Self-Determination

It seems axiomatic that each clearly distinguishable national group should have the right to self-determination.  But, it may not be as simple as that.  As an Israeli it seems clear to me that both the Catalans and the Kurds deserve the right to self-determination  They both have the basic requirements, they have an existing governmental organization that is both working and somewhat transparent, they have a distinct language and culture and they have the means to defend themselves.  At least the Kurds do, their Pesh Merga forces have been the most effective at fighting IS and they are the main US ally in Iraq.

So I was disconcerted when I read a letter in The Jerusalem Post (from an Arab) saying that if Israel supports self-determination for the Kurds, why not for the Palestinians.  At first sight this might seem a reasonable comparison, but then you see that it clearly breaks down.  The Palestinians do not have a distinct language or culture that is distinguishable from the Arabs living around them (say in Jordan and Syria), they do not have an effective governmental organization, and they do not have the means to defend their territory if they were independent.

But, perhaps more important, they are not really a distinct people, their “independence” was first declared by the PLO (an organization that was founded by the Egyptian secret service) in 1964, just prior to the 1967 Six Day War.  Whereas the Catalans and the Kurds have truly ancient origins.   Catalonia was conquered by the Spanish Castilians in medieval times when Spain was first unified and the Kurds were conquered and divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and in fact are considered the largest minority without a sovereign country of their own.

So just because you can name a group does not mean that they deserve self-determination or in fact could achieve it.  It will not be easy for the Catalans and the Kurds to gain their independence against the opposition of the Spanish State and the Turks and Iraqis, respectively.   Furthermore, there are many minorities whose independence cannot be foreseen, such as the indigenous Americans (Indians), the Welsh, the Bretons, the Chechnians, the Ossetians, the Maoris, the Australian Aborigines, Irian Jaya (the part of New Guinea taken over by Indonesia), Kashmir and the Palestinian Arabs.

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Kurdistan?

The Iraqi Kurds, who have established a viable region in north Iraq, are on the point of having a referendum on establishing a separate, independent, sovereign State.  I support their ambition, as does the State of Israel.  We Jews have always seen the Kurds as potential allies and as a parallel case to our own, denied statehood by Arabs and Turks. But, this is a move fraught with danger.

There are two major forces that will oppose this move, first the Iraqi Government, that is mainly Shia Muslim (a majority in Iraq) that considers the area of the potential Kurdistan in northern Iraq as part of their State, and they will resist the secession of the Kurds.  In this they will be supported by Iran, that is a major player in Iraqi politics. Second, Turkey, that regards any move to independence by any Kurdish group as a threat because of their own large Kurdish minority.  They will label this Kurdish State as a terrorist  entity and will probably attack it.  This could lead to a major war, with the various Kurdish groups in Turkey, Syria as well as Iraq joining in.

What would the US do in this situation?  It’s hard to tell.  They will support the Kurds in principle, since they are the largest minority group in the world without sovereignty, yet they will also support the integrity of the Iraqi State that the US has done so much to ensure.  They will also not want to oppose Turkey, an erstwhile ally in NATO.  But, the Middle East is so complex that the US may not want to get involved.

Ultimately the Kurds deserve independent sovereignty, but whether or not this is feasible given their opponents (Arabs and Turks) remains to be seen.  Incidentally, the Catalans in Spain are opting for a similar referendum on independence at the same time.  History continues to unravel.

Ethnic Cleansing

The UN Secty. Gen. has labelled the attacks against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar (Burma) as “ethnic cleansing.”  This is neither a new nor an uncommon phenomenon, and something that ought to be condemned.  Ethnic cleansing is defined as the systematic deliberate removal of ethnic or religious groups from a given territory with the intent of making it ethnically homogeneous.  There are many cases of ethnic cleansing, some that have been conveniently forgotten.  Here are some examples:

