Imagining a free Palestine should be commonplace—that’s why I wrote the novel ‘Siegebreakers’

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

I wrote Siegebreakers because I can’t liberate Gaza or Palestine, but I can dream about it. I wanted it to be a proximate dream, a dream of the next step from now, not a distant dream that depends on too many unpredictable things going right. I wanted to write about how just a few things going right could change the whole thing—to show, through fiction, the real fragility of the apartheid system that always seems so invincible.

Gaza is besieged. Its children are systematically malnourished. Its economy has been under an active program of what scholar Sara Roy called “de-development” for decades. Israeli drones watch everything that happens. Israeli towers guard the wall that surrounds the enclave on three sides. On the side facing the sea, Israeli gunboats shoot at its fishers. At their own discretion, Israeli warplanes and artillery drop bombs where they please, always with the most convincing of pretexts. Sometimes they are solemnly warned by other Western politicians to ensure their bombs are not excessive for their self-defense. Other times, it is the Palestinians who are told that the bombings are their own fault.

It should have been a sleepy beach town, a place where oranges are grown and where kids play soccer and tourists come to feel their feet in the sand. Instead it is an experiment in human despair, its population imprisoned and punished for the crime of being Palestinian.

When I went to Gaza in 2002, I had just visited Jenin. The Israelis had turned most of the center of the camp to rubble. I saw the Israelis blow up a bank, for some reason I still don’t understand. But Gaza was still scarier. The first thing I saw after crossing at Erez was an Israeli armored bulldozer, bulldozing orange trees. I paused to take a picture and was immediately told to put the camera away and move on—from a loudspeaker I hadn’t noticed until after I’d been given the order.

It’s been 17 years since that visit under the auspices of the International Solidarity Movement. ISM had been inspired by previous solidarity movements, perhaps starting with those Americans who traveled to Nicaragua to try to bring attention to the U.S.-backed Contra insurgency in the 1980s, part of the Central American wars that Bernie Sanders has recently—and to his credit—not apologized for opposing. In the 1990s, the Zapatistas in Chiapas further developed the ideas and practices of international solidarity with their observer programs. International observers in Zapatista communities were obliged to study the Zapatista struggle and to think of solidarity as a reciprocal practice, not a gift from benevolent Westerners to the struggling poor people in the global South. People who travel from the global North were always asked by the Zapatistas: what are you doing for the struggle back where you live?

All struggles against injustice on this small planet are intertwined, whether we see the links or not. With Palestine it takes real effort to miss the links: the U.S. Congress and other state legislatures pass bills to oppose the small, nonviolent BDS movement whose goals are to sanction Israel until it complies with international law; Ilhan Omar is made to apologize for mentioning that there is an Israel lobby that tries to influence U.S. policy in Israel’s favor; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez apologizes for even speaking to Jeremy Corbyn, who in turn is demonized as an anti-semite even though everyone knows that he is a lifelong anti-racist whose real crime is supporting Palestinian rights. As it walls in and starves the Palestinians on all sides, Israel receives billions of dollars every year in aid, and many politicians in the West fall over themselves to embrace it (and condemn the Palestinians and their advocates). Palestine is where Israel’s high-tech arms industry tests out its anti-civilian weapons, exporting them as “battle-tested” in the laboratory of the occupation. Whether you want universal health care, school desegregation, for children not to die in concentration camps, or a Green New Deal, you won’t be able to sidestep the issue, tactically back down, or diplomatically leave it off the table for now. The chosen rhetorical weapon to attack socialist, democratic, redistributionist, and anti-racist leaders is Israel, whether it’s Corbyn in the UK or Omar and others in the U.S. There is no understanding how the empire works today without understanding the Palestinian struggle.

The empire wants the total dehumanization of the Palestinians, especially those Palestinians who resist. If they can be dehumanized, they can be isolated. If they can be isolated, then Israel is free to do what it wants to them. And since what Israel wants is the land without the people, the idea is to make the people go away. The policy, enabled by nearly all Western politicians and media, is genocidal.

Palestinian artists and writers do the work of humanizing: Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin is in the literary genre; Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off is a dark thriller. Both writers show you the exterior worlds and the interior lives of extraordinary Palestinian characters living through brutal times.

For leftists, fiction is always part of the trade. A generation ago, Ghassan Kanafani, a political leader assassinated by Israel in 1972, wrote Men in the Sun and several other indispensable political novels of Palestine. Here in our time, Arundhati Roy writes both nonfiction essays analyzing the dynamics of war, empire, and capitalism and novels that take you along with people living through the same dynamics. Roy’s latest book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness ends with the creation of a small and fragile utopia, a community of people taking care of one another—in a cemetery.

Utopias, big and small, have a special place in leftist writing. Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who has said that “science is now a leftism,” writes utopias because “anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard, and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better. Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization.” Robinson was talking to another utopian writer, Terry Bisson, whose extraordinary novel Fire on the Mountain imagines what American history would have been like had John Brown succeeded in his raid on Harpers Ferry. Australian leftist writer Tamara Pearson concludes her novel The Butterfly Prison—which showcased how dystopic life can be for poor people in the West—with the struggling characters winning a revolution and starting to build a better world.

When I wrote Siegebreakers it was important to me for the titular characters to succeed beyond what we have seen in the real world, for reasons similar to those articulated by Robinson: the siege is crushing the people who live under it, but it is crushing all of our imaginations. It is only twenty years old, and it can be broken. If we can’t do it easily right now, we can at least imagine it. We certainly won’t be able to do something we can’t imagine. I want at least imagining a free Palestine and a free Gaza to become commonplace.

My other goal in writing Siegebreakers was to go beyond humanizing Palestinians and lionize them. I’m as much of a pop culture critic as anyone, but I grew up in the 1980s watching Transformers cartoons and reading Marvel comics, reading Encyclopedia Brown mysteries as a kid and Sherlock Holmes in my teens. I played Dungeons and Dragons well into adulthood and I still read every Jack Reacher novel within three days of it coming out. As a fan, I am obsessed with superpowered heroes facing even more powerful villains and winning because of cleverness and courage.

North Americans are conditioned to accept quite a bit of violence from our heroes. Jack Reacher kills more people than the villains in his novels, as author Lee Child famously said. In real life, Palestinians are always asked to be nonviolent, while Israel starves and kills them freely. At least in fiction, I wanted to read a thriller where the action heroes were fighting occupation. Ghassan Kanafani said in an interview that history was a struggle of the strong against the weak. But North American fictional heroes aren’t weak: they’re strong. For me, Siegebreakerswas a study of heroism. Was the idea of a hero pure propaganda meant to sell toys and militarism to the younger version of me? Or is it an important concept that I could reclaim and map onto different contexts? I’ve concluded it’s the latter. Heroes are real: a hero is someone who takes risks and makes sacrifices for others. In the context of Israel/Palestine, heroism means facing a superior force (Nasser, the Palestinian protagonist of Siegebreakers), it means sacrificing belonging in one’s country to stop oppression (Ari, the Israeli character), it means getting involved when your privilege means you could just look away (Maria, the American character).

I am not Palestinian or Israeli and I don’t claim any rights to represent anyone. Often with Palestine, making it a Muslim, or Arab, or Palestinian, or Israeli, or Jewish issue has been another way of trying to sweep it under the rug.

In any case, to me, writing is never about speaking for people—unless you’re the official spokesperson for an organization writing official communications—much less claiming their struggle. You don’t have to be what you are writing (only memoir can do that). You just have to know what you’re talking about. Readers who know can decide what they think of Siegebreakers.

Artists do things because they are moved and hope to move others. What Israel, with ample help from the U.S., the UK, the EU and Canada, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and so many others, is doing to the Palestinians breaks many people’s hearts, including mine. So does what the Palestinians do to live and take care of each other in the face of it all. If it isn’t breaking yours, maybe my book can help.

First published by MR Online.

Siegebreakers (Roseway Publishing) hits the shelves on September 2.

The Ossington Circle Episode 32: The Wrong Story – Palestine, Israel, and the Media with Greg Shupak

The Ossington Circle Episode 32: The Wrong Story – Palestine, Israel, and the Media with Greg Shupak

I talk to Greg Shupak, author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel, and the Media. We use the Israel/Palestine story as a launching point for a technical discussion about tropes, frames, narratives, and propaganda, and about why and how to argue against it all. 

The Ossington Circle Episode 31: The Management of Savagery with Max Blumenthal

The Ossington Circle Episode 31: The Management of Savagery with Max Blumenthal
Cover of Management of Savagery
Cover of Management of Savagery

I talk to Max Blumenthal, author of The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State fueled the rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump. We begin with the latest coup attempt in Venezuela and go from there to talk about anti-imperialist politics, the need to rebuild an antiwar and anti-imperialist mentality, and the hunger for such a perspective – as evidenced by the positive reaction to Max’s book – despite it being pushed away from the mainstream.

The Human Rights Organizations Are Part of the Problem

Image from pressenza

By Justin Podur (1)

Source: Independent Media Institute
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Who can we believe? Political parties and partisan organizations now present not only their own opinions but, as the old joke goes, their own facts as well. Are the Palestinians being shot at the Gaza fence trying to invade Israel, as the Israeli Army shooting them claims, or are they trying to protest their confinement in the open-air prison in which they are being slowly starved, as their spokespeople argue? Is Venezuela’s president Maduro a dictator, as Trump says, or did he win a fair election, as the country’s electoral council states?

The news reader faces diametrically opposed versions of truth, and on matters of life and death. A natural instinct would be to look for neutral, non-partisan voices—to find arbiters of truth that are not on one side or another, but seek only to adhere to matters of high principle. And what principle is higher than that of human rights, the idea that we all have rights solely because of our common humanity? Surely in the fog created by self-seeking politicians, armed groups that use deception as a weapon of war, and careerist journalists who climb the ladder by serving the powerful, organizations dedicated to human rights—like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—can serve as beacons of light.

Sadly, they cannot. The very authority that human rights organizations own, their appearance of principle and neutrality, has become a commodity too valuable for the powerful to pass up. The result? Human rights organizations have sacrificed their credibility and become a sophisticated part of the U.S. foreign policy machine—or, to put it more bluntly, a part of the U.S. empire. Things have been this way for longer than most “people of conscience,” to use a human rights word, realize.

In his 2010 book Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, author James Peck describes how Cold War U.S. officials searched for an ideological slogan that could rival the appeals to equality and anti-imperialism that were offered to the world’s downtrodden by communist revolutionaries. Anti-communism worked well enough at home, but it was a negative slogan—against communism, sure, but what would the U.S. be for? U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in a letter to Carter that a U.S.-based, quasi-governmental human rights foundation could promote “a worldwide constituency for human rights,” while being “insulated from direct dependence” on the United States, providing a voice “independent from, and in some cases more credible than, the U.S. government.” A broad definition of human rights, Brzezinski argued, would “retain for us the desirable identification with a human cause whose time has come.”

Human Rights Watch (called Helsinki Watch at its founding) came to serve exactly this purpose. Peck writes that in the 1970s “as Helsinki Watch worked closely with dissidents in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it found itself emulating long-standing American government practices.”

Amnesty International took a more independent path, focusing on specific practices like torture, political prisoners, and genocide. In doing so, one of its founders argued, Amnesty appealed to those “tired of the polarized thinking which is the result of the Cold War… but who are deeply concerned with those who are suffering simply because they are suffering.” But despite this beginning of trying to find and appeal to universals and avoid contentious and partisan issues, Amnesty quickly found itself in the middle of just such a controversy: according to Amnesty’s definition, prisoners of conscience could not be advocates of violence; Nelson Mandela hadn’t renounced violence; therefore Mandela wasn’t a prisoner of conscience. In this way, Amnesty ended up on the wrong side of one of the most historic struggles of the time.

In practice, these human rights organizations consistently find themselves on the side of the empire, despite the contradictions and contortions that such a stance requires.

Amnesty failed to give Chelsea Manning the “prisoner of conscience” designation. Amnesty representatives told journalist Joe Emersberger in 2013 that its investigation was ongoing, and that it wasn’t sure if Manning had “released information in a ‘responsible manner,’” and wasn’t sure if the government was punishing her “in order to prevent public knowledge of human rights abuses.” By contrast, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who led multiple violent coup attempts against the government, was quickly given prisoner of conscience status by Amnesty. Were Lopez’s violent coup attempts less violent than Mandela’s refusal to condemn anti-apartheid violence? Were his coup attempts conducted in a more “responsible manner” than Manning’s whistleblowing?

In 2006, Jonathan Cook pointed out how Human Rights Watch researcher Peter Bouckaert told the New York Times that “it’s perfectly clear that Hezbollah is directly targeting civilians, and that their aim is to kill Israeli civilians. We don’t accuse the Israeli army of deliberately trying to kill civilians… so there is a difference in intent between the two sides.” Cook pointed out that “just as Bouckaert is apparently sure that he can divine Israel’s intentions in the war, and that they were essentially benign, he is equally convinced that he knows Hizbullah’s intentions, and that they were malign. Whatever the evidence suggests—in a war in which Israel overwhelmingly killed Lebanese civilians and is still doing so, and in which Hizbullah overwhelmingly killed Israeli soldiers—Bouckaert knows better.”

This is an amazing two-step process: First, the human rights organization suggests that effects (vastly disproportionate civilian deaths) matter less than intent. Second, the human rights organization assigns bad intent to the weaker side and good intent to the stronger, claiming in essence the ability to read minds. The emphasis is on (presumably telepathically discovered) intent—which for the U.S. or its allies is always good and for its enemies is always bad. The emphasis is away from disproportion, since the casualty ratios of U.S. wars are monstrously disproportionate (that is, the United States and its allies kill many more civilians than their enemies).

Such an argument, Cook goes on to point out, “legitimises the use of military might by the stronger party, thereby making a nonsense of international law and the human rights standards HRW is supposed to uphold.”

It also legitimizes the stronger party to focus on individual cases and avoid discussing the numbers. When human rights organizations argue that every individual case of torture or violation of human rights is a crime, they are completely right. But by failing to note that one side is killing 10, 100, or 1,000 times more than the other, they fail to bring their readers to any conception of who is responsible for these conflicts and where to apply pressure that could save lives.

There are more biases in practice. As the U.S.-led coup against Venezuela continues to unfold, recall HRW’s performance last month when the organization endorsed the U.S. attempt to force entry into Venezuela with “humanitarian aid” (Venezuela has been accepting humanitarian aid from other countries the whole time, while refusing aid from the U.S., citing the coup attempt). Adam Johnson from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted on Twitter that HRW “never technically endorse regime change but pass along every misleading, distorted shred of propaganda required for regime change then, when pressed on this, insist they’re just calling balls & strikes.” HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth justified the coup attempt directly, calling it, “sad testament to… Maduro’s destruction of Venezuelan democracy that the opposition leader must resort to appeals to the military.” Roth’s obsession with Venezuela has gone on for years, during which serious violations of human rights and democracy in other Latin American countries, notably Honduras, were neglected by HRW.

Amnesty performed little better. On its list of 10 elements of the Venezuelan crisis, Amnesty found it in its heart to include as the 10th and final element, the “Damaging US sanctions.” The sanctions, which a U.S. official likened unironically to Star Wars villain Darth Vader choking someone to death using the force, may have deserved top billing, given its effects, which now extend to the theft by the U.S. and UK of billions of dollars of funds belonging to Venezuelans—harming Venezuela’s oil production, its energy sector, and even its health system.

The U.S. campaign against Venezuela today echoes the campaign to overthrow Salvador Allende in 1973, when Nixon ordered the CIA director to “bring the Chilean economy under Allende to its knees,” and when the U.S. ambassador to Chile told Henry Kissinger, “Not a nut or bolt will be allowed to reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to the utmost deprivation and poverty, a policy designed for a long time to come to accelerate the hard features of a Communist society” (quoted on Peck p. 57).

Inconsistencies in practice are matched by problems of human rights theory, as Amnesty and HRW are not against aggressive war on principle. The post–World War II international legal framework defined aggressive war as the supreme crime from which all other crimes of the Nazi regime followed; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared social and economic rights to be human rights. But past executive director Aryeh Neier of HRW argued that “the concept of economic and social rights is profoundly undemocratic” and that HRW “has never labeled any party to any conflict as an aggressor, holding that the concept of aggression is poorly defined. As Israel and the United States argued at the Rome conference in 1998… it is impossible to come up with a definition of aggression that is not politically controversial” (quoted on Peck pp. 95 and 227, emphasis mine). But aggression is no more poorly defined (and no more disputed) than other human rights concepts—genocide, democracy, dictatorship, political prisoner, even torture. The refusal of human rights organizations to oppose aggression leaves them in a demeaning position of begging aggressors to try to conduct their bombing campaigns in a way that minimizes harm to civilians—as any reader who grimaced their way through HRW or Amnesty reports about the Saudi/U.S./UK war on Yemen, or Israel’s bombings of Gaza, knows.

This is no way to take a stand on principle. But what to do? Discovering the bias of human rights organizations is even more demoralizing than discovering the propaganda power of social media. It is impossible to find a democracy and critical-thinking nourishing set of globally connected social media, and it is impossible for a person of conscience to find an unbiased comprehensive global database of human rights violations. On the other hand, the solutions may be similar: the creation of real-world connections, contacts, and ultimately movements.

In Ideal Illusions, Peck contrasts the legalistic, bureaucratized, and ultimately co-opted human rights organizations to the peace movements that rose and fell over the same decades.
The alternative to these captured organizations is just such a peace movement: one that’s against war on principle, against aggression, wants to dismantle the war economy, understands the difference between the powerful and those resisting, and uses people power and not legal arguments and pleas to the powerful.

  1. Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

The Ossington Circle Episode 16: The Destruction of Syria and Solidarity with Max Ajl

The Ossington Circle Episode 16: The Destruction of Syria and Solidarity with Max Ajl

In this episode of The Ossington Circle, academic, activist, and editor at Jadaliyya Max Ajl discusses the destruction of Syria and the vitriol directed at leftists and Palestine activists who have opposed intervention in Syria.

The Ossington Circle Podcast Episode 4 – Students for Justice in Palestine with Nora Barrows-Friedman

The Ossington Circle Podcast Episode 4 – Students for Justice in Palestine with Nora Barrows-Friedman

I interview Nora Barrows-Friedman, author of In Our Power: U.S. students
organize for justice in Palestine. We discuss the U.S. campus movement
for justice in Palestine, the challenges it faces, and the remarkable
students and advocates that make it up.