Events

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Breaking News: Radical Historian Howard Zinn Dies at 87

From the Boston Globe:
"Howard Zinn, historian who challenged status quo, dies at 87"
January 27, 2010 07:12 PM

By Mark Feeney and Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff

Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian and political activist who was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam and whose books, such as "A People's History of the United States," inspired young and old to rethink the way textbooks present the American experience, died today in Santa Monica, Calif, where he was traveling. He was 87.

His daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington, said he suffered a heart attack.

"He's made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture," Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, said tonight. "He's changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can't think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect." (read the rest)
As Chomsky's comment indicates, many Americans appreciated Zinn's work for its critical political stance and popular accessibility alike. By contrast, most professional historians, whatever their political persuasions, tended to take a dimmer view of his work, finding it simplistic and monochromatic. Thus, this comment by Sean Wilentz in a recent lengthy review of Lincoln historiography:
At its most straightforward, caustic, and predictable--as in the balefully influential works of Howard Zinn, who has described Lincoln as at best "a kind man" who had to be "pushed by the antislavery movement" into emancipation--this post-1960s populist history writing is just as skewed as the tendentious "great white male" historiography that it has supposedly discredited.
Zinn's influence was undeniable.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King Day: History channel comes through (more or less)

Martin Luther King Day. So, I turned on the History channel as I often do on historical anniversaries, with a mixture of pessimism and masochism, knowing that I am likely to be disappointed, but that, on the bright side, either way I'll at least have something to blog about.

The expectation of disappointment did not disappoint. Still, wedged in there among the eight (count 'em !) episodes of "Pawn Stars" was one solid show appropriate to the occasion: a 2008 documentary by Tom Brokaw on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., featuring historic footage and interviews with family members, associates, and today's political figures. Although the ratio of program topics was badly skewed, the History channel in a sense came through again—and again, it was by rebroadcasting an older or more traditional sort of program (are we detecting a pattern here?).

Among the noteworthy points that one could discern or extrapolate from the broadcast:

Many of us today mistakenly classify King as a "moderate," perhaps because we tend to focus on his advocacy of non-violence versus the more violent words and actions of Black Power advocates. In fact, King was and remained a radical (in the best sense) advocate of social justice, and not on the front of race relations alone. History proved his approach to be the more effective one not because it was intrinsically superior (though that it may have been), but above all, because it was more appropriate to the concrete political conditions.

King's biblical rhetoric, principled advocacy of non-violence, and current (not altogether salutary) status as a secular saint likewise tend to blind us to the calculating skill with which he and his associates developed effective communication strategies and exploited political symbolism and media opportunities to the fullest. For example, it was (so to speak) a godsend that his arrest in the course of the Birmingham protests came on Good Friday. The timing allowed him, particularly in the Letter From Birmingham Jail, to assume a mantle of Christ-like rectitude and power. It was a document in which he also steadfastly affirmed his radicalism in the face of calls for moderation— by explicitly associating himself with a tradition of protest stretching from the Bible to the American Revolution and Abraham Lincoln. He was likewise fully prepared to take advantage of police violence, even though that meant subjecting his followers as well as himself to physical harm. It was not for nothing that women and children figured prominently in protests. Demonstrations were carefully planned and choreographed to ensure that there was a 90-second segment of action suited for inclusion in the evening news programs (that was back in the day when 90 seconds seemed like a short time; between 1968 and 1988, the length of a typical political soundbite shrank from more than 40 to fewer than 10 seconds).

To acknowledge this is not to diminish King. On the contrary, it shows that he was not just an idealist, but a shrewd and pragmatic politician, a quality that should make him more rather than less admirable. Idealism without political skill is useless. Political skill without ideals is dangerous. What is ironic and tragic is that his strategies are today so frequently misapplied or misappropriated by both incompetents and cynics.
"With every passing year we have a greater understanding of the magnitude of Dr. King's achievements and the historic place he occupies in the pantheon of American heroes," said Brokaw. "As a young reporter in the South I was witness to his courage and his oratorical genius in the face of often violent resistance to the idea that every American should have equal rights. Revisiting that time and his place in it has been a deeply rewarding experience."
In summary, still a powerful commemoration of a powerful figure, with many lessons that we still have failed fully to learn.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Who's Being Diabolical Here? Pat Robertson Blames Earthquake on Revolutionary Haiti's Pact With the Devil

Not for the first time, I spoke too soon.

