Two hours at #occupywallstreet

This is a re-posting of a blog post I wrote for the Toronto media co-op site. Consider reading it on that site instead because then you can see my photos. 


Yesterday morning I spent a few hours at #occupywallstreet. It seems a bit silly – to drive more than two thousand kilometers over a weekend and only spend a few minutes at the ground zero of the occupy movement, but for complex reasons and the fact I was travelling with a dozen others, this is what was possible for me.

Even in such a short time, I was able to gather some significant impressions. The first thing I noticed was that the park where the protestors are located is very small – significantly smaller than St. James park in Toronto where the occupy movement is centred here. The park is covered with tents, but I’d say that in general the Toronto site is more impressive – more developed food tent, more shelter, more tents, more space. But, the impressiveness of the site itself is not the point of the occupy movement – the fact is that occupation has been going on much longer (since sept 27th, not oct 15th), and their general assemblies are much larger than ours (although I did not actually get to attend one).

The protest is right in the centre of New York. That might not mean much to someone who hasn’t been to New York, but I’ll try to give you an idea. The park is literally right next to the World Trade Centre site. Across the street from the tents, is the construction site of the WTC memorial, and the new “Freedom” tower being built there. Right next to the park is that little church and ancient cemetery which you probably saw in the twin towers disaster TV coverage. Right above the park is the famous “fancy” Mcdonalds which has a Piano and table service. In other words, it’s in the heart of the wealth and power of America – we say “Wall Street”, but it could as easily be called Occupy Financial District, or even Occupy WTC. The protest there looks and feels out of place – it’s not the part of NY where you’d expect to see activists.

This might be obvious, but protest has become a tourist attraction. Up along the right side of the park (looking uphill, I’m not sure about the compass coordinates) there is a walkway divided off from the tents so people can walk up and down the sidewalk. Along the walkway are various food vendors. There are photographers everywhere, usually not “real” photographers but tourists wearing overpriced point and shoot cameras around their necks. People there find this a bit obnoxious. In one conversation, some students who had come down from Chicago for one night and the general assembly decided to start talking to people taking photographs – not so much to tell them to stop, but to engage them in conversation. Because, as they recognized, these people are the 99% and their experiences at occupy wall street will filter back to their friends and their communities, so everyone there is the face of the movement. Several conversations I had there worked along the theme of trying to see past conflict, trying even to see the police as not essentially anyone’s enemy, at least not insofar as they are individuals. People were also in agreement, however, when I pointed out that the institution of the police encourages a kind of in-group loyalty which is expressed in the way the police tend to protect each other when they commit crimes, and that this isn’t an accident but actually an essential part of how a police force operates.

What struck me most about the people I met there was the sense that it truly was a representation of “average” americans. I realize I will take flak for saying this, but at other occupy sites I’ve visited there is a sense that what you are seeing there is the local protest/activist-class all uniting on a piece of land, and talking to each other. And that’s great – that’s an important thing to happen – for people who have causes to have a place where they can go and meet each other and support each other. But what I saw in NY was something a bit different, not people who are pushed to the margins of society by their beliefs and causes, but people right in the middle of the American social norms – both middle and working class people who believe their government shouldn’t be owned by the financial sector, who think taxes are essentially something good, and who think everyone deserves a decent life with decent work and respect. Also, I met mostly people with very normal social skills – really people who are not especially marginalized by the system, but who believe the system is unjust to the point where something has to be done about it.

Perhaps this reflects the extremity of the situation in America. It really is much worse there than here – and I don’t think this means we shouldn’t occupytoronto, but I do think it means that the occupation here might mean something a bit different, a bit more of a defence of the bits of sanity that still exists in our government, and a bit less of the need to attack the neo-liberalization which has already taken over the United States. That said, if the inequality in Canada continues to rise at the current rate, it won’t be long before we have a very similar situation here as there.

Franz Fanon on Colonial Geography

The zone where the native lives is not complementary to the zone inhabited by settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, they both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible, for of the two terms, one is superfluous. The settlers’ town is a strongly built town, all made of stone and steel…The settlers’ town is a well-fed town, an easy-going town….the settlers’ town is a town of white people of foreigners.


The town belonging to the colonized people…is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where or how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built one on top of the other….The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire….The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy….And this the settler knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on the defensive, “They want to take our place.

Wretched of the Earth, page 39

What strikes me about this passage is not only the extent to which it describes the contrast between the two places I lived in Palestine –  West Jerusalem and the refugee camp named Kalandia, but the extent to which these living conditions are actively pursued by the colonizers, and sometimes it must be said also by the authorities which represent, or purport to represent, the interests of the colonized. The German colony area in West Jerusalem is absolutely an easy going town, with scant reminders that you are living within a kilometer of one of the most contested neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Silwan. People there are mostly easy going, mostly easy to talk to – but if you ask them about the conflict they get this look in their eye, and they repeat slogans like “They want to take what is ours”.

Perhaps this fear and willingness to use force in defence characterizes a difference between actively colonialist societies, like Israel, and societies where colonization is a fait accompli, like Canada. It’s very well for us activists to call for the Decolonization of Canada – but while we might identify as Settlers, we will never know the emotions of those who feel the need to fight against the colonized to maintain their property.

And perhaps, as sad as it is to say, perhaps Canada cannot be decolonized – simply because those who were colonized are not in a position to lead a successful rebellion against the colonists, where the right of the colonists to property was challenged not only in discourse but with force.

Perhaps decolonization is quite a rare and difficult thing. And maybe this is why activists around the world stand behind Palestine – because there it looks like a victory for decolonization is actually possible. Perhaps this is why it is not a hypocricy to support the Palestinian cause when there are hundreds of other situations much more dire from a humanitarian perspective. There is a difference between an immoral social situation, and a political conflict in which one can take sides – and for this reason the sheer quantity of suffering is not in itself a motivation to become politically involved, but rather an amplifying factor which increases the salience of situations which are already politically demarcated.

Kosovo, Ireland, Palestine – the complexities of recognition and lines in the sand between words and arms

In a conflict situation, political compromise is impossible. This is because conflicts situations occur when political stability breaks down – the war is the continuation of politics by other means, or Arafat’s “War is a loud voice for policy”. This mistake that governments often make is to assert a sharp distinction between small groups involved in violence, and large moldable populations which would accept a reasoned settlement if the extreme group can be successfully defeated. But political violence in conflict situations, even if it is carried out only by a small group, can be a symptom of the breakdown of a political process. This is clearly true in situations like the north of Ireland in the 1970s where the IRA was able to operate effectively due to a measure of cooperation from the nationalist community at large. The fact that there is mass cooperation with the extreme group demonstrates that the loss of faith in the political process is not a marginal problem, but the mainstream problem.

When violence breaks out as a symptom of a popular loss of faith in the mainstream political process, it’s a categorical truth that the situation can not be solved within the bounds of the mainstream political process. People don’t lose faith because things aren’t going exactly their way – this happens only if the bounds of mainstream politics become completely out of joint with the feelings of the popular mass of people. What can be done in such a situation is not to talk of solution, but only to talk of changing the situation such that solution is possible. At this point it becomes essential to talk not only of military might and security considerations, but also the structure of the emotive discourse that characterizes the different parties in the conflict.

The current situation in northern Kosovo is a possible example of the breakdown of a political discourse to the point where it could become again an active conflict situation. Serbs in northern Kosovo will not accept the existence of an independent Kosovo, however, their chief negotiator implicitly recognizes that Albanians will not accept a non-independent Kosovo. The solution they propose is to create status-neutral institutions that can serve Serbs inside Kosovo and can man the checkpoints between Kosovo and Serbia. It is essential that Serbs not be forced to recognize the existence of the Kosovo state, but also essential that the form of their non-recognition does not preclude Albanians from recognizing an independent Kosovo. Status-neutral does not mean only that the institution does not recognize the territory as independent Kosovo, but also that it does not recognize the territory as Serbia – individual communities and persons can recognize the sovereignty they wish to recognize, but that sovereignty will not be instituted into state institutions.

At least, that is the situation as Borislav Stefanovic sees it. The current military reality is one of the Albanian state in Kosovo attempting to impose non status-neutral institutions at the borders between Serbia and Kosovo. In response to this, Serbians found alternative routes going through the backwoods that permit them to travel between Serbia and their homes without passing through a checkpoint which institutes a border between Serbia and Kosovo, and recognizing the Kosovo independent state. In response to this, Nato troops in Kosovo have set up checkpoints on these alternative routes.

