s hero, undercover assassin Polat Alemdar, tracking down the assault’s sinister fictional organizer, a perfidious Israeli character called Mose Ben Eliezer who “destroys villages, kills children and throws everyone who helps Polat into prison,” the Associated Press quotes the producers as saying.

The film had already started production when the raid occurred last May, and the producers quickly rewrote the script to accommodate the new plotline. In the words of screenwriter Bahadir Ozdener: “We’re calling out to people’s conscience. All we want is freedom for innocent and tormented Palestinian people living in inhumane conditions in the world’s biggest prison.” Director Zubeyr Sasmaz struck a conciliatory note when he spoke to the New York Times last month, stating that “the real story” concerned a Jewish-American tour guide called Simone who comes to sympathize with the Palestinian plight: “She represents the American individualism, and discovers humanism as she gets forced to live among Arabs. Hers is the only character that evolves after learning about the human tragedies in Gaza.”

The original cinema film, Valley of the Wolves – Iraq, which featured American actor Billy Zane (Titanic), and a gang of marauding American soldiers who murder civilians as “terrorists” across the country and torture suspects at Abu Ghraib prison while a sinister Jewish doctor harvests organs for rich New York customers. It was the most expensive Turkish film ever when it appeared in 2006. It has since grossed $27.9 million worldwide. The Wall Street Journal called it “a cross between ‘American Psycho’ in uniform and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

I’m not a big fan of the WSJ myself, considering its responsibility for getting us involved in Iraq in the first place, and yet the same thought crossed my own mind when I watched the film on DVD last year (although I can't honestly say that it's any worse than your typical "kill-the-Arabs" American porn-violence flick). But considering the success of Valley of the Wolves - Iraq and the notoriety of the Gaza Flotilla raid, the new film, due for release in January, is bound to be a blockbuster in Turkey and the Arab world. As far as the WSJ and the Pana’s Israeli critics are concerned, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the cinema. Or maybe you should think twice before you start invading sovereign countries and attacking people in international waters.

September 8, 2010

Sex researchers: "Size" does matter

Study shows that fatter men last longer in bed. Should Americans rejoice?

By Judy Mandelbaum

Fat is fun! At least, that's the word from Turkey this week. Researchers at Erciyes University in Kayseri have just completed a yearlong study correlating body mass index (BMI) and male sexual performance. Their findings: Men with excess body fat last longer in bed. In fact, heavier men were able to make love for an average of 7.3 minutes, while slender men could count themselves lucky if they held on for a mere 108 seconds.

The reason? Female hormones. Men with excess fat showed higher levels of the female estradiol sex hormone. This substance apparently disrupted their bodies' natural "male" neurotransmitter chemicals and slowed their progression towards orgasm. Ironically, the less masculine their bodies appeared, the better lovers they proved to be. The scientists compared the BMI and sexual performance of over 100 men who were being treated for sexual dysfunction with 100 other males who lasted longer during sex. They found that men suffering from premature ejaculation were on the whole thinner and fitter than their "better endowed" brethren.

Using the researchers' logic, you might think that American men, living in what the World Health Organization has identified as the world's third fattest country with an estimated 66.7 percent of the population living well over the line, would be the world's most exquisite lovers. Unfortunately, the study does not take a stand on this issue. Nor is there any scientific or anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is true. In fact, last year the global research website conducted a survey of 15,000 women from 20 countries on the subject, and Americans showed up fifth from the bottom for being "too rough." (Spaniards, Brazilians and Italians took top honors.)

But as Benjamin Disraeli supposedly said, "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics." This is not to deny that, when it comes to overweight lovers, there may also be an issue of "quality vs. quantity" involved, not to mention aesthetic and cardiological issues etc., but why spoil a good story? For now, make sure your next love banquet includes plenty of chips and beer, bratwursts and pecan pies. Nowadays, when it comes to sex, fat is the new thin.

July 30, 2010

Who's rebuilding the temple of Solomon?
By Judy Mandelbaum
Emunah Magazine

The only surprising thing about this story is that it took so long to materialize. After all, people have been recreating buildings, both lost and otherwise, at a growing rate for decades: Colonial Jamestown and Williamsburg have returned from historical oblivion, Ivorian dictator Felix Houphouet-Boigny built a semi-replica of St. Peter’s in Yamoussoukro in 1985/89, Warsaw rebuilt its obliterated royal palace and Berlin is set to follow suit, the Mormons reerected the lost Temple in Nauvoo in 2002, and Las Vegas has spared neither expense nor good taste in its drive to recreate the world’s best-known monuments.

Finally last week, a Brazilian Pentecostal megachurch called the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God announced that it plans to reconstruct the Temple of Solomon in São Paulo. The new temple/church will measure 126 by 104 meters (413 by 341 feet) and stand 55 meters (180 feet) high, making it twice as tall as the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Featuring a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, it will provide space for a whopping 10,000 worshippers.

The Bible has the following to say about the design of the original Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:14-38):

So Solomon built the temple and finished it. And he built the inside walls of the temple with cedar boards; from the floor of the temple to the ceiling he paneled the inside with wood; and he covered the floor of the temple with planks of cypress. Then he built the twenty-cubit room at the rear of the temple, from floor to ceiling, with cedar boards; he built it inside as the inner sanctuary, as the Most Holy Place. And in front of it the temple sanctuary was forty cubits long.

The inside of the temple was cedar, carved with ornamental buds and open flowers. All was cedar; there was no stone to be seen. And he prepared the inner sanctuary inside the temple, to set the ark of the covenant of the LORDthere. The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high. He overlaid it with pure gold, and overlaid the altar of cedar. So Solomon overlaid the inside of the temple with pure gold. He stretched gold chains across the front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold. The whole temple he overlaid with gold, until he had finished all the temple; also he overlaid with gold the entire altar that was by the inner sanctuary. Inside the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olive wood, each ten cubits high. One wing of the cherub was five cubits, and the other wing of the cherub five cubits: ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. And the other cherub was ten cubits; both cherubim were of the same size and shape. The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was the other cherub.

Then he set the cherubim inside the inner room; and they stretched out the wings of the cherubim so that the wing of the one touched one wall, and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall. And their wings touched each other in the middle of the room. Also he overlaid the cherubim with gold. Then he carved all the walls of the temple all around, both the inner and outer sanctuaries, with carved figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers. And the floor of the temple he overlaid with gold, both the inner and outer sanctuaries. For the entrance of the inner sanctuary he made doors of olive wood; the lintel and doorposts were one-fifth of the wall. The two doors were of olive wood; and he carved on them figures of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, and overlaid them with gold; and he spread gold on the cherubim and on the palm trees. So for the door of the sanctuary he also made doorposts of olive wood, one-fourth of the wall. And the two doors were of cypress wood; two panels comprised one folding door, and two panels comprised the other folding door. Then he carved cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers on them, and overlaid them with gold applied evenly on the carved work. And he built the inner court with three rows of hewn stone and a row of cedar beams.

In the fourth year the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid, in the month of Ziv. And in the eleventh year, in the month of Bul, which is the eighth month, the house was finished in all its details and according to all its plans. So he was seven years in building it.

Designed by Brazilian architect Rogério Silva de Araújo, the new structure will follow these instructions to the letter, using stones imported from Israel for a cool $8 million. The only difference is the scale: the São Paulo project will be several orders of magnitude larger than anything Solomon ever imagined.The design includes a parking lot for 1,000 vehicles, a suite of TV and radio studios, as well as classrooms seating 1,300 children. In a TV announcement, Bishop Edir Macedo said: “[Solomon's] Temple … used tons of gold, pure gold …We are not going to build a temple of gold, but we will spend tons of money, without a shadow of doubt. [The stones] are just like the ones that were used to build the temple in Israel; stones that were witnesses to the powers of God, 2,000 years ago. … It is going to be a knock-out, it is going to be beautiful, beautiful, beautiful — the most beautiful of all. The outside will be exactly the same as that which was built in Jerusalem.”

On the church’s website, he predicted that the temple would become the site of many miracles, “where the sick will be healed, the oppressed will be liberated, [and] the demons will be banished.”

So far, the response from the Jewish world has been something less than ecstatic. This reaction from a South African Jew on an on-line forum may be typical: “Build a replica of the Temple for idolatrous purposes. What a slap in the face of religious Jews who are still struggling to rebuild it in Jerusalem. It is insensitive of these Christians to do this. I don't think they realise how uncomfortable this makes most Jews feel. What if they built a replica of the mosque in Mecca? Would the Muslims be happy?” But I suspect the reaction from most Jews will be a sleepy "so what else is new?"

Bishop Macedo founded the church in Rio in 1977, inspired by the work of a Canadian Pentecostal missionary called Robert McAlister. It now claims some eight million members in 180 countries. Its doctrines include the notions that immersion baptism into the movement endows believers with supernatural powers, that sancification can be achieved during a believer’s lifetime, and that private donations to the church will be rewarded with financial prosperity.If this last claim is true, then by merely constructing the temple, which is to be financed by $200 million in donations from the faithful, Brazil will certainly have washed away its poverty crisis by the time the project is completed four years from now.

Hey, I've never been one to stand in the way of progress. The ghetto-dwellers of São Paulo need all the help they can get these days. But if the solution to world’s ills is really that easy, why didn’t anyone think of this before?

June 8, 2010

Israeli students plan "Kurdish freedom flotilla"
The self-righteous effort to counteract the negative global backlash may backfire

By Judy Mandelbaum

O Jerusalem! Perhaps it's something in the water, but it looks as if Israeli society, so often accused by its critics of moral myopia and cultural narcissism, is suddenly turning righteous and discovering a soft spot for downtrodden peoples of Muslim background. Does this mean the Messiah is at the gates?

Just one week following Israel's bloody raid on the "Free Gaza Flotilla," which ended in the deaths of nine Turkish activists, Israel's National Student Union announced that it was forming its own "freedom flotilla" that it would fill with humanitarian items and steer in the opposite direction. Boaz Toporovsky, the organisation's chairman, told the press yesterday that "we thought of an idea of sailing to Turkey or to the northern part of Cyprus, or to southern Turkey, where there is a concentration of Kurds." The mission already has a captain: Israeli navy veteran and businessman Arik Ofir. The group is looking for an appropriate ship and plans to sail for Turkey as soon as it has found one and organized a crew.

Toporovsky is planning his Kurdish flotilla as a direct response to the global public's negative response to the Free Gaza fiasco. "The whole world saw the flotilla and thought Israel is a terrible state, which comes to shoot people who call themselves peace activists," he said. "It's absurd that they always put the Israeli occupation in the headlines and don't talk about extreme Islamic terror. There's a lot of hypocrisy in the world. Turkey, which leads the campaign against Israel and makes all sorts of threats, is the same Turkey that carried out a holocaust and murdered an entire nation of Armenians, and oppresses a minority larger than the Palestinians -- the Kurds -- who deserve a state, who have demanded a state for longer than the State of Israel has existed."

Toporovsky sees no barriers to his mission. "For the flotilla to work, we need three elements: Money, logistics and balls," he said. "We're bringing the balls and some of the logistics, but we need lots of money."

What sounds like a diabolically clever public relations coup starts sounding too clever by half when you listen to people in the region. As one reader remarked to the Israeli news source Ynet, "Israeli ignorance is hilarious. Kurds are the most extreme Islamists in Turkey. ... Kurdish mosques are full of Hamas and Hezbollah posters. I really want to watch Israelis meeting the Kurds, that will be a scene to watch." An exaggeration, perhaps, but there is no doubt the operation will hit one or the other snag. For one thing, no one seems to have informed poor Toporovsky that Kurdistan -- unlike Gaza -- is not only free of naval blockades but does not even possess a seaport.

The Student Union is also planning another "peace fleet" that could be ready to go in two weeks. This time, a vast fleet of small ships would head into the Mediterranean to intercept the next Free Gaza mission. "Our wish is to talk with the members of the [Gaza] flotilla, to see if they want to talk to us, and to ask them why the problems of Israel, in Gaza and Palestine, are disturbing them," Toporovsky told Haaretz yesterday. "We would ask why they are not talking about the Kurdish minority or the Armenians that were murdered or many other problems? We want to expose the truth, this hypocrisy and the absurdity." 400 Israeli yacht owners have already expressed interest in taking part.

It seems the waters of the eastern Mediterranean will be awash in self-righteous flotillas this summer. Generous Israelis are shipping humanitarian aid to oppressed Muslim and Christian communities -- everywhere except to Gaza. According to the Jerusalem Post, yet another ship -- packed to the gunwales with humanitarian supplies -- is about to head from Israel to Cyprus. On board will be Pinchas Har-Zahav of the progressive Meretz Party and his son Haim. Mr. Haim Har-Zahav told the newspaper yesterday that the goal of the voyage was to "remind the world that Turkey is not innocent. If Uruguay or Iceland were the ones criticizing us so harshly, it might be a different story," he said. "But we're talking about a country that only seven years after [the Six Day War and the beginning of Israeli control of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank] began occupying Cyprus," he said. "We're talking about a country that has systematically killed the Kurds and refuses to acknowledge their role in the Armenian Genocide. And so no, we will not accept this. The hypocrisy has to stop here."

"We feel that it's important for us to show and remind the world that Turkey is not a righteous country, but a near-rogue state, and that we, the Israeli people, are not suckers."

So now the truth is out: Israel hearts Muslims. But if I were a Gazan, I wouldn't break out the arak and mezze quite yet.

May 11, 2010

Would the last Jew in Afghanistan please turn off the lights?

By Judy Mandelbaum
Emunah Magazine

Today CNN broadcast an intriguing feature about Zablon Simintov, the last Jew living in Afghanistan. The report had a lot to say about Judaism, Afghanistan…and CNN itself.

Afghan Jewry may go back as far as the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Captivity 2,700 years ago, and several of the country’s main tribes claim descent from King Saul. Afghanistan’s Jewish community can look back upon at least 800 years of tradition, including both happy and downright terrifying times. In the late 19th century it counted some 40,000 members, a number that dropped to a mere 5,000 by the mid-20th century due to the Afghan government’s anti-Semitic policies. Most Afghan Jews headed for Israel after 1948 and nearly all of the remainder fled when the Soviets invaded in 1979. The last families dribbled away steadily until now only Levin is left. He returned to Kabul during Taliban rule in the 1990s and has been living in Kabul’s sole local synagogue ever since.

Simintov, a former carpet merchant whom his neighbors simply call “the Jew,” has been something of a global celebrity since the start of the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan and particularly since the death of eighty-year-old Ishaq Levin, Afghanistan’s second-last Jew, with whom the younger man had uneasily shared quarters in the dilapidated synagogue. “He was a very bad man who tried to get me killed,” Mr Simintov told the London Times upon the hated Levin’s death in 2005. “Now I am the Jew here, I am the boss.” Part of the conflict between the two men concerned the synagogue’s Torah. Levin supposedly told the Taliban that it was 400 years old and worth a fortune. The Taliban promptly confiscated it, and Simintov has been trying to get it back ever since. “They should cut his hand off,” he says of the Taliban official, whom he now suspects is being held at Guantanamo Bay. Among other tiffs, Levin and Simintov denounced each other to the Taliban authorities as Mossad spies, which got them beaten with rifle butts and landed them in jail for a time.

The hard-drinking Simintov has been the subject of several newspaper stories and a British play. Despite his rough exterior, he considers himself religious. He prays everyday and keeps kosher, slaughtering animals himself with special permission granted by the nearest rabbi, who resides in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. So far he has no intention of moving to Israel to rejoin his wife and two daughters in Holon, whom he hasn’t seen since his last visit there over a decade ago.

It’s easy to see why an infotainment operation like CNN would feature an anecdote like this. It’s the sort of human interest story that warms the heart of every Afghan War supporter. Doesn’t it prove that the US Army has once more brought the blessings of liberty to a benighted corner of the globe? But the pugnacious Simintov is anything but a pro-war poster child – a fact that CNN just so happened to leave out of its report. In fact, in a 2007 interview he said he preferred both the communist and Taliban regimes to the Karzai government, which he calls a “mafia regime.” It seems that agents of the American-sponsored Karzai administration confiscated $40,000 in carpets, leaving the once-wealthy merchant “poor as a dog” and dependent on handouts from Jewish groups abroad and from his Muslim neighbors. Still, he isn’t budging from his synagogue. It sounds like you gotta be pretty tough to be the last Jew in Afghanistan - and breathtakingly uncurious to work for CNN.

April 30, 2010

Want a sensitive guy? Use "cuddle spray"!
Scientists discover relationship Viagra, but do women really want a touchy-feely man?
By Judy Mandelbaum

Every woman knows that men "don't talk," that they "have trouble getting in touch with their feelings," assuming they actually experience anything women could even recognize as feelings. "Real men don't cry," we've learned, they are "physical, not emotional creatures," "their brains are built differently," and if that hasn't convinced you, "they come from Mars." Frustrating, isn't it? But now you can throw away all those relationship books and psychology magazines, girls. Forget the inconclusive counselling sessions. Hope is on the horizon, in the form of – you guessed it – pharmaceuticals.

A recent study by scientists at the Universities of Oxford and Bonn experimented with a hormone-laced nasal spray -- which has already earned the cutesy nickname of "cuddle spray" -- containing the neuropeptide oxytocin on a group of forty-eight healthy males. "Half received an oxytocin nose spray at the start of the experiment," Drs. Keith Kendrick, René Hurlemann, and their colleagues reported in the April 7 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, "the other half [received] a placebo. The researchers then showed their test subjects photos of emotionally charged situations in the form of a crying child, a girl hugging her cat, and a grieving man. The test subjects were then invited to express the depth of feeling they experienced for the persons shown."

According to the press release, Dr. Hurlemann, a psychiatrist was able to state that "significantly higher emotional empathy levels were recorded for the oxytocin group than for the placebo group," despite the fact that the participants in the placebo group were perfectly able to provide rational interpretations of the facial expressions displayed. The administration of oxytocin simply had the effect of enhancing the ability to experience fellow-feeling. The males in the test achieved levels which would normally only be expected in women. Under normal circumstances, the "weak" sex enjoys a clear advantage when it comes to the subject of "empathy."

