Archive for July, 2014

Gaza, July 28 2014 (photo: Euronews)

Gaza, July 28 2014 (photo: Euronews)

More links to informative and/or interesting analyses/commentaries read over the past few days.

Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport, writing in Middle East Eye, says that “New boundaries [are being] drawn in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” with Israel, “[a]s its deterrence operations become increasingly futile…indicat[ing] its readiness to reoccupy Gaza, even at huge human cost.” Rapoport’s conclusion

We are still very far from full reoccupation of Gaza by Israel. There is little doubt that such a move could lead to terrible bloodshed. But what is interesting in this change of heart of the Israeli establishment towards Gaza, in this readiness to reoccupy it even at the cost of many Israeli lives, represents an understanding that Israel cannot keep on running away from Gaza, hat Gaza will not drown itself in the sea of its own free will. After years of negation, Israel finally admits that Gaza could not be separated from the West Bank, that there will be no solution to the Palestinian problem without a solution to the problems of Gaza. Is this not what the people of Gaza, and even Hamas, wanted all along? Is this not the reason they didn’t settle for the Egyptian “quiet against quiet” formula? What is sure is that the Gaza war is changing the map of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Walter Russell Mead—a geopolitical analyst I alternately find interesting and smart or irritating and stupid—has a commentary (interesting, smart) in The American Interest (July 25th) on the Gaza war and “When strategies collide.” The lede: Many wars are fought over accidents and misunderstandings. This is not one of those times. With key interests at stake, the conflict in Gaza is likely to continue.

Dennis Ross, who requires no professional identification, explains, in Politico Magazine (July 30th), “How to think about the new Middle East [and w]hat the Obama administration gets wrong about [it].” However one feels about Ross, he’s worth the read here.

The Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharof, writing on the “Earthquake in Gaza” (July 27th), recounts the story of his fixer in Gaza of years past—until, as an Israeli journalist, he could no longer travel there—, with whom he stayed in touch and what has happened to him in the current war. Devastating and tragic. Issacharof rhetorically asks if the destruction being wreaked on Gaza will “achieve deterrence or a thirst for revenge?” Poser la question c’est y répondre…

A piece in TOI (July 29th) asks if those Hamas tunnels may have been burrowed into Israel not to carry out heinous terrorist attacks against civilians but to abduct soldiers—which, as abhorrent an eventuality as this may be to Israelis, cannot, stricto sensu, be labeled terrorism.

And also in TOI—a webzine I have come to find as interesting as Haaretz, if not more—is a blog post (July 29th) by the Council on Foreign Relations’s Steven A. Cook, who regretfully concludes that it may be too late to salvage Mahmoud Abbas.

Nahum Barnea, in an in-depth piece (July 29th) on Ynetnews.com, “Tumbling into Gaza, and climbing out again“—in which he focuses on the tunnels—evokes the World War I/March of Folly parallel that has occurred to more than one in regard to the latest Israel-Gaza war, i.e. a war that neither side wanted but that both blundered into.

Peter Beinart has an on target piece (July 30th) in Haaretz—and that’s making the rounds on social media—on “Gaza myths and facts: what American Jewish leaders won’t tell you.”

Colorado College political science prof David C. Hendrickson has a sharp essay (July 29th) in The National Interest on “The Thrasybulus syndrome: Israel’s war on Gaza.” The Thrasybulus syndrome, FYI, is another way of saying “mowing the lawn.”

And political science MENA specialist Marc Lynch, writing on the Monkey Cage blog (July 29th), says that “political scientists are about to get a whole lot of interesting new research questions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” I doubt I’ll be doing any of that research myself, though I’ll certainly report on it.

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Shuja’iyya, Gaza, July 26 2014

Shuja’iyya, Gaza, July 26 2014

Is Israel committing war crimes in Gaza? The mountains of press reports and accounts aside, the above photo alone would suggest that it is indeed. When one razes with bombs an entire, densely populated section of town—no matter how many rockets may or may not have been fired from there (and I personally will not take the IDF’s claims on this at face value)—, one may charitably say that it was done with wanton disregard for civilian casualties (of which there were, in Shuja’iyya, a few hundred). And if Human Rights Watch says Israel has been committing war crimes in Gaza, that’s proof enough for me.

À propos, Hussein Ibish, writing in NOW (July 22nd) on “Israel’s latest self-inflicted wound,” says that “[t]he incredible level of human suffering and civilian casualties in Gaza will haunt Israel for years to come.”

Eyal Weizman—an architect and, entre autres, Professor of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation—has a piece in Al Jazeera English (July 14th) entitled “Gaza attacks: Lethal warnings.” The lede: International law is being abused in order to enable attacks on civilians in Gaza.

