Tag Archives: Holocaust

Interview on Israel, Palestine, and Peace

14 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The interview below, conducted by C.J. Polychroniou and Lily Sage (bios at the end of the interview) was published in TruthOut on Sept. 10, 2016. It is republished here with a few stylistic modifications, but substantively unchanged. It is relevant, I suppose,to report that subsequent to the interview the U.S. Government and Israel have signed a military assistance agreement promising Israel $38 billion over the next ten years, the largest such commitment ever made. Such an excessive underwriting of Israel’s policies and practices should be shocking to taxpaying Americans but it passes almost noticed below the radar. It is being explained as a step taken to ensure that Obama’s legacy is not diminished by claims that he acted detrimentally toward Israel, but it is, pathetically, one of the few instances of genuine bipartisanship in recent U.S. foreign policy. Again, we should grieve over the extent to which ‘reality’ and morality is sacrificed for the sake of the ‘special relationship’ while looking the other way whenever the Palestinian ordeal is mentioned.

The initial question pertaining to Turkey is explained by my presence in that turbulent country when the interview was conducted.]

 

 

“A Continuous War Mentality”: Richard Falk on Israel’s Human Rights Abuses

Polychroniou & Sage: Israel’s treatment of Palestinians mirrors the abominable system of apartheid in South Africa, but many members of the “international community” who fueled the gradual delegitimization and eventual collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime are failing to apply similar pressure against Israel. In fact, many nations are even strengthening their ties with the Israeli government.

 

Even Greece has established close ties to Israel under the opportunistic Syriza government, while Sultan Erdogan in Turkey has also begun a process of kissing up to Israel after a few years of pursuing an “antagonistic” relation with the US’s closest ally under the pretext of expressing solidarity towards the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, the increased militarization of Israeli society continues to intensify the oppression and subjugation of Palestinians.

 

The Israeli government has recently suggested that a “normalization” process is underway with the Palestinians, but in reality Israel’s construction of illegal settlements continues unabated, and the right-wing politicians inside Israel who portray Palestinians as an “inferior race” are gaining ground. This is exactly what “normalization” has always meant in Israeli political jargon: continuing to commit abominable human rights violations against Palestinians while the world looks away. Indeed, apartheid, annexation, mass displacement and collective punishment have become core policies of the state of Israel.

 

 

After years of intense antagonism, the Erdoğan regime has begun making overtures once again to Israel. Why now?

 The normalization agreement with Israel needs to be appreciated as part of a broader foreign policy reset that started well before the failed coup attempt of July 15th. The basic Turkish motivation appears to be an effort to ease bilateral tensions throughout the region, and as Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has expressed it, “make as many friends as possible, and as few enemies.” It is the second coming of what had earlier gained political traction for Turkey throughout the region in the first 10 years of AKP (Justice and Development Party) leadership with the slogan “zero problems with neighbors.”

 

The main reset by far is with Russia, which had become an adversary of Turkey in the context of the Syrian War, but Israel is a close second. [Israel’s relationship with Turkey] had been in freefall after Erdoğan harshly criticized Israel at the World Economic Forum in 2009, directly insulting the then-Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was present.

 

Then in 2010 came the Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, and directly challenging the Israeli blockade together with a group of smaller boats filled with peace activists in an initiative known as the Freedom Flotilla. The Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara resulted in nine Turkish deaths among the peace activists on the ship and pushed the Israeli-Turkish relationship close to the brink of war. For the past year or so both sides have shown an interest in de-escalating tensions and restoring diplomatic normalcy. And Turkey, now more than ever, would like to avoid having adversary relations with Israel, which is being given precedence over Turkey’s support of the Palestinian national struggle.

 

Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu said recently that he cares more about the Palestinians than their own leaders. Do you wish to offer a comment on this statement?

 

Netanyahu has a gift for exaggerated, bombastic, and misleading, often outrageous political language. This is a clear instance. There are plenty of reasons to question the adequacy of the Palestinian Authority as the representative of the Palestinian people in advancing their national struggle. But to leap from such an unremarkable acknowledgement to the absurd claim that Netanyahu cares more about the Palestinian future than do Palestinians themselves represents a grotesque and arrogant leap into the political unknown. It is Netanyahu who led the country to launch massive attacks against Gaza first in 2012, and then again in 2014. It is Netanyahu who has pushed settler expansion and the Judaizing of East Jerusalem. For Netanyahu to speak in such a vein is to show his monumental insensitivity to the daily ordeal endured by every Palestinian and to the agonies associated with living for so long under occupation, in refugee camps, and in exile.

 

What do you make of the “anti-normalization” campaign initiated by some Palestinian factions and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement?

 

I think the BDS campaign makes sense under present conditions. These conditions include the recognition that the Oslo “peace diplomacy” is a dead-end that for more than two decades gave Israel cover to expand settlements and the settler population. They also include the realization that geopolitical leverage of the United States at the UN blocks all efforts to exert meaningful political pressure on Israel to reach the sort of compromise on issues of land, refugees, borders, water, settlements and Jerusalem that is indispensable if sustainable peace arrangements are to be agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians.

 

Against this background, it is important to recognize that civil society is presently “the only game in town,” and that BDS is the way this game is being played at present with the benefit of Palestinian civil society guidance and enthusiasm. Whether this campaign can exert enough pressure on Israel and the United States to change the political climate sufficiently to induce recalculations of national interest — only the future can tell. Until it happens, if it does, it will be deprecated by Israel and its Zionist supporters. While being dismissed as futile and destructive of genuine peace initiatives its participants will be attacked. A major effort is underway in the United States and Europe to discredit BDS, and adopt punitive measures to discourage participation.

 

Israel’s pushback by way of an insistence that BDS is seeking to destroy Israel and represents a new virulent form of anti-Semitism suggests that BDS now poses a greater threat to Israel’s concept of an established order than armed struggle or Palestinian resistance activities. Major Zionist efforts in the United States and elsewhere are branding BDS activists as anti-Semites.

 

It seems clear that nearly the entirety of the population of Israel and Palestine are in a constant trauma-reification cycle that began when Israel largely became inhabited by traumatized Jewish refugees, post-WWII. Do you think it is possible to overcome this, and would it be possible to find a peaceful resolution if this didn’t occur?

 

This is an insightful way of conceiving of the toxic interactions that have taken place over the years being harmful, in my view, to both people. However, unless the assertion is seriously qualified, it suffers from a tendency to create impressions of symmetry and balance, when the reality of relations from the outset, especially since the Nakba [the mass displacement of Palestinians from their homes and villages in 1948], has been one of oppressor and oppressed, invader and invaded, occupier and occupied. It is undoubtedly true that Israeli ideas about the use of force and security were reflections of their collective trauma and Holocaust memories, and Zionist ideology.

