Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On the so-called Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem

A Museum of Tolerance we don't need

The Simon Wiesenthal Center should abandon its plan to build a facility on the site of a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem.

By Saree Makdisi [originally published in The Los Angeles Times]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How Obama Can Earn his Nobel Prize

[originally published in The Los Angeles Times, 18 October 2009]

Many people, including the president himself, were surprised this month when the Nobel committee awarded the peace prize to Barack Obama. His critics — as well as some supporters — questioned whether he deserved it. It was too soon, they said; he’d done too little. We posed a question to a variety of experts: What should the president do to earn the prize?

Ariel Dorfman: Focus on Latin America
Yossi Klein Halevi: Stop Iran
Jonathan Turley: Appoint a prosecutor for war crimes
Saree Makdisi: Change our useless Mideast policies
Michael Scheuer: Refuse the prize
Kennette Benedict: He’s already done so much

Change Washington’s useless Mideast policies

Saree Makdisi

President Obama would deserve the Nobel Peace Prize if he made a serious effort to help bring peace to the Middle East. He could begin by changing U.S. policies that uselessly embitter people and offer zero benefit to the United States.

In my grandparents’ time, people throughout the Arab and Muslim world looked to America as a beacon of light and hope: the great antithesis of the European empire builders. That attitude changed only when it became clear, after the destruction of Palestine in 1948, that America’s values are one thing and its policies quite another.

All Obama has to do is bring America’s policies in the greater Middle East into alignment with our values.

In Pakistan, he should end the catastrophic population displacements and immense human degradation and suffering that are a direct result of these policies, which are not President George W. Bush’s but his own.

In Afghanistan, he should end the war now — beginning with the absurd missile attacks and air raids that have killed hundreds of innocent men, women and children since he came to office — and contribute as much to help rebuild the country as he had been planning to spend on expanding the carnage.

And in Palestine and Israel — the source of much of the region’s unrest — he should end the shell game of trying to split a tiny piece of land into ethnic islands and instead bring about the creation of a single democratic and secular state for both Palestinians and Israelis that treats all of its citizens equally: the greatest of all American values.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Last Straw for the Palestinian "Authority"?

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi on Huffington Post, 6 October 2009; also on sareemakdisi.net]

If there were any lingering doubts concerning the status and integrity of the Palestinian National Authority -- and its so-called President, Mahmoud Abbas ("so-called" because his term of office, such as it was, expired almost a year ago) -- they were surely dispelled once and for all by its decision to drop its support for a UN resolution that would have referred the Goldstone Report on Israel's post-Christmas 2008 attack on Gaza to the UN Security Council.

The 575-page Report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, which was led by South African judge Richard Goldstone, confirmed the already densely documented reports published by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International. Those reports had, in turn, systematically confirmed Palestinian claims that Israel had, for example, recklessly and indiscriminately used white phosphorous on the packed residential districts of Gaza; indiscriminately targeted civilian objects including UN schools (as documented by the widely circulated -- other than in the US -- photographs of an Israeli phosphorous strike on a UN school in Gaza); used Palestinian civilians as human shields; and collectively punished the population of Gaza by imposing on them a suffocating siege, cutting off vital supplies of food, medicine, and fuel (not just during the recent assault and on to this day, but, to a greater or lesser extent, since 2005, and even, arguably, since 1991, when the Israelis first methodically sealed off the hapless territory from the outside world).

The Amnesty report, published in July, found that "hundreds of civilians were killed in attacks carried out using high-precision weapons -- air-delivered bombs and missiles, and tank shells. Others, including women and children, were shot at short range when posing no threat to the lives of the Israeli soldiers. Aerial bombardments launched from Israeli F-16 combat aircraft targeted and destroyed civilian homes without warning, killing and injuring scores of their inhabitants, often while they slept. Children playing on the roofs of their homes or in the street and other civilians going about their daily business, as well as medical staff attending the wounded were killed in broad daylight by Hellfire and other highly accurate missiles launched from helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and by precision projectiles fired from tanks."

The Goldstone report (though it remarkably reserves its strongest language for Palestinian rocket attacks that killed 3 Israeli civilians, compared to the 1,400 Palestinians killed in Gaza, the vast majority civilians, and a third of them children) reiterates many of the same conclusions, and reports on case after case where Israeli forces launched "intentional attacks against the civilian population and civilian objects," including "the shooting of civilians while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags and, in some of the cases, following an injunction from the Israeli forces to do so. The facts gathered by the Mission indicate that all the [latter] attacks occurred under circumstances in which the Israeli forces were in control of the area and had previously entered into contact with or at least observed the persons they subsequently attacked, so that they must have been aware of their civilian status." These incidents -- all of which constitute war crimes -- indicate, according to the Goldstone report, "that the instructions given to the Israeli forces moving into Gaza provided for a low threshold for the use of lethal fire against the civilian population."

