If Thomas Friedman Weren’t a Propagandist Looking at the “Arab-Muslim Sea”

iran israel deal
That President Obama’s recent agreement with Iran limiting its nuclear enrichment capabilities stands as a diplomatic victory remains largely undisputed in the most prestigious circles of academic and journalistic discourse. Without this deal Iranians, much like their Iraqi and Afghan neighbors, would have suffered the wrath of the US armed forces the argument goes. Disregarding the fact that Iran, as a signatory the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has a legal right to enrich uranium and evidenced no intention to develop a nuclear weapon, the world is justified in breathing a sigh of relief knowing that “the greatest threat to world peace” is exercising its power less belligerently.

Nonetheless, this pause in international violence and aggression is unlikely to survive if some of the media’s most dedicated servants to power have their way. Enter New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In an article that can only be described as a toxic brew of anti-Arab racism, blatant falsehoods, and borderline criminal incitement we are provided a graphic illustration of the resilience of imperial doctrines in the American press and the psychological ease with which its most ardent enthusiasts petition its demands.

Headlined If I Were an Israeli Looking at the Iran Deal Friedman begins by stating if he were an “Israeli grocer” he would “hate [the nuclear deal] for enshrining Iran’s right to enrich uranium, since Iran regularly cheated its way to expanding that capability, even though it had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.” Notice Iran is “cheating” by disobeying US demands to restrict its capabilities, a capability legally protected under the NPT, but Israel (a non-signatory to the NPT) is not “cheating” in its casual disregard for every conceivable norm of non-proliferation.

Furthermore, it is not the nuclear deal that’s responsible for “enshrining Iran’s right to enrich uranium,” but the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Not only has this been repeatedly declared by Iranian government officials but in 2012 the Non-Aligned Movement affirmed Iran’s “inalienable right to develop research, production and uses of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Only under the assumption that the majority of the world and established international law should be subordinated to US rules of Good Behavior can we take Friedman’s contention seriously.
nonproliferationThe same can be said of his condemnation of “Iran’s proxy, the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah.” Hezbollah, according to Friedman, “started an unprovoked war with Israel,” in 2006 “and when Israel retaliated against Hezbollah military and civilian targets, Hezbollah fired thousands of Iranian-supplied rockets all across Israel.” Here we have a total inversion of the historical record. That the 2006 war was a war of aggression by Israel (Washington’s proxy), and not Hezbollah, is so well documented that any argument otherwise can only be interpreted as a deliberate evasion of the facts if not apologetics for Israeli violence.

As scholar and activist Steven Salaita observed in his 2008 collection of essays Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, “the immorality of Israel’s wanton destruction [of Lebanon] does not present much of a political or ethical debate for those who would distinguish between military targets and civilian ones, or between terrorists and ordinary people. The problem is that American media repeatedly omitted either distinction, thereby transforming Israel’s aggression into an act of self-defense.” Hence, Friedman can write about how Israel “retaliated against Hezbollah military and civilian targets (my emphasis)”, the implicit assumption being Lebanese civilians were just as culpable in their deaths as Hezbollah fighters.

And the easy resort to dehumanization did not end here. Friedman proceeds to inhabit the mind of an Israeli general, proud and confident in the assertion that “No enemy will ever out-crazy us into leaving this region”, a sentiment with a great deal of merit in lieu of recent history. Yet we gain the most insight into the unadulterated racism that influences commentators like Friedman when he lays out Israel’s war strategy:

“Israel plays, when it has to, by what I’ve called ‘Hama rules’ — war without mercy. The Israeli Army tries to avoid hitting civilian targets, but it has demonstrated in both Lebanon and Gaza that it will not be deterred by the threat of civilian Arab casualties when Hezbollah or Hamas launches its rockets from civilian areas. It is not pretty, but this is not Scandinavia. The Jewish state has survived in an Arab-Muslim sea because its neighbors know that for all its Western mores it will not be out-crazied. It will play by local rules.”

