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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

If the Canadian tourist recently "disappeared" in Syria doesn't bother you, then dig into the delicious hummus in Damascus

I've just arrived back in the US after a 12 hour long flight next to a baby and within arm-reach of several noisy toddlers.  Lucky me. A couple quick things.

First, I literally cannot believe the NYT published Seth Sherwood's travel puff piece on Damascus this past Sunday.  Syria won't let Jews into the country. And for many years, Syria wouldn't let its Jews out.  Imagine a state said: sorry, you can't come in, you're black or Muslim or a woman.  Would we be interested in hearing about where to get a tasty lamb and baba ganoush combo? Sherwood, who makes no mention of its discriminatory practices, instead talks about how welcoming to Western tourists the country is. (Update: Unless of course, your passport has an Israeli stamp in it.)

I suppose we should credit Sherwood for ambiguating his presence in Syria by noting that some Americans may be wary of visiting a "country whose authoritarian government stands accused of some serious charges — financing Hezbollah, allowing foreign fighters into neighboring Iraq and assassinating the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri."  But still, he notes, "a week among the regular citizens of Syria and its cultural riches is eye-opening."  Does Sherwood think for a moment that Syria is not critical to the support of the genocidally-intentioned Hezbollah or the destruction of civic life in Lebanon? If so, he should ante up rather than describe a regime that merely "stands accused" of these charges.

This isn't the first time the NYT has seriously goofed.  As the writer at ShrinkWrapped notes:

In 1931, the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty wrote a series of stories about Stalin's Soviet Union which extolled the virtues of the young communist state.  He neglected to mention the millions of Ukrainian citizens who died because of a state engineered famine or the litany of atrocities that Stalin has rightly become famous for in the eyes of history.  Nonetheless, in a fitting tribute to the nation which gave us the Potemkin village, Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.  Several years ago the Times missed an opportunity to redress their perfidy and decided to stand by Duranty's "reporting" and keep the Pulitzer Prize. In the spirit of Walter Duranty, the Times appears to be laying the groundwork for a celebration of the state of governance in some unexpected places.

Second, and related to this bout of insanity, I am reminded that I want to recommend a few outstanding pieces I had the chance to read on the long flight back this week.  Take a look at Paul Theroux's reportage from Turkmenistan from the May 28th New Yorker, and if you don't have the article at home, check out an interview he did with Radio Free Europe on his experience. Also, be sure not to miss Paul Berman's excellent book-length essay in the New Republic from a few weeks back on Tariq Ramadan and the enablers in the Anglo media (Ian Buruma's NYT Mag piece, etc.) who have treated him far too gently, Duranty Sherwood-esque, perhaps.

P.S.  Sherwood's account might possibly be driven not by insanity, but more benignly by what Ian Frazier humorously describes here.

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Interesting comments Bart, but here are a few points to consider:
a) as weird as WND may be as a news source, the article I linked to was to ynet.com, which is a not a weird news source, but is run by Israel's mainstream media, Yediot. The piece should therefore come with a presumption of accuracy. (Update: Bart pointed out to me that it's also a WND piece that is reprinted in ynet. That's a good point; however, no reason to think the claims are unsubstantiated, especially given the source in d) below, and the other sources on the web I saw.)
b) The piece also reported that other journalists with Klein were permitted to go into Syria but the gov't representative told Klein that he couldn't go in because of his religion. Not because of his anti-Syria views (which would also be a pernicious reason for denying someone a visa, though somehow, apparently less inflammatory.)
c) the person on Tzarfatit you linked to said she was not a convert to Judaism at the time she went to Syria, at least as I read it.
d) There's an oped piece in the NYSun corroborating the YNet story. http://www.nysun.com/article/24529 . Yes, the NYSun is conservative, but it's not loopy by any stretch. There's also a Wiki entry on Klein that has other links worth checking out.
e) as to the boycott issues, I agree that there are clearly different people out in the world with different agendas against different countries. The question is: what are the reasons articulated by those urging a boycott against Israel, and how well do those reasons justify singling out Israel vis-a-vis other nations. It's not why do some people choose to boycott Israel vs why do some choose to boycott others.
f) Btw, I have rec'd some credible information that two Jews have in fact visited Syria in the last few years, but in at least one of the cases, he was subjected to surveillance during his journey by the not so secret police. Consequently, the family with whom he was staying asked him to leave.
Anyway, still waiting for official word back from the Syrian tourism site. It may well turn out that Syria is only erratic in its discrimination policies as opposed to systematic. In the meantime, onto other things.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jun 28, 2007 6:08:03 PM


There's a lot to unpack and a lot to argue with your last post, but for now I just want to point out one thing: the journalist that you refer to in your original post belongs to an extremely right wing news organization. So I think its a bit of a stretch to extrapolate that Jews are barred from Syria based on his case. This WND article is concerned with preserving our precious bodily fluids: http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=53327 For contrast, consider that leftwing Iraq war critic Robert Fisk was denied entry into the United States, http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=8800 but I don't think people extrapolated a vendetta against Britons as a result. A little bit of research reveals that it seems like Jews can visit Syria, as this individual's interesting account (Jan 2007) reflects: http://www.tsarfatit.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=353

Syria was most likely barring the journalist for another unpleasant reason: because it knew that his visit brought with it hostile scrutiny. I don't think that the anonymous quotations to, surprise, surprise, World Net Daily, confessing the whole diabolical anti-semitic plot complete with motivations are too credible. There's nothing about this story in Poynter Online, which is usually all over anything concerning journalists.


Also, I think you overreach when you suggest that boycotting Israel and not other countries is facially anti-semetic. Some people are obsessed with boycotting China and not Israel or Cuba. I don't think anti-sinoism is to blame. Rather they are either concerned with China's rising influence or its oppression of Tibetans and Xin Jiang Muslims. When people were obsessed with Yugoslavia, it wasn't due to anti or even pro-Slavic feeling. It was because they perceived Yugoslavia as the lynchpin of Europe, or the "powderkeg" of Europe.

Similarly, I think people are obsessed with Israel today because of its position within the most volitile region in the world. Other reasons that people might be interested in boycotting Israel and not this country's glorious ally Uzbekistan, for instance, might be that they consider Israel influenceable due to their vibrant export economy or ironically enough due to their democratic discourse. Lastly, most countries don't have as active and energetic defenders as Israel, so there's less noise and fury surrounding boycotts of other countries. I'm pretty sure that Amnesty International isn't throwing a happy happy joy joy party for Syria and friends while sending mean glances at Israel.

So, I would say that while its certainly possible that anti-semitism is the explanation for some of the criticism and action taken against Israel, its too easy and too satisfying of an explanation to hold up under much scrutiny. But, as always, I find it difficult to dismiss anything that you say out of hand, so I will certainly muse on your views on this topic.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jun 28, 2007 3:46:22 PM

"Just as we oppose an academic boycott of Israel, shouldn't we be open to learning about the more human side of Syria?"

It's an interesting question, Bart, but here are some reasons to distinguish the two.

First, an academic boycott in the UK would have the effect of shutting out or excluding voices from Israel that might contribute mightily to academic exchange; if Syrian academics have contributions to various fields, and I'm sure they do, then by all means they should be invited and encouraged to travel to the countries where the conferences are, etc. Problem is repressive countries are usually hostile to letting their citizens travel abroad...

Second, if academic Brits (or others) refuse to go to Israel on political grounds, but continue to go (or fail to boycott also) to Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, or the large range of other countries with equally or far more troubling human rights records, then the boycott is, to my view and those of some others, antisemitic, because there is no reason to single out Israel other than on account of it being a predominantly Jewish state.

Third, and most importantly, there is simply a category difference between Syria and Israel. Here's what one sharp professor wrote me after the initial post, a view which I largely share: "It's interesting when people get lost in the blur of the trees, and fail to see the forest. Or make instrumental arguments generalizing from the blur.
I can list many instances, from deliberate policies to induce Palestinian Arabs to flee places like Jaffa in 1948, to Stern Gang tactics, to Shatila and Sabra that make me very uncomfortable. But the fact is that Israel is a deliberative democracy in which a collective "conscience" deals with those issues in public discourse, and Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc. are not. And if you step far enough away, it is binary. It's not justification, but it is a real distinction."

All that said, again, I'm not proposing a boycott of travel in Syria or learning more about the human side of Syria, so it's a bit of a false dichotomy. For purposes of this post, I'm simply objecting to what I view as a rather blinkered view of Syria as portrayed in the NYT piece.

One more thing: since I posted this, I have received two emails from people who report that either they or a relative who was Jewish was able to travel to Syria. In one of the cases, it was over a decade ago, before the story about Klein aired. In the other, I don't yet know whether the Jewish person in question was asked if he were Jewish and reported truthfully that he was, or when it happened. To gain clarity, I have emailed the Syrian tourism board a couple days ago. I still haven't heard anything.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jun 28, 2007 8:40:07 AM

Opposition to a government's policies rarely seems like a good reason to boycott travel. Reading Sherwood's piece, there's a leit motif of acknowledging the less than salubrious nature of Syria's government and contrasting it with the pleasantry of the common people of Syria. I suspect strongly that whatever gains from tourist dollars the evil regime realizes, it loses in terms of far more difficultly demonized foreigners. Sometimes people who are passionate about the plight of Tibetans take issue with my interest in and travel to China. It's not that I don't care about the Tibetans, I just have to travel to China. You can't ignore all that world out there because of the bad habits of some of its inhabitants.

Meanwhile, I'm sure that Dan wouldn't want to be judged by the Canadian government's mistreatment of Native Americans, and I wouldn't want to be judged by the U.S. occupation of Iraq, nor would our Israeli friends, apart from the single digits who still support Olmert, want to be judged by the carpet bombing of Lebanon. I couldn't really argue with someone who refused to visit the United States because of our crimes in Central America in the 1980s, but I would think that that person was missing out. Just as we oppose an academic boycott of Israel, shouldn't we be open to learning about the more human side of Syria?

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jun 27, 2007 9:10:35 PM

Interesting post on the substance, but on a purely stylistic note: "ambiguating"?

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 27, 2007 11:19:02 AM

I was referring to Nicole Vienneau, just as Sherwood himself was in the article I referenced. She disappeared in the town of Hama. No suspicion of foul play? Do you think she simply got lost on her way to the religious sites? It's true we don't know yet why she's missing, but that she's missing for so long seems to me at least to be pretty good evidence of foul play.

I'm aware that Notre Dame had made an offer to Ramadan and I'm also aware (from having read Berman's article) that he's at Oxford. Neither of those facts remove the basis for more intense scrutiny of Ramadan's current vogue, the basis for which I found amply displayed in Berman's article, which is a review essay of Ramadan's work. Perhaps you never make judgments of a person based on reviews of their work. Maybe you read the essay and find nothing troublng about it, fine. If you show me some other pieces addressing these points about Ramadan in a more nuanced way, I'd be happy to read them, but I don't think I have to suspend my judgment of a person in toto simply because I haven't met the person or read the persons' oeuvre. I just have to be prepared to revise my views when I have other information that shows the previous views were mistaken or misguided--especially if I think that the original basis for believing something is trustworthy. FWIW, Berman's piece is very long and provides many excerpts of Ramadan's work, as well as of the essayists who have "enabled" Ramadan, some of which I read when they came out.

As to your last point, Alice, yes, I was not trying to suggest that all Muslims are people at war with Israel. The third-last sentence of that comment was in reference to the people following the "or" in the previous sentence, ie, referring to the people coming from states that are at war with Israel (regardless of religion). Thanks for helping clarify that further.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jun 27, 2007 9:53:34 AM

Regarding Canadians “disappearing” in or to Syria, could we clarify who we’re talking about? Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was seized by U.S. authorities at JFK Airport in 2002 and subsequently sent to Syria to be tortured under the U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition. Syria’s treatment of Arar and its participation in the extraordinary rendition program is surely objectionable, but it seems odd to condemn Syria without mentioning the U.S. But maybe you’re talking about Nicole Vienneau, a young Canadian tourist who went missing from a solo adventure trip in Syria in March 2007. To my knowledge, there is no evidence of foul play in Vienneau’s disappearance or any reason to put the word in quotes. Which Canadian were you thinking of, Dan?

You mention Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar who was offered a chair at Notre Dame, denied a visa by the U.S. government, and is now at Oxford. I'm curious: which of Ramadan’s works have you read? Do you have any independent basis for your conclusion that Paul Berman's account is "excellent" and that more nuanced descriptions of Ramadan are written by "enablers"?

Finally, Dan, the last paragraph of your 3:24 comment stipulates that Muslims have a harder time entering Israel than do Jews or Christians, then explains that it's reasonable for Israel to scrutinize persons entering from countries with which it is at war. For the sake of your many Muslim friends, it's probably worth clarifying that you don't equate “Muslims” with “people at war with Israel,” and that Israel would need some different justification if in fact it is generally reluctant to admit Muslims.

Posted by: Alice Ristroph | Jun 27, 2007 9:15:00 AM

According to the linked article, it says the *Syrian gov'ts media rep* explained that the denial of the visa to Klein was on the basis of his being Jewish. The fact that he was a journalist was insufficient--they extended visas first to Klein and others, and when they discovered Klein was Jewish, they let the others go ahead, but not Klein.

Btw, Anon, if I'm wrong, and the Syrian government is prepared to host travel groups from Teaneck or Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish congregations (motivated by Sherwood's piece), I'll be happy to pass it on to my friends there. I'd offer to join the trip but, as I alluded to earlier, the mere fact of an Israeli stamp on my passport now precludes my entry into Syria.

FWIW, I've sent an inquiry through the website of the Syrian Ministry of Tourism to find out a more precise answer. I'll get back to you when I hear from them.

In the meantime, here's the State Department's recent Human Rights Report on Syria. It makes for terrifying reading. It also indicates that Syrians are forbidden to travel to Israel and that Jews in Syria are not able to participate in the political process, such as it is.


I was planning on posting it below but Typepad says it's too long for a comment and thus they think it is spam...

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jun 26, 2007 4:23:02 PM


Do we have any information about how hard it is for Jewish tourists to visit Syria? Aaron Klein--the reporter whose visa was denied--is an American, but he's also a journalist based in Jerusalem who has written articles critical of Syria and who was seeking a journalist, not a tourist, visa. That's a far cry from denying a visa to a Jewish tourist on the sole basis of religion.

(The claim that Klein has criticized Syria is cited in the article you linked as coming from a biased source, but the fact that he has written critically about Syria is verifiable via Google. I don't see it as an acceptable reason to exclude journalists, but then I'm not a totalitarian, and it is a religiously-neutral basis.)

Now, if Klein was in fact excluded (either actually or pretextually) because he was Jewish, that is reprehensible. But Klein's exclusion really has little bearing on whether an average reader of the New York Times, Jewish or otherwise, would find it a "piece of cake to come visit Damascus."

Posted by: Anonymous | Jun 26, 2007 3:41:30 PM

Katie, my post is not about comparing Syria to Israel, and as I explained to Ethan earlier, there's nothing in the post derogatory about the average Syrian. So I'm not surprised that your friend enjoyed the magnanimity of various Syrians during her plight. And I'm sure there's some delicious hummus to be had in Damascus too. I'm not against Americans finding out about where to get it; I'm opposed to naive pieces in the NYT which make it seem like it would be a piece of cake to come visit Damascus regardless of your background.

Normally I'd say no more in response to an anonymous comment. But I do find, however, your claims made "for the record" against Israel hard to believe. Are you saying that it is markedly more difficult for a Muslim to enter Israel as a tourist than it is for a Jew to enter Syria? Can you post some evidence showing that Israel is making categorical exclusions about who may tour based on religion alone? I'd be pretty surprised if you could. (I don't doubt however that citizens of states that are officially at war with Israel experience more scrutiny when they try to cross the border into Israel.)

Here's part of the reason why I'm skeptical. Not only does Israel usually accomodate tourists who want to go to countries like Syria following a visit to Israel by not stamping the Israeli visa in one's passport; it also encourages people of all faiths to come visit Israel--the gov't tourism website even lists tour-guides who speak Arabic. Additionally, the Israeli government, for all its flaws, spends millions every year on supporting religious institutions in Israel, including Islamic ones. Your attempt at making relevant comparisons between the two states fails, by my lights.

However, if you're simply saying that Muslim tourists to Israel face a harder time at airport security than Jewish or Christian ones, or persons with Syria stamped in the passport are subjected to more questions than those without, I will stipulate to that characterization. Those people (regardless of religion) coming from states at war with any other state should expect some suspicions. If I travelled to Damascus, I wouldn't be surprised (or disappointed) if they wanted to detain me for longer because I had just been in Israel. I would simply hope for humane treatment and a non-religious based reason for excluding me.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jun 26, 2007 3:24:49 PM

I suppose I have mixed feelings on the general topic, though I'm probably closer to Ethan than Dan, here. But the title of the post is funny, given who it was that _did_ the dissapearing and all. (Should travel pieces about the US warn about it? What about to Poland and other countries that have aided such things?)

Posted by: Matt | Jun 26, 2007 2:37:00 PM

A friend lost her passport and wallet in Syria once and was blown away by how helpful and friendly the Syrians she encountered in the course of dealing with it were (several orders of magnitude more than our own embassy, of course). I say this merely because I'm not sure what we gain by writing off a people and a location because of the opressiveness of their government.

I'll also note that there's particular value in Americans visiting these countries and having a sense of what goes on there beyond what we hear on the news for the purpose of shaping intelligent public policy down the line.

And, for the record, it is markedly more difficult to get into Israel as a tourist if you have a Lebanese or Syrian stamp on your passport or if you are Muslim. Why aren't we decrying that?

Posted by: Katie | Jun 26, 2007 2:22:38 PM

A couple things: I'm not demonizing the Syrian people, many of whom are feeling the oppression far more acutely than the Jews who can't come visit Syria. (Indeed I said nothing about the Syrian people in the post.) And I think it's fine for us to have reportage from Syria, especially if it's in the genre of Theroux's article about Turkmenistan. But in a travel section piece, with it's warm and inviting tone and recommendations, it's blitheringly naive or worse to obscure some of the points I mentioned.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jun 26, 2007 1:42:31 PM

I don't know, Dan. I love to hear about Syria, even if I'm banned. I strongly suspect that it is dangerous to equate governmental policies with an entire people. And what if someone responded to a "travel puff piece" about Tel-Aviv by highlighting all the travel restrictions Palestinians face in coming to Israel at the borders. Surely, you'd start talking about security and making distinctions. Maybe those distinctions work (of course they do at some level). But I still think there is nothing wrong with learning how real Syrians live and eat, irrespective of their government's bad decisions. It just might help us all stop demonizing people unnecessarily. That could further lead to bringing Syria to the proverbial table. Demonization of a people because of a government's bad policies doesn't lead to good foreign policy.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jun 26, 2007 1:18:47 PM

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