When I heard the news of the Haitian disaster, I naturally thought of Voltaire's poem on the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which he so powerfully challenged the antiquated view that natural disasters were a sign of divine punishment.

More than 250 years later, the Rev. Pat Robertson, however, knows better. According to CNN:

The Haitians "were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever," Robertson said on his broadcast Wednesday. "And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.' True story. And so, the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' "

Native Haitians defeated French colonists in 1804 and declared independence.

"You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other." Robertson has previously linked natural disasters and terrorist attacks to legalized abortion in the United States. Soon after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 and wreaking unprecedented devastation on New Orleans, Louisiana, Robertson weighed in with his own theory.

"We have killed over 40 million unborn babies in America," Robertson said on his September 12, 2005, broadcast of "700 Club."

"I was reading, yesterday, a book that was very interesting about what God has to say in the Old Testament about those who shed innocent blood. And he [the author] used the term that those who do this, 'the land will vomit you out.' ... But have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way?"

To me, killing a paltry 1800 to avenge 40 million seems a very weak deterrent indeed. And why Catholic New Orleans? I'd guess there are a lot more sinners per capita in godless New York or Los Angeles—both coastal cities, after all—so shouldn't we have expected their destruction by water first? Perhaps God just has bad aim. But I digress, so back to Haiti.

Where to begin (aside from the turgid prose and the fact that the devil does not exist)? Well, perhaps with the fact that Napoleon III (Napoléon le Petit) did not come to power until 1851 whereas the great Napoleon I—the intended subject here—became emperor in 1804. (can it be that Robertson ripped this off from and misunderstood the typography on the site of a term paper mill: note what looks like "III" there) Yeah: "whatever." Whoops. But what's a half-century (or one or two Napoleons) when you have the ear of God and the mind of Elmer Gantry?

Roberston is presumably referring to the voudou ceremony of the rebels of 1791, led by the high priest Boukman:
The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to avenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the heart of us all.

—C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, second ed. (NY: Vintage Books, 1963), 87
The real point, of course, is that Robertson's vaporings are as stupid as they are vicious. How ironic that the man who (as I seem to recall) used to boast that he was related to Thomas Jefferson utterly failed to absorb the ideals of Enlightenment so dear to the "Sage of Monticello." On the other hand, he seems to retain the third president's hostility to the Haitian Revolution. Still, at least Jefferson was a slave-holder and had a clear material interest in the matter. What's Robertson's excuse?

He's not alone in his derangement, of course, for inhumane superstition knows no theological or national boundaries. We are all too familiar with the idiocy that welled up (if I were popular novelist and atrocious writer Damn Brown, I would say: "burgeoned") following the 2005 tsunami: from the usual blanket condemnations by Muslim fundamentalists to the more bizarre assertion that the word, "Allah," appeared in the waves at the time of the disaster. The Jews are not immune. Stretching credulity still further, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel suggested that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for George W. Bush's support (got that?) for Israel's pullout from Gaza and the Northern West Bank. Again, I may be as thick as a whale omelet (to cite "Blackadder," for rest assured, I know full well that a cetacean is a mammal), but wouldn't it be a lot more efficient to punish Israel (again, another region with an ocean coastline) directly rather than to attack those poor Cajuns? Does God want to increase antisemitism and make Americans (like the Germans of yore) say: "The Jews are our misfortune"?

What is at work here is a distortion of true theology. The original biblical notions of divine collective reward and punishment were in fact a recognition of humanity and humility, and a call to communal repentance and reform. All traditional western religions incorporated some notion of this sort. Sadly, today it is only the fundamentalists (who, as any serious historian will tell you, represent a very modern rather than traditional doctrine and temperament) who uphold this belief in such distorted form.

