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A cry for statehood…Palestine UN gambit


In the next week or two The Palestinian government is going to approach the UN to vote on the status of Palestine…is it a nation state or not. The initial target is to be the Security Council which must recommend any likely candidate for state membership to the General Assembly; the Assembly itself cannot extend membership to the UN. If the council approves then Palestine becomes a member state of the UN and as such gains the rights and privileges that imbues.

There are several classes of membership to the UN. The most known is member-state…that is a recognized independent nation that is accepted as a member of the UN. In order to become a member-state, a candidate must be recommended by a 9 of the 15 members of the Security Council, then the General Assembly votes, if they candidate gets a two thirds majority, they become a member state. However, there are other lesser classes of membership.

There is a “non-member permanent observer state”…a nation that can observe and speak to the UN but does not get a vote. There are also non-member observer entities…of which the Palestinian Authority is an example. There are also observer organization, such as the EU,  other intergovernmental organization such as InterPol or NGO’s like the Red Cross.

Palestinians are experiencing extreme pressure from the US, NOT to ask for this vote and stated they will veto their request. The US, and Israel, state that the only way for Palestine to gain statehood is through negotiation with Israel.

The Palestinians rebut by pointing out that over 40yrs of occupation, the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in land that will, in theory, compose Palestine and innumerable failed negotiation have shown that Israel does not what Palestine to become a independent state…that the only option now left open is to have the UN recognize the de facto state of Palestine and with the legal rights and moral capital this status would grant the occupied lands, negotiations can proceed between equals…can proceed to successful resolution. One right of member states is to have a ‘defined territory’, something negotiations have yet to achieve.

As I already stated, the Palestinians will fail to gain full statehood via the Security Council because of the US veto, however the Palestinians then plan to ask the General Assembly to vote on Palestinian statehood. This resolution is likely to succeed however this will not grant Palestine membership to the UN but only grant it “non-member permanent observer state”’; a status currently enjoyed by the Vatican. Palestine already has “non-member permanent observer” status as an ENTITY not a nation along with a number of other non-state entries such as the EU.


Cool illusion


Never think you are seeing an objective reality…its all in the mind!

RFT – Keeping us honest



Last week we made a couple of errors. In an ongoing effort to ensure we are true to our principles; this week we shall correct ourselves and our accidentally miss-informed listeners.

1) In a recent episode we referred to a constitutional challenge to Canada’s polygamy laws launched by the cLDS (church of Latter Day Saints). Opps! The challenge was launched by members of a LDS sect – FcLDS (Fundamentalist church of Latter Day Saints).

2) In a recent episode about Land Claims we made several references to a past governor in BC and signatory to several treaties (the Douglas Treaties) with first nations peoples. We called this governor Tommy Douglas (the socialist PM of Saskatchewan and father of Medicare) when the actual governor in question is JAMES Douglas, Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island for 1851-1864.

3) In a recent episode about Julian Assuage we made several references to “feminist” Sweden and its ‘strong’ laws to protect women against abuse. According to Amnesty international, the Nordic countries (including Sweden) have a poor record on prosecuting men for rape of women. On paper the laws of Sweden are strong (and apply called “feminist”?) but in practice charges are seldom pursued or “plea bargained down”. The police, medical and legal system are reluctant to pursue cases that are not overtly violent and there is a cultural bias/stigma against women actually pressing charges. For more information on this check out the Amnesty international report “Case Closed: Rape & human rights in the Nordic countries”.

Our apologies for the original misspoke and thanks to our listeners for keeping us on track.

The inerrant word!


New Catholic Bible deletes ‘booty’ and ‘holocaust’…the unerring word revised again. Just a short note about the pending publication of the new catholic bible – New American Bible Revised Edition – this Ash Wednesday or march 9th for the us atheist who may not be acquainted the catholic myth holidays. In this addition they are following the current trend we have documented in altering the text to reflect current sensibilities. Words like Booty have been replaced with ‘plunder” because there were fears readers may be confused with parts of the human anatomy to which this word makes colloquial reference. It also removed the word ‘holocaust’ because it was deemed a term to refer exclusively to the Jewish genocide on WWII.

Lost in translation

This is the fourth edition of the New American Bible, when coupled with the fact that the latest of hundreds, if not millions of translations of the ‘original’ Latin bible, which was itself the product of multiple revision and translations, The Latin bible was often based on Greek and/or Hebrew

Logica carens

and/or Aramaic bibles. Why am making such a point about this LONG line of revisions and translations? Historically, if less so today depending on where you live of course, people believed it the PERFECT and INERRANT word of god, to be followed to the letter…unto death be it oneself or others.


Polygamy – a many sided story


Okay, I am an open-minded kinda guy. I think love and lust are not necessarily the same things; that people will form various kinds of unions and that if consenting and fulfilling no limitation should be applied. Now if you asked me if I believe that polygamy was good or bad, I probably would have said “do you mean the Mormon kind or the hippy kind”. You see, as a good atheist and a product of my society, Mormon polygamy was wrong on two counts 1) it was abusive to women and children and 2) it was religious dogma. The hippy kind (to date my imagery) was a union of equals to express both pleasure and non-conformity.

