Archive | January, 2011

On Reading Elif Shafak’s “The Forty Rules of Love”

29 Jan

While my blogs on the Arizona shootings and on Jewish identity has sparked unexpectedly intense controversy, I have done my best to continue with normal work and activities. At times of stress poetry and philosophy have offered me consolation. Recently I finished reading Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love, which I found instructive about the Sufi worldview, the spiritual education of Rumi (the world’s greatest poet of love), and the abiding magnetism of this 13th century spiritual flourishing for those seeking a deeper experience of contemporary life. Shafak writes knowingly, and skillfully weaves a vivid tapestry of character and narrative, with seamless time shifts between that historical moment in Konya and the present. It almost doesn’t matter that the sub-plot is neither credible nor engaging: an American middle aged Jewish housewife, bored in a loveless marriage in the small college town of Northampton, becomes romantically entwined with a terminally ailing Scottish Sufi convert through email correspondence that takes off in an abrupt flight that crosses the cyber barrier with grace, but a bit too smoothly for my taste. What matters is the moral clarity and depth that Shafak brings to the Sufi tradition as it unfolded in Konya through this fascinating fictionalization of the interplay between Rumi and a wandering Dervish, Shams of Tabriz, who became the spiritual teacher of Rumi, and was murdered by representatives of the local established order who could not abide his virtue or his teaching. The parallels to the life of Jesus are too obvious to explicate, as are the differences.

This book led me to write the following poem that seeks to express my personal encounter with its thought and journey:

After Reading Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love

You impose

this singular fish

it swims below my surfaces

it swims deep below surfaces

it crisscrosses my heart’s ocean

this singular fish can creep

can creep along slick walls

of deceit, of deception

I can only impose

laughter on subtle strangers

whose delight is frostbite

These who know nothing

nothing at all

of singular fish

and the forty rules of love

will swim away in panic

will ignore the hymnals

of forty hovering angels

in flight  below soft clouds

not high above your sea

the water thick with..yes

singular fish

I.24.2011


Supplemental Blog on Arizona Shootings

27 Jan

In Response to Harsh Criticism of 9/11 Blog Comments by the UN Secretary General and the U.S. Ambassador to the UN

 

Because my blog prompted by the Arizona shootings has attracted many comments pro and con, and more recently has been the object of a more selective public attack on me personally, I thought it appropriate to post a supplementary blog with the purpose of clarifying my actual position and re-focusing attention on the plight and suffering of the Palestinian people being held in captivity. In the background, are crucial issues of free speech, fairness in public discourse, and responsible media treatment of sensitive and controversial affairs of state.

 

Both the UN Secretary General and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations harshly criticized some remarks in my personal blog that mentioned the 9/11 attacks. They referred to the views expressed there as ‘despicable and deeply offensive,’ ‘noxious, ‘inflammatory,’ and ‘preposterous.’ Their comments were apparently made in response to a letter written to the UN Secretary General by the head of UN Monitor, a Geneva-based highly partisan NGO, that called misleading attention to this passage in the blog. Ambassador Rice called for my dismissal from my unpaid post as an independent Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council with a mandate to report upon the Israeli observance of “human rights in Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.”

 

For anyone who read the blog post in its entirely it should be plain that the reference to the 9/11 issues is both restrained and tangential. What is stressed in the blog is the importance of carefully examining evidence before drawing conclusions about political and legal responsibility for highly sensitive public acts, and the importance for the serenity of the society of achieving closure in a responsible manner. I never endorsed doubts about the official version of 9/11 beyond indicating what anyone who has objectively examined the controversy knows– that there remain certain gaps in the official explanation that give rise to an array of conspiratorial explanations, and that the 9/11 Commission unfortunately did not put these concerns to rest. My plea was intended to encourage addressing these gaps in a credible manner, nothing more, nothing less. I certainly meant no disrespect toward the collective memory of 9/11 in the country and elsewhere. On the contrary, my intention was to encourage an investigation that might finally achieve closure with respect to doubts that remain prevalent among important sectors of the public, including among some 9/11 families.

 

What seems apparent from this incident, which is itself disturbing, is that any acknowledgement of doubt about the validity of the official version of the 9/11 events, while enjoying the legal protection of free speech, is denied the political and moral protection that are essential if an atmosphere of free speech worthy of a democracy is to be maintained. When high officials can brand someone who raises some doubts in the most cautious language as ‘an enemy of the people,’ then there are either things to hide or a defensive fury that is out of all proportion to the provocation. To seek further inquiry into the unanswered questions about 9/11 is surely not an unreasonable position

 

What is dismaying to me is that neither the office of the Secretary General nor the U.S. Mission to the United Nation made any effort to contact me to seek clarification of my remarks on these issues that are not connected with my UN role prior to making their insulting criticisms damaging to my reputation. I would think that as a representative of the UN and a citizen of the United States, I am at least entitled to this minimal courtesy, and more substantially, that whatever criticisms are made are based on what I said rather than on a manifestly inflammatory letter written by the UN Monitor, that has made a habit of publicly attacking me in consistently irresponsible and untruthful ways, presumably with the intention of diverting attention from my criticisms of Israel’s occupation policies in the Palestinian territories. It is always more tempting to shoot the messenger than heed the message. A similar tactic, what I call ‘the politics of deflection’ was deployed over a year ago in a shabby attempt to discredit the distinguished South African jurist, Richard Goldstone, a person of impeccable credentials as an international public servant. The intention was again to avoid a proper focus upon the devastating findings and recommendations of the Goldstone Report submitted to the United Nations after conducing a scrupulous inquiry into the allegations of violation of law associated with the Israeli attacks on Gaza between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009.

