The Humble Tomato
In early February 2011, shortly after the beginning of the January 25 revolution that toppled Husni Mubarak, I made a phone call to a friend in an informal area of Cairo. I wanted to check on her wellbeing, and was interested to hear her perspective on reports that some of the thugs hired by the government to harass protesters in Tahrir Square were coming from her neighborhood. The first thing my friend wanted to talk about, however, was the dramatic rise in the price of tomatoes. “Twelve pounds a kilo! Can you imagine?”
Twelve Egyptian pounds, roughly $2 at the time, was indeed a steep hike over the normal price, which is generally in the range of 1-3 pounds per kilo. But the inflation was not, in fact, difficult for me to imagine, as prices had soared to similar heights six months earlier while I was living in Cairo. Neither was it difficult to imagine the impact on the diets and daily lives of poor families in Egypt. The average Egyptian household spends 40.6 percent of its income on food, a share that increases to more than 50 percent in the poorest households, according to a report published by the UN World Food Program and the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. In the conversation with my friend, the tomato functioned as shorthand for the difficulties of life at an uncertain moment, a kind of low-tech economic indicator of precarity.
A common joke uses tomato sauce as a reference point for the country’s political difficulties as well. “Law nahr al-Nil ba’a salsa, mish haykaffi al-kusa illi fiki ya Masr (Even if the Nile became tomato sauce, it wouldn’t be enough for all the zucchini in Egypt).” Zucchini, or kusa, is often made into mahshi, stuffed with rice and cooked in tomato sauce, a popular meal for those who work hard to stretch their food budgets. Kusa is also a gloss for nepotism and corruption, the joke being that the problem is so endemic that a river of tomato sauce could not cover it up.
Over the last several years, tomatoes have frequently figured as mediums of Egyptian political sentiment as one dynasty folded and others struggle to be born. There was the kerfuffle in 2012 over a Facebook post by a salafi group warning that the tomato is a Christian fruit because, when cut in half, its insides resemble a cross. It was another nail in the coffin of rational thought among the religiously oriented, or so argued those opposed to the rise of the Muslim Brothers and other religious parties. “These people,” it was said, even cast sectarian aspersions on the prosaic tomato! Then there were the rumors that Israeli tomatoes in the Egyptian market were poisoned with high concentrations of solanine, a naturally occurring glycoalkaloid in plants in the nightshade family. The story started, it seems, with the idea that genetically modified seeds from Israel were being smuggled in through Gaza. Last, but certainly not least, were the tomatoes and shoes thrown at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her summer 2012 visit to Egypt by people who blamed the US for supporting the Muslim Brothers during their short and contentious time in power. Clinton brushed aside the intentions behind those tomatoes and instead lamented the waste of food. The humble tomato sure gets around.
Price fluctuations predate the January 25 revolution and had a hand in creating its conditions of possibility. At the end of Mubarak’s reign, the regime was tinkering with the Egyptian economy, with the mastermind thought to be heir apparent Gamal Mubarak, who was shifting away from the caution of his father’s long-time cronies. Food price increases were part and parcel of the new economic plan, which had precarity for the poor at its neoliberal heart. There were fewer and fewer crumbs falling from rich tables to keep the poor quiescent. A series of crises, reports the World Food Program’s Egypt representative, GianPietro Bordignon, made it more difficult for households to find sufficient food starting in 2005. The percentage of Egyptian households facing food insecurity rose from 14 percent in 2009 to 17 percent in 2011.
Nowadays, President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi is working hard to solidify his own power, and doing that means feeding a whole new system of loyalty. Even if the wealthy players are more or less the same, the object of their devotion is new, so there’s a lot of money going around for building and contracting projects for the military and its affiliated businessmen. While the big players are eating so voraciously, there just aren’t enough crumbs for the poor. So, for the time being, it’s going to be harder for my friend and her neighbors to afford a mahshi dinner.
Image: Making mahshi (Tessa Farmer).
Palestine and the ICC
At the close of 2014, Mahmoud ‘Abbas, head of the Ramallah wing of the Palestinian Authority (PA), announced that he would sign the Rome Statute, the 2002 treaty establishing the International Criminal Court based in The Hague. This move opens the possibility that the Palestinians could ask the Court to investigate Israeli military operations and/or occupation practices as violations of international law. ‘Abbas accepted Court jurisdiction retroactive to June 13, 2014, when Israel began the raids that developed into Operation Protective Edge, the seven-week bombardment and invasion of Gaza. The meaning and efficacy of the PA’s maneuver are subjects of considerable debate. We asked five legal scholars and Palestine watchers for their views on the matter.
Finally, after years of consultations and endless statements, the Palestine Liberation Organization (or the Palestinian Authority, or the State of Palestine as it calls itself now) has joined the International Criminal Court. Mahmoud ‘Abbas has played his trump card, hoping to force Israel to negotiate in good faith. He is trying to send a message to Israeli leaders: It’s either the negotiating table, with results in the near future, or a cell in The Hague. While it is a welcome step, I suspect that the high expectations built up by the PA over the past few years will soon start to fade.
Legal questions arising from the possibility of taking Israeli leaders to the ICC have been widely discussed among academics and in the blogosphere. While optimists believe that joining the ICC can bring about justice, Israel apologists maintain the line that “Israel can do no wrong,” and that even if it did, the ICC could not deal with the wrongs. There are a lot of gray areas, and the debates about them are fraught with politics. Despite its characterization as a court, the ICC is essentially a political institution, and international criminal justice is essentially a contested political framework. Blind faith in international law, with no attention to its origins and history, is a dangerous kind of naiveté.
Does this mean that the Palestinians should abandon legal routes? Of course not. International law is part of the fabric of international relations, and to ignore it would be to forfeit a potentially useful tool. At the same time, a national liberation struggle cannot be fought only in the ICC and the UN. It is useful to turn to this phrase, which has grounded the Palestinian cause at its high points, to parse the limits of the ICC-as-strategy.
- National. The Palestinian struggle is an anti-colonial struggle of a nation, and without a mobilized nation, struggle is impossible. Since the beginning of the Oslo process, however, the Palestinian leadership has neglected Palestinian refugees and frozen the PLO institutions that represent them, contributing to the demobilization of the displaced. In the West Bank, years of failed PA policies designed mainly to impress the West with “how civilized” Palestinians are (which generally meant imprisoning, torturing and sometimes killing those engaged in armed struggle, silencing and intimidating anyone who disagrees with the official line, and hyper-neoliberal economics) have left the Palestinians more fragmented and demobilized than ever.
- Liberation. The PA has replaced this goal with repeated talk of “President Bush’s vision of a two-state solution,” as laid out in the 2003 “road map” that was to have led to Palestinian statehood within two years. Such ideas are expressed with great fanfare, but many questions are left without satisfying answers, especially with regard to the right of return of Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948. In other areas, such as democracy and human rights, if the past actions of the PA are a sign of what the future state will look like, there is much left to be desired.
- Struggle is a very broad category. On the spectrum of tactics, the Palestinian leadership sticks to those that make the most noise but the smallest impact, such as the failed attempt in December to persuade the UN Security Council to grant Palestinian statehood by 2017. Other tactics, such as boycott, divestment and sanctions, are not on the leadership’s agenda, illustrating their ideas about grassroots struggle and representational structure.
Neither joining the ICC nor acrobatics in the Security Council will yield significant results as long as the leadership suffers from crippling myopia about the options for resistance and as long as the main constituency is demobilized and unsure of the ultimate goal. Only after revisiting all of these points and developing a truly national strategy can the potential of international law be explored. Law and legal tactics cannot replace strategy, but they can play a role in a strategy -- one that enjoys a high level of support, mobilizes the grassroots, employs a range of tools and is guided by a clear vision.
Can the International Criminal Court deliver the justice Palestinians have struggled to realize for well over a century? The pursuit of accountability at the ICC is one venue for this struggle. But any sustainable vision of Palestinian liberation must account for the confines of the courtroom and, more broadly, international law. As should be clear to all observers of international law, the odds are stacked against Palestinians in that courtroom. The challenge ahead is to innovate not simply litigation strategies but to put them in conversation with radical popular mobilization.
The State of Palestine has now committed itself to the Rome Statute’s provisions, making the entirety of the situation in Palestine subject to potential review. This development is positive in that it opens Israel’s structural violations, and not simply its engagement in armed conflict, to scrutiny. It also means that the ICC can investigate Palestinian armed groups. The Palestinians are at several disadvantages in all scenarios.
