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Monthly Archives: December 2010

Our Big Fat Moroccan Wedding

December 28th, 2010 - 5:00 am

Our son Daniel (aka Lt Ledeen, USMC, based in Okinawa) is in the midst of week-long events that will culminate in the wedding ceremony on Thursday afternoon here in Jerusalem.  He is marrying  Natalie Almog, a woman born and raised in Houston.  They both attended Rice University, met and fell in love there, and so here we are:  Daniel, daughter Simone, son Gabriel, Barbara and me, delighting in fabulous sunny weather in one of the world’s truly magical cities.

Why Jerusalem?  Because Natalie’s dad, Avner, grew up on a kibbutz along with seven — or is it eight — siblings, and while he went to America and married a Texan woman, Rose, the others stayed here and so the bulk of the bride’s family are in Israel.  The elders came to Israel from Morocco in the forties, part of the huge but rarely remarked exodus of North African Jews after the Second World War.  So this wedding is very different from the typical North or Central European ceremony most Americans are used to.  It’s Sephardic, not Ashkenazi, and it’s very Moroccan.  Last night we participated in the Henna Ceremony, at which bride, groom, and immediate family members dress in traditional robes (and for me, a big fez), and put a circular patch of Henna on the palm of their right hand.  That mark will stay with us for several weeks  (I hope TSA won’t ask a lot of pointed questions when we come back).  It wards off the evil eye, and initiates wild music, dancing, ululating and of course eating and drinking.

Lots of noise.  No quiet conversation, if you see what I mean.  Very little sitting.  An incredible intensity.  And it’s just the beginning.

In the next few days, there will be ritual baths for bride and groom, a formal marriage contract negotiated by me and Avner, a fast for Daniel, and then the ceremony.

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I was reading an account of the Iranian regime’s crackdowns on some of its most talented citizens, and was struck by the author’s claim that the incarceration of the great Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi was worse than the 2001 destruction of the giant Bamiyan statues of Buddha in Afghanistan in the Spring of 2001, about six months before 9/11.  Panahi was sentenced to five years in jail and twenty years of internal exile, during which he is forbidden to practice his art.  Inevitably, I thought of the dual urgency that drives ideological regimes: to take control of the past and to bend the imagination of their subjects to accept the doctrines of the rulers, no matter how preposterous those doctrines.

Orwell’s famous victim in 1984 finally agrees that black is really white (or the reverse?), and if he tried to make a movie suggesting that human vision was accurate, even in conflict with Big Brother’s proclamations–even when they changed from one day to the next–he’d have been treated just like Panahi.

It is all part of rewriting the past in order to control the future.  Just as the Taliban blew up several Buddhas, so the mullahs in Iran are eliminating references to Ancient Persia in contemporary texts, and are trying to convince young Iranians that their country’s history begins with the Islamic conquest.

It won’t work, of course;  you can’t hide all that information in this day and age.  But it tells us two things of great importance:  history is very important, and the rulers of Iran are just the Farsi-speaking versions of Mullar Omar and the Taliban.  Iran’s great history and culture are in other hands.

The New Holocaust

December 22nd, 2010 - 9:07 am

I’ve been meaning for some time to praise Giulio Meotti’s very moving and in many ways unique book on Jewish and Israeli victims of the post-9/11 killing spree, which he calls A New Shoah.

He was driven to write this book because of his belief that this generation’s victims must be remembered, and he thought it was appropriate for a non-Jewish European to undertake that sad but significant task. And so there it is, in more detail than he or we really wanted to know, but the details are what matter to serious historians, and so they are welcome, although very painful.

You can imagine these stories, but I think it’s important to suffer through them, just as we cannot understand the Holocaust without as much detail and as much pain as possible. I know what it is like, having spent most of 15 years in the archives of the Italian fascist state, and it may surprise you to learn that it is only in the last five years that Italian historians have begun to chronicle the full horror of anti-Semitism and the Shoah in that country.  Most of that work exists only in Italian, and it will be a while before American readers get a fuller picture.

