I saw Ramallah

Poet Mourid Barghouti’s beautiful and moving book, I saw Ramallah (Cairo/New York, 2001), is written in short, verse-length sentences. Is the brevity due to the influence of the author’s poetry style, that even in prose he thinks and phrases like a poet? Or to the nature of the subject, which prohibits fancy romantic adjectives, all deceptive, and intricate grammatical footwork, also mendacious and artificial? And yet everything he says alludes discreetly to infinitely complex matters that the simplicity of the diction allows the reader to guess or imagine as feelings.

It starts with the shocking contrast between the physicality of the land and what it has become in the heart. A loss and displacement, a humiliation, a constant distance from oneself. My first movement is to think of it as a most insightful commentary on the situation of the Babylonian exiles as sung in Psalm 137, including the rage at the end (both in Psalm 137 and in a few passages of Barghouti’s book). The Hebrew psalm floats in my head, and soon I can’t decide which way the references go: from Barghouti’s testimony to that older story of another dislocation in Babylon, or from the anguished psalm towards his situation and that of other Palestinians. It would be perverse to make the modern situation an illustration of the ancient text. Better say that Psalm 137 is apt commentary on the situation of Palestinian exiles and hope its last verse is fantasy.

He makes eloquent reflections on space and time, describing his birthplace, Dar Ra‘d, for instance, as not a place but a time. Page 13, an arresting passage on names and their impossible task:

And now I pass from my exile to their …. homeland? My homeland? The West Bank and Gaza? The Occupied Territories? The Areas? Judea and Samaria? The Autonomous Government? Israel? Palestine? Is there any other country in the world that so perplexes you with its names?

Israel-US tension

Israel’s present government is not interested in compromises.

According to unnamed sources quoted in Israeli newspapers since last week, Israel Defense Minister Ya`alon repeatedly attacked Secretary of State Kerry in conversations with Israelis and Americans. Among other things, he reportedly said that Kerry was “obsessive and messianic” and that he (Ya`alon) hoped that “Kerry would obtain the Nobel Prize and leave us alone.” The US government considered these words to be personal attacks that, if true, needed to be disavowed by Israel’s government. See NYT’s article. The rift comes from differences about the security arrangements in the Jordan valley being discussed as part of the peace process. Last month, Likud cabinet ministers formally urged Israel, via a non-binding resolution, to annex the west side of Jordan River Valley. No give.

So excuses were made. A weaker statement by Israel’s Minister of Defense Ya`alon was completely rejected earlier today by the US administration. Israel’s government was asked to dissociate itself from the comments by its Defense Minister. The strength of the US statement was unusual and a surprise to me. There is good reason to think the White House has not forgotten Netanyahu’s ill-advised meddling in the months leading to the presidential elections of 2012.

Now, after a two-hour meeting with Netanyahu, Haaretz reports, a somewhat stronger apology was issued by the Defense Minister’s office and coordinated with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office: “The Defense Minister didn’t mean to offend the Secretary of State, and he apologizes if the Secretary of State was offended by the words attributed to the Minister.” Passive voice and floating words: the office is apologizing, not quite the man in the office. Netanyahu and NJ’s governor Christie seem to be in a similar situation: encouraging stalling and retribution and working hard at dissociating themselves from the actual results.

The announcement, published in Hebrew and English, also made clear that “Israel and the USA are partners in the effort to move along the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, under the leadership of Secretary of State Kerry. We value the Secretary of State’s many efforts towards that goal.” It does not speak about Kerry’s commitment to Israel’s security, however.

Nuptiality in France

According to a report on its demographics just published by l’Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE), France in 2012 counted 160,200 mutual support contracts (my translation of pactes civils de solidarité or PACS) and 246,000 marriages. For 2013, 231,000 marriages (estimation), but no number yet for PACS. Same-sex marriage is legal since May 2013. The number of same-sex marriages in 2013 was estimated to be 7,000 (three out of five being men), whereas 2012 saw about the same approximate number of same-sex PACS: 7,000. The INSEE estimates that about 1% of couples are of the same sex, and that six out of ten are male couples.

The Pacte civil de solidarité (PACS) clearly appeals to many French people. It was started in 1999, in part to give same-sex couples the same protections and advantages as marriage did to heterosexuals. Its greater flexibility makes it equally attractive to heterosexual partners, for all kinds of practical and less material reasons. It bypasses the old, complicated, perhaps worrisome, and sometimes religious dimensions of marriage. In terms of social protection, labor law, taxation, succession rights, and donation, marriage and PACS present the same rights. Same reciprocal obligations also: mutual aid in old age, illness, etc., and solidarity regarding expenses and debts incurred in common life.

