The ghettoisation of Danish politics

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Danish government plans to force minorities out of what it classes as “ghettos”, but its Denmark’s mainstream that needs to escape its ghetto mentality.

Friday 13 July 2018

While America separates migrant children from their parents at the border, including toddlers who have to appear in court alone, Denmark has passed legislation that will require children from the age of one living in areas defined as “ghettos” by the state to be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap times.

This new policy carries echoes of, and is a small but significant step towards, the discredited and inhumane practices of tearing indigenous children away from their families, such as occurred with Australia’s “lost generations” of Aboriginals or Canada’s so-called Scoop generations.

Although the children involved are not indigenous, Denmark’s new “ghetto” policies follow similar assimilationist logic. The toddlers and children attending obligatory daycare will receive mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” which reportedly includes not only democracy but also the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and the Danish language – though how on Earth they plan to combine that with pot training, or how they expect Danish minority toddlers to grasp the democratic norms which have eluded many American adults, has not yet been made clear.

This is part of a package of measures passed by Danish legislators at the end of May, which itself is part of a broader strategy to eradicate “parallel societies” by 2030. “We must introduce a new target to end ghettos completely. In some places, by breaking up concrete and pulling down buildings,” centre-right prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said in his New Year’s speech unveiling the government’s intentions.

Although Rasmussen insisted that his government’s aim was to “recreate mixed neighbourhoods” and to “break the chain in which generation after generation lives in a parallel society”, many of Denmark’s minorities, especially Muslims, see this as a manifestation of the longstanding racism and discrimination that has plagued Danish society, which some had allowed themselves to hope that society was in the process of gradually shedding.

This impression is bolstered by how quite a few politicians insist the ghetto laws are not racist or racially motivated, while employing dog-whistles so piercingly high-pitched that they have deafened Denmark’s canine population. This massive internalising of bigotry may explain why nobody in the government appears to have even blinked at officially calling poor, minority-heavy neighbourhoods “ghettoes”, as though ignorant of or indifferent to the painful history of centuries of Jewish exclusion and persecution, which culminated in the Holocaust.

“I grew up in Denmark as a refugee facing racism on almost a daily basis… Danes [would] go out of their way to make sure you feel like you don’t belong,” recalls Maryam AlKhawaja, the prominent Bahraini-Danish dissident and activist, who spent her childhood and early teens in Denmark and returned again as a young adult, following a crackdown in Bahrain which saw her father imprisoned for life. “Things got better after I moved back in 2012, but it seems now that all that underlying xenophobia, racism and hate is surfacing because it’s suddenly become okay to voice such opinions.”

For AlKhawaja, the greatest disappointment has been how the Social Democrats “have become more and more right-wing on migration and refugee issues, and in some cases one can no longer tell the difference between them and the right-wing Islamophobes”. Whether out of expediency or conviction, the Social Democrats, despite being in opposition, voted for the “ghetto package”.

It is possible that the Social Democrats are not (just) being electorally cynical but actually believe, in the tradition of Nordic “social engineering”, that tackling the ghettoes offers poor migrants and minorities an exit permit out of exclusion.

If so, this is misguided. Marginalised minority neighbourhoods are not the problem. They are a manifestation of myriad other problems. The reasons migrants concentrate in certain areas is not generally because they want to live in these neighbourhoods, but because they have little to no other choice, and cannot afford to live elsewhere.

Even if minorities voluntarily lived in proximity with one another. That, in principle, should not be a problem. In fact, Europeans and Westerners have just such a tendency to live in “ghettos” when abroad, so as to be able to support one another and lead a lifestyle according to their own values, not that of the local society.

In Denmark and other parts of Europe, many immigrants do not need an invitation, let alone an ultimatum from the state to move out of the “ghettoes”. Those who become more prosperous and successful tend to move out of their own volition. But this has the downside of leaving behind society’s rejects and providing youth in these neighbourhoods with few recognisable role models for success.

Same goes for crime, which is generally very low in Denmark. In fact, crime has reached record lows in recent years, which you might not realise with all the populist scaremongering going on. If I were to employ the logic of bigots, I would attribute this fall in crime to immigration, as many migrants who move to Denmark come from low-crime societies, and growing diversity, which breeds a culture of acceptance and tolerance. But I would never dream of making such a spurious, agenda-driven, fact-free assertion. Crime is a complex and attributable to numerous factors.

In reality, the reasons why there there are higher levels of certain types of crime in minority neighbourhoods – such as petty theft – have little to do with the concentration of migrants or Muslims and almost everything to do with the concentration of poverty, the intensity of socio-economic exclusion, and the paucity of prospects, and how what constitutes “crime” is defined. This is visible in, for instance, how the traditionally poverty-stricken East End of London has been associated with crime for centuries, regardless of whether it was inhabited by Anglicans, Catholics, black Africans, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, or Bengalis. In fact, the kind of moralising and condescension expressed about the allegedly unwashed, lazy and criminal poor in the 19th century has been repurposed for poor migrants.

Forcing minorities out of deprived neighbourhoods will not, in and of itself, lead to less crime, if their deprivation and exclusion moves with them, and if mainstream Danes do not overcome their own self-imposed ghetto mentality of building cultural walls between them and the supposed strangers in their midsts.

The Danish government’s plan tacitly recognises this economic dimension with the bonuses it offers municipalities which offer employment to non-Western minorities. But this is far, far too little to make a realistic dent.

Far easier is to play the identity card, to suggest that it is because immigrants have failed to embrace “Danish values” that is the problem, not because society has undervalued them and they are excess to requirements in the contemporary model of predatory capitalism which causes the prosperity worked for by the many to trickle up to the very, very few.

And what exactly are Danish values, or European values, or Western values? If we assume them to mean a commitment to and belief in democracy, freedom of belief and expression, gender and other forms of equality, as well as respect for human rights, including sexual orientation, what do we do about the native Danes who are of an authoritarian or fascistic persuasion, or who are misogynistic and/or homophobic? Should they also be sent to re-education classes? Of course not, that is not what a free society is about. A free society is about giving citizens full freedom to decide for themselves, as long as their decisions do not directly hurt other citizens.

Besides, the suppression of liberal and progressive values occurred in Denmark and Europe long before the advent of mass non-European migration. For instance, many locals fear Muslim attitudes towards alcohol, yet conveniently forget that, long before the spectre of illusionary “creeping Sharia” arrived on Denmark’s shores, the autonomous Faroe Islands had an alcohol prohibition for most of the 20th century, and nearby Iceland banned beer.

Then, there is the problem with the slippery slope. What may seem a small or lesser evil today often spirals out of control to become a consuming evil. If you think this is just progressive or liberal alarmism, consider the fact that a proposal is in the pipeline to double the punishment for certain crimes (chillingly, to be left to the discretion of the police) in “ghetto” areas, effectively eliminating one of the founding and fundamental principles of the modern justice system, equality before the law. “I always argued that, despite all the things that I disliked about Denmark, at least the system is, to a large extent, just. I fear that is no longer the case,” confesses Maryam AlKhawaja.

And if Denmark sets a precedent of de facto legal segregation in Europe, who is to say where it will stop. If equality before the law is undermined through unequal punishment, what’s to stop legislation being passed formalising unequal rewards, legislating that minorities should be paid less for equal work?

Moreover, the slippery slope can often consume those who were cheerleading the descend to fascism because a system built on fear and identity politics cannot survive without creating new enemies of the state and of the people, because the beast of exclusion possesses a voracious appetite.

____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 4 July 2018.

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Circassian beauties and the ugly face of race

 
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By Khaled Diab

The curious cases of Rachel Dolezal and the Circassian ladies show just how meaningless race is, while Dylann Roof underlines the dangers of racism.

Circassian lady

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Rachel Dolezal is not the first white American woman to sport a fake Afro. A century and a half earlier, so-called “Circassian ladies” were all the rage as circus sideshows.

The bizarre phenomenon capitalised on the craze created by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s pseudo-scientific theories of race, which traced the roots of white people to the Caucasus, and his belief that “the purest and most beautiful whites were the Circassians”.

These whiter than white circus performers were not actually Circassian and, unlike the ideal of Circassian beauty elsewhere in the West, their hair was not of a luxuriant and smooth silky texture, but was wild and curly, an effect produced through liberal shampooing with beer.

“The hair may have been an effort to suggest blackness… a nod to popular conceptions of African female sexuality,” wrote Charles King, an expert of the Caucasus at Georgetown University.

The long shadow of slavery can also be discerned in this hybrid depiction. American audiences were both intrigued and horrified, given their false association of slavery with Africans, by the fact that Circassian women were among the most sought-after concubines in the Sultan’s harem ­– hence the need to make them appear somewhat African.

“Both African slaves and Circassian slaves were subject to sexual exploitation… and this is the point of contact that played so powerfully on white Americans’ imagination,” wrote philosophy professor Gregory Fried. Beyond America’s shores, however, slavery was a multiracial institution, and slaves could sometimes even reach the highest corridors of power, as the Mamluk warriors – slaves mostly from the Caucasus – who ruled Egypt illustrate.

The curious case of Dolezal and the Circassian ladies demonstrate just how meaningless the notion of “race” is. My five-year-old son and his friend made child’s play of the self-evidence of this truth at the beach the other day.

Though both boys are half African from the actual African continent (Egypt and Somaliland), in American racial parlance, my blond son would easily pass for “white” while his silky-haired mate looks quite “Hispanic”. In short, these two multicultural polyglots, who are still blissfully oblivious to any attempts to pigeonhole their identities, would completely confuse America’s rigid racial compass.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Despite the complexity and ambiguity of people’s identities, America generally prefers clarity when it comes to African-Americans. This applies even to the highest echelons of the land. Take, as an example, Barack Obama, whom it would be most accurate to describe as “mixed race”, “transracial” or “multicultural”, but is rarely referred to as such.

This compartmentalisation does not begin to capture the nuance of his multiple identities. Obama’s absent Kenyan father only gave him his name and half his genetic make-up. In contrast, his white mother, Ann Dunham (and maternal grandparents), gave him the other half of his genes but, more vitally, his upbringing. “What is best in me, I owe to her,” Obama admitted in passing in his memoir which, nonetheless, was titled Dreams From My Father.

Despite this, Obama is almost invariably described, both by admirers and bigots, as “African-American”. Though genetically he is as “white” as he is “black”, and culturally he is more the former than the latter, Obama is, as far as I’m aware, never referred to as “white”, though this is perhaps a more valid description.

For the late Ann Dunham, who did not believe in racial difference, questions of black or white mattered not a jot. However, society did not agree, and her son was labelled black from a young age, with all the discrimination that involves.

And the inability of the most powerful man in America – who is truly “transracial” – to escape racial categorisation can help us better understand the circumstances surrounding the Rachel Dolezal case.

It is easy to understand why African-Americans are offended by Dolezal’s claim of being “transracial”. She evokes painful memories of “blackface”, and the long tradition of white Americans mocking, exploiting and appropriating black culture and identity.

Though clearly an impostor and possibly unhinged, Dolezal is not the only one pedalling untruths. After all, despite the overwhelming scientific, social and cultural evidence that race is a fantasy, Americans of all political stripes still believe, in one way or another, in this fallacy.

At the core of America’s racial identity crisis lies the legacy of slavery – both for the descendants of those who benefitted and those who suffered from its crushing weight. In this light, attempts to separate racial identities are, paradoxically, important to those trying to maintain white privilege and often to those combating it.

In America, even possessing slight African heritage is enough – culturally today, legally in the past – to qualify you as black.

For instance, when I was a kid I was intrigued by how Lisa Bonet (who is of mixed African-Jewish descent) was a “black” character in the Cosby Show, even though she was paler than I was. Her one-time husband, Lenny Kravitz, who is also of a mixed African-Jewish background, was criticised early in his career for being not black nor white enough in his music.

Though race is a myth and an artificial social construct, racism is a far-reaching and bitter reality, as illustrated by Dylann Roof  and his horrendous, unprovoked cold-blooded murder of black worshippers in Charleston. “Segregation did not exist to hold back negroes. It existed to protect us from them,” claimed Roof in a manifesto he wrote. “Integration has done nothing but bring whites down to [the] level of brute animals.”

Of course, the overwhelming majority of Americans find the Charleston terror attack reprehensible and a heinous crime against peaceful worshippers and innocent citizens. However, though dangerous and deadly, it is not this form of racism that has the greatest collective impact. It is the common-or-garden, mundane, institutionalised variety that condemns millions of African-Americans to dwell disproportionately behind the actual bars of prison and the figurative bars of poverty and marginalisation.

This everyday racism in the contemporary USA needs to be challenged with as much urgency and resolve as the white supremacist, “retro” variety of yesteryear’s Confederacy.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 June 2015.

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Enslaved by history

 
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By Khaled Diab

Failing to acknowledge the legacy of slavery on all our modern societies makes the present an unnecessary slave to history.

A scene from Twelve Years a Slave.

A scene from Twelve Years a Slave.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Like Ferguson before it, the upheavals in Baltimore have been linked by numerous historians to the legacy of slavery. Describing the United States as originally a “slave holder’s republic”,  historian Gerald Horne explained, which led to a view of Africans as “the enemies of the republic”, resonating right down to the present. “The origins of [the] urban police department lies precisely in the era of slavery. That is to say, slave patrols,” he added.

While the impact of slavery and then segregation are clear to see in the poverty, marginalisation, mass incarceration and prejudice with which African-Americans have to live, it is by no means a uniquely American experience – the whole world is struggling to deal with the legacy of one human claiming ownership of another.

Owing to its superpower status and the harsh cruelty of its particular brand of enslavement, the American experience has become the global benchmark. But the reality of slavery is far more diverse. Although Africa is the continent most bled by slavery, slaves have been of all races, nations and groups. The very word “slave” refers to the “Slavs”, who were a major source of slavery in medieval Europe.

Even in the Americas, there were some white slaves, who predated their black counterparts at a time when Africans were too expensive to be economically viable. For the British, the earliest source of slaves for their American colonies were drawn from their prototype colony, Ireland.

A white woman sold as a slave wife to an English settler in Jamestown, Virginia. Image: http://immigrationmuseum.wikispaces.com/2.+Indentured+Servants+and+Slaves

A white woman sold as a slave wife to an English settler in Jamestown, Virginia.
Image: http://immigrationmuseum.wikispaces.com/2.+Indentured+Servants+and+Slaves

England’s blood-soaked re-conquest of Ireland in the 17th century – led by theocratic dictator and Protestant Puritan Oliver Cromwell –  involved clearing vast swathes of the country of its Irish Catholic inhabitants. Many thousands of the displaced were sent to the Caribbean as slaves.

Some historians who remember this forgotten episode prefer to use the term “indentured servant” but, to my mind, this is just a euphemism for slave, since these so-called servants were “personal property, and they or their descendants could be sold or inherited”. In fact, an English adventurer of the time described these hapless Irish as “derided by the negroes, and branded with the Epithet of ‘white slaves’”.

By one of those quirks of history, this brings us to another Baltimore, this time in Ireland. In 1631, this village in Cork was sacked by Barbary pirates, whose inhabitants – mainly English settlers whose compatriots would a few years later enslave the Irish – were carried off into slavery.

European slaves in 19th-century Algiers.

European slaves in 19th-century Algiers.

Between 1530 and 1780, these Muslim pirates captured up to 1.25 million Christian Europeans, according to one estimate, causing the inhabitants of many coastal areas of Europe to flee in fear.

From our contemporary vantage point after centuries of Western global dominance, it is hard to fathom that Europeans were ever slaves. But Middle Eastern slave markets were well-stocked with them. These included, at various periods, Caucasians (i.e. from the Caucasus), Slavs, Albanians, Greeks and even Norsepeople.

However, owing to the Islamic restrictions on enslaving “people of the book”, by the 14th century, Africa was the primary source of slaves in the Middle East. Perhaps as many as 14 million Africans were carried off into slavery by Arabs/Muslims, comparable to the Transatlantic slave trade, albeit over a longer period.

Slavery in the Arab and Muslim world differed significantly from that practised in the Americas. Though, like in America, many slaves were engaged in back-breaking work in abysmal conditions, perhaps the majority were employed as servants, concubines and soldiers. In addition, freeing slaves was considered a noble act in Islam and, hence, many were liberated.

Shagaret el-Dur.

Shagaret el-Dur.

Moreover, not all were of a lowly status. A fortunate minority of slaves enjoyed a higher social status than free men and women. For instance, one of the most creative eras of my native Egypt’s history occurred under the Mamluks, slave warriors raised to rule, and the only woman to govern Egypt in the Islamic era was Shagaret el-Dur, a former slave girl. But I’m doubtful that such prestige or power compensated its holder for the early trauma of being kidnapped from their family and regarded as someone else’s property.

Though viewed more negatively, African slaves, too, could rise to high positions of influence. One example of this was the position of Kizlar Agha, the Ottoman chief eunuch and the third most influential position in the Sultan’s court.

For various complex reasons, slavery took longer to die out in the Arab world than in the West, with the countries of the Gulf not abolishing it until the mid-20th century. Despite this, the social, economic, political and cultural legacies of slavery are given very little attention in the Arab world.

The Kizlar Agha.

The Kizlar Agha.

For example, though the long and diverse history of slavery in the Arab world means that just about anyone of us could have a slave as an ancestor, the insult “abeed” (“slaves”) – which has even made it across the Atlantic – is only used to deride those of African extraction. Alongside classicism, the legacy of slavery also colours the attitudes of some Arabs towards domestic servants and migrant workers.

Few Arabs I’ve encountered ask themselves how does the history of slavery affect our relationship with the places where slaves originated and how they perceive us. Within our own societies, this legacy can lead to discrimination and can help facilitate the exploitation of bonded labourers.

Failing to acknowledge and challenge the impact of slavery on our modern societies makes the present an unnecessary slave to history.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 8 May 2015.

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Can the boycott against Israel succeed… and how?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The furore surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream endorsement raises the question to what extent BDS can help end the occupation… and how.

ScarJo

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Lost in Translation brought Scarlett Johansson global fame. Will the actress’s latest role – lost in the occupation – earn her widespread infamy?

Since the announcement that the Hollywood star was the new face of the controversial Israeli firm SodaStream, a war of words between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis has gripped the (social) media. While pro-Palestine activists condemn Johansson for whitewashing the Israeli occupation, pro-Israel activists see the American’s insistence on sticking with the endorsement deal as a vote of confidence in Israel’s economy and democracy.

Meanwhile, sensing a contradiction in Johansson’s dual roles as an Oxfam and SodaStream “ambassador”, the international NGO castigated the American celebrity, eventually parting ways with her. This came after, according to the BDS movement, a reported “internal revolt” within Oxfam, or in ScarJo’s own words, “a fundamental difference of opinion” with the charity over BDS.

In her own defence, Johansson contends that: “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.”

In this, she echoes the Israeli company’s own publicity. “At SodaStream, we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope,” the firm’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum said in a promotional video.

It is true that SodaStream employs hundreds of Palestinians under terms they probably wouldn’t get at a similar Palestinian firm and Birnbaum, to his credit, was willing even to embarrass the Israeli president in defence of his Palestinian workers.

However, it is hard to miss the elephant in the room: if Birnbaum is such a prophet of peace, why is he profiting from the occupation by operating a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement which makes the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible? Surely, if SodaStream really wished to act as a “bridge”, it should relocate its main factory to the Israeli side of the Green Line or, better still, set up shop in PA jurisdiction.

The high-profile campaign against Johansson, as well as other recent successes has been interpreted by many pro-Palestinians as another success for the BDS movement. In contrast, a lot of pro-Israelis have seen in the actress’s refusal to back down a clear signal of what they call #BDSfail.

Setting aside the ethical debate surrounding BDS, this raises the question of whether efforts to pressurise Israel by isolating the country can really achieve their stated goals of “Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall”.

One way of determining this is to examine similar efforts in the past. By putting pressure on a firm’s reputation and profits, corporate boycotts have a relatively decent success rate, as reflected in a number of recent examples, though some companies are more vulnerable than others to this kind of pressure.

Despite the growth of neo-liberalism and the associated privatising of government, countries do not tend to operate like corporations, with the financial bottomline only one factor in many affecting their behaviour.

Hence, the record of boycotts and sanctions against states is far more patchy. In reality, when faced with a determined adversary, punishments of this kind can often fail to deliver the desired results, even in their most extreme manifestations: full sanctions.

More than half a century of American sanctions against Cuba did not lead to the demise of the Castro regime, but impoverished Cuba, leaving it suspended in a decaying time bubble. Other Cold War sanctions hardly fared much better.

A decade of international sanctions against Iraq only succeeded in turning what was once the most-developed Arab country into a graveyard for children and a public health catastrophe. Similarly, the Gaza blockade grinds on, with Egypt too tightening the screws, yet Hamas is still very much in control while the people suffer terrible destitution and isolation.

In fact, in the three examples above, sanctions actually had the unintended effect of strengthening the regimes in question. In each case, sanctions were portrayed as an unfair and unjust form of foreign meddling and the regime as a heroic force of resistance, enabling it to intimidate opponents and shutdown dissent.

There have, of course, been some successes. Many advocates of BDS point to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as a clear precedent. “Sanctions were the final blow to the apartheid regime in South Africa,” the BDS movement says on its website.

“Such action made an enormous difference in apartheid South Africa. It can make an enormous difference in creating a future of justice and equality for Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land,” believes none other than Nobel prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But what kind of a role did the campaign of disinvestment and sanctions play in toppling apartheid in South Africa?

Although South Africa was under African sanctions since the 1960s, these had only a marginal effect, and it was not until the West joined the movement in earnest in the mid-1980s that it began to have a perceptible impact.

Among the boycott’s clearest effects was the flight of capital and credit, the rise in economic hardship, and a slow-down in the flow of much-needed foreign technology, which had a knock-on effect on economic growth and the cost of doing business.

On the other hand, even at the height of anti-apartheid sanctions, South Africa managed to find “sanctions-busting” alternatives, and began a process of recalibrating its economy and finding alternative trading partners. There is also evidence that the boycott was losing steam. For instance, even though the United States had passed a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act only in 1986, US imports from South Africa, by 1988, rose by 14% and exports by 40%.

In addition, sanctions had some unintended consequences. For instance, it forced the country to innovate more, such as developing alternative energy technologies, and had economic consequences for poor blacks and post-Apartheid governments. This explains why opposition to sanctions was not only the preserve of neo-cons, with some South African black and white anti-apartheid activists expressing serious misgivings.

If economic sanctions had only a marginal effect, the academic boycott was even more questionable in its efficacy. “That most of the scholars in our study judged the boycott to be an irritant or inconvenience, rather than a significant barrier to scholarly progress, suggests that it proved more a symbolic gesture than an effective agent of change,” concluded one extensive survey of South African academics conducted at the end of the apartheid era.

In many cases, rather than causing guilt and galvanising opposition to the system, “many scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against”.

If boycotts and sanctions played such a vague and marginal role in toppling apartheid, what actually brought down the system?

It is my conviction that the lion’s share of the credit must go to internal dynamics. Apartheid was not only an unjust system but an unrealistic one. It is impossible to oppress and disenfranchise the majority of a population indefinitely. Mounting, sustained and highly organised black (and, to a lesser extent, white) resistance was the pivotal factor. Of similar import was the enlightened leadership of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, who managed to neutralise stiff conservative opposition to dismantling apartheid.

With hindsight, there is a tendency to afford boycott and sanctions against South Africa a more central role in defeating apartheid than they actually played, thereby depriving the real agents of change, who risked all for their convictions, of some of the glory they deserve.

That is not say that boycotts and solidarity campaigns are useless. If anything else, they at least provide a morality boost through solidarity to the oppressed and enable outsiders to distance themselves from policies and actions of which they do not approve. However, these are tools that need to be handled with caution and care to ensure they do not misfire.

In the Israeli and Palestinian context, the most effective approach is to continue to demand the grassroots boycotting of corporations that profit from the occupation, thereby promoting a more virtuous and constructive cycle of investments. For instance, a campaign could be launched to force SodaStream to relocate its facilities to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

In addition, like with South Africa, the United States should end its military aid to Israel until it ends the occupation, which might possibly be the single most effective economic action any party can take.

I also believe that the academic and cultural boycott needs a major rethink and revamp, especially its Arab variant (which sees many Arabs unwilling or afraid to engage with even sympathetic Israelis), to penalise Israeli peace-breakers and to embrace and empower peacemakers. Such engagement, especially between Palestinians and Israelis, will also help lay the ground for the post-occupation era.

Ultimately, like in South Africa, the occupation, segregation and injustice of the situation will be defeated by Palestinian resistance and Israeli opposition, which would be a far truer “bridge to peace” than the words of a self-interested beverage company or glamorous actress.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 January 2014.

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The trials and tribulations of a Palestinian Mandela

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although I wish there were a Palestinian  Mandela, I suspect that Israel-Palestine is not ready for someone like him… not yet, at least.

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Thursday 12 December 2013

Since the passing away of Nelson Mandela, eulogies glorifying the great man have been circulating around the globe – some heartfelt, others opportunistic; some genuine, others hypocritical.

I will not bore the reader by adding my own longwinded homage to the cacophony of tributes already out there. Suffice it to say that, despite his imperfections, Nelson Mandela was one of the few leaders – perhaps the only – in the 20th century who succeeded both as a revolutionary and as a statesman.

My intention here is to examine Mandela’s legacy in the Israeli-Palestinian context and whether the South African model he helped pioneer could help lead Palestinians and Israelis to the Promised Land of peace.

We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world,” Mandela said on the 20th anniversary of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in 1997.

And from within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours,” Marwan Barghouthi, the imprisoned Palestinian leader who has often been described as the Palestinian Mandela”, wrote in a tribute, reflecting the deep sense of mourning many Palestinians feel.

The tiny cell and the hours of forced labour, the solitude and the darkness, did not prevent you from seeing the horizon and sharing your vision,” Barghouti wrote from his own cell in Israel’s Hadarim prison. “Your country has become a lighthouse and we, as Palestinians, are setting sails to reach its shores.”

But one reason the Palestinians have not reached this promised shore is because they have not had a leader of Madiba’s stature and vision, many argue. “The Palestinians needed a Mandela but they got Arafat,” reflected an Israeli I know, echoing a common sentiment in Israel.

While it is true that the Palestinian cause could have used someone of Nelson Mandela’s humanity and vision, what this view overlooks is that the Israelis have also been seriously short-changed by their leadership. Yes, the Palestinians have not had their Mandela but, likewise, an Israeli FW de Klerk has yet to emerge, with the nearest Israel has come to this being Yitzhak Rabin.

Although de Klerk is largely overlooked today, it is, in my view, no exaggeration to say that without his “verligte” (“enlightened”) contribution, Mandela, who nevertheless deserves the greater credit, may have failed in his mission to dismantle South African Apartheid.

After all, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool conservative for most of his political career, de Klerk called for a non-racist South Africa, lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), released Mandela from prison and managed a surprisingly smooth transition to democracy. This would have been unthinkable had his predecessor PW Botha, who campaigned for a “No” vote in de Klerk’s 1992 referendum on ending Apartheid, not been forced into retirement following a stroke.

But what if Mandela had been a Palestinian and what if he had found his Israeli de Klerk, could he and would he have succeeded where Arafat and Rabin, not to mention the rest of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, failed?

Although I would like to think so and it is tempting to believe that what Palestinians and Israelis lack is a saviour, there are certain structural problems in the Israeli-Palestinian context which could defeat any would-be Mandela, the foremost being the narrow ethno-religious character of the conflict.

Even though Palestinians generally regard Mandela as a kindred spirit and his largely non-violent tactics resonate deeply, if Mandela were actually a Palestinian leader, I fear that his philosophy would face a groundswell of opposition. Despite undoubted support amongst pragmatists, some would label him as a “traitor” for demanding no more than equal civil rights within the existing Israeli framework, while others would dismiss him as a “normaliser” for his inevitable collaboration with Israelis.

Interestingly, whites, usually leftists and communists, were involved with the ANC from its earliest days. For instance, the Freedom Charter was compiled, based on demands from across the country, by architect-turned-political-activist Lionel Bernstein. At the Rivonia trial, which led to Mandela’s long incarceration, there were five white co-defendants who, like Bernstein, were also Jewish.

On the Israeli side, Mandela’s vision and mission would also likely prove unpalatable. Although Jews make up a far larger percentage of the population of the Israeli-controlled territories (former mandate Palestine and the Golan Heights) than whites did in South Africa, there is a widespread obsession with the so-called demographic time bomb.

This would most probably lead many Israelis to condemn a Palestinian Mandela as plotting to “destroy Israel by other means”, to rob Jews of their right to self-determination and even to lead to civil war and massacres the “day after”. Even though they shared a similar angst, white South Africans managed to overcome this existential fear and survived – even thrived – to tell the tale.

Although secular Palestinian nationalism and secular Zionism have both traditionally striven for democratic societies which involved the other side as equals of sorts, this was always in a shell where the other would be a minority and willing to live under a clear, dominant nationalist framework.

One reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not pursued a South African solution – and is instead stuck in the unworkable doldrums of a two-state solution in a land that is under 27,000 km2 compared to South Africa’s massive 1.2 million km2 – is simply a question of time.

The European colonisation of South Africa started much earlier, and had already reached fever pitch by the early 19th century. In contrast, large-scale Jewish immigration and settlement did not take off until after the British mandate began in Palestine following World War I.

As the situation increasingly grows to resemble the segregation of Apartheid South Africa, many, especially among the Palestinians but also a growing number of Israeli Jews, are convinced that the only way forward is a single, binational state.

However, huge confusion and differences remain over what form this should take and how to get there. I urge people to take inspiration from Nelson Mandela and the ANC and launch a civil rights struggle for equality for all, while also protecting the rights of every ethnic, national and religious group. 

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 December 2013.

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Humanising the Holy Land

 
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By Khaled Diab

My time in Israel and Palestine, where everything is politics, has taught me that it is the human that  is holy, not the land.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

In any normal context, a toddler’s third birthday party should be a simple, even mundane affair.  Photo:©Katleen Maes

In any normal context, a toddler’s third birthday party should be a simple, even mundane affair. Photo:©Katleen Maes

Everything is politics, the German novelist Thomas Mann once wrote, and my sojourn in Jerusalem has convinced me that this truism is nowhere truer, at least for me as an Egyptian, than in the Holy Land.

In any normal context, a toddler’s third birthday party, which was doubling up as his parents’ farewell do, should be a simple, even mundane affair. But then, that same week, Gaza happened.

This not only raised the question in our mind of whether it was appropriate to be having fun while war was potentially brewing just a few dozen kilometres down the road, the prospect of having Palestinian and Israeli guests – and plenty of international observers – under the same roof suddenly seemed not just a possibly tense experience, but a potentially explosive encounter.

Despite the dangerous escalation in the war of words and the pulling of rank going on outside, the get-together passed without incident and surprisingly cordially, though the situation kept some of those coming from the West Bank or the coast away.

Afterwards, I felt a sense of relief. For me, as an Egyptian, the situation is sensitive at the best of times. In a context where any contact with Israel or Israelis is widely regarded in Arab circles as a form of unacceptable “normalisation” and the presence of Arabs is often viewed with suspicion or even hostility by Israelis, living in Israel-Palestine is a politically charged affair.

Residing here teaches one that everything is political and politics is everywhere: from choosing where to live and shop, to deciding where to go and who to befriend, not to mention what to call things, since vocabulary is not just idle semantics, but can act as a powerful weapon of negation and denial.

Everything is politics, including the decision to move to the Helly Land. For many years now, I have been convinced that the Arab fixation on normalisation and the Israeli obsession with ghettoisation have distracted attention away from the equally important question of humanisation. This lack of contact empowers extremists to continue their demonisation of the other side and use this to further their rejectionist agendas.

Being here makes you realise that even clothes – from the type of kippa a Jew wears to the traditional Palestinian keffieyeh – speak the language of politics and make far more than just a fashion statement. I’ve always been something of an unorthodox dresser, but since moving to Jerusalem I’ve learnt that white and black, and my affection for headgear, are really quite orthodox.  My wife has also had her notions of fashion redefined. She has discovered that one of her preferred strategies for dealing with the Middle Eastern heat and sun – a cotton scarf tied, gypsy-style, around her head and a loose skirt or a dress – whereas elsewhere it can lie somewhere between the hip and the hippy, here it is associated with the Hilltop Youth and their gung-ho Wild West Bank ways.

Living here also reveals you that the political can also gradually become normal, ordinary, mundane, even humdrum – or, at the very least, an occupational hazard, so to speak. For example, we have raised our three-year-old son, Iskander, for the greater part of his life in Jerusalem.

He went, sometimes on a politically controversial tram, to a crèche in the old city, a stone’s throw away from the holiest, and hence highly politicised, sites in monotheism, past heavily armed soldiers. Iskander not only learnt to speak Arabic more like a Palestinian than an Egyptian, he also picked up some Hebrew phrases, calls money, including euros, “shekels” and even sings “Frere Shekel” instead of “Frère Jacques”. Being an egalitarian toddler, he bombarded Palestinians and Israelis indiscriminately with affection and mischief.

Whenever a military fighter jet or Apache gunship flew overhead – which was with saddening regularity during our last days in Jerusalem – my son would point up to the sky excitedly and shout “plane” or “heli’topter”. Although I pretended to share his excitement, I was privately grateful that he did not have to grow up in Gaza, where the sound of aircraft does not represent a distant and intriguing toy, but a near and deadly danger, or in nearby Sderot where the whistling of rockets does not indicate a fun fireworks display but the muffled sound of a randomly falling rocket heard from the dark confines of an air raid shelter.

However, one thing I will never grow accustomed to is the ugly monstrosity of the wall and the checkpoints and what they represents in terms of segregation, confinement and dispossession.

Then there are the psychological walls and emotional chasms. Trying to bridge these or to infiltrate and occupy the emotional, psychological and political no-man’s land in such a deeply entrenched conflict, as anyone who has tried it will attest, leaves you exposed to both friendly and unfriendly fire.

It also raises the thorny ethical dilemma for me as an Arab – even though I do to strive to be an inclusive, progressive humanist –  of exactly which Israelis I should engage with and befriend.

Although I have not shied away from meeting and dialoguing with Israelis of all political stripes, including extremist and radical settlers, deciding who it is kosher to socialise with or befriend is a trickier affair. Though it is unfair to blame and boycott Israelis for Israel’s excesses and transgressions, should one only socialise with and befriend Israelis who oppose Israel’s repressive policies towards the Palestinians or should differences on these issues not represent a barrier to personal relations? Can friendship and companionship be divorced from politics, especially when, say, an Israeli’s support for military action in Gaza or the wall or settlement building indirectly enables the government to kill and harm Palestinian civilians? Similarly, how should one relate to Palestinians who are sympathetic with, say, the targeting of Israeli civilians?

On a more practical daily level, it can be emotionally and morally challenging to witness the harsh realities of life under occupation for Palestinians, and to enjoy greater access to their homeland than they do, and then to go and hang out with Israelis, who suffer no such restrictions.

Despite this disparity in the power dynamics, there is a growing minority of Palestinians and Israelis who no longer wish to live in the trenches and believe that co-operation, co-existence, and co-resistance will eventually help bring down the real and virtual walls keeping the two peoples apart.

One thing my presence here has driven home to me is that, once you strip away the ethno-tribalism of the conflict, you find that not only are both sides an incredibly heterogeneous mix of peoples, but also that likeminded Israelis and Palestinians have more in common with each other than with their compatriots. And that is why, for instance, secular, progressive, pacifist Israelis and Palestinians have more in common with each other than they do with their conservative, rejectionist, religious compatriots.

Despite the hostile political climate, over the nearly two years of my residence, I experienced a generally warm welcome and remarkably little hostility from ordinary people.

The fact that Egypt is the capital of Arab pop culture and cinema casts a certain glamour upon the only flesh-and-blood Egyptian many Palestinians have ever met, even if I can’t act or sing to save my life, and the Egyptian revolution confers a certain street cred, even though I played no part in that courageous popular uprising beyond writing about it.

Despite the Arab boycott movement, most Palestinians I met, especially in remoter areas, were supportive of my presence and thrilled that a fellow Arab had actually made the effort to come and live by their side rather than grandstand from a distance. And I have been rewarded with touching insights into the meaning of steadfastness, adaptability, as well as peaceful resistance through simple insistence on and persistence with daily life against all the odds. One thing that is striking to the outsider is the powerful lust for life and surprising good humour Palestinians sustain despite decades of tragedy and loss.

For many Israelis, the very exoticness and unexpectedness of having an Arab in their midst softens the tough and rather abrasive public exterior to reveal a hospitable and friendly private side which is not immediately apparent to the stranger, and places Israelis culturally in the Middle Eastern fold. All the doors that have opened to me have helped me form a human picture of who Israelis are, in all their dizzying diversity, and, despite Israel’s contemporary role as oppressor and occupier, how humane so many Israelis actually are.

It is these missing nuances and my conviction that the only peace process that will work is a grassroots people’s peace that has prompted me to write a book not about the politics or the history of this conflict, but about the ordinary folk who find themselves in these extraordinary circumstances.

Seeing the human face of both sides makes me painfully aware of perhaps the greatest tragedy in this conflict: the politicisation of the people. Palestinians and Israelis, albeit to varying degrees, have for generations been viewed and treated as collective causes whose rights to peace and security as individuals are subservient to the claims of the collective to the land.

But it is my belief that if anything should be treated as holy in this unholiest of messes it is the people and not the land.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 12 December 2012.

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The stick of boycott v the carrot of recognition

 
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By Khaled Diab

The targeted boycott of Israel should be complemented with Arab recognition of the Jewish state and grassroots engagement with ordinary Israelis.

Monday 1 October 2012

In a YouTube video, Chili Peppers express their excitement about their imminent Tel Aviv gig.

It is a mark of the phenomenal success of a certain band from Los Angeles that the words Red Hot Chili Peppers are primarily associated in the minds of millions with a unique flavour of funky sounds that has all the spice and kick of the piquant fruit they are named after. The Chili Peppers were an important and integral part of the soundtrack to my youth.

Appealing to the band’s sense of justice, many Palestinians and supporters of the cultural boycott against Israel called on the Chili Peppers to cancel their recent concert in Tel Aviv but to no avail.

“Art alone cannot break down a wall that appropriates Palestinian land and resources,” Palestinian-American poet, writer and activist Remi Kanazi, who is a member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, wrote in an article for al-Jazeera calling on the band to cancel their Israel gig. “But artists and their art can inspire millions to take conscientious action against occupation and discrimination.”

In ignoring this outcry, were Kiedis and his crew guilty of putting profit over principle and of hypocrisy?

In the past, I might have responded with an unqualified, “Yes, they were”, and advocates of the boycott against Israel see the Chili Peppers as having sold out the Palestinians by coming here and behaving as if there were no occupation. And to their discredit and shame, the band which has dedicated so many memorable lyrics to the racism and segregation suffered by African-Americans and the plight of Native Americans, despite expressing strong love for Israel, did not seem able even to spare a single word for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who live in enforced segregation.

That said, the situation is not entirely black and white. The Chili Peppers have a special emotional link with Israel, because the group’s original guitarist Hillel Slovak was Israeli, and Kiedis and crew may have decided that Israelis cannot be held collectively responsible for the crimes and injustices committed by their state.