In a somewhat different vein, the prominent columnist Nahum Barnea argued on Ynetnews.com (July 21st) that “Hamas, not Israel, is running [the] conflict.” The lede: Shift to ground warfare pushed aside Israel’s huge advantage thanks to Iron Dome system. All weapon systems Hamas specializes in are now being used against IDF soldiers.

Former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin, in a must read interview in Spiegel Online International (July 24th), asserted that “‘All the conditions are there for an explosion’.” Among other things, “he speaks of the current clash between Israel and the Palestinians, what must be done to achieve peace and the lack of leadership in the Middle East.” Again, this one is worth reading.

Since the IDF launched its Operation Protective Edge on July 8th—and which has killed far more civilians in Gaza than the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense—, one has been struck by the muted reaction in the international community, as it is generally referred to, and particularly among the Arab states—and despite the street demonstrations in Western cities and elsewhere, not to mention the blood-curdling rage on social media. How to explain? In point of fact, the major international actors—including Arab states—are supporting Israel in its campaign to degrade Hamas. The deaths of civilians are naturally regretted but, geopolitically-speaking, Israel has the international green light to do what it is doing.

The US and collective European position does not need to be detailed here but as for the Arab one, this piece (July 25th) in Middle East Eye that I came across today, “Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in daily contact over Gaza,” is most interesting. Money quote

The war aims of the [Israel-Saudi Arabia-Egypt] troika are described by Debka [Net Weekly, a publication of a website close to Israel’s foreign intelligence service Mossad] as smashing Hamas’ military wing, downgrading its political influence, preventing the US from interfering in their policy, and installing a new government in Gaza once Hamas has been crushed. Debka says that in order to get Saudi and Egyptian consent, Netanyahu had to sacrifice one of the central tenets of Israeli policy – to keep Gaza and the West Bank separate. He consented instead to the rise of a unified Palestinian Authority.

Très intéressant, comme j’ai dit…

Also in this vein is an earlier report (July 20th) by Middle East Eye’s David Hearst on how the “Saudi Israeli alliance [is] forged in blood.” The blood being that of the Palestinians killed in Shuja’iyya…

And then there’s this item, dated July 10th, on Vladimir Putin telling a visiting delegation of rabbis that “‘I support the struggle of Israel’“…

One of the big revelations—to le grand public at least—in this IDF mowing operation is Hamas’s military tunnel network—not only its existence but its extent. E.g. see the Ynetnews analysis of July 21st on “[h]ow Gaza became an underground monster,” plus this one of July 22nd on how the “[t]unnel threat could have been removed long ago.”

And then there’s this important piece (July 26th) by The Jewish Daily Forward’s J.J. Goldberg on the “Gaza tunnels: How they work, what Israel knew,” in which he translates portions of an analysis by Yediot Ahronot’s military analyst Alex Fishman, who concludes that

The preparations that Hamas undertook in the area of tunneling, rocket production, smuggling military equipment, training forces and strengthening their endurance all point to one clear conclusion: this is not an army of barefoot hooligans. There is planning, command, technology and doctrine. It’s possible to tip one’s hat to their professionalism for a moment, before going in and demolishing their national projects.

See also Goldberg’s accompanying dispatch, “Israel’s latest fib: ‘Gaza tunnels were [a] ‘surprise’.”

For a mainstream Israeli view of what’s been going on, see the commentary (July 23rd) by The Times of Israel founding editor David Horovitz, “The terrible cost of thwarting Hamas.” The lede: The Israeli national mood is now a mixture of anguish at the toll of IDF dead, anger at aspects of the international response, and confidence in the troops and (atypically) the political leadership.

And for an Israeli non-leftist academic perspective (July 20th), see Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, both of Bar Ilan University, on “Mowing the grass in Gaza.” Executive summary:

The Israeli military offensive in Gaza reflects the assumption that Israel is in a protracted intractable conflict. It is unlikely that Israel can purge Hamas from Palestinian society, nor is a political solution likely to be achieved. Instead, Israel is acting in accordance with a “mowing the grass” strategy. After a period of military restraint, Israel is acting to severely punish Hamas for its aggressive behavior and degrade its military capabilities – aiming at achieving a period of quiet.

Doesn’t sound good for the people of Gaza, that’s for sure.

À suivre, très certainement.

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Gaza, July 9 2014 (photo:  Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gaza, July 9 2014 (photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

More links to worthwhile analyses and commentaries I’ve read of late.

Mouin Rabbani, senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut and co-editor of Jadaliyya—and who previously worked for the ICG in the Palestinian territories—, has a piece in the LRB (July 18th) on “Israel mow[ing] the lawn.” For those not in the know, the expression “mowing the lawn” in the Israel-Palestine context refers to Israel militarily intervening in Gaza every two or three years to degrade the military capacity that Hamas had built up since the previous intervention. Whacking the mole, as it were, except with the mole popping up in the same place.

Probably the most sophisticated exposition of the Palestinian position in the latest flare-up by a representative of the Palestinian Authority that one is likely to hear is PA ambassador to the EU Leila Shahid’s July 10th interview on France 24 (here, en français).

And here’s one of the more powerful TV reportages I’ve seen from Gaza, “‘Why did they destroy a hospital’?,” from Great Britain’s Channel 4 News (July 18th).

On why Hamas has adopted the strategy that it has in this war, Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the East Jerusalem think tank Passia, explained it well in an interview in Libération (July 10th), “«Pour le Hamas, il n’y a pas d’autre option que la fuite en avant».”

À propos, here’s a quote by University of California-Irvine historian and MENA specialist Mark LeVine—who is engagé, très gauchiste, and 100% pro-Pal—that he posted on July 11th on one of his FB comments threads

… I’ve been [to Gaza] many times. I’ve spoken with many activists over 15 years, and Hamas members too. I’ve been told by senior Hamas members as far back as the late 90s that “we are addicted to violence. We know it doesn’t work but we don’t know how to stop using it.”…

On Hamas rebuilding since the 2012 flare-up, journalist and columnist Shlomi Eldar explains in Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse (July 23rd) that “Hamas [has become] the first Palestinian army,” i.e. that it has built itself in a short period of time into the most formidable Palestinian army—not ragtag Fedayeen—that Israel has ever had to contend with. Eldar’s conclusion: Hamas is sufficiently dangerous for Israel that it needs to be smashed no matter what, even if ISIS-style jihadists take its place—and who would not pose a greater threat to Israel in any case.

The very smart GWU political science prof and MENA specialist Nathan J. Brown has an op-ed in WaPo (July 18th) on the “Five myths about Hamas.”

Jeroen Gunning, Executive Director of the Durham Global Security Institute, has an analysis on the BBC News website (July 18th) asking—and then trying to answer—”What drove Hamas to take on Israel?

I found the analysis by Avi Issacharoff (July 19th), The Times of Israel’s Middle East analyst, “Euphoric Hamas needs to hear that Israel will oust it from Gaza if necessary,” to be quite interesting. Even 100% pro-Pal FB friends agreed on this score (on the analysis’s interest, if not its conclusions).

Also in TOI is an analysis (July 17th) by its political correspondent Haviv Rettig Gur, “The tragic self-delusion behind the Hamas war.” The lede: In the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, weakness is power, and power—well, it’s complicated.

Yes, complicated indeed. More next time.

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Shuja'iyya, Gaza, July 20 2014 (photo: EPA/Mohammed Saber)

Shuja’iyya, Gaza, July 20 2014 (photo: EPA/Mohammed Saber)

I have refrained from posting anything on Israel-Palestine since the June 12th kidnapping of the three Israeli teens, which set off the latest crisis. It’s the same old shit story. It never ends. As I wrote in my first post on the last round of this endless war—dated November 17, 2012; for the last post (nº VI) of the series, go here—, flare-ups in the Israel-Palestine conflict are like riots in French banlieues: there’s a dreary sameness to them, one knows the causes, they invariably play out according to the same script, and end after a few days (or in the case of big ones, two or three weeks). And one knows there will be another one at some point in the not-too-distant future. As expected, my FB news feed has been one collective scream over the past six weeks, first from the pro-Israel camp and then, since the July 2nd abduction and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, from my more numerous pro-Palestine FB friends (plus their friends), who have been out of their minds with rage—and whose rage has mounted by the day. If this conflict continues much longer they risk having a collective aneurysm. As is my wont, I’ve posted a number of pieces on FB and intervened on several comments threads, arousing reactions such as that experienced by Jon Stewart here, i.e. people figuratively screaming at the top of their lungs. C’est fatiguant.

As in 2012, I will, in lieu of offering my own views, link to a few of the more interesting analyses and commentaries I’ve read over the past couple of weeks. Mais d’abord… I will say that whereas the responsibility for the unleashing of hostilities in the 2012 flare-up was, in my estimation at the time, more or less equally shared between Israel and Hamas, the onus this time must be laid on Israel’s doorstep. On this, I direct the reader to J.J. Goldberg’s analysis in The Jewish Daily Forward—dated July 10th, two days after the launching of Operation Protective Edge—on “How politics and lies triggered an unintended war in Gaza.” In a nutshell, the Israeli authorities knew that the three kidnapped boys had been murdered almost right away and that the crime was most certainly not ordered by the leadership of Hamas—that it was carried out at the initiative of a rouge Hamas faction-cum-crime family in Hebron—, but lied to the public on the score, using the abduction as a pretext to carry out a massive operation against the Hamas network on the West Bank—and imposing collective punishment on a large swath of the territory’s population in the process. And with the discovery of the teens’ corpses 2½ weeks after Netanyahu & Co. knew they were dead, then followed by the revenge kidnapping/murder of the Palestinian youth by Jewish extremists two days later plus the beating administered by IDF soldiers to his visiting American cousin in East Jerusalem—and with both Jews and Palestinians now chauffé à blanc and in a state of collective hysteria—, all hell broke loose. And which inexorably led to the current conflagration, that neither the Israeli security establishment nor Hamas wanted. And certainly not Mahmoud Abbas and his beleaguered PA, which has been undermined ever more by the Israeli action. Despite Hamas’s current politique du pire, Israel is largely responsible for this round. Point barre.

