Reflections on eighteenth-century Mohammed cartoon.

Nukes and Islam

Pope’s comments - and president’s

Feeling masochist’s pain

Naïve Russian girls and innocent nuclear scientists

Dear British Moslem Leaders

Iran‘s tentacles

Iraq alternatives: Vietnam - or North Korea?

“Proportionate” v. “Adequate”

Both Hitler and Churchill

Hearst on boycott

Congo and the Palestine

Quarteters and misers

Israel and democracy

Arabs and mirrors

Bravery and the New York Times

Iran pundits

Iran’s assurances

Ayatollahs and children

2+2, or democracy in the Middle East.

Of yachts, cartoons, and dilemmas of political correctness

Greeks, Arabs, and stones

Hamas, Israel, and pork


September 25, 2006
Reflections on eighteenth-century Mohammed cartoon.

The reaction to the pope’s recent comments brought back into the limelight the memory of the Mohammed cartoons brouhaha. Back than, much had been written on its potential impact on the free speech. The gist of the argument was, that to limit speech so as to prevent it from offending any group’s sensibilities or beliefs is to kill outright the very notion of free speech. But few specifics were given as to what areas of knowledge might be harmed the most by shying away from depictions of Mohammed.

Here is one: art history. Caricature is an extremely effective tool in the war of ideas, and was widely used in religious debates. During reformation, caricatures of Luther and of popes were widely disseminated, the imagery in both cases being used to equate the opponent with the devil (a caricature of Luther representing him having seven heads - one being a Turk, another a fanatic, the third a rabble-pleaser, etc) is reproduced at number 182 in the recent (1995) catalog of the British Museum’s exhibition of the German Renaissance prints; and we are assured by the accompanying catalog entry that numerous depictions of the pope as the devil’s servant were even more artistically creative.

Now, these images were unquestionably offensive - which is precisely why they were used in the first place - to shock the adversary into reconsidering his views and joining the other side’s position. But should they be excluded from the art history books and debates just because they give offence?


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Mohammed cartoons fall into the same category. What do you do about this caricature lampooning Islamic treatment of women - etched by James Sayers (1748-1823) and published in London on April 26, 1788 during the golden age of English caricature - which does contain an image of Mohammed? Do you, in the fashion of Orwell’s 1984, just wipe it out from the annals of art history, or do you treat it as a witness to European attitudes to Moslems at the end of the eighteenth century?

And if there were any illustrated editions of Voltaire’s play “Fanaticism; or, the prophet Mohammed,” first published in 1742 - which just had to have depictions of Mohammed - and not flattering ones at that - what should be done with such books? And there could be a good deal of other and similar art out there. What should art historians do about it?

The answer is very simple, be it art history or not. Even if God actually forbade depicting a prophet, the artists who do so do not at all violate this prohibition - because the problem of the third party forbids us to know who is, and who is not a prophet among those who declare themselves to be such. In depicting Mohammed, an artist shows his idea of not how The Prophet looked, but how a “self-proclaimed prophet” looked, how a “may be or may be not prophet” looked, how a “putative prophet” looked. As a result, the law of not depicting the prophet - if there is such a law indeed - is not at all being broken by those putting on paper their ideas of Mohammed, and there should be no outrage at all when it does happen.

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September 21, 2006
Nukes and Islam.

In the dazzling display of bizarre reasoning with which Iran’s president regaled us during his UN visit, perhaps nothing surpassed in absurdity his explanation of why Iran has no hidden nuclear intentions. Nuclear bomb, he told us, is un-Islamic; and Iran being an Islamic country, it obviously does not want any nukes.

Which would have served as a reasonable explanation - reasonable enough for the gullible, at least - if not for one highly relevant fact: Pakistan is an Islamic country too - and it does have the nukes. Whatever the Iranian Islamic theory of nukes, in Pakistani Islamic practice nukes are squared with Islam all right.

One might object - and fairly too - that Pakistan is a different sort of an Islamic state - it is not ruled by the clerics, like Iran. Pakistan’s nukes are secular nukes, not Islamic nukes.

But take a closer look, and you will see that this is not so at all. Suppose Pakistan‘s government did something unequivocally un-Islamic - like ordering the Pakistanis to eat pork at least once a week Wouldn’t there be demonstrations by the Moslem clerics? Rioting by the populace? Mass protests?

We hear of no such protests from Pakistan’s clergy with regard to the presumably un-Islamic Pakistani nuclear bomb. There are no loud and vehement demands from Pakistani Moslems that this un-Islamic, porky abomination - the Pakistani nuclear bomb - be immediately dismantled. On the contrary, the infamous developer of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, who was happily selling the deadly technology and parts to anyone with cash, is far from being cursed by the religious Pakistanis as a satanic perverter of Islam. He is, no less, Pakistan’s national hero.

Which means that, contrary to what president Ahmadinejad told us in New York, the nuclear bomb can be quite easily reconciled with Islam. And that, in turn, means that when he told us that it was not so, he lied - and lied not just about something trivial, but about Islam. And if he could go so far as to be hypocritical about something that is presumably extra-super-sacred for him, there can be no reason at all why he would not be ready to lie to us about something far less holy - like Iran’s nuclear intentions.

And he confessed he did not know what else he could do to ease the suspicion that Iran was aiming for the nuclear bomb. Here is a word of advice: stop enriching uranium. This may just do the trick.

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September 15, 2006
Pope’s comments - and president’s.

The title for this piece was to be “Papal/Moslem brouhaha,” and it was to be dedicated solely to the Moslem frustration over pope’s use of the quote expressing Byzantine emperor’s Manuel II low opinion of originality of Koran’s message - the quote suggesting that the emperor considered Islam a thoroughly derivative creed, the only thing original about it being its method of proselytizing. But I did not turn off my radio as I started writing, and so I heard president Bush’s press conference in which he forcefully and repeatedly described the current conflict as the “great ideological battle of our time.”

That was a curious and highly ironic coincidence. Because the war we are waging in Iraq and Afghanistan is anything but ideological: to fight an ideological battle is to try to refute the ideas that underpin and justify the opponent’s behavior, and we just don‘t do that. Our enemy is motivated by religion - and it is a no-no in our culture to be critical of another’s religion.

And we aren’t. We wage a regular war, trying to destroy the terrorists militarily and to isolate them diplomatically. Nothing at all is being said about their ideas, other than the bland, utterly meaningless, often-repeated mantra of terrorists “perverting religion.”

The pope’s remark, however, was far more along the lines of “ideological battle” than anything that ever came from the US administration and from our politically correct press. It was a head-on, blunt comment about the source of the terrorists’ motivations: religion. Neither profound nor enlightening, it was still a step in the right direction.

Because religion does underpin the terrorist action, and therefore it does need to be discussed - discussed without sentimentality, without fear of hurting the feelings. The terrorists do not take religion as we do in the West - as one’s private business, as one’s expression of identity. To them it represents the ultimate reality - and it is ok to debate and argue over what the reality is. Scientists do that when they examine the physical world we live in; philosophers disagree and argue about the bigger and broader issues of existence; and why should religion not be subject to the same procedure? Just because its founder claimed his words came directly from God?

But how are we to know this? In fact, we can’t - the problem of the third party stands in the way and denies as any ability to know whether the alleged “word of God” was the word of God indeed, whether the alleged “prophet” - Mohammed or anyone else - was a prophet indeed. In dealing with religious texts, we are dealing with the word of man; that God is behind them is merely alleged, and is highly uncertain - and there is absolutely no reason why we should not be critical of a mere man’s words.

As to the “indignation” that such approach may cause - should there be indignation that the moon is round? That the Earth moves around the Sun, not the other way around? No. God made the Moon round, and He made the Earth move the way it does - and He also made us unable to determine what is God’s word, and what isn’t. The “indignation” we witness is the mere rage of idol-worshippers - not to be condoned, not to be bowed to, not to be intimidated by.

President Bush was right to call this the “ideological struggle.” And let us wage it as such, let’s not shun from the battle of ideas, let’s engage in meaningful discussion of that which drives the terrorists into the bloody action: religion.

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September 14, 2006
Feeling masochist’s pain.

Yesterday, I watched a BBC news feature from Gaza on Palestinian underage stone-throwers killed by the Israeli army during operations that followed the abduction of corporal Shalit. Narrated in piteous tone of voice, it was clearly calculated to elicit our sympathies. It isn’t hard to find similarly tearful reporting on Palestinian misery - this one, also from the BBC, is entitled “UN warns of Gaza 'breaking point' .”

Is Palestinian misery and pain real? It is. But do they deserve our sympathies?

The answer to that question has to be “no,” because Palestinian pain is completely self-inflicted. Should we feel sorry for a horribly shrieking guy who deliberately put his fingers into the door and than shut it tight? He is in genuine, terrible pain, his shrieks are ear-rending - yet we don’t need to feel bad for him. He voluntarily chose to be in pain, and he is fully free to liberate himself from it.

Likewise, should we feel sorry for the people who could have lived as well as any, had they chosen to have peace with their neighbor, but who chose instead the path of terrorism? Do they really need to fire rockets into Israel? Did they really need to kidnap an Israeli soldier and drag him into Gaza, free of Israelis for a full year now?

Yes, I know that, according to the Palestinians, “their land” is “occupied.” Yet a bit of reflection on the well-know facts of history would have helped them to disabuse themselves of that notion. They know full well that the Arabs conquered Palestine in 634, as part of Arab empire-building enterprise - yet the only lesson they draw from that fact is the pride in Arab prowess. But there is another lesson too to be learned - that, as any conquered piece of land, Palestine had pre-conquest owners, who can justifiably claim a title to it.

Spain used to be Arab land; for that matter, India used to be English land. So what? Does it mean that today’s Spain is occupied Arab land, or that today’s India is occupied English land? Not at all. Israel is no more an “occupied Arab land” than is Spain. Of course, Arab population in the West Bank - or Judea and Samaria - is a demographic reality, and the Israelis were fully prepared to acknowledge this by offering to turn over 95% of West Bank and 100% of Gaza to the Palestinian state.

In rejecting that offer and turning to violence, Palestinians became fully responsible for their suffering - just as the masochist is responsible for his; and the very real pain and suffering of the Palestinians deserves as little sympathy as the self-inflicted pain of the masochist - and for the very same reason.

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August 19, 2006
Naïve Russian girls and innocent nuclear scientists.

This story has repeated itself over and over again since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A young, pretty, innocent girl reads an ad that offers employment in the West. The salary is astronomical by the Russian standards; the employment conditions are wonderful; and there is a great opportunity to move to one of the most well-to-do countries of the world.

The girl’s parents, though saddened at the thought of parting, cannot but be thrilled by this golden opportunity for their beloved daughter. With sighs, tears, and promises to write every day, she takes leave of them and boards a plane that is to take her to the land of dreams.

The agency’s representative, a polite, good-looking and athletic young man, meets her at the airport and takes her to her room - but what a sudden, cruel, and utterly unexpected turn of events! He beats her, rapes her, takes away her passport and locks her up in a brothel!

What a reversal of fate! What a terrible loss of innocence, with no way out! After that, how can one believe in promises?

Easily, as it turns out - when the promised reward is sufficiently high. That girl’s story is well known in Russia - yet such ads keep popping up, and the young and pretty and innocent girls keep answering them. The promise shines so bright, that it blinds one to the fact that the prize may will be placed in a trap. The opportunity is so great, that it is unthinkable to let go of it.

Naïve Russian girls are not the only ones thinking this way. The grave men in the Russian government are as susceptible to the tempting offers as the young girls. Can the minister of nuclear energy decline an offer of $800,000,000 to build a nuclear reactor in Iran? Perish the thought! A lurking suspicion that Iranians may be trying to build a nuclear bomb - with calamitous consequences for the world - is quickly drowned in the blissful prospect of keeping the industry afloat.

Admittedly, it takes more to tempt a Russian nuclear minister than a Russian girl. But ultimately - and most unfortunately - each does have a price.

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August 12, 2006
Dear British Moslem Leaders.

Turning on the radio this morning, I was surprised by the news that British Moslem leaders published an “open letter”to Tony Blair, telling him that “his foreign policy in Iraq and on Israel offers ‘ammunition to extremists‘ and puts British lives ‘at increased risk‘.”

In other words - if you don’t want to suffer from terrorism, dear Brits and Americans, your foreign policy should be changed to make us, Moslems, happy. Else - your blood is on your hands. Be advised.

If this is not blackmail, what is? “Three of the four Muslim MPs, three of the four peers, and 38 organizations including the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain” who signed the letter apparently see no problem with the warped view of the world that fosters Islamic terrorism. They do not see a need to educate their co-religionists in basics of co-existence that is part and parcel of the culture of their host country. Rather, they demands the surrender of British foreign policy to anti-Western interests.

Well, dear British Moslem MPs, peers, organizations, and the rest. Next time your write an open letter, start with the basics. First, spell out the advantages of living in Britain to living in the Moslem Middle East. Unquestionably, British freedoms will top your list. If freedom is good, dear MPs, etc, than why descend to the lowest level of populism, why push for accommodating intolerant Middle Eastern mobs, brainwashed and frenzied by the fanatical, idolatrous clergy? If you do wish your fellow-Moslems well, why not help them out of the hole of debasement of human spirit in which they currently find themselves?

