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The Passion of Husam Zomlot

4 Aug

I gave this guy something of a hard time when he came to deliver a talk at MIT a few years back (watch around the 54:30 mark). To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t really paid him much attention since, even though he frequently appears on international TV and radio to discuss an issue I follow closely (Palestine).

But this morning I feel compelled to profess my respect for the moral and intellectual seriousness on display in this BBC interview clip, a longer version of which aired last Friday. US citizens especially would do well to listen.

Below is my transcription of the latter chunk of the clip, which features Dr. Zomlot delivering an impassioned contestation of the mainstream narrative surrounding Operation Protective Edge. I did my best to include supplementary links for his main points, particularly the putatively controversial ones.

Husam Zomlot: There are two wars happening, my friend. 

There is a war by the Israeli army, the most sophisticated in the region and maybe 4th in the world, against our people, against the Palestinian people. This war has seen entire neighborhoods obliterated. This war has seen the devastation and the mayhem. Wholesale murder, everywhere. 

BBC: But it’s not against Palestinians, is it? It’s against Hamas. It’s against the group that’s firing rockets into Israel.

Zomlot: I’m sorry. No. That is absolutely a lie and not true. And we should stop this because this is the second war.

The second war that is waged by Regev and his likes. The spinning and the PR and the game of deceit to blame the victim. 

I have not seen any Hamas fighter being targeted by Israel. What I have seen is families that I know–I am from Gaza, I lived with these families, I grew up with these families, I know them–I see entire families being wiped out.

I see hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the streets of Gaza as we speak.

I see a UN shelter being targeted and 16 killed.

I see the only power plant being targeted by Israel, to devastate.

I see the water supply being cut off so they devastate the entire nation.

I see the Israeli military doctrine.

BBC: So are Israeli forces just deliberately targeting civilians?

Zomlot: Yes

Because this is the founding military doctrine of Israel. Israel was founded on murdering as many civilians as possible to put pressure on the political and military leadership of the Palestinians…

Despite four mind-numbing weeks spent inundated with emotionally-laden Gaza coverage, I found these remarks from the mouth of a spokesman for Fatah–a party whose leadership actively collaborates with the occupation and carefully hedges its public image to retain the good graces of the very powers which oppress it–quite moving.

Let’s hope the UK was watching.

Update: Another brief, powerful excerpt:


Edit Note: Just after posting, I realized I needed to append the opening to mention for context that this interview was originally published by the BBC last Friday. This thought was almost immediately followed by the grim realization that the BBC’s headline (“Gaza crisis: ‘There was never a ceasefire’ – Fatah spokesman”) is just as accurate today, despite a new ceasefire that was supposed be in effect: 

A seven-hour unilateral “humanitarian window,” which was announced by Israel on Sunday evening and took effect in Gaza from 10 a.m. local time (3 a.m. EDT) Monday was almost immediately broken by an air strike on the al-Shati refugee camp in northwestern Gaza, Agence France-Presse reported.

A Gaza Health Ministry spokesperson told Al Jazeera that at least 30 people, including women and children, were injured in Israeli shelling on a residential building in the camp. And, according to other media reports, Israeli air strikes near Gaza City also killed Daniel Mansour, a commander of the Islamic Jihad group — a close ally of Hamas — just hours before the latest cease-fire was to begin. One child too was killed in the latest air strike on the refugee camp, AFP reported, citing doctors.

Israel had declared on Sunday that it would hold its fire in the Gaza Strip for seven hours following widespread international condemnation, including from the U.S. and the United Nations, over its attack on another U.N.-run school — the third one since the operation began on July 8 — on Sunday. The attack on the school in Rafah, which was reportedly sheltering thousands of displaced Palestinians, killed 10 people and injured 30 others.

Indeed, as increasingly outraged calls for an end to the violence echo from virtually the whole of the international community, basically everything in this exchange (aside from the specific strike times Zomlot rattles off at the beginning) is equally valid at the time of writing.

Here’s hoping that Israeli operations are stopped by the time you read this post.


Brief Comment on the Death of Nelson Mandela

10 Dec

Last week, as news spread that the venerable South African leader had passed, I dashed off the following (favorably received!) bit of curmudgeonliness in response to a facebook reposting of The Onion’s ‘Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician To Be Missed‘:

One point that bears clarifying is that I don’t consider Mandela’s defense of violence to be a flaw per se; I merely intended to highlight how his positions on armed struggle point up the hypocrisy and amnesia afflicting mainstream liberal opinion.

Here I’ve collected excerpts from some of the better–or, at least, more interesting–remembrances and reflections:

Vijay Prashad, ‘Mandela, The Unapologetic Radical

Not long after his arrest in 1964, Mandela became the iconic figure of the South African struggle against apartheid – one that was not only against a ghastly political system, not only against the white ruling clique in South Africa, but also against the governments of the Western world which backed the apartheid regime virtually until the end (Mandela appeared on the U.S. terrorist lists until 2008). It was this iconic figure that the world knew from the 1960s until now. Rarely did people engage with Mandela’s ideas: rarely do we hear him quoted for his principled positions. Particularly after the struggles within South Africa weakened the regime and brought it down, it became impossible not to engage with Mandela – but it was only with Mandela as icon, as Madiba, not Mandela as the political person with deeply held views and commitments.

Everybody now is sad that Madiba is dead. Not a dry eye can be found. But many of these same people opposed freedom in South Africa to the very end. Many of these same people pilloried the struggles around the world in solidarity with Mandela’s ANC. And many of these people now ridicule the kind of views that Mandela held to the very end. When Mandela opposed the Iraq war (“All Bush wants is Iraqi oil”), the Western press lambasted him — the same press that is now aggrieved at his passage. All the obituaries detail what he did in his life, but none go into his political views.


In 2005, he went to the G8 meetings in the U.K. and made it clear that “where poverty exists, there is not true freedom. The world is hungry for action, not words. In this new century, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries—including South Africa—remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.” Where would this freedom come from – by constraining the rights of property to feed untrammeled off of social wealth? Poverty, like apartheid, is man-made, so it can be unmade by man. The rich, he said, must feed the poor.

Jonathan Cook, ‘On the death of Nelson Mandela: a dissenting opinion

Mandela spent most his adult life treated as a “terrorist”. There was a price to be paid for his long walk to freedom, and the end of South Africa’s system of racial apartheid. Mandela was rehabilitated into an “elder statesman” in return for South Africa being rapidly transformed into an outpost of neoliberalism, prioritising the kind of economic apartheid most of us in the west are getting a strong dose of now.

In my view, Mandela suffered a double tragedy in his post-prison years.

First, he was reinvented as a bloodless icon, one that other leaders could appropriate to legitimise their own claims, as the figureheads of the “democratic west”, to integrity and moral superiority. After finally being allowed to join the western “club”, he could be regularly paraded as proof of the club’s democratic credentials and its ethical sensibility.

Second, and even more tragically, this very status as icon became a trap in which he was required to act the “responsible” elder statesman, careful in what he said and which causes he was seen to espouse. He was forced to become a kind of Princess Diana, someone we could be allowed to love because he rarely said anything too threatening to the interests of the corporate elite who run the planet.

It is an indication of what Mandela was up against that the man who fought so hard and long against a brutal apartheid regime was so completely defeated when he took power in South Africa. That was because he was no longer struggling against a rogue regime but against the existing order, a global corporate system of power that he had no hope of challenging alone.

Patrick Bond, ‘The Mandela Years in Power

In addition to the 1990-94 dealmaking and ideological panel-beating, various other international economic constraints were placed on the New South Africa. A few weeks after liberation in May 1994, when Pretoria joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade on disadvantageous terms as a “transitional” not “developing” country, as a result of pressure from Bill Clinton’s White House, the economy’s deindustrialization was guaranteed. In January 1995, privatization began in earnest, with Mbeki facilitating the sale of a few minor parastatals but with much bigger targets looming.

More rapid financial liberalization in the form of the abolition of the Financial Rand exchange controls occurred in March 1995, in the immediate wake of Mexican capital flight that destroyed the peso’s value. Without capital controls, the Reserve Bank lost its main protection against a run on the currency. So when one began 11 months later, the only strategy left was to raise interest rates to a record high, resulting in a long period of double-digit prime interest rates.

The most important post-apartheid economic decision was taken in June 1996, when the top echelon of ANC policymakers imposed what Finance Minister Manuel termed a “non-negotiable” macroeconomic strategy without bothering to properly consult its Alliance partners in the union movement and SACP, much less its own constituents. The World Bank contributed two economists and its econometric model of South Africa for the exercise, known as “Growth, Employment and Redistribution” (GEAR).

