Human Rights and Selective Amnesia: Gazans’ expulsion from humanity

In 1946, mostly due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, the spouse of the late president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a committee was convened to draft what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As Mary Ann Glendon and Johann Morsink, individual authors of separate books on the UDHR, point out, the context for this document was hardly ideal: it was being developed in the midst of the increasing tensions of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the British handoff of Palestine to form the new Jewish state, and in the midst of an emerging insistence on self-rule in South Asia, among other places. Passed in 1948, ratified by 48 nations initially, the UDHR is heralded as a guidebook for human rights, presumably obligating all 192 UN member nations to acknowledge, if not observe it. It is, by most accounts a “Western” document, crafted by philosophers among others. It evokes the ideals of liberalism and the sacrosanct rights thought to be afforded to the individual, as well as the Kantian notion of human dignity (as something that is beyond value, that does not have a market price). It expresses the unconditional protection that individuals are thought to have with regard to their lives, their health, their ability to marry who they wish (an idea that has taken on a new light in the last few years), to form community with whomever one chooses, to have the ability to determine oneself as one pleases.

The UDHR is a breathtaking document, a mix of unadulterated optimism and seductive naïveté. It is impossible to read without asking how such a framework would ever be enforced. Indeed, this is exactly what students in my courses ask (or more cynically, scoff at). Hannah Arendt, writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust, criticized a human rights framework because of this paradoxical nature:

 

The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable—even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them—whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state.[1]

 

The question of enforceability ironically reveals the point of the UDHR: these protections should be assumed to be universal, unconditional, unanimously observed. And yet, as Arendt implies—the loss of human rights is predicated on the increasing dehumanization and vulnerability of those same human beings. The loss of human rights is preceded by the loss of one’s home, the loss of recognition of one’s “distinct” and precious existence.

The question of human rights arises when a people is inexorably moved toward dehumanization: displaced, violated, removed from their land. But the removal of people from their community, their home, already signals “the loss of government protection,” as Arendt says, and the loss of status as beings worth protecting: political beings, legal human beings. This loss is succinctly clinched by philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s phrase “bare life”—the unique, sacred existence of a people rendered into a barely distinguished mass of existence.

The long-standing paradox of human rights is that the declaration to observe them is a hollow scream that follows their loss, which is the consequence of the loss (if there ever was) of government interest in valuing a people.

We see this loss in US government policies since 9/11, most recently inaugurated by the Bush Administration but continued and enhanced under the Obama Administration: solitary confinement in Supermax and Guantanamo Bay; the tortuous force-feeding of Guantanamo hunger strikers; the aggressive detention of undocumented migrants in the US; the aggressive deportation attempts of child refugees from Central America, the rendition of suspected terrorists in CIA black sites (and eventually to US prisons); the entrapment of Black and South Asian Muslim men in FBI stings.

Today’s most vivid example is the continued support of Israel’s assault on Gaza, and the US’s support of that assault. Even as pictures of severely injured and dismembered children proliferate on-line, the Washington Post publishes team editorials and op-eds insisting that Israel must “crush Hamas.” Israel justifies carpet-bombing Gaza and the death of hundreds of children by insisting that Hamas uses “human shields.” Even while confessing to being traumatized by pictures of dead civilians, Senator John Kerry repeated the White House line that Israel “has the right to defend itself.”

The latter is a stale and hollow canard, reiterated by American newspapers and politicians alike. It is especially hollow in the face of an obviously one-sided genocidal pummeling of a tiny region. Gaza is, let’s remember, one of the most densely populated regions in the world—where there are no exits or escape from the relentless bombing except into the sea.

As of last night, the sixth UN school was bombed by Israel despite 17 warnings as to the shelter’s location. The UN schools were supposed to be protected shelters—intended as refuges for Palestinians who feared their homes would be targeted by Israeli missiles, Yet, despite reports of massive numbers of injuries and casualties, no one in the Israeli government has seen fit to issue an apology. “Self-defense.”

