Posts Tagged Juan Cole

The original truck people

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on August 31.

Austrian authorities on Thursday discovered an abandoned truck on a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposed bodies of 71 dead migrants, including four children. While migrants have perished at sea in the multitudes, this tragedy has put Europe on notice: The horrors from which the migrants flee, and that regularly play themselves out in the middle of the Mediterranean, will soon become commonplace in the heart of the continent unless something changes.

Now how addled and obsessed must one be, to use this event as a stick to beat Israel? About as addled and obsessed as Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan and popular blogger on the edge of the left. See as evidence this post: “Austrian Truck Tragedy echoes Palestinian Story, reminding us of 7 million still stateless [Palestinians].”

What is that Palestinian story? It is a 1962 novella by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani entitled Men in the Sun. The allegorical storyline is about three Palestinians who flee the misery of Lebanon’s refugee camps to Iraq, in the hope of reaching the Xanadu of Kuwait. They are smuggled across the desert from Basra in the empty barrel of a water tanker truck. But because of a delay at the Kuwaiti border, the three suffocate to death. (The novella was made into a film in 1972.)

I won’t make an issue of the “seven million still stateless” Palestinians. (The upper-end estimate is closer to five million.) And far be it from me to quibble with anyone’s free associations. But Cole tops off his with this statement, which purports to be historical: the Palestinians’ “home has been stolen from them by the Israelis and they were unceremoniously dumped on the neighbors or in the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip. They are stateless. They are the original truck people.” (My emphasis.)

This concluding dramatic flourish, identifying the Palestinians as “the original truck people,” jolted me. The first people made stateless, dispossessed, stripped of their humanity, and packed into sealed trucks where they died horribly, all in the very heart of Europe, were many thousands of Jewish victims of the Nazi extermination machine.

As anyone who has read even one history of the Holocaust knows, before there were gas chambers there were mobile gas vans. These were air-tight trucks which could be packed with as many as sixty persons, who would be killed by cycling the carbon monoxide exhaust back into the cargo area. Himmler ordered the invention of the method to spare the Germans in SS killing squads the damaging psychological effects of shooting thousands of victims, one at a time. The trucks were deployed primarily to kill Jews, who were loaded into them without separation by gender or age. I will spare readers the horrific testimonies of the operators of these trucks, and the documentary evidence of how technicians worked to perfect them. I’ll only quote this argument, made by a technician, for keeping the cargo area lit:

When the back door is closed and it gets dark inside, the load pushes hard against the door. The reason for this is that when it becomes dark inside the load rushes toward what little light is left. This hampers the locking of the door. It has also been noticed that the noise [i.e., screams] provoked by the locking of the door is linked to the fear aroused by the darkness. It is therefore expedient to keep the lights on before the operation and during the first few minutes of its duration. Lighting is often useful for night work and for the cleaning of the interior of the van.

Hundreds of thousands died in these trucks, at least 150,000 in Chelmno alone. According to that same technician, three vehicles succeeded in killing 97,000 persons in the six months prior to June 1942. However, it turned out that the mobile gas vans were subject to breakdown on the back roads where they operated away from sight, and even then they proved impossible to keep secret. (Passersby could hear the screams.) Gas chambers located in extermination camps finally replaced the vans.

Of course, one mustn’t confuse botched human trafficking with planned genocide. But part of what is so shocking about the Austrian truck tragedy is the earlier precedent of men, women, and children packed into trucks and asphyxiated to death in the heart of Europe. If the horror on the Austrian motorway should evoke anyone’s fate, it is that of six million exterminated Jews, not five million living Palestinians. To anyone who knows history, death trucks on European highways recall why the “original truck people,” the Jews, needed the refuge finally secured by the creation of Israel.

Deportation of Jews from Wloclawek, Poland to the Chelmno Death Camp, April 1942.

Deportation of Jews from Wloclawek, Poland to the Chelmno Death Camp, April 1942. Photo: Yad Vashem.

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    Shoddy and inaccurate?

    Juan Cole, the University of Michigan professor and blogger, fancies himself a fact-checker who uncovers hidden truths via the Arabic press. He attempted this most recently in a post entitled “Did the Muslim Brotherhood Threaten to Kill ‘All Jews’?”

