16 November 2012 § 3 Comments
Well, elections are coming up in Israel, so that can only mean one thing. It’s time to bomb the living hell out of the Gaza Strip, starting with the assassination of Hamas leader, Ahmed Jabari. As Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of Israeli newspaper Haaretz, pointed out, the pre-election bombing and killing of Palestinians is a common feature of Israeli politics:
One more pre-election military operation, like in 1955, 1961, 1981, 1996, 2009—
Aluf Benn (@alufbenn) November 14, 2012
This time, the violence began when Israel murdered a 13 year old child playing soccer on Nov 8 after a two-week lull in violence. But listening to Western governments describe it, one would think that it was in fact Palestinians who provoked Israelis to respond. The US State Department’s statement, titled “Gaza Rocket Attacks,” is representative:
We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. Attacking Israel on a near daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self determination.
There is no mention of the child murdered by Israeli gunfire last week, no mention of the attack that killed 2 other children playing soccer or the shelling of a funeral gathering, and no mention that Palestinian fighters had agreed to a truce on Monday before Israel had assassinated Jabari. The real victim here is the State of Israel which has been subject to a “barrage of rocket fire,” not the people of Gaza who face both missiles and a siege. But this is to be expected. The United States has carried out essentially the same policies in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Only a fool would expect it do anything but stand behind Israel in every possible way.
Yet the governments of Europe and North America are far from the only ones who simply have no interest in Palestinian victims. The liberal Zionist groups of the world, specifically Shalom Achshav/Peace Now and J Street, have gotten in on the act as well. Shalom Achshav, a self-identified anti-occupation group, posted this statement on Facebook:
Peace Now movement is pained by the killing of three Israeli citizens, and wish a speedy recovery to the wounded and send our support and our concerns for hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in fear and helplessness as they come under rocket attacks in the last days.
We hope that the operation that began yesterday will end as soon as possible and this will not extend into a dangerous military adventure.
Even if the operation achieves its objectives, the Israeli – Palestinian conflict can not be solved in a military operation. We have already seen this film script too many times in the past decade.
Without a comprehensive political settlement, the next round of violence is only a matter of time.
The Israeli government must sit down for negotiations with Abu Mazen, who opposes terrorism and violence, and reach an agreement with the moderate forces and pragmatic Palestinian people, before it’s too late!
Even worse than the State Department’s press release, Shalom Achshav doesn’t even mention Palestinian victims. The only ones who matter to them are other Israelis. And this pro-peace group — shalom (‘peace’) is in their name, after all — doesn’t even bother with the pretense of calling for an end to the attacks on Gaza. They only hope that “the operation” will end soon, implying that they support the Israeli army’s “military adventure,” and urge the Israeli government to engage with Mahmoud Abbas’s authoritarian and corrupt pseudo-state based in Ramallah.
J Street, which calls itself “Pro-Israel Pro-Palestine Pro-Peace,” was only marginally better. It issued a statement titled “The situation in Gaza”:
We are watching with grave concern the stepped-up rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel over the weekend, and we call upon the Palestinian factions responsible to cease fire immediately. We are pleased to see reports that such a step may be in the works. The consequences of continuing these attacks could well be another round of violence and conflict that will bring further suffering to both sides.
The permanent solution to these attacks must come from the political process, not military action. Israelis and Palestinians must accept the rights of each people to a national home of their own living in peace and security. Provoking Israel with ongoing rocket attacks will not settle this dispute, rather it will only lead to further suffering and bloodshed on both sides. It is time for leaders to lead and for cooler heads to prevail to stop these rockets attacks before the conflict escalates.
Ultimately, this latest flare-up of violence is another indication that, now that we are past the U.S. election, the Obama administration must re-engage affirmatively in the coming months in efforts to resolve this conflict and to exercise the active and assertive American leadership necessary to do so.
Residents in Israel’s south have lived under the constant threat of rocket attacks for far too long. They will only enjoy the peace they and all of Israel deserve when a resolution to this conflict has been reached between the Palestinian and Israeli people.
Like the State Department, their statement pushes the bold-faced lie that the violence was started by Palestinian fighters, with no mention whatsoever of the Israeli attacks and killings. They introduce a “both sides” rhetoric, as if Palestinians and Israelis have been suffering equally, when in fact up until Wednesday, when three were killed by a responding volley of rockets from resistance groups, there had been no Israeli deaths in 2012, whereas through September 55 Palestinians had lost their lives. Further, more Palestinians were killed in Gaza on Wednesday alone than Israelis were killed in the past 3 years combined. This is excluding those who are injured and the crippling siege on Gaza, which has been in place since 2007.
None of this matters to these liberal Zionist organizations, certainly not enough to warrant even a passing reference. What matters is Israel’s security, Israel’s safety, Israel’s prosperity. It is beyond my understanding how groups that call themselves pro-peace and pro-Palestine could be so callous and so uncaring for the human suffering in Gaza.
But to truly appreciate just how much Palestinians are dehumanized in the West, one needs to read the New York Times editorial titled “Another Israel-Gaza War?” that was published the day of the Jabari assassination:
No country should have to endure the rocket attacks that Israel has endured from militants in Gaza, most recently over the past four days. The question is how to stop them permanently.
On Wednesday, Israel launched one of the most ferocious assaults on Gaza since its invasion four years ago. At least 20 targets were struck and a Hamas military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, was killed. Israeli leaders also threatened another ground war…
Israel has a right to defend itself, but it’s hard to see how Wednesday’s operation could be the most effective way of advancing its long-term interests. It has provoked new waves of condemnation against Israel in Arab countries, including Egypt, whose cooperation is needed to enforce the 1979 peace treaty and support stability in Sinai.
The action also threatens to divert attention from what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly described as Israel’s biggest security threat: Iran’s nuclear program….
In the West, the only possible reasons to oppose an Israeli war on Palestinians has nothing to do with Palestinians themselves. No, the real reasons to be worried right now are the instability of the peace treaty with Egypt and the potential distractions away from the “Iranian threat.” Palestinian suffering appears as nothing more than a blip on the radar, if at all.
There are well-meaning people out there for whom this has not sunk in. They argue that Palestinian fighters are doing nothing but helping Israel; that if only the attacks from Gaza would stop, Israel would have no pretense to do what it does. How laughable! How absurd! The facts are all out there, documented and readily available for anyone interested in the truth. But the governments, the news media, and the mainstream pressure groups aren’t interested in the truth. They have a narrative to protect, a narrative on which their interests heavily rely.
So since no one with power cares about the truth, why should Palestinians not fight back? Who would passively accept such a fate for their loved ones? Who but the privileged — and let us remember that all of us who live in safety outside of Israel’s firing range are privileged — would tell Palestinians to lay down their arms and die quietly? I am not willing to do this. I am not willing to make demands of my brothers and sisters in Gaza who have suffered for so long. If they want to make the occupier feel just a tiny bit of the fear and uncertainty that is their reality, then who am I to tell them no?
Two hundred fifty-five people have been injured since Wednesday, including 100 children, women, and elderly. The following are the names and ages of the 32 martyrs that have been killed since Nov 4 as best as I can determine as of this writing:
- Ahmad al-Nabaheen, 20., killed on November 4. Suffered from mental disability.
- Hamid Younis Abu Daqqa, 13, killed on November 8.
- Ahmad Harara, 17, killed on November 10.
- Muhammad Harara, 17, killed on November 10. Cousin of Ahmad.
- Matar Abu al-Atta, 19, killed on November 10.
- Ahmad Dardasawi, 20, killed on November 10.
- Muhammad Obeid, 20, killed on November 11.
- Muhammad Shukanj, killed on November 11.
- Muhammad Zeyad Abdullah Quno, 20, injured on November 10, died on November 13.
- Ahmad Jabari, 52, killed on November 14.
- Muhammad al-Hums, 30, killed on November 14.
- Marwan Abu al-Qumsan, early 50s, killed November 14.
- Ranan Yousef Arafat, 3, killed November 14.
- Omar Misharawi, 11 months, killed November 14.
- Hiba Misharawi, 19, killed November 14. Pregnant.
- Muhammad Hani Kaseeh, 18, killed November 14
- Isam Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’za, 19, killed November 14.
- Mahmoud Abu Sawaween, 65, killed November 14.
- Habes Masmah, 30, killed November 15.
- Wael Haidar Ghalban, killed November 15.
- Hisham Mohammad Ghalban, killed November 15.
- Walid al-Abadleh, 18 months, killed November 15.
- Rami Hamad, killed November 15.
- Khaled Abu al-Nasr, killed November 15.
- Hanin Tafish, 10 months, killed November 15.
- Tareq Jamal Naser, 16, killed November 16.
- Oday Jamal Nasser, 14, killed November 16. Brother of Tareq.
- Fares al Bassiouni, 9, killed November 16.
- Ismail Qandil, 24, killed November 16.
- Unidentified martyr, killed November 16.
- Tahrir Suleiman, 22, died November 16 of wounds sustained earlier.
- Mahmoud Sadallah, 3, killed November 16.
28 October 2012 § 1 Comment
Joseph Massad has written an op-ed for Al Jazeera, critiquing the popular Showtime program “Homeland.” The show has to do with the Middle East, Islam, and terrorism, so needless to say, Massad is no fan. I’ve never seen an episode so I can’t comment on whether his critique is accurate or not, but his larger point that representations of Arabs and Muslims in American media (and Western media, generally) reflect and enforce racist attitudes is undoubtedly true. Dr. Jack Shaheen documented these portrayals in cinema in his work Reel Bad Arabs, which was turned into a documentary that can be viewed here. For a shorter version, there’s also “Planet of the Arabs” by Jackie Salloum:
The usual counterargument to this view is that the situation isn’t so bad and that it’s changing for the better, that there are and have been positive portrayals of Arabs and Muslims. Proponents will point to such examples as Sayid Jarrah from Los or Saladin in Kingdom of Heaven or Prince Nasir from Syriana. All of these characters are “good,” who the audience can sympathize and identify with. But as far as I’m concerned the counterargument and each of these examples meant to prove it are damning.
Sayid Jarrah is a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard who worked as a torturer in his dungeons. He is captured by the Americans during the Gulf War and then collaborates with them by infiltrating a terrorist cell in Sydney, Australia — because of course, what else is a reformed Arab good for. Throughout the show, he struggles with his dark past and his tendency to use violence and torture to get what he wants. Yes, he is one of the protagonists and yes, he is humanized, but the audience can’t ignore that violence is in his nature. Indeed all of the Middle Eastern characters, with the exception of his Iraqi love interest, are violent, either fellow torturers in the Iraqi army or terrorists.
Saladin is portrayed as a noble man of principle, but the film is nevertheless deeply problematic. There is a scene in the movie where Templar Knights attack a caravan in the desert. Throughout the slaughter the camera remains focused on the knights’ faces, the deaths of the Arabs occurring either off-screen or with their backs turned towards the audience. They aren’t important and their deaths are a part of the story at all because they establish the wickedness of the white characters who kill them. Indeed, this movie has several white European protagonists and antagonists, but the only Muslim character with any sort of agency, i.e. Saladin himself, is rather one-dimensional, a sort of Mary Sue, never facing real moral dilemmas or experiencing any sort of growth or change during the plot. All other non-white characters are pretty much faceless or in the middle of a mob.
Prince Nasir is the son of an oil sheikh in a fictional country in the Persian Gulf. He is a minister in what is clearly a corrupt and brutal system of government but also happens to be interested in reforming his country. He takes on American energy analyst Bryan Woodman as an advisor, who at one point becomes exasperated with the government’s policies and delivers a rant to Nasir about what is wrong and what needs to be done. It’s very difficult to ignore the dynamics of the scene. Although Nasir is not portrayed as a stupid man, it is Woodman, the knowledgeable Westerner, who is tasked with laying out the facts and the solutions. Eventually because Nasir’s plans for reforms conflict with US oil interests, he is assassinated by drone. Woodman barely survives and is seen walking away from the wreckage and back to his family, essentially washing his hands of the nonsense of Middle Eastern politics.
Much of what we see in art is subjective. I am more than ready to acknowledge that not everyone will see what I see in these movies, that sometimes “a cigar is just a cigar.” So let us for the sake of argument assume that I’m off-base with some or most of my understanding of these films and shows. Even if that’s the case, there is a problematic trend that runs through most depictions of Arabs and Muslims in the media. Because even when Arab and Muslim characters are protagonists, the good guys, the heroes, their story lines still revolve around war and extremism, violence and hatred. It’s almost as if Hollywood can’t conceive of the inhabitants of the Middle East and other locales of the Global South except through the prism of America’s political-military dalliances there. So when I see a show about a terrorist cell or a movie about some political crisis in the Middle East being praised for “nuance,” my first reaction is to roll my eyes. At some point, this narrowness stops being nuanced and instead becomes a gross stereotype.
I do want to highlight one example, however, of a character done right, and that’s Abed Nadir from Community. Abed is a half-Palestinian, half-Polish film geek. Amazingly enough, his story line has absolutely nothing to do with war, terrorism, or violence of any kind. He’s just another weirdo on a show full of weirdos. For that reason alone, he is far more accurate a representation of Arab/Muslim America than any of the so-called nuanced shows that critics rave about.
Pop culture has the ability to change people’s notions and preconceptions, and if filmmakers want to change how people view Arabs and Muslims in general, we don’t need another flowery diatribe delivered by a brown person in defense of Islam or Arab or Persian or Pakistani or whatever culture. Just show characters living their lives. People can connect the dots on their own.
28 August 2012 § Leave a Comment
Updated with a postscript noting Robert Fisk’s obscene pro-regime propaganda while embedded with the regime army in Darayya, and the response of the LCCs to Fisk’s nonsense.
The Syrian regime is now perpetrating crimes against humanity at a pace to match its crimes in Hama in 1982 and at the Tel Za’atar Palestinian camp in 1976. All of Syria is a burning hell.
15 August 2012 § 2 Comments
Washington-based foreign policy writer Steve Clemons published an article today on the Huffington Post’s Gay Voices channel called “Arab Words for ‘Gay’ Need to Be Better Than ‘Pervert or ‘Deviant’”. The issue of Arabic language terms for sexual identity is an emphatically important one, especially because the prevalence of derogatory words for queer Arabs directly reflects their marginalization in their own societies and cultures. However, the article itself is problematic for a number of reasons.
Before I get into that, some background on the Arabic language terms is in order. Two of the most common words to describe queer people in Arabic is shādh ّشاذ and lūṭi لوطي. The first word means “deviant” or “pervert” while the second means “of Lot,” i.e. the Biblical/Qur’anic character whose people tried to rape two male angels. It is roughly equivalent to the word “sodomite” in English. These words are so prevalent, it even caused Google a PR headache when its translation service assumed that these were the correct Arabic terms.
However, contrary to Clemons’s suggestion that a new, “better” word is needed, one already exists. That word is mithli. Mithli is the abbreviated, colloquial form of a longer, academic compound word mithliyyu l-jins, which is a direct translation of the word “homosexual.” Arab gay organizations exclusively use mithli and its variations to refer to their identity. For example, there is a Moroccan queer magazine called Mithly; Helem, the name of a Lebanese LGBT rights organization, is an acronym whose “m” stands for mithliyyīn “gay people”; the Palestinian queer organization Al Qaws describes itself as working for the Palestinian queer community (l-mujtamaˤ l-mithliyy l-filastīniyy). Incidentally mithli also happens to mean “same as me,” and word play using the Arabic saying mithli mithlak, which means “I am just like you,” is not uncommon.
Clemons readily admits to not knowing Arabic in the first sentence of his article, which probably explains why he refers to “Arab words” rather than “Arabic words.” To help him out, he turned to two native Arabic-speakers to explain the terminology to him. One of them claimed that there is no accurate Arabic word for “homosexual” and gave him an incorrect translation of mithli, saying it only meant “same as me.” The other provided the correct translation, but claimed that it was the literal equivalent of the English word “homo,” which is a slur — something mithli is absolutely not. This incorrect information coupled with his lack of expertise on the issue apparently led Clemons to the conclusion that there is a deficiency in the Arabic language regarding terms for sexual identity, which then led him to misdiagnose the problem and, by extension, the solution.
The prevalence of derogatory words is not the cause of the problem but merely a symptom. The real problem is the lack of acceptance of LGBTQ people in Arab societies, where they are assumed to be sinners outside the bounds of what is normal. These attitudes will be rectified not by merely introducing a new word but rather by addressing the patriarchal and sexist beliefs that inform and reinforce them. And that is unfortunately much harder work.
9 August 2012 § Leave a Comment
On June 13, Michele Bachmann and 4 other Republican members of Congress issued an open letter to several government agencies, asking them to investigate the “deep penetration” of the US government by radical Muslims, namely the Muslim Brothers. After being challenged by Rep. Keith Ellison, himself a Muslim, Bachmann wrote him a 16-page letter in July purporting to provide evidence of this penetration. The letter’s evidence was nothing more than a listing of various Muslim and Islamist organizations, Bachmann’s implication being that their very existence is a threat that must be investigated and dealt with. Additionally, she claimed that Huma Abedin, an aid to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was a member of the MB by virtue of the fact that some of her family were also supposedly members.
This Islamophobic exercise in self-promotion was shot down by some in her own party, while others defended her. Regardless, neither she nor the other congressmen who joined her retracted their claims or calls for investigations, and none of them faced any substantial negative repercussions for this foolishness. There was simply no reason to retract because conveniently in America Muslims (and people who “look” or “act” Muslim) are a boogeyman, a group of people who are casually accused of barbarity and against whom suspicions are implicitly accepted.
It is in this environment that this past Sunday, a white supremacist entered a Milwaukee, WI, gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) and unloaded his gun into the bodies of worshippers in attendance. He murdered 6 individuals and wounded 3 before he was shot by police officers. This heinous attack was followed by a separate incident the next day, the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, which was the second such attack on that mosque this summer. The building was completely destroyed. While there is no explicit evidence that either attack was prompted by Bachmann et al.’s actions, it cannot be denied that their recent crusade contributed to and enflamed existing suspicions against Muslims and brown people in general.
Indeed, these attacks highlight the racialization of religion in America. The white supremacist who attacked the gurdwara probably thought he was killing some raghead Muzzies from Eye-rack, rather than South Asian Sikhs. Why? Because a Muslim has a particular appearance and uniform through which he can readily be identified. He is brown-skinned, has a beard, wears flowing robes and a turban, all of which easily applies to Sikhs. This racialization is so accepted that many news outlets rushed to explain to their audience that though they may look like (the stereotype of) Muslims, Sikhs are in fact not Muslims. Witness this paragraph from USA Today‘s article on the shooting (emphasis mine):
Sikh rights groups have reported a rise in bias attacks since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The Washington-based Sikh Coalition has reported more than 700 incidents, which advocates blame on anti-Islamic sentiment. Sikhs don’t practice the same religion as Muslims, but their long beards and turbans often cause them to be mistaken for Muslims, advocates say.
A google search of that bolded text reveals it was repeated in many other news outlets. The Chicago RedEye and The Seattle Times took it a step further and published an almost identical “Turban Primer,” helpfully informing their readers that there are different turban styles which can tell you if the wearer is a Muslim or not and what type of Muslim he is. This profoundly racist article was especially insensitive coming on the heels of the two attacks. The blog Sixteen Minutes to Palestine rightly connected it to offensive anti-Japanese propaganda from the World War II.
The repeated highlighting of the distinctions between Sikhs and Muslims is not just limited to ignorant newspaper writers. Some Sikhs have also insisted that people learn the difference between the two religious groups.
Since 9/11, Sikhs, most of whom come from India, have faced some of the same challenges as American Muslims, with whom they sometimes have been confused. Said Saindi: “We’d like to view this tragedy as an opportunity to tell the world what Sikhs are. Sikhs believe in peace and harmony. As a tradition, Sikhs do not cut their beards, and they wear turbans. Just the fact that they wear turbans and do not cut their facial hair does not make them terrorists.”
Sikhs were among the first who were targeted by Islamophobes and other racists in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, notably Balbir Singh Sodhi who was shot 5 times at his gas station. So it is only natural for some Sikhs to want journalists to mention that they are not Muslim.
Reading that paragraph, I could not help but be reminded of what happened to my family shortly after 9/11. We came home one night to find that our house had been egged and our entire front yard covered in garbage. This occurred as more stories of brown people being targeted for “revenge” attacks appeared in the media. All we could think was that this was a threatening warning to us to watch our backs. It was very scary, and I distinctly remember my mother tearily insisting to the responding police officers that we’re not Muslims, as if the perpetrators had hit the wrong house.
I would humbly suggest that insisting that the victims of these racist and Islamophobic attacks are a peaceful people or that they are not Muslims will not end the sentiment, suspicions, and bigotry that lead to such crimes. A few years after the vandalization of our home, I found out that the people responsible for terrorizing my family that night were two of my classmates, high school sophomores like me, who I sat next to everyday. I am not trying to make an equivalence between a vandalized home and cold-blooded murder. Obviously the gurdwara shooting was much more devastating in its effect and legacy, but the truth is a person so filled with hate that he is willing to go this far does not care how peaceful his victims are, nor does he care what country they are from, or what their religion actually is. Sikhs, Muslims, and other brown people have been Otherized enough that it simply does not matter. It is enough that they are different from the “norm” for them to be targeted in this way.
Writer Harsha Walia suggests that there is a better way of addressing the causes of this violence and hatred (emphasis mine):
So perhaps it is time to stop attempting to assimilate into white supremacy, to stop capitulating to colonialism and empire, and to take a stand against oppression. We cannot see and name ourselves as ‘accidental’ victims of Islamophobia, which suggests that somehow Muslims are more “appropriate” targets of racism. While racism and its impacts often paralyze us, we must channel our collective grief and outrage as a space for alliance and solidarity with other racialized communities–with Muslim communities bearing the brunt of Islamophia, with Blacks who disproportionately endure police violence and over- incarceration, with Indigenous people who are being dispossessed of their lands and resources, with non-status migrants who have been deemed illegal and are facing deportation. Striving to be more desirable within an oppressive system–that is built on our social discipline and compels our obedience–will never set us free. What will set us free is our collective liberation and thriving as the proud brown people we were meant to be.
Thankfully there are people who recognize this truth and act accordingly. Yesterday, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance put out a statement condemning the gurdwara shooting and the Joplin mosque arson. Their letter was co-signed by a variety of LGBTQ, black, Muslim, civil rights, and American Indian organizations. Additionally, yesterday a crowdfunding page was set up at IndieGoGo for people to contribute to the rebuilding of the Joplin mosque. It has already surpassed its target of $250,000, and there are still 43 days left for people to continue contributing. A quick perusal of the over 2300 donors so far shows that it was not just Muslims who donated money but also people from other communities across the United States.
Rather than despair at politicians and media all too happy to capitalize on populist ignorance, I am choosing to focus on the hope in these acts of solidarity. It is in these acts that people of color will find real salvation and liberation from racial hatred. Let it not take another tragedy for our society as a whole to finally understand this.
29 July 2012 § Leave a Comment
One of the traditions of the Olympic Games is that the Olympic flag is carried into the stadium during the opening ceremony by eight people of note. Usually they are athletes who competed in past games, but sometimes accomplished people in other areas are given the opportunity. This was the case in London, where eight “humanitarians” were chosen as the flag bearers. Among them was Daniel Barenboim in recognition of his co-founding and running the West-Eastern Divan, an orchestra composed of Arab and Israeli Jewish musicians. Despite his record of achievement, I admit that I was greatly annoyed by his presence at the ceremony.
Barenboim and his orchestra have been the targets of the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), who have explained their reasons on several occasions. I am frankly not convinced that WEDO is a necessary BDS target, its problematic self-description notwithstanding, and it is not why I was uneasy seeing Barenboim participate in the ceremony. In fact, it has nothing to do with him personally, but rather it is the media context of his appearance that I find problematic. Barenboim’s recognition is part of a pattern in Western, and specifically US, media in which the individuals who receive any attention in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or are given the floor to speak about it are almost always Jews. Palestinians, if they exist in the narrative at all, are portrayed as part of the background.
A New York Times piece by the recently-minted head of the paper’s Jerusalem bureau Jodi Rudoren is another example of this trend. The article is a profile of Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer who has fought for the rights of Palestinians against Israel’s violations. Reading it, I could not help but be reminded of a fairy tale, where the knight in shining armor (Sfard himself) is fighting against an evil cabal (the right-wing Zionists) in order to save the magic kingdom (democratic Israel) from total destruction.
Again, I have nothing against Sfard as a person, and I am not laying any blame at his feet for any of this. The problem is that through the traditional media’s portrayal of the conflict, Palestinians lose their agency. Certainly they do not have recognition for their own efforts, but more importantly they are rarely allowed to speak for themselves about their suffering. You see this in the Sfard profile, where Palestinians are near totally absent from this narrative, allowed a voice only to praise the hero. And when the media do host Palestinians, it is only those who are deemed “moderate” that are allowed to speak, an ideological litmus test Israelis are never subject to.
This is prominently on display when media outlets host a debate on the conflict. A few days ago the NYT published an op-ed from Dani Dayan, the head of the settler group called the Yesha Council, in which he argued that the settlements in the West Bank are an inalienable right of the Jewish people and a matter of necessity against the violent hordes of Palestinian refugees who would re-ignite the conflict if they were ever allowed to return to a hypothetical Palestinian state. Who did Peter Beinart’s blog Open Zion invite to respond to him? Why, none other than Lara Friedman, head of the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now. The most telling part of her article was this snippet:
In fact, leaving settlements in place is a reward to those who in recent decades have worked the hardest to destroy Israel—i.e., the settlers themselves. Getting out of the West Bank, on the other hand, isn’t about rewarding Palestinians or Arabs for good or bad behavior—it is about what Israel needs to do for its own sake. [emphasis mine]
This is a person who is writing not for the interests of the Palestinian people. As she explicitly states, it is not about them at all. Rather the point is to “save” Israel from the evils of the settlement movement. To be fair, she mentions Palestinian welfare in one paragraph, but importantly their suffering is not at the hands of Israeli system as a whole. No, it is only the settlers and the state institutions enabling them that are the problem. So one Zionist debates another Zionist about the best form of Zionism to implement, and everyone calls it a day. This is what counts for fair and balanced.
There is a wonderfully Orwellian phrase that Israel uses to refer to the Palestinians who were internally displaced by Zionist armed forces during the war of 1948. It calls them present absentees, absent because they were kicked off their lands but present because they settled in areas that the Zionists conquered. This phrase just so happens to perfectly describe the role that Palestinians play in the West’s narrative. Their bodies are present, tools to be used by enemies and allies alike in making their arguments, but their voices — describing their plight in their own words — are absent.
To the Western newspaper editor, it is more than sufficient that an Israeli or Zionist “of conscience” — Daniel Barenboim or Michael Sfard or Lara Friedman — is speaking on Palestinians’ behalf. In the end, people are exposed to their cause, right? What could they possibly find wrong with that?
14 July 2012 § Leave a Comment
The Baathist regime in Syria has long prided itself on its “resistance” to imperialist forces in the Middle East and on being a major center of Arab nationalism (one of its sobriquets is Qalb l-ˤUrūba l-Nābiḍ, or the “Beating Heart of Arabism”). Indeed this reputation is often cited by certain leftists as reason to support the regime against what they claim are American- and Saudi-backed militias whose aim is to set up a new regime that would be friendly to Israel and other imperialist interests. Most notable among these voices is Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese academic, who has repeatedly argued in the pages of Al Akhbar and on her own blog that the Baath regime must be supported by all those who believe in the Palestinian struggle. In fact, Saad-Ghorayeb asserts that her support for the Baath is not actually support for the Baath, but rather for “the Resistance camp,” which just so happens to include Syria.
Saad-Ghorayeb’s line of argument is particularly infuriating not least because she uses the Palestinian people and their struggle as a prop for Bashar al Assad. She and others who parrot her ideas present a false dichotomy in which you are either with (Baathist) Syria and Palestine or you are with Israel and the US. You cannot be opposed to both the regime and the imperial powers, they claim, because it is functionally no different from being for the latter and against the former. Thus supporting Palestine necessarily becomes supporting the killings and shellings and massacres of thousands and thousands of Syrians because all of this is being done, they claim, in the name of Palestine and Resistance. This brand of anti-imperialists perverts the Palestinian struggle and thus the Palestinian people themselves into nothing more than an excuse to commit crimes with impunity.
Moreover, these excuses break down under even the most cursory investigation of the history of the Baath and the Palestinian Question. The notion that the Baathist regime is a bastion of anti-imperialism and strict anti-Zionism could not be further from the truth. Let us never forget that it was Hafez al Assad’s army that facilitated the 1976 massacre of the Tel al Zaatar refugee camp by Maronite militias, in which between 1,500 and 3,000 Palestinians were killed in cold blood, or the 1985-1988 War of the Camps, in which the Syrian Army along with its Lebanese and Palestinian allies and puppets launched a sustained attack against Hizballah, the Murabitoun, and the PLO. Let us never forget his numerous attempts to undermine Palestinian resistance groups, including fostering the Ahmed Jibril-led splinter group that broke from the leftist PFLP. Let us never forget that Bashar al Assad’s government has made overtures to Israel and has participated in secret negotiations with it; nor let us forget that in an effort to stave off pressure from the West over the protests last summer, it recognized Palestine along 1967 lines thus implicitly recognizing Israel.
The so-called anti-imperialists have yet to provide a credible response to these facts that directly contradict the basis of their assertions, and they have remained deafeningly silent on the targeting of Palestinians inside Syria. The latest example occurred yesterday, when between four and seven protesters were killed by security forces at a rally in Yarmouk, the largest refugee camp in Syria and home to the majority of Palestinians in the country. The protest was originally against the killing of 16 members in the Palestine Liberation Army (a Syrian military body that all Palestinian males are conscripted to) by an unknown group, but it quickly evolved into anti-regime protest with chanting in support of the Free Syrian Army and against the Assads. The funeral was held today, at which another 4 were killed, raising the total Palestinian dead in the past 2 days to eleven:
It has been known for a while where Yarmouk’s sympathies lie — there were clashes last year between residents of the camp and Jibril’s pro-Syria splinter group, the PFLP-GC — but aware of their small numbers and vulnerable position, Syrian Palestinians with notable exceptions have up until this point remained relatively quiet, but recently, they’ve begun to slowly enter into the fray. They participated in last Friday’s protests and suffered casualties then as well.
In response to the protests, one government spokesperson posted a status on Facebook about how “guests” must abide by proper etiquette, and if they cannot, must leave. The obvious implication is that Palestinians are guests in the Syrian house. Meanwhile the Syrian government “host” has had its security forces detain hundreds of Palestinians from Yarmouk and driven those living in Homs out of their homes because of the indiscriminate shelling that has all but demolished the city. Is this the “resistance” that Saad-Ghorayeb and her fellow travelers sing praises to? Is this the “resistance” that is worth the lives and livelihoods of the Syrian people? No, there is no decency, no honor, no principle behind these awful actions. And let me be clear, I emphatically do not believe that had the Baath actually supported the Palestinian struggle or that had they not targeted Palestinians as they do Syrians, this repression would be justified. My only point is to say that even the “resistance” excuse does not hold water.
There is no reason to kid ourselves. The regime is not interested in fighting imperialism or Zionism, nor is it interested in the welfare of the Arab peoples and their struggles. It never has been, and it never will be. There is no “beating heart of Arabism” in a system of government that enriches a small number of elite families while leaving the rest of the population mired in poverty, that pits Arabs against Arabs in order to increase its power within the region, that brutally kills its citizens for rising up and demanding a modicum of rights. The “heart” of this Baathist regime has only ever beaten for one thing: its self-preservation. And those who labor to mask its true nature and excuse its unspeakable actions are complicit in the crimes against the Syrian and Palestinian people about whom they claim to care so much.