Friday, 24 January 2020
Thursday, 23 January 2020
Wednesday, 22 January 2020
“My name is Yaakov Sharett. I am 92 years old. I happen to be my father’s son for which I am not responsible. So this is how it is.”
Yaakov chuckles and looks up from under a woolly hat towards a photograph of his father - proud in collar and tie - on his study wall in Tel Aviv. Moshe Sharett was a founding father of Israel, its first foreign minister and its second prime minister from 1954-55.
But I hadn’t come to talk about Yaakov’s father. I had come with photographs of a well which was once located in an Arab village called Abu Yahiya, situated in the Negev region in what is now southern Israel.
'I happen to be my father’s son for which I am not responsible. So this is how it is'
- Yaakov Sharett
Researching a book, I had recently found the well and learned something of the history of Abu Yahiya village. I had heard how the Palestinians who once lived there were expelled in the war of 1948, which led to the creation of Israel.
I had also heard that Zionist frontiersmen, who set up an outpost near the village before the 1948 war, used to draw water from the Arabs’ well. Among them was a young Jewish soldier called Yaakov Sharett. So I had come to see Yaakov in the hope he might share his memories of the well, the villagers and the events of 1948.
In 1946, two years before the Arab-Israeli war, Yaakov and a group of comrades moved to the area of Abu Yahiya to help spearhead one of the Zionists most breathtaking land grabs.
As a young soldier, Sharett was appointed mukhtar – or chief - of one of 11 Jewish outposts established by stealth in the Negev. The purpose was to secure a Jewish foothold to ensure Israel could seize the strategic area when war came.
Draft partition plans had designated the Negev, where Arabs vastly outnumbered Jews, as part of an Arab state, but Jewish strategists were determined to take it as theirs.
The so-called “11 points” operation was a huge success, and during the war the Arabs were virtually all driven out, and the Negev was declared part of Israel.
For the daring frontiersmen involved, it was a badge of honour to have taken part and Yaakov Sharett seemed excited by his memories at first.
“We set off, with wire and posts and tracked through Wadi Beersheva,” he says. I flick open a laptop showing photographs of the Arab well, now an Israeli tourist spot.
“Yes,” says Yaakov, amazed. “I know it. I knew Abu Yahiya. A nice man. A tall, lean Bedouin with a sympathetic face. He sold me water. It was delicious.”
What happened to the villagers, I wonder? He pauses. “When war came, the Arabs fled - expelled. I somehow don’t remember,” he says, pausing again.
“I returned afterwards and the area was quite empty. Empty! Except,” and he peers at the photo of the well again.
“You know, this nice man was somehow still there afterwards. He asked for my help. He was in a very bad way - very sick, and barely able to walk, all alone. Everyone else was gone.”
But Yaakov offered no help. “I said nothing. I feel very bad about it. Because he was my friend,” he says.
Yaakov looks up clearly pained. “I regret it all very much. What can I say?”
And as what was to be our short interview ran on, it became clear that Yaakov Sharett regretted not only the Negev venture, but the entire Zionist project as well.
From Ukraine to Palestine
Panning out across the history, Yaakov seemed at times more like a man confessing than giving an interview.
After the 1948 war and the establishment of Israel, Yaakov studied Russian in the US and was then posted as a diplomat to the Israeli embassy in Moscow, only to be expelled from Russia accused of being a “Zionist propagandist and a CIA spy”.
On return to Israel, he worked as a journalist and on retirement devoted his later years to establishing the Moshe Sharett Heritage Society, dedicated to publishing Sharett's papers and diaries – one section in English. The Sharett diaries have been highly acclaimed, described by one critic as “among the best political diaries ever published”.
Often referring in our interview to his father’s central role in establishing Israel, Yaakov’s thoughts had evidently been brought into focus by the years he’d spent editing Moshe Sharett’s writings. Haaretz, the centre-left Israeli newspaper, commenting on the eight-volume Hebrew edition of the diaries, said it was “difficult to overstate their importance to the study of Israeli history”.
This week, publication of the abridged English edition, also translated by Yaakov – My Struggle for Peace (1953-1956) - will be celebrated at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. “It is the apex of my life’s work,” says Yaakov.
This work had also made the pain of his conclusions all the deeper as he now disavowed the validity of much of his father’s “life’s work” – and, I learn, his grandfather’s too.
His grandfather, Jacob Shertok - the original family name - was one of the first Zionists to set foot in Palestine, leaving his home in Kherson, Ukraine, in 1882 after Russian pogroms.
“He had this dream of tilling the land. The big Zionist idea was going back to the land and leaving the superficial activities of Jews who had become remote from land,” he says.
“They thought that, little by little, more Jews would immigrate until they became a majority, and could demand a state, which they then called a ‘homeland’ to avoid controversy.”
I wonder what Yaakov’s grandfather thought would happen to the Arabs, who then comprised about 97 percent of the population, with Jews around 2 to 3 percent.
“I think he thought the more Jews that came, the more they’d bring prosperity and the Arabs would be happy. They didn’t realise people don’t live only on money. We would have to be the dominant power, but the Arabs would get used to it,” he says.
Adding with a wistful smile: “Well, either they believed it or they wanted to believe it. My grandfather’s generation were dreamers. If they had been realists, they would not have come to Palestine in the first place. It was never possible for a minority to replace a majority that had lived on this land for hundreds of years. It could never work,” he says.
Four years later, Jacob wished he hadn’t come, returning to Russia, not because of Palestinian hostility - Jewish numbers were still tiny - but because he couldn’t make a living here.
Many of the very early settlers in Palestine found working on the land far harder than they had ever imagined, often returning to Russia in despair. But in 1902, after more pogroms, Jacob Sharett returned, this time with a family including Moshe, aged eight.
Palestinians were still - for the most part - welcoming to Jews as the threat of Zionism remained unclear. A member of the prosperous Husseini family, who was headed abroad, even offered Yaakov’s grandfather his house to rent in the village of Ein Siniya, now in the occupied West Bank.
For two years, grandfather Shertok lived there like an Arab grandee while his children attended a Palestinian kindergarten. “My father herded sheep, learned Arabic and generally lived like an Arab,” says Yaakov.
But the Zionist plan was to live like Jews so before long, the family had moved to the fast-growing Jewish hub of Tel Aviv and Moshe was soon honing every skill - including studying Ottoman law in Istanbul - in order to further the Zionist project.
Thanks to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine and ushered in British colonial rule, plans for a full-blown Jewish state now seemed possible, and over the next two decades, Moshe Sharett helped design it, becoming a key figure in the Jewish Agency, the state’s government-in-waiting.
Central to the project was the creation of a Jewish majority and ownership of as much of the land as possible, to which end Sharett worked closely with his ally David Ben-Gurion. Immigration rose fast, and land was bought, usually from absentee Arab landlords.
'My father and the rest still thought that most Arabs would sell their national honour for the food we would give them'
- Yaakov Sharett
The pace of change provoked the Palestinian revolt of 1936, brutally crushed by the British. In the light of that revolt, did the future prime minister ever question whether the Jewish state could work?
“No,” says Yaakov. The leadership were “still full of justifying their ideas of Zionism. You must remember that they all thought in terms of being Jewish and how they had been subjugated by majorities in the countries in which they had lived.
“My father said this: ‘Wherever there is a minority, every member has a stick and rucksack in his cupboard'. Psychologically, he realises a bad day will come and he will have to leave. So the priority was always to create a majority and shake off the psychology of the minority for ever.
“My father and the rest still thought that most Arabs would sell their national honour for the food we would give them. It was a nice dream, but at the cost of others. And anyone who did not agree was a traitor.”
Tuesday, 21 January 2020
Monday, 20 January 2020
It had been raining all day in Karachi, commencing the annual monsoon in July, as I set out to my prenatal appointment at South City Hospital. The ultrasound technician ran down a list of protocol answers, and then she asked if I wanted to know the sex of the child. I said yes, and she replied, “Congratulations, it’s a girl!” I didn’t say thank you, instead, I asked, are you sure it’s a girl? She confirmed and suddenly I was overwhelmed with a whole lot of disappointment. It wasn’t a boy. I came outside crying in a room full of pregnant women that probably thought I was shedding tears of joy. Why wasn’t I happy?
In hindsight, it pains me to think that once upon a time I upheld ideas that perpetuate gender discrimination in our society. For many people like me, this gendered prejudice can be traced back to our roots. I was born in a home that was already ridden with patriarchy, with the problems and conflicts that this would create already embedded inside of me.
