Review of “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas Friedman

The problem with liberals is that, although they may have bleeding hearts, they are unwilling to confront or even denounce the existing realities of power. They search for redemption within realpolitik, rather than taking sides against it. And while they bemoan the injustices of the past, they are condemned to repeat them by constructing futures that overcome the stalemates of history simply by diverting our gaze towards the future. These perhaps overly boisterous claims express my sentiment after finishing Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, a journalist’s chronicle of two of the middle-east’s most contested cities over the course of the 1980s. I do not mean to denounce the book, to claim that it is simply a poor book, a book by a biased pro-Israeli journalist giving his straight-forward, communitarian take on the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflicts. This is in fact a book of many virtues, a book which for the most part demonstrates honesty and sobriety in a region plunged into the quicksand of multiple myths. The problem with this book is not “bias” at all, because for the most part the bias of the author is his passion, his resolute commitment to understanding and truth – he recognizes that Israelis do themselves no favours by clinging to myth over fact. But in the end he remains trapped within his own kind of myth – not the myth of zionism, or the myth of Israeli idolatry, but rather the myth that we all live inside of in our normal political cultures: the myth that the elites can solve our problems for us.

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Does Via Rail have a Class Problem?

Today while riding the Canadian a homeless person was removed from the train by RCMP officers. To my knowledge, the person in question had not raised his voice with anyone, and his only crime had been to complain that his food had gone missing from the customer use onboard fridge. It is not possible for me to believe that he would have been treated in a similar way had he been in first class, or even had he been an economy class passenger who was not overtly poor – asking (always politely) people for food and smokes and donations towards getting his cell phone working again so he could find truck driving work in Vancouver. He never treated any passengers with disrespect, and he only became confrontational and anxious after Via staff took his ticket away and he began to worry he would be removed from the train.

RCMP officers boarded the train in a small town in Saskatchewan and I was present for some of the discussion between the passenger in question and Via staff. There was a clear power differential, especially when the passengers including myself who were calmly and politely defending and vouching for the passenger’s claims were asked to leave the room. Despite this, however, the final opinion of the police officers, judged from personally speaking with one of them and from other passengers’ conversations with the police, was that the passenger in question was not a problem but in the end he had to be removed because Via staff were demanding he be removed. Oddly enough, the police were in the weak situation, because anything they did to try to keep the passenger on the train was only going to antagonize the staff further. For someone with my politics, it’s weird to feel that I’m siding with police against labour, but in this circumstance that’s exactly how I feel – whereas the staff were antagonistic and escalating towards the homeless person, the police were empathetic and seemed to understand that it was Via’s staff who had escalated the situation and made it an impossible one to resolve with the person in question remaining on the train.

In the end, it seems it is the police who are paying the man’s bus fare to Vancouver, and they ensured the passengers who had shown concern for the man’s well being and situation that they would take good care of him. Generally when the police say “well take good care of someone”, they mean the exact opposite, but I truly hope in this situation it was sincere. We got the man’s email address so I will be able to follow up with him and find out what happened and whether he made it safely to Vancouver.

The real problem in this situation I believe is a confrontational attitude from the staff who got on in Winnipeg and will be with us the rest of the way to Vancouver. Many passengers have experienced defensive and antagonistic behaviour by the staff – there have already been other incidents where they have threatened to remove people from the train. Mixing a confrontational staff with a late train and anxious passengers is a nasty cocktail. If I can say something positive has emerged from the situation, it is a strong feeling of solidarity amongst the many passengers who stuck up for the man who was singled out and removed. The jokes awkwardly reveal this – a staff member just walked by and commented how quiet this passenger car is; a passenger retorted: “It’s because none of us want to be kicked off”.

I’ve written a complaint which I will be sending to Via Rail’s customer relations department. If anything significant happens in the follow up, I will try to blog about it as well.

The Canadian and Colonization

I love to ride upon the Canadian. It is one of the world’s great train journeys, and it conveniently takes me from my places of work and school, Toronto, to my family’s home in British Columbia; a journey of more than five thousand kilometres. When I see the route on a map, I’m often flabbergasted at the sheer vastness of this route and of the state of Canada as a whole. It’s as if a single country stretched from Jerusalem to Paris, or from Spain to Warsaw, Tripoli to Karachi.

Of course, such countries have existed, or empires rather. To think properly about Canada we have to think of it as an empire-become-country – appropriated as a series of colonies by the British through conquest and annexation. And the end of the British empire did not mean decolonization and independence for the indigenous peoples of these lands, but instead independence for the colony. The reasons for this are not pretty: on the one hand campaigns of genocide, cultural and otherwise, weakened indigenous communities, and on the other hand the technological advantages of the industrial-revolution powered colonization. These factors and others assured that indigenous peoples were unable to arise as a political force able to challenge the power of the colonizer on their native lands. While treaties exist in places, these treaties only mediate rather than challenge the supposed right of european colonization in North America, and more often than not such treaties are little more than conditions of indigenous surrender. Worse still, where treaties did guarantee important rights or significant territories to natives, the breaching of these terms by the colonial governments is the rule rather than the exception.

The role of the railway in this process is not insignificant. Prior to the construction of trans continental railways, transporting people and industrial equipment across the continent took weeks or even months, and was hugely expensive and often dangerous. As soon as the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, however, the travel time from Montreal to Vancouver was reduced to seven days, and the lines across the United States were even faster than that.

The role of industrial and technological power can easily be underplayed when studying the history of colonization. It is attractive to believe that anti-colonial resistance relies mostly on the will of the colonized to oust the colonizer, to maintain independence and cultural autonomy. And it’s attractive for good reasons – because willful resistance is the domain of freedom, and it is for the sake of freedom that resisting colonization can be reamed as universally virtuous, as on the side of justice and right. However, in truth the the principle of decolonization rarely actualizes itself as a force in history without economic power, without industrial capacity, and ultimately, without a reliable supply of arms. Indigenous people can do little against a colonial regime unless effective and disruptive resistance can be brought into being and sustained against attempts to crush it.

The case of the Palestinians is instructive: yes, the Palestinian Revolution was an expression of a collective will for freedom and self-determination, and a collective negation of the expulsion and dispossession of the Nakba, but it was never only this. The Palestinian Revolution was led not be the disposed masses but by the colonized’s bourgeois class, and it rose as a powerful force in the region because it was able to maintain enough economic, military, and ultimately political power to remain an independent and significant force in middle east politics – at least between 1968 and 1982.

Also instructive is the case of anti-colonial resistance in North America. In 1850 many indigenous peoples effectively challenged white sovereignty in large tracts of North America. However, by 1900 or shortly after the resistance was all but snuffed out. What changed was the increasing technological power that the colonizers were able to mobilize against the anti colonial resistance. For example, the Lakota people fought a series of wars against the United States and they won each conflict, except the last which was the first in which the United States employed machine guns. What can be done against a force willing to open machine gun fire against a tent encampment, killing everyone inside? If the natives had access to AK-47’s, then perhaps quite a bit could have be done, but in addition the last Lakota war taking place about fifty years before the invention of the cheap submachine gun, the native’s only source of any kind of firearm was the same people who they were at war with.

If the gun won the west it was the railway which cemented the victory. The railway brought settlers in droves to occupy the annexed lands, to work them as farms, to give physical presence to colonizers property lines marked otherwise only on maps. Just as settlements are built today in the West Bank to create “facts on the ground”, the railways permitted the settling of much of Canada. And just as the apartheid road system in the West Bank integrates the settlements into Israel’s economy, the railways integrated the farms of the prairies into Canada’s economy. The speed of the railway and the relatively cheapness it brings to the long distance transport of heavy goods makes integrating the prairie economy with the economy of Easter Canada, and with the global economy, in a way which would not otherwise be possible. This is crucial because if annexing indigenous land merely meant setting up new self-sufficient colonies in the places where natives lived it would not be of much use to elites, or ultimately to global capital. Ultimately the railway contributes to the displacement of lands – lands no longer exist for themselves, to sustain themselves and the people who live on them, but rather to sustain people living thousands of kilometres away. This displacement has wide ranging implications, not only on the people who once inhabited and sustained themselves on those lands, but on humanity as a whole.

Because lands no longer exist for themselves but for the sake of the national and global economy they are tended by forces which are not concerned with their sustainability but with maximizing the extraction of whatever they have to offer to trans national consumptive forces. What colonization changes is not merely who rules the land, but how the land is ruled, and the impacts on the environment of these changes are only beginning to be felt.

The end of Palestinian Statehood is a beginning for Decolonization

The basic opposition at this point to the two state solution is not world opinion or america or geo-strategic considerations or the Arab world or the Palestinians, but Israeli public opinion and the Israeli leadership. Since Oslo, Israeli politiciens have used the “peace offensive” of the Palestinians to lower the cost of the occupation and speed up colonization in the West Bank.

The political difference between Israel/USA and the rest of the world rests on a disagreement about the basic principle at the basis of the negotiations. Even since before Oslo, the Palestinians and the global consensus have pushed for negotiations on the basis of international law, whereas Israel/USA have pushed for negotiations on the basis of “direct talks”, which means on the basis of the political power imbalance between a state and a resistance group politically tied to the commitment of ending resistance. Within the “direct negotiations” framework, the power imbalance is simply too extreme to come to a settlement which is acceptable to the Palestinian people – most would rather return to resistance rather than live in a non-viable state with no part of Jerusalem as its capital.

It’s easy to say that the the problem with the idea of compromise is it assumes that the stronger party is rational enough to give up some of its privilege to come to a settlement acceptable to both sides. Israeli society has been choosing against peace for years by electing governments more committed to counter-terrorism and colonization than to recognition of Palestinian rights and working towards creating a viable Palestinian state. The more difficult thing is to recognize the dishonesty in continuing to affirm a politics based on the lies told by entrenched elites, which no longer have the function of moving towards a two state settlement but are now mostly part of a game of maintaining their power.

The radical position to take today is to recognize that the Palestinian people are no longer represented by the leadership of the Palestinian Revolution – Oslo has gutted the PLO and has disenfranchised most Palestinians. Any two state solution based on the current elites will merely be an entrenchment and humanization of the occupation, with nothing for the refugees and nothing for the million Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship. However, the radical insight is not this but the recognition that Israeli society can no longer be considered a potential party in peace negotiations, but a racist, colonial people who have overwhelmingly chosen apartheid over peace by ramping up settlements and destroying the viability of a Palestinian state.

I think a more productive role that solidarity activists can take today is to ally not with the corrupt Palestinian leadership who continues to be committed to a solution systematically undermined by Israeli unilateral actions, but with the Palestinian diaspora against the intransigence, corruption and the lack of genuine political leadership on both sides. Rather than striving to create another Lebanon in Palestine, the time has come for the youth to embrace a future free of the quick equivocation between religion and nationality, but instead to recognize nationality as something only of worth insofar as it is liberating, and once national freedom is achieved to move forward to the next liberation. As a Palestinian poet I recently saw declared, “I would burn this flag and my keffiyeh if my people were not burning”.

Such a political program based on liberation rather than essentialized communities already has a historical figuration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it was taken up by Fatah and the Marxist factions in the late 60s and early 70s as they created alliances with anti-colonial third world liberation movements all around the world. And they developed quite a sophisticated analysis of how to persuade Israeli jews to join them in their struggle against the ethnic nationalism of the Israeli state. This program can be read about in this early 70s publication by the General Union of Palestinian Students in Kuwait.

Unfortunately, the PLO never lived up to its highest ideals and over time resentment and eventually religious nationalism won the day. This doesn’t mean a return to anti-racist politics is impossible, however, especially if led by the youth on both sides. Equality, religious freedom, and indigenous rights have a lot to offer to Palestinians. And all that Israelis are asked to give up is religious and colonial privilege. The principle of de-colonization, led by the youth, and supported by a non-violent resistance campaign around the world can give force to ideals worth fighting for in Israel/Palestine today. And while Israel has hardly been a light unto the nations, its decolonization could serve as a shining example of historical justice that could help open the way for the decolonization of other places around the world where European settlers continue to deny their role in the disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples.

Mustafa Barghouti speaks in Toronto

Dr. Barghouti spoke tonight in Toronto, presented by CJPME. Mustafa is the leader of the Palestine National Initiative, one of the 3rd parties in Palestinian politics. He has played the role of a mediator between Hamas and Fatah, and he is a champion of the Non-Violent resistance movement.

CJPME is a bind by bringing him on a speaking tour, because as much as Mustafa speaks about Unity, his promotion of BDS is actually not in line with CJPME’s politics. In most ways Mustafa supports at least for now the kind of settlement CJPME desires – the two state solution. But he is careful to point out that the situation in Palestine (all of Palestine) is one of apartheid, and an apartheid which maybe can not be overcome by a two-state solution. Maybe soon, such as after 1 year, the Palestinians will need to shift towards a 1 state solution.

I appreciate Mustafa coming here and telling CJPME to endorse BDS and to cooperate with campus groups which are promoting BDS. He said “you need unity here just as we need unity in Palestine”, and this is true.

However, Mustafa’s political analysis is not up to his principles. He might endorse the right of return, but says nothing about what force can bring about the return. For him I think the return is a dream, a dream which you say to keep people happy, but what does he do to fulfill this dream? BDS? Ok yes, BDS, but how BDS? What are the tensions in BDS, what are the difficult arguments, why is CJPME not already endorsing BDS?

And although Mustafa might affirm the right of the Palestinians to armed resistance, what is the relationship of the BDS to armed resistance? With the great powers like America, they use boycotts and sanctions, and if these don’t work, military force. Should the Palestinians employ a similar tactic to the one America is pursuing with Iran? Why not? But no, only simple affirmations, no analysis, no talking about the hard questions.

Finally, what about BDS within the Palestinian national liberation movement? If his party supports BDS, and he thinks BDS is absolutely essential to the achievement of the Palestinian National demands, is he promoting BDS to Hamas and Fatah? Could BDS be something they could maybe agree on, to push Fatah away from Oslo compromise, and draw Hamas away from focussing only on armed resistance?

As for his focus on non-violence, I am unswayed. Israelis treat Palestinians who resist with “non violence” with the same brutality as those who resist with violence. So what is the point? The difference is, if you resist non-violently it is very easy for the Israelis to shoot you, no one is even shooting back at them! You can argue that people in America will see the pictures and see how horrible the Israelis are and work to stop supporting them and maybe this is true, but the problem with this is it makes the Palestinian weapon against American/Israel Palestinian suffering itself, and then Israel can quite rightly say that Palestinians are using their own suffering as a political tool. Non-violent resistance for the sake of propaganda does not have the inner purity essential to non-violent resistance movements, and the evidence of this is that it does not mobilize large segments of the population to resist.

We must take Mustafa Barghouti’s talk and his declarations and move forward to make stronger our solidarity movement to support BDS in all the north american pro-Palestine groups.