Archive for May, 2013

Photo: Joseph Eid, AFP

Photo: Joseph Eid, AFP

Le Monde’s Culture & Idées supplement dated May 25th has a very interesting interview with Syria specialist Souhaïl Belhadj, who is the author of a new book on the Ba’athist regime. Belhadj offers one of the more interesting analyses I’ve read lately of the Syrian civil war. Bottom line: the regime is resilient and not likely to collapse anytime soon. Voilà the full text

Depuis le déclenchement de la révolution syrienne, en mars 2011, la focalisation des médias sur les acteurs de l’insurrection et les difficultés rencontrées par les journalistes pour se rendre à Damas ont relégué l’étude du régime au second plan. La publication de La Syrie de Bachar Al-Assad. Anatomie d’un régime autoritaire (Belin, 464 p., 25 €), un ouvrage de Souhaïl Belhadj, 37 ans, docteur de l’Institut d’études politiques de Paris, arrive donc à point nommé. L’auteur, qui a séjourné en Syrie de 2003 à 2011, propose une analyse du pouvoir syrien, qui se démarque (more…)

Read Full Post »


Related to my previous post, I was looking at the website of the engagé Nazareth-based British journalist Jonathan Cook, who does not have warm sentiments toward Israel or the Zionist enterprise, to put it mildly. One learns on the site, entre autres, that Cook was the happy laureate of The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2011. Martha Gellhorn was one of the great war correspondents of the 20th century—and quite certainly the greatest female one—, was an all-around exceptional woman and who had an exceptional life (so much so that she has been the subject of some six biographies). For a journalist to receive the prize that carries her name thus signifies real recognition of his or her work.

Looking at the names of other Gellhorn prize laureates, one sees those of various Arab journalists, plus the venerable Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, all of whom are known or presumptive supporters of the Palestinian cause—and some (like Cook) ardently so. I find this interesting and ironic, as I wonder if they are aware—no, they must be—that Martha Gellhorn was a strong supporter of Israel and “felt no blanket empathy for the Palestinian refugees” (her words). In the October 1961 Atlantic Monthly, Gellhorn published a lengthy article (17,500 words) on “The Arabs of Palestine,” following a reporting trip to Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza, and Israel,

to see the ‘Palestinian Refugee Problem’ in terms of real life, real people…[to report on] how the Arab refugees and the Arab Israelis live, and what they say about themselves, their past and their future.

It’s quite a reportage (I read it several years ago). As suggested above, Gellhorn came away from the experience—during which she visited a number of UNRWA camps—with a severe assessment of the Palestinians on the political level. Among other things, she considered those in the UNRWA camps to be rather well off given the circumstances. In this, Gellhorn was no doubt comparing their situation to that of the refugees and displaced persons in Europe at the end of WWII, to which she had been a witness. Compared to the Holocaust, to the plight of the 12 million German Vertriebenen (expellees), and the privations of life in general for the populations of immediate postwar Europe, what happened to the Palestinians three years later—though tragic for individuals, but in a conflict in which, politically speaking, they were not passive victims—was simply not that major of an affair in the larger scheme of things (and, pour mémoire, the 1948 war followed by less than a year the partition of India, which displaced over 12 million people and with up to a million losing their lives). And the Palestinian refugees were prise en charge by the United Nations to a considerably greater extent that were the WWII refugees and DPs (and there was no international help at all for the refugees in the Asian subcontinent).

That was Gellhorn’s implicit comparative framework. Given what she had seen in the course of her reporting career, one can understand it.  In any case, her Atlantic Monthly report makes for interesting reading even 52 years after its publication. I’m curious to know what J.Cook and other Gellhorn prize winners make of it (assuming they’ve read it). Just asking.

Read Full Post »


JPost commentator Yoni Dayan has an op-ed on Ynet on UNRWA and the disproportionate amount of aid that has been given to Palestinians compared to refugees from elsewhere over the past six-plus decades. Dayan considers the relatively privileged position of Palestinian refugees—and now descendants of refugees, which is what the vast majority are—to be an anomaly and that should not continue. He makes a number of sensible proposals to modify the situation, one being the dismantling of UNRWA and merging its functions with the UNHCR. I largely agree with what he has to say and challenge anyone who disagrees to explicitly state why.

Dayan’s op-ed does contain one error, where he writes that “the United Nations split the existing global refugee agency to create a special organization tasked with caring only for Palestinian refugees.” UNRWA’s creation in fact preceded that of the UNHCR and at a time when the emerging international refugee regime only concerned refugees in Europe. So a specialized agency for the Palestinians was logical at that historical moment. As to whether it remained logical after—and particularly to this day—is another matter.

If UNRWA is to be phased out and with its functions taken over by the UNHCR—and which should happen—there will need to be a lengthy transition period—of maybe ten years—, to give time for the resolution of some delicate issues, notably of the Palestinians in Lebanon (who are in an impossible, inextricable situation). But as the Palestinian refugee problem, such as it is posited today, is insoluble and destined to continue for generations to come, one cannot expect the member states of the UN to continue funding such an agency indefinitely. Sooner or later the US Congress will make an issue of it and take the matter in hand, one may bet on that.


