Cynthia GoldsmithThis colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealed some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. See PHIL 1832 for a black and white version of this image.Where is Ebola virus found in nature?The exact origin, locations, and natural habitat (known as the "natural reservoir") of Ebola virus remain unknown. However, on the basis of available evidence and the nature of similar viruses, researchers believe that the virus is zoonotic (animal-borne) and is normally maintained in an animal host that is native to the African continent. A similar host is probably associated with Ebola-Reston which was isolated from infected cynomolgous monkeys that were imported to the United States and Italy from the Philippines. The virus is not known to be native to other continents, such as North America.

Ebola Fever

This past August, Sabastina Onwubgeuzie decided to take a trip to Trinidad. Summer was coming to a close, and what better a way to commemorate that than by spending three weeks in the Caribbean with his wife? The couple packed their bags and headed to London’s Gatwick Airport to catch their flight, only for Onwubgeuzie to be escorted off the plane and quarantined as a possible Ebola victim upon arriving in Trinidad. His visible symptoms? Being Nigerian.

Onwubgeuzie, who hadn’t been to West Africa in years and showed no obvious signs of having the virus, was flagged by the Joint Regional Communications Centre in Barbados based on data from the Advance Passenger Information database. After being removed from the plane, Onwubgeuzie was soon cleared by top health authorities and allowed to go. His wife, from Trinidad, was not tested at all.

Fast forward a few weeks to the United States. Ebola’s on our minds here, too. Xenophobia-tinged grunts exit the traps of numerous aspiring and elected officials, all of whom happen to target the fearful, often darker “Other” as a national security risk that must be controlled if we are to survive. Just what are we to do about this deadly virus and its carriers? If you’re Rand Paul, Scott Brown or Republican senate candidate Thom Tillis, the “cure” may be found by enacting a tougher immigration policy and simply sealing up the US-Mexico border.

Georgia Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey used his “M.D. clout” to take the argument a bit further, writing to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that, “reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning.” He continued, noting that migrant children in particular posed a high risk given their increasing numbers and potential to “spread the disease too quickly to be controlled”.

Suffice it to say, there has yet to be a single Ebola outbreak in Latin America, and most West Africans living in Latin America can be found in Brazil and the Caribbean– not Central America– the area from which most undocumented immigrants in the United States hail. Nor does it seem likely that a sickly yet sneaky “illegal” child would find the wherewithal to make the physically demanding trek from his or her home to the United States while vomiting up his or her organs. But logic is not the point here; it seldom is in cases like this. What we’re really seeing is the way state actors use the supposedly apolitical authority (and fear) of science, disease and medicine as a political tool to shape a desired social outcome, often at the expense of the already marginalized. And it’s nothing new.

Quarantine as a social medicine has its roots in the Middle Ages, but really came into use for political ends during the mid-to-late 18th century in France. As Michel Foucault explains in The Birth of Social Medicine, it was at this point that cities and their perceived ills—namely the increased threat of a growing underclass and the mixing of socioeconomic makeups and bodies—made powerful figures during that era fearful. Surely, as philosopher Pierre Jean George Cabanis penned, when men came together and lived together in cramped quarters, health and moral deterioration would be the inevitable consequence. The solution? Isolating the often poor Other through physical expulsion, class-based zoning and regular monitoring and surveillance. This, all in the name of maintaining the physical and political “purity” of the larger whole in a rapidly changing world.

In the modern world, those fears have left the city only to become internationalized. And it’s not to say this is without warrant– infectious diseases are spreading more rapidly than ever before, as international travel, resistance to drugs and environmental degradation (among a host of other items) increases. But it is also true that, at least in the United States, much of our governing has been based more on fear than fact, and that the threat of disease has lent itself as a means of legitimizing our fear of and discrimination against the Other. We can see this in the first Immigration Act in 1875, which considered convicts, paupers and prostitutes to be “illegal aliens” whose entrance to the US should be restricted. Later, we tacked individuals with mental deficiencies onto our list of undesirable others, along with “any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” Another obvious example would be the disease-related filtering at Ellis Island, where of the millions of immigrants screened only around one percent were rejected for medical reasons. But even more recently, such thinking can be seen in the way the United States has historically treated those with HIV/AIDS.

In 1987, as HIV/AIDS engulfed much of the United States in absolute panic, US Senator Jesse Helms introduced legislation that included HIV in a list of dangerous contagious diseases, which was meant to be applied to foreign nationals seeking to immigrate to the US but spilled over into temporary travelers as well. Soon, AIDS-related Others were popularly coined as members of the 4H Club—homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs and Haitians—in spite of the obvious fact that others diagnosed with HIV/AIDS did not fall into any of these categories.

This resulted in several social outcomes. One of the more memorable ones was when a leading Dutch AIDS educator was denied entry to speak at a national AIDS forum. Customs agents found AZT in his bags, and realized he hadn’t gone through the bureaucratic hurdles designated to individuals infected with a contagious disease providing them with legal labels indicating they are “safe” to travel. Perhaps less well known was the shipment of several HIV-positive Haitian refugees to Guantanamo Bay in 1993, where they were held in subpar conditions for over 18 months.

In spite of the many advancements in knowledge and awareness of HIV/AIDS, the 1987 travel ban—also adopted by countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia—remained until 2010. Naturally, such exclusion didn’t confine itself to travel. Social stigma and isolation presented themselves as equally debilitating consequences of HIV/AIDS.

Today, we see traces of that with the family of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who recently became the first person to die in the United States from Ebola. While his surviving family members have since been cleared of contracting the virus, stigma continues to shape their daily lives. Members of Duncan’s family report that the Liberian community in Dallas has been fractured, that they have been forced to remove their children from day care, and that they are still referred to as “the Ebola family.” Such treatment, they say, breaks their heart, but they understand they have little recourse, “because [they] know everybody is afraid”. And as one of Duncan’s nurses has just been confirmed as an Ebola carrier, we can only anticipate that this isolation will increase.

As with HIV/AIDS in the ’80s, one has to wonder if it is really only disease that so many are afraid of. If that were the case, why don’t we see people like Rand Paul and Scott Brown up in arms over the flu, which kills more people a year in the United States than Ebola has killed in the history of the world? Why not assess the reasons why these West African countries might lack the public health infrastructure needed to successfully contain the virus on their own, and how our own history may have helped shape such dependency? Why not ask what sorts of systems might lead to the production of numerous, sophisticated erectile dysfunction pills while allowing hundreds of thousands of the world’s poor to die each year from easily curable tropical diseases? So no, fear of Ebola is not just about disease; it’s about fear of the Other. It’s about keeping the latest scene from the modern African “nightmare” off of our doorsteps. It’s an opportunity to control another unknown whose entrance into the United States, to borrow again from Cabanis, we perceive to be a “grave hazard” to the purity of our political and cultural health.

In Birth of Social Medicine, Foucault argues that the English introduced socialized medicine as a control mechanism to guarantee the health of the needy, which by effect also protected what he calls the “privileged population.” And in a way, the same can be said for the medical advances made in HIV/AIDS research. As a Brown University Professor of Medicine and Community Health said of AIDS, “We are now a global gene pool because of international travel, so the need is to deal with these problems on a global level. One cannot think of them as geographically isolated, or hermetically sealed.” It remains to be seen how we go about solving the problem of Ebola. But right now, our medicine seems to be through the promise—or threat—of a fence.

Photo taken by Mai Perkins at the July 1st March in Hong Kong.

25 Years after Tianamen: Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Protests Unfold

Photo taken by Mai Perkins at the July 1st March in Hong Kong.

“Power to the People: Persist for a Better Hong Kong”    Photo by Mai Perkins during the July 1st March in Hong Kong.


