Focal Points Blog

Israel and the Rise of Ultra-Semitism

A prominent Israeli rabbi whose party shares power in the Netanyahu government called for the extermination of Arabs in a recent sermon.

The 89-year-old Ovadia Yosef urged God to strike “these Ishmaelites and Palestinians with a plague; these evil haters of Israel.” He then singled out the Palestinian leader of Fatah, exclaiming that “Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this earth.” Yosef is the spiritual leader of the Shas Party, an ultra-Orthodox right-wing outfit that governs in concert with other parties, including Likud.

In religious terminology, the Ishmaelites are the descendants of Ishmael, who was Abraham’s elder son. As the rabbi doubtless knows, the Arabs are considered the descendants of the Ishmaelites in Islamic tradition.

In response to the genocidal exhortation, Netanyahu issued a mild non-rebuke; his office meekly offered that the rabbi’s ravings “do not reflect” the views of the prime minister or the government. The lukewarm criticism is not surprising, since Netanyahu may harbor genocidal views of his own.

In May, a Netanyahu advisor told the American-Israeli “journalist” Jeffrey Goldberg that Netanyahu is serious about striking Iran and considers the Islamic Republic the modern-day equivalent of Amalek.

For those unfamiliar with the Old Testament narrative, the Amalekites didn’t make out too well. God commands the Jews to utterly exterminate them—“Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

But returning to Rabbi Yosef: what elicited his angry declamation? It seems that the approaching peace talks are the culprit. Yosef and the rest of the far-right, who now loom large in Israeli society, loathe the prospect of “conceding” any lands they have stolen from the Palestinians, including the vast swath of Jewish-only settlements.

Of course, the far-right doesn’t see the land as stolen. For one thing, what’s commonly called the “far-right” in Israel-polite media parlance is best described as proto-fascist. This is, after all, the crowd that wants to impose state loyalty oaths on Israel’s Arab citizens—or even better, purge them from Israel altogether, lest the precious racial purity of the “democratic” Jewish state be further diluted. This is also the same crowd that seeks to erase history by making banning references to refer to Israel’s creation as “Al-Naqba”, or “The Disaster.” That’s the term used by Palestinians—and rightly so: even Israel’s own historians have conceded that their state was established through mass terror and ethnic cleansing.

But that doesn’t matter to Rabbi Yosef and friends. For them, the Palestinians are an annoyance, inserted by the irritating hand of history into lands that were ordained as Jewish by a divine real estate agent. Hence the favored Zionist slogan of “redeeming” the land.

What all this confirms is the hardening of hatred in Israeli society. Israelis have grown increasingly indifferent to the fate they mete out to their victims. The public did not question the obscene one-sided massacre in Gaza in 2008 (euphemistically called a “war”), in which Israel slaughtered 1,000 Palestinians, half of them women and children, putatively in “response” to unguided rocket fire that had all but ended.

Nor did the public quiver over the 2006 assault on Lebanon, during which Israel shattered Lebanese civilian infrastructure because Hezbollah kidnapped two soldiers. All told, 1,000 Lebanese were killed and entire neighborhoods were flattened; compare that with the Israeli death toll of 43 civilians and 117 soldiers.

Even the recent flotilla massacre elicited scant moral outrage in Israel. The national media merely indulged in the tired victimhood narrative, peddling the awesome claim that the Israeli soldiers were defending themselves from the crew. Never mind that the soldiers boarded an aid vessel in international waters and shot people in the face; pirates with public relations, you see, are completely different from regular pirates.

And what public relations it is. As Netanyahu smugly observed to a settler audience some years ago, “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.”

Yes, the “right direction”—as determined by Israeli fanatics who openly clamor for genocide and Israel-first lobbies who suppress criticism with hysterical charges of “anti-Semitism.”

And so long as Americans adhere to the fiction of Israeli victimhood, Netanyahu’s boasts will remain well-grounded.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam also posts at Crossing the Crescent.

Reader Challenge: Why Did al Qaeda Jump the Gun on U.S. Retreat From Iraq?

“Insurgents affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility on Saturday for a wave of car bombings, roadside mines and hit-and-run attacks this week in at least 13 Iraqi cities and towns,” reports Anthony Shadid in the New York Times. Bear in mind that they’re mounting this “deadly and relentless campaign whose breadth surprised American military officials and dealt a blow to Iraq’s fledgling security forces just as the United States will formally end [*snicker*] what it describes as combat operations in the country.” (Apologies for editorial interjection. Couldn’t resist.)

Questions for Focal Points readers: How does this help al Qaeda? Wouldn’t it make more sense for it to lay low until U.S. combat forces exit? Thus assuring the United States doesn’t delay its departure and leaving al Qaeda freer rein to inflict its usual harm.

Or are these attacks just a symptom of al Qaeda’s decentralized structure and how little influence the command has over its franchises, which might lack the strategic savvy to delay the attacks until some of the U.S. troops leave? Or does al Qaeda in Iraq just think it will be business as usual since we’re leaving armed contractors behind and that whether it attacks now or later is immaterial?

Most likely, the reason for the attacks is something else entirely. Kindly enlighten Focal Points readers if you can.

How Nonproliferation Became a Dirty Word

Nuking the English language

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will use its nuclear arsenal if attacked by the United States and South Korea, DPRK ambassador to Cuba Kwon Sung Chol said Friday,” reported the Chinese news site Xinhua on August 27. Kwon added, “If Washington and Seoul try to create a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, we will respond with a holy war on the basis of our nuclear deterrent forces.”

What’s unusual about this warning? Perhaps you find the invocation of holy war incongruous since, at best, the North Korean government only tolerates certain religious groups. (Its idea of religion, you’ll recall, is a decidedly unholy admixture of the cult of the Kim dynasty’s personality and juche, a secular doctrine that combines will with self-reliance.)

In fact, the discordant note sounded by Ambassador Kwon is more subtle. In a recent post at the Economist’s Language blog, the author, known only as T.C., sheds some light.

Britain is currently pondering whether to replace its nuclear-armed Trident submarines. It is striking that virtually every British media outlet follows the government line in talking delicately about the nation’s “nuclear deterrent”, rather than “nuclear weapons”. You might expect it from the right-wing Daily Telegraph, but the leftie New Statesman uses it too, even while bashing the programme for not being sufficiently independent of the United States.

In other words, “our nuclear deterrent” is a euphemism that facilitates “talking delicately” about nuclear weapons. It well serves its intended purpose: casting nuclear weapons in a purely defensive light. However, the United States, for example, has never forsworn first use of nuclear weapons. Not to mention that even if nuclear weapons were retained purely for defensive purposes, their very possession by a state invites development by other states for their defense (ostensibly), as well. Meanwhile, North Korea’s use of the term is a sign that we shouldn’t underestimate how media-savvy NORK’s representatives can be.

Along with a euphemism’s effectiveness hiding the true meaning of a word, the measure of its success lies in how difficult it is to spot. While the American disarmament community doesn’t fall into the same trap of using the term as the New Statesman did, the implications of “our nuclear deterrent” succeeded in escaping me until recently. Furthermore, my efforts to trace its origins have been unsuccessful, though one can’t help but suspect it’s the work of a communications firm.

In other words “nuclear deterrent” is what the good guys retain for emergencies; “nuclear weapons” are what the bad guys wield — or seek to. The former word blunts the impact of the latter.

Nuclear advocates have taken another term from the field of nuclear weapons and not only turned it on its head, but appropriated the concept for their own use. Though linguistically a negative, “nonproliferation” has long been a word that offers us hope for a safer future. It’s memorialized, of course, in the landmark Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which has been instrumental in keeping nuclear war at bay since it was ratified. But somewhere along the way the word “nonproliferation” was hijacked. It’s come to mean, for starters, keeping nuclear weapons, materials, and know-how from states that the Western world has deemed unstable, or more to the point, irrational (read Muslim).

Of course, nobody wants another nuclear-armed state like Pakistan, with its compromised army and intelligence agency, or North Korea, ruled by a tyrant. Or, for that matter, an Israel that’s irrational when it comes to the subject of Islam.

But when it comes to reciprocity, nuclear advocates now give only a cursory nod to the section of the NPT that calls for nuclear disarmament (divesting yourself of nuclear weapons as opposed to nonproliferation, stopping the spread). However famously nebulous, it reads in part: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” Meanwhile, nuclear advocates are impervious to the claim that disarmament is what provides nuclear states with credibility when calling upon states with aspirations to nuclear weapons to abandon such dreams.

To others (such as myself), substantive — and nuclear modernization-free — disarmament measures demonstrate leadership in an international campaign to make the world free of nuclear weapons. But to American nuclear hawks, the military, not to mention the nuclear-weapons program itself, is all the credibility that the United States needs to halt nuclear powers-in-waiting in their tracks.

In other words, nonproliferation has come to mean checking the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that don’t have them while we get to keep ours (on a reduced scale but with vastly increased funding for modernization).

Even worse, a state like Iran that seems to be be seeking the means to develop a nuclear weapon — if not the actual weapon — finds itself in the sights of a West all too willing to use nonproliferation as a pretext to make said state’s nuclear facilities the bulls eye for an air attack.

Stripping End-Timers of Their Nuclear Ticket to Armageddon

As with many religions, elements of Christianity look forward to an apocalypse and their subsequent ascension to heaven. In a surprising article at USA Today titled “What if the end isn’t near?” Tom Krattenmaker writes, “As signaled by the runaway success of the Left Behind books, end-time expectations hold undeniable sway in evangelical America.” Furthermore, “According to this reading of the bible’s Book of Revelation, what awaits those on the wrong side of the ecclesiastical line is not so wondrous: seven years of unimaginable suffering, war and destruction that ends with the Second Coming of Jesus.”

However lacking in compassion and exclusionary to the point of cliquishness this outlook may be, it evinces some disturbing symptoms. Krattenmaker again.

Work for a better future? What future?

In this view, staving off wholesale destruction is viewed as a distraction from evangelism or, worse, as . . . getting in God’s way. . . . which makes long-term investments in a better future seem utterly beside the point. . . . For liberal religionists or non-believers, this kind of stance is one of the least appealing aspects of evangelicals’ popular image.

“Least appealing”? Try: passive, fatalist, evidence of a death wish. Or as Krattenmaker writes:

It’s as if one group is rowing the boat in the direction of species betterment (or, at least, survival), while another group sits idly as the vessel drifts closer to the precipice of the waterfall, convinced that the divine hand will pluck them and their religiously correct fellows from disaster.

While these types of Christians may be unmoved by the judgments of the social scientists about their motives, they still need to explain the absence of Christ’s teachings in their equation. Reverend Tyler Wigg-Stevenson (who I cite regularly) is the founder and director of the Two Futures Project, created to enlist Evangelicals in a mission that, at first glance, seems counterintuitive for them — ridding the world of nuclear weapons. (The other future is one in which nations continue to be armed with nukes.)

Born again himself, Rev. Wigg-Stevenson tells Krattenmaker, “It’s been my mission to carve out space for evangelicals to engage this issue on their own terms.” Furthermore . . .

Wigg-Stevenson takes pains not to criticize those who read Revelation as a blueprint for rapture and apocalypse in our time. “There are people with integrity who think this way,” he says. “But it leads to an unbiblical focus on the mechanics of the end times.”

My interpretation of his use of the word “mechanics” is that he’s encouraging Christians to cease focusing on their heavenly reward and pay more attention to what they need to do to earn it beyond just professing their faith. As for Krattenmaker, his conclusion is less than satisfactory.

Taking Wigg-Stevenson’s two-futures paradigm a step further, Christians might see a choice concerning their approach to the future as well. They can bet on a supernatural rescue for themselves and their kind and wait for the cataclysm. Or they can dedicate themselves to compassionate action to alleviate suffering and injustice, to creating a better world.

Talk about your leaps of faith, how likely is that conservative Christians, many of whom believe that helping the needy only enables them, will change their stripes that dramatically? Nevertheless, they need to confront Krattenmaker’s question about the two paths he describes in that paragraph: “Which would their savior have them do?”

Meanwhile, fleshing out Rev. Wigg-Stevenson’s argument about nuclear weapons, we’ll turn to a guest column he wrote for the Washington Post’s On Faith section in April. He warned that Christians must guard against “fearing mortal enemies more than God’s judgment.”

A commenter, one Arancia12, responded:

I do not believe in survival at any cost . . . Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. Not living as a Christian is the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.

Or as Tony Campolo, Professor Emeritus, Eastern University, wrote in a testimonial on the Two Futures Project website . . .

