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NOURA ERAKAT: Solidarity Beyond Rhetoric

NOURA ERAKAT: Solidarity Beyond Rhetoric
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True, all elected officials are expected to accept a religious framework, imagine a President ending his talk with “May humanity bless America!” But that invocation is meant to be personal—an individual moral compass—no one is obligated to mention God, Christ, the Bible or its counterparts during their political leadership except during moments of national crisis or grief. This was not the case with George W.

His religio-political lexicon initiated a domestic polarization among American society that freshly crystallized and emboldened a long-standing identity: Whiteness in its nativist form.

We basically saw a White American identity emerge in a vacuum—absent the context of other salient socio-political issues like economic systems and the maldistribution of wealth and resources.  It rose as an identity based primarily on cultural values. The emergence of such a reductionist identity influenced a shift in political discourse in the United States wherein culture, as opposed to other distinguishing markers, came to dominate political analysis.

Here we have neither an attribution to race or class, but instead to a white identity that it is not about whiteness as a construct but about a white nativist culture, and particular cultural markers being attributed to whiteness. This is a scary shift that unfortunately has not waned with Obama’s assumption of the Presidential office. To the contrary, his Presidency makes this shift starker, precisely because of the racial and cultural implications of his Presidency.

Consider the predominance of cultural paradigms in the discussion of the “war on terror.” The rise of terrorist attacks was described by pundits as a “clash of civilizations,” which attributes terrorism to a certain people and not to the act of inflicting politically motivated violence against civilians. So it is “terrorism” if x, y, or z performs the violent act and/or it is terrorism if a, b, or c suffered from these violent acts. Especially in Bush’s cultural framework, but certainly preceding it as well, terrorism in the Middle East has not referred to the categorization of unacceptable forms of violence but instead to cultural groupings; there are those people who have the privilege to point at what terrorism is and those who could only be its perpetrators and never its victims.

This permeates the work that I do in the Arab and Muslim world.  Discussions concerning conflicts throughout North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf, and even into Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Bush included in the “New Middle East,” were no longer attributed to political conditions, as they would be in any other nation.  So whether the issue was war, the economy, jobs, refugee status, stress on limited resources, the discussions around conflicts in the Arab and Muslim world became explicitly attributed to culture.  For example, commentary about violent intra-national struggle over limited resources, did not emphasize a global food shortage. Instead, under Bush-speak, such violence was attributed to barbarism. I think that this was in fact the trend that defines our current era, more than the Obama Administration.

In fact, the Obama Administration has the unintended potential to make it worse. I think the polarization within the U.S. will become more stark and will be led by those who have a lot to gain from an inflammatory cultural discourse and who see that, under the leadership of a Black son of an African immigrant, they are steadily losing what they had gained. Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, and others calling for the failure of Obama are leading that trend.  This call for failure is not driven by partisan loyalties, but by cultural ones and it concerns what it means to be “American.”

That makes our work much more difficult. We clearly never organize along reductionist terms. To the contrary, we’ve developed a complex social justice lexicon that sees privilege operate on several axes with multiple intersections. While I am not advocating that we alter our discourse, the fact that we may be speaking to an audience that cannot hear us presents a clear challenge.

Bush’s other outstanding legacy was his supplanting of diplomacy with militarism.  Militarism has historically constituted the U.S.’s primary form of global engagement, however it became more pronounced during Bush’s two-term Administration. As an aside,  Obama has reverted the U.S,  back to the status quo of “reasonable militarism,” wherein we can fight a ‘just’ war in Afghanistan but not Iraq.

In Palestine, Bush’s “might makes right” approach did little to alter the realities on the ground. Palestinians have been enduring colonialism since 1948 and military occupation since 1967—structural violence shaped by race and culture (i.e., apartheid) has defined Palestinian existence.  So while Bush’s era accelerated the swift acceptance of Israel’s elastic security discourse, the difference was a matter of degree and not of kind.

Our challenges have to do more with a critical coming of age in the aftermath of Yasser Arafat’s death.  Despite his questionable leadership in a post-Oslo era, Arafat was a charismatic leader with the ability to both unite Palestinian identities despite our fragmentation as well as balance calls statehood and self-determination, which are not one in the same.  Without forgiving him of his deleterious impact on the Palestinian liberation movement, Arafat’s death and the consequent absence of a national liberation program has represented our primary challenge.

The grassroots work that I do seeks to create a united Palestinian identity that is transcendent of political factionalism. My work is also aimed at empowering our Palestinian diaspora to represent itself and effectively resuscitate an international leadership in the form of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

In the work that I do aimed at a broader American audience, and not just a Palestinian one, we are trying to encourage taxpayers to challenge U.S. Middle East policy in an era when  the two state solution has achieved political consensus.  It is now controversial to negate Palestinian statehood, when for most Palesinians, two states is not necessarily what we want at all.  The bantustinization of the West Bank, the Judeazation of Jerusalem, and the ghettoization of Gaza renders the two state solution unrealistic as opposed to what some commentators may deem “pragmatic.” We seek to be self-determined, afforded with the ability to govern ourselves and determine our own fates rather than be subject to Israeli prerogatives.

While Obama has made finding a resolution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict a priority—evidenced by his grappling with the issue in his first term in office—he has not challenged long-standing U.S. foreign policy towards Israel. The U.S. has been opposed to Israeli settlement expansion officially since 1993 when the Bush Senior Administration oversaw the enactment of a public law that reduces loan guarantees to Israel by the amount spent on settlements. It would be refreshing and beneficial if Obama used his Presidential tenure to add texture to the discussion of the Palestinian-Israel conflict by addressing its colonial roots and racist and exclusionary dimensions. Still how far Obama can push is also contingent on how much a U.S.-based movement can push him.

Sadly, political mobilization of our communities has not been an option.  We haven’t had the privilege to push Congress to support Obama in meaningful ways because we’ve been overwhelmed by other concerns namely the fact that we are being starved, with near global unanimity, in Gaza,  strangled in the West Bank because of the expanding colonization project,  and within Israel, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are facing a right-wing rise that some may describe as fascist.

You mention the right-wing political movement within Israel. I met anti-occupation Israelis and heard that that movement is at a low level.  Bill Fletcher spoke about how one of reaction to Obama domestically is an opportunity for the left but also a huge opportunity for the right to consolidate power and move that agenda.  The situation in Israel and Palestine are different but I am wondering why we are seeing the rise of the right-wing and fascist element?

I agree with Bill about the rise in the US.  It is fear for the loss of privilege as a function of a redefinition of an exclusionary American identity. The Republican Party is consolidating its power and purging its own ranks of those that do not fit into that identity.  What it will mean to be a Republican within a short time frame, two to four years, will be much different than what has meant in the past.  It will not just be about small government and fiscal conservatism anymore.

In Israel, the rise of fascism is a sign of weakness. A last ditch resort to maintain power when hegemony begins to crumble. For decades Israel has used a security paradigm to justify even its most horrific military operations, including its involvement in the 1982 massacre of nearly 3,000 Palestinians in Sabra/Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. However, Israel has normalized its relationships either politically and/or economically with the Arab world thereby diluting its security argument and exposing its military operations as brute force meant to pound dissenters into submission; this policy, more formally known as the “Iron Fist” policy is the legacy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a 20th century Revisionist Zionist leader.  Therefore, as Israel’s image of a weak David in the face of a menacing Arab Goliath fades so too does its moral authority in the region.

In addition to economic and political normalization with the Arab world, Israel has come to share similar interests with other Arab states as a result of aggressive US interventionist policies in the past decade.

Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the March 14th forces of Lebanon, and Fatah of the Palestinian leadership together constitute what the Bush Administration configured into a “New Middle East.” These compose the “American bloc.” They believe their futures are intertwined with US interests.

The counterpart to this American bloc is represented by political Islamic movements and their supporters, namely Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.  Traditionally, Leftist movements would have constituted the political opposition, however in the Cold War’s aftermath and the fall of the Soviet Union, we saw a quick decline and fading political, as opposed to social, relevance of the Left. There no longer exists financial support to support an Arab socialist movement, a communist movement or any type of leftist movement. Their own agenda seemed to have failed with the fall of the Soviet Union leaving very few alternatives. They are weak and prey to authoritarian regimes.

The only segment of society that could counter that authoritarian drumbeat has been the political Islamic movement. This is because the religious movement cannot be killed. It is based on god, worship, and piety.  Moreover, many of these Muslim movements have focused on building a constituent base as opposed to strictly engaging the existing political establishment. In effect, they’ve implemented a grassroots indoctrination approach that marries politics and religious morals; a process, which makes politics both very personal and accessible. Political Islamic movements have a significant presence in Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan and Palestinian politics.

The Left in the Arab world, which is staunchly secular, has allied itself with these political Islamic movements based on its opposition to US imperialistic/interventionist policies. In effect, the two most significant political formations in the Arab world are political Islam and authoritarian regimes.

The “Anti-American” front or, opposition, are not necessarily the pro-Iranian front,. They do not necessarily agree with Iranian dominance in the region or the augmentation of Shia governance.  But they do form the opposition to US imperialism in the Middle East and by extension the dominance of authoritarian regimes whom the US supports politically and financially.

This development has led to a convergence of interests between Israel and the Arab members of the “American Front,” namely an opposition to the influence of Iran and political Islamic movements.

This reorganization of the Arab world and its convergence with Israeli interests, was most clearly evident, first in 2006 and then again in late 2008.  In 2006, when Israel first attacked the south of Lebanon under the proxy of attacking Hezbollah, all of the regimes, including the March 14th forces in Lebanon supported the Israeli attack on the South. It was beyond normalization. Now, they shared the common threat of a political Islam, which Hezbollah represents, which Hamas represents, which Iran represents, and so they allied themselves with Israel. Similarly, in late 2008 when Israel first launched Operation Cast Led, those regimes, including the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Authority, immediately came out to condemn Hamas for the violence.

In effect, far from demonizing all Arabs as a threat to Israel’s security, today Israel officials proclaim that they share common enemies with its Arab counterparts. Dory Gold, the US’s former Ambassador to Israel has towed this line explicitly when he says that “Israel and her neighbors are all opposed to the same Islamic threat.”

This convergence has diminished the image of the “Arab menace” (circa 1967 War) making Israel’s security paradigm less compelling.  Also, I think because of the lack of a common enemy that has previously united Israel on the one hand, and the realization that Israel has diplomatic options available to it on the other,   has left Israel in a bit of an identity crisis i.e., if its not the righteous pioneer with a big [militarized] fist, than who is it. To Palestinians, it’s quite obvious: Israel is herself exposed, a colonial project that seeks to acquire land without its indigenous population.

If Israel indeed shares the same threat as its Arab counterparts, and if its clear that the threat to Israel is not a function of cultural dysfunction among Arabs i.e., to hate Jews, but rather a function of tangible political grievances, than one would expect it to reflect on a diplomatic rapprochement with the Arab world made possible by the dismantlement of institutional apartheid and colonial policies,  Instead, Israel decided to amplify its militant identity in its relentless pummeling of Gaza.

Little ex

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