"Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul." - Mark Twain

Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Response to Norman Finkelstein

Virginia Tilley

19 February 2012

Responding to bizarre statements always risks magnifying their exposure and importance. Hence I wouldn’t normally respond to Norman Finkelstein’s startling 32-minute video attack on the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, which was recently posted on YouTube to considerable fanfare by Zionist blogs. Some other good writers have taken him on, like Sean O'Neill, so I could leave it there. But having watched the whole video-taped interview as well as the 5-minute version that someone cobbled together of its “highlights”, I’m sufficiently irritated to respond. Partly I'm concerned to counter some fallacies he promotes that are floating around more widely, but I also feel obliged to challenge people who use the worst conceits of the academy—“it’s science!” “it’s law!”—to trash people’s work while abusing the real rigor and subtlety of academe. In fact, some of Finkelstein’s points are flat wrong, others partly wrong, some partly right and others flat right.  I’ll start with the wrong ones.

First, it’s seriously irritating that Finkelstein goes on about international law in ways that reduce international law to a parody of itself. You can’t take some law and not all law, he says, as though law is a fixed box set. For one thing, he cherry-picks law with abandon himself, as I'll discuss later. But mainly, international law isn’t a frozen set of rules. Like any law, it’s a moving target. Rules and norms develop incrementally, and are interpreted and reinterpreted over time, as conditions and needs change. For example, when the United Nations voted for partitioning Palestine in 1947, apartheid in South Africa hadn’t yet been invented. Within a few more years, South Africa’s first apartheid laws were on the books, yet it was another decade before the UN began to react seriously against it and 1973 before the UN made apartheid a crime against humanity. Today, the prohibition of apartheid is codified in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and what Israel is doing can be defined and denounced in terms that did not exist a half-century ago.

This is why Finkelstein botches international law in holding that, because “Israel is a state,” no one has a jot to say about the situation of Arab citizens inside Israel. Even when he talks about the 1947 partition resolution of the UN, Resolution 181, which recommended partitioning Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, he gets it wrong. He forgets that Resolution 181 specified plainly that neither state could discriminate on the basis of religion or race. When the General Assembly admitted Israel as a member of the UN in 1949, on the basis of this history, its members relied (gullibly) on Israel’s hints that it would not discriminate against Arabs inside the state. So Israel’s discriminatory laws flew in the face of international opinion even in 1949, let alone sixty-plus years later, when human rights law has gained so much more strength in prohibiting racial discrimination and apartheid. Today, no state anywhere in the world today has a “right” to discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race, religion, or ethnic or national origin. Israel has signed onto the international conventions which explicitly prohibit such discrimination and is bound by its obligations on this score.

So if Finkelstein and others try to rely on diplomatic recognition of Israel to argue that international law has nothing to say about discrimination against Arabs in Israel, they are flat wrong, because it is flatly prohibited. Yes, Israel is recognized as a state, but so is South Africa, and that didn’t stop the entire world from slamming apartheid as the racist abomination it was and insisting that the apartheid regime be dismantled.

Finkelstein is also flat wrong on another historical point: that the international legal framework for resolving the conflict has always been partition into two states. For evidence, he mentions that when Arafat—that legendary legal mind— proposed two states in 1989, he invoked the 1947 partition resolution as unfinished business of the conflict. Yes, Arafat did cite this, but his point was precisely to jump back over four decades during which the opposite was true. From 1947 to 1989, Israel flatly rejected creation of a Palestinian state anywhere in Mandate Palestine as an intolerable threat to Israel. The formal public position of the PLO from its creation until 1988 was also one state. Since 1967, Israel has made deadly clear—in rhetoric, laws, maps, settlement construction, military rule and anything else we might care to check—its intention is to keep all of Mandate Palestine under its supreme control. And in all that time, the UN Security Council said nothing about two states or even about Palestinian national rights. That’s precisely why the Oslo Accords manifested to naive international public as a “historic compromise”, blah blah.

Finkelstein calls for us to stick with this “historic compromise”. He dresses down the BDS movement for not doing so and for seeking instead, if implicitly, to “eliminate” or “abolish Israel”. We are all so sick of this language that I couldn’t normally find energy to write this sentence, except that he extends the point to delegitimizing the BDS organizers by saying that they “don’t want Israel to exist”. So let’s go through it one more time: this old Zionist chestnut makes open hash of international law by deliberately confusing two things—Israel as a modern territorial state and Israel as a Jewish state. Finkelstein’s critique of BDS doctrine is sort of right: yes, taken as a whole (as I agree with him we should take it), the comprehensive effect of the BDS agenda would “abolish Israel” as a Jewish state.

But is this logical implication—based entirely on international human rights law, by the way—illegitimate? I’d say, damn straight, Israel as a Jewish state must be abolished, just as white South Africa had to be “abolished”, and for the same reason—because ethnic states simply can’t exist without discrimination and oppression. But does this mean abolishing Israel as a modern territorial state? Of course not, just as South Africa was not “abolished” in this sense. So language about “eliminating Israel” is just pointless sophistry—scare-mongering, rhetorical sabotage—as Finkelstein well knows. Indeed, accepting his claim to senior experience of this conflict, we must assume he knows all about this manipulative language and his using it therefore can only mirror his accusations of hypocrisy back on himself.

Indeed, it is Finkelstein himself who avoids being honest—just saying straight out that he wants Israel to remain a Jewish state and won’t accept as "reasonable" any program that disagrees. Instead, he cites “international law” selectively and thinly as a cover for this. He also claims that the BDS movement contradicts “international law,” such as UN Security Council resolutions which call for creating two states. Yet here again, he cherry picks, and hoists himself on his own petard. He cites Resolution 1515 of 2003, which calls for two states, as “international law” yet then disparages Resolution 194, which calls for return of Palestinian refugees, as “indefensible”. Here more sophistry infuses his objection that mass return of millions of Palestinian refugees to Palestine would be entirely "unreasonable". For one thing, at least one study has found that the number of Palestinians actually wanting to return would be in the hundreds of thousands, not millions. But, in any case, defending the principle of Palestinian return hardly precludes sensible policies to manage the pragmatic realities of it, and activists firing questions from audiences in Finkelstein's talks (his example) hardly define the range of negotiation that must go into such questions. The very complexity of resolutions, diplomatic initiatives and contradictory clauses in the full history of the conflict precludes table-thumping about any one of them. All are necessarily subject to the diplomatic process, power politics, real politik, geographic constraints and evolving international views. Taking bits and pieces in isolation to call some “unreasonable” and others “international law” is meaningless.

It is indeed by viewing all this as a whole process, contradictions and all, that the “compromise” suggested by the Oslo Accords is revealed as a sham. Not least, Finkelstein ignores the glaring fact, hardly irrelevant to his claims about international consensus, that Israel itself has never agreed to a two–state solution. Aside from one sentence in a letter by Ariel Sharon, which was never formally endorsed by the Israeli Cabinet, Israel has never signed onto any document in any way that actually commits its government to create two states. Nor has it ever recognized the Palestinian people as a people or endorsed the Palestinian right to self-determination. The BDS movement might usefully address this farce and open discussions toward accepting that "Israel" now embraces all of Mandate Palestine and therefore must be reconceived as a secular-democratic state. But until that happens, the BDS movement can't be criticized for standing silent on a geographic version of Israel that Israel refuses to hold for itself. Here Finkelstein's citing the International Court of Justice on the question of where Israel's exists is only more cherry-picking: a mountain of international diplomacy confirms that Israel's final borders have not been set and the question remains a "final status" issue.

Finkelstein claims that BDS organisers will not admit to the true goals of BDS (the elimination of Israel) because they don’t want to split the movement. This isn’t a fact so much as an interpretation, but it’s easy to agree with him. He’s flat right that the three-tier goals of the BDS movement—end the occupation, return of refugees, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel—would “eliminate Israel” as a Jewish state. I’ve pointed this out myself, and am convinced for several reasons that the BDS organizers are fully aware of it. And I too have been bothered by the elision, but on reasoning opposite to Finkelstein’s. I think that a strategic fuzziness on this point deprives the BDS movement of its greatest potential, which is the unassailable moral force gained by clearly rejecting discrimination in all its forms and fighting for creation of a non-racial state, as in South Africa.

Finkelstein, by contrast, denounces the campaign’s silence on this point as deceptive, and failing to accept the inevitable. In doing so, he tramples all over principles of political activism as freely as he abuses international law. His first fallacy is to deride the BDS movement’s fogginess on its ultimate vision of one secular-democratic state as “childish” and “silly.” In this view, he is strangely naive, for a political scientist, about the politics of liberation movements. It’s a very old and time-honoured method in building mass movements to tread lightly around issues that divide people until consensus and trust build to the point where more difficult internal differences can be productively debated. The Zionist movement itself has done this from its earliest years, in skirting deep internal divisions about Judaism and Jewish social values, but we can spot the same manoeuvring in any liberation movement over the past few centuries. So it’s hardly "hypocritical" that the BDS leadership is treading gently by not confronting its constituency with divisive issues until the time has matured for some respectful internal debate about what “eliminating Israel” will actually mean to the future and well-being of the Jewish national home in Palestine. Perhaps it’s time for those discussions to be opened, but meanwhile it’s truly silly to call the delay “dishonest”. (Perhaps Finkelstein’s sensitivity on this score traces to Maoism, to which, by his own account, he was loyal for decades longer than most people. Once in a cult, always see cults?)

Finkelstein’s second fallacy about BDS is in disparaging its few “successes”. Here he fails to grasp the essential character of a BDS campaign. Although any such campaign naturally seeks and celebrates landmark victories, its true success is not measured by the number of companies pulling out of contracts but by the incremental growth of world public opinion. Let’s get this straight: the primary purpose of BDS is public education. This is mostly an intangible or qualitative matter, yet of immense importance, as Israel knows full well: hence Israeli state rhetoric these days barely mentions “terror” and focuses almost exclusively on “delegitimation”. I’d suggest it’s a far better indication of the BDS movement’s success that Israeli ambassadors, meeting in Israel over the New Year's break, reported that they had never before felt their diplomatic environments so chilly. Sean O'Neall has observed the same constraints confronting the stumbling Birthright Israel program, and other observers attest similarly.

Finkelstein’s third fallacy regarding activism is to protest that, if it’s honest about its “eliminate Israel” goals, the BDS will never reach a “mainstream public”. This objection about mainstream opinion, which he repeats several times, is bizarre on its face. Since when do human rights campaigns adjust their arguments to please mainstream opinion? Changing mainstream opinion is their very task. If activists took mainstream opinion as the proper guide to moral action, we would never have had the anti-slavery abolition movement, or the women’s suffrage movement, and apartheid would flourish in South Africa to this day. Indeed, we wouldn’t have most human rights campaigns. The toughest ones, which are often the greatest ones, must often start small and grow slowly.

Still, maybe Finkelstein is unintentionally helpful in drawing our attention to a seamier camp of human rights activism, by publicly positioning himself in it: some activists do tune their positions to what they think the majority wants to hear, eschewing stands that “lack support”. They may believe themselves pragmatic, but I call these folks “human rights entrepreneurs”, as they are essentially market-oriented. Like courtiers, they position themselves just behind the cutting edge, with a keen eye for trends, so they can surf a wave they didn’t actually have the courage or insight to create themselves. In other words, they are not guided by the moral principles of human rights but by how the rhetoric “sells”—how a human-rights posture gets them into the "club", invited to conferences and onto speaker circuits, and draws funds to their NGOs (although I make no assertion about Finkelstein on the money question). I don’t work that way, and I’d submit that the great human rights campaigns of human history have never built that way. They build on principle, and the greatest movements, like the campaigns to end slavery and apartheid, hammered away for decades through fog and darkness, eventually succeeding when moral authority and changing conditions finally synced. So were these all “cults” during those dark years? If so, call me a cultist.

I'm not saying Finkelstein is a money-grubber. On the contrary, he is clearly saying what he truly thinks, and, setting aside his unnecessarily rude and insulting language, I respect his independence of mind. But his position is still entrepreneurial in approaching human rights audiences as markets, in the guise of being pragmatic. If he remains dedicated to this approach, perhaps he can remember the power of marketing: persuading people that they want something. That’s how the ANC did it, anyway, eventually selling its idea of a shared state to what looked for many decades like unassailable white rejection.

In stark contrast to Finkelstein's argument, human rights campaigns must indeed assume, as a premise essential to their work, that public opinion—here, Jewish-Israeli opinion and Palestinian public opinion—is not fixed, but responds to persuasion, events and conditions. Especially, it responds to messages from the other side. A clarion call by the ANC for a shared state is what tipped South African apartheid leaders, once their world crumbled, to give up apartheid. When Palestinians decide collectively that their future is a reunited and shared Palestine, in which all citizens are equal in dignity and rights, the political chemistry of the entire conflict will change. By creating a “mainstream public” for themselves, they will ultimately create it for all.

This brings us to the question of leadership. One point I think Finkelstein did get right, and perhaps it was time to break ground by saying it. He decried the BDS Council for presuming to direct solidarity activities elsewhere. He mentions its squashing his own initiative in Gaza, which was a scandal, but also its claiming authority over initiatives by solidarity people anywhere in the world. I have to agree with him on this one: I’ve never seen anything like it, either—not with the Vietnamese, the ANC, Sandinistas, the Mayas, the PLO, East Timor, or any liberation movement I’ve ever supported or communicated with. The BDS Council is an able body of activists promoting an international campaign, but Finkelstein is right: it’s no more than an unelected, unrepresentative bunch of volunteers, and it has zip to say about what anybody else does, ever, anywhere, in support of the Palestinian people. Its only legitimate role is to serve as a resource, not an authority. Language I’ve heard by international activists on this score—that “proposals” for activity this or that must be “brought to the BDS Council” for “deliberation” and decisions about whether they should go forward—is gobsmacking and raises my political-alarm antennae. The same ugly impression was gained by AdamSchatz in the London Review of Books:

The idea of living with Jews—a central tenet of large sections of the Palestinian movement during the First Intifada—gave way to a vision of struggle against a faceless coloniser. When Israel began to build the wall, Palestinians retreated in pride and defiance behind a separation wall of their own. Many now refuse to associate even with those Israelis who are in sympathy with the Palestinian struggle. Amira Hass, the great left-wing Israeli journalist for Haaretz, who is based in Ramallah, was prevented from studying Arabic at Birzeit; Daniel Barenboim has been vilified by some leaders of the boycott movement on the grounds that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Arab-Israeli youth orchestra he created with Edward Said, is promoting “normalisation” with the Zionist state. One BDS leader told me with eerie self-assurance that Said would have shut down the orchestra in line with BDS demands. There was even a debate within BDS about whether the Bilin protests ought to be boycotted because of the participation of Israeli Jews who might call themselves Zionists. ‘These people don’t go to Bilin, [Palestinian lawyer Diana] Buttu said. ‘They prefer to issue fatwas from their laptops, and if you question the logic behind the fatwas, you get called a traitor. [emphasis added]’

Who the flippin’ hell is the BDS Council to shut down the Barenboim orchestra, or turn away Amira Hass or anyone else from Birzeit University, or—god help us—presume to assert that Edward Said, of all people, would kow-tow to its puerile diktat? What random NGO coalition is authorized to silence dissent by denouncing people as traitors? This is not just arrogance but dangerous arrogance, ringing of proto-fascism—centralisation by authoritarian personalities, claiming doctrinal and strategic control over a liberation movement in the name of ideological purity with racist overtones, although they have no popular mandate whatever, not even the democratic figleaf provided by the (long-defunct) Palestine National Council. The dangers of this distortion must not be underestimated and further submission to its intimidation tactics is unwise. Perhaps Finkelstein has done the solidarity movement a service, after all, by throwing open a window for true Palestinian democrats to confront this tendency and nip it in the bud. Sometimes a bull in a china shop does create an opportunity to sweep out the place.  

 Virginia Tilley is a professor of political science, author of The One-State Solution and many articles and essays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and editor of a comprehensive study of international human rights law in Israel-Palestine that is coming out with Pluto Press later in 2012. She can be reached at virginia.tilley(at)gmail.com <http://gmail.com> .

