By the way, there’s an escalating crisis in Jerusalem right now

I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve missed this developing story in Israel/Palestine; after all, a lady and her boyfriend took a bicycle ride together yesterday, and we’re about to elect some new people to Congress so they can get plenty more nothing done, and there’s only so many (24) hours in a day to cover the news, you know? But anyway, after an Islamic Jihad terrorist (who has since been killed in an alleged gun battle with police) shot an activist rabbi, Yehuda Glick, on Wednesday, Israeli authorities yesterday decided to close all access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the site’s closure “a declaration of war” against the Palestinians, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for calm in the city one minute and then blamed Abbas for causing the crisis the next. The authorities later announced that the site would be reopened for the communal Friday prayer, but then said that Muslim men under the age of 50 would still be barred from entering, leaving plenty of potential for a violence. So far it seems that there have been clashes between police and protesters, but nobody has been killed.

What’s behind the crisis? Zack Beauchamp at Vox cites a couple of experts who say that there’s been an undercurrent of violence around East Jerusalem since well before this summer’s murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, which led eventually to Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. But the tension that underlies that violence, the attempt on Glick’s life, and the tension over closing the Temple Mount goes back almost 50 years, to the 1967 Six Day War. Prior to the war, the area, like all of East Jerusalem, belonged to Jordan, but Israel captured it during the war, along with the rest of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula (which they later gave back to Egypt). Nobody has figured out how to manage the competing faith claims on the site since then.

The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is fundamentally important to both faiths. For Jews, it’s the site of the First (Solomon’s) and Second (Herod’s) Temples — Herod’s for sure and most likely, although there’s scant archeological evidence for it, Solomon’s as well — as well as (allegedly) the site where Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice and where God rested during the Creation, then where he gathered the dust he used to create Adam. Today it’s home to the Western Wall, parts of which are the only bits of the Second Temple that are still standing today and which is the holiest site in the modern Jewish faith. For Muslims, it’s the place where Muhammad touched down during his miraculous Night Journey, and from whence he journeyed on up to Heaven to speak to God directly. The Dome of the Rock, which was built around the turn of the 8th century by the Umayyads, supposedly sits over top of the Foundation Stone, which was both the stone upon which the Ark of the Covenant once sat and the precise spot from which Muhammad ascended. The Haram al-Sharif, which comprises the Dome of the Rock and the neighboring Al-Aqsa Mosque, is the third holiest site for Sunnis and also has high standing for Shiʿa, though the burial shrines for Ali and Husayn (at Najaf and Karbala in Iraq) may be considered somewhat more sacred. Maybe you’ve seen the movie Kingdom of Heaven? The scene toward the end when Balian threatens to destroy Jerusalem’s holy places in order to get Saladin to offer favorable terms of surrender is based on Islamic sources of their actual encounter. The fact that Balian’s threat (bluff?) seems to have worked, or at least that Muslim historians were comfortable portraying it that way, illustrates how much value the city has historically held for Muslims.

The real Balian of Ibelin probably wasn't this dreamy, but he might have been a better movie actor than this guy.

The real Balian of Ibelin probably wasn’t this dreamy, but he might have been a better movie actor than this guy.

Of course, the political context in which the religious tensions play out has to do with who controls Jerusalem. Israel has always claimed the full city as its national capital, even when the eastern half was in the territory of another country, but the Palestinians insist that when (if?) there is a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem will be its capital. The 1947 UN resolution that created Israel and Palestine designated Jerusalem as corpus separatum, belonging to neither but instead under international rule, which is in fact still the normative position of the U.N., the U.S. State Department, the E.U., Russia, etc., though they all recognize Israel’s de facto control over at least the western half of the city. When the 1948 Arab-Israeli War began, however, both sides ignored the U.N. plan and seized the two halves of the city, Israel controlling the west and Jordan the east.

