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Human rights After the Failed Coup in Turkey

14 Aug

Human rights After the Failed Coup in Turkey

 

[Prefatory Note: This article was first published in openGlobalRights, a section of openDemocracy, on August 11, 2016. It appears here as a post in a modified form.]

 

The July 15th failed coup in Turkey is a momentous occurrence, with uncertain implications for the future of the country, and serious reverberations regionally and with respect to relations between Turkey and the United States and Europe. It has already been designated as a new  Turkish national holiday, and the main bridge over the Bosporus has been renamed ‘15th of July.’ Although many commentators rightly point to the risk to the rule of law posed by the sweeping post-coup suspensions, dismissals, and detentions, too few qualify these criticisms with a recognition that the defeat of the coup attempt was a major unambiguous victory for human rights and democracy, undoubtedly saving the country from a revival of past militarily oppressive tutelage and likely massive civil strife that could have easily become one more devastating multi-stakeholder Middle Eastern civil war.

 

 The US and Western government’s criticisms of post-coup excesses would also carry more weight if important political leaders in the West had shown less ambivalence at the time of the attempted coup, and indicate their acceptance of the now well established allegations that the coup was plotted by a cleric given sanctuary in the US and carried out by those affiliated with a secretive cult headed by Fetullah Gülen. For the harshest Turkish critics of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the coup was initially actually portrayed as ‘a counter-coup’ in reaction to the President’s alleged override of the constitutional system through his extra-legal and autocratic assumption of supreme leadership. Such critics often even call the July 15th events ‘a theater coup’ staged by the government to create a favorable political climate to further satisfy Erdoğan’s grandiose ambitions. For supporters of Erdoğan the coup attempt was a confirmation of earlier accusations and anxieties that there existed deeply embedded in the Turkish bureaucracy, including its armed forces and intelligence service, a dangerous parallel political structure that was intent on seizing control of the state without recourse to democratic procedures.

 

Three weeks later, at least within the country, almost all Turkish citizens except those implacably hostile to the AKP government are convinced that it was a genuine military coup attempt by the Gülen movement. Further, there is agreement that its defeat is highly beneficial for the country’s immediate future, and may have created a new set of circumstances in Turkey that could produce a more responsible political atmosphere, including a less polarized political discourse, allowing the opposition parties to play a more useful role in evolving a vibrant democratic political culture.

 

 These potentialities contain extraordinary promise if measured against the poisonous political environment that had existed in Turkey prior to July 15th, with the opposition inalterably opposed  to all aspects of the AKP approach to governance and intensely distrustful of Erdoğan. During the coup attempt the three major opposition parties (including the Kurdish HDP) signed a declaration of unity denouncing the coup attempt and pledging support for democratic procedures, including the rule of law. After this, Erdoğan invited the leaders of the two main opposition parties to the Presidential Mansion (yet unfortunately excluding the HDP) for a meeting to sustain this new spirit of cooperation and also to take an active part in the great national Yenkapı demonstration of August 7th that was attended by several million enthusiastic supporters of the government.

 

This display of unity among politicians in Turkish society is strongly, if cautiously, backed by views prevalent among the citizenry. Despite persisting concerns about  Erdoğan’s leadership, no tears are being shed for the coup plotters. A Turkish consensus exists that July 15th was the sinister work of the Hizmet movement led by Fetulllah Gülen. For years, I had heard a variety of concerns about this movement, operating in secrecy, publicly preaching a doctrine of Islamic moderation while acting with the cultic devotion of political fanatics. It was known that Hizemt was collaborating with and supportive of the AKP until at least 2009 or 2010 after which a widening split occurred, climaxing prior to the coup attempt on December 17, 2013 when the so-called attempted ‘corruption coup’ occurred. The exposure of corruption at high levels of the AKP led to the resignation of four ministers, but did not deeply shake AKP control or greatly diminish public confidence. In many ways July 15th is being interpreted as a violent Gülenist sequel to their failed hopes of December 17th.

 

It’s worth noting that Turkish political culture had passively reacted to prior coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. In 2016, the citizenry with Erdoğan’s decisive and dramatic encouragement massively and courageously opposed the effort to engineer a military takeover of the Turkish state. This popular involvement in the defense of constitutionalism is a momentous shift in favor of participatory democracy (defending the elected leaders) and the rule of law (upholding the constitutional paths to political control). It is an occasion of populist empowerment that has been extended in the following period by nightly mass rallies in every medium sized and large city in Turkey.

 

There is an obvious, and intriguing, comparison with events in Egypt over the course of the last five years. Egypt inspired the Arab World in 2011 by the display of the power of a mobilized people to challenge an autocratic and corrupt government, and overthrow a despised, dictatorial leader. The uprising against the Mubarak regime was actually facilitated by the neutrality of the Egyptian armed forces, and its later pledge to guide the country toward constitutional democracy. However, two years later, a military coup with populist backing occurred to overthrow the elected leadership headed by Mohamed Morsi. At present, Egypt is governed by an autocratic leadership that is even more oppressive than what existed during the three decades of Mubarak’s rule. This disappointing return to Egypt’s authoritarian past did confirm the historical agency of ‘the people’ for better and for worse. This is something new in Middle East politics where prior changes in governance almost always resulted from top down challenges reflected tensions within ruling elites. One important exception was the anti-Shah mass movement of 1978-79 in Iran that gave rise to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

 

In Turkey, it was an expression of Erdoğan’s political genius to have recognized at a moment of national crisis that the vast majority of the Turkish people would stand with and fight for the government rather than support the coup attempt; and they did, of course, occupying  key public sites on the night of July 15th, most notably at the Istanbul Airport., and persisting in many encounters as unarmed martyrs in the face of gunfire from coup supporters.

 

 The signals are now mixed as to what will be the effects of the coup on democracy and human rights in Turkey.  On the one side, is the seeming switch on Erdoğan’s part to a more inclusive style of political leadership that had been noticeably absent in recent years. It would be welcome news indeed if Erdoğan abandons the sort of majoritarian democracy that led to his defiant disregard of opposition concerns rationalized as heeding the AKP electoral mandate. Far less encouraging is the seeming over-reaction to the coup attempt expressed by dismissing as many thousands from educational institutions and continuing interference with a free and critical media, although almost all of this journalistic crackdown has been directed at outlets affiliated with the Gülen movement. Unlike the large dismissals from the armed forces and several branches of government, these attacks on the institutions of a free society, do not seem justifiable poat-coup efforts to purge public institutions of dangerous and subversive elements. However, some appreciation of the context is warranted. The Gülen movement infiltrated and transformed the educational system as a way of gaining credentials for its followers to penetrate private and public sectors in Turkey, establishing over the course of decades powerful networks of subversive influence that subordinated their activities to the hierarchical directives of the sect. They also established a large number of media outlets to disseminate their views.

 

There are external dimensions of the post-coup realities that also complicate the picture, especially the feeling among the Turkish public and politicians that the United States was improperly involved in the coup attempt and, at best, neutral about its defeat. This issue of external solidarity is further being tested by whether the formal request of the Turkish government that Fetulllah Gülen be extradited in accordance with treaty obligations will be honored by the United States, enabling his criminal prosecution, and possibly involving the imposition of the death penalty. Extradition faces formidable technical difficulties. The legal defense of Gülen is sure to include several contentions: that he cannot  receive a fair trial in Turkey;  that Gülen’s activity was ‘political,’ and as such non-extraditable; that evidence of his specific intent in relation to the coup attempt is not present in a legally satisfactory form; and  that efforts to restore the death penalty in Turkey to allow a court to decree his execution  would be retroactive, and thus contrary to due process.

 

Despite the legal difficulties of granting extradition, should it be refused or too long delayed whatever the reasons given, Turkish anger will be intense. In Turkish public opinion harboring Gülen can be understood as roughly equivalent to what Americans would have felt if Turkey had given safe haven to Osama Bin Laden after 9/11; it is helpful to recall that the US felt justified in a regime changing military attack on Afghanistan just because the Kabul government was giving sanctuary to the al-Qaeda leadership and permitting its training facilities to take place. Turkish suspicions are inflamed by the realization that Graham Fuller, former CIA bureau chef in Turkey, together with other CIA former officials, sponsored Gülen’s application for ‘a green card’ legalizing permanent residence in the United States since 1999, reportedly visited Turkey shortly before the coup attempt, and published a pro-Gülen opinion piece strongly defending the movement and Gülen’s probable innocence with respect to the July 15th events. Fuller’s portrayal of Gülen flies in the face of many seemingly reliable insider accounts of how Hizmet movement members plotted, subverted, and were obedient to orders attributed to Gülen.