Differences: simplicity of initiation and cessation of contract for PACS’ed couples (the acronym PACS became a verb and an adjective: pacsé); filiation is not automatic in a PACS; no joined adoption either; pension (no reversion pension from a partner to the other in a PACS); and inheritance. Inheritance from each other is automatic for marriage partners, while PACSed couples need to write a will.

The number of PACS took off especially in 2005-6, probably because of ameliorations brought to the law and application decrees. Dissolutions of PACS, sometimes to switch to a standard marriage: about 12-13% of number of PACS contracted each year, whereas divorces number about 50% of annual marriages. Since the PACS are relatively new, however, it is difficult to say how these numbers (PACS dissolution and divorces) will evolve. PACS vows appear as solid or frail as marriage promises.

Evolution of marriage numbers, in red, and PACS numbers, in green, since 2000:
Marriage and PAC since 2000

Finally, the decreasing number of standard marriages is a long trend. It was a bit higher in 2012 (246,000), but the downward tendency is clear since 1970. Here is the nuptiality rate per 1000 inhabitants:

1970 7.8
1980 6.2
1990 5.1
2000 5
2004 4.5
2005 4.4
2008 4.1

If 2012 PACS numbers were added to 2012 marriages, the total number of unions would have been: 160,200 + 246,000 = 406,200. This total, divided by total French population (66,000,000), gives .006 or 6/1000, which was the rate in 1980.

Islamophobia and antisemitism

Interesting, clear, historical overview and pressing conclusions on the subject, especially the need to move away from the recent religious hardening, by Reuben Firestone in Arches, vol. 4, edition 7, Winter 2010. Arches is published by the Cordoba foundation, founded and presided by Anas Altikriti, close to Muslim Brotherhood according to that link. The article was made available on Academia.edu.


Archaeology is bound to map making and all too often to the political self-serving interpretation passing for scientific history. It rarely escapes the ideology and material interests that accompany and fashion them. It is certainly not cleaning and revealing a mossy, gummed up reality that would be already there, waiting for a properly directed and timely discovery. This self-authorizing discovery is framed as a new, scientific “witnessing” or “viewing” —whether this viewing, scoping, or graphing is that of post-Enlightenment Christians, or the presumptuous, supposed detachment of modern western scholarship. It is making (up) this “reality” while posing as an impartial witness to it. See Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial eyes: travel writing and transculturation (London: Routledge, second edition, 2008). And Abu El-Haj, N. Facts on the ground: archaeological practice and territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001)

Boycott Israeli Universities?

The American Studies Association announced last Monday that it voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions by a large majority. There were 1252 voting members, 66% for the resolution and 30.5% against (3.43% abstentions). ASA has about 5000 members. Its National Council previously announced on Dec. 4 that it was in support of the boycott and asked for a vote. This is a first in the US. Here is the text of the Council’s resolution of Dec. 4:

December 4, 2013

Whereas the American Studies Association is committed to the pursuit of social justice, to the struggle against all forms of racism, including anti-semitism, discrimination, and xenophobia, and to solidarity with aggrieved peoples in the United States and in the world;

Whereas the United States plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements and the Wall in violation of international law, as well as in supporting the systematic discrimination against Palestinians, which has had documented devastating impact on the overall well-being, the exercise of political and human rights, the freedom of movement, and the educational opportunities of Palestinians;

Whereas there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation, and Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students;

Whereas the American Studies Association is cognizant of Israeli scholars and students who are critical of Israeli state policies and who support the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement under conditions of isolation and threat of sanction;

Whereas the American Studies Association is dedicated to the right of students and scholars to pursue education and research without undue state interference, repression, and military violence, and in keeping with the spirit of its previous statements supports the right of students and scholars to intellectual freedom and to political dissent as citizens and scholars;

It is resolved that the American Studies Association (ASA) endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.

The news was widely reported. See for instance the article by Sarah Lazare posted yesterday on Juan Cole’s Informed comment. Lazare notes the unusual support by the membership, including the support of intellectuals like Prof. Angela Davis, and the fact it is a first in the US.

