Ethiopia, a country of around 115 million people, has been over the last few weeks in the thick of a civil war that, the Ethiopian government submits, is now drawing to a close. The attempted secession of the Tigray region has apparently been thwarted by decisive military action. It remains to be seen whether the proclamation of victory is justified or premature, but what has been unfolding there should be of special interest to multiethnic states and particularly democracies which are struggling to contain the rising tide of ethnic particularism and xenophobia which is sweeping the world. For most of the 20th century, the Amhara, with 27 percent of the population, held sway over a country with seventy ethnic groups, among them the Oromo (34%), the Tigray (6%), and Somalis (6%). The more than four decades long rule of Haile Selassie was brought to an end in September 1974 when the 82-year old Emperor was deposed and a military junta known as the Derg assumed power. Ethiopia was transformed into a single party Marxist-Leninist state. For much of that period, the country became indelibly linked, in the worldview of the outsider, with the image of famine; internally, the “Red Terror”, the campaign of repression unleashed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Derg’s point man, made short work of the regime’s political opponents.Continue reading
(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?
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 Cage: The 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.
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.
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:
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
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/
Fifteen years ago, I delivered before the Regents’ Society at UCLA a lecture entitled, “Violence in the 21st Century: The Terrorism of Categories and Invisible Holocausts.” Mike Davis had published in late 2000 his magisterial book, Late Victorian Holocausts, but I do not recall that it was his work that had inspired the title of my talk; rather, it was the critical literature on the largely unrecognized genocidal aspects of “development” that had led me to my title. A colleague who was present at my talk later told me that in Israel, where he had spent a good part of his life before moving to the US, such a lecture would be inconceivable. He pointed, rather surprisingly, to my use of the word “holocausts” in the plural: in Israel, only one holocaust is recognized as such. It is “The Holocaust”, and to suggest that there may be other holocausts apparently diminishes the enormity of the Shoah, the only and only Holocaust which took the lives of six million Jews—and, though this is not always mentioned, a sizable number of homosexuals, the Roma, and those earmarked by the Nazi state as ‘unfit to live’ on account of mental or other disabilities. In Berlin, at least, there now exists a memorial to the others who were felled by the Nazi state’s murderous policies.
Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, or, in Hebrew, Yom HaShoah, marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A full page announcement, or “Open Letter”, published in the New York Times (24 April 2017) and authored by Dr. Moshe Kantor, President of the European Congress, commences with an observation by the British philosopher John Gray, who adverts to the fact that while “intellectual and scientific values accumulate in the world”, and are transmitted from generation to another, “unfortunately ethical values” are not transmitted in this fashion and must be learnt anew by each generation. This point has been argued by many others who have similarly pointed to the fact that technological changes have taken place at lightning speed over the last few decades but that the capacity of human beings for moral thinking has not changed very much. To Dr. Kantor and Professor John Gray alike, the inescapable truth is that though everyone is aware of the Shoah, the new generation is “ethically uneducated” about its meaning and implications. As Dr. Kantor points out, the numbers of Holocaust survivors are “dwindling”, but this is of course unavoidable; however, much more alarmingly, anti-Semitic incidents in English-speaking countries, which have been more hospitable to Jews than other European countries, have been rising sharply.
That there should be a “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is one of those truths that dare not be contested, except at the peril, as Dr. Kantor’s “Open Letter” unfortunately suggests, of being labeled anti-Semitic. Not just on this day, but nearly every day, there is always the occasion to remind the world that it “should never forget” the unspeakable atrocities of the German killing machine. The dozens if not hundreds of Holocaust Museums around the world stand forth as vivid reminders of the fact that one community at least has the power to invoke its past and shame everyone else into remembering. Who, however, remembers the perhaps half a million Bengalis who were killed in the genocide in what was then East Pakistan as it made its bid for independence in 1971? Hardly anyone—indeed, I should say no one, barring the people of Bangladesh themselves. Some people, but not very many, remember the 800,000 Tutsis butchered in the Rwandan genocide from a little more than two decades ago, but those numbers have already been dwarfed by those who have been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda will soon go the way of Bangladesh; it is doubtful that even the Congo will stay very much in the collective memory of the West or indeed the rest of the world.
Africa interests the West very little, except as a place for “investments”. Let us, therefore, take a more complicated example. 56,000 American soldiers, or something in that vicinity, were killed during the Vietnam War, and the United States is littered with memorials to them. To the best of my knowledge, not a single memorial mentions the three million Vietnamese who were killed in this war. It is not their names that I am suggesting should be recounted: the very fact that 3,000,000 Vietnamese were killed is not recorded at any war memorial site. It isn’t even certain how many Vietnamese were killed; in all such instances in Asia or Africa, some nice round figure seems to suffice. Every single American life, on the other hand, must be etched in memory forever, doubtless because God has an especially soft spot for Americans, dead ones as much as those who are living—thus the familiar and noxious incantation of American political speeches, ‘God Bless America’. The search for American soldiers “Missing in Action” in Vietnam is still on going; the budget for that mission runs into millions of dollars. Every American life counts, as indeed it should. Why American lives alone should count is a question that few are prepared to ask, though, paradoxically, many are prepared to answer.
Some Americans might well ask why the Vietnamese should be remembered in American memorials, since such memorials very much do the work of the nation-state and are intended to commemorate the lives of the Americans who laid down their lives. Presumably, they will add, the memorials to the Vietnam War in Vietnam honor their own dead. But one would think that in a Christian nation, which is what the United States has called itself, it should be as least just as important to remember those we hate, and those in whose killing one has been complicit. What did Christ say on the Sermon on the Mount? “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:46-47) There is nothing whatsoever that is exceptional in remembering the American dead: if at all forgiveness was sought, it is the Vietnamese dead who ought to be remembered? Or perhaps it is only given to America to forgive, not to beg forgiveness?
The ethics of forgetting is not any less important than the ethics of remembering. But of this I shall speak some other time. For now, it suffices to stay with the idea that the call to remember cannot be dismissed. But what exactly is to be remembered? Only that six million Jews were killed and that the Nazis were engaged in annihilationist terror? Does this entail submission, howsoever tacit, to the view that the suffering of Jews takes precedence over the suffering of others? If it is “Holocaust Remembrance Day” that we are called upon to observe, does this confer recognition upon the Holocaust as the paradigmatic instantiation of genocide in modern times? Does Holocaust Remembrance Day give rise to the supposition that there is a hierarchy of suffering? Does the suffering of some people count more than the suffering of others and, if so, on what theological and ethical view? Unless “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is decisively disassociated from an insistence on the singularity of the Holocaust, it is very likely going to breed resentment rather than understanding and compassion.