  1. Fiji: The Fijians (54%) were afraid of becoming a minority in their own land.  There had been a huge influx of Indians (38%), originally brought there by the British. The Government and the economy were largely controlled by the Indians.  In 2000, there was an uprising led by the Army Chief Bainimarama in which Fijians tried to wrest control.  In 2006 Bainimarama took power, but in 2009 the Supreme Court of Fiji ruled his government illegal and there were subsequently democratic elections in which Indian and Fijian leaders participated.
  2. Latvia: During WWII Latvia had been pro-Nazi. When Latvia became part of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin shipped a large number of Latvians (estimated at ca. 200,000) to Siberia, where they died.  Latvia also lost a large proportion of its population during WWII, including all of its Jewish inhabitants (ca. 100,000) who were murdered by the Latvians.  In exchange, Stalin settled large numbers of Russians in Latvia.  Today the proportion is Latvians is 62%, to Russians 27%. plus ca. 270,000 stateless persons.  The ethnic Russian minority claims that it is systematically discriminated against.
  3. Ukraine: Has a large Russian minority, which with the military support of the current Russian Government of Pres. Putin, have returned Crimea to Russia and are contesting the area of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas.  The Russian minority in Ukraine claim they have been mistreated and want to rejoin Russia.
  4. Cyprus: The Turkish minority (ca. 30%) were mistreated (ethnically cleansed) by the Greek majority and so in 1974, the Turkish Army invaded and divided Cyprus, the Turkish one third in the north and the Greek two thirds in the south.  This has been the situation ever since.
  5. Myanmar:  The current situation of the Rohingya is a classic case of ethnic cleansing where the Burmese army is deliberately driving out the Muslim minority in Rakhine State.  However it should be pointed out that these were originally Bengalis who crossed into Burma to escape the wars between India and Pakistan and then between Bangladesh and Pakistan.  The Burmese do not want a large Muslim population to permanently ensconce itself in their territory.

Of course, there are many more examples one could give, such as the Balkans, where Croats, Serbs and Bosnians, massacred each other with abandon.  Perhaps the best examples are the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Native tribes by the white American population and the US Army.  Also, of course, the deliberate killing of Jews during the Holocaust throughout Europe during WWII by the Nazis and their collaborators.  But, these examples verge into genocide, the deliberate killing of a whole race.

For good or ill the Israeli Jewish population and the IDF can never carry out ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Arab population.  In fact, the Arab losses over the past 100 years in their attacks against the Jews are minimal in comparison to the examples of ethnic cleansing listed above.

Operation Wedding

Operation Wedding” is the title of a documentary film about the dramatic incident that took place in 1970 when a group of 12 Jews attempted to take a small plane from an airport in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the former Soviet Union and fly to freedom. The film was directed by Anat Zalmanson, daughter of two of the primary actors in this incident, Sylva Zalmanson and Edward Kuznetsov, who were married 6 months before the incident.  It was shown at AACI Netanya in the presence of the Director.

The title comes from the fact that the original plan, hatched by a group of Jewish refuseniks in Leningrad, was for them to pretend to be a wedding party of ca. 50 people and then hijack a commercial airliner and fly it out of the Soviet Union.  Looking for supporters they contacted the group in Riga, Latvia, then part of the USSR.  But, realizing that such a hijacking could endanger many lives the plan was aborted.  However Zalmanson and Kuznetsov with other friends decided to go ahead with the plan, but rather taking a small empty plane from the airport, a twelve-seater.  They had the participation of Mark Dymshits who was a qualified pilot.  

On the day selected the group from Riga and Leningrad met and went to the airport.  But, having so many people involved in the plot meant that the KGB knew all about it, and were waiting for them.  They were arrested and tried with hijacking, a capital offense. Although there were 3 other women involved, Sylva Zalmanson was the only woman put on trial, and although the KGB thought she would easily break-down, they were wrong, she was very defiant.  She was found guilty and received 10 years. Kuznetsov had a history of anti-Soviet activities and received a death sentence.  

The Soviets made three major mistakes, 1. They decided to put on a public show trial; 2. They thought that the Jews would easily break-down, but they were defiant, and this gave the Jewish cause a tremendous boost; 3. The death sentence against Kuznetsov was seen to be so extreme (since there was actually no hijacking) that after tremendous international demonstrations they were forced to retract this verdict.  

After a few years Kuznetsov was released in exchange for a Soviet spy held by Israel. Zalmanson served 9 years in the Gulag, almost one year in solitary confinement.  After her release she went to Israel and rejoined Kuznetsov and they had Anat, but then the couple divorced.  After many years Anat persuaded her mother to accompany her back to the former Soviet Union to make the documentary about this famous incident.

As an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement in the US at that time (I was Chairman of the Soviet Jewry Committee of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington DC that was affiliated with the National Conference on Soviet Jewry), although we were upset that the Zalmanson-Kuznetsov group were caught and tried by the Soviet authorities. But, nevertheless we were overjoyed because they gave us our heroes who defied the Soviet system at all costs.  And the show-trial and death sentence on Kuznetzov played right into our hands.  This galvanized the Soviet Jewry movement around the world and helped immensely to eventually bring about the release of the Soviet Jews and eventually the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

The Exception

The Exception” is a recent movie with an interesting premise.  I did not know that Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was the German King during WWI, and who was ousted in 1918 at the end of the war as part of the Allies demands on Germany, actually continued to live in exile in Holland.  When Hitler took over as Chancellor in 1933 he continued to pay the Kaiser his civil salary.  But, when the Nazis invaded Holland, they sent an SS officer to ensure that the Kaiser was protected.  In the movie this SS officer is a sympathetic character who has suffered during the fighting on the Eastern Front, and is having doubts about the Nazis.

He encounters a pretty young new maid in the Kaiser’s household, with whom he has an affair.  Although she is Dutch, she has a dark complexion, and I immediately realized she was Jewish.  If I knew, then why didn’t the characters in the movie, including the SS officer, the Kaiser, played admirably but too sympathetically by Christopher Plummer, his wife and his Chief of Staff also have their suspicions.  It also turns out that she is a British agent sent by Winston Churchill no less.  It stretches the border of credulity to believe that the British would send a Jewish girl to contact the Kaiser, but its a movie.  I suppose in war-time, they needed someone who spoke Dutch and knew the area, etc.  OK, so if we accept that premise, then the movie is well done and entertaining.

Her mission is to contact the Kaiser and persuade him not to throw his lot in with the Nazis and then after the War the British might consider restoring him to the throne.  At the same time the Nazis appear to be offering him a possible restoration, but he would have to move to Berlin.  This is a ruse by the Nazis to take control of him, and he is warned and decides not to go.  So mission accomplished.  It so happens that the Kaiser died in 1941 and the monarchy was not restored in Germany.

What happens to the characters in the movie is engrossing, but this particular SS Officer is supposed to be “the exception” in that he is humane.  There were in fact a few documented cases of so-called humane Germans: Kurt Gerstein in the play “The Deputy” by Rolf Hochhuth was an actual SS Officer who wrote a report about the gas chambers in Auschwitz and died under mysterious circumstances; the Wehrmacht Officer Wilm Hosenfeld portrayed in the movie “The Pianist,” basically saved the life of Wadyslaw Szpilman, who was the pianist.  There may have been a few more, but they were really exceptions.

 

The Seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979

The BBC Arabic Service has produced a short documentary giving the full story of the seizure of the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca in 1979, that was a crucial turning point in the modern history of Islam.  Contrary to my previous statements, based on false reporting from Saudi Arabia, the seizure was not carried out by Shia gunmen allied to Iran, but by the very same fundamentalist Muslims from the eastern district of Arabia, the Nejd, from where the Saudi royal family itself originated.

Many people think Saudi Arabia is a very ancient kingdom, but that is not the case. Arabia was conquered in 1932 by the army of the Saudi clan under King Ibn Saud, who defeated and replaced the former rulers of Mecca, the Hashemites, who traced their descent from Mohammed the Prophet.  The Saudis were in coalition with a group of fundamentalist Muslims who followed the teachings of a preacher named Ibn Wahhab, and were called Wahhabis.  Their extreme ascetic form of Islam is known as Salafism, and they were against all forms of modernization and westernization of Islamic culture and Muslim society.  The justification for their campaign was that the Hashemites had become corrupt due to contact with the West and were introducing modern western features into Islamic society.  The only remaining Hashemite monarch in the world today is King Abdullah II of Jordan.

By 1979 the Saudis had themselves become quite westernized and had introduced modernization (such as TV) into their Kingdom.  In the Nejd, the grandsons of former supporters of the Saudis, who themselves were brought up on Salafi Islam, were becoming very disquieted by these trends.  A particular former drug dealer, Juhayman al-Otaybi, a member of an influential family in the Nejd, decided to take action.  He declared his brother-in-law, Mohammed Abdullah al Qahtani, a very religious Salafist, to be the Mahdi.  The Mahdi is the concept of a Messiah or redeemer taken by both Islam and Christianity from Judaism.  Juhayman then started to plot to overthrow the Saudi regime and decided that his first step would be to take over the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

He organized his plan very efficiently.   He reconnoitered the structure of the Mosque and prepared for the take-over.  The day of the take-over, November 20, 1979, which was the first day of the year 1400 according to the Islamic calendar, his followers carried numerous coffins into the Mosque covered with religious slogans.  The coffins were filled with automatic weapons and no-one challenged them.  As soon as the Imam finished the final prayer, Juhayman’s followers took over the microphone and announced the take-over.  They ordered their followers, some 200 in all, to take their positions, which included on the tops of the 4 minarets and at all the gates.  Juhayman then announced the coming of the Mahdi.  He had taken all the attendees hostage, maybe 50,000 people, but then released most of them

For up to 2 hours nothing happened, then finally the Saudi police sent a  few policemen to see what was going on, they were met with a hail of bullets and most of them were killed.  Then the Saudis sent some Army soldiers and the same thing happened.  Then they sent their special forces unit, and the same thing happened.  With gradually higher levels of attack and with great losses on both sides, the rebels were forced into the huge basement of the Mosque,   But, the Saudis, without any apparent organization, were unable to dislodge them from there.  At this point the Saudis contacted French President Giscard d’Estaing for help.  He sent his top security team to advise the Saudis (as non-Muslims they were not allowed into the Mosque).

