Brooklyn, N.Y. — Two Yale and Oxford-educated scholars, Rashid Khalidi* and Naomi Wolf**, addressed one hundred-fifty National Lawyers Guild (NLG) members and concerned citizens on January 23, 2009.
Wolf and Khalidi shared their visions of how to restore the Constitution in the United States and achieve freedom for the Palestinian people. The event was organized by the NLG International Committee and hosted by the Brooklyn Law School student Guild chapter to raise money for travel to the global Congress of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers in Hanoi later this year. Both spoke of the need for citizen action to force politicians to do the right thing.
Naomi Wolf: Roll Back the Fascist Shift
Naomi Wolf expressed “transcendental joy” at the inauguration of Barack Obama three days earlier, but warned that the damage done by George W. Bush still remains. “It ‘s tempting to believe that the clouds have parted and go back to internet shopping,” she said, “but all those laws are still in place, and powerful interests do not want Obama to succeed at rolling back the Patriot Act.”
Drawing on her recent book, End of America, Wolf focused upon the need to alert fellow citizens to the serious erosion of our civil liberties since 9/11. She expressed disappointment and anger that only a relative handful of Americans spoke out against secret renditions, preventive detentions, torture, and warrantless surveillance during the past few years. Wolf called out mainstream journalists who now use the word “torture,” when only weeks ago they referred to such practices as “what some have regarded as torture.” Wolf exclaimed, “Where the hell were you when we needed more voices on the front lines when the majority were silent and willing to yield?”
She praised organizations like the NLG, Human Rights Watch, ACLU, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, for working against affronts to American ‘s founding ideals. She recommended that people put giving money to the NLG at the top of their priority list so we can build a “permanent edifice” to defend civil rights.
In examining the post-9/11 landscape, Wolf heard echoes of tactics from other societies that subverted civil rights through legal avenues. New legal regimes facilitated tyranny in Pinochet ‘s Chile, Hitler ‘s Germany in the early 1930s, Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy, and Stalin’s Russia. She identified ten steps to tyranny, including: hyping an external threat, establishing a prison system outside the rule of law, justification of torture, deployment of paramilitary forces, a surveillance society, infiltration of citizens’ groups, and the criminalization of thought and speech. Wolf outlined the parallels between the acts of Bush and Congress to these other historical moments.
Give Me Liberty
Wolf has followed this analysis with a new book, Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, to propose action steps for citizens to roll back Bush’s fascistic expansion of government power. In it, she stresses the need to develop our own ways of documenting and telling our reality, rather than looking to the mainstream media for publicity or reinforcement. She calls on activists to take research, analysis, and journalism seriously, rather than simply offer political opinion. Above all, Wolf emphasized the need to hold Obama’s feet to the fire with massive grassroots pressure. We need to act, “not hand over power to a would-be dictator or savior.”
Rashid Khalidi: Restore Respect for UN, International Law
Rashid Khalidi put the situation in the Gaza Strip into context by highlighting the legal framework of Israel’s occupation and recent invasion. He also connected the need for change to Obama’s electoral mandate.
Obama has ordered the detention facility at Guanatanamo to be shut down within the year; current and retired U.S. military officials have described Guantanamo as an embarrassing gulag, whose existence threatens our security. About 11,000 Palestinian detained are held captive in the Israeli gulag, explained Khalidi. Several hundred of these detainees languish in “administrative detention” for six-month terms that can be renewed indefinitely without trial. The other 10,000 were prosecuted under the emergency regulations originally issued by the British colonial regime for minor violations that amount to “breathing while Palestinian.”
The new Obama administration promises to end the use of torture. The Israeli high court ruled against torture, which was practiced under the “ticking bomb” scenario. “Curiously,” Khalidi noted, “the urgent need to employ torture seems to dissipate on the Sabbath,” as Israeli interrogators always go on break at this time. This court ruling has been ignored by the security services. If the United States opposes torture and illegal indeterminate detention, then we must also oppose it in Israel, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.
Next, the United States has entered into a status of forces agreement with Iraq whereby American troops will no longer occupy that country. The Israeli occupation of Gaza continues unabated. One can read acres of American newsprint without seeing mention of the fact that Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and numerous United Nations resolutions. If the United States must withdraw from Iraq, Israel should withdraw from Palestinian territories.
Active Malice Toward the UN
Khalidi detailed Israel’s international law violations in Gaza. First, the eighteen-month blockade that preceeded Israel’s recent invasion is a blot on the United State and European Union, who supported the starvation of a civilian population in the hopes that they might turn against their own government. Next, during the conflict, Israel completely ignored the principle of proportionality that is intrinsic to the right of self-defense. Thirteen Israelis died compared to thirteen hundred Gazans, most of whom were civilians. Israel blocked journalists from entry into Gaza, ensuring no witnesses to the crime scene.
In addition to gross disproportionality, the targeting of four UN schools and the UN headquarters demonstrated “disrespect, contempt, and active malice for the United Nations as an institution.” The casualty total of UN personnel is not yet known. Khalidi called for a serious impartial investigation. He mentioned the suggestion of UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk that an invasion that does not permit civilians to flee hostilities may constitute a new war crime in itself. “This law-less approach,” said Khalidi, “all but assures the conflict will continue.”
Finally, Khalidi called for a movement in the United States that is critical of the “faith-based and fact-free” U.S. foreign policy towards Israel. Between 1967-1986 and 1992-1998, the UN passed fifty-two resolutions against Israeli actions. Those resolutions would not have passed if the U.S. actively opposed them with its veto power. The United States cannot simply turn its back on these decisions of the UN.
“The Friends of Israel Really Are Not”
Despite enormous support for Israel’s policies in the U.S., history demonstrates that attacks on civilians only create more resistance. A civilian population that is targeted will “circle the wagons” and unite against the occupying force. This is as true for Gaza and Lebanon as it was for the Vietnamese. A large number of Israelis may recognize this, as more news critical of Israel could be found in the Israeli press than in the U.S.
The basic reality in the U.S. is a huge imbalance of power. People who support Israeli settlements, blockades, and force are highly organized, whereas there are no powerful forces pushing for a just resolution. “Memoirs of peace processors” like Jimmy Carter describe what they wish they had done in the Middle East, but current officials are not truly willing to unravel a forty-one year old occupation regime. According to Khalidi, there must be strong pressure – in the form of organization, money, and brains – to change the political reality and compel politicians to do the right thing.
Thom Cincotta is a staffperson for the International Committee of the NLG and a national vice president.
* Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of numerous books on Palestinian identity and Middle Eastern history, in addition to Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East to be released February 2009.
** Naomi Wolf is author of the international bestseller, The Beauty Myth. She is co-founder of the American Freedom Campaign, a non-partisan citizens’ alliance formed to reverse the abuse of executive power and restore our system of checks and balances.