Liberal democracy and religion-3: The European model

What is happening in Europe is an interesting example of the tension between religion and liberal democracy. The countries in western Europe are only nominally religious. As Dan Barker, co-chair of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said recently in a talk at CWRU, people in those countries usually enter a church only three times in their lives, and on two of those occasions they are carried in. It is surely no accident that these countries are also stable liberal democracies.

I think that a strong case can be made that lack of religious fervor is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for liberal democratic values to flourish. The US is perhaps the only country in which fairly strong religious beliefs co-exist with liberal democratic values and this is because of the existence of the first amendment to the constitution which has at least partly managed to keep any single religious group from imposing its will on everyone.

But even the western European countries face threats due to the rise of overtly religious practices. The introduction of blasphemy laws in Ireland is one example and the growing Islamic population and their increased adoption of overtly religious practices like wearing full body coverings for women is causing stress to their secular societies, many of which do not have many overt signs of public religiosity. The most recent Dutch election results saw gains for political parties that seek to ban further immigration of Muslims because the immigrants are strongly religious and the Dutch see this as a threat to their secular way of life.

It is clear that France especially sees the rise of overtly religious practices as a threat to its secular principles. For example, it has taken a strong stand against the wearing of religious veils. A French parliamentary committee has said that “requiring women to cover their faces was against the French republican principles of secularism and equality.” The French parliament condemned the Islamic full face veil, saying that it is “an affront to the nation’s values of dignity and equality.” Meanwhile a French Muslim woman was fined for driving while wearing a veil on the grounds that since the veil restricted her view it prevented her from driving safely. France has even refused to grant citizenship to a man because he forced his wife to wear the full Islamic veil.

France is not only targeting Muslims. The French parliament passed by (276 to 20) a ‘secularity law’ in 2004 that banned the “wearing of Muslim hijabs, Sikh’s head coverings, large Christian crosses or crucifixes, Jewish yarmulkes, etc. Small Christian jewelry is permitted.” France has also banned the wearing of Sikh turbans in schools

Meanwhile Belgium has banned the burka.

Switzerland has also started taking steps, such as banning the construction of any new minarets.

While I personally dislike of overt symbols of religiosity, I think that such actions are going too far. I think the US constitution has it just right, requiring the government be strictly neutral is relation to religion, neither supporting and promoting it nor actively undermining it. Going by that principle, banning a form of dress purely because it is religious seems to me to be wrong.

Of course, strict neutrality as required by the constitution is often violated. In practice, the US government does provide considerable support for religion by granting religious groups tax-exempt privileges, allowing religious symbols (especially those associated with Christianity and Judaism such as crosses, menorahs, and ten commandment plaques) on government land, praying at government functions, and the like. The Supreme Court decision on April 10, 2010 allowing the Mojave Cross on public land is one such example. (One month after the verdict the cross was stolen and has not been found so far.)

As a result of treating religious beliefs as deserving of special treatment, religious people think that they have the right not to do anything that is against their religion. So for example, we have some pharmacists in the US claiming that they should not be forced to dispense contraceptives or other medications because they feel that that is going against god’s will.

So what should we do about this? A good start is to not give religions any special privileges at all. Religious beliefs and religious organizations should have exactly the same status as any other beliefs or organizations. The fact that you have religious reasons for something should not count in the slightest. Behaviors based on religion should get no special treatment at all, either positive or negative.

In the UK, a High Court judge has done a great service for this cause by upholding the dismissal of a relationship counselor who refused to give sex therapy for a gay couple because of his religious beliefs. The dismissed person, so used to having religious beliefs pandered to, whined that, “because of my Christian beliefs and principles, there should be allowances taken into account whereby individuals like me can actually avoid having to contradict their very strongly-held Christian principles.” But why should the fact that he has ‘strongly-held Christian principles’ be at all relevant or be more significant than strongly held principles that are not based on religion? If he had strongly held tribal allegiances against some ethnic group, should they be accommodated? Of course not.

If his Christian beliefs are so meaningful to him, he should get a job where they are not violated. He has no right to expect society to accommodate his private beliefs just because they happen to be religious. Once you allow that exemption, then you are faced with the impossible task of determining which religions and which religious beliefs should be accommodated.

The problem with religious people is that they want society to grant their beliefs special status. The judge rightly said in his ruling that legislation for the protection of views held purely on religious grounds cannot be justified, adding that to do so was irrational and “also divisive, capricious and arbitrary.” The judge rejected a plea by the former Archbishop of Canterbury that judges should be sensitive to religious issues, saying that “this appeared to be an argument that the courts ought to be more sympathetic to the substance of Christian beliefs and be ready to uphold and defend them.”

Rules are often bent to accommodate purely religious beliefs, which strikes me as wrong. Any exemption to a rule should be such that it is based purely on secular grounds. So for example, if the US military has a rule that requires all soldiers to wear certain headgear, Sikhs should not have been given an exemption simply because it violates their religious beliefs. If any exemptions to standard headgear are given, they should be based on reasons that make sense apart from religion and provide options that are available to everyone, Sikh or not.

The less we accommodate religious beliefs the better.

POST SCRIPT: Resurrection of Touchdown Jesus?

touchdownjesus.jpgYesterday I wrote about how lightning destroyed the 62-foot roadside statue known as Touchdown Jesus. Church officials now say that they will rebuild and restore the statue.

I don’t know if this is a wise move. I would have thought that to religious people, a direct lightning strike would be seen as a sure sign from god that even if he does not actually hate Jesus, he really dislikes tacky and ostentatious statuary. They are risking really ticking him off by building a replica and inviting maybe a plague of frogs next time.

My advice to them would be to build something small and tasteful, like a statue of Baal or a golden calf or something. I hear that god likes those.

Liberal democracy and religion-2: How to avoid conflict between the two

Based on the examples I gave yesterday, I would argue that religion and liberal democracy are fundamentally incompatible. The reason is that democracy is a system of social organization that is based on rules that are arrived at either by consensus or by some democratic process. The ideals of liberalism are not given by god but have been arrived at over centuries by people trying to find the right balance between personal freedoms and the need for an orderly society. There is no higher authority for any law or constitution than the consent of the governed. If one wishes to change the laws, then one has to persuade ones fellow citizens of the benefits of the change and get them to agree in sufficient numbers.

The laws of religion, on the other hand, are supposedly given by god and usually written down once and for all in some text. They do not usually evolve with the times, except within limits. While there may be some flexibility in interpretation of these laws, they are non-negotiable in principle. The idea that there is a supreme, all-knowing power who knows best and lays down the rules pretty much eliminates the possibility of negotiations and compromise, a bulwark of the liberal democratic process.

Liberal democratic values can flourish only in those countries where religious beliefs are weak or non-existent. As long as religions and religious authorities are kept out of power, then democracy can exist. The problem of religion in liberal democracies is what to do when religious groups threaten to use the processes of democracy to take over the power of government and then impose their religious practices on everyone. When confronted with this possibility, you are forced into a choice between allowing undemocratic forces to exploit the democratic process to force everyone to live in a theocracy with its denial of basic freedoms of democracy, or using undemocratic means (such as banning religious parties) to prevent such a theocratic takeover. Neither of these outcomes is desirable since liberal democracy dies either way.

Is there a solution? I believe that the best thing to do is to not let religion gain a foothold in the first place. The only way to do so that is consistent with liberal democracy is to use our freedom of speech to show that religious beliefs are false, the idea of rights and values given by god makes no sense, and that no reasonable modern person should take religion seriously. If we can do that and make religion less appealing, then it becomes highly unlikely that religious political parties will ever gain power. After all, it is unlikely that any political party today that bases its platform on the sayings of Greek gods will win any elections because those gods have been discredited. It is not necessary to ban the worship of Greek gods or throw its believers in jail because believing in such gods is now seen as ridiculous.

This is where the current accommodationist policy of not criticizing religion, and even praising it for its supposed good qualities, shows its greatest weakness. It actually increases the likelihood of an eventual theocratic takeover by making religion seem like a good thing. What is worse, people bend over backwards to give religious special privileges that other groups don’t enjoy, such as tax-exempt status, and by pandering to religious leaders and practices, thus giving them greater credibility and actually enabling them to get even stronger. When we treat religious beliefs with reverence and act like religion is a force for good, we make political parties based on religion more likely to flourish and grow.

People who seek to avoid offending religious people by not criticizing their beliefs are thus in a bind. They cannot oppose religious political parties because of their religious basis since they claim that religion is a good thing. It is then hard to later turn around and oppose religious groups when they look likely to seize power and impose their religious rules on everyone.

Gideon Levy points out the dangers of increasing theocratization in Israel and of the special privileges that it currently gives to some religious groups, like being able to avoid serving in the military. He places the blame for this squarely on secular people who misguidedly treat religions as deserving of special treatment.

Orthodox society and its leadership should not be blamed for this. The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have the right to do everything they can to impose their faith on the secular majority. It’s the secular who are to blame. Just as it’s not yeshiva students’ fault that they are not drafted, but rather the fault of the secular majority that allows this, so it is with the other aspects of our lives. We, the secular people, are to blame for all this. We’re the ones who give in.

Robert Fisk talks about the increasing influence of religious groups in Israel’s military.