 

 

As of now, despite all the uncertainties, the failure of the coup attempt should be viewed as one of the few success stories of recent Middle East history. Whether this positive impression will soon be erased by repressive developments inside Turkey is uncertain.  Much depends upon whether post-coup political unity is sustained and deepened, and whether a bold initiative is taken to reach an accommodation with the Kurdish movement that has been violently engaged with the Ankara government in recent months. It seems important for outsiders to be patient and to exhibit sympathy with the efforts of the Turkish government and its leaders to rise to these daunting post-coup challenges without unduly compromising human rights and the rule of law in Turkey. The world accorded the United States the benefit of the doubt after 9/11, and it should do no less for Turkey in the aftermath of July 15th. So far the responses from the United States and Europe have been tepid at best, serving to confirm the widespread feelings here in Turkey that somehow the coup attempt was directly or indirectly related to the belief that Washington could more effectively work with Turkey if the country was led by someone other than Erdoğan. No one has speculated on Washington’s Plan B if extradition is denied spurring Turkey to realign with Russia,, Iran, and possibly China. As of now, before the coup attempt, the Turkish foreign policy reset involved moving toward equi-distance diplomacy toward Russia and Iran, offset in its adverse Western strategic perceptions by moves to normalize relations with Israel.

 

Finally, in this period it is probably wise to separate human rights concerns from an appraisal of Turkish constitutional democracy. It is quite possible that present tendencies toward a more inclusive democracy will continue, and at the same time, denials of human rights are almost certain to persist, and justify scrutiny and vigilance.    

 

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Context Matters: Turkey After the Failed Coup

2 Aug

 

 

 

 

The legendary American pro-football coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, famously remarked when asked about his sports philosophy, “Winning isn’t everything. It is the only thing.” In thinking about the Turkish failed coup I paraphrase Lombardi: “Context isn’t everything. It is the only thing.” Without an adequate depiction of context every inflamed political happening is twisted in its presentation to fit the preconceived notions of the commentator opening the way for endless polemics. I am aware that as ‘a commentator’ I am subject to the same standards that I apply to those with whom I disagree. By being attentive to context, at least there is added an important degree of transparency and even self-scrutiny, enabling others to evaluate the line of interpretation put forward.

 

The element of context that I wish to underscore is that of location: distinguishing the interpretation of the events in question by persons mostly inside or mostly outside Turkey. I have been struck in recent days by the extent to which friends, opinion piece writers, journalists, and politicians writing from outside of Turkey are preoccupied with what the Turkish government has done wrong since the coup, especially presenting the post-coup as an atmosphere where Erdoğan is opportunistically pursuing his authoritarian goals under the false banner of enhancing the security of the state.

In contrast, most friends and commentators inside Turkey, including those holding similar critical political views to the outsiders, emphasize the encouraging and generally responsible steps being taken by the government since of July 15th and the widely shared belief, including among strong Erdoğan critics, that this is a time for unity and a shared sense that the defeat of the attempted coup benefitted the whole of Turkish society.

 

Of course, these generalizations are nothing more than strong impressions. It is obvious that there are a wide range of insider and outsider accounts of the failed coup in both groups, including a considerable overlap, but at least from my limited angle of vision there differences worth noticing.

 

Writing from inside the country is one reason why I feel far more sympathetic with the real insiders, and believe that an essential difference is one of context with respect to location. Those outside, influenced especially by the domination of the political discourse by strident anti-Erdoğan, anti-AKP intellectuals and media in Europe and North America, devote almost all of their attention to post-coup abridgements of freedoms, the anti-democratic state of emergency, and to finding signs pointing to the further advancement of Erdoğan’s autocratic agenda by taking advantage of the surge of popular support for the government that is allegedly reinforced by the intimidation of oppositional viewpoints.

 

There is another feature underscoring the relevance of location, which results from greater familiarity with and proximity to the accused culprits, giving real meaning within Turkey to the political truism, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ The wide public acceptance of the allegation that the coup was both genuine and the work of the quasi-religious, secretive, and cultic movement led by Fetullah Gülen has created a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt with respect to most of the steps so far taken by the government. The international media has not reacted in a similar fashion. It has surrounded the attempted coup with a series of question marks. In particular, it has suggested that maybe the coup was undertaken by discontented secular elements in the Turkish armed forces rather than by Gülenist forces or FETÖ (Fetullahist Terror Organization).

 

Those inside, tend to take greater notice of Erdoğan’s apparent return to a pre-2011 more pragmatic and inclusive approach to governance during these two weeks since the coup attempt. During this period Erdoğan has also been leading the effort to eliminate from government and civil society those who actively support FETÖ. The risk of leaving many coup sympathizers in places of influence within the various bureaucracies of government is disturbing to many not otherwise supportive of AK Party (AKP; Justice and Development Party) leadership. It is to be expected that for the country’s elected leaders who were nearly assassinated the issue of purging government of suspects touches directly issues of personal survival. This immediate concern is often confused with longer range efforts to prevent the educational system from nurturing FETÖ loyalists, which helps explain the closing of all military high schools that had been a prime recruiting site for Fetullahists.

 

By and large, Erdoğan’s public demeanor of calmness since the coup attempt has also been reassuring to the general public here in Turkey. It goes along with his welcome decision to drop the numerous pending criminal cases underway to prosecute those accused of violating a Turkish law that prohibits insulting the president. Such charges should never have been initiated in a democratic society that values freedom of expression, but what is worthy of comment is that at a time when Erdoğan is being accused of using the stressed atmosphere as a cover for his autocratic designs, he signals this new willingness not to punish his political adversaries as he is permitted to do under Turkish law. This move has been explicitly welcomed by Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, head of the Peoples Republican Party (CHP), the most prominent among those previously charged. Along a similar line is the rehabilitation of several prominent generals with known strong secular credentials, which seems part of this AKP unity platform to incorporate followers of Kemal Ataturk in the governing process, which if such a trend continues, is a major development.

 

Of course, considering the complexity and uncertainty of the post-coup reality, both insiders and outsiders are, at best, looking through ‘a glass darkly.’ There are many hidden factors, the situation is fluid, and there are appearances that could either vanish in a flash or become suddenly magnified. Aside from the Gülenist threat, the biggest internal problem facing Turkey is posed by the ongoing struggle with the large Kurdish minority, which may turn out to be the decisive test of whether these post-coup gestures of political unity evolve into a new and more hopeful form of political development for the country.

 

I believe insiders are also more aware of some troubling features that seem of less consequence to the West and the Turkish diaspora—that is, the popular mobilization that are nightly filling the city squares since the night of the coup attempt and will continue until August 7th. At first this show of wildly enthusiastic support for the nation and government, undoubtedly not anticipated by the coup leaders, is correctly regarded by Turkish public opinion as having played a major role in turning the tide of battle on the night of 15th. However, the daily continuation of these populist displays could tempt political leaders to engage in demagogic politics. If such an atmosphere persists it would likely lead to the abandonment of the tentative depolarizing steps taken to soften the religious/secular divide.

 

So far, an impressive dimension of the internal context is being established by the long dominant opposition party, CHP (Republican People’s Party), leading the way, with the backing of Erdoğan, toward exhibiting a post-coup consensus that contrasts with the toxic polarization that has characterized Turkish politics ever since the AKP prevailed in the 2002 elections. The Chair of the CHP, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu commented in this spirit, saying his party’s “biggest wish’ was the continuation of this atmosphere of “reconciliation”: “Today an atmosphere of reconciliation and mutual listening has emerged in politics. My biggest wish is for the maintenance of this atmosphere. My second biggest wish is for the enlargement of a common ground.” Whether this mood lasts or not, such a statement is quite extraordinary against the background of unrelenting opposition by the CHP to every previous step taken by the Erdoğan led government over the course of many years. Erdoğan also deserves credit for fully joining this effort with symbolic and substantive steps, including inviting the CHP and the more rightest MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) to the presidential palace for joint discussions on future policy. The picture is not entirely encouraging as the Kurdish party, HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), although joining with the CHP and MHP in denouncing the coup attempt before the outcome of the struggle for control of the Turkish state was clearly known, did not receive an invitation to attend the meeting in his residence. Such an omission could be more innocently interpreted as an effort to find common ground among the three main political parties on how to address the Kurdish challenge given this altered set of national priorities, and this could be more effectively done with the HDP representative absent.

 

This fragile collaborative tendency does not imply a willingness of the opposition to accept Erdoğan’s approach or even the absence of sharp policy disagreements with respect to such coup related issues as disputes about the application of due process to those accused of Gülenist complicity and affiliations or AKP-led encouragement of the restoration of capital punishment. There are serious criticisms being made of the way some journalists who wrote for Gülenist media have been arrested, mistreated, and charged. Also there are a variety of protests objecting to the dismissals of large number of academicians, dismissed from their jobs in ways likely to harm their career and impose material hardship. These developments are unacceptable and should be opposed, but criticism to be persuasive within the country needs to be contextualized by reference to the intense anxieties raised by the attempted coup and a preoccupation with how to guard against a second attempt.

