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There are Assyrians and there are Assyrians

Recently the western press has been bemoaning the devastation by ISIS in Iraq and Syria of artifacts and monuments from the Neo-Assyrian Empire (See my essay, “A Meeting of Kindred Spirits In Iraq,” www.thebayviewreview.com, May 1, 2015.)

But the proper name “Assyrian” has been appearing with even greater frequency in quite another context and with quite a different meaning. Among such items is one originating with Newsweek, and distributed by AINA (ASSYRIAN International News agency(aina.org/news): “Fleeing ISIS Into Exile, Assyrian Christians Sing the Oldest Music on Earth, ” April 16, 2015.) It describes the exodus in panic of hundreds of thousands of Christians from Iraq and Syria following the capture by ISIS of Mosul and other major centres since January of this year. Continue Reading »

Progress Report on the Advance of the Caliphate

The activities described in two news items recently noted by Daily Mail (U.K.) pretty well sum up the progress being made these days by the group which several months ago declared the inauguration of the Caliphate — universal rule of the Godly as proclaimed by Muhammad himself.

“Shock [sic] new video shows ISIS thugs smashing historic Iraqi city of Nimrud with barrel bombs, bulldozers and jackhammers in orgy of destruction slammed as a war crime by the United Nations … ‘God has honored us in the Islamic State to remove all of these idols and statues worshipped instead of Allah in the past days,’ one militant says in the video.  Another militant vows that ‘whenever we seize a piece of land, we will remove signs of idolatry and spread monotheism.’   (MailOnLine, April 13, 2015. )

“Nine year old sex slave is made pregnant by ten ISIS militants raping her…. Yazidi activists say many remain in the hands of Islamic State, which has often subjected women to rape or sexual slavery. The United Nations said last month that the Islamic State may have committed genocide against the minority.” MailOnLine, April 13, 2015.

It is important for us to grasp that the methods by which this progress has been achieved and on account of which unlimited future progress is anticipated by these zealots are those mandated in the mission statement of the Prophet Himself: “When you encounter those [infidels] who deny [Islam],” he instructed the faithful, “ then strike off their necks.” [Qur’an 47:4.]

Raymond Ibrahim notes that in the earliest Muslim literature there are exact parallels for the entire range of sadistically-inspired behavior that we have come to expect from ISIS – “beheadings and mutilations … humiliation and gestures of triumph (feet on chest of fallen victim, dragging his body, or head, on the ground), laughter, mockery, and celebration (for the hearts of the believers are now ‘healed.’)” (“Beheading Infidels: How Allah ‘Heals the Hearts of Believers,’ www.frontpagemag.com, September 12, 2014.) Muhammad would surely never begrudge these servants his full marks for clarity of purpose and for candour in regard to the principles and their goals

We do not have to assume that in net terms ISIS is gaining on the ground – that is, that it governs more lives today than it did yesterday. Nobody really knows the answer to this question. Since the formation of the anti-ISIS Alliance spectacular losses of fighting manpower have been suffered by ISIS. Vast territory which was won in a spectacular manner just months ago in Iraq and in Syria has been abandoned by ISIS, apparently without net gain by ISIS in territory or population.

At the same time, it has to be kept in mind, that ISIS does not wholly-own the franchise in the field of Islamic Empire-building at this hour: other equally-bloody-minded organizations – Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, AQAP, al-Shaba, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, etc — all of whom hate each other more than they hate us – are increasingly active in the same cause. Their intramural differences mean nothing to us; and the moment we begin to image that they should, then it is game over. What cannot be denied is that more people every day are being dragged into Islamic slavery.

The World Aroused by ISIS ‘Destruction of “Cultural Heritage”

As this process continues, leaders of opinion among us remain determined to confuse our judgment by spinning out the fantasy that such “Islamist” organizations and activities have “nothing to do with Islam” (as Prime Minister David Cameron and Barack Obama both teach.) This thought allows them to remain in denial about the bottom-line reality.

At the same time, the mainstream (that is, secular) media are working hard to keep our eyes averted from the imminent elimination of Christianity from the Arab world. (For dispatches from this front we are almost entirely dependent on dedicated Christian news-gatherers including Open Doors and the Voice of the Martyrs; and see, “Violence against Christian Copts continues despite fall of Muslim Brotherhood,” Christian Post, March 26, 2014; Raymond Ibrahim, “Largest massacre of Christians in Syria ignored,” www.meforum.org, November 21, 2013; “Syrian Christians facing extinction: ‘A tragedy of historic proportions,’ ” Christian Today, August 15, 2014. But increasing sensitivity to this crisis in secular media is represented (inter alia) by “Christians who use the language of Jesus being uprooted by Islamic state, “ Washington Post, April 15, 2015; “The New Exodus: Christians Flee ISIS in the Middle East,” Newsweek, March 26, 2015. )

But there may be a small victory for clarity to be reported on one front. Substantial news coverage is now suddenly being given to stories about the “barbaric” campaign of destruction of antiquities of all kinds in areas under ISIS rule. At Hatra, Nimrud, Nineveh and Khorsabad and other sites where ruins remain from the days of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911 BC to 609 BC) official ISIS gangs have been systematically destroying everything. These deeds are eliciting alarm about the fate of “Our Cultural Heritage.”

Leadership on this theme is coming from the United Nations – which, it must be said, has not been at the forefront of the fight to save the living Christian people fleeing from Islamic zealotry in Iraq or anywhere else. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO has condemned the latest IS attack on antiquities in Iraq as a “mad, destructive act that accentuates the horror of the situation… With their hammers and explosives they are also obliterating the site itself [Nimrud], clearly determined to wipe out all traces of the history of Iraq’s people.” This amounts to a “war crime,” she says, and “we will do everything possible to fight against this and document it, to ensure that those responsible are identified and brought to justice …. This is not just a cultural tragedy. It’s also a security issue, with terrorists using the destruction of heritage as a weapon of war.”

Many voices have spoken out on this crisis, from the front ranks of opinion-makers. International Business Times says that “The total destruction of Nimrud is the latest in a series of attacks on ancient artefacts and antiquities in Iraq and Syria in the name of an iconoclastic and strict interpretation of Islamic Law that draws inspiration from early Islamic history.” (April 13, 2015.)

The New York Times has been exceptionally irate about the failure of “the world” to respond to this crisis:

Will the world do nothing to stop extremist groups from destroying some of civilization’s most treasured monuments? The question has confronted Western governments with stark urgency in the weeks since the Islamic State released a video of militants smashing ancient sculptures at the Mosul Museum… But so far the United States and its allies have wrung their hands … Since 2011, five of the six Unesco World Heritage sites in Syria have suffered significant damage; four have been requisitioned for military purposes by different groups, in direct violation of international protocols. Tunnel bombs have devastated Aleppo’s old city; thousand-year-old minarets have been detonated; medieval forts have been shelled; Parthian and Hellenistic sites have been pillaged. Then came the Islamic State, which turned such attacks into an explicit strategy …. [setting loose] looting brigades .. and carefully choreographing destruction of mosques, libraries and other monuments belonging to any groups or sects it regards as deviant. …. Amid overwhelming evidence that the Islamic State’s barbaric campaign against culture amounts to a war crime, the world must be ready to use force to stop it. (“Use Force to stop ISIS’ destruction of art and History,” New York Times April 3, 2015

 A Little Background: The Legacy of the Neo-Assyrian Empire

The Neo-Assyrian Empire, at its height, ruled the entire Mesopotamian world, Syria, Phoenicia, and, for a while, even Egypt. For many centuries following its overturn by a league of subject nations it remained legendary for its brutal efficiency. The Israeli Prophet Nahum, who preached near the end of Assyria’s greatness, described that Empire as “a lion …. [which] filled his caves with prey and his dens with torn flesh” (Na 2:12.) Hebrew Scripture gives us quick sketches of several of these monster: Pul (whose dynastic name was Tiglath-Pileser III, 744-727) (2Ki 15:19, 1Ch 5:26); Shalmaneser V, 726-722 (2Ki 17:3), called “Shalman” in Ho 10:14; Sargon II , 721-705 (Is 20:1); Sennacherib, 704-681 (numerous references 2Ki 18 through 19:36 and in Is 37); and Esarhaddon, 680-669 (2Ki 19:37; Is 37:38.) The generalization found in Scripture regarding the ferocity and ruthlessness of these kings is confirmed by these monarchs themselves in the boastful descriptions of their conquests which survive in the annals and the monuments of Assyria and in the records of the many nations which were kept by force within their regime. What remains of these is now being reduced to garbage by ISIS’ committee of deep-thinkers.

A scholar sums up the modus operandi of the Assyrian tyrant:

The king’s throne would be set up before the gates of the city and the prisoners would be paraded before him, led by the monarch of the captured town, who would undergo the most agonizing torture, such as having his eyes put out or confinement in a cage, until the king of Assyria set a term to his long-drawn agony. Sargon had the defeated king of Damascus burned alive before his eyes. The wives and daughters of the captured king were destined for the Assyrian harems and those who were not of noble blood were condemned to slavery.   Meanwhile the soldiery had been massacring the population, and brought the heads of their victims into the king’s presence, where they were counted up by the scribes. [Georges Contenau, Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria. Eng. trans. (London: Edward Arnold, 1954), 148.]

Does any of this ring a bell? Several generations of high school students (right up to the one to which I belong) were required to rehearse this gruesome story as they memorized Lord Byron’s The Destruction of SennacheribThe Destruction of SennacheribThe Destruction of Sennacherib”The Destruction of Sennacherib: ” … The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold….”

The Meeting of Kindred Spirits Across Twenty-five Centuries

If they were not so captive to their theology, the heroes of ISIS would certainly be saluting these kindred spirits – worshippers of the same demon-god.

We should all join in lamenting the loss to the civilized world of the privilege of freely contemplating the records of this civilization, while profiting morally from lessons that this long-gone empire teaches about what cruelty on such a scale can accomplish – and why, we trust and hope, such accomplishments must be short-lived.

Though not the longest-lasting of the Mesopotamian Empires, the Neo-Assyrian Empire left traces in the History books forever. And yet it is far too soon to award the prize for sadism-on-the-grandest-scale to historical Assyria. That prize now surely belongs to ISIS. This consideration, all by itself, shoots down in flames the notion of moral progress in history.

Dr. Davis speaking at Myles Leitch`s farewell (Apr 13, 2015)

Dr. Davis speaking at Myles Leitch`s farewell (Apr 13, 2015)

This post originally appeared at TyndalePhilosophy.com, the blog of the Tyndale Philosophy Department.

This past Monday my school, Tyndale University College, hosted a farewell party for Dr. Myles Leitch, Assistant Professor of Linguistics, who is leaving to join the Canadian Bible Society. In addition to helping develop and run the Linguistics Department at Tyndale, he’s also been an Affiliated Member of the Philosophy Department. Though his departure is good for him (and even better for the Canadian Bible Society), it is a blow to our department.

Continue Reading »

BULLETIN:

Foreign intervention in Yemen’s chaos has dramatically raised the stakes in the Arabian Peninsula, threatening to expand what is already a civil war into a conflict pitting Iran against Saudi Arabia and an Arab coalition. The Saudis launched Operation “Decisive Storm” last Wednesday with dozens of airstrikes in an effort to blunt the advance of Houthi militia and allied army units on the port of Aden — and to protect the last bastion of Yemen’s internationally-recognized President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi… Many analysts were surprised at the speed and scale of the Saudi air campaign, which the Kingdom said would continue until the Houthis — a Shia minority that has swept across the country in the last six months — retreated and laid down their arms. (“Yemen in freefall: How chaos could spiral into all-out regional war,” CNN, March 30, 2015. ) 

A few days ago, the potentates who rule the lives of the people of  Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Pakistan entered into a pact to eliminate by force the Houthi regime which has been governing most of Yemen – at least, to the extent that anybody has ever governed this lawless corner of Arabia – since the end of last year. The Saudi-led coalition has a so-far-silent partner in the United States, which is assisting with intelligence and logistics. Continue Reading »

Published initially at The Conservative Prof.: https://theconservativeprof.wordpress.com/

California Gov. Jerry Brown was in a feisty mood. A few days ago on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he declared that presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz was “absolutely unfit to be running for office.” Continue Reading »

Part Three of a Theme: What’s At Stake in the Israeli Election.

The Dead Heat That Wasn’t.

My local newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, arrived at our door around 6:00 AM with the latest news from Israel under the headline: “Netanyahu’s Likud and Herzog’s Zionist Union Must Now Get To Work To Try To Form A Coalition Government.” The article begins: “Israel appeared to be headed for weeks of political wrangling Tuesday night after exit polls indicated that the two leading parties were in a dead heat following the parliamentary election.” Continue Reading »

Part Two of a Theme: “What’s At Stake in the Israeli Election of March 17, 2015?”

A Goy’s Guide to Israel’s Political History.

Sixty-six years ago, in March of 1949, the first of Israel’s Knesset elections took place.
Most well-informed people at that hour were under the spell of the postwar spirit of liberal utopianism, whose first principle was that democracy was about to break out everywhere as European imperialism collapsed, giving way to nationalism. There was no particular reason, most thought, for Israel to be an exception to this inevitable blessing.

Indeed, there were plenty of reasons to guess that Israel was no closer to accomplishing authentic democracy than any other of the new nations in her neighbourhood. One conspicuous obstacle to Jewish national unity was the deep divide at that time between the secular politicians who for the moment dominated the political scene and the many religious parties who seemed dedicated to keeping the nation disunited over the place of Judaism in public. Certainly, that is what the Arab Hands in the State Department believed; and that is how they spelled things out to Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower.

But the democratization of the post-colonial Arab world never happened. In fact, we have just undergone four years of Arab Spring that have resulted in dragging the Arab world further back than it ever was from democracy — or for that matter from stable government of any kind. Today Israel remains the only democracy in that part of the world – with the qualified, wobbly, exceptions of Turkey and bomb-scarred, corpse-strewn Lebanon.

Throughout the years of Britain’s Palestine Mandate it had been obvious that the Mapai (Labour) party, led by David Ben-Gurion would dominate Israel’s politics and its Government when Independence came — and no doubt for a long time to follow. Mapai was by far the most popular political movement in the country; it had usually dominated proceedings in the several Zionist organizations and in the Jewish Agency during the Mandate Years. But that was not the whole story: Mandate-era Jewish electioneering had always been based on proportional representation; and now, so keen was the first generation of Israelis to advance ideas, to participate in the founding of institutions for a new nation, that every man and his brother (provided he was not a Mapai apparatchik) got busy at once and founded a new political party, intended to realize whole-heartedly some principle that was not prominently advanced or was even smothered in compromise by Ben-Gurion’s party.

In the first Knesset, formed on March 8, 1949 there were 12 parties having at least one seat, and a larger number that had contested the election without winning any seats. And so inevitably the first Government of Israel, formed by David Ben-Gurion as Prime Minister, was a Coalition, with Labor at its core, but with Ministers representing the United Religious Front, the Progressive Party, the Sephardim and Oriental Communities and the Democratic List of Nazareth. With the qualified exception of the last-named, none of these could plausibly be considered to the Left of anything real.
All governments of Israel thereafter have been coalitions. Following the election of March 1977, Menachem Begin overturned the Labour-Alignment coalition by cobbling together Likud (Consolidation), a coalition of most of the also-ran parties and their leaders, with his own Herut party at its core. For nearly forty years now, government of Israel has alternated at irregular intervals between coalition of the Centre-Left (more or less on the Ben Gurion model) and Coalitions of the Centre-Right (more or less on the Menachem Begin model.

But, just to keep things lively – and just so that outside historians like me should remain in their place – Israel’s leading politicians, belonging to both the Coalition of the Left and the Coalition of the Right, all of them world-class egoists, developed a passion for suddenly throwing to the winds the party that had made them powerful, resorting to the easy-going ground rules for formation of a new party and demanding personal fealty from an entire generation of political followers. Ben-Gurion pioneered this shtick when he bolted the Mapai/Alignment and formed the short-lived National List.

More recently, in late 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abruptly ordered his troops to follow him into a brand-new political party, Kadima (Forward), a party with only one plank that mattered — unilateral withdrawal from occupied Gaza and simultaneous withdrawal from the calcified Oslo Process. This gesture was meant to shut down the complaint of all the world (led by the United States) that Israel was clinging to land that it had no title to. Sharon’s shining idea was that the United States and other interested outsiders would now be able to persuade Mahmoud Abbas, the Partner for Peace, to acknowledge his loss of the moral advantage, and return to negotiations in better faith over the much-reduced remaining business. Of course, nothing of the sort happened.

An instant success in the election of 2006, winning 29 seats, Kadima became the nucleus of a new governing coalition under Ehud Olmert (Sharon having been abruptly retired from active life by a massive stroke) . Although Kadima again won the most seats in the 2009 elections, it went into opposition under Tzipi Livni’s leadership when Netanyahu formed his new government. In the 2013 elections Kadima became the smallest party in the Knesset, winning only 2 seats. Thereupon a new party Hatnuah (The Movement) was formed by Kadima’s former leader, Tzipi Livni.

In a variation on this theme (the well-established egoistical politician who skips the traces of his well-established party and in a moment of time founds a new party on fealty to himself) we see another model in such recent political parties as Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), founded in 2012 by former journalist Yair Lapid.) In the Yesh Atid model, a political amateurs or a small group of amateurs, usually with lots of personal money, become inspired by the need for new directions in politics, start up a brand new party and draw a blue-ribbon list of candidates from well-known public figures, military heroes, journalists and so on. The latest example of this type is Kulanu (All Of us) formed November 2014 under the leadership of Moshe Kahlon; as I write, pollsters are predicting that it will gain anywhere from 5 to 13 seats.

Another variant on this theme is the party like Meretz (Vigour) formed in 1992 by a long-time Knesset member Shulamit Aloni out of remnants of three small parties that had been declining for many years (Ratz, Mapam, Shinui.) Meretz exemplifies the ability of the Israeli system to keep alive the commitments of smaller parties while including them in new outfits, benefitting in the short term from the popularity of a suddenly-emerging political super-star. Meretz is a secular party, loyal to the two-state solution to the Peace Process. It was at its peak in the 13th Knesset (1992-1996) holding 12 seats, it declined to six seats at the 2013.

(Given the vastly greater population of the United States and the greater venerability and rigidity of the American two-party system, one does not expect to find parallels to this story in American politics. The closest modern parallel might be the capture of the New York Republican party in the 1950s by Nelson Rockefeller and the capture of the West Virginia politics in the late 1960s by another Republican outsider, Winthrop Rockefeller.)

The proportional representational model seemed providentially appropriate to the situation of the several waves of Jewish refugees fleeing from persecution in Arab states following 1949. Under Israel’s basic Law, these immigrants were citizens from the moment of arrival; and finding the governing parties in situ all of Ashkenazi (European) background and generally unfriendly to the Eastern way of life, they of course founded brand new parties that even today draw almost exclusively on fractions of Sephardic Jewry or Jews of African origin. Several of these ethnic-based parties were subsumed into Shas (Guardians of the Torah) founded in 1984 under the leadership of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

A similar pattern played out with respect to the massive immigration of Russians who suddenly found themselves free to migrate to Israel following diplomatic pressure by the American government in the 1980s and who moved eventually into the ranks of Israel Beitenu (Israel Our Home), founded in by Avigdor Lieberman (Foreign Minister in the current Netanyahu government.

Recent Patterns and Prospects.

This bird’s-eye summary does not does not do justice to all the permutations and combinations of possibility that there are in Israeli politics. There were, after all twelve parties represented in the Nineteenth Knesset, not to mention the thirty registered parties that did not have seats in the 19th Knesset and a roughly equal number running with little hope for the 20th Knesset. Each of these thinks of itself at least as deserving of voter support precisely because it is in class all by itself.

When the votes were counted in the days following the 2009 Israeli legislative election it was found that Kadima had earned 28 seats, while Likud had won 27 seats; but then as now Likud is better able to win the loyalties of a larger number of the smaller parties, which tend to be on the right-hand side of public issues. After more than a month of coalition negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu was able to form a government and become Prime Minister.

While this matter is always relative, it did seem that Netanyahu’s coalition was less stable than others had been in recent times. When the religious parties over-played their hands, Netanyahu showed them the door and brought in Yisrael Beiteinu. In the 2013 election, the Likud/Yisrael Beitenu alliance won 31 seats. Twelve parties came out with at least a single seat. A governing majority was achieved by inviting in Yesh atid , Bayit Yehudi and Hatnuah (whose leader, Tzipi Livni, had defected from the moribund Kadima (which has since been taken off life support.)

A Democracy Like No Other.

Anyone who has ever visited the Israeli Knesset in session has come away upset (at a minimum) or downright shocked by the shouting, the shaking of fists, sometimes verging on bedlam. In The Blood of Abraham (1985), Jimmy Carter goes back to that day in 1979 “When I addressed the Knesset …”

It was a shock to observe the degree of freedom permitted the members of the parliament in their relatively undisciplined exchanges…. Instead of being embarrassed by the constant interruptions and by the physical removal of one of the members from the chamber, Prime Minister Begin seemed to relish the verbal combat and expressed pride in how unrestrained the shouted argument was. During an especially vituperative exchange, he leaned over to me and said proudly, “This is democracy in action.” (Jimmy Carter, Blood of Abraham, p.33.)

Carter’s disgust with such “undisciplined” political behavior became one enduring strand in the pattern of contempt for Israel that has made him perhaps Israel’s most formidable adversary in the arena of public opinion today. But we should pause long enough to reckon that the model for parliamentary behaviour that Carter has in mind is that of the U.S. Congress, where the “deliberative process” comes down on a daily basis to one member at a time bloviating from behind a podium to an all-but-empty house.

Still, Israel’s undisciplined and sometimes uncouth Knesset is responsible for creating and presiding over one of the world’s miracle economies. It has won public confidence and has sustained a high degree of patriotic pride and respect for its civilian authority from military forces involved in the most dangerous kind of duty in the world.

Current Prognostications.

The hit-and-run effort I have made in this essay to make sense of Israel’s politics should bring out at least how malleable and how unpredictable Israeli politics has always been and how irrelevant to this story is our own history of partisan politics.

About ten days before election day reputable polls were suggesting a result more-or-less along the lines of 2013: Netanyahu’s Likud and the Herzog/Livni joint list (Zionist Union) were virtually tied for first place (between 24 and 26 seats each, out of the total 120 seats); Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid, Netanyahu’s partners in the 19th Knesset, with perhaps 15 seats and 12 seats respectively. In recent elections the pattern has been for the smaller parties, including the “religious” ones – after much display of distaste – to sign on to the Netanyahu combination, giving the margin of victory over any combination of Herzog and Livni with the other small parties.

But who can really say! Israel is a democracy like no other. It is much more truly “democratic” in its procedures than is our own system – if we understand “democracy” to be measured by the possibility that voters have to participate in its methods and procedures. (Canada still has an unelected Senate, in case you haven’t; and we are still at least a century behind the United States in the matter of providing “primary” elections for political officers and candidates.)

Perhaps the best way for testing the vitality of a democracy is simply to find how hard political leaders must work at keeping their followers in line behind them while responding to what the citizens are demanding. No democracy passes this test with higher marks than that of the State of Israel.

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