Let us assume for even a moment that despite many first-hand accounts to the contrary, Israel is correct in that Hamas is using “human shields.” Shouldn’t this very possibility give Israel pause? If it were indeed a brinksmanship game, given that Israel has been—will be—barely scathed by Hamas’ rockets, shouldn’t it refrain from blanketing Gaza with missiles that are seen to be annihilating hospitals, children, doctors—all unanimously agreed to be innocent targets? (Never mind that Palestinian men, too, are innocent targets, even as few acknowledge that.) It may be relevant to mention here that Israel is familiar with practice of using Palestinians as human shields. Despite a 2005 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that banned the Israeli government from doing so, it was accused of the same practice as recently as last year.

Yet, the constant Israeli retort of “self-defense” obscures Palestinians’ entitlement to human rights as channeled into the UDHR, prioritizing a selective amnesia in the aftermath of the genocide of European Jews. This robotic line is hardly unique to Israel. It has been echoed in justifying the U.S.’s “war on terror.” Remember President George W. Bush’s insistence, in the aftermath of 9/11: “You’re with us or against us”? This is what the assemblage of a “national security” apparatus is—the totalizing, synchronized governmental rhetoric that surrounds us whichever way we turn: From the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, to the expansion of the NSA (the National Security Agency), to the shift in name from INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to ICE (Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement), the modern Western discourse reminds us that “national security” takes priority above any other consideration. The message emanates from its paid lackeys and chicken hawks alike, from Senator Dianne Feinstein to NSA Director Keith Alexander and to DNI Director James Clapper to politicians looking forward to their next campaign (witness Elizabeth Warren’s page and the votes of “progressive politicians from Bernie Sanders to Patrick Leahy) to mercenaries looking for their next million. But “any other consideration” includes not just cost, labor, energy—but also the Lives of Other People (Just Not Ours).

In effect, this is the current post 9/11 global paradigm: F*ck the Lives of Other People (FLOP) in the name of national security. Pundits have called it the New Imperialism, but I think it’s much more apt and succinct to label it as National Security FLOP. This is not to say that NatSec FLOP is original, unique, or singular, but it heralds in a (relatively) new epoch, in which human rights have no currency (except when convenient to a government’s rhetorical ethos). Herein lies the brilliant rhetoric of “self-defense,” used all too often to launch an overwhelming, disproportionate attack on an already vulnerable group, invoking the human rights of those that are not in danger: Kill, but always insist that it’s in order to protect “our own”—even when the facts say otherwise.

The seduction of NatSec FLOP is contagious, especially when consumed in conjunction with the self-aggrandizing allure of hunting “TERRORISTS.” Indeed, both of these positions were enthusiastically adopted by nations whose agendas were conveniently enhanced and justified by riding the coat-tails of American muscularity: the UK, India, Turkey, Pakistan, to name a few.

This is the paradox of human rights that seems to be in play in current moment: the rights of certain individuals can only be secured through the promise to kill others in the name of human rights. This is the supposed trade-off promulgated by the United States, borrowed and appropriated by other nations as convenient: National Security versus Rights. For the US, the trade-off promises, at the domestic level, to be deceptively effective: Freedom v. Security (if you want to be safe, then agree to give up (“some of”) your rights—to privacy, to your public dissent, to your conscience, to the violation of your home, your person, your speech, your freedom. Except that most of us–especially Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, the poor–residing in the US were never offered that choice.

Internationally, National Security has become the defense, the Maginot line against which cries of human rights evaporate.

We see this with regard both to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to condemnations of Israel’s bombing of Gaza hospitals, UN schools, private residences, and massive number of children dead: Israel has the “right to defend itself.”

Here’s the thing about self-defense: Self-defense means the deployment of sufficient force to block attacks or injury on one’s property, home, or person. It does not mean initiating and sustaining attacks that are disproportionately larger than any imaginable provocation. Self-defense does not mean continuously bombing innocent bystanders—not even accidentally—not one, not two, and certainly not thousands of them—children, women, men, doctors, safety personnel.