 

It is helpful for these critics to recall reliance on torture of suspects and detention of Muslims in the United States after 9/11, the establishment of the notorious Guantanamo detention center to imprison Al Qaeda suspects many of whom turned out to be innocent, and the shocking Abu Ghraib prison abuses. These unfortunate developments occurred in reaction to an extremely threatening national experience by the world’s most admired and militarily strongest constitutional democracy. As these events unfolded after the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, the United States was rarely censured by the international media for these encroachments on human rights, but was mainly treated as having endured provocations on such a scale as to justify a temporary suspension of judgment until months later when spectacular abuse became known to the public.

 

This temporary mellowing of domestic politics in Turkey reflects a provisional, substantively significant, inter-party consensus. This is an unexpected reaction to the coup attempt is a reflection of the overall acceptance of the official Ankara version of the July 15th events. Accusing Gülenists is now widely accepted and obsessively discussed across the political spectrum within the country, including the particularly the sinister role played by those called ‘putschists’ in mounting their violent challenge to governance by a fairly elected leadership. This violence included the killing of unarmed Turkish civilians and the bombing of the Turkish Parliament building. Prior Turkish coups had been deftly executed and were relatively bloodless so far as the general population was concerned, despite being harshly vindictive toward displaced leaders and their supporters during the post-coup aftermath. As in 1960 when the elected prime minister, Adnan Menderes was publically hanged, and large numbers imprisoned, dismissed from their jobs, and executed. Or in 1980 when university faculties were purged, numerous journalists imprisoned, and thousands lost public sector jobs. Despite these excesses the international outcry in reaction to past Turkish coups was muted, even sympathetic, due to the geopolitical and ideological context. Since the post-coup targets of repression were concentrated on the secular left it was in keeping with Cold War priorities championed by the US Government. In effect, geopolical context matters as much as or more than the location of the observer. In this regard, it is instructive to compare the cascade of post-July 15 criticism and scrutiny that has been directed at Turkey with the soft international landing given to the 2013 Sisi coup in Egypt, which was not even called a coup by Washington, despite its seizure of power from elected leaders, exceptionally bloody aftermath. In Egypt as was the case for Turkey in 1980 there were several strong political reasons to welcome the results and forego complaints.

 

 

In relation to Turkey, despite the complex challenge directed at the Erdoğan leadership after the failed coup, Europeans and American public figures have been quick to express their criticisms and admonitions in isolation from their Turkish post-coup context. Federica Mogherini, the current EU official responsible for foreign policy, condescendingly urging restraint upon the Turkish government, insisting that Turkey be held responsible if it exceeds ‘proportionate’ post-coup responses, whatever that might mean. Did the EU issue any cautionary response when France declared a state of emergency after the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015 and extended it in response to the mid-July truck massacre in Nice? This posture of moral tutelage directed at Turkey is definitely an expression of a colonialist mentality that continues to bias Euro-American thinking about Turkish political realities.

 

There are a variety of well intentioned civil society petitions being circulated abroad, warnings issued, including calls for the suspension of EU accession negotiations. Some in the West have even urged the suspension of Turkey from NATO membership in view of alleged human rights infringements during the post-coup period. Some responses in the West are so wildly exaggerated as to be suspect. Consider the outburst by Tom Brake, the foreign affairs spokesperson of the Liberal Democrat Party in the UK. Brake argued that the wave of arrests in Turkey “should send shivers down the spine of any person who believes in a free and open society.” “Erdoğan’s ongoing purge of newspapers, academics, teachers and judges has nothing to do with Turkey’s security and everything to do with blocking opposition to his increasingly authoritarian rule.” Again it is helpful to wonder why the much worse crackdown after the Egyptian coup of three years ago received so little critical attention and the Turkish reaction to a truly frightening challenge to the political system has been so harshly judged.

 

It is no doubt useful and constructive in this period to express cautionary concerns about controversial initiatives taken by the Turkish government, and specifically, Erdoğan, in this post-coup period, while at the same time showing sensitivity to the urgent necessity for the government to restore security for the public and to rebuild confidence in relation to the armed forces, intelligence, judiciary, the police. Such a nuanced viewpoint is admirably contextualed by Mustafa Akyol, among others. In a column published in the Hürriet Daily News, July 30-31, 2016 Akyol couples an appropriate tone of sensitivity to the need for action against those suspected of potentially harmful associations with the Gülen movement with critical comments focused on the extension of punitive action to Gülen sympathizers, including journalists and academics, who pose no plausible threat. Akyol is a credible observer of the present scene partly because he was such a high profile critic of Erdoğan’s leadership. He is an internationally known commentator on Turkish developments who is as a regular contributor to the opinion pages of the New York Times. Akyol incidentally strongly endorses the view that the weight of the evidence supports blaming the coup attempt on the Gülenists, and their leader.

 

Here again, context matters. Turkey is confronted by a situation where it is nearly impossible to distinguish reliably between friends and enemies, and where the failure to do so could in the future make the difference between life and death for individuals and could possibly close down the democratic governing process in Turkey altogether. There remains much concern that a second coup attempt could be soon organized by Gülenist forces responsible for the July 15th attempt who are still believed here to retain their positions within the Turkish governmental machinery. If you are worried along these lines, you are likely to act more vigorously than if you don’t.

 

To invoke a bit of folk wisdom, ‘it doesn’t matter where you look, it’s what you see.” The Turkish post-coup context that I am experiencing makes me generally sympathetic with the efforts of the government and its leadership as part of its security policy to move toward a more inclusive democracy than existed during the last five years. If this development is sustained it will diminish the paralyzing effects of polarization that has prevented Turkey from achieving its political and economic potential nationally and internationally during the last decade or so.

 

It is yet to be seen whether the US Government can absolve itself from a widely suspected involvement with the Gülenists and their plots, and what this will mean for Turkey internally, regionally, and in relation to the European Union and NATO. The visit of the American Chief of Staff, his pledge of American solidarity with the Turkish government, although belated, at least recognizes the importance of correcting the belief here in Turkey that the US was directly or indirectly supportive of the July 15th attempt.

 

All in all, valuing context matters greatly when it comes to assessing Turkish reactions to the failed coup. Considering context is one way of trying to see as ‘the other’ sees. At this post-traumatic moment of political reconstruction Turkey deserves sympathy from the outside while it is seeking to maximize unity on the inside, and as the process proceeds, constructively encourage the leadership to correct some early reflexive moves taken in the name of internal security that could otherwise unjustly damage the life experience of many individuals and do great damage to the international reputation of the country. There exists a crucial challenge posed by the resumption of open warfare in the Kurdish region, and the importance of reviving a peace process that seeks inter-ethnic accommodation. Part of the prescribed contextualization, given Turkish realities, is to avoid premature international appraisals, admit underlying uncertainties, and allow enough imaginative space to enable a hopeful future for Turkey.                                

Smearing BDS Supporters

4 Jul

 

 

[Prefatory Note: An earlier version of this post was published with the title, “The Palestinian Struggle for Self-Determination: A New Phase?” in Middle East Eye, June 26, 2016. This version stresses the misappropriation of anti-Semitism as a propaganda weapon to smear pro-Palestinian activists, especially those supportive of the BDS Campaign. It also clarifies the issues of representation by explaining the formal differences between the PLO and PA, which do not seem presently consequential in my understanding; I am indebted to Uri Davis for bringing the distinction to my attention although he may not agree with my way of handling it.]

 

End of the Road?

 

There are many reasons to consider the Palestinian struggle for self-determination a lost cause. Israel exerts unchallenged paramilitary control over the Palestinian people, a political reality accentuated periodically by brutal attacks on Gaza causing massive civilian casualties and societal dislocation. Organized Palestinian armed resistance has all but disappeared, limiting anti-Israeli violence to the desperation of individual Palestinians acting on their own and risking near certain death by striking spontaneously with primitive knives at Israelis encountered on the street, especially those thought to be settlers.

 

Furthermore, the current internal dialogue in Israel is disinclined to view ‘peace’ as either a goal or prospect. This dialogue is increasingly limited to whether it seems better for Israel at this time to proclaim a one-state solution that purports to put the conflict to an end or goes on living with the violent uncertainties of a status quo that hovers uncomfortably between the realities of ‘annexation’ and the challenges of ‘resistance.’ Choosing this latter course means hardening the apartheid features of the occupation regime established in 1967. It has long had the appearance of a quasi-permanent arrangement that is constantly being altered to accommodate further extensions of the de facto annexations taking place within the Palestinian territorial remnant that since the occupation commenced was never more than 22% of British administered Palestine. It is no secret that the unlawful Israeli settlement archipelago is constantly expanding and Jerusalem is becoming more Judaized to solidify on the ground Israel’s claim of undivided control over the entire city.

