Archive | July, 2012

What Dani Dayan Says and Why It Is Interesting

27 Jul

 

 [Note: I have revised the first paragraph of this post to take some note of comments addressed to the original version, and in light of my own further thoughts]

            Dani Dayan’s article, “Israel’s Settlers Are Here to Stay,” was published by the NY Times on July 26, 2012. Dayan is the chairman of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities, and has been long known as a leading spokesperson of the settler movement. An obvious response to such a settler screed might be to dismiss it out of hand as an extremist expression of Israeli views, which it certainly is, but it would seem a mistake to do this before taking some account of its content and timing. The moral and legal premises that underlie Dayan’s insistence that the settlers will never leave the West Bank are without substance, but the political arguments he puts forward are so strong as to be virtually irrefutable. It may also be worthwhile to speculate as to why Dayan decided to drop this bombshell into the midst of the American electoral maelstrom as a  kind of trial baloon at this time and why the NY Times, so normally careful about such matters, opened up its opinion page to views so at odd with mainstream thinking that has prevailed for decades about how to resolve the conflict. How Netanyahu stands on these issues is a bit of a mystery. Although he has backed the creation of a Palestinian state in recent years, he has also generally supported the settler movement and has not yet repudiated the recent Levy Report that reached conclusions that I would imagine that Dayan welcomes.

 

            Dayan’s first premise contends that the settler movement is entitled to the territory obtained in 1967 because it was the Palestinians who at the time were threatening Israel with the prospect of annihilation and it was Israel that acted in self-defense whereby it came into the possession of the West Bank and the whole of Jerusalem. This is a position lacking traction among almost all international law specialists, increasingly contested by diplomatic historians as to the actual sequence of events in 1967, and politically rejected shortly after the fact by the entire international community, including the United States. This rejection was expressed in the authoritative and unanimous UN Security Council Resolution 242 passed in 1967 calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories that had been occupied in the Six Day War. No Israeli leader, including even the rejectionist Netanyahu, has openly challenged this line of interpretation, although the settler movement from its origins has fed off Israeli ambivalence as to whether a peace agreement was really in Israel’s interest if it meant the substantial return of the territories occupied in 1967. The Israeli de facto compromise was to endorse the two state consensus by incremental stages, but simultaneously to engage in a concerted variety of actions that made its implementation increasingly implausible from the perspective of practical politics.

 

            It is astonishing that most governments in the world and the highest officials at the UN have chosen to disregard this implausibility up to this very moment. What Dayan is in effect telling the world is that the realities of the situation make it hypocritical and useless to keep pretending that a negotiated peace between the parties is, or ever was, a political option. In his opinion, there are now too many settlers with no intention to leave ever, and most not apparently not susceptible to bribes having forgone profitable opportunities to sell their settlement property in the past. Dayan tellingly points out that it was nearly impossible for the pro-settler Sharon government to get 8,000 settlers to leave Gaza in 2005, making the idea of removing the 350,000 settlers now living in the West Bank (expected to rise to 400,000 by 2014), 160,000 of whom are outside the settlement blocs, a misguided pipedream, or in Dayan’s words, “exponentially more difficult” and hence their presence “in all of Judea and Samaria..is an irreversible fact.” Can any responsible person doubt the force of Dayan’s reasoning on this central issue?

 

            Dayan develops his argument by invoking a combination of “inalienable rights” and a “realpolitik” favorable to settler claims . I find Dayan convincing from a realpolitik perspective, given the realities of the current balance of forces in Israel/Palestine, in the region, and in the world, although this could prove to be short lived. In contrast, Dayan is totally self-serving and one-sided when he also claims that inalienable rights support his conception of Greater israel. Such a claim overlooks the relevance of the generally accepted reading of Article 49(6) of Geneva Convention IV that prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population to an occupied territory or altering the character of an occupied society.  Dayan’s views also seem blind to the immorality of displacing the Palestinian people who have lived on these lands for centuries even if one grants the underlying Zionist claim to a homeland in historic Palestine. The fact that the Palestinian leaders and the neighboring Arab governments rejected the UN endorsed partition plan back in 1948 does not mean that the Palestinian people implicitly waived or lost their right to self-determination, which is genuinely inalienable. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Palestinians can be doomed to live indefinitely under apartheid conditions as a rightless, subjugated minority (that might soon be a majority), remembering that apartheid is enumerated as one instance of crimes against humanity in the statute of the International Criminal Court. There are, to be sure, inalienable rights, but they belong to the Palestinians, and certainly not to the settlers.

 

            Dayan refers to the West Bank throughout as “Judea and Samaria,” their biblical names in Jewish tradition, apparently as a way of signaling his defiance of world public opinion as to the status of the territories. Again we can at least welcome this brazen expression of honesty, not hiding behind evasions and linguistic ambiguities as Israeli diplomats have tended to do over the years when it comes to acknowledging the significance of continuously expanding the settlements, creating a network of expensive settler roads, and building the separation wall while still affirming their readiness to negotiate the formation of an independent Palestinian state. Dayan minces no words, insisting that a Palestinian state between Jordan and Israel would always have been an unsustainable security disaster for Israel. Such a Palestinian state would quickly fall under the control of Hamas as it became a place of refuge for hundred of thousands of embittered Palestinians who have been living in refugee camps for almost 65 years. According to Dayan, such a Palestinian state would be a crucible of anti-Israeli extremism that would inevitably prompt Israeli military reoccupation. This makes some sense once more from an Israeli realpolitik viewpoint, but its implications for the Palestinians is so manifestly unacceptable as to make its a declaration of total and permanent war against Palestinian hopes, aspirations, and rights. Maybe for this reason such a logic as espoused by Dayan has rarely been articulated outside of Israel.

 

            To be fair, Dayan does not entirely brush aside considerations bearing on Palestinian wellbeing. To his credit, he does not even discuss, much less support, ethnic cleansing, to ensure the maintenance of Jewish identity in a democratic polity. Dayan seems content to endure an eventual Palestinian majority population so long as the Israelis are in control, that is, Israeli domination is apparently sufficient for security, and this outweighs the search for democratic legitimacy. Without raising the question of Palestinian rights, Dayan claims that the Palestinian Authority is not dissatisfied with the status quo, and that Palestinian economic development is proceeding in areas under their control, especially in and around Ramallah. Furthermore, if Palestinians would only give up their futile resistance, Dayan says that most checkpoints could be removed. His ‘solution’ for the refugee problem is to improve the conditions in the camps, which he acknowledges as wretched. To think that this is morally, legally, or politically adequate is to understand how far from accepted ideas of justice Dayan strays while seeking to convince readers that not only is the occupation over but that all can be made to be okay even for the Palestinians.

 

            Why should not this assault of human dignity be merely refuted and cast aside as confirmation of just how extremist and bold the settler movement has become? There are several reasons for a more reflective response. Most importantly, Dayan’s analysis demolishes the existing unquestioned diplomatic framework that has locked Palestinian dreams into an endless nightmare of oppression and futility. By doing this, he opens the way to a necessary dialogue as to what kind of solution can be plausibly put in place of the two-state consensus? Less significantly, he lends credibility to arguments from critics, such as myself, of the peace process as foisting a cruel deception on the Palestinians and public opinion, while the settlement time bomb is allowed keep on ticking without being defused.

 

            Also, perhaps, whether deliberately or not, the NY Times by highlighting Dayan’s views so outrageously at odds with its consistent editorial position over the years, has decided belatedly to acknowledge that a new set of realities pertains to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Maybe this august newspaper that never strays too far from the Pentagon/State Department line on Middle East foreign policy received a midnight signal from Washington that it was time to start a new debate on how to depict the conflict or even to begin the difficult task of envisioning the shape and auspices of a new peace process. Of course, to dump such a smoke bomb into the midst of an already confusing presidential electoral campaign seems so strange as to make one wonder whether the NY Times opinion gatekeepers, normally so vigilant, may have on this occasion been caught sleeping, allowing Dayan’s radical dissent from the liberal conventional wisdom of the newspaper to slip by unnoticed.  

 

 

The Bonding of Civility and Dialogue

26 Jul

 

            Recently my blog posts have attracted some venomous comments. I have somewhat reluctantly ‘approved’ of most such comments unless blatantly anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, anti-Semitic, racist, or personally defamatory, and even with such offending comments I have leaned toward inclusion. Recently, however, I have received several critical messages suggesting that allowing such comments demeans the quality of the dialogue generated by the blog. These messages have prompted me to reconsider my way of filtering comments, and lead me to become somewhat more of a gatekeeper.

 

            My whole purpose in writing these posts, which often touch on sensitive and controversial topics, is to develop an open channel for serious dialogue, including debate. I respect deeply a diversity of views and understandings that is almost inevitable given our different social locations in the world, our varying experiences, and the victimization of our minds as a result of media manipulation and indoctrination. One of the glories of the Internet is to allow a great variety of information channels to be open and accessible, a surge of digital freedom that we are just beginning to learn how to (ab)use. Of course, this surge has produced a permanent condition of information flooding, and often leaves us with feelings that we cannot do more than receive impressions of spins starkly different from than those being promoted so vigorously by corporatized elites. Even if such liberating impacts happen rarely, and then only at the societal margins, there exists, at least, the potential for releasing the captive mind from media bondage.

 

            My new resolve follows from these reflections. I will do my best in the future to limit access to the comments section to those who appear to share these assumptions of civility and dialogue, which are my foundational verities. And to live up to my own standards, I welcome comments on this ‘comments policy’!

 

            Finally, to be clear: criticism and debate welcome, insults, slurs, and defamatory remarks about ethnic and religious identity will be hereafter unwelcome, and were their publication were never occasions of joy. Civility of tone is the real litmus test for inclusion. Indications of agreement and disagreement are often helpful, especially if expressed in dialogic manner. I look forward to working together with my readers in the hope that one day in the not too distant future we will discover that out of such tacit and sustained collaborations we will however unwittingly have formed a genuine digital community.

A Brief Further Comment on Syria

25 Jul

 

            Some of the sharpest critics of my posts contend that I focus too much attention on Israel while exempting the far worse Syrian regime from any sort of harsh condemnation. In fact, I did write a post devoted to the Syrian situation on May 31, 2012 in which I referred to the criminal character of the Assad regime and pointed to such bloody deeds (Crimes Against Humanity) as the Houla massacre that had occurred a few days before. In my mind, there is no doubt that the behavior of the ruling clique in Damascus is genocidal, and should be condemned and appropriate international action undertaken to protect the people of Syria.

 

            But what is appropriate in such a situation is far from self-evident. The clarity of condemnation should not be confused with devising a prescription for action. Military intervention rarely succeeds, violates the right of self-determination, and often expands the scope and severity of violence, especially if carried out from the air. Furthermore, we know little about the opposition in Syria, to what extent its governance of the country would be based on the rule of law and human rights. There are confusing reports about rebel atrocities as well as concerning the role of Al Qaeda operatives leading some of the rebel forces, and also indications that Gulf money and weapons have been supplied to these forces ever since the beginning of the anti-Damascus uprising. Every government has the right to fight against its internal enemies, especially if heavily assisted by hostile external forces, although that right must be exercised within the framework of constraints imposed by international humanitarian law.

 

            Reflecting this complexity, the leading governments have turned to the UN as the least bad option, and its former Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to do all in his power to bring the killing to an end, and broker some sort of political compromise. So far it seems that neither side is prepared to lay down its arms, and so the killing goes on. The UN response seems feeble, and it is, but in the absence of a better alternative, it is the best that the organized international community can do at this stage, especially given the standoff between the permanent members of the UN Security Council. In this regard, with all sorts of factors at play, the Syrian slaughterhouse is best interpreted as a tragic predicament for those outside the country and a tragedy for those trapped within.

 

            Finally, it is certainly true that I have given overwhelming emphasis on my blog to the Israel/Palestine conflict. This is due partly to my recent work as a UN appointee, partly because I feel the United States through its diplomacy and financial contributions is so deeply and unacceptably involved in the conflict, and partly, no doubt, a matter of accidents of birth, friendship, and experience. In the period between 1965-75 I was comparably preoccupied with opposing the Vietnam War. I offer no apologies for either of these preoccupations, but readily admit that I could have chosen others.

Toward a Gandhian Geopolitics: A Feasible Utopia?

25 Jul

 

            There has been serious confusion associated with the widespread embrace of ‘soft power’ as a preferred form of diplomacy for the 21st century. Joseph Nye introduced and popularized the concept, and later it was adopted and applied in a myriad of settings that are often contradictory from the perspective of international law and morality. I write in the belief that soft power as a force multiplier for imperial geopolitics is to be viewed with the greatest suspicion, but as an alternative to militarism and violence is to be valued and adopted as a potential political project that could turn out to be the first feasible utopia of the 21st century.

 

            Significantly, Nye first introduced the concept of soft power in Bound to Lead, published in 1990, reaffirming confidence in the United States as the self-anointed leader of the world for the foreseeable future based on its military and economic prowess, as well as due to its claimed status as an exemplary democracy and the global outreach of its popular culture from jeans to Michael Jackson . Nye has been a consistent advocate of what Michael Ignatieff christened as ‘empire lite’ a decade or so ago, and Nye’s invocation of soft power is essentially calling our attention to a cluster of instruments useful in projecting American influence throughout the world, and in his view under utilized. Although less so, perhaps, since the advent of drones. It should be appreciated that Nye’s influential career as a prominent Harvard specialist in international relations was climaxed in the 1990s by serving the government in Washington both as Chair of the National Intelligence Council, making policy recommendations on foreign policy issues to the American president, and as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the Clinton presidency. He is an unabashed charter member of and valuable apologist for the American foreign policy establishment in its current embodiment, although the policies of the Bush presidency often displeased him.

 

            The idea of soft power was unveiled for the benefit of the American establishment in Nye’s 1996 Foreign Affairs article, “America’s Information Edge,” appropriately written in collaboration with Admiral William Owens, a leading navy planner who rose to be Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The main argument of the article was the need to realize the revolutionary relevance of mastering the technologies of information if the American global domination project was to be successful in the years ahead. This emphasis on the role of information and networking was also certain to lead to a  ‘revolution in military technology.’ Soft power was not, as the words seem to suggest, a turn away from imperial geopolitics in the aftermath of the Cold War, but rather the opposite. It was more in the spirit of a geopolitical cookbook on how to remain in control globally despite a rapidly changing political and technological environment. The recommended soft power breakthrough can be summarized as the recognition of the role to be played by non-military forms of global influence and capabilities in reinforcing and complementing the mandate of hard power.

 

            The final section of the Nye/Owens article is aptly title “The Coming American Century,” insisting that the famous claim made a generation earlier by Time publisher, Henry Luce, that the 20th century was ‘the American century,’ would turn out to be a gross understatement when it came to describing the 21st century. Their expectation is that America will be more dominant internationally in the emerging future, thanks mainly to this superiority in information technology, anticipating that if their views are adopted by robust military applications of soft power it will have a huge foreign policy payoff for the country: “The beauty of information as a power resource is that, while it can enhance the effectiveness of raw military power, it ineluctably democratizes societies.” This unabashed avowal of imperial goals is actually the main thesis of the article, perhaps most graphically expressed in the following words—“The United States can increase the effectiveness of its military forces and make the world safe for soft power, America’s inherent comparative advantage.” As the glove fits the hand, soft power complements hard power within the wider enterprise of transforming the world in America’s image, as well as embodying the ideal version of America’s sense of self.

 

            Nye/Owens acknowledge a major caveat rather parenthetically by admitting that their strategy will not work if America continues much longer to be perceived unfavorably abroad as a national abode of drugs, crime, violence, fiscal irresponsibility, family breakdown, political gridlock.  They make a rather empty and apolitical plea to restore “a healthy democracy” at home as a prelude to the heavy lifting of democratizing the world, but they do not pretend medical knowledge of how national health might be restored,  offering no prescriptions. And now sixteen years after their article appeared, it would seem that the Burmese adage applies: “disease unknown, cure unknown.”

 

            There is much that I would object to about this line of advocacy that waves the banner of soft power so triumphantly. First of all, the idea of using power of any kind to democratize other sovereign states is an imperial undertaking at its core, and completely disregards the post-colonial ethos of self-determination widely affirmed as the inalienable right of all peoples.  This right of self-determination is given pride of place in common Article 1 of the two major international human rights covenants. The Nye/Owens assumption that ‘democracy’ means ‘made in the USA’ is an ideological claim that seems increasingly questionable given the reality of political life in America.  This is the case even if the country somehow miraculously heeds the Nye/Owens call to restore national health to its democracy. Is it open to doubt as to whether an elective plutocracy, which America has surely become, can qualify as the sort of democracy that merits being exported abroad. And since the 9/11 attacks the corporatizing of democratic space has been complemented by a series of governmental encroachments on traditional liberties in the name of ‘homeland security.’ While it might have seemed unproblematic in 1996 for Nye/Owens to write about planting the seeds of American democracy throughout the world, by 2012 such a project has become nothing less than diabolical. The best the world can hope for at this point is not a somewhat less aggressive version of soft power geopolitics but an American turn toward passivity, what used to be called ‘isolationism,’ and was perhaps briefly abortively reborn by the Obama posture during the 2011 Libyan intervention of ‘leading from behind,’ as if that is leading at all. Of course, such a realistic retreat begets the fury of the Republicans who seem to have not lost any of their appetite for the red meat of military adventures despite a string of defeats and their constant wailing about the fiscal deficit. When it comes to militarism their firepower is directed at the alleged defeatism and softness of American foreign policy in the hands of a Democratic president.

 

            There is a second sense of soft power that I advocate, which is in its most maximal form, represents the extension of Gandhian principles to the practice of diplomacy. A weaker form of Gandhian geopolitics may seem more consistent with the world as it is, restricting the role of hard power to self-defense as strictly limited in the UN Charter and to UN humanitarian interventions in exceptional circumstances of genocidal behavior or the repeated commission of crimes against humanity. In such instances uses of hard power would remain under the operational control of the UN Security Council, and enacted by a UN Peace Force especially trained in conflict resolution to minimize recourse to violence.

 

            If we decide to respect the politics of self-determination (as the preferred alternative to military intervention) then we need to be prepared to accept the prospect of some tragic struggles for control of national space. Geopolitical passivity, as validated by international law, needs to be recognized as an essential political virtue in this century. Such an imperative also mandates reliance on the greater wisdom of collective procedures subject to constitutional constraints as a necessary adjustment to the realities of a globalizing world, and offers an alternative to unilateralist and oligarchic claims (‘coalitions of the willing’) to act in defiance of law and world public opinion.  Such an empowerment of ‘the global community’ may go awry on some occasions but it seems a far preferable risk than continuing to entrust world peace and security to the untender mercies of global and regional hegemonic sovereign states even should their domestic democratic credentials are in good order, which happens not to be the case.

 

            There is no doubt that I would like to live in a borderless soft power world that was consistently attentive to human suffering, protective of the global commons, and subject to the discipline of global constitutional democracy. As global conditions now confirm, such a benign fantasy lacks political traction at present, and is thus an irresponsible worldview from the perspective of humane problem solving. The most we can currently hope for is a more moderate regime of global governance presided over by sovereign states that exhibits a greater sense of responsibility toward the wellbeing of the peoples of the world, identifies and works to correct dysfunction and corruption, and is thus less swayed by the reigning plutocracy that now sets global policy. Such moderate global governance, while far from the desired Gandhian model would at least become more respectful of international law and responsive to transnational movements dedicated to human rights and the preservation of the global commons. Nye’s soft power geopolitics provides a roadmap for those comfortable with currents hierarchies of dominance and privilege, while even the minimal version of a nonviolent and non-imperial alternative could help humanity greatly in the deepening struggle to find a world order path that leads to peace, justice, and development. 

For What?

20 Jul

 

             Being disinclined to look in mirrors, not only to avoid evidences of aging, but also because of an autobiographical deficit, I have recently started to question the vectors of my motivation. Not to raise doubts but to seek some understanding of ‘for what?’ I am especially wondering the reasons behind my solidarity with the struggles of distant strangers, why such solidarity is not more widely shared with likeminded friends, and why the inevitable priorities as to what is emphasized and what is ignored have the shape they do. Most pointedly, why am I giving the Palestinians so much more attention and psychic energy than the Kurds, Tibetans, or Kashmiris, and a host of other worthy causes? And how do I explain to myself a preoccupation with the unlawful, immoral, and imprudent foreign policy of the U.S. Government, the sovereign state of my residence upon whose governmental resources I depend upon for security and a range of rights?

 

            There are rational answers that tell part of the story, but only a part, and probably the least illuminating part. I was drawn to the Palestinian struggle as a result of friendship with prominent Palestinian exiles while still a student. I formed a well-evidence belief that the U.S. Government and the organized Jewish community were responsible for the massive and enduring confiscation of Palestinian land and rights. And with this awareness came some added sense of responsibility. ‘Just don’t sit and stare, do something.’

And with this modest kind of engagement came pressures to do more by way of public identification and witnessing, which led to a somewhat deeper awareness, greater familiarity, and of course, a dumpster full of harsh criticism. After many years of speaking and writing, the opportunity and challenge to do more in relation to Palestine/Israel conflict came my way unexpectedly in the form of an unsolicited invitation in 2008 to become the next Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council.

 

            I never sought such a position, and realized that it would expose me to an escalating onslaught of vicious personal attacks and threats, an expectation that has been amply fulfilled. It is always uncomfortable to be the target of toxic language, and it is even more scary and disturbing to expose my closest partner in life and love to such calumny. Besides the hotly contested terrain that exists whenever Israeli policies are subject to objective scrutiny and criticism, a position within the UN hierarchy is both burdensome and often frustrating. True, being a Special Rapporteur is essentially a voluntary post, without salary or civil service affiliations, although ‘compensated’ to some degree by institutional independence within the UN, which I have discovered in my four years, can be a considerable blessing. There is little doubt in my mind that if I had been a paid employee I would long ago have been handed a pink slip. As it is I have merely endured a barrage of slanderous insults, including from the Secretary General and Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the UN in New York.

           

            Lest I protest and complain too much, I hasten to add that there are also deep and moving satisfactions. I find particularly satisfying the extent to which my two reports each year on the Israeli occupation of Palestine provides a truthful witnessing to the unspeakable ordeal of this prolonged and harsh occupation. Actually, it is less and less an occupation and more and more an apartheid style form of annexation, aggravated by continuous land grabs, various instruments of ethnic cleansing, and a range of gratuitous cruelties most recently dramatized by a series of heroic hunger strikes by Palestinians protesting those aspects of their plight resulting from violent arrest procedures, administrative detention, and deplorable prison conditions falling far below accepted international standards. Bearing witness, giving the Palestinians an authentic voice with which to formulate their grievances, and having the means to issue press releases calling attention to particular incidents of abuse, makes me feel as though my time is well spent even if the bodies keep piling up on the Palestinian side of the border. Part of the challenge in such a role is to realize the discouraging constraints on what can be achieved. Governments mainly don’t listen, and even when they do, their actions and policies are rarely informed by moral imperatives, and so nothing changes however much the evidence is present.

            The devastating impact of the Gaza blockade has been known and lamented for years by political leaders, and yet the costs of doing anything about it have seemed so great that even those who complain most loudly in the chambers of the UN are silent or worse when it comes to doing something. Someone at my level is shouting to be heard amid the clamor that prevails in the diplomatic discotheques of New York and Geneva, and even when heard, must learn to expect nothing to be done or else despair, even madness, will soon follow.

 

            Beyond this rational balance sheet of gains and losses, is a deeper less accessible convergence of feelings and impulses, which cannot be explained, but only acknowledged. I am not sure why direct exposure to victimization has such a powerful animating effect on my behavior, but it does. I do feel that a sense of responsibility emerges with such knowledge, especially that derived from direct contact with the suffering of victims caught in some historical trap not of their own making. Also, whether visiting North Vietnam as a peace activist during the Vietnam War or seeking to understand the Iranian Revolution by talking with its leaders as the extraordinary process was unfolding in Tehran, I felt a meta-professional obligation to share this privileged exposure by talking and writing about it, however inadequately, particularly, as seemed generally to be the case, that the mainstream media distorted and manipulated their presentations of such historic happenings as misleadingly seen through their Western optic of (mis)perception.

 

            Somewhere in this agonizingly slow formation of my character there was being constructed a self that took the shape of ‘engaged scholar’ and ‘citizen pilgrim.’ In retrospect, I think I was reacting somewhat dialectically to my academic colleagues who mostly felt it inappropriate to speak out on controversial issues although they viewed it as entirely professional to consult with the government and quite all right to avoid the public sphere altogether by packaging themselves as experts who should not be expected to take public stands on partisan issues that divided the polity. I felt, increasingly with age, the opposite. I came to believe that it was an organic part of my integrity as teacher/scholar to create a seamless interface between classroom and sites of political struggle. In truth, not entirely seamless as the classroom must always be treated as a sacred space by a faculty member. It should be maintained as a sanctuary for the uninhibited exchange of views however diverse and antagonistic in an atmosphere of disciplined civility. I have always felt that it is a primary duty of a teacher is to establish sufficient trust with students, that is, permission and encouragement of openness of expression with a clear understanding that performance will be objectively assessed, and not affected by agreement or disagreement with what the teacher happens to believe. This is a delicate balance yet far more conducive to learning than a sterile and journeyman insistence that what people beyond the campus are dying for can be usefully addressed with sanitary dispassion.

 

            In the end, this vital domain of conscious pedagogy and unconscious morality, is spiritually validated by an unmediated and uninterrogated sense that this or that is ‘the right thing to do.’ It certainly helps to remain as free as possible of vested interests and career ambitions that tend to crush an implicit pledge of truthfulness that authentic witnessing depends upon. And beyond witnessing there exists an iron wall of moral obligation: caring about the future, doing what I can to make the world a better place for human habitation and co-evolution with nature, which I have understood as a species obligation that has been made historically urgent ever since an atomic bomb was exploded over the Japanese city of Hiroshima and is now also deeply connected with protecting the planet from the multiple hazards of global warming hopelessly embedded in our carbon-dependent life styles as promiscuously promoted in disastrous directions by the greed of superrich fossil fuel billionaires and their far too powerful corporate allies.

 

            I have not rested these life commitments on the teachings of any particular religious tradition or institution, although I have long found the great world religions, East and West, despite their menacing contradictions and multiple readings, as providing me with the most profound sources of wisdom and guidance. It is the basis of my ecumenical longing for human solidarity, along with my feelings of awe produced by contact with cosmic and natural wonders, and deeply informs my sense of the spiritual ground of the human adventure. These sentiments are reinforced in my case by a commitment to an emergent form of cosmopolitan citizenship that owes allegiance to the ethics and praxis of human sustainability, the individual and collective dignity of all human beings, and a respectful kinship with and love of our non-human co-inhabitants of the planet. Such perspectives, I believe, respond to our historically precarious situation as a species, and here in America, this concern is accentuated. For this is a country with a surfeit of moral and political pretensions. It exhibits hubris to an alarming degree, and in extravagant ways, and is endangering itself along with the rest of the world by a refusal to heed what the geopolitical mirror of reflection warns about. 

Akram Rikhawi’s Critical Condition

16 Jul

 

This is a picture of Akram Rikhawi. He is reported to be close to death after maintaining a hunger strike for more than 95 days. Please publicize this astonishing interface of cruelty on Israel’s part and bravery on Mr. Rikhawi’s part.

Pros and Cons of Solidarity with the Palestinian Struggle

11 Jul

 

            The posture of solidarity with the struggle of ‘the other’ is more complex than it might appear at first glance. It seems a simple act to join with others in opposing severe injustice and cruelty, especially when its reality is experienced and witnessed first-hand as I have for several decades in relation to the Palestinian struggle. I was initially led to understand the Palestinian (counter-) narrative by friends while still a law student in the late 1950s. But my engagement was more in the spirit of resisting what Noam Chomsky would later teach us to call ‘indoctrination in a liberal society,’ a matter of understanding how the supposedly objective media messes with our mind in key areas of policy sensitivity, and none has turned out in the West, especially in North America, to be more menacingly stage managed than the presentation of Palestinians and their struggle, which merge with sinister forms of racial and religious profiling under the labels of ‘the Arab mind’ and ‘Muslim extremism.’ The intended contrast to be embedded in Western political consciousness is between the bloodthirsty Arab/Palestinian/Muslim and the Western custodian of morality and human rights.

 

            Perhaps, for very personal reasons I had since childhood taken the side of the less privileged in whatever domain the issue presented itself, whether in sports or family life or in relation to race and sexual identity, and professionally, in foreign policy. Despite being white and attracted sexually only to women, I found myself deeply moved by the ordeal in democratic America of African Americans, gays, and later, members of indigenous communities. I have sustained these affinities despite a long career that involved swimming upstream in the enclaves of the privileged as a longtime member of the Princeton University faculty.

 

            In recent years, partly by chance, most of these energies of solidarity have been associated with the Palestinian struggle, which has involved mainly in my case the bearing of witness to abuses endured by the Palestinian people living under occupation or in varying forms of exile, especially in my role as UN Special Rapporteur. This is an unpaid position, and affords me a much higher degree of independence than is enjoyed by normal UN career civil servants or diplomats serving a particular government. Many of these individuals work with great dedication and taken on dangerous assignments, but are expected to conform to institutional discipline that is exercised in a deadly hierarchical manner that often links the UN to the grand strategy and geopolitical priorities of a West-centric world order. This structure itself seems more and more out of step with the rise of the non-West in the last several decades. Just days ago the Indian representative at the UN called for a restructuring of the Security Council to get rid of its anachronistic cast of characteristics that overvalues the West and undervalues the rest.

 

            Bearing witness involves being truthful and as factually accurate as possible, regardless of what sort of consensus is operative in the corridors of power. In a biased media and a political climate that is orchestrated from above, the objectivity of bearing witness will itself be challenged as ‘biased’ or ‘one-sided’ whenever it ventures onto prohibited terrain. In actuality, the purpose of bearing witness is to challenge bias, not to perpetuate it, but in our Orwellian media world, it is bias that is too often presented as balanced, and truth witnessing that is either ignored or derided.

 

             The witness of unwelcome truths should always exhibit a posture of humility, not making judgments about the tactics of struggle employed by those fighting against oppression, and not supplying the solutions for those whose destinies are directly and daily affected by a deep political struggle. To do otherwise is to pretend to be thea purveyor of greater wisdom and morality than those enduring victimization. In the Palestine/Israel conflict it is up to the parties, the peoples themselves and their authentic representatives, to find the path to a sustainable and just peace, although it seems permissible for outsiders to delineate the distribution of rights that follow from an application of international law and to question whether the respective peoples are being legitimately represented.

 

            These comments reflect my reading of a passionate and provocative essay by Linah Alsaafin entitled “How obsession with ‘non-violence’ harms the Palestinian cause,” which was published online in the Electronic Intifada on July 11, 2012. The burden of her excellent article is the insistence that it is for the Palestinians, and only the Palestinians, to decide on the forms and nature of their resistance. She writes with high credibility as a recent graduate of Birzeit University who was born in Cardiff, Wales and lived in England and the United States, as well as Palestine. She persuasively insists that for sympathetic observers and allies to worship at the altar of Palestinian non-violence is to cede to the West the authority to determine what are acceptable and unacceptable forms of Palestinian struggle. This is grotesquely hypocritical considering the degree to which Western militarism is violently unleashed around the planet so as to maintain structures of oppression and exploitation, more benignly described as ‘national interests.’ In effect, the culturally sanctioned political morality of the West is indicative of an opportunistically split personality: nonviolence for your struggle, violence for ours. Well-meaning liberals, by broadcasting such an insidious message, are not to be welcomed as true allies.

 

            In this connection, I acknowledge my own carelessness in taking positive note of this shift in Palestinian tactics in the direction of nonviolent forms of resistance, being unwittingly paternalistic, if not complicit with an unhealthy ‘tyranny of the stranger.’ It is certainly not the case that Alsaafin is necessarily advocating Palestinian violence, but rather she is contending that unless the Palestinians realize that they must mobilize their own masses to shape their own destiny, which leads her to lament because it is not yet happening, nothing will change, and the occupiers and oppressors will continue to dominate the Palestinian scene. In effect, Alsaafin is telling us that deferring to Western canons of struggle is currently dooming Palestinians to apathy and despair.

 

            I find most of what Alsaafin has to say to be persuasive, illuminating, and instructive, although I feel she neglects to take note of the courage and mobilizing impact of the prison hunger strikes that have ignited the imagination of many Palestinians in recent months. Also, to some extent, my highlighting of nonviolence was never intended as an input into the Palestinian discourse or as favorable commentary, but seeks to challenge and expose the untrustworthiness of Western liberals who have for years been lecturing the Palestinians to abandon violence for the sake of effectiveness, arguing that a supposedly democratic and morally sensitive society such as they allege exists in Israel would be responsive to a nonviolent challenge by the Palestinians, and this would in turn lead to a more reasonable and fair negotiating approach by the Israelis out of which a just peace could emerge.  As should have been understood by the harsh Israeli responses to both intifadas, Israel turns a blind eye to Palestinian nonviolence, or even does its best to provoke Palestinian violence so as to have some justification for its own. And the usually noisy liberal pontificators such as Tom Friedman and Nicholas Kristof go into hiding whenever Palestinian creativity in resistance does have recourse to nonviolent tactics. These crown princes of liberal internationalism were both silent throughout the unfolding and dramatic stories of the various long hunger strikes. These were remarkable examples of nonviolent dedication that bear comparison with Gandhi’s challenges hurled at the British Empire or the later efforts of the IRA to awaken London to the horrors of prison conditions in Northern Ireland, and certainly were newsworthy.

 

            At the same time, there are some universal values at stake that Alsaafin does not pause to acknowledge. There are two of these truths intertwined in bewildering complexity: no outsider has the moral authority or political legitimacy to tell those enduring severe oppression how to behave; no act of violence whatever the motivation that is directed against an innocent child or civilian bystander is morally acceptable or legally permissible even if it seems politically useful. Terrorism is terrorism whether the acts are performed by the oppressor or the oppressed, and for humanity to move toward any kind of collective emancipation, such universal principles must be affirmed as valid, and respected by militants.

 

            Also absent from the article is any effort to situate the Palestinian struggle in an historical and geographic context. There are tactical realities in some situations of conflict that may make those who act in solidarity a vital part of the struggle that participate on the basis of their own political calculus. The Vietnamese recognized the importance of an autonomous Western peace movement in weakening the will of the American political establishment to continue with the Vietnam War. The global anti-apartheid campaign turned the tide in South Africa, and allowed the internal forces led by the African National Congress to prevail in their long struggle against settler colonial rule and racism. We all need to remember that each struggle has its own originality that is historically, politically, and culturally conditioned, and the Palestinian struggle is no exception.

 

            As Alsaafin powerfully reminds us who attempt to act in solidarity, while she is addressing a related message to the Palestinians, it is for the Palestinians to exert leadership and find inspiration, and for the rest of us to step to one side.  We must be humble for our sake as well as theirs, they must be assertive, and then our solidarity might make a welcome contribution a rather than unintentionally administering a mild depressant.   

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