Archive for the ‘Biblical History’ Category

Jodi Magness on the Archaeology of Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine

December 17, 2017

One of the other books in the winter edition of the Oxbow Bargain Book Catalogue for Winter 2017 is Jodi Magness’ Archaeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine. The blurb for this says

Archaeological evidence is frequently cited by scholars as proof that Palestine declined after the Muslim conquest and especially after the rise of the Abbasids in the mid-eighth century. Instead, Magness argues that the archaeological evidence supports the idea that Palestine and Syria experienced a tremendous growth in population and prosperity between the mid-sixth and mid-seventh centuries.

Eisenbrauns, 2003, 9781575060705, Hardback, was £49.99, now £14.95.

Magness is an Israeli archaeologist, who has written some brilliant, very accessible, popular books on the archaeology of the Holy Land. I recognise that my own religious views mean that I have a bias towards Biblical archaeology and the Ancient Near East, as opposed to the later, Muslim periods. However, western concerns with these periods have meant that precious later evidence of Muslim culture and towns have been destroyed as archaeologists have dug through them to get to ancient Egypt, for example. The British archaeologist John Romer was particular critical about this in one edition of his series on the history of archaeology for Channel 4, broadcast in the 1990s, Great Excavations. In one sequence, he sifted through the sand around one excavated ancient Egyptian monument, picking out pieces of Islamic period pottery, and sadly remarked, ‘There was a whole town here once.’ And explained that it had been either destroyed, or at least its remains had, by archaeologists determined to get at what was underneath from antiquity.

Which of course, may partly explain – but does not justify – the Islamist rage against pre-Islamic Egypt and its monuments. Like the pyramids, which they’d love to destroy.

Magness’ conclusions don’t really surprise me. There’s an argument about the demographic and economic conditions of the late Roman Empire at the time of the Muslim conquests. Part of the reasons for the Fall of the Roman Empire was economic stagnation, as I’ve pointed out before to combat the rubbish spouted by right-wing politicos and classicists like Boris Johnson. During the late Byzantine Empire, towns shrank, and many disappeared completely as they were abandoned. Those that survived tended to consist of a castle or fortification and a church around which was a much smaller settlement.

The nascent Islamic Empire put the region in touch with an expanding state that grew to cover the Near East and spread into parts of India. It gave merchants the opportunity to establish trade networks across a vast area. Furthermore, even when the Byzantines and Muslim emperors were still at work, Christians in the early caliphate were not prevented from contact with their spiritual superiors and coreligionists in Byzantium. Also, the official Byzantine ‘Melkite’ church, as it was known in Egypt, had persecuted the various ‘Jacobite’ or ‘Nestorian’ sects, which they considered heretical, often with horrific tortures. The result was that when the Muslims conquered the region, the persecuted masses opened the gates to them and welcomed them as liberators.

At the moment, however, Netanyahu, the Likudniks and the other members of the Israeli religious right in his coalition seem to be determined to erase any history of Palestine, that challenges its exclusive Jewish character. There are any number of books and articles by western historians attacking this and comparing it with militant nationalist movements elsewhere. Such as by Philip Rahtz, a very respected British archaeologist from my part of the West Country in his book, Invitation to Archaeology. This is not anti-Semitic, and Rahtz himself has always been anti- or at least, non-racist. He describes in the above book how shocked he was when an apparently liberal Australian student he was teaching was deeply surprised by his interest in the archaeology of Aboriginal Australians. ‘But they’re just apes!’ she exclaimed.

Netanyahu and his thugs are determined to close mosques and churches, or at least keep them very tightly controlled, just as the illegal settlers they support seize Palestinian land and homes in the Occupied Territories. So I really don’t know how long a genuinely open archaeological investigation of the Islamic period will last.

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Trump Brings Armageddon Closer by Moving American Embassy to Jerusalem

December 8, 2017

And this is exactly what Christian Zionist millennialists like Tim Lahaie want.

Yesterday, Trump announced that he was going to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is what the Israelis have been demanding for years, but previous administrations have not given into them, because they were very much aware that this would set off a powder keg of rage and hostility across the Middle East. Jerusalem was taken from the Palestinians, and still contains a sizable Arab population. The Israeli nationalist right would love it to be the capital of their nation, but it is also claimed by the Palestinians.

There have been mass protests and riots against Trump’s decision all over the Middle East. RT yesterday put up this footage of Israeli squaddies or the police trying to put down protesters or rioters in Bethlehem yesterday.

And politicians from across the political spectrum have condemned Trump’s decision, from Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon to Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

May’s condemnation is far less full than one would wish. As you can see, she doesn’t condemn it because it’s a rubbish decision. She only condemns it because it hasn’t been made according to the proper decision making process. As for Boris, he optimistically says that it’s good that the Americans are committed to the two-state solution. In fact, the Palestinians aren’t happy with the two state solution, for the simple reason that the Israelis will keep stringing them and the rest of the world along with it, while taking whatever remains of Palestinian land. The aim now is to demand an end to Israeli apartheid and the full rights of Palestinians as equal Israeli citizens. But as this would threaten Israel’s existence as a racial ethno-state, there’s going to be profound opposition to this.

The Young Turks have also weighed in on this issue. In the video below, Cenk Uygur and John Iadarola explain just why it’s a bad idea. They point out that it’s been mooted before, and there were a series of resolutions passed in both houses of Congress in the 1990s. But then somebody pointed out what would happen if they did. They state that it’s an incendiary situation, because Jerusalem is a holy city to Christians, Jews and Muslims, and that many of them will not want to see all of the city and its shrines placed under Israeli rule. Uygur also points out that for some Christian Zionists, an apocalyptic war is exactly what they want. They believe that there will be a final battle between the forces of good and evil when one of the mosques in Jerusalem is destroyed. This will lead to a nuclear holocaust, following which Christ will return.

Uygur follows this with an atheist rant, which I don’t agree with. But he states that even though he doesn’t believe in the prophecy, it has to be taken seriously because others do, and they are willing to fight and kill for it. He concludes by making the point that it’s just Islam that’s the problem. It’s also Christian fundamentalism. To which Iadarola adds that ‘Fundamentalism is the problem’.

