an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

kin selection – some fascinating stuff

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meerkats get together for ye olde family snap

Canto: So we’ve done four blogs on Palestine and we’ve barely scratched the surface, but we’re having trouble going forward with that project because, frankly, it’s so depressing and anger-inducing that it’s affecting our well-being.

Jacinta: Yes, an undoubtedly selfish excuse, but we do plan to go on with that project – we’re definitely not abandoning it, and meanwhile we should recommend such books as Tears for Tarshiha by the Palestinian peace activist Olfat Mahmoud, and Goliath by the Jewish American journalist Max Blumenthal, which highlight the sufferings of Palestinian people in diaspora, and the major stresses of trying to exist under zionist monoculturalism. But for now, something completely different, we’re going to delve into the fascinating facts around kin selection, with thanks to Robert Sapolski’s landmark book Behave. 

Canto: The term ‘kin selection’ was first used by John Maynard Smith in the early sixties but it was first mooted by Darwin (who got it right about honey bees), and its mathematics were worked out back in the 1930s. 

Jacinta: What’s immediately interesting to me is that we humans tend to think we alone know who our kin are, especially our extended or most distant kin, because only we know about aunties, uncles and second and third cousins. We have language and writing and record-keeping, so we can keep track of those things as no other creatures can. But it’s our genes that are the key to kin selection, not our brains.

Canto: Yes, and let’s start with distinguishing between kin selection and group selection, which Sapolsky deals with well. Group selection, popularised in the sixties by the evolutionary biologist V C Wynne-Edwards and by the US TV program Wild Kingdom, which I remember well, was the view that individuals behaved, sometimes or often, for the good of the species rather than for themselves as individuals of that species. However, every case that seemed to illustrate group selection behaviour could easily be interpreted otherwise. Take the case of ‘eusocial’ insects such as ants and bees, where most individuals don’t reproduce. This was seen as a prime case of group selection, where individuals sacrifice themselves for the sake of the highly reproductive queen. However, as evolutionary biologists George Williams and W D Hamilton later showed, eusocial insects have a unique genetic system in which they are all more or less equally ‘kin’, so it’s really another form of kin selection. This eusociality exists in some mammals too, such as mole rats. 

Jacinta: The famous primatologist Sarah Hrdy dealt something of a death-blow to group selection in the seventies by observing that male langur monkeys in India commit infanticide with some regularity, and, more importantly, she worked out why. Langurs live in groups with one resident male to a bunch of females, with whom he makes babies. Meanwhile the other males tend to hang around in groups brooding instead of breeding, and infighting. Eventually, one of this male gang feels powerful enough to challenge the resident male. If he wins, he takes over the female group, and their babies. He knows they’re not his, and his time is short before he gets booted out by the next tough guy. Further, the females aren’t ovulating because they’re nursing their kids. The whole aim is to pass on his genes (this is individual rather than kin selection), so his best course of action is to kill the babs, get the females ovulating as quickly as possible, and impregnate them himself. 

Canto: Yes, but it gets more complicated, because the females have just as much interest in passing on their genes as the male, and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush…

Jacinta: Let me see, a babe in your arms is worth a thousand erections?

Canto: More or less precisely. So they fight the male to protect their infants, and can even go into ‘fake’ estrus, and mate with the male, fooling the dumb cluck into thinking he’s a daddy. 

Jacinta: And since Hrdy’s work, infanticide of this kind has been documented in well over 100 species, even though it can sometimes threaten the species’ survival, as in the case of mountain gorillas. So much for group selection.

Canto: So now to kin selection. Here are some facts. If you have an identical twin your genome is identical with hers. If you have a full sibling you’re sharing 50% and with a half-sibling 25%. As you can see, the mathematics of genes and relatedness can be widened out to great degrees of complexity. And since this is all about passing on all, or most, or some of your genes, it means that ‘in countless species, whom you co-operate with, compete with, or mate with depends on their degree of relatedness to you’, to quote Sapolsky. 

Jacinta: Yes, so here’s a term to introduce and then fairly promptly forget about: allomothering. This is when a mother of a newborn enlists the assistance of another female in the process of child-rearing. It’s a commonplace among primate species, but also occurs in many bird species. The mother herself benefits from an occasional rest, and the allomother, more often than not a younger relation such as the mother’s kid sister, gets to practice mothering. 

Canto: So this is part of what is called ‘inclusive fitness’, where, in this case, the kid gets all-day mothering (if of varying quality) the kid sister gets to learn about mothering, thereby increasing her fitness when the time comes, and the mother gets a rest to recharge her batteries for future mothering. It’s hopefully win-win-win. 

Jacinta: Yes, there are negatives and positives to altruistic behaviour, but according to Hamilton’s Rule, r.B > C, kin selection favours altruism when the reproductive success of relatives is greater than the cost to the altruistic individual. 

Canto: To explain that rule, r equals degree of relatedness between the altruist and the beneficiary (aka coefficient of relatedness), B is the benefit (measured in offspring) to the recipient, and C is the cost to the altruist. What interests me most, though, about this kin stuff, is how other, dumb primates know who is their kin. Sapolsky describes experiments with wild vervet monkeys by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth which show that if monkey A behaves badly to monkey B, this will adversely affect B’s behaviour towards A’s relatives, as well as B’s relatives’ behaviour to A, as well as B’s relatives’ behaviour to A’s relatives. How do they all know who those relatives are? Good question. The same researchers proved this recognition by playing a recording of a juvenile distress call to a group of monkeys hanging around. The female monkeys all looked at the mother of the owner of that distress call to see what she would do. And there were other experiments of the sort. 

Jacinta: And even when we can’t prove knowledge of kin relations (kin recognition) among the studied animals, we find their actual behaviour tends always to conform to Hamilton’s Rule. Or almost always… In any case there are probably other cues, including odours, which may be unconsciously sensed, which might aid in inclusive fitness and also avoiding inbreeding. 

Canto: Yes and It’s interesting how this closeness, this familiarity, breeds contempt in some ways. Among humans too. Well, maybe not contempt but we tend not to be sexually attracted to those we grow up with and, for example, take baths with as kids, whether or not they’re related to us. But I suppose that has nothing to do with kin selection. And yet…

Jacinta: And yet it’s more often than not siblings or kin that we have baths with. As kids. But getting back to odours, we have more detail about that, as described in Sapolski. Place a mouse in an enclosed space, then introduce two other mice, one unrelated to her, another a full sister from another litter, never encountered before. The mouse will hang out with the sister. This is called innate recognition, and it’s due to olfactory signatures. Pheromones. From proteins which come from genes in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). 

Canto: Histowhat?

Jacinta: Okay, you know histology is the study of bodily tissues, so think of the compatibility or otherwise of tissues that come into contact. Immunology.  Recognising friend or foe, at the cellular, subcellular level. The MHC, this cluster of genes, kicks off the production of proteins which produce pheromones with a unique odour, and because your relatives have similar MHC genes, they’re treated as friends because they have a similar olfactory signature. Which doesn’t mean the other mouse in the enclosure is treated as a foe. It’s a mouse, after all. But other animals have their own olfactory signatures, and that’s another story. 

Canto: And there are other forms of kin recognition. Get this – birds recognise their parents from the songs sung to them before they were hatched. Birds have distinctive songs, passed down from father to son, since its mostly the males that do the singing. And as you get to more complex species, such as primates – though maybe they’re not all as complex as some bird species – there might even be a bit of reasoning involved, or at least consciousness of what’s going on. 

Jacinta: So that’s kin selection, but can’t we superior humans rise above that sort of thing? Australians marry Japanese, or have close friendships with Nigerians, at least sometimes. 

Canto: Sometimes, and this is the point. Kinship selection is an important factor in shaping behaviour and relations, but it’s one of a multiple of factors, and they all have differential influences in different individuals. It’s just that such influences may go below the level of awareness, and being aware of the factors shaping our behaviour is always the key, if we want to understand ourselves and everyone else, human or non-human.

Jacinta: Good to stop there. As we’ve said, much of our understanding has come from reading Sapolsky’s Behave, because we’re old-fashioned types who still read books, but I’ve just discovered that there’s a whole series of lectures by Sapolsky, about 25, on human behaviour, which employs the same structure as the book (which is clearly based on the lectures), and is available on youtube here. So all that’s highly recommended, and we’ll be watching them.


R Sapolski, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. Bodley Head, 2017






some thoughts on blackface, racism and (maybe) cultural appropriation

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Al Jolson

I’ve been only half-listening to the apparent furore about some politician having worn ‘blackface’ decades ago to a fancy-dress party (I may not even have those facts straight) and I’ve been struck by the absoluteness of pundits’ condemnation of this behaviour as deeply offensive. So heads must roll.

This is apparently about ‘race’, and black-white relations, but it has occurred to me, or rather it occurred to me over 40 years ago, that there are no ‘white’ people, and no ‘black’ people. This was a matter of very basic observation – every human on Earth (even albinos) is a shade of brown. Later, certainly by the early eighties, I had another, deeper concern. Is there such a thing as race? This wasn’t a thought driven so much by observation, but by my reading at the time. And the person who switched me on to this fascinating question, more than anyone else, was the great 20th century anthropologist and public intellectual Ashley Montagu.

In around 1983-1984 I was sharing house, as I’d been doing for years, and engaging in high-octane mostly pseudo-intellectual argy-bargy with mostly reluctant co-tenants on any subject worth mentioning. During one of these sessions I tossed out the line that ‘there’s no such thing as race’. An eruption of mockery and disdain followed, so over the the next few days or more I betook myself to Adelaide University’s Barr-Smith library, a favourite haunt in those days, and did what research I could. I ended up writing several foolscap pages in my tiny script – pre-computer days – ‘proving’ my ‘race is a myth’ thesis, which I handed to my opponent. He refused to read it, unsurprisingly.

Those old pages are either lost or hidden among the piles of pre-computer writing mouldering about my house, so now I’m going to think about the topic afresh. One question that interests me is this – if races don’t exist, can racism be said to exist? Obviously there is discrimination of people based on their skin colour, their religion and their ‘ethnicity’ – another concept that needs examination – but should we use terms other than ‘racism’ to describe this?

If there is such a thing as race, then we should be able to determine what the different races are, and how many, but we certainly know that all humans are able to breed with all other humans of the opposite sex, regardless of which race they might belong to. So race, supposing it to be a concept describing something existent in the world, is unlikely to be anything pure or stable. Jefferson Fish, author of ‘The Myth of Race’, distinguishes between social and biological race. Social race just fits with the popular conception. Africans don’t look like Europeans (and their differences in looks can be vaguely described), and so they belong to different races in this respect. Chinese/Japanese/Koreans all belong to another race (because we Europeans can’t tell them apart), Melanesians another, Indians/Pakistanis another, and so on – but don’t examine this too deeply or it will all fall apart. Biological race, on the other hand, doesn’t exist, according to Fish, and many others. Craig Venter baldly stated in 2000, at the completion of the human genome project, “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.” The genome was deliberately assembled from a number of human subjects who self-identified as members of different races.

I don’t think we need go further into the science of this here. Racism exists because some people believe, for whatever reasons, that ‘white’ people are superior to ‘black’ people, that Asians are superior/inferior to Europeans, etc etc. Sometimes the discrimination is called something else – Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Indophobia, Francophobia, whatever. But sometimes ‘racism’ is used for something a little different from ‘race hatred’. It’s used for having insufficient sensitivity or respect for someone of another ‘race’. Or, I suppose, for someone who is ‘different’. And that’s where ‘blackface’ comes in, apparently.

The idea is that if you blacken your face to represent a ‘black person’, or a person with (considerably?) darker skin than yourself, whatever your intention, you are insulting/mocking that person and the ‘race’ s/he belongs to.

When I think of ‘blackface’ I think of The Black and White Minstrel Show of my youth, and Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’. People nowadays don’t condemn these examples, they largely excuse them as naive, aspects of an age of innocence. The same people nowadays say that blackface is verboten because it returns us to a history of dressing up as black people to represent barbarity, violence and general lack of civilisation.


I will use an Australian essay by Marion Gray for The Conversation as a typical example of the argument that if you dress up like someone of another culture/race etc you might offend, so you shouldn’t do it, though you might just be excused on the basis of naïveté. The essay is titled ‘Explainer: why blackface (and brownface) offend.‘ So there are poor benighted people out there who need to have it ‘explained’ to them that dressing up as someone you admire (but whose shade of brown skin is a long way from your own) by changing your skin colour to look more like them – well, that’s a complete no-no. It’s okay (perhaps) to dress up like them (watch out for cultural appropriation), but changing skin colour – even though it’s the most obvious way to look like your hero/ine – just can’t be done, because people used to do this for completely different purposes in the past. Here’s how Gray puts it re US history.

