Thursday, 7 October 2010

Why the truth is taboo in the Holy Land

We had the chance at the Dubai School of Government last night to host Adam Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf, co-founders of the non-violent resistance movement in the Occupied Territories, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM);  Arraf also chairs the Free Gaza organization that was responsible for dispatching the flotilla this past spring to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip. It was an interesting conversation, but one that is often ignored. Shapiro himself made a very interesting point - in all the news reports you read about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, you scarcely hear anything about Gaza. It is as if, the territory holding 1.5 million Palestinians has faded from existence. Yet, this has always been the troubling context of all Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The many elephants in the room are ignored in the feigned hope that perhaps somehow they will not be heard, seen, or felt. Sometimes, people do not want to face the truth until they are forced too.

The breaking of taboos is a continual process vis-a-vis the infamous conflict in the Holy Land. Many conversations are off-limits, particularly in the American mainstream media and especially when concerning Israel (or the preferred Israeli narrative). In past years, prominent figures have challenged this stranglehold on the discourse. In Israel, you have reporters like Amira Hass who has continued her brave coverage in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, unabated, despite threats and harassment. In fact, Haaretz - where Hass writes - has hosted a bevy of non-orthodox views, that many within Israel consider treasonous (i.e. Gideon Levy). Years prior, the so-called new historians such as Benny Morris (who has since become politically hardline if not extreme) and Avi Shlaim challenged the orthodox narrative in Israel, finally asserting the Palestinians as victims of the conflict, and asserting that Palestinians were refugees not just of their own creation. Ilan Pappe took this further with a groundbreaking book (in its depth and breadth) called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Some disobedience in Israel can have consequences. Mordechai Vanunu who bravely unveiled Israel's nuclear program to the world in the 1980s, has been jailed, silenced and hidden from public view for the last two decades. Many years later, in 2002 when 50 soldiers started the Courage to Refuse movement by refusing to serve in the IDF in maintaining the occupation, they created a new space (albeit with legal consequences) for dissent.

Artists have also played their role in challenging the orthodoxy. The animated film (and award-winning) Waltz with Bashir starkly portrayed the reality of Israel's wars of having mixed morality at best, and involving dehumanization of the enemy in the worst case. World-renowned pianist Daniel Barenboim collaborated with renowned Palestinian-American Edward Said on concerts, including in the West Bank, and challenged the discourse on anti-semitism (see Wagner) in Israel; he also accepted honorary Palestinian citizenship, demonstrating solidarity across the two 'nations'.

The tradition of challenging the accepted narrative on the conflict has been especially difficult in the United States, where the mere mention of a view critical (in any form, artistic, journalistic, political etc) of the established Israeli perspective can end a career. The label of anti-semitism is tossed around without abandon, for example by the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman. While before some 'challengers' such as George Ball (see Passionate Attachment) were effectively silenced, that is no longer the case. To talk about the 'lobby' in DC subservient to foreign interests used to be akin to believing in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That taboo was broken by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their landmark book The Israel Lobby, which was originally an essay that was rejected by a number of US publications, only to be published in the London Review of Books. Although Walt and Mearsheimer were lambasted, including in the Washington Post, as anti-semites, the label couldn't stick. Today, Walt is one of the most prolific contributors to Foreign Policy.

That same year, President Jimmy Carter published Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. Again, President Carter despite being the only President to actually achieve a successful peace agreement in the region,  was panned as naive and hyperbolic. Nevertheless, today, that phrasing is generally accepted not only within the United States, but also in Israel. Four years after the book was released, it was Israel's own Defense Minister Ehud Barak who stated: "If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state." America's own military main man, General David Patraeus shattered the view this year that Israel was an ally to US national security interests just one month later. It is assumed that the U.S. military is gradually being more vocal about pro-peace interests, and in some ways, pro-Palestinian.

The unfortunate thing is that despite so many taboos being broken, too many still remain. Each successive strike only reveals that many traditional views are untouched. Yes, there is now J Street (a by-product I would say of Walt's book), which challenges AIPAC. However, the Yitzak Rabins are still scarce. Who is willing to acknowledge the Palestinians existence and the need for a viable Palestinian state openly and definitively? Breaking taboos is difficult and takes spine; it is especially precarious for politicians who face electorates. It is these leaders, however, who will be looked upon to fundamentally change the direction of the conflict and upend the status quo. For political leadership, breaking taboos happens by taking bold steps and holding bold positions. It means PM Netanyahu eschewing Yisrael Beiteinu for Kadima. It means President Obama freezing military aid as long as Israel doesn't freeze settlements. It means Congress supporting the President.

The stranglehold on the narrative by the orthodoxy has been broken. The truth is out and cannot be hidden, as seen from the Flotilla coverage this past spring. The Israeli occupation itself is self-corroding (see the recent stories) and leading in effect to an apartheid state unless there is peace and a two-state solution. It is now the turn of the politicians in Israel and the US to find the courage to voice that reality and break those final taboos. It is time for a real conversation about peace.

(The next post will cover the Palestinian-side of the equation and the need for bold leadership)

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Critical Mistake of Difference

The Geopolitico has been absent the last two weeks, and through October 23 posts will be more sporadic than usual before resuming a daily pace. 


The West and Muslim World. Opposites? Mutually exclusive? Shiites and Sunnis. At war? Conflicting philosophies? Persians and Arabs. Permanent enemies? Cultural antagonists? Pakistanis and Indians. Fatal foes? Regional counterweights?

We are taught many inalienable falsehoods. They are in our history books. They are promulgated in the media. They are touted by political leaders. Almost always, they rest on the lack of imagination and acquiescence to the status quo. Within states and in international relations the perception and actualization of ascendent difference is the greatest threat to peace and prosperity in the modern world. It inhibits collaboration, thwarts agreement, and undermines unity. Diversity is a reality of society and politics. The fatal flaw, however, is to continuously emphasize the gulf of dissimilarities rather than embrace the pool of what is shared; the latter is often far greater and deeper than the former.

One of the most prominent examples of cited historical difference is the chasm between the Israelis and Palestinians who are alleged historical enemies, fighting for a thousand years. How could they ever make peace? The Israelis and Palestinians, however, have been fighting since the 20th century not the 10th century. Prior to that, the Jews who lived in the proverbial Holy Land, were in fact Palestinians (at least in political nomenclature). Moreover, the conflict that led to the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem involved the Roman Empire, who destroyed the Second Temple in 70AD. In fact that very Second Temple, which was built to replace the First Temple (of Solomon), was constructed by decree from a Persian king (Cyrus the Great). After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and their subsequent expulsion, the Jews were finally allowed back into Jerusalem in 638AD. Why? The Muslim Caliph Omar, who had conquered Jerusalem, insisted on the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. The highlighting of a complex history that demonstrates the possibility of cooperation and commonality should not gloss over other sometimes ugly truths. Yet, there is also a world beyond the ugliness.

Today, we are lectured to by a detached voice that Shiites and Sunnis are at war and will be at war for time immemorial. It is as if there was nothing shared. Then, what is the implication for Bahrain? For Lebanon? For Iraq? For Saudi Arabia? For Pakistan? For Afghanistan? For so many Muslim countries with both significant Shiite and Sunni populations. Are these two groups irrevocably opposed to one another? Are their religious views antithetical? To be a Sunni is to follow the path of the Prophet, which no Shiite would deny. To be a Shiite is to extol the leadership of Ali, who any Sunni would venerate. Are there variations in practice and ritual? Of course, but look at what is shared? The fundamental tenet of the faith, the shehada; the Qur'an; the prophets from Adam to Muhammad; and these are just several key examples. What about the principles that underpin the religion of Islam? For starters - Justice. Peace. Humility. Honesty. Forgiveness. Are these not shared? Why is it that in Lebanon, it must be the Shiite versus the Sunni? What made the interests of these two groups oppositional?

Related to this divide is the cultural line between Persians and Arabs. Iran and the Arab world. There is a history of conflict, wars, death. In the 1980s it was Iraq against Iran. In the 980s BC it might have been Assyria against Persia. Who can fight fate? Is that what the Germans said to the French in 1946? How can the dangerous divide between France and Germany be the line of unity for the entire European Union? Those who are fixated on the status quo will be fixed on living in the past. Somehow, Persians and Arabs have less in common as neighbors, than with countries in alliance from thousands of miles away? We could start at baba ghanoush but that is only the start of the ties that bind. Who is synonymous with modern medicine in the Arab world but Ibn Sina, a Persian. What script is the most poetic of Rumi's poems written in but Arabic? We can parse Pars to find evil, but we may find the same hospitality in the homes of Tehran that we do in Baghdad.

Further East, we see a Subcontinent submerged in confounding conflagration since the 1940s. India and Pakistan are mortal combatants. Except in 1857. Except in the 1920s. Of course, there was no India and Pakistan then. Who are Pakistanis and Indians but one another? When the soldiers line up for their trademark face-off in formality at the Wahga border, it is Punjabi on one side - oh, and Punjabi on the other. There are about as many Muslims in India as there are in Pakistan. It would belabor the point to belabor much more on this (read my previous post), but what a useless and pointless conflict.

Alas, the greatest of the pitched battles is the so-called clash of civilizations theorized and conceptualized by the Huntington of Harvard. Islam take your position. West go to the opposite corner. But wait! Why are they apart? What about Ibn Rushd, who was in fact known as Averroes, and portrayed by Raphael in the School of Athens in the Vatican, as one of the key scholars of the West because it was he who translated the great ancient works into modern literature? That was then, this is now. But wait! Adam. Abraham. Moses. Noah. Jesus. Are they not men of God in both Christianity and Islam? It is not about theory but about actual belief. But wait! In poll after poll, don't Muslims in the East and citizens of the West both extol democracy and share the same basic tenets? And, why is it that it is a geographic divide, when there have been Christians 'over there' and Muslims 'over here' part and parcel of the respective societies of whatever is called the 'West' and the 'Muslim world'?

When you and I look for what is different in each other, we will find it because it exists. When you and I look for what is shared between us, we will find it because it exists and because it is more prevalent than what is different. There is no homogeneity of race, ethnicity, religion anymore in this globalized world. We cannot crawl into false comforts of sameness. Not in the United States. Not in Afghanistan. Within and between societies there will be diversity. That cannot be an excuse - for strife. For avoidance. For disagreement. That is simply a recipe for perpetual conflict. One could attempt to dismiss such thoughts as naive and idealistic. They are not. It is in fact the realist and pragmatist that realizes that conflict can only be avoided and security and stability achieved, when we emphasize what binds us and what we share, rather than what divides us.