Egyptian activists to Netanyahu’s PR men: Our lives are not propaganda

Palestinian and Egyptian flags in  Midan Tahrir, September 9, 2011, at a protest against military trials and the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, at www.arabawy.org

Palestinian and Egyptian flags in Midan Tahrir, September 9, 2011, at a protest against military trials and the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, at http://www.arabawy.org

If you are a lesbian, gay, or trans Egyptian, your life is not your own. It’s not just that police could smash the door and seize your body at any moment; it’s that your desires and emotions, the most intimate elements of existence, now nourish somebody else’s political agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood’s mouthpieces trumpet that their archenemies in the military regime encourage “gay marriage.” The government responds by blaming the Brotherhood for spreading immoral sex. (In a slew of arrests last week, cops hauled in a teacher in the Cairo suburb of Helwan, accused of homosexual conduct along with several students. The press called the lead defendant a terrorist who recruited men to Islamism by sleeping with them. Prosecutors added that he liked to flash the Brotherhood’s four-finger salute during sex.) To be gay or trans in Egypt is to be naked in no man’s land, not just caught in crossfire but used for target practice by warring sides.

Yet it’s not just Egyptian politicians who practice callous exploitation. Egyptian LGBT people’s stories have been sucked into an entirely different conflict, and become fodder for Benjamin Netanyahu’s propagandists. Those PR experts aren’t particularly worried about LGBT people’s rights; they don’t care about an Egyptian or even Israeli audience. They want to impress Americans, and they want points of comparison. Like location scouts for an aging star’s comeback movie, they’re in search of settings: exotic backgrounds against which Israel’s reputation, otherwise decrepit these days, can seem to shine.

Muslim Brotherhood symbol and salute: The four fingers of love

Muslim Brotherhood symbol and salute: The four fingers of love

Take a guest blog post that appeared on a US foreign policy site: “The Plight of Homosexuals in Egypt.” It’s by Rachel Avraham, an experienced propagandist who used to work for United With Israel, a US hasbara organization; she is now “a news editor and political analyst for Jerusalem Online News,” which furnishes free English-language video on Israel to the foreign press. She writes about how “Eight Egyptian men were sentenced to three years in prison plus three years on probation for allegedly attending Egypt’s first same­sex wedding.” She isn’t really interested in what happens in Cairo, though. Her point is “the contrast between Israel and Egypt on this issue.” While “the plight of homosexuals in Egypt and the Arab world has deteriorated,” remember: “Israel is the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is protected by law.”

Avraham knows what she’s doing. Back in April, she editorialized that “pro-Israel activists” in the US “must go on the offensive and reach out””:

The anti-Israel activists have developed useful alliances with the LGBT, the African American and the Native American communities. Pro-Israel groups should learn from this model.

Avraham also knows the best defense is a good offense. While writing for United With Israel, she went on a rampage against Women of the Wall (Neshot HaKotel), pioneering Israeli feminists who pressed for women’s equal right to prayer at Judaism’s most sacred site, in the process exposing Orthodox hegemony over civil identities and law. Their crime? They made progressive Israel look bad.

Dangerous and anti-Israel: Woman carries a Torah scroll at An Israeli Jewish woman carries a Torah scroll in prayers near the Western Wall,  March 2013. Photos: EPA/Abir Sultan

Dangerous and anti-Israel: Women of the Wall supporter carries a Torah scroll in prayers near the Western Wall, March 2013. Photos: EPA/Abir Sultan

Borrowing from the Likud’s defamation handbook, Avraham accused the women of being “linked to anti-Israel groups,” that is, to human rights groups in Israel. But mainly she reviled them for neglecting “many more pressing issues facing feminists today” — most of which involve how horrible those Arabs are.

Women are getting raped en masse in Syria, either by government forces or by Islamist rebels as part of their sexual jihad [which, by the way, does not exist].  Around 50 percent of Yemen’s brides are under the age of 18. … Closer to home, hundreds of young underage Jewish girls are seduced by Arab men each year. Many of these cases evolve into abduction, rape, and abusive marriages. This problem is especially acute in Southern Israel, where sexual harassment by Bedouin men is a major issue.

You see? Israel has no problems (except for its Arabs), even if Israeli women say so. Look over there, people! Look at the Arabs! The grass is always less green on the other side of the, um, Separation Wall.

A few good men: Ad for a "National Security Trip to Israel," offered for sale on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies website (defenddemocracy.org)

A few good men: Ad for a “National Security Trip to Israel,” offered for sale on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies website (defenddemocracy.org)

Ben Weinthal riffs on the same themes. Weinthal works for the Foundation for Defective Defense of Democracies, a US neoconservative lobby striving to support Israel and promote a war on Iran. One of Weinthal’s tasks is to market this to the US LGBT community. (Weinthal doubles as a journalist of sorts, writing for the Jerusalem Post; it’s not a bad berth for propaganda purposes, because the Post is mostly read in America. Its website is among the top 3000 in the US.) His latest piece bears the headline “Analysis: Arab revolts, new Iranian leader fail to bring Israel-style rights for LGBTs.” It comes under a photo of rainbow flags at Tel Aviv Pride. Mostly the op-ed obsesses over Iran, since Weinthal’s job is to popularize war against the mullahs. But he spares some space for Egypt, too: “On the watch of the military regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, eight men were convicted for ‘inciting debauchery’ for their participation in a gay wedding.”

Weinthal did no reporting for this piece; the absence of evidence is why it’s called “Analysis.” He explains, “The enormously dangerous anti-LGBT environment in Arab countries and Iran largely excludes chances for interviews.” Interesting. Then what am doing here? Actually, Weinthal need only come to any Middle Eastern country – even Saudi Arabia — and he’d find LGBT people and activists to learn from. But it’s easier to make things up. He needs very few facts, though: just enough to draw his contrast. He’s content to rely lazily on an equally indolent BBC reporter, who interviewed exactly two LGBT rights activists, from exactly one country, to write an alleged survey of gay life throughout the region. “In stark contrast to the plight of gays in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and other regional countries,” Weinthal proudly writes,

a BBC overview [sic] of LGBT communities in the Middle East noted, “One refuge in the region for some is Israel, one of the most progressive countries in the world for LGBT rights. Samesex relationships are protected by law, and the only annual gay pride march in the Middle East takes place in Tel Aviv – regarded as an international gay capital.” The author of the BBC article, James Longman, added: “Since 1993 – well before the US and other Western countries – openly gay people have been allowed to serve in the [Israeli] military.”

That pride march again. And soldiers. Hurray!

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Pride: A child waves a Palestinian flag at a demonstration in Midan Tahrir, Cairo, May 6, 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy, from http://www.arabawy.org

There are some problems with Weinthal’s “analysis.”

Many Middle East experts view emancipatory progress for the Arab world and Iran as meaning full equality for women and religious and ethnic minorities, recognition of Israel, and press freedoms, to name some of the key elements.

What “experts”? And who put “recognition of Israel” on the list? As it happens, the first Arab country to recognize Israel – Egypt – could do so only because it was a dictatorship, able to punish dissent against the treaty with prison terms and torture. Since then, movements for “emancipatory progress” in Egypt have opposed the existing accommodation with Israel, not just on its own terms but because it symbolizes the lack of democracy, because the state foisted it on a stifled public without consultation or consent. The resistance to Mubarak’s rule that culminated in the democratic 2011 Revolution largely grew out of the Popular Committee to Support the Uprising of the Palestinian People, founded 13 years ago during the Second Intifada. The Popular Committee was a training ground for a whole generation of Egypt’s liberals and leftists. Protesting on Cairo streets in solidarity with Ramallah, they faced down police repression and endured beatings and jail. The Committee also coordinated opposition to the government’s complicity in the 2003 Iraq invasion, including a massive anti-Mubarak demonstration in Midan Tahrir on the day the war began that shook the regime to its underground torture chambers. (40,000 strong, it was the single largest protest between the Sadat era and the Revolution.) Meanwhile, Tunisia, now the most successful democracy in the Arab world, still refuses to recognize Israel. Maybe Weinthal should revise his list.

What can possibly convert the Arab world into greater Israel, with its plethora of freedoms? How about a bit of war? “Turning Arab countries as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran into open societies for LGBTs will require a wholesale change in attitudes toward LGBTs. Robust Western interventionism certainly can spark changes.“ Western interventionism has done so well in its main Middle Eastern testing grounds, Iraq and Libya: two failed states, endless civil wars, tens of thousands slaughtered. Now those are changes. “Struggling LGBT movements” in the Middle East, as Weinthal calls them, have so much to look forward to.

Robust intervention for LGBT rights, I: American bombs fall on Baghdad on the first night of the 2003 war against Iraq

Results of robust intervention for LGBT rights, I: American bombs fall on Baghdad on the first night of the 2003 Iraq war

Weinthal and the Jerusalem Post and other Likudniks regularly accuse Israel’s critics of “moral relativism,” “endemic in the West today.” But the relativism here is Weinthal’s. He assumes human rights are neither universal nor absolute, but relative; Israel’s abuses against Palestinians are relatively insignificant because it treats LGBT people relatively better than its neighbor does. These are bizarre equivalences, belonging in neither math nor morals. Rights don’t work on a points system. You don’t get a pass for brutalizing some people because you’re kind to others.

Human rights has become a hegemonic way of understanding life in our century — and this means, as I’ve said for years, that it’s a tempting tool for cynics, who mimic its language for ends that have nothing to do with rights. This is acutely true in areas like sexuality and gender, where repression can make indigenous voices hard to hear. It’s easy for opportunists like Weinthal to pretend they don’t exist at all, and then speak for them, justifying injustice and occupation and war. This exploitation harms the struggles and lives of Egyptian LGBT people, recasting them as foreign agents, walking pretexts for occupation or for Western invasions. It endangers Egyptian advocates, and further victimizes victims. An Egyptian friend told me: “These people need to realize our lives are not their propaganda.”

Results of robust Western intervention for LGBT rights, II: An "effeminate" man murdered by militias in Iraq, March 2012. Sent to the author by an Iraqi source.

Results of robust Western intervention for LGBT rights, II: An “effeminate” man murdered by militias in Iraq, March 2012. Sent to the author by an Iraqi source

There’s an irony that neither Avraham nor Weinthal cares to mention: Israel helps prop up the Egyptian regime they claim to disdain. It does this with casual disregard for the rights they claim concern them. As Foreign Policy reports, in Washington “Cairo has found an awkward ally in the form of AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby firm.” AIPAC is “actively pushing for continued U.S. aid to Egypt,” endangered by the regime’s appalling human rights record.

AIPAC, which was credited with helping kill an amendment to cut Egyptian aid in July, is now operating behind the scenes in private meetings with lawmakers to keep alive Cairo’s funding … Publicly, few governments or lobbying firms want to be viewed as supportive of a crackdown that has led to more than 800 deaths and thousands of injuries across Egypt. … But [an AIPAC] source noted that AIPAC’s support for the aid was not contingent on the way Egypt treats anti-government protesters. “The primary criteria on how we evaluate this issue is if Egypt is adhering to the peace treaty.”

A recent study found that, no matter how many Egyptians the Egyptian government kills, US aid to the ruling military will not substantially decrease. It attributed this partly to “continuing support” from “Egypt’s influential allies.”

President Sisi knows how to show gratitude. He told Corriere della Sera this week that he was “prepared to send military forces inside a Palestinian state,” to “reassure Israelis in their role as guarantors.” Thus Egypt and Israel would partner in a joint occupation. The idea of getting Egypt to annex Gaza has floated around Israeli policy circles for some time; back in August, while bombs fell in Operation Protective Edge, it was urged by none other than Rachel Avraham. She had an interesting justification: she claimed Sisi could “help” Gaza build a society “that respects human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights,” a bit odd given what she writes about Egypt elsewhere. But then, she’s asserted the same thing about Israeli rule. Direct annexation of most of the West Bank, Avraham argues, would bring Palestinians “women’s rights, gay rights, and other benefits.” The appeal to LGBT rights here is hardly more than a verbal tic, purely mechanistic. The point is military domination; just as when Weinthal advocates “Western intervention,” the gays’ lives merely figure on a rote list meant to promote conquest and occupation.

Israeli propaganda where Egypt is concerned is all opportunism, with no obligation to be consistent. One day Egypt is the gays’ enemy, the next it’s their friend. It doesn’t matter, because the gays don’t matter. Occasional spurts of criticism count for little against Israel’s (and America’s) investment in a stable, supportive, repressive partner in Cairo.

Israeli propaganda meme. The picture on the L shows Iranians, not Palestinians, and they aren't gay. (See ) The picture on the R

Israeli propaganda meme. The picture on the L shows Iranians, not Palestinians, and they aren’t gay. (See http://bit.ly/1vi7Lk3 ). Nor is there any record of hangings for homosexual conduct in the occupied West Bank or Gaza. The picture on the R actually shows two posed employees of the Israeli Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Office. (See http://bit.ly/1rthU9P ).

Egyptian sexual-rights activists have already called for days of action to protest how state and media politically exploit LGBT lives. It’s only fair they should have the chance to answer other kinds of propaganda. I asked three Egyptian community activists with long histories of defending sexual rights if they would care to comment on Weinthal’s and Avraham’s articles. Their responses are below. (The first colleague answered in English; the other two wrote in Arabic but added an English translation. The original Arabic is at the end of this post.) I don’t necessarily agree with all they say (nor would they necessarily endorse everything I wrote). But they should be heard.

Dalia Abd El-Hameed heads the Gender Program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). The EIPR has provided legal assistance to people persecuted for alleged homosexual conduct in Egypt ever since it was founded in 2002. She writes:

For months, we have been busy trying to sort out news on the crackdown on gays and LGBT people in Egypt. Activists and people from the community were trying to do their best whether in terms of legal intervention, documentation of the violations and keeping record of the crackdown, and responding to the fierce media campaign demonizing and pathologizing homosexuality. Personally, I do not separate this crackdown on LGBT from the general oppressive climate and the regressive rights and liberties status. Journalists, students, human rights activists and gender and religious non- conformists are all under attack by the regime.

Yet, amidst this ongoing tragedy, one most unfortunate event was pro-Israel Zionists picking up the issue to exploit it for purposes of pinkwashing. It is crucial,  for us as activists from the region, to heavily condemn these attempts and refute the fallacies in the two recently published articles by both the  Jerusalem Post and Foreign Policy Blogs.

First of all, bragging that gays are allowed to serve in the Israeli army is a disgrace, not a thing to take pride in.  The struggle for LGBT rights and gender equality has always been and will always remain a struggle against patriarchy and its ugly manifestations in militarization and war crimes like those which are committed by the Israeli army against Palestinians.

The authors of the articles have also enlisted “recognition of Israel” as a key point to achieve emancipation in the region, and this is yet another deception. Our long journey for freedom in Egypt since January 2011 is not a de-contexualized fight, rather it is part and parcel of the universal struggle of people for their rights and in the heart of it lies the Palestinian cause, that taught us how to remain true and faithful to our beliefs and convictions.

Pinkwashing: These colors bleed

Pinkwashing: These colors bleed

Ramy Youssef, an activist working on sexuality, gender, and human rights as well as in anti-harassment campaigns, wrote:

When a serial killer is caught there’s always somebody to say how nice they seemed, what a good neighbor, how kind to children. Who would have suspected they buried those bodies in the yard? There’s always a story about something beautiful about their personality. Even Stalin was such a family man.

Israel, we’re told, is such a safe house for homosexuals. Gay paradise on earth. It’s where you can find peace, acceptance and tolerance if you are gay. This strong circle of love and happiness sadly doesn’t include Palestinians. For Israel, Palestinians fall into a different category, the one to be bombed. Palestinians are the bodies buried in the yard.

For LGBT Egyptians, Israel is no good neighbor. It is sad, inconsistent and extremely cynical when a country like Israel talks about LGBT rights, or human rights in isolation from the rights it violates itself. The basic human right is living. In Israel, not only do they manage to shatter this right, but they do it with style. Israeli troops bombs, torture, shoot, and kill Palestinian citizens on a regular basis. Aside from the astonishing fact, which is not a secret at all, they also breach the right of movement. They keep Palestinians penned up, prevent them from moving outside certain limited spaces, and justify this by “security.” If you’re gay and Palestinian, your gay identity won’t keep Israel from locking you into this cycle of violence and imprisonment.

I am not interested in hearing Israel talk about protecting sexual identity, because it doesn’t respect the most basic identity of human beings: humanity.

An activist who asked to remain anonymous, with a long record of work on LGBT rights and health, wrote:

It’s amazing how some western writers love to bring up Israel ‘s record on LGBT rights whenever Egypt or any other country’s LGBT record is discussed. This raises suspicion towards the real motives for writing those articles. Are you really concerned about LGBT Arabs or about promoting Israel’s image?

LGBT rights are not measured by pride celebrations, nor by how many LGBT tourists come to your country. Singling out the issue of LGBT when comparing Israel and surrounding countries is a failure to understand context and a camouflage of other pressing problems. Israel is also a militarized colonial state. Egypt and other countries suffered centuries of colonialism which did much to contribute to the current homophobic and transphobic situation.

Using LGBT rights to improve the image of Israel to the world is an insult to LGBT communities throughout the region. It’s an insult to LGBT activists in Israel when their struggle becomes politicized and used as a diplomatic tool. It’s an insult to LGBT Arabs who are being exploited for political gains.

Men of Israel: a 2013 Pride poster by Tel Aviv's Evita Bar shows Israel's gay world as a paradigm of peaceful, macho diversity. The religion represented by the second man from the R is unknown to me.

Men of Israel: a 2013 Pride poster by Tel Aviv’s Evita Bar paints Israel’s gay life as a paradigm of peaceful, multi-sectarian, but unmistakably macho diversity. The religion represented by the second man from the R is unknown to me.

1.

