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Plus Ça Change...

July, 2010
By John Huckans

The evening before we left for Jekyll Island in late February, the local Methodist Church in conjunction with the Syracuse Peace Council hosted a lecture and book-signing by Richard Becker, author of Palestine, Israel and the U.S. Empire (San Francisco: PSL Publications, 2009). The weather forecasters had put out a winter storm warning for the same evening so the organizers of the event weren't very optimistic about the size of the turn-out or whether or not the speaker would even be able to make it from his last speaking engagement in Rochester.

Our village is situated next to a lake at a higher elevation compared to the rest of central New York, so the coordinator wasn't at all surprised to get a phone call telling her Mr. Becker's car was stuck in the snow at the bottom of a series of hills leading to Cazenovia. But good fortune prevailed and someone with a four-wheel drive SUV drove to his rescue and against all odds the lecture began on time. Despite the weather the church hall was nearly filled...but then central New Yorkers are a hardy lot. The snow continued throughout the night and the next morning we dug ourselves out again and lit out for Georgia for a couple of weeks.

The lecture itself served as an introduction or overview of the book, which generally interprets the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the conventional, and now somewhat dated, Socialist or Marxist analysis of capitalist exploitation of poorer or weaker nations who are either rich in natural resources or who occupy a strategic geographical location. In the case of Palestine, after the first World War its purpose, reinforced by the Mandate, was to serve England as a valuable land bridge to the oil-rich countries of the Middle East and also to her markets in the Far East. After the second World War the United States more or less supplanted England as the dominant western power in the region and the new state of Israel came along as a convenient proxy to serve American and western European interests. So, in a nutshell, Becker interprets the 62 year old unresolved conflict as refracted through the socialist prism of capitalist exploitation of third world countries.

This is not to say, however, that the author ignores the historical facts that brought about the present situation. In the introductory portion of his book the author goes to some length to de-emphasize, although not totally discount, the central thesis of Mearsheimer & Walt's The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) which is that Israel and her outspoken partisans in the United States essentially dictate US foreign policy through strategic use of political campaign contributions and various forms of intimidation. (The next time you hear a politician or reporter speak about the Middle East, take note on what human rights issue he or she tends to be conspicuously mute).

Mr. Becker has written the book for the educated non-specialist who may not have read books by Pappé, Khalidi, Morris, Hitti, Lewis, Antonius and other historians, and whose knowledge of the subject may be limited to the information (or propaganda) provided by conventional media and popular culture. He begins his narrative with the present but travels back and forth in time, explaining events within the context of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Balfour Declaration, and other instances where the Party of the First Part promised the Party of the Second Part property that belonged to an unconsulted Party of the Third Part.

The tragedy of the Nakba (Naqba), when at least five hundred villages (according to some accounts it was closer to six hundred) were ethnically cleansed of their Palestinian inhabitants between the months of March and December of 1948, is discussed within the framework of the author's main thesis, any part of which, he insists, is a proper subject for investigation and never off limits in the realm of public discourse.

Contrary to Zionist propaganda claims, Palestinian Arab resistance to Zionist settlement was not motivated by anti-Semitism any more than Native people's resistance in the Americas, or African people's resistance to Apartheid South Africa was anti-white. In all three situations, the indigenous peoples were fighting against dispossessionthe theft of their homelands...

Becker also describes the symbiotic relationship between South Africa and Israel, both serving as convenient outposts for western colonial interests. Unlike South Vietnam and Iran (after 1953) where it was never possible to supplant or totally control the local population, South Africa and Israel were mainly about ethnic domination and tight control of the indigenous people, and through close cooperation with the United States, Britain, and to a lesser extent France, the interests of all parties (indigenous people excepted) would be served.

Coincidentally, the day after I began this column my friend Jim (he of the “boar's nest”) e-mailed me a link to an article by Max Blumenthal entitled “The Banquo's Ghost of Israeli Foreign Policy” dated May 14th and published on the website of The Nation magazine. (If it didn't appear in the paper edition as well, that may be an indication of where periodical publishing is headed). In any event, Blumenthal traces the history of the South African-Israeli relationship in excruciating detail, showing how it survived for many years under American protective cover. The Blumenthal article and Becker's book both reflect what I saw when I visited South Africa in late January and early February of 1984. At the time the anti-Apartheid movement was picking up steam throughout the world and apologists for the status quo in South Africa were becoming increasingly marginalized.

After visiting a couple of book fairs in London, I took a British Air flight from Heathrow to Cape Town by way of Nairobi. On one of the longest stretches of the journey I got into conversation with a roadie who was traveling with the band Chicago, on its way to perform at a big resort complex in Transkei, a place that had been created as a relatively new “country” or reservation to accommodate what was to be called “population transfer.” Without much in the way of resources some of these artificial mini-countries or “bantustans” tried to support themselves by becoming casino-type, entertainment destinations, much like our local Turning Stone enterprise run by the Oneida Indians.

During my stay in Cape Town I visited the South African parliament and had lunch in the cafeteria with a legislative aid or assistant who gave me a short course on the “Group Areas Act” that had been passed some years before for the purpose of creating whites-only parts of the country from which blacks (i.e. bantus) or mixed-race people were to be excluded. One of the most famous examples of that policy was the ethnic cleansing of District Six in Cape Town, where the homes of 60-70,000 people were bulldozed and their owners forced to move to other areas—a modern twist on the old Trail of Tears, an experience that many Palestinans living in parts of Jerusalem or the West Bank (in some cases restricted to areas smaller than Syracuse’s Burnet Park Zoo) can relate to. Those who resisted were labeled terrorists and dealt with accordingly.

Derek also told me there was a whisper campaign for creating legal and financial incentives to encourage whites to move to South Africa from other parts of the world (a type of law or right of return) for the purpose of changing the demographics of the country so that it would take on more of a “white” character. Even though public American support for the Apartheid regime was faltering at the time, there was plenty of behind-the-scenes support, as noted by both Becker and Blumenthal, because in what turned out to be the waning days of the Soviet empire the United States wanted an ally or outpost in the southern part of Africa, just as it wanted an ally or outpost in the Middle East.

Three of the main areas of mutual interest and cooperation between Israel and South Africa at that time included (1) agreement on the need to dominate indigenous or native peoples through various methods such as expulsion and population transfer to tightly controlled areas that for all practical purposes served as open air prisons, (2) incentives for encouraging immigration of people from favored ethnic backgrounds, and (3) exchanges of nuclear technology, including for military purposes.

Even though Becker's book sometimes reads like an old “wobblie” (IWW) treatise from the early 20th-century, emphasizing his view that the centuries-old conflict between the interests of capital and labor overlaid by old fashioned imperialism lies at the heart of the Palestinian question, he does present the unpleasantness of the ethnic conflict with plenty of documented sources and a large selection of photographs. One in particular I found quite disturbing. It shows a member of the Givati Brigade's Shaked battalion wearing a T-shirt with an image of a Palestinian woman in the late stages of pregnancy with the cross-hairs of a telescopic sight focused on her lower abdomen. The text above the image, in Hebrew, says “Snipers Unit”; below, in English, it says “1 shot 2 kills.”

Pretty inflammatory stuff certainly, but within the context of what's going on in the world today it's just another day at the office. There is something about tribal conflict that brings out the worst in humanity, whether it's Hutu and Tutsi, Han and Uighur, Jew and Palestinian, Afrikaner and Bantu, Sunni and Shi'a, or other tribal groups that strenuously identify themselves along ethnic or religious lines. What is particularly troublesome though, is when powerful nations, from economic or political motives, take sides in ethnic conflicts for reasons that have nothing to do with fundamental human rights.

 Looking Ahead...

 After one of the coldest winters in the East for a long time, followed by a blanket of snow on Mother's Day that came several days after three inches of walnut-sized hail shredded many of our annuals that were outside ready for planting, I was reminded that in the world gardeners live in, uncertainty is the only certainty.

Some of our new dahlias, such as New Dimension (a cactus-bloom variety), Lucky Number, Akita and Peaches ’n Cream, had been planted two weeks before and were still safely below ground. Hail and snow at that time of year are what old timers used to call “poor man's manure” and it must be true because right now most of the dahlias are progressing well and should be in bloom nearly a month ahead of schedule. And while writing this I'm looking out my office window and they seem to be growing by the minute.

Paul Minet's “Letter from England” this time is a reprint from our May/June 2004 issue. Paul is presently undergoing treatment for cancer for the second time, and is not yet well enough to resume his normal activities. I spoke with him about an hour ago and he hopes to be back with us in the next issue. Anyone wanting to wish him a speedy recovery may send a note or card in care of Piccadilly Rare Books, Church Street, Ticehurst, East Sussex, TN5 7AA, England.

In some ways small, independent magazines or journals are like gardens which reminds me of an old story I re-told in In Praise of Follies (September/October 2003). A vicar walking home from church and perhaps wanting to hang a guilt trip on a parishioner who hadn't attended services that day says “Hello George, you and the Almighty have made a wonderful job tending the garden” to which George replies “Thank you vicar, but you should have seen it when the Almighty was doing it all by himself.”

Since the initial confusion over our new subscription policy (see the “Patrons of Words on Paper” form in the back pages of this issue), many of you have gotten used to the idea of reading the mailing label on your envelope before throwing it away. It shows the expiration date of your subscription and serves as our only renewal notice because constantly rising postal rates are one of the major problems threatening the continued existence of this and many other print magazines. But thanks to all the folks on our “A-List” who help make this garden grow, we hope to be around for a while. Without them, I don't think the Almighty would be doing it all by himself.