A Little on Hamas

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply personal to me. I am Israeli, and still have family in Israel. I also have Palestinian friends and acquaintances. Death and suffering are not abstract or theoretical notions. They will always affect someone that I know. As such, it can be a painful topic for me to discuss, but I do want to raise some perspectives that I feel are missing from the popular debates on blogs and social media now that violence has escalated in the Gaza Strip. Needless to say, my views are my own. Difficult Run has multiple voices, and welcomes different views. Before I proceed, I would like to direct the reader to two even-handed and reasonable pieces written by people that I know personally. While I disagree with both to some extent (the Mercurio quote can get tiresome), I appreciate the way that they frame their views, and recommend reading them. It is worth the time.

In this post I want to look at a major aspect of Hamas, the terrorist organization that became the ruling party in Gaza. Recently there have been several voices arguing that Hamas has been “horrendously misrepresented.” Most recently, Cata Charrett claimed that Hamas should be seen as a “pragmatic and flexible political actor.” This is essentially the same argument made earlier by others like Jeroen Gunning who produced pioneering research on the political side of Hamas.

Hamas’ position, though, is not merely political, but draws deeply from certain metaphysical assumptions which frame their struggle. I’ll grant that divergent opinions certainly exist amongst the Hamas leadership. Some are pragmatists, and many others are decidedly hardliners. However, they do share a certain world-view.

Hamas’ founder, chief ideologue, and spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, considered Palestine a waqf, that is, something consecrated to God. He formulated this belief as article 11 of Hamas’ Covenant, its charter document.

“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up. Neither a single Arab country nor all Arab countries, neither any king or president, nor all the kings and presidents, neither any organization nor all of them, be they Palestinian or Arab, possess the right to do that. Palestine is an Islamic waqf land consecrated for Muslim generations until Judgment Day… This is the law governing the land of Palestine in the Islamic Sharia…”

Treating the land that way means that any permanent concessions can be construed as blasphemy against God himself and Islam (which of course aren’t considered completely separate concepts). There is also no earthly authority that can do so because it cannot speak for all Muslim generations. Compromise can only be tactical, and thus, limited. It makes negotiating with Hamas to achieve a peaceful state of coexistence a decidedly tricky prospect. As the concept is part of their founding covenant, it cannot simply be laid aside, even when they somewhat moderate their stance, or express some discomfort with the wording. For example, much has been made of Hamas dropping the call to destroy Israel from its 2006 election manifesto. However, the evidence suggests that this was downplaying a fundamental position in order to focus on domestic political ambitions. The fundamental position itself did not change. This is despite Charrett’s insistence that the 1988 covenant is irrelevant to understanding the contemporary Hamas. Ghazi Hammad, a Hamas politician, said in 2006, that “Hamas is talking about the end of the occupation as the basis for a state, but at the same time Hamas is still not ready to recognise the right of Israel to exist… We cannot give up the right of the armed struggle because our territory is occupied in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That is the territory we are fighting to liberate.”

Hamas has sought not a lasting peace, but a hudna, a temporary, multi-year cessation of violence for which it demands a very high price. Yes, Hamas has offered to recognize the June 1967 borders, but only for 10-20 years, and conditioned on Israel granting Palestinians the right of return and evacuating all settlements outside of said borders. Those terms should be worked out, but as part of a lasting, normative peace. When the twenty years are up (or less), Israel will find itself disadvantaged, its very existence considered an act of aggression. Khalid Mish’al, Hamas’ current leader, wrote in 2006 that, “We shall never recognise the right of any power to rob us of our land and deny us our national rights. We shall never recognise the legitimacy of a Zionist state created on our soil in order to atone for somebody else’s sins or solve somebody else’s problem.” In order to obtain another hudna, Israel will have to make concessions just as big. The possibility of permanent peace is vaguely left to the judgment of the next generation.

Now, there are Jewish metaphysics of the land, too. The most famous is it being the land promised by God to his people Israel. Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap, a prominent member of Rabbi Kook’s circle in the first half of the 20th century, considered the land of Israel a part of the highest aspect of the Divine. ‘‘In days to come, [the land of] Israel shall be revealed in its aspect of Infinity [Ein Sof], and shall soar higher and higher… Although this refers to the future, even now, in spiritual terms, it is expanding infinitely.’’ Charlap further considered Jewish settlement of the land of Israel as an essential condition for holiness to spread throughout the world. His teachings were very influential amongst radical Jewish settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. More recently, R. Yitzchak Ginsburg taught that Chabad’s seventh rebbe was the manifestation of the Divine, and that in order to return him to this world the land of Israel must be saved from “Arab hands.”

The major difference that I see is that Israel-even under a right-wing government- has shown itself willing to act against groups with such metaphysical views. When unilaterally disengaging from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the Israeli government dismantled the Jewish settlements, and expelled the settlers. The settler ideology (particularly in the Gaza Strip), as I’ve mentioned, was highly informed by teachings like that of Charlap’s. Such metaphysics, though, do not form an integral aspect of Israeli policy. Israel may be right or wrong about many things like the Gaza disengagement, but that is beside the point. Although I love it dearly, it is certainly an imperfect state. What matters here is the ability to lay aside metaphysics of the land and carry out concessions that are unpopular with many of its constituents.

Perhaps Hamas will change into a truly moderate force. Perhaps.


This Day in Sarajevo, 1914

My dad was around eleven or so years old when he was reading a book on World War I. He said something along the lines of what a cool-looking war with those uniforms, tanks, and planes. His grandfather became very upset and told him that it was a horrible war which destroyed Europe and created a living hell for its nations. My great-grandfather was born in Czernowitz, a city which proudly celebrated its European and Austro-Hungarian character. He lived through the mass warfare which ravaged the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he also witnessed the terrible aftermath of nationalist and ethnic uprisings in Eastern Europe. Europe was never the same again. Despite being Jewish, this war disturbed and haunted him far more than even World War II and the Holocaust.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Duchess Sophie, by Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand in Sarajevo. This is the event that set Europe ablaze, triggering the war.

The Washington Post has an interesting article showing how it and the New York Times covered the event back in 1914. Check it out.

Horlivka: A Neglected Mormon Story

Try a little experiment. Type “Mormon” into Google news. You will find a lot about Kate Kelly and Ordain Women, some about Jabari Parker, and a little on John Dehlin. Now type “Mormon Donetsk” and “Mormon Horlivka.” You won’t find a single relevant result, yet this is easily the biggest Mormon story this year. Pro-Russian separatists have seized the Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in the Eastern Ukrainian town of Horlivka (or Gorlovka), banned worship, and are now using it to house militants.
I have known about this for several weeks, but have not posted on it since until now there was no official source. Not even in the Church newsroom.
On June 26th, the Ukrainian information agency Ukrinform confirmed the report with Andrey Lysenko, a spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. Lysenko added that “apparently [the separatists] have nothing better to do.” The brief report incorrectly states Donetsk, but local members have stated that this happened in Horlivka. One of the meetinghouses in Donetsk was spray-painted with “Children of Satan,” and “Yankee, go home,” but was not seized by separatists.
One of the few things that I could find in English shows that a Protestant ministry school in Horlivka had also been seized by separatists. This is a very worrying trend. The church may have pulled the missionaries out of Eastern Ukraine, but the majority of local members remain in their own homes.

G. I. Joe: Devil Eyes

My favorite part of the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is when the mage, Mr. Norrell, is recruited as part of the war effort against Napoleon. The plan is to terrify Napoleon by troubling him with nightmares. The plan fails because the bookish old antiquarian is useless at imagining horrors. The worst he can come up with is a captain of dragoons hiding in Napoleon’s wardrobe.

Truth, however, is stranger than fiction.

As part of the effort to rid Bin Laden of a support base, the CIA commissioned a demonic action figure of Bin Laden. Unsuspecting parents in, say, Karachi, would buy their children an innocent looking Bin Laden toy, and after bringing it home the action figure would react to the heat, its original face being replaced by a demonic, red one. To make things even better, this mix between Get Smart and Team America was designed by Donald Levine, one of the creators of G.I. Joe. He designed the toy, and secretly manufactured it in China. Thus Habsboro’s role in the War against Terror. I personally can’t picture anyone being spooked by this toy, not even in regions were belief in devils, demons, and jinns is widespread, and the CIA seems to agree. They shelved the toy, but one source says that hundreds of toys actually made their way to Pakistan.

Who knows, there might be hope for a collector’s item after all.

A Bird that is Always in Season: Journalism and Violence in the Old West



An Armed Neutrality
An Armed Neutrality

In his post on the increasing intolerance towards dissenting opinion from both sides of the political divide in the USA, Nathaniel said that I wish someone could tell me it’s gonna get better–or at least that it’s been worse–because it’s kind of lonely and scary to feel that not only have the loonies taken over the asylum, but they broken down the walls, invaded city hall, and took over there, too.

Well, I’m happy to oblige. It has been worse. In the Old West- from St. Louis to San Francisco- free speech often came down to how well you could throw punches or wield a Bowie knife. As David Dary chronicled in his 1998 Red Blood and Black Ink: Journalism in the Old West, newspapers in the West were highly partisan, deeply personal, and frequently inflammatory.. While they covered important issues such as the evils of slavery, the reporting often devolved into an editorial feud where each side smeared the character and reputation of the other. Tempers flared, and if the offensive material was not retracted, then it typically resulted in a duel, if not outright murder.

Susan B. Anthony’s lesser-known brother, Col. Dan Anthony, carried two large horse-pistols with him throughout his career as an editor in Kansas. He had good reason, as he was frequently attacked by his opponents for articles he published, and even survived an assassination attempt, as well as other attempts to prevent certain stories from being published.

With characteristically dry wit and black humor, Ambrose Bierce described this occupational hazard of journalists.

The restrictions of the game law do not apply to this class of game. The newspaper man is a bird that is always in season; sportsmen and pot-hunter alike may with assured impunity crack his bones with a bullet, or fill his skin with buckshot. . . Although the American public will not deny itself the pleasing pageant of some blameless citizen accomplishing serpentine contortions under the editorial pen, neither will it inhibit the flight of the blithe bullet through the editorial body.

The trends that Nathaniel outlined are certainly concerning, and ought to be reversed or halted, but things could always be worse. Some sort of comfort, I suppose.

The Middle East in Maps


My dad likes to say that a book is only good if it contains maps.

I’ve heard this half-serious maxim all the time while growing up, and although it can seem silly, what he really means is that maps provide a unique visual tool to help you organize what you are reading about into a coherent whole, and thus give you a better perspective and more appreciation for whatever the topic may be. This is something that even fantasy writers and readers find helpful.

All the more so, then, when it comes to a complex region like the Middle East, frequently featured in the headlines.

I saw on a friend’s Facebook page that Vox recently posted 40 maps which in their words “explain the Middle East.” I’m not sure that I would consider Afghanistan as part of the Middle East (to me, that is defining the term too broadly), and I would probably have included at least one map showing the contrast between fertile land and arid wilderness, as well as another on military topography, since both factors have played a tremendous role in forming the history, culture, and ethnic makeup of the Middle East. I also disagree with some of the conclusions drawn from the data, but it is still a fantastic resource. Check it out if you have any interest at all in the region.

The Scientific-Mystical Objectivity of Pavel Florensky

Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov.
Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov.

Nathaniel’s recent post on Newton and Parsons raises some very good points about science and the very things that it supposedly opposes, such as magic and the occult. As far as I understand things (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong), a fundamental belief for both scientists and esotericists is that the world follows certain patterns, and is governed by forces and laws that can be discovered, harnessed, and sometimes even manipulated, be it for good or for bad. It really shouldn’t be terribly surprising that an interest in one can include an interest in the other, yet the current, popular scientific narrative wouldn’t touch the esoteric with a ten-foot pole.

Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) is another of those immensely influential scientists that hardly anyone knows. He was also a mystic, Russian Orthodox priest, theologian, Symbolist, art critic, and martyr. Florensky’s book, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, written as a sort of a vast dialogue with Christ on the topics of “Divine Truth, Beauty, and Goodness” as “revealed and manifested in Creation,” is filled throughout with dozens of mathematical formulas! If that weren’t odd enough, the math itself is explained in theological terms. This refusal to see the natural sciences as divorced from divine, spiritual matters allowed Florensky to make important contributions to both. He was led to radical developments in set theory by his interest in the mystical doctrine of Name-Worshipping, and during the early years of the Soviet Union he wrote scientific textbooks, helped electrify the country, and invented a non-coagulating machine oil while still serving as a priest.

georgia6   www,nikitafirct.com_.ua_Florensky grew up in the Caucasus. He claimed that his childhood there lent him “an objective, noncentripetal perception of the world, a kind of inverse perspective” which allowed for a “penetration into the depth of things.” The Caucasus is a wild and mysterious region with snow-capped mountains, deep ravines, and roaring rivers. It exerted a tremendous influence on Russian writers, and although I had read extensively on it, nothing prepared me for my first glimpse of it. Pictures can never convey just how remarkable it is. I then understood instinctively Tolstoy’s laconic cry, “the mountains, the mountains,” and I confess to being a little awestruck even today. I share this because there really is a feeling there of a “native, solitary, mysterious and infinite Eternity, from which everything flows and to which everything returns,” as Florensky described it. Paradoxically, it was this other-wordly feeling that Florensky claimed enabled one to see the world as it really is. “The child has absolutely precise metaphysical formulas for everything other-worldly, and the sharper his sense of Edenic life, the more defined is his knowledge of these formulas.” It is hard to imagine someone like Wallace Stegner concurring with Florensky’s definition of objectivity, yet as Nathaniel noted, the scientific narrative has increasingly tended to absorb and adapt religious ones, resulting in something not far removed from Florensky’s objectivity.

Florensky’s religious convictions eventually led to his imprisonment in a labor camp, where he was murdered in 1937.


Missionaries and Modernization

The medical missionary David Watt Torrance.

Walker recently posted on a study showing that 19th century missionary efforts had a positive, even vital effect on the development of liberal democracy.

The study focused on “conversionary Protestants,” but if we look beyond the scope of democracy, we still find that the influence of missionary group was by large a positive one. This includes ”non-conversionary” Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox. Some interesting examples come from missionary efforts in 19th century Palestine, and they have something to tell us about the supposed dichotomy between science and religion, as well as the contention that religion is a corrosive, negative influence.

Missionary movements have made a very real contribution to the spread of modern medicine. As an example (though certainly not the earliest), for over half a century one of the few modern hospitals in Israel/Palestine was the one run by Scottish missionaries in Tiberias, by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In 1885, the young Dr. David Watt Torrance arrived as a medical missionary. His clinic was at first very small- only two rooms- and the locals were understandably suspicious of his motives. Torrance gained the confidence of the locals due to his skill and compassion, although very few took any steps toward conversion. In 1894, a proper hospital was built, and it remained in operation until 1959. Malaria and dysentery were among the most common illnesses treated at the hospital.

To give an idea of just why this was a big deal, before the medical missionary efforts traditional medicine in Palestine involved amulets, pilgrimages to the tombs of holy men, exorcisms, and bloodletting. This was true no matter to what religion or social class you belonged.

One measure of these medical missions’ success was that Jewish communities in turn made increased efforts to establish their own hospitals and clinics wherever missionaries operated as a way to counter their influence.

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that tens of thousands owe their lives to the Torrances’ religion (Herbert took over from his father until his own retirement in 1953), and the number increases significantly if one takes other mission hospitals into consideration. Torrance himself paid a terrible price- he buried two wives and four children in Tiberias. It was Torrance‘s faith in God which led him to dedicate his life to improving the health and lives of Galileans, regardless of their religious denomination or convictions. Science, that is, modern medicine, was his tool, but religious faith was the motivator. What the Torrances and other medical missionaries show is that religion has often led to the spread of science in very practical ways.

The scholars Ruth Kark, Dietrich Denecke, and Haim Goren wrote a paper entitled “The Impact of Early German Missionary Enterprise in Palestine on the Modernization and Environmental and Technological Change, 1820—1914.”

We suggest that it is informative to emphasize a new dimension to the study of missions- that of the relationship between religion and belief systems and place or space. Within the missionary context this relates to the study of the impact of missionary concepts and activity on environmental and spatial change and the creation of new urban and rural landscapes. These reflect far-reaching effects that remain evident to the present.

Their study deals with two German missionary groups. The first, Protestants, founded an orphanage and school in 1860 just outside of Jerusalem for Christian victims of persecutions in Lebanon. Not only did they provide schooling, they also taught the children various practical trades employing and constantly upgrading modern methods of production.

In 1889, German Catholic missionaries purchased land at Tabgha, the traditional site of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. They established a network of schools for local Arab Christians, and an agricultural commune run by monks. They introduced a lot of modern agricultural tools and techniques, re-introduced bananas to the region, and sailed the first motor-boat on the Sea of Galilee.

The article is well worth a read, and it gives a new spin on the role of religion in progress and modernization.

“This is My Credo,” A Media Portrayal of the Ukrainian Protests

Oleksandr Muzychko, a radical Ukrainian militant.I’m Israeli with Ukrainian Jewish roots, and my wife is Ukrainian, so naturally the topic of anti-Semitism in Ukraine concerns me. Since I’m also studying journalism, I couldn’t help but notice a recent article from the Russian network RT that has been going around on various social networks.  The article is illustrative of a problematic approach to reporting the Maidan protests in Ukraine. It shows footage of an anti-government protester, Oleksandr Muzychko, waving a Kalashnikov. It claims that Muzychko (AKA Sashko Biliy) is a notorious right-wing Ukrainian extremist and terrorist who as a foreign volunteer in the Chechnyan War was responsible for significant Russian losses in the battle for Grozny. In his book on the Chechnyan War, the journalist Anatol Lieven described Muzychko as

A volunteer from the Ukranian extreme nationalist UNA-UNSO movement… who looked as if he had been born in a cave. He had a massive face with a forehead sloping straight back from his eyebrows, a jutting jaw and a broken nose, and was wearing an American baseball cap turned back to front and a green Islamic headband. He said that he was there to ‘fight against Russian imperialism and help destroy the Russian empire… and then on its ruins, we will build a new, truly great Slavic power, uniting all the Slavs under the leadership of the Ukrainians, the oldest, greatest and purest Slav people.’ I was told some months afterwards that he had been killed in action in Grozny. Biliy was one of perhaps twenty Ukrainian volunteers who fought in Chechnya; I met three of them…

Lieven was wrong, as it turns out. Muzychko was not killed in action. Instead, he returned to Ukraine and was later jailed for several years on a charge of kidnapping. A brief review of UNA-USO activity reveals a markedly ultra-nationalist platform, but so far very little actual violence apart from that committed by volunteers like Muzychko in Chechnya.

Still, in an interview for a documentary produced by REN in 2007, Muzychko declared that “As long as blood flows in my veins, I will fight communists, Jews and Russians. This is my credo.”

Jews are understandably worried. For one, some of the worst atrocities against Jews were historically committed by Ukrainians. At a central location in Kiev there is a prominent memorial to the 17th century Cossack Hetman, Bohdan Khmelnytsky. During Khmelnytsky’s uprising against the Poles (a foundational narrative amongst Ukrainian nationalists) around a fifth to a quarter of the entire Jewish population of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth perished. In 1919, the armies of Symon Petlyura slaughtered around 17,000 Jews in a serious of vicious pogroms. The Jewish writer Isaac Babel vividly described the aftermath of one of these pogroms in his characteristic terse, laconic style.  The family of David Zis, in their home, the old prophet, naked and barely breathing, the butchered old woman, a child with chopped-off fingers. Many of these people are still breathing, the stench of blood, everything turned topsy-turvy, chaos, a mother over her butchered son, an old woman curled up, four people in one hut, dirt, blood under a black beard, they’re just lying there in their blood…

A mere generation later, many Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazi invaders, including the insurrectionist movement OUN before it had a falling out with Germany.  The German-raised Ukrainian police was an important instrument for murdering Jews in those years of occupation.

The anti-communist and anti-Russian sentiment expressed by Muzychko is fairly self-explanatory. In the previous century alone, Russia has pursued policies that have aimed at the suppression (and at times destruction) of the Ukrainian nation. There was the artificially-prolonged famine, the Holodomor, which resulted in the deaths of more than 4 million Ukrainians due to starvation.  In 1939, the NKVD  instituted a reign of terror in newly-occupied Galicia and Volhynia. The Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church was dissolved by the NKVD in 1946 and its assets and congregations turned over to the politically compliant Russian Orthodox Church.  There was also the systematic repression of the Ukrainian language, for example, no factory in the Soviet Union produced typewriters with the Ukrainian alphabet (it differs somewhat from Russian).  Even as late as the 1970s and 1980s, Ukrainian poets like Hryhoriy Chubay and Vasil Stus were imprisoned, and an extraordinarily well-loved composer of popular music, Volodymyr Ivasyuk, was kidnapped, beaten, and hanged on a tree. The middle-aged Stus died in a forced labor camp in 1985.

But even with a long history of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the question still remains. Why the Jews? Partially because of deep-seated Orthodox anti-Semitism, partially because of rhetoric originating in 19th and 20th century Russian circles which painted the Jews first as partners with Freemasons for world domination, and then as the masterminds behind communism, not to mention the prominent involvement of many Jews in the Soviet regimes. Compounding the issue, some of the more visible members of Yanukovich’s odious party- such as Dobkin, Kernes, and Tabachnik– are Jewish. Sadly, when members of visible, cohesive minorities behave poorly people tend to assign blame and complicity to the group as a whole.

Yet, surprisingly little anti-Semitic outburst has occurred during the protests. I don’t think that this can be emphasized enough. On February the 23rd there was a fire-bombing of a synagogue in Zaporizhie, one of those Eastern Ukrainian towns which had undergone significant russification. As of today there is still no information released on who might have done it. Even if we assume that Maidan activists are the perpetrators (and they are a minority in Zaporizhie), have any other synagogues been attacked? In the areas where we’d expect them the most, I.E., the areas where nationalist and radical influence is strongest, there have been no such attacks during the course of the protests. Not in the Maidan-controlled parts of Kiev, not in Lviv, stronghold of the ultra-rightwing party Svoboda, and not in Rivne, where different footage shows Oleksandr Muzychko brandishing his Kalashnikov during a municipal meeting. There have been organized Jewish groups participating in the Maidan, and the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, president of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, is also a staunch supporter of the Maidan. The Chabad rabbi in Kiev has closed his schools and called upon Jews to flee, but the chief rabbi since 1990, Yaakov Bleich, long sympathetic to Ukrainian aspirations, has issued no such statements. Indeed, Josef Zisels, a vice-president of the World Jewish Congress who monitors the spread of anti-Semitic incidents in the former Soviet Union, noted that there were only two incidents in all of the forty Maidans throughout Ukraine, and both were purely rhetorical.

As a knowledgeable friend remarked (we’ll call him Eustace), a certain wave of anti-Russian and anti-Semitic sentiment is to be expected, though how serious remains to be seen.

What the RT article fails to do is pose questions which would allow one to contextualize the information.  What happened to UNA/USO and what precisely is the Praviy Sektor? What role does Muzychko play in the Praviy Sektor, and what role does the Praviy Sektor play in the Maidan? How ideological is the movement? How do Jews rank in importance in Muzychko’s views as opposed to communists and Russians? What do other Maidan leaders think of Muzychko? How powerful is he? Has he ever attacked Jews?

It is unreasonable to expect full, definitive answers in a brief online piece, but none of the questions were even raised. That is the problem. The article is basically saying that here is a protestor, and he is a modern Nazi “aiming for power.” Thus, by extension, the protests are driven by Nazis aiming for power, and everyone knows how bad Nazis are, hence the protests are bad. Timothy Snyder said it best when he said that

If people in the West become caught up in the question of whether they are largely Nazis or not, then they may miss the central issues in the present crisis.