Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Benny Morris to the Rescue

It is one thing to have the renegade father of Israel’s new historians spouting off standard war-mongering rhetoric; It is another thing to read his delirious thoughts on the op-ed page of the New York Times. And I have a theory about that, one nurtured by my own firmly established paranoia and conspiracy-based frame of analysis.

Benny Morris made his name on the strength of daring to expose the falsity of Israel’s previously internationally accepted claims of innocence in the 1948 creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. From the very beginning he faltered a bit and fell short on the honesty component of interpreting his fresh historical account, still allowing an escape route for Ben-Gurion et. al. by devolving responsibility for the war atrocities that drove the Palestinians out of their homes to the field commanders’ level. In recent years, as he saw the fanatical rightists’ light, he started to blame Ben-Gurion for not doing a thorough job. He ought to have completed the ethnic cleansing job, Benny now thinks, and driven out all Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. That includes the disorganized group of near 150,000 mainly rural Palestinians who in 1948 became Israeli citizens. True, one quarter to one third of this minority was internal refugees who lost their homes, land and other property. And true the remaining two thirds have lost over 80% of their land to the holy mission of the ingathering of the Jews. Still their demographics are disturbing; they have managed to maintain their relative proportion of the total population of the ‘Jewish and democratic state’ and have even increased some. It is not too late, Benny and his elk now think; ways can be found to fix up the fateful mistake by population exchange, border adjustments and forceful persuasion. When the opportunity presents itself, the entire Palestinian population west of the Jordan River should be transferred out of what Benny thinks should be the minimal natural area of Israel.

Still the man is a recognized authority who has worldwide name recognition. So why not use him now to address the troublesome issue of Iran’s refusal to accept the American-Israeli hegemony in its neighborhood. A message has to be conveyed to the world, whither for short term tactical bluffing or as an actual warning of things to come. Iran has to believe that Israel will attack it and destroy its nuclear facilities even if that means unleashing a nuclear catastrophe on the world. That kind of message is too hard to swallow. So how does one go about getting it across with its full ferocity but without the expected world opinion backlash?

There is a well-tried method. It even has a physiological basis in nature. The good lord, evolution, or whoever designed the cow, has given it the ability to deal with the indigestible-on-the-first-round foods by regurgitation and chewing the cod over and over again till it becomes truly digestible. And that is exactly the way Israeli liberal intellectuals and media stars have dealt with another difficult-to-swallow agenda item that its policy makers decided on: transfer. It is a precedent in which Benny himself has taken a part, though it has been mainly a national level debate with limited international concern or participation. Yet it sets the style of how to go about making the unconscionable sound familiar and less resistible if not less repulsive. In my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee, there is a brief account of this:

“September 5, 2005:

Things do change in this country, but not always for the better. By now, ‘transfer’ in its various forms – whether ‘population exchange’, ‘demographic security’, or even ‘development of the Galilee and the Negev’ – is an accepted part of the political discourse of all the Zionist parties and their leaders. It is part of the current political consensus, neither denounced by civilized people nor denied a central place in ‘normal’ news by the Israeli media. Recently a Palestinian child was shot dead by the occupying Israeli forces. His parents donated his organs to five different patients, including a religious Israeli Jew who declared that, had he known in advance, he would not have accepted an Arab heart in his body. The media presented the item as mildly humorous news, with barely a word of condemnation. A country that has elected Sharon, a veritable war criminal, as its leader and promoted him to the point where the most powerful man on earth, George W Bush, pronounces him ‘a man of peace’, does not have to shy away from policies that are crimes against human rights. Spin-doctoring – known locally as hasbara – is a highly developed art in this country, especially when dealing with Palestinians or when reporting to ‘our American allies’.

Let me explain again: Not long ago transfer was a highly negative term imbued with connotations of war crimes and gross human rights violations. It ranked in most people’s minds with such indecencies as ethnic cleansing and genocide. Till some of Israel’s leaders decided to agitate for removing the major impurity that had sullied the Jewishness of the ‘Jewish and democratic state’ since its establishment, the Palestinian Arab minority that has climbed to near the 20% limit that those leaders and their predecessors, including Yitzhak Rabin, have set for it. Suddenly ‘transfer’ appeared on election platforms of right-of-center Zionist parties. The left was outraged and the media, both private and state owned, made noises of objection. But they all engaged those ‘outrageous transfer-minded rightists’ in active civilized dialogue. They were invited to none-stop academic symposia and to open-ended debate forums on and off the air. Transfer proponent’s views were patiently listened to, analyzed and duly refuted by opponents. Soon you started to hear less convinced middle-of-the-road politicians, and even some of those counted as leftists, declare their objections in more understanding tones. Refutations were prefaced by such half-accepting phrases as ‘granted … but …’ or ‘assuming you are right, still …’. And soon the transfer parties were gaining high approval rates in public polls and doing well in local and national elections. The most outspoken ‘transfer’ party leader, Avigdor Lieberman, was invited into the coalition government and became a minister then a deputy prime minster. And the same transfer objectors continued to participate in the same government.

To fully appreciate the racist flavor of the Israeli mainstream’s cooptation by transfer politicians one has only to remember the loud cries of foul play and the louder denials of the taint flung at liberal leaders accused of consulting with Arab parties about the latter’s possible support of a coalition; not inclusion in it mind you! Just support from the outside. And every last one of them had to come clean on this one and show how distant he or she is from all local Arab politicians.

In no time we found the term ‘transfer’ entering the Israeli parlance as part of the daily verbiage of reporters, newscasters and commentators. It started to be window-dressed into something innocuous and acceptable such as ‘population exchange’, ‘border adjustments’, ‘assisted outmigration’, ‘the socio-economic push and pull factors of population dynamics’, ‘demographic balance’, … etc. etc. Hardly a decade after it all started, the storm was over and ‘transfer’ in Israeli media became a casual innocent term that raises no eyebrows. It is discussed in most circles only as a question of when and how, never if.

The well-tried method is a combination of two basic components: smooth spin-doctoring to camouflage the evil core of what is being said in such a way that it sounds vaguely desirable, and repetitively impinging the senses with it till it becomes familiar and you stop thinking about it when you hear it.

The current topic for obfuscation has added advantages in that the concerned audience is the general American public, the automatic guarantor of Israel’s superior moral rectitude. How many members of the masses in the west and especially in the USA, have the time for the luxury of giving Iran the benefit of the doubt or of engaging in some deep thinking about its affairs! The average middleclass folks can’t be bothered. They will not be easily sidetracked from the daily barrage of mind-gripping minutia from the sex scandals and financial embezzlements in Washington to the little infidelities or wardrobe secrets of superstars in Hollywood. And many are too busy making a living. So it is much more practical to leave worrying about the world to the better informed leaders who are elected and paid to do the job and to those suave experts at all the think tanks and their media conduits that never tire of picking their brains. All in all deep thinking about strange happenings in faraway places is best left for politicians and the media. The fact that groups with money and well-formulated political agendas can buy both genres and turn them into propaganda mouthpieces is too much of an insult for most to consider seriously. A vicious circle ensues whereby the bigger the lie the deeper the ignorance and the insult of facing up to it and the stronger the denial.

That is where Benny Morris’s services come handy. He is an automatic shoo-in, an already well-established credible member of the inner circle of Academia and Middle East expertise; he has name Recognition; like the great majority of Israeli academicians he must have done few stints in service to the Israeli defense forces; And he has what it takes in terms of deep mistrust, if not total contempt of Islam and Muslims. So why not have him pave the road in mainstreaming the idea of a nuclear attack against Iran? It has already been bandied around by Israeli top generals and politicians. It is time to air it out as part of the common secondhand ware on the media market; let people handle it, smell it, fumble it, and get familiar with it even if they were not to buy into it right away.

You would think that the editors of the New York Times would have the common sense to spot such foul intrigue and the decency to nip it in the bud. Here is a well-respected historian who dared to expose the lies expounded by his own national heroes. So committed he is to airing and documented the facts that he didn’t back down on consolidating impressive new evidence confirming the Palestinian narrative regarding their Nakba or catastrophe. Yet he espouses an immoral stand in full contradiction of the lessons his expose teaches. To any one with a minimum of logic this should have raised a red flag. It should have signaled either schizophrenia or the onset of senile dementia.

Yet neither is likely judging by the man’s cold logic; he is not totally off his rocker. Accepting his premises, which the New York Times seems to allow for if not to subscribe to, the conclusions he reaches are not ‘crazy’. Building on patently false premises he proceeds to speak approvingly of a nuclear strike against Iran as a preemptive option. Among other concepts, he mentions quite casually the prospect of “a ratcheting up of the Iranian-Israeli conflict to a nuclear level”, “an Iran turned into a nuclear wasteland” and “a Middle Eastern nuclear holocaust” with “radioactive pollution of the earth's atmosphere and water” being “in the cards”.

If the man is not ‘crazy’, then what explanation can there be for his delirium-like spouting off? That is where I revert to my well-entrenched intrigue and subversion theory: The man has been obviously put up to the job; someone is setting him up as an academician to chew the nuclear cod. People may object to what he says and will sound off their objections. But in doing so, they will be repeating his nuclear mantras, just as I have been forced to do here. Slowly but surely, the terms loose their abhorrent first-encounter effect; a disconnect sets in between the sound of the words and their deeper meaning. People all over the world, but especially in the West, get hypnotized by the repetitive sound-bites, especially as the concepts get sanitized into less offensive sounding terms, though that may come only after the fact. Whoever invented ‘collateral damage’ and ‘targeted elimination’ is capable of whitewashing nuclear terminology into innocent sounding alternative phrases.

It remains to be asked: Who may have put Benny up to this task? My guess is whoever put Bush up to invading Iraq.

So get ready for ‘Operation Maximum Middle East Peace’.

Friday, July 18, 2008

What Palestinians and Hawaiians Have in Common

What Palestinians and Hawaiians Have in Common

My wife and I have spent the better part of our lives accommodating the two sets of dissimilar realities of our roots in Palestine and Hawaii, our birthplaces being nearly a pair of antipodes on the globe. Yet every once in a while I come across a reminder of how similar certain socio-political aspects of our two backgrounds are.

Spin-doctoring, as a journalistic art form and a political tool, came of age only in recent years with the advent of neo-conservative dominance in US politics. Neo-cons have used this tool masterfully in the promotion and justification of the war on Iraq. In the process they have also succeeded in demonizing Islam, Arabs, and Muslims in general, portraying them as the twenty first century enemies of humanity, rationality and God. The trend has been nurtured by the rising tide of born-again Christian Zionism and cynically manipulated by the pro-Israel lobby for its own gain. As a Palestinian citizen of Israel who is also familiar with the American scene, I couldn’t help but recognize these propaganda tactics as the very same ones that have been regularly practiced by my country against my minority community and against other Palestinians, especially those in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. The recipe is quite simple; it is comprised of two components: First you dehumanize the other; then you look in the mirror and ascribe all the negative attributes you see to that enemy. What remains is to keep hammering at it with all the media tools at your disposal till it sticks to the now clearly evil other as his innate nature. Especially if this other is handicapped by the lack of media access to your audience, then you have it made.

That, at least, was what I had assumed until I read David E. Stannard’s book Honor Killing depicting race relations in Hawaii in the early part of the twentieth century. It turns out to be a tale of full-fledged spin-doctoring before I thought the genre had been discovered. A mentally unstable young navy wife invents a story about being abducted, beaten and raped by a gang of Hawaiian young men. A jury fails to find in her favor and her high-society mother arrives from the mainland USA. The outraged mother takes matters in her own hands and murders one of the accused. The cause of the two white women is championed by the interlinked triumvirate of military commanders, business moguls and media bosses, all of whom happen to be white newcomers to Hawaii. The meeting of their sick mindsets and political interests prompts the three circles of influence to act in unison in actively pursuing the elevation of this local vendetta to the level of a national emergency that invites the interference of the US congress and the president himself. Lurking in the background, there is always the less than godly legacy and influence of Christian missionaries to Hawaii. The sick accuser, her drunken navy husband and her manipulative mother become national heroes defending white women’s honor against the savages. Sympathy and generous donations enable them to secure the services of the most prominent US criminal defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow. He fails to secure them and their two navy accomplices in the murder of the young Hawaiian man a verdict of innocence. Still he manages to obtain a commutation of their sentence from ten years of imprisonment with hard labor to one hour in the custody of the Honolulu sheriff. In the process Hawaii’s native and immigrant oriental population is vilified beyond redemption.

As I started reading this book it all seemed vaguely familiar. The more the author exposed the factual information with the benefit of some seven decades of hindsight the more I found its essence similar to the parallel narrative of what happened in Palestine, though without the intriguing plot surrounding a specific single event. Rather, it was the meeting of minds and interests of aggressive foreign forces and the circumstances that maximize the magical powers of spin doctoring that were similar in the two narratives.

In Hawaii, even before WW II, and long before president Eisenhower coined the term, the military-industrial complex was in full swing, its leaders clamoring for imposing a military dictatorial system to govern the Islands. The media, at the time mainly the print form and the nascent radio and wire services, acting as hand in glove, picks up the banner of the national interest and runs with it. The white population of Hawaii has to be protected from the transgressions of the unruly savage natives and the oriental rabble before these bring ruination upon the nation’s moral fiber and endanger America’s military superiority in the Pacific. Newscasters and editorial writers across the nation fall in line and follow the chorus of bigoted and racist agitation, turning fables into facts and creating new ones at will.

In Palestine too, there was and still is a meeting of military, business and media interests, to the detriment of the native population. And in Palestine too there is a strong negative role for religion, even a decisive one. A three thousand year old legend is revived by the master race, the Christian Zionists of Europe. It is brought to life as the absolute and holy truth. With that the natives are not only disenfranchised but also demonized as the aggressors against God’s chosen people. ["Talk about the 'promised land' and the 'chosen people' adds a religious dimension to racism which we did not have," declared a veteran South African human rights leader recently.] As the European self-soothing dream of ridding itself of Jews matures and is concretized with the Belfour declaration and a three decade-long colonial rule actively implementing it, the same dream starts to take hold across the oceans in the minds of evangelical Christians in American. This is no small matter: In America business is king and it has a massive vested interest in the Middle East; in America the media has been well honed as a mind-controlling tool serving and reinforcing business of which it is an integral part; and in America by now the military-industrial complex is an accepted fact of life and a central player in the ME which serves both as a laboratory for the testing of its ware and as a major consumer of its new products. And the circle is finally closed with the meeting of minds between the mighty American Christian right and the no-less-mighty Zionist pro-Israel lobby.

The two histories, of the Hawaiians and of the Palestinians, are quite dissimilar in their details. Yet the basic operative mode and motivation of the aggressors are highly similar despite the disparity in the level of sophistication of the tools used. The Hawaiians were a demoralized and conquered native minority imposed upon by the openly racist, crudely oppressive self-serving haoles (Hawaiian for foreigner or white). The Palestinians face a much more refined and infinitely more powerful circle of interests with the added advantage and veneer of self-righteous liberal intellectualism. Yet, step by step and feature by feature the tale of demonization, land theft, and adding blame to injury is the same. In both cases facts are turned on their heads and the victim is fully guilty in the eyes of the wider world. And in both cases the local truth is of no significance; it is the media that has the voice to sound off its falsity to an attentive world that is not only happy to swallow the lies whole but is willing to give of its sympathy, energy and financial means to further establish it as the final operative reality.

I should read about other indigenous peoples’ tales of dispossession: Native Americans, Native Canadians, Maoris, Aborigines and more. I bet you the story repeats itself.