Wednesday, November 26, 2014

No, Ferguson Is Not Palestine

The debate over recent events in Ferguson, Missouri is far too extensive to unpack in a single blog post. However, one of the more wonky facets of the response to these events has been what academics call "issue linkage." Protesters, bloggers, and social media mavens have linked events in Ferguson to the plight of Afghanis, Iraqis and Palestinians. The means of linkage is often the use of terms like "oppression," "extra-judicial killing," "occupation," and even "colonialism." It is ironic that activists so quick to invoke Orwell have appropriated such terms based on their strategic emotional connotation rather than their meaning. 

Here are the distinctions.

Oppression in Ferguson is the fact that laws about the use of police force disproportionately affect Americans of color because of systemic social attitudes of racism. Oppression in the Palestinian territories is the result of a set of laws imposed without consent by a military administration which engages in belligerent occupation.

Assassinating Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004 is an example of extra-judicial killing. Targeting Anwar al-Alawki in 2011 is an example of an extra-judicial killing. Both are premeditated strikes against an individual (in the latter case, a citizen) that deliberately deny due process under the law.  A police officer shooting an unarmed 18-year old six times under unclear circumstances is an example of an excessive use of force. There is no evidence to suggest his horrific death was a premeditated act of targeting by the State.

Belligerent occupation refers to the governing presence of a military force without the assent of the governed population. Scholars, lawyers, and judges (including Israel's Supreme Court) consider the West Bank to be under belligerent occupation. Ferguson, Missouri is an American town under the jurisdiction of the American government and officials elected by citizens. In no sense of the word is Ferguson occupied.

This blog has seen previous discussion as to whether or not the West Bank is "colonized," but even arguments in the affirmative cannot reasonably be applied to Ferguson. No "foreign" power is expanding its territory, settling a foreign population, or exploiting resources.

There are other differences.

A protest in Ferguson is an act of constitutionally-protected speech. A protest in the West Bank is a "security incident."

Police in Ferguson may be disproportionately white but all are US citizens. Members of the IDF are (almost always) Israeli citizens administering a Palestinian population without such citizenship.

Extreme violence by a small minority in Ferguson looks like looting stores or low-intensity acts against police. Extreme violence in the West Bank by a small minority looks like stabbings, car attacks, kidnappings, and other forms of terrorism.

The very existence of Palestinians as an ethnic and national group continues to be denied in the (conservative) mainstream. That African Americans are a cohesive minority group in the United States and that this group is constitutionally entitled to equality is a fact denied by only the most radically conservative Americans, who are widely ridiculed.


The use of poorly-constructed and inaccurate comparisons is an attempt to invoke notions of a global struggle. While the fight for recognition and rights may very well be global, the ways in which this struggle takes place and the conditions these struggles seek to change vary widely. Misappropriating analytical terms to highlight emotional similarities does a disservice to those to whom the term actually applies (now or historically). It is analytically lazy, since it invokes connections based on feelings rather than a well-constructed argument. Finally, it disempowers the people at the heart of such struggles by constructing them as essentialized agents of a grandiose theory rather than as people with multi-faceted ideas, needs, and agency to change their circumstances.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

BDS And Free Speech At #MESA2014: A Contradiction In Terms

Next Monday, members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) will be voting on a resolution which asks the membership to “affirm the right of MESA members to engage in open and transparent discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” What this boycott would entail and how far it would go are left unspecified in the text. The resolution comes in the wake of a letter by MESA President Nathan Brown which took a fairly neutral stance towards the issue of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). BDS supporters at MESA are hardly the target of persecution. In fact, MESA has announced a special Presidential Forum on BDS where participants will have a chance to speak on the issue.

Nonetheless, the resolution frames itself as affirming members’ free speech, highlighting the membership’s “right” to discuss BDS. Deploring unspecified “measures of intimidation” against similar academic associations, the resolution encourages members to discuss BDS in the name of freedom of expression.

This position is contradictory. Discussing BDS is indeed legitimate. However, by specifically targeting “Israeli academic institutions,” supporters of the resolution are prima facie restricting freedom of expression. A MESA boycott of these institutions and their academics would, by definition, restrict their access to the discourse MESA fosters. Discussing ways to end Palestinian suffering and Israel's military policies in the West Bank are valid topics of academic conversations. However, a body which calls for Israelis to be excluded from those discussions cannot logically do so in the name of free speech.

The resolution also gives no justification for dis-aggregating an Israeli academic boycott specifically from the plethora of actions that fall under the umbrella of BDS. Is it because the Israeli academy has ties with a defense establishment that commits human rights violations? If so, the resolution should also include mention of the plethora of Middle Eastern academies - and the American academy - who have such links. The resolution gives no universally applicable standard for its unique mention of Israel. It seeks to advise MESA members, but gives unsatisfactory justifications for its most noteworthy recommendation.

True academic discourse evaluates speech based on the quality of its ideas, not the identity of the speaker. If MESA members value the forum that the Association provides, they will opt to engage their colleagues through discourse, not exclude them through boycotts and restricting access. The current iteration of the resolution is inconsistent with the ideals MESA upholds, and should not be adopted by the membership.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Jerusalem Tensions Hit Critical Levels

Tensions in Jerusalem escalated significantly today. These tensions began with a Palestinian attack on light rail passengers October 22. Next, activist Yehuda Glick was shot by a Palestinian assailant on October 29. This morning a Palestinian drove a minivan into a crowd waiting for the light rail, killing one and injuring 13. Hours ago another Palestinian drove a car into 3 IDF soldiers in the area of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and members of his security cabinet blamed Palestinian President Abbas for the 10/22 attack. Netanyahu's primary aim in doing so was to shore up support among his base in preparation for Likud party primaries, which may be held December 25. His secondary aim was to de-legitimize President Abbas as a leader and ease international and US pressure on Israel to negotiate a solution to the conflict that Bibi fears would leave Israel vulnerable. 

However, the original attack turned out to be a spate of attacks by Hamas. The group claimed responsibility for the attack this morning and an earlier attack on October 22. President Abbas, a Fatah party member, extended condolences to the family of the man who shot activist Yehuda Glick, and called Israel's closure of the Temple Mount a declaration of war. Both are extremely unhelpful steps to say the least. But the available evidence points much more towards Hamas than to Abbas as the culprit. Unfortunately, Netanyahu's talking points were set before the Israeli government may have realized the 10/22 attack was not a one-off event. The result is that the Israeli government finds its hands tied, rhetorically speaking.

By attacking soldiers in the West Bank, Hamas can provoke an Israeli reaction in Palestinian areas of the West Bank versus in Jerusalem. These terrorist attacks are designed to polarize Israel's population and rally Palestinian support behind a fragile unity government between Hamas and Fatah. In addition, Netanyahu's Likud adversaries have put political pressure on him to act. Yet IDF action in the West Bank, even in response to terrorism or militant action, would exacerbate tensions. Checkpoints, roadblocks, and searches for attackers in heavily Palestinian areas would look eerily reminiscent of 2001-2005. Since Prime Minister Netanyahu has framed Abbas for the violence, Israel is unlikely to get support from the Palestinian Security Forces for these activities. Jordan's recalling its ambassador from Israel today legitimizes these acts of violence against Israeli soldiers and civilians. It is also a move of dubious wisdom given protests which may occur in the country should a sustained campaign of violence break out.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is calling for restraint, and it's likely he knows how dangerous the current situation is - both in the West Bank and in his party. But conflict is a two-player game and as with Operation Protective Edge, Israel could get drawn into a conflict.  

Israel is low on options here. It could communicate to President Abbas that car attacks show Fatah is losing control of the West Bank. However, Bibi must maintain an anti-Abbas line to remain consistent, and Abbas gains legitimacy from rhetorically attacking Israel. Israel could reach out to Egypt to communicate with Hamas, but given Egypt's ongoing campaign in the Sinai such efforts may be of limited effect. US efforts to calm tensions will not be backed up with a threat and thus are of limited utility. Ultimately, if Hamas is looking for a conflict, it will be very hard for Israel to stop it from happening.