According to Norman Finkelstein, who recently wrote a piece on Human Rights Watch’s artful evasion in blaming Israel for its large-scale killings:

International law prohibits an occupying power from using force to suppress a struggle for self-determination, whereas it does not prohibit a people struggling for self-determination from using force.[…]The International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated in its 2004 advisory opinion that the Palestinian people’s “rights include the right to self-determination,” and that “Israel is bound to comply with its obligation to respect the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Israel consequently has no legal right to use force to suppress the Palestinian self-determination struggle. Israel also cannot contend that, because this self-determination struggle unfolds within the framework of an occupation, it has the legal right, as the occupying power, to enforce the occupation so long as it endures.

It is difficult to reconcile Israel’s actions with its claims to self-defense, when it has complete control over Gaza’s borders. Self-defense is usually accepted as reasonable when one (person, community, region, nation) is unable to leave the region under attack. Self-defense does not mean blockading all possible openings to a densely packed region that has no other exits nor avenues to get out of the way of these rockets.

In the U.S., it is easy to be habituated to corporate media’s spin and ideology surrounding Israel’s actions toward Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank: it is a fairly standard position that has had long-standing, even when contradicted by opposite realities. And certainly, it is no secret that the US and Israel share the close intimacy, from providing Israel’s funding, weaponry, and moral support, even in the face of heinous crimes.

Here is Arendt again:

What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one. Suddenly, there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated, no territory where they could found a new community of their own…this moreoever had nothing to do with any material problem of overpopulation; it was a problem not of space but of political organization. Nobody had been aware that mankind, for so long a time considered under the image of a family of nation, had reached the stage where whoever was thrown out of one of these tightly organized closed communities found himself thrown out of the family of nations altogether.” (Arendt, 1951, 293–4)

 

Arendt here is referring to European minorities who had been displaced, survived the camps, been relocated into refugee camps. But it doesn’t take much to extend this discussion to Palestinians today.

Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity expels him from humanity. (Arendt 1951, 297)

 

How does one go about resurrecting the humanity of a people that has been completely, politically, legally, internationally, abandoned? The answer is obvious, but the solution can only occur when Israel, the US, and the rest of the West drops their convenient, selective, amnesia.

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[1] Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1951). P. 293.

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Israel’s “Right to Self-Defense” is Kinda Like “Reverse Racism”: Hardly an Equal Playing Field

Since Israeli broke the ceasefire with Gaza last Wednesday, 100 Palestinian civilians have been killed. Number of Israelis killed: 3. And that’s the short view. The long view makes Israel look even worse.

From a report by the Palestine Center entitled “Imbalance of Power: Understanding Weapons and Casualties in Gaza”:

“From January through September 2012, Israeli weaponry caused 55 Palestinian deaths and 257 injuries. Among these 312 casualties, 61, or roughly 20 percent, were children and 28 were female. 209 of these casualties came as a result of Israeli Air Force missiles, 69 from live ammunition fire, and 18 from tank shells.
 
In 2011, the projectiles fired by the Israeli military into Gaza were responsible for the death of 108 Palestinians, of which 15 where women or children, and the injury of 468 Palestinians, of which 143 where women or children. The methods by which these causalities were inflicted by Israeli projectiles breaks down as follows: 57 percent, or 310, were caused by Israeli aircraft missile fire; 28 percent, or 150, where from Israeli live ammunition; 11 percent, or 59, were from Israeli tank shells; while another 3 percent, or 18, were from Israeli mortar fire.
 
As this infographic shows, there is no room for a discussion on the “equal sides of the conflict,” when the reality is a first-world country, with all the trappings of a modern highly sophisticated weapons arsenal, launching devastating and brutal attacks against the most densely populated area in the world, where half its population is youth and 40 percent of its population lives below the poverty line.”

And in case you find the source of this report a biased, check out the figures calculated by the United Nations: In the last 10 years, Israel has killed over 3400 Palestinians. Israelis killed by Palestinians: Fewer than 80.

These numbers only go up to July 2012.

In this scenario, the Surround-Sound claim of Israel’s “Right to Self-Defense” makes about as much sense as a schoolyard bully who corners a nerdy weakling for weeks and months, steals her lunch and money, until the weakling finally gets so tired of being bullied that she bloodies the bully’s nose–only to have the bully claim injury. To make the situation even more absurd, all the bully’s friends rally round to “support” the bully’s claim of “uninstigated” injury and the right to self-defense: Israel’s RoSD has been trumpeted and parroted by numerous journalists, pundits, mainstream newspapers and magazines. It seems as if a day hasn’t passed where there hasn’t been another senator echoing the commitment of Israel to “defend itself,” as per a  resolution passed by “unanimous” acclimation by the US Senate and House last Friday. Dennis Kucinich appears to be the only Congressman to challenge the resolution or its sentiments.

