Blast from the Past: Power

As we await what comes next at UC Berkeley, I thought I’d dredge out some real old stuff, things I wrote years ago when divestment came-a-calling at Somerville, Massachusetts. It’s interesting to note that now that BDS is attempting to use the paddles of life to resurrect itself, how little their arguments (or required rebuttals) have actually changed…

Does anyone ever wonder why the Palestinians, alone among peoples without a state, have their own seat at the UN (an organization that spends almost a quarter of its time fighting on their behalf)?

Why does the Palestinian refugee problem have its own international organization (UNWRA) with annual budget of $350 million, while every other refugee in the world (almost twenty million at last count) are lumped together in the “other” category, supported by the United Nationals High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)?

Why is Palestinian statehood one of the planet’s top foreign policy goals, yet independence of for Kurds, Tibetans and Basques has been permanently removed from the international agenda? Why is Palestinian suffering on the West Bank being debated in universities, cities, towns and churches unendingly as Sudanese bury two million people unlamented?

Given what other nations (including the Kurds and Sudanese) have suffered over the years (often at the hands of those who denounce Israel the loudest), it’s impossible to make the case that Palestinian suffering is the greatest in the world and thus deserves the most attention. However, there is one key difference between the Palestinians and every other group whose similar yearnings for a land to call home are routinely ignored.

At last count, there were not 22 Tibetan nations, or 22 Basque nations, or 22 Kurdish nations, much less 22 such countries that control half of the world’s oil reserves. However, there are 22 Arab countries that have pumped enough resources out of the ground to keep the Palestinian issue on the front burner forever (resources that are also useful in buying Arab human rights abuses off the international agenda).

Look at in economic terms; the prominence of the Palestinian “struggle” makes perfect sense. It’s simply another example of the rich and powerful getting what they want.

Given this reality, the pose of most of Israel’s critics as “speaking truth to power” seems particularly ludicrous. How can the divest-from-Israel movement simultaneously be “silenced, stilled voices” and also be allied with the goals of dozens of oil-rich potentates, and all of the friends in oil-company boardrooms, foreign-ministries and UN agencies that money can buy?

This is where the rhetoric of human rights comes in so handy. By wrapping an anti-Israel propaganda project in a smothering blanket of human-rights vocabulary, critics of Israel get the best of both worlds: the ability to ally themselves with wealth and power, while posing as battling for the underprivileged, embracing Goliath while claiming to be Gandhi.

There are occasions when wealth and power are harnessed to admirable, even moral purposes, so there is no necessary reason that the divest-from-Israel groups should be embarrassed by its alignment with the goals of rich, powerful countries. At the same time, the pretence of being a voice in the wilderness would seem a little less absurd if they did not own a megaphone provided by the oil industry.

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9 Responses to Blast from the Past: Power

  1. Anonymous April 12, 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    Some very good questions that deserve to be posed to the Obama administration and any other influential body that believes that the key to peace in the region is a wholesale Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

  2. Stephen April 16, 2010 at 3:27 am #

    “Why is Palestinian statehood one of the planet's top foreign policy goals, yet independence of for Kurds, Tibetans and Basques has been permanently removed from the international agenda?”

    Well, one reason would be that the Basques, for all that they might wish to be an independent country, are at least given equal rights to other Spanish citizens; similarly for the Tibetans and the Chinese, and the Kurds and their various countries; while the Palestinians (on the West Bank & in Gaza) are not the citizens of any country at all.

  3. Jon April 16, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    It's always intriguing to see the contortions someone needs to do in order to continue to condemn “The Occupation” (i.e., Israel's role in the West Bank and Gaza) which, at best, is subject to legal interpretation, and other occupations like Tibet which are clear-cut examples of the old-fashioned, garden variety intentional conquest followed by subjugation of the native people.

    Stephen would like to make a distinction based on Tibetans having equal rights to any other “citizen” of China, or Kurds being equal to every other citizens of the country in which they live (Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey). This alleged equality would certainly be news to them, and I think you'd be hard pressed to find a single human-rights worker on the planet who would accept the characterization of Tibet as anything other than an example of occupation.

    The difference between these occupations and “The Occupation,” as the term is used by Israel's critics and foes is that “The Occupation” is actually more of a religious term which, among other things, justifies (or at least apologizes for) limitless violence directed against the alleged “occupier.” Thus, people blowing themselves up on busses or pizza parlors are simply acting out desperately in the face of “The Occupation.” Since the term gets to be applied to the US in its occupation of Iraq, that “Occupation” means that everyone who has ever died in Iraq since the war started (including casualties from terrorist bands fighting each other) gets dropped into the “The US Occupation has killed xxx,xxx people” equation.

    I think my original article offers a simpler reason why the Israel “Occupation” formula is not applied to countries like China with regard to Tibet and Syria or Iran with regard to the Kurds. That is, if you're rich and powerful (and totalitarian), then your occupations can be explained away or ignored.

    While this explanation conforms to the facts, it does fly in the face of the self-image of Israel's critics who can't imagine anything they do as anything other than an act of selfless courage. Thus the notion that their political program is aligned with that of powerful, totalitarian countries is incomprehensible to them.

    Unfortunately, this is a political vs. a psychological blog so I can't offer any advice on this last issue.

  4. Stephen April 16, 2010 at 1:21 pm #

    I wasn't justifying the occupation of Tibet — so certainly not aligning myself with totalitarian countries (good lord, what an accusation based on a sentence!) — but rather noting why Palestine *might* be legitimately of more concern than Tibet. (Although I would agree both occupations should be ended.)

    And yes, certainly some Americans tend to be more concerned with occupations that are by countries which A) claim to be democratic, and B) are supported in huge measure by our government. A has to do with the fact that we expect more from countries which purport to be free. And B has to do with our own moral responsibility — Americans are not bankrolling the occupation of Tibet.

    I note you don't deal with the central point I was making, namely, that Palestinians on the West Bank *don't* have any political rights in Israel, despite that country's control over their lives (movement, etc.)

    For that matter, you refer to the “alleged” occupation. If the land *isn't* occupied, then what excuse for not letting all the inhabitants vote?

    …How any of this adds up to justifying “limitless violence” (which I never have and never would) is, as you might say, a psychological question.

  5. Jon April 16, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    If one can get past the phalanx of people barricaded around their claimed truism that Israel’s control of the West Bank is an unquestioned violation of international law, you’d discover that the legal situation surrounding that territory is far more complex than, for example, China’s outright conquest and annexation of Tibet. If you and I were to debate these issues in good faith (i.e., not start with the premise that international law is unquestionably clear on the matter), such a debate would confirm that the subject is legitimately open to discussion.

    Which is why I keep coming back to the subject of why Israel’s control of the West Bank has become a sacred talisman of “The Occupation” which explains every action of not only the Palestinians and their Arab allies, even those that occurred BEFORE this alleged “Occupation” began in 1967.

    You make the familiar point that we hold our own country (the US) and its allies (such as Israel) to different standards than totalitarian dictatorships like China and Syria that are clearly occupiers of other people’s lands. And I would say this is fine, so long as this double standard is confirmed at the outset by noting that because Israel, for example, is so unquestionably morally superior to everyone if its neighbors then we are going to focus on its faults and acknowledge that everyone else is such a totalitarian, human rights disaster that there’s nothing more to say on the subject.

    Someone ready to acknowledge this reality might have a point about why criticism of the Israel needs to get the focus it does. Absent such an acknowledgement, we are left back with my original interpretation that the choice of whom to criticize is not a moral one, but one based on joining totalitarians in vilifying democracies while either ignoring or apologizing for those dictatorships.

  6. Stephen April 17, 2010 at 2:09 am #

    I am not much interested in debating — you have ignored my points so far, so it doesn't look promising. But since I am interested in various views, if you link to a blog post or essay or article (yours or another's) making the case that the occupation is *not* illegal under international law, I would certainly read it.

  7. mrzee April 17, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    Palestinians do vote, in Palestinian elections, whenever they decide to hold them. Abbas' term as president expired 17 months ago but he refused to step down and elections have been indefinitely postponed.

    There is in fact no occupation, “alleged” or otherwise. Under the terms of the Oslo Accords the PA agreed to the Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria. They are actually REQUIRED to be there to provide security.


  8. Jon April 17, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    Dear Stephen – I too am not interested in a debate right now, not because I don’t find your points interesting, but because I do (which means I suspect an exchange between us would extend into the April school vacation during which I’ve already committed to minimal blogging). But I will make note that not accepting someone else’s premises is not the same as ignoring their points.

    Anyway, below are a few articles regarding the legal status of the territory captured during the 1967 War. Now there is no doubt that you can find articles making competing claims about the legal status of the West Bank and Gaza, but remember that what I am asserting is not that the legal status of those territories is clear, but that it is not. The very existence of substantial legal opinions in opposition to one another demonstrates the existence of such a legitimate dispute, not that one side or the other is correct.

  9. Stephen April 18, 2010 at 1:36 am #

    Thanks for the links. I'll read them. Enjoy your vacation.

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