All posts by Jonathan Cook

The JNF’s Sordid History: Tower and Stockades, Forests and Jim Crow Vetting Committees

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) rightly presents itself as the most venerable of the Zionist institutions:

  • It stands at the heart of a state-building project launched more than a century ago;
  • It is an organisation that is today deeply embedded in the structures of the Israeli state;
  • It is the guardian of the Israel’s most precious resource – land;
  • And it is the bridge connecting Jews abroad to Israel, allowing them to become practically and emotionally involved in its continuing national mission of colonisation.

Created in 1901, the JNF was the earliest of the major institutions established by the international Zionist movement to build a state in Palestine. The Jewish Agency, the Zionist movement’s government-in-waiting and migration service, and the Haganah, its embryonic military force, would have to wait another two and three decades to make a proper appearance.

New ambassador

No institution stands at the heart of the Zionist mission more squarely than the JNF. And for that reason, if no other, it is not only the most pre-eminent but also the most zealous of those organisations.

If that seems unfair, notice a recent statement by the JNF-UK that hints at the organisation’s extremism even by the standards set by a Jewish community leadership in Britain that has grown increasingly fanatical in its support of Israel and actively hostile to Palestinian rights.

The statement was issued last month, as it was confirmed that Tzipi Hotovely, a rising star in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, had been appointed Israel’s new ambassador to the UK. Hotovely makes the Israeli prime minister seem moderate by comparison.

She is a proud Jewish supremacist and Islamophobe. She supports Israel’s annexation of the entire West Bank and the takeover of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. She is happy to lift the veil from Israel’s apartheid rule over Palestinians in the occupied territories.

That fact has made her appointment a deeply unappealing prospect for most of Britain’s Jewish community. It has prompted many hundreds to sign a petition calling on the UK government to block her apppointment. Prominent liberal Jews and Jewish organisations have either quietly lamented the decision or remained publicly silent. They are fearful that her outspoken views will tear the mask from ugly Israeli policies they have long supported.

But the JNF-UK broke ranks with this consensus. In a statement it insisted:

The British Jewish community will gladly and respectfully endorse Mrs Hotovely as the new Israeli Ambassador to the UK. She is a leader with many positive attributes and achievements, and we wish her the best of luck in her new position.

Tower and stockade

We can trace the JNF’s current zealotry, as well as its indifference to those who have paid the price for its colonisation project, to its earliest years. Its aims were twofold.

First, it sought to impose residential segregation as a way to expand the resources available to Jews and to diminish those available to the native population. This was what we might term its apartheid-enforcing role.

And second, it hoped to remove the natives from their homeland by depriving them of the resources they needed to subsist. What we might term its ethnic cleansing role.

These twin prongs of what soon came to be called “Judaisation” were Zionism’s particular expression of settler colonialism.

Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, foreshadowed the JNF’s transformative mission back in 1895, six years before the organisation had been created:

We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless [local] population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country.

To clarify how this model worked, I want to take a moment to step back and examine the first significant tool of land dispossession developed by the JNF in the pre-state years, in the 1930s. This was when Zionism began to develop its incremental – or creeping – ethnic cleansing model.

A half-hour drive from my home in Nazareth is a replica of a tower and stockade, next to Kibbutz Beit Alpha in the Beit She’an Valley. It was only the second tower and stockade built in Palestine, in 1936. Soon there would be dozens of them marching across the landscape.

The tower and stockades were simple structures. They were wooden enclosures, fortresses with a tall watchtower at their centre. (Imagine, if you will, one of those cavalry outposts you may remember from old Westerns featuring John Wayne as he bravely battled the marauding “Red Indians”.)

Hebrew labour

In its land-buying role, the JNF secured the lands around Beit Alpha in the early 1930s from an absentee landlord in Lebanon. In line with Herzl’s proposal, each kibbutz not only took charge of the lands of local Palestinian sharecroppers but then refused to let them work the land or to employ them. There was a strict policy of “Hebrew labour” to deprive the native population of the ability to subsist and “spirit them across the border”.

Such land purchases – as well as the expulsion of Palestinian tenants from lands they had farmed for generations – began to awaken ordinary Palestinians to Zionism’s colonial nature. In 1936 the Palestinians launched an uprising, known by the British as the Arab Revolt. It lasted three years.

The Zionist movement, however, did not simply rely on British force to quell the Revolt. It took matters into its own hands. Its policy of “gentle” ethnic cleansing turned much more aggressive. It began building dozens of tower and stockades – each the nucleus of a future kibbutz – to forcibly drive the natives off the lands they depended on for their livelihoods.

Ethnic cleansing

Beit Alpha’s tower and stockade, named Tel Amal, was assigned a militia. Its members would take turns in the tower to keep watch over their comrades working the fields that until recently had been farmed by Palestinians. (Beit Alpha would later forge close ties to the apartheid regime in South Africa, selling anti-riot vehicles for Pretoria to use against black protesters in the townships.)

From the tower, the colonists would be able to shoot at any Palestinian who tried to return to his fields. Unable to harvest their crops, these Palestinian farmers faced a choice between starvation and moving further down the valley to find new land. But the Zionist colonisers were always close behind.

Once the lands around Tel Amal had been secured, a new kibbutz was built around it called Nir David. Its inhabitants then built a new outpost further down the valley with its own tower and stockade. And the process of dispossessing the Palestinians would begin all over again. It was relentless, incremental ethnic cleansing.

At the time, Moshe Sharrett, who would become one of Israel’s first prime ministers, explained the purpose of the tower and stockade in zero-sum terms. The stockades, he argued, would “make it as difficult as possible to solve the problems of this land by means of division or cantonisation”. In other words, the Zionist leadership intended to “solve the problems of this land” through force of arms and expulsion.

Yosef Weitz, the director of the JNF’s settlements division, was a similarly outspoken, early proponent of expulsion. In 1940, in the immediate aftermath of the so-called Arab Revolt, he wrote in his diary: “There is no other way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighbouring countries. To transfer all of them. Not one village, not one tribe should be left.”

In April 1948, in the midst of the Nakba, he observed: “I have drawn up a list of Arab villages which in my opinion must be cleared out in order to complete Jewish regions.”

That list was the blueprint for the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Zionist movement through 1948. During the Nakba, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, appointed Weitz to a secretive Transfer Committee to direct the ethnic cleansing operations.

Outposts and trees

The JNF’s tower and stockade mentality never went away – very obviously in the case of the occupied territories. It is represented today in the militarised architecture of the West Bank’s main settlements – fortified houses, circled like wagons, on hillsides overlooking Palestinian farming villages in the valleys below.

It is even more evident in the dozens of so-called “illegal outposts” in the West Bank. There settler militias, armed by the state, live in caravans atop yet more hills. They target key resources – the wells and the olive groves – of Palestinian farmers, terrifying them off their farmland so they depart for the relative safety of the Palestinian cities, freeing up the land for Jewish settlement.

But the legacy of the tower and stockade also resides more subtly in the architecture of citizenship and residency inside Israel – despite Israel’s claims to being a democratic, western-style state.

Weitz, the JNF official who had helped mastermind the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba, was appointed to head the JNF’s Forestry Department. Ben Gurion wanted a billion trees planted in a decade. The JNF fell short – it managed only 250 million.

Forestry was at the heart of the new Judaisation programme in Israel after statehood. Israel did not have enough immigrants to crowd out the Palestinians with Jewish bodies, so it used “Jewish” trees instead – especially the fast-growing pine.

The most pressing goal was to smother the lands of the recently expelled Palestinian refugees with forests. Their villages that had just been destroyed by Israel – more than 500 of them – would be covered with Judaisation trees.

The forests made it impossible to realise a Palestinian right of return that had recently been enshrined in international law. The trees were a physical obstacle to rebuilding the refugees’ destroyed homes or replanting the crops they subsisted on. Each tree was a weapon of war, a bayonet enforcing the ethnic cleansing of 1948.

But forestry also provided a cover for Israel’s malign intentions towards the Palestinians. The planting of trees was presented to the outside world as environmentalism, as the introduction of European order and civilisation, as Biblical redemption, as the Zionist realisation of its mission to make the desert bloom.

Blockaded by forests

The JNF’s forests were not just planted over the many hundreds of Palestinian villages Israel had destroyed.

They were also a vital weapon in the war against the minority of Palestinians who had managed to remain on their lands inside what was now Israel, despite the ethnic cleansing. They were eventually given a very degraded Israeli citizenship. Today these Palestinians comprise one-fifth of the Israeli population – what the historian Ilan Pappe calls the Forgotten Palestinians.

Many of the millions of trees planted by the JNF were in forests that pressed up tightly against the 120 or so Palestinian communities in Israel that survived the Nakba. These towns and villages were blockaded by forests, denied the chance to expand or use their lands for productive purposes, either housing or farming.

Palestinian communities in Israel, stripped of their historic lands by forests, would soon become overcrowded, de-developed spaces. Their working populations would be forced to abandon agricultural traditions and instead become casual labourers – a new precariat – in a larger Jewish economy.

The JNF’s forestation programmes are not just a relic of its early years. Trees are still being planted to this day to ethnically cleanse Israel’s Palestinian citizens. That is most obvious in Israel’s south, in the Negev (Naqab), where they are used to enforce the ethnic cleansing of Bedouin communities.

One such village, al-Araqib, is being wiped off the map by the JNF with the active complicity of the international community. The organisation is planting an Ambassadors Forest, in honour of the foreign diplomats stationed in Israel, to evict dozens of families from their ancestral lands.

Back in 2013, at the height of the campaign against al-Araqib and other Bedouin communities, Avigdor Lieberman, who was then foreign minister, made a telling comment. He said the fight to displace the Bedouin from their historic villages in the Negev proved that “nothing has changed since the tower and stockade days. We are fighting for the lands of the Jewish people and there are those [Palestinian citizens] who intentionally try to rob and seize them.”

Citizenship vs nationality

But the JNF’s tools of dispossession go far beyond the use of trees, into the very idea of what Israel is and who it belongs to.

The JNF was given a quasi-govermmental status that allowed it to function with the legal powers of a government agency but none of the legal restraints. Its role was formalised early on, in the Jewish National Fund Law of 1953.

Today, the state owns 93 percent of Israel’s recognised territory, serving as trustee. Defined as “national lands”, this territory is reserved not for Israel’s citizens, which would include Israel’s Palestinian minority, but for the Jewish people around the world.

Once again, the JNF has been principally responsible for advancing residential segregation with the aim of incremental ethnic cleansing. Judaisation, this time, takes place not through guns but through the law.

This goal has been achieved through a separation of the concepts of “citizenship” and “nationality”, which has provided a thin veneer of legality to segregation and institutionalised discrimination.

Israel has created two kinds of rights – “citizenship rights” and “national rights” – that accrue different privileges to Israeli citizens based on their ethnicity. Citizenship rights apply to all Israeli citizens equally – at least in theory – but national rights are based on each citizen’s national belonging, as either a “Jew” or as an “Arab”.

Importantly, national rights – for Jews – take precedence over citizenship rights for all Israelis. The JNF is one major mechanism by which superior rights in access to land can be guaranteed for “Jewish nationals” (including Jews who are not Israeli citizens) rather than Israel’s so-called “Arab nationals”. This distinction lies at the heart of Israel’s version of apartheid.

‘No equality’

In fact, this separation in Israel between citizenship rights and national rights is rooted in an idea central to the JNF’s charter, which promotes collective ownership of the “Land of Israel” by the Jewish people.

For this reason, many of the lands stolen from the Palestinian refugees in 1948 were hurriedly transferred by Israel to the JNF for a pittance, so they could never again be claimed by their original owners.

Today the JNF owns 13 percent of Israeli territory, some of Israel’s most prized lands, which it holds in trust for all Jews around the world. Only Jews can lease or mortgage its lands. As the JNF explained when it was challenged about its charter in 2004, it is

not a public body that works for the benefit of all citizens of the state. The loyalty of the JNF is given to the Jewish people – and only to them is the JNF obligated. The JNF, as the owner of the JNF land, does not have a duty to practice equality towards all citizens of the state.

But the JNF’s influence extends beyond the 13 percent of Israeli land it owns. Since 1960 it has played a decisive role – through the Israel Lands Authority, a government agency – in overseeing the further 80 percent of land owned by the Israeli state.

In fact, the JNF appoints 10 of the Israel Lands Authority’s 22 directors. Effectively, the JNF controls the Israeli state’s land policy in accordance with its own apartheid mission, making land available for Jews alone, including Jews who are not Israeli citizens.

Planning and Building Law

The JNF’s Judaisation model also underpins Israel’s planning system. Israel has created a web of planning bodies in which Palestinian citizens are almost never represented. That means that Palestinian communities struggle to get their master plans recognised, and as a result their residents are denied permits for new buildings.

Central to this planning system is a largely overlooked piece of legislation: the Planning and Building Law of 1965. It was legislated shortly before Israel’s Palestinian minority emerged from nearly two decades of harsh military rule.

The Planning Law determined whether Palestinian communities that survived the Nakba would be recognised by the state. The law retrospectively “unrecognised” dozens of small, largely Bedouin villages, many in the Negev (Naqab), such as al-Araqib, which is being subsumed by Ambassadors Forest. The law criminalised these villages overnight, and to this day denies them all services.

The law’s other important function was in fixing the expansion area of every Israeli community. Jewish communities were given generous allowances for future growth and natural expansion, whereas Palestinian communities – the 120 that were recognised – were confined tightly to their built-up area in 1965. The development area has rarely changed since, even though the Palestinian population in Israel has grown eightfold.

Palestinian communities have become overcrowded ghettos. Furthermore, tens of thousands of their homes have been built without permits and are therefore under threat of demolition. Families spend years paying large fines to the authorities to ward off destruction – effectively a form of extra taxation on Palestinian housing – and may still find their house eventually being demolished.

The Israeli authorities want Palestinian communities overcrowded. That is underlined by Israel’s refusal to build a single new Palestinian community since 1948. Planning rules are designed to intensify the pressure on Palestinian citizens to leave.

The kibbutz and moshav

These planning restrictions would not be so critical if Israel was not enforcing the same kind of residential segregation embodied in the tower and stockade, back in the 1930s.

Today, the tower and stockades are gone – except for a few reconstructions, like the one at Nir David, that are visited by schoolchildren learning about the glories of their forebears’ history.

The tower and stockade was succeeded by the kibbutz and moshav – originally collectivised agricultural communities. After the Nakba, many were built on the lands of Palestinian refugees. Hundreds of them exist today and are known as “cooperative associations”.

The kibbutzim and moshavim control about half of the 93 percent of the land the JNF oversees through the Israel Lands Authority. Most no longer rely on agriculture for their livelihood. They are now bedroom communities, with the residents travelling to jobs in larger towns. But they are still key enforcers of residential segregation and ethnic cleansing.

The function of the kibbutz and moshav is still to Judaise land: not only in a historic sense, by continuing to ensure that Palestinian refugees cannot return to reclaim their lands; but in a contemporary sense too, by preventing Palestinian citizens – a fifth of Israel’s population – from living on those lands.

Both literally and figuratively, these “cooperative associations” are gated communities – exclusive clubs, where you must be a member to belong. And Palestinian citizens are always denied membership.

Admissions committees

This is achieved primarily through the admissions committee, vetting bodies operating in some 900 communities across Israel. Each has the power to decide who will be allowed to live within their borders. These committees are guided by the JNF’s charter, and true to its spirit they always bar Palestinian citizens.

Years ago the admissions committees were explicit that no Palestinian citizens were welcome. It was Israel’s Jim Crow. But a legal challenge in the landmark Kaadan case reached the Israeli supreme court in 2000. Embarrassed by the bad publicity abroad, the admissions committees redefined the grounds for exclusion. This was formalised into the Admissions Committee Law in 2011.

Today Palestinian citizens are excluded because they are “not suitable for the social life of the community” or are found to be incompatible with the “social-cultural fabric.”

In short, Palestinian citizens are denied a place in these 900 communities because they are not Zionists, because they do not support Judaisation, and because they do not approve of their own exclusion, dispossession and ultimately expulsion from their homeland.

The JNF has been advancing its ugly, settler-colonial agenda on the ground for more than century. It is long past time that the JNF was held to account for its nefarious activities and that your campaign succeeds in stripping the JNF of its charitable status.

The Threat of Annexation is far from Over

Annexation by Israel of occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank was never likely to happen on July 1, as many observers assumed. The date was not a deadline; it was a window opened by the Israeli government to carry out annexation before US President Donald Trump leaves office.

Unhappily for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that window could slam shut in a matter of months, if current polling trends continue and Trump loses the presidential election in November.

Certainly, the fact that no dramatic move took place last week does not indicate that annexation is off the table. Indeed, following meetings in Israel with US officials last week, Netanyahu’s office suggested that a US announcement on annexation could happen within days.

The dithering, according to the Israeli media, reflects divisions inside the US administration – despite the fact that its so-called Middle East “peace plan”, published earlier in the year, approved Israel’s annexation of as much as a third of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the architect of that plan, has reportedly been at loggerheads with David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, over the timing and scale of annexation.