That said, I have two objections to Meotti’s elegant and important work. The first is his contention that we are suffering through a second Shoah.  To be sure, today’s murderous anti-Semites – almost all of whom are radical Islamists – are bound and determined to kill as many Jews, and as many of their friends and supporters, as possible. But, unlike most of the Holocaust, the slaughter of contemporary Jews is not carried out in antiseptic gas chambers, but in the streets, markets, restaurants, airports, and skyscrapers of the modern world. These killers do not have the comforting distance that Nazi technology placed between killers and martyrs.  The jihadis think of themselves as individual assassins, not deranged industrial managers, as did so many of Hitler’s men.

Yes, the jihadis would love to create death camps – as the example of the “Mufti of Jerusalem” shows so well – but that does not change the fact that we are dealing with a different phenomenon.

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The port of Bandar Abbas is one of Iran’s major shipping hubs, as well as a big naval base in the Straits of Hormuz, and the site of a big refinery.  It is now in chaos.  Thousands of trucks, many of them loaded with imported foodstuffs, commercial goods of all description, and even oil products, have blocked the city’s roads, effectively ending all movement in and around the port.  The drivers simply shut down their rigs, took the coils out of the engines, and walked away.  On the water, there’s a similar shutdown of the hundreds of small boats and ferries that usually carry thousands of people each day to the nearby islands as well as to Dubai.  They have clogged the harbor, and nothing is moving.

This is the result of the Iranian regime’s cancellation of energy subsidies, proudly announced by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday.  One of the subsidies was on diesel fuel, which has now become eight or nine times as expensive as it used to be, and the drivers can’t survive the cost, nor can the ferry companies.  So they went on strike.

It is hard to get details and there are of course many rumors.  It seems certain that the regime dispatched some ten thousand Revolutionary Guards to “establish order,” but it’s the wrong remedy.  Even the toughest of them can’t convince a truck to start itself, or a ferry to get out of the way.  The Deputy Minister of Transportation arrived late this afternoon and met with the leaders of the drivers and ferry pilots, offering to let them raise their prices, although not nearly enough to compensate for the blow of the canceled subsidies.  Government officials were overheard arguing with the Guards, who seemed sympathetic to the workers.  Not a good sign for the regime.

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The Iranian Death Spiral Speeds Up

December 19th, 2010 - 7:05 pm

The picturesque city of Chabahar is right on the Gulf of Oman , and was supposed to become Iran’s biggest and most important naval base.  As with so many grand projects of the fanatical buffoons who rule the Islamic Republic, this one didn’t work out so well, but its strategically important location of course remains intact, on sea and land as well.  Its significant geography is not limited to access to the Middle East’s most important sea lanes;  Chabahar is in the region of Sistan-and-Baluchistan, whose borders are shared with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It is therefore not at all surprising that the regime would go all-out to maintain control over the area, which it has attempted via a Stalinist ethnic policy.  The people there are mostly Sunni, and mostly unhappy with their treatment by the theocrats in Tehran (Sunnis — around 15% of the Iranian population — are excluded from high office, and there are virtually no Sunni mosques in the big cities)).  The regime’s strategy has been to transfer Shi’ites into the region, and move out Sunnis.  The strategy has been predictably unpopular, and over the last dozen years there has been more and more violence, with the security forces and the Revolutionary Guards/Basij killing, arresting and torturing local activists, and the locals—most famously the members of the Jundullah movement, which operates in Pakistan as well as in Iran.  It’s a textbook case of a vicious circle.

Last week there was a big suicide bombing in Chabahar, on the occasion of the Ashurah religious celebration, when Shi’ite men publicly lash themselves with chains and knives to recall the slaughter of Mohammed’s grandson, Hossein, at the hands of his political enemies.  Contrary to the claims of the regime—routinely repeated and accepted by Western news media and political leaders including President Obama (who decried the murder of “innocent civilians”) and Secretary of State Clinton (“terrorists using cowardly methods to inflict pain and fear on innocent civilians”) — the terrorist attack was not aimed against “women and children,” but against the symbols and enforcers of the Shi’ite regime:  Revolutionary Guards, Basij, and Quds Force fighters.  More than sixty were killed, and a large number wounded.

The regime blamed both the usual suspects — us, the Brits, and the Israelis — plus the Pakistanis (the second time this year that the Iranians have accused the Paks of sponsoring terror attacks), and even the Saudis.  This stuff comes from the official Iranian media;  perhaps some of the Sy Hersh crowd will wonder if the CIA, or Special Forces, are organizing a replay of the anti-Soviet mujahedin campaign in Afghanistan back in Charlie Wilson’s day, by enlisting the Sunni nations to sponsor an Islamist campaign against a common enemy (the Soviets back when;  the Iranians nowadays).  I don’t subscribe to such fantasies (I don’t think the Obama Administration is organizing much of anything against the Iranian regime except sanctions), just trying to be helpful to those who do…

The only encouraging note from Obama and Hillary was that they didn’t send condolences to the rulers, but to the Iranian people.  But it’s not nearly what they should be doing, for the terror attacks in Sistan-Baluchistan are not nearly as dreadful as the regime’s systematic murder of its own citizens.  Tomorrow (Monday the 20th) alone, a dozen prisoners in Kermanshah are scheduled to be executed.  All are accused of terrorism;  but Iranian human rights activists point to numerous executions of people with no conceivable connection to terrorism.

Elsewhere, the regime’s slaughter of the innocents continues apace, and the mullahs have expanded their campaign against family members who dare to stand vigil at the gates of the prisons where their loved ones are often refusing food or liquid.  And the “Center to Defend Families of those Detained and Slain in Iran,” the very existence of which speaks eloquently to the state of Iranian affairs, reports that even those who go to pray at the graves of their murdered relatives are harassed by security forces.

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Landslide Berlusconi!

December 14th, 2010 - 8:27 pm

Well, in the Italian Senate, anyway, where he got an absolute majority.  In the Chamber of Deputies he defeated a no-confidence measure, brought by his own “allies” led by House Speaker Gianfranco Fini, by 3 votes.  There’s lots of maneuvering still to come, including an effort (unlikely to succeed) to broaden his coalition, but the big news–and it’s very big news–is that he’s once again demonstrated that he can’t be beaten.  There’s a lot of gnashing teeth tonight, and not just in Rome, where hundreds of protesters torched the neighborhood around Piazza del Popolo, where Federico Fellini lived in the seventies.  Teeth are grinding in London, where the British press, led by the Financial Times, was salivating at the happy thought of Berlusconi’s downfall.  Why?  I think it’s because the Brits are congenitally jealous of Italy and Italians, who, the Brits think, are too handsome, too sexy, and have altogether too much fun, and Berlusconi has more fun than anyone.  Intolerable!

Berlusconi’s opponents must be furious that the prime minister’s victory was largely due to female deputies who switched sides to vote for him.  One is Catia Polidori, described in the Corriere della Sera as “Umbrian and very blonde” (and they say that Berlusconi is the sexist!).  The other key deputy is Maria Grazia Siliquini, a lawyer from Turin who is in her fifth term in Parliament.  This will be particularly hard to swallow, both for Fini’s people and for the Left, who had convinced themselves and many others that women hate Berlusconi.  Another happy thought bites the dust…

One of my favorite political analysts, Stefano Folli of il Sole 24 Ore (the Italian version of the Wall Street Journal) thinks it likely that there will be new elections announced in a month or two, and he’s usually right.  But if that happens, it will be because of Berlusconi’s wishes, not those of his opponents.  It’s virtually impossible to identify any national leader capable of beating him, especially at a moment when the country has to deal with some very serious economic and social problems.  Including the rioters in the streets of the capital.

I have never been a big fan of Berlusconi–or, for that matter, any European leader these days–but he’s certainly distinguished himself in many areas.  I think he’s the only one of the lot (with the possible exception of Sarkozy) to say that the West must support the Iranian opposition.  He’s been an outspoken defender of Israeli security and legitimacy.  At the time of 9/11, he remarked at a press conference that “our civilization is superior to theirs;  just look at the way they treat women.”  You can easily imagine the outrage from the politically correct crowd, but he was right. Good friends of mine are angry because of Berlusconi’s active friendship with Vladimir Putin, but it’s both logical and remunerative for Italy.  Some might even call it good statesmanship.

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Iran: The War of the Persian Succession (cont.)

December 13th, 2010 - 4:18 pm

So Foreign Minister Mottaki has been fired while on an official trip to Senegal.  Meanwhile, executions go on apace within the prisons of the country, and several political prisoners prefer to starve themselves to death rather than await the hangman.

This state of affairs is what Thomas Hobbes called “the state of nature,” and his description in his masterpiece Leviathan seems to me as up to date as tomorrow in Tehran:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

Don’t try to decipher the “meaning” of any one of the melodramatic events in Iran today or tomorrow;  just remember that the leaders of the regime are fighting for survival, knowing that the Iranian people hate them, and suspecting each other of betrayal.

Which, under the circumstances, is probably correct.

Israel’s Version of Bob Woodward

December 12th, 2010 - 1:02 pm

I guess every free society has its own celebrated “investigative reporters,” and the Israeli version of Bob Woodward—the reporter believed to be the ultimate insider—is Ronen Bergman of Yediot Aharanot. Like Woodward, Bergman is important in understanding the thinking of a part of the political class, but, like Woodward, he’s not always reliable when it comes to reportage and analysis.

Take, for example, his article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, in which he tries to argue that the Wikileaks cables do not provide any reason for Israelis to be pleased.  He says “Transcripts of meetings between Gulf Arab leaders and U.S. officials show that while Arab hatred and fear of Iran is considerable, hostility toward Israel is just as great.”

That’s quite an astonishing statement.  Do you remember reading any cable in which an American diplomat reported on any Arab leader urging the United States to bomb Israel?  I certainly do not, but I read quite a number of cables quoting Arab kings, princes and ministers calling for us to attack Iran.  So it seems to me empirically false to claim, as Bergman does, that Arab “hostility toward Israel is as great as their hatred of Iran.”

Then Bergman thinks deeply about the meaning of it all:

History teaches us that it is impossible to run an effective campaign against rogue states without a wall-to-wall coalition of responsible partners who are aware of their role in preserving the safety of the family of nations.

It always makes me nervous when somebody starts talking about “lessons of history,” especially when he talks  about a “wall-to-wall coalition” that I don’t understand at all.  Was the People’s Republic of China a member of our big coalition against the Soviet Empire?  It seems likely, doesn’t it?  Well, if that’s the case, would you say that Mao et al. were committed to “preserving the safety of the family of nations”?  Or what about Libya?  Was there a big coalition involved in the very effective campaign that compelled Gadhafi to abandon his nuclear program?  Or was it rather the example of an American president who did not hesitate to unleash lethal force in the region?

So forgive me for not being impressed.

December 7th was National Student Day in Iran.  It was created to commemorate the deaths of student protesters back in the shah’s day, but now it’s an occasion for protests against the Islamic Republic.  The consensus of the Iranologists was that nothing much would happen, both because security on the country’s many university campuses was extremely tight, and because –according to many experts — the opposition was pretty much out of gas.

It’s a tough life for Iranologists; once again they zigged when the Iranian people zagged. Have a look at this collection of videos from around the country, or this one, and you’ll see substantial resistance, quite a bit of fighting, and plenty of protest.  At my last count, 56 students had been arrested, and you can expect that number to rise in coming days and weeks.

This was not a monster confrontation, but it was certainly a significant demonstration of the viability and determination of the opposition.  And, as I’ve been saying for quite a while, it demonstrates the failure of the regime to impose order on this very fractious society. If you were able to talk to some of the top leaders in the security forces, you’d no doubt be surprised to hear them say that the country is like a volcano and could erupt most any time. They know that their own ranks are riddled with men who want an end to the Ahmadinejad/Khamenei tyranny, and would enthusiastically turn on the regime if circumstances made it possible.

As the Iranologists ponder future scenarios, they typically imagine that the end of the regime will come in the streets, amidst nationwide protests. But it’s quite clear that the Green Movement’s leaders, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, have a different idea. They are trying to sustain popular pressure on the president, the supreme leader, and the parliament, hoping that the intense internal conflicts will bring about a Soviet-style implosion. Instead of chants of “death to the dictator” (which were again heard ringing from the rooftops in recent nights), they think they can provoke a loud sucking sound of the sort heard in Moscow in the last days of the Empire.

If you listen carefully, you can hear some air leaving the big balloon these days. My favorite is the vicious crackdown on enemy pigeons, identified by the regime’s crack counterintelligence forces as agents of the satanic forces arrayed against them.  Two of these diabolical creatures were captured in the area of Natanz, one of the country’s nuclear sites.

One of the pigeons was caught near a rose water production plant in the city of Kashan in Isfahan province, the Etemad Melli newspaper reported. It said that some metal rings and “invisible” strings were attached to the bird, suggesting that it might have been somehow communicating what it had seen with the equipment it was carrying.

“Early this month, a black pigeon was caught bearing a blue-coated metal ring, with invisible strings,” a source told the newspaper.

The source gave no further description of the pigeons, nor what their fate might be.

I wonder if the birds will be dragged in front of an Islamic tribunal and forced to confess to espionage. Whatever awaits the pigeons, a regime that mobilizes against birds with “invisible strings” is in the grips of a significant wave of paranoia. And it’s a quite comprehensible paranoia. The leaders know they have tens of millions of enemies, awaiting Judgment Day. And they also know that their enemies are spread throughout the society, from the students to the highest levels of the clergy.  Khamenei has made several trips to the holy city of Qom in recent weeks, trying to gin up support among the “Grand Ayatollahs,” but without notable success. He would like to spend less time in Tehran (who wants to hear chants calling for his death every night?) and more in the two centers of Iranian Shi’ite authority:  Qom and Mashhad. He is unhappy that the Iraqi city of Najaf, and its spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sistani, are more popular than himself and the Iranian holy cities, in the region generally, and among many of the Iranian faithful.

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The Stop Sign Mystery

December 4th, 2010 - 7:46 pm

It turns out that the streets in the town of Cranston, Rhode Island, have 692 stop signs that the city government never approved. The signs are there because the state government of Rhode Island wanted them there.  And that’s only the beginning, because there seem to be even more signs on state roads in Cranston.  We are told that the “city’s legal staff was researching the legality and enforceability of those signs installed by the state without city approval.”

Some of those signs are at intersections with state roads (Rhode Island has a law requiring motorists to stop before entering a state road).

What’s so interesting about that? You may well ask. Actually, it interests me quite a lot, because out here in the wilderness of Washington, D.C., we have an incredible number of stop signs. Being a lover of the chaos of Naples, Italy, I hate stop signs (I hate red lights too, but that’s a subject for another blog), and consequently I have long wondered about the proliferation of the stop signs in our neighborhood and in the city in general.

If you think that the stop sign pandemic is the result of thoughtful government officials who care deeply about the safety of people in automobiles, you are reading the wrong blog and should report to the nearest reeducation facility as soon as possible.

I have a theory, based on the solid hypothesis that many mysteries can be explained by asking: “Is there money to be made?” There is certainly money to be made by manufacturing and installing stop signs. So I always assumed that somebody in the city government had a relative who makes the stop signs, and, since governments around here are always in the hands of the Democratic Party, the installation work is invariably turned over to the unions.  So the annoying forest of stop signs makes money for the family and for “the base.”

One will get you seven that the same explanation works up there in the suburbs of Providence.

One more reason for the conservative resurgence.