Strange Twists in the Hariri Mystery

French President Macron has invited Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Paris, a possible opportunity to determine whether Hariri’s sudden resignation, announced in Saudi Arabia, was coerced, as Dennis J Bernstein reports.

By Dennis J Bernstein

The strange case of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his surprise resignation, delivered in Saudi Arabia, has developed international overtones with rumors about his possible kidnapping by the Saudis and France extending an invitation for him to come to Paris before possibly returning to Lebanon.

Because of concerns that his resignation may have been extracted by the Saudis under duress, the Lebanese government has refused to accept it unless he tenders it in person. In an interview last Sunday, Hariri looked harried and nervous. At one point the camera caught a man holding up some kind of sign behind the interviewer, as if he was trying to direct Hariri’s comments.

I spoke again to Beirut-based political activist and environmentalist Rania Masri on Nov. 13 about the Hariri case. Masri is an Arab-American academic, an expert in the workings of the Lebanese government, and has been doing regular translations of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Facebook.

Dennis Bernstein: Let’s start with your response to the latest developments.  The prime minister says he would like to return to Lebanon.

Rania Masri: Yesterday there was an interview conducted in Saudi Arabia.  Saudi individuals were present during the interview.  When you look at what Hariri actually said at this interview, it appears that the Saudi plan so far has not been successful.  We have Hariri saying he wants to return to Lebanon, he is not sure when that will be, and that he will proceed with the resignation when he is here unless things change.  So he left the door open for possibly not resigning.

As to why this is happening, you have to look at the events of the last two weeks.  Saturday, [November 4], Saad Hariri read a statement that many of us believe was written by the Saudis.  The Lebanese president and speaker of the house reject that statement of resignation because it was given while he was abroad.  There is an almost total consensus that Hariri has been held captive since Friday.

During this time, it has become very apparent that Saudi Arabia has been in discussions with the US and Israeli governments and has been encouraging the Israeli government to attack Lebanon.  The Lebanese president believes that he has gotten word that the Saudis and the Israelis are actually discussing something akin to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.  We are not talking about a war such as what occurred in 2006 but the possibility of an invasion like the one that took place in 1982.

So the political rhetoric has been escalated by the Saudis.  They have basically declared war on Lebanon.  The Saudi plan was to threaten Lebanon with military destruction and hope that the Lebanese would rise up against Hezbollah, leading to a civil war.  That plan has completely failed.

Dennis Bernstein: What has been Hezbollah’s response to these extraordinary developments?

Rania Masri: [Secretary General of Hezbollah] Hassan Nasrallah gave two talks this week concerning the resignation and the need for national unity.  In the second talk he spoke to the contents of the resignation letter and responded to these Saudi threats. Nasrallah believes that Saudi Arabia has asked Israel to attack Lebanon and is willing to support this effort with millions of dollars.  We know from statements from the Saudi ministries that the Saudi government has declared war on all of Lebanon, not just Hezbollah.

Hezbollah condemns Saudi intervention in Lebanon.  They consider it an insult that the Lebanese prime minister is being held against his will and they call for his return to Lebanon.  If he wants to resign, he should do so from the presidential palace.  Hezbollah considers the declared resignation to be unconstitutional, illegal and illegitimate, because it was not voluntary.

Nasrallah has continued to call for de-escalation.  He points out that Saudi Arabia has seen all of its actions in the region fail–whether it be in Yemen, in Bahrain, in Syria, or in Iraq.  Nasrallah believes that, as a result of this, Saudi Arabia is now venting its anger against Lebanon.  He also points out that if Saudi Arabia really wants to, it can find ways to punish Hezbollah directly instead of attacking the entire country.

Dennis Bernstein: What role do you see the United States playing here?

Rania Masri: I have to say that I don’t know what the US position is.  The Saudis recognize that they have not achieved the level of support they would like.  It is not really clear what the next step will be by the United States.  What is clear is that the Israeli press is not enthusiastic about launching a war against Lebanon to fulfill Saudi aims.

Dennis Bernstein: Is all of this driven by what appears to be the profound failure of the Saudis in Syria?

Rania Masri: There are several issues at play.  Historically, the Saudi government has always sought to create enemies, very much in the way the US government has.  The de facto ruler in the country, Mohammed bin Salman, has proven himself to be a strategic failure.  In Syria all they have managed to do is cause massive death and destruction through their support of ISIS and through their support for the destruction of Damascus and for regime change there.

We also know that there has been strong collaboration of Israel during the process.  When we look at the military record of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria, we know that they are capable of great destruction.  But they are not capable of transformation and change.  I believe that this is an attempt on the part of the Saudis to vent their frustration and anger at numerous political failures and to achieve what has long been both a Saudi and Israeli goal, which is the destruction of the resistance movement in Lebanon.

Dennis Bernstein: I understand that the Saudi government has asked all of its citizens to leave Lebanon.  What are your worst fears at this point?

Rania Masri: Yes, the Saudi and the Bahraini and the Kuwaiti governments have asked their citizens to leave the country.  We know that they have directly intervened to force our prime minister to resign and to impose a new prime minister on Lebanon.  This they have failed to do.  They are also working to pressure the Gulf states and other countries to sanction Lebanon.

And there is open talk of a Saudi/Israeli attack on Lebanon.  Personally, I don’t think that is likely.  There are other options.  They could instigate terrorist acts in the country, as they did in Syria.  But the stronger and more unified the country and the leadership is, the harder it will be for the Saudi government to cause disunity and civil tension.

Dennis Bernstein: Are people following all of this closely in Lebanon?

Rania Masri: We have gone through so many wars and attacks over the past twenty years that we suffer from a kind of fatigue.  However, we have regular conversations among friends as to whether there will be another war and, if so, what it will look like.  At the same time, many people in the country feel strengthened by the military prowess and the resolve of Hezbollah.  Many feel that, if we did not have Hezbollah, the likelihood of an Israeli attack would be much higher.

It is really critical for people in the United States to understand that the Trump administration and the American Congress has continued to support this apartheid regime in Israel which has consistently issued threats against Lebanon.  The US government has continued to strengthen its relationship with the Saudi Arabian government despite the ongoing war crimes the Saudis have been committing in Yemen.  Regardless of what happens in Lebanon, it is necessary for the US government to reevaluate its ties with the Saudi Arabian government or, at the very least, to stop the massive arm sales.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.




The Balfour Declaration’s Century of Turmoil

As Israel continues to occupy Palestinian lands and threatens a new war against Lebanon, much of this turmoil traces back to Great Britain’s Balfour Declaration during World I, a century ago, reports Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

Great Britain’s Balfour Declaration — a century ago — laid the groundwork for a Zionist state in the Middle East and led to the purging of millions of Palestinians from what became Israel, a human rights crisis that continues to roil the Middle East to this day.

I caught up with noted Palestinian human rights campaigner Mustafa Barghouti in San Francisco where he was lecturing on the Balfour Declaration, a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour published on Nov. 9, 1917, and promising a Jewish homeland. The letter came during World War I while Great Britain was at war with Turkey’s Ottoman Empire.

In June 2002, Dr. Barghouti co-founded the Palestinian National Initiative, and currently serves as its Secretary-General.

Dennis Bernstein: What was the significance of the Balfour Declaration and what does it mean to the Palestinian people?

Mustafa Barghouti: The Balfour Declaration was a major historical crime committed against the Palestinian people.  It was a crime that led to a series of other crimes, including the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people in 1948, when 70% of the population were displaced and forced to leave their country.  There are still 6 million refugees spread all over the world.  It led to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and Jerusalem in 1967.

But most importantly, the Balfour Declaration was a racist act that discriminated against 90% of the population of Palestine.  It gave 10% of the population the right to a homeland and deprived the Palestinians of that right.  The result is what we see today, which is a system of apartheid that is much worse than what existed in South Africa.

I believe the Balfour Declaration was also a crime against the Jewish people.  It used the Jewish population to serve the colonial interests of the colonial powers of Europe at the time.  It pushed the Jewish population toward Zionism.  It put the Jewish people in contradiction with the Palestinians and with the Arabs and created a situation of instability which has existed now for a hundred years.

Britain should apologize for its crime in Palestine and compensate the Palestinian people for the harm caused to them.  At the very least, they should recognize the state of Palestine.  Theresa May, the prime minister of Britain, added insult to injury by celebrating the anniversary of this declaration in the company of Benjamin Netanyahu.  We responded with a fantastic rally in which 50,000 people gathered in the streets of London, occupying key locations for more than five hours.

I spoke in front of these people, as did Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labor Party, who could very soon become the next prime minister of Britain.  I think we can clearly say that we control public opinion in Britain.

Dennis Bernstein: What the Balfour Declaration essentially did was take a land where people had been living for generations, centuries, and gave it to another people.

Mustafa Barghouti: Exactly.  Britain had no ownership of Palestine and did not even govern Palestine at the time.  They took the land of the Palestinian people and gave it to the Jewish people, who were a very small minority in Palestine.  At that time, Palestine was under Ottoman Turkish rule.  Ninety percent of the population were Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christians, and ten percent were Jewish.

Balfour was not for the sake of the Jewish people as human beings, it was a case of using the Jewish people for colonial purposes.  And it was in the interests of the colonial powers to push the Jewish to become Zionist, although at that time most of the Jewish people did not want Zionism.

The Balfour Declaration was a part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the Middle East between the French and British colonial powers.  Proof that the Jewish people were used for colonial purposes came in 1956 when the British responded to the Egyptian decision to nationalize the Suez Canal by attacking Egypt through Israel.  All of this led to the terrible crisis we see today.  It was totally unjust, it was absolutely colonial and it created the system of apartheid we have to struggle against today.

Dennis Bernstein: Why do you suppose some of the key leaders in the anti-apartheid movement have said that the situation in Palestine is worse than it was in South Africa?

Mustafa Barghouti: In South Africa, there was never the segregation of roads that you see in the occupied West Bank, there were never the walls you have here.  In South Africa, settlements were not used to ethnically cleanse the population.

Israel takes away 87% of our water resources in the West Bank.  A Palestinian in the West Bank is allowed to use no more than fifty cubic meters of water, while an illegal Israeli settler is allowed to use 2,400 cubic meters, 48 times more than a Palestinian.

The Israeli GDP per capita is about $38,000 while ours does not exceed $2,000.  But Israel obliges us to buy products at the Israeli market price.  So we make much less money but have to buy products at their cost.  In addition, they force us to pay for water and electricity at double the amount Israelis pay.  If we happen to have to send a child to an Israeli hospital, we would be obliged to pay four times what an Israeli would pay.

If you look it up in the dictionary, “apartheid” is defined as “two systems of laws for two peoples living in the same place.”  That is exactly what Israel has created.  Israeli citizens, even if they are illegal settlers violating international law, are treated with respect by the Israeli government, they have rights, they are ruled by civil law.  While Palestinians are ruled by military law.  They still use against us the Ottoman Turkish Law of 1911, the British Mandatory Law, the British Emergency Law, Jordanian law, Israeli law and 2,400 Israeli military orders.  That is why you have things like administrative detention, which means they can arrest any Palestinian without even bringing charges.  56 members of our elected parliament were jailed by Israel, many under administrative detention.  Imagine if the Mexican government came to the United States and arrested congress people and put them in jail without even charges!

Dennis Bernstein: People in custody are being subjected to torture, young people are being subjected to torture.  This is an ongoing program.  I am always stunned by the brutality and the acceptance of that brutality by the United States.  If what is going on in Palestine is a form of ethnic cleansing, then we would have to indict the United States.

Mustafa Barghouti: It is unfortunate that US institutions are completely biased toward Israel.  Without American support, Israel could not do what it does.  The problem is that there are double standards.  They speak about freedom, about democracy, about human rights…except when it comes to Palestine.  It is as if we are not human beings.  We speak about countries having to abide by international law–not having nuclear weapons, for instance–but Israel is above international law.  That can only be described as a double standard.

In the long run, this is bad, not only for the Palestinians, but also for the Jewish people.  The system of apartheid and racial discrimination run by the Israeli government is absolutely incompatible with the history of the Jewish people, the people who suffered from the Holocaust, from anti-Semitism and the pogroms in Russia.  They should not be oppressors, they should not be discriminating against other people.  That is why it does not surprise me to see many wonderful Jewish activists supporting Palestine and the BDS movement.  I don’t think the Israelis can be free until the Palestinians are free.

Dennis Bernstein: Do you see the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as an effective movement?  It certainly contributed to ending apartheid in South Africa.

Mustafa Barghouti: Of course, it is very effective.  It translates international solidarity with the Palestinian people into a material effect.  But it must be stated that the BDS movement is not against the Jewish people and it is not anti-Semitic.  It is a nonviolent form of action and freedom of expression.  It is about individual rights.  Those who have come out against BDS are positioning themselves against freedom of choice.  If you don’t want to boycott Israel, at least boycott settlement activities, which, according to United Nations Security Council resolution 2334, are a violation of international law.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.




The Saudi Hand in Lebanon’s Crisis

Facing defeat in its proxy war for “regime change” in Syria, Saudi Arabia undertook some startling moves, including staging the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister, reports Dennis J Bernstein.

By Dennis J Bernstein

Last weekend during a visit to Saudi Arabia, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri suddenly and dramatically resigned, raising questions about whether the Saudi leadership was engineering a political crisis in Lebanon as a way to counter the defeat of its jihadist proxies in Syria.

Given the timing and the unusual circumstances — from a fancy hotel in Riyadh — questions also were raised about whether Hariri’s resignation amounted to the kidnapping of the Lebanese leader (who has dual Saudi citizenship) or whether it presaged a new front in the regional wars.

I spoke with Beirut-based Professor, Activist and Environmental Scientist Rania Masri last Monday, while Hariri’s whereabouts and safety were still in question.

Dennis Bernstein: The prime minister of Lebanon has stepped down.  Could you talk a little bit about what provoked that and the significance of that action?

Rania Masri: The prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, was called very suddenly to Saudi Arabia.  He cancelled all his appointments and went on Thursday. [On] Saturday there was a taped broadcast in which he stated that he was resigning as prime minister.  This has never happened in the history of Lebanon.  This is a resignation submitted from outside the country!

Secondly, the statement that he read was clearly not a statement that he wrote.  We know this because of linguistic assessments of the statement and we know this because his brother writes his statements and his brother has been in Lebanon.  It is very clear that this was a resignation forced upon him by the Saudi government.  He has not been answering his phone for the past few days.  Most likely he is locked up in the Ritz Carlton Hotel along with dozens of other influential Saudi princes and businessmen who are under arrest there.  The president has asked him to return to Lebanon before the resignation becomes finalized.

Saad al-Hariri  read the letter of resignation on Saturday.  He said that he is forced to resign because of Iranian intervention in Lebanon.  Imagine, to leave the country and go to Saudi Arabia to resign because of another country’s intervention in your home country!  He also claims in the statement that Hezbollah is an Iranian tool and that Iranian hands must be cut off by all means necessary.  It was basically very threatening language against Lebanon.

Since then, Saudi minister Sabhan–who many believe wrote the statement for Hariri–has stated that Lebanon must decide between peace and keeping Hezbollah in the government.  He continues to say that as long as Hezbollah is present in the Lebanese government, he will consider that the Lebanese government is at war with Saudi Arabia.  So here we have a minister from Saudi Arabia openly declaring war on the entire country of Lebanon!

Dennis Bernstein: The simple explanation in the Western corporate press is that Hariri was afraid he would face the same fate as his father, who was assassinated.

Rania Masri: That has no basis in fact.  There are three types of intelligence services in Lebanon, each of which is aligned to a different political party.  All have agreed that there is no evidence of any assassination plot against Hariri or anyone else in Lebanon.  At the same time, no one has been able to reach him on the phone since Friday.  He can’t really believe that anyone is going to kill him if he answers the phone!

Dennis Bernstein: Should we be thinking about this in the context of this extraordinary shake-up in Saudi Arabia?

Rania Masri: One hundred percent.  The day before Saad Hariri was called to Saudi Arabia, he was speaking positively of the Lebanese government.  There was no discord within the government.  Then he gets called to Saudi Arabia, disappears for a day and issues this resignation on a taped broadcast.  At the same time, we have the capture and arrest of these very influential multi-millionaires in Saudi Arabia, all thrown into this same hotel.

We have to remember that Saad Hariri also has Saudi Arabian citizenship, that he and his family have had investments in Saudi Arabia since the early 1970’s.  He may be held liable to Saudi law, particularly if he loses his diplomatic immunity with his resignation.  So at the very least we know that he did not issue his resignation because of an internal Lebanese problem.  It is no coincidence that we now have this shake-up in Saudi Arabia to cement financial and military and political power all in one man.

Dennis Bernstein: This would be an extremely bold action on the part of the Saudis, one which almost certainly was not taken without the knowledge of the United States government.  You have the US flooding Saudi Arabia with weapons so that they can tighten their grip in Yemen.

Rania Masri: Trump has been saluting the Saudi regime.  After what has been happening the past few days, he actually tweeted that he would like Aramco to move its headquarters to New York and be part of the New York Stock Exchange, that this would serve US interests.

No, I don’t think the Saudi regime began this shake-up without the US administration’s blessing.  Some have even taken it a step further and say that this is not a Saudi-imposed resignation but an Israeli-imposed resignation presented via the Saudis.  There are several different analyses you can make, but what is clear is that our prime minister issued his resignation while out of the country and has not been available for communication ever since.

The Saudi regime has been escalating its war in Yemen without any political victory in sight, it was the main financier behind the ISIS terrorists in Syria with the specific purpose of destroying Damascus, and now has set its sights on Lebanon.

Dennis Bernstein: How do we find out at this point what is really going on?

Rania Masri: Given its record in the region, I don’t think we should be calling in the United Nations.  Remember that the United Nations Security Council imposed genocidal sanctions on Iraq for twelve years.  In no way, as a person from this region, would I be reaching out to the UN.

What is needed is for Hariri to return to Lebanon and, if he wants to resign, he can do it from the safety of his home here.  What is also needed is for the media, particularly in the West, to clearly recognize what is happening.  These are not changes for democracy and against corruption in Saudi Arabia, as has been promoted by The Guardian, among others.

It’s important to recognize that when Hezbollah is threatened, all Lebanon is threatened.  Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization within the country, Hezbollah is a legitimate political party, a legitimate resistance movement, it is part and parcel of the fabric of this country.  What the Saudis are calling for is that the Lebanese relinquish what is left of our sovereignty and to sacrifice our main means of protecting ourselves against Israeli aggression.

Remember that it was Hezbollah that fought to liberate the south of Lebanon from the 22-year occupation of the Israelis.  It was Hezbollah who defeated Israeli in the 2006 war.  And because of that, since 2006, Israel has not launched another military aggression against this country, even though they typically do so every three years.

And for Saudi Arabia to threaten Lebanon that either we disarm and remove Hezbollah as a legitimate political party or we will face Saudi repercussions is basically having us choose between a war with Saudi Arabia or being defenseless and broken.  Saudi Arabia has the means to cause assassinations, to launch terrorist campaigns, to wage economic warfare against the country, but they do not have the means to break the back of the Lebanese people.

Dennis Bernstein: You alluded to the invisible hand of Israel.

Rania Masri: Benjamin Netanyahu has been gleeful ever since the Saudi statements and he has been promoting it as a further reason for the international community to attack and isolate Iran and to dismantle Hezbollah.  We already know that this Saudi regime and the Israeli regime are in cahoots.  So it comes as no surprise for the Israeli government to be the first to welcome these Saudi statements.

The Saudis seem to have forgotten who the real enemy is in the region and to have accepted a false sectarian discourse that the enemy is Iran and the Shias.  Well, we all know that the enemy of the region is Zionism, a philosophy built on apartheid that continues to seek expansionist means, that continues to promote ethnic cleansing and genocide against Palestinians.

Dennis Bernstein: What are you watching now, what are your concerns?

Rania Masri: People from various political spectrums in the country have been re-tweeting the statement of the Saudi Arabian Minister of State for Gulf Affairs and basically consider this a declaration of war.  We are watching the news, we are following the situation very closely.  We are making a lot of jokes about what is happening because that is how we deal with it.  But we are also following the advice of Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, who has advised us to be calm and to wait a few days until we understand what has been happening.  Nasrallah will speak again on Friday [Nov. 10] and respond to the specific content of the letter presented to us on Saturday.

Dennis Bernstein: How does Syria play into all of this?

Rania Masri: The way the Saudi government is behaving is like a cat in a corner.  It is important to stress that the Saudi Arabian plan in Syria failed miserably.  They were not able to destroy Damascus, they were not able to break the country apart, they were not able to dismantle the Syrian regime.  They were able to contribute to the destruction and to the many massacres at the hands of ISIS.

We are dealing with a country with a great deal of financial and military power but whose plans in the region have failed.  Now it is looking to completely destroy the resistance movement in Lebanon, particularly because Hezbollah also played a part in standing against ISIS in Syria.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.




In Case You Missed…

Some of our special stories in August focused on Official Washington’s growing hostility toward dissent, the Trump administration’s drift toward more endless warfare, and the worsening crises in Korea and Mideast.

How US Policy Helps Al Qaeda in Yemen” by Jonathan Marshall, Aug. 1, 2017

A Blacklisted Film and the New Cold War” by Robert Parry, Aug. 2, 2017

How the World May End” by John Pilger, Aug. 4, 2017

Neocons Leverage Trump-Hate for More Wars” by Robert Parry, Aug. 5, 2017

Playing Politics with the World’s Future” by Alastair Crooke, Aug. 6, 2017

Endangering a Landmark Nuclear Treaty” by Jonathan Marshall, Aug. 6, 2017

A New Twist in Seth Rich Murder Case” by Joe Lauria, Aug. 8, 2017

The Russia-Did-It Certitude Challenged” by Randy Credico and Dennis J. Bernstein, Aug. 10, 2017

Hurtling Toward ‘Fire and Fury’” by Jonathan Marshall, Aug. 10, 2017

Education or Brainwashing?” by Lawrence Davidson, Aug. 11, 2017

Russia-gate’s Fatally Flawed Logic” by Robert Parry, Aug. 12, 2017

Hillary Clinton Promised Wars, Too” by James W. Carden, Aug. 15, 2017

A Ukraine Link to North Korea’s Missiles?” by Robert Parry, Aug. 15, 2017

The Agony of ‘Regime Change’ Refugees” by Andrew Spannaus, Aug. 16, 2017

Photographing a White-Supremacist Attack” by Dennis J. Bernstein, Aug. 17, 2017

Refusing to Learn Lessons from Libya” by James W. Carden, Aug. 17, 2017

President Trump’s ‘White Blindness’” by Robert Parry, Aug. 17, 2017

The Goal of ‘Not Losing’ in Afghanistan” by Jonathan Marshall, Aug. 18, 2017

Russia-gate’s Evidentiary Void” by Robert Parry, Aug. 18, 2017

Truth and Lives vs. Career and Fame” by Ray McGovern, Aug. 20, 2017

Covering Up the Massacre of Mosul” by Nicolas J.S. Davies, Aug. 21, 2017

The New Trump: War President” by Jonathan Marshall, Aug. 22, 2017

Israel’s Alarm over Syrian Debacle” by Daniel Lazare, Aug. 22, 2017

Donald Trump’s Defining Moments” by Lawrence Davidson, Aug. 23, 2017

The Mystery of the Civil War’s Camp Casey” by Chelsea Gilmour, Aug. 24, 2017

The Possible Education of Donald Trump” by Robert Parry, Aug. 25, 2017

The ‘Human Side’ of War Criminals” by William Blum, Aug. 26, 2017

How History Explains the Korean Crisis” by William R. Polk, Aug. 28, 2017

Inflating the Russian Threat” by Jonathan Marshall, Aug. 28, 2017

More Misleading Russia-gate Propaganda” by Robert Parry, Aug. 29, 2017

Bias in Arizona’s Reaction to Immigrants” by Dennis J. Bernstein, Aug. 29, 2017

The Alt-Right’s Alternative Reality” by J.P. Sottile, Aug. 29, 2017

Worries about a Galveston Bio-Lab” by Joe Lauria, Aug. 30, 2017

A Victory Seen Over ‘State-Sponsored Racism’” by Dennis J, Bernstein, Aug. 31, 2017

The Last of the Mad Pirates?” by David Marks, Aug. 31, 2017

To produce and publish these stories – and many more – costs money. And except for some book sales, we depend on the generous support of our readers.

So, please consider a tax-deductible donation either by credit card online or by mailing a check. (For readers wanting to use PayPal, you can address contributions to our PayPal Giving Fund account, which is named “The Consortium for Independent Journalism”).




Violence Around the Al-Aqsa Mosque

Tensions around the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem eased late this week after Israel removed security infrastructure around the entrance, but earlier violence left four Palestinians and three Israelis dead, as Dennis J Bernstein reported.

By Dennis J Bernstein

Update: By the early hours of Thursday — after this interview — Israel had removed the metal detectors from Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Violence flared in East Jerusalem starting on July 21, as a result of Israel’s decision to put metal detectors at the entrance to the Palestinians most holy site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, along with the stationing of hundreds of Israeli security forces and police.

Palestinians protested all over occupied Palestine against the decision and at least four Palestinians and three Israelis have died as a result. The situation triggered international alarm and caused the United Nations Security Council to convene a meeting to explore ways to calm the tension.

I spoke to Ramzy Baroud, editor of the PalestineChronicle.com, about the situation on the ground last weekend and the continuing moves by Israeli occupation forces to seize more and more Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank.

Dennis Bernstein: What are your thoughts on the tense situation and the standoff in East Jerusalem?

Ramzy Baroud: Well, the situation on the ground is quite difficult right now. As you know, there was this gun battle a few days ago, which resulted in the closure of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Haram Sharif compound, one of the holiest sites for Muslims everywhere. This is the first time we have seen such a closure since the time of the Crusades. So this is a huge deal for the Palestinians and many fear this is an indication of a much more extensive political plan to normalize the annexation of East Jerusalem.

We have seen tens of thousands of Palestinian worshippers, mainly Muslim but also joined by their Christian brethren, prevented from entering the compound to pray. On July 21, Israeli [forces] installed metal detectors and, of course, the Palestinians are protesting this. The Al-Aqsa compound has been under the management of the Islamic Trust since an agreement was reached by the Israeli and Jordanian governments in 1967. Installing metal detectors is Israel’s way of rejecting this agreement, which has been in force for five decades now.

Palestinians are feeling a great deal of outrage and insecurity now in East Jerusalem. They fear this is part of a larger Israeli plan that brings right-wing politicians such as Benjamin Netanyahu into the same camp with extremist Zionists who believe that the mosque is built on the site of an ancient Jewish temple and want to destroy it. They have attempted to do so in the past but this recent violence has inspired many of them to believe that the moment is now.

DB: Maybe you could put this latest violence into the context of the ongoing seizure of Jerusalem.

RB: American politicians such as Trump tend to neglect the complexity of history. They assume that all it takes to be an effective politician is the ability to attract campaign contributions and win the support of powerful segments of the population. Truly wise politicians try to understand the repercussions of every decision they make.

With the Trump administration, there has been a kind of euphoria in Israel, particularly among the ultra-nationalists, the most extreme camps in the Israeli government and society. They feel that Trump is their messiah, not in a religious sense but in the sense that he is going to be the one to fulfill biblical prophecy. Trump has promised that he is going to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in defiance of international law, making the US the only country in the world to do so.

Whether he actually carries through on the promise is not the issue. The message is loud and clear: The US is no longer following any kind of international consensus, on Jerusalem or the status of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. That changes the rules of the game entirely.

Nikki Haley, the new US ambassador to the UN, has repeatedly insisted on Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem, on Israel’s ownership of the Muslim and Christian holy shrines. I don’t think we have seen anything like this since the George W. Bush administration and the Negroponte doctrine, which stated that the United States would not accept any UN resolution inconsistent with Israeli interests.

But what is happening now is even worse than that. We are not just seeing attempts at preventing United Nations institutions from speaking out against Israel’s violations of international law. We are seeing a new level of very right-wing, indoctrinated outlook emanating from Washington. As a result, Israel has been extremely empowered.

For the Zionists, Nikki Haley is a godsend. She is the person who is going to change the status of Israel at the United Nations. Palestinians understand that something has been fundamentally altered in the nature of the relationship between Israel and the United States.

So there is an attempt to really push the limit. For example, last March the Knesset passed another reading of a law that prohibits the Muslim call for morning prayer. Again, this is something that hasn’t happened for a thousand years. It is not possible to say this new position is just the work of a few extremists on the margin. We are talking about mainstream politics in Israel.

If this continues and there are no international repercussions, Palestinians will be forced to fight. What is happening in Jerusalem now are not clashes, it is about people wanting to go to their mosques to pray and thousands of Israeli soldiers blocking entry. If this continues, we are going to see a lot more violence in the coming days and weeks.

DB: In April, the Israeli government announced that they are going to build 15,000 new housing units in occupied Jerusalem. That has got to to be wreaking havoc already.

RB: We hear these astonishing numbers, as if the occupied territories have this unlimited space that can be constantly carved out and destroyed and rebuilt! These housing units are going to be built on Palestinian land, whether privately owned or not. People will find themselves homeless, entire villages will be wiped out. The Bedouins, in particular, are often the first to suffer.

Unfortunately, when this happened, our media told us only part of the story: Three Palestinian brothers opened fire, killing two Israeli police officers. Anyone hearing a story like this is going to think, well, this is really quite violent and completely unacceptable. These officers are doing their jobs. But they don’t understand the very violent context to this story: people being killed, being ethnically cleansed, being brutalized on a daily basis.

People are being pushed to the breaking point. This doesn’t mean that we are condoning violence but it must be understood that these types of violent actions don’t happen out of context. Until we hold to account those who are illegally wielding power, the violence is going to continue and more people are going to suffer as a result.

DB: It is my understanding that a lot of organizing is going on within the Palestinian community all over occupied Palestine and Israel. What is now happening at the holy sites is really getting attention not only in the region but all over the world. How do you see this in the context of the larger wars underway, the Syria connection, the way in which the Saudis are being even more empowered by the Trump administration? It seems that the Israelis are seizing the opportunity to do what they have been meaning to do in Jerusalem for so long.

RB: Indeed, we see for the first time in many years the absence of an Arab consensus on Jerusalem. Not because Arabs don’t care about Jerusalem, but because greater political urgencies are motivating the various actors. Saudi Arabia, at this point, is an embattled country, a country which is undergoing shifts in its political structure from within. The heir apparent has been replaced in a so-called “palace coup.”

The Saudi’s main concern right now is not Israel but Iran. The more they try to limit Iran’s influence in the region, the greater this influence becomes. At this point we are seeing an almost open pact between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Those who dare operate outside the Saudi consensus, such as Qatar, find themselves immediately under siege.

So right now the political equation in the Middle East is changing. Israel is no longer at the center. Rather, you have Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel on one side, and Syria, Iran and a few others facing off against them.

This creates the perfect opportunity for Israel, if you think about it from a shrewd political standpoint, to do whatever they deem necessary for their political interests. In Washington, you have an administration that is completely blind to Israeli crimes and you have Saudi Arabia and its allies looking the other way. This is the perfect opportunity for the Israelis to open the floodgates to new settlements and to do what they please with the Palestinian population.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.




The Price for Criticizing Israel

Israel is well-known for having a potent U.S. lobby that not only influences Congress and the mainstream media but intimidates Americans who dare criticize its policies toward the Palestinians, as Dennis J Bernstein describes.

By Dennis J Bernstein

There are very few journalist in the U.S. or Europe who have the courage to report fairly on Israel’s seemingly endless illegal occupation of Palestinian lands. Personally, as a Jewish-American, and the grandson of a revered Rabbi, I have been roundly denounced by pro-Israeli representatives and their Zionist lobbyists in the U.S.

I’ve stopped counting the number of vicious personal attacks that have labeled me a self-hating Jewish anti-Semite. Here’s one that got my attention and the attention of journalist Robert Fisk of the Independent of London, who I introduced one night for a lecture in Berkeley, California, and who then wrote an article about the plight of Jewish journalists and activists in the U.S. who dare to write or speak honestly about Israel’s brutal and illegal occupation of the Palestinians:

“You mother-fucking-asshole-self-hating Jewish piece of shit. Hitler killed the wrong Jews. He should have killed your parents, so a piece of Jewish shit like you would not have been born. God willing, Arab terrorists will cut you to pieces Daniel Pearl-style, AMEN!!!” The latter reference to the late Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and  decapitated in Pakistan.

And at another level, the Israeli consulate in San Francisco has complained to my managers at KPFA/ Pacifica Radio repeatedly about my “pro-Palestinian terrorist” and “anti-semitic” reporting, and my apparent “hatred” for the Jewish State.

Emmy award-winning filmmaker and investigative reporter John Pilger is one of the rare exceptions who has plowed head-first into this crucial story of our time. Pilger has made two documentaries 25 years apart about Palestine, with almost the same name, Palestine is the Issue and then Palestine is Still the Issue.

I spoke recently with Pilger about Palestine and the brutality of the continuing occupation, and also about the responsibility for empowering and sustaining the occupation that falls at the feet of the Western press, based on its misreporting and, in some cases, not reporting at all the brutal realities of Israel’s iron-fisted occupation of Palestinians, which many critics, as well as several UN officials, have labeled as a form of ethnic cleansing that borders on genocide.

I also spoke with Pilger about the recent G-20 meetings in Germany, where President Trump held his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid the Russia-gate frenzy. John Pilger’s latest film is The Coming War on China. He recently gave a moving talk at the Palestine Expo in London on the ongoing battle for the liberation of Palestine, excerpts of which have been published by Consortiumnews.

Dennis Bernstein: Let’s start with some current events. We just had the G20 meeting in Europe with a big deal made about the meeting between Trump and Putin and a lot of action in the streets. Your thoughts on what happened there and some of the goings-on?

John Pilger: I think it was very interesting on two levels. First of all, it was a clear demonstration of the continuing rebellion against remote governments, governments often justifiably referred to as oligarchic. The number of people in the streets of Hamburg accurately represented that rebellion.

The interesting thing about the G20 itself was that Germany clearly set out to determine the agenda. Merkel wanted to put her country forward as the undisputed leader now of Europe. Some would say it has been for quite a while and with Britain on the way out the opportunity does exist. But that didn’t happen.

The discussion was appropriated by the meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Putting aside all the grotesque, cartoon qualities of Trump, the one thing that he has been consistent about is doing some deal with Russia. This has gotten him in a lot of trouble because the Democratic Party and, in fact most of the beltway institutions in Washington, don’t want this to happen. They would like Russia to remain a perennial enemy.

Without Moscow there as the demon, it is very difficult to justify a lot of the infrastructure of power in the United States, particularly the massive armament and military industries. Trump openly challenged this, virtually from the beginning. Although he seemed to have to prove himself to the pillars of power in Washington by firing missiles at Syria, this element in his presidency has remained pretty much constant.

This was of course the first meeting between Trump and Putin. They spoke for two hours and twenty minutes and, by all accounts, some kind of rapport was developed. In previous times that would be good news. It used to be called “detente.” These days this is not good news, either in the US political establishment and corporate media or, to a large degree, here in Britain.

The ridiculous allegations that the Russians helped to elect Trump by directly interfering in the great American democratic process have converged with the news that Trump and Putin may well have struck some kind of deal. Whether Trump is allowed to pursue whatever arrangements he has made toward normalizing relations with Russia, given the institutions of power in the United States, is rather doubtful.

DB: Of course, the corporate press is not at all interested in detente in Syria. Their main story ever since Trump’s meeting with Putin has been that his son may be guilty of treason.

JP: I’ve never heard something so absurd in my life, especially as the United States has intervened so aggressively in post-Soviet Russia. All through the 1990’s the open and quite successful intervention was blatant. And for these powerful forces in the United States to obsess with Russian meddling in our election process demonstrates a kind of double standard that is difficult to comprehend.

DB: In light of your new film, The Coming War on China, this is a time when detente at all levels is crucial because the dangers of staying the course are so huge. It is interesting to see that right-wing hawks in Washington are helping to foster a new relationship between Russia and China. But detente is the only answer at this point, isn’t it?

JP: Yes, it is. What’s needed is a diplomatic settlement. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t do that anymore. It doesn’t have “diplomats” in the real sense of the word. To now see the presidents of two of the major nuclear-armed powers in the world seemingly forging some kind of political arrangement–agreeing, apparently, that they shouldn’t go to war with nuclear weapons. This is a throwback to a time before George W. Bush abolished the START treaties and others that were put together so painstakingly over so many years between the Soviet Union and the United States. It demonstrates how far the world–at the level of its political elite–has regressed. The United States is a very frightening vision for most of us because nuclear weapons are in the background all the time. The chance of a mistaken launch of nuclear weapons is high.

Consider the case of Korea, where the United States has installed its very aggressive THAAD so-called “defense” system which threatens China. No one believes for a minute that these missiles are pointed at North Korea, which could be dealt with in many other ways by the United States. The long-term strategy of an ascendant Pentagon is the balkanization of the Russian Federation and the intimidation of China. And if there is any glint of some kind of pullback from that position, as there might have been in the meeting between Trump and Putin, then that is good news.

DB: And of course it is so bizarre that you have America talking about the role that China should be playing and how we are so disappointed that they are not doing all they can to facilitate THAAD, which is part of a strategy to surround their country in what we know is shaping up to be “the Chinese century.”

John, I’d like you to talk about how you first began to report on Palestine and then I’d like to fast forward to current issues.

JP: I first went to Palestine in the 1960’s and stayed on a kibbutz. I probably came with the popular assumption that Israel’s myths about itself were true, that Israel was a good idea. I conflated the horror of the Holocaust with the new Jewish state. The people on the kibbutz regarded themselves as both socialists and Zionists.

I came to understand the doublespeak or the contemporary amnesia that is so pervasive in Israel. We had some very lively discussions but rarely mentioned the majority people. I saw them one evening and they were referred to as “them,” as silhouettes beyond the limits of the kibbutz. I asked about them and was told, well, they’re the Arabs. One man called them nomads. By just asking the question I was crossing a line, and a disturbed silence followed. I was with good people on the kibbutz, they had principles, many had memories of the horrors in Europe. They knew, of course, that they were on stolen land.

The word “Palestinian” was almost never used, rather echoing Golda Meir’s later remark that “there’s no such thing as Palestinians.” Because once the term “Palestinian” was recognized, the state of Palestine had to be recognized. For me it was a very interesting introduction to the extraordinary situation in Palestine. I learned a lot from a wonderful photographer named Dan Hidani who lost all his family in Germany during the War. We talked out this subject of the so-called Arabs and I learned a lot from him about the guilt of the colonizers that can never quite be covered up. These early experiences really alerted me to the huge injustice the Palestinians were suffering and of course still suffer today.

DB: Could I ask you to tell the story of the novelist Liana Badr, because it really does speak to what has happened to many Palestinians and the way they have been treated?

JP: In 2002, when Ariel Sharon was prime minister and several times sent the Israeli army and tanks into the West Bank, I arrived in Ramallah just when the Israeli army was withdrawing. Ramallah was devastated and one of the places I visited was the Palestinian Cultural Center. There I met the center’s director, the renowned Palestinian novelist Liana Badr, who teaches at Columbia University now. Her manuscripts were torn and scattered across the floor. The hard drive containing her fiction and a whole library of plays and poetry had been stolen by the Israeli soldiers. Not a single book had survived. Master tapes of one of the best collections of Palestinian cinema were lost.

This was an assault on a people’s culture. The soldiers had urinated and defecated on the floors and on the desks and smeared feces on children’s paintings. It was the most vivid and telling symbol of what a colonial power does to the people whose country it occupies.

It was an attempt to dehumanize, that is what this assault on the Palestinian Cultural Center represented. What struck me, as well, was the determination of the Palestinians in this situation not to comply with what was expected of them as victims. That is the most astonishing thing about the Palestinians. As you walk through the rubble of Gaza, where the Israelis have attacked so many times, all of a sudden you see in the distance a group of school girls beautifully turned out in their starched and pressed uniforms and their hair done. It is a vision of defiance and determination to keep going. So the occupation may have worked physically but it hasn’t worked spiritually. And perhaps in the near future it may not work politically.

Jaffa oranges are famous around the world. Actually, Jaffa is a Palestinian town taken by Israel. Jaffa oranges form part of the mythical history of modern Israel, the idea that the desert of Palestine would be made green by the arriving Jews, who would make the desert bloom. But the oranges and grapes were in fact grown by Palestinian farmers and the oranges had been exported to Europe since the eighteenth century. At one time, a rather melancholy name for the town of Jaffa used by its former inhabitants was “the place of sad oranges.”

DB: I want to talk to you about Palestine and journalism. Maybe we could compare and contrast Mohammed Omer, on the one hand–who is dodging bombs and trying to get food for his family as the drones are flying past his window, trying to get as best he can the truth from the ground–compare Mohammed Omer with the people at CNBC and the BBC.

JP: Well, we know that most of mainstream journalism is simply an extension of the state. We’ve talked about the extraordinary McCarthy-like propaganda campaign that wants to blame everything including the weather on Russia. That happens because the media is the propaganda wing of the institutions that form power in the West.

The one that produces the most refined propaganda is the BBC. CNN and the others are just cruder versions. Any truth about Israel/Palestine or, more generally, the Middle East is not going to come from the mainstream media. Those of us who know this should rather stop beating our heads against a brick wall, asking why they don’t tell the truth. That’s not what they’re there for.

Fortunately, there are now many independent sources, such as your program. You mentioned Mohammed Omer. We saw how brilliant and objective his reporting was from Gaza during the last terrible attack in 2014. His own family was under attack, they had very little food and water and so on, but every day he would produce these concise reports of no more than maybe 800 words, together with his photographs that would tell you what was happening as he witnessed it. It was about how people were still leading their lives in the most extraordinary ways, despite all the grief and suffering.

In other words, he did what the official media in the West rarely does: He put faces and names on people, he described their lives. He has collected those pieces together in a book. And there have been other journalists, particularly Palestinian photographers and camera people, who have done similar work. They make me proud to be a journalist.

DB: I only bring up the corporate journalists because they sustain these kinds of conditions by not reporting them or misreporting them.

JP: From my own point of view, I find it unwatchable, unless I am either monitoring it or deconstructing it. It is their censorship by omission, by distortion, by demonology. General Petraeus once said he spent most of his time with the media because that mattered more than trying to defeat the Taliban.

The good news is that a lot of people don’t believe it anymore. One of the elements in the rebellion rolling across Western societies is an anger with the media. This is certainly true in Britain. I’ve never known the media to be so popular a subject for debate. And it’s being discussed with a great deal of resentment. Reporters find themselves now having to account for their actions. That’s a new development.

Yesterday, The Guardian ran a rather defensive front-page article about journalists being called to account by the survivors of the terrible Grenfell Tower fire here in London. Well, that was emblematic of the media being called to account over a wide range of issues. People are becoming aware, they understand now. They’re no longer simply consumers of this sort of nonsense.

Certainly, the power of the media remains. But one of my favorite stories is that, on the night that Jeremy Corbyn almost won the election here, there was a party at the Times newspaper, which of course is run by Rupert Murdoch. When the first results came in and it became clear that Labor was doing so well, Murdoch stormed out. That was a very symbolic moment because it meant that his media and the media like his no longer had the power to ensure that certain politicians were elected. Two days before the election, The Daily Mail devoted thirteen pages to an attempted character assassination of Corbyn. It had no effect whatsoever.

DB: We just had on our show Arab Barghouti, the son of Mustafa Barghouti, who hasn’t touched his father for two years. Mustafa Barghouti has been in prison for fifteen years and just led a major hunger strike. Strong, articulate, he can’t be silenced. Or you mentioned Dr. Mona El-Farra, a medical director on the ground who had a good part of her extended family wiped out in 2014. She is still ministering to the people and telling the truth to anyone who will listen. It’s amazing.

JP: Yes, these are amazing people and it’s quite inspiring to be in their company. Even amidst all the carnage in the world, they make you feel good about being human.

DB: Why do you think Nelson Mandela said Palestine is the greatest moral issue of our time?

JP: There is a lot to criticize about Mandela but one of the things that was interesting and admirable about Mandela was that he was loyal to those who had supported and given solidarity to the people in South Africa struggling for their freedom. Certainly, right through his time in prison he always stressed the importance of that solidarity. In other words, of people standing together. It was a rather old-fashioned internationalist view of struggle.

He associated the struggle of the majority people of South Africa against the apartheid regime with the plight of the Palestinians who were struggling with their own form of apartheid. In the same way, Desmond Tutu has been to the West Bank and has been very outspoken in echoing what Mandela said. Tutu is on the record as saying that he regards the structures of apartheid in Israel/Palestine as in some respects even worse than those in South Africa.

I suppose Mandela considered Palestine the greatest moral issue because it was about a people wronged. The Palestinians were not the Germans, they didn’t do terrible things to the Jewish people. In fact, they had lived peacefully with the Jewish people for a very long time. They were the majority people in their country. Jews, Muslims, Christians lived together in peace, generally speaking, until the state of Israel was imposed on them.

As Mustafa Barghouti put it, “The Zionists wanted a state at the expense of the Palestinians.” That’s what Mandela meant. Palestine is a classic colonial injustice. [Israel] is the fourth largest military power in the world backed by the largest military power, the European Union and other Western countries, taking away the freedom and imposing oppression on the people of Palestine.

DB: And the idea of a free Palestinian people is one that is very troubling to the Arab world that is aligned with the United States. It seems nobody wants to think about the liberation of Palestine because then they have to think about their own corrupt and vicious dictatorships. Palestine really is the issue of war and peace. Whether there will ever be peace depends on whether these people will ever have a place to call their home again.

JP: Certainly, until the Palestinians have justice–in a way that they recognize it–there will be no peace in the region. In a sense, all roads of conflict in this troubled region lead back to Palestine. If the Palestine issue were resolved, that would mean that Israel would be a normal country. Not armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and intimidating and oppressing the indigenous people, but a normal country living with equality within its own sphere. If that happened, if that were resolved, I’m not saying that peace would suddenly break out all over the Middle East, but it would be the beginning.

DB: Do you see the boycott/divestment movement as a hopeful light? Clearly, people who have supported it in the US, students and teachers, have suffered great repression. But do you see this as a viable movement? In some ways it is modeled on the South African anti-apartheid movement.

JP: All you have to do is look at the reaction in Israel. They are terrified of it. They have brought all kinds of pressure to bear on governments, particularly the British government, to stop the BDS movement having an influence. Just the other day, a court judgment found that local councils in Britain could indeed boycott, dis-invest and sanction whoever they please. The British government had told them they couldn’t. Well, they can.

The BDS movement really worries the Israeli regime because it’s popular. In Norway, the biggest trade union has endorsed it. Student bodies in the United States are going along with it. People have had their say and they have voted for it. It represents a kind of local democracy. It’s much more widespread in the United States than people realize and it certainly is across Europe.

BDS on its own is not going to bring about freedom for the Palestinians. In South Africa, the sanctions did undoubtedly have an effect. But White South Africa managed to get around the sanctions. It was when it lost a powerful friend, when the Reagan administration decided that South Africa was causing more trouble than it was worth and finally withdrew its support, that the system fell.

I’m afraid that that is the way power works. But there is no doubt that power is always influenced by popular movements such as BDS. Ultimately, I believe that the solution is in the United States. Without US backing in all its forms, Israel would have no choice but to become a normal country.

DB: It is interesting to see how strong the reaction has been to the boycott/divestment movement. Professors have lost their jobs, kids have been beaten up. Below the corporate media surface, it has really been reverberating out there in the grassroots.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.




The Lost Liberalism of Netanyahu’s Israel

Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel continues to become more and more intolerant both in its treatment of Palestinians and its attitude toward more liberal tendencies in Judaism, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

In recent weeks, the Israeli government has taken measures that have exacerbated tensions within world Jewry. Each measure has reflected the political power of ultra-Orthodox parties within the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

One of the government’s moves was to suspend a plan to provide space for non-Orthodox men and women to pray together at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Currently the main prayer plaza at this holy site is run in accordance with Orthodox practice and has separate men’s and women’s sections.

The other development was Netanyahu’s endorsement of a bill that gives the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment a monopoly in determining what conversions to Judaism should be recognized in Israel.

Most critical commentary in the United States about these developments has focused on them as an affront to Jews in the United States. American Jews, a large proportion of whom belong to Reform or Conservative branches of the faith, constitute one of the two largest concentrations, along with the population of Israel, of Jews worldwide.

A theme of the commentary has been that the Israeli government’s moves might weaken support for Israel among American Jews, and that such weakening could lead in turn to a lessening of the large, automatic, material and diplomatic support that the United States provides to Israel. A further theme is an assumption that such lessening would be bad.

Non-Jews who do not live in Israel have no direct stake in the religious dimension of such controversies, and have little or nothing useful to say about that dimension. To try to say something about it would make as little sense as non-Muslims lecturing Muslims about whether violence and extremism conform with Islam — although such lecturing often is attempted. But the moves in question do involve important dimensions for anyone concerned about U.S. foreign policy.

Stigmatizing Dissent

Set aside for the moment how commentary that speaks of the political clout of American Jews in determining U.S. policy strays into especially sensitive territory — where, if a non-Jew enters that territory, one is apt to hear accusations of anti-Semitism. There are, indeed, genuinely anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews supposedly controlling all sorts of U.S. policies. In any event, the politics of U.S. backing for Israel is not just a function of American Jews, even insofar as religious motivations are involved. Evangelical Christians can be at least as conspicuous in offering zealous and unqualified support for Israel.

That still leaves two other dimensions of foreign policy concern. One involves the Israeli government’s persistent efforts to conflate its own objectives with the interests of Jews worldwide. Netanyahu’s presumption to speak and act on behalf of Jews everywhere serves at least a couple of politically useful purposes. It encourages the kind of support from the Jewish Diaspora that, although not the whole picture as far as support from the United States or other countries is concerned, is indeed a major part of such backing. The presumption also enables Netanyahu or others to play the anti-Semitism card in response to criticism of Israeli government policies.

The conflation is false. Israeli policies are the policies of a government, not the expression of a religious faith or an ethnic group or a global community with an identity forged by history. To categorize any criticism of those policies as a manifestation of anti-Jewish prejudice is to say that such policies should never be subject to criticism; that would be neither good for Israel nor good for the policies of other countries toward Israel.

To find fault with policies of Iran or Saudi Arabia — states that also define themselves in terms of a specific religion — is not necessarily anti-Islamic. To find fault with policies of Israel is not necessarily anti-Jewish.

The controversies about conversions and about prayer at the Western Wall place in stark relief the separation between the Israeli government’s policies and the interests of Jews worldwide. Not only are the two not equivalent; the specific policies of the Israeli government have made the two contradictory in some respects. And this is true not only about the ability of non-Israeli Jews to pray at a holy site in accordance with their own customs or to be recognized as a Jew when in Israel.

Criticizing Soros

Netanyahu’s posture toward attacks by the right-wing government of Hungary against the Jewish, Hungarian-born, American financier George Soros provides another illustration of Netanyahu’s priorities. Netanyahu overturned an earlier Israeli foreign ministry statement that had condemned the attacks as contributing to anti-Semitism in Hungary, preferring instead to reaffirm his own government’s attacks on Soros because of the financier’s support for organizations critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and of its government’s discrimination against non-Jewish citizens.

The implications of this divide include not only the one for Jews that their interests are not to be equated with the policies of Israel, but also the one for non-Jews that respect for Jews and Judaism does not require deference to those policies.

The other major dimension highlighted by the recent religious controversies in Israel concerns the basis and rationale for U.S. policy toward Israel. Much has been said through the past seven decades about shared values between the United States and Israel. The emphasis on values in constructing rationales for the unqualified U.S. support for Israel has become all the more necessary to the extent that non-value-laden ways of looking at U.S. interests involved — in terms of U.S. standing in the Muslim world, factors affecting instability in the Middle East, and motivations for anti-U.S. terrorism — make the unqualified support less defensible.

There were in fact some common values associated with the creation of the State of Israel. The commonality has lessened over time, especially with regard to fundamental values involving political and human rights, and especially in the half-century of occupation of Palestinian territory, which now constitutes more than two-thirds of Israel’s history.

The subjugation of an entire nationality denied meaningful political rights, by a dominant population defined in terms of religion and ethnicity, is vastly at odds with American values. The United States has its own checkered history with such matters, of course, with the slavery of African-Americans and dispossession of Native Americans being among the biggest departures from what most Americans today would consider their political and social values.

But even taking the least favorable view of the American story — and saying that it wasn’t until the civil rights advances of the 1960s, the same decade in which the Israeli occupation of the West Bank began, that those American values began to be realized — there is no comparison between modern American values and the Israel of today.

Religion and American ‘Values’

The recent issues about conversions and prayer space underscore that there is a wide difference in values regarding religion as well. There always was going to be a substantial difference, with the American values from the beginning of the republic being based on the absence of an established religion and on law that would, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahomedan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

The gulf between this concept and idea of a Jewish state was not especially salient during Israel’s early years, given the largely secular and Western orientation of some of Israel’s founders and the political tone they set. But as with political values, this, too, has changed over time.

Israel’s principal founding father, David Ben-Gurion, who described himself as irreligious, created the system in which ultra-Orthodox were exempted from military service and could devote themselves to full-time study of the Torah — a measure taken to obtain ultra-Orthodox support for creation of the state apparatus and justified to save a tradition of religious study that the Holocaust had almost wiped out. Ben-Gurion probably did not foresee how, thanks largely to differential birth rates, the ultra-Orthodox would acquire the greater political power they have today, with wide influence on life within Israel and even beyond.

The status of Israel as a post-Holocaust haven for Jews does not erase the significance of the gulf in values. Being a haven does not require being a theocracy, much less one with an increasingly narrow view of those worthy of receiving protection in the haven.

Part of the background to the increasing ambivalence about Israel among American Jews (not to mention European ones) that commentators lament is that, notwithstanding undeniable anti-Semitism, most of them feel relatively safe as well as integrated where they are right now. Net migration into Israel has been dropping over the past decade and was close to zero by 2015.

The Trump administration has indicated at times that it does not intend to be guided much by values in constructing its foreign policy. And yet the President, in his speech in Warsaw, talked about Western values. Applying this concept to the religious situation in Israel, a fair observation is that this situation exhibits Middle Eastern values at least as much as Western values.

The segregation of the sexes that is at the center of the controversy over prayer at the Western Wall resembles not what one sees in the overwhelming majority of houses of worship in the West but rather what prevails in those parts of the Middle East dominated by fundamentalist versions of Islam.

The Netanyahu government’s recent measures on religious matters are part of narrowing limits of acceptability and increasing intolerance in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate’s blacklist of overseas rabbis whose authority it refuses to recognize in certifying as Jewish someone who wants to marry in Israel includes even many Orthodox rabbis in the United States. This sort of thing is strong food for thought not only for Jews but also for other Americans whose government has married itself to the Israeli theocracy.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




A Personal Look Inside Modern Islam

There is a vicious cycle, rotating from Western fear and hatred of Islam to violent Islamic extremism targeting the West and around again, as a new book — reviewed by Arnold R. Isaacs — quietly explains.

Arnold R. Isaacs

For anyone seeking to better understand the recent past and present chaos in the Arab world, here’s a tip: read Generation Revolution. To be clear, this book does not report on the broad sweep of recent history, or on the entire region. It examines that history through the experiences of a small number of young men and women navigating the last tumultuous decade in one country, Egypt.

The author, British journalist Rachel Aspden, carefully avoids generalizing. For the most part, she lets her protagonists’ stories speak for themselves. But those stories, full of compelling detail, give a vivid sense of the conflicting forces that propelled upheavals not only in Egypt but across a wide swath of the Middle East.

Aspden arrived in Cairo in the summer of 2003, a 23-year-old brand-new university graduate hoping to learn Arabic and find adventure. As she came to know her Egyptian contemporaries, young men and women of her generation whose world was interconnected in ways their parents could not have imagined, she began to see the complex and contradictory currents that were shaping their lives.

As one of many examples, here’s what Aspden writes about a young woman from a middle-class family who was almost exactly her own age:

“However well-off their families, Cairo’s twenty-first-century twenty-somethings still inhabited a world of arranged marriages, dowries, virginity, filial obedience and religious obligation. But the old rules were only part of the story. Her generation had grown up with Internet porn, Hollywood rom-coms, women’s magazines, illicit nightclubs, mobile phones and social-media flirtations. They’d also grown up with the revival of conservative Islam, the spread of headscarves and prayer bruises — marks sported by men who pressed their foreheads ostentatiously hard to the ground in worship — sexual harassment and mass unemployment. All these currents collided in the world of relationships and marriage. The confusion was driving young people crazy.”

Initially, Aspden found it paradoxical that many — though not all — of the educated young people she met were drawn to conservative religious beliefs and practice, rather than seeking greater personal freedoms. But she came to see that turning to religion was another form of rebellion, “an act of defiance against their parents’ generation and the unjust, corrupt society they had helped create.” It was also a way to a better, cleaner identity. One of her subjects, a young man she calls Ayman, explained it to her this way:

“People like us were brought up in a Westernized way, let’s say 80% Westernized…. We went to English-language schools, we watched American TV, all that stuff. And many people just continue on that path. But why should we adopt the mindset of the West? As far as I’m concerned there are three mindsets: Western, Eastern and religious. The first two are both rubbish, both bad in their own ways…. Western — do anything you want, no boundaries, make money, exploit women, consume. Eastern — oppress women, corruption, ignorant traditions, stuck in the past.”

Rather than accept either of those, Ayman went on, he chose to listen to an inner voice he knew had better answers: “God put something inside you that will guide you to the truth, if you’re seeking it sincerely.”

In describing this and many other conversations, Aspden’s reporting makes another very important point: that the Islamic revival of the last four decades has been anything but a simple story of fundamentalism vs. modernism. Instead she shows that Islamism in Egypt has taken many different forms, some fanatically reactionary and intolerant and some trying to find ways to reconcile strong religious belief with life in a modern, diverse world.

In particular it is worth pointing out that her observations completely undercut the argument of American anti-Muslim activists who portray the Muslim Brotherhood as a violent terrorist organization. The Brotherhood, Egypt’s most significant Islamist movement, is shown in these pages as repressive and theocratic but not violently extremist.

“The Brotherhood aren’t using violence, they’re using democracy, but the word is ‘using,'” a more liberal Islamist told Aspden, adding: “using is different from believing. They are using democratic actions to pursue a fundamentalist vision.” When Aspden asked what that vision was, he replied, “The dream of the supremacy of Islam.”

Whether that nonviolent character will change now that the Brotherhood is once again being suppressed is one of many critical questions that will only be answered in coming years.

Four-Year Lapse

Aspden left Cairo in 2005, then returned in 2011, the year that began with huge anti-government protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and touched off a turbulent chain of events: the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power, a continuing cycle of protests and repression, and the return to military rule under Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after a coup d’etat in the summer of 2013 that led to even harsher repression including a military assault that killed as many as 1,000 pro-Brotherhood demonstrators in the streets of Cairo in the aftermath of the coup.

Again, Aspden portrays those events largely through the experiences of a small group of acquaintances, including many of the same men and women she knew from her earlier Egyptian stay. And again, those experiences are rich in telling moments that help explain a complicated history, illuminating issues and social divisions that are still far from resolved.

Narrow as its lens may be, Generation Revolution represents journalism at its best — an exceptional piece of reporting on a vitally important subject. This valuable book should be on the required reading list for policymakers and opinionmakers concerned with Middle East policy and violent extremism.

A conventional review would end here. This one carries a postscript, on an episode that departs from the author’s main theme but touches on another important one. It occurred in an exchange with the brother of one of her principal protagonists, a few months before Aspden left Egypt for the second time.

When their conversation turned to the Islamic State, which he called by its Arabic name, Daesh, the young man told her that it has the support of many Egyptians who “believe they’re fighting to protect Islam.” Then he added: “We don’t know that Daesh are real. There’s no proof of what’s really going on there, and there’s a lot of manipulation by the Western media… Hollywood tricks. Those beheading videos could easily be faked in a studio.”

Aspden had heard that argument before. She was “frustrated,” she writes, “by the baroque conspiracy theories voiced by clever, educated people, and they in turn were disappointed by my weak-minded general belief in events reported by the BBC, New York Times or Guardian.”

“What do you think is the truth, then?” she asked Mazen’s brother.

“For me it’s obvious,” he replied. “Daesh has been created by Israel and the United States to discredit Muslims and provide the West with another excuse to invade and seize the oil.”

What sounded to Aspden like “a fringe conspiracy theory,” she writes, “was, in Egypt, a generally accepted truth. When I switched on my computer at home, my friends were sharing a cartoon of an Islamic State jihadi puppet operated by the figures of a leering, hook-nosed Jew and Uncle Sam.”

At a moment when “fake news” has become a major concern, that passage teaches a chilling lesson not about Egypt but about our own public discussion. It tells us that politicians and their mouthpieces and partisan pontificators who push out false information do not just strengthen their own lies. They strengthen their enemies’ lies as well, because weakening truth weakens it for everybody.

Aspden’s Egyptian acquaintances who are sure the Islamic State is an American-Israeli hoax (and who scoff at her for trusting the BBC and the New York Times) — are the mirror image of Americans who believe other falsehoods — for example that “we don’t know who is coming in” as refugees, or that a vast Muslim conspiracy is infiltrating the U.S. legal system to impose sharia law — and who scoff at the identical news organizations and everyone else who reports facts they don’t like.

The more effectively one side undermines public trust in journalists or scientists or scholars who present real facts, the easier it becomes for those on the other side to distrust those sources too, and deny facts that are inconsistent with their reality. It may not be one of the lessons Aspden set out to teach in this book, but it is definitely worth thinking about.

Arnold R. Isaacs is a former reporter and foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. He is the author of From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in post-9/11 America and two books relating to the Vietnam war.

 




Bill Maher’s Muddled Attacks on Islam

As an edgy comedian, Bill Maher prides himself on his “politically incorrect” religion-bashing, but his excessive attacks on Islam more aptly reflect a “politically correct” bigotry, as JP Sottile explains.

By JP Sottile

Bill Maher thinks he knows exactly why they hate us. In the world according to Bill, all those agitated Muslims on the receiving end of multiple interventions, numerous “double-tap” drone strikes, countless tons of falling bombs, the systematic imprisonment of “rendered” individuals and the widespread use of lawless torture are, simply put, the outgrowth of a backwards belief system. And those beliefs also inspire a type of religious violence that’s become a destructive force unparalleled in today’s world.

The “today” part is important to Maher because he doesn’t like the “false equivalence” of historical context. Instead, he’s decidedly on the side of “that was then, this is now.” So, forget Christian Crusaders, Spanish Inquisitors, Philistine-purging Israelites or, one would assume, any of human history’s numerous examples of holy war-making.

Also not equivalent are recent mass murders of Sikhs in Wisconsin and of Muslims in Quebec. And don’t bother bringing up the growing list of identity-based violence against Muslims or, perhaps most tellingly, of mistaken identity-based violence against those who are ignorantly thought to be Muslims, but aren’t.

Somehow, America’s long, demonstrable history of putting ethnic cleanliness next to its own obsessive Godliness doesn’t quite cut it either, burning crosses and Native American genocide notwithstanding. No, history doesn’t reverberate in the Islamophobic echo chamber … unless, of course, we’re talking about the “warlike” history of long-since faded Islamic empires. Then all’s fair in this one-sided front on the anti-religious war being waged by the so-called “New Atheists.”

The New Atheism

Maher and his confrontational cohorts — like famed geneticist Richard Dawkins and anti-Muslim gadfly Sam Harris — have targeted Islam as something far more pernicious than just another fantasy-based religion with the usual roster of fundamentalists, self-appointed prophets and violent opportunists.

For them, Islam is sui generis. Islam is, according to their unique atheist orthodoxy, both violent and repressive in ways that make it wholly unique. Islam is not just an intellectual error, but a dangerous cultural cancer.

Essentially, these New Atheists have simplified a question almost as old as the “War on Terror” it so inadequately tries to explain. For them, the answer is clear. They hate us because Islam is the enemy of the “liberal” values and, by extension, of the entire civilized world.

Perhaps that’s why Maher doesn’t think jihadi terrorist groups or random incidents of jihadi-inspired violence are better explained as the irrational acts of individual insanity or as the predictable blowback from 75 years of American meddling the Middle East. That is, of course, if you consider “meddling” an adequate description of America’s history of profitable relationships with brutal dictators.

Maher’s “they-hate-our-liberal values” explanation is certainly an inadequate characterization of 25 years of continuous bombing in the region … and of CENTCOM’s random application of kinetic force in numerous Muslim countries over the same period. “Meddling” also falls short of describing the multi-year drone war on “suspected militants” and, all-too-often, on innocent civilians.

On the other hand, “meddling with benefits” might best describe the post-colonial period in a poorly-partitioned region where receding Western powers exploited the maps they’d drawn to great effect. The divided nations they created were fairly easy for corporate neo-colonialists to conquer or control — whether they sought oil, or sold weapons to those who had the oil, but needed protection … sometimes from their “own people.” And then there’s Uncle Sam’s meddling (a.k.a. complicity) in the never-ending displacement of the Palestinian people.

But those niggling details tend to cloud the clear-as-day view of Islam that Maher shares with those who see it as an enemy of civilization. That’s certainly the view of die-hard evangelicals like Franklin Graham, of defense industry shills at the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, and of the assorted denizens of the increasingly profitable Islamophobia industry.

In effect, Maher and the New Atheists have joined a legion of doomsayers led by the indefatigable Pamela Geller, the paranoia-stricken Frank Gaffney, Steve Bannon’s profit-seeking Breitbart and Trump’s momentary National Security Advisor Lt. General Michael Flynn.

Packaged for Liberals

To be fair, Maher doesn’t employ the same type of paranoid histrionics that both buoys and enriches those right-wing poseurs and the other troubling Islamophobes who’ve found a home in Trump’s White House. Rather, Maher makes a “liberal” argument about the need to stand up for “progressive” values like equality for women, free speech and freedom of religious conscience. He rightly points to countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan as places where a basic level of human rights is not available to women, to religious minorities, to homosexuals or to anyone not willing to conform to fundamentalist orthodoxy.

Ironically, and perhaps not coincidentally, some of the places where progressive values are least likely to be embraced are the same countries America has mostly closely supported — Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also not coincidentally, the places where America has exerted the most influence are also the places that produce many of the violent individuals and groups through which Maher judges the planet’s Muslims.

Unsurprisingly, Maher and the New Atheists are loathe to concede the notable shades of gray around the Islamic world — from the women serving in parliament and working as professionals in Iran to the quite different Muslim experiences found in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Balkans. Nor do they mention the fact that Muslim-majority nations have had more women reach the top political spot (eleven) than the United States (zero). It doesn’t quite fit into their zero-sum game.

Punchy Lines

Still, if Maher was making the point that the United States is too often a handmaiden to … or crass beneficiary of … repression in regimes that hold some economic and/or strategic value to the defense industry and/or the oil industry, he’d likely garner support from many of the progressives he often scolds. But he doesn’t.

Instead he and his fellow finger-pointers rail against the Quran as the “motherlode of bad ideas.” Maher says Islam is “the only religion that acts like the Mafia” and even assured Muslim-American Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, that the Quran is a hate-filled holy book.”

Maher’s presentation is a “schlock and awe” shtick that burnishes his credentials as a self-appointed bullshit detector. It preserves his long-standing brand as an anti-PC crusader and, like so many great comedians before him, as someone willing to “go there” even if it makes people uncomfortable.

Perhaps that’s why Maher’s accused his fellow liberals of giving Islam a “free pass” when it comes to their “repressive” culture. And why he’s reprimanded anyone who disagrees with his assertion that Islam is both a particularly violent and a peculiarly “backward” religion that is totally incompatible with the modern world (whatever that is).

He’s made a point of criticizing the “cultural relativism” that compares Islamic-based violence with violence linked to other religions — particularly violence linked to Christianity. As Maher infamously told Charlie Rose back in 2014, to “claim that this religion is like other religions is just naive and plain wrong.”

This politically incorrect posture has made fans of die-hard Christian commentators. But this is also where his punchy argument — and his disdain for context — betrays him. Why? Because it fails to account for the cruel crimes against humanity currently being driven by hard-line, radical Buddhists in Myanmar. Yes, it’s true … Buddhists have fomented a widespread program of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority which is, oddly enough, a Muslim minority.

Hindus Too?

Maher’s posture ignores the rise of Hindu extremism in India, where the problem of religious violence and persecution is growing under the Hindu nationalist  Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Vice reported that religious minorities in India “averaged one attack per day” in 2015. Muslims in particular have experienced an increase of random violence since Modi came to power. And last year, attacks on the Christian minority grew three-fold with a church “burnt down or a cleric beaten on average 10 times a week,” according  to a report by Open Doors UK & Ireland.

It is also true that the radical settler movement in Israel has its own hyper-fundamentalists who believe divine right has given them carte blanche to purge the Holy Land of both Muslims and Christians. In 2016, radicalized settlers produced “an average of 2 incidents of settler violence per week,” according to a United Nations report. Yes, we know about Hamas’ radical Islamic violence.

But human rights organization B’Tselem  is monitoring the persistent problem of Jewish violence because there is such a thing as “radical Judiasm.” And Israel’s “Ultra-Orthodox” fundamentalists have a familiar, anti-liberal problem with women worshipping next to men, riding the bus with men and with a belief in the “unclean” nature of the feminine.

Let’s be honest … it’s a fundamentalist tendency shared among the three Abrahamic cousins. Even now America’s Vice President Mike Pence believes married men shouldn’t risk cavorting with other women, may believe it’s possible to “pray the Gay away,” absolutely believes gay marriage is tantamount to “societal collapse” and is the standard bearer for a well-established Evangelical political movement that “inspired” violence against abortion providers. And, as noted earlier, there are those troubling, religiously-inspired burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan.

Do these religiously-sourced incidents, some of which are part of long, identifiable patterns, mean that the religions themselves are inherently pernicious? Is it possible that Maher, like the politically correct liberals he scorns, is handing out free passes to these non-Muslim religions? Or is it that religions are — like most belief or political systems — potentially useful tools to those seeking righteous justification or an organizing rationale for their rage and anger?

As a guest on Maher’s HBO show recently said regarding the “lone wolf” attack outside the Houses of Parliament in London, “it has nothing to do with Islam the same way Timothy McVeigh had nothing to do with Roman Catholicism.”

But Maher wasn’t having it. And when he was then presented with the fact that Irish Catholic separatists engaged in a deadly campaign of bombings and terrorism against those they perceived as their Protestant oppressors, again Maher bristled. He said that was “the past” (like the Inquisition, the Crusades and, apparently, those uniquely American burning crosses).

And he punctuated his point by dropping this headline-grabbing punch-line: “Every time some bomb goes off, before it goes off, somebody yells ‘Allahu Akbar!’ I never hear anybody go ‘Merry Christmas! This one’s for the flying nun!’”

It got a nice chuckle from the crowd. But history usually gets the last laugh.

History Matters

First of all, not only did the IRA and IRA “elements” repeatedly attack Christmas shoppers in London in the week before the holiday, but one such attack outside Harrod’s on Dec. 17, 1983, killed five shoppers and wounded 91 others. That bombing led to annual fears of a “Christmas Bombing” campaign all the way into the 1990s.

No, the proudly Catholic authors of that attack did not say “Merry Christmas,” but their intention was clear. The bombings were not in spite of the most important religious holiday for Christians, but because of the added impact that holiday had in creating a feeling of terror among the intended target. The timing of the bombing was itself a terrifying message.

Secondly and, perhaps more pertinently, the United States used the Christmas holiday as a backdrop for one of the most brutal bombing campaigns of the post-World War II era. Officially it was called “Linebacker II,” but ever since it began on Dec. 18, 1972, the round-the-clock bombardment of Hanoi, Haiphong and the surrounding environs has been known as the “Christmas Bombing.” It was ordered by President Nixon as a punitive measure meant to terrorize the Vietnamese people and, therefore, designed to apply pressure on the Communist government to (ironically) sign a peace agreement in Paris.

Although there was a pause on Christmas Day, this momentary “gift” was cold comfort to the 1,600 people who died in that campaign. Hanoi was laid waste as America’s fleet B-52s flew a total of 741 sorties and  “dropped at least 20,000 tonnes” of bombs, according to a 40th anniversary report on the bombing by the BBC. Another report put the total at 40,000 tons. A Vietnamese source says the total — and the lingering toll on the Vietnamese people — was much higher still.

LobeLog’s David Bacon wrote a retrospective look at the psychological impact of the B-52 as an instrument of de facto terrorism. He dug up a newspaper report on a delegation visiting in the wake of the Christmas Bombing. It was led by Nuremburg jurist Telford Taylor. It also included Joan Baez and Yale University Divinity School Associate Dean Michael Allen, who said, “The most horrible scene that I’ve ever seen in my life was when we visited the residential area of Khan Thieu, and as far as I could see, everything was destroyed.”

Like the IRA, Nixon didn’t shout “Merry Christmas” when he delivered his explosive message. Then again, he didn’t really have to. As noted journalist and columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in the New York Times, “To send B-52s against populous areas such as Haiphong or Hanoi could have only one purpose: terror.” And Lewis wasn’t alone in his assessment that Nixon’s purpose was, in fact, terrorism.

Newspapers around the United States and the world condemned the bombing and the word “terror” was used by The Washington Post (“Terror Bombing in the Name of Peace,” Dec. 28), the New York Times (“Terror From the Skies,” Dec. 26), Joseph Kraft (“senseless terror”) and Dan Rather (“large scale terror bombing”). The Christmas bombing message was clear to all.

God-Fearing ‘Freedom’

But that simple symmetry is not the end of the story. That’s because the underlying propaganda of that the war — like all of America’s Cold War interventions, proxy battles and ad hoc bombings — was something Americans have (perhaps unsurprisingly, perhaps conveniently) forgotten. The plain fact is that Vietnam and the entire post-World War II period was sold as a struggle against “Godless Communism.” That may sound like a quirky anachronism today, but rest assured that the “Godlessness” of Commies, Pinkos and interloping Socialists was not only a core foundation of Cold War propaganda, but it also fed the monster of paranoia that helped create McCarthyism.

Indeed, at the same time Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wisconsin, was railing against Commies in 1954, Congress was moving to add “One Nation Under God” to the pledge of allegiance. As the New York Times recalled in a 2002 article on a challenge to the constitutionality of that addition:

“The change was made to draw attention to the difference between the system of government in this country and ‘godless Communism.’ … Introducing his resolution in the Senate, Senator Homer Ferguson, Republican of Michigan, declared, ‘I believe this modification of the pledge is important because it highlights one of the real fundamental differences between the free world and the Communist world, namely belief in God.’ No one in the Senate or the House spoke in opposition.”

In fact, the vocal merger of American Christianity with Cold War anti-Communism has been cited as a spur for the 16 percent rise in church membership between 1940 and 1970. In a 2003 review of a well-received book of the topic, Dr. Merrilyn Thomas of University College London noted that it should be “self-evident” that “religion played a significant role in the Cold War … given the powerful influence of Christianity on the lives of millions of people on both sides of the Iron Curtain.”

It may not be “self-evident” now because it is simply taken for granted. We’ve inherited that era’s holy warriorism and pushed it deep into our collective subconsciously through our gaping memory hole. It’s a subtext that came to the fore when the 9/11 “changed everything.” But, then again … it really changed nothing.

Lessons Unlearnt

Perhaps the saddest fact to emerge from the bloodiest episode in America’s war on Godless Communism is that Ho Chi Minh didn’t really have to be America’s enemy. He actually thought America — with its own revolutionary past — might be an ally in his drive to liberate Vietnam from French colonial rule. It made sense since he’d worked with the OSS to battle the Japanese in World War II. But that nascent alliance became impossible as an almost religious form of zealous anti-Communism consumed Truman’s presidency, the foreign policy establishment and, by the mid-1950s, most of America’s institutions.

Instead of seeing Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist first and a Communist second, America policymakers missed an important fact. His main goal was to liberate his nation from foreign occupation. But the foreign policy establishment viewed Vietnam and the entire world through a Manichean lens. It was the Free World versus Communism. It was good versus evil. It was a civilizational battle between the God-fearing and the God-less. And this simplistic template made it impossible to see that Communism was often as much a means to an end as it was an end unto itself.

That’s one lesson Cornell University professor and historian Frederik Logevall took from writing his 2012 book Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.

As Logevall  said in an interview referenced by the New York Times, Ho “saw communism as the best path of development for his country, but it was always his country.” And it was the liberation of “his country” that mattered most. Even the New York Times noted in its Sept. 4, 1969 obituary that Ho was a “remarkable” statesman who “pursued his goal of Vietnamese independence” by successfully “blending Communism with nationalism.”

And that’s the unlearned lesson of the entire Cold War period. Wherever we look back and see Communist, Socialist and other radicalized insurgencies, we usually see a larger historical process of decolonization. The years after World War II are filled with examples of former colonies fighting against the re-imposition of empire after the end of World War II. Or we see the revolt of newly-liberated peoples against the post-colonial proxies, kleptocrats and petty dictatorships that essentially stood between the people and their right of true self-determination and/or economic power.

To be sure, there were also many instances of dyed-in-the-wool Reds who were true believers. Places like Cuba, China and the Soviet Union were secure enough on their own to turn inward and, ironically, transform the communist project into a statist-style religion with personality cults that smack of religion. We see it now today in North Korea. But it is undeniable that Communism was also an effective organizing and recruitment tool that gave adherents a strong sense of group cohesion and ideological discipline that made them both effective fighters and committed believers.

Moreover, Communism was itself often criticized as a pseudo-religious paradigm that crystallized the terms of the fight into divided the world into the oppressors and the oppressed (a.k.a. infidels and believers). This mirrored the way America divided the world into the God-loving free world and the “Evil” empire of Godless Communism. In many ways, Communism became the logical “belief system” for those organizing resistance to the real or perceived American imperialism of the post-war period. It’s almost an irrefutable matter of political physics that the forceful imposition of the American Century would elicit an equal and opposite reaction. These reactions are as predictable as gravity.

Belief System Breakdown

Sadly, the coming of the War on Terror revealed exactly how little America learned from the bloodletting of Vietnam. Osama bin Laden began his Holy War as a project to eject “infidels” from Saudi Arabia — the holiest of Islam’s lands and his home nation. The infidels were American troops and they were there because they were “meddling” in Iraq — a place where America’s one-time client had become its foe. But America’s oil-thirsty neo-colonial protection racket put it right in the crosshairs of bin Laden and many others who resented America’s presence. Ironically, that resentment had its roots in yet another resistance movement — the CIA-generated plot to expel another set of invaders from a Muslim land.

That’s right … like Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong and countless other ideological leaders of the Twentieth Century … the CIA realized the power of a coherent belief system to create exactly the type group cohesion and hard-won discipline necessary to fight an asymmetrical war against a superior invader. That’s what Saudi Wahhabism and Salafism offered the adherents who flocked to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the CIA took note of the power of Shiite fundamentalism to organize resistance when their hand-picked, highly-Westernized leader in Iran was quickly toppled by a religious coup that was as much an anti-colonial fight as it was anything else. It’s a lesson as Russia learned in neighboring Afghanistan when they were ejected by comparatively lightly-armed foe reinforced by their hardcore beliefs.

It’s strangely fitting that the Muslim faith of the Mujahedeen helped to bring down the “Evil Empire” of Godless Communism. Unfortunately, their American benefactors filled that vacuum with their own ambitions for a unipolar world and, in the process, left Afghanistan with little more than rubble to show for their help.

With America now unopposed on the world stage, it began a renewed era of “meddling” around the Muslim world that led to the arrival troops in Saudi Arabia (1990), the basing of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain (1995), the establishment of Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti (2002) and a vast array of smaller deployments around the globe. This compounded the damage from U.S. indifference to Palestinian aspirations for self-determination and from a decade of sanctions and bombing in Iraq that reportedly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children.

Albright’s Endorsement

Whether that story is a fact or a myth, all that really matters is that the story was widely known. In 1996, it was bitterly reinforced by then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright when she infamously told Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes that the Iraq’s sanction-related deaths were “worth it.”

Why? Because America’s former client — Saddam Hussein — needed to be punished. This is the same Saddam Hussein the United States armed in the 1980s to fight Iran. That’s the same Iran the United States was simultaneously — and quite illegally — arming to fight Saddam. And this, like so many other details, may be inexorably stuffed somewhere in America’s bottomless memory hole.

But, like a long litany of interventions, drone-delivered executions and troubling crimes committed since 9/11 (yes, torture and extralegal imprisonment are crimes), it’s a fact widely known around the Muslim world. Don’t doubt for a minute that Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and the ever-present menace of hovering drones are foremost in the hearts and minds of many Muslims.

Given that fact, it is any real surprise that the Muslim world sees the United States and its allies as enemies? Is it really because — as the New Atheists and Right-wing Islamophobes believe (note that is, in fact, a belief) — the Muslim faith is uniquely ill-equipped to be part of their “civilized” world? Or is it that Islam is just the latest example of an ideology or religion being used to organize, to inspire and to marshal angry, displaced and/or aspirational human beings in a fight against a superior foe?

If history is our guide, radical jihadism looks like an opportune way to organize resistance to what many Muslims see as an American Century of violent “meddling” and political imposition through brutal proxies and neo-colonial adventurism. It is blowback. The New Atheists — and befuddled Americans — should look no further than the most recent slaughters of civilians in Yemen and Mosul for the replenishment of the already manifold reasons why they hate us.

And as for the often-cited the rejection of Western “liberal” values? Like the rejection of “decadent Capitalism” by fundamentalist Communism during the Cold War, it makes sense that Islamic fundamentalism would target anything that smacks of the Western world. And like other ideologies of resistance and revolution, it directs people’s anger toward the accouterments and symbols of the dominant power in their lives — whether directly imposed or imposed through proxies.

If that’s what radical Muslim jihadism is … then it is infinitely more comprehensible than Bill Maher, the New Atheists and Right-wing Islamophobes are willing to accept or admit. Maybe Islam isn’t a puzzling cancer that has to be excised. Maybe jihadism is a means, not an end. And maybe the brutal insanity of the Islamic State is more an echo of the excesses of the Khmer Rouge, Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Robespierre’s Reign of Terror than it is a logical conclusion of the Islamic faith. And maybe … just maybe … the radicalism around Muslim world can be seen in a larger context of history. That means acknowledging the extent to which America and its repressive proxies have set the terms of the debate around the Muslim world for the better part of a century.

Ultimately, it’s most important to recognize that Maher is, at best, misguided when he says there aren’t “Christian terrorist armies like ISIS.” As far as many Muslims on the receiving end of officially-sanctioned violence from the U.S. military, that’s probably a distinction without much of a difference. And if there’s any doubt about America’s own lingering fundamentalism, take note that few things would be more futile today than trying to get Congress to scrub that Cold War-era religious test from the Pledge of Allegiance.

JP Sottile is a freelance journalist, radio co-host, documentary filmmaker and former broadcast news producer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at Newsvandal.com or you can follow him on Twitter, http://twitter/newsvandal.




Letting Russia Be Russia

Political philosophers stressing Traditionalist values have influenced the thinking of Presidents Putin and Trump, but that may offer a path for Russia and the U.S. to coexist, explains ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.

By Alastair Crooke

Many in the West have purported to find Candidate, and now President, Trump’s insistence that détente with Russia is a “good thing” to be troubling. Some suggest that the President’s insistence on this is somehow sinister – worse even than troubling. But perhaps Trump and his chief strategist Steve Bannon’s sense that détente may be possible is not so much “sinister,” but has more to do paradoxically with a particular coincidence – a confluence of intellectual thinking, a confluence that has been taking shape, almost unnoticed over recent years, but which nonetheless is becoming more significant, and which posits a profound foreign policy potential.

Much has been read (most of it hostile) into Steve Bannon’s comment, via the internet, at a 2014 Vatican conference, during which he said that many of Vladimir Putin’s views were underpinned by eurasianism: “He’s got an adviser who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century, who are really the supporters of what’s called the Traditionalist Movement … We, the Judeo-Christian West,” continued Bannon, “really have to look at what [Putin]’s talking about as far as Traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.”

Here lies one immediate problem. It is presumed in the Western media, that the unnamed Putin adviser who harkens back to Julius Evola is Professor Alexander Dugin. And here, precisely is the first difficulty: both philosophers have a rare quality of intellectual brilliance, a command of the literature that is encyclopedic, but they are radical – radical way beyond, and at odds with, today’s secular, and uniform tastes. Indeed, even today in Italy, it is best to read Julius Evola, a prolific Italian philosopher and writer, with some discretion, or at least to hold such a book within nondescript, concealing covers, if one is to avoid hostile glares, or even physical abuse.

And the second difficulty? Alexander Dugin has been described as Putin’s “Rasputin” – a “mad mystic.” And Julius Evola was charged in 1951, with others, with the crime of promoting the Fascist Party, and of promoting ideas proper to fascism. Both philosophers, in short, are controversial and have proved hugely vulnerable to sometimes quite wild misrepresentations. Evola was acquitted on both charges of promoting fascism (though he is popularly still viewed as linked to post-war Italian neo-fascism), and Dugin, from 1998 to 2003, was a geopolitics counselor of the Duma’s Chairman (Gennadiy Selezyov) – but was not adviser to Vladimir Putin.

In fact, as Professor Bertonneau has written: “Evola condemns with equal fervour Muscovite communism and American money-democracy, as representing, the both of them, the mechanization and dehumanization of life. Unlike the Marxists – and unlike the Fascists and National Socialists – Evola saw the only hope for Western Civilization as lying in a revival of what he liked to capitalize, on the one hand, as Tradition and, on the other, as transcendence [personal transformation]; he thus rejected all materialism and instrumentalism as crude reductions of reality for coarse minds and, so too, as symptoms of a prevailing and altogether repugnant decadence.”

Delicate Ground

So why raise these controversial figures? Particularly, as in raising them we tread delicate ground. Well, it is because of that interesting coincidence to which we earlier alluded. Here is one aspect, as Professor Dugin himself notes:

“Julius Evola’s works were discovered in the 1960s [in Russia] by the very esoteric group of anti-communist intellectual thinkers known as ‘the Dissidents of the Right’. They were a small circle of people who had conscientiously refused to participate in the ‘cultural life’ of the USSR, and who had instead chosen an underground existence for themselves. The disparity between the presented Soviet culture and the actual Soviet reality was almost entirely what made them seek out the fundamental principles that could explain the origins of that evil, absolutist idea. It was through their refusal of communism that they discovered certain works by anti-modernist and traditionalist authors: above all, the books by René Guénon, and by Julius Evola.”

And, in America: “Sometime around the year 2000, the work of Julius Evola reached [the American] public consciousness, and thanks to writers like Bill White, Radical Traditionalism entered the [American] right-wing lexicon. This is a philosophy more than a political view, but fits neatly into the New Right idea that culture must be the generative actor for change which will manifest in politics and other areas … It is concerned with two fronts: first, arresting the decline of the West by crushing the Left by any means necessary; and second, a zeal for restoring the greatness of Western Civilization at its height, and [even] surpassing it.”

And here lies the third “difficulty” (or perhaps not a difficulty, but its particular merit, in the eyes of many): in a secular, liberal age, Evola’s philosophy is anti-modernist, anti-secularist and anti-Liberal. It harks back to philosophia perennis, and in American terms, to Aldous Huxley’s definitions of Perennial Philosophy. (In France, the Nouvelle Droite has a different, but parallel, ontological basis, i.e. with such as Alain de Benoist). More confusingly, though it is called Traditionalism, it is really a traditionalism that has no defined tradition.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Julius Evola was the only writer in this radical traditionalist vein. There was René Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, and many others. But, as the New York Times acknowledges (in a typically hostile piece): “More important for the current American administration, Evola also caught on in the United States with leaders of the alt-right movement, which Mr. Bannon nurtured as the head of Breitbart News, and then helped harness for Mr. Trump. ‘Julius Evola is one of the most fascinating men of the 20th century’, said Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader, who is a top figure in the alt-right movement.”

Just to be clear, that the widely-read Steve Bannon made mention of Evola does not, of course, make him an Evolista. And nor does Putin’s embrace of Eurasianism, make him a Duginista. “But,” as the Times quotes one specialist, “the fact that Bannon even knows Evola is significant.”

Radical Traditionalists  

In fact, what we seem to be witnessing is that just as the Russian philosopher, Dugin, draws on Radical Traditionalist thinking and then tries to apply it to the Russian situation, so too, the Alt-Right in the U.S. seems to be doing something similar: drawing on Evola and other Traditionalist sources, while distilling their ideas into an American cultural perspective (linking back to Huxley and Edmund Burke).

In this respect, Trump and Bannon may indeed find much in common with Mr. Putin (though it would be a mistake, I believe, to read the Russian President through the prism of Professor Dugin). Where there is common ground between the latter (Putin and Dugin) is the sense that the West has never made a satisfactory attempt to try to understand Russia as distinct, and of worth, in its own right.

So the West has always tried to change Russia into something that it isn’t – has always tried to make it more like the West: more liberal, more democratic, more “diversity”- orientated – always assuming that that’s how it somehow has to be, and is the best way for it to “be.” But Russia is a thousand-year civilization; it has its own religious sites and its own particular civilizational code. Russia’s leaders do not want to let the West dictate to it how to interpret Russia’s history, or its present – and, certainly not its future.

Dugin unquestionably does share Evola’s unyielding disdain for liberalism, liberal modernity and liberal democracy. And moreover, he also intensely dislikes how the West tries to force this liberalism upon others – in ugly ways – as an “universal value.” This attitude has led him to be cast as fiercely anti-American and a Russian imperialist to boot, who yearns to re-establish the Soviet Empire.

It is possibly Dugin’s polemical video In Trump We Trust  that contributed to the (unwarranted) U.S. inference that President Putin too, favored Trump in the U.S. Presidential election. To read Putin in this way, would be wrong. He likely does have empathy for the Traditionalist leaning toward differentiation (national as well as personal, in the Evola sense of becoming: of becoming oneself, of a return to origins). President Putin frequently makes this very point about Russia having its own essential essence and having, too, every right to that differentiation and cultural particular (as do other nation-states).

Evola does refer to Empire, but this has to be understood in a very different way from our contemporary understanding. And Dugin reflects this explicitly:

“One particular layer of Evola’s thoughts is felt by the Russians to be of imminent and extreme importance: his praise for the Imperial Ideal. Rome represents the focal point of Evola’s worldview. This sacred living power which had manifested itself all across the Empire was to Evola the very essence of the West’s traditional heritage … But a similar line of thought is seemingly naturally felt by the Russians, whose historical destiny has always been profoundly tied to that of Imperium … [that is to say], Moscow as the ‘Third Rome’: It should be noted that the ‘First Rome’ in this cyclic orthodox interpretation, was not Christian Rome, but rather Imperial Rome, because the Second Rome (or the ‘New Rome’) was Constantinople, the capital of the Christian Empire.

“Thus the idea of ‘Rome’ held by the Orthodox Russians corresponds to the understanding of … the inseparable ‘symphony’ between the spiritual authority and the temporal realm. For traditional orthodoxy, the catholic separation between the King and the Pope is simply unimaginable and close to blasphemy; and this very concept is actually called the ‘Latin heresy.’ Again, one can see the perfect convergence between Evola’s dogma and the commonplace mindset of Russian conservative thought.”

In his book on Evola, Paul Furlong describes it thus: “Evola sees nationalism as, in essence, the offspring of liberalism, modernity and bourgeois subversion, which announced the arrival of the fourth state that destroyed the traditional order of empire. Within the empire, nations find a just hierarchical order; [whereas] outside of it, they are mere tools of chauvinistic nationalisms, and of regimes interested only in material conquest in the name of contingent realities such as fatherlands.”

Misreading Philosophy

It is not hard to see how Dugin might be misread (and therefore perhaps project a false reading on to President Putin of Imperial revanchism rather than, as Dugin intends, of the hoped-for co-joining of the spiritual with the secular). This, despite President Putin having been at some pains to distance his own notion of eurasianism (communal psychology and a single geo-geographic and civilizational unity as a firm basis for state solidarity) from the more (literal) nationalist currents in Russia today.

The point here is that Dugin’s (and Evola’s) thinking is novel, and can give rise to wrong assumptions about what some Russian philosophers mean when they talk about “Empire” — a terminology which is translated in the West to imply Russia as being a potential “aggressor.”

But, if we turn to Steve Bannon and his 2010 film Generation Zero, which narrates America’s decline into crisis, it is not hard to detect some Evola resonances – albeit ones tailored to the distinct American cultural code:

Firstly, there is the idea of virile America (as it used to be) as the traditional, just, order of American society – a sort of “New Imperial Rome” perhaps, rather than a “New Jerusalem.”

Secondly, Bannon – like Evola – traces the beginning of the American slide towards decadence to the narcissistic, self-indulgent 1960s (to the Woodstock era, in Bannon’s narrative). Ditto for Europe, in Evola’s view.

Thirdly, Bannon – like Evola – disdains the undifferentiated, materialist and uniform bureaucratic modernity, to which this decadence has given rise. Evola admires ancient and historical societies for the virility of their structures – and not as tools of power (or of chauvinistic nationalism).

Fourthly, Bannon – like Evola – extols the symphony between the spiritual (Judeo Christian) and temporal authority.

Fifth, both see history as cyclical: the fourth turning in Bannon’s narrative versus the fourth stage in Evola’s.

Sixth, both believe that if you are a traditionalist, you must challenge “decadence” by all means.

I do not know whether Bannon or Trump have read Evola, but his sprit, and that of other Radical Traditionalists, has certainly permeated the thinking of the Alt-Right circles in which both men have been moving.

The important point here, is not to draw out all the parallels in order to assert a literary lineage. That does not matter. But rather, to point to something far more substantive: their foreign policy implications. The concinnity of thinking – albeit one refined through different cultural optics – is there.

Trump and Putin do indeed have something in common. If both parties – as it seems they do – concur that differentiated, individuated (but not individualist) states, are legitimate and appropriate to their separate and particular, cultural codes – what then, is there to fight about?

If America and the West now can disavow the need to remake Russia in the Western, diversity-centric, individualist, liberal-democratic image, and agree to accept Russia simply for what it, and its culture, “is,” then this would amount to a shift in Western policy of tectonic import. It would indeed be paradoxical if a figure, such as Evola, somehow might have contributed to such an event.

Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum.