The unbearable legacies of settler colonialism

by Helena Cobban

The following piece, by JWE President Helena Cobban, is crossposted from her blog, Just World News:

Today, an Air Algerie plane conveyed to the Houari Boumedienne International Airport in Algiers the mortal remains of Sheikh Ahmed Bouziane, commander of a native-Algerian force overpowered by the invading French in Zaatcha, Algeria, in November 1849, and 23 other members of the defeated Algerian defense force.

According to this account by Madjid Zerrouky in Le Monde, more than 800 Algerians died in the fighting and the survivors were massacred… Zerrouky quotes the head of the invasion force, Gen. Emile Herbillon, as recalling that Sheikh Bouziane, his 15-year-old son, and a Muslim holy man (marabout) were among the few Algerians saved from that initial massacre. But, he continues,

They were later beheaded and their heads exposed at the end of pikes in the market place of Biskra, the regional city, before being sent to France by a military doctor. The practice was then common. Severed heads – war trophies or “scientific elements” – collected in the “colonies” populated [many] European museums.

The skulls of Sheikh Bouziane and other Algerian resistance fighters were then kept in the collection of no fewer than 18,000 skulls held by the “Musée de l’Homme” (Museum of Mankind) in Paris. Zerrouky wrote that, “The beheaded heads of Algerian resistance fighters were long forgotten. It was not until 2011 that the Algerian anthropologist and historian Ali Belkadi rediscovered them… ‘caulked in vulgar cardboard boxes that evoke the packaging of shoe stores’,” as Belkadi described the scene.

It then took a further nine years for the repatriation of these remains to occur.

The repatriation of the long-abused remains of Sheikh Bouziane and his co-resisters comes in time for Algeria’s Independence Day, July 5. Algeria finally won its independence from the settler-colonial regime installed there by France in 1962.

Today and tomorrow, the settler-colonial regime installed on this (North American) continent will be marking its “Independence Day” with, among other events, a fireworks display in the Black Hills area of South Dakota which, as the U.S. government acknowledged in treaties signed in 1851 and 1868, belonged to the Great Sioux Nation. But in the decades that followed 1868, gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the U.S. government forced the Sioux to relinquish part of the Black Hills… Then, from 1927 through 1941, the “White” sculptor (and KKK member) Gutzon Borglum oversaw the engraving into one of the hillsides of massive images of the faces of historic U.S. leaders.

Now known as Mount Rushmore. Being visited by President Trump today as the kick-off for his “Independence Day” celebrations.

The president of the Oglala Sioux, Julian Bear Runner, told The Guardian recently that,

“The lands on which that mountain is carved and the lands [Trump] about to visit belong to the Great Sioux nation under a treaty signed in 1851 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and I have to tell him he doesn’t have permission from its original sovereign owners to enter the territory at this time.”

Ah, the middle of the nineteenth century. A heyday of settler-colonial brutality. Although, the period of human history in which European settler colonialism was wreaking its havoc on “the Darker Nations” (q.v. Kipling) has lasted a very, very long time– on this continent, and elsewhere.

It was in January 1599 that the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate committed the Acoma Massacre, in the area of today’s New Mexico. That was a punitive expedition against defenders of the Acoma Pueblo. According to the Wikipedia account of the massacre,

There were an estimated 6,000 people living at or around the Acoma Pueblo in 1599, of whom at least 2,000 were warriors. An estimated 500 men were killed in the battle, along with about 300 women and children. Some 500 prisoners were taken and later sentenced by Oñate to a variety of punishments after a trial was held at San Juan Pueblo. Oñate ordered that every male above the age of twenty-five would have his right foot cut off and be enslaved for a period of twenty years. Twenty-four men suffered amputation.

Males between the age of twelve and twenty-five were also enslaved for twenty years along with all of the females above the age of twelve. Many of these natives were dispersed among the residences of government officials or at Franciscan missions. Sixty of the youngest women were deemed not guilty and sent to Mexico City where they were “parceled out among Catholic convents”. Two Hopi men were taken prisoner at the pueblo; after each had one of his hands cut off, they were released to spread the word of Spain’s might.

Over recent decades, Juan de Oñate apparently became a beloved historic figure for many, especially Hispanic, people in New Mexico. Schools and roads were named after him and he became a bit of a symbol of “Hispanic Pride”. (That, despite the fact that in 1606 the historical figure himself got recalled to Mexico City, where he was  tried and convicted of cruelty to both natives and colonists. He was banished from New Mexico for life and exiled from Mexico City for 5 years; so he then had to return to Spain…)

But Acomas and other Native Americans had not forgotten about the massacre of 1599. In 1998, hands unknown cut the foot off a large statue of Oñate that had recently been erected a few miles north of Española, New Mexico. And more recently, three weeks ago, there was a sizeable protest at another statue of Oñate, located in Albuquerque, during which a gun-carrying rightwing militiaman ended up himself getting shot.

(The “99 Percent Invisible” podcast has a great 55-minute episode that provides lots of background to the story of Oñate’s foot.)

No consideration of the troubling relationship that so many settler-colonial invaders have with body parts of the indigenous people whom they conquer would be complete without mention of “Sara Baartman”, a young woman of the Khoikhoi people of southwest Africa, who was born in 1789. After her father and fiance were killed, Sarah was sold into slavery to a trader named Pieter Willem Cezar, who took her to Cape Town where she became a domestic servant to his brother. It was during this time that she was given the name ‘Saartjie’, a Dutch diminutive for Sara. Cape Town had recently come under British control though there were still a lot of Dutch companies operating there. One of those was  the VOC, the “Dutch East India Company”, which between 1653 and 1856 brought to South Africa (mainly through Cape Town) 71,000 enslaved persons whom they had captured in South East Asia.

In Cape Town, Sara caught the attention of William Dunlop, a Scottish military surgeon who worked in the Cape “slave lodge” (that is, a holding pen for enslaved persons), who had a sideline in supplying showmen in Britain with animal specimens. He suggested that she travel to England to make money by exhibiting herself. (Her body form was considered “unusual” or “exotic” by Europeans.)

In 1810, she made the journey to London and for the following four years was toured and displayed around various cities in England and Ireland. In 1814, she was taken to France, where she was sold to an animal trainer. While she was in Britain, there were considerable ground to question as to whether she was acting of her own free own will; but in France it was much clearer that she was in fact enslaved. She was displayed nearly nude, and her displays became linked to the emerging theories of so-called “scientific” racism, with claims that it provided evidence of a “missing link”, and so on.

Sara died in France in 1815.

Her skeleton and a plaster-cast of her body were thereafter displayed in the Natural History Museum in Angers, and then moved to– guess where– Paris’s Musée de l’Homme, when it was founded in 1937. Her body cast and skeleton were displayed there side-by-side and facing away from the viewer, which emphasized her steatopygia (accumulation of fat on the buttocks) reinforcing the idea that that was the primary interest of her body. That obscene exhibit reportedly proved “popular” for many years, until protests led to the removal from display of Sara’s skeleton in 1974, and of her body cast in 1976.

Soon after the victory of the ANC in the South African election of 1994, Pres. Mandela started asking for Sarah’s remains to be repatriated. This did not happen until 2002.

Well, these are just a few examples of the degrading abuse that various “White” settler-colonial leaders, officials, or communities have visited on the body parts of Indigenes whom they have conquered and dispossessed. I have reflected for several years now on the fact that the “Enlightenment”, as this exact same period of history has frequently been known in “Western” historiography, was in fact a period of unmitigated horror, degradation, fear, and cruelty for most members of the “Darker Nations” who came under the brutal control of the various European empires during those centuries.

Two other, somewhat related aspects of this matter come to mind. One is that when Europeans talk about the “Enlightenment”, what they’re generally referring to is the spread throughout those centuries of “scientific” knowledge and of the projects designed to gain, process, and share it– at the expense, mainly, of the more faith-based, religious understanding of the world that preceded it.

