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Losing Control: A Blogger’s Nightmare

6 Jan

 

            When I started this blog a couple of years ago, the thought never entered my mind that I would need to defend the terrain. Although I knew my views were controversial on some issues, I assumed that those who disagreed strongly would stay away, losing interest, or express their disagreements in a spirit of civility. To a large extent this has been true, with the glaring exception of Israel/Palestine. Here my problems are two-fold: (1) very nasty personal attacks that challenge the integrity, balance, judgment, and overall demeanor of myself and those that agree with me; (2) very insistent and determined requests to engage my views from highly divergent standpoints, so divergent that I can find no useful meeting ground or value in such exchanges. By and large, I have excluded defamatory comments from the first group to the extent I have taken the time to monitor the comments section of the blog. I neither feel any obligation to give space on the blog to those who wish me ill, nor do I wish to respond to such allegations unless it seems absolutely necessary to do so. My recent Open Letter to CRIF was an illustration of such a necessity. I have refrained from responding to the UN Watch campaign despite a strong temptation to explain their distortions and deny their falsehoods, which are clearly intended to bring me harm.

 

            The second cluster of responses has been more troublesome for me: as someone who has enjoyed classroom teaching for almost 60 years I have always welcomed the challenge of divergent viewpoints that differ dramatically from my own, and the valuable sort of dialogic conversations that have so often enlivened my academic career.  At the same time, I do not think that by posting interpretations of events and issues, I am committing myself to debate with those who disagree to an extent that ensures that the interaction of our viewpoints will result in an argument incapable of resolution, and essentially going nowhere. I have always found debate between those with sharply antagonistic views to be, at best, a species of performance art or a theater of ideas that may be useful in some instances to clarify disagreements or to entertain an audience. In my experience debates almost never succeed in finding common ground or even in leading one side or the other to modify their position in significant ways. I raise this issue because some of those who defend Israel most passionately seem to feel that I have a responsibility to enter detailed and frequent discussion with them to consider our points of difference.

 

            I am sympathetic with the view that because I have this position as UN Special Rapporteur on human rights violation in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 that I have a duty to engage with those who are concerned with these issues. In some ways I wish that my schedule was less crowded and my energies were more extensive, but I have to make choices. It should be remembered that my UN appointment is not a UN staff position. I am in effect an unpaid volunteer, and accept the burden of considerable added work because I believe that the Palestinian people deserve an independent and honest voice to express their grievances on the global stage, and I do this in a manner that tries to take account of Israeli claims relating to its occupation policies. I would also insist that due to my independent position within the UN System, it is entirely appropriate to maintain a blog of this sort that expresses my views as a citizen of a democratic society, which I regard as falling within the sphere of conscience and reflection. I do make an effort to avoid public partisan stands in activist contexts that could create ambiguities as to my commitment to speak the truth as best I can.

 

            I draw a distinction between those who share some core commitments, for instance, respect for rights under international law or commitments to seek peaceful resolution of disputes, and those that seem to be taunts rather than serious efforts to gain mutual understanding of difficult and complicated issues. Interpretations of the issues that are so completely tilted toward legitimizing the positions and claims of Israel, which occupies the dominant position in the conflict, fall outside the boundaries of useful discussion so far as I am concerned. My sense of fairness is always conditioned by the structure of the underlying relationships, placing me on the side of those social and political forces that are struggling for emancipation from situations of oppression and rightlessness. Given this perspective, siding with the Palestinians is partly a matter of identifying with the party that has for decades been victimized by the cruel play of hard power reinforced by geopolitics. Let me be clear: my underlying commitment is to a sustainable and just peace for both peoples, but I believe this can only happen if ‘facts on the ground’ give way to a full-fledged diplomatic appreciation of ‘Palestinian rights under international law.’

 

            Even if I was inclined to devote more time to responding to hostile and divergent comments on Israel/Palestine I would disappoint other readers of the blog, who are already offended by the degree to which this one conflict sucks up all the oxygen. I have received many emails, that is, a cyber path that avoids direct comments the blog, which have strongly recommended that I not respond to comments at all and that I take steps to avoid this disproportionate concentration of energy on this one conflict. There is, I have discovered, an analogue in the blogosphere to the crude version of Gresham’s Law (‘bad money drives out good money’) so beloved by economists: It is ‘bad comments drive out good comments.’ Some of my correspondents have even gently suggested in response to the uncivil tone of many comments that I abandon the blog altogether and instead create a mailing list that serves as an alternative outlet for my views, which would have the advantage of limiting posts to a community of likeminded persons. Supposedly, this would protect my bruised ego. But I remain foolish enough to sustain the blog a bit longer, and see what happens. I will continue to struggle with balance on a tightrope that keeps the blog open to strangers, including those who disagree and disapprove, while working on behalf of an identity and level of discourse that accords with my values, and is faithful to my initial motivation to engage in the hard work of writing posts on a variety of topics to address some public issues in a manner that seems at variance with mainstream media interpretations. I do this partly because self-expression has always been a satisfying form of self-discovery, somewhat similar in this manner to teaching and scholarly writing. And partly because there might be a few others on the planet that share my worries about the present and future, and seek a community brave enough to hope when there is no hope!

 

            It is strange that I should also receive complaints as to why I do not discuss wrongdoing in the world other than that of Israel. One of the sharpest criticisms that I receive is that I must be an ‘Israel-hater,’ or worse, ‘a Jew hater,’ because I do not denounce instances of human suffering other than that of the Palestinians with the same vehemence that I accord to Israel’s wrongdoing. It is a strange line of attack for two reasons: firstly, to my knowledge, those who make such an allegation are themselves single-minded defenders of Israel, and exhibit no interest in other issues beyond the rhetorical point that there are other humanitarian ordeals that from their standpoint are far worse than what the Palestinians have endured; and secondly, I have devoted my research and teaching skills to many other international concerns other than those associated with the Israel/Palestine conflict. Even a superficial glance at my CV would show a career emphasis on general international law and world order issues, and far more criticism devoted over the years to American foreign policy than to Israel’s behavior.

 

                        I am prepared to entertain other ideas about my claim to have a right to control the tone and substance of the comments section of my blog. In effect, I have been reflecting on the presumed basis that I have a proprietary right to exercise control according to my discretion. There are a huge variety of other sites enabling those who wish to denounce me or my views, so why must I make this space available for uncongenial ventures? And why should I have to depend on friends and allies coming to my rescue when the going gets too tough. Hilary Clinton in the 2008 presidential campaign taunted Obama by saying “if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” But I ask myself, ‘what is the point of such discomfort if the heat sheds no light,’ mixing metaphors inexcusably.

 

            Another response to this kind of squabble is to adopt the ethos of my younger son, who likes to say ‘chill!’  whenever emotions rise above his comfort level. His intention is to encourage ‘letting go,’ ‘backing off’’, ‘allowing a hundred flowers to bloom,’ and the like.  But there are deep feelings at stake when these blog issues are being discussed, and little willingness to grant respect to those who defend positions that seem abhorrent. I include myself in this indictment, often feeling too engaged with the abuse of Palestinian rights to treat controversy as mere differences of opinion, but this is a reflection of my understanding of the relevant facts and law, and not a matter of blind passion or blinkered vision. 

An Open Letter of Response to CRIF (Conseil Représentif des Institutions Juives de France)

30 Dec

An Open Letter of Response to CRIF (Conseil Représentif des Institutions Juives de France)

I am shocked and saddened that your organization would label me as an anti-Semite and self-hating Jew. It is utterly defamatory, and such allegations are entirely based on distortions of what I believe and what I have done. To confuse my criticisms of Israel with self-hatred of myself as a Jew or with hatred of Jews is a calumny. I have long been a critic of American foreign policy but that does not make me anti-American; it is freedom of conscience and its integral link with freedom of expression that is the core defining reality of a genuinely democratic society, and the robust exercise of these rights are crucial to the quality of political life in a particular country, especially here in the United States where its size and influence often has such a large impact on the lives and destiny of many peoples excluded from participating in its policy debates or elections.

It is always difficult to negate irresponsible accusations of this kind. What follows is an attempt to clarify my honestly held positions in relation to a litany of charges that have been given currency by a defamatory campaign conducted by UN Watch ever since I was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to be Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 2008. What follows are brief attempts at clarification in response to the main charges:

–the attacks on me by such high profile individuals as Ban ki-Moon, Susan Rice, David Cameron were made in response to vilifying letters about me sent to them by UN Watch, and signed by its Executive Director, Hillel Neuer. The contention that Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also attacked me is misleading. She regretted the posting of a cartoon on my blog that had an anti-Semitic cartoon, but she took note of my contention that it was a complete accident and that the cartoon was immediately removed when brought to my attention;

–it was the cartoon that has served UN Watch as the basis of their insistence that I am an anti-Semite. Their bad faith is demonstrated by their repeated magnification of the cartoon far beyond what I had posted on the basis of its size on the Google image page for the International Criminal Court. As I have explained many times, I was unaware when I posted the cartoon of its anti-Semitic character, and pointed out that the post in which was inserted was dealing with my argument that the ICC was biased in its use of its authority, in this instance by issuing arrest warrants against the Qaddafi leadership in Libya. Israel was not mentioned in the post the content of which had nothing whatsoever to do with Judaism or Jews. To ignore such an explanation is to my way of thinking and to reprint the cartoon in an enlarged form is a sign of malicious intent; any fair reading of the 182 posts on my blog, including one devoted to Jewish identity would make it very clear to any objective reader that I have not expressed a single sentiment that can be fairly described as an anti-Semite. It is a grave disservice to both Israel and Jews to confuse criticism of Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians with anti-Semitism.

–the claim that I am a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, actually a leading one, is false, as well. I have consistently maintained that I have insufficient knowledge to reach any conclusions about whether there is an alternative narrative of the 9/11 events that is more convincing than the official version. What I have said, and stand behind, is that David Griffin and many others have raised questions that have not been adequately answered, and constitute serious gaps in the official version that were not closed by the 9/11 Commission report. I would reaffirm that David Griffin is a cherished friend, and that we have professionally collaborated on several projects long before 9/11. It should be pointed out that Griffin is a philosopher of religion of worldwide reputation that has written on a wide range of issues, including a series on inquiries into the post-modern world and the desirability of an ecological civilization.

–The recent UN Watch letter that led me to be removed from the Human Rights Watch SB city Committee also claims I am a partisan of Hamas, which is a polemic charge and is untrue. What I have encouraged is a balanced view of Hamas based on the full context of their statements and behavior, and not fixing on language in the Hamas Charter or a particular speech. When the broader context is considered of Hamas statements and recent behavior is considered, then I believe there exists a potential opportunity to work with Hamas leaders to end the violence, to release the people of Gaza from captivity, and to generate a diplomatic process that leads to a period of prolonged peaceful co-existence with Israel. I have never insisted that this hopeful interpretation is necessarily correct, but I do maintain that it is worth exploring, and a preferred alternative to the current rigid insistence on refusing to deal with Hamas as a political actor because it is ‘a terrorist organization.’ It was evident in the recent violence preceding the November ceasefire in Gaza that leaders throughout the Middle East were treating Hamas as the governmental authority in Gaza and as a normal political entity, and this helped bring the violence to an end.

–Finally, UN Watch charges that I am biased and one-sided in my treatment of Israeli behavior, and cites Susan Rice and others for support, as well as noting my failure to report on violations by Hamas, Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority. I can only say once more that I am trying my best to be objective and truthful, although unwilling to give in to pressure. I did make an effort in my initial appearance before the Human Rights Council to broaden my mandate to take account of Palestinian violations, but was rebuffed by most of the 49 governmental members of the Council for seeking to make such a change, and reasonable grounds were advanced for not changing my mandate. I have noted Palestinian violations of international law wherever relevant to the assessment of Israeli behavior, as for instance in relation to the launch of indiscriminate rockets. Palestinian abuses of human rights of Palestinians under their control while administering portions of Occupied Palestine is outside my mandate, and I have no discretion to comment on such behavior in discharging my responsibilities as Special Rapporteur.

It is my view that Israel is in control of the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, and is primarily responsible for the situation and the persistence of the conflict, especially by their insistence on undertaking provocative actions such as targeted assassinations and accelerated settlement expansions.

I would grateful if this account of my actual views and beliefs can be circulated widely in response to the CRIF repetition of the UN Watch attacks.

Richard Falk

29 December 2012

An Open Letter on my 82nd Birthday

13 Nov

 

            Exactly two years ago I wrote my first blog. Throughout this period it has been a bittersweet experience consisting of work, play, challenge, and occasional consternation. Many warm and generous responses have given me an appreciation of the distinctive satisfactions of cyber connectivity. Such pleasures have been somewhat offset by hostile commentary and related monitoring, not mainly for disagreements as to substance, but to find discrediting material, usually torn from context, that might induce me to resign or be dismissed from my unpaid UN position as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the Human Rights Council. What is most distressing is not the attacks that are well known to come with this territory, but the degree to which important government officials in the United States and at the UN so easily become willing accomplices in such malicious campaigns of defamation, and do so without ‘due diligence.’

 

            Of course, someone more prudent than I, would have long ago abandoned the blogosphere, and more fully enjoyed the many serene satisfactions of southern California and the stimulating challenges of summers in Turkey. The magnetic appeal of this risky, still uncertain, medium of communication that was born in this century is both to reach others everywhere on the planet and to engage in a form of self-exploration and self-discovery that demonstrates almost daily that one is never too old to learn anew. These posts of mine have been mostly reflections of my experience around the world, interpretations of current global issues, and suggestions for a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world.

 

            I have deeply appreciated the support and most of the reactions I have received from known and unknown persons throughout the planet. At the deepest level, it makes me realize that there exists a large invisible and informal community of shared faith in the healing power of love, and less grandly, of the gratifications of dialogue. It is as a charter member of this community that makes me feel that it is valuable to remain an active participant so long as my muse permits, perhaps at a reduced rate.

 

            At the start of this experience I felt that it was best to allow all comments to appear, including the most unsavory. Yet as the months went by I realized that there is a cyber analogue to Gresham’s Law: ‘bad comments drive out good!’ I received many personal messages outside the blogosphere decrying the toxic atmosphere. This prompted me to try my best to monitor comments, excluding those that were uncivil in tone, as well as those that consisted of personal. It was not easy. It is a fine line. I was criticized for straying across it, or using my discretion in a biased manner. I listened, and have tried to be sensitive to diverse viewpoints without denying my own passions.

 

            I realize that many online media outlets allow comments to appear with only minimal filtering, but I have come to feel that this diminishes the quality and benefits of the dialogic potential of a blog, especially one devoted often to issues being debated in public space. It has taught me that while freedom of expression is a vital human right, and integral to democracy, it must be limited by context. The world is now a crowded theater. Koran burning and bible burning are the 21st century equivalent of shouting ‘fire!’ and inducing panic and causing mayhem in distant places. The problem of a blog is, of course, different. The justification for limiting expression to establish the kind of decorum that facilitates dialogue and conversation.

 

            Among the side effects of my blog has been an opportunity to publish more widely. It was encouraging to be invited to become a regular contributor to Al Jazeera’s English online opinion section. I find this brilliantly edited source of news and commentary to be far more cosmopolitan in its orientation toward events of the day than the most authoritative mainstream Western media outlets. This post-colonial de-Westernization of information and interpretative assessment is integral to building a multi-civilizational world community dedicated to the principles of humane and sustainable governance at all levels of social interaction.

 

            As time passes, the political circumstances of the peoples of the world are undergoing a variety of severe stresses, some local, others global, some presently experienced, others threatened in the near and medium future. There are extremely dangerous underlying patterns of behavior emerging: Among the most disturbing is the deterritorialization of conflict epitomized by kill lists and drone technology that ignores the sovereignty of others and defies the moral and legal limits embodied in international humanitarian law.

 

            There are also some latent opportunities that will come as surprises if acted upon. Perhaps, the reelected Barack Obama might surprise us by being willing to take steps to convince the world that he deserved the Nobel Peace Price that had been prematurely, and somewhat perversely, awarded to him in 2009. One sure way to do this would be to revive his Prague vision of a world without nuclear weapons. There will never be a better time in world politics to convene the nine governments whose states possess nuclear weapons. There is no raging geopolitical conflict, a mounting risk of a dangerous surge in the proliferation, and the many countries beset by financial crisis would welcome uplifting moves toward denuclearization. Nothing would more quickly restore America’s tarnished reputation as a benevolent force in the world than tabling a detailed proposal for phased and verified nuclear disarmament to be implemented within a decade. It is commonplace to applaud the vision but then immediately defer its realization to the distant future, which is to take back with one hand what was given with the other, raising expectations of those who are dedicated to abolishing the weaponry, and then reassuring nuclearists that they have nothing to worry about as nothing will actually happen. Now is the time for a genuine presidential initiative that is launched in Washington but negotiated under UN auspices to rid the world of the menace of nuclear weaponry, and to belatedly clear the conscience of humanity for its reliance on ‘security’ ever since1945 that rests on a genocidal doctrine of deterrence. Of course, the main responsibility for this reliance is not that of humanity, but of the governments that possess the weaponry and their supportive bureaucratic and economicmilitarized infrastructures. Even if the initiative should not succeed in achieving agreement, the effort would assure the Obama presidency of a memorable legacy.

 

            The other global challenge that presents the White House with an extraordinary opportunity for action is climate change. The world, including the United States, has ignored a multitude of wakeup calls, most recently super storm Sandy. It has also refused to take seriously the scientific consensus warning the world of the dire consequences of failing to curtail carbon emissions. Further delay is not neutral, causing a variety of effects that cumulatively disrupt the ecological balances that moderate weather, rainfall, and ocean levels to accommodate humans, plants, and animals. Inaction and denial is lavishly funded by the fossil fuel industries that have made climate skepticism so influential in the United States, and elsewhere. Nothing could do more to build the legacy of Obama’s second term than to tear down the high wall of silence that has been built to keep the dangers of global warming out of sight.

 

            It is in this spirit of concern, struggle, hope, and love that I commit myself to carry on with this journey of a still aspiring citizen pilgrim journeying ever so slowly toward that unseen yet real promised land.        

Was it Wrong to Support the Iranian Revolution in 1978 (because it turned out badly)

9 Oct

 

 

            I have often reflected upon my own experience of the Iranian Revolution. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War I believed that the United States would face its next major geopolitical challenge in Iran: partly because of its role via CIA in overthrowing the Mohammad Mosaddegh elected constitutional government so as to restore the repressive Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) to power in 1953, partly because there were 45,000 American troops deployed in Iran along with a network of strategic assets associated with Cold War anti-Soviet priorities, partly because there was a generation of young Iranians, many of whom studied abroad, who had experienced torture and abuse at the hands of the SAVAK, Tehran’s feared intelligence service, partly by the intense anti-regime opposition of an alienated middle class in Iran that was angered by the Shah’s reliance on international capital in implementing the ‘White Revolution,’ and partly because the Shah pursued a regionally unpopular pro-Israel and pro-South Africa (during apartheid) policy.  Against this background, and on the basis of my decade long involvement in opposing the American role in Vietnam, I helped form and chaired a small, unfunded committee devoted to promoting human rights and opposing non-intervention in Iran. I was greatly encouraged to do this my several students who were either Iranian or political activists focused on Iran.

 

In this period, while on the Princeton faculty, the committee organized several events on the internal situation in Iran, including criticism of the American role that was dramatized by Jimmy Carter’s 1978 New Year’s Eve toast to the Shah while a guest at the palace, ‘an island of stability surrounded by the love of his people.’  Such absurdly inappropriate sentiments by the most decent of recent American presidents were undoubtedly sincere but bore witness to what is seen and unseen by the best of American leaders when the world is understood according to the protocols of geopolitics. It was Henry Kissinger who more realistically praised the Shah in his memoirs, calling him “the rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally.’ It was this sense of iran’s subordination to the United States that increased the hostility toward the Pahlavi regime across the broad spectrum of Iranian opinion, and explained what was not then understood, why even those sectors of the Iranian establishment who had benefitted most from the Shah’s regime, did not fight for its survival, but rather ran away and hide as quickly as they could.

 

Despite being critical of the established order in Iran, the timing and nature of the Iranian upheaval in 1978 came as a complete surprise.  It also surprised the American ambassador in Iran, William Sullivan, who told me during a meeting in Tehran at the height of the domestic turmoil, that the embassy had worked out 26 scenarios of possible destabilization in Iran and not one had accorded any role to Islamic resistance. As late as August 1978 a CIA analysis concluded that Iran “is not revolutionary or even in a pre-revolutionary situation.” In fact, seeing the world through a blinkered Cold War optic led the U.S. Government to continue funding Islamic groups because of their presumed anti-Communist identity, which was the first major experience of ‘blowback’ to be disastrously repeated in Afghanistan. The unrest in Iran started with a relatively minor incident in early 1978, although some observers point to demonstrations a year earlier, which gradually deepened until it became a revolutionary process engulfing the entire country.  My small committee in the United States tried to interpret these unexpected developments in Iran, inviting informed speakers, sponsoring meetings, and beginning to appreciate the unlikely role being played by Ayatollah Khomeini as an inspirational figure living for many years in exile, first in Iraq, then Paris. It was in this setting that I was invited to visit Iran to witness the unfolding revolutionary process by Mehdi Bazargan who was a moderate and respected early leader in the anti-Shah movement, and was appointed Prime Minister by Khomeini on February 4, 1979 of an interim government of post-Shah Iran. In explaining the appointment, Khomeini foreshadowed an authoritarian turn in the revolutionary process. His chilling words were not sufficiently noticed as the time: “[T]hrough the guardianship [velayat] that I have from the holy lawgiver [the Prophet], I hereby pronounce Bazargan as the Ruler, and since I have appointed him he must be obeyed. The nation must obey him. This is not an ordinary government. It is a government based on the sharia. Opposing the government means opposing the sharia of Islam…Revolt against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is blasphemy.”

 

In January 1979 I went to Iran for two weeks in a small delegation of three persons. My companions on the trip were Ramsey Clark, former American Attorney General who had turned strongly against American foreign policy during the last stages of the Vietnam War and Philip Luce, long-term anti-war activist associated with religious NGOs who had gained worldwide attention a decade earlier when he showed a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation the infamous ‘tiger cages’ used by the Saigon government to imprison inhumanly its enemies in South Vietnam. The three of us embarked on this mission generally sympathetic with the anti-Shah movement, but were uncertain about its real character and likely political trajectory. I had met previously with some of those who would emerge prominently, including Abdulhassan Banisadr Ban who was living as a private citizen in Paris and dreamed of becoming the first president of a post-Shah Iran, an idealistic man who combined a devotion to Islam with a liberal democratic agenda and an Islamic approach to economic policy. His dream was fulfilled but not at all in the manner that he hoped.  He did become the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but his eminence was short lived as the radicalization of the political climate under the guidance of Khomeini led to his impeachment after less than two years, and made it necessary for him to flee the country, returning Paris, now a fugitive of the revolution he had so recently championed. Of course, such a pattern was not novel. Past revolutions had frequently devoured their most dedicated adherents.

Also, I had become a close friend of Mansour Farhang who was a progressive American professor of international relations teaching at a California college and a highly intelligent advocate of the revolutionary developments in Iran as they unfolded in 1978. Farhang was appointed as ambassador to the UN by the new government, but soon resigned his post, and denounced the regime he had worked to install as a new species of ‘religious fascism.’ There were others, also, who inclined me in this period of struggle against the Pahlavi Dynasty to view favorably the revolutionary developments in Iran, but later became bitter opponents.

 

My visit itself took place at a climactic moment in the Iranian Revolution. The Shah left the country on January 17, 1979 while we were in Iran to the disbelief of ordinary Iranians who thought the initial reports were at best a false rumor and at worst a trick to entrap the opposition. When the public began to believe that the unbelievable had actually happened there were spontaneous celebratory outpourings everywhere we were. On that very evening we had a somewhat surrealistic meeting with the recently designated Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar. Bakhtiar was a longtime liberal critic of the monarchy living outside the country who had been appointed a few weeks earlier by the Shah as a desperate democratizing concession aimed at calming the rising revolutionary tide. It was a futile gesture, and one that Khomeini dismissed with the greatest contempt, showing his refusal to consider what at the time struck many as a prudent compromise. Bakhtiar lasted less than two months, left the country, and was assassinated in his home in the outskirts of Paris a decade or so later.

 

While in Iran we had the opportunity to have long meetings with a range of religious figures including Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani and Ayatollah Shariat Maderi, both extraordinary religious figures who impressed us deeply with their combination of principled politics and empathy with the suffering endured by the Iranian people during the prior 25 years. After leaving Iran we stopped in Paris and spent several hours with Ayatollah Khomeini on his last day in France before his triumphal return to Iran. At that point, Khomeini was viewed as ‘the icon’ of the revolution, but was not thought of as its future political leader. Indeed, Khomeini had told us that he looked forward to ‘resuming his religious life’ in Qom when he returned to Iran, and that he had entered the political arena most reluctantly, and only because the Shah’s rule had caused ‘a river of blood’ to flow between the people and the state. There were many intriguing facets of our meeting with this ‘dark genius’ of the Iranian Revolution, which I will leave for another post. My impression of Khomeini was of a highly intelligent, uncompromising, strong willed, and severe individual, himself somewhat unnerved by the unexpected happenings in a country he had not entered for almost 20 years. Khomeini insisted on portraying what had happened in Iran as an ‘Islamic Revolution’; he corrected us if we made any reference to an ‘Iranian Revolution.’ In this respect, this religious leader was obviously disenchanted with nationalism, as well as royalism (he spoke of the Saudi dynasty as deserving the same fate as the Pahlavis), and presumably envisioning the revival of the Islamic caliphate, and its accompanying borderless umma.

 

            I returned from Iran with a sense of excitement about what I had witnessed and experienced, feeling that the country might be giving the world a needed new progressive political model that combined compassion for the people as a whole with a shared spiritual identity. There was no doubt that at the time Khomeini and Islamic identity had mobilized the Iranian masses in a manner that was far more intense and effective than had ever been achieved by various forms of leftist agitation and ideology. Some of those we met in Iran were cautious about what to expect, saying the revolution has unfolded ‘too fast’ for a smooth transition to constitutional governance. Others spoke about counter-revolutionary tendencies, and there were conspiratorial views voiced to the effect that the overthrow of the Shah was engineered by British intelligence, and even that Ayatollah Khomeini was a British agent, or that it was an American response to the Shah’s successful push for higher oil prices within the OPEC framework that was threatening to the West. We were guests in the home of an anti-Shah mathematician in Tehran, a dedicated democrat who told us that his recent reading of Khomeini’s published lectures on Islamic Government had made him extremely fearful about what would happen in post-Shah Iran. Also, some Iranian women we met were worried about threats to the freedoms that enjoyed under the Shah, and were unhappy about the new dress code of the revolution that was already making the wearing of the chador virtually mandatory. Some of those we spoke who had supported the revolution insisted that once a new political order is established, there would be a feminist outcry to the effect ‘we’re next!’ Other secular women told us that they enjoyed wearing the chador because it gave them a welcome relief from spending time on cosmetics and the various ways that modern Western fashion treated women as ‘objects’ designed to awaken erotic desires among men.

 

            Despite encountering these reservations about the Iranian future, I returned from Iran deeply impressed by having touched ‘the live tissue of revolution.’ There was an extraordinary feeling of societal unity and solidarity that seemed to embrace the whole population, at that moment surmounting divisions of class and ethnicity, and even leading those with religious identifications to bond with liberal secular elements. It was a moment of historic mobilization, and although the future was unknowable, the release of positive energy that we experienced was remarkable. It included walking in a peaceful and joyous demonstration of several million in Tehran to celebrate the departure of the Shah and the victory of the revolution. Such an outpouring of love and happiness lent credibility to our hopes that Iran as a liberated society would go forward to produce a humane and distinctive form of governance.

 

            It was not long afterwards, that what had seemed so promising degenerated into a process that was deeply disturbing, a new disposition toward severly abusing opponents and the emergence of a new religiously grounded autocracy that seemed as unscrupulous as its predecessor. Khomeini surfaced as the supreme leader of this kind of harsh regime, acknowledged as such without ever being elected. To be sure, there were violent counter-revolutionary forces at work in Iran, and there were suspicions that the United States was maneuvering behind the scenes to repeat its coup of 1953. There is no doubt that the United States encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in 1980, hoping at least to detach the oil province of Kuzistan from the country, and possibly even toppling the Khomeini government. However, these developments are interpreted, there seemed little likelihood that the values that underlay the courageous campaign against the Shah would ever again achieve the spirit of unity and liberation that we found in Iran during our visit in early 1979.

 

            I had written and spoke publically about my impressions of the revolution that we experienced before it encountered these reactionary troubles. Ever since I have been sharply criticized for my early show of support for Ayatollah Khomeini, and my subsequent misgivings, even active opposition, were ignored. Such a pattern is not unusual, and I might try to give my side of the story at some later point, but now I wish to concentrate on another part of the experience, and talk about the relation between my positive perceptions in phase one and my disillusionment in phase two. I want to raise the question as to whether my enthusiasm in phase one was itself a misguided indulgence in utopian longing that necessarily ends in a reign of terror. Such is the essential thesis of Crane Brinton’s influential Anatomy of Revolution. This view is partially also endorsed by Hannah Arendt’s Revolution with its admiration for the American Revolution because it did not attempt to achieve a social transformation beneficial to the poor and its demonization of the French Revolution because it did insist upon the achievement of a just society, which led in her view to a bloody struggle with the threatened privileged classes and to revolutionary terror.

 

            Such a question was posed for me with stark vividness when I read recently the brilliantly provocative essay of Slavoj Zizek entitled “Radical Intellectuals, or, Why Heidegger Took the Right Step (Albeit in the Wrong Direction),” and especially the short section, ‘Michel Foucault and the Iranian Event,’ published in his breathtaking book, In Defense of Lost Causes. Zizek’s basic support for greeting such historically charismatic events with approval is based on the idea that the faith in liberating the moral potential of human society is the only alternative to being complicit in the exploitation and demeaning of the multitudes and passive in the face of pervasive structural injustice.  Zizek makes an important distinction between Heidegger’s temporary embrace of Nazism and Foucault’s of the Iranian Revolution, although he takes note of the similarities, especially the attractive quality of the transcendent moment of collective unity and its associated visionary embrace of a just future for the entire people. He seeks to distinguish the appropriateness of the enthusiasm and longing, and the actual deformity of the events.

 

In this assessment, Zizek sides with the outlook of the French philosopher Alain Badiou and the Irish playwright Samuel Becket: “Better a disaster of fidelity to the Event than a non-being of indifference toward the Event..one can go on and fail better, while indifference drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbelcilic Being.”  Of course, it is a radical claim to insist that the deformed societal structures faces us with such a stark choice between revolution and complicity via indifference. Such a view rejects reformism and liberal perspectives because of their acceptance of the structures in place, and rejection of more radical challenges on behalf of justice.

 

Rethinking after more than 30 years my own sequence of enthusiasm, disillusionment, and opposition I am assisted by Zizek’s disquisition although I would not pose the issues of choice so starkly. What seems to me important is to side with the revolutionary impulse, although I am not sure that our historical experience gives us any confidence that revolutionaries are learning to ‘fail better’ although they are definitely learning to ‘fail differently’ (for instance, compare the Arab Spring with the Iranian Revolution) (or Mao’s cultural revolution with the Soviet experience with Stalinism).

 

Was it a mistake of perception, a radical form of wishful thinking, to underestimate or fail earlier to apprehend the negative potentialities of the Iranian Revolution when I visited the country in late 1978, and again in early 1980 in the aftermath of the hostage crisis? Or was it correct to give voice to the positive potentialities that seemed to surface so compellingly during those moments of collective excitement and unity, as well as were expressed by most of those with whom I spoke during the 1979 visit to various Iranian cities? Is Zizek and Badiou correct to separate so sharply the revolutionary vision from its actual dismal human results, or is this an incriminating instance of the irresponsibility of radical thought that has an infantile appreciation of revolutionary ideals while ignoring the conservative wisdom of serious conservative thought that warns us about the demonic outcomes every effort to ditch abruptly existing institutions and class relations? Are we as a species destined to see our dreams of a just and sustainable future always shattered by the deforming effects of struggles for and against new arrangements of governing authority and class relations? Are we condemned, in other words, to banish our dreams from the domain of responsible politics and confine our efforts to marginal reformist initiatives?

 

            Posing such questions is easier than resolving them. I am inclined to think that my response to what took place in Iran was authentic at its various phases, reflecting my best understanding of the unfolding circumstances, adjusting my evaluations phase by phase. I prefer such a view, even in retrospect, to indifference to the Shah’s oppressive regime, while realizing that drastic change, especially in a country endowed with abundant oil reserves, is almost certain to be a rocky road. Should I have been immediately more suspicious of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic dimensions of the revolution? Probably, but it was not clear at the time, because the leading religious figures in Iran were articulating a vision of a just future for Iran even if  the future made it clear that their preference was for some kind of theocracy. It should also be pointed out that some religious leaders did seem to envision a humane sequel to the Shah’s Iran that would be inclusive, humane, and sensitive to the human rights of all Iranians, but their voices did not prevail.

 

            I continue to believe that despite the dangers of visionary politics, it is the only hope we have as a species of creating a sustainable and just future for humanity.  In ending I should be clear that I have consistently supported reformist efforts in Iran over the years since the ouster of Banisadr and others, including the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and the more recent Green Revolution. As with the days of the Shah, Iran urgently requires an emancipatory politics that liberates from within, and regenerates the hopes of the Iranian people. What Iran does not need is an Israeli-American military strike or destabilization moves funded and promoted from without. Intervention by way of military attack, or even in the form of strong economic sanctions (as present), stabilize the regime in Tehran and impose added hardships on the Iranian people. As I have argued in the past the best and only acceptable way to address the questions of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is through establishing a nuclear weapons free zone that includes Israel. To avoid even the discussion of such an option illuminates the strategic submission of American foreign policy to Israeli governmental priorities even in cases such as this where the Israeli public is split and the response to an attack, if it happens, is likely to inflict severe harm on Israel, as well as to risk transforming the entire region into a war zone.

Reviving My Blog After China

27 Sep

 

 

            After three weeks in China I have returned to the United States  yesterday before departing for Turkey and Rhodes later today. I mention this to explain my failure to post during this period or to comment or monitor comments on the blog. This failure was not due to a lack of access to the Internet or even finding time during a busy travel schedule. It was due to my lack of skill in circumventing what is known as ‘The Great Firewall of China’ that blocks entry to most blogs, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, as well as assorted other sites. Sophisticated Chinese know how to circumvent, and the authorities do not seem to mind, as the blockade is apparently intended to limit access on the part of ordinary Chinese. This is true of the Chinese media generally, which is highly regulated, especially TV, giving only officialviews, although the English language dailies, which are quite informative aremore objective, and do not read as propaganda.

 

            While in China the media was dominated by the intense Chinese reaction to the Japanese government decision to purchase the Daioyu Islands (called Senkaku Islands by Japan) from private Japanese owners, which was interpreted as a provocative step toward implementing Japanese disputed sovereignty claims. There were sustained, sometimes violent, demonstrations against the Japanese move in all major Chinese cities, interpreted by residents as events largely orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party. At the same time there is an undercurrent of anti-Japanese resentment that is genuine, activating memories from the era of Japanese imperialism, which inflicted many harsh abuses on China. There seemed to occur anti-Japanese spontaneous acts throughout China in recent days that probably exceeded what the authorities in Beijing wanted, including attacks of Japanesecars, restaurants, and boycotts of products. Some Japanese business establishments flew Chinese flags or posted notices to show that they supported the Chinese position with respect to the islands. It is generally in believed that neither government wants the dispute to escalate further as it could severely harm, if it has not already done so, the extensive trade and investment relations between the two countries. It was a widely shared opinion that while the government took the lead in promoting the popular demonstrations, it might experience difficulty in containing this genie of anti-Japanese sentiment once in gained its freedom. Similarly, in Japan, nationalist sentiments in internal politics will complicate any diplomatic retreat by Tokyo.

 

            This was my third visit to China. The first in 1972 involved a delicate mission to escort three American pilots, shot down in the Vietnam War, from their prison cells in Hanoi to the United States. The pilots had been prisoners of war for varying lengths of time, and were released into my custody along with other ‘representatives of the American peace movement,’ William Sloan Coffin, Cora Weiss, and David Dellinger, on condition that they return to territorial United States in our custody. There was an express understanding that nay future prisoner release would be influenced by whether we could uphold this condition, which we took seriously. After their release, we spent another week in what was then North Vietnam, especially visiting various cities and villages that had experienced serious bomb damage. I was struck by the astonishing lack of bitterness on the Vietnamese side considering their extreme vulnerability to these high tech attacks. There was political sensitivity on all sides: the pilots were concerned that they might be denounced, or even prosecuted, as collaborators, the U.S. Government was worried at a time close to the presidential elections that these pilots could influentially criticize the war policies, China was concerned at a time shortly before the Nixon-Kissinger visit that Washington might cancel or defer this historic diplomatic breakthrough, and we were worried that we might be in trouble for engaging in ‘private diplomacy’ prohibited by an old and unused law. Actually none of these concerns materialized, but our ten days or so in China were very circumscribed partly because the authorities did not want to publicize their facilitative role, and it was the last throes of the Cultural Revolution, which was evident in the city of Wuhan where we were confined for a week while the remainder of the logistics of the trip were worked out. After a long journey via Beijing, Moscow, and Copenhagen we did manage to get these pilots back to Kennedy Airport in NYC where before deplaning they were, in effect, rearrested, this time by the U.S. Government, to avoid media contact under the pretext of the need for a ‘medical debriefing.’ Among those who boarded the plane was a Pentagon official who had studied at Princeton, and made a point of apologizing to me for this harsh welcome being given to these young Americans who had endured being shot down, Vietnamese imprisonment, and the uncertainties that awaited them at home. 

 

            My second visit in 1987 was comparatively low profile so far as media attention was concerned . I gave a few lectures in Beijing and Shanghai as part of an exchange program with Princeton, and my Chinese hosts arranged three weeks of travel throughout the country, which included a trip along the Yangtze River including the Three Gorges segment prior to the construction of major dams, Chunking, and Tibet; I did meet with the Deputy Foreign Minister of China who told me that if United States wanted positive relations with China it should show support for the remnants of the Khmer Rouge (in Cambodia) and stop encouraging resistance to the sovereign Chinese presence in Tibet. As a strong critic of the genocidal behavior of the Khmer Rouge and a supporter of Tibetan self-determination, I was somewhat surprised that a high Chinese official was naïve enough to suppose that I was a suitable conduit for such an unwelcome diplomatic communication. More satisfactory, by far, was a meeting of China’s Vietnam experts in Beijing that had been organized at my request. I had heard the Vietnamese side of the story as to why relations between the two supposed allies had so badly deteriorated after the American departure in 1975, and wanted to get a sense of how the Chinese portrayed the relationship. In essence, the Vietnamese claimed that China wanted the war to go on until ‘the last Vietnamese’ while the Chinese generally faulted Vietnam for being ‘ungrateful’ for extensive assistance at a time of economic hardship in China. While in China I was accompanied at all times by a Chinese ‘interpreter’ who monitored my agenda and became a friend; during our river travels he asked that I give him a daily lecture on international relations, which I gladly did; he later took a bold step and allowed us to meet some young fiction writers in Shanghai, departing from the approved agenda, which at that time, took a measure of personal courage. In China there was a sense of relief that the Cultural Revolution was over, and repudiated. There were few signs of the historic move to modernization, or receptivity to foreign capital, which were destined to revolutionize China in the following decades. Traffic in the big cities was almost exclusively by bicycle, with a few government cars and occasional taxis. I remember being in a taxi in Shanghai that had stopped at an intersection when it was struck by a cyclist who had fallen asleep. The taxi was immediately surrounded by an angry crowd, which dissipated only when it became clear that the accident was entirely the fault of the man on the bicycle.

 

            On this third trip China had become a different country!  The ‘New China’ had many extraordinary features, including the darks sides of rapid modernization—terrible pollution and traffic gridlock. On Nanjing Road in Shanghai, a shopping thoroughfare closed to cars, there were huge Western stores, including an Apple mega-store and many world class luxury shops. It was notable that many of these stores were rather empty, although the street outside was jammed with pedestrians. Modern China is an enigma in many ways. It still almost impossible for a foreigner to get along unless fluent in the language, and even difficult to do such routine things as go to a well known hotel or train station without a native speaker and guide. We had great difficulties going from the Shanghai train station where the fast train arrived and a large Marriot hotel in the city center. Many taxis refuse to take foreigners, and it takes great perseverance to find someone, usually a person under 25, who speaks some English. The fast train, traveling at speeds in excess of 185 mph, was comfortable, on time, an excellent way to get from Beijing to Stanghai, and a grim reminder that the U.S. enslaved to the auto industry, is a backward country when it comes to public transportation.

 

            There is much that could be said about this visit to China. I will write a separate post about a workshop and public meeting at Peking University and a quite extraordinary conference on religious traditions in China that took place in Dengfeng, China’s ancient capital and a UNESCO cultural heritage site since 2010.  At this point I will limit myself to a few reflections: there is taking place a serious effort to blend traditional Chinese culture and thought with the new China; few expect any change for the better politically within China over the course of the next ten years; there is great appreciation of American higher education and no hostility toward the United States (the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, visited a few days ago and was greeted as a valued friend by Chinese leaders, who spoke of greater cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries), not much interest in the world outside of East Asia (although American popular culture is a definite exception, divided attitudes on the part of Chinese intellectuals toward Mao who remains the face of modern China (e.g. a massive portrait at the entry to the Forbidden City), blamed for the mistakes of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s but appreciated as the dominant revolutionary leader; a sense that there is a widening sphere of freedom of thought so long as the red lines of anti-state activism are not crossed, particularly in organized fashion; some realization that the rapid growth of recent years is unlikely to continue due to a mixture of internal and global reasons, especially rising labor costs and insufficient consumer demand; and a seeming rising dissatisfaction with the one-child policy.

 

            Despite all the qualifications and criticisms, what China has achieved for its people, and in a sense for the world, is remarkable, unsurpassed in human history. I remember attending an off-the-record briefing by the lead journalists (I recall Dan Rather, Eric Severeid, but there were others)who had accompanied Nixon to China in 1972 that was held for invited guests at the Plaza Hotel in NYC. I was seated at a table with several presidents of American airline companies who seemed as astonished as I was by what we were told.  The journalists formed a panel and took questions, and I remember, especially, the words of Severeid, which I paraphrase from memory: “We were scared to tell the American people how impressed we were by what we saw and experienced in China. We came away with the belief that China possessed a superior civilization.” Of course, China had been off limits to Westerners since the Communists took over in 1949, and American Cold War propaganda had been intense during the period of the Vietnam War. It is odd in light of later developments, including the war between China and Vietnam in the 1970s, that the U.S. Government believed that North Vietnam was essentially an extension of China, referring to the Vietnamese in official documents at the time as ‘ChiComs.’ So much for the great political understanding of the Washington cable-reading intelligence community!    

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.   

On Human Identity

26 Jun


 

            Early in my blog life I wrote about Jewish identity. It was partly an exercise in self-discovery, and partly a response to those who alleged that I was a self-hating Jew, or worse, an anti-Semite. These attacks on my characterwere hurtful even as I felt their distance from my actual beliefs and worldview. In my mind and heart criticisms of Israel and support for the Palestinian struggle for their rights under international law and in accord with fundamental ideas of justice had to do with taking suffering seriously,which for me is the most solid foundation of human identity.

            It is my conviction that in a globalized world human identity should serve as the moral trump card in relation to conflict situations. Of course, the optic of human identity can produce a variety of interpretations of a particular situation, and is not meant to eclipse other experienced identities. The Holocaust was a most horrifying instance of what the great Catholic monk, mystic, and writer, Thomas Merton, called the unspeakable. The memories of victimization can never function as a moral excuse for the victimization of another. Tragically, the unfolding of Israel’s quest for security and prosperity beneath the banner of Zionism has generated a narrative of severe Palestinian suffering taking multiple forms, ranging from the prolonged and acute vulnerability of statelessness and rightslessness to the humiliations of living decade after decade under harsh military rule in an increasingly apartheid setting.

 

            But our wider concern beyond the specifics of any given situation should also encompass the future of humanity. So long as ethnic, religious, and nationalist identities are given precedence in a world of inequality and critical scarcities of water, energy, food, and health, there will be oppression and widespread abuse. For the modern world the identity of the part, whether state, religion, or ethnicity, has consistently prevailed over the identity of the whole, whether that whole is understood to be humanity or world. As a result, globally reasonable policies to control global warming or world poverty or the instability of financial markets seem unattainable. Primacy accorded to the national interest continues to obstruct the fulfillment of the human interest.

 

            In earlier periods of history this kind of dispersal of authority was sustainable, although often cruel in maintaining hierarchies as during the colonial period and in relation to the annihilation of many indigenous peoples whose pre-modern wisdom has much to teach us about survival in the emergent post-modern world of scarcities and limits.

 

            At the same time, a plural world order allowed for diversities that were consistent with the variety of religions, civilizations, cultural traditions, and worldviews. Warfare and exploitation made such a world order morally deficient, but so were the envisioned alternatives associated with a global state or world government. A potential tyranny of the whole seemed to most of us worse than the anarchic failures arising in a world of sovereign states.

 

            Increasingly, conflict patterns based on the technologies of oppression and resistance are illustrating the menacing realities of a borderless world. Drones ignore borders. Cyber warfare is heedless of space. We cannot go on in  this manner much longer without bloodying our heads against the stone walls of history. We are living as a species on borrowed time. It is not the occasion for panic, but it is a time to recalibrate our relations with one another, with nature, with past and future, with this inevitable and mostly invisible transition of mentalities underway– from the enclosures and openings of a spatially oriented world of borders to the before and after of a temporally shaped world now and in the future beset by scarcities and limits.

 

            In such a global circumstance, human identity is not so much a choice as a destiny thrust upon us. It can produce a spectrum of responses. The tendency is to strengthen border controls, increase surveillance, indulge in blame games, and build high, electrified walls, making sovereign territory resemble at its best ‘a gated community’ of gargantuan proportions or at its worst ‘a maximum security prison.’ In this sense, the captivity of Gaza prefigures one kind of regressive future that resists the imperatives of a world of limits, seeking to lull us in the belief that we can remain safe in a world of borders.

 

            And so my orientation is in support of those who struggle against the odds, and for freedom, and it is in solidarity with those who believe that empathy and compassion bring greater security than guns and guard dogs. For me this means a celebration of human identity, and a citizenship that is derived primarily not from the blessings of a state or the sense of national belonging, but from the feeling that life is a journey toward a just and humane future, a pilgrimage endowed with spiritual significance throughout its unfolding. It is an engagement with impossible possibilities for the future, dreams and dramas of human fulfillment, and the person who fully endorses such a journey and the human identity that accompanies it is what I choose to call, and aspire to be:  ‘a citizen pilgrim.’

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