Over 250 years ago, Voltaire already furnished a reply to Robertson and his ilk. I'll repeat a portion of the passage I cited earlier and add another:
Say, will you then eternal laws maintain,
Which God to cruelties like these constrain?
Whilst you these facts replete with horror view,
Will you maintain death to their crimes was due?
And can you then impute a sinful deed
To babes who on their mothers' bosoms bleed?
Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found,
Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?
. . . .
No comfort could such shocking words impart,
But deeper wound the sad, afflicted heart.
When I lament my present wretched state,
Allege not the unchanging laws of fate;
Urge not the links of thy eternal chain,
'Tis false philosophy and wisdom vain.
To conclude, though: Among the various theological responses to recent disasters, I have always found most congenial that of the Chief Rabbi of England, in a broadcast following the tsunami of 2005. Judaism, as the scholars say, has always been about "dugma"—right living—rather than dogma—abstract right thinking. Confronted with the human tragedy of the tidal wave, and a nagging interviewer who sought to elicit either profundities or missteps ("Some might suggest that that's a cop-out, that we need to find an answer to 'Why?'"), he insisted:
In a certain sense Judaism is a refusal to make sense of this kind of disaster because although we believe profoundly in God's involvement in history, if we stopped to ask “Why did this happen?” we might come to accept tragedy instead of fighting against it and therefore Judaism is always an attempt not to ask “Why did this happen?” but “What then shall I do? How can I help the work of aid and relief?”
If that's the old-time religion, it's good enough for me.

On the Earthquake

In this moment of tragedy, hearts and thoughts turn immediately to the people of Haiti and their plight.

The historian may be forgiven if his thoughts turn next to a similar tragedy of an earlier age: the great Lisbon Earthquake of 1 November 1755, which killed some 30,000 to 40,000 people. The incident provoked an outpouring of sentiment and reflection, most famously, that of Voltaire. An excerpt from the opening of his poem:
Oh wretched man, earth-fated to be cursed,
Abyss of plagues, and miseries the worst!
Horrors on horrors, griefs on griefs must show,
That man's the victim of unceasing woe,
And lamentations which inspire my strain,
Prove that philosophy is false and vain.
Approach in crowds, and meditate awhile
You shattered walls, and view each ruined pile,
Women and children heaped up mountain high,
Limbs crushed which under ponderous marble lie;
Wretches unnumbered in the pangs of death,
Who mangled, torn, and panting for their breath,
Buried beneath their sinking roofs expire,
And end their wretched lives in torments dire.
Say, when you hear their piteous, half-formed cries,
Or from their ashes see the smoke arise,
Say, will you then eternal laws maintain,
Which God to cruelties like these constrain?
Whilst you these facts replete with horror view,
Will you maintain death to their crimes was due?
And can you then impute a sinful deed
To babes who on their mothers' bosoms bleed?
Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found,
Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?

"The Lisbon Earthquake. An Inquiry Into the Maxim, 'Whatever Is, is Right.'"

The Portable Voltaire, ed. Ben Ray Redman (Harmondsworth and NY: Viking Penguin, 1977)

Voltaire, like many of his contemporaries, was concerned with the problem of theodicy. Or—to use our contemporary idiom—if there is a just and all-powerful God, why do bad things happen to good people? He could not accept a theology according to which every good or bad occurrence had its place in a system of divine reward and punishment. (In fairness, Voltaire oversimplified both traditional theology and the Leibnizian philosophy of the "best of all possible worlds," which he mercilessly lampooned in Candide, four years later.)

Fortunately, although Voltaire's query still commands our philosophical attention, we are, thanks to modern science, beyond the view that he castigated. The human tragedy is timeless.

It is sad but telling that most of us know Haiti only as a land of immense poverty rather than as the birthplace of Black liberty in the era of the French Revolution, the second democratic republic in the western Hemisphere.

* * *
As chance would have it (just chance, no divine purpose), Smith College recently announced a special guest lecture on the Haitian Revolution:

Leslie M. Alexander, Associate Professor of History, Ohio State University
"The Black Republic: The Influence of the Haitian Revolution on Black Political Consciousness, 1817-1861"

Dr. Alexander is a specialist in African American and American history. Her first monograph, entitled African or American?: Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861, explores Black culture, identity, and political activism during the early national and antebellum eras. Her current research project, tentatively titled "The Cradle of Hope: African American Internationalism in the Nineteenth Century,” is an exploration of early African American foreign policy.

Monday, February 8, 2010
4:30 p.m.
Smith College
Neilson Library Browsing RoomAlign Center

Fortunately, but sadly, it will now attract a much larger audience than it would have, had it been scheduled for a month earlier.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Miep Gies, Who Aided the Frank Family and Saved Anne Frank's Papers, Dead at 100

The BBC reports today:
Miep Gies, the last surviving member of the group who helped protect Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis, has died in the Netherlands aged 100.

She and other employees of Anne Frank's father Otto supplied food to the family as they hid in a secret annex above the business premises in Amsterdam.

Anne's diary of their life in hiding, which ended in betrayal, is one of the most famous records of the Holocaust.

It was rescued by Mrs Gies, who kept it safe until after the war.

Miep Gies died in a nursing home after suffering a fall just before Christmas. (read the rest)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Isaac Newton follow-up (and religion and science)

As chance would have it, the History channel program on Newton in the "Nostradamus" series aired again last night. As noted, it's much more respectable than most other installments, and it features interviews with some very respected scholars in the field, though it does veer off onto the requisite loopy side roads. Given that Newton was interested in prophecy and predicting the end of the world, we not only learn the fateful date—I'll spare you the suspense: it's 2060—but also are treated to the inevitable attempts to match Newton's predictions to subsequent historical occurrences. First, of course, there's the obligatory and disingenuous protestation of innocence ("We're not prostituting ourselves; really!"):
What did he predict correctly that may be a sign his prophecies are coming true? And are those events unfolding now? [cut to close-up of skull]. We will neither refute nor endorse these theories, merely present the evidence.
The key examples are the rebirth of a Jewish commonwealth in 1948 and its conquest of east Jerusalem in the 1967 war. There's some inadvertent humor—or at least evidence of abysmal lack of historical understanding—in one place. According to Newton, "The commandment to return and to build Jerusalem . . . may perhaps come forth not from the Jews themselves, but from some other kingdom friendly to them, and precede their return from captivity, and give occasion to it." Fair enough. (After all, that's what happened the last time, in the case of the Persian empire, as recorded in the Bible.) One scholar says that Newton did not specify which country, but it's possible he was thinking of the British. Fair enough, again. England was a world power. The Jews in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century were not an organized nation and had no political power. In fact, it was only under Cromwell's Commonwealth that they were officially allowed back into England for the first time since their expulsion in 1290. Still, the narrator goes on to say: “After World War II, the British aided in the creation of modern Israel.” Well, uh, . . . no. The British were instrumental in the return of the Jews to Zion when they issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 supporting the creation of a national home in Palestine, and when they assumed responsibility for the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. But by the 1930s, faced with Arab resistance, they restricted immigration, and the Zionists engaged in a guerrilla war with what they had come to see as an occupying colonial power. The State of Israel was created when the British abandoned the Mandate rather than sought to fulfill its terms. (The UK abstained from the Partition vote and declined to assist in its implementation.) To recap: looking ahead more than 200 years, Newton got history right. Looking back a mere six decades, and with the advantage of hindsight and reams of books, History channel commits a real howler. I guess we can tell who's smarter here. Can there be something to this prophecy hokum after all?

But back to the big questions.

Will the world end in 2060? I neither believe it nor care; I won't be around for it in any case. Still, the date raises many questions, aside from the obvious (all prophecy of this sort is preposterous because it counteracts all known principles of science). For example, given the virtual popular obsession—all scientific refutations notwithstanding—with the supposed "Mayan Apocalypse" date of 2012, who's right? The towering figure of western physics or the protoastronomers, who, though excelling in observation and calculation, did so for ends suited to the mythopoeic world in which they worked and lived? What's a nervous, irrational person to do? Buy or sell? Build that sunroom or put the money in the bank?

Actually, the history of Newton's so-called non-scientific manuscripts ("Portsmouth Papers") is a story in itself. His heirs did not consider them worth publication, and the two chief modern collections, acquired by economist John Maynard Keynes and the businessman-scholar Abraham Yahuda (notably and accurately described in the program as "a Palestinian Jew") beginning in the 1930s, passed into the ownership of the University of Cambridge and Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, respectively. Specialists have been well acquainted, in general parameters, with Newton's alchemical and heterodox theological interests for some two generations now, but the first public exhibition of the papers in Jerusalem in 2007 brought these ideas to the attention of a wider audience and created a far greater stir than the organizers of the accompanying conference could have hoped for.

Teaching students historical information is difficult enough, but what is hardest yet most important is teaching them historical perspective, which entails the ability to put themselves in the minds of someone else, whose experiences and thoughts may be very different from their own (in that sense, historical understanding should be crucial to true multicultural education, as well). Historical thinking also entails the ability to appreciate complexity and ambiguity rather than to see things in polar oppositions and seek monocausal explanations.

Religion and science is a classic example. Students often assume a fundamental and simplistic conflict between scientific knowledge and presumably benighted theological beliefs. To be sure, we today understand religion and science to be incompatible to the extent that science can allow for no extra-scientific phenomena or explanations. Historically, however, theologians believed that God normally worked through the secondary causation of natural laws, but they also believed in exceptions. After all, how else could miracles stand out as different? (The great Christmas motet, "Praeter rerum seriem," begins, "Outside the natural order of things the Virgin Mother gives birth to God and man.") Most early modern scientists were believers who saw no contradiction between their faith and their research. As a curator of the Israel Newton exhibition of Newton aptly puts it: "These documents show a scientist guided by religious fervour, by a desire to see God's actions in the world."

Oh, by the way, before you do anything rash in the face of the looming apocalypse: The Mayan astronomers never predicted any such disaster anyway; it's a complete fabrication. As for Newton, his number was a boundary rather than an exact date, and he attempted to calculate the end of the world not least in order to deter loons from doing so, and doing so badly:
"It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner."

Continuing in a decidedly sniffy tone, he wrote: "This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail." (read the rest)

Both the Mayans and Newton were pretty smart: far smarter than those who, whether out of gullibility or cynicism, are attempting to appropriate their achievements centuries later.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Amherst Master Plan Public Forum Postponed Till February

The Amherst Master Plan, which had been moving slowly but steadily through the bowels of Town government like a tapir through an anaconda, ran into a minor but unexpected obstruction this afternoon. Due to a clerical error—namely, the failure to post the full and proper public notice forty-eight hours in advance—the meeting at which the Planning Board had intended to present the final draft for public comment had to be postponed from tomorrow night till February 3.

The Plan has changed relatively little in its recent iterations, though language concerning village centers and infill has generated the predictable and repetitive rearguard complaints from the occasional resident and one outlier on the Board for the past year.

Because there was in fact such strong consensus in favor of the document, the Planning Board had voted in December to "accept" the draft language of the Plan, but at the urging of Planning Director Jonathan Tucker, decided to hold one final forum at which the public could receive an update and voice its reactions. Only the Board's "adoption" (to use the formal term) of the Plan, as such, will give it official status.

Read Amherst Bulletin reporter Scott Merzbach's summary of the Plan and its progress (published last week when the meeting was still expected to take place) here.

4 January: Anniversary of Newton's Birth Yields Google's First Animated Logo

The 367th anniversary of Isaac Newton's birthday moved Google (no pun intended; honest) to introduce its first animated daily logo: a branch of an apple tree from which a piece of fruit falls. Here's a still screen shot (yes, ironic, I know):

No big thrill: just one apple falls off and then just sits there. Commentary on the web varied from mere description to criticism and speculation. Huffington Post and others have the animation. digital inspiration provides the animation and the source code (not Flash or GIF animation, but JavaScript). Writing in Mashable, Stan Schroeder observed, "Although the animation — an apple falling from a tree — isn’t very flashy, it’s still a somewhat odd step for a company so dedicated to simplicity and clear design." He goes on to muse, "it could just be a one-time thing, but it could also mean that Google is ready to undertake some more 'radical' design steps in the future."

Apples in Newton's day certainly looked nothing like the one in the logo. I'll resist the temptation to talk about historical versus modern fruit varieties, their depictions, and other aspects of our horticultural heritage. Besides, the law of gravity is universal and enduring. Still, I cannot fail to note that one of the nicest gifts I received this holiday season was an 1851 lithograph of a Pomfret Russet, And those interested in the evolution of pomology could scarcely do better than to begin by consulting Peter Hatch's The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello: Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of American Horticulture, whose subtitle even better than the title best represents its scope and sweep. And Jefferson, the consummate American man of the Enlightenment, owned a copy of the death mask of Newton, the great scientific hero of the Enlightenment, so this really is more a question of six degrees of separation than a digression.

Anyway, whatever one thinks of the Logo-an-sich, three cheers to Google for choosing Newton's birth today from among the universe of possibilities (e.g.: Columbus begins return trip from first voyage to New World; Columbia University founded; Washington delivers first State of the Union address; Samuel Colt sells first revolver to US government; National Negro Baseball League organized; Elvis records demo; LBJ gives "Great Society" State of Union; Nixon refuses to hand over Watergate tapes; Newt Gingrich becomes Speaker of the House; Nancy Peloi elected Speaker, etc. etc.).

For better or worse, the legend of the apple and the discovery of gravity is virtually all that most people know about Newton. I'd bet that very few of us could name all three of his laws of motion, much less, explain the difference between his now-classical mechanics and the principles of contemporary physics. It was a gain for science when scholars began to revise the hagiographic portrayal of the purely "rational" Newton and acknowledge his interest in Scripture and astrology, but here, as in so many other cases, we may face the law of unintended consequences. Both aspects of his work appear on the History Channel. I am afraid, however, that the portrayal of the "very dark and mysterious side" of "a man secretly obsessed with alchemy and Biblical prophecy"on "The Apocalypse Code" (a sensationalized but relatively respectable entry in the execrable "Nostradamus Effect" series) will generate much more interest and popular resonance than will the more sober discussion of his more enduring achievements on "The Universe." Scientists bemoan both the public understanding of their domain and its coverage in the news media.

Still, for the meantime, Newton earned a Google logo (and a newfangled one, at that), and we can be grateful for small things. After all, as Newton's own calculus showed, infinitesimal incremental steps can eventually add up to something.

(HT: Jonathan O'Keeffe, who spottted the logo—or "Doodle," as these Google features are called—and tweeted about it before I did)

[updated link]

Sunday, January 3, 2010

3 January 1919: Chaim Weizmann and Emir Faisal Sign Agreement on Encouragement of Jewish Settlement in Palestine

We recently had occasion to allude to the fact that, popular notions of eternal hatreds notwithstanding, Arabs and Jews were not doomed to endless conflict, and rather, enjoyed moments of cooperation and hope in modern as well as more ancient times.

As chance would have it, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has chosen to republish (without commentary except for the descriptive passage below) the agreement between Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and Saudi Emir Faisal:
Within the framework of the Paris Peace Conference, a political accord was signed on January 3, 1919, by Dr. Chaim Weizmann in the name of the Zionist Organization and by the Emir Feisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Arabs would recognize the Balfour Declaration and would encourage Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine. Freedom of religion and worship in Palestine was set forth as a fundamental principle, and the Muslim holy sites were to be under Muslim control. The Zionist Organization promised to look into the economic possibilities of an Arab state and to help it develop its resources. In the same year, the Arabs and their representatives repudiated the agreement. The Weizmann-Feisal agreement was never implemented. (read the full text of the original document)
To be sure, the facts of the case are nothing new. Israeli and Zionist historians have frequently referred to it and cited the passage:
mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people, and realizing that the surest means of working out the consummation of their natural aspirations is through the closest possible collaboration in the development of the Arab State and Palestine, and being desirous further of confirming the good understanding which exists between them
Arab critics and their supporters have just as frequently dismissed the episode as irrelevant or aberrant, the easier to do because it led nowhere.

One can only speculate as to why the document appeared now. On the simplest level, publication coincides with the date of the statement. Still, little in the Middle East is simple or without meaning (or at any rate, will fail to be seen as having some deeper or hidden meaning). Last year rather than this one would have marked the 90th anniversary. So I'd guess that there is at least a plausible subtext. Facing increasing international isolation and hostility even from erstwhile friends, Israel is attempting to convey the traditional message that it has always sought peace, and that its opponents are the intransigent ones. And if one is looking for any more recent and specific motivation: Just a few days ago, the Saudi Foreign Minister charged, "Israel has become in the international community like a spoiled child." "It does what it wants without being questioned or punished." What better retort than to remind him of the more forthcoming attitude of his forebears?

Whatever the case, it's worth remembering the original incident, its context, and its consequences: (1) It was an early example of dashed hopes and mutual misunderstanding. (2) Each side continues to blame the other for the failure. (3) That agreement collapsed not only because of intrinsic problems but also because of external circumstances: the Allied failure to support genuine Arab independence, and specifically, the decision to give Damascus to the French rather than Faisal, which led him and his supporters to refocus their efforts on the quest for control of a greater Palestine. It was neither the first nor the last time that the great powers, through sins of commission or omission, hindered an accommodation among the people of the region themselves.

Plus ça change . . .

Into the New Year

One of my first and main New Year's resolutions is to wrap up some stories from the end of 2009, which I'll try to do in the next week or two. In the meantime, though, I'll also be doing my best to keep up with the new.