Friday, June 18, 2010

The meaning of strangulation

By Mark LeVine

The remarks were not made in anger or haste, as were the now infamous, flippant and ill-conceived comments that cost White House reporter Helen Thomas her job, if not her legacy. Instead, they were made quite deliberately, with an air of thoughtfulness, while leaning over a lectern, as if lecturing to a class.

Thomas was forced into retirement for declaring that Jews "should get the hell out of Palestine," but New York Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the most powerful politicians in the US, has avoided any criticism or even major press coverage for remarks he made only days later that supported the continued "economic strangulation" of Gaza; in part, because, he essentially argues, the inhabitants of the benighted Strip are not Jewish.

Schumer made his remarks during a brief talk to the Orthodox Union, a well-known politically conservative Jewish educational, outreach and social service organisation.

The talk covered several foreign policy issues, including Iran and Israel/Palestine. When the topic turned to the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid flotilla Schumer began by explaining that the "Palestinian people still don't believe in the Jewish state, in a two-state solution". But that is not all, he continued: "They don't believe in the Torah, in David."

Because of this, and because they chose to elect Hamas, Schumer went on to argue, Israel is right - and the US should support its desire - "to strangle them economically until they see that's not the way to go".

Indeed, whether deliberately or because he does not understand the nature of Israeli policies vis-a-vis Gaza, Schumer did not actually use the word "blockade;" instead describing Israeli actions as a "boycott".

Only when Palestinians see the light, "when there's some moderation and cooperation, can [they] have an economic advancement".

Opinions that matter

With all due respect to Helen Thomas and her illustrious career, she was merely a columnist, with no political power and a relatively small readership. When she adopted opinions or arguments that contradicted the facts or were morally problematic, they were easily rebutted in the public sphere.

Charles Schumer, however, is an extremely powerful senator who serves on some of that body's most powerful committees, such as banking and judiciary.

Moreover, through his representation of New York, the state with the largest Jewish population in the US, he is a leading pro-Israel voice in congress who has the ability directly to impact the nature of US policy towards Israel and the Middle East more broadly.

In other words, what Senator Schumer says actually can cost people - Palestinians, Israelis, Americans - their livelihoods and even their lives, not to mention help prolong or alleviate one of the world's most intractable conflicts. And yet no one in official Washington even blinked.

To consider the implications of these comments, it is worth considering what would happen if any Arab or Muslim, never mind a US senator, explained that because Israelis do not support a two-state solution, and do not believe in the Quran - that is, have not converted to Islam - and have voted in one of the most right-wing governments in their country's history, the US, or the world more broadly, is justified in trying to "strangle Israel economically" until it moderates its policies.

Imagine the uproar. Consider what would happen to the person - a columnist or congressman - who made such a comment. Yet hardly anyone has even noticed, never mind considered the implications of Schumer's remarks, which on YouTube have garnered about 1,500 views. Not a single major US newspaper has even written, let alone editorialised, about them, in contrast to the plethora of editorials and op-eds in response to Thomas' remarks, one clip of which has been viewed well over 1.6 million times.

It is hard to know what to call Schumer's argument that, because Palestinians "don't believe in the Torah, in David," they can be strangled.

He specifically says "there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death," but he does not quite explain how "strangling" an economy that has already been nearly destroyed during 40 years of occupation can do anything but cause immense suffering to the people living in it, as numerous reports by the UN, Israeli, Palestinian and international aid organisations have documented in great detail.

Indeed, to "strangle" an entire people economically can only mean to try to destroy their ability to survive as a national group, which is a crime against humanity.


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