Continuing Conflict – Ramallah

Raja Shehadeh’s book When the Birds Stopped Singing was a pointed, passionate and heart-breaking book yet I found it incredibly informative about the perspectives of everyday Palestinians facing the aggression of the Israeli military and leadership.  It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to live in a literal war zone, with tanks driving by my house, hearing shelling and shooting around my neighborhood and not being allowed to leave my house except for a few hours every few days.  On top of that, I cannot imagine being separated from my spouse due to roadblocks and having to face the crisis alone.  Yet all of these things and more happened to Shehadeh and his friends and family during the 2002 siege and occupation of Ramallah.


The theme that I found the most alarming throughout the entire book from the original takeover to the withdrawal with continued occupation was the idea that Israeli soldiers, by way of Israeli leadership under Prime Minister Sharon considered all Palestinians to be terrorists.[1]  By constant dehumanization efforts which taught that all Palestinians, civilian, resistance or otherwise were capable of committing acts of terror against the Israeli Jews, the army was able to commit atrocities without pausing to recognize them for what they were – acts of terror in response to acts of terror.[2]  This is further highlighted by an incident described a few pages later – a woman was shot simply for hanging her laundry outside to dry – yet the Israeli soldiers shown on television were victorious over the enemy and proud of their victory – something to which the author stated they should feel shame for such actions – certainly not pride.[3]

The anger, discrimination and violence depicted in this book is almost unfathomable to me.  I know it happens all over the world, but it boggles my mind.  I cannot imagine a scenario in which driving a bulldozer through someone’s house while they’re still in it would ever be deemed acceptable.[4]   Worse than that, even, refusing to allow humanitarian and/or medical personal into the area to search for and rescue survivors is repugnant.[5]  To occupy an area without making special provisions for those in medical need just because you have the power to do so, while still claiming moral superiority is a contradiction of the highest order.[6]  Regardless of whether these actions are born out of hatred, fear, self-justifying beliefs or righteous indignation/vindication, these actions are based on the principle of might makes right.  Should things continue in this path, I do not see the war between Israel and her displaced, oppressed Palestinian neighbors ending any time in the foreseeable future, although Israel seems determined to either drive them out of their remaining slivers of land by force or eliminating the Palestinian people entirely.

[1] Raja Shehadeh, When the Birds Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah Under Siege, (Hanover: Steerforth Press, 2003), 84.

[2] Shehadeh, 84.

[3] Shehadeh, 88-89.

[4] Shehadeh, 116.

[5] Shehadeh, 116.

[6] Shehadeh, 95.


Israeli Politics – In the Land of Israel

If one thing can be made clear from the book In the Land of Israel, it is that the people of Israel are divided on issues of politics, with opinions, support and political affiliations all over the board, depending on the person, the area, past experiences and hope for the future.  What was surprising to me, given the circumstances was the fact that the Palestinians interviewed who are living in Israel are divided as well.  Opinions, loyalties and beliefs are all over the place in this work, and seeing the differences in opinion from a single region of the world was refreshing and incredibly enlightening when it comes to the Arab Israeli conflict over the same piece of land.  In Jerusalem’s Geulah quarter, for example, Zionism is dead, and viewed as a disaster by the Orthodox.[1]  Contrary to the dawning of a new age with the establishment of statehood, in this neighborhood, Statehood has simply reestablished a return to the past, and not in a positive way.[2]  This view supports a compromise with the Palestinian Arabs and a return to peace apart from the continual state of conflict that independence and statehood brought with it.[3]

In the settlement of Bet Shemesh, by contrast, young men view the Arab outrage over their displacement with disgust, as well as the Labor party.[4]  The Arabs are given jobs, education and development throughout the settlements and the only reason they are unhappy with their conditions is because someone told them that they should expect better.[5]  Without that external influence, they would be content and obedient to the laws of the State of Israel.[6]  In addition to that, they argue that there are dozens of Arab countries in the Middle East and world-wide – what could be so wrong about the Jews wanting a homeland of their own in the land of Israel, and why would the Arabs want to take that away from the minority Jewish people?[7]  These sentiments are also articulated by Menachem in Tekoa – going still further that if as many Arabs are eliminated as possible, the rest of them might recognize how well they had it and be content with what they’ve been given.[8]  For Menachem in Tekoa, stopping the fighting in the 6 days war was an error in judgement, and Israel should have pressed on in order to achieve total victory and to settle the conflict once and for all.[9]

The voices reflected in this book may not be reflective of all of Israeli society as the author himself notes in the beginning of the work, but there is a clear cross-section of both Jewish and Arabic residents.  It’s clear that the country is divided over the peace process, potential compromises and their views on their Arab neighbors.  The fact that neither side can agree on a direction moving forward makes negotiations with their neighbors and the potential for a fair and lasting peace far more difficult.