 

This Israeli narrative is further reinforced by biblical and ancient historical claims, but it is also the case that the Palestinians were invaded in their habitual place of residence, and then occupied, exploited, dispossessed and turned into refugees in their own country, while Israelis came to prosper, and to establish a regional military powerhouse that has enjoyed the geopolitical reinforcement of an unprecedented special relationship with United States. The early politics surrounding the establishment of Israel were also strongly influenced by the sense of guilt that existed in Western liberal democracies after World War II. Such guilt was epitomized by the shame associated with the refusal to use munitions to disrupt the Holocaust through air bombardment.

 

Under Netanyahu, Israel has moved dangerously closer to becoming a fundamentalist and neo-fascist state, although long-standing Israeli propaganda has it that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” In your view, what accounts for the transformation of Israel from a once-promising democracy to an apartheid-like state with no respect for international law and human rights?

 

I believe there always were major difficulties with Israel’s widely proclaimed and internationally endorsed early identity as a promising democracy guided by progressive ideals. This image overlooked the dispossession of several hundred thousand Palestinian residents, the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages, and the long-term discriminatory regime of military administration imposed on the remaining Palestinian minority that coincided with the establishment of the newly established Israeli state. What is important to appreciate is that this 20th-century process of state-creation took place in an era that was increasingly imbued with anticolonial activism that was at odds with the project to establish Israel from its international genesis and given a colonialist certificate of approval by way of the Balfour Declaration in 1917). Even taking into the Holocaust into account as the culminating historic tragedy of the Jewish people there is no way evading the conclusion that the establishment of Israel amounted to a European colonialist imposition on the Arab world and the latest instance of settler colonialism, although abetted by the Zionist mobilization of world Jewry on behalf of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.

 

 

Against this background, Israel became embattled in various ways with internal Palestinian resistance and regional hostility that produced several wars. In that process, a series of developments moved Israel further and further toward the right. A continuous war mentality tends to erode democratic structures and values even under the best of circumstances. Military successes, especially after the 1967 War, created a triumphalist attitude that also solidified US geopolitical support and made it seem possible for Israel to achieve security while expanding its territorial reality (via settlements) at Palestinian expense. Israeli demographics over the years, involving large-scale immigration of Sephardic and Russian Jews and high fertility rates among Orthodox Jews, pushed the political compass ever further to the right. These key developments were reinforced by Israeli public opinion that came to believe that several proposals put forward by Israel to achieve a political compromise were irresponsibly rejected by the Palestinians. These negative outcomes were misleadingly interpreted as justifying the Israeli conclusion that they had no Palestinian partner for peace and that the Palestinians would settle for nothing less than the destruction of Israel as a state. These interpretations are gross misreadings of the Palestinian readiness to normalize relations with the Israel provided a sovereign Palestinian state were to be established within 1967 borders and some kind of arrangements were agreed upon for those displaced from their homes in 1948.

 

Additionally, the supposed need for Israel to remain aggressively vigilant after Gaza came under the control of Hamas in 2007 led Israelis to entrusting the government to rightest leadership and in the process, weakened the peace-oriented political constituencies remaining active in Israel. In part, here, memories of the Nazi experience were invoked to induce acute anxiety that Jews suffered such a horrible fate because they remained as a group too passive in face of mounting persecution, and failed to take Hitler at his word. Fear-mongering with respect to Iran accentuated Israeli security-consciousness, and undercut more moderate political approaches to the Palestinians.

 

Have you detected any changes in US foreign policy toward Israel under the Obama administration?

 

There has been no change of substance during the eight years of the Obama presidency. At the outset in 2009 it seemed that the US government under Obama’s leadership was ready to pursue a more balanced diplomacy toward Israel, at first insisting that Israel suspend settlement expansion to enable a restart of the Oslo peace process with a fresh cycle of negotiations. When Israel pushed back hard, abetted by the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, the Obama administration backed off, and never again, despite some diplomatic gestures, really challenged Israel, its policies and practices, and its overall unilateralism. It did call Israeli settlement moves “unhelpful” from time to time, but stopped objecting to such behavior as “unlawful.” Washington never seemed to question the relevance of a two-state solution, despite the realities of steady Israeli de facto annexation of prime land in the West Bank, making the prospect of a Palestinian state that was viable and truly sovereign less and less plausible. Although, for public relations credibility in the Middle East, the Obama presidency continued to claim it strongly backed “peace through negotiations,” it did nothing substantive to make Israel respect international law as applied to the occupation of Palestine, and consistently asserted that the Palestinians were as much to blame for the failure of past negotiations as were the Israelis, fostering a very distorted picture of the relative responsibility of the two sides, as well as who benefitted and who lost from the failure to resolve the conflict. Western media tended to accept this pro-Israeli picture, making it appear that both sides were equally unready to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace.

 

What could make Israel change course regarding its treatment toward Palestinians and the “Palestinian question?”

 

The easy answer to this question is a sea change in Israeli outlook as to its security, combined with an insistence by the US government that continued backing of Israel was contingent on its adherence to international law and its credible readiness to reach a fair political compromise, whether in the form of a two-state or one-state solution, but based on a recognition that sustainable peace depends on acknowledging Palestinian rights under international law and a concern for the equality of the two peoples when it comes to issues of security, resources, and sovereignty. Such a shift in Israeli elite opinion could conceivably come about through a reassessment of Israeli prospects in reaction to mounting international pressures and continued Palestinian resistance in various forms. This seems to have been what happened in South Africa, producing an abrupt and unexpected change of outlook by the governing white leadership in Pretoria that signaled a willingness to dismantle its apartheid regime and accept a constitutional order based on racial equality and procedural democracy. Such a development will be dismissed as irrelevant by Israeli leaders until it happens, if it ever does, so as to avoid encouraging those mounting the pressures.

 

You served for many years as special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights for the United Nations Human Rights Council. Did that experience teach you anything about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that you were not aware of prior to this appointment?

 

In many ways, it was a fascinating experience, in almost equal measure dispiriting and inspiring. UN Watch, acting as an Israeli surrogate within the UN, repeatedly targeted me with vicious contentions that I was an anti-Semite and a proponent of a variety of extremist and irresponsible views that didn’t represent my actual views. UN Watch, along with other pro-Israeli NGOs, organized a variety of protests with the purpose of canceling my speaking invitations throughout the world, and threatening institutions with adverse funding implications if they went ahead with the events. Although no speaking invitation was withdrawn or event canceled, it shifted the conversation at the event and in the media — often from the substance of my presentation to whether or not the personal attacks were accurate. Also, I know of several invitations that were not issued because of these institutional concerns with controversy.