Both are fervent supporters of the settlements. But while Friedman’s circle of intimates is dominated by Netanyahu and settler leaders, Kushner has had to weigh wider pressures. It is Kushner who is fielding anxious calls from Arab and European leaders about annexation.

Trump’s attention, meanwhile, is focused on other pressing matters, such as how to stop a dangerous fall in his popularity as the pandemic runs wild with potentially catastrophic consequences for the US economy.

Nonetheless, according to a report on the weekend in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu and Friedman’s position may slowly be winning out. Kushner is reportedly less in Trump’s favour after recent disagreements on domestic policy matters.

Annexation has already served Netanyahu’s immediate needs. It was a large carrot that incentivised his voting base to keep turning out in three inconclusive elections over the course of a year. It has distracted from his current corruption trial, as well as from his failure to maintain a grip on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some have speculated that he may no longer feel the need to go through with annexation. Although backed by many Israelis, it is low on their list of priorities as they grapple with disease and recession.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu would struggle to forego it.

This is in part because he made too much of it – and of his special relationship with Trump – during the election campaigns. He will not be forgiven by many on the right should he fail to capitalise on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grab the title deeds to occupied Palestinian land with US blessing.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s own vanity should not be discounted. This is his chance to take his place in Israel’s history books – not as Israel’s first prime minister to stand trial while in office, but as the leader who secured recognition of the settlements and killed off any chance of a viable Palestinian state.

The question for Netanyahu is how much of a concession he seeks to extract from the White House. The answer may depend on whether Trump looks likely to win a second term.

Israeli media reports suggest that Netanyahu may settle for a two-stage annexation. In this view, Israel would quickly annex the larger settlements around Jerusalem, cementing the loss to the Palestinians of their future capital.

That would be the effective sequel to Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem two years ago. It would also presumably play well once again with the Christian evangelicals on whose vote Trump relies.

The more remote settlements and the Jordan Valley might follow, but possibly only if Trump wins in November, when he can protect Netanyahu from the likely backlash.

There are advantages – for the Israeli government – to a staged annexation.

It would diminish the threat of destabilising neighbouring Jordan, which has a large population of Palestinian refugees.

It may also mitigate the danger of the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, effectively Israel’s security contractor in the West Bank. The Israeli army is reportedly worried about whether it can absorb the burden of again policing the West Bank’s cities directly, especially if they are in foment.

It would let the Europeans cling a little longer to the fig leaf of a moribund peace process, one that has provided a pretext for inaction against Israel for so long.

It has been revelatory watching European governments, even that of Britain’s go-it-alone Boris Johnson, suddenly rediscover the importance of international law when faced with annexation and the formal death of the two-state solution.

But whether Netanyahu gets his annexation – all of it or some of it – the Israeli right will emerge strengthened once again in their battle against the Palestinian national movement.

Since the Oslo accords were signed more than a quarter of a century ago, there has been a continual erosion of language and principles, to the detriment of the Palestinian cause.

In those days, the international community’s focus was on ending the occupation, dismantling Israel’s settlements and developing a Palestinian state in the territories vacated by Israel. In his first term as prime minister, in the late 1990s, Netanyahu was forced to cede control of small parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority.

Later, the debate shifted: to where the borders of a future state should be drawn and which settlement “blocs” were too indispensable for Israel to be expected to give them up.

Now a conceptual shift is occurring again. The diplomatic conversation is about how to stop annexation, or at least which parts of annexation cannot be allowed to proceed.

The occupation and the settlements – and the terrible toll they have inflicted on the lives of Palestinians – are no longer the international community’s red line. Annexation is.

As international observers try to stop Israel’s formal annexation of the West Bank, they are again losing sight of the incremental thefts of land and displacements of Palestinians taking place on a daily basis.

This kind of concrete annexation – that slowly eats away at Palestinian hopes of dignity and self-determination – will continue apace whatever President Trump decides over the coming days.

• First published in The National

Keir Starmer’s “Antisemitism” Sacking is a Signal that Israel is Safe in his Hands

The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey from the UK shadow cabinet – on the grounds that she retweeted an article containing a supposedly “antisemitic” conspiracy theory – managed to kill three birds with one stone for new Labour leader Keir Starmer.

First, it offered a pretext to rid himself of the last of the Labour heavyweights associated with the party’s left and its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Long-Bailey was runner-up to Starmer in the leadership elections earlier in the year and he had little choice but to include her on his front bench.

Starmer will doubtless sigh with relief if the outpouring of threats on social media from left-wing members to quit over Long-Bailey’s sacking actually materialises.

Second, the move served as a signal from Starmer that he is a safe pair of hands for the party’s right, which worked so hard to destroy Corbyn from within, as a recently leaked internal review revealed in excruciating detail. Despite the report showing that the Labour right sabotaged the 2017 general election campaign to prevent Corbyn from becoming prime minister, Starmer appears to have buried its contents – as have the British media.

He is keen to demonstrate that he will now steer Labour back to being a reliable party of government for the neoliberal establishment. He intends to demonstrate that he is the Labour party’s Joe Biden, not its Bernie Sanders. Starmerism is likely to look a lot like Blairism.

A peace pipe

And third, Long-Bailey’s sacking provided the perfect opportunity for Starmer to publicly light a peace pipe with the Israel lobby after its long battle to tar Corbyn, his predecessor, as an antisemite.

The offending article shared by Long-Bailey referred to Israel’s documented and controversial role in training and helping to militarise US police forces. It did not mention Jews. By straining the meaning of antisemitism well past its breaking point, Starmer showed that his promised “zero tolerance” for antisemitism actually means zero tolerance of anyone in Labour who might antagonise the Israel lobby – and by extension, of course, the Israeli government.

By contrast, back in February Rachel Reeves, an MP on the party’s right, celebrated Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in the UK parliament and a well-known Jew hater who supported the appeasement of Hitler. None of that appeared to bother the Israel lobby, nor did it dissuade Starmer from welcoming Reeves into his shadow cabinet weeks later.

Feeble handwringing

Doubtless, the move against Long-Bailey felt particularly pressing given that this week the door will open to the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu annexing swaths of Palestinian territory in the West Bank in violation of international law, as sanctioned by Donald Trump’s “peace” plan.

Corbyn joined more than 140 other MPs last month in sending a letter to the British prime minister urging “severe consequences including sanctions” on Israel should it carry out annexation.

Starmer, by contrast, has voiced only “concerns”. Sidelining the gross violation of international law annexation constitutes, or the effects on Palestinians, he has weakly opined: “I don’t agree with annexation and I don’t think it’s good for security in the region.”

It looks like Starmer has no intention of doing anything more than feeble handwringing – especially when he knows that the Israel lobby, including advocacy groups inside his own party like the Jewish Labour Movement, would move swiftly against him, as they did against Corbyn, should he do otherwise.

Sacking Long-Bailey has offered the Israel lobby a sacrificial victim. But it has also removed a potential loose cannon from his front bench on Israel and annexation-related matters. It has sent an exceptionally clear warning to other shadow cabinet ministers to watch and closely follow his lead. He has made it evident that no one will be allowed to step out of line.

A smooth ride

All three audiences – Starmer’s own MPs and party officials, the billionaire-owned media, and the Israel lobby that claims to represent Britain’s Jewish community – can now be relied on to give him a smooth ride.

His only remaining challenge will be to keep the membership in check.

Starmer understands only too well the common policy priorities of the various audiences he is seeking to placate. In fact, the article Long-Bailey retweeted – and which led to her ousting – was highlighting the very interconnectedness of the problems these establishment groups hope to ringfence from examination.

The article published in the Independent was an interview with Maxine Peake, a left-wing actor and Palestinian solidarity activist. As Long-Bailey shared the article, she called Peake, one of her constituents, “an absolute diamond”.

Peake had used the interview to warn: “We’re being ruled by capitalist, fascist dictators.” Establishment structures to protect capitalism, “keeping poor people in their place”, were so entrenched, she wondered how we might ever “dig out” of them.

Those who rejected Corbyn in the 2019 general election because he was seen as too left-wing, she observed, had no place complaining now about an incompetent Conservative government there to serve the establishment rather than the public.

Her brief, offending comment about Israel – the one that has been widely mischaracterised as antisemitic – was immediately prefaced by Peake’s concern that racism and police brutality had become globalised industries, with states learning repressive techniques from each other.

She told the interviewer: “Systemic racism is a global issue. The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”

The Palestinian lab

Starmer and the Israel lobby both wish to deflect attention away from the wider point Peake was making. She was referring to Israel’s well-known role in helping to train and militarise other countries’ police forces with so-called “counter-terrorism measures”. Israel has been doing so since the early 1990s.

As Israeli journalists and scholars have noted, Israel has effectively turned the occupied Palestinian territories into laboratories in which it can refine oppressive systems of control that other states desire for use against sections of their own populations.

But Starmer and the lobby chose to hoist Long-Bailey – via Peake’s interview – onto the hook of a single unprovable assertion: that Israel specifically taught Minneapolis police the knee on the neck chokehold that one of their police officers, Derek Chauvin, used for nine minutes on George Floyd last month, leading to his death.

Peake was right that Israeli security services regularly use that type of chokehold on Palestinians, and also that Israeli experts had held a training session with Minneapolis police in 2012.  All that can be proved.

The specific claim that this particular chokehold was taught on that occasion, however, may be wrong – and we are unlikely ever to know, given the lack of transparency regarding Israel’s influence on other police forces’ strategies and methods.

Such opaqueness and a lack of accountability in police practices is the norm in Israel, where the security services treat Palestinians as an enemy – both in the occupied territories and inside Israel, where there is a large minority with degraded Israeli citizenship. US police forces, on the other hand, profess, often unconvincingly, to be driven by a “protect and serve” ethos.

‘Global pacification’

In taking action against Long-Bailey, Starmer, a former lawyer known for his forensic skills, made a telling, false allegation. He told the BBC that the Peake interview had indulged in antisemitic “conspiracy theories” – in the plural. But only one Israel-related claim, about the knee on the neck chokehold, was made or cited.

Further, Peake’s claim, whether correct or not, is patently not antisemitic. Israel is neither a Jew nor the representative of the Jewish people collectively – except in the imaginations of antisemites and the hardcore Zionists who people the Israel lobby.

More significantly still, in condemning Peake, Starmer wilfully ignored the wood as he pointed out a single tree.

Israeli scholar Jeff Halper, a veteran peace activist, has documented in great detail in his book War Against the People how Israel has intentionally positioned itself at the heart of a growing “global pacification industry”. The thousands of training sessions held by Israeli police in the US and around the world are based on their “expertise” in repressive, militarised policing.

Tiny Israel has influence in this field way out of proportion to its size, in the same way that it is one of the top 10 states – all the others far larger – that profit from the arms trade and cyber warfare. Every year since 2007, the Global Militarisation Index has crowned Israel the most militarised nation on the planet.

A senior analyst at the liberal Israeli Haaretz newspaper has described Israel as “securityland” – the go-to state for others to improve their techniques for surveilling, controlling and oppressing restive populations within their territory. It is this expertise in “securocratic warfare” that, according to Halper, has allowed tiny Israel to hit way above its weight in international politics and earned it a place “at the table with NATO countries”.

Western bad faith

It is on this last point that the Labour left, including many of the party’s half a million members, and the Labour right decisively part company. A gulf in worldviews opens up.

Along with the climate emergency, Israel symbolises for the Labour left some of the most visible hypocrisies and excesses of a neoliberal global agenda that treats the planet with slash-and-burn indifference, views international law with contempt, and regards populations as little more than pawns on an updated colonial chessboard.

Israel’s recent history of dispossessing the Palestinians; its unabashed promotion of Jim Crow-style ethnic privileges for Jews, epitomised in the nation-state law; its continuing utter disregard for the rights of Palestinians; its hyper-militarised culture; its decades-long occupation; its refusal to make peace with its neighbours; its deep integration into the West’s war industries; its influence on the ideologies of the “war on terror” and a worldwide “clash of civilisations”; and its disdain for international humanitarian law are all anathema to the left.

Worse still, Israel has been doing all of this in full view of the international community for decades. Nonetheless, its crimes are richly subsidised by the United States and Europe, as well as obscured by a sympathetic western media that is financially and ideologically embedded in the neoliberal establishment.

For the Labour left – for Peake, Long-Bailey and Corbyn – Israel is such an obvious example of western bad faith, such a glaring Achilles’ heel in the deceptions spread on behalf of the neoliberal order, that it presents an opportunity. Criticism of Israel can serve to awaken others, helping them to understand how a bogus western “civilisation” is destroying the planet through economic pillage, wars and environmental destruction.

It offers an entry into the left’s structural, more abstract critiques of capitalism and western colonialism that it is otherwise difficult to convey in soundbites to a uniformly hostile media.

Antisemitism redefined

The problem is that the stakes regarding Israel are understood by the Labour right in much the same way. Their commitment to a global neoliberal order – one they characterise in terms of a superior western civilisation – stands starkly exposed in the case of Israel.

If the idea of Israel is made vulnerable to challenge, so might their other self-delusions and deceptions about western superiority.

For each side, Israel has become a battleground on which the truthfulness of their worldview is tested.

The Labour right has no desire to engage with the left’s arguments, particularly at a time when the climate emergency and the rise of populism make their political claims sound increasingly hollow. Rather than debate the merits of democratic socialism, the Labour right has preferred to simply tar the Labour left as antisemites.

With Corbyn’s unexpected rise to lead Labour in 2015, that crisis for the Labour right became existential. The backlash was swift and systematic.

The party’s right-wing scrapped the accepted definition of antisemitism and imposed a new one on Labour, formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), to ensnare the left. It focused on criticism of Israel rather than hatred or fear of Jews.

The Jewish Labour Movement, a pro-Israel group, was revived in late 2015 to undermine Corbyn from within the party. It was all but sanctified, even as it refused to campaign for Labour candidates and referred the party to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for a highly politicised investigation.

The Labour right openly conflated not only the left’s anti-Zionism with antisemitism but even their socialist critiques of capitalism. It was argued that any references to bankers or a global financial elite were code words for “Jews”.

After this lengthy campaign helped to destroy Corbyn, the candidates to succeed him, including Long-Bailey, opted to declare themselves Zionists and to sign up to “10 Pledges” from the Board of Deputies, the UK’s main Jewish leadership organisation. Those demands put the board and the Jewish Labour Movement in charge of determining what antisemitism was, despite their highly partisan politics on Israel and their opposition to democratic socialism.

Political charlatans

The problem for the Labour right and Israel’s lobbyists, and therefore for Starmer too, is that Israel, egged on by Trump, is working overtime to blow up the carefully constructed claim – supported by the IHRA definition of antisemitism – that Israel is just another normal western-style state and that therefore it should not be “singled out” for criticism.

Israel is on a collision course with the most fundamental precepts of international law by preparing to annex large areas of the West Bank. This is not a break with Israeli policy; it is the culmination of many decades of settlement activity and resource theft from Palestinians.

This is a potential moment of crisis for those on the Labour right, who could quickly find themselves exposed as political charlatans – the charlatans they always have been – by Israel’s actions over the coming weeks and months.

Starmer has indicated he is determined to tightly delimit the room for criticism of Israel within Labour as the annexation issue unfolds. That will leave him and the party free to issue their own carefully crafted, official condemnations – similar to Johnson’s.

Like Johnson, Starmer will play his allotted role in this political game of charades – one long understood and tolerated by Israel and its UK lobbyists. He will offer some sound and fury, the pretence of condemnation, but of the kind intended to signify nothing.

This has been at the heart of UK foreign policy towards a Jewish state built on the theft of Palestinian land for more than a century. Starmer has shown that he intends to return to business as usual as quickly as possible.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Why the Assault on a Diplomat in Israel should Come as No Surprise

An Israeli diplomat filed a complaint last week with police after he was pulled to the ground in Jerusalem by four security guards, who knelt on his neck for five minutes as he cried out: “I can’t breathe.”

There are obvious echoes of the treatment of George Floyd, an African-American killed by police in Minneapolis last month. His death triggered mass protests against police brutality and reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement. The incident in Jerusalem, by contrast, attracted only minor attention – even in Israel.

An assault by Israeli security officials on a diplomat sounds like an aberration – a peculiar case of mistaken identity – quite unlike an established pattern of police violence against poor black communities in the US. But that impression would be wrong.

The man attacked in Jerusalem was no ordinary Israeli diplomat. He was Bedouin, from Israel’s large Palestinian minority. One fifth of the population, this minority enjoys a very inferior form of Israeli citizenship.

Ishmael Khaldi’s exceptional success in becoming a diplomat, as well as his all-too-familiar experience as a Palestinian of abuse at the hands of the security services, exemplify the paradoxes of what amounts to Israel’s hybrid version of apartheid.

Khaldi and another 1.8 million Palestinian citizens are descended from the few Palestinians who survived a wave of expulsions in 1948 as a Jewish state was declared on the ruins of their homeland.

