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How Do We Stop This Genocide?
I wish I knew. But I have a few thoughts on the scope of the occasion we desperately need to rise to.
I'm often feeling a bit despondent about various things, like the weather. But with hundreds of Palestinians dying every day beneath Israeli bombardment in Gaza and so many others in the West Bank including so many children being killed, arrested, and tortured, bones broken, held in stress position cages, the dark cloud is ever-present.
It's a feeling I'm so familiar with, though, ever since I first started paying attention to world events. Throughout the 1980's, in my teens, reading about the US-sponsored genocide being carried out by the military junta in Guatemala, reading about the CIA's war in Afghanistan, and about the terrible massacres of thousands of women and children in Sabra and Shatila, carried out by US-backed forces once again. I didn't even need to read the alternative press to figure out that my government was involved with some terrible stuff, all over the world.
Oddly enough, it wasn't long after reading about these events that some of my good friends back then ended up being people from those very places, who came to the US to get away from all that. The stories of these Afghans, Guatemalans, Lebanese and Palestinians and of the horrors they lived through brought a three-dimensionality to what I had been reading in the pages of the New York Times, and also confirmed all of my suspicions.
There was a movement against US backing of the military dictatorships and their genocidal policies in Central America back then. I went to protests, from gatherings in the dozens to the hundreds to the thousands. They all seemed pretty fruitless, and the energy around them felt very much like the small protests around Portland recently -- like the usual suspects turning out because someone has to do something. Nothing like the kind of groundswell we'll need for anything to change, or that we would have needed back when the genocide in Guatemala was being prosecuted.
Then throughout the 1990's, participating in many small gatherings of people, often Catholic Workers or other folks from a religious background, like Kathy Kelly, folks who had to at least bear witness to the hundreds of thousands of people who were dying in Iraq under the horrifically broad and societally crippling sanctions in place throughout that decade.
Then the dread after 9/11, after the US's Frankenstein, Al-Qaeda, wrought revenge upon the country that had brought so much death and destruction to so much of the Muslim world for so long. I knew the US military would now perpetuate this cycle of violence that US policy had long ago initiated -- a cycle of violence that has mostly taken the lives of Muslims in occupied countries, or those caught up in proxy wars with deep US involvement.
The antiwar movement that formed in the west in response to the "new" War on Terror in the wake of 9/11 was significant, far bigger than anything I had witnessed in the preceding two decades anyway, but it was never the kind of movement that had a real hope of shutting down the war machine, stopping business as usual, or having the kind of impact that would be impossible to ignore. Meanwhile, the years of slaughter and occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, with more and more death and destruction abroad, and more and more traumatized veterans returning home, as with every generation of Americans, and for some other hapless people somewhere in the world, for at least two centuries.
Here in 2023, as we watch what is increasingly and rightly being described as a campaign of genocide being carried out by US-funded and US-backed Israeli forces, I think of a protest I sang at in Berlin in the spring of 2002, half a year into that latest US war in Afghanistan, this time involving actual US troops. I was mainly there at the protest to sing a few songs, but of course you have to introduce them, and I was thinking hard about what I wanted to say.
I had at that time spent a significant part of the previous couple years in Germany, and had become somewhat familiar with how a lot of Germans think about current events and some key historical ones as well. I knew I was going to have a translator (my friend Kelly), and thus anything I said was going to take twice as long, so I wanted to be as brief as possible with my remarks. Judging from the response of the crowd, I'm pretty sure I hit the nail on the head, at the time.
I remember my speech like it was yesterday, because for me it was a big moment that doesn't happen often, more or less representing the US peace movement at a rally in Berlin in front of 100,000 people gathered there in Alexanderplatz. And my speech was very short, making it that much easier to remember.
"George Bush," I said, "is an international terrorist. And it is absolutely essential that he and his war machine be opposed internationally."
I wasn't surprised that this line got such a positive reaction, because I knew that so many Germans were as horrified by war as they were petrified of being considered anti-American. So I thought if I'm going to say one thing, as an American speaking at this rally in Berlin, it should be this, that we need everyone together here to oppose this invasion, and if you might benefit from getting "permission" from an American to oppose an American war, I'm happy to help.
Now, after failing to stop those wars or to stop the devastation wrought upon so many countries since 9/11 by the US war machine, sometimes with UK or broader NATO involvement, here is another campaign of aerial terror reminiscent of the US campaigns in Fallujah or Hanoi in its utter indiscriminateness in Gaza, combined with a campaign of ethnic cleansing and state terror reminiscent of Yugoslavia in the West Bank.
There was a time, before 9/11, where I regularly felt glimmers of optimism about the possibilities for some of the social movements happening in the world then. I've written about that before and I won't give a big lecture on that theme now. But since 9/11 and the endless War on Terror, we've all been so thoroughly flooded with propaganda that has been pumped out for all of the western world to consume, all the terribly misleading narratives that intentionally begin in the place that is most convenient for painting the west as the innocent victims of rabid Muslim terrorists, repeated ad nauseum.
Before 9/11, aside from the global justice movement that I've often written about, another movement that was happening that was really very widespread, like globally, was the movement in solidarity with the Palestinians who had risen up in response to Sharon's massacre at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in September, 2000. It was being called the Second Intifada. That year was quite a year for widespread popular education and widespread protest against Israeli occupation policies against the Palestinians. For the first time in my lifetime, a broadly, unquestioningly pro-Israel orientation was becoming less commonplace among all kinds of people in the US. For the first time in my lifetime, you could talk about Palestinians without whoever you're talking to immediately thinking "terrorists" in response. They were becoming humanized in the popular imagination in the US, by my own observation, anyway.
This all changed after 9/11. It's very easy to understand why people both in Israel/Palestine regarding 10/7 and here in the US regarding 9/11 wonder about the timing of these terrible events. For those of us who were deeply involved with the Palestine solidarity movement of pre-9/11 days, or for those involved with the massive protests that had taken over daily life in Israel for months this year, the timing of these events seems too convenient, from the vantage point of the forces of militarism and the war machines that have so benefitted from both of them.
Given US policies towards so much of the Muslim world for so long, given the ruins, death and collective trauma left in the wake of so many US or US-sponsored wars, 9/11 was virtually inevitable. Attack people enough and they will inevitably eventually at least attempt to respond in kind. But after 9/11, humanizing Muslims in the US and increasingly in Europe as well became a much bigger challenge. The antiwar movement was significant for some years but by the fall of 2005 it was largely history, back to the little suggestion of a movement that it was like in the 1990's, as the wars continued.
To add to a previously unimaginable degree to the difficulty with trying to frame the narrative here around the role of the US and Israel in the current, tragic realities in places like occupied Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, now, coincidentally or not since around the time of the collapse of the last antiwar movement in 2005, we have the reality of corporate social media platforms having taken over our means of communication -- along with the identity politics and cancellation campaigning that have come to characterize contemporary political discourse, partially as a direct result.
I hope I'm wrong, but it feels to me like this society is as far from being able to rise to this most terrible occasion that lays before us as we've ever been.
If there is any prospect for this to change, the kind of unity of purpose and widespread solidarity that will be necessary can't possibly be overstated. What I said to that crowd in Berlin is just as true now about the Israeli bombing of Gaza as it has been true of the indiscriminate bombing campaigns that have been carried out in so many parts of the world by the US Air Force as well. We who hope to possibly participate in a movement to stop this genocide can't allow ourselves to be hampered by fear of being labeled anti-Jewish any more than we could have had any hope of defeating US imperialism if we were too worried about coming off as anti-American, or being considered unpatriotic, for opposing American militarism.
Ever since I can remember, every time the self-proclaimed Jewish State commits a war crime or engages in a bombing campaign against Gaza or Lebanon or Syria or Iran or wherever they're bombing, we hear in the western media about a rise in antisemitism and antisemitic attacks. I think I've heard about at least two rabbis killed in the past few days, between the US and France. Even if my great great grandfather had not been a rabbi, I would be opposed to killing rabbis.
But the idea that anyone can be surprised that a country which constantly reminds the world that it is the Jewish state is considered by some occasional unhinged people to actually represent all the Jews seems disingenuous, or at best very naive. And then what we are inevitably treated to next is yet more news coverage about the rise in antisemitism. On many networks it will take up at least as much time as any sanitized coverage of the bombardment of Gaza.
And then we can watch as those social media influencers who are the new, algorithm-appointed gatekeepers of who may or may not be considered to have crossed an invisible line and found themselves on the dark side, accused of antisemitism one way or another, will make sure their targets find themselves too busy fending off false accusations and efforts at character assassination to be able to do anything useful in organizing against the genocide of Palestinians.
I wish I had a real answer to my question. All that seems apparent is we won't stop this genocide if we're worried about being called antisemites for our opposition to it, and we won't stop this genocide by trying to organize or win arguments on corporate social media platforms that are designed to make such efforts impossible. We have to think, and act, outside of those boxes, and on a bigger scale than ever, and we need to shut down the war machine while there's still time for those of us who are still here.
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