 

I also learned in ways that I only suspected prior to my six years as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Palestine, what a highly politicized atmosphere prevails at the UN, and how much leverage is exercised by the United States and Israel to impair UN effectiveness in relation to Israel/Palestine. At the same time, I realized that from the perspective of strengthening the legitimacy and awareness of Palestinian claims and grievances, the UN provided crucial venues that functioned as sites of struggle.

 

Are there Israeli organizations working on behalf of Palestinians and their ordeal, and, if so, what can we do from abroad to assist their efforts?

 

There are many Israeli and Palestinian NGOs within Israel and in Occupied Palestine that are working bravely to protect Palestinians from the worst abuses of the Israeli state, both in Occupied Palestine and in Israel (as defined by the 1949 “green line”). On the Israeli side, these initiatives, although having no present political relevance so far as elections and governing policy is concerned, are important ways of maintaining in Israel a certain kind of moral awareness.

 

If the political climate changes in Israel due to outside pressure and a general recognition that Israel needs to make peace to survive, then those that kept the flame of justice and peace flickering despite internal harassment will be regarded, if not revered, with long overdue appreciation as the custodians of Jewish collective dignity. In the meantime, it is a lonely battle, but one that we on the outside should strongly support.

It is also important to lend support to the various Palestinian efforts along the same lines and to the few initiatives that brings together Jews and Palestinians, such as the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, of which scholar-activist Jeff Halper was a cofounder and remains a leader. There are many Palestinian initiatives under the most difficult conditions, such as Human Rights Defenders working courageously in and around Hebron, and of course, in Gaza.

 

There is an unfortunate tendency by liberal Zionists to fill the moral space in the West by considering only the efforts of admirable Israeli organizations, such as B’Tselem or Peace Now, when presenting information on human rights resistance to Israeli oppressive policies and practices. This indirectly marginalizes the Palestinians as the subject of their own struggle and in my view unwittingly denigrates Palestinian national character.

 

What’s the best way to explain the conversion of an oppressed group of people into oppressors themselves, which is what today’s Israeli Jews have structurally become?

 

This role reversal is part of the tragedy that Zionist maximalism has produced for the Jewish people living in Israel, and to some extent, for Jews worldwide. It has made the Nakba into a continuing process rather than an historical event that could have been addressed in a humane manner from the perspective of restorative justice as depicted so vividly and insistently by Edward Said, including in his influential 1993 book Culture and Imperialism. What has ensued has been a geopolitically conditioned unbalanced diplomacy that has served as a shield behind which Israel has been creating conditions for an imposed, unilateralist solution.

 

Israeli leaders, especially those on the right, have used the memories of the Holocaust, not as an occasion for empathy toward the Palestinians, but as a reminder that the well-being of Jews is based on strength and control, that Hitler succeed because Jewry was weak and passive. Further, that even the liberal West refused to lift a finger to protect Jews when threatened with genocidal persecution, which underscores the central Zionist message of Jewish self-reliance as an ethical and political imperative.

 

Psychologically, this general way of thinking is further reinforced by supposing that only the Israeli Defense Forces keeps Israel from befalling the fate of deadly Palestinian maximalism, a political delusion reinforced by images of a second Holocaust initiated by Iran or generated by the terrorist tactics attributed to Hamas. In effect, Israeli oppressiveness is swept under the rug of security, while the settlements expand, Gaza is squeezed harder, and the regional developments give Israel the political space to attempt an Israeli one-state solution.

 

The Interviewers

LILY SAGE

Lily Sage is a Montessori pedagogue who is interested in questions of symbiosis, intersectional feminism and anti-racist/fascist praxis. She has studied in the fields of herbalism, visual/performance art, anthropology and political theory in Germany, Mongolia and the US.

 

C.J. POLYCHRONIOU

C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His main research interests are in European economic integration, globalization, the political economy of the United States and the deconstruction of neoliberalism’s politico-economic project. He is a regular contributor to Truthout as well as a member of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project. He has published several books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers and popular news websites. Many of his publications have been translated into several foreign languages, including Croatian, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.

 

 

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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.

 

 

A Christmas Message in Dark Times

24 Dec

 

 

Here in the United States, I react against the avoidance of the word ‘Christmas’ during this holiday season. I would undoubtedly feel differently if I were living in Turkey or India. The legions of ‘the politically correct’ determined to avoid offending those, especially Jews, who are not Christians, will carefully express their good wishes with such phrases as ‘happy holidays!’ This is okay except it obliterates the vibrant symbolism of Christmas as a seminal occasion that has over the centuries transcended for most of us its specific religious roots and meanings. It has an ecumenical resonance that calls for bright lights, ornamented trees, celebration, and wishes for peace on earth and good will toward all, bringing together those of diverse faith or no faith at all. When I was growing up in New York City Christmas was ‘Christmas’ regardless of whether one was Christian or not, and implied no religious dedication whatsoever.

 

As time has passed, ethnic and religious sensitivities have grown as identities have become more tribal. I do partly associate this trend in my experience with the greater ethnic assertiveness of Jews over the years, especially in response to the ascent of Israel and the rise of Zionist loyalties. America’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel represents a governmental recognition that Israel can do no wrong in the eyes of Washington. This is another unfortunate manifestation of excessive deference, in this instance what might be called ‘geopolitical correctness,’ and has had many detrimental effects on American foreign policy in the region. Another kind of harm is associated with the inhibiting State Department formal adoption of a definition of anti-Semitism that conflates strong criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews.

 

Yet to decry such forms of political correctness as a posture is not to condone insensitivity to those among us who have suffered or are suffering from deep historical abuses. I do believe we need to do all we can avoid hurtful language and subtle slights when dealing with the situation of African Americans or Muslims. Donald Trump disgraces America because he embraces the kind of militant Islamophobia that is not only incendiary in the American political climate, but unwittingly is a tacit reinforcement of jihadist extremism. There is a vast difference between opportunistic deference to the ‘politically correct’ and moral sensitivity to those who have been or are being victimized in American society. Of course, Trump has achieved such prominence by his zealous willingness to be politically incorrect in all sorts of vulgar and hurtful ways, which sadly uncovers an angry and afraid constituency among the American citizenry, with its appetite for simplistic answers that shift the blame to the hateful other.

 

Do not such reflections also suggest the propriety of sensitivity to the long Jewish experience of persecution, climaxing with the Holocaust? To some extent, moral sensitivity is historical and geographical. It points to a difference in tone and content in Germany as compared to here in America. More concretely, it seems natural to exercise greater care in Germany not to offend, and not even to seem callous toward Jewish identity given the proximity of the Holocaust. I would affirm this kind of moral prudence and forebearance, but even this type of restraint can be carried too far. Germans and the German government obsessively avoid any semblance of criticism of Israel because of an apparent worry that such views would be treated as evidence that anti-Semitism continues to flourish in Germany. In this regard memories of the Holocaust are no longer a good reason, if it was ever the case, for suspending criticism of Zionism as a political project or Israel as a normal state as accountable to upholding international law, UN authority, and principles of morality as any other state.  