The chorus of the mainstream media and the US government “supporting” Israel’s right of self-defense, with nary a mention of the right of Palestinians to live is remarkably ahistorical and anti-intellectual on several counts, especially when considering that Israel had been planning an assault on Gaza for months, according to various rumors. Richard Falk, the UN Rapporteur for Palestinian Human Rights, points out that

The counter-narrative, accepted by most independent observers, is that the Israeli removal of troops and settlements was little more than a mere redeployment to the borders of Gaza, with absolute control over what goes in and what leaves, maintaining an open season of a license to kill at will, with no accountability and no adverse consequences, backed without question by the US government.

 

Backed by the US government how, you ask?

Israel’s military arsenal is not due to the tax pressure on its citizens, but is largely funded by the United States. American citizens actually pay more money individually and overall to the Israeli military structure than Israeli citizens do.”

In this regard, the “both sides” are equal argument is as disingenuous as the “Reverse Racism,” argument deployed by whites against Affirmative Action. That argument goes something like this: “I had nothing to do with African Americans being enslaved. My ancestors didn’t arrive in the US until this century. Why should I be discriminated against?”

Of course, there are several telling (and faulty) assumptions here:

-There is an equal playing field for all.

-“Racial discrimination” is easily deployed by an oppressed group (Black Americans) against a dominant (white and upper-class) population with social, economic, and political resources to control and manage the game of ascending to power/college/employment.

-History and long-standing structural racism doesn’t matter when considering injury, discrimination or justice.

If we examine these three assumption in the case of Gaza and Israel, of course, the “Right of Self-Defense” argument immediately becomes apparent in its falsity.  Back in 2008, Darryl Li illustrated the disingenuity of the “equal playing field” argument as he describes the initiation of project of managing Palestine along with Israel’s paradoxical claim to “disengagement”:

 

Since its beginnings over a century ago, the Zionist project of creating a state for the Jewish people in the eastern Mediterranean has faced an intractable challenge: how to deal with indigenous non-Jews — who today comprise half of the population living under Israeli rule — when practical realities dictate that they cannot be removed and ideology demands that they must not be granted political equality. From these starting points, the general contours of Israeli policy from left to right over the generations have been clear: First, maximize the number of Arabs on the minimal amount of land, and second, maximize control over the Arabs while minimizing any apparent responsibility for them.

 

What we also know however, is that the most recent incitement to the “escalation” is in fact a long-standing plan on the part of the Israeli government. As Samira Esmeir argues, Gaza is a colonial experiment. It

 

has become the literal testing ground for Israel’s various experiments, as well as for the fulfillment of the personal ambitions of Israeli politicians. The transformation of Gaza into a laboratory for colonial and imperial hegemony in the region is made in Israel. As an occupying power, Israel transformed Gaza into such a laboratory by imposing on it different forms of confinements culminating in the siege imposed and maintained since 2006.

Confinement lessens the checks on Israel’s military operations and decreases the deterrence and self-defense that Gaza can offer against the Israeli war machine. The horror of this latest war therefore lies not only in the destruction it engenders, but also in its condition of possibility: Here is a population held hostage that Israel attacks when it wishes in order to achieve political ends that have little to do with Gaza itself. The horror is in the careful and measured instrumentalization of the Palestinian population and in the logic that the colonized are expendable for any end.

 

This then is not a case of Israel being provoked or defending itself against “Hamas.” To take refuge in that line requires a deliberate forgetting—an intentionally self-serving memory that refuses to take history and the political project of colonialism into account. If we relish the “apolitical” argument that says “both sides are to blame,” we absolves ourselves of the responsibility to take history and domination into our thinking.

When bullies claim injury, authority figures need to stop the fight and punish the bully, not invoke his right to self-defense. Bullies and victims are hardly on the same playing field.

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