 

I remain determined to report as fully and honestly as possible about the massive human rights violations confronting Palestinians who have now lived without rights under occupation for more than 43 years, and to do my best not to let such personal attacks impair my capacity to carry out the assignment that I was invited to perform by the UN.

What the United States Government, the Secretary-General and the media should be focused on is the ongoing, widespread and systematic violation of Palestinians’ human rights by Israel. Only since the beginning of 2011, at least four Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli forces and more than 33 others have been injured. This is in addition to the expansion of settlements, home demolitions, forced evictions and displacement of Palestinian families, revocation of residency permits and forced transfers, particularly devastating in East Jerusalem, detention and mistreatment of over 6000 Palestinians, including children, as well as the illegal blockade of Gaza. My forthcoming report to the Human Rights Council addresses these and other severe ongoing violations of Palestinian rights by Israel.

 

 

Welcoming the Tunisian Revolution: Hopes and Fears

22 Jan

Almost six years ago, President George W. Bush’s otherwise inconsequential Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, gave a speech at the American University in Cairo that grabbed headlines. While lauding the autocratic leadership of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Rice indicated a new approach to the Arab world by the United States in these much-quoted words: “For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” Explaining further this new approach in Washington, she went on to say “[t]hroughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.” Any close listener at the time should have wondered what was meant when at the same time she praised Mubarak for having “unlocked the door for change,” whatever that might mean. As it turned out, outlawing opposition parties and locking up their leaders seemed to remain the bottom line in Egypt without generating a whimper of complaint from the White House either in the Bush years, or since, in the supposedly milder presidency of President Obama.

And supporting “the democratic aspirations of all peoples” seems to have run aground for the White House after the Gaza elections of January 2006 in which Hamas triumphed, and the people of the Gaza Strip, regardless of how they voted, were immediately punished despite the internationally monitored elections being pronounced among the fairest in the region. It should be remembered that Hamas was enticed to participate in the political process as a way of shifting the conflict with Israel toward nonviolent political competition, and that when victorious in the elections Hamas immediately declared a unilateral ceasefire as well as indicated its openness to diplomacy and a long-term framework of peaceful co-existence. Maybe these Hamas initiatives were not sustainable, but they was neither welcomed, reciprocated, nor even explored. Instead, humanitarian assistance from Europe and the United States to Gaza was drastically cut and Israel engaged in a variety of provocations including targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders. In mid 2007 after Hamas seized control of the governing process from Fatah in Gaza, Israel imposed its notorious blockade that unlawfully restricted to subsistence levels, or below, the flow of food, medicine, and fuel. This blockade continues  to this day, leaving the entire Gazan population locked within the world’s largest open air prison, and victimized by one of the cruelest forms of belligerent occupation in the history of warfare.

There is another aspect to the Rice/Bush embrace of democracy that was disclosed by their avowedly disproportionate response to the indiscriminate bombing campaign unleashed in 2006 by Israel on population centers in Lebanon in retaliation for a border incident. In the midst of the carnage Rice observed at the United Nations that the Lebanon War exhibited “the birth pangs of a new Middle East,” while her boss in the White House described the one-sided assault on a helpless civilian population as “a moment of opportunity.” The point here being that when the people get in the way of imperial policies, it is the people who are sacrificed without even shedding a tear, really without even noticing. If their lives and wellbeing is so easily cast to one side in this callous geopolitical manner, surely the American posture of welcoming democracy in the region needs to be viewed with more than a skeptical smile. Supporting Israel’s aggressive wars initiated against Lebanon in 2006 and its massive assault for three weeks on Gaza at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 are clear demonstrations of the priorities of American foreign policy.

Actually, this pattern has far deeper historical roots. During the Cold War there were strategic excuses constantly being given by Washington that overlooked oppression and corruption in Third World countries so along as they aligned themselves with the United States in the ideological struggle against the Soviet Union and put out a welcome mat to foreign investors. After the collapse of the Soviet Union this geopolitical argument evaporated, but the economic and strategic priorities remained unchanged. This supposed American dedication to democracy has all along seemed schizophrenic, lauding its virtues, but often dreading its genuine emergence, especially if strategic interests associated with economic and military priorities are at stake as they usually are; consult the record of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in the Western Hemisphere carried out under the aegis of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) if any doubt exists. Turning back to North Africa, in 1991 when the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) in Algeria won hotly contested elections for legislative representation, the military intervened to impose its will, Washington was silent, and remained so during the ‘dark decade’ of strife followed in which at least 60,000 Algerians lost their lives. It is part of the reality in the region that American strategic and ideological goals point one way and the popular will of the people point in the opposite direction. It is thus either hypocritical or a sign of deep confusion for American leadership to advocate democracy in the Middle East without being willing to alter its grand strategy. As of now, there is every indication of continuity in the American approach to the region, signaled by its passivity in the face of Israeli extremism, its continuing military presence in Iraq, and the degree to which keeping Gulf oil reserves in friendly autocratic hands is an unquestioned goal of American foreign policy.

Given these considerations what are we to make of America’s cautiously affirmative response to the Tunisian Revolution, or as it often called, the Jasmine Revolution? It is certainly prudent to be wary of the words issued by our government in particular, and to keep an eye out for its contrary actions, although such a gaze may well be obstructed by reliance on covert activities, and only when the next Julian Assange steps bravely forward will the public get any real understanding of the realities that take refuge behind non-transparent walls.

There is no doubt that during the more than 23 years of cruel dictatorial rule of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, the United States Government, despite the words of Rice, the ‘democracy promotion’ schemes of the Bush presidency, and the new approach to the Islamic world promised by Obama, found nothing to complain about, ignoring report from respected human rights organizations. As Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist and activist dedicated to the Palestinian struggle has written of the American response to the violence directed by the police during the Tunisian uprising: “Not one word of condemnation, not one word of criticism, not one word urging restraint came from Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton as live ammunition was fired into crowds of unarmed men, women, and children in recent weeks.” Compare the strong denunciations of Iranian authorities when they used similarly brutal tactics to suppress the Green Revolution in Iran. The point is that geopolitics calls the tune in Washington, and this means double standards and the repudiation of the rule of law.

Indeed, Tunisia under Ben Ali exemplified what the United States seems to believe serves its interests: a blend of neoliberalism that is open to foreign investment, cooperation with American anti-terrorism by way of extreme rendition of suspects, and strict secularism that translates into the repression of political, and even religious, expressions of Islam commitments and of leftist politics. The Arab regimes throughout the region that seem most worried by the regional reverberations of the unfolding story in Tunisia, while each different, all resemble the Ben Ali approach to governance, including dependence in various forms on the United States, which is usually accompanied, as in the Tunisian case, by aloofness from the Palestinian struggle for self-determination that is so symbolically significant for the peoples in these countries. There is no way for any government in the region to follow the Ben Ali path without becoming beleaguered and for the sake of its survival forced to rely on extreme repression, denial of rights, abuse of political prisoners, police violence designed to induce fear in the population and shield the privileged corrupt elites from accountability and public rage while exposing the mass of society to chronic joblessness, inflationary food and fuel price.

The spontaneous popular eruption in Tunisia that followed the tragic suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi in the central Tunisian  city of Sidi Bou Zid on December 17, 2010 was the spark that lit the revolutionary fire. This flame surge only could have occurred in an environment of acute grievance that was felt deeply and widely by ordinary Tunisians, so deeply and widely that in a few weeks time it shifted the locus of fear from the oppressed to the oppressed. This shift was signaled by the abdication of Ben Ali on January 14 to the sanctuary of Riyadh, a pattern repeating the departure of another bloody dictator, Idi Amin a few decades earlier. But the main lesson here is that oppressive regimes alienated from their populations are vulnerable to political bonfires that can be started by an insignificant spark in a faraway part of the country. Facing such a prospect can only make rulers dependent on force both more insecure and more inclined to extend the reach of political firefighting so as to achieve the impossible: spark prevention!

The martyrdom of Mohammed Bouazizi epitomized the plight of many young jobless and tormented Tunisians. This impoverished young vegetable street seller set himself on fire in a public place after the police confiscated his produce because he lacked a permit. Such an act of principled and spontaneous suicide is not common in Arab culture where suicide, if it occurs in a politically relevant mode, is usually a deliberate instrument of struggle, relied upon by Palestinians for a while and currently by parts of the opposition to developments in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Such forms of political suicide are usually, although not always, targeting civilians, and are inconsistent with basic ideas of morality and law. Bouazizi’s acts were expressive, not aggressive toward others, and recall practices more common in such Asian countries as Vietnam and Korea. When Buddhist monks set themselves on fire on the streets of Saigon in 1963 it was widely interpreted within the country as a turning point in the Vietnam War, a scream of the culture that was outraged by both oppressive Vietnamese rule and by the American military intervention. The intensity of Mohammed Bouazizi’s emotional funeral on Janurary 4 was intoned in these words exhibiting sadness and anger: “Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep.” In the end one hopes that these almost inevitable sentiments of revenge, however understandable given the background of suffering and injustice, do not become the signature of the revolution.

Another more hopeful direction was captured by a slogan that was said to draw inspiration from the French Revolution: “bread, freedom, dignity.” To be worthy of the sacrifices of those who took to the streets, confronting the violence of the state without weapons during these past several weeks, any new governing process must attend to the material needs of the Tunisian masses, open up the society to democratic debate and competition, and assert the protection of human rights as an unconditional commitment of whatever new leadership emerges. Not many revolutions manage to carry out their idealistic promises that infused the period of struggle against the established order, and quickly succumb to the temptation to punish wrongdoers from the past and imaginary and real adversaries in the present instead of improving the life circumstances of the people. It is not a simple situation. Such a revolution as has taken place in Tunisia is likely to beset by determined efforts to reverse the outcome, although a favorable factor has been the refusal of the army to side with the government. Powerful and entrenched enemies do exist, and rivalries among those contending anew for power will produce imaginary enemies as well that can discredit the humanistic claims of the revolution by tempting the leadership to launch bloody campaigns to solidify its claims to run the country. It is often a tragic predicament: either exhibit a principled adherence to constitutionalism, and get swept from power or engage in a purge of supposed hostile elements and initiate a new discrediting cycle of repression. Will Tunisia be able to find a path that protects revolutionary gains without reverting to oppression? Much depends on how this question will be answered, and that will depend not only on the wisdom and maturity of Tunisians who take control at this time, but also on what the old order will do to regain power and the extent to which there is encouragement and substantive support from without. As Robert Fisk pointedly observes “Tunisia wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Undoubtedly, Tunisia faces formidable challenges in this period of transition. As yet, there has been no displacement of the Ben Ali bureaucratic forces in the government, including the police and security forces that for decades terrorized the population. There were an estimated 40,000 police (2/3 in disguise mingling with the population to monitor and intimidate). It was said that friends were afraid to talk in cafes or restaurants, and even in their homes, because of this police/mafia state atmosphere– omnipresent surveillance, thuggery, and not knowing who was on the payroll of the state. So far most prisoners of conscience have not been released from Tunisian jails, sites that daily exposed the brutality of the Ben Ali regime, although some releases have occurred and more are promised. Heading the interim government are longtime allies of Ben Ali, including Mohammed Ghannouchi, his main aide, regarded as being more aligned with the West than with the Tunisian people, although these days promising to step aside as soon as order is restored. But even if such an intention is carried out, is it enough? At present, protests continue throughout the country, especially in the capital city of Tunis, demanding that the remnants of the Ben Ali era leave the government, including especially the cabinet ministers and Mr. Ghannouchi.

We know that the revolution came about because of the courage of young Tunisians who took to the street in many parts of the country, faced gunfire and vicious state brutality, and yet persisted, seeming to feel that their life circumstances were so bad that they had little to lose, and everything to gain. We know that the flames of revolution spread rapidly throughout, and beyond the borders of Tunisia, by interactive reliance on the Internet, many throughout the Arab world replacing personal pictures on their Facebook page with admiring pictures of revolutionary turmoil on Tunisian streets or as a sign of solidarity, posting pictures of the Tunisian flag. There were even suicides of regime opponents in several Arab countries. What we don’t know is whether a leadership can emerge that will be faithful to the revolutionary ideals, and will be allowed to be. What we cannot know is how determined and effective will be internal and external counter-revolutionary tactics. We do know from other situation that elites rarely voluntarily relinquish class privileges of wealth, status, and influence, and that Tunisian elites have allies in the region and beyond who are silently opposed to the Jasmine Revolution, and extremely worried about its wider implications for other similar regimes in the region that stay in power only so long as their citizen is held in check by state terror.  We also know that policymakers in Washington and Tel Aviv will be particularly nervous if Islamic influence emerges in the months ahead, even if vindicated by electoral outcomes. Fisk reminds us that Ben Ali was praised in the past for keeping “a firm hand on all those Islamists,” which was itself code language for bloody repression and a terrorized populace. It may even be that if Islamic oriented political parties demonstrate their popularity with the Tunisian citizenry by winning the forthcoming promised election for a new democratic selected leadership, then the counter-revolutionary backlash will be particularly severe.  There is some reason to believe that Islamic political forces currently enjoy great popularity in Tunisia, and that the main voice of the most important political party with an Islamic identity, Ali Larayedh (imprisoned and tortured for 14 years; and harassed for the past six years by Ben Ali’s secret police), articulates a moderate line on the relation of Islam to the future of Tunisia that resembles the development of recent years in Turkey rather than the hard line and oppressive theocratic developments that have so deeply tainted the Iranian Revolution. The role of the long repressed labor movement, and its Communist leadership, is not known, but it was clearly a presence in the demonstrations, giving a secular edge to the revolutionary fervor.

The future of the Tunisian Revolution is filled with uncertainty. It remains at this moment a great victory for the people of the country, and those of us in sympathy with the struggle for ‘bread, freedom and dignity’ must do all in our power to honor these goals and preserve this victory. A Palestinian journalist living in Norway, Salim Nazzal, put the situation well:  “..Arab observers agree that even if it is difficult to know where things would go in the future what is sure is that the Arab region is not the same after the Tunisian Revolution.”

On Jewish Identity

15 Jan


As someone who is both Jewish and supportive of the Palestinian struggle for a just and sustainable peace, I am often asked about my identity. The harshest critics of my understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict contend that I am a self-hating Jew, which implies that sharp criticism of Israel and Zionism are somehow incompatible with affirming a Jewish identity. Of course, I deny this. For me to be Jewish is, above all, to be preoccupied with overcoming injustice and thirsting for justice in the world, and that means being respectful toward other peoples regardless of their nationality or religion, and empathetic in the face of human suffering whoever and wherever victimization is encountered. With this orientation, I could, but will not, return the insult, and say that those who endorse the cruelties of Israel occupation policies are the real self-hating Jews as they have turned away from the moral clarity of Old Testament prophets, which is the shining light of the Old Testament overcoming the often bloody exploits of the ancient Israelites. So interpreted, the biblical mandate for just behavior extends to all of humanity.  As the great Rabbi Hillel teaches, “[T]hat which is hateful to you do not do to another..the rest (of the Torah) is all commentary, now go study.” Not hateful only to another Jew, but clearly meant to encompass every human being.

But in a more fundamental respect my own evolution has always been suspicious of those who give priority to tribalist or sectarian identities. In other words, it is fine to affirm being Jewish, but it should not take precedence over being human or being open and receptive to the insight and wisdom of other traditions. We have reached a point in the political and cultural evolution that our future flourishing as a species vitally depends upon the spread of a more ecumenical ethos. We have expressed this embrace of otherness in relation to food, with the rise of ‘fusion’ cuisines, and with regard to popular culture, particularly music, where all kinds of borrowing and synthesis are perceived as exciting, authentic, valuable.

For me this rejection of tribalism takes two forms, one negative, the other positive. I do not feel exclusively Jewish. Also, even if I did, I would never claim the superiority of the Jewish religion over other religions. I have felt uncomfortable since childhood with biblical claims, often repeated in contemporary social settings, that Jews are ‘the chosen people’ of God even if this is understood benevolently and temporally as a special destiny associated with doing justice rather than as a matter of societal achievement via wealth and professional success. As soon as exclusivity or superiority is claimed for any ethnic or religious fraction of the human whole, there is implicitly posited a belief in the inferiority of ‘the other,’ which unconsciously and indirectly gives rise to the murderous mentality of warfare and gives a moral and religious edge to many forms of persecution, culminating in a variety of inquisitions.

And, of course, the historical climax of inverted exclusivity was the Holocaust, a process in which Jews (along with the Roma and others) were chosen for extermination. Claims of exclusivity often usually pretend to possess privileged access to truth that helps disguise monstrous intentions and behavior. To have such access, whether from a divine or secular source, treats all those outside the select circle as tainted by falsehood, the logic of which generates a societal license to kill, even to exterminate. Extreme tribalism is genocidal at its core given material scarcities and inequalities that exist in the world, which would otherwise be indefensible.

Besides, the disturbing historical record of exclusivist approaches to living together there is increasing confirmation of the artificiality of the ethnic foundations of the claims of distinct national identities, often at the expense of those exclusions. Benedict Anderson has seminally linked nationalist aspirations with distinct political projects in his Imagined Communities. More recently the Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand in The Invention of the Jewish People has shown the absence of a Jewish ethnos that might justify the claim of being a distinct people, and the degree to which in the Zionist embodiment of their conception of Jewishness in Israel, the Palestinian minority has been subjugated, a cruel ideological side effect of this type of ethnic nationalism. One of the achievements of European secularism and the move to modernity was to denationalize the state while asserting its sovereign control over people living within its bounded territory, which in effect disconnected juridical nationalism from ethnic and religious nationalism, and thus created the basis in law and morality for treating all people subject to the state as equal before the law. Of course, societal beliefs and traditions, along with class conflict and racism and religious prejudices persisted, but not with the blessings of the state. Toward the end of his book Sand poses the question that exposes the raw nerve of the Zionist insistence on Israel as a Jewish state, an insistence given great salience by the current leadership: “It is hard to know how much longer the Israeli Arabs, who represent 20% of the country’s inhabitants, will continue to tolerate being viewed as foreigners in their own homeland.” (p. 325) It should be borne in mind that even the initial purely colonialist encouragement of the Zionist project  in the form of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 looked with favor only to a Jewish homeland, and only then if it did not encroach on the rights and prospect of the indigenous population then resident in historic Palestine.

Turning to the positive effects of rejecting tribalist and sectarian approaches to truth and spirituality, I would emphasize the fabulous opportunities at this stage of history to learn from and participate in diverse religious traditions, especially in a globalizing world. In my own case, I have drawn spiritual sustenance from the other great religions ever since my student days. Although celebrating the distinctive traditions of one’s own birth or chosen religion can be personally enriching, and is for most people, I have found that the quality of the sacred and divine can be experienced from many different points of entry with interactive and comparable benefits. In my case I have at various times been inspired and enlightened by the practices and wisdom of Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, Taoist, and indigenous peoples. And in a more mundane sense, I think that the future of humanity will be greatly enhanced if these various religious and wisdom traditions are ecumenically and inclusively embraced by more and more people throughout the world, providing a thickening societal and civilizational fiber for human solidarity. I have always been skeptical of the rational case for global humanism that is quite prevalent in the West, an aspect of the Enlightenment legacy, which is also partly responsible for secular excesses relating to technology culminating in the development and normalization of nuclear weaponry. This exclusion of the spiritual is also responsible for those forms of materialism that underpin predatory capitalism that prevails in many parts of the world today. Beyond this, such homogenizing types of universalism, associated with both consumerism and its military twin, imperialism, tend to erode cultural differences, and do not touch the experience of most of the people living on the planet.

In my experience what is most appropriate in our historical circumstances is an ecumenical and inclusive spiritual identity, and associated ethical and political commitments.  In effect, what would awaken the collective sensibilities of the peoples of the earth to the challenges confronting humanity is a movement of spiritual and ethical globalization that approaches the universal through an immersion in a variety of particularities. In this sense, I want to say, yes I am Jewish, and proud of it, but I am equally indigenous, Sufi, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian to the extent that I allow myself to participate in their rituals, partake of their sacred texts, and seek and avail myself of the opportunity to sit at the feet of their masters.  Many persons living deprived lives do not have or desire such ecumenical opportunities, and can best approach this universal ideal, by seeking out the inclusive potentialities of their own religious and cultural reality.

I want to give the last word to an early nineteenth century American spiritual seer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, although with some hesitation, given his patriarchal use of language. I was slightly tempted to substitute ‘humans are’ for ‘man is’ but then I decided to respect the integrity of Emerson’s speech within the historical setting of its original utterance (unlike the recent purging of ‘nigger’ from the American classic, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and the substitution of the historically misleading, yet culturally less offensive word ‘slave’). Here are Emerson’s words as written: “The civility of no race can be perfect whilst another race is degraded. It is a doctrine of the oldest and of the newest philosophy, that man is one, and that you cannot injure any member, without a sympathetic injury to all members.”

Despairing Angels

14 Jan

Despairing Angels

Carnalized in our time

Wingless

floating floating

Serenading cities aflame

far below

Lyrics of death descending

Shrill with despair

Not not

the sweet Tiepolo angels

Now now

a lost imagining:

the sweetest among angels

are being tutored to die

While wingless beings

graceless and grotesque float

above our menaced planet

 

Interrogating the Arizona Killings from a Safe Distance

11 Jan


I spent a year in Sweden a few years after the assassination of Olaf Palme in 1986, the controversial former prime minister of the country who at the time of his death was serving as a member of the Swedish cabinet. He was assassinated while walking with his wife back to their apartment in the historic part of the city after attending a nearby movie. It was a shocking event in a Sweden that had prided itself on moderateness in politics and the avoidance of involvement in the wars of the twentieth century. A local drifter, with a history of alcoholism, was charged and convicted of the crime, but many doubts persisted, including on the part of Ms. Palme who analogized her situation to that of Coretta King who never believed the official version of her martyred husband’s death.

I had a particular interest in this national traumatic event as my reason for being in Sweden was a result of an invitation to be the Olaf Palme Professor, a rotating academic post given each year to a foreign scholar, established by the Swedish Parliament as a memorial to their former leader. (after the Social Democratic Party lost political control in Sweden this professorship was promptly defunded, partly because Palme was unloved by conservatives and partly because of a neoliberal dislike for public support of such activities)

In the course of my year traveling around Sweden I often asked those whom I met what was their view of the assassination, and what I discovered was that the responses told me more about them than it did about the public event. Some thought it was a dissident faction in the Swedish security forces long angered by Palme’s neutralist policies, some believed it was resentment caused by Palme’s alleged engineering of Swedish arms sales to both sides in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, some believed it was the CIA in revenge for Palme’s neutralism during the Cold War, some believed it could have criminals in the pay of business tycoons tired of paying high taxes needed to maintain the Swedish maximalist version of a welfare state, and there were other theories as well. What was common to all of these explanations was the lack of evidence that might connect the dots. What people believed happened flowed from their worldview rather than the facts of the event—a distrust of the state, especially its secret operations, or a strong conviction that special interests hidden from view were behind prominent public events of this character.

In a way, this process of reflection is natural, even inevitable, but it leads to faulty conclusions. We tend to process information against the background of our general worldview and understanding, and we do this all the time as an efficient way of coping with the complexity of the world combined with our lack of time or inclination to reach conclusions by independent investigation. The problem arises when we confuse this means of interpreting our experience with an effort to provide an explanation of a contested public event. There are, to be sure, conspiracies that promote unacknowledged goals, and enjoy the benefit of government protection. We don’t require WikiLeaks to remind us not to trust governments, even our own, and others that seem in most respects to be democratic and law-abiding. And we also by now should know that governments (ab)use their authority to treat awkward knowledge as a matter of state secrets, and criminalize those who are brave enough to believe that the citizenry needs to know the crimes that their government is committing with their trust and their tax dollars.

The arguments swirling around the 9/11 attacks are emblematic of these issues. What fuels suspicions of conspiracy is the reluctance to address the sort of awkward gaps and contradictions in the official explanations that David Ray Griffin(and other devoted scholars of high integrity) have been documenting in book after book ever since his authoritative The New Pearl Harbor in 2004 (updated in 2008). What may be more distressing than the apparent cover up is the eerie silence of the mainstream media, unwilling to acknowledge the well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events: an al Qaeda operation with no foreknowledge by government officials. Is this silence a manifestation of fear or cooption, or part of an equally disturbing filter of self-censorship? Whatever it is, the result is the withering away of a participatory citizenry and the erosion of legitimate constitutional government. The forms persist, but the content is missing.

This brings me to the Arizona shootings, victimizing both persons apparently targeted for their political views and random people who happened to be there for one reason or another, innocently paying their respects to a congresswoman meeting constituents outside a Tucson supermarket. As with the Palme assassination, the most insistent immediate responses come from the opposite ends of the political spectrum, both proceeding on presuppositions rather than awaiting evidence.

On one side are those who say that right-wing hate speech and affection for guns were clearly responsible, while Tea Party ultra-conservatives and their friends reaffirm their rights of free speech, denying that there is any connection between denouncing their adversaries in the political process and the violent acts of a deranged individual seemingly acting on his own.  If we want to be responsible in our assessments, we must restrain our political predispositions, and get the evidence. Let us remember that what seems most disturbing about the 9/11 controversy is the widespread aversion by government and media to the evidence that suggests, at the very least, the need for an independent investigation that proceeds with no holds barred.

Such an investigation would contrast with the official ‘9/11 Commission’ that proceeded with most holds barred.  What has been already disturbing about the Arizona incident are these rival rushes to judgment without bothering with evidence. Such public irresponsibility polarizes political discourse, making conversation and serious debate irrelevant.

There is one more issue raised, with typical candor and innocence, by the filmmaker, Michael Moore. If a Muslim group has published a list of twenty political leaders in this country, and put crosshairs of a gun behind their pictures, is there any doubt that the Arizona events would be treated as the work of a terrorist,, and the group that had pre-identified such targets would be immediately outlawed as a terrorist organization. Many of us, myself included, fervently hoped, upon hearing the news of the shootings, that the perpetrator of this violence was neither a Muslim nor a Hispanic, especially an illegal immigrant. Why? Because we justly feared the kind of horrifying backlash that would have been probably generated by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly,  Sarah Palin, and their legion of allies. Now that the apparent perpetrator is a young white American, the talk from the hate mongers, agains without bothering with evidence, is of mental disorder and sociopathology. This is faith-based pre-Enlightenment ‘knowledge.’

What must we learn from all of this? Don’t connect dots without evidence. Don’t turn away as soon as the words ‘conspiracy theory’ are uttered, especially if the evidence does point away from what the power-wielders want us to believe. Don’t link individual wrongdoing, however horrific, to wider religious and ethnic identities. We will perish as a species if we don’t learn soon to live together better on our beautiful, globalizing, and imperiled planet.

Israel’s Violence Against Separation Wall Protests: Along the Road of STATE TERRORISM

7 Jan


One of the flashpoints in Occupied Palestine in recent years has involved non-violent weekly protests against continued Israeli construction of a separation wall extending throughout the whole of the West Bank. A particularly active site for these protests has been the village of Bi’lin near the city of Ramallah, and it is here where the Israeli penchant to use deadly force to disrupt nonviolent demonstrations raises deep legal and moral concerns. These concerns are accentuated when it is realized that way back in 2004 the International Court of Justice (the highest judicial body in the UN System) in a rare near unanimous ruling declared the construction of the wall on occupied Palestinian territory to be unlawful, and reached findings ordering Israel to dismantle the wall and compensate Palestinians for the harm done. Israel has defied this ruling, and so the wall remains, and work continues on segments yet to be completed.


It is against this background that the world should take note of the shocking death of Jawaher Abu Rahma on the first day of 2011 as a result of suffocation resulting from tear gas inhalation while not even being part of the Bi’lin demonstration. Witnesses confirm that she was standing above the actual demonstration as an interested spectator. It was a large year end demonstration that included the participation of 350 Israeli and international activists. There was no excuse for the use of such a harsh method of disrupting a protest against a feature of the occupation that had been pronounced to be unlawful by an authoritative international body. As it happens the brother of Ms. Rahman had been killed a few months earlier by a tear gas canister fired with a high velocity from a close range. And there are many other reports of casualties caused by Israel’s extreme methods of crowd control. International activists have also been injured and harshly detained in the past, including the Irish Nobel Peace Laureate, Mairead Maguire. Together these deaths exhibit a general unacceptable Israeli disposition to use excessive force against Palestinians living under occupation. Just a day later an unarmed young Palestinian, Ahmed Maslamany, peacefully on his way to work was shot to death at a West Bank checkpoint because he failed to follow an instruction given in Hebrew, a language he did not understand.


When this lethal violence is directed against unarmed civilians seeking to uphold fundamental rights to land, routine mobility, and self-determination  it dramatizes just how lawless a state Israel has become and how justifiable and necessary is the growing world campaign of delegitimation centered upon the boycott, disvestment, and sanctions movement (BDS). Each instance of Israeli excessive and criminal violence inflicts suffering on innocent Palestinian civilians, but it also is a form of martyrdom in the nonviolent Legitimacy War that the Palestinians have been waging within Palestine and on the symbolic global battlefields of world public opinion with growing success.

Israel knows very well how to control unruly crowds with a minimum of violence. It has demonstrated this frequently by the way it gently deals, if it deals at all, with a variety of settler demonstrations that pose far greater threats to social peace than do these anti-wall demonstrations. It is impossible to separate this excessive use of force by Israel on the ground against Palestinians from the indiscriminate use of force against civilians in Israel’s larger occupation policy, as illustrated by the cruel punitive blockade that has been imposed on the people of Gaza for more than three years and by the criminal manner in which carried out attacks for three weeks on the defenseless population in Gaza exactly two years ago. Is it not time for the international community to step in and offer this long vulnerable Palestinian population protection against Israeli violence?

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Underneath Israel’s reliance on excessive force as a matter of strategic doctrine are thinly disguised racist ideas: Israeli lives are worth many times the value of Palestinian lives and Palestinians, like all Arabs, only understand the language of force (an essentially genocidal idea launched influentially years ago in a notorious book The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai published in 1973. It is also part of a punitive approach to the occupation, especially in Gaza, where WikiLeaks cables confirm what was long suspected: “As part of their overall embargo plan against Gaza, Israeli officials have confirmed to [U.S, Embassy economic officers] on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gaza economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.” (cable reported on Jan. 5, 2011, Norwegian daily) Then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a speech delivered in January 2008 said of the blockade: “We will not harm the supply of food for children, medecine for those who need it and fuel to save lives..But there is no justification for demanding we allow residents of Gaza to live normal live while shells and rockets are fired from their streets and courtyards (at southern Israel).”

This is a clear confession of collective punishment of a civilian population by Israel’s political leader at the time, violating the unconditional prohibition of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Such gross criminality should subject Israeli political leaders to international mechanisms designed to impose accountability on individuals responsible for the commission of crimes against humanity. It also makes it evident that the blockade is punitive, not responsive to cross-border violence that incidentally at all times was far more destructive of Palestinian lives and property than that of Israelis. Beyond this, the Hamas leadership in Gaza had since its election repeatedly attempted to establish a ceasefire along its border, which when agreed upon with the help of Egypt reduced casualties on both sides to almost zero after being establishment in mid-2008. This ceasefire was provocatively disrupted by Israel on November 5, 2008 to set the stage for launching of the massive attacks on Gaza, lasting for three weeks after being initiated on December 27th of 2008.

In that war, if such a one-sided conflict should be so described, the criminality of the tactics relied upon by the Israeli Defense Forces has been abundantly documented by The Goldstone Report, by a comprehensive fact-finding mission headed by John Dugard under the auspices of the Arab League, and by detailed reports issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. There is no reasonable basis for any longer doubting the substance of the allegations of criminality associated with those three weeks of all out attacks on the people and civilian infrastructure, including UN schools and buildings.

The Goldstone Report correctly noted that the overall impression left by the attacks was an extension of the Dahiya Doctrine attributed to an Israeli general during the Lebanon War 2006 in which the Israeli destruction from the air of a district in South Beirut was a deliberately excessive response, at the expense of civilian society, because of being an alleged Hezbollah stronghold, and in response to a border incident in which ten Israeli soldiers lost their lives in an encounter with Hezbollah combatants. The 2009 Goldstone report quoted IDF Northern Command Chief Gadi Eisenkot, who said, “What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. [...] This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.” In effect, the civilian infrastructure of adversaries such as Hamas or Hezbollah are treated as permissible military targets, which is not only an overt violation of the most elementary norms of the law of war and of universal morality, but an avowal of a doctrine of violence that needs to be called by its proper name: STATE TERRORISM.

We have reached a stage where the oppressiveness of the Israeli occupation, extending now for more than 43 years and maintained in multiple daily violations of international humanitarian law.  In its essence and by design the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip should be understood and condemned as STATE TERRORISM as exhibited both in structure and practice.

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