Category: Science & technology

Like selling Bibles to believers

Atheist_Richard_Dawkins_by_naderiDawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia

By , Saturday, Mar 30, 2013 02:00 PM CDT


Richard Dawkins, the preppy septuagenarian and professional atheist whose work in the field of evolutionary biology informs his godless worldview, has always been a prickly fellow. The British scientist and former Oxford University professor has expended considerable ink and precious breath rationalizing away the possibility of cosmic forces and explaining in scientific terms why those who believe in a divine creator are, well, stupid.

It appears, however, that some of those believers are stupider than others. At least according to a recent series of tweets by Dawkins, who served up a hostile helping of snark this week aimed at followers of the Muslim faith. It’s a group that has come to occupy a special place in his line of fire — and in the minds of a growing club of no-God naysayers who have fast rebranded atheism into a popular, cerebral and more bellicose version of its former self.

The New Atheists, they are called, offer a departure from the theologically based arguments of the past, which claimed that science wasn’t all that important in disproving the existence of God. Instead, Dawkins and other public intellectuals like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens suffocate their opponents with scientific hypotheses, statistics and data about the physical universe — their weapons of choice in a battle to settle the scores in a debate that has raged since the days of Aristotle. They’re atheists with attitudes, as polemical as they are passionate, brash as they are brainy, and while they view anyone who does not share their unholier-than-thou worldview with skepticism and scorn, their cogitations on the creation of the universe have piqued the interest of even many believers. With that popularity, they’ve built lucrative empires. Dawkins and Harris are regulars in major publications like the New York Times and the Economist, and their books — “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion” by Dawkins and “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Harris — top bestseller lists and rake in eye-popping royalties.

The power of these New Atheists’ provocations is their ability to reach popular audiences and move their geeky discussions from lecture halls and libraries (Harris has a degree in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D in neuroscience from UCLA) to the sets of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” where hipsters and yuppies alike digest their sardonic sound bites, repeating them to their online networks in 140 characters or less.

Though Dawkins, Harris and company have been around for years, their presence on the public scene used to be more muted. An atheist then was something you simply were. It wasn’t a full-time career. But in 2001 a man named Mohammed Atta and his Middle Eastern comrades decided to fly jetliners into the Twin Towers and everything changed. A man of strong Christian faith was in the White House, leading the battle against terrorism in often-religious language. Millions of Americans who had wandered off the path of faith returned to their churches in search of answers. Evangelical pastors were jolted to rock star–like status, waving their hands over crowds of thousands in basketball arenas that soon became “mega churches.” And a small number of Muslim extremists, intent on advancing bin Laden’s violent vision, turned their faith into a force of evil, striking out and killing innocent Western civilians at every opportunity.

The New Atheists had found their calling. The occasion was, for them, a vindication — proof that modernity, progress and reason were the winners in the post–Cold War era and that religion was simply man’s play toy, used to excuse the wicked and assuage fears of a fiery, heavenless afterlife as the punishment for such profane deeds.

Four days after the tragedy, Dawkins could barely contain his intellectual triumphalism. “Those people [the terrorists] were not mindless and they were certainly not cowards,” he wrote in the Guardian. “On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that courage came from. It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East, which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place.”

Until 9/11, Islam didn’t figure in the New Atheists’ attacks in a prominent way. As a phenomenon with its roots in Europe, atheism has traditionally been the archenemy of Christianity, though Jews and Judaism have also slipped into the mix. But emboldened by their newfound fervor in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the New Atheists joined a growing chorus of Muslim-haters, mixing their abhorrence of religion in general with a specific distaste for Islam (In 2009, Hitchens published a book called “God Is Not Great,” a direct smack at Muslims who commonly recite the Arabic refrain Allah Akbar, meaning “God is great”). Conversations about the practical impossibility of God’s existence and the science-based irrationality of an afterlife slid seamlessly into xenophobia over Muslim immigration or the practice of veiling. The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason. “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death,” writes Harris, whose nonprofit foundation Project Reason ironically aims to “erode the influence of bigotry in our world.”

For Harris, the ankle-biter version of the Rottweiler Dawkins, suicide bombers and terrorists are not aberrations. They are the norm. They have not distorted their faith by interpreting it wrongly. They have lived out their faith by understanding it rightly. “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy, and is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge,” he writes in “Letter to a Christian Nation.”

That may sound like the psychobabble of Pamela Geller. But Harris’s crude departure from scholarly decorum is at least peppered with references to the Quran, a book he cites time and again, before suggesting it be “flushed down the toilet without fear of violent reprisal.”

Dawkins, in a recent rant on Twitter, admitted that he had not ever read the Quran, but was sufficiently expert in the topic to denounce Islam as the main culprit of all the world’s evil: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.” How’s that for a scientific dose of proof that God does not exist?

A few days later, on March 25, there was this: “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read the Qur’an. You don’t have to read “Mein Kampf” to have an opinion about Nazism.”

It’s an extraordinary feat for an Oxford scholar to admit that he hasn’t done the research to substantiate his belief, but what’s more extraordinary is that he continues to believe the unsupported claim. That backwards equation — insisting on a conclusion before even launching an initial investigation — defines the New Atheists’ approach to Islam. It’s a pompousness that only someone who believes they have proven, scientifically, the nonexistence of God can possess.

Some of Dawkins’ detractors say that he’s a fundamentalist. Noam Chomsky is one such critic. Chomsky has said that Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens are “religious fanatics” and that in their quest to bludgeon society with their beliefs about secularism, they have actually adopted the state religion — one that, though void of prayers and rituals, demands that its followers blindly support the whims of politicians. Dawkins rejects such characterizations. “The true scientist,” he writes, “however passionately he may ‘believe’, in evolution for example, knows exactly what would change his mind: evidence! The fundamentalist knows that nothing will.”

That’s topsy-turvy logic for a man who says he’s never read the Quran but seconds later hocks up gems like this from his Twitter account:

“Islam is comforting? Tell that to a woman, dressed in a bin bag [trash bag], her testimony worth half a man’s and needing 4 male witnesses to prove rape.”

Then there was this: “Next gem from BBC Idiot Zoo: ‘Some women feel protected by the niqab.’”

Dawkins’ quest to “liberate” Muslim women and smack them with a big ol’ heaping dose of George W. Bush freedom caused him to go berzerk over news that a University College of London debate, hosted by an Islamic group, offered a separate seating option for conservative, practicing Muslims. Without researching the facts, Dawkins assumed that gendered seating was compulsory, not voluntary, and quickly fired off this about the “gender apartheid” of the supposedly suppressed Muslims: “At UC London debate between a Muslim and Lawrence Krauss, males and females had to sit separately. Krauss threatened to leave.” And then this: “Sexual apartheid. Maybe these odious religious thugs will get their come-uppance?”

Of course, the fact that the Barclays Center in New York recently offered gender-separate seating options for Orthodox Jews during a recent concert by Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman didn’t compute in Dawkins’ reasoning. Neither did the case of El Al Airlines, the flag carrier of Israel, when, in August of 2012, a stewardess forced a Florida woman to swap seats to accommodate the religious practice of a haredi Orthodox man. Even if Dawkins were aware of these episodes, he likely wouldn’t have made a fuss about them. They undermine the conclusion he has already reached, that is, that only Muslims are freedom-haters, gender-separating “thugs.”

Where exactly Dawkins gets his information about Islam is unclear (perhaps Fox News?). What is clear, though, is that his unique brand of secular fundamentalism cozies up next to that screeched out by bloggers on the pages of some of the Web’s most vicious anti-Muslim hate sites. In a recent comment he posted on his own Web site, Dawkins references a site called Islam Watch, placing him in eerily close proximity to the likes of one of the page’s founders, Ali Sina, an activist who describes himself as “probably the biggest anti-Islam person alive.” Sina is a board member for the hate group, Stop the Islamization of Nations, which was founded by anti-Muslim activists Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer and which has designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Dawkins is also on record praising the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, a man who says that he “hates Islam” and that Muslims who desire to remain in the Netherlands should “rip out half of the Koran” (Later, he blabbed that the Muslim holy book should be banned entirely). The peroxide-blonde leader of the Party of Freedom, who faced trial in 2009 for hate speech, produced an amateurish flick called “Fitna” the year before. The 17-minute film was chockablock with racist images such as Muhammad’s head attached to a ticking time bomb and juxtapositions of Muslims and Nazis. For Dawkins, it was pure bliss. “On the strength of ‘Fitna’ alone, I salute you as a man of courage who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy,” he wrote.

When it comes to ripping pages out of books, Dawkins is a pro. His rhetoric on Muslims comes nearly verbatim from the playbook of the British Nationalist Party and other far right groups in the UK. BNP leader Nick Griffin once told a group in West Yorkshire that Islam was a “wicked and vicious faith” and that Asian Muslims were turning Old Blighty into a multiracial purgatory.

For his part, Dawkins spins wild conspiracy theories claiming that ordinary terms like “communities” and “multiculturalism” are actually ominous code words for “Muslims” and “Islam,” respectively. The English Defence League, a soccer hooligan street gang that has a history of threatening Muslims with violence and assaulting police officers, has made identical claims, as have leaders of Stop the Islamization of Europe (SIOE), a ragtag coterie of neo-Nazis whose hate franchise spans two continents: Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), its American counterpart, is led by bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. In July of 2011, Dawkins re-published a lengthy diatribe by former SIOE leader Stephen Gash on his website. Gash, too, has an aversion for scholarly decorum. He once unleashed a public temper tantrum during a debate on Islam at the esteemed Cambridge University Union Society, shouting and storming out of the auditorium when the invited speaker, a Muslim, rebutted his ideas before the audience.

Dawkins has no monopoly on intellectual flimsiness, though. As does the teacher so does the student. And Harris is every bit the Dawkins student. In “The End of Faith,” Harris maintains that Israel — the untouchable, can-do-no-evil love of so many Islamophobes — upholds the human rights of Palestinians to a high standard.

The Israelis have shown a degree of restraint in their use of violence that the Nazis never contemplated and that, more to the point, no Muslim society would contemplate today. Ask yourself, what are the chances that the Palestinians would show the same restraint in killing Jews if the Jews were a powerless minority living under their occupation and disposed to acts of suicidal terrorism? It would be no more likely than Muhammad’s flying to heaven on a winged horse.

It’s obviously impossible to prove such a farcical statement, but Harris, to his everlasting discredit, tries. His evidence? A statement made by attorney, Alan Dershowitz, one of America’s strongest (and loudest) supporters of the Israeli right wing.

How the New Atheists’ anti-Muslim hate advances their belief that God does not exist is not exactly clear. In this climate of increased anti-Muslim sentiment, it’s a convenient digression, though. They’ve shifted their base and instead of simply trying to convince people that God is a myth, they’ve embraced the monster narrative of the day. That’s not rational or enlightening or “free thinking” or even intelligent. That’s opportunism. If atheism writ large was a tough sell to skeptics, the “New Atheism,” Muslim-bashing atheism, must be like selling Bibles to believers. After all, those who are convinced that God exists, and would otherwise dismiss the Dawkins’ and Harris’s of the world as hell-bound kooks, are often some of the biggest Islamophobes. It’s symbiosis — and as a biologist, Dawkins should know a thing or two about that. Proving that a religion — any religion — is evil, though, is just as pointless and impossible an endeavor as trying to prove that God does or doesn’t exist. Neither has been accomplished yet. And neither will.

Nathan Lean is the editor-in-chief of Aslan Media and the author of three books, including the award-winning “The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims.” Follow him on Twitter: @nathanlean. or

Illustration by naderi

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Understanding our history a little better

calligraphy tiles

Does Arab progress founder on an ossified language?

By Robert Fisk, Monday 31 December 2012


I’ve heard all kinds of reasons for the Arab-Israeli failure to agree on UN Security Council Resolution 242 – because the Arabic text calls upon Israel to withdraw from ‘the lands occupied by Israel in 1967’ (including the West Bank, Gaza and Golan) whereas the English text (as the Americans intended) leaves out the word ‘the’. So ‘occupied land’ leaves the Israelis free to decide which bits of land they want to hand back – and which they don’t.

But the French version also takes the definite article ‘les’ – so it can’t be the Arabs’ fault. Or does this all come about because the language Arabs speak and the language they write is not the same. Does it lack clarity? I hear this all the time – from Westerners, of course.

There can be a kind of imprecision in practical life. I recall arriving with colleagues in southern Lebanon during one of Israel’s five invasions and asking how many Israeli tanks were on the road in front of us. “Many,” came the reply of the refugees. How many? “Ktir” – very many. Ten? “Na’am”. (Yes.) Twenty? “Na’am” (Yes again.) A dangerous lack of clarity there, surely.

Hasan Karmi, the Palestinian lexicographer who died six years ago, nursed the theory that having learned colloquial Arabic as children before progression to the much more precise written form — and because language is so crucial to the development of thought – “Arabs were often handicapped by a lack of precision in their thinking.” Here I am quoting from Karmi’s obituary by my mate Donald Macintyre. Hence, perhaps, the failure of Arabs to maintain their historical superiority in science and intellectual thought.

For while I rabbit on about the poisonous influence on our Romance languages of SMS text messages, internet-speak and blogopop culture, Arabs are debating the most controversial issue of their language: that while it should be living and adapted to the modern age, its linguists have produced dictionaries only to serve the “reciters of religion and to sanctify the dead”.

Arabic culture, according to Iraqi-born journalist and writer Walid al-Kobeissi, is founded upon three pillars: Arab nationalism, Islam and the Arabic language. If one of these pillars gives way, the culture collapses. The idea that to change or “touch” the language is a kind of profanation – since the very message of God, the Koran, was written in Arabic – has prevented any modernization of the written language. But since the 1990s, the Kurds have begun to lose their interest in Arabic. Arab Christians use a dictionary which incorporates modern medical terms. Egyptian Copts use Egyptian Arabic dialect on the internet.

Literary Arabic, of course, is written, not spoken. Yet most Arab writers, according to al-Kobeissi, do not progress linguistically after the age of 40 because written Arabic language takes more time to master than European languages. He believes his fellow Arabs were losing time in learning syntax. “Grammatical analysis is in reality the main problem of our language,” he writes.

In the early days of Islam, Arabs made mistakes because there did not exist a real break between the language they wrote and the language they spoke. In those days, language reformers were not accused of being Orientalists. The Omayad Caliph Al-Walid told his citizens to stop worrying about grammar when he wished to spread Arabic in the Latin- and Persian-speaking regions of Iraq and Syria.

Dialects would bridge the gap between spoken and written Arabic – as they do today. Al-Kobeissi, an Arabic teacher in Norway, notes that there were two versions of Norwegian 50 years ago – but that dialects developed into a single language. Yet in an Arabic dictionary of 80,000 words, most of the words are unused — there are, for example, perhaps 600 terms for a camel. Palestinian writer Hanan Bakir disagrees. She points out that Arabs no longer speak the language of the pre-Islamic or Abbassid eras, that Arabs do not even speak the same language as their grandmothers. Language evolves naturally, not because of linguistics.

Syrian-born astrophysician Rim Turkmani of Imperial College believes that Arab and Muslim science had a profound influence on the West during the Renaissance. In the 17th century, European scientists even gave written references in Arabic and Persian. They translated Arabic scientific texts. Edmond Halley – of comet fame – translated two Arabic books into English, and wrote an essay on the mathematician al-Battani, the ‘Arabic Ptolemy’. Chemist Robert Boyle studied the works of Jabir bin Hayan. “At the time of the Renaissance and the scientific revolution,” Turkmani told the newspaper L’Orient Le Jour, “…Western scientists recognized the Arab contribution and cited Arabic works.”

But today, no-one talking about Halley or Boyle refers to their debt to Arab scientists. Turkmani won’t give any reason for this. Perhaps we should reassess our debt to Arab scientists by understanding our history a little better. Why did the Arabs disappear from ‘our’ science? Because they didn’t bridge that gap between writing and the spoken word? Or because we Westerners suddenly discovered ‘Orientalism’, the suspicious Muslim ‘other’ which still dominates our lives?

“…and the word was with God,” we are told. It’s a moot point. or

Photograph (modified) of Arabic calligraphy on Morrocan tiles.

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Connected solely by religion

wailing wallThe Jewish people’s ultimate treasure hunt

By , Dec.28, 2012 9:12 AM


“Just imagine a group of blind people who encounter an elephant for the first time in their lives. They place their hands on it and touch it in order to understand what kind of animal it is. But each of them feels a different part of the elephant’s body so that, in the end, each of them gains a different impression as to what sort of animal it is.” Using this ancient Indian parable, geneticist Dr. Eran Elhaik tries to illustrate one of the most controversial issues in the study of history: the origin of the Jewish people.

“For years, scholars have suggested various explanations as to where the Jews come from,” says Israeli-born Elhaik, and lists the different theories proposed over the past century to solve the puzzle. However, each explanation has provided only a partial clue and, to make matters worse, all the explanations contradict one another.

“My study is the first to propose a comprehensive theory that explains all the seemingly contradictory findings,” asserts the young scholar in a telephone conversation from his home in Maryland. The 32-year-old Elhaik conducted his research at the School of Public Health of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Earlier this month, he published his findings in an article, “The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses,” in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution, published by Oxford University Press. One of the scholars who reviewed the article before its publication described it as more profound than all the previous studies on the ancestry of the Jewish people.

In our telephone interview, Elhaik, who does not hide his light under a bushel, describes his study as a “breakthrough” and says he has provided the scholarly foundations for an ancient and controversial theory claiming that European or Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of the Khazars. The Khazar Empire consisted of various peoples (Iranians, Turks, Slavs, Caucasians and others ), and ruled over a vast territory stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea during the medieval period. According to this theory, the Khazars converted to Judaism in the eighth century and their descendants are the “European” or Ashkenazi Jews who live today in Israel and the Diaspora.

The commonly accepted narrative considers the Jews to be descended from residents of the Kingdom of Judah who were exiled and returned to their native land – the modern-day State of Israel – only after thousands of years of exile. In contrast, this new study supports the theory that the Jews are descended from different peoples who lived in various regions in the Mediterranean Sea Basin, and who converted to Judaism in different eras. According to that theory, the story of the exile from Judah, the exilic life led by Jews in the countries of the Diaspora and their continual longing for their native homeland can be considered a myth.

“My research refutes 40 years of genetic studies, all of which have assumed that the Jews constitute a group that is genetically isolated from other nations,” notes Elhaik. His study is based on comprehensive genetic data published in other studies. In the absence of such data on the Khazars themselves, Elhaik – following a procedure commonly used by researchers in his field – relied on figures relating to populations that are genetically similar to the Khazars, such as Georgians, Armenians and Caucasians. Elhaik says “they have all emerged from the same genetic ‘soup.'”

After conducting numerous analyses utilizing various techniques, some of which have never been employed before, the researcher discovered what he describes as the Khazar component of European Jewry. According to his findings, the dominant element in the genetic makeup of European Jews is Khazar. Among Central European and East European Jews, this component is the most dominant in their genome, accounting for 38 and 30 percent, respectively.

What other components constitute the genome of European Jews?

Elhaik: “[They are] primarily of Western European origin, which is rooted in the Roman Empire, and Middle Eastern origin, whose source is probably Mesopotamia, although it is possible that part of that component can be attributed to Israeli Jews.”

The latter datum is of considerable importance because it “reconnects” European Jews to Israel. However, that connection amounts to only a small part of the makeup of the genome, and that figure is not statistically significant enough to establish that the origin of the Jews is the Kingdom of Judah.

According to Elhaik’s study, there is a genetic continuum linking the Jews of Iran, the Caucasus, Azerbaijan and Georgia with the European Jews. In other words, it is possible that these groups share common ancestors – namely, the Khazars.

The geneticist goes on to explain that, among the various groups of European and non-European Jews, there are no blood or family connections: “The various groups of Jews in the world today do not share a common genetic origin. We are talking here about groups that are very heterogeneous and which are connected solely by religion.”

The bottom line, he claims, is that the “genome of European Jews is a mosaic of ancient peoples and its origin is largely Khazar.”

Other studies

Similar research conducted by other scholars, some of whom are celebrated professors in Israel and other countries, presents very different results. Last summer, for example, Oxford University Press published “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People,” which attempted to sum up the various studies that have related to this subject over the past two decades. The author, the Yeshiva University professor Dr. Harry Ostrer, who teaches in the departments of pathology, genetics and pediatrics in the university’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, argues that all Jews have a common genetic origin and similar genetic characteristics. According to Ostrer, this common origin is not Khazar but rather Middle Eastern. Thus, in line with his theory, the Jews are descendants of residents of that region who resided there thousands of years ago, were exiled and recently returned to their native land – that is, modern-day Israel.

Unlike Elhaik, Ostrer found no significant evidence attesting to any connection between the Jews and the Khazar kingdom. Moreover, from the genetic standpoint, the Jews, he argues, are closer to the Palestinians, Bedouin and Druze than to the Khazars. His findings lend a solid basis to the argument that the Jews originated in the Middle East.

Elhaik, who disputes Ostrer’s study, claims that previous research on the subject “has no empirical basis, sometimes even contradicts itself and offers conclusions that are simply not convincing.”

“It is my impression,” he adds, “that their results were written before they began the research. First they shot their arrow – and then they painted the bull’s-eye around it.”

Unlike other researchers, Elhaik does not believe in the existence of a uniquely Jewish gene: “Each human being is a genetic amalgam. No population group has ever lived in total seclusion from other groups.” He also refutes the claim that the genome of many Jews contains a Middle Eastern component, proving that the Jews originated in that region: “The majority of Jews do not have the Middle Eastern genetic component in the quantity we would expect to find if they were descendants of the Jews of antiquity.

“Ironically,” observes Elhaik, “some of the Khazars were of Iranian origin. I think it is safe to assume that the Iranians have made a not-inconsiderable contribution to the Jewish mosaic.”

Haaretz has in recent weeks turned to a number of scholars from Israel and abroad, including historians and geneticists, and asked them what they thought of the new article. The historians refused to respond, arguing that they had no expertise in the field of genetics. For their part, the geneticists were unwilling to cooperate for other reasons. While some of them simply ignored the request from Haaretz, others claimed they were unfamiliar with the specific discipline of population research or too pressed for time to respond.

The only scholar who agreed to give his opinion (and did so with great enthusiasm ) was Tel Aviv University professor of history Shlomo Sand, author of the best-seller, “The Invention of the Jewish People,” published in Hebrew in 2008 by Resling Press (an English translation by Yael Lotan was published by Verso in 2009 ). On the bookshelves in his small office at TAU are translations of his book, now available in 22 languages.

Sand has some tough words of criticism for geneticists looking for Jewish genes: “For an ignoramus like me, genetics had always appeared to be crowned with a halo – as a precise science that deals with quantitative findings and whose conclusions are irrefutable.” When he began reading articles on the subject of the Jews’ origin, he found he had been mistaken: “I discovered geneticists – Jewish geneticists – whose knowledge of history ended at what was necessary for their high-school matriculation exams. Which is how I would describe my knowledge of biology. In high school they had learned that there is one Jewish nation, and, on the basis of this historical narrative, they reconstruct their scholarly findings.”

“Their search for the origin of a common gene in order to characterize a people or a nation is very dangerous,” says Sand. With several reservations, he cites the example of the Germans, “who also searched for a common component of blood ties.” The historical irony, he emphasizes, is expressed in the fact that “whereas, in the past, anyone who defined the Jews as a race was vilified as an anti-Semite, today anyone who is unprepared to define them as a race is labeled an anti-Semite.

“I used to think,” Sand adds, “that only in such disciplines as history and literature can facts be given various interpretations, but I then discovered that the same thing is done in genetics. It is very easy to showcase certain findings while marginalizing others and to present your study as scholarly research. In general, specialization in genetics can create an incredibly high level of ignorance in history.”

Jewish genetics or

Hagiography that would make Joseph Goebbels proud:  Photograph of Israeli paratroopers at the Wailing Wall in 1967.

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Bloody science

Sod the scientific warnings – here’s why I’ll keep on running

By , Saturday 1 December 2012 06.00 EST


Bloody science. For a discipline that’s supposed to be all about accuracy and provable facts, you never know where you are with it. Barely a day goes by without the papers reporting a new study that seems to contradict a previous study on the same subject. “Forget about X, it’s all about Y”.

Exercise is no different. One day it’s good for you, no caveats. The more the merrier. Off you go and get a sweat on. The next: whoa there. Be careful. It might not be good for you, you and you. Take those new studies, which state that running a lot (more than between 20 and 25 miles a week) may actually take a toll on the heart. As such, trying to work out what the best course of action is can be confusing. My advice? Ignore all the white noise and go with your gut instinct. If you enjoy a sport and you feel it’s doing you good – well then, in a way it already is just by virtue of that. It’s self-fulfilling.

Running is my thing. I did it before it became my job, and I’ll continue to do it even if I stop writing about it at some point. Here, in no particular order, is a far-from-exhaustive and distinctly non-scientific list of reasons why I love running, and why I will always do it no matter what theories du jour lie in wait in the future.

I enjoy it

Pretty hard to argue against this. If you enjoy something, it’s worth doing (apart from murder and arson and, y’know, stuff like that).

It cheers me up

If I’m in a bad mood, I stick my trainers on and head out the door and, to quote The Great Suprendo, piff paff poof, my gripes and worries are obliterated by the rhythm of my breathing and the patter of my feet on the ground. Plus, the endorphins produced will set me up for the rest of the day. Also, you can add me to the long list of people who think that this particular study is seriously flawed. During a 12-month bout of depression two years ago, running helped where medication couldn’t – and for that reason alone I’ll always be grateful to it.

It makes me feel healthier

Are you happy, scientists? I used the word “feel”. I’ve been a runner for 10 years, and at 33 I’m in much better shape than I was a decade ago. I weigh less, I have more lean muscle, my heart is healthier, my cholesterol has dropped, my confidence is higher and I feel good. And judging by the number of letters we get at Runner’s World from people of all backgrounds whose lives have been similarly transformed, I’m not the only one.

It makes me a better person

I’m nicer to be around, I laugh and smile more, I’m more considerate and I’m more productive and imaginative at work. And who doesn’t want that?

It gives me headspace

In a world of careers, families, smartphones and being contactable almost all of the time, the chance to take myself “off the grid” is a precious thing. I do my best thinking when I’m pounding the streets (or park, or trails). I solve problems, make lists, brainstorm, hatch cunning plans, think about loved ones, daydream about nothing in particular … And it’s awesome.

It’s free and anyone can do it

Running is as expensive as you want to make it. Sure, if you want you can invest in a £150 pair of trainers, a GPS tracking watch so complicated that Q would never let Bond anywhere near it, and all manner of clobber designed to make you warmer/cooler/dryer/less smelly/faster/less achey, but all you really need is time, and somewhere to run. You don’t even need any lessons as you already know how to do it! Yes, even you, the one who hasn’t even run for the bus in 20 years and is chain-dunking Hob Nobs as you read this – you can do it too.

It brings people together

One of my absolute favourite things about running is seeing other people doing it. Fat, thin, short, tall, fast, slow, Juicy Couture tracksuit, 118-style vest. We’re all members of a very inclusive club. A nod and a smile as you run past in the opposite direction makes you feel as though you’re in on the secret too.

You get out what you put in

Team sports are great but sometimes it’s good to test yourself against … yourself. There’s no one else to blame if you have a bad run and nobody to share the glory with if you smash it. In other sports (Olympic badminton seemingly excepted) you have to be as competitive as possible. With running, you can give it your all and train hard for a race if you wish, or you can just go for a slow plod with no real target in mind. It’s your call.

It’s elemental, my dear Watson. Humans were made to move. It’s how we survived in Woolly Mammoth Times, running away from stuff to avoid being eaten. Running towards stuff to try and eat it. Running was essential. Not any more maybe but it’s a primal human instinct. Every time I run, I marvel in the fact that I am lucky enough to be able to do it. To feel the wind in my face, my heart pounding and my limbs moving in beautiful synchronicity with each other. Less able-bodied people never get the chance. Running is a blessing, studies be damned. or

Illustration by heoh, September 5th, 2010.

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Fire from below

Mr. President, remember me? It’s Bill Ayers

By Bill Ayers, Tuesday, Nov 13, 2012 02:00 PM CST


I have a backpack filled to overflowing with grievance and discontent, dissent and demand, as well as wild hopes and radical aspirations: end the wars and the drone strikes, slash the pentagon, fight for universal health care, tear down these walls, recognize and stand with the poor and the working class, assail poverty, put teeth into global warming measures — the list goes on and on.

But I also know that the president is neither a sovereign nor a king, and most of us spend way too much time and energy staring dumbly at the sites of power we have no access to — the White House, for example — wringing our hands and hoping for the best, and far too little time focusing on the prospective power right in front of us: the community and the street, the school and the classroom, the shop and the workplace. Our job is to organize dissent and mobilize an independent movement. Remember: Lyndon Johnson was never part of the Black Freedom Movement, FDR was not a labor leader, and Lincoln never joined an abolitionist party — each is remembered for important actions taken in response to fire from below. Even in the last years it was women, gay, immigrant-rights and environmental activists who moved a progressive agenda forward inch by inch.

But I’ll play along and offer an action step the president could take tomorrow regarding school reform: Fire Arne Duncan and appoint Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of Education.

This would signal a significant break with the most destructive aspects of the failed “school reform” agenda this administration has promoted: turning public assets and spaces over to private managers, obstructing any independent, collective voice of teachers, and reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a standardized test score. While there’s absolutely no proof that this approach improves schooling one iota, it chugs along unfazed — fact-free, faith-based reform at its core, resting on ideology and not evidence.

A teacher and recognized scholar/researcher for decades, Dr. Darling-Hammond will not be swayed by big money or political expediency or the latest fads. She will be independent, professional and principled.

We can then return to the precious but fragile ideal that must power education in a democracy: Every human being is of incalculable value, and the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each.

Bill Ayers is a retired Distinguished Professor of Education at the  University of Illinois at Chicago. or

Photograph of William C. Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. or

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The tyranny of a metaphor

Heartbeat: My Involuntary Miscarriage and ‘Voluntary Abortion’ in Ohio

By , 11/01/2012 10:30 am


On June 19, the state of Ohio declared that I had a voluntary abortion. My rabbi and my doctors disagreed. I simply wanted to be pregnant.

The ordeal began two weeks earlier; I was in stirrups. The sonogram technician needed more images. When she got them she looked ashen. “You should see a doctor today,” she emphasized as she handed me the printed image of my 13-week-old baby or fetus, I still don’t know what word to use. “But there is a heartbeat. Thank god there is a heartbeat,” I mumbled. I had been here before. But last time, during my first pregnancy, there was no heartbeat.

I waited. I overheard the technician as she looked at the screen with the doctor, “this is bad, this is really bad.” He wasn’t my doctor, but he had a soft voice with a southern kick that I liked. He saw me, gestured for me to come to his office, and referred to the ailing life in my belly as a baby. “This isn’t good,” he whispered. “It’s really not. Let me show you.” He was kind but clear. “The organs are not inside the baby’s body. The hands and feet are curled, actually one limb seems to be stunted or missing. The neck isn’t right. This really doesn’t look good.” I looked at the expanded sonogram on his desk. I saw the hands turned in, the area that he referred to as the organs, the dead space where there should be a limb. Minutes ago, I had looked at this same image and smiled. “I don’t understand,” I replied. “What do I do now?” “Why don’t you wait a week,” he offered. “I don’t understand,” I repeated, “can the baby survive? Can these problems be solved? I don’t understand exactly what you are telling me.” “No, I don’t think so,” he said finally, “but there are always miracles.”

I was withered, but functional. I knew this could happen and knew that I could recover. I had been blessed with a healthy child in between and felt, in my Nana’s words, “Why should this be easy?” I decided to wait out the week. Looking pregnant, I returned to work, still hoping that maybe with more quiet time, with more love, next week the baby would be better. As I sat down at my desk, my own doctor called. To him, it was a fetus. “Tamara, I have looked at the scans and I have shown the scans to doctors in my office. I want to tell you that we all agree that this fetus is not compatible with life. It will not survive the pregnancy. You should get it removed immediately. The longer you wait the more risks are involved.” I hung up the phone.

The idea of “removing” my baby, my fetus, while its heart was still beating was simply unbearable. Was it living? Was it still growing? Would I be stopping the heartbeat, cutting short its life? And what do I do after the operation? Do I bury it? I didn’t understand what I had inside of me and I didn’t understand what I should do. I called a dear friend, an Orthodox rabbi, who I knew would be both compassionate and firm. After consulting with his rabbi, he said the case was clear. In situations where the mother’s health is at risk and the fetus (he explicitly said fetus) is not viable, Jewish law errs on the side of the mother’s health. I should have the operation and I should not bury the fetus — it is not a life.

The next morning I got the following message, “Because your fetus still has a heartbeat, it has been our experience that insurance companies in Ohio will not cover the costs of the operation. They consider it an optional abortion. Our office suggests that you go to Planned Parenthood, which will only run you $800. If you go to the hospital it will be over $10,000.” I was stunned. What did my insurance company want, for me to have a dangerous late-stage miscarriage or go through the risks of labor to give birth to a stillborn? And why this obsession with the heartbeat as the sole marker of life? What about organ and brain function, what about viability? At that moment, I was extremely grateful for Planned Parenthood. But I still didn’t want to go there. I wanted to support them, but I didn’t want to have an abortion. I didn’t even want to have anything that seemed like an abortion. I wanted to be pregnant. I wanted to have a baby.

My home morphed into a crazy lair of pencil scribbling, tissues and phone numbers. For three days we fought. My husband, my parents and my doctors made phone calls, wrote letters and tried every avenue possible to get the insurance company to change their mind. Finally, three days later, we got the news. Because of my doctor’s carefully crafted letter, my insurance company would cover the procedure.

I thought the political nightmare was over. I thought I could start the process of mourning. I was wrong.
Another phone call, this time from the office of the OBGYN performing the procedure. You must come in 24 hours in advance. “Why?” “To sign a consent form.” “What consent form?” Silence. “Well, you only don’t have to sign it if you were raped.” I was still completely confused. “I wasn’t raped. I don’t understand. What are you talking about?” “You are having an optional abortion right?” “No. I am having a therapeutic D&C (dilation and curettage operation to remove the fetus and womb lining) to remove a non-viable fetus.” “But the baby is alive?” “Well, according to my religious faith, that is not so.” “Is there a heartbeat?” “Yes.” “Then, I am sorry to say, you are having an elective abortion and you must sign an informed consent 24 hours before the operation.”

Roe v. Wade gave states the right to regulate abortion. State laws can mandate that doctors describe the risks of abortion and receive the informed consent of a woman before proceeding. In Ohio, a physician must meet with the pregnant woman 24 hours before the operation to explain the procedure, give the state sponsored materials on alternatives to abortion and receive a signed form stating that the pregnant woman “consents to the particular abortion voluntarily, knowingly, intelligently, and without coercion by any person….” There are “medical necessity” exceptions to this ruling, but due to custom more than statute, the sign of a heartbeat trumps other prognoses.

While Ohio is not the only state preoccupied with the heartbeat, it seems to be one of the most committed. On March 3, 2011, two pregnant women received ultrasounds in a state committee hearing. As Charles Lewis of the National Post reported, “The lobbying effort to end abortion in the United States moved into strange new territory Wednesday as two fetuses were presented via ultrasound to a packed committee room of the Ohio state legislature.” State legislatures looked on as “a technician used a probe to show images of each woman’s fetus on a portable screen. A heart monitor was used to project the sound of the beating heart of each fetus, nine and 15 weeks.” This display was in service of the Heartbeat Bill, a piece of legislation that would make abortion illegal once a heartbeat could be detected. The bill passed the House but not the Senate.

In the vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan continued in this tradition, explaining his pro-life decision as a matter of “reason and science.” He continued, “You know, I think about 10 ½ years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born, for our seven week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat.” What is going on here? Why have so many people settled on the heartbeat as the best marker of life in-utero? This is not science. It is the tyranny of a metaphor.

There is little consensus among biologists, doctors and ethicists on when life begins. The language here can be tricky. There all sorts of things they agree are alive — from cells, to animals, to people. But that is not what they mean when they discuss life in utero. In this case, they mean life as something endowed with humanness, and worthy of rights, something closer to personhood. A brief look at the literature reveals a litany of standards for determining personhood: conception (day 1), implantation (day 6-7), detectable heartbeat (approximately week 6), detectable brain activity (approximately week 8), quickening (when the mother can feel the fetus moving), development of the cerebral cortex (at the end of the first trimester), viability outside the mother’s body (now as early as 24 weeks with medical support), when the head is visible during labor, and when the baby takes its first breath. Smart, thoughtful people genuinely disagree. Even the Supreme Court had this to say about the issue in 1973: “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciples of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus….”

In Judaism, the dominant metaphor for life is not the heartbeat — it is the breath. In Genesis 2:7, God breathes life into man: “Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man become a living soul.” Even that final word, soul, nefesh, can be translated as breath. My own rabbi’s rabbi, Dov Linzer, explained it to me in this way. The definition of life can also be understood through our definition of death. At the end of life, the Talmud speaks almost exclusively about breathing. Breath was used as an indicator for life. The Shulchan Aruch says to test for a dying person’s breath to know whether or not they are alive. So, if death is the absence of breath, life is the presence of breath. Life, personhood, is marked when the baby takes its first breath.

While a fetus is not considered actual life, Jewish law does acknowledge a continuum between potential and actual life, which guides, among other considerations, including the health of the mother, abortion rulings. According to Rabbi Linzer, the presence of a heartbeat, in itself, is not an important Jewish legal marker in determining the viability of life in utero. Even in the strictest ruling, he related to me, the fetus has to be able to live for a day outside of the mother’s womb to be considered a viable life. The definition of potential life, he said, “is fully dependent on it being able to be born.”

Life is not instantaneous. It is an arduous, miraculous, process. So many steps have to align — so much has to go exactly right for a baby to take its first breath. When we start to think of life this way, the pro-choice/pro-life debates seem to me almost cruel. Neither accurately explains the moral nuance of each individual’s situation or honors the complexity of creation. I wish we could reframe the debate and talk more about what it would mean to honor the sanctity of life. To honor the actual lives of pregnant women and the potential lives they hold within them.

On June 19, I sat down in another doctor’s office and, as was required of me, read the pamphlet, “Fetal Development and Family Planning.” I looked at pictures of fetuses at 12 and 14 weeks. I learned that at 12 weeks “a doctor may be able tell if it is a boy or a girl,” and at 14 weeks “the head is erect and the legs are developed.” The doctor was kind and she didn’t make me watch the sonogram. She told me how lucky I was that my insurance would cover this and that she had a patient just a few months ago with my prognosis that had to give birth to a stillborn.

The next day, I had the operation. In the hospital, nurses, many of whom told me that they leaned toward pro-life, sympathized with my situation. Together, we chatted about the D&C, about how complicated it can be to have a child, and about how difficult this kind of a miscarriage can be. In those hours the debate between pro-choice and pro-life dissolved into one much more subtle and specific, one between the health of a mother and the viability of a fetus. One that felt like it was just about me.

When the anesthesia wore off, my two friends, who had traveled to be with me for the operation, told me that the doctor had come in. What did she say? She said the operation went very well. She also said that they did a sonogram before the operation. Tamara, she said, the heartbeat had already stopped. or

“Elohim Creating Adam” (modified) by William Blake, circa 1795 – 1805.

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Memoir of the dying process

Hitchens’ “Mortality” evokes an unforgettable voice

By Hussein Ibish,  September 11, 2012


Narratives about dying are among the least appealing genre of memoir. Whether first-person or narrated by some long-suffering beloved, it seems almost impossible to strike a tone that is sufficiently moving and engaging, while simultaneously avoiding the maudlin, predictable or downright dull.

Given this opinion, had he not been a close friend of mine, I would probably have avoided reading Christopher Hitchens’ final, posthumously published, book, Mortality. But it would’ve been a terrible mistake: this is painful but richly rewarding reading.

The last few chapters are either new, or among the essays I chose not to read when they were first published out of sheer cowardice as their subject matter and tone—mirroring his own condition—grew increasingly brutal. If one of the reasons for my generalized disinterest in memoirs of dying is a certain lack of empathy, then a sudden and equally undignified excess of it blocked my ability to follow the last installments of my friend’s account of his illness’ final, inevitable outcome.

As I knew would be the case, Christopher spares us nothing regarding the ever-escalating physical and emotional trauma to which he was being subjected. I was probably right to avert my eyes at the time. My reaction wouldn’t have done anybody any good. But, as Christopher rightly admonishes us, “the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else.”

Mortality manages to avoid almost all the pitfalls of the memoir of illness or dying. It’s brief and to the point. It’s learned and reflective. It’s unsentimental but cries out with genuine human emotion: for himself, those around him including caregivers, and for humanity in general.

Christopher doesn’t feel sorry for himself, exactly, but he does acknowledge that he was being tortured. He compares his illness and treatment to the time he was voluntarily waterboarded in order to test the patently false Bush administration claims the technique did not constitute torture.

A particularly haunting passage is an extended meditation on Nietzsche’s dictum “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”—an evidently ludicrous proposition. Nietzsche experienced a profound trauma when interfering to prevent the brutal beating of a horse. Christopher links this episode to “the awful, graphic dream [also of a horse being beaten] experienced by Raskolnikov on the night before he commits the decisive murders in ‘Crime and Punishment.'” Christopher manifestly compares his trauma with Nietzsche’s, but there’s also a latent, and clear, identification with the horses.

For more than 10 years I was a frequent visitor to his Washington apartment. Even though he writes that “Friends and relatives, obviously, don’t really have the option of not making kind inquiries,” that was exactly what I decided to do from the outset. I never asked anything, and silently absorbed whatever he or his wife, Carol Blue (who writes a moving afterword to Mortality), chose to tell me.

The only thing I had to offer was the normalcy of friendship and of conversations about anything and everything except cancer. In a barely excusable way, it’s gratifying to read that this paltry offering was not in vain since, “My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends.”

One of the most moving themes in Mortality is Christopher’s powerfully conveyed horror at the inexorable erosion of his ability to do the two main things he lived for: speak and write. His illness, he writes, deprived him of “the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.” It took a while to set in, but the decline in both his ability and will to speak as he once did so masterfully was painfully obvious. His internal reflections on this terror are, inevitably, all the more deeply affecting.

In this context, he provides invaluable advice for writers: “Find your own voice.” For Christopher, writing was an extension of talking: “If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I could ever have achieved much on the page.” It’s hard to overstate how much this resonates with me, since I use software to dictate, not type, almost everything I write. This advice helps most if you can think in complete sentences and paragraphs. Christopher thought in fully realized essays and even books.

As he chronicles his illness, Christopher continues to rail at his favorite targets: religious superstition (including intersessionary prayers on his own behalf), abuses by government (including the torture practiced by his adopted American homeland), irrationality, and any easy retreat into comforting illusions.

Had he been granted more of a reprieve, Christopher probably could have written a definitive memoir of the dying process. As it is, he’s left us a final fierce, unflinching and defiant parting shot that is plainly unfinished, but eminently worthy of his brilliant pen and, above all, that mighty, unforgettable voice.

Photograph of the author in Houston, where he was receiving treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center.  Christopher Hitchens died on Thursday, December 15, 2011.

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