I know a number of people, who hold a very literal view of the Creation story in Genesis, and who could be fairly described as ‘Fundamentalist’. They’re good people. But Uygur is absolutely right about the dangerous, apocalyptic views of the Christian Zionist right. Christian Zionism began in the 19th century, because it was believed that if ancient Israel was restored, Our Lord would return to Earth to usher in the Millennium. In the 1980s this morphed into a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. Now it’s become a war between Israel and Christendom versus Islam.

One of the leaders of American Christian Zionism is Tim LaHaie. LaHaie is one of the authors of the Left Behind series of novels, in which the Rapture has occurred and all the righteous have been taken to heaven in preparation for the rise of the Antichrist and the Tribulation, before Christ’s return and the overthrow of Satan. The novels were a massive hit amongst the American Christian readership, and were turned into a film/TV series.

But not only are these views extremely dangerous, they’re also abysmally bad theology. The Church Fathers in the Early Church were acutely aware of the temptation of some Christians to try to force events, and were very much against it. Furthermore, the Millennialists predictions depend on a very specific reading of the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation is not easy to interpret as very much of it is in symbolism and imagery that was probably well-known to Mediterranean Jewish Christians, but has been lost to us over time. The mainstream view is that the book is part prophecy, part commentary on contemporary events. The ‘Beast 666’ is believed to have been Nero, the Greek version of whose name, Neron, has that value in the Gematria numerological system. Not only did Nero persecute Christians, as a young man he also used to dress up as a beast and go around with his fellow aristocratic yahoos attacking ordinary Roman citizens. So this is partly a commentary on the contemporary persecution of the Church in ancient Rome under Nero. However, the Book is also prophetic, in that it looks forward to the general resurrection of the dead at Christ’s return. But this will happen without there being a tribulation or apocalyptic battle beforehand.

If you’re a Christian, and wish to read more, then I heartily recommend you go over to Tekton Apologetics and look at J.P. Holding’s writings on this issue. Holiding’s a theologically Conservative, Protestant Christian with a literal view of Genesis. I don’t know what his political views are. For all I know, he might be a man of the right. But this doesn’t matter, because he has written very detailed, informed critiques of this dangerous, Millennialist nonsense, and is a very, very fierce critic of the Left Behind books, and the way they have dumbed down American Christianity.

Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro Explains Why Zionists Do Not Speak for World Jewry

November 14, 2017

And the good rabbi does not mince his words, as you’ll see later.

I found this on a YouTube channel entitled ‘Jewish Bund’. I don’t know who they are, but my guess is they’re probably politically left-wing. The Jewish Bund was the Jewish Socialist organisation in the countries of the Russian Empire. Along with the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, it was one of the constituent organisations of the Russian Social Democratic Party, before it fragmented completely into competing factions, which were then overtaken and suppressed during the Bolshevik coup of 1917.

It’s a video from an organisation, True Torah Jews against Zionism. I don’t know anything about the organisation, but it is obvious that they are another organisation of Torah-observant Jews, who reject Zionism as incompatible with the principles of Judaism.

The video was posted in 2015, and was prompted by Netanyahu’s visit to America. Netanyahu, with his usual lack of any kind of modesty or self-effacement, declared that he was not only Israel’s emissary, but also that of world Jewry. The rabbi and his interviewer, who is also clearly an observant Jew, soon set about demolishing that claim.

The rabbi points out, again and again in this video, that Netanyahu’s claim is ridiculous. He makes the point that Jews are and have been resident in very many countries. It’s a religion that comprises people of different nationalities. The rabbi’s own ancestors lived in Poland for 500 hundred years. Netanyahu doesn’t speak for him. He also rejects Netanyahu’s claim to represent him on religious principles, as well as simple nationality. Netanyahu is secular. He doesn’t observe the Torah, the Mosaic code. So he clearly doesn’t speak for the rabbi and other, Torah-observant Jewish people like him. The rabbi states that it’s as if the King of Bulgaria turned up in America, claiming that he represented and spoke for the Jewish people. Not only would the claim be demonstrably wrong, but people would laugh and ask, jokingly, what right the Balkan monarch had to claim that they do. Netanyahu doesn’t represent world Jewry, just Israel.

He and his interviewer state that the majority of rabbis have condemned Zionism down the ages. How then can Netanyahu make this claim? Rabbi Shapiro states that they’ve been doing it since the foundation of Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He states that one of the great pioneers of the Zionist movement used an obscure point of Roman law, which allows someone to deputise for another as their proxy, to argue that he and the Zionist movement therefore represented the world’s Jews. The rabbi then goes on to argue that they had to adopt this tactic, as otherwise, without a country of their own, no-one would listen to them.

He then attacks this piece of rhetoric not only for its obvious falsehood, but because of the danger it presents to diaspora Jews. Rabbi Shapiro states that there is a threat implicit in it. It’s to show foreign politicians that there are people in their countries, who have outside loyalties that can be mobilised against them, if Israel’s desires are not complied with. This the rabbi understandably considers a vile slur against diaspora Jews living in their countries outside Israel. The ideals of the Torah determinate that Jews should live and work for the benefit of the nations in which they are resident. But this claim, and its hidden threat, are actively harmful to Jews by making it appear that they are quite ready to work against the best interests of their home countries and their fellow citizens for the good of Israel, a foreign power.

He is also scathing about another piece of rhetoric that is used along with the claim: that of the Holocaust. He is understandably offended with the cynical way Zionists use the horrific suffering of Jews during the Shoah in order to gain sympathy.

The video also puts up that notorious statement from one of the founders of Zionism, that anti-Semites will be more useful as allies to Zionists than decent people, with no prejudices, because they share the Zionists’ goals of getting Jews to emigrate.

The interviewer then asks the rabbi what can be done about this situation, when the media seems determined to marginalise and ignore voices like theirs. The rabbi is not downhearted. He states ‘We’re Jews. We have God on our side!’ He states that the Lord, who protected Mordechai and Esther during the Persian Empire, will protect them, just as He protected Jews from extinction over the last two thousand years. He advises his viewers that they can help combat Netanyahu’s pernicious claim by talking to their gentile fellows, and telling them that the Torah does not support what Netanyahu says, and that Jews are loyal fellow Americans.

I’ve no doubt that the rabbi is correct. Historians and critics of Israel have described over and over again how Zionism was a minority viewpoint amongst the world’s Jews. For many Torah-observant Jews, the state of Israel was a blasphemy, as they believed that Israel could only be restored by the Messiah. Tony Greenstein a few weeks ago put up a piece about a book and interview by a Canadian rabbi on Jewish opposition to Zionism. He also described in a piece about one of the non-Zionist leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto, Marek Edelman, how the majority of the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Poland voted solidly for the Bund and its campaign for Jews to take their place as fellow, equal citizens of their home countries.

And the rabbi’s fear that Netanyahu’s claim to represent Jews the world over casts suspicion on diaspora Jews by implication as agents of a foreign power was shared by the majority of British Jews at the time of the Balfour Declaration. The leaders of Britain’s Jewish community were very highly integrated into British culture and society. When Balfour was devising the Declaration, they – and the only Jewish member of his cabinet – objected for the same reason the rabbi above did. They wanted to be seen as loyal fellow Englishmen and women. You can see it in the oath of the Jewish equivalent of the Boys’ Brigade, in which boys swore ‘to be a good Englishman and good Jew’. And no doubt in very many other ways, in which they expressed their pride in being British and their loyalty as equal fellow Brits.

This is the video that Netanyahu very definitely would not want anyone to see, and neither would the Neocons, who have been guiding American imperial policy in the Middle East since Bush’s invasion of Iraq, or the Christian religious right, who are more fervent in their Zionism than America’s Jews. These are the people the media is determined to exclude. I’ve put up videos from YouTube from other Jewish organisations showing vast demonstrations in New York, with a crowd of about ten thousand or more, which the makers have claimed have not been covered by the American media.

And it’s clear why they don’t want videos like this to be seen: it destroys the right-wing claim that Israel is synonymous with Jewry, and that those, who don’t back Israel are anti-Semites. Even if, like these guys, they are religious observant men and women guided by the Torah, the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and the Talmud.

Rabbis Hold Protest Against Trump’s Immigration Policies Outside Trump Tower

October 10, 2017

I found this very short video documenting a protest by America’s Jewish community on RT America on YouTube. Yesterday was the Jewish feast of Succot, which I think is the Feast of Tabernacles. During the feast in ancient Israel, Jews built a booth on the roof of their homes and lived in it. Today, dozens of rabbis in New York put up a tent as their contemporary equivalent of a scriptural tabernacle, and carried it around with them as part of their demonstration against Trump’s travel ban on people coming to America from certain, largely Muslim majority countries. The protestors hold signs reading ‘My father was a Syrian refugee too’ and ‘Resisting tyrants since Pharoah’.

Against them, there were a couple of Orthodox Jewish guys waving placards proclaiming that Orthodox Jews voted for Trump, and they’re going to vote for him again in 2020.

Muslims have received a great deal of support over this issue from the Jewish community, including, I believe, the Anti-Defamation League. It’s not hard to see why. Jews have been persecuted immigrants, fleeing from one country to another in order to find tolerance and sanctuary for much of their history. I’ve read pieces by left-wing Jews, who’ve said that Jews should always side with the oppressed because of their history, never with the oppressor. Jews have also historically been political liberal in America. The Civil Rights movement when it emerged in the 1960s was also strongly supported by Jewish Americans, because quite often Jews were active as teachers and other professional working with Black communities, and so understood and shared their concerns, fears and aspirations for justice and improvement.

I don’t know if this protest was covered by the mainstream media. If it wasn’t, it should have been. Trump, the Republicans and the corporate Democrats are desperately trying to close RT America down, because it’s own by the Russians and therefore constitutes Russian interference in American politics. This deliberately obscures the real reason: RT America, and the other alternative news networks are reaching an increasing audience because they’re showing the true, rotten state of corporate America under late capitalism, instead of the trite propaganda put out by the mainstream broadcasters.

It doesn’t matter whether RT America is owned by the Russians or not. They and the other alternative news outlets are doing proper journalism, and showing what the mainstream networks both in America and in Britain are trying to hide.

Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party and the Rise of Militant Zionism in America: Part 1

May 11, 2017

One of the points made by Jewish supporters of the Palestinians is that there at more Christian than Jewish Zionists in America. Indeed, Prof. Norman Finkelstein has pointed out that support for Israel amongst Jewish Americans was marginal until the late 1960s, when Conservative activists worked hard to engineer support for the country after its victories against the surrounding Arab nations. Mike made a similar point in his defence of himself and his commenter, Paul Mabbo, against the accusations of anti-Semitism flung by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism. Not everyone making the accusations was necessarily Jewish.

In fact there has been an alliance between right-wing American Christian groups and militant Zionists since before the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980s. Reagan’s election was partly due to his support from these right-wing Christian groups, brought about by the fundraisers and PR men Richard Viguerie, Terry Dolan, Howard Phillips and Ed McAteer. These men founded, led or advised a slew of conservative Christian organisations such as Conservative Caucus, Religious Roundtable, National Conservative Political Action Committee, Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, Christian Voice, Young Americans for Freedom and the Moral Majority. The term ‘Moral Majority’ was coined by either Weyrich or Phillips when McAteer arranged for them to meet Jerry Falwell. McAteer was then the head of the Christian Freedom Foundation, which was funded by money from the Pew and DeVos families, who owned Sunoco and AmWay respectively. It isn’t surprising that Betsy DeVos has now popped up as Trump’s Education Secretary, with a militant right-wing plan to privatise all American public schools into Charter Schools with an explicitly right-wing Christian curriculum. Weyrich was also a member of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which was financed by money from the Coors and Richard Scaiffe. As well as being a member of Young Americans for Freedom, Phillips had also been a minor member of Nixon’s administration. They chose Falwell because he had helped Anita Bryant defeat the Dade County Gays Rights Bill in 1977.