Read Full Post »

Patrick Cockburn has a must read piece on the LRB website on the war in Syria and its threat to the Middle East. This is one of the best analyses I’ve read on the subject. The bottom line: neither the regime nor the opposition can win. And the war there is not going to end anytime soon.

BTW—and contrary to popular belief—, the Sykes-Picot agreement—which is in the title of Cockburn’s article—was never implemented (at least not as intended by Sykes and Picot).


Read Full Post »


“The strange tale of the Lebanese space race,” so reads the above poster (and which is not from The Onion nor a joke). This documentary—which I saw at a Saturday matinée in the Quartier Latin—tells the story of a young math and science professor, Manoug Manougian, and his students at Beirut’s Haigazian College—the university of Lebanon’s Armenian community—in the early 1960s, who developed rockets from scratch that were more sophisticated than what most countries in the region had at the time (and Manougian only had a Bachelor’s degree). As word got out about the project, launched in 1960, various other actors got involved—including the Lebanese army—, it received ample coverage in the Lebanese media, and was a source of national pride, until President Fouad Chehab told the Rocket Society in 1964 that the state was shutting it down—citing pressure from unnamed foreign powers (France was suggested, though there were no doubt others). There was no more talk about it after, and with all that Lebanon went through over the subsequent decades the episode was totally forgotten. Down the national memory hole, unknown to those who came of age after the mid 1960s. The fact that most of the members of the Rocket Society left the country—Manougian later received his doctorate from UT-Austin and made his career at the University of South Florida—, and many of the archives, photos, and newsreel footage were lost or destroyed during the civil war, did not help keep the memory alive.

Until filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige stumbled across the story in 2001 and decided to make a documentary about it. Remarkable their painstaking, years-long effort to track down the actors in the episode and assemble still-existing press archives and film footage (see the photos on Manougian’s USF webpage, clicking on the ‘rocket propulsion systems’ hyperlink). The documentary is very well done—see the review in NOW.—and, among other things, gives a nice portrait of Lebanon of the period, when there was an optimism for the future and the country looked like it might be developing a real national identity (under Fouad Chehab, Lebanon’s best president ever; and probably its only good one ever at that). That optimism is no longer there, c’est le moins qu’on puisse dire. And Lebanon sadly did not become a nation.

The documentary reminded me of the fine 2008 Turkish film ‘Cars of the Revolution’ (go here and scroll down), which recounted the story of a group of young Turkish engineers in 1961 who were commissioned by the state to develop the country’s first automobile, entirely Turkish conceived and manufactured, and in exactly four months. The leitmotifs: optimism for the future, modernity, nation-building. Turkey’s doing well these days—economically at least; politically I’m not too sure—; Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, less so.

Read Full Post »

The Company You Keep


[update below]

Saw it. Enjoyed it. Reviews may be mixed but so what? It’s an engaging, entertaining political thriller. And it was nice to see all the actors and actresses from my younger years (and, boy, does Julie Christie look good at 71!). Certain critics thought the journalist played by Shia Leboeuf was an insufferable jerk; he was indeed, though he did do honor to the journalistic profession. The political dialogue in the log cabin between the Christie and Robert Redford characters was a groaner—hackneyed and stilted; screenwriter Lem Dobbs was clearly not a 1970s American leftist—and the ending was inevitably Hollywoodish, but I’ll give all that a pass. Thumbs up to this one!

Par ailleurs, le film s’intitule ‘Sous surveillance’ en France. Les critiques françaises sont aussi mitigées qu’à l’outre-Atlantique. La belle affaire. Je l’ai bien aimé.

UPDATE: 1960s leftist turned rightist Peter Collier goes ballistic on the pic in the June 3rd issue of TWS.

Read Full Post »

Syngue Sabour


My post yesterday on Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s ‘Le Passé’ reminded me of this very good film I saw a couple of months ago (English title: ‘The Patience Stone’) and had intended to write something on. It’s set in an unnamed Muslim country in the throes of civil war that is rather obviously Afghanistan—and specifically Kabul, with the panoramic scenes of the city shot there (the interior and street scenes were shot in Morocco)—, is in the Persian language (called Dari in Afghanistan), and stars the sublime Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who’s in almost every frame. The film, directed by the Afghan/naturalized French citizen Atiq Rahimi, is based on Rahimi’s best-seller novel of the same title (which won the Prix Goncourt in 2008), about a 30ish woman with two small children whose mujahid husband lies at home comatose (from a bullet in the neck), leaving the woman to fend for herself (and in a war torn society where the status of women, even in the best of times, is one of the worst in the world). For details, see the reviews here and here (and French reviews plus trailer are here). All I’ll say about the film—apart from giving it the thumbs way up—is that Golshifteh Farahani’s performance is a tour de force. She’s one great actress, rien à dire!

For the record, I should mention an Iranian film I saw last fall, ‘A Respectable Family’, by Massoud Bakhshi (who usually does documentaries), about a university professor who returns to Iran after two decades abroad and gets caught up in some sinister scheming of his sleazy, corrupt family (thus the ironic title). The pic is, as one may guess, a backhanded critique of a lot of what goes on in the Islamic Republic, of the moral code—or absence of—that guides the actions of a certain number of people there. The plot is complex and I will admit to getting lost halfway through, which I attributed to briefly nodding off a couple of times—due to fatigue, not the film itself, though its pacing did not exactly have me riveted to the screen (it’s not ‘Fast & Furious 6’, loin s’en faut)—, during which I no doubt missed crucial information. And sure enough, one of the reviews said that “[t]his is one of those movies where you can’t miss a single subtitle” (other reviews are here and here; French reviews here). So voilà. If I come across the film on DVD, I’ll watch it again (and this time wide awake).

a respectable family

Read Full Post »

Nice commentary by Gary Gutting, philosophy professor at Notre Dame, on the NYT opinion page.

Read Full Post »

Le Passé


[updates below]

This is Asghar Farhadi’s new smash hit film (English title: ‘The Past’), which premiered at Cannes last Friday and opened in France the same day. French reviews have been dithyrambic, as has the buzz. A long line at my neighborhood theater last Sunday afternoon. All to be expected in view of Farhadi’s chef d’œuvre, ‘A Separation‘, of two years ago—not to mention his earlier films: ‘About Elly’ (2009), ‘Fireworks Wednesday’ (2006), and ‘Beautiful City’ (2004), all excellent. This one is set in Paris and environs—in the 19th arr. and Sevran (where tourists do not venture)—and is entirely in French—a language Farhadi does not speak, as it happens—, except for a smattering of Persian here and there. Like ‘A Separation’ it’s a complex psychological (melo)drama involving two families. As for what happens in the film, see the reviews (stellar) in the Hollywood press here, here, here, and here; trailer w/English subtitles is here. I was thoroughly engrossed in the film and from the opening scene. The dialogue is intense and extremely well written, with great attention to little details and gestures. And the acting is amazing and from the entire cast, particularly the sublime Bérénice Bejo, and down to the children (as for the beautiful 16 year-old Lucie, played by Pauline Burlet, a star is born…). All this said, I rated the film a notch below ‘A Separation’ on leaving the theater, as I was just a little unsatisfied with the ending, a sentiment that was shared by the others with whom I saw it. But a sharp, cinephile colleague later gave me a convincing interpretation of the end that caused me to revise my view of it and upward. So is the film a chef d’œuvre? Maybe. I’ll have to think about it, maybe see it again. But whether it is or not, it will most certainly make my Top 10 list of best movies of the year.

UPDATE: The December 16th WSJ has “a cultural conversation with Asghar Farhadi” on the eve of the US release of the film.

2nd UPDATE: Christopher de Bellaigue has an essay on the film on the NYR Blog. (February 27, 2014)

Read Full Post »

Photo credit: David Bachar

Photo credit: David Bachar

[mise à jour en français ci-dessous]

A.B. Yehoshua has a useful op-ed in Haaretz on defining Zionism (I already know what it is but many out there do not, including those who freely toss the word around). The lede:

Given the ways in which the word ‘Zionism’ is thrown around both in Israel and outside of it, and the vast permutations it’s gone through over the past decades, perhaps it’s time we try to define it realistically.

Voilà the full text, with key passages highlighted by me

“Zionist” is a concept that’s basically simple, clear, easy to define and understand, and there should be no difficulty defending its definition. But over the past 20 to 30 years, this simple concept has turned into one of the most confused and complicated notions of identity, and its overuse has made it impossible to agree on what it means.

The right likes to use it as a type of whipped cream to improve the taste of dubious dishes, while the left treats it with fear, as if it were a mine liable to explode in its hands − which is why it always feels the need to neutralize it with (more…)

Read Full Post »


France 3 a eu un documentaire très intéressant hier soir sur le mouvement des Frères musulmans—en Egypte et à travers le monde—, écrit et réalisé par Michaël Prazan. Je le recommende vivement. On peut le regarder ici pendant une semaine.

MIS À JOUR: Voici le documentaire sur YouTube.

Read Full Post »

Naftali Bennett

In September ’11 I had a post on hecklers, in which I expressed my loathing of them. I hate hecklers. Except in certain circumstances, when I like them. À propos, The Times of Israel has an op-ed by Joshua Leifer, a late teen American on a gap year in Israel, explaining why he interrupted—in effect, heckled—a speech by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s up-and-coming far right politician and cabinet member. As Leifer explains

I interrupted Naftali Bennett’s speech because I could not allow him to pass off his fully fleshed-out plan for apartheid as a seemingly benign blueprint for stability. I could not sit idly while MASA Israel hid his insidious intentions to disenfranchise millions [of Palestinians] behind the smiling apolitical façade of the end of the year event. I could not watch as the organizers of the event portrayed his colonialist, jingoistic, and racist ideology as a mainstream political position.

The event was not a public talk but an event organized by MASA Israel for young non-Israeli Jews in the country

MASA Israel, without providing an alternative voice or giving context to Bennett’s role in the continuing occupation, shamelessly promoted Bennett as the event’s central speaker. His time as Director of the Yesha Council was listed on the invitation, which was sent out to thousands of diaspora Jews on gap years and study abroad programs, without any mention that the Yesha Council is the organization of settlements in the West Bank. He was introduced as leader of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) political party without any allusion to its political orientation. MASA Israel had planned for Bennett to simply ascend to the stage as any other leader, without any mention of the nature of his political commitments.

Bennett represents a dangerous combination of the entrepreneurial, problem-solving ethos of neoliberalism with a totalitarian disregard for civil rights. Failing to bring this to the attention of the hundreds if not thousands of MASA participants who attended the event would have constituted a moral failure. And as someone deeply concerned with the ethical character of the Jewish people and the state of Israel, I felt obligated to speak out in any way I could – not just to voice my opinion, but to finally get the conversation going.

The heckling could be justified here, as this was not a public event for adults but one targeted at a young, presumably impressionable audience, with an extremist politician—likely unknown to most of those attending—receiving top billing and no one there to contradict him. So good job, Joshua!

BTW, I’ve given talks to gap students—American kids just graduated from high school, and who have been admitted to top universities—on several occasions at one of the places I teach. They’re the brightest, most impressive group of 18-19 year-olds one will meet. Joshua Leifer would definitely be among them (take a look at his blog). Students like these make teaching a pleasure.

Read Full Post »


This is the title of a great post by freelance journalist Siddhartha Mitter on a fine blog I just discovered the other day, “Africa Is a Country.” Mitter’s post is a demolition of an absurd piece last week on The Washington Post website, “A fascinating map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries,” by WaPo foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher, which uncritically reported on a paper by two Swedish economists, itself based on something called the World Values Survey. I took one look at the map and pronounced it bullshit—on FB and using that precise term—, asserting that any “study” that ranked France as less racially tolerant than Russia—however one wants to define “race,” a term devoid of scientific value—had serious methodological problems, and that France, despite well-known problems of discrimination, was one of the most tolerant societies in Europe. Then I saw Mitter’s post, which used precisely my language, though explained in detail—and with greater sophistication than I would be capable of—why Max Fisher’s piece was full of B.S. Read Fisher’s piece here and then Mitter’s takedown here.

BTW, I was somewhat dismayed at the number of FB friends who uncritically posted the WaPo piece, including some who should have known better. And it uncritically made the rounds in France as well. Even my 19 year-old daughter repeated it to me today. I told her not to believe everything she reads on the Internet.

Read Full Post »


This is a new Israeli film, set in Gaza during the first Intifada (precisely in 1989) and depicting the interface between a fireteam of four IDF soldiers and the local population in a densely populated neighborhood. On the odd title (as there is no casbah in Gaza), it indeed comes from The Clash’s hit song, which the soldiers hear on the radio and adopt as their motto. I did not have high expectations for the pic in view of some of the reviews: Le Monde panned it and the Hollywood press was hardly less tender, saying that we’ve seen it all before—of Israeli soldiers amidst hostile Palestinians, that the soldiers were stock characters seen in countless war movies, etc etc. All true. But… I thought that it was not a bad film for what it was and that its reenacting the dynamics of occupation on the ground at the time (and after)—and of the utter futility of the occupation more generally—was dead on accurate (what a masterstroke Oslo was for the Israelis, allowing them to continue the occupation but leaving the policing of the urban population to the PA). On films on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I am particularly vigilant in detecting goofs, clichés, implausibilities, factual errors, and other distortions. But there weren’t problems in this one (the pic was shot in Arab locales in Israel, mainly in coastal Jisr al-Zarqa). And I was sufficiently involved in the story. So it gets the thumbs up. And it did win an award at the Berlin Film Festival in February, so I’m not alone in my positive assessment.

The pic’s director, Yariv Horowitz, got caught up in an incident in France a couple of months ago that set Israeli and right-wing Jewish websites on fire for 48 hours, and that I reported on. The incident was labeled as “anti-Semitic” but turned out to be nothing of the sort. Such has happened on numerous occasions in France over the past decade. There’s been a lot of wolf crying over anti-Semitism in regards to this country. And do the wolf criers ever apologize or acknowledge their error when it is revealed that the incident they cried about had nothing to do with anti-Semitism? Hah!

I’ve seen a couple of other films of late on the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One was the ‘Inch’Allah’ (French spelling of inshallah)—again, odd title—, by the Canadian (Quebec) director Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, about a young Québécoise medical doctor, played by Evelyne Brochu, who works in a clinic in Ramallah but lives in West Jerusalem, thus finding herself figuratively caught in the middle between the two conflicting parties. This one also won a prize at the Berlinale in February, though I thought it wasn’t too original a film. My reaction at the end of it was bof. This review gets it about right. The lead blogger at the PAC (Palestinian Amen Corner) website Mondoweiss, however, had a post on the pic with the banner headline “Wrenching drama about the occupation, ‘Inch’Allah,’ has been consigned to ‘film festival purgatory’,” in which he linked to a piece by Scott McConnell of Patrick Buchanan’s TAC, who, calling it “a gripping movie”, asserted that

More than any movie I’ve seen, “Inch’Allah” conveys the something of the feel of Palestinian life, sarcastic and bitter in the younger generations, old-fashioned in the older ones, trying cope under a system of domination and control far more sophisticated than anything South Africans could dream up.

Oh please. All I can say is that neither of these guys has seen many films on the I-P conflict.

One film that may be avoided is Eran Riklis’s ‘Zaytoun’ (the Hebrew title translates as “to stay alive”). One would have normally had high hopes for this in view of Riklis’s absolutely excellent 2004 ‘The Syrian Bride’ and 2008 ‘Lemon Tree’. Now Riklis has been on a downward slide since these two but one would still not expect a navet from him. But that is precisely what this one is. The story: set in May 1982 an IDF pilot overflying Beirut in his F-16 or whatever is shot down by a small firearm from a Palestinian fighter in the Shatila refugee camp, parachutes out and lands precisely in the camp, where he is taken prisoner. While in his cell—where he is guarded by teenagers and even children (no joke)—the pilot, oddly played by the not-too-good American actor Stephen Dorff, manages to coax his 13 year-old guardian—played by Israeli Palestinian actor Abdallah El Akal (who’s also in ‘Rock the Casbah’)—, to release him from the cell, so he can make his way back to Israel. The boy—whose parents are dead—does so, as he wants to accompany him, to return to Palestine and his family home from 1948, whose every square inch he knows from family lore. So the two make their way together through south Lebanon—on taxi, truck, and foot—, running the gauntlet of Syrian and PLO checkpoints and while being hotly pursued, but miraculously making it to the safety of the UN base on the border, and just as the June ’82 invasion is beginning. Along the way they naturally forge a bond, with the pilot developing paternal sentiments for the boy. Once in Israel, the pilot decides to take the boy to his ancestral home in the upper Galilee. Arriving in the general area of the now extinct village the pilot doesn’t know where to go but the boy, who knows it like the back of his hand—even though he’s never been there—, directs him. And they of course find it, with the empty home intact, the key in its hiding place—the boy naturally knows where to look—, and all. The Palestinian narrative.

I won’t say what happens after (no spoilers) except that the whole thing was just so preposterous and ridiculous, unlikely and not credible, poorly acted, and drenched in bons sentiments. In other words, the film was a dud, from the opening scene—of Sabra-Shatila kids strolling back and forth across the Beirut Green Line (yeah, sure)—to the tear-jerking end. French reviews were mixed, with Le Monde panning it. On this one, Le Monde got it right.


להישאר בחיים

Read Full Post »

Mud & Promised Land


This has received top reviews in France (by critics as well as spectators on Allociné; US reviews are here). It’s a perfectly serviceable thriller set in a trou perdu on the Mississippi River in Arkansas and among a strata of American society few readers of this blog likely socialize with in their daily lives (I was dubious that the Sam Shepard character had really gone to Yale). The pic is engaging and well-acted, particularly the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer-like 14-year olds (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland). Matthew McConaughey wasn’t bad, though in view of his roots in small town Texas it wasn’t a complicated role for him to play. A couple of French friends thought the story was “unlikely” and “not credible.” Peut-être, but it’s just a movie. I wouldn’t call it a chef d’œuvre by any stretch—and do not rate it as high as director Jeff Nichols’s last film, ‘Take Shelter‘—but it may definitely be seen. Trailer is here.

Another film set in l’Amérique profonde that I’ve seen of late is Gus Van Sant’s ‘Promised Land’, this in rural Pennsylvania, about a malevolent energy conglomerate trying to sell a bill of goods to the good people of idyllic small-town America. This one received mixed reviews in the US—plus this critique in the progressive American Prospect—, generally good ones in France. It’s a well-done propaganda film against fracking (gaz de schiste), an issue that I feel sufficiently informed about to pronounce myself against. It’s probably okay in North Dakota, where nobody lives, but not in bucolic rural PA (and definitely not in rural France). So even though the pic was just slightly manichaean, I agreed with it. It’s a good story and with very good acting, notably the always very good Matt Damon and Frances McDormand. The twist in the plot around John Krasinski’s character—the environmental activist—was a stretch, if not outright contrived, and contributed to the film’s  manichaeism, but I’ll let it slide. So thumbs up to this one.


Read Full Post »

Moving On


This is the title of an interesting 25 minute documentary—posted by my blogging consœur Victoria Ferauge on her very fine blog—, on the Anglophone exodus from Quebec (some 100,000) after the victory of the separatist Parti Québécois in the 1976 provincial elections. Anglophones constituted 20% of the Quebec population at the time but ran the place economically and, in their large majority, didn’t bother to learn French. English was the language of the economy and if educated French Canadians wanted to advance they had to function in English on the job, though Montreal was the world’s second largest French-speaking city at the time. This factor, among others, gave rise to the PQ and the Loi 101 that was enacted shortly after its victory, that imposed French as the official language of public life.

Totally normal. I have a visceral lack of sympathy for the linguistic plight of once-dominant national minorities who showed no interest in learning the language of the majority population in their midst, e.g. Walloons in Belgium, Europeans in pre-1962 Algeria, and Russians in the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) during the Soviet era, in addition to the Anglophones in Quebec. There can be and are excesses on the part of the linguistic majority once it gains power and juridically imposes the majority language in draconian fashion—as has been the case in Quebec, by the Flemish in Flanders, and in the Baltic states—but one comprehends the reasons for its gripe. E.g. Flemings in Belgium have expressed exasperation at the refusal of Francophones in suburbs of Brussels over the linguistic line in Flanders to make an effort to learn Dutch. One of the persons interviewed in the documentary recounts her shock of going into downtown Montreal after the 1976 PQ victory and of people refusing to speak English to her. She must have lived in an Anglophone bubble, as when I visited Montreal in 1973 as a teenager I experienced people turning away from me when I addressed them in English (asking for directions, that sort of thing, and which I had read and been told to expect).

In the documentary one of the erstwhile Montreal Anglophones who emigrated to Alberta says

What mattered to a lot of people who went [to western Canada] was that they didn’t have to bother learn to speak a language that they really didn’t see any point in speaking.

See any point in speaking? But what better point is there to learn to speak a language if it’s the native language of the majority population in your midst, and if speaking it will clearly help you get ahead in life? Or, moreover, if it is essential in order to get ahead? One’s ability to learn a foreign language does not diminish with age; the notion that languages, for cognitive reasons, need to be learned when one is young is a groundless myth. It’s all a matter of how much time and effort one is willing to put into it. Multilingualism is, in fact, the norm for much of the world’s population, with people moving with ease between two or more languages (throughout Africa, in South Asia, among Arabs with fusha and darija, Chinese with Mandarin and regional vernaculars, etc etc). And then there are the hundreds of millions of people in the world who have learned English, or mastered some other language that they had an incentive to learn.

If Quebec Anglophones fled to English Canada on account of the imposition of French, it was because they refused to learn it, perhaps because feelings of superiority toward the heretofore subaltern majority were too deeply ingrained in their collective subconscious. After all, French is not a hard language to learn for native English speakers. As far as languages go, it’s pretty easy. It’s not Turkish or Tamil. Moreover, the Anglophones emigrants in documentary loved Montreal. It was their home and, for them, there was no city like it (and, except for the weather, it is a great city). They remained very attached it to it. Too bad for them that they couldn’t make that little linguistic effort to adapt to the new political and social realities.

Read Full Post »


It’s a ridiculous, nonsensical notion, as the grand old man of the Israeli left reminds us—and not for the first time—in his latest column (I addressed the issue myself here a couple of years ago). The lede

“THE TWO-STATE solution is dead!” This mantra has been repeated so often lately, by so many authoritative commentators, that it must be true.

Well, it ain‘t.

And he explains why. Along the way he addresses the inevitable South Africa parallel

THE ONE-STATERS like to base themselves on the South African experience. For them, Israel is an apartheid state, like the former South Africa, and therefore the solution must be South African-like.

The situation in the occupied territories, and to some extent in Israel proper, does indeed strongly resemble the apartheid regime. The apartheid example may be justly cited in political debate. But in reality, there is very little deeper resemblance – if any – between the two countries.

David Ben-Gurion once gave the South African leaders a piece of advice: partition. Concentrate the white population in the south, in the Cape region, and cede the other parts of the country to the blacks. Both sides in South Africa rejected this idea furiously, because both sides believed in a single, united country.

They largely spoke the same languages, adhered to the same religion, were integrated in the same economy. The fight was about the master-slave relationship, with a small minority lording it over a massive majority.

Nothing of this is true in our country. Here we have two different nations, two populations of nearly equal size, two languages, two (or rather, three) religions, two cultures, two totally different economies.

He makes one obvious point that BDSers tend to ignore

A false proposition leads to false conclusions. One of them is that Israel, like Apartheid South Africa, can be brought to its knees by an international boycott. About South Africa, this is a patronizing imperialist illusion. The boycott, moral and important as it was, did not do the job. It was the Africans themselves, aided by some local white idealists, who did it by their courageous strikes and uprisings.

For my views of BDS, go here.

Avnery concludes with a series of rhetorical questions

ASSUMING FOR a moment that the one-state solution would really come about, how would it function?

Will Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs serve in the same army, pay the same taxes, obey the same laws, work together in the same political parties? Will there be social intercourse between them? Or will the state sink into an interminable civil war?