They set up a central headquarters and decided that since the rebels were well-armed and there was no way to defeat them fighting in the labyrinthine basement they would use poison gas.  They drilled holes all around the perimeter of the Mosque, then they threw in grenades and pumped in high levels of CS gas.  The rebels were then defeated, and after 17 days they had no more food or water and were overcome by the gas.  Some surrendered and others were captured by Saudi forces with gas masks. Approximately 65 surviving rebels, including Juhayman, were quickly tried and executed.  Some 200 Saudi forces and rebels were dead as well as ca. 50 civilians and some 500 were wounded.

The significance of this attack is that it set the pattern for what was to follow.  The development of Al Qaeda by Osama bin Laden, who  also from a pro-Saudi family. He also, as a fundamentalist Muslim, resented the introduction of modernization and westernization into Arabia (although he and his followers were not against using Western arms and communications).  But, he saw the Americans as the major target. This was followed by ISIS led by the self-proclaimed Caliph al-Baghdadi, who saw the establishment of the Islamic State as his major aim.  Both bin Laden and Baghdadi (supposedly) are gone now and the IS is almost defeated.  But, this pattern is established. The Saudis are now thoroughly westernized, and the next fundamentalist Sunni reformer is probably waiting in the wings, to declare the next Mahdi or Caliph to overthrow the corrupt Saudis.

Correction: In my analysis of the US economy I made a mistake in the current value of the Dow Jones Industrial Averages.  It has now reached 22,000, a huge increase of 4,000 since Pres. Trump was elected 7 months ago.

 

The Lost City of “Z”

Percy Fawcett was a daring officer in the British Army.  He had worked at the Royal Geographical Society in London learning how to do surveying and map making. In 1905 he was approached by the RGS to go to South America to survey the region between Bolivia and Brazil in order to draw an agreed boundary to prevent a war.  He accepted this daunting task and in 1906 at the age of 39 spent three years with a small expedition trudging through the thick Amazonian jungle. I had read about his exploits and finally someone has made a movie about him, which I have just seen, entitled “The Lost City of Z.”   This is based on a book by David Grann in 2009 named “The Lost City of Z: A tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon.”  Note that the character of Indiana Jones was partly based on him, as well as such books as “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle (better known for his “Sherlock Holmes” stories) and many subsequent imitations.

Fawcett lead several expeditions to the Amazon region, and found that giving gifts to the local Indian chiefs was the best way to avoid conflict.  He claimed that in the jungle he had found remains of an ancient city, but was unable to follow-up this finding.  In 1914 he rejoined the British Army and fought bravely as a reserve officer at the Battle of the Somme, where he was partially blinded in a gas attack.  He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order in 1917 and retired from the Army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

He then returned to his obsession to try to find this lost city in the Amazon jungle, that he called “Z.”  In this exploit he was definitely influenced by the success of the findings of Aztec and Maya ruins in the jungles of Central America and of the Inca city of Machu Pichu in Peru discovered by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.  In contrast however, Fawcett preferred to travel in a small close-knit group.  In 1925, at the age of 58, accompanied by his son Jack and a few friends, he returned to the region in an attempt to find the so-called “lost city of Z.”  In doing so he was influenced by a ms he found in the National Library in Rio de Janiero written in 1753 by a Portuguese bandeirante named Joao da Silva Guimaraes (many of these so-called “bandits” were former Crypto-Jews escaping the Inquisition) that described such a city.   He was also influenced by the teachings of Madame Blavatsky, who was a Russian occultist and a founder of the Theosophical Society, who believed in the existence of superior human civilizations.

In 1925 he and his companions disappeared in the region of the Matto Grosso.  The site of his last camp are known, but their fate is unknown.  He wrote a will requesting that if he did not return no-one should search for him in case they suffered the same fate.  But, in fact his disappearance became an international cause celebre and many did in fact try to discover his fate.  It is said that ca. 100 people have died in numerous expeditions in the region to find either his remains or the lost city of “Z.”   Until now no-one has been successful.

The movie is a Hollywoodized version of the story, quite accurate, yet full of minor distortions.  For example, although Fawcett claimed to have found some ruins near the source of a river that he had mapped, he apparently had no physical evidence for his claim and he never actually returned to that location.  His expeditions were relatively amateurish affairs with insufficient supplies and planning. It is probable that in his last expedition they lost most of their belongings in a river accident, they were all ill and did not have any gifts with which to placate the hostile Indians.  At the end of the movie a compass is given to the Chairman of the RGS as an indication that Fawcett was still alive. However this item was actually found many years later in the custody of an Indian Chief. Finally, there is a statement at the end that tries to exonerate Fawcett by claiming that a network of an advanced civilization has been found in the Amazon jungle, but this claim is unsubstantiated.