Falwell was one of the most notorious of the right-wing televangelists of the 1980s. He was actually the least popular of them, became the most influential through his contacts with Ronald Reagan. He first came to public attention for his 1965 speech denouncing Martin Luther King. However, it was the series of rallies he conducted in 1976 and ’77 which brought him to the attention of the leaders of the American Christian right. In 1983 Reagan allowed Fallwell to attend National Security briefings on the possibility of nuclear war with Russia, and discussed theology and nuclear war with him in his presidential limousine. Fallwell was also active establishing links with the Israeli leadership to the point where he became the most influential gentile lobbyist for Israel and Israeli expansionism.

As part of this, Falwell began arranging tours to the Holy Land. One of these was attended by a journalist, Grace Halsell, in 1983. She noted the prominent role apocalypticism played in the tours, with many of her fellow tourists believing that Christ’s return, and the end of the world were imminent. These tours also had an explicit agenda in drumming up support for Israel. The Israeli guide referred to Palestinians as Arabs, following the official Israeli line set by Golda Meir that there were no Palestinians. He then went on to state that the ‘Arabs’ preferred to live in poverty, had repeatedly refused Israeli friendship and bluntly stated that ‘all Muslims were terrorists’. When the tour bus stopped at Nazareth, it was only to use the toilets there. Halsell suspected that they were being prevented from speaking to any Palestinians or Christians living in Israel. This is not unlikely. One of the ministers at our church said that if you go to Israel, you will be kept from meeting Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians. The tour finally met Falwell at a hotel in Jerusalem, where they were treated to a speech by the Israeli defence minister, Moshe Arens, boast about Israeli victories in the invasion of Lebanon.

Falwell was richly rewarded by the Israelis for his services to them. A forest was named after him, he was showered with free trips to the country, and was also given a private jet by the Israeli government. He became the only gentile to receive the Jabotinsky medal, named after the Zionist leader, who advocated waging a war of extermination against the Palestinians in order to set up an Israeli empire that straddled both sides of the Jordan. It was Falwell who turned Jesse Helms, another prominent Reaganite, from a militant anti-Zionist into an enthusiastic supporter of Israel.

Falwell also visited the West Bank, where he had his photo taken with a Jewish American family, who had recently immigrated there. He set up a convention in Annapolis in 1983 to organise support for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This was attended by James Watt and Richard Allen, two members of Reagan’s administration; Yehuda Hellman and other Jewish leaders; Viguerie, Phillips and Weyrich; and former presidential sleazebag Richard M. Nixon. Falwell also told a Texan newspaper that same year that Israel had a divine mandate, through the covenant between the Lord and the patriarch Abraham, to parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan, and that the whole of Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait should also belong to Israel. This would have to be achieved through force. Falwell stated that ‘good intentions are acts of stupidity’.

Extremist American Christian groups have also given support to Jewish terrorists, such as Gush Emunim, who have attempted to blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem in order to restore Solomon’s Temple, whose site they believe the mosque occupies. In 1984 18 members of the terrorist group were convicted of trying to blow up the mosque, with the covert support of the Shin Bet and other members of the Israeli army and police. The group also attacked three Palestinian mayor, wounding them.

The terrorists were received as popular heroes in Israel, including by the judge who sentenced them. There were pleas for mercy from Yitzhak Shamir, and American right-wing Christians and Jews began sending money to finance their defence. Wealth American Jews also fund Gush Emunim and Meir Kahane’s extreme right-wing Kach party. Gush Emunim is also funded by Marcus Katz, a Mexican arms salesman, who made immense profits from selling guns and other armaments to Iran and various South American countries. Ruben Mattus, the head of the ice cream firm Haagen-Dazs, is one of the major backers of Kahane’s Kach party in Israel and his Jewish Defence League in the US.

The foremost Christian supporter of Israeli terrorism, at least in the 1980s, was the Jerusalem Temple Foundation, headed by the self-declared new Nehemiah, Terry Reisenhoover. Reisenhoover’s an Oklahoma speculator in oil and land, and styles himself after the Biblical Nehemiah, who was the first governor of Jerusalem after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon. The land Reisenhoover has speculated on, along with his Israeli partner, Shony Braun, includes land taken from Palestinians on the West Bank. Reisenhoover appointed as secretary Stanley Goldfoot, once implicated in the Stern gang’s 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Temple Foundation aimed to raise $100 million annually to rebuild the Temple and establish a yeshiva to teach the future priests the correct way to sacrifice animals there. They also supplied funds to Gush Emunim’s defence lawyers after the 1983 attack.

Another right-wing Christian group funding Israeli terrorism is the International Christian Embassy, who lobbied their governments to move their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This group were also financed by South Africa.

Andre Vltchek’s Pictures and Plea for Understanding for Syria

April 13, 2017

On Wednesday, Counterpunch contributor Andre Vltchek published some of the pictures and comments about Syria from Yayoi Segi, a foreigner, who has been living and working there for three years, and is passionate about the country and its people. Segi states

“Syria is not what the mainstream media wants us to believe it is. One has to see it, to understand. Seeing is believing! It is an extraordinarily exceptional country. All that we have been told about Syria and its people is a lie.”

She talks about how the Syrian people are decent, warm people trying to get on with their lives despite the horrors and inconveniences of the war. She is also impressed by their manners and respect for education and culture.

“Syrians are the most hospitable, gentle people. When we meet, we never talk about the war, the conflict. It is a tremendous civilization… They always talk about their life, the future. They discuss their poets and their thinkers. People in Syria are very well educated. They know what is going on, on our Planet. Despite what some parts of the world have done to them, they are extremely respectful and polite to everybody. I never heard them speaking ill of others. They appreciate that you come and work with them, and they are confident.”

She also remarks that all of the international conferences and debates about the situation in Syria have carried on without reference to the wishes or ideas of the Syrians themselves.

“There have been so many seminars, conferences and meetings on Syria, yet the Syrian people are very rarely invited. All these events are ‘about them’ but without even inviting them, and without listening to them.”

