Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Give Gaza to Egypt?

Daniel Pipes yesterday came out with an article saying that the Hamasian border breaking fiasco should be used as an opportunity to change the whole Gaza equation and return the territory to the way it was ruled from 1948-67 - i.e. basically ruled by Egypt.

He writes:

Washington and other capitals should declare the experiment in Gazan self-rule a failure and press President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to help, perhaps providing Gaza with additional land or even annexing it as a province. This would revert to the situation of 1948-67, except this time Cairo would not keep Gaza at arm’s length but take responsibility for it.

Culturally, this connection is a natural: Gazans speak a colloquial Arabic identical to the Egyptians of Sinai, have more family ties to Egypt than to the West Bank, and are economically more tied to Egypt (recall the many smugglers’ tunnels). Further, Hamas derives from an Egyptian organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. As David Warren of the Ottawa Citizen notes, calling Gazans “Palestinians” is less accurate than politically correct.

Why not formalize the Egyptian connection? Among other benefits, this would (1) end the rocket fire against Israel, (2) expose the superficiality of Palestinian nationalism, an ideology under a century old, and perhaps (3) break the Arab-Israeli logjam.

See, the idea has a certain elegance - and in fact I had a friend mention the same idea days before Pipes' article - but even if it were at all feasable (since I'm fairly certain Egypt has no interest in Gaza as such, with a million-plus poor and radical people along with a well-armed group of religious extremists) I'm not sure it's the greatest idea. I think a main reason peace has been maintained with Egypt for the last 30 years is due directly to the Sinai being demilitarized and Israel and Egypt keeping each other at arm's length.

Suppose Egypt does take responsibility of Gaza - won't that necessarily involve Israel giving up airspace, freedom of travel and the ability for Egypt to bring up loads of troops to police the territory? Is it really in Israel's interest for Egypt to have that kind of presence right along the Israeli border?

But even besides that, do we really believe that Egypt will be more successful than Israel at controlling rocket attacks from Gaza? And when they fail - what is Israel to do? Ask really nicely? Actually threaten Egypt? The modern Egyptian military is a real force to be reckoned with. One of the largest in the world and now armed with up-to-date American and European equipment. I think we should keep our distance.

How the current crisis is going to resolve itself however is a real mystery. There are reports of Hamas putting up their flags in Egyptian towns - an act Egyptians see as an attack on their sovereignty. Is Egypt prepared to use actual force against Gazan militants? (Which I'm not sure they can even do, due to troop restrictions in the Sinai from the '79 peace agreement.) Or are we going to see a growing Hamastan in the northern Sinai? Does anyone believe that the Gazans are really all just going to pack up and go home quietly?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Neglecting God

A few months ago from my studies I was told of a fascinating, though rather rare disorder of the mind - hemispatial neglect syndrome. This can occur when a person might have a huge stroke to one side of their brain and the consequence is a total lack of awareness to one side of reality. This may not sound so surprising, but you have to realize that I'm not talking about losing the ability to perceive space - like how damage to your visual cortex can cause blindness - but about the very human comprehension that there is more world on your left side.

Depending on the form of the disorder, if you tell these people to draw a copy of a clock face, you can see that it might go from 12 to 6 and totally lack the other numbers or they might try cramming all twelve into one side. They will only comb one side of their hair, will only shave half their face, will only read pages on one side of a book and will actually deny that one of their arms belongs to them! Even in their imaginations, if you tell them to recount the view of a famous street they will only report the buildings on one side. (Though if you tell them to walk up the street rather than down it, they will report only the buildings on the other side.)

This kind of disorder makes us uncomfortably aware of our own fragility, of course, but also tells us about the functions of our own awareness. It's a little unnerving to think about one's awareness of external space being tied so directly to the physical function of one's brain. It seems impossible that I could forget that half the world exists, that my left arm is my own, even if I suffered terrible trauma. I mean, I could easily see the other half of the world if I turned my head, so what would keep my from realizing it's there? I don't have eyes in the back of my head, but I am aware the universe extends behind me. These patients often don't even realize there is anything wrong with them! Even in cases where there is no sensory loss at all, this ability for awareness can be terribly affected.

Anyway, this is all fascinating, sure - but the reason I bring it up is for how it's treated. What is done for the patient is to constantly bring their attention to the affected side. For reading, if you put a red line on the margin the patient will know that he has to keep looking to the side until he sees that line in order to read the whole page. Playing catch and throwing the ball to their left side. Things of this nature to constantly encourage the patient to keep engaging the left side of the universe, directing his consciousness beyond what he perceives. Eventually, though how remains a mystery, the healthy brain tissue may take on some of the skills of the damaged brain and awareness can be extended on the side.

But the point is that these little exercises may seem absolutely pointless and strange to the patient. He doesn't necessarily think he's missing anything on his left - there's nothing there - so why should he cooperate with these kooky therapists? Even if they accept that they're missing half of reality, patients are often simply uninterested in it.

This is analogous, I think, to the function that apparently weird and pointless religious rituals can have for people. Judaism is full of chukim with rules and rituals that appear absurd to the secular and a source of amusement for the cynical. But they are not pointless. Their purpose, as opposed to the sensible moral laws or the rules that encourage benefits to the family, society or the environment, is but to be a service for God. What this means is that they are tools for stretching our consciousness beyond what we are normally aware of as far as physical reality goes, to see transcendence and ultimate value where we might otherwise see nothing. They are vehicles by which our awareness can transcend beyond merely what we see with our eyes.

Indeed, if chukim actually served a utilitarian purpose - like that kashrut was healthy - I believe it would actually completely remove it's power as a religious act. The whole mechanism by which our thoughts are raised by these acts is through being inscrutable. A utilitarian act drives no more thought beyond understanding its utility. That we understand the acts to be as if commanded by God drives our thoughts towards God.

We are born unconscious to the great noumenon beyond our senses, but through these exercises perhaps we can gain some sense of it - or at least drive our consciousness towards it. Others may be satisfied without it and still others may not believe it exists at all, but maybe they along with those patients with neglect syndrome just have no idea what they're missing.