Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Israel the only possible homeland for Jews?


Jonathan Power

21 January 2011
Israel allows its settler movement to go on and on claiming more of the West Bank. Is there nothing that can be done? The might of America, combined with the influence of the European Union and the Arab world, have not been able to halt the territorial growth of Israel.

Most American Jews, according to polls, don’t like what is happening, but are seemingly helpless before the shrewd lobbying of long time pressure groups which have built up over decades a disproportionate influence on Congress. They make sure that the large US aid programme to Israel continues. In effect, it liberates funds for Israel to build roads and defences for the settlers pushing deep into Palestinian territory.

Yet even if the aid were withdrawn, even if the US stopped vetoing UN resolutions that criticise Israel, nothing is likely to change.

Israeli leaders know well that before long at present rates of population growth the number of Arabs in the area under Israeli control will outnumber the Jews. It will become an apartheid state as South Africa was, subject to the likelihood of ever increasing violence from within—to the point when Israel is pushed into retreat and some strong leader is elected who will have to give the Palestinians what they ask for.

Could all this have been avoided? There were alternative places for the Jews to create their own state—some in the British government and in the Jewish leadership in the early years of the last century thought Uganda and Argentina were possibilities. At that time, before polls admittedly, one could say that a majority of Jews would have preferred one of those, rather than displacing Arabs. Unlike the Zionists they were not beholden to the idea of “the land of milk and honey” being on Arab land. For generation upon generation the Jews in the Diaspora, whether they lived in Muslim or Christian lands, passed a peaceful life. From time to time there were pogroms in the Christian world, but not the Muslim, when local feelings got out of control. But by and large, over nearly two millennia, they were on a small scale. Jews were mostly content to live in the Diaspora. Only when Hitler arrived and the Holocaust began did a large number of European Jews yearn to go to Israel and join the few idealists who had settled before. Without that influx Israel would never have become the threat to the Palestinian Arabs that it is today.

By and large Jews didn’t believe it was their Biblical destiny to settle in Palestine and for the more thoughtful ones, who read the ancient texts with an open mind, the original push by Moses, leading the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt, was not a history they felt obliged to repeat. After all Moses had made his way clear to “the promised land” by genocide.

The story about alternative settlement in Uganda and Argentina is well known. Less known is the creation by the Soviet Presidium in 1928 of a Jewish autonomous region in the Far East, Birobidzhan. Many Russian Jews moved to live there, although there was no compulsion to do so. Some settlers came from outside Russia.

In Stalin’s later years Jews were hounded, killed or sent to Siberia. At its height only 18,000 Jews lived in the autonomous region – 16 per cent of the population. By 2002 it was down to 2,300. Today, however, Jews are trickling back, a few hundred coming from Israel.

The capital has 14 public schools. They must teach Yiddish and Jewish tradition, as does the university. There are social groups for the elderly that teach Jewish rituals. There is a Yiddish radio station and theatre. In the central square there is a memorial to Sholom Aleichman whose stories of life in Russian villages in Birobidzhan formed the basis for the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”.

Were not under populated Birobidzhan, Uganda or Argentina better opportunities to build an Israel? With Uganda it would have meant taking over peasant land. With Argentina the Zionist leadership let the possibility pass. But the notion of an exclusive Israel dominating Palestine is becoming an impossibility, too. Who knows, as that reality sinks into Israel consciousness, Jews will look at Birobidzmhan with a fresh eye.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London

Reward of Dh10,000 to anyone who can find a cave full of jinn

Seeking dreams in realm of jinn

Cavers from Slovenia and UAE explore a cave in a mountain near the Musandam border to near Al Jir. Jaime Puebla /The National

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The world's leading cave scientists have joined an Emirati geography professor to search for a fabled cave near the Oman border.

Dr Asma al Ketbi, the head of the Emirates Geographic Society and a geography professor for UAE University, hopes to find her "dream cave" in the mountains of northern Ras al Khaimah, where the cries of jinn - supernatural creatures that occupy a parallel world in Arab folklore - are said to be common.

The myths surrounding the dark holes caught the interest of Dr al Kebti, who invited a group of the world's top cavers to separate myth from fact and discover what the noises were really about. To sweeten the deal, she has called on the public for information on local caves and will offer a reward of Dh10,000 to anyone who can find a cave with a depth of 50 metres or more.

"If there is a horizontal cave, it's what any geologist could dream of," said Dr al Ketbi. "From our point of view we could find our structure that could tell us about the rain history of this area, the wet period of the past 300,000 years. That was my hope."

The search for an extensive horizontal cave, rumoured to extend hundreds of metres into the mountain near the Oman border, began yesterday morning with several false trails.

"I am not going to give up yet on my dream cave," said Dr al Ketbi. "Today the plan was to get into the cave, but now we're just going to drive into the wadis and check at the rocks, and then we will plan other studies not necessarily directly related to caves."

Their search will take them through the mountains, from RAK to Dibba. The caving expedition is the first of its kind in the Northern Emirates and includes a microbiologist, hydrologist, physicist, geologist, and a geographer from the Karst Research Institute in Slovenia.

The team were the first to research China's Stone Forest, a UNESCO heritage site of 20 to 30-metre limestone pillars, and will now have five days to hunt for a cave in the Northern Emirates.

A cave could reveal significant clues about the mountain's origins, the climate millions of years ago, water flow, microbiology and pollution.

"First we have to check the cave in detail, because many stories exist," said Dr Tadej Slabe, the project leader and head of Karst Research Institute. "Then we will try to make a map, and based on the map we will try to research the cave and make a complex study of the cave and its origins."

Karst rock formations like those found here are known as aquifers and are often a main source of fresh water. With a local annual precipitation of 400mm, karst springs are known to exist in the area. Karst is a topography in which the landscape is largely shaped by the dissolving action of water on bedrock.

Microbiologists will also follow the water trail and analyse the precipitation for bacteria, and search for amoebae and water parasites. After the field work is complete, analysis will take months before the findings are published.

But before the cave's secrets can go under the microscope, a cave must be found. Local lore says the cave has two entrances and that "voices" - human and otherwise - come from some caves in the area.

"We are suspicious that this voice is here," said Nadja Zupan Hajna, a geologist from the Karst Research Institute. "It implies there is a lot of water here. Perhaps an open channel to the sea."

Yesterday scientists searched a series of arched, 10-metre-deep caverns in the mountains beside the Oman border.

While Jebel Hafeet's Magharet Qasir Hafeet cave boasts a depth of 96 metres, it is hoped this expedition - the first of its kind in the Northern Emirates - will find one that uncovers the secrets of the north's limestone mountains.

Dr al Ketbi has urged outdoor enthusiasts to follow Slovenia's example and search for themselves. Slovenia is known for more than 10,000 caves under a karst landscape that is created when carbonate rock, like the limestone of the Hajjar Mountains, is dissolved by water that is rich in carbon dioxide.

"At the end of the day, at least we know now what is there," said Dr al Ketbi. "I am still going to look for this large cave because the caves are the best place to know the history of the wet period in any climate."

Anyone who can assist in the search for a cave with a depth of 50 metres or more can contact Dr al Ketbi at asma@uaeu.ac.ae or through the geographic society.