 

It is entirely inappropriate for anyone to ignore the brutal dispossession of the Palestinian people, the prolonged denial of the Palestinian right of self-determination, and the horrific daily ordeal of living, as millions of Palestinians do, under occupation, in refugee camps, and in involuntary exile decade after decade. Bad memories of victimization are never a sufficient reason to overlook crimes being committed in the present.

 

As a Jew in America I feel the tensions of conflicting identities. I believe, above all, that while exhibiting empathy to all those have been victimized by tribally imposed norms, we need to rise above such provincialism (whether ethnic or nationalistic) and interrogate our own tribal and ‘patriotic’ roots. In this time of deep ecological alienation, when the very fate of the species has become precarious, we need to think, act, and feel as humans and more than this, as empathetic humans responsible for the failed stewardship of the planet. It is here that God or ‘the force’ can provide a revolutionary comfort zone in which we reach out beyond ourselves to touch all that is ‘other,’ whether such otherness is religious, ethnic, or gendered, and learning from Buddhism, reach out beyond the human to exhibit protective compassion toward non-human animate dimensions of our wider experience and reality. It is this kind of radical reworking of identity and worldview that captures what ‘the Christmas spirit’ means to me beyond the enjoyment of holiday cheer.

 

From this vantage point, the birth of Jesus can be narrated with this universalizing voice. The star of Bethlehem as an ultimate source of guidance and the three wise kings, the Maji, who traveled far to pay homage to this sacred child can in our time bestow the wisdom of pilgrimage, renewal, and transformation that will alone enable the human future to grasp the radical wisdom of St. Augustine’s transformative: “Love one another and do what thou wilt.” Put presciently in a poem by W.H. Auden, “We must love one another or die.”

 

I suppose I am making a plea, or is it a dreamy affirmation? A utopian wish, to be sure, but nothing less has relevance in these dark times.

Israel’s Politics of Fragmentation

10 Oct

 

Background

 

If the politics of deflection exhibit the outward reach of Israel’s grand strategy of territorial expansionism and regional hegemony, the politics of fragmentation serves Israel’s inward moves designed to weaken Palestinian resistance, induce despair, and de facto surrender. In fundamental respects deflection is an unwitting enabler of fragmentation, but it is also its twin or complement.

 

The British were particularly adept in facilitating their colonial project all over the world by a variety of divide and rule tactics, which almost everywhere haunted anti-colonial movements, frequently producing lethal forms of post-colonial partition as in India, Cyprus, Ireland, Malaya, and of course, Palestine, and deadly ethnic strife elsewhere as in Nigeria, Kenya, Myanmar, Rwanda. Each of these national partitions and post-colonial traumas has produced severe tension and long lasting hostility and struggle, although each takes a distinctive form due to variations from country to country of power, vision, geography, resources, history, geopolitics, leadership.

 

An additional British colonial practice and legacy was embodied in a series of vicious settler colonial movements that succeeded in effectively eliminating or marginalizing resistance by indigenous populations as in Australia, Canada, the United States, and somewhat less so in New Zealand, and eventually failing politically in South Africa and Namibia, but only after decades of barbarous racism.

 

In Palestine the key move was the Balfour Declaration, which was a colonialist gesture of formal approval given to the Zionist Project in 1917 tendered at the end of Ottoman rule over Palestine. This was surely gross interference with the dynamics of Palestinian self-determination (at the time the estimated Arab population of Palestine was 747,685, 92.1% of the total, while the Jewish population was an estimate 58,728, which amounted to 7.9%) and a decisive stimulus for the Zionist undertaking to achieve supremacy over the land embraced by the British mandate to administer Palestine in accordance with a framework agreement with the League of Nation. The agreement repeated the language of the Balfour Declaration in its preamble: “Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”(emphasis added) To describe this encouragement of Zionism as merely ‘interference’ is a terribly misleading understatement of the British role in creating a situation of enduring tension in Palestine, which was supposedly being administered on the basis of the wellbeing of the existing indigenous population, what was called “a sacred trust of civilization” in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, established for the “well-being and development” of peoples ”not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.”  The relevance of the politics of fragmentation refers to a bundle of practices and overall approach that assumed the form of inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife during the almost three decades that the mandate arrangements were in effect.*

 

At the same time, the British was not the whole story by any means: the fanatical and effective exploitation of the opportunity to establish a Jewish homeland of unspecified dimensions manifested the dedication, skill, and great ambition of the Zionist movement; the lack of comparable sustained and competent resistance by the indigenous population abetted the transformation of historic Palestine; and then these  developments were strongly reinforced by the horrors of the Holocaust and the early complicity of the liberal democracies with Naziism that led the West to lend its support to the settler colonial reality that Zionism had become well before the 1948 War. The result was the tragic combination of statehood and UN membership for Israel and the nakba involving massive dispossession creating forced refugee and exile for most Palestinians, and leading after 1967 to occupation, discrimination, and oppression of those Palestinians who remained either in Israel or in the 22% of original Palestine.

 

It should be recalled that the UN solution of 1947, embodied in GA Resolution 181, after the British gave up their mandatory role was no more in keeping with the ethos of self-determination than the Balfour Declaration, decreeing partition and allocating 55% of Palestine to the Jewish population, 45% to the Palestinians without the slightest effort to assess the wishes of the population resident in Palestine at the time or to allocate the land in proportion to the demographic realities at the time. The UN solution was a new rendition of Western paternalism, opposed at the time by the Islamic and Middle Eastern members of the UN. Such a solution was not as overbearing as the mandates system that was devised to vest quasi-colonial rule in the victorious European powers after World War I, yet it was still an Orientalist initiative aimed at the control and exploitation of the destiny of an ethnic, political, and economic entity long governed by the Ottoman Empire.