    His target was a report from Cairo by the Israeli journalist Eldad Beck, written for the Israeli daily Yedi’ot Aharonot (Ynet). The English-language version of Beck’s report, referenced by Cole, carried this headline: “Cairo rally: One day we’ll kill all Jews.” It described a rally held on November 25 and organized in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood at Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo. The report included this line: “Time and again, a Koran quote vowing that ‘one day we shall kill all the Jews’ was uttered at the site.” Some newspapers and many blogs recycled Beck’s report.

    Cole sprang into action. First, he unearthed a short Arabic press report of the same event, “clearly written by a reporter on the scene,” and announced this discovery: “It does not say anything about the speakers or the crowd threatening to kill all Jews, and I don’t believe any such threat was made.” Cole then added that no Qur’anic verse speaks of killing the Jews: “The Qur’an doesn’t call for all Jews to be killed, and neither did the Muslim Brotherhood last Friday.” Beck, he declared, “clearly does not know what he is talking about”; his reporting of the rally was “shoddy and wholly inaccurate.” Cole capped his reprimand with an accusation: “If Beck had simply said that the Muslim Brotherhood crowds want Jerusalem back for Islamdom and evinced hostility toward Israelis, he would have been right. But his breathless exaggeration slides over into Islamophobia.”

    Cole thought he’d exposed a case of journalistic incompetence, but I wondered. Eldad Beck is a serious correspondent. He did a degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at the Sorbonne, and is renowned for traveling to Arab and Muslim countries on a European passport to report from places Israeli journalists dare not tread (e.g., Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan). Cole referenced Beck’s report in English, but it originally appeared in Hebrew, and I suspected the Hebrew original might be more precise. So I consulted it.

    It’s a more detailed report than the English translation of it. In the key passage, Beck wrote the following (my own translation from the Hebrew):

    Brotherhood speakers and their guests from “Palestine” called explicitly for a jihad to liberate all of Palestine. Again and again, the quote was referenced, according to which “the day will come and we will kill all the Jews until even the stones and trees will say to us: ‘a Jew hides behind us, kill him!'”

    So that’s it. Beck had heard speakers recite a well-known canonical hadith (a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), about an event that will signal the imminence of Judgement Day. It goes like this (with only the slightest variations depending on the hadith collection):

    The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The Hour will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. When a Jew hides behind a rock or a tree, it will say, ‘O Muslim, O servant of Allah! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!'”

    Note that Beck didn’t attribute this “quote” to the Qur’an. That (erroneous) attribution was apparently introduced into the English translation by a Ynet translator. And Beck did label it a “quote.” Precisely.

    In the comments section of Cole’s post, someone actually did speculate that perhaps the “hiding Jew” hadith was recited at the rally. Cole dismissed this: “The Arabic accounts don’t report that one [hadith] chanted at al-Husayn [Square, i.e., Al Azhar].” Well, those accounts (actually, Cole linked to only one) are incomplete. At least two speakers at the Azhar rally recited the hadith.

    One was Abd al-Rahman al-Barr, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau. If you know Arabic, you can watch him recite it, at minute 8:10 of this clip filmed inside the mosque. (Clicking will take you right to the moment.)

    And he wasn’t the only one: Shaykh Muhammad Mukhtar al-Mahdi, professor at Al Azhar and head of the Islamic Law Society, did so too at minute 8:05 of this clip, also filmed inside the mosque. (Clicking will take you directly to that moment.)

    So Beck did hear the hadith recited at least twice, and he reported that fact.

    In response to that same reader who guessed at the “hiding Jew” hadith, Cole made another off-base rejoinder. “There are thousands of hadith,” he huffed in a comment on the comment. “Most Muslims don’t accept the weak or obscure ones.” Well, it’s true that there are thousands of hadiths, but Islamic scholarship has a methodology for determining the weak ones. The “hiding Jew” hadith is included in the most canonical hadith collections (Bukhari and Muslim) as sahih, “authentic,” and is classified as marfu’, “elevated”—a hadith traceable in an unbroken line back to the Prophet Muhammad. It’s rated triple-A. Nor is it obscure. In fact, it’s one of the most quoted Jew-related passages in the Islamic canon. It figures most notably in the Hamas covenant (art. 7), and you can watch the late Osama Bin Laden recite it too (min. 45:17).

    As to the substance, I suppose there is some difference between Muslim extremists vowing to “one day kill all Jews,” and their quoting an end-of-times prophecy that Muslims will one day kill the Jews with the help of rocks and trees that will betray the stragglers. I’m just not sure how much of a difference it is. In any case, though, the hadith predates the State of Israel by well over a millennium, so it certainly can’t be attributed to Israeli provocation. Those who invoke it—the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Bin Laden—root their hatred of Israel in a much deeper stratum of Islamic animosity toward the Jews. Those who downplay that sort of Judeophobia just help to perpetuate it.

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      ABC: Anything But Cole

      Juan Cole is running two campaigns on his blog. One is against Israel—business as usual for Cole. The other is promoting his blog in the 2008 Weblog Awards competition (Middle East category), where there are ten finalists (I am one).

      Yesterday, Cole called on his readers to turn out and vote for him. His pitch? “The ‘Middle East’ category is dominated by Neocons. Where are Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark), Helena Cobban, Angry Arab, Raed in the Middle, etc., etc. I think the initial nomination voting must have been orchestrated.” In other words: a neocon conspiracy! It’s even subverted the 2008 Weblog Awards!

      So Cole, having raised the specter of the neocons, riled up his supporters, and his vote count rose considerably, putting him in the lead. But at that point, he must have realized that it was unseemly for him to have dismissed the procedures of an award he might even win. (Hey, with all those neocon blogs splitting the neocon vote, he could emerge on top! They’ve screwed up, like in Iraq!) No problem. Just cut out the offending passage, as though it never existed.

      I’m a collector of Cole’s retro-editing of blog posts. He’ll write something erroneous or outrageous, and then excise it from the record, without so much as a strikeout. In one instance, he made a crude insinuation against me, then deleted it. In another, he wrote that 9/11 was “in response to the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp,” which he deleted when it turned out that, uh, Israel’s Jenin operation took place seven months after 9/11. He even once explained his “policy” on retro-editing—and then deleted that.

      Anyway, below is Cole’s original blog post of yesterday, which I retrieved from the Google cache not long before it disappeared from there as well. The prospect that Cole might win this award, in the midst of his wildly biased and hate-filled blogging on Gaza, is one I find repulsive. That the award should go to someone who retro-doctors his blog is likewise repulsive. So I urge readers to vote in the Middle East category, inspired by the principle of ABC—Anything But Cole. Vote for my blog (bit of a long shot), or Michael Totten’s (a fine blog, which won last year), or Israellycool (which isn’t far behind Cole), or any other sane blog. And you can vote once every 24 hours through January 13. Match Cole’s orchestration with your own. Click here to vote.

      Here is the expurgated “updated” revision of the same post, at the same url as the original.

      Addendum: This very day, Cole commits some egregious errors of chronology and fact. And he has retro-edited them out once more. I explain here.

      “Stop Juan Cole”: That’s the title of this post by Michael Totten, ridiculing Cole’s “asinine conspiracy theories.” Read it all.

        Cole spills wine at Cana

        Juan Cole today opens a dramatic post with the following passage, in response to the deaths yesterday, from Israeli fire, of several dozen Palestinian civilians sheltering at an UNRWA school in Gaza:

        In 1996, Israeli jets bombed a UN building where civilians had taken refuge at Cana/Qana in south Lebanon, killing 102 persons; in the place where Jesus is said to have made water into wine, Israeli bombs wrought a different sort of transformation. In the distant, picturesque port of Hamburg, a young graduate student studying traditional architecture of Aleppo saw footage like this on the news (graphic). He was consumed with anguish and the desire for revenge. He immediately wrote out a martyrdom will, pledging to die avenging the innocent victims, killed with airplanes and bombs that were a free gift from the United States. His name was Muhammad Atta. Five years later he piloted American Airlines 11 into the World Trade Center….

        You wonder if someone somewhere is writing out a will today.

        The post goes on to argue that America will pay the price of Israel’s “bloody-mindedness,” as it did on 9/11.

        Actually, Atta’s will was dated April 11, 1996—one week before the Qana tragedy, on April 18. We don’t know for certain why he made it, but it cannot be because he witnessed any footage from Qana, which was still in the future. And Cole apparently never read the will. It contains no pledge to die while avenging anyone. The will deals with disposition of Atta’s body and possessions in the event of his death. It’s not a “martyrdom will,” but a standardized one, provided by Atta’s Hamburg mosque. (You can read the full text here.)

        This is not Cole’s first problem with 9/11 chronology and facts. For an earlier instance, go here.

        Update: In the wake of this post, Cole has partly retro-edited his own post (without indicating so). Just for the record, below is the original.

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          Juan Cole loses head

          “The American deployment of terror against the Iraqi population has, of course, dwarfed anything the French accomplished in Egypt by orders of magnitude.” Juan Cole

          Juan Cole is busy promoting his new book Napoleon’s Egypt, the hook being a comparison between Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt and George W. Bush in Iraq. This could make for an interesting exercise in the hands of a thoughtful and dispassionate historian. In Cole’s hands, it just deteriorates into Bush-bashing, from which the American president emerges as a bigger deployer of terror than Napoleon.

          One of Cole’s angles is to emphasize the brutality of all occupations, which he highlights by telling this story of a French atrocity:

          At one point, the French are said to have brought 900 heads of slain insurgents to Cairo in bags and ostentatiously dumped them out before a crowd in one of that city’s major squares to instill Cairenes with terror. (Two centuries later, the American public would come to associate decapitations by Muslim terrorists in Iraq with the ultimate in barbarism, but even then hundreds of such beheadings were not carried out at once.)

          Right away, there’s something unhinged about the part in the parentheses, which seems to plead on behalf of the video decapitators in Iraq. (“Your honor, we only did them one at a time.”) But Cole went even further in prepared remarks he delivered at the Washington-based New America Foundation on August 24. Again he told the story of the French dumping heads in a Cairo square, with this addition: “We now associate beheadings with Islamic terrorism. But Bonaparte and the French Republic of course were the great beheaders initially. It was a very modern technique.”

          It was a very modern technique. If he’d said it in Q&A, I’d let it pass. But he said it in prepared remarks. I won’t even begin the litany of historical precedents, stretching back to antiquity. But I will link here to an article by Timothy Furnish, “Beheading in the Name of Islam,” which looks at decapitation in Islamic theology and history, and shows that it’s been a sanctioned punishment from the very beginning, for criminals, dissidents, rebels, and defeated enemies. Most famously, the Prophet Muhammad ordered 600 to 900 men of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza executed by decapitation. Muhammad and his followers would seem to have had a millennium’s head start over Napoleon in the race for the title of initial “great beheaders.”

          Cole’s description of beheading as “very modern” isn’t just a mistake. It tells you just how driven he is to blame the West for everything he deplores and relativize even the most revolting acts of Muslim terrorism. Terrorists are cutting off heads in Iraq? The West started the beheading with Napoleon, so we’re just reaping what we’ve sown. They use terror? It’s because Bush, like Napoleon, has followed “the strategy of ruling by terror and swift, draconian punishment for acts of resistance.” We are guilty not only of our sins. We are guilty of theirs, by our example and our actions. You see, until we came along, everyone got to keep his head.

          Real reading: The Iraq hook for Cole’s book is just a stunt an attempt to replicate the success of Sir Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, a thirty-year-old account of the Algerian war that’s been revived by the Iraq war. As Gary Kamiya wrote in Salon.com, Horne is “untainted by the partisan rancor of American politics,” which may be why he got an invite to meet with Bush. If you’re looking for a French precedent with much closer Iraq parallels, read Horne’s book, just reissued in paperback with a new preface relating to Iraq. Hear Horne talk about the parallels here.

          Graphic: Detail from Henri Regnault’s painting, “Execution Without Trial Moorish Kings of Granada,” Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

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