[1] Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel (Orlando: Harcourt Inc, 1983), 13.

[2] Oz, In the Land of Israel, 19.

[3] Oz, In the Land of Israel, 19.

[4] Oz, In the Land of Israel, 41.

[5] Oz, In the Land of Israel, 42.

[6] Oz, In the Land of Israel, 42.

[7] Oz, In the Land of Israel, 43.

[8] Oz, In the Land of Israel, 59.

[9] Oz, In the Land of Israel, 60.

Differing Objectives

After the first Gulf crisis, Secretary of State James Baker renewed his efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute in 1991.[1]  The framework for settlements between Israel and their neighboring Arab Nation states had previously gained traction with Israeli assistance to Lebanon, as well as talks between Anwar al-Sadad of Egypt and Menachen Begin of Israel at Camp David in 1978, but had been stalled due to lingering disagreements, semantic disputes and continued violence in the region.[2]  Arab States including Syria desired negotiations with Israel overseen by both the United States and the Soviet Union, specifically for the return of the Golen Heights.[3]  PLO representatives were not allowed to attend the meetings, but Palestinian individuals abroad and from the territories were allowed to attend as part of the Jordanian delegation.[4]  At the Madrid Conference between the years of 1991 and 1993, Israel met with delegates from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan (including Palestinians).[5]  As terrorism, retaliation and increasing violence continued on the West Bank and the Gaza strip especially, groups like the Islamic Jihad and Hamas formed under the outrage of the Intifada.[6]  These groups maintained the position that peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors was not possible, only armed resistance could free Palestine, where – instead of the secular democratic state advocated by the PLO – an Islamic state could be established in Israel’s place.[7]  The insistence of an Islamic holy war to destroy Israel and to begin an Islamic state advocated by Hamas put them at odds with Arab Nation states who still desired to negotiate peace agreements that acknowledged and recognized the existence of the State of Israel, and put them at odds with the PLO, which had almost moved to obscurity.[8]

[1] Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017), 417.

[2] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 352.

[3] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 417.

[4] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 418.

[5] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 419.

[6] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 403.

[7] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 405.

[8] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 410.

Political Institutions and the 1967 War

A lot of politics both regionally and international were taking place behind the scenes and out in the open, which led to the war of 1967.  Primarily, the Israeli government considered itself surrounded by hostile forces, and was bound and determined to defend itself against any perceived threats to her sovereignty and her independence.[1]  Backing Israel and competing in global cold-war politics was the United States, seeking to give Israel weapons and military defenses to help arm her against the surrounding threats and antagonistic political climate.[2]  The USSR, conversely, supported key Arab states, namely Egypt, providing defensive weapons systems in preparation for an armed conflict that would escalate into a potential global war.[3]

Undermining all efforts for a possible peace agreement, the political and ideological organization Al-Fatah and their military arm Al-Asifa were actively trying to spark the war that almost everybody else was trying to avoid.[4]  Their incursions into Israeli held territory under their mission of liberating Palestine and returning it to the Palestinian Arabs and creating a secular democratic state was backed by Syria.[5]  Al-Fatah aimed primarily to inflict terror on the Israeli populace and its government, deliberately targeting civilians and aiming in the open to draw the region into armed conflict.[6]  All of these key players factored in to the outbreak of violence in 1967.  Israel was determined to defend herself against any potential threats, and wanted to desperately assert her military superiority over her Arab neighbors, seeking above anything else to prove that she was capable of defending herself and should be acknowledged as an independent nation that had the right to exist.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, Al-Fatah and the PLO wanted to reclaim their homeland from Israel, who they viewed as colonial occupiers.  Their primary goal was to free Palestine from Zionist radicalism and return to the land that they considered home.  Backing Israel in her determination was the United States.  Backing the Arab nations like Egypt, the USSR was providing weapons and support, bringing cold war politics to the conflict in the Middle East.  It was a hotbed of violent potential that sparked into the six day war of 1967, which humiliated Egypt, left more Palestinian Arabs homeless and removed from their homes and towns and left Israel with more land than they had when the dust settled from the war in 1948.