Take Amos Harel’s devastating report in Haaretz which analyses the make-up of the Israeli army’s officer corps. In the past, many of them came from the leftist kibbutzim tradition, from greater Tel Aviv or from the coastal plain of Sharon. In 1990, only 2 per cent of army cadets were religious Orthodox Jews. Today the figure is 30 per cent. Six of the seven lieutenant-colonels in the Golani Brigade are religious. More than 50 per cent of local commanders are “national” religious in some infantry brigades.

There’s nothing wrong with being religious. But – although Harel does not make this point quite so strongly – many of the Orthodox are supporters of the colonisation of the West Bank and thus oppose a Palestinian state.

And the Orthodox colonists are the Israelis who most hate the Palestinians, who want to erase the chances of a Palestinian state as surely as some Hamas officials would like to erase Israel.

Fisk is wrong about one point, led astray by his own liberal democratic thinking. There is something wrong with being religious for the very reasons this series of posts makes and which he himself demonstrates in his article – religion and liberal democracy makes bad bedfellows.

This is why it is important in liberal democratic societies for us to prevent such scenarios from unfolding and the way to do that is to use the process of open discussion to show up religion for what it truly is, a waste of time and resources, a holdover of thinking from the dark ages, and a burden on society. If enough people can be persuaded that religious beliefs are useless and that those who hold them are as much holdovers from primitive thinking as astrologers and those who make decisions based on chicken entrails, then it is less likely that political parties based on them will ever be in a position to take over state power. And liberal democracy can be preserved by liberal democratic means.

Next: What is happening in Europe.

POST SCRIPT: Touchdown Jesus, R. I. P.

Why does god hate Jesus?

Liberal democracy and religion-1: Are they compatible?

I have argued repeatedly that science is incompatible with any religion, unless one claims that religion is nothing more than just a grouping of like-minded individuals who feel the need to engage in theological discussions and common rituals, similar to groupings of social and business clubs. As soon as you introduce a supernatural agency that is unconstrained by the laws of science that everything else operates under, you have abandoned the scientific worldview. So the answer to the question of whether religion is compatible with science is a simple ‘No’.
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The strange appeal of the Spelling Bee

My adopted hometown Cleveland has a serious self-esteem problem despite the fact that I have found it to be a nice place to live and raise a family and have been very happy here. Of course, it has many real problems that it shares with other mid-sized cities in the northeast, such as the poor economy, the effects of the housing crisis, schools in trouble, and declining population coupled with rising unemployment.
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Legality and morality

In this last post (I think) on the attack on the Gaza flotilla, I want to respond to a comment to a previous post in which Eric wondered why I was not paying more attention to the question of the legality of what happened with the blockade, the flotilla, and the attack on the Mavi Marmara, saying “I would think that the questions should start with legality, and if the laws don’t accurately reflect morals, maybe then they should shift to morality as we address the shortcomings in the law. But laws don’t originate in a vacuum. Moral questions often have many wrong answers and no right one, or vice versa. Legal questions may be (are) open to interpretation, but they (theoretically) have a right answer and a wrong one.”

Eric is right that legality may be easier to judge than morality, but this is true only when it comes to everyday life because there we have a commonly accepted legal framework and agreed-upon legal institutions to adjudicate cases, and the contesting parties agree to abide by the verdict and suffer any consequences.

But when it comes to actions by governments, the reverse is true and questions of morality are often far easier to determine than those of legality. The reason that you never get very far arguing on the basis of legality when criticizing governments is because they consider themselves to be supra-legal entities accountable to no one. It is only an impartial and international judicial hearing that can resolve issues involving governments, but both Israel and the US have ruled out even an impartial inquiry, let alone a trial before (say) the International Court of Justice. The US has even said that the ‘inquiry’ led by Israel would not allow the Israeli commandos to be questioned, making an even greater mockery of the process.

Furthermore, governments have the ability to make the law seem to justify anything that they do. Humorist Art Buchwald once wrote that the problem with the legal system is not incompetent lawyers but that we have too many competent lawyers.

A competent, first-class lawyer can tie a case up in knots, not only for the jury but for the judge as well. If you have two competent lawyers on opposite sides, a trial that should take three days could easily last six months. And there isn’t a thing anyone can do about it.

Peter Casey discusses the implications of this when it comes to high profile issues like the Gaza flotilla and how it is always possible to find people willing to argue legal points to a stand-off and then claim that the resulting inconclusiveness justifies the action.

What Buchwald was on to is the practice of “polishing the turd,” an indispensable art of the legal advocate. When two accomplished turd-polishers are pitted against one another, the jury – or the public – will not know what to believe. Further, when dealt a hand of bad facts by his client, an experienced and creative defense counsel will ply this skill by converting obvious and incriminating facts into an impossible puzzle of uncertainty.

In its many trials in the court of public opinion, Israel and its supporters have become adept at polishing turds. The process begins with asking and answering the question, “Did the law allow us to do this?” If the answer is “yes,” as it always will be, its critics are terrified of leaving that claim un-rebutted. And so, like moths to a flame, they respond. Once they do, the defenders of Israel’s actions are on safe ground. They don’t need to prove ironclad, irrefutable legal justification. All they need to do is persuade the target audiences that the law, the facts, or both are so complicated that anyone, especially in the heat of battle, could have made a mistake.

Take the case of the US government torturing people. Has consensus been reached that it is illegal? No, that ‘debate’ still goes on because Bush-Cheney could find lawyers like John Yoo and Alan Dershowitz to argue that torture is perfectly legal and then have that discussion drag on endlessly and inconclusively until people get sick of it and stop paying attention. In the same way, Obama has now got lawyers to say that it is perfectly legal for him to order the murder of anyone, even American citizens, anywhere in the world.

All governments claim that what they do is legal. It is precisely because governments have this sense that the law is whatever they say it is that lures them into ever more extreme actions which results in moral judgments being easier to make.

I am sure that the US could argue that invading Vietnam and killing half a million of Vietnamese and destroying that country was legal. Reagan would have argued that his invasion of the tiny nation of Grenada was legal. I am sure that Stalin felt that his orders to send people to the gulags where they died in huge numbers was legal. Slavery in the US was perfectly legal. It was even enshrined in the ultimate legal document of a country, its constitution. I am sure that Hitler’s lawyers argued that murdering Jews was perfectly legal according to German laws. I could go on and on with the list of all the appalling things that governments have done while arguing that they were legal.

But can anyone doubt that all these things were deeply immoral?

Frankly, I don’t give a damn if any of those actions were legal. They were horrific, morally repugnant, and deserve unreserved condemnation. It is for this reason that I come down especially hard on governments that act badly because the people harmed by them have no recourse except to appeal to world opinion or have a more powerful entity take their side. But that latter path is unlikely and even when successful can lead to wars, which often make things even worse. But in the case of the US, and also Israel as long as the US is its patron, even that option is ruled out for the people at the receiving end of their actions because no one has the power to force them to do the right thing. That is why they can, and do, act with impunity in world affairs, like rogue states.

In this particular case, I think the siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza (which began long before the 2008 assault) is morally reprehensible. Israel is slowly but steadily starving the population of 1.5 million by allowing only one-fourth of the supplies it used to receive in 2007, even though even that amount was insufficient to adequately meet basic needs. In addition, the massive military assault in 2008 that destroyed a huge amount of its infrastructure such as fresh water supplies, electricity, and medical facilities means that Gaza requires even more supplies than normal in order to repair and replenish what was lost.

The Israeli siege is designed to collectively punish the entire population of Gaza, irrespective of whether they are aged or infants or sick, for electing Hamas as their government, by deliberately restricting food and other essential supplies to keep them in a state of semi-starvation and deprived of the essentials of life. This partial list of items that Israel has prevented from reaching Gazans, that includes flour, sugar, milk, diapers, toys, sweets, spices, toilet paper, diapers and baby wipes, feminine hygiene products, etc., has to be read to be believed to appreciate the sheer meanness, pettiness, and cruelty of the siege policy. The list reveals a deeply immoral mindset on the part of the Israeli government and makes abundantly clear that this policy was deliberately designed to humiliate Gazans and make their lives miserable by denying them the most basic of everyday items that we take for granted.

The policy decision to starve the Gazans was made at the highest levels in Israel and articulated in 2006 by Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Ehud Olmert, the then Prime Minister, who said: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”

Is the use of such starvation tactics to punish a civilian population legal? Do we need to even have such a discussion? I don’t give a damn if it is legal or not. To me this is obviously a moral crime of the highest magnitude.

All this is taking place on top of the state of apartheid that Israel has imposed in the rest of the occupied territories, and its attempts to marginalize the Arabs who still live in Israel. Egypt is also part of this shameful blockade of Gaza and it is widely believed that it does so because it is a client state of the US, the second largest recipient of US aid (mostly military) after Israel, and helping Israel enforce the blockade on Gaza is part of the deal. Egypt has also become Israel’s client state by proxy through the US.

The US is the most powerful country in the world and is Israel’s protector and they feel that they are unaccountable to no one. Countries like North Korea and Iran may appear to be reckless and thumbing their nose at world opinion but they know that there are some lines they cannot cross because more powerful governments are able to do them serious harm. No such restraint exists with the US, or with Israel as long as the US unhesitatingly supports it. The only counterweight to lawless behavior by them is worldwide outrage.

