Tricycle Theatre and the UKJFF – no quiet for quiet

Even from this one article I can think of several possible angles to take on the decision by the board of Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre not to host the UK Jewish Film Festival unless the organisers refused funding from the Israeli Embassy cultural department and accepted instead an equivalent amount from the theatre itself.

 The first is that the Tricycle acted very late. It had come under pressure last year, from a group which openly seeks an end to Israel’s existence, and you get the impression it craved a quiet life. Although the films of the UKJFF are famously open minded about Israel’s conflicts, Israel’s boycotters, seemingly always short of creative ideas or recreational outlets, have taken to wrecking anything that could conceivably be linked to Israel. So I’m guessing the Tricycle decided to jettison Israeli Embassy funding, create a bit of distance, buy itself some quiet. It doesn’t seem to have much zeal for boycotting Israel, but it did so anyway. If this speculation is right, then that is a milestone in the boycott campaign.

The second is that if the Tricycle were set on excluding Jews, I don’t think it would have offered to shell out from its own pocket. Linda Grant says “I’m happy to press war crimes charges against politicians and generals, but not punish ballerinas and actors because you can’t get at the powerful”. The Tricycle is not punishing Israeli film makers with exclusion – it is attempting to substitute for an Israeli Embassy funder. So I can’t see that there’s any antisemitic intent here. As for antisemitic effects, that’s another matter (update: Nick Cohen on the racist nature of discriminatory double standards). But it doesn’t have to be antisemitic to be plain wrong.

The third is that refusing Israeli funding is indeed a measure towards ‘neutrality’. But, reading the statement, the neutrality they seem to be referring to is between opposing British partisans, not between Israel and Hamas. Because if the Tricycle were to accept Israeli funds, there would be a tornado of rage from British anti-Israel activists which would bring a response in kind from the supporters of Israel, and there would be an almightly fight all over the festival, driving away the tender punters and draining the energies of the director and board.

Another is that the Tricycle cannot be neutral in the actual conflict by refusing to take Israeli Embassy money when Hamas has no intention of giving it money. The Israeli Embassy is not even in the same league as Hamas. We clearly need to revisit who Hamas are – even if you think that Israel’s strategy is ill-fated, Hamas are a self-declaredly implacable and legitimate enemy. Who will actually cheer the Tricycle’s decision? My prediction is Israel-eliminationists, pro-Hamas activists, Islamists, Arab nationalists and those who are combinations of each. You can judge a controversial action by what the people who like it stand for.

Another is that the ‘plague on both their houses’ approach of not “accepting funding from any party to the conflict” makes me ache for a Hamas that did actually want to fund the kind of arts which theatres like the Tricycle host. What a genuine bridge to understanding that could be. Then the Tricycle could fund both, and the supporters of each would flock to watch. As militant Islamists, I doubt Hamas likes artists because artists tend to be resolutely independent-minded. Israel, on the other hand, is a hothouse for critical films about Israel.

Another is that it’s a big development for boycotting Israel to be considered ‘neutrality’ when it has always been the acceptable front of a longstanding campaign to end Israel’s actual existence. Is the Tricycle’s decision a sign that the boycott is changing its identity to something more constructive? Perhaps but I am a long way from being convinced.

Another is that there is something penetrating about the equal treatment of Israel and Hamas, because it is a neat way to expose differences and inequalities. So when the BBC reports equally, it throws into relief the discrepancies between Gaza and Israel – the number of deaths, the affluence, or the amount of firepower, or the protections available to ordinary residents. When the Tricycle boycotts both Israel and Hamas, you realise that Hamas doesn’t like the arts at all although – as we now know – it has plenty of spare cash.

Another is that the Tricycle caused a self-boycott on the part of UKJFF, because its quest for a quiet life on the home front was interpreted by the Jewish organisers as a wedge to part Jews from the world’s only Jewish state. A few things about this. Though my knowledge about UK Jewry is slim, I know that it is normal for most Jews to have family ties to Israel – that’s the way the cookie crumbled for European Jews after the Holocaust. I also know that in countries where antisemitism is waxing – France, for example – Jews are more susceptible to come-hithers from Israel. I haven’t mentioned the (more positive) spiritual and emotional connection between Jews and Israel, but I understand it’s pretty strong. Under the circumstances, I doubt that attempts to pry apart Jews and Israel will have much success – although without these pressures I’m certain that Israel would come to feel more and more distinct. It is after all, its own place, and it has never given much support to Jews who live outside Israel. And for the moment it has an awful government. But for now, for many Jews, if even at the back of their mind, Israel is their insurance against a resurgence of expulsions, statelessness and physical attacks.

Another is that I hope I’ve exposed as a black joke Nicholas Hytner’s comment that it’s the UKJFF who, though they have always been funded by the Israeli Embassy “have unwisely politicised a celebration of Jewish culture”.

The UK Jewish Film Festival will take place, but keep an eye out for the new venues.

Update 9th August

It’s looking worse and worse for the Tricycle. Adam Wagner of 1 Crown Office Row barristers’ chambers examines has a UK Human Rights blogpost examining whether the Tricycle Theatre has broken the law. He draws attention to the Tricycle’s self-description as an organisation that “views the world through a variety of lenses, bringing unheard voices into the mainstream” (ringing hollow right now). he also sheds light on the tiny amount (should have realised it would be tiny if the Tricycle were offering to cover it) which was probably also a tiny proportion of the overall funding. Nick Cohen points out that the Israeli Embassy did not impose any conditions on the donation. He also points out that the money the Tricycle proposed to substitute for the Israeli money comes from the UK state, which has gone to war in Iraq with drastic loss of human life. The double standards on Israel are unjustifiable. We need to get to the bottom of why only Israel? It is not far-fetched to suppose that at the heart of this is latent unintentional bias against Jews.

Update 16th August

Despite 500 artistic signatories to a letter defending The Tricycle against allegations of antisemitism, the theatre decided to revoke the conditions on the UK Jewish Film Festival. This was a happy outcome, but one which for me was marred by worry that it didn’t represent any change of heart on the part of the Trike. On Twitter the campaign to boycott the theatre – including @TalOfer and @BoycottTricycle – was elated. They should be proud of a well-organised campaign, but they seemed to care more about touting the decision as their victory than celebrating it as an victory of anti-discrimination activism. Maybe they were right – other funders had begun to pull out of the Trike, so maybe it had no choice. In which case, the new decision is not enlightened but forced. Better forced than nothing, but I’m left with a feeling of disquiet and questions about the Trike’s motives. Could they have been persuaded, or was money and the most strident voices the only thing that talked? Are they still susceptible to this antisemitic variety of anti-Zionism which singles out Israel alone for special penalties? The anti-Zionists are livid and mystified, and determined to be the loudest voices and the biggest sticks. For its part the Tricycle’s and UKJFF’s joint statement did nothing to illuminate the situation, or really explain its take on reconciliation. It needed to be clearer about its principles in order for the decision not to be seen by the increasing number of people with antisemitic instincts as a capitulation to Jewish power. As Hope Not Hate’s Nick Lowles remarked on Twitter, “The Jewish film festival ban/un-ban by Tricycle Theatre” has been a disaster from beginning to end. I wonder if there is still space for reason, persuasion, empathy, and compassion.

Is it pro-Palestinian?

Not in my name

For example Laurie Penny says that although Jews aren’t responsible for Palestinian deaths, their opinions carry extra weight and could “make a difference” when raised in opposition to Israel. “It is not anti-Semitic to say “not in my name””.

Picking through that, she’s obviously not expecting to make a difference with the Israeli government since they’re not even taking a steer from the US government at the moment. And she’s not addressing Palestinians (who may by now understand the limits of moral support – very nice thanks but here we still are, cooped up and dying). She’s definitely exhibiting her own political credentials, which matter only within her political bubble. And she may be hoping to inoculate herself against the now prevalent antisemitic view that all Jews should be assumed to support child-killing unless they say otherwise. Isn’t that a bit like urging Muslims to speak up against ISIS massacres? Don’t Jews held to political tests deserve solidarity?

Conclusion: self-centred cop-out.

Palestinian flags

For example, the “gesture of solidarity” from Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman is a stunt which exceeds his office and misuses a local government institution. How can a Palestinian flag have any impact as a symbol of peace when the Israeli flag is absent? It’s a partisan nationalistic symbol.

Conclusion: competitive, vicarious nationalism.

Writing a letter, as a Jew

Plenty of letters have been written by people and groups who wish to ostentatiously set themselves apart from the Jewish establishment.

I don’t get it. If you have a Jewish background but you’re not part of a Jewish communal organisation then you don’t get to send a representative to the Jewish Board of Deputies, the organisation which was formed to allow UK Jewry to make official, democratically negotiated representation to UK government, or its equivalent for your country. That’s understandable – so go and publish your own letter, as long as you don’t make out that your local group of elected Jewish representatives is invalid (I realise this needs more examples, but it’s late…). It probably has its tribulations and gets through them OK. Or if your Jewish communal organisation decides not to send a representative to the BOD but prefers to use the BOD as a counterfoil, then you’re in an anti-establishment clique which represents a cliquey, niche kind of Jewishness. But well done you for being so fresh and diverse. You’ll stand out really nicely against the silent, confused, hurting majority of Jews who feel unable to speak up for Gazans if it’s anti-Zionists and Jew-baiters trying to make them, and who understand enough to hate what Hamas stand for as much as they hate the sight of smashed up Palestinians.

Conclusion: loathsome identity politics from the dullest radicals.

Calling it a Holocaust

Telling Jews that they of all people should have learned from the Holocaust not to treat other people like the Nazis treated them is vindictively stupid. If I think of them as ignorant,  and beside themselves with grief, fear or rage, I can just about bring myself to explain Palestinian men drawing Hitler moustaches and swastikas on pictures Netanyahu and burning them, but when this is picked up by social media with such evident enthusiasm, Bob From Brockley explains the significance.

Conclusion: casual antisemitism of moralising simpletons influenced (maybe unwittingly) by Hamas &tc media strategists.

Fake pictures and other exaggerations

So many fake or misunderstood pictures and so much misinformation that people begin to doubt any of the reportage. On that, read this. Passing off artistic interpretations of a terrible situation as documentary evidence only sends the message that the truth isn’t actually very impressive and we can all relax.

Conclusion: lying and careless retweeting betrays any cause.

Boycotting Israel

The call is to boycott Israel in its entirety until it fulfills a list of requirements. The poorly hidden agenda is to wipe Israel off the map. “Colonization”? By whom? Nobody. “All Arab lands”? If they meant end the occupation they’d say it. “Dismantle the wall”? Not so fast – remember all those suicide bombers and all that Israeli civilian blood? “the right of Palestinian refugees to return”? That’s 12 or so million people who are designated refugees only because the countries where they live (many of whom made life unbearable for local Jews) refused to give them citizenship to keep up pressure on Israel. Imagine any politician even attempting to pull off that scale of immigration at home.

Conclusion: simple partisanship – Palestinian nationalism good, Israeli nationalism evil.

Blaming Israel for antisemitic attacks on Jews in the name of Palestinians

A seriously depressing and disturbing form of Palestine activism – particularly since so many on the Israeli left find it convenient to instrumentalise these attacks on Jews outside Israel as evidence that the Israeli strategy of confinement and bouts of force is failing.

