Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Weight of Turkey's Kemalist Past: The CHP's Social Democratic Makeover Stalls



Though in the wake of Turkey’s latest parliamentary elections the Kurdish-leftist HDP has received far more media attention than the Republican People's Party (CHP) in the Western press, the latter remains by far the largest political opposition force in the country. The CHP has, for most of its history, been defined by the legacy of its founder—Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, also the founder of the modern Turkish Republic—and the ideology of state-imposed secularism and Turkish nationalism which he propounded. In recent years, however, the party has been reexamining this heritage under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Chosen to head the party in  2010, Kılıçdaroğlu has since then been attempting to remake the CHP into the social-democratic party it has long proclaimed itself to be. The 2015 elections were the second national electoral test of Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership; though the party certainly seemed to be in need of a new direction prior to his ascension, the results showed that the CHP may now again be politically stalled.

Despite being a self-described social democratic party since its inception, in recent decades the CHP has been principally supported by the secular upper middle class, particularly in the less religious western parts of the country.[1] The party’s appeal to the working class – the traditional base of social democratic parties – has, by contrast, been extremely limited. In large part, this is because in recent years the party has focused on promoting secularism and blind opposition to the ruling AKP rather than developing a genuine social democratic critique of Turkey’s government or economy.[2]

When Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was elected as party head in 2010, he immediately began a makeover of the party’s personnel and policy proposals with the aim of forging a genuine social democratic movement and attaining greater working class appeal. To that end, he helped maneuver much of the party’s old guard out of their positions in the party’s governing body and replaced them with younger officials who were more connected to civil society than their predecessors. A number of these appointees were labor union officials, but in a sign of possible ambivalence about the party’s new direction, they were in fact outnumbered by newcomers with ties to the business world.[3]

The CHP made modest gains in the 2011 national elections, the first to be conducted under Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership, as well as in the 2014 local elections, though in neither case did it make serious inroads into the AKP’s electoral lead. The relative disappointment of the 2014 elections led the disgruntled Kemalist old guard to mount a challenge to Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership. Though it failed, the attempt to oust Kılıçdaroğlu received one-third of the vote, indicating that a sizable number of party members were dissatisfied with Kılıçdaroğlu’s direction of the party.[4]

Undaunted, Kılıçdaroğlu vowed to “purge” the old “elitists” from the party, and entered the 2015 campaign attempting to show a new comfort with the religious sector while at the same time emphasizing measures aimed at helping the working class.[5]  With regard to the former, Kılıçdaroğlu largely dropped the party’s former obsession with banning the headscarf from Turkish universities and welcomed several openly religious candidates into the party’s ranks. Similarly, the aggressive secularism the party espoused in the previous decade was replaced by a platform written in conjunction with trade unions and other civil society groups, which included an impressive array of social democratic proposals.[6]

Some of these new proposals mirrored the sort of policies called for by center-left parties across the Western world, such as increasing pensions and the minimum wage, expanding health insurance coverage, and hiring workers currently sub-contracted by the government as permanent staff.[7] In this vein, Kılıçdaroğlu went so far as to promise that under the CHP, there would be no poor people in Turkey within 4 years. Other CHP proposals focused on governance and democratic rights, for instance, lowering Turkey’s notoriously high electoral threshold from 10% to 5%, granting autonomy to universities, decriminalizing the act of insulting the President, and providing official status to Alevi houses of worship. These ideas were topped off by what was surely the CHP’s most original proposal: creating a new “Mega City” in Central Anatolia to be built with $40 billion of public investment through 2035, by which time it would serve as a trade hub and home to 3 million people. Through a somewhat vaguely-explained mechanism, this Mega City is intended to free Turkey from the middle-income trap [A21] and increase the country’s per capita income from $10,000 to $30,000.[8] In addition to these policy proposals, the CHP couched its campaign in the motifs of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, as well as the images of some who were killed in the confrontations, likely hoping that association with the populist demonstrations would help provide the party with a new, more attractive sheen..[9]

Though the party’s shift in focus was dramatic enough to cause several nationalist stalwarts to resign and form splinter parties, it was not enough to provide a real electoral boost for the CHP. [10] The party took just under 25% of the vote, about 1% less than it had received in both the 2014 local elections and the parliamentary national elections in 2011. Regional breakdowns of the results showed that the party largely failed to break out of its pre-existing stronghold in the country’s relatively liberal and wealthy western provinces.

The similarity of the party’s last 3 election results—26%, 26%, and 25%—strongly suggests that it has hit an electoral wall under Kılıçdaroğlu's leadership. The nationalist splinter parties are significant here not because they succeeded in drawing votes away from the CHP—combined, they attracted less than 0.5% of the vote—but because their difficulty in accepting the “new” CHP is a reflection of the difficulty faced by those who are not traditional CHP voters. The CHP's new language of social democracy and promotion of minority candidates and LGBQ rights seems to have been sufficient to alienate, to varying degrees, much of the party’s nationalist old guard. But unfortunately for CHP partisans, non-traditional CHP voters, more religious than the party’s pre-existing constituency, seem to continue to view the party as tainted with the legacy of this increasingly disaffected nationalist elite. It's possible that all the CHP’s social democratic shift needs in order to take hold is more time, or a new, younger leader. Indeed, polls showed that even among CHP voters, the HDP leadership was more popular than their CHP counterparts.[11] If a change at the top is not enough, however, it may simply be that because of its history, the CHP is not an appropriate vehicle for left-wing politics in Turkey. In that case, it remains to be seen whether the newly resurgent HDP is able to take up that mantle instead.



Wednesday, July 15, 2015

34: ISIS and Social Media (Extended Interview)

List of Twitter accounts used that
ISIS regions use to report their activities



Dr. Michael Barak, researcher for the Middle East Network Analysis Desk at the MDC as well as the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the IDC, spoke with Diwaniyya about the extensive use of social media by jihadi organizations across the Arab world.
Below is a transcript of our extended interview with Dr. Barak.

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Stephan Barton: So we’re talking today about social networks and the influence they have on the different extremist groups and the way that they use them. Why don’t you start by telling us what social networks are, and what are the different Islamist groups that are using it.
Michael Barak: Briefly, social networking is an online platform that allows users to create a public profile and interact with other users on the website. Social networking sites [commonly abbreviated SNS] usually have a new user input, a list of people with whom they share a connection, and then allow the people on the list to confirm or deny the connection.

Today, most of the Islamist groups are using social networks. The most active terrorist organization is ISIS, which has developed sophisticated ways to disseminate its propaganda. You can find ISIS, you can find al-Qaeda, and Nusra Front also.

SB:      I think that’s interesting because al-Qaeda had very different methods to build its network. It seems this is a much more recent take on how to go about that. The use of the internet has developed a lot over the last decade and a half.
MB:    Right. So I think we should take ISIS as an example of an organization that took it to a new level. There is an official media outlet, al-Furqan, which disseminates official messages, videos, and audio [recordings] via SNS. There are also semi-official media outlets which support ISIS. For example, we can take the Palestinian group that supports ISIS from the Gaza Strip, al-Nusra al-Maqdisiyya (The assistants of Jerusalem). Hamas is also [active on social media], it’s not only the Salafist jihadist organizations. Hamas recently opened an option for [Internet] surfers called “Ask Hamas a Question.” Each day, there was a different leader from Hamas, for example Isma’il Haniyeh, who answered questions of surfers on Twitter. The main goal is to disseminate Hamas ideology and propaganda against Israel.

Most terrorist organizations can be found on Twitter. If you are not on Twitter, you don’t exist.

SB:      Should we move on to the question of why the new generation of the social networks is becoming so successful in disseminating these kinds of ideas?
MB:    SNS is widespread among young people. ISIS tries to disseminate its ideology to the young generation and to recruit young people from Europe. You can find propaganda on Twitter in English and in Arabic. In France, for example, there is a big community from Morocco and Tunisia, so many young people from there are being exposed to the propaganda via Twitter, and they join the jihadist theater in Syria and Iraq. So first of all, it’s a good tool to use because most young people are aware of how to use it. Secondly, it costs nothing. You can easily open a Twitter account to spread short messages.
The short message is an important tool to spread and to appeal to young people because it’s short and to the point. You send the message clearly. The messages show that ISIS is successful in the field, having managed to establish a caliphate. They managed to destroy the Iraqi Army, the Shi’a. They spread photos and videos to show how the Iraqi Army was defeated, and also publish online magazines dedicated to this purpose. So when young people see that, messages of success, they want to be part of this success. And they join. It’s also kind of a psychological warfare against the enemy.

SB:      It’s actually very interesting. The notion that you send those small messages, there’s more percussion, it’s almost like advertising, like slogans that will catch.
MB:    And these messages are wrapped, Hollywood-style. The quality of the material is very high. Like for ISIS, sometimes they publish on Twitter or Facebook the desire to recruit [technically-skilled people] who will help them produce these movies. If you watch a movie – I don’t suggest it because it’s filled with violence – but if somebody watches these films, you can see that a lot of thought was invested, every frame has been taken into consideration. So these movies also appeal to young people. And when they come to the field, they get weapons, they get cars, and also a woman, a Yezidi woman for example. Every warrior has the right to have a woman. All this propaganda about the things that he’s going to receive in the field is what attracts young people from Europe.

Now, ISIS also speaks about the old generation. They want to recruit them also, so they opened a new office to invest efforts [towards] a strategy for recruiting older people.

SB:      Is that something that they do to gain more credibility, to have not only youths, but to actually bring in some of the older guard? What’s the purpose behind that?
MB:    They want to show that the message of jihad is not limited only to the young generation, but it’s for the whole Ummah, the whole nation. So they appeal to the whole [Muslim] nation, young and old, men and women. There are special battalions of women that patrol the streets in Syria, for example, in the provinces that ISIS conquered, that are responsible for public order and applying Sharia’. Concerning the media outlets that I mentioned, upon every province that ISIS conquered, there is a local outlet [established]. For example, in Iraq’s Salah ad-Din province, in Baghdad province, there is a media outlet that produces news about what is going on in the field, like, “we succeeded in conquering an Iraqi base, we succeeded in killing Iraqi soldiers,” things like that. So this is also part of the structure of the media of ISIS.

SB:      Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the security measures, if any, that social networks are undertaking to try and control…
MB:    So ISIS is very aware of that, and published guidelines in Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks [about] how to become aware of the activity of the intelligence factors. So first of all they advise to use encryption software. For example, the most famous one is Tor. [1] This way they hope to prevent any exposure of ISIS activities. This is one step of security. The second is to hide your IP address, to hide your identity on Twitter. You don’t have to expose your location when you are tweeting.

SB:      So obviously, some of these kids are very savvy with using these techniques, and this explains also why the recruitment is so international. You know, adolescents from all walks of life, from all around the world who are going there because they are IT specialists, and they take advantage of the techniques that they’ve learned abroad.
MB:    Right. They even sent a threatening message to the founder of Twitter because the management saw that the messages that were being disseminated were too violent, so they shut down the Twitter accounts and the hashtags that ISIS created. So ISIS threatened the Twitter management to stop or risk losing his life.

SB:      What kind of measures can social networks take to do a better job of stopping these incidents?
MB:    There is a debate in the United States whether it’s ethical to close these Twitter accounts or to prevent their political expressions on Twitter. So I think we have to solve this issue first, if it’s ethical or not. Secondly, the Obama administration [speaks] about how they are going to recruit the moderate Muslim voice in the world. The leadership of the Muslim world has to be more aware and more active on Twitter. They have to create a counter-narrative against ISIS. So for example, if ISIS justifies jihad against the Shi’a, there should be involvement of leaders from the Muslim world saying that it is not right to spread your belief by violence. If you want, you can do it by da’wa, by propaganda, but not by [violence]. So first of all, we have to involve the leadership of the Muslim world, for example al-Azhar. [2] Secondly, we can also involve the public to create special units that will monitor ISIS messages on SNS, and to counter them. It’s a never-ending war. You have to be aware all the time.

In the beginning of September 2014 British Muslims from the Active Change Foundation [3] launched an English-language PR campaign against ISIS under the heading #notinmyname. The campaign included a PR video explaining not only why ISIS does not represent Muslims, but also that its behavior and practices actually violate the laws of Islam. In Canada, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community launched a similar campaign under the title #stopthecrisis. [4] So there is also a war of hashtags. If ISIS opens a hashtag promoting jihad in France or the United States, you can find intelligence factors that create hashtags [countering] that this is not right, that this is against Islam.


SB:      We’ve seen that the international community was having some trouble and is usually a step behind in controlling the flow of information that goes back and forth. So it was interesting to me to see a few months ago that [hacktivist group] Anonymous was going to start the struggle against ISIS. Do you think this is a phenomenon that will really take shape? What kind of influence can it have?
MB:    Anonymous, well, first of all you don’t know who stands behind it. This activity, I cannot consider it very successful. OK, they managed to shut down several ISIS accounts, but if you shut down one, a day after that, a terrorist can open two [new] accounts. So it can maybe hinder or slow down the propaganda, but it’s not a useful tool.

SB:      But as far as you’re concerned, if anything is actually going to be effective, it will have to come from nations rather than…
MB:    There should be international cooperation. There should be cooperation between the state, universities, the public, and religious leadership to produce a counter-narrative against ISIS. Everyone has to be involved. Not all the public, [but] there should be special courses for civilians where they will learn how Twitter works, how Facebook works, and [how] to spread a counter-narrative against ISIS.

SB:      Should we go over the recruiting techniques?
MB:    There are several. I can mention for example several online magazines like DabiqDabiq is the most important ISIS magazine. In the end of every magazine, like Inspire which is published by al-Qaeda, there is a special code with a link to a special software program. You have to install this program, in al-Qaeda’s case it’s called asrar al-mujahideen (secrets of the mujahideen). As you install this software, you have to put in this special code, and then you have access to one of the leaders of terrorist organizations, and then you can ask him how you can join. This is the most prominent one. You also have closed groups inside Jihadi forums. You have al-Fidaa’, Shumukh al-Islam, al-Minbar, in which you can also ask the manager of these jihadi forums how you can join. And blogs: Recently we heard about the Pakistani from the UK who opened a blog trying to recruit English-speaking Muslims.

SB:      That, to me, is a great paradox, because on the one hand, these things are supposed to be hidden enough so that they’re not open to just about anybody. But at the same time, there are a lot of people who are able to gain access to it. And yet, the governments and social networks fail to stay ahead of it. It seems like these groups are always a step in front of the security measures.
MB:    Yes. You know that these terrorists, they also translate researchers in the West, about what are the intentions of the West to counter ISIS, or the use of social media networks. By these translations, they want to bring new material to the terrorists, saying, OK, we have to think now how to find new ways to cope with the West.”

ISIS follows think-tank research that tries to find ways to combat cyber warfare. This research has been translated into Arabic in order to let the terrorists learn how the West is thinking, and how to find creative ways to answer that threat. So you can find guides, you can find videos on YouTube explaining to terrorists how to prevent, or how to be cautious of cyber warfare from the West. For example, the United Kingdom is creating a special force of “Facebook Warriors,” skilled in psychological operations and the use of social media, to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age. [5] The Israeli and the US militaries also have similar teams.

SB:      So there is really a concerted effort now by the international community to try to come up not only with an individual response for their particular country, but to create an international web to slow down this process.
MB:    Yes. But again, the activity of these intelligence factors is not enough. The Muslim religious leadership should be [a part of] this story. They should be involved with SNS, to produce and create hashtags against ISIS to show that their messages are against the tenets of Islam.

I mentioned that ISIS and other terrorist organizations are trying to find new ways how to hack into infrastructures in the West, how to cause more damage. Recently, an ISIS hacker group that calls itself the “Cybercaliphate” [6] hacked the French television network Le Monde, and they managed to shut down eleven channels of their TV network for three hours. Not only that, but they also planted a message saying that France should stop interfering in Iraq and pull out its forces from the coalition against ISIS. This is very worrying because if they manage to shut down this TV channel, it means that they are developing their skills. This is the first time we are aware of such a phenomenon. Intelligence factors are worried that ISIS or other terrorist organizations can hack electricity networks and shut down electricity or other facilities like water, [which] can cause a lot of damage and psychological effect.

SB:      Do you think this is what we can expect in the near future? That the development of this warfare technique will actually go beyond recruitment and advertising and into actual concrete terrorist attacks?
MB:    Yes, you are right. That is what’s going on. [As] the terrorist organizations develop their skills, they’re showing new, creative ways to hack, and because of ISIS, they’re successful in the field. Because they fight against the coalition, they provoke more empathy for their cause. So you can find hackers from Morocco, from Mauritania, from Turkey, who try to hack Western sites. For example, there are also attacks against electricity in Israel. Israel, until now, managed to cope with that very successfully. But this is a never-ending war.

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Credits:

Stefan Barton - Host
Jordan Sokolic - Producer, Editor

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Sunday, June 7, 2015

33: Recruitment for ISIS via Social Media




In this episode of Diwaniyya, MDC research assistant and Steinhardt Israel intern Linda Dayan speaks with us about recruitment for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Linda tells us how ISIS makes extensive use of social media in order to reach young Muslims from across the world to join their cause, often using surprising tactics.

33: Recruitment for ISIS via Social Media



Credits:
Jordan Sokolic - Producer, Host
Samantha Sementelli - Interviewer 

Read more about the use of social network sites in Beehive, brought to you by the MDC Middle East Network Analysis Desk (MENAD).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Let’s Just Be Friends…The End of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Special Relationship with the Jordanian Monarchy, by Ryan Peisner

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has long enjoyed special status in the country’s autocratic political system. In 1945, when the movement opened its offices in the country, King Abdullah was present to mark the occasion. And in 1957, when all other political parties were banned, the government classified the Brotherhood as a charitable/social organization, allowing it to continue to operate. This sympathetic treatment left the MB uniquely well-placed to take advantage of the restoration of parliamentary elections in 1989—no other party was able to develop a comparable political infrastructure in time. In exchange, though the MB and its de facto political wing, the Islamic Action Front, have not been shy about criticizing the monarchy, they have for the most part been careful to keep their criticism within relatively established boundaries. More importantly, the MB has stood by the Kingdom in times of crisis, and is credited with preventing Jordanian Islamists from being attracted to more radical and potentially violent movements. Though the government has grown increasingly unfriendly to the Brotherhood over the past two decades, it has always been wary of a full break with its former ally.[1] Until now.

Although some commentators have given the split a more recent provenance, the MB has been divided between two factions, often referred to as hawks and doves, since at least 1989.  In that year, their division was over whether participation in the forthcoming parliamentary elections could be justified on Islamic grounds, or whether a Muslim movement such as the Brotherhood should stay out of electoral politics. That debate was eventually resolved in favor of participation, but the split has remained. The doves generally favor greater participation in state institutions and cooperation with the monarchy, and are seen as drawn from Jordanians of East Bank origin, while the hawks are less reverential towards the Hashemite King, are relatively more concerned with foreign than domestic policy, and are supported more often by Jordanians of Palestinian origin. After over 20 years of more or less successfully managing these internal disagreements, the movement split into two, perhaps irrevocably, last month.

The immediate cause was the formation of the Zamzam Initiative (named after the Amman hotel where the movement was founded) by certain dovish Brotherhood officials in 2012, and the expulsion of those members from the Brotherhood in February of this year. Zamzam was created largely as a response to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the subsequent banning of the movement in that country as well as in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In the wake of those regional setbacks, the Zamzam founders sought to break the Jordanian entity’s tie with the increasingly controversial international movement and refocus it on what it saw as domestic, Jordanian issues.[2] The initiative’s leaders also called for the Brotherhood to participate in government institutions—the MB’s political wing had boycotted the past several elections in protest of the government’s repressive practices and unjust electoral law—and emphasized the need to respect the “prestige of the state.”[3] Eventually, this became too much for the hawkish MB leadership, and the Zamzam leaders were expelled by the Brotherhood’s Shura Council in February.[4]

Events then took a turn that the hawks did not expect. The expelled doves formed a new organization, and applied for and received recognition from the state as the “true” Muslim Brotherhood—putting the hawkish leadership of the old Brotherhood on the back foot, to say the least.[5]

Although it is perhaps understandable that the government should favor the friendly doves over the oppositional hawks, to some extent it is a violation of the rules of the game established over the past 20-plus years. In this formulation, the government largely tolerated the Brotherhood and its criticism of state policies, and in return the MB would keep that criticism within more or less well-defined boundaries, and help prevent Islamists from joining other, more radical, organizations. Thus, although Brotherhood criticism of the monarchy can certainly be pointed, it has never verged into violent opposition, even in times of national crisis such as during Black September in 1970, or more recently, the protests following the Arab Spring.

Though some of the MB’s criticism of the kingdom’s authoritarian policies undoubtedly made the government uncomfortable from time to time, that was part of the occasionally awkward deal between the parties. A Brotherhood which is pliant and subservient where the former organization was strident and critical may be more pleasant for the monarchy and its retainers, but is unlikely to have the same appeal to those searching for a true political alternative. It would seem improbable, to say the least, that the Jordanian state is not aware of this. The fact that it nevertheless chose to withdraw recognition of the old hawkish Brotherhood in favor of the dovish breakaway group indicates that the palace’s calculus has changed somehow—perhaps due to changing regional circumstances it views the hawks’ critique of government policies as more dangerous than it previously did, or perhaps it simply could not resist the opportunity to strike at a long-time rival. Whatever the case, the Hashemites seem to have taken the first step into a brave new world without an opposition that, for all its disagreements with the state, was ultimately a loyal one. If it finds that disgruntled Jordanians are driven to more radical groups in its stead, it may come to be a choice they regret.




[1] Emile Sahliyeh, “The State and the Islamic Movement in Jordan,” J. of Church and State, 47 (2005): 113-14 explains the privileges formerly granted to the Brotherhood by the Jordanian monarch; Janine Clark, “The Conditions of Islamic Moderation: Unpacking Cross-Ideological Cooperation in Jordan,” Int. J. of Middle East Studies, 38 (2006): 545-6 details the more recent deterioration in their relations.

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/opinion/jordans-divided-brotherhood.html; http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2013/08/egypt-coup-internal-division-jordan-brotherhood.html
[3] http://www.aawsat.net/2014/04/article55331497/jordans-muslim-brotherhood-split-over-zamzam-initiative
[4] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/03/jordan-muslim-brotherhood-revoke-membership-crisis.html
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/opinion/jordans-divided-brotherhood.html

Thursday, April 2, 2015

32: The Fate of Iran's Nuclear Weapons Program: Deal or No Deal?



MDC Researcher Dr. Brandon Friedman speaks to Diwaniyya about the EU3+3 Iranian nuclear negotiations. He describes Iran's ambitions, the status of the current round of negotiations, and what's at stake in the absence of a deal.



32: The Fate of Iran's Nuclear Weapons Program


Credits:
Natan Pakman-Producer, Editor, Host
Samantha Sementilli-Executive Producer

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Identities of Conflict: The Jews of Lebanon, by Zach Battat

Imagine the United States was at war with Israel. As an American Jew, this would no doubt be a paradoxical matter. An improbable scenario, but this is what Lebanese Jews had to contend with when Israel gained independence in 1948. Life for Jews in the capital city of Beirut was tranquil compared to the precarious life of Jews in other Arab countries. There was a sense that there was nothing to fear and, given that the economy was improving, there was more to gain by remaining in Lebanon. They lived with no conflicting feelings between their Jewish identity and their sense of pride in being Lebanese; in fact, Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern country where the Jewish population increased following the creation of Israel. This all changed with the outbreak of Lebanon’s 1958 civil war. Lebanese Jewish emigration began towards the end of the 1958 civil war and reached its peak following the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, which pitted Israel against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Many Jews in Lebanon felt conflicted, as they had a strong sense of a Lebanese identity and nationalism. In their hearts, they were (and still are) Lebanese – nothing was going to change that. At the same time, they felt attached to the new Jewish state. In fact, some did leave for Israel immediately when independence was achieved while others left much later.

The history of Lebanese Jews dates back to ancient times. For instance, Jewish communities existed as far back as the Biblical times; for example Jewish communities existed in the first century after the Bar Kokhba Revolt, in the seventh century under Caliph Muawiya in Tripoli, in the tenth century in Sidon, and the 11th century in Tyre.  Nonetheless, the modern Jewish community of Beirut evolved in three distinct phases. Until 1908, the Jewish population in Beirut grew by migration from the Syrian interior and from other Ottoman cities like Izmir, Salonica, Istanbul, and Baghdad. Commercial growth in the thriving port-city and relative safety and stability in Beirut all accounted for the Jewish migration. Thus, from a few hundred at the beginning of the 19th century, the Jewish community grew to 2,500 by the end of the century, and to 3,500 by the First World War. While the number of Jews grew considerably, the community remained largely unorganized. During this first phase, the community lacked fundamental institutions, such as communal statutes, elected council, welfare and taxation mechanisms. The 1908 Young Turk Revolution sparked the organizational process. Within six years, the Beirut community created a general assembly, an elected twelve-member council, drafted communal statutes, appointed a chief rabbi, and appointed committees to administer taxation and education. The process created tension and even conflicts within the community, but eventually, the council established its rule and authority in the community. With the establishment of Greater Lebanon in 1920, the Jewish community of Beirut became part of a new political entity. The French mandate rulers adopted local political traditions of power sharing and recognized the autonomy of the various religious communities. Thus, the Jewish community was one of Lebanon's sixteen communities and enjoyed a large measure of autonomy, more or less along the lines of the Ottoman millet system. During this third phase of its development, the community founded two major institutions: the Magen Abraham Synagogue, and the renewed Talmud Torah Selim Tarrab community school.

The Lebanese Jews were very well-respected merchants who were held in high regard by the different confessions in Lebanon. The Jews of Lebanon were not the classic ahl al-dhimma, or protected minorities of the Muslim community but rather they were one of twenty-three constituent minorities of the Lebanese polity. The constitutionally recognized division of power amongst the leading confessional communities which privileged the Western-oriented Maronite Christians provided for several decades of a non-ideological, non-militantly nationalist, laissez-faire atmosphere in which the apolitical, commercially-oriented Jews could conduct business and lead their easygoing Mediterranean lifestyle in relative tranquility.

Being officially apolitical did not mean that Jews took no interest in Lebanese political life. They simply did not choose to play an actively visible role, which, of course, was the norm for Jews everywhere throughout history in much of Diaspora. The overwhelming majority of Jews supported the Maronite Kata’ib (Phalanges) Party in elections, formed a tacit alliance with it, and looked to its militia to protect them in times of violent unrest on the Muslim Arab street. In keeping with their publicly apolitical profile, few Jews were actually party members. As the smallest of all the minorities in the country and with no militia of its own, the Jews saw continued Christian political predominance as the best insurance that Lebanon would remain an exception within the Arab world and a refuge for non-Muslim minorities. At the same time, however, they cultivated cordial relations with the other groups wherever and whenever possible

The joint Jewish-Lebanese identities do not need to compete. For instance, Gabriel Politis, who currently resides in Montreal, Quebec (Canada), does not see a conflict between the two affiliations. Politis, who is now in his mid-60s, was quite politically active and sees himself as a Lebanese who happens to be of a Jewish background. The youngest of nine children from a very religious family, he feels no connection to Israel. He understands that Israel is a fait accompli and a refuge for Jews around the world, but, for him, the concept of Israel goes against the principles he believes in first and foremost as an atheist.

However, Gabrielle Elia – a daughter of Albert Elia, who was kidnapped by the Syrians for aiding the emigration of Syrian Jews to Lebanon – looks at her sense of Lebanese identity from a cultural perspective that is intertwined with the typically Lebanese element of strong family bonds. She feels that her parents “provided several assets… but, most importantly [they provided two key life tools]: a good education and common sense.” Elia, a teacher in Montreal, further believes that these two life skills that her parents instilled in her were centered around the synagogue in Lebanon. “Jewish life had invariably been directly connected to the synagogue, focus of religious and social meetings…. Unfortunately its (Magen Abraham Synagogue) destruction in 1975 also coincided with the departures of the last Jewish families from Lebanon.”

On the other hand, Edgar Attié, who now resides in Monaco, left Lebanon quite late for Jewish Lebanese standards, in 1976 – a year after the civil war began. Attié’s story shows a different facet of the Lebanese Jewish experience. His father – Dr. Joseph Attié – was a doctor, the President of the Lebanese Jewish community (le conseil communal), and one of three (alongside Gabrielle Elia’s father) who assisted Jews of Syria in their migration to Lebanon. As a result, Mr. Attié had access to many of the high-profile leaders of the day and, as such, has his own personal views. When asked about which country he sided with while living in Lebanon, he felt, intellectually and emotionally, “220% behind Israel” because it never dawned on him to support Lebanon as a Jew. He equated it to when Israel would invade the Gaza Strip and “you were a Jew living in America or Canada (for argument sake), most Jews would side with Israel.” It never dawned on him to leave in the 1950s and 60s because he was living well and studying. The only time he experienced violence was that of the Syrians, when he returned to Lebanon in 1980 in order to sort out his parents’ property because militias had looted it.


At the outbreak of the 1975 Lebanese civil war, many Lebanese Jews living in Lebanon at the time could identify with at least one of these three stories. However, Dr. Kirsten Schulze sums it best when she talks about the political and cultural identification of the Lebanese Jews, “Zionism as an additional political entity was able to co-exist, because Zionism in the Lebanese context had few practical implications…. Thus, Lebanon’s Jews considered themselves to be Lebanese by nationality and Jewish by religion.” What made the Lebanese Jews unique was their pragmatism towards Zionism while maintaining their affiliation to Lebanon.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Between a Mountain and a Hard Place by Ryan Peisner


The Druze communities of hilly southern Lebanon and southeast Syria have, until recently, succeeded in remaining relatively uninvolved in the civil war which has devastated the latter country and now threatens to engulf the former as well. On both sides of the border, Druze communities have generally been able to maintain internal unity and focus on the defense of their own localities. But that unity, as well as the Druze community’s neutrality in the Syrian conflict, are increasingly menaced by events outside of their control— advances by radical Islamists and the weakening of loyalist positions in southern Syria. If both — or either — of these trends continue, the Druze policy of nonintervention in the Syrian war is likely to become untenable.

Walid Jumblatt photo by Reuters
The Lebanese Druze, like most other ethno-religious communities in that country, are split politically between supporters of what could broadly be termed a pro-Syria/Hezbollah alignment (the “March 8” coalition) and an anti-Syria/Hezbollah, pro-Western grouping (confusingly called the “March 14” coalition.) Among the Druze, the dominant political force is Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), which currently opposes Bashar Assad’s continued rule in Syria, though it has taken a somewhat tortured path to arrive at that position. From his rise to political prominence after his father’s death in 1976 until late 2000, Jumblatt was a supporter of Syria’s military presence in Lebanon; since that time, he has shifted his allegiance three times—and may be doing so again today.[1] For now, at least, the PSP is not formally a part of the March 14 alliance, but has nevertheless called for Assad to step down, condemned Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war, and welcomed Syrian refugees even as fear of infiltration by Islamist radicals has increased The PSP’s (less popular) counterparts supporting the Assad regime are the Lebanese Democratic Party (LDP), a component of the March 8 coalition.[2] The LDP is led by Talal Arslan, who last year hailed Assad’s “reelection” in the Syrian presidential campaign as a model of democracy,  and has called “defending Syria” — meaning, of course, defending the regime — a duty of the Druze people. [3]
Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party (PSP)


Despite their differences, there is in fact much that unites these two factions. Although PSP leader Jumblatt has repeatedly called for Assad to step down, he has also warned his supporters against entering Syria and joining those attempting to force him to do so. And though their preferred outcomes may differ, both Jumblatt and the LDP’s Arslan have called for a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict.  More importantly, both groups agree that the greatest threat facing  Lebanese Druze today is that posed by incursions from radical groups such as the Islamic State and the Nusra Front from Syria into Lebanese Druze communities near the border. The best illustration, however, of the ability of the Druze community to overcome its political differences comes from 2008, when open fighting erupted between Hezbollah and PSP supporters. In those clashes, the LDP sided against its March 8 ally, instead fighting alongside its coreligionists and erstwhile political opponents, the PSP. [4]
If a similar conflict were to erupt today, that past cooperation is powerful evidence that the Lebanese Druze would maintain a united front.

Lebanese Democratic Party

Relations with their Syrian counterparts might prove to be a bit hairier, however. Since the civil war began, the Druze community has combined a generally pro-Assad stance with a desire to stay out of any fighting not directly affecting their home governorate of As-Suwayda. Reasons given for the Druze community’s support for Assad range from viewing him as the protector of Syria’s minorities—posited by Talal Arslan—to the belief that they are simply siding with the strongest actor in the conflict to guarantee their own safety.[5] Accordingly, while most Druze who have taken a side have fought on behalf of the regime, they typically do not wish to be sent to fight in another part of the country, instead preferring to join separate Druze militias dedicated to protecting their own communities.[6] Though the Islamic State(IS) and the Nusra Front advances in the area have increased fears of possible attacks among the Druze, this has led not to enthusiasm for joining the Syrian Army but rather to demands that the government arm Druze militias, a request that has largely gone unmet.[7] 

Additionally complicating matters for the Syrian Druze is the increasing weakness of loyalist positions in the south. Daraa governorate, directly west of As-Suwayda, featured probably the most spectacular rebel successes over the past year, leading to speculation that Assad’s forces might at some point be forced out of the area altogether. In that case, there is a fear that the moderate rebels would not be strong enough to consolidate control over the evacuated territory, leaving an opening for IS and/or the Nusra Front, and multiplying the threat to Syria’s Druze.[8] Whether a hypothetical loyalist withdrawal opened the door to these radicals or not, in either case it would clearly reduce Assad’s value to the Druze as an ally against IS and the Nusra Front. The Druze would then have a choice largely between attempting to go it alone against potential attacks from the radical Islamists—not likely to look favorably upon the Druze’s unique theology and roots in Shia Islam—and allying with the moderate rebels. Those same rebels, have of course, been engaged for the past few years in a desperate struggle with Hezbollah, an ally of the Lebanese Democratic Party.

In the meanwhile, the Nusra Front and IS incursions into Lebanon in recent months have prompted renewed cooperation between Hezbollah and Jumblatt’s PSP.[9] Not only has Jumblatt seen fit to tone down his criticism of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, but PSP and Hezbollah forces are also reported to have begun staging joint patrols south of Beirut in order to combat rising radical Islamist forces there, and the parties are additionally said to have established a joint operations room for the same purpose.[10]

Given that Jumblatt has been a bit indecisive (to say the least) in the past, and that he is still forecasting—and presumably hoping for—the fall of former Hezbollah patron Assad, it’s difficult to foresee where these new Hezbollah-PSP ties may lead.[11] But Jumblatt seems clearly to have concluded, at least for the time being, that IS and the Nusra Front are a bigger threat to his community than Hezbollah. At the same time, even if few concrete moves have been made as of yet, the Syrian Druze appear closer than they have ever been to moving out of the orbit of Hezbollah’s ally Assad. If that happens, the prospects for Druze unity look to be about as rough as the land they live on.




[1] http://www.wrmea.org/2001-january-february/syria-loses-its-former-ally-in-lebanon-druze-leader-walid-jumblatt.html; http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/01/2011122114332223683.html; http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/17426; http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jan/22/world/la-fg-lebanon-jumblatt-20110122
[2] See https://www.ndi.org/files/Lebanese_Elections_Report_2009.pdf, p. 82 for most recent election results for the PSP and LDP.
[3] http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Nov-12/277369-arslan-druze-bound-to-fight-plots-against-syria.ashx
[4] http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Aug-28/268742-dragged-into-syrian-conflict-druze-seek-unity.ashx
[5] http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/druze-militias-southern-syria/
[6] Id.ˆ
[7] http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/142173/firas-maksad/the-druze-dilemma
[8] http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/politics/5be7f5f2-64d4-4f72-aa90-3dfddf6006fc
[9] http://www.i24news.tv/en/news/international/middle-east/50430-141110-will-lebanon-s-druze-get-involved-in-s
[10] http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Aug-15/267351-jumblatt-christian-divisions-weakening-lebanon.ashx; http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2015/Jan-12/283762-lebanon-entered-dangerous-security-stage-reports.ashx
[11] On Jumblatt’s past, for example, see http://www.wrmea.org/2001-january-february/syria-loses-its-former-ally-in-lebanon-druze-leader-walid-jumblatt.html; http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Aug-15/267351-jumblatt-christian-divisions-weakening-lebanon.ashx