Monthly Archives: July 2014

What does “Israel has a right to defend itself” mean?

'The holy books read backwards make for excellent artillery manuals' - El Roto

‘The holy books read backwards make for excellent artillery manuals’ – El Roto

Let’s consider a sentence. The sentence is: “Israel has a right to defend itself.”

What does this mean, exactly?

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, or if you are familiar with the Israel-Palestine conflict, you’ll have encountered this proposition hundreds if not thousands of times. It is continually affirmed by Israeli officials, US officials, EU officials, security analysts, political correspondents, columnists, people who express solidarity with Israel, even people who express solidarity with the Palestinians in the face of attacks by the Israel Defence Forces and who oppose Israel’s occupation and annexation of Palestinian land.

Plenty of people dispute the validity of the proposition. In certain contexts they see it as an excuse for the pursuit of a colonial logic on the part of the State of Israel. They may well be justified in doing so. But I am not concerned with the proposition’s validity, but what it actually means.

What does ‘Israel’ mean in this sentence? Does it mean the State of Israel? If so, we can expand the sentence to say ‘The State of Israel has a right to defend the State of Israel’. Such a meaning contains the tacit proposition that states have rights. Do they? Let us recall how the State of Israel was established: people simply declared (after killing lots of Palestinians and driving hundreds of thousands of them from their homes, but this is not especially important for the purpose of this exercise) that it was established, and others accepted that it had been established. That is, they said: there is this thing, and it exists. How can such a thing –which is an imaginary relation, albeit one sustained by lots of weapons- have rights? How can a thing, as opposed to a person or indeed an animal, have rights?

Perhaps ‘Israel’ does not mean the State of Israel in this case at all. Perhaps ‘Israel’ is the name for the people of Israel. In which case: the people of Israel have a right to defend the people of Israel. If this is so, who is ‘the people’ in question? Is it Israeli Jews? Is it Israeli Jews and Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship? Or, given that the Jewish State exists to open the gates of open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew, does it mean every Jew in the world? And does it exclude Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship? Does this sentence actually mean “All Jews in the world have a right to defend themselves?” It could, I suppose, but it wouldn’t make a great deal of sense in any of the particular contexts in which the sentence is normally uttered.

So either: a) things have rights, and a thing has a right to defend itself; b) people (whoever these people might be) have a right to defend themselves;

or…what else?

Perhaps the only way this sentence can be otherwise made intelligible is to assume that ‘Israel’ in this case is a composite entity: the name, at once, of both the people (whoever these people might be) and the State. Or, in other words, the State is the same thing as the people.


To tell you the truth, I have no idea what it really means. I am guessing that it is not supposed to be fully coherent. All I know is that it is continually repeated. A lot. With a great deal of assuredness. And a lot of people think it makes sense, and they preface their remarks with it, and then they go on to justify the slaughter of Palestinians.

Now, compare the number of times you have heard the phrase “Israel has a right to defend itself” to the number of times you have heard the phrase “Palestinians have a right to defend themselves”, or “The Palestinian people have a right to defend themselves”. If you’re like me, you’ll probably never once have heard the phrase “Palestine has a right to defend itself”.

Now why is that? Why does it appear as incontrovertibly true that “Israel has a right to defend itself”, and yet as regards Palestinians, the Palestinian people, Palestine…there’s nothing? Do you know what that means?


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Anti-Semitism and ‘The Left’

I left this comment in response to a post titled ‘Why is the Left so nonchalant about anti-Semitism?’ on Northern Ireland political website Slugger O’Toole.

Arthur Ruppin

Arthur Ruppin

It is a matter of fact that the accusation of anti-Semitism is used to deflect attention from Israel’s crimes. Nonetheless anti-Semitism as a phenomenon needs to be taken seriously because of its harmful social effects. The fact that some people make unjustifiable accusations of anti-Semitism does not mean it doesn’t exist or that it is nothing to be concerned about. It is therefore right to question the consequences of people using anti-Semitic imagery and language, and on occasion committing acts of physical violence motivated by anti-Semitism. Fine.

The problem I have with this piece is the way it treats the phenomenon of anti-Semitism that appears on the Left as a problem of the Left as such, and not a reflection of the broader social context in which such manifestations of anti-Semitism occur. ‘The Left’ is not a political organisation. Despite what many people claim, there is no ‘we’ of ‘The Left’, unless you think you can speak for characters of such diversity to the point of absurdity as Stalin, Tony Blair, Shining Path, Gerhard Schroeder, Dolores Ibarruri, Pol Pot and the Progressive Unionist Party. Despite all claims to the contrary, there is no ‘true’ Left, so to speak: it is merely an orientation.