Israel continues to view these Palestinians – its non-Jewish citizens – as a subversive element that needs to be controlled and subdued through measures reminiscent of the old South Africa. But at the same time, Israel is desperate to portray itself as a western-style democracy.

So strangely, the Palestinian minority has found itself treated both as second-class citizens and as an unwilling shop-window dummy on which Israel can hang its pretensions of fairness and equality. That has resulted in two contradictory faces.

On one side, Israel segregates Jewish and Palestinian citizens, confining the latter to a handful of tightly ghettoised communities on a tiny fraction of the country’s territory. To prevent mixing and miscegenation, it strictly separates schools for Jewish and Palestinian children. The policy has been so successful that inter-marriage is all but non-existent. In a rare survey, the Central Bureau of Statistics found 19 such marriages took place in 2011.

The economy is largely segregated too.

Most Palestinian citizens are barred from Israel’s security industries and anything related to the occupation. State utilities, from the ports to the water, telecoms and electricity industries, are largely free of Palestinian citizens.

Job opportunities are concentrated instead in low-paying service industries and casual labour. Two thirds of Palestinian children in Israel live below the poverty line, compared to one fifth of Jewish children.

This ugly face is carefully hidden from outsiders.

On the other side, Israel loudly celebrates the right of Palestinian citizens to vote – an easy concession given that Israel engineered an overwhelming Jewish majority in 1948 by forcing most Palestinians into exile. It trumpets exceptional “Arab success stories”, glossing over the deeper truths they contain.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Israel has been excitedly promoting the fact that one fifth of its doctors are Palestinian citizens – matching their proportion of the population. But in truth, the health sector is the one major sphere of life in Israel where segregation is not the norm. The brightest Palestinian students gravitate towards medicine because at least there the obstacles to success can be surmounted.

Compare that to higher education, where Palestinian citizens fill much less than one per cent of senior academic posts. The first Muslim judge, Khaled Kaboub, was appointed to the Supreme Court only two years ago – 70 years after Israel’s founding. Gamal Hakroosh became Israel’s first Muslim deputy police commissioner as recently as 2016; his role was restricted, of course, to handling policing in Palestinian communities.

Khaldi, the diplomat assaulted in Jerusalem, fits this mould. Raised in the village of Khawaled in the Galilee, his family was denied water, electricity and building permits. His home was a tent, where he studied by gaslight. Many tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens live in similar conditions.

Undoubtedly, the talented Khaldi overcame many hurdles to win a coveted place at university. He then served in the paramilitary border police, notorious for abusing Palestinians in the occupied territories.

He was marked out early on as a reliable advocate for Israel by an unusual combination of traits: his intelligence and determination; a steely refusal to be ground down by racism and discrimination; a pliable ethical code that condoned the oppression of fellow Palestinians; and blind deference to a Jewish state whose very definition excluded him.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry put him on a fast track, soon sending him to San Francisco and London. There his job was to fight the international campaign to boycott Israel, modelled on a similar one targeting apartheid South Africa, citing his own story as proof that in Israel anyone can succeed.

But in reality, Khaldi is an exception, and one cynically exploited to disprove the rule. Maybe that point occurred to him as he was being choked inside Jerusalem’s central bus station after he questioned a guard’s behaviour.

After all, everyone in Israel understands that Palestinian citizens – even the odd professor or legislator – are racially profiled and treated as an enemy. Stories of their physical or verbal abuse are unremarkable. Khaldi’s assault stands out only because he has proved himself such a compliant servant of a system designed to marginalise the community he belongs to.

This month, however, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself chose to tear off the prettified, diplomatic mask represented by Khaldi. He appointed a new ambassador to the UK.

Tzipi Hotovely, a Jewish supremacist and Islamophobe, supports Israel’s annexation of the entire West Bank and the takeover of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. She is part of a new wave of entirely undiplomatic envoys being sent to foreign capitals.

Hotovely cares much less about Israel’s image than about making all the “Land of Israel”, including the occupied Palestinian territories, exclusively Jewish.

Her appointment signals progress of a kind. Diplomats such as herself may finally help people abroad understand why Khaldi, her obliging fellow diplomat, is being assaulted back home.

Parallels between Minneapolis and Jerusalem are More than Skin Deep

It is hard to ignore the striking parallels between the recent scenes of police brutality in cities across the United States and decades of violence from Israel’s security forces against Palestinians.

A video that went viral late last month of a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, killing a black man, George Floyd, by pressing a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes has triggered a fortnight of mass protests across the US – and beyond.

The footage was the latest disturbing visual evidence of a US police culture that appears to treat Black Americans as an enemy – and a reminder that rogue police officers are all too rarely punished.

Floyd’s lynching by Chauvin as three other officers either looked on, or participated, has echoes of troubling scenes familiar from the occupied territories. Videos of Israeli soldiers, police and armed settlers beating, shooting and abusing Palestinian men, women and children have long been a staple of social media.

The dehumanisation that enabled Floyd’s murder has been regularly on view in the occupied Palestinian territories. In early 2018 Israeli snipers began using Palestinians, including children, nurses, journalists and the disabled, as little more than target practice during weekly protests at a perimeter fence around Gaza imprisoning them.

Widespread impunity

And just as in the US, the use of violence by Israeli police and soldiers against Palestinians rarely leads to prosecutions, let alone convictions.

A few days after Floyd’s killing, an autistic Palestinian man, Iyad Hallaq – who had a mental age of six, according to his family – was shot seven times by police in Jerusalem. None of the officers has been arrested.

Faced with embarrassing international attention in the wake of Floyd’s murder, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a rare statement on the killing of a Palestinian by the security services. He called Hallaq’s murder “a tragedy” and promised an investigation.

The two killings, days apart, have underscored why the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “Palestinian Lives Matter” sit naturally alongside each other, whether at protests or in social media posts.

There are differences between the two cases, of course. Nowadays Black Americans have citizenship, most can vote (if they can reach a polling station), laws are no longer explicitly racist, and they have access to the same courts – if not always the same justice – as the white population.

That is not the situation for most Palestinians under Israeli rule. They live under occupation by a foreign army, arbitrary military orders govern their lives, and they have very limited access to any kind of meaningful legal redress.

And there is another obvious difference. Floyd’s murder has shocked many white Americans into joining the protests. Hallaq’s murder, by contrast, has been ignored by the vast majority of Israelis, apparently accepted once again as the price of maintaining the occupation.

Treated like an enemy

Nonetheless, comparisons between the two racist policing cultures are worth highlighting. Both spring from a worldview shaped by settler-colonial societies founded on dispossession, segregation and exploitation.

Israel still largely views Palestinians as an enemy that needs to be either expelled or made to submit. Black Americans, meanwhile, live with the legacy of a racist white culture that until not so long ago justified slavery and apartheid.

Palestinians and Black Americans have long had their dignity looted; their lives too often are considered cheap.

Sadly, most Israeli Jews are in deep denial about the racist ideology that underpins their major institutions, including the security services. Tiny numbers protest in solidarity with Palestinians, and those that do are widely seen by the rest of the Israeli public as traitors.

Many white Americans, on the other hand, have been shocked to see how quickly US police forces – faced with widespread protests – have resorted to aggressive crowd-control methods of the kind only too familiar to Palestinians.

Those methods include the declaration of curfews and closed areas in major cities; the deployment of sniper squads against civilians; the use of riot teams wearing unmarked uniforms or balaclavas; arrests of, and physical assaults on, journalists who are clearly identifiable; and the indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets to wound protesters and terrify them off the streets.

It does not end there.

President Donald Trump has described demonstrators as “terrorists”, echoing Israel’s characterisation of all Palestinian protest, and threatened to send in the US army, which would replicate even more precisely the situation faced by Palestinians.

Like Palestinians, the US black community – and now the protesters – have been recording examples of their abuse on their phones and posting the videos on social media to highlight the deceptions of police statements and media reporting of what has been taking place.

Tested on Palestinians

None of these parallels should surprise us. For years US police forces, along with many others around the world, have been queueing at Israel’s door to learn from its decades of experience in crushing Palestinian resistance.

Israel has capitalised on the need among western states, in a world of depleting resources and the long-term contraction of the global economy, to prepare for future internal uprisings by a growing underclass.

With readymade laboratories in the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel has long been able to develop and field-test on captive Palestinians new methods of surveillance and subordination. As the largest underclass in the US, urban black communities were always likely to find themselves on the front line as US police forces adopted a more militarised approach to policing.

These changes finally struck home during the protests that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 after a black man, Michael Brown, was killed by police. Dressed in military-style fatigues and body armour, and backed by armoured personnel carriers, local police looked more like they were entering a war zone than there to “serve and protect”.

Trained in Israel

It was then that human rights groups and others started to highlight the extent to which US police forces were being influenced by Israel’s methods of subjugating Palestinians. Many forces had been trained in Israel or involved in exchange programmes.

Israel’s notorious paramilitary Border Police, in particular, has become a model for other countries. It was the Border Police that shot dead Hallaq in Jerusalem shortly after Floyd was killed in Minneapolis.

The Border Police carry out the hybrid functions of a police force and an army, operating against Palestinians in the occupied territories and inside Israel, where a large Palestinian minority live with a very degraded citizenship.

The institutional premise of the Border Police is that all Palestinians, including those who are formally Israeli citizens, should be dealt with as an enemy. It is at the heart of a racist Israeli policing culture identified 17 years ago by the Or Report, the country’s only serious review of its police forces.

The Border Police increasingly look like the model US police forces are emulating in cities with large black populations.

Many dozens of Minneapolis police officers were trained by Israeli experts in “counter-terrorism” and “restraint” techniques at a conference in Chicago in 2012.

Derek Chauvin’s chokehold, using his knee to press down on Floyd’s neck, is an “immobilisation” procedure familiar to Palestinians. Troublingly, Chauvin was training two rookie officers at the time he killed Floyd, passing on the department’s institutional knowledge to the next generation of officers.

Monopoly of violence

These similarities should be expected. States inevitably borrow and learn from each other on matters most important to them, such as repressing internal dissent. The job of a state is to ensure it maintains a monopoly of violence inside its territory.

It is the reason why the Israeli scholar Jeff Halper warned several years ago in his book War Against the People that Israel had been pivotal in developing what he called a “global pacification” industry. The hard walls between the military and the police have crumbled, creating what he termed “warrior cops”.

The danger, according to Halper, is that in the long run, as the police become more militarised, we are all likely to find ourselves being treated like Palestinians. Which is why a further comparison between the US strategy towards the black community and Israel’s towards Palestinians needs highlighting.

The two countries are not just sharing tactics and policing methods against protests once they break out. They have also jointly developed longer-term strategies in the hope of dismantling the ability of the black and Palestinian communities they oppress to organise effectively and forge solidarity with other groups.

Loss of historic direction

If one lesson is clear, it is that oppression can best be challenged through organised resistance by a mass movement with clear demands and a coherent vision of a better future.

In the past that depended on charismatic leaders with a fully developed and well-articulated ideology capable of inspiring and mobilising followers. It also relied on networks of solidarity between oppressed groups around the world sharing their wisdom and experience.

The Palestinians were once led by figures who commanded national support and respect, from Yasser Arafat to George Habash and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The struggle they led was capable of galvanising supporters around the world.

These leaders were not necessarily united. There were debates over whether Israeli settler colonialism would best be undermined through secular struggle or religious fortitude, through finding allies among the oppressor nation or defeating it using its own violent methods.

These debates and disagreements educated the wider Palestinian public, clarified the stakes for them, and provided a sense of a historic direction and purpose. And these leaders became figureheads for international solidarity and revolutionary fervour.

That has all long since disappeared. Israel pursued a relentless policy of jailing and assassinating Palestinian leaders. In Arafat’s case, he was confined by Israeli tanks to a compound in Ramallah before he was poisoned to death in highly suspicious circumstances. Ever since, Palestinian society has found itself orphaned, adrift, divided and disorganised.

International solidarity has been largely sidelined too. The publics of Arab states, already preoccupied with their own struggles, appear increasingly tired of the divided and seemingly hopeless Palestinian cause. And in a sign of our times, western solidarity today is invested chiefly in a boycott movement, which has had to wage its fight on the enemy’s battlefield of consumption and finance.

From confrontation to solace

The black community in the US has undergone parallel processes, even if it is harder to indict quite so directly the US security services for the loss decades ago of a black national leadership. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Black Panther movement were hounded by the US security services. They were jailed or felled by assassins, despite their very different approaches to the civil rights struggle.

Today, none are around to make inspiring speeches and mobilise the wider public – either black or white Americans – to take action on the national stage.

Denied a vigorous national leadership, the organised black community at times appeared to have retreated into the safer but more confining space of the churches – at least until the latest protests. A politics of solace appeared to have replaced the politics of confrontation.

A focus on identity

These changes cannot be attributed solely to the loss of national leaders. In recent decades the global political context has been transformed too. After the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, the US not only became the world’s sole superpower but it crushed the physical and ideological space in which political opposition could flourish.

Class analysis and revolutionary ideologies – a politics of justice – were shunted off the streets and increasingly into the margins of academia.

Instead, western political activists were encouraged to dedicate their energies not to anti-imperialism and class struggle but to a much narrower identity politics. Political activism became a competition between social groups for attention and privilege.

As with Palestinian solidarity activism, identity politics in the US has waged its battles on the terrain of a consumption-obsessed society. Hashtags and virtue-signalling on social media have often appeared to serve as a stand-in for social protest and activism.

A moment of transition

The question posed by the current US protests is whether this timid, individualised, acquisitive kind of politics is starting to seem inadequate. The US protesters are still largely leaderless, their struggle in danger of being atomised, their demands implicit and largely shapeless – it is clearer what the protesters don’t want than what they do.

That reflects a current mood in which the challenges facing us all – from permanent economic crisis and the new threat of pandemics to impending climate catastrophe – appear too big, too momentous to make sense of. We are caught in a moment of transition, it seems, destined for a new era – good or bad – we cannot discern clearly yet.

In August, millions are expected to head to Washington in a march to echo the one led by Martin Luther King in 1963. The heavy burden of this historic moment is expected to be carried on the ageing shoulders of the Rev Al Sharpton.

That symbolism may be fitting. It is more than 50 years since western states were last gripped with revolutionary fervour. But the hunger for change that reached its climax in 1968 – for an end to imperialism, endless war and rampant inequality – was never sated.

Oppressed communities around the globe are still hungry for a fairer world. In Palestine and elsewhere, those who suffer brutality, misery, exploitation and indignity still need a champion. They look to Minneapolis and the struggle it launched for a seed of hope.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue

I did not expect to be returning to this issue so soon but I was surprised, to put it mildly, to discover that my last post on anti-racists toppling a statue of the notorious slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol proved to be the most polarising article I have ever written. Given the many controversial topics I have addressed over the years, that seems noteworthy in itself.

It may not be surprising that those on the right are troubled by ordinary people challenging authority, demanding change rather than conserving what we already have, and “taking the law into their own hands”. None of this sits too easily with the conservative political worldview. But some on the left seem equally disturbed by this act of popular protest. That needs to be analysed and challenged.

I have been able to identify three main types of criticism from the left.

Cities on the back foot

The first suggests that tearing down statues is ineffective. It does not change anything, and actually conceals society’s continuing racism. These actions may make activists feel good but they fail to bring about any tangible progress.

Such arguments are obviously undermined by the fact that Bristol’s mayor and its council, which had been ignoring demands to remove Colston’s statue for decades, are finally proposing action. For the first time, the mayor has called for a “citywide conversation” about all of Bristol’s public memorials. He has promised to discuss their future with historians, presumably to identify which ones venerate people like Colston so obscenely horrible that they have no place in public squares looking down on us. Instead they should be in museums so their crimes can be contextualised and properly understood.

Other cities and organisations are taking rapid, pre-emptive action too to remove the most offensive statues. Slave owner Robert Milligan (below) has been removed from outside the museum in London Docklands (an area rebuilt on money made from modern slavery, mostly of labourers in the Third World), while two London hospitals have removed from public view statues to the slave traders that founded them. Cities and public bodies are for the first time assessing which statues are of figures simply too odious to be defended. These institutions are on the back foot. That is a victory of some kind.

 But also the toppling of statues has clearly been very effective in sparking a debate about the crimes of empire – the stolen wealth that built today’s Britain – in ways that have rarely been possible before. The media has been full of discussions about the merits or otherwise of such direct action, what motivates the protesters, and what should be done with these disturbing relics of our ugly colonial past. It has put into question what “philanthropy” really means – a topic of current relevance given that a global elite, from Bill Gates to Richard Branson, now shape public policy. And it has given a rare voice to the black community to say how they feel about people who committed horrific crimes against their ancestors still lording over them in public spaces.

These debate are in themselves educational, and may lead some people to explore Britain’s colonial past, or to contemplate more deeply our society’s power structures, or to consider modern manifestations of racism, both in their overt and less conscious forms, who might otherwise not have done so.

Finally, the toppling of statues has been effective in exposing the extent of background racism on the British left. I’ve been truly staggered to find leftists who follow me on social media decrying this simply as “mob rule”. Probing their reasoning a little has tended to reveal some pretty ugly premises and a tendency to  dismiss everything as hollow identity politics. That is lazy political thinking, and a position that is held easily only if one is white.

“Golliwog” racism, as I explained in my original post, was the jam generations of white children spread on their morning toast. We live with those unquestioned associations and assumptions still. It’s about time we confronted them rather than indulged them.

Overthrowing symbols

The second criticism is that toppling statues is a distraction from proper political activism, that statues are meaningless symbols, that there are much more important things to be getting on with, and that the establishment wants us to target statues to sow division or direct our energies into irrelevancies. It is claimed that tearing down Colston’s statue has detracted from the inspiration for the protests: challenging police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman in Minneapolis.

There are lots of reasons why this approach is a wrong-headed.

Symbols are important. They are the illustrations to the stories we are fed about who we are and what we hold dear. Like images in the picture books our parents read to us before we could make out the letters of the text, these symbols often have more impact than the stories themselves. When we challenge symbols we begin to deconstruct the stories that they illustrate. Overthrow a symbol, and you are taking the first step on the path to overthrowing the system behind it.

After all, if these symbols weren’t so important in entrenching a sense of “national life” and “national values”, the establishment would not have bothered to erect them. That’s why the right-wingers will make a battleground of protecting statues of Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria. Because it is vitally important to them that we don’t tear off the mask to see for ourselves – or to show them – what really lies beneath.

The claim that the establishment actually favours the toppling of statues – and that our energies are being channeled into irrelevant action – is apparently justified by the fact that the police backed off in Bristol and that some politicians and journalists are expressing sympathy for the protesters.

Sadly, this is a very popular line of argument on the left nowadays: as soon as a group with progressive aims has the most limited success, some start claiming it proves that the establishment wanted it to happen anyway, and that we have fallen into a trap set for us by the elite. One wonders what possible path to improvement such people envision, what first steps to change they would ever accept as progress. Their view is pure defeatism. If the left is crushed, we lose; and if we win a few concessions, we have been conned. For them, it is complete revolution or nothing.

A fearful establishment

In fact, the reason the police backed off in Bristol is because they are frightened right now of the febrile mood in the country. There is lots of anger and frustration, especially among young people, much of it provoked by lockdown.

The police understood it was not a time to be making baton charges to defend a statue, especially one to a slave trader. They are on the back foot themselves because of the police violence that triggered the protests in the first place. Violence is their Achilles’ heel right now, and the protesters can exploit that weakness to reclaim public space for protest and dissent.

The politicians and media are similarly frightened of the current unrest, which they have been labelling as a dangerous “populism” for some time. Isn’t having the establishment fearful exactly where the left should want them? Because when the establishment is not frightened, all they do is line their pockets more deeply. They make concessions only when we raise the stakes.

If that is not obvious, recall the mass marches against the Iraq war. They failed not because they were not popular – they were some of the largest protests ever in Britain. They failed because the public could not make Tony Blair and his cabinet more frightened of us – the British people – than they were of the White House and the Pentagon. The cynical, dispiriting lesson we took away from the Iraq war was that we could never have an effect on the political class. The real lesson was that we needed to bare our teeth.

Last week the crowds in Bristol bared their teeth, and the politicians and police decided the fight – this time – wasn’t worth it. Defending a racist statue is much less of a priority for the establishment than placating the US, of course. But it doesn’t mean it is no priority at all.

The lessons of revolts through the ages are that small victories inspire crowds to larger battles. That is why the establishment usually tries to crush or co-opt the first signs of popular dissent and defiance. They fear our empowerment. It is also why it is important for those who want fairer societies to support, not diminish, the actions of those who take on initial confrontations with the establishment. They build the launchpad for bigger things.

Progress through protest

The third and seemingly most common criticism is that it is dangerous to allow the mob to win, and that once “mob rule” scores a success it will lead to anarchy and violence.

As I explained in my last post, none of the things we value today in Britain – from the vote to the National Health Service – happened without either direct protest in defiance of the establishment or the threat of such protest. It was only ever fear about the breakdown of order or of the eruption of violence that pushed the establishment to give up any of its wealth and power.

Ordinary people finally got free universal health care in 1948 – over the opposition of most doctors – largely because of establishment concerns about an empowered male population returning from war who knew how to bear arms and, having avoided death on the battlefield, were not likely to accept seeing themselves or their loved ones die of easily treatable diseases because they were still poor.

Similarly, labour rights were won – over the opposition of business – only because workers organised into unions and threatened to withdraw their labour. That was most definitely seen as a form of violence by a capitalist class whose only measure of value has ever been money.

Those who worry about “mob rule” assume that we now live in democracies that are responsive to the popular will. I will not waste my breath again demolishing that fallacy – it has been the sole reason for my writing this blog for the past six years. We live in sophisticated oligarchies, where corporations control the narratives of our lives through their control of the mass media to make us compliant and believe in fairytales. The biggest is that we, the people, are in charge through our vote, in a political system that offers only two choices, both of them political parties that were long ago captured by the corporations. The one countervailing force – organised labour – now plays almost no role. It has been either destroyed or its leaders co-opted themselves.

Wrong about democracy

All that aside, those anxious about “the mob” have failed to understand what liberal democracy means – the model of democracy we are all supposed to subscribe to. It does not give carte blanche to the white majority to smother symbols all over the public space of people who abused, murdered and oppressed our black neighbours’ ancestors. That is democracy as the tyranny of the majority.

If this is not blindingly obvious, let me propose a hypothetical analogy. How would we judge Britain’s Jewish community if after years of failed protests they and non-Jewish supporters “took the law into their own hands” and tore down a statue in Hamstead to Adolf Eichmann? Would we call them a mob? Would we characterise what they did as vigilantism? And perhaps more to the point, can we conceive of an Eichmann statue being erected in Hamstead – or anywhere? Of course, not. So why is it even conceivable that a man like Colston who profited from the destruction of the lives of tens of thousands of Africans should still be presiding over a multicultural city like Bristol, where some of the descendants of those Africans live today?

The fact that we cannot imagine being so insensitive to the Jewish community should underscore how unbelievably insensitive we have been to Britain’s black community for many decades.

The fear of “the mob” is really our fear of making even liberal democracy work as it is supposed to. Because in a proper liberal democracy the minority is protected from the majority. And when the system proves itself no longer capable of protecting the minority – from symbolic violence, for example – then the minority has a right to “take the law into their own hands” by pulling down those symbols. That is how history was always made, and how it is being made now.

Inclusive or cruel?

“Where will it all end?” people are asking. In the short term, the campaign is likely to run out of steam when the most offensive symbols in the public square have been removed. An informal trade-off will be arrived at: anti-racists will succeed in clearing out the worst symbols, and the right will defend with equal passion the symbols it values most highly.

Most of us can sketch out in our own minds where this ends. Few will fight to save those associated exclusively with the slave trade, but the majority will insist on keeping the biggest symbols of Britishness, such as Churchill and Queen Victoria. The contest will be over those few figures, like Cecil Rhodes, who lie in the grey area between these two extremes.

But longer term, it will end when we have a frank, inclusive conversation about what we want our societies to be. Whether we want them to be welcoming and fair, or cruel places that commemorate the naked exercise of power in the past and implicitly condone its continuing use today (as was highlighted by our recent crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq).

It will end when we all have the same stake in our societies, when we all feel equally valued. It will end when not only have symbols of inequality and injustice been toppled, but the reality of inequality and injustice has been consigned to history too.

The US and Israel Hope to Scare the Hague War Crimes Court off from Helping Palestine

In the near-two decades since the International Criminal Court was set up to try the worst violations of international human rights law, it has faced harsh criticism for its highly selective approach to the question of who should be put on trial.

Created in 2002, the court, it was imagined, would act as a deterrent against the erosion of an international order designed to prevent a repetition of the atrocities of the Second World War.

Such hopes did not survive long.

The court, which sits in The Hague in the Netherlands, almost immediately faced a difficult test: whether it dared to confront the world’s leading superpower, the United States, as it launched a “war on terror”.

The ICC’s prosecutors refused to grasp the nettle posed by the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, they chose the easiest targets: for too long, it looked as though war crimes were only ever committed by Africans.

Now, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, looks poised finally to give the court some teeth. She is threatening to investigate two states – the US and Israel – whose actions have been particularly damaging to international law in the modern era.

The court is considering examining widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by US soldiers in Afghanistan, and crimes committed by Israeli soldiers in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially Gaza, as well as the officials responsible for Israel’s illegal settlement programme.

An investigation of both is critically important: the US has crafted for itself a role as global policeman, while Israel’s flagrant violations of international law have been ongoing for more than half a century.

The US is the most powerful offender, and Israel the most persistent.

Both states have long dreaded this moment – the reason they refused to ratify the Rome Statute that established the ICC.

Last week Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, stepped up US attacks on the court, saying its administration was “determined to prevent having Americans and our friends and allies in Israel and elsewhere hauled in by this corrupt ICC”.

A large, bipartisan majority of US Senators sent a letter to Pompeo last month urging him to ensure “vigorous support” for Israel against the Hague court.

Israel and the US have each tried to claim an exemption from international law on the grounds that they did not sign up to the court.

But this only underscores the problem. International law is there to protect the weak from abuses committed by the strong. The victim from the bully.

A criminal suspect does not get to decide whether their victim can make a complaint, or whether the legal system should investigate. The same must apply in international law if it is to have any meaningful application.

Even under Bensouda, the process has dragged out interminably. It has taken years for her office to conduct a preliminary investigation and to determine, as she did in late April, that Palestine falls under the ICC’s jurisdiction because it qualifies as a state.

The delay made little sense, given that the State of Palestine is recognised by the United Nations, and it was able to ratify the Rome Statute five years ago.

The Israeli argument is that Palestine lacks the normal features of a sovereign state. However, as the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem recently noted, this is precisely because Israel has occupied the Palestinians’ territory and illegally transferred settlers onto their land.

Israel is claiming an exemption by citing the very crimes that need investigating.

Bensouda has asked the court’s judges to rule on her view that the ICC’s jurisdiction extends to Palestine. It is not clear how soon they will issue a verdict.

Pompeo’s threats last week – he said the US will soon make clear how it will retaliate – are intended to intimidate the court.

Bensouda has warned that her office is being subjected to “misinformation and smear campaigns”. In January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the court of being “antisemitic”.

In the past, Washington has denied Bensouda a travel visa, and threatened to confiscate her and the ICC judges’ assets and put them on trial. The US has also vowed to use force to liberate any Americans put in the dock.

There are indications the judges may now be searching for a bolt hole. They have asked Israel and the Palestinian Authority to respond urgently to questions about whether the temporary Oslo accords, signed more than 25 years ago, are still legally binding.

Israel has argued that the lack of resolution to the Oslo process precludes the Palestinians from claiming statehood. That would leave Israel, not the ICC, with jurisdiction over the territories.

Bensouda has suggested the issue is a red herring.

Last Thursday Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, told the ICC that in any case the PA considers itself exempt from its Oslo obligations, given that Israel has announced imminent plans to annex swaths of Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

Annexation was given a green light under President Trump’s “peace plan” unveiled earlier in the year.

Bensouda’s term as prosecutor finishes next year. Israel may hope to continue stonewalling until she is gone. Elyakim Rubinstein, a former Israeli Supreme Court judge, called last month for a campaign to ensure that her successor is more sympathetic to Israel.

But if Bensouda does get the go-ahead, Netanyahu and an array of former generals, including his Defence Minister Benny Gantz, would likely be summoned for questioning. If they refuse, an international arrest warrant could be issued, theoretically enforceable in the 123 countries that ratified the court.

Neither Israel nor the US is willing to let things reach that point.

They have recruited major allies to the fight, including Australia, Canada, Brazil and several European states. Germany, the court’s second largest donor, has threatened to revoke its contributions if the ICC proceeds.

Maurice Hirsch, a former legal adviser to the Israeli army, wrote a column last month in Israel Hayom, a newspaper widely seen as Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, accusing Bensouda of being a “hapless pawn of Palestinian terrorists”.

He suggested that other states threaten to pull their contributions, deny ICC staff the travel visas necessary for their investigations and even quit the court.

That would destroy any possibility of enforcing international law – an outcome that would delight both Israel and the US.

It would render ICC little more than a dead letter, just as Israel, backed by the US, prepares to press ahead with the West Bank’s annexation.

• First published at The National

The Slow Exodus of Palestinian Christians

• To read this essay on the Americans for Middle East Understanding website, click here

• For a PDF version, click here

It was inevitable that when the coronavirus pandemic reached the occupied Palestinian territories, as it did in early March, it would find its first purchase in Bethlehem, a few miles south-east of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.

Staff at the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, one of Bethlehem’s satellite towns, tested positive after they were exposed to a group of infected Greek tourists. Israel worked hurriedly with the Palestinian Authority – the Palestinians’ permanent government-in-waiting in the occupied territories – to lock down Bethlehem. Israel was fearful that the virus, unlike the city’s Palestinian inhabitants, would be difficult to contain. Contagion might spread quickly to nearby Palestinian communities in the West Bank, then to Jewish settlements built illegally by Israel on Bethlehem’s lands, and finally on into Israel itself.

The Palestinian territories were under a form of lockdown long before the arrival of the coronavirus; however. Israel, the occupying power, has made sure that the entire Palestinian population is as isolated from the world as possible – their voices silenced, their experiences of oppression and brutality at Israel’s hands near-invisible to most of the Israeli public and to outsiders.

But Bethlehem, the reputed site of Jesus’s birth 2,000 years ago, is the one Palestinian area – outside East Jerusalem, which has been illegally annexed by Israel – that has proved hardest for Israel to hermetically seal off. During visits to the Church of the Nativity, tourists can briefly glimpse the reality of Palestinian life under occupation.

Some 15 years ago Israel completed an 26 ft-high concrete wall around Bethlehem. On a typical day – at least, before coronavirus halted tourism to the region – a steady stream of coaches from Jerusalem, bearing thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world, came to a stop at a gap in the concrete that served as a checkpoint. There they would wait for the all-clear from surly Israeli teenage soldiers. Once approved, the coaches would drive to the Nativity Church, their passengers able to view the chaotic graffiti scrawled across the wall’s giant canvas, testifying to the city’s imprisonment and its defiance.

Like the plague-bearing Greeks, visitors to Bethlehem could not avoid mixing, even if perfunctorily, with a few locals, mostly Palestinian Christians. Guides showed them around the main attraction, the Church, while local officials and clergy shepherded them into queues to be led down to a crypt that long ago was supposedly the site of a stable where Jesus was born. But unlike the Greek visitors, most pilgrims did not hang around to see the rest of Bethlehem. They quickly boarded their Israeli coaches back to Jerusalem, where they were likely to sleep in Israeli-owned hotels and spend their money in Israeli-owned restaurants and shops.

For most visitors to the Holy Land, their sole meaningful exposure to the occupation and the region’s native Palestinian population was an hour or two spent in the goldfish-bowl of Bethlehem.

A taste of occupation

In recent years, however, that had started to change. Despite the wall, or at times because of it, more independent-minded groups of pilgrims and lone travelers had begun straying off grid, leaving the Israeli-controlled tourism trail. Rather than making a brief detour, they stayed a few nights in Bethlehem. A handful of small, mostly cheap hotels like the Angel catered to them, as did restaurants and souvenir stores around the church.

In tandem, a new kind of political tourism based in and around Bethlehem had begun offering tours of the wall and sections of the city, highlighting the theft of the city’s land by neighboring Jewish settlements and the violence of Israeli soldiers who can enter Bethlehem at will.

A few years ago, the famous anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy gave a major boost to this new kind of immersive tourism by allying with a Bethlehem tour guide, Wisam Salsa, to open the Walled-Off Hotel. They converted an old building boxed in by the wall, liberally sprinkling it with Banksy’s subversive artworks about the occupation, as well as installing a gallery exhibiting the work of Palestinian artists and a museum detailing the occupation’s history and Israel’s well-tested methods of control and repression.

Admittedly, few visitors managed to get a room in Banksy’s small hotel, but many more came to sit in the lobby and sip a beer, produced by one of a handful of newly emerging breweries run by Christian Palestinians, or add some graffiti to the wall just outside with the help of a neighboring art supplies shop.

Before coronavirus, the Walled-Off offered daily tours of Aida, a refugee camp attached to Bethlehem, whose inhabitants were expelled from some of the more than 500 Palestinian communities Israel erased in 1948 – in the Nakba, or Catastrophe – to create a Jewish state on their homeland. There, visitors not only learned about the mass dispossession of Palestinians, sponsored by the western powers that made Israel’s creation possible, but they heard the camp’s inhabitants tell of regular violent, night-time raids by Israeli soldiers and of the daily struggle for survival when Israel tightly controls and limits essentials like water.

Until the coronavirus did Israel’s work for it, Israeli authorities had noted with growing concern how more tourists and pilgrims were staying in Bethlehem. According to Israeli figures, there are about a million tourist overnights annually in Bethlehem. And that figure was growing as new hotels were built, even if the total was still a tiny fraction of the number of tourists staying in Israel and Israeli-ruled East Jerusalem.

An Achilles’ heel

The new trend disturbed the Israeli authorities. Bethlehem was proving an Achilles’ heel in Israel’s system of absolute control over the Palestinians for two reasons.

First, it brought money into Bethlehem, providing it with a source of income outside Israel’s control. The Israeli authorities have carefully engineered the Palestinian economy to be as dependent on Israel as possible, making it easy for Israel to punish Palestinians and the PA economically for any signs of disobedience or resistance. Aside from its tourism, Bethlehem has been largely stripped of economic autonomy. After waves of land thefts by Israel, the city now has access to only a tenth of its original territory, and has been slowly encircled by settlements. The city’s residents have been cut off from their farmland, water sources and historic landmarks. Jerusalem, once Bethlehem’s economic and cultural hinterland, has become all but unreachable for most residents, hidden on the other side of the wall. And those working outside the tourism sector need a difficult-to-obtain permit from Israel’s military authorities to enter and work in low-paying jobs in construction and agriculture inside Israel, the settlements or occupied Jerusalem.

Israel’s second ground for concern was that foreign visitors staying in Bethlehem were likely to learn first-hand something of the experiences of the local population – more so than those who simply made a brief detour to see the church. A self-serving narrative about Palestinians central to Israeli propaganda – that Israel stands with the west in a Judeo-Christian battle against a supposedly barbaric Muslim enemy – risked being subverted by exposure to the reality of Bethlehem. After all, anyone spending time in the city would soon realize that it includes Palestinian Christians only too ready to challenge Israel’s grand narrative of a clash of civilizations.

From Israel’s point of view, a stay in Bethlehem might also open tourists’ eyes in dangerous ways. They might come to understand that, if anyone was behaving in a barbaric way and provoking an unresolvable, religiously inspired clash, it was not Palestinians – Muslim or Christian – but Israel, which has been brutally ruling over Palestinians for decades.

For both reasons, Israel wished to prevent Bethlehem from becoming a separate, rival hub for tourism. It was impossible to stop pilgrims visiting the Church of the Nativity, but Israel could stop Bethlehem developing its own tourism industry, independent of Israel. The wall has been part of that strategy, but it failed to curb the development of new tourism ventures – and in some cases, as with the Banksy hotel, had actually inspired alternative forms of tourism.

In early 2017 the Israeli authorities finally acted. The daily Haaretz newspaper revealed that the interior ministry had issued a directive to local travel agencies warning them not to allow their pilgrimage groups to stay overnight in Bethlehem, with the implication that the firms risked losing their licenses if they did so. According to Haaretz, the government claimed that “potential terrorists were traveling with groups of tourists”.

Bethlehem is lucky that, unlike other Palestinian communities, it has allies Israel cannot easily ignore. Haaretz’s exposure of the new policy led to a rapid backlash. International churches, especially the Vatican, were worried that it was the thin end of a wedge that might soon leave the City of the Nativity off-limits to its pilgrims. And Israeli travel agencies feared their business would suffer. Pilgrim groups from poorer countries that could not afford Jerusalem’s high prices, especially for accommodation, might stop coming to the Holy Land.

As one agent told Haaretz: “The meaning of a letter like this is the end of incoming tourism from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and eastern European countries like Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. All the tourists who visit Israel and sleep in Bethlehem are doing that primarily to reduce costs.” The loss of such tourists not only threatened to deprive Bethlehem of the benefits of tourism but threatened Israel’s much larger tourism sector. Soon afterwards, the Israeli authorities backtracked, saying the directive had been a draft issued in error.

Shrinking population

Bethlehem’s plight – a microcosm of the more general difficulties faced by Palestinians under occupation – offers insights into why the region’s Palestinian Christian population has been shrinking so rapidly and relentlessly.

The demographics of Bethlehem offer stark evidence of a Christian exodus from the region. In 1947, the year before Israel’s creation, 85 percent of Bethlehem’s inhabitants were Christian. Today the figure stands at 15 percent. Christians now comprise less than 1.5 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank – some 40,000 of a population of nearly 3 million – down from 5 percent in the early 1970s, shortly after Israel occupied the territory in 1967.

In 1945 Bethlehem had nearly 8,000 Christian residents, slightly more than the 7,000 who live there today. Natural growth should mean Bethlehem’s Christian population is many times that size. There are, in fact, many times more Palestinian Christians overseas than there are in historic Palestine. The 7,000 Christians of Beit Jala, next to Bethlehem, are outnumbered by more than 100,000 family members who have moved to the Americas.

Israel ostensibly professes great concern about this decline, but actually it is only too happy to see native Christians depart the region. Their exodus has helped to make Israel’s clash of civilizations narrative sound more plausible, bolstering claims that Israel does indeed serve as a rampart against Muslim-Arab terror and barbarism. Israel has argued that it is helping Christian Palestinians as best it can, protecting them from their hostile Muslim neighbors. In this way, Israel has sought to mask its active role in encouraging the exodus.

The rapid decline in the numbers of these Christians reflects many factors that have been intentionally obscured by Israel. Historically, the most significant is that Palestinian Christians were nearly as badly impacted as Palestinian Muslims by the mass expulsions carried out by Zionist forces in 1948. In total, some 80 percent of all Palestinians living in what became the new state of Israel were expelled from their lands and became refugees – 750,000 from a population of 900,000. Those forced into exile included tens of thousands of Christians, amounting to two-thirds of the Palestinian Christian population of the time.

Palestinian Christians who remained in historic Palestine – either in what had now become Israel or in the territories that from 1967 would fall under Israeli occupation – have naturally shrunk over time in relation to the Muslim population because of the latter’s higher birth rates. Palestine’s Christians mostly lived in cities. Their urban lifestyles and generally higher incomes, as well as their greater exposure to western cultural norms, meant they tended to have smaller families and, as a result, their community’s population growth was lower.

But rather than acknowledge this historical context, Israeli lobbyists seek to exploit and misrepresent the inevitable tensions and resentments caused by the mass displacements of the Nakba, developments that had a significant impact on traditionally Christian communities like Bethlehem. During the events of 1948, as rural Palestinian villages were ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces, the refugees sought shelter either in neighboring states like Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, or in West Bank cities.

Bethlehem found its demographics transformed: an 85 percent Christian majority before the Nakba has been reversed into an 85 percent Muslim majority today. These dramatic social and cultural upheavals – turning the city’s majority population into a minority – were not easy for all Bethlehem’s Christian families to accept. It would be wrong to ignore the way these changes caused friction. And the resentments have sometimes festered because they are incapable of resolution without addressing the source of the problem: Israel’s mass dispossession of Palestinians, and the continuing tacit support for these abuses by the international community.

Given this context, it has been easy for inter-family rivalries and conflicts that are inevitable in a ghettoized, overcrowded community like today’s Bethlehem to be interpreted by some members of the minority group as sectarian, even when they are not. The lack of proper law enforcement in Palestinian areas in which Israel rather than the PA is the ultimate arbiter of what is allowed has left smaller Christian families more vulnerable in conflicts with larger Muslim families. In the competition for diminishing resources, family size has mattered. And whereas globalization has tended to encourage increased identification among Palestinian Christians with the west and its more secular norms, the same processes have entrenched a religious identity among sections of the Muslim population who look to the wider Middle East for their ideas and salvation. Consequently, a cultural gap has widened.

These problems exist but it would be wrong to exaggerate them – as Israel’s loyalists wish to do – or to ignore who is ultimately responsible for these tensions. That is not a mistake most Palestinian Christians make. In a recent survey of Christians who have emigrated, very few pointed to “religious extremism” as the reason for leaving the region – just 3 percent. The overwhelming majority cited reasons relating in some way to Israel’s continuing malevolent role in controlling their lives. A third blamed a “lack of freedom”, a quarter “worsening economic conditions”, and 20 percent “political instability.”

Leaving Palestine

To make sense of the specific problems faced by the Christian community, other historical contexts need to be understood. Palestinian Christians break down into four broad communities. The first is the Eastern Orthodox Churches, dominated by the Greek Orthodox. The second is the Catholic Churches, led by the “Latin” community that looks towards Rome, although they are outnumbered among Palestinians by Greek and Syrian Catholics. The third category is the Oriental Orthodox churches, which include the Copts, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox. And. finally, there are various Protestant Churches, including the Anglicans, Lutherans and Baptists.

Long before Israel’s creation on most of the Palestinians’ homeland, Christians were concentrated in and around Palestine’s urban centers. In Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, large numbers of Christians coalesced around sites associated with Jesus’s life. This tendency was reinforced as Palestine’s cities flourished and expanded from the 18th century onwards under Ottoman rule. The Ottomans encouraged the immigration of Christians to these centers of worship and cultivated a confessional system that made conditions attractive for the foreign Churches.

The result was a relatively privileged urban Christian population that consisted largely of merchants and traders, and benefited from the resources poured in by the international Churches as part of their missionary work, including schools and hospitals. Christians were typically wealthier, better educated and healthier than their Muslim counterparts often living nearby in isolated rural communities as peasant farmers. In addition, Christian families had good connections to the international Churches through local clergy, as well as the staff of Church-run schools and hospitals.

Those differences have proved significant as Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike have struggled under Israeli colonization, whether inside Israel’s internationally recognized borders or in the occupied territories.

Israel’s institutionalized racism towards Palestinians – systematic land thefts, uninhibited state and settler violence, as well as restrictions on movement and the denial of educational and employment opportunities – have put pressure on all Palestinians to leave. But Christians have enjoyed significant advantages in making their escape. They could tap their connections in the Churches to help them settle abroad, chiefly in the Americas and Europe. And that path was made easier for many given that relatives had already established lives overseas following the mass expulsions of 1948. As a result, the emigration of Palestinian Christians is generally reckoned to have been around twice that of Muslims.

Struggling under occupation

Israel’s oft-repeated claim that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are responsible for the exodus of Christians out of the Holy Land is given the lie simply by examining the situation of Palestinian Christians both inside Israel, where neither Hamas nor the PA operate, and in East Jerusalem, where the influence of both has long been negligible. In each of those areas, Israel has unchallenged control over Palestinians’ lives. Yet we can see the same pattern of Christians fleeing the region.

And the reasons for Gaza’s tiny Palestinian Christian population, today numbering maybe only 1,000, to leave their tiny, massively overcrowded enclave, which has been blockaded for 13 years by Israel, barely needs examining. True, it has been hard for these Christians – 0.0005 percent of Gaza’s population – to feel represented in a territory so dominated by the Islamic social and cultural values embodied by the Hamas government. But there is little evidence they are being persecuted.

On the other hand, there is overwhelming proof that Gaza’s Christians are suffering, along with their Muslim neighbors, from Israel’s continuing violations of their most fundamental rights to freedom, security and dignity.

The picture in the West Bank, meanwhile, needs closer study. As noted, Palestinian Christians have generally enjoyed historic privileges over their Muslim compatriots that derive from their historic connections to the Churches. They have been able to exploit tourism as guides, drivers and guesthouse owners. They enjoy greater access to church-run schools and, as a consequence, improved access to higher education and the professions. They possess more valuable urban land, and many own shops and businesses in the cities. There are both Muslim and Christian lawyers, shopkeepers and business owners, of course, but proportionately more Christians have belonged to the middle classes and professions because of these various advantages.

While Israel’s occupation policies have harshly impacted all Palestinians, some have been hit harder than others. And those who have tended to suffer most live not in the main cities, which are under very partial Palestinian rule, but in rural areas and in the refugee camps. Those in the camps, in places such as Aida, next to Bethlehem, lost their lands and property to Israel and have had to rebuild their lives from scratch since 1948. Those living in isolated farming communities designated by the Oslo accords as “Area C” (a temporary designation that has effectively become permanent) are fully exposed to Israel’s belligerent civil and military control.

The residents of these communities have few opportunities to earn a living and have been most vulnerable to Israeli state and settler violence, as well as land thefts and the severe water restrictions imposed by Israel. In practice, these precarious conditions are endured disproportionately by Muslim Palestinians rather than Christians.

Nonetheless, Israel’s policies have increasingly deprived urban Christian families of the opportunities they had come to expect – the kind of opportunities westerners take for granted. And significantly, unlike many Muslim Palestinians, Christians have continued to enjoy one privilege: an escape route out of the region to countries where they have a chance to live relatively normal lives.

The damage to Christian life has been felt particularly keenly in relation to movement restrictions – one of the ways Israel has established a system of near-absolute control over Palestinian life. Those involved in trade and business, as many Christians are, have struggled to succeed as those restrictions have intensified over the past quarter-century, since the introduction of measures under the Oslo accords. An elaborate system of checkpoints and permits was established to control Palestinians’ freedom to move around the occupied territories and to enter Israel in search of work. Over time the system was enforced by a lengthy steel and concrete “separation barrier” that Israel began building nearly two decades ago.

Taybeh’s beer challenge

Typifying the difficulties of trading under these circumstances is the Taybeh micro-brewery in a West Bank village of the same name, in a remote location north of Ramallah overlooking the Jordan Valley. Taybeh is exceptional: its 1,300 inhabitants comprise the last exclusively Christian community in the occupied territories. The village – its name means both “good” and“delicious” in Arabic – is reputedly on the Biblical site of Ephraim. A small church marks the spot where Jesus reputedly retired with his disciples shortly before heading to Jerusalem, where he would be crucified. Taybeh has its own Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox schools, and a Catholic nursing home.

Nonetheless, Taybeh has long been in demographic meltdown. Today, its population is dwarfed by those of its diaspora: some 12,000 former residents and their descendants live abroad, mostly in the United States, Chile and Guatemala. Daoud and Nadim Khoury, two brothers who were themselves raised in the US, established the Taybeh brewery shortly after their return to the West Bank village under the Oslo accords. The business depended on the experiences and connections they had gained abroad.

For them, developing a sustainable business like the brewery was a way to halt and reverse the gradual demise of their village and the loss of its Christian heritage. They feared that any further decline in numbers would leave Taybeh’s lands and its ancient olive groves vulnerable to takeover by the three Jewish settlements that surround the village. The business was seen as a way to save Taybeh.

Maria Khoury, Daoud’s Greek wife, whom he met at Harvard, says the conditions of village life have continued to deteriorate. Unemployment stands at 60 percent, and Israel shuts off the water four times a week to preserve supplies for the Jewish settlements. The drive to the nearest Palestinian city, Ramallah, takes five times longer than it did 20 years ago – when it took little more than 15 minutes. That was before checkpoints and roadblocks were established on local roads to protect the settlers.

The Khourys have succeeded in their ambition to develop a range of award-winning beers made to the highest purity standards. The family has expanded into making boutique wines, and has built a prestige hotel in the village center, belying Taybeh’s small size. An annual Oktoberfest, modeled on German beer-drinking celebrations, has helped to put the remote village on the map. And a few restaurants have opened as Taybeh has tried to reinvent itself, with limited success, as a weekend-break destination.

But despite all these achievements, their larger ambitions have been foiled. Movement restrictions imposed by Israel’s military authorities have stymied efforts at growing the business. With a domestic market limited by opposition to alcohol consumption among most of the Palestinian population, Taybeh brewery has depended chiefly on exports to Europe, Japan and the US. But the difficulties of navigating Israel’s hostile bureaucracy have sapped the business of money, time and energy, making it hard to compete with foreign breweries.

Daoud told me at one Oktoberfest that the brewery faced Israeli “harassment in the name of security.” He noted that even when the crossing points were open, Israel held up the company’s trucks for many hours while bottles were unloaded and individually inspected with sniffer dogs. Then the bottles had to be reloaded on to Israeli trucks on the other side of the checkpoint. Apart from local spring water, all the beer’s ingredients and the bottles have to be imported from Europe, adding further logistical problems at Israeli ports. The ever-creative Khourys have been forced to circumvent these problems by licensing a plant in Belgium to produce its beers for foreign export. But that has deprived the village of jobs that could have gone to local families.

And while the Khourys struggle to get their products into Israel, Israel has absolute freedom to flood the occupied territories with its own goods. “The policy is clearly meant to harm businesses like ours. Israel freely sells its Maccabee and Goldstar beers in the West Bank,” Daoud told me.

Such experiences are replicated for Palestinian businesses, big and small, across the West Bank.

Precarious lives in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, the Christian population has been shrinking too, even though the city has been entirely under Israeli control since its eastern neighborhoods were occupied and illegally annexed by Israel in 1967. The Palestinian Authority was briefly allowed a minimal presence in East Jerusalem in the late 1990s, but was effectively banished when the second intifada erupted a few years later, in 2000. A similar fate soon befell Jerusalem’s politicians associated with Hamas. After they won the Jerusalem seats in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Israel expelled them to the West Bank.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Israel has not been keen to provide official figures for the exodus of Christians from Jerusalem. However, rather than growing, as one would have expected over the past five decades, the numbers have dropped significantly – from 12,000 in 1967 to some 9,000 today, according to Yousef Daher, of the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, located in Jerusalem’s Old City. Of those, he estimated that no more than 2,400 remained in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, where Israel has made life especially difficult.