The doctors also conducted a second experiment where the male participants carried out an observation test on their computers:

Correct answers produced an approving face on the screen, wrong ones a disapproving one. Alternatively, the feedback appeared as green (correct) or red (false) circles. "In general, learning was better when the feedback was shown in the form of faces," states Dr. Keith Kendrick of the Cambridge Babraham Institute in England. "But, once again, the oxytocin group responded clearly better to the feedback in the form of facial expression than did the placebo group."

The project thus demonstrated that oxytocin "treatment increased emotional empathy ratings in men up to the higher level normally seen in untreated women [emphasis added]."

Just imagine the commercial opportunities! If this hormone genuinely wreaks as much havoc on men's gray matter as the scientists claim -- I mean, if a simple nasal spray can actually teach men how to talk -- where can I invest in a new line of oxytocin-based women's fragrances? My bank account could sure use an extra million or two (or twenty).

But the hormone has other effects as well. Oxytocin, a natural human protein that is manufactured in the pituitary gland, triggers labor pains and "strengthens the emotional bond between a mother and her new-born child," particularly during breast-feeding. "Oxytocin is released on a large scale during an orgasm, too." The doctors report that "this hormone might … be useful as medication for diseases such as schizophrenia, which are frequently associated with reduced social approachability and social withdrawal." Or maybe it will help when your sometime boyfriend forgets to call you back for a week. Same thing, right?

This stuff sounds like relationship Viagra, and I suppose now's the time to throw in a joke about nasal sprays for putting the toilet seat back up and taking out the trash. Ha-ha. But the real question might be just how "touchy-feely" women really want the men in their lives to be. Isn't part of the appeal of men their ability to just be there and listen to you without automatically verbalizing every thought that flits through their head? Do we really want their eyes to mist over when we can hardly hold back our own tears? And can't a certain aloofness in a relationship allow trust and love to grow? Alas, the research has nothing to say about such matters.

But what I'm wondering is whether we truly want to hear everything men have to say for themselves. Maybe some things really are best left unsaid after all. Last year Garrison Keillor wrote a column that included these terrifying lines:

Women say, "Why don't you talk to me anymore? I wish you'd tell me what's going on with you!" so I start talking (like now) and they say, "How can you say that?" This is our dilemma.

I haven't stopped shaking yet.

But if the new nasal spray goes into mass production one of these days and we suddenly find ourselves living in a brave new world of compulsively emoting, verbalizing men, I suspect we might soon start pining for the strong silent type once more. After all, doesn't true poetry lie hidden in the space between the words...?

April 27, 2010

Last week's other Muslim cartoon controversy

While we debated "South Park," a Dutch court protected a group's right to publish Holocaust-denying comics

by Judy Mandelbaum

All the media attention swirling around supposed death threats against the makers of "South Park" over a caricature of the prophet Mohammed overshadowed another story last week that might have a lot more to tell us about relations between the Muslim world and the West.

Back in 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten famously published a series of cartoons poking fun at Mohammed, which led to a global backlash resulting in the boycott and destruction of Danish products and over a hundred lost lives. A few months later a Pan-Arabist and anti-Zionist organization in Holland calling itself the Arab European League published its own set of cartoons ridiculing the Holocaust on its website in order to illustrate "the double morals of the West during the Danish cartoon affair." The group wrote:

1- The issue for us is not about depicting the prophet or any other theological consideration. It's about stigmatizing a whole population of more than one billion Muslims through portraying their symbol as being a terrorist, megalomaniac, misogynic and a psychopath. This is Racist, xenophobic and calling for hatred against Muslims.

2- We do believe in Freedom of speech but we think that respecting sensitivities and being constructive is also an added value to a democratic society. We are against laws oppressing any form of expression no matter how appalling it is. Nevertheless, we condemn the selective indignation of Europe's intellectual elite and population. When anti-Muslim stances are made or published this is perceived as freedom of speech and cheered and supported but when other sensitive issues to Europe like the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, sexism and more are touched, Europe's elite is scandalized…

5- Arabs and Muslims are facing occupation on the hand of the west, oppression on the hand of the dictators often supported by the west and aggressive colonization by the Zionist and appartheid state of Israel. Adding symbolic offence to factual aggression is responsible for the tension that we are witnessing today. Any attempt to understand the cartoon's issue out of the current international context is completely missing the point.

A Hague-based group calling itself the "Center for Information and Documentation Israel" then filed a formal complaint in Amsterdam, saying that the publication of the Holocaust cartoons was "a nightmare for the thousands of Jewish victims of the Holocaust who are still alive." The AEL in turn argued it was merely going after the West's own "sacred cows," referring to a disclaimer it had posted stating that "in our cartoon campaign we do not endorse any anti-Semitic, homophobic or sexist stands. All we are trying to do is to confront Europe with its own hypocrisy using sarcasm and cartoons."

Last Thursday a Dutch court ruled in the AEL's favor, stating that "The context in which this cartoon was published takes away from its criminally offensive nature." So that appears to be that.

So, let's take a look at these infamous caricatures:

Hitler goes Dutroux:

(Depicting Hitler and Anne Frank)

Freedom of speech:

Science fiction:

(Depicting film directors Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson)

Colonial sense of humor:

Solving the female circumcision issue:

So, are you shocked and appalled and already heading out the door for the nearest courtroom? Or, like me, are you merely surprised at how weak and downright incomprehensible they are? I mean, I've seen far better on the pages of (junior) high school newspapers! It beats me why anyone would bother taking these guys to court – couldn't the money be better spent on giving them a couple of drawing lessons?

And yet – that's also how I felt about the original Mohammed caricatures. While I will always support a free press as far as I have to go to protect it, the Danish campaign – which was intended as a deliberate provocation – always seemed petty and mean-spirited to me, and the global reaction was a foregone conclusion. There was certainly nothing about those spectacularly unfunny drawings that could ever deserve the name "comics," and the same goes for the AEL's trashy Holocaust caricatures. You see, genuine comics charm and delight us. They make us laugh as they teach us about human nature. Thoughtful strips like "Doonesbury" and "Peanuts," and clever political cartoons by such skilful artists as Pat Oliphant and Tom Toles – as hard-hitting as they sometimes are – enrich our lives while exercising our smile muscles. And then there's the kind of toilet graffiti that tears down and demeans – and no one so much as the "artist" who sprays his or her message out into the world like an unpleasant body odor. And that's the kind of "comics" I'm talking about here. They just aren't funny.

Okay, I'm going into utopian mode now. Be sure to close the skylight before I head off through the roof! But it seems to me that if we could somehow harness the power of comics to laugh at our own foibles and take the occasional jab at our respective holy cows – just as Daniel Barenboim is using the power of classical music to bring Israeli and Palestinian young people together in his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – we would all be a lot farther ahead than we are at the moment.

A while back, an old comedian explained to me the difference between German humor and Jewish humor. In German humor, he said, you always need a victim. Whether it's Jews or Poles or blondes, somebody has to bleed. In Jewish humor, by contrast, you always make fun of yourself. Guess which kind is funnier.

April 15, 2010

Is the Star of David the new swastika?
In a disturbing reversal of symbolism, Israeli extremists are defacing Palestinian property with the Jewish symbol
By Judy Mandelbaum

Time was when Nazis used to slather swastikas on synagogues and Jewish businesses to prepare the local population for expulsion or much worse. It's sad that this sort of behavior persists around the world, as a new study by Tel Aviv University shows. But it's even sadder to see Israelis regularly defacing Palestinian property with Stars of David with equal glee and with what appears to be the same brain-dead mindset.

Your local paper might not have covered it, but in the wee hours of Wednesday morning a gang of Israeli settlers attacked the West Bank village of Hawara. "Palestinians reported two torched cars on the village’s central road early yesterday," Haaretz writes. "A small village mosque, used only on the weekend, had the word 'Muhammad' sprayed in Hebrew and a Star of David. Haaretz also found graffiti with the Jewish prayer 'Praise be onto him for not making me a gentile.'" The attackers also took the opportunity to destroy some three hundred olive trees, a major source of local income.

In February of 2009, a Canadian writer by the name of Marcello Di Cintio witnessed how "earlier this week, the IDF raided Jayyous. Soldiers entered the village at night, seized about a hundred young men and penned them in the school gymnasium. The troops also occupied several village houses and spray-painted a Star of David over a pro-freedom mural on a school wall. The IDF took about a dozen men with them when they left, and the men are still in custody somewhere in Israel."

According to the Maan News Agency, in December 2008, "Israeli settlers rampaged through five villages in the northern West Bank early on Tuesday, vandalizing mosques, attacking farms and harassing residents. In the villages of Yatma, Qabalan and As-Sawiya, south of Nablus, settlers slashed the tires of more than 20 cars and also set fire to thousands of shekels worth of straw bales, used as animal feed. In As-Sawiya, settlers wrote slogans insulting Islam and the prophet Mohammad on the walls of a local mosque. [S]ettlers painted a star of David and slogans such as 'Death to Arabs' on the village mosque."

"On 19 March 2007, Israeli settlers illegally occupied an empty four-story Palestinian building," the Electronic Intifada reported. "This multi-unit Hebron building is close to the Kiryat Arba settlement of 7000 residents and is strategically located to link Kiryat Arba to the smaller enclaves inside Hebron’s Old City. … Palestinians say that another settlement will lead to yet another checkpoint and tighter curfews, further isolating this part of the city. Already settlers have placed a wire at the entrance of the Palestinian house across the street to trip residents as they exit their home. They have stoned the house and spray painted a Star of David on the front door."