I’m missing it out cos I’m going to bed.

Anything positive, whatsoever?

For those who are genuinely interested, plenty – but I can’t see any low hanging fruit. The easiest is reversing the empathy deficit – so hard to do in Israel or the occupied territories. Also easy, trying to understand, giving consideration to all sides from the religious Israeli settlers to the genocidal jihadis. Refusing to be in a bubble. Paying attention to honest reportage from brave journalists, and commentary from experts who are interested in peace rather than winning. Insisting that humans at risk of harm are at the centre of all conflict considerations. Insisting that every death is investigated, amplifying alternative plans for ending the conflict. Finding ways to drive a wedge between Israel and the expanding settlements, which might include selective boycott. Not leaving it to pro-Israel partisans to hold Hamas to account. Not leaving it to pro-Palestine partisans to hold Israel to account. Refusing to import the conflict. Rejecting zero-sum game politics. Pursuing a vision of peace which doesn’t involve punishing and demeaning one or other of the parties in the conflict. Being careful not to damage the credibility of Palestinian or Israeli politicians by folding them into your own agenda.


Sorry Vova, they choose differently.

Russia sneaked its military into Ukraine without insignia and established a military occupation in Crimea. Putin seems to be trying to provoke retaliation from Ukraine’s caretaker government, using the newly deposed and discredited puppet president Viktor Yanukovich as a pretext.

Sorry Vova, they choose differentlyPutin has done this for a number of reasons. One is because, as a fossil fuel bully, Russia can do what it likes in a world which refuses to green. Another is because he reckons its Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol has a crucial strategic role in protecting Russia’s South Western border – indeed its admiral has said Russia will never give it up. Which is related to the fact that he hopes to buffer Russia from the European Union and establish a rival to the Eurozone called the Eurasian Economic Zone; this determination to limit the European Union is a reason, if not the main reason, why he had Russian troops invade Georgia at the earliest opportunity. Another reason is that Crimea – the south-eastern peninsula that Russia is occupying – is the part that Catherine the Great conquered in 1813 and Khrushchev ‘gave’ to Ukraine in 1954, which consequently has (according to Russia Today, so perhaps a generous estimate) an ethnic Russian, Russian-speaking bare majority of 58% in the 2001 census, who make up by far the largest ethnic group, many of whom have dual Ukrainian and Russian citizenship. As an autonomous republic Crimea is far more inclined to Russia than the west of Ukraine (which looks to Europe), and in 2009 rejected a US diplomatic post which the Ukrainian government had been encouraging.

But it’s not that simple Vova, my dear nationalist. According to the sadly late Natalia Panina, a researcher at Ukraine’s Institute of Sociology, the Russians who number over 8 million or 17.3% of Ukraine’s population in the 2001 census (she among them) have not faced significant discrimination (question e2, p48) or social distance in Ukraine. In fact, they were part of the overwhelming majority of 90% who voted for Ukrainian independence when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.

On the ‘Western’ front, there are many theoretically possible actions nobody wants to take for fear of inflaming the situation (note that Russia has no such worries itself) and this means that Russia will grab Crimea. On the diplomatic front, Russia is chairing the G8, so Foreign Secretary Hague and other members will refuse to attend some imminent meetings. Somebody had better take diplomatic measures to reduce social distance between ethic Russians and other ethnic Ukrainians, including reinstating Russian as an official minority language (a big mistake on the part of the acting government because it has been both widely supported and also considered of low importance). In the UK it’s long been time to pursue a reversal of increased dependence on Russian coal in recent years (without mindlessly transferring it to authoritarian states like Qatar, where we get a chunk of our gas or narc-fuelled states like Colombia). Ukraine’s south is hot and sunny. Ukraine needs an economic boost – perhaps it would be a good idea to fund renewables like solar in the dry sunny south of Ukraine, along with the infrastructure to export it. This could help in at least two ways, I think. The UK government is actively considering withdrawing some Russian visas and freezing assets.

A bit more from other places and positions:

  • I’ve been worrying about China partnering with Russia and coming for Europe, but on Channel4 blogs, ex-AWL Paul Mason considers whether a Russian invasion of Ukraine will push the west into an economic war. He doesn’t anticipate World War 3 but the end of globalisation if (big if) China decides to get involved and sides with Russia. Perhaps then this country can stop outsourcing low wages and climate change to other people’s countries.
  • If the end of globalisation happens, then perhaps the Stop the War Coalition (London-based pro-Baathist/Islamist/Communist, anti-UK/US/EU campaign group masquerading as an anti-war group) will disband, job done. I checked by its site to confirm that they still have wildly erring priorities. Put it this way, they won’t be participating in any ‘Hands off Ukraine campaign’ unless the hands in question are ‘Western’. It’s ironic that if Stop the War were anti-Russian dissidents in Russia they’d be in prison by now. They invariably remind me how much I like the UK.
  • Yanukovich falls. Back the left! – Alliance for Workers Liberty. “Our solidarity should be with left-wing and working-class forces in Ukraine which will fight to open up democracy, to push back the far right, and to help working people in Ukraine defend themselves against the neo-liberal “reforms” now demanded by the EU and the IMF in return for loans to enable Ukraine to manage payment deadlines.”

All for now.

Update: Timothy Snyder writes authoritatively on the spurious claims from Putin about protecting Russian compatriots. Via Bob From Brockley on Twitter.

Palestine solidarity, Israel solidarity

When Israel is in conflict Jews brace themselves for the vitriol spewed by fevered Palestine supporters in the countries where they live. From my safe, uncontained armchair without fear of erratic air strikes, I think that the Israeli government may be justified in targettng the leaders and assets of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Gaza-based warmongers. That depends on whether not doing so would increase or decrease the risk that Hamas &tc accrue enough Iranian and Libyan missiles to properly wage the war they pledge in order to turn the region’s Jews back into second class citizens in somebody else’s state. My understanding is that Hamas &tc are only the tip of the regional mobilisation against Israel. Is there a better way than war, and if there is will it be explained in the popular media?

Another complication – the antisemitic opinions which hide themselves in responses to Israel’s conflicts have already become a miasma which, when inhaled, induces many Jews to strongly identify with Israel. Guardian political cartoonist Steve Bell’s homage to the Nazis is what too often these days passes for criticism of Israel in the sections of the British society I’d like to call my own. Bell is very indignant. His indignation is inappropriate and revealing.

For Israelis and Palestinians setting out alternatives to war I looked to Bitter Lemons and was dismayed to find fatigue got the better of them in August and they threw in the towel. This leaves a gaping hole in Israeli and Palestinian commentary. The site referred me to the Ramallah-based Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre – Palestinian reporting from the Fatah-dominated part of the Palestinian territories – which told me that in advance of the January Israeli elections Likud is merging with its far right coaltion partner Israel Beteinu. So I’m inclined to believe the tweets that Israel’s interior minister has said something like “The purpose of the operation is to bomb Gaza back to the Middle Ages”. That’s not politics. Israel is not blessed with humane leaders.

At the Institute for Palestine Studies Journal (edited by Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi) I skim-read Nicholas Pelham on the hundreds of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt which have literally undermined the blockade of Gaza – for example by allowing Hamas, rather than the UN which is prohibited from using smuggled goods, the credit for rebuilding Gaza after Cast Lead. The tunnels have provided Gaza with the majority of its economy, and (news to me) Hamas with the ornament of a beautified riviera. The tunnels also bring weaponry and so will be targeted by Israel in the event of war. Pelham’s piece aside, from what I’ve seen of this journal it errs on the side of advocacy and is selectively uncritical of Palestinian leadership – which should be the business of any self-respecting periodical about Palestinian affairs. I didn’t trust the book reviews.

This Week in Palestine hasn’t yet mustered pieces on the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict, and when it comes some of it will be the worst kind of anti-Zionism. But it’s another window into Palestinian thinking in English, for example something touching and resonant by Tala Abu Rahmeh on the behaviour of international solidarity activists in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Also a piece by Dina Zbidat considering how to give solidarity from outside the OPTs. I’m looking for something on Palestinians recognising their  post-occupation responsibilities – state-building, governance, the status of minority groups, resisting theocracy – something empowering which looks inwards at Palestinian society – but I’m disappointed this time. I’m not sure these conversations are taking place. Maybe just not on the anglophone web where Palestinians, like Israelis, exhibit for outsiders?

There is so much selectivity – how does omitting Israeli children from consideration help the Middle East Children’s Alliance to address the violation of children’s rights in the Gaza Strip? I remain unconvinced by the people who say that symmetry in reporting and commenting on the conflict is inappropriate because the conflict is so asymmetrical in Israel’s favour. Commentators shouldn’t address themselves only to governments and other commentators. This is not some kind of football match or chess game. Israel and Palestine are collectivities of individuals each with hopes, fears and powerful sense of injustice. Commentators should be making them human to each other. Radicalisation and hardening of individuals is so important to sustaining the conflict. It’s only those with a stake in the conflict who object to fair and compassionate representation.

Won’t any supporter of Palestinians criticise Al Qassam? Personally I would have much more confidently anti-occupation views if Palestinians and their supporters were thinking and writing along these self-empowering lines. Strong self-identification as a victim is said to diminish empathy and conscience (for more on this phenomenon see Steven Pinker’s book the The Better Angels of our Nature). Somewhere between actual and self-victimhood and murderous armed resistance there has to be an imaginative Palestinian and Israeli politics.

I mostly ignored a piece at This Week In Palestine by cultural boycotter Omar Barghouti since it is Israel eliminationist, and that shouldn’t be entertained. It’s bad enough coming from a Palestinian – when international supporters latch onto the prospect of ending the world’s only state for Jews, and only that state, it’s hard to explain as anything other than antisemitism. Instead I went to the Palestine Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture where I read a piece by Hillel Schenker explaining why boycotting Israel would not help Palestinians, ending with a long list of alternatives. BDS which does not distinguish between the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel is correctly identified by the majority of Israelis as an attack on Israel’s existence. It marginalises itself.

One of Schenker’s alternatives is the upgrading of Palestinian status in international bodies. At the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Agenda Item 37 will address the question of Palestinian statehood. It is a bid for UN recognition of statehood. After a long preamble (my emphases):

1. Reaffirms the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to independence in their State of Palestine on the basis of the pre-1967 borders;

2. Recognizes that, to date, 132 States Members of the United Nations have accorded recognition to the State of Palestine;

3. Decides to accord to Palestine Observer State status in the United Nations system, without prejudice to the acquired rights, privileges and role of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the representative of the Palestinian people, in accordance with the relevant resolutions and practice;

4. Expresses the hope that the Security Council will consider favorably the application submitted on 23 September 2011 by the State of Palestine for admission to full membership in the United Nations;

5. Affirms its determination to contribute to the achievement of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people and the attainment of a peaceful settlement in the Middle East that ends the occupation that began in 1967 and fulfills the vision of two States, an independent, sovereign, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors, on the basis of the pre-1967 borders, with delineation of borders to be determined in final status negotiations

6. Expresses the urgent need for the resumption and acceleration of negotiations within the Middle East peace process, based on the relevant United Nations resolutions, the Madrid terms of reference, including the principle of land for peace, the Arab Peace Initiative and the Quartet Roadmap, for the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement between the Palestinian and Israeli sides that resolves all outstanding core issues, namely the Palestine refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, borders, security, water and prisoners;

7. Urges all States and the specialized agencies and organizations of the United Nations system to continue to support and assist the Palestinian people in the early realization of their right to self determination, independence and freedom;

8. Requests the Secretary-General to take the necessary measures to implement the present resolution and to report to the Assembly within three months on progress made in this regard.

This unilateral move is little talked-of. As a supporter of a two-state solution, of course it has my support. I don’t think that Palestinians are about to get a state any other way. It may be the only thing that puts the brakes on the Israeli government’s settlement activity. More in The Forward (from Reuters), and the Jerusalem Post. I agree with Fatah leader Abbas when he points out, “Why is going to the UN a unilateral act when there are more than 500,000 Israelis in the West Bank in violation of the Fourth Convention of Geneva?”

When global terror leaders are assassinated by their governments

My first experience of extra-judicial killings was my mother’s jubilation at various assassinations of Palestinian terrorists by Israeli squads. Having developed, from a very young age, an instinctive contrarian position with respect to practically anything she said, I reached an early conviction that such killings were always wrong, state sanctioned murder which in its hypocrisy and, often, collateral deaths, cheapened life in general and rendered any claims to justice on the part of the perpetrator quite ludicrous. Why don’t they arrest them, I’d demand. Sometimes you can’t do that, the reply. Why? Why don’t they just swoop down with a huge army, nab them, and put them on a fair trial?  No answers – my questions broke on the rocks of her disinterest. In those days I was showing anti-Israel tendencies which didn’t merit being taken seriously. And in any case, the ones that died were bad men, weren’t they.

These days I’m against violence. That means I sometimes have to be in favour of physically stopping leaders who are hoping to build violent, repressive movements. Ideally, stopping should entail incarceration but I can accept that extra-judicial killing may sometimes be necessary. The US government says it is “prepared to kill U.S. citizens who are believed to be involved in terrorist activities that threaten Americans”. Here is Ilya Somin commenting on the killing of Iraq’s Al Quaeda leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in 2006:

“In my view, targeting terrorist leaders is not only defensible, but actually more ethical than going after rank and file terrorists or trying to combat terrorism through purely defensive security measures. The rank and file have far less culpability for terrorist attacks than do their leaders, and killing them is less likely to impair terrorist operations. Purely defensive measures, meanwhile, often impose substantial costs on innocent people and may imperil civil liberties. Despite the possibility of collateral damage inflicted on civilians whom the terrorist leaders use as human shields, targeted assassination of terrorist leaders is less likely to harm innocents than most other strategies for combatting terror and more likely to disrupt future terrorist operations.

That does not prove that it should be the only strategy we use, but it does mean that we should reject condemnations of it as somehow immoral.”

The important questions, then, are how is the target uniquely dangerous (why an exception should be made for terrorists), how many lives are thought to be in danger from the target, whether there’s any alternative to killing, who should do it, how many other lives is it acceptable endanger during the operation, whether the likely side effects of assassination outweigh the benefits, and what should subsequently happen to the operative who pulled the trigger or pushed the button, and their accessories.

Then there’s the discussion about whether the extra-judicial killing of the terror inspiration and Al Quaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Anwar al Awlaki was any more or less legitimate because he was a US citizen. As Ben Wizner puts it, “If the Constitution means anything, it surely means that the President does not have unreviewable authority to summarily execute any American whom he concludes is an enemy of the state.”

I don’t trust the question. When the US government’s unfortunately-named JSOC assassinated Al Quaeda leader and Awlaki’s rival Osama Bin Laden in May, there was a lot of implicit approval. The American Civil Liberties Union seems to be the Civil Liberties of Americans Union in this respect. So for some it’s OK to have a policy of extra-judicial killings as long as the targets aren’t US citizens. But what sense does it make for a self-interested state to distinguish on state grounds, so that one terrorist leader is a target while another can operate without fearing assassination, when both are non-state enemies posing the same threat to your country’s citizens? Al Quaeda is a global enterprise – consider Awlaki’s jet setting between the US south west and Yemen. These are times of globalised terror operations. It doesn’t make sense to distinguish on state grounds, rather than grounds of threat. And from Awlaki’s point of view, does it make much difference to him if he is killed by US drone or by 3,000 Yemeni troops looking for him in the Shabwa? I doubt it.

Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who helped Awlaki’s father bring an ultimately unsuccessful court case (which they don’t boast about on their web site) attempting to get his son’s name removed from the list of targets objects to the US killing him. Citing Guantanamo, Ratner argues that the US gets its terrorist designation wrong too frequently to be trusted. He panics, “Is this the world we want? Where the president of the United States can place an American citizen, or anyone else for that matter, living outside a war zone on a targeted assassination list, and then have him murdered by drone strike.” He also says that Awlaki is innocent until proven guilty. So does the American Civil Liberties Union.

Quilliam co-founder Maajid Nawaz argues in today’s Observer that the US is abandoning its own values and that this assassination of its own citizen is only the latest stage in a decline involving “arbitrary detention, extraordinary rendition, targeted killings and “enhanced interrogation” – otherwise known as torture”. It would indeed be ominous if Nawaz were correct that “this action carves out the legal pathway for a state to silence not only external but internal dissent by defining the citizen as an “enemy of the state””. But I doubt he is correct. Awlaki wasn’t a dissenter but an inspiration and comfort to several murderous terrorists. Look Stephen Timms MP, attacked by an Awlaki fan during his constituency surgery, in the eye and tell him Awlaki was simply a dissenter. It will sound a bit thin given that he was stabbed in the liver. Awlaki might not have deigned to get his beautiful pious hands dirty, but he was at war with ordinary people like you and me,

Nawaz then throws in several other arguments in quick succession – that we can’t trust states to identify their enemies, that you can’t win through force, that abandoning Awlaki’s human rights will make us forget why we are opposed to Awlaki and his ilk in the first place, and the final complaint that the US is only interested in the Middle East when it comes to its security (not sure this can be borne out). Overall you get the impression that Nawaz is more embarrassed than morally outraged. And I feel for him, since he is trying to put out narratives that disrupt those of terror incubators like Awlaki. His arguments depend on inculcating a sense of pride in the West, and he feels that extrajudicial killings like this one undermine it.

A few things. Targeted assassination is the ultimate in not separating the person from the act. It does entail sacrificing values we espouse. But there is more to life than our moral discomfort with national hypocrisy – literally more to life.  And if it’s all about hypocrisy and disaffection with the west, maybe Nawaz should remind his followers that Awlaki used to buy sex in the US although prostitution is prohibited in Islam and the man set himself up as some kind of religious authority.

Hypocrisy in private life is ordinary, and in preachers, contemptible. In public life, though undesirable and ordinary, it is not contemptible. As Jonathan Wolff has argued in his book Ethics and Public Policy (though not with respect to extra-judicial killings – no idea how he feels about those) beautiful ideals always bend when they have to come out of people’s minds and into the sphere of real-life action – so the right thing to do is to take an active and constant stand against the purist pieties of utopianism (you’ll never find a utopian who isn’t awkwardly astride their double standards) while never giving up on humanitarian ideals, never letting up with scrutinising your government, and always shunning the consciencelessness of state realism that Nawaz fears will become enslaved to a corrupt vision of state interest which picks off dissenters like flies (though I doubt it -Awlaki didn’t just disappear – he was  openly assassinated, we know who did it, and the US is a strong democracy whose citizens – those who are not global terrormongers – have rights protected by their constitution).

So I think it’s important is to desist from the kind of “It’s all about me” patriotic naval gazing which is wrapped up in appearances, cognitive dissonance, and national identity rather than the sanctity of human life. It’s important not to be diverted from the target of the assassination and reasoning back from the unique threat they pose to life. The ends don’t always justify the means, but sometimes they do. Was Awlaki a mortal threat to innocent civilians or wasn’t he? I think the list of murderers he groomed for the act speaks for itself – but were I in a position of power I’d be asking for more than a list on Wikipedia.

So the US government should now account for the death of this deathmonger, and the demands that it do so can only strengthen it.  But to argue that the US is too prone to getting things wrong to be able to assassinate those involved in terror, or to argue that the US isn’t entitled to state secrets, is like saying that the US isn’t entitled to national security.

(And any disorientated commentator who says this post and I are somehow not left wing can suck me. I am as far left as it is good to go 😉 )


This morning’s statement by former IRA leader now Irish presidential candidate, Martin McGuinness, that he wouldn’t disagree with anybody who said that the IRA committed murder, raises important comparisons.The UK government had a policy of assassinating IRA terrorists. Operation Flavius in 1988, during which the SAS killed three Belfast-born UK citizens involved in a bomb plot, was not one of them – it was intended as an arrest operation. But the aftermath is of interest – the European Court of Human Rights narrowly ruled that the UK Government had breached Human Rights law: “the Court is not persuaded that the killing of the three terrorists constituted the use of force which was no more than absolutely necessary in defence of persons from unlawful violence within the meaning of Article 2 para. 2 (a) (art. 2-2-a) of the Convention”.

Travels in Nihilon

A few more angry thoughts about the outbreak.

  1. This couldn’t have happened a hundred years ago – the kids would have felt ashamed and if not ashamed then afraid of the consequences. They would have known the shopkeepers back then, and probably many of the makers too.
  2. Luxury in the media has reached disgusting levels. There aren’t good role models. Even the survivalists and self-sufficientists (Tom and Barbara excepted) are inauthentically roly poly. Imagine a population of Ray Mearses and Hugh Fearnley Tits – the countryside would look as if locusts had been through.
  3. Advertising, product placement, game shows. Pernicious forms of aspiration. Having and getting, as a way of being yourself. They fuel the web, the free city papers and commercial television, and they helped to pressure cook what happened last week.
  4. Their parents aren’t able or willing.
  5. You can’t stick two fingers up at the police without committing a crime. There was a huge current of wanting to fuck the police. I’m not sure what else the police stand for in these kids’ minds, but definitely protection of something they don’t have a stake in.
  6. Can’t a sense of entitlement to luxury consumer goods turn into politics?
  7. Ed Miliband is right to worry about those who don’t feel they have a stake in society, but he is wrong to say it’s “ridiculous” to compare looters to bankers. There is plenty to compare about them. And these children grew up under a Labour government that believed in trickle down – the poor patiently waiting to receive the crumbs from the table of the rich.
  8. I feel for the police, like I always do. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
  9. Grant Shapps, David Cameron, and all who think like you – are you completely mad?
  10. Definitely the Spirit Level people are right. But it is possible to go too far with equality. If everything comes for free it makes people just as foul.
  11. Protection from the EDL? I’m for a nice big police force and a better IPCC.

Afterthought – another man died of his injuries last night. As well as thieves the arsonists and killers were abroad. I wonder whether they were opportunists waiting for their free run of the city, or whether they also stole, and whether thieves also burned and killed?