Why not show them that claiming their reading of Islam as “true faith” merely makes them engrossed in idol-worship? (for the problem of the third party denies us the ability to know whether any so-called “prophet” - Mohammed including - spoke to God or not; all “revealed” religions, Islam including, are built on the idolatrous fallacy of overstepping the human ability to know). Why not help them pull themselves into freedom - freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom from delusional promises of the bordello paradise for blowing themselves up. Now that you live in the West, dear MPs etc, please help advance human civilization. At the very least, don‘t blackmail it into surrender.

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July 14, 2006
Iran‘s tentacles.

The latest spasm of Middle-East violence caused many to comment that because Lebanon’s Hezbullah is being bankrolled by Iran and armed by Syria, there is a threat of the wider conflict if Israel turns to attacking those countries in order to completely rid itself of Hezbullah’s threat.

But why should Israel go on an all-out attack? I think the exact opposite is the case: just as Syria and Iran operates against Israel by proxies like Hamas and Hezbullah, so Iran and Syria are hit when their proxies are destroyed. In the current operation, Israel is clearly seeking to put Hezbullah out of commission, both by destroying its infrastructure and stores of munitions, and by forcing the Lebanese government to take charge of the country and put an end to Hezbullah’s militia. Once these objectives are accomplished, one tentacle of Iran, the one that is called “Hezbullah,” will be cut off for good. Which will sharply decrease Iran’s ability to operate at a distance just by pressing a “Hezbullah” button on its remote control.

And once Israel has the guts to give Hamas a similar treatment, another of Iran/Syria tentacles would fall off.

Piecemeal dismantling of the Iran treat may not sound glamorous, yet proceeding gradually is far better than doing nothing, and may in fact prove quite effective in providing local security and stability.

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July 14, 2006
Iraq alternatives: Vietnam - or North Korea?

Those advocating immediate withdrawal from Iraq cite as their rationale a fear that Iraq conflict may turn into another Vietnam - that is, into a war without end, but with mounting American casualties.

But there is another side to the Vietnam story: after Americans withdrew from Vietnam, nothing particularly terrible happened: Vietnam turned into an innocuous, stagnant Communist state that didn’t threaten anyone. In Vietnam, there were no major consequences to leaving the job undone.

Not so in the Korean conflict: the unfinished job festered into a major problem, all complete with nuclear weapons and development of their delivery systems. Iran was left to its own devices - to the similar effect.

Which facts should make us pause and think about alternatives we are now facing in Iraq. If Americans withdrew, what would be the result? Would Iraq follow the Vietnam model, or the North Korea one?

The guarantee of Vietnam-type consequences of American withdrawal would warrant a Vietnam-type withdrawal - and that is why the “Vietnam“ argument is so popular. But we should know by now that such outcome is far from assured, because there can be other kinds of consequences too: the North Korean one, or the Iranian. Which should give a pause to those shouting “Iraq is the next Vietnam!” Because what if, after the American withdrawal, Iraq turns not into a post-withdrawal Vietnam, but into the post-war North Korea?

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June 25, 2006
“Proportionate” v. “Adequate.”

If past instances of international reaction to Israel’s response to acts of Palestinian terrorism are to be a guide, we’ll sure hear a lot in the next few days about the need for “measured” and “proportionate” response to yesterday’s killing of two Israeli soldiers, the wounding of another two, and kidnapping of one.

But will a “proportionate” response solve the problem of terrorism? Will killing of two terrorists, wounding of another two, and abduction of one do the trick?

Of course not - because the warfare between the Israelis and the Palestinians is completely asymmetric: the Palestinians take that what the Israelis value - Israeli lives, and pay with what the Palestinians do not value - Palestinian lives. The exchange is that of perceived gold for perceived trash, and this being the case, there is no reason whatsoever for the Palestinians to stop.

So, the “proportionate” response to Palestinian terror, advocated by the governments and the press cannot possibly work - simply because it does not inflict on the Palestinians the pain proportionate to that felt by the Israelis. The “proportionate” response is, in fact, un-proportionate.

If the “proportionate” response does not work, is there a response that would?

Absolutely yes - a response that could be termed “adequate,” a response that would either render Palestinians unable to wage terrorism, or unwilling to do so - either because, as a result, they’d start losing what they actually value, or because they’d realize that the entire religious and ideological underpinning of the war against Israel and the West is false through and through.

The first option - rendering the Palestinians unable to commit acts of terror boils down to what is being called a “military solution.” Yes, I know - there is no military solution; except that, of course, there is one. Another way to make Palestinians reluctant to do terrorism is to start taking, in response to terror, that what the Palestinians actually do value. There is such a thing - land. Every day, officially annex one square mile of land currently occupied by the Palestinians for every Israeli killed or wounded, expelling the Palestinian population from that square mile, and name that square mile after the killed or wounded Israeli - and in a week it will dawn on the Palestinians that terrorism does not pay.

The second option is to attack the actual root cause of terrorism - the nationalistic and religious (or, more precisely, idolatrous) underpinnings of the terrorist mindset. Yes, this is tantamount to attacking the cherished religious beliefs - a no-no in our politically correct climate of multiculturalism - yet those cherished religious beliefs are built on such patiently false foundation, that it is no wonder that religion so easily lends itself to support of terrorism. Religion, Islam including (and not some mythological “perversion of Islam“) needs to be freely examined, and its tenets debunked. And the Arabs and Moslems need to be clearly told something they know all along, but refuse to recognize the implications of - that the lands they occupy were gained through conquest, through Arab “aggression and occupation,” and that they had owners before the Arabs. Rid terrorists of their sense of entitlement and of the idolatrous certainty that they possess “true faith” - and the terrorism is gone.

Are such measures “proportionate?” Yes, they are proportionate to the task of ending the terrorism. And fully “adequate,” too.

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June 15, 2006
Both Hitler and Churchill.

Symmetry is beautiful. Part of the mesmerizing effect of seeing a person of stunning beauty is due to the perfect symmetry of face and figure. Much of the beauty perceived in the works of art, architecture and music comes from the symmetry of construction. Asymmetry just jars the eye.

But the lovers and the artists are not the only ones who are enthralled by symmetry. Press, political analysts and government officials are enamored of it, too. Read many an editorial on the Middle East conflict, for example - and the reference to “both sides“ will jump at you, either leaving you satisfied with impartiality of our press in the case you do not follow the events editorialized about, or, in case you do, making you disgusted by the cynicism of equating the right with the wrong.

There are several reasons why it is so very convenient to go the symmetry route.

First of all, it is dismissive, and relieves us from the need to understand the nitty-gritty of underlying issues. Why bother examining the actual claims of the contestants, if they both are at fault? Ignorance is bliss - and claiming symmetry in a remote conflict allows us to stay blissfully aloof.

Secondly, it makes us appear fair-minded, because, when “both sides” are at fault, there is no need to take sides.

And, finally, it allows us to feel like superior creatures who stand above the fray and look down condescendingly, if not contemptuously, at the equally guilty, equally savage parties. Where there is no emotional involvement, there can be no empathy for either side; at best, all we can give “both sides“ is cold, superior detachment of a courtroom judge.

There is a big problem with this “both sides” approach, however. Thought convenient, it does nothing to help resolve conflicts. If anything, denying that one side is right and another is wrong only helps to prolong the warfare, death, and misery.

Of course, other peoples’ problems are no problems. Only in our own quarrels symmetry does not apply, only here is there right and wrong. But unless we are willing to deny the others equal humanity, we should admit that their concerns are as legitimate to them as ours are to us.

“Both Hitler and Churchill” is a good position - unless, of course, the case is indeed that of Hitler and Churchill. And many conflicts which we like to blame on “both sides” are equally one-sided, generated by religious, political, or ideological ambitions that can be clearly shown to be wrong. Perhaps it would be better if, instead of diplomatically sitting on a fence and appealing to “both sides,“ we help end conflicts by taking a clear position, and allowing the side that we perceive to be in the right, to decisively win, and end the bloodbath.

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May 28, 2006
Hearst on boycott.

As a vote by British educators on whether to boycott Israeli teachers gets closer, opinions on the subject multiply. A typical one is professor Neuberger's highly articulate Jeremiad based on his experience as a visiting professor at Oxford, which vividly describes the anti-Israeli atmosphere at that venerable institution. What appears to particularly rile him, is the double-standard he witnessed while there. Egregious human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia, Syria and China were left unscathed, while Israel got more than a lion's share of indignation.

While it is not unreasonable to attribute such double standard to anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism, as is the common approach of those commenting on the issue, I would suggest that such explanation is, if not simplistic, than at least very incomplete. Drilling down on the logic of such double-standard reveals much more than trivial anti-Semitism; far more importantly, calls for a boycott lay bare the unsightliness - not to say ugly inhumanity - of the very foundations of the so-called "multiculturalism."

Because the good and kind British teachers do only what is natural to all nice people - they perceive an injustice, and cry out. Why do they not cry out against the Saudi and other abuses, as complained by the professor? One theory is, that they are anti-Semitic, and so focuss only on the Jews. But it could also be, that they simply don't perceive Saudi, etc. behavior as abuse; that they see it as natural.

Remember William Randolph Hearst's pithy definition of a sensation? "Sensation is not when a dog bites a man, it is when a man bites a dog." Mr. Hearst was so absolutely right - we do hold dogs and people to a different standards; and we never comment on normal behavior. Biting a man is a natural behavior in a dog, and should be left without a comment; biting a dog is not a natural behavior in a man, and deserves a huge headline.

This may be the reason why it does not occur to the good people of Oxford to protest the abuses which appall the professor: by pigeonholing people into different "cultures," they get rid of the absolutes. An act of killing is not universally bad - it depends on the culture. What the Saudis do is ok for the Saudis to do - but not ok for the Israelis to do. That's the reason for the double standard.

If so, Israelis are held to a higher standard not so much because of anti-Semitism, but simply because they are unconsciously perceived as being on a higher plane of civilization. It is not expected of the Israelis to bite; but Saudis, Chinese and their ilk are treated as mere savages - as the dogs to whom biting is just second nature. And campus tensions and newspaper headlines merely reflect that attitude.

Underlying all the talk of boycott is a subconscious perception of inherent inferiority of people of non-Western "cultures," who thus appear not to deserve being treated on the European standard. Such de-humanization of a vast chunk of humanity is, to think about it, a natural outcome of the dismissal of absolutes that is inherent in the very notion of "multiculturalism."

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May 25, 2006
Congo and the Palestine.

After a two-year long hiatus in the talk about "Palestinian state" caused by the failure of the Middle East's "road map to peace" that was supposed to lead to a "two-state solution" of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Olmert's plan to unilaterally demark borders and impose on the Palestinians their own state set the tongues a-wagging and pens a-writing again.

The reason for all this spewing of words is the concern for the geographical shape of the resulting Palestinian state. In today's editorial, the New York Times is worried that the Palestinian state will not be "viable;" editors' frustration apparently based on the assumption that if "viable," a Palestinian state will not be prone to engage in violence against Israel.

Which - with no respect due to the New York Times - is just so much hogwash.

Why? Just look at two countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Monaco, for an answer. The former, a manifestly "viable" state - huge country awash in natural resources. The latter is manifestly "non-viable," occupying but a few square miles of land.

Now, to the editors of the New York Times - or to the diplomats and politicians who insist that the Palestinian state must only be "viable" (viability manifested, of course, by it being within the '67 borders) - the question of which of the two - the Congo or Monaco - is the happier land, must appear just stupid. Of course, the Congo is the paradise on Earth, while Monaco is just one piece of misery.

Well, Dear Editors, you have it completely wrong. The situation is exactly the opposite. Congo is a miserable, war-torn place, while Monaco is one of the best places to live in on the face of the Earth.

And here is why: the motivations to wage the war or to live in peace are lodged in our mind, not in the material conditions in which we live. You will be violent if you put yourself into the violent frame of mind, and peaceful if you don't - no matter what size your property is. Citizens of Congo find many reasons to wage war; citizens of Monaco find it best to engage in trade; and so Congo, for all its natural wealth, is miserable; and Monaco, for all its tiny size, enjoys freedom and prosperity.

It's all in the mind. Once the Palestinians examine their own history, to discover that Palestine is "Arab land" only because of the past Arab "aggression and occupation," and that the land they claim exclusively their own had millennia-long history that preceded the Arabs - the Palestinians will lose the bizarre perception that the cause of destruction of Israel is based on some historical "right."

And when they give a thought to a fact that, because of the problem of the third party, they cannot possibly know whether Mohammed was a prophet and whether Koran is God's word, they will realize that Islam is just a religion like any other one, not some superior "True faith" - and that the non-Moslems are not religiously inferior to the Moslems, the religious (or, to be more precise, idolatrous) motivation to wage "Islamic resistance" and "jihad" will disappear too.

Only than, with their minds cleared of idolatrous, violence-fostering "Truth," will the Palestinians become peaceful - and their state will be "viable," no matter what its geographic configuration.

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May 10, 2006
Quarteters and misers.

Aesop tells us of a miser who, being afraid he'd spend his money, melted all his gold coin into one hunk of gold and hid it in the forest. This way, he was sure, the treasure would remain his forever.

But is it possible for the one so deeply in love to stay away from the object of his desire? Every day he would go into the forest, dig out his lump of gold, and ogle and caress it. Needless to say, one day someone spotted him at his ecstasies, and the next morning he learned that his beloved was gone.

Lamentations at the tragic loss were beyond human descriptive powers. Hearing loud screams in the thick of the forest, a passer-by rushed in, imagining a savage beast attacking a small child, the mother striving in vain to defend it. But no – it was just an old man, wailing and crying near a little hole in the ground. “O dearest! O beloved! Gone! Gone forever!” “Whom did you lose?” asked the traveler, perplexed at the absence of signs of a bloody struggle. “Gold! My gold!” was the reply, half-stifled by disconsolate sobs of the old man, so unraveled by his grief that he rolled out to the utter stranger the story of his love, ecstasy and loss. “You know what you should do?” said the listener – “Just hide a stone there – since you were not spending the gold, you did not really have it, as it is only through spending it that gold becomes useful. A useless stone would serve your purposes just as well.”

Which sage advice is fully applicable to the Middle East Quartet. Bankrolling the Palestinians made the Quarteters confident that they got leverage – and when the Palestinians elected Hamas and it was time to use the leverage of withholding the aid, the Quartet found itself unable to do it. Love of the Palestinians – no matter what – being the major tenet of a European's religion, Europeans found it just as hard to have their purse strings tied, as Aesop’s miser to have his loosened. When it came time to spend – the gold in one case, the leverage in the other – there was an unbearable psychological pain. To soothe it, the miser rendered his coinage useless – as did the Quartet to its “leverage,” by breaking down in tears at the very thought of making the Palestinian dears act responsibly, and finding a way to get around their own rules, so as to experience ecstasy of the highest order in the process of opening the floodgates of cash upon the Palestinians.

Aesop’s miser didn’t have any money even while holding a hunk of gold in his hands; for all the millions that they wield, the Quarteters have no leverage over the Palestinians. But psychology is a tricky thing, and self-deception is a good cure for its pain. A piece of rock made the miser happy again; and the Quarteters will no doubt find consolation too, even as their utter failure of willpower has been openly revealed to the entire world.

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May 5, 2006
Israel and democracy.

It is election time, and parties are geared up for political battle. An issue at stake is what to do with a large hunk of land right in the middle of the country. The Fire party advocates using it to generate energy, by setting it on fire. The Water party, on the other hand, vehemently objects to such brutal industrialization; it wants to build there a recreation area by filling that valley with water, and turning it into a beautiful lake.

Because small parties also participate in the elections, neither of the big contestants gets over half of the vote, and so, according to the law of the land, the winner must rule in coalition with the party that lost. After protracted and bitter coalition talks, the new government is formed, with ministerial portfolios split according to the main interest of the parties. The Fire party gets the ministry of Industry; the Water party, that of Recreations. The minister of Industry orders the fires set in the valley; the minister of Recreations organizes pumping water into it.

Net result of the election? Politicians of both parties win – because they participate in the government, and carry important titles (and get appropriate perks) – but the public is cheated, big time. Why? Because it gets neither energy nor fun, but just so much useless vapor out of this democratic exercise.

Which is invariably the case in Israeli elections. They are strange affairs – not because of the multitude of parties, platforms, causes and ideas, but because Israel’s executive branch of government is supposed to represent views of the totality of population, not just of its majority at the time of the elections; so there is no separation between the legislative and the executive branches. It is precisely as if, in the US, it were constitutionally impossible to have a Democratic president while Republicans had a majority in the House. It is as if the Cabinet seats were to be filled only by the senior members of Congress – people with their own power base (who, into the bargain, had no accountability to constituents at all, having been elected not by their districts, but by the country as a whole), with some half of the secretaries in sharp ideological disagreement with the President – and the President unable to fire them without triggering a new election, and afraid to contradict them for fear they would resign.

Six years ago, two elections were held within a couple of months of each other. Americans voted 50:50 – and they got a government. Israelis voted 75:25 – and the next day’s headlines read, “Will Sharon be able to govern?”

You call this a democracy? I wouldn’t. It is a democracy when the majority roles; when everyone is at the helm, it is anarchy. Sure, the process of producing such government is democratic all right – but not the result. No one argues that Israel is not a free country, but its political system is not democratic. Each minister is pulling in his own direction; one setting fire, another pouring water. Americans tried that route of full representation in the executive branch too – by making a winner of presidential race a President, and the loser a Vice-President, but quickly discovered that such arrangement simply does not work. Hard as it is to learn from another’s mistakes, Israelis would be wise to consider American experience. And by now, Israelis have made more than enough blunders of their own to realize that they better start thinking.

Anarchy may sound nice and just, but it is neither nice nor just in its substance. Yes, democracy doesn’t promise both the fire and the water at the same time, as anarchy does; it forces you to choose either the one or the other – which, in fact, is far better that going the way of anarchy, and spending on both the fire and the water – only to get smoke and vapors in return.

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April 23, 2006
Arabs and mirrors.

A certain person of considerable notoriety, who lived some two thousand years ago and declared that the new age of love and forgiveness should replace the old one of severe justice, had at times contradicted himself by talking in exactly the stern Old testament metaphor he claimed to have opposed. More than once, he rather unkindly suggested that a critic of any action should look into a mirror and judge himself by the same standards by which he judges the others. Observing a crowd that was just about to meter out the punishment allotted by the Mosaic law to a lady caught in a situation not exactly befitting a lady, he put a mirror in front of the crowd – and at one glance into that mirror, the crowd suddenly stopped in its tracks and melted away. On another occasion, he recommended to those who’ve spotted a speck in their neighbor’s eye, and were eager to appraise the neighbor of the fact, to first look in the mirror – so as not to miss a perhaps much, much bigger one in their own.

Though dissonant with his message of forgiveness, and deeply Old-testamental in its emphasis on austere justice, there is no denying that this approach is not unfair. While our indignation at the actions of the others can reach feverish pitch, we tend to be much more lenient towards ourselves, and we drastically lower the standards when it comes to examining our own behavior.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an exhibit A of this tendency. Arab vocabulary is red-hot with righteous indignation. “Aggression and occupation,” “imperialist colonization,” “stolen Arab land,” “oppression of indigenous population,” “right of return of the refugees” are typical samples of Arab vocabulary.

But let’s place a mirror in front of the Arabs, and see what it would show. “Aggression and occupation”? Well, isn’t that precisely how the Arabs came to possess the lands outside of the Arabian peninsula? Starting a campaign of conquest (or “Arab aggression and occupation”) from what is now Saudi Arabia in about 634 CE, and stopping only when defeated in France and Byzantium, within less than a century Arabs were in possession of the whole of North Africa, of Spain, and of a chunk of Asia stretching to India’s border. When Rome conquered Spain, Palestine, and other lands, it was called “Roman empire.” Seven centuries later, Arabs conquered Spain, Palestine, and other lands – so this time around we have an “Arab empire.” “Imperialist colonization” is thus taken care of – to become “Arab imperialist colonization.”

“Stolen Arab land?” Let’s add numeric qualifiers to the term “Arab land,” demarking the dates when a particular piece of land become “stolen” by the Arabs, and when it was taken back: Palestine is “Arab land 634 –1948,” Spain is “Arab land 710-1490”; France would have became “Arab land” in 732 – along with the rest of the Western Europe, one suspects, but that Charles Martell stole it from Arabs by defeating the Arab invasion in the battle of Tours; Eastern Europe would have turned into “Arab land” in 717 – if not for the emperor Leo III of Byzantium, who stole from them that particular hunk of the globe by crushing the advancing Arab army. “Oppression of indigenous population?” – don’t forget that there are two groups, not one, that claim a title of the “indigenous population” in that area; not only the Arabs (634 –1948) but also the Jews (2000 BC – 200 CE, and 1948-present). As to the “right of return of the refugees” – isn’t Saudi Arabia – the hub of the Arab empire – a proper place for that?

But this ignores the religious aspect of the problem, it may be argued. There is, after all, a fundamental difference between the Arabs and the Romans – or all other non-Moslems, for that matter. Not all “aggressions and occupations” are created equal. Mohammed is the Seal of the prophets; while the Romans did not have the True Faith, the Arabs do – and when they conquer lands, they not just enlarge their territory, but, far more importantly, expand the habitat of the Truth. See the difference? So here: once a Moslem land, always a Moslem land.

Sorry, but this is just idolatry, pure and simple. The problem of the third party denies us the ability to know whether a divine revelation happened; all prophets, Mohammed including, are merely alleged prophets, merely “may be or may be not” prophets. We are blocked from knowing whether a prophecy occurred – and when we claim to know, we commit idol-worship.

So what would Hamasers and their ilk see the mirror? They’d see blood-smeared idolaters, raging and raving about justice, not noticing that their “justice” is aimed only at perpetuating Arab “aggression and occupation,” “imperialist colonization,” and “oppression of indigenous population.”

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April 16, 2006
Bravery and the New York Times.

Is it possible for the same person to be a hero in one set of circumstances, and a coward in the other? Usually not. Bravery is a pretty consistent trait.

But stepping back from the danger is not necessarily a sign of cowardliness. Prudence, after all, is the better part of valor.

These thoughts floated in my mind as I listened this morning to the report that the New York Times got a Pulitzer Prize for blowing the lid on the NSA’s eavesdropping program. This was a clear-cut example of bravery – given that the President personally pressured the publisher to block publication of the report.

So, where did “cowardliness” come from? Well, we only know the stories that have been reported, not the ones that were not. And I know of one that is far more important than that of the NSA, on which the NY Times took the path of – well, prudence.

Perhaps the issue was, in fact, minor? If our free speech rights are unimportant, than – that’s right. But I think that the fact that the great majority of Americans are denied free speech rights – via official regulations – is huge news indeed.

Judge for yourself: if you write a book, you’ll find it next to impossible to get it published – unless you have the connections. And if you do it yourself – your book will be laughed off as a “vanity publication,” as a mere “book-like object.” It will not be reviewed, stocked by the bookstores, placed on library shelves. Your contribution to the public debate will be left unheard; your voice will be stifled – so as to protect the big publisher’s turf and his ability to make money. Free speech? If you see it, than you have a really strong microscope.

Why did the NY Times ignore this story (which was to be focused on my lawsuit against the Library of Congress for the government’s role in this charade*), for all my letters to Edward Wyatt, its correspondent who writes on the publishing industry’s lawsuits, and my personal pleas with Sam Sifton, the paper’s culture editor? The answer is simple – publishing the story would ignite the ire of big publishers who advertise in the paper. They’d pull the ads, and the paper would be hit in the pocketbook. This is so different from the consequences of reporting on the NSA, so much less prudent. It is better to show the better part of valor here – and step back. Prudence is a better policy. Some may use the word “cowardliness” as more adequate – but it is such an ugly word – and so dissonant with a Pulitzer Prize…

* Read the papers filed in Overview Books v US

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April 15, 2006
Iran pundits.

A dozen years ago a friend of mine got obsessed with computers. New software needed to be purchased; any new gadget had to be tried. His room was a computer lab rather than a living room. And on his door, where others would have had their name, he attached a cartoon – on the subject of computers. It showed a computer user, standing in front of a pc with a blank screen and telling a technician, “It was suggested to me that the computer might be simply unplugged. But this strikes me as too simple and unimaginative.”

Abhorrence of simplicity is rampant in our age of sophistication. One class of people who just cannot abide it is political pundits. They make quite a good living by scratching deep beneath the surface, by reading between the lines, by showing that no word means what it says. Nothing is simple; everything has double, triple or quadruple meaning: one for supporters, another for opponents; one for domestic audience, another for the foreigners. Every sentence is to be parsed to distill its true, hidden purpose.

I don’t suggest that this never makes sense, but the habit is being carried to the point of making us unable to take a political statement at its face value. A dual meaning has to be found, whether intended or not. When Mr. Ahmadinedjad, the president of Iran, repeatedly expressed a wish to wipe Israel off the map, the pundits jumped in and deciphered the meaning of hateful words to everyone’s relief and satisfaction. Iranian president was simply rallying the base; he was trying to advance Iran’s prestige in the Moslem world, putting Iran at the forefront of Islamic community; his rhetoric was but showing off of an inexperienced politician.

May be; but there is another explanation that is commonly ignored by the pundits as too simple and unimaginative, and thus going against the very core of punditry – that Mr. Ahmadinedjad simply said what he meant. Simple as it is, this explanation may be quite adequate, for at times simple explanations are quite adequate. Such, at least, was the case of the computer problem in my friend’s cartoon – upon its close inspection, one could see electric plug lying idly on the floor. And, likewise, there is no need to get too imaginative with the words emanating from the one as full of idolatrous Truth as is Mr. Ahmadinedjad.

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April 14, 2006
Iran’s assurances.

Fascinating discussions about Iran’s nuclear intentions abound. On April 14, Jim Lehrer’s News Hour interviewed two Iran experts. Iran’s side was represented by William Beeman, a professor of anthropology at Brown University, according to whom there is nothing to worry about, because (1) Iran’s government says that its program is strictly peaceful and (2) Iran’s religious authorities declared the nuclear bomb un-Islamic.

Sounds good – yet, let’s take a look. Here are two scenarios. Scenario one: Iran does not intend to develop a bomb. What will Iranian government say? “Our program is strictly peaceful.” Scenario two: Iran does work on a bomb. What will Iran say it that case? “Our program is strictly peaceful.” Why so? Because the moment they declare, “we are making a bomb,” sanctions are slapped, facilities come under attack, regime is toppled.

So what does Iran’s statement “Our program is strictly peaceful” mean? That Iran either works on the bomb, or does not. If the Iranians said nothing on the subject, what would it mean? Same thing – that Iran either works on the bomb, or does not. So, does it make any difference what Iran says on the subject? No. Should we, therefore, take into consideration Iran’s pronouncements? Not really.

Next, to the pronouncements of Iran’s religious leaders. Because of the problem of the third party, anything and everything can be declared God’s will, to the satisfaction of the declarer. A few years ago, the chief Egyptian cleric declared suicide bombings un-Islamic. Did it stop them? Turn on your radio to hear the answer. Why did his declaration produce no practical effect? Because, while his research into the matter was satisfactory to him, suicide bombers and their supporters did their own research – which showed beyond the shadow of doubt that suicide bombings are Islamic all right. Because of the problem of the third party, whatever one thinks is True Religion, is True Religion. So, when it suited Iran, its religious scholars declared the bomb un-Islamic. When the opposite will suit them, they’ll declare the bomb to be Islamic all right.

Some things are important, others are not worth paying attention to. The assurances of the Iranian government and clergy clearly belong in the latter category. Professor Beeman would be well advised to learn some logic – and some religion – before making his statements.

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April 11, 2006
Ayatollahs and children.

Observe the hypocrisy of American ways. Everyone is equal, you say? Yet, one half of Americans can vote, another cannot. One half allowed having firearms, not the other. One half can have the matches, another cannot.

Even worse, no one steps ahead to rectify the injustice. ACLU is mum on the subject. No law suits, no righteously indignant opinion pieces. For once, everyone is in agreement: children are not entitled to what the grown ups are.

Is this because children are small, weak, and dependent that they can be treated like this? Or is there something specific about being a child that makes them ineligible for all grown ups’ rights?

Such is the case indeed: young children have a sense of reality which is so limited and warped that, if given free reign, they will quickly wreck havoc on the world. Give them the matches – and houses will go up in flames; give them the guns – and their parents, sibling and neighbors will be shot dead.

This not because they are terrible monsters, but simply because they did not yet live long enough, have not yet acquired the experience to understand the consequences of their actions – or to understand the implications of the consequences. The house may be burned to cinders, but a good fairy will restore it in no time; mommy and daddy may be… but let’s not proceed.

But what if the rulers of a powerful country have the same warped sense of reality? What if their perception of what is right and what is wrong tells them that it is right to annihilate a neighboring country, and wrong to let it live in peace? What if they are sure that in a nuclear exchange, their dead will be translated into the paradise, to enjoy pure virgins forever and ever, while the adversary’s dead will wind up in hell – and so a nuclear exchange is not just of a great advantage, but is in fact mandated by God? What if their idolatrous Truth commands them to push the nuclear button?

Or, to put it more simply, do Iranian ayatollahs differ from the children? They don’t. Their sense of reality is as warped; they are as innocently ready to do terrible things; their understanding of the consequences is as fanciful.

The only difference is – ayatollahs have beards, children have none; children may want matches, ayatollahs want an atom bomb; children act out of innocence, ayatollahs out of idolatry. But as far as the consequences of actions are concerned, there is no difference whatsoever between the children and the ayatollahs. And just as the former should not be allowed to get a hold of the matches, the letter should not be allowed to get a nuclear bomb.

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April 6, 2006
2+2, or democracy in the Middle East.

Let’s have a vote. How many of you think that 2+2 is 4, how many that it is less than 4, how many that it is more?

What a stupid suggestion, I hear you say. Can there be a difference of opinion here? What’s there to vote about?

It is a humbling experience to stand corrected like that. But you are right – when there can be no controversy, there can be no voting; in math, democracy does not exist.

But how about other areas of human experience? We hear a lot about spreading democracy in the Middle East, for example – how’s that supposed to work? How do we push democracy on them? Will the elections do the trick, as the US administration seems to suggest?

Well, as we know by now, the key question to ask is – where do Middle Easterners differ in opinions? The philosophy of the place seems to be – all exists for God’s sake, there is no God but God, Mohammed is His Prophet. This is the Truth. Every aspect of life stems from that. Questions? What, you have questions? Hey, look, he has questions! What, questions? How perverse! How unnatural! How abominable! Off with his head!

This is an atmosphere of certainty that is hardly conducive to democracy, which, as we’ve just discovered, is based on existence of the difference of opinions.

And there is plenty of ground to have different views, in the Middle East just as everywhere else. The problem of the third party outlaws the central tenet of Middle Easterner’s philosophy – the certainty of Mohammed’s prophethood. Take that away, and you’ve pulled the rug from under his entire worldview; you’ve wrecked the whole edifice of mathematical certainty of religious and social life. All of a sudden, nothing is certain, everything is open to doubt and debate. Questions are legit. There can be – and should be – a difference of opinion. Suddenly, there is something to vote against, and to vote for. Elections make sense. There is a ground for democracy indeed.

And so, to spread democracy we need to change peoples’ perceptions of reality, not just impose on them some artificial rules. If we are to spread democracy, we should not be afraid to uncover fallacies even when they underpin the very foundations of “culture” and “identity.” Spreading democracy simply by demanding elections, as the US administration is trying to do now, is nothing more then asking to vote on the value of 2+2.

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April 4, 2006
Of yachts, cartoons, and dilemmas of political correctness

You are rich, young, handsome and well-disposed to your fellow-creatures. The world is full of sights to see, of places to explore. You are in your comfortable yacht, the skies are smiling at you, the ocean beckons, promising new discoveries. Indeed, you see land on the horizon, where your map tells you there should be just clear ocean for miles and miles. Intrigued, you decide to explore.

The natives are already at the shore to welcome you. All are well-mannered, all lay some tropical fruit at your feet as a sign of good-will. The chief of the tribe hugs and kisses you, the head priest offers his blessing. Well-satisfied with the friendly intentions of the locals, you decide to stay for a while and study their customs.

As you observe them, you are surprised at how little they know about lands beyond their little island. You notice that their boats never leave the sight of their homes. You realize that they never saw a foreigner before, and it comes as a real shock to you to learn that they think you came from the Moon.

You explain to them that they got your nationality wrong, that you are in fact a fellow-inhabitant of their own planet. That just can’t be, they tell you. It is a well-known fact that the Earth ends five miles from the island, and if you are to cross that line, you will just fall over the edge, and will be lost. This was revealed a thousand years ago by the greatest prophet who ever graced the Earth; he learned this directly from God. This great truth is recited ten times a day, and has been set to music in numerous hymns. The chief temple, a venerable structure built some nine hundred years ago, is shaped like a disk, to reflect the true form of the Earth. Beautiful inscriptions on the temple’s walls record for eternity the words of the Prophet; chanting them never stops.

Well, you are obviously faced with a dilemma. What should you do? Should you, in accordance with the commandments of political correctness, in whose temple you were brought up, respect their religious feelings and let them proceed with their worship? Or should you correct their obvious error, even though it will cause them pain as you – of necessity – insult their deeply held beliefs and deal a death blow to the thousand-year-old culture?

The reader may interrupt me here to tell me that this is simply a wrong allegory. Religious beliefs can’t be proven true or false as if they were a mere fact of physical reality. Attacks on one’s religion result in personal insult to the believer; they cannot prove his religion wrong but can only enrage him. Mohammed cartoons did not, and could not prove Islam wrong – they just inflamed the Moslems.

If applied specifically to the case of the cartoons, this is quite true; but cartoons, of course, did not have an aim of somehow disproving Islam; they were simply a test of the freedom of speech. But the overall theses that a religion has no rational of factual basis to it, and therefore can’t be rationally scrutinized, criticized and, in fact, de-legitimized, is patiently false.

Because all religions are based on some historical fact, or rather, some alleged historical fact. Three major western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are all based on divine revelations to specific individuals. And how are we to know that these revelations actually occurred? Well, here a major fact of reality, a fact that is just as tangible and real as the spherical shape of the Earth comes into play – the problem of the third party. And it is unequivocal – we can’t possibly know. Period. As far as we are concerned – and there is no other way for us to approach this than from an “as far as we are concerned” point of view – all prophets are merely alleged prophets; all prophets are only “may be or may be not prophets.”

Which fact, applied to the Mohammed cartoons brouhaha, completely re-defines it. All this sound and fury – not to mention murder – were in reality not about cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, but cartoons of “may be or may be not prophet” Mohammed. Because uncertainty of Mohammed’s – just as any other person’s – prophethood is as real as the fact that the Earth is a globe, there is simply nothing here to be insulted with; the whole scene of outrage was just much ado about nothing. And so the dilemma of our traveler is present even in world’s reaction to Mohammed cartoons – the dilemma of whether to embrace the reality even if it entails destruction of a “culture,” or whether to let the “culture” thrive at the price of ignoring the reality.

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April 2, 2006
Greeks, Arabs, and stones

Throughout history, people have shown two reactions when faced with the unknown: curiosity and fear. When curiosity is predominant, the unknown object is examined, studied, and the opinion of its properties is added to the current store of human knowledge. When fear is the prime reaction, we try to propitiate the force behind the unknown by our submissiveness, by showing that we know our place, by blocking any attempt to get closer to the mystery. A taboo is placed around the mysterious object to prevent any act of intrusiveness, so as to placate the forces behind the unknown.

Fearless curiosity was a trait of the ancient Greeks, the trait they bequeathed to the western culture. When a stone from the heaven landed in a Greek river in about 467 b. c., it caused Athenian philosopher Anaxagoras to examine it and speculate that stars were made of red-hot rock. But when another one landed in the Arabian peninsula, the reaction from the local populace was markedly different – not curiosity, but awe and reverence; the stone was made a taboo, an object of worship and pilgrimage to its location in Mecca – which continues to this day.

This reverential attitude towards objects takes a grimly grotesque turn when human lives are being sacrificed to it. In the on-going Palestinian-Israeli conflict, another stone, this time in Jerusalem, is the focus of bloody strife. It is a stone from which Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven – and when Ariel Sharon visited the site of the ancient Jewish temple in September 2000, he came into its close proximity. As a result, an intifada erupted that killed over a thousand Israelis, and maimed thousands more.

While the need to kill people for standing next to a stone may be obvious to the Arabs, it is not at all clear to a Greek. His question is: what exactly happened to the stone when Sharon stood near it? Some horribleirreversible damage must have been done to it, to justify all the orgy of murder that followed. Perhaps before Sharon’s visit, Mohammed indeed ascended from this stone to heaven – but not after Sharon’s visit? Perhaps before Sharonstopped by, anyone stepping on that stone immediately found himself visiting heaven, but once Sharon stood near it, the stone lost this magical spaceship quality, understandably causing the rage of Palestinian heaven-tourists?

The bottom line is – is this stone considered holy because it is holy, or is it holy because it is considered holy? It will take a lot of explaining to prove the former – and if the latter is the case, we are dealing here with a bad case ofidolatrous stone-worship of the most primitive kind – and we need to say it loud and clear.

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March 28, 2006
Hamas, Israel, and pork

President Putin of Russia feels bad for the Israelis. They miss so much on the food scene. Pork is delicious, yet they don’t eat it. To help them out, he calls Israel’s prime minister to Moscow to convince him to adopt dietary ways of the world. A parade of pigs, all wearing nice pink dresses and oinking harmoniously to an accompaniment of an orchestra, cannot fail to convince the visitor. A lecture by a world-renowned nutritionist is on the program, too. And finally, it is explained that, once Israelis start eating pork, their country will become a truly full-fledged member of the international community.

But this is a wasted effort. Israelis depart unconvinced of the need to mend their dietary ways, to the disappointment of the host and of the international community. But, not to surrender to pessimism, the world is assured that Israeli thinking just needs time to change. Ultimately, they will come to realize that they should eat pork.

You never heard of that? I got it all wrong? Mr. Putin was not trying to convince the Israeli government, but the newly elected Palestinian government of Hamas? It was not the Jewish religious law that Mr. Putin was trying to challenge, but the Moslem one – the notion that once a Moslem land, always a Moslem land, so even though Palestine was Jewish for millennia, and the Arabs came to possess it through conquest, it must stay forever Moslem, and Israel has no right to exist?

I may have gotten it wrong on the details, but certainly not on the substance. Is there a difference between convincing the Jews to eat pork, and convincing Hamas to accept legitimacy of Israel? Isn’t the act essentially the same, of altering a way of thinking that is deeply rooted in religious tradition, on the grounds that a change would be of pragmatic benefit?

One doubts it will succeed. But you know what – it may. Why don’t the Jews eat pork? Because pigs don’t chew cud – or do chew it, I forgot which. But, as Mr. Darwin tells us, animals constantly evolve. If pigs grow wings, they will no longer eat what they eat now; and may become permitted food under the Jewish law. So there is no need, after all, to lose hope. Let us not despair but keep throwing money at the Palestinians, Hamas or no Hamas, to our heart’s content. If there is a hope that the Jews will eat pork, why abandon hope that Hamas will recognize Israel’s right to exist? This may happen, when pigs fly.

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