Indeed, among its other findings, the Goldstone report corroborates the well-documented reports (all of them summarily dismissed by the Israeli army, which considers itself "the most moral army in the world") that Israeli soldiers themselves admitted to the brutality of the bombardment of Gaza, and left behind them -- as unmistakable evidence of their officially-encouraged attitude towards Palestinians -- both racist slogans (e.g., "We came to annihilate you; Death to the Arabs; Kahane was right; No tolerance, we came to liquidate") and human feces smeared on the walls of the Palestinian homes they looted and vandalized. "You feel like an infantile little kid with a magnifying glass looking at ants, burning them," one Israeli soldier confessed of the prevailing Israeli army attitude toward the Palestinians of Gaza, which was fueled in part by the proclamations of the army's rabbinical corps, which compared Palestinians to the biblical Philistines and urged that Israeli soldiers "show no mercy."

None of the conclusions of all these reports ought to come as a surprise. The Israeli army itself had openly proclaimed, months before the bombing even started, that its strategy in both Lebanon and Palestine has been premised since 2006 on the sweeping and indiscriminate use of massive firepower: the so-called "Dahiyeh Doctrine," referring to the Dahiyeh, or southern suburb of Beirut, which the Israelis razed to the ground in their 2006 war on Lebanon, as they also did to many villages in the south of that country. "We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction," one Israeli general (Gadi Eisenkot) announced -- with contemptuous disregard for the law of war. "From our perspective, these are military bases," he added. "This isn't a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized."

Other than planning for -- and attempting (to its own satisfaction at least) to legitimate -- the massive and necessarily indiscriminate use of force, the Israeli military legal establishment had specifically authorized premeditated attacks, such as the one that killed dozens of unarmed Gaza policemen parading in their graduation ceremony, with which Israel kicked off its bombardment on 27 December 2008, that inherently involved manifest violations of the principles of proportionality and discrimination that are the pillars of international humanitarian law.

Moreover, not only the Amnesty and Goldstone reports but Israeli commanders themselves openly said that overwhelming and indiscriminate force was used -- deliberately, and in a premeditated fashion -- again, in total disregard for the principles of proportionality and discrimination. "At the start of the ground offensive, senior command decided to avoid endangering the lives of soldiers, even at the price of seriously harming the civilian population," one Israeli media report revealed. "This is why the IDF [Israeli army] made use of massive force during its advance in the Strip. As a Golani brigade commander explained, if there is any concern that a house is booby-trapped, even if it is filled with civilians, it should be targeted and hit, to ensure that it is not mined -- only then should it be approached. Without going into the moral aspects, such fighting tactics explain why there were no instances in which there was a need to assault homes where Hamas fighters were holed up."

Ultimately, all that these inquiries, including Goldstone's, have done is merely to confirm Israel's own (repeatedly flaunted) contempt for international humanitarian law.

Needless to say, from the beginning, Israel utterly refused to cooperate with the Goldstone inquiry, dismissing it -- as it has dismissed all previous attempts to investigate its conduct or to hold it accountable to the principles of international humanitarian law -- as "unfair" and "unbalanced" (as though there were anything "balanced" about the conflict between the sheer force of an occupying power and an essentially defenseless occupied people). Among the many previous investigative commissions which Israel has either summarily dismissed or refused to cooperate with are the investigation led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu into the Israeli killing of 19 members of a Palestinian family in Gaza in 2008; the commission appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2002 to investigate the indiscriminate destruction of civilian areas in the Israeli assault on Jenin refugee camp that spring (the actions of which a separate investigation, by Amnesty International, found amounted "to grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention and are war crimes"); and the UN investigation of the Israeli artillery massacre of over a hundred Lebanese civilians huddling in a shelter at a UN compound in Qana, Lebanon in 1995, which found that "it is unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors," as the Israeli army said at the time -- as, indeed, it always says is the case when its soldiers kill dozens of civilians: not once has Israel actually held any of its officers or soldiers accountable for such crimes. In all previous cases, Israel's adamant refusal to be held accountable to the law has been upheld by the US, and the Obama administration proved that it had no intention of breaking that particular tradition this time either.

Nevertheless, as Professor Richard Falk (the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories) points out, the Goldstone report could have provided a basis for referring Israel's conduct durng the war in Gaza to the International Criminal Court or other international courts, or to the establishment of a war crimes tribunal along the lines of those established after the catastrophes of Bosnia and Rwanda. That would have been the best way to finally hold Israel accountable for its grave breaches of international humanitarian law, its war crimes, and its crimes against humanity (not least the sealing off an entire civilian population from the outside world, denying it the ability to flee to safety, and then subjecting that same, defenseless, shelterless population -- most of it composed of children -- to an indiscriminate round-the-clock bombardment).

The process of referral depended, however, on obtaining a vote within the UN to have the Goldstone report referred to the Security Council for further deliberation, the creation of a war crimes tribunal, and so on. And all of that depended in turn on the support of Palestinian diplomats appointed by and accountable to Mahmoud Abbas.

But it is now clear that the Palestinian team representing Mahmoud Abbas at the UN (for they certainly do not represent the Palestinian people) has, on his instructions, dropped its support for the resolution that might have set the legal machinery of the international judicial system in motion. Other states can hardly be expected to stand up to US pressure and support a resolution on behalf of Palestinian rights that the Palestinian delegation itself is unwilling to support -- why should Venezuela or Nigeria or Pakistan be more Palestinian than the Palestinians?

Reports have been circulating in the Arab, Israeli and European media that Abbas and his associates may have been prompted to take this extraordinary action because Israel had been threatening, had they continued with their support of the UN resolution, to withhold its release of a share of the radio spectrum that would have allowed the creation of a new Palestinian mobile phone company, Wataniyya: the product of a joint venture between Qatari investors and the Palestine Investment Fund, to which Abbas himself and one of his wealthy sons have personal connections. Palestinians have suggested that simple corruption and cronyism may have motivated Abbas's decision. The PA and the circle of officials attached to it have certainly had their share of corruption charges -- most shockingly, perhaps, when Ahmed Qureia, then the so-called Prime Minister of the PA (again, "so-called" because Prime Ministers usually have countries to govern, and the PA is anything but a country), was accused of selling cement to the Israelis to build their wall in the West Bank. The corruption of the PA and the narrow circle of Fateh party officials running it, clinging to it, and benefiting from it, is one of the main reasons why Fateh was swept from office in the 2006 Palestinian elections in favor of Hamas: most people then were voting against Fateh and its corruption and general hopelessness, rather than for Hamas (which had, and has, little to offer other than simply not being Fateh: a credit which goes only so far).

It's possible, of course, that corruption and cronyism were not the motivating factors for Abbas's decision to withdraw Palestinian support for the Goldstone report. There are two other possibilities.

One of these is simple incompetence: that Abbas and his associates are so lacking in intelligence, imagination and political skill that they just bungled the whole affair. This is certainly not out of the question: Abbas himself is an extraordinarily unprepossessing and profoundly compromised man, and his circle of associates -- including men like Mohammad Dahlan and Saeb Ereikat -- hardly inspire any more confidence than Abbas himself. Quite apart from their sheer disregard for Palestinian suffering in Gaza (seeking redress for which ought to be their main priority), it ought to be clear that a party to a negotiation that wantonly throws a rarely-held card out of the window while attempting (or at least claiming) to negotiate is, to put it mildly, not qualified to negotiate in the first place, let alone to claim to "lead" a defiant and unvanquished people like the Palestinians. If the Ramallah leadership is really as hopelessly incompetent as this scenario would have it, that's reason enough for their removal from office, if not the dissolution of the PA itself. (It's difficult, though, to "dismiss from office" someone like Abbas who is not actually in office in the first place -- he is there because the Israelis and the Americans want him to be there, because the election for his successor after his term expired has been deferred at the behest of Washington and Tel Aviv, and not because he holds any legitimate mandate from the Palestinian people themselves, the overwhelming majority of whom have no faith in him whatsoever, as opinion polls have regularly found).

Another -- and I think more likely -- possibility is that Abbas, the PA and the essentially defunct PLO are not (and never were, at least since the time of Yasser Arafat's death) interested in serious negotiations with Israel that could have led to the creation of a genuine Palestinian state in the occupied territories. After all, one of the main criticisms of the Oslo Accords of 1993-95 which created the PA, is that, far from ending Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, they merely served to shift the day-to-day burden and cost of administering the occupation to the newly-established PA, while allowing Israel to go on demolishing Palestinian homes, expropriating Palestinian land, and building Jewish colonies in the occupied territories in contravention of international law. Oslo formally separated the three main chunks of Palestinian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967 (Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem) from each other and the outside world, and, additionally, broke the West Bank itself into Areas A, B and C. It was only in Area A (about 18 percent of the total) that the PA had any kind of practical presence on the ground, and in Area C (60 percent of the West Bank), the PA had no role or presence at all -- and that's where Israel was (and still is) busy demolishing, expropriating and building. Oslo and the PA, in other words, far from ending the occupation and laying the basis for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, actually allowed Israel to consolidate the occupation and further cement its grip on Palestinian land. Which is exactly why the population of Jewish colonists in the West Bank and East Jerusalem doubled during the period of Oslo and has been increasing ever since -- and today numbers almost half a million.

As this latest episode so amply demonstrates, the PA serves Israel by facilitating the occupation -- which is why Israel invented it in the first place, just as, historically speaking, colonial powers have always attempted to create or coerce local elites into helping them deal with the population at large: an approach perhaps most gracefully summarized in Macaulay's Minute on Indian Educationhttp://www.english.ucsb.edu/faculty/rraley/research/english/macaulay.html of 1835 ("We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect"). Why would the PA want to bring to an end an arrangement from which it benefits? As the French scholar Regis Debray points out, the status quo provides the PA elites in Ramallah "with a living, status, dignity and a raison d'ĂȘtre," and probably (e.g., if the mobile phone contract rumors prove to be true) much more in the way of emoluments besides that.

Even if one were to grant the PA and Abbas and his associates the benefit of the doubt, and say that they really have their people's best interests at heart, it still remains the case that the PA, even under the best-case scenario, can claim to represent only a minority of the Palestinian people, since only a minority of Palestinians live in the occupied territories: the majority live either in the exile imposed on them by force during the creation of Israel in 1948, or (in the case of those Palestinians who survived that year's ethnic cleansing and remained in their homes) as second-class, non-Jewish citizens of the would-be Jewish state, which systematically discriminates against them simply because they are not Jewish.

These, then, are the possibilities before us: not only does the PA not represent the Palestinian people, it is also, on top of that, either corrupt to an almost unimaginable level; or it is profoundly incompetent and guilty of squandering the rights and hopes of a people that it is unentitled to claim to lead; or it is interested not in its people's rights and hopes but rather in perpetuating its own status as the day-to-day caretaker of a permanent Israeli occupation -- in which case it is no less collaborationist than the Vichy "government" of Nazi-occupied France in the 1940s. Corruption; incompetence; collaboration: ah, the agony of choice.

In the unlikely event that Abbas and his associates were to declare the "independence" of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, as has been suggested by the current so-called Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad (another man whose claim to office has no legitimacy, since his arbitrary appointment, by Abbas, to replace the legitimately elected Hamas leadership -- whatever one thinks of it -- was never confirmed by the Palestinian Legislative Assembly, many of the members of which are in Israeli jails), it ought to be clearer than ever that such a "state" would offer Palestinians only more of the same choices (corruption, compromise, collaboration), while continuing to serve Israel's interests, if not actually to take direct orders from Washington and Tel Aviv.

In any case, the Palestinian cause is a struggle for freedom and justice, not for the creation of a statelet in the occupied territories that would, as I said -- even in the best circumstances -- only address the interests of that minority of the Palestinian people who live there.

What, then, are we to conclude from all this?

Above all, that no Palestinian ought to look to the official leadership as a source of guidance and direction: it has betrayed the people and proved itself totally unworthy of their trust -- indeed, many Palestinians, including Abdelbari Atwan, editor of the newspaper al-quds al-arabi, are demanding that those behind this recent decision be apprehended and put on trial. And of course with a leadership this corrupt, inept or collaborationist, Palestinians can hardly expect better treatment from Washington and Tel Aviv than they are getting from Ramallah. And the Hamas opposition and its alternative leadership has little more to offer in the long run other than resistance for the sake of resistance, which is not, in itself, a blueprint for freedom and justice, and in any case has nothing to offer to Christian or secular Palestinians (and hardly much more than that to offer Muslim ones either, for that matter).

The second immediate conclusion to be drawn from this experience is that, as more and more Palestinians are demanding, the PA ought to be dissolved once and for all -- the sooner, the better. This latest action really ought to be the last in a long and dismal record proving that the PA has not only not served the interests of the Palestinian people, but that, on the contrary, it fundamentally serves the needs and requirements of Israel.

Bereft of any credible or legitimate leadership, the Palestinian people will have to look to themselves to continue their struggle for freedom, justice and equality. Indeed, their struggle has been at its best, for example, during the first intifada of the 1980s, when the official leadership -- at the time in exile in Tunis -- was actually least involved in it. No wonder, then, that the Israeli response to the grassroots autonomy of the first intifada was to usher the official leadership back into Palestine; the first intifada then stalled, and things have gone downhill ever since.

In looking for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then, we should once and for all stop looking to governments and officials (elected or otherwise), in the US, Israel, or among the Palestinians themselves. As the Obama administration has already demonstrated, the US government, in the present political conjuncture, will never put peace and justice in Palestine ahead of internal domestic pressures and politics; the Israeli government will not for one moment back down from its continually expanding colonization plan in the West Bank and East Jerusalem until it is compelled by outside pressure to do otherwise; and the Palestinian government -- well, there is no such thing. There is a people living partly under military occupation; partly in enforced exile; and partly as a racialized and discriminated-against minority inside Israel. What they need is to refocus their struggle in ways that they can all identify with, collectively and equally, and, moreover, in ways that people of good will around the world -- who have repeatedly demonstrated in their tens of thousands in support of justice for Palestine.

Indeed, the Palestinians are not alone: they have the support of people around the entire world. And it is to that reserve of good will and good faith among ordinary people around the world that the Palestinians must also look, then. As the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa demonstrated, governments not only can, but do, act, when ordinary people of good will make them act. In fact, even as governments have dithered, a vibrant global campaign to boycott, divest from, and impose sanctions on Israel in order to bring it into compliance with international law and in order to realize the rights of the Palestinian people (all of it) has been recording one success after another, reminding us all that boycotts really do work.

This is the direction in which all Palestinians, bereft of leadership, must now throw themselves. And their demand must be something that addresses and unifies the rights of all segments of the Palestinian people, not just those suffering under occupation, as well as addressing and recognizing the rights of Jewish Israelis -- something that most decent people in the world can readily identify with: justice, equality, one-person-one-vote: in other words, the creation of one democratic and secular state in which Palestinians and Israelis can live equally in a just and lasting peace. For without justice there will be no peace.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Last Crisis at the University of California?

The Last Crisis at the University of California?

[originally published by Saree Makdisi on Huffington Post, 15 July 2009]

About to declare a financial emergency, the University of California is entering what could turn out to be its last crisis, the outcome of which may determine the fate not only of the greatest public university system in the nation, but of California as well.

For ultimately there are only two ways out of the present crisis, one of which will define the contours of California's future.

Either the price of a UC education will leap far beyond the reach of most Californians, which, combined with the cuts that are simultaneously devastating the California State University system (barring tens of thousands of eligible students from places there next year), will mean that a declining percentage of the state's workforce will receive the university education that is vital to the knowledge economy of the 21st century. That would condemn California--and with it America--to irreversible decline.

Or (and this will take considerable pressure from businesses, institutions, and voters) the governor and the legislature will do what it takes to enable UC and Cal State to carry out their missions, which will ensure that the state's higher education system continues to make California a place of innovation, invention and progress, and the engine of the national economy.

And what it takes is not all that much, in the scheme of things.

In the glory days of the 1970s, the UC system claimed a mere third of a percent of the state's personal income, or in other words 33 cents or so for every $100 earned. That's not much of a sacrifice compared to the benefits that a readily affordable and world-class university system returned to the state, enabling the development of its high tech economy through the 1980s.

A return to that level of public investment from the present outlay (a difference of less than one percent of the state budget) would allow the university both to safeguard its mission and to bring tuition back down close to what it was in 2000 (less than half what it is today).

But if the opposite path is taken, further cuts in state support will inevitably be made up for by ever increasing tuition hikes. UC would go the way of other state universities, like Michigan's--which charges twice what UCLA and Berkeley do.

A series of budget cuts since 1990 have sapped UC's vitality. State support once covered about 75 percent of the university's core spending: the money that is spent on its everyday educational mission. Today, it covers less than half, and it is set to decline even further.

Tuition is the only source of funding that can compensate for such losses, which is why it has been increasing.

The only other alternative is to cut spending, but reckless cuts cost far more in the long run than what they save in the short term.

For example, UC faces a cut in state support of $637 million for the current academic year. It plans to compensate for this with a combination of devastating layoffs and furloughs for faculty and staff, tuition hikes, and enormous slashes to academic programs.

Such cuts will have both immediate and lasting consequences for how the university functions. They are unsustainable.

Research and teaching are the two inseparable missions of UC. Faculty members teach what we discover, and we train our students not merely what we know but how to make discoveries of their own. Not only is what (and how) I teach in my classes today not what was taught five or ten years ago, but even my freshman students have immediate access to the product of my research as I move between my two roles of research and teaching. If I did not have time and resources to conduct my research, I would only be able to teach what I already know. Knowledge would stand still; or, rather, it would be developed by--and for--others, primarily at private institutions whose gates are barred to all but a lucky few.

The whole point of UC, in fact, is that it makes a research faculty equal to that of Harvard, Princeton and Chicago (UC has more Nobel Prize winners than any of those institutions) directly accessible to far more students, for a fraction of the tuition.

If the people of California want to preserve that access for their children, they must act now.

Reducing the size of the faculty while increasing the number of students per instructor--making classes larger and fewer--would diminish both the quantity and quality of instructional contact. Small seminars on specialized topics would go. Large anonymous lecture classes on general topics would prevail. Eliminating classes and majors would thin the academic offerings available to students and impoverish them. Professors would not get to know their students, to mentor and guide them, to write the highly personalized letters of recommendation that students depend on to get into graduate, medical or law schools. Students would pay far more and get far less than what was available to previous generations.

It does not have to be this way.

Now is the time to change course, by demanding that the state government do what is right for all Californians and save our higher education system from the devastation that otherwise might lie in store.

Netanyahu's Two State Goal?

Netanyahu's Two-State Goal?

[originally published by Saree Makdisi on Huffington Post, 8 July 2009]

To judge by the next day's headlines, Benjamin Netanyahu's policy speech last month was a great success. "Israeli Premier Backs State for Palestinians," declared the New York Times. "Israel Endorses Two-State Goal," said the Washington Post. "Netanyahu Backs Palestinian State," announced The Guardian.

He did no such thing, of course, unless by "state" one understands an amorphous entity lacking a definite territory, not allowed to control its own borders or airspace, shorn of any vestige of sovereignty (other than a flag and perhaps a national anthem), not allowed to enter into treaties with other states--and permanently disarmed and hence at the mercy of Israel. It would make about as much sense to call an apple an orange or a piano a speedboat as to call such a construct a state, and yet those are the conditions that Netanyahu imposed on the creation of such an entity for the Palestinians (if they get that far in the first place).

The strange thing is that Netanyahu's speech marked both the definitive end and a symbolic return to the beginning of the two-state solution as that hapless notion has been peddled since the Oslo Accords of 1993-95. For what he said the Palestinians might--perhaps--be entitled to is pretty much what Oslo had said they might be entitled to fifteen years ago: a "self-government authority" not allowed to control its own borders or airspace, shorn of any vestige of sovereignty, etc. And on top of that they can also forget about Jerusalem--that is and will forever remain the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people.

If it sounds so drearily familiar, that's because it is: we have come full circle. First time as tragedy, second time as farce.

Oslo actually never mentioned the apparently magic words "Palestinian state," so Netanyahu actually outdid Rabin and Peres in terms of rhetorical magnanimity. But, rhetoric aside, by bringing the situation full circle back to what they "offered" Arafat back in the mid-nineties, Netanyahu also revealed to those last few Palestinians who might have believed otherwise that the only kind of Palestinian "state" any Israeli government has ever countenanced (or will ever countenance) will look like what was on offer at Oslo. Netanyahu is offering the same thing all over again because that's the only

Palestinian "state" that Israel will accept. Take it or leave it.

The Palestinians who still cling to the idea of a Palestinian state to be achieved through negotiations (from a position of weakness) with Israel had better absorb this once and for all and move on to other objectives--and other strategies to succeed.

That's why the return to the beginning also signals the coming of the end. For after all the agony of the past fifteen years no Palestinian in her right mind would want to go back to Oslo all over again. Those agreements led to three things: the permanent institutionalization of the Israeli occupation of Palestine; the permanent separation of the occupied territories into shards of land cut off from one another and the outside world (and hence what Sara Roy calls--and the World Bank implicitly acknowledges as--the de-development of the Palestinian economy); and the doubling of the population of Jewish settlers illegally colonizing the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem.

There were just over 100,000 Jewish colonists in the West Bank in 1993; there are around 300,000 there today, and a further 200,000 or so in occupied East Jerusalem. According to the UN, their population is increasing at a rate three times greater than that of Israel itself, and will double again to about a million within a decade.

This phenomenal expansion is what is referred to as the "natural growth" of the colonies, which in his speech Netanyahu--brazenly defying President Obama--said he would protect. A few more years of this kind of growth and the territory that might once (maybe, long ago) have been considered as the basis for a Palestinian state will be all but eaten up by the sprawling colonies.

There's hardly anything left of that territory anyway. The UN said two years ago that some 40 percent of the West Bank is already taken up by Israeli infrastructure off limits to Palestinians; the 60 percent that remains is broken up into an archipelago of islands so cut off and isolated from each other that a brilliant satirical map has been circulating on the internet representing the West Bank as a kind of Pacific island paradise, with dotted lines showing imaginary ferry routes from Ramallah to Nablus and Bethlehem to Hebron. It would be funny if it were not so sad. And even in most of that 60 percent, Israel retains security control (that's according to Oslo; today its army conducts raids wherever it likes--and it does so virtually every day).

What Netanyahu was saying to any Palestinians foolish enough to accept his terms is that if they want to stick a flag in their archipelago of little impoverished islands of territory and call it a state, they can go right ahead.

But for them to get even that far, they must first, he now says, recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This is a new Israeli demand (it first came up during the buildup to the doomed Annapolis summit in November 2007), the latest in a sequence of such demands going back to the 1970s. First the Palestinians had to renounce terrorism; then they had to recognize Israel; then they had to rewrite their national charter; then they had to tear the charter up; then they had to say--again, louder--that they recognize Israel's right to exist; then they had to end all resistance to four decades of brutal military occupation. Tzipi Livni, Israel's previous foreign minister, even said that the Palestinians had to learn to purge the word "nakba" (referring to the catastrophe of 1948) from their vocabulary if they wanted to have a state. The one thing that Palestinians have not formally been asked to do is to say that they are terribly sorry for having dared to resist the occupation in the first place--and no doubt that demand is on the way as well.

In return, Israel has had to commit to nothing other than a few vague and craftily-worded--and endlessly deferrable--promises. And it has carried out (at its own pace and according to its own terms) a few tactical redeployments of troops and colonists (from a grand total of 18 percent of the West Bank, at the very peak of Oslo). Some of those redeployments have actually, as in Gaza, made the process of dominating and controlling the Palestinians that much easier (Israel could never have subjected the people of Gaza to the indiscriminate violence it rained on them day and night in late 2008 and early 2009 had the Jewish colonists there remained in place).

The Israelis have always been able to find some Palestinian leader or other to go along with their endless demands, to jump ignominiously through one hoop after another, more like a third-rate court jester than the leader of an unvanquished and defiant people. When one leader finally said enough was enough (as Arafat did at Camp David), he was dismissed and another more pliant one (the hopelessly compromised and unimaginative Mahmoud Abbas) was found to take his place, from among the dwindling ranks of those candidates the Israelis deemed not worth assassinating or imprisoning in a campaign of violence going back to the 1970s. (Indeed, it bears repeating that Abbas and his hangers-on survived to this day only as the result of Israel's anti-Darwinian process of unnatural selection of potential Palestinian leaders, in which the fittest were eliminated and the most inept were allowed to reproduce).

But this latest demand is too much for any Palestinian leader--even one as endlessly obsequious as Abbas--to accept.

For to recognize Israel as a Jewish state would be not only to renounce (which no leader and indeed no individual Palestinian has the authority to do) the right of return of those Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their homes during the creation of Israel in 1948. It would also be to abandon to their fate the remaining million or so Palestinians (including their descendants) who survived the nakba and have been living as second class citizens of Israel, and perhaps even to give Israel license to expel them all and complete the "job" (as Benny Morris puts it) of 1948.

Israel today is no more Jewish than America is white or Christian. The big difference, though, is that, whereas America (for the most part) embraces its own multiculturalism, Israel still desperately wants to be Jewish. Its absurd demand to be recognized as such (no other state goes around impetuously demanding that others accept its own sense of its national character) is an expression of its own profound insecurity: not its military insecurity--the only serious military threat Israel faces on its own territory is imaginary--but rather its anxious awareness of its status as a botched, and hence forever incomplete, settler-colonial enterprise. Unlike Australia, there were too many aboriginals left standing when the smoke cleared over the ruins of Palestine in 1948. And to this day the Palestinians have refused to simply give up, go away or somehow annul themselves.

That fact--and its attendant anxiety among Zionists--poses a real problem for the million Palestinians inside Israel, whose fate is far from settled.

Western liberals consider Avigdor Lieberman to be right wing because he says openly that he wants the indigenous Palestinians removed from what he considers to be the Jewish land of Israel (to which he came as a Russian-speaking immigrant). What they fail to acknowledge is that Tzipi Livni, who ran in the recent Israeli elections as the voice of peace and moderation--the darling of Western liberals--hinted at exactly the same dark fate ("Once a Palestinian state is established, I can come to the Palestinian citizens, whom we call Israeli Arabs, and say to them "you are citizens with equal rights, but the national solution for you is elsewhere,'" she said during the electoral campaign--i.e., you are equal, but not really, and ultimately you must look elsewhere for a sense of home). And Netanyahu has long espoused a similar position.

How could he not? This is not rocket science or linear algebra: it is what it means for a state to insist on having a single cultural identity irrespective of who happens to actually be living on the territory it considers its own. It is all too rarely thought of in the same terms, but the violent insistence on monoculture is just as ugly in Israel as it is in Iran, Saudi Arabia, among the cadres of the British National Party, the followers of Jean-Marie le Pen, the hoodlums of Aryan Nation or the hooded posses of the KKK. The drive to obliterate or expunge cultural difference from a homeland conceived of as an exclusive space will always be inherently ugly.

And the fact of the matter is that the expulsion or "transfer" of Palestinians has been a core feature of Zionism as it has been practiced since 1948. It is inherent in Zionism as a political program--from right to left--because, if the idea behind Zionism is to establish an exclusively Jewish state (which it is), the only way for a would-be Jewish state to have been established on land that began the twentieth century with a population that was overwhelmingly (93 percent) non-Jewish was through the removal of the land's non-Jewish population. The sense that there is an inherently Jewish land inconveniently cluttered up with a non-Jewish population that needs to be dealt with somehow or other drove Zionist planning all through the 1930s (the "transfer" of the Palestinians was planned more than a decade before the 1948 war). And, as grotesque as ever, it was on full view in Netanyahu's speech.

The key moment in the speech came when he said that "the truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians." This attitude comes straight out of the primitive racialism and imaginary civilizational hierarchies of the nineteenth century. The Jews are a people with a homeland and hence they have a right to a state; the Palestinians are not a people at all, or certainly not one of the same order. They are merely a collection of vagabonds and trespassers intruding on the Jewish Homeland. They have no rights, let alone a centuries-old competing narrative of home attached to the same land, a narrative worthy of recognition by Israel.

On the contrary: the Palestinians must accept that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and they must do so on the understanding that they are not entitled to the same rights. "We" are a people, Netanyahu was saying; "they" are merely a "population." "We" have a right to a state--a real state. "They" do not. "They" have to recognize "our" rights; "we" owe "them" nothing in return, except, possibly, a curt nod of dismissal from "our" view into the walled-off ghettoes and cantons which we might (perhaps, if "they" behave well) be persuaded to build for "them" on "our" land--and "they" had better be grateful even for that.

This racialized sense of inherent entitlement and unique superiority--fueled (in just the way that a child is spoiled by over-indulgent parents) by over $100 billion of our tax dollars, the endless deference of our elected representatives, the open-ended diplomatic cover provided on demand by all our presidents after Eisenhower--is what allows Israelis like Netanyahu (and Lieberman, and Livni, and Olmert, and Sharon, and Rabin, etc.) to threaten, bellow at and admonish the Palestinians. It is also what allows Israel to occupy Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian homes, starve Palestinian children, imprison and shoot Palestinian youths, tear up Palestinian olive trees, crush Palestinian aspirations, while believing--really sincerely believing--that Israel is the real victim of everything that has happened. And, unbelievable as it is, that idea too (that Israel is the real victim of Palestinian aggression) was repeatedly expressed in Netanyahu's speech. Make no mistake that he really believes it; it's astonishing to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history, but most Israelis, and most of their supporters in this country, really do believe in this totally inverted--and perverted--view of history.

Such attitudes, such views, are the inevitable products of endless indulgence.

No matter what the best way forward is--two states or one--it is absolutely vital for the American people to call their leaders to account and to demand that this indulgence must end, for the sake of everyone involved. And until our politicians learn (or are persuaded) to do the right thing, it falls on each of us to do what we can to end the indulgence and to bring pressure to bear on Israel. Heeding the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is the obvious place to begin.

The Language that Absolves Israel

The language that absolves Israel

A special political vocabulary prevents us from being able to recognize what's going on in the Middle East.

On Sunday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech that -- by categorically ruling out the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state -- ought to have been seen as a mortal blow to the quest for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Monday morning, however, newspaper headlines across the United States announced that Netanyahu had endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state, and the White House welcomed the speech as "an important step forward."

Reality can be so easily stood on its head when it comes to Israel because the misreading of Israeli declarations is a long-established practice among commentators and journalists in the United States.

In fact, a special vocabulary has been developed for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States. It filters and structures the way in which developing stories are misread here, making it difficult for readers to fully grasp the nature of those stories -- and maybe even for journalists to think critically about what they write.

The ultimate effect of this special vocabulary is to make it possible for Americans to accept and even endorse in Israel what they would reject out of hand in any other country.

Let me give a classic example.

In the U.S., discussion of Palestinian politicians and political movements often relies on a spectrum running from "extreme" to "moderate." The latter sounds appealing; the former clearly applies to those who must be -- must they not? -- beyond the pale. But hardly anyone relying on such terms pauses to ask what they mean. According to whose standard are these manifestly subjective labels assigned?

Meanwhile, Israeli politicians are labeled according to an altogether different standard: They are "doves" or "hawks." Unlike the terms reserved for Palestinians, there's nothing inherently negative about either of those avian terms.

So why is no Palestinian leader referred to here as a "hawk"? Why are Israeli politicians rarely labeled "extremists"? Or, for that matter, "militants"?

There are countless other examples of these linguistic double standards. American media outlets routinely use the deracinating and deliberately obfuscating term "Israeli Arabs" to refer to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, despite the fact that they call themselves -- and are -- Palestinian.

Similarly, Israeli housing units built in the occupied territories in contravention of international law are always called "settlements" or even "neighborhoods" rather than what they are: "colonies." That word may be harsh on the ears, but it's far more accurate ("a body of people who settle in a new locality, forming a community subject to or connected with their parent state").

These subtle distinctions make a huge difference. Unconsciously absorbed, such terms frame the way people and events are viewed. When it comes to Israel, we seem to reach for a dictionary that applies to no one else, to give a pass to actions or statements that would be condemned in any other quarter.

That's what allowed Netanyahu to be congratulated for endorsing a Palestinian "state," even though the kind of entity he said Palestinians might -- possibly -- be allowed to have would be nothing of the kind.

Look up the word "state" in the dictionary. You'll probably see references to territorial integrity, power and sovereignty. The entity that Netanyahu was talking about on Sunday would lack all of those constitutive features. A "state" without a defined territory that is not allowed to control its own borders or airspace and cannot enter into treaties with other states is not a state, any more than an apple is an orange or a car an airplane. So how can leading American newspapers say "Israeli Premier Backs State for Palestinians," as the New York Times had it? Or "Netanyahu relents on goal of two states," as this paper put it?

Because a different vocabulary applies.

Which is also what kept Netanyahu's most extraordinary demand in Sunday night's speech from raising eyebrows here.

"The truth," he said, "is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians."

In other words, as Netanyahu repeatedly said, there is a Jewish people; it has a homeland and hence a state. As for the Palestinians, they are a collection -- not even a group -- of trespassers on Jewish land. Netanyahu, of course, dismisses the fact that they have a centuries-old competing narrative of home attached to the same land, a narrative worthy of recognition by Israel.

On the contrary: The Palestinians must, he said, accept that Israel is the state of the Jewish people (this is a relatively new Israeli demand, incidentally), and they must do so on the understanding that they are not entitled to the same rights. "We" are a people, Netanyahu was saying; "they" are merely a "population." "We" have a right to a state -- a real state. "They" do not.

And the spokesman for our African American president calls this "an important step forward"?

In any other situation -- including our own country -- such a brutally naked contrast between those who are taken to have inherent rights and those who do not would immediately be labeled as racist. Netanyahu, though, is given a pass, not because most Americans would knowingly endorse racism but because, in this case, a special political vocabulary kicks in that prevents them from being able to recognize it for exactly what it is.