That is why I support the efforts to end the siege of Gaza by those courageous people who went unarmed as part of the flotilla to dramatize the monstrous injustice that is being perpetrated. Was what they were doing illegal? Again, I don’t give a damn. I see the people in the flotilla as worthy successors to Gandhi and his followers who picked up salt (an acknowledged and deliberate illegal act) to dramatize the injustices they faced from the British. I see them, to pick something closer to home, as successors to the unarmed civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama in 1965 who were brutally beaten by the police on what has come to be known in the civil rights movement as Bloody Sunday. I see them as successors to the unarmed civil rights demonstrators who sat at lunch counters and in the front of buses and were attacked by Bull Connor’s police force using attack dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

I do not get deeply into the weeds of legal issues when it comes to governments because they will not agree on the legal principles to be used or submit themselves to courts and verdicts. They will instead use those interminable discussions to deflect attention away from the blatant immorality of their actions. What I do in such cases is comparative analyses, asking “what if…” questions, by switching the roles of parties. The role reversals do not always match up perfectly, but usually they are close enough that they reveal when people are taking a stand on a tribal basis (by twisting legal interpretations to make their own tribe appear to be in the right) and when they are doing so on the basis of some moral and legal principle applied even-handedly.

When, as was the case with the Gaza flotilla, large numbers of ordinary people from all over the world, with no particular ideological or religious or tribal allegiances, are willing to risk their personal safety to take action against a wrong that does not affect them personally but whose injustice they feel deeply, you know that you have an immoral policy on your hands.

Israel’s siege of Gaza and its apartheid policies in the West Bank are deeply immoral and any discussion of their legality should be seen for what it is, a side issue and a distraction.

The resistance on the Mavi Marmara

I had hoped to move on to other topics today but several commenters have raised some questions that I will respond to today and tomorrow. One is why some of the people in the Mavi Marmara resisted when those in the other boats, such as the Rachel Corrie, did not and were taken captive without violence. Thus, it is implied, the people who tried to repel the boarders were responsible for the ugly turn of events.
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When an American is not really an American

A truly astonishing feature of the non-reaction by the US government to the killing of an American by Israeli forces on the aid flotilla is how willing some people are to abandon their fellow citizens if the alternative is criticizing Israel’s actions. The latest example is the Republican Senate head John Cornyn defending the killing of Furkan Dogan.

Recall the situation when two unarmed Americans were detained by North Korea for crossing the border into their country or the efforts currently underway to get the release of three unarmed Americans who were arrested by Iran for crossing their border. Can you imagine the US reaction if any one of those people had been killed by the governments in the process of capture, despite the fact that they had committed an illegal act in crossing the border without permission? Would it have mattered at all if the North Koreans or Iranians had said they had been killed while resisting capture?

John Cole explains why the US seems so unconcerned by the death of one of their own, especially someone who was killed in such a brutal fashion as with four bullets to the head and one to the chest, which suggests an execution-style killing. He says that we now have two classes of people: “real Americans” and “not really Americans”.

What people don’t realize is just how nuanced America has become about citizenship.

When we decide if someone is a real American, worthy of all aspects of citizenship and defense by the government, we look at the totality of the situation. We look at what kind of citizen you are, what you believed in, what you were doing at the time you were shot four times in the head at close range by a foreign army as they stormed a ship in international waters, and a variety of other factors.

Not only was [Dogan] not an American, but we should tinker with the Constitution so this never happens again. Now had his parents emigrated to a more American country when he was two, like, for example, Israel, then this story would be a lot different. But as it was, it is clear that he was not sufficiently American for our government to get upset about his death.

Second, you have to look at what Dogan believed in to establish his American credentials. He was against the Israeli blockade, and as we all know, there is nothing more un-American than opposing Israeli policy. Had he been doing something more real American, like delivering bibles to Iran or proselytizing in Yemen, then we could be outraged over his death. As it was, he had it coming.

Stephen Kinzer poses this question that starkly illustrates how isolated the US and Israel are in their view of the world:

Quick, name the rogue state in the Middle East. Hints: It has an active nuclear-weapons program but conducts it in secret; its security organs regularly kill perceived enemies of the state, both at home and abroad; its political process has been hijacked by religious fundamentalists who believe they are doing God’s will; its violent recklessness destabilizes the world’s most volatile region; and it seems as deaf to reason as it is impervious to pressure. Also: Its name begins with “I”.