But how much of that “science” was gained at the expense of, and off the backs of, the dispossessed and massively abused members of the “Darker Nations”?

Indeed, how much of that “knowledge” was pursued precisely with the goal of furthering the ravage and rapine of the cultures, lands, and resources of the “Darker Nations”? (I think of the Lewis & Clark expeditions; or all the attempts at worldwide mapmaking undertaken by Western mapmakers of the early-modern era; or the truly massive effort that Napoleon undertook to document everything of possible value or interest about Egypt… )

Oh yes, of course, there was the Smithsonian Institution and the truly obscene obsession it pursued for many decades, with collecting and cataloguing human bones. (This historian tells us that, “Recent estimates suggest the number of Native American remains held in the collections of U.S. museums number about half a million.”)

Or think of the British Museum and the numerous other grand museums in the capitals of vast European empires, with their proudly displayed, booty-like collections of antiquities that they still hang onto, from all the once-vanquished places…

So the “Enlightenment” was not a happy time at all for members of the “Darker Nations”.

And then, relatedly, how many of the great institutions in which that “Enlightened” knowledge of the world  was displayed, processed, and shared, had themselves been built with super-profits made from investment in the international slave trade? I still recall how depressed I was on learning that places like the Mauritshuis in The Hague or Brown University in Rhode Island, or numerous other places whose cultural/intellectual role I valued had all been built with slave-trade super-profits. You can find lots of details in Hugh Thomas’s book, The Slave Trade.

I am very glad that, as with Sheikh Ahmed Bouziane, as with Sara Baartman, as with some of the Native American bones long held by the Smithsonian, some efforts at repatriation of stolen, desecrated human remains have in recent decades started to be made.

But these repatriation efforts are just pinpricks in relation to what needs to be done. Far beyond such small efforts at repatriation we “White” people need, I think, to start seriously planning how to make real reparations for everything that our communities have taken from, and inflicted upon, the peoples of the Global South– as well as those who were ripped from their homes in the Global South by the horrendous, globe-girdling institution of slavery.

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JVP’s Alice Rothchild, MD, tracking Covid in Palestine

Infographic above from UN-OCHA’s report on Covid-19 in the occupied Palestinian Territories. Available here.

Alice Rothchild, MD, who is both a JWE board member and a member of the steering committee of Jewish Voice for Peace’s Health Advocacy Council, has been posting regular updates on the Covid situation in Palestine/Israel, at this web-page. Her latest figures show that “1948 Israel” had registered 18,876 cases as of June 13, while the West Bank, including E. Jerusalem, had registered 573, and Gaza 70.

Scroll down on that web-page to find not only the earlier figures, recorded weekly since late March, but also abstracts from numerous media reports on related issues. On June 8, for example, she summarized a report from Ha’aretz noting that,

Medical labs in Israel are struggling to keep up with a high volume of coronavirus tests as the number of samples taken each day has almost doubled over the past week. The main reason for the pressure is the spread of the coronavirus in schools, which has prompted mass testing. Staff are physically hurting and exhausted. Israel has a shortage of lab personnel, in part due to the low wages they earn relative to the length of their training…

As of now, it seems that the per-capita incidence of cases in “1948 Israel” is higher than in either the West Bank or Gaza, though as Rothchild notes this could be due in some part to disparities in rates of testing. The extreme vulnerability of the unenfranchised, completely Israeli-dominated Palestinian population of the occupied territories means that the health and social-welfare infrastructure available to them is much, much more fragile and fragmented than that available to Israeli citizens.

Timeline of incidence of Covid-19 in OPT’s, from OCHA. Downloadable here.

Of course, that extensive portion of the Palestinian population whose families have been refugees since 1948 subsists in many other countries, in addition to the the areas of historic Palestine that have been occupied by Israel since 1967. Since 1950, registered Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan have all– along with those in the West Bank and Gaza–received basic relief, health, and educational services from the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has separate field offices in each of those areas.

On June 9, UNRWA released a short but information-packed report (downloadable here) on how its health teams had responded to the first 100 days of the Covid crisis in each of the five fields in which it operates. Here’s the graph they provide for the general (society-wide) incidence of Covid in these fields:

Jordan, it seems, is the hardest-hit of the five fields. (Its population of 9.5 million includes a numerical majority of Palestinians, both those registered with UNRWA and those not so registered, along with a very sizeable population of vulnerable Syrian refugees.)

The UNRWA report contains large amounts of otherwise hard-to-access information about the how Palestinian refugees in the five UNRWA fields are dealing with Covid., along with some powerful little vignettes of UNRWA health workers in action. Here is one vignette, from Syria:

The UNRWA study also underlines the extent to which, for these Palestinian refugees as for many populations around the world, preparing for the challenge of Covid has put a big strain on healthcare systems and undermined “normal” preventive medicine.

Here below are some of the charts the study presents, that show how the “Maternal and Child” visits that are a staple of UNRWA’s basic healthcare declined to almost zero in April, especially in Jordan:

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Falk, Benjamin, Fletcher launch our new webinar series: “The World After Covid”

Just World Educational is pleased to announce the launch, next Wednesday (June 10) at 1 pm ET, of our latest online-learning project, a series of weekly livestreamed conversations on global change in the Covid-19 era to be hosted by our president, Helena Cobban.

We’ll be presenting these interactive webinars every Wednesday at 1pm ET. The first session, on June 10, will feature Ms. Cobban in conversation with the veteran human rights activist and international jurist Prof. Richard Falk (whom we’re also very proud to count as a JWE board member.)

Both Cobban and Falk have been writing a lot on their personal blogs about the effects of the Covid pandemic on the global order. Two of Falk’s key writings are here and here. Cobban’s blogposts on the effects of the Covid pandemic can be found here.

All the sessions in this open-ended webinar series will be open to the public at no charge, but pre-registration is required. Please use this link to register:

The next two sessions will feature:

** June 17, Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of both the women-led peace group CODEPINK and the human rights group Global Exchange. Benjamin is the author of numerous articles and ten books, including Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control and Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. Her most recent book, Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is part of a continuing campaign to prevent a war with Iran and promote normal trade and diplomatic relations.

** June 24, Bill Fletcher, Jr., a veteran activist for labor rights, decolonization, and racial justice, who is is the former president of TransAfrica Forum; a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies; and in the leadership of several other projects. Fletcher is a widely syndicated columnist and a regular media commentator. He was the co-author of The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1934-1941 and Solidarity Divided: The crisis in organized labor and a new path toward social justice; and the sole author of ‘They’re Bankrupting Us’ – And Twenty other myths about unions.

We’re looking forward to active audience participation– on both Zoom and Facebook– for this new webinar series and hope you can join the discussion via one or the other platform. Please spread this news widely with your friends!

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Another American first: A self-collapsing empire!

by Helena Cobban

The following piece, by JWE President Helena Cobban, is crossposted from her blog, Just World News:

Americans are well-known for their ingenuity and many of them (including Pres. Donald J. Trump) love to crow about being “Number One!” Now, the whole world is seeing the United States achieving a nearly unprecedented record: The country that was this planet’s unchallenged hegemon for the past 28 years is undergoing a collapse of its global empire that is fueled by many of the actions of the government itself.

Soon after I first started watching (and experiencing) the anti-science and dangerously botched responses Pres. Trump made to the eruption of Covid-19, I concluded that his ineptitude would mire the country in a state of economic as well as medical distress from which it would take many months– perhaps years– to escape. I foresaw that this situation would lead to a serious weakening of the United States’ power on the world stage. Now, the country’s twinned medical and health crises still continue; and they have been joined by an equally dire crisis of internal governance and legitimacy.

It is impossible to see how the United States can at any point in the next quarter century regain anything like the commanding position in the world system that it occupied from 1991 through late 2019. What we are experiencing is not just a decline but a collapse of America’s global hegemony.

This is the first time any significant world power has undergone a collapse as speedy and dramatic as what the United States has been undergoing since early March. Yes, in the past, empires have come and gone. Most recently, in 1974-75, the significant global empire Portugal had amassed over the preceding 450 years underwent complete implosion after young officers tired of having to police the country’s large colonies in Mozambique and Angola returned home, overthrew the dictatorship in Lisbon, and made decolonization their first order of business. Then, in 1991-93, the sphere of strong influence that the Soviet Union had built for itself in East Europe and Central Asia– not wholly an empire– collapsed.

The collapse the United States’ position as world hegemon is starting to experience now is more dramatic and far-reaching than either of those two collapses. It is also to a large extent being fueled by its own leadership. With decision after decision after decision, Pres. Trump has been cutting Washington off from having any effective ties with governments, alliances, and global institutions that previous presidents had worked hard to establish and that provided the vital underpinning for the country’s global power. Trump exited speedily and with little preparation from the JCPOA with Iran, NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the previous massive trading relationship with China, UNRWA, and a range of other institutions… And now, in these recent weeks of growing despair and immiseration at home, he has continued with a blindly bullying, “smash it all” approach to international relations that promises to further accelerate the collapse of Washington’s international influence. He vows he will leave the World Health Organization– at a time of unprecedented global health emergency? He promises to “eliminate” Hong Kong’s special status– effectively leaving the region’s 7.5 million people to the mercies of their central government. Even the step he took May 15th to try to cut the power of China’s Huawei tech giant may well, as The Economist noted, end up pushing high-tech chipmakers to flee the United States, not China.

Any collapse of an empire, or even the slower ending of one, is always a period of  uncertainty and risk. In the present case of declining US power and rising Chinese power, Prof. Graham Allison has since 2012 warned of what he calls the “Thucydides Trap”, building on the conclusions that that Greek historian drew about the conflict sparked when the city-state of Sparta, fearing the rising power of its neighbor Athens,  launched a strike against Athens that mired the two city-states and their neighbors in a war that lasted 30 years… More generally, the Thucydides Trap is understood as the heightened possibility that any rapid decline of a formerly great power (especially if it happens in the face of the rise of a new power) will lead to a new period of conflict, risk, and uncertainty.

It is true that the decline of every single large, European-heritage empire in modern history has been followed (and often also accompanied) by outbreaks of very lethal violence. Britain’s withdrawal from India/Pakistan, Palestine, Cyprus, “Malaya”, or other areas. Belgium’s withdrawal from Congo or Rwanda. France’s withdrawal from Algeria… or Portugal’s from Mozambique and Angola: All left some degree of violence in their wake. We should remember, though, that all those previous empires–like the United States’ own globe-girdling hegemonic order— had only ever been built and maintained by violence… (And throughout the lives of those empires, their leaders cynically fostered precisely the kinds of “divide and rule” that greatly increased the likelihood of internal violence erupting after their departures.) But at least, in the era of decolonization, the attainment of independence gave the formerly occupied/colonized peoples a chance of rebuilding their societies on a sound and dignified basis that imperial/colonial rule had never allowed them.

So how about this period of the extremely speedy collapse of the U.S. empire that we are now entering? What are the main risks we need to watch for and strive to avoid?

Primarily, we need to watch out for the real possibility that the “Masters of the Universe” who have been running this massively sprawling U.S. empire will strike out, Sparta-style, against the currently rising power in an attempt to blunt or end its rise.

The rulers of the rising power, China, almost certainly share this concern. In this recent article in South China Morning Post, Shi Jiangtao wrote:

While observers generally agree that an all-out war between the nuclear-armed nations is improbable, there are potential risks for a limited military conflict.

President Xi Jinping has shown personal interest in the Thucydides trap concept… Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, Xi said the Thucydides trap “can be avoided … as long as we maintain communication and treat each other with sincerity”.

But since then, the devastating Covid-19 pandemic has driven the deeply fraught US-China relations to the brink of an all-out confrontation as a result of strategic distrust and misperception, said Wang Jisi, president of Peking University’s Institute of International and Strategic Studies.

“China and the US are shifting from an all-around competition to a full-scale confrontation, with little room for compromise and manoeuvring,” Wang said in a speech in late March. “We cannot rule out the possibility that the two powers may fall into the Thucydides trap.”

A second risk we should keep in mind is less clear-cut but equally serious. It is the risk that, as the power that the United States has exercised worldwide since 1991 collapses relatively suddenlymany regions around the world might fall into chaos as local actors, spooked by the sudden change in security architecture– and with many of them anyway suffering the same toxic stew of medical and economic collapse as the USA– compete to try to secure their own advantage, or even their own survival.

This is not unprecedented. Look at the fallout from the sudden collapse of the Soviet sphere of control in the early 1990s, or from the collapse of the Portuguese Empire in 1974-75. (Eighteen months before either of those earlier collapses started, how many students of world affairs affairs saw them as likely?) The implosion of the United States’ hegemonic power in the world would have consequences far more widespread and potentially many times more violent and destabilizing than either of those collapses…

With Trump, we should also, always, keep in mind the possibility of a third kind of scenario: that he might take some deeply irrational decision in the international arena, possibly in a “wag the dog” attempt to divert attention from domestic disorder… and that this action itself would have consequences of a quickly cascading and destabilizing nature.

The U.S. empire is unprecedented in all of human history, in at least two ways. It is the first empire in history that that has exercised its hegemonic sway over nearly the whole of the planet. Previously, some imperial leaders might have thought that they controlled “the whole known world”, but in fact, there were still large parts of the planet of which they knew (or cared) nothing. The geographic extent of the fallout from the collapse of the U.S. empire could well be without precedent.

Secondly, this is an empire that remains in many ways (and most especially, to its own citizens) virtually “invisible.” This empire’s leaders have intentionally never described it as an empire, talking instead only about the role of “American leadership” within a slippery, anodyne body known as the “international community.” As a result, many U.S. citizens find it hard to recognize or acknowledge the hegemonic/imperial role that our government has played in international affairs. Large numbers of Americans remain persuaded that, despite some “lapses” such as occurred in Vietnam or Iraq, in the main our country’s engagement with the rest of the world has had effects there that have been extremely positive– progressive, liberalizing, a light unto the nations, the “indispensable nation”, and so on. Or, when the effects of an American action are recognized as undeniably negative, as in Libya, many Americans argue that the fact that the government’s intentions were pure should somehow absolve Washington of any accusation of malfeasance.

This invisibility of the United States’ hegemonic/imperial role in the world makes it a lot harder for most Americans than it was, say, for Brits in the era of the proudly proclaimed “British Empire”, to have any kind of serious discussion about how to describe, let alone change or correct, our country’s relations with the rest of the world. (There is a parallel here with one of the well-known aspects of “White privilege”, namely, that a lot of “White” people don’t even see their privilege and thus find it hard to start to think about what might be needed to end it… )

Today, Americans in cities and towns across our country are hurting, badly. We need all the help we can get, from any bodies domestically or internationally that are able to help. We need a speedy and effective national response to the coronavirus that is boosted by, and a cooperative part of, the best scientific and public-health capabilities available anywhere on the planet. We need a national health system that provides decent care to everyone, not one designed to line the pockets of investors. We need a federal government that leads a massive FDR-style effort to put money into Americans’ pockets (not into the financial sector), while rebuilding our badly battered national infrastructure. We need a revival of popular democracy and community-controlled policing…

What we do not need is another war, hot or “cold”, or any other kinds of bullying attempt to use our remaining financial or military muscle to bend other nations like Iran, Syria, Venezuela, or Cuba to our will.

I grew up in a Britain that was rapidly decolonizing– but we got the National Health Service instead, in a deal that is still highly valued by Britons until today. Portugal, after the collapse of its empire 45 years ago, turned out to be a very pleasant place to live…

America can be, too, if we are smart and humble enough to realize that we need to build a sounder relationship with that 95% of the world’s people who happen not to be Americans. And if we recognize that our imperial-style hegemony over the world has existed for too long, that it has inflicted real harm on too many of the world’s peoples, and that ending it will be good for the other 95%– and for us.

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Join us in honoring Palestinian health care workers, June 1

Just World Educational invites you to join the “virtual photo booth for solidarity” campaign launched by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to honor Palestinian health care workers on June 1. This campaign marks the second anniversary of the killing of Razan al-Najjar, 20, a medic in Gaza treating wounded protesters as part of the Great March of Return. As she and other medics approached the fence imposed by Israel around the Gaza Strip, she and other first responders were fired on with live ammunition by Israeli occupation forces. Their white vests and raised hands did not dissuade the military attack.

Since that time, Razan al-Najjar has remained a symbol of the courage of Palestinian health care workers confronting the health crises imposed by occupation and siege. Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, the sacrifices of Razan and other health care workers in Palestine have been highlighted, especially as the potential spread of the novel coronavirus in areas like besieged Gaza or inside Israeli prisons could create yet another layer of humanitarian disaster imposed upon Palestinians.

AFSC’s image for the June 1 campaign.

On June 1, we will all honor Razan al-Najjar and her fellow Palestinian health workers with a series of online actions. AFSC has created a lovely, downloadable sign for this campaign and calls on all of us to download and print it, take a selfie holding it, and then post that photo on social media. (You could color in the image as JWE President Helena Cobban did… leave it black and white… or make your own sign!)

Share the photo on the Facebook event (which will run from 9 am through 9:30 pm on Monday, June 1), or on Twitter and Instagram, while using the campaign’s special hashtag:


Palestinian health workers have faced a series of attacks and fundamental denials of rights imposed by the Israeli occupation. Not only do we see the targeting of medics like Razan al-Najjar – along with hundreds of civilians killed and thousands upon thousands wounded – by Israeli occupation soldiers exercising vast military might against Palestinians in Gaza marching in the Great March of Return, but Palestinian health workers and health institutions face ongoing, chronic attacks that are met with impunity. Medical Aid for Palestinians documented these attacks in its report, Chronic Impunity: Gaza’s Health Sector Under Repeated Attack.

Razan al-Najjar, working as a medic at the Great March of Return in 2018

Back in 2018, Helena Cobban noted that Al-Najjar’s killing “may now help tip the scales of international opinion and international action yet further toward the goal of enforcing accountability on Israel for its chronically criminal behavior inside Palestine.” In 2019, a Commission of Inquiry with its mandate from the United Nations found reasonable grounds to conclude that Israeli military snipers intentionally targeted health workers and other vulnerable people, including children and people with disabilities, as well as journalists. But as Cobban had noted in her 2018 comments, “the U.S. government has been the main obstacle in the path of all efforts aimed at ending Israel’s numerous rights violations, ending its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan, and restoring the too-long-denied rights of the Palestinians.”

Indeed, as Israeli impunity continues, the U.S. government officially smiles upon yet more rights violations, the most recent being the threatened annexation of the Jordan Valley and illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Today, as health care workers in Palestine struggle to live, survive and help their fellow Palestinians to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, they face further attempts to smear their name by Israeli government and military institutions. Israeli officials attempted to smear Razan al-Najjar herself, building upon years of attempts to justify the bombing and invasion of Palestinian health care facilities by Israeli forces.

Israel has also continued to starve Palestinian health institutions and NGOs of the funds they need to provide much-needed care and services, with its Ministry of Strategic Affairs attempting to label the provision of health care services as a “threat to security,” demanding that European institutions and other external donors cut off their lifeline.

Participants in the AFSC action hold their own signs. Photo credit: AFSC

This June 1 and every day, we stand with Palestinian health care workers. We recall the words of Sabreen al-Najjar, speaking about her daughter’s indomitable spirit and will to live in justice and freedom, even as her dreams and her life were cut short by colonialism, occupation and siege.

“[Razan] aspired to be a doctor. But my husband’s unemployment and our poor economic conditions, resulting from the Israeli blockade, deprived her of the opportunity to pursue this dream after high school. Yet, she did not give up; instead, she studied nursing and took several intensive courses, in which she excelled. She reached out to the sick and injured everywhere, providing them with pro bono healthcare services….Armed with unusual tenacity and an emboldened spirit, Razan was fearless and energetic until her last breath. Indifferent to the barrage of bullets fired by Israeli soldiers at point-blank range, she moved courageously from one place to another to rescue the injured.”

Razan’s dedication and the extreme price she paid for her commitment can and must inspire us to take a stand. As Cobban noted in 2018 and remains true today: “A lot more organizing and political action will be needed before Washington changes its policies, thereby clearing the way to finally ending Israel’s gross, long-engrained rights violations and holding its leaders accountable.”

This June 1, join us to confront Israeli impunity and salute the health care heroes that continue to reflect the poetic phrase of Rafeef Ziadah: “We teach life. Palestinians wake up every day to teach the rest of the world life, sir.”

Learn more about the campaign and get the materials to join in at the AFSC website.

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New JWE video: “How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs”

How on earth did Britain and France “persuade” the world’s other governments to award them colonial-style “mandates” over a large chunk of the Arab world in the immediate aftermath of World War I? How did France, which was awarded the “mandates” over today’s Syria and Lebanon, use its raw power to stamp out what had been a pioneering and politically sophisticated project by Syrians to build a constitutional system for their country? And then, how did France try to erase the whole history of that constitution-building effort and to misrepresent it to the world as some form of raw “Islamist” takeover?

Elizabeth Thompson

These questions and many more are explored in How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance, a new book from American University historian Elizabeth F. Thompson. On May 21, Dr. Thompson discussed some of the book’s most intriguing findings with noted Middle East specialist William B. Quandt and JWE President Helena Cobban in a 50-minute video conversation that can be viewed here.

Thompson said she had been motivated to start the research on this topic in Summer 2013, after the Egyptian Army brutally ousted the country’s elected President, Mohamed Morsi, crushing the Muslim Brotherhood-led popular movement that had supported him. She said she hoped that some of the records of the short-lived Syrian Arab Congress that had started its work in Damascus in March 1920 could prove useful for pro-democracy reformers working in Syria and throughout the Arab world.

Delegates at the Syrian Arab Congress

Back in 1920, as she noted, the Syrians still considered that their country included everything that now is known as Syria, Jordan, Palestine/Israel, and Lebanon (as well as the current Turkish province of Hatay.) Delegates to the Congress came from all those regions.

The Congress worked closely with al-Emir (Prince) Faisal, a member of the influential “Hashemi” family from the Hejaz, in today’s Saudi Arabia, who during World War I had worked with the British– primarily, with Col. T. E. Lawrence– to foment a broad Arab uprising in then-Syria against the Germany-allied Ottoman Army. After the Germans and Ottomans were defeated, Faisal continued to work with a broad coalition of leaders from throughout then-Syria to build a governance system for the country in the form of a constitutional monarchy: He would be the monarch but would be subject to the constraints of a formal constitution.

(Faisal is best remembered by many Westerners as the character played by Alec Guinness in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia”. But he actually existed! He was taken by Lawrence to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, as shown in the archival photo below– Lawrence is shown behind Faisal, to the right.)

In the video conversation, Thompson discussed with Quandt how Faisal had worked with a range of community leaders and thinkers to craft the constitution for the Syrian Arab Kingdom. These Syrians included liberal Islamists, many Christian-Arab thinkers, and some more secular-minded people. But Britain and France were determined to nip this project for accountable self-governance in the bud. They argued that none of those Arabs were “ready” for self-governance and persuaded the League of Nations to adopt the “mandate” system, a barely concealed form of colonialist overlordship, and then divided those “mandates” up between them.

In Palestine, the British used their mandate to give a big boost to the Zionist colonial project. In Syria (and Lebanon), the French were determined to use the same brutal kinds of tactics they had used for decades in Algeria and elsewhere, in order to snuff out the nascent self-governance system and impose France’s diktat there.

Faisal pled with his British friends to be granted his dream of a monarchy– someplace!– and ended up as King of Iraq. Some of the other Syrian nationalists with whom he had worked were imprisoned or killed by the French. Others escaped to other Arab countries.

Sheikh Rashid Rida

In the video conversation, Thompson and Quandt discussed at some length the trajectory taken by one key member of the group that had drafted the 1920 Constitution, Sheikh Rashid Rida, a liberal-Islamist writer and thinker born in today’s Lebanon. He ended up in Egypt. Deeply angered by how the Western governments had betrayed his hopes for constitutionalism, he later became a key inspiration for Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But what became of the 1920 Constitution itself? For Thompson, this was a crucial riddle to be solved, as copies were extremely hard to find. Finally, after a lengthy search in archives in France, Britain, Geneva, Beirut, Washington DC, and elsewhere– as described in the book and the video conversation– she was able to lay her hands on what she believed was an authentic early copy of it. In the first of its 148 articles, it stated that:

The Syrian Arab Kingdom is a civil representative monarchy. Its capital is Damascus and the religion of its King is Islam.

She was amazed. When French writers had described the 1920 Constitution, they had nearly always written that it stated that the religion of the state was Islam– a very different matter.

In the Acknowledgements in her book, Thompson expresses her thanks first and foremost to “the Syrians who have generously shared with me their research and the documents and photographs they have collected.” In the video conversation, she noted she had received numerous expressions of appreciation from historians and other intellectuals in Syria and other parts of the Arab world.

In our recent “Commonsense on Syria” project, we were happy to be able to present, in our inaugural webinar, a discussion of the history and society of Syria that went back to the time in which Syria finally won its independence from France, in 1946, featuring panelists Joshua Landis and Peter Ford. Now, we’re pleased we can add this other valuable video to our Syria Resource Center. We can thereby present an even richer picture of Syria’s history in the twentieth century– including showing in greater depth the degree of the harm that the “West” inflicted on Syria’s people then.

Both the book and the video provide some thought-provoking ideas that might help the work of the current Syrian Constitutional Committee, which held a first, indecisive session in Geneva back in October 2019 (though most likely, no-one today is proposing anything like a constitutional monarchy?) We hope you can enjoy this latest addition to our video library! Oh, and please go out and buy Thompson’s book!

The images presented in the text here are shared courtesy of Elizabeth F. Thompson.

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Who matters? Pandemic in a time of structural violence

by Alice Rothchild

The following piece, by JWE Board Member Alice Rothchild, is crossposted from Mondoweiss:

Focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic as it impacts Israel/Palestine provides us with a unique case study of the realities of health care and public health in a racialized and unequal society.

Israel reported its first case of the coronavirus on February 21, a woman returning from a cruise.* In the second week of February, the coronavirus was found in Bethlehem in the West Bank, introduced by foreign tourists, with another wave brought in by day laborers returning from Israel and Jewish settlements. Gaza’s first two cases were noted on March 22, two men returning from Pakistan. The data from East Jerusalem is difficult, partly because Israel considers East Jerusalem part of “unified Jerusalem” while the Palestinian Authority maintains that East Jerusalem is in the occupied West Bank. That said, on March 10, six East Jerusalem Palestinians were quarantined and the first death was reported April 18. The acclaimed world map and dashboard by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering initially erased the Palestinians altogether, then acknowledged the occupation, and finally changed their “country, region, sovereignty” to the West Bank and Gaza, with no separate designation for East Jerusalem.

While the virus recognizes no boundaries, each of these regions experienced the pandemic with a different underlying social and political realityIsrael, a first world country (the World Health Organization lists Israel in the “European region”) with a history of top-notch hospitals, research facilities, and universal health insurance, also suffers from a decades-long defunding of the social safety net and grave social and economic inequities. Since the1970s, analysts note that investment in health, transportation and education has declined and the government has focused on tax cuts, welfare for the ultra-Orthodox, building settlements, and maintaining an expansive military. Thus decades of neoliberal policies have left critical elements of Israeli society neglected and poorly prepared. Much like the U.S., as the numbers of cases grew, physicians and senior health officials publically noted the lack of ventilators, “disparities between the central and peripheral communities,” structural concerns, inadequate care in retirement communities, the lack of PPEs, suboptimal leadership, and a lack of attention to other diseases.

Palestinians, who make up 20 percent of Israeli citizens, are systematically disadvantaged with less institutional resources and poorer health outcomes than Jewish citizens. Ultra-Orthodox communities suffer from a lack of modern education and connection to the media and public health. Groups like asylum seekers and prisoners are marginalized economically, politically, and medically.

As the infection rates turned upward during the last two weeks of March, the Israeli government launched an organized public health campaign promoting social distancing, a national emergency was announced with a shelter-in-place order and the closing of all but essential services. Air travel was shut down and entry from Gaza, already severely limited, was closed apart from “exceptional cases.” By the end of March, Israel closed the West Bank as “a precaution against the coronavirus” although the number of coronavirus cases in Israeli citizens was 40 times greater than in the West Bank. By April, Israelis were advised to wear masks, and haredi hot spots were under closure. Sophisticated public health and health care institutions prepared for the rising national medical needs.

In the West Bank and even more so in Gaza, the health care systems have been severely impacted by decades of de-development, occupation, siege, restrictions of movement for health care professionals and patients, and repeated military assaults that have destroyed hospitals, clinics, access to medications, water and sewer treatment plants, and electricity. In the West Bank, of the estimated 775,000 Palestinian refugees, a quarter live in 19 overcrowded refugee camps, while in Gaza 70 percent of the approximately two million people are refugees, of whom 600,000 are spread among eight devastated camps.

Understanding the inherent inability to adequately respond to a massive pandemic, the main focus of the Ministries of Health as well as UNRWA, WHO, UNICEF, and a host of other NGOs, has been on prevention, quarantine and sheltering in place, and upgrading treatment facilities. In early March, the Palestinian Authority declared a state of emergency and instituted strict closures throughout the West Bank with schools, universities, banks, and government offices, hotels, restaurants, and shops shut down. In Gaza, Hamas and the civil authorities closed the Erez crossing to Israel, placed Palestinians entering from Israel or Egypt in isolation, and began the development of isolation facilities in field hospitals, schools, and hotels.  Schools, universities and mosques were closed. Crowded refugee camps began disinfection programs all over the occupied territories.

With a population of approximately 3.2 million, the West Bank has an estimated 210 ICU beds and between 120 and 256 ventilators. The two million people in Gaza are served by 65 to 120 ICU beds and 63 ventilators. Both areas have a serious lack of testing capacity as well as an urgent need for more ventilators, intensive care units and equipment, PPEs, medications, and trained staff.

In East Jerusalem, Palestinians are residents rather than Israeli citizens. They have suffered from a combination of chronic and acute Israeli neglect and Israeli refusal to allow the Palestinian Authority to establish efforts to combat the virus. The Israelis only agreed to open testing centers in East Jerusalem in the Shuafat and Kafr Aqab refugee camps after a petition was submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court. The Israeli health ministry does not distinguish between Arab and Jewish neighborhoods when tracking coronavirus cases. Currently, while Palestinians in East Jerusalem can be sent for care in Israeli hospitals, they often seek care in East Jerusalem. Of the six hospitals located in East Jerusalem, there are only 20 to 22 ventilators and 62 to 72 beds prepared for coronavirus patients in two or three high level hospitals.  The discrepancies in reported numbers in the oPt speaks to the underlying structural weaknesses, competing authorities, and lack of organization in the region.

One of the critical points to this discussion is that the occupation and underlying racism and discrimination in Israel/Palestine persist unabated despite the public health emergency and the interrelatedness of communities and shared risk.

Israeli forces continue to arrest and imprison Palestinians, including children, demolish homes, and facilitate settler attacks that take advantage of the quarantines. Settler attacks have risen 78 percent. Soldiers, sometimes wearing protective gear and masks, raid Palestinian homes, fire at Gazan farmers and fisherman, spray herbicide on crops in Gaza, arrest Palestinian volunteers in East Jerusalem engaged in disinfecting public facilities, and dismantle Palestinian field clinics in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. When the coronavirus was documented, Palestinian communities like Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour were put under Israeli military closure, while surrounding Jewish settlements like Gilo and Har Homa were not. Similarly, areas with documented infection such as Ashkelon, Jerusalem, Ariel, and Petah Tikvah were not placed under military closure or total quarantine. When Hebron was under closure, Jewish settlers were allowed to march the streets in a raucous Purim parade.

Even when there is coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel refuses to release desperately needed funds it deducts from taxing Palestinians. There are a number of reports that Hamas and Israel are holding indirect negotiations for a prisoner exchange deal in exchange for humanitarian aid. Emergency regulations have ended family and lawyer visits for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, with phone consultations allowed only if cases are imminent.

Racist attitudes and behavior are also clearly seen in Israel within the Green Line. Ironically, Palestinian citizens of Israel represent 17 percent of the country’s doctors, 24 percent of the nurses, and 48 percent of the pharmacists and they take care of everyone.  An early issue was the lack of Arabic language updates and critical health information coming from the Israeli Ministry of Health, despite the fact that a fifth of the citizens is Palestinian.  There was also a wide imbalance in numbers of cases reported in Jewish versus Palestinian communities, particularly Bedouins, due to disparities in the availability of testing. Similar inequities exist in terms of distance learning as 50 percent of Palestinian students do not have online access and a third do not have a computer or tablet. The situation is even more acute in Bedouin communities who face a lack of electricity, water, and sanitation infrastructure.

Most of the 30,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan lost their jobs due to the pandemic and were not eligible for unemployment or national health insurance. Despite an outcry from the World Health Organization, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency, the Israeli government response was to offer a monetary reward if asylum seekers were to leave the country. In Israeli prisons, Palestinians documented filthy and crowded jails, a lack of hygiene products and a policy of “deliberate medical negligence.”

Tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinians work in Israel and over half of the coronavirus cases in the West Bank have been traced to workers or their contacts. Nonetheless, the Israeli government has denied any responsiblity to test these workers or safeguard their working conditions. There have been reports of workers suspected of illness being dumped at checkpoints with no concern for their wellbeing and no coordination with Palestinian medical authorities. Similarly, while Gazans are portrayed as “terrorists,” Israeli companies are happy to order protective gear from Gazan sewing factories where workers are paid as little as $8 per day. Millions of masks and hundreds of thousands of gowns and suits have been produced by these exploited workers who are desperate for an income.

Given the militarization of Israeli society, it is not surprising that one of the primary responses to the pandemic was to deploy and empower Israeli soldiers to patrol streets, man barricades, and augment the national and border police.  Early on it was reported that the Mossad had become a significant procurer of medical equipment, obtaining test kits, masks and protective gear, medications, and technology that may not have been totally “above board.” In a highly controversial move, the police branch the Shin Bet (Shabak), was authorized to use advanced surveillance methods for contact tracing based on mobile phone data, thus employing techniques long used on Palestinians on Jewish Israeli citizens. By the end of April, in a victory for Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Shin Bet must stop using counterterrorism surveillance on coronavirus-positive people in Israel and that tracking must be brought under legislative control.

In a similar vein, the Israeli Defense Ministry is considering working with the NSO group, a contentious spyware firm that produced Pegasus, the malware that can be inserted onto a mobile phone. NSO is currently being sued by Facebook for allegedly hacking WhatsApp. The firm’s goal was to collect and aggregate information about Israelis and then assign each a grade that reflects the likelihood of any resident’s exposure to coronavirus. Palestinians who wish to confirm work, travel, or medical permit requests are now required to “‘download an app that enables the military access to their cell phones.’ The app, known as ‘Al Munasiq,’ or ‘The Coordinator’” in Arabic, allows the army to track the user’s phone location as well as access any notifications they receive, files they download or save, and the device’s camera.” Israel’s top arms exporter, Elbit, is also advocating “health” innovations that can remotely test for coronavirus by using radar to check temperature and pulse.

A review of this data reveals the underlying context of structural racism and apartheid, a reliance on military solutions, and a disregard for the health and lives of Palestinian people who matter less than their Jewish cohorts in the eyes of the Israeli government. When small tokens of support in terms of testing, training, and equipment occur, these are described as humanitarian gifts and examples of Israeli largesse, when Israel as the occupying power is actually responsible for the health and well-being of the people it occupies. The rise in “digital and algorithmic surveillance systems” in the name of public health is a dangerous example of occupation creep that is now leaking into Israeli society as well.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his cohorts are using the pandemic crisis to consolidate racialized surveillance and domination against Palestinians, moving towards further colonization and annexation, and expanding his dominance in Israel itself.  Netanyahu has closed the Israeli courts, delaying his corruption case and maneuvering to stay in power by making an emergency deal with Benny Gantz and the Blue and White party. While only a third of Israelis support annexation, public opposition is muted by fears of the virus and extensive lockdowns.

The Israeli occupation and the second-class citizenship of Palestinians can be viewed as a pre-existing condition in this public health crisis. Added to that is the dramatic increase in obesity and diabetes in the oPt as a result of the post Oslo, neoliberal economic changes and the availability of high calorie foods in a population with restrictions on movement and high levels of smoking and other stress-related illnesses. While increased testing, vaccines, and improved health care are critical to everyone in this region, Palestinians have turned to their own ingenuity, creativity, and social cohesiveness in the face of gravely unjust realities.

Ultimately, Israeli citizens will have to face the rising right wing authoritarianism and militarization of their own government and its responses to this public health emergency. Palestinians under occupation understand that their health disparities are embedded within the broader structural violence that is the core of the occupation and siege and that their liberation is the fundamental and necessary treatment during and after this current catastrophe.  

*In this discussion, I acknowledge the limitations of the numbers game: Community spread has been highly underestimated, asymptomatic carriers are important vectors for infection, and the lack of reliable and available testing creates flawed data.

Photo credit: أمين, Amman Street in the city of Nablus on March 25, 2020, is empty of people, in implementation of the mandatory quarantine decision due to the Corona virus pandemic in Palestine 2020, Wikimedia Commons

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Covid-19 sharply headbutts U.S. hegemony

by Helena Cobban

The following piece is crossposted from Just World News, the blog of JWE President Helena Cobban:

Within just 100 days,  the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly shifted the balance of power in the global system from the United States toward China– and this trend looks set to continue, or accelerate, over the coming months and years.

This is the case not just because U.S. deaths and death-rates from this virus (currently 71,152 total reported deaths, or 21.78 per 100,000 of population) are considerably greater than China’s (currently 4,663 total deaths, or 0.33 per 100,000), but for a number of other reasons, too. Key among them are:

  • the criminal ineptitude of the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic, which has led to the current situation in which the virus is nowhere close to contained but continues to spread nationwide– whereas China succeeded in containing the virus by the end of March and is now cautiously reopening its economy;
  • the deep weaknesses in the United States’ heavily free-market-skewed and military-obsessed economy and society which had already, before Covid-19’s arrival led to the decay of the country’s public-health infrastructure and the non-existence (or chronic atrophying) of the social safety net– whereas China had learned from the SARS epidemic of 2002 to keep ready its already-robust public-health infrastructure and was able speedily to deploy quarantining, testing, and other safety measures nationwide.

There is, as I noted here recently, a definite temporal element to the current coronavirus crisis. Once the Chinese leadership grasped the scale of the challenge, they took broad and effective measures to contain and then eliminate the virus. Vijay Prashad, Du Xiaojun, and Weiyan Zhu wrote an excellent description of how this was done. (It has some beautiful illustrations, painted by Li Zhong– here, and above.) Some of the most interesting portions of that lengthy account cover the first three weeks of January:

In the early days of January 2020, the National Health Commission (NHC) and the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began to establish protocols to deal with the diagnosis, treatment, and laboratory testing of what was then considered a ‘viral pneumonia of unknown cause’. A treatment manual was produced by the NHC and health departments in Hubei Province and sent to all medical institutions in Wuhan City on 4 January; city-wide training was conducted that same day. By 7 January, China’s CDC isolated the first novel coronavirus strain, and three days later, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (Chinese Academy of Sciences) and others developed testing kits.

By the second week of January, more was known about the nature of the virus, and so a plan began to take shape to contain it. On 13 January, the NHC instructed Wuhan City authorities to begin temperature checks at ports and stations and to reduce public gatherings. The next day, the NHC held a national teleconference that alerted all of China to the infectious novel coronavirus strain and announced the need to prepare for a public health emergency. On 17 January, the NHC sent seven inspection teams to China’s provinces to train public health officials about the virus, and on 19 January the NHC distributed nucleic acid reagents for test kits to China’s many health departments. Zhong Nanshan – former president of the Chinese Medical Association – led a high-level team to Wuhan City to carry out inspections on 18 and 19 January.

Over the next few days, the NHC began to understand how the virus was transmitted and how this transmission could be halted. Between 15 January and 3 March, the NHC published seven editions of its guidelines. A look at them shows a precise development of its knowledge about the virus and its plans for mitigation; these included new methods for treatment, including the use of ribavirin and a combination of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and modern medicine. The National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine would eventually report that 90 percent of patients received a traditional medicine, which was found to be effective in 90 percent of them.

By 22 January, it had become clear that transport in and out of Wuhan had to be restricted. That day, the State Council Information Office urged people not to go to Wuhan, and the next day the city was essentially shut down. The grim reality of the virus had by now become clear to everyone…

For those of us living in the United States, it is poignant indeed to learn of the breadth, organizational acumen, and effectiveness of the steps taken by the Chinese government and contrast them with the denialism, xenophobia, cronyism, anti-scientific bias, chaos, and sheer mean-spiritedness that have marked our President’s actions.

* * *

Traditional measures of the “strength” of a nation look at either its military capabilities or its economic achievement. It is clear, though, that other factors also critically undergird a nation’s strength. The first is a country’s internal social cohesiveness, which itself derives from a number of hard-to-measure factors– though nearly all of them are related in some way to the degree of trust that exists within the society: both the trust that exists among the society’s different members and groups and the trust they have in their institutions. The other two “soft-power” determinants of a country’s strength are the network of constructive relationships it enjoys with other countries and the general prestige or standing that it enjoys among people worldwide.

Since his arrival in office, Pres. Trump has seriously degraded all of these measures of the United States’ “soft” power, though it is also true to say that the level of the country’s internal social cohesiveness has been low for several decades– that is, the decades in which a hyper-individualistic and money-worshipping ethos has taken hold.

Trump and the financier-dominated circles in which he likes to move have been  focused tightly on the need to get “the economy” moving again– even if, as he acknowledged yesterday, this could come at the cost of the lives of numerous Americans. By “economy”, he clearly means corporate profits though (following Umair Haque) it is always useful to remember what the true roots and origins of a weighty word like this one are. “Economy” comes from the two Greek words “oikos” (a home) and “nomos” (a body of laws or or principles.) Hence, a country’s “economy” is– or should be– a set of principles that govern the good stewardship of the nation’s “household”, that is, the resources at its command– including, of course, the human resources that constitute it.

A country’s “economy” is not synonymous with the corporate profits that its shareholders and financiers can pull in. And certainly, a country’s “economy” should not and cannot be placed in any type of zero-sum opposition to the wellbeing of its citizens.

If Americans are all dead, who will buy the products of the country’s corporations? Who will pay the taxes that let the shareholders of Raytheon get fat? Who will shine Steven Mnuchin’s shoes?

* * *

So, looking forward, we see a situation in which China and a number of other advanced countries that have contained and nearly eliminated the coronavirus, and have in place good mechanisms for preventing it from exploding once again, will be cautiously moving forward on opening up their societies and their economies on the basis of the new, epidemic-preventing measures they will be installing… while the United States (and Britain) will be spending the coming months still mired in the web of the virus and its demands.

In Tomas Pueyo’s potent imagery of “The Hammer and the Dance”, the “dance” part of the United States’ experience of Covid will be bumpy and still have a very high mean level.

And this, for what it’s worth, is where Pueyo placed the major nations of the world on the “hammer/dance” curve as of April 20:

The countries that are “dancing low” on this curve will evidently be able to restart their economies sooner and more effectively.

On April 24, MSNBC published a series of charts showing both what the measured economic effects of the pandemic had been on various countries’ economies, and some projections. (Since then, the situation has almost certainly gotten worse for the United States.) Here are two of the charts:

* * *

I have a lot more to write about about the rapid dissolving that the United States’ previous position of global hegemony has been undergoing in the past 100 days. But this is a start…

The post Covid-19 sharply headbutts U.S. hegemony appeared first on Just World Educational.

Horizons (temporal, geopolitical, & otherwise) on Covid-19

by Helena Cobban

The following piece is crossposted from Just World News, the blog of JWE President Helena Cobban.

There are, it seems to me, two distinct kinds of horizon that anyone considering the effects of Covid-19 on global politics and society needs to look at. One is the time horizon: Crucially, how soon until we can see the widespread (or universal?) delivery of a safe and functioning vaccine against this coronavirus. The other is what I call the “scope horizon”: How deep will be the changes that the explosion of this plague inflicts on societies everywhere? Of course, they are linked. If someone could magically discover, manufacture, and globally deliver a safe vaccine against Covid-19 within, say, a month, then the scope of the changes wrought by the plague would be much smaller than if we’re talking about 18-24 months– though still by no means trivial.

Too many people (led by Pres. Trump) have consistently grossly under-estimated the time horizon; though at least we always have Dr. Anthony Fauci and other real experts persistently telling us that development, testing, and delivery of a new vaccine could take 18 months or more. Regarding the “scope horizon”, however, nearly everyone seems to be grossly under-estimating the scope of the changes this pandemic is causing. Many people talk about “getting back to normal life”, as though that might even be a possibility. Others talk a little archly about getting to “a new normal”– as though just a few tweaks in the old normal will be sufficient to allow the resumption of something very similar to pre-Covid life. But after deep consideration of the matter, I have concluded that no return to anything recognizably like the pre-Covid world is likely– or even, in most countries, possible. It is particularly hard to see how a return to the pre-Covid world is possible here in the United States. And the sheer weight of the domination  the USA has exerted over all aspects of the “international system” since 1991 means that many other aspects of the lives of all the world’s other countries will also be deeply affected– however successfully they meet the immediate challenges that the Covid poses to their own societies.

Meanwhile, at a global level, the geopolitical “balance” between the world’s major power centers is being shifted extremely rapidly by this Covid crisis– primarily from the USA to China but with significant other shifts occurring, too. Such a global-scale shift in geopolitical power carries numerous risks at many levels, especially given the capabilities the now-deeply-threatened power centers in the USA have for destroying large portions of the world and/or the people who live in them through the massively destructive military and financial weapons in the USA’s world-controlling arsenal. This shift does also present some previously hard-to-imagine opportunities for building a more truly cooperative (and therefore, resilient) global order. But I don’t think we can start to build it unless we understand how grave the challenges– not just to the current, or pre-Covid, state of affairs– but to human life itself– really are.