For myself and the majority of Arabs, the idea of boycotting Israel is almost second nature, given that it has been an integral part of Arab political culture for decades. Even in Egypt, which has had a peace treaty with Israel for most my life, those who deal with Israel or Israelis are often depicted as unscrupulous opportunists who are out to profit from the misery of their Palestinian brethren.

Prior to moving here, I did not buy any Israeli products and, given my commitment to ethical spending, I still believe that a targeted economic boycott is justified to ensure that people do not bankroll the occupation and the subjugation of the Palestinians. In fact, in addition to the popular boycott, Western governments should not effectively be rewarding Israel for its intransigence and there is a case to be made for the United States to suspend military aid and the EU to downgrade relations with Israel – which the EU’s former foreign policy chief Javier Solana once described as an EU member in all but name – until a peace deal is reached.

However, I do have serious misgivings about the cultural and academic boycott. Although institutions which perpetuate the occupation, such as military research centres or universities on occupied land, should rightly not be dealt with, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) effectively calls for a blanket boycott, arguing that, “unless proven otherwise”, all Israeli academic and cultural bodies “are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights”. But presuming guilt until innocence is proven is unjust, and this is a form of collective punishment, albeit not on the scale of the Gaza blockade.

On a more pragmatic level, it is also counterproductive. Take the case of the German documentary about Jerusalem which was set to feature both Palestinian and Israeli residents to show the reality of life in the divided city. Pressure from campaigners caused many Palestinians to pull out of the project, the upshot of which will be that the film is more likely to show only Israeli perspectives.

The veteran Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab – who co-founded the now-defunct Bitter Lemons journal where Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals engaged in oft-heated dialogue – described the furor as a form of “intellectual terrorism”. Other activists who advocate joint action and dialogue I have spoken to have complained of a growing rejection of their approach.

“Some regard any encounter with an Israel as ‘normalization’. I am against normalization… but dialogue is not normalization,” a prominent activist who has spent years promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue told me. “Peace is too precious to be left only to politicians,” she emphasised.

Part of the reason for this hardening of positions appears to be disillusionment and scepticism at the entire apparatus – which put some emphasis on dialogue and collaboration between the two sides – put in place as part of the failed and discredited “peace process”.

“The aim of most of these so-called dialogues is to give the impression that there is an exchange going on,” one young activist involved in the BDS movement told me. “But this happens without the recognition of our rights, without the acknowledgement that there is a people being oppressed.”

But by punishing sympathetic Israelis along with hostile ones, this kind of unenlightened boycott alienates the doves more than it isolates the hawks. Although the cultural boycott claims to target institutions and not individuals, individuals who work for these bodies more often than not fall prey to the boycott, regardless of their politics.

“They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv University,” complained Shlomo Sand, the maverick Israeli historian and one-time friend of the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, warning that the Palestinians were boycotting “the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture”.

“It’s a very, very closed-minded tactic,” he told me.

Moreover, the Arabs have little to show for their decades of boycott, beyond perhaps the emotional satisfaction of not dealing with the enemy. Some suggest that it has even strengthened Israel. “I think that the reason for Israel’s prosperity is, ultimately, an unexpected result of the boycott,” believes Iraqi-Israeli poet Sasson Somekh, who was a close friend of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

“I am against boycotts, even of your worst enemies,” he told me. “If you want to influence them and change the status quo, you need to have dialogue with them, not boycott them.”

Counterintuitive as it may sound to many Arab ears, the best way forward is for ordinary Arabs, not just Palestinians, to engage more with ordinary Israelis – both in dialogue and joint action – because there can be no resolution to this conflict without an Israeli partner, and gaining that partner requires the empowering of Israel’s increasingly marginalized and embattled peace movement.

Moreover, the blanket Arab boycott belies a profound and damaging misunderstanding of the Israeli psyche and the existential angst Jews have suffered following the deadly pogroms of the previous century and the Holocaust. The majority of Israelis do not see the boycott as a principled stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, but as a manifestation of Arab rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

To allay such fears and deprive Israeli hawks of their intellectual and emotional prey, I think that the majority of Arab countries who have not yet done so, perhaps through the Arab League, should immediately recognize Israel within its pre-1967 borders. This simple, highly symbolic act – which actually costs the Arabs nothing and does no harm to the Palestinian cause – can help the Arab world, rather like Anwar Sadat once did, to go over the intransigent Israeli leadership’s heads and appeal directly to the Israeli public.

Sadat believed that a psychological barrier existed between Arabs and Israelis – a “barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, or deception” – which constituted “70% of the whole problem”. While the percentage is open to question, in this, Sadat, for all his failings, was largely right.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 September 2012.

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Israeli freedom riders

 
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By Khaled Diab

Following the successful Palestinian ‘freedom rides’, it’s time for Israeli ‘freedom riders’ to cross the barriers between the two peoples.

Friday 2 December 2011

Drawing inspiration from the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, a group of six Palestinian ‘freedom riders’ – dressed in the emblematic Palestinian chequered ‘keffiyeh’ and T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘dignity’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ – boarded an Israeli bus bound from the West Bank to Jerusalem.

Their mission: to defy the Israeli military’s restrictions on West Bank Palestinians entering East Jerusalem, as well as a general protest against the occupation and the limitations it imposes on their freedom of movement on the land earmarked for their future state.

Like for Jews in the diaspora, who for centuries longed, at first spiritually, for “Next year in Jerusalem”, the ‘holy city’ carries huge symbolic significance for Palestinians. “I haven’t been to Jerusalem for 14 years. It’s a dream of mine to enter Jerusalem,” one of the freedom riders, Nadeem al-Shirbaty, who works as an ironsmith and activist in Hebron, told me.

After a number of failed attempts, the Palestinian activists, accompanied by a large pack of journalists, managed to get on a bus, but were blocked from entering Jerusalem at the Hizma checkpoint. “If they try to remove us from the bus, I’ll refuse to get off,” another freedom rider, Bassel al-Araj, a pharmacist from Walajeh, a small village near Bethlehem, confided to me on the bus while various police and army units standing outside debated what to do.

Though the protesters were ultimately dragged off the bus and arrested, they view their action as having been a great success because it drew international attention to their plight in a peaceful and non-violent manner. They vow to continue and scale up their campaign of civil disobedience.

In addition to the legion of journalists, a number of Israeli activists were also on the bus. They had come in solidarity with the freedom riders and to help spread the word, though they refused to comment on the record with me because they argued that this was a Palestinian action and they did not want to draw attention away from it.

But there is an Israeli angle. Despite the easing of the restrictions imposed during the second intifada, Israelis, with the exception of Palestinian-Israelis, are still barred from entering Area A – made up mostly of the major Palestinian urban areas in the West Bank – and Gaza.

Naturally, the restrictions on Israelis are far less severe than those suffered by Gazans, who live under a blockade, and West Bank Palestinians, who have to weave their away around settlements, settler roads, and land designated as ‘military areas’, not to mention the regular closures and curfews.

Nevertheless, I believe it is time for Israeli peace activists and concerned citizens to become freedom riders themselves to defy this unfair restriction which entrenches the segregated reality between the two peoples, enabling extremists to take advantage of the darkness and demonise at their leisure. It would also enable Israelis to express solidarity with their Palestinian neighbours and raise Israeli public awareness of the reality in the occupied territories.

Israeli activists I have canvassed generally reacted positively to the idea. The poet, publicist and social activist Mati Shemoelof said: “I think it is a really great idea that will help challenge the myths and misconceptions that Israelis have about Palestinians and highlight, through direct action, the reality of segregation.”

The myths and misconceptions that Shemoelof thinks Israeli freedom riders can counter include the widespread Israeli belief that Palestinians enjoy sovereignty but cannot govern themselves, which can help explain the paradoxical attitude that more than half of Israelis want to return the occupied territories but have not mobilised to do so.

Another common misconception is that Palestinians do not know the meaning of non-violent protest. “Most of the Israelis after the second intifada refuse to believe that the Palestinian can be our friends. They see them as Hamasnics. Israelis can’t relate to Palestinian life because of mass media demonisation.” This common fear is part of the reason why many Israelis, either explicitly or implicitly, support the draconian restrictions imposed on Palestinians and are not willing to travel to Palestinian areas.

