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Activists’ Apathy Predicament

December 24, 2011

The Opposite of Good is Apathy

The New Inquiry has published an essay by Elliot Prasse-Freeman called Be Aware: Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics. It criticizes the work of New York Times journalist Nicolas Kristof, arguing that he keeps his readers in a constant loop of “awareness” that allows them to recognize the world’s injustices without actually asking them to recognize their complacency in them. The author compellingly argues that Kristof sterilizes and infantilizes the subjects on which he reports, and I agree that Kristof’s writing caters to the apathy of Westerners by focusing on the graphic and emotional details rather than on the systemic political and social causes that really need to be addressed. I am concerned, however, that the result that so frustrates Prasse-Freeman – Westerners who say “isn’t that terrible” without ever thinking anything more of the subject – is a far more vexing problem than can be solved by any adjustment to Kristof’s journalistic practices or even those of the entire profession. Indeed, journalism’s role in society is to improve awareness, not to direct action.

Let us consider what would happen if Kristof published the kind of shrewdly analytical pieces that the author requests. Prasse-Freeman suggests that removing the familiar Westerner through which Kristof tells many of his stories would free up “200 words or better” to tell the story of the person or people who are supposed to be the subject of the article. Kristof should then seek to tell the story the way it would be written for the subject’s family or friends, not for white people living thousands of miles away. The subject would become a human whose story extends beyond simply the violence that he or she experienced. Kristof could do this by exploring “the daily challenges of village life, only then moving on to why [the subject] was attacked.”

I am fully confident that if Kristof took this approach his readership would immediately diminish to the much smaller number familiar to the many authors who do actually write this way. Readers connect to that to which they relate and to stories that are visceral and shocking. The primary problem, I think, is not that Kristof makes an American woman the focus of his piece on violence in Africa, but that the vast majority of readers find the American woman to be far more compelling than violence in Africa, which, deep down, they understand as the natural and unchangeable result of the fact that the people there are poor, black, and “savage.” Kristof uses the American girl as a literary trick familiar to fiction writers in a desperate attempt to make his hopelessly apathetic readers care at all.

Prasse-Freemen then asks that Kristof “contextualize [the subject], making her a political actor part of a larger political economy.” This would certainly serve the reader a portion of important truth, but it would also make the article far too long for the average Westerner to even consider engaging. People read columns to get a taste of a subject, not an in-depth discussion. Longer, more thorough pieces of the kind Prasse-Freeman suggests are widely available to those who seek them, even in the NYT Sunday Magazine, but the readership is significantly lower. National Public Radio and the Pubic Broadcasting Station, for example, offer some excellent radio and television essays for free, but most Americans would prefer to watch the horrifically simplified sensationalized alternatives offered by Fox and MSNBC.

 Just imagine if Kristof then tried to suggest that the suffering of poor Generose from the Congo was a direct result of the economic system that provides the readers’ livelihoods. Not only would this be too inconvenient for agreement, but also too intimidating for further consideration. The DRC is a primary source of minerals required for producing computer chips used by gaming systems, and as much as we would like to believe otherwise, I suspect that most Americans would still buy a Play Station Three even if they were presented with clear and compelling evidence that doing so fuels a brutal conflict. Read more…


NYT Video: Lawlessness in Israel?

October 19, 2011

The New York Times has quietly contributed to the (slow) improvement of the media’s portrayal of the Palestinian Israeli Conflict. The paper published this interview of Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement activist, Assaf Sharon, by Sharon highlights a recent violent attack on Israeli activists by West Bank settlers, which has yet to be investigated by Israeli authorities. He points out that events like the recent  burning of a mosque  in northern Israel signify what he calls the “osmosis” settler violence into Israel Proper.

Palestinian Concerns About Going to the UN

October 8, 2011

 On September 23rd, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Mahmoud Abbas submitted an application to the UN Security Council (UNSC) for recognition as a full member of the UN. A recent poll by Palestinian polling organization, Near East Consulting showed that 84% of Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza support Abbas’s initiative (it should be noted that NEC results often lean in favor of Abbas’s Fatah party). Some members of the Palestinian community are concerned, however, about the potential drawbacks of such an action.

The first of two primary concerns is a lack of clarity about how the global Palestinian community will be represented if Palestine is recognized as either a member state or a non-member state of the UN. The PLO is currently recognized by the world and by the Palestinian community as the sole legitimate international representative of the Palestinian people. If Palestine is accepted as a state then what becomes of the PLO? Oxford University international law professor Guy Goodwin Gill published a legal opinion highlighting this issue, and putting forth concerns that the Palestinian community may have little or no true representation in whatever entity emerges out of the UN process.

The second concern of Palestinian UN bid skeptics relates to international recognition of the 1967 borders. UNSC Resolution 242 demands that Israel withdraw from territories occupied in the ’67 war, and in 1988, the PLO officially recognized Israel outside of those territories, but the UN has never taken the official position that the 1967 line (commonly referred to as the “Green Line”) is the border between Israel and the future state of Palestine. Those who oppose the UN initiative contend that further affirming the Green Line as the final border further concedes the Palestinian claim to the other 78% of historic Palestine. This, they fear, will create an obstacle to re-acquiring more of their land in a future paradigm under which such action would be possible.

Read more…

Geothermal Energy in Palestine

October 7, 2011

Khaled Al Sabawi presents the accomplishments of his Palestinian renewable energy company, and the challenges presented by trying to build under occupation.

Jewish Extremists Torch Mosque in Northern Israel

October 3, 2011
The headlines of the Israeli daily Haaretz cover a so called “price tag” attack* that took place in northern Israel last night, in which Jewish extremists torched a mosque serving the local Arab community. A second article says that the Prime Minister is “horrified” by the event.

I am sure Netanyahu is as distraught as he says he is, but I’m not sure why he is surprised. This is not a unique event. So called “price tag” attacks happen almost weekly in the West Bank, and the national narrative is becoming increasingly more skeptical of the Israel’s own Arabs citizens. The (popular) party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman advocates a series of laws that essentially accuse Arabs of not being loyal the state – similar, in a way, to how Jews in Europe were seen as “the enemy from within”. Last year twenty rabbis in Safad signed a letter commanding Jews not to sell land to Arabs, and earlier this year it was made legal for towns of less than 400 people to be discriminatory about who they allow to join their communities. Arab citizens were obviously the ones most affected. The majority of such communities are in northern Israel, the same area where this attack was perpetrated. And if the government is as opposed to the destruction of places of worship as it claims to be, then why does it occasionally demolish mosques itself?

The creeping expansion of racial hatred always starts small, and the boldness with which it is expressed grows ever so incrementally so as to shield itself from our sensitivities. This particular attack may have offered a bit too much drama to escape the media, but it is unlikely that it will truly result in the “self-examination” that opposition leader Tzipi Livni said such events require.

*A “price tag” attack is when Israeli extremists, often settlers, attack a local Palestinian village in response to an offensive action by the Israel government. For exemple, the Israeli Defense Forces occasionally destroy structures built in settlements that do not have government approval. The residents of that settlement will then often go and burn olive trees and taunt residents of the nearest Palestinian community. Such attacks are often compared to the pogroms that terrorized Russian and Eastern European Jews at the beginning of the last century. Price tag offenders are almost never held accountable.

Authorities Permit Jewish Extremist Militia to Enter Israel

September 26, 2011
Graffiti in Hebron
“Gas The Arabs – JDL (Jewish Defense League)” Hebron – June 2010

On a visit to Hebron last year, I discovered this lovely bit of political art (its message particularly evocative for Jews). The Jewish Defense League is a Jewish militant organization founded by extremist American-Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane’s political party, Kach, was banned in Israel in 1988, and the JDL was listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organization in 1994.

That classification doesn’t seem to prevent the entry of JDL militiamen into Israel, however. The French chapter of the Jewish Defense League, which has a history of violent attacks in peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstrations in France, has assembled a force of fifty-five militiamen and sent them to the Holy Land on a “mission” to protect Israel settlements from Palestinians. According to the recruiting website, “the aim of this expedition is to lend a hand to our brothers facing aggression from the Palestinian occupiers, and to enhance the security of Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria [West Bank].” Israel has allowed the group to enter.

This past July, 600+ pro-Palestinian activists flew into Israel’s Ben Gurion airport within a 24-hour period and announced that they had arrived to visit Palestine, not Israel. The action was meant to highlight the fact that most people looking to visit the West Bank are forced to lie about their intentions upon entry. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu instructed his government to dramatically increase security staff at the airport, and to deport anyone participating in the action. “Every country has the right to prevent entry of disrupters and provocateurs at its borders,” he said.

Armed French citizens in a West Bank settlement – Photo: JDL

Capable peace activists can indeed be disruptive and provocative, but it’s difficult to understand why they would be seen as more troublesome than trained militants. The JDL in France sought candidates with prior military experience and martial arts training. There is little doubt that Israel, a country that puts such an emphasis on border security, could have prevented such people from entering. And yet it chose not to do so.

Read more at AlJazeeraForeign fighters support Israel’s settlements

A Global Referendum on American Competence

September 21, 2011

The entire Palestinan affair at the UN is shrouded in uncertainty. There is only one conclusion at which we can comfortably arrive before experiencing the fallout of this week’s events: that almost no member of the international community thinks the US is remotely capable of solving this conflict.

Effective third party mediation allows the two primary parties to a conflict to make progress on substantive issues despite their mistrust of each other, and it helps to keep dialoge focused on practical rather than emotional issues. A mediated, gradual process that allows the parties to build trust in each other is, without a doubt, a better option than having the weaker party unilaterally demand recognition as a state.Unless, apparently, it is an American mediated process.

The American government has been so negligent (and bias) in its role as a mediator, that at least 130 countries, likely including much of Western Europe, are about to put their faith in what should be a far less logical option.