Jerusalem is historically, symbolically, spiritually and economically important to the Palestinian people, and houses key Muslim and Christian holy sites. It has long been regarded by Palestinians as the only possible capital of their future state. But Israel views the city in much the same terms – as the religious and symbolic heart of its hybrid religious and ethnic national project. It has shown no interest in sharing the city as a capital, instead viewing it in zero-sum terms: whatever benefits Israel requires a loss to the Palestinians.

Gradually Israel’s stranglehold over Jerusalem has become complete. The wall it began building through the city more than 15 years ago has not only separated Palestinians in Jerusalem from Palestinians in the West Bank but has divided the city itself, placing more than 100,000 Palestinians on the wrong side, cutting them off from the city of their birth.

Two years ago, President Donald Trump added a US seal of approval by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there.

Those Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem still on the “Israeli” side of the wall have found themselves isolated and ever more vulnerable to the abuses inherent in Israel’s system of control. They have suffered planning restrictions that make it almost impossible to build homes legally. Israel demolishes dozens of Palestinian houses every year in the city, leading to ever greater overcrowding. Meanwhile, Israel has seized vast tracts of land in East Jerusalem for its illegal settlements and has helped Jewish settlers take over Palestinian homes.

The city’s security forces act as an occupying power in Palestinian neighborhoods, while city authorities pursue an official policy of “Judaization,” making Jerusalem more Jewish. Israel has accorded the city’s native Palestinian population a “residency” status that treats them as little more than immigrants. Many thousands who have left the city for extended periods to study or work abroad have returned to find their residency permits revoked.

The city’s Christian residents face similar problems to Muslims. But as a very small community, they have also faced specific pressures. Israel’s policy of cutting off Jerusalem from the West Bank, and especially from the nearby cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, has left the city’s Christians particularly isolated. With many working as merchants and traders, the so-called “separation” policy has hit them hard economically.

Similarly, because the communal marriage pool is small for Christians in Jerusalem, many have been forced – at least, before the wall was erected – to search for a spouse among Christian populations nearby in the West Bank. That now leaves them disproportionately exposed to Israel’s increasingly draconian family unification policies. Typically Jerusalem’s Palestinians are denied the right to live with a West Bank spouse in the city, or to register the children of such marriages as Jerusalem residents. That has forced many to move into the West Bank or abroad as the only way to stay together.

As in Bethlehem, many of Jerusalem’s Christians work in tourism, either as tour guides or as owners of souvenir shops in the Old City’s Christian Quarter. That has proved a particularly precarious way to make a living in recent decades, with tourism collapsing on repeated occasions: during two lengthy intifadas, during Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and now from the coronavirus.

Israel will soon make it even harder for the Old City traders to make a living, when it completes a cable car into East Jerusalem. Currently many tourists enter via Jaffa Gate into the Christian Quarter, where shopkeepers have a chance to sell them goods and souvenirs. But the cable car will “fly in” tourists from a station in West Jerusalem directly to an illegal settlement complex at the City of David in Silwan, just outside the Old City walls. From there, either they will be guided straight into the Jewish Quarter through Dung Gate or they will pass through a network of underground passages lined with settler-owned shops that will take them to the foot of the Western Wall. The aim appears to be not only to make the Old City’s Palestinian population invisible but to deprive them of any chance to profit from tourism.

Land sales by Churches

But the problem runs deeper still for Palestinian Christians – and is felt especially acutely in Jerusalem. Local Christians have found themselves effectively pawns in a three-way international power-play between Israel, the established, land-owning Churches in the region, primarily the Vatican and Greek Orthodox Churches, and the evangelical movements. None of the parties represent their interests.

It is easy for pilgrims to ignore the fact, as they tour the Holy Land, that the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches are not local. They are vast foreign enterprises, based out of the Vatican and Greece, that are as concerned with their commercial viability and diplomatic influence on the global stage as they are with the spiritual needs of any specific flock, including Palestinian Christians. And in recent years that has become increasingly evident to local congregations.

The problems were symbolized two years ago when, for the first time in living memory, the main Churches shuttered the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the presumed site of Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem. Church leaders said their actions were in response to Israel launching a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land.” In that way, they mobilized international sympathy, and Israel quickly backed down. But only in the most tangential sense were the Churches looking out for the interests of local Christians. Their show of force was actually motivated by concern for their business interests.

The then mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, had sought to impose back taxes on the Churches’ substantial land-holdings in Jerusalem, hoping to recoup $180 million. Despite the impression presented by Church leaders, the row was not really about holy sites. Over the centuries, the Churches have become major real-estate enterprises in the Holy Land, benefiting from donations of land and properties in Jerusalem and elsewhere that have been made by Palestinian Christians and overseas pilgrims. The Greek Orthodox Church, for example, is the largest land-owner in the region after the Israeli state.

Historically, the Churches enjoyed a tax exemption derived from the charitable status of their spiritual mission and outreach work with Palestinian communities, including the provision of schools and hospitals. But increasingly the Churches have downgraded their charitable works and diversified into other, more clearly commercial ventures, such as shops, offices and restaurants. Pilgrimage hostels have been redeveloped into well-appointed and profitable hotels. Part of the income has then been siphoned off to the Church authorities in the mother countries rather than reinvested in strengthening local Palestinian communities.

That was why Aleef Sabbagh, a Palestinian member of the Orthodox Central Council, described the Holy Sepulcher protest as a “charade.” The Church had not been closed to protest Israel’s savagery towards Palestinians during either of the two intifadas, or in protest at the exodus of local Christians from the region. The foreign Churches found their voice only when they needed to protect their profits from real-estate and investment deals.

That does not, however, mean that Palestinian Christians have no reason to be concerned about Israel’s efforts to bully the Churches’ into paying more taxes, or that they were indifferent to the brief stand-off at the Sepulcher Church. The Vatican and Orthodox Patriarchate have become increasingly cowed in relation to Israel in recent decades, both as Israel has become ever more assertive of its powers in the region and as western states have shown they will support Israel however badly it treats Palestinians.

Israel has many points of leverage over the international Churches. It can, and has, frozen clerical work visas needed by their thousands of staff in the Holy Land. Israel regularly obstructs planning permits for the Church needed to build or renovate properties. And far-right groups close to Israel’s governing coalition regularly menace clergy in the streets and vandalize Church property, including cemeteries, under cover of dark. Israeli police have rarely caught or punished the perpetrators of such attacks.

Most notable of these attacks was a fire set by arsonists in 2015 that gutted sections of the Church of the Multiplication, the site on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is reputed to have fed a large crowd with loaves and fishes. Graffiti in Hebrew scrawled on a church wall read: “Idol-worshippers will have their heads cut off.”

This strategy of weakening and intimidating the international Churches has been particularly glaring in relation to Orthodoxy. Each new Patriarch, the highest Orthodox figure in the region, must be jointly approved by the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Israel. And in the case of the last two Patriarchs, Irineos I and Theophilos III, Israel, unlike the PA and Jordan, has dragged its heels before approving their appointment. Irineos had to wait nearly four years, and Theophilos two and a half. The reason why has gradually become clear to local Christians.

Shortly after each Patriarch has belatedly received approval, evidence has come to light that his advisers have overseen the sale of some of the Churches’ vast landholdings in Israel and the occupied territories. These shadowy deals, usually selling invaluable land for a comparative pittance, have been made to Israeli companies or overseas organizations that it has later emerged acted as a front for Jewish settler groups.

The most infamous case concerns the sale to settlers of two large properties, serving as Palestinian-run hotels, at a highly strategic location by Jaffa Gate, the entrance into the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. These sales appear to be part of the price paid for Irineos to win Israeli approval. Israel has long been keen to Judaize Jaffa Gate because it effectively serves as a bridge between West Jerusalem, in Israel, and the Jewish Quarter, the main settler colony in the occupied Old City. Reporting on the land sales at Jaffa Gate, the Haaretz newspaper revealed tape recordings of a Jerusalem settler leader boasting that his organization, Ateret Cohanim, had a veto over the appointment of each Patriarch. He said Ateret Cohanim would only give its blessing once the Patriarch had sold it land.

The pattern appears to have repeated with Theophilos, who is accused of selling numerous plots of land near Bethlehem, West Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Nazareth and Caesarea. The Church is reported to have pocketed more than $100 million from the deals. In 2017 some 300 Palestinian Christians filed a criminal complaint to the Palestinian attorney general in Ramallah, accusing the Patriarch of “treason.” The same year, 14 local Orthodox institutions – representing many of the half a million Greek Orthodox Christians in the occupied territories, Israel and Jordan – severed ties with Theophilos and his synod, and demanded his removal.

Palestinian Christians have increasing grounds for concern that the Churches are not looking out for their interests when they make these deals. Historically, lands were donated to the Greek Orthodox Church as an endowment, and the income used for the collective good of the Orthodox community in the Holy Land. But local communities say the money is nowadays siphoned off to the foreign Church authorities.

Further, nearly a quarter of land in East Jerusalem is reported to be Church-owned, including the Mount of Olives, Sheikh Jarrah and large swaths of the Old City. Many Palestinian Christians live in these areas, which are being aggressively targeted by the settler movement. Local Christians have little faith that the Church will not sell these lands in the future, leaving them vulnerable to eviction by settlers.

Atallah Hanna, the only Palestinian serving as a Greek Orthodox archbishop, has been repeatedly punished for speaking out against the Patriarch’s policies. He issued a statement about the land sales at Jaffa Gate: “Those who sell and forfeit our real estate and Orthodox endowments do not represent our Arab Church, its heritage, identity and historical presence in this holy land.”

The effort to financially “squeeze” the Churches by the Jerusalem mayor in 2018 should be seen in this light. If the Churches face big new tax bills, the pressure will increase on them over the longer term either to be more submissive to Israel, for fear of attracting additional taxes, or to sell off yet more land to cover their debts. Either way, Palestinian Christians will suffer.

Obstacle to the end-times

A separate essay could be written about the role of overseas Christian evangelical movements in damaging the situation of Palestinian Christians. Suffice it to point out that most evangelical Christians are largely indifferent to the plight of the region’s local Christian population.

In fact, Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, draws heavily on a Christian Zionism that became popular among British Protestants more than 150 years ago. Today, the heartland of evangelical Zionism is the United States, where tens of millions of believers have adopted a theological worldview, bolstered by prophecies in the Book of Revelation, that wills a Jewish “return” to the Promised Land to bring about an apocalyptic end-times in which Christians — and some Jews who accept Jesus as their savior — will be saved from damnation and rise up to Heaven.

Inevitably, when weighed against a fast-track to salvation, the preservation of Palestinian Christians’ 2,000-year-old heritage matters little to most US Christian Zionists. Local Christians regularly express fears that their holy sites and way of life are under threat from a state that declares itself Jewish and whose central mission is a zero-sum policy of “Judaization”. But for Christian Zionists, Palestinian Christians are simply an obstacle to realizing a far more urgent, divinely ordained goal.

US evangelicals have, therefore, been pumping money into projects that encourage Jews to move to the “Land of Israel,” including in the settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Their leaders are close to the most hawkish politicians in Israel, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The political clout of the evangelical movements in the US, the world’s only superpower and Israel’s chief patron, has never been more evident. The vice-president, Mike Pence, is one of their number, while President Donald Trump depended on evangelical votes to win office. That was why Trump broke with previous administrations and agreed that the US would become the first country in modern times to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively killing any hope for the Palestinians of securing East Jerusalem as their capital.

Given this international atmosphere, the isolation of Palestinian Christians and their leaders is almost complete. They find themselves marginalized within their own Churches, entirely ignored by foreign evangelical movements, and an enemy of Israel. They have therefore tried to break out of that isolation both by forging greater unity among themselves and by setting out a clearer vision to strengthen ties to Christians outside the Holy Land.

One important milestone on that path was the publication of the Kairos Palestine document in December 2009, drawing on a similar document drafted by mainly black theologians in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Kairos Palestine, which describes itself as “the Christian Palestinians’ word to the world about what is happening in Palestine,” has been signed by more than 3,000 leading Palestinian Christian figures, including Atallah Hanna, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop for the Sebastiya diocese; Naim Ateek, a senior Anglican priest; Mitri Raheb, a senior Lutheran pastor; and Jamal Khader, a senior figure in the Latin Patriarchate.

The Kairos document calls unequivocally on “all the churches and Christians in the world … to stand against injustice and apartheid” and warns that “any theology, seemingly based on the Bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings”. It asks Christians abroad to “revisit theologies that justify crimes perpetrated against our people and the dispossession of the land”. And further, it supports the wider Palestinian BDS call to boycott, divest and sanction Israel and those who conspire with the oppression of Palestinians. It describes non-violent resistance as a “duty” incumbent on all Palestinians, arguing that such resistance should end only when Israeli abuses end, not before.

Faced with inevitable accusations of antisemitism from Israel partisans in the west, most of the overseas Churches – including importantly, the World Council of Churches – have failed to respond to this Palestinian Christian call. Only the Presbyterian Church in the US has endorsed the document, while the United Church of Christ has praised it. Predictably, Israel lobbyists have tried to undermine the document’s significance by correctly highlighting that the foreign Church leaderships in Palestine, such as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, have refused to endorse it. But then, these kind of Church leaders have rarely had the interests of their Palestinian congregations foremost in their minds.

Nonetheless, Israel is deeply concerned by the document. Were it to be accepted, it would bring the international Churches onboard with the wider Palestinian BDS movement, which calls for an international boycott of Israel. Israeli leaders deeply fear the precedent set by the international community’s treatment of apartheid South Africa.

Of the three planks of the BDS campaign, the most troubling for Israel are not the boycott or sanctions components, but the threat of divestment – the withdrawal of investments from Israel by Churches, civil society organizations, trade unions and pension funds. Were the Churches to adopt BDS, such actions could quickly gain a moral legitimacy and spread. The Kairos document is therefore viewed as the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.

Atallah Hanna, as the most senior cleric to have signed the document, has found himself particularly in the crosshairs from Israel. In December last year he ended up in hospital in Jordan, treated for “poisoning by chemical substance,” after a tear gas canister was reportedly thrown into the grounds of his church in Jerusalem. In the circumstances, Hanna’s claim that Israel had tried to “assassinate,” or at the very least incapacitate, him resonated with many Palestinians.

Certainly Hanna has found himself repeatedly in trouble with the Israeli authorities for his Palestinian activism. In 2002, during the second intifada, for example, he was seized at his home in the Old City of Jerusalem and charged with “suspicion of relations with terrorist organizations,” a trumped-up allegation relating to the fact that he had spoken in favor of the popular uprising against Israeli occupation.

In a meeting with a foreign delegation last year, Hanna warned that Israel, with the support of the international community, was being allowed to gradually transform Jerusalem: “The Islamic and Christian holy sites and endowments are targeted in order to change our city, hide its identity and marginalize our Arabic and Palestinian existence.”

Unwelcome Israeli citizens

The final community of Palestinian Christians to consider is the largest group, and the one most often overlooked: the 120,000 living in Israel with a degraded form of citizenship. These Palestinians have been exclusively under Israeli rule for more than 70 years. Israel falsely trumpets the claim that its Palestinian minority enjoys exactly the same rights as Jewish citizens. And yet the decline in the number of Palestinian Christians in Israel closely mirrors the situation of those in the occupied territories.

The Palestinian Christian population emerged from the events of 1948 in relatively better shape than their Muslim compatriots inside the territory that was now considered Israel. Aware of western states’ priorities, Israel was more cautious in its approach to the ethnic cleansing of communities with large numbers of Christians. As a result, the 40,000 Christians in Israel at the end of the Nakba comprised 22 per cent of the country’s new Palestinian minority. A few years later members of this minority would gain a very inferior form of Israeli citizenship.

Israel’s early caution in relation to Palestinian Christians was understandable. It feared antagonizing the western, largely Christian states whose backing it desperately needed. That policy was typified in the treatment of Nazareth, which was largely spared the wider policy of expulsions. However, as with Bethlehem, Nazareth’s Christian majority began to be overturned during 1948, as Muslims from neighboring villages that were under attack poured into the city, seeking sanctuary. Today, Nazareth has a 70 per cent Muslim majority.

The proportion of Christians among the Palestinian population in Israel has fallen more generally too – from nearly a quarter in the early 1950s to about 9 percent today. There is a similar number of Druze, a vulnerable religious sect that broke away from Islamic orthodoxy nearly 1,000 years ago. The rest of Israel’s Palestinian population – over 80 per cent – are Sunni Muslim.

The Christian exodus has been driven by similar factors to those cited by Palestinians in the West Bank. Within a self-declared Jewish state, Christians have faced diminished educational and employment opportunities; they must deal with rampant, institutional discrimination; and, after waves of land confiscations to Judaize the areas they live in, they can rarely find housing solutions for the next generation. Israel has encouraged a sense of hopelessness and despair equally among Christians and Muslims.