There is a lot to be said for the old description of anti-Semitism as the ‘socialism of fools’. But who are the ‘fools’ in this case? In the main, people who believe that there would be nothing wrong with society if it were not for the malign influence of Jews. It is a belief in the fundamental soundness of the way things are, threatened by conspiratorial aliens who tell lies, manipulate people and the workings of the world. But this is only a particular instance of anti-Semitism, it isn’t anti-Semitism as such. Anti-Semitism can be better understood as the belief in the existence of race, of racial difference, and in Jews as constituting one such race. It follows from this that there is an essential difference between someone who is considered a Jew on the one hand and the rest of society on the other. As a political consequence, Jews, because they are considered different from everyone else in the societies they inhabit, must move somewhere where they can have their own political space.

Some people think this should be performed forcibly, others believe Jews should do so willingly. This means that there is common ground to the position of German racial theorists under Nazi rule and certain key figures in Zionism. Thus as historian Mark Mazower notes in Hitler’s Empire, ‘German-born Zionist Arthur Ruppin..was close in many of his theoretical views to Hans Gunther, the ‘Nordic race’ expert who acted as mentor to Himmler. Both men –they met in 1933 to discuss the ‘Jewish question’- believed the Jews were a racially distinct people who should not assimilate and did not belong in Europe.’ Ruppin, as Mazower notes, was the first head of the Palestine Bureau.

The point I am making is that anti-Semitism as a contemporary social phenomenon must be seen in terms of the way in which Jews are perceived in society more broadly than just on ‘the Left’. If it is common sense that the proper place for Jews is Israel, which is a central tenet of Zionism, and it is common sense that Israel is the representative State of the world’s Jews, and this is what the State of Israel claims, then this is a major cause of anti-Semitism. Is Northern Ireland –with its strong strain of Christian Zionism- equipped to question these issues, let alone address them politically? (I would note in passing that neither Brendan O’Neill nor Daniel Hannan, the commentators cited in this piece, seem particularly well equipped in this regard either. I would also note that David Cameron has proudly acknowledged he is a Zionist, but this rarely seems to give grounds for fear of anti-Semitism on ‘the Right’)

Finally, although the author feels as though he is in a category of his own on Twitter: ‘pro-Palestine, but likewise concerned about anti-Semitism and the wellbeing of our Jewish neighbours’, all the dedicated Palestinian solidarity campaigners I know are vehemently opposed to anti-Semitism, not merely because it is harmful to the Palestinian cause but also because it is wrong in itself. And many of them have Twitter accounts too.

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Palestine, Propaganda and War


This is a translation of an article by José Abu-Tarbush. It was originally published 30th July on the Contrapoder blog in

Palestine, propaganda and war

In politics, words count, and in international politics, they count, if you will, even more. Situations of crisis and conflict illustrate this very well. Confrontations are normally preceded and accompanied by a psychological and propaganda war. The objective is to create a favourable state of opinion for the amassing of internal and external supports, and to mobilise resources of every kind (human, material, economic, political, military and diplomatic).

In the current era, presided over by information and communications technology, this trend has increased. The use of ICT is an essential weapon in the information war that accompanies the deployment on the ground. In certain cases the disparity in access to information and communications resources between the conflicting sides also reflects the disparity in other spheres, from the technological to the military. This pattern appears in the current military confrontation between the Israeli army and the militias of Hamas. Whereas the former tweets in English about its military assault on Gaza, the latter lack anything equivalent on the internet in English.

All of this recalls the dominance and, on occasion, the hegemony that Israeli official discourse has held over the conflict throughout its long history. Right from its origins at the end of the 19th century, the Zionist movement launched a political and media campaign in Western power circles. The myths and slogans regarding its colonial enterprise in Palestine proved very effective in winning the sympathy and support of the main world powers of the time. Particularly so France and Great Britain, who, during the First World War, planned on delivering the coup de grace to the declining Ottoman Empire by dividing up its territorial dominions in the Middle East, as revealed in the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916).

At the time, Palestine was a reality, and Israel merely a colonial dream in the mind of Zionist leaders. More than 90% of the population was Arab Palestinian (largely Muslim in religion, followed by Christians and a Jewish minority) and similar proportions applied in land ownership. To invert the terms of this state of affairs (that is, for Palestine to be practically a fiction and Israel a reality), it was essential to have the support of Great Britain as the mandatory power in Palestine during the inter-war period; and the support of the United States from the post-war period until the present.

