Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Global Politics’ Category

In an earlier essay about three weeks ago, I wrote in part on the increasing inability, as it seems to me, of people in our times to live with themselves and with their thoughts. Other commentators have spoken of this age as one of ‘instant gratification’, but I would underscore the word ‘instant’.  Even ‘thoughts’ must be shared instantly.  That essay was prompted by some reflections on the news that the British government had effectively appointed a “minister of loneliness”. Those who are not afflicted by cancer, diabetes, obesity, or a heart condition may nevertheless be overcome by loneliness.  I distinguished between solitude, the virtues of which have been extolled by writers across generations and cultures, and loneliness—the latter a largely modern-day pathology.  Loneliness is not singular either: there is the loneliness that one experiences when one arrives in a large city, knowing no one and feeling somewhat adrift; there is also the loneliness one sometimes feels amidst a very large crowd of people, even a crowd of well-wishers or fellow travelers; and then there is the loneliness in moments of intimacy.  Perhaps some moments of loneliness are also critical for self-realization:  it is, I suspect, only when loneliness becomes the norm that it starts to take on the characteristics of a pathology.

Solitude may perhaps be similarly parsed, but my subject at present is the prison cell and the education that the Reverend James M. Lawson, who turns 90 tomorrow, derived from his time after his first prison term following his arrest and conviction for resistance to the draft in 1950.  I do not speak here of solitary confinement, which in the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries alike is nothing but barbarism, but of the prison as a site of reflection, education, contemplation, quietude, as much as a site where revolutionaries have often been made.  The movie industry, to the contrary, has largely feasted on the idea of the prison as a place where criminals are hardened, the will of political prisoners is broken, men are sodomized and women raped, and sadistic prison guards rule like little kings.  In what follows, in two parts, I relay the conversation that transpired between Rev. Lawson and myself, first around Nelson Mandela and Robben Island, and then on the circumstances that led to Lawson’s own confinement to Mill Point Federal Prison in West Virginia.  Our very first conversation took place a few days after the passing of Nelson Mandela in early December 2012; it has been only slightly edited:

MandelaAtRobbenIsland1994

Nelson Mandela, on his return to his cell at Robben Island in 1994, after being elected as the first President of a free South Africa.  Photo:  Jurgen Schadeberg/Getty Images.

VL:  I just want to go back to Mandela for a moment.  I think whatever one might say about Mandela and the founding of the Umkhonto we Sizwe [the armed wing of the African National Congress], and his decision to embrace violence alongside nonviolence—Mandela was very clear that nonviolence would not be given up entirely—so, whatever one might say about all of that, I think to most people the Mandela that comes to mind is the man who walked out of prison after an eternity in there.  Those years in Robben Island—those become the heroic years.  There are, very often, two kinds of outcomes when people have spent many years in jail, the better part of their lives behinds bars.  One is, they come out really bitter.  And, very often, we know that this has been one of the critiques of the prison system… I mean, other than the kind of argument, which I think you and I are familiar with, and we need not enter into at the present moment, and that’s about the so-called prison industrial complex, about the fact that the prison construction industry is one of the largest revenue earners for the state of California—the whole relationship between the prison complex and capitalism and so on… And I think that those are very important and interesting questions. But, here we are interested in the other outcome, something that may be seen from the life of Mandela.  He came out of prison not just, in a manner of speaking, ‘intact’, however reservedly one might use that word; he came out of it, remarkably, with a more enhanced sense of the need for inclusiveness in a new South Africa.

JL: Stronger in his character and his visions…

RobbenIslandPrisonMuseum

VL: And I daresay this is where his generosity is most palpable…  You know, the way in which he decides to handle certain problems, the way in which he decides to look at the whole issue of, well, what are we going to do with the Afrikaners now, what will be the place of white people in this society?… And this is where, as I said, his sense of inclusiveness is really very palpable. Much the same can be said for people like Gandhi, King, Nehru, and many others who spent [time in jail].

JL: Also, Castro.

VL: Castro… I hadn’t quite thought of him in this regard, but you may be right, when we think of the two years to which he was confined to jail by Bautista.  But many people who served fairly long prison terms, they actually –in the case of Gandhi, I am quite certain of that because I’ve looked  at his life in very great detail, I think that he almost welcomed prison terms because . . .

JL: He did.

VL: . . . it helped him to renew his sense of life, it energized him, it also gave him solitude; he was far from the maddening crowds, it gave him time for deep introspection and reflection.  And I think that this is what happens in Mandela’s life, too.  Now, here perhaps Mandela had far too much time for introspection, so to speak, because I have the distinct feeling that one of the things that happened is that Mandela really was no longer in contact with what was happening in the wider world outside; he no longer had the full pulse of the nation he would later have guide through the first flush of freedom.

JL: But, but, he turns Robben Island into what they called at one point the University.

VL:  Absolutely.

JL:  The prisoners, sharing what they did know, really engaged in long conversations about their situation, about their country, about their philosophy.  And that, of course, he may have learned from Gandhi.  I learned it from Gandhi. And that is very clear in Gandhi’s life.  I’ll never forget the first time I was arrested in Nashville, in 1960.  I was physically exhausted, though very intellectually and spiritually alive.  And I welcomed the knowledge that the police issued a warrant for me. And we arranged for us to do it jointly. And I went to First Baptist Church, and I was arrested out of First Baptist Church; but I had an armful of books with me that my wife had brought to me from home, and she came to the church.  And as I got arrested, there was a great sigh of relief, and I had these books… and when I hit the jail, my first impulse was, first of all, to sleep through the night, get up in the morning, and begin over with the books. And I’ve read that in Gandhi as well. I’ve read that about Gandhi on two or three occasions.  He welcomed jail in the Champaran campaign. He came to the court ready to go to jail because he knew it was going to be a time for him to do reflection and the rest of it… rejuvenate himself there in the isolation that he would have.

Yerwada-Central-Jail

Yerwada Central Jai, Pune, where Gandhi was confined more than once.

YervadaJailImportantPrisoners

VL: And he’d had that experience already in South Africa.

JL: That’s right. Exactly.

VL: You’re right by the way about the prison yard at Robben Island being turned into a university.  There’s an Indian sociologist in South Africa by the name of Ashwin Desai, a good friend of mine, who published a book very recently last year [2011], called “Reading Revolution:  Shakespeare on Robben Island”.

JL:  Oh, really!  My goodness!

VL:   And this whole book is really a study of how people like Mandela and Tambo and Ahmad Kathrada and many others, how they actually read Shakespeare and discussed Shakespeare and each person marked their favorite passage.  Because, of course, to read Shakespeare is also to enter into discussions of ethics, political rebellions, and the whole idea of—we were talking about it earlier—assassinations, as an example.  So, I think that what you are saying is absolutely on the mark.  Nevertheless, I think there are some serious questions that have to be entertained, such as Mandela’s views on globalization–what did he really understand by globalization? Because I think, to some extent, Mandela was not sufficiently aware of the manner in which the world has changed in the long years that he was actually confined to prison. When you look at Mandela’s economic policies, what I would call something of a capitulation to free-market policies takes place rather quickly.

RobbenIslandShakespeare

The Robben Island Shakespeare was wrapped in a cover with images of Hindu deities.

(to be continued)

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

An Open Letter to the Home Minister of Bangladesh, Mr. Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali, MP, Calling for the Immediate Release of Shahidul Alam

Dear Sir,

On August 5th, nearly a month ago, Shahidul Alam was taken away from his home in the middle of the night by twenty-five officers of the detective branch of the police which is ultimately responsible to you.  Shahidul Alam is an internationally acclaimed photojournalist, human rights activist, social entrepreneur, and much more.  He has played a singularly critical role in putting Bangladesh on the international map as far as photography is concerned, and he has nurtured the talents of two generations of Bangladeshis who have grown up on the camera.  As I’m certain you know, he is the founder of the picture gallery DRIK, the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, and the Pathshala Institute where hundreds of young photographers have been trained.  It would be safe to say that he has also done as much as anyone else in Bangladesh to highlight the lives of those who are dispossessed, marginalized, and most vulnerable to exploitation.  Mr. Alam, as those who know him or are at least conversant with his work will tell you, does not allow his sentiments of humanity and his craving for social justice to stop at the borders of the country which you serve as its Home Minister.  He was one of the first to speak of “the majority world” to signify the solidarities that exist between the peoples of what is more often described as the “Third World” or “the developing countries”.

Mr. Alam is therefore one of those comparatively rare intellectuals, artists, and social activists who has been a fearless and persistent advocate of the rights of those who are in fact in a majority in the world—the poor, the working class, the politically oppressed, and the exploited, the preponderant portion of them in countries that were formerly colonized.  It is perhaps because he represents the majority that he is feared by your government.  Does that not explain why no fewer than 25 police officers were assembled to arrest a nonviolent and unarmed activist who has never carried anything other than a camera?  Why was he abducted in the middle of the night, if not because under the cover of darkness the state hoped to disguise its own unlawful action?

A week after his arrest, Mr. Shahidul Alam was produced in court without being given an opportunity to have his lawyer represent him.  He was charged at his arrest, under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (2016), with disseminating “false, confusing and provocative statements that could deteriorate the law and order situation, as well as incite the sentiments of students to engage in destructive activities.”  Mr. Alam has not only denied all these charges, he has also alleged that he was tortured by the police in jail.  He was certainly beaten badly on the night that he was hauled away and he can be heard screaming in footage that is widely available.  No one who knows him well is at all prepared to believe that there is even an iota of truth in any of these charges; moreover, it is quite apparent that the charges have been framed in such a fashion as to enable the apprehension of anyone whose views might appear even remotely hostile to those who wield political power.  Mr. Alam exemplifies the idea of nonviolence in practice and in spirit, and he is one of the gentlest persons I have had the good fortune of knowing.  He left an extremely favorable impression on everyone during the one week that he spent at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2009 as a Regents’ Fellow at my invitation.

Mr. Alam has now filed a petition in the court asking for bail and he has stated that he would appear in court whenever a hearing might be set in his case.  Leading human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as hundreds of internationally renowned intellectuals and activists from India, Australia, Britain, and the United States, have called for Mr. Alam’s unconditional release and the removal of all the charges that have been alleged against him.  I join them in asking that Mr. Alam be released at once, but I would like to place before you two others considerations which I hope will appeal to your imagination and moral sensibility. I hope you will find my first point particularly germane in view of the fact that the present government is headed by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  Let me remind you that it is the repression of intellectuals in what was then East Pakistan that, among other things, inspired Sheikh Mujib  to advocate for the independence of East Pakistan and which eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh.  Mr. Alam’s arrest and continued detention points to your government’s desire to intimidate intellectuals and silence all voices of opposition.  My earnest entreaty to you, therefore, is not to repeat the very same mistakes that characterized the egregious conduct of the Government of (West) Pakistan.

Secondly, even if the Information and Communication Technology Act under which Mr. Alam has been charged is of recent vintage, in spirit it is unfortunately guided by colonial-era legislation.  In this respect, as well, it does the state of Bangladesh absolutely no credit at all to be moved by archaic and repressive legislation.  We are all aware that in the name of preserving “law and order”, states often undertake actions which can only cast a blot on their reputation.  Surely a country guided by the spirit of Sheik Mujib and the great poet Kazi Nazrul Islam can do a lot better than take into unlawful custody one of its most prominent citizens who is widely recognized as a person of unimpeachable integrity and who has done selfless work on behalf of especially the less fortunate citizens of your country.

I end, therefore, once again with the call for Mr. Shahidul Alam’s immediate release and request from you an assurance of his safety.  I remain entirely open to an exchange with you on any of the points raised in this appeal, which I have now made public as the private letter that I addressed to you a week after Mr. Alam’s arrest did not elicit any response.

Yours sincerely,

Vinay Lal, Professor of History, UCLA

 

Read Full Post »

Fourth and Concluding Part of “Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  Seventy Years of Occupation in Palestine” 

As I argued in the last part of this essay, there is no gainsaying the fact that anti-Semitism remains rife among most Arab communities—and indeed among Christians in many parts of the world, as the attacks on synagogues, which have increased since the time that Mr. Trump assumed high office, amply demonstrate.  Nevertheless, it is equally the case that the charge of anti-Semitism has itself become a totalitarian form of stifling dissent and an attempt to enforce complete submissiveness to the ideology of Zionism.  On the geopolitical plane, the leadership (as it is called) of the United States, has done nothing to bring about an amicable resolution, even as the United States is construed as the peace-broker between Israel and the Palestinians.  Indeed, one might well ask if the United States is even remotely the right party to position itself as an arbiter, and not only for the all too obvious reason that its staunch and nakedly partisan support for Israel, punctuated only by a few homilies on the necessity of exercising restraint and Israel’s right to protect itself in the face of the gravest provocations, makes it unfit to insert itself into the conflict as a peacemaker. We have seen this all too often, most recently of course in the carnage let loose on the border last week as Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding and the Palestinians marked seventy years of the catastrophe that has befallen them: even as Israel was mowing down Palestinian youth and young men, most of them unarmed and some evidently shot in the back, the United States was applauding Israel for acting “with restraint”.

13 Falk cover

In an essay that Richard Falk wrote a few years ago at my invitation, entitled The Endless Search for a Just and Sustainable Peace: Palestine-Israel (2014), he advanced briefly an argument the implications of which, with respect to the conflict and its possible resolution, have never really been worked out.  Falk observed that the Abrahamic revelation, from which the two political theologies that inform this conflict have taken their birth, is predisposed towards violence and even an annihilationist outlook towards the other.   There is, in Regina M. Schwartz’s eloquently argued if little-known book, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (The University of Chicago Press, 1998), an extended treatment of this subject, though I suspect that her view that monotheistic religions have an intrinsic predisposition towards exterminationist violence will all too easily and with little thought be countered by those eager to demonstrate that religions guided by the Abrahamic revelation scarcely have a monopoly on violence.  It has, for example, become a commonplace in certain strands of thinking in India to declare that nothing in the world equals the violence perpetrated in various idioms by upper-caste Hindus against lower-caste Hindus over the course of two millennia or more.  One could, quite plausibly, also argue that there is a long-strand of nonviolent thinking available within the Christian dispensation, commencing with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s injunctions towards nonviolent conduct in Romans and exemplified in our times by such dedicated practitioners of Christian nonviolence as A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, the Berrigan Brothers, and the stalwarts of the Civil Rights Movement, among them the Reverends M. L. King, James M. Lawson, and Fred Shuttleworth.

SchwartzCurseOfCain

Whatever one makes of the view that the political theologies that inform the Abrahamic revelation make a peaceful resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict an immense challenge to the ethical imagination, what is perhaps being tacitly expressed here is a serious reservation about the fitness of the United States, which evangelicals would like to have openly recognized as a land of Abrahamic revelation, to intervene in this debate. I would put it rather more strongly. The supposition that the United States, which has all too often harbored genocidal feelings towards others, and has been consistently committed, through the change of administrations over the last few decades, to the idea that it must remain the paramount global power, can now act equitably and wisely in bringing a just peace to the region must be challenged at every turn.  There is, as well, the equally profound question of whether there is anything within the national experience of the United States that allows it to consider such conflicts on a civilizational plane, not readily amenable to the nation-state framework and the rules that constitute normalized politics.Pa

Richard Falk sees, in the willingness of British government after decades of violence, arson, terrorist attacks, and a bitterness that surprised even those hardened by politics, to negotiate with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a political entity some precedent for discussions that might lead to a framework for an equitable peace.  Assuming this to be the case, one must nevertheless be aware that all proposed solutions to the conflict are fraught with acute hazards.  Those who are inclined to see the conflict entirely or largely through the prism of religion have displayed little sensitivity to the idea that if religion repels frequently because of its exclusiveness it just as often attracts because of its potential inclusiveness. Those who look at the conflict entirely as a political matter will not concede what is palpably true, namely that the present practice of politics precludes possibilities of a just peace.  The advocates of the two-state solution, clearly in an overwhelming majority today, must know that if such a solution becomes reality, Palestine will be little more than a Bantustan.  Some may claim that even an impoverished, debilitated, and besieged but independent Palestine would be a better option for its subjects than the apartheid which circumscribes and demeans their lives today, but any such solution cannot be viewed as anything other than a surrender to the most debased notion of politics.

Israel should not be permitted to use the rantings of the Holocaust deniers, or the more severe anti-Semitic pronouncements of its detractors, as a foil for the equally implausible argument that the Palestinians are committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.  The greater majority of the Palestinian leaders and intellectuals, as many commentators have points out, have signaled their acceptance of the pre-1967 borders of Israel provided that Israel withdraws from the territory it has occupied since the 1967 war and displays a serious willingness to address the refugee problem.  In a more ideological vein, most Palestinians are reconciled to the idea that the Zionist project, originating in a desire to establish a Jewish state on Arab lands, is a fait accompli.  However equitable a political solution—and that, too, seems to be a remote possibility—the more fundamental questions to which the conflict gives rise are those which touch upon our ability to live with others who are presented to us as radically different, even if the notion of the ‘radical’ that is at stake here is only grounded in historical contingencies.  Living with others is never easy, and is not infrequently an unhappy, even traumatic, affair; but it is certainly the most challenging and humane way to check the impulse to gravitate towards outright discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and extermination.  “We cannot choose”, Hannah Arendt has written, “with whom we cohabit the world”, but Israel appears to have signified its choice, terrifyingly so, not only by the erection of the Separation Wall, but also by imposing a draconian regime of segregationist measures that reek of apartheid.  In so doing, it behooves Israel to recognize that victory is catastrophic for the vanquisher as much as defeat is catastrophic for the vanquished.

(concluded)

See also Part III, “Settlements, Judaization, and Anti-Semitism”

Part II, “A Vastly Unequal Struggle:  Palestine, Israel, and the Disequilibrium of Power”

Part I, “Edward Said and an Exceptional Conflict”

For a Norwegian translation of this article by Lars Olden, see: http://prosciencescope.com/fjerde-og-avsluttende-delen-av-bortvising-fortvilelse-og-defiance-sytti-ar-med-okkupasjon-i-palestina/

Read Full Post »

Part III of Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  Seventy Years of Occupation in Palestine

IsraelMap

Map of Israel, West Bank, and Gaza.  Source;  londonbds.org

All occupations are brutal. The greater number of the Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 were shepherded into the narrow strip called Gaza. Israel’s first occupation of Gaza, in 1956, lasted about a year before Gaza was returned to the jurisdiction of Egypt.  The 1967 war was calamitous for Arabs:  among its other consequences, Gaza was reoccupied, and Israel only disengaged with Gaza in 2005. That would pave the way, the following year, for elections and the triumph, which took Israel and the West by surprise, of Hamas. For all of the American celebration of electoral sovereignty as the greatest possible outcome for any nation, the United States could not allow that Hamas had achieved an outcome that none had countenanced and few thought possible. Gaza has since been blockaded by Israel, Egypt—which borders Gaza to the south—and the United States, and the movement of people into and out of Gaza has been severely restricted over the course of the last decade.  There are graphic accounts of the implications of the blockade, in myriad respects: unemployment among young men runs exceedingly high, and Gaza may well be described as the largest open-air prison in the world.

Mideast Israel Palestinians

A Palestinian boy ferrying animals in a cage, Gaza City, January 2009.  Photo:  Ben Curtis/AP.

I said that all occupations are brutal, but Gaza and the West Bank, divided from each other by Israeli territory, have been subjected to a regime of political regimentation and surveillance that have immensely diminished the prospects for any genuine peace.  As those involved in progressive movements around the world have often witnessed, most ‘gains’ made by progressives and activists are more frequently than not just recovery of ground lost to the state; in such circumstances, even minor concessions gained after numerous rounds of negotiations seem noteworthy.  The settlements are a case in point:  every negotiation used to end with an assurance from Israel that settlements would be curbed, but some alleged act of commissions or omission on the part of the Palestinians, or more precisely Hamas—rocket attacks on Israel, the killing of an Israeli soldier, the attempted assassination of Israeli diplomats or consular officers—led to the abrogation of the agreement; by the time another agreement was negotiated a few years later, the settlements had further encroached on Palestinian land.  Lately, with the advent of the Trump administration in the US and its avowed defense of Israel, even the pretense of curbing settlements has all but been done away with.

The West Bank has a settler-only road network: here, if one were searching for it, is clear evidence of the apartheid structure of the Jewish state.  Prime Minister Netanyahu made no effort, when he inaugurated yet another settler-only road in January 2018 that is part of a system of by-pass roads that connect Judaea and Samaria in the occupied West Bank to the rest of Israel, to disguise this blatant violation of international law.  Of criminals it can be said that they generally act in the defiance of law, and almost always under cover; but of Netanyahu it can be said that he belongs to that smaller cohort of international outlaws who are brazen in the execution of their designs in open daylight. The settlers have, then, become a veritable state unto themselves, positioning themselves as the most formidable vanguard of Zionism.  Many commentators have spoken, as well, of the Judaization of Jerusalem, and of Israel’s designation of all of Jerusalem as part of sovereign Israeli territory in defiance of international law and opinion. Now, with the recent relocation of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which did not initiate the latest round of resistance from Palestinians who have sought unsuccessfully to breach the border even as it greatly aggravated the situation, Israel is undoubtedly feeling even more emboldened to claim all of Jerusalem as its own rightful and ancestral territory.

To speak of Israel’s appropriation of Jerusalem in its entirety, in defiance of agreements that award the Palestinians joint sovereignty over the holy city, means less than we might imagine, if only because, as a rule, the insolent abrogation of international norms has characterized Israel’s conduct for decades.  Israel acts with the assurance that it has the patronage of Western powers; and the United States, in particular, can reliably be counted upon, as a permanent member of the Security Council, to veto UN resolutions critical of Israel.  Israel tirelessly projects itself, not without success considering the unstinting support it has received from the US and its other allies since its foundation, as an oasis of democracy in a desert of dictatorships and authoritarian states.  In the more colorful language of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel is “a villa in the jungle.”

ProtocolsOfZion

The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion.  The text was widely distributed across Europe and, of course, in the United States.

Such idolization of Israel, however, is scarcely the most egregious aspect of the problem:  not only does the US purport to be acting out of fairness, intent to demonstrate that it will not permit censure of Israel when other nations are similarly guilty, but the message is that criticisms of Israel are perforce animated by sentiments of anti-Semitism and therefore cannot be tolerated.  There is no question, of course, that anti-Semitism remains pervasive among various communities, not least Arabs and Palestinians, and Mahmoud Abbas has done his kinsmen no favors with his recent rants against Jews as the consistent targets of attack owing to their “social role related to usury and banks”. Abbas, in fact, has a long, troublesome, and inflammatory history of Holocaust denial dating back to at least his 1982 thesis where he purposed to address the secret links between Nazism and Zionism. As Gilbert Achcar, whose own critical investigations of Zionism are judicious and grounded in thoughtful scholarly work, has demonstrated, a wholly spurious and deeply offensive text such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion has long animated many people in the Arab world.  Gamer Abdel-Nasser, who led Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970, recommended the Protocols enthusiastically in an interview given to an Indian journalist on 28 September 1958 with the observation that it proved “beyond the shadow of a doubt” that “three hundred Zionists”, all known to each other, governed “the fate of the European continent.” [See Gilbert Achcar, The Arabs and the HolocaustThe Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (New York:  Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2009), p. 206.] The Protocols make its appearance in Article 32 of Hamas’s charter, though numerous other articles—7, 15, 22, 31—are equally virulent in their expression of anti-Semitic sentiments.

(to be continued)

For a Norwegian translation of this article by Lars Olden, see http://prosciencescope.com/del-iii-av-vising-fortvilelse-og-defiance-sytti-ar-med-okkupasjon-i-palestina/

Read Full Post »

Part II of Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  70 Years of the Palestinian Naqba  

The village in western Galilee where Mahmud Darwish was born was razed by Israel’s armed forces after the Jewish state came into existence and he lived, as many Palestinians have, in exile for the greater part of his life.  That displacement, occupation, and exodus is now seared into the memory of Palestinians as the nakba, ‘catastrophe’.  The Palestinians have today become the diasporic people that the Jews once were—that may be one of the more ironic elements of this convoluted narrative of displacement after displacement.  Jews in the twentieth century, facing not just another around of pogroms and anti-Semitism, but the prospect of their absolute elimination from lands where they had been often lodged in ghettoes and yet also integrated to varying degrees, resolved to ameliorate the historical conditions of their distress by dislodging the Palestinians from their ancestral homeland.  “My roots”, says Darwish, “were entrenched before the birth of time”.  But, of course, all three Abrahamic faiths claim Palestine as their ‘holy land’:  that, too, has perhaps brought the conflict into a wider public domain.  Thus, even as the conflict revolves centrally around the dialectic of displacement and home, one is compelled to probe further the meaning of home and equally of homelessness.  Now that the Jews claim to have been restored to their ancestral homeland, and have as a consequence defied the design of history which for centuries seemed to have bound their very identity to the condition of diasporic rootlessness, can we say that they are properly ‘at home’?  What is a home that is gained, some would say, at the expense of another’s home?  One may be at home and yet find that the home that one craved for repels as much as it attracts.

Mahmud Darwish

Mahmud Darwish.  Source:  https://arablit.org/2013/08/09/selected-works-on-the-5th-anniversary-of-mahmoud-darwishs-death/

Beyond all this, the conflict over Palestine disturbs even those who may be indisposed towards Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims because it presents harrowing images of the enormous disequilibrium of power between Israel and the Palestinians.  That disequilibrium of power has sharpened over the years, widening to an enormous gulf in the last two decades; but it was present at the outset, since the migration of Jews into Palestine in the 1930s, which began to alter the demographic composition of Palestine, and subsequently the very foundation of the Jewish state of Israel, were both facilitated by British arms.  Then, as now, the Palestinians were left to fend for themselves.  In the most recent round of protests, in anticipation of the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel as well as the relocation of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, this immense chasm between Israel and Palestinian protestors has yet again been glaringly evident.  While Israeli soldiers snuff out Palestinian lives at will, deploying the arsenal that a well-armed nation-state can draw upon, Palestinians can only respond with burning tires, sling shots, and other contrivances that suggest extraordinary ingenuity on their part as much an awareness that the odds are stacked against them.

Palestinian protesters throw stones towards Israeli policemen during clashes in the Arab east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ras al-Amud

Photo Credits:  Reuters/Ammar Awad.

Naturally, Israel contests any such representation of the conflict, pointing to the frequent rocket attacks against the Jewish state launched by Hamas, or even to the stalemate forced by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, to suggest that it is not the invincible military machine that it is made out to be by its detractors around the world.  Lately, under Netanyahu, the swagger with which Israel acts has intensified, but even now, after repulsing one contingent of Palestinian demonstrators after another determined to breach the fenced border between Gaza and Israel, the claim that Israel remains forever vulnerable to attacks by Hamas or young men who have been initiated into violence not simply persists but has become the linchpin of Israeli self-aggrandizement.  After the humiliating defeat of the Americans by the rice-eating Vietnamese, a possibility that would have shocked Montesquieu and many other proponents of the idea that the world might reasonably be divided into consumers of wheat, potatoes, and rice, each set of people marked by indelible signs of manliness or effeminacy, there is certainly reason to believe that sheer technological prowess does not necessarily confer victory.  Nevertheless, as I have already argued, there is no gainsaying the fact that the conflict presents a hugely disproportionate allocation of technological resources, pitting Israel’s advanced fighter jets against the stone-throwing boys who perhaps gave the intifada its most enduring image.

If all this were not enough to lend the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians a particular poignancy, the occupation of the Palestinian territories, now having crossed the five decade mark, is nearly singular in its length, intensity, and normalization of the experience of humiliation.  Numerous political manifestos, not only those issued by the leaders of al-Qaeda, have called for the liberation of various Muslim lands now under the ‘occupation’ of the infidel, and Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, and Chechnya have been mentioned in the same breath by those who argue that there is a global ‘war on Islam’, but there is little question that these struggles for self-determination are far from being similar.  Portions of India, not just Kashmir, are in fact among the most militarized zones in the world, and the inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley have not infrequently had to live under curfew.  The Kashmir Valley has certainly seen its share of strikes, lockdowns, ‘disappearances’, house-to-house searches, police brutality, and other forms of intimidation of common people by the state and non-state actors alike, but it is doubtful that daily life at all presents the humiliations and dangers that are now terrifyingly common in the Palestinian territories.  The distinguished scholar of Indian languages, literatures, and religions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, David Shulman, who is also an activist in the ranks of Ta‘ayush, an Arab-Jewish Partnership, states candidly in the introduction to his chronicle of peace activism that “Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is unacceptable, illegal, and ultimately self-destructive.  Yet I am not one of those who think that what has happened here is entirely our fault.  The ‘other side’, as it is called, is also staggering under a burden of folly and crime.  Neither side has a monopoly on right or, for that matter, wrong. There is much harshness and suffering everywhere” [Dark HopeWorking for Peace in Israel and Palestine (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2007)].

But Shulman, shaped perhaps by his reading of the Hebrew scriptures, the Koran, and myriad Indian religious texts, and recognizing that the onus lies on the stronger side to take the bolder initiatives and show the generosity without which strength is revealed to be merely brute force, is constrained to admit that over the last four decades, “destructive elements [in Israeli society] have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise.” These individuals “have, in effect, unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population; to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill—all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews’ exclusive right to it.”  The book itself catalogues, sometimes in chilling detail, the crimes of the settlers and their state sponsors: one is not likely to forget soon the account of the rat poison scattered over Palestinian fields, with an aim all too clear:  “to kill the herds of goat and sheep, the backbone of the cave dwellers’ subsistence economy in this harsh terrain, and thus to force them off the land.”

(to be continued)

For a translation of this article into Norwegian by Lars Olden, see:  http://prosciencescope.com/del-ii-av-vising-fortvilelse-og-defiance-70-ar-av-palestinske-naqba/

Read Full Post »

(an essay in several parts)

 Los Angeles, 14 May 2018

Prologue:  Today marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel; not any less significantly, and with perhaps even greater implications in thinking about the future of humanity, and the possibilities, slim as they seem at this juncture, of moving towards a world that would embody nobler conceptions of social justice, equality, and human dignity than those that are found to prevail today, Palestinians remember this day as the “Nakba” [also “Naqba”], a catastrophic day when they were dispossessed of their land, their homes, and rendered into refugees.  The plight of the Palestinians continues unabated to the present day.  Today was, in Gaza, a day of terrifying carnage: as the Americans celebrated the opening of their Embassy in Jerusalem, and Benjamin Netanyahu and his friends mindlessly exulted in the relocation of the Embassy as a great day for “peace”, 58 Palestinians were shot dead at and near the border between Gaza and Israel.  It was Tacitus who, centuries ago in writing of Roman expansionism, declared:  “They make war and call it peace.” We have heard, and will certainly hear for some more days, international expressions of “outrage” over the events.  The United States has already blocked a call by Kuwait for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.  Nothing here takes one by surprise; but in the midst of all this, it is the images that have emerged from Gaza which sear the conscience—Palestinian youth organizing tires and setting fire to them to create smokescreens; a young man, Sabir Ashqar, who lost his legs in earlier round of conflict in the Gaza strip a decade ago, using a slingshot from his wheel chair; and kites, prepared with incendiary materials, being flown over agricultural lands in Israel in an attempt to set them on fire.  Is a Third Intifada on its way?

GazaBurningKites2

Palestinian protesters fly a kite with a burning rag dangling from its tail, during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra) Source:  https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-first-israeli-planes-bomb-hamas-post-in-response-to-gazan-attack-kites/

 

GazaBurningKites

Targeting IDF [Israel Defence Forces] soldiers at Gaza Border.  Source:  http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/245443

Part One:  Edward Said and an Exceptional Conflict

It is nearly a century since a British official, the foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, who might justly have been forgotten but for an infamous pronouncement associated with his name, committed the British to assist in the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  Five years later, in 1922, this commitment was given further impetus when the Mandate for Palestine was authorized under the jurisdiction of the League of Nations.  The seeds of the present conflict between Israel and Palestinians are thus most likely to be viewed as having been sown then, even if Jews still comprised less than ten percent of the population of Palestine; but some commentators might well point to the fact that the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, where Jews were overwhelmingly concentrated, was, in the age of nationalism, perforce calculated to lead them eventually to a more vigorous assertion of the demand for a Jewish homeland.  On the other hand, historians could equally well dispute whether the idea of Israel was, even on the eve of World War II, at all inevitable.  The White Paper of 1939, after all, appeared to be sensitive to Palestinian demands: it held out the promise that the British would withdraw from the Balfour Declaration and place limits on Jewish immigration into Palestine, and that at a time when the position of the Jews in an Europe that would soon be reeling under Nazi attacks was exceedingly bleak. [This history has been ably recounted in Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine (2nd ed., Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Rashid Khalidi, The Iron CageThe Story of the Palestinian Struggle Statehood (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2006), among other books.]  However, whatever the precise point at which Jews and Palestinian Arabs became locked in battle, it has become common to characterize their conflict as intractable.  Seventy years to the day since the establishment of the state of Israel, the search for a just and sustainable peace between Israel and Palestinians does not merely continue, but is likely to strike most viewers of the contemporary Middle East as unattainable.

GazaBurningTires

Palestinian protesters burn tires during a protest on the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, Monday, May 14, 2018.  (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra) Source:  http://www.winknews.com/2018/05/14/deadly-gaza-protests-cloud-us-embassy-opening-in-jerusalem/

If the Israel-Palestine conflict is scarcely the only conflict of our times, it nonetheless has an exceptional character, indeed a poignancy peculiarly its own.  The late Edward Said, lionized as one of the leading intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century, was perhaps the most well-known advocate (barring Yasser Arafat) of the Palestinian cause for at least two decades before his death in 2003.  In left circles and even among many of those who are content to describe themselves as liberals, Said came to be celebrated as the conscience of our times.  He often remarked that, in the United States at least, “the last permissible racism—and by permissible, I mean it’s okay publicly in the media and elsewhere—is to be racist against Arabs”.  This is from an interview in 1987 with Matthew Stevenson of the Progressive magazine, Madison; five years later, while speaking to Richard Kearney in Dublin, Said gave it has view that respected writers such as Conor Cruise O’Brien and David Pryce Jones could openly and without any consequences speak of “Arabs and violent and depraved people”, but something similar “could not be written about any other ethnic cultural group in the world today.” [These interviews are collected in Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics and Culture:  Interviews with Edward W. Said (London:  Bloomsbury, 2004).]  Moreover, among the Arabs, the Palestinians appeared to Said to bear the brunt of an oppression which had the tacit and often explicit approval of all sectors of the establishment.

EdwardSaidAtWestBank

In Memoriam Edward Wadie Saïd: a Palestinian National Initiative poster at the Israeli West Bank wall. Photo: Justin McIntosh; Source: Wikipedia Commons.

It would be churlish, I think, to quibble with Said on the question of whether Arabs are subject to opprobrium unlike any other group in the world.  We have only to recall that a billionaire publicly described Mexicans as “rapists” and “killers” and got rewarded for his egregious indeed revolting behavior and rank racism by being elected to the most powerful office in the world.  Whatever one’s view about the state of Israel, I daresay that in many countries of the world it is still perfectly respectable to indulge in the vilest anti-Semitism and get away it.  The attacks on Jewish cemeteries in scores of countries should be enough to disabuse one of the idea that Arab Muslims represent the last frontier in the effort to rid the world of racism and ethnic hatred.  One could go in this vein; and yet there may be a modicum of truth in Said’s suggestion, considering that Muslims, and not just Arab Muslims, do not seem to have the goodwill of a great many other people around the world.  Putting it rather differently, many states—and here I speak of countries where the majority population is not Muslims—have proceeded to treat their Muslim populations as second-class citizens on the supposition that other countries will not be excessively bothered by such acts of discrimination and, on occasion, outright violence.  Myanmar scarcely took a risk in purging the country of its Rohingya population:  there was the customary hue and cry over the ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslims, but the country’s leaders calculated, and not without reason as events have shown, that the world would not be much bothered by the dispossession and killings of the Rohingya.  What Said did not say, though he may have intended to convey as much, is that there is not much will in what is called “the international community” to prevent violence against Muslims.

However, there is another, more serious, criticism to be made of Said.  For all of his sensitivity to injustice and oppression, sometimes he barely seemed capable of seeing beyond the conflict over Palestine.  He gave a number of interviews in 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide, but this macabre set of events, leading to some 800,000 deaths in a little over three months, appears not to have left any impression on him:  there isn’t the slightest mention of Rwanda, in interviews peppered with thoughts on racism, violence, statelessness, and so on.  If “the Holocaust”—and it is often spoken of in the singular, as if any attempt to pluralize the conception of the holocaust was itself tantamount to diminishing the suffering of the Jews (and its many other victims, among them homosexuals, gypsies, and the ‘mentally retarded’)—has become the paradigmatic instance of a descent into barbarism, an evil that utterly escapes comprehension, then to Said and some others the injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians appears uniquely to embody the pain of all those who have been displaced from their lands and who now face brutal odds against a nation-state armed to the teeth.  The conflict over Palestine has gone on so long that exhaustion has set in; a few years ago, many people ceased to  apprise themselves of the latest twists and turns in what used to be called the ‘peace process’, and which is now all but finished.

Yet, while many other conflicts have been forgotten, or are struck from our conscience on account of their remoteness to our experience, Palestine has implanted itself firmly on our conscience.  It may be that the Palestinians are a gifted people, and not all oppressed peoples can claim the good fortune of having poets of the likes of Mahmud Darwish:

Write down!
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew.  [“Identity Card”, 1964]

(to be continued)

For a Norwegian translation of this article by Lars Olden, see: http://prosciencescope.com/ekspropriering-fortvilelse-og-defiance-sytti-ar-med-okkupasjon-i-palestina/

Read Full Post »

On Monday morning, Doug Schifter, a livery cab driver in his early 60s, took his own life in front of Manhattan’s City Hall.  He killed himself with a shotgun while seated in his car, but not before posting a suicide note on his Facebook account:

            Due to the huge numbers of cars available with desperate drivers trying to feed their families they squeeze rates to below operating costs and force professionals like me out of business. They count their money and we are driven down into the streets we drive becoming homeless and hungry. I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.

DougSchifter

Doug Schifter, a New York livery cab driver.

Schifter had been a professional livery driver nearly his entire adult life.  He had driven black cars, limousines, and chauffeured cars and logged, according to his own Facebook account, “4.5 million miles”; he was also “hurricane and blizzard experienced” and accustomed to ferrying celebrities to “award shows” and “movie premieres”. [The Facebook account was deleted just before I completed this essay, around 3:30 PM on February 7, Pacific Standard Time.]  He was conversant enough in the business and its intricacies to command a column in the Black Car News, the industry newsletter.  But all his experience had not prepared Schifter to withstand the constant tremors, far more than an occasional blizzard, that have rattled New York City since the arrival of Uber and other ride-share services.  Schifter goes on to describe the transformation of the 40-hour week in the 1980s which gave him an adequate living, and more, to what in the last year had become 100-hour work weeks. Like many other drivers, Schifter had lately been returning home after a long day of work with barely pocket change for his day’s earnings. In his parting post, Schifter held New York’s politicians responsible for allowing the streets of the city to be flooded with rideshare cars, and similarly he slammed the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), an organization which has had a vise-like grip on the taxi and livery business, for not only having failed to protect its most vulnerable drivers but aggravating their misery.

Though the taxi business is almost everywhere in the United States under water, nowhere has the advent of Uber been more destructive to cab drivers than in New York City.  A little more than a decade ago, Biju Mathew, a South Asian political activist who along with Bhairavi Desai and others has been a major force in the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, wrote a riveting account of the politics and political economy that have informed the taxicab business in the city.  At the center of his narrative is an obscure object that had been conferred somewhat magical properties, an object that drove the business and should have attracted the attention of anthropologists. That object is called a “medallion”: it isn’t a medal, and is something more akin to objects—whether family heirlooms, sacred books, or priestly icons with which the laity are kept in a state of mystification and subjection— whose ownership is ritually passed down from one generation to another.  The medallion is, in fact, a string of four numbers and letters—4D22, 5G11, 8A33, and so on—by which the cab is identified; it is also a license or permit sold by the city which allows its owner or manipulator to put a cab on city streets.  Only as many yellow cabs can operate on city streets as there are medallions, and only the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) can preside over the sale of new medallions.

When I first encountered Mathew’s book in 2006, there were some 13,000 medallions in New York City, though over 50,000 drivers were licensed to drive medallion cabs.  Each medallion then cost around half a million dollars.  The medallion was first introduced in 1937, and in the early 1940s it sold for $100; by the mid-1950s, the price had risen to $5,000, and two decades later it was fetching three times that amount on the open market.  Around the turn of the century, the medallion was being sold for $300,000. Generations of students of economics will aver that the iron-clad laws of supply and demand are sufficient to explain why the medallion, whose supply was strictly controlled, was able to attract such astronomical prices. But Mathew was on to something else, even before Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare services had come on to the scene, and he wove a much more complex narrative which draws upon such phenomena as globalization, outsourcing, the restructuring of the labor market, global flows of migration, and the corporatization of New York City and more broadly of so-called world cities to give us insights into the difficult lives of drivers.

Most medallion owners never drove their own cars; they leased them out, with brokers acting as middlemen. The rising cost of medallions made them increasingly more expensive to rent.  One cab driver, Khurshid, who like most others in New York City is a Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Dominican, Haitian, or from some other immigrant group, told Mathew:  “The medallion is what will keep me a driver and nothing more all my life” (p. 66). But the advent of Uber so fundamentally altered the landscape that the ethnography of the medallion will have to be rewritten. At its peak in early 2014, the medallion commanded a price of over $1.2 million; today it fetches one-fifth the price, a little less than $250,000, and it is clearly in free fall.  There is every likelihood that the price of the medallion has not bottomed out, not unless there is a rapid reassessment of rideshare services and what they signify both about an economy and the cultural mores of a society.  A few medallion owners and many brokers have been driven into despair and sometimes bankruptcy, and taxicab drivers are being plummeted into oblivion.

Mathew furnishes an interesting history of taxicab operations in New York from the 1920s onwards, even if it is his ethnography of the lives of taxi drivers that is truly gripping.  Though most people, whether in New York or anywhere else, whine about high taxicab fares, Mathew shows persuasively that taxicab drivers rarely made a comfortable living and often had 12-hour days. (Schifter, as a livery and limousine driver, would have done much better in the old days.)  Capitalism derives much of its mythos from the idea that risk takers are rewarded in a free market, but in fact the risk-taking is generally left to those who are most vulnerable. Brokers and certainly owners were assured of an income through the medallion before the dam burst after the introduction of Uber, but the immigrant driver often had nothing to show for his labor at the end of the day. The economic tendencies associated with globalization—outsourcing, low-income jobs, depressed and stagnant wages, the deployment of an immigrant labor force, the evisceration of labor unions, the loss of protection from arbitrary dismissal, among others—were all prefigured in New York’s taxicab business and are now to be seen in their more aggravated form in the advent of rideshare services.  The popular and academic ethnographies of Uber drivers—and by “Uber” I mean, of course, all rideshare services, notwithstanding the illusion by which some have been driven that “Lyft”, to take one illustration, is a more fair and equitable employer—that will be written in the near future will show the catastrophic effects of Uberization on the lives of common people.

DaniloCastillo

Danillo Corporan Castillo, a livery driver, in a photo  taken before he jumped to his death on 20 December 2017.  Source:  http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/distraught-driver-killed-weeks-city-hall-suicide-article-1.3803684

Six weeks before Schifter put a bullet through his head, 57-year old Danilo Corporan Castillo jumped to his death from the roof of an apartment building on West 135th Street.  Castillo, a livery driver, feared that his license was about to be revoked by the Taxi and Limousine Commission owing to his failure to pay fines imposed by the TLC on him for accepting illegal street hails. I do not know whether it has been alleged that Castillo was suffering from a mental illness.  This charge is, of course, how the powerful address such “tragedies”:  Mayor de Blasio, full of the usual pious platitudes about how his heart goes out to the victims and their families, suggested that Schifter almost certainly was mentally ill.  As he (grandiloquently) put it, “Look, let’s face it, for someone to commit suicide means there’s an underlying mental health challenge. Economic distress is real but a lot of people have faced economic distress and don’t turn to suicide.”

The honeymoon period with rideshare services will most likely end sooner rather than later.  And, in case someone should remind me of the offenses that Uber has already committed and query whether it is still in the ‘honeymoon’ period, there is but no question in my mind that the appetite for these rideshare services is there and yet to peak before the hazards of the Uberization of the economy become apparent.  Those hazards are not merely the ones that have already been under discussion for some time, from “surge pricing” and cheating to the risks associated with taking rides from drivers who have been cleared after inadequate security checks. Uberization is but another word for the most fundamental problem of the economy everywhere in the world, namely unchecked “greed” and the growing accumulation of immense wealth in a few hands.  There are even considerations that are far from the minds of those who, like Travis Kalanick and Jeff Bezos, have scant regard for the lives of others and whose sole purpose in life is self-aggrandizement.  What, for instance, are the implications for the faculty of memory when all the Uber driver has to do is to turn to GPS?  In a later post, I hope to turn to some of these other, equally insidious, consequences of an Uberized economy.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »