Barometer: US-Iran war prospects

by Helena Cobban

This piece is crossposted from the Just World News blog of JWE President Helena Cobban

Three weeks after the United States’ January 3 assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, how likely is the eruption of a US-Iran shooting war, what paths might lead to it, and what factors might brake or reverse the trend towards war?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how, despite the extremely sharp escalation in tensions that immediately followed Soleimani’s killing, five days afterwards it became clear that Washington and Tehran had stepped back– for now– from the brink of cataclysmic outright war. Principally, that outcome was the result of Tehran’s carefully calibrated crisis management. Iran’s response to Soleimani’s killing was an almost (though not wholly) symbolic attack on the US base at Ain al-Asad in Western Iraq… and Tehran gave Washington enough advance warning to allow US personnel on the base to get to their bunkers, thus avoiding any serious US casualties.

At that point, the threat of an outright shooting war receded considerably. But on January 10, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sharp new economic sanctions on an Iran already reeling under under the effects of existing US sanctions, and Washington has continued to employ other elements of what Max Blumenthal has dubbed “hybrid warfare”– incitement of opposition movements, repeated provocations, information operations, etc– against Iran. For example, in 2018, the DC-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) budgeted $872, 400 for various, mainly opposition-boosting projects within Iran, and those funds likely became disbursed throughout 2019.

And the military situation inside (and alongside) the Persian/Arabian Gulf and neighboring waterways remains tense. 2019 saw a number of localized attacks and flare-ups in that region in which the US and allied navies have a large on-sea presence and sizeable bases, and in which air-defense systems are often poised on a hair trigger. The most significant of those attacks was September’s “swarming” attack by around two dozen attack drones that put Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil field offline for several weeks. (The effectiveness of that attack powerfully demonstrated to the super-vulnerable Saudis and their GCC neighbors that any shooting war against Iran could bring massive, possibly catastrophic, blowback against themselves. It powerfully buttressed the deterrence Iran was able to project toward the GCC states and thus greatly reduced the incentive those states had to provoke– far less to join– any US attack against Iran. The widely noted accuracy of Iran’s January 8 attack against the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq underlined that message.)

Meanwhile, in Iraq– a key locus of chronic political and paramilitary competition between pro-Iranian and (often US-backed) anti-Iranian factions– that competition has definitely heated up over the past ten days. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatolloah Ali Khamene’i, has insisted that he wants the 5,000-plus US troops who deployed back to Iraq in 2014 to meet and help destroy the ISIS threat there, to leave as soon as possible.

Two days after the Soleimani killing, the Iraqi parliament voted to ask the US troops to leave. US officials insisted that the troops are not leaving; and an intense struggle has erupted in many parts of Iraq over this issue. The largely anti-Iranian protest movement in southern Iraq, that had muted its actions immediately after the Soleimani killing, has now resumed its mobilization. (In 2018, NED  budgeted $2.570 million for activities inside Iraq that included many linked to just such a mobilization.)

US-Iranian “shadow wars” for influence also continue in Syria and Lebanon. Iran has powerful local allies in both those countries who are well embedded in the national governments and whose sway the United States (and Israel) have been working hard to reduce for many years now. A rapid escalation of tensions in either Syria or Lebanon, or in Iraq, could easily spur a rapid eruption of new tensions between the US and Iran itself.

Robert Hunter’s scenarios

So, taking the above into account, what are the current prospects for war or de-escalation between Iran and Washington?

One person who has attempted to answer that question is Amb. Robert E. Hunter, someone who combines the experience he gained when he was director of Middle East and North Africa affairs in Pres. Carter’s White House with the experience he later gained as Pres.Clinton’s Ambassador to NATO. In this recent article, Hunter laid out four possible scenarios for how the dynamic might evolve. (Though later in the piece, he expands one of them into a fifth.)

These are:

  1. Iran’s clerical leadership might be overthrown, a scenario he describes as “possible but not yet likely.”
  2. Iran’s leadership might respond to American pressure “by agreeing to negotiate a new nuclear agreement” that would include other Western objectives beyond what was agreed in the derogated-by-Washington JCPOA. (“This is a tall order… But Iran’s leadership, facing a rising internal, regime-threatening crisis, might be open to at least some” of Washington’s additional demands.)
  3. Washington might, essentially back down significantly by offering to remove “major elements of sanctions, as well as the goal of outside-provoked regime change.”
  4. Iran might now move rapidly toward getting its first nuclear weapon.”

He describes this fourth scenario as carrying the greatest risk, namely that, “Iran’s renewed nuclear work could progress to the point that the U.S. would need to redeem Trump’s pledge that ‘Iran Will Never Have A Nuclear Weapon!’ That means war.” Then, he immediately introduces his fifth scenario: “Another Afghanistan or Iraq.” He writes that,

War would lead to a fifth scenario: “now what?” Nearly 19 years of experience in Afghanistan and 17 years in Iraq should breed caution in Washington and a fundamental calculation of all U.S. regional interests that has so far been lacking. This experience should mandate all efforts possible to get out of the accelerating move toward the fourth scenario. 

Deterrence theory from the perspective of the deterree

Hunter’s article brings to mind a field of study that hasn’t been pursued much in the United States until recently, namely “deterrence theory from the perspective of the deterree.” Because of course, in all the interactions the Iranian government and its close allies have had with their regional (and international) rivals it is not only the GCC countries that have, as noted above, been deterred by the prospects of the Iranian alliance being able to inflict unacceptable damage on them. Israel has also been similarly deterred— especially by Hizbullah, in Lebanon, since 2006. And for at least 17 years now it has been clear that, despite all the swagger and bravado with which US naval vessels roam the Gulf, their leaders have also understood that it is impossible to “win” in an outright shooting war against Iran. That was the lesson brought home by the extensive (though ultimately, rigged) “Millennium Challenge” war-games the U.S. military ran in the Gulf in 2002. Both sides have doubtless worked hard to improve their planning and performance in the years since then. But the capabilities, especially in targeting and in command-and-control of complex operations, that Iran and its allies demonstrated at Abqaiq and Ain al-Asad certainly gave any strategists planning  a future large-scale attack against Iran whole new layers of extremely tough scenarios to worry about.

“A game-changer,” was how MIT’s Prof. Ted Postol summed up the lessons from Abqaiq. And that was before Ain al-Asad.

War risk not gone

Most people around the world breathed a sigh of relief as the intense war-worries that assailed us on January 3 started dissipating rapidly after January 8. But Iran’s 83 million people are still hurting very badly, as a result of the “maximum pressure” sanctions that Pres. Trump has imposed on them. So are Iraq’s 39 million people– from a multiplicity of causes, not least Washington’s policy of deliberating breaking up their country’s capabilities after its invasion in 2003… And Syria’s 17 million people have suffered extremely grave damage from Washington’s feckless, years-long waging of hybrid war against their government. So we cannot yet say that the war between the United States and the Iranian-led alliance has ended. We can say that the US campaign against Iran and its allies has for now has been pushed into forms that are less immediately lethal and disruptive of international peace and security than an outright war would have been.

But sanctions kill! As we should all remember from the tragic history of the sanctions that the US persuaded the UN to maintain against Iraq, 1991-2003. The UN estimated those sanctions killed more than 500,000 Iraqis. Now, Washington wants to enforce an equally tight set of sanctions against Iran and against Syria– and Trump has even threatened to impose tight sanctions against Iraq if the Iraqi government insists on expelling the US military forces and contractors who have been there since 2014.

(We would be remiss if we failed to note that the Israeli government which, along with its many acolytes inside the United States, has been a big driver of many American anti-Iran campaigns over the course of many years, has also pioneered the use of “maximum pressure” sanctions against the two-million population of Gaza throughout the past 13 years, to quite devastating effect.)

What can break the stand-off?

So what can break the current standoff between American and Iranian power? It is highly unlikely that any European powers will play this role. As I see it, the best hope for the kind of leadership in international diplomacy that is needed to break the current logjam is the hope that some combination of Russia, China, and the smaller “BRICS” powers can broker a peace between the parties that will allow all foreign fighting forces to return home and allow the peoples of the region to start to heal their wounds and rebuild countries devastated by war, sanctions, and harsh internal divisions.

Obviously, this will not be easy. The international community has a lot of other issues to worry about, including the various trade wars launched by Pres. Trump, the challenges of negotiating a viable peace (at last!) in Afghanistan, and the continuing threats– including in Iraq and Syria– from ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other takfiri forces.

But there are some modest reasons to think that some form of an internationally brokered deal between Washington and Iran might be possible:

  1. The United States is not nearly as commanding a force inside the UN now as it was in the 1990s. Back then, it could often bend the UN to its will, including over the issues of sanctions against Iraq. Now, in contrast, many (though not all) of the current rounds sanctions against Iran and Syria are unilateral US sanctions, that are enforced by Washington through its command of the SWIFT system for international payments. Russia and China have talked about setting up an alternative to SWIFT, and have also been exploring various barter arrangements with Iran.
  2. Russia has demonstrated a sure grasp of the complex diplomatic skill and breadth of understanding of the region’s dynamics that can enable its diplomats to contribute creatively to the required diplomacy. Russia has good working relations with all the relevant actors (except, perhaps, today, with Washington; a situation that needs to change.)
  3. China brings its considerable economic heft to the table, as well as a non-trivial diplomatic presence in this region, which lies at the western end of its own home continent. Beijing has been careful not to over-extend itself in the region. But it has considerable interests in the countries both north and south of the Gulf. In 2016, Pres. Xi Jinping made prestigious visits to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Last year, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi visited Beijing.
  4. The GCC states, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia, were until recently seen as major forces critical of the JCPOA and urging greater US pressure against Iran. After the attack on Abqaiq, and even more after the tensions stoked by the killing of Qasem Soleimani, that stance seemed to change. Given the power that Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s de-facto leaders exert on decisionmaking in Washington, including through the personal relationships they enjoy with members of the Trump-Kushner clan, it is possible that they might both help persuade the President to back down some from his policy of suffocating “maximum pressure” on Iran and help him find a face-saving way to achieve this…

Thus, as I said above, it is possible that a serious de-escalation between Washington and Tehran might be achieved through smart, engaged international diplomacy. (Note that I don’t even mention any European role in the above list… ) If this does happen, regarding the oft-hyped Iranian nuclear issue, we might see something like a reinstatement of JCPOA. But numerous other issues of contention would need to be resolved as well. Any such negotiated stand-down would involve some pain for all parties. But such is the nature of negotiation.

And the alternative to that would be… ? A continuing, quite horrendous risk of a cataclysmic regional or global war.

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As U.S. Congress votes on war powers, Falk & Cobban join the discussion

This afternoon, the U.S. House of Representatives is due to vote on a resolution (PDF text here) that, in the wake of the United States’ killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani would direct the President “to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran or any part of its government or military”  unless either Congress has declared war or “such use of the Armed Forces is necessary and appropriate to defend against an imminent armed attack… “

Voting on this resolution is expected to take place later this after (EST). This is the most serious attempt Congress has made to assert its constitutionally mandate power to declare war since it passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolution of Octo0ber 2002, which authorized the President to launch the invasion of Iraq five months later. Since then, the military operations that successive presidents have authorized in the Middle East have been bundled and justified under that AUMF.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched this new legislative initiative in response to the assassination of Gen. Soleimani in the early hours of January 3, Baghdad time, which sparked widespread fears of the kind of serious Iranian response that might catapult the Middle East and indeed the world into a conflict of apocalyptical proportions.

In response, a group of eminent American intellectuals led by Professors Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk and veteran antiwar activist Daniel Ellsberg issued a stirring public letter calling on Congress to, “fulfill its most solemn constitutional responsibility, and impose effective restraints on the war-making actions of this impeached president.”

This, the letters’ signatories noted,

is a moment when partisan politics should be put aside, not only for the sake of national interests but for the benefit of humanity – -we should realize that these unilateral actions by the United States have put the entire world at risk. It is also a moment when Republicans as well as Democrats must stand up for a sane foreign policy, and for diplomacy and peace instead of aggression and war, and fulfill their duties as Members of Congress.

Just World Educational is proud that Richard Falk is a member of our Board of Directors. Another JWE leader, President Helena Cobban, has also been working actively on the US-Iran issue over the past ten days, in her capacity as an expert analyst of Middle eastern and strategic affairs.

Ms. Cobban published two timely analyses of the US-Iran confrontation on the “Responsible Statecraft” site:

Most recently, yesterday (January 8) she published this commentary, Trump and Khamenei de-escalate. Political struggle inside Iraq continues on her personal “Just World News” blog.

(The image at the head of this blog-post is a satellite image published by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey that shows the precision with which Iranian missiles hit unmanned facilities in the U.S. Ain al-Assad base in Western Iraq, on the night of January 7.)

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In Jesus’s birthplace, Palestinian Christians mark Christmas behind a Wall

by Helena Cobban, JWE president

In 2019, the Palestinian Christians of Bethlehem– many of them descendants of some of Jesus’s or his disciples’ first converts– spent their 58th Christmas under Israel’s hostile military occupation. Bethlehem’s mixed, Christian-Muslim population is encased more tightly than ever by the Israeli-built Wall, which prevents them even from making the four-mile journey to Jerusalem, where many of them have close family members, schools, or businesses to stay in touch with.

Last Saturday, I was blessed to take part in a simulcast church service held jointly in Washington National Cathedral and the Evangelical Lutheran Church “Christmas” Church in Bethlehem. It was a powerful and moving experience, as congregants in both locations participated in the traditional Service of Lessons and Carols, some of it in Arabic, some in English. The archived version of the simulcast can be viewed here.

Three of the five rooftop singers in Bethlehem

Later, I discovered this beautiful video that the Bethlehem Municipality made for Christmas last year. In it, five accomplished vocalists sing a special arrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy”– while standing on a rooftop overlooking much of the city! Their sing evocatively in a mix of English, Arabic, and Italian as a drone camera records them from many angles.

Either of these two videos (or anyway, some excerpts from the simulcast one, which at present is unedited) could make a wonderful centerpiece for congregations or other groups wanting to understand the experience of Christian Palestinians more deeply.

Maryam, Joseph, and their donkey, handmade by young women from the East Jerusalem YWCA, 1988.

And before I dive a little deeper into the highlights of these two videos I want to re-up this blog post that I published here at JWE in December 2016: “The Story of Christmas told for everyone (especially my grandkids)”, which I hope you will also enjoy.

So first, the archived video of the simulcast church service:

This one runs at 1 hr 31 mins– but the first 25 mins of this version are all “technical prep”, so to have a good viewing of the whole service, you can just cut those out, leaving you with a video that runs just over one hour. You can also download the whole Order of Service here, which means you can follow along with everything.

One of the screens in the cathedral, where we could see what was happening in the Bethlehem church.

The technical people at both ends, by the way, are to be applauded for managing everything brilliantly. It was the first time I’d ever participated in any simulcast church service and by watching the big screens set up in our portion of the “choir” area of the cathedral, I was able to have a rich sense of worshipping “with” the participants in Bethlehem.

The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem has a small sanctuary, and not a whole lot of seating space. But the front row of seats was filled with dignitaries from the Lutheran and Episcopalian churches in the region, and the small brass band provided a couple of musical interludes.

Their pastor, Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, spoke the opening words. “Christmas reminds us,” he said, “to look for God in a cave with a homeless family, to look where there are refugees… where there is a Wall.” (He is in the center in the photo at the head of this blog post.)

At our end, the congregation(s) were welcomed jointly by Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, the Dean of the Cathedal, and Rev. Leila Ortiz, the Bishop of the Washington DC synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Part of the Washington DC congregation.

Washington National Cathedral is an airy, towering structure built along the lines of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals. Our whole congregation of around 200 people fit into the “choir” portion of the sanctuary, which was beautifully decorated for Christmas. We were also lucky enough to have an actual human choir of 16 members of the cathedral’s professional singing corps, who contributed some very moving hymns and carols.

… And, talking of people with great singing voices, do try to download and enjoy the video of the five Bethlehemites singing “The Little Drummer Boy”, if you get the chance.

Five wonderful Bethlehem vocalists, with their cityscape behind them.

These singers are, in order of appearance: Nathalie Murad, Fouad Moubassaleh, Milad Fatouleh, Amjad Khair, Fadi Ghattas. Nathalie sings in English, Milad in Italian, and the other three in Arabic. It is an exceptional a capella performance by these five, which clearly must have been recorded separately, given the lovely quality of the recording.

A view the drone-camera took from high up, looking down on the singers and the city streets beneath them.

If you scroll down in the comments under the video, you’ll find more details about the recording– and also, a translation into English of a portion of the words sung in Arabic by the fourth and fifth singers. The fourth singer is singing this:

The children of Christmas [(Bethlehem)] have two faces:
One face smiles; the other is sad.
Sadness comes out from their viscera;
It screams: We have famine.
No one’s listening.
And the scream is muffled [by the festivities].

And the fifth singer, this:

In a small cave, a poor child was born.
He proclaimed that great happiness is ahead.
That they will be “saved” from their sadness and pain.

As the Christmas season proceeds, according to both the Latinate and Orthodox calendars, I am pleased to be able to share with you these resources about the city of Jesus’s birth and some of the Christian people who still live there, despite all the hardships they face.

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“S” is for State Responsibility

By Raed Jarrar (@raedjarrar)

For years, many Palestine solidarity advocates have been hesitant to call for US sanctions on Israel because it has been considered too “unrealistic.” Instead, most have been calling for consumer boycotts and corporate divestments, and those who lobby the US government have mainly focused on challenging it to re-think the massive foreign military assistance it provides to Israel.

Using US-based legal frameworks, activists have been trying to pressure the US government to exercise responsible oversight of that aid. Although this oversight has never actually been applied to Israel, it is important for activists to understand what these mechanisms are, what they have the potential to achieve, and what additional new mechanisms can be explored and utilized. 

Existing mechanisms 

Since 1961, the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) has explicitly barred the United States from providing assistance to any country that engages in gross violations of human rights. In the mid-1990s, Congress added a small but extremely important amendment to the FAA: Amendment 620M, also named the Leahy Law, after Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT), who worked tirelessly for its passage. 

The Leahy Law bars the US Department of State from providing foreign aid to security force units that have committed gross violations of human rights and mandates a vetting procedure to ensure that units have not committed such violations. A parallel, though slightly different, provision is included in the annual funding legislation that governs the Department of Defense’s portion of foreign military assistance. Nearly 100 countries around the world receive Foreign Military Finance (FMF) assistance from the US. Of the total sum allocated, Israel gets more than half– currently, $3.3 billion/year.

Failure of accountability 

A 2014 report found that between 2011 and 2013 the US government implemented Leahy Law vetting on 530,000 foreign units, ultimately finding that 2,516 of these units were credibly linked to gross violations of human rights in those years. Not one of those units was in Israel. Even more astounding is that unlike every other country in the world, the US government has no mechanism to track or vet US military aid to Israel

US government spokespeople claim that Washington complies with the requirements pertaining to training programs the US runs for Israeli units – which might be true — but the cost of these training programs is a drop in the ocean compared to the overall $3.3 billion of FMF spending. For example, in 2018, the US government spent $885,459 (using FMF) to train 66 Israelis – that is %0.02 of the FMF aid, leaving %99.98 unaccounted for. 

Oversight attempts

In February 2016, Sen. Leahy and ten other members of the US Congress wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry asking the State Department to implement the Leahy Law for units receiving US military aid in both Egypt and Israel. The letter was met with swift pushback, including from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, and the issue was never fully addressed by the US government. 

Some members of Congress, meanwhile, have been trying to draft and enact new laws to increase Israel’s accountability. One of them is Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) who introduced H.R. 2407, also known as the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act. The bill seeks to stop one small but important subset of Israeli abuses by prohibiting any US military aid from being used “to support the military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill-treatment of children in violation of international humanitarian law.” Realistically, however, there is little prospect that H.R. 2407 will become law any time soon. 

What can we do to hold the US government accountable if it is failing to hold itself accountable? 

The answer to this question might be a combination of continuing to pressure the US government through all the tools that have been previously utilized, and adding new options to our toolbox. This would include other mechanisms that could be employed under international law, rather than US law, by invoking nation-states’ responsibility to impose sanctions on Israel (or on the US for failing to hold Israel accountable). 

State responsibility

There are binding requirements under international law for the US and all other states to not recognize as lawful any “illegal situations,” such as Israel’s settlements outside the Green Line. This obligation prohibits not only explicit recognition of illegal settlements, but extends also to actions that would imply recognition — such as trading with these settlements. The international community and expert bodies, including the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and United Nations Human Rights Council, have long considered Israel’s settlement building outside the Green Line as unlawful, mostly because it is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. 

All parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention are obligated to “ensure respect” for the Convention. As a signatory to the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which refers to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and defines humanitarian protections for civilians in a war zone, the US government has an obligation to “ensure respect” for the Convention which defines Israel’s settlement-building as unlawful. Other governments have an obligation to hold the Israeli government accountable, as well as the US government for its role in supporting an “illegal situation.”  

In addition, the International Law Commission (ILC), produced what is referred to as the “Draft articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts” in 2001. They are considered to be customary international law. The articles, although not specific to Israel or the US, also discuss nation-states’ responsibility to uphold and protect international law and not encourage violations of international humanitarian law. In fact, nation-states are called upon to exert their influence to stop such violations.

Putting this into practice

Operating within the binding context of state responsibility, it is incumbent upon the US government to ban all Israeli settlement goods from entering US markets. It must also prevent US-based companies from operating in these illegal settlements or trading settlement goods. By allowing settlement goods, which sustain settlements, into US markets, the US government is providing implicit recognition of the illegal creation of the settlements. By doing this, the US is also providing assistance to the illegal settlement project and contributing to the maintenance of the settlement economy, which helps finance their continued existence and expansion. The burden in this case falls on the US government — and when the US government fails to hold itself accountable, other governments should step in to stop the US and Israeli governments.

It will take an orchestrated effort by US-based activists and organizations to work with international and regional bodies, or even with other governments taking unilateral or multilateral steps, to compel the US and Israel to abide by international law.   

The same logic can be applied to US military aid to Israel that is being used to violate international law on a daily basis – it is the US government’s responsibility to vet and suspend its aid because it is contributing to an illegal situation.  If the US government doesn’t do that, other governments should step in to stop both the US and Israeli governments from violating international law. 

Getting to “S” 

Most US-based supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights have focused their energies so far on the “B” (boycott) and “D” (divestment) prongs of the campaign. Pursuing the “S” has seemed like a difficult stretch if we were to define it as “Sanctions,” such as the ones that were enacted against pre-1992 South Africa for its commission of the crime of apartheid.

If we reconfigure the “S” to mean compelling the US government to fulfill its State Responsibility while dealing with Israel – or ask other governments to step in and compel the US – then we already have some of the tools needed, in both national legislation and international commitments, to push this campaign forward. In this way, adding “State Responsibility” to the movement’s toolbox can be an important asset in the campaign for Palestinian human rights.

Raed Jarrar (@raedjarrar) is a Palestinian-American political analyst and advocate. 

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Algerian protest movement update

by William B. Quandt*

On December 12, 2019, Algeria held a presidential election. Americans
may not have noticed, since hardly any news from Algeria reaches our shores. And
the election itself may turn out not to have been a very important moment. But
the larger picture of what has been happening in Algeria is certainly worth our

First the election: an ageing technocrat, Abdalmajid
Tebboune, received some 58% of the votes cast. Participants in the country’s mass
protest movement had vigorously called
for a boycott of the vote. In the end, just under 40 % of eligible voters took
part– if official figures are to be believed, which many Algerians do not.

Tebboune is very much a figure of the old guard, but with a
few possibly important differences. He has had a lot of experience in governance
at the local, provincial, and national level, having served as Prime Minister
in the last phase of the Bouteflika presidency. But he was also Algeria’s
shortest-serving Prime Minister ever. He reportedly fell out with the former
president’s brother, Said Bouteflika, when he tried to move against some of the
corrupt businessmen who were his allies and was unceremoniously dismissed after
just six weeks in office. Still, he is widely perceived as a pillar of the old
system and he will have to go quite some distance to win the confidence of most
ordinary Algerians.

The protest movement, or hirak, had called for a
boycott. These millions of Algerians who have been peacefully flooding the
streets, all across the country, each Friday since last February, were calling
for fundamental change, not a pseudo-election that they feared could bestow
legitimacy upon the same old army-backed system that has been in charge in the
country since 1962.

Since the election, there have been a few indications that both le pouvoir (that is, the powers-that-be) and some of the opposition demonstrators have been thinking about how to get out of the political impasse that has been in place for years.

Tebboune, to his credit, made some conciliatory comments in
his inaugural speech, including by noting the legitimacy of many of the hirak’s
demands. He also said that henceforth he did not want to be addressed as “Your Excellency”:  “Mister” would be just fine.  More concretely, he immediately replaced the
very unpopular Prime Minister and Minister of Interior.

It is early days to judge the reaction to these moves from
skeptical Algerians, but two currents are already visible. One, especially
prominent in the Berber-speaking areas of Kabylia, where almost no one
participated in the election, has been to reject any idea of dialogue or
negotiation with “the gang” in power. Before December 12, a popular slogan in
the weekly street demonstrations was “No elections with the gang.” Now, that
has been tweaked into “No negotiations with the gang.”  Sometimes this call is augmented with demands
that political prisoners must be released before any negotiations or dialogue,
and that the restrictions on the media that have been tightened over recent
months should first be lifted.

While these generally rejectionist views seem widespread, there is also a current of opinion being expressed by some of the oft-quoted intellectuals – academics, political figures, members of civil society groups – that reflects a shift of emphasis in the hirak’s current phase. One tendency is saying that the hirak needs to begin to establish its priorities and to develop forms of representation through countrywide deliberations. The goal here might be an eventual unified platform of demands for change in the constitution, elections to a constituent assembly, and so forth. All of that is still, however, predicated on significant gestures from the pouvoir in the form of releasing prisoners and freeing up the media.

There is clearly still some suspicion among many in the hirak that any move to “structure” the movement could prove divisive. It sometimes seems that anyone showing an inclination for a leading position or claiming to speak for the hirak is automatically suspect. We have seen something like this in other mass protest movements around the world, but in the Algerian case the distrust of anyone seeking power is profound and is exacerbated by the absence of well-established political parties. Still, at some point these very horizontal movements do need some form of structure if they are to succeed in forcing change from the highly institutionalized bureaucratic and military establishments that have dominated Algerian political life for so long.

UCP leader Zoubida Assoul (r.) listens as another hirak participant expresses her views in a street meeting.

To give you a sense for how this debate may unfold, we can look at a few excerpts from recent on -the-ground commentary.  For example, Zoubida Assoul, the president of a political group called the “Union for Change and Progress”, argued in an intra-hirak street gathering held December 20 that the hirak needs to “self organize”  and “structure itself to formalize its own platform of demands in order to block the path of any attempt at infiltration or cooptation that would destabilize or break the unity of the movement.”  (See this short video of Assoul discussing these ideas with others in a small corner of the 44th Friday street protest. As is common in Algeria, she speaks in a mixture of dialectical Arabic and French and her interaction with the crowd is interesting to watch. The images in this blog post are stills from the video.)

Another articulate commentator on current events is Amine Khene, an intellectual and former diplomat, who recently wrote his 107th short essay on the events of the past ten months.  Having noted just after the election that it changed none of the fundamentals, Khene now writes that “the formal dialogue between the people and the power holders cannot take place before the powers-that-be respond positively and with concrete actions to the demands that have been expressed for the past ten months by the popular movement.”  

It is worth noting that while Khene, along with many others such as the legendary freedom fighter Zohra Drif Bitat, forthrightly opposed the December 12 election, they also urged Algerians not to try to block those of their compatriots who chose to vote. This insistence on maintaining the peaceful and rights-respecting nature of the protests and the unity of the country has been one of the most impressive parts of Algeria’s recent experience. 

I urge anyone reading this to stay tuned, to keep an eye on what is happening in this second largest Arab country. It is possible that, somewhat along the model of Tunisia, we could see in Algeria another promising move toward a decent outcome of this inspiring example of sustained, peaceful political protest.  However, there still remain many worrisome signs that the old order will not give way without a fight.

William B. Quandt is a scholar, author, and professor emeritus in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. He previously served as senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution and as a member on the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations. His areas of expertise include Algeria, Middle East issues, and U.S. foreign policy.

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Omar Barghouti on BDS Success and How to Respond to Criticism of the Movement

By Eli Gerzon (@EliGerzon)

In part one I wrote about participating in an Eyewitness Palestine tour this fall 2019. Twenty-two of us met with many amazing people, but when Omar Barghouti walked in, our tour guide said, “From my view, this man is one of the best and most important people in Palestine.” 

Throughout our tour we met people who spoke about agriculture, the wall, specific minority groups, refugees, etc. Many of them said BDS is the best way we can support Palestinians when we return home.

BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. In my last piece I wrote about the history, goals, and strategies the movement uses. One strategy is to target and hold accountable  organizations that claim to be progressive but actually engage in work that harms Palestinians, directly or indirectly. 

Omar Barghouti said: “One example: the Gates Foundation always talks about civil rights. So we are able to use that against them. We worked with an artist in Italy to create excellent memes for social media. It only took four months to get the Gates Foundation to divest from G4S.” 

G4S is the largest security company in the world. They have worked with the Israeli government for years and help operate prisons in Israel where people are held without trial. The company supports the Israeli military and the wall which impedes Palestinians’ movement and steals land. BDS campaigns throughout the past decade caused churches, government bodies, unions, companies, and other organizations to cancel contracts with G4S and divest from the company. That included the Gates Foundation in 2014. In 2016, G4S announced they were no longer working in Israel. See the G4S Timeline via the BDS Movement here. Unfortunately, they reversed that in 2017: G4S is working with Israel and back on the BDS list again

Barghouti cited many clear BDS wins. He highlighted this win in 2014: “The Presbyterian Church divested from Hewlett Packard (HP), Caterpillar, and Motorola. This was a big tipping point: it’s one of the largest mainline Protestant churches.” 

“Veolia is a major BDS win.” Barghouti said, referring to the French utility and railway company selling off all of its projects in Israel/Palestine in 2015. A Veolia official admitted the BDS campaign “has lost [them]important contracts.”

According to Barghouti, very few companies are bidding on new Israeli projects. He added: “We don’t want to exaggerate. The Israeli economy is still thriving. But it is mostly supported by the US. That includes military aid and tax free donations, mostly to settlements.”

The backlash against the BDS campaign is an indication of how effective it is, according to Barghouti. “There is an entire ministry of the Israeli government devoted to stopping BDS. We don’t know but it maybe has a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars.” Later he added, “They are fighting BDS with smearing campaigns. The anti BDS branch of the Israeli government advertised for a position in 2016 called ‘Tarnishing Unit.’ They are totally open now.”

If backlash is an indication of success, then Barghouti himself has been very successful: in April 2019 the US denied entry to Barghouti without explanation. In October 2019, Israel announced they intend to deport Barghouti because, according to the Israeli government: “This is a man who does everything to harm the country and therefore must not enjoy the right to be a resident of Israel.”

But Barghouti didn’t mention any of this when we met with him in November 2019. Instead he focused on the success of the BDS movement:

“BDS is growing in many places, the fastest in the US. According to a University of Maryland poll: 88% of Democratic members who know about BDS support it or don’t oppose it. Overall 48% of Democratic members support BDS. 70% in the US support the right to BDS.”

And he noted the fact that Rep Ilhan Omar and Rep Rashida Tlaib strongly support BDS. “That’s totally new to have members of Congress supporting BDS. And it’s progress.”

Barghouti also saw progress in the US presidential election: “It used to be that Senator Sanders was the only politician who spoke about conditioning aid to Israel. Now that’s mainstream Democrats. Only Biden is really against that.” In October 2019, a headline in the Jewish Daily Forward read: “Israel Aid Cuts ‘On The Table’ For 3 Of Top 4 Democratic Candidates.” They were referring to Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

As a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) I was excited when he said: “JVP is our biggest partner in the US. And they are the fastest growing Jewish group in the world. They don’t talk about it but we see it.” Of course, this also counters the criticism that this is a religious conflict and all Jewish people support Zionism and Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. 

Responding to Criticisms of BDS

At the end of the talk Barghouti asked for questions from the group. People were interested in how to best respond to criticisms of BDS. 

Joke Williams, one member of the delegation, is an electrical engineer and member of Black Lives Matter – DC. She asked: “As someone who went to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), what would you recommend I say to an institution like MIT which has a good relationship with Israeli institutions as part of their summer study abroad programs? They have a good relationship partly because of the high caliber of Israeli universities like the Weizmann Institute of Science.”

Barghouti responded with a demand that we act ethically: “South Africa was the most advanced country for technology in Africa. Would you have an academic relationship with them? Actually many people did. But they did eventually divest. Also, Germany was the most technologically advanced country before World War II. They were also very culturally advanced. So what? Ethical responsibility says we must boycott. Germany forced Hollywood to censor positive depictions of Jews. It was a very big market. You can make many excuses. But we must act ethically.”

One person in our group, also a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, asked, “‘I’m thinking of my relatives who are Jewish who say ‘We need a Jewish homeland.’ How do you recommend responding to that?”

“Of course, that is a racist idea.” was Barghouti’s response. 

Many people think of what’s happening in Israel/Palestine as a conflict between two groups who can ‘never get along.’ They also believe that the Jewish people deserve the right to self-determination. What Omar Barghouti said next challenged that outlook: 

“Of course, Jews are part of the indigenous population of Palestine. But so are many other people. We are the most ‘impure’ country: we are a mix. No one group should have supremacy over the many other groups. And kicking people out of their homes: that’s not self-determination, that’s colonization.” 