Also in 2007, Tim McGirk blogged about his own experiences in the West Bank for Time Magazine:

Not long ago, I ventured into Hebron ... I wanted to see what [the Palestinians] thought of their Jewish neighbors. On this street, winding up a hill, it was easy to spot the Arab houses. Their windows and doors were covered in metal grills to protect them from stones, rotten fruit and the occasional gunshot coming from settlers living across the road. Over the years, a few Jewish settlers had also been shot by Palestinian militants, and Israeli soldiers had cordoned off this section, emptying life from the heart of old Hebron. The Arab houses were easy to spot for another reason. The settler kids had spray-painted a Star of David on walls of all the Arab houses. A religious symbol used for intimidation. I found this disturbing, like seeing the Klu Klux Klan’s cross blazing on a black man’s lawn.

Blogging for the Madison Times, George Arida described a visit to Nablus in 2003:

We stopped at Joseph's Tomb, a site of archaeological and religious significance. It also had military significance; the Israelis had bombed it over a year ago (the dome and outside walls were damaged) and then had later used it as a base of operations. The soldiers had left a spray-painted Star of David on the ancient stone wall. This spray-painted souvenir was left by the Israelis on the walls of many buildings in Nablus.

Israeli troops pulled out of the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2002. "The home of Hamdi Flaifer, 35, was in ruins after an Israeli search," the New York Times reported. "Windows were broken, furniture was smashed, sofa cushions slashed, closets and cabinets were emptied onto the floor. Just outside his front door, Israelis had spray-painted a Star of David and a number, indicating to other Israelis that his house had been searched."

The Mogen Dovid is a symbol that has experienced a roller coaster of shifting meanings over the centuries. The six-pointed star was a symbol known to many religious and spiritual traditions and only became firmly associated with Judaism and Zionism in the late nineteenth century. But its power as a Jewish symbol derives less from what Jews have done with it than from what anti-Semites have tried in vain to make it into. Storm troopers painted Stars of David on Jewish businesses during their boycott of Jewish shops in 1933. In September, 1941, SS leader Reinhard Heydrich signed a decree demanding that all Jews in German-occupied Europe wear a yellow star – first to shut them up as potential defeatists, and later to mark them for extermination. After the war the new State of Israel chose the Star of David as its national emblem. Thus it has gone from a symbol of pride to a symbol of shame and fear and then back again to a symbol of pride and endurance against impossible odds.

Will it return to being a symbol of shame and fear -- perhaps permanently? With attacks like the ones I described above on the increase, and now that the Israeli military has approved plans that could lead to the mass deportation of tens of thousands of West Bank residents on short notice, Palestinians are increasingly experiencing the Star of David as a threat to their very existence. This should be a scandal to everyone who remembers what the star has meant in the past. My message to Israelis is simple: Stop doing this. NOW.

April 12, 2010

Bishop blames Jews for child molestation scandal
"Don't believe that Hitler was merely crazy," says Italian Catholic leader Giacomo Babini
By Judy Mandelbaum

We're living in the Age of Globalization, and it seems that chutzpah, like latkes, isn't just for Jews any longer. Last week, retired Bishop Giacomo Babini othemselves f the Italian town of Grosseto told the Catholic Pontifex website that the Catholic pedophile scandal is being orchestrated by the "eternal enemies of Catholicism, namely the freemasons and the Jews, whose mutual entanglements are not always easy to see through… I think that it is primarily a Zionist attack, in view of its power and refinement. They do not want the church, they are its natural enemies. Deep down, historically speaking, the Jews are God-killers."

You might think that the 81-year-old Babini had already said more than enough for one day, but once some people "pop," they just can't stop. "The Holocaust was a shame for all of humanity," the good bishop told the world, "but now we have to look at it without rhetoric and with open eyes. Don't believe that Hitler was merely crazy. The truth is that the Nazis' criminal fury was provoked by the Jews' economic embezzlement, by which they choked the German economy." He concluded that the Jews' "guilt is graver than what Christ predicted would happen to them, saying 'do not cry for me, but for your own children.'"

Bishop Babini made the comments on Friday, but the story has only started hitting the fan (a.k.a. the global press) today. The American Jewish Committee already lodged a protest against the bishop's statements over the weekend. Rabbi David Rosen said: "The high level of mutual trust and solidarity that binds our two communities today demands that there be zero-tolerance for such defamatory statements by religious representatives." Babini himself now denies ever having made them. (The bishop seems to relish controversy, by the way. In January he hit the headlines when he opined that the Church should refuse communion to gay people.)

Now, I may be woefully misinformed, but the last I heard the Catholic child molestation victims were abused by ordained Catholic clergy, not by Jews. And while the Jewish community is hardly immune to sexual abuse, shoving the blame onto "the Jews" is just a little too convenient. But the Chosen People are just the latest in a growing laundry list of scapegoats for the Church's own in-house meltdown. Other usual suspects include the Devil, gays, the "sexual revolution," the media (particularly the New York Times), and finally the Church's eternal persecution at the hands of an evil world – a persecution matching only that of (don't tell me you didn't see this coming!) – the Jews. ("The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt, remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," a senior Vatican clergyman proclaimed on Good Friday) Anyone but the actual perpetrators and the people who have been shielding them for generations.

This latest scapegoating attempt came out not only in the days around Holocaust Remembrance Day but also on the heels of the latest alarmist report by Tel Aviv University announcing a drastic increase in anti-Semitic activity around the globe, and with historian Robert Wistrich saying that "We are in an era once again where the Jews are facing genocidal threats as a people."

The report does indeed make for disturbing reading (particularly when it's a matter of individual persons who happen to be of Jewish faith being targeted for violence by anti-Israeli protesters in their home countries). Even so, I always get a laugh when I hear the fantasies of Jewish power conjured up by Bishop Babini and old school anti-Semites of his ilk. I mean, if "the Jews" and their friends the freemasons could single-handedly pull off a massive worldwide sex scandal, what will we turn to next? Global warming?

Bishop Babini's comments remind me of this tragicomic Jewish joke from the 1930s:

A German Jew in Berlin sees a Jewish friend sitting on a park bench reading the anti-Semitic Nazi rag, Der Stürmer. "Yitzak," he says, "how can you read such a thing?"

"Well, David," Yitzak replies, "I find reading the ordinary newspaper to be terribly depressing: it's full of stories about gangs attacking synagogues, old Jews getting beaten to a pulp in the street, anti-Semitic slogans painted on Jewish shops. But here in this newspaper, the news is all excellent. It says here that we Jews own all the banks and newspapers and run all the world's governments!"

April 5, 2010

What drives female suicide bombers?
It's not just ideology that motivates women terrorists, a new books finds. It's physical, sexual and mental abuse
By Judy Mandelbaum

This news story practically wrote itself. Within less than an hour on March 29, two Islamist suicide bombers struck the Moscow subway, blowing to bits and taking 40 commuters with them. Their motive: Revenge for Russia's oppression of their Muslim brethren in the Caucasus. Clearly they were driven not only by hatred but also by ambition, machismo, testosterone, and the dream of 72 virgins in paradise, right? Except that this time the killers were two young women, one of whom – a Chechen widow called Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova – was only 17 years old. The pair has since joined the swelling ranks of female suicide bombers in Palestine, Iraq and now Chechnya. How does this phenomenon fit the alleged Muslim stereotype of women as subordinate, veil-wearing, second-class citizens? A new book promises to shed light on a troubling – and accelerating – trend.

Israeli scholar Dr. Anat Berko has been studying female suicide bombers for years. A former lieutenant colonel in the IDF, she holds a PhD in criminology from Bar-Ilan University and is a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. Her family is of Iraqi origin and she not only speaks fluent Arabic but is intimately acquainted with the Arab and Muslim outlook on life. Her new book, "Isha Ptzatza" ("The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers"), will be published next week in Hebrew by Yedioth Books. She based it on hours of interviews with would-be suicide bombers held in Israeli prisons as well as on a close biographical analysis of Palestinian women who succeeded in their objective of killing as many enemy civilians as possible.

* Continue reading

Berko's study, which is previewed in today's Haaretz, paints a disturbing tableau of the inner world of female suicide bombers, the vast majority of whom "were exploited by the terrorist organizations, by close friends or even by their own families, and were pushed into carrying out terrorist attacks." It appears that women's motives for such attacks are rooted less in ideology than in histories of physical, mental, and sexual abuse within their own families. Their motives rarely involve free will, but rather blackmail or the hope of redemption for sexual indiscretions through violence and self-sacrifice.

Berko cites the case of Palestine's first female suicide bomber, medic Wafa Idris, who blew herself up in downtown Jerusalem in January 2002, killing an 81-year-old Israeli man and injuring 100 bystanders. Berko focuses her attention on Idris's recent divorce: Her husband had divorced her after a miscarriage leaving her unable to conceive a child and married another woman, with whom he proceeded to father two children. Her spectacular suicide "redeemed" her from this perceived disgrace and inspired nine successful imitators during the Second Intifada. In Berko's view, female suicide bombings have as much to do with a sort of proactive "honor killing" as they do with classic (and stereotypical) "Islam vs. the West" terrorism.