The situation is complex and dangerous. If the Serbs in Kosovo will not accept the imposition of institutions on the border between Serbia and Kosovo that recognize an independent Kosovo, then they could be pushed entirely out of the peaceful political discourse, and war could start again. This would not be a war of a few extremists, but paramilitaries well supported by the will of the people. Belgrade could be drawn into the fray, and the situation could get very bad indeed – possibly resulting in more ethnic cleansing and the transfer of Serbs across the Nato-backed boundary between Serbia and Kosovo.

Listening to the president of Kosovo it would seem that the Albanians want to act carefully and not provoke the border communities. They are talking about redrawing the border, but this will not satisfy Serbs living in enclaves deep in Kosovo. This may resolve the problems in Northern Kosovo, but will not satisfy the Serbian communities deep in Kosovo – whereas maintaining status-neutral institutions would potentially satisfy both the communities.

The situation in Kosovo/Serbia bears an interesting analogy to the situation in Palestine. Serbs in Northern Kosovo have already found a solution to live in peace with an Albanian administered Kosovo district by way of not recognizing and not being demanded to recognize the independence of Kosovo. And, Kosovo/Nato today is using force to prevent a political settlement along these lines of limited mutual recognition/mutual peaceful non-recognition. In Palestine since 1988 the PLO has agreed to recognize Israel so long as they are not required to perform that recognition explicitly as a symbolic gesture. And, similarly, Israel has used force since 1988 repeatedly in an attempt to pressure Palestinians to perform the symbolic recognition of Israel, including most blatantly their demand to recognize Israel as “the Jewish state”. This in effect is demanding that Palestinian leaders become zionist.

Between warring parties, peace does not come from the use of force against those who will not perform the symbolic act of defeat. Rather, demanding symbolic acts of defeat, like recognition by the Serbs of the independent state of Kosovo, or recognition by Palestinians of the Jewish state of Israel, or recognition by Irish Nationalists of the sovereignty of the Queen in Ireland, these are symbolic acts of war – almost declarations of war. They are at least attempts to draw lines in the sand, lines after which discourse ends and force begins.

The insight which I hope I’ve been able to offer here is the connection between the “line in the sand” and the use of force: the symbolic performative act that demands from the enemy the performance of its own defeat is not only a call for violence, it is an act of epistemic violence that closes the realm of discursive politics to the enemy, and allows the enemy a response only by way of force. It is, in other words, a declaration of war – a declaration that the discursive political space between the parties has disappeared, and if there remains a conflict it will continue by way of force. This force is predicted, obviously, in the performance itself – such demands for performance of defeat are not said lightly but only by those who have the force to back them up.

On the Prisoner Exchange and the Recognition of War

So, it looks like the prisoner exchange is going to happen – the famous Israeli detainee will be released in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners. Currently Israelis are appealing to their supreme court to try to block the deal, but the Israeli supreme court does not like intervening in military affairs, so I think it’s unlikely that these citizen’s appeals will come to anything.

People are upset because Palestinians who are serving life sentences for killing Israelis will be released. This is, given the way Israelis tend to understand the conflict, very understandable. But, the way Palestinians tend to look at the situation is that these acts of violence are part of a war. And Israelis know very well that killing in a war is not the same as murder – which is why Israeli soldiers who steal property from Palestinian houses are more likely to be reprimanded than those who kill civilians during a military operation (of course, I might disagree that this isn’t murder – but that’s beside the point here).

Essentially, the prison swap is a victory for the Palestinians, and specifically for Hamas, not only because many families will be re-united – but also because the swap is an act of recognition of the war taking place between the two parties. This is what Oslo failed to do – in the Oslo peace accords the Israelis refused to release any Palestinian prisoners who killed Israeli soldiers. That’s wrong – in the peace process at the end of a war, the prisoners of war on both sides must be released, and their “Crimes” must be interpreted as acts of war. Israel has consistently refused to do this because they practice the same tactic as the British used against the IRA – criminalization. However, in the prisoner swap, there is implicit recognition of the war, and therefore of the right to have waged war, and the right to have the war which was waged recognized as a war and not as seperate acts of criminality.

The way the Israeli press talks about “the terrorists” is very revealing. First, they are almost always called terrorists rather than soldiers or rebels – this is an attempt to de-politicize the war, to refuse to grant it any propaganda value. Moreover, when the acts of violence are referred to, they are often called attacks against “israelis”, rather than distinguishing between Israeli soldiers and Israeli civilians. One reason for this might be that basically all Israelis are soldiers, but I don’t think that is the reason. I think the real reason for not making a distinction is that if a distinction were made between attacks on civilians and attacks on soldiers, this might imply a possible validity to attacks on soldiers as an act of war against an occupying army, and attacks on civilians.

To be clear, honest and serious about acts of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many distinctions need to be made so that the moral judgements are not proscribed in advance. Distinctions not only between attacks on soldiers and civilians, but also between attacks on soldiers inside and outside the green line. If we recognize Palestinian sovereignty over the occupied territories, there is some basis in international law for the legality of armed insurrection against an occupying force. Moreover, we should make a distinction between attacks on civilians inside ’48 Israel, and attacks on settlers or civilians driving through occupied territory. The settlements have military purposes – at least their purpose is to grab land from the occupied territories, and these blocks of land are almost always justified in the secular media with the logic of defence against possible invasion from neighbouring Arab states. An argument could be made that if the settlements serve military purposes, then the settlements are military instillations, and their occupants should be classified with non-combattent troops like cooks or teachers in the army. This classification should be independent of the motivations of the individuals living in settlements or travelling on occupied land – they are part of the military defence project not on the basis of their own knowledge, but on the basis of the state objectives which their subsidization furthers.

However, if one were not to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the ’48 borders, which is an altogether understandable position for refugees in camps to hold, none of these distinctions would allow Israelis to be considered as civilians. One could in this case argue that they are all occupying Palestinian land, and are all part of the military project of seizing land for a zionist state. It is therefore entirely understandable that for Palestinians taking this anti-zionist position, that they would not recognize any difference between acts of “terror” and acts of “war”. Ironically enough, in the full scale anti-zionist position we end up with the same non-distinction between acts against soldiers and acts against civilians practiced by the Israeli media – but for the opposite reason. Except, it’s not ironic – this epistemic chasm between the sides is simply part of the conflict. If the different sides could agree on terms, and could agree what was legitimate and what was not, there wouldn’t a conflict – there would be a peace process. And today, despite what we’re told, there isn’t a peace process – there is a process of the continuation of war by other means, by both sides, under the language of “peace process”. (But, maybe that’s always what peace processes are right up until the moment they become viable).

The solution to the conflict will not involve the colonists telling the refugees that they are wrong about their own past. The war will end only if the war is recognized as a war, and treated as a war, and combatants are treated as combatants – as prisoners of war, and as participants in a conflict for which they are not personally responsible. Anything short of Israeli recognition of Palestinian soldiers as soldiers fighting for a cause and not as individualized criminals will produce only untenable peace agreements. Perhaps the implied recognition in the prisoner swap can be a symbolic event over which people can argue – and by this argument move towards the recognition that the situation requires if any real peace is wanted.

Givat Hamatos: Israel against the two state settlement

Without a contiguous East Jerusalem, there will be no two state settlement. And this has nothing to do with the hubris of the PA, or with their corruption; it has to do with something altogether more simple – the ability of the PA to maintain some kind of legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people as they engage in the peace process. If the division of Jerusalem becomes impossible, there will be nothing but war for ever, or at least until the ethnic/religious state of “Israel” is dismantled and the two peoples are granted equal rights.

This is a relevant thing to understand today, because today (or yesterday) Israel announced the end of the division of Jerusalem. To understand this you have to look at some maps, ideally you need to spend time on the ground and understand the physical relations between different neighborhoods. But I can basically just tell you – the announcement of the new settlement of Givat Hamatos plays the explicit role of taking up the land between Gilo and Har Homa. Filling in this gap will disconnect Beit Safafa and Sur Bahir from the rest of the West Bank. So, if this settlement is built, and it is eventually adopted into Israel, it will mean there are Palestinian bantustans in the middle of Jerusalem which are not territorially connected with the West Bank. That will simply not be acceptable, it’s not a serious possibility for peace.

Support Israel if you want, but understand what these actions mean: Israel’s settlement construction plan now play the same role in the peace process from the Israeli perspective that the 2nd intifada played from the Palestinian perspective – it’s the domination of politics by the most extreme members on that side. Feel free to support the settlement expansion, support the taking of more and more Palestinian land – but understand that it means war for ever, and probably the killing of many Israeli civilians. If you want war, then by all means push your government to pursue the most extreme form of colonization that it can get away with in the short term.

Report Back: Moshe Hirsch on the ICJ’s advisory opinion on the security barrier

Today I attended a lecture at the Munk Centre by Mosche Hirsch, an Israeli scholar visiting from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem as part of the Halliburton exchange program. The lecture was part of the Munk centre Israeli studies program, but open to the public.

Hirsch’s presentation of the ICJ’s advisory opinion emphasized the role of the Israeli supreme court, who by accepting the ICJ’s normative rulings but basing their decisions on a “more intimate understanding of the facts”, was able to partially implement the ICJ ruling. He argued that the ICJ has no legitimacy in the eyes of the Israeli public, but their surpreme court does, and therefore the supreme court was able to bring the principles of the ICJ’s advisory opinion to the Israeli situation in such a way that some change could be effected.

Hirsch emphasized that “compliance” with the ICJ ruling could not be interpreted as a binary, in fact there are gradations of compliance. Personally, I found this a bit strange – if the law is clear, then isn’t it possible to say that a state or person either does or does not obey the law? Also, the means he suggested for measuring compliance was a bit absurd – he said that because the original plan for the security barrier would have separated Palestinians from 16.6% of the West Bank, the barrier was revised as a result of international pressure and the Supreme court decision, and in fact the barrier now takes only 5% of the Palestinian land. I don’t understand why it is called partial compliance to steal less than you originally planned to steal. By this logic, if Israel had originally planned to take 50% of the West Bank, then reducing to 5% would have been much more complete compliance, which obviously makes no sense.

During the talk the idea that the wall was built for “security concerns” went mostly unquestioned. I raised a question afterwards about whether it was actually the wall, or the negotiated end of the 2nd intifada, amnesty for al-aqsa martyrs, and the re-institution of collaboration between IDF and PASF that was actually the cause of the end of terrorist attacks. Hirsch responded that “everyone says they stopped the terrorist attacks, if you ask the Mossad they say it was them, if you ask the IDF they say it was them, if you ask PASF, they say it was them”. To me this wasn’t a satisfactory answer – if the legal justification in the eyes of the Israeli supreme court for building the security barrier on the West Bank side of the green line is “security concerns”, then the security concerns have to be actual – they can’t just be part of public perception.

It is my suspicion that many of these “security concerns” really only concern the security of settlers, which since the settlers are illegal under international law, it is no justification to assert their security as a justification for breaking international law.

In general, the talk was interesting and comprehensive, and went into detail into different interpretations of international law and showed why they are descriptive and complementary rather than having to decide which interpretation is correct. The talk was certainly not like an event on Israel I would normally attend – (for example the first question was, “But isn’t it true that the Arabs want to drive the Jews into the Sea!”), but this isn’t a bad thing.

What does worry me about attending Munk talks is the implicit validation of the Munk centre. To be clear – the Munk centre is funded in part by mining companies who kill union activists. And this talk was made possible by Halliburton – I don’t need to explain why they are not a neutral party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, the talks are “free” to attend, and they happen close to my house. So, while it is a strange privilege to attend them, I think I will continue to do so.

What can you do when no one around is doing anything?

I haven’t been able to find anything going on in Toronto in support of the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike. This frustrates me somewhat – isn’t this suppose to be the centre of Palestinian activism in North America? Am I the only activist who follows twitter and the internet, and thinks local actions should be temporally connected with local actions being directed by Palestinians on the ground over there?

Anyway, there is a global call out, or so I’ve read on various blogs and on twitter, to join the Palestinian prisoners in their hunger strike for one day – Today, the 12th of October. It’s past midnight now, so between now and tomorrow at midnight, not a morsel of calorific food will cross my tongue.

I fasted on Saturday as well, although that was for slightly less than 24 hrs, and I never really felt that hungry. This might be because I was drinking coffee, which keeps up the energy levels. But, if I don’t have coffee, I can’t effectively do my work, and I can’t afford to simply take days off at this point.

Anyway, if anyone is interested in the hunger strike, you can read the post I made about it, or probably better, check out electronic intifada for current updates.


Is religion a force for good? No, there are 2 religions.