More afterthought: reading today’s Observer was a good experience. Peter Beaumont, who usually covers wars in other lands, has a substantial piece in which he talks to Clasford Stirling, one of those men I sometimes hear about who sublimate young rage into football. He says “The confrontation with the police before the looting happened. It was total anger. I’ve never seen young people face to face with the police like that.” And youthworker Alvin Carpio, who “says that … within the groups at the forefront of the trouble – criminal street gangs and local groups of youths who describe themselves as being in “gangs” – a sense of responsibility and loyalty does exist; it is simply misdirected. “There are communities within communities with their own rules”” and that “how for some with few paths available for them to follow, the figure in their community with the big car, the drugs and money appears to offer an alternative.”.

Also in The Observer, epidemiologist Gary Slutkin takes a public health approach to gang violence and rioting as if it were an infection. He questions conventional law enforcement of “community crackdowns, arrests and harsher penalities, heavy-handed suppression techniques, pointing to a (D.C.-based) Justice Policy Institute report (somewhere in their website?) which shows that these tactics have little of their intended effects but create deeper divisions between police and community.

Tracy McVeigh goes to the Hoxton the fashion students don’t visit, to interview nervous underfed kids in cheap, worn clothes who join gangs to defend their patch from the gangs in the next estate, or who have to scurry through the safest route to get a takeaway, and for whom youth clubs are one of a few safe spaces where somebody cares. Fewer than a quarter of those arrested for last week’s violence were under 18.

Tim Adams attends an overnight sitting at Horseferry Road magistrates court and is struck by the bleary eyed banality of the accused and the Dickensian quality of the prosecution. Yes, I’m with him to a certain extent. But he also completely excludes the victims from his reckoning. On the preceding page is a photograph of an 89 year old shop keeper, not very prosperous-looking, who lost everything. What about him? Nobody is much talking about restorative justice, but surely if these looters are so bewildered the morning after, it could work here?

Then I leafed through the Observer Magazine which is a stinky publication full of adverts for the kind of aspirational – i.e. useless, wasteful, environment squandering – products its journalists are now commiserating with people for stealing, and I felt kind of queasy. I get The Observer for the journalists but it makes me cringe in equal measures.

I listened to last year’s RSA debate between the authors of The Spirit Level and some of their critics. In a nutshell the critics query the evidence. They say that raising everybody’s wealth will improve outcomes on a wide range of health and social indices. I thought that the hypothesis that more unequal societies are worse was well defended – and not only in statistical terms. For example – and topically – Richard Wilkinson (one of the authors of The Spirit Level) on the link between inequality and violence,

“Because violence is triggered by disrespect, humiliation, loss of face, being looked down on an in a more unequal society we judge each other more by social status, competition increases and so people get more sensitive to it.”

Bashar Al-Assad’s death charge

Russia is mildly tsking at Assad. Foreign Secretary William Hague pointed out on this morning’s Today Programme that there was no will among the Arab states to take action to prevent the bloody rampages of this particular insecure leader, so we won’t be sending anybody.

Lost count of the dead now in Hama – something like 1,500 since March – but let’s hope it remains far less than the 20,000 who died there at the hands of Al-Assad’s father in 1982.

That’s the dead. An estimated 10,000 detained.

Imagine. Just imagine.

PS The Egyptian army forcibly cleared protesters out of Tahrir Square today, with some local approval.

The case against liberal interventionism

BobFromBrockley interrogates the best arguments against liberal interventionism with the question ‘how can the left in strong nations help to stop civilians in places like Libya, Sierra Leone, Cambodia or Kosovo from being “genocided”’. Sadly, this quest does not resolve the question.

An illuminating read.

Doing something

Like Bright Green, I’m depressed by the realism with which our states will act to prevent carnage at the hands of some homicidal authoritarian regimes and not others. Take Laurence Gbagbo, the squatting president of Ivory Coast who first delayed elections and then, when he lost them, disputed the international observers’ assessment that his opponent Ouattara had won, then arranged for the shelling of civilians shopping in a market in Abidjan. Take Congo. A recent UN report said that the slaughter of a mind-boggling 5 million people in a proxy war by its neighbours could be classified as a genocide. No intervention.  Take the Fur in Darfur, slaughtered in huge numbers by the Sudanese army and Arab militias. Al Shabaab stalk Somalia. No UNSC resolutions.

I think it may have been the Stop the War (No! Not That One) Coalition who warned against military intervention in Libya simply because we feel compelled to “do something”, and probably them who simultaneously argued that if you can’t to everything you shouldn’t do anything. Reading some internal messages from a group I can’t name, funny how people who were prepared to believe news of the systematic targeting of civilians during Operation Cast Lead are skeptical the reports of the same from Benghazi. The ideologically-motivated sowing of doubt is pretty disgusting when lives are at stake.

If you support the (admittedly ambitious) ‘responsibility to protect‘ ethos, when masses of civilians are liable to be targeted by their governments surely the only question should be, what kind of intervention and by whom? The charge of hypocrisy when governments pick and choose their causes does not in itself have any bearing on whether a government should or should not intervene. It’s kind of narcissistic, if you think about it – these interventions are supposed to be carried out as part of a coalition precisely in acknowledgment of the differing interests of states.

The argument that oil is behind our governments’ military adventures in the Middle East have become so axiomatic that it is hardly ever evidenced these days. I haven’t read Stiglitz’s Three Trillion Dollar War but, generally considered a good authority on the economics of war, he leads us to doubt the explanatory power of oil in accounting for war – wasn’t the price of oil calculated to rise in the light of the Iraq war, for example? Yesterday was the 8th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq, and at this stage in Stiglitz’s analysis the costs (now estimated at up to $6 trillion in money alone) far outweigh the benefits, at least at this stage. Congo, on the other hand, has enormous mineral wealth – including the kinds of minerals a high-tech industry needs – but the UK has kept out of that conflict too. In terms of arms, the UK may be a net weapons exporter, but when it comes to using them ourselves we’ve been making cuts. On the other hand, the world #3 arms exporter according to Wikipedia, Russia, abstained from UN Resolution 1973. The arms trade doesn’t explain this intervention. I find it hard to distinguish a pattern in why this country goes to war and am entertaining the idea it’s a mixture of terrorist threat, calculations about what can best ultimately guarantee stability for the UK, and humanitarian impulse.

Untrained in the art of war as I remain, you’ll have to look elsewhere than here for alternatives to the military strikes underway since yesterday. I also note the absence of alternatives in Jeremy Corbyn’s and Caroline Lucas’ resolutely irrelevant Early Day Motion; it’s clear that military intervention will not bring “peace, justice and democracy”, that it is no more than a tardy scramble to prevent Colonel Ghadaffi, who has already diplomatically defeated the international community, from slaughtering his very populous political opponents. Given that Lebanon (remember Lebanon – the Middle East’s other democracy?) was a co-proposer of the motion which legitimised strikes on Libyan military targets and that the motion was supported by the Arab League, I also find that EDM’s reference to ‘Western’ intervention another example of the silly occidentalism which infests this country’s anti-war left and in the light of an increasingly multi-polar world, has a distinctly racist character.

  • Hisham Matar celebrates the UN’s achievement in The Guardian.
  • The Arabist observes UNSC Resolution 1973 rightly takes sides against Ghadaffi – but what do we know about the insurgents?
  • Obama intends to limit US involvement.
  • Egyptians have just voted for constitutional reform. However, the most of the Christian minority is reported to be among the 22% who voted against. They fear the constitutional changes will allow the Muslim Brotherhood to out-poll all the smaller parties and intensify the discrimination against them. Now the moderates need time, restrictions on funding for political parties, and a generally even playing field.
  • Bob’s qualified support for the UN resolution
  • Modernity points to the BBC live update.

Enough! I should be concentrating on developing a coherent position in relation to the two days of striking my union has planned for me next week (and while I won’t cross a picket line I find the discourse about them dismal to the extreme), and the enormous march against the cuts this Saturday. The cuts have been entirely knocked off the media agenda in recent days by Japan’s nuclear near melt-down and Ghadaffi. I know it’s good to be internationalist – but really, Flesh, do I have to tell you again that your own back yard – your NHS, your schools, your waste reduction, your democracy, your emissions – is your primary and ultimate responsibility.

Which brings us back to this war I now have a small share in.


Al Shabaab

Rees’s peaces

I caught the end of the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 this evening, where Socialist Worker Party exitist and Stop the War Coalition officer John Rees made his case against military support for the Libyan population currently being slaughtered in great numbers by its own government.

While Stop the War Coalition is a barely disguised pro-war organisation with a record of race hatred, support for terrorists, homophobia, and sexual discrimination,  and seem to be given a wide berth by the people for whom they claim to speak, Rees is right on several points – for example, the need to sell Libyan assets and make the money over to the pro-democracy forces, and the travesty of this country’s continuing purchase of oil from the regime (I haven’t checked that out, though). I was disappointed he didn’t elaborate on his brief reference to the Spanish Civil War, the solidarity which drew the International Brigades to war in Madrid, Jamara and Guadalajara. Why is it that the identity of the intervenors matters to John Rees more than the calls of the people in need of protection? What would need to be in place for armed UK solidarity with the Libyan people to be acceptable to John Rees? The passage of 100 years? 200? On the Moral Maze, Matthew Taylor’s analysis is that John Rees can’t tell the difference between the colonial powers of the 1800s and the post-colonial federations of today. He’s like some kind of selectively contrite British global public relations freelancer with an extremely long memory (but where – or more specifically, who – does he get his money from?).

He didn’t explain why there shouldn’t be surgical strikes and he was poor at explaining why, while “solidarity with those fighting for their democratic and national freedom is our obligation”, he thinks we should simultaneously throttle any expressions of self-determination which involve appeals to ‘Western powers’ for military assistance. I’m not really convinced by his confidence telling us (“believe me”) what various interventions would “mean” to the Middle East, and what Libyan pilots would do. StWC, the SWP and John Rees have been trying to tell us for a long time that Islamists were the resistance. I’m guessing he’s been out of his depth for weeks with these secular nationalist uprisings.

“Stop the War Coalition is clear that there must be no US or British intervention in Libya or anywhere else in the Middle East under any pretext whatsoever. Such interference over the last century is the root of the region’s troubles, and its continuation will solve none of the difficulties there.”

So then what? Because something has to happen. But then, you think of Congo and Darfur and remember that nothing has to happen.

At least he didn’t say “We are all Gaddafi now”. But “believe me”, to John Rees Iran’s arms to the Taliban scandal will be our fault. Can’t you hear him now, folding it into his narrative of ‘Western’ contrition?

Read Menzies Campbell and Philippe Sands in The Guardian, RtoP, and Terry Glavin. Glavin:

“Is that not clear enough? No massive invasion is necessary, so everyone can just calm down now. It is true that if the agony-pokery and astrological consultations in the NATO capitals carry on much longer, a huge humanitarian intervention may be the only option left. If you expect the Arab League states to properly take charge, you’d be banking on the Arab police states to come to the aid of the rebels who want them overthrown. You’d be an even bigger chump to heed the Arab League’s western apologists and its weapons suppliers.

What to do now, exactly? It is not so difficult to find answers to that question. We only need to make up our own minds, abjure neutrality, and tell the rebels: It’s your revolution, tell us what you need, we’ll help in every way we can. And then prove that we mean what we say. The far more disturbing question is why the Arab revolutionaries’ demands tend to be relegated to the back pages even now, and more importantly, why the “west” has been deaf to their voices all along. This is where Palestine comes into it.”