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

My Country Has Disappeared


This morning I had a kind of activist epiphane. It happened when I found I’d skimmed a lead BBC News article, “Mahmoud Abbas to head interim Palestinian government” in about five seconds and discarded it to give serious attention to a sidebar item, “Ping-Pong Toddler is YouTube Hit”.
There he was, the podgy little guy, sitting on the ping-pong table, his dad popping balls at him and him popping them back. I suppose he was a better image for Abbas, heading up an “interim Palestinian government”, than the dour shot of Abbas himself actually posted on that other article. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just finding the kid far more interesting.
It’s been happening a lot lately. Not that I don’t care about the Middle East anymore, but there’s hardly any point reading most of this stuff.  After one has pondered the wildly varying and unverifiable counts of the weekend’s civilian deaths in Syria (3500 or 55?), it only takes a few seconds to see that the IAEA has opened new talks in Iran (skip rest of article) or what new aircraft carrier group is threatening Iran outside the Straits of Hormuz (skip rest of article). Hillary Clinton’s latest outraged pronouncement about the Russian veto of a Security Council vote on Syria? The title suffices: flip to something more illuminating, like measuring ice melt in the Arctic. Latest desperate warnings that Israel is going to blow us all to smithereens by attacking Iran “by April”? Right, go two or thee lines down … no, flip to the latest review of “War Horse”. 
I’m not alone. A lot of us are getting jaded, bored with reading, pasting, emailing, posting and otherwise giving dutiful dogged attention to the same rusty recycling of the latest empty gestures by the same decrepit and deplorable political figures. The outrage, the frantic moral crisis watching US and UK idiot foreign policies lead us all to ruin—it’s all still there. But it’s stalling in a kind of limbo of ineffectual action. One keeps watching, dully, as one watches a tatty old city parade of weary lodge members in sagging uniforms stumping along blasting cracked marching songs on tinny brass instruments, celebrating patriotic zeal. One feels obliged to do it, but it's such a relief to go back to anything else afterward. Contemplate the evening TV schedule, or pat the cat, moral uplift.
I know the problem, really. It's that the real issues go so much deeper that the bedazzling daily media froth that "news" just isn't registering the way it should. Not least, I’m bothered by the realization that, sometime over the past decade or so, my country disappeared. I used to have a country, by the way. It was full of flaws but it had a good constitution and you could fight for things you cared about. People were illegally detained, and beaten up in prison, but you could haul the cops before a court and at least put up a fight about it. People in foreign countries were assassinated, but at least the government denied doing it, because it was Wrong. Our phones were tapped and our mail peeked into, our credit cards observed, but there was something called a warrant, and if they didn’t get a proper one, you could complain. I was proud of all this, in that na├»ve way that nationalists are proud of things they have never created themselves. Even while I wrote scathing critiques of US foreign policy, I did it because I was loyal to the vision. I believed. I was a patriot.
Just this year, it dawned on me that I’m a stateless person. Not in the sense of a passport, thank goodness, but in the sense of having a country that I call my own. I don’t recognize the one I grew up in, it has turned into something else. I don’t know where the Constitution went. It’s in a locked drawer somewhere, or carted off quietly on a palette into an Indiana Jones military storage facility. The new country, the one that replaced mine, is a paranoid, self-righteous, anything-goes state, in which someone I used to think was my very own president feels free to say happily on a Google chatroom that drone technology is really far better in killing “suspects” in mountainous terrain; authorizes the arrest, trial and conviction of US citizens on secret state evidence -- or, hey, skip the trial; and orders that prisoners going mad in Guantanamo must stay there indefinitely because the authorities can’t face the international scandal of revealing that they should never have been imprisoned in the first place. And he gets away with it, because it's a new country now.
Come to think of it, my country has turned into Israel. It's all there - detention without trial, convictions on secret evidence, torture, assassinations, black-box prisons, drone strikes, warrantless monitoring of citizens ... But there are lots of reasons to think the similarity goes beyond appearances, and that it isn’t accidental, either. From those skimmed articles, info occasionally rises out of the muck confirming that the Mossad and US and British intelligence are operating "in lockstep" (Obama's phrase), reminding us that those daily top-secret White House morning intelligence briefings to President Obama must now be saturated with Israel’s versions of what is going on in the world. This is deeply scary. Not least, the White House seems to have absorbed Israel’s twisted worldview that the whole Middle East is fundamentally steered by ethnic passions, so the skill-set needed in these Times of Terror is how to play on those passions and whip them up in US/Israel’s favour. And of course, who has that skill-set? By golly, thank goodness we have the Israelis. They've been trying to help us get it right for years-- and look how well it's worked for them.
Of course, what the Israelis didn’t mention is that inflicting these methods on scared civilian populations is exactly how the Israelis got to be so hated, and that by doing the same things, the US would be hated, which it now is. Instead, the entire US government and whole realms of the US electorate, lobotomized by corporate radio and Jesus stations, have swallowed the classic Zionist evasion--that eternal logic of the paranoid--that Arabs and Muslims don’t hate you for what you do but who you are. Hence the US has trotted along gladly, making Israel's methods ours: lying so often that people forget to check (e.g., that Iran is planning to “wipe Israel off the map”); convincing people that illegal measures are noble and extrajudicial actions heroic (e.g., shooting “suspects” from the air); and that, should any patriots take the slightest pause to wonder if this is what the country of their childhood is really all about, their whiney voices are heard as just more drivelling squeaks from the limp-dicked “left”.
Back in 1948, looking appalled at the Zionist triumphalist moment, Hannah Arendt deplored a worldview in which “only outmoded liberals believe in compromises, only philistines believe in justice, and only schlemiels prefer truth and negotiation to propaganda and machine guns.” Perhaps it’s because Arendt said it all in 1948, and others have said it all every year since, that saying it all in 2012 has waxed pale. One shouldn’t lose heart about this, I’ve always said. Mark Twain observed the same thing in the nineteenth century. Plato and Aristotle observed the same things in ancient Greece, for that matter. The struggle goes on. But we also know that Hannah Arendt had zippo impact then and that most of us are having zippo impact now, because the terrible truth is that the real work is not being done.
The real work is on a scale unimaginable to me, as a mere mortal. A national popular US referendum of political salvation, organized by the caring patriotic populace through the Internet, to ban all private funding of election campaigns and force all media to provide free and fair exposure to all candidates as a condition for their licenses. Another referendum to force restoration of discarded laws that limit how many radio and TV stations one corporation can own, to restore real diversity to the American media landscape. A class action suit to challenge illegal detention, extrajudicial assassinations and secret state evidence, brought to the Supreme Court. An international coalition to bring the illegality of US drone strikes before the International Criminal Court. Another international coalition to bring unilateral economic sanctions against Iran before the International Court of Justice for violating the United Nations Charter. And at the same time, a massive popular education and lobbying movement, on all levels and in all dimensions of what’s left of my former country, to drive Israel and AIPAC out of the US Congress and free the US political system to restore the Constitution and stop waging wars in the Middle East for Israel.
All this can imaginably happen. But it’s not likely to happen, because of all the flotsam. People are too busy trying to track the latest death counts in Syria; lobbying the UN for another resolution authorizing devastating western intervention; doing Kremlinology on military staff changes in Israel to see what they portend for a strike on Iran; and reading, beginning to end, articles about Palestinian “unity” talks on the weird notion that it’s worthwhile for the Palestinians to hold elections under occupation after Israel has shown it will arrest anyone who gets into office whom it doesn’t like. Cognitive dissonance, wilful blindness, naked Emperor … the critiques are as jaded as the problem.
Twenty years ago, I stood up in a UN forum and said that I thought all the human rights work of NGOs consulting with the Division on Palestine would make no difference because Israel’s basic policies to annex the West Bank would not be affected by it. Nobody liked it and they got sour on me. In 1991, I went to Congress with a large pile of documents showing that things were getting worse and the settlements would make hay of any negotiations. Biden started a sidebar conversation halfway through my five minutes of fame and that was that. In 1992, I went to the PLO with the same info. I was left in waiting rooms with the evidence in my lap, while Important People in newly bought expensive suits ran back and forth putting together the Oslo process, ignoring me -- for after all, the whole conflict would be over in five years. In 2003, I wrote in the London Review of Books that surely, now everyone saw beyond any controversy that the settlements had done their work and the two-state story was a cheat, we could start talking seriously about a one-state solution. Nearly a decade later, I’m still standing with cold feet on a grey sidewalk in a crowd of people, in a cold slow drizzle, watching the two-state brass band stump by in their saggy outfits blowing their even more cracked instruments. Yet another Middle East war looms, but even Abbas looks deadly bored.
Let’s give it up and go back inside to heat our feet with the last of our affordable fuel and do something more inspiring, like watching that round little kid pop those ping-pong balls back to his beaming dad.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Politics of Negotiations in Syria

Crying wolf, foreign agendas and Israel's role in destabilising Syria
Al-Jazeera, 1 Feb 2012
Suva, Fiji - It's been a dismally predictable, transparent and nasty lie by regimes under assault in the Arab Spring that the mass uprisings are being whipped up by foreign agitators - usually meaning Israel and the United States, maybe France, Europe generally, now sometimes Turkey or, heaven forfend, Al Jazeera journalists. Only the most gullible swallow these claims: their principal effect is to make the claimants look like buffoons. Still, a government's crying wolf doesn't mean a wolf isn't around somewhere. It's equally gullible to assume that foreign agendas have no role in Syria, for example. ... more 


Sunday, 22 January 2012

Republican National Committee endorses one-state solution

Thanks a million to Mitchell Plitnick on The Third Way for sharing the mind-boggling news that the RNC, probably without fully realizing it, has unanimously endorsed a one-state solution in Israel-Palestine. The full text of the resolution, which I append below, which reads rather like the Republican Party has suddenly fused with the Southern Baptist Church, confronts us with the following key paragraph:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the members of this body support Israel in their natural and God-given right of self-governance and self-defense upon their own lands, recognizing that Israel is neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others; and that peace can be afforded the region only through a united Israel governed under one law for all people. (emphasis added)
  
Of course, the RNC doesn’t know what it’s doing. I doubt the drafters have any idea that Palestinians outnumber Jews in Israel's "own lands" -- it’s just drawing on a Sunday-school version of Biblical accounts telling them that God gave the land to the Jewish people for a Jewish national home. (The RNC doesn't even know, saturated as it is in biblical sanctimony, that the Bible does recount that God “rescinded his grant of said lands”.) But taken in the context of the the whole resolution, the one-state call is still definitive. And I think it's sincere. What makes this resolution especially interesting is that it reflects a fundamental grassroots sense of decency common to many grassroots Republicans, particularly Christian ones, which inspired the generous if oblivious line, “one law for all people”.

So what intrigues me now is how the RNC can possibly back out of this. It can't exactly reverse this resolution in any way that would imply dividing the biblical land, and it certainly can't call for NOT having one law for all the people. I'm not even sure that the Republicans will understand the problem even if they are told that Arabs are an approximate majority -- again, their idea of things is pretty simple and there's not really any reason why a Jewish national home can't coexist with a mixed population anyway, even a majority non-Jewish one. 

At any rate, we can hope for some kerfluffle from this. RNC high-ups, alerted to the trouble, will probably try to bury this resolution and hope it just fades from all knowledge, or maybe put out a vague correction that it was intended as a general statement of principle pending the "final status talks" blah blah. But the contradictions of nice Christian values with actual Israeli policy are laid bare by this resolution, and it's just possible that a few Republicans themselves might get a wee learning curve out of this and find themselves with a seed of doubt. Hopefully enough publicity will assist this modest process.

 Here's the full text, with thanks again to Mitchell:

AN RNC RESOLUTION TO COMMEND THE NATION OF ISRAEL FOR ITS RELATIONS WITH THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


WHEREAS, Israel has been granted her lands under and through the oldest recorded deed as reported in the Old Testament, a tome of scripture held sacred and reverenced by Jew and Christian, alike, as the acts and words of God; and

WHEREAS, as the Grantor of said lands, God stated to the Jewish people in the Old Testament; in Leviticus, Chapter 20, Verse 24:  “Ye shall inherit their land, and I will give it unto you to possess it, a land that floweth with milk and honey”; and

WHEREAS, God has never rescinded his grant of said lands; and

WHEREAS, along with the grant of said lands to the Jewish people, God provided for the non-Jewish residents of the land in commanding that governance must be in one law for all without drawing distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, as contained in Leviticus 24:22, and

WHEREAS, the Nation of Israel declared its independent control and governance of said lands on May 14, 1948, with the goal of re-establishing their God-given lands as a homeland for the Jewish people; and

WHEREAS, the United States of America, having been the first country to recognize Israel as an independent nation and as Israel’s principal Mideast ally, has enjoyed a close and mutually beneficial relationship with Israel and her people; and

WHEREAS, indeed, Israel is the United States of America’s greatest friend in the Mideast; and

WHEREAS, the roots of Israel and the roots of the United States of America are so intertwined that it is difficult to separate one from the other under the word and protection of almighty God; and

WHEREAS, there are those in the Middle East who have sought to destroy Israel from its inception as a nation; and

WHEREAS, those same enemies of Israel also seek to destroy the United States of America; and

WHEREAS, the United States of America and the nation of Israel have enjoyed cordial and mutually beneficial relations since 1948, a friendship that should continue to strengthen with each passing year.

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, by the Republican National Committee that the committee by this resolution commends the nation of Israel for its relations with the United States of America.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the members of this body support Israel in their natural and God-given right of self-governance and self-defense upon their own lands, recognizing that Israel is neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others; and that peace can be afforded the region only through a united Israel governed under one law for all people.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that a copy of this resolution be forwarded to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and Senate Leadership and each of the legislatures of the states within the United States of America with the request and recommendation of this body that a similar resolution to that stated herein be proposed within their respective bodies.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Israel: No Iranian nuclear threat

Well, there you go. After years of flailing and shrilling about existential-threat this and pre-emptory-strike that, giving the whole world the heebie-jeebies about the entire Middle East collapsing into fiery conflagration after an Israeli attack to stop Iran's (supposed) nuclear weapons program, it's now out of the bag. Ha'aretz reports: Israel knows full well that Iran hasn't even decided whether to make a nuclear weapon, let alone when. And Israeli intelligence will "brief" US Army Chief of Staff General Dempsey to that effect this week (as if Dempsey didn't know). So, that Israeli bombing run that would toss us all into Armageddon? "Very far off," says Ehud Barak, waving a metaphorical airy hand at those sillies who have believed and obsessed about Israel's incessant claims of imminent peril. "It's certainly not urgent."

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Adalah's battle will get harder

In the battle against racist Israeli laws, there is no substitute for the website of Adalah: Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. So it's with huge respect and deep admiration for this extraordinary centre that I refer anyone to its work. Yet also, the following caveat: while supporting Adalah and others to fight this law is courageous, principled and necessary, we should be careful not to slip into a major error, which is to believe Israel's democracy has just gone off on some alarming side track, and can be got back on track by a little steering -- defeating this or that offensive law or practice. This error is related to a deeper one: the mistaken idea that racism in Israel is getting worse.

We see this error in alarmed denunciations of the Citizenship Law as though it's a change of some kind, and generally in those anxious warnings that "right-wing tendencies" springing up under Netanyahu are hijacking the country away from its liberal and tolerant ethos. If we take a frank look at Israeli practices toward Arabs since 1948, what strikes us is how little has changed. True, Arabs inside Israel got citizenship and the vote and much more liberty after 1967. But until recently, their situation remained crushed or delimited in every sense: geographic, political, economic, social. A subtle system of Israeli laws, linked to the Law of Return, ensured Jewish citizens' privileges regarding land, jobs, education, culture and religion, while Arab dissent (among a population still traumatized by the Nakba) was effectively silenced by other laws but also by inculcating plain fear, through a nefarious system of patronage, spies, bribes and intimidation.

Remembering this history, also recounted in books by Nadim Rouhana, Ian Lustick, Ilan PappeBen White and others, we can better understand why these "new" reactionary laws are springing up now. The old system of domination is taking some heavy legal and moral thumps, as Arab citizens (including Adalah staff) are not only getting uppity but launching serious legal challenges against the system. As these challenges force open statements by the High Court and other official voices endorsing discrimination, they expose the ugly truth behind of Israel's once-glossy moral image to domestic and international view. This exposure threatens the old system's ability to exclude, marginalise and silence Arab citizens as firmly as before. So new laws are being hastily drafted to shut those challenges down.

What's really important to grasp about these "new" laws is that the racism they codify was always there in the old laws. It was just more genteel. Israel's public image (to its own Jewish citizens, not least) had the superficial gentility of an Old South of the US or a 1950s white South Africa: whites and darkies could get along as long as darkies were good darkies and kept their place -- over there. It was only when the darkies picked up some signs and marched toward the white part of town demanding better housing, or simply showed up at Town Hall demanding to vote, that the facade of happy hierarchy cracked, exposing its reeking underbelly, and the racial order was threatened. And then it wasn't more than hours before the white hoods and flaming torches came out and horses galloped through the local black township to terrorize the darkies back indoors and sent the message again that they had better keep their heads down. Oh, and maybe one or two "troublemakers" get strung up, just to make the point stick: arresting Ameer Makhoul, for example.

But this time, for Israel as for all those racist orders before it, the old methods are not going to work. Once the fear quotient drops below a crucial level, it's going down for good. At that stage, trying to bury the upstarts by the old familiar methods, an Old South or an Israel or an apartheid South Africa only starts digging its own grave. That's what we're seeing now: gravedigging, with the dirt flying ever faster and higher off Israeli shovels from an ever-deeper hole, as the pressure on Israel gets worse. And so the Israeli government rails about Adalah and everyone else "delegitimizing" Israel, without realizing that the racial order regarding Jewish statehood was always illegitimate and it is Israel that is delegitimizing itself, by proving the critics right and exposing the real character of its racism to the world. Israel's predicament now is emerging just as Gandhi foretold: once one forces genteel racism to become crude and crass racism, old language and symbols that once seemed vaguely admissible are suddenly revealed as morally repulsive. "Demographic threat" indeed -- in this day and age!

Yet this is what people too often miss. Contrary to still-hopeful but increasingly anxious beliefs by some, Israel is not a proper democracy with some regrettable (and recently worse) anti-democratic tendencies. Yes, it walks and quacks a bit like a democracy. But it's a democracy like apartheid South Africa or White Australia were democracies: a democracy for one group. Yes, Jews compete and argue and form parties and vote for them just as people do in any democratic system. This competition is genuine. Arab citizens can go through the same motions, but for them it is not the same. What makes Israel not a democracy is that "non-Jews" (that infamous term of erasure), even if they can vote, can only vote for a system that ensures Jewish ethnic supremacy. Giving citizens the vote, but not allowing them to vote for their own equal rights, is like giving slaves the right to vote -- but not to vote against slavery.For we must never forget that, unlike in the US, where the Constitution provides for equal rights and is a tool in campaigns for it, Israel's Basic Law makes it illegal to form a political party that even calls for equal rights -- that is, for Israel not to be a "Jewish state" but simply a state of all its citizens.This is why Israel's hysterical reactions now are much more like the reactions of South Africa when the anti-apartheid movement got hot. One can't just reform a system whose very foundations have to go, and Israeli government people know it, just as apartheid South African government people knew it. They know it better than some human rights activists know it.

Recognizing that Israel is only looking worse, not getting worse, we should expect that Israel will not cave into the collapse of its cherished racial order without a fight. The South African apartheid regime got seriously vicious when its white adherents felt their world was on the skids and faced the dreadful prospect of living side-by-side with them -- blacks. So my prediction is that, unfortunately, pressures on Adalah and its supporters and its human-rights activist kindred will get worse in coming months and years, not better, as Jewish statehood fights for survival. The good news is that Adalah, like its predecessors who leaned into similar storms in South Africa and Jim Crow South, will come out shining in the end, when the old system is ashes and no one wants to admit ever having endorsed it.

Israel’s ‘national suicide’ parsed ...

The anti-democratic Citizenship Law pending in the Israeli Knesset, which would require all Israeli citizens to sign an oath of allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state, and the recent Israeli High Court decision squashing its opposition, continue to draw international alarm, controversy, and analysis. Mark LeVine at the University of California at Irvine has written an excellent and concise article in al-Jazeera, "Israel's 'National Suicide'", exposing the Supreme Court decision further illustrates Israel's ethical and political difficulties of maintaining Israel as a Jewish state:

... Because to recognise that Jews and Palestinians can become one in the most intimate way possible - through love, sex and children - is to open Israeli Jews to the possibility that there is nothing essential that separates them from Palestinians, that as human beings with deep roots in this land, Palestinians have the same human rights as Israeli (or diaspora) Jews.

Once people accept this reality, Zionism - which, at its core, is based on the exclusive Jewish claim of rights to and sovereignty over the Land of Israel - loses whatever remains of its moral and political legitimacy.