Of no lesser importance in the effort to legitimate the transformation of Palestine have been a potent propaganda apparatus and the transmission of certain myths: from the supposed divine promise to the definition of Palestine as an empty space. The Palestinians were either invisible, or they simply did not exist in the eyes of the Zionist leaders, but it was not because they did not see them, but rather because from their colonial prism they did not consider them a people worthy of rights. Hence they were defined as nomads, without roots in any particular territory and as a consequence, could be moved to any Arab State in the area. Then they were named refugees: a mere humanitarian problem, devoid of any national connotation. It was on this basis that Israel deflected its responsibility (for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine) onto Arab rulers. Not forgetting, lastly, their everlasting branding as terrorists.

In sum, despite the fact that the so-called new Israeli historians have dismantled official Israeli history, the new cycles of violence brought about by the conflict are still defined predominantly by one of its parties. Successive Israeli governments have maintained control over of the terms and the (mis)labelling for the other. Worse still is the way they are echoed and reproduced by certain media circles with neither objection nor empirical contrast. Thus a massacre is defined as a defensive war and its victims are blamed for being there or for allowing themselves to be human shields of Hamas, with no verification or evidence other than a tweet from the Israeli army, whilst the right to legitimate defence is the exclusive monopoly of Israel. As the veteran journalist Eugenio García Gascón points out: “there are two ways of reporting the conflict: by placing emphasis on declarations or placing emphasis on the facts. Depending on the option that is chosen, what gets transmitted will be either fiction or reality”.

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RTÉ: Compounding The Deceit

RTÉ’s claim that it did not ‘misinterpret or misrepresent’ the views of a woman featured in footage from Gaza is as deceitful as the original report. The footage of the woman appearing onscreen is prefaced by images of a building exploding as a consequence of a missile strike. There is no indication given as to who launched the missile. The voiceover says “even as international pressure increases, the war continued unabated from both sides”.

An uninformed viewer could easily interpret the explosion as caused by a missile launched by either Israeli or Palestinian forces, given the statement of “unabated war from both sides”. In fact, Palestinian forces have used no weapons capable of causing such destruction.

Since the images of the explosion are followed immediately by the Palestinian woman speaking, a viewer could easily infer that the explosion was caused by the Palestinian side. Such an inference would be reinforced by RTÉ’s interpretation and representation of her words: she is ready to strap on an explosive device and fight. Her words and gestures are part of the same flow of images concerning “the war of both sides”.

It is not just a question of her views being ‘paraphrased’, as RTÉ claims: proper paraphrasing requires due attention to the context. Her words about being ready to strap on an explosive device and fight are not because she is a combatant in one “side” of a “war”, which is what RTÉ suggests with the sequence of images and words in its report, but because she is witness to the death of children, as a consequence of precisely the kind of explosion caused by Israeli forces, but shown in the report as if it could have been generated by either “side”.

As she says herself in the translation furnished by RTÉ: “Four to five children die every single day, where are you people? …a four-storey building fell on their heads, it is horrific”. Then: “I am ready to wear the explosive jacket and joint (sic) our fighters…all our children are dying”.
There is a vast difference between a woman saying she will join the fight because “all our children are dying”, and a woman saying she is “ready to strap on an explosive device and fight” without any context or rationale for her words, amid the suggestion furnished by the RTÉ report that even ordinary women are combatants.

Thus the RTÉ report presents the situation in Gaza as a two-sided and even contest, but with the difference on the Palestinian side being that there is no distinction between a civilian and a combatant. The presentation of the Palestinian woman is therefore in keeping with the image of what pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz once described as the “continuum of civilianality” to justify attacks that primarily injured civilian populations, and in keeping with Israeli propaganda more generally. RTÉ’s claim that it did not ‘misinterpret or misrepresent’ the views of this woman could only be justified if it were under orders from the Israeli military, and not subject to obligations as a public broadcaster in Ireland.


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Winning Hearts and Minds, Israel-Style

Yesterday I wrote about images detailing death and destruction, and expressions of concern in media about the effects of transmitting such images. There was a discussion of the same topic on last night’s Tonight with Vincent Browne, presented by Dearbhail McDonald. Journalist Colette Browne said that whereas broadcasters have to abide by certain codes, the dissemination of such images, by people whose governments are involved in supplying aid to Israel and sign arms deals with Israel, allows them to get some sense of the grisly reality endured by Palestinians. I agree with this. But there is another kind of image worth thinking about here: images devoid of any direct representation of suffering or mutilation or death.

There are frequent arguments against continuous exposure to images of pain and suffering: they desensitise people; they might make people reel in horror, but they don’t engage them politically, they don’t make them more inclined to act. I think these arguments can be justified under certain conditions. But what about images that banalise or trivialise or stage a false dramatisation of violent events?

Here is an image produced by the Israel Defense Forces, circulated widely online.


Here is another.



Obviously, these are military propaganda images. They are intended to produce certain effects in the way people think and respond: hearts and minds, as the military expression has it. (cf. ‘Israel is not only winning the war in Gaza but the hearts and minds of Americans.’, in Israel’s Winning Hearts And Minds, The Jewish Week, 23 July 2014).

What kind of effect might be sought from such an image? First of all, ‘winning hearts and minds’ has little to do with winning people over to your point of view with sweet reasonableness, or truth-telling, or logic. It just means using whatever is most effective in making people respond in ways that help meet your strategic objectives. If that means lying, well and good.

In the case of these particular images, there are a whole range of suggested messages, calculated to obtain a set of effects. Missiles are being launched at a capital city. Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower are national symbols, hence the rockets being launched at these symbols are intended to suggest national destruction. What would you do? The suggestion is that Israel is a Western sovereign state like Britain or France. Hence the beholder is called upon to imagine what he or she would do if Britain or France were subjected to a war of national obliteration. Identify with Israel, not whoever the faceless entity is firing the rockets.

What kind of viewer does the image designer have in mind? It is unlikely to be a random person. Certain segments of society may have been identified for particular attention. The image designer may be drawing on research on particular tendencies among particular groups of people, for example, British nationalists and French nationalists, people who already feel as though they are under threat from forces that never show their faces. So the image becomes a call to such people’s sense of chauvinism -and their sense of eroded colonial authority and racial superiority- to agitate in favour of Israel. The images are reminiscent of Armageddon scenes from Hollywood movies: another intimation of Israel’s sameness, its shared culture, in contrast to those who would destroy all this.

Such images also seem to have taken into account the arguments over international and humanitarian law, proportionality, discrimination, historical right and wrong that regularly come to the fore when Israel unleashes one of its military offensives. Fuck that – there’s a war on! The viewer of the image is called upon to imagine a state of exception, in which normal considerations do not apply because the very ground upon which considerations rest -political and legal institutions, humane culture, historical memory- are subject to an existential threat from outside. One can imagine Charlie Flanagan or someone else looking upon such an image, then saying, but of course Israel as a democratic State has the right to defend itself! These images, then, can provide ideological materiel in order to allow Israel to act unrestrained by public opinion.

Evidently, any suggestion that Israel’s opponents are human beings is deliberately left out of the picture. In such scenes of Hollywood Armageddon (the images also resemble video game covers), the only option is complete annihilation of the enemy (but since this is like a movie or a video game, it never really happens…). Through these images, Israel invites us to identify with the sovereign power that takes it upon itself to decide those groups to be preserved, and those to be exterminated.

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Charlie Flanagan and Ireland’s Green Light To Israel

Charlie Flanagan

Charlie Flanagan

On Wednesday, Ireland, along with the rest of the member countries from the European Union, abstained from voting on a UN Human Rights Council resolution to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate war crimes in Gaza. An initial statement from the European Union countries was issued, and then Ireland released a supplementary statement outlining its particular reasons for abstaining.

On Thursday, Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Patricia O’Brien, appeared on RTE’s News at One radio programme. She gave a lengthy explanation of the diplomatic considerations behind the decision to abstain. It was a strange appearance. You might wonder why a diplomat should be giving an account to the public of an abstention that ultimately reflected the government’s political viewpoint. The crucial part of Ireland’s cited decision to abstain –the feeling that the resolution did not give adequate condemnation to rocket fire from Gaza- did not come from Patricia O’Brien, but from the Fine Gael-Labour government.

Listening to the interview, it was hard not to get frustrated with O’Brien’s circumlocutions and qualifications, but it was also hard to shake off the feeling that she had been called upon to do the dutiful thing in the absence of willing government figures.

O’Brien’s rationale for voting along with the rest of the EU was that Ireland, as a small country, was best served when it was in a position to articulate an agreed position, and that “twenty-eight states are louder and more persuasive than one”. Moreover, “our voice is more powerful, as I say particularly in negotiations, when we speak as twenty-eight countries, and this is reflected in the EU statement that was delivered yesterday”.

Well, it was certainly a powerful and persuasive course of action: it was a powerful repudiation of efforts to hold Israel to account, and a persuasive green light to Israel to go on massacring, safe in the knowledge that its privileged status under EU agreements would remain unaffected if it decided to bomb some more hospitals and schools.

This morning, Charlie Flanagan appeared on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme. Called upon to justify Ireland’s decision to abstain from the UN vote, he voiced the same position as O’Brien, but was hesitant and incoherent where O’Brien was assured and fluent. It sounded like someone anxious to keep his documented sympathies for Israel at a distance from Ireland’s abstention. He emphasised, where O’Brien did not, the “right of Israel as a democratic State to defend itself”, thereby smuggling in as self-evident the ideas that Israel is a democratic State and that Israel’s actions vis-à-vis Gaza are normally the actions of a democratic State. That is, Charlie Flanagan, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, was reciting Israeli propaganda at its purest. Flanagan also suggested that Ireland’s abstention was down to the fact that the resolution did not condemn rocket fire from Gaza. In fact, it did.

O’Brien was more accurate here, saying that the resolution did not “adequately” condemn rocket fire. O’Brien was careful enough to allude to the political judgement involved; Flanagan simply lied. In Charlie Flanagan’s mind, do facts appear as one more enemy of the State of Israel?

I cannot help but wonder, however, if Ireland would not have abstained at this juncture if someone else from the Fine Gael-Labour government were Minister for Foreign Affairs, even someone without any record of public sympathy for Israel. My feeling is that it would still have abstained, because the government would not do anything to disturb relations with other EU member states, not least Germany, whose chancellor Angela Merkel wavers even less in her support for Israel than Charlie Flanagan does.


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Spotlighting The Voyeurs

“ Knowing the families, knowing some of the people who have been killed, do you think that we back here in the West should be sharing those images of mutilated toddlers, of kids quite literally with their heads having been blown off, because while on the one side people argue, actually, yes, it has raised consciousness, it has told the world exactly what this kind of war is, but on the other hand, it’s also, you know, these are some young people’s most treasured items or possessions belongings ever, and they’re being disseminated around the world, sometimes, one would have thought, well, in quite a voyeuristic way?”

-Philip Boucher-Hayes, Liveline, RTE Radio 1, Tuesday 22nd July.

Philip Boucher-Hayes’s question about “voyeurism” echoed an opinion piece in the Guardian the previous day. Columnist Suzanne Moore had diagnosed the sharing of bloody images on Gaza in terms of “semi-aroused outrage”. For her, “such images of war, of obscenity, of the “reality” of what sophisticated weapons do are everywhere. There is no more privacy”. Moreover, “all notions about respect for the dead have been ripped apart by the advent of social media”.

This kind of preoccupation shifts the focus of responsibility away from the perpetrators of death and mayhem, and onto the individuals who might view and distribute images that document it. The main problem for a Western public, then, is no longer its government’s tacit or explicit support for Israel’s bombing campaigns, invasions, annexation and occupations, but the way certain people are pruriently or neurotically disrespecting Palestinians’ right to be murdered in private.

It’s very easy to criticise the use of social media in general, to speak of its users as if a seething crowd given over to the latest sensational trend and incapable of consequential thought; that is why so many people do it. In reality, things are a lot more complex. The sharing and viewing of images as part of a wider set of cognitive and communicative activities; reading, writing, listening, thinking, speaking.

No-one beholds images of mutilated or dead children in isolation and in a void. I don’t mean to say that beholding such images is beneficial or indeed harmful – just that it always occurs in a particular context depending on one’s personal experiences and concerns, and that such considerations are cast aside when things are presented as a matter of the savage online crowd.

Isn’t a bit strange that you should find yourself weighing up your own sense of propriety and respect for Palestinian privacy when Palestinians are being massacred, their hospitals bombed and their homes are being blown to bits by a state your government considers an ally?


When I heard Boucher-Hayes’s question I thought about this image above. It’s from the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps people at the time seized on the image and thought it was showing grave disrespect for the victims of war. Maybe they thought it was a violation of the family’s privacy. Maybe they thought that the government ministry that created the image was borne by some kind of sexual neurosis or some kind of moral superiority complex. Maybe it was seeking to appeal to the voyeuristic tendencies of the international public.

Because those are the really important questions, right? What really matters isn’t about a just, peaceful and democratic future threatened by the racism of states that bomb civilian populations, including hospitals. It isn’t about seeking accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It isn’t about subjecting such states to social, political and economic isolation. It isn’t about any kind of active citizenship or international solidarity. It isn’t about seeing other people’s children as if they were your children, your family. It’s about onlookers delving into their unconscious, turning the spotlight on themselves, and making themselves respectable again. How, after all, can we expect public opinion to count for anything when it can’t keep its neuroses in check?


