1. Rouen’s Jews…
Today the Jewish population of Rouen, France is quite small, some 700 people living in a city of approximately 115,000, many of whom are emigres from Algeria and Tunisia, a shadow of its past prominence.(1) Half century ago, when I lived in Rouen for the academic year 1964-65, I had virtually no contact with the city’s Jewish Community. I did not seek them out although, unless memory fails me (possible) the current synagogue on rue de Bons Enfants was there. It had a plaque memorializing Rouen’s Jews sent to concentration camps in Germany where they were exterminated. I would walk by it on my way to the center (near the cathedral) from rue de Renard, where I lived at the time.
Yet all of these years, I wondered about a Jewish presence in Rouen. It had all the historic hallmarks of the kind of urban areas where Jews would tend to concentrate. Despite being inland from the English Channel, access to the Atlantic Ocean, Rouen was an important port, center of commerce and long distance trade, reminiscent of other urban areas which in the past had a sizeable Jewish presence: Amsterdam, Salonika, Granada, Tunis come to mind. Rouen, a city founded by the Romans and originally known as Rothomagus (and later Rodom, Roan) sits about halfway along the Seine River between Le Havre and Paris. The river was navigable as far as Rouen and even during the year I lived there ocean-going ships docked at its port area, which I frequently visited, the Seine being deep and wide enough to accommodate them.
As Jewish communities, long involved in commerce and trade on the one hand, and desirous of the presence of a river for sacramental purposes on the other, looked for such a place, I have wondered about if Rouen wasn’t yet another example of some lost Jewish history, yet another place where Judaism thrived for a long historical moment, before the forces of bigotry and greed suddenly turned on them, once again, purging their populations and obliterating, or near obliterating their cultural traces. Does the contemporary light touch of Rouen’s Jewish presence hide a more historically flourishing past?
The answer turns out to be – yes, very much so. The traces of that history, hints of a vibrant Rouennaise Jewish past, have long been there. An old street in the center of town was named “rue des Juifs” (Jewish Street). Researching old Normandy maps revealed many other “rue des Juifs” in surrounding areas. Brief, but not insignificant citations like the mention of a monk named “William the Jew” (forcibly converted like others?) who lived in a nearby abbey as well as other references, some suggesting that early Jewish population of London hailed from Rouen, having been encouraged to do so by William The Conqueror after his 1066 victory over the English monarchy which changed the country’s history. Read more…
(Note: This past Wednesday, April 1, I had the good fortune to speak to two fourth grade classes at the Adventure School in Mapleton, Colorado on Global Warming. I think it went well, mostly because I didn’t “lecture” them, but we engaged in a conversation, a dialogue instead. Frankly their two teachers had prepared them well. They were familiar with the subject, the problem and it was not like starting from zero. I tried to explain why CO-2 emissions trigger global warming. I am pretty sure they got it. I tried to explain about mass extinctions and how they were all accompanied, from what geologists and scientists tell us, with increases in CO-2 emissions. I enjoyed this exchange greatly and from the responses included below, I guess the students did too.
By the way, most of the information related came from James Hansen’s “Storms of our Grandchildren” one of the definitive books on Global Warming.
I did not change the language in these thank you notes one bit. This is how they wrote it. – RJP)
“Dear, Mr. Prince. I leared so much from you. I like youre style going to the mountians and playing video games. Now i know solar global is. I hope you come back some time to teach me more stuff from colege. Thank you for coming.”
“Dear Mr. Prince, Thank you so much for coming to our school. I learned so much about electricity and energy. I can’t belive that we are learning about collage classes. I wonder if we are ever going to be in your class. Thank you, come back soon”
Sincerely, Alexandra Read more…
Robert Merle’s 13 volume series of historical novels on the 16th and 17th century religious wars in France, Fortunes de France, is now being translated into English. The first volume, entitled The Brethren in English was published earlier this month, in early March. The second volume, in French En nos vertes années, in English City of Wisdom and Blood, is also scheduled to come out already in September, according to an email received from the publisher, Pushkin Publishers, with a third volume also being prepared.
The historical background for the series begins in the decades after Protestantism emerged as a major challenge to Catholic doctrine in Europe. This epic struggle within Western European Christianity, emerges, not coincidentally, about a half century after the first printing press with movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg roughly about 1450 extending the use of the written word. As literacy spread beyond the monasteries and very narrow financial circles, what followed was an explosion in curiosity, science and a re-evaluation of sacred scripts, especially the Christian bible both Old and New Testaments. In 1517 Martin Luther posted – what might be considered an ideological declaration of war against the Catholic Church – his Ninety Five Theses, on the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, German. In these he elaborated his critique of the corrupt practices of Catholicism in those days. In 1521, when Luther refused to retract his writings he was excommunicated ushering in one of the two profound divisions in Christianity which continues until today, some 500 years later. Read more…
Student Paper: The Iranian Revolution: Comparing “The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran” by Charles Kurzman with “A History of Modern Iran” by Evrand Abrahamian by a Student…
(Note: What follows are a number of student papers from a class I taught “History of the Middle East Since 1800″ at the University of Denver – January 5 – March 12, 2015. Among them, were several I considered polished-to-publishable. The assignment was to compare two books on the same subject within the course’s framework. This paper by a student, compares two books on the Iranian Revolution: Charles Kurzman’s , The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. Cambridge with Evrand Abrahamian’s A History of Modern Iran. )
The Iranian Revolution
In his book, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, Charles Kurzman gives a detailed account of the Iranian revolution, specifically looking at the events of the two years leading to the revolution of 1979. Kurzman’s main argument is that no one predicted the Iranian revolution, not the stable government, not the Iranian people, and definitely not the CIA and Jimmy Carter’s administration. After all, how could a “stable regime, led by a monarch with decades of experience, buoyed by billions of dollars in oil exports, girded with a fearsome security apparatus and the largest military in the region, and favored by the support of the world’s most powerful countries” fall (Kurzman 1)? It was a revolution that remained unthinkable because the government was so stable and since it remained unthinkable, it remained undoable (Kurzman 172). In fact, Mohammad Reza Shah’s security chief recalled that the idea of a revolution in 1977 had become an inside joke and quite amusing (Kurzman 172). However, the revolution took everyone by surprise, because the Iranians began to ‘“think the unthinkable”’ and looking at the revolution as a viable movement (Kurzman 142). Once the revolution had occurred, everyone was preoccupied with understanding how this revolution had occurred. In a report after the revolution, internal State Department had argued that the U.S. was not prepared for the fall of the regime because the U.S. didn’t want to know the truth (Kurzman 4).
In addition to the confusion of the CIA and U.S. government, Charles Kurzman presents a detailed explanation of the revolution’s impossibility from a political, organizational, cultural, economic, and military perspective and how the Iranian revolution was of a different trend than the other famous uprisings, such as the French revolution. From a political perspective, Kurzman argues that revolutions occur when a government loosens its pressure and allows the oppositionists to successfully mobilize. In the case of Iran, this should have come after Jimmy Carter’s campaign for human rights and shah’s relaxed policies. On the contrary, the mobilization came after Muhammad Reza Shah rescinded his liberalization (Kurzman 6). From an organizational perspective, revolutions were supposed to happen when oppositional forces had preexisting organized resources to “contest the regime’s hold,” but in Iran, the “mosque networks” was not preexisting, rather they were constructed during the revolution (Kurzman 6). From a cultural perspective, revolutions happen when a movement can draw “upon oppositional norms, ideologies, beliefs, and rituals in a society” (Kurzman 6). In Iran, the movement was based on Shi’i Islamic ideologies and practices and was modified to fit the revolutionary ideas. Based on the economic perspective, revolutions happen when economic problems cause uproar. However, in Iran, the 1977 recession that came after the oil boom of 1973 wasn’t worse than previous ones (1975). Additionally, the people who were hit the hardest, wasn’t necessarily the most revolutionary (Kurzman 6). From a military perspective, revolutions took place when state’s military cracked down on opposition forces but in Iran, the shah didn’t break down definitively, rather suppressed the protests (Kurzman 6). Read more…
Student Paper: Leftist Narratives on Israeli Occupation and Apartheid: Comparing “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel” by Max Blumenthal With “Gaza In Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians” by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe. Paper by Austin Michaels
(Note: What follows are a number of student papers from a class I taught “History of the Middle East Since 1800″ at the University of Denver – January 5 – March 12, 2015. Among them, were several I considered polished-to-publishable. The assignment was to compare two books on the same subject within the course’s framework. This paper by Austin Michaels. Michaels compares two books on the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territories – Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel and Noam Chomsky and Illan Pappe’s Gaza In Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against The Palestinians. )
Leftist Narratives of Israeli Occupation and Apartheid
Few issues inspire such broad agreement in the top echelons of the American political system than the so-called conflict between Israel and Palestine. Since the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, the American government has stood steadfastly behind Israel, ostensibly the sole democracy in the Middle East. For decades, America’s policies toward its most important strategic ally in the region have remained unwaveringly and uncritically supportive of Israel’s policies of expulsion, apartheid and what amounts to ethnic cleansing in Palestine, regardless of the party affiliation of the President or which party controls Congress. Even when the two parties disagree on issues pertaining Israel, it is for the usual superficial reasons rather than substantive differences in opinion. This was especially evident this week as some 60 Democrats and Independent Bernie Sanders skipped Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. Only Sanders boycotted due to criticism with Netanyahu, the Democrats did so because of perceived disrespect to the Obama administration latent in John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu. All this is to say that within the American political elite, there is little disagreement on policy towards Israel-Palestine. Thus, it falls to the radical camp to provide meaningful criticisms of Israeli apartheid and genocide. Max Blumenthal and Noam Chomsky, both American Jews and prominent voices of the American left, have both written works highly critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestine and Palestinians.
Blumenthal, the son of a senior adviser to Bill Clinton, wrote Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, which chronicles his journey through Israel and Palestine shortly after Operation Cast Lead. Goliath is a compelling, first-person narrative of the routine racism and violence perpetrated upon Palestinians and Arabs by both the people and the state of Israel. Blumenthal’s documentation of his own experiences, along with his interviews with activists and national politicians, provides an exciting narrative style that brings the reader’s attention immediately to the plight of those living under Israeli occupation. Goliath also contains concise, coherent summaries of the historical context that is so relevant to current developments in the crisis. This is not to say that Blumenthal’s writing is without flaw. His own strong opinions are constantly latent in his writing, and not always in a successful way. Blumenthal’s writing can often take on a tone of relentless criticism of Israel and Israelis. Even as such criticisms may contain kernels of truth, they can make Blumenthal appear unreliable and make his book inaccessible to those not already convinced of Israel’s crimes. Read more…
(Note: Also published at Foreign Policy In Focus)
Tunisia: Tragedy Strikes – 2
The Bardo – Symbol of Tunisia’s Rich Cosmopolitan Past…
At least from the initial reports, that while now 23 people were killed and 47 wounded, it appears that none of the Bardo’s collection of priceless historical cultural gems, were damaged in the terrorist attack, thus related the Washington Post in its March 18, edition, the day after the slaughter although the building’s exterior ground surface was broken up in places. The Post article went on to describe the Bardo’s collection as “one of the world’s greatest collections of mosaics”…“unequaled,” “outweighing those of the Metropolitan Museum…at least when it comes to Roman mosaics,” its only rival perhaps being the mosaic collection of the University of Naples which houses those preserved from Pompeii. It compares that the Naples’ mosaic collection, from a particular moment in time, that of Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption, with the Bardo’s which spans more than 400 years.
Similar to the Southwest of the United States where archaeological remains are often in excellent condition, the generally dry and hot North African climate, so close to the Sahara, is a suitable environment for the preservation of archaeological items. It has been said that the Roman ruins in Tunisia are better preserved than those in Rome. From 146 BC for the next four hundred years, “Carthage,” today a Tunis upscale suburb – the pearl of Phoenician Mediterranean civilization was, along with neighboring Algeria, the bread basket of the Roman empire producing grains, delicious fruit, olive oil in great supply. That period is vividly portrayed in the Bardo’s mosaic collection. Three years ago, looking out from Amilcar, named after a Carthaginian general Rome and statesman, I looked upon one of those fields whose wheat harvest fed Rome and which has produced a rich supply of food for 3000 years, maybe more realizing I was walking in an area breathtakingly rich in human history. Read more…
(Note: This piece was also published at Foreign Policy In Focus)
“He couldn’t hurt a bird.”
Well maybe “he” couldn’t. After all, a mother knows her son. But over a short period of less than a year, he changed, didn’t he? And then he could, and did…and it wasn’t birds he hurt but people he killed. Thus spoke Yassine Al-Abidi’s mother shortly after her son, who had just participated in the mass murder of foreign tourists, had died in a shoot out with Tunisian security forces at the Bardo Museum in Tunis this past Wednesday (March 18, 2015). The Bardo is a block away from the Tunisian Parliament which was said to be discussing “combating terrorism at the time. Who knows, perhaps her characterization is on the mark, or was, until something obviously in the young man snapped. How else to account for the murderous rampage that followed resulting in the deaths of so many, Al-Abidi’s included.
The Bardo is one of the entire Mediterranean basin’s most important museums, the second only to the Egyptian Museum on the African continent. In a manner similar to how ISIS is systematically and wantonly destroying Syria and Iraq’s Assyrian and Babylonian cultural heritage, more than likely the Bardo itself was a target of this recent Tunisian terrorist attack, having an extensive collection of Tunisia’s rich and diverse cultural history – Carthegenian, Roman, Byzantine and of course Islamic (Arab and Ottoman), French colonial pieces, suggesting that the country’s culture, while today, largely Sunni Islamic, still remains a synthesis of these different traditions, and one that overwhelmingly, the people of Tunisia are quite proud. Particularly considered valuable, is the museum’s sizable collection of Roman-era mosaics covering over 400 years of Roman occupation of the country.
True enough Al-Abidi, like so many other Arab youth, showed few outward signs of hard-line Islamic radicalization. A Tunisian youth with a baccalaureate degree in French and a job as a travel agent, he was an unlikely candidate to become a casual mass killer. Nor could his family understand how it was “that a lively popular youth with a taste for the latest imported clothes could have done such a thing.” Still, Al Abidi’s transformation from what all appearances was a gentle, soft-spoken Tunisian youth to a terrorist who could kill with impunity, appears to follow a pattern of radicalization of many thousands of other Tunisian young men recruited through the country’s mosques who, after a short education/indoctrination, wind up fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
According to a number of sources, post-Ben Ali Tunisia has been one of the main sources of jihadi recruits – more than 3000 have left to fight particularly in Syria, Iraq and Libya with some 500 having returned to the country, now trained and many battle-hardened from their foreign experience. How many others, like Al-Abidi have slipped across Tunisia’s border into Libya to get military training there is difficult to tell but the-recently-removed-from-power Ennahdha Party had cooperated closely with more radical Salafist elements, permitting them in large measure to take over the mosques and to openly preach their messages of intolerance, hatred and jihad to the country’s largely unemployed youth, ripe for recruiting. Read more…