Wednesday, June 02, 2010

My post in DailyKos on Israel and the USA

The below post was originally written for The article and comments on it can be found here.

After watching the coverage of the flotilla incident and the Israeli attack, in the blogosphere and on television, I could not understand initially why there seemed to be so much complexity in the debates in the United States. Here is my shot at an explanation. (I am an East Indian, and I could be wrong about some American history here).
The history of 20th century and the lessons that we should learn from it are a big part driving the flotilla and the blockade narrative in people's minds. And the media, government and intellectuals in the USA are UNIQUELY incapable of learning certain of those lessons.

Because the USA (as far as I know) has never been an Imperial country that maintained colonies and faced broad enough anti-colonial forces against it.
So, we have a) Britain, France, Italy etc who were colonizers and who faced very successful anti-colonial struggles on the one hand.
We have b) China, India, countries in Africa and West Asia, colonized countries that fought against such colonizers.
And then we have c) the USA, the current global power.
Countries in sets a and b know this to be true: that the twentieth century had SEVERAL great struggles - NOT just the one against fascism.
Thus as an Indian I know that the big fight that our country faced was not our small but significant participation in WWII. It was the fight against colonialism that really determines the lessons we learnt.
I think the British or the French also see the 20th century as fights against fascism (on which they were on the right side) AS WELL AS fights against colonialism (on which they were in the wrong).
This means that we both consider the lessons and history of colonialism to be important.
But this is not the case with the United States. Intellectuals in the USA seem to give singular importance to the fight against fascism and totalitarianism, while completely being ignorant of the behavior and lessons of colonialism. The American people I talk to are certainly ignorant that there is a point of view on issues held by the formerly colonized peoples around the world, and that point of view is VERY, VERY significant.
What has this got to do with Israel?
Simply that the tactics and rhetoric used by Israel "smell" very similar to a colonizer to an Indian, while the Palestinians come across similar to ourselves and our predicament hardly 60 years back. We "get" Palestine - while intellectuals in the USA (even those who support Paestinian statehood) seem to be engaged in a rhetorical quagmire.

The actions of the Israeli government or the Gaza blockade are not at all that subtle or complex to explore - collective punishment, extreme responses to individual incidents and ritual humiliation have ALWAYS been tactics used by colonizers. To explore this further, I have chosen the incident of Jalianwala Bagh massacre or the Amritsar massacre on April 13, 1919 in Amritsar, Punjab, British India.

You can read a summary of the incident here.
The restive city of Amritsar was under martial law in April 1919 because of an attack against an English woman by a mob earlier. A group of peaceful unarmed civilians gathered in the grounds of Jalianwala Bagh on the day of Baisakhi, the spring festival.
General Dyer commanded a group of fifty soldiers who opened fire on the crowd for 10 minutes.
The casualties estimates range from 379 by the government to 1800 by the Civil Surgeon.
Now, given that incident what tactics of colonizers can we learn?
1. The propaganda that the Palestinians only understand force
All the below are based on this article in wikipedia on the Jalianwala Bagh massacre and Reginald Dyer:
General Dyer, perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, Punjab 1919 wrote an article in the Globe of 21 January 1921, titled, "The Peril to the Empire." It commenced with "India does not want self-government. She does not understand it." He went on to write
* It is only to an enlightened people that free speech and a free press can be extended. The Indian people want no such enlightenment.
* There should be an eleventh commandment in India, "Thou shalt not agitate."
* The time will come to India when a strong hand will be exerted against malice and 'perversion' of good order.
* Gandhi will not lead India to capable self-government. The British Raj must continue, firm and unshaken in its administration of justice to all men.

2. Extreme responses to certain incidents:
Brigadier Dyer designated the spot where Miss Marcella Sherwood was assaulted sacred and daytime pickets were placed at either end of the street. Anyone wishing to proceed in the street between 6am and 8pm was made to crawl the 150 yards (140 m) on all fours, lying flat on their bellies. The order was not required at night due to a curfew. The humiliation of the order struck the Indians deeply. Most importantly, the order effectively closed the street. The houses had no back doors and the inhabitants could not go out without climbing down from their roofs. This order was in effect from 19 April until 25 April 1919. No doctor or supplier was allowed in, resulting in the sick being untended.

3. The disputing of certain facts:
After the firing was over, hundreds of people had been killed and thousands had been injured. Official estimates put the figures at 379 killed (337 men, 41 boys and a six week old baby) and 200 injured, though the actual figure was almost certainly much higher; the wounded could not be moved from where they had fallen, as a curfew had been declared. Debate about the actual figures continues to this day.
In 1997, the Duke of Edinburgh, participating in an already controversial British visit to the Amritsar monument, provoked considerable outrage in India and in the UK with an offhand comment. Having observed a plaque claiming 2,000 casualties, Prince Philip observed, "That's not right. The number is less."

4. The support of the democractic people of Israel:
On his return to Britain, Brigadier Dyer was presented with a purse of 26,000 pounds sterling, a huge sum in those days, which emerged from a collection on his behalf by the Morning Post, a conservative, pro-Imperialistic newspaper, which later merged with the Daily Telegraph. A Thirteen Women Committee was constituted to present "the Saviour of the Punjab with sword of honour and a purse."

and so on.

I am not comparing Jallianwala Bagh to the flotilla incident. I am comparing it with the blockade and such ritual humiliations and violence perpetrated on the people of Gaza.

Now, if the USA had actually maintained a set of colonies the way Britain did and then faced stiff anti-colonialism, then it is likely that some of the above defenses and actions of Israel would be seen for what they are - after all the history of the last two centuries is mainly about colonialism (for the majority of the people on the planet).
It is not hard for most people to recognise it for what it is.
Instead there is an exclusive focus among American intelligentsia on the struggle against fascism.
It is natural, if you use that struggle ALONE as a guide to view 20th century politics, to swear to defend Israel in any way you can.
But unfortunately that is not the actual case. There were many actors in the 20th century world and the world was not so simply split between fascist dictators and democracies as American intelligentsia seem to represent.

This is why I have thought of the "defense" that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East curious. What does that statement mean? Democracies have been known to colonize and punish colonised people, and otherwise engage in severe inhumanity. Why do American media think that a democracy somehow is incapable of such behavior?
The answer is clear - if you look at the world solely through the prism of a struggle against fascism (because you happened to be on the right side of it), then of course, a democracy can do no wrong.
It is just that this is a very narrow view of world history (and, shall I say, very convenient for the United States and Western Europe).

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