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 much-maligned views of Rania Khalek on Syria

When journalist Rania Khalek’s lecture was cancelled on February 27, the group that invited her, Students for Justice in Palestine – University of North Carolina (SJP-UNC) issued a statement saying that the cancellation was because of Rania’s “views” on Syria, and that they believed “her invitation would mistakenly imply SJP to hold such views”. They also added that they “do not endorse nor reject her views on the Syrian civil war as they remain relatively unclear according to our members’ diverse opinions of Rania’s analyses.”

Image of RK

In response to the cancellation, a large number of signers, many of whom have been involved with Palestine solidarity, signed a statement against Rania’s blacklisting but also against blacklisting in general. That statement concluded:

“The signers of this statement hold a range of views on Syria. Some agree with Khalek; others disagree – in some cases quite vehemently. But we feel that when a group seeking justice in Palestine subjects speakers or members to a political litmus test related to their views on Syria, it inevitably leads to splits, silencing, confusion, and a serious erosion of trust. It runs contrary to the possibility of people learning from one another, changing their minds, and educating one another through their activism. Disagreements about political issues exist inside every movement coalition. They must not be made fodder for targeted vilification of activists in the movement.”

The statement “against blacklisting” triggered another wave of slanders, as many of the same people who had pressured the SJP to cancel her talk approached signers to argue that they should not have signed. Among their arguments was that there is and should be a political litmus test, one that Rania fails. As an initial signer myself, I was approached more than once by friends who suggested that I didn’t really know Rania’s views.

The people that have written about Rania publicly range from truly creepy stalkers to left academics who fired off a quick set of libels and then expressed dismay at the responses to them. But other than people talking about her, it is in fact rather difficult to find any sources for these “views” of hers that apparently disqualify her to speak or publish on any topic.

Out of concern that maybe I didn’t really know them, I sought Rania out to ask her about these much-maligned but rarely aired “views”.

Justin Podur (JP): Are you an Assadist?

Rania Khalek (RK): I am not a fan of the Syrian government. I’m not out here to support the Syrian government.

What I oppose is the dismantling of the Syrian state which is what several major powers have tried to do in the past six years. I oppose that because we’ve seen what it looks like in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and I don’t want to see that happen to Syria.

I also oppose the current alternative to the Syrian government, which is a patchwork of Salafi Jihadist groups that want to impose strict religious law, kill minorities, and stone women for adultery. That’s unacceptable to me, and to many people including my relatives who live in Syria who happen to be minorities.

JP: So, this is your first “view”. Based on your understanding of what happened after the removal of Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam in Iraq, and other countries, you oppose the destruction of the state, and based on your understanding of groups like Nusra and ISIS, you do not support the opposition to the Syrian government. The people who call you Assadist for this should also call people who opposed the war in Iraq Saddam-ist, the people who opposed the war in Libya Gaddafi-ist, etc.

RK: Exactly. And I think it is an unfair portrayal and an inaccurate binary because if you don’t support these Islamist rebel groups that have ultraconservative ambitions, that supposedly makes you a supporter of a dictator and that’s not fair.

I would love to see a democratic Syria. I would love to see a Syria where parties other than the Ba’ath could flourish and run in elections. The fact now is that there’s a right-wing, far-right insurgency funded by some of the biggest powers in the world trying to destroy the country. Under current conditions it’s nearly impossible for people to organize for basic reforms.

JP: Ah. Here too there is a genuine difference of opinion with supporters of the Syrian revolution who argue the opposite: that as long as Assad is in place, you can’t have reform.

RK: Right, but that should be a debatable point for political discussion. Why can’t we debate it?

JP: I agree. Your contention that reform is impossible while this rebellion continues and the contention that reform is impossible while the regime is in power are different assessments of the situation that it should be possible to discuss within the movement.

My next question: Did you attend an Assad-sponsored public relations (PR) conference in Damascus?

RK: I was able to travel to Syria, was able to get my visa approval to Syria, by agreeing to attend a 2-day conference in Damascus hosted by a pro-government British NGO.

I went there along with several prominent journalists from every mainstream outlet in the West: NYT, Washington Post, NPR, BBC, LA Times, Telegraph, The Times (UK).

JP: I recently watched a PBS documentary from a few years ago called Inside Assad’s Syria. That journalist was on a regime-guided tour.

