Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Blogger's Dilemma

I've had a couple of struggles with keeping this blog going. One is that I don't blog often enough. I guess I rationalize by thinking that if my professors in university had made writing papers optional, I would likely not have written any. Reading for me is the opposite. When I was in university, I was always anticipating finishing my mandatory class readings so I would have time to read other things off my bookshelf at home (often on similar topics I was studying for my degree anyway).

The second struggle I have with blogging, and the one I wanted to write briefly about tonight, is blogging on a consistent topic. I realize the irony of this given that my blog is not typically focused on the nature of blogging, but I wanted to approach the topic with the goal of changing my approach to blogging going forward. A a person working in the field of political communications, I know that any kind of organization or publication is more likely to be successful if potential readers can anticipate the sorts of subject matter they will cover. If someone finds my blog and reads something about the Middle East that leads them to want to read more of what I have to say on the topic, they would likely be disappointed if they came back to this site and I was writing about what the Edmonton Oilers hockey team needs to do to become a contender for an NHL playoff stop (a key part of the answer for me would be trading defenseman Jeff Petry - see how I snuck that in?).

What makes the single-topic rule into a dilemma for me (and likely many others) is that people are multi-dimensional. Most people have something to say on multiple topics, some of them with little relation to each other. On this blog, my posts over the past few years have had some diversity - I've posted about Middle East politics (through the lens of Israeli domestic politics, American politics, and Canadian politics), post-secondary education policy in Canada's province of Alberta, Christianity's relationship to progressive political movements, my views on leadership candidates for Canada's political party known as the NDP, and a number of other things before that. In addition to those topics, I have a personal interest in many other things (I've mentioned professional hockey already).

If I write about anything I feel like on any given day, I'm not likely to become a "go to" place for anyone wanting to read on a specific topic. Indeed, the only thing this blog would be a "go to" place for would be knowing my opinion on everything, which while it might be interesting to a few people, is not really what I'm hoping to get across to people anyway. I think my Facebook profile, and to a lesser extent my Twitter profile, already provide that sort of "here's what's on my mind right now" for people who are interested in that. So what I'm saying with this blog is that I'm going to shift this blog to focus on a single topic, broadly defined.

My last four blog posts have been about issues in Middle East politics, specifically Israel-Palestine. Prior to that time, thanks to this site's built in analytics tools, those viewing my blog were primarily Canadians. Since those posts in the summer about the Middle East, my readership has actually become much more global (in terms of pageviews over the past month, Canada actually ranks 6th). 
And while I would never choose my topics solely on a "market approach" as it were, I believe I have more insights to offer into the politics of Israel-Palestine and how that conflict fits into the world than any other topic. Indeed, it was the focus of my personal studies for a couple of years prior to my starting university in 2008, was the primary focus of my studies at the University of Alberta from 2008 until 2012, and continues to be a topic I regularly read about and comment on.

So with that, I want to announce that going forward I will aim to keep this blog focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict (and possibly other parts of the Middle East when it's timely), again broadly defined. I do want to continue to explore how this topic relates to things like Canadian politics, Christianity and religion more broadly, and any other approach to it that I feel I have insights into. I'm also going to explore ideas of a different name for the blog that would reflect this change. I'm thinking something like "Middle East Maple Leaf" (thoughts? other ideas?). So stay tuned for that. Lastly, I'm actually going to attempt to write on this blog more often. I've said that before and it hasn't happened consistently, so I won't make any promises other than that I will try my best.

I hope if you're reading this that you'll continue to come back and share my blog with your friends. I'm looking forward to entering a new era of blogging!

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Israel-Palestine conflict will go on forever - until it doesn't

I was shocked to read an article published three days ago in the Globe & Mail by Gerald Caplan claiming the Israel-Palestine conflict will never end (find it here). This is the same man who wrote in the same newspaper a mere seven days earlier about the need for Thomas Mulcair and the NDP to "show more courage" when it comes to criticizing Israel's actions (here). One might wonder what the purpose of the first article was given the second article’s conclusion. Apparently over the span of that week, he has now determined that nothing can be done to stop what is going on in Israel-Palestine.


His self-contradictions aside, Caplan does a poor job of defending his claim, sticking to his own subjective interpretations of the situation. What is most surprising, in my view, is that usually those arguing that the Israel-Palestine conflict will go on forever argue that it has been happening from the beginning of time. You know – the Jews and Arabs have always been fighting and will continue fighting until the world ends. But Caplan doesn't make that argument. He, like most informed observers, pegs the beginning as 1947 when Israel was founded (some informed observers will go back as far as the beginnings of the Zionist movement in the 1860s), which makes it even more surprising to me that he can write that the conflict will never end. He then has the gall to conclude that, "This is the future and it cannot be otherwise." Surely Caplan is intelligent enough to know that such grand predictions about the future of the world are always doomed to fail. The first lesson anyone should learn in the history of the world is that the current state of affairs at any given time usually feels like it will go on forever - until it doesn’t. The possible examples to show that are endless and literally fill our history books.


Further, it's incredible that Caplan does not mention once the American support for the Israeli occupation, both political and financial. Nor does he mention that public opinion has significantly shifted in the United States, and indeed around the world, against Israel's occupation. But apparently that has nothing to do with resolving the conflict. That view flies in the face of the opinions of many, many people far more credible than Caplan when it comes to Israel-Palestine. That also doesn’t seem to matter to Caplan. It’s not even worth addressing.


If Caplan is so convinced nothing can be done, it's a wonder he takes the time to write about it at all. The truth is that resolving any conflict is possible. Indeed, the only rule of global history that stands the test of time is that nothing lasts forever. What is significant about articles like Caplan’s is that it becomes more difficult to solve the big global issues like Israel-Palestine when people write drivel like this about how nothing can be done.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Are Hamas and Israel's ruling Likud party that different?

As a follow-up to my blog yesterday regarding Hamas's role in the current violence in Gaza, I wanted to share some additional thoughts. The text below was again written as a response to another person's comment, this time a comment on my recent blog post (made on Facebook, not on this blog site). The criticism in a nutshell was that Hamas has a genocidal policy towards Jews in its charter, or at least Jews living in historic Palestine (present day Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories), but that Israel's governing party Likud's charter refusing a Palestinian state is simply calling for a one-state solution to the conflict where everyone lives together, evidence of which can be seen by the Palestinians living in Israel proper today. The author of this comment's main stated goal was rejecting the equivalence I made between Hamas and Likud based on their party charters. The following was my response:

Hamas is not an admirable organization. Far from it. But looking at language in documents, even when they say reprehensible things, can only get you so far. I reached the conclusions I did in the blog post because I am much more concerned by actions, which are much less ambiguous than debating the language in a party's charter, the relevance of that document, the comparisons of the language in the document to public statements made by leadership, etc. It is an extremely important fact that Israel has the 4th-most powerful military in the world, because they have used it very effectively. It is worth noting that Israel's founding in 1948 was accompanied by an ethnic cleansing campaign. No, they did not drive out all of the Palestinians from what is now Israel, but they did drive out 750,000 of them and destroyed hundreds of Palestinian villages. There are many more examples of Israel going on the offensive to kill Palestinians over the years, but fast-forward to the present one. Israel has killed more than 1600 in about 3 weeks, the large majority of which were civilians (and I believe it's about 1/3 that were children). That includes the bombing of 4 kids playing soccer on a wide-open beach (the video of it is hard to watch but shows how easy to see that no credible excuse could be made for it), the destruction of Gaza's only power plant, the deliberate bombardment of hospitals (we know it was deliberate because Israel announced it was going to attack; it gave no justification, however), and as of today, the bombing of civilians shelters in two UN schools. I hope that you can unequivocally condemn all of those things. They are clearly all actions of the Israeli military/government not wanting the Palestinians to survive (not just Hamas, but also civilians). Likewise, I unequivocally condemn Hamas's killing of civilians by firing rockets into Israel. The number of Israeli civilians killed so far in the recent violence is three. Hamas is clearly responsible for those deaths, and they are not excusable. But likewise, Israel is responsible for hundreds of civilians deaths. So in what way are Hamas and the Israeli government different? The main difference is that one has bigger guns. I have trouble seeing any difference beyond that.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

What about Hamas?

A friend of mine recently sent me a message on Facebook asking me to cut through the PR efforts of Israel and Hamas, as well as the wide swatch of approaches and blame-games happening in the media from various angles. I wrote him quite a long response starting from square one and thought I would share it with everyone. I hope this helps some people understand, at least from my angle, why Hamas is doing what it's doing in the current conflict.

I also want to preface it by addressing the common catch-all, debate-ending argument that Hamas simply wants to "wipe Israel off the map" or pursue global domination. It is true that the Hamas's charter opposes the existence of an Israeli state. What people who tell you this almost always leave out is that Likud's charter (Likud is the Israeli political party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) opposes the existence of a Palestinian state. It states, "The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river." I've had debates at length on this issue, but the fact that both parties essentially say the same thing about each other largely neutralizes the criticism, in my view (other than to say that both are equally bad).

Lastly, I would ask that anyone responding to these thoughts not take any small part of this post and run with it. I know that can be easy to do on matters like this. If something I'm saying seems unjust to you, please ask me to clarify the point. I assure you that what I would like to see in Israel-Palestine (and indeed for all humanity) is for everyone involved to be able to leave in peace and with dignity.

Without further adieu, here's my take on Hamas in the context of the current violence in Gaza (remember, this was written as a personal message to a friend, so I'm just going to paste the relevant section of the message):
Yes, Hamas does lots of stupid and terrible things. In the immediate term, they should stop firing rockets. However, they're in a predicament where it's not clear what they should really do. If they stop firing rockets, Israeli may stop bombing them. That would be good for all of the people living in Gaza. The tough part is that the Israeli and Egyptian governments have a blockade on all of Gaza's borders, meaning few things (including people) are allowed to go in or out. That includes the sea border, where even fishermen get fired upon if they go too far offshore. Gazan students who receive academic scholarships to come to North America are not even permitted to leave. As a result of the blockade, the unemployment rate is obscenely high. Most of the people who live in Gaza are there as refugees (now with new generations born) who lost everything when they were displaced in the wars of 1948 and 1967. By all international laws, they have a right to return to their homes but have been denied that for years. In most cases, the Israeli government either demolished their homes long ago or allowed Jewish settlers from other countries to move into them to becomes Israelis. On top of these circumstances, Israel has the 4th most powerful military in the world. It is in a position with a ton of leverage. If they wanted to make peace and follow international laws, they could do that and eliminate any justifications Hamas is using to continue launching rockets.
The broader issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict is land inside Palestine that the Israeli government has claimed as its own and has encouraged Jewish settlers from other countries to move into. It recognizes the Jews in those settlements as Israeli, even though they don't live in Israel. "Settlement" is actually a bit of a misleading word to refer to these areas because some of them are actually getting to be quite large cities. When Breanna and I visited there on our honeymoon a few years ago, we saw many of them all over the Palestinian territory of the West Bank as we drove from city to city. Those areas of Palestine are considered Jewish-only and are guarded by the Israeli military (again, this is inside Palestinian territory). These settlements are connected to each other and to Israel itself by Jewish-only roads. Israel has also built walls around many of these settlements, and the walls are often built to confiscate more land in Palestinian territory. A huge swath of the land Israel has taken inside the West Bank is very fertile farm land along the west bank (that's where the name comes from) of the Jordan River. We drove through that area, and it's full of crops of all kinds - a stark contrast to the dry desert in many other parts of the country.
Anyway, I could go on, but my point is that there are huge outstanding issues that the Israeli government doesn't even want to debate. And even putting aside how unjust all of these things are, they give groups like Hamas a reason to keep firing rockets. Maybe they would keep firing anyway if Israel moved its settlers off Palestinian land, ended the blockade on Gaza, and allowed refugees to return to their homes (or at least compensated them). It's difficult to say. But if Israel followed these basic international laws, they would be speaking from much firmer ground when they condemn Hamas for firing rockets.
My final point would be that there are many Israelis, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who regularly speak out against what their government does to Palestinians. If you Google groups like Peace Now, B'tselem, the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, or Breaking the Silence, you will find that they are saying many of the same things I've said above.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Obama or Bush? Doesn't make a difference for Israel-Palestine

It's been a while yet again, but I felt I needed to post a few words about Israel-Palestine, since it's in the news again, and as always for unfortunate reasons.

American President Barack Obama had a letter published in one of Israel's two major newspapers, Haaretz, about the need for peace in Israel-Palestine. The newspaper hosted a "Peace Conference" today and had a number of articles written specifically for that topic (they can be found here).


It's incredible that such a letter can be written without any mention of Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands, including not a word about Israeli settlements in the West Bank or the Israeli blockade of Gaza's land and sea borders. And although Obama states that "any Palestinian government must uphold these long-standing principles: a commitment to non-violence, adherence to past agreements, and the recognition of Israel", he makes no such call for any Israeli government to reciprocate on any of those things to Palestine. The same letter could have been written by George W. Bush at any time during his presidency, once again showing that neither American political party is truly in favour of peace or justice in Israel-Palestine.


Those are my brief thoughts now. I've been thinking a lot about this issue in relation to Canada's political parties and will likely write a longer piece about that soon. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 11 Book Recommendations for the New Year

I haven’t posted on this blog in forever, yet again. I’ll call it a New Year’s resolution to blog more often, but as you know, many resolutions, including possibly this one, are never followed through on. Since reading is something I like to do and something I think is valuable for the common good, I've decided at this year-end to post 11 book recommendations (it was going to be 10, but I needed room for one more) for the New Year, with a sentence or two to explain why each book is worth reading. I have listed only books I’ve had a chance to read from cover to cover. These books were not all published in the past year, and some are quite a bit older than that. These are also not necessarily my favourite books of all time, though a number of them would probably make that list. Here goes (in no particular order):

1. "The Political Mind" by George Lakoff

A great read by an American neurologist on how language choice can be used to give voters/citizens a positive impression of progressive political policies. An extremely useful read to anyone involved in politics. HIGHLY recommended.

2. "Misquoting Jesus" by Bart Ehrman

Recounts the history of the making of the Christian New Testament and thoroughly lays out why the books included in it cannot rationally be taken as inerrant.

3. "The Great War for Civilisation" by Robert Fisk

A gigantic book recounting his decades of reporting for British media outlets throughout the Middle East, as well as the background context to the events he covered. Pretty much gives you a history of the entire Middle East for the past 100 year when all is said and done.

4. "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley

This is the only fiction book on my list, since I haven’t been reading many. This one is a classic and a very quick read. Sit down with it for a day or two and take it in.

5. “Deadly Spin” by Wendell Potter

This book doubles as a tip guide for political communications and a history of health care in the United States. Potter was a top communications executive for private health care giant CIGNA until he left to become one of the country’s most prominent supporters of single payer universal public health care. He’ll likely be touring across Canada in the spring, so read it before he comes!

6. “Moral Minority” by David Swartz

This is an intriguing history of the many branches of progressive Christianity in the United States and how they came to be overshadowed by the “religious right” beginning with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 electoral victory. It’s a great reminder that Christianity wasn’t always a very public part of politics, and even after it became so, it was far from inevitable that conservatives would be the ones to capitalize on it the most.

7. “On Six Continents” by James Bartleman

These are the memoirs of one of Canada’s longest-serving diplomats, who worked in countries around the world. It’s not a very ideological read of any sort but is highly entertaining and engaging for the many stories he tells to show what it was like to spend a life in Canada’s foreign service.

8. “Memoirs” by Pierre Trudeau

The nature of the book is obvious by its title. It’s a quick and easy read and recounts his incredible life both before and after becoming Prime Minister of Canada. It’s a timely reminder of who he was while many or comparing him to his son, Justin. Hint: the two have very little in common on their resumes.

9. “Grant Notley” by Howard Leeson

This book is the closest I’ve found to a history of Alberta’s NDP. It’s very well-written. It recounts the life of a former Alberta NDP leader who was highly respected by politicians and Albertans of all stripes before he tragically lost his life in 1984.

10. “Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics” by Warren Kinsella

Despite his constant treatment of the Liberals and the NDP as essentially having the same values, a lot can be learned from this book about high-level political campaigning (media, messaging, images, etc – ie. not “ground campaigns”). Most of the book recounts Kinsella’s experiences as one of the federal Liberal Party’s top strategists during the Chretien years.

11. "Christianity and the Social Crisis" by Walter Rauschenbusch

The author of this book was one of the founders of the Social Gospel movement in the United States in the early 1900s. It was a huge influence on many progressive political leaders in North America, including J. S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas, and Martin Luther King Jr. It's a must-read for those wanting to understand the roots of modern progressive Christianity.

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There are many others books that could have been on this list. Feel free to offer me suggestions on what I should read next (though I currently have no shortage on that list). Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think if you get a chance to read some of these.

Best wishes for the New Year!

Joel

Monday, August 26, 2013

Why Cutting My Program at the U of A Makes No Sense

First off, my apologies for not blogging in so long. I’ve got a number of excuses, including that the past year has been the most intense year of my university life, but I won’t go through everything. I’m thankful to say that I recently finished my last course for my Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Alberta, so I’ve got much more time now to do things like blog! I’m going to try to get back into the swing of blogging things more regularly (did that make sense?).

The two majors I took for the degree I just finished were Religious Studies and Middle Eastern & African Studies (MEAS – pronounced “mee-az” by those of us who study it). It was the latter program, MEAS, that I recently learned was one of 20 programs cut as a result of budget cuts from Alberta’s Conservative government. The university has said all students who have already started the programs will be able to finish them, but any students getting ready to start their first years in any of those 20 programs will not have access to those programs (Edmonton Journal article about the cuts: http://www.edmontonjournal.com/University+Alberta+suspends+admission+arts+programs/8803692/story.html).

I did a bit of research to see where else in Canada one can find an undergraduate program with an option for a Middle East-focused major or minor. When I started at the U of A five years ago, I remember there being only three such programs in Canada. Looking today with the suspension of the program at the U of A, it appears the only one left is at McGill University in Montreal (Simon Fraser University in Vancouver used to have one too, but it appears they no longer offer it).

I came to the University of Alberta specifically because I wanted to study Middle Eastern politics. One of the things I want to focus on in my life is solving the Israel-Palestine conflict (no easy task, I’m well aware). If it weren’t for the MEAS program at the U of A, I think I would have ended up at a university either in Vancouver or Montreal to pursue the same goal. If Canada wants to play any kind of productive role in our relationships with other countries, how will we do that without people educated about the histories and politics of other parts of the world? If we want to have a strong voice in the international community and be able to solve the world’s big problems, how will we do it without understanding the world? I’m convinced that these questions are not priorities for either our provincial or federal Conservative governments, but I believe they should be.

From my experience in the program, students take MEAS for a number of different reasons. Some, like me, want to work on solving political problems, though not everyone had the same focus I did. There were also students passionate about solving issues in places like Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt, among other places. I would guess that maybe half or so of the students in the MEAS program had some kind of family ties to the regions we studied; the other half, like me, developed a passion for that part of the world anyway. Some of the students who had those family ties wanted a deeper understanding of where their families came from. Many of them were born in Canada and rarely, if ever, visit the countries their parents came from. And even for those who grew up in the countries they were studying, academic studies gave them an understanding of their home region they would never get from living in those societies (though both types of education are beneficial). Others wanted to work in international business and therefore wanted a better understanding of different parts of the world.

The suspension of the MEAS program was not a large step for the university. They tell us it’s because the enrollment levels were too low. What they don’t want to talk about is how the program has been slowly eroding over a number of years. When I began the program 5 years ago, there were at least 6 professors in the MEAS program. Last year, there were only 3, and 1 of them was on sabbatical for the whole year. Because MEAS is not a full department (it’s a program within the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies), its professors are all shared with other departments. That means each professor attached to the program only spend part of their time teaching MEAS; the rest of their time is spent teaching in full departments like Political Science and History & Classics. So last year the MEAS program actually only had two half-time professors teaching (kind of defeats the budget argument, doesn’t it?).

What was most noticeable in the teaching cuts over my time in MEAS was the disappearance of any Africa-specific courses. The three professors left in the program this past year were all focused on the Middle East & North Africa. That was fine for my interests, but for anyone wanting to study Sub-Saharan Africa, there were no courses left to take because there were no professors left to teach them. One of my professors last semester was the one who brought that change to my attention. He said the Alberta government had been directing resources in the program, and since they have business interests in the Middle East and North Africa (read: oil), that part of the program survived. Why that interest is no longer a priority I have no idea.


There are many reasons, some of which I outlined above, why it makes sense to have a MEAS program. It doesn’t cost much. It trains leaders to solve international conflicts. It prepares people for business world. If you want to study the Middle East, you can now either move to Montreal or look to another country. And the bottom line for me is this: we live in by far the wealthiest province in Canada and one of the richest jurisdictions in the entire world. Why would we cut a program (or 20 programs) with so many benefits for so little cost? The answer: we prioritize the profits of oil companies above all else. Our province’s GDP continues to grow, yet our government’s policies bring in so little revenue that we’re slashing university programs, struggling to keep our health care system afloat, and reducing teaching positions when we have more kids in schools than ever before. Yes, the people at the top of the university’s administration make way too much money, but their wages are nothing compared to the amount Alberta’s Conservatives are giving away to their friends who own oil companies (many of them not Albertan). The program cuts at the U of A are just another sign that we need a change in government in this province. And as our late friend Jack Layton used to say, don’t let them tell you it can’t be done!