However, in doing some research for the show I discovered such simplistic (yes, I can be simplistic at times…sorry) views I held were both optimistic and not reflected in our legal system. First I should clarify some terms:

Polygamy: a marriage in which a spouse of either sex may have more than one mate at the same time

Polyandry: the practice or condition of having more than one husband at one time

Polygyny: the practice or condition of having more than one wife at one time

Now technically, the Mormon type would be strictly limited to polygyny. This issue came my attention because of a court case currently making its way through the BC legal system destined for the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC).

Recently an unsuccessful attempt to charge two Mormon men in Bountiful, BC with polygamy failed. This prompted the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church) to mount a constitution challenge holding that the laws against polygamy are unconstitutional and should be struck down.

As I have talked about before with regards to free-speech, prostitution and other issues; in Canada our constitution allows for the limitation of fundamental rights provided they pass the “Oakes Test”. The Oaks test (from the SCC ruling on the Oaks case) holds that limitations must be minimal, pertinent and remedy proportional harms to society.

The law, section 293 of the Criminal Code, states that “any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage” is guilty of an indictable offence. Further that anyone who “celebrates, assists or is a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction a [polygamist] relationship” are likewise guilty of a indictable offence.

That’s the law; however the harms that are most often cited, that are ‘eased’ by this limitation of liberty, are child brides, forced marriage and spousal abuse (more often the abuse is seen as economic or psychological). If we look at this list though we can already remove the last one, because spousal abuse (sadly) is common in monogamous marriages. However, little evidence shows polygamist unions are innately more significantly abusive (although I am open to evidence showing my cursory investigation to be wrong).

Living in Vancouver with several strong Asian cultures with ‘traditions’ regarding arranged marriages, we are aware there is a disconnect between polygamy both forced marriage and child betrothed. In these arranged monogamous marriages often the betrothed are children and have little or no choice in the matter (in the worst of these cultures, violent punishment is exacted on reluctant participants) – that is there is no necessary connection between child brides or forced marriage and polygamy.

So, it seems that the harms that are supposedly addressed by this law, although real are not connected to polygamy. In applying the Oaks test we agree that there are harms that should be addressed however it seems to fail to show the pertinent connection between the harms and polygamy.

However, let’s continue our thought experiment. If we assumed that what we wanted to restrict was religious polygyny because it has been associated with substantial and pertinent harms, does the law restrict our freedoms in a minimal way. The law as stated is extremely broad. This law would include my hippy polygamist; in fact if you were gay living with several roommates in a ‘close’ relationship, you could be charged under this law. Further, if you went to a house warming for this common-law type relationship to celebrate their ‘union’, you could be charged.

The law as stated is EXTREMELY broad. There is a local group, VanPoly, which is working to have the law struck down because they fear they could be charged even though their relationships have nothing to do with the LDS, child brides or forced marriage.

So, why do we have these laws then when they seem overly broad and not really aimed at the social harms we have cited? In fact, when the anti-polygamy laws were first enacted the concept of spousal abuse was non-existent and child brides (at least mid-teens) was not uncommon in monogamous marriages.

Much has been made as to the religious turf war being the root of the North American experience. The Mormons, the new religious, had as a main tenant of their belief system polygamy since 1843. The US made polygamy illegal in 1863 and the Mormons moved west and north (to Utah and western Canada). In 1890, to gain statehood, Utah banned polygamy leading to a second wave of exodus. Canada also banned polygamy in 1890 and saw its one and only successful convictions in 1899, in fact Mormonism was explicitly used in the law until 1950s.

The criminalization of polygamy drives its participants to separate themselves from mainstream society and it is here that the harms arise. If your neighbor showed up one day with an 11 yr. girl and said it was his new wife you’d likely call the cops; if we suspect spousal abuse, as a society we are getting better at recognizing it and would come to the assistance of the abused. However when these actions take place in a ‘like-minded’ community isolated from the ‘masses’, this social safeguarding system breaks down and abuse can occur.

Do I think there is harm being done to the women and children of Bountiful, BC (and similar communes)…yes. Do I think this harm is originated in polygamy…no. I believe the root issue, the source of the abuse, is not multiple marriages but patriarchal authoritarian religion. With regards to the law AS IS, it fails the Oaks test both in the fact that the practice is not directly linked to the stated harms to be remedied (i.e. there is nothing innately abusive in polygamous relationships) and the level of minimal limitation of freedoms (i.e. even if we assumed LDS style polygyny were harmful, the law encompasses any type of polygamy including lesbians in a multi-partner relationship etc.).

On a last note, I is funny that our society seems to frown so strongly on parallel multiple marriages and yet has come to terms to serial multiple marriages; that is there are millions of people in the US and Canada who  have many spouses but not at the same time. If we look back a century or two, we see how that was seen as immoral and harmful to society. Why is it okay to have many spouses over time but not at one time?

I miss my Mummy…the Egypt kind


I discovered a study about the relative rarity of cancer in ‘ancient’ societies. It was focused on physical evidence from Egypt (mummies and bones) and a review of ‘medical’ text from Egypt, Greece and Rome. I did a review of the article and was going to present it on our Oct 19th show. My take at the time was that it was a measured and well done study. It was forthright in its methodology, made reference to limitations in its assumptions, was limited in its claims and provided a plausible mechanism to explain their results.

As often happened the SGU (Skeptics Guide to the Universe) will a few days later duplicate some of our segments, as they did on this one. I was STUNNED at how wrong they got it. It sounded to me like they only read the media spin (which often spins in the wrong direction) and did not actual read the study. As a good skeptic, I did not want to assume something with checking out the ‘source’ material…as I did with the original study. So I checked out Steve Novella’s blog Neurologica.

Neurologica did not focus on the study (something I do have issues with) but on the extensive interview one of the researched gave on the University of Manchester website. I then checked out the interview and was stunned. It seemed one of the authors of the study did not read their own study. So, it turns out the SGU did get it wrong…kinda…and at least one of the authors of the study(Dr. David) got it very wrong – I still think the study is good. Why?

Straw Man – the SGU got it totally wrong when they stated in the podcast that the study stated that there was NO cancer in the ancient world. This, sadly, coloured the rest of their conversation and led them to disprove something not actually claimed by the study (although to add confusion something claimed by Dr. David). Actually the study pointed out a number of cases where there was physical evidence for cancer and more notably used ancient ‘medical’ text to show that cancer was known and treated (poorly) although rarely cured. The text stated that ‘medicine’ was ineffective and that the most common treatment was surgery or cauterizing the tumour.

The issue with longevity – First, Steve misread (shall I be generous?) and stated the study only involved mummies between 25-50yrs that is wrong. What the study said was the life expectancy was 40-50 for the wealthy and 25-30 for the poor. Actual age of the specimens was rarely mentioned. The SGU and the study noted that there was an issue comparing cancer rates of a population that had a life expectancy of 25-50yr to one that has an expectancy of 70-80yrs. The study addressed this by pointing out that a number of conditions have been diagnosed such atherosclerosis, Paget’s disease of bone and arthritis. Further, comparisons of ‘child’ or ‘early onset’ cancers could be reasonable compared. The SGU rightfully points out that the biggest childhood cancers, leukemia, leaves little to no ‘archaeological evidence’. However Osteosarcoma, one of the top ten childhood cancers is a bone cancer leaving notable evidence. Steve inaccurate states that “there does not appear to be any child mummies in their study”. However the study does make explicit reference to Chilean child mummies. The SGU also seems to imply that NO cancers occur between childhoods and ‘old age’, this is not true.

Causes of Cancer – as is stated earlier, The SGU is not totally off based with their attack. Professor Rosalie David, one of the study’s authors, in an interview on the University of Manchester website, shows a complete lack of understanding of her own study or (as i think the SGU suspects) plans to use the study to make tangential claims. She did state that “There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer” something explicitly contradicted in her own study which stated that “Carcinogenic Environmental factors have been linked to up to 75% of human cancers” meaning that 25% are not linked and that’s assuming all carcinogenic environmental factors are ‘man-made’ which is not true either. For example, Bangladesh is plagues with high concentrations of arsenic in their water due to natural deposits. She weakens here own conclusions by stating that with regards to the ancient cancers “we are not sure what caused them”. The study also points out that “Various malignancies have been reported in non-human primates”; I am unsure how she connects these to ‘modern industrialization’.

One the SGU side, they seem to deny that ‘modern life’, with the dramatic increase in ‘man-induced’ environmental carcinogenic, could possible result in more cancers now than then. We know that chemical pollutions, nuclear bomb testing (in its day) and other factors have caused increase risk of cancer that just did not exist even 300 yrs. ago. Its equivalent to saying (and I am being perhaps too strong here) that electrocutions are about the same now as in ancient times. I think I understand why they are reacting so strongly to this, there are a number of people who claim everything in the ancient days was better or that this proved WiFi causes cancer – that’s nuts. However, I think they have overreacted (at least to the underlying article).

Lack of evidence – Steve says it is “an inherently weak form of evidence on which to base conclusions”. That is valid sometimes but not always. For example, if we had the hypothesis cancer was non-temporally correlated (ie cancer rates have changed little over history) then one would expect a similar number of cases on ancient times as now…that the fact there are dramatically fewer then than now is evidence for a change in prevalence. In fact I would have to ask Steve what evidence would he accept to show that something was worse now than then or visa-versa? I think, in this case, he got this completely wrong. I think, the worst criticism of the study I could find was the lack of numbers. There are a lot of mummies in the world, but it is not directly stated how many are represented in this meta-analysis nor is there any statistical correlation. Bone cancers, for example, are relatively common in children but that still only amounts to 5-10 per million per year. So, if 1000 mummies, we would expect < 1 case…their claim is weakest on the numbers. I would also like to have seen a graduation of evidence. Jumping from ancient Egypt to modern society seems large. If their hypothesis is true, one would expect a gradual increase in cancer rates over time with an explosion in modern times (statistically speaking).

So, I am left a little flat. I think the study was good. However, I think at least one of the authors comments made overstated some claims of the study, contradicted their own study and made comments that were demonstrably false. I think, if the SGU (and more to the point Steve’s entry on Neurologica) was based on the study then they also did a hash of it. However, if you ignore the study and focus on what the authors stated about it and the media spin, their criticisms are more accurate. Irrespective, I liked the study and hated the inaccurate spin that followed it both by the author, the media and the SGU. Better luck next time.

Original article:

Interview with Dr. David:

Neurologica Blog:

An Attack on Libby


Recently a local MP, Libby Davis, was attacked by Stephen Harper and Bob Rea for comment she made at a rally held in Vancouver on June 5th in support of the Gaza Flotilla. Where she express condemnation of both the Blockage itself and the Israel Defence Force’s handling of the incident that resulted in nine dead and .

I first heard about this in an article on the CBC website. It sounded bad for Libby. I did some research, as any good skeptic should, and found on YouTube both a 5 min clip of the interview with Libby and a 50 second edited clip.

Out of context comments:

Comments in context:

From what was written in the CBC article and the comments of both Harper and Rea, it seemed Libby was an ‘anti- Semite’ who wished to wipe Israel from the face of the earth. I then watched the 50 second edited clip (which only had about 20 seconds of Libby speaking) and the ‘commentary’ provided by the obviously pro-Israeli blogger and Libby looked even more horrible.  Then I listened to the full 5 minute interview and suddenly what was said did not sound so ‘anti-Semitic’ or as outlandish.

So let’s take another look at political scepticism.

The heart of the controversy lies in a statement Libby makes about the “Israeli occupation” starting in 1948. As portrayed in the bias edited Clip and implied by the CBC write up, she seems to be denying the right the existence of the state of Israel.  Israel was created in 1948 by a UN Resolution, a resolution that also was supposed to create the state of Palestine. Sadly for Israel, it was attacked by its neighbours in 1948. In the 1948 War, Israel occupied large section of the land that was supposed to be Palestine. It is also interesting to note, that the remaining land that was to become Palestine was occupied by Jordan and Egypt, thus aborting the actual creation of the state of Palestine in 1948.

In this context, it is valid to hold the idea that Israel has been occupying Palestinian land since 1948 and not deny the state of Israel’s existence. FURTHER to say land is occupied does not mean those occupying must ‘pack up and leave’ but it is a useful distinction so as to ensure that compensation is made to those who ‘lost their land’. Estimates vary widely but anywhere from 500, 000 to a million Palestinian were dislocated from their UN mandates land in 1948. I would make a parallel with Canada. Our native population see Canada as ‘occupied’ territory but only the most radical would want to ‘ship us all back to where we came from’.  The more practical use the term to ensure proper restitution is made for the damages suffered by the dispossession of land.  This is a valid position to hold with regards to Israel and land it seized in the 1948 war and that thus Israeli occupation could be said to have begun in 1948. We may disagree on interpretation but we should acknowledge the facts.

There is another aspect of this I find funny. In the long interview she is asked about Boycott Divestment and Sanctions or better known as BDS. This is an attempt by those who believe the Israel is akin to an apartheid state and wish to use the same tactics used to abolish apartheid in South Africa on Israel. For our sake it is simply a boycott on Israeli companies and companies the deal with Israel to apply pressure on Israel to ‘correct its ways’.

She says that on Parliament Hill people are “afraid to speak out on this issue”. She then goes on to say that more information and debate is need. There is the implication that there is an overly strong Israeli lobby that has managed to squash any criticism of Israel on Parliament Hill and equate criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism or worse.  Then to prove her point, there is this massive over reaction to her comments. Libby’s official response, and let us remember she is a politician, was to state she was talking outside he knowledge comfort level and got the dates wrong – which is also very possible for in the interview you here her repeatedly saying that she does not know the historical details and that it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to achieve their own solutions to the problems in the region. She only wanted to Palestinians to know they had support and that Canadians needed to be better informed of both sides of the issue. Something she sees lacking.

Lastly, I would like to pull the ‘free speech card’. What she said in the interview, was not hate speech. She repeatedly stated a peaceful solution was needed; solution ‘born in Israel/Palestine’ solution. The fact that days after her appearance at the rally and this interview she is being asked to resign from parliament by the Prime Minister of Canada should send a chill down anyone’s back who believes in free speech. In my lecture on Free Speech, I pointed out that speech is not only limited or even mostly limited by law; social pressure does more to both stifle free speech and fair debate in our society than anything else.

I do not ask you to support Libby’s views or statements but I do hope you will acknowledge they are valid even if you don’t agree and let’s try and stop the witch hunts that some extremist types start when someone tries to peel away propaganda from facts and commentary from reality.

Gaza Flotilla incident – Defence or piracy?


Recently a group of activists attempted to break the blockade of Gaza by sending a flotilla of 5 ships filled with humanitarian aid to the port of Gaza. On route the Israeli defence force (IDF) intercepted the flotilla and after a violent confrontation the flotilla was redirected. We have all seen the videos, the condemnation, the recriminations and the general excess of propaganda of both sides to see their viewpoint. Now this is intended to be another example of how skepticism can help clarify (if not answer) conflicts that arise of such heated issues.

The first question we must ask ourselves, does Israel have justification for imposing a blockade on the Gaza Strip? The Israeli government states that it is only trying to stop the flow of arms into the occupied territory because anti-Israeli ‘forces’ (be it an organized group or independents) fire mortars and rockets into Israel from the territory. Now according to my research, until 2006 probably less than 500 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel from Gaza, from 2007-2008 that number rose to less than 5000 with a lull in 2009 of less than 200 (not including the ones fired during the Israeli invasion of the strip). Of these less than half were the ‘long’ range rockets mostly home-made with the rare exception. However, out of a reported 8600 attacks, they have only managed to kill 28 but injured hundreds. As in-effective as a ‘weapon of death’, the psychological effect on those in range of an attack (roughly the entire southern half of Israel) is profound. So, I think we can say that Israel has a justification for the blockade. We are not going to talk about the justification for the rocket attacks or the legality of the occupation; we are simply saying that Israel, under the current situation, has justification for blockading the Gaza Strip.

That said, we now must ask, what is justified to blockade? The reason stated for the flotilla was to supply materials that were being unjustly included in the blockade. We can agree that Israel is justified to blockade military supplies such as arms and munitions. What material was on the flotilla? According to Israel’s friendly neighbour (well pre-flotilla attack) Turkey, the ships were inspected to ensure no ‘contraband’ was onboard. On board were food, medical supplies and building materials. Of these, Israel claims the building material unacceptable because it could be used to create re-enforce bunkers…something only a problem IF Israel planned to re-occupy Gaze. Considering that the occupied territory has been ravaged by Israeli attacks (most notably the ‘incursion’ early in 2009), there is a great need to rebuild. Palestinians say that the denial of these good is not to protect Israel from attacks but to collectively punish the Palestinians for democratically electing Hamas as its major party/government.

Is Israel using the blockade as a form of collective punishment or for justifiable self-defence reasons? It has been noted by Amnesty International and other humanitarian groups that things such as paper, crayons, tomato paste, lentils, canned juice, etc[1]… were blocked because they were deemed ‘luxury goods’[2]. This also explains why Israel’s apparent conciliatory move to ‘distribute’ the aid itself was more PR than genuine. In previous attempts to deliver aide, Israel (offering to distribute the aide itself) delayed or failed to do so. Some stocks spending years in storage before being released by which time the items in question were spoiled. Under these conditions, it appears that there was justification on the activists’ part to try and, at least partially, break the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

So, we have a situation where both sides are justified; Israel in enforcing a blockade and the flotilla in delivering humanitarian aid. Israel has the right (according to “San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea”) to detain any ship in its territorial waters (and for the sake of our analysis, Gaza will be considered Israeli territory), an area defined by the “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” as (roughly) 23 km. Attempts to board, detain and confiscate ‘contraband’ in international waters could be interpreted as an act of piracy or illegal hostile actions.

Now the next question arises; where did the action take place. According to the IDF (Israeli Defence Force), the ‘incident’ with the flotilla lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, occurred at 68km west of Israel – clearly international waters. A previous attempt to break the blockade, by the ship “Spirit of Humanity”, was intercepted 29 km off the coast. It seems fair to state that the captain and passengers of the Mavi Marmara, believed that they had the right to deny access to the ship while in international waters and that any attempt to board was a hostile act which they were legally entitled to resist.

So far, we have acknowledged Israel might have the right to blockade but such right is limited to territorial waters, that the flotilla has the right to challenge a blockade that could be interpreted as collective punishment and that the boarding of the lead ship occurred in international waters.

Now from video evidence from onboard the flotilla ships, the IDF threw stun grenades on board the ship, it also fired live ammunitions (although this may have been intended as warning shots) that apparently hit two people killing one of them. Under these circumstances, the passengers had a right to defend themselves. When the ship failed to stop, the IDF landed heavily armed troops on the Mavi Marmara from helicopter. These troops were attacked. The flotilla passengers claim, with justification, that they were defending themselves from an attack that had already been fatal. The IDF, from their point of view, were justified in attempting to defend themselves from what it saw a legal enforcement of a blockade; a view supported by the edited out-of-context video produced by the IDF. We have discovered from our sceptical analysis, this view is hard to support when put into context however convinced of it the IDF or its ideologue supporters may be.

Now, questions of disproportionate force are beyond this discussion. The points we are after are “was the attack on the Mavi Marmara legal or not” and “was the response of the passenger and crew to the attack justified”? To me, this all boils down to the location, it appears that having occurred in international waters, the attack ‘stretched’ international law and secondly that the people onboard the Mavi Marmara believed they had a right to defend themselves. Irrespective of the (un)justification of the blockade itself, it seems that this incident in question shows the IDF share the greater share of responsibility. Again, political skeptism slices past the rhetoric and propaganda spewed out by both sides and show that most issues are not black and white and patients and research will at least put us on common ground to discuss the truly ‘debateable’ issues at stake.



Can you call Israel an apartheid state?


As some of our of you may know; recently the Toronto Pride Committee (TPC) denied the group QAIA (Queers Against Israeli Apartheid) to participate in the Pride Day parade. TPC was forced to do this because of intensive pressure and legal intimidation from hawkish Israeli lobbyists and a threat to cut funding from a similarly intimidated Toronto city council.

Those who are against the Israeli treatment of non-Jews in Israel or the Palestinians in the occupied territories, claim Israel is an apartheid state. Those who support the official Israeli lines, condemn those who use this term, apartheid, as being anti-Semitic and are misusing the term to denigrate and vilify “the Jew!”

The conflict in Palestine/Israel has been a long and bloody one. It seems uncontroversial that Israel has used disproportionate force but it is also true that most Israelis genuinely live in a constant state of fear from deadly violence. Both sides have an agenda and have shown in the past little reluctance to use whatever event to gain propaganda points. Skepticism can help here, by separating the rhetoric from the ‘facts’…creating at least the environment for honest debate on the issues.

So back to the TPC, QAIA and skepticism; I wanted to check out the claim that Israel was participating in apartheid. So I thought I could make it a case study in political skepticism.

The first thing we need to do is define what apartheid is. Fortunately for us (and not so much Africa) South Africa, in its horrible racial discrimination, forced the UN to codify (in the resolution “International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid”) what exactly defines apartheid. It is divided into five parts: (paraphrased)

1) Denial to a racial group of life or liberty by the use of harm (physical or psychological), arbitrary arrest or the denial of freedoms or dignity
2) Deliberate Impositions on a racial group living conditions designed to physically destroy that group in whole OR in part
3) Legislative measures intended to deny a racial group political, economic or social participation in the country and deliberately preventing that group’s full development.
a. Denial of the right to leave or return
b. Denial of the right of freedom of movement
c. Among others (these seem most salient to our analysis)
4) Any legislative measures intended to divide the population alone racial lines
a. Isolating racial groups into separate geographic enclaves or reserves
b. Prohibitions of legal marriage between racial groups
c. The expropriation of land belonging to one racial groups for the use of another
5) Persecutions of groups or organizations, by the denial of rights, because of their opposition to apartheid.

From this we see on important theme, that of ‘racial group’. We also see a reference (both explicit and implicit) to country or nation. In that, apartheid is inflicted on the citizens of its own nation. This leads us to our first fact/propaganda distinctions. The West Bank and Gaza are technically occupied territory and not part of Israel proper. If those who desire a ‘greater Israel’ (which would see the annexation of the occupied territory) get their way, then the territory recognised now as Palestine, would count in our discussion; however for the moment it does not. This does not mean one cannot condemn Israel’s actions in the occupied territories but one cannot use those actions to support a claim of apartheid…yet.  We shall still continue our analysis but our now limited to Israel proper.

So, if we are going to apply the term “apartheid” (leaving the other aspects for now) to Israel, we must answer the question – is it a racial state? We must ask, does the government see Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state in the sense of the religion or as a race? Does it provide preferential treatment of one racial group (let’s assume those of Jewish decent) and disadvantageous treatment of those of another racial group (those of Arab/Palestinian decent).

First, we shall look at Israeli marriage laws. These laws forbid the marriage of people outside their religious group. So a Jew may only marry a Jew, a Muslim to a Muslim…etc. “Mixed” marriages performed outside Israel are recognised in Israel. Now for Jews, this law is interpreted harshly for only orthodox (or religious) Jews may be married; secular or ‘converted’ Jews are seen as ‘not Jewish enough’ to be married. This seems to make it look more religious than racial.

Second, there is the “Law of Return”, which makes it a right of any one of “Jewish ancestry” to emigrate to Israel. The term ‘ancestry’ is a racial term. This seems to provide preferential treatment to ‘racial’ Jews to both immigrate to Israel and, at least in the past, to become automatic citizens. This is in stark contrast to the policy towards Palestinians or Arabs. In the “Prevention of Infiltration Law”, it strictly prohibits Palestinians (and Arabs) from ‘re-entering’ Israel.

The “Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law” (although not using racial terms) denies the spouse of an Israeli citizen, citizenship themselves IF they are from the West Bank or Gaza. Because the bill affects almost exclusively Israeli Arabs (those being the ones to marry Palestinians) it may be seen as adding some support to the racialization of Israel.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF), a non-profit organization that is closely entwined with the Israeli governments is responsible for the purchase and development of ‘Jewish’ settlements. When the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the JNF’s refusal to sell land to Israeli Arabs to be discrimination, the Israeli government circumvented the court by guaranteeing the JNF that any land it sold to Arabs would be compensated by a gift of land from the Israeli Land Authority (ILA) so as to ensure that ‘Jewish’ ownership of land is not diminished.  The JNF selects 10 out of 22 directors of the ILA, giving it huge influence over this government agency. The ILA controls 93% of the lands of Israel (either directly, through long term leases or via the JNF which controls 12% of Israeli national lands). Because the Supreme Court thought this land use discriminatory and the government’s actions to perpetuate this discrimination, based on ethnicity/race, this also adds to the evidence Israel is a racial state.

Lastly, working on the other side, the “Palestinian land laws”, perpetuate what some call the ghetto of Palestine by forbidding Palestinians to sell their land to non-Palestinians; in effect tying them to the land like serfs. Now this law is also intended to prevent the continual erosion of West Bank land to Jewish settlers but considering that the settlements are allowed to grow via other legal means, it seems the effect of this law is to ensure racial isolation.

Now, it may not be a clear cut case, but it does seem plausible (although not necessary) to claim that Israel is a racial state; that this claim is valid from a politically sceptical point of view. Those who claim that to even make such claims is innately anti-Semetic, untenable and simply propaganda are wrong.  Now, some will argue that what is in Israel now is nothing like what happened in South Africa during its apartheid period…that is true and irrelevant. The fact that one person steals $100 and another $10,000, does not mean the first is not guilty of theft; this is (thanks to the UN) not a crime of degree but of kind. So, having determined that one could claim Israel is a racial state, is it guilty of breaking any of the criteria we set out in the beginning?

Points 1(Denial of life and liberty)and 2(Physical destruction) seems very evident in the West Bank and Gaza (although Israeli officials may justify their actions, the results are the same) but as we stated earlier, until Israel annexes these territories they cannot be a part of our analysis. Point 5 (Legal suppression of apartheid groups) may be true but I have not found any evidence in Israel itself, although non-legal pressure has been evident, this also seems to not support the case.

Points 3 (right of return and movements) and 4(racial segregation), however do seem to provide some evidence of apartheid. As mentioned before, the marriage laws seem more religious based than racial but coupled with the implicit limitation of spousal immigration and land sales, it is plausible to use this as evidence. The most damning evidence of apartheid is the unequal treatment, based on race, to rights of return, immigration, internal movement, government support for housing and etc.

In conclusion, I am not saying that Israel is or is not an apartheid state but using the skills of political skepticism we have determined that it is a viable point of view. That, returning to the point of origin of this article, Toronto’s Pride Committee decision to deny Queers Against Israel Apartheid participation in the Pride Parade was unjust and censorship. Although, one may not agree with QAIA’s views, their views are possible and not hate speech or anti-Semitism. However, it is an untenable position to hold that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism; it is possible to be both pro-Zionist and anti-Israel or to be pro-Israel and anti-Israeli policy with regards to Palestinians. Ultimately remember, keep your eyes open and minds on!

Bio-Fuel – Food/habitat for fuel?


This is another segment in our series on alternative energy, in the past we have talk about nuclear energy and this week we are going to talk about another alternative to our traditional Petro-coal economy – Bio fuels.

First, what are bio-fuels?

Simply put, these are fuel sources that are derived directly from organic sources – ie plants. The simplest bio-fuel that we all may be acquainted with is firewood. But firewood cannot replace gas, but the real promise of bio-fuels can be seem more in things like palm or canola oil – we are all acquainted with these now as cooking oils.  Another promising bio-fuel is alcohol.

So, how do bio-fuels help?

Bio-fuels, in general, are seen as possible saviour to fuel-intensive society because they are renewable and are claimed to be carbon neutral. The current state of the technology…

Bio-Alcohol – extracting sugars or starches from wheat, corn, beets, sugarcane, etc… and fermenting then into alcohol or as its better known in the fuel sphere – ethanol. This is the most pervasive of the bio-fuels because of its easy adoption as an additive to traditional gas. If you see at the gas station ethanol blends, like Mohawks Natures Blend, they usually have up to 10% ethanol. You can find in more and more locations E85, which is 85% ethanol however this is not universal because it requires modification to the standard car engine.

  • Pros – Like with all bio-fuels it is renewable and it is based on a tried and true current technology –so no waiting for future development
  • Cons – Diverts food from people to cars, requires significant energy inputs to produce (ie for the distillation of the alcohol)

Bio-Oil – The use of vegetable oil as a fuel with little or no process. Vegetable oil can be, with little processing, be used directly as a fuel in a modified car. You might have seen these on TV almost a decade ago portrayed as deep-fryer or chip cars because they would recycle used deep-fryer oil as a fuel. Pure Oil (or not recycled) fuel come from plants that are not part of the human food chain and can grow on ‘agriculturally marginal’ lands – for example the Camelina which was used as a fuel oil in the bronze age but not a current agricultural crop.

  • Pros – renewable, Recycled is tried and test (it was used during WWII fuel shortages) but Pure Oil still in the research stage, recycle existing waste.
  • Cons –Recycling not really economically sustainable on a grand scale, threatens natural habitat not presently used for agriculture.

Bio-Diesel – Vegetable oil again but this time highly processed to for a more ‘standard’ hydrocarbon chain. Like ethanol it is often used as an additive to fossil fuel diesel, up to 15%, although modified or special designed engine are appearing able to handle B100 or pure bio-diesel. Bio-diesel is produced by mixing veggie oil with sodium hydroxide and methanol, the resulting compound is then processed to remove impurities and you get bio-diesel.

  • Pros – renewable, some forms well established, some forms high yield and used non-agricultural land (algae and the bio-oils mentioned earlier)
  • Cons – Requires significant energy inputs to create, established forms remove food from the system the other forms result in loss of natural habitat and are future tech.

Bio-Gas – The capturing of methane from decomposing organic material. This is usually the end product of natural bacterial digestion. There are two main ways to capture this gas, one is to “cover existing landfills” and collect the gas natural leaking from these dumps. This reduced local air pollution and takes a greenhouse gas and puts it to some use (although it will still ultimately be a greenhouse gas one way or another). Another way is to create “waste dumps”, be it manure or other bio-mass and again capture the methane emitted by the decomposition process. These tend to be cheap to produce, at least on small scale, making them ideal for less developed nations.

  • Pros – Cheap, natural, and in the small scale well established
  • Cons – relied on waste, hard to scale up (while remaining efficient and environmentally acceptable)

Bio-Hydrogen – the use of photosynthesis to produce hydrogen from water. Hydrogen has been seen, and therefore developed, as an alternative fuel source (at least for transportation). So the science of using hydrogen is well developed. However, the stumbling block has always been the actual production of hydrogen, which currently is an energy loss system (ie more energy in than out). Bio-hydrogen could solve this problem by producing the hydrogen organically, than making it an positive energy system.

  • Pros – cheap, environmentally sustainable, renewable
  • Cons – distant future tech

Now that we know what we are talking about, bio-fuels are very controversial.

First, current levels of technology rely heavily on crops like soybeans, corn and sugarcane. Do we notice what these things have in common? Yes, they are all also food crops. In 2008 there were riots around the world over the perceived food-shortage due to the idea that these crops were being diverted from tables to cars.

To answer this question we need to assess three points:

How much ‘food’ has been diverted?

To figure out how much potential food has been diverted we need to get a rough estimate about the amount of bio-fuel produced. Bio-Diesel about 6.5 billion litres, Bio-alcohol about 40 billion litres and the others don’t primarily rely on food crops. To simplify our analysis, we will just focus on the Bio-Alcohol, or better known as ethanol, because it’s better understood and accounts for about ¾ of bio-fuel production.

According to The World Bank, it takes about 2.4 kg of maize to make 1 litre of ethanol, so using that as rough average, which works out to be about 96 billion kg of maize. In Brazil, which accounts for the largest production of ethanol, sugarcane is used. Using that as a base about 2.2 kg of sugar is used to make 1 litre of ethanol, or about 88 billion kg of sugar a year. Well, of course it’s one or that other not both, so about 35% is from sugarcane and about 55% from maize.

Compare this to world production of maize (785 trillion kg) and sugarcane (1.6 trillion kg), it amounts to a small percentage (<0.007% maize and <2% sugar). There was a marked rise in crop prices in 2008 (which sparked the world riots) but that was largely (as time has shown) the result of commodity speculators – speculators quite likely influenced by the very organizations that were protesting food for fuel. So, one could make the argument that every little bit counts, but as a percentage, animal feed far out paces ethanol productions, so one could make a more compelling argument for veganism.,,contentMDK:21501336~pagePK:64167689~piPK:64167673~theSitePK:2795143,00.html

How is that diversion compared to ’boutique’ crops or crops sent to wealthy nations?

So, what other things remove food from the system? We already briefly mentioned animal feed, but another one is organic farming. Again, not wanting to make moral arguments about the ethicy of organic farming, the bare fact is that it is (at best) 5% less productive than ‘factory’ farming…meaning organics take out three to ten times more food than bio-fuel.

How much of the increase in crops are the result of bio-fuels and how much the result of speculation in bio-fuel?

In late 2007 and 2008 there was a huge issue regarding the pricing and availability of food crops. There were riots throughout the world as people complained that food crops were being diverted to fuel production and (more supportable) that the “bio-fuel rush” was causing a huge increase in food prices and thus causing more malnutrition and starvation among the world’s poor. It is true that for many developing nations the cost of importing food increased as much as 25%; the price of wheat doubled and many other crops (rice, soybean) and their derivatives (milk, meat) reached all-time highs in 2008. However, although more resources are being deployed into the production of bio-fuels, the price of most food crops has notable reduced, most to prices lower than 2007 levels.

Now many leaders of the developed nations claimed the rise was due to increases in world population and the increased demand placed by them on the global system. But this has only increased (ie more people today than yesterday), so one would assume a stable or increasing price for food crops – which is not true. Some blame increased ‘neo-liberal’ policies (which I think are inherently immoral) but again, these fail the price stability test. The only thing that seems to account for the temporary increase is “the market” in the form of commodity speculations. Now some might argue the law of “supply and demand” – Daniel?

IF, there is a problem, its root is our system of distribution – resources go not to those-in-need but those-in-greed…or those who can afford it but that is a topic of another show)

Another are of controversy is that some crops, including canola and palm oil, are being planted in virgin land, notably rainforest land being ‘converted’ to crop land. Parallel to this, a number of people around the world have claimed to be displaced from their land by large ‘corporate farms’ to grow these bio-fuel crops. Now this is perhaps more important than the idea of “food or fuel” because these crops are seen as second generation bio-fuels – the future of bio-alternatives.

To answer this question we need to assess some points:

How much land is being used by bio-fuel crops?

Now most people note that deforestation and ‘crop-conversion” has increased the most for bio-fuels compared to other uses. However, because bio-fuel use was so small to begin with, as a percentage of the whole it is still quite small. It is hard to assess exact numbers but the research I have done shows that most deforestation is for…well wood, although clearing for cattle production is also significant. In fact, the only real pressure that bio-fuels seem to put on ‘virgin land’ is to provide cover for logging (ie. Land set aside for bio-fuel is really just used as an excuse to cut down old growth forest) and it grows well in the poor soils that rain-forests grow in (ie. Once cleared, biofuel crops will ‘absorb’ the ex-rainforest land). Another area that shows an increase in bio-fuel crops in the reclaiming of swamp lands. This is notable in Palm oil crops in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Compared to other land-use, are these lands significant?

As implied above, although it is true that bio-fuels are having more of an impact each year, they are still relatively insignificant compared to other threats. The threat possed by wood harvesting is magnitude greater. That said, there is one area that maybe there is a good case – reclaimed land. Although in a pure human-centric capitalist view point, swamps are unproductive and are ‘improved’ by transforming them into ‘cash crops’, however environmentalist would argue that the loss of bio-diversity that swamps and similar ‘marginal’ lands possess is a great harm both to humanity and the biosphere as a whole – that there is something more important than money. In an odd way, the unproductiveness of these lands have served, in the past, to protect nature…that protecting, thanks to bio-fuels, seems to be lifting.

Again, another side issue not truly related to bio-fuel but more about equality, capitalism and environmentalism.,8599,1701221,00.html