One Israeli I spoke to insisted that any plans to organise Israeli freedom riders must be “coordinated with Palestinians and not seen as an Israeli civilian invasion of sorts”.

Palestinian activists I have spoken to say that all the ramifications and implications of the action, as well as its political messaging, must be studied carefully before they would be willing to lend their support to such Israeli freedom rides. They are concerned that such an initiative could be hijacked or misused by settlers and extremists to justify the occupation. “It could suggest that there is equivalence between the plight of Palestinians living under occupation and the situation of Israeli settlers,” one concerned activist said.

Naturally, there are Israelis who disregard the restrictions regularly. On the hostile side, there are the militant settlers out to perpetrate ‘price tag’ attacks on Palestinians and their infrastructure.

On the friendly side, numerous activists and well-meaning citizens travel to Area A without a permit. For example, Yuval Ben Ami, who blogs at +972, recently travelled quite extensively through the West Bank, including to troubled Hebron, where he was surprised by the warmth of the welcome he received from locals, but was eventually arrested by hospitable Palestinian police who plied him with sweet coffee and handed him over to the Israeli authorities.

Standing on the roof of a massive shopping mall, he reflects: “I am thrilled, slowly getting my bearings. The ability… to compare and contrast wounded Hebron with breathing Hebron, is priceless for me. I have never held a more powerful tool for understanding the meaning of the occupation and the actual extent of the damage it causes.”

Gershon Baskin, the co-founder of the Israel Palestine Centre for Research and Information and a columnist with The Jerusalem Post, also travels regularly to Area A: “I do travel all over the West Bank and I never ask a permit for myself. I don’t think I flout [the restrictions] but I am not willing to ask for a permit for myself.” He expressed his willingness to participate in actions which challenge the system.

These piecemeal efforts to circumnavigate the restrictions will not challenge the status quo. What is required is a convoy of Israeli freedom riders travelling openly and conspicuously, with the bells and whistles of banners, placards and T-shirts.

It is my view that one of the main stumbling blocks on the path to peace is the absence of true human contact between Israelis and Palestinians – for whom the vast majority of encounters are negative ones between occupier and occupied – which creates fertile ground for fear, distrust and hatred.

Israeli freedom riders can help overcome this psychological barrier by crossing, in peace and compassion, the physical barriers separating the two peoples. Whatever ultimate resolution to the conflict prevails, the close physical proximity of Israelis and Palestinians will require close co-operation, and freedom riders can help drive the two sides a mile closer.

This article was first published by The Jerusalem Post on 28 November 2011.

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Next stop: freedom?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Palestinian ‘freedom riders’ defiantly boarded a bus to Jerusalem. So is the next stop for the Palestinian struggle  a mass civil rights movement?

Thursday 17 November 2011

Huwaida Arraf (left) and Hurriyah Ziada talk to the press. Image: ©Khaled Diab

For untold millions around the world, buses are little more than a mundane and functional aspect of their daily lives. But there are times when public tranposrt take on huge symbolic importance. In 1961, for example, Washington DC played host to the first ‘freedom riders’, courageous civil rights activists who boarded an interstate bus bound for New Orleans to challenge the federally outlawed segregation practised in the southern states.

Half a century later and half a world away, a group of Palestinian activists has drawn inspiration from the African-American civil rights struggle and organised their own ‘freedom ride’ on Tuesday, 15 November, which marked the anniversary of the Palestinians’ symbolic declaration of independence in 1988. Symbolic because, like their current quest for UN membership, Palestinians still live under Israeli military occupation, with all the restrictions on their liberty that involves, including the freedom to travel, work their land, to build and to manage their own affairs.

“Although the tactics and methodologies differ, the white supremacists and the Israeli occupiers commit the same crime: they strip a people of freedom, justice and dignity,” said Hurriyah Ziada, the young spokeswoman for the Palestinian Freedom Riders, whose name, appropriately enough, means ‘more freedom’ in Arabic.

“As part of our struggle for freedom, justice and dignity, we demand the ability to be able to travel freely on our own land and roads, including the right to travel to Jerusalem,” she told the dozens of journalists who had crowded into the courtyard of the state-of-the-art cultural palace in Ramallah, the town which, with Israel’s continued annexation of East Jerusalem, acts as the Palestinians’ de facto capital. She also called for boycott and divestment against the Israeli and French bus companies that run lines through the occupied West Bank.

Basel al-A’raj, one of the Freedom Riders, waits for a bus. Image: ©Khaled Diab

Of course, there are certain key differences between the situation in the southern American states in the 1960s and the situation in Israel and Palestine today. There is no actual law that forbids Palestinians from boarding Israeli buses, and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem do so on a daily basis, although Jews and Arabs rarely mix in the troubled ‘holy city’ and possess their own parallel transportation systems.

However, holders of West Bank identity cards live under restrictions imposed by the occupying Israeli military and are barred from entering Jewish settlements and Jerusalem unless they are in possession of rare permits to do so. So, while African-Americans were free to travel where they wanted but not to board whites-only buses, West Bank Palestinians are legally entitled to board Israelis buses but cannot ride them to their destinations. Such is the perverse logic of segregation and discrimination.

And this is what the six brave freedom riders set out to do: challenge the ban on Palestinians travelling to Jerusalem, running the risk of arrest and possible attacks by violent settler extremists, who have recently not only escalated their attacks on Palestinians but have also increasingly targeted the Israeli military, Israeli leftists and human rights activists with violence. 

But even the most serious political activism is not without its surreal moments and light relief. As the six would-be passengers set out in search of a bus stop, the snaking convoy of perhaps 50 or more carloads of journalists followed on a sort of blind bus chase. This caused not only curiosity among passing motorists but a number of traffic jams on some of the narrower back roads used by Palestinians who are not allowed to drive on many settler-only roads and so have to take massive detours to avoid them. 

We eventually wound up on Road 60, one of the few main arteries in the West Bank which is open both to Israeli and Palestinian traffic. When we finally arrived at a bus stop near the settlements of Psagot and Migron, it was difficult to tell whether the bewildered expressions on the faces of the waiting Israelis were due to the presence of the six activists – who wore the emblematic Palestinian chequered ‘keffiyeh’ and T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘dignity’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ – or the dozens of unruly journalists milling about the road and even standing on the roof of the bus stop.

The commotion eventually drew the Israeli police, army and the private security from one of the nearby settlements. But all of them seemed to be at a loss as to what to do. As we waited for a bus that would permit the Palestinians to board without just pulling away from the crowd, I spoke to some of the Freedom Riders. 

Like for Jews in the diaspora, who for centuries longed for “Next year in Jerusalem”, the holy city carries huge symbolic significance for Palestinians. “I haven’t been to Jerusalem for 14 years. It’s a dream of mine to enter Jerusalem,” said Nadeem al-Shirbaty (33), an ironsmith from Hebron who co-founded a movement called Youth Against Settlements. 

The Freedom Riders wait patiently for a bus willing to take them. Image: ©Khaled Diab

Huwaida Arraf (35), the only woman Freedom Rider and a passionate advocate of the Palestinian cause, also holds American citizenship but refused to bring her US passport along. “To be clear, Israel would not be able to do this without the United States’ financial support and political protection,” she told me. “It’s up to the American people to say, ‘No, we fought this during the civil rights movement in the 60s. We don’t accept it for our own communities, so we should not be funding it abroad either.’” 

One of the settlers at the bus stop, who could have easily passed for a Palestinian had it not been for his kippah (yarmulka), voiced a concern common among Israelis. “We are scared that those people will come and blow us up,” he admitted to me. “If one or two or even a hundred come in peace, so what. All you need is one in a thousand to have a bomb, then what are you going to do? How are you going to stop it?” 

This raises a number of thorny ethical questions. Although a tiny minority of Palestinians has been guilty of violent resistance and terrorism against Israelis, including suicide bombings targeting civilians, does this justify the collective punishment of millions and does such collective punishment reduce or increase the chance of future attacks?

As it began to look unlikely that the freedom riders would manage to find a ride, Basel al-A’raj (28), from Walajeh, a small village near Bethlehem, told me: “We’ve been trying for over 60 years to bring our cause to the world’s attention. It’s not a problem for me to wait here for a few hours for a bus.” 

Not much later, a bus arrived that the Freedom Riders managed to alight and the assembled journalists quite literally tried to press gang their

Israeli police and military watch on in bewilderment. Image: ©Khaled Diab

way on to the bus as the driver desperately attempted to shut the door on his by-now desperately full vehicle. Unable to get on the bus, I joined a number of other journalists who went ahead to the Hizma checkpoint on the outskirts of Jerusalem to wait for the bus. When the bus arrived there, the soldiers at the checkpoint were also at a loss as to what to do with the disobedient activists.

Eventually, they got the bus to pull up into the checkpoint’s car park, where I managed to board as the Israeli passengers began to disembark though numerous Israeli activists remained on board in solidarity. Meanwhile, a stream of officials from the police, military and special forces arrived to take stock of the situation. International activists carrying large placards also formed a human wall in front of the bus. 

On the bus, the Freedom Riders and dozens of journalists waited to see how the situation would unfold. A number of Arabic-speaking police officers boarded the bus and tried in vain to convince the activists to vacate the bus and informed them that they were under arrest for attempting to enter Jerusalem illegally and for disrupting public order.

“Our action has been a runaway success, regardless of what happens in the next few hours,” contended Mazen Qumseyeh (54), an academic and university professor who has published several books on the Palestinian struggle.

After Israeli police failed to remove him from the bus, one of the activists gives an interview on the stairs. Image: ©Khaled Diab

“If they try to remove us from the bus, I’ll refuse to get off,” al-A’raj, with his curly hair, said determinedly, giving me a toothy smile, from his so-far undetected position at the back of the bus. “I will abide by the principles of the law, not military decrees, but civilian and international law, which guarantee my freedom of movement.”

Reflecting on his state, he told me that he was overcome by a torrent of conflicting feelings, including excitement and fear. “But we live with these mixed emotions all the time under occupation. Every day, homes are raided and people are arrested. The main difference is that, this time, there is media coverage.”

After a couple of hours, the Israelis resolved on a course of action and delivered an ultimatum to the activists that they either got off the bus voluntarily or they would be forcibly removed. The police then carried them off one by one to a waiting police van, and each Freedom Rider shouted out their name and rejected what they regarded as the illegality of what the Israeli police was doing to them. The activists were released from custody a few hours later.

Though I was stranded without a ride at the checkpoint, unlike the activists, I was able to walk up a few hundred metres to the nearest Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev and take the bus into Jerusalem. On the way home, I reflected on how I, as a foreigner, have so much more freedom of movement than the local Palestinians of the West Bank and even more so than those in Gaza, and how I take this mobility to roam the world for granted, while Palestinians can have trouble not only travelling to Jerusalem, but during times of heightened tension, to other Palestinian towns and villages.

Despite their failure to enter Jerusalem and their arrest, the Freedom Riders are determined to scale up and continue their campaign to become regular rebel commuters to Jerusalem. “This is only the beginning. This is the first bus, but there are bound to be future attempts involving more riders,” promised Arraf before her arrest.

With the peace process long dead in the water and the end of the Israeli occupation unlikely in the foreseeable future, I have long advocated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be transformed into a peaceful, non-violent civil rights struggle for equality and dignity. This could be a significant step along this long road. Once everyone is enfranchised and has a voice, then the two peoples can start a conversation of equals about their future and whether it will be a common one or whether they will file for a magnanimous divorce.

 

This is an extended version of an article which appeared in Salon on  17 November 2011.

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Sexual harassment: No online way out

 
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Blogging won’t raise awareness about sexual harassment more than it already has. We must focus our efforts on lobbying the government to do more.

 Monday 20 June 2011

Today is a day dedicated to blogging about sexual harassment. The idea is for all the bloggers in Egypt and outside it to raise awareness about the issue by writing about it – all on the same day. However, I always ask myself, does the average sexual harasser who would hiss at and follow a high school girl in Dokki or grope a tourist walking down Tala’at Harb Street read these blogs (many of which are written in English) or even hear about them? The answer is an obvious ‘no’.

Internet usage in Egypt is still largely confined to educated circles. If you surf the web for knowledge (other than pornographic knowledge) in Egypt, read blogs and have a Facebook account, then you are most likely a university student/graduate and probably a member of at least the middle class and most likely wouldn’t around groping that high school girl around the corner. 

So how could we avoid turning this event into ‘people who think sexual harassment is bad’ writing for ‘other people who also think sexual harassment is bad’ in an infinite loop, where everyone is exchanging similar information, knowledge and opinions in our beloved political blogospheric circle, instead of trying to think and act outside this circle.

At the end of today, we will all feel quite good about our contributions and think we must be on the right track, but even though I hate to be the bearer of bad news, we really aren’t. In fact, sexual harassment is just so ingrained that even the toughest stain-removal blogging won’t be able to wash it off.

In order to combat sexual harassment, a consensus among those who blog about it today needs to be reached that there are a complicated and inextricably intertwined mix of social, economic and political reasons behind it.

Let’s take a quick look at the economic factor. It’s not only extreme poverty and inhumane living conditions that lead people to sexual harassment; many poor societies don’t suffer from this social cancer the same way Egypt does, after all.

It is this weird urban mix of dire poverty and extreme wealth which creates this immense feeling of social frustrations and anger at rich people. The victims of this kind of poverty-driven sexual harassment are usually the wealthy western-dressed girls driving around the city in their luxury cars, who embody, in the eyes of their tormentors, the lack of social justice, while their perceived physical and social vulnerabilitymakes them easy prey to these economic and social frustrations. So here, the magic ingredients of this distasteful dish of sexual harassment are poverty and social injustice, mixed in with a potent dose of misogyny. 

Part of being a ‘Man’ in our patriarchal society is to be sexually explicit by showing sexual interest in everything that even hints at femininity. If a group of teenagers hanging around a street corner see a girl passing by and one of them refrains from oogling her out or making a remark about her, let alone ask the other guys to stop it, he would probably end up on the receiving end of their derision and mockery. Victims of this type of harassment are usually the less fortunate girls who are forced into commuting their way around the city and rubbing shoulders with hundreds, if not thousands of men, on a daily basis.

This kind of male peer pressure also increases the chance of sexual harassment. This again is combined with economic reasons; a high unemployment rate and poor economic conditions increase the number of young guys wandering aimlessly around the streets of Egypt. They have endless hours on their hands, due to the lack of work, and little financial ability to do anything meaningful to kill time.

The conservative solution of enforcing gender segregation is not working either but could be possibly increasing sexual harassment. Gender segregation would only widen the communication gap between men and women, creating more gender-based social problems, such as sexual harassment and domestic violence. We should not give up on trying to solve a long-term problem through short-term ‘comfort ‘ measures, such as women-only metro cars and beaches.

As for the political aspect of the problem, it is simply the political system that allowed for these economic and social misfortunes to flourish and control our lifestyle. Additionally, it is the authoritarian political system that stripped many citizens off their dignity to the extent that they see no problem in infringing on someone’s privacy and personal space without invitation. The slightest sense of self-respect would stop any individual from doing that out of embarrassment, even if they continue to harbour misogynistic beliefs.

Even though I see the nobility of the intentions behind calling the 20 June a day for blogging about sexual harassment, this unedifying phenomenon cannot be blogged away as long as the reasons behind it are not tackled. Even if we reach a million blog entries today, there will still be a zillion sexual harassment incidents tomorrow.

A more holistic approach is needed when combating sexual harassment, and the only entity that has the ability to address this inter-connected complex situation comprehensively and put a framework for solving it on the political, social, economic, legal and security levels is the government. Therefore, the Egyptian blogosphere’s main duty should be to lobby the government to do more through its education programmes, media apparatus, poverty alleviation schemes and the establishment of a more socially just atmosphere, rather than trying to address the harassers because they are simply not listening.

This article is part of a special series on sexual harassment. Published here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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