Archive | Human Rights RSS feed for this section

Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism

9 Nov

[Prefatory Note: This post consists of my written text for a public presentation on the theme of “Edward Said’s Humanism and the Rejection of the State Department’s Definition of Anti-Semitism” at a conference at Fresno State University, Nov. 6, 2015 bearing the title “Universities at the Crossroads: The Assault on Academic Freedom,” which was the last event of the “Edward Said Lecture Series” organized by Professor Vida Samiian of the Department of Linguistics at FSU. My talk as given departed considerably from this text.]


Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism 

In these remarks, I will present the following analysis: (1) the most ardent Zionist forces have longed tried to conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with hatred of Jews, the traditional understanding of anti-Semitism, but this effort has intensified recently, and even has been endorsed by the US Government and is currently under consideration by the University of California and elsewhere; (2) examine the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the U.S. State Department, and discuss briefly why it has pernicious implications for academic freedom, and indeed even for an understanding of the genuine nature of anti-Semitism; (3) show why Edward Said despite his intense opposition to anti-Semitism would nevertheless be vulnerable to allegations of being an anti-Semite if the State Department definition were to be applied to his writings and activities; (4) and finally to point out that according to the imperatives most influentially expressed by Noam Chomsky and Said, the ‘responsibility of the intellectual’ would perversely require them to be ‘anti-Semitic’ according to this pernicious wider conception.



My personal experience with this theme of anti-Semitism and Israel can be summarized by recalling two different occasions: The first was in Greek Cyprus more than a decade ago at a meeting of the Inter-Action Council (composed of ex-heads of states) devoted to conflict resolution in the Middle East. I had been invited as a resource person. At a session devoted to Israel/Palestine the Israeli ambassador to Greece spoke at some length, insisting that it was anti-Semitic to express strong criticisms of Israel and Zionism. As the only other Jew at the table I felt it to be almost a duty to clarify what I believed to be a mischievous manipulation of ideas. In my intervention I explained that Zionism was a project or ideology, Israel was a state, and that Jews were a people or persons. I attempted to explain that to disagree with Zionism or to criticize Israeli policies and practices as a state was not at all anti-Semitic, but to exhibit hostility, hatred, and discrimination against Jews as a people or as individuals was indeed anti-Semitism. Recall that Hitler did not persecute Jews for being Zionists, but for being Jews, for partaking of a race or ethnicity. After the meeting recessed, several participants thanked me for my comments, indicating that only a Jew could offer this kind of clarification, which they found persuasive. In contrast, the Israeli ambassador and his NGO sidekick came to me to complain vigorously, insisting that Zionism had become synonymous with Jewish identity through the establishment of Israel as a state of the Jewish people, making the three ideas interchangeable. In effect, their separation was now deemed deeply hostile to the Jewish experience, and was properly viewed as ‘anti-Semitism’; I walked away unconvinced, yet disturbed by the encounter.


This trivial incident still seems relevant as it illustrates what I believe has been an effective effort by unconditional Israel supporters to stifle criticism of Israel by inappropriately playing such an anti-Semitic card. It is inappropriate as it merges what might be called genuine hate speech with an attempt to intimidate freedom of expression in a domain where it seems needed, that is, in justifiable questioning of Israel’s state behavior and the colonial nature of the Zionist project as it is playing out in the 21st century. It is a doubly unfortunate and dangerous tactic as it tends to weaken and confuse opposition to real anti-Semitism by this misleading linkage of a contentious political argument with a condemnation of racism.


My second experience was to receive an email a couple of years ago informing me that the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a non-governmental organization devoted to unconditional support of Israel, had issued its annual list of the ten most dangerous anti-Semites in the world, and that I was listed as third. I found it quite astounding, especially after discovering that #1 was the Supreme Guide of Iran and #2 was the then Prime Minister of Turkey. Others on the list included such notable authors as Alice Walker and Max Blumenthal. It was obvious that I was placed on the list as a consequence of my role as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine in the period between 2008 and 2014. In the fulfillment of this role, I had indeed written very critically from the perspective of human rights and international law about the manner in which Israel was administering the occupation, which involved elements of annexation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. But nothing in my reports directly or indirectly exhibited hatred or hostility toward the Jewish people or toward Jews as Jews. My prominence on the Wiesenthal list at first troubled me deeply, fearing that it would damage my credibility as well as be a painful and unjustified attack on my identity that would be humiliating and probably ineffective to oppose. I never overcame these feelings, but they became somewhat balanced by my realization that highlighting my name in this way could only be explained by the degree to which my UN reports were exerting some influence on the way in which the Israel-Palestine conflict was being more generally perceived, especially within UN circles. I continue to feel a certain pride in bearing witness as best I could to the realities under law of Israel’s occupation policies, and the extent to which prolonged Palestinian suffering has been the result.


These personal experiences relate to the current debate nationally, internationally, and here in California. The essential argument is that Jews in Europe feel threatened by what they describe as a new wave of anti-Semitism, which is deliberately linked to the rise of anti-Israeli activism, and was dramatized by several recent terrorist incidents, especially the 2014 attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The European migration crisis is undoubtedly giving rise in Europe to a strengthening of the political right extreme, including its neo-Nazi fringe that does express real anti-Semitic hatred, but it is far less virulent in its racism toward Jews than toward Muslims. One problem with this focus on anti-Semitism is to treat Jews as accorded extra protection while at the same time immunizing hostility to Islam by reference to freedom of expression. There is no doubt that Charlie Hebdo, while victimized for its opinions, was disseminating toward Muslims the kind of hate images and messages that if directed at Jews would be regarded by almost everyone as anti-Semitism, including myself.


It is somewhat understandable that Europe would be sensitive to any return of anti-Semitism, given that it was both the scene of the Holocaust, the historic center of anti-Semitism, and in many ways provided the historic vindication of the Zionist movement. We should not forget that the international validation of the Zionist quest for a Jewish homeland received its first formal encouragement in the notoriously colonialist letter written by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, in 1917. As well, during the 1930s, prior to Hitler’s adoption of the Final Solution, the preferred solution of the so-called Jewish Problem in Europe was mounting widespread pressure on Jews to emigrate to Palestine or even to face forced expulsion, and this was not solely a consequence of Nazi policies. Timothy Snyder in his important recent book, Black Death, documents the extent to which Polish anti-Semitic political leaders collaborated with Zionist leaders, including even providing military training and weapons that developed the Zionist militias that laterchallenged the British mandatory presence in Palestine and then successfully waged a war of independence. In effect, many European anti-Semites, who were prominent throughout the continent, shared with the Zionist leadership the belief that the way to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ was to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and in keeping with the prevailing colonial mentality gave little thought to the impact of such a development on the indigenous Arab population of Palestine.


The contemporary American argument and debate has less historical baggage compared to Europe and is more subtle, mainly focused on campus activity and is a reflection to some extent of the U.S. government’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel. It is evident that Israeli officials definitely project the view that hostility to Israel or Zionism is indistinguishable from what the State Department calls ‘traditional anti-Semitism,’ that is, hatred or persecution of Jews because of their ethnicity. What is most troublesome in the State Department approach is its incorporation of what it calls ‘new anti-Semitism,’ which “manifests itself in the guise of opposition to Zionism and the existence and/or policies of the state of Israel.” [Contemporary Anti-Semitism: A Report Provided to the U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of State, n.d.; See also fact sheet of U.S. Dept of State, June 8, 2010, on defining anti-Semitism] This “ anti-Semitism, characterized by anti-Zionist and anti-Israel criticism that is anti-Semitic in effect—whether or not in intent- [and] is more subtle and thus frequently escapes condemnation.” As many of you know the Board of Regents of the University of California is currently considering whether to adopt such a conception of anti-Semitism as official university policy. The principal arguments advanced in its favor are that pro-Palestinian student activism, especially around calls for boycotts and divestments, are making Jewish students feel uncomfortable, even under threat, with the further implication that such insecurity should not be present in any academic community. This rationale skirts the issue that the BDS campaign has been gaining significant traction in recent years, and this effort to brand the activist dimension of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle as anti-Semitic is motivated by a major multi-pronged Israeli effort to weaken BDS by having those who support such an unacceptable campaign as guilty of ‘anti-Semitism.’


Such developments go back to my experience in Cyprus, and reflect this determined effort to meet the rise of Palestinian solidarity efforts with its suppression being justified as opposition to the new anti-Semitism. [See also to the same effect, Michael Oren’s Ally that depict Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. making an effort to render unacceptable any public utterance of criticism of Israel] Note the features of this negative branding: only the sensitivities of Jews are singled out despite the far greater discomfort confronting Muslim minority students and others on campuses and throughout America; the initiative is overtly designed to weaken popular support for a just and sustainable peace in Palestine given the collapse of diplomatic efforts to produce the two-state solution; the BDS campaign is being challenged in ways that never occurred during earlier comparable campaigns, especially in the American civil rights movement and the BDS movement contra South African apartheid, both of which relied on boycott and divestment tactics. Part of the context that is rarely mentioned in debating the scope of anti-Semitism is the degree to which this surge of pro-Palestinian nonviolent militancy is in reaction to two developments: Israel’s reliance on excessive force, collective punishment, and persistence with such unlawful activities as settlement expansion and the completion of the separation wall.


It is in this atmosphere of endowing anti-Semitic smearing with respectability that outrages to academic freedom such as the revocation of a tenure contract issued to Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois was revoked because of some allegedly anti-Semitic tweets written during Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza that would make his students uncomfortable. In fact, Salaita possesses an outstanding performance record in the classroom, his teaching is greatly appreciated by his students, including those who were Jewish and pro-Israeli. Undoubtedly more serious than high profile cases are the invisible effects of this inflammatory and aggressive use of anti-Semitism, exhibited by the reluctance to hire or promote individuals who have engaged in Palestinian solidarity activity or even to invite speakers that would be attacked as bringing an anti-Semite onto campus. Again my experience is relevant. During the six years that I held the UN position, everywhere I went to speak, including at my former university, Princeton, or in foreign settings as remote as Beirut or Sydney, Australia concerted campaigns were conducted by Zionist groups to persuade university administration to cancel my lectures. The claim being made was that I should not be allowed to speak because I was a notorious anti-Semite. These efforts were backed up by threats to withhold contributions to the university if the event went ahead as scheduled. These efforts failed, and my talks went given without incident, but what the campaign did accomplish was to shift media and audience attention from the substance of my presentation to the utterly false issue of whether or not I was an anti-Semite, which of course, required me to deal with accusations that were hurtful as well as false.




