Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Musical Celebration of Subversion.

This article has just been published by the Irish Left Review, which has the bonus of a nice video link.

In 2009 the British National Party took to promoting English folk music on its website. One particularly favoured song was Steve Knightley’s Roots:
When the Indians, Asians, Afro-Celts
It's in their blood, below their belt
They're playing and dancing all night long
So what have they got right that we've got wrong?
Seed, bud, flower, fruit
They're never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
They need roots…
Although Knightley was dismayed by this “betrayal” and “violation” of his “invention”, he should have realised that such imagery is in perfect harmony with the discourse of fascism. In 1934 the Nazi musicologist Fritz Stein maintained that “as long as it remained undiluted and true to its German roots, folk music was an essential means of gaining respect abroad.” Furthermore, the juxtaposition of “they” and “we” in Knightley’s verse, although purportedly privileging the “Indians, Asians, Afro-Celts [sic]”, is in fact a careless gesture of exclusion.
One consequence of the BNP’s opportunistic advocacy of English folk music was the foundation of Folk Against Fascism (FAF). Describing itself as “neither left-of-centre nor right-of-centre”, this organisation (which appears to be moribund at present) claimed to be “simply a coalition of people who care passionately about British folk culture and don’t want to see it turned into something it’s not: a marketing tool for extremist politics.”
Both of these well-meaning responses leave something to be desired, and that something has now been provided by the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow , “a collective of singers and songwriters: Frankie Armstrong, Roy Bailey, Robb Johnson, Reem Kelani, Sandra Kerr, Grace Petrie, Leon Rosselson, Janet Russell, Peggy Seeger, Jim Woodland plus one socialist magician, Ian Saville.” With no feeble nod to being “neither right nor left”, this collective claims to be “part of the resistance to a capitalism that functions only on behalf of the wealthy, that aims to shrink the public sphere and privatise public services,… and that is destructive to the planet.”
Many of the 30 tracks of the collective’s new double album, Celebrating Subversion, deal forcefully with such specifically British issues as Thatcherism, Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s views on “the benefits lifestyle, the dismantling of the National Health Service, the occupation of St Paul’s, the sinking of the Titanic (as metaphor for “the practical outcomes of capitalism”), looting during the 2011 London riots, British arms exports, the Peterloo Massacre, and the suffragette Emily Davison, martyred just a century ago.
However, Celebrating Subversion is not thereby celebrating another form of national navel-gazing, but places these issues in a firmly internationalist context. Robb Johnsons Be Reasonable adapts the May ’68 slogan (itself adapted from Che Guevara) “Soyons réalistes – exigeons l’impossible!” (“Let’s be realistic – demand the impossible!”). Frankie Armstrongs Encouragement translates a song by the former East German dissident (or former dissident) Wolf Biermann (“Don’t let your strength die. / Don’t let them make you bitter in these bitter times…”). Armstrong also sings My Personal Revenge by Nicaraguan songwriter Luis Godoy, based on words by the Sandanista leader Tomás Borge (“My personal revenge will be to show you / The kindness in the eyes of my people / Who have always fought relentlessly in battle / And been generous and firm in victory.”). Leon Rosselsons classic Song of the Olive tree, sung here by the incomparable Manchester-born Palestinian Reem Kelani and introduced by a passionate buzuq solo from Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, pays homage to the living symbol of Palestinian sumud (steadfastness and resistance). Kelani sings in Arabic on the rousing Babour zammar (The Ship Sounded its Horn), a Tunisian “migration anthem” from the 1970s, here dedicated to the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi whose self-immolation instigated the Tunisian revolution and hence the so-called Arab Spring. Bread and Roses, a song by Dubliner Martin Whelan inspired by a 1911 poem by American James Oppenheim, is sung by Roy Bailey who also gives us They all sang Bread and Roses by the contemporary American  civil rights, labour and community organiser Si Kahn. The collection ends with Proletarian Lullaby by Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler: “And you, my son, and I and all our people / Must stand together to unite the human race / That unequal classes no more / Will divide the human race.”
Rosselson was born in 1934, and both Roy Bailey and Peggy Seeger in 1935. The latter, daughter of the classical composer Ruth Crawford-Seeger, moved to Britain in 1956 to escape anti-communist hysteria in the USA, eventually marrying the socialist singer-songwriter Ewan McColl. Her contributions to this album are hard acts to follow; Doggone, Occupation is On is an adaptation (partly by Dave Lippman) of the dustbowl classic Doggone, the Panic is on by Hesekiah Jenkins, Progress Train (Seeger) is as fast and furious as the vehicle it evokes (“The human brain’s an intelligent fool / Build you a hospital, build you a school / You wake up the very next day / The progress train took it all away.”), while the unaccompanied Peacock Street, composed by “pistol-packin’ momma” Aunt Molly Jackson, exudes a mixture of pathos, anger and droll humour (p)reminiscent of Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz (“I was cold, I was hungry, it was late in the fall / I knocked down some old big shot, took his money, clothes and all.”).
At the other end of the generational scale, feisty Leicester-born Grace Petrie found her voice in 2010 with the election of the Tory/Liberal coalition government. Her Protest Singer Blues asks “How many deaths will it take 'til we know / Too many people have died?”, decides that “There's no answer blowin' in the wind”, and concludes: “How many times can a man turn his head / And pretend he just doesn't see? / 'Cause I'm ashamed, the times they have a-changed / And a better world was not to be.”
The parody of Dylan is cheeky, but surely to the point: “neither right-of-centre nor left-of-centre”, his early songs modified his mentor Woody Guthrie's robust anti-fascism into a vague, undifferentiated protest that became the hallmark of a generation unwilling to translate that stance into overt political action. Petrie and the rest of her Anti-Capitalism Roadshow colleagues reach back to earlier traditions of activism, and reach across national and sectarian boundaries in a spirit of generous solidarity. The result would make an ideal Christmas or New Year’s present for anyone willing to be provoked and inspired as well as entertained.

