29 January 2013

On Holocaust Memorial Day We Still Don't Know Enough About the Holocaust

Last Sunday (27 January) was the Holocaust Memorial Day. 

Actually, it was the UN and EU sanctioned remembrance. Yom HaShoa, is observed on 27 April.

Normally, I would not comment on such a sad and somber day, but I came across a couple of news item that made me think of something specific about the Holocaust.

A short while ago, a friend of mine sent me the video clip of Alice Sommer-Herz (also referred to as Alice Summers). She is a Holocaust survivor and a wonderful human being. She must be 110 this year and apparently lives by herself in a small flat in London and plays the piano for two and a half hour every day.

This is a brief interview with her where she explains how she always chose to feel optimistic and how she enjoys every small thing in life.

You can click here to see the clip. I promise you it will be worth your while.

I shared this clip with a few friends and one of them came back with a startling reaction. He said that he was so tired of Jewish people bringing up the Holocaust all the time that he found Alice's perspective refreshing.

I am using the adjective "startling" because, in my experience, Jewish people almost never bring up the Holocaust. This is especially the case for people who had family members perish in the camps. I think the idea that one can be hated so much for just being who they are that they can be summarily and systematically pushed aside, tortured and killed is so painful that they would rather not talk about it. I know I wouldn't. Especially considering that, at the time, a vast majority of humanity refused to lift a finger to stop the atrocities.

Then I asked around and to my chagrin, I found out that many people were secretly thinking along the same lines. Some thought that the topic was just ever-present. Others felt that we just studied obsessively something that has a zero chance of happening again. And yet others downplayed the unique horror of the Holocaust by comparing it with the suffering of the Palestinians. (Just like the Lib-Dem MP who said four days ago:
"I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.")
I personally believe that, despite being a disproportionately horrendous event, the Holocaust is mentioned much less often than the 9/11 World Trade Center incident. Consequently, most young people have either a very vague idea about the Holocaust or they ignore it completely. For instance, a significant majority of French people have never heard of the Vel d'Hiv round up I mentioned a few months ago. A contemporaneous opinion poll found out that of the respondents who are younger than 35 years of age, up to 67 % had no clue about the round up.

Last week, I was reminded of that blissful ignorance once again, when I read an article about a survivor who had to suffer in four different camps. Henia Bryer, prisoner A26188 told the BBC that she was worried that young generations knew nothing about the Holocaust.
"I had an operation once and the anaesthetist comes and looks at [the tattoo on] my arm and he says, 'What is this?' And I said, 'That's from Auschwitz.' And he said, 'Auschwitz, what was that?' And that was a young man, a qualified doctor," she says.

There was no time to explain: "I was unconscious the next minute!"

Bryer's memories of the camps and the scenes she witnessed, remain - and she is determined that what happened should never be forgotten.
People's impressions notwithstanding, I also know that we have not studied the Holocaust enough.

A day after I read the BBC piece, a friend of mine sent me a book review, The book was about the widespread and systematic rape and sexual abuse of Jewish women during the Holocaust.
The rape and sexual abuse of Jewish women in the Holocaust has been a subject that is so taboo that it has taken 65 years for the first English language book on the subject to make its way to the public.
This is partly because of the circumstances.
Many sexually abused women were raped and then simply killed.

Author Moinka J. Faschka of Kent State University in Ohio, one of the contributors to the book, cites survivor Harry Koltun, who said in an interview: "[T]he Gestapo SS came in and took out a few Jewish girls, they took them into a forest and they never came back. They did what they had to do sexually, and they killed them. Nice, nice looking girls."
There was also an almost universal unwillingness to talk about these case.
At a presentation at the Anne Frank Center USA in New York, the book's authors said that previously the barriers to telling the stories of sexual abuse have been tremendous. Some Holocaust scholars believed that segmenting out rape stories–and even women's stories unrelated to sexual violence--would sever women from the community by focusing on one group when all Jews, regardless of gender, were targeted for persecution. Rape was not included in the Nuremberg Trials when Nazi officials were charged with war crimes.

In other cases, women feared they would be considered "impure" or be ostracized by their families.
I am reasonably knowledgeable about World War II and the atrocities committed in most places and against most people. I read about the Holocaust and the social history of the period rather extensively. I have been to Yad Vashem.

If I never heard of these terrible stories that means that we haven't talked about the Holocaust and we haven't studied these terrible events nearly enough.

And as Rwanda and Srebrenica showed us, we need to do both if we don't want something like this ever to happen again.

25 January 2013

Latest Developments on Syrian Conflict

There are signs that things are coming to a head in the next month or two.

1) Evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria.

Russia quietly evacuated 77 of its citizens from Syria. And when prompted about this, Sergey Lavrov downplayed its significance. He also divulged inadvertently that the families of Russian diplomats in Syrian have been sent home a while ago.

What is also interesting is that Russia sent a large warship in December to Syria and the New York Times reported at the time that its mission was the evacuation of Russian citizens in Syria at the first sign of conflict.

Clearly, they know something we don't.

2) Deployment of Patriot Missiles

I speculated recently that things might heat up once the Patriot missiles are in place. It appears that they will become operational sometimes next week:
More than 1,000 American, German and Dutch troops are to be based in Turkey to operate the six Patriot batteries. 
The Americans will be based at Gaziantep, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Syrian border. The Germans will be based at Kahramanmaras, 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the Syrian border and the Dutch at Adana, 100 kilometers (66 miles) west of the border.
It is true that these are essentially defensive missiles. But their presence will make Syrian army operations rather risky in the border area. That is because, it seems clear to me that any casus belli will be used  by Turkey to launch targeted attacks on key army units and Syrian air force.

Since a Turkish war plane was previously downed by Syria with no warning, a smallest provocation can be justifiably used to do some serious damage to Syrian forces without committing ground troops. The hope would be that such a push would be enough for the FSA to take the upper hand.

3) Turkey's Kurdish peace initiative might yield tangible results soon.

In the aftermath of the murder of 3 PKK activists in Paris, both the Turkish government and the PKK sources were unusually subdued in their reaction. One side mentioned organizational infighting without naming names and the other pointed the finger to a shadowy "deep state" without explicitly implicating the government.

Since then, government representatives went back to Ocalan to negotiate some form of truce and a larger peace place with him. There are also signs that the US is pushing the Turkish government to enlarge the scope and to talk with BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), a pro-Kurdish party with a decent parliamentary presence. It is also well respected not just by ordinary Kurds but by members of the PKK.

Davutoglu, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs went to Davos (a) to slam the world's inaction on Syria, (b) to suggest that PYD's support for Assad could become problematic for them, and (c) to mention that Erbil (i.e. Barzani and Iraqi Kurdistan) is supportive of Turkey's effort to make peace with Kurds. For good measure, he even added:
“As I’ve said before, the U.N. secretary-general will be apologizing to the people in Aleppo in 10 years, the way Ban Ki-moon apologized for Srebrenica.” 
4) Elections in Israel.

They created a much better legislative arithmetic than the bleak vision provided by Naftali Bennett. As I expressed my optimism about the likelihood of a large, national unity coalition a few days ago, Israeli voters thankfully obliged and elected a new Knesset that is likely to produce a government of peace.

If that happens, as I hoped, events in Syria will have much fewer repercussions for Israel's security (though, as with Turkey, they will have to negotiate in earnest).

We certainly live in interesting times.

Suspect in the Paris PKK murders

Further to the murder of three PKK activists in Paris, the prosecutor's office arrested a man by the name of Omer Guney.

But you would not know it unless you really searched for it. Le Monde had a piece but it was buried behind the subscription firewall. BBC mentioned it in its Turkish language news site. For the rest, it was discussed in obscure (and somewhat dubious) Web sites in Turkish.

There was a claim that he was Sakine Cansiz' driver. It turns out that she did not have a driver.

A couple of Web sites claimed that he was in love with a Kurdish woman who dislike Cansiz and therefore it was a crime of passion.

For good measure they published his FaceBook page where he wrote about his attraction to an unnamed flight attendant and his desire to drink to forget.

Some sites published an ID that showed he was a member of a Kurdish association in France, implying that he was a member of the PKK.

It was reported that Guney usually said that one of his parents was Kurdish, the other Turkish but by all appearances he seems to be of Turkish descent. Reportedly, there are no Kurds in the small village in which he grew up.

His uncle went on Turkish TV and said that his nephew had a brain tumor and therefore he would be incapable of carrying out such a crime.

In short, there is a furious media and disinformation campaign going on and despite a prolonged custody, not much is known about the evidence against him. Or about his motives.

It looks probable that his arrest was linked to CCTV cameras, as I suggested. He was seen going in and coming out at around the same time the murders wee committed.

French police leaked that he had gun shot residue on his trousers and a bag he was seen carrying. They even mentioned that he washed the heavy coat he was wearing that day, possibly to remove relevant evidence.

The prosecutor mentioned that they found an unidentifiable partial print on one of the cartridges left on the murder scene and DNA residue. Interestingly, the DNA did not match Guney's, suggesting that he was not alone.

As Alice said, curiouser and curiouser.

21 January 2013

Israeli Elections and Netanyahu's Tight Spot

Tuesday is election day in Israel.

It is likely to be a watershed moment.

You may remember that Prime Minister Netanyahu called early elections a couple of months ago shortly after entering into a surprise coalition agreement with the centrist Kadima party.

I was quite surprised when he called snap elections because I assumed that with the comfortable majority Likud-Ysrael Beiteinu and Kadima enjoyed in the Knesset, he had everything he needed to start a peace process with Palestinians.

The early elections decision indicated that Netahyahu had another scenario in mind. He felt that he did not need Kadima because he could move to the center any time he needed, as the space to Likud's right was solidly occupied by his buddy Avigdor Lieberman's Ysrael Beiteinu party.

He must have checked with Arthur Finkelstein, his American campaign manager and Finkelstein's polling at the time gave Likud-Beiteinu a combined 45 seats and maybe more (currently they have 42 seats out of 120 in the Knesset).

I suspect he figured that he could always get a much weakened post-election Kadima involved if he needed more support and he could convince other centrist forces to join his coalition to reduce his dependence on religious parties. And sure enough, right about then, Tzipi Livni, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and one of the most respected politicians in Israel decided to make a political comeback and formed a new party in November called Hatnuah. With dissidents from Kadima she now has 7 seats in the Knesset.

All in all, Netanyahu must have envisaged that this new coalition would be durable and strong enough for him to start a peace process with Palestinians. (As I mentioned throughout, I am not attributing this goal to him as something he cherishes: it is a major goal for the US and a critical necessity in the newly "sprung" Arab World). After all, Lieberman has nowhere to go with a pending indictment and he will do as he is told. Tzipi Livni or other centrist parties are interested in a two-state solution and would toe the party line, so to speak.

But his calculations proved to be wrong dramatically.

19 January 2013

Wrong Maple Leaf on Canada's Currency

Well, it looks like the new polymer bills that make up the Canadian dollar will continue to be controversial.

When Bank of Canada decided recently to leave the cotton and linen "paper" currency behind and move on to polymer, things began to unravel.

When the new designs were shown to people, focus group after focus group came up with interesting and peculiar notions.
New documents show a focus group mistook a strand of DNA on the $100 bill for a sex toy.

Most people also thought the see-through window on the new polymer notes was shaped like the contours of a woman's body.
Others looked into the port holes of a famed Canadian icebreaker and saw a skull and crossbones staring back at them.

After the DNA-as-dildo debacle, came the Vimy memorial on the $20 bill.
The monument was erected in Vimy, France in 1936 to honour First World War soldiers.

Unfortunately, most focus group participants were unable to identify the iconic memorial or even knew of its existence according to a report from obtained by CTV News.

"When you quickly glance at it, and if I didn't know any better, it looks like the Twin Towers," said one participant in the report, which was produced by market research firm The Strategic Council in Toronto.

"It's too pornographic," said another. "What is the woman on the top holding?"
The "pornographic" image in question is this

You have to wonder what that focus group member imagined she was holding.

Then, Bank of Canada had to change the design of the $100 bill as it showed the picture of "an Asian-looking woman scientist peering into a microscope." Reactions were diverse and largely negative:
"Some believe that it presents a stereotype of Asians excelling in technology and/or the sciences. Others feel that an Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented on the banknotes. Other ethnicities should also be shown."
When the Bank caved and replaced the image with that of a Caucasian woman that caused further uproar. And the Bank had to apologize for making the change.

And today the BBC reports that the Maple Leaf on the $20 bill is not the native Canadian maple but a naturalized European variety known as Norway maple.

Apparently, a senior botanist at the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre brought this to the attention of Bank of Canada officials and they scrambled to come up with an explanation.

Their lame declaration was that the maple leaf was "stylized."

The whole thing would be just funny except perhaps the fact that the man who was responsible for all these silly missteps, Mark Carney, was rewarded with a major promotion and he has just become the governor of Bank of England.

He did so by taking credit for the successful measures put in place by his predecessors.

And of course by disowning any and all mistakes during his tenure.

Just like Brits who started a petition to keep Piers Morgan in the US, Canadians should petition the British Parliament to keep Mr. Carney there indefinitely.

15 January 2013

Who Killed the Three PKK Activists in Paris?

When I was a kid I used to read Ellery Queen novels about locked door murder mysteries. You know, the body is in a room with the door locked and no other obvious exit for the murderer to escape.

The assassination of three Kurdish women activists in Paris reminded me of those novels. They were killed execution style with a single bullet to the back of the head (actually two were killed like that and the third victim had stomach and chest wounds).

There was speculation that since there was a digital keylock on the outside door and the door to the apartment had no sign of forced entry, the victims might have known their killer and opened the door for him. (Actually, this detail was leaked by the Turkish ambassador to France, possibly to support the thesis that the killing was an inside job.)

Most pundits seem to agree that the main target was Sakine Cansiz (whose last name, in a sad irony, means "inanimate" in Turkish). She was one of the founders of Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK and was known as a close ally of the PKK's incarcerated leader Abdullah Ocalan. Apparently, the other two women were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

There are two scenarios being discussed in the Turkish media. One is the Kurdish point of view, which holds that the assassination was the work of the so called "deep state" this clandestine organization that operates within the state to further some dark nationalistic goals.

The other hypothesis was advanced by the Turkish government and it maintains that this was an internal affair where a faction unhappy with the recent peace process was trying to undermine the process.

The question is, whose argument makes more sense. And if neither is tenable, then who might be behind these murders.

Was it "Deep State"?

First things first, when people whisper the words "deep state" what they are actually referring to is an intelligence and military apparatus created by NATO during the Cold War. You might have heard of the Gladio operation, and the Turkish version was known as "Counter-guerrilla." The Turkish branch was quite active and it is widely believed to have played a significant role in the 1971 and 1980 coup d'etats.

That's "deep state."

Lately, every foreign reporter in Turkey seems to be told that there is a shadowy, ultra-nationalistic "state within state" kind of structure. This fits well with the government narrative as used in the Ergenekon trials. And since no one remembers history or the Gladio operation, it is beginning to sound like a real and independent entity. When overhearing the term everyone knowingly nods and acquiesces but it actually means something quite concrete.

09 January 2013

Is Kashmir Just a Led Zeppelin Song?

When I first wrote about Pakistan, I used the title "Why is no one worrying about Pakistan?"

My next post was entitled "Pakistan Worries."

Today I was tempted to use either headlines again. Don't take my lame joke about the Jimmy Page-Robert Plant classic a sign that I am no longer worried. Now, I am positively scared.

If you have been reading the news, you probably know why.

Last Sunday, Indian and Pakistani troops exchanged fire near the Line of Control and one Pakistani soldier died during the incident.

Two days later, there was a recurrence.
A firefight broke out between Pakistan and Indian troops, lasting about half an hour before "the intruders retreated back towards their side" of the LoC, the Indian statement said.
This time two Indian soldiers died. Moreover, Indian government claims that one of them was beheaded by Pakistani troops.

This is a serious escalation that comes at a time when the Pakistani army is under significant pressure on another front.

The Taliban Background

In my previous posts on Pakistan, I chronicled the steady and dangerous deterioration of the US-Pakistan relations. The Pakistani army and its intelligence arm ISI have their own agenda which rarely corresponds with the official government policy or the US goals in the region.

It is a complicated game.

ISI has been supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is an open secret that many Taliban fighters are trained in the Waziristan region in Pakistan and the army and the ISI provide them with arms, money and logistic support.

The Pakistanis have two goals for pursuing this policy. They believe that if Afghanistan becomes stable, there is a strong likelihood that the Pashtun tribe within Pakistan might want to secede and join their brethren in Afghanistan (Pashtun people are the predominant group in that country and they make up the majority of Taliban and the current government).

06 January 2013

Syria, Turkey and the Kurds

If you are familiar with this humble soap box, you probably know that the resident contrarian holds the belief that the Syrian knot will not be undone without dealing with the Kurds of the region. Trying to exclude them will simply make matters worse.

The PKK controls a large segment of Syrian Kurds through PYD and without them playing ball, the Syrian war of attrition will be, well, just that. The way it works, for a few weeks the rebels will take over some localities and then within a few weeks government forces will take some of these places back. Both parties have their international patrons who are making sure that their side does not lose out of exhaustion or lack of supplies.

Like Iraq, with its northern Kurdish territory, its southern Shi'a region and the desolate Sunni heartland in the middle, Syria is rapidly moving towards some kind of partitioning. As I have been saying for some time, whether Kurds join the fight for their independent/autonomous region will be hugely important for the final outcome.

In recent months, despite this reality on the ground, the Turkish Prime Minister seemed determined to ignore the Kurds because he did not want to deal with the PKK.  This is no longer true, it seems.

First, Erdogan decided to address the large Syrian refugee colony in Turkey just before the New Year to tell them that the end is near and Assad is on his way out.

That's him on the right, wearing a scarf with Syrian rebel colors (green, white and black). He called it a "sacred birth," whatever that may mean. His wife Emine is next to him, with what appears to be a non-denominational scarf of her own.

Then, the first day of the New Year, the government announced that it has started talking to Ocalan, the incarcerated leader of the PKK. A couple of days later, they leaked it that the talks were going well.

Despite years of incarceration, Ocalan remains the undisputed leader of the PKK. When he ordered (through his brother) that the large scale prison hunger strike be stopped, he was obeyed immediately. Not everyone is convinced that he can deliver, but clearly the Turkish government believes that he can.

Erdogan's "sacred birth" and timeline would make sense if Ocalan could convince the PKK to negotiate with the Turkish government towards a larger settlement and cessation of hostilities. Because that would mean the PYD would no longer maintain its ambivalent attitude towards the Assad regime and join the Kurdish National Council.

02 January 2013

So much for Cliffmas

You might have seen the headlines. The Fiscal Cliff averted. Negotiations Down to the Wire. Breathless commentary about how Congressional leaders and Biden worked to find a compromise solution.

Such rubbish.

As I mentioned before, there was no need for a frenzied last minute bargaining. If they let the whole thing be, much higher capital gains taxes and serious income tax rate hikes were going to become law. Democrats could simply enact lower income tax and longer unemployment benefits in the first week of January and give the Republicans the choice to refuse tax reductions for the middle classes.

If they had negotiated a package deal after Cliffmas, Republicans would have no choice but come to the table in order to offset higher capital gains, estate and income taxes for the wealthy. More importantly, holding on to the higher taxes for the wealthy would have given Obama a solid leverage for borrowing limits, spending priorities and Social Security and Medicare reform.

Incidentally, whoever claims that tax increases would have led to instant recession is not telling you the truth. Middle class taxes will have become effective next fiscal year and many things could have been modified between now and then.

Also, it is interesting to note that the very same people who now express fear that any money siphoned off the economy would lead to recession were demanding austerity measures just a few short weeks ago. And as soon as this deal is signed, they will go back asking for spending reductions (i.e siphoning off money from the economy).

And the same people who maintained that the deficit was number one priority are the same ones who now refuse to bring in more revenue from the 1 percenters.

Understandably, the corporate media are putting a positive spin on this agreement. They are also carefully and studiously avoiding these questions.

But the deal that Democrats just signed will prove to be disastrous and Obama will almost certainly have to negotiate a Grand Bargain that will significantly reduce Social Security and Medicare benefits and increase the retirement age. That is because Democrats (and Obama) have just decoupled tax increases for the wealthy from borrowing limits, spending priorities and Social Security and Medicare reform. And postponed that debate for another two months.

That means that, in two months time, the Republicans will simply refuse to increase governments borrowing limit and will dare Obama to default on US debt and shut down government services. The media will report this as a principled stand (and not something that could lead to another recession as they do now).

Obama will negotiate by offering more concessions on Social Security and Medicare. The GOP will refuse all such offers. Finally, a version of Simpson-Bowles will be introduced as the centrist solution. Obama will say that each side got something they wanted and obviously no one could have gotten everything they wanted.

Democrats will complain about the intransigence of the Tea Party Republicans. They will tell their base that it was the best they could do when faced with such a terrible adversary. They will point to some minor victories in the package, something like the retirement age being 68 instead of 69.

And that will be that.

This is so often repeated that in November, Greenwald had a formal summary of the process.

This is also why I was suggesting before the elections that Obama is better placed than Romney to make people swallow this bitter pill. And that is why (with the exception of a couple of crazies like Sheldon Adelson and Koch brothers) the bulk of the 1 percenters liked him very much.

He just delivered on that.

By allowing the GOP to hold on to the borrowing limit threat he essentially ensured that a Grand Bargain that reflects the priorities of Peter Peterson will be signed by March.