My mother got married in a joint-family home that she shared with her in-laws. My grandmother had coerced my father into the marriage, believing my mother would make an ideal, submissive daughter-in-law for her family. My parents had three daughters in three consecutive years, and most of the child-raising responsibility fell on my mother.
I cannot recall a time in our childhood when my father took time out to have a one-on-one conversation with my sisters and me, or spend quality time playing with us. He would be out of the house most of the time and come back after we would be asleep. Unfortunately, when there is no communication, even the bridges built on blood relations fall apart.
As we got older, instead of keeping a hand of grace, he kept eyes of suspicion on us. We were never encouraged to study; none of my paternal aunts had studied further than 10th grade. In 6th grade, my father removed my younger sister and me from our English-immersion school to a local neighbourhood Urdu-immersion school so we could give company to our cousin. In our home, sadqa would primarily be taken out for the men in the household because their lives were perceived to have more value than women.
There are many people in our community who still believe that education and opportunity should only be given to a son because daughters will be eventually married off. As soon as a baby girl starts taking her initial steps, she is critiqued for how she sits, how she talks, how she laughs, what she wears, and suddenly the entire burden of her family’s social standing rests on her. I was quite neglected growing up, and this is perhaps why I presumed that my daughter would share a similar experience.
Since we had no formal education, most of our proposals were based on our looks. My mother believed that to ensure our children grew up with better opportunities, we should marry educated men. I was the last one in my three sisters to get married after facing a broken engagement with a fraudulent person and numerous rejections because of my tan complexion. People would come to see me for their sons but would end up saying “humain aapki choti beti pasand agayi hai,” (we like your younger daughter instead) simply because she had a fairer complexion.
In 2013, I met my husband at a lunch at my sister’s in-laws. My husband’s family had an entirely different mindset – girls were treated with equality and equity, and their birth was celebrated with much delight. All three of my working sister-in-laws earned an education of a Master’s degree or above. My mother-in-law had especially prayed for a daughter for my husband, which to me was astounding. It started to make me reflect on how primitive are the ideals that I was raised with. When I had my first child, I believed in the myth that having a boy would safeguard my position as a wife, a daughter-in-law, and as a mother. I broke down in a phone call with my sister-in-law but she quickly reminded me that the sex of the child is dependent on the man, not the woman, then why do we question the woman?
When I told my in-laws and my husband that I was having a baby girl, they were overjoyed; my mother-in-law organized an extravagant baby shower followed by an aqeeqah. My husband and our daughter share a bond so beautiful, that I lovingly envy not having that relationship with my own father. Although she’s only two and a half, my husband spends his free time teaching her, reading to her, and taking her to the park every single day.
This year I conceived for the second time, and once again my old insecurities crept up – if I have a son, my husband will love me more…if I don’t have a son, my in-laws won’t be happy with me… Even though it made no difference to my husband or in-laws as long as the baby was healthy. Once again the ultrasound technician sounded the words “it’s a girl!” Once again I was teary-eyed and began to blame myself until my husband sat me down for a one-on-one to remind me that having a boy would have no bearing on our relationship or my relationships with my in-laws. Having a boy or a girl does not define me; it is how I raise them that does.
As an adult, I an re-learning my worth and value as a woman after getting married – what my father should have done 27 years ago and what my husband is doing every single day now. He effectively broke the cycle of patriarchy that is often sustained by women themselves. If fathers take a genuine interest in their daughter’s well-being and education, there are fewer chances of girls being exploited or abused. In this man’s world, it’s only the women that get trapped in the rules. But at least I can contribute to change by making it better for the two young women that I am raising.
Saturday, 18 January 2020
Friday, 17 January 2020
Thursday, 16 January 2020
Wednesday, 15 January 2020
Tuesday, 14 January 2020
In recent weeks, police in India have been cracking down on thousands of protesters across the country. In many instances, local police are responding with brutality and deadly violence, setting out to inflict “maximum damage” on demonstrators. A video uploaded on social media shows officers in Kanpur cursing at protesters and targeting them with live fire. Another video, from the Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi, again shows policemen using live ammunition on protesters. Footage from the protests at Jamia also shows female student protesters rescuing their male colleagues from police violence.
The protests are in response to the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December. First introduced to parliament by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the law allows members of the Hindu, Jain, Parsi, Sikh, Buddhist, and Christian communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan to claim citizenship in India, while excluding Muslims from that clause.
While BJP members have portrayed the law to international audiences as a means of aiding minority groups from neighboring Muslim countries escape persecution, it is in fact the latest in a series of repressive steps the Indian government has taken against the country’s Muslim minority. By making religion a condition of Indian citizenship, the act has a more troubling purpose: to transform India into a Hindutva version of Israel.
Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, is the political ideology followed by the BJP and its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In pre-colonial times, followers of the Hindu religion never thought of themselves as a nation. As Professor Romila Thapar of Jawaharlal Nehru University argues, a national narrative of Hinduism only emerged after the writings of early 19th century British historians of India, such as James Mill, who wrote about a Muslim nation and a Hindu nation “perpetually antagonistic towards each other.”
The ideological father of today’s Hindu nationalism, however, is Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. An early 20th century politician, he drew inspiration both from Nazi Germany and from the Zionist movement in advocating for India to become a Hindu ethnocratic state that treated Muslims “like negroes” in the United States of his time.
In late November, the Indian consul-general to New York City, Sandeep Chakravorty, cited Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as an example of what India is hoping to achieve in Kashmir. It is clear from the works of academics such as Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya that this view of Israel as a model for India is not only applicable in Kashmir — a territory under Indian military occupation for seven decades — but also within the “mainland” and other states.
In line with their ideological affinity to Zionism, the BJP pledged during the 2014 Indian elections to institute a policy similar to Israel’s Law of Return, which would grant Indian citizenship to Hindus from neighboring countries. The Citizenship Amendment Bill was subsequently introduced to the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, in the summer of 2016.
Protests in many cities, such as Delhi, Hyderabad, and Lucknow, were expressions of solidarity with Muslim Indians. The earliest opposition to the bill, however, emerged in the state of Assam in 2016, where the Assam Gana Parishad Party criticized the BJP for seeking to compromise the identity of the indigenous Assamese people.
Although Hindus form most of Assam’s population, the question of indigenous rights in the state is a highly sensitive legacy of British colonial rule. It is widely known that the British promoted the movement of Bengali settlers to Assam, and even instituted Bengali as the official language of the courts in 1836.
The large-scale arrival of refugees from Bangladesh during its war of independence in 1971 led to violent pogroms by indigenous tribes against the refugees in the later part of the decade. Indigenous residents of other states in northeast India protested for similar reasons, most notably in Tripura.
India has always had a problematic relationship with the religious and ethnic minorities it has ruled over, who make up about 15 percent of the population — and with its Muslim minority in particular.
But the BJP’s de jure creation of tiered citizenship between Muslims and non-Muslims represents an alarming embrace of ethnocracy and apartheid.
Just as the repeal of Article 370 in August allows India to shrink Kashmir’s Muslim majority, the CAA is designed to facilitate a similar demographic change and diminish India’s Muslim population. This law is particularly dangerous when used alongside India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is the official record of India’s citizens as per the 1955 Citizenship Act. The register has not been updated in the vast majority of the country since the 1950s, yet Indian Home Minister Amit Shah declared in 2019 that it will be used to expel “each and every infiltrator in India.”
To make it onto the NRC, Indians will have to demonstrate possession of documents that prove their legal status prior to a cut-off date: March 24, 1971 in the case of Assam, for example. This poses an enormous problem to people who perhaps have not been able to hold onto such documents over the years.
In Assam, almost 2 million residents have not been able to make it onto the NRC, including about 700,000 Muslims. Although non-Muslims will be rendered stateless for a short period, the CAA will allow them to regain citizenship. Muslims, on the other hand, are excluded from this safeguard and may be forced to reside in detention centers.
The practical consequences of India’s NRC bear many similarities to Israel’s control of the population registry of the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Although the Palestinian Authority may update its own copy of the citizenship registry, it is Israel that determines the status of Palestinians, including whether to recognize their legal documents or to decide the extent that they can freely move in and out of the occupied territories.
According to Israeli human rights non-profit B’Tselem, Israel has not updated the Palestinian population registry since 2000. The group also states that the reasons for Palestinians losing or not gaining official status by Israel include prolonged time spent abroad and absence from population censuses, among others.
In this context, Israel uses the Palestinian population registry to manipulate and engineer demographics in a way that suits Israeli settler-colonial ambitions. This is further supplemented by the arbitrary incarceration and detention of Palestinians as a form of population control.