[1] Charles D Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict 9th Edition, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017), 273.

[2] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 276.

[3] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 277.

[4] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 278.

[5] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 278.

[6] Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 279.

Objectivity and Its Role in Historical Study

Before delving into the reading material for this module, I need to say one thing.  In reading Haskell’s assessment of Novick’s work, it immediately brought to mind a common problem I see when telling my friends/acquaintances that I’m a history major with an interest in pursuing a Master’s degree.  I am often told that they couldn’t study history “because it’s so boring”.  I cannot help but equate Novak’s perspective on history as dispassionate and detached as part of the reason many of our friends, coworkers and family members found the study of history so distasteful and uninteresting during their own time at school.  For me, and likely for many of my classmates, history is alive and full of excitement – and it’s because of the passion many of us have encountered in our readings, our interactions with other historians and our own personal path towards a history degree.

I cannot accept the view Haskell explains from Novick’s book of detachment as dispassionate evaluation.[1]  Rather, I find myself siding firmly on Haskell’s side when he explains that rather than removing passion from our pursuit and study of history, we must simply make sure that our passion and zeal puts us on a collision course with ideals and concepts that conflict with our own.[2]  While Haskell explains that Novick most likely agrees with a definition that equates objectivity with neutrality and/or indifference, Haskell advocates for historical study that is not without passion and can be seen through the lens of personal perspectives while still retaining the ideal of objectivity and intellectual honesty.[3]  While bias is present in each individual regardless of their field of study or attempts at objectivity, Haskell rightly points out that honesty, integrity and fairness can still be required without limiting or silencing individual voices or perspectives.[4]  From a historiographical perspective, it is by viewing history through the lens of individual perspectives, thoughts and bias that allows history to evolve its previous conceptions and give light to new ideas and interpretations of past events.  If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through my time studying history at SNHU, it’s that history is not static – it is fluid.  Two people can examine identical sources and come to radically different conclusions based on how they interpret those sources.  While historical facts and events can, in some instances, remain fixed, the way we view and interpret those events does not have to be fixed with no hope for differences of opinion and interpretation of them.

Within this module’s reading, I find myself firmly on the side of Haskell’s interpretation, recognizing the need for increased passion in the field of history, but maintaining the standards of objectivity within that passion, and demanding the values of integrity, honesty and fairness that many fields other than history similarly dictate.

[1] Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novik’s That Noble Dream,” History and Theory 29, No. 2 (May, 1990): 134, accessed October 1, 2017, JSTOR.

[2] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 134.

[3] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 131.

[4] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 133.

Islam in the Modern World

While this week’s reading may initially seem to be more progressive than a lot of the conservative ideology previously covered in other resources this term, I do not agree that it can actually be labeled as progressive.  It is certainly not a shift towards more liberal interpretations of the Quran, the Hadiths or centuries worth of clerical jurisprudence.  Instead, I see the surprising stance presented this module about both artificial insemination and sex reassignment surgery as merely loopholes through which to shove previously established dogmas and understandings.  To frame my meaning in terms of a much more familiar (to most of us) religious context, we see a lot of progressive branches of Christianity attempting to fundamentally change and challenge various verses and doctrines found within the Bible, admitting in many cases that previous understandings were incorrect, and often acknowledging the harm those misunderstandings have caused others.  That is not, however, what we see happening in Islam, contrary to what Abdullahi An-Naim advoctates for in his essay, calling on the need for understandings of Shari’a law to be fluid.[1]