Celebrating Subversion costs Stg £15 (plus postage) can be ordered by emailing, where you can pay by paypal.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Eamon Gilmore blames the victims - once again.

At midday on 15th November, as Israel’s latest offensive against the imprisoned people of Gaza got into full swing, I telephoned the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and asked if the Minister – Mr Eamon Gilmore of the Labour Party, who is also the Tánaiste (vice prime minister) – had issued or was about to issue a statement on the matter. When I eventually got through to the Middle East Desk, I spoke to a secretary who informed me that no such statement had been made as yet, but that she would let me know if one was eventually issued. Subsequently, a number of people who made similar inquiries were informed that “a statement was being drafted and would be placed on the Minister’s desk”, to be issued or not as he, in his infinite wisdom, saw fit. Clearly, there was no perception that the matter entailed any urgency.

The Department’s website drew my attention to a euphoric statement made by the Tánaiste on 12th November concerning Ireland’s election to the UN Human Rights Council. Apparently this vote “testifies to the strong reputation we have built up in the area of international human rights advocacy.  More widely, it reflects the esteem in which Ireland is held as a UN member and as a fearless champion of the values which underpin the UN.” I had, therefore, high hopes that if and when Mr Gilmore issued a statement, ghost-written or otherwise, it would be trenchant and fully expressive of the Irish people’s abhorrence of the use of force against a protected people.

When a statement eventually emerged (naturally, no secretary rang me to inform me), it punctured these hopes. Here it is:

‘The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore T.D., has condemned the escalation of violence in southern Israel and Gaza that is putting the lives of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians at risk.  The Tánaiste said:
“This latest round of violence, which was triggered by sustained rocket attacks on towns in Israel and has escalated with the targeted killing of a senior Hamas leader, could lead to the further death and suffering of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians.  The risks from an escalation of violence on either side are all too apparent.    I urge both sides to immediately cease these attacks and remove the threat they pose to the lives and safety of innocent people”.

Rather less than inspired by this piece of pedestrian prose, I fired off the following message:

Dear Minister Gilmore -

Your long-awaited statement on Israel's latest assault on the besieged Gaza Strip is an outrage, and will only serve to deepen the disappointment in the Irish government felt by so many in the Middle East, who mistakenly believed that Ireland was some kind of ally.

At all times your statement puts Israel first: "the escalation of violence in southern Israel..."; "innocent Israeli...civilians..."; "triggered by sustained rocket attacks on towns in Israel..."; "innocent Israeli... civilians..."(again!). It should be remembered that the fundamental circumstance behind the current outbreak of violence is the inherent violence of the ongoing Israeli occupation and colonisation of Palestinian Territory, and Israel's illegal siege of the Gaza Strip and the embargo that constitutes the use of starvation as a weapon of war, in violation of international humanitarian law. This alongside the fact that the current round of violence was in fact initiated by Israel, contrary to the implications of your words.

The delay in issuance of this pathetic statement suggests that the DFA first of all consulted with its "EU partners", and perhaps with Washington and indeed with the Israeli Embassy in order to ascertain what would be "acceptable" to them. The result caricatures Israel's interminable belligerent occupation of the Palestinian Territory as a war between equals, in which "both sides" must be admonished to avoid escalation while simultaneously the aggressor - Israel - is rewarded and treated as a "strategic ally". This is constitutes a shameful degradation of Irish foreign policy, and turns this country into a mere mouthpiece for Western supremacism.