The Forward’s J.J. Goldberg also had a post, dated July 5th, relating the words of a former Shin Bet head on how “Israel’s illusions fueled [the] blowup.” It begins

Yuval Diskin, who served as director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service from 2005 to 2011, posted some rather blunt observations on his Facebook page this morning regarding the tit-for-tat murders of teenagers, the Palestinian rioting in East Jerusalem and the Triangle (the Arab population center south of Haifa) and what he fears is coming down the pike.

It strikes me that he’s probably saying a lot of what IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz was thinking at this week’s security cabinet meeting, when Gantz’s far more restrained comments led to a tongue-lashing from Naftali Bennett. In other words, this is how the current meltdown looks to much of the top Israeli military and intelligence brass. It’s what they’ve been saying privately while in uniform and publicly after retiring (and occasionally even while still in uniform). I’ve taken the liberty of translating Diskin’s Hebrew into English.

To read what Diskin wrote on his FB page, click on the above link.

Journalist Larry Derfner, in the same vein as J.J. Goldberg’s aforelinked analysis, had a commentary (July 9th) in +972 on “How Netanyahu provoked this war with Gaza.” The lede: [Netanyahu’s] antagonism to all Palestinians—to Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority no less than to Hamas—started and steadily fueled the chain reaction that led to the current misery.

Also in +972 is a depressing piece (July 12th) on the “frightening new era of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.” The lede: Attacks by Jewish hooligans on Arabs, unprecedented incitement by right-wing politicians and clashes between Israeli Police and Arab youth. We’ve been here before, but never like this.

Writing in The New Yorker (July 9th), Ramallah lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh reflects on “The meaning of Mohamed Abu Khdeir’s murder.”

One of the more informative and useful analyses I’ve read is the International Crisis Group’s latest Middle East Briefing (July 14th), “Gaza and Israel: New Obstacles, New Solutions” (10 pages in PDF). The lede: To break the violent impasse, Israel must change its policy toward Hamas and work toward a lasting ceasefire, recognising how much its own stability depends on the stability of Gaza.

What this, in short, means for Gaza—and which everyone in the know in Israel knows—is that, at present, the only alternative to Hamas is ISIS-like jihadists—which unfortunately means that there is no present alternative to Hamas. And which means that Israel, faute de mieux, has no alternative but to work out a modus vivendi with Hamas via Egyptian intermediaries, that will enable the reentry of the PA into Gaza’s affairs and the United Nations as well. The April reconciliation agreement between the PA and Hamas—had Israel not undermined it—could have brought this about.

The principal author of the (unsigned, as always) ICG report, Nathan Thrall, had an op-ed in the NYT (July 17th) explaining “How the West chose war in Gaza,” in which he asserts that “[b]y preventing payment of Hamas workers’ salaries and free passage to Egypt, Israel and the West laid the groundwork for the latest escalation.”

Slate’s Fred Kaplan had a very good piece, dated July 17th, entitled “Israel’s deadly gambits.” The lede: The Israeli government has lost the ability to think strategically.

The NYT’s Roger Cohen had a spot-on column, dated July 14th, on “Israel’s bloody status quo.” Cohen, who is so stupid when writing on France, has been getting it exactly right on Israel-Palestine.

More links in the next post.

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Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and visiting professor at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University—and dear personal friend—, has a must read essay/personal reflection in the latest issue of The Nation (dated August 4th) inspired by his fifteen-odd years of reporting on the Middle East and North Africa. The essay is a revised version of the Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture, at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, that Adam gave this past May, and which he fraternally sent me for comments beforehand. It’s typically excellent. As for watching the lecture—as the above image indicates one may do—this will apparently be possible sometime this fall.

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Bastille Day 2014

(photo: AFP)

(photo: AFP)

I’ve had a Bastille Day post every July 14th since launching this blog (here, here, and here) so voilà this year’s. As I’ve been saying for decades, the Bastille Day parade down the Champs-Elysées is the greatest parade in the world. Period. This year’s was particularly noteworthy, as it’s the centenary of the beginning of World War I, so all the belligerent powers of that war—including the successor states of empires, making a total of eighty states—were invited to participate (only China and Vietnam declined), with three soldiers each from their respective armies, and led by French soldiers dressed in World War I uniforms preserved from the era. Not bad. The presence of Algerian soldiers got the extreme right all bent out of shape but that’s their problem. Vive la France!

(photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo)

(photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo)

(photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo)

(photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo)

(photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo)

(photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo)

(photo: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP)

(photo: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP)

(photo: Alain Jocard/AFP)

(photo: Alain Jocard/AFP)

(photo: Benoît Tessier/Reuters)

(photo: Benoît Tessier/Reuters)

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The World Cup – X

Rio de Janiero, July 13 2014 (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Rio de Janiero, July 13 2014 (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

A well-deserved victory by Germany, which was the best overall team in the tournament. As Slate senior editor and soccer aficionado Jeremy Stahl wrote à chaud after the game, one should not cry for Argentina or Lionel Messi, as “This Germany team is [indeed] one of the best in years.” And it is certainly more sympathique than the Mannschaft teams of the 1980s.

So that’s it. My evenings will no longer be consumed by sports as they have for the past month. And save for any new developments on the 2022 Qatar question, this will likely be my last soccer post until the Euro 2016, i.e. for two years. Back to politics and movies…

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The World Cup – IX


[update below]

I watched with slack-jawed incredulity the unbelievable Brazilian collapse against Germany on Tuesday, my sentiment no doubt being shared by all the several hundred million people tuned into the game across the globe. I felt so badly for Brazil, team and people. The best analysis I’ve read so far on the game is an article in Slate by Irish Times journalist Ken Early, “Why Brazil lost.” The lede: Rather than make a real plan, [the Brazilians] abandoned themselves to romantic notions of passion and desire.

Early’s piece is well worth the read. He suggests, among other things, that some soul-searching will have to be done in Brazil. The reception the Seleção receives from the hometown crowd at Saturday’s consolation game in Brasilia will be instructive. If it’s even somewhat akin to that received by the German Mannschaft at their third place match in Stuttgart in 2006, as Early describes it, that will be good and salutary. But if Brazilian fans greet their team with negativity—e.g. pelting them with garbage and hurling insults, as happened in 1986 at Rio de Janeiro airport upon the Seleção’s return following its quarterfinal elimination from the tournament that year (I remember the TV news image of this)—and pile on the humiliation, I will lose a lot of sympathy for them.

On Brazil, here’s a piece dated June 17th in the Afro-American-oriented webzine The Root, by journalist Dion Rabouin, on how “Black identity and racism collide in Brazil.” The lede: The country’s complex history with race gains the spotlight as the World Cup attempts to address the recent wave of racist attacks against black players.

And here’s something from the NYT (July 7th) on “Neymar’s injury sidelin[ing] effort to end World Cup racism.”

I was hoping for a Brazil-Netherlands final but Germany put paid to that. Then I thought a Germany-Netherlands final would be pretty cool but now that won’t be happening either. The Argentina-Netherlands game yesterday was not nearly as “exciting” as the one on Tuesday, though I didn’t think it was as dull as did various media and FB commentators. Both teams played very well defensively, particularly the Dutch, though the latter were admittedly insipid and uninspired on offense—no shots on goal in regulation time and too many free kicks that went nowhere—, so Argentina’s victory in the shootout was merited. But La Albiceleste hasn’t been overly impressive in the tournament, depends too heavily on a single player (L.Messi), and has had such an odious reputation over the decades—of playing dirty and bad sportsmanship—that I’ll be all for Germany on Sunday.

UPDATE: Cambridge University political theorist David Runciman, who’s been posting on the World Cup on the LRB blog, has a good commentary on the Brazilian debacle. See also his successive post, on Argentina’s inglorious 1978 World Cup victory.


greetings from brazil

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Celebrating Algeria's World Cup qualifying victory over Burkina Faso, November 19 2013

Celebrating Algeria’s World Cup qualifying victory over Burkina Faso, November 19 2013