عندما يتم القبض على قاتل مسلسل هناك دوماً من يحاول أن يظهر محاسنه، من حسن الجيرة و لطفه مع الأطفال. من سيخمن أنهم دفنوا جثثاً في باحتهم الخلفية؟ هناك دوماً قصة بشأن موطن جمال في شخصياتهم. ستالين على سبيل المثال كان محب للعائلة.
إسرائيل – كما يخبروننا – ملاذ أمن للمثليين|ات. جنة المثليين على الأرض. إنه المكان حيث تجد السلام، التقبل، و التسامح إن كنت مثلياً. هذه الدائرة القوية من المحبة و السعادة للأسف لا تتضمن الفلسطينين|ات. بالنسبة للإسرائيل، الفلسطينين|ات يقعوا ضمن تصنيف أخر، من يستحقون القتل. الفلسطينين|ات هم|ن الجثث المدفونة في الباحة.
بالنسبة للمثليين|ات، و ثنائي|ات الميول الجنسية، و متحولي|ات الجنس و النوع الإجتماعي في مصر، إسرائيل ليست بالجيرة الطيبة. إنه لأمر محزن، غير متسق، و هزلي عندما تتحدث دولة مثل إسرائيل عن حقوق المثليين|ات، و ثنائي|ات الميول الجنسية، و متحولي|ات الجنس و النوع الإجتماعي، أو حقوق الإنسان بمعزل عن الحق الذي تنتهكه بدورها،لا ينتهكوا هذا الحق فقط و لكن لديهم اسلوبهم الخاص. القوات الاسرائيلية تدمر، و تعذب، وتقذف وتقتل المدنين|ات الفلسطين|ات. بغض النطر عن الحقيقة المذهلة- والتي ليست بسر- أن إسرائيل تنتهك الحق في حرية الحركة للفلسطينين|ات بوضعهم|ن في قفص، و منعهم|ن من التحرك  خارج حدود معينة. ويبرروا ذلك بقولهم “دواع أمنية” اذا كنت مثلي|ة فلسطيني|ة فهويتك المثلية لن تحميك من أن تجرك إسرائيل لدائرة العنف.
شخصيا لست مهتم  بسماع حديث إسرائيل عن الطوائف والميول الجنسية، لأنها لا تحترم أكثر الهويات أساسية للجنس البشري “ألا وهو البشرية في حد ذاتها”.
2.

من المدهش مدى حب بعض كتاب الغرب لذكر ملف إسرائيل في حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا عند مناقشة وضع هذه المجموعات في مصر او دول عربية أخرى، حيث أن ذلك يثير الشكوك في الدوافع الحقيقية لكتابة تلك المقالات. هل هم مهتمون فعلا بحقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا العرب أم يهمهم تحسين صورة إسرائيل؟ حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا لا تقاس بمسيرات الفخر أو بمدى إقبال السائحين عليها. طرح قضايا المثليين والمتحولين كقضية فردية هو فشل في فهم السياق وتمويه على قضايا أخرى ملحة. فإسرائيل هي دولة عسكرية قائمة على الاستعمار. مصر ومن حولها من الدول عانوا من قرون من الاستعمار والذي ساهم للوضع الحالي من رهاب المثلية والتحول الجنسي. استخدام حقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا لتحسين صورة إسرائيل هو إهانة لتلك المجتمعات في المنطقة كلها، إنها إهانة لنضال النشطاء لحقوق المثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا في اسرائيل عندما يتم تسييس نضالهم واستخدامه كأداة دبلوماسية، كما أنه إهانة للمثليين والمثليات والمتحولين والمتحولات جنسيا العرب والذين يتم استغلالهم لأهداف سياسية

When genocide is permissible

Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family -- Ahmed, 11; Walaa, 14; and Mohammed, 16 – killed by an Israeli shell in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press.

Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family — Ahmed, 11; Walaa, 14; and Mohammed, 16 – killed by an Israeli shell in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press.

Today a blog post under that title appeared on the Times of Israel’s website. Not long after, it came down, replaced by this dour tombstone:

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But the Internet lives by “Never Forget.” You can find the entire post, mummfied, here; and here is the text:

When Genocide is Permissible
YOCHANAN GORDON
AUGUST 1, 2014, 5:36 PM

Judging by the numbers of casualties on both sides in this almost one-month old war one would be led to the conclusion that Israel has resorted to disproportionate means in fighting a far less- capable enemy. That is as far as what meets the eye. But, it’s now obvious that the US and the UN are completely out of touch with the nature of this foe and are therefore not qualified to dictate or enforce the rules of this war – because when it comes to terror there is much more than meets the eye.

I wasn’t aware of this, but it seems that the nature of warfare has undergone a major shift over the years. Where wars were usually waged to defeat the opposing side, today it seems – and judging by the number of foul calls it would indicate – that today’s wars are fought to a draw. I mean, whoever heard of a timeout in war? An NBA Basketball game allows six timeouts for each team during the course of a game, but last I checked this is a war! We are at war with an enemy whose charter calls for the annihilation of our people. Nothing, then, can be considered disproportionate when we are fighting for our very right to live.

The sad reality is that Israel gets it, but its hands are being tied by world leaders who over the past six years have insisted they are such good friends with the Jewish state, that they know more regarding its interests than even they do. But there’s going to have to come a time where Israel feels threatened enough where it has no other choice but to defy international warnings – because this is life or death.

Most of the reports coming from Gazan officials and leaders since the start of this operation have been either largely exaggerated or patently false. The truth is, it’s not their fault, falsehood and deceit is part of the very fabric of who they are and that will never change. Still however, despite their propensity to lie, when your enemy tells you that they are bent on your destruction you believe them. Similarly, when Khaled Meshal declares that no physical damage to Gaza will dampen their morale or weaken their resolve – they have to be believed.

Palestinians inspect a car destroyed in an Israeli air strike in central Gaza City, July 8, 2014. Photo: Ali Jadallah / APA images.

Palestinians inspect a car destroyed in an Israeli air strike in central Gaza City, July 8, 2014. Photo: Ali Jadallah / APA images.

Our sage Gedalia the son of Achikam was given intelligence that Yishmael Ben Nesanyah was plotting to kill him. However, in his piety or rather naiveté Gedalia dismissed the report as a random act of gossip and paid no attention to it. To this day, the day following Rosh Hashana is commemorated as a fast day in the memory of Gedalia who was killed in cold blood on the second day of Rosh Hashana during the meal. They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over. History is there to teach us lessons and the lesson here is that when your enemy swears to destroy you – you take him seriously.

Hamas has stated forthrightly that it idealizes death as much as Israel celebrates life. What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely?

News anchors such as those from CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera have not missed an opportunity to point out the majority of innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of this war. But anyone who lives with rocket launchers installed or terror tunnels burrowed in or around the vicinity of their home cannot be considered an innocent civilian. If you’ll counter, that Hamas has been seen abusing civilians who have attempted to leave their homes in response to Israeli warnings to leave – well then, your beginning to come to terms with the nature of this enemy which should automatically cause the rules of standard warfare to be suspended.

Everyone agrees that Israel has the right to defend itself as well as the right to exercise that right. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has declared it, Obama and Kerry have clearly stated that no one could be expected to sit idle as thousands of rockets rain down on the heads of its citizens, placing them in clear and present danger. It seems then that the only point of contention is regarding the measure of punishment meted out in this situation.

I will conclude with a question for all the humanitarians out there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly stated at the outset of this incursion that his objective is to restore a sustainable quiet for the citizens of Israel. We have already established that it is the responsibility of every government to ensure the safety and security of its people. If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?

This is all over the Internet today; the Times of Israel might as well never have bothered to hide it. The ToI hasn’t actually ventured to explain why it posted the thing. Its Twitter feed is phlegmatically full of the usual stuff, praise of the Israel Defense Forces, excoriations of the UN, but it did add at end of day:

toi copy

No doubt we’ll hear, in time, that there was a mistake, someone pressed the wrong button, an intern will be fired. There’s always an intern.

Except that the Times of Israel also featured today a bloodthirsty op-ed by Irwin E. Blank, formerly of New York City, and “Formation Committee Chairman of the NY Salute to Israel Parade from 1978-1982”:

G-d had demanded that Saul (or the “prime minister”)  enter into battle with the Amalekites (Hamas and its savage partners) and destroy them utterly even if that means to the last child, cow and goat. As cruel as this appears, it is a lesson that teaches a nation in terrible danger that it has a legitimate obligation to put a definite end to a substantial threat.   The end of such a conflict must make it impossible for that enemy to rebuild and continue to vex one’s nation forever.

And another piece by one Zev Berger, “PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan,” which meanders through various ways of deciding how much killing is enough, and decides that indifference justifies everything: “What’s a reasonable death toll? I imagine people don’t really care.”

One thing you notice about all these opinions is: They come, ultimately, from the United States. (Yochanan Gordan is a certified public accountant in New York City, and part of the Lubavitcher community.) As imports, they parallel the Times of Israel itself. The ToI‘s founder and chief investor is Seth Klarman, a Boston billionaire hedge-fund manager. Klarman’s “political giving favors Republicans,” according to the Jewish Daily Forward, though — in a telling sign of how social liberalism and international neanderthalism can cohabit — he has partnered with vulture capitalist Paul Singer on a super-PAC meant to push the GOP toward accepting same-sex marriage. But the bulk of his philanthropy promotes right-wing and settler interests in Israel:

Klarman gives money to settler groups: the Central Fund of Israel,which pays for settlers’ “security needs” in the occupied West Bank, and Ir David, which is digging up East Jerusalem and displacing Palestinians. He gives $1 million in a year to Birthright, the program to send young American Jews to Israel to fall in love with the Jewish state. He supports the rightwing propaganda organization, the Israel Project (he’s on their board), gives big money to the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, and to top it off, Klarman is chairman of the board of the David Project, the group that has targeted Arab and Muslim intellectuals on college campuses.

But not for Gaza: Seth Klarman's investment advice

But not for Gaza: Seth Klarman’s investment advice

In other words, Klarman exemplifies the increasing confluence between the Israeli right wing and militaristic American neoconservatism, increasingly obsessed by the same Arab and Muslim enemies, increasingly promoting the same extreme solutions: colonization, killing. Klarman told the Forward:

My own interest in Israel has become even stronger post-9/11, when the threat of terrorism and the danger of radical Islam collided with a global campaign on many fronts to delegitimize the Jewish State.

With all the Times of Israel‘s professions of political neutrality (belied by its ruling passion for the IDF), Klarman as media mogul seems to represent a respectable ego as against the rampant id of Sheldon Adelson, the American casino owner whose ferociously Likudnik rag Israel HaYom is the most popular newspaper in the country. (Adelson, whose cash kept Newt Gingrich‘s abortive presidential campaign going long beyond its expiration date, has trafficked in the ids of several countries.) But the id keeps peeping through in Klarman’s publication too, as witness Gordon’s short-lived screed, or Blank’s, or Berger’s. It’s as if all these Americans project onto Israel their own fantasies of a country freed from the restraints of normal politics or morals, indifferent to scrutiny, infinitely willing to kill, pseudo-democratic but with all its parties united around a common lust for death: Israel as the United States of Id.

Israeli missiles strike Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Photo: AP.

Israeli missiles strike Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Photo: AP.

As Lady Bracknell said: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” To publish one op-ed approving genocide in a day may be an intern’s mistake; to publish three looks like you mean it. The three pieces run a strange but comprehensive gamut of justifications for mass killing. Blank offers familiar fundamentalist ravings, only meaningful if you know and care who the Amalekites were (but many do, many do). Berger gives us a woozy bureaucratic relativism, precise figures making precise judgments impossible, ethics suffocated by an avalanche of statistics. Gordon alone takes genocide fully seriously, understands that it is a moral choice. It means giving absolute moral priority to your own people, recognizing that this is a death sentence upon other peoples who get in the way. Or as Gordon seems to have tweeted today (if this is him):

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In another blog post for the Times of Israel, back in May, Gordon wrote about the tension “we experience regularly as Jews in a modern world. We are faced with the perpetual question of are we meant to bend and conform to the morals of suburbia or fight and remain steadfast on the age-old values as our grandparents did in Siberia?” Plenty of Jews have felt such tensions, and plenty of others as well, without wanting to kill people. But you can see where the kid is coming from: growing up amid the split-levels of Nassau County, where no sublime calling ever vindicates the daily void, he longs for some higher morality of struggle to transcend mere neighborliness. Some other child might play video games, or shoot up the local middle school; but for him, there’s Gaza. Of course, he can disguise his personal dilemma in a bastardization of Hasidic language, but it meanwhile finds its imaginary fulfilment in a frontier Israel where the battle, he believes, is real. This voice is familiar. It’s the voice of that suburban nonentity, the nebbish Himmler, dressed up in an imposing uniform and speaking to the Gauleiter in Poznan in 1943. It’s stripped of authority and the drag, but the timbre is there. About the extermination of the Jews: “To have seen this through, and — with the exception of human weaknesses — to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.” Decency and morality inhere in those with courage to kill for us. The dealers in death stand vindicated because they stood up against their natural, debilitating qualms. Virtue lies in resistance to the blandishments of morality as it is commonly, suburbanly, merely understood. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “Although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people,”

Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it – the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom  they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.

To resist temptation is a … well, a tempting stance, luring us to emulation, to imitate the Lone Ranger, the stoic hero. No wonder, of these three pieces, it was Gordon’s that the Times of Israel deemed dangerous enough to take down.

I don’t believe these editorials represent the majority of Israeli opinion, or even a substantial minority. If anything, as I say, they are a sort of palimpsest: American fantasies of power, innocence, and freedom projected onto an abject territory, another episode in Israel’s strange colonial history.

Nor am I one of those who believes that genocide is taking place in Gaza now. The legal definition of genocide (enshrined in the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and indeed in Israel’s “Crime of Genocide Acf” of 1950, which carried the Convention’s terms into national law) requires the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” I don’t think that comprehensively destructive intent lies behind the crimes against humanity being committed in Gaza. But reading Gordon compels me to add: Yet. The two-state solution is dead; everybody sees that, on right and left. What remains, in the immediate future, is one state on Israel’s terms, from the river to the sea. A state in which much of the population is stateless, deprived of the basic rights of citizenship, subjected to continuous surveillance and control, condemned to bare existence as subalterns, even the freedom of movement suppressed, cannot sustain itself without a steadily expanding machinery of violence. Such a state will give up any shred or semblance of the rule of law, of the distinction between young and old, civilian and combatant, guilty or innocent; the only difference that will matter is them and us. A state like that is a killer state, pure, untrammeled. It’s good that Gordon’s words haven’t entirely disappeared. They carry, as he undoubtedly intended, the undertone of prophecy.

Note: In an “apology” posted today on the website of his father’s suburban New York newspaper, Yochanan Gordon writes: “I never intended to call to harm any people although my words may have conveyed that message.” You decide.

Meeting of signatories  to the UN Genocide Convention, 1950. Seated, L-R: representatives of Korea; Haiti; Iran; France; Costa Rica. Standing, L-R:  Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs; Secretary General Trygve Lie; representative from Costa Rica; and Raphael Lemkin, the Convention's chief proponent.

Meeting of signatories to the UN Genocide Convention, 1950. Seated, L-R: representatives of Korea; Haiti; Iran; France; Costa Rica. Standing, L-R: Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs; Secretary General Trygve Lie; representative from Costa Rica; and Raphael Lemkin, the Convention’s chief proponent.

On the slaughter of innocents

“Civilian casualties” in Gaza and Israel, and before, and beyond

Palestinians collect their belongings from damaged houses in Gaza City. (Photo: Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images).  ABC News in the US later misidentified this picture as showing Israeli victims.

Palestinians collect their belongings from damaged houses in Gaza City, 2014. (Photo: Mahmud Hams /AFP /Getty Images). ABC News in the US later misidentified this picture as showing Israeli victims.

The injunction against killing civilians in war is now basic to international human rights and humanitarian law, along with the prohibitions against genocide and torture: so much so, it’s easy to forget it’s not even 70 years old. Like the latter standards, it’s been at least as much honored in the breach as affirmed in the observance. Even more than them, it carries a host of slippery justifications to support the breaches. Nobody argues that committing genocide is all right because it’s so hard not to, or because the victims obstreperously refuse to leave or keep getting in the way; whereas whenever civilians turn up dead in a place of conflict, this is just the susurrus of exculpation you hear. Yet the moral horror around the slaughter of civilians overpowers any legal vagueness.  Soldiers may have been conscripted into an army against their will, with no idea what they were getting into, with no responsibility for the war; they may never have fired a shot; but photographs of their corpses, gone viral on our technologies, inspire no shock of indignation like the outrage that greets images of the innocent dead clad in everyday dress, unprepared for extremity, unarmed. Clothes make the man, and they make the meaning. The anger is an ethical absolute, a line in the sand, a call to action. Sometimes, it’s a rallying cry for further slaughter.

I’m not questioning the rightness of this anger, or the Fourth Geneva Convention, which gave it legal force in 1949. I’m wondering where the idea of “civilians” came from.

“Civilian” is not a very old category.  The term itself, in the sense of “non-combatant,” is first attested from the early 19th century. It comes, though, from the Latin civilis, “civil” or “civic”: a word describing qualities that befit a “citizen” but also any dweller in a town or civis. It pitted the urbane against the uncultivated, the cosmopolitan against the pitiable provincial.

And for millennia the worst atrocities of war as we now assess them, the killing of people who were not soldiers, overwhelmingly meant murdering the inhabitants of cities.

Battle with the Mongol army at Liegnitz, Poland, in 1241: by Matthäus Merian (1593 – 1650)

Fall of  Liegnitz, Poland, to a Mongol army  in 1241: by Matthäus Merian (1593 – 1650)

A siege of a fortified town routinely ended with the slaughter of the inhabitants. When Genghis Khan took Samarkand in 1220, he ordered the population “to evacuate and assemble in a plain outside the city, where they were killed and pyramids of severed heads raised as the symbol of Mongol victory.” When the Mongols captured Urgench a year later, the chroniclers say that each of 50,000 victorious soldiers was commanded to detach 24 towndwellers’ heads. Do the math; no one today believes the figures, but they are a quick shorthand for an incalculable bloodbath. Acts like these were the barbarians’ revenge against the arrogantly urbane, a reaction from the edge of the known world against the soi-disant central and civilized. Yet they made a kind of sense. Citydwellers were parasites. They were symbols of useless indolence. They produced no necessities for themselves, living off the agriculture and sweat of others. Invaders would do better to eliminate the burden. By contrast, you could rape or rob rural populations, but massacring them made no sense. Those people could feed armies.

The Capture of Constantinople: Tintoretto (1518-1594), Ducal Palace, Venice

The capture of Constantinople: by Tintoretto (1518-1594), Ducal Palace, Venice

This wasn’t just a monstrous propensity of non-Europeans. After the Fourth Crusade’s soldiers of 1204 — the flower of Western Christendom — overran Constantinople, they killed thousands, down to the children and the nuns. Those Crusaders were exacting vengeance on an effete city of palaces and eunuchs, a place too beautiful and pointless for them to bear; they came from a plough-bound, manure-smelling fringe of Europe where Paris, the largest town, was no more than a village with attitude.  I could go on forever; ask the dead of Drogheda, or Tenochtitlan.  In 1209, when a papal army took the heresy-ridden Cathar town of Béziers in southern France, someone asked their commander, the Abbot of Citeaux, what to do with its ten or twenty thousand citizens. Not all were heretics, surely. “Kill them all,” the Abbot said. “The Lord will know his own.”

Cortés attacks Tenochtitlan: Anonymous, Second half of the seventeenth century, Library of Congress

Cortés attacks Tenochtitlan: Anonymous, Second half of the seventeenth century, Library of Congress

The link between the “civilian” as victim and the city lasted a long time. In the Second World War, the defining horror of the last hundred years, so many of the monstrosities – from Hitler’s eradication of Warsaw to Truman’s obliteration of Hiroshima – involved destroying cities and their peoples. The material justification, which the Allies were particularly good at laying out, was that urban areas sheltered industries and centers of command and control. There was a symbolic side too, though, a dreamlike logic, in which the war leaders melted into Genghis Khan contemplating the fleshpots of Samarkand.  Hitler especially indulged fantasies of utterly annihilating cities that annoyed him. Rural populations could survive as dirt-digging helots; but the capitals had to go. “Moscow must disappear,” he said, as if he were a Roman ploughing Carthage under the ground with salt; or – in the words of his High Command:

The Führer has decided to wipe the city of St Petersburg from the face of the earth. We have no interest in the preservation of even a part of the population of that city.

Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault, May 26, 1945

Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault, May 26, 1945

Cities to him stood for the mongrel blending of races he hated; they bred Jews like lice. For the Allies, meanwhile, cities embodied the fundamental reasoning behind the carpet-bombing and, finally, the atomic bomb. They were complex economic and social mechanisms in which everyone was connected, every inhabitant’s labor furthering a mutual goal. Given those links, if the state was guilty, everyone was guilty. A five-year old girl in Nagasaki whose father worked in a shipyard was fully accountable for the horrors of Bataan. If Hitler looked on the urban world like a savage mythologist, the Western powers analyzed it like sophisticated sociologists. In each civic community they saw an intricate interdependence that translated into shared complicity. The end was the same on both sides, the sociology fading back into the myth: collective punishment, common death.

Part of central Tokyo after the Operation Meetinghouse air raid of March 9-10, 1945 later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history

Part of central Tokyo after the Operation Meetinghouse air raid of March 9-10, 1945 later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history

After the war, the victor nations rejected that, at least on paper. A renewed campaign against torture, the prohibition of the new crime of genocide, both came about in the new world order. So did a code of safeguards for civilians in war, in the Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949. The protections were imperfect, but at least just living in a belligerent state should no longer be reason enough to kill you. On the other hand, the victorious Allies had an ambiguous relationship to civilian protection standards. Unlike the Germans, they hadn’t committed genocide in the war (never mind those old colonial problems), or systematic torture (well, not much), but they had taken the German technique of incinerating civilians with carpet bombing and perfected it, in Tokyo and Dresden. Thus the new Geneva Convention had a bit of guilty secret as well as promise about it. This may explain the why it remained broad and relatively elastic. (An additional protocol in 1977 more specifically prohibited direct attacks on civilian targets, as well as attacks “of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.” It has not been ratified by a number of states that ratified the Convention itself, Israel and the US among them.)

If this is all a prelude to speaking of Israel and Palestine, perhaps it reflects my reluctance to come to the point, because there is no point that can help anyone at all. Yet history matters. Both sides there believe in collective punishment (a war crime under the Geneva Convention) yet both dispute that they are doing wrong. Each – like the Allies explaining the carpet bombs — has its story about the other to justify the sweep of what they do. Universal guilt abides in the opposing population. Either Israel is a militarized settler society in which every citizen is a real or potential soldier, a participant in repression. Or all Palestine is a partisan movement hidden in a general population, where lines between warrior and non-combatant melt

Settler society and its discontents: British propaganda poster against the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya, 1950s (from http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-resistance.html)

Settler society and its discontents: British propaganda poster against the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya, 1950s

An insecure state that can’t afford to excuse any of its members from the task of violence; a popular movement that by definition does not even have a state to enforce distinctions. Neither side can make out individual features in the other; they see each other in totalizing terms, inhospitable to differences. This leaves you where a lot of commenters on the situation, particularly in the human rights world, like to be: with Balance, the equable belief that everybody’s wrong.

Most observers — most organizations in the international human rights world, most of the international community — focus on condemning civilian casualties as if they’re determined to defeat this totalizing logic, and to extract the thread of distinctions from its tangle. But they end up with Balance again, that place where everybody is the same: both sides endanger civilians, both are in the wrong.  Does this focus have its limitations? What do you get from emphasizing the “innocent” civilians, instead of other categories of innocence, involvement, blame? Does it blind us to the causes and motives of the violence, restricting us to asking how well the violence is performed?

My old home, Human Rights Watch, insisted for years –from Sri Lanka to Iraq– that it takes no sides in conflicts. “Human Rights Watch does not ordinarily take positions on whether a party to a conflict is justified in taking up arms,” in order to preserve its own objectivity in evaluating abuses. “Rather, once armed conflict breaks out, we generally confine ourselves to monitoring how both sides to the conflict fight the war, with the aim of enforcing international standards protecting noncombatants.” This is no longer entirely true; the organization increasingly advocates and promotes certain wars under the rubric of “humanitarian intervention,” idealistic incursions to prevent abuses. (But when these wars then cause further abuses, is Human Rights Watch’s objectivity in documenting them compromised?) Even if you take the statement at face value, though, applying it to Israel and Palestine reveals certain limits.

What happens when a human rights organization begins evaluating wars? In the late 1990s Human Rights Watch pioneered methodologies for interpreting physical evidence to determine whether the warmakers were trying hard enough not to kill civilians: beginning with NATO’s assault on Serbia in 1998, continuing through the US air war against Iraq, through Israel’s attacks on Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in 2009. These studies were excellent, groundbreaking, a vast advance in human rights advocacy from moral exhortation to highly specialized judgment. But these reports are a also guide to minimizing civilian casualties to suit the Geneva Conventions, adjusting impact through a range of algorithms. In this way, human rights organizations have actually begun offering militaries informal advice, not on how to stop violence – that would mean not having a war – but on how to cap its consequences at a legally acceptable level. Too far down that road, and they become micromanagers of death.

Limits: Meme from the International Committee of the Red Cross

Limits: Meme from the International Committee of the Red Cross

The Israeli architect and philosopher Eyal Weizman has analyzed how groups like Human Rights Watch participate, inadvertently and from admirable aspirations, in the science of war: their “collusion … with military and political powers.” Their methods involve a shift “from a focus on the victims of war to an analysis of the mechanism of the violations of law.” Law itself, once broken, is treated as the chief victim; the individuals whose lives were at stake fade away in the descriptions of the offense almost as they did in the choosing of targets. This elision, however unwanted, is built into the methods. “Today’s forensic investigators of violence move alongside its perpetrators, morphing into them,” according to Weizman. “Humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law,” he writes, “have become the crucial means by which the economy of violence is calculated and managed.”

He looks particularly at the story of Marc Garlasco, my old friend who joined HRW as its investigator of military methods, its lead critic of how bomb-droppers selected targets — after a career in the US military machine, as a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who selected targets. He was effective because he knew exactly what the targeters were trying to do and how, when they killed: because he’d done it. Marc was an earnest and brilliant fellow who, in his relentless interrogation of the Israeli Defense Forces’ strategic decisions, got more flak than he deserved. He had a keener intuitive apprehension of his position’s moral contradictions than did, on the whole, the people who hired him. The moral contradictions did not go away, though. Marc could say, without much irony, that he stayed at the Pentagon through the Iraq war out of an ethical obligation:  “I wanted to do it in the best way I could,” adding, “I had responsibilities to the pilots and the civilians” (emphasis added).

You cannot reconcile the contradictions of killing people in the best way possible unless you translate “responsibility” into the most bloodless terms: make it a duty you owe to abstract principles and not specific people. Legalism triumphs. This arcane realm is where the logic of this work leads the committed human rights activist, away from the actual experiences of victims. Weizman quotes Garlasco: “After being in Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, Burma, I can no longer say if this destruction was wrong or right. I can only say whether it was legal or illegal.”

Shock and awe: Smoke covers central Baghdad during a massive U.S.-led air raid, March 21, 2003. Photo by AFP.

Shock and awe: Smoke covers central Baghdad during a massive U.S.-led air raid, March 21, 2003. Photo by AFP.

The focus on civilian casualties generates a strict, technical approach to the question of responsibility. The individual story is subordinated not just to the lawbooks, but to the slide rule.  No side can ensure absolutely that it will prevent civilian casualties, as long as it’s at war and killing people. So no side is completely devoid of guilt. But since the Geneva Conventions give a certain latitude for trying but failing, even killers can make a claim to innocence as well. The authority to evaluate such shades of inculpation gives enormous power to the human rights investigator and his organization, power over fine mathematical gradations of right and wrong: much greater power than simpler, starker, less technologically advanced modes of assessing morality could endow.

But this focus buries other questions, broader ones, about responsibility for the conflict as a whole. These are exactly the questions that Human Rights Watch long said it wouldn’t answer. Now that it is more and more involved in advocating – in effect, helping to cause – conflicts in the name of humanitarian intervention, it’s hard not to feel that the technical assessment of purely localized responsibility is, in some degree, a sophisticated and scientifically unimpeachable way of shouting: “Look over there!” Technical evaluation of a technological responsibility toward civilians is necessary work. Pursued in isolation from other ways of defining responsibility, though, it becomes a darker thing: a distraction.

Distraction from what?

Well, first, the balance that abstract principles impose – everybody is in the wrong – fails. In Israel and Gaza, the death tolls are out of balance. Israel has killed at least 100 people, probably more than 120, an unknown number of civilians among them (two reportedly died this morning in a strike that hit a charitable association for the disabled). Meanwhile, Gaza’s rockets have killed no Israelis. (Nine “have been treated for injuries, dozens more for shock.”)

This reflects an immense disparity in technological power. Israel is armed with one of the largest, most advanced military capacities in the world. It could defend most of its citizens without firing a retaliatory shot. (Israel developed the Iron Dome missile interception system with a $205 million gift from the US government; now European countries, India, Singapore, and even the US itself may be lining up to buy back the finished product, making it not only protective but profitable.) When it does shoot, the impulse is political and the damage is overwhelming. Israel’s defenders talk a great deal about the its pinpoint attempts to target specific “terrorist” sites, while Hamas just fires rockets into the air. But the random rockets haven’t killed so far, while the precision aiming has:

A Israeli raid flattened the Fun Time Beach cafe in the southern Gaza Strip in the early hours of Thursday, killing nine people and wounding 15.

All that is left of the popular seaside cafe — where dozens broke their Ramadan fast on Wednesday night before settling down to watch Argentina play the Netherlands — is a large crater and a few mounds of sand.

Palestinians search for bodies in the southern Gaza Strip, at a beach cafe hit the night before by an Israeli air strike: July 10, 2014

Palestinians search for bodies in the southern Gaza Strip, at a beach cafe hit the night before by an Israeli air strike: July 10, 2014

These disasters are not really about the indistinguishability of civilian targets amid a militarized population (an Israeli claim Abby Okrent dismantles here). They are built into Israel’s vast technological superiority itself. Better machines don’t make for more precision. Precision is a quality of judgment, and judgment is a quality of human beings. The aim of Israel’s various “operations” in Gaza is not just to take out specific people, but to cow a population. (Even the famous text messages that supposedly warn residents a bomb is about to blast their home have, as Gazans can tell you, at least as much to do with showing off the invisible, terrifying omniscience of a military surveillance system. We know where you are.) Unleashed with that intent behind them, weapons – however “smart” – will terrorize, not just target; the very targeting is an aspect of terror, a reminder of superior knowledge as well as superior means, but spillover is equally intrinsic to the effect. The message inevitably exceeds the “purely” military purpose, and the collateral damage itself becomes the point: a sign of exultant excess, the means drowning the end. You can’t go on talking about equivalence without acknowledging Israel’s military domination, its unmeasurable ability to destroy. And to cap its technological triumph, it is (and has been for forty years) the only state in a thousand-mile radius with nuclear bombs.

Second, that technological dominance is part of the disparity in political power. The occupation has gone on for 47 years. (Gaza, ostensibly freed by fiat nine years ago, remains encircled and controlled). Everyone knows this (even those who deny it) so there’s no point expanding on it. The confrontation between popular rebellion and a rapacious settler society isn’t just an old, cowboys-and-Indians story that we can look on with disinterest or restrained amusement. It’s here and now. It demands choosing, and not just in a childhood game.

Cigarette Cards, "Heroic Deeds," UK, 1890s. on Decmeber 4, 1893, rebel Ndebele soldiers near Bulawayo  in present-day Zimbabwe wiped out an entire British detachment under   Major Allan Wilson. From http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-resistance.html

Cigarette Cards, “Heroic Deeds,” UK, 1890s. On December 4, 1893, rebel Ndebele soldiers near Bulawayo in present-day Zimbabwe wiped out an entire British detachment under Major Allan Wilson. From http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-resistance.html

Moreover, demanding (as Israel does) that stateless people protect civilians, or clearly mark civilians in their own midst, carries a certain irony. “Civilian,” as I’ve said, is deeply connected to the idea of citizenship. Citizenship comes from states. It’s exactly what the stateless are denied. States ratify identities, assign them to combatants or non-combatants, stratify and sort society. Absence of agency to do this is precisely the situation to which Israel consigns the Palestinians. The demand itself reveals the gulf between those with power and those without.

Third, insisting on equivalence ignores how this specific crisis came about. Israel’s government was the main actor. Mouin Rabbani notes that while, in the Western media, “the latest round of escalation is dated from the moment three Israeli youths went missing on 12 June,” this ignores the incendiary effect of earlier IDF violence against Nakba protesters:

the shooting death of two Palestinian boys in Ramallah on 15 May—like any number of incidents in the intervening month where Israel exercised its right to colonize and dispossess—is considered wholly insignificant.

Even if you take the Israeli teenagers’ kidnapping and brutal killing as the starting point, though, Netanyahu’s government provoked and worsened the situation, raising palpably false hopes so that disappointment would incite rage. In the Jewish Daily Forward, J. J. Goldberg writes:

The initial evidence was the recording of victim Gilad Shaer’s desperate cellphone call to Moked 100, Israel’s 911. When the tape reached the security services the next morning — neglected for hours by Moked 100 staff — the teen was heard whispering “They’ve kidnapped me” (“hatfu oti”) followed by shouts of “Heads down,” then gunfire, two groans, more shots, then singing in Arabic. That evening searchers found the kidnappers’ abandoned, torched Hyundai, with eight bullet holes and the boys’ DNA. There was no doubt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately placed a gag order on the deaths. … For public consumption, the official word was that Israel was “acting on the assumption that they’re alive.” It was, simply put, a lie. …

Nor was that the only fib. It was clear from the beginning that the kidnappers weren’t acting on orders from Hamas leadership in Gaza or Damascus. Hamas’ Hebron branch — more a crime family than a clandestine organization — had a history of acting without the leaders’ knowledge, sometimes against their interests. Yet Netanyahu repeatedly insisted Hamas was responsible for the crime and would pay for it. … His rhetoric raised expectations that after demolishing Hamas in the West Bank he would proceed to Gaza. … The Israeli right — settler leaders, hardliners in his own party — began demanding it.

And in Gaza, it wasn’t Hamas that struck first.

On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire [informally in effect since 2012) was over. Israel was forced to retaliate for the rockets with air raids. Hamas retaliated for the raids with more rockets. And so on. Finally Israel began calling up reserves on July 8 …

Later that morning, Israel’s internal security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told reporters that the “political echelon has given the army a free hand.” Almoz returned to Army Radio that afternoon and confirmed that the army had “received an absolutely free hand” to act.

And how far, the interviewer asked, will the army go? “To the extent that it’s up to the army,” Almoz said, “the army is determined to restore quiet.” Will simply restoring quiet be enough? “That’s not up to us,” he said.

You can tell what happened. The killing of the three boys was monstrous, as was the revenge killing of an Arab youth. But these were not “civilian casualities,” because they weren’t murdered by soldiers in a war, but by individuals. A different government of a different state might have confined the response to arresting and prosecuting. But not Israel,  not Netanyahu, not the military occupation. The story of the American “war on terror” repeated itself: a crime became a casus belli, guilt rested with whole societies, the response was not justice but retribution. Two interlocking logics took over: the primitive one of collective punishment, and the sophisticated one of advanced technologies of killing, the tools of military technocracy. Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.

Untitled, by Cecil Skotnes (1926-2009),. Woodcut, 1980.

Untitled, by Cecil Skotnes (1926-2009),. Woodcut, 1980.

I started by maintaining: before the term “civilian” ever assumed its present meaning, killing non-combatants largely meant slaughtering the dwellers in cities. That was a rebellion by brute force against the abodes of civility, against the comfortable, empowered, but arrogant idea of civilization.

No more. Every value is transvalued. When we speak of “civilian casualties” in most places now, we mean the war of advanced technology against raw human flesh. Today, the killers aren’t the ones combating the immense technological sophistication of civilization; it is entirely on their side. This ease of murdering is our modernity; our highest achievements aren’t buildings but the bombs that destroy them.  Our phones and drones are smarter than we are. Against that overwhelming power of civilized slaughter, people dwindle; their lives shrink to what Giorgio Agamben calls bare life, helpless nakedness in the face of amoral machinery. David Jones, a Welsh poet, in a long poem about the First World War, described in lines of beautiful stoicism a British private blown apart by a shell:

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.

That’s the “proportionality” that matters now.

Iraqi armored personnel carrieres, tanks, and trucks destroyed on the Highway of Death from Kuwait, during Operation Desert Storm , 1991: Photo by US Department of Defense

Iraqi armored personnel carrieres, tanks, and trucks destroyed on the Highway of Death from Kuwait, during Operation Desert Storm , 1991: Photo by US Department of Defense

Our laws and activists keep drawing finer distinctions between civilian victims and combatants.  Perhaps that isn’t the real distinction that needs to be drawn. What’s urgent now is the divide between our technological civilization on the one hand,  and all its victims on the other. Those victims are so impotent before its crushing power that it can exterminate soldiers as casually as the unarmed. They are insignificant as the Iraqi recruits whom American bombs roasted alive in their tanks in 1991. Those with weapons, like the Palestinians in Gaza, are nonetheless effaceable by the remote control of a technology beyond control.  The imperative to contest this power transcends identities and uniforms. Human rights, if they mean anything, are not the rights of humans to be killed efficiently. Human rights are their rights to live.

"Massacre of the innocents," from Codes Gertrude, 10th  century AD  (Poland)

“Massacre of the innocents,” from Codex Gertrudianus, 10th century AD (Poland)

Vultures over Iran: The Human Rights Campaign follows the money

vulture-9Why is the Human Rights Campaign hanging out with the friends of homophobe Gary Bauer?

Some background: HRC, the richest US gay group, has gone international. More and more of the news on its website features hard-to-pronounce foreign places: Brunei, Abuja, Alabama … And now “Iran,” syllabified by most Americans as “Satan.” Yesterday, HRC published an account of a Congressional event with which it seemingly had little to do. Two small House subcommittees held a hearing on “One Year Under Rouhani: Iran’s Abysmal Human Rights Record,” and one-quarter of the testimony dealt with LGBT rights. What’s interesting is the fine print.

The hearing itself (snippets here) was undramatic. The International Gay and Lesbian Human RIghts Commission (IGLHRC) sent its Middle East program officer to testify. Generally, when human rights organizations speak at congressional hearings, it’s because they want to advance a policy goal. In this case, though, it’s hard to define what policy goal for LGBT people’s rights in Iran could involve the US Congress, given that the US has neither sway nor leverage in Tehran. “The United States and other Western countries are in a unique position to make a difference in the future of Iran and in the surrounding region,” IGLHRC said — but they are not. (See note at end.) At least, any difference they’ve made so far has been almost uniformly for the worse. (See Iraq.) If ever there was a situation where the US government should acknowledge the primacy of internal social movements beyond its leadership or control, it’s the issue of sexual rights and state repression in Iran.

No, what’s interesting is how a writeup on this –“Congress Explores Iran’s Persecution of LGBT Community” — got onto HRC’s site, because it wasn’t written by anybody at HRC. It was “submitted” by Toby Dershowitz, vice-president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). HRC has a new partner organization, and thereby hangs a tale.

FDD: FIghting for wars that we will not fight in

FDD: FIghting for wars that we will not fight in

I always quote Glenn Greenwald on FDD: “basically a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” More politely, they are a DC-based neoconservative lobbying group with special interest in the Middle East: “founded,” in their own words, “shortly after 9/11 by a group of visionary philanthropists and policymakers who understood the threat facing America, Israel and the West.” (We’ll get to the identity of those donors later.) From the beginning it drew on the High Hawkish tradition of the Reagan ascendancy, with figures like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Robert McFarlane conspicuous in its ranks; the Cold War being over, though, enemies of Israel displaced the Soviet threat in its demonology. The clearest idea of what they’re up to comes from listing some of the research interests of their fellows:

Iran, Iran – Energy, Iran – Human Rights
Iran – Energy, Pakistan, Syria, Iran – Human Rights
Iraq, Iran, Lebanon
Iran, Iran – Energy
Iran – Energy, Israel, Europe, Iran – Human Rights
United Nations, Arab Spring, Iran – Energy, Iran – Human Rights
Iran – Energy, Europe

It’s like a Symbolist poem. The main function of the Foundation these days is to drum up support for a US assault on Iran. To do this, it courts various constituencies in the American public, from energy conglomerates to women’s groups. Gays are one of them, increasingly endowed with clout; FDD adopts the language of human rights, plants op-eds. colonizes the gay press, and otherwise strives to shock and appall the homintern about the wiles of Sauron in Tehran.

Let me research your family: Gary Bauer

Let me research your family: Gary Bauer

This is not without complications. I first noticed FDD when one of its fellows, Ben Weinthal, published a bizarre piece in New York’s Gay City News three years ago, accusing Iran of an ongoing “anti-gay genocide.” When I paid a visit to FDD’s web page, I found that on their staff and board sat such luminaries as Frank Gaffney (a vicious and paranoid Islamophobe), Andrew McCarthy (perhaps the US’s most vocal advocate of torture) — and Gary Bauer. I remarked that it was strange for a gay newspaper to get into bed with right-wingers boasting such connections. The chipmunk-cheeked Bauer is one of the main strongmen of Christian fundamentalism. He served for eleven years as caudillo of the Family Research Council, named in 2010 as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its “false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science.” “I don’t believe a healthy society can endorse, subsidize, or encourage” such a “destructive lifestyle,” Bauer said about the sodomites in 1998. (Bauer’s own lifestyle, padded by a web of consultancies and sinecures, is well-subsidized enough to ensure his health.) But he is also a Christian Zionist, militantly intolerant of any criticism of Israel, flush with evangelical faith in the Likud; so there was Bauer’s name, right on the list of FDD’s advisory board, a warning that its love for the homos had limits.

I flatter myself that the FDD learned from my research. Since then the organization, which like most neocon groups was never exactly crystalline about its connections, has become even less transparent. It erased the list of board members from its website. Instead, a short paragraph says,

FDD’s distinguished advisors include Sen. Joe Lieberman, former National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane, former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, former State Department Under Secretary Paula Dobriansky, Gen. P.X. Kelley (ret.), Francis “Bing” West, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol … [Emphasis added]

This neatly obscures the question of who else is “included,” or whether Bauer still belongs to the family. Still, problems persist. Another “Distinguished Advisor” omitted from the list is KT McFarland; she flaunts her FDD title on her own website, though, and on others. McFarland, now a “national security analyst” for Fox News, ran for the Republican Senate nomination in New York in 2006. Midway through, scandal surfaced when New York magazine revealed how she had shunned and insulted her gay brother, who died of HIV/AIDS ten years before. She

couldn’t abide his sexual orientation. Shortly after she discovered Mike had AIDS, she wrote her parents lengthy, angry, almost Gothic letters in which she outed her brother, blamed her father for his troubles as well as those of her and her other siblings, and cut off contact with her parents. “Have you ever wondered why I have never had anything to do with Mike and have never let my daughters see him although we live only fifteen minutes away from each other?” she wrote. “He has been a lifelong homosexual, most of his relationships brief, fleeting one-night stands.”

This was too much even for the GOP; she lost the nomination, and the privilege of getting steamrollered by Hillary Clinton. No wonder she’s quietly disincluded from the FDD page; she’d crimp the outreach.

KT McFarland does Fox: He ain't heavy, and he is not my brother

KT McFarland does Fox: He ain’t heavy, and he is emphatically not my brother

One advisor FDD proudly names is Bill Kristol — he’s too big, and full of himself, to omit. Kristol edits the Weekly Standard, a conservative rag sweeping in its influence. (Dick Cheney, in the days when he ran the country, would send for 30 copies each Monday morning.) His work there has drawn the praise of no less than Austin Ruse, fanatical campaigner against LGBT rights, women’s rights, and reproductive freedom. “Do a site search at The Weekly Standard on social issues,” Ruse writes,

and you find – alone  among conservative magazines? – a publication that  has never wavered on them. …A great deal of credit for the Weekly Standard not abandoning the social issues can be given to one man, William Kristol. …

Where does this come from? Perhaps it’s the influence of friends. For years, the Kristol family took a summerhouse with Gary Bauer and his family. … For this, we all owe Bill Kristol a mountainous debt of gratitude and our regular prayers. He could have caved. But he never has. Bill Kristol is square and getting squarer.

Kristol does Fox, and answers the big questions

Kristol does Fox, and answers the big questions

Kristol has called those who deviate from “traditional marriage” “pathetic.” He’s perhaps best known as the divine voice who drew the Pucelle of Wasilla — the armor-clad Joan of Alaska, Sarah Palin– into the national fray. Long before he blessed the mama grizzly and anointed her Veep-to-Be, though, Kristol was staking out his orthodox, orthogonian positions on morality. In 1997, he gave the closing speech at a Washington conference meant to expose homosexuality as ”the disease that it is.” Afterward, he helped assemble a collection of essays on “Homosexuality and American Public LIfe,” actually about keeping homosexuality out of American public life: a book for “activists who want to keep the ‘hetero’ in ‘sexuality,'” as one right-wing reviewer said.

It goes without saying: any organization counting Bauer, Kristol, and McFarland among its patrons has no genuine interest in the rights of LGBT folk, in Iran or elsewhere. On moral matters, they are more likely to empathize with Ayatollah Khameini than to abhor him. (Mozilla got slammed with a boycott for way less than FDD has done.) FDD’s attempts to seduce American LGBT communities are opportunism, and riddled with the contradictions of the right-wing ideologies they promote. That doesn’t stop them, though, from trying to bury the paradoxes and insinuate themselves into the good graces of LGBT organizations; and HRC is a very powerful one.

What does HRC get, though, for associating itself with Gary Bauer and company?

Money.

One of the two big donors who offered HRC $3 million to start its international program last year is billionaire hedge-fund owner and vulture capitalist Paul Singer. Singer, a major funder of the GOP and other right-wing agglomerations, is also the second-biggest donor to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He gave it $3.6 million between 2008 and 2011 alone.

The details of my life are quite inconsequential ... Paul Singer

The details of my life are quite inconsequential … Paul Singer

Singer isn’t just a “visionary philanthropist,” as FDD calls him; he’s an investor; his generosity expects returns. When HRC announced it was getting Singer’s largesse, one naturally wondered what Singer would demand back. The answer’s clearer now. He wants HRC’s cooperation with his other pet causes, including his lobbyists for the Likud. As The Nation observes, “Singer is a huge supporter of groups advocating for hawkish policies against Iran, including promoting the use of military force against Tehran.” He presses HRC to lend space to the war brigade.

The quote Singer approved in the HRC press release about his donation said:

LGBT individuals face arrest, imprisonment, torture and even execution just for being who they are … Some of the worst offenders in this area also happen to be the same regimes that have dedicated themselves to harming the United States and its democratic allies across the globe.

It’s evident which offenders he wants his philanthropic objects to focus on: not Egypt or Saudi Arabia, US clients, but anti-American miscreants like Russia or Iran. This conflation of LGBT people’s rights with a particular set of geopolitical exactions radiates through the little piece he asked HRC to publish. It uses the LGBT issue solely to bash a possible nuclear agreement, reproducing the legislators’ most belligerent rhetoric — Republican Ed Royce, for instance:

Let’s imagine that Iran and the [US] come to an agreement next month are we comfortable leaving this regime with much of the critical nuclear infrastructure in place. [sic] How can this regime which holds the noose in one hand be trusted with the keys to a nuclear bomb in the other?

It quotes Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (a conservative Republican whose interest in LGBT rights draws urgency from the many White Party gays in her Miami district), speaking “with an obvious sense of exasperation”:

Rouhani knows that all he needs to do is smile, and tweet, and promise the US and the West that he will cooperate on the nuclear issue … it’s way past our time for our administration to stand up to these thugs and to stand up for the people who cannot stand up for themselves. If we won’t do it, who will?

All this armchair-heroic stuff — voices for the voiceless, saviors with drones — is war talk in its essence, and HRC is endorsing it. FDD suppresses any mention of IGLHRC’s one concrete, pacific ask, that the US fund technological fixes to help Iranians circumvent Internet censorship. (See the note below.) The Foundation doesn’t want LGBT Iranians to surf the Web freely. It wants LGBT Iranians to die, with their compatriots, under a rain of bombs.

The moral compromises involved in an association with Paul Singer are intricate, and, for HRC, likely to be incessant. When you deal with the devil, don’t expect to be released from the contract. As I wrote last year, Singer’s fortune comes from one of the least ethical activities in the world of international capitalism. His vulture fund, Elliot Management, buys up distressed countries’ debt at bargain prices when they’re verging on default; he then goes to court in other countries, to force the states he’s scamming to repay the face value of the debt in full. The profits are astronomical, and some of the world’ most impoverished populations (Congo-Brazzaville, for instance) have been among his victims.

I'll take my ball and go home: Singer, by the Financial Times

I’ll take my ball and go home: Singer, by the Financial Times

Last week, a few days before the Iran hearing, the US Supreme Court ruled on Singer’s case against Argentina. 13 years ago, he began buying some $2.5 billion of Argentina’s then-cheap government debt; he held out fiercely for his full return, defying two negotiated debt restructurings in 2005 and 2010, when most other creditors accepted around 30% of face value. The Supremes handed Singer a victory, allowing him to start ransacking Argentina’s assets in search of money to repay him. They also opened the door for other vulture extortionists to move on the country, meaning Argentina could be compelled to pay $15 billion to opportunistic creditors — or could be manhandled into default. An economy that slowly rebuilt itself after the chaos of a 2001 collapse faces a new cycle of catastrophe.

“The decision makes no economic sense,” a prominent economist said. But Daniel Loeb, a fellow hedge-fund billionaire and the other megadonor to HRC’s international work, praised his colleague: “Whether it is gay marriage or Argentina or affecting the political landscape, Paul is intense and tenacious in seeing things through. He is intensely focused and result-oriented yet extremely principled.” It’s a study in how donors ostensibly supporting human rights define “principle.”

Argentina has a comprehensive battery of legislation protecting LGBT people, and the single most progressive law on gender identity recognition anywhere in the world. In the confrontation between a supportive Southern country and foreign capitalists who want to demolish its democratic governance, do you think HRC would put out a press release in Argentina’s cause? Do you need to ask?

(Struggling to win over US opinion in the Argentine debt battle, Singer didn’t hesitate to launch a campaign accusing his Buenos Aires enemies of ties to the definitive American bête noire — Iran.)

Meanwhile, Singer’s inflows of money continue to find new use. in May, he donated $1 million to American Crossroads, a super-PAC for Republican candidates run by conservative conspirator Karl Rove. What will HRC say? Can one expect “the nation’s premier gay and lesbian civil rights group” to find new and unpredicted virtues in Turd Blossom‘s career? Yes.

Argentinian poster: "Paul Singer, the Most Wanted Vulture"

Argentinian poster: “Paul Singer, the Most Wanted Vulture”

NOTE: At the Congressional hearing, IGLHRC specifically praised the Obama administration’s promise to provide technologies Iranians could use to circumvent Internet censorship — in particular, building independent communications networks for linking to the Internet. As Gandhi said of Western civilization: It would be a nice idea.

Many observers note that the US program has gotten nowhere in the last three years, and so far seems to envision only clunky, conspicuous and incriminating hardware — suitcases of stuff bristling with antennae, smuggled in over the mountains. I’ve voiced reservations about this project in the past; and even the New York Times has warned: 

Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border.

To which you might add, in our post-Snowden era, that if the US erects the network, it can monitor everything that’s said on it. Move over, Ayatollah, the earphones are mine!

Moreover, as Omid Memarian has written, the blaring publicity the administration has given the program suggests it’s mainly for American consumption: “Many Iranians I spoke to about this news were shocked that the plan has been revealed; bringing such plans to the attention of the Tehran authorities may put people in danger.” He concludes:

The United States’ current plan to change the Iranian Web landscape is simply not realistic. In fact, the current plan makes me suspect that the U.S. isn’t taking Iran as seriously as it ought to.

Open-source, low-profile software tools such as Psiphon, originally developed at the University of Toronto, so far appear more useful to Iranians seeking to evade the censors’ grip.

The warped reality therapy of Jeffrey Goldberg

Clay relief by Egyptian artist Adam Dott, representing the current political situation in Egypt

Boots, and sandals, on the ground: Clay relief by Egyptian artist Adam Dott, representing the current political situation in Egypt

Jeffrey Goldberg is one of those Beltway experts whose main area of expertise is his audience. For a while he was actually The Atlantic’s advice columnist. However brusque his manner (“What’s your problem?”, his column was called) he grasped the essence of Dear Abbyism: people want to be told to do what they already want to do. On the geopolitical scale, his famously arcane influence with high reaches of the American and Israeli governments (New York magazine described him as the “official therapist” of that fraught relationship, half Oedipal, half Albee) stems, similarly, from a talent for feeding each exactly what it longs to hear. He’s also an expert on the greater Middle East, meaning on what other people think about it. When so ostentatious a quest for insight comes back only with the carcass of a cliché or two, it feels a bit as though the Royal Hunt set off to shoot down chickens in a barnyard. But who wouldn’t prefer a safe Kentucky-fried dinner to a confrontation in a mapless thicket with the uncategorized, the indeterminate, the unknown?

This week, Goldberg is teaching us about Egypt. His column for Bloomberg analyses an interview on Egyptian TV:

And the winner of the annual “Most Convoluted Conspiracy Theory to Emerge from the Egyptian Fever Swamp” prize is the writer Amr Ammar, who alleged earlier this month on Tahrir TV that talk-show host Jon Stewart, working in tandem with former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, is asserting dominion over Egypt on behalf of the Jews. …

The gist is that, earlier this year, Stewart appeared as a gesture of support on the TV show of now-censored satirist Bassem Youssef, and made a joke about being a homeless Jew wandering the sands.  Goldberg goes on:

Look into my eyes. I am now controlling your mind with my secret Jewish powers: Brzezinski

Look in my eyes. I am now controlling your mind with my secret Jewish powers: Brzezinski

Ammar … in the course of arguing that Youssef is undermining Egypt (a common charge among revanchists), alleged that Youssef has learned theories of mass social control from Brzezinski, who is the source of Jon Stewart’s “ideology.”

Never much on the rails to begin with, Ammar then goes decisively off: “If you recall, when Jon Stewart visited here in Egypt, he was a guest on Bassem Youssef’s show. Note what Jon Stewart said as a joke. He said: ‘I am sorry I am late. I wandered in the desert, but now I’ve found my homeland.’ That’s what he said word for word — a Jew who wandered in the desert, but, thank God, found his homeland. This man says, in the heart of Egypt and on an Egyptian media outlet, that Egypt belongs to them, that it is his homeland.”

It requires no surplus of reason to agree that this is disgustingly looney. But Goldberg has an Important Point to make, not about a particular exemplar of lunacy but about the whole land of Egypt:

The proclivity of so many Egyptians to embrace conspiracy theories — anti-Semitic or otherwise — suggests an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is. An inability to grapple with the world as it actually is an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.

So now we know why Egypt is poor and miserable: they’re uniquely out of touch with reality. Let’s unpack this.

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We open our arms to welcome the conquering Israeli army to Cairo: Bassem Youssef (L) and Jon Stewart on the former’s show

1) You might think from Goldberg’s piece that Amr Ammar is some kind of important writer, and that like the greats – Dickens, Mahfouz, Dan Brown – he gives voice to dreams that well upward from the collective imagination. The truth is, no. No one I know had ever heard of him. It turns out he’s a retired army colonel, whose just-published book (Civilian Occupation: Secrets of January 25 and the American Marines) is a whole compendium of craziness, arguing that the 2011 revolution was a “complex international conspiracy against our country” by the Zionists and the CIA and everybody else. A review in the state newspaper al-Ahram lists some of the “thousands of agents and spies who tried to rape the honor of our country”:

We have been through that story with the names of its stars and its proceedings: Freedom House and Otpor [the Serbian resistance movement] and CANVAS [the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies] and the National Association for Change [a liberal group headed by Mohamed El Baradei] and April 6 [one of the main youth revolutionary groups] and Bernard Levy and Jared Cohen, and Wael Ghoneim and Ahmed Salah [prominent revolutionary spokespeople] and Mohamed El Baradei, Hamas and Pepsi and Esraa Abdel Fattah [an April 6 co-founder] and Huma Abedin [Hillary Clinton’s aide, accused by Michele Bachmann of being a Muslim Brotherhood operative, and through her marriage to Anthony Wiener obviously serving as the main link between Zionists and radical Islam] and Brzezinski and George Soros and Amr Khaled [influential television preacher] and Hisham Kassem [newspaper publisher]

Don’t fuck with me, farbrekhers: In secret footage taken at a Pepsi board meeting, Joan Crawford addresses the Elders of Zion.

And so on. Pepsi is the crowning touch. Goldberg barely scratched the surface of the madness. In fact (and typically) Goldberg’s whole column lazily relies on a “transcript” of Amr Ammar’s interview by the US-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which always translates the worst stuff coming out of the region for Western consumption. But it’s not actually a transcript. As you can see by clicking the link, MEMRI offers up only five short passages from Ammar’s interview — basically, five Arabic sentences, about thirty seconds’ worth. The whole program, available on YouTube in two parcels, took an hour. I’d hate to inflict more of this stuff on anyone; but a real reporter, unlike Goldberg, might have wanted to go to the source and hear what else Ammar raved about, before devoting a whole column to it.

Amr Ammar interview, al-Tahrir TV, December 10, 2013, part 1

2) However little Goldberg listened to the interview, he’s right: it’s anti-Semitic and loathsome. But Goldberg has repeatedly reiterated his own theory of Egyptian anti-Semitism: that it’s a popular phenomenon deep-rooted in the country’s life and “deeply damaged culture.” “Egypt has never been notably philo-Semitic (just ask Moses),” he wrote in 2012. In the past, at least, he was intent on distinguishing this from Iran, where “the Iranian leadership is wildly anti-Semitic, but … I’ve never personally felt the hatred of Jews on the popular level.” In Egypt, though, “the virus has spread widely.”

Today it’s entirely acceptable among the educated and creative classes there to demonize Jews and voice the most despicable anti- Semitic conspiracy theories. Careerists know that even fleeting associations with Jews and Israelis could spell professional trouble. 

(Note the elision of any difference between Jews and Israeli citizens.) Goldberg has always been reluctant to saddle the Egyptian state, as opposed to Egyptian “culture,” with responsibility for anti-Semitism. It’s because he generally likes the Egyptian state, at least in its military-run incarnations. Even under the Muslim Brotherhood, in fact, the state was pliable from his perspective — keeping its cold peace with Israel, and cooperating to police the fractious Sinai. As far back as 2001, he preferred blaming Egypt’s “press and the imams” for prejudice, to blaming friends.

Gleefully citing Amr Ammar, however, doesn’t actually back this up. An ex-officer, the guy comes out of the military establishment. His book’s been praised in al-Ahram, the state’s flagship paper and now a forum for junta propaganda. His interview was on Tahrir TV, founded in 2011 as a voice for revolutionaries but now, after several changes of ownership, “a mouthpiece for the intelligence and police” (in Ursula Lindsey’s words). The el-Sisi regime has been busily spinning horrifically inventive conspiracy theories almost from the moment it seized power, stories in which Zionists, Americans, Islamists, and Masons link up with human rights organizations and long-haired demonstrators to bring the state down. It might seem far-fetched to posit that Netanyahu and Hamas, Brzezinski and the Muslim Brotherhood, would join hands to demolish Egypt; but you’d be surprised. In fact, Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner married specifically in order to conquer Cairo for Mossad and al-Qaeda after the honeymoon. And vilifying Bassem Youssef as a tool of national enemies is not a hobby for “revanchists,” as Goldberg suggests. It’s Egyptian state policy.

Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner with terrifying Saracen-Jewish Satanic superchild, Ramadan's Bubeleh, destined to take over the world

Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner with terrifying Saracen-Jewish Satanic superchild, Ramadan’s Bubeleh, destined to take over the world

Versions of this stuff have been going on for a long time. State-promoted anti-Semitism became a loud note of the Mubarak era’s waning years. I sat speechless in an Egyptian friend’s living room in November 2002 watching Horseman Without a Horse, a lavishly produced Ramadan soap opera that dramatized the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A few months before that, the state-owned al-Akhbar, in an editorial, called the Holocaust a fraud; al-Ahram, which despite its propaganda uses still retained a claim to respectability, had repeated the blood libel (Christian children as ingredients in the matzah) two years earlier. These are only a few examples. Of course, Goldberg’s imams often spoke the language of anti-Semitism as well. But an individual preacher might reach only a few thousand souls; whereas a state production like Horseman infused tens of millions’ dreams. 

Egypt is fertile ground for lots of conspiracy theories, not just anti-Semitic ones. Last night 15 died in a bombing of the Security Directorate — secret police headquarters — in the Delta city of Mansoura; and plenty of my friends believe the state itself did it. The thing is, they might be right. Official paranoia breeds ersatz versions; and who’s to say that a secret state might not sacrifice its own secret-keepers to keep the panic brewing? These are feelings familiar to anyone who’s lived under authoritarianism; survivors of Communist Eastern Europe or apartheid South Africa will recognize them. There really is a “deep state” in Egypt, a military-security establishment with vast economic and political power. The ostensible public sphere stands severed from the occult locations where decisions are made. The more constraints encircle knowledge of what’s going on, the fewer limits there are to speculation. 

Where the more hateful and virulent versions of conspiracy theory, like anti-Semitism, are concerned, one standard diagnosis finds them nebulously linked to “social change”; economic or cultural transition, if too accelerated, feeds irrational explanations. A more complex account might be: conspiracy theories breed amid uneven social change, where some structures freeze in rigidity while others shift and bend. In Imperial Germany the economy was swiftly transformed, but the political system remained fixed, dominated by an ossified and indifferent landed class. Turkey’s entrepreneurial makeover in the last three decades was slow to shake the authority of the old secular and military elites. Western investment, Western aid, satellite dishes and the Internet have rendered Egypt unrecognizable since Sadat; but the same ruling powers that were, still are. New classes — whether salaried clerks in Cologne or Islamist small businessmen in Cairo — look for reasons why their influence is less than their numbers or resources demand. If power and its persistence are neither accountable nor explicable, it’s tempting to seek not just causes, but cabalistic agents: scapegoats.

Raise your hand if you've tortured anyone lately: Omar Suleiman

Raise your hand if you’ve tortured anyone lately: Omar Suleiman

Egypt’s political immobility under Mubarak, then, helped make a conspiratorial mindset attractive. The Parkinsonian rigidity of the regime despite three years of revolution can only deepen its heuristic appeal. But the monumental resilience of the military-security complex doesn’t just draw on its own inner resources. It’s due to forty years of unstinting support from the US; and that support has been a payback for the regime’s détente with Israel. Even Egyptians who never switched on Horseman Without a Horse know that. Egypt’s politics have gone through plenty of vicissitudes, but the treaty with Israel has stayed intensely unpopular throughout. It’s hated not because of anti-Semitism, and not just for itself, but because it’s both symbol and (financial and military) enabler of a government that can ram through pretty much any policy without even a curtsey to democratic consent. (That the semi-peace coincided with Sadat’s equally despised, equally authoritarian pursuit of poverty-producing neoliberal economic policies only confirmed its unpopularity.) Some of the most important moments in democratic dissent in Egypt have focused on opposition to Israel, and to the government’s ties to it. Many activists who led the 2011 revolution got their start a decade earlier protesting Mubarak’s acquiescence in Operation Defensive Shield and his failure to support the Palestinians, as well as his tacit endorsement of the US invasion of Iraq. Even more infuriating to the dissidents, WikiLeaks revealed that Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s sinister security consigliere and chief torturer, was also his liaison to Tel Aviv. The old monster consulted on a hotline with the Israelis daily. Contemplating “Egyptian succession scenarios,” an Israeli diplomat said, “there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.”

Intelligent Egyptians were eminently capable of concluding that Israel’s vested interest in Cairo’s “stability” meant complicity in repression. There was a conspiratorial element to this belief, but it wasn’t fantasy; it wasn’t Holocaust denial or the blood libel. It was perfectly consistent with the facts. The Egyptian regime’s ignition of anti-Semitism (which hit full throttle around the time Sharon took office) must be comprehended in this light. It was fantasy, but it distracted attention from the raw truth that the regime’s strength depended on its Israeli ties. It was a way of screaming, “Don’t look here: look over there!” The state knew how to cultivate conspiratorial thinking, and divert it to its own ends. The elaborate paranoias the generals promote today — the Jew-led US in league with the Masons and Qatar — serve the same purpose. The US isn’t about to give up on the Egyptian military; John Kerry has made it clear that he approves the coup, just not the methods. But a dash of rabid anti-Americanism spicing up the anti-Semitism keeps the Obamans on their toes. And it makes el-Sisi seem independent to his citizenry when, like his predecessors, he’s not.

I talk to chairs too, when I'm lonely: General el-Sisi (played by Bob Hoskins) talks to Clint Eastwood (played by John Kerry) in Cairo

I talk to chairs too, when I’m lonely: General el-Sisi (played by Bob Hoskins) talks to Clint Eastwood (played by John Kerry) in Cairo

Goldberg points anxiously to the “culture” of Egyptian anti-Semitism. He doesn’t want to talk about the politics of it. Talking politics would mean admitting that the regime spreads anti-Semitism, not just the “culture,” and it does so because it’s embarrassed by its own dependencies. Full democracy — including state transparency, accountability for past crimes, and smashing the military apparatus’ power — would be the remedy for Egypt’s inculcated political paranoias. A fully democratic state would almost certainly push for a different regional power structure. For that reason alone, Goldberg and the other “therapists” are unenthusiastic.

3) Goldberg is a reality therapist, all about pragmatism and responsibility and paying your doctor bills on time. His diagnosis of the Egyptian disease is “an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is,” this being “an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.” He elaborated in 2012:

The revolution that overthrew the country’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, held great promise, but it also exposed the enormous challenges facing Egyptian politics and culture. … As Walter Russell Mead [a Bard College professor] has written on his blog, countries “where vicious anti-Semitism is rife are almost always backward and poor.” They aren’t backward and poor because the Elders of Zion conspire against them. They’re backward and poor because, Mead argues, they lack the ability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” 

That anti-Semitism was the property of poor and backward countries would have surprised Jews in rich France during the Dreyfus affair, or in technologically advanced Germany in the 1930s; or even in thriving, skinhead-infested Russia today. Certainly anti-Semitism — conspiracy addiction in general — is a cognitive failure. But is the inability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect” distinctive to fetid Egypt and its “damaged culture”?

Goldberg lives in the US now, and as a commentator with political pretensions, maybe he should check the polls. It isn’t just that surveys repeatedly show nearly 80% of Americans believe in angels. It isn’t even that 4% of citizens affirm that “shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies,” with another 7% “not sure.” Absent a militant movement to throw the reptiles out, those credos won’t do much. Probably.

Some people say I look like Zbigniew Brzezinski: Obama lookalike plays Satan on History Channel miniseries "The Bible," 2012

Some people say I look like Zbigniew Brzezinski: Obama lookalike plays Satan on History Channel miniseries “The Bible,” 2012

But what can you say when 20% of Republicans say Obama is the Antichrist? (18% of Americans overall, of course, think he’s a Muslim.) What about the 34% of Republicans and 35% of independents who believe in a global conspiracy to install a totalitarian superstate called the New World Order? These aren’t innocent illusions; they’re predicates for how folks vote and agitate. And what intervening angel will prevent the 37% of Americans who think global warming is a hoax from incinerating the rest of us with their delusions?

Plenty of analysts have held paranoia to be a deep-rooted characteristic of America’s political “culture”: see Richard Hofstadter. Rich and forward the US may be, but that doesn’t keep it from being fearful. More cogently, from the anti-immigrant frenzies of the 1920s through McCarthyism to the anti-Obamism of the present, conspiracy theories seem connected to uneven social change, to classes and identities terrified of being left out by economic or political transformation. But like anti-Semitism in Egypt, they’re easily manipulated and bought up by entrenched, existing power. The Koch Brothers, after all, paid for the Tea Party: the former’s method used the latter’s madness. And there’s plenty of media to promote these stories. Pat Robertson has a whole TV network to spread his ideas about how Satan, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and the Council on Foreign Relations plot a one-world government through central banks. Broadcaster Glenn Beck, the Kanye of paranoia, beloved of the Tea Party, maps all kinds of conspiracies on his trademark chalkboard: University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein is planning genocide; Obama is an ally of Egypt’s blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. Egypt, in fact, is something of a Glenn Beck fetish. One of his more intricate narratives had Obama, George Soros, and international Communism working together to launch the Egyptian revolution, in order to build a “Muslim caliphate” that for some reason would make them all happy.

 Egypt, your caliphate is coming: Glenn Beck connects the dots, which look suspiciously like small brain lesions.

It comes full circle. Egypt’s popular, insane TV presenter Tawfik Okasha plagiarizes the Tea Party, raging about how Obama brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, helped by Zionists and Masons. Not for nothing is he known as the Egyptian Glenn Beck. (If you don’t know Okasha, this brilliant parody Twitter account in English gives something of his mad flavor.)

In fact, there’s one key point Goldberg left out in his account of Amr Ammar, so hampered was he by MEMRI’s selective editing, so fixed on Egypt’s “damaged culture.” Many of Ammar’s conspiratorial fantasies didn’t spring from the “Egyptian fever swamp.” They come from the US. 

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Look in my eyes and, trust me, you will never get out alive: Michele Bachmann editorializes in Daily News Egypt, December 2013

The “fever swamp” is in DC, as much as the Nile Delta. It’s doubtful Ammar or anyone else in Sisi’s circles would even have heard of Huma Abedin if Michele Bachmann hadn’t been smearing her for years as a Muslim Brotherhood mole in the US government. The Islam-loathing Bachmann has become a serious and baleful influence on Egyptian politics, visiting the country twice since the coup to share her “witless ramblings” with the junta leaders; in Cairo, she even accused the Muslim Brotherhood of involvement in the September 11 attacks. George Soros as bête noire and fulcrum of the global conspiracy is an idea borrowed, of course, from plenty of Tea Party polemicists, Glenn Beck high among them. Ammar would hardly have thought to mention Zbigniew Brzezinski’s name — as hard to pronounce in Arabic as in English — but for the work of right-wing US paranoiacs, who have long fingered the dour Pole as an Illuminatus and inventor of the New World Order.

Sign in Mansoura after the December 24 bombing reads, "Extermination of the Muslim Brotherhood, sons of Zionists and Egypt's Jews, is an obligation": via @ablasalma

Sign in Mansoura after the December 24 bombing reads, “Extermination of the Muslim Brotherhood, sons of Zionists and Egypt’s Jews, is an obligation”: via @ablasalma

Indeed, much as right-wing evangelicals arguably exported their homophobia to Uganda, conspiratorial neocons and other conmen are shipping their Islamophobia to Egypt. What’s arising in Cairo is a peculiar blend of Islam(ist)-hatred and anti-Semitism, a weird worldview in which the Elders of Zion breach protocol to lend a hand to the Ikhwan. The key ideas come from outside. And the melding seems liberating for many Tea Party types like Bachmann. Egypt is a place where the latent anti-Semitism bred by Becks and Robertsons, by Christmas warriors and Confederate nostalgists — a sentiment confined to coded dog-whistles in the corseted US — can emerge and stretch its limbs and find its voice.

Goldberg is spot on that some people can’t “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” But they’re not all Egyptians. Some of them live right in his own town, and promote their paranoias in his neighborhood. One person, in fact, who has some trouble with cause and effect relations seems to be Goldberg. Therapy begins at home.

Some more terrorists for Hillel Neuer to hand over to the authorities: Myself included

I’ll start with this tweet.

Maikel Nabil #FuckSCAF jpgThis was one of the first things Maikel Nabil Sanad tweeted after release from almost a year in military jails. Maikel Nabil is a heroic campaigner against the Egyptian military. He’s also, unfortunately, one of the (only) two local informants that Hillel Neuer and UN Watch have tried to enlist to lend fake credibility for their smears against human rights activist Mona Seif.

Mona Seif using mobile phone to trigger bomb: © Matthew Cassel, justimage.org

Mona Seif, probably using mobile phone to trigger bomb: © Matthew Cassel, justimage.org

One of Hillel Neuer’s points is that the Twitter hashtag #FuckIsrael, used on occasion by Seif and many other Egyptian twitterati, is an incitement to hate and terror. “Tweets for terror,” they call these. Or as one of Neuer’s media mouthpieces writes, “Seif’s Twitter account reveals a propensity to express the most vulgar kind of hatred towards Israel …. in terms of how she expresses herself: #F[expletive deleted]Israel is a popular choice.” The “anti-Israel, pro-terror woman”‘s messages “advocate terrorism against the Jewish State.”

Applying the F-word to institutions, then, is — like the use of “insh’allah” and other clever code — a mark of terrorist sympathies. So it’s hard to account for Maikel Nabil’s tweet above, which urges fucking the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF): the military junta that guarded order against the forces of Islam, darkness, and democracy during the post-Mubarak interregnum. Is Maikel Nabil a vulgar anti-government terrorist? Moreover, the tweet reads: “Stand in solidarity with Samira Ibrahim, tomorrow 11am. You’re needed so that crimes won’t be repeated.” Samira Ibrahim had the courage to press a case against the military for subjecting her and other women to virginity tests. She’s also, however, distinctly on Hillel Neuer’s bad side.

Maybe Neuer shouldn’t have been so quick to exploit Maikel. I wrote to Hillel Neuer and others tonight, asking just this question:

Neuer 1 copy

So far, no reply.

Unquestionably the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would think that tweet was terrorism. They jailed Maikel Nabil and almost killed him for “insulting the military,” after all. And this tweet is perfectly consistent with Maikel’s record of standing up to military rule. But — although I admire Maikel Nabil as a hero for his struggle against forced conscription, and loathe the idea of him returning to prison — it does seem as though Hillel should realize the magnitude of his crimes. As Neuer would undoubtedly remind us, SCAF kept the peace treaty with Israel going. Therefore this kind of obscene opposition only flouts peace and encourages terrorist violence. Maikel is outside Egypt now, but probably Hillel Neuer, that supporter of the powers that be, will arrange with European authorities for his extradition.

I do not want to single out Maikel Nabil. Alas, I have to tell Hillel that there was a lot of #FuckSCAF terror-tweeting going around, among Maikel Nabil’s supporters. Mona Seif called for some SCAF-fucking in Maikel’s defense, as you’d expect from a pro-terror woman:

FUCK SCAF MONA SEIF copy

But so did other activists like Mona Eltahawy and Gigi Ibrahim:

FREE MAIKEL FUCK SCAF copy

Was everybody around Maikel promoting vulgar anti-government violence? The question becomes: Why is Hillel Neuer palling around with terrorists?

People in Egypt terror-tweet against the government for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they’re upset because the government is shooting at them.

FuckSCAF 1 copy

Sometimes they’re irrationally irritated because they’ve seen other protesters murdered.

FuckSCAF2 copy

Sometimes they take their friends’ problems far too personally.

FuckSCAF 3 copyEven Palestinians terror-tweet across the border, in sympathy.

FUCKSCAF 4 copyMany things can lead people into terror-tweeting. The point isn’t to waste time examining causes, though. The point is to respond to terror-tweeting firmly, with unequivocal force. Hillel Neuer can surely persuade SCAF to deal with these people (except for the last one: he may be Israel’s problem).

The crisis we face is bigger, though.

Hillel Neuer’s main work as a human rights activist is trawling through his enemies’ tweets and public and private statements, looking for criticisms of Israel. But in his singleminded search, he’s missing a lot of other terrorist obscenities. How would Hillel Neuer respond to things like this — people so offended by “human rights abuses” that their blind anger draws them into terror-tweeting?

Fucksaudi copy

Of course, Saudi Arabia isn’t Israel. But if Mona Seif exposed herself as a terrorist by objecting to gas sales to Israel, then what can you say about somebody who wants to fuck the oil supplier for the entire world? Gitmo is too good for these people. They deserve some sophisticated form of torture, like interning at the UN Watch offices.

Then there are the anti-Putin tweeters, who are probably Chechen terrorists.

FuckPutin copy

In truth, though, there’s a moral dilemma in all this for Hillel Neuer (or there would be if the word “moral” didn’t get the willies being five words away from his name). The fact is, terror-tweeters don’t just call for fucking good guys. Sometimes they encourage fucking things that Hillel Neuer also dislikes. 

Think of what mixed feelings Hillel must have on reading this:

FuckGAddafi copy 2

On the one hand, Gaddafi was not Hillel Neuer’s kind of guy. On the other hand, undoubtedly this is terror-tweeting, and deserves the maximum penalty. (Not to mention that Gaddafi was actually menaced by fucking with a rebel’s baton in the moments before his death. That preceded this tweet by five months, but the terror-tweeter still bears moral responsibility.)

And there are all the #FuckAssad tweets that follow Syrian atrocities. Sometimes these even boast a #KillAssad hashtag. But I haven’t seen Hillel Neuer raise a single faint twitch or twoot in objection to these calls for violence!  Probably he’s too busy.

Fuck Assad 2 copy

Or could it be — I’m just speculating — that Hillel allows people to get angry about rights abuses when caused by Israel’s enemies, but not when they’re perpetrated by Israel itself? That would be awfully inconsistent for a “human rights activist.” But I wonder.

Then, of course, there’s el-Ikhwan el-Muslimun, the Muslim Brotherhood. Hillel hates them, of course, not least because they contain some real anti-Semites, unlike the anti-Semitism Hillel’s job requires him to invent. How hard it must be, then, for him to wrap his head round the fact that so many Egyptian activists who tweet #FuckIsrael also tweet #FuckMorsi, or #FuckIkhwan! How can Hillel manage to condemn the first as terror-tweeting, but not the second? Really, I’m afraid they all should go to jail, if Hillel wants to be true to his principles (an open question). The miscreants range from really angry people —

Fuck Morsi 1 copy

to those unreasonably offended by the Ikhwan’s mimicry of Mubarak —

Fuck Morsi 2 copy

to those who sound almost idealistic in their embrace of vulgar terrorism.

FuckMorsi Nora Younis copy

Sometimes I don’t know how Hillel does his job, it involves squaring so many contradictions; it’s like Machiavelli mated with non-Euclidean geometry. But I’m sure if you spend enough time in the UN Watch offices at Minitrue, it all makes sense.

And here it’s time for a confession. I realize I’ve outed some of the most prominent figures in Egyptian activism as terrorist supporters. Sorry! But I am guilty also, just like Maikel Nabil and the rest. I have used #FuckSCAF too — not only on Twitter, but in my own blog, here. I am ashamed by my flirtation with fundamentalist terrorism; I feel I should get a cushy job at the Quilliam Foundation and do penance by consorting with idiots like Shiraz Maher; but that isn’t punishment enough. If Hillel Neuer can find somebody who speaks Arabic, I suggest he phone the military prosecutor here in Egypt, and turn me in. I have plenty of free time to go over to their sinister compound, called C28, in Nasr City and (as the prosecutors tend to put it) “sit down for a cup of coffee.”

L: Big Brother. R: Mommie Dearest.

L: Big Brother. R: Mommie Dearest.

In fact: I know the place. I snapped these photos of C28 in December 2011, while I was demonstrating for Maikel Nabil; I took them surreptitiously since I was under the scrutiny of a number of guards. Photographing army installations is illegal. You might give away where power’s nerve centers hide; and if Israel (or Lesotho, or Liechtenstein) ever attacks Egypt, the first place they’d want to bomb is the military prosecutor’s, since without it the whole country would collapse into the state of nature, uncensored, brutish, and short.

The image on the right is a close-up of the figure of Justice on the building, wearing a long robe and carrying two empty scales that look more like coat-hangers. The message is apparently that military justice either is an avenging Joan Crawford (“No wire hangers!“) or will deliver your dry-cleaning for a small fee.  Either role is preferable to what the military prosecutor actually does. And cleaner.

Mohamed el-Gendy, tortured to death by Egyptian security forces, 2013

Mohamed el-Gendy, activist, tortured to death by Egyptian security forces, 2013

Does Hillel Neuer know anything about the filth that the people he defames are giving their lives to clean up — filth he only adds to with his smarmy lies? Does it occur to him that his fake charges of “supporting terror” lend comfort to their enemies: that he echoes the same smears they hear at home (and sometimes face in court) for their rights work? Does he ever try to understand the brutality that Egyptian democracy activists have confronted: under Mubarak, under the military, under Morsi? Does he have an inkling, could he endure even a glimpse, of the criminality and killing they’ve faced on the streets and in torture chambers alike?  Is he capable of comprehending what drives them to anger — and why they instinctively grasp the abuses in Cairo and the abuses in the Occupied Territories as similar, continuous, connected? I didn’t notice him among the handful of demonstrators outside C28; anything Neuer has garnered about that kind of thing, even the misery that Maikel Nabil underwent, he’s picked up from a distance. Indeed, I doubt he’d ever have the nerve to come to Egypt.  If Neuer did show up at C28, he’d probably be among the informers.

One Twitterer wrote a while ago:

Fuck as a word copy 2All the more so if you’re living what folks have lived through in Cairo, or Damascus, or Gaza. Hillel Neuer, though, doesn’t know directly what it’s like either to suffer or witness human rights abuses. He’s above all that.

Hillel Neuer: Liar. Mona Seif: Hero.

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square

Mona Seif, Tahrir Square: © Matthew Cassel,  justimage.org

I know Mona Seif only slightly. She’s one of the few human rights activists in Egypt (or anywhere) whom almost everybody likes. She’s utterly unpretentious. As I wrote a year ago, “Her complete immunity from the vagaries of ego is like a genetic quirk, so uncommon is it in the profession; it’s like meeting someone who never caught the common cold.” This year she’s one of three finalists for the Martin Ennals Award, a signal honor in the human rights field, usually given to those who have much to be pretentious about. She’s also facing a smear campaign by Hillel Neuer of so-called “UN Watch,” a former corporate lawyer and lobbyist for Israel, who has mobilized cohorts of the libellous and ignorant to grind down her reputation.

First, about Mona. Shortly after Mubarak fell, presciently, she started fighting the ruling military junta’s practice of trying detained civilians in military kangaroo courts. She was one of the first democracy activists to perceive the malign persistence of the Mubarak-era security state. Over the next 18 months, as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces tightened its grip on the country, some 12,000 people faced these tribunals. The group Mona helped found, No to Military Trials for Civilians, was the pre-eminent organization in Egypt opposing these abuses. She’s also helped to document police torture and a range of violations by security forces. Police arrested and tortured Mona herself at a demonstration in December 2011, so she knows what they do first-hand.  No to Military Trials is also one of the few decentralized, grassroots human rights movements, as opposed to NGOs, in Egypt today. It brings human rights back to its roots, in the passions of ordinary people making demands unmediated by boards of directors. It’s changed the landscape of rights advocacy in post-Revolutionary Egypt.

Big bupkes is watching you: Hillel Neuer

Big bupkes is watching you: Hillel Neuer

In the other corner: the appalling Neuer and his organization. “UN Watch” can be said to watch the UN (which certainly bears watching) only if I could be said to read the New York Times by doing the crossword puzzles obsessively and throwing the other 100+ pages away. Founded by the American Jewish Committee, and still largely funded by them, the posh Geneva-based outfit’s mission is to discredit anything the UN does or says that’s critical of Israel. The rest of the UN’s work interests it only insofar as it can be used against some rapporteur or resolution that questions Israel. This ambition has grown with time: now UN Watch prosecutes Thoughtcrime even if lurking in other institutions. Mona is caught in the crossfire. She’s a very big figure in Egypt; but Neuer, whose knowledge of Cairo is limited, could care less, except he can tar Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International, for having laid laurels upon an evil Arab and thus encouraged perfidy and terror. And there are certain relevant grudges he holds relating to Israel’s economic interests in the adjoining country. More on these later.

10 international human rights organizations jointly award the Ennals prize: Amnesty, HRW, the International Federation for Human Rights, the International Commission of Jurists, and others. Suddenly, Tuesday, Hillel Neuer struck. UN Watch had spent hundreds of man-hours going over Mona’s 93,000 tweets. (That’s Neuer’s version of human rights work, folks!) Neuer found three. I am reluctant to quote the man, but let’s turn to his press release:

On July 6, 2011, Ms. Seif advocated the blowing up of pipelines exporting Egyptian gas to Israel. She praised those who commit such crimes as “heroes” and wrote “Fuck Israel”. Many have been killed and injured in violence connected to these attacks.

On November 6, 2012, Ms. Seif endorsed Al Qassam Brigades attacks on civilians. On that day, Amnesty International—another jury member—tweeted a“Demand that @netanyahu & @AlqassamBrigade stop attacks on civilians.”Ms. Seif rejected the call, writing:“you don’t ask an occupied nation to stop their “Resistance” to end violence!!! SHAME ON YOU!”

On November 20, 2012, Ms. Seif endorsed the arming of Gaza terrorist groups. On that day, Amnesty International tweeted: “Stop the madness! Share this image if you want an arms embargo on all sides #Israel #Hamas #Gaza.” The image showed innocent civilians in Israel and Gaza. Seif responded: “@amnesty & @hrw r leading a shameful campaign asking Palestinians under occupation & non stop air strikes 2 stop their resistance!”

Naturally this went viral among the Jeffrey Goldbergs and likeminded bigots, who saw a chance to attack their least favorite organizations:

goldberg tweet  copy

By this morning, the professional liars at Breitbart.com were declaring Mona an “avowed anti-Semite.” And by afternoon the Washington Free Beacon was dubbing her a “radical Egyptian Islamist” — sickly hilarious, in that Mona is secular, comes from a family of atheistic leftists, and has been one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most militant opponents. But the pure racism beneath all this is palpable, barely buried. You know the Arabs, terrorists all, and there is only one motive for terrorism: Islam.

Three tweets: and on that basis Neuer has launched a repellent war of defamation against a heroic opponent of dictatorship and torture. Let’s go through Neuer’s “proofs” twit by twit.

Tweet I:  The pipeline. Hillel Neuer likes corruption.

Exhibit A for Neuer is this:

blow up pipelines tweet copy

To start with, Hillel claims that Mona has blood on her hands: “Many have been killed and injured in violence connected to these attacks.”

Neuer is blatantly lying. There’ve been at least 16 assaults on the Sinai pipeline(s) since the Egyptian Revolution, mostly minor. No one was killed, though this January saw seven policemen wounded — more than 18 months after Mona’s tweet. The army and Interior Ministry regularly blame these on “Islamic terrorism,” mainly because that’s a sure way of bolstering their international image as guardians of order against chaos.

"Restoring security and stability to Sinai": Egyptian police doing what they do best ( © Egypt Independent)

“Restoring security and stability to Sinai”: Egyptian police doing what they do best ( © Egypt Independent)

Facts are a good antidote to these stories. What underlies the attacks is complex and manifold. Most of Sinai’s population loathes the central government, which represses them politically and exploits them economically. Sinai’s Bedouin were in virtually open revolt even before the Revolution (facilitated by the terms of the peace treaty with Israel, which partly demilitarized the peninsula and left the task of fighting a near-insurrection to the incompetent and viciously brutal police). The instability has only grown since, as Nicolas Pelham has documented. (See an excellent article by the researcher here, and a longer report here.)

Meanwhile, Egyptians all over the country despise the pipeline because for years it shipped the national wealth to Israel, also the result of a peace treaty that an unelected dictatorship imposed. (The fact that Israel got to siphon off resources while their own government colludes in keeping Gaza’s borders closed to desperately needed aid also rankles severely.) Egypt has the 16th largest known natural-gas reserves in the world –1.6 % of the global total. Some good that does. Last year, the Petroleum Ministry announced that Egypt would now be a net gas-importing country.

A way in to a walled-off country: Gas enters Israel, Gazans and Egyptians can't

A way in to a walled-off country: Gas enters Israel, Gazans and Egyptians can’t

The industry’s lobbyists blame the usual suspects for this disaster: political uncertainty, “labor costs,” and so on. But you can do the math. Egypt produced about 2.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2009. It consumed almost 1.6 trillion — about 70% of Egypt’s electricity is gas-generated, and gas is the main (highly subsidized) source of cooking and heating fuel. (Consumption has surely gone up since). The country exported about 650 billion cubic feet in 2009– which, if you add it all up, leaves zero room for either reserve stocks or error. For years, over 250 billion cubic feet of that went to Israel, through the pipeline, at bargain prices: probably way more, since government statistics have every incentive to undercount.

Finally, in 2012, thanks in part to attacks on the pipeline, pressure from an enraged public, and campaigning by people like Mona, Egypt cancelled the Israel gas sales and the seven-year-old contract behind them.  The sales were sweetheart deals that had impoverished the Egyptian economy as a whole while enriching a Mubarak-era elite. Issandr el-Amrani explained this in detail in 2011, not long after Mona’s tweet:

Egypt was selling the gas to Eastern Mediterranean Gas (EMG) — the private firm that then sold the gas to the Israeli National Electricity Company — at around $3 per mbtu (that’s million British thermal units — the standard measurement for these things). EMG then sold it to the Israelis for around $4.5 per mbtu, pocketing a 50% profit margin for no more than the transaction costs and some of the [taxpayer-built] infrastructure between the two countries. The market price for gas … is currently around $4.40 for futures in North America, but spot markets in recent years passed the $10 per mbtu mark. Either way, there is no doubt that the price of the gas sold by Egypt to EMG was well below market prices, and that the company made an easy profit without investment of its own.

Other analysts put the prices even lower — “as low as between $0.70 and $1.50” per mbtu for Israel, with even less paid by EMG to the Egyptian government.  (Naturally, the government has never revealed the price.) What’s certain is that the magnates of EMG made a killing. The deal fed corruption in both countries. Where did that 50% profit go? El-Amrani writes:

EMG is owned in large part by an Egyptian business[man], Hussein Salem, who has long been known to be a frontman for the Mubarak family (and is a former security official), and Yossi Meiman, an Israeli businessman close to the Sharon clan in Israeli politics (he owns the Israeli energy company Merhav), as well as some additional minority investors from South East Asia.

There was a snake in Eden: The Sinai pipeline

There was a snake in Eden: The Sinai pipeline

The corruption behind the Israel sales resulted in one of the major post-Mubarak trials: Hussein Salem and the former oil minister were sentenced to 15 years for stealing over $700 million through the unequal contract. (Salem is hiding in Spain. Last month, the Cassation Court ordered a retrial.)

Plenty of things came together in the pipeline: the security state, the cliques that profit from it, the “special relationship” with Israel that the dictatorship constructed in exchange for US largesse, the way elites in two countries ally for lucre and offer their middle fingers to democratic oversight.  “Fuck Israel” is, from an Egyptian perspective, the mildest thing you can say in return. The contract may be history, but few people believe the government — under US pressure — won’t renew sales at some point in the future. Electricity blackouts are now routine in Egypt. Yet John Kerry and Binyamin Netanyahu are both pushing the country to sacrifice the prospect of energy self-sufficiency to the politics of “stability.” Sensible Egyptians who want economic independence and justice dream fondly of seeing the pipeline bombed.

The people of Sinai bear an extra grudge — because that serpentine eyesore symbolizes a government that ignores them except to brutalize them. Of course, any serious revolutionary in Egypt wants to understand and share the struggle of folks who have been resisting the government for years; but they don’t steer the rebels. Nobody in Sinai needed a tweet from Mona to instigate a raid on the pipeline (I doubt the attackers are on Twitter, Hillel). By now it comes as second nature.

Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian rights activist, pointed out to Neuer that he lied about the nonexistent deaths in Sinai. But the man cannot be deterred; he corrects his lies not, neither does he explain. He promptly tweeted:

I lied about you, Mona. Now will you please apologize for it?

I lied about you, Mona. Now will you please apologize for it?

Consider that: it’s astonishingly disgusting. A former corporate lawyer, defender of Raytheon and other innocent victims of injustice, a cushioned and blinkered fool who neither has a clue nor cares about conditions in Egypt, sits in his comfortable office with a view of the Swiss Alps and dares to lecture one of the foremost campaigners against abuses by the Egyptian police that she should apologize … to the Egyptian police. Hillel Neuer claims to be a human rights activist. He’s just a contemptible, destructive little thug.

The truth, of course, is that if the pipeline carried energy to Chad, Neuer would never even notice the attacks. If Sudan or some other malevolent Muslim state were the destination, he’d applaud them. The only reason he gives a flying falafel is that the gas once went to Israel. Indeed, Neuer even vilifies Mona Seif for urging a peaceful boycott of Egyptian gas companies that sold to Israel! Till 2011, Egypt supplied 43% of Israel’s natural gas needs. What Neuer is doing is taking his revenge on Mona Seif for Egypt’s scrapping of the gas deal. That, not “terrorism,” is Neuer’s worry.

Tweets II and III.  The right to resist. For Hillel Neuer, violence is … well, irresistible.

Neuer’s Exhibits B and C are this –

Mona Gaza tweet 1 copy

and this –

Mona Gaza tweet 2 copy

In November 2012, of course, a war was going on in Gaza. Seif was defending the right of Palestinians to fight back against a massive Israeli attack. The violence of Operation Pillar of Defense provides the specific context here. There’s a broader one as well.

Neuer knows nothing about the history of rights activism in Egypt, but these 280+ words summarize an old argument with Amnesty and HRW in which most of the human rights community in the country shared. (The deprecation in the middle of Tweet III is from my friend Aida Seif el-Dawla, the founder of the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and a Human RIghts Watch honoree in 2004.)  There is profound frustration at both organizations’ insistence on moral and political equivalence between resistance movements armed, in many cases, only with stones, and a massive military machine capable of obliterating opposition. There is profound frustration at what activists see as the organizations’ determination to depoliticize the conflict, to focus only on how it is fought while treating its origins as irrelevant and the demands on either side as beyond the reach of rights affirmation or critique. There is profound frustration at what they regard as a refusal to wrestle with the fact and the consequences of a 46-year occupation. There is discontent with what they interpret as a false, specious, and factitious objectivity.

Aida Seif el-Dawla meets with families of detained Islamists, 2005 (@ Nora Younis)

Aida Seif el-Dawla talks with families of detained Islamists, 2005 (@ Nora Younis)

Human Rights Watch, where I worked for many years, strains all its muscles to be completely objective on Israel/Palestine — an effort that has never gotten it a scintilla of credit from the militant pro-Israel side. Its releases on Israel and Palestine are the only ones in the entire organization that are routinely edited by the executive director himself. An informal arithmetic dictates that every presser or report criticizing Israel has to be accompanied by another criticizing the Palestine Authority or Hamas — or, if that isn’t possible (the PA barely retains enough authority to violate anybody’s rights) at least one of the surrounding Arab states. A mathematical approach to balance may help accountants detect embezzlement or captains keep ships afloat, but that kind of objectivity looks ridiculous in the political world, where the incessant fluidity of action disrupts the illusions of double-entry bookkeeping. (The call for an “embargo on arms” to “all sides” is an excellent example of “objectivity” that benefits one side much more than the other. As often noted during the Yugoslav civil war — when extremely well-meaning people urged that unarmed Bosnians and the Serbian army both go cold turkey on acquiring arms — a cutoff will matter much more to those who have only scant resources than to those flush with weaponry. If you want to stop that kind of fighting, an embargo alone won’t do it.  It’s like the majestic equality of the law as Anatole France described it, forbidding both rich and poor to sleep under bridges.)

Whatever you think of the neighboring conflict, Egyptian activists are undoubtedly reasonable when they ask what a similar “objectivity” would have looked like in their 20-year struggle with Mubarak. Should each documented act of torture by State Security have been followed by a search for some malfeasance by human rights organizations?  Do the immense power of a state and the vulnerability of a people’s movement carry the same responsibilities? At what point do you acknowledge (as Human RIghts Watch did in Egypt) that, though both sides may do wrong, one side’s core demand is right and the other’s is wrong?

Naturally, I‘m only paraphrasing ineptly here. But I can directly quote Aida Seif el-Dawla, who if anything is even more iconic among democrats in the region than Mona:

HRW is a human rights group and, by definition, human rights groups have limits. The human rights perspective might sometimes be what they call ‘objective’ but it’s not from the victim’s point of view.

That goes for the victims of torture whom Aida has served for 20 years: their wounds cry out for advocates, not impartial referees. And Aida adds: “Take, for example, martyrdom operations. Regardless of my opinion, it needs serious awareness-raising so that people understand the language of martyrdom as a last weapon people use to tell the world about what’s happening to them.”

Demonstrators hold an image of Mohamed el-Gendy, a young activist tortured to death by police, 2013

Demonstrators hold an image of Mohamed el-Gendy, a young activist tortured to death by police, 2013

This is absolutely different from “advocating terrorism.”  It means — I take Aida to mean — understanding that those with their backs against the wall act by definition under more constraint and desperation than the wall-builders. If you want to condemn “martyrdom operations,” or stop them, you need at least to comprehend what conditions create them and what they are trying to tell. Meanwhile, Egyptian activists, who have had to resist three ruthless regimes (Mubarak, the military, and the army-supported Muslim Brotherhood) in three years, insist that human rights are empty unless supported by the concrete right of resistance to oppression. That’s a right articulated by figures as diverse as St. Thomas Aquinas and Amira Hass. You can’t have the right to the “self-determination of peoples” (expressly stated in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the major UN treaties) without recognizing that, in the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, it’s been achieved by resistance fighters rather more often than by diplomats; and even the diplomats usually needed the resistance fighters to give their arguments some heft.

Mona Seif said as much in a brief statement yesterday on her Facebook page:

I have never called for nor celebrated attacks on civilians. My position is very clear: I support people’s right to resist occupation and I resist all attempts at portraying the siege of a predominantly civilian population by the world’s 4th most powerful Army as one of ‘equivalence.’

Of course, Hillel Neuer is in a self-contradictory place here. On the one hand, he believes that Arabs don’t have the right to resist much of anything, least of all Operation Pillar of Defense. On the other hand, he sees violence as a constant temptation for the Israeli side, one so enticing that the state can hardly be expected to resist it. Violence is irresistible for both parties, but in rather different senses.

Aida Seif el-Dawla and Mona Seif

Aida Seif el-Dawla and Mona Seif

Neuer, for instance, was assiduous in defending Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara: on the grounds that Israel has a right to resist anybody anywhere, armed or no, and that killing such people is something the state apparatus must do, irresistibly. What good is a monopoly of force if the state doesn’t use it?  What good is a gun if you don’t shoot somebody? Ali Abunimah summarizes Neuer’s rants far better than I can:

On 2 June 2010, three days after Israeli commandos murdered nine unarmed civilians aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters, UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer justified the lethal attack on what his organization termed the “terror flotilla” based on chants some passengers aboard the flotilla had allegedly been heard making. …

Neuer has never revised nor apologized for his justifications for Israeli violence against the flotilla even after the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Inquiry … found that many of the unarmed victims had been executed by the Israeli soldiers. …

The official report also concluded that “No evidence has been provided to establish that any of the deceased were armed with lethal weapons.”

“Forensic evidence showing that most of the deceased were shot multiple times, including in the back, or at close range has not been adequately accounted for in the material presented by Israel,” the report found. And so on. The truth is that Hillel Neuer likes violence, with the armchair enthusiasm of someone who knows his friends will wield it and he’ll never have to suffer it first-hand. He loves it because it sorts the powerful from the powerless, the valued from the unwanted, the wheat from the chaff. He’s exactly the opposite of Mona Seif, who has confronted state violence here in Egypt as Neuer would never dare, and wants to see people empowered to end it. These two — the guy who holds the gun and the dissenter who wants to take it away — will never have anything in common. Only one of them has anything to do with human rights.

Finally

Neuer knows that, although he can mobilize the usual suspects to support his libels against Mona, he has few facts to back him up. So he scrounges for some Egyptian allies to give him a more — well, objective look. Unfortunately, he has only two. One, “Amr Bakly, who heads the Cairo Liberal Forum, tweeted: ‘The Martin Ennals Award is not for terrorist supporters.'” The Cairo Liberal Forum is a small circle of “free market” advocates in Egypt whose irrelevance to the Egyptian revolutionary scene can be seen in their Facebook page: it’s almost wholly in English and for foreign consumption. Bakly has neither constituency nor credibility.

Alaa Abd el Fattah

Alaa Abd el Fattah

Neuer’s other enlistee, Maikel Nabil, is a more complicated story. Nabil, an advocate for conscientious objection and against military conscription, suffered a hellish year in jail for “insulting” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011. I’ve written about him before, and I travelled to the military prosecutor’s office to show support at one of his hearings last December. Nabil rightly felt angry that his case drew less attention than the jailing of other activists, including Alaa Abd el Fattah, Mona Seif’s celebrated brother. Only a handful of people stood outside the grim army building when I went there for him, as opposed to hundreds who regularly turned out for Alaa. But Nabil has let anger and jealousy corrupt his judgment. His condemnation of Mona Seif is more about his resentment of Alaa than over anything she tweeted; it’s particularly sad because Mona spoke out strongly for him while he languished in prison. It’s reprehensible of Neuer to exploit Nabil’s rage in this divisive way. Since his release, Nabil has left Egypt, his reputation more and more marginalized there. (UN Watch organized an ill-advised junket to Israel for him last year.) Like Bakly, he has little constituency in Egypt, and it’s mendacious of Neuer to pretend otherwise.

I don’t expect Hillel Neuer to know the difference between real human rights activists and ersatz ones: he’s so emphatically the latter. Neuer — despite grandly inflating himself into a rights defender and UN Watch into a rights organization — has simply never done human rights work. He sits in his office and peruses the tweets of his enemies. Mona Seif, meanwhile, has worked for the imprisoned, spoken to their families, documented their cases, confronted the oppressors face to face. Three successive repressive regimes have found common ground in hating her. There’s hardly a catastrophe in Cairo they don’t  blame her for. A fire at pro-military candidate Ahmed Shafiq’s offices? Mona was lighting matches in a car nearby!  A crowd attacks the HQ of the Muslim Brotherhood, Shafiq’s opponents? Mona planned it all!

The odd thing is that, accusing her absurdly of “terrorism,” Hillel Neuer mimics the rhetoric and paranoia of the Egyptian powers that be. I doubt he’d be happy to hear he imitates the Muslim Brotherhood. But apologists for injustice and flacks for authority are always alike, no matter their disparate beliefs.

Ahmed Seif al-Islam

Ahmed Seif el-Islam

In thinking of Mona, I always remember her father. Ahmed Seif el-Islam is one of the most respected rights activists and constitutional lawyers in Egypt. He has inspired me. He also taught me a valuable lesson.

I saw the intensity of Seif’s dedication back in 2003, when I was researching for Human Rights Watch. Demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq convulsed Cairo, and the Mubarak government lashed back by arresting and torturing over a thousand students and leftist activists. Seif was then the head of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, the country’s premier human rights litigation group. He spent more than a week without leaving his office for home, barely sleeping, barefoot and unshaven: collecting information, coordinating responses, making sure that lawyers stayed at every jail and every hearing, that every act of brutality was recorded. All the while, he kept a small bag packed behind the desk in anticipation of his own arrest. Seif, a veteran of Egypt’s political prisons and concentration camps, lived on a shoestring — I don’t think he paid himself more than a few hundred pounds a month as director — and never stopped working.

I had first met Seif in 2001, when I was on the staff of a different organization — IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission — and came to Egypt for the trial of 52 men arrested for homosexuality in a massive police raid. The Hisham Mubarak Centre had been one of the first groups to offer the men legal help, despite the case’s unpopularity. I wanted to thank Seif for his courage. He brushed away my compliments and asked, politely: “Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

I hesitated; IGLHRC had nothing of the kind. “I want you to know,” Seif said, “that we have taken a position on this case because we believe in universal human rights, however much others may despise us for it. I don’t expect anything less from other groups. Therefore please tell me. Does your organization have a position on Palestine?”

That was the lesson.

Ahmed Seif al-Islam and Mona Seif

Ahmed Seif el-Islam and Mona Seif

There are ample reasons to dislike human rights as a profession. As a set of principles, though, it has one great virtue: it forces you to think beyond the walls of self, and face the frightening differences and similarity of others. The premise of universality (much misunderstood) is that what others do and suffer cannot be entirely divorced from you. If you ask an Egyptian to talk about your concern, they can ask you to remember theirs; and, with that moral sophistication I find characteristic of Egyptian thinking, they may require you to consider not Egypt, but Palestine, and the suffering next door. (It’s typical that the great mobilizing issue for Egypt’s anti-government activists from 2001-2005 was not just the Mubarak regime’s domestic criminality, but its callousness about the Palestinian crisis across the border.) IGLHRC never did develop a position on Palestine; but in a discussion about it, years later, one board member plaintively wailed: “Why do we have to be a human rights organization? Why can’t we just be a gay organization, and ignore this stuff?” He had it right, actually. Once you start speaking the language of rights, an inexorable logic compels you to connect, connect.

Mona, like her father, knows this. In her defiant statement, she wrote:

One of the rights that we, the young people of Egypt, have succeeded in seizing is the right to insult our own government and to insult anyone whose policies are bad for our people. We insist on this right.

It’s about freedom to offend, but also freedom to choose your solidarities. People who don’t want Egyptians feeling an affinity with Palestinians should just ask for the Revolution to be rolled back, to a point where all politics can be state-dictated and all opinions served prefab. Hillel would like that. Mona, no.

Protesters confront Central Security Forces, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, November 2011

Protesters confront Central Security Forces, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo, November 2011

I hope the 10 human rights organizations that decide the Ennals award have Mona’s consistency and courage. I hope they understand universality enough not to cower away from the connections. No issue awakens the pusillanimity of rights groups like Israel and Palestine; no other subject can turn self-vaunted Voltaires quite so quickly into quaking cowards. Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, sent an ominous signal last night in an email to the New York Times. 

HRW staff nominated two human rights defenders, and one made it through as a finalist (not Mona). Voting on the finalists will take place in October in a secret ballot by the 10 human rights groups on the jury, including HRW. … HRW never takes a position on whether a country or rebel group should go to war or engage in “resistance.” Our focus is on how wars are fought, and we oppose any deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians. I haven’t seen anything indicating that by “resistance” Mona means attacking civilians.

That’s all quite objective and proper, but note the parenthesis. We didn’t nominate Mona Seif (though she’s worked closely with and assisted Human Rights Watch in Egypt); it’s not HRW’s fault!  This is how human rights organizations sell someone down the river.

Ken should stiffen his spine. Some Egyptian spirit would be a good tonic for the groups that will make this decision. Shame on them if they let the liars sway them.

Why gay Middle Easterners can’t stand GayMiddleEast.com

In June 2011, 15 Arab sexual rights and human rights organizations, and more than a dozen individual activists, signed a statement condemning the website Gaymiddleeast.com for lying about itself, its origins, and its politics. It’s unusual to see so many groups and activists getting together on anything in a fractured region, so this unanimity was something of an event. It’s been six months since the statement, which “Gay Middle East” never answered.  But the website has started creeping back to life. It’s time, I think, to remind ourselves exactly what its lies were, and why they were and are so dangerous.

This statement wasn’t the first time the activists had to tried to ask “Gay Middle East” to clarify basic facts, including where it was founded and based.  The website’s editor, Dan Littauer, earlier responded to criticisms (in a press release written for him by British activist Peter Tatchell) simply by dismissing the questions as “smears.” “Gay Middle East” had denied that it had any links to Israel. The activists responded that GME “presents lies so blatant that a simple Google search is enough uncover the truth.” And they offered the evidence and the truth they had uncovered.

In summary, they found:

  • GME’s claim that it was “not owned or run by an Israeli” was completely untrue: the site had been founded in Israel, registered to an Israeli, and owned by an Israeli.
  • As late as 2009, in fact, it was still registered to an Israeli address.
  • Littauer, its “executive editor,” who when confronted in 2011 claimed he was “a German citizen (with only a German passport),” had in fact repeatedly identified himself as an Israeli in the past.
You can read their research in detail in their statement. What a lot of people outside the region don’t quite grasp, though, is exactly why this is so important.

The activist statement raises a range of political issues.   Those involve, at a basic level, Arab queers’ and Arab activists’ need to reclaim their own voices, rather than submitting to the ventriloquism of others — others who may or may not share their values, may or may not sympathize with their work, but should not in either case be arrogating the right to interpret their struggles to the world.   I’m not going to recapitulate all their concerns here, although I agree with many: they’re already laid out articulately and clearly.  I’m going to address the one that resonates most with me: safety, the safety of activists and ordinary queers. Littauer and “Gay Middle East” have been putting people across the region who work with them in danger.

To be clear: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Israelis working on LGBT issues elsewhere in the Middle East. Plenty of Israeli researchers have produced important academic information on the region. (Among things I’ve read in recent years, Ze’ev Maghen’s work on the concept of purity in Islamic jurisprudence struck me as important, despite the fact that I can’t stand most of what I gather are his politics; and Ofra Bengio‘s study of Ba’ath Party rhetoric, Saddam’s Word, seems to me much better than Kanan Makiya.) But they didn’t do it by denying being Israelis.

Even in Egypt, formally at peace with its neighbor for three decades, Israel remains an enemy in both the state’s rhetoric and the population’s opinions.  Giving sensitive information — and human rights information is clearly “sensitive” to any government — to an Israeli-based group or an Israeli citizen would easily be seen as practicing espionage, almost anywhere in the region.

The khawal as traitor: From state media, 2001

This isn’t a light or abstract threat. It is particularly dangerous for members of groups that are already despised. When the lead defendant in Egypt’s famous Queen Boat case was put on trial, prosecutors claimed he had learned all about homosexuality in Israel. The press carried, and people believed, ludicrously doctored photos of him sitting before an Israeli flag, wearing an Israeli army helmet. In 2007, a Cairo court sentenced Mohammed al-Attar to fifteen years, for recruiting gay Arabs in Canada to spy for Israel.  Prosecutors alleged he was “a gay Zionist, who turned his back on Islam and worked to undermine the security of his homeland.”  He later said that police electroshocked him to extract a confession, and forced him to drink his own urine. There are plenty of other stories.

Israel is proud of its espionage, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. Not only has it long kept up spy networks around and beyond the Middle East, it publicizes the fact just enough to keep governments off-balance. Objectively, in the Great Game, this is sensible. It’d be dumb to do otherwise. The prevalence of espionage makes a general paranoia on its neighbors’ parts perhaps excusable. Targeting gays is not excusable. But when the general rhetoric already sees them as subject to outside influence, treating them as traitors is simply a next step.
If “Gay Middle East” is hiding its real origins, it’s putting the people in Arab countries who choose to work with it and give it information at grave risk. Does it want to keep them at risk of arrest and torture? Does it simply not care? Its duplicity shows contempt for their safety and well-being. It owes them honest answers, which it so far has refused to give.

Networking: Michael Lucas pictures Israel

Many odd things about GME were already on the public record before the Arab activists’ statement. Ben Doherty used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to survey content produced by GME from 2003 through 2008. He found it started as a tourism site for non-Middle Easterners, with a seeming emphasis on sex tourism:

Some of the people currently or previously associated with the site – namely Dan Littauer, Avi Ozeri, and Scott Piro [the latter two also Israelis], –have a background in the tourism industry and public relations, and until 2009, GME tried to be a tourism resource. Before 2009, their site had a section about tourism to Arab countries with cruising tips. The site offered up coming out stories that were both implausible and prurient. They noted sodomy law and age of consent information for each country.

Beyond this, there was Littauer’s obvious political bias against reporting negative information about Israel; his refusal to talk to some of the most respected activists in the region; and his odd association with Tatchell in the UK, a figure known for his Islamophobia.

A key moment came in April 2011, when “Gay Middle East” boasted of how Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office had invited Littauer to contribute information on LGBT issues in the region, for its regular human rights reports.  Littauer was setting himself up to speak for Arab LGBT activism –without speaking to the activists. He seemed indifferent to their opinions on whether, or what, they wanted to contribute to the rights representations of an former imperial (and currently invading) power. The activists’ statement observes:

GBT organizations and activists in the Arab region have always approached requesting foreign intervention very carefully, and it has been the topic of much debate both within activist communities and between them and international organizations that have come to understand the complexities involved and possible backlash that such action would entail.

Meanwhile, GayMiddleEast.com seems to have an open door with the UK Foreign Office and do not think twice about asking them to intervene at any given opportunity. These issues were raised with GayMiddleEast.com by several people, but they refused to engage.

When I visited the region in June 2011, several people voiced increasing fear of “Gay Middle East.” Some were afraid of being blackmailed: Littauer had extracted information about their groups or movements, including names of activists working undercover. They were uncertain how he would use the information, or where it might go.  As these issues were raised with GME, its answer was to turn to Tatchell; the response Tatchell wrote for Littauer’s website contains his signature move of interpreting any criticism as a “smear.” As the activists’ statement says,

GayMiddleEast.com’s disingenuous response to what it sees as a “smear campaign” against it …. obfuscates the legitimate reasons many queer Arab activists take issue with its work.

“We invite Gay Middle East to respond,” the activists wrote. An answer never came. Neither Tatchell nor “Gay Middle East” have ever understood that there are criticisms that demand response and dialogue, not just “smears” that deserve dismissal and rejection.   That inability to answer, to be accountable, to speak to rather than for, leaves them in the end without any credible claim to being activists: just self-promoters, gardeners of their reputations, driven by the passion for publicity.

So six months later, the question still stands: Has “Gay Middle East” got anything to say for itself?

Littauer, at least, has been busily tweeting about those who “smeared” him. His tweets reveal a bit more about GME’s vision. He recently wrote that my old colleague Rasha Moumneh, of Human Rights Watch, is “well known for her loony left militancy – she has a good mentor one shamed ex-HRW…”

The last bit of gibberish I think may refer to me; and, as a Virginia boy, I didn’t know that the German-British-Israeli Littauer, so presumptuously protean, also spoke Southern. But to adopt his demotic Alabaman, I’d just note that I’m ‘shamed, deeply ‘shamed, to be thought Moumneh’s mentor. I’m still young enough to be learning from other people, not mentoring them.

The more interesting point, though, is what Littauer thinks is “loony left militancy.”  He’s referring to a quote Moumneh gave to an article in IPS News. It reads, in its entirety:

“Repression of Arab LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) individuals under previous regimes no doubt existed. Having a non-Islamist government is no guarantee against the persecution of individuals for sexual and gender non-conformity,” Middle East and North Africa researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) Rasha Moumneh tells IPS. “However, the fear over what is being called an Islamist ‘takeover’ completely ignores what is actually happening on the ground. The Tunisians had free and fair elections for the first time in decades. In Egypt, the primary concern is the abhorrent behaviour of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and not the Islamists.”

Now, both these points are true. The crackdown on homosexual conduct in Egypt from 2001-2004 — when hundreds, probably thousands, were arrested, almost certainly the worst such campaign in the region in modern times — took place under a secular government, enforcing a secular law that was a product of a secular-nationalist revolution. You don’t need the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists to start a moral panic and target despised groups. All you need is a vulnerable government looking for a distraction.

SCAF, with bloody hands

On the second point: the new Tunisian government is democratically elected (which should make it less vulnerable, rather than more).  If Tunisia is to become a normal democracy, its citizens and its self-appointed friends have to stop being paranoid about the passage of power. The election of a party may anger or disappoint its opponents, but it shouldn’t create fear for the system itself, any more than a Tory victory in Littauer’s adopted homeland entitles Labour to claim democratic process is collapsing.  When Littauer indicates that, he’s expressing his contempt for the revolution, and his fear of democracy. Meanwhile, in Egypt, it’s the armed forces and not the Islamists who are busily violating the population’s human rights, subjecting 12,000 people to miltary trial, and shooting unarmed civilians on the streets. To pretend that they are not the most urgent threat to freedom (as well as life) is wilfully to disregard the reality.

So what defines the “loony left,” for “Gay Middle East”? They tell the truth, and they respect democracy and democratic process.

And what defines the “reasonable right,” for “Gay Middle East”? I shudder to imagine.

That seems to say it all.

Chronicles of “pinkwashing”: The hue and cry

roll with it

Probably most readers here by now have also read my colleague Sarah Schulman’s op-ed on “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing,'” which to its credit the New York Times published last week. If you haven’t, read it. Before I get to my point — which is the helpful additional documentation of Israel’s campaign that Schulman has since compiled — it may be useful to review some of the myriad incensed reactions the piece drew: to borrow Mary McCarthy’s description of the attacks on Hannah Arendt forty-five years ago, the hue and the cry.

Here goes:

1) The neo-conservative hair salon Harry’s Place argues that Schulman is wrong because, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood. Whatever you say about Israel there is, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood, and, you know, something. Obviously she is wrong, because of the Muslim Brotherhood. Really wrong. I told you so, and if. Just look. The Muslim Brotherhood.

Harry’s Place repeatedly republishes the writings of chronically inaccurate episodically accurate blogger Paul Canning, as well as inveterate liar speaker of power to truth Peter Tatchell, and some of their freewheeling ways with facts must be rubbing off, because Harry and his placemen blame me for Schulman too. I am, apparently, “one of the most active proponents of this strategy” (that is, enlisting the gays toward “ending Jewish self-determination in Israel”) even though I’ve only written about “pinkwashing” once, and nobody read it. It’s flattering to be admitted to the grand conspiracy. Minds as creative and sophisticated as Harry’s Place’s bloggers, back in the days when they found ready employment in the Okhrana, would have given me an honored role in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. To think I missed my chance as a literary character by little more than a century! Still, there’s hope. Harry’s henchmen well know that I’m a paid apologist for Iran, and just this morning I did my first PR work for the Muslim Brotherhood. With a little boost from David Toube and Brett (the wee racist who loves the phrase “ni**er balls”) Lock, I can look forward to a stint as the villain on the next iteration of 24. Gitmo, here I come!

2) Dwarf reporter Jamie Kirchick fulminates intensely in a high-pitched voice. Schulman and her allies refuse to “acknowledge the suffering of Palestinian gays,” who suffer constantly from being forced to be Palestinian, and who, in addition to being the only Palestinians Jamie Kirchick likes, are the only Palestinians who suffer at all; the rest of Palestinians either rest happily in the knowledge that their lands are being well-tended by Jewish settlers, or agree with Kirchick that they never existed in the first place. Rightly indignant, Kirchick flails his tiny fists against the wall:

Schulman and her ilk are in fact using the issue of gay rights to forward an ulterior agenda. So consumed are they by hatred of Israel that they are willing to distort the truth about the horrible repression of homosexuals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. … Schulman ends up making excuses for people who kill homosexuals… [She] lays bare the delusion, paranoia, and cynicism of the Jewish state’s most earnest detractors.

Although Kirchick’s article has gone largely unnoticed in the United States, many dogs and hamsters in Australia, driven mad by the shrill, distant whine, threw themselves into the Tasman Sea.

3) Andrew Sullivan, who is still recovering from an interview Schulman subjected him to in 1999 (“I think you’re not a leader who has emerged from the community; I think you’ve been selected by the dominant group”) attempts his rhetorical revenge:

Schulman is a hardcore gay leftist, and her argument is as preposterous as Jamie notes. … What you see in Schulman’s ideology is actually a distrust of gay advancement if it isn’t simultaneously part of some grander leftist ideological agenda, and subordinate to it. Hence the gay left’s historic opposition to marriage equality and military service and their reluctance to accept that AIDS has gone from a plague to a disease in the mid-1990s for the affluent West.

These are all the things that Schulman grilled him on in 1999, and clearly if only she had agreed with him then that uxoriously married gay staff sergeants on expensive triple therapies represent the only hope for survival of the human race, she would not now be going off on these radical kicks. Queer Palestinians a) can’t marry; b) have no regular army; and c) mostly can’t afford triple therapies. Losers! Forget the bastards.

4) It’s a relief to move from these people to someone I’ve never heard of. Of course, if I were a more knowledgeable anti-Semite I would probably recognize that David Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, and moreover that he describes himself (people always write their own online bios) as:

one of the Jewish people’s leading advocates and most eloquent spokesmen. The Executive Director of AJC since 1990, he travels the globe meeting with world leaders to advance the well-being of Israel, combat anti-Semitism, monitor the condition of Jewish communities, and promote intergroup and interreligious understanding.

I leave evaluating the full force of his eloquence (as against Moses Mendelssohn, Rahel Varnhagen, Heinrich Heine, Paul Celan?) to others. Here he is, though, dazzling us like Demosthenes, and wondering why

Amidst all the turmoil going on in the world today, the editors chose to publish a column entitled “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing.'”

Yes!  The turmoil in Israel (and “Palestine”) is trivial compared to all the turmoil elsewhere; unless, of course, someone actually criticizes Israel, in which case they’re worth at least a column in the Huffington Post. With practice pebbles filling his mouth, the orator goes on:

Were I a gay activist today, would my one shot at reaching the Times‘ global readership be devoted to Israel’s alleged misdeeds, even as I could live freely there and celebrate my lifestyle without hindrance?

We all get our fifteen minutes; we each get one op-ed in this easy-to-waste life; so use it wisely!  If you’re gay, do something for the gays. Celebrate your own lifestye. Don’t fritter those precious paragraphs away on other people.   When, after all, did any of “the Jewish people’s leading advocates and most eloquent spokesmen” ever worry about universal ethics, universal rights and liberties, or the general condition of the human race? From Spinoza to Levinas, the modern Jewish intellectual tradition has been one of a much-needed insularity and inwardness, as my fellow authors of the Protocols certainly knew. In any case, David Harris has done his bit this week to advance the well-being of Israel and combat anti-Semitism. He can probably miss a meeting, or even two, with world leaders, and take a long weekend. The gays can also thank him for taking a moment to celebrate their lifestyle. It’s generous of him to notice.

All that said, you should take a look at Schulman’s chronicle of how Israel’s campaign to enlist international LGBT support has developed. The details are here. I disagree with a few particulars, but the overall point is clear: the campaign has been explicit and acknowledged by the Israeli government. It’s no secret. It’s not, from Netanyahu’s perspective, any shame. They know what they’re up to and they’re fairly open about it. We see again the peculiar disconnect between what can be said in Israel about Israel, and what can be said about Israel in the US: things that almost every Israeli knows are denied to the last breath and rendered unmentionable by its American defenders. It’s a weird dynamic. But it’s all the more reason that, for all their hue and cry, the minuscule Kirchicks and the huff-and-puffing Harry’s Placemats are not just duplicitous but self-deceiving, and can and should — safely and for the sake of one’s own sanity — be ignored.

P.S.: In the comments, Ben Doherty points out some resources on the subject of “pinkwashing”: http://www.pinkwatchingisrael.com/ and http://electronicintifada.net/tags/pinkwashing, and http://www.bdsmovement.net/ (search for pinkwashing).

One additional point is worth making. These writers don’t just attack Sarah Schulman’s position on Israel/Palestine. They delegitimate her (to use one of their favorite words) as an LGBT rights activist, because (and never mind the question of how issues intersect!) she has other concerns as well. Thus it’s not enough to say she’s wrong about Palestine. She cares about non-gays, and therefore she wants to kill homosexuals, which is more or less what Jamie Kirchick claims. I’ve been through this before with these people, on one of their favorite obsessions, Iran; they apparently believe that the very idea of the universality of human rights is somehow lethal to the gays, as they also believe —  more rationally — that it’s dangerous to the policies of the state of Israel. If there’s one thing that’s ridiculous, it’s having to defend Sarah Schulman as a queer activist. As somebody who lived and worked and fought and never gave up through the worst years of AIDS in the US, she knows considerably more about the lives and deaths of gays than Kirchick or David Toube ever will. I must acknowledge that when I started as an activist (I presume this places me firmly in my century) her novel People in Trouble was one of my inspirations. I bought a number of copies and left them in Romania, where I was working at the time. I hear they still give direction to some young activists there, in a country where people have also seen the darkness and the light, and know more about human rights than most of these dismissible scribblers in the US and the UK possibly can.

Pinkwashing Lieberman, whitewashing fascism

It’s November in Boston. Leaves carpet the streets and a chill sharpens the air; we prepare to give thanks that smallpox killed the Indians and left us their land; and it’s Out in Israel Month.  This is a “campaign of education and celebration. We aim to educate about the status of civil rights for LGBT Israeli citizens, hard-fought for throughout the years, and celebrate the LGBT community and culture in Israel. Israel is a multi-faceted society with many faces and just as many narratives.” The Jerusalem Post tells me,

Shai Bazak: I completely forget what I was doing before 1994

The program was an initiative of Israel’s consul-general to New England, Shai Bazak, and will feature performances by gay heartthrob Assi Azar. Azar, a popular TV host in Israel, will screen his made-for-television coming-out film Mom, Dad, I Have Something to Tell You to audiences around the Boston area, followed by panel discussions about life as an openly gay man in Tel Aviv.  The event makes Israel the only country in the world to run a campaign promoting its LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) population.

Bazak’s job as consul-general is obviously to promote Israel, and promoting its protection of LGBT rights is a task he embraces eagerly. At a campus speaking engagement recently, he made the de rigueur comparison to the rest of the region:

“It is clear from what we have seen that large masses of people in the Middle East want democracy, and civil rights, and liberty and freedom … Democracy is the right to speak up. Democracy supports the rights of women and gays and minorities in society who are oppressed.  However … this is a problem in the Middle East because even though many people want democracy, they don’t want it for everyone. This is a source of much conflict and much harm and is at the root of many of our problems.”

Now, Bazak knows exactly what it means to want democracy for some but not for others. In his past life — before serving as Binyamin Netanyahu’s press secretary during his first Prime Ministerial term — he was spokesman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the major settlers’ organization. As such, he defended the idea that settlers had rights and deserved political representation, while Palestinians who owned the land would get neither.

Bazak “lost Netanyahu’s affection over the years,” according to one press report, but gained another patron: Yisrael Beiteinu party chief and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman originally wanted to put Bazak in the prestige post of consul-general in New York. Netanyahu vetoed that, but approved Boston as a consolation prize.

Diplomatic sources deflected criticism that Bazak, with his strong Likud credentials, is not the right man to send to Boston, the site of numerous universities and one of America’s most liberal cities, saying that he has proven his ability to represent the country’s policies faithfully and well.

Clearly Bazak has hit on the gay angle as a way to sell Israel to “one of America’s most liberal cities.”   His official biography on the consular website, meanwhile, omits his service to the extremist settlers, saying only that “Mr. Bazak has held many positions in Israeli government and the private sector.”

raise your hand if you like bears: Lieberman

This is “pinkwashing” to the max: using rights protections for one group to conceal rights abuses against another. But the intriguing thing  –suggested by Bazak’s own record — is the specific role of the Israeli right. After all, the two ministries most involved in marketing Israel’s gay record are both under the control of Yisrael Beiteinu: not only Lieberman’s Foreign Ministry, but the Ministry of Tourism under Stas Misezhnikov.

Yisrael Beiteinu has been widely called a fascist party. Its stab-in-the-back, racist rhetoric against Israeli Arabs fits part of that bill: “no loyalty, no citizenship” was its election slogan (think “even though many people want democracy, they don’t want it for everyone”).  And its promotion of a heroic leader cult and a macho-mythologized Israeli identity fits another. Here,  Haaretz describes its junior wing at a party conference:

The youths, ages 16-18, many of them good friends from school, had stood for a long time before the event began at the intersection near the hotel, waving Israeli flags and shouting “Death to the Arabs” and “No loyalty, no citizenship” at passing cars. …

On the bus back to the center of Upper Nazareth, one of the youths offers this explanation for his excitement about the party: “This country has needed a dictatorship for a long time already. But I’m not talking about an extreme dictatorship. We need someone who can put things in order. Lieberman is the only one who speaks the truth.” Adds Edan Ivanov, an 18 year old who describes himself as being “up on current events”:

“We’ve had enough here with the ‘leftist democracy’ – and I put that term in quotes, don’t get me wrong. People have put the dictator label on Lieberman because of the things he says. But the truth is that in Israel there can’t be a full democracy when there are Arabs here who oppose it.

“All Lieberman’s really saying is that anyone who isn’t prepared to sign an oath of loyalty to the state, because of his personal views, cannot receive equal rights; he can’t vote for the executive authority. People here are gradually coming to understand what needs to be done concerning a person who is not loyal.”

The party’s core appeal is to the xenophobia of Israel’s million-plus immigrants from the former Soviet Union. However, it’s not just nationalism that wins their loyalties.  Many, encouraged to make aliyah to Israel by a demographically desperate state, found that the Law of Return welcomed then but Jewish law didn’t.  Up to half a million Russian Jewish immigrants don’t qualify as halakhic Jews in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

In part this is because of the celebrated “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return, which allows people with one Jewish grandparent to immigrate (on the argument that since this was the Nazi standard for extermination, it should be Israel’s standard for citizenship).   Orthodox parties have long campaigned to scrap this provision and bring the law into line with halakhic definitions — which would only deepen Israel’s demographic crisis. In the meantime, though, the incongruity between the state’s and the rabbinate’s definitions casts significant numbers of self-identified Russian Jews as outsiders in the land. Yisrael Beiteinu gives them psychological consolation by offering an Israeli-hood defined by loyalty and the exclusion (if not execution) of Arabs. It also promises material consolations: it’s a proudly secular party that presses to institute civil unions. This secularism in a state steadily more dominated by the Orthodox gives the party a peculiar appeal to gays as well.

So the semi-fascist party’s flirtation with gay rights has a logic to it. One self-described gay leftist writes:

It’s very tempting to just say “no” and resist any ties with Lieberman, whose MKs [members of the Knesset] are responsible for proposing a bunch of ugly new bills all meant to restrict freedom of expression.
But there’s more to it than that. I’m as Israeli as the next guy. I am a proud, left-wing patriot. As a gay activist, my first mission is to promote and normalize LGBT life in Israel.
The Russian immigrants who form the base of Lieberman’s constituency are in general the most homophobic part of Israeli society, even more than Shas’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.
So having Lieberman’s followers embrace the gay community is a very positive development, even if their motivations aren’t pure.
The fact is, there’s no way back for them.
After Lieberman embraces the gay community, he will never be able to speak or vote against gay laws in the Knesset. Next year, when we try again to get equal rights in adoption and surrogacy, his party will have to support those measures.

Mazel tov.

There’s a lot to be argued about in this dilemma. I’m sure somebody will invoke the figure of the little gay kid growing up in a Russian Jewish family, who will take untold comfort from the fact that his father’s favorite political party is no longer homophobic. And wouldn’t it be nice if President Mitt Romney in the US launched a campaign to attract gay tourists, to a country which by that time will be so broke and devastated that any travelling French homo would be welcomed as a savior along with his Euros francs! Wouldn’t that strike a blow for internal acceptance too? And so on …  But there’s a larger cost to the whole political community when an authoritarian thug like Lieberman gets to paint himself as a defender of somebody’s, anybody’s, rights. “Pinkwashing” corrupts the idea and practice of human rights, by throwing out the promise of universality and turning them into instruments of division and exclusion. What this story suggests is that it’s not just deception for external consumption: it also corrupts the polity from within. Lieberman pinkwashes himself. By expropriating the language of diversity and tolerance, he makes himself look like a decent participant in politics, and burnishes his own racism and violence with a secular and progressive sheen.  The writer above isn’t going to vote for Lieberman, but he’s willing to accept Lieberman’s votes for his own causes. Isn’t that just about as bad?

In the way that absolute power corrupts, occupation — the exercise of absolute control over a population — has corrupted Israel’s politics. Lieberman’s ascent to respectability marks a further descent into corruption. That a foreign ministry under his leadership can talk with a straight face about “a multi-faceted society with many faces and just as many narratives” means the narrative has become a fantastic fairy tale. Among the many faces of tolerance, Lieberman’s is the portrait of Dorian Gray.