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Germany’s bright side amid refugee crisis

When supporters of the anti-immigrant Pegida movement and rightwing extremists in the former East Germany started demonstrating by the tens of thousands this year against foreigners and “American Zionist” policies, I got mad.

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Middle East

JUDITH KESSLER

When supporters of the anti-immigrant Pegida movement and rightwing extremists in the former East Germany started demonstrating by the tens of thousands this year against foreigners and “American Zionist” policies, I got mad.

When the first refugee homes in Germany were set on fire, I was shocked. When another refugee home was torched each night and thousands of hate comments appeared on Facebook, I started feeling numb.

When some kids called me a “Jewish pig” and spat at me one night in a Berlin neighbourhood with many Muslim immigrants, I felt sick.

For the first time in my life, I took off my Star of David necklace. And I felt ashamed: at the humiliation, at my own cowardice, at the feelings of hate suddenly welling up inside me.

Then, overnight, everything changed.

When thousands of asylum seekers arrived here during a 100-degree heat wave, with kids and the elderly, hungry and thirsty, waiting for days in chaotic conditions at a refugee processing centre, Berliners spontaneously showed up, too.

Tattooed Berliners, unemployed Berliners, women in headscarves, retirees, schoolchildren, neatly coiffed secretaries – they all came, bringing food, sleeping bags or clothing.

And I awoke from my bad dream. Germany was suddenly different. The images in my mind started to shift: No more cattle cars reminding me of the Holocaust. Instead I witnessed people waiting with signs reading “Refugees welcome” and saw the smiling faces of new arrivals.

I signed up for one of the refugee initiatives that have popped up everywhere like mushrooms. Since then, I’ve been busy at local refugee centres sorting donations, handing out food, writing applications, getting diapers, organising day trips.

In the blink of an eye, my husband is now taking care of a Syrian family, and we’re going to make sure that Doha from Lebanon and Bilal from Syria, with their three traumatised little children, will be able to move from their “16 square metres of Germany” in the refugee home into a real apartment, that they can learn German, and that they will have a chance to really make it here.

Right at the outset, my husband said to them: “By the way, my wife is Jewish. So you have a problem with that?” Doha began to cry and put her arms around me.

The wave of refugees is basically our only topic at the dinner table. Even last weekend, when I was in Vienna visiting friends, I left their party to go to the Vienna West train station, where more than 8 000 Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees, who had been treated like cattle in Hungary, were waiting further transport.

The helpfulness of the Viennese was overwhelming, and I was euphoric. Despite the anti-foreigner rhetoric of some politicians, the Viennese people were just the opposite, and just like the do-gooders in Berlin.

Of course, I worry that the atmosphere will change back again, that the “dark side” of Germany will take over, that the people will lose the strength and desire to help when it’s about kindergartens and jobs for a million refugees, not just about handing out granola bars and cola.

But I am still hopeful. In the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell apart, Israel – with a population of about five million – rapidly absorbed more than a million Russian-speaking immigrants. So it can work, and it can enrich society – if the will is there.

Some Jews do want this. And there are many Jews among the volunteers.

But I am nevertheless disappointed in many Jewish communities that remain silent in the face of this crisis. I am disappointed by my Jewish friends who talk about tikkun olam, tzedakah and gemilut hasadim – repairing the world, charity and acts of loving kindness – but callously are ready to send refugees back into the war zones from which they fled, see a potential terrorist in every migrant and say the boats are full.

Practically none of us Jews were born in Germany; almost all of us have lost people and a homeland, have escaped from somewhere and were welcomed here in Germany. My parents were refugees. I was a refugee from Poland. I see myself in the newcomers, and I’m wearing my Star of David again. (JTA)

(Judith Kessler is a Berlin-based journalist who has studied immigration; she came to Germany with her family from Poland in 1972. This piece was translated from German by JTA’s Toby Axelrod.)

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Gary Selikow

    Sep 11, 2015 at 9:02 am

    ‘I oppose the invasion of Europe by the Muslim migrants.

    These refugees are a threat to Western civilization and as Muslims do in Europe mass gang rape women and girls in these countries.

    As far as the UK gos I can certainly say the following : he

    NHS cannot afford cancer drugs for people who are dying, ex-servicemen

    are being kicked out of council houses. These people demmand sharia law

    and try change Britain’s way of life, they attack and rape British

    womnen and children. You creating a big

    problem, and a bad image for Jews, by supporting this invasion Britain

    overall has been good to us as Jews, do we want to repay them by

    supporting this invasion that willd estroy Briain and displace its

    native population British Jews need to be in touch with majority opinion

    and to respect the host population of the UK Julie Burchill makes the

    very important and true point that it is easy for the middle and upper

    classes not affected negatively by immigration to condemn the working

    classes who suffer as a result of it: \”That the working class might have

    a thoroughly legitimate reason for becoming more agitated about

    immigration that the tolerant middle class with their health

    insurance,private schools and comfy cars is never considered by these

    usually oh so caring people\”

  2. Denis Solomons

    Sep 16, 2015 at 7:30 am

    ‘Germany now seems to be the country that has taken the high moral ground and seems to have taken an ethical stance in terms of taking in refugees .

    a far cry from its sinister past of Naziism , Holocausts etc .

    Is Angela Merkel the catalyst or the so-called Angel of Mercy.?

    Germany’s economic status in Europe has also helped tremendously . ‘

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Middle East

True relevance of the anniversary of the Islamic revolution

This week, 40 years ago, Iran’s military stood down, guaranteeing the Islamic Revolution’s success.

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PAULA SLIER

After months of unrest and protests in cities across the country, a secular monarchy headed by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, colloquially known as the Shah, was overthrown.

This dramatic turn-of-events would reshape the Middle East for decades to come, introducing a string of events, the implications of which are still being felt today.

Before the 1979 revolution, the Shah used much of the country’s oil and gas money to modernise the capital, Tehran. He largely ignored those living in the countryside, and came under increasing criticism for being out of touch with citizens, and serving as a puppet of Western governments.

It was a recipe bound for failure. The devout and the clergy became increasingly frustrated with his changes, and the expectations of the burgeoning middle class, especially students, could never be completely fulfilled.

In spite of the many reforms the Shah introduced, he could not stem the nationwide protests. In response, government forces killed thousands of demonstrators.

Although the unrest was initiated by radical student groups, religious fundamentalists gradually gained the upper hand. They rallied around the Shah’s primary critic, Islamic cleric Ruhollah Khomeini, who stood for everything the Shah did not. Khomeini envisaged an Iranian government founded on the principles of Islam, which was deeply opposed to the West. When he returned to Tehran from exile on 1 February 1979, he received a rapturous welcome.

Understanding what led to the revolution and the changes the country has undergone since is important in trying to map out future relations between Iran and Israel.

In a recent interview, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “We think of Iran as a state with an ideology, but actually Iran really is an ideology with a state.”

The cornerstone of the Iranian revolution, and one of its most important goals was the exportation of Shia Islam outside the country’s borders. Becoming a regional powerhouse remains one of the Islamic Republic’s overriding priorities. Even today, in spite of the country’s massive economic problems, in an effort to gain regional hegemony, it continues to prop up its proxies in Lebanon via Hezbollah (which it created), and in Gaza via Hamas.

This is also the most opportune way to attack Israel, a country Khomeini described in 1971 as having “penetrated all the economic, military, and political affairs” of Iran and turning it into “a military base for Israel”. The Iranian regime is relentlessly devoted to the destruction of the Jewish state.

It’s a far cry from pre-revolution days. Like the United States, Israel was closely allied to the Shah and before February 1979, the countries shared diplomatic and even some national security relations. Khomeini used this relationship to his advantage, arguing that Israel was a Western intrusion, and he was freeing the region from “imperialist” Israeli oppression. One of the first things he did after assuming power was abruptly to sever diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.

This past Monday, hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the country’s streets to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the revolution. They chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, while burning US and Israeli flags. A commander from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps threatened to “raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground” in the event of an American attack on the country.

Quick to respond, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that this would be Iran’s last anniversary of the revolution if it attacked any Israeli cities.

This trading of barbs is nothing new. The question, of course, is whether either side is willing to make true on its threats.

Some experts say Iran is willing to risk its own destruction to fight Israel. Others believe Tehran would never go that far and would rather continue to pour money into its proxy armies.

These experts back up their arguments by pointing out that in spite of the recent humiliations Tehran has suffered in Syria from Israeli airstrikes, it has avoided any major confrontation with the Jewish state.

In its heyday, the relationship with Iran formed part of Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion’s, vision of cultivating relations with the non-Arab, mostly Muslim, enemies of its enemies.

Known as the “periphery doctrine”, chief among these Israeli partners were Turkey and pre-revolution Iran.

Nowadays Israel has a “reverse periphery doctrine”, forging alliances with major Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. The logic is the same – but in reverse. These countries share a common enemy in Iran.

But, it doesn’t alleviate the very real threat Tehran continues to pose. The country is developing longer range and more sophisticated missiles that can reach American and Israeli targets. It is building weapons factories in Syria in the hope of establishing a permanent military presence near Israel’s northern border. Like the revolution that heralded the current leadership four decades ago, Iran’s rulers are intent on sponsoring their proxies, and destroying Israel.

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Middle East

How kite flying turned into all-out warfare

It was less than three years ago that a wave of stabbings engulfed the streets of Israel – particularly Jerusalem and the West Bank – prompting many to refer to the flare-up in violence as a “knife intifada”. Now, it looks like a “kite intifada” is on the cards.

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PAULA SLIER

It is ironic that Israel has some of the world’s most sophisticated air defence systems, but it hasn’t been able to stop these kites – a relatively simple phenomenon of kites dangling burning cloth or embers – from being flown into Israel.

It’s reminiscent of when Palestinian militants first started using Qassam rockets in the early 2000s. The “homemade bottle rocket” took the Israeli army by surprise, especially as it was something that could be made in a kitchen.

The great Israel Defence Forces (IDF) struggled to contain the threat of what is effectively sugar, smuggled or scavenged TNT, along with potassium and urea nitrate – both widely available fertilizers.

It was only much later that it deployed the “Red Alert” early warning system, made up of advanced radar, which detected rockets as they were being launched. Since March 2011, the Iron Dome has entered the fray, intercepting rockets before they can hit their targets.

Now again, like in the early years of the Qassam rocket, Israeli military figures are scratching their heads over how to stop kite and balloon warfare. While the IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is against firing at the teenage flyers, many in the political echelon support it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the IDF to stop the firebombs – reportedly giving Friday as the deadline. This raises concerns that if it doesn’t happen, another Gaza war could be on the cards.

Kites have long been a big deal in Gaza. Seven years ago, Palestinian children set the world record for flying the most number of kites at one time. The ones they built had slogans on them calling for a lasting peace with Israel, in which Palestinian children could live in safety and security.

The message today is very different. The kite flyers have admitted to stumbling upon the idea. Wanting to provoke Israeli soldiers, they say they attached a burning rag to a one-dollar kite and were delighted when it fell on the other side of the border and started a fire.

This incendiary kite flying is relatively new to Gaza. However, over the past few months, thousands of kites and balloons – about 20 a day – have landed in Israel. They have been attached to firebombs and Molotov cocktails in order to inflict maximum damage.

According to the Israel’s foreign ministry, more than 400 fires were started on Israeli farmlands and nature reserves, destroying more than an estimated 7 000 acres of land and costing more than $2 million (R26 million) in damages. A huge number of wildlife have been killed and experts say it will take many years, if at all, for the ecosystem of plants, predators and prey to fully recover.

Not all the kites have caused fires and there haven’t been any fatalities on the Israeli side. Nevertheless, they’ve certainly put psychological stress on the communities living in southern Israel. They’ve in turn increasingly put pressure on the Israeli government to do something.

For the first time since the phenomenon started, Netanyahu visited the southern Israeli city of Sderot on Monday.

Until now he’s been more focused on the country’s northern border, where he’s trying to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military foothold in Syria.

Netanyahu is wary of escalating tensions on the Gaza border. However, last weekend more than 200 rockets and mortars were fired by Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Israel responded with its largest airstrike in the coastal strip since 2014. In a rare admission, Hamas said it had sent the rockets and mortars to deter Israel from more attacks.

Also known as Operation Protective Edge, that 2014 war started this month four years ago. Still, Israeli residents on the border find themselves living in as precarious a situation now as then.

At the time of writing, a ceasefire brokered by Egypt between the sides is holding, but tensions are high. The United Nations special envoy says an all-out war was narrowly averted. Jerusalem insists the kite flying must stop for the truce to sustain itself. However, Hamas earlier threatened that if the kite flyers are attacked, they’ll “go back to rockets”.

For this reason, the Israeli military urged the Cabinet “not to cross the line: not to try to kill the organisers, lest it trigger a general escalation on the border”.

And so Israel has drafted civilian drone enthusiasts as army reservists and instructed them to fly their remote-controlled aircraft into the kites. The army has also deployed a number of companies along the Gaza border to monitor the skies and quickly put out the fires.

The good news is that their effect is being felt. In recent weeks, there has been a steady decline in the size of the areas damaged by ensuing fires.

But just like with the Qassam rockets, a long-term effective means to stop the kites has yet to be found. As for the balloons, they are flown from deeper inside Gaza, often at a height of more than a kilometre, and are hard to spot with the naked eye before landing and starting a fire.

Then there’s the added problem of how the international community and media judge any Israeli response.

The recent six-week “Great March of Return”, in which more than 130 Palestinians were killed in protests along the border, is still seen by many in the global community as a “disproportionate” Israeli response to “unarmed” Palestinian protesters. That is despite all Israeli arguments to the contrary.

There will be little to no sympathy if the IDF now kills children flying kites and balloons because of some fires near the Gaza Strip. It will also be seen as immoral.

When Jerusalem finally gets a handle on the “kite intifada”, there will no doubt be something new in the pipeline that will terrorise the Israeli public. The cycle will continue for as long as the two million Gazans feel compelled to search for desperate measures to break the decade-long blockade imposed on them by Israel and Egypt. And, for as long as they search, Israelis will continue seeing their response as another form of Palestinian terrorism.

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Middle East

Israel’s diplomacy with Russia reaps benefits in Syria

Media reports suggest that Iranian forces, assisted by Hezbollah and Shia militias, are to withdraw from the areas they currently occupy near the Golan Heights in southern Syria.

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PAULA SLIER

This is a huge victory for Israel, whose position has been consistent: not to allow any kind of Iranian military camps to be set up near Israel’s northern border with Syria.

The Israelis have achieved this by getting Moscow on their side. After all, it is Russia who calls the shots in Syria. It has been doing so ever since September 2015, when it was invited by the Damascus government to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

In the past week, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited the Russian capital, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a telephone discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Reports suggest that both sides agreed that Moscow would allow Jerusalem – albeit tacitly – to attack Iranian sites in Syria, as long as they were not tied to the Damascus government, which Russia supports.

Netanyahu is all smiles. Repeatedly he’s made his position clear: allowing Iran to set up military bases in Syria is a red line from which he won’t budge. And since May, there has certainly been a change in Russia’s behaviour towards Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

Think back to February, when the Israeli air force shot down an Iranian drone that had entered Israeli territory. Jerusalem responded with two waves of aerial bombardments that destroyed almost half of Syria’s air defence systems.

In a foreign ministry statement, Moscow objected to Israel’s violation of Syrian sovereignty, while ignoring Tehran’s provocation by sending in the drone in the first place.

Moscow would have known when the Iranian drone took off, as it was very close to its air-control centre in the Syrian city of Palmyra. Moscow chose not to give the Israelis any warning.

At the time, there was a lot of discussion and analysis about whether Russia had taken Iran’s side in the conflagration.

Compare this to last month’s 9 May Victory Day celebrations, when Netanyahu had pride of place, walking alongside Putin in Red Square during the ceremonial military parade. The following night, the Israeli air force carried out massive attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, it’s largest action there in decades.

This time, the Russians did not issue a strong statement of criticism against Jerusalem – and in so doing sent a tacit message to both the Israelis and the Iranians. The message: Russia is not in the pocket of Iran, and is prepared to turn the cheek when Israel strikes Iranian sites in Syria.

Jerusalem has repeatedly vowed to prevent Tehran establishing a permanent presence in Syria. In recent months, Jerusalem has carried out dozens of air strikes against Iran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Should the Russians have chosen to do so, they would have had the ability to protect such targets with their own air force and air defence systems inside Syria. But clearly they’ve chosen not to.

Israel has always respected Russia’s involvement in Syria, presumably because she sees it as a means of stabilising her northern neighbour. In return, Russia understands Israel’s security concerns.

Netanyahu has made it abundantly clear on repeated occasions that he will not shy away from using military force to keep Iran out of Syria.

No doubt, Moscow wants to avoid a military confrontation between Russia and Israel that would risk a direct clash with American President Donald Trump, who sits squarely behind Jerusalem.

Now, as the war in Syria winds down, Moscow is pushing for a peace settlement to be hammered out as soon as possible. Iranian advancement in Syria destabilises the chances of success. What’s more, the Russians are distrustful of Tehran.

The countries share a complicated and uneasy history. Moscow’s standing in the Middle East is the strongest it’s been in decades. It doesn’t want to upset relationships it’s worked hard to cultivate with other major powers in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis.

Politically, Putin doesn’t need the war in Syria to earn him brownie points back home. He campaigned heavily on his foreign policy achievements in the Middle East and North Africa ahead of the Russian presidential elections in March. However, now that he’s secured a fourth term in office, his attentions have turned elsewhere.

Iran, meanwhile, says it won’t withdraw its troops from Syria, arguing that, like Russia, it is in the war-torn country at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But it’s questionable what the Iranians could do should Moscow pressure them to leave. Assad would listen to Moscow; and ultimately the Iranians would follow suit.

This week, Tehran announced that it was working to increase its uranium enrichment capacity in a threat to European powers who are desperately trying to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal after the Trump administration withdrew from it.

The country is trying to save face in what was a huge blow, not only for Iranian reformists, but also for the Iranian economy which is now bracing for crippling sanctions.

For Tehran to have to withdraw from Syria would be another major setback to the country’s prestige. It would also hinder the establishment of an overland stretch of influence from Iran to southern Lebanon.

It’s still too early to say whether Israel’s diplomacy with Russia will result in the complete removal of Iran from Syria. Israel’s success so far seems to have been only to keep Iranian forces away from her border.

The next step will be for Netanyahu to convince Putin that Iranian forces must leave Syria completely. It remains to be seen whether he can succeed.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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