Fear of what other nations could do to us with their weapons is no justification for developing nuclear weapons ourselves. As Christians, perfect love should cast out that fear and allow us to take the risks that go with disarmament.

Does the Right Really Believe That the Left Supports Jihad?

In the course of explaining how the “disconnection between the international left and its counterparts in Israel has become near total, to the detriment of the causes that both espouse” at Democracy Now, Keith Kahn-Harris and Joel Schalit write:

In an article published . . . in Ha’aretz, the paper’s defence correspondent Amos Harel argued that international NGOs are now being utilised by Israel’s enemies as tools in a global campaign to delegitimise the Jewish state. [And] that a new global left has become duped by the “asymmetrical-warfare” strategies of Israel’s Islamist foes. The effective alliance between militant Islamism and international leftism lies behind much of the criticism of Israel today.

What’s wrong with this picture? To begin with, equating advocacy for Palestinian statehood with sympathy for jihadis and support for their murderous violence is, to say the least, simplistic. Later in the piece, the authors cite “an Islamist government’s [Hamas] deep opposition to many progressive values.”

Islamists are the antithesis of progressives and/or leftists. Humanitarian concerns aside, to whatever extent international leftism still reflects socialism, Islamists, in fact (the social services provided by the likes of Hezbollah and Taliban notwithstanding), want nothing to do with socialism. Robert Dreyfuss provided some background in his 2005 book Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Islamic Fundamentalism. (I couldn’t resist the emphasis added.):

Mohammad, the Prophet, was a capitalist and profit-seeking trader who believed in free markets, low taxes, private enterprise, and the absence of regulations . . . or at least that is the portrait painted by Islamic fundamentalists [not to mention] by free-market ideologues in the West . . .

. . . who were seeking to open the Middle East to development and/or exploitation. Economically, anyway, the right is more aligned with Islamism than the left.

The Shameless Cynicism of Zeroing in on the Ground Zero Islamic Center

At AlterNet, Joshua Holland deftly turns the expression “Ground Zero” on its head.

When the horror of nuclear warfare was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the term “Ground Zero” entered our lexicon. The expression has come to mean the epicenter of a catastrophic event. . . . the point from which damage spreads. [While] it’s not an apt analog for the physical destruction that resulted from the attacks on the World Trade Center. . . . it is an appropriate metaphor for the . . . bigotry against Muslim Americans that has radiated out from Ground Zero and spread across the United States.

Ironically, not long after 9/11, you could walk the streets of Manhattan and still see Muslims praying in a storefront mosque with a vendor outside selling Islamic ware, as well as Middle-Eastern food vendors playing tapes or CDs of muezzins. No inhibitions; no harassment.

It’s true that recently, though, things have begun to turn ugly, as Holland reports: “In May, an Arab man was brutally beaten in broad daylight in New York by four young men.” But it’s in the heartland where violence against Muslims has been spreading in the last couple of years. He writes:

A mosque in Miami, Florida, was sprayed with gunfire last year. Mosques have been vandalized or set aflame in Brownstown, Michigan; Nashville, Tennessee; Arlington, Texas . . . Taylor, South Carolina; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Eugene, Oregon; Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Tempe, Arizona; and in both Northern and Southern California. A mosque in a suburb of Chicago has been vandalized four times in recent years.

The perpetrators of these hate crimes are. . . . being whipped into a frenzy by cynical fearmongers on the Right [who] have started referring to the Park 51 project as “the Obamosque.” [These fearmongers] see fear and loathing of Islam as a potent social issue.

But, continues Holland . . .

It’s an extraordinarily dangerous game, not only for the American Muslim community but for U.S. national security as well. Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who has interrogated several dangerous terrorists [said] ‘from a national security perspective, our leaders need to understand that no one is likely to be happier with the opposition to building a mosque than Osama Bin Laden. His next video script has just written itself.’

Frank Rich of the New York Times echoed this in his most recent column.

Here’s what’s been lost in all the screaming. The prime movers in the campaign against the “ground zero mosque” just happen to be among the last cheerleaders for America’s nine-year war in Afghanistan. The wrecking ball they’re wielding is not merely pounding Park51 [but] has also rendered Gen. David Petraeus’s last-ditch counterinsurgency strategy for fighting the war inoperative. How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?

Compromising America’s interests (ostensibly anyway when it comes to Afghanistan) in this manner might be too subtle for most of the public to notice. But, when it comes to a recent move by Republican Congresspersons, it seems, at first glance, as if their constituents might find it downright un-American. On July 29 Raymond Hernandez reported for the New York Times:

House Republicans . . . blocked a Democratic plan to provide billions of dollars for medical treatment to rescue workers and residents of New York City who suffered illnesses from the toxic dust and debris at ground zero. . . . Republican opponents of the legislation expressed concern over the $7.4 billion cost of the program. . . . Democrats accused Republicans of being callous and vowed to bring the bill back for another vote in the fall.

Huh? Do Republicans actually think they’ve managed to incite concern over the deficit to the point that it would trump coming to the relief of American heroes? In fact, there may be something else going on here.

Try hatred for the 9/11 widows. Not only are some of them loudmouths who questioned the 9/11 Commission, according to this line of thinking, but others were driving around Staten Island in SUVs like welfare queens in Cadillacs with money they received from the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Sorry, rescuers. Your well-being takes a backseat to the more pressing business of preventing people from getting something for nothing. (Okay, for a dead family member. Details, details.)

Besides that, Republican politicians who count on their constituents to voice no objections to blocking the plan are a symptom of the heartland’s underlying resentment of New York City. To what other phenomenon can one attribute the curious lack of ongoing cries from Americans to bring us the head of bin Laden?

Imagine if a small town in the Midwest had been struck? Republican politicians would have made locating bin Laden a priority come hell or high water. They find 9/11 useful when they seek to stir up hatred for — never mind Islamists — garden-variety Muslims. In fact, they may well be aware that some Americans are secretly glad that those urban elites in New York City got theirs that sunny day in New York.

Europe’s Favorite Scapegoat: the Roma

Bulldozer demolishes housePeggy Hollinger and Chris Bryant of the Financial Times put their fingers on what’s behind the current uproar over Europe’s Roma population: the group is “an easy target for politicians seeking to distract attention from problems at home by playing on fears over security.” That strategy was stage center in early August when France’s conservative government shipped several hundred Roma back to Romania and French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged he would bulldoze 300 Roma camps over the next several weeks.

Europe is certainly in need of distraction these days. Sarkozy’s poll numbers are dismal and his administration is plagued by scandals. The economic crisis has seen France’s debt soar, and European governments have instituted savage austerity programs that are filling the jobless rolls from Dublin to Athens. Since most politicians would rather not examine the cause of the economic crisis roiling the continent—many were complicit in dismantling the checks and balances that eventually led to the current recession—“criminal gypsies” come in very handy.

France’s crackdown was sparked by an angry demonstration in Saint-Aignan following the death of a young “traveler” at the hands of police. Sarkozy never saw a riot he couldn’t turn to his advantage. On July 29 his office declared it would dismantle Roma camps because they are “sources of illegal trafficking, profoundly shocking living standards, exploitation of children for begging, prostitution and crime.”

Living conditions in Roma camps are, indeed, sub-standard, but in large part because local French authorities refuse to follow a law requiring that towns with a population of over 5,000 establish electrical and water hookups for such camps. And because countries like Germany, France, Italy and Britain refuse to use any of the $22 billion that the European Commission has made available for alleviating the conditions that the Roma and other minorities exist under.

As for the “crime” and “drug trafficking” charge, research by the European Union (EU) suggests there is no difference between crime rates among the Roma than in “the population at large.”

“Indeed there are Roma who are in charge of trafficking networks, but they represent less than one percent of this population, the rest are victims,” David Mark, head of the Civic Alliance of Roma in Romania, a coalition of over 20 Roma non-governmental organizations, told IPS News.

Mark went on to point out that “Because that one percent commits crimes and the authorities are not able to stop them, all Roma are being criminalized.” The expulsions and demolitions, he charged, are “based on criminalization of an entire ethnic group, when criminality should be judged on a case by case basis in courts of law.”

In some cases the level of hysteria would be almost laughable were it not resulting in the most widespread roundup of an ethnic minority since World War II. Italy declared a “Gypsy emergency,” in spite of the fact that Italy, which has a population of 57.6 million people, has only 60,000 non-Italian Roma.

Estimates are that there are between 10 and 12 million Roma in Europe, making the group the continent’s largest minority.

For several weeks, the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, played hot potato with the issue. The EC insisted that it was doing everything it could to help the Roma and pointed to the $22 billion pot that remains pretty much untapped. But it also kept silent on charges by human rights organizations that countries like Germany, Italy and France were violating EU law guaranteeing freedom of movement.

These nations—primarily France—argue that since the Roma are from Romania and Bulgaria, and both countries are newly minted EU members, the freedom of movement clause doesn’t kick in until 2014. And, in any case, French officials charge that the Roma can’t show they are gainfully employed and self-supporting.

On this latter point, rights organizations point out that Roma are discriminated against in employment. “It’s somewhat hypocritical to complain about people not having money to subsist in France when you don’t offer access to the labor market at the same time,” says Bob Kushen, managing director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest.

With the exception of Spain and Finland, most EU members have the same restrictions on staying in a country more than three months without a regular job.

France is certainly not alone in singling out the Roma. Germany is preparing to deport 12,000 to Kosovo, a destination that may well put the deportees in danger, because Kosovo Albanians accuse the Roma of siding with the Serbs during the 1999 Yugoslav War. From the Roma’s point of view Serbia had long guaranteed their communities a certain level of employment and educational opportunities, while the Albanians had always repressed them.

Other countries singling out the Roma include Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium. The Swedes deported some 50 Roma for “begging,” even though begging is not a crime in Sweden.

But France has instituted the most aggressive anti-Roma campaign, which also includes its own “gens du voyage,” all of whom are French citizens and theoretically guaranteed encampment facilities. France is estimated to have between 300,000 and 500,000 of these “travelers.”

The French campaign, however, has sparked a backlash.

Romania’s Foreign Minister, Teodor Basconschi, blasted France for “criminalizing ethnic groups” and warned of “the risks of populist provocation and creating xenophobic reactions at a time of economic crisis.” Basconschi called for a joint Romanian-French approach “devoid of artificial election fever.”

The Vatican’s secretary of the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People Commission said, “The mass expulsion of Roma are against European norms.”

The growing chorus of protest by human rights groups, the United Nations, the Vatican, and Romania finally moved the EU to inject itself into the controversy.

“Recent developments in several European countries, most recently eviction of Roma camps in France and expulsions of Roma from France and Germany, are certainly not the right measures to improve the situation of this vulnerable minority. On the contrary, they are likely to lead to an increase in racist and xenophobic feelings in Europe,” said Meviut Cavusogiu, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Cavusogiu cited Protocol No. 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights that prohibits “the collective expulsions of aliens,” as well as the right to freedom of movement for all EU citizens.

However, France was sticking by its guns, claiming that it was not “deporting” anyone: the Roma were leaving voluntarily for a nominal payment of $386 for adults, and $129 for children. But some members of Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, were using the word “deport,” and even the more explosive term “rafles.” That was the term used to describe the rounding up of French Jews during WW II, most of whom died in the death camps.

Roma suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Nazis. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 1.5 million Roma perished in the concentration camps.

Scapegoating the Roma is an old European tradition, almost as old as the initial migration of the Romany people out of Rajasthan, India in the 11th century. Most of those Roma settled in Moldavia and Wallachia—today’s Romania—where they were quickly enslaved. Those Romany who did not escape enslavement by taking up the nomadic life remained slaves until 1856.

According to Maria Ochoa-Lido of the Council of Europe, those centuries of slavery essentially sentenced the Roma to poverty-stricken lives on the margins, with life expectancy considerably lower than other populations in the EU.

A lack of access to education, social services, education and the legal system for Romania’s 2.5 million Roma still drives many of them to take to the road. As bad as conditions for the Roma are in countries like France and Germany, they are better than those in poverty-stricken Romania.

The attacks on the Roma could well be a prelude to similar campaigns against other European minorities: Turks in Germany, Pakistanis in England, Moroccans and Algerians in Spain and Italy, and Africans scattered throughout the continent. Xenophobia in a time of economic crisis rarely restricts itself to a single target.

Visit Dispatches from the Edge for more of Conn Hallinan’s essays.

When Demography Shifts From a “Prized Asset” to a “Crippling Burden”

New York Times piece, India Tries Using Cash Bonuses to Slow Birthrates, Jim Yardley details an Indian federal program. Intended to “allow India more time to curb a rapidly growing population that threatens to turn its demography from a prized asset into a crippling burden,” it attempts to persuade rural Indian newlyweds to delay childbirth.

Though with . . .

. . . almost 1.2 billion people . . . roughly half the population is younger than 25. This ‘demographic dividend’ is one reason some economists predict that India could surpass China in economic growth rates within five years. India will have a young, vast work force while a rapidly aging China will face the burden of supporting an older population.

However, on the heels of the above “though” follows a monumental “but.”

. . . if youth is India’s advantage, the sheer size of its population poses looming pressures on resources and presents an enormous challenge for an already inefficient government to expand schooling and other services.

Still . . .

It was considered a sign of progress that India’s Parliament debated “population stabilization” this month after largely ignoring the issue for years.

India may just be addressing the tip of the overpopulation iceberg, if in a more sensitive way than China’s authoritarian one-child policy. But would that more states considered addressing population concerns as a “sign of progress.” To some states a burgeoning population serves as another weapon, along with its armed forces and perhaps nuclear weapons, as a way to equalize its power with larger states. In the United States, meanwhile, overpopulation has become a “third rail” for politicians. First of all, it’s contrary to the go-forth-and-procreate agenda of evangelicals and second, it invokes fear that Latinos will soon outnumber whites.

As Focal Points readers are no doubt aware, a sampling of overpopulation’s perils include: depletion of natural resources such as oil and water; deforestation and resultant global warming; mass species extinctions; and, along with educational shortfalls, heightened infant and child mortality.

As part of our commitment to the most fundamental issues threatening humanity (not that we won’t write about it at all, but climate change is addressed more ably elsewhere), Focal Points intends to feature posts about the earth’s “carrying capacity” as we have been nuclear weapons.

Los Alamos Watchdog Shoots an Arrow at the Beating Heart of Nuclear Weapons

In a recent Focal Points post, we posed a fundamental question: Who stands at the front lines of disarmament? Is it the makers of the new movie Countdown to Zero? Disarmament groups like the Ploughshares Fund and the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission? Weapons-system-trashing activists a la the Berrigan brothers? Using the last as a reference point, we concluded that “even the perimeter fences of a submarine base aren’t the front lines of disarmament. The honor goes to those groups that act as watchdogs on behalf of the public for U.S. national laboratories such as Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.”

Greg Mello is the head of the primary watchdog for the former, the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG). As I wrote in my previous post, he explained that “$3.4 billion of the proposed $16 billion in new warhead spending [in the federal budget] is to be allotted to the construction of a Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility for the construction of nuclear pits. In a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists piece, he writes that, at 270,000-square-feet, the new facility ‘would add only 22,500-square-feet of additional plutonium processing and lab space to [Los Alamos's] existing 59,600-square-feet of comparable space.’ [That] works out to $151,000 per square foot, or $1,049 per square inch.’ Holy (watch your tax dollars go up in) smoke!”

Even worse, since “there is already a surfeit of backup pits [which] will last for many decades to come” the new facility “would increase production capacity to an even more absurd level.” To provide perspective, as LASG notes elsewhere, “If built, it would be by far the most expensive government project ever built in New Mexico except the interstate highways.”

To give you an idea of how LASG actually works, one of its staff, Darwin BondGraham, wrote in a press release, “Earlier this year we finally obtained enough information from [the Department of Energy] and its contractors to confidently determine that the increased cost, greatly expanded construction requirements, and . . . new environmental impacts . . . make the [Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement] different [from what] was originally analyzed.” Thus: “On July 1 we formally notified the U.S. Department of Energy of our intent to seek a new Environmental Impact Statement, and to pursue an injunction against [the] Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement [facility].”

This is what life on the disarmament front lines looks like: poring over the books cheek by jowl with lawyers. And this, courtesy of an August 16 LASG press release, is what a frontal assault looks like.

The Los Alamos Study Group today filed a complaint in federal District Court in Albuquerque to halt further investment in [the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility]. . . . The complaint was filed against the Department of Energy . . . and the National Nuclear Security Administration [the NNSA, which, LASG alleges] have violated the National Environmental Protection Act . . . by preparing to construct [the facility] without an applicable Environmental Impact Statement. [Mello said] “NNSA changed the project to which it had committed without telling anyone, and without environmental analysis of alternatives either to the project.”

Why an environmental impact statement? Department of Energy changes . . .

. . . helped drive the proposed facility underground — into a thick stratum of loose volcanic ash which cannot support [the] new excavated depth of 125 feet (up from 50 feet) and replacement of an entire geologic stratum beneath the building with 225,000 cubic yards of concrete and grout. [This would also result in] greatly increased CO2 emissions including more than 100,000 tons from concrete production alone [and] from 20,000 to 110,000 heavy truck [trips] just for concrete ingredients and disposal — somewhere — of loose volcanic ash.

To sum up, the Los Alamos Study Group is on the front lines of disarmament because it’s confronting production of the nuclear pit, the beating heart of a nuclear weapon — where the chain reaction occurs. As another such watchdog, Livermore’s Tri-Valley CAREs, put it: “Stopping nuclear weapons where they start.”

If you agree that LASG is (wo)manning the front lines of disarmament and you’d like to help, but are leery of NGOs top-heavy with administrative salaries, consider LASG. Donating to this self-contained, action-oriented organization figures to give you a lot of bang for the charitable buck. And make no mistake, bucks have got to bang if we hope to block the biggest modern-day bang of all — the detonation of a nuclear bomb.

The Problem with Lee’s Reunification Plan

On August 15th, the 65th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak delivered a speech outlining his plans for the reunification of Korea. Although the plans are still vague, like the creation of a “peace village” or a unification tax, a few things are clear.

Lee’s calls for reunification are at odds with his policy. “The next step is to carry out comprehensive inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation with a view to developing the North’s economy dramatically.” The truth is that from the day he came into office, Lee has effectively reversed any of the gains made towards reunification by his predecessors, Presidents Roh Moo-Hyun and Kim Dae-Jung. Lee has cut bilateral aid, stymied inter-Korea business efforts, and even thwarted efforts by South Korean NGOs from providing humanitarian aid to the North. For example, the Korean Sharing Movement, among the country’s most respected and organized humanitarian efforts, sent in 2007 some 3,000 of its members to North Korea to provide medical assistance, build homes and schools, and supplant North Korean cooperative farms with fertilizer. By the end of 2009, the Lee administration only gave clearance to 84 individuals.

“Today inter-Korean relations demand a new paradigm,” Lee stated. “It is imperative that the two sides choose coexistence instead of confrontation, progress instead of stagnation.” As Lee was wrapping up his speech, some 30,000 American and 56,000 South Korean troops are embarking on a 10-day war game, which follows on the heels of South Korea’s anti-submarine exercises near the disputed maritime border with North Korea, which follows on the heels of the joint US-ROK military exercises two weeks before which featured 8,000 marines, 200 ships, and the USS George Washington. “The two Koreas cannot afford to repeat the unfortunate history punctuated by mutual distrust and confrontation,” said Lee. The question is who is confronting whom?

“Reunification will happen. It is therefore our duty to start thinking about real and substantive ways to prepare for reunification such as the adoption of a unification tax.” A reunification tax? This seems to reflect Lee’s shrewd approach to exploit the South Korean peoples’ sentiment—the desire for reunification—with the hard-nosed reality that most don’t want to shoulder the burden. A presidential National Unification Advisory Commission conducted a survey before the Cheonan incident and found that 8 of 10 South Koreans age 19 or older believed unification with North Korea was important, yet only 52.4 percent said they would be willing to shoulder the economic cost of unification.

Some estimate that it would cost somewhere between $300 to $600 billion over ten years to raise North Korean incomes to be 60 percent that of their South Korean counterparts. The Rand corporation estimates that it would cost $670 billion to double the GDP of North Korea within five years of unification. The bottom line is this: the people of South Korea, North Korea and the United States are already paying a tax, but not for reunification, but for preparation for war. South Korea has been annually increasing its military spending by 10 percent, and is estimated to spend $665 billion in its Defense Reform 2020 Initiative. According to a State Department official, citing research by Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, the United States expends nearly $15 billion annually to maintain its 27,500 troops on its some 85 bases and other installations. In other words, the people of all three countries are already spending the money—let’s just get the governments to talk to each other and truly put back on track the reunification process that was laid out by the two Korean leaders on June 15, 2000.

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