RK: That’s the only way to get into the government-controlled areas of Syria. It’s a police state. They only allow you to see certain things. If you are a journalist you should have that in mind and keep that clear.

JP: It is often the case that if you’re a journalist reporting on any kind of conflict, the only way to get in is to go with one side or the other. It is one of the reasons it is so hard to get good information about conflicts and something Patrick Cockburn wrote about last year.

RK: All of these journalists agreed to go to this conference so they could go to the government areas, where the majority of people still remaining in the country live. If you want to talk to these people, you have to get a visa, which means you have to get the agreement of the government. Each individual paid their own way, stay, transportation. I wasn’t funded by the regime. I paid my own way. I didn’t even end up going to the conference. I was pressured not to go after it was discovered that my name was included on the program even though I didn’t agree to speak (along with several others who hadn’t agreed to speak).

Mainstream journalists spoke at this conference, on more than one panel. None of them were smeared the way I was. It was a campaign to get me fired and it worked. Because of this smear against me, there has been a soft boycott of any of my reporting, which is the point.

Anybody who repeats that I “spoke at an Assad-sponsored PR conference in Syria”, may be misled or malicious, but either way they are participating in a process that tries to ensure none of my reporting gets any airtime.

JP: So, on this point: like every mainstream journalist working on Syria, and alongside many of them, you traveled to government-controlled areas and attended government events with government permission.

My next question: Reuters, Al-Jazeera, and other outlets reported in December 2016 that rebels had poisoned the Damascus water supply. I remember you tweeted about it. And in March, a UN report looking at satellite photos and asking people there, said that it was the government bombing its own water supply. According to the NYT in March 2017 “investigators said video of the bombings, witness testimony and satellite imagery showed the water supply system had been damaged in at least two airstrikes using high-explosive bombs,” and that the idea that the water facilities were damaged from the ground was “inconsistent with observable physical evidence”. What do you make of this?

RK: The rebels in Wadi Barada were al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria – they have changed their name again since but they are still al-Qaeda). Wadi Barada is where the water supply for Damascus comes from. My own sources on the ground said that al Qaeda affiliated rebels put diesel in the water. There was a water shortage and it was bad for everybody in Damascus including friends of mine who live there. The valley where this water is, was destroyed in some bombing. Both sides blamed each other, although there were pictures of rebels victoriously standing on top of the destroyed water infrastructure. You have claims from both sides and in this case it doesn’t make sense to me that the government would bomb its own water supply.

JP: Damascus is the capital, a government-held area. This one seems to me to be debatable as well. The government has been brutal towards rebel-held areas, but it is hard to identify what the logic might be for the government to destroy its own water supply, and easy to identify why the rebels would want to do it.

RK: The rebels have done this before, in Aleppo; ISIS has done it when they controlled the Euphrates.

I have no problem believing that the government of Syria has done bad things. They have. In this case, sources that I trust, that aren’t in the government, are telling me that this report is inaccurate. There’s no way I or my detractors can prove it one way or the other.

JP: So, in your opinion, this is an open and factual question that is difficult to resolve. Like many others, you reported that the rebels damaged the water supply and you continue to believe that it was the rebels. This, too, seems like an area in which people could disagree in their assessments of the evidence and the logic.

Now I have a question that reasonable people cannot disagree on – claims about you that I believe are false and want to check. One academic said that you “defend Syrian bombing of heavily populated civilian areas”. Do you?

RK: I have never done this. Not once. Not ever. That is all.

JP: Doing so would make you some kind of monster. It would be an ugly thing to do, like when Hussam Ayloush from the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of your detractors, tweeted that he was “sad” that a Russian military plane crash killed “just 92” people when the plane could have fit 180. He later apologized, but it is hard not to note that his first instinct was to celebrate deaths and wish for more of them.

RK: I don’t support the violence dished out by the Syrian government. I have never done that. I never would. I’ve never even cheered on Syrian government violence against Al Qaeda. Civilians? I would never ever in a million years support violence against civilians and I never have.

JP: The same professor who said you did, also said you “attack reputable human rights organizations that document such war crimes”. Not sure what he means by “attack”, but what is your response to this one?

RK: I find it really surprising that so many people want to accept any narrative they are given from any organization – and it’s usually the same people who are constantly questioning these organizations on other issues, especially related to Palestine. On Palestine we know everything is so biased, yet on Syria we are supposed to accept every claim from the same outlets and organizations. We should always be challenging these things especially when our government is involved. I’m not denying atrocities have taken place. I feel it’s necessary to challenge human rights organizations when they are reporting claims made without evidence.

JP: So, to summarize, if you have a “view” about this, it is that one should “challenge human rights organizations when they are reporting claims made without evidence.”

RK: These organizations have a history of playing fast and loose with the facts when the countries accused are on the wrong side of US foreign policy. Then there are the human rights organizations that receive funding from USAID. It is crucial that we question claims that they’re making as well.

JP: So you are saying: when you receive a claim of an atrocity, regardless of source, look at evidence.

RK: Yes, look at evidence. Don’t take claims by rebel groups at face value when there aren’t independent human rights organizations on the ground. The Syrian government lies too. I don’t think you should accept their claims without evidence either. In Gaza you had independent human rights investigators and journalists. You don’t have that in Syria really on either side. Anything coming out on Syria from either side should be looked at with a great deal of scepticism.

JP: So, if the professor had rephrased “attack reputable human rights organizations” to “challenge claims that come without evidence, even from reputable human rights organizations”, he would be on solid ground.

The last thing this professor added was that you apparently “insist that the Syrian resistance consists of only foreign-backed Islamist terrorists”. I guess he is upset because to people who favour the opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are not “foreign-backed Islamist terrorists”. Do you insist that they are? Even if you did, I think that too is an assessment that could be debated, but please tell me your view.

RK: I don’t use the word “terrorist”, so I wouldn’t accept that statement about me. As for what I think about the FSA: It was a loose collection of fighting factions. There may have been some moderate ones at the beginning, but that did not last, and what matters is what it’s become, which is basically absorbed into the other, Islamist armed groups. The FSA has worked alongside Nusra and even carried out operations with ISIS before ISIS and Nusra became enemies. The FSA and Nusra have a similar goal, which is some sort of state with Islamist elements. That doesn’t mean everyone who fought with the FSA were trying to impose an Islamic state. But the strongest fighters were Islamist and sectarian and it is that strain that prospered. At this point in 2017 no one can name a fighting group trying to overthrow the government that isn’t completely Sunni and extremely sectarian. The armed opposition never got majority popular support because it was from the start very sectarian and eventually entirely Sunni, it was fighting for Islamist aims and to impose an Islamic state. The vast majority of people in Syria oppose that, even people who don’t support the government. They fear the rebels more than they fear the government. I am talking about the facts here, not my views. In 2017, is there a fighting force in Syria trying to overthrow the government that isn’t sectarian and Islamist? I don’t see one.

JP: What about the idea that there are local councils flourishing in rebel areas?

RK: The local councils quickly lost control in rebel areas. There is still local control in areas that have participated in reconciliation agreements with the government. There will probably be more local control going forward and that’s a good thing. And it’s important to remember that the local councils in rebel areas were promoted and even funded by people who wanted intervention and escalation, including the state department.

An encouraging development in Syria that often goes ignored is that many people who supported the opposition are now in reconciliation processes with the government that are being facilitated by mediation groups. The local councils that are in charge in those reconciliation-agreement areas never had a chance under an extremist opposition that was armed by Saudi, Qatar, Turkey, and the US—countries that have zero interest in actual democracy, progressives, or liberal feminists in the region.

JP: So, here we have two factual or perhaps analytical questions: 1. What is the extent of non-Islamist armed opposition? 2. To what extent was unarmed opposition able to flourish in rebel-held areas? According to your analysis, the answer to both questions is “virtually none”. But these, too, seem to me to be questions about how one assesses evidence about the war, not about whether you hold some sort of discriminatory views.

RK: Look, I am a minority Arab woman with relatives in both Syria and Lebanon. The opposition groups that weren’t al Qaeda, they often worked alongside it. They have killed people like me based solely on their identity. This isn’t about supporting dictatorship. It’s about survival for many people in the region, for people who don’t want to live under a Saudi-Arabia style system. That’s what is happening here. A lot of the people smearing me are coming at me from a very sectarian and conservative place. I’m being attacked by the most conservative elements in the Arab community. It’s been really stunning to see so many people who call themselves leftists and progressives buy into their side of the story and completely brush me aside as a dictator-lover without considering that – hey, maybe there’s a reason why secular Arabs and minorities like Rania wouldn’t want to live under Salafi Jihadist groups.

JP: Your February disinvitation came after some tweets about Wahhabism and Salafism. You wrote that “Yes, being Salafi or Wahhabi doesn’t mean you’re violent, but it definitely means you’re an extreme bigot and misogynist.” I noticed a very quick and extraordinary reaction to that tweet. One of the first reactions that I saw was someone who told you to “Stop talking about Palestine” if you believed this. I have seen that reaction many times. I found it a very interesting reaction – “stop talking about Palestine”. Why is that the first reaction? Here’s a topic that is basically taboo in the West, something that one can’t talk about without potentially severe consequences, and when you say something these people don’t like, they tell you to “stop talking about Palestine” as if every other part of society isn’t already telling you to shut up about Palestine.

RK: It is really striking the way that Palestine solidarity, outlets, and activists have been attacked from the beginning by the people who support intervention in Syria. They are going out of their way to silence Palestine activism.

Even in the region now, Palestine is the last thing on people’s minds. There’s also an attempt to equate Syria with Palestine. The tactic of saying, if you support resistance in Palestine but not the Syrian opposition, you’re a hypocrite and you have no right to talk about Palestine. But Palestine and Syria are different. Palestine is being occupied and colonized by the Israelis. That is what Palestinians are fighting against. You don’t have to like the Syrian Army to recognize that, unlike the colonial Israeli army, it is indigenous to Syria and fighting an armed insurgency that includes tens of thousands of foreign fighters who have more in common with the religious and supremacist ideology of Israeli settlers than with Palestinians. You can’t just support any armed resistance. It matters what the resistance is fighting for. If you are fighting colonialism, I can support that. If you are fighting to impose an Islamic State, I can’t support that.

On top of that, there is no consensus among Palestinians about Syria. Among the many Palestinians who live in Syria, there are those who support the opposition, those who have tried to remain neutral, and those who are fighting on the side of the regime. It isn’t an easy situation. There is no consensus among Arabs or Palestinians. It’s disingenuous to use the issue of Palestine to sell your position on Syria.

JP: I have been struck by how focused it all is on preventing people from speaking.

But back to that tweet. I can understand how that might incense someone who identifies themselves as Salafi or Wahhabi, being called an “extreme bigot and misogynist”, and would lead to them countering by calling you an Islamophobe. How would you respond to that accusation?

RK: I made a statement about this on Facebook. It isn’t Islamophobic to criticize Salafism and Wahhabism. These are far-right, puritanical ideologies that promote genocide against minorities and whose belief systems are at the inspirational root of what drives al Qaeda and ISIS and groups like them. It’s shocking to me to see people try to suppress criticism of these ultra-conservative ideologies by invoking Islamophobia. Islamophobia is a serious issue in this country and should not be thrown around lightly. It is analogous to labeling people who criticize Zionism as anti-Semites. People have said that I am not Muslim so I can’t criticize these things. But these ideologies address me directly – they say I’m killable and nonhuman. This is not some hypothetical. The fatwas of Salafi and Wahhabi scholars are invoked by Salafi Jihadist groups to justify forcibly converting, enslaving and killing people like me. As a minority from the region I have every right to talk about murderous ideologies that call for my enslavement and/or death.

More importantly, the US is very supportive of these ideologies and has used them against Arab nationalists and communists. People on the left shouldn’t be defending these ideologies in the name of combatting Islamophobia. First, it’s insulting because it equates all Muslims with Wahhabis and Salafists. Secondly, Shia mosques are being blown up all over the world because of these ideas, which have been spread deliberately by petrodollars from Saudi Arabia. It’s the same US-backed ideology that inspired 9/11. We need to talk about this honestly.

JP: The academic mentioned above who accuses you of whitewashing government crimes points to a story you did about how sanctions are damaging Syria’s economy. I’m not sure how the latter leads to the former. But maybe you can elaborate.

RK: I don’t deny the Syrian government is killing people. I’ve seen the results of their bombings. They bomb everything. It’s an overwhelming indiscriminate level of violence against opposition areas. But this is a two-sided war, a multi-sided war in fact. I have been saying this is a two-sided war.

So the charts saying the government is responsible for 95% of all civilian deaths shouldn’t be believed. The opposition has killed around 100,000 pro-government fighters. If the government has killed 95% of the civilians, then that means the side of the war that has al Qaeda in it has almost exclusively killed government forces, which would make it the noblest fighting force in history. I don’t whitewash the government’s atrocities. I have said something that’s obvious – there are many sides fighting and many sides killing civilians.

JP: Al Qaeda is famous for anti-civilian operations. But let’s continue about the sanctions.

RK: I wrote a report that said that sanctions are destructive to civilians. I am not ashamed for reporting on that. People have tried to distort my reporting on sanctions by saying it whitewashes government atrocities. The sanctions have destroyed Syria’s economy and made it extremely difficult to get humanitarian aid in during one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in the world. The US has flooded Syria with weapons and money for armed groups while its sanctions obstruct humanitarian aid to people caught in the crossfire. That’s something that should be opposed. Stephen Zunes wrote about the sanctions against Iraq and how awful they were. He’s saying I whitewash the regime for having the same position on the Syria sanctions, which have by the way denied cancer medications to children in Syria. The hypocrisy is cartoonish. People who opposed sanctions on Iraq are attacking me for having the same position on Syria.

JP: It is really bizarre because if opposing the sanctions on Syria makes you an Assad apologist, opposing the sanctions on Iraq must make you a Saddam apologist, and Saddam is not someone these people would want to be associated with any more than Assad.

RK: I think the difference is this: The US invaded Iraq with tens of thousands of American soldiers. Syria has been a proxy that the US outsourced to Salafi jihadist groups. So people don’t see it as a war on Syria.

JP: To conclude, I see four things here:

1) a set of assessments about you have about specific issues like the Damascus water supply, the extent of non-Islamist armed groups and popular support for the opposition, and the impact of the sanctions;

2) a set of political views you hold that are fairly common among leftists including strong support for secularism, opposition to Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies, and scepticism of even mainstream human rights organizations when they present claims that go beyond the evidence they present;

3) a set of statements about you that are false (e.g. that you “defend attacks against civilians”, “went on an Assad-sponsored PR tour”, etc.).

4) mixing all these together to talk about your “views” as if you hold discriminatory views about defined groups of people.

But you don’t. You are a leftist supporter of equal rights for all and a holder of unequivocal anti-discrimination views. Nobody should be doing #3 and #4, and if people have issues with #1 and #2, we should be debating those on the merits.

Originally published at ZNet on March 31/17

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.

Silent Compromises

Many vicious attacks have been reported.

On Friday, Oct. 23, a rabbi named Arik Ascherman was chased by a masked man trying to stab him near the Itamar Israeli settlement. On Oct.,22, a Jerusalem man named Simcha Hodedtov was shot and killed by police as a terrorist. On Oct. 18, a 29 year old named Haftom Zarhum was shot and then beaten to death by a mob in Beersheba. On Oct. 13, Uri Rezken was stabbed in the back while shopping. He screamed “I am a Jew, I am a Jew” to his attacker, but was stabbed four times anyway.

This list of incidents above is selective, though not exhaustive. It consists solely of attacks by Israelis against Israelis who were mistaken for (or in Ascherman’s case thought to be too close to) Palestinians. It does not include the vast majority of deaths and injuries in this latest round of violence, deaths and injuries of Palestinians attacked by Israeli security forces, accompanied by horror stories of children shot while seeking help; children imprisoned without trial; planted weapons after shootings. Nor does it include massive, organized attacks by mobs of settlers against Palestinian villages. It also does not include the deaths and injuries of Israelis killed by Palestinians in the knife attacks that are much more thoroughly covered in the Western media than the much larger numbers of Palestinians killed.

What started this round of violence? Israel’s armed settler movement is attempting to change the way that Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque is run. In fact, they want the mosque torn down, like the Babri Mosque was torn down in India in 1992. The Israeli government, which the settler movement has largely taken over, has a strategy that probably involves ultimately dividing the mosque site and banning Palestinians from it, as has been done in Hebron. As with the second intifada in 2000, Israel put pressure on the al-Aqsa site until Palestinians resisted. When Palestinians resisted, Israel escalated with lethal force, and now continues to escalate with no end in sight.

In the midst of this violence, Israel’s political leaders are attempting to suppress what a George W. Bush advisor called the “reality-based community” and replace it with a set of racist fantasies. The Israeli Justice Minister who last year brought you the genocidal comment that Palestinian children were “little snakes,” this month has said “there never will be a Palestinian state.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu topped this all off with a rehabilitation of Hitler. Offering a denialist version of history, Netanyahu made a speech claiming that Hitler didn’t want to kill the Jews until the Mufti of Jerusalem gave him the idea. German government spokespeople attempted to correct the record, emphasizing that Germany spends time and energy on Holocaust education and does not wish to see politically convenient revisionism undermining those efforts. Max Blumenthal, who has documented Israel’s descent into chaos in his book Goliath, writes about the effects of Netanyahu’s incitement:

“By blaming a Palestinian for the Final Solution, Netanyahu has helped his countrymen adjust to the macabre reality. He reassured them that they were not settler overlords or vigilante brutes, but Inglorious Bastards curb stomping SS officers in the woods outside Krakow. And he sent them the message that those Palestinians lurking behind concrete walls and under siege in ghettoes were not an occupied, dispossessed people, but a new breed of Nazis hellbent on Jewish extermination. Netanyahu’s comments about the Mufti were much more than a hysterical lie; they were an invitation to act out a blood soaked fantasy of righteous revenge.”

Israel was founded to be a refuge for Jews who were persecuted in Europe. Some of its founders had democratic and socialist aspirations that were contradicted by their militarist and colonizing plans and methods. After decades of failure to reconcile these, Israeli society has abandoned pretense, and embraced racism and violence from the highest levels of government to the settler masses celebrating attacks on social media.

It is obvious why such politics and such fantasies would be appealing to right-wing politicians and their constituencies in the West, like the outgoing Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the 5.6 million people who voted for him, or the Democrats and Republicans in the US who support Israel.

What is more difficult to understand is how those who espouse liberal politics can continue to hold on. Some no doubt see Israel as it was decades ago, in some kind of struggle between different kinds of Zionism, one of which sought a two-state solution. Having out-of-date information can be a problem, but refusing to update one’s information is a political decision.

Two months ago when the Canadian election had just begun and the New Democrats were purging pro-Palestine candidates, I argued that they were playing a game they were guaranteed to lose. I strive to stay in the reality-based community: I do not think that being pro-Israel cost them the election. But backing down in the face of right-wing bullying, and declaring unconditional support for a society that is sliding into fascism, form political habits. They broadcast either a lack of courage or the support of a racist and violent project. Julian Assange wrote that “every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love.” Could it be that people so trained make uncompelling candidates for progressive voters?

One reason Westerners find themselves with an out-of-date idea of Israel’s society and its trajectory is that we are not allowed to talk about it anywhere, including university campuses. A report called The Palestine Exception, by Palestine Legal, documents 292 incidents of the suppression of free speech on campuses, used against advocates of human rights for Palestinians. The report groups the incidents into nine categories of tactics: 1. False accusations of antisemitism and terrorism; 2. Official denunciations; 3. Bureaucratic barriers; 4. Administrative sanctions; 5. Cancellations and alterations of events; 6. Threats to academic freedom; 7. Lawsuits and legal threats; 8. Legislation; 9. Criminal investigations and prosecutions. The report is important, especially for student activists who are starting out and should know what to expect. The Palestine Exception reveals many things. One of them: the unconditional defense of Israel regardless of what it does and what it becomes, has political consequences. The more indefensible Israel’s behaviour, the more debate has to be avoided, the more taboos have to be established, and the more those who speak about it have to be punished. This is true on campuses, where the freest possible research is supposed to take place and where students are supposed to be taught to think critically and contribute their knowledge to society. It is also true in the media, which is supposed to inform our decisions about what to do in the world. It is true in democratic politics, in which we are supposed to be able to deliberate with the widest possible range of discussion in order to make decisions. The farther Israel slides down its current path, the more unfree we will all have to be, the more disconnected from reality we will have to become, in order to continue to accept it.

First published TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Silent-Compromises-20151028-0025.html