And makes an obvious point

Other peoples have found it impossible to live together in one state. Take the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia. Serbia. Czechoslovakia. Cyprus. Sudan. The Scots want to secede from the United Kingdom. So do the Basques and the Catalans from Spain. The French in Canada and the Flemish in Belgium are uneasy. As far as I know, nowhere in the entire world have two different peoples agreed to form a joint state for decades.

NO, THE two-state solution is not dead. It cannot die, because it is the only solution there is.

Obviously. Read the whole piece here.

Read Full Post »


The satirical website Karl reMarks has a hilarious, dead on accurate parody of the Angry Arab, “The Angry Arab interviews himself about Syria.” I so happened to read one of the Angry Arab’s recent Syria interviews—which was not uninteresting, in fact—and was awaiting with bated breath 🙂 the one he announced he was going to do with himself. Don’t need to now, as nothing he does can top this one. Way to go, Karl!

Read Full Post »

stephen hawking

My FB newsfeed has been inundated over the past couple of days with links and commentary—almost all of it favorable—of renowned scientist Stephen Hawking’s announced participation in the academic boycott of Israel. In response, Israeli academician Carlo Strenger has written, on his Haaretz blog, “An open letter to Stephen Hawking“. Here it is

Dear Professor Hawking,

There are many reasons why you are considered one of the world’s leading scientists. As you know very well, one reason for your achievement is the ability to keep a mind of your own and to refuse caving in to pressure by the mainstream. Innovation is only possible if you are immune to such pressure.

Given my respect for your achievement I am surprised and saddened by your decision, reported today by The Guardian that you have cancelled your participation at this year’s President’s Conference in Jerusalem, and that you have joined those who call for an academic boycott of Israel. I would have expected a man of your standing and achievement not to be influenced by the pressure that was reportedly exerted on you to cancel your visit in Israel.

Let it first be said that I have been opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories for many years, and that I have voiced this opposition with all means at my disposal. I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is indefensible morally, stupid politically and unwise strategically, and I will continue opposing it as long as I can.

This being said, I have always found it morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible that many British academics have been calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This call is based on a moral double standard that I would not expect from a community whose mission it is to maintain intellectual integrity.

Yes, I think that Israel is guilty of human right violations in the West Bank. But these violations are negligible compared to those perpetrated by any number of states ranging from Iran through Russia to China, to mention only a small number of examples. Iran hangs hundreds of homosexuals every year; China has been occupying Tibet for decades, and you know of the terrible destruction Russia has inflicted in Chechnya. I have not heard from you or your colleagues who support an academic boycott against Israel that they boycott any of these countries.

But let me go one step further: Israel is accused of detaining Palestinians without trial for years. So is the USA, which, as you very well know, to this day has not closed Guantanamo Bay. Israel is accused of targeted killings of Palestinians suspected or known to be involved in terrorist acts. As is reported worldwide, the United States has been practicing targeted assassinations of terror suspects in many countries for years.

The question whether these detentions and targeted assassinations can be justified is weighty, and there are no simple answers. Personally I think that even in a war against terror democracies must make every conceivable effort to maintain the rule of law and avoid human rights violations.

Yet let us not forget that both Israel and the United States are in difficult situations. Israel was on the verge of a peace agreement with the Palestinian people when the second Intifada broke out. Daily Israelis were shredded into pieces by suicide bombings, and it is very difficult for Israeli politicians to convince Israelis to take risks for peace. The U.S. is still reeling from the trauma of 9/11. It has occupied two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade since. I happen to think that it was wrong to attack Iraq, in the same way that I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is wrong.

Professor Hawking: how can you and your colleagues who argue for an academic boycott of Israel justify your double standard by singling out Israel? You are simply denying that Israel has been under existential threat for most of its existence. To this day Hamas, one of the two major parties in Palestine, calls for Israel’s destruction, and its charter employs the vilest anti-Semitic language. To this day hardly a week goes by in which Iran and its proxy Hezbollah do not threaten to obliterate Israel, even though they have no direct conflict with Israel about anything.

Singling Israel out for academic boycott is, I believe, a case of profound hypocrisy. It is a way to ventilate outrage about the world’s injustices where the cost is low. I’m still waiting for the British academic who says he won’t cooperate with American institutions as long as Guantanamo is open, or as long as the U.S. continues targeted assassinations.

In addition to the hypocrisy, singling out Israel’s academia is pragmatically unwise, to put it mildly. Israel’s academia is largely liberal in its outlook, and many academics here have opposed Israel’s settlement policies for decades. But once again, British academics choose the easiest target to vent their rage in a way that does not contribute anything constructive to the Palestinian cause they support.

Israel, like any other country, can be criticized. But such criticism should not be based on shrill moralism and simplistic binary thinking – something I do not expect from academics. The real world is, unfortunately a messy, difficult place. Novelist Ian McEwan is quoted in the Guardian as saying that “If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed … It’s not great if everyone stops talking” when he was criticized for coming to Israel to receive the Jerusalem Prize for Literature in 2011.

