A Light Unto the Nations

The village of Shaab al-Buttum, home to hundreds of people, is in the hills south of Hebron in Palestine.  The community is made up of shepherds, formerly nomadic but forced to settle permanently in the area when the West Bank was occupied by Israel in 1967.  Unfortunately for the villagers, their home is in Area C, which comprises some 60% of the West Bank and is directly administered by Israel, which requires permission for any construction projects, permission that is virtually never given to Palestinians.  The impact of this restriction is evident in the demographics of Area C: 150,000 Palestinians and 310,000 Israeli settlers.

As a consequence Shaab al-Buttum has no roads, no water and no electricity, while two nearby Israeli settlements are well supplied with all the necessities of life.  This disparity exists despite the fact that the Israel settlements are considered “illegal” by Tel Aviv, a distinction baffling to anyone outside the Israeli and American governments, since all the half million Israeli settlers in the West Bank are there illegally according to several international covenants, which in fact the United States had sworn to uphold.

Three years ago two Israeli doctors began a program of installing solar panels and wind turbines to supply electricity to Shaab al-Buttum and other communities in the area, and today some 1500 Palestinians benefit from the project, largely funded by Germany.  Not for long.  Citing the lack of building permits, Israel has declared that all the facilities are illegal and will be destroyed.  And it is probably just a coincidence that this Israeli decision comes in the immediate wake of a recent European Union report (surprisingly) critical of Israel’s settlement program.

Foreign funded projects in the West Bank and Gaza are continually being destroyed by Israel, generally under the rubric of security and military necessity, as in the case of the now obliterated Gaza airport, financed by the EU.  Lack of a building permit has been the traditional and well-used pretext for destroying Palestinian homes, but it is now apparently being employed against foreign investments as well, particularly when even the Israeli military would have trouble imagining a security threat.

Could it be that investment in the infrastructure of Palestine is at odds with the Israeli policy of colonization and that there is a message here for foreign meddlers?  Or is it just another example of the incredible pettiness that characterizes the Israeli occupation?

The plight of Shaab al-Buttum and its neighbors is far from unique or rare.  This sort of petty and destructive behavior is a sad commonplace of the half century occupation.

Stuff from Way Back #7: Flip the Avis

(NOTE: These posts are not appearing as frequently as I would like because of time spent on my book and because they occassionally – as with this post – take a lot of time in research.)

(This piece was prompted by bird flippage observed in the Super Bowl halftime show.)

Extending the middle finger as an insulting gesture – “giving the finger,” “flipping the bird” – seems as American as apple pie, but in fact it has a long history, stretching at least as far back as the Greeks.  This is hardly surprising since all humans have hands with five digits and half of them have a penis, and it seems likely the obvious phallic symbolism of sticking up the middle digit would occur to any culture.

Conquer this, Caesar!

             In Aristophanes’ (c.455-386 BC) comedy Clouds (l. 1023) Right Logic refers to someone as filled with καταπυγοσύνης  – “unnatural lust” in polite academic language, more accurately “desire for anal sex.”  In his Onomasticon (2.184) Iulius Pollus (2nd cent. AD) says that in Attic Greek καταπύγονα, another form of the word, specifically meant a gesture with the middle finger, which dovetails nicely with the use in Aristophanes.  Elsewhere in Clouds (ll. 649-654) Aristophanes puns on the word δάκτυλος, which can mean both “dactylic,” a Greek poetic rhythm, and “finger,” and while it is not explicit, the joke only makes sense if Strepsiades is referring to his johnson when he says “this,” which suggests that his earlier finger reference is to the middle finger.  In Peace (l. 549) Aristophanes uses the verb σκιμαλίζω – “jeer at,” “flout” – but the scholiast on this line adds “to hold up the middle finger.”

And on to the Romans.  In Latin the expression is quite clear: digitus impudicus or digitus infamis may stand in for digitus medius.  One of Martial’s (AD c.40-c.101) epigrams (6.70.5) sports the line: Ostendet digitum, sed impudicum, which is pretty much Latin for “flip the bird.”  In his Life of the Divine Augustus (45.4) Suetonius (AD c.70-c.130) relates that the emperor banished from Italy the actor Pylades because demonstrasset digito at a spectator who was hissing him.  Since simply pointing at a member of the audience was hardly a crime, the digitus used could only have been the infamis – the middle finger.  Also frequently cited is Suetonius’ Life of Caligula (56.2), where the emperor insults a member of the Praetorian guard by offering his hand to kiss, formatam commotamque in obscaenum modum, but this means “formed and moved in an obscene fashion,” which could indicated all sorts of things.

And you thought classics was boring!  Well, it certainly used to be a lot more stuffy, and early translations of Aristophanes, whose plays are filled with stuff modern society considers obscene, featured a great deal of mistranslation in the quest to keep the classics pristine and edifying.  Earlier editions of the Loeb Classical Library, a favorite with students because they feature Latin or Greek on one page and the translation on the facing page, often had a sequence of pages with no translation at all, an indicator that these were indeed the good parts.  In fact the Romans and especially the Greeks were nowhere near as prudish as we with our No Fun God and found human sexuality and bodily functions a huge source of humor.

So, the next time you flip somebody off remember that you are continuing a proud tradition that goes back more than two millennia.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast.

For Israel to launch a military strike against Iran would simply be madness and have repercussions far beyond Israel and the Gulf.  Such an attack would of course be an act of war, but that has never bothered Israel, which seems to think that the fact of the Holocaust grants her the right to violate international law and take whatever action she might deem necessary to her security.  And the unqualified support of the United States, caught in a seeming stranglehold because of Israel’s immense influence in American elections, allows her the power and protection to act as she pleases, even if it is clearly against the interests of the United States.