The Indian state has employed oppressive structures and processes, ranging from state-sponsored massacres to full-blown military occupation, for virtually its entire history. However, the repeal of Article 370 and the adoption of the CAA are an escalation toward settler-colonial ambitions. It attempts to erase the association between indigenous peoples and their lands, while creating an association between non-indigenous settlers and those same lands.
It is no coincidence that these changes are occurring under the rule of Hindu nationalists and the most Israel-friendly administration in India’s history. As with Savarkar almost a century ago, the fascist dreams of Modi and other Hindu nationalists today remain inspired by the actions of Zionists.
Monday, 13 January 2020
Friday, 10 January 2020
Thursday, 9 January 2020
Wednesday, 8 January 2020
Tuesday, 7 January 2020
Monday, 6 January 2020
Imagine if China had incarcerated upwards of a million Christians. Or India said it would take all refugees except Christian ones. The west would be in a state of frenzy. Since both China and India’s targets are Muslim, their cause is given short shrift. Both US president Donald Trump and UK prime minister Boris Johnson claim to champion oppressed Christians. By downplaying much larger-scale violations against Muslims, they jeopardise what remains of the west’s human rights credibility. Such passivity reinforces the global shift to religious nationalism that began in the Muslim world.
The coming year will test whether these double standards are here to stay. Because Muslims are resented more than other minorities, their plight tests whether liberal democracy means what it claims to mean. There are two reasons Muslims rank lower on the global totem pole than other groups. The first is politics. Opinion polls across the west — and beyond — show Muslims as the least trusted minority. They are thought to integrate less well and be more supportive of terrorism. People believe the Muslim reproductive rate is higher than other groups. Almost a quarter of the world’s population — roughly 1.8bn people — are Muslim.
The second is how badly most of the Muslim world treats its minorities. Whether it is Coptic Christians in Egypt, Shias in Saudi Arabia, or Sunnis in Iran, Muslim-majority countries are among the worst places in which to be a minority. Do not even think of being Jewish in an Arab country. Combine these two stereotypes and you have a world that is largely callous about the fate of Muslims where they are a minority. To put it crudely, popular opinion is telling them to taste their own medicine. The fact that Muslim countries, particularly in the Arab world, have barely raised a whisper against the plight of the Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang, or protested against India’s Hindu nationalist makeover, only underlines the loneliness of Muslim minorities. Even their own look the other way.
Both Mr Trump and Mr Johnson, among other western leaders, have done a great deal to stoke such caricatures. But there is another way of looking at it. The world’s three largest countries by population — China, India and the US — are to varying degrees now hostile to Muslims. In each case, Muslims are now at the forefront of civil rights struggles. Their chances look most hopeless in China, which is closing mosques, banning Muslim garb and enforcing a switch from Uighur to Chinese. Some call this “cultural genocide”. Most exiled Uighurs will not protest by name for fear of jeopardising relatives back home. Their fate is a barometer of how far Chinese president Xi Jinping is prepared to return China to totalitarianism.
As the world’s largest democracy, India offers greater scope for Muslims to resist. But it is a losing battle. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi wants to turn the country into a Hindu nation that elevates citizens whose faith is homegrown — Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists — as the only true Indians. Those who turn to Mecca or Rome for spiritual guidance are viewed as second class. Mr Modi did include Christians among the refugees India would accept in the recent Citizenship Amendment Act. Their exclusion would have sparked a western outcry. But he is uninterested in the fate of Myanmar’s Rohingyas, who are the world’s biggest victims of ethnic cleansing in recent years. It is worth stressing that it is Muslims who are leading the struggle to stop India’s slide into illiberal democracy.
Mr Trump is no bigger a fan of pluralism than Mr Modi — or Mr Xi for that matter. But America’s guardrails are far more robust. In Mr Trump’s first year, US courts blocked him from imposing a ban on visas from Muslim countries. He also scrapped plans to set up a database of US Muslims. But he launched his political career on the false claim that “Barack Hussein Obama” was a foreign-born Muslim. And he has reduced America’s intake of refugees to a historic low.
America no longer presents itself as a beacon. According to the Arab Barometer, there has been a rise in pro-secular sentiment — and a fall in support for Islamism — in the Muslim world over the past year. It would be a cruel irony if flickers of hope on the Arab street and beyond were to be extinguished by a world that appears to be heading in the opposite direction.