He certainly has a point. Living up to the standards of human rights and the ideals of democracy in an imperfect world is difficult. Major thinkers like Philip Bobbitt and Michael Ignatieff have invested deep and comprehensive thought into the difficult topic of how to maintain the human rights standard in a world threatened by terrorism.

Professor Hawking, I would expect from a man of your intellectual stature to get involved in the difficult task of grappling with these questions. Taking the simple way out of singling out Israel by boycotting it academically does not behoove you intellectually or morally.

If your cancelation was indeed a function of pressures and not from health reasons, as stated by your university following The Guardian’s report, I would respect it if you were to reconsider your decision and come to the President’s Conference.


Carlo Strenger

Very good. With some light editing here and there I could have signed it myself.

Read Full Post »


I just read something that put me in a bad mood, indeed almost made me angry—though not as angry as the idiot who has put me in the bad mood. France 24 reporter (and personal friend) Leela Jacinto has a blog post on Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s new film, ‘The Attack’, which has been banned in Lebanon, as Doueiri—who holds a French passport—shot part of it in Israel. In her post, Leela discreetly hyperlinked to a critique of Doueiri’s film, which I happened to click on, and which turned out to be from a blog well-known in the academic MENA milieu. The blogger in question is an idiot, so much of one that I will not sully AWAV by mentioning his name, except to say that he is a fellow academic political scientist, hails from south Lebanon, did his studies at AUB and Georgetown, and teaches in the California State University system (for his tronche, see above image). Here is what he wrote about Doueiri’s film on his blog the other day

Ziad Doueiri: prostration at the feet of Zionists

This Lebanese filmmaker (I have not seen any of his films and won’t see any of his films) has a new silly film about a silly love story based on a silly plot by Yasmina Khadra (the latter told Haaretz in an interview that both Arabs and Israelis are mere victims and that the only culprit is the US and its love for Israel, which is bad for Israel).  He shot the film in Israel and used Israeli actors.  The dumb filmmaker (he really is very dumb, please see any of his interviews on youtube) said that he could not hire Arabs to play Israelis because that would not be proper.  The dumb filmmaker does not know that we know that he worked on the silly Showtime series, Sleeper Cell (which contained the typical stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims and where the only good Muslim is an FBI agent, while the rest are all terrorists) hired an Israeli actor to play the main Arab (terrorist of course) role in the series.  He had no objection at the time.  It is shameful that the Lebanese state did not apply the law against Doueiri who is now rushing to Zionist media to claim that he is a victim of anti-Israel repression in Arab society.  That claim always leads to awards in the West, especially for those without talent.  Hell, any Arab or Muslim in the West can write a silly story about love between an Arab and an Israeli, and he/she would surely win Oscars, Nobel, and Pulitzer at the same time.  And since this silly director is obsessed with awards and represents all that I mock about Lebanonese [sic] culture (he in fact claimed in an interview with BBC Arabic that “the president of Oscars” called him and told him to apply and told him that he has a good shot at winning.  Kid you not), he should get the award for prostration before Zionists.  You now can figure out what type of a person we are talking about.   Look what he told this Israeli paper:  ““I hated Israel’s guts during the 1982 war and the 2006 war, but I have done my questioning too. I’ve changed.””  So this buffoon has changed although Israel has not changed.  He is willing to change some more in return for more Western awards from the Zionist white man.

What idiotic drivel. This idiot blogger, pour mémoire, has a Ph.D. in political science from a major American university. For someone with such credentials to engage in such asinine commentary on a film he has not seen—and by a director he refuses to see (and for what possible reason?)—is intellectually beneath contempt. He is intellectually depraved—though the intellectual depravity of the academic blogger in question has been known for many years, demonstrated daily on his delirious, unhinged blog. To get an idea of what a nutbag crackpot idiot he is, just take a look at the blog (no link, as it is well known; better known than mine, that’s for sure; though its regular readers, judging by the comments thread—which I followed a number of years ago—, are not academics, loin s’en faut).

Now the nutbag crackpot blogger is not stupid. He is actually rather smart. Really: one may be both smart and insane. As it happens, we both published chapters in an edited book two decades ago, and which the editor of the book told me at the time were the book’s best chapters. Anecdote: a fellow (Israeli) MENA academic recounted to me that he once participated in a Washington conference with the nutbag crackpot, who was flown to DC to give a talk. There were DOS and CIA people in attendance—and Israelis too—, whom the crackpot blogger academic regards as the enemy. But he was oh so polite, soft spoken, and serious (he was being paid for his services, of course, and is no doubt bien élevé on the personal level). Sort of like the schizophrenic drunks in Bryant Park in the pre-Giuliani era, who would rant and rave in public but, upon entering the NY Public Library next door to use the facilities, knew to behave themselves. Once back in the California central valley, one may assume the crackpot idiot academic blogger recommenced his ranting-and-raving against the DOS, CIA, and, of course, Israel. Voilà l’intégrité intellectuel! At the risk of sounding like a nutbag myself, I will end this here. One gets the idea.

In any case, ‘The Attack’ opens in Paris on May 29th. I will see it that day and review it illico.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: