How Jews and Arabs Use (and Misuse) the History of Jerusalem to Score Points
Jerusalem—a city central to three major religions and held sacred by hundreds of millions of people throughout the world—has been under siege, off and on, for four millennia. No other city in the world has been more bitterly fought over throughout its history. Although frequently called the "City of Peace," this is likely a mistranslation and certainly a misnomer, for the city’s existence has been anything but peaceful.
There have been at least 118 separate conflicts in and for Jerusalem during the past four millennia—conflicts which ranged from local religious struggles to strategic military campaigns which embraced everything in between. Jerusalem has been destroyed completely at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked an additional 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, been the scene of 20 revolts and innumerable riots, had at least five separate periods of violent terrorist attacks during the past century, and has only changed hands completely peacefully twice in the past 4,000 years.
Strabo, the famous geographer writing in the first century CE, described Jerusalem as being in a spot which "was not such as to excite jealousy, nor for which there could be any fierce contention" (Strabo 16.2.36). How wrong he was! Battles for control of the city began as early as the second millennium BCE, but their relevance to the modern world begins in earnest when the Israelites, led by the young warrior-king David, engaged in an epic battle with the Jebusites for control of Jerusalem sometime around 1000 BCE. In the three millennia that have passed since David captured the city and made it his capital, Jerusalem has been fought over again and again.
Why is this? Why have dozens of armies—from minor tribes as well as great civilizations—fought to conquer and rule Jerusalem? It lay far from major ports and did not dominate any historically important trade routes. It sat on the edge of a barren and forbidding desert poorly suited for the building of an important commercial center or strategic military base. The answer may lie on a hill called the Temple Mount—known in Arabic as the Haram al-Sherif (the "Noble Sanctuary")—that looks down upon the surrounding city; Gershom Gorenberg has called it "the most contested piece of real estate on earth."
On this Mount stands a great rock which is central to the story of the struggles for Jerusalem. It has seen kingdoms rise and fall, great empires come and go. It once lay within the Temple of King Solomon and later inside Herod’s Temple. Today, this great stone still has a commanding presence on the Temple Mount. It now lies beneath the golden-roofed Dome of the Rock and is a vital part of the third most sacred site of the Islamic world. According to Moslem tradition, the Prophet Mohammed ascended to the furthest reaches of heaven from this rock. According to Jewish tradition, this is the rock upon which Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. It was here that David brought the sacred Ark of his people.
Legend has it that the Israelites toiled by the rock to build the great temple for Solomon, that it was bathed with the tears of Judaeans bound for exile in the fields of Babylon, and stained with the blood of Crusaders and Saracens engaged in holy warfare. This is the rock that has outlasted all those who came to besiege Jerusalem—David and Shishak, Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar, Vespasian and Titus, Crusaders and Saracens, Moslems and Mamlukes, Ottomans and British.
If the story of the rock is the story of the Temple Mount, it is also the story of the city of Jerusalem. Most of the battles that have raged over Jerusalem during the past four millennia were inspired by the desire of one or another group to establish cultural and religious hegemony over the region, whose focal point has always been the Temple Mount and the rock that stands upon it. Thus the battles for control of Jerusalem were usually fought because the city was an important political and religious center rather than because of any inherent military or commercial value it had.
Many of these conflicts have reverberated down through the pages of history to the present time. In this ancient city, the battles of yesterday have frequently become part of the propaganda of today, and so events that took place eight hundred or even three thousand years ago still exert a dramatic and significant influence. Israeli officials celebrate David’s conquest of Jerusalem from the Jebusites about 1000 BCE as marking the city’s beginnings under Jewish rule. But such prominent Palestinians as Yasser Arafat, describing themselves as descendants of the original Jebusites who fought against the Israelites, see the conquest of the city by David as the first skirmish in a three-thousand-year-long battle between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Similarly, Saddam Hussein hailed the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and its recapture from the Crusaders by Saladin in 1187 CE as precedents for his own actions and intentions. In Iraq, laser shows, billboards, and statuary depicted Hussein as the modern successor to these ancient warriors. Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and other Zionists intent on founding the modern state of Israel invoked stirring images of heroic Maccabean warriors from 167 BCE and of Bar Kokhba facing the legions of the Roman Empire in 135 CE. Osama bin Laden styled himself on grainy videotapes as a latter-day Saladin, battling western Crusaders in the Middle East a thousand years after the fact and proclaiming his determination to bring Jerusalem under Moslem sovereignty once again.
And so military occupations and religious conflicts continue in Jerusalem, as they have done unrelentingly for four thousand years, with no end in sight. It seems that not much has changed in the nearly 3,400 years since Abdi-Heba, the beleaguered Canaanite ruler of Urusalim, exclaimed to the Egyptian pharaoh, "I am situated like a ship in the midst of the sea!" The modern state of Israel, which only recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, has been described as a besieged island surrounded by a sea of hostile Arab forces. Will it last even as long as did the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem? The future of the new state of Palestine, whose birthing pangs are still being felt, is even less certain; its twin outposts in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank can similarly be depicted as islands surrounded by a sea of increasingly hostile Israeli forces.
It is interesting, and a bit disquieting, to see how the biblical and other ancient conflicts have frequently been used (and, more frequently, misused) as propaganda by modern military and political leaders. A few examples, given below, will suffice to show how some are still reflected in the social and political environment of the Middle East today.
The biblical account of David’s battle against the Jebusites and his capture of their city of Jerusalem is a dramatic tale of skill and courage. It is also the subject of much scholarly debate, but it is clear that one day or night some three thousand years ago, one of the pivotal battles of history began. The victory described set the stage for the predominance of the Israelites in the region for the next four hundred years, until they in turn were conquered by the Babylonians. It is a tale that still reverberates today in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
"Our forefathers, the Canaanites and Jebusites," declared Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian Authority, "built the cities and planted the land; they built the monumental city of Bir Salim [Jerusalem] . . ." His trusted confidant and advisor, Faisal Husseini, agreed. "First of all," he said, "I am a Palestinian. I am a descendant of the Jebusites, the ones who came before King David. This [Jerusalem] was one of the most important Jebusite cities in the area. . . . Yes, it’s true. We are the descendants of the Jebusites." Husseini, well-known in the Arab world as the son of a war hero, a member of a respected Jerusalem family, and a distant cousin of Yasser Arafat, was the Palestinian Authority minister for Jerusalem affairs before he suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting Kuwait in May 2001. He was especially fond of referring to himself as a descendant of the ancient Jebusites, the "original landlords of Jerusalem."
Arafat and Husseini were using a new tactic in the attempt, begun by the Palestinian Authority a decade or more earlier, to gain control of modern Jerusalem. Their initial targets were the notepads and tape recorders of news reporters. Their ultimate targets were especially Americans and also the peoples of Europe and the Middle East. By claiming descent from the ancient Jebusites, they were effectively avowing that the Palestinian people can trace their lineage to a people who held an already ancient Jerusalem when the Israelites conquered the city and made it the capital of their fledgling kingdom. They were implying that King David’s capture of the city from the Jebusites about 1000 BCE was simply the first time that the Jews took Jerusalem from its rightful Palestinian owners.
Not to be outdone in the propaganda campaign, Israeli politicians opened fire with a media onslaught of their own. They gave top billing to King David in the "Jerusalem 3000" advertising campaign for celebrations that began in 1995, and they identified David’s conquest of the city in about 1000 BCE as marking the foundation of Jerusalem. To their Palestinian opponents, this was political propaganda that conveniently ignored the earlier Canaanite and Jebusite occupations of Jerusalem that extend the history of the city back an additional two thousand years. David’s capture of Jerusalem three thousand years ago is thus relevant—or claimed to be relevant—to the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel today. The modern contestants are stretching and embroidering the faded cloth of history. The ancient conflict between the Israelites and Jebusites is now being recast as the original battle between Jews and Palestinians for control of Jerusalem.
In February 2001, Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister of Israel. The next day Saddam Hussein announced the formation of a "Jerusalem Army" to be made up of seven million Iraqis who had "volunteered to liberate Palestine" from Israeli rule. At first many analysts dismissed this as propaganda "in the fantasy drama staged by Saddam." However, in August 2001 the Associated Press reported that thousands of Iraqis had taken to the streets, waving guns and calling for the "liberation of Palestine" under the leadership of Hussein. The banners of the demonstrators read "Here we come Saddam ... here we come Jerusalem." By February 2003, as members of the "Jerusalem Army" marched again in Mosul, official Iraqi sources claimed that two and a half million recruits had completed their training in the previous two years.
This was not a new theme for the President of Iraq. In 1979, Saddam Hussein was quoted in an interview with Fuad Matar, his semi-official biographer:
Nebuchadnezzar stirs in me everything relating to pre-Islamic ancient history. And what is most important to me about Nebuchadnezzar is the link between the Arabs’ abilities and the liberation of Palestine. Nebuchadnezzar was, after all, an Arab from Iraq, albeit ancient Iraq. Nebuchadnezzar was the one who brought the bound Jewish slaves from Palestine. That is why whenever I remember Nebuchadnezzar I like to remind the Arabs, Iraqis in particular, of their historical responsibilities. It is a burden that should not stop them from action, but rather spur them into action because of their history. So many have liberated Palestine throughout history, before and after the advent of Islam.
Although Nebuchadnezzar was neither Arab nor Moslem, Saddam Hussein’s "Nebuchadnezzar Imperial Complex," as psychologist Erwin R. Parson called it, was remarkably consistent. In the late 1980s, he promoted the Iraqi Arts Festival called "From Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein." He also had a replica of Nebuchadnezzar's war chariot built and had himself photographed standing in it. He ordered images of himself and Nebuchadnezzar beamed, side by side, into the night sky over Baghdad as part of a laser light show. He spent millions rebuilding the ancient site of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar's capital city, provoking excited anticipation among Christian fundamentalists who saw this as one of the signs of the End Times and the imminent approach of Armageddon.
In forming his so-called "Jerusalem Army" to "liberate Palestine," Saddam Hussein appeared to be positioning himself not only as the successor to Nebuchadnezzar but also as a successor to Cyrus the Great. Just as Cyrus ended the Babylonian Exile of the Jews in 538 BCE, so Saddam boasted that he would end the exile of the Palestinian refugees.
Although analysts frequently dismissed Saddam Hussein’s actions as mere propaganda in a "fantasy drama," some who remember the past recalled that Nebuchadnezzar successfully laid waste to Jerusalem 2500 years ago. Even if Saddam Hussein’s "Jerusalem Army" was more wishful thinking than serious threat, his stated intention to "liberate" Jerusalem was hard to ignore. Was he planning to make history repeat itself? To many people around the world, it certainly seemed a distinct possibility, but the capture of Saddam Hussein by U.S. forces in December 2003 ensured that he, at least, would not be repeating Nebuchadnezzar’s destructions of Jerusalem.
The examples given here cover only the period from David’s capture of Jerusalem in ca. 1000 BCE through the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in 132-135 CE. For additional examples, including those derived from the Crusader capture of Jerusalem in 1099 CE and the Moslem recapture of the city in 1187 CE, and additional references to the earlier conflicts, readers are referred to the full account in Jerusalem Besieged.
This article is excerpted from the Introduction and the opening/closing paragraphs from various chapters in the author’s new book, Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), which is a detailed military history of 4,000 years of conflict in the so-called “City of Peace.” Footnotes and full bibliographic references can be found there. This excerpt appears by permission of the University of Michigan Press and the website, The Bible and Interpretation, where this article first appeared.
comments powered by Disqus
Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005
It is a bit ironic that Saddam embraced the memory of Saladin, as Professor Cline reports, given Saddam's decades-long problems with the Kurdish people. After all, the heroic & gallant opponent of Richard I, Saladin, was not an Arab, but rather a Kurd. Seems odd Saddam would have lauded the Kurd Saladin as a model figure for Arabs, including himself, to emulate, no?
Oscar Chamberlain - 10/8/2004
Religious institutions can be wayward things, just like secular ones (as you note). But you might consider this. You want to set up international institutions that will carry forward a set of ideals. And that is not all that far from what religious institutions are, at least in their origins.
That is not indict your goal, but it is a reminder that proposals to make international law a viable force require not simply that those laws be good but that, paradoxically, the power to enforce them must be limited. Because in the absence of strong limtis or checks, international institutions based on ideals will be just as prone to subverting those ideals as religious institutions are.
chris l pettit - 10/8/2004
a fair statement and I should clarify. It is not that I am intolerant of the religious in any way. It is the institutionalised religion as an entity that I decry. There are religious people of all stripes...that is why I clarify my statement by adding that as long as they are working towards peace and human rights, it does not matter what invisible man they pray to...heck, they can pray to Joe Pesci like George Carlin does. What matters is how they are using that faith. I think that one has to "give the devil his due" in the fact that one must respect all religions and beliefs as long as they are being used to further the human race, peace and human rights. I also think that this tolerance must logically lead to respect for the authority of the international law system that has been universally agreed upon to try and overcome the differences between different religious biases and beliefs. It is the only thing that makes sense, since there is no "true" belief, and at their fundamental cores, all religions teach tolerance and acceptence of all other faiths...it is only when loony extremists get their hands on things that intolerance and exclusivism spreads. As my geshe used to say, when Buddha died, the schools were born.
When religion means going through the motions, taking part in silly rituals that are misinterpreted and misunderstood, not even knowing the true history of your faith (which most Christians do not), relying on post canonical texts and interpretations to justify just war and intolerance without considering the historical and social contexts in which they were written, as well as other harmful practices, religion ceases to be the instrument of good, peace and human rights that it was intended, and becomes an ideology that somehow allows practitioners to betray the very fundamentals of their faith. it is a disgraceful thing to behold. Zionism, US evangelicalism, militant Islamism, militant Buddhism,...there are countless examples of "true believers" who are, in all actuality, disgraces to the faith that they espouse.
Just as you can criticise the US government and immoral as well as illegal occupation without being intolerant of the individual US troops, so you can criticise the many failures of institutionalised religion and the brainwashed mindset it creates without generally criticising all its members. Just as there are soldiers who are truly working for peace and a good cause in Iraq, there are religious individuals who use their faith to work for peace and human rights. Unfortunately, in both cases, the good are vastly outnumbered by the miseducated, blinded, ignorant, and self interested.
I hope this clarifies somewhat the statement I made above. We must preach tolerance, peace and human rights for all and the universal application of international law if we are ever to overcome the idiocy of those who advocate one side of a conflict without acknowledging the atrocities committed by that very side, or trying to justify those atrocities by misinterpreting history or religious texts.
Respectfully as always
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 10/8/2004
I understand your post and respect your opinion, but it seems a bit troubling to hear someone as open-minded and tolorent as you seem to dismiss organzied religion as "silly." I am not a religious person, myself, but considering the fact that the vast majority of the human population subscribe to some "blind faith in something that is not rationally or logically explainable," I would not be so fast to judge it.
Now, if you want to start criticizing specific adherents to some religion, than I have no problem with that. But even Thomas Paine in his classic rational diest word, The Age of Reason was willing to give the devil its due (so to speak).
N. Friedman - 10/8/2004
One further point: You write: "4. What we do need more of--and here I may be a bit on your side (I'll let you decide that)--are leaders willing to do the hard work of uniting the encouragement of better civil rights throughout the world by uniting a bit of human rights'idealism with a lot of hard core realpolitik. One of my long-term disappointment with many Democrats in the US is that they do not realize that the careful encouragement of better rights requires a superior understanding of the role of force, of realpolitik. // I say that not because I would want them to use force often, but because without that understanding, they can and sometimes have inadvertently done harm to the very good ideals they purused."
I agree that civil rights ought to be improved. However, the notion of badgering countries always descends into hypocrisy. The most significant current example of hypocrisy today arises with respect to the Palestinians.
Note: I am not saying the Palestinians have a good deal. And I am not suggesting that something shoud not be done to improve their situation. Rather, I am saying that the human rights community which takes sides in a simple dispute - confusing the dispute with some great moral struggle and lapsing into Antisemitic rhetoric, the very opposite of anything humane - has lost its way. And I am saying that the notion of human rights is so weak, intellectually speaking, that such descent into advocacy of barbarism is inevitable.
Consider, the human rights community is largely silent about the Palestinian tactics in their war against Israel. Yet, the tactic employed is one which, by any logical reckoning of rights, is entirely illegitimate. And yet, that tactic, the massacre, is the Palestinian's weapon of first choice. Groups that stand with people who commit massacres as their tactic of choice are the enemies of humanity and of rights. Yet, they call themselves the human rights community.
My proposition is that the notion of human rights inevitably descends into advocacy of barbarism.
N. Friedman - 10/8/2004
TO: Oscar Chamberlain
Re: Sort of on the line of "we are all Democrats, we are all Republicans" (#43846) on October 7, 2004 at 8:33 PM
Thank you for your kind comment. I am not sure we disagree all that much.
Where I think we disagree is that I agree with Hobbes who, as you may know, says:
"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, 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 withal. 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, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Which is to say: where there is no government, there are no rights. And that means that rights come from government and not from nature.
I understand you to evoke the spirit of human nature to justify human rights as a concept. Again, I have nothing against rights. However, the rights you speak of - that which the founding fathers sought - were rights in the tradition of Locke and not human rights, a metaphysical position that assumes a nature which does not exist.
The Declaration speaks of unalienable rights. However, the goal is to set up a government which protects rights and not an overseeing metaphysical force which hounds governments over their practices. That, I think, is where our disagreement is. The inevitable use of asserting rights other than civil rights is the situation we now live in where such rights are asserted for mere cynical purposes and hypocritically or, in many instances, by the worst breed of racist and Antisemite.
But again, please note that, while I have only disdain for human rights, I am rather serious about civil rights. They are worth protecting as, in my view, they are the only rights - short of evoking tradition - to be had.
Oscar Chamberlain - 10/8/2004
Thank you for your extended comment. You keep me on my toes.
I think we're going to end up agreeing to disagree on many points, but here are some thoughts you provoked.
1. Sometimes civil rights emerge from negotiations within a given country, but there also times they have been conceived of independently, usually in the clothing of "human rights, "inalienable rights," "god-given rights" etc.
When people have revolted in the name of those rights and then attempted to implement them, they make the jump from the ideal to the practical, from "human rights" to "civil rights." The beginning of our nation (which I happen to be teaching right now) is a near best-case example of such an occurence.
2. There are worst-case examples, too. The Soviet Union perverted the language of international rights in pursuit of its own interests. Nazi Germany's acquisitions up to the invasion of Poland were done in the name of a right to national self-determination. In one case, cynicism polluted the language of rights; the other reminds us that no single right exists in isolation, and when one is exaulted over the others, disaster can follow.
3. All too often today, people use invocations of those rights in either cynical or haphazard ways. You are right to be deeply critical of that. It can do real harm and obscure the reality of a situation. But you seem to simply assume that everyone who invokes the idea that there are some rights that should be universal is either cynical or haphazrd or just plain dumb. I think that ignores the importance of aspiration, because at its best, the discussion of rights is the discussion of aspirations.
4. What we do need more of--and here I may be a bit on your side (I'll let you decide that)--are leaders willing to do the hard work of uniting the encouragement of better civil rights throughout the world by uniting a bit of human rights'idealism with a lot of hard core realpolitik. One of my long-term disappointment with many Democrats in the US is that they do not realize that the careful encouragement of better rights requires a superior understanding of the role of force, of realpolitik.
I say that not because I would want them to use force often, but because without that understanding, they can and sometimes have inadvertently done harm to the very good ideals they purused.
Vernon Clayson - 10/8/2004
It's all stupid but it's life in the rough. The Israelis fight because they have to fight, there is no reasoning with terrorists. A few years back one of the Israeli leaders said they would repay attacks tenfold, perhaps they should have stayed with that plan, right now it's kind of tit for tat. One wonders, Israel being the lone democracy in that terrible area and suffering partially because of it, what would happen in Iraq if they become a democracy. Fat chance of that, of course, but it's something to worry about. Back to your 3500 year we are cousins comment, that may very well be a possibility but we can't agree on this site, what makes you think the various religions, all foolish organizations, could ever agree on anything.
N. Friedman - 10/7/2004
"The Palestinians are fighting the Israelis because their land and resources, particularly water, have been stolen by the Israelis. "
A careful reading of the history does not suggest that the Israelis have "stolen" anything. In fact, the notion of one country committing theft is rather ahistorical and meaningless. What country has anything other than "stolen land"? Your terminology, in reality, comes from believing in the cult of the Palestinians.
In truth, the Palestinians are mostly fighting with the Israelis because the Palestinians hope to reverse the result of the war of 1948 (and thus, from the Israeli perspective, steal land from the Israelis). Were the Palestinians to be fighting over any injustice they allegedly suffered, they would employ entirely different tactics. The leaders of the fighters have, to note, stated repeatedly that they are not fighting over any injustice but, instead, to change the results of the war of 1948. See, "Bombers Gloating in Gaza as They See Goal Within Reach: No More Israel" (Joel Brinkley, The New York Times, 2002/04/04)
From the article --
The goals of Hamas are straightforward. As Sheik Yassin put it, "our equation does not focus on a cease-fire; our equation focuses on an end to the occupation." By that he means an end to the Jewish occupation of historical Palestine.
Hamas wants Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank and Gaza, the dismantling of all Israeli settlements and full right of return for the four million Palestinians who live in other states. After that, the Jews could remain, living "in an Islamic state with Islamic law," Dr. Zahar said. "From our ideological point of view, it is not allowed to recognize that Israel controls one square meter of historic Palestine."
Mr. Shenab insisted that he was not joking when he said, "There are a lot of open areas in the United States that could absorb the Jews."
The Hamas leaders are clearly enamored of the suicide attacks carried out by their followers. "It is the most effective strategy for us," said Dr. Rantisi. "For us it is the same as their F-16," the attack fighters used by the Israeli military.
For them, the crowning achievement so far was the attack on Passover eve.
"That was a great success," said Mr. Shenab. "We don't have an army, but we showed that one person can do more than an army — and in the middle of a big alert by the Israelis." That night, the Israeli police and the military were on full alert to stop suicide bombers. "That showed that if we suffer, our enemy suffers more," he added.
While I understand that Arafat's party claims somewhat different goals, they have said more or less the same as Hamas (but without the idea of implementing Islamic law) and often enough even during the heyday of Oslo, that no reasonable or fair minded person believes them.
So much for your view of reality.
The issue between the Palestinians and the Israelis is not about justice. It is about finding an arrangement which stops the fighting without creating something new to fight about.
I can imagine any number of solutions. And I can imagine some solutions, for example, that of the now deceased Yassin and Rantissi, which would make the situation worse. At present, however, the main goal is for one side or the other to win so that the fighting ends and a peace, of sorts, can be established. As far as I can see, the Israelis have largely won the current war which, in turn, means that they will largely dicate the settlement.
N. Friedman - 10/7/2004
Re: Sort of on the line of "we are all Democrats, we are all Republicans"
TO: Oscar Chamberlain
Re: (#43647), October 5, 2004 at 4:20 PM
I did not previously notice your interesting comment.
1. "In one sense you are right. Simply claiming something as a human right does not make it so. However, you sell the tradition short when you say that it is 'usually righteous indignation.'"
I am a firm believer in civil rights. Which is to say, I believe that government, not otherworldly dreams of utopia, protect people's rights. In some countries, people are afforded rights. In other countries, tradition, to some extent, protects something akin to rights. In lessor or greater extent, people are well treated in both types of countries.
In some other countries, the words of human rights adorn documents but people are treated like dirt. The former USSR is a rather excellent example. In the world's tyrannies, people are treated like dirt but the governments often hardly pretend otherwise. There are a number of theocracies but most of them treat people like dirt as well. The rule of the Taliban comes to mind.
The human rights movement I have seen appears, so far as I can discern, to be opposed to human decency and dignity and to be racist and Antisemitic to the very core.
2. "Consider the Declaration of Independence. 'Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' had no more support than modern human rights claims. But it--and various other descriptions of the proper nature of human existence--shaped the debate over how to form a nation. Those assertions were shaped in the creation of a nation,but they were born in the international setting of the Enlightenment and of a Protestantism leavened with toleration."
I do not deny that rights are of universal concern. I merely note that there are no real human rights; instead, there are civil rights. Again the reason: rights do not exist in the abstract. Rights require a government.
3. "The assertion of human rights today--at its best--is an attempt to shape modern debates and actions concerning the proper nature of human existence. Sometimes the claims seem 'self-evident'; sometimes they don't."
Most of the energy that goes into human rights might be better served by advancing real rights.
4. "But in a world in which communication and transportation (and weapons technology) reduces the distances between nations and peoples, it is altogether logical to be debating what sort of international laws we need. And a debate over international law inevitably raises the question of what international rights are."
International law is too imperfect to be anything other than a propaganda tool. The only law that exists is the law which a government is willing to stand behind. For any law involving a violation of an international humanitarian standard to mean anything, governments have to be willing to enforce such rights.
In my view, such approach is a fundamental moral as well as practical error. In order to enforce human rights, governments have to be willing to go to war - the very sorts of wars advocated by Christopher Hitchens and Paul Wolfowitz -.
I note that in the part of the world where human rights are shouted about (e.g. in Europe), people protested loudly against the US war in Iraq yet, were anybody to read what Christopher Hitchens and Paul Wolfowitz (and the other neo-conservatives actually) write, they would know for a fact that both were serious human rights advocates with the caveat that they advocate war (as in Bosnia) or start wars (as in Iraq) to establish human rights. Which is to say, they want to put their money where their mouths are.
I am not remotely sure that war will spread human rights. And, surely the results cannot be predicted in advance. Again, I think that rights are largely a local affair, the product of certain conditions which may or may not be present in a country. As such, I am not a neo-conservative or a human rights advocate.
The human rights community, however, is even worse than the neo-conservatives. The human rights community prefers mere posturing. They create scapegoats but all but ignore places which have truly abysmal treatment of people.
A good example of this is the cult of the Palestinians, as if their suffering were the world's main problem when, in fact, they are involved in a minor dispute. Without denigrating the loss of about 4,000 people (on both sides of the dispute over four years), there are far, far worse things going on than anything the Israelis are alleged to have done, much less actually done. One needs only remember the Sudan (2 million people killed in the last 20 years of so - yet rarely in the news -), in Chechnya (80,000 people in a few years - yet rarely in the news-), in Kashmir (10's of thousands of casualties - yet rarely in the news), etc., etc.
The cult of the Palestinians is such that Western governments even deflect their own misdeeds onto Israel. Consider a recent example. A law suit was instigated in Britain against the Crown for failing to abide by the Geneva Convention in Iraq. The reply in court by the Crown's government was that such laws do not apply to the UK in Iraq. While that argument was being advocated in court, the foreign minister of the UK, Jack Straw, was asserting publicly that Israel was failing to abide by the Geneva Convention. Note: the very same basic violations were involved in the allegations against Israel as those against the UK. Presumably, one reason the UK lambasted Israel was to deflect attention away from the UK's alleged misdeeds.
And note: I am not suggesting that the UK or Israel behaved like angels. I am not making any statement about the truth of the allegations. However, the assertion of human rights violations is so hypocritical as to make a mockery of the idea that such rights have any meaning.
5. "Perhaps if we spoke of them as international rights instead of human rights, the debate would be a bit clearer."
I well understand the words. I merely assert that the human rights campaign is an attack on human decency and dignity. It is racist and Antisemitic and a step away from the actual protection of people's rights and dignity.
Val Jobson - 10/7/2004
Citation for above comments about children killed by Israeli army; http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,2763,1320735,00.html
Val Jobson - 10/7/2004
The Palestinians are fighting the Israelis because their land and resources, particularly water, have been stolen by the Israelis. Within the past week or so Israeli snipers shot 2 young Palestinian girls in the head. Another 13 year old girl was walking to school and Israeli soldiers fired 20 bullets into her body, including 5 into her head. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis are guilty of war crimes.
N. Friedman - 10/7/2004
"Mr. Friedman, your belief in the "goodness" of the West and the US is frightening."
I was making a comparative comment, not an absolute stateement. I never suggested the West is perfect or even good. I never suggested the US is perfect or anything or the sort. And, if the 20th Century is any example, the West can be downright awful.
However, at the moment, the protection of rights in the US is rather good by world standards. And, in most ways, the protection of rights in the US is far better than in most Western countries. In particular, protection for minority religions is better in the US than probably any European country. And note, most European countries retain the primitive practice of having an established religion.
Compared to the Middle East, the West is rather good at protecting rights. I do not think there is anything scary in suggesting that rights are better protected in the West than, say, Iran or Egypt or Syria or Jordan or Saudi Arabia or Yemen or Kuwait or Sudan or Libya, etc., etc.
chris l pettit - 10/7/2004
You are correct about the case, however, as you note, it is in relation to federal/state relations, and not US obligations in the international community.
Your comment about the specific legislation is the difference between signing a treaty and ratification. You basically have hit upon the difference between monist and dualist systems regarding international law. In monist systems, the Convention becomes part of a states national law as soon as it is signed. In dualist systems such as the US, there has to be ratification by the specfic legislative body, which would be the specific legislation that you refer to.
By the way, make no mistake about it...it matters not whether there is a Supreme Court decision or not...since the US Government has signed and ratified the Vienna COnvention on Treaties, it is bound by its provisions, one of which is that once a treaty or convention is ratified, it necessarily becomes part of the states national law. One will note that the US COnstitution also states the very same principle...that treaties become the "supreme law of the land."
The federalism issue is an interesting one, especially when dealing with things such as the COmmerce Clause. however, since we are speaking of universal human rights, it is irrelevant (for the most part) to this discussion.
Mr. Friedman, your belief in the "goodness" of the West and the US is frightening. I will not deny that all violate international law, but as you see above, I at least admit that all do and lament the problems and positions invoked in doing so...the nation state system, religion, and legal positivism. You however seem to be blind to the atrocities committed by the West and buy right into the "might makes right" and
our morals are the best so we can use force to promote them" philosophies that are hindering the US at the moment. There are several nations that I would submit are a hell of a lot better than the US in promoting human rights and peace, many of which most US supporters would cry foul at. I suspect you may be one of the scholars whose position I lament due to its lack of real knowledge of other cultures, histories, and atrocities committed by the West in its own pursuit of "the perfect way of doing things."
N. Friedman - 10/7/2004
The Israelis are showing all the decency that is due to people who harbor terrorists and who, according to what they tell pollsters, support the massacre of civilians. And, if the Palestinians end up with no state as a result of their behavoir, that is life.
Val Jobson - 10/6/2004
That link did not work; try http://web.israelinsider.com/home.htm about the interview with Dov Weissglas
Val Jobson - 10/6/2004
The current government of Israel does not demonstrate much decency. See the article http://web.israelinsider.com/bin/en.jsp?enPage=ArticlePage&enDisplay=view&enDispWhat=object&enDispWho=Article%5El4222&enZone=Diplomacy&enVersion=0
N. Friedman - 10/6/2004
I thank you for your interesting comment. I am still not convinced.
1. "N. Friedman is confusing triumphalism with universalism. What Nazi or Fascist imperialists wanted was to master the world or whatever targets suited their economic needs.
Nazis and Fascists espoused certain beliefs about the world. For example, Antisemitism and Racialism were themes around which Nazis organized propaganda and attracted followers. Moreover, they practiced their propaganda in lands they conquered. These doctrines were universal creeds. That such creeds are despicable does not make them any less universal.
2. "Jews were in no position to conquer anybody in either the medieval or modern worlds, and their objective in Palestine was not conquest either. This latter point has been horribly distorted in the propaganda regularly disseminated now on university campuses, with the blessing of the Left."
I basically agree with this point. The role of Jews in what is now Israel was humane. Which is to say, the right to escape oppression by migrating to a place where refuge is available is basic to the human experience. The right of migrants to organize politically is also basic. The migrants, for the most part, sought joint rule with the local population until they were attacked - and this is not to say that the local population was evil either as they, no doubt, could reasonably believe that their rights might be trampled upon - at which time the migrants reassessed the situation and took steps necessary to survive. The result, Israel, is, by any reasonable standards, a decent country.
I do note, to repeat, that Judaism does not claim to be a universal religion. Such is inherent in the notion of Jews being a light among the nations. And such is inherent in the notion of a specific covenant with God. The rejection of universalism - at least in its imperialist form (as adopted by the other monotheisms) - is one of Judaism's great virtues. Which is to say, Judaism does not claim to be superior to other religions but instead only a particular manifestation of God's will.
Oscar Chamberlain - 10/6/2004
Something of a correction.
Treaties do not become part of the constitution.
In Missouri v. Holland (1920) the Supreme Coutt did conclude that a Treaty could grant the national government power beyond that granted by the constitution. But the impact of that decision was on federal (state/national) relations and not on international relations.
Therefore, the case did not address the question of the extent to which a treaty could bind the national government, either by limiting its action or by requiring certain actions. Nor did it address a related question--brought up in the 1950s when the "Bricker amendment" was debated--as to whether or not a treaty was "self-enforcing"; that is, whether a treaty could be invoked in the courts without some sort of enabling legislation passed by Congress.
N. Friedman - 10/6/2004
"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is now universally accepted as part of the jus cogens of international law, that is a part of customary law that cannot be altered. The document was pushed mostly by Mrs. Roosevelt after WWII and was agreed to by the entire UN at the time, mostly made up of the Western states who now insist on violating the very regime they came up with. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the IC on Economic Social and Cultural Rights are two of the most widely ratified treaties in the world. And need I remind everyone AGAIN that once a treaty is ratified by the US government it becomes part of the supreme law of the land violation of it is violation of our own constitutional law? In addition, even though the US has not ratified the ICESCR, it has signed it, which under the Vienna Convention on Treaties obliges the US to progressively work towards ratification and the adoption of the provisions within the Convention."
First, you are correct that international treaties ratified by Congress become part of the Constitution. That, of course, is not the end of the subject. It is hardly even the beginning. Which is to say, the Supreme Court has not consistently viewed treaties on the same plain as the US constitution. In fact, I believe that such is the exception.
Second, it is a wonderful idea for people to be treated well wherever they may happen to be. The reality, of course, is that only Western countries and the like make any effort to do so while most countries - without regard to the pieces of paper signed - treat people like dirt. Which is to say, the notion of International law has rather limited use and, even worse, where people are well treated, the International treaties are effectively superflous.
Third, there has, moreover, been an effort to use International law for mere political gain. One egregious example occurred when Jack Straw, the Foreign Minister of Great Britain, asserted that Israel violated International law in a recent Gaza raid while, at the same time, his government argued with a straight face in a British Court that the very same International law had no applicability to the UK and US's occupation of Iraq. Which is to say, Britain's intention was to distract attention from its behavior onto Israel.
Lastly, in a dispute between parts of the world which, no matter what documents are signed, reject International law on principle - which is the case in the Arab Middle East and is surely the case among the Muslim groups which advocate and commit terror - it is not clear how International law does anything helpful. In fact, the opposite is more nearly the case.
Which is to say, the West should, in fact, stand up on behalf of tolerance and humane treatment of people but not in the manner of a suicide pact. To put the matter differently, if one's opponent rejects basic norms of human behavior toward civilians - the massacre at Beslan being a prime example where, in fact, the goal was to murder as many kids as possible -, then one's opponent does not accept humane treatment of civilians. In such a fight, International law has no real significance other than as propaganda. As such, one must fight based on the playing field that exists.
Clare Lois Spark - 10/6/2004
N. Friedman is confusing triumphalism with universalism. What Nazi or Fascist imperialists wanted was to master the world or whatever targets suited their economic needs. They based their claims on the concept of racial superiority, hence Nazi theories of the Master Race and Fascist revivals of Roman glory under Mussolini. Universalism as understood by the Jews and then the Christians who continued this tradition meant that we were one human family and that the individual was equal to every other individual in the sight of God. Liberalism (as understood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) took this over and secularized it. You might want to read Walter Lippmann's Good Society on this point.
Jews were in no position to conquer anybody in either the medieval or modern worlds, and their objective in Palestine was not conquest either. This latter point has been horribly distorted in the propaganda regularly disseminated now on university campuses, with the blessing of the Left.
Vernon Clayson - 10/6/2004
Jerusalem, thy name is futility, who cares what happens there? 2000 years from now the dusty, dirty place will still be in contention as it has been since history commenced being recorded. The dealers and the healers will still hold sway and people miles away and in no way connected to it will somehow believe the stupid and crappy place matters even though it has only the doubtful fringe benefit of having religious faiths that commenced there. It's a waste of space, do they even have running water or use toilet paper? Probably not, too busy with gathering arms and explosives, brother fighting brother to the grave and gathering for TV cameras to bother with such frivolous creature comforts.
chris l pettit - 10/6/2004
Communism (Soviet Union), Fascism(Germany), Socialism (Cuba), physical materialism (science), and atheism, among others, are all "religions" in my book. They require blind faith in something that is not rationally or logically explainable. I wish I could explain this in a short post, but it is darn near impossible so I am going to hope that you all get the general gist behind my comment.
I personally buy into more of a Buddhist philosophy, but in the Madhyamaka school (Tibetan), and more loosely than most. If you want details, see www.mindandlife.org and texts regarding the intersection of Buddhist science of the mind and quantum theory, neurobiology, quantum physics, and whatnot. Einstein is also a good read that comes close to explaining things from a more traditional western sense.
I just cannot overstate the silliness of insitutionalised religion UNLESS one is truly able to use one's beliefs to promote peace and human rights, something that may be impossible in and of itself.
chris l pettit - 10/6/2004
The sentiments stated above are exactly why my job is made so difficult. There is a lot of ignorance of universal human rights and disdain for them, even though they are firmly entrenched in international law. To make an argument against them is to make an argument against international law itself. I expect this from most Americans, since the majority have been miseducated and have never left the country, but to hear it from the academic community is very saddening. The insistence on legal positivism and might makes right power politics instead of multiculturalism and emphasis on the international community belies the paucity of America trying to achieve anything that is "good" in terms of the international community. This is especially ironic since in was the US who enabled and pushed for the UN as well as the indoctrination of a human rights regime, both through court cases and through international treaties and declarations.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is now universally accepted as part of the jus cogens of international law, that is a part of customary law that cannot be altered. The document was pushed mostly by Mrs. Roosevelt after WWII and was agreed to by the entire UN at the time, mostly made up of the Western states who now insist on violating the very regime they came up with. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the IC on Economic Social and Cultural Rights are two of the most widely ratified treaties in the world. And need I remind everyone AGAIN that once a treaty is ratified by the US government it becomes part of the supreme law of the land violation of it is violation of our own constitutional law? In addition, even though the US has not ratified the ICESCR, it has signed it, which under the Vienna Convention on Treaties obliges the US to progressively work towards ratification and the adoption of the provisions within the Convention.
Lets see...the Conventions on the Rights of the Child, protection of womens rights, prohibition of torture, prohibition of slavery, prohibition of piracy, prohibition of genocide, the statutes of the ICTY,ICTR, and ICC, rights of prisoners, rights of refugees, the Geneva Conventions...all universally accepted and ratified. The US is the only country that has not ratified the CRC, unless one wants to count Somalia, which has no working government.
Anyone still want to claim that human rights don;t exist or aren't clearly defined? It is an absurd claim. The problem is the self interested policies of nation states that prevents them from being respected and given the authority they deserve, along with giving the ICJ and ICC the authority and respect that they deserve to be able to interpret the conventions and expect states to respect and enforce those decisions. The legal positivism that oozes from the tarpit that is US legal scholarship is pathetic and one of the largest hurdles to any progress being made. Nationalism around the world is another. The nation state philosophy is an outdated one that needs to be greatly diminished in importance in this day and age.
Adam, you will note that I state that institutionalised religion is an atrocity, not religion in and of itself. Spirituality is a fine thing, as long as it is being used to promote peace and human rights. The extremists in Israel, the US, the Islamic world, heck in every religion who have no idea what the fundamentals of their faith even are and insist on some sort of post canonical interpretation that suits their self interest are dangers to true peace and disgraces to their claimed faiths. It is about time that we come to our senses and realise that one invisible man is as absurd as any other, and if anything everyone is talking to the same thing in their own environment. Anyone who states otherwise is just self righteous and not to be taken seriously. In addition, I will AGAIN reiterate that the reason why law exists is so that we can rise above idiotic religious and cultural biases and try and construct a relatively objective and universal system that everyone can agree on...and generally does when one examines how the overwhelming majority of nations and peoples on this earth agree with the human rights listed in the conventions above.
I am dismayed that scholars would be so self interested, short sighted, and narrow minded as to deny the existence of human rights and international law.
N. Friedman - 10/6/2004
I think you misunderstood my comment. The Nazis respected no national borders but instead sought, by conquest, universal rule according to their warped theory of race. They were, accordingly, not nationalist but, instead, universal in philosophy and inclination. Note: I do not claim their universalism or philosophy is good. I think it despicable.
Jews qua Jews make no claim to universalism. There are, of course, Jews who raise universal concerns and have universal interests but those are very different things than what you suggest. The claim that Jews qua Jews are universal is belied by thousands of years of history in which Jews sought to retain their particularity.
Please note that Judaism explicitly disclaims universalism which is why, unlike the other monotheistic religions, Jews do not seek to spread the faith and why Jews, acting in the name of Judaism, have not sought large scale conquests.
Clare Lois Spark - 10/6/2004
It is not true that Nazis and fascists were universalist as opposed to nationalism. Universalism was associated with the Jews and with capitalism and free trade. All the fascists were responding to economic crisis and the threat of Bolshevism/socialism with state management of the economy.
Americans were (ideologically) liberal nationalists in their war aims, ostensibly protecting individual human rights against the threat of totalitarian control and terror, including the destruction of independent labor organizations, whereas the fascist regimes were collectivist in spirit and practice. In that sense, fascists and Nazis were similar to conservative nationalism, which defines nationalism as the control of territory and resources, unlike liberal nationalism, which is a process gradually or rapidly emancipating the individual from illegitimate authority--always in the name of universally held moral precepts that hold individual life and the development of personality to be the highest good. Collective struggle and organization may be necessary to attain that goal, but the all-powerful state is not the goal of armed conflict or other forms of social organization.
The principles of the Jewish state, from its founding, were grounded in the overarching value of the individual, in the essential unity of humanity, and in the imperative to improve life for Arabs and Jews together. The same can not be said of the Arab opposition: quite the opposite, and I am deeply offended by the moral equivalence that has been expressed in the comments to the article, which seem to proclaim: a plague on both your houses.
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 10/6/2004
I must respectfully disagree with your lamentation about organized religion. After all, without religion, there cannot, in my judgment, exist any human rights. Since the concept of universal standards of morality necessitate some divinity (or even divinities), how can there exist human rights without faith?
After all, while it is true Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (to use the ‘big three’ so to speak as examples) have created their far share of havoc and death, they were also responsible for great leaps forward in human rights as they were really the philosophical justification for the existence of “rights” at all.
I must also concur with Mr. Friedman when he pointed out the record of many non-religious governments.
Jonathan Dresner - 10/6/2004
Demographers have recently calculated that, due to overlapping family trees, all humans today probably share at least one ancestor, who may have lived as recently as 3500 years ago. We are all cousins.
Oscar Chamberlain - 10/5/2004
"I am rather convinced that "human rights" do not exist."
In one sense you are right. Simply claiming something as a human right does not make it so. However, you sell the tradition short when you say that it is "usually righteous indignation."
Consider the Declaration of Independence. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" had no more support than modern human rights claims. But it--and various other descriptions of the proper nature of human existence--shaped the debate over how to form a nation. Those assertions were shaped in the creation of a nation,but they were born in the international setting of the Enlightenment and of a Protestantism leavened with toleration.
The assertion of human rights today--at its best--is an attempt to shape modern debates and actions concerning the proper nature of human existence. Sometimes the claims seem "self-evident"; sometimes they don't.
But in a world in which communication and transportation (and weapons technology) reduces the distances between nations and peoples, it is altogether logical to be debating what sort of international laws we need. And a debate over international law inevitably raises the question of what international rights are.
Perhaps if we spoke of them as international rights instead of human rights, the debate would be a bit clearer.
N. Friedman - 10/5/2004
1. "Sort of the reason why I have chasen the career that I have and can't understand why people can't respect human rights and the international "rule of law", and take sides in cases where both parties to a conflict are guilty of atrocities and dead wrong about their cause to begin with."
I am rather convinced that "human rights" do not exist. Civil rights can exist because they arise in the context of a nation, which is an actual thing. "Human rights" are mainly a verbal distraction which are used to allow people to project their sense of right and wrong - usually righteous indignation - onto problems they have know real knowledge about and no real stake in resolving in a liveable or just manner.
International law is, I think, a good idea to the extent that states back it up. Where, by contrast, International law pretends to make moral judgements and thus lapses into "human rights," the end result is that states wax elegant to no real affect and the law treads into politics with, in most instances, disasterous results.
2. "Too bad people still insist on institutionalised religion, nationalism, and legal positivism, three of the worst ideas man has ever had."
I am not religious. I do note, however, that the track record for the non-religious is rather dismal. Which is to say, the USSR, China, North Korea, etc., did not exactly create paradise on Earth. In fact, they killed tens, if not hundreds, of millions of their own people.
And, in the current dispute with Islamist facsism, those of a non-religious bent seem to make every excuse in the book for the religious facsist (and note: Islamism, in addition to its religious origins, also has direct origins in Nazi philosophy.)
So, I think the jury is out on whether institutionalized religiousity is the issue or human nature is the issue. I am inclined to think the latter.
Nationalism has been both a good and a bad thing. American nationalism helped defeat the fascists and the Nazis. I do not see a non-nationalist force winning that war and, as has been observed, the Nazis and facsists were not nationalist but, instead, universal type creeds.
Legal positivism has a good and a bad side. On the other hand, the same can be said for any other theory of jurisprudence.
chris l pettit - 10/5/2004
Sort of the reason why I have chasen the career that I have and can't understand why people can't respect human rights and the international "rule of law", and take sides in cases where both parties to a conflict are guilty of atrocities and dead wrong about their cause to begin with.
Too bad people still insist on institutionalised religion, nationalism, and legal positivism, three of the worst ideas man has ever had.
Oscar Chamberlain - 10/5/2004
I would love to hear someone in the midst of ethnic strife yell out to all sides:
"We are all bastards. If we go back far enough, none of us knows who are parents are.
We are all mongrels. No one has purity of blood great than a stray dog's.
We have all blasphemed. The ignorant by not knowing god. The learned, because they think that they do.
We are all infidels.
We are all descendants of rapists. In our past, a soldier strides through the ruins.
We are all descendants of the raped. In our past we have crouched in the ruins and been found anyway.
So in the name of the bastards, the mongrels, the blasphemers, the infidels, the rapers, and the raped, let us live together and have peace."
Well, I can dream, can't I?
- David Rosand, an Art History Scholar Whose Heart Was in Venice, Dies at 75
- NYT interviews Rick Perlstein about his book
- OAH issues a statement in support of the AP standards
- Daniel Pipes says in interview that the absence of anti-Israel protests in Muslim countries is highly significant
- A historian who studies China has discovered an overlooked angle in the debate about the Middle East. Could he have figured out a key reason for Iraq’s failure to defeat ISIS?