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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.

Israeli Government Begins Legal Attacks on American Organizations

September 20, 2011

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minster Danny Ayalon has just confirmed during an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 that the Israeli government is officially sponsoring a lawsuit against the Olympia Food Coop in Olympia, Washington. Olympia Foods has been boycotting Israeli products in protest of the Occupation since their board of directors decided to do so in July 2010.

Electronic Intifada and Richard Silverstein had previously reported that pro-Israel organization StandWithUs and the Israeli Consul General in the US had some part in initiating the suit, pointing out that both had be present at the initial hearings.

Richard Silverstein’s latest post offers up the details.

Angling For Crisis – The Real Value of Going to the UN

September 18, 2011

Update: I recommend reading the comments that follow this post. They offer complimentary and alternative perspectives that should be considered.

As the meeting of the UN General Assembly and Palestine’s bid for UN recognition approaches, the governments of Israel, Europe, the United States, and the Arab world, and their respective journalists, pundits, and commentators have offered widely varied analysis. Four basic theses emerge: 1. That the US and Europe should do everything they can to get the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) off this track, perhaps by demanding that Israel become more flexible; 2. That the US is strategically and morally obligated to support the Palestinians; 3. That the Palestinian Authority’s scheme is a fools errand that will accomplish nothing for the Palestinians. And 4. That the reckless and impatient Palestinians are trying to find a way to avoid dealing directly with Israel.

Every one of these positions fails to illustrate the true value of the Palestinian strategy: the creation of a much-need diplomatic crisis.

In his thorough and authoritative text on the diplomatic history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, William Qaundt of the Brookings Institute demonstrates that American policy direction is largely fixed, and often passive, until a crisis erupts and forces policy makers to change tack. In the event of a crisis:

Previous policies may well be exposed as flawed or bankrupt. Reality no longer accords with previous expectations. In such a situation a new structure of perceptions is likely to emerge…Between crisis, as is noted, it is difficult to bring about changes in policies that were forged in crisis and have the stamp of presidential approval. (pages 19-20)

Read more…

Social Justice in Al-Walaja

August 15, 2011

Israeli journalist Amira Hass has recently published an excellent piece on the last weekly demonstration in the Palestinian village of Al-Walaja.  It recounts how IDF soldiers established a “closed military zone” in an area that included part of Jerusalem, and arrested Israeli protestors on sovereign Israeli territory, both of which are against Israeli law. She also points out that the Army Spokesperson’s account diverges from the events that actually took place.

According to the spokesperson:

“The rioters threw stones at IDF forces and refused to obey the security forces’ directives. Some 11 protesters leading the rioting were arrested and charged with throwing stones, and they were taken away to be dealt with by the Israel Police and the Border Police.”

Hass, then explains that no rocks were thrown in the village until after the protestors were arrested. She points out that the actual charges filed against the protestors did not include stone throwing”

“Arrest notices were shown to them (which they refused to sign ): The 11 Israelis were arrested for ‘rioting and violating a closed military zone order’ (and without stone-throwing being attributed to them, contrary to the IDF spokesman’s response ).”

This is account is particularly relevant given the frequency with which the Israeli Government uses stone throwing as a basis for using riot control methods against Palestinian demonstrators. The leaders of both the Nabi Saleh, and Bil’in movements, for example, have been given long prison sentences for inciting youth to throw stones. Israeli Lawyers for the accused have challenged the military courts, saying that the rulings are based on false testimonies extracted from Palestinian youths who have been forced to confess through inhumane treatment.

For those unfamiliar with the town of Al-Walaja, I recommend reading this brief history before reading Hass’s piece:

The majority of the Al-Walaja’s residents are refugees who fled from their homes during the 1948 war and were not permitted to return. The affected families lived in temporary housing, usually tents, for over a decade before building more permanent structures. After Israel took control of the West Bank in the 1967 war, the state annexed 72 sq. km. to Jerusalem, 64 sq. km. of which had not previously been considered part of that city. Part of Al-Walaja falls within those expanded municipal borders.

Israel considers the refugee’s homes to be illegal built because the owners never secured a building permit, even though much of the construction took place before Israel expanded its sovereignty to the area. The Israeli courts, therefore, have permitted Israeli developers to demolish the housing in order to build a new settlement called Har Gilo, effectively threatening the residents of the town with the prospect becoming refugees a second time.

Parts of the towns population, recently with support from internationals and a few sympathetic Israelis, have been protesting the demolition of their homes, the construction of the Separation Wall through the village, and the acquisition of their lands by developers.