As Lazare says, “a mass movement in solidarity with Palestinian freedom is long overdue.” The strangle hold Israel has on Palestinian territories knows few limits. But boycotting Israeli academic institutions is wrong, and not simply because there are “Israeli scholars and students who are critical of Israeli state policies and who support the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement…” Israeli scholars who are critical of Israeli state policies and do not support the BDS movement do not pass the moral test?

An international boycott that targets companies doing business in the territories conquered in 1967 by Israel makes sense. And even more sense would be continued political action against what drives the rest above, or condones it, namely our insane US military budget (615b in page 1 of 2014 President’s budget submission). It is the last one we must boycott in the US: that is where it hurts (including our pension funds’ investments in companies supplying the military, and much of the general wealth of our society), and what will bring change in the Persian Gulf, in the Near East in general, and in Israeli policies regarding Palestinians (or Egyptian military junta’s policies). It is all too easy to ride the ethical train and target only Israel and the unjust policies of its successive governments, while going along with resolutions like that of BDS that willingly confuse government(s) and what the state of Israel still represents, namely a home.

Since the resolution mentions the BDS movement, I recopy here the BDS platform (see wiki on: BDS = Boycott, divestment, sanctions):

1) equal rights of citizenship for current inhabitants; 2) the end to the occupation; 3) the rights of unlawfully displaced persons to return to their lands and gain restitution for their losses.

Three things that are basic justice: equal rights, end of occupation, and right of return. But for instance occupation in number 2 is not specified: occupation of territories since June 1967, or since May 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel? The end of occupation on the basis of UN resolution 242, i.e. return of all territories conquered in 1967, with swaps (but no consideration for so-called “facts on the ground,” aka settlements since 1973 especially), or the end of the state of Israel? The BDS movement’s vagueness on this issue should not have fooled the ASA, and perhaps it didn’t. See the controversy between Frank Barat and Norman Finkelstein or Noam Chomsky, easy to find on youtube.

Catholic priests, France

I checked the site of the French Bishops’ Conference, looked at ordination numbers, and tabulated them (table below). The number of diocesan priests ordained each year has dropped from about 1,000 in the early fifties to about 90-100 since the nineties. Another thirty or so priests are ordained in various orders (Dominicans, etc.) and are not counted in the table. My statistics are not complete but give an idea of the trend. Another number: about eight priests per year die for each one ordained. The average age for the 14,000 or so French diocesan priests is 75. I estimate there will be about 30 priests per French diocese in fifteen years (or one priest per 20 to 25 000 people). I look at this as evidence of a much larger and radical phenomenon: modern states and religions (even in the US) are losing their position as mediators.

Table Ordinations France

Ground squirrels

In the tall grass, as I bike up to campus, a ground squirrel and a pigeon busy themselves, side by side. I imagine a parody of modern science: establish a study of the bike-path-crossing patterns followed by ground squirrels. Get one hundred students to mark how many squirrels crossed their path, and in what direction. Do this over one hundred days, whether students are on their way up or down, and at different hours. In a second phase, introduce electronic devices to do the counting. Theory: squirrels become aware of their environment and learn from it, or don’t learn and get psychologically bruised. Goal of the study: examine whether squirrels develop consciousness of incoming wheeled objects. Application: develop safety electronic alarms to warn squirrels of impending traffic. Follow-up study aiming at answering this question: do squirrels learn to disregard electronic signals and warnings? do mama squirrels warn their babies about the possibility that one moving wheeled vehicle may hide another one? Establish a protocol for signal-emitting mama squirrels, etc…. Ah, I made it to the library.

Maimonides on taxation

The modern discussion on taxation, pension, and health insurance in modern capitalist democracies is often framed as an either or. On the one side, a capital- and competition-driven option, tolerating regressive taxation, and presented by many so-called freedom seekers as being the only solution on which the whole bank needs to be waged, or else, and on the other side, a vast majority of people accepting the idea of progressive taxation and that some basic level of universal support is needed.

I find it interesting to reflect with Maimonides on these issues. Text below. Long ago, he described social aid as constituting a seven-step ladder. He added to it an eighth step, following a powerful rhetorical and religious tradition of transforming (wishing to transform?) the expected into the unexpected. Another example of this 7 + 1 = 8 sort of transformation is familiar. It is the Christian cooptation of the Jewish sabbatic week and resumption into an eighth day, Sunday, a day of sharing in a resurrection.

If you map the behavior of modern societies on Maimonides’ ladder of charity, modern tax, health and security systems are his level 7 (Mishneh Torah 10.7–14):

he who gives charity to the needy without knowing to whom he gives, and without the needy man knowing from whom he takes, for this is a divine command.

I’m translating ‘oni by needy rather than poor to point to a more general situation. That’s where modern democratic systems are, or are called to be: anonymity of the “gift” (which used to be imposed more or less by traditional Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities for centuries), anonymity of the recipient, requiring a system of evaluation of need, then as now. Whereas level 8 of charity for Maimonides is

he who puts within an Israelite’s hand [his] livelihood, and gives him a gift or a loan, or creates [business] associations with him, or finds an occupation for him, to strengthen his hand until he is not in need of people (creatures) and doesn’t beg.

It looks like Maimonides’ highest level in social help fits the modern extreme right wing’s argument. The “teach the man to fish” argument. All the steps are actually necessary to each other. There is no step 8 without the first seven steps. On the other hand, to stop at step 7 and turn social security systems into individualistic, solipsistic solutions, is a recipe for catastrophic upheavals whose form no one can predict. Risky generosity and forgiveness (including that of debts) has to be part of step 7, without which there is no step 8, the step where a well-capitalized economy Maimonides did not see can risk making loans by the thousands and enable anyone so inspired to become an abrahamic figure, hospitable and blessed.

Maimonides’ text on charity and help of others is from Mishneh Torah, Laws of Charity, 10:7-14 (or 10–14). Text (from Mamre.org):

י [ז] שמונה מעלות יש בצדקה, זו למעלה מזו: מעלה גדולה שאין למעלה ממנה–זה המחזיק בידי ישראל שמך, ונותן לו מתנה או הלוואה, או עושה עימו שותפות, או ממציא לו מלאכה, כדי לחזק את ידו עד שלא יצטרך לברייות ולא ישאול; ועל זה נאמר “והחזקת בו, גר ותושב וחי עימך” (ויקרא כה,לה), כלומר החזק בו שלא ייפול ויצטרך.

יא [ח] פחות מזה–הנותן צדקה לעניים, ולא ידע למי נתן, ולא ידע העני ממי לקח, שהרי זו מצוה לשמה: כגון לשכת חשיים שהייתה במקדש, שהיו הצדיקים נותנין בה בחשאי והעניים בני טובים מתפרנסין ממנה בחשאי. וקרוב לזה–הנותן לתוך קופה של צדקה; ולא ייתן אדם לתוך קופה של צדקה, אלא אם כן יודע שהממונה נאמן וחכם ויודע לנהוג בה כשורה כחנניה בן תרדיון.

יב [ט] פחות מזה–שידע הנותן למי ייתן, ולא ידע העני ממי לקח: כגון גדולי החכמים שהיו הולכין בסתר, ומשליכין המעות בפתחי העניים. וכזה ראוי לעשות, ומעלה טובה היא, אם אין הממונין בצדקה נוהגין כשורה.

יג [י] פחות מזה–שידע העני ממי נטל, ולא ידע הנותן: כגון גדולי החכמים שהיו צוררים המעות בסדיניהן ומפשילין לאחוריהן, ובאין העניים ונוטלין, כדי שלא יהיה להן בושה.

יד [יא] פחות מזה–שייתן לעני בידו, קודם שישאול. [יב] פחות מזה–שייתן לו כראוי ליתן לו, אחר שישאול. [יג] פחות מזה–שייתן לו פחות מן הראוי, בסבר פנים יפות. [יד] פחות מזה–שייתן לו, בעצב. [טו] גדולי החכמים היו נותנין פרוטה לעני קודם כל תפילה, ואחר כך מתפללין–שנאמר “אני–בצדק, אחזה פניך” (תהילים יז,טו).

There are eight degrees of charity, each higher than the next: the highest degree without any above it— this is who puts within an Israelite’s hand [his] livelihood, and gives him a gift or a loan, or creates [business] associations with him, or finds an occupation for him, to strengthen his hand until he is not in need of people (creatures) and doesn’t beg. And on such a person it is said, “You will strengthen him, the foreigner and the resident who lives with you.” (Lev 25.35), meaning, strengthening him so that he doesn’t fall and become needy.

Less than this— he who gives charity to the poor without knowing to whom he gives, and without the poor man knowing from whom he takes, for this is a divine command (?). Like the chamber of the secrets that existed in the Temple, where the pious would give quietly and the poor sons of the elite would be supported from it quietly. And near to this— he who gives to the charity plate (kuppah), and a man shall not give to the charity plate, unless he knows that the money is honest and exact, and he knows how to handle it correctly, like Hananiah b. Tardion.

