Monday 23 August 2021

The Last Girl,by Nadia Murad: Book Note


The Last Girl by Nadia Murad: Book Note

A couple of weeks ago (July 2021) I read The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight against the Islamic State

Nadia Murad 
(New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).

Nadia Murad is a Yazidi, a member of a small religious group of about one million members in Northwest Iraq, bordering on what is now (unofficially) Kurdistan.  As readers might remember, the world because aware of this minority religious group in 2014, when ISIS conquered this region of Iraq. ISIS did not consider the Yazidi to be “People of the Book “(Jews and Christians) rather, it considered the Yazidi to be heretics, whom it was free to murder and enslave.  Thus, before the world had a chance to even know who the Yazidi were, ISIS began a genocide, killing all military-age men and boys and kidnapping marriageable girls and women, along with small children whom it could indoctrinate into it fundamentalist Islamist belief system. ISIS claimed that because they were heretics, Yazidi women could be used as sex slaves

Nadia grew up in a very large extended family in a village called Kocho. Yazidi speak Kurdish, and practice a religion which sees to combine elements of pre-Abrahamic Zoroastrianism with elements of Abrahamic religions, Nearby there were other villages inhabited by Sunni Muslims or by Christians. Despite this religious segregation of residential arrangements, everyone interacted at periodic markets, and her family’s doctor was a Sunni. Nadia’s father had abandoned her mother and his eleven children with her, to live with his younger second wife and their four children. Nadia had some education and worked hard on the family farm as well, Despite this relatively hard life, she describes her family and village with much love and nostalgia.

At 19, Nadia was one of the young women ISIS kidnapped. She was taken to Mosul where she was sold in a sex slave market. Her buyer was a high-status ISIS commanded who took her to a notary where she was forced to convert to Islam.  This apparently gave him license to rape her. When she tried to escape his clutches, he ordered six of his guards to rape her as well, then sold her to someone else. Eventually, after about three months, she managed to escape when her most recent buyer left the door to his house open. She threw herself on the mercy of complete strangers, a Sunni Muslim family, who at great risk to themselves decided to help her escape by sending one of their adult sons to escort her to Kurdistan, pretending she was his wife. Her oldest brother, who was already in Kurdistan, helped arrange her escape using a network of Yazidi activists and paid smugglers.

Unfortunately, factionalism among the Kurds resulted in information about Nadia and her rescuer – pseudonymously named Nasser- being circulated quite widely, endangering him. At the time of writing her book, Nadia still did not know if his family had been found out and punished for assisting her.

ISIS knew that the Yazidis prized the virginity of unmarried girls and women, thus they especially enjoyed defiling these virgins. To their credit, according to Murad, the surviving Yazidi elders got together and decided that girls and women who escaped ISIS would be welcomed back into the Yazidi community, as they obviously had neither converted to Islam nor engaged in sexual activities of their own free will. However, it seems that despite this, a fairly large percentage of former sex slaves felt rejected by their communities when they returned.

As I write this book note, the Taliban have conquered all of Afghanistan. There are now reports that they have begun to kidnap young girls to become their “wives”: that is, their sex slaves. Nadia Murad herself won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, and is now the UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.

Meantime, as of 2018 Nadia’s rescuer, whose real name is Jabar, was living in poverty as a refugee in Germany, separated from his wife and two children still in Iraq. ISIS had come knocking on his door the day after he returned from taking Nadia to Kurdistan. He escaped by jumping out a window and joined the long trek of Middle Eastern refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe. His family managed to convince ISIS that he had acted alone. But despite his heroism, Jabar was just one of many refugees in Germany.









Thursday 12 August 2021

Sex-Based Privacy


Sex-Based Privacy

When I was a visiting scholar in the Netherlands for six months in 2000, I met a middle-aged “autochtonous” Dutch woman who told me how upset she’d been when she was obliged to share a hospital room with a man. When she asked if a Dutch Muslim woman would have had to share with a man, she was told no, as that would violate her culture. But as she told me, it was her culture too. It’s mine as well. Like probably every other culture in the world, “Western” culture allows women and men separate spaces for intimate physical acts. It also doesn’t expect unrelated men and women to share bedrooms in hospitals or other such venues.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I were on

the third floor of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto looking for a men’s bathroom. We came across two bathrooms with three stalls each, with only partial doors, the norm in Canada for segregated one-sex bathrooms. Both were labelled “all gender.” My husband, a very shy man in his 70s, didn’t know what to do, so I told him to go into the one on the right and I would guard it for him.

A couple of minutes later, two young Middle-Eastern looking men arrived, looked at the signs, and seemed confused. I told them where my husband was, so they went into the same bathroom. Then a family arrived: grandma, dad and baby in stroller. Grandma looked at the signs and decided to go downstairs to the first floor, where bathrooms were labelled “men” and ”women.” Then a grandmother and mother in hijab arrived, also with baby in tow. Grandma wanted to use the bathroom, but looked upset at the signage. I suggested to her daughter that her mother go into the empty bathroom on the left, and that she go in with her stroller to guard her mother from men who might enter. They did that.

Transgendered people want to use the bathroom of their chosen gender. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if bathrooms were clearly labelled male or female, and transgender people could use the one they identify with.  It would be even less of a problem if bathrooms were single-stall and had full-length doors that could be locked.  But what the Royal Ontario Museum did is the wrong way to go about accommodating transgender people, forcing everyone to risk using bathrooms with people of other genders.

Some people dismiss the “bathroom question” as a silly side-issue. But it isn’t. Bathrooms exist for the purposes of urination, defecation, and – for women of child-bearing age—menstruation. These are functions that both men and women usually perform privately or, if not completely privately, only with members of the same biological sex in the same location.

Consider, for example, campaigns to build separate latrines for schoolgirls in countries like India, so that the girls do not have to quit school in shame when they start menstruating. Consider, also, that refugee camps maintain separate latrine facilities for men and women. It is considered undignified and shameful to urinate, defecate and attend to menstrual cleanliness in the presence of members of the opposite biological sex.

The presumably Middle Eastern men and the presumably Muslim woman who followed my husband into the bathrooms at the ROM might have asserted that their culture prohibited them from entering mixed-“gender” bathrooms. In Canada at the moment, much attention is paid to preserving the culture of minority groups. But white Canadians of European ancestry also have cultural values that prescribe privacy for both men and women with regard to urination, defecation, and menstruation.

Must cultures if not all cultures, in most parts of the world, separate men and women for dignity’s sake. In some cultures, there are public baths. Men and women usually go to separate public baths. It would undignified and shameful for either men or women to be naked in these baths in the presence of people of the opposite biological sex.

Ideally, in the longer term, this problem can be solved by new ways of building infrastructure. Many newer restaurants, for example, have fully enclosed single-unit toilets, which anyone of whatever sex or gender may use. Perhaps also, women’s shelters could build separate units for transgender women whose biological sex does not conform to their gender identity.

But women and girls should still be entitled both to physical safety and to dignified privacy. So should men and boys. And no one should be vilified for pointing out that while there should be accommodation for people whose social gender and biological sex do not coincide, some consideration should be also given to people whose sex and gender do coincide. Many if not most of those people feel uncomfortable—if not unsafe—conducting their intimate private business in the presence of those whose sex they do not share.


Wednesday 14 July 2021

The trans debate: "Less Yelling, More Conversation"


The Trans Debate: “Less Yelling: More Conversation”

Recently I met a very wise woman, a life-long advocate for freedom of speech and the mother of a Trans child.  Her slogan for getting past seemingly irreconcilable positions on Trans people was “less yelling: more conversation.”  She also though we should stop tossing around words like “Transphobia” when the real problem is often lack of understanding of what it means to be a Trans person, or to feel that one is in the wrong body.

You can obtain some understanding of what it feels like to be in the wrong body by reading Love Lives Here, a recent memoir by Amanda Jette Knox. Knox is both the mother and the wife of Trans women. Her daughter came out as female at the age of 11 and was able to transition relatively easily as she had not yet gone through all the stages of male puberty. Knox’s wife came out as female as an adult after 20 years of marriage as a man. Knox stood by both her daughter and her (now) wife, and seems to have kept her family intact and happy, as this image shows.

It is often difficult to understand people whose life experience in matters of sexuality or gender identity is so different from your own. 25 years ago I interviewed 78 civic leaders in Hamilton, Ontario about gay and lesbian rights (no one was talking about Trans rights at the time). 44 of them  volunteered that knowing someone who was gay had influenced their attitudes to favour gay rights. I wrote that up as an article called “The Gay Cousin:  Learning to Accept Gay Rights.” Similarly, when you know someone who is Trans, or read about their lives, it helps you empathize with them. 

That said, I don’t think any good can come of the current tendency to label women who worry about “fake” Trans people entering women’s “safe” spaces as TERFs (Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists}.  I think Trans people should enjoy all their human rights, as do most of the so-called TERFs, such as the novelist J.K. Rowling.

In 2017 Canada’s Parliament passed “An Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code.”  This Act added “gender identity or expression” to prohibited grounds of discrimination.

Canada’s Ministry of Justice issued an explanation of what gender identity means: “Gender identity is each person’s internal and individual experience of gender.”  It defined gender expression as “the way in which people publicly present their gender…through such aspects as dress, hair, make-up, body language, and voice.”

Some Canadians seem to think that this definition means that an individual can simply state that they are of one or another gender, and that others must therefore accept them as such. For example, an ostensible male can walk into a woman’s shelter and state that they are a woman, and they would be entitled to a bed Or, a person  imprisoned for rape can simply state that they are a woman, and they must be moved to a women’s prison This does not mean that genuine transgender people should not be moved, as happened in 2017 to a convicted murderer in British Columbia.  Transgender women in men’s prisons risk being attacked.

If an individual can simply say they are a woman and then legally have to be treated as one, without any further evidence such as having lived as a woman, then Canada’s law is a bad one. A government that claims to be concerned about violence against women should know that some male predators will take every advantage they possibly can to gain access to vulnerable women.

Saying this does not make me a “TERF.” It makes me a person who is simultaneously aware that Trans people deserve all their human rights, and that predatory men will take advantage of a practice that permits them into women’s spaces.

Similarly, female scholars who worry about a social-media inspired movement to persuade young people, especially young women, that they are actually Trans are not TERFs. They are people who can simultaneously protect Trans people’s rights and worry that vulnerable young adolescents may ask for life-changing, irreversible surgery that they may not need.

In Sweden, there was a 1,500 per cent increase between 2008 and 2018 in gender dysphoria among people “born as girls” between 13 and 17 years of age.  In the UK, 1,806 girls were referred for gender treatment in 2017/18, as compared to only 40 in 2009/10.  Some of this increase may be because genuinely Trans children now had better access to information and assistance.  But the steep rise also suggests that some of them might have been influenced by social media or by groups of friends.  Some girls may simply have noticed that life is easier if you are male. A Finnish study found that 75 per cent of adolescents who wanted sex-reassignment surgery actually had other psychiatric problems.

There has already been one legal case in the UK in which an adult woman sued the Tavistock institute for removing her breasts when she was 16 and thought she was Transgender: as an adult, she decided she was simply a lesbian woman.  She won her case. 

None of this suggests that children who identify as Trans should not be taken seriously. It does suggest that there are many questions that should be asked.  People who ask these questions should not be considered Transphobic.  Nor should feminists who worry about “trans imposters” be considered TERFS.  It is possible to simultaneously defend the rights of Trans people and worry about poor medical practices, false or misleading information on the Internet, and social movements that persuade vulnerable young people that they are Trans when they may well be suffering from problems other than gender dysphoria, such as being bullied for being gay or lesbian. 

In all these cases, more speech is better than less. And civil discourse is better than yelling and calling each other names.  Sometimes human rights do clash. It is better to discuss the clashes civilly, trying to come to a reasonable resolution or compromise, than to pretend that one or the other side is simply composed of ideologues or bigots.



Monday 12 April 2021

World Human Rights Today


World Human Rights Today

 Last week (April 9, 2021) a reporter in Pakistan named Hammad Sarfraz contacted me about an article he was writing about Amnesty International’s latest world report.  He sent me some questions via email, which I answered.  In the end, he did not use any quotes from me in his article, So I have decided to post my answers, as below.

 What is your assessment of the current state of human rights around the world? 

 I am very worried about the current state of human rights, especially because of the rise of the authoritarian political right, indeed even of fascism. Donald Trump, his family and the Republican Party are still a real threat to American democracy. Their fascistic policies are based on racism against Blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims, as well as on privileges for the extremely rich.

 Similarly, I am very worried about China’s move back from authoritarian dictatorship to full-blown totalitarianism, using modern means of information technology to try to control the entire Chinese population. And I worry about Putin’s dictatorship in Russia, Modi’s anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism, and leaders such as Bolsanaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, Orban in Hungary and Netanyahu in Israel.

 Aside from these threats to people’s civil, political and economic human rights, there are also the long-term threats of nuclear war and global climate change, violating the rights to peace and to a healthy environment, both emerging “collective” human rights.

  Were human rights ever universally guaranteed or were they only meant to be for the rich / developed countries?

 This question sets up a false opposition.  Human rights have never been universally guaranteed in practice; they are universal in principle. While it is true that some rich, developed countries were influential in formulating the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, so were several independent non-Western countries such as India and Iran.  The only groups that had no influence were colonized sub-Saharan Africa and indigenous peoples.  Since then, all members of the UN have had a say in formulating new documents such as the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child

 People who don’t live in developed, wealthy societies need human rights even more that people who do.  Ask yourself, which human rights could Pakistanis do without? The right not to be arbitrarily executed? The right to free speech? The right to adequate food and housing? 

 Perhaps some Pakistanis would prefer to get rid of freedom of religion, as it protects the rights of Christians in Pakistan.  But the principle of freedom of religion also applies to Muslims in China, India and Myanmar: should it be abolished because these are not wealthy western countries?  Should Muslims in the US have the right to freedom of religion, while Muslims in these three countries don’t?

  An increasing number of advocacy groups are cautioning us about the growing abuses and violations of basic rights.  Are we moving toward a post human rights world? 

 I doubt very much that we are moving to a post-human rights world.  People will always want the types of freedoms, protections and material security that the international human rights laws and norms provide in law and principle.  We will all have to fight vigorously, though, against the political authoritarianism and fascism that are currently emerging in various countries.

  What are the main challenges for global human rights norms ? 

 There are so many that I cannot even begin to enumerate them. The biggest challenge is always corrupt, self-interested elites that control states, wherever they are. The other challenge is unbridled capitalism which ignores the dangers of climate change, inequality, and continued discrimination. Racism, genocide, patriarchy and homophobia are always constant challenges.

 Countries that appear to be important in Washington’s grand scheme can get away with human rights violations. Saudi Arabia got away with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and India is currently getting away with its oppressive policies in Kashmir. These are two examples of how Washington conveniently turns a blind eye to violations — when needed. What are the consequences of Washington’s selective approach toward human rights?  

 This question should apply not only to Washington but to all great powers. In the Western world, aside from some small countries such as Norway, human rights are always a left-over after states take into consideration their strategic needs, political alliances, trade, and general economic interests. Other very powerful countries such as China and Russia don’t even bother with human rights. For example, China is busy exploiting Africa without any concern for human rights.

  What is your assessment of the pandemic’s impact on global human rights? 

 In Canada, where I live, the pandemic has exposed severe cracks in our system of state health care, as well as cracks in our welfare system. Elsewhere, presumably, it is much worse. Modi’s decision to simply close down India and force migrants workers to return home without adequate (if any) protections against the Covid virus has probably resulted in many tens of thousands of deaths that will never be reported.

  What would it take to reverse the deteriorating human rights situation in the world? 

 Continued, constant pressure by civil society groups upon the elites that control governments and the international economy.  This is why civil and political rights are so important, so that civil society and the general citizenry, can exercise their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to vote and participate in government. When governments can throw civil society actors in jail with impunity, or torture or execute them, then there is very little possibility of change. Note that for all his racist, fascistic tendencies, Trump was unable to stifle freedom of speech and the press in the US; nor, despite stacking the Supreme Court and other levels of the judiciary with his own appointees, has he completely undermined the independence of the judiciary. 

 If I could pick only one human right, I would say freedom of speech. Some people might rather say, the right to food. But without freedom of speech, citizens cannot even be guaranteed the right to eat: witness countries such as North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela whose governments have committee state food crimes, destroying their own economics.



Thursday 4 February 2021

Indigenizing the University: Book Note

This week I read the proofs of a book edited by Frances Widdowson, entitled Indigenizing the University: Diverse Perspectives (Winnipeg: Frontier Centre for Public Policy, 2021 forthcoming). I read it at Dr. Widdowson’s request, with a view to possible providing an endorsement. Here is the endorsement:

“This book is a fine introduction to debates about the indigenization of universities. Although Widdowson herself opposes many aspects of indigenization, she lets her authors speak for themselves. The second section is particularly interesting, discussing whether indigenous science exists. Authors investigate physics, biology, psychology, economics, and political science.”

Frances Widdowson is  a professor in the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University. As I noted in the endorsement, she is a very strong opponent of indigenizing Canadian universities, so some readers might think I should not have endorsed this book. However, I learned a lot from it. I had expected the various contributions to be polemical, but they were not. Whatever one might think of Widdowson’s views and the views of other contributors, they are backed up by an impressive amount of research. If I wanted to pursue this debate, I would find a huge bibliography in Widdowson’s and others’ articles. 

The first section of the book contains two useful historical chapters. Rodney A. Clifton, a professor emeritus at the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba, and Masha V. Krylova situate the history of indigenization of Canadian universities within the broader context of Canadianization of those same universities. The late Alan Cairns of the University of Waterloo contributed a chapter on the history of aboriginal research. He is particularly scathing about the 1990s’ Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. He asserts that it was driven by an ideological agenda that privileged the situation of Aboriginal (as they were then called) people living in bands on reserves, while ignoring people living in urban areas, those who were intermarried, and those who had Aboriginal ancestry but did not identify themselves as Aboriginal (p. 63). He also noted that some Aboriginal women testified in camera at the Commission because they were afraid of retaliation at home if they spoke about abuse on reserves (p.60).

Other chapters in this section address several other concerns. Widdowson argues that Indigenization might result in the lowering of academic standards. Tom Flanagan, a professor emeritus in the department of political science at the University of Calgary, provides an addendum to Widdowson’s chapter, considering the unintended detrimental consequences – in his view-- of affirmative action programs on the United States. David Newhouse of the department of indigenous studies at Trent University argues strongly for the right to speak what he calls indigenous truths.  Kerryn Pholi, a sometime Aboriginal civil servant is Australia, is a strong critic of what she called the “Aboriginal industry” in that country.

The second section of the book, “Indigenizing Academic Disciplines,” debates whether there is one universal science with universal standards, or whether there is such a thing as “Indigenous science” which should be considered by Canadian universities as on equal footing with what its advocates call “Western” science.

The late F. David Peat was a physicist in his early life. He argues that debates among physicists show that there are various “physics.” Similarly, he argues, Blackfoot and other Indigenous worldviews can be considered as independent concepts of physics. James Trefil, a professor of physics at George Mason University, replies “teach it if you must, but don’t call it science.” He points out that Peat argues by analogy, that debates among physicists do not mean that there are different sciences of physics.

This exchange is followed by a debate between Root Gorelick, a professor in the department of biology at Carleton University, and Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher of science at City University of New York. Gorelick argued strongly for an Indigenous biology. He also advocates including spiritual and indeed poetic elements in that science. Gorelick is particularly concerned that traditional indigenous environmental knowledge be acknowledged as scientific. Pigliucci agrees that Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) should be taken seriously by scientists. However, such knowledge must be verified by standard scientific methods. Also, aspects of TEK that derive from spiritual beliefs must be discarded. In and of itself, TEK is not science.  

Following these debates on physic and biology, Stephen B. Perrott,  professor of psychology at Mount Saint Vincent University, assesses whether the discipline of psychology should be indigenized. He accepts the need for more Indigenous psychologists and more sensitivity to Indigenous clients, but does not agree that the discipline itself should abandon its scientific roots.  Ambrose Leung of the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mont Royal University politely replies to a claim by Carol Anne Hilton, a First Nations business entrepreneur, that there should be an “indigenomics.” He shows how each of Hilton’s arguments about omissions of indigenous concerns (such as environmental impacts of development projects) is already addressed within the discipline of economics.

The final chapter in this section is by Widdowson herself, assessing indigenous content syllabus materials and political science. Among her many arguments against indigenization, she introduces the concept of “neotribal rentierism” (p. 277). Rentierism is the ability to extract benefits without actually making any productive contribution to the economy, as for example European landlords did when they extracted rents from peasants and serfs. Widdowson argues that Indigenous leaders are now extracting “rents” from the federal government.

I think that Widdowson may be right that some Indigenous leaders do engage in this type of behavior, but I believe her criticism is too strong. I agree with Indigenous advocates that colonialism has stripped them of much of their capacity to be economically self-sustaining, from land theft to denial of civil and political rights to under-education and abuse in residential schools. In any case, even if colonialism hadn’t occurred, the Canadian government is responsible to ensure the human rights of all its citizens. This includes economic human rights such as the rights to housing, education, and health care. Despite their assertions of Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous peoples are still citizens of the Canadian state, whether living on or off-reserves.

The debate in section 2 of  Indigenizing the University about Indigenous versus “Western” science is resonant of the debate on whether universal human rights are really universal or whether they are in fact “Western.” To a significant extent, both the human rights and the Indigenous science debates rest on the fallacy of origins. This fallacy is the belief that ideas are applicable only to the people or social categories who generated them.

In my own work, including In Defense of Universal Human Rights  (2018), I have argued that while the concept of human rights may have originated in the West, from its earliest legal origins at the United Nations in 1948 non-Western countries bought into the concept, which they elaborated over the next seven decades. Moreover, all people everywhere are entitled in principle to such human rights. Similarly, even if concepts of scientific rigour such as falsifiability and secularism originated in the European Enlightenment, they have now spread far beyond the Euro-American world. Scientists in China and India use the same standards as scientists in North America and Europe. Scientific findings apply to all people everywhere.

For example, I have yet to hear of any Indigenous people arguing that the various Covid-19 vaccines currently being imported into Canada are unusable by Indigenous people because they are “Western” in origin. Indeed, the fallacy of origins argument does not seem to be used for medical or technical developments, although tragically, some years ago in Ontario two sets of Indigenous parents tried to cure their young daughters of leukemia using “indigenous” treatments. After one of the children died, the other mother returned her daughter to “Western” medical treatment.

One final note: Widdowson tried very hard to find indigenous contributors for this volume. At least one Indigenous person declined, not wanting to debate with her at all. This is a shame, as she included all the chapters without her own commentary. As a matter of principle, moreover, Widdowson  identified her contributors only by their professional designations, not by their identity, Indigenous or otherwise. Root Gorelick identified himself as non-Indigenous, while Kerryn Pholi identified herself as an Australian Aboriginal. Others did not self-identify, so one is left to judge their arguments purely by their scientific validity, not by their identity, which is what Widdowson apparently wanted.

Extra note (February 9, 2021): Just after I posted this blog, I heard reports of Canadian Indigenous people who were very hesitant to have Covid-19 vaccinations.  This hesitancy stems from a long history of justifiable mistrust of white people in authority, including those in the medical profession. But as far as I know, the mistrust is not because Covid-19 vaccinations are thought to be "Western" as opposed to Indigenous medicine. 


Wednesday 20 January 2021

Provisionally Yours and The Last Million: Book Notes

 Recently I read Provisionally Yours by Antanas Sileika (Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2019).  Provisionally Yours is a novel set in in Lithuania just after World War I.  Actually, it’s a bit of a stretch to say it is set in Lithuania, as the country as such was still in a very “provisional” state at the time. Previously part of the Russian Empire, it benefitted from the post-war sentiment to let different ethnic groups form new nations. This was part of a general trend toward the idea of “self-determination,” when the Czarist, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires had all been destroyed. 

.Sileika, a Canadian of Lithuanian descent, portrays a world of ethno-castes. By that I mean ethnic groups arranged in a caste-like hierarchy. Until very recently, the (Czarist) Russian Empire was Lithuania’s overlord, but landowners tended to be Polish. Peasants were Lithuanian, and Jews were urban businessmen and professionals. Now ethnic Lithuanians are in charge and are trying to establish an ethnically-homogenous Lithuanian state. The protagonist of the novel, Justas Adamonis, has just returned from service in the Russian army, and is now charged with setting up a counter-intelligence service in Lithuania.

I learned a lot from this novel about early 20th-century Lithuania. It also made me think about the problems of new states more generally. In an Afterword, Sileika informs the reader that he based the novel on real political events that occurred in Lithuania at the time. One of Adamonis’ assignments is to track down a ring of officials who are smuggling cocaine into the new Soviet Union. This reminds me of the problem of narco-states in the less developed world today. It also reminds me of the difficulties of establishing--and paying—an efficient administrative class in an ethnically-disparate society. At another point, an ethnically Russian general who led the Lithuanian army in its war of independence is assassinated. There are still many such cases, in which members of ethnic minorities who attempt to serve the new “nation”-state are marginalized or even assassinated by the ethnic group in power.  

Jews don’t figure in Provisionally Yours; they are just “there,” irrelevant to the formation of this new nation-state. Unfortunately, they are very much “there” in historian David Nasaw’s The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War (New York, Penguin Press, 2020).

One tends to think that the last million displaced persons would have been almost entirely Jewish, but such was far from the case. Most of the Jewish survivors were people who had fled from Poland to the Soviet Union during the war. After the war, Stalin permitted them to return to Poland, but they did so only to discover that there was still fierce anti-Semitism in that country. Indeed, some Jews were given letters giving them three days to get out, or else. The last pogrom occurred in the city of Kielce in 1946, after the war’s end. About 200-250,000 Polish Jews who had survived the war in the Soviet Union ended up in the American zone of occupation in Germany, awaiting permission to migrate elsewhere.

Other members of the last million were refugees from various countries taken over by the Soviet Union. Among these were “Balts,” people from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia who fled into Germany after the war and were able to make their way to the American zone of occupation. 

By this point, very few Jews were left in the Baltic states. Indeed, many Balts co-operated with the Nazis in murdering their Jewish co-nationals. Among the last million were known members of the Nazi Waffen-SS, identifiable by the blood-type tattoos under their left armpits.  Nevertheless, both Britain and the United States considered Baltic men, often tall, blond, and blue-eyed, to be superior immigrants. They were “clean” as opposed to the “dirty” Jewish survivors.

 At one point miners in the UK went on strike when they discovered that they were working with immigrants against whom they’d so recently fought. British authorities told the Baltic miners not to take their shirts off in the mines, so the British miners would not notice their SS tattoos.

The Lutheran and Catholic establishments in the US pressured their post-war government to admit Balts (Lutherans) and Poles and Ukrainians (Catholics) in equal numbers to Jewish immigrants, if not more. And President Truman pressured the British to open up then Palestine to Jewish immigration so that the US would not have to admit the Jews.  

If you are a reader who enjoys historical novels, I highly recommend Provisionally Yours, to give you a sense of a place about which, like me, you might not know anything at all.  And if you like reading history, Nasaw is a Pulitzer-Prize winner who knows how to tell a compelling, if discouraging, story.