We live in an era of incessant debates which quarrel over the question “is religion a force for good”. What results is fame and fortune for the most prolific writers and debaters, embrassement for those who can not match the skills of their opponents in debate, defensiveness on the part of the quiet and well meaning but timid religious majority, self-righteousness for atheists because it gives them a chance to feel radical even if they are the farthest thing from activists, and perhaps a very small amount of genuine thinking.

I challenge that the problem with these debates is that the question is malposed. While I’m all for simplification, and I think “organized religion” is a real category which we can talk about, it just turns out that within organized religions there are two tendencies – one that tends towards the re-institution of traditions for their own sake (conservatism), and the other which demands on the basis of a dogmatic tenant, societal reforms or even revolution. The first set of tendencies put off the redemption of religion to a future life, or a future decision by the godhead. The second set demand that the decision has already been taken, and it is up to humans to implement it.

Organized religion is thus both revolutionary and conservative. And it’s not simply that some organized religions are revolutionary, and some are conservative, or that the same organized religion is revolutionary in one place and conservative in another (although this has certainly been the case in the Catholic church’s internal struggle for and against liberation theology). Rather, every organized religion have both of these tendencies at the same time, but perhaps to different degrees and with different results, insofar as they meet two basic conditions. The first condition concerns prophesy, which is always in the past, and the second concerns the messianic future.

1. The Prophetic Past

Organized religions tend to be organized around books. This might seem arbitrary if we believe religions are simply organs of power – why not just have a religion with a deity in charge, a person who’s word is true by virtue of their identity? The answer to this is, of course, the inherent instability of tribal political organization – institutions are stable, but at the cost of serving themselves rather than the people in them. Even the leaders of an institution serve the institution. So, the institution needs some content over and beyond the personality of its leaders – and this content is scripture and interpretation of scripture.

The scripture must motivate people. Or rather, while technically it would be possible to have a religion where people only believed in the scripture because they were threatened with violence if they believed otherwise, the character of internal belief is such that it is almost impossible to believe something only because you are being forced to. It is therefor far more efficient to create scriptures which themselves help in the motivating process. There is something compelling about scripture  – the texts themselves want to be believed, and you want to believe them. Of course, it’s possible to resist this temptation with reason and critical faculties, but the fact that you must resist the easy beliefs proves their power of motivation.

Now, for a scripture to be motivating, it must accord in some sense with your person. There must be something about it which falls into line with either what you already believed, or with what you wanted to believe but didn’t know yet. If you are going to believe it to be the eternal truth, especially on a question of justice, it must be “believable”, in fact, it must not only fail to be repulsive, but if we believe that the motivating character of scripture might be one of the differences that makes some religions grow and others fail, perhaps it might confer some advantage on itself if it accords with an internal principle of justice – something we think on the basis of being human, something that we all think.

Now, this of course is not a very popular view amongst post-modernists who wish everything to be socially constructed, and the degree to which social forms can differ completely infinite. But just for the sake of argument assume that the idea of equal worth and equal dignity is a fundamental property of human justice, and that it follows either from the idea of freedom (Rousseau/Hegel/Sartre/Badiou/Hallward), or from the kind of being which we ourselves are – finite, thrown into a world of possibilities, already caught up in projects, and needing to cope with situations of tension and conflict with each other (roughly, the Phenomenological and Sociological traditions). If we believe this, we might begin to think that if religions were only unjust, immoral institutions – why would they include this idea? Because they do, (at least some of the time, and not enough). And it’s really inconvenient for them to do so – because it means commentators have to go to great interpretive lengths to show why, despite some commandment or principle or religious law, it’s still ok to kill people that you hate, or who you think are your enemy. It would be much easier all around if religions explicitly only granted the right to life for people in the in-group. But, I challenge, if they did that they would have more difficulty recruiting new members, and maintaining motivation amongst existing members.

Not only do principles of freedom pose problems for organized religions when they are trying to be genocidal and colonialist, they also can produce situations where those values get out of control, so to speak, and people on their basis demand certain political rights. Liberation theology is the best example of this, but you could also look at the Catholic struggle for equal rights in Northern Ireland, and the Palestinian struggle for fair treatment and the return of their homeland. While there are secular elements of all of these conflicts (certainly the Palestinian struggle was dominantly secular up until the first intifada), many people in these conflicts have religious beliefs – and I’d be surprised if their ideas of equal worth, anti-tribalism and anti-colonialism do not receive much of their emotional motivation from the idea that “I deserve to be treated as such because God says so”, or “My grievances are as valid as his or hers because God says so.” These are interesting kinds of statements, “because God says so” is completely unverifiable, and it seems to come from nowhere. But, maybe there is something profoundly powerful about the fact that a liberatory statement can come, as if, “from nowhere”. If a liberatory principle had to be empirically grounded in evidence, it perhaps never would be justified at all. What evidence do you have, after all, that you are as worthy of consideration as another human being? Appeals to the sociological content of a political situation only reveals the emotive dynamics and the differential power and importance and usefulness of the different actors. In other words, if you demand an empirical ground to equal worth, all you will find is different worths. And there’s a reason for this – social organizations are complex, and they don’t function well if everyone has the same task, or even a task of similar importance. Difference people have different skills, and which skills are valuable changes depending on the conditions – that’s not “ableism”, that’s just the real world.

Trying to make everyone equal empirically in a struggle is cause of indigestion in radical movements – just look at how the need to “not be ableist”, if interpreted in a naive way, results in organizations acting so clearly against their best interests. Clear examples of this tend to involve people who do not have the adequate skills to accomplish a task being directed to do that task, and the result is failures, and the worsening of the situation for everyone together.

The equal worth of people is a theological tenant, or a metaphysical tenant if you need to expel the idea of God. It comes as if from outside. Of course it doesn’t actually come from outside – it comes because someone had the idea and wrote it down, and other people htought it was a good idea – the idea grew through the public imaginary and was captured by the religions system which uses it towards its own ends. But, that same idea can always escape from the grips of the priests and be used against them in a struggle for the fulfilment of the value, rather than of their ends which always concern the next world rather than this one. This brings us to the second condition of religion:

2. The Messianic Future

Organized religions motivate people with beliefs that are genuinely related to human justice. But, they have to make sure they maintain themselves as power structures. The easiest way to do this is play a trick with time. To say, “Sure, everyone is equal before God, but you don’t have to worry about changing the situation here because the judgement that matters is God’s, and God’s judgement judges every person equally” – this conveniently avoids the fact that on earth, the rich are not judged equally to the poor – the rich get off, and the poor go to the jail. This deferral of justice is power’s greatest ally, because it allows it to maintain the highest moral authority, while propagating or at least perpetuating endless criminality.

The real trick, however, is to get people to believe that the apocalypse, the return of the messiah, or whatever future event justice is waiting for, is not only the moment of the redemption of the pious – but the arrival of a justice so much greater than human justice, that human justice in relation to it is not even worth fighting for. This idea manifests itself differently in different religions, but is always the attempt to not only defer, but invalidate the struggles that religion can support as I’ve outlined in the first condition. I don’t like to bring in specific examples, but I must speak a little about Protestantism – there is an idea in the Protestant mindset that acts are without value, acts are like dirty rags – only God’s love can save us, and what we do is somehow of no consequence – and therefore we can avoid our moral obligation to stop injustice – even when we directly profit from the injustice. The protestant idea that acts are like dirty rags literally makes it palatable to people to own stock in companies that organize the killing of union organizers. This is pretty amazing, and it helps me understand why America and Canada are protestant countries. (We of course look at the Catholic church as genocidal institution with a dictator at the top, and we should, but by doing this we avoid seeing the structural injustice permitted by the anti-Catholic Christian sects, which are the protestant churches).

Perhaps the most terrifying thing about the messianic condition is that it makes people want the end of the world. Literally, Christian Zionists across North America today are celebrating the desecration of not only Muslim but also Christian graves in occupied Palestine because they believe that it is a step towards bringing the great war which will start world war three, and kill most people (including most Jews, incidentally, except for a few thousand). And it makes sense for them to want the end of the world – if you love the justice of the final decision infinitely more than human justice, then why wouldn’t you try to bring about the cataclysm as quickly as possible?

Christianity is the religion I am most familiar with – and it has in it these two conditions in a profound way. And, it has had them for ever – the serious attempts to understand the lives of Jesus and Paul tend to come to the conclusion that they actually believed that the day of judgment would arrive in their lifetime. The famous quote attributed to Jesus, “worry not for the morrow”, literally makes no sense unless you believe that the apocalypse will come in your own lifetime – on what other basis could it be moral to leave your job, your children, your family, to follow a crazed lunatic across the land? And Jesus clearly some decent qualities to have motivated so many followers (although, it seems like more in retrospect, in reality there were not so many Jesus followers before Paul invented Christianity, and even then, Christianity is mostly Pauline mysticism with little to do with Jesus’s actual teachings or the historical lineage of his rabbinical practice).

The question of whether “religion is a force for good in the world” should really be interpreted in terms of these two conditions which organized religions rely upon. The extent to which religions are apocalyptic, and defer justice to death or to the resurrection, they can easily be mobilized for evil. The extent, however, to which they motivate people to act on humanist values, because they feel God has told them, to this extent they can be unmatched sources of positive motivation.

Secularism has many advantages – the cool calm use of reason can propel the human mind and spirit far beyond what the shackles of religion will allow. But so long as religion will be a force in the world, we have a choice of either leaving it alone, or trying to support its most revolutionary elements. Those who hate the world because it does not contain the objective conditions for the fulfillment of their values are resentful, weak, and nihilistic in the worst sense. The revolutionaries who will change the world are those willing to listen, read, and adopt to the current circumstances that they find themselves in, and support the liberatory values while kindly and gently working to marginalize the power of deferral to avoid the messianic apocalypse from becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Intentions are objective by the culpability of their omission

In any particular political event, a skeptic can take up the position that you do not know the intention behind the event, and therefore you cannot ascribe the meaning to it that you have. For instance, if Israel decides to build on top of one of the few villages depopulated during the Nakba that remains standing, the skeptic can say that you don’t know that an anti-Palestinian motivation is behind the real estate project, and therefore your interpretation of the event is simply your own, and not any more valid than the interpretation of the developer who may simply not be motivated by the historical context of the land.

However, the intention to erase the village, to desecrate the rights of the owners of the houses from which they were stolen, remains there in the action even if these ideas never cross the mind of the developer. They intentions are there not by their presence, but by the moral judgement that accompanies their absence. For example, if a CEO could have known that his accountant was breaking the law, but chose to avoid going through the books to remain inculpable for the fraudulent accounts, he or she can still be held guilty under British common law. The CEO knew enough that s/he could have found out, and chose not to explore the possibility that there may have been something wrong.

No one in Israel simply does not know of the Nakba. Their society is in a constant upheaval about the “Arab question” – everyone knows that Arabs were displaced during the “War of Independence”, and the situation of the refugees is constantly reminded to them in the form of security threats and terrorist attacks. Therefore, if Israelis do not “know” about the Nakba, this not-knowing is a product of active denial, of choosing not to look into the questions of complexity in their own history. They can not-know about the refugees who want to return to their homes only if they implicitly know the refugees are there, and actively surpress any desires to find out more about the situation of the refugees.

The Israeli who does not know about the Nakba is not only like the CEO who avoids looking at the accounts, s/he is also like the person with anosognosia – the person who claims to be missing a limb but in fact possesses the limb. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau Ponty explains why the person suffering from anosognosia can only maintain ignorance of the presence of the limb they claim not to possess because they are implicitly aware of it – and therefore avoid situations in which the presence of the limb would become obvious and would challenge their idea of themselves as missing the limb. The anosognosia analogy is particularly pertinent when talking about the Israeli who claims not to be motivated by the need to erase the remaining Palestinian villages, because it captures the psychoanalytic form of the absence of knowledge about the Nakba. Only because the Israeli is profoundly aware of the Nakba, and of all its contemporary implications, can they so effectively avoid noticing it in their day to day life, and can they avoid having the thought cross their mind when they go about a construction project which will erase one of the last standing villages.

While we might not consider anosognosia a moral problem (although, perhaps we might if it means the person becomes particularly un-useful in their society), we should consider the actively reproduced ignorance of the Nakba a moral problem – because the duties we have towards each other to live not only peacefully but respectfully are thwarted by the denial of this historical injustice. The fact that we can ascribe a moral character to this implicit activity allows us to recognize the objective presence of the intention to erase the history of the Nakba – its objective existence is not physical or mental, but normative – we can say that its propriety is a social fact about the situation, and therefore objective, while the question of its presence in the mind of any particular person is a subjective fact. Intentions, understood normatively, therefore exceed an individualistic analysis and exist properly only on the social, inter-subjective and historical plane.