This is a continuation of my post of three days ago, on Franco-Algerians and issues of identity, which I put up before saying everything I wanted to say on the subject. Three more comments. First, when pondering—and dreading—a hypothetical France-Algeria World Cup quarterfinal—which thankfully did not come to pass—, one immediately thinks of the October 6, 2001, France-Algeria friendly de funeste mémoire, before a packed Stade de France in Saint-Denis, the first time the two national teams had met for a friendly match and in France (the one previous meeting between national soccer teams of the two was the 1975 Mediterranean Games final in Algiers—and which was won by Algeria). The game’s advance billing presented it as a beautiful—and heavily symbolic—moment of Franco-Algerian friendship and reconciliation, so numerous politicians and other public personalities were present at the stadium, including Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Minister of Youth and Sports—and the then PCF Secretary-General—Marie-George Buffet had the brilliant—or, one should say, “brilliant”—idea to distribute free tickets for the game to thousands of young people of Algerian parentage in the surrounding, heavily immigrant populated banlieues (Saint-Denis being in the heart of the neuf-trois). A lovely gesture, or so she thought. The stadium was a sea of Algerian flags. When Les Bleus—the celebrated black-blanc-beur team that had won the World Cup three years earlier—entered, they were booed. And when the national anthems were played, La Marseillaise was likewise booed. And loudly. Throughout the game, whenever a French player took the ball, he was booed—even national hero Zineddine Zidane, and normally beloved by young Franco-Algerians—and with the Algerian players loudly cheered. And then at the 76th minute, with France leading 4-1, youthful spectators invaded the field. It was pandemonium (watch here, from 6:50). The game had to be called and with the players quickly exiting to the locker room.

What was to have been a beautiful moment symbolizing the friendship between the two countries turned into a fiasco. Jospin, Buffet, and the other VIPs were like statues during the game—their faces frozen—whenever the TV camera panned to them (and Mme Buffet was hit by a projectile). I watched the whole thing with my wife and we were speechless. And stunned, as was everyone we knew—including all the Algerians and other Maghrebis—who watched the game. And the reaction was likewise across the board in France. French society was blindsided by the spectacle, of tens of thousands of young French citizens—or citizens-to-be—booing France and the symbols—flag and anthem—of the French nation. It led the news the next day, was the headline in all the papers, and the cover story in the weekly news magazines, with analyses, tribunes, and debates as to the meaning of what had happened and how to interpret the manifest alienation from French society of a portion of the younger generation of Algerian immigrant origin. As the Front National was at an electoral low point at the time, there wasn’t much demagoguery from politicians over the event. Mainly shock and disorientation. The most sober reaction came from the Über-republican patriot Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who spoke of how saddened he was by the spectacle and what he interpreted as the failure of the Republic to integrate young Franco-Algerians.

The most virulent reaction, as it happened, came from Algeria, with the press there unanimously denouncing the youthful Franco-Algerians at the Stade de France, whose comportment disgraced Algeria and Algerians in France, so the Algerian press asserted. Algerians in Algeria spared their brethren in France no quarter. And the adults in France’s Algerian population felt likewise.

The fallout from the game was long-lasting. It was not forgotten. In debates over post-colonial immigrant integration, there was a before and after October 2001. A France-Algeria match today—and a high stakes one at that—would certainly see similar type behavior from young Franco-Algerians. But there would be fewer soul-searching reactions à la Chevènement from politicians. In view of the current electoral strength of the FN, the surge of the hard right-wing of the UMP—thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-François Copé—, and the Internet réacosphère (with countless right-wing blogs and reactionary websites, e.g. Valeurs Actuelles), the political récupération and exploitation would be terrible. The well would be poisoned big time. As I have said, France does not need this.

A second comment, and to put things in perspective: Except when playing Algeria—or Morocco or Tunisia—the French national team is actively supported by young Franco-Algerians/Maghrebis. In the wild celebrations that followed France’s 1998 World Cup victory over Brazil, young Franco-Maghrebis were out in force—and marking the French victory by waving Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian flags (which I was able to observe, having been out and about on that glorious July night). Again, hybrid/multiple identities issuing from post-colonial immigration.

Third comment. On the phenomenon and significance of waving flags of former French colonies at events in France—including political rallies—see the guest post on this blog by sociologist (and personal friend) Didier Le Saout dated May 7, 2012, in which he analyses “les drapeaux étrangers et le débat de l’intégration des populations étrangères dans la société française” (scroll to nº2; see also my exchange on this with a conservative American who commented on the blog).

Political scientist and Algeria specialist Thomas Serres has a sharp analysis (June 29th) in the webzine Jadaliyya, “From the World Cup to the ‘Great Replacement’: Football and Racist Narratives in France.”

Celebrating Algeria's World Cup qualifying victory over Egypt, November 18 2009

Celebrating Algeria’s World Cup qualifying victory over Egypt, November 18 2009

On Team USA’s elimination by Belgium last Tuesday, I have nothing in particular to say about it except too bad, better luck in 2018, and Tim Howard was awesome. Everyone is remarking on the upsurge of interest in the World Cup in the US, with statistics published in WaPo “[proving that] Americans care more about soccer than you think.” And in case one missed it, the NYT’s Sam Borden had a good piece after the Belgium game, “Wild ride by U.S. comes to end, but soccer is the winner.” On the engouement for soccer in the US

World Cups have been growing in popularity among Americans for some time, but this tournament has felt different. Explanations for the surge vary, with some pointing to Brazil’s time zone being favorable for American viewers, especially compared to South Africa four years ago. Others say soccer’s spike is simply the result of a growing Hispanic population in the United States as well as the inevitable aging of Millenials. A great number of soccer-loving children have now become consumer adults.

“These are all young people who grew up with the game, whether it be the English Premier League or Major League Soccer, and they don’t need to be convinced that soccer is a sport that is worthy of their attention,” said Don Garber, the commissioner of M.L.S. “The country has changed. This is a new America.”

Statistics seem to support that claim. Fourteen percent of people between the ages of 12 and 24 said professional soccer was their favorite sport, second only to the N.F.L., according to Rich Luker, who runs a sports research firm. That means a greater number of fans are more likely to continue following the sport even when the pageantry of the World Cup is over.

Millennials are not just knowledgeable about the Premier League and MLS but have grown up playing the game—which was not the case in my generation (and certainly not among boys in the Midwest). And, as Ann Coulter and other soccer denigrators—of which I was one until two decades ago—surely know, those Americans who play soccer and/or follow it are mainly middle and upper-middle class and include many from Republican families (and whose grandparents were born in the US…).

Hypothesis: One reason Ann Coulter and her ideological ilk are suspicious of soccer—apart from the fact that they didn’t grow up with it—is that an interest in the sport necessarily and positively engages one with the rest of the world, and particularly Europe. One cannot follow soccer without an on-going knowledge of—and respect for—the major European leagues—and which will be superior to MLS for a long time to come. One cannot be a soccer fan and America-centric.

I like these pics of “fanatical ‘gringo’ fans suffering defeat in the round of 16,” on a Venezuelan website I stumbled across.

Hypothesis: Ann Coulter and ilk also dislike the rise of soccer in the US because it is a team sport in which Americans are not the best and where the US national team will inevitably lose to some European, Latin American, African country, that Americans will have to get used to defeat—as do all other countries, including Brazil—, but that it’s not a big deal. The playing field will always be level.

Assertion: Ann Coulter and ilk will just have to get used to their fellow Americans liking soccer. There’s not a thing they can do about it.

Watching Belgium-USA on the big screen at Soldier Field, Chicago, July 1st (photo: Scott Olson/Getty Image)

Watching Belgium-USA on the big screen at Soldier Field, Chicago, July 1st
(photo: Scott Olson/Getty Image)

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The World Cup – VII

France-Germany, Rio de Janiero, July 4th (photo: AFP/Christophe Simon)

France-Germany, Rio de Janiero, July 4th (photo: AFP/Christophe Simon)

Hélas… I was optimistic for Les Bleus’s chances against the Mannschaft, had visions of them moving on to beat Brazil or Colombia in the semifinal, and then maybe winning the big one on July 13th. But it is not to be. The French outplayed the Germans in the second half but just couldn’t get the ball past goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Everyone here was so disappointed. But for the first time in my soccer memory—i.e. since the mid ’90s, when I started to follow international competition and the French national team—the reaction in the press and by the public to the French team’s elimination has not been to beat up on or savage them, as was (deservedly) the case in 2002 and 2010 (as for 2006, I will personally never forgive Zineddine Zidane for his unforgivable headbutt of Marco Materazzi at the 110th minute in the final, though public opinion remains divided on this). Just about everyone—or so it appears the day after—is speaking highly of the team in defeat, a team few thought before last November 19th would get this far in the tournament. The French public was trashing the team nine months ago, now they adore it once again. The team members are young and sympathique, and with the 23 selected for the tournament not including prima donnas or manifest jerks in their ranks. And they’re very good soccer players. Didier Deschamps has done a great job of putting the team together, transforming it from “chumps to potential champs” and earning respect from the world in the process. Les Bleus are back in the world soccer elite. As France is the host country of the 2016 European championship—and with Les Bleus consequently automatically qualified for the tournament—, they won’t be playing any games that matter from now until June ’16. Just friendlies, which I almost never watch. So I probably won’t see them play for the next two years 😦

BTW, the Brazil-Colombia game that followed France-Germany was great, or at least high octane and very intense. Was one of the few all-South American games I’ve watched from beginning to end, confirming that South American soccer is more offensive, physical, and overall exciting to watch than European (and aided by the exuberance of the spectators in the packed stadium). Too bad about Neymar. Now I guess I have to be for the home team Brazil to win the thing.

Les Bleus (photo: AFP/Damien Meyer)

Les Bleus (photo: AFP/Damien Meyer)

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Algerian national team homecoming, Algiers, July 2 2014 (Photo: Getty Images)

Algerian national team homecoming, Algiers, July 2 2014 (Photo: Getty Images)

This post is a couple of days late. First of all, here’s a post by poet and essayist Charles Simic on the NYR Blog (July 2nd), “Confessions of a Soccer Addict,” that I can relate to. Now I am not nearly as much of a soccer addict as Simic, as I only follow international tournaments—World Cup and European nations championships, and France’s qualifiers for these (and only since the mid 1990s)—and have not watched every last game of this tournament, but have still been caught up in it. Every two (even) years in June-early July, I become obsessed with international soccer. And once it’s over I move on to other things.

But this one’s not yet over, with the quarterfinals tomorrow and Saturday. In round 16 I was particularly focused on the games with France, Algeria, and the USA. Not much to say about France-Nigeria other than the Nigerian Super Eagles played a good game—their players are all with top flight clubs in Europe—and Les Bleus weren’t too reassuring for the first two-thirds of it, but they got it together in the final 20 minutes and deservedly won. I am not pessimistic for their chances against Germany.

As for Algeria’s Fennecs, they went out against Germany les têtes hautes, which is just as it should have been. As I wrote in the last post, I was thrilled by Algeria’s draw against Russia and qualification for round 16 but did not want Les Fennecs to defeat Germany, as this would have set up an Algeria-France quarterfinal—assuming, of course, that France beat Nigeria, as expected—, which was to be avoided at all costs. Living in France, my dread of an Algeria-France QF seemed to require no explanation—it went without saying—but then a friend asked me this question on FB after the Algeria-Germany game ended (with the German victory but Algeria valiantly attacking to the very end):

Arun, what was the political and social fall-out that we just dodged by avoiding a France-Algeria quarter-final? What in your view would have happened?

Response: I cannot say concretely what would have happened but such a match would put a few million Franco-Algerians in France in the position—uncomfortable for some, less so for others—of having to root for Algeria against France and, in the event of an Algerian victory, publicly celebrating France’s defeat on the streets of French cities, and in the event of Algeria’s defeat, being disappointed at France’s victory—and these are people who would otherwise be cheering for France if Algeria weren’t involved. The reaction in the larger French society would naturally be very negative, Marine Le Pen & Co. would make a huge deal about it, and would further poison what in America is referred to as “race relations,” which does not need any more poisoning in France right now. The Franco-Algerian relationship—a relationship with a long colonial history and bitter war of independence, for which there is no equivalent in American history—does not need this. It would generate a nasty political polemic—about immigrant integration (or the presumed lack of it)—, increased anti-immigration rhetoric within the parliamentary right and with calls for a revision of French nationality law (e.g. suppressing dual nationality), foster bad feelings all around, and which would not be quickly forgotten. Such an Algeria-France match would not be a big deal between Algeria and France or in any way affect state-to-state relations between the two countries; it would strictly be an affair of Algerian-origin French citizens.

We’re dealing here with multiple/hybrid ethnic identities clashing head on. Americans have little to no experience with this, as clashing identities are played out mainly in international team sports competition, and American sports do not have major international tournaments (and with American football having none at all). The only time (some) Americans have witnessed this is in USMNT soccer games with Mexico played in the United States, where stadiums—except in Columbus, Ohio—are invested by spectators cheering for Mexico, waving Mexican flags, and booing the US. But as most Americans don’t pay attention to soccer, most are not aware of this—and it is not clear what proportion of those fans are Mexican-Americans or simply Mexicans living in the US (or travelling to the US for the game).

In France, those cheering the Algerian team are, in their majority, citizens of France and with most of the younger ones having been born and raised in the country. That they support the Algerian national team is only normal, as their parents are Algerian and Algeria is a part of their identity. Anecdote: I watched the Algeria-South Korea game on June 22nd chez a friend, who is Algerian naturalized French, in his mid 40s, came to France in his 20s for university, has an Algerian wife, is middle class—works in the private sector, as does his wife—, is thoroughly integrated into French society, with house in the suburbs (not far from Disneyland), and all. Moreover, he is a card-carrying member of one of the major French political parties and was a candidate in the last municipal elections in his town. His 13-year-old son—born and raised in middle class suburban Paris—, who is very knowledgeable about soccer, was, of course, all for Algeria. I asked him who he’d be for if Algeria played France. His response (I’m paraphrasing here and the exchange was obviously in French): “Uh, I’d be for Algeria.” Me: “But you’re French and live in France!” Him: “Yes, but I’m Algerian.” Me: “But you’re French too.” Him: “Well, yeah.” Me: “Are you for the Les Bleus too?” Him: “Of course.” Me: “So?” Him: “I dunno, that’s the way it is. I’m for Algeria.” Okay, he’s a kid, but there are hundreds of thousands of kids like him in France, or young adults who were kids not too long ago (and not just Algerian but other immigrant origin too). And in all of the French national team’s games—except with Algeria—he will be loudly cheering for France.

Complex this issue. I’ll continue with it in the next post. And will discuss the US too.

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