How you answer this riddle depends in part on where you sit. From an American perspective, the obvious answer is Iran. Iran seems alone and friendless, a pariah in the world, and deservedly so given its long list of sins. In Washington’s view, Iran poses one of the major threats to global security.

Many people in the world, however, see Iran quite differently: as just another struggling country with valuable resources, no more or less threatening than any other, ruled by a regime that, while thuggish, wins grudging admiration for standing up to powerful bullies. They are angrier at Israel, which they see as violent, repressive and contemptuous of international law, but nonetheless endlessly coddled by the United States.

Kinzer says that there is so little to differentiate Israel from Iran that what is needed is for the US to treat both in identical fashion. Of course, that will never happen as long as the US government is subservient to Israeli interests. As Alexander Cockburn writes, the willingness of the American government and Congress and major media to sacrifice their own to appease Israel and its loyalists in the US has reached laughable levels.

As the TV networks here give unlimited airtime to its apologists, the message rolls out that Israel is permitted every illegal act in the lexicon of international law, from acts of violence against a civilian population (the people of Gaza, starved under permanent blockade) to piracy on the high seas and the lethal attacks by Israeli commandos on the relief flotilla. The guiding purpose in this tsunami of drivel is that the viewers should be brainwashed into thinking Israel somehow has the right and the duty to act at will as the mad-dog of the planet.

The public White House response to Israel’s international piracy was comical in its wimpishness. “The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy,” deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton demurely declared in Chicago.

A friend of mine gave a good parody of the servile posture of the US government and press: “I think,” he wrote to me, “that matters are close to the point where if Hillary Clinton and a group of senior American officials were meeting the Israeli leaders for negotiations, and Netanyahu expressed his displeasure at the American positions by pulling out a gun and shooting her dead, then having the entire American delegation beaten to death by his security guards, there would probably be a small item buried in the next days’ American newspapers that due to conflict with the Israelis, Obama had decided to nominate a new Secretary of State.”

Black humor, no doubt. But it does raise the question of exactly what Israel can do to the US and still not face any repercussions.

POST SCRIPT: Five minutes with A. C. Grayling

The BBC has a series where they have rapid-fire five-minute conversations with people about the topics they are associated with. I found this one with philosopher A. C. Grayling to be terrific and only partly because his attitude to life seems almost identical to mine.

He looks like exactly the kind of person I would love to talk with over a cup of coffee.

More eyewitness reports emerge of attack on Gaza aid flotilla

Now that some of the people kidnapped and detained by Israel after its raid on the aid flotilla are being released, they are speaking out and horrifying stories are being told. Of course, we know that what people say immediately after a traumatic event can often be unreliable which is why what is needed is an impartial investigation to get at the truth of the claims and counterclaims. But since the US and Israel have taken the absurd position that Israel should conduct the inquiry, we can forget about getting the truth from that source and have to depend on other sources.

The London Independent has tried to piece together the sequence of events and provides the most detailed report that I have seen so far. It is chilling.

But one thing is fast becoming clear – many of the dead were shot multiple times at point-blank range. One was a journalist taking photographs. “A man was shot… between the eyebrows, which indicates that it was not an attack that took place from self-defence,” Hassan Ghani, a passenger, said in an account posted on YouTube. “The soldier had time to set up the shot.” Mattias Gardell, a Swedish activist, told the TT news bureau: “The Israelis committed premeditated murder… Two people were killed by shots in the forehead, one was shot in the back of the head and one in the chest.”

A report from the London Guardian describes how the passengers were treated, in particular recounting a ghastly story that Israeli commandos pointed a gun at a one-year old child in order to coerce the ship’s captain.

An Algerian activist, who giving only a first name of Sabrina, accused Israeli commandos of taking a one-year-old child hostage.

“They point a gun to his head in front of his Turkish parents to force the captain of our ship to stop sailing,” she said.

An Algerian, Izzeddine Zahrour, said the Israeli authorities “deprived us of food, water and sleep, and we weren’t allowed to use the toilet”.

“It was an ugly kidnapping, and subsequently bad treatment in Israeli jail,” he said. “They handcuffed us, pushed us around and humiliated us.”

Other reporters on board the ships also describe what happened that disputes Israel’s version of events. Tellingly, all the journalists on board had their video confiscated by the Israelis. This BBC report describes the experience of a British citizen on the boat, and this Gulf News report provides more details

Max Blumenthal provides evidence that rather than the killings being the result of a bungled operation in which the Israelis were taken by surprise at the resistance they received, the Israeli Defense Forces detailed its violent strategy in advance as part of its domestic political agenda.

Statements by senior Israeli military commanders made in the Hebrew media days before the massacre revealed that the raid was planned over a week in advance by the Israeli military and was personally approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. The elite Israeli commando unit known as Unit 13 was tasked with carrying out the mission and its role was known by the Israeli public well before the raid took place. Details of the plan show that the use of deadly force was authorized and calculated. The massacre of activists should not have been unexpected.

Why didn’t Israel’s leaders choose to deal with the flotilla in a more judicious fashion? Were they that stupid, or just crazy? From the details of the plan it appears that Netanyahu and his cohorts had envisioned Entebbe Part Deux, a daring anti-terror raid that would lift the sinking morale of the Israeli public while intimidating Iran and the Arab world. Though Israel may be more isolated than ever as a result of the massacre, the Netanyahu administration is reaping considerable political benefits at home.

We see once again that whenever the US or Israel gets caught doing something outrageous and morally indefensible, the discussion in the US immediately shifts to questions about legality (i.e., was the order to waterboard and otherwise torture prisoners legal? Is holding prisoners indefinitely without access to family or lawyers legal? And so on.) and attention is deflected away from the moral outrage. But this seems to work just one way. If international law can be used in their favor, it is seized upon. If it goes against, it is ignored. And when a country perceived as an ‘enemy’ of the US or Israel (say North Korea or Iran) does something, the illegality is simply taken for granted and moral outrage is heaped on the country.

Former US Ambassador Edward Peck, who was one of the people on board the ship attacked by Israel, talks about this phenomenon:

I just got off a radio interview. One of the things that distresses me is the extent to which Israel has been successful in, for example, getting Americans to ask questions as to why the passengers on that big Turkish ship attacked the Israeli soldiers.

I said, wait a minute, wait a minute, they were defending the ship against people who were attacking it. You’ve got it backwards. There are civilians, men and woman, on a Turkish-flagged vessel, in international waters. And here comes a group of heavily armed — forget the paintball story — heavily armed guys who are going to take over the ship by force and then take it to Israel, where the passengers don’t want to go. And so they pick up deck chairs and other things to fight off these heavily armed — and by the way, masked — commandos, and somehow they become the attackers. So, that depresses me a little bit.

Leaving aside the horrible bloodshed and all, it becomes a war of words. Americans are reading what comes out of Tel Aviv, which is carried in the American press… So, all of a sudden, the people on the Turkish ship are described as terrorist, Israel-hating, Hamas supporters, murderers and killers.

Peck also says that after being forcibly taken to Israel he was told he was going to be deported because he entered that country illegally! This is the Orwellian world that we enter when we accept Israel’s version of events and of what is legal and illegal. As Anthony Dimaggio says in his discussion of the legal issues, “Media outlets are more than happy to obfuscate international law in order to absolve Israel of criticism.” Former British ambassador Craig Murray also weighs in on the legal question.

Next: When is an American not really an American?

POST SCRIPT: Glenn Greenwald smacks down Eliot Spitzer

I have written before that Eliot Spitzer is one of those people whom I am sorry that his personal life removed from politics. But in this interview with Glenn Greenwald, he shows that like all other reflexively pro-Israel apologists, he is perfectly willing to check his principles at the door and use his reasoning skills in defense of Israel’s actions. But Glenn Greenwald has the facts and arguments on his side.

Update on the Gaza aid flotilla attack

More news about what happened on the aid boats that were attacked by Israel is emerging even though, as Stephen Zunes describes, Israel tries to prevent the release of any information that they have not filtered:

The Israelis confiscated all of the passengers’ cameras, laptops, cell phones, and other personal devices. The world, therefore, can only see some carefully edited versions from cameramen that accompanied the Israeli commandos. What won’t be seen, for example, will be the accounts of eyewitnesses of commandos with stun guns assaulting passengers who nonviolently formed a ring around the ship’s bridge, the savage beatings of elderly pacifists as they lay on the ground, and other acts of excessive violence.

[Read more…]

The pro-Israel propaganda machine swings into action

Ran HaCohen describes the propaganda effort in the Israeli press to get Israelis to line up behind the government after the flotilla disaster, just the way the US press gets Americans to line up behind theirs whenever any outrageous act by them is revealed. But this strategy only works with people who will reflexively side with you on a tribal basis whatever the facts, and are merely looking for justifications for doing so. Everyone else will see it for what it is, lies.

But as Patrick Cockburn writes, such efforts carry a serious downside:

The problem is that nobody believes Israeli propaganda as much as Israelis. Pro-Palestinian activists often lament the fluency and mendacity of Israeli spokesmen on the airwaves and the pervasive influence of Israel’s supporters abroad. But, in reality, these PR campaigns are Israel’s greatest weakness, because they distort Israelis’ sense of reality. Defeats and failures are portrayed as victories and successes.