During two months in Hong Kong this summer, I marched in solidarity with demonstrators at two historic protests: the 25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square on June 4th and the annual July 1st Protest Rally March. Protesters by the thousands gathered in Victoria Park to take part in candlelight vigils, staged performances and peaceful singing en masse.

Student activists who had died in 1989 advocating for democracy in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square were memorialized. On July 1st, I along with other New School students, in Hong Kong as part of the International Field Program,conducted video interviews with protesters asking, “If you could break the rules, what would you do?” The premise of the exercise, as explained by our faculty adviser, was to get protesters and spectators to reevaluate the nature of rules -in general- and question aspects about the concept of “rules” that are supposed to work in our favor. There was no context nor was there a right or wrong answer to the question we posed. Many of the protesters made mention of the upcoming 2017 Chief Executive election and said that if the promise of democracy is not followed through during that time, they would break the rules in favor of universal suffrage. Now, on the eve of China’s National Day on October 1, the largest mass protest in recent memory is taking place.

Beyond the annual June 4th and July 1st rallies, it was common to see sporadic marches throughout the streets of the island given Hong Kong’s spirit of protest. This culture stands in stark contrast to the silence that befalls much of mainland China regarding the freedom to demonstrate and speak out against the government. Passing regularly through Central, the main business district of Hong Kong on the north shore of Victoria Harbour, it was inevitable to cross paths with the encampment of peaceful organizers and activists who made up Occupy Central, a civil disobedience movement performing sit-ins. Formerly known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), the movement was established in 2013 with plans to implement formal protests beginning in late 2014. OCLP’s main goal is universal suffrage for the 2017 Chief Executive election and 2020 Legislative Council Elections in fulfillment of the promise of democracy made to Hong Kong when it returned to China following 156 years of British control. A major aim of OCLP is to demand that elections be carried out in accordance with “international standards.”

In 1997 Hong Kong returned to the People’s Republic of China becoming a Special Administrative Region (SAR) with political and economic freedom. Known as “one country, two systems,” the freedom that Hong Kong exercises has been constantly in question, given the expiration date of the system in 2047. (What will happen to the political system in Hong Kong post-2047 has yet to be indicated.) As the election of 2017 approaches, it was recently announced that the elected official would be approved by a Beijing-loyal committee, ruling out any chance of a truly democratic election. Beijing claims that selecting the nominees for the election through a committee is in the interest of long-term prosperity and the stability of sovereignty, security and development.

In the days ahead of the official protests set to coincide with Chinese National Day on October 1st, demonstrators of the student-led movement began to mobilize, surrounding Hong Kong’s Central Government Complex with plans to shut down the financial district. Tens of thousands had taken part in nonviolent civil disobedience until on Friday the 28th Hong Kong law enforcement responded with tear gas and pepper spray. Protests branched off into other areas of Hong Kong and Kowloon over the weekend, intensifying with each hour into one of the largest political protests in Hong Kong’s history. Now known as the “Umbrella Revolution,” largely due to protesters using umbrellas (originally brought in case of sporadic muggy rains) to protect themselves from excessive police force, the pro-democracy protests have garnered international attention.

Throngs of protesters line Hennessy Road and overpass in Central Hong Kong moments before tensions caused for momentary friction between demonstrators and police officers at the July 1st March.

Throngs of protesters line Hennessy Road and overpass in Central Hong Kong moments before tensions caused for momentary friction between demonstrators and police officers at the July 1st March. Photo by Mai Perkins

The massive unrest is already impacting the global economy and the Hong Kong stock market has been rattled. Some elites characterize the pro-democracy Occupy Central with Love and Peace demonstrators as hopelessly naïve, yet polls indicate that a great majority of Hong Kong residents would like to vote in an authentically democratic election come 2017. Will the protests lead to negotiations for democratic reforms in Hong Kong? General thought within the debate is that Beijing will not yield. However, through the lens of the media and citizens’ journalism on Twitter and Instagram, the world is watching and certainly in support of universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the Basic Law. Almost one week into the protest, Hong Kong’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying is calling for its immediate end as demonstrators call for his resignation, an unlikely possibility considering his selection by Beijing.

From my observation protesters in Hong Kong, while turning out by the masses, tend to err on the side of peaceful nonviolence. However, recalling a pocket of violent disturbance that I witnessed firsthand from the July 1st March, protesters became extremely agitated by the law enforcement’s refusal to make space to advance forward during the demonstration. Tensions were high, steel barricades were toppled, one of which a protester allegedly slammed into a bus, and people streamed into the streets to shut down oncoming traffic as police officers scrambled to restore order. While this is not representative of the entire march activity of that day, if this is any indication of the atmosphere currently taking place in Central, there is no telling how far protesters will go to make their demands heard. In a way, this Occupy Central protest is entering uncharted territory for the protesters of Hong Kong. As the call for democracy continues and more protesters take to the streets, I question if compromise is a possibility. A more direct confrontation, hearkening back 25 years ago to those grainy images of Tiananmen Square seems more likely.



Mai Perkins is in the Graduate Program of International Affairs at the Milano School with a Media & Culture Concentration. Follow her on Twitter: @flyMai and


Foundational Problems and Solutions for Middle Eastern Post-Colonial States

Looking at any crisis in a specific part of the world, one has to examine the roots of the conflict and the historic facts that led to the current crisis. We have various examples in this world where the crises in post-colonial states go back to the problem of the founding those states. Often, we don’t take into consideration the social, economic, historic, and geographical factors of the region.

The Middle East is a very good example. To better comprehend the roots of the Syrian and Iraqi crises we should look at the foundational problems in those two post-colonial states. Syria and Iraq were found after the French and British took over the Ottoman colonies, applying their secret Sykes-Picot agreement during World War I. As France took over what is now known as Syria and Lebanon, Britain took over what is now known as Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. After this division, Iraq gained its independence from the British Mandate in 1932, while Syria took it from the French in 1946. Since they were one ancient civilization, Mesopotamia, the twin border states shared the same exact political history up till the end of WWI.

During the European colonization of the Middle East after WWI, the artificial border of Sykes-Picot divided the one geographic and social entity into several states without taking into consideration the social, economic, geographical, and historic factors that united the people of that region. The more severe crisis was the creation of the political identities of ethnicity, religion, sect, and tribe by colonial powers to gain influence in the region. Mount Lebanon in the 1840s to 1860s demonstrates a very good example of the influence of the colonizers in creating the Druze and Maronite political identities. During the civil war between the two sects, the French claimed the support and protection of the Christian Maronites and the British claimed the support of the Druze. The political clashes between the two colonial powers also reflected clashes between the two sects in Mount Lebanon in that period of history. Those newly created political identities within the newborn states were institutionalized and formed the base of the constitutions creating the new states. For instance, after creating Greater Lebanon by adding Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, Tyre, and the Bekaa Valley to Mount Lebanon, the sectarian division was institutionalized, which made it impossible to have a secular state. The confessional democracy led Lebanon to several clashes and civil wars in 1958 and again in 1975. The problem with the Lebanese state is a foundational one first, the artificial colonial borders that split Lebanon from Syria. Second, institutionalizing the sectarian division led Lebanon to become a failed state.

After the American invasion, the Lebanese model of institutionalizing the sectarian division was also applied in Iraq upon the collapse of Saddam Hussein regime. This took Iraq from a totalitarian regime to an institutionalized sectarian/ethnic regime. The new confessional democracy in Iraq also weakens the state and makes it impossible to have national unity given the sectarian and ethnic division within the state. Within a short period of creating the new confessional democracy in Iraq, the sectarian and ethnic division led to a civil war. Some would suggest that the sectarian central government helped produce a radical Sunni extremist group in the north, part of which was demonstrated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State (IS) today. Putting aside the geopolitical interests of the neighbor states and governments and the political funding of these terrorist groups, would those groups have taken over if we had a secular civil central government? Looking back to history, doesn’t the creation of political identities like Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Alawi, and Yazidi have direct influence on the current situation in Iraq and Syria today?

Today the Islamic State terrorist organization doesn’t recognize the colonial border between the “Sunni Iraqis” and the “Sunni Syrians.” But it surely does claim the inferiority of the other sectarian and ethnic groups such as Shia, Christians, Kurds and Yazidis. I will not dig into the the support that this organization is or might be getting from regional states as an investment in their political projects. I will stick to the internal crisis of those states. IS is found in every sect and ethnic group in the Middle East. Each political identity created throughout the years of colonization has the tendency to fight for its own existence and claim the inferiority of the other groups. Getting to the Syrian war, what is the percentage of the secular Syrian armed rebels in the Syrian opposition? Don’t most of the armed rebellions secretly claim their war against the “Alawi” regime? This explains the support of minority groups such as Christian, Druze, and Alawis for “non rebellion acts” against the Assad regime. Can we deny that the current war in Syria and Iraq is mostly sectarian? Can we deny that the armed rebellion against the Iraqi and Syrian governments is mostly a sectarian rebellion rather than a secular, civil, national one? Of course we can’t deny the existence of civil and secular opposition to both governments, but my argument here is to show the bigger image of the conflict in those two post-colonial states.


The Islamic State fighters (NY Daily News)

The conflict in Syria and Iraq is redrawing the map of the Middle East and this is clear in northern Iraq and Syria where the Islamic State took over and removed the borders. The results of the current war will draw new borders and the possible defeat of the (IS) terrorist organization might also redraw the borders between the two states.

It is not only the colonial powers to be blamed for creating the borders and political identities in the Middle East. It is also the absence of national projects within those societies to unify the political identities into one national identity and institutionalize it in one state, especially in Iraq. The ideal solution after stopping the war in Syria and Iraq is to build a civil, secular, national state that dissolves the political identities and removes the borders created less than 100 years ago.

A new form of national identity based on one history, one geography, one culture, one civilization, and one destiny can help dissolve the artificially made political identities.  This can help absorb and melt all the social divisions and create one form of “bigger” identity. Finding new political parties that are trans-ethnic and trans-sectarian (some are found in Syria but not in Iraq) that would unite people is key for a solution. This would push for political competition for power based on programs rather than political identities. Creating modern institutions is a very important tool to dissolve the social institutions like the tribes, families, and sects. Democracy requires a long process and it is not attainable before dissolving the political identities, creating modern institutions, and achieving national unity. A new social contract should be introduced and institutionalized by a new constitution for those countries. Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria—the states that were divided by the colonial powers and that face similar political, social, economic and security challenges—should consider forming a union similar to the European Union in order to face those challenges with one hand. A form of union between states of similar cultural and social composition might also be an introduction to merging the states into one modern secular state.


Twitter: @AmjadMolaeb


Technology Towards a “Conflict-Free” Tomorrow

Diamonds in Sierra Leone. Coltan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bananas in Colombia. What do these have in common?

Some of the world’s largest conflicts are strengthened by the monopoly over these natural resources (yes, even bananas). Unfortunately, these natural resources are often seen, not as gifts of nature, but economic resources that can be harvested for personal profit instead of community and national development. Because of this value, many innocent human beings have been caught in the middle of the crossfire between multiple rebel groups fighting to gain monopoly over the extraction and distribution of such resources.

Minerals like coltan, gold, tantalum, tungsten and tin are rigorously mined and used in microchips found in most common electronic devices such as cellphones, cars, and computers—innovations enjoyed heavily by our generation. These are also conflict materials or hot commodities that have been one of the leading causes of mass atrocities and enslavement by armed groups in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact, those who work to mine these materials gain little to no benefit from these resources. Profit derived from the sale and distribution of these materials often fund armed groups’ campaigns of human rights abuses.

At a panel entitled “One Year Later: Progress in the Pursuit of Conflict Free” at this year’s Social Good Summit, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich promises Intel’s intent to be “Conflict-Free by 2016.” What does it mean to be “Conflict-Free” and how does it promote corporate social responsibility?

This means that the company intends to completely diminish the use of conflict materials in their supply chain. Intel’s promotion of responsible methods of sourcing conflict-free minerals as well as its support for conflict-free mines and its role in encouraging others in its network and in the industry, such as Dell and HP, to do the same shows its devotion to corporate social responsibility. Instead of simply retreating from the problem in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they are trying to fix it. “Fix it for good,” says Krzanich.

Krzanich was joined in the panel by student activist, Roxanne Rahnama. Rahnama, an undergraduate student in the University of California, Berkeley, became involved with Conflict-Free Campus initiative (CFC). CFC hopes to ensure that colleges and universities do not use or purchase electronics made of conflict-minerals. Her work as a student activist is inspiring and to date, 17 schools have already committed to ensuring that their campus’ technologies are conflict-free. Rahnama says, “Technology, if managed responsibly, can be a bigger force for social justice.”

We must not leave the pursuit of conflict-free materials solely to corporations. Instead, responsible consumers should complement their work. As consumers, what can we, as global citizens, do to contribute to the campaign to use conflict-free materials? While we may not have the capacity to actually work on the ground, it is possible for us to raise awareness and educate others about the use of conflict minerals. We can also try to elicit change in our own communities by encouraging others to become more responsible consumers by getting informed about the products they are using. By doing so, we are joining corporations, like Intel, and initiatives, such as CFC, in solidarity towards a conflict-free tomorrow.


Intra-Jewish Discrimination in Israel: A Mizrahi Feminism Cut and Paste Primer

Jews are the most privileged group of citizens in Israel. Jews of European descent, called Ashkenazim, form the top of a class hierarchy while Mizrahim—Jews of African or Asian descent and Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries—are often marginalized socially, economically and politically. This extends to the feminist establishment, which started out as a movement spawned and then dominated by middle to upper middle-class, educated Ashkenazi women who preached universal female solidarity in the face of the patriarchy. Feeling unrepresented, ignored and/or ostracized, many Mizrahi feminist activists broke away from what they viewed as an Ashkenazi women’s movement unsympathetic to their own ideas of liberation, which were particular to their situations. Mizrahi women were critical of Ashkenazi insularity and discrimination—some claiming experiences of racism—but without political, social or economic capital, their voices have often been suppressed and kept from influential circles and media.


Excerpt from a 2003 letter from nonprofit Mizrahi group Ahoti (also spelled Achoti) to a panel titled ‘Legal Feminism in Theory, Education, Practice: The Location of Courts in the Feminist Struggle for Social Change’

Most Israeli women are Mizrahi…. Most Israeli women capable of having access to the commodity called justice are Ashkenazi…. [T]he almost complete absence of Mizrahi women’s discourse from the legal sphere is also manifested in the invisibility of Mizrahi women in the halls of justice. Most Israeli women judges are Ashkenazi. All women law professors are Ashkenazi. Even in this feminist panel there ain’t not even one Mizrahi speaker.

“Mizrahi Feminism and the Question of Palestine.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol. 7. 2011. By Smadar Lavie
The Mizrahim (Orientals)…constitute 50 percent of Israel’s total population and about 63 percent of the Jewish population (Ducker 2005). Their parents immigrated to Israel mainly in the 1950s from the Arab and Muslim world, or from the former margins of the Ottoman Empire such as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, or even Turkey, Iran, Bulgaria, and India (2005). Officially, the Israeli government terms them “descendants from Asia-Africa,” or ‘Edot Hamizrah (Bands of the Orient) (Lavie 1992). “Mizrahim” is the coalitional term they use when advocating their rights before the ruling minority, the approximately 30 percent of Israeli citizenry called Ashkenazim (Ducker 2005).