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Regime Humour: The Way of The Lord

What is the point of Irish Times parliamentary sketch writer Miriam Lord? My Twitter timeline regularly coughs up gobbets of approval for her articles, from people who appear to hanker after some kind of critique of the political arena, but not one that proves too acidic, or too corrosive of the goings-on in the Dáil. The appeal of her kind of humour does of course depend on one’s personal taste and personally I find it vile. At best, the effect of her jokes puts me in mind of the worst moment in a stand-up routine, when the comedian says or does something that receives polite applause from the audience for having contrived something that is clever, rather than funny, deserving of the audience’s admiration, but never its laughter.

At worst, and she is consistent, the effect of her sketches is to trivialise and ridicule any hint of the political conflict that is an essential element of democratic exchange. Not that I think that the Dáil is in any way an exemplary democratic assembly- on the contrary.

For the parliamentary sketch writer, the basic assumptions are largely the same as the political correspondent. But whereas the political correspondent worries about how the deeds of different political actors might play out in the polls, the sketch writer is concerned with the human strivings behind the grind of political machinery: the tics, the idiosyncratic expressions, the self-importance and the self-delusion. With this close-up on the personal side of things, with the references to politicians by their first names (“Leo”, “Joan”, “Paschal”, “Mary Lou”), and even by nicknames (“Inda”), the constituents, and the idea that public representatives are there to speak on behalf of their constituents, fade away altogether. Politics is severed from its origins as a civil passion, and reduced to a family affair. There may be rows and disagreements and occasionally shocking behaviour, and one may have to please think of the children from time to time, but only as you might get with any family. For the intended reader, politics is something you look in upon and tut about, affectionately here, exasperated there, but not much more than a soap opera. Just as in Eastenders the truth always gets out eventually, in the Dáil your hopes of these characters ever getting their act together are forever dashed.

Lord’s glib confections are a kind of fire blanket for potentially dangerous political passions, a warning that politics taken seriously turns you into a stock character, a self-important figure of fun whose political interests are usually a cover for pecuniary or egotistical interests instead. But hers is far from a pox-on-all-your-houses approach. Her affection and loyalty rests with the parties of the political establishment -witness her “Go for it Joan!“- article in sentimental celebration of Joan Burton’s recent Labour leadership victory, and she conserves her more bilious contortions for Sinn Féin. As is regularly the case in Ireland’s media, Sinn Féin, in Lord’s writing, functions as a totem for the unschooled, uncouth and untrustworthy plebs: the kind of people who cannot speak Irish properly, the kind of people who speak in accents that are inherently threatening, the kind of people who may one day cross a line and put all of this at risk.

Yesterday Lord’s report concerned the remarks by the Fianna Fáil Senator Ned O’Sullivan concerning seagulls. She rebaptised O’Sullivan as “O’Seagullivan”, the kind of thing Hale and Pace might have cut for lacking inspiration. O’Sullivan’s intervention was right up her street.

As usual, Lord conserved the real scorn for Sinn Féin, and its moment of silence for the victims in Gaza, wondering if her beloved “Joan” -who had been in thrall to Israeli propaganda when answering questions on Israel’s crimes and their Palestinian victims- ought to have granted a debate on the crisis in Gaza, which in Lord’s eyes would have prevented Sinn Féin from staging what she described as an “effective political stunt”, that is, a show of international solidarity with a besieged people subjected to the terror of an overwhelming bombing campaign and the horror of children perishing in massacres. Her pooh-poohing of such ‘stunts’ – which took place in national parliaments across the world – was replicated today with sharpened outrage, from political correspondent Stephen Collins. It is worth pointing out that the establishment culture discomfited by this kind of act holds that the height of political maturity is to go and get your head blown off in the trenches of an imperial war in the hope that the imperialist power will look kindly on your sacrifice.

The fact Sinn Féin senator Kathryn Reilly had earlier raised the matter of Gaza, specifically Israel’s murder of four children on the beach, in the Seanad prior to O’Sullivan’s frivolous complaints about seagulls “dispossessing” children in Dublin did not figure as important in Lord’s mind. Can’t be having dead bodies turning up in a colour piece. Not if it makes Joan look bad. Maybe it’s worthwhile thinking of Lord and O’Sullivan as elements of the same phenomenon, part of the same repertoire of cultural practice: whimsical meandering with the purpose of trivialising and de-politicising; the deployment of humour in support of a regime that relies on moments of familiarity and intimacy to maintain credibility; an irreverence intended to reconcile, not undo.


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Translation: Routine apologies for terrorism



This is a translation of an article by Santiago Alba Rico, originally published in, 17th July. It concerns the way in which mass media are complicit in feeding the Israeli war machine and the destruction of Palestine. It may be of particular interest to an Irish readership given that the ‘syntactical manipulations’ and the ‘bar-room brawl’ framework of understanding have both been used by the Irish government on the floor of the Dáil in recent days, both by the new Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, and by the new Tánaiste Joan Burton. Thus the writer’s warning concerning mainstream media applies equally to the Irish government: that it is following Israel down a path strewn with the corpses of justice, law, democracy, and its own credibility.

Routine apologies for terrorism

Palestine always generates a double and contradictory unanimity: the unanimity of international solidarity, which is appalled by Israel’s crimes, and the unanimity of mainstream media, which justifies and even applauds them. Major media outlets and agencies that may differ on other matters (Le Monde, El País, The New York Times, AFP, Reuters) and even human rights organisations that can be very severe in other cases (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International) accept and transmit as true beyond doubt the two basic myths of Israeli propaganda.

The first is that the bombing raids on Gaza are a “response” to a Palestinian act of aggression. Here, syntactical manipulation plays an essential role: “Israel bombs Gaza following rocket fire on Tel Aviv and Haifa”, or “Hamas launches three rockets into Israel and Israeli air forces hit Gaza”. This syntactical twisting is furthermore applied to mitigate Israel’s responsibility for the deaths of civilian victims. Israel never directly “kills”; rather it appears mysteriously linked to the appearance of Palestinian corpses, who, as the grammatical subject of the sentences, seem somehow guilty for their own deaths: “Ten children die following an Israeli bombardment.” Following! As if the children had perfidiously chosen that moment to die of pneumonia or a playtime accident!

In a bar-room brawl it’s difficult to know who started it. But not in a colonial relation: it is always the occupying power, which controls the life of the natives either directly or indirectly, who started it. The ethical and professional imperative of responsible media outlets who are interested in helping to resolve such a long and painful ‘conflict’ ought to be to remind time and again of the original aggression of the occupation. But at the same time they ought to faithfully reproduce the timelines -the first rockets from Gaza were launched in response to a brutal Army operation conceived to inflict collective punishment on the Palestinians after the murder as yet unclarified of three Israeli colonists [in Spanish, ‘colono’; the usual term in English is ‘settler’]- and help to denounce the policy of Israel, which bombs when it wants and for whatever reason it wants, in a routine act of existential self-affirmation, independently of the resistance of its victims. Instead of this, mainstream outlets broadcast the ‘bar-room brawl’ version when it comes to Israel, in which the historical background is lost and the timelines of violence inverted. The idea that Israel “is defending itself” entails two false tacit assumptions: that Israel is “defensible” as a project, and that it is subjected to the implacable siege of an irrational enemy.

In this ‘bar-room brawl’ it is very important to feed a second illusion: that of balance or equality of forces. There is an ‘escalation’, an ‘exchange’, a ‘war’ between two equivalent armies. To achieve this there is a need, among other things, to turn Qassam rockets into missiles, or, at any rate, exaggerate their destructive potential or focus on the number of launches (600!) as if there were some kind of possible proportion between 600 flies and 600 cans of insecticide (it is as insects that they treat the Palestinians) applied in to a hive. It is scandalous, for example, that Le Monde should publish an article headed “What is Hamas’s military capacity?”, thus turning Hamas into the enemy and moreover into a dangerous enemy, whilst saying nothing about the weapons of the fourth most powerful army in the world. This ‘balance’ moreover requires stripping of importance, if not censoring, the almost 200 Palestinian victims, many of them children and women, and calling attention, by contrast to the Israeli victims: nine injured and 52 panic attacks. The search for ‘balance’ means accepting that a wounded Israeli is worth more than 20 dead Palestinians. If the Palestinians are insects, this can even appear an excessive concession.

One of the pensées of philospher Blaise Pascal is a rhetorical question: why kill me if you are the stronger? One might think that Pascal thinks murder unnecessary wherever one holds sufficient power. But one can also interpret it as if Pascal were suggesting a tautological response: why kill me if you are the stronger? And Israel responds: “It is precisely because of this, because I am the stronger. Because I can kill you, because I have the means to do it, because killing you confirms my existence”.

Worse is when, besides being the strongest, one also wants to be the most moral [el mas bueno]. If one has the means to kill, one kills. If one has the means to kill and one wants to be the most moral, one creates propaganda. A long history of blame for the West and pressure from Israel has configured a gargantuan propaganda apparatus routinely dedicated to turn the lamb into the killer and the killer into the lamb. Our major media outlets still fall for it. Ordinary people do not. Almost no-one believes any more in the lamb-like goodness of a State that flagrantly disregards international laws, has occupied lands that do not belong to it for more than 60 years, turns Gaza into a ghetto with no exit and bombs its hospitals and mosques from the air. It may be the strongest but it is not, by any means, the most moral. The propaganda no longer works. Israel, just like Bashar Al-Assad (his own people’s Netanyahu) relies only on naked force and, the more it conclusively loses the respect of those who cannot be fooled, the more it will use it and in more destructive ways. The mass media should not follow it down that path, in whose ditches there already lie the corpses of justice, law, democracy, and that of its own credibility.


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Forcing Freedom: A Response to @HC4N

The Hardcore for Nerds blog has a response to my post from yesterday about Ireland’s abortion laws and the claim the State lays to democratic legitimacy. This is in light of the State’s failure to respond adequately to concerns raised by the UN Human Rights Committee, and, in particular, the claim by Department of Health Principal Mary Jackson that Irish abortion law was compatible with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

HC4N suggests that the position Ireland initially articulated –and subsequently withdrew- wasn’t so much an effort to justify Ireland’s abortion legislation –and any violations of Article 7 that might stem from it- as an attempt at explaining the difficulty of introducing legislation that might adequately address the concerns expressed by the Committee, given the commitment to Article 25 and the political constraints such a commitment imposes.

I think this is a fair enough assessment. At the same time I don’t think it alters the course of my argument much. Assuming HC4N is right, Ireland’s position is still that there are particular democratic processes that have to be respected and contended with before the concerns about violating Articles 6 and 7 can be addressed, and that position still rests on the common sense assumptions I mentioned in the previous post.

At this point, HC4N refers to the ‘counter-majoritarian’ quality of human rights law, the way in which ‘formally defined ‘rights’ trump any attempt to counter them by passing legislation’, and notes how human rights law expresses a contradiction of liberalism: that one must be ‘forced to be free’.

Perhaps I’m being a bit sensitive here, but I think HC4N detects a naïve faith in human rights law on my part, and, in particular, faith in the idea that legal documents take on solid form when they express principles that I (or whoever) find congenial. That isn’t really what I was getting at.

HC4N discerns two ‘counter-majoritarian movements’ – human rights and Catholic doctrine, and proposes that for an Irish government to legislate for abortion in keeping with other inalienable rights of the person enumerated by international law, the government would ‘need to face down a very vocal minority, both within parliament (and its own parties) and outside, as well as a broad reluctance to pursue ‘liberal’ goals’.

Moreover, ‘to do so.. even with the supposed authoritative force of international law, over another, deeply culturally embedded, is to pursue a stalemate of ‘rights’ that only highlights their limitations in the face of politics.’

But for my part, I didn’t mean to suggest that the present Irish government ought to take the initiative to do anything with the backing of international law. I do not see it inclined to do so, to say the least. Nor did I mean to suggest that political action on the matter of abortion and other forms of social oppression ought to mean appealing to one moral superego –a sternly disappointed human rights lawyer, say- over another –a sternly forbidding bishop, for instance. My concern is rather: what political and legal instruments can people use to undo social and political oppression? (Here I think it is worth noting that the two ‘counter-majoritarian’ movements HC4N mentions have quite a lot in common. For one, they articulate certain values that have widespread -when not universal- democratic appeal, only for these values to be placed in the service of particular projects – usually some modern liberal capitalist regime, or modern ‘illiberal-liberal’ capitalism, in the case of the Catholic Church.)

In the particular case of human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wasn’t the product of a narrow counter-majoritarian movement; congealed in it are values emerging from long rebellions and struggles against capitalism. Demanding that these rights be vindicated by one’s government; highlighting the failure of the political regime under which you live to adhere to them; exposing the rift between formal democratic appearances and tyrannical realities: these are not at all things to be left to human rights authorities, but rather, things can serve as the grounds for popular democratic political struggle. Seen in these terms, it isn’t a matter of calling upon some exterior body to force one’s freedom, but of breaking with the resigned expectation that one’s government, in spite of all the evidence of its anti-democratic inclinations, should provide political leadership simply because it is the government.


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