When you feed your supporters lies to make them feel good about themselves and get them to rally to your side, you are merely setting yourself and them up for even greater failure in the future, because you will not learn from the past. After all, if you are always right, why change anything?

America’s reflexively pro-Israel apologists have swung into full gear to make sure that people realize that when it comes to Israel, any criticism of any action constitutes betrayal. One such apologist is Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic who seems to be feel that our sympathies should lie, not with the dead and wounded in the raid, but with the Israeli people because they feel bad about the way they botched things.

There’s real pain in Israel today, pain at the humiliation of the flotilla raid, pain on behalf of the injured soldiers, and pain that the geniuses who run this country could not figure out a way to out-smart a bunch of Turkish Islamists and their useful idiot fellow travelers. And no, there is no particular pain felt for the dead on the boat; the video of those peace-seeking peace activists beating on the paintball commandos with metal bars pretty much canceled out whatever feelings of sympathy Israelis might have otherwise felt.

Yes, I am sure that the shame and humiliation felt by people in Israel because the world sees their government and their military as bunglers is much harder to bear than the grief of the relatives of the dead and wounded. Note the contrasting of the phrase ‘paintball commandos’ with ‘metal bars’, again to suggest that Israel is always the underdog, always fighting pluckily against a vastly more powerful enemy. For the record, you can see a photograph (courtesy of the IDF or Israel Defense Forces) of all the alleged weapons that were found on the ships.

The Irish Times reports that “[Israeli] Ministers said in a statement they regretted the loss of life in the raid, but blamed activists who they said assaulted soldiers who boarded the ship for any fatalities.” So the Israeli government has the audacity to argue that people repelling armed boarders in international waters with whatever lay at hand are to blame for the violence. If the roles had been reversed and heavily armed Palestinians had boarded an Israeli passenger ship, then any resistance put up by the unarmed people, even if ill-advised and futile, would have been hailed as courageous and heroic (like the passengers on flight 93 on 9/11 who tried to take on the hijackers), and there would have been total condemnation of the killers.

It is curious how the ‘paintball guns’ killed and wounded so many people while the ‘metal bars’ yielded not a single death on the Israeli side. I am surprised that the Israeli government did not suggest that maybe those devious and dastardly aid activists killed each other just to make Israel look bad, because Goldberg would have dutifully believed that too.

Even more extreme than Goldberg is Jennifer Rubin writing for Commentary for whom even Obama’s groveling to Israel is seen as insufficient. Rubin is very clear about what she expects from all of us:

There is a single question that every individual, group, and nation must answer. To borrow from the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman: if you are not with Israel, you are against her. And if you do not oppose with every fiber of your being and every instrument at your disposal that which intends the Jewish state harm, you are enabling her destroyers.

Note that what you are supposed to side with is not justice or peace or human rights or other quaint concepts, but Israel. Even when the troops of that country, like pirates, board boats in international waters and murder unarmed aid workers (and please, let’s not hear any more of this nonsense that kitchen knives and wooden sticks constitutes arms when facing heavily armed commandos), you have to agree with whatever Israel says. Rubin might be surprised at the number of American Jews, especially among the young, who by her standard are ‘against Israel’ and ‘enabling her destroyers’.

One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled.

People like Rubin are living in the past when critics of Israel’s policies in the US could be muted because people feared being labeled anti-Semitic. That accusation has been so cheapened by repeated use against even mild criticism that no one cares anymore if they are labeled as such. It is seen for what it is, a rhetorical intimidation tactic.

Commenting on Rubin’s ultimatum to everyone to get with the program and support Israel or else irrespective of what that country does, satirist Tbogg says, “This must be what it is like to be trapped in an arranged marriage to a serial killer.”

POST SCRIPT: Another aid ship on the way to Gaza

The Irish Times also reports that another aid ship is on the way to Gaza, with some high-profile passengers on board.

The Rachel Corrie, which has five Irish nationals and five Malaysians aboard, is due to arrive in Gazan waters over the coming days, a spokeswoman for the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign said. It became separated from the main aid flotilla after being delayed for 48 hours in Malta due to logistical reasons, and is currently off the coast of Libya.

Nobel laureate Maireád Corrigan-Maguire, former UN assistant secretary general Denis Halliday, film maker Fiona Thompson and husband and wife Derek and Jenny Graham are the Irish nationals on board the Rachel Corrie.

Speaking from the ship today, Mr Graham said the vessel was carrying educational materials, construction materials, medical equipment and some toys. “Everything aboard has been inspected in Ireland,” he said. “We would hope to have safe passage through.”

Some of you may remember Rachel Corrie. She is the young American woman who was run over and killed in 2003 by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer when she was trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israeli government.