In Islam, we see scholars finding loopholes around firmly entrenched interpretations and understandings in light of increased knowledge, technology and science.  We don’t see them admitting to misinterpretation or error, merely finding ways around precedent as in the case of transsexualism and the fact that it is accepted in Iran specifically because the Quran does not directly address it.[2] While it was surprising for me to learn about not only the legality of sex reassignment surgery in Iran, its frequency and also its relatively early inception compared to other nations, the logic behind it was heartbreaking.  While there are no doubt legitimate transsexuals in Iran that have benefitted from this policy, there is equally no doubt that a large number of people who would identify as gay or lesbian have opted for the label of transsexual in a desperate attempt to escape both the social stigma of homosexuality and its potentially lethal criminal consequences.[3]  In a culture and society where being gay is not only deeply shameful to the individual and their family but also illegal, seeking escape by a willingness to be certified as transsexual is a desperate bid for even a small portion of individual freedom, expression and potential safety – although safety is far from guaranteed.[4]  While difficult to say it is striking how many similarities there could potentially be between Iran and the United States in terms of the stigmatization of gender bias in the case of MtF transsexuals verses FtMs.  Safety is hardly guaranteed even here, and it is far more socially acceptable to be a FtM transsexual than the other way around – a clear example of how much further our society has to go to truly embrace notions of gender equality and a distancing of stigmatism based solely on gender bias.

Finally, it was a remark by Morgan Clarke that caught my attention this week to wrap up a particularly difficult (for me personally as a gay non-believer in the United States) module.  He argues that no one can truly be called a liberal when they truly believe that God has set forth a standard which defines unequivocally the right way to live, but then goes on to highlight the importance of continuing to readjust the understanding of that standard.  If that readjustment or “evolution” of beliefs does not occur, the core belief will cease being relevant within the context of our ever-changing modern world.[5]

[1] Abdullahi An-Na’im, “the Dichotomy Between Religious and Secular Discourse in Islamic Societies,” in Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World, ed. Mahnaz Afkhami (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 58.

[2] Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Transing and Transpassing Across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, no. ¾ (2008), 27.

[3] Ibid, 29.

[4] Ibid, 35.

[5] Morgan Clarke, “Children of the Revolution: ‘Ali Khamene’I’s ‘Liberal” Views on in vitro Fertilization,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 34, no. 3 (2007): 302.

Islam: The Lasting Influence of Few Men

Author Fatima Mernissi was onto something I think is critically important to understanding Islam from a Western point of view when she wrote in her book “Is it possible that Islam’s message had only a limited and superficial effect on deeply superstitious seventh-century Arabs who failed to integrate its novel approaches to the world and to women?  Is it possible that the hijab, the attempt to veil women, that is claimed today to be basic to Muslim identity, is nothing but the expression of the persistence of the pre-Islamic mentality, the jahiliyya mentality that Islam was supposed to annihilate?”[1]

What Mernissi seems to be explicitly saying in this pivotal passage seems to be that after the death of Muhammed, Islam’s future leaders deviated from the inherent message Muhammed and his immediate followers so much that the Islam that exists today descended from an incorrect understanding of Muhammed’s message – so much so that the imposition of the veil which has become a symbol of Muslims around the world has grossly misunderstood its original message and purpose.  There was a lot of information in these few chapters, and reading these brief passages gave me the desire to read the entire book (and I’ve ordered it on Amazon as a result – as well as an English translation of the Quran).  As she rightfully points out in both the introduction and the first assigned chapter, understanding the message of Islam requires a lot of digging on the part of the believer – and the same would necessarily (if not more so) apply to an outsider.[2]  The main message, in my opinion, from the collection of readings from this week is that there is more to Islam than merely focusing prematurely on its seemingly misogynistic leanings in the modern world.  From Muhammed’s treatment of his wives – especially Aisha – to the original purpose of the veil (as Mernissi points out to separate two men), it’s clear that at least in theory Islam did not start out as purely patriarchal or misogynistic.[3]

In my personal life, I often debate with people for fun, and I always roll my eyes when I hear arguments about taking things out of context.  In this specific instance, however, when regarding the woman’s place in Islam – especially considering Islam’s message of questioning everything and everyone (a concept incredibly foreign in a lot of Christian culture) context is incredibly important.[4]

I think, given the concepts and the historical context from the readings this week, it is entirely possible that Islam only scratched the surface of change in an already placed Arab culture – a culture that was reinforced as Islam spread and was influenced by similar cultural ideals in Persia and across the Mediterranean.  These influences reinforced a disparity between the sexes, allowing for the focus on hadiths and traditions that would place women below men rather than their spiritual equals and fostering a sense of misogyny that would last into the centuries to come.

[1] Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (Cambridge; Perseus Books, 1991), 81.

[2] Ibid, 9.

[3] Ibid, 93.

[4] Ibid, 76.