The most difficult crimes to investigate are those committed in wartime because their legal character is not self-evident. The ICC would have to examine each Israeli attack on Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, for example, to determine whether the harm caused outweighed the military advantage gained. If so, the attack is considered a war crime; if not, it is an unfortunate example of war’s cruelty. To make such determinations, the Court would need access to military intelligence that both Israel and Palestinian armed groups would be loath to make available.
Moreover, as a matter of law, the behavior of Palestinian groups is simpler to decipher. Their rockets lack the capacity to distinguish between military and civilian installations, making them ipso facto illegal. In contrast, Israel insists that it seeks to avoid civilian casualties. Although Israel has provided no compelling evidence to this effect, should it choose to participate in ICC proceedings it will be eligible to make a case. The Palestinians will not.
A further disadvantage: Article 17 of the Rome Statute says that the ICC has no jurisdiction over a “situation” (in the Court’s parlance) that is “being investigated or prosecuted by a state that has jurisdiction over it, unless the state is unwilling or unable to genuinely carry out the investigation or prosecution.” Palestine cannot claim such independent jurisdiction. In contrast, should Palestine refer a situation to the ICC and should Israel not boycott, Israel can make a case that with the five criminal investigations it has opened into Operation Protective Edge, for example, it is making a genuine effort to police itself. While Israel’s dismal investigations of Operation Cast Lead put the adequacy of such claims into question, demonstrating that inadequacy involves a separate and lengthy legal process. The principle of complementarity would at worst shield Israel from investigation and at best delay the process so severely as to thwart justice.
The ICC, finally, could simply choose to avoid the political landmines of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. The Office of the Prosecutor exercises significant discretion in deciding which cases to investigate. Should the Prosecutor find that a criminal investigation would not serve “the interests of justice” because it would hamper an ongoing political process or fail to satisfy any party, thus exacerbating conflict, she could simply delay the review process again and again, or as Kevin Jon Heller puts it, “slow-walk the preliminary investigation into oblivion.”
At present, Palestine has not referred a situation to the Office of the Prosecutor. It would not be unwise if Palestine goes no further. Such a holding position is forward-looking and serves as a deterrent to any future attack Israel may launch against the Gaza Strip. If, however, Palestine chooses to refer a situation, then it is best to refer the situation in the West Bank where the focus would be of structural substance, such as settlements. This move is in contrast to referring the entire situation of Palestine, which would take years, or the latest war on Gaza, which exposes the effort to the vulnerabilities discussed.
In order to maximize the ICC’s benefit, Palestine must be prepared to wage a multi-faceted campaign outside the court aimed at leveraging popular and diplomatic support for its cause. The extra-legal strategy includes seeking diplomatic partners to resist and withstand US sanctions, as well as turning to civil society, primarily but not exclusively the global BDS campaign. It also necessitates achieving a more realistic unity government with Hamas -- one that envisions the possibility of ICC prosecution against Palestinian groups and prepares for the attendant fallout. This approach is a fundamental pivot away from the Palestinian strategy of undue, and exclusive, faith, in the US-led peace process.
Submitting a case for review to the ICC should serve as a catalyst for reorienting the Palestinian liberation movement: to rehabilitate the Palestinian national body; to extricate the Palestinian leadership from the debilitating terms of Oslo; and to seek new diplomatic alliances. The worst-case scenarios are abundant, while the best-case scenarios require diligence, resourcefulness and a tremendous amount of good fortune. Most of all they require the PA to turn away from its limited pursuit of self-interest. Such a dramatic shift among the Palestinian leadership offers much more promise for the pursuit of justice than any court could deliver.
(See the full version of Erakat’s commentary, “Who Is Afraid of the International Criminal Court?” now at Jadaliyya.)
Just when skeptics (including me) thought we had seen the last of the Palestinian Authority’s “Ending the Occupation, Building the State” program, launched by Salam Fayyad in 2009, its proponents have proven us wrong in thinking it had become a relic.
As the PA failed to achieve both of those goals promised under its liberal economic program and iron-fisted internal security policy, Palestinians have been wondering what comes next. If PA good governance certificates issued by the international community, three devastating wars against Gaza and daily confrontations with expanding colonization in the West Bank and Jerusalem are not enough, what do the Palestinian people have to do to be able to exercise their right to national self-determination, as guaranteed by the (in)famous international legitimacy to which they so stubbornly cling? Surely 30 years of armed struggle, and 20 years of peace negotiations and soft diplomacy since 1994, not to mention the last years of economic peace and institution building, should have been able to undo the ravages of what in most twentieth-century colonized countries took a few decades, at most, to reverse. But no, apparently not. Enter the PLO’s latest and perhaps ultimate weapon -- lawfare.
The critique of Palestinian neoliberal state building that Sobhi Samour and I elaborated in the winter 2011 Journal of Palestine Studies focused partly on the perils of adopting liberal economic policies in a situation of colonial dependency, thereby undermining strategic development prospects. Of no less concern to us was the manner in which the free-market, state-building agenda as espoused by the PA inevitably and necessarily detracts from the potential for, and practicality of, the struggle for decolonization, self-determination and sovereignty. In the glare and bounty of the Ramallah good life, it is sometimes hard to remember that this daily struggle of the Palestinian people has yet to be concluded or to see that the fruits of economic peace have been unequally distributed.
Beyond its usefulness as a training exercise for future sovereign government, the PA’s steady acquisition of the trappings of statehood amounts to little more than biding time until a political settlement may be possible, entrenching its own legitimacy and power, and allowing capital to move freely across the borders that economic peace has so adeptly erased. While the PLO has adopted the label “State of Palestine” since 2012, it has done nothing to assert the sovereignty of that state in the economic, legal or security domains. If anything, for all the good intentions of those responsible for recent PLO policy, conditions on the ground mean that the establishment of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state is a more improbable prospect today than in 2007, when PA reform efforts accelerated, or in 2002 when the UN Security Council first affirmed the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state.
PLO diplomats have embarked since 2014 on a not dissimilar strategy of declaring adherence to international conventions on the assumption that the world will ultimately deal with it as the government of an occupied state and intervene to ensure its liberation. If the UN Security Council rejection of the Palestinian statehood bid was not clear enough, then likely Israeli (and US) sanctions, especially financial, against the indebted, subservient PA will test the resolve of the PLO to pursue a strategy whose success depends more on the good will of strangers than on realities on the ground and the balance of power, which is deeply skewed to the advantage of the colonial power and the dictates of its old and new allies, from Europe to the Americas and Oceania, even to Africa.
The past decade has been largely one of doing everything possible to limit direct confrontation on the ground with the occupation, not only in the areas under PA jurisdiction, but equally in those areas under Israeli control like Area C and Jerusalem. Consequently, the Palestinian national liberation movement has lost some of the opportunities and wiggle room it had retained in previous incarnations -- in terms of its path of economic development, its political independence and national security. It remains to be seen how the swell of diplomatic and public support for the Palestinian cause in the wake of the latest Gaza war may be exploited to enable the PLO to withstand punitive measures, not to mention enforcing the state. This will become clearer if the PLO actually tries to wield the legal instruments it has begun to amass, in particular if it chooses to pursue Israel at the ICC after April 1 when adherence to the Rome Statute takes effect.
Furthermore, the implications have yet to be comprehended of today’s non-sovereign State of Palestine actually trying to implement any of the several dozen conventions to which it has already adhered, not to mention being held accountable for their application in areas under its jurisdiction. Israeli officials have been swift to remind the PLO that its leaders and institutions will also be fair targets for international lawfare, if that is to be the name of the game. So, it is hard to see how the advantages of adherence to the Rome Statute amount in the geopolitical balance of power to much more than imparting a sense of international legal correctness to the eventual state of Palestine.
However limited the outcomes of the PLO diplo-legal strategy might be, in truth the PA should not be criticized for pursuing this “doomsday option,” especially since many of its left-liberal critics and NGOs worldwide have bemoaned its delay in acting in this arena. But nor should great expectations be held as to the feasibility of evicting Israel from the Occupied Territories through legal instruments or by asking nicely and at no cost. And it can only be hoped that the efforts to be engaged in this battle will deliver more in terms of actual liberation of long-suffering Palestinians than the past years of building a phantom state that is there in all respects except reality, all the while keeping the peace with and for Israel.
The decision to join the International Criminal Court may represent a desperate attempt by the Palestinian leadership to salvage some of its tattered credibility. Ironically, it has done so by gambling on a project with its own uncertain legitimacy -- post-Cold War international criminal law.
Since the early 1990s, liberal interventionists in the West have strongly supported the establishment of international courts for mass atrocities, invoking the legacy of the post-World War II Nürnberg trials as a moment of accountability in the service of reconciliation, while promising to eliminate the unseemly one-sidedness and procedural short cuts of “victors’ justice.” The record has been mixed.
Successfully concluded international criminal trials over the past two decades have always depended on Western military intervention, as with special courts for ex-Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, or been conducted in support of sitting regimes, as with the ad hoc tribunal for Rwanda or the ICC’s two convictions to date, both of rebels from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The accusation that the ICC unfairly singles out Africans -- all of its active cases at the moment arise from the continent -- is correct but also obscures the fact that it is often African states themselves that are using the Court to extend and bolster their own authority against opposition forces, such as Uganda’s request that the ICC investigate Joseph Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army. As for governing elites, the ICC has so far failed to bring any to account on its own. In recent months, prosecutor Fatou Bensouda “hibernate[d] investigative activities” against the Sudanese president, Omar Bashir, for atrocities in Darfur and formally dropped charges against the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, after witnesses withdrew or recanted their testimony. Without a strong political mandate -- provided either by a local consensus or dominant external players -- international criminal trials are essentially a non-starter. The hapless Special Tribunal for Lebanon shows that insofar as international courts are toys of the West, they are expensive, slow-moving ones whose masters tire of them rather easily.
Trials, however, are not the only metric for assessing the ICC’s performance. Recognizing its limited powers, the Office of the Prosecutor has instead launched prolonged inquiries – “preliminary examinations” that must precede opening formal investigations -- in a broader set of situations outside Africa, including the conduct of British forces in Iraq and the situation in Afghanistan, which potentially includes the US military. Critics decry the slow pace as foot dragging, but the Prosecutor probably regards keeping these inquests open as a way of prodding powerful states to mitigate their behavior -- threatening them not so much with actual criminal trials (which would never happen), but with the prospect of embarrassment.
The Prosecutor is likely to treat Israel in a similar fashion, to drag out proceedings as a way of showing that the Court is not focused solely on Africa and pressuring Israel to investigate crimes by its own forces. (The previous prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, basically did just that by taking his time to decide whether to investigate the 2008-2009 assault on Gaza.) But once Israel gets over its (racialized) outrage at the prospect of being grouped with African dictatorships rather than regarded as an upstanding member of Western civilization, it may eventually realize that the ICC is no sword of Damocles after all and call the Prosecutor’s bluff. Absent an effective mobilization by the Palestinian national movement and its allies, the Prosecutor will then be stuck with an unenviable choice -- either to let the case languish as yet another victim of the global double standard against weak African states, or to go ahead and issue indictments that will likely go unheeded, antagonizing the United States in the process. Either way, the Court’s credibility will suffer further. Mahmoud ‘Abbas will have reluctantly given over many of his chips to a player holding an empty hand.
Within the past fortnight the Palestinian leadership has undertaken several initiatives that, taken together, could spell the beginning of the end of Palestinian participation in the Oslo framework.
The most important of these is the apparently successful application to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The combination of Israeli, American and perhaps European retaliatory measures will, in the absence of energetic Arab support that is unlikely to materialize, paralyze the ability of the Palestinian Authority to manage indefinite occupation on Israel’s behalf and may lead it to collapse altogether. Alternatively, Israel may either conclude that the PA has outlived its usefulness and engineer its implosion or, in the wake of the upcoming Israeli parliamentary elections, offer the PA some of the powers revoked since 2000 and a new diplomatic initiative in exchange for a moratorium on internationalization.
Under normal circumstances, it would be reasonable to conclude that the Palestinians are finally emerging from the persistent vegetative state that has been the hallmark of the ‘Abbas era and are slowly but surely retaking the initiative.
These, however, are not normal circumstances. The Palestinian national movement no longer exists. What remains of the political system is hopelessly divided, fragmented and either in conflict with or entirely dependent upon its erstwhile allies. Perhaps most importantly, there is no strategy -- not even a bad one -- for reaping the minimum benefits of these initiatives. Under such circumstances, recent Palestinian moves in the international arena are more likely to be used as a battering ram by enemies of Palestinian self-determination than instrumentalized by Palestinians to weaken the stranglehold of occupation.
To be sure, anything that undermines Oslo and continued Palestinian participation in the occupation of Palestine is an absolute and unambiguous good. But in the absence of credible and unified leadership, a coherent national movement, and a dynamic and effective national strategy it is going to pose greater challenges than experienced heretofore.
The means of dealing with this conundrum and overcoming the potentially existential risks lurking around the corner are no different today than yesterday. As an absolute priority, Palestinians must compel their various leaders to commence the long-overdue process of national reconciliation. Absent that, it is difficult to be optimistic, or to take any of what is transpiring seriously.
Turkey’s AKP and Public Morality
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey is known for his strong pro-natalist sentiments. In 2012 his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, by the Turkish acronym) passed a law to constrain women’s choice to give birth by Caesarean section -- “nothing more than a procedure to restrict and square a nation’s population,” says the AKP leader, since a woman who undergoes it usually cannot have another baby. Erdoğan exhorts every Turkish family to have three children, just like he does. Last week he compared birth control to treason. And he repeatedly equates abortion with murder, once going so far as to declare that “every abortion is an Uludere,” a reference to a Turkish airstrike that (mistakenly, the government claims) killed 34 Kurdish villagers. Despite such bombast, and AKP attempts at a ban, abortion is still legal in Turkey up to ten weeks after conception, as it has been since 1983. But the president’s denunciations have resulted in unofficial social controls: Numerous hospitals are reported to have turned away patients seeking abortions, variously claiming the procedure to be illegal or allowable only with spousal consent.
Turkey has now been under one form or another of Erdoğan’s rule for a long decade -- he was prime minister from 2003-2014 before stepping down to become president. Some critics suggest that Erdoğan’s proclamations on gender and sexuality-related issues are mere diversions to shift the public eye away from the AKP’s increasingly authoritarian style of governance, economic liberalization program and corruption scandals, as well as the hunger strikes of imprisoned Kurds and other manifestations of growing dissent in the country. In fact, the AKP government’s pronouncements on public morality (ahlak) are central to a larger project of social engineering. This project, as the abortion example shows, relies not on ordinary politics but on biopolitics -- the process by which people are understood and governed as populations measurable by birth rates, death rates, longevity and so forth, all of which makes regulation of sexuality central to governance.
Erdoğan’s pro-natalist statements draw on a long-standing narrative of aspirations for national growth in the face of those who supposedly seek Turkey’s “erasure from the world stage.” The desire to forestall that dystopian scenario helps to explain the AKP’s gestures at other bans -- on alcohol, cigarettes, tattoos -- in the name of a nation whose citizens (assuming they are not targets of anti-terror campaigns) are to lead healthy, reproductive lives. The government’s rhetoric of ahlak effectively divides the citizenry into respectable and unrespectable subjects. The Family Ministry has even sought to label unmarried people who live on their own as self-absorbed drains on national resources.
The interconnected nature of the AKP’s political, economic and moral projects became visible during the Gezi protests of May-June 2013. These protests started with objections to plans to replace a park in the heart of Istanbul with a shopping mall. But, as the police crackdown intensified, the demonstrations grew, attracting opponents of not only neoliberal restructuring, but also the ethno-sectarian violence and the sexual and moral conservatism of the government. The protesters themselves made the connections between the various forms of AKP authoritarianism.
Erdoğan disparaged the Gezi protesters in moral terms, as a handful of drunken plunderers, and threatened to unleash his “50 percent” voter base upon them in addition to the police. He did so not necessarily because AKP voters want a new shopping mall to be erected at Taksim Square but in order to cast the masses in the streets as dangerous to the moral uprightness that the AKP government believes it represents. Indeed, the AKP government’s biggest success has been to craft moral conservatism as a national quality, allowing the ruling party to position itself as simply expressing what the people want.
Thus the AKP’s gender and sexuality politics is neither a coincidence nor a cloak for other, more important agendas. When the AKP government’s talk turns to abortion, C-sections and co-ed student housing, it is not to distract Turkish citizens from real matters, but it is because these are the very real matters of the nation today.
Turkey needs to build social movements that can counter the AKP’s public morality campaigns. It is a major undertaking, one that cannot be achieved merely by drawing different borders around what is acceptable when it comes to gender and sexuality. Such a redrawing would paint the AKP as extreme and instead propose more “reasonable” moral perimeters that would nonetheless be part of a system of biopolitical control. What is necessary is criticism of the concept of ahlak itself as a social ill. In this regard, Turkish citizens have the LGBT and feminist movements’ slogans questioning the very notion of public morality to look to as models. “If oppression and violence are morality,” one of them goes, “then we have none.”
Killing the Ambulance Man
Sad news came on December 15 from Aden, the port on the southern coast of Yemen. The city had awakened to a day of civil disobedience, called to speed up what Adenis and other southerners hope will be their independence from the central government in Sanaa. As the day’s protests gathered steam, government troops shot and killed Khalid al-Junaydi, popularly known by his Facebook name, Khaled Aden.
As on all mornings of civil disobedience, Khalid had come with his car to Crater, the old part of town, where unarmed activists regularly challenge the troops trying to enter the areas taken over by the peaceful revolution. He always brought his car so that he could use it to transport injured demonstrators to a local clinic. There is no functioning ambulance service in Aden. (See my article in the last issue of Middle East Report for more about Khalid’s role in the protests.)
Stopped by masked soldiers, Khalid was dragged out of his car and taken to an unknown location where he was shot point blank in chest. The troops then drove him to a hospital in another part of town, and dumped his bleeding body at the door. He died there. Amnesty International says the “shocking, deliberate killing appears to be an extrajudicial execution prompted by his peaceful activism.” The London-based human rights organization calls for a full investigation, but thus far in the southerners’ struggle the Yemeni authorities have yet to order such an inquiry in a single case where unarmed demonstrators have been shot.
December 15 was a day of general strike. All schools, markets and places of business in the southern governorates were closed. Aden was filled with tear gas as the troops forced their way into the protesters’ midst.
The declaration of general strike was made at a joint meeting of the recently reestablished southern trade union confederation and groups affiliated with the Southern Movement or hirak. Khalid posted the declaration on Facebook only hours before he was killed.
The purposeful killing of the volunteer ambulance driver poses the question of how brutal the government repression will get. The activist youth, for their part, do not believe that violence will vanquish the hirak. In the words of a short poem that another activist posted on Facebook after Khalid’s death: “It is better once to die a martyr than to have a long life as the living dead!”
At the 2012 G-8 meeting and subsequently, President Barack Obama has suggested that a “Yemen model” of peaceful transfer of power can apply in Syria. Is killing unarmed protesters part of this model, or is it that the world simply does not know what is happening in southern Yemen? Time to wake up, in any case.
The Battle of Egyptian Football Fans Against Dullness
Ultras, or organized groups of football fans, represented an influential faction of the Egyptian revolutionary multitude in 2011. The ultras’ long experience of street fights with police at stadiums aided the revolutionaries in achieving many victories over riot cops in the early days of the January 25 uprising and subsequently. And the ultras’ combat prowess was not their only contribution to the uprising. More important was the carnivalesque character of their resistance, which transformed the protest scene into something more colorful, vital, choreographed and performative.
In the years since the January 25 uprising, the state has taken punitive measures against all of the main participants. Journalists find themselves persecuted, detained and even killed; human rights defenders are defamed and threatened, their activities restricted; political activists are detained without charge or, when indicted, subjected to harsh penalties in trials described as travesties of justice. All of this is happening amidst a sweeping crackdown on gender and religious non-conformists.
Ultras have absorbed their share of the collective punishment. The two biggest Cairo-based groups -- the Ultras Ahlawi and Ultras White Knights, who support the teams of the Ahli and Zamalek sporting clubs, respectively -- have paid a particularly high price. Ultras Ahlawi members faced a horrific massacre in early February 2012, when 72 fans were killed in the Port Said stadium in clashes with supporters of the other team. The police and soldiers who were on the scene moved not a muscle to prevent the killings. Most of the Ultras Ahlawi believe it was a plot approved by the army and Ministry of Interior to get revenge for anti-army chants at the preceding match.
The regime has not forgotten the White Knights, either, sending the infamous Murtada Mansour to launch a fierce campaign against them. A frequent state proxy in attacks on political dissenters, Mansour once filed a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office accusing the satirist Bassem Youssef of defamation of character. In March, Mansour was elected chairman of the Zamalek club. From this post, and with the eager backing of media outlets that regularly demonize the ultras, Mansour declared that the White Knights are “delinquents” (shabab sayi‘a).
Already, in February, the state had banned spectators from attending local and sometimes also international matches in stadiums. Consequently, Ultras White Knights’ only opportunity to see their team play is at practice on the club grounds. After becoming club chair, Mansour barred the White Knights from watching practice, as well, claiming that ultras are “terrorists” who cannot be allowed inside the gates. He went so far as to electrify the fence surrounding the club to prevent ultras from climbing over. Mansour has tried to replace the White Knights by paying other fans to cheer on the team.
For ordinary fans, these punishments might be easy to bear, but ultras feel them as an existential challenge. Attendance at team practice is one of the most important signifiers of the club’s popularity; indeed, it is what differentiates a popular team from a corporate-sponsored one. For the White Knights, there is an additional sensitivity: Zamalek is one of the most expensive clubs and membership there is an expression of particular class status. The vast majority of the ultras are not club members, and normally they were not allowed on club grounds except to attend team practice. Even then, they had to enter via a side gate that afforded access only to the practice field -- and not the other club facilities like restaurants and pools. It was also a common ritual for the ultras to go to club grounds to celebrate victories or to protest painful defeats. Deprived of even partial access to the club, the ultras have started to lose their sense of ownership.
Another front in Mansour’s campaign is his stated intention to sell the training grounds at the Zamalek club, Zamoura Stadium, named after the legendary player Muhammad Hasan Hilmi or Hilmi Zamoura, who went on to serve as club chairman. The White Knights have always regarded this historic spot as their rallying point. Mansour wants to tear it down and build a commercial mall in its place. The White Knights have strongly objected, claiming that Mansour is erasing club history.
From July to October, dozens of White Knights members were imprisoned on charges orchestrated by the club’s chairman. As the fight escalated, many anticipated that the ultras would back down, given with the hostile environment and the lack of support from their peers. The Ultras Ahlawi, for example, retreated from confrontation after the Port Said massacre, assembling only at matches and team practices. But the White Knights, as one of their leaders said, had nothing to lose and so they fought back vigorously. They have organized protests and flash mobs, issued press releases on Facebook and written parody chants mocking the chairman, whom they have dubbed kalb al-nizam (the regime’s dog). Their efforts culminated in mid-October when they videotaped a young fan throwing a bag of urine and feces all over Mansour. The chairman alleged that the bag contained acid and claimed an assassination attempt. With their constant pressure, the White Knights have not only embarrassed Mansour, but have also managed to get most of the detainees released against all odds. Zamoura Stadium is not yet sold.
The originality of the ultras’ repertoire guaranteed them these victories in the face of the club’s dull, obsolete techniques of repression. Ultras are still banned from most matches and the White Knights banned from attending team practices. A number of them are still behind bars. Nevertheless, the ultras’ struggles for their rights and the preservation of their club as they know are an invitation to all of us to revise what we consider revolutionary.
Ferguson to Palestine
The world’s attention again shines on Ferguson, MO, where Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American 18-year old was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. This time, the occasion is the grand jury’s failure to indict the officer. There will be no trial. There will be no opportunity for Brown’s family to defend their son’s reputation and see justice served. The grand jury’s decision and the chief prosecutor’s comportment confirm that the American judicial process is undergirded by a racial caste system that criminalizes the movement and actions of African-Americans as individuals and perpetuates the isolation and marginalization of black American communities.
When Michael Brown’s stepfather Louis Head responded to the grand jury’s decision with “Burn this bitch down!” he was not, as the mainstream press and politicians would have it, inciting a riot. When young blacks lit police cars and businesses on fire, they were not, as the powerful would have us believe, rioting, looting and otherwise acting like criminals. Their actions, as well as the actions of those who remained peaceful, were signs of rejection, rebellion and revolt against an (il)legal system that perpetuates (in)justice.
If black lives really mattered to that system, Michael Brown -- and two other victims of police brutality in St. Louis in the following two months, Kajieme Powell (23, killed by white police officers on August 19) and VonDerrit Myers, Jr. (18, killed by a white off-duty policeman on October 8) -- would not be the latest statistics in a well-established pattern of killing black men and refusing bring their murderers to justice. Powell’s shooting was caught on video -- it’s not for the faint of heart -- providing tangible evidence of the tendency of American police to resort to deadly force first rather than last.
I live less than half an hour from Ferguson. We Palestinians and our supporters in the greater St. Louis area have been active in the protest movement against the racial caste system ever since Brown was killed. Our activism in this area is very much part of our work to organize support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and challenge pro-Israel forces in our community since the 2008-2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza. As Bassem Masri, a Palestinian-American on the front lines of resistance to police brutality in the St. Louis area, puts it, “In Ferguson, I Am Reminded of Palestine.”
Michael Brown’s murder came in the midst of the latest Israeli assault on Gaza this past summer. It was not long before parallels like Masri’s were being drawn. The militarized police force in Ferguson fired tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators. Gazans tweeted advice on how to cope with tear gas. On my first trip to Ferguson, one day after the worst police violence, I was drawn to a black man waving the Palestinian flag. “Hey, that’s my flag,” I said. Right on cue, he responded, “This is our intifada!” During the first national march on Ferguson on August 30, our banner “Palestine Stands with Ferguson” got lots of attention from residents and supporters. We were deeply moved by our reception.
In the build-up to the October “weekend of resistance” when thousands came to march in St. Louis and Ferguson, Palestinians and supporters mobilized a 200-strong Palestinian contingent. We in the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) joined with the US Palestinian Community Network, Muslims for Ferguson, American Muslims for Palestine and the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle to host the contingent and help plan the gathering. Palestinian-American New York human rights activist Linda Sarsour spoke at a “War at Home, War Abroad” forum on the eve of the march. Suhad Khatib of PSC spoke at the main rally at Keener Plaza. Her assertion that “black liberation is liberation for all of us” drew thunderous applause from the crowd. Palestinian-American spoken word artist Remi Kanazi performed at an October 12 rally of religious leaders featuring Cornel West.
On November 7, a delegation of ten students from Birzeit University sponsored by National Students for Justice in Palestine began a two-week Right to Education tour of the US with a visit to St. Louis and Ferguson. One of the Palestinian students, Shatha Hammad, told Ebony about her experience at a vigil for VonDerrit Myers: “It was an experience that renewed something inside me. As a Palestinian I see people every day getting killed and all my rights are violated. I don’t have any rights, basically. For a moment there I got used to it. But at the vigil when I saw everything and heard the people talk, something woke up inside me and said ‘You suffer from that and these people suffer from that, so you’d better stand next to each other and do something.’”
Larry Fellows III, a member of the Don’t Shoot Coalition and a native St. Louisan, also commented on the oppression that connects both communities. “We’re being told by force that we aren’t supposed to question or challenge what we know isn’t legal treatment. The companies that are spending billions of dollars to suppress Palestinians are doing the same thing in the States; the tear gas and bullets used in Palestine are the same as those used in Ferguson.” Law student Dayo Olopade argues that the situation in Ferguson is one of occupation. “When officers have the right to control your motions, actions and fate, there is no other word,” Olopade writes. “When, on top of that, the occupiers look nothing like you and do not share a community with you, it is far worse.”
“Intersectionality” -- coordinating with allies among other social justice networks -- has progressively become central to our work at the PSC. The culmination of these efforts prior to our Ferguson activism came in the Dump Veolia campaign in which the PSC joined environmental, labor and local political campaigns to force municipal services giant Veolia to withdraw from a contract to redesign the city’s water management system. Veolia’s servicing of West Bank settlements became part on the conversation in a standing room-only hearing before the city council’s Public Utility Committee.
The Ferguson intifada is about more than Michael Brown’s murder and the grand jury’s decision not to indict. Both are the latest entries in a centuries-old ledger of legalized racial discrimination. The latest incarnation of this system is the subject of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, which traces the roots of criminalization of black movement, the mass incarceration of black men and the disenfranchisement of the prison population to the Reagan-era “war on drugs” (TED Talk version here).
What do the words “legal” and “the law” and “civility” and “justice” and “non-violence” mean in the context of system that perpetuates violence, arbitrary injustice and gross violations of the human rights of a particular group of people? How can these platitudes have any meaning within a system that tells black youth again and again that their lives don’t matter?
As the date of the grand jury’s decision in the case of Darren Wilson drew near, activists for Palestinian rights joined forces with the myriad groups organizing protests and the inevitable violence of the police response. Those efforts are underway, and intersectionality thrives, as I write these lines.
Women's Rights Activists Between State Violence and Intervention
The November 15 attack on an armored car transporting Shukria Barakzai, a women’s rights activist and parliamentarian in Afghanistan, shook me to the core. The attack, which Barakzai survived but three passersby did not, took place shortly after my return from a women’s rights meeting in Turkey. Several Afghan activists were in attendance, and they face similar risks each day. As I read the news, I thought, “It could have been any one of them.”
The meeting, organized by the International Civil Society Action Network, brings together women’s rights and peace activists from a dozen or so countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, with a focus on countries in conflict, in post-conflict transition or in which political space is restricted. The idea behind the meeting is to look at the impact of conflict and/or closed political space on women’s rights. This year’s meeting -- hosting women from 13 countries, from Tunisia to Tajikistan -- occurred against a backdrop of increased extremism, violence and militarization across the region.
A regional representative from UN Women informed the attendees that, at the current pace, another 81 years will pass before there is global gender equality. Eight decades may seem like a long time to wait for something that should already exist. But to many of us at the meeting, it seemed like an optimistic estimate.
After all, some of the women at the meeting were from countries, such as Afghanistan, where advocacy for gender equality puts one’s life in danger. Others came from countries reeling from the horrors of extremist groups like Da`ish, who have enslaved, raped and executed women just for appearing in public. At the same time, a recurring concern at the meeting was that we not turn Da`ish, barbaric and repugnant as it is, into a straw man that lets governments, armies, “moderate” Islamist parties and outside meddlers, regional or Western, off the hook.
A few things struck me at the meeting. First, the women themselves. Mainstream coverage of women in this region continues to promulgate the same old stereotypes of hapless, oppressed victims, acted upon rather than acting, needing to be saved. Yet here I was meeting women who simply could not be put into any box. There was the southern Iraqi woman whose appearance suggests that she is extremely conservative, but who in fact does interfaith work and is one of the most outspoken advocates for Iraq’s religious minorities. There was the Syrian woman who fled her home country, leaving behind a husband who was detained, but bringing along with her children, one of whom was critically injured at the time, and having less than $100 in her pocket, only to start a project to expand livelihood opportunities for Syrian women (many of whom are now heads of households) in Turkey. There was the Afghan woman who returned home after years in exile in Iran to start a news agency devoted to bringing more women into journalism and to providing analysis with a gender perspective that she finds is missing in Afghan media. Every woman I met was remarkable in some way. And yet so few of their voices are heard.
Second, women seem to lose out, no matter what system or regime they encounter. In Egypt, for example, whether confronting the Islamists or the military regime, women are dealing with ideologies that propagate hierarchy, absolutism and male subordination of women. And prior to Husni Mubarak’s overthrow, women’s rights activists in Egypt were battling an authoritarian regime that paid lip service to women’s rights and to an extent coopted the movement to advance top-down “state feminism,” that is, women’s rights on the state’s terms. The women at the meeting -- regardless of where they came from -- shared similar complaints. They are marginalized. They are not sufficiently represented in government. They are subject to discriminatory laws. They are targeted by religious extremists. And when they dare to speak out, when they transgress the boundaries of what is acceptable, they are further vilified and sometimes made to pay the highest price.
Third, the women stated emphatically that they are tired of interventions and empty rhetoric that only make things worse. They are tired of “security” and “terrorism” being invoked by states whose agenda is to suppress freedoms for all, including women. In all of the women’s home countries, whether there is violent conflict or not, the fear of terrorism is being used to impose restrictions on assembly, association and organizing. Several women said they are tired of being used as an excuse by Western states to intervene in the region, often militarily, when in fact other political or economic interests are at stake. From Afghanistan to Iran to Egypt, the Western protestations of support for women’s rights breed suspicion of activists, who are accused of following a Western agenda and have their work discredited. The women from Pakistan said they live daily with the consequences of military interventions that only lead to more extremism. Women from Iran stated that they disproportionately bear the consequences of economic sanctions that impoverish them, push them to the margins of society and make them more vulnerable to forced marriage, trafficking and other violations of their rights. In families under economic strain, for instance, what limited resources may exist to support higher education for the children will go to the boys.
The overwhelming refrain at the meeting was that women must be included in decision-making and in peace processes. What happens to women in a country is often a barometer of what is to come. Women must be listened to and be part of the solution. Bearing in mind this last point in particular, the women present at the meeting issued a statement, which was shared on the last day with members of the press and policymakers. “One thing is guaranteed,” the statement concludes. “Our version of the region, our vision for the future, is about peace, freedom, dignity, rights, pluralism and prosperity for all. Listen to us. Join us.“
Title VI and Middle East Studies: What You Should Know
In the past few years, pro-Israel groups have mounted an escalating and concerted effort to set the contours of scholarly debate about Israel on American campuses. This fall, two such organizations, the AMCHA Initiative and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, are lobbying Congress and the Department of Education to punish Middle East studies centers that present alternatives to staunchly pro-Israel viewpoints. The lobbying campaign demands that the Education Department stop federal funding to these centers under Title VI of the Higher Education Act or engage in intrusive oversight of the departments to assure the prevalence of viewpoints more sympathetic to Israeli government policies. The Higher Education Act is up for Congressional reauthorization this year.
What is Title VI?
Title VI of the Higher Education Act, or HEA, provides federal funding to support teaching of foreign languages and area studies at US universities. The law has been on the books since the Cold War. Its purpose is to facilitate the training of experts in fields of study deemed relevant to US foreign policy. Russian language centers were some of the first programs funded under the HEA. Today, Title VI funds many Middle East studies programs in addition to international studies and language programs for every region of the world.
What are the claims made about Middle East studies centers with Title VI funding?
The Brandeis Center, along with a coalition of similar groups, has launched a campaign to police scholarly work and teaching in Middle East studies departments across the country. The principal tactic of this campaign is to equate any criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism, and thereby declare that entire Middle East programs are intrinsically biased against Israel. Their end goal is to influence the political outlook of academic work on US campuses, applauding work that takes an unquestioningly positive view of Israeli state policy and censoring or sanctioning work that is critical of the acts or policies of Israel. That attempt to impose orthodoxy is a project antithetical to the mission of an academic institution, which should be committed to wide-ranging research and analysis unbounded by the political agendas that often dictate government decisions.
As part of this political campaign the Brandeis Center recently issued a “white paper” advancing three main arguments:
- Middle East studies programs at several universities are filled with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel bias;
- Title VI of the Higher Education Act requires funding recipients to provide a “balanced” view, at least of Israel. “Balance” essentially means inserting more sympathetic views of Israel; and
- Congress has previously concluded that Middle East studies programs are “biased” against Israel, and thus should implement a grievance and investigation procedure for the reporting of such bias.
What does this campaign demand?
The AMCHA Initiative, Brandeis Center and allied groups demand either that Congress cancel all Title VI funding of Middle East studies programs, or that it mandate that the Department of Education establish a mechanism to receive complaints of “bias” and then investigate academic centers in order to coerce those centers to promote pro-Israel viewpoints.
They suggest the formation of a committee to oversee all Middle East studies programs and search for “bias.” This committee, they suggest, should include “academics from Israel studies programs.” They want academics perceived to be sympathetic to Israel to oversee programming in Middle East studies.
Is there evidence of “bias” in Middle East Studies programs?
The Brandeis Center relies heavily on a “study” published by AMCHA about UCLA’s Center for Near East Studies (CNES). The study contends that 93 percent of CNES programs related to Israel are “biased” and that the programming has a “disproportionate” focus on Israel.
The study is plagued with problems, not least of which are overly broad and unreasonable definitions of “anti-Israel bias” and “anti-Semitism.” Anything straying from narrow pro-Israel orthodoxy is automatically judged to be “biased,” as in the case of the following events:
- A film about diverse perspectives on Israel within the Jewish community, in which the Jewish filmmakers interviewed people from groups as different as Stand With Us and Jewish Voice for Peace
- An event on a variety of Jewish perspectives about Israel-Palestine, including binationalism, that was co-sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program
Thus, AMCHA’s definition of “bias” is so expansive that it includes events sponsored by J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group, and the Jewish Studies Program at UCLA.
AMCHA’s study also fails to place its analysis in the context of CNES programming about countries other than Israel-Palestine. It is typical for scholars to criticize aspects of the nation-states they study. Does UCLA’s CNES shy away from exposing problems in the policies of other Middle Eastern governments? The answer is clearly no, if events like “The Persistence of the Past: How Violence and Genocide in Ottoman Turkey Affect Our World Today,” “Stopping the Nuclear Threat from Iran,” “Egypt: Stillborn Revolution?” and “The Constitutional and Legal Status of Non-Shiites in Iran” are any indication.
AMCHA’s claims of “anti-Semitism” in CNES events fare no better when subjected to scrutiny. For instance, AMCHA’s examples of “anti-Semitic” activity at CNES include statements by speakers that Israel “den[ies] the absolute basic inalienable human rights of Palestinians,” that Israel “was created through colonialism” and that “colonialism and settler-colonialism are both inherently and unequal and unjust systems.” These statements are judgments about the history and policies of the Israeli state and government, and express no animus toward Jewish people because of their religion or ethnicity.
As an open letter from professors of Jewish studies concludes, AMCHA’s definition of anti-Semitism is so broad as to render the term meaningless.
These and other problems prompted the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom-North America to publish an open letter calling on AMCHA “to withdraw [its] report and to apologize to all those whom it falsely and tendentiously accuses of anti-Semitism.”
CNES at UCLA has now issued its own detailed rebuttal of the accusations made by the AMCHA Initiative and others.
Does Title VI require “balance”?
The Brandeis Center’s report claims that when Congress amended the language of Title VI of the Higher Education Act in 2008 to refer to “diverse perspectives” in federally funded programs, it intended to require all programs to provide a “balanced” treatment of all subjects. While the Brandeis Center admits that the phrase “diverse perspectives” has never been defined, it suggests that the Department of Education can and should define it.
The report’s characterization of the HEA, however, is inaccurate. In 2008, Congressional Republicans tried, but failed, to include an evaluation of “diverse perspectives” as a criterion for assessing applications for Title VI funding. Rather, existing law simply requires applicants to explain how they intend to provide “diverse perspectives,” not that diversity of perspectives is a condition of funding. The law is clear that Congress considered and rejected a “diverse perspectives” criterion as a condition of Title VI funding. (See “Selection of Certain Grant Recipients: Selection Criteria” section [20 USC §1127(b)].)
Congress correctly rejected the position now taken by the Brandeis Center report because it would place the Department of Education in the impossible and constitutionally suspect position of policing Middle East studies departments for “diverse perspectives” -- an imprecise and subjective standard that, if applied, would pose a substantial threat to academic freedom.
How does this campaign threaten academic freedom and dissent?
Constitutional protections of free speech are critical to the missions of universities. In fact, in Shelton v. Tucker (1960) the Supreme Court said that “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” Consistently, from Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) to Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District (1998), and in other instances, federal courts have prohibited government interference with the content of speech in educational institutions. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnett (1943), the Supreme Court clearly affirmed that there are no circumstances under which the government can legitimately determine what is “orthodox,” whether in politics or religious beliefs: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”
Congress clearly understood this matter when, as part of the 2008 amendments to Title VI of the HEA, they included the following qualification: “Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to authorize the Secretary to mandate, direct or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum or program of instruction.” (20 USC §1132-2: Rule of Construction)
This section is explicitly referenced in the grant application form for National Resource Centers and Foreign Language and Area Studies Programs. Thus, both Congress and the Department of Education have specifically acknowledged that they do not have the authority or the intent to prescribe to institutions of higher education what they must teach.
At the same time, universities are already obligated to eliminate discrimination against students on the basis of race, color or national origin, among other identity characteristics. (See 42 USC. §2000d et seq  and 20 USC. §§1681-1688 .) There are ample mechanisms on the federal, state and local level that protect students from discrimination in higher education. Most prominently, the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education provides a comprehensive regulatory scheme to address discrimination, including anti-Semitism. In fact, the Brandeis Center and its partners, including the Zionist Organization of America and the AMCHA Initiative, among others, have used this process to file complaints against at least four universities asserting that Palestine activism creates a “hostile environment” for Jewish students on campus. Four such cases were dismissed after burdensome and lengthy investigations determined the claims were unfounded and that the expression in question was protected under the First Amendment.
The Brandeis Center now seeks to duplicate the existing avenues for redress of cases of anti-Semitism by imposing a “diverse perspectives” requirement and enforcement mechanism in the Title VI funding structure. Existing law is more than adequate to deal with real instances of anti-Semitism on campuses. The reforms urged in the Brandeis Center report will create new opportunities for non-governmental, politically motivated organizations to misuse federal power to censor speech at universities that is critical of Israeli state policy or sympathetic to the rights of Palestinians. In so doing it would impose a political orthodoxy in a way that would threaten academic freedom and the vitally important role that academic inquiry plays in the exploration of complex notions of identity, belonging, dispossession, statehood and citizenship in the Middle East.
Is the Brandeis Center’s white paper a reliable source?
Finally, it is worth noting that the Brandeis Center’s report is filled with inaccurate citations and misrepresentations of the Congressional record. These are more than simple typographical errors. The Brandeis Center has claimed that a Congressional hearing, along with the head of the subcommittee itself, have already concluded that Middle East studies programs are biased, and have attempted to prove this claim by citing to the record. Referring to a hearing held by the Select Education Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in June 2003, the Brandeis Center writes:
Thus, the committee concluded that the “Department of Education has no way of assessing whether the [outreach programs conducted by Title VI-funded Middle East Studies centers] give a fair, historically accurate and balanced view of the subject presented and thus fulfill the statutory purpose of providing not only language instruction, but ‘full understanding of areas, regions and countries in which such language is commonly used.’ (pp. 11-12) [Emphasis added]
This quote refers not to a committee conclusion but to testimony provided by the American Jewish Congress, as is clear in the record. (Even the citation for the report on the June 2003 hearing, “Id. at 164 (quoting the statute)” referring to “H.R. REP. NO. 804-811, at 163 (2005),” is incorrect. The first three digits of any House of Representatives report should refer to the Congressional session, which are numbered biannually. Congress has not been meeting for over 1,600 years.)
The Brandeis Center report also cites a statement by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) on the need to “update programs under Title VI to reflect our national security needs in the post-9/11 era” as being made at the same hearing in June 2003. But Rep. Hoekstra was not present at the hearing. His statement actually comes from a debate on the House floor of HR 3077, which failed to pass the Senate. (Congressional Record, October 21, 2003) This bill was the first concerted attempt by precursors of AMCHA and the Brandeis Center to create a new mechanism for preventing “anti-Israel bias” in Middle East studies programs.
What’s the bottom line?
The Brandeis Center, as well as AMCHA and other organizations, are seeking to stifle legitimate protected speech on college campuses and restrict the free speech and academic freedom rights of those with whom they disagree. In addition to pressuring universities to punish students and academics for their advocacy for Palestinian rights, they are relying on shoddy “studies” and a misinterpretation of the law to convince lawmakers and officials at the Department of Education that Middle East studies programs are in need of regulation or defunding because of their “biased” content.
The truth is that these organizations have presented no credible evidence of bias in these programs and no legal basis for demanding that the government monitor and regulate the content or curriculum of an academic institution. In the distribution of funding, Congress and the Department of Education must abide by the strictures that the First Amendment places on the government’s ability to dictate the content of academic speech, despite what some lobbyists might claim.
Academic institutions and associations that wish to express concern about the proposals to monitor Middle East studies programs and dictate their content can contact the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, at 1-800-USA-LEARN (1-800-872-5327) or 1-202-401-3000 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Palestine, Adrift at the Met
Opera is dying in New York. Or at least it was until last month.
Plagued by the aging of the fan base, New York’s last standing opera house is struggling to keep the art form alive and relevant. One year after City Opera closed its doors, the Metropolitan Opera was on the brink of shutdown this season until unions and management reached a last-minute agreement to lower costs.
Against this backdrop, it was surprising to see the city abuzz this fall over an opera. But, then again, nothing rouses New York elites so much as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the opera in question, American composer John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean by a fringe Palestinian group and the murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.
Charging the opera with anti-Semitism, opponents began lobbying the Met to cancel the production before it had even premiered. Based on their reading of the libretto, these opponents claimed that the opera legitimizes terrorism. Though the Met rejected picketers’ demands to cancel the production -- no doubt a costly proposition -- it still bent over backward to appease its critics. The centerfold of the opera’s program contained a letter of opposition from the Klinghoffer heirs. And despite receiving a “not anti-Semitic” stamp from the Anti-Defamation League, the Met canceled its Live in HD simulcast of the opera, a service it offers to make opera more accessible to people who live far from Manhattan or can’t easily afford tickets. That decision, lauded by the ADL, came in deference to concerns that the opera could stoke anti-Semitism, especially in Europe where attacks on Jews spiked during Israel’s onslaught upon Gaza this past summer. It was a bizarre concession. If the opera is not anti-Semitic, why cancel its broadcast?
What is really threatening about The Death of Klinghoffer is that it offers a basic history of Israel that many Americans are unfamiliar with. The prologue features a Chorus of Exiled Palestinians who tell the story of their displacement in 1948. The idea of a people forced from their homes, murdered and disenfranchised by foreign settlers tends to elicit sympathy. The opera thus entertains the idea that Palestinians have legitimate grievances. Klinghoffer director Tom Morris said, “My ideal response is that people think about and reflect on the crime that the opera dramatizes and -- if they choose -- the circumstances which might have led to it.”
So perhaps opponents worry that the opera will prompt viewers to see the conflict in less black-and-white terms, a shift that dancer Jesse Kovarsky, who plays a hijacker named Omar, described experiencing himself: “As someone who’s been raised pro-Israel, who’s a Jew, who grew up in a country that is pro-Israel, I never knew anything about Palestine or Palestinians. And to be invited into this opera and encouraged to study that history, I’ve been exposed to a world that I totally…. I’m confused by my own upbringing in terms of how I see the conflict, how I see it now.” The idea that an opera can change a person’s perspective on a topic that has been front-page news for decades suggests how one-dimensional American understanding of the conflict is.
Klinghoffer sets the context in which the hijacking of the Achille Lauro took place through two choruses -- one of exiled Palestinians and another of exiled Jews. The Palestinians, dressed in drab gray robes that recall the grim reaper, are angry, destructive and violent. The Jews, in modern European garb, are calm and peaceful, singing of their attachment to the land and bearing olive trees.
Later, a Palestinian hijacker tells of how his love for the gun was born when he was just five years old. Although the hijackers relate atrocities committed against them by Jews, strangely the Israeli narrative is totally demilitarized. The casual viewer would not know that military service is a rite of passage in Israel or that militarism is valorized as a part of Jewish national identity. Guns are ubiquitous and openly brandished in the streets, and tourist shops display “Uzi does it” t-shirts to celebrate the Israeli assault rifle. The Israel Defense Forces is so beloved an institution that during last summer’s war on Gaza Israeli women mobilized in support of the troops by posting photos on Facebook of their scantily clothed bodies painted with the words “I heart IDF.”
Tom Morris’ production uses costume and set design to tie the opera’s events to the state of affairs in Israel-Palestine. A massive floor-to-ceiling illuminated backdrop displays the separation wall in various degrees of relief throughout the performance. The first scene opens with the year 1948 displayed on the canvas; as the chorus advances the years marking successive wars flash onscreen, while the landscape alters and the wall gradually takes starker form until reaching 2014, when an opaque, towering concrete barrier is all that stands. Next enters the Chorus of Exiled Jews, suitcases in hand. At the end of the first act the two groups of exiles take the stage together, their voices intermingling and overlapping. As the chorus chants, “No one bothers to look up from their work,” the audience sees the words “Apathy kills” prominently displayed among the wall’s Palestine solidarity graffiti.
Librettist Alice Goodman could not have imagined such a production when the opera was first performed in 1991. The decision to tie the events of 1985 to the present reinforces the fact that the purview of the opera extends well beyond the hijacking incident. Morris, who worked in Israel in the early 1990s, says he hopes the opera will help people better understand the conflict. So it makes sense that he would use set design to tie the events of 1985 to all that has happened since. But the liberties he takes with time and context are at times careless and even harmful.
Palestinians, already portrayed by the chorus in an ominous ghost-like manner, appear trapped in time. Some of the women wear the abaya (a loose cloak) and niqab (the full face veil), even though such attire is uncommon among Palestinians. They wave solid green flags, redolent of an undefined Islamic affinity, yet not a single Palestinian national flag is unfurled throughout the opera. The Islamic depiction of the Palestinian struggle is perplexing because the hijackers of the Achille Lauro were part of a secular leftist group, and in 1985 Islamism was a marginal political force among Palestinians.
Klinghoffer’s Islamic representation of the hijacking is not confined to its visual attributes. The hijackers’ lines suggest they are motivated, at least in part, by an ideological clash of civilizations. One hijacker attacks Western culture for its “idolatry” and tolerance of “sodomy.” The libretto intimates that the hijacking is a suicide mission led by men so fanatical they desire their own death. Mahmoud (the libretto uses a non-standard spelling of his name), one of the hijackers, sings, “We don’t worry as we want to die. It is you, it is they who desire to live.” Omar, too, expresses a wish to be martyred. A woman, perhaps a vision of his mother, dressed in the baleful clothing of the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians sings his aria. In place of his words from the original libretto, “My heart will break if I do not walk in paradise in two days,” Omar’s anima sings, “My heart will break if you do not walk in paradise within two days.” Coming from a mother-like figure, the line perpetuates dehumanizing Israeli propaganda that Palestinian mothers breed merely for the sake of the national cause and purposely sacrifice their sons.
That is indeed how Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who attended the premiere, interpreted the line. “There is one very dramatic scene of a Palestinian mother raising this child. His toy is a gun from when he’s five years old, and she’s raising him so that he will one day do a very brave act that will result in his own death and then he will go to paradise,” she said. “It was chilling.” In fact, Justice Ginsburg conflated separate stories of two hijackers: Mahmoud sings of his early love of the gun and the woman standing in for Omar sings of desiring death. But together the general message is the same: Palestinian children are taught to hate and to devalue life. In this light, the Leon Klinghoffer character’s words during his bold and righteous broadside resonate: “We’re human. We’re the kind of people you like to kill.”
In actuality, the hijackers’ goal was to achieve the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, an objective the opera mentions in a hijacker’s verse. In other words, the hijackers hoped to use the hostages as leverage in a negotiation, not to perpetrate a bloodbath. It was a botched operation, with the four hijackers left directionless at sea and unsure how to proceed. The suggestion that the hijacking might have been a suicide mission makes little sense on the opera’s own terms because, as it depicts, the hijackers arranged an escape, abandoning the ship and their hostages.
Despite these historical inaccuracies, Klinghoffer projects an appearance of being well researched. The production takes pains to provide the audience with historical information that appears on a sidebar-like screen beside the stage. The audience is apprised of behind-the-scenes negotiations to free the hostages and Syria’s refusal to allow the ship to dock in Tartous. But these tidbits of information, known only retrospectively, add little to the audience’s overall understanding and could have been more skillfully incorporated into the libretto. Instead, the opera seems littered with explanatory footnotes. The effect is heavy-handed, with stuffy storytelling stifling emotion.
It is hard to imagine how The Death of Klinghoffer could be construed as anti-Semitic. It is true that some of the hijackers’ lines are anti-Semitic, but they are uttered to offer a portrait of the hijackers as depraved and maniacal, not to persuade the audience that Jews are less than human. The opera humanizes the hijackers in the sense that it gives them a voice, a backstory and a face. But, on the whole, Klinghoffer perpetuates stereotypes of Palestinians as violent, death-seeking religious fanatics. Klinghoffer might depict two sides to the conflict, but the portrait it paints of Palestinians is one that Palestinians themselves would struggle to recognize. What is most threatening about the opera for the Zionist narrative is that it recounts some of the less known and less savory aspects of Israel’s history: ethnic cleansing, massacres and apartheid.
Image: The separation wall near Bethlehem. (Ted Swedenburg)
Losing Hope in Iran and Egypt
The decision to leave your country, especially when you leave for political or ideological reasons, can be gut-wrenching. My parents made that decision for me when they left Iran in my early adolescence. Unlike some Iranians forced to flee, my parents were not members of a persecuted religious minority. Nor were they high-profile political activists at immediate risk of arrest. But as people who had demonstrated against the Shah’s dictatorship, and had hoped that the 1979 revolution would bring democracy and social justice to Iran, witnessing their country plunge into authoritarianism and turn into a theocracy was more than they could bear. It was like the country they knew and hoped for no longer existed. Add to that the fact that, in September 1980, Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Iran, igniting a cruel war that would last eight years, and my parents felt that the best option for them, my two sisters and me was to build a future elsewhere. It was a decision that tormented them as they made it, and continued to occupy their thoughts for years after emigration.
Of course, my parents are not unique. Following the 1979 revolution and throughout the Iran-Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of Iranians fled into exile and became part of a diaspora that is scattered all over the globe.
And though the Iran-Iraq war is long over, and though the extreme brutality of the first years following 1979 has given way to oscillating periods of calm and unrest (the most famous episode being the mass protests after the 2009 presidential elections that brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into office for a second term), Iranians continue to leave Iran, for a combination of ideological, political and economic reasons. Not in the same large numbers, but in a constant trickle.
During a recent trip to Iran, practically every young person I met (and some not so young) had a question for me about migrating. These are not political activists at risk of detention. They are people tired of living with a sense of hopelessness, a feeling that their talents and abilities are going to waste in a country where advancement through merit has become a joke, a premonition that nothing will change for the better. This hopelessness became particularly acute after the protests following the 2009 elections were crushed. Many of the activists left Iran. The US-led sanctions, which have had far-reaching, devastating effects on the economy, are also fueling the desperation.
The overwhelming desire to leave is painful to see each time I am confronted with it. It is upsetting that some 30 years after the events that propelled my parents’ departure, the situation in Iran remains dire, and that young people in particular have lost faith in a better tomorrow.
I am also confronted with these sentiments in Egypt, the country I have called home since 2005. The January 25, 2011 uprising that led to Husni Mubarak’s resignation brought with it an incredible optimism. One activist described feeling at the time that everything was possible. The succeeding events -- the transitional period of army rule, the elections that brought the Muslim Brothers to power -- may have been seen as setbacks for many of the activists who were driven by a desire for greater democracy and social justice in Egypt. But most of my Egyptian friends who had spent days protesting in Tahrir Square felt that the setbacks were inevitable and indeed necessary on the long road to true political transformation. It was unrealistic to think the Brothers would have no role in the new Egypt, they would say, even as they were disappointed and at times enraged by the Islamists’ tactics, refusal to compromise and, in many instances, clear hypocrisy. The Egypt my friends wanted was still possible and still worth fighting for. And fighting was still possible, in spite of everything.
Everything seems to have changed since then. The protests of June 30, 2013, the army coup that removed Muhammad Mursi from office, the massacre of hundreds of Muslim Brother supporters in August 2013, the lack of accountability, the support for the massacre drummed up by state media, the drafting of a constitution that is supposed to enshrine the rule of law at the same time that the most basic principles of humanity are flouted, the elections that brought ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to power, the jailing of journalists, the mass death sentences issued for Muslim Brothers, the draconian anti-protest laws, the threats looming over NGOs, and numerous other developments, big and small, have sunk these same once hopeful, bright-eyed friends into depths of depression.
And so, one by one, we hear of departures. Some of the same people who returned from overseas to take part in the shaping of a new Egypt have decided to leave again. Some have decided that now is the time to pursue an advanced degree, a job, a fellowship -- anything that will take them away. Some journalist friends, terrified by the imprisonment of their colleagues, are seeking postings elsewhere. Some who work for NGOs are bracing for a crackdown, due to restrictive NGO legislation, and have moved their operations elsewhere. Some, visiting friends who are behind bars for violating the protest law, fear that remaining in Egypt will only bring the same for them. They are thinking of leaving.
In short, what I am witnessing in Egypt now, the conversations I am having, evokes memories of Iranian friends and acquaintances going into exile. Once again, I watch some of a country’s best and brightest unable to bear the pain of coping with a “tomorrow that never came.” And, with their departures, that tomorrow becomes more and more distant.