It is against this background that I wanted to mention Edward Said’s humanism, which in the context of this State Department approach, would clearly qualify as an unacceptable, if disguised, form of the ‘new anti-Semitism.’ As many of you know Edward Said was the most passionate and influential voice of the Palestinian people, and indeed of people worldwide seeking liberation. His books, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism continue to be read all over the world more than a decade after his death. I was privileged to have Edward Sasid as a close and cherished friend who over the years nurtured my interest in and engagement with the Israel/Palestine conflict, and whose remarkable life remains an inspiration to many of us. His views are peculiarly relevant to the theme chosen for my remarks as he was both a fierce opponent of the old anti-Semitism and an exemplary exponent of the new anti-Semitism, which as I am mainly arguing should not be considered anti-Semitism at all, and these attempts to discredit criticisms of Israel and Zionism should themselves be discredited, especially in view of recent behavior.


As his colleague and close friend at Columbia University, Akeel Bilgrami, an Indian professor of comparative literature observed, Said “..despised anti-Semitism as much anyone I know.” [Kilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2014) Humanism was the only –ism with which Said was comfortable. His circle of identification embraced the human species, although rooted in the particularity of his Palestinian background. His academic training, publications, and career were situated firmly in literature until awakened by the 1967 Six Day War to take up the Palestinian struggle in a dedicated manner for the rest of his life.


Said’s writing on Palestine was always informed by fact and shaped by his deep grasp of history and culture, initially in his important The Question of Palestine. What is striking about Said’s approach, despite his anger about the refusal of the world to appreciate and correct the terrible injustices done to the Palestinian people in the course of establishing the Israeli state, is his steadfast appreciation that Zionism did what it did beneath the shadow of Nazi persecution, especially culminating in the Holocaust. In other words, his sense of the conflict with Israel is conceived in inclusive terms as pertaining to Jews as well as Palestinians. In his words, “I have spent a great deal of my life during the past thirty-five years advocating the rights of the Palestinian people to national self-determination, but I have always tried to do that with full attention to the reality of the Jewish people, and what they suffered by way persecution and genocide.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) He never endorsed a solution to the struggle that was not sensitive to both Palestinians and Jews, and in a sense his approach embodied a principled rejection of the Israeli claim that the Palestinians were intent on pushing the Jews into the sea.


While insisting that Jews must never experience in Israel the sort of dispossession inflicted upon the Palestinian people by the Zionist project, Said was unrelenting in linking a sustainable peace to acknowledging the justices of the past. As he expressed it Ari Shavit in one of his last interviews, “[U]ntil the time comes when Israel assumes moral responsibility for what it has done to the Palestinian people, there can be no end to the conflict.” He goes on to add, “[W]hat is needed is a ‘bill of particulars’ of all our claims against Israel for the original dispossession and for the occupation that began in 1967[Power Politic, 446] In effect, the injustices of the past can be superseded but only if they are acknowledged in an appropriate format with due solemnity. On at least one occasion Said seems to suggest a truth and reconciliation process modeled on what was done in South Africa after the fall of apartheid.


Said central contribution of developing a critique of West-centric views of the Arab world are most influentially set forth in Orientalism, one of the most widely studied and seminal books of the past century. Among many other facets of the analysis in the book it led Said to offer this surprising convergence: “Not accidentally, I indicate that Orientalism and modern anti-Semitism have common roots.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) This convergence is explained by the dual effort to achieve “a better understanding of the way cultural domination have operated.” (Orientalism 27).


At the same time, Said felt that Zionist exclusivism sought to keep the issue as one of what Jews had endured in the Holocaust as a sufficient vindication of Zionism and the creation of Israel, with the adverse effects on the Palestinians as self-inflicted or irrelevant to this hegemonic Israeli narrative. Said writes that “..all liberals and even most ‘radicals’ have been unable to overcome the Zionist habit of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.” [Question, 59] Long before the present debate he believed that such an informal tactic prevented truthful conversation as non-Jews were inhibited by “..the fear of treading upon the highly sensitive terrain of what Jews did to their victims, in an age of genocidal extermination of Jews—all this contributes to the dulling, regulated enforcement of almost unanimous support for Israel.” [59] Writing in the late 1970s Said felt that criticism of Israel was often insensitive to the background of its establishment as a last bastion of defense for the Jewish people after the ordeal of the Holocaust.


Almost 40 years later the context has altered, but not the effect of treating anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. Because of the failure to establish some kind of solution, and given Israeli defiance of international law through the settlements, separation wall, reliance on excessive force and collective punishment, the issue has captured the imagination of many people around the world, especially students, to become the leading unresolved moral struggle of our time, a successor to the South African struggle against apartheid a generation earlier, as acknowledged by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Now the government itself intrudes its influence on American society to make sure that the extended definition of anti-Semitism as incorporating strong criticism of Israel and Zionism is treated as hate speech. This is not only threatening freedom of expression and academic freedom, it is undermining the capacity of American citizens to fight nonviolently for what they believe is right in the world. When the government adopts punitive measures to discourage the BDS campaign or even academic conferences addressing the conflict, it is behaving in a profoundly anti-democratic manner. Such behavior follows directly from the understanding given to the ‘special relationship’ binding Israel to the United States in a manner that often contradicts proclaimed national values and even national interests. Our Secretary of State, John Kerry, boasts of the hundreds of occasions where the U.S. has blocked votes critical of Israel within the UN without even bothering to consider whether any of such initiatives were justified or not.  










Let me finally raise the questions as to why this debate about what is and what is not anti-Semitism relates to the responsibility of the intellectual as understood, especially by Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. In his 2003 Preface to Orientalism Said writes these telling words: “Above all, critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or anther approved enemy.” [XXII] Frequently, Said reinforces the role of the intellectual to remain on the margins, an outsider, whose only weapon is bearing witness and truth-telling, a role authenticated by the absence of any claim to have expert knowledge, more a standing in solidarity with those being victimized by oppression and injustice, a normative posture that rests on moral and legal foundations of respect for the value of all persons and peoples. Said’s succinct expression is memorable. He characterizes the public intellectual “as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak truth to power.” [Representations, XVI]


The irony of this orientation of the intellectual is that it collides directly with the State Department conception of the new anti-Semitism. In other words, to avoid the blanket charge of anti-Semitism as now officially defined Said would have to renounce his chosen identity as a public intellectual. This would weaken the quality of academic freedom as well as undermine public discourse. No resource of higher education is more precious, in my judgment, than the presence of those all to few public intellectuals who challenge the prevailing wisdom of the society on the basis of conscience and truthfulness. It is the foundation of vigilant citizenship, already recognized by Thomas Jefferson as indispensable for sustaining democracy, and it is also the basis for challenging vested interests and mistaken policies. This role of public intellectuals is threatened by this assault on freedom of expression wrapped up in a false effort to discourage anti-Semitism, and it relates to such broader concerns as the stifling of political discourse due to the corporatization of the media and higher education.


On no issue is this unfettered dialogue more needed in the United States than in relation to Israel/Palestine. As Michael Oren showed in his memoir Ally the special relationship bonding Israel and the United States implies the absence of any public acknowledgement of policy disagreements and a policy of unconditional support. Israel did its bit to uphold its end of this unseemly bargain recently by being the only country of 194 in the UN that supported the United States determination to maintain sanctions on Cuba despite the Obama renewal of diplomatic relations. After all American taxpayers have long sent annually billions of dollars to Israel, as well as a range of weapons and munitions. They are entitled to know if this money is being spent in a manner that accords with international law and American national interests. The overriding of Israel’s objections to the Iran Nuclear Agreement illustrated the extent to which Israel can challenge vital policy

initiatives undertaken by the elected leaders of the American government.


Never have we more needed to protect and celebrate our public intellectuals, and never more so than in the context of Israel/Palestine. For this reason we

should be celebrating the legacy of Edward Said, a world famous public intellectual, and the person, who more than anyone on the planet fulfilled the role of responsible public intellectual. Instead of defending him against these incendiary charges of anti-Semitism we should be honoring his memory by studying his ideas and enacting the values of resistance and struggle that he commends in the face of injustice.




In concluding, there is an obvious tension that exists more vividly than when Edward Said was alive, and commenting on the Palestinian struggle. Israel has created on the ground a set of circumstances that seem irreversible and are institutionalizing a single apartheid Israeli state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine (minus Jordan). The Israeli leadership has made clear the inappropriateness of establishing a Palestinian state, and given the insistence on making even the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as ‘a Jewish state,’ the dye seems cast. At the same time, the international Palestinian solidarity movement has never been stronger, with the BDS campaign leading the way, moving from success to success. And so as ‘the battlefield’ has shifted to a legitimacy war that the Palestinians are winning, the Israeli tactics have retaliated with an all out effort to demonize as anti-Semitism these new forms of non-violent resistance. This is the essential objective of the new anti-Semitism, and it is scandalous the U.S. State Department has endorsed such demonization with its newly adopted formal definition of anti-Semitism. To defeat this effort is essential not only for the Palestinian struggle, but to keep America safe for democratic discourse and universities hospitable to the kind of critical thinking that Edward Said’s scholarship and activism exemplified.


Saudi Arabia, Royal Impunity, and the Quicksand of Special Relationships

20 Oct

(Prefatory Note: This post is a substantially revised version of an opinion piece published online by Middle East Eye on October 6, 2015; it challenges the geopolitics of impunity from both principled and pragmatic perspectives, and also casts doubts on ‘special relationships’ that the United States has established in the Middle East with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Finally, an effort is made to suggest that there is an alternative based essentially on the practical wisdom in the 21st century of upholding and strengthening the global rule of law.)


Saudi Arabia enjoys a spectacular level of impunity from international accountability. This is not only because it a powerful monarchy or has the world’s richest and largest royal family with influence spread far and wide. And it is not even just about oil, although having a quarter of the world’s pre-fracking energy reserves still engenders utmost deference from those many modern economies that will depend on Gulf oil and gas for as long as this precious black stuff lasts. The Saudi comfort zone is also sustained by its special relationship with the United States that provides geopolitical backing of great benefit.


This refusal to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for upholding law and morality raised mainstream eyebrows that have usually looked the other way when it came to the Saudi record on human rights. Recently electing Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), partly due to a secret vote swap with the UK, seemed to cross a hereto invisible line. And if that was not enough of an affront to cosmetic morality in the sphere of human rights, the Saudi UN ambassador has been recently selected to chair the influential HRC ‘ consultative panel that recommends to the President of the Council a short-list of whom shall be appointed as Special Rapporteurs, including on such issues as right to women, freedom of expression, and religious freedom.


This news is coupled with confirmation that Saudi Arabia has inflicted more beheadings than ISIS this year, over 2 a day, and has ordered Ali Mohammed al-Nimr to be executed by crucifixion for taking part in an anti-monarchy demonstration when he was 17.  In a second representative case, the popular blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to a long prison term and 1000 lashes in public for criticizing the monarchy.  This behavior resembles the barbarism of ISIS more than it exhibits qualifications to occupy senior UN positions dealing with human rights.


Additionally, Riyadh like Damascus, seems guilty of severe war crimes due to its repeated and indiscriminate targeting of civilians during its dubious Yemen intervention. The worst incident of late was an air strike targeting a wedding party on September 29th, killing 131 civilians, including many women and children, but the overall pattern of the Saudi military onslaught has been oblivious to the constraints of international humanitarian law as embodied in the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  


The Saudi mismatch between stature and behavior cannot be considered, as it appears to be, a grotesque anomaly in the global normative order. Instead, it fits neatly into a coherent geopolitical pattern.  Ever since World War II Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable strategic asset for the West. Oil is the core explanation of this affinity, but it is far from the whole story. Earlier Saudi anti-Communism was important, a kind of health insurance policy for the West that the government would not lured into the Soviet orbit or adopt a non-aligned position in the manner of Nasser’s Egypt, which would have dangerously undermined energy security for Western Europe.


In recent years, converging patterns of extreme hostility toward Iran that Saudi Arabia shares with Israel has delighted Washington planners who had long been challenged by the difficulty of juggling unconditional support for Israel with an almost absolute dependence of the West on keeping Gulf oil flowing at affordable prices. This potential vulnerability was vividly revealed in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East War when Saudi Arabia expressed the dissatisfaction of the Arab world with Western pro-Israel positioning by persuading OPEC to impose an oil embargo that caused a global panic attack. This crisis unfolded on two levels– a high road revealing Western vulnerability to Middle Eastern oil and a low road of severe consumer discontent in reaction to long gas lines and higher prices at the pump attributable to the embargo.


It was then that war hawks in the West murmured aloud about coercively ending the embargo by landing paratroopers on Saudi oil fields. Henry Kissinger, never troubled by war scenarios, speculated that such an intervention might be ‘necessary’ for the economic security of the West. The Saudi rulers heard this ‘never again’ pledge from the custodians of world order, and have since been careful not to step on Western toes.


Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that NGO concerns about the dreadful human rights landscape in Saudi Arabia falls on deaf ears. President Obama who never tires of telling the world that the national character of America requires it to live accord with its values, centering on human rights and democracy, holds his otherwise active tongue when it comes to Saudi Arabia. He is busy reassuring the new Saudi king that the US remains as committed as ever to this second ‘special relationship’ in the Middle East, the first being, of course, with Israel.


If we look beneath the word ‘special,’ which conveys the added importance attached of the relationship, it seems to imply unconditional support, including a refusal to voice criticism in public. US geopolitical backing confers impunity, shielding a beneficiary from any pushback by the international community at the UN or elsewhere. There are other perks that come with this status additional to impunity. Perhaps none more notable than the embarrassment associated with hustling Saudi notables out of the United States the day after the 9/11 attacks. Remember that 15 of the 19 plane hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the US Government still refuses to release 28 pages of detailed evidence on alleged Saudi connections with Al Qaeda gathered by the 9/11 investigative commission.


Surely if Iran had remotely comparable linkages to those notorious events it would likely have produced a casus belli; recall that the justification for attacking Iraq in 2003 was partially based on flimsy fictitious allegations of Baghdad’s 9/11 complicity. 


The Saudi special relationship (unlike that with Israel) is more mutually beneficial. Because of the enormous revenues earned by selling 10 million barrels of oil a day for decades, Saudi unwavering support for the dollar as the currency of account has been of crucial help to the American ambition to dominate the global economy. Beyond this, the Saudis after pushing the world price of oil up by as much as 400% in the 1970s quickly healed the wounds by a massive recycling of so-called petrodollars through investments in Europe and North America, and especially appreciated, have been the Saudi purchase of many billions of dollars worth of arms over the years. The United States did its part to uphold the relationship, especially by responding to the 1990 Iraqi attack on Kuwait that also menaced Saudi Arabia. By deploying 400,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and leading the successful effort to compel Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, American reliability as Saudis protective big brother was convincingly upheld. Of course, in this interest there was a genuine convergence of interests. Western policy as shaped by American foreign policy accorded an absolute priority to keeping Gulf oil in friendly hands.


Despite the major strategic benefits to both sides, the most remarkable aspect of this special relationship is its survival in the face of the Saudi role in its massive worldwide funding of Islamic anti-Western militancy or jihadism. Saudi promotion of religious education with a Wahhabist slant is widely believed to be largely responsible for the rise and spread of jihadism, and the resultant turmoil.


I would have thought that the West, especially after 9/11 would insist that Saudi Arabia stop supporting Wahhabist style extremism abroad, even if it overlooked denials of human rights at home due to the imposition of harsh controls upon freedom of expression, of association, women’s rights, cruel and unusual punishments. More damaging in its political consequences than being the shield of Saudi impunity is the willingness of the US to go along with the anti-Iranian sectarian line that the Saudi leadership relies upon to justify such controversial moves as direct interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, as well as the provision of  weapons and money to anti-Assad forces in Syria.


Saudi opportunism became evident when the kingdom threw its diplomatic support and a large bundle of cash to an anti-Sunni coup in Egypt against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Saudi’s true enemies are determined by the threat posed to the stability of the monarchy, and not by their sectarian identity. In this sense Iran is an enemy because it is a regional rival that threatens to impinge upon the role and influence of Saudi Arabia, and not because of its adherence to a Shia variety of Islam. Similarly the Muslim Brotherhood, despite being of Sunni persuasion, was perceived as as a threat to royal absolutism by its democratizing challenge directed at the Mubarak autocracy. Sectarian identity is distinctly secondary, especially for the Saudi monarchy that is responsible for the conduct of foreign policy. At home, the stability of royal governance is sustained by allowing a free rein to the Wahhabi religious leadership that subject the Saudi people to its severe sectarian constraints.


Saudi impunity makes us appreciate the value of normal relationships among sovereign states. These do not entail exemptions from accountability in relation to international crimes and human rights violations. These special relationships have become politically costly in this century, especially if used to protect rogue states from international scrutiny. Accountability based on the rule of law is far better for stability, security, and sustainable peace than impunity. It has become increasingly awkward for US Government to validate, in part, its global role by championing human rights while refusing to blink when it comes to the most minimum expectations of accountability for Saudi Arabia or Israel.


I would go further, and argue that such special relationships, although expressions of the primacy of geopolitics (as over against the implementation of a global rule of law), do not serve on balance to uphold national interests in the course of abandoning national values. Contrary to the precepts of political realism, in the Middle East these two special relationships unthinkingly bind the United States and its European allies to a failing foreign policy that has occasioned great suffering for many of the peoples of the region. The migration crisis that is one direct effect of these unfortunate policies, especially military intervention, is finally leading observers to connect some dots, and recognize that what is done in the Middle East has menacing reverberations for Europe. As well, it further damages the reputation of the United States as a principled leader in a global setting that is serving the global public good as well as promoting its national policy priorities.  Perhaps, that reputation is tarnished beyond recovery at this point in any event, making repetitional considerations almost irrelevant.




/* Style Definitions */
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;


The Nuclear Challenge (4): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki-The Iran Agreement in Perspective

24 Aug

The Nuclear Challenge (4): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki-The Iran Agreement in Perspective


Without question the P5 +1 nuclear agreement with Iran is a vital move toward peace and stability in the Middle East, a step back from the maelstrom of conflict that is roiling much of the region, and leaving what stability there is among sovereign states under the control of various absolutisms that repress and exploit their own populations.


At the same time before congratulating the negotiators and building a strong rationale for yet another Nobel Peace Prize given to architects of Western diplomacy, we should pause and peer behind the curtain of hegemonic confusion embellishing a more dubious statecraft by an ever compliant mainstream media. If we pull back the curtain, what do we see?


First of all, we should immediately recognize that the most sensible agreement for the region and the world would have included Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the negotiating mix, and yielded a unanimous call for responding to nuclear anxieties with a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. As far I know, every government but Israel in the region, and this includes Iran and Saudi Arabia, favors regional nuclear disarmament, and is decidely uncomfortable with Israel as the sole nuclear weapons state in the region.


Many may feel that I am dreaming when I raise this point, but without the clarifying impact of dreams, political reality remains an opaque spin chamber. In a decent world order that was built on a foundation of law and equality among sovereign states with respect to the challenge of nuclear weapons there would be no double standards and no discriminatory policies. When reflecting on the current emphasis on reaching an agreement with Iran there is a political unwillingness to widen the optic for discussion, much less for implementation, of the most rational and ethically coherent approach to denuclearization of the Middle East.


If we are so obtuse or arrogant to ask ‘why?’ this is so there are several explanations. Undoubtedly, the most illuminating response is to point out that to include Israel’s nuclear weaponry in denuclearization diplomacy would violate ‘the special relationship’ binding the United State to Israel, although not vice versa as the Netanyahu/AIPAC outrageous campaign to undermine the P5 +1 initiative unmistakably demonstrates. Obama’s refusal to go along with Israel’s insistence on far tighter restraints on Iran as a precondition for its acceptance of an agreement is straining the special relationship and weakening the overwhelming support it had previously enjoyed among Jews in the United States. These tensions also reveal that even this most special of special arrangements has its outer limits! Yet it seems evident that these have yet to be discovered by the majority of the U.S. Congress.


Secondly, Iran is targeted by the agreement as a pariah state that is being subjected to a more stringent regime of inspection and restraint than has ever been imposed on any other non-nuclear state. Yet what has Iran done internationally to deserve such harsh treatment? In the period since the Islamic Republic took control of the country in 1979, Iran was aggressively attacked by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1980 with the encouragement and blessings of the United States Government, resulting in approximately one million battlefield deaths in the eight-year war to both sides. In the last decade or so, Iran has been the acknowledged target of destabilizing covert violent acts by the United States and Israel, including targeted assassinations of nuclear scientists and cyber efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Israel has made a series of unlawful threats of military attack and the United States has exhibits Martian solidarity by uttering somewhat more veiled assertions of its residual reliance on a military option, recently rearticulated by Obama as ‘war’ being the only alternative to the agreement should it be rejected by the United States.


We should not forget that Iran that is surrounded by belligerent adversaries openly talking about the feasibility of military attacks upon their country under present world conditions. From a purely realist perspective it is Iran that has one of the most credible security claims ever made to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent weapon in response to Israeli aggressiveness reinforced by American backing. After all, it has been reliably disclosed and documented that Israel on more than one occasion was on the verge of attacking Iraq, backing off at the last minute due only to splits within the Israeli cabinet over issues of feasibility and fears of adverse consequences.


This whole discourse on Iran’s nuclear program is notable for presuming that policy options can be selected by its adversaries without any consideration of the relevance of international law. Even supposing that Iran was, in fact, overtly seeking a nuclear weapon, and approaching a threshold of acquisition, this set of conditions would not validate recourse to force. There is no foundation whatsoever in international law for launching an attack to preempt another country from acquiring nuclear weapons. The U.S. relied on such a pretext to justify its attack on Iraq in 2003, but such an argument was rejected by the UN Security Council, and the American led attack and occupation were widely viewed as contrary to international law and the UN Charter. To launch a non-defensive attack on Iran would be a flagrant violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and of the norm prohibiting recourse to aggressive war used to convict German and Japanese surviving leaders after World War II of state crime. It is well to acknowledge that Iran succumbed to a kind of geopolitical blackmail by accepting this one-sided agreement. It is hardly surprising that the logic of geopolitics triumphed over respect for international law, and yet the fact that the liberal media and world public opinion smile so gratefully, apparently not realizing what an unhealthy an atmosphere exists, is discouraging, and not a good omen for the future.


Maybe there could be a case for bending, or even breaking international law, if Iran was genuinely posing a plausible threat that could not be met through diplomacy and defensive capabilities. But the realities are quite different. Iran has been the target of unlawful threats and various forms of covert intervention, and has responded with responsible caution, if at all. To reinforce this one-sided experience of insecurity with this kind of agreement sets the unfortunate perverse precedent of treating the victim of an unlawful intervention as the culprit justifying international sanctions, and possibly a future military onslaught. This represents a perversion of justice, as well as exhibiting a fundamental disregard of international law.


This reasoning is not meant to exonerate Iran from severe criticism for its internal failures to uphold the human rights of its citizens or for its continued punitive action against the leaders of the Green Revolution. It is important to realize that regulating recourse to international uses of force has been deliberately separated in the UN Charter from interfering in state/society relations absent the commission of severe crimes against humanity or genocide, and a green light is given by the UN Security Council for what amounts to ‘humanitarian intervention,’ recently justified by reference to the emergent international norm of a ‘right to protect’ or R2P. Such a R2P justification was put forward and controversially enacted in Libya in 2011.


True, during the Ahmedinejad years irresponsible fiery and provocative language was used by Tehran with reference to Israel, including repeated calls for the abolition of the Zionist project. The language used by Ahmedinejad was given its most inflammatory twist by Israeli translations of the Farsi original. Read more objectively, it was not Jews as such that were the subject of the invective, or even Israel, but Zionism and its belligerent behavior in the region, especially its refusal over the course of decades to achieve a sustainable peace with the Palestinian people, and on the contrary, its policy of continual land grabbing in Palestine to make peace between the two peoples an increasingly distant prospect of diminishing relevance in the domains of practical diplomacy.


The principal point of this analysis is to show that this agreement reflects the primacy of geopolitics, the neglect of international law, the impact of the US/Israel special relationship, and yet despite these drawbacks, it is still the best that supporters of peace and stability can hope for under present conditions of world order. Such a reality is occluded by the presentation of the debate in the United States as mainly the exaggerated mini-dramas associated with pressuring key members of Congress to vote for or against the agreement and engaging in sophisticated discussions as to whether the constraints imposed by the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, although the strongest ever imposed, are still as strong as Obama claims or as some uncertain Congress people demand. As argued here, support for the agreement is overwhelmingly in the national, global, regional, and human interest, but this assessment does not mean we should view world order through the distorting lens of heavily rose-tinted glasses.


This nuclear agreement reflects where we are in dealing with global crises, not where we should be. It is this distinction that is suppressed by the liberal media and government spokespersons that tout the agreement as an extraordinary achievement of international diplomacy. If we value international law, global justice, and indeed the future of the human species, then the distinction between the realm of the ‘feasible’ and the realm of the ‘desirable’ deserves energetic critical exposure by all of us who fancy ourselves as citizen pilgrims, that is, devotees of human and natural survival, as well as of global justice and human rights.

The Undisclosed Second Paradox in Michael Walzer’s The Paradox of Liberation

20 Jun


There is little doubt that several of Michael Walzer’s contributions to political theory will long remain influential (Revolution of the Saints (1965); Just and Unjust Wars (1977); Spheres of Justice (1983)). Although his work lacks the cumulative weight of a major philosophic presence, the ideas and issues Walzer has been exploring in the last several decades with great conceptual coherence and originality. His work exhibits a consistent practical relevance to the realities of the unfolding world around us. His writing is lucid, well informed, and is mainstream enough to be non-threatening. Walzer’s worldview is congruent with widely shared ethical presuppositions prevalent among liberals in Western society. Added to this, Walzer’s writings are tinged with a socialist nostalgic edge that imparts a now harmless progressive resonance. This is somewhat soothing for all those suffering varying degrees of guilty conscience as we go on as before, enjoying life in non-sustainable consumptive Western societies.


Aside from John Rawls, Jacques Derrida, Jürgens Habermas who enjoy preeminence, only Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, and Amartya Sen have had a comparable contemporary influence to that of Walzer by way of philosophic commentary on major public issues. Apart from Walzer’s strong scholarly emphasis on Judaic Studies and ideological support for Israel, it is Rorty who seems closest to Walzer in ethos, philosophic stance, and intellectual style. As I read this latest extended essay by Walzer I kept thinking of the lines from Auden’s great poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:

                        “Time with that with this strange excuse

                        Pardoned Kipling and his views

                        And will pardon Paul Claudell

                        Pardon him for writing well”

The point being that despite often finding Walzer’s views suspect, I never find his writing dull or his ideas without force and relevance, and that maybe in the end what flourishes through time is more style than substance.


Walzer has been a strong and consistent advocate of Israel and outspoken adherent of moderate Zionism throughout his career. Sometimes his eloquent partisanship has been hidden below the surface of his theorizing, giving his undisclosed messages the status of a sub-text, adored by the faithful and repudiated by the critical. Among critics this Walzer tendency to hide his political commitments beneath his theoretical generalization, creates an impression of a rather sneaky lack of forthrightness. For instance, his influential Just and Unjust Wars can be read (without any acknowledgement from Walzer) as a show of strong support for Israel’s approach to Palestinian armed resistance that is expressed in the abstract language of the ethics of counter-terrorism. Walzer’s tendency to be not straight forward about his ideological agenda is intriguingly relevant to his latest book, The Paradox of Liberation, which sets forth a bold and challenging general thesis—that the distinct secular movements that produced national liberation in Algeria, India, and Israel a few generations ago have each most unexpectedly and progressively yielded their identities to intense religious counter-revolutions. These counter-revolutions have each sought to restore tradition and religious observance in public spaces, including the governing process. This religious turn against the secular came as an unwelcome surprise to the founding generation of national liberation leaders whose successors find themselves pushed aside by more socially conservative elites.


These secularizing movements were rooted initially in the opposite belief that only by breaking with societal traditions can liberation be achieved for a national people that is being oppressed or acutely denied its true destiny. As Walzer summarizes: “The old ways must be repudiated and overcome totally. But the old ways are cherished by many of the men and women whose ways they are. That is the paradox of liberation.” (19) In the Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions (Yale University Press, 2015). Walzer is preoccupied by this paradox, and devotes himself to its explication. He contends that the paradox arises from the tension between the mobilization of a people around the negation of that which the majority society affirms (that is, religious values) and while this negation seems useful (even to many of the religiously oriented) during the struggle against alien oppression, it will itself be negated a generation or so after liberation, a phenomenon of negating the negation that can also be understood as the return of the repressed in the form of religious resurgence. The secularists enjoyed a temporary ascendancy because they were active resisters to oppressive circumstances rather than as was the case with religiously oriented leaderships, which tended to be passive and even deferential to the status quo.


This pattern of secularist victory giving way to religion is reproduced in a nationally distinctive form in each of these specific historical circumstances by the seemingly inexplicable rise and potency of religious zeal. In each of Walzer’s three cases, the political moment of successful liberation by secularists was soon to be superseded to varying degrees by the religious moment, an entirely unexpected sequel. The liberators whether led by Ben Bella, Jawaharlal Nehru, or David Ben Gurion were modernizers who strongly believed that religion was being and should be superseded by science and rationality. This meant that religion was largely a spent force with respect to cultural identity and public policy, and should in the future be confined in its role to state ritual occasions and private devotional practice. Walzer argument explains the central misunderstanding of these secular leaders, and expresses his own hope that the religious resurgence should not be viewed as the end of the national narrative. Also, Walzer would not welcome the Algerian phase three sequel to the religious challenge by way of bloody civil war, followed by military autocracy and renewed societal passivity.


What makes the book challenging is its main prescriptive argument that runs as follows. The secular nationalists made a crucial initial mistake, according to Walzer, by basing their movement on the negation of religion rather than byseeking its incorporation. If their secularist goal was sustainable liberation, which it certainly was, then the adoption of an either/or orientation toward religion and its practice was wrong from the start. Instead the attitude of the secular liberators toward religion should have one of constructive engagement, and not negation. What this means in the context of each movement is not spelled out by Walzer. The stress is placed on a recommended (re)incorporation of religious values into the reigning secular ideology combined with sensitivity to traditional values and practices. Walzer is fully aware that his proposed approach becomes problematic as soon as it is pursued unconditionally. As he recognizes, the traditions in each of these nations denies equality to women, often in cruel and unacceptable ways. Walzer does not want secularists to give up their commitment to gender equality for the sake of reconciliation with religiously oriented sectors of society. What he encourages is a sympathetic awareness of traditional attitudes toward gender while seeking to overcome their embedded biases. As is often the case, Walzer is more persuasive in diagnosis than prescription, delineating the problems far better than finding credible solutions.


One difficulty with the framework we are offered in the book is the failure to consider the discrediting relevance of the corruption and incompetence of the liberators, which amounted to a betrayal of their promises to lead a new and happy society of free people. Whether through corruption or the failure to deliver a better life to a large portion of the population, a post-liberation mood of disillusionment takes hold in different patterns, but they share in common the search for an alternative orientation.


In other words the excitement of liberation is hard to sustain during the state-building rigors of governance, and also in most cases, the personalities suitable for liberation are not well adapted to handle the routines and typical challenges of post-liberation existence. Israel, in particular, was an outlier from these perspectives, as its claims of liberation were at all stages shadowed by doubts as a result of fears, threats, uncertainties, and opposition to its underlying legitimacy claim from within its ethnic ranks and more so from those it sought to subdue by either displacement or subjugation. The anti-colonial liberations of India and Algeria never faced such basic challenges to its core identity.


There is for me a closely related yet more fundamental problem with the misleading comparisons relied upon by Walzer to develop his argument. India and Algeria were genuine liberation movements waged by indigenous nations to rid from the entire territorial space of their respective countries a deeply resented, exploitative, and domineering foreign presence. To place Israel in such a category is to foster several deep misunderstandings—there is the master presupposition that the Zionist movement is being properly treated as a case of ‘national liberation’ even if the Jewish nation was not engaged in reclaiming control over its residential territorial space. Jews were scattered in enclaves around the world when the Zionist movement was launched and most of its leaders relied on biblical claims to Palestine to ground its territorial claims. Although the early debate about whether a homeland in Uganda would fulfill Zionist goals illuminates the distinctiveness of the Zionist quest. Beyond this Zionists became legally dependent upon British colonialist support to carry forward their efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine with the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Zionism cannot be meaningfully regarded as a revolt against alien rulership, although in its last pre-state stage it did try to expel Britain from Palestine so as to compel an abandonment of its mandatory administration. Unlike standard anti-colonial movements, Zionism is more correctly perceived as an activist effort to overcome the realities of diaspora Judaism confronted by the persecution, discrimination, and assimilation in an array of national settings.


Given this background, it seems dubious, indeed polemical, to treat Israel’s establishment as an instance of ‘liberation,’ a terminology that obscures the centrality of the ‘dispossession’ experienced by the majority indigenous Palestinian Arab population in the course of Israel’s acquisition of statehood. In passing, Walzer does somewhat acknowledge some of these differences that distinguish Israel from India and Algeria, but regards them as inconsequential contextual issues that do not raise for him any serious doubts about the basic reasonableness of regarding Israel as coming into being as a result of national liberation led by the Zionist movement. Walzer’s focus is rather upon whether Israel fits the pattern of a secularist phase one giving way to a religious phase two, leaving us with a big question mark as to whether there will be a phase three, and if so, whether it will reflect Walzer’s hopes for a belated constructive engagement with religion rather than an Alegerian style relapse into civil strife and autocracy. Although Walzer expresses his personal wish for the Palestinians to have their own sovereign state (53) at some point, this wish is never contextualized or concretized by reference to criteria of equality between the two peoples. The Palestinian national liberation movement is discussed by Walzer as correlative to his main thesis. Walzer notes that even prior to achieving Palestinian statehood, the PLO’s secular leadership has been increasingly challenged and even discredited by a rising Islamist alternative. (53-55)


This reference to the Palestinian national movement is an interesting aside in relation to Walzer’s essential set of contentions relating to the paradox he is depicting, but it fails to engage the issue I find central, which is whether Israel’s establishment can qualify as an instance of national liberation. To be sure Zionism generated an extraordinary international movement that overcame many formidable obstacles that stood in its way, and none more formidable than an indigenous Palestinian Arab majority population that did its best to prevent Zionists from reaching their goal of statehood on behalf of the Jewish people. Although Walzer notes that the early secularist Zionist leaders stressed a commitment to equality when articulating their ideas about the preferred relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the Israeli state. In my view, it is questionable in the extreme whether this idealistic goal ever represented the actual intentions of Zionist leaders. It should be evident to all that such egalitarianism was never expressive of Israeli policies and practices on the ground from even before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.


More problematic still, was the dispossession and displacement from the land of most of the indigenous Arab population that had been living in Palestine for many generations. Surely this Palestinian experience is profoundly different in character and consequence from the repudiation of exploitative rule of a country by a foreign, usually European, elite and its native collaborators. Again Walzer’s sub-text, whether consciously intended or not, seems to be the retroactive legitimation of Israel’s claim to be an example of national liberation of the sort achieved by Algeria and India, and hence to be situated in the highest echelon of 20th century state-building undertakings. As many of us realize this ‘liberation’ was for Palestinians a catastrophe, known by its Arabic word nakba.


Overall, this is a peculiar book, developing a general view of religious counter-revolutions against secular movements of national liberation, but due to the inclusion of Israel as a principal case despite not seeming to fit, there is an implicit polemical motivation that involves whitewashing the criminality of Israel’s emergence. Acknowledging such criminality is not meant to be a covert argument for delegitimizing the present state of Israel that has now been in existence for more than 67 years, and is a member state of the United Nations. My critique of Walzer, in other words, is not meant to lay the groundwork for a second Palestinian dispossession, this time directed toward Jews. I side with Edward Said in a commitment to fair future for both peoples based on their shared rights under international law and on diplomacy to negotiate compromises where rights overlap. I do agree with Said that such a jointly conceived future cannot be undertaken without a prior Israeli acknowledgement of the recent past as epitomized by the nakba, and such rituals of redress must include a formal apology to the Palestinian people for the suffering they have for so long endured.


In the end, the paradox that Walzer dwells upon is less consequential than the paradox he ignores: namely, that what is being represented as ‘national liberation’ of the Jewish people by Zionist ideologues is more objectively presented as the ‘national oppression’ of the Palestinian people. This oppression is experienced in different sets of circumstances: as a subjugated minority; as an occupied people; as a nation of refugees and exiles; as a community of resistance aspiring to Palestinian ‘national liberation’; as communities victimized by state terrorism. This second paradox is that what is portrayed as ‘liberation’ for one people serves at the same time as pretext and rationale for the ‘oppression’ of another people. In my view, the second paradox raised life or death questions for both peoples to a far greater extent than does the first paradox that seems to control Walzer’s own Zionist imagination.


Michael Ignatieff, whose political orientation resembles that of Michael Walzer, in the course of a mostly laudatory review of The Paradox of Liberation confirms my suspicion that the undisclosed intent of this book is to connect Israel’s fate with that of such exemplary liberation movements as those that took place in India and Algeria. Consider Igantieff’s revealing language innocently proclaiming this reading: “While Israel remains the central focus of The Paradox of Liberation, Walzer has made a major contribution to the question of what’s happening there simply by arguing that Israel may not be so special after all: the same kinds of problems may be occurring in other states created by national liberation movements. He compares what happened to Ben-Gurion’s vision with what befell Jawaharlal Nehru’s in India and Ahmed Ben Bella’s in Algeria.” [Michael Ignatieff, “The Religious Spector Haunting Revolution,” NY Review of Books, 19 June 2015] In a stunning instance of ‘benign neglect’ Ignatieff never once even mentions the relevance of Palestinian dispossession in his lengthy

assessment of Walzer’s version of Israel’s ‘national liberation’ story. Instead, he makes the opposite point, suggesting that Walzer in an indirect way diminishes Israel by his implicit denial of Israeli exceptionalism. As the language quoted above seems to suggest, Israel is upgraded by its similarities with (rather than differences from) other liberation narratives.


In closing, it is plausible, even morally, to argue that the Zionist cause was in keeping with a variety of attempts over the course of the last century by many nations and peoples to possess a state of their own that is defined by ethnic or religious boundaries that transcend in psycho-political relevance geographic boundaries, which incidentally have yet to be authoritatively drawn to delineate Israel’s territorial scope. Yet what is not plausible is to lump together the Israeli experience with that of India and Algeria just because the founding generation of leaders shared a secular ideology that was later subjected to a religious challenge once the state was established. For India and Algeria their respective anti-colonial struggles each possessed its originality, but without raising doubts about the delineation of the scope of territorial sovereignty and without needing to coercing the native population to submit or leave. This became integral to Zionism in the course of the struggle between opposed nationalisms, with expulsion necessary to ensure Jewish dominance over the development and governance of the country.


If Jewish biblical claims to territorial sovereignty are dismissed, as surely should be a major premise of secular thinking, then the Zionist project needs to be conceived of as essentially one of colonizing a foreign country. The presence of a deeply rooted Jewish minority, less than 5% when the Zionist movement got started in the late 19th century, does not make Palestine any less of a foreign country from the perspective of Jews who settled in Palestine in a spirit of missionizing zeal. As Walzer himself makes clear, Zionists were self-consciously opposed to the Judaism they had experienced in the diaspora that was premised on passivity and deference to the rulers of their country of residence and religiously expressed by the message of patience, the religious duty to wait for the Messiah, the only religiously acceptable experience of liberation. The founders of Zionism, and its current leaders, were determined to reconstitute Jewish life on the basis of assertiveness and even aggressiveness, overcoming the alleged diasporic legacy of passivity, and this feature of their movement has been transformative for even religious Jews. From this perspective, the historic triumphal event was undoubtedly Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, which became inspirational for diasporic Jewish communities identified more strongly than ever with the state of Israel, and questioned their own traditional postures of passivity.


My contention is that Walzer’s paradox dissolves as soon as the claim to categorize Zionism as a mode of ‘national liberation’ is deconstructed, while the second paradox remains to be explained. This second paradox dwells on the moral and political interplay of what transpires when the liberation of the self is organically linked to the dispossession of the other. In a postscript (134-146) Walzer explains why America does not belong with his three cases, which is because America’s original founding never truly embraced secularism. What he might have also said, but doesn’t, is that what the founding of America and Israel have most in common is the dispossession of the native populations, and it is this foundational fact that shapes the state-building experiences of both countries more than either has been willing to acknowledge. In this sense, we might invite Walzer to write a sequel on this second more consequential paradox, but realizing that such an invitation is certain to be refused. Its acceptance would implicitly repudiate the ideological benefits and normative authority of the first paradox that treats the establishment of Israel as if it is entitled to be regarded as one of the illustrious examples of 20th century anti-colonial struggles.


America at Its Best is Strange

31 May

America at Its Best


America even at its best is a strange place, alive with contradictions, a Teflon political culture that has an unshakable faith in its innocent and virtuous national character and its overall impact on the world, impervious to the ghosts of slavery and of ethnic cleansing of native Americans that should be tormenting our sleep and darkening our dreams, comfortable with its robust gun culture, and with its promiscuous reliance on rogue drones engineered to kill on command and on the brutal happenings that take place in black sites immorally situated in countries whose leaders agree to avert their gaze from the dirty work taking place. Looked at from a short distance this is not a pretty picture.


Yet there are still those rare moments when this unsavory national profile seems not to be telling the whole story. For instance, I felt heartened by a recent news item reporting that the conservative Nebraska Legislature voted to abolish capital punishment, and in doing so went so far as to override the governor’s veto. That’s right, Nebraska!


Unfortunately, the welcome Nebraska move may not survive the backlash in the making. The Republican state governor, Pete Ricketts, vows to overturn the new law: “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical law to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families.” He is supported in this lethal passion by a pro-capital punishment legislator who proposes arranging a ballot initiative that supposedly will allow Nebraskans to reinstate the death penalty. It is not yet certain whether this is a legally permissible tactic.


While the abolitionist move stands there is a strong temptation to commend Nebraska for such an unexpected show of humanistic sensitivity, but that would be misleading, overlooking what actually swayed the majority to vote the way they did. Speaking for this majority, Peter Collins put it this way, “We went into it wanting to remain objective. This is purely about costs.” And sure enough, it seems that it was primarily conservatives, not liberals, that pushed hardest for abolition on the amoral grounds of fiscal conservatism and a commitment to “philosophical consistency” when it comes to entrusting the government with authority over life and death. As a Republican legislator, Laure Elke, insisted the bill was “a matter of conscience,” because if you are not able to trust the government on health care, how can it be trusted on such irrevocable life/death decisions. A few other conservatives were apparently troubled by the seeming contradiction between supporting the right to life for the unborn as a sacred matter while permitting a state government to impose death on a life in being.


The main crusader for the bill was a Democrat, Senator Ernie Chambers who had tried 37 times during his forty years in the Nebraska Legislature to get rid of the death penalty before achieving this notable victory. Even Chambers was forced to acknowledge that it was ‘conservative pragmatism’ not liberal idealism that made the difference, taking note of a growing Republican trend to oppose capital punishment because it is viewed as costly, inefficient, and for some, un-Christian. On one level, who cares why capital punishment was abolished. It is the outcome that counts. Yet on a second level, it is worth caring, because if the decision reflects cost/benefit assessments rather than a principled ethical stand, it could be quickly reversed when calculations changed.


It is indeed a strange country: rapid public strides in the direction of freedom to shape one’s own gender identity giving rise to a series of vindictive pushbacks by those that want to impose their particular life style on those that seek to live differently in ways that do no harm. The opportunistic rants of right wing politicians on such issues as same sex marriage, trans gender identity, and abortion may not be meant to hurt and demean but they do. They hurt and demean those who want to live openly their authentic identities or deeply felt needs, which is what freedom should mean for all of us, not just for ourselves but our neighbors, that is, for every sentient being on the planet. and are so often elsewhere in our world forced to live in locked closets or face harsh criminal punishments. Is not this the deeper meta-religious significance of globalization. For all that is wrong with what the United States is doing to others throughout the world, these explorations on the frontiers of personal freedom might be the start of a better page of national history if this forward momentum can be sustained and exported in relation to personal self-determination.


Perhaps, and only perhaps, what we insist upon for ourselves might finally spill over with respect to what we to do to others. I don’t expect the drones to disappear anytime soon or even for capital punishment to become a bad memory, but at least more folks will begin to draw the sort of connection that to align themselves with a conservative repositioning similar to what turned a big majority of legislators against the death penalty in Nebraska. Given the political climate in the country, ‘conservative pragmatism’ may be the best we can currently hope for at this time for America. Sadly, the 99% have once again left the playing field of political life enabling the 1% to indulge their inexhaustible appetites.


Of course, for me the abolition of capital punishment has never been a matter of cost/benefit analysis whether measured in dollars or bureaucratic efficiency. It is a matter purely situated in the domain of values. I believe that no government should ever be given the authority to kill its own citizens, or that anyone anywhere should be vested with authority to kill without proper submission to the rule of law, whether acting domestically or internationally, and I believe it would benefit prospects for species survival if many of us as possible strive for and advocate a comprehensive ethos of nonviolence or what Glenn Paige has dubbed ‘a non-killing politics.’ For now, this is a utopian wish, but this goal has long struck me as being a time sensitive ethical and biopolitical imperative. In the domain of social practice, I feel the same way about same-sex marriage, gender self-determination, and the reproductive rights of women. Capital punishment is about wrongful death, same-sex marriage is an emotional component of the right to life, and reproductive rights recognize the sacred endowments and personal responsibility of women in relation to their own bodies.


America is not alone in being strange. All countries are strange reflecting the particularities of tradition and experience. Strangeness is bound up with originality and contradiction, and is not necessarily negative. We can be inspired by what is strange and wonderful, and appalled by what is strange and abusive. It is this negative strangeness that we must struggle to mitigate, whether it be capital punishment, human trafficking, or the subjugation that accompanies deep poverty and all forms of forcible dispossession.

Interview with William Schabas, former Chair, UN Commission of Inquiry for 2014 Israeli Attack on Gaza

16 Feb

[Prefatory Note: I am posting an interview conducted by email in recent days with Professor William Schabas in the immediate aftermath of his resignation as Chair and Member of the three person Commission of Inquiry appointed by the UN Human Rights Council last August to investigate allegations of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as state crimes associated with Israel’s military attack on Gaza (code named by Israel as Operation Protective Edge) of July-August 2014. The depleted commission now consists of the remaining two members (Mary McGowan Davis of the United States as the newly designated Chair, and Doudou Diène of Senegal) and is due to submit its final report to the HRC in March; Professor Schabas, a distinguished specialist in international criminal law with a worldwide reputation is on the faculty of Middlesex University in London, had participated fully in planning the inquiry, the gathering of evidence, listening to witnesses. His exclusion from the drafting of the report deprives the Commission, and hence the HRC and the international community, of the member with the greatest professional credibility and reputation for no acceptable reason.


As has so often been the case when Israel faces the prospect of criticism it mounts an array of charges of bias directed at both prominent individuals and their institutional sponsors. This was my experience as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine during the entire period of 2008-2014 in which I was subject to continuous defamatory attacks, spearheaded by UN Watch, a notorious NGO that avoids the message while mounting a furious attack on the messenger, seeking to blacken my reputation by writing letters of personal denunciation to a variety of prominent persons, who took such tactics far more seriously than they deserved. Israel officially charged me with bias at the time of my appointment, including issuing a Foreign Ministry declaration of non-cooperation, implemented in December 2008 when I tried to enter Israel on a HRC mission on behalf of the UN and was expelled after being held in a detention cell overnight.


In September 2009 when the Goldstone Report was issued after an inquiry similar to the one that Scshabas was chairing, prompted by the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead). Richard Goldstone, a prominent liberal figure at the time but also a dedicated Zionist with close personal and professional connections to Israel, was put under pressure from the outset to decline the appointment, and Israel as in this case refused to allow the UN to enter Israel to carry out its fact finding mission in the most efficient manner. Although the Goldstone Report was fair and balanced, it was viciously attacked from the first moment of its presentation as ‘a blood libel’ against the Jewish people, and Goldstone personally was vilified by Israel’s most prominent political leaders, including the Prime Minister and President. This relentless pressure led Goldstone to retract on his own a crucial finding of the report as to the deliberate use of force by the IDF against Palestinian civilians, an action mainly discrediting of Goldstone himself, as the finding of the report continued to enjoy the support of the other three distinguished members of the inquiry group, including by Christine Chinkin of LSE, one of the world’s leading experts on international humanitarian law.


William Schabas’ resignation has its own disturbing specific context, although it bears the imprint of Israel’s determination and skill in mounting campaigns of bias to discredit whoever has had the professional willingness to present unpopular truths concerning allegations of state crimes by Israel arising out of its controversial uses of force in Gaza and overall unlawful occupation administration. As explained in the interview, Schabas was responding to Israeli charges of bias from the outset of his appointment, but with a recent emphasis on the fact that he had some years ago prepared as a modestly paid consultant a short technical report for the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the international law questions associated with a possible Palestinian application for membership in the International Criminal Court. Schabas’ attackers had gained enough traction in recent weeks to induce the President of the HRC to propose referring the question of Schabas’ bias to the UN Legal Affairs Office for resolution. Rather than see the work of the COI diverted and delayed by this side issue, Schabas chose to resign. As is usual in these cases, when a person who stands forth in public for truth and principle as Schabas has done since the beginning, there follows a flow of hate mail and death threats that appear to be the work of pro-Israeli extremists who consider critics of Israel as ‘Jew-haters’ or worse. It is important that those of us who seek a sustainable and just peace for the region stand in solidarity with William Schabas who knowingly stepped into this toxic environment because of his lifelong commitment to strengthening the role of international criminal law in protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty. It is a shameful reality that Israel has been so successful in mounting these campaigns within the United Nations against its more visible critics, and by so doing divert needed attention from its own persistent and flagrant wrongdoing from the perspective of international law. ]



Interview with William Schabas, recently resigned under pressure as Chair of the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to Investigate Allegations of State Crimes associated with Israel’s military attack on Gaza, code named Operation Protective Edge


  1. When you accepted the position of Chair of this Commission of Inquiry into allegations of criminality directed at Israel and Hamas in relation to Israel’s military operations in Gaza during July and August 2014, what were your hopes and worries? Were these borne out by your actual experience?


This was not the first time I have been asked to do something by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I have never said no when asked. I am a loyal and enthusiastic supporter both of the High Commissioner and of the Human Rights Council. Thus, when initially requested by the High Commissioner if I would agree to have my name submitted as a candidate for the Commission and then by the President of the Human Rights Council if I would agree to be a member of the Commission I did not hesitate. I considered it an honour that both of them thought I could do this challenging job of participating in the Commission. I should add that I was never asked whether I would be the Chairman and only learned that I had been selected for that job when the announcement was made.

This was not the first such Commission. In particular, in a sense it follows in the footsteps of the Goldstone Commission. But there have been other inquiries since Goldstone and a huge amount of work conducted by special procedures of the Human Rights Council and by other UN institutions over the decades. When the most recent Commission of Inquiry was established, I think I believed that we would be a small piece in this much bigger mosaic of initiatives. I hoped the Commission would contribute both to justice and peace but my expectations were modest. On more than one occasion, I said that the difference between this Commission and its predecessors was that this time the International Criminal Court was standing in the wings. The State of Palestine had already begun ratifying international treaties. It acknowledged that accession to the Rome Statute was on its agenda.


  1. How did the work of COI proceed? Were you pleased with the workings of the undertaking as a whole? Do you expect that your resignation will have effects on the conclusions of the report, the reception of its findings, and their likely implementation?


I need to be very careful here because the Commission has not been very public in its activities. It has gathered a huge amount of material. It has also met with many individuals – victims, experts, human rights activists, UN officials, representatives of governments, diplomats – but these ‘hearings’ were not open to the public. Some of those who met with the Commission, in particular a delegation of Israelis that travelled to Geneva in January 2015, publicized their meetings with the Commission. But as a general rule, the identity of those who met with the Commission has not been divulged.

I regret not being able to contribute to the drafting of the report. That job was only beginning at the time of my resignation. I am confident that the professional staff of the Commission, consisting of a dozen specialists, and the two Commissioners will produce a fair and effective report.

Although Netanyahu has called my departure a victory, my own sense is that he has shot himself in the foot or, as they say on this side of the Atlantic, scored an own goal. His strategy seems to be based on the idea that he will be able to prevent the report from appearing. But I think he is very wrong here. Instead of keeping his powder dry, he has fired one of his best pieces of ammunition in order to eliminate me. Now, it is harder for him to attack the Commission and its report.


  1. Can you explain your rationale for resignation more fully? Were you influenced by the experience of Richard Goldstone and the Goldstone Report?

Were you not aware when you were approached that these issues of supposed ‘conflict of interest’ would be used to challenge your credibility in a defamatory manner? Was the decisive factor the unanticipated response of the President of the Human Rights Council to the contention about your consultancy with the PLO on Palestinian statehood?


There had been calls for me to resign from the moment I accepted the mandate in early August 2014. I did not ignore them but I concluded that they were not substantial. I do not think that I was biased or that there was a reasonable apprehension of bias. The allegation about the legal opinion I delivered to the PLO in October 2012 only emerged in late January. It seems the Israeli ambassador raised this informally with the President of the Human Rights Council who then drew it to my attention and asked me to explain, which I did. Subsequently, Israel made a formal complaint. The President proposed that legal advice from the United Nations in New York be requested in order to determine the procedure to follow in examining the complaint. The five-member Bureau of the Council agreed to this. Within minutes of its decision, I submitted my resignation.

I think that when there is an inquiry or investigation into the impartiality of a member of a tribunal or similar body, it is problematic for that body to proceed with other matters until the issue of impartiality is resolved. It was my own assessment that it would be difficult for the Commission to continue to work until my status had been determined. That was likely to take weeks. At best, it would distract the Commission from its important work at a crucial phase. At worst, it would prevent the Commission from completing its report by the March session, as it was required to do. Although I would have preferred to fight and defend myself from the unfair charges of conflict of interest, I considered that I had become an obstacle to the Commission completing its mandate. The least bad solution was for me to get out of the way.

Your question seems to imply that I should have seen all of this coming and extricated myself from the business much earlier. I cannot say I did not consider this in August when I saw how brutal and vicious the attacks on me had become. An important difficulty then was that already one of the three members who had been appointed had taken the step of withdrawing. Amal Clooney had initially been named along with myself and Doudou Diene. It seems there was some kind of misunderstanding. Within a few hours of the announcement of her appointment, she said that she could not serve. For me to withdraw subsequently would, I thought at the time, have been disastrous for the Human Rights Council. Bear in mind that the conflict in Gaza was still raging at the time. I decided that I would tough it out. I did not accept the charges of bias. It is easy today to second guess this. I should add that despite the nasty attacks from predictable directions, there was great support for the Commission of Inquiry. In September, the President of the Council reported to the plenary Human Rights Council. UN Watch and its friends howled about the composition of the Commission but there was no reaction from the members of the Council. In particular, on various occasions the European member states, who had abstained in the resolution establishing the Commission, reassured the three Commissioners of their support for its work and its activities.


  1. In retrospect, do you find any substance to the charges of bias or conflict of interest? How can one be both an expert on this subject-matter and not have some pre-existing opinions? Should not the proper test be one of professionalism and objectivity with respect to the evidence and applicable law? For instance, would a person who had been critical of Nazism or apartheid be rendered unfit to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity or racism?


The word ‘bias’ gets thrown around a lot in this discussion. My attackers constantly claimed that I was ‘biased’. All that they meant was that I had an opinion different from their own. When one talks about bias in the context of judicial independence and impartiality, the issue is not whether the individual in question has opinions that have been expressed in the past. Everyone has opinions. Some conceal them. Others, like myself, wear them on their sleeve. But bias only occurs when an individual charged with a task requiring fairness and impartiality is unable to set his or her opinions aside. There is absolutely no evidence to support such a charge against me on this basis.

Lawyers often talk about ‘perception of bias’ or ‘fear of bias’. This is more subjective. It will occur when someone has a close personal relationship with a litigant or when financial interests are involved. There is reasonable concern that someone placed in such circumstances would have difficulty being impartial. But again, there is nothing of the sort in my situation.

Until the issue of the legal opinion that I provided in 2012 for the PLO arose, the only serious charges against me concerned a couple of statements I had made about Netanyahu. They were presented out of context to suggest that I had some kind of obsession with the man. In one case I was reacting to Netanyahu’s attack on Richard Goldstone. Netanyahu had said that Goldstone was one of the greatest threats to the survival of Israel. I said that I thought Netanyahu was the greatest threat to Israel’s survival. In the other I was talking about double standards at the International Criminal Court. I cited Desmond Tutu, who had criticised the African focus of the Court and said that he wanted to see Tony Blair brought before it. I said that my choice would be Netanyahu. Otherwise, I had not really thought much about the man. I of course stand by what I said. I have never said that I regretted making those remarks. I have never retracted them. I had a right to say them.

Could the UN have found someone who would be qualified to work on a Commission of Inquiry who did not have opinions about Israel and Palestine? Perhaps. Is there a thoughtful, well-informed individual on the planet who does not have an opinion on this?

The Israeli complaint about the legal opinion I had done for the PLO precipitated the chain of events that led to my resignation. Israeli called it a blatant conflict of interest. That is simply wrong. I did the opinion about two years before my appointment. It concerned Palestinian accession to the Rome Statute. I’ve done this for other governments too, helping them to address the legal issues involved in joining the International Criminal Court. I’ll gladly do it for others too, including Israel and the United States, if they ask me. The legal opinion for the PLO was the work of a recognised expert in the field. Although the PLO later acceded to the Rome Statute, it seems it was unimpressed with my legal advice because it did not accede in 2012. But that’s the nature of a legal opinion. Political leaders respond to other imperatives, which is quite understandable. I was not giving the PLO political advice. I was not their advocate or lawyer. I was simply providing a technical service. From beginning to end the whole matter lasted a couple of weeks. I received the request by e-mail and delivered the opinion by e-mail. I was paid a modest amount for my work. This is not a conflict of interest.

I have been struck by the failure of those who have challenged my presence on the Commission to engage with the legal authorities. For example, in 2004 Israel applied to have Judge Elaraby removed from the International Court of Justice in the advisory opinion on the Wall. The application was dismissed almost unanimously by the Court. Judge Elaraby had been a senior diplomat in Egypt and had frequently expressed views about Israel and Palestine. Judge Elaraby had been legal advisor to Egypt for part of his career. He certainly gave legal opinions to Egypt about the conflict over the years.

An Israeli academic friend of mine has drawn my attention to Hersch Lauterpacht, who was a strong supporter of Israel. He even wrote a draft of the declaration of independence, and provided advice to the Zionist movement and the State of Israel at various times. He was elected a judge of the International Court of Justice. Lauterpacht sat in the Israel v. Bulgaria case, which was dismissed at a preliminary stage but with Lauterpacht in dissent. Israel didn’t object that time.

Your reference to a person with views on Nazism is of interest because this was precisely the argument raised by Eichmann against the Israeli judges. There was never any suggestion that the three judges, all of them German Jews, did not have strong views about the Holocaust. It was assumed that they did. How could that not be the case? The Supreme Court of Israel ruled that professional judges would set aside their opinions and judge in an impartial manner.


  1. On the basis of this experience, would you accept future assignments from the HRC or OHCHR? Were you a victim of a campaign of defamation waged by UN Watch, NGO Monitor, etc.?


Of course I will continue to serve the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. These two institutions are central to the international protection of human rights.

The charges of bias against me were nothing more than a witch-hunt, something reminiscent of McCarthyism. Shortly after I was appointed, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach published full-page ads in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post attacking my appointment. These were full of vicious lies. They dealt with matters that had nothing whatsoever to do with the mandate of the Commission. For example, I was described as a ‘friend of Iran and its genocidal former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’. This is simply a lie. In 2012, I was a member of the Iran Truth Commission that condemned the Iranian regime for gross violations of human rights. In 2011, I accompanied filmmaker Sandra Schulberg to Tehran in order to show her film Nuremberg, Its Lesson for Today. I spoke there about the Holocaust to young Iranians, confronting denialism and anti-Semitism in the lion’s den, so to speak.


  1. Overall, what did you learn from this experience that bears on the role and limitations of the UN? Is the Israel/Palestine conflict a special case? What can be

done to depoliticize the process of such fact finding and policy making undertakings? Did the approach of the Canadian Government of not backing its own citizens play a role in making you more vulnerable to the Israeli pushback?


I think that Israel and Palestine is indeed a special case in UN activity because of the highly politicized context. Fact finding commissions dealing with Syria, Libya and North Korea simply do not confront the hysteria associated with Israel and Palestine. Israel argues that it is a victim of double standards at the Human Rights Council. But it is a beneficiary of double standards at the other Council. This is a nasty, toxic matter. But the job must be done. I hope that those who will be called upon to pursue these issues within the United Nations will not be intimidated by stories of the intense and vicious attacks to which I was subjected, including death threats and unceasing abuse on the internet, much of it quite vile, violent and even racist. The language employed by Israel’s leaders contributes to this terrible atmosphere and, at least indirectly, incites the more fanatical participants. Last week, Foreign Minister Liberman likened me to Cain, a man who murdered his own brother. I must confess to having punched my brothers a few times, when I was much younger, but I have never murdered anyone! The Israeli representative to the UN described me as ‘Dracula’. But such analogies only contribute to the violent tone of the discussions.

Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird, denounced my appointment. I’m a Canadian citizen who has served his country in a variety of ways. I am an Officer in the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honours. The current government of Canada is run by a nasty, right-wing bunch who have greatly tarnished the country’s once rather noble position in the field of human rights. Their reactionary positions are well known within the Human Rights Council and, more generally, the United Nations. It would have been an embarrassment if Baird had approved of my appointment.


  1. On balance, how would you compare this COI with that chaired by Goldstone? My impression is that with Goldstone, there was a posture of noncooperation, but no public campaign until the report was issued, and then an ugly multi-level campaign took shape, and led to his partial retraction and total discrediting (especially as he acted without the support of the other three members with whom he apparently did not even consult). How should such COIs be structured in the future? (you may know that my successor as SR had no prior knowledge, and has made the position almost invisible, which may have been the intention).


I wish I had a good answer to your question. It is tempting to say that in the future, the UN should vet appointees in the way that US government officials vet judicial nominees and similar appointments. As you know, there is no shortage of judges in the US who get through congressional approval because they don’t seem to have ever had an opinion about abortion or capital punishment and similar issues. Maybe the UN can identify a similar cohort of human rights experts who have never had opinions on important issues. Given that the nature of human rights work involves participating in various forms of activism, that may prove more difficult than similar exercises in the US judiciary. And it is also likely to eliminate some of the best qualified candidates from the pool.

What I would like to see is more pushback on these wrong and unfair charges of bias and conflict of interest. Some clarification on what is and what is not acceptable would make things clearer. I would like to see some UN guidelines that spell out the fact that the mere fact of having expressed opinions about a situation or a crisis does not disqualify someone from being a member of a Commission of Inquiry or serving in some similar function. It could also be made clear that providing a legal opinion in the past on a matter not directly related to the subject-matter of a commission is not a conflict of interest. The charge of bias seems far too easy to throw around. When it gets before courts, as it did in the International Court of Justice and the Supreme Court of Israel, it doesn’t get much traction, however. Let us get more clarity on this within the UN so that demagogic charges of bias can be knocked out early.

Terrorism, Torture, and the Problem of Evil in Our Time

31 Dec

Reading Confessions of a Terrorist: a novel by Richard Jackson (published by Zed Books, London & New York, 2014, $24.95, £16.99)


Richard Jackson, a professor of peace studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, has written a probing political essay that takes the form of an imagined dialogue between a British interrogator and an Egyptian terrorist who is apparently thought at the time of their conversation to be the mastermind of an imminent attack on Great Britain. Jackson is a well-regarded expert on the politics and tactics of terrorism and counterterrorism.


The novel complicates our understanding of such fundamental questions as ‘what is terrorism?’ ‘who are the terrorists?’ ‘when is violence justified?’ ‘is torture ever justified?’ ‘what is the proper balance between resistance and violence against the innocent?’ ‘is there an effective alternative to violence in conditions of foreign occupation? The motivation of those who choose violent resistance against various forms of oppression are depicted in a balanced and perceptive way, as well as the life choices made by individuals who forsake ‘normalcy’ to pursue radical political goals are sensitively explored.


There is a narrative line that keeps the reader engaged, and slightly disoriented. The text of the novel is presented to the reader in the format of an official government transcript replete with redactions and occasional italicized comments made by a higher ranking bureaucrat who recommends various deletions so as to avoid causing adverse impressions on politicians and public opinion. The interrogator acknowledges from time to time the validity of his captive’s arguments, but by contrast the commentary by the bureaucrat is totally devoid of affect, concerned only with saving face in the event of exposure, and has recourse to various devices to cover up any disclosures in the transcript that could prove awkward if exposed.


Part of what makes Confessions such an effective book is its non-judgmental tone that accepts this role-playing dynamic in which the two characters largely choose their respective ‘careers’ on the basis of their distinct social locations and individual experience. Neither is presented as morally superior to the other. Above all, morality and legality are sidelined by according priority to the higher callings of ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ by both characters—by the interrogating official and by the terrorist (addressed as ‘professor’ because he had been a professor economics in Egypt before joining the struggle). There is a spirit of mutual recognition, which occasionally lapses into an attitude of appreciation. Each person is responding to a challenging situation in an understandable manner, and yet each at the same time passes judgment on the dirty work of his counterpart. The interrogator is dragged through the counterterrorist mud by ‘the professor’ while the terrorist is humanized by linking his violent behavior to his deep experience of intolerable realities of inequality and oppression. In the end both men seem to coexist on a plane of ethical equivalence, with each destined to play out their part as if entrapped in a tragic drama. The tone of Confessions contrasts with American neocon Manicheanism, epitomized by the simplistic language of George W. Bush who insists that the CIA torturers were ‘patriots’ (and good) while their victims were ‘terrorists’ (and evil).


Jackson leaves readers on their own to contemplate the carnage and suffering caused by the actual encounters taking place in the real world, inevitably raising concerns as to whether there might be a better way to organize the collective life of the planet. In other words, can the characters in the novel escape from their assigned roles?


With nuclear weapons under the control of as many as nine governments and trends toward global warming showing few signs of abatement, the hegemonic and militarized dynamics of control and resistance seem dangerously precarious compulsions, threatening future catastrophe, and maybe even species annihilation. It seems to me that the sub-text of Confessions, if I am not (mis)reading is the question that haunted many of Jacques Derrida’s later reflections: are societies capable of finding ways to live together in peace and harmony? Not just to get along or cohabit, but to enjoy the reality of the other in sustainable and mutually satisfying ways. Even positing such an aspiration amid the turmoil and strife of our lifeworld strikes an irresponsibly utopian note. Perhaps, Jackson doesn’t want us to go there at all, but to stop short, and be content to decode what these archetypal adversaries of contemporary state/society relations are really saying and doing. If this is indeed the intention, we can thank Jackson for bestowing an excellent pedagogical tool that can serve us well in classrooms and life circumstances.


While the dialogue proceeds, there is also a drama of sorts mysteriously unfolding. It becomes unclear toward the end who is the prisoner of whom, and the entire plot thickens, raising the broad question as to which side has the upper hand in these titanic struggles of our time. In effect, is there ‘a right side’ of history that will eventually prevail, or are we forever doomed to be afflicted by the toxic dialectics of violence? The collapse of European colonialism suggests one kind of answer, but the rise of neoliberalcapitalism suggests another. These larger concerns are not addressed directly by this fundamental interplay between violence from below and violence from above, which is what our preoccupation with whether such a struggle can be restrained within limits (respecting prohibitions on torture, refraining from targeting schools and hospitals) or is inevitably controlled by revolutionary absolutes.


The decision to have the interrogator be British, not American, seems odd at first, appearing to divert attention from the core global encounter, but on further thought, there is a supporting rationale. The colonial background of Britain in the Middle East may be a more valid perspective than the more conventional focus on the post-colonial role being played by the United States throughout the world.


Whatever else, Jackson has written a page-turning and thought-provoking book, which is highly recommended to anyone perplexed by this incurable scourge of violence. Although its characters are invented and the dialogue imagined, the reading experience is uncomfortably closer to non-fiction than fiction. In this instance, the imagined world is the real world! You can get a fuller sense of Richard Jackson’s thinking by visiting his consistently intelligent blog <> The foreign offices and intelligence services of the world should have been required to read his posts on ISIS, which might have encouraged some thinking outside the militarist box, which is long overdue.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,133 other followers