Less than this—When the giver knows whom he gives to, and the poor doesn’t know from whom he takes. Like the great sages who went secretly and threw the coins at the door of the poor. (It is) fitting to do this, and a good degree (= better way?) if the charity officials aren’t behaving correctly.

Less than this—When the poor knows from whom he collects and the giver doesn’t. Like the great sages who wrapped the coins in their sadins (sheets?) and rolled them behind them. And the poor come and collect. So that they’re not put to shame.

Less than this—Who gives to the poor in his hand, before he asks. Less than this—Who gives him as fitting, after he asks. Less than this—Who gives him less than is fitting, to keep appearances [on account of pleasant faces]. Less than this—Who gives him with regret (ruefully). The great sages used to give a perutah before every prayer, and afterwards they prayed—as it is said, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness” (Psalms 17.15).


NYT opinion piece on Iran today by Ryan Crocker, career ambassador to Lebanon (1990–93), Kuwait (1994–95), Syria (1998–2001), Pakistan (2004–7), Iraq (2007–9), and Afghanistan (2011–12), specialist of the Middle East (Persian and Arabic speaker), and presently dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A & M. His argument regarding Iran: that the US should engage it directly. Why? Because there is solid, tested, evidence for the existence of a rational calculus on the part of the post-78 Iranian authorities. Iran has provided help regarding the situation in Afghanistan initially, presumably because of its own fears of Sunni Islam, especially the latter’s radical version. It has been willing to help even with certain aspects of Iraq.

How should the US behave towards Iran, according to Crocker? It should hold direct, confidential, multi-issue, non-ideological talks. What is in play? The lifting of sanctions, versus verification to the satisfaction of the “international community” (US + economically and militarily subject states) that Iran’s nuclear program will not be weaponized. His conclusion, after showing what is possible and should guide the negotiations: “the Iranians will have to move first. There can be no question of easing American sanctions until Iran has demonstrated its seriousness in confining any nuclear program to peaceful purposes.” In other words, we have the upper hand, their move.

But is it their move rather than ours? Why does Croker publish this kind of letter today if not because it has slowly dawned upon various Washington circles that the war we have been conducting economically, financially, and technologically against Iran has failed or is in danger of failing *and* leading to unintended, negative consequences for the US? This undeclared war has failed to bring compliance and is likely to continue to fail, given the new foreign policy and energy landscape. Because of this failure, and the tendency of Washington under Obama to hedge its support of democratic movements in the Levant, one aspect of the question is that the Saudis and emirates feel very nervous when considering the US energy landscape for the foreseeable future (short) and the potential strength of Iran in the region. If the US wants to continue to control the area in other ways than by purely military means, it needs to talk to Iran before the regional situation deteriorates further to the detriment of local reactionary US allies.

Interesting that a career ambassador, dean of the Bush School of Government at Texas A & M, is willing to print today that Bush’s “axis of evil” speech of early 2002 in effect killed any possibility of continued diplomatic work with Iran on essential security issues. To many of us from afar, even though we had access only to biased and government-fed newspaper articles (including the NYT), it was obvious that the march towards war with Iraq after 2001, increasing all along 2002, was crazy even from the most conservative, radical capitalist point of view. To attack and weaken the main enemy of Iran and risk changing the equilibrium of forces between Iraq and Iran, no matter the claims of democratic expansion, seemed contradictory and very dangerous, let alone immoral in the number of victims the actual war made. I remember intelligence specialists at the time (2002) recommending not to do it. Crocker seemed to think along those lines too (Burns-Crocker memo to Colin Powell, late 2002?). I wonder what the other US government officials were really thinking at the time, given the nauseating but comprehensible logistical and supportive role in Saddam Hussein’s favor towards the end of the Iraq-Iran war (1988) when Iran was in danger of running over Iraqi defenses. Myths and stories, says Rumsfeld? At the time, were Rumsfeld and coterie of friends ready to contemplate not only the weakening of Iraq but that of Iran, if need be, by surrounding this country physically (Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Persian Gulf, emirates and Saudi Arabia) and strangling it in all possible ways?

A different attitude to Iran and other countries in the region at that time would mean a different outcome now in Syria. I should be glad, I suppose, that Crocker and others are having second thoughts, even if it is still at the service of a certain idea of a US-enforced ideological and economic order.

Huñvreoù (Gildas Hamel)