“Tensions in Israeli Feminism: The Ashkenazi-Mizrahi Rift.” Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 24. 2001. By Henriette Dahan-Kalev
Although geographically Israel is
 part of the Levant, the founding fathers of the new state wanted the state to have a European character. As Prime Minister David Ben Gurion put it “we don’t want Israelis to become Arabs” (quoted in Smooha, 1978, 88). This was partly because the Mizrahis were considered Arab; that their culture, and they themselves, were misunderstood and not appreciated. This led to their being discriminated against, and treated like second-class citizens – while Arabs citizens of Israel were treated as third class citizens. Mizrahis who succeeded did so by denying their own Mizrahiness and adopting European-Ashkenazi patterns of behavior and values.

“Jewish and Jewish-Palestinian Feminist Organizations in Israel: Characteristics and Trends.” Heinrich Boll Stiftung. 2008. By Dorit Abramovitch
A feminist reading of this
 [the New Jew] identifies in it dominant phallic elements, from which the entire Zionistic ideology was weaved, from those days until the present time. The “New Jew”, the “Sabra”, the Zionist pioneer, is Israeli born, fair-haired and light-skinned, tall in stature, young, erect and muscular, his bare chest visible through his sweaty shirt, his gaze carries ahead and in his steady and fisted hand he clutches, in a vertical angle, a weapon in the image of either a long rifle or a tool for working/ conquering the land…. The disparity between the image of the Zionist man and the image of the Jewish woman in Israel grew deeper with time, corresponding to the domination of the concept that there is a ruthless and inhuman enemy aiming to destroy us.

“Between Universal Feminism and Particular Nationalism: politics, religion and gender (in)equality in Israel.” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 31. 2010. By Ruth Halperin-Kaddari and Yaacov Yadgar
Israel’s ethnic democracy
 is nourished on the persistence of the Israeli-Arab conflict…. Israeli society and culture are essentially militarised, perpetuating the preference of ‘security concerns’ over practically all other issues.

”My Life? There Is Not Much to Tell”: On Voice, Silence and Agency in Interviews With First-Generation Mizrahi Jewish Women Immigrants to Israel. Qualitative Inquiry. 2011. By Sigal Nagar-Ron and Pnina Motzafi-Haller
If the Ashkenazi Jewish
 male was the embodiment of the new, modern, productive, and enlightened Israeli self, Mizrahi women represented its opposite—ignorant, emotional, and a passive victim of Mizrahi patriarchy (Shohat, 1989). Mizrahi women were doubly marginalized due to their ethnic marking as Mizrahi and their gender (Motzafi-Haller, 1999).

Lavie 2011
The emergence of Mizrahi
 feminism in the 1990s must be placed into the context of Ashkenazi elite domination of Israel’s public sphere. These elite are an almost hermetically sealed group of families that ensures intergenerational transmission of financial assets and Ashkenazi Zionist pedigree.

“Shlomit Lir on Mizrahi Jews in Israel.” Center for Religious Tolerance. 2008. Interviewed by Andrea Blanch, PhD
Most Mizrahi Jews deny
 the oppression because it contradicts the Israeli dream of togetherness and sharing – coming home after years in the Diaspora. Then one day you wake up and see it. For one woman, Aliza Frenkel … it was when her six year old daughter asked “Why are all the kids in TVcommercials white and I’m dark?” It’s hard for people to see this at first. There is a huge gap between what they thought would be in Israel and what they actually find here. Israel is supposed to be a “melting pot” where the “New Jew” creates a new future, doesn’t look back or focus on the past. So it takes a while for it to dawn on you that the negation of the past does not work the same for everyone. I was taught all through elementary and high school about Jewish Life and culture in the Ashkenazi diaspora but never did I learn about [it] in Islamic countries.

Lavie 2011
Early Mizrahi feminists faced
 an uphill struggle in their efforts to carve out a place in the little space let in Israeli civil society devoid of militarism or the liberal feminist agenda. Mizrahi women’s needs were met by neither group. The gvarot [ladies] were insufficient to represent the welfare mother, the production-line worker from the hinterland company town, or the woman who had just lost her job due to the economic downturn that followed the failed Oslo Peace Accords. They could not even represent the Mizrahi woman intellectual, who had neither the pedigree nor the relatives to secure her a tenure-track position in Israel’s “Ashkenazi Academic Junta” (Damri-Madar 2002, Lavie 1995, 2002, Lavie and Shubeli 2006).

Nagar-Ron and Motzafi-Haller 2011
Young Israeli-born Mizrahi women are still portrayed in Israeli popular discourse as inarticulate, vulgar, and oversexed. Critical feminist scholars (see Khazzoom, 2008; Motzafi-Haller, 2001) show that Mizrahi women continued to be portrayed as the “traditional” backward Other even in liberal Israeli feminist scholarship that came into being in Israel as far back as mid-1970s.

In a pattern familiar from other places (Mohanty, 1988), middle-class Ashkenazi Israeli feminists depicted themselves as the “saviors” of their “less fortunate” Mizrahi sisters, thus establishing their own position as enlightened Western liberal feminists. Yet after almost a decade of critical Mizrahi feminist thinking, there is still very little empirical research that documented the way Mizrahi women themselves had reacted to their representation as the ultimate denigrated Other of the Israeli self.

Lavie 2011
Ashkenazi feminists have
 consistently protested Israel’s colonial practices towards non-Jews in the West Bank and Gaza. Nevertheless, because Mizrahi discourse on intra-Jewish racism has been suppressed, whether by the English language barrier that prevented it from traveling abroad or by severe censorship from Ashkenazi hegemony (Lavie 2006), the extent of Israel’s intra-Jewish racial divide is unfamiliar to most progressive Jews abroad. Ashkenazi peace feminists focus on ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, and some do concurrently fight for equal civil rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. But this fight deflects their attention from their responsibility for and participation in the racial and economic oppression of the non-European Jewish majority citizenry within Israel.

Dahan-Kalev 2001
The Ashkenazi leadership of the Israeli feminist movement tended to reflect the same patronizing, oppressive attitude towards the Mizrahi women as that displayed by Ashkenazim to Mizrahim in Israeli society at large—an attitude never discussed until the emergence of the Mizrahi feminist movement in the mid-1990s.

Lavie 2011
The major event of Israel’s feminist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) since the late 1970s has been the Annual Feminist Convention. Until 1991, almost all the speakers and workshop leaders were Ashkenazi women, with the inclusion of a single token Mizrahi and a single token Palestinian-Israeli (Shadmi 2001). The Tel Aviv Women’s Group used to joke, in the Audre Lorde (1993/4) tradition of “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” that Mizrahi women cleaned house and babysat for the Ashkenazi gvarot so that the gvarot could devote time to feminism.

Dahan-Kalev 2001
After many failed attempts to raise Mizrahi issues at feminist gatherings as part of the conference agenda, a few Mizrahi activists decided to disrupt the 1994 annual conference by raising the issue (Hila News, June 1994: 4). They chose the most well attended plenary session of the conference to do so. Speaking from the floor, surrounded by Ashkenazi women, they spoke of the racism they had experienced throughout their lives—from their childhood through adolescence to the present, even after becoming feminist activists.

When members of the audience attempted to bring the session to order, a few Mizrahi women took to the stage, expressing themselves with rage and hostility. They spoke from the heart since their emotions had been bottled up for so long. The catalyst of their outburst was the seeming indifference to their existence their so called feminist sisters. … As one woman put it, “The social norms according to which class relationships are organized made us believe that we should demand of our mothers that they stop speaking Arabic, Iranian, Turkish, Indian; we begged them to try to lose their Moroccan, Yemenite, Iraqi accents. We wanted them to start behaving like Israelis, for God’s sake—that is, to be like an Ashkenazi!” (Hila Bulletines, July 1994: 4).

I believe there are at least four aspects of the Mizrahi feminist challenge which the Ashkenazi feminist elite found threatening. First, to respond to the Mizrahi women’s accusations would mean that they themselves would have to consider their own responsibility for the ethnic divide. Second, accepting responsibility would entail them acknowledging their own hegemonic control of the Israeli feminist movement. Third, any more equitable redistribution of resources and influence would  mean that those who were presently enjoying these would enjoy them less in the future. Fourth, accepting responsibility would make the members of the Israeli feminist elite recognize that they had used certain Mizrahi women as tokens and that the movement represented only one segment of Israeli women….

Ashkenazi women are not only subordinated to the patriarchal order as passive objects, they are also, as far as Mizrahi and Arab women are concerned, active subjects who partake, benefit, and perpetuate that order. It is, therefore, not surprising that, when asked to accept responsibility and seek new directions in resolving the ethnic issue, the great majority of Ashkenazi feminists failed to do so.

Abramovitch 2008
[Mizrahi feminists] suggested
 that the main focus of the feminist field in Israel should be routed from promoting empowered women to senior positions in politics and business, to activity with and for weakened women from the geographic, ethnic, economic and social periphery in Israel. Mizrahi feminism changed the outlook of most of the feminist field.

Dahan Kalev at Jewish Women’s Archive
The Mizrahi agenda has
 two foci: 1) An attack on what it regards as the misrepresentation of Israeli society as solely a western society—a representation which continues to deny that its Mizrahi immigrants and citizens have been oppressed and subordinated and which refuses to grant the Mizrahi stories of oppression in their countries of origin equal status in the narrative of the founding fathers and the nation building alongside those of people who experienced the Holocaust and the pogroms of Eastern Europe; and 2) a multicultural approach that takes into account the effect of globalization in Israel, which has deepened the poverty and sense of hopelessness among women of Mizrahi origins.


Mizrahi/Ashkenazi feminist issues both underscore and cannot be separated from the idea that Israel is a security state run for and by Ashkenazi Jews and against an Arab enemy, which purposefully or not perpetuates an ethnic-based class division between those with European and non-European origins.

It is useful to compare the claims of Mizrahi feminists to those of black feminists in the United States, or any feminist or LGBTQ group who claims they are not represented by a white, (upper) middle class, academic feminist establishment whose social, political and economic status allows them an inherent intimacy with the ruling patriarchy. At the same time, Israeli Ashkenazi collective consciousness cannot be compared to that of America’s upper classes in any meaningful way, and not just for geographic and demographic reasons. Israel’s national narrative is almost infinitely more historically epic (Moses, the Temples) and intensely recent (Zionism, the Holocaust)—cemented by actual existential tragedies and potential existential threats. Though that potentiality has been vastly reduced, due to Israel’s military strength and relationship with the US, the threats are still perceived as very real, mainly due to government propaganda. If America has been ruled by a white Protestant elite for 200-plus years, a much younger, far tinier Israel is run by a group of interconnected Ashkenazi families (who can count on the US Jewish and religious elite for support). So with Israel’s legally built-in religious divide, its people’s existential fear of diversity perpetuated by certain elites—with the help of rocket and suicide-bomber attacks—and consequent heightened military posture, the sociopolitical mind-set of Israeli Ashkenazim lends itself to institutionalized discrimination, primarily through an Ashkenazi-dominated discourse.


Ahoti and Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow were the main Israeli organizations with an English-language presence that I found. This 2009 article shows these groups in action (pictured above).

A book by Smadar Lavie (who is quoted extensively above) called Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture was published in April in English.


The Growing Politicization of Media

While recent media attention has focused on the dangers facing journalists today, as well as trends toward polarization of media, comparatively little has been written about the politicization of media. On display in coverage of the conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Gaza, media itself has developed into a front line in conflict, perhaps the most important one.

Al Jazeera is perhaps the best, earliest example of this trend. The Qatari government-owned outlet played a key role in shaping Arab public opinion over the past twenty years as transnational satellite TV penetration replaced frequently-censored print media as the primary source of news. Staffed by journalists with training from Western news organizations, the Qatari government effectively used the network as a foreign policy tool to grow its regional influence. Al Jazeera (and other networks) have been banned by various governments in the past, but it wasn’t until recently when the Arab Spring surprised Middle East leaders and threatened to upset the status quo, that regional governments began to push back more vigorously against Al Jazeera.

Qatar has long been a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, giving its leaders air time, financing, and safe haven when needed. Following the 2013 military takeover in Egypt and deposition of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and banned Al Jazeera citing biased coverage. In April 2013, Iraq revoked the licenses of Al Jazeera and 9 other networks blaming them for stoking sectarian tensions. In March, the UAE banned citizens from working for Qatari media and Saudi Arabia demanded that Al Jazeera close its office in Riyadh. And, during the recent coverage in Gaza, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for banning the network saying “in the case of al-Jazeera it is not an issue of freedom of the media but of a terrorist wing that currently fights against Israel.”

In June, three Al Jazeera English journalists including Peter Greste, an award winning foreign correspondent with a long history of reporting for western media organizations, were sentenced to seven year terms for “spreading lies considered harmful to state security and for joining a terrorist group.” While it is easy to argue that the charges were trumped up or that they did not receive a fair trial, it is more difficult to argue that the organization they worked for was not a political one. As a journalist, who you work for matters, now more than ever.

In every recent conflict, political news organizations have come to the fore. In coverage of Ukraine, Russian state-funded RT has emerged as a defacto mouthpiece of the Russian government. In March, RT America host Liz Wahl resigned over alleged censorship and issues with how the network framed news stories. While this generated headlines in the U.S. the story also requires closer scrutiny. Wahl told her story to friend and Daily Beast contributor James Kirchick, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative, the neoconservative think tank founded by William Kristol and funded by Sheldon Adelson. As TruthDig details, rather than an ‘exclusive,’ this was more likely a staged PR move which both built the careers of Kirchick and Wahl while sticking it to RT, an organization with which Kirchick has some previous bad blood. While Kirchick has some legitimate journalistic chops, he is perhaps more so a politician.

In no area has the media become more politicized than the recent conflict in Gaza. As Israel mobilized Operation Protective Edge and journalists streamed into Israel and Gaza, media reports have been relentlessly picked apart by all sides and Israel, Hamas and other parties have actively sought to control the narrative through social media.

One of the strongest criticisms of media coverage from Gaza yet has come from former AP correspondent Matti Friedman who alleges AP bias in coverage of the conflict. While this allegation was, I think, adequately debunked by his former boss, former Israeli AP Bureau Chief Steven Gutkin, these competing narratives are a microcosm of the tug of war that has taken place daily to frame the debate. Friedman makes a key statement that gets to the core of the politicized state of media today: “Many of the people deciding what you will read and see from here view their role not as explanatory but as political. Coverage is a weapon to be placed at the disposal of the side they like.”

Perhaps Friedman bought into his own logic and wrote the article with a political aim. If politicization of media today truly extends to trusted institutions like the AP, and members of the media view their role as political we are in for a very dark future. If on the other hand, institutions with journalistic integrity do still exist, which as Gutkin put it seek “to lay bare the raw passions of each side in all their glory,” they will face growing pressure as a more fragmented and politicized media tries to redirect the narrative from all sides. We can only hope the next generation of journalists is up for the challenge.


Live from the 2014 Social Good Summit

The New Context is live today from the Mashable Social Good Summit. The event kicks off at 11:45AM with UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon.

Watch the livestream and Follow @thenewcontext on Twitter for the latest updates. The full agenda is below:

11:45 AM
Secretary General
11:50 AM
Social Good Around the World: Global Check-in with Tunisia
11:55 AM
ONE Campaign
12:00 PM
Actions Speak Louder Than Hashtags

Benjamin Goldhirsh Nicholas Kristof Sheryl WuDunn

12:21 PM
A Conversation with Michael Dell on Technology, Entrepreneurship and the Promise of the Future

Michael Dell Robert Safian

12:47 PM
XPRIZE: Visioneering the Future

Anousheh Ansari Peter Diamandis Ruth Kagia

12:58 PM
Keynote and Interview with Richard Stengel, Under Secretary of State

Aaron Sherinian Richard Stengel

01:14 PM
Sustainability Needs a Makeover

Niall Dunne

01:22 PM
Creating a Do-Good Economy

Lily Cole Dr. Muhammad Yunus Randall Lane

01:43 PM
Women Empowered: Making Leaps and Breaking Barriers

Connie Britton Jane Wurwand Rosa Wang Vicki Escarra

02:04 PM
Social Good Around the World: Global Check-in with Panama
02:07 PM
One-on-One With Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates Robin Roberts

02:25 PM
The Power of Stories, Technology and the Global Transgender Movement

Geena Rocero

02:36 PM
Innovators in Action: How Youth are Changing the World

Mercy Chepkoech Sigey

02:44 PM
The Neuro-Tech Network of Humanity

Jill Bolte Taylor

03:00 PM
Drones Will Connect the World

Pete Cashmore Yael Maguire

03:16 PM
#2030NOW: Who Will Lead the Way?

Caitlin Crosby Hugh Evans Jenna Hager Kweku Mandela

03:42 PM
Social Good Around the World: Check-in with El-Salvador
03:45 PM
Connected Classrooms and the New World of Learning

Michael Soskil Wendy Norman

04:01 PM
Climate Justice: Climate Issues are Human Issues

Bill McKibben Kumi Naidoo

04:22 PM
2030: Our Goal to End Poverty

Dr. Jim Yong Kim

04:33 PM
Nature is Speaking. Are we Listening?

Edward Norton M. Sanjayan Pete Cashmore

04:59 PM
Small Message, Big Change

Christopher Fabian

05:10 PM
The Future History of a Girl

Michele L. Sullivan

05:18 PM
All of Us +SocialGood
05:29 PM
Social Good Around the World: Global Check-in With Morocco
05:35 PM
Innovation and Government: A Keynote with Jonathan Greenblatt

Jonathan Greenblatt

05:46 PM
Manufacturing the Future

Avi Reichental

Columbia Journalism Panel Focuses on New Realities of Covering Conflicts

“As journalists. we are living through the most dangerous moment ever” said Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director Joel Simon addressing a packed room last night at Columbia School of Journalism. A panel discussion entitled “After James Foley – Covering Conflict When Journalists Are Targets” painted a bleak picture of the harsh realities facing the next generation of journalists.  

In Syria alone, 71 journalists have been killed, 80 approximately have been kidnapped, and 20 are still missing today. “This is the terrifying reality in which James Foley and Steve Sotloff lived and died.” Indeed, Jim Balboni, CEO of GlobalPost noted “There are two more Americans facing death at the hands of the Islamic State right at this moment and there are three other British hostages…it’s an unimaginable horror for the families and all those who work with the journalists.”

GlobalPost financed a multiyear investigation attempting to save Foley’s life, spending “well into the millions of dollars” according to Balboni. “There is no more fundamental responsibility that the leader of any news organization takes on than to stand by your people in the field” said Balboni. Unfortunately not all news organizations have shown the same commitment. 

The reality of Kidnapping and the danger to journalists is something relatively new. “It was easier for my generation” said David Rohde a Reuters correspondent and former New York Times columnist of covering earlier conflicts, citing his time in Bosnia. “In Sarajevo the Serbs and Bosnian Muslims didn’t really like journalists, but we were seen as sort of a third party that all the local forces tried to manipulate and sort of trick into telling their version of the war, it’s changed now. You’re a target…a source of publicity and a source of money.”

With this in mind, journalists traveling into conflict zones need to be better prepared, seek out additional training, ensure they have proper equipment and communications tools, and should have a plan in the event that they are kidnapped. Rukmini Callimachi, a New York Times reporter and previously West Africa Bureau Chief forThe Associated Press said that rather than place her family in the impossible position of making decisions on her behalf in the event the unspeakable happens she has placed this responsibility in the hands of a close trusted friend who will carry out her wishes.

Callimchi also had tough words about the policies of European governments which pay ransoms to terrorists in the face of American policy which forbids it, something she covered in a recent New York Times piece. “We’re in a really terrible place where essentially our citizens are now being doomed by the policy of what Europe does” said Callimachi. “It seems that it behooves our government to at least put pressure on the Europeans to once and for all stop [ransom payments]. I have yet to see a single American official stand up and actually name that European countries that do.”

Complete video of the event can be viewed here.


To Defeat ISIS, Resolve Syria

Advances by the group variously know as the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or simply Islamic State (IS), has generated renewed attention in Western media along with calls for direct American military intervention. Few however have offered any serious strategy that is likely to lead to the actual elimination of ISIS. Support for limited intervention against ISIS may be useful to win political points, but in the long run defeating ISIS will require a political solution to the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS and the Syrian War Economy

ISIL has emerged as a direct result of the war economy that has grown out of more than four years of conflict in Syria. As Jihad Yagizi wrote in an April 2014 report for the European Council on Foreign Relations:

Significant sectors of the economy now live and thrive off the conflict, creating a growing pool of individuals and groups that have no interest in seeing the conflict end…As new interests and power centres emerge, it is increasingly difficult to imagine a return to the strong, centralised state that existed before the conflict.

In this context, with the benefit of hindsight it was only a matter of time before one of those power centers, benefiting from economies of scale and control over areas of key strategic and economic importance such as oil wells and border crossings, came to dominate areas which the Syrian regime was unable, with its limited military resources, to control.

Some, including Hillary Clinton have argued that had Western governments provided more support to moderate rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army, they rather than ISIS, would have developed into the dominant opposition force in Syria. This seems extremely unlikely however. Any significant American support for rebel groups would have placed severe constraints on those groups and likely would have decreased their regional credibility. American support would have been unlikely to approach the amounts of money indiscriminately flowing to competing rebel groups from Gulf countries nor would it have stopped other groups from engaging in lucrative war economy activities such as kidnapping and oil sales.

ISIS is likely to have had the additional benefit of both direct and indirect support from the Assad regime which purchased oil from rebel groups and likely exempted ISIS positions from attack because they were fighting other Anti-regime rebel groups with a goal of territorial expansion in uncontrolled areas rather than the overthrow of the regime. It seems likely that Assad viewed ISIS as a less significant threat than the rebels who led the uprising that began the war in 2011. The existence of ISIS which inflicted brutal violence upon the areas they took control over made it easier for Assad to frame all regime opponents as violent terrorists. In recent weeks as ISIS has consolidated its gains and calls have increased in Western for intervention against ISIS, Assad has shifted his messaging to position himself as a potential ally in this battle against terrorism.

ISIS, Iraq and Kurdistan

In Lebanon this past Spring, I spoke with an academic who commented that it was possible that day to drive from Beirut across the border with Syria and clear through to Iraq without encountering state security. Insecurity in Iraq following the withdrawal of American forces combined with internal competition over territory between Iraqi groups further reduced state security and presented an opportunity for any group with significant military power.

In this environment the Kurds have made major advances, expanding their territory – which has become a bubble of security and good governance in the most violent part of Iraq – beginning direct oil sales through Turkey bypassing Iraqi institutions (against U.S. objections) and functioning as a defacto independent state. The Kurds have long sought independence, and they are unlikely to give up the gains they have made in recent years now that they have come so far.

The ongoing violence has led to mass migration of refugees. Fracturing of the Iraqi state has led a renewed call by Joe Biden for a federal system, along the lines of his 2006 proposal laid out in New York Times op-ed:

The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.

The war in Syria and Iraq is now over nothing less than borders and who will control them. ISIS will not be defeated until there is agreement on these borders and the international community begins working together to secure existing (and in all likelihood new) states in the region rather than backing proxies for geopolitical gain.

American Strategy to Defeat ISIS

It is instability and insecurity fueled by foreign funding that has allowed ISIS to grow into a significant force. The only way to defeat ISIS will be through first restoring stability and security, which in turn requires agreement by the Saudis and Iranians as the primary adversaries to support existing or new leaders and to stop funding parties in the ongoing war. Increasingly the Kurds have come to play a role – they have won control of their piece of the pie and won’t let go of it easily, and the Turks seeking to increase their regional power as well as to defend their Southeastern border, have been drawn in.

The longer this conflict continues, the more competing interests become entrenched, the more likely it is that this will pull in the rest of the world. The international community must address the conflict now, agree on existing or new borders and who should legitimately control them, and work together to restore international peace and security. Nothing short of this will lead to the elimination of ISIS. Half measures such as air strikes are only likely to intensify the conflict rather than  to resolve it.


Brighton Beach: Where East (Kind of) Meets West

A neon hammer and sickle sign flickers in angry, vindictive red as soon as I exit the Brighton Beach subway stop in Brooklyn, New York. It’s not there to promote communism; instead it’s a flashy attempt to sell mid-grade booze. At first this strikes me as a bit odd, but then what is communism if not–like capitalism–one of the most enduring, elaborate and nastiest marketing campaigns this world has ever seen? Besides, I figure, it’s probably best not to try to make too much sense of everything I see today. After all, I am in Little Russia.


A neon hammer and sickle sign in the window of a Brighton Beach liquor store (Photos by Tyler Bird)

Brighton Beach is Coney Island’s eccentric, slightly bedraggled aunt who thinks it’s funny to spike your 14-year-old cousin’s drink at the dinner table but then looks at you spitefully when you ask why he’s passed out at the table. Wizened 70-somethings sport gilded “Odessa” sailors’ hats while eating smoked herring at the boardwalk bar; babushkas in floral muumuus dot the well-worn street corners with a grimace chillier than the Cold War; battered and bruised men crowd around chess boards and toss half-empty beer cans to the ground not necessarily to dispose of them but perhaps to say—and loudly—“I am here”.

Anatoly, one of the chattier chess players, says that there is a bit of tension between the black community and the Russians living in Brighton Beach right now. In what he seems to be using as his defense, he says that Russians aren’t exactly white. They’re not exactly Asian, either. Russians, he grins, live by emotion. And as he says this, I notice the deep, smile-shaped gash above his right brow and a few dark holes replacing what would normally be teeth. You’re right, Anatoly; I couldn’t agree more.

As with Anatoly’s musings on Russians, this expat haven represents a place that is not really here, and not really there. A tired-looking Jesus holds the holy scripture written in Cyrillic. Next to him are yellowed advertisements for Tommy Hilfiger sarongs and prepaid SIM cards. Ukrainians stow their beach towels in tattered American flag picnic bags. Edouard, a Ukrainian who moved to Brighton Beach in 1978, doesn’t like borscht. He prefers Campbell’s. Chicken noodle. His wife of 55 years, Alla, shakes her head as he says that and looks away. Edouard affectionately calls her “Picture” because he thinks she’s as pretty as one.

It likewise stands to reason, then, that the politics of Brighton Beach residents would be as much—if not more—of a mixed bag. As Alla directs me to the Russian restaurant with the best borscht in town, we chat a bit about what’s going on in Ukraine. Alla’s fiery red hair blows in the wind as she says very matter-of-factly that Stalin did everything right. But Putin, Vladimir Putin, he is a fascist.

I figure it’s best not to pry too much further, so instead we discuss Brighton Beach some more. I ask why they came here in the ’70s, a time when Ukrainian dissidents throughout the country were imprisoned for their open criticisms of the USSR and its treatment—and borderline erasure—of Ukraine. Edouard points to the high-rise condominiums behind him, and then gestures toward the beach to his left. He talks about how much he loves the US social security program. This, he says, is what real living is. As we part ways, they blow a kiss and wish my friends and me the best of luck in the future. Luck, they say, is the most important thing you could ever have in life.

A string of restaurants mark the interior edge of the Brighton Beach boardwalk, all offering authentic Russian cuisine. I head to Café Volna as per Alla’s suggestion, and as I look at the menu am immediately amazed at how many things can be pickled. Watermelon, really? What happens to the rinds?

The waiter arrives and I ask him which kind of borscht he would recommend, since I can’t decide: hot or cold, green or red? Not to worry, he says. We only have red today. So hot or cold? Well, we only have hot today, too. I smile and say that I will have the red borscht served hot, then. With a touch of sarcasm, he says “nice choice”. And in a ten second exchange at a Brighton Beach restaurant, the ideological underpinnings of the former Soviet Union have been explained.

After lunch, I head to the beach and run into two young men. One is from Belarus, the other from Moscow. At first, they’re hesitant to speak about the conflict in Ukraine, but after a little nudging in Russian, they indulge. The result is a woebegone cynicism immediately recognizable from the pages of the best Slavic writers. “You could say that we are all Slavic and that Ukrainians just need to understand Russians and Russians just need to understand Ukrainians, but you could also say that brothers kill brothers…it doesn’t matter what we do; none of this is really about us, anyway.”

One of my friends asks Zhenya, the man from Belarus, his thoughts on the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko and how it might compare to what we’re seeing today in Ukraine. Thanks to Lukashenko, he replies, there is now order in Belarus and life there is better. You actually get paid for the work that you do. After a few more shrugs and gripes about Americans’ poor knowledge of geography, they mention that they have to go—but not before linking arms and making a sardonic thumbs-up sign for the camera.

The sun is beginning to disappear behind the clouds, and the Ivan the Terrible-sized bottle of Baltika beer has found its way into my limbs, which now feel heavy. As I begin the trek back to the train, I run into a woman who speaks Russian with a Ukrainian accent. After a few minutes of probing, she declares that there is nothing that Ukrainians have not endured, and that at the end of the day, love—not fascism, of which Putin’s propaganda machine accuses many pro-Ukraine activists—will see us through it all.

I reach Brighton Beach Avenue, the old neighborhood’s main drag, considering her proposition. Is she right? Or does a country’s success all boil down to luck, as Alla says? Or, according to Zhenya, the promise (or threat) of “strong leadership”? I leave Brighton Beach—a place which is not really here, not really there—a bit sandier and more confused than when I arrived. The neon hammer and sickle sign buzzes on.

 Slideshow: Brighton Beach (photos: Tyler Bird)

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Why Hong Kong’s Subway System Makes the MTA Look Bad

If you’ve ever been to New York, your experience hasn’t been complete without a ride on the subway.  And if you stick around long enough, you start to notice things, things that eventually might start to irritate you. For example, the flimsy metro card that will undoubtably fail you by bending as you try to swipe it through that tiny slot at the turnstile. The copious amounts of rats that grace you with their presence during the summer. (I personally think they are kind of cute, but I still prefer a rodent-free morning commute.) Or the fact that most of the time when you enter a train car that is empty at a busy time of day, it’s because someone peed or threw up in it. If you’ve ever wondered what a subway system free of all those inconvenient and sometimes disgusting elements would be like, look no further. Hong Kong–while its culture is tight lipped its real estate beyond unaffordable–wins a gold-star of approval in the  being better-than-everyone in the public transport game.  And it all starts with an Octopus.


The concept of a plastic rechargeable subway card is not innovative. Washington D.C.’s SmarTrip card makes traveling easier on it’s residents and saves paper. But the Octopus exists on a whole different level. Not only can you get on the train with this card, but buy coffee, lunch, or a t-shirt. Thousands of Hong Kong businesses have scanners that accept the card. Locals access public swimming pools, race tracks, and sporting venues by swiping in. Hong Kong schools use students’ Octopus cards to take attendance in classes and wristbands with Octopus chips embedded are made for children to wear. These convenient encasement are not just for kids, there are also stylish options for adults.


Beyond the Octopus, Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Rail (MTR) does a few other things right that large cities like New York would be wise to follow. For example the glass doors preventing access to the tracks when the train is not in the station.  In 2013, 151 people were struck by trains in New York City, 51 of those collisions were fatal. While New York has started to research ways to prevent these situations, Hong Kong has not only installed glass encasements, but during rush hour employees hold smiley-faced stop signs to prevent people who try to hop on trains as the doors close.


Not only is the ride safe and rodent-free ride, all of the train cars are spotless and air-conditioned. The cold air in the trains only blows, quite fiercely I might add, when the train is motion, creating a nice illusion that riders can actually feel the wind on their face as the train moves through the city. Lastly, because Hong Kong has turned their subway system into one giant underground mall, and reaped the tax benefits from the retailers, the city can afford to pay for all this high technology while keeping passenger fares reasonable.

So, New York. We know you are great.  We love your pizza, your jazz clubs,  your street performers and your bagels. But Hong Kong’s subway is making you look bad.  London now has a similar card called an Oyster.  Call it what you like, but let’s ease the stress of New York City living, and follow this global city’s lead.


The Changing Face of Islam in Kosovo

There is no question or doubt that Islam in Kosovo is different from Islam in any other place of the Islamic world. The interesting point to light on is how is Islam in Kosovo different? How is it slowly changing? The majority of people that I had the chance to interact with throughout two months in Kosovo (Friends, colleagues, and acquaintances) would claim that they are Muslims but not religious. Not religious implies that they drink alcohol, don’t fast during Ramadan, don’t practice the five Islamic prayers everyday. Those who do practice some of the religious obligations usually don’t fully obey the Islamic rules, instead choosing to take what suits them and leave the other values that they don’t find suitable.


The Turkish Model & Traditional Islam in Kosovo

The Turkish Islamic model is what many Kosovo Albanians look to as a role model. Kosovo has very good relationship with Turkey and they tend to maintain an Islamic model similar to that of secular Turkey. Don Lush Gjergi, an Albanian Catholic priest, claims that Kosovo used to have two Islamic role models to look up to: Turkey and Egypt. However, after the current crises in those two countries Kosovo is left without any role model.

Islam in the eyes of Kosovo Albanians is a traditional Islam that they learned from their grandparents. Traditional Islam means an Islam where people celebrate the Islamic holidays and take the religious values without fully obeying the Islamic rules.


Perspectives on Islam in Kosovo

The Christian perspective on Islam in Kosovo has been described by Don Lush Gjergi as a traditional pro-European Islam that is open to other religions. Don Dominik, another Catholic Priest based in Gjilan, Kosovo, depicted each country or region in the world a having a different kind of Islam that is affected by the society and its values. People in different nations have different ways of living and practicing religion including Islam. On this topic Pastor Driton Krasniqi, the President of the Protestant Evangelical Church in Kosovo, clarifies that Islam in Kosovo retains its roots from the Ottoman Empire era. Krasniqi said: “For Christianity, the society does influence the way of thinking and belief. It could be the same case with Islam”.

 The Grand Imam of Kosovo Sabri Bajgora described the Kosovo Model of Islam as “light Islam”. He claimed that Islam in Kosovo is different because people practice it differently. On the other hand he stated that some changes have occurred since the 1999 war, after which many Kosovo youth started getting influenced by Islamic and Arab states “specially Wahhabism” (extreme Islamic doctrine originating from Saudi Arabia) and started viewing and practicing Islam in a different way.

The most interesting description of Islam in Kosovo came from Dr. Ferid Agani, the Minister of Health and the Leader of the Justice Party (Islamic Party) who described Islam as water. “Islam is the same everywhere. It is like water where it takes the shape of the container it is put in, and water is life.” He added: “Islam is a software where the hardware determines its shape.” By this symbolic example Dr. Agani wanted to explain how Islam is affected by the social and national values of each society. The society and nation to him is the container that determines the shape of Islam. To clarify the different Islamic models and way of practicing Islam Dr. Agani said: “ Islam that is coming from some Arab Islamic States doesn’t get along with our values and culture.”

Foreign Influence & Changing Notions of Islam in Kosovo Since 1999

The notion of the Islamic model in Kosovo as a unique traditional model was a non-debatable issue before the NATO intervention in 1999. Is this changing in Kosovo today? Will Kosovo remain having the traditional kind of Islam?  It was quite interesting to investigate this issue, and the changes that started happening to this unique Islamic model after the 1999 war.

The influence of foreign money that entered Kosovo after the war had an effect in changing things or starting to change things. Right after the war, many states and organizations built Mosques. Foreign Islamic organizations started telling the muslim Kosovars that the way they are practicing Islam is wrong. On this point Pastor Driton  Krasniqi pointed that some political agendas exist where some states or groups are trying to push Kosovo to be an Islamic State. He explains: “We are getting into political Islam strongly”. Moreover, Migjen Kelmendi, a journalist and writer, commented on this topic by claiming that “Wahabism” is a new doctrine that people refuse to have in Kosovo.

Kosovo is facing a major threat of political Islam that is mainly coming for the Middle Eastern Islamic States and organizations. Some Islamic States and organizations are building Mosques and investing in Kosovo to change the people’s approach to religion that is not applicable with their way of life and the traditional Islam that they live. Pastor Driton Krasniqi claimed that Saudi Arabia built in Kosovo around 400 Mosques in the past 12 years. Moreover, Kosovars are now getting scholarships to join Islamic schools in Saudi Arabia which is influencing these students. A high number of students from Kosovo are travelling to study Islam in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, most people of Kosovo refuse political Islam because they describe themselves as pro-European. Being European is something that nealry everyone agrees about.

     Some Kosovars questioned why Saudi Arabia invested in building mosques instead of investing higher priorities after the war. Many of the Kosovars had no shelters and needed money for development in Kosovo on various levels rather than the religious one. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates made big investments in Belgrade in important economic sectors. There is a missing link here. Don Lush explained that after the war Kosovars asked the Saudi missionaries: on the way from the airport to Pristina didn’t they see the people with no shelter that required help that is more prior than building mosques? Moreover, Muslim Albanians asked the Saudis to help the Christian community in Kosovo just like they helped the Islamic community because they are all one people and nation. They condemned this religious differentiation made by the Saudis.

The Threat of Radical Islam

Kosovo faces a major threat that its traditional open model of Islam may be slowly changing toward a fundamental one. “The Islamic community in Kosovo must choose between the traditional open Islam and the foreign fundamental Islam that is coming to Kosovo” said Don Lush. Everyone agrees that the society in Kosovo refuses this kind of fundamental Islam, but if fundamental Islamists increase in number they could become a major threat for the society, the secular state, and democracy in Kosovo.

The influence of foreign political money should not be underestimated. Especially in light of the fact that it is entering a newly formed state with an approximately 40% unemployment rate. Many wealthy Islamic states have political agendas. Kosovo must face these agendas first by reconsidering the aid that comes into the country from and second by more strict government policies to assure the secularity of the state. The threat of political Islam is not only a challenge Kosovo is facing, but a threat to any young state which may have less immunity to such political agendas.