Problematic for Israel has been the fact that Palestinian Christians have played a pivotal role in developing secular Palestinian nationalism in both the occupied territories and in Israel. For obvious reasons, they have been concerned that Palestinian national identity should not deform into a divisive Islamic identity, mirroring Israel’s own hybrid ethnic and religious nationalism.

Given the difficulties of political activism for Palestinians inside Israel — for decades it could lead to jail or even deportation — many, especially Christians, joined the joint Jewish-Palestinian Communist party, on the assumption that its Jewish cadre would ensure protection. The most prized benefit of membership of the Communist party were scholarships to universities in the former Soviet bloc. Israel’s segregated school system, which included a near-dysfunctional state system for Palestinians, ensured higher education in Israel was mostly off-limits.

The scholarships were a boon to Christians because they enjoyed access to surviving, private Church-run schools in cities like Nazareth, Haifa and Jaffa that offered a better education. But Israel’s hope was that, once outside the region, many would never return — and indeed, this did become an additional factor in the decline of Israel’s Palestinian Christian population.

Onward Christian soldiers

But the advantages enjoyed by Palestinian Christians soon came to be seen by Israel as a liability. The Christians lived mostly in cities. Many had the advantages of access to good schools and higher education. Some had been exposed to the wider world through attending universities abroad. And Christians enjoyed connections to sympathetic communities overseas. Their continuing presence in the Holy Land, as well as their articulation of Palestinian nationalism to outsiders, served to undermine Israel’s claims of a simple Judeo-Christian clash of civilizations with Islam.

It was in this context that in late 2012 Israel secretly revived plans first raised in the aftermath of the Nakba to recruit Christian youth into the Israeli army. The programme focused on Nazareth and its environs, and targeted Christian Scout groups. Neither Muslims nor Christians in Israel are drafted into the army on leaving school, unlike Jewish and Druze youngsters. However, they can volunteer, though in practice only a tiny number do. Figures suggest there are a few dozen Christian families, typically poorer ones, whose sons join the army. But from 2012 onwards, the Netanyahu government worked hard to introduce a draft for Christians, hoping to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims in Israel.

Netanyahu schemed on several fronts. He aggressively promoted the small number of Christian families with children in the army to suggest that they were representative of the wider community. Meanwhile, he claimed that the overwhelming majority of Christians who publicly opposed his plan did so only because they had been intimidated by their Muslim neighbors.

The Israeli media trumpeted too the fact that Netanyahu had recruited a “religious leader” – Jibril Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox bishop in Nazareth – to support the draft of Christians. In fact, it was widely rumored in Nazareth at the time that Nadaf was being pressured by Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet, to offer his support. Only much later did the Israeli media report that Nadaf had been investigated for sexual assaults on young men, and that the Shin Bet had hushed up his case.

At around the same time Israel introduced the option of registering a new nationality, “Aramaic”, on Israeli identity cards. Israel has always refused to recognise an “Israeli” nationality because it would risk conferring equal rights on all Israeli citizens, Jews and Palestinians alike. Instead many rights in Israel are accorded to citizens based on their assigned nationalities – with the main categories being “Jewish”, “Arab” and “Druze”. “Jewish” nationals receive extra rights unavailable to Palestinian citizens in immigration, land and housing, and language rights. The new “Aramaic” category was intended to confer on Christians a separate nationality mirroring the Druze one.

The obscure “Aramaic” identity was chosen for two reasons. First, it referred to a time 2,000 years ago when Jews like Jesus spoke Aramaic – now almost a dead language. Aramaic therefore fused Jewish and Christian identities, replicating the claim of “blood ties” Israel had fostered with the Druze community. And second, Aramaic had already been cultivated as an identity by the handful of Palestinian Christian families that volunteered to serve in the army. For them, Aramaic lay at the heart of a pure, proud, supposedly original Christian nationalist identity. They argued that their forefathers’ Aramaic heritage and language had been usurped and corrupted by the arrival of Arab and Islamic identities in the region during the Arab conquests in the seventh century.

For those who promoted it, including the Israeli government, “Aramaic” was not a neutral Christian identity but consciously intended as an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim identity. It was intimately tied to the government’s larger, fanciful agenda of turning the local Christian population into Palestinian Christian Zionists.

In tandem with these developments, Netanyahu’s government also began aggressively squeezing the resources available to Church schools operating in Nazareth and elsewhere. An arrangement that had historically provided partial state funds for private religious schools, primarily to help the Jewish ultra-Orthodox, began to be progressively withdrawn from Church schools. Pupils in the dozen such schools in Nazareth, which serve both Christians and Muslims, staged an unprecedented strike in 2014 as it became harder for the schools to cover costs. The government offered a way out: the schools, it proposed, should come under the umbrella of the state education system. So far the Church schools have managed to resist.

Although the policy has not been implemented yet, there are indications of what Israel ultimately hoped to achieve. The aim, it seems, was to reinvent the Church schools as “Aramaic” schools, limiting the intake to Christians and teaching a curriculum, as with the Druze, that emphasized the “blood ties” between Jews and Christians and prepared pupils for the army draft. The first such school, teaching in Aramaic, has opened in Jish, a village in the central Galilee that is home to some of the main families that volunteer to serve in the Israeli army.

In fact, Israel failed dismally in its efforts to persuade Christians to accept the draft, and appears to have largely abandoned the plan, even after dedicating several years to bringing it to fruition. Israel should have guessed that such a scheme was unlikely to succeed. In a city like Nazareth, too many Christians are professionals – doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers serving their community – and have no interest in gaining the sole advantage of military service the poorer Druze have depended on: lowly jobs after the draft in the security sectors, as prison wardens or security guards.

But that may not have been Israel’s only goal. In line with its long-standing ambitions, Israel also doubtless wanted to intensify sectarian tensions between Christians and Muslims in places where the two communities live in close proximity, especially Nazareth. And for a variety of reasons, sectarian divisions have started to emerge over the past few years. The causes are manifold, but Israel’s efforts to recruit Christians to the army – to divide them from Muslims – undoubtedly exacerbated the problem.

Another significant factor was the gradual demise of the Communist party, especially in Nazareth, after it came to be too closely identified with Christians and was seen as playing a role in maintaining their relative privileges. That led to a backlash in Nazareth that saw Ali Salam, a populist politician who revels in comparisons with Donald Trump, becoming mayor after subtly exploiting these sectarian tensions.

It also did not help that for nearly two decades nihilistic Islamic movements edged ever closer to Israel’s borders – first with al-Qaeda, and later with Islamic State. That has unnerved many Palestinian Christians and Muslims in Israel. In recent years it has provoked a political reaction from some who have begun to wonder whether a militarily strong, western-backed Israel was not the lesser regional evil.

Israel has every interest in reinforcing such developments, exploiting tensions that shore up its clash of civilizations narrative. Paradoxically, it is Israel’s long-term interference in the region and a more recent policy of direct military intervention by the US in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iran that has created the very conditions in which Islamic extremism has prospered. Between them, Israel and the US have sown despair and generated political voids across the Middle East that groups like Islamic State have filled with their own narrative of a clash of civilizations.

For Israel, recruiting Palestinian Christians to its side of this self-serving clash narrative – even if it is only a few of them – is helpful. If Israel can muddy the waters in the region by finding enough allies among local Christians, it knows it can further dissuade the international Churches from taking any substantive action in addressing the crimes it has perpetrated against Palestinians unhindered for more than seven decades.

Israel’s great fear is that one day the international Churches may assume moral leadership in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the traumas set in train by the Nakba.

Judging by the Churches’ record so far, however, Israel appears to have little reason to worry.

As US Protests Show, the Challenge is How to Rise Above the Violence Inherent in State Power

Here is one thing I can write with an unusual degree of certainty and confidence: Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin would not have been charged with the (third-degree) murder of George Floyd had the United States not been teetering on a knife edge of open revolt.

Had demonstrators not turned out in massive numbers on the streets and refused to be corralled back home by the threat of police violence, the US legal system would have simply turned a blind eye to Chauvin’s act of extreme brutality, as it has done before over countless similar acts.

Without the mass protests, it would have made no difference that Floyd’s murder was caught on camera, that it was predicted by Floyd himself in his cries of “I can’t breathe” as Chauvin spent nearly nine minutes pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck, or that the outcome was obvious to spectators who expressed their growing alarm as Floyd lost consciousness. At most, Chauvin would have had to face, as he had many times before, an ineffectual disciplinary investigation over “misconduct”.

Without the current ferocious mood of anger directed at the police and sweeping much of the nation, Chauvin would have found himself as immune from accountability and prosecution as so many police officers before him who gunned down or lynched black citizens.

Instead he is the first white police officer in the state of Minnesota ever to be criminally charged over the death of a black man. After initially arguing that there were mitigating factors to be considered, prosecutors hurriedly changed course to declare Chauvin’s indictment the fastest they had ever initiated. Yesterday Minneapolis’s police chief was forced to call the other three officers who stood by as Floyd was murdered in front of them “complicit”.

Confrontation, not contrition

If the authorities’ placatory indictment of Chauvin – on the least serious charge they could impose, based on incontrovertible evidence they could not afford to deny – amounts to success, then it is only a little less depressing than failure.

Worse still, though most protesters are trying to keep their demonstrations non-violent, many of the police officers dealing with the protests look far readier for confrontation than contrition. The violent attacks by police on protesters, including the use of vehicles for rammings, suggest that it is Chauvin’s murder charge – not the slow, barbaric murder of Floyd by one of their number – that has incensed fellow officers. They expect continuing impunity for their violence.

Similarly, the flagrant mistreatment by police of corporate media outlets simply for reporting developments, from the arrest of a CNN crew to physical assaults on BBC staff, underlines the sense of grievance harboured by many police officers when their culture of violence is exposed for all the world to see. They are not reeling it in, they are widening the circle of “enemies”.

Nonetheless, it is entirely wrong to suggest, as a New York Times editorial did yesterday, that police impunity can be largely ascribed to “powerful unions” shielding officers from investigation and punishment. The editorial board needs to go back to school. The issues currently being exposed to the harsh glare of daylight get to the heart of what modern states are there to do – matters rarely discussed outside of political theory classes.

Right to bear arms

The success of the modern state, like the monarchies of old, rests on the public’s consent, explicit or otherwise, to its monopoly of violence. As citizens, we give up what was once deemed an inherent or “natural” right to commit violence ourselves and replace it with a social contract in which our representatives legislate supposedly neutral, just laws on our behalf. The state invests the power to enforce those laws in a supposedly disciplined, benevolent police force – there to “protect and serve” – while a dispassionate court system judges suspected violators of those laws.

That is the theory, anyway.

In the case of the United States, the state’s monopoly on violence has been muddied by a constitutional “right to bear arms”, although, of course, the historic purpose of that right was to ensure that the owners of land and slaves could protect their “property”. Only white men were supposed to have the right to bear arms.

Today, little has changed substantively, as should be obvious the moment we consider what would have happened had it been black militia men that recently protested the Covid-19 lockdown by storming the Michigan state capitol, venting their indignation in the faces of white policemen.

(In fact, the US authorities’ reaction to the Black Panthers movement through the late 1960s and 1970s is salutary enough for anyone who wishes to understand how dangerous it is for a black man to bear arms in his own defence against the violence of white men.)

Brutish violence

The monopoly of violence by the state is justified because most of us have supposedly consented to it in an attempt to avoid a Hobbesian world of brutish violence where individuals, families and tribes enforce their own, less disinterested versions of justice.

But, of course, the state system is not as neutral or dispassionate as it professes, or as most of us assume. Until the struggle for universal suffrage succeeded – a practice that in all western states can be measured in decades, not centuries – the state was explicitly there to uphold the interests of a wealthy elite, a class of landed gentry and newly emerging industrialists, as well as a professional class that made society run smoothly for the benefit of that elite.

What was conceded to the working class was the bare minimum to prevent them from rising up against the privileges enjoyed by the rest of society.

That was why, for example, Britain did not have universal health care – the National Health Service – until after the Second World War, 30 years after men received the vote and 20 years after women won the same right. Only after the war did the British establishment start to fear that a newly empowered working class – of returning soldiers who knew how to bear arms, backed by women who had been released from the home to work on the land or in munitions factories to replace the departed men – might no longer be willing to accept a lack of basic health care for themselves and their loved ones.

It was in this atmosphere of an increasingly organised and empowered labour movement – reinforced by the need to engineer more consumerist societies to benefit newly emerging corporations – that European social democracy was born. (Paradoxically, the post-war US Marshall Plan helped subsidise the emergence of Europe’s major social democracies, including their public health care systems, even as similar benefits were denied domestically to Americans.)

Creative legal interpretations

To maintain legitimacy for the state’s monopoly on violence, the legal establishment has had to follow the same minimalist balancing act as the political establishment.

The courts cannot simply rationalise and justify the implicit and sometimes explicit use of violence in law enforcement without regard to public sentiment. Laws are amended, but equally significantly they are creatively interpreted by judges so that they fit the ideological and moral fashions and prejudices of the day, to ensure the public feels justice is being done.

In the main, however, we the public have a very conservative understanding of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, which has been shaped for us by a corporate media that both creates and responds to those fashions and trends to ensure that the current system continues undisturbed, allowing for the ever-greater accumulation of wealth by an elite.

That is why so many of us are viscerally appalled by looting on the streets by poor people, but reluctantly accept as a fact of life the much larger intermittent looting of our taxes, of our banks, of our homes by the state to bail out a corporate elite that cannot manage the economy it created.

Again, the public’s deference to the system is nurtured to ensure it does not rise up.

Muscle on the street

But the legal system doesn’t just have a mind; it has muscle too. Its front-line enforcers, out on the street, get to decide who is a criminal suspect, who is dangerous or subversive, who needs to be deprived of their liberty, and who is going to have violence inflicted upon them. It is the police that initially determine who spends time in a jail cell and who comes before a court. And in some cases, as in George Floyd’s, it is the police that decide who is going to be summarily executed without a trial or a jury.

The state would prefer, of course, that police officers don’t kill unarmed citizens in the street – and even more so that they don’t carry out such acts in full view of witnesses and on camera, as Chauvin did. The state’s objections are not primarily ethical. State bureaucracies are not overly invested in matters beyond the need to maintain external and internal security: defending the borders from outside threats, and ensuring internal legitimacy through the cultivation of citizens’ consent.

But the issue of for whom and for what the state keeps its territory safe has become harder to conceal over time. Nowadays, the state’s political processes and its structures have been almost completely captured by corporations. As a result, the maintenance of internal and external security is less about ensuring an orderly and safe existence for citizens than about creating a stable territorial platform for globalised businesses to plunder local resources, exploit local labour forces and generate greater profits by transforming workers into consumers.

Increasingly, the state has become a hollowed-out vessel through which corporations order their business agendas. States function primarily now to compete with each other in a battle to minimise the obstacles facing global corporations as they seek to maximise their wealth and profits in each state’s territory. The state’s role is to avoid getting in the way of corporations as they extract resources (deregulation), or, when this capitalist model regularly collapses, come to the aid of the corporations with more generous bailouts than rival states.

Murder could prove a spark

This is the political context for understanding why Chauvin is that very rare example of a white policeman facing a murder charge for killing a black man.

Chauvin’s gratuitous and incendiary murder of Floyd – watched by any American with a screen, and with echoes of so many other recent cases of unjustifiable police brutality against black men, women and children – is the latest spark that risks lighting a conflagration.

In the heartless, amoral calculations of the state, the timing of Chauvin’s very public act of barbarity could not have been worse. There were already rumblings of discontent over federal and state authorities’ handling of the new virus; fears over the catastrophic consequences for the US economy; outrage at the inequity – yet again – of massive bailouts for the biggest corporations but paltry help for ordinary workers; and the social and personal frustrations caused by lockdown.

There is also a growing sense that the political class, Republican and Democrat alike, has grown sclerotic and unresponsive to the plight of ordinary Americans – an impression only underscored by the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

For all these reasons, and many others, people were ready to take to the streets. Floyd’s murder gave them the push.

The need for loyal police

In these circumstances, Chauvin had to be charged, even if only in the hope of assuaging that anger, of providing a safety valve releasing some of the discontent.

But charging Chauvin is no simple matter either. To ensure its survival, the state needs to monopolise violence and internal security, to maintain its exclusive definition of what constitutes order, and to keep the state as a safe territorial platform for business. The alternative is the erosion of the nation-state’s authority, and the possibility of its demise.

This was the rationale behind Donald Trump’s notorious tweet last week – censored by Twitter for “glorifying violence” – that warned: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Not surprisingly, he invoked the words of a racist Miami police chief, Walter Headley, who threatened violence against the African-American community in the late 1960s. At the time Headley additionally stated: “There’s no communication with them except force.”

Trump may be harking back to an ugly era of what was once called “race relations”, but the sentiment lies at the heart of the state’s mission.