With Mandela’s approval and Mbeki’s formal ideological U-turn – “just call me a Thatcherite,” he pronounced to journalists – GEAR was introduced in the wake of the long 1996 currency crash to promote investor confidence. The document, authored by 17 white men using the World Bank’s economic model, allowed the government to psychologically distance itself from the somewhat more Keynesian RDP, a 150-page document which in 1994 had served as the ANC’s campaign platform, and which the ANC’s civil society allies had insisted be implemented. An audit of the RDP, however, showed that only the RDP’s more neoliberal features were supported by the dominant bloc in government during the late 1990s.


It is here that the core concession made by the ANC during the transition deal was apparent: acquiescing to the desire by white businesses to escape the economic stagnation and declining profits born of a classical “overaccumulation crisis”, in which too much capital piles up in a given territory without sustainable ways to increase consumer purchases of goods, employment of idle labour, new investment of fixed capital, or value production to undergird financial speculation. Put simply, big business wanted out of South Africa and as part of the deal for the transfer of power, Mandela gave the nod to the extreme capital flight which today, leaves South Africa as amongst the countries most adversely affected by a current account deficit.


In sum, the acronym GEAR might have more accurately been revised to Decline, Unemployment and Polarization Economics. A great many South Africans were duped by Mandela’s persuasiveness into thinking that the economy Cecil Rhodes would have found “fit for its time” would somehow also fit the aspirations of the majority. The big question was whether a variety of social protests witnessed after apartheid by civil society – many groups associated with what was formerly known as the Mass Democratic Movement – would shift social policy away from its moorings in apartheid white privilege and instead towards a transformative approach empowering of poor people, women, youth, the elderly, the disabled and the ill.

Slavoj Zizek, ‘Mandela’s Socialist Failure*

The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilize large crowds with slogans which one cannot but characterize as crowd pleasers – for democracy, against corruption, for instance. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realize that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life) goes on in a new guise. The ruling ideology mobilizes here its entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. They start to tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibility, that it comes at a price, that we are not yet mature if we expect too much from democracy. In this way, they blame us for our failure: in a free society, so we are told, we are all capitalist investing in our lives, deciding to put more into our education than into having fun if we want to succeed.


At this precise conjuncture, radical emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: how to push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over, how to make the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of the “totalitarian” temptation – in short, how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.

It also seems fitting to link Sarah Nutall’s prescient take on Mandela’s mortality (complementary podcast here).

If you can read French, Nutall’s occasional collaborator, Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe, recently published a sympathetic meditation on Mandela’s legacy in Le Monde. It’s as worthwhile as anything linked here. In case you can’t, an old friend who recently took a graduate course with Mbembe at Duke passes along the following notes on the professor’s remarks re: Madiba:

«Mandela has been “dying” for years. We’ve been eager to “kill” Mandela so we can memorialize, objectify, turn him into an object of discourse…Mandela is still alive, but there’s not much he can do. He’s already “dead” in the sense that he is being objectified. What is the space occupied by Mandela, somewhere in between subjectivity or objectivity?»

And to close with a perhaps minor artifact which I haven’t seen making the rounds on social media along with the manifold Mandela memorabilia that’s been dusted off for the occasion–footage of the philosopher Jacques Derrida visiting the cell at Robben Island where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. The clip is taken from the 2002 documentary Derrida:

*h/t Doug Henwood


Three more bits of media worth sharing:

1. Noah Feldman, Was Mandela Right to Sell Out Black South Africans?


3. Mandela speaking candidly on Palestine,

If the Jewish leaders have any doubts about our stance, I am prepared to address them and allay their concerns because they are a very important community both in South Africa and of course in the States. And I’m prepared to iron out any differences that might exist, but they must know what our stance is: Arafat is a comrade-in-arms and we treat him as such…For anybody who changes his principles depending on [with] whom he is dealing–that is not a man who can lead a nation.

Thanksgiving Youtube Spread

28 Nov

And finally, some text, just in case you’re one of those zealots who takes ritalin even on holidays. I share with you a heartwarming note from my old MRIHR comrade, Harvard researcher John Spritzler:

A holiday in a class society such as ours has two generally opposite meanings: the official meaning that reflects the world view and values of the ruling class, and the meaning that most ordinary people give it. Yes, Thanksgiving’s official meaning is a celebration of the European upper class’s success in dominating the natives of North America (and also, by the way, dominating the working class of European and African descent.) But for the vast majority of ordinary Americans the meaning of Thanksgiving is that it is a day when the family shares a special meal together even if they are living in separate regions of the country normally and it is a day when they give thanks for having each other in their lives and a good meal to enjoy together.

So, which is the more important of the two meanings? Which is the meaning that we should emphasize? I would say that if one wishes to remove the plutocracy from power, then the latter meaning is the most important one, because it helps people see that there is a positive, decent force in the United States–hundreds of millions of good, decent people who no more want to engage in genocide than you or I–and this force is the basis for hope in building a mass revolutionary movement to remove the genocide-committing plutocracy from power.

But, if one has no serious intention of building such a revolutionary movement, if one wishes merely to complain about the problem rather than solve it, if one wishes mainly to show others that one is not a supporter of genocide (as if anybody thought one was), then I suppose it makes sense to emphasize the former meaning of Thanksgiving.

I choose the latter.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!


Nakba Day Links: 1948 and its Legacy

15 May


Rashid Khalidi, The Palestinians and 1948: The underlying causes of failure

Avi Shlaim, The Debate About 1948

Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (excerpt)

Ilan Pappe, The 1948 Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (JPS article)
——————- The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (book excerpt)

Edward Said, Fifty years of dispossession

Ali Abunimah, Remembering 1948 and looking to the future


Stalin’s NYT obituary

6 Mar

Published 57 years ago today. It’s hard to imagine any remotely mainstream American publication taking a comparably admiring view of Stalin now. Aside from some very marginal communist organizations’ newsletters, Zizek in his more provocative moods, and the tragicomic KFA, I’ve only ever seen Stalin reviled in contemporary Western discourse.

Brian Leiter sensibly judges that the “freshness of the memories of the horrors of WWII no doubt explains the generally favorable tone of the obituary.” But it strikes me as strange that the ongoing Korean War, which claimed around 40,000 American lives, didn’t cast a darker shadow on Stalin’s legacy, especially given that he never ceased striving to perpetuate that conflict.

A quick Google search reveals that a surprising number of still honored figures of the 20th century also penned reverent reflections in the wake of Stalin’s death. Among them are Jawaharlal Nehru, who wrote

He was great in his own right, whether he occupied office or not, and I believe that his influence was exercised generally in favour of peace. When war came he proved himself a very great warrior. But from all the information that we have had, his influence has been in favour of peace even in these present days of trouble and conflict.

and W.E.B. Du Bois,

Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity. He was the son of a serf but stood calmly before the great without hesitation or nerves. But also—and this was the highest proof of his greatness—he knew the common man, felt his problems, followed his fate.
His judgment of men was profound. He early saw through the flamboyance and exhibitionism of Trotsky, who fooled the world, and especially America. The whole ill-bred and insulting attitude of Liberals in the U.S. today began with our naive acceptance of Trotsky’s magnificent lying propaganda, which he carried around the world. Against it, Stalin stood like a rock and moved neither right nor left, as he continued to advance toward a real socialism instead of the sham Trotsky offered.

I’m not really interested in moralising about these unfortunate attitudes regarding Stalin–primarily (but not only) because I’m uncertain about the extent to which the severity of Stalin’s crimes and atrocities were known outside the USSR in 1953. I will say, however, that I’m of the opinion that, pace Dr. Du Bois, just as he was presciently right about Hitler, Trotsky was pretty much on the money–err, capital–here:

Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s brilliant and defeated adversary, regarded him as an intellectual nonentity who personified “the spirit of mediocrity” that impregnated the Soviet bureaucracy.

Tolkien stickin’ it to the Nazis

3 Mar

Although it might seem unlikely that anyone would wonder whether the author of The Lord of the Rings was Jewish, the Nazis took no chances. When the publishing firm of Ruetten & Loening was negotiating with J. R. R. Tolkien over a German translation of The Hobbit in 1938, they demanded that Tolkien provide written assurance that he was an Aryan. Tolkien chastised the publishers for “impertinent and irrelevant inquiries,” and—ever the professor of philology— lectured them on the proper meaning of the term: “As far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.” As to being Jewish, Tolkien regretted that “I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

–Michael Weingrad, Why There Is No Jewish Narnia

Space, Dwelling…Microwaves?

21 Apr

Maybe. Video of Bruno Latour and Peter Sloterdijk at Harvard available here.

(Link happily discovered on, so thanks to the intriguing hivemind that runs things over there!)