Saturday, December 29, 2012

Language and Mastery: An Examination of the Israel Lobby's Assualt on Language and Human Rights



By weaving sounds and syllables together, human thought is presented in verbal form, a distillation of ideas that is of no little consequence. Words can enrapture, teach, and divide. They are the building blocks through which we communicate, the portent by which we interact with the world. The Bible even says that God spoke the world into being; one cannot begin to imagine the complexity and eloquence of the words that He must have spoken.



In short, language matters.



Unfortunately, human history is littered with episodes of violence, deception, and hatred, whose seeds were sown through the perversion of language and, by way of this, the poisoning of ideas. In modern history, writers like George Orwell, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Robert Fisk have repeatedly prodded us to be wary of these distortions, as they are not conducted haphazardly but intentionally, patronized by cliques whose motives are oftentimes corrosive, and powerfully so.



Recent developments in the Middle-East have once again brought to light the perennial conflagration that appears to us in the West as the Israel-Palestine conflict but, to those whose lives are directly touched by its flames, is a painful daily reality. What makes this conflict especially disturbing are the glaring omissions, distortions, and fabrications that continue to mask its true nature but have come to characterize American coverage of this immensely important issue.



 Hidden Meanings



Under the bland but insidious justification – so they tell us – of being “evenhanded,” or not “taking sides”, virtually all major American publications have come to portray the conflict as that between Israel, a supposed bastion of enlightenment, and Palestine, an allegedly synthetic nation of implacable squatters.



We are assured that when a disillusioned Palestinian suicide bomber sets off her bomb it is an act of inexplicable madness, or “terrorism”, to use the appropriate terminology. What they  judiciously choose to omit, however, is that as an EMT she (yes, she is – or was – a human being) had spent her last years watching her patients die as Israeli soldiers stoically refused to allow them pass through their arbitrary (and illegal) checkpoints . Sometimes when a dream is deferred it does not “dry up like a raisin in the sun” but, yes, does “explode”.



When an Israeli missile hits a minibus taking Palestinian children to Indira Gandhi kindergarten and their teacher Najweh Khalif is fatally wounded in front of their eyes, we are told with a straight face that this was simply “collateral damage,” necessary for maintaining that promiscuous word, “security”. And when a Masalah, a Palestinian teenager, is shot while fishing – a toilsome job meant to augment his family’s meager income – we are assured by the Israeli military that their rigorous investigation (their motto is not “purity of arms” for no reason!), “found that no casualties were identified in this event” (Gideon Levy, The Punishment of Gaza, p. 69). Masalah is incredulous – he might lose his leg.



The uncomfortable fact is that those with power are able to weave their own narrative of events, regardless of its semblance to reality; and more often than not because reality, to them, is itself inconvenient.



When the United States’ top diplomats overseeing the “peace process” are all Jewish and the lead diplomat, Dennis Ross, formally worked as a staffer for the most powerful arm of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington (AIPAC) the reality of this power dynamic becomes palpable. Now this is not to say that all Jews are pro-Israel in American usage of the term, for that could not be further from the truth. However, imagine what the Israeli government’s reaction would be if the top American diplomats overseeing the “peace process” were all ethnic Palestinians?



This unbalanced power dynamic continues to pronounce itself via Washington’s economic sanctions on Iran and meek response to Israel’s bloodcurdling statements against the Iranian people. The United States’ promiscuous use of economic sanctions (a measure that the American government considers an act of war if used against its own people) on peoples whom the Israeli government does not care for, again emphasizes the fact that the Israeli Lobby has the U.S. government in its pocket. After all, it was this self-same lobby who most vociferously advocated for American sanctions regimen against Iraq during the 1990s, a measure that wrought suffering of Biblical proportions. The UN estimates that over a half-million Iraqi children died during this period as a direct result of this most archaic and brutal form of collective punishment.  



Pro-Israeli, Anti-Israeli Democracy



While it is easy to cite the litany of excesses and atrocities first bankrolled and then whitewashed by these governments and their acolytes at the behest of the Israel Lobby, doing so fails to take into consideration one other pernicious consequence: the dismantlement of the Israeli body politic .



Though the Israel Lobby is real enough and, as most Washington insiders would admit in private, one of the most powerful and exasperating lobbies around, its moniker is somewhat misleading. While AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Anti-Defamation League among others, may claim to speak for all Israelis, they simply do not. What all of these organizations have in common is that they equate any criticism of Israel, no matter how legitimate, as unwarranted – even anti-Semitic. And this is where their true power lies, for what politician can possibly hope to keep their office after being labeled “anti-Semitic”.



By providing the Israeli government carte blanche to pursue its ethnic-cleansing policies in the Palestinian Occupied Territories the United States is running roughshod over any hope of turning Israel into a truly vibrant democracy. While it is true that the radical right in Israel supports the accumulation of Israeli Lebensraum through the colonization of Palestinian land (in violation of Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions), it is also true that the majority of Israelis view this profligate land-grab with disgust, or at least a strong dose of skepticism. In other words, the United States is currently underwriting (illegal) political projects that do not actually conform to the ideals and ethical principles of a large swath of the Israeli population – especially the 20% who are ethnic Palestinians.



Israeli Nomika Zion’s recent article in the ‘New York Review of Books’ (“It’s not just about fear, Bibi, it’s about hopelessness”) brilliantly captures this disaffection:


“Never have I felt an ounce of security or peace when our planes passed over the skies of Sderot at night en route to Gaza to “crush the head of the snake” of whichever senior or junior leader has been targeted, and whoever else happened to accidentally be in the way…And not since the siege placed on Gaza, not when the authorities have been trying to come up with scientific calculations for the number of calories a Gazan needs just in order to survive…And not since tens of thousands of homes were pounded, infrastructure crushed, and bodies lined up, row by row, children without names, youths with no faces, citizens without an identity. There are a thousand and one ways to suppress violence by means of violence but not one of them has ever succeeded in annihilating it.”



Imagine how most Americans would feel if a foreign country began to sponsor the Tea Party’s agenda with virtually unlimited financial and military support, allowing the extreme right to garner so much influence that the key tenets of its political platform became embedded in both the Democrats’ and moderate Republicans’ agendas. Needless to say, this “special relationship” between the United States and Israel is maddening for many Israelis. It allows the minority settler, i.e. colonist vote, to carry undue sway in setting the country’s agenda, subordinating the voices of moderation and inclusivity to the strident calls of theocracy and apartheid.



The U.S. and Israeli governments – at the end of the Israel Lobby’s hot poker – have worked not only against the well-being of Israelis, but of Jews everywhere and Judaism in general.



Since its founding, the Israeli government’s foreign policy has been guided by cynical realpolitik as much as any other government. While this point may – and should – be self-evident, the sublime narrative of Israel’s existence spoon-fed to Americans has had the effect of disguising this most simple and human of truths.



One of the most obscene and inexcusable examples of this realpolitik has been the manner in which the Israeli government brazenly engages in Holocaust-denial to safeguard its alliances with regional powers. 

The word “Holocaust” was originally penned during WWII to describe the first instance of genocide of the 20th century: that of the wholesale slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by ethnic Turks and Kurds in what is now called Turkey (from 1915-1920). In order to safeguard its friendship with Turkey, a key member of its “alliance of the periphery”, Israel’s leading statesmen and women have repeatedly and confidently asserted that this Holocaust never occurred. As Shimon Peres, an Israeli prime minister who is currently lionized as one of the country’s most far-sighted statesmen once said: “we reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through but not a genocide” (Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation, p. 339).



Apparently the razing of Armenian villages, erection of Armenian labor camps, and formation of mass graves of such scope that they literally altered the course of rivers was not “genocide”, much less a “Holocaust”. We are supposed to disregard the fact that the latter term was, in fact, invented to describe it.



If words like Holocaust are introduced because of language’s inability to describe the gravity of such horrors, then how does one describe the coldness of their denial?



The Israeli Lobby in the United States is no less guilty of similarly gutsy disavowals. And as Norman G. Finkelstein has made clear in his acerbic but important work The Holocaust Industry, prominent members of the Israel Lobby have tirelessly exploited the Jewish Holocaust in order to inveigle funds for Israel’s coffers in the name of Holocaust reparations. Pressing reparations out of countries and financial institutions that allegedly expropriated assets deposited by deceased Jewish Holocaust victims, many pro-Israel lobbyists have actually manipulated the suffering of Holocaust victims for their own political ends. Instead of distributing the majority of these funds to Holocaust survivors or their families, millions of dollars have evaporated in the form of six-figure salaries and expense fees charged by those who oversee their distribution. Sometimes the sums are simply handed over to Israel.



Neo-fascists and kooks of all varieties may deny the Holocaust of Jews during WWII, but many of the most outspoken members of the Israel Lobby best know how to capitalize on it – literally.



Speaking Truth to Power



But what does this all mean?



To begin, the United States should not be seen as an “impartial arbiter”, as this is flat-out disingenuous, triggering the gag-reflex of any sentient inhabitant of the Middle-East with a moral bone in their body. Palestinians do not need to be pontificated to about “democracy” or “human rights”. Thousands of Palestinians have and continue to engage in heroic hunger-strikes while languishing within the hell of “administrative detention”. Innumerable others weekly protest in the streets through vigils, peaceful demonstrations, and other ingenious forms of non-violent resistance. While the anomalous suicide bomber provokes paroxysms of indignation amongst Americans from the comfort of their Lazy-Boy recliners the fact that millions of Palestinians have chosen to resist occupation by non-violent means continues to be overlooked – an omission that is both profound and telling. It is one of the great misfortunes of history that when thousands of Palestinians successfully assert their humanity through organized hunger strikes (as in Spring 2012) their noble efforts are met with steely silence, while only the dehumanized suicide bomber is paid any attention. Is the West trying to say that only violence pays?



The “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel, under the auspices of the Israel Lobby, also discloses the bankruptcy of the American political system, as well as Israel’s. Powerful lobbies shamelessly assert undue influence on the political process, an influence composed of dollars, threats, and inflammatory lies. Promiscuously wielding their power like a warlord with his sycophants, they have set the U.S. on a collision course with the Islamic world, the country’s fiscal health and, above all, justice.



Lastly, America’s ill-advised adventures and clandestine forays into the Middle East convey the power of language to divide and unite. As the masterful Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has said, “Words, it is true, do not kill; but words can ease the work of killing” (Gideon Levy, The Punishment of Gaza, p.108). Till now, language has been employed to obfuscate, inflame, and divide. When will language finally be used to teach, unite, and heal?




























Friday, December 28, 2012

A Few Thoughts on War



It was a routine that one did not or, perhaps – could not – get used to. Each day, like clockwork, the bombers’ presence was announced with their monotonous droning, a bee-like buzzing-noise that was at once familiar yet terrifying. Without prevarication or a moment’s hesitance, the bombers never failed to deliver a nice fulsome serving of death to the anonymous faces crouching below in expectant terror.

And while the die rolled without fail, one could never be sure exactly how it would fall.

Sometimes, the ‘result’ (how shall we put it) was merciful, a benevolent death that finally released its recipients from their much-prolonged anguish on this pockmarked earth. Other times, when the bombs had only half-finished their work, the result was less magnanimous. Men and women, boys and girls, would, in such cases, be relegated to a long and drawn-out death, cursed to suffer within their own private hell before tasting the long-awaited dew drops of their untimely release.

While it is true that death was inescapable, it is also true that one must not rush his work. And while it is further true that its origins were man-made, they could not be said to be avoidable, having long taken root in the heart of man like a deeply embedded and rather gangrenous bullet.

___________

It has often been said that war is hell, an event whose horror is undeniable but accepted implicitly. I disagree. Hell is a place in which those who have obstinately refused to repent from their wicked ways choose to languish. War, in searing contrast, is an event in which the majority of those who suffer and die are innocent people: men, women, and children who, by no fault of their own, are caught up in a sophomoric contest of raw power and violence between two impersonal entities. One’s righteousness has no effect in determining whether one lives or dies. Rather, the ‘winner’ is determined solely on the basis of who has the biggest gun. Through war the powerful are granted carte blanche to sate their greed, lust, and hate elsewhere, and whereupon crossing the threshold back into civilization are feted and praised with pomp and circumstance. 

If there is no more mendacious axiom than ‘the ends justify the means,’ then war is its apotheosis, the highest and most devastating mutation of this monstrous logic. For war, at its essence, is the pursuit of unfettered destruction for an uncertain end. History and reason reveal that when it comes to any of war’s bloodstained varieties the damage will almost certainly be incalculable – if not indelible – and the desired result elusive – if ever achieved.

Still there are those who claim that while war in general is horrible, it is sometimes necessary – thus the ‘just war’ theory crowd. While at an airy, philosophical level this may be true, history has shown war to be impracticable as a moral means of conflict resolution. Even if we were to put aside questions of morality – which is normally a pundit’s way of supporting something that is in all other ways also impracticable – history shows us that war seldom (if ever) results in a ‘resolution’ of matters that deserves the term. It simply does not matter if in theory a war can be moral or just if, in practice, conducting such a war is impossible.

To illustrate these themes two case-studies shall be used: the supposedly ‘necessary’ war of WWII and Israel’s laundry list of wars, those of supposedly the most ‘moral’ military power on earth. These two are selected because most proponents of war as an instrument of conflict resolution agree that WWII was just, or at least necessary, even if the other wars of the 20th century were not. The case of Israel and its wars is chosen because it has successfully managed to fend itself from American criticism by maintaining a deceptive faƧade of ‘purity of arms,’ fostering the notion that somehow it is unique as a country, holding itself up to unprecedentedly high moral standards when at arms.

_____________

Denouncing WWII has become something akin to heresy. Perhaps no subject in human history elicits a greater emotional response when engaged. Enter the history section of any library and you are bound to find that books on WWII fill up the bulk of its shelves. Ask history students what their favorite topic is and you are bound to meet the same response. There is probably no greater consensus, no greater sense of certainty amongst Americans of all stripes as to who were the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys in this War than on any other topic.

Yet, was WWII, as the highly-acclaimed Ken Burns documentary ‘The War’ puts it, really ‘necessary’? Was it really more just than the wars that presaged and followed it?

I would say no. In fact, I think that WWII illustrates precisely why war never works as an effective or moral means of conflict resolution. While language proves insufficient for describing the atrocities committed by Hitler’s regime (as it is insufficient for describing the atrocities of any war), it is a mistake to see the Axis Powers as entirely morally bankrupt in comparison to the good ole Allied Powers. After all, which set of powers had burdened Germany with the millstone of the Versailles Peace Treaty after WWI, with its onerous provisions that scarred an entire generation of Germans – including a young man named Adolf Hitler? In many ways, WWII was the bastard child of WWI, though WWI’s lunacy and senselessness is not seriously debated today. Territorial ambitions and corporate avarice hardly merit the deaths of over 36 million people, much less the death of a single archduke.

And which set of powers were perfectly content to allow the smaller countries surrounding Germany to become amalgamated under Nazi control as long as their own territory remain unscathed? Appeasement has rightly been seen as morally indefensible but wrongly used as a justification for the war. What it really reveals is the fact that all the players involved were and continued to adopt policies based on their own narrow interests rather than on loftier moral principles. And if narrow national interests guide decision making in ‘necessary’ wars then what does this mean for war in general? If anything, this unfortunate reality would seem to render impossible the notion of a just war, or at least one that is pursued and conducted on moral values.

This fact was made eminently clear after the conclusion of the war when Roosevelt quietly allowed Stalin amalgamate Eastern Europe into the USSR. That amoral politics was the name of the game was also evident in American support to fascist groups in Greece and Italy after the war, a cynical move made to prevent the ascent of leftist groups to power.

If restoring the map of Europe to a healthy equilibrium was a chief aim of the war then the post-War carve-up of Europe into hostile spheres-of-influence should be cause for serious soul-searching among WWII yuppies.

Unfortunately, the cold and cynical policies of the Allied Powers did not stop there. Much ink has been expended on the minutest details of Hitler’s life in an attempt to understand (and capitalize) on the madness of a man whose very name has become synonymous with absolute evil. While to say that Hitler was a warped and dangerous man is an understatement, one must not forget who the U.S. chose to cozy up with during the war: Stalin, probably the greatest mass-murderer in human history. After the war, Stalin’s paranoia and venality resulted in the mass imprisonment of Soviet POWs, who were feared of having ties to the West or – gulp – simply having realized that those who did not live under Russia’s bizarre-brand of ‘communism’ were not necessarily worse off. To put it plainly, it seems a bit hypocritical to bestialize the kooks on one side while conveniently overlooking the blemishes of those on the other side. This seems especially disingenuous when it means presenting the man who was probably the greatest mass-murderer of all time as a ‘necessary’ evil and ally. That our society’s archetype of the ‘necessary’ or ‘just’ war entailed such morally-compromising political calculus appears to wholly undercut its allegedly righteous purpose.

But let us not forget the final seed of destruction born of WWII: the nuclear weapon. After attaining one of the greatest implements of violence ever known to mankind, the U.S. chose to use it on Japan – twice. Traditionally, Washington apologists have said that the nuclear weapon was, again, a ‘necessary’ evil, essential to averting a bloody invasion of the Japan. What they fail to recall, however, is the fact that Japan was already willing to surrender before it endured its nuclear Holocaust. Its only condition was that the U.S. would allow it to keep its emperor, a position with religious overtones. A Japanese surrender at this point was inconvenient to the U.S., which had spent so much time and effort into constructing the world’s most deadly weapon to date. In the end Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated in a pall of dust and blinding heat – and the Japanese got to keep their emperor.

When the other side has been vaporized or damned to live in the torment of abnormal, radiation-soaked bodies, I suppose that this too is easily dismissed as a ‘necessary evil’, the other side’s voice having been drowned out by a multi-ton atomic weapon. I also suppose that expecting the U.S. to listen to the death cries of 10,000s of Japanese people is a bit unrealistic, seeing as the American government had already thrown its own Japanese citizens into concentration camps during the war’s duration – another ‘necessary’ evil I guess.

___________

There is another model of warfare that continues to enjoy the reverence and fealty of the American public, which is that of the Israeli government. Like WWII, Israel is viewed by most Americans as something sublime, an unadulterated model of righteousness amid a hostile sea of Arabs. Egyptians, Jordanians, and Syrians, oh my! To date, the U.S. continues to grant more foreign aid to Israel than to any other country in world, protect it from international law (Israel enjoys the distinction of being the world-record holder for violating the most UN Resolutions), and generally allows it to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their homes in the Palestinian Occupied Territories with impunity.

But what does this have to do with the question of war, you might ask. Israel’s ‘independence’ was secured through a ‘war’ that in actuality meant the ruthless and one-sided ethnic cleansing of around 750,000 Palestinians from their homes between 1947-49, or what Palestinians refer to as al-Nakba (The Catastrophe). The fact that the founding ‘war’ of a power that masquerades as the most ‘moral’ country on earth was little more than a one-sided rampage against a largely unarmed and pacific people raises serious questions about the idea of ‘war’ itself.

The old adage that ‘the victors write history’ is just as true as it is fails to penetrate the minds of those who hear and utter it – that is, if they are the victors. Israel and the U.S. can entertain the folly that war can be used justly precisely because they are powerful countries, or the victors. And, of course, this mantra is completely self-serving if you are, like Israel and the U.S., a power that has started the majority of wars in which you have been involved.

Thus, Israel can say that the 1956 Suez War – in which it schemed with France and Britain to steal a chunk of Egypt for no other reason than to satisfy its voracious appetite for land and resources – was just. It can also delude itself into claiming that the 1967 War – which it ‘started preemptively’ in order to, again, satisfy its lust for land and resources – was just. (It can also say that the displacement of 1.5 million Egyptians from the Sinai during the conflict was a ‘necessary’ evil I suppose.) And lastly (for there are too many incidents to recount) I suppose it can call its assistance of the Phalange – a Lebanese Christian fascist group inspired by the Nazis – in its massacre of several 1000 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, was just. (How dare you languish in those refugee camps after I have ethnically cleansed you from your homes! You needn’t remind us of the past, you ‘two-legged beasts’ and ‘insects’ – to use to terms applied by Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the war.)

As previously noted in the case of ethnic Japanese during WWII, the powerless do not enjoy the privilege of having their stories told. Instead, those who ‘win’ wars, i.e. those with the biggest guns, get to write their histories. This not only obfuscates the scale and form of suffering that occurs by downplaying the number of civilian casualties – especially those on the ‘wrong side’ – but works to uphold a rosy view of the institution of war itself, maintaining the fatal illusion that war can be ‘just’ or ‘necessary’.

___________

The last justification for war that is often cited, particularly in the case of Israel, is that it is religiously sanctioned. These arguments generally go to the Old Testament of the Bible, especially the book of Joshua, in order to support the rather dubious idea that the wars of modern nation-states can be Biblically sanctioned.

Besides being dangerous, these ideas are also heretical. The life of Jesus Christ, in other words, what Christians are supposed to imitate, makes this beyond clear. What is perhaps most striking about Jesus’ life is the fact that he never encourages his disciples to attack another person, but instead commands them to pray for those who persecute them and to love their enemies – not kill them. It was not by wielding a sword that Jesus chose to combat evil but, rather, by dying on a cross for his enemies.

Even in the Old Testament, the majority of battles in which the Israelites (no relation to present-day Israelis – it is, ironically, most likely that Palestinians are their closest biological descendents of the Biblical Israelites) engage are not sanctioned by God. And in all of these cases, the Israelites are punished for acting out of pride instead of relying on God. It is, incidentally, due to this disobedience and apostasy that the Israelites of the Old Testament are exiled – a pivotal detail that current-day Israelis somehow manage to overlook.

Lastly, let us not forget that it was in this same Old Testament that God gave his followers a command that could not be more concise or clear: “Thou shalt not kill”.

______________

While war may be justifiable in a theoretical sense, the real world is not shaped by theory. Not only is war never ‘justly’ waged in the real world, but it is never a practicable means of resolving conflict either.

WWI may have ended but from its scars came the specter of WWII. And the ‘Greatest Generation’ might have seen the end of WWII, but from its scars – namely, a dysfunctional world, nuclear weapons, and renewed agitation for a Zionist state – came more war, this time a ‘Cold’ one and the now perennial bloodbath of Israel-Palestine.

Besides teaching us that the result of any war is unforeseeable, history has also taught us that all wars entail the shedding of innocent blood. Thus, to say that any war is ‘necessary’ is to automatically even if unwittingly buy into the Machiavellian logic that ‘the ends justify the means’.

It is important to note that the debate about war’s justness or necessity is in itself distracting in many ways, since it presumes that war is the only solution able to adequately address whatever problem is at hand. War has become the go-to strategy for powerful countries, requiring little creative thought process or grasp of the finer details of the problem. The problem’s complexity is instead reduced to a comforting but dangerous logic: that sheer force can solve not only this problem, but all problems.

A sledgehammer does not solve a plumber’s every problem, a paper-shredder will hardly help an accountant balance their client’s budget, and a lawnmower will not help a farmer meet the every need of his crops. If this is the case, then why on earth would we expect raw force to solve the duel problems of resource distribution and apartheid in Israel and Palestine? And why on earth would we expect historically marginalized religious and ethnic groups in Iraq to suddenly come together on these same violent principles?

Yet the lunacy goes on.