Israel, a nation with a first world military and nuclear weapons, unleashes an aerial assault on densely populated strip of land, 50% of whose inhabitants are children. Over 2,100 people are killed, the majority Palestinian civilians. Hamas, a military faction under foreign occupation without a navy, air force, tanks, or a hegemonic military superpower bankrolling its soldiers, fires low-grade rockets into Israel killing 73 people, the majority Israeli soldiers (66). That anyone can be aware of this disparity in power and designate Hamas as the exemplar of “war without mercy” defies rational explanation, as does the ludicrous claim that “the Israeli Army tries to avoid hitting civilian targets.”
palestineIt takes little effort to see that a vulgar racism underlies these conclusions. Nightmarish scenarios of the Jewish state being swept away by the turbulent “Arab-Muslim sea,” compels this island of western civilization and “Western mores” to “play by local rules”, namely the rules of “savages.” Inherent in this characterization is a sharp distinction between enlightened, restrained, white, Europeanized (“this is not Scandinavia”) Jews and crazy, impulsive, uncivilized Arabs so maniacal in their desire to kill Israelis that they would readily sacrifice the lives of their children to achieve this end (this human shield myth has also been thoroughly refuted).

Perhaps the greatest irony of Thomas Friedman’s latest contribution to the booming industry of anti-Arab racism is that he embodies perfectly the mindless bloodlust and impulsive thinking that he so baselessly directs at the people of Gaza and Lebanon. Informing readers on what he’d do as Israeli Prime Minister to diffuse any suspicions about Iranian misbehavior, Friedman states the following:

“So rather than fighting with President Obama, as prime minister I’d be telling him Israel will support this deal but it wants the U.S. to increase what really matters — its deterrence capability — by having Congress authorize this and any future president to use any means necessary to destroy any Iranian attempt to build a bomb. I don’t trust U.N. inspectors; I trust deterrence. And to enhance that I’d ask the U.S. to position in the Middle East the U.S. Air Force’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a precision-guided, 30,000-pound ‘bunker buster’ bomb that could take out any Iranian reactor hidden in any mountain. The Iranians would get the message.”

Essentially, Friedman is proposing that President Obama hold together a diplomatic agreement by threatening to drop a 30,000 lb. bomb on a sovereign country (a blatant violation of the UN prohibition against the threat of force in international affairs) citing the Mafioso doctrine that such an exercise in “deterrence” would force Iranians to “get the message.” Apparently, the “local rules” of military savagery expands beyond the provinces of ultra-violent, ethno-supremacist occupier states. These rules also must be advanced by their ideological courtiers in the American press lest the menacing unpeople of the “Arab-Muslim sea” get the impression that they can’t be “out-crazied.”

Any student of history will immediately recognize that Friedman is not the first and will by no means be the last to espouse this imperialist, orientalist, and racist worldview. Indeed, the perceptions put forth in his article permeate our academic, political, and intellectual culture so deeply that it would not be an exaggeration to describe them as foundational to the American national self-image. Nevertheless, the regularity of its expression does little to diminish its insidious influence in how we, as citizens of declining empire, think of the world around us and the solutions available to solve its many crises. So while Friedman peers out at the world through the eyes of Israeli generals and prime ministers we should dare to look at the world from the perspective of those who are victimized by their decisions. Hesitation in this regard would only prolong the needless suffering that only a genuine culture of solidarity with the oppressed can combat.