 

The Palestinians (and their Arab neighbors) are often told in patronizing tones by latter day Zionists and their apologists that the Palestinians had their chance to become a state, squandered their opportunity, thereby forfeiting their rights to a state of their own by rejecting the UN partition plan. In effect, the Israeli contention is that Palestinians effectively relinquished their statehood claims by this refusal to accept what the UN had decreed, while Israel by nominally accepting the UN proposals validated their sovereign status, which was further confirmed by its early admission to full membership in the UN. Ever since, Israel has taken advantage of the fluidity of the legal situation by at once pretending to accept the UN approach of seeking a compromise by way of mutual agreement with the  Palestinians while doing everything in its power to prevent such an outcome by projecting its force throughout the entirety of Palestine, by establishing and expanding settlements, the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, and by advancing an array of maximalist security claims that have diminished Palestinian prospects.  That is, Israel has publicly endorsed conflict-resolving diplomacy but operationally has been constantly moving the goal posts by unlawfully creating facts on the ground, and then successfully insisting on their acceptance as valid points of departure. In effect, and with American help, Israel has seemingly given the Palestinians a hard choice, which is tacitly endorsed by the United States and Europe: accept the Bantustan destiny we offer or remain forever refugees and victims of annexation, exile, discrimination, statelessness.

 

Israel has used its media leverage and geopolitical clout to create an asymmetric understanding of identity politics as between Jews and Palestinians. Jews being defined as a people without borders who can gain Israeli nationality no matter where they live on the planet, while Palestinians are excluded from Israeli nationality regardless of how deep their indigenous roots in Palestine itself. This distinction between the two peoples exhibits the tangible significance of Israel as a ‘Jewish State,’ and why such a designation is morally and legally unacceptable in the 21st century even as it so zealously claimed by recent Israeli leaders, none more than Benyamin Netanyahu.  

 

 

 

Modalities of Fragmentation

 

The logic of fragmentation is to weaken, if not destroy, a political opposition configuration by destroying its unity of purpose and strategy, and fomenting to the extent possible conflicts between different tendencies within the adversary movement. It is an evolving strategy that is interactive, and by its nature becomes an important theme of conflict. The Palestinians in public constantly stress the essential role of unity, along with reconciliation to moderate the relevance of internal differences. In contrast, the Israelis fan the flames of disunity, stigmatizing elements of the Palestinian reality that are relevantly submissive, and accept the agenda and frameworks that are devised by Tel Aviv refusing priorities set by Palestinian leaders. Over the course of the conflict from 1948 to the present, there have been ebbs and flows in the course of Palestinian unity, with maximum unity achieved during the time when Yasir Arafat was the resistance leader and maximum fragmentation evident since Hamas was successful in the 2006 Gaza elections, and managed to seize governmental control from Fatah in Gaza a year later. Another way that Israel has promoted Palestinian disunity is to favor the so-called moderates operating under the governance of the Palestinian Authority while imposing inflicting various punishments on Palestinians adhering to Hamas.

 

Zionism, the Jewish State, and the Palestinian Minority. Perhaps, the most fundamental form of fragmentation is between Jews and Palestinians living within the state of Israel. This type of fragmentation has two principal dimensions: pervasive discrimination against the 20% Palestinian minority (about 1.5 million) affecting legal, social, political, cultural, and economic rights, and creating a Palestinian subjectivity of marginality, subordination, vulnerability. Although Palestinians in Israel are citizens they are excluded from many benefits and opportunities because they do not possess Jewish nationality. Israel may be the only state in the world that privileges nationality over citizenship in a series of contexts, including family reunification and access to residence. It is also worth observing that if demographic projections prove to be reliable Palestinians could be a majority in Israel as early as 2035, and would almost certainly outnumber Jews in the country by 2048. Not only does this pose the familiar choice for Israel between remaining an electoral democracy and retaining its self-proclaimed Jewish character, but it also shows how hegemonic it is to insist that the Palestinians and the international community accept Israel as a Jewish state.

 

This Palestinian entitlement, validated by the international law relating to fundamental human rights prohibiting all forms of discrimination, and especially structural forms embedded in law that discriminate on the basis of race and religion. The government of Israel, reinforced by its Supreme Court, endorses the view that only Jews can possess Israeli nationality that is the basis of a range of crucial rights under Israeli law. What is more Jews have Israeli nationality even if lacking any link to Israel and wherever they are located, while Palestinians (and other religious and ethnic minorities) are denied Israeli nationality (although given Israeli citizenship) even if indigenous to historic Palestine and to the territory under the sovereign control of the state of Israel.  

 

A secondary form of fragmentation is between this minority in Israel and the rest of the Palestinian corpus. The dominant international subjectivity relating to the conflict has so far erased this minority from its imaginary of peace for the two peoples, or from any sense that Palestinian human rights in Israel should be internationally implemented in whatever arrangements are eventually negotiated or emerges via struggle. As matters now stand, the Palestinian minority in Israel is unrepresented at the diplomatic level and lacks any vehicle for the expression of its grievances.

 

Occupied Palestine and the Palestinian Diaspora (refugees and enforced exile). Among the most debilitating forms of fragmentation is the effort by Israel and its supporters to deny Palestinian refugees and Palestinians living in the diaspora) their right of return as confirmed by GA Resolution 184? There are between 4.5 million and 5.5 million Palestinians who are either refugees or living in the diaspora, as well as about 1.4 million resident in the West Bank and 1.6 million in Gaza.

 

The diplomatic discourse has been long shaped by reference to the two state mantra. This includes the reductive belief that the essence of a peaceful future for the two peoples depends on working out the intricacies of ‘land for peace.’ In other words, the dispute is false categorized as almost exclusively about territory and borders (along with the future of Jerusalem), and not about people. There is a tacit understanding that seems to include the officials of the Palestinian Authority to the effect that Palestinians refugee rights will be ‘handled’ via compensation and the right of return, not to the place of original dispossession, but to territory eventually placed under Palestinian sovereignty.

 

Again the same disparity as between the two sides is encoded in the diplomacy of ‘the peace process,’ ever more so during the twenty years shaped by the Oslo framework. The Israel propaganda campaign was designed to make it appear to be a deal breaker for the Palestinian to insist on full rights of repatriation as it would allegedly entail the end of the promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Yet such a posture toward refugees and the Palestinian diaspora cruelly consigns several million Palestinians to a permanent limbo, in effect repudiating the idea that the Palestinians are a genuine ‘people’ while absolutizing the Jews as a people of global scope. Such a dismissal of the claims of Palestinian refugees also flies in the face of the right of return specifically affirmed in relation to Palestine by the UN General Assembly in Resolution 194, and more generally supported by Article 13 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 

The Two Warring Realms of the Occupation of Palestine: the Palestine Authority versus Hamas. Again Israel and its supporters have been able to drive an ideological wedge between the Palestinians enduring occupation since 1967. With an initial effort to discredit the Palestine Liberation Organzation that had achieved control over a unified and robust Palestine national movement, Israel actually encouraged the initial emergence of Hamas as a radical and fragmenting alternative to the PLO when it was founded in the course of the First Intifada. Israel of course later strongly repudiated Hamas when it began to carry armed struggle to pre-1967 Israel, most notoriously engaging in suicide bombings in Israel that involved indiscriminate attacks on civilians, a tactic repudiated in recent years.

 

Despite Hamas entering into the political life of occupied Palestine with American, and winning an internationally supervised election in 2006, and taking control of Gaza in 2007, it has continued to be categorized as ‘a terrorist organization’ that is given no international status. This terrorist designation is also relied upon to impose a blockade on Gaza that is a flagrant form of collective punishment in direct violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Palestine Authority centered in Ramallah has also, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, refused to treat Hamas as a legitimate governing authority or to allow Hamas to operate as a legitimate political presence in the West Bank and Jerusalem or to insist on the inclusion of Hamas in international negotiations addressing the future of the Palestinian people. This refusal has persisted despite the more conciliatory tone of Hamas since 2009 when its leader, Khaled Meshaal, announced a shift in the organization’s goals: an acceptance of Israel as a state beside Palestine as a state provided a full withdrawal to 1967 borders and implementation of the right of return for refugees, and a discontinuation by Hamas of a movement based on armed struggle. Mashel also gave further reassurances of moderation by an indication that earlier goals of liberating the whole of historic Palestine, as proclaimed in its Charter, were a matter of history that was no longer descriptive of its political program.

 

In effect, the territorial fragmentation of occupied Palestine is reinforced by ideological fragmentation, seeking to somewhat authenticate and privilege the secular and accommodating leadership provided by the PA while repudiating the Islamic orientation of Hamas. In this regard, the polarization in such countries as Turkey and Egypt is cynically reproduced in Palestine as part of Israel’s overall occupation strategy. This includes a concerted effort by Israel to make it appear that material living conditions for Palestinians are much better if the Palestinian leadership cooperates with the Israeli occupiers than if it continues to rely on a national movement of liberation and refuses to play the Oslo game.

 

The Israeli propaganda position on Hamas has emphasized the rocket attacks on Israel launched from within Gaza. There is much ambiguity and manipulation of the timeline relating to the rockets in interaction with various forms of Israeli violent intrusion. We do know that the casualties during the period of Hamas control of Gaza have been exceedingly one-sided, with Israel doing most of the killing, and Palestinians almost all of the dying. We also know that when ceasefires have been established between Israel and Gaza, there was a good record of compliance on the Hamas side, and that it was Israel that provocatively broke the truce, and then launched major military operations in 2008-09 and 2012 on a defenseless and completely vulnerable population.

 

Cantonization and the Separation Wall: Fragmenting the West Bank. A further Israeli tactic of fragmentation is to make it difficult for Palestinians to sustain a normal and coherent life. The several hundred check points throughout the West Bank serious disrupt mobility for the Palestinians, and make it far easier for Palestinians to avoid delay and humiliation. It is better for them to remain contained within their villages, a restrictive life reinforced by periodic closures and curfews that are extremely disruptive. Vulnerability is accentuated by nighttime arrests, especially of young male Palestinians, 60% of whom have been detained in prisons before they reach the age of 25, and the sense that Israeli violence, whether issuing from the IDF or the settlers enjoys impunity, and often is jointly carried out.

 

The Oslo framework not only delegated to the PA the role of maintaining ‘security’ in Palestinian towns and cities, but bisected the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, with Israeli retaining a residual security right throughout occupied Palestine. Area C, where most of the settlements are located, is over 60% of the West Bank, and is under exclusive control of Israel.

This fragmentation at the core of the Oslo framework has been a key element

in perpetuating Palestinian misery.

 

The fragmentation in administration is rigid and discriminatory, allowing Israeli settlers the benefits of Israel’s rule of law, while subjecting Palestinians to military administration with extremely limited rights, and even the denial of a right to enjoy the benefit of rights. Israel also insists that since it views the West Bank as disputed territory rather than ‘occupied’ it is not legally obliged to respect international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions. This fragmentation between Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents is so severe that it has been increasingly understood in international circles as a form of apartheid, which the Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court denominates as one type of ‘crime against humanity.’ 

The Separation Wall is an obvious means of separating Palestinians from each other and from their land. It was declared in 2004 to be a violation of international law by a super majority of 14-1 in the International Court of Justice, but to no avail, as Israel has defied this near unanimous reading of international law by the highest judicial body in the UN, and yet suffered no adverse consequences. In some West Bank communities Palestinians are surrounded by the wall and in others Palestinian farmers can only gain access to and from their land at appointed times when wall gates are opened.

 

 

Fragmentation and Self-Determination

 

The pervasiveness of fragmentation is one reason why there is so little belief that the recently revived peace process is anything more than one more turn of the wheel, allowing Israel to proceed with its policies designed to take as much of what remains of Palestine as it wants so as to realize its own conception of Jewish self-determination. Just as Israel refuses to restrict the Jewish right of return, so it also refuses to delimit its boundaries. When it negotiates internationally it insists on even more prerogatives under the banner of security and anti-terrorism. Israel approach such negotiations as a zero-sum dynamic of gain for itself, loss for Palestine, a process hidden from view by the politics of deflection and undermining the Palestinian capacity for coherent resistance by the politics of fragmentation.

 


* There are two issues posed, beyond the scope of this post, that bear on Palestinian self-determination emanating from the Balfour Declaration and the ensuing British mandatory role in Palestine: (1) to what extent does “a national home for the Jewish people” imply a valid right of self-determination, as implemented by the establishment of the state of Israel? Does the idea of ‘a national home’ encompass statehood? (2) to what extent does the colonialist nature of the Balfour Declaration and the League mandate system invalidate any actions taken?

Blog Ethics and Politics

16 Jun

 

 

            During this apprentice period as a blogger I have learned and relearned how difficult it is to reconcile my interest in constructive dialogue on highly contested subject-matters with sustaining a tone of civility. Especially with respect to the Palestine/Israel struggle I have periodically failed, angering especially those who feel that their support of Israel is either inappropriately rejected or ignored. This anger is turned in the direction of personal insults directed either at me or at writers of comments, which induces those at the receiving end to reply in kind, and the result is a loss of civility, which alienates many other readers who tire of such futile and mean-spirited arguments.

 

            By way of clarification, let me acknowledge that I regards two types of interaction as satisfying my goal of ‘constructive dialogue’: conversations between likeminded on matters of shared interest; exchange of views between those who adopt antagonistic positions on an array of concerns ranging from cultural assessment to political analysis. To favor conversations with likeminded means favoring those who share my convictions with respect to the themes addressed in posts, and is viewed as ‘bias’ by those who do not share these convictions. I feel unapologetic about this encouragement of conversation among the likeminded.

 

            Some of my harshest critics complain that I am one-sided or stifle the freedom of expression of those whose comments I exclude on grounds of civility, the avoidance of hate speech, and the rejection of serial submissions of views. It is true that I have decided against an open comments section in which anything goes, and seek to avoid having the debate on attitudes toward Israel dominate the blog, although it is admittedly my own recurring preoccupation and commitment. It is also the case that I feel a need to be protective toward the Palestinians who are massively victimized by their prolonged conditions of displacement, occupation, statelessness, and acute insecurity, a historical circumstance that combines tragedy and injustice. And I will not hide my solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinians to realize their rights under international law, which has been my overriding commitment during the past five years while having serving in the position of Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. My attempt to be an honest witness has from the outset prompted accusations of bias by defenders of Israel. Such accusations have been substantiated by my detractors through distorted presentations of my views on an array of unrelated issues including 9/11, American foreign policy, the Iranian Revolution. I mention this personal embattlement only becausthese personal attacks use as evidence statements from my posts that are taken out of context and given inflammatory interpretations, especially by the NGO, UN Watch. What has been most disturbing for me is the extent to which such

a defamatory campaign, broadly centered on allegations that I am an anti-Semitic and a self-hating Jew, has led to calls for my resignation or dismissal by highly placed individuals at the UN or in leading governments. In my view, a toxic political environment has been deliberately generated, which pepper sprays anyone, especially if in a formal position of some influence, who dares to offer strong criticisms of Israel’s behavior or shows clear support for the Palestinian struggle.

 

            Perhaps, in the end, there is no way around monitoring the flow of comments, seeking to make difficult choices as to which seem to inform or

usefully challenge and those that are merely arguing from fixed positions or submitting a comment that demeans others. Often comments contain a mixture of what is usefully substantive and what I find destructively mean-spirited, and it necessitates a choice.

 

            One of the difficulties I have found is that there is a genuine disagreement as to the scope of ‘anti-Semitism.’ The maximalist Zionist position, that has proved very influential in North America and Western Europe, is that harsh criticism of Israel, given that Israel is a self-proclaimed Jewish state and a reality shaped by the experience of the Holocaust, is properly classified as a hateful form of ‘anti-Semitism.’ In effect, such a broad view of anti-Semitism, provides an all-purpose shield of impunity, which has allowed Israel to defy international law in the most flagrant ways (2004 World Court Advisory Opinion on the Separation Wall; 2006 attacks on Lebanon; Gaza military operations of 2008-09, 2012—Goldstone Report; Mavi Marmara incident of 2010; settlement expansion) without enduring any serious adverse diplomatic consequences.

 

            I reject this broad conception of anti-Semitism, and limit this term of extreme opprobrium to hatred of Jews as an ethnicity and religiona, expressed by opinions and hostile behavior. I recommend reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s excellent essay “Portrait of an Anti-Semite” to obtain a deep psycho-philosophical understanding of the mentality that has led to the persecution of the Jewish people over the centuries. To obscure this core sense of ethnic and religious hatred by merging it with political attitudes that are critical of the behavior of a sovereign state or of some aspects of cultural and religious tradition embodied in the Jewish experience (‘chosen people’; biblical treatment of enemies) is, in my view, intellectually, politically, and morally regressive. In addition, it is harmful to the Palestinian people, unlawfully victimized for more than six decades by Israel’s state policies.

 

            Does such an outlook imply that moral purity is exclusively on the Palestinian side and all wrongdoing attributable to Israel? Of course, not. Yet what is true is that Israel has been the aggressor throughout the struggle, and Palestine the outgunned defender that has constantly lost ground. I believe it is misleading to create a false symmetry between the two sides based on the claim of pursuing ‘a balanced approach,’ which seems to be the general position of most moderates and liberals. When the reality is so unbalanced, apportioning blame to both sides equally for the persistence of the struggle is profoundly misleading, and unwittingly supportive of the unjust and exploitative status quo.

 

            I have dwelled on the Palestine/Israel agenda because it is what has provoked most of these blog concerns about tone and substance, the constituents of dialogue. I suppose it is the test of my approach, generating objections associated from some about ‘freedom of expression’ and from others about ‘an unhealthy polemical atmosphere.’ In my view, the domain of a blog is a quasi-private space that can set its desired limits on permissible expression that may be far narrower than what should be allowed in public spaces. The blog space may legitimately choose to be one-sided. Also, the objective is often different. I am not seeking to establish a marketplace of ideas, but a setting designed to encourage an exchange of views, opinions, and proposals in the spirit of civil conversation and dialogue, embedding a commitment of respect for ‘the other.’ And yet I have come to realize that the abstraction is difficult to apply concretely, especially if objectionable views are dogmatically stated and repeated. I will do my best to promote constructive dialogue, but I know that some will be disappointed along the way, especially those who disagree with me on substance, and therefore are put off by conversations among the likeminded.    

On Human Identity

26 Jun


 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Healing Wounds: Seeking Closure for the 1915 Armenian Massacres

12 Jan

 

Richard Falk & Hilal Elver

 

            Recently the National Assembly, France’s lower legislative chamber, voted to criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide in 1915, imposing a potential prison sentence of up to one year as well as a maximum fine of 45, 000 Euros. The timing of this controversial initiative seemed to represent a rather blatant Sarkhozy bid for the votes of the 500,000 French citizens of Armenian descent in the upcoming presidential election. It follows similar pre-election initiatives in 2001 when the French Parliament officially declared that the massacres of Armenians in 1915 were an instance of genocide and in 2006 when the Assembly first voted to criminalize Armenian genocide denial, an initiative that never became law because the French Senate failed to give its assent. And this hopefully may happen again with respect to this recent Assembly move.

 

            Predictably, the French action was perceived by Turkey as a hostile provocation. The Turkish government, which has so far refused to describe the 1915 events as ‘genocide,’ immediately reacted, warning France of adverse economic consequences if this initiative went forward, and has reacted by withdrawing its ambassador and freezing inter-governmental economic relations. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recip Teyyip Erdogan, denounced the action of the French Assembly that had been initiated by a prominent member of Sarkhozy’s party. Erdogan, known for his forthrightness, advised the French Government that instead of criminalizing the Turkish unwillingness to acknowledge the 1915 events as genocide, France should busy itself with determining whether its harsh tactics used during the 1950s in Algeria, and supposedly responsible for up to a million Algerian deaths during the long French campaign to hold onto to its north African colony constituted genocide.

 

            There are many issues raised by this turn for the worse in French-Turkish relations, and its embittering dialogue about historic events. Perhaps, the most important, is whether it is ever justifiable to criminalize the expression of an opinion about a set of past occurrences that goes against a societal consensus. It is true that genocide or Holocaust denial can be hurtful to those who are survivors or descendants of survivors, and identify with the victims of such severe wrongdoing, and its attendant suffering, but whether the sensitivities of these communities should ever be protected by the criminal law seems doubtful, conflicting with freedom of expression and censuring inquiries into historical events that are unpopular and controversial, but occasionally illuminating enough to challenge conventional wisdom. It would seem that informed agreement and social pressure should be sufficient to deter all but the most extremist instances of denial if a genuine and sufficient consensus exists as to the locus of responsibility and the character of the events. In this instance, such criminalization is especially unfortunate as even if the facts of the 1915 events are reasonably well established, the relevance of genocide is certainly ambiguous and somewhat problematic, especially from a legal perspective.

 

            Against this background, where Turkey has not yet been willing to describe the events of 1915 as ‘genocide’ the criminalization of the denial is more likely to raise tensions that encourage a long overdue accommodation. Of course, there are related irritants to the Turkish-Armenian relationship, especially the unresolved conflict over the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in Azerbaijan. Among thoughtful Turks there continues to be some questioning of the character of the World War I events in question, not about their tragic character or even a willingness to condemn Ottoman wrongdoing, but there remains a Turkish governmental and societal reluctance to pin the label of genocide on these occurrences. It is well known that the Armenian diaspora has long been seeking to induce key governments around the world to make formal declarations to the effect that what happened in 1915 was genocide, and some 25 governments have done so, as have many lesser political entities such as sub-divisions of the state or cities. Such efforts to legalize historical truth, as distinct from mourning historical events, is itself

a political gimmick to circumvent diplomacy and accommodation. But to criminalize genocidal denial represents a still further escalation of Armenian efforts to resolve the controversy over this potent g-word through branding of denial as a crime. We would insist that rather than resolving the conflict, such steps make a politics of reconciliation that much more difficult for both parties.

 

            The discourse on genocide has always been confusing, multi-layered, and often toxic. The word ‘genocide’ is weighted down by its implications, explaining both why there is such a strong impulse to invoke it and an equally intense effort to deny its applicability.  We need to distinguish genocide as a crime in international law from the political assessment of historic events as genocide due to a clear pattern of deliberate killing of an ethnic or religious group. And such a political assessment needs to be further distinguished from a moral condemnation of a pattern designed to destroy systematically a beleaguered minority that might properly be described as ‘genocidal,’ or what has been more recently described as ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the setting of Bosnia, which is distinct from the judicially certified ‘genocide’ that shook the foundations of Rwanda in 1994.

 

            From a legal perspective it is not plausible to call these events in 1915 as genocide. After all, the word did not exist until coined by Rafael Lemkin in 1943, and the crime was not so delimited until the Genocide Convention came into force in 1951. Beyond this, and more telling than this technical observation, is the fact that the indictments at Nuremberg did not charge the surviving Nazi leaders with genocide, but convicted these Germans of ‘crimes against humanity’ for their connection with genocidal conduct, and even here only if the alleged criminal acts were associated with World War II, found by the tribunal to be an unlawful war, and thus a ‘crime against peace.’ If the Holocaust perpetrated against Jews and others did not seem to the Nuremberg tribunal to be a distinct crime, then it seems untenable to regard the Armenian tragedy as embodying the crime of genocide. When the UN expert body, the International Law Commission, put into words what was done at Nuremberg it explicitly affirmed the Roman dictum prohibiting retroactivity: no crime without law (nulla crimen sine lege).  Such a dictum touches on a fundamental component of justice to the effect that behavior, however detestable from moral and political points of view, is not a ‘crime’ until so designated in advance of the acts in question by a competent judicial body. This principle has never been contested, and it pertains to the genocide debate whenever attached to pre-1951 events, whether the Armenian experience or to the destruction of a variety of indigenous peoples in various parts of the world or to the barbarous institution of slavery.

 

            At the same time, if what took place in 1915 were to have occurred anytime after the Genocide Convention became effective, it would seem beyond any reasonable doubt to qualify as genocide. The International Court of Justice in the course of examining the Bosnian allegations of genocide, put the bar high by requiring written or documentary evidence of a clear intent by Serbian governmental leaders to commit the crime of genocide that was not available (except the particular incident involving the horrific massacre of several thousand Bosnian males at Srbrenica in 1995 was declared to be genocide). While such evidence was difficult to provide to the satisfaction of the World Court in relation to this notorious Bosnian experience of the 1990s partly as a result of a questionable arrangement with the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia not to release documentary evidence tying the Belgrade regime to the anti-Muslim cleansing operations in Bosnia, the situation with respect to Armenia is different. Unlike Bosnia, documentary evidence from the ruling Ottoman authorities does exist in sufficient quantity and quality to make a persuasive argument to the effect that ‘genocide’ took place in 1915, but because the events occurred 36 years before genocide formally became a crime such a showing is legally irrelevant.

 

            If this reasoning is accepted, it has important implications, including establishing some political space for bringing closure to the issue: Turkey could formally declare that if what happened to the Armenians in 1915 took place in the 1960s it would have been genocide, while those on the Armenian side could accept the idea that the 1915 massacres were not then genocide, but that their extent, character, and evidence would constitute genocide if taking place now, or anytime after 1951. The French move, if indeed it becomes law, is irresponsible in the extreme as it disallows the explorations of constructive ways that the violence and suffering of the past might be mitigated. As post-apartheid South Africa has illustrated, it might sometimes be politically and morally preferable for a victimized people to opt for ‘truth and reconciliation’ than to insist on the criminalization of past wrongs however heinous.

 

            It seems to me that such an approach would have mutual benefits. It would bring a conflict that has endured for decades nearer to closure. It would allow Armenians to regard their victimization as genocide from a political and moral perspective, while enabling Turkey to make such a concession without fearing such legal implications as Armenian demands for reparations and the recovery of lost property. Turkish good faith and remorse could be further expressed by appropriating funds for the establishment of a major museum of Armenian History and Culture in Ankara, by recognizing April 24th as a day of Armenian remembrance, and by encouraging honest historical inquiry into these horrific occurrences.

 

            Of course, such a politics of reconciliation can only have any hope of succeeding if there is a large display of good will and a sincere search by Turkish and Armenian leaders for positive relations between the two peoples. It is to be expected that extremists on both sides would strenuously object to such an accommodation. Admittedly, there would not be complete satisfaction even among that largely silent majority of Armenians and Turks who might welcome a pacifying development. What would be created is valuable– a new opening that would allow a more benevolent future to unfold for both peoples that could include a joint cathartic reexamination of the past. Such a development might add to the solemnity and dignity of the expected worldwide observances in 2015 of the 100th anniversary of these events and avoid these occasions from being little more than sad remembrances and shrill recriminations.