The intended and actual status of Jerusalem in the 1947-1948 period (from Al Jazeera)

The intended and actual status of Jerusalem in the 1947-1948 period (from Al Jazeera)

The potential for clashes over the holy site itself has been mitigated somewhat by a longstanding rabbinical prohibition against Jews setting foot on it. If you know your Bible, then you know that there were parts of the Temple complex that were absolutely forbidden for anyone other than maybe the High Priest to enter, and the prohibition’s logic has always been that Jews who go onto the Temple site run the risk of inadvertently stepping into one of those areas. That prohibition has been challenged and/or ignored by a growing number of Israelis who seem to be motivated less by fear of being struck down for stepping in the wrong place and more by the desire to stake a nationalist claim to East Jerusalem and everything, including the Temple Mount, in it, Palestinian/Muslim concerns be damned. That same sentiment is what drives Israeli government’s continued plans to build more Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem despite the tension and international condemnation such settlements inevitably provoke. Glick is one of the leaders of this movement to encourage more Jews to visit the Temple Mount, and was at one time the director of a group that is actively preparing for the construction of the prophesied Third Temple on the site, which explains (but does not excuse, let’s be clear) why he was targeted.

Obviously there’s no solution to the dispute over Jerusalem or the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in sight. The best that can be hoped for is to keep tensions to a minimum and avoid a full outbreak of violence, but even that may not be possible at this point. If you know the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you probably recall that the Second Intifada, in which around 1000 Israelis and as many as 3300 Palestinians were killed, began in 2000 when “Man of Peace” Ariel Sharon, then the leader of the Likud Party, provocatively visited the site accompanied by a large delegation and a squadron of riot police. The site also factored into the First Intifada, in the October 1990 Al Aqsa Massacre, when a group of Palestinians attacked Jews worshiping at the site and around 20 of them were killed by Israeli security forces. So it’s not out of bounds to ask if we’re seeing the beginning of a Third Intifada in the current situation, assuming that the Third Intifada hasn’t already begun.

Is the battlefield shifting again in Syria?

Remember how our friends, the moderate Syrian rebels, got mad at the U.S. for bombing targets associated with Jabhat al-Nusra in addition to ISIS targets, because they all said that Nusra was their ally against Assad (and let’s not lose sight of what a blood-stained madman he is) and ISIS? Well, either those moderates seriously misjudged Nusra or our airstrikes really shook things up on the ground, because here are those same moderate rebels “pleading” for U.S. assistance against, that’s right, Jabhat al-Nusra:

While acknowledging Nusra’s al Qaida ties, rebel leaders have said that unlike the Islamic State, Nusra appears dedicated to the downfall of Assad. Previously, the groups have coordinated militarily with Nusra.

That appears to have changed in recent days, however. Rebel commanders said that for the past two months, Nusra has been moving forces into towns and cities held by more moderate rebels in western Syria. On Monday, Nusra fighters attacked seven villages in Jabal al Zawiya that were held by rebel forces in addition to launching a major assault on Almastuma, a regime base at the entrance to the city of Idlib.

Nusra also has attacked the U.S.-backed Hazm Movement in Aleppo this week, and it has launched assaults on major rebel-held cities such as Ma’arat al Numan.

“The (Nusra) operation in Idlib was a fake,” Hallak said, referring to the Monday attack on Almastuma, “and then they turned on the Syrian Revolutionary Front.” The revolutionary front, which last January spearheaded a highly successful assault against the Islamic State in northeastern Syria, is among a dozen rebel groups receiving U.S. aid through a covert CIA program.

Nusra on Wednesday issued a statement saying it was fighting a “war against corruption and the corrupt” and said other Islamist groups were with it.

That last part seems important, because it’s only been about a month since people were reporting that U.S. airstrikes in Syria might be encouraging a reconciliation between enemies/frenemies Nusra and ISIS:

A senior source confirmed that al-Nusra and Isis leaders were now holding war planning meetings. While no deal has yet been formalised, the addition of at least some al-Nusra numbers to Isis would strengthen the group’s ranks and extend its reach at a time when air strikes are crippling its funding sources and slowing its advances in both Syria and Iraq.

Al-Nusra, which has direct ties to al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called the attacks a “war on Islam” in an audio statement posted over the weekend. A senior al-Nusra figure told the Guardian that 73 members had defected to Isis last Friday alone and that scores more were planning to do so in coming days.

So it’s entirely possible that Nusra and ISIS are working together at this point. On the other hand, if the McClatchey report is correct then the “moderates” are asking the U.S. for weapons, but not air support. Why? Are they concerned that airstrikes won’t help against Nusra, which doesn’t have the big vehicles and equipment that ISIS plundered from the U.S.-equipped Iraqi army has? That would make sense. Or are they hyping a non-threat in the hopes that they can panic Washington into suddenly throwing massive amounts of weaponry into Syria without properly vetting the recipients or tracking the weapons? That would unfortunately also make sense. For all we know, these guys urging more weapons shipments will turn around and hand those weapons off to Nusra the second they get there. This is the problem with engaging in a fight when you don’t have good intel on what is really happening on the ground.

Staring down prejudice in your cap and gown

As a matter of principle, I agree with Gabriel Arana when he writes this (fair warning, this is Bill Maher-related):

But he should speak at Berkeley. I won’t argue that prejudice against Muslims isn’t “dangerous.” But bad ideas, like family secrets, are less harmful when exposed. In this case, Maher’s views should be aired and shot down. Academic institutions are the ideal forum for this; as opposed to our public discourse, in the university setting it’s harder to take cheap shots or win simply by being loud. Instead of disinviting Maher, why not have him debate Reza Aslan, the Iranian-American scholar who so eloquently took him to task on CNN? Many Americans share Maher’s facile views of Islam. What better place to challenge these views than at Berkeley?

As for the claim that his appearance would “perpetuate a dangerous learning environment,” toughen up: social justice requires courage, and prejudice against Muslims needs to be stared down.

More speech is better than less and bad ideas should be publicly aired so that they can be exposed and refuted, no question. The devil is in the details, though. If Bill Maher were being invited to Berkeley to give a talk on the horrors of Islam that would be followed by a tough Q&A session, then there would be an opportunity to challenge his views. If he were being invited to participate in a debate on Islam’s role in the world, then there would be an opportunity for his views to be shot down. But Maher is being invited to give a commencement address, a role that privileges and honors his words and allows no opportunity for anyone to challenge them or for Maher to face any feedback.

I don’t have any strong convictions on whether this commencement speaker should be dis-invited from this commencement ceremony (and I find it hard to believe that Maher would turn a commencement address into another harangue about Islam, but what do I know?), but I have a hard time with the argument that commencement addresses are important opportunities for standing up to unpopular or unsavory speech. Anybody who’s ever attended a commencement ceremony knows that’s just not the case. I guess those students who are upset about Maher being there could stage some kind of protest during the ceremony, but that will just ruin the ceremony for everybody, themselves included. The fact of the matter is that it’s their commencement ceremony (along with the other graduating students who aren’t put out by having Maher there, of course). It seems like they (the student body generally speaking) ought to be allowed to have some input into how their graduations will be celebrated, doesn’t it?

Funny story: as I was writing this I got the funny feeling that I’d covered this ground once before. Lo and behold, I had:

For one thing, at the risk of repeating myself, there’s no “engagement” with a commencement speech. A student’s choices there are “be talked at” and “don’t go.” For another thing, if you want to expose students “to hearing from people from different walks of life, professions, experiences and philosophical and political points of view,” then next year have a single mother on food stamps give your commencement speech, or some kid who got railroaded into prison on a misdemeanor by one of our Galtian judges who’s on the payroll of a private prison company. I guarantee you they need the speaking fee a hell of a lot more than Christine Lagarde does. The rotating and indistinguishable Masters of the Universe types who are always chosen to give these speeches aren’t going to expose your students to anything by which they haven’t already been, and will forever be, bombarded, in the newspaper, online, on TV, and, yes, in the classroom. Christine Lagarde hasn’t been “censored.” Condoleeza Rice hasn’t been “censored.” Some students found the idea of their tuition money going to pay these people to speak at their graduation distasteful, and so those people are no longer speaking at those ceremonies. Oh, the humanity!

We’re being governed by children, part 2

Jeffrey Goldberg may believe that “relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments have moved toward a full-blown crisis,” but for me I’m going to wait until somebody in the Obama administration actually does something more than say naughty swears about the Israeli PM before I’ll believe it.

Hey, if anybody at the White House is reading this, if you’re really tired of Bibi and his cabinet slagging you on a near-constant basis, please note that the United States and its Security Council veto is literally all that’s standing between Israel and a series of international catastrophes, including but not limited to any number of anti-Occupation UN resolutions, a war crimes trial at The Hague over Operation Blow Gaza to Hell Protective Edge, and UN recognition of a Palestinian state. And that’s before we even get to the $3 billion and change we’re sending Israel in military aid every year, which we do in addition to handing them the keys to our weapons stockpiles in the region whenever they run out of ways to blow up more Palestinians. You really do have options beyond name-calling, which accomplishes nothing other than letting Netanyahu look tough back home, which he craves so much that it drives almost all of his actions at this point.

UPDATE: Dan Drezner suggests a possible reason why the Obama administration is publicly calling Netanyahu names:

So what’s going on?  Is there a rational reason for this kind of talk? I think there might be, but let me stress at the outset that I’m spitballing here. I have no inside information to suggest it’s true, and it may very well be that Goldberg simply liquored up the right White House senior official.

The one thing this kind of trash-talking does is send a signal to Iran about the U.S. commitment to a nuclear deal. Bear in mind that in recent weeks the administration has made it cleat that it won’t be going to Congress to get approval for the permanent lifting of any Iran sanctions. But this raises the question for both Iranian negotiators and Iranian hardliners of just how much they can trust their American interlocutors to implement such a deal. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s persistent and bellicose rhetoric towards Tehran would also have to be a source of concern for the Iranians. If they cut a nuclear deal, they want it to be implemented and they want the shadow of military action lifted.

If in fact Drezner is right, this is still pretty dumb. Iran’s institutional distrust of America goes back to 1979, is built upon the bodies of the 120,000-500,000 Iranians who were killed by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, when he was our client, and is rooted in historical events that go back to 1953, when we helped the Brits overthrow the Mossadegh government. They’re not going to be suddenly convinced that we mean what we’re telling them just because somebody in our government anonymously called another world leader a chickenshit. I can’t believe that any thinking human being could conclude otherwise.

We’re being governed by children

In this case, John Boehner. Speaker of the House isn’t exactly a diplomacy-heavy job, I’ll grant you, but come on:

I’m not sure which is worse: the notion that House Speaker John Boehner says ridiculous things to get votes or that the Ohio Republican actually believes his own rhetoric.Take yesterday, for example. As Jay Bookman noted, Boehner was in Iowa and made these comments to a group of voters:

“Five years ago, the president of the United States went to Europe and he went to the Middle East on what I’ll call his ‘apology tour’ – apologizing for America being strong, apologizing for America leading.

“And the manifestation of that apology tour is what we see in the chaos going on around the world today. I talk to world leaders every week. They want America to lead. They’re begging America to lead. Because when America leads and America’s strong, the world is a safer place.

“When you look at this chaos that’s going on, does anybody think that Vladimir Putin would have gone into Crimea had George W. Bush been president of the United States? No! Even Putin is smart enough to know that Bush would have punched him in the nose in about 10 seconds.”

The apology tour bit is one of those zombie lies that you can’t even get particularly worked up about anymore, but even the president who committed the worst foreign policy blunder in American history probably wouldn’t have been dumb enough to punch the President of Russia in the nose, literally or figuratively, over Crimea. Actually, there’s no “probably” about it, since Russia actually did invade another country and de facto annex part of its territory while Bush was still in office, and in response America…did virtually nothing about it.

I wouldn’t worry about any diplomatic fallout from Boehner’s absurd comments. After all, even Putin is smart enough to know that John Boehner is a clown.

"Unlike Vladimir Putin, I used to sweep floors in my family's bar and OH GOD I CAN'T" *weeps uncontrollably*

“Unlike Vladimir Putin, I used to sweep floors in my family’s bar and OH GOD I CAN’T” *weeps uncontrollably*