But once captured and forced to justify their actions, these bombers consistently cite ideological motives. "[I]n prison, since they are now part of a group, these women are expected to rewrite their personal stories and to reconstruct them as acts of heroism on behalf of the Palestinian homeland," Berko writes. "Yet, there is almost always a complex family history involved. For instance, a divorced woman is in a very weak position in Palestinian society, and it is thus easy to recruit her. Many of these women have an absent father -- that is, the father is either chronically ill, dead or has other wives. One of the terrorists told me that, given her father's absence, she needed a man to defend her; in return for his protection, she assisted him in his terrorist work."

While female bombers cannot expect a reward as such, Paradise does have its consolations. Once there, some of them expect to be restored to youth and to become virgins once more with a free choice of husbands. "One of the women I interviewed told me that women do not menstruate in heaven," Berko writes. "The men always claim that they will father children in heaven but the women say that in heaven, they will not have to pray for children and will not have to give birth."

Berko has been covering this ground for years. Her dissertation, published in English in 2007 as "The Path to Paradise: The Inner World of Suicide Bombers and Their Dispatchers," uses case studies and exhaustive interviews to show how suicide bombers are recruited as "smart bombs" – as "a tactic of war" – by ruthless operators who pull their strings from the shadows. This earlier book also examines female bombers and contains a number of surprises. For example, far from being a "weaker sex," women who have committed themselves to carrying out suicide attacks can be even more ruthless than men. "While men consistently emphasize that they wish to spare women and children, female assassins focus specifically on these groups. It is an emotional rationale: if I can't have children, the Jews shouldn't have any either."

Berko's thesis may sound excessively reductionist at first, as if the Moscow attacks and other atrocities were merely a question of female suicide bombers losing (or finding) their “groove.” Clearly Muslim women who strap explosives to themselves are endowed with a free will and believe they have at least as much motivation to kill as their male counterparts. After all, the women of both Palestine and the Caucasus have grown up in an atmosphere of violence, hatred, revenge, and hopelessness, where blowing yourself up and taking as many enemies as possible with you might seem like a reasonable step to take. But Berko's book is positively revolutionary in the way it actually listens to female assailants and explores their gender-specific vulnerabilities, rather than just making up stories about them. It shows that the solution lies not only in improved law enforcement and finally addressing the root causes of the violence, but also in advances in civil society, particularly gender equality.

Shortly after Wafa Idris's 2002 attack, the Egyptian Islamist weekly Al-Sha'ab proclaimed: "It is a woman who teaches you today a lesson in heroism, who teaches you the meaning of Jihad, and the way to die a martyr's death ... with her thin, meager and weak body ... It is a woman who blew herself up, and with her exploded all the myths about woman's weakness, submissiveness, and enslavement." But sadly for Palestinian women, not even suicide bombing can elevate their status in this profoundly sexist society. Not only prison but death itself is regarded as a scandal. "Sheikh Muhammad Abu Tir, a leading member of Hamas in the West Bank, told me explicitly that his organization strongly opposed women's participation in terrorist activities," Berko writes. "He said that he would never allow his daughter to carry out a terrorist attack. One reason is a religious one -- the lack of modesty. Female terrorists disguise themselves as Israeli women and sometimes wear revealing clothes; in the eyes of Hamas members, their innocence is thereby compromised."

One male suicide bomber Berko interviewed in prison told her that "he was very angry with his sister who had tried to carry out a suicide bombing after she got a divorce. 'A woman must not expose her body,' he argued. 'When a woman blows herself up, not all the parts of her body become tiny bits of flesh.'"

Berko concludes: "Even after they have died, these women do not have full rights to their own body."

MARCH 16, 2010

How Ethiopia is reinventing the condom

by Judy Mandelbaum
The Scavenger

One of the biggest hurdles facing anyone trying to promote safe sex in Africa is the persistence of taboos on condoms. There as elsewhere, people regard them as ugly, smelly, uncomfortable, possibly immoral, and in any case deeply embarrassing. So what better way to get African men and women excited about condoms than by rebranding what is currently regarded as a necessary evil as the height of fashion – and as a tasty treat besides? Condoms on the catwalk As reported by IRIN/PlusNews this week, DKT International, an American family planning and anti-AIDS charity, has been taking the lead in creative measures to popularize condom use worldwide.

In January, DKT joined with Ethiopia’s Zalef Fine Art and Fashion Design Institute to organize the “Condom Clothes Fashion Show” at the Addis Ababa Hilton. Models took to the runway wearing ten dresses made entirely out of a total of 10,000 brightly colored condoms. Accessories included hats, table flowers, and even decorative lollypops. Under the slogan “Abstain, Be Faithful and Use Condoms,” the show was designed to shatter taboos and make condom use appear acceptable and even fun, if not necessarily fashionable. According to Emebet Abu, DKT Ethiopia's head of communications, “The idea of the show was to target young people, who like fashion and design. We also teach abstinence and to be faithful, but some young people will not abstain or be faithful; they may have more than one partner already so they must use condoms.” DKT has been pioneering contraceptive use in Ethiopia since 1989, ensuring that condoms are available throughout the country at affordable prices. It calls its approach “contraceptive social marketing,” which it defines as “using commercial techniques and the commercial infrastructure to provide low-cost contraceptives and information to people who need it.”

Last year it handed out 18 million free condoms in the capital alone. (A recent health report shows that HIV/AIDS rates in Ethiopia range from 2% in rural areas and up to 11.3% in towns and cities, making it one of the continent's most deeply afflicted countries.) Thanks in part to DKT’s efforts, from 2000 to 2005 condom use in Ethiopia increased from 30.3 percent to 51.9 percent among men from 13.4 percent to 23.6 percent among women. This has not been an easy task, since the charity has had to contend with both a highly conservative Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which denounces sex before marriage, and a large Muslim population, whose religion also demands abstinence and sexual purity. That is why fun, fashion, and above all imagination have been the keys to success.


Would you like a coffee with that condom?

Coffee is the national drink of Ethiopia and a source of tremendous pride. So back in September of 2007, DKT introduced the world’s first coffee-flavored condom (complete with milk and sugar) to Ethiopia under the “Sensation” brand as a way of counteracting frequent complaints about the bitter latex smell of normal varieties. The macchiato-flavored “coffee condoms” are sold in the cafés of Addis Ababa and cost 1 birr for a three-pack, making them one of the cheapest brands on the market. The charity reported selling 300,000 in its first week. In 2008, support from DKT and British reproductive health care organization Marie Stopes International allowed Hayat Ahmed (26), a former Miss Ethiopia and UN HIV/AIDS ambassador, to open her Bellissima Café in Addis Ababa. Alongside traditional Ethiopian macchiato and soft drinks, Ahmed hands out free packages of “Sensation” condoms to her customers. She serves her coffee in “Sensation” cups and her waitresses wear “Sensation” T-shirts. Achmed is thinking of setting up new franchises of her condom café throughout Africa. In a local commercial advertising her café and its special service, Achmed says:

Before people don’t want to hear about condoms - they steal condoms - and the usage of condoms. But on the other hand if you put condom in private places and the toilet and when you check at the end of the day it’s empty, people are used to everything else behind closed doors so if you give them free condoms, or we make condoms available everywhere for free, I think they will be happy to take it.

Marie Stopes International is working to open an additional twelve condom cafés in Ethiopia.


"Condoms and Kerosene"

But not all of DKT’s programs are as “tasty” as the coffee scheme. Sometimes they’re merely sad – if urgently necessary. Last May DKT, working together with the French TOTAL petroleum corporation, launched a two-month “Condoms and Kerosene” program at a filling station on the edge of Addis Abeba. There, women were given free condoms and a brief demonstration on how to use them. The awareness campaign was aimed at domestic workers, nearly all of them female, who move to the city from the countryside and suffer extreme exploitation at the hands of their employers. You see, what “abstinence only” campaigners from the US fail to comprehend is that, as a rule, African women are not “promiscuous” by choice or as the result of an informed decision.

According to Tsehay Tura, a domestic worker interviewed by IRIN who is herself infected with HIV, “many are coming from rural areas and they do not have awareness; many are sexually active with guards and are also frequently raped by their masters or their master's children.” A high percentage of them eventually end up as part-time and even fulltime sex workers. Once they are employed in homes or as prostitutes, they have no time to inform themselves about safe sex and their own rights. This is why the filling station, where the women regularly buy kerosene for cooking and heating, is the only place to reach them.

According to DKT, the project reached 14,000 men and women and distributed over 35,000 condoms. The success that DKT and other charities have had in Africa demonstrates once more that an ounce of imagination and local sensitivity can easily outweigh a ton of ham-handed “foreign aid.”

MARCH 15, 2010

Sex-segregated buses divide a nation

Jerusalem's "kosher bus" speaks to the future of Israel

By Judy Mandelbaum

It was the sort of scene you’d expect to encounter on the streets of 1950s Alabama, not on a public square in modern Israel. But on the evening of Saturday, March 13, around a thousand protesters marched outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem to protest segregated buses that are mainly (but not exclusively) used by the city’s Haredi or “Ultra-Orthodox” community. Shouting “Jerusalem isn’t Teheran,” the protesters demanded an end to gender-based seating policies and called for the transport minister’s resignation. Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz of the progressive New Movement-Meretz Party told the crowd: “If the segregated buses continue to operate, we will board them and not follow the segregation rules.”