Another common idea: “BDS actually hurts Palestinians.”  Again, Barghouti was forthright in how to respond to that: 

“That is complete racist patronizing by liberals. They are assuming they know better than us. The same was said to MLK, South Africans, and others. We are used to white liberals thinking they know better than us.”

Thankfully, many people around the world are listening to Palestinians and not dismissing BDS. The demands are basic and in line with international law: end the occupation, end racist discrimination against Palestinians, and allow refugees to return to their homes. Divestment has been successful many times before and can be successful again in Israel/Palestine. 

If you want to get involved with BDS you can find an organization in your area of the world via the BDS Movement website.

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer and social media consultant born and based in Boston, MA, USA. They use they/them pronouns. You can find them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @eligerzon.

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BDS: History, Misconceptions and Successes – Omar Barghouti Speaks with Tour Group (Part I)

By Eli Gerzon 

For about twenty years Eyewitness Palestine has organized travel tours for people to see first-hand what is happening in Israel/Palestine. I attended the Climate Change and Olive Harvest themed tour this October-November 2019. For 11 days our group of 22 people met with organizers, farmers, lawyers, and elected officials. One highlight of the tour was a talk by Omar Barghouti about the movement known as BDS: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. BDS is a global movement initiated by Palestinian civil society calling on people and organizations around the world to put pressure on Israel until it complies with international law.

I’ve been active in Palestine solidarity work, including BDS, for several years. I’m from Boston and I’m a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). The Boston chapter of JVP is one of the most active in the country. I volunteer as the person in charge of social media, which I also do for a living: social media consulting for organizations and individuals focused on social justice. Most of my fellow travelers on the delegation are activists and organizers from the USA who also already knew a lot about Palestine. But we all learned a huge amount of new information every single day on the trip. 

This was particularly evident during a talk by Omar Barghouti at the Al Haq office in Ramallah, West Bank on November 4th. Barghouti addressed misconceptions about BDS and quickly cut through seemingly difficult questions with a direct and ethical approach based in history. He also talked about the impressive successes of the BDS movement, while acknowledging the challenges ahead.

History of BDS 

The BDS movement started in 2005 when 170 Palestinian non-governmental organizations initiated a campaign calling for a boycott, divestment and international sanctions against Israel until it complied with three basic demands:

1. Ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall

2. Ending racial segregation: recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality

3. Granting the right of return for Palestinian refugees: respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194

Barghouti emphasized that the BDS movement is modeled on the divestment against apartheid in South Africa, but, he said, “It’s important for local BDS campaigners to adapt their tactics to their local context.” Many people, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, have credited the international divestment movement for playing a vital role in ending apartheid in South Africa. 

“We let people run their campaigns around the world as works for their context. We only intervene if they violate our principles including racism in any form. That includes anti-Semitism, anti-LGBT, anti-Latino etc.” Barghouti then cited one example where a BDS group shared anti-Semitic posts on Facebook. The BDS Movement asked them to remove that content. When the group didn’t reply within a week the BDS Movement released a statement disowning the group and denouncing their anti-Semitism. 

Clarity on Tactics and Strategy

Barghouti insisted that BDS targets complicity, not identity: “If they have a boot on our neck, we target them.” 

He explained if an Israeli artist is planning to perform somewhere in the US as an individual, that would not warrant being targeted by BDS. If the Israeli artist is racist, “and most of them are, it’s just a fact” according to Barghouti, that still wouldn’t warrant BDS. “If local organizers want to target the artist for their racism, that’s fine and good. We’d hope people would do that sort of thing anyway. But it’s not part of BDS.” 

“Now if that same artist is performing in the same place but the event is sponsored by the Israeli government – then that warrants BDS.”

I found those distinctions helpful, even as someone who has worked on BDS for years. I also learned from what he said about the academic boycotts and what’s happening on college campuses.

“Many academics have boycotted Israel academic institutions that are complicit in Israel apartheid. According to BDS principles you don’t reject articles by Israeli academics simply because they are Israeli. You would only do that if they are in the senior administration.” Again, he reinforced that BDS is not about going after individuals, it’s about the complicity of the institutions. And later on, Barghouti said, “Research is coming out soon showing every single Israeli university is complicit in the apartheid.”

Barghouti also said, “Nowadays many campuses have dozens of organizations supporting BDS. And only far-right groups are anti-Palestinian.”

Barghouti also emphasized the need to be strategic. “We prioritize certain companies as targets in the movement.” He shared these four criteria which people who want to organize BDS campaigns should consider:

1. Intersectionality – It’s more effective and powerful when we can work with other groups.

2. Well known target– It’s easier more significant wins and to get media attention when you pick a target that has a high profile, as opposed to something obscure.

3. Chance of winning – For example, Intel and Amazon are very guilty for their complicity in Israel’s colonization of Palestine, but they are are too big to boycott, and therefore not a strategic target.

4. Progressive organizations – It’s important to to go after organizations that claim to be progressive but actually contribute to the harm done to Palestinians. 

These criteria help address the argument, usually made in bad faith, that if you really support BDS you shouldn’t use iPhones because they have components invented in Israel. The BDS movement isn’t required to boycott everything associated with Israel in order to be legitimate or successful. 

In part two, I’ll share the successes of BDS that Barghouti highlighted and his recommendations on how to respond to common criticisms of BDS.

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer and social media consultant born and based in Boston, MA, USA. They use they/them pronouns. You can find them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @eligerzon.

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Algeria’s popular movement opposes the Dec. 12 elections!

by JWE President Helena Cobban

The mass reform movement that has swept Algeria for the past 42 weeks is united in opposing the presidential elections that the powers-that-be have scheduled for December 12. The power of this movement, known as the “Hirak”, means that election turnout is expected to be very low and the winner will likely enjoy little legitimacy or ability to resolve the country’s deeprooted challenges of governance.

This multilingual “red card”, held by many at the Dec. 6 rallies, says simply “No to the vote.” (Credit: TSA)

On Friday, December 6, throngs of people from all across the country once again took to the streets of its cities and towns to express their support for Hirak’s goals. The prime topic this week as on many previous weeks was to call for a boycott of next Thursday’s election.

The excellent website “Tous Sur Algerie” presented a strong roundup of the rallies and marches held all around the country on December 6, on this page on their website.

As usual during these large Friday rallies, the mood was one that mixed determination to continue opposing the plans of the country’s ageing, decrepit military leadership with joyful enthusiasm at being part of such a large, public movement and a strong, intentional commitment to keeping its actions quite nonviolent.

Women in Kabyle dress singing (and taking selfies) in the Dec. 6 protests (Screengrab from TSA video.)

We know that materials in English on this powerful social movement are generally hard to find. So we were delighted that the Turkish news-site TRT World recently aired this 26-minute episode of its “Bigger Than Five” show, that focused on the background and impact of the Hirak. In the episode, Washington DC-based host Ghida Fakhry held very informative conversations with guests Mostefa Bouchachi, the veteran head of Algeria’s premier human-rights organization, Zoubida Assoul, head of the Union for Change and Progress Party (UCP), and William B. Quandt, a veteran U.S. analyst of Algeria’s history and politics.

Quandt was sitting with Fakhry in the studio. The other two spoke remotely from Algiers. The show also includes some very helpful English-subtitled archive footage and short pre-recorded interviews with a variety of Algerians.

Mostefa Bouchachi

In the “live” parts of the show, Bouchachi was up first. He noted the truly nationwide nature of the Hirak and stressed that “People refuse to hold elections under the old system!” He warned that if the military-based existing “pouvoir” (powers-that-be) insists on proceeding with the December 12 election, “it will make matters worse.”

He referred to the decade-long and extremely destructive civil war that plagued Algeria throughout the 1990s, after a tentative and short-lived earlier move towards political liberalization– and said that this time around, “the Hirak and the army are both seeking to avoid violence.”

Zoubida Assoul

Next up was Assoul. She explained that, “We’re against elections because millions in the streets have been demanding real, deep change. Holding elections now will not bring this.

When it was Quandt’s turn to speak, he started by hailing the “extraordinary” nature, breadth, and discipline of the Hirak. “Most people hadn’t foreseen that Algeria could have produced such a broad, peaceful movement that has been sustained for so long,” he said.

As the archive footage in the show demonstrated, the Hirak started when Algeria’s very geriatric 20-year president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced earlier this year that he planned to run for a fifth term in office. That was the event that propelled Algerians into the streets back in February and that has kept them demonstrating there once or twice a week ever since then.

Assoul told Fakhry,

All along, we we said that Bouteflika wasn’t the only problem– we need to reform the whole system! But all the people who were with Bouteflika for all those years are still there… All the old powerholders in the army and the state are still there.

We’ve said all along that the issue is not just to change the face in power!

Whichever one wins an ‘election’ on December 12 will not have any legitimacy to engage in dialogue with the citizens who, I believe, will remain mobilized even after December 12.

William B. Quandt

Fakhry asked Quandt why Western countries had been so silent on what has been happening in Algeria.

He noted that the European Parliament has started to look at the situation– “But the Algerians have made clear that they don’t want any outside interference– from France, from the EU, from the United States, and certainly not from the UAE or the Saudis.”

He was clear that he thought the absence of foreign governments’ involvement was a good thing.

But people around the world should be interested in this national uprising! It includes so many sectors, including the Kabyles, the secular, the religious… And it has been completely peaceful!

We should all be wishing the Algerian people well. They’ve done something remarkable. People should recognize that this is something new, something completely peaceful. It’s not Syria, not Libya, not Egypt. It’s a little bit more like Tunisia– and the reform movements in both countries are trying to reinforce each other.

Assoul ended by stressing that “Algerians have the capability and the intelligence to resolve this on our own, because the Algerian people know what they want! We want an end to corruption and opacity. We want to end the intervention of the army in the political system. We want the rule of law and a system in which citizens can pursue their lives in freedom.”

Just World Ed has compiled a rich library of materials in English on the history and politics of Algeria. You can access it here. If you would like to help ensure that we can continue in our mission, please consider giving us either a one-time or a recurring donation. Information on how to do so is here:

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Hoodlums tried to hide Mohammad Sabaaneh’s art– at the ICC!

On December 2, Palestinian artist Mohammad Sabaaneh was delighted to travel to the headquarters of the International Criminal Court in The Hague to open an exhibition of his art mounted in the court’s corridors at the time of the 18th session of the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties to the court’s founding statute. The State of Palestine has been a member of the ICC since 2015 and has several key cases it has brought before before the court.

Interest in the exhibition, in which Sabaaneh wielded his expert cartoonist’s pen and keen senses of both injustice and surrealism, was high. But two night later, the exhibition suddenly disappeared– from the court’s own hallways!

Palestine’s ambassador to the Netherlands (and the ICC), Rawan Sulaiman was shocked that such a blatant act of discourse suppression had taken place within the ICC’s own premises. The exhibition was being hosted by both the State of Palestine and Palestinian Human Rights Organization Al-Haq at, obviously, the invitation of the ICC.

Sabaaneh at the Assembly of States Parties to the ICC

The ICC’s administrators, alerted to the disappearance of the artworks, initiated a search and found them stowed away in another location, still inside the building. They rehung the exhibition, and this time assured Amb. Sulaiman that it was under police protection.

In a statement issued today, the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates stated that it,

condemns in the strongest terms this hateful act. We view it as a desperate attempt to silence the voices of Palestinian victims, which were so powerfully reflected in the exhibition. The artwork by internationally-renowned Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Sabaaneh depicted the impact of the criminal policies and practices of the Israeli occupation on the victims in the situation in Palestine.

The ministry also noted that it had been formally informed that the Court is currently conducting an investigating into this grave incident, adding, “We expect this investigation to be thorough and transparent and that strong measures will be taken following its conclusion. “

Mohammad Sabaaneh is the author of the cartoon collection White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine (published in the UK as Palestine in Black and White.) He is himself a former political prisoner of the Israelis, having been held by the Israeli military authorities in the West Bank for five months without any trial, back in 2013. He is also the Middle East regional representative for Cartoonists Right Network International, and has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of cartoonists imprisoned or otherwise harassed in many of the region’s countries.

Sabaaneh’s cartoons skewering both Israel’s military courts system and the ICC’s inaction over Palestinian rights abuses

The vandalism apparently carried out against Sabaaneh’s exhibition in The Hague is just the latest example of a hard-hitting campaign of discourse suppression that anyone who speaks up for the human rights of Palestinians has been subjected to for many decades.

As long-time admirers of Sabaaneh’s work, we at Just World Educational join the international call for the ICC to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into this incident and to take the strongest possible measures in response to it. The voices of Palestinians must not be silenced!

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Nearly 50 years since the Kent State Massacre

On May 4, 1970, the campus of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio was the site of one of the key moments in the broad movement in the United States that protested the US-Vietnam war. Amid a series of large demonstrations that roiled the campus for several days, heavily armed members of the Ohio National Guard were deployed. (The photo above, of the Guard presence on the campus on May 3, 1970, is a still from this short video about the events of those days.)

On the afternoon of May 4, one group of Guardsmen opened fire on the protesters, killing four of them.

With the 50th anniversary of that incident now just a few months away, we are pleased to publish the following reflections by Karin Aguilar-San Juan, a professor of social movements at Macalester College in Minnesota and co-editor of The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, on a recent visit she made to the Kent State campus.

by Karin Aguilar-San Juan

On October 25, 2019, I was fortunate to join a panel titled “Vietnam War Opposition in History and Memory” hosted by Professor Jerry Lembcke at the Peace History Society conference. My comments focused on the People’s Peace Treaty of 1971—an effort led by students in South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and the United States to end the war by crafting a simply worded peace document that would eventually be embraced by prominent cultural and religious leaders and, eventually, the U.S. Congress.

As students, Doug Hostetter, Becca Wilson, and Jay Craven traveled to South and North Vietnam during the war itself to “broker” the People’s Peace Treaty. They tell their riveting story in our book, The People Make the Peace.

This year’s Peace History Society meeting was especially moving as it was cosponsored by the School of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Fifty years ago, four Kent State students were shot to death on campus by the Ohio National Guard. The May 4, 1970 killings marked a flashpoint in the international history of the opposition to U.S. war, specifically Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, launched just days earlier.

Shortly before I arrived at Kent State last month, Doug Hostetter sent me a copy of a letter written in 1971 by Nguyen Thi Binh aka “Madame Binh.” At that time, Mme Binh was the international face of the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) of North Vietnam, and after the victory of North Vietnam, she served as the Vice President of Socialist Vietnam. In the letter—typewritten on yellowing paper—she thanks the U.S. students for their activism to end the war. She specifically references “the Kent Four,” giving direct proof that this tragic event had—and still has—international proportions.

The four students killed at Kent State

I gave a copy of this letter to Ethan Lower and Olivia Salter, two Kent State undergraduate students and political science majors who are serving on the May 4 Task Force, a student-led committee that is helping with the upcoming 50th anniversary commemoration. It’s rare for today’s students to be so committed to understanding the Vietnam War, and Ethan and Olivia were impressed to learn about Mme Binh’s feelings for the history of their campus.


And here is an article Prof. Aguilar-San Juan published about her recent visit to Kent State, in Macalester’s publication, the Mac Weekly:

The Last Call: Kent State then and now: anti-war movement lessons

by Karin Aguilar-San Juan

Many years ago in a small Midwestern town, Kent State University students gathered in their campus’ Commons to make their voices heard. Unable to cast ballots until they were 21, the students were just the right age to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. The war’s senseless violence and hopeless direction drove them to question authority and to join collective movements — but that wasn’t the only impetus for their actions.

Many student activists also targeted anti-black racism, patriarchy and sexism — and what they saw as overly restrictive prohibitions around alcohol and drugs. They organized for ethnic studies and other programs to support black students. They spoke out against 1950s-era dormitory codes regulating the behavior of female students.

One day, King Richard — President Richard Nixon — declared that instead of withdrawing U.S. troops from the war in a program he promised would lead to its “Vietnamization,” he decided instead to continue the fight in Vietnam and expand deeper into Southeast Asia, with an invasion of Cambodia. At Kent State University — a public, working-class institution at the center of Kent, Ohio — hundreds took to the streets.

For days and nights, anger raged in the town of Kent. Eventually, an ROTC building was burned to the ground—and anti-war activists were assumed responsible. Pledging to “eradicate” the campus protesters, Ohio’s Governor James Rhodes ordered 1,000 members of the Ohio National Guard to occupy the Kent State campus, fully armed with bullets, teargas and bayonets. Rhodes demanded that all campus rallies be dispersed.

A tiny portion of the National Guard deployment at Kent State

Nevertheless, up to 3,000 remained on the Commons — students, professors, curious bystanders and hundreds of active protesters angered by the suddenly militarized situation. Most people, including university president Robert White, were unaware that the troops had been issued live ammunition.

Students gathered on the Commons for an initially peaceful demonstration opposing the presence of the Guardsmen. Shortly thereafter, the Guard ordered the protesters to disperse. But they didn’t, and instead threw rocks at the Guardsmen, who responded with live ammunition.

In the space of a moment, the Guard shot four students dead and wounded nine, paralyzing one. For the heartbroken mother of one of the Kent Four, “the myth of a benign America where dissent is broadly tolerated was one [more] casualty of the shootings.”

Five decades later, this true and terrifying nightmare deserves our attention because of its eerie resemblance to state-ordered violence in response to political dissent on campuses today.

There is, of course, much more to the story of Kent State — including the impact of class and race. Historian Christian Appy refers to Vietnam as a “working-class war,” since four out of five soldiers came from blue-collar families, and a majority of those were black or brown. By 1970, many Kent students were combat veterans, and some of those vets joined the anti-war movement to add an extra edge to debates about war.

Meanwhile, the Guardsmen who occupied campus were either veterans or enlistees who served as an alternative to deployment in Vietnam. Why did they fire their guns on people who clearly had no place to run or hide? The National Guard insists that they fired in “self-defense” and the ensuing federal criminal and civil trials unfortunately accepted this position. Some critical studies of the Kent State Massacre hold the Guard responsible, and say their decision to fire into the crowd was unjustified.To settle the case, the state of Ohio paid $675,000 to the wounded students and to the families of the students who were killed. But the statement issued and signed by the National Guard stops short of admitting wrongdoing, merely expressing regret: “In hindsight, the tragedy of May 4, 1970 should not have occurred.”

An engraving at the memorial to the four murdered students

Immediately after the shootings, administrators around the country closed nearly 500 university campuses. When classes at Kent State resumed in September, 2,000 students spontaneously organized in a candlelight vigil for their dead classmates. In the months and years following, Kent State created a syllabus for a May 4 course required for all incoming students and installed a large, granite memorial and smaller memorials on the site where each student was shot. They also added a Visitor’s Center with an exhibit and instructional materials.

The May 4 shootings at Kent State poured fuel on the fire of the anti-war movement. All over the Midwest — from Madison to Milwaukee, Ann Arbor to the Twin Cities — marches and teach-ins proliferated. Surely influenced by the Kent State shootings and the blatant contradiction between the age for draft eligibility and the age for voting, the U.S. Congress ratified the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on July 1, 1971, lowering the voting age to 18.

While it took several more years for the U.S. military to withdraw completely from Southeast Asia—in large part due to the pure moxie of the Vietnamese people—the power of students and ordinary people to bring war to an end should never be dismissed.

Sadly, wars continue. And so do paradoxes at Kent State. Guns are currently banned for all Kent State students and employees, although Ohio is an open-carry state. At her 2018 graduation ceremony at Kent State, Kaitlin “Gun Girl” Bennet slung a semi-automatic AR-10 over her shoulder, wrote “Come and Get It” on her cap, and instantly turned herself into a mascot of the gun lobby of the town and nation, gaining a vast online following in the process. The otherwise mostly male and white pro-gun advocates at Kent State argue that guns should be allowed on campus as a “safety measure.”

The idea of guns making any campus safe is mind-boggling, even more so at Kent State. None of the student protesters were armed on May 4, and for the most part they were peaceful. The National Guard should not have dispersed them, they should not have thrown teargas grenades, and they definitely should not have shot or killed anyone.

Those were dangerous times, much more complicated and volatile than the legend of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll that defines conventional understandings of the Vietnam era. We should put more effort into inquiring, learning and reflecting on the past in order to learn from it.

*I dedicate this piece to Olivia Salter and Ethan Lower, undergraduate leaders of the May 4 Task Force — the student committee who will help to shape the 50th commemoration of May 4 on the Kent State campus.

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