Iran, however, is not Syria or Lebanon or Iraq and is very likely to defend her national sovereignty and honor by retaliating.  This might be of little concern to the world at large if this simply meant a war between Israel and Iran, although in the unlikely event that Israel is desperate she would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons, which would be disastrous.  But able to reach Israel only with a few missiles Iran is almost certain to assert herself as a victim of aggression by employing irregular forces to attack US interests around the world and cause a shutdown of the oil passing through the Straits of Hormuz, which Gulf would send the price of oil skyrocketing and quite possibly turn the global recession into a full scale depression.  Further, America is bound to come to the aid of Israel if she is attacked, apparently regardless of why, and the result would be another costly and unjustified war for the US and a disaster of Biblical proportions for Iran.

It appears from the events of recent decades that America has fully adopted the international mechanisms and attitudes pioneered by the Israelis (and sundry loathsome states before them): contempt for the national sovereignty of other states, disregard for international law when it is inconvenient, the murder of individuals considered enemies and the acceptance of outright military aggression if there is perception of some future threat.  These are of course the positions taken by the very people responsible for the Holocaust.

Implicit in the support of a subservient America and European countries with guilty consciences is that Israel is a “good guy,” living in a neighborhood inhabited by various “bad guys,” of whom Iran is clearly one.  Israel is a tiny democracy whose very existence is continually threatened by surrounding autocracies.  Unmentioned is the fact that Israel is also an outpost of understandingly attractive western culture (even if Jewish) in a sea of supposed inferior Arab culture.  Further, completely missing from the established image of evil and predatory neighbors is the righteous indignation of the locals at having an essentially European state established on their homeland by an organization – the UN – created and controlled by westerners bent on assuaging their guilt.

A tiny Jewish David surrounded by Muslim Goliaths, that has been portrait of Palestine.  Yet, even in 1948 the American OSS predicted that the new state of Israel would have no problem defeating the invading Arabs, and in 1967 the successor CIA estimated it would take the Israelis no more than two weeks to crush their opponents, which they in fact did in half that time.  Today of course Israel has the most powerful military in the region, limited only by the need of resupply by the Americans, but she still presents the strategic arguments of the mid-twentieth century: “We must control the
West Bank because Israel is so tiny and vulnerable” or “We must retain the Golan Heights because from there Syrian artillery could pound Tel Aviv.”  It does not take any serious military education to understand how obsolete and nonsensical such propositions are; the high ground and other territorial considerations become irrelevant if you have complete control of the air, which Israel has maintained since the Six Day War.

As yet it is too soon to tell if the Arab Spring will actually produce functioning democracies, but it is certainly clear that Israel is something less than completely democratic.  At heart is the contradiction inherent in the very nature of Israel: it claims to be both a democracy and a Jewish state.  What exactly does that mean for the 25% of the Israeli citizen body who are not Jews?  It means discrimination of course, a discrimination exacerbated by the fanaticism of the “settlers” and the growing political influence of the ultra-orthodox sects, who do not even like most of their fellow Jews.  The Israeli Foreign Minister has actually publicly called for the expulsion of non-Jews, the sort of ethnic cleansing normally associated with especially vile governments.

Finally, one might ask by what right do Israel, America, Britain and
France require that Iran produce no nuclear weapons and back up that demand with the threat of military action.  Behind this blatant double-standard there is clearly the arrogance of power: we have the military and economic resources to bar you from the nuclear club.  At least the Athenians were more honest when they justified their unjust and immoral bullying of the tiny island of Melos: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”  That Israel itself has nuclear weapons and has never even been asked by the US to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty must strike others in the region as a particular example of American hypocrisy.

After six decades an understandable Israeli concern for security has evolved into an almost irrational paranoia fed by incredible arrogance and self-righteousness.  Hearing a head of state call for your annihilation must certainly be unnerving, but is the Israeli government so foolish that it takes the utterly simplistic view that the outlandish rhetoric of Ahmadinejad actually represents the policy of a state in which the centers of power lie elsewhere?  Are the rulers of Iran so completely idiotic or suicidal that they would seriously threaten Israel with a nuclear weapon, knowing it would mean the complete destruction of their country?

The government of Iran is obviously repressive and champions a religious ideology unpleasant for most westerners and hostile to the Sunni autocrats beloved by the west for their oil, but there is an Iranian point of view.  In 1941 the western allies invaded and occupied Iran as a staging area for supplying the Russians, and in 1953 Britain and America conspired to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh and replace it with the autocratic and ultimately terror-filled rule of the Shah.  Since 1979, when the Revolution overthrew the hated Shah, America has maintained a constant hostility towards Iran and has become even more identified as the enabler and protector of Israel.  And the Iranians are not likely to forget who supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran.

Because of the embedded image of Israel as the “good guy” and the cowardice of the American political establishment in the face of the Israeli lobby, there is little official attention is given to the non-Israeli perspective in the Middle East.  Could it be that the other states in the region fear Israel as much as she expresses fear of them?  Israel after all possesses several hundred nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them and has shown an increasing lack of restraint in resorting to military action.  In her modern history Iran has never attacked her neighbors, while Israel feels free to assault anyone she deems hostile or an obstacle to her policies, including even the Americans (the attack on the USS Liberty in 1967).  Iran may support groups unfriendly to Israel, but at the same time Israel feels free to murder any individual considered an enemy, most recently Iranian physicists.  Finally, what other state in the area is engaged in actual territorial aggrandizement and colonization?

Unfortunately, seeing the other guy’s point of view has never been an American strong suit.