Monday, May 18, 2015

New York Times Coverage Follows Narrative of Israeli State Power

The New York Times ran two very different stories recently related to Israel. An analysis of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement titled Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities,” portrays the nonviolent campaign to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law as a cause of tensions between ethnic groups. Several days later, the Gray Lady printed Israel Says Hezbollah Positions Put Lebanese at Risk," uncritically repeating Israeli propaganda justifying a future violent, illegal invasion that would likely kill thousands of civilians.  

In the article on BDS, the Times pursues a biased preconceived narrative that BDS is sparking a conflict between ethnic groups. In reality, to the extent there is a conflict, it is between two different political groups - Zionists and anti-Zionists. It has nothing to do with one's race or religion, but with their political views on whether all people enjoy equal rights or not.  

Writing in Salon, David Palumbo-Liu calls the piece "race-baiting." Ali Abunimah writes that Jewish students involved in the BDS movement were interviewed by the Times but "when their words didn't fit a preordained story, their voices were excluded altogether." Even the Times' Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote that interview questions subjecting Jewish BDS supporters to a "Jewish litmus test" were "unprofessional and unacceptable." 

A Palestinian student at UC Berkeley who spoke with Abunimah was asked questions by a Times reporter from her editor including: "To what extent is BDS used as a fig leaf for anti-Semitism?" It appears obvious that the angle of the story came before the reporting done to back it up. 

By pursuing this particular angle, the Times is following the ideological position of the Israeli government, which claims BDS is an attack on Jews. This is a position explicitly stated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech last year during which he mentioned "BDS" 18 times: "Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot." 

The Times also states that college activists have "cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a powerful force's oppression of a displaced group." It is true that college activists have cast the conflict this way. So have the world's top scholars, human rights organizations, and international lawyers. Many have used stronger and more accurate language, casting it as the conquest and slow-motion genocide of an entire people.

In his 2014 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, international law expert Richard Falk wrote of overwhelming evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including apartheid and ethnic cleansing. 

“Through prolonged occupation, with practices and policies which appear to constitute apartheid and segregation, ongoing expansion of settlements, and continual construction of the wall arguably amounting to de facto annexation of parts of the occupied Palestinian territory, the denial by Israel of the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people is evident,” Falk writes.

There is nearly seventy years worth of documented evidence from human rights organizations of collective punishmenttorture and abuse of detaineesunlawful killings; a blockade by air, land and sea; abuse of children; and innumerable other offenses. Leading Jewish Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, who had access to state archives and David Ben-Gurion's personal diary, writes in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine that Zionist leaders planned the "systematic and total expulsion [of Palestinians] from their homeland."

The Times could also say college activists cast the problem of climate change as the accumulation of man-made greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere creating catastrophic impacts. This is true. It is also true that 98% of the world's leading scientists cast the problem the same way. It cannot be reduced to the ideas of a few youths. 

The Times says college officials are trying to determine how to draw a line between opposition to Israel’s policies and “hostility towards Jews.” They write that “opponents of divestment sometimes allude to the Holocaust.”


“What bothers me is the shocking amnesia of people who look at the situation of American Jews right now and say, ‘You’re privileged, you don’t have a right to complain about discrimination,’ ” a freshman named Rachel Roberts is quoted as saying. “To turn a blind eye to the sensitivities of someone’s cultural identity is to pretend that history didn’t happen.”


Norman Finkelstein, whose mother and father both survived the Warsaw Ghetto and Nazi concentration camps, describes this type of argument in The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering as “crass exploitation of Jewish martyrdom.” Finkelstein writes that he grows indignant about the exploitation of the Nazi genocide because "it has been used to justify criminal policies of the Israeli state and US support for these policies.”


This is exactly what Roberts is doing by invoking the “sensitivities” of her “cultural identity” to implicitly claim that they have anything to do with the legitimate criticisms the BDS campaign makes against Israeli state policies. The Times doesn't bother to point out that their is no conceivable connection between divestment and the Holocaust. Instead they provide a platform for dishonest and cynical distractions from substantive debate.


Conflating criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism is a well-established phenomenon on college campuses. This year alone, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support has documented 60 incidents of accusations of anti-Semitism and 24 incidents of accusations of support for terrorism that were based on nothing more than speech critical of Israeli policies. 


"False accusations of anti-Semitism are being employed as a strategy to pressure campus authorities to suppress speech that is critical of Israel," said Maria LaHood of the Center for Constitutional Rights.


The intimidation of BDS supporters and false accusations against them produces a chilling effect severely damaging to participation in the democratic process and to academic freedom. This would be a story well worth exploring, but apparently not for the editors at the Times. 


The Times article states that swastikas have been painted on the doors of Jewish fraternities. These are despicable, hateful actions to be sure. But the fact that a divestment resolution was taking place on campus no way implicates members of the movement. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise. The BDS campaign has been explicit and forceful in its rejection of racism in all forms


At the end of the article, the writers find common ground between both sides: “One of the few things both sides seem to agree on is just how divisive the issue has been,” So was apartheid. So was slavery. It is divisive politically. This is very different than being divisive ethnically. 


In the article “Israel Says Hezbollah Positions Put Lebanese at Risk", Times reporter Isabel Kershner provides a platform for Israeli officials to rationalize in advance their criminal aggression that will lead to massive civilian casualties. 


Since nonviolence is not an option for them, Israeli officials need to lay the groundwork to deflect any responsibility for the killing they plan to carry out. This P.R. strategy is a calculated response to the worldwide popular backlash after Israel's slaughter of more than 2,100 Palestinians, including nearly 600 children, in Gaza last summer. The Times obliges with uncritical stenography of Israeli military propaganda, accepting the word of state power at face value. 

“As Israel prepares for what it sees as an almost inevitable next battle with Hezbollah, the Shiite Lebanese organization that fought a monthlong war against Israel in 2006, Israeli military officials and experts are warning that the group has done more than significantly build up its firepower since then,” Kershner writes. 


What would be the reaction if after Hitler proclaimed Czechoslovakia “a dagger pointed at the heart of Germany” a German newspaper had run an article titled: “Hitler says Czechoslovakia Puts Civilians at Risk”? Even the most ideological partisans would recognize this as the legitimization of state propaganda. 


Just because the Israeli military sees a war as inevitable doesn’t mean it actually is. Israeli military planners didn't have to initiate war in 1967, 1982, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2014 and they don't have to today. It is a choice, not an inevitability.


Hezbollah itself was only formed after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that killed more than 20,000 people, and the ensuing 18-year-long occupation of sovereign Lebanese territory. Had Israel not been an aggressive, rogue violator of international law in the first place, there would be no Lebanese resistance to Israeli military force. 

It is a violation of international law to threaten or use force against another state. In 2006, Israel instigated an attack against Hezbollah and falsely claimed self-defense, as they had in 1967 when they bombed Egypt and lied about Egyptians bombing them first.


"I consider Israel's self-defence argument an abuse of terminology that is not applicable to the facts at hand and has no justification in international law," wrote Victor Kattan in July 2006.

At the time, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said: "The situation in the south of Lebanon is alarming. A large and steadily increasing number of persons have been forcibly displaced. The most basic human rights of the population are at risk or are being violated, including their rights to life, health and food."

Kershner sums up the outrageous argument Israel now makes nine years later: "Effectively, the Israelis are warning that in the event of another conflict with Hezbollah, many Lebanese civilians will probably be killed, and that it should not be considered Israel's fault."

Kershner, whose son serves in the Israeli army, follows this up with an unchallenged quote from an Israeli military official. She allows the Israeli military to claim it is not their fault that they intend to kill many civilians, without bothering to mention this would be a flagrant violation of international law and the laws of war.

Would the New York Times write an article in which it quotes Hezbollah saying that they see an attack on Israel as inevitable, and because the IDF places its headquarters in the middle of downtown Tel Aviv, they will be forced to kill many civilians and should not be blamed for it?

Yonatan Shapira, a Jewish Israeli who served as an Air Force pilot before refusing to fly in missions in the occupied Palestinian territories, told Democracy Now during the onslaught in Gaza last summer: “You can see the headquarter of the Kirya [the Israeli Army] just few meters from the biggest hospital in Tel Aviv, Ichilov… Just next to it, you have the biggest tower in this side of Tel Aviv. It’s the HaShalom Towers, the Peace Tower.” 

“Fascism and racism is now the biggest threat of the Jewish people in the Middle East," Shapira said. "And I can just cry and shout and ask everyone that hear us now to join the BDS movement… to try to put enormous pressure on your leaders, wherever they are, that they, in turn, will help us here stop this massacre, stop this ongoing slaughter of innocent people.”

Shapira's comments demonstrate the true motivations for - and necessity of - BDS. There is no wedge between Shapira and the many other Jewish solidarity activists, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, over BDS. 
Any honest account of the BDS movement on college campuses and beyond would have to recognize its purely political nature. But to do so would require the Times to challenge the narrative of state power. 

In both stories, the Times sticks comfortably to the ideological framework of Israeli authorities. The Israeli regime says BDS is a form of anti-Semitism; the Times uses that narrative to shape a story. The Israeli regime says they would be forced to attack a sovereign nation and kill civilians; the Times repeats their claim unchallenged without a single mention of international law. While the Times is comfortable challenging the narrative of college activists, they are apparently unwilling to do so for Israeli officials. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Baltimore Uprising and the U.S. Government's Record on Human Rights

On Friday, Baltimore state's attorney Marilyn Mosby declared that six police officers will face criminal charges including second degree heart murder, manslaughter, assault and false imprisonment for their role in the arrest and homicide of 25-year-old African American Freddie Gray. While this is welcome and encouraging news for those seeking justice for Gray and his family, past experience demonstrates the odds the accused criminals will be convicted are miniscule. Regardless, it is not enough to treat the Freddie Gray incident as merely a violation of domestic law. The actions by agents of the State are part of a pattern of human rights abuses that are rampant against the domestic population, especially ethnic and racial minorities. The crimes are not only attributable to the indicted Baltimore officers but to the government they represent, which has failed to deliver the human rights obligations owed to all American citizens.

After the arrests of the six officers, residents continued their protests in a clear indication that the outrage of the Baltimore uprising is about much more than the mistreatment and killing of Freddie Gray as an isolated incident. Interviewed on Friday by the Baltimore Sun, Kevin Moore, who filmed the unlawful arrest of Gray on his cell phone, said that "We're going to keep on marching for human rights. We're going to keep on going until this stops -- the police brutality."

Across the country, grassroots movements that have gained momentum after the killings of unarmed African Americans including Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Brandon-Tate Brown, and Freddie Gray have focused on far-reaching political and economic demands. They must be understood as a critique of the entire socioeconomic system that oppresses minorities and manifests itself with excessive use of force by agents of the state against members of these same disenfranchised communities.

Critically, activists have stressed the connections between police brutality, structural economic inequalities, and the epidemic of mass incarceration that all target predominantly African Americans and Latinos. Economic policies relegate African Americans to an impoverished underclass. They are then attacked by the state through the criminal justice system precisely for their social status. The prison system is used to warehouse what is considered a surplus population that has no role in the modern economy. Law enforcement officers take on the role of enforcers of oppression. 

As Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, "The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history."

Police brutality carried out by law enforcement enforcing a racist drug war is merely a symptom of the system of white supremacist-informed politics that produces the nation's unequal social and economic structures. Eliminating the violence of the enforcers would do nothing to eliminate the violence of structural inequality that permeates American society.

Groups like #BlackLivesMatter recognize this and explicitly state their grievances with the systemic factors behind individual crimes against black people: "When we say Black Lives Matter, we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. How Black poverty and genocide is state violence. How 2.8 million Black people are locked in cages in this country is state violence. How Black women bearing the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families is state violence."

We The Protesters write in an Open Letter that they seek to "build a community that is empowered to establish a new political and social reality that respects and affirms blackness and the humanity therein." 

When Freddie Gray was killed, agents of the state violated many of his human rights. as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Namely, he was deprived of his right to life and liberty (Article 3); he was subjected to torture and degrading treatment (Article 5); he was subjected to arbitrary arrest (Article 9); and he was subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy (Article 12).

Possibly the only thing unique about Gray's treatment at the hands of Baltimore police is the scale of the uprising it gave rise to among his community members. As a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed, city residents have had to pay out nearly $6 million in the last four years to settle more than 100 lawsuits alleging "that police officers brazenly beat up alleged suspects." The victims ranged from young children to old women. Even City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young told the paper that "[residents] fear the police more than they fear the drug dealers on the corner." And the situation in Baltimore is not unique to the rest of the United States.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee declared in its most recent report they were "concerned about the still high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces ... and reports of excessive force by certain law enforcement officers, including the deadly use of tasers, which has a disparate impact on African Americans." The Committee also also expressed its concern about "racial disparities at different stages in the criminal justice system, as well as sentencing disparities and the overrepresentation of individuals belonging to racial and ethnic minorities in prisons and jails."

If the United States had ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and was subject to review by the United Nations, the findings would be equally damning, or likely worse. How many Baltimore residents - or those of any major U.S. city - would feel that their government was delivering their right "to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions" (Article 11)? Or "a decent living for themselves and their families" (Article 7)? The right to "the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health" (Article 12)?

Last month, MintPress News reported that the city of Baltimore has issued notices to residential water customers with overdue accounts that their service will be shut-off. They note that United Nations experts "were among many who expressed concern that water shut-offs violate basic human rights." Freddie Gray, like many residents of Baltimore, was exposed to lead paint in his childhood home. Lead paint exposure by children has been proven to result in potentially disastrous development problems.

The Washington Post writes that it is "hard to know whether Gray's problems were exclusively borne of lead poisoning or were the result of other socioeconomic factors as well. From birth, his was a life of intractable poverty that would have been challenging to overcome." The socioeconomic factors must be attributed directly to the state that created them and failed to remedy them for Gray and millions of others. 

If protesters were polled about whether the government was fulfilling its human rights obligations to provide basic social and economic rights, is there any doubt that they would nearly unanimously disagree? Could city, state or federal officials even claim to enjoy the consent of the governed among African American communities that have been victimized for decades, if not centuries, of structural inequalities and aggressive policing meant to repress people through a cruel system of social control?

Many voices on the street are loudly calling for an indictment of the system as a whole. The difference between this American movement and other color revolutions overseas that receive much corporate media attention is that it is entirely homegrown and a product of grassroots reaction to oppression, rather than a manufactured product of foreign funding and training.

U.S. government officials have never hesitated to decry alleged human rights abuses by the regimes of official enemies. One year ago, Secretary of State John Kerry accuses Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of carrying out a "terror campaign against his own people" who did not "respect human rights." Kerry neglected to mention that half of the deaths resulting from the protests were of security agents and government supporters, some who were decapitated by barbed wire barricades erected by anti-socialist protesters. 

The U.S. government has showered middle and upper-class Venezuelan students and pro-business interests with millions of dollars in funding and organizational training to provoke protests they could then condemn for political purposes. The same is true in Ukraine, Syria, Cuba, Hong Kong and across the world. What justification do they have to spend the nation's resources to manufacture opposition abroad rather than address the demands of citizens at home opposed to the inequality and insecurity that the state subjects them to, and which they could drastically reduce or outright eliminate, through taxation of private wealth and redistribution, if they chose to? 

Freddie Gray has become a martyr for the suffering he endured throughout his life at the hands of the social, economic, and political system he lived under, rather than just for his suffering at the hands of the six police officers who ended his life. The Baltimore uprising will not end with the verdicts against the six officers. It will only end when the people of Baltimore and cities across the U.S. are able to hold the people who design the policies that deprive them of their fundamental human rights accountable.