Posted by: sareemakdisi | November 26, 2012

On SOPA and Intellectual Freedom

The SOPA Battle in a Wider War

[originally published by Saree Makdisi in Salon, 23 January 2012]


The Internet blackouts to protest the pending Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act legislation currently working their way through the U.S. House and Senate have ignited a much-needed discussion of the question of censorship in the United States — though the discussion ought to go much further than it has so far.

One of the most striking things about the debate around SOPA and PIPA, in fact, is that the question of censorship has drawn as much attention as it has partly because it is a byproduct of a battle pitting one set of American corporate interests against another: those who generate “content” against those who maintain the electronic infrastructure in which creative material (copyrighted and otherwise) can be produced, disseminated and accessed.  Or, to be slightly more reductive about it, the struggle pits Hollywood (the Motion Picture Association of America, the Directors Guild, American Federation of Musicians, etc.) against Silicon Valley (Google, eBay, Facebook, Yahoo, etc.).  It’s little wonder that the Electronic Frontier Foundation went so far as to say that SOPA finally gives Hollywood “a chance to break the Internet,” since that is how the legislative campaign is being pitched.

Ordinarily these kinds of arguments between powerful interests might simply be read by the rest of us with a sense of philosophical detachment — even, perhaps, as compelling evidence of the ongoing contradiction between what Marx once distinguished as the means and the relations of production, or in other words the gap that sometimes opens up between sheer technological capabilities and the social systems in which they are embedded, which, at pivotal moments (including our own), seem to impede technological innovation.

But in this case one set of corporations has been able to develop an alliance with those who advocate for free speech as a matter of intellectual and political principle rather than simply as a matter of corporate interest.  And, indeed, even if, say, eBay’s credentials for (let alone commitment to) fighting censorship and advocating free speech are, to say the least, highly debatable, this battle among corporate titans does indeed have implications for the rest of us.  At some point, the requirements of certain forms of commercial freedom actually do blend with those of intellectual and cultural freedom more generally.

That detestable — and yet so easily bandied-about — word, “content,” which is at the center of this debate, refers to the products of human creativity, and, for better as well as for worse, the Internet has become one of the main structures for the creation and dissemination of creative energies in our age, so anything that might interrupt or cut off altogether the flow of that energy is, or ought to be, cause for concern.

The consensus among critics of SOPA is that, even if the intention (which is, of course, hard or even impossible to actually scrutinize) of the legislation is not, in itself, to impose a censorship regime, that will be the end result. As Rebecca MacKinnon argues, the legislation would allow the attorney general to generate a blacklist of sites to be blocked by Internet service providers and search engines, without a judicial order, much less a trial. SOPA would allow companies to sue service providers for hosting material that supposedly infringes copyright, even if they do so unknowingly. This would force ISPs and websites to monitor user activity, which is to say, to censor it, necessarily erring on the side of caution. As CNET notes, the language of the bill could be used to blacklist the next YouTube or Wikipedia — not to mention already existing sites like WikiLeaks.

What is missing from much of the salutary anti-censorship activism around SOPA and PIPA, however, is a sense of where the legislation fits in amid other recent efforts in the U.S. to curtail freedom of speech and intellectual freedom more generally.

For legal efforts to curb intellectual freedom are an ever-present — indeed, even a mounting — threat.  And what is at stake in these efforts is far more than merely “content” and the rights or legal obligations of Internet giants like Twitter and YouTube: It is the very freedom of expression that is vital to our intellectual as well as cultural life.

Probably the most visible recent examples of these legal efforts are the ever more persistent attempts by American supporters of Israel to use legislation, legal procedures and government bureaucracies to suppress free and open debate about Israel/Palestine on campuses across the country by, among other things, attempting to falsely conflate principled criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism.

This effort has led, most recently, to the filing of a lawsuit against the University of California at Berkeley, and lobbying the U.S. Department of Education to open a formal investigation of the University of California at Santa Cruz, as well as undertaking a similar investigation at Barnard College in New York.  Yes, the Berkeley lawsuit was recently dismissed by a judge, as was theBarnard investigation. These are  welcome signs of judicial independence.

But other lawsuits that aim to chill open debate on campus, most notoriously in the trial of 11 U.C. Irvine and U.C. Riverside Muslim students who were found guilty of engaging in a campus protest, have been successful. No doubt other such attempts will be made in the future. This bundle of efforts is only the most recent incarnation of a variety of ideological projects over the past several years to impose different kinds of censorship on college campuses — which are, inevitably, key nodes for the production and circulation of ideas in the country.

Perhaps the most visible of those efforts was the campaign David Horowitz led in the early- to mid-2000s to impose state monitoring of universities, including intruding into such pedagogical matters as text assignments and course syllabi, and even coercing instructors into teaching specific points of view — all under the Orwellian banner of “student rights.”  At one point, up to a dozen state legislatures were considering the Horowitz package.

At the federal level, legislation calling for the same top-down monitoring was (with the help of neoconservative and pro-Israel lobbyists) actually pushed through the U.S. House of Representatives in the form of HR 3077, which was designed to establish government monitoring of federally funded international studies programs at universities across the country, to check that their programs and curricula reflect “national needs related to homeland security.”

Some may take solace from the collapse of the Horowitz campaign and the demise of HR 3077. That would be premature, if not unwise. As more recent events attest, the same will to use the law to censor and silence dissenting viewpoints has not been abandoned — it has merely shifted form.

What these disturbing events have in common is the turn to legislation, to use the bureaucracy and the law on behalf of powerful interests who seem to have something to fear in the kinds of open exchange that are inseparable from a democratic society. It is important for those who are against SOPA and PIPA to see the connection of their cause in the commercial realm with the wider suppression of intellectual and cultural freedom that is taking place as we seem to hear what the poet William Blake once referred to as “mind-forg’d manacles” clamping shut all around us.