 

Israel feels decreasing pressure, really no pressure at all aside from the ticking bomb of demographics, to pretend in public that it is receptive to a negotiated peace that leads to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The regional turbulence in the Middle East is also helpful to Israel as it shifts global attention temporarily away from the Palestinian plight, giving attention instead to ISIS, Syria, and waves of immigrants threatening the cohesion of the European Union and the centrist politics of its members. This gives Israel almost a free pass and Palestinian grievances have become for now a barely visible blip on the radar screens of public opinion.

 

Recent regional diplomacy strengthens Israeli security. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey seek normalized relationships with Israel, Egypt is again supportive of Israeli interests, and the rest of the region is preoccupied with internal strife and sectarian struggles. Even without the United States standing in the background giving unconditional security guarantees, ever larger aid packages, and serving as dutiful sentry in international institutions to block censure moves, Israel has never seemed as secure as it is now. The underlying question that will be answered in years to come is whether this impression of security is appearance or reality.

 

Yet even such a reassuring picture from Israel’s perspective, while accurate as far as it goes, creates misimpressions unless we consider some further elements. There exist a series of reasons for the Palestinians to believe that their struggle, however difficult, is not in vain. Although the French initiative to revive bilateral negotiations is unlikely to challenge effectively Israel’s unilateralism, it does suggest a possibly emerging European willingness to raise awkward questions about the continued viability of the United States claim to be exclusively entitled to act as the international intermediary of the conflict. The Oslo framework that has dominated international diplomacy since 1993 was fatally flawed from its inception by allowing the United States to play this brokering role despite its undisguised partisanship. How could the Palestinians ever be expected to entrust their future to such a skewed ‘peace process’ unless compelled to do so as a result of their weakness? And from such weakness and skewed diplomacy only fools and knaves would expect a sustainable peace based on the equality of the two peoples to follow.

 

This diplomacy was exposed for the charade it was, especially by the subversive impact of continuous Israeli unlawful settlement expansion that was dealt with by Washington with diminishing expressions of disapproval. And yet this diplomatic charade was allowed to go on because it seemed ‘the only game in town’ and it had the secondary political advantage of facilitating without endorsing Israel’s ambitions with respect to land-grabbing.

 

A question for the future is whether the French, or the Europeans, can at some point create a more balanced alternative diplomacy that serves both parties equally and conditions diplomatic engagement upon compliance with international law. Such a possibility seems at last to being tested, however tentatively and timidly, and even this modest challenge seems to be worrying Tel Aviv. The Netanyahu leadership is suddenly once more proposing yet another round of futile Oslo negotiations with the apparent sole purpose of undermining this French innovative gesture in case it unexpectedly gains political traction.

 

Realistically viewed, there is no present prospect of a political compromise achieving a sustainable peace. There needs first to be a change of leadership and political climate in Israel coupled with a more overall balance of international forces than has existed in the past. It is here we witness the beginnings of a new phase in the national struggle that the Palestinians have waged ever since the nakba occurred in 1948. Gone are the hopes of Palestinian rescue by the liberating armies of Arab neighbors or later, through organized Palestinian armed resistance. Gone also is the vain hope of a negotiated peace that delivers on the vain promise of an end to Israeli occupation and the birth of a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state within 1967 borders.

 

Palestinian ‘Statehood’

 

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)/Palestinian Authority (PA) [PLO represents the entirety of the Palestinian people whereas the PA technically represents only those Palestinians living under occupation; as a practical matter the two entities overlap, even merge, as Mahmoud Abbas is both Chair of the PLO and President of the PA; it is possible that as some point these two Palestinian organizations will act and operate separately and even at odds with one another] continue to represent the Palestinian people in global settings, including at the UN. Many Palestinians who are living under occupation and in exile consider the PA/PLO to be both ineffectual and compromised by corruption and quasi-collaboration with the occupiers. The PA/PLO on its side, after going sheepishly along with the Oslo process for more than twenty years, has begun finally to express its disillusionment by pursuing a more independent path to reach its goals. Instead of seeking Israel’s agreement to a Palestinian state accompanied by the withdrawal of its military and police forces, the PA/PLO is relying on its own version of diplomatic unilateralism to establish Palestinian statehood as well as trying to initiate judicial action to have Israeli policies and practices declared unlawful, even criminal.

 

In this regard, after being blocked by the United States in the Security Council, the PLO/PA obtained a favorable vote in the General Assembly according it in 2012 the status of ‘non-member statehood.’ The PA used this upgrading to adhere as a party to some widely ratified international treaties, to gain membership in UNESCO, and even to join the International Criminal Court. A year ago the PLO/PA also gained the right to fly the Palestinian flag alongside the flags of UN members at its New York headquarters.

 

On one level such steps seem a bridge to nowhere as the daily rigors of the occupation have intensified, and this form of ‘statehood’ has brought the Palestinian people no behavioral relief. The PLO/PA has established ‘a ghost state’ with some of the formal trappings of international statehood, but none of the accompanying governance structures and expectations associated with genuine forms of national sovereignty. And yet, Israel backed by the United States, objects strenuously at every step taken along this path of virtuality, and is obviously infuriated, if not somewhat threatened, by PLO/PA initiatives based on international law. Israel’s concern is understandable as this PLO/PA approach amounts to a renunciation of ‘the Washington only’ door to a diplomatic solution, and formally puts Israel in the legally and morally awkward position of occupying indefinitely a state recognized by both the UN and some 130 governments around the world. In other words, as we are learning in the digital age, what is virtual can also become real.

 

 

Recourse to BDS

 

There are other potentially transformative developments complicating an overall assessment. Partially superseding earlier phases of the Palestinian struggle is a growing reliance on global civil society as the decisive site of engagement, and a complement to various ongoing forms of non-cooperation, defiance, and resistance on the ground. The policy focus of the global solidarity movement is upon various facets of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign (or simply BDS) that is gaining momentum around the world, and especially in the West, including on American university campuses and among mainstream churches. This recourse to militant nonviolent tactics has symbolic and substantive potential if the movement grows to alter public opinion throughout the world, including in Israel and the United States. In the end, as happened in South Africa, the Israel public and leadership just might be induced to recalculate their interests sufficiently to become open to a genuine political compromise that finally and equally safeguarded the security and rights of both peoples.

 

At this time, Israel is responding aggressively in a variety of rather high profile ways. Its official line is to say that its continued healthy rate of economic growth shows that BDS is having a negligible economic impact. Its governmental behavior suggests otherwise. Israeli think tanks and government officials now no longer hide their worries that BDS poses the greatest threat to Israel’s preferred future, including increasing isolation and perceptions of illegitimacy. As one sign of the priority accorded this struggle against BDS, the Israeli lobby in the United States has enlisted the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate has signed up to bea militant anti-BDS activist. At the heart of this anti-BDS campaign is what is being increasingly identified as ‘a new McCarthyism,’ the insidious effort to attach punitive consequences for those who are overtly pro-BDS.

 

 

Smearing BDS

 

In this vein, Israel has launched its own campaign to punish and intimidate those who support BDS, and even to criminalize advocacy. The Israeli lobby has been mobilized around this anti-BDS agenda in the United States, pushing state legislatures to pass laws that punish corporations that boycott Israel by denying them access to the domestic market or declare that BDS activism is a form of hate speech that qualifies as virulent anti-Semitism. Israel is even seeking common cause with liberal Zionist J Street in the US to work together against BDS, an NGO that it had previously derisively dismissed. Support for Israel from the Clinton presidential campaign includes two disgraceful features: an explicit commitment to do what it can to destroy BDS and a promise to upgrade the special relationship still further, openly overcoming the friction that was present during Obama presidency.

 

It is not new, of course, to brand critics of Israel as anti-Semites. Those of us who have tried to bear witness to Israeli wrongdoing and promote a just outcome have been attacked with increasing venom over the course of the last decade or so. The attack on pro-Palestinian members of the British Labour Party as anti-Semites is part of this Zionist pushback. What is particularly disturbing is that many Western political leaders echo these defamatory and inflammatory sentiments, including even the current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who seems to be making some feeble amends as his term nears its end. Israel has no compunctions about attacking the UN as hostile and biased, while when convenient invoking its authority to discredit critics.

 

This inflation of the idea of anti-Semitism to cover activities protected by free speech and in the realm of responsible debate and citizen activism is on its own a regressive maneuver that deflects attention from the virulent history and outlook of those who hate Jews as individuals and support their persecution as a people. To attenuate the meaning of anti-Semitism in this way is to make the label much less ethically clear as it is improperly used to denigrate what should be permissible and even favored as well as what is properly condemned and socially rejected. To blur this boundary is to weaken the consensus on anti-Semitism that formed throughout the world after the Holacaust.

 

It is notable that this latest phase of Palestinian national struggle is mainly being waged nonviolently, and in a manner that accords with the best traditions of constitutional democracy. That Israel and Zionist hardliners should be opposing BDS by an ugly smear campaign exposes Israel’s vulnerability when it comes to the legitimacy of its policies and practices, and should give the Palestinians hope that their cause is far from lost.

General Golan’s Holocaust Remembrance Day Speech

15 May

The Holocaust Remembrance Day Speech of Major General Yair Golan

 

There are many reasons to lose sleep over the kind of leadership that has risen to the surface in almost every important sovereign state, and this dark generalization pertains as much to democracies as to authoritarian polities. As an American confronting the almost certain presidential choice in November between Clinton and Trump, the issue has assumed an immediacy that is not limited to what happens to the country after Americans voters choose between evils. This election affects the entire world. It should not be overlooked that the United States is the first global state in history. As such, it projects military, diplomatic, cultural, and political power globally, and yet the people impacted, sometimes protected but often victimized, have no vote. Those several billion foreign residents are disenfranchised from an election that may be as important as votes cast within their homeland, and thus if America goes badly wrong in coming years the price will be paid globally.

 

The problem posed extends beyond the morbidity of declining empire, and beyond the alarming prospects of further global warming and even the nuclear catastrophe that has waited decades to happen. This global embrace of disastrous governmental leadership exhibits the unleashing of self-destructive passions of peoples throughout the world in the form of wild-eyed support for demagogues and aspiring autocrats. We seem to be experiencing a global nihilistic mood that is engulfing politics in our time, causing widespread despair and alarm. This political trend is abetted by massive displacements brought about by masses of people fleeing from war torn and drought-stricken countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa. For this reason alone when voices shout bravely into the winds of disorder and depravity, we should listen intently, and respond with expressions of solidarity and gratitude.

 

The anti-democratic trends and leadership failures cannot be associated with the United States alone. Similar negative tendencies toward the militarism, corruption, and the autocratic consolidation of power are evident in Russia, China, Brazil, India, Japan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and elsewhere. In effect, there is a looming crisis of legitimacy pertaining to governance throughout the entire world, as particularized by crises of legitimate political leadership and of democratic governance.

 

I write these words as background for an expression of appreciation for the Holocaust Remembrance Day Speech earlier this month of Major General Yair Golan, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Speaking at Tel Yitzak Kibbutz, where the Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies is located, General Golan urged that this very special day of observance in Israel be treated as an occasion for soul-searching. He placed this call in an extraordinary context by suggesting that conditions in Israel were disturbing in ways relevant to the Holocaust, horror of horrors. In Golan’s words, “[i]t is scary to see horrifying developments that took place in Europe as a whole, and in Germany in particular, some 70, 80 and 90 years ago and finding evidence of those trends here among us, in 2016.” With obvious reference to the abuse of Palestinians the general observed: “It must bring us to some soul-searching as to responsibility of leadership and the quality of our society. It must lead us to fundamentally rethink how we, here and now, behave toward the other.” This barbed thought is reinforced with the observation, “[t]here is nothing easier than hating the stranger, nothing easier than to stir fears and intimidate.”

 

Golan concretized these abstractions calling for self-scrutiny through a reference to the recent incident in Hebron involving an IDF soldier, Elor Azarya, who shot in the head at point blank range a young Palestinian, Abd al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif, who was lying helpless on the ground after having been already shot, allegedly in reaction to have attempted a stabbing. Even more disturbing than this extra-judicial execution itself, has been the upsurge of grassroots support for Azarya in Israel based on the claim that he did the right thing.

 

General Golan made clear in his speech that he was speaking as a loyal Israeli who was intent on reviving a sense of higher national purpose that he felt to be in jeapardy. As he put it, “[w]e believe in the justice of our cause but not everything we do is just.” And more grandiosely, “[m]ost of all, we should ask how is that we are to realize our purpose as a light unto the nations and a model for our own people.”

 

Despite these closing assertions General Golan was immediately slammed by prominent leaders and in the mainstream media, including by Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, a rightest party leader and Minister of Education who was in the audience. Netanyahu called the remarks of General Yalon ‘outrageous’ with an effect that ‘cheapened’ the Holocaust. Miri Regev, Minister of Culture and Sport, insisted that Golan should resign his commission as it was unthinkable to have the “deputy chief of staff, a uniform-wearing officer, be a part of the delegitimation against Israel.”

 

It is important to acknowledge that up until now Israel remains enough of a democracy that a prominent military leader like Golan can raise serious concerns about deeply distressing national trends, specifically a failure to treat Palestinians with due regard for law and their dignity, and the uncomfortable reminder to the Jews of Israel that this was how the Nazis treated Jews in the period leading up to the Holocaust. Of course, such a comparison is obviously meant to be provocative, especially so I would suppose on the day of solemn remembrance set aside to recall Jewish suffering and victimization, as well as given the still raw memories of the grotesque behavior of Nazi Germany. General Golan’s basic ‘wrong’ was to invoke the wider resonance of such a past in the context of Israel’s own disregard of law and morality with respect to the Palestinian people, with particular emphasis on the victimization of those who have endured the draconian occupation for almost 50 years or have led wasted lives in refugee camps in neighboring countries.

 

It is encouraging to those of us that believe that the only tolerable future for both Israelis and Palestinians is a just peace that someone of General Golan’s profession and stature can engage so deeply in this treacherous work of self-scrutiny. The hostile reaction of Israeli leaders is to be expected given their extreme rightwing outlook. I found more disappointing and somewhat surprising the totally unconvincing statement of General Golan that his remarks never intended a comparison with Nazi Germany nor did he mean to criticize the current leadership of Israel. Considering the unmistakable meaning of his remarks, elaborated in ways that left no reasonable doubt in his audience as confirmed by the immediate high-level denunciations that his speech received. It is a great pity that pressures and critical reactions apparently led him to make this retreat. It is also surprising as the Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev noted that General Golan would have spoken as he did without anticipating a hostile reaction. As Shalev put it, either Golan was “brave or stupid or possibly both.”

 

As often is the case, the original understanding and plain meaning of General Golan’s speech will generate debate and reflection, and his retraction will be properly discounted as backing down in the face of aggressive pushback by the powers that be In Israel. Those in Israel most angered by General Golan oppose the slightest undermining of the Israeli remembrance of the Holocaust as challenging the Zionist portrayal of the Jew as eternal victim. Any words of critical self-scrutiny are unacceptable, especially if made by the country’s second most important military officer.

 

The question presented is whether this kind of commentary on Israel should be viewed as some serious crack in the Israeli establishment, considering that

remarks of this nature have come from dissident Israeli intellectuals and journalists for some years, including those who have emigrated in despair such as Ilan Pappé and Daniel Levy. Other Israel military officers and retired intelligence chiefs have said harsh politically incorrect things in recent years.

 

And on the government side there have been many signs of rightest extremism Perhaps none is more relevant than the rise of the Ayelet Shaked to prominence by being named Minister of Justice in the Netanyahu cabinet. It was Shaked who endorsed, if not advocated, a genocidal approach to the Palesetinians in a long Facebook posting during the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza, a notorious posture that received over a thousand ‘likes’ before being withdrawn. Shaked is also a staunch advocate of moving toward the formal designation of Israel as ‘a Jewish state,’ fostering ethnocracy at the expense of democracy through its disempowering of its 20% non-Jewish minorities.

 

What this pattern cumulatively expresses is the outcome of Israeli settler expansionism and prolonged occupation that has become calcified as an instance of apartheid, as well as severe and lengthy reliance on collective punishment in the aftermath of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. The widely admitted collapse of Israeli-Palestine diplomacy, within the Oslo framework, is part of Israeli turn toward militarist unilateralism in addressing Palestinian claims. I would contextualize General Golan’s remarks as a desperate outburst of concern, perhaps not consciously intended, as to what has become of the Zionist project, and fright as to where Israel is heading given trends in the treatment of Palestinian and their rights. Regardless of intentions, this is a message worth heeding.

 

In contrast to General Golan’s call for self-scrutiny, was the display of the dominant Israeli mood conveyed by the remarks made by Netanyahu, also on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. As is his usual point of departure, Netanyahu insisting on Israeli identity as eternal victim. He went on to consider the recent rise of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe. With typical hyperbole, Netanyahu compares current European anti-Semites to “Nazis who slandered Jews before destroying them.” Not content with such a frightening arousal of fear among Jews, Netanyahu lays the blame for this development on radical Islam without even a reference to the Christian neo-fascist resurgence in Europe, mainly reflecting nativist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic sentiments. Instead, Netanyahu, without naming the offenders, blames “British parliamentarians, senior Swedish officials, and opinion-makers in France” for entering into “odd pairings” with “barbaric fundamentalists, the persecutors of gays, destroyers of cultural treasures.” This is truly inflammatory rhetoric that exhibits total refusal to recognize the degree to which anti-Semitism, to the extent that it is genuinely increasing in Europe, derives not from radical Islam but from the perceived abuse of the Palestinian people and a denial of their rights. At the core of Netanyahu’s diatribe is an effort, now common among Zionist militants around the world, to act as if any serious criticism of Israeli policies and practices should be automatically treated as an embrace of anti-Semitism. Such an outlook has practical goals, especially to demonize the BDS campaign, and even to criminalize BDS and enact punitive measures against those that take part in this nonviolent transnational movement seeking justice and sustainable peace. It is shocking that United States politicians at the state and federal level are playing Netanyahu’s game, and thereby using the muscle of state power to weaken, if not destroy, the moral impulses of people of good will and active conscience who are seeking to oppose injustice and the denial of human rights by recourse to nonviolent initiatives.

 

There are two intertwined domains of radical concern: (1) the worldwide trend toward autocratic government in various forms, coupled with antipathy toward strangers and ‘others’; (2) the particularization of this trend as it is unfolding in the United States and Israel. There are nationalist variations that will be considered in future commentaries, as well as systemic explanations for why at a time of unprecedented global challenges, creative and progressive political energies are mainly in retreat, and being marginalized. It would seem that the kind of political imagination that would generate hope for the future of humanity is currently on life-support.

 

 

An Open Letter to Ban Ki-moon

12 Feb

[Prefatory Note: The post that follows is a modified version of an opinion piece published by Middle East Eye on 6 February 2016. Its focus on the metaphor of ‘shooting the messenger’ has usually been reserved for critics of Israel, and it is only when high officials depart from their scripted roles as faithful servants of the established order that their behavior results in demeaning rebukes. Israel and its most ardent defenders have been repeatedly guilty of shooting the messenger, thereby diverting attention from the damaging message by defaming the agent who delivered the message. It is a tactic that works, partly because the media finds character assassination more marketable than substantive commentary of a controversial nature. In my case, being frequently a messenger due to my UN role for six years, the nastier side of the attack tactics was to describe me (and others) as ‘a self-hating Jew’ or ‘anti-Semite.’ I tried to stay on message, largely ignoring the attacks, especially within the UN itself, but media coverage was preoccupied with an assessment of the personal vendetta that was difficult to ignore altogether without seemingly to acquiesce in the allegations. I should add that my tormenters extended beyond Mr. Ban Ki-moon and included others on the UN Watch mailing list including Susan Rice, then U.S. Ambassador at the UN, and high officials from other white settler countries, including Canada and Australia. Even the supposedly liberal Samantha Power, although previously a friendly acquaintance, joined the party, calling me biased and ill-suited for the position in statements to the press. She based her attack on the harshness of my criticisms leveled at Israel in my reports that highlighted the mismatch between their policies and practices as the Occupying Power in Palestine with the standards, duties, and principles set forth in the Geneva Conventions.]

 

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ban-ki-moon-benjamin-netanyahu 

Dear Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations:

 

Having read of the vicious attacks on you for venturing some moderate, incontestable criticisms of Israel’s behavior, I understand well the discomfort you clearly feel. Not since the Richard Goldstone chaired the group that released the report detailing apparent Israeli war crimes during its massive attack on Gaza at the end of 2008 have Israel’s big political guns responded with such unwarranted fury, magnified as usual by ultra-Zionist media commentary. Netanyahu has the audacity to claim that your acknowledgement that it is not unnatural for the Palestinians oppressed for half century to resist and resort to extremism is tantamount to the encouragement of terrorism, what he described as giving a “tailwind to terrorism.”

 

The fact your intention was quite the opposite hardly matters. Or your repeated denunciation of terrorism will be disregarded by these irresponsible critics whose sole objective is take attention away from the issues raised. Israel and its keenest supporters have found that there is no better way to do this than by defaming their critics, branding them as soft on terrorism or even as anti-Semites. And it makes no difference, whatsoever, that you have leaned over backwards during years as Secretary General, almost falling to the ground, to deflect even the most justifiable criticisms of Israel during your time as leader of the UN.

 

It is hardly surprising that you should respond to these attacks directed at you by way of a New York Times opinion piece that chides Israeli officials and Zionist zealots for ‘shooting the messenger’ and instead of heeding the message.[Ban Ki-moon, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger, Israel.” NY Times, Feb. 1, 2016] What both intrigues and appalls me is that while I was Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine during the period 2008-2014 you chose to attack me personally in public on several occasions, joining with U.S. and Israel diplomats calling for my dismissal and doing the utmost to undermine my credibility while I was working in this unpaid UN position under difficult conditions. At the time I was doing my best to bear witness to some of the same truths about Israel’s unlawful and immoral behavior that recently got you in similar hot water. My UN mandate was to report upon the reality of Israeli violations of international law while sustaining their apartheid regime of oppressive control over the Palestinian people. The Palestinians need and deserve such a voice as provided by the UN to make governments of the world more aware of their responsibility to take steps that will bring this unprecedented ordeal endured by the Palestinian people to an end. In carrying out these duties it is my hope that future UN Special Rapporteurs receive the support that they need from future Secretary Generals.

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In my case, hurt and offended by being so unfairly attacked by you, the highest UN official, I was encouraged by some highly placed officials in the UN Office of the High Commissioner in Geneva to seek some kind of explanation from you or your office, and hopefully even an apology. You never criticized my reports on Palestine or objected to my criticisms of Israel’s policies and practices, but rather focused your venomous remarks on some comments attributed to my views as expressed on my personal blog that were concerned with the 9/11 attacks and the Boston marathon bombings.

 

It was obvious to me from the content of your attack that you relied on a letter written by Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of UN Watch, Israel’s faithful watchdog NGO in Geneva, that gave my rather carefully qualified blog comments deliberately inflammatory twists, but like you seemed wary of engaging in any debate about the substance of my criticisms of Israel’s polices and practices in my reports. I called your office, and was referred to your affable aide de camp. He seemed immediately apologetic even before I was even able to register my complaint and explain to him my actual position on these controversial issues. After listening to what I had to say, he obliquely accepted my concerns by admitting that ‘we didn’t do due diligence,’ by which he evidently meant that the SG and his advisors relied on Neuer’s letter rather than reading what I actually wrote on the blog, which was nuanced and moderate in tone and content. This UN official volunteered a further explanation to the effect that “we were under great pressure at the time from the U.S. Congress, and this was an opportunity to show that we were not anti-Israeli.” He ended the conversation with a promise to talk with you, and get back to me. I am sad to say, this never happened.

 

This incident occurred while you were campaigning successfully for a second term as SG, and apparently wanted to reassure Washington that you would not rock the boat if reelected. I venture to say that if you had back then voiced such strong criticisms of Israel’s settlement policy or indicated a similar empathetic understanding of Palestinian resistance, you would never have received Washington’s blessings for a second term as Secretary General. I understand that your reticence back then was prudential, even a sensible, although dispiriting, concession to the realities of UN leadership. What I have trouble to this day understanding is your willingness, in old Soviet style, to defame by name a lowly UN holding a position as appointed volunteer, so as to beef up your credentials as a team player when it came to Israel. You even relied through a spokesperson at a news briefing on my status as someone outside the UN civil service to explain why you lacked the authority to dismiss me. Without contacting me in advance for an explanation or afterwards for an apology seems to me to exhibit an extreme version of bureaucratic immorality.

 

In light of this experience, I felt at the time that you were joining with others in shooting a messenger, and invoked the metaphor, who was seeking to convey some inconvenient truths about Israel’s behavior. These truths are rather similar to your own recent comments about the denial of Palestinian rights, especially with respect to the right of self-determination. The folk wisdom of ‘what goes around comes around’ seems to fit your plight. You who expediently took shots at the messenger are now taking umbrage when the tactic is directed at you. This response is reasonable in this instance but awkwardly inconsistent with your own past behavior. You say, “..when heartfelt concerns about shortsighted or morally damaging policies emanate from so many sources, including Israel’s closest friends, it cannot be sustainable to keep lashing out at every well-intentioned critic.” True, of course, but why only now? And only you?

 

Actually, although your critical stress on settlements and resistance is welcome and significant, your overall stance still falls far short of adopting a helpful way forward. You continue to insist misleadingly that compromises are called for by both sides in pursuing the goal of reaching a sustainable peace based on the establishment of Palestinian state. I find puzzling the assertion in your article that “..I am so concerned that we are reaching a point of no return for the two-state solution.” In your statement of 26 January to the Security Council you urge Palestinian unity as necessary so that the Palestinians “can instead focus their energies on establishing a stable state as part of a negotiated two-state solution.” Have you forgotten that every step taken by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to establish unity has been opposed by anger, reinforced by punitive pushback on Israel’s part, a response endorsed by the United States? And wasn’t that ‘point of no return’ reached some time ago, and certainly after what the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, proclaimed as ‘the last chance’ negotiations broke down in the Spring of 2014 after a year of trading allegations and achieving not a single positive result? And how, Mr. Ban, is a two-state solution to be achieved over the opposition and resolve of more than 600,000 Israeli settlers, with more expansion underway and even more promised?

 

You acknowledge being “disturbed by statements from senior members of the Israeli’s government that the aim [of a Palestinian state] should be abandoned altogether.” What you fail to say is that these ‘senior members’ include Israel’s elected prime minister, its president, its current ambassador to the UN. In light of this unified opposition to a two-state approach by Israel’s highest governmental leaders, how can you encourage reliance on this discredited diplomatic path that has resulted in an ongoing process of severe territorial encroachment on occupied Palestine and subjection to a regime of intensified suffering for the Palestinian people? Clinging to the two-state mantra is not neutral. Delay benefits Israel, harms Palestine. There is every reason to believe that this pattern will continue as long as Israel is not seriously challenged diplomatically and by Palestinian resistance, as well as by the sorts of growing pressures mounted by the international solidarity movement and the BDS campaign.

 

More widely, and important to understand, shooting the messenger is part of a broader Israel strategy to minimize attention given to substantive criticisms of their behavior. You are merely the latest victim, and one of the most highly placed. The intensity of defamation seems to be roughly proportional to the perceived impact of your criticism. In this sense, Mr. Secretary General, you have scored highly, especially due to your reminder to the Security Council that the UN will “continue to uphold the right of Palestinians to self-determination.” This is not the language Israel’s leaders hoped to hear coming from your lips, and hardly consistent with earlier your record of steadfast support for Israel that included condemning even the Second Freedom Flotilla that sought to deliver humanitarian assistance to Gaza. To be meaningful beyond a ritual affirmation, self-determination must be understood, given present realities, as something more and other than another delusionary embrace of a diplomatically negotiated two-state solution. At the very least, you might have urged the Security Council to consider the applicability of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) norm to relieving the anguish of Gazan captivity, a timely move considering that Netanyahu has been warning of yet another massive attack, promising that it will be even more lethal than the earlier one-sided massacres.

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You also tell the Security Council that “incitement has no place, and that questioning Israel’s right to exist cannot be tolerated.” Fair enough, but challenging Israel’s postures, policies, and practices should be placed high on the UN agenda of unfinished business if what you propose on behalf of the Palestinian people is ever to have the slightest chance of being achieved. We need all to realize what else should not be tolerated: while the Palestinian flag flies outside UN Headquarters, the Palestinian people have lived for almost 70 years under the daily brutalities of occupation, refugee camps, Gazan captivity, and involuntary exile. Can you bring yourself to call this ordeal ‘intolerable’? Then at least you could leave your UN post with a feeling that when your career was no longer in jeopardy you spoke truth to power.

 

Sincerely,

 

Richard Falk

UN Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council for Occupied Palestine (2008-2014)

Professor of International Law

The Complex Problematics of Palestinian Representation

30 Jan

 

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is a much modified and enlarged version of an article published on January 1, 2016 in Middle East Eye. It attempts to address the current quandary that arises from the collapse of Oslo diplomacy and the seeming continuing encroachment of Israel on the territories long believed to provide the Palestinian people with a sovereign state of their own. Such a prospect, now unattainable for both practical and political reasons, contemplated a Palestinian state that would enclose a territory that was 22% of historic Palestine, or less than half of what the 1947 UN partition plan envisioned. For this forthcoming compromise to have become non-negotiable is clear evidence that Israel is in the process of adopting a unilateral solution that is based on the priority of its biblical claims and ethnic origin narrative to the whole of historic Palestine, referred to as Judea and Samaria plus Jerusalem in internal Israeli discourse. In effect, the Palestine right of self-determination is being unconditionally denied, and the Palestinian people given several unpalatable choices with respect to their future.]

 

While serving as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, especially in my early years between 2008 and 2010, I fully expected to encounter defamatory opposition from Israel and ultra-Zionist, but what surprised me at the time were various efforts of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to undermine my role at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Its representatives exerted various pressures to encourage my resignation, and made unexpected moves to challenge my reports, especially if they described the actuality of Hamas exercising governing authority in Gaza. At the time I had the impression that the PA was far more concerned with this struggle internal to the Palestinian movement than mounting serious criticism of the abusive features of the occupation. As I was trying my best on behalf of the UN to report honestly on Israeli violations of Palestinian rights under international humanitarian law and human rights treaties, I was puzzled at first, and then began to wonder whether the Palestinian people were being adequately represented on the global stage.

 

This issue of representation has been rendered acute partly due to Israeli policies of fragmenting the Palestinian people, and then complaining that they have no partner with whom to make peace. Fragmentation indirectly subverts the right of self-determination by rendering ambiguous or unsatisfactory the nature of the self, that is, the people that is entitled to benefit from the right. The emphasis on this interplay between ‘self’ and ‘peoples’ arises from the authoritative language of Article I of the two human rights covenants that both make ‘self-determination’ the most fundamental of rights, which encompasses the others, and confers that right on ‘peoples’ rather than ‘states’ or ‘governments.’

 

The Palestinians are far from being the only people that is subjugated in ways that deny the ‘self’ the benefit of adequate representation. Consider the plight of the Kurdish people, or should it by now be ‘peoples,’ that can be traced back to the fragmentation imposed on Kurds by the manner in which colonial ambition reconfigured the political communities that has formerly been part of the Ottoman Empire in the ‘peace diplomacy’ that followed World War I. It is the notorious Sykes-Picot framework that was imposed on the region, and significantly responsible for the present turmoil that can be understood as a series of interrelated struggles by subjugated minorities to establish more natural political communities that protect their identities and their rights.

 

Jurists and politicians can spend endless hours debating whether the claimant of rights is indeed a people from the perspective of international human rights law. Many remember Golda Meir’s famous taunt, ‘Who are the Palestinians?’ There are many unrepresented peoples in the world that are marginalized in various settings, and none more regrettably than the 350 million so-called ‘indigenous peoples,’ victims of brutal dispossession, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and a variety of oppressive forms of subjugation. A truly humane world order would find ways to address historic grievances, while acknowledging that the past cannot be recreated or the present undone. There needs to be some good faith effort to reconcile the pastness of the past with overcoming the suffering being endured in the present. It is this process of reconciliation that Edward Said others articulated as the path to a sustainable peace for Jews and Palestinians.

 

Whatever the historic narrative that questions the emergence of Israel, as of the 21st century both practical and normative considerations converge on the quest for the dual realization of self-determination for Jews and Palestinians. Note that Zionism is a political project that was embraced by the Jewish people but it is not necessarily a reflection of self-determination for Jews if it encroaches on an equivalent Palestinian right. There is room for compromise, but only on the basis of accepting claims of equality, and refusing to treat the ‘settlements’ as part of the pastness of the past or to regard Palestinian refugees living in camps within and outside of Palestine as enjoying an inferior right of return or repatriation to that conferred on the Jewish people. Reasoning along this line makes it seem diversionary to continue the pursuit of a two-state solution, but this is a matter for the two peoples to decide by themselves if the right of self-determination is to be respected. And this prescribed course of action returns us to the issues surrounding the legitimacy and authenticity of representation. Until this issue is resolved a peace process is problematic if the goal is a sustainable and just peace.

 

Representation at the UN

 

Among the many obstacles facing the Palestinian people is the absence of any clear line of representation or even widely respected political leadership, at least since the death of Yasir Arafat in 2004. From the perspective of the United Nations, as well as inter-governmental diplomacy, this issue of Palestinian representation is treated as a non-problem. The UN accepts the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, although the reality of Palestinian governance to the PA since the Oslo diplomacy was initiated in 1993. A similar split between legal formalism and effective authority exists in international diplomacy although most of the 130 governments have extended diplomatic recognition to the PLO, rather than Palestine, despite its increasingly marginal role in the formation of national and international Palestinian policy in recent years. Ever since the General Assembly accorded recognition to Palestinian statehood in 2012 the question of representation has been settled in favor of the UN within the framework of the UN (UNGA Res. 67/19, 29 Nov. 2012).

 

This distinction between the PA and PLO is obscure for almost all commentators on the Israel/Palestine struggle, yet it has important implications for diplomacy and the scope and scale of Palestinian representation. The PA, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, is basically preoccupied with the West Bank and its own political relevance, and has seemed perversely aligned with Israel with respect to the fate of Gaza and even the 5-7 million Palestinian refugees worldwide. In contrast, the PLO, at least in conception and until the Oslo diplomacy took over, also in practice, conceived of its role to be the representation of Palestinians of a variety of political persuasions, as well as whether living under occupation or as refugees and exiles, that is, as a people dispossessed rather that a territory oppressively occupied.

 

The Oslo Diplomatic Fiasco

 

Among the flaws of Oslo was its affirmation of the delusion that a sustainable peace could be achieved simply by negotiating an end to the occupation of the West Bank, and maybe Gaza and East Jerusalem. The territorial remnant that was left after the Israeli withdrawal would then be viewed Palestine as a semi-sovereign state within these arbitrary borders. This ‘two-state’ international consensus even after its PLO endorsement in 1988 and regional incentives provided to Israel by the Arab Initiative of 2002 was, despite this, effectively killed by a combination of Israeli diplomatic rejectionism and its relentless.

 

The Israeli rejection of the two state option, which from a Palestinian perspective was at most a minimalist version of peace, was made manifest over the last 25 years by increasing the inhabitants of the settlement gulag, establishing at great expense an infrastructure of settler only roads, and through the construction of an unlawful separation wall deep in occupied Palestine. Yet the 20+ years of negotiation within this framework served Israel well as does the lingering illusion that the only viable settlement is still a rendering of the two-state solution. Sustaining this illusion also helps the United States, and Europe, and perhaps most of all the PA by keeping its international status credible. It allowed Israel the protective cover it needed to continue annexing, building, and cleansing until a point of practical irreversibility was reached some years ago. These defiant actions on the ground undermined effectively the two state mantra without suffering the slightest adverse consequence. This enabled the United States, especially, but also Europe, to sustain the international illusion of ‘a peace process’ while the realities on the ground were making ‘peace’ a dirty word of deceit. It has become a ‘zombie solution,’ where the proposal outlives its viability, and serves purposes other than what it claims.

 

Most of all, this Oslo charade made the PA seem like it was a genuine interim state-building stage preceding existential statehood. In a situation without modern precedent, the PA achieved a weak form of de jure statehood via diplomatic maneuvers and General Assembly partial recognition under circumstances that lacked the most essential attributes of de facto statehood. Usually the situation is reversed, with the realities of statehood serving as a precondition to its diplomatic and legal acknowledgement. Israel played along with this Palestinian game by denouncing such PA moves as outside the agreed Oslo plan of statehood to be achieved only through negotiations between the parties. Of course, Israel had its own reasons for opposing even the establishment of such a ghost Palestinian state as the Likud and rightest leadership were inalterably opposed to any formal acceptance of Palestinian statehood even if not interfering with Israel’s actual behavior and ambitions.

 

Interrogating the Palestinian Authority

 

Yet there are additional reasons to question PA representation of the Palestinian people in the present situation. Perhaps, the most fundamental of all is the degree to which the PA has accepted the role of providing security in accord with Israeli policy within those parts of the West Bank under its authority, which includes the main cities. It is thus hardly surprising that Ramallah suppresses many nonviolent resistance activities of the Palestinians, including demonstrations in support of the beleaguered people of Gaza. As well, the PA zealously apprehends those militant Palestinians alleged to be supporting Hamas or Islamic Jihad, and is accused of torturing many of those detained in its prisons often without charges. The PA has also consistently leaned toward the Israeli side whenever issues involving Gaza have arisen since the Hamas takeover of administrative governance from Fatah in 2007. Perhaps, the high point of this collaborationist behavior was the PA effort to defer consideration of the Goldstone Report detailing evidence of Israeli criminality in the course of its 2008-09 attack (Operation Cast Lead) on Gaza; such a move was widely and accurately perceived as helping Israel and the United States to bury these extremely damaging international findings that confirmed the widespread belief, already substantiated by a series of NGO reports, that Israel was guilty of serious war crimes.

 

There have been several failed efforts by the PA and Hamas to form a unity government, which would improve the quality of Palestinian representation, but would not overcome all of its shortcomings. These efforts have faltered both because of the distrust and disagreement between these two dominant political tendencies in occupied Palestine, but also because of intense hostile reactions by Washington and Tel Aviv, responding punitively and tightening still further their grip on the PA, relying on its classification of Hamas as ‘a terrorist organization’ that thus making it categorically ineligible to represent the Palestinian people. Everyone on the Palestinian side agrees verbally that unity is indispensable to advance Palestinian prospects, but when it comes to action and implementation there is a disabling show of ambivalence on both sides. The PA, and its leadership, seems reluctant to give up its international status as sole legitimate representative and Hamas is hesitant to join forces with the PA given the difference in its outlook and identity. Since 2009 there have been no elections that would lend grassroots legitimacy, at least in the West Bank, to the PA claims relating to representation.

 

What Should be Done

 

In the end, there is reason to question whether PA status as representing the Palestinian people in all international venues deserve the respect that they now enjoy. It is a rather complex and difficult situation that should be contextualize in relation to the Israeli strategy of fragmentation, one purpose of which is a deliberate effort at keeping the Palestinian people from having coherent and credible representation, and then contending disingenuously that Israel has ‘no partner’ for peace negotiations when in fact it is the Palestinian people that have no genuine partner in Tel Aviv as the Israeli leadership has made abundantly clear that it will never allow a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state to be established.

 

Among diaspora Palestinians I believe there is an increasing appreciation that neither the PA nor Hamas are capable of such representation, and that greater legitimacy attaches either to the demands of Palestinian civil society that underlie the BDS Campaign or are associated with the person of imprisoned Marwan Barghouti or to Mustafa Barghouti who is the moderate, secular, and democratic leader of the Palestinian National Initiative situated in the West Bank. What these less familiar forms of representation offer, in addition to uncompromised leaders, is a program to achieve a sustainable peace that is faithful to the aspirations of the whole of the Palestinian people and is not compromised by donor funding, Israeli controls, collaborationist postures, and geopolitical priorities. It takes seriously the responsibility to represent the Palestininian people in ways that extend to the Palestinian refugees and to the Palestinian minority of 1.6 million living in Israel as well as to those living under occupation since 1967.

 

Overall, the picture is not black and white. The PA, partly realizing that they had been duped by the Oslo process and that Israel will never allow a viable state of Palestine to emerge, have resorted to a more assertive diplomatic positions in the last few years, including an effort, bitterly resisted by Israel to make allegations of criminality following from their controversial decision to become a party to the International Criminal Court. Also, it is important that the Palestinian chair at the UN not be empty, and there is no present internationally acceptable alternative to PA representation. Perhaps, an eyes wide open acceptance of the present situation is the best present Palestinian option, although the approach taken to representation is in the end up to the Palestinians. It is an aspect of the right of self-determination, which as earlier argued is the foundation for all other human rights. At the very least, given the dismal record of diplomacy over the course of the last several decades, the adequacy of present representation of the Palestinian people deserves critical scrutiny, especially by Palestinians themselves.

 

Two final observations are in order. First, it may be useful to distinguish what might be called ‘Westphalian representation’ from ‘populist representation.’ Westphalian representation is the outcome of intergovernmental diplomacy and controls access to international venues, including the UN. Populist representation may or may not reinforce Westphalian representation, and is based on the outlook of civil society if taking the form of a consensus. At present, there is some tension between these two ways of conceiving of representation. There is also the issue raised by the exclusion of Hamas from the operation of Westphalian representation despite its exercise of governmental control over a significant portion of the Palestinian territorial reality.

 

Secondly, it is relevant to appreciate that the PA seems to be pursuing a ‘two state’ solution by unilateral initiative rather through negotiations and the consent of Israel. Its state-building initiatives in the West Bank combined with its diplomatic statehood initiatives seem designed to generate a sort of ‘state’ that enjoys a certain international status even though the reality of subjugation under apartheid administrative structures remains the experience of the Palestinian people who continue to live with the ordeal of a quasi-permanent occupation.

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 “..new 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.

 

II.

 

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

III.

 

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.

 

IV

 

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.

 

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