The state needs its police forces loyal and ready to use violence. It cannot afford discontent in the ranks, or that sections of the police corps no longer identify their own interests with the state’s. The state dares not alienate police officers for fear that, when they are needed most, during times of extreme dissent like now, they will not be there – or worse still, that they will have joined the dissenters.

As noted, elements in the police are already demonstrating their disenchantment over Chauvin’s indictment as well as their sense of grievance against the media – bolstered by Donald Trump’s regular verbal assaults on journalists. That sentiment helps to explain the unprecedented attacks by the police on reliably compliant major media outlets covering the protests.

Ideological twins

The need to keep the security forces loyal is why the state fosters a sense of separateness between the police and those sections of the populace that it defines as potentially threatening order, thereby uniting more privileged segments of society in fear and hostility.

The state cultivates in the police and sections of the public a sense that police violence is legitimate by definition when it targets individuals or groups it portrays as threatening or subversive. It also encourages the view that the police enjoy impunity a priori in such cases because they alone can decide what constitutes a menace to society (shaped, of course, by popular discourses promoted by the state and the corporate media).

“Threat” is defined as any dissent against the existing order, whether it is a black man answering back and demonstrating “attitude”, or mass protests against the system, including against police violence. In this way, the police and the state are ideological twins. The state approves whatever the police do; while the police repress whatever the state defines as a threat. If it is working effectively, state-police violence becomes a circular, self-rationalising system.

Throwing the protests a bone

Charging Chauvin risks disrupting that system, creating a fault line between the state and the police, one of the state’s most essential agencies. Which is why the charging of a police officer in these circumstances is such an exceptional event, and has been dictated by the current exceptional outpouring of anger.

Prosecutors are trying to find a delicate compromise between two conflicting demands: between the need to reassure the police that their violence is always legitimate (carried out “in the line of duty”) and the need to stop the popular wave of anger escalating to a point where the existing order might break down. In these circumstances, Chauvin needs to be charged but with the least serious indictment possible – given the irrefutable evidence presented in the video – in the hope that, once the current wave of anger has subsided, he can be found not guilty; or if found guilty, given a lenient sentence; or if sentenced more harshly, pardoned.

Chauvin’s indictment is like throwing a chewed-dry bone to a hungry dog, from the point of view of the state authorities. It is an act of parsimonious appeasement, designed to curb non-state violence or the threat of such violence.

The indictment is not meant to change a police culture – or an establishment one – that presents black men as an inherent threat to order. It will not disrupt regulatory and legal systems that are wedded to the view that (white, conservative) police officers are on the front line defending civilisational values from (black or leftwing) “lawbreakers”. And it will not curtail the state’s commitment to ensuring that the police enjoy impunity over their use of violence.

Change is inevitable

A healthy state – committed to the social contract – would be capable of finding ways to accommodate discontent before it reaches the level of popular violence and revolt. The scenes playing out across the US are evidence that state institutions, captured by corporate money, are increasingly incapable of responding to demands for change. The hollowed-out state represents not its citizens, who are capable of compromise, but the interests of global forces of capital that care little what takes place on the streets of Minneapolis or New York so long as the corporations can continue to accumulate wealth and power.

Why would we expect these global forces to be sensitive to popular unrest in the US when they have proved entirely insensitive to the growing signals of distress from the planet, as its life-support systems recalibrate for our pillage and plunder in ways we will struggle to survive as a species?

Why would the state not block the path to peaceful change, knowing it excels in the use of violence, when it blocks the path to reform that might curb the corporate assault on the environment?

These captured politicians and officials – on the “left” and right – will continue fanning the flames, stoking the fires, as Barack Obama’s former national security adviser Susan Rice did this week. She denied the evidence of police violence shown on Youtube and the very real distress of an underclass abandoned by the political class when she suggested that the protests were being directed from the Kremlin.

This kind of bipartisan denial of reality only underscores how quickly we are entering a period of crisis and revolt. From the G8 protests, to the Occupy movement, to Extinction Rebellion, to the schools’ protests, to the Yellow Vests, to the current fury on US streets, there is evidence all around that the centre is struggling to maintain its hold. The US imperial project is overstretched, the global corporate elite is over-extended, living on credit, resources are depleting, the planet is recalibrating. Something will have to give.

The challenge to the protesters – either those on the streets now or those who follow in their wake – is how to surmount the state’s violence and how to offer a vision of a different, more hopeful future that restores the social contract.

Lessons will be learnt through protest, defiance and disobedience, not in a courtroom where a police officer stands trial as an entire political and economic system is allowed to carry on with its crimes.

Emily Maitlis is No Media Hero: She Simply Forgot What She and the BBC Are There To Do

The wrong conclusions are being drawn about Emily Maitlis’s comments on Dominic Cummings on the BBC flagship Newsnight show this week. Her remarks are not evidence of her courage, or that journalists are being gagged, or that the BBC is suddenly capitulating to the government.

The problem is caused by our desire to focus on whether Maitlis was right or wrong about Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, breaking the lockdown rules. But it is actually a distraction to fixate on the issue of whether Maitlis should or should not have been allowed to express the widely shared view – supported by a police investigation – that Cummings broke his own government’s rules by driving around the UK when he suspected he and his family were infected with Covid-19.

Even narrowly concentrating on the matter of whether the BBC was justified in hurriedly reprimanding Maitlis for criticising Cummings’ behaviour – and then seemingly forcing her off air the next night as punishment – limits our understanding of what the incident signifies, what it means.

Glitch in the machine

The BBC, the rest of the media, even Maitlis herself, would all prefer that we restrict ourselves to debating the rights and wrongs of this particular row – and that we continue to see it chiefly as a “row”, with two sides arguing over what was the right thing to do in the circumstances.

But viewing the incident in this way is to personalise the “row” into a question simply of  whether Maitlis is a good journalist or a bad one, or whether BBC bosses were too submissive towards the government on this occasion or are really trying to uphold standards of “impartiality”. Neither “debate” gets us very far.

Maitlis is a senior BBC journalist who got where she is today by doing with flair what the BBC is supposed to do – and consistently does. This week something went wrong. There was a very brief glitch in the BBC’s well-oiled machine. Studying that glitch in isolation really won’t clarify things. The glitch must be seen in relation to the well-oiled machine – in that way we can throw light on what the BBC does so effortlessly the rest of the time.

The usefulness of the Maitlis “row” is not in weighing whether she was impartial or partial on this occasion, or conversely whether her BBC bosses were enforcing impartiality rules or being partial. Rather, it helps to shed light on whether the BBC and its journalists ever actually aspire to be impartial, and whether impartiality is even possible.

Mocked and berated

The almost-immediate reprimand issued by the BBC, chastising Maitlis for failing to uphold the corporation’s supposedly strict standards of impartiality, helps in this regard because it is so clearly nonsense that Maitlis usually prioritises impartiality, or that BBC bosses usually hurry to issue reprimands when such standards are broken.

Here to remind us that Maitlis has no qualms about being partial – and the BBC no qualms about letting her be partial – is another short clip of her in action, from a broadcast 14 months ago. On this occasion she interrupted, berated and ridiculed Barry Gardiner, then the shadow secretary for international trade, as he tried to explain Labour’s Brexit policy:

Notice the differences in that segment compared to her comments this week. Her criticisms of Cummings were delivered in sombre tones, as if in disappointment, as though Cummings had fallen below the high standards normally set by the government. Her comments were carefully ascribed to the national mood. And she restricted herself to critiquing Cummings’ behaviour (criticisms echoed by the police investigation) and Johnson’s commitment to standing by him. She did not stray into wider territory that risked targeting the government’s political policies or its priorities.

The Gardiner interview is something else entirely. She rolls her eyes at the camera, she mocks him with barely concealed disdain, she laughs at him, and her body language is openly hostile. She explicitly ridicules the Labour party’s policy on Brexit while a representative for the government sits grinning next to Gardiner in pleased disbelief at her outburst – all remember at a time when the Conservative party, then led by Theresa May, was in a complete shambles, tearing itself apart over a Brexit mess it had created and ensuring near-complete political paralysis.

Analyse those two videos of Maitlis and then decide in which one she appears more partial. Were you a visitor from Mars watching those two clips, which one might you expect the BBC to have hurriedly apologised over for breaking its supposed impartiality rules?

And yet I can find no indication that the BBC ever issued a reprimand to Maitlis over the Gardiner interview, either at the time or later.

In fact, the interview was in many ways so normal by the BBC’s standards – especially in the days when Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader – that I have yet to see anyone on my very active social media feeds about the Maitlis incident refer to it. Unlike the Cummings comment, Maitlis’s public bullying of, and contempt for, Gardiner went critically unremarked outside of the usual leftist circles. Instead, the interview was generally celebrated. On its Youtube page, the “liberal” Guardian even implicitly lauds her “exasperation” at Gardiner as capturing the “national mood”, again as if Labour was more responsible for the chaos of Brexit than the government whose policy it was.

A matter of power

Just to underline the point, here is another image of Maitlis on Newsnight, this time being politically “impartial” about Corbyn himself. The photomontage backdrop two years ago was meant to suggest that the Labour leader was a Kremlin stooge, at a time when Russia hysteria was at its height.

 (In a laughable effort to defend this montage, a Channel 4 “fact-check” argued that it could not have been politically motivated because the same backdrop had earlier been used for the then defence secretary Gavin Williamson. That ignored the glaringly obvious point that in Williamson’s case the backdrop was used to contrast him with the “Russian menace” and indicate the dangers the UK government faced. This was even emphasised by accentuating the blue hues in Williamson’s cut-out image. In Corbyn’s case the montage was clearly meant to imply a sympathy between the Labour leader and the Kremlin, including the addition of a red hue to Corbyn’s face and the manipulation of his peaked cap to make it look like a Brezhnev-style pie hat.)

The difference in the BBC’s treatment of the Cummings comments and the Gardiner interview relates not to the question of partiality but to the matter of power. Cummings is at the very heart of power, at the centre of a government unabashedly representing the interests of the establishment. He is the indispensable “brain” – the Svengali – behind the dull-witted, vacuous but amiable prime minister. Without Cummings, the government would be rudderless, which is exactly why Johnson is determined to try to keep Cummings, despite the damage it is causing him and the party. It is why Johnson was so incensed, and frightened, by Maitlis’s comments. And it is why the BBC realised that in the circumstances the stakes were far too high to back their star journalist.

The mistake made by Maitlis and the Newsnight team was not appreciating just how important Cummings is to the government. He is not just an adviser. In many senses, he is the government.

‘Free press’ for billionaires

One of the mistakes people outside journalism often make is to imagine that journalists are primarily seeking to hold power to account. Most journalism, in fact, do the very opposite. Journalists crave their own little slice of reflected power – exclusives, inside scoops, the story behind the story – and that depends on access to those who really wield power. Access journalism dominates in politics, business, crime, showbiz, royal reporting, sport – in fact, in every part of the media.

If that were not bad enough, the main task of senior newspaper journalists is to understand very precisely the interests and worldview of their proprietors – and of similarly minded corporations that advertise in those papers. The journalist’s job is then to reflect that worldview back to the owners and advertisers. Which is why newspaper journalists share the concerns of billionaires over those of ordinary people.

For a shocking and amusing example of quite how tightly scripted journalists’ performance can be in promoting corporate interests, watch this short clip showing reporters for 11 different US television stations recite word for word the same “news” about how wonderful Amazon has supposedly been during the pandemic:

The room for ideological manoeuvre enjoyed by newspaper journalists is a narrow window on issues either that the billionaires and advertisers do not care strongly about or that they disagree among themselves about. This is what journalists are typically referring to when they speak of “freedom of the press”.

Two parties of capital

The job of a senior journalist like Maitlis in a state-funded broadcaster like the BBC is similar: it is chiefly to reflect back to the political establishment its interests and worldview. Nowadays newspaper proprietors and the state broadcaster are driven by almost identical agendas, given that government parties are funded by the billionaires and corporations that own newspapers and advertise in them and that corporate money and the corporate media’s support largely determine the outcome of elections.

Once the editorial room for manoeuvre at the BBC was a degree wider than it is today. Back in the 1970s, for example, when workers could place some limitations on establishment power through organised trade unions, and Labour governments sought to represent that power, the BBC had to balance these competing demands, between the political elite and the labour movement.

Those balances have largely gone. After Tony Blair created New Labour as a second party of capital, remaking Britain’s system in the image of the US one, the counter-pressures on the BBC largely evaporated. Blair and New Labour came to enjoy the same craven support as the Conservatives from the BBC’s star reporters – remember Andrew Marr’s fawning panegyric to Blair’s war crimes in Iraq back in 2003?

The BBC only found its journalistic policy of “impartiality” – big rows over marginal issues, non-ideological scandals, celebrity news – disrupted with Corbyn’s shock election to lead the Labour Party by the mass membership in 2015. That was an event to which the media class reacted with instant, utter and sustained horror until Labour managed to restore Blairite normal service this year under a new leader, Keir Starmer.

Real and charade journalism

For some time, the BBC has barely bothered to make even a pretence of even-handedness in the selection of its personnel. Its board is regularly chaired by senior Conservative politicians, including until recently by Lord Patten, and stuffed with people who have worked for major corporations.

BBC editors are nowadays interchangeable with their counterparts at the Daily Mail, Times and the Telegraph, where they have often worked before (James Harding, Sarah Sands). Many have been, or go on to be, advisers to the Conservative party (Thea Rogers, Robbie Gibb, Craig Oliver, Will Walden, Guto Harri). And aside from the fact that many senior BBC journalists were born into a social elite (Laura Kuenssberg), some started their careers as explicit cheerleaders for the Tory party (Nick Robinson, Andrew Neil). These journalists are indisputably an elite media class, part of the establishment, and their journalism is there to defend their privilege.

That is the proper context for understanding Maitlis’s comments. She does not represent some standard of courageous BBC journalism separate from her colleagues. She did not pick a fight with the media establishment. And she was not trying to hold the Johnson government to account. None of those things is true, or indicated by the “row” about her Cummings comment.

Remember that Maitlis’ tepid comments about Cummings were much less forceful than those of the far-right, Boris Johnson-supporting, billionaire-owned Daily Mail. If she is waging a battle for a truly free press or rigorously holding the powerful to account, then so – very  improbably – is the Johnson-adoring Daily Mail.

Maitlis’s mistake was to use the BBC – whose job is to do the very minimum to look credible journalistically to itself and its audience as it avoids challenging the political establishment – as a platform to vent her own, and a widely shared, anger at Cummings’ decision to abandon his own lockdown rules when they didn’t suit him.

The Mail did it – because the billionaire proprietors and advertisers don’t especially care about Cummings, and because they know their readers are riled by Cummings’ behaviour – so Maitlis and Newsnight assumed they could do it too. Maitlis didn’t properly understand that a BBC journalist is even more tied to defending the establishment worldview than the redtops.

Like her colleagues, family and friends, Maitlis felt personally angry. She let that anger cloud her normal judgment. Her emotion trumped her astute journalistic instincts to avoid ruffling the features of those who paved her career path to the top of the BBC. She made the mistake – for once – of doing real journalism when what is expected of her is charade-journalism.

On a leash, sitting by the peg

Such moments are rare for most journalists. As Michael Parenti, the US media critic, once famously observed of corporate journalists: “You say what you like, because they like what you say.” He added:

You don’t know you’re wearing a leash if you sit by the peg all day. It’s only if you then begin to wander to a prohibited perimeter that you feel the tug, you see. So you’re free because your ideological perspective is congruent with that of your boss. So you have no sensation of being at odds with your boss.

Most of the time Maitlis sits by the peg. For once, her anger – an anger shared by all normal people outraged by double standards, by privilege and by lies – drove her to forget what her job entails. She momentarily forgot what she has been socialised to do through her education and her class, and further trained to do through her journalistic career: to create the illusion for herself and her viewers that she is holding power to account. For once, she did real rather than charade journalism – and instantly found herself reprimanded for it.

The public rebuking of Maitlis by the BBC is an extreme version of the rewards-and-punishment training all corporate journalists go through. Mostly such admonishments are suffered by staff when they are employed at junior levels, as they “find their feet” and learn from their elders and betters what journalism requires of them. Maitlis’s reprimand served a similar purpose. Its usefulness was not just to remind Maitlis of the tight limits on what her job allows, but to demonstrate to those in the lower ranks that, if this is what can happen to someone like Maitlis, they need to be more careful still.

Thousands of BBC journalists contemplating doing real journalism learnt this week the price of disobedience. This episode tamed them a little more, ensured they understood a little more clearly that they are expected to be subservient to power. As a result, they will move a little closer to the peg.

Next time you wonder why BBC reporters are so timid, so feeble when confronting the establishment; when they so obviously miss stories or angles clear to the rest of us; when blow up small issues into big issues; when they grandstand to no obvious effect or benefit; when they focus on stories about celebrity and trivia; when they choose to hit down rather than up; when they unite to attack and vilify the rare politician who dares to question the verities of today’s neoliberal order; when any of that happens, remember this moment.

Because all the BBC’s journalists, including our future Emily Maitlises, watched her chastisement this week. They learnt their lesson from her error.