ISRAEL: POST-ZIONISM & THE SEPHARDI QUESTION
By Meyrav Wurmser
The author is not a Palestinian refugee, but rather an Israeli Jew. His name is Sami Shalom Chetrit, a Mizrahi professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who, along with Mizrahi academics like Ella Shohat, Eli Avraham, Oren Yiftachel, Yehouda Shenhav, Pnina Motzafi-Haller and others has developed a radical critique of ethnic relations in Israel. True to post-Zionism, an intellectual movement that believes that Zionism lacks moral validity, post-Zionist Mizrahi writers believe that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state. According to Mizrahi post-Zionism, the Mizrahim, about half of Israel's Jewish population, are "Arab-Jews," who, like the Palestinians are victims of Zionism. While this new school of intellectual radicalism remains so far contained within the halls of academia and without broad support among the broader Mizrahi population, it, nevertheless, represents a new and worrisome twist on the post-Zionist phenomenon that continues to dominate Israel's academia and media.
The radical Mizrahim who turned to post-Zionism tap into anger beyond the well-known complaints of past ill-treatment, including the maabarot, the squalid tent cities into which Mizrahim were placed upon arrival in Israel; the humiliation of Moroccan and other Mizrahi Jews when Israeli immigration authorities shaved their heads and sprayed their bodies with the pesticide DDT ; the Socialist elite's enforced secularization; the destruction of traditional family structure, and the reduced status of the patriarch by years of poverty and sporadic unemployment. These Mizrahi intellectuals' fury extends beyond even the state-sponsored kidnapping of Yemeni infants for adoption by Ashkenazi families who lost their children in the Holocaust.  The real anger Sephardim feel nowadays, and upon which these Mizrahi post-Zionists seize, comes from the extent to which, in their view, the Zionist narrative denied, erased, and excluded their historical identity.
Some of the adherents of this new Israeli school of thought now equate Mizrahi grievances with those of Palestinians. In an article, "Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims," a takeoff on Edward Said's famous "Zionism from the Standpoint of its [Palestinian] Victims,"  Ella Habiba-Shohat, an Iraqi-Israeli woman and one of the principal Mizrahi post-Zionist leaders, claims that, alongside the Palestinians, Mizrahi Jews are Zionism's "other" victims.  According to Shohat, Zionism is a white, Ashkenazi phenomenon, based on the denial of the Orient and the rights of both Mizrahi Jews and the Palestinians. Indeed, she argues, the conflict of East versus West, Arab versus Jew, and Palestinian versus Israeli exists not only between Israelis and Arabs but also within Israel between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews.
This view contradicts the mainstream Zionist narrative, which maintains that Zionism saved Mizrahi Jews.  According to this view, the Mizrahi Jews were devout Zionists, who deeply wished to leave the Diaspora and return to Zion.  Zionism saved these Mizrahim when persecution in their Arab and Iranian homelands intensified after Israel's independence. It also rescued them from the backwardness of Arab society and introduced them to the technology and culture of the civilized world. Zionism helped them to overcome the disadvantages of the illiterate, despotic societies from which they came.
In contrast, post-Zionist Mizrahi writers believe that this official Zionist account is false and needs to be de-constructed. They maintain that the Mizrahim did not come from backward or primitive societies. Cities like Alexandria, Baghdad, and Istanbul were great metropolises of wealth and culture. Most Mizrahim had been exposed to Western culture and ideas, since they came from countries once subject to British or French rule. The Mizrahim were also largely literate, if not highly educated. Most men and even some women could read the Torah.
The post-Zionist writers also attack the claim that the Mizrahi Jews longed to immigrate to Israel. In reality, they argue, as loyal residents of the Arab world, Zionism played a relatively minor role in the Mizrahi world-view. Despite the role that the longing for Zion played in their religious lives, they did not share the European-Zionist desire to leave the Diaspora. Even after the Holocaust, post-Zionist writers maintain, Mizrahi Jews remained largely opposed to Zionism and lived peacefully with their Arab neighbors. Yehouda Shenhav, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University, writes in his study of the Jews of Iraq that the Mizrahim were never really Zionists. Instead, he argues that the Ashkenazi establishment encouraged their immigration less to protect the Mizrahim and more to address its own need for cheap labor.  Instead of saving the Mizrahi Jews, Zionism only ruthlessly displaced an entire community, Shenhav maintains, and removed its members' right to determine their own future. Pursuing this logic to its end, he argues that Zionism cannot be considered a liberation movement for all Jews. It liberated European Jews, but enslaved the Mizrahim, who, like the Palestinians, are an abused Third World people suffering under the yoke of First World Ashkenazi oppressors.
One of the main complaints of this radical intellectual school is the belief that Zionism destroyed the Mizrahi sense of community and culture by forcing the adoption of new "Zionist" and "Israeli" identities so as to eradicate any threat of a Mizrahi-Arab alliance. This action not only destroyed the natural Arab-Jewish identity of the Mizrahim, these post-Zionists argue, but also sparked the Arab-Israeli conflict. Shiko Behar, a Mizrahi post-Zionist writer, asserts that identity in the Middle East today is shaped around post-colonial nationalism, not the religious division between Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs. 
Before the rise of modern Jewish and Arab nationalism, Mizrahim and Arabs could coexist without conflict because they all shared an Arab identity and only differed in their religious beliefs.  In Zionist Israel, continues Behar, the Mizrahim could not be considered Arab-Jews, even if their historical identity was more closely aligned with the Arab rather than Israeli identity. The Arab-Israeli conflict meant that the Mizrahim were forced to choose: either they were Jews, or they were Arabs. Mizrahim suffered communal schizophrenia, because, for the first time since perhaps the time of the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid (763-809), when the Islamic Caliph forced Jews to wear yellow patches, Arabism and Judaism were in conflict. Yet, for this very reason, argues Behar, the Mizrahim — victimized by both Ashkenazi Zionism and the rise of Arab nationalism — are the key factor in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. They alone can serve as the bridgehead into the Arab world, since they, like the Palestinians, are refugees whose identity was destroyed. 
Gelblum was not alone. Post-Zionist Mizrahim quote one of Israel's leading intellectuals in the 1950s, Karl Frankenstein, a celebrated professor at Hebrew University and the man considered the father of the Israeli education system. Frankenstein expressed outright racist attitudes towards Mizrahim, writing, "We have to recognize the primitive mentality of many of the immigrants from backward countries."  He further suggested that Mizrahi Jews have the mentality of primitive people who are somewhat mentally disturbed.  Israeli sociologist Yosef Gross argued, in the early 1950s, that Mizrahi immigrants suffered from "mental regression."  One of the worst examples of the anti-Mizrahi discrimination involves The Ashkenazi Revolution -- published in 1964 by writer Kalman Katzenelson -- in which the author argues that the Mizrahim suffer from irreversible genetic inferiority that endangers the superiority of the Ashkenazi-Zionist state. He called for the establishment of an apartheid regime that, among other limitations imposed on the Mizrahim, would abolish their political rights. He also objected to mixed marriages and demanded the prohibition of the Hebrew language because it resembled Arabic too greatly. He demanded that, instead of Hebrew, Yiddish become the national language, because of its supreme Germanic origins. His book was a bestseller until Ben-Gurion banned it. 
The sentiments expressed by these intellectuals, the Mizrahi post-Zionists argue, were not uncommon. There were racist attitudes toward the Mizrahi Jews even among the highest political levels. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion described the Mizrahi immigrants as lacking even "the most elementary knowledge" or "a trace of Jewish or human education."  Furthermore, he said, "We do not want Israelis to become Arabs. We are bound by duty to fight against the spirit of the Levant that corrupts individuals and society." Likewise, Abba Eban, one of Israel's most eloquent diplomats, noted that "one of the great apprehensions which afflict us is the danger of the predominance of immigrants of Oriental origin forcing Israel to equalize its cultural level with that of the neighboring world."  In 1949, Shoshana Frasitz, a member of the Knesset, said of the Mizrahim, "You know that we have no common language with them. Our cultural level does not fit with their level; their lifestyle is the lifestyle of the Middle Ages."  Nachum Goldman, Chairman of the Jewish Agency and President of the World Zionist Organization in the late 1940s and 1950s, said, "A Jew from Eastern Europe is worth twice as much as a Jew from Kurdistan," and continued, "We should return a hundred thousand of the Jews of the East to their countries of origin."  Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once asked, "Shall we be able to elevate these immigrants to a suitable level of civilization?" 
The current clique of radical post-Zionist Mizrahim argues that such attitudes have not disappeared from Israel. Even as late as 1983, for example, the Leftwing Liberal and Palestinian-rights advocate, Shulamit Aloni, who headed the Citizens' Rights Party and served as a member of the Knesset, denounced the Mizrahim as "barbarous tribal forces" who were "driven like a flock to the sound of tom-toms … chanting like a savage tribe."  In the same year, the celebrated Ashkenazi columnist Amnon Dankner raised the possibility of an Ashkenazi-Mizrahi cultural war in Ha'aretz:
These anti-Mizrahi attitudes, argue the post-Zionist Mizrahim, exist in the depiction of Mizrahim in movies, literary works, and especially, the media. They quote the findings of researcher Eli Avraham, who investigated the media portrayal of the Mizrahim in the 1980s and 1990s. He found a number of recurring themes were associated with the Mizrahim. Those included violence, crime, and social unrest; unseemliness and neglect; limited future prospects; a herd mentality, and ethnically-determined political identity; an inability to be "like us [Ashkenazim]; and a syndrome of ‘primitivism.'" 
While anti-Mizrahi attitudes are a legitimate concern, for radical post-Zionist writers, the problem does not end with the racism of some of Israel's founding fathers, politicians, and intellectuals. For them, the core issue is economic and social discrimination. In the 1970s, the Mizrahi Black Panther movement emerged to address economic and social discrimination through violent protests. Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered a brutal crackdown on the movement, which took its revolutionary outlook from the more radical elements of the African-American struggle in the United States and from Marxist movements in Latin America. Radical post-Zionists believe that socioeconomic discrimination continues to exist, and they see it as the key factor that has led the Mizrahim to vote in droves since 1988 for the religious Mizrahi party Shas.
There were many reasons to believe that the great social and economic gap between the Mizrahim and Ashkenazis had closed and that discrimination had become a thing of the past. Since the 1980s, a growing number of Mizrahim have held key positions in the Israeli government and military establishment. Moshe Katzav won the Presidency in August, 2000, while David Levi, Meir Schitrit, Aryeh Der'i, Shaul Mofaz, and Shlomo Ben-Ami have held top ministerial portfolios in a number of governments. The Israeli military is a tool of social mobility, and several of its high-ranking officers and chiefs-of-staff have been Mizrahim. Moreover, Israel underwent somewhat of a cultural revolution starting in the 1980s and 1990s; much popular culture today is dominated by Mizrahi music, traditions, and customs. Sometimes this translates into the politicization of Mizrahi traditions. For example, attending the Moroccan-Jewish celebration of the Mimuna, which marks the end of Passover, is now a must for every Ashkenazi prime minister and aspiring politician. On that day, the media is full of reports of top politicians visiting Mizrahi homes and tasting the traditional bread (mofleta) baked by the women of the house.
But, despite the appearance of change and of a closing Ashkenazi-Mizrahi gap, studies show that during the 1990s the disparity between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim in Israel grew. Even in the late 1990s, 88 percent of upper-income Israelis were Ashkenazim, while 60 percent of lower-income families were Mizrahim.  In spite of the general increase in standard of living in Israel, the gap between Israeli-born Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, especially in housing, remains comparable to their parents' generation. In other areas, such as income, the gap has only become wider. In fact, as Yoav Peled, a Tel Aviv University political scientist, demonstrated, a "cultural division of labor" characterized Israel in the 1990s, when, within the Jewish population, the vast majority of the low income and impoverished families were of Mizrahi origin. The lower-middle class consisted of both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi families, with a small Ashkenazi majority, while the upper-middle and upper classes were almost exclusively Ashkenazi.
Even though the Mizrahim account for almost half of Israel's population, even as late as 2000, there was still only one Mizrahi for every four college-educated Ashkenazim. Sami Shalom Chetrit's works focus largely on the gap in education between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim. He argues that the gap has resulted from state policies that have not changed significantly since the 1950s.  In areas more densely populated by Ashkenazi Jews, high schools focused on college preparation. But, in mostly Mizrahi areas, the state built special high schools (called makif and amal), which offer mostly vocational training. While, in theory, these schools included a single class of approximately 30 students who could aspire to higher education, my own experience growing up in the almost completely Mizrahi town of Ramle, Israel, was that far fewer succeeded. I attended a school of 700 students; only 37 students per grade were allowed to engage in full academic study. Of these, only three of us actually graduated high school and went onto higher education. The existence of separate education systems has meant that the disparity in higher education has continued. Naturally, differences in levels of education lead to differences in occupation and income.
As researcher Ya'akov Nahon has noted, since the 1980s, the socioeconomic gap divides Israeli society into two ethnic groups, even among the second-generation population. He suggested that, despite intermarriages and the process of socialization of the Mizrahim into Ashkenazi society, the gaps between the two groups did not close and even grew. Part of the problem stems from basic unequal conditions between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim: the Mizrahim tend to have larger families, their economic situation was worse from the start, and their negative image in society has made them less able to catch up to the Ashkenazim. 
With this in mind, the post-Zionist Mizrahi radical rejection of Zionism and the Israeli state is the wrong medicine for the disease. Rejecting Zionism is opting for a solution that is outside the Israeli political system. Such a solution will contribute little to solving the existing problems of Israeli society and its Mizrahi population. Destroying the state of Israel will not make the Mizrahim more equal or accepted by either Jewish or Arab societies.
Taking a radical stand against the state of Israel means that the post-Zionists undermine the achievements and accomplishments of Mizrahim in Israel. Years of Mizrahi history in the Jewish state are dismissed by the post-Zionists as atypical or unimportant. Their many successes are ignored and belittled. In so doing, the post-Zionist Mizrahi writers portray the members of their community as the passive object of history. They are forever the victims, too weak to rebel and too naive to fight the system. Although some Mizrahi writers, such as Chetrit, emphasize in their works the story of the Mizrahi uprising against the state at different points of time, this remains a story of a small minority, even within the Mizrahi community. It does not offset the general tone of the post-Zionist writers, which remains one of helplessness and weakness.
Moreover, much of the post-Zionist Mizrahi outlook is based on nostalgic reminiscences of the Arab world, rather than an unsentimental view of what it was then and now. Even if the post-Zionist point of view were adopted by scores of Mizrahim, it is hard to believe that they could safely go back to residing as "Arab-Jews" in countries like Iraq, Syria, or Libya. Long years of Arab-Israeli conflict exposed Arab society to so much anti-Semitism and hatred toward Israel that the safety and security of Mizrahim who might desire to be a part of the Arab world again would be threatened. This exposes yet another weakness in the post-Zionist argument: the assumption that the Arab-Israeli conflict is one-sided and is only the result of the manipulations of Zionism. The post-Zionists Mizrahi writers forget that the Arab world continues to play a role in the conflict. The Arab world's version of Arab nationalism was inspired since its creation by both Fascism and Islamic Fundamentalism — two movements which have by no means been kind to Jews. Modern Arab nationalism — and not "Ashkenazi" Zionism — is no less responsible for the conflict between Arabs and Israelis.
In their attempt to end what they view as the oppression of the Mizrahi Jews, the post-Zionist Mizrahi academics claim to speak in the name of liberty, justice, and equality. Their argument is that the Mizrahim need to break the chains of enslavement in Israel and declare themselves as Arab Jews in order to liberate themselves and revive their self-definition and self-respect. But the post-Zionists, once again, ignore Middle Eastern reality: what they advocate would put half the Jewish population of Israel under the rule of Arab tyrants, since there is, as yet, no constitutional democracy in the Arab world. The socalled liberation of the Mizrahi Jews will only expose them to new forms of oppression.
Mizrahim tend not only to view themselves as ardent Zionists, but they also tend to hold religious and nationalist views that lead them to support the Israeli Right in national elections. Perhaps, rooted in their families' past experiences, most hold an antagonistic view of the Arab world and find the attempt to define them as Arab Jews rather than as Israelis insulting.
Post-Zionist Mizrahi writers seem to be aware of this problem, and some of them complain about their Mizrahi brethren who cannot understand what is in their own best interest. Other post-Zionist writers, such as Ella Shohat, explain the political behavior of the Mizrahim as the result of years of Ashkenazi oppression. In her view, Mizrahim have internalized the condescending Ashkenazi attitude toward them to such an extent that they have turned into self-hating Mizrahim. In other words, the East came to view itself through the West's distorting mirror. Shohat quotes Malcolm X, who said that the white man's worst crime was to make the black man hate himself.  She maintains that Mizrahi hatred toward the Arabs is no more than self-hatred caused by long exposure to Ashkenazi ill treatment.  But, in their argument, Shohat and her colleagues, once again, belittle their Mizrahi brothers and sisters whose political behavior they explain not as a matter of independent, mature political choice but, rather, as yet another unintended consequence of Ashkenazi action. In so doing, they present the Mizrahim as childlike people who cannot understand their own best interests and cannot manage to vote "correctly." This is hardly an argument that can contribute to Mizrahi pride or liberation.
Furthermore, to claim that the Mizrahim cannot express themselves within the Israeli political system, as the post-Zionists argue, is to ignore reality. The electoral victories of the Likud party in 1977 and 1981 were the outcome of the Mizrahi ethnic vote protesting the Ashkenazi elite's failure in the 1973 war, its corruption, and its condescending attitude toward non-Ashkenazi Israelis. Likewise, the rise to power of the ultra-orthodox Mizrahi Shas party as the third largest political force in Israel in the 1999 elections demonstrates the Mizrahi ability, not only to influence Israeli politics, but also to master the political system and determine Israel's political future. Regardless of the politics of Likud or Shas, the Mizrahi ability to understand that they can determine and change their country's future by using constitutional democratic means shows, not only a high degree of political maturity, but also the aptitude to internalize the constitutional democratic process and the rules governing that process.
The Mizrahi ability to master the constitutional democratic game might arguably be where their greatest contribution to Israeli society can be found. Until the Likud victory in 1977, Israeli politics were characterized by single-party rule. The Leftwing Labor Party (or its splinter, Mapai) had dominated Israeli politics since 1948. when Israel gained its independence. Only the Mizrahi vote in support of Likud in 1977 turned the Israeli political system, for the first time, into a full multiple-party, liberal-democracy. Ultimately, Mizrahi power remains most effective when it continues as an integral part of the constitutional democratic Zionist process.
 Sami Shalom Chetrit, "Ani Palit Aravi," 2004.
 Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, a toxic chemical banned in the United States in 1972, due to health and environmental risks.
 See, for example, Yael Tzadok, "Yaldi Timan: Hakonflict Shemerov Pahad
Mechanim Oto Shed Vemachnisim Oto Lebakbuk," Kedma, Dec. 2000.
 Edward Said, "Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims," in Moustafa Bayoumi
and Andrew Rubin, eds., The Edward Said Reader (New York: Random House Inc.,
2000), pp. 114-68.
 Ella Shohat, "Mizrahim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims,"
Social Text, Fall 1988, pp. 1-35.
 On Zionism as an Ashkenazi phenomenon, see, Pnina Motzafi-Haller, "A Mizrahi
Call for a More Democratic Israel—Israel at 50," Tikkun, Mar.-Apr. 1988.
 Yehuda Shenhav, Hayehudim-Aravim: Leumiyut, Dat, ve'Etniyut (Tel Aviv: Am
Oved, 2003), pp. 24-55.
 Yitzhak Dahan, "Waters of Babylon," review of Yehouda Shenhav, The Arab-Jews:
Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2003), in Azure, Winter
5765/2005, p. 127.
 Shiko Behar, "Is the Mizrahi Question Relevant to the Future of the Entire Middle
East?" Kedma, Jan. 1997.
 Norman Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book
(Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979) p. 157.
 Behar, "Is the Mizrahi Question Relevant to the Future of the Entire Middle
 Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), Apr. 22, 1949.
 Quoted in Sami Shalom Chetrit, Hamaavak Hamizrahi Beyisrael, Bein Dikui
Leshihrur, Bein Hizdahut Lealternativa, 1948-2003 (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2004), pp.
. Quoted in ibid., p. 77
 Quoted in Ella Shohat, "Rupture and Return: A Mizrahi Perspective on the Zionist
Discourse," The MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies, May 2001, pp.
 Kalman Katzenelson, HaMahapecha HaAshkenazit (Tel-Aviv: Anach, 1964).
Quoted in Chetrit, Hamaavak Hamizrahi Beyisrael, p. 133.
 Quoted in Shohat, "Mizrahim in Israel," p. 3.
 Quoted in Sami Smooha, Israel: Pluralism and Conflict (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1978) p. 88.
 Quoted in Chetrit, Hamaavak Hamizrahi Beyisrael, p. 65.
 Quoted in ibid.
 Smooha, Israel: Pluralism and Conflict, pp. 8-89.
 Shohat, "Mizrahim in Israel," p. 4.
 Chetrit, Hamaavak Hamizrahi Beyisrael, pp. 221-2.
 Eli Avraham, Hatikshoret Beyisrael: Merkaz vePeriferia: Sikuran shel Ayarot
Hapituah (Tel Aviv: Breyrot, 1993), p. 32.
 Shlomo Swirski and Etty Konor-Attias, Israel: A Social Report (Tel-Aviv: Adva
Center, 2003), p. 10; Chetrit, Hamaavak Hamizrahi Beyisrael, p. 218.
 Sami Shalom Chetrit, "Hahinuch Beyisrael: Bikoret VeAlternativa," lecture at the
Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Nov. 27, 2000.
 Ya'akov Nahon, "Pe'arim Adatiyim—Tmunat Matav Leorech Zman," in Kivunim
Hadashim BeHeker Haba'aya Ha'adatit: Rav Siah (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem
Institute for Research of Israel, 1984), no. 8, p. 43.
 Ella Shohat, "The Invention of the Mizrahim," Journal of Palestine Studies,
Autumn, 1999, pp. 5-20.
 Shohat, "Mizrahim in Israel," p. 14.
The Israeli-Arab Conflict
The Middle East & the Arabs
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War & Peace in the Real World
Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
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Islamist International Terrorism &
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U.S. National Security Strategy
Meyrav Wurmser is the Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.
The foregoing article by Meyrav Wurmser was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Spring, 2005. and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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