Source:

The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/12/opinion/thomas-friedman-if-i-were-an-israeli-looking-at-the-iran-dealhtml.html?ref=international&_r=0

http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/npt/prepcom12/documents/WP24.pdf

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/mehdi-hasan/gaza-israel_b_5624401.html

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A Myth Scratched Out of Rock: Friedman and Obama Whitewash the History of Palestine

friedmanandobamaA partial examination of the history of state formation and global conflict suggests that we can consider it an established truth that most, if not all, nation-states rely founding myths. The founding myth of the United States is that European “explorers” “discovered” a “vast wilderness” sparsely populated with “merciless Indian savages” who, over time, faded away under the march of “civilization.” Today we recognize this as a morally grotesque whitewash of the actual story, namely that the European “explorers” were really genocidal killers who plundered and pillaged their way across the continent under the doctrine of “manifest destiny.” As the late University of Texas professor William Newcomb Jr. observed in his 1974 study on the continent’s indigenous population North American Indians: An Anthropological Perspective, “low population estimates” of the indigenous civilization that preceded the European invasion “had the effect of making the European conquest of North America more palatable to white Americans.” Moreover, anthropologists were of the view that “displacing a million or so Indians North of the Rio Grande and ultimately reducing their population to half that number is far easier to rationalize or ignore than is the extirpation of ten or fifteen times that number.”

The official seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony captures this murderous ideology perfectly in the illustration of an indigenous man holding a downward pointed spear with a scroll flowing from his mouth bearing the inscription “come over and save us.” Rightly, this kind of imagery and brutality shocks the conscience of ordinary people, yet similar myths abound today about the founding of Israel in 1948. One illuminating example of this can be found in a recent Thomas Friedman interview with President Obama that appeared in the New York Times. Asked what he thinks about Israel, Obama responded “It is amazing to see what Israel has become over the last several decades … To have scratched out of rock this incredibly vibrant, incredibly successful, wealthy and powerful country is a testament to the ingenuity, energy and vision of the Jewish people.” As pleasant and unproblematic as this description sounds, it completely revises the actual events of Israel’s founding, which was not the emergence of a nation “scratched from rock” but the forceful imposition of a another nation atop the ruins of Palestinian villages evacuated in a campaign of ethnic cleansing known as the nakba.

Obama honors PeresThis traumatic confrontation with colonialism, an integral part of the Palestinian experience, is completely ignored in Obama’s response despite the fact that it’s accepted as uncontroversial among credible scholars. As Dr. Norman Finkelstein observes in his brilliant study on Israeli criminality Beyond Chutzpah “today there is a broad consensus among scholars that Palestinians suffered ethnic cleansing in 1948… ” Israeli journalist Amira Hass makes a similar observation. In her book Drinking the Sea at Gaza, she recognizes “the long history of dispossession that had begun in 1948, when more than 700,000 Palestinians (of a population of some 1.3 million) became refugees, forced to leave their land as the Jewish national home came into being.” It’s therefore extremely disturbing to hear Obama ask “How can you preserve a Jewish state that is also reflective of the best values of those who founded Israel.” If the actual historical record, and not the mythology concocted by propagandists, matters these “values” would certainly include massacres of civilians (re: Deir Yasin) and the mass expulsion of indigenous populations. A Times article that appeared in October of 1948 captured the horror of the ethnic cleansing in evocative terms:

“… in Beersheba itself, once a thriving center for camel trading, a few inhabitants remain, and at present members of the Israeli army are systematically looting the houses which survived the bombing. It is perhaps an ancient and tacitly accepted rule of war that troops should make themselves comfortable at the expense of the vanquished … “

How strikingly prescient these words were as Israel proceeded in its colonial project decades after this catastrophe, all “at the expense of the vanquished.” It is with this knowledge that Obama’s evasions of the historical record appear not only intellectually irresponsible but unambiguously immoral. And this immorality is reinforced when he showers the architects of this ongoing tragedy with praises and accolades. Take for example Ariel Sharon, a war criminal who participated in countless atrocities, for example the Qibya massacre and the killings at Sabra and Shatila. President Obama described him as someone who “dedicated his life to the State of Israel.” This is an awfully sanitized way to describe a man who in a 1953 attack on the El-Bureig refugee camp commanded a unit that threw bombs “through the windows of huts where refugees were sleeping.” Furthermore, as the refugees attempted to flee the terrorist assault “they were attacked by small arms and automatic weapons.” This massacre, which is credited for helping to “launch Sharon’s career”, left an estimated 50 refugees dead (Israeli figures). None of these inconvenient facts are highlighted in Obama’s glorification of a state struggling to maintain “its democratic and civic traditions.” Much like the character of Uncle Ruckus from Aaron McGruder’s critically acclaimed television series The Boondocks, President Obama continually goes out of his way to lavish racists and war criminals with praises, all the while perpetuating vulgar stereotypes about the Arab menace. In his interview with Friedman he recycles the racist cliche that Israel is a model of civilization marooned in an ocean of savagery, stating “others can cause Israel pain,” because Israel is in “a really bad neighborhood.”