Posted by: sareemakdisi | November 26, 2012

The Corpse Scandal

The Scandal that isn’t in the Video

[originally published by Saree Makdisi in Salon, 13 January 2012]


The United States and its allies were quick to go into damage control mode to try to contain the political and diplomatic fallout from a video posted on YouTube apparently showing US Marines urinating on the mangled corpses of dead Afghans,

A Pentagon spokesman, Captain John Kirby, told CNN:“Regardless of the circumstances or who is in the video, this is egregious, disgusting behavior. It’s hideous. It turned my stomach.”  Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed. “This act by American soldiers is simply inhuman and condemnable in the strongest possible terms.”.

It ought to go without saying that urinating on  corpses, whether of Taliban fighters or Afghan civilians (or any one else for that matter), is disrespectful and degrading and ought to be condemned. What is interesting, and somewhat unsettling, about the outpouring of sentiment following this new scandal, however, is that it raises more questions than it answers.

Isn’t it odd, for example, that there seems to be more concern about urinating on these bodies than there is about the actual killing that transformed them from living human beings to splayed-out corpses in the first place? Is it really possible that peeing on dead bodies is seen as horrific, but killing people is perfectly acceptable? Isn’t something missing from this picture?

This seems an especially pressing question given that much of the US military (and related CIA) effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan so often seems to involve simply killing—or, to use the rather more circumspect military term, “degrading”—as many militants as possible, not necessarily in actual combat operations, but by twos and threes and tens and dozens, in bombings and air raids and drone attacks, as they sleep or drive or eat or pray or brush their teeth. Day after day we read reports of 8 militants being killed here, 5 being killed there , and 6 somewhere else. It is as though the earth keeps vomiting forth “militants,” who then simply need to be mown down like so much vermin in a “war” reduced to its lowest common denominator—killing for the sake of killing, without any kind of strategic aim or vision or logic, much less a sense of when it might end.

Sure, every now and then someone (very rightly) raises a question about how many civilians are being killed in air raids or drone attacks in Afghanistan or Pakistan; not that it makes any difference. There is even the occasional report about the “vast drone/killing operation” being conducted by the Obama Administration, and a few people, including Glenn Greenwald, have been warning of the menace that an unchecked, unregulated, program of extrajudicial executions means, or ought to mean, to Americans and others alike.

But, these exceptions aside, the routine, hum-drum slaughter of “militants” slips by far too readily without sufficient questioning, without enough people pausing to ask who these people are, what they want, what threat they really pose to the US with their AK-47s and RPGs, what plan, if any, there is to do something to stop their seemingly autochthonous emergence (by addressing its causes, for example) rather than merely mowing them down by the dozen after they emerge–or whether the plan really is simply to go on killing as long as there is a supply of living bodies to soak up our ordnance. After all, President Obama has deliberately chosen to kill rather than capture people because he knows that pictures like those that emerged from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are bad news—but that there will be few pictures and fewer questions about the endless slaughter of anonymous militants in the dusty backwaters of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For all the furor, the current scandal proves that point all too grimly, precisely because the scandal consists in the urination rather than the killing itself.

Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos called the act of urinating on the corpses “wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history.” A NATO spokesman added, “This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces.”

But what does it mean to speak of a “warrior ethos” and “high moral standards” in a war when most of the killing is being done by remote control—and not in the heat, intensity and sweaty, adrenaline-driven fear of battle (which the very concept of a “warrior ethos” is supposed to describe), but rather clinically, in air-conditioned comfort, from the safe distance of 20,000 feet—or, rather, 10,000 miles?

It is all too easy to look at the young Marines urinating on the corpses in that video and condemn them (rightly) for their callous brutality. It is far more difficult, however, to put their adolescent action back in its fuller and more meaningful context and ask ourselves what it means that we hardly seem to attach more value to a human life than they do, and that we have come to accept the “reaping” of human lives—for it is not without reason that one of the biggest drones is called Reaper—as a matter to be dismissed with a careless flick of the morning newspaper or click of the mouse.

Posted by: sareemakdisi | November 26, 2012

On Rick Santorum and the West Bank

Pro-Settler Santorum Claims Mexico and the West Bank

[Previously published by Saree Makdisi in Salon, 6 January 2012]


Following Rick Santorum’s sudden and unanticipated rise to prominence during the Iowa caucuses, there has been a rush to review the earlier and more obscure phase of his presidential campaign to see what newsworthy tidbits might have been overlooked when the spotlights were all shining on Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.

One of Santorum’s gems in the rough was initially uncovered back in November by the ThinkProgress blogger Eli Clifton and Philip Weiss, and returned to this week by a blogger at The Jewish Week . Santorum  said, among other things, “all the people who live in the West Bank are Israelis, they’re not Palestinians.”

It was a reminder that two weeks before Newt Gingrich claimed that Palestinians are an invented people, Santorum had also denied their existence.

But whereas Gingrich’s vilification of the Palestinians was merely a nasty example of crude cynicism, Santorum’s seemed both more sincere and more intimately tied up with his ignorance not only of the question of Palestine but—more alarmingly perhaps—of American history as well.

In an informal discussion with a young man, which was aired on CNN, Santorum also said that Israel was the victim of an “aggressive attack on the part of Jordan and other countries,” that it had gained the West Bank in war—which is to say, fair and square.  He said it is no more realistic to expect Israel to give back the West Bank than it is to expect the US to give “Texas and Mexico back,” since they too were gained through war.

That’s not a typo, not a verbal slip. Santorum  refers to Mexico as part of the United States  three separate times in the two-minute interview.

In fact, Santorum’s mangling of Palestinian history is the least interesting thing about his statement. It was so baldly false that it raised eyebrows even at the New York Times and the Washington Post.  But it is still worth quoting in full in order to reveal what this vertiginous implosion of history, logic, syntax and grammar—a kind of Santorumian sublime—might tell us about what goes on inside the head of this man who would be president:

“The bottom line is, that [the West Bank] is legitimately Israeli country, and they [the Israelis] have a right to do within their country just like we have a right to do within our country; if they want to negotiate with Israeli, with Israelis—and all the people that live within the West Bank are Israelis, they’re not Palestinians, there is no Palestinian; there is, this is, Israeli land, and therefore they have a right to negotiate what they believe is in the best interests of their country, and they have a right to build things based upon their ownership of that land.”

A rough translation of Santorum’s statement might go something like this: Having captured the West Bank in a war with people who don’t exist, the Israelis have every right to negotiate with themselves—but, come to think of it, there’s nothing to negotiate because they have a right to build stuff there since they own it anyway.

Or one could be more charitable to Santorum and surmise that what he was saying is that the territories which Israel has militarily occupied for more than four decades are in fact an integral part of the state, and that everyone living in those territories ought to be considered a citizen of the state, there being no separate “Palestine.”  As  the Times and Post  pointed out, this is precisely the argument proposed by Palestinian advocates of a one-state alternative to the two-state solution. They say  the obvious way to resolve the question of Palestine is to create a single democratic and secular state in all of what had until 1948 been Palestine, or in other words Israel plus the Palestinian territories it has occupied since 1967.  Unfortunately, the idea of a secular state of equal citizens is incompatible with the Zionist vision of an exclusively Jewish state, which is why Israel’s defenders in the US regard the one-state solution as the most dangerous threat of all.

Tempting as it is to think that a professed Christian like Santorum might actually have some faith in the core Christian values of sharing, forgiveness, selflessness, peace and justice (values that strangely seem never to play a role in what passes for so-called Christian politics in the US),  it is unlikely that he is a sudden convertto the just peace outlined by advocates of the one-state solution.

It is far more likely that Santorum simply got lost as he wound himself up in a web spun of his own rhetorical knots.

Perhaps it was in retrospect that he realized that the rashly interjected word “negotiate” is what got him all knotted up in logical twists.  If all the people in the West Bank are Israelis . . . and if the Israelis are (supposedly) negotiating about the future status of the West Bank . . . and if the West Bank is theirs . . .  then they must be negotiating . . . with themselves.  Or something like that.

Oh what a tangled web we weave…. But  Santorum does not seem like the kind of guy who would actually practice to deceive.  By all accounts, he actually believes what he says. And that is what is so disturbing about his pronouncements.

This is even  more true of his pronouncements on American history than of his (mis-) pronouncements on Palestinian history.

“Is Mexico part of the United States?” he brazenly asks the young man in the interview.

“I don’t think so,” says his interlocutor, albeit somewhat quizzically.  “It’s not.  OK.”

After a pause allowing him to tactically redeploy his forces, Santorum tries again.

“Ah, is New Mexico part of the United States?” he asks.  “I think it is,” comes the inevitable reply.

Santorum then launches into his claim that territory–United Nations Charter be damned–can be grabbed by virtue of the right of conquest, in modern times just as much as in the Bronze Age, with the American acquisition of “Texas and Mexico” (that annoying “New” dropped again as the superfluous prefix that it is) as his case in point. One can only wonder whether he also thinks it was acceptable for Germany to grab France in 1940 or for Iraq to take over Kuwait in 1990.

Since it’s not entirely clear whether Santorum realizes that there is a difference between Mexico and New Mexico, or that the difference—insofar as it exists at all—is of much significance, we had better leave that aside and stick with what he has to say about Texas.

A quick refresher: contrary to Santorum’s account, the United States did not absorb Texas in a war with Mexico.  Mexico (unwisely) encouraged white settlers from the United States to settle in Texas, then one of its northern states. Eventually, those settlers rebelled against the Mexican government, and particularly against its prohibition of slavery, which was vital to the economic interests of the Texas settlers and their cotton plantations.  That revolution led to the establishment of the slaveholding Texas Republic, which was later absorbed into the United States—by treaty, not by war.

So let’s see: violent and racist settlers trying to wrest control of a territory they occupy. There are questions of negotiations, treaties, and national rights.  Sound familiar?

Obviously, what Santorum was trying to claim is that there is a kind of parallel between the history of the United States and of Israel—and he is right, though for the wrong reasons.  In his view, just as “we” took Texas and Mexico, “they” took the West Bank; and if we are right, they must be right too: it’s kind of an extension of the logic of Manifest Destiny to Israel.

Apart from historical accuracy, what’s missing from Santorum’s account of the history of the southwestern US, of course, is the enslavement of African Americans (which the founders of Texas sought to extend) and the extermination of American Indians. They didn’t exist, for the forebears of Santorum and Gingrich, just as Palestinians don’t—or might as well not—exist for those who pledge their unreserved support for Israel today.

Slavery, settlement and extermination are undoubtedly part of the history of the United States.  But there is another history to this country as well, involving a broad array of struggles for recognition and rights, by American Indians, by African Americans, by women, by minorities, including gays and lesbians so manifestly reviled by Santorum and his so-called Christian allies.  And maybe, just maybe, we can take some comfort from Santorum’s reference—however unknowing and unintended—to the history by which slavery and brutality were eventually transformed into something more befitting a nation founded on the principles of rights and justice.

Or perhaps not; perhaps we ought to recognize that historical niceties have little role to play in presidential campaigns, and that correcting the absurdities streaming out of the various GOP campaigns is a pointless intellectual exercise for which the vast majority of voters have neither the time nor the patience—historical niceties being among the hallmarks of the despised “liberal elite” from whom men like Santorum and women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann offer to deliver the people.  There is something terrifying about the possibility that a contender for the White House can actually proudly cling to ignorance as one of his or her outstanding qualifications for the job.

Posted by: sareemakdisi | September 29, 2011

On the Palestine Statehood Bid

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 22 September 2011]

Palestinians’ UN Gamble Could Backfire

September 22, 2011|By Saree Makdisi

It goes without saying that Palestinians and Arabs are outraged by the idea that the United States is threatening to block recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations.

What is less obvious, perhaps, is that some of the most vociferous critics of the Palestinian bid for upgraded U.N. recognition are Palestinians themselves. How could it be that advocates of Palestinian rights could be suspicious of, if not altogether opposed to, the U.N. gambit? Isn’t the creation of an internationally recognized independent state the goal shared by all Palestinians?

Not exactly. The Palestinian cause concerns more than merely statehood. And although much depends on how the statehood bid is formally expressed, there is every possibility that U.N. action on the wrong set of terms could be a setback in the Palestinians’ decades-long struggle for self-determination and the right to live normal, dignified lives in their ancestral land.

At the heart of the problem is how “Palestine” might come to be defined in the U.N. The statehood bid probably will be structured along the lines long discussed as the basis for a two-state solution: territory encompassing the 22% of historical Palestine that remained after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes during the creation of Israel in 1948 — namely, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, which were subsequently captured by Israel in 1967. But that could change who the United Nations considers to be Palestinian and how their rights may be determined, to their profound detriment.

Today, the Palestine Liberation Organization is recognized by the U.N. and most of its member states as the sole legitimate representative of the entire Palestinian people: those living under occupation, those living in Israel and those living in exile or as refugees, who constitute the single largest group of Palestinians. If its place in the international body is taken by a Palestinian state identifying itself with the occupied territories, Palestinians who do not live in those territories — that is, the majority of Palestinians — could lose their representation at the U.N. and be pushed back into the shadowy silence and invisibility from which they fought to emerge in the 1960s. The 1.5 million Palestinians living as second-class citizens of Israel could be left to fend for themselves against legalized discrimination and political repression directed against them as non-Jews in a state whose Jewish identity the Israelis are demanding ever more insistently that the Palestinians acknowledge.

Moreover, an internationally recognized state limited to the shards of Palestine that remained after 1948 would do nothing for the Palestinian right of return to homes and land in what is today Israel, and could in fact gravely threaten the exercise of that right, which is fundamental to the Palestinian cause.

A very broad set of Palestinian rights is already recognized by the U.N. As the Oxford legal scholar Guy Goodwin-Gill notes, the General Assembly has repeatedly emphasized that “the Palestinian people is the principal party to the question of Palestine,” just as it has recognized that the right to self-determination and the right of return to homes and property from which they were displaced inheres in the Palestinians as a people. And U.N. resolutions do not limit the Palestinian people or their rights merely to the territories occupied in 1967; General Assembly Resolution 194, for example, expressly recognizes their right of return to homes in what is now Israel.

It would be profoundly problematic, not to say dangerous, if the Palestinian U.N. bid substituted a very narrow formal recognition — which would mean little practically, given that mere recognition would do nothing to actually end Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian land — for the much broader definition of the Palestinian constituency and the array of Palestinian rights already recognized by the U.N.

These worries are not unfounded if one considers the Palestinian politicians preparing the statehood bid: the venal clique surrounding Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority “president” whose term expired almost three years ago. Abbas and his circle are not merely unelected; their party was actually thrown out of office in the last Palestinian elections in 2006.

Shrouded in mystery, their current bid is consistent with the pattern they established during the endless secret negotiations of a two-decade peace process whose only tangible result has been to give them a fleeting taste of power while leading their people deeper and deeper into a morass. Indifferent to the democratic tide sweeping the Arab world, they neither have, nor have they sought, a popular mandate for the gamble they are undertaking. Indeed, many Palestinian observers see the current U.N. gambit as yet another cynical maneuver that has more to do with resuscitating a failed two-state strategy —and Abbas’ own waning political fortunes — than with genuine concern for his people’s inalienable rights.

We are, then, in a moment pregnant with ironies. With its eye on the 2012 elections, the Obama administration intends, as usual, to come to Israel’s rescue at the U.N. But in the act of serving Israel by blocking the expression, however flawed, of legitimate Palestinian aspirations, the U.S. would also inadvertently be thwarting Abbas and company, one of the unpopular and undemocratic regimes it has long propped up throughout the Arab world. And, although it would be doing so for the wrong reasons, by standing in the way of recognizing a state whose contours and purported leadership do nothing to address the rights of most Palestinians, the U.S. might also contribute unwittingly to maintaining the integrity of the Palestinian cause.


Posted by: sareemakdisi | May 22, 2011

Myths about State Workers Mask Gross Inequalities

Originally published in The Sacramento Bee, 1 May 2011

Viewpoints: Myths about state workers mask gross inequalities

Special to The Bee


By Saree Makdisi

The current obsession with state workers’ wages and benefits, which has been sweeping the nation from the Midwest to California, is distracting Americans from the real economic questions we should urgently be asking ourselves.

In view of the enormous – and growing – inequalities in incomes and wealth in this country, it is nothing short of astonishing that so much resentment, to such a broad extent, has been generated over the benefit packages promised to teachers, firefighters, DMV staffers and highway repair crews, that there is no resentment left over for the real beneficiaries of our broken social and economic system. State workers are being held responsible for a wide range of budgetary and economic problems, whereas those who bear actual responsibility for those problems have been able to evade scrutiny, let alone being asked to pay any kind of price.

The result is the growing rallying cry that state workers should be stripped of pension and health care benefits that most private sector workers lost many years ago, so that they too can join the race to the bottom of wretchedness to which more and more Americans seem committed.

State workers aren’t, in fact, the only Americans who can count on stable and defined retirement packages.

Corporate CEOs have made sure to retain for themselves the security and stability of fixed retirement deals that they receive irrespective of the performance of the companies under their watch, even as they force rank and file employees to entrust their futures to the uncertain lottery of the 401(k) plan. Even if the heavily larded retirement package that General Electric famously offered to its billionaire CEO Jack Welch has faded from people’s memory, how about the golden parachutes awarded to more recent CEOs, including those who presided over the meltdown of their firms?

The former heads of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac left with severance and retirement packages worth millions of dollars each; the former head of GM left with $20 million; the former head of Citigroup with $40 million; the former head of AIG with $47 million; the leader of Bank of America with almost $84 million; the head of Merrill Lynch with $160 million. And the list goes on. How come there’s no resentment about those benefits?

Ah, but that’s the private sector, we are told; taxpayers are being asked to subsidize the retirements of state workers, not the bosses of private corporations. That’s not true, though; taxpayers financed the bailouts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, GM, Bank of America, AIG and so on and on.

In fact, the extraordinary bailout of the financial sector was financed by ordinary tax-paying Americans – to the tune of almost $13 trillion, according to Bloomberg. That’s $42,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States: probably the single most egregious transfer of wealth from poor to rich in the history of the world. And the same bankers we bailed out are now back to business as usual, with the top four U.S. banks paying out $84 billion in bonuses last year.

So, bailing out bankers whose greed is only exceeded by their sheer incompetence is OK, but it’s not OK to cover the retirement of schoolteachers who help raise our children and firefighters who stand ready to risk their lives to save our own? What’s going on here?

The gap between rich and poor in this country is wide – and growing wider. Today, the top 1 percent of Americans own about a third of the nation’s wealth; by contrast, the bottom 80 percent own less than 20 percent. It’s not difficult to figure out which of these groups doesn’t have worry about retirement benefits and 401(k) plans.

It’s not just that the rich have grown richer, but that recent times – the decades since the 1980s – have seen such a stagnation in income, health and lifestyles for the majority of Americans. More people are working harder than ever before but are more insecure than ever before; we are at or near the bottom of the pile of comparable countries when it comes to measures such as infant mortality or life expectancy, poverty levels, or the escape rate from poverty.

The fixation on the basic benefits offered to state workers in return for years of public service, rather than on the grotesque inequalities that surround us, is problematic not only because it distracts us from core questions that urgently require our collective attention, but also because it embodies the potential victory of a stark and misanthropic way of viewing society – basically the view that there is no society, only individuals who are condemned to a primal competitive struggle against one another. Remember what Thomas Hobbes said about that primal struggle in the state of nature? The only certainty was that life was nasty, brutish and short.

There is another way of viewing things, however; that we are all in this together, that we all benefit as we each benefit, that grotesque inequality is not merely destabilizing but unjust and that everyone in a wealthy country, not just state workers – and certainly not just wealthy CEOs – ought to be able to count on a stable and secure retirement.

Posted by: sareemakdisi | February 14, 2011

On the Palestine Papers

Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 27 January 2011


The Palestinian people betrayed

The leaked papers published by Al Jazeera show how craven Palestinian leaders are and how willing they were to sell out their people’s rights. Yet all they had to offer wasn’t enough for Israel.

By Saree Makdisi
January 27, 2011

A massive archive of documents leaked to Al Jazeera and Britain’s Guardian newspaper offers irrefutable proof that years of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians have been an empty sham. The papers make clear that the time has come for Palestinians and anyone interested in the cause of justice to abandon the charade of official diplomacy and pursue other, more creative and nonviolent paths toward the realization of a genuine, just peace.

The leaked documents, assuming they are genuine — and both Al Jazeera and the Guardian say they have authenticated them — are behind-the-scenes notes from a decade of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. On issue after issue, they show Palestinian negotiators eager to concede ground, offering to give up much of Jerusalem, to accept Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank, to collaborate with Israeli occupation forces in suppressing dissent in the occupied territories — including killing fellow Palestinians — and even to forgo the right of return for most Palestinians driven from their homes by Israel in 1948.

The papers give the lie to Israel’s claim that it yearns for peace but lacks a Palestinian “partner.” And they reinforce the sense that Israel has gone along with these negotiations only to buy time to expropriate more Palestinian land, demolish more Palestinian homes, expel more Palestinian families and build more colonies for the exclusive use of Jewish settlers in militarily occupied territory, thereby cementing new realities on the ground that would make a Palestinian state a geophysical impossibility.

Anyone who doubts this has only to skim through the leaked papers, which show Israel spurning one gaping Palestinian concession after another. And this was Israel not under Benjamin Netanyahu but under the supposedly more liberal Ehud Olmert and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who claimed they were committed to the peace process. In shameless abjection, the Palestinian negotiators prostrated themselves and surrendered essentially every major objective for which their people have struggled and sacrificed for 60 years, only for the imperious Israelis to say again and again, no, no, no.

Clearly, all that the Palestinians have to offer is not enough for Israel.

The major revelation from the documents, indeed, is the illustration they furnish of just how far the Palestinian negotiators were willing to go to placate Israel.

Men like Saeb Erekat, Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei — the lead Palestinian negotiators in all these years — are of a type that has come forth in every colonial conflict of the modern age. Faced with the overwhelming brute power with which colonial states have always sought to break the will of indigenous peoples, they inhabit the craven weakness that the situation seems to dictate. Convinced that colonialism cannot be defeated, they seek to carve out some petty managerial role within it from which they might benefit, even if at the expense of their people.

These men, we must remember, were not elected to negotiate an agreement with Israel. They have no legitimacy, offer zero credibility and can make no real claim to represent the views of Palestinians.

And yet they were apparently willing to bargain away the right that stands at the very heart of the Palestinian struggle, a right that is not theirs to surrender — the right of return of Palestinians to the homes from which they were forced during the creation of Israel in 1948 — by accepting Israel’s insistence that only a token few thousand refugees should be allowed to return, and that the millions of others should simply go away (or, as we now learn that the U.S. suggested, accept being shipped away like so much lost chattel to South America).

The documents also show Palestinian negotiators willing to betray the Palestinians inside Israel by agreeing to Israel’s definition of itself as a Jewish state, knowing that that would doom Israel’s non-Jewish Palestinian minority — the reviled “Israeli Arabs” who constitute 20% of the state’s population — not merely to the institutionalized racism they already face but to the prospect of further ethnic cleansing (the papers reveal that Livni repeatedly raised the idea that land inhabited by portions of Israel’s Palestinian population should be “transferred” to a future Palestinian state).

All this was offered in pursuit of a “state” that would exist in bits and pieces, with no true sovereignty, no control over its own borders or water or airspace — albeit a “state” that it would, naturally, be their job to run.

And all this was contemptuously turned down by the allegedly peace-seeking Israeli government, with the connivance of the United States, to whom the Palestinians kept plaintively appealing as an honest broker, even as it became clearer than ever that it is anything but.

What these documents prove is that diplomatic negotiations between abject Palestinians and recalcitrant Israelis enjoying the unlimited and unquestioning support of the U.S. will never yield peace. No agreement these callow men sign would be accepted by the Palestinian people.

Fortunately, most Palestinians are not as broken and hopeless as these so-called leaders. Every single day, millions of ordinary Palestinian men, women and children resist the dictates of Israeli power, if only by refusing to give up and go away — by going to school, by farming their crops, by tending their olive groves.

Refusing the dictates of brute power and realpolitik to which their so-called leaders have surrendered, the Palestinian people have already developed a new strategy that, turning the tables on Israel, transmutes every Israeli strength into a form of weakness. Faced with tanks, they turn to symbolic forms of protest that cannot be destroyed; faced with brutality, they demand justice; faced with apartheid, they demand equality. The Palestinians have learned the lessons of Soweto, and they have unleashed a simultaneously local and global campaign of protests and calls for boycotts and sanctions that offers the only hope of bringing Israelis — like their Afrikaner predecessors — to their senses.


Posted by: sareemakdisi | June 17, 2010

On the Helen Thomas Affair

[Originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 13 June 2010]

Unconscionable. Offensive. Hurtful. Bigoted. Terrible. Hateful.

These are the words being used to describe Helen Thomas’ recent comment about Israel and Palestine. Editorialists across the country have condemned her statement that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go back” to Europe.

Let’s agree that she should not have said those things, and that a just and lasting peace in the Middle East fundamentally requires reconciliation between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. We need also to agree on a formula that allows them both to be at home in the same land (I have long advocated the idea of a single democratic and secular state for both peoples; a state that treats all citizens as equals). Insisting that either people does not belong is not merely counterproductive; it lies at the very root of the conflict.

If, however, it is unacceptable to say that Israeli Jews don’t belong in Palestine, it is also unacceptable to say that the Palestinians don’t belong on their own land.

Yet that is said all the time in the United States, without sparking the kind of moral outrage generated by Thomas’ remark. And while the nation’s editorialists worry about the offense she may have caused to Jews, no one seems particularly bothered by the offense felt every day by Palestinians when people — including those with far more power than Thomas — dismiss their rights, degrade their humanity and reject their claims to the most elementary forms of decency.

Are we seriously to accept the idea that some people have more rights than others? Or that some people’s sensibilities should be respected while others’ are trampled with total indifference, if not outright contempt?

One does not have to agree with Thomas to note that her remark spoke to the ugly history of colonialism, racism, usurpation and denial that are at the heart of the question of Palestine. Part of that history involves vicious European anti-Semitism and the monumental crime of the Holocaust. But the other part is that Palestinians were forcibly removed from their homeland in 1948 to clear space for the creation of a state with a Jewish identity.

Europeans and Americans were, at the time, willing to ignore or simply dismiss the injustice inflicted on the Palestinians, who, by being forced from their land, were made to pay the price for a crime they did not commit.

But this callous carelessness, this dismissal of — and refusal even to acknowledge in human terms — the calamity that befell the Palestinians, and of course the attendant refusal to acknowledge their fundamental rights, did not end in the 1940s. It continues to this very day.

Mainstream politicians, civic leaders, university presidents and others in this country routinely express their support for Israel as a Jewish state, despite the fact that such a state only could have been created in a multicultural land by ethnically cleansing it of as many non-Jews as possible. Today, Israel is only able to maintain its Jewish identity because it has established an apartheid regime, both in the occupied territories and within its own borders, and because it continues to reject the Palestinian right of return.

Where is the outrage about that?

Where was the outrage in 1983 when Israeli Gen. Rafael Eitan looked forward to the day that Jews had fully settled the land, because then “all the Arabs will be able to do about it is scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle”? Or when Alan Dershowitz suggested in 2002 that Israel summarily empty and then bulldoze an entire Palestinian village as a punitive measure each time it was attacked? Or when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman claimed in 2006 to have discovered a “pathology” that caused some Arabs to “hate others more than they love their own kids”? Or when Avigdor Lieberman (who now serves as Israel’s foreign minister) said in 2004 that Palestinian citizens of Israel should “take their bundles and get lost”? Or when Israeli professor Arnon Sofer, one of the country’s leading demographic alarmists, said that to preserve the Jewish state, Israel should pull out of Gaza, though that would require Israel to remain at the border and “kill, and kill, and kill, all day, every day”?

An endless deluge of statements of support for the actual, calculated, methodical dehumanization of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular goes without comment; whereas a single offhand comment by an 89-year-old journalist, whose long and distinguished record of principled commitment and challenges to state power entitles her to respect — and the benefit of the doubt — causes her to be publicly pilloried.

To accept this appalling hypocrisy is to be complicit in the racism of our age.

Posted by: sareemakdisi | June 17, 2010

On the Gaza Flotilla Raid

[originally published on Bloomberg, 11 June 2010]

To many observers, Israel’s deadly assault on a civilian ship in international waters came as a final confirmation of a developing international consensus that Israel is a state that stops at no limit, recognizes no law, defers to no power and bows to no authority.

This consensus was largely consolidated by the bombardment of the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009, in which Israel killed one out of every thousand residents, damaged or destroyed thousands of family homes and other buildings, targeted schools, hospitals and ambulances, and reduced to rubble much of the territory’s agricultural, industrial and communications infrastructure — already broken by years of isolation and siege.

The consensus was only reinforced last spring, when Israel dismissed the Obama administration’s call for it to freeze its illegal colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and again this spring, when it seemed to taunt Vice President Joe Biden by greeting his visit with an announcement of yet more settlements.

The new consensus was further strengthened by Israel’s vehement denunciation of the United Nations inquiry into the Gaza war, chaired by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone, which found that it had committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity in the conduct of its assault on the civilian population of that territory.

Because Israel refuses to relinquish its control over Gaza, as last month’s tragic events so clearly illustrated, it remains an occupying power there, and international law holds it accountable for the welfare of the population.

Gaza Siege

Israel has subjected Gaza’s people — most of whom are children — to indiscriminate bombardments and a cruel and illegal siege, severely limiting the supplies of construction materials, medicines, schoolbooks, and food, and thereby putting the entire population on what a senior Israeli official once only half-jokingly called “a diet.”

It was in order to break this siege and bring urgently needed supplies to Gaza that the so-called Freedom Flotilla set sail, only to end in a bloody shambles.

Immediately, a well-oiled publicity machine went into high gear. Israel and its supporters in the U.S. have been doing everything possible to counteract the widening recognition of the dismal reality that Israel stands for.

Ugly Truth

An army of volunteers scours the Internet looking for stories to post on. Hasbara (Hebrew for “explanation”) organizations — like the media monitoring outfit Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, whose clumsily literalist retorts are unintentionally comical — try in vain to mask the ugly truth.

Scholarly criticism of Israeli policy is met by orchestrated campaigns of vilification and intimidation. A wave of new Israel studies centers is being established on college campuses, often as little more than fronts for propaganda.

And, according to the New Yorker magazine, one defender of Israel — the Hollywood mogul Haim Saban — has embarked on a plan to simply buy up media outfits, apparently in order to stanch the flow of unflattering stories about Israel.

But it is far too late for such maneuvers. People around the world now see Israel for what it is. No propaganda machine, no matter how well-oiled, can convince decent people that it’s acceptable for children to be forcibly malnourished and live unschooled and amid unreconstructed ruins, as in Gaza.

State Piracy

Hardly anyone took seriously Israel’s carefully crafted excuses for the lethal outcome of an assault by heavily armed, albeit bungling, commandos on an unarmed ship sailing on a humanitarian mission in international waters. People around the world saw the raid as essentially an act of state piracy on the high seas.

It was to no avail that the Israelis tried to spin the story, even to turn it on its head, presenting the raiders as innocent victims and the humanitarian volunteers as villains trying to “kidnap” and “lynch” them.

Only an ever-narrower and largely self-indoctrinating audience in the U.S. continues to takes this kind of desperate spin at face value.

True, the Obama administration fell back on the default script — quietly using its veto power in the UN to protect Israel — even though the attack involved U.S.-made military equipment paid for by billions of taxpayer dollars that could be put to far better use in saving California’s schools or Louisiana’s coastline.

This default mode is getting old, and it is under severe strain as more and more Americans, including many in positions of power and influence, join countless others around the world in questioning their government’s unlimited support for a nuclear-armed state that, by refusing to heed any kind of law — while periodically going berserk — endangers not merely its neighbors, but the stability and security of the whole world.

A change of policy, as well as of perceptions, is now only a matter of time.

Posted by: sareemakdisi | February 16, 2010

On the so-called Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem

A Museum of Tolerance We Don’t Need

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in The Los Angeles Times, 12 February 2010]

The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s plan to construct an outpost of Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance atop the most important Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem is temporarily in disarray. This presents an opportunity to call on the center to abandon this outrageous project once and for all.

The site in question is Ma’man Allah, or the Mamilla Cemetery, which had been in continuous use for centuries until 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or driven into flight and their private property, including Ma’man Allah, was handed over to Jewish users.

Like Muslim and Christian sites throughout Israel — which, as a 2009 State Department report pointed out, implements protections only for Jewish holy sites — the cemetery has long been threatened. Parts of it have been used as a roadway, parking lots, building sites and Israel’s Independence Park. Among the trees in the park, Palestinian tombstones can still be seen, eerily and all too appropriately.

In 2002, the Wiesenthal Center — which had been given part of the cemetery by the city of Jerusalem — announced that architect Frank Gehry would design a complex to be called the Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. Ground was broken in 2004. Palestinian and Muslim concerns were ignored until a lawsuit led to the suspension of excavation in 2006. In 2008, the Israeli Supreme Court — dismissing the appeals not only of Palestinians with relatives buried there but also the protests of Jews appalled by desecration of any cemetery — cleared the way for the project.

The center claims to see nothing wrong with erecting what its leader, Rabbi Marvin Hier, calls “a great landmark promoting the principles of mutual respect and social responsibility” on top of what remains of another people’s cemetery. It has resorted to endless dodges to support its claim.

To those protesting construction on ancient cemetery land, the center says it’s merely using a part of the site that has been a parking lot for years. To Jews outraged at desecration, it says, in effect, that different standards apply to Muslim cemeteries than to Jewish ones. To Muslim clergy and legal scholars who insist on the inviolability of cemeteries in Islam, the center disagrees, in essence claiming that it knows more about Islamic jurisprudence than they do. To those who protest today, the center asks where they were in 1960, when an Islamic judge approved Israel’s construction of the parking lot (it does not, however, mention that he was a state employee, nor that he was subsequently removed from office for corruption).

To archaeologists who say the site should be spared construction, the center says that only a couple hundred bodies needed to be moved. And with reference to Palestinians who have filed legal actions and persisted in expressing anxiety over their families’ remains, Hier had this message just last month: “The case is over; get used to it.”

That was his paraphrase of the high court’s dismissal of a final appeal made by Palestinian families based on the testimony of Gideon Suleimani, the chief archaeologist at the museum site. Suleimani said that the Israel Antiquities Authority withheld from the court his opinion that construction should not be approved, and that the site still contains four layers of Muslim graves dating from the 12th century. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of skeletons under the ground there,” noted Suleimani.

Last month, Gehry announced that he had decided to pull out of the project, citing other commitments. At the same time, the center said it was scaling back the museum; it is short of its original $200-million fundraising target. Now the center lacks an architect and a plan. Hence the opportunity to stop this project.

This week, moreover, Palestinians with relatives buried in the cemetery made a last-ditch effort to end its continued desecration. They appealed directly to the United Nations, pointing out that the desecration violates international conventions forbidding discrimination and protecting cultural heritage, the manifestation of religious beliefs and the right to culture and family.

Protecting the cemetery should never have become a legal issue. This project is something that any decent human being should recognize as wrong. And it can still be reversed — if the Wiesenthal Center can be persuaded to turn “tolerance” and “human dignity” into principles for action, not just empty slogans.

For all its sanctimoniousness, the center now presides over a big hole from which scores of bones have been unearthed. Those remains were disinterred without respect. As Suleimani put it: “The Muslim dead have no one to defend them.” It is not, however, too late to safeguard the rest of those as yet undisturbed.

In wanting to lay the dead to rest, however, we should think also of the living. Displacing living people — something Israel does every single day — is hardly any better than displacing dead ones. And this disgraceful episode is only part of a much longer history of displacement and dispossession dating to 1948.

The real lesson of Ma’man Allah and the museum project is this: Peace will come to Palestine/Israel only when the blind insistence on displacement ends and both peoples are allowed to belong to the same land.

Posted by: sareemakdisi | November 24, 2009

Good Riddance, Abbas

[Originally published in Foreign Policy, 6 November 2009]


The announcement that Mahmoud Abbas has decided not to stand for re-election as head of the Palestinian Authority should come as a relief to all Palestinians. In fact, Abbas’s departure will open a much-needed opportunity to take stock of where things stand and assess the future course of the Palestinian struggle.

Never an appealing or charismatic figure, Abbas has been losing popular support since his first day in office five years ago (his term technically expired in January 2009). Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, in which he played a prominent role, the official Palestinian leadership has been pursuing a formula for peace — the two-state solution — that has yielded nothing more than the intensification of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Those 16 years have been characterized by the further immobilization and immiseration of the Palestinian people, and an ever-growing list of civilian casualties, most recently in Gaza.

We are left with no other conclusion than this: that the so-called peace process with which Abbas has been indelibly associated, albeit as the Israelis’ junior assistant, was calculated to produce exactly these results. The very first step of the Oslo process, undertaken with Abbas’s assent in 1993, was to fragment and separate the occupied territories into shards of land, disconnected from each other and from the outside world, under total, institutionalized Israeli domination. Take one look at a map and you can’t miss the separation of Gaza from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the further internal splintering of the West Bank, all of which is the direct result of Oslo.

Today, the Palestinian Authority (PA) over which Abbas presides is seen as a puppet. It has become the manager of the day-to-day burdens of military occupation, responsible for the hassle and expense of administering a restless population. All this is done on behalf of the Israelis, who have meanwhile gone on expropriating Palestinian land, bulldozing Palestinian homes, and building exclusively Jewish settlements in violation of international law (doubling the population of settlers since peace talks began). To all Palestinians other than the tiny clique who benefit from this arrangement, the sight of Abbas’s U.S.-trained and Israeli-armed PA militiamen cooperating with Israeli forces — if not taking direct orders from them — is nothing short of grotesque. And when Abbas recently succumbed to Israeli and U.S. pressure and dropped his support for the Goldstone report, a U.N. Human Rights Council-mandated investigation into last year’s Gaza incursion, many Palestinians saw it as the last straw both for Abbas — and for the PA itself.

What, then, are the alternatives?

Hamas stands for nothing other than, at best, defiance for the sake of defiance. It has no blueprint, no formula, no vision capable of unifying Palestinians and moving them closer to the achievement of their goals. Moreover, its religious rhetoric repels those Christian and secular Palestinians who have always been in the vanguard of the national movement and has little to offer to Muslim Palestinians either.

But to get bogged down in a discussion of other alternative candidates for the PA presidency, whether from Fatah or other parties, is to miss the point: The PA is irrelevant to the future of the Palestinian people as a whole.

To really grasp this, we have to remember something that the language packaging the peace process since the early 1990s has taught us to forget: Only a minority of Palestinians  live under occupation. It is that minority on whom the world’s imagination has been focused since Oslo.

The single largest component of the Palestinian people consists of those who were driven from their homes during the 1948 creation of Israel and their descendants. They were never, even theoretically, addressed or represented by the PA. Nor were the 1.5 million Palestinians who live as second-class citizens in Israel and who suffer from systematic and institutionalized discrimination because they are non-Jews inhabiting a state that wants to be Jewish.

As PA president, Abbas never represented the majority of Palestinians — he never even claimed to, and no successor would either. Nor does the current, PA-pursued two-state solution offer anything to the majority of Palestinians (and to the minority it offers only an illusory “autonomy”). The vast majority of the Palestinians, who do not live in occupied territories, would not be eligible to vote if and when Israel allowed elections to be held.

Peace will only come when the rights and needs of all Palestinians (not only the minority who suffer under occupation) and all Israeli Jews are fully addressed. The demise of Abbas, and with him, hopefully, the PA and the illusion of the two-state solution, opens up the possibility that Palestinians will once again embrace the one-state solution and demand the creation of a single, democratic, and secular state in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians live as equals. That is the only way to a just and lasting peace. Abbas’s departure is a start.

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