Yours sincerely -
Raymond Deane

I believe that Mr. Gilmore’s mealy-mouthed statement is incompatible with his proud claim that, on the UN Human Rights Council, Ireland will be a “fearless champion of the values which underpin the UN”. Instead, it testifies to the sorry likelihood that Ireland’s role on the UNHRC will be that of a mere mouthpiece for empire, i.e. for the pro-Israeli policies of the USA and EU. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gaza Action Ireland - Statement on "Operation Pillar of Cloud"

PRESS RELEASE, 10am, 15/11/12
Gaza Action Ireland condemns the ongoing assault on Palestine by Israeli forces that has so far resulted in several deaths and many injuries. Israel has threatened to continue its vicious attack on the Gaza Strip for some time.
Commenting on the Israeli onslaught, Mags O’Brien, a spokesperson for Gaza Action Ireland, said: “This is an unbearable situation for the Palestinian people and the international community cannot stand by and watch it worsen. How many people have to die before common sense prevails and sanctions are brought against Israel? These murderous attacks must cease and pressure must be brought to bear on Israel to end its illegal blockade of Gaza.”
Ms O’Brien continued: “The Irish government must lead the demand for economic and political sanctions against Israel. Minister Gilmore needs to be proactive and should move beyond words to action. Strong words are not enough unless they are backed by strong action.”
Gaza Action Ireland are also calling on people to support the various demonstrations and vigils being organised across Ireland this evening and tomorrow in solidarity with the Palestinian people of Gaza. In particular, they are asking people to support tonight’s 5:30pm demonstration at the Israeli embassy in Dublin which is organised by the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


(I wish to thank Conor McCarthy for drawing my attention to the Bromwich article which is my final link)

Issue 175 of the journal Radical Philosophy (September/October 2012) includes a review by Luis A. Fernandez of a book called Anti-Security, edited by Mark Neocleous and George S. Rigakos. Although I have not yet read the book, Fernandez’s account suggests that its first two chapters, Security as Pacification by Neocleous and To Extend the Scope of Productive Labour: Pacification as a Police Project by Rigakos, might inspire a productive reframing of one aspect of the Israel/Palestine imbroglio: the conventional discourse around “peace”.

Fernandez paraphrases Neocleous as claiming “that the capitalist state constantly and intentionally (re)produces insecurity and instability. In turn, this instability gives rise to the politics of security, as the state uses this to gain legitimacy.” Rigakos elaborates: “security, expressed through the police, involves the ‘manifestation of brute force both legislatively and through what we would call pacification.’” Neocleous clarifies that this “refers to a broader set of practices aimed at inducing submission while establishing ‘peace’ and ‘tranquillity’ in a given territory… Neocleous finds that pacification first appears under colonialism to keep colonial subjects under control through the ‘centralization of violence and bureaucratization and discipline of standing armies.’”

Bells will be ringing for all those who have any involvement with the Palestine issue. In the light of the above, reread ICAHD activist Jeff Halper’s famous framing of Israel’s persecution of the Palestinian people as a “matrix of control”, involving “the use of violence to maintain control over the matrix -- the military occupation itself, including massive imprisonment and torture; the extensive use of collaborators to control the local population; pressures exerted on families to sell their lands; the undemocratic, arbitrary and violent rule of the Military Commander of the West Bank and the Civil Administration. What Israelis know of this system they justify in terms of ‘security.’”

The security in question, as we know, is always Israel’s security – when did you last hear a mainstream American or European politician refer to the security needs of the Palestinians, although under international humanitarian law they are a “protected people”? Within Israel itself, of course, the primary insecurity is a function not of Palestinian “terror” (as is conventionally claimed) but of the rampant neo-liberalism to which all mainstream political parties are addicted. Last summer’s “occupation” of Tel Aviv’s Habima Square and the race riots against migrants in the same city may be traced back to this source.

“Pacification”, however, is reserved for the Palestinians. In one obvious sense, it would be quite easy to read the above Halper quotation as describing a “matrix of pacification”. However, I think it is more interesting – and this is the reframing I’m driving at – to see the standard Israeli (ab)use of the word “peace” as merely a euphemism for pacification in the sense defined by Neocleous and Rigakos.

Thus the calamitous (for the Palestinians) “peace process” ushered in by the Oslo Accords could be redefined as a “pacification process”. Ultimately, the Zionist vision of a conclusion to this process is a helpless “demilitarised Palestinian state” with purely cosmetic “trappings of sovereignty” and without territorial contiguity, side by side with a US/EU-backed hegemonic Israel, bristling with arms, and arrogating to itself the right to pounce on its helpless neighbour whenever it decides to feel threatened.

Here is Maj-General Aharon Ze’evi Farkash, former chief of Israel’s military intelligence, on the “demilitarisation” of the proposed Palestinian state (or Bantustan):

The State of Israel’s requirement that a prospective Palestinian state be demilitarized has been in effect since the 1993 Declaration of Principles (DOP), which served as the basis
for the Oslo process and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA). However,
the term “demilitarization,” as it is commonly understood (i.e., a limitation on war materials),is too narrowly defined and does not sufficiently cover the full range of Israel’s security needs. The broader concept includes preventing the development of symmetrical and asymmetrical military threats against Israel – including conventional warfare, terrorism and guerilla warfare – from and via the territory of the PA and a perspective Palestinian state. Demilitarization, then, is a means to safeguarding Israel’s security, not an end in itself.
Under these conditions, it is clear that the “Palestinian state” will be insecure but pacified, while the state of Israel will be secure and at peace (internal upheavals excepted).
A liberal Zionist organisation like Peace Now could be re-baptised Pacification Now, while those whom ultra-Zionists like Alan Dershowitz defame as “enemies of peace” could be more accurately called “enemies of pacification”, an entirely honourable description.
The state of Israel, resolutely backed by its US and EU allies, seeks to “create a desolation and call it peace” (in the Roman historian Tactitus’s resounding phrase). Let us henceforth call this desolation by its proper name: pacification. True peace is the opposite, entailing justice and an attention to the legitimate security needs of all – without discrimination.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chomsky in Gaza

Whether or not one agrees with Noam Chomsky's positions of principle on the Palestine issue - in particular his stubborn support for the "sensible" two-state solution - he remains what Elie Wiesel, to whom the phrase is usually applied, is most emphatically not: a moral instance. Chomsky's Deterring Democracy is the book that woke me up to political realities (disgracefully belatedly) some twenty years ago, and I still recommend it wholeheartedly. Now 83 years old, Chomsky is in Gaza where he was among those awaiting the arrival of the humanitarian ship SV Estelle when it was hi-jacked by Israeli state pirates. Here is Chomsky's latest and strongest statement on the matter:

  "I’m here in Gaza, I’ve been here for several days. I was here hoping to greet the latest boat from the Flotilla, the Estelle. We were waiting at the Gaza port. The boat, like earlier ones, was hijacked by the Israeli navy. They call it Israeli territorial waters, it’s actually Gazan waters or international waters, Israel has no right to those waters. The Estelle was another effort to break the siege, as in some way is our visit. The siege is a criminal act that has no justification. It should be broken and it should be strongly opposed by the outside world. It’s simply an effort to intimidate the Gazans into self-destruction, to try to get rid of them and destroy the society. There is absolutely no justification for it – military justifications are claimed but they have no credibility. The people on the boat should be honoured and respected for their courage and commitment and for undertaking a brave and important effort to break the siege, the criminal siege, and bring hope to the people of Gaza who are imprisoned, literally imprisoned in the biggest prison in the world. Also to bring to the world the message that we on the outside have a real responsibility to bring these criminal acts to an end."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Russell Tribunal in East Village III: Final Reflections

At the closing press conference of the New York Russell Tribunal on Palestine, 95-year-old Stephane Hessel, last surviving co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, exhorted the media to “BE BRAVE!”

So: were the media listening? Unfortunately, as far as the mainstream newspapers are concerned, the response is a predictable negative. The only mainstream “listener” was Sohrab Amari, an assistant books editor at the Wall Street Journal (if a paper so far to the right can truly be describes as “mainstream”). However, he only turned up on the first day and clearly was listening with only one ear.

Typically, even the headline of this article was inaccurate: Israel on Trial in New York. As far as the Tribunal is concerned, Israel was condemned according to due process at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in July 2004. It has not been in the dock at any session of the RToP, which has concentrated on the question of international complicity with Israel’s crimes. Hence Amari’s whinges that “there was no one to speak for the defendant, the world’s sole Jewish state” and that “the verdict was never in doubt” were deliberately beside the point.

In fact it appears that jury member Roger Waters informed Amari that the RToP “is a people’s tribunal and we do invite the other side to attend.” Amari wonders parenthetically “Why would the Israelis have declined such an invitation”? However, at the very start of the event Pierre Galand informed the audience that not alone had Israel declined to attend, but that neither of the actual defendants – the US government and the UN – had even responded to the Tribunal’s invitation to send representatives.

According to the self-styled “news dissector” Danny Schechter, who gives a largely fair account of the event, Amari repeatedly complained to him that “‘It’s so one sided…’” Schechter comments: “That was strange coming from a member of the Journal’s Opinion page that is known for being… as one-sided as they come.”

Schechter himself, however, writing for the informative but erratic website Global Research, gave a rather misleading impression of the atmosphere at the Tribunal: “the whole event tended to be passionless, academic and legalistic. There were long lectures on legal precedents that the lawyers in the room might have appreciated but put some people around me to sleep.”

Certainly I noticed nobody sleeping, and if anybody was so inclined there was nothing to stop them from stepping into the foyer and sampling some of the delicious and punch-packing Ethiopian coffee laid on gratis for participants. And how could a legal tribunal, even a civil one, be anything other than “academic and legalistic”? My own feeling, and one that was shared by everyone whom I met, was that the atmosphere was enthusiastic and, indeed, passionate.

However, Schechter dealt convincingly with an issue that had puzzled (and, to be honest, disappointed) me: the total absence of Zionist protestors outside the Cooper Union. Here’s Schechter’s take:

[At the Capetown session of the RToP] South African supporters of Israel mounted an angry protest that drew major media attention.  Perhaps that’s why the often vociferous pro-Israel lobby in New York stayed away this time, hoping the Tribunal and its findings would be ignored…

Another considered account of the Tribunal that nonetheless made what I consider to be unjust and rather gratuitous criticisms came from Christopher Federici, who contributed it to the Palestine Chronicle. Referring to the testimony from Vera Gowlland-Debbas, former Rapporteur for the UNCHR, Federici writes:

The sobering inference from this testimony is that the existing international legal framework is insufficient in addressing the Israeli occupation, as the establishment dominated by American and European elite [sic] is clearly disinclined to act upon its own mandate. Mired in cynicism, the entire mission of the Tribunal appeared futile with its strict emphasis on discussing a power structure that most speakers acknowledged provides little recourse for Palestinians.

Why “mired in cynicism”? Surely the cynicism is elsewhere, and surely it was part of the brief for the RToP to ascertain the insufficiency of the existing international legal framework and to establish that it “provides little recourse for Palestinians”? But there’s more:

Ultimately, the Tribunal appeared conflicted by stark contrasts between the desire to project a sense of procedural legality and the inescapable underpinnings of activism that drove the very desire to organize. This conflict, it could be argued, sullied the effectiveness of either initiative.

Where is the conflict? That there is a complex dialectic between the respective underpinnings of procedural legality on the one hand and activism on the other is self-evident, not least to international lawyers and activists, and is seen by most of them (in my opinion and experience) as a productive factor. I met nobody in New York who felt "sullied", but then I didn't meet Mr Federici.

Similar language was used in a still more damaging article by Abraham Greenhouse, who blogs at the widely respected website Electronic Intifada to which I am myself an occasional contributor.

While the “witnesses” were mainly international law experts at home in the world of inter-governmental bodies and narrowly-defined protocols for advancing an action, the majority of attendees…  were oriented toward grassroots activism operating largely outside of such channels. This particular contradiction resonated throughout the entire event.

Once again, where Greenhouse sees a contradiction I see a dialectic. He seems to see “grassroots activists” as brawny doers indifferent to theoretical refinements, as opposed to narrow specialists with their heads in the law-books, thereby grossly caricaturing both. His claim that  

the very experts explaining the myriad ways in which the United Nations and all its organs were so thoroughly broken had yet to relinquish the idea that these remained the most viable mechanisms for achieving justice for Palestinians

bears no relation to the strong critiques of the UN voiced by, among others, Vera Gowlland-Debbas, Phyllis Bennis, or Peter Jansen. Furthermore, the Tribunal's conclusion that the UN is itself in violation of international law in its failure to implement its resolutions on Israel is surely radical and important. Greenhouse's huffy assertion that

Grassroots Palestinian activists and their allies are no longer accustomed to such a dismal view of their own agency

belies the fact that no such “dismal view” was forthcoming (except perhaps from the increasingly dismal Noam Chomsky), the vitality of civil society activism having been emphasised by speaker after speaker.

In short the “futility of relying on [the] UN” mentioned in the title of Greenhouse’s piece and posited by him as a critique of the RToP could, on the contrary, have served as a subtitle for the Tribunal itself. Greenhouse reserves his most pompous pronouncements for the end of his article:

 I’m less concerned about finding the perfect descriptor[sic] for Israel’s ongoing assault on the lives and rights of Palestinians than I am about fighting it. The terms that matter most to me begin with B, D, and S.

By Jove, the man thinks he has invented the wheel! Greenhouse seems to be implying that none of the speakers at the Cooper Union share his heroic desire to fight for Palestinian rights. But not alone was BDS advocated by many these speakers, it was also at the heart of the three previous sessions – I can well remember the collective intake of breath when it was advocated, against all expectations, in the conclusions of the jury at the end of the first (Barcelona) session. Indeed the advocacy of BDS by such a venerable institution may be instanced as one of the many refutations of Norman Finkelstein’s deplorable thesis that BDS is a “cult”!

Nobody would suggest that Palestinian rights activists should refrain from critique of the Russell Tribunal out of some misplaced sense of loyalty, and in the course of these blogs I’ve made one or two criticisms of my own. Nonetheless, many of the criticisms in “progressive” outlets are less than comradely; they give the impression that certain vain activists feel that a bunch of toffee-nosed intellectuals is attempting to trespass on their territory.

Ultimately, the RToP is simply another tool in the struggle for Palestinian rights, which is simultaneously a struggle for a better world order. We can never have too many such tools.

As I was writing this piece, I discovered that RToP coordinator Frank Barat had published his own response to some of these criticisms. I’m proud to end my own account of the New York session with Frank’s words:

So don't get me wrong, criticism is important, actually crucial. Receiving feedback from activists about the tribunal's work is essential. No one is perfect. We strive on constructive criticism. But please be fair.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Russell Tribunal in the East Village II: "We need this thing to go viral!"

The Cooper Union is particularly proud that on 27th February 1860 Abraham Lincoln delivered one of his most famous speeches there, perhaps the one that resulted in his election as US president. One sentence is singled out and printed on a plaque in the building’s foyer: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.

In the course of the fourth session of the Russell Tribunal I reflected on this quotation repeatedly, and came to the conclusion that its fine sentiments are as dangerous as they are uplifting. For is it not the USA’s unshakeable conviction that it is always right, that being right is in fact its manifest destiny, that has led it so consistently to abuse its might? Aggressive self-righteousness – George W. Bush’s “I know how good we are” – is one of the factors that have placed the USA in the dock at the Cooper Union.

The US and Israeli governments, incidentally, were invited to send representatives to the Tribunal. Neither self-righteous power was righteous enough to respond.
The second day of the RToP was so packed that I must confine my attentions to a few contributions. The full proceeds can anyway be found on the RToP’s website.

Once again, the session began with a highlight. Although Palestinian-Canadian Diana Buttu, a former legal advisor to the PLO, chose to jettison her prepared text and speak ad lib, her speech came across as one of the most focussed and structured contributions of the weekend, as well as being moving and passionate.

The goal of the “peace process”, under American tutelage, has been to cement Zionist policy. From 1967 until the Reagan era, the colonial settlements were defined as “illegal”. Under Clinton they ceased to be illegal and became “obstacles to peace”. Under Obama they have ceased to be either illegal or obstacles to peace, whereas “continued settlement activity” is defined as “illegitimate”. This transformation of illegality into legality typifies US policy. She mocked the common trope that “we all know what a solution looks like”, viz, a two-state arrangement with territorial adjustments. “Do we?” she asked rhetorically, pointing out that the incorporation if illegal colonial settlements into Israel “proper” would merely constitute a further massive redrawing of borders in Israel’s favour.

Buttu concluded by thanking the Russell Tribunal “for bringing Palestine to the USA”. Although bringing Palestinians to the USA is just as fraught as difficulties, there are so many brilliant Palestinian intellectuals based here (Joseph Massad, Rashid Khalidi, Ali Abunimah are names that spring to mind) that it is difficult to understand why, apart from Buttu and in the absence of Huwaida Arraf (unfortunately prevented by illness from participating), there was only one other Palestinian contributor to the Tribunal.

This was the historian Saleh Hamayel, also known as Abd al-Jawad or Abdul-Jawad, a confusion of nomenclature that he related to that between (jury member) “Dennis Banks” and “Naawakamig”. Billed to discuss the relevance to Palestine of the concept of sociocide, Hamayel, a fiery orator, suggested that it replace apartheid which he deemed inapplicable to the Palestinian situation because it is not strictly comparable to apartheid South Africa.

This gave rise to an extraordinary moment in the ensuing question-and-answer session when jury member Michael Mansfield QC demanded that Hamayel provide the official UN definition of apartheid, repeatedly interrupting him when he attempted to reply. Mansfield’s substantive point was correct – the Capetown session of the RToP had gone to great lengths to establish that the relevance of apartheid to Israel/Palestine consists not in analogies with South Africa (although such analogies exist), but in the applicability to both regimes of the Apartheid Convention. However, while it was shocking enough to see an expert witness being attacked by a jury member, it was doubly shocking that the victim was a Palestinian; cries of “shame” were audible from the audience. Fortunately Hamayel, who had survived repeated imprisonment without trial by the Israelis, did not seem particularly dismayed.

The legendary Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, who first framed the concept of sociocide, spoke to define it: “the killing of a society’s capacity to survive and reproduce itself”. In subsequent discussion it was agreed (although possibly not by the slightly cryptic Galtung) that while the concept undoubtedly has descriptive power in relation to the destruction of Palestinian society, the fact that it is currently not defined as a crime under international law and is anyway subsumed under the definition of genocide limits its relevance to the case at hand.

Russell Means, “the most famous American Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse”, was to have spoken on The Sociocide of the Native Americans, but at the last moment this former supporter of the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras was replaced via skype by Ward Churchill, an equally controversial figure among native Americans. He appeared to be saying forceful things about the relationship between genocide and sociocide, but unfortunately a technological gremlin caused his words to become increasingly incomprehensible.

Other gremlins interfered with the day’s most eagerly anticipated speaker, Noam Chomsky. Laryngitis prevented his turning up in the flesh, while his self-confessed technical incompetence meant that, in contradiction to Means, we could hear him clearly but see on-screen only a ghostly outline of his featureless head surmounted by that enviable mop of white hair.

Chomsky’s Retrospect and Prospect concentrated mainly on the former, and on that level was comprehensive and incisive. His final words, however, were “the prospects are grim”, after which he lapsed into stubborn silence. The somewhat gothic nature of Chomsky’s overall performance cast a pall of gloom over many audience members, but two sprightly contributions helped to dispel it.

Theologian David Wildman displayed a welcome and irrepressible sense of humour although his subject, Christian Zionism and the Israel Lobby, was potentially one of the most depressing imaginable. Having usefully linked the Israel Lobby (of which Christian Zionists are a major component) to Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex, he listed seven nefarious traits characteristic of Christian Zionism: it is dualistic (good versus evil – “I know how good we are”), provides a religious apology for US/Israeli militarism as part of God's plan, sees truth as based on belief rather than facts, provides a theological apology for US imperial/corporate power, has an insatiable need for official enemies (czarists, communists, Muslims), considers all pro-peace and pro-justice groups to be enemies, and advocates the most extreme forms of right-wing populism. He was severely critical of mainstream (“liberal”) Christianity for its failure to condemn Christian Zionism unequivocally, and (prodded by jury member Mairead Corrigan) concluded that when the Church allies itself with power, “just war theory” is an all too natural consequence.

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies delivered the most exhilarating speech of the day, one involuntarily spiced by a Freudian slip of the tongue when she described Kofi Annan as “former Secretary General of the United States”. While she catalogued a woeful litany of US abuses of the UN, she also listed a succession of hopeful developments such as the increased independence of Latin American countries and their willingness to espouse the Palestinian cause, and the unexpected (if vain) rebellion of delegates at the recent Democratic Convention when called upon to reinstate language describing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in violation of international law. Asserting that international civil society campaigns focussing on a single issue were more effective than a multiplicity of national campaigns on separate issues, she recommended the multinational Veolia as an appropriate target.
On Monday morning, 8th October, at the Church Center for the United Nations directly opposite the United Nations building, a press conference was held at which Michael Mansfield read out the “Executive Summary of the Findings of the Fourth Session of the Russell Tribunal”. Here are the most relevant conclusions:

The Tribunal finds that Israel’s ongoing colonial settlement expansion, its racial separatist policies, as well as its violent militarism would not be possible without the US’s economic, military, and diplomatic support…

It is the opinion of this Tribunal that the US has committed the following violations of international and US law:

By enabling and financing Israel’s violations of international humanitarian and human rights norms, the US is guilty of complicity in international wrongful acts…

By obstructing accountability for violations of the Geneva Conventions, the US has failed to meet its obligations as a High Contracting Party…

In continuing to provide economic support for settlement expansion, the US is also in violation of the International Court of Justice’s jurisprudence…

By stonewalling an international resolution to the conflict by abusing its veto power within the Security Council, the US is in violation of several provisions of the UN Charter…

By failing to condition military aid to Israel… on its compliance with human rights norms and strict adherence to the law of self-defence, the US is in violation of its own domestic law.

…[T]he UN’s failure to take action proportionate to the duration and severity of Israel’s violations of international law…, and by not exhausting all peaceful means of pressure available to it, the UN does not comply with the obligations that States have conferred on [it]. …[B]y its failure to act more strongly than it does, the UN violates international law. The effect of these failures is to undermine the rule of law and the integrity and legitimacy of the institutions of international law.

The lack of concrete UN action against Israel constitutes an internationally wrongful act… [T]he UN must stop its wrongful omission and compensate for the damage suffered by Palestine.

In conclusion, the Tribunal proposed that change can be achieved by

1.      1. The mobilization of international public opinion… via the various manifestations of civic society:
a.      Networks, movements with particular emphasis upon the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, trade unions and other campaigns.
b.      Social media networks.

2.      2. Paying attention to the vital role of criminal and civil litigation against the perpetrators of the various violations before domestic courts.

3.      3. The referral of crimes committed in Palestine to the I[nternational]C[riminal]C[ourt] by the Security Council or by the acceptance of the Declaration made by the Palestinian government in January 2009 accepting the competence of the ICC.

4.      4. Reforming the UN itself, for example by the abolition of the veto by the five permanent members of the Security Council…
At this press conference 95-year-old Stephane Hessel, last surviving co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, exhorted the media to “BE BRAVE!” Over the next few days it will be interesting to see whether they, and particularly the mainstream media, are paying attention. The philosopher Bertrand Russell wished his Tribunal to “prevent the crime of silence”, but this noble aim can easily be subverted by the media which, more often than not, are complicit in the propagandistic aims of power.

I shall return in my next blog to this issue, and to the overall questions raised by the whole RToP project. Meanwhile, let superstar Roger Waters have the last word: 

“We need this thing to go viral!”

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Russell Tribunal in the East Village I

It is 10 A.M. and the first day of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) should already have started. However, the queue outside the Cooper Union in New York’s East Village has barely moved since I joined it almost an hour ago. By now it is reputedly almost 1000 strong and there are dark rumours that it will be noon before it has been fully accommodated in the historic building’s Great Hall.

This being the USA, the problem is security. It appears that attendees are being allowed into the venue six at a time, where their bags are searched and they are screened by a metal detector. Every so often an RToP volunteer sallies forth and thanks us for our patience. I have now rounded the corner and am within sight of the main entrance, which is good, but am standing in the sun, which is bad because it forces me to don a baseball cap that makes me feel stupid.

Now a Cooper Union security man emerges and tells us to place our bags and rucksacks on the ground beside us. Another security man materialises, leading a diminutive Labrador dog on a leash. The dog, wagging its tail amiably, sniffs our bags, and its master gestures us to move towards the door. The metal detector has been abandoned, and now everything moves rapidly. Being a Luddite and a dog-lover, I feel doubly vindicated.

Inside, I meet many old friends and associates, people whom I have encountered at conferences and demonstrations on behalf of Palestinian rights in Dublin, London, Paris, Brussels, Geneva, Barcelona and previously here in New York. Although we are all conscious of the seriousness of the occasion, there is also something of the feel of a family reunion – and to enhance it, here is my sister Patricia, in harness as a translator for the Tribunal.

At last, over an hour late, we are ready to start. Pierre Galand, Belgian socialist ex-senator, veteran of innumerable solidarity campaigns but most intimately associated with the cause of Palestine through the Association Belgo-Palestinienne, the European Co-ordinating Committee of NGOs on the Question of Palestine (ECCP), and now the RToP, welcomes us to the session. He deplores that fact that neither Leila Shahid, Palestinian Authority Ambassador to the European Union, nor Raji Sourani, founder and director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, was able to obtain a visa to come to New York. He warns us that since this is a tribunal and not a public meeting we must resist the temptation to applaud at any stage. He is warmly applauded.

Pierre Galand announces the first speaker, the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé. The audience spontaneously bursts into applause, and Pierre almost loses his considerable cool. “Please do not applaud! The audiences in Capetown were able to obey this simple rule – why cannot we do it in New York?” Nobody looks particularly contrite.

Ilan speaks about the history of Zionism. I have often seen and heard him speak, but today he outdoes himself: clarity, passion and humour culminate in a plea not to allow advocacy for the Palestinian cause to be limited by the parameters of an increasingly illusory “two-state solution” – all conveyed effortlessly within a 20’ time-span. This will be a hard act to follow.

He is followed by Peter Hansen, former Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). He does not attempt a history of the UN’s involvement in the Palestine issue, but characterises the organisation under six headings: its role as source and generator of International Law, its responsibility for implementing these laws, its role in interpreting them, its supervisory/monitoring role, its humanitarian activities (in particular UNRWA), and its institution-building capacity. The UN, he believes, cannot be reformed from within but only by civil society pressure on its constituent governments.

The British activist Ben White has been handed the daunting task of outlining “Israeli Policies Since 1948”, but is clearly determined that his audience will not be starved of its lunch for longer than necessary. The Law of Return, the Absentee Property Law, the Law of Human Dignity and Liberty, the Jewish National Fund, the World Zionist Organisation, the Jewish Agency, the Judaisation of the Negev and Galilee – they fly past at a rate that would be bewildering were it not for Ben’s calm articulacy.

At some point Frank Barat, Tribunal coordinator, shows a bald, elderly black gentleman to his seat. I experience a deep frisson as I realise that this is Harry Belafonte, legendary singer and vocal human rights activist, a hero of my distant childhood. With him in the audience and Davis, McKinney and Walker on the jury, it seems that the icons of black America – all except their president, Barack Obama – are uniting on the side of the persecuted Palestinians. This in itself could be a major factor leading to a shift in US public opinion.

After lunch, law Professor and author John Quigley speaks on The Establishment of a Palestinian State, and is unambiguous in his support for the Palestinian Authority’s attempts to achieve statehood at the UN. This, of course, is a controversial question but Quigley is quietly convincing. Indeed he claims that there has in fact been a Palestinian state since at least 1924, while conceding that not everyone would agree with him.

International lawyer Vera Gowlland-Debbas delivers the day’s lengthiest and most technical exposition, on the legal responsibilities of the UN. From the start she expresses her conviction that the UN has failed in those responsibilities, at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned. She concludes that the double standards of the Security Council have endangered the principle of the rule of law in international affairs.

Pakistani-American international lawyer Susan Akram speaks on Palestinian Refugees and the United Nations. She threads her way carefully through the anomalies introduced by UN General Assembly Resolution 194 which, by guaranteeing Palestinian refugees the right of return, at a stroke separated their fate from that of refugees destined for resettlement, whose interests are ably represented by the UNHCR. The creation of UNRWA catered to the material needs of Palestinian refugees while depriving them of advocacy, which does not come within UNRWA’s mandate. These refugees therefore find themselves in a legal limbo.

The absence of a Palestinian voice among today’s speakers would have been powerfully rectified by Raji Sourani. In the event, he is represented by Jeanne Mirer, president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. While she provides numerous details and statistics about the baleful consequences of Israel’s occupation and siege of the tiny Gaza Strip, what hits home most forcefully is the evidence in her manner and tone of voice that what she has seen in Gaza has shocked and angered her profoundly.

And thus the first long day of the fourth international session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine draws to a close. Audience and participants stand around and gossip for a time, then a bunch of us repair to a bar where I drink ginger ale while my companions enjoy $5 happy-hour cocktails.

Returning home to my refuge in the upper West Side, I change trains at Times Square. On the platform a skinny black man is playing Beethoven’s Für Elise on a steel drum. Catching my eye he interrupts himself and chirps “hi, daddy!” before resuming his startling performance. This is slightly disconcerting, but this is New York, New York…