Uncle Ruckus pays homage. Language of this kind dovetails perfectly with the ethnocentric and supremacist rhetoric of Israeli leaders repeatedly warning the Israeli public of the looming “demographic problem”, namely too many brown people in a Jewish state. Sentiments of this kind would delight Uncle Ruckus, who finds no shame in “thanking the white man for the sunrise, for the land [he] walks on, and the air [he] breathes.” Ruckus also maintains a shrine devoted to “special white people in his life” like John Wayne (“the great white man who didn’t take no shit from niggas, injuns nor Mexicans”), George Bush Sr., and Barry Manilow. Likewise, Obama maintains his “shrine” to the “special white people in his life.” This shrine is adorned with pictures of people like Shimon Peres, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom who has lived a life “nothing short of extraordinary.” For instance, it was “nothing short of extraordinary” when Peres followed in the footsteps of Israeli Prime Minister Manachem Begin and upheld the idea that Israel had a “biblically endorsed right of possession” to the West Bank. On the territorial status of the West Bank Peres proclaimed “There is no argument in Israel about our historic rights in the land of Israel. The past is immutable and the Bible is the decisive document in determining the fate of our land.” Perhaps if Peres was an extremist of the Islamic variety who insisted that the Holy Qur’an was the “decisive document in determining the fate our land,” he would have been exiled from President Obama’s hallowed pantheon of “special white people” but this isn’t the case, therefore Washington’s incarnation of Uncle Ruckus is free to hail him as a “true founding father,” to ample applause.

It’s therefore little wonder that Obama was able to boycott the Durban Conference Against Racism under the pretext that the UN was unfairly “singling out” Israel. Apparently, Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv’s “great white man”, also must be protected.  Apart from Israeli criminals, another luminary in Obama’s sacred shrine is George W. Bush, who exercised “incredible strength and resolve … as he stood amid the rubble and the ruins of Ground Zero, promising to deliver justice to those who had sought to destroy our way of life.” Incidentally, Bush’s position in the shrine may be more elevated than that of Peres since Obama has not only honored him in word, but, more significantly, in deed, primarily through his continuation of the crimes for which his predecessor should have been punished, facts easy to perceive in the President’s recent colloquialism about violating the Geneva Conventions (“We tortured some folks”).

Underlying this enthusiastic embrace of empire and colonialism is a deeply dehumanizing portrait of those on the other side of the gun, in this case Palestinians. Unless these simplistic and racist conceptions are abandoned, these foundational myths will persist as will the intense efforts to excise from historical memory narratives which give voice to the profound suffering and loss of those living under occupation. The indignity and cruelty of occupation make necessary an honest reckoning with these imperial revisions of history and those who stubbornly ignore reality in favor of fairy tales, whether they come in the form of humanitarian killers dedicated to principles of “peace” or an ultra-violent terrorist state “scratched” into existence from a singular rock.

Sources:

The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk

North American Indians: An Anthropological Perspective by William W. Newcomb, Jr.

Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky

Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse and Abuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History by Norman G. Finkelstein

Drinking the Sea at Gaza by Amira Hass

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/09/opinion/president-obama-thomas-l-friedman-iraq-and-world-affairs.html?_r=0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiV22pJYG7M

http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2012/06/14/president-obama-honors-israeli-president-shimon-peres

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2013/04/25/obama-heaps-praise-on-bush/