In 19th century America, white performers would put dark paint on their faces and perform ridiculous stereotypes about African Americans in Minstrel shows. As Norm Sheehan has written, blackface began as a popular movement that ridiculed and lampooned African Americans leading up to the American Civil War. It continued until the 1970s.

This passage strikes me as overly simplistic, to put it mildly. It may well be that some nineteenth century blackface was meant to mock ‘black’ people, just as whiteface was used by dark-skinned people to mock ‘whites’, but it’s surely also true that motives and intentions were mixed – and undoubtedly much more so in the 20th century. 

Let’s go further back to the case of Shakespeare’s Moor of Venice, whose skin colour is never specified but was often assumed to be – well, dark. We don’t know if the earliest actors wore blackface for Othello (in England), but it’s certain that anyone of dark skin (a ‘savage’ in those days) would be prohibited from acting, just as women were. And it’s absurd to suppose that a blackface actor would be mocking the Moor, a serious and tragic figure, just as it would be absurd to suppose that the male actors playing women were somehow mocking Shakespeare’s multivarious and complex female characters. As we know, in the twentieth century famous ‘black’ and ‘white’ actors have played Othello on screen, with the utmost seriousness, though in the past half-century the role has rightly been seen as a perfect vehicle for ‘black’ actors, given the lack of substantive roles for them in plays from earlier times. 

My main point here is that intention should be everything, as it is in law. Take, for example, the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show, which ran from 1958 to 1978. It’s described by just about everyone writing in the late 20th century and the 21st as overtly racist, but I would describe it instead as an increasingly ham-fisted attempt to suggest that ‘black’ and ‘white’ people might get along through singalong. Born at a time when racial discrimination was beginning to be raised as a serious issue in Britain, as immigrants were beginning to arrive from the colonies, it harked back to old days of Jolson-style music hall in an increasingly faux-innocent way, but it was never, I think, intended to mock or insult people of non-anglosaxon colours. That’s the issue for me. Racism is about disparaging people due either to the colour of their skin – which is an obviously trivial category – or to other features of ‘social race’, as mentioned above, and this might be the clothes they wear, the language they speak, the food they eat, the customs they keep or any form of identifiable ‘otherness’. So it’s really about discrimination, not race. 

It’s hard not to bring up the issue of identity politics here, and it’s easy for me, as white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, more or less déclassé, and boring in so many other ways, to be dismissive of those who identify as different and in some sense oppressed, but I do take my humanism seriously and try to take people as I find them. As a bit of a loner, I don’t personally know a lot of oppressed people, or privileged people, or people for that matter, so I can’t always tell whether people are generally aggrieved and offended or just getting on their high horse for politically opportunistic reasons.  We do seem sometimes to take our ‘offence’ to absurd extremes. No Cowboys and and Indians nowadays, and that’s fine, but was it ever mockery? Stereotyping, yes, but that’s what kids do. First they stereotype, then over time and brain development they learn about nuance and complexity. Dress-ups too, is a time for play, for a bit of silliness, and that means stereotyping, dressing as a ‘typical’ sailor, or nun, or pirate, or geisha or whatever. 

And here’s one final example. Imagine you’re invited to a fancy-dress party, and you’re asked to go as one of your historical idols. You happen to be ‘white’ but your chosen idol happens to be ‘black’. Maybe it’s Michael Jackson, or Mohammed Ali, or Martin Luther King. So you start to dress up, but realise nobody’s going to guess who you are unless, shock horror, you darken your skin. So you’re applying ye old boot polish when your girlfriend arrives and asks what you’re doing. When you explain, she looks shocked and horrified, ‘oh no, you can’t do that!’ (or maybe ‘oh dear, what can I do, baby’s in black and I’m feeling blue, tell me oh, what can I do?’). So you’re reduced to going to the party in your birthday ‘white’ (but with Mohammed Ali’s boxing gloves and poetic patter) and when you tell people who you’re dressed up as, you might well get the response ‘so you think Ali was/ should’ve been a white man, eh? Well how’d you like them uppercuts?’

It’s all a bit of a mindfield. Some say that wearing ‘blackface’ can be forgiven if people don’t know their history, for then they’re condemned to repeat it. I respectfully disagree. You can dress up to look like someone else, including lightening or darkening your skin, while knowing all the history you need to know. You’re not repeating history if your intentions are more or less completely the opposite of those of the past. 


Written by stewart henderson

February 16, 2019 at 3:23 pm

why are our river fish dying?

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Canto: So here’s a question. Why are so many fish dying in our rivers? I believe it has something to do with oxygen, but that raises a whole heap of questions, like why do fish need oxygen, how does this relate to fish physiology, what’s the difference between freshwater and saltwater fish (is all fish physiology basically the same), and is climate change a factor in all this – or rather, how is it a factor?

Jacinta: Okay so that’s a good focussed question, or set of questions, a bit easier to deal with than the management of our river systems, which would involve inter(and intra)-state politics and the rights or wrongs of irrigators, farmers, industry and the like. I’ve heard all that is rather complicated.

Canto: Right, so we’re just going to focus on the internal and external environment of freshwater fish.

Jacinta: Well, maybe. News reports have claimed up to a million fish deaths in the Darling River, with critically endangered Murray cod being among the victims. Algal blooms ‘which can be caused by agricultural chemicals’ (sky news) are being cited as the proximal cause, but the ultimate cause, according to Menindee Lakes residents, is government mismanagement.

Canto: I would wonder whether there are so many fish in the river to begin with – and that million figure is grossly exaggerated according to various sources. The figure appears to be something between 100,000 and 200,000, still a staggering number, and I wonder about the deaths in proportion to the population, and if some species are dying more than others. We need some science here.

Jacinta: And my preliminary enquiries into the science show that it’s complex and unsettled. The most recent mass death occurred in the Menindee Lakes, south of Broken Hill, a series of lakes connected to the Darling. We know that there was very little flow-through at the time, the water levels were low and water temperature had risen. As a result, there was a large bloom of cyanobacteria, aka blue-green algae. But apparently according to an ABC Science report, the cyanobacteria weren’t exactly the problem, it was their death, caused by a cold front, and the sudden explosion of other bacteria feeding on the dead and dying cyanobacteria, and in the process depleting the water of oxygen, that caused the fish to drown.

Canto: So what we call drowning is really loss of oxygen, which fish have evolved to capture from water but we can’t. How do they do that?

Jacinta: Gills. Fish breathe through their mouths like us. And also like us they need oxygen to function and they breathe out carbon dioxide. Gills – and we could expend pages and pages on their origin, structure and function – are those organs found on each side of the pharynx or throat, and they’re made up of protein structures called filaments. Each filament has a tiny network of blood vessels, providing a large surface area for the exchange of gases. So fish suck in water, with its oxygen, and then pump it out through the gills, where all the essential gas exchange occurs. But if the water isn’t sufficiently oxygenated, then it’s goodnight, sweet fish.

Canto: So the proximal cause isn’t the blue-green algae, it’s the oxygen-consuming bacteria that feed on the algae.

Jacinta: But if the algae weren’t there in the first place, the bacteria that feed on them wouldn’t be there.

Canto: Yes, but that’s only because the algae were dying. What if there hadn’t been this sudden drop in water temperature? Do the algae themselves affect the oxygen levels?

Jacinta: Well, actually, very much so. Cyanobacteria were the first photosynthesising organisms – we wouldn’t be here without them, and they’re now incorporated, in the form of chloroplasts, in all the plants around us. They were the principal means of oxygenating the biosphere.

Canto: So does that mean it’s good to have blue-green algae in our waterways? I’m confused.

Jacinta: The answer is yes and no. The Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), currently under fire from all and sundry, have a useful factsheet about what we’ll henceforth call cyanobacteria. They’re a natural part of the system, and there are a number of species, the two most prominent being Dolichospermum and Microcystis. Under certain optimal conditions for growth, they produce ‘blooms’, which can be toxic at high levels. Mostly though, they don’t affect irrigation, recreational use of the river, or drinking water, if properly treated. It’s the decay of these blooms that causes most problems…

Canto: I note that these fish deaths occurred in the Menindee Lakes, and may have been a result of low water levels, which in turn were due to drought. Lower water levels means a lower volume of water, so that the environmental temperature would more rapidly affect the water temperature than if the volume was greater – no doubt there’s an equation to account for that – which would more quickly affect the decay of the bloom and the growth of the oxygen-depleting bacteria feeding on the bloom. So it seems to me that the ultimate cause is drought, which creates a less stable environment for the fish, and other organisms. How’s that?

Jacinta: Well, it’s the beginning of an explanation, but it’s too simple. It isn’t just drought that’s affecting water levels, it’s the fact that water is drawn from the system. And that involves politics, which we were hoping to steer clear of – oh well. By the way, the fish that have died include Murray cod, golden perch, silver perch, and bony herring. I don’t have relative numbers though. The Menindee Lakes region, which is at the centre, not only of this fish death controversy, but of the entire Murray-Darwin Basin management controversy, appears to be at crisis point, and the locals aren’t happy. Here are some quotes from The Guardian on the issue:

Since the 1960s, the original Menindee Lakes have been significantly altered to serve as a major storage for water for the Murray-Darling Basin as well as the water supply for Broken Hill. The lakes are also a major fish breeding area for native fish, and critical to maintaining stocks of fish throughout the river system.

However, the NSW government has proposed shrinking the lakes and altering the way it manages the water storage, in order to reduce evaporation. It is currently building a $500m pipeline from the Murray to Broken Hill in order to provide the inland city with an alternative water supply.
But the plan is highly controversial because it will mean the government has less reason to keep the lakes full and will likely see the Lower Darling run dry more often.
Local graziers and the towns of Wilcannia and Pooncarie are up in arms about the state of the river, accusing the NSW government of sacrificing their 500km stretch of the Darling in order to benefit upstream cotton growers.
They say the current crisis is due to Water NSW’s decision to run the lakes dry despite forecasts of drought.

Canto: The MDBA, which is a federal body, presents their reasons for the fish deaths in two concise points:

  • the lack of water flowing into the northern rivers
  • the impact of 100 years of over-allocation of precious water resources throughout the entire Basin.

Drought and the removal of water from the system, precisely your point, Jacinta. The MDBA of course avoids blame, and says nothing about possible current over-allocation. It does, however, say, in the same information page, that ‘the Menindee Lakes are currently under the sole control of New South Wales and have been carefully managed since December 2017’, which appears to court some controversy.

Jacinta: And finally, something important to watch out for as we seek an ultimate answer to our question. An independent panel of six science worthies has been appointed by the Federal government to enquire into these deaths. Fields of expertise include catchment hydrology, fluvial geomorphology, freshwater ecology, plant ecotoxicology, aquatic ecosystem health and much much more. The team will provide a preliminary report to the Feds by February 20, and a final report should be completed by March 31. We’ll look out for it – presumably it will be released to the public.

Written by stewart henderson

February 11, 2019 at 12:28 am

palestine 4 – the inter-war years 1919-1935

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Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner to Palestine, enters Jaffa in 1921

Jacinta: So with our tendency to think of the present as eternal, we imagine that countries like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon have always been with us. When and how were these countries, as well as Israel, created, and what was the purpose of their boundaries? Did they more or less capture particular ethnicities, or try to?

Canto: That’s a very big question, but an important one – we’ll try to give some semblance of an answer as we go along. It’s certainly the case that these terms are ancient and referred to indistinctly defined regions under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which had a loose structure of provinces or ‘eyalets’ over many centuries, their boundaries and titles changing as power ebbed and flowed in different sectors. After WWI the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, first planned years before, began. It was a four-year process.

Jacinta: The Sykes-Picot agreement really kicked off the planning, and it represented the first major incursion or interference of the modern ‘west’ in middle-eastern or Arab affairs. The partitioning was decided upon in a series of treaties presided over by the new League of Nations, which created temporary mandates over former Ottoman territories which the west clearly considered incapable, at least at the time, of governing themselves. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

their peoples were not considered “able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”. The article [Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations] called for such people’s tutelage to be “entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility”.

Canto: I suppose it’s easy to be cynical about this, but there was clearly a view that modern, western-style nationhood was the only way to go, that There Was No Alternative. It was a matter of shape up or be steamrolled. So, after Versailles, the middle-eastern lands were divvied up by decisions of the victorious Central Powers in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), the San Remo Conference (1920) and the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). The United Kingdom was given a mandate over the Emirate of Transjordan (roughly corresponding to modern Jordan) from April 1921, and Palestine (roughly corresponding to modern Israel) from September 1923. France was given control of ‘Syria’, which included Lebanon, also from September 1923. The Palestine mandate was to uphold the 1917 Balfour Declaration for a Jewish homeland in the region.

Jacinta: Which brings us to the situation on the ground there. The phrase ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ had become something of a catch-cry among Restorationists, the mostly Christian forerunners of Zionists, and it was used to play down the numbers and significance of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine at that time. For example, as far back as 1901, Israel Zangwill, an associate of Herzl, gave a speech using the phrase. Here’s how he described the region:

Palestine has but a small population of Arabs and fellahin [farmers or farm workers] and wandering, lawless, blackmailing Bedouin tribes… Restore the country without a people to the people without a country. For we have something to give as well as to get. We can sweep away the blackmailer—be he Pasha or Bedouin—we can make the wilderness blossom as the rose, and build up in the heart of the world a civilisation that may be a mediator and interpreter between the East and the West.

But interestingly, Zangwill disavowed this speech a few years later as he came to realise the density of the Arab population there, though he still used the sort of arguments that colonists have used everywhere to justify their incursions, claiming that the Arabs there weren’t really ‘fused’ with the land, and only used it ‘as a sort of encampment’. But the fact was that, in spite of the National Jewish Fund mentioned in the last post, the population of Palestine in 1922 was 75% Muslim, 13% Jewish and 11% Christian, and nobody seemed game to inquire of the majority population whether they would allow the Zionists to create a homeland – basically a nation-state – there. Unsurprisingly.

Canto: Yes, they didn’t inquire because they had a good idea of what the answer would be. Even before the mandate, the Brits and the French occupied the Levant and the Mesopotamian region due to their victories in 1918, so they were increasingly aware of the rise of Arab nationalism, which was a concomitant of the rise of Zionism. We wrote of the Arab Revolt and the McMahon Agreement last time, in which the British promised assistance in creating an Arab Kingdom in return for Arab assistance against the Ottoman Turks. This resulted in the short-lived Kingdom of Hejaz in the western edge of the Arabian Peninsula, recognised in the Arab world as the first modern Arab state. Later, in 1920, the Arab Kingdom of Syria was self-proclaimed, but was opposed by the occupying British and French. It only lasted a few months before surrendering to French forces.

Jacinta: Yes the politics of all this is complex and murky. It seems many of the Arabs themselves weren’t particularly supportive of the Hashemite Kingdoms (Hejaz and Syria) because they saw them as British proxies. Many were more than happy with life under the Ottoman Sultanate. So there was tension among Arabs as well as tension between the British and the French, and between each colonial power and the Arabs, and then there were the Jews, who felt they weren’t being fully supported in their claims.

Canto: But though these first Hashemite Kingdoms weren’t well supported at the time, in later years their failure came to be, from the Arab perspective, symbolic of western interference and duplicity. As did western support for the Zionist cause. It’s interesting to note that at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 there was intense argy-bargying between the Brits and the French about control of Arab lands, especially in the Levant region, but it was the Americans who came up with the novel suggestion that perhaps the local inhabitants might be consulted. At first the Brits and the French agreed but then, presumably recognising what they might lose, they backed out. The Americans, though, went ahead with the consultation process and found that the Arabs were strongly in favour of an independent Arab state in the region. The results of the survey, though, weren’t published until 1922, after the League of Nations mandates were agreed upon.

Jacinta: And of course Arab-Zionists tensions were rising. Despite Zionist efforts, the Arab population in the early thirties still vastly outnumbered that of the Jews, but of course the Zionists had powerful interests on their side. Meanwhile many surrounding countries were attaining full independence – Egypt in 1922, Saudi Arabia in 1926, and Iraq in 1931. The French, in their way, were reluctant to grant independence, but did so partially to Syria and Lebanon in 1936. They took full independence during WW2. The region known as Transjordan, bordering Palestine, was nominally under the control of the British, but they showed little interest, and handed effective control to local authorities under a 1928 agreement. Full independence was granted in 1946. All of this added strength to a growing pan-Arabic movement.

Canto: Of course the British had put themselves into a tight spot, with promises to the Arabs and the Zionists, who grew increasingly hostile to each other. An anti-western Muslim movement, Salafism, became popular in Egypt and spread to regions of conflict – Palestine in particular. The movement was personified by, among others, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a Muslim scholar and preacher who landed up in Palestine after 1920. A militant opponent of Zionism, he was incensed by the treatment of Palestinian Arabs, especially the working poor, and embarked on a guerilla campaign against the British and the Jews. His death at the hands of British police was a major contributor to the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, of which more later.

Jacinta: Yes and at the same time, Arab pressure on the British brought about a reduction in Zionist immigration, which led to British-Zionist conflict. It was all about land of course, and neither the Arabs nor the Zionists were willing to give an inch on the topic. There were various more or less failed attempts by the British to placate both sides, including the Churchill White Paper of 1922, which, while emphasising the import of the Balfour Declaration, argued that this was not an imposition of a Zionist state upon the Palestinian population. It also called for a reduction of immigration to “the economic capacity of the country to absorb new arrivals”. But it seems that all attempts at compromise only increased militancy on both sides. And then of course there was the rise of Nazism in Germany – although this didn’t really come to affect the Palestinian situation until the 1940s.

Canto: So next time we’ll look at the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and also at the impact of WW2 and the post-war creation of the United Nations, and how they influenced the increasingly fraught situation on the ground in Palestine.

“A daily scene in Jerusalem under British administration during the 1930s. Friday prayer mob clashes with British Police in front of Hebron Gate in Jerusalem.”
This is from the great collection of Palestinian journalist Mohamed Ali Eltaher (1896-1974), a fearless critic of the Zionist movement, and of the Arab response to it

Written by stewart henderson

February 7, 2019 at 3:57 pm

on anthropomorphism and human specialness

with 3 comments

Chimps gather to mourn the death of an elder

Recently I got into a bit of a barney with a friend who mocked the Great God David Attenborough for talking, in one of his whispered jungle monologues beside some exotic creatures or other, of the ‘mummy’ creature doing this and the ‘daddy’ creature doing that. My friend was slightly pissed off at this ‘anthropomorphism’. What followed is best dismissed as the insidious effects of too much jungle juice and jungle-jangle jazz, but the issue strikes me as an important one, so I’ll examine it further here.

There was a time when ethologists – those who study the behaviour of non-human animals – considered anthropomorphism a giant no-no. To describe an organism as he or she was (or seemed) to ascribe personhood to it, and clearly only humans can be persons. This was unscientific, and kind of soft. After all, ‘animals’ are driven by instinct, whereas humans make conscious decisions. They deliberate, they confer, they worry, they grieve, they organise, they invent, and they have a highly developed prefrontal cortex lacking in other species. And because they have a sophisticated Theory of Mind, they have fun attributing such mental attributes to their pets – ‘my dog Peaches understands every word I say/loves playing with my iPad/always helps me with the gardening’. Scientists of course eschewed such fluffiness in their research, while recognising that anthropomorphism will always be with us, as a type of human failing.

When Jane Goodall began publishing pioneering papers on chimp behaviour in Tanzania in the 1960s, she was quickly accused of anthropomorphism, ‘the cardinal sin of ethology’, but the impact of her work, together with that of other women in the field such as Diane Fossey on gorillas and Birutė Galdikas on orang-utans, was so transformative that it not only changed attitudes toward anthropomorphism but helped overturn the dominant paradigm in ethology and human psychology – behaviourism. And I don’t think the fact that these were all women was coincidental.

What Goodall et al were describing was complex social and family behaviour, driven by feelings – anger, fear, lust, shame and grief, to name a few. It was, in fact, nothing new. Darwin himself wrote The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals, in which he regularly used anthropomorphic terminology. However, the fact that it has now become more standard is due as much to neurological research as to field ethology. I’ve written elsewhere about bird brains, and the transformative and ongoing research into them. Research has also found that many bird species have extended family relationships. How do they recognise sisters and aunties when they all look the same? Maybe humans all look the same to a parrot (actually plenty of evidence says that they don’t). Neurological research into humans and non-human species is growing exponentially, and is quickly eroding the sense of our neurological specialness, which is a good thing. For example, in the bad old days, non-human primates were a regular subject of human research – or much more than they are now. It’s much easier to, say, remove part of a marmoset’s brain – sans anaesthetic – and observe its reactions if you’ve always referred to the creature as ‘it’ rather than ‘her’ or ‘him’, let alone as someone’s mother or daughter. But that’s exactly what they are. And they know it.

So why are some people still resistant to anthropomorphic terminology? It may be a religious hangover – most of the major religions make a sharp distinction between humans and brute beasts, and our language is full of these ‘human specialness’ distinctions, which we rarely notice. The term, ‘animal’ for example, standardly excludes the human animal. Since most of us can’t distinguish between a male and female bird of most species, we use the general term ‘it’, but if we’re presented with a new-born human animal we’re likely to inquire its gender so as not to use the insulting term I’ve just used.

Returning to the argument mentioned at the top of this post, the issue seemed to be that we shouldn’t use ‘mummy or ‘daddy’ etc to refer to non-human animals, that these terms are used for human relations, and should be used exclusively for that purpose. I can see no logic to this argument. Of course, birds don’t think of their parents as ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’, but neither do they think of themselves as ‘birds’ or ‘oiseaux’ or ‘tori’ (Japanese). So if we refer to their relationships as ‘male parent’, ‘female parent’, and ‘offspring’, instead of mum, dad and the kids, that is just as much an imposition on them – a deliberately distancing imposition, emphasising our superiority – as the anthropomorphic terms.

One of the parties to this recent contretemps suggested we calm down, ‘it’s just a nomenclature issue’. Of course this is true, it’s all about nomenclature. And nomenclature can be really important – it can be racist, classist, as well as speciesist. The terms we use for other creatures can help to determine whether we see them as our friends or our dinner. In the meantime, continued neurological and ethological research will, I believe contribute further to the dissolution of the old rule against anthropomorphism, and the Great God Attenborough’s whispering tones will resonate through the firmament, as surely as mummy chimps mourn the loss of their babies.

Elephants live in multi-family groups over 70 years and develop strong, intimate bonds

Written by stewart henderson

February 5, 2019 at 9:29 am

Palestine 3 – the early 20th century, Zionism, the Balfour Declaration and the beginnings of Arab nationalism

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the very brief ‘Balfour Declaration’, contained within a letter to Lord Rothschild – note the reference to the rights of existing non-Jewish communities

Canto: Before we go on, I should point out that we’re using the term “Palestine” fairly loosely, much as we might use the term Canaan of old. The misadventures we’re talking about have taken place not just in the Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but in the whole of what is now Israel, and surrounding regions covered nowadays by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. 

Jacinta: So now we’re going to jump from the diaspora under the Romans, and the wandering, persecuted Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages, to the late 19th century and the rise of the Zionist movement. Modern Zionism is most commonly associated with the writings of Theodor Herzl, particularly his 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State, though the term ‘zionism’ was first coined by Nathan Birnbaum a few years earlier. Birnbaum was prominent in the first Zionist Congress of 1897, but became an anti-zionist activist in later life. 

Canto: Just an indication that there were, and are, plenty of Jews who had no interest in the movement, and some who actively opposed it.

Jacinta: Of course Jews are a heterogenous group, and we should at least differentiate between secular and religious Jews, who would have had different reasons for supporting or opposing Zionism. But the events of the Second World War clearly boosted the Zionist cause. 

Canto: The Palestinian region was under the faltering control of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, when Herzl’s political version of Zionism was becoming popular (Herzl’s preference for Argentina over Palestine for the new Jewish state is indicative of his lack of religion). The Jews of Europe at this time were no doubt seeking a permanent solution to the latest anti-semitic flare-ups, such as the Dreyfuss affair in France and the Russian Pale of Settlement and the pogroms there in the 1880s. 

Jacinta: And notwithstanding Herzl’s preference for Argentina, he recognised that Palestine was the favoured option of most Zionists, and came to favour it himself before he died. And his diary writings reveal – what is clearly the fatal flaw of the whole Zionist Palestinian project – that, to quote Paul Heywood-Smith, ‘it was to be at the expense of the whole native population who were to be spirited out of the country and their land expropriated’.

Canto: Yes, and Herzl died in 1904, so it’s clear that this ethnic cleansing idea – which surely wasn’t confined to the thinking of Herzl – was a feature of Zionism from early on.

Jacinta: Though surely there was some opposition to this? I mean among the Zionists themselves – what were they thinking?

Canto: Well, we’ll get to that, but interestingly, the modern Israeli historian Benny Morris, a Zionist, supports the expelling of some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homeland in 1948, the beginning of an act of ethnic cleansing that is yet unfinished. We’ll come to all that later. Morris’ only complaint is that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s ‘founding father’, failed to finish the job, because, according to Morris the stark choice was between ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Arabs and the genocide of the Jewish population. But that modern view, I suspect, is due to the many decades of animosity created between the two sides before and after 1948. But let’s go back to the turn of the century.

Jacinta: Yes let’s, because Simon Montefiore in his book Jerusalem paints a picture of that city in the late nineteenth century which contrasts sharply with the Zionist monocultural dream:

During the Jewish festival of Purim, Muslim and Christian Arabs dressed up in the traditional Jewish costumes, and all three religions attended the Jewish Picnic held at the tomb of Simon the Just north of the Damascus Gate. Jews presented their Arab neighbours with matzah and invited them to the Passover Seder dinner, while the Arabs returned the favour by giving the Jews newly baked bread when the festival ended. Jewish mohels often circumcised Muslim children. Jews held parties to welcome their Muslim neighbours back from the haj. The closest relations were between Arabs and Sephardic Jews … Ironically the Arab Orthodox Christians were the most hostile to Jews, whom they insulted in traditional Easter songs and lynched as they approached the Church.

Quoted in The Case for Palestine, by Paul Heywood-Smith.

Canto: Yes, I don’t know if that paints too rosy a picture of Arab-Jewish relations at that time, but subsequent events in the early twentieth century hardly helped to strengthen those relations.

Jacinta: Yes, and we should note that not all Jews who moved into the region in the early twentieth century were Zionist monoculturalists. However…

Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s most influential early promoter

Canto: The Zionist movement began to buy up land in Palestine. Herzl visited Jerusalem for the first time in 1898 and in 1903 sought the support of Pope Pius X for their Jewish homeland, but this was rejected as the Jews denied the divinity of Christ (the acceptance of which would’ve turned them all into Christians presumably). Tsarist persecution brought a wave of Russian Jews into Palestine in the early 1900s. And more land was claimed. An organisation called the National Jewish Fund was established in 1901, and it claimed, presumably without any legal authority at the time, that all acquired land would thenceforth, in perpetuity, be inalienable Jewish property – and if farmland, worked only by Jews as well. This land claim has been treated as law ever since.

Jacinta: And meanwhile, Britain was becoming another place of refuge for persecuted Jews, which led, in turn, to them being persecuted in that country, with riots and abuse and the like. The country’s leaders, seeking a solution, were naturally inclined to listen to Zionist overtures. Chaim Weizmann, a brilliant biochemist and later to become the president of the World Zionist Organisation, and later still Israel’s first president, is credited with persuading the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour to lend support in an official capacity to the recognition of Palestine as the homeland of a future Jewish nation.

Canto: So the Balfour Declaration of 1917 needs to be understood in terms of the complex Euro politics of the time. Not only was there a humanistic desire to find a solution for a persecuted people, but there were also the sorts of colonialist ambitions and jockeying that caused the Great Stupid War of 14-18 in the first place. The Palestine region was under the putative control of the fading Ottoman Empire, which was unlikely to survive the war, and the region was of strategic interest to Britain, particularly as a staging post to its prize possessions of India-Pakistan, but for many other reasons.

Jacinta: Yes, and Britain was also double dealing, because it had occupied Egypt from the beginning of the war in 1914 and had sought Arab support against the Ottoman Turks by signing the McMahon Agreement in November 1915, which guaranteed or at least supported Arab independence in the Arabian Peninsula, including Palestine.

Canto: Well this is controversial. Henry McMahon was the British High Commissioner in Egypt. His agreement was with Sharif Hussein of Arabia, and because it contradicted the later Balfour Declaration, there have been attempts to argue that it didn’t include Palestine, based on different translations. However, it’s generally agreed that these arguments are very strained. And these contradictory agreements with the Arabs and then the Jews weren’t the only headaches for the Brits. In between the McMahon Agreement with the Arabs in late 1915 and the Balfour Declaration for the Jews in 1917 was the notorious secret Sykes-Picot agreement involving Britain, France and, to a lesser degree, Russia. It was made public by the Russians after their October Revolution of 1917, much to Britain’s embarrassment. Basically this was an agreement to carve up the Levant region, southern Turkey and Mesopotamia between Britain and France – as protectorates, of course.

Jacinta: Yes it all sounds very high-handed, but to be fair, many of these negotiations, which went back to near the beginning of the war, did involve examining the situation on the ground, and the local sensitivities there. And there may have been a more or less benign paternalism at play – ‘we’ll take responsibility for this region until the locals grow up and become civilised like us’. Though it’s notable that all the squabbles were over the most productive and strategic regions. Most of the Arabian Peninsula was of no interest whatever to western powers before the discovery of oil there.

these Arabs are revolting (against the Ottoman Turks in 1916-18) in the Hejaz of western Arabia

Canto: So while the western powers were negotiating and wrangling over the projected spoils after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks, the Arab Revolt of 1916 broke out, initiated by Sharif Hussein and his sons. Its aim was to overthrow the Ottomans and to create a pan-Arabic state, and it represented and furthered a rise of Arab nationalism which had barely existed before. It was only partially successful, but in contributing to Arab identity it helped to provide a lens through which they would observe western interventions in what they considered to be Arab lands.

Jacinta: Yes, notably the Arabs refused to allow the Europeans to assist them in their revolt beyond material and logistic support – they rightly feared a European takeover. And Palestine certainly was a focus of global affairs, with zionists in the USA pushing for intervention in the war in exchange for backing the Brits in their promise for a Jewish settlement there.

Written by stewart henderson

January 28, 2019 at 1:24 pm

Palestine 2: more recent ancient history

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The Temple Mount, Jerusalem

Jacinta: So the so-called Kingdom of Judah, from archaeological evidence, was not a particularly developed region, from a modern perspective. Jerusalem, always regarded as its most significant city, and central to all Zionist aspirations, came into being as a small village between 5000 and 4500 years ago. From about 4000 years ago, it seems to have been a vassal state of the Egyptian empire, but there’s scant archaeological evidence from the period, though there was clearly an increase of building construction under Ramesses II a little over 3200 years ago. Some 2700 years ago, the region became a part of the Assyrian empire, and then the Babylonians conquered the region only a century or so after that, largely destroying Jerusalem.

Canto: Right, and the Babylonians brought about a diaspora of sorts, which was soon reversed when Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return and rebuild their temple. Now this temple was a symbol of Judaism, and its destruction by the Babylonians struck at the heart of their religion, suggesting that it was well established 2600 years ago…

Jacinta: Yes, we’ll get back to the actual population of the region and their religion shortly. Persia remained in control of Judea until the time of Alexander the Great 2350 years ago (we’re avoiding the BC/AD designations) and remained under the control of his Seleucid successors until a local revolt led by Judas Maccabeus gave it semi-independence for a time under the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties. The Romans by this time were the great power, and Judea became a client state, but when the population rose in revolt 1950 years ago, Jerusalem was sacked, and, after another revolt 70 years later, the troublesome province became an increasing target of Roman authorities, leading to a major diaspora that wasn’t reversed until the 20th century.

Canto: And that’s when our story really hots up, but getting back to that temple – you know it was built on this supposedly triple-holy site called the Temple Mount, current home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, both of which are very holy of holy to Islam. Of course it’s no accident that Moslems built this dome about 1320 years ago just where the second Jewish Temple had stood…

Jacinta: Which, by the way, is the very place where, so says fundamentalist Judaism, their god created Adam, haha.

Canto: Yes yes and where he created the World as well, for old Adam to stretch his legs in. I mean it’s typical for a new religion to set its base camp on the ruins of an older one – just as the Christians did at ‘pagan’ sites when the Roman Empire turned Christian. But let’s look briefly at the history of the temple itself, since its first construction might be said to mark the beginning of Judaism as an organised religion. It has been called Solomon’s Temple, and there’s much bullshit in the Old Testament about Solomon being the ruler of a mighty empire, but absolutely no evidence has been found of his existence outside of those texts. My uneducated guess was that he was a local chieftain grossly exaggerated in his power by Old Testament propaganda. He supposedly lived around 2900 years ago, so believers assume the temple was built around that time. It’s noteworthy that the Israelis haven’t allowed any archaeological research to be done at the site for decades. But let’s be generous and assume from their own stories that Judaism is about 3000 years old.

Jacinta: And it seems that one of the tenets of Zionism is return to an ancient homeland. But a homeland isn’t a nation, quite. Australia’s Aborigines have had a homeland here for up to 60,000 years, but they didn’t have a nation in the modern sense of a state with institutions of government etc. Some Zionists, especially the religious ones, would use their holy books to argue for having an ancient nation-state under David and Solomon etc but that doesn’t sort with any evidence. Other Zionists though would argue that the region was overwhelmingly Jewish before the diaspora caused by Roman repression. That would be the basis of their demand for the creation of Israel as a nation, right?

Canto: That and their claim to be a uniquely oppressed people in their adopted countries, which was made more cogent after the Holocaust. The problem of course is that the region, one of the oldest humanly inhabited regions in the world, has never been exclusively Jewish, or Israelite or whatever you want to call it. Was it overwhelmingly Jewish during early Roman times? Perhaps so – I’m certainly willing to concede that, but I’m not sure what that counts for. The British Isles 2000 years ago, when Romanisation began there, was predominantly made up of Celtic tribes, migrants from Europe. The USA at that time was settled by a number of highly developed regional cultures, that tend now to be grouped under the heading ‘native American culture’. The Celts don’t have a nation, nor do the native Americans, or the Kurds, the Catalans, the Rohingyas…

Jacinta: But some of them have put forward cogent arguments for their own nation-state.

Canto: Yes, but the Zionist movement and its arguments were different – not necessarily more cogent – for a number of reasons. Zionism had a more international feel, due to the diaspora. It was locally active and felt in many parts of the world, unlike say, the Catalan movement. Also, It was a call to ‘return’ of a profoundly oppressed people – and this was before the rise of Nazism, after which it was able to take advantage of western guilt big-time. And for the religious Jews there was the whole thing about Jerusalem and the temple…

Jacinta: Okay, so we’re going to switch to the modern situation, but before that let’s look to the distinction made between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewishness. Ashkenazi Jews currently represent around three quarters of the Jewish population. The Sephardim are descended from those who settled in the Iberian Peninsula from the time of the diaspora – Roman times – but were then infamously expelled from the region under the Alhambra Decree of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, and a similar decree by the Portuguese monarchy in 1496.

Canto: Not to mention the 1290 expulsion of the Jews from England under Eddie I. They all appeared to say ‘Go East, young Jew, or we’ll have your guts for garters’, or words to that effect.

beating up on Jews in 13th century England – the design on the central figures’ robes represent the twin tablets brought down by Moses – 5 commandments on each?

Jacinta: The Jews descended from those who remained in the Levant and the Middle East during the diaspora are called Mizrahi Jews. The Ashkenazim’s descent is complicated. Actually the whole story is really effing complicated. For example the Ashkenazim were also pushed eastward during the late Middle Ages due to persecution. By the early Middle Ages they had settled in Northern and Central Europe, for example in settlements along the Rhine, where they developed the Yiddish language, from German mixed with Aramaic, Hebrew and other Eastern elements.

Canto: Yes, and they were pushed eastward, but also pushed into being more integrated into local cultures. This led to a kind of modernising movement, a Jewish Enlightenment known as the Haskalah, which revived Hebrew as a literary language.

Jacinta: But the point is that the Ashkenazim were, according to some observers, at the greatest remove from the Jews of the old spiritual homeland, due to their European integration and their Enlightenment values. On the other hand, it was above all the Ashkenazim who suffered under the Holocaust. So there was this post-Holocaust tension in the west between relieving itself of its guilt by acceding to the, largely Ashkenazi, push for occupation of the Southern Levant, there to recreate the nation of Israel, and questioning the bona-fides of their claim to this land.

Canto: Yes, and as a sidebar to all that, Paul Heywood-Smith claims in The Case for Palestine that there’s ‘considerable evidence’ that the Ashkenazim are ‘substantially derived from the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism in or about 805 CE’. He goes on:

The Khazars were Turkish nomads who occupied that land between the Black and Caspian seas (called the Caucasus today), including parts of eastern Turkey, north-west Iran and Georgia. Khazaria seems the likely source of the Jewish influx into Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, and Eastern Europe – and from there, into Western Europe.

But the authors of the Wikipedia article ‘Khazar hypothesis of Ashkenazi ancestry’ claim there is ‘meagre evidence’ for the hypothesis. In any case, the controversy is an indication of how fraught the Zionist issue is. You could say the Jewish claim to the Palestinian lands is stronger than the British claim to Australia ever was, but then the eighteenth century was a lot more lawless about such things than the twentieth, and a lot more contemptuous of native claims to their own land, insofar as they ever even considered the matter. In today’s more human rights oriented world, the fact that there were non-Jewish Palestinian people living in Palestine for centuries before the Zionists started making their claims in the late nineteenth century makes what has happened in recent history to create and maintain the state of Israel a source of concern to many of us. After all, we could have been one of those Palestinian people.


Paul-Heywood-Smith, The Case for Palestine, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

January 21, 2019 at 3:06 pm