Monday, December 29, 2008

Deus ex machina, aka Karen Dominguez

Over the past few days I have been discussing the Israeli invasion of Gaza with many people, in Israel and – thanks to the Internet – abroad.  I was thinking of posting something, but I couldn't think of anything that wasn't already printed or broadcast somewhere anyway. 

Karen Dominguez of Austin, TX, an activist with the International Socialist Organization, approached me and asked to interview me for Socialist Worker. I just finished typing my responses to her questions, sent to me via e-mail. I am posting this Q&A below. Once the article is out, I'll add a link to it.

First how would you like to be introduced? 
Uri Horesh- professor of Arabic? pro-Palestinian israeli? gay rights activist extraordinaire? 

I'm not a fan of titles. If you want my professional epithet, I'm Director of the Arabic Language Program at Franklin & Marshall College. Other than that, I don't know. There's a Hebrew slang term we used to use when I was younger: "ichpatnik". It translates roughly as "one who gives a damn." 

Were there rallies in Israel against the bombardment of Gaza? 

Yes, there were several rallies. I actually participated in two rallies. The first was organized a day before the actual invasion. Some 200 people gathered in downtown Tel Aviv to call upon the Israeli government to show restraint and refrain from initiating an attack on Gaza, which we knew would inevitably lead to unnecessary damage, including the loss of lives, and to further animosity among Palestinians toward Israel. This was on Friday, December 26. Little did we know that the next morning the Israeli Air Force would drop over 100 tons of explosives on Gaza, killing over 200 and injuring more than 500 people. 
On Saturday night we reconvened in Tel Aviv, this time with a crowd tenfold that of the previous day's. We marched from the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, a popular venue for left-wing protests, to the sidewalk across the street from the Ministry of Defense, another site for anti-war protests.
In addition, there were rallies in Nazareth and Haifa on the day of the first attacks. And today at noon there was a vigil at the main gate of Tel Aviv University, which I was not able to attend.

Were they both Israelis and Palestinians there? 

Most of the protesters were Israeli citizens. Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are by-and-large denied entry to Israel. But the crowds included Israelis of various ethnic backgrounds. The crowd at the rally at the Ministry of defense comprised Jews from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (the latter were bussed there), as well as Palestinians from Jaffa, and a plethora of people from neighboring communities. I just got word of a casualty in yet another protest, of Palestinians, in the West Bank village of Ni'lin. Arafat Khawaja was reportedly murdered by Israeli soldiers there yesterday and was buried today in his village.

What were the demands of the protest? 

The demands were simple: that the Israeli government put an immediate end to the bloodshed, call a true cease fire and engage in bona fide negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, including the democratically elected government led by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Is the new refusenik movement in solidarity with the protests? (what are they called? not refuseniks anymore?)

I am not sure whether the refusenik movement still exists as a cohesive force, but a number of its former leaders, people who have been in Israeli military prison for refusing to serve in an army whose primary enterprise is to maintain the occupation, showing disregard to human life, are very active in the current anti-war movement. I recognized two such faces in both of the protests I attended: Haggai Matar and Matan Kaminer.

What is the state of the pro-Palestinian left in Israel today? 

I hate to say that in my view, the state of the left in Israel is grim. The leftmost Zionist party represented in the Knesset (Israel's Parliament), Meretz, was quoted as calling for a strong Israeli reaction to the sporadic launching of missiles from the Gaza strip to the south of Israel, which had preceded the Israeli invasion on Saturday. It was only after the invasion was well under way, that Meretz chairperson, Haim Oron said, "At this stage, after the IDF has operated in the Strip, Israel has an interest in reaching a renewed ceasefire as soon as possible." (
Most of the resistance to the war, from day one, and -- as evident from the pre-invasion vigil -- beforehand as well, came from Hadash/Al-Jabha, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, which is a formal faction in the Israeli Knesset led primarily by members of the Israeli Communist Party; and Gush Shalom, the Peace Bloc, a non-partisan group led by veteran peace activist Uri Avnery. 

The left in Israel is but a thin sliver of the Israeli political scene and by no means part of the mainstream. In fact, there seems to be a very broad consensus among the Jewish majority in Israel (some 80% of its population) that Israel must deal with as much force as possible with Palestinian militants -- and by extension, the Palestinian people at large -- to "protect Israel and its citizens."

Do you feel this movement will grow? 

You know, these demonstrations, marches and vigils often give one the sense of camaraderie. I usually feel like I'm at some kind of makeshift class reunion, except it's only the "good guys" who show up. It's very comforting and encouraging. But at the same time I fear that it is misleading. There's this notion of "the Tel Aviv 'bubble'". There is even a film named The Bubble named after this phenomenon. It pertains to people like myself, who live in (or in my case, frequently visit) the greater Tel Aviv area, hang out in our trendy cafés, read the opinion pages of Ha'aretz, the more progressive of Israel's daily newspapers, and think that everyone around us is like-minded. I dread this complacency, and I hesitate to say that the movement is growing.

I do, however, see one positive sign. As of late, there have been more and more new, young people at many of the left-wing activities in which I had the chance to participate. There is also more of an overlap among different lefty causes. You see many of the same new people active on the Palestinian front and the queer front and the affordable housing front, and so on. So perhaps the horizon isn't as gloomy as I generally think it is.

What are the issues being taken up? 

Like I said, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the core of left-wing activism in Israel. There is a lot of small-scale yet vocal work done to protest the building of the apartheid wall in the West Bank. This kind of activism has brought together Anarchists and Communists and many unaffiliated people to take action together. This past summer I participated in three gay pride parades, two of which were highly political and sent broad messages of equality and solidarity. It was refreshing to see heterosexual lefties in the Haifa and Jerusalem parades and then see a queer presence in a march to commemorate the 41st anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Affordable housing has been a prominent issue, including among the more mainstream, Zionist left. And there has been quite some visibility and action on the matter of immigrant rights, in particular non-Jewish immigrant workers, who have been targeted by the authorities here as "illegal", very similarly to the way they are treated in the United States. 

How is the media in Israel portraying the bombardment? Here in the US it is portrayed as a self defense act by Israel, is the Israeli press saying the same thing? 

The media is nothing but sympathetic to the Israeli government, its military and the people living in the south of Israel, within a 30-mile radius of the border with Gaza, who have been calling for retaliation for quite some time. Now it is important to understand that the Israeli media is fairly independent. Even the government-funded TV and radio stations often scrutinize the government for many wrongdoings. In fact, it would not have been without the media that public figures, such as outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, would be indicted for corruption felonies. But when the army is engaged in combat, all is forgotten. I'll give you two anecdotal examples from the last couple of days. On a daily televised news talk show, a Palestinian journalist working in Gaza was interviewed. He was given the opportunity to report some facts, about homes being bombed and ruined, about mosques having suffered damage, funerals and mourning families on every street. Immediately following his report, one of the hosts of the program began interrogating him on the role of the Palestinians in bringing this fate upon themselves. And on a popular call-in radio show today, the host of the show, who often rants about every possible issue, went off saying something like, "the Palestinians must know that if Israel eventually declares a truce, and they fire one missile or rocket onto one of our southern towns, we will respond in the most cruel way possible!" So you see, there is no more shame, no restraint. Being cruel is being cool.  

When you talk to your family or people in the street would you say the majority is for the bombardment? 

My immediate family thinks just like myself.  Most of my real friends are also like-minded politically. But I have encountered my share of people who support the invasion, or at least say it was justified, albeit perhaps disproportionate. And in the wider circles of Israelis, the ones one hears on the radio and television, at the bus stop and the mall and the dentist's office, there are really just two concerns: that the desperate retaliatory fire coming from within Gaza into Israel won't put more Israeli lives in jeopardy, and that if and when Israeli ground forces enter Gaza (so far there were only air strikes), no Israeli soldiers would be killed, injured or held captive.

What do you think it will take in Israel to grow a movement to stop these atrocities? 

I wish I knew. This really is the toughest question, and one that I've been pondering almost daily for at least the past eight years. Probably much longer. There is a good chance that the answer is tough too. That is, that something of immense magnitude must happen on both sides of the border for us to realize we have been playing a very dangerous game. But perhaps what we need is a leader with charisma and the guts to get us out of this quicksand. Sadly, none of the three contenders for the role of prime minister in the upcoming February elections in Israel seems promising in this regard.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mad again

Yesterday was the first full day of my current visit to Israel. At 1:30 pm I attended a small demonstration to call upon the Israeli government to refrain from attacking Gaza.

Around noon today, the Israeli air force attacked Gaza. Current reports estimate a minimum of 155 Palestinian casualties. We are now also informed of Palestinian rockets being aimed at towns in the south of Israel in retaliation. In fact, these rockets have reached towns long beyond the 20 km range, which was adhered to prior to the current Israeli attack.

Tonight I will be protesting again. I will join other angry, ashamed Israelis at 7:30 pm at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque in a protest march. Others will be attending vigils in Haifa.

One might argue that protesting amidst such a broad consensus in Israel for escalating the conflict is futile. It may not be extremely efficient, but ignoring the atrocities would be tantamount to aiding and abetting the war crimes carried out by mainstream Israel.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A film review and more

So this is not the post I was previewing last time, but as Maryam said, it’s the end of the semester, the beginning of my three-week trip to the Middle East, and I’m in a packed plane with no access to the Internet, which I’d need to write about news and their depiction in the media.

These lines are written from 35 thousand feet above the Atlantic, south-southwest of Reykjavik and west of Dublin, if you believe in the accuracy of the digital map in the screen above my head. By the way, the graphic on these things finally looks like something from the 21st century, unlike the Apple IIe-like images of yesteryear. In the tagline following the title of this blog I mention that I’d like to have a talk show. Two other things on my wish list are to be a travel agent and to write an occasional film review. So what better opportunity than writing a review of a movie I’ve just watched on one of El Al’s newest Boeing 777s en route from Newark to Tel Aviv!

The film is Mamma Mia. And unlike many members of my gay cohort I did not go see it when it was out in the theaters a few months ago. This was partly due to my laziness, partly because I was in the midst of moving back to Philadelphia, and perhaps underlyingly because I had seen the musical on a London stage several years ago, and was severely unimpressed. But I’m on a ten (plus)-hour flight, and I have a video-on-demand system (VOD it’s called in my homeland and its somewhat provincial national airline) and my new Bose noise-canceling headphones, and the woman in the window seat told me Mamma Mia was one of the options, so after finishing an episode of the Israeli version of Americal Idol, I turned to Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan and their fellow actors-turned-singers for what ended up being a refreshing two hours.

“Refreshing” doesn’t really cut it. I dare not call it “thought-provoking”, but it was somewhere in between for me. Maybe even “emotion-stimulating”.

Let me back up. I like to say I’m from Tel Aviv, but I’m really from a fairly affluent suburb just north of the city called Herzliyya. The city itself is quite diverse, but the western portion of town, within a mile or so from the Mediterranean shore, is quite hoidy toidy. This is not to imply that my family is particularly wealthy, but more to provide some background as to the type of society I grew up among. Many of my friends came from much richer families, but we were educated, well-traveled, and despite my parents’ socialist upbringing (mostly because of the youth movements they were in, not quite from their parents), we were very much Americanized in many of our ways.

Americanized, but within a provincial setting with one TV station broadcasting in black and white (until the mid 1980s). In order to get some color on our screen we had to tune our sets to one of the two Jordanian channels, and even with our rooftop antennas our reception of those was pretty staticky.

So on the one hand, my friends and I would go to the Scouts (co-ed in Israel) and build tents out of blankets, pebbles and rope and roast our own potatoes in campfires in the woods of Mt. Carmel of in the sand dunes that once existed just east of our own beach. But on many a Friday night we’d have parties. Now I’m talking about 1979-1980, when I was in third and fourth grades. Honestly, that was the peak of my social life until much much later. Occasionally we’d have parties to which the entire class would be invited. Usually birthday parties (maybe because “the more the merrier” was interpreted “the more kids, the more gifts, the merrier the birthday child”). But the real fun parties were much more exclusive. We’d hand-pick the invitees, and different parties sometimes had different people. Yet there was a core of kids that we called “the society”, and I was always in that group. I was even in a smaller “quintet”, which included my best friend Ron, his girlfriend Fafi (who during that time became the mayor’s daughter), her best friend Ortal, my girlfriend at the time (yes, yes; my one and only ever girlfriend) Shelly and your humble servant.

How is this related to Mamma Mia, you ask? I have one word for you: ABBA. That was our music. We’d listen to it on our turntables and later Walkmans. We’d dance to it. We’d compete getting each new album as it came out. To be fair, the Village People and some instances of the Eurovision Song Contest also played significant roles in our pre-pubescent cultural lives, but ABBA just wouldn’t leave.

For many years, when I was closeted in particular, I’d try to repress my nostalgic passion for ABBA. I knew this kind of schmaltzy music had become a huge part of stereotypical gay pop culture (along, surprise surprise, with the other two components I just mentioned). And even in the 2-3 years after I came out, I still tried to shy away from being perceived as a nelly gay boy. I guess I’ve evolved since.

If you haven’t watched the movie or the London/Broadway musical on which it is based, the plot really doesn’t matter one bit. Basically it’s an excuse to sing some of the songs that our favorite Swedes (pardon me, IKEA, you’re number two, at best) have written, sung, and made a legend of. A schmaltzy story was made up, in which the schmaltzy songs make half a sense, and every moment is a blend of actors making fun of themselves, ABBA (the two guys in the band, who wrote all of the songs, are behind the production) parodying itself, and the audience making fun of everyone. But unlike the stage production, I actually had fun watching the movie.

Watching the film, I found myself naïvely drawing an analogy between ABBA and The Beatles. At the same time, I knew it was blasphemous of me to even consider that the two groups had even remotely the same kind of impact on anyone. Well, anyone except perhaps myself. I’m a bit too young to be a Beatles fan, but I am a fairly avid one. I’m too old (or am I?) to distinguish between Britney and Paris and all those. I’m supposed to be too culturally sophisticated to think anything of ABBA.

Buy fuck it, if Meryl Streep can have fun with it, I’m in! Now understand, Meryl Streep for me will always be the mother from Kramer vs. Kramer. It was the first film I’ve seen her in, around the same time I was listening to Dancing Queen and dancing to Voulez-vous. Pierce Brosnan is 007. In reality, “my” James Bond has always been Roger Moore. But let’s face it, Brosnan is Moore. Streep sings well in the film. Not as well as some critics have claimed, but movingly well. Brosnan sucks at singing. She’s the proverbial American Idol second runner-up that everyone likes but couldn’t help not vote for at the very end. He’s the guy who wouldn’t make it past the Wasilla auditions. But at the end of the day, (plot-spoiler ahead!) what could be more charming, in the schmaltziest way, than poor divorced ex-Mrs. Kramer marrying a retired Commander Bond on a Greek island full of American, British and Swedish tourists?

I have to give credit where it is due. The real artistic stars are actresses Julie Walters and Christine Baranski. They both combine their imperfect singing with exquisite comedic acting that overshadows the flaws of their singing. In fact, in the case of Walters, one wonders whether her voice naturally sounds like Janis Joplin on Vicodin or whether she’s doing it to make a point. And Baranski is just fabulous. Pereiod.

I’ll end with this. I wonder how long it’ll take for Streep to become the next Barbra. Both as a campy gay icon and as a sort of jack of all trades (but by no means master of none). Somehow we seem to love the singer who can act (Cher!) and direct (Streisand). So why not love the actress who can carry a tune and remind us of our childhood, which was innocent, yet daring? On that note, I can’t wait to see Doubt, Streep’s (and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s) “serious” movie. I think it’s due in a theater near you any day now.

Oh, and a cute provincial artifact as a PS: movies in Israel are subtitled, not dubbed. The songs in this film were translated in rhyme.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Preview of my next entry

This may not seem very professional, but I've been walking around the past few days promising myself that I'd be writing on a number of issues, the common thread of which is that they relate to things recently printed in mainstream media, national and local. But since I'm a chronic procrastinator, I've been putting it off. So I'm putting this embarrassing non-post here to encourage myself to actually write. Mañana?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Noam isn't just a name for legendary linguists

Not my usual post. No anger, no politics, just a little bit of nakhes derived from new photos of my 5-month old nephew Noam.

Nuff said.


In my previous post, I mentioned - almost in passing - that Newsweek - had published a cover story in support of gay marriage. This particular article focused on debunking the religious and biblical arguments against same-sex unions. There was also another story in the same issue on the struggle of a mother to reclaim custody of her daughter after her ex-partner "found god" and moved to a different state with their daughter. The online edition has even more. 

Apparently (thank you again, Joe Solmonese and HRC), the magazine was "'bombarded' with 20,000 emails in opposition to the article." HRC (and I!) calls upon people with a conscience to take a minute and write the editor of Newsweek in support of their decision to feature this viewpoint at the forefront of their recent issue. You can do so through this form.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

For James, Wherever I may Find Him

Can you imagine, I was actually asked to keep blogging; hence the dedication above.

I'm kinda pressed for time, so I'll do what I can in 15 minutes.

The other day, I discussed with my students in our Language & Society in the Middle East class under what circumstances do we call someone an asshole (or a bitch, in most cases where the person named is a woman; but that's for a different post). Well, luckily, I got an e-mail today from Joe Solmonese, President of the Human Rights Campaign, which gives us a perfect example of a person worthy of this epithet: one Pat Boone. 

In an article written by the country singer, he writes: "Hate is hate, no matter where it erupts. And by its very nature, if it's not held in check, it will escalate into acts vile, violent and destructive." Ironic, isn't it? For he's referring to the alleged hate - and "intolerance" - of protesters of California's Proposition 8. Or as many, including myself, have come to call it, Proposition H8.

This week's Newsweek (and its website even more so) has some great pieces on the absurdity of the claims made, mostly by religious zealots, about homosexuality being prohibited, immoral, what have you. Solmonese warns us that "Boone's rhetoric – painting LGBT people as a threat to society – [...] leads to the very real hate violence directed against LGBT people every day." I don't know for a fact that there is a cause-and-effect relation between hate speech such as Boone's and actual physical hate crimes, but it is not implausible. I hope most people just see Boone as the asshole that he is, and don't take any of his bullshit seriously.

But maybe I'm being naïve.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


This weekend's New York Times Magazine features a one-page article about a controversy among Islamic scholars regarding the divine nature of the Koran:

I don't really have the patience to say everything I have to say about this issue, but I can't resist the temptation to say at least a little bit.

It is as clear to me as the bottled water I just purchased for an exuberant $2.99 that a human or humans wrote the Qur'aan. Just as a human or humans wrote everything that's ever been written. It follows the simple logic that humans are the only earthly organism that has what Chomsky and others have dubbed the language faculty. As I mentioned in my previous posting, this refers primarily to speaking (a) language(s), but certainly extends to writing as well.

Of course, if you believe in god, or gods, or spirits or what have you, I don't think I can convince you that such entities do not exist. Shit, I won't even try.

I have devoted much of my adolescent and adult life to studying the language and culture of peoples who for the most part are very much concerned with matters such as the one featured in the Times article. This, naturally, poses a dilemma for me. For I have not only studied Arabic and Arabs and to some extent Islam, but I have also supported a host of political causes pertaining to these people, especially with respect to the seemingly eternal conflict between the Palestinian people and my native Israel.

Both parties to this conflict have subgroups who base their argumentation on religious scriptures and teachings. To me, these arguments are, a priori, moot. Occasionally, they may overlap with other, relevant arguments, but that is but a coincidence.

Yesterday, at yet another discussion at F&M's Women's Center, this time on Proposition 8, the issue of religion came up. A portion of the discussion revolved around the question of whether or not the Bible prohibits this or that form of same-sex love/lust/intercourse/marriage. A minister who was in the room reminded the audience that not all Christian denominations and congregations denounce same-sex unions, and took pride in having presided herself over ceremonies uniting members of the same gender for two decades.

I find it ironic that some religious establishments are more progressive than most secular jurisdictions. But like the overlap of scriptural arguments and rational ones, it is by no more than statistical chance (damn, I wish I had the numbers to prove it) that Rev. X or Rabbi Y have a better sense of human dignity than the State of A or the Republic of B. We still have Canada and the Netherlands on the good side of the secular spectrum and Pat Robertson and the Shas/Hamas coalition on the bad side of the religious one.

My biggest frustration, ideologically, politically, even academically to some extent, is that so much of our societal life is based on religious beliefs, which had evolved long before there was any true scientific research around. I wish we could cut the bullshit and stop talking about sacred walls and holy tombs and men born to virgins and people who ascended and descended and parted seas and brought frogs and locust to cover the earth.

That being said, am I guilty for not being critical enough when I teach about Arabs and Arabic and Islam? On the flip side, had I been more critical, would I be deemed "culturally insensitive"? I know in my mind that I think that all theistic religions are equally ridiculous. But in this era of utter disregard for context, even I tend to walk on eggshells.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Languages have no "letters"

Okay, this is mostly for those of you who are students of mine, who have found this blog while stalking me.

I am elaborating here on an issue that has come up in both my classes this semester, and was exacerbated (eh, that may be too harsh a word, but I like it) by a question I was asked today, namely, "what's the difference between Yiddish and Hebrew?"

So this is the blog-level answer, i.e., don't cite this in any sort of formal writing assignment (even if I assign it).

Yiddish is a language very similar to German. In fact, some might argue it is a dialect of German. Others might argue it's actually closer to Dutch, but then an argue can be made that Dutch is, too, a dialect of German, or that Dutch and Deutsch (=German) are both dialects of something... West Germanic perhaps. At any rate, they are both Germanic languages (or dialects; linguists don't really care about that distinction all that much). Other examples of Germanic languages are Swedish, English, Icelandic.

Hebrew, OTOH, is a Semitic language. Some other Semitic languages spoken today are Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya and neo-Aramaic.

One of the sources of confusion is that Hebrew and Yiddish are both conventionally written using what we typically refer to as the Hebrew alphabet. Actually, if you look at the history of writing, the so-called Hebrew alphabet (e.g., אבגדה) was really used for Aramaic before it was used for Hebrew. But the Christian dialects of Aramaic (aka Syriac) were written in three different scripts (different from one another and from the Hebrew/Aramaic script). 

But here's the shocking part: Languages don't have letters. Yes, yes, call me a radical (thanks for that btw). But for real, language is first and foremost an oral/spoken entity. Writing is secondary to speaking. We can fill an entire semester talking about that, so for now just trust me (or better, do some research).

So the fact that two languages use the same alphabet says very little, if anything, about the languages being related or similar to one another. Consider English and Swahili. Both use the Roman alphabet, but have VERY little in common. 

The Hebrew/Yiddish connection is slightly less arbitrary than that. Both languages are/were spoken primarily by Jews, and the Yiddish vocabulary is sprinkled with words of Hebrew origin that have been borrowed due to the cultural and religious overlap. Similar cases are those of Ladino (or more precisely, Judeo-Spanish), which is written in Hebrew characters and has some Hebrew loanwords, and even some varieties of Judeo-Arabic, i.e., Arabic spoken and documented by Jews from the Middle Ages onward, written with the same Hebrew alphabet.

Similarly, the Arabic alphabet is used nowadays to write two major non-Semitic languages: Persian (aka Farsi) and Urdu. Both are Indo-European languages, and are really more closely related to English and German than to Arabic. But the fact that they're written in Arabic characters, and the presence of many Arabic loanwords in them create the illusion that they are close relatives of Arabic. But listen to Arabic and Hebrew vs. Farsi and Yiddish, or better, analyze their grammars, and you'll discover that the former two are related to one another, and the latter two are related to one another. So that the languages are classified by criteria other than the alphabets people have decided to adopt for graphically representing them centuries (if not millennia) after they began speaking them.

Okay, I can go on and on, but y'all are already yawnin'.

salaam - shalom - peace

Thursday, December 4, 2008

V-Day / Vagina Monologues

Last night (okay, it was 6 pm) I went to the Women's Center on campus to attend an information session on V-Day, which will be in February, and include, inter alia, three performances ov Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. I was one of two men in the room, amongst, I'd say, twenty-something women.

I wasn't sure at first in what capacity I would like to join the effort, but I did know that I wanted to somehow be involved. After all, how could I not partake in an enterprise that stands for empowerment of a grossly underrepresented group? All the things I've ever done in the name of LGBT rights, Palestinian rights, workers' rights, and so forth, have been intertwined in my mind. I even recall one time when I marched in Philadelphia with a group of Palestinians who were protesting the Israeli occupation. A few minutes into the march, I realized I was in the posterior half of the crowd, surrounded by women; all the men had been marching in the front. I didn't like the idea, but I stuck with it and kept marching with the women, despite repeated pleas from one of the (male) ushers that I march with the men instead.

For these and other reasons - perhaps a guy feeling above all - I was taken aback when the organizers of V-Day at F&M announced last night that the Vagina Monologues auditions were open to women only. I wouldn't have been able to participate anyway, because it was also restricted to students, which I totally respect. I also understand where the insistence on having women only in the show ("after all, it's the Vagina monologues," one organizer said), but I generally dislike enterprises that limit participation to certain groups and exclude others. Oh, by the way, men are allowed to have all sorts of "behind the scenes" roles, such as sit on committees, do the lights and sounds on the show - just not be on stage talking about their non-existent vagina.

I would not like to be part of events or groups for gays only, or for Israelis only, or for that matter, for men only. I decided to keep my mouth shut. But I really wanted to ask them whether transgenders and transsexuals - both MTF and FTM - could participate. These are people who either have vaginas but want to replace them with penises (and some have actually done so) or want badly to have a vagina, but may not be able to afford the expensive gender reassignment surgery to obtain one. And besides, is this really about the physical vagina? Or are we talking about the vagina as a symbol. 

The more I think of it, the more I think I should have spoken up. But I also value my own restraint. Because after all, I'd be seen as another man who wants to take control over women. So I erred on the side of caution. But I also wrote this entry for the sake of venting. And seeking y'all's input.


Related article

I'm posting this article by Graham Crookes on "Radical language teaching". It was sent to me by Ali Issa. It seems to be relevant to what we're doing.

One person's rationale for learning a foreign language: Why and how to teach & learn Arabic

The following article was originally submitted to a student-edited publication titled The Liberal Arts Review at Franklin & Marshall College, where I teach. The editors told me my format and style were "too informal" for their publication and decided not to print it. Here it is for your perusal.

What could be more boring than a professor writing about her or his field of study, research and teaching, in a publication catering primarily to an audience in that professor’s own institution? Hell, you’re probably yawning already, moistening your right index finger, contemplating to flip several pages ahead to the next article. Oh, and I teach Arabic. I admit; much has been said in the media over the past few years about how the events of September 11, 2001 have ignited a rise in the demand for Arabic courses in North America. The press, which rarely troubles itself with mundane issues such as education – let alone higher education – has given this “shocking” phenomenon quite some attention. Even a local Lancaster newspaper featured Franklin & Marshall College (and to a lesser extent, a few other area schools) in a recent article about the emerging interest in Arabic, Chinese and other presumably exotic languages. I read these articles, because I sort of have to. Sometimes (as is the case in the recent Intelligencer article), I’m even quoted in them (See for an article by Madelyn Pennino in the October 6, 2008 Lancaster Intelligencer Journal and for an article by Elizabeth Redden in Inside Higher Ed.). Yet for this and other reasons I wish to deviate from this routine course of writing, and offer you something different.

Hopefully, the phrase “something different” caught your eye and you’ve continued reading.

That the attack on the World Trade Center, on the Pentagon and on a plane in Western Pennsylvania by Saudi nationals, as well as the United States-led occupation of Iraq has reminded people in this region of the world that Arabs speak Arabic is of no surprise. One of my concerns, however, is that the United States might exploit recent violent events and the subsequent scholarly interest in the Middle East, in the same cynical way as my native Israel has been doing practically since its establishment as an independent state in 1948, and given the history of Zionism dating back to 1882, probably even earlier than that. This concern of mine has led me to write this essay, in which I attempt to explain why I believe it is important to learn languages of other peoples, as well as how I believe languages ought to be taught and learned. Some of my remarks will be of a broader, cosmopolitan nature, while others will reflect directly on the study of Arabic.

I began writing this essay a few weeks prior to the 2008 presidential elections in the United States. I wholeheartedly hope that by the time you pick up this issue, Sarah Palin will have become “Sarah who?” for most of you. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it is important to etch into memory that a potential second-in-line to lead the so-called free world responded, when asked whether her refraining from obtaining a passport until after she was elected to be the governor of Alaska was an indication of her “lack of interest and curiosity in the world” with the following words:

“I'm not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say, ‘go off and travel the world.’ No, I've worked all my life. In fact, I usually had two jobs all my life until I had kids. I was not a part of, I guess, that culture. The way that I have understood the world is through education, through books, through mediums that have provided me a lot of perspective on the world.”
(See for a transcript of Katie Couric’s interview with Gov. Palin on the CBS Evening News.)

Reluctantly, I must give the governor some credit. Learning through books and other educational media is definitely a goal worth pursuing, and probably no one in this institution would ever advocate against it. One may find Ms. Palin’s comment somewhat inconsistent with her attempt to ban books from a public library, in her capacity as mayor of Wasilla, but much has been written about that matter as well. What is troubling about the governor’s reaction to CBS’s Katie Couric’s question, was that she dismissed the very notion that a leader of a country that has prided itself on having some of the best and well-funded institutes of higher learning in the world may benefit from some degree of curiosity as to how other peoples lead their lives. She in essence tried to delegitimize Couric’s very legitimate concern.

Traveling abroad does not have to be a sole criterion for worldly curiosity. New sources report that as recently as 2006 fewer than thirty percent of Americans had a valid passport (See, e.g., for a report by KVOA in Tucson). This number may be on the rise since then, as travel to Canada, Mexico and some Caribbean nations that did not require passports for travel now do. In an ideal situation, we would all have both the intellectual curiosity and the financial means to travel around the globe and experience the cultures, foods, climates and of course languages of our fellow humans worldwide.

I recently asked a subset of my Elementary Arabic class at F&M to discuss why they chose to study Arabic. Some of the answers were typical and expected. One student wants to work for the FBI, another envisions a career in diplomacy, some see the financial opportunities in the oil market. Finally, one student had a different answer. “I don’t want to sound like some kind of hippie,” she said, “but I just want to know how other people live.” I was on the verge of ecstasy (the emotion, not the street-drug). I am in no position to dictate to my students what their motivation to study what they do should be, but I am entitled to some satisfaction when their rationales are consistent with mine.

A colleague of mine, Ali Issa, who happens to be fluent in the Arabic dialect of Baghdad, was asked not too long ago to assist a student. The student was studying Arabic at the University of Texas at Austin, and Ali was a teaching assistant in one of her classes. The curriculum at UT, as well as here at F&M, includes Modern Standard Arabic, a largely artificial variety of Arabic used mostly in formal situations, as well as a good deal of more naturally-occurring dialectal features of Arabic, mostly based on the dialects of Cairo and the Syrian/Lebanese/Palestinian region (also known as the Levant). However, the student in question was a member of the US Armed Forces and was about to be deployed to Iraq. Given her TA’s command of Iraqi Arabic, the student found him to be a perfect candidate to tutor her in the dialect. Given his strong opposition to the student’s prospective role in Iraq as part of a foreign army invading an Arab country, he refused to tutor her.

I subscribe to the Sunday edition of The New Tork Times. I rarely find myself reading most sections of the paper, but I try never to skip two sections of The New York Times Magazine: “On Language” by William Safire (with whose conservative notions about linguistic norms I rarely concur) and “The Ethicist” by Randy Cohen. The latter entertains, week after week, readers’ questions about, well, ethics. Is it okay for a teacher to lower a student’s grade because she lost the student’s assignment (or did she?)? May a physician reveal confidential medical information about a patient who lied to her school about having a terminal disease she doesn’t have? Must a language instructor teach a soldier how to speak a foreign language in order to assist the soldiers in committing war crimes? Of course, I made the last one up (the former two were paraphrased from recent columns).

I believe my colleague was right to act according to his conscious. The chance that his actions would lead to the loss of life of an innocent Iraqi civilian was – at least in his mind – greater than the chance of the student-soldier being deprived of the benefits of knowledge. The student can seek other tutors, or conversely obtain the knowledge she seeks while pledging not to use it in a way that would harm anyone (e.g., by assisting a group like Doctors Without Borders rather than going to fight a futile war).

Here at F&M we are in the process of establishing an Arabic language program. It is your humble servant, in particular, who bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for this emerging program. In our case, we do not have the luxury of choosing our students based on their ideologies, career goals or other non-academic standards. Nor do we want to. If I were Randy Cohen, and a student were to write to me asking whether the College or a professor were acting within their purview in denying her participation in an Arabic class because she had “the wrong motivation” for studying the language, I would resoundingly send her to hire a civil rights lawyer to represent her.

The ethics of disseminating knowledge are therefore not as neatly definable as one would like them to be. I am fairly positive that my attempt to illustrate some aspect of them will not fair well with many of this publication’s readership. Good. That’s what the educational experience is – or should be – all about: dialogue. And I don’t mean provocative, ill-spirited, presidential debate-like “dialogue”. I mean thought-provoking, respectful exchange of ideas, while expanding one’s horizons.

Now that we’ve toyed around with being pseudo-intellectual and throwing in the fashionably obligatory Sarah Palin mockery (under the guise of poignant academopolitical constructive criticism, of course), it is probably time to bring ourselves down to earth. And like on Google Earth, we are gradually descending onto the planet, zooming in on Lancaster, the F&M campus, my office in Keiper Hall and the classrooms that surround it.

My philosophy about teaching Arabic is simple. Implementing it can be trickier. Justifying it to others is part of that complexity. By “simple”, I mean something like this (this will look a bit like a handout for a linguistics class; that’s how I was trained):
(1) All persons are equal to one another.
(2) All persons speak a language or languages.
a. Speaking can be oral (e.g., English, Arabic).
b. Speaking can be manual (e.g., American Sign Language, Mozambican Sign Language).

From (1) and (2) we can draw the following conclusions:

(3) All languages (including dialects and other linguistic varieties) are equally legitimate.
(4) By learning a language or languages other than oneself’s one learns about the speakers of the other language or languages.
If we add to that a couple of axioms about learning, e.g.:
(5) Learning about other peoples renders the learner a better person.
(6) Learning expands one’s horizons.
we can draw a conclusion as follows:
(7) Learning languages leads to better people with expanded horizons.

But since I promised you simplicity, here’s the philosophy in a nutshell:

(7') Learning languages is a good thing.

The conclusion I presented above in (7') is both good and bad for my efforts to establish and expand the Arabic Language Program at F&M. Needless to say, Arabic is a language. So from (7') we may conclude the following:

(8) Learning Arabic is a good thing.

However, the following conclusions also must be true:

(9) Learning German is a good thing.
(10) Learning Spanish is a good thing.
(11) Learning French is a good thing.
(12) Learning Hebrew is a good thing.
(13) Learning Russian is a good thing.
(14) Learning Italian is a good thing.
(15) Learning Greek is a good thing.
(16) Learning Latin is a good thing.
(17) Learning Chinese is a good thing.
(18) Learning Japanese is a good thing.

These conclusions only include the languages currently taught at Franklin & Marshall College but the reader is free to insert the name of any language she or he pleases between the words “Learning” and “is” in (8) through (18). In fact, I am not just paying lip service to my colleagues who teach other languages. It is my true belief that as a general rule, there is no one language whose mastery is preferred. Furthermore, it is far from the purpose of this paper to serve as propaganda for the program under my direction. What I do want to do is to clarify why I think students who are considering to study Arabic ought to bear in mind when making their decision, and what I believe current students of Arabic should consider and look forward to in their studies.

The egalitarian view – of people as well as languages – as stated above, lends itself to an understanding that learning Arabic in my mind is a means to open a window into the Arabic-speaking world, spanning from Northwest Africa to the Persian Gulf. Very much like everything else we learn, I would urge students of Arabic to bring to the table (or in this case, desk) three crucial ingredients:

1. Curiosity
2. Appreciation of the subject matter
3. Critical thinking

Curiosity goes without saying. Appreciation of the subject matter, in this case, can be multifaceted. One can appreciate the beauty of the sounds of Arabic, the elaborate nature of the Arabic script, the glory of Arabic literature and poetry, and – most importantly – the complexity of the people whose native language Arabic is. Yet appreciating the language and its people does not preclude thinking of them critically. Nor does critical thinking preclude appreciation. As a matter of fact, it is part of the democratic tradition in which we take so much pride, to combine the two. We respect one another despite our differences, and we do not shy away from criticizing even our closest allies.

While I believe these guidelines for learning Arabic are universal, both for language learners and for learners in general, they seem to warrant some degree of justification in our post-9/11 world. I must admit I am somewhat reluctant to justify what I believe must be obvious to any enlightened, educated person, and I will therefore constrain my comments to a certain degree of brevity.

Most of us rely on mainstream media outlets for information on foreign lands. You may watch CNN, or read The New York Times or The Washington Post, or listen to NPR. For some of you the international pages of a local newspaper will suffice. But unless you familiarize yourself with independent media sources (usually on the World Wide Web) or read foreign newspapers – be it in the original language or in translation – you are typically deprived from obtaining information and learning of points of view, which can only become available through this kind of diversification of sources.

In the modern-day classroom, we go beyond the old-fashioned vocabulary–grammar–translation paradigm, which was the essence of language pedagogy for generations. While you may not be able to learn to read an editorial in Al-Ahram, Egypt’s largest and most significant daily newspaper, until you reach your third or fourth year of Arabic classes, you will have acquired familiarity with some of the basic notions in such an article by the end of your first semester. Your ability to watch a story from the popular Qatar-based Arabic-language satellite channel Aljazeera will be limited for a year or two, yet very early on you will be able to distinguish between a formal narrative in Modern Standard Arabic and a “person on the street” segment spoken in one of the many and diverse Arabic dialects.
Language and culture are intrinsically related. If you learn Arabic, you must learn about the foods, holidays, movies, music, art and hobbies of people who speak Arabic. It is also imperative that you learn something about the politics of the Middle East and its connections to the West, and the United States in particular. You may think you already know much about the latter, but how much do you know about the Arab perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or about the war on Iraq or about the economic policies that govern the trade in crude oil and ultimately affect the prices at the local Turkey Hill gas station?

I am eager to reach the bottom line of this paper, and – admit it – so are you. Of course, each student and each teacher of Arabic will have their own bottom line or series of bottom lines. And that is the beauty of it all. We are not confined to one conclusion for all of us. If you choose to learn Arabic in order to “know thy enemy”, that saddens me, but also gives me hope that the enemy would eventually turn into a human, who may or may not remain an enemy after you learn about her or his customs, religion, songs and ideologies. Those of you who are more inclined to see the good in everybody may end up applying some of the critique you have for your own society to the societies whose languages you are studying.
Initially, I was going to devote several long paragraphs on emphasizing why Arabic should be taught as a complex linguistic entity, which includes a standard variety (sometimes known as Classical Arabic, or, as noted above, Modern Standard Arabic) and a multitude of regional dialects. I then would have explained how we teach the standard variety alongside “squirts” of dialectal forms, which eventually grow and form an inherent part of our discourse in the language. I’d tell you that we try to emulate how Arabic is used in the Arab World, where speakers intuitively know when to use the more formal manifestation of the language and when their native dialect is more suitable. Finally, I would have mentioned that several colleagues of mine (from various colleges and universities) and I have been discussing lately how to enhance our teaching resources to accomplish all of the above.

I think I ended up illuminating some of the more interesting, important underlying considerations in Arabic pedagogy. It also seems that dialect diversity in teaching follows from the philosophy I have presented in this paper. And since I am reaching my limit of 3,000 words, your curiosity will just have to wait.

הארץ Haaretz

العربية.نت | آخر الأخبار Al-Arabiya