The controversy over the mehadrin or “strictly kosher” bus lines through Haredi areas began a decade ago when the government-subsidized Egged bus company decided to compete with the private companies that were already servicing these parts of town. Not only are female passengers required to sit in the back third of the vehicle, they face withering looks and vocal insults men if they board the buses wearing “immodest” clothing, particularly trousers. Moving women to the back supposedly ensures the “purity” of the men in front, and women who ignore this masculine imperative do so at their own risk. In 2006, a woman claimed to have been “slapped, kicked, punched and pushed by a group of men who demanded that she sit in the back of the bus with the other women.” In 2007, a group of five Haredi men beat an Ultra-Orthodox woman and a uniformed IDF soldier for sitting next to each other. When police cars arrived on the scene, a crowd of Haredi men punctured their tires, allowing the attackers to escape. In another typical story,

A pregnant woman got on the 318 midnight bus from B’nai Brak to Rehovot. She sat in the front because of motion sickness, explaining this to the other passengers. One Hareidi man stopped the bus by standing with one foot outside and one on the step up so the driver couldn’t close the door. The woman finally fled into the street in the middle of the night. The other passengers went looking for her and found her under a tree, humiliated, hurt, and refusing to re-board.

Israel currently has as many as sixty-three segregated bus lines making 2,500 trips a day.

 [Brooklyn residents may be reminded of a similar controversy last year concerning bike lanes through a Hasidic area of Williamsburg.]

In May 2008, Israel’s High Court of Justic asked the Transport Ministry to establish a committee to investigate the legality and appropriateness of the segregated lines.Tensions have mounted in recent months, culminating in Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s decision at the end of January to continue the segregated bus service on a “voluntary basis”: “The public transportation operators should be allowed to put up ‘conduct suggestion’ signs that provide an explanation and a request from the passengers to sit separately – while stressing that there is no obligation to do so.” Apparently people will be allowed to enter at both the front and the back and then “choose for themselves” where they wish to sit without any input from government authorities.

The decision has split Israel along its familiar religious fault lines. Rebbetzin Yocheved Grossman from the Ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, who heads a lobbying group calling itself the “World Women's Lobby for Halakhic transportation,” welcomed the minister’s decision, which she said respected “hundreds of thousands of women who wish to maintain a normative lifestyle.” She went on to say that “This is not religious coercion, but our way of life – from kindergarten to marriage – that should be respected. If the municipality considers the Haredi public and operates separate public parks – there is no reason why public transportation should not be that way. We are coming only from a position of understanding. Even the gentiles in New York accept this.” For Grossman and her supporters, segregation on the basis of sex is nothing less than a basic human right. In an interview last spring, she asked “Why can’t you respect the Haredi person, who is essentially your brother? A smoker would not light a cigarette if he thinks this would disturb the people around him, so why not be considerate on this issue?”

Anat Hoffman of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism , who has publicly demonstrated against the bus policy herself, disagrees:

The suggestion that a voluntary arrangement can be enforced is very funny. … I think the countdown started today about segregation as a religious expression in the Jewish state. … It’s a slippery slope. If signage makes it kosher, then next we are going to find segregated post offices, HMOs and sidewalks, all of which we already know examples of. Either the court will decide that this has no room in the public sphere and we will not go down the slippery slope, or the court says signage makes it all right and we’re going to float with these signs down the slippery slope and become a very extreme variety of Judaism. God help us if that is the case.

The mehadrin buses have become a cause célèbre across the country. In January a number of organizations established a hotline where women could call and complain about discrimination. Two weeks ago, in a campaign called “A stop in time,” young activists in Jerusalem, Raanana, Holon, Tel Aviv, Beersheba, and Tiberias plastered leaflets on bus stops and bus windows warning against a segregated future for Israel. “This bus stop is mehadrin kosher,” the poster says. “Thus, men enter and sit down in the front; women and all the rest [i.e. blacks and minorities] – to the back.” The leaflet displays an ironic kashrut stamp showing that the bus line has been classified as kosher “with the oversight of the transportation minister and subsidized by the State.”

The protesters can still take heart, because Minister Katz does not have the last word in the matter. In February a three-member Supreme Court panel issued a restraining order on new mehadrin bus lines, stating that the term itself (“going beyond the letter of the law”), “might apply to Chanukah candles, kosher laws or an etrog, but apparently does not necessarily mean that whoever is mehader in the laws of modesty and inter-gender mingling is also mehader in the laws of respect to others.” But what has spawned this sudden obsession with segregated buses in the first place? According to a remarkable editorial in the Jerusalem Post by an Ultra-Orthodox Sanhedria resident last year, the demand for private kosher bus services, which the Egged company is now encroaching on, may have more to do with profit than with prophecy. “From outside, in the secular world, it seems as if it is all about these things you may call fundamentalism. This is indeed how it started. But today, inside the Haredi society, it is mainly a matter of earning a living. People here ask, 'Why should we renounce such an opportunity for profit, especially in these days of economic turmoil, and leave the profit to Egged?’”

Now you might wonder why this story is such a big deal. It’s true that the mehardin buses represent only a fraction of transportation lines in Israel, and only around nine percent of Israeli Jews identify themselves as Haredi. And yet, in this increasingly fragmented country the “kosher bus” flap may indeed prove to be as divisive as the Old South’s “separate but equal” policy. At stake are the future of Israel and Judaism itself. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni presented the progressive case in a letter to the street protesters on Saturday, saying: “This is not an internal issue for a certain segment of the population … I see this struggle not only about transportation but also as a struggle for the character of Israel as a free, Jewish and democratic nation. ... Those who push women to the back of the bus wish to prevent them from being seen and from taking an equal and central place.”

Or, as Israeli blogger Miriam Woelke commented last year, “Why do I have to sit in the back of a bus just because some men cannot behave themselves and get immodest thoughts into their minds ? Is this my fault ? Such men don't need a bus with separate seats but a psychologist. … The whole discussion has two sides but I tend more to feeling like second-class or even garbage by being seated in the back. It is just like women have a disease and need to be separated and I wonder [how] our foremothers, Beruriah, Devorah, Rashi’s daughters or other great women would respond to this.”

Livni and Woelke can talk all they want, but it doesn’t sound as if the other side is listening. Saturday’s demonstrators were met by a group of Haredi counter-protesters, who were bused in from the Mea Shearim district for the occasion. Their message? “Separation is a blessing.”

MARCH 5, 2010

Poland's new pro-life poster child: Adolf Hitler

by Judy Mandelbaum

A familiar face is once more casting its sinister shadow upon the streets of Poznan, Poland. In the runup to International Women's Day next Monday, none other than Adolf Hitler personally has been drafted from beyond the grave as a Polish anti-abortion campaign's new poster child.

The 200 square meter poster, which has so far appeared only in this western Polish city of half a million residents, depicts the Führer's brooding countenance and clipped mustache alongside graphic photos of aborted fetuses. "Abortion was introduced for Polish women by Hitler on March 9, 1943," it reads.

The poster is the brainchild of the Polish anti-abortion group Fundacja Pro. In a statement to Reuters, campaign organiser Mariusz Dzierzawski said: "It is our duty to fight for the rights of murdered children. Abortion is a crime and drawing such a parallel is absolutely justified." He plans to hang his Hitler posters in thirty other Polish towns over the coming days and weeks.

In this traditionally Catholic country where opinions are divided more or less evenly about amending Poland's strict anti-abortion laws, not everyone appreciates the campaign. Many Poles are upset at seeing Hitler's face on the streets of a city that suffered immense losses in World War II (Heinrich Himmler delivered his infamous speech on the Final Solution at the Poznan Castle). Many are also troubled by the hypocrisy of the campaign itself. While Hitler did encourage Polish and other "non-Aryan" women to abort their children, he was anything but a champion of abortion rights in his own society and actually handed out medals to German women who gave birth to four or more children. "This is sick... Fascism, Stalinism... prohibited abortion, often on pain of death, so bans on abortion are strongly linked to totalitarianism," Magdalena Sroda, a professor of ethics, told the Polish daily paper Gazeta Wyborcza. Adam Boniecki, a Catholic cleric and chief editor of the Tygodnik Powszechny in Cracow, expressed his disgust at Dzerzawski's Hitler comparison and the campaign poster, saying that "a line has been crossed."

Will the poster change many Poles' minds? We shouldn't underestimate the factor of basic common sense. Hitler simply doesn't fly as a "pro-life" spokesman - ironic or otherwise - in a country that was the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Sobibor extermination camps. Nazi plans called for the enslavement and gradual annihilation of the Polish people. From 1939 to 1945 Hitler and his henchmen murdered close to six million Poles (nearly a fifth of the pre-war population), divided into roughly equal measure between Catholics and Jews.

But Dzierzawski has bigger concerns than a sense of historical proportion. He recently told the Gazeta Wyborcza that previous "soft campaigns" against abortion had so far had little impact on opponents of existing laws, which prohibit all abortions except in certain cases of rape and incest, severe birth defects, and danger to the life of the mother. Polish feminist and pro-choice organisations traditionally use International Women's Day as an occasion to get their message across, and his organization now needs to reach for stronger measures to maintain the status quo. "We as abortion opponents have no choice," Dzierzawski said.

But Dzierzawski really doesn't have much to complain about. In fact, he can be deeply satisfied that, thanks to his campaign and the moral authority of the Catholic Church, Poland has one of the lowest official abortion rates in all of Europe, counting fewer than 300 procedures in 2009.

It all depends on how you count, though. Polish women's groups estimate the number of illegal backstreet abortions at over 180,000 per year.

FEBRUARY 11, 2010

February 11, 1990: Nelson Mandela walks free

by Judy Mandelbaum

Open Salon

I wasn’t yet a teenager when it happened, but I still remember the TV images as if they I just saw them last week. Twenty years ago, on February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela stepped through the gate of Victor Verster Prison near Cape Town and strode into a new era of history. His steps were slow and faulty at first, but what can you expect from a man who had spent nearly three decades in some of South Africa’s most vicious prisons?

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born to an aristocratic family in a village in the Transkei on July 18, 1918. As a young law student and member of the African National Conference, Mandela followed in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps and pursued a peaceful campaign of resistance to the South African Apartheid regime. He was first arrested for treason in 1956, and although he and his co-defendants were eventually set free, the experience pushed him onto an increasingly militant path. He became head of the ANC’s armed wing, the “Spear of the Nation,” which carried out a series of sabotage acts against the Pretoria regime while endeavoring not to harm individuals. (The US State Department finally took Mandela off its terrorist list in 2008.) He was arrested in 1962 with CIA assistance, tried, and – narrowly avoiding the death penalty – sentenced to five years in prison. This term ultimately grew to twenty-seven, which he spent on Robben Island, in Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison. During his 1962 trial, Mandela made the following statement:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Conditions on Robben Island were particularly brutal. Mandela was held in solitary confinement and put to hard labor in a quarry. He was permitted only one visitor and one letter every six months. According to British journalist Paul Vallely, every Thursday Mandela “and a group of other black prisoners would be taken outside and told to dig a trench six feet deep. When it was complete, they were told to get down into it, whereupon their white warders would urinate on them. Then they were told to fill in the trench and go back to their solitary cells.”

In 1980, ANC activist Oliver Tambo launched the global “Free Nelson Mandela!” campaign, making the prisoner a household name and the symbol of resistance to oppression. Mandela was far more influential in prison than he ever had been in freedom, and the South African government decided to act. In 1985, President P.W. Botha offered to release Mandela if he would agree to abandon the armed struggle first. Mandela famously replied: “Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.” The international pressure mounted. A massive concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in honor of his seventieth birthday turned into a public relations fiasco for Botha’s government.

On February 2, 1989, South Africa’s new president, F.W. de Klerk, announced that Mandela would be released within a matter of days. The preceding months had witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of dictatorial regimes all across Europe. Why shouldn’t Apartheid finally land on the dung heap of history as well? And that is why the world’s TVs were tuned to the news from South Africa on February 11. What would Mandela say after twenty-seven years of near total silence? And what would happen next in South Africa?

When Mandela wobbled out into view of the cameras, anything seemed possible. It was all up to him now, and he found precisely the right words:

I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands. … Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way. Universal suffrage on a common voters’ role in a united democratic and non-racial South Africa is the only way to peace and racial harmony.

Three years later, Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. A year after that, Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president. His administration had its troubles, but to understand Mandela’s achievement in transforming personal suffering into national reconciliation, one need look no further than the experience of South Africa’s neighbour, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

In an interview with British journalist Anthony Sampson in 1994, the newly-elected president stated: “Men of peace must not think about retribution or recriminations. Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”

May we all have such courage. Tonight, Mandela, now aged ninety-one, will stand before his nation once more during a special “State of the Union” address to be delivered by President Jacob Zuma. So let us join the rest of the world in shouting out: “Happy anniversary, Madiba!”

FEBRUARY 10, 2010

My open letter to Elie Wiesel

by Judy Mandelbaum
Open Salon

Author Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, gave an interview to Israel’s Army Radio on February 9. He used this bully pulpit to clarify and intensify the warning he stated in the full-page “Open Letter” to world leaders that he published in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune earlier this week. 

In his letter, which was signed by fifty other Nobel laureates, Wiesel denounced the Iranian government’s domestic human rights abuses, writing: “In the name of conscience and honor, we appeal to the leaders of the international community to do what is needed to help these courageous fighters who risk their lives standing up to their government’s immoral, inhuman and illegal official policy.” He further called for “harsher sanctions” and undefined “concrete measures.” The letter concluded by stating: “All of us who care must offer our full support and solidarity to the brave people of Iran. They deserve nothing less.” 

These are fine words indeed, and their issuance from the mouth of a Holocaust survivor and global human rights leader gives them even greater heft. Such heartfelt concern for the well-being of the Iranian people – by a foreigner and a Jew, no less – is deeply touching. But isn’t there something missing here? In fact, if you read through the entire letter, you will note that it focuses entirely on the government’s “repulsive practices” towards its own long-suffering people and says nothing whatsoever about Iranian foreign policy. 

This is strange, considering recent headlines about Iran’s plans to enrich uranium and – possibly – to develop nuclear weapons. But we all make mistakes. Wiesel corrected this remarkable oversight in his Army Radio interview on Tuesday. “Ahmadinejad is a danger to the world and pathologically sick,” Wiesel told commentator Razi Barkai. “He is dangerous because he openly wants to destroy Israel, meaning, to destroy another six million Jews.” Moreover, “We’re sure that the president of Iran, the world’s No. 1 Holocaust denier, plans to destroy and annihilate the Jewish state, and bring disaster to the entire world. … Governments must stop Ahmadinejad and put him on trial at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on charges of open incitement for genocide.” Wiesel stopped short of calling for covert operations or a full-scale attack on Iran – and presumably on the Iranian people as well – since such demands do not sound very pleasant when coming from the mouth of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but his drift couldn’t be clearer: “I wouldn’t cry if I heard that Ahmadinejad was assassinated.” Wink wink. Nudge nudge. 

Mr. Wiesel appears to reside in a completely clear-cut moral universe, where black is always black and white is always white. He has no doubt that Iran is a uniquely evil state, as if no other government would ever dream of threatening, let alone killing, people it regards as its enemies if it perceived a strategic need to do so. After all, in the same interview he went on to denounce the Goldstone Report on Israel’s Gaza incursion of last year, which accused both Hamas and Israel of war crimes. Wiesel called the report itself “a crime against the Jewish people.” “I can’t believe that Israeli soldiers murdered people or shot children,” Wiesel proclaimed. “It just can’t be.” 

Wiesel may or may not be correct about Ahmadinejad and the imminent and existential threat he poses to world Jewry and world peace. I’ll leave that for greater minds than my own to ruminate over. But if the “concrete measures” he refers to in his full-page ad genuinely mean that “governments must stop Ahmadinejad and put him on trial at the International Court of Justice in The Hague,” then I don’t see how he can imagine Obama, Brown, Sarkozy and consorts undertaking such an operation without doing considerable harm to “the brave people of Iran,” who, if they hate anything more than their sociopathic president, it’s an armed foreign invasion. 

So here’s my Open Letter to Elie Wiesel: “Please, sir, if you want war, call for war. If you want peace, call for peace. You can’t have both at once – no matter how many Nobel laureates you have lined up to validate your lofty appeal for... what exactly? And if your true feelings are good enough for Army Radio, why aren’t they good enough for the rest of us?”

SEPTEMBER 22, 2009 

"Indecent acts": African women fight to dress as they choose

by Judy Mandelbaum
Open Salon

This has been a bad summer for women in Africa – particularly for those who demand the right to dress the way they want. Back in July, journalist and UN employee Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein was arrested at a Khartoum cafe along with twelve other women and charged with wearing pants, a crime that the Sudanese penal code labels “public indecency.” Ten of the women pleaded guilty and received forty lashes in public. On top of that, they had to pay a fine of 120 dollars each. Al-Hussein, who has a reputation as a fiery women’s rights activist in her country, along with two other women insisted on going to court. The journalist even printed up 500 invitations to her trial and "my whipping." She was found guilty on September 7 and, while she escaped the lash, she was nevertheless given a choice between paying 198 dollars in fines or spending a month in jail.

Article 152: Obscene and Indecent Acts

(1) Whoever does in a public place an indecent act or an act contrary to public morals or wears an obscene outfit or contrary to public morals or causing an annoyance to public feelings shall be punished with flogging which may not exceed forty lashes or with fine or with both.
(2) The act shall be contrary to public morals if it is regarded as such according to the standard of the person's religion or the custom of the country where the act takes place.

Al-Hussein chose the jail time to raise awareness of the plight of women all across Africa. However, a relative of hers quickly paid her fine and she was back on the street the next day. “I told all my friends and family not to pay the fine," she told the Reuters press agency. “I am also not happy because there are more than 700 women still in the prison who have got no one to pay for them." She claims that thousands of women have been flogged for this same “offence” over the past twenty years without any international attention whatsoever.

Conditions in Uganda are, if possible, even worse. According to journalist Rebecca Harshbarger of Women's eNews, on September 11 male rioters on the outskirts of the capital Kampala began stopping women in the streets. Those wearing dresses were allowed to pass, but the men surrounded some twenty women wearing pants and forcibly stripped their clothes off their bodies in public. These women were then forced to continue on their way home dressed only in their underwear.

This action comes as part of broader social unrest in this troubled country, as tensions rise between different tribal groups and political districts within the country. The kingdom of Buganda, the largest region in Uganda with five and a half million inhabitants, is taking an increasingly aggressive stance against other regions and rejects the importation of what it sees as “Western” customs. This month, the Kayunga region declared its secession from Buganda, but not from the Republic of Uganda. When the king attempted to visit the troubled area, he was turned away, sparking more violence. At least fourteen people have died in the unrest in and around Kampala. As always in these situations, women end up at the receiving line when it comes to violence. 

Women in Buganda are expected to wear long skirts. So what’s the big deal? defenders of such traditions ask. It’s just a skirt, after all. No, it’s more than just a question of choosing to wear a skirt or pants. Behind this choice stands the choice to do many other things as well: choose a partner, a career vs. (or in conjunction with) motherhood, a place of residence, a political party, a religion – in fact, just about anything that women in Western countries take for granted. Until women are granted the right to choose the clothes they wear on their backs (and over their legs), they will not be free to choose a self-determined life in dignity. But isn't that the whole purpose of women's dress codes in the first place?


September 19, 2009
Mugged by Reality: On the death of Irving Kristol

Irving Kristol, one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals for the past six decades, died on September 18 from complications due to lung cancer at age eighty-nine. Among his many contributions to political thought and social policy, he may be best remembered for his concise definition of a Neoconservative: “A liberal mugged by reality.”

His first major mugging may have occurred during World War II. Kristol was born the son of poor Orthodox Jewish (but non-observant   immigrants from the Ukraine in 1940 and was steeped in New York’s leftist intellectual atmosphere. He studied history at CityCollege, where he belonged to a set of outspoken Trotskyite activists. After completing his BA in 1940, he and some of his fellow graduates founded Enquiry: A Journal of Independent Radical Thought in 1942. Kristol was drafted into the US Army in 1944. In boot camp and in action in Europe, he saw himself torn from his elite intellectual circle and confronted with tough-talking and frequently anti-Semitic Midwesterners, who had to be physically restrained from looting and abusing POWs and civilians alike. “I said to myself, I can’t build socialism with these people. They’ll probably take it over and make a racket out of it.” This formative experience sharpened Kristol’s approval for authority and may explain much of his trademark ambivalence between the most exalted intellectual elitism and his proclaimed faith in the wisdom of “ordinary people.”

Kristol married a fellow Trotskyite, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, in 1942, but their radical sentiments gradually coalesced into strict anti-Stalinism and a critique of modern liberal values. After the war, Kristol went on to become an editor of Commentary, the British-based Encounter, and The Reporter. In 1965, he and Daniel Bell founded The Public Interest, and Kristol founded and edited The National Interest in 1985. He edited both journals until 2002. He served on the board of contributors of the Wall Street Journal, where he wrote a monthly column. He also served as executive vice-president of the publishing house Basic Books between 1961 and 1969. In his articles, Kristol maintained a strong anti-Communist position, calling for an activist foreign policy and vigorous support of Israel. Kristol was a fellow of the AmericanAcademy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a particularly influential voice at the American Enterprise Institute, which he joined in 1972. President George W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2002. His legacy lives on in his son, William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard.

Together with thinkers such as Norman Podhoretz and others of their generation, Kristol helped to reframe the American Conservative movement. It was political scientist Michael Harrington who, distressed by Kristol’s steady drift to the political right, sarcastically called him a “Neoconservative” in an article for Dissent in 1973. Oddly, the label stuck and Kristol embraced it. While he supported the New Deal and entertained some sympathy for Great Society goals, he despised the moral nihilism and social disorder the liberalism and radicalism of the 1960s pushed to the surface. "The liberal paradigm of regulation and license has led to a society where an 18-year-old girl has the right to public fornication in a pornographic movie,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 1975, “but only if she is paid the minimum wage." In 1979, Esquire did a cover story on him, calling him “the godfather of the most powerful new political force in America - Neoconservatism."


Kristol’s political ideas were profoundly influenced by his Ukrainian shtetl background, although his critics have always suspected they owed more to an inborn dread of the autocratic rule and civil unrest characteristic of the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe than to any identifiable religious faith or ethical foundation. And yet, religion played a critical role in his thinking. Despite his leftist roots and apparent lack of personal religious faith, Kristol had long spoken out against atheism and even turned against Darwinism in his later years, despite the lack of any identifiable credentials in evolutionary biology. As he wrote in 1991: "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded - or even if it suspects - that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."

Thus society requires faith in a religious truth to survive. But what truth should this be? Kristol’s notion of truth owes much to philosopher Leo Strauss’s concept of “the noble lie” that must be applied in governing an otherwise uncontrollable society. "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,” Kristol once wrote. “There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."

Kristol was profoundly critical of contemporary Jewish thought in America and denounced “the political stupidity of Jews” in an essay for the Israeli journal Azure in 1999. He seemed to doubt that true peaceful coexistence would ever be possible, either between Jews and Gentiles or between Israelis and Arabs:

At the end of World War II, the major American Jewish organizations, preparing to fight a possible upsurge in anti-Semitism (which never came), discovered a category of contemporary psychology called “conflict resolution,”  which they believed to be ideally suited to the problem they were facing; in fact, its great virtue was that it was ideally suited to their ideological predisposition. According to this branch of social science, ethnic, racial or religious conflicts are the result of bias, prejudice, misunderstanding or ignorance. … [It] assumes that ethnic, religious or racial conflicts can be resolved by educational therapy that will uproot the psychological causes of the conflict. But ultimately it is just one more variant of the universal humanism which was the unofficial religion of the Enlightenment – to which Jews, lacking a realistic political tradition, were especially susceptible, and still are.

Is seems deeply meaningful that Kristol passed away on the Jewish New Year. As Kristol wrote in Commentary many decades ago, "If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without... let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded, esoteric doctrine--for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish."

It is clear where Kristol placed himself in this hierarchy – front and center among the sages. What place did he have in mind for the rest of us?


SEPTEMBER 11, 2009
Alan Turing, father of the computer, receives a late apology

They certainly took their time about it. On September 10, 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally issued a formal apology on behalf of his government to scientist Alan Turing, who had been convicted of “gross indecency” and publicly shunned more than fifty years before. Turing is today regarded as one of the premiere scientists of the twentieth century and is credited not only with the invention of the computer but also with providing a decisive contribution to the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War. He was also gay, and that proved to be his undoing. It certainly undid all of his other accomplishments in the minds of his contemporaries.

Turing was born in London in 1912 to a civil service family. A gifted scientist and mathematician, he attended public schools and later Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he laid out the principles of modern computer science.

In 1938 Turing started working with the British government in a top secret cryptanalysis program. A year later, at the government’s special research center at Bletchley Park, Turing designed the “bombe,” an electromechanical cryptanalytic machine that succeeded in breaking the Nazis’ “Enigma” code for submarine operations. Turing went on to develop numerous other formulas and devices for the British and American governments and was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his crucial contributions to the Allied war effort. In fact, Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park may have shortened the war by two years, well before Hitler’s new V-1 and V-2 rockets and his jet fighters could have a major impact.

After the war, Turing – whose wartime work was still classified – worked at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory, Cambridge University, and the University of Manchester on radical new computing machines and software. Among other developments in the new field of artificial intelligence, Turing programmed the world’s first chess-playing computer in 1948. He later devoted himself to physics and the field of mathematical biology.

Turing was not only a scientist but also a world class long-distance runner, once completing a marathon in a stunning 2 hours, 46 minutes, 3 seconds. When asked why he devoted so much time to running, he replied “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard.”

One of the great ironies about the Allied war effort was that it was partly won by people the Nazis regarded as enemies of the state: Jews, left-wingers, gay people, and eccentrics of all kinds played key roles in bringing them down. Hitler would have been happy to put these people into camps, and maybe do worse. But were the Allies really so much better?

Turing found out in 1952 when he encountered a young man on a Manchester street and invited him home for the weekend. Up to that point, Turing had always been utterly discreet about his homosexuality and virtually no one among his circle of friends even knew he was gay. But when the young man used this visit to Turing's home to open the door to a burglar, Turing turned to the police. This proved to be a mistake, for after Turing told the constables the nature of the relationship he was charged with “gross indecency” under the British criminal code and – just like Oscar Wilde a half-century earlier – later convicted and punished.

Part of his sentence involved estrogen treatments to reduce his sex drive and “chemically castrate” him. One side effect of this “cure” was breast growth, which thoroughly humiliated him. Turing was never accused of espionage, and yet his security clearance was removed and he was denied entry to the United States. Turing poisoned himself with cyanide on June 8, 1954.

After a petition drive to rehabilitate Turing, which collected over 30,000 signatures, Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated:

“While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. [...] So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.”

And so does everybody else who is persecuted because of who they are. Alan Turing, rest in peace. You've earned it.