Segi works for the national education system, and describes the system’s resilience and high quality compared to other nations.

“On the education front, the system was one of the best in the region, before the crisis began. Now, despite more than 6 years of horrendous war, the system is still standing and strong. Syrians know exactly what they want, and they have the capacity to implement their aspirations. Like in Aleppo; after the victory, the government immediately moved in and began opening schools.”

Her photographs show the devastation caused by war. But they also show people enjoying themselves in cafes and restaurants, as well as one of the great medieval fortresses and a sculpture, which looks like it may well come from the ancient past. Several of the photos are of schoolchildren. These show a mixed class of little boys and girls, smiling and dressed in western style clothing. There’s also what looks like a crowd of sports fans – football? – heading towards a match, and a sign with spells out in coloured letters ‘I heart Damascus’.

There is much that Vltchek writes with which I disagree. He’s of Czech-Russian ancestry, and is a film maker specialising in the Developing World. His fierce attacks on western exploitation of the undeveloped world is well meant, but sometimes he goes too far in attacking the Developed World and the needs and desires of its ordinary citizens. It’s also struck me several times that he has a far too optimistic view of the Soviet past. Russia and the eastern bloc did make some truly vast, impressive achievements under Communism, but this was at the cost of a vicious political repression which under Stalin resulted in deportations, massacres and a system of forced labour, which claimed tens of millions of lives. The Soviet Union also dominated and exploited the satellite countries conquered by Stalin from the Nazis during World War II.

But Vltchek’s article is in this case exactly right, necessary and welcome. Syria is a repressive state. Even in the 1980s it had something like eight different secret police agencies. But under the Ba’ath party it is a modern, secular state, where Christians and Muslims live in peace. As for its education system, a few years ago the BBC screened a documentary about the Syrian school system, following the pupils in one particular school through a school day. At the end of the documentary the Beeb informed viewers how they could join a scheme that would link schools in this country with those in Syria.

As for the high regard for its poets and intellectuals, several of the books I’ve read on Islam and the Arabs have said that poetry has a very high status in the Arab world, to the point where newspapers may be written in a distinct, half-poetic style. As for its antiquities, you can still walk down the Street called Straight, mentioned in St. Paul’s Epistles in the Bible. The country has monuments from a succession of ancient civilisations, such as Palmyra, going all the way back to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The tombs of some of the kings mentioned in the Bible have even been found.

It’s people are not monsters, and while Assad is a dictator, his government is surely better than the Islamist regime, which the rebels – al-Qaeda and ISIS – hope to impose. This would mean the destruction of ancient monuments, as has happened in Iraq and those parts of Syria, which fell under ISIS’ rule. Women’s rights would be attacked and withdrawn, the secular education system and rule of law swiftly dismantled. The country isn’t quite as tolerant in the religious sphere as it could be. From what I’ve heard on programmes about the country and its history on the Beeb, the Sunni Muslim majority is oppressed. But the Ba’ath party in Syria was founded as a secular, Arab nationalist party, which included both Christians and Muslims. If it is overthrown, the country’s tolerance of peoples of different sects and religions will also go, to be replaced by the type of vicious, genocidal persecution ISIS carried out in Iraq. Dan Snow’s programme on the country, broadcast by the Beeb, featured chilling footage of a foaming rant by an Islamist mullah calling for the genocide of the Alawis, the ruling Muslim sect. And as we’ve seen in Iraq, the Islamists not only persecute non-Muslims, they also viciously terrorise and butcher other Muslims for their religious beliefs. Historic mosques as well as Christian churches were destroyed and desecrated by ISIS in Iraq, and ordinary Muslims, whose only desire was to live in peace with their fellow Iraqis, were also murdered for not being what the Islamists considered proper Muslims.

I and many other bloggers have said repeatedly that the American regime and its western allies and lackeys aren’t interested in punishing Assad for his war crimes. This is all about geopolitics. It’s about making sure a Qatari oil pipeline goes through Syria, not one built by the Russians, and about removing a key ally of Russia and Iran. The American military-industrial complex has done its level best to overthrow secular Arab nationalist governments in the Middle East from the 1950s, as they were seen as being too close to Communism. Quite apart from the challenge they posed to western imperialism and its attempts to dominate and exploit the Middle East and its oil.

I therefore urge anyone, who has doubts about the justice of Trump’s attack on Syria, and the sabre-rattling of the western political class demanding regime change, to go and read Vltchek’s article and look at the pictures of Syria and its people. And look at the faces of the people, who will suffer if the oil lobby and the military-industrial complex have their way, and send American troops in. These are ordinary, decent people, who will be massacred by the hundreds of thousands, just like the people of Iraq.

The article’s at: http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/04/12/reflecting-on-syria/

Secular Talk on UN Condemnation of Illegal Israeli Settlements

January 4, 2017

Last week, the UN voted 14 to none against the construction of further illegal settlements by the Israelis in occupied Palestine, with America abstaining. As you can expect, this sent Benjamin Netanyahu into the petulant rage he and the Zionist authorities in Israel adopt whenever the international community dares to criticise them. Netanyahu attacked President Obama for apparently betraying Israel to its enemies, and told the UN ambassador for New Zealand that his country had virtually ‘declared war’ on Israel. Which is an utterly preposterous statement. I’m very much aware of the poverty and marginalisation experienced by New Zealand’s Maoris, the racism against them and other indigenous Pacific peoples, that have immigrated to the country. But in many ways, New Zealand is also a profoundly liberal society. I can recall reading in one of the old encyclopedias we used to have at school that a certain number of seats in the New Zealand legislature were reserved for the Maoris. I also think that Kiwi women had the vote in the late 19th century, decades before women in Britain had it. I can also remember looking through the prospectus of one of the universities in New Zealand when I was doing voluntary work for one of the museums here in Bristol. Many of the courses were very ‘right on’, explicitly tackling racism and the brutalisation of Black people. It seems to me that, despite its problem, NZ is very far from being any kind of racist, Fascist state.

Secular Talk have put up a couple of videos about this, pointing out the glaring, risible and grotesque faults in Netanyahu’s entire position and response. Kyle Kulinski, the host, makes the point that the UN has not attacked Israel as a country or denied its right to exist. It has merely demanded that Israel should abide by international law. He notes that whenever Israel is condemned for its human rights abuses, they make a great play of demanding that Israeli should only be condemned the same way other nations are condemned. Which is Kulinski’s position exactly. Kulinski also goes further, and makes the point that by ignoring the UN’s resolution on this, which he recognises is toothless, Israel will be breaking international law, and, by definition, be a ‘rogue state’.

He also criticises Barack Obama for taking a far too indulgent line towards Israel on this matter. Obama has not condemned Israel. He merely abstained from voting, which is hardly any kind of strong criticism. Despite Netanyahu’s ranting, America has always strongly supported Israel. Obama has given billions of dollars in aid to the country, and supplied the Iron Dome missile defence system. At one point, Kulinski says that what is needed is for Obama to cut off all aid the next time the Israelis accuse America of not doing enough for them. He also makes the point that the UN condemnation of illegal Israeli settlements would actually make the country safer, as it would remove one of the major objects of Palestinian resentment.

They also put up another video commenting on an interview on American TV with the Israeli minister of education, Naftali Bennett. Bennett was asked about the illegal settlements, and responded by flatly denying there were any. He also claimed that the Israelis weren’t violating international law by taking over the Palestinian part of the city and making it their capital, because it had been Israel’s capital for 3,000 years.

This is wrong, and a grotesque rewriting of history. Yes, Jerusalem was the capital of ancient Israel after it was conquered from the Jebusites by King David. Before then, it was a Canaanite city state under Egyptian suzerainty. Diplomatic letters from its mayor, requesting Egyptian aid against the other city states, have been preserved along with other documents in the Amarna archive from that time.

But for most of the past 2,000 Israel simply didn’t exist, and Jerusalem was not the capital of a Jewish state. After the Bar Kochba rebellion of the 2nd century, the Jews were expelled from their capital, and it was refounded as a pagan city. The seat of Jewish government moved to Galilee. After the Fall of Rome, it was part of the Arab Islamic caliphate. For a brief period in the Middle Ages it was conquered by the Crusaders, and became a Christian kingdom amongst the other Crusader states of Outremer. It was then reconquered by the Muslims, and up until the British mandate was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Bennett’s statement shows the Israelis’ determination to erase Palestinian history and that of the last 2,000 years. Last year, 2016, Counterpunch carried an article about the Israelis’ attempts to destroy every trace of the Palestinians’ own connection to their land through attacks on their education system. The article pointed out the high number of schools that have been attacked by Israeli forces, and the constraints placed on the Palestinians and the teaching of their culture in Israeli schools. It is illegal, for example, to teach anything about the Palestinians’ connection to their homeland, such as poems celebrating this aspect of Palestinian life.

In his desire to remove an entire people from history as well as dispossess them of their own land, Bennett shows precisely the same attitudes towards history and conquest as the Nazis and Communists under Stalin. He and Netanyahu are utterly disgraceful and should be thrown out of office. And the construction of further illegal settlements on the West Bank should stop immediately.

Patrick Moore on a Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as the Star of Bethlehem

December 18, 2016

The Christmas season is definitely upon us, so I thought I’d post something seasonal. Patrick Moore was sceptical of some of the explanations offered for the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Magi to the infant Jesus. In the 1983 edition of the Yearbook of Astronomy, he dismisses the idea that it could have been an particularly bright appearance of Venus, noting that the planet was far too well known to appear new. He also noted that no new stars were recorded in the astronomical records of the time.

However, in the 1981 Yearbook of Astronomy, he speculated that an extremely rare triple conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in 7 BC, and that this could be the basis of the Star of Bethelehem because of the immense significance this would have had for contemporary astrologers. He wrote

If we regard the periods [time taken for planet to complete one rotation around the Sun – Beastrabban] as 12 and 30 years approximately, we see that Jupiter covers about 30 degrees a year, while Saturn moves through 12 degrees. Thus, Jupiter gainis 18 degrees a year on Saturn, and conjunction of the two planets can only occur at an interval of 20 years. If both planets travelled in circular orbits it can be shown that only one in six of these conjunctions could possibly be triple, and we should then expect to have a triple conjunction every 120 years. However, both of these giant planets have accentric orbits, and both are subject to severe perturbations, so tyhat this average is never realized. the last three tiple conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn occurred in 1452, 1683 and 1940, and the intervals here are more than double the 120 years. In all of these cases, the time between the two oppositions was of the order of a day or less.

One tripole conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn has received a great deal of attnetion. This is the conjunction of BC7 which, it was suggested, could be the explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. This old idea had been rejected in many quaarters because the two planets were well separated in latitude and were, in any case, familiar objects to the Magi. In recent times the subject has been revived, but now the astrological significance of the even has been emphasized. This seems a more reasonable suggestion, though it does not explain all the details of the story. Certainly the rarity of this triple conjunction (which the Magi would never have witnessed before) would give added significance to the event. (p. 83).

Jesus in the Food Bank Queue

December 9, 2016

I’ve been attending the Advent course run by one of the ministers at our local church. The theme is hospitality in the Bible and the early church, and the obligation this lays upon modern Christians to live and work for the poor, the marginalised and strangers. Last night one of the texts studied was Christ’s words ‘For as you do to the least of them, you do to me’. Christ made clear that the people, who will be saved at the Last Judgement, will be those who fed, clothed and tended Him when He was in need. By which He meant the poor, the hungry, the sick and the outcast.

He talked about how he had visited a church in Washington D.C. He pointed out that not all of the city is like the White House and the government buildings. Beyond this well-kept, affluent area is are districts of the most desperate poverty. The church he’d visited had maintained a food line for the area’s poor. He stated that these were people, who were forced to use it to make ends meet until their next paycheque came. He was particularly impressed by one of the women serving at this food bank. Every morning she prayed to serve Jesus when she saw him again in the queue that day. She didn’t mean she literally saw Him, but as He was present in the poor peeps, who turned up for their food. It was a powerful, modern application of Christ’s teaching.

He also produced quotations from the Early Church Fathers about the Christian duty to work for the poor, even when personal charity was being undermined somewhat by the institutional charity – hospitals, hostels, orphanages and monasteries of the late Roman Empire after Constantine’s conversion. Hippolytus, for example, advised that every citizen, who was able should build a guest chamber on to their house. And one of the other Church Fathers described one of the hospitals as a city for the poor, by which they could meet the rich as equals.

These are very strong, challenging demands for Christians to practise the charity taught in the Bible, and to seek out, identify with and support ‘the fatherless, the widow and the foreigner’, and bring to their feasts ‘the poor, the lame and the blind’.

Unfortunately, Contemporary neoliberal politics since Thatcher and Reagan has demanded that the institutional care provided by the state should be cut back, with disastrous results. They believed that this would strengthen the Church by forcing people to fall back on private charity. Hence we now have the spectacle of various charities actively seeking out government contracts, and fully supporting the hideous policies of sanctioning and marginalisation that are forcing more people into poverty, misery, starvation and, in extreme cases, death. And the charities themselves are under threat. The figures provided by the Trussell Trust of the numbers of people using their food banks have been attacked by the Tories for the simply reason that they give the lie to their propaganda that austerity – meaning benefit cuts and wage freezes – have somehow made people better off.

I fully support the charities and their workers, who do genuinely work for the poor. One of the most acute accounts of what it is like to work at the sharp end trying to aid those pushed into need by the government’s policies comes from the blogs and vlogs of people working in food banks. I’ve reblogged some of these. But private charity isn’t enough. We need the support of the state, and active welfare policies to empower the poor, disabled and marginalised, including the working class.

As for Theresa May, and her claims to be guided by her Christian faith, before she does so, she should meditate very much on how Our Lord is present in the poor. She may well do so. But I’ve seen no evidence of her doing anything genuinely to alleviate poverty.

Secular Talk: Candidate for Trump’s Secretary of State Wants War with Iran

November 19, 2016

Unfortunately, the Neocons demanding war with Iran, along with just about every other opposing, or simply independent country, in the Middle East didn’t die with Killary’s campaign for the presidency.

In this piece from Secular Talk, host Kyle Kulinski talks about how John Bolton, one of the potential candidates for Trump’s secretary of state, has made a speech demanding ‘regime change in Tehran’. Bolton blames the Iranians for destabilising the Middle East. Kulinski points out how ludicrous and hypocritical Bolton’s views are. He begins with the point America and the West are now at war with seven countries in the Middle East, including boots on the ground. Bolton was one of the worst of the warmongers. Unlike many others, he still supports the Iraq invasion. Kulinski states ironically that Bolton never met a war he didn’t like. Kulinski goes on to explain how we, America and the West, have destabilised the Middle East. As for Iran, it’s a Shi’a theocracy, but Kulinski accurately states that it is far more liberal and progressive than Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t like the horrific Islamic theocracy in Iran, but also explains that the majority of the population is much younger, under thirty, and more secular than the dinosaurs that rule over them. Again, true.

Kulinski also explains how the Shi’a are a tiny minority in the Middle East, and are under attack everywhere. They have the Israelis on one side of them, and the Saudis on the other. And what about countering their destabilisation of the region? Israel, for example, invaded Lebanon in order to expand its influence, and continues to build illegal settlements to push out the Palestinians. The Saudis have invaded Yemen to attack the Shi’a there. And Qatar and the other Sunni states are funding al-Qaeda, so that they will overthrow Assad in Syria. But no, according to Bolton, it’s the Iranians, not these, who are primarily responsible for the chaos and carnage in the region.

Kulinski also describes how Bolton has blithely made this demand for war with Iran, without even thinking about whether the American people themselves want another war. Usually governments need to build up a propaganda campaign to prepare the public’s mood for war. But no, not this time. Bolton and his friends simply aren’t bothered about that. They’ll just steal Americans’ money through taxation to fund yet another war that no-one except them wants.

Kulinski concludes by stating that if Bolton is picked by Trump as his secretary of state, or even remains in Trump’s circle of advisors, it means that Trump wasn’t serious about keeping America out of further conflicts. Of course, there’s a chance that Trump may keep him as an advisor, but not listen to him. Similarly, if Trump doesn’t pick him, or anyone like him, to be secretary of state, then perhaps there is a chance for America to avoid going into another war.

This is another stupid, horrendous pronouncement by yet another Republican fossil. Again, it ultimately seems to go back to the Neocon plans under Bush, to overthrow a series of regimes in the Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and Somalia. The result has been an unmitigated disaster. Iraq is now a warzone. As we saw this week, ISIS is determined to smash as much of the regimes precious heritage as it can. After destroying immeasurably valuable antiquities from the dawn of civilisation in Syria and Iraq, it carried out another assault on the Iraqi people’s ancient civilisation by levelling one of the country’s ziggurats. These barbarians have been funded by Saudi Arabia, in its campaign to spread its extremely repressive, intolerant brand of Islam across the world. The Iraqis weren’t responsible for 9/11: it was Saudi Arabia. But the Neocons and Likud wanted Iraq invaded. The Likudniks despised Saddam Hussein because he supplied the Palestinians with guns, while the Saudis and Neocons just wanted to the loot the country of its oil industry and other potentially valuable state assets.

Now, apparently, they want to do this to Iran. The mullahs are unpleasant. They’re extremely corrupt, intolerant and repressive. But they aren’t as corrupt and intolerant as the Saudis. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Iranian theocracy does include a democratic element. Every so many years, the Iranian people vote for a president. I got the impression that in many respects, it’s pretty much Hobson’s choice, in that there’s little ideological difference permitted between the candidates. Nevertheless, the Iranian people enjoy a measure of popular sovereignty that is denied the peoples of the Sunni absolute monarchies in the Gulf.

I also need hardly say that Iran is also an ancient land with an immensely rich cultural and artistic heritage. This was demonstrated a few years ago when the British Museum lent the Cyrus cylinder for exhibition in Iran. The cylinder records the conquests of the great Persian emperor, Cyrus, over the Babylonians. It’s valuable because it documents how he freed the Israelites from their exile, and allowed them to return to Israel and Judea. This heritage would also be seriously threatened if the Americans decide to invade, just like the heritage of Iraq.

One of the causes for the present chaos in Iraq is the fact that the country is an artificial creation of the imperial powers, in this case, Britain during the Mandate in the 1920s. It does not have a uniform population, but is composed of different tribal groups and sects, including Kurds, Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, Christians and the Mandaeans, a small Gnostic sect that reveres John the Baptist as the true messiah. Iran similarly is composed of a multitude of different peoples. Just over half – 52 per cent – speak Farsi, the language derived from ancient Persia. There are also a number of other different tribes, speaking languages related to Turkish, Arabs in Khuzistan in the West, and Kurds, Lurs and Bakhtiars in their homelands. Three per cent of the population are Armenian Christians, and there are also Parsees, the followers of the ancient religion of the Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism, a monotheist faith centred around the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. The Kurds have been fighting a war for their independence since the 1970s, just as they have in Iraq and Turkey. Iran was also the birthplace of the Baha’i faith, which claims that Baha’ullah, an Iranian religious of the 1920s, was a prophet. Baha’ullah and his followers were exiled to Haifa, in what is now Israel, when it was still part of the Turkish empire. Because of this, the Baha’i’s are under considerable pressure and suspicion as agents of Israel, intent on destroying Islam and Iran. It’s nonsense, but it has been strongly promoted by the authorities, with the result that there have been terrible pogroms and persecution against them.

There is also a massive underground Christian church in Iran. Although its comparable to the underground Christian churches in China, you’ve probably never heard of it. This is made up of Iranians, who have secretly converted from Islam. They too are under immense persecution as apostates. I’ve heard that the situation has go to the point, where the government is posting guards at the Armenian Christian churches to try and keep the Iranians away. If America invades, it will result in the same ethnic conflict and civil war that has turned neighbouring Iraq into a bloodbath. And just as the Christian populations of the Middle East are being massacred and cleansed from the regions by the Islamists, along with other, non-Muslim religions like the Yezidis and moderate Muslims, who want tolerance and peaceful coexistence, so my fear is that if the West attacks Iran, it will intensify the brutal persecution of Christians there.

Apart from this, Iran is a modern, relatively developed and sophisticated country. It was the most developed economy in the Middle East during the Shah’s reign. He tried to industrialise the country. One of his aims was for Iran to equal France as a producer of cars. The Iranians had their own car, the Payhan, and he very nearly pulled this off. Even now Iran is significantly involved in scientific research. I was surprised looking at some of the videos on YouTube on robotics to find that, alongside Britain, America, Japan and China, the Iranians have also developed a humanoid machine. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. The Middle East was the homeland of the Banu Musa brothers, who in the 11th century created a hundred or more automata and other ‘ingenious desires’. The country is also far more tolerant artistically than Saudi Arabia. More than a decade and a half ago, about the turn of the century, the Iranian government staged an exhibition of the works of the YBAs, including Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Just as the invasion of Iraq wasn’t about liberating the Iraqi people and giving them democracy, this isn’t about bringing peace and freedom to the beleaguered people of Iran. This is just another, cynical excuse for us to grab their oil. We did it before. In the 1950s Mossadeq, the last democratically elected Iranian prime minister, nationalised the country’s oil industry, which had previously been in the hands of foreigners, principally us, the British. BP used to be Anglo-Persian Oil, and was set up to exploit the Iranian oil fields. And we did exploit them and the Iranian workers. They were paid less than British workers, and worked in appalling conditions. After Mossadeq nationalised the oil companies, America organised a coup, which we also backed, to overthrow him. I think Mossadeq was a Baha’i, and this was used to mobilise suspicion against him. His removal from power resulted in the Shah assuming total, autocratic control, complete with a secret police, SAVAK, who were brutal thugs. This in turn created rising discontent, which eventually culminated in the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The regime renationalise the oil industry, the date of which is now an official state holiday.

Bush and his fellow Neocons deluded themselves that they would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq. They weren’t. Corinne de Souza, one of Lobster’s contributors, whose father was Iraqi, made the point that one of the consequences of the invasion was that there were fewer Iraqis willing to cooperate with the British intelligence services. This was for a simple reason: they were like everyone else, and loved their country. They were prepared to help us, as they believed that we would liberate them from Saddam Hussein. But they did not want to collaborate with an occupying force. I’ve no doubt that the same will be true of the Iranians, if Trump goes ahead and appoints this idiot as head of state.

A few years ago, before Obama’s election, Bush and his circle of mass-murderers were indeed considering invading Iran. Shirin Ebadi’s book, Iran on the Brink, which describes rising discontent in Iran against the mullahs, strongly argued against her country’s invasion. Protest groups were also being formed. There was one organising meetings in Clifton in Bristol, as I recall. For a few years, that threat seemed to pass. Now it is come back.

There are now so many wars being fought by America and its allies in the Middle East, that one of the ghastly monsters from Bush’s cabinet actually lost count when he was asked that very question in an interview on American television. And the disgusting so-and-so even had the gall to laugh it off and chuckle about it, as if the murder of whole nations was some kind of joke.

And this comes just as NATO is moving more troops and missiles into Estonia, just in case Putin invades. Killary looked all set to start a war with Russia by stoking tensions there up to levels where some feared we were at the same point the great powers were just before the First World War. I think that threat receded slightly when Trump became president. Trump is a disgusting monster, but he does seem to be friends with Putin, and I’m sure that has helped defuse some of the tensions.

Now we have this despicable moron demanding more carnage. I do wonder where it will all end. How many countries have to be invaded, how many millions murdered, how many people forced out of their homes, to live in camps as refugees? How many of our brave young men and women have be sacrificed to the greed of the oil companies before this all stops? Is there really no end to these politicos’ lust for others’ blood?

This is a situation that will have to be watched very carefully. And I’ll keep an eye out also for any groups being formed to stop war with Iran.