* * *

Let’s for a moment examine some of what the shocking images in the montage above tell us. These were all news photos of U.S. residents lining up in cars to get free food from  community-based “food banks” in various parts of the country in mid-April… Yes, we learn from the pictures that the need for free food handouts had become immense. But we also learn– or are reminded– that throughout the United States, these non-governmental food banks have existed for many decades, because in the absence of anything like an adequate social-safety net, widespread hunger has already existed in the United States for many decades. (And we learn, too, that large phalanxes of people currently experiencing or imminently facing hunger in the United States drive fairly nice-looking cars. These are not the broken-down jalopies of the Tom Joad era. But the fact that so many people apparently need to have cars in order to access an emergency service like a hunger-alleviating food program tells us a lot about the paucity of public transit systems and the heavy reliance on income-consuming, climate-destroying private autos experienced by people in nearly all parts of the country except New York City.)

The reporting coming out on the struggle to survive in densely populated, Covid-heavy parts of New York City like Queens or the Bronx, is even more disturbing.

The vast majority of people around the world must be gobsmacked as they watch this news reporting coming out of the United States. This is happening— in the richest country in the world, and one that for the past 30 years has claimed to be (and arrogantly acted as) the “leader” of the  whole world?


And they also have constant, vivid reminders of the extreme dysfunction at the apex of the American system, with a president who gives a near-daily grandstanding performance of breathtakingly anti-scientific and mendacious inanity while the scientists in the room cower in disbelief… And then, he and his Treasury Secretary  shovel the vast majority of the coronavirus bailout money to the big U.S. banks and corporations while managing to persuade even the Democrats in Congress that what they’re signing off on bears a resemblance to Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era “New Deal”…

Economist/historian Michael Hudson elegantly took that claim apart in this mid-April interview (transcript, here.) He noted that, unlike in the New Deal era, the coronavirus “bailout” money is not being spent by the government to employ people to do value-building–and much-needed– work in vital infrastructure sectors; but instead, most of it is going to banks and big corporations. (And even most of the money being sent to citizens directly will end up with landlords or debt-servicing companies.)

Hudson concluded:

what pretends to be a coronavirus bill is going to say, “You think the virus hit you? Wait till we hit you with the financial bill.” The financial bailout aims to enable the financial sector to extract so much money from the economy and drive so many small businesses under that the big venture capital firms and private equity can pick them up at low all prices. You could call it the “Monopolization of the US economy” bill or the “Contributors to Washington politicians” bill.

There was a wish list that the banks had, the real estate interests and corporate lobbyists, that they’d been saving up for just such a crisis opportunity. The coronavirus is equivalent of 9/11. As in 9/11 when President Bush and Cheney pulled out the Patriot Act that they had in their drawer just looking for an excuse. Right now the coronavirus, the Trump-Pelosi bill gives the banks and the real estate sector an excuse to not only be bailed out as if they’re losing money, but to evict their tenants.

* * *

The situation of so many Americans, including right here in Washington DC, is already very bad. (See this small homeless encampment right outside the State Department, at right.) It will get worse, possibly a lot worse. And it will stay very bad for a very long time. Not just because of the time it will necessarily take to discover, test, manufacture, and adequately distribute (worldwide!) a vaccine that can end the continued depradations of this coronavirus, but for a raft of other reasons stemming from weaknesses that have been deeply embedded in American society and culture for some decades.

In addition to the rapacity of the financiers and their “capture” of the executive and legislative branches of government (as noted above), these include:

  • Pres. Trump’s dismantling, back in 2017, of the epidemic-response expertise and capability that previously existed within the executive branch. That led to the shocking (and still existing) shortage of capacity for testing for this coronavirus– which means that all the attempts to “open up the American economy responsibly” are still flying blind.
  • The degradation over some years of many other nationwide public-health and disaster-response tools.
  • The near-complete absence, for many years now, of anything resembling a functioning social safety-net.
  • The ideology of individualism (and distrust of government or just about any other form of collective endeavor) that is deeply etched into the psyche of so many Americans.

* * *

In the dystopian 1973 movie “Soylent Green”, a combination of overpopulation, pollution and climate catastrophe threw New York City (and the whole USA) into a catastrophe in 2022.

The movie-makers forgot to throw in a coronavirus. Covid-19 is now bringing many aspects of the scenario envisaged in that movie– though hopefully not the cannibalism?– into existence two years early.

* * *

And talking of meat-eating, there’s the terrible crisis in the country’s meat-packing plants– and Pres. Trump’s even more appalling response of designating meatpacking to be an “essential industry” so that he could force the workers to stay at their jobs. Even Brent Orrell of the reliably rightwing American Enterprise Institute had this to say about the situation:

There’s an even darker side to the situation… Somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the meat-packing workforce is made up of undocumented workers from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador as well as immigrants from East African nations. As Smithfield Foods’ statement on the Sioux Falls outbreak indelicately put it, the living conditions of these immigrants are “different than they are with your traditional American family.” Get it? They are in overcrowded houses with inadequate sanitation. “They” aren’t like “us”. Since many — perhaps a majority — of them lack legal status, they are unable to defend themselves against exploitative or coercive labor practices. As recently as last August, ICE agents were rounding them up by the hundreds for deportation.

We need to make up our minds on a number of issues. On the one hand, we shower praise on “essential workers” in hospitals, grocery stores, sanitation and other occupations. On the other, we engage in acts of economic coercion with vulnerable populations who do some of the dirtiest, most difficult, and most dangerous work around. We build a fence along our southern border to keep out illegal immigrants but then seek to force those who are already here to do jobs American citizens simply will not do.

(Hat-tip, once again, to Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism.)

* * *

And meanwhile, the U.S. government struts around the world telling other countries what to do and using many of the powerful tools at its disposal to punish them if they disobey.

Primarily, these days, these are not military tools but the financial tools that it uses to impose on governments and companies all round the world compliance with the super-punishing sanctions regimes it has quite illegally slapped on whole countries like Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea.

In an era of pandemic that threatens the vulnerable populations of those countries much more acutely than it does the United States.

Can you believe that?

(Learn more about the impact of sanctions, here.)

* * *

I had intended to complete this piece by looking at the implications of all the above on the global “balance of power”– that is, the balance between the US government, which represents about 5% of global humankind and the governments and peoples that make up the other 95%. But there have been a lot of ambulance sirens on our street this afternoon. So I’ll leave the second half of this essay until another day.

The post Horizons (temporal, geopolitical, & otherwise) on Covid-19 appeared first on Just World Educational.

Triple Jeopardy: Refugees/Migrants/ Palestinian Prisoners

by Richard Falk

The following piece is crossposted from Global Justice in the 21st Century, the blog of JWE Board Member Richard Falk.

Prefatory Note: This post was published in a somewhat altered form in Transcend MediaService on April 20, 2020 under the title “Triple Jeopardy and the Plight of Palestinian Prisoners.

Double Jeopardy for Refugees/Migrants

Recently reflecting on the plight of refugees fleeing war zones in the Middle East and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and Central America I was struck by the analogy to ‘double jeopardy.’ As widely understood, double jeopardy is a procedural rule of criminal law that prohibits prosecution by a state of an individual more than once for the same crime. It is deservedly treated as a human right that protects persons from being harassed after judicial acquittal by repeated allegations of the same alleged crime. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) in Article 14(7) defines double jeopardy: “No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offense for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.” (There are exceptions for acquittals tainted by fraud, confessions by the accused, and the wording of the rule should be corrected for its gender bias implying that it is only ‘men’ who could be victimized by vindictive re-prosecution).

For some years, the images of violent border security associated with keeping masses of needy refugees or migrants from crossing international boundaries to reach more peaceful or affluent countries in Europe or North America is what prompted me to sense an analogy to the kind of ordeal that exists when someone wins an acquittal after a long, emotionally and economically costly trial, and is then confronted by a new indictment for essentially the same supposed criminal offense. In a well-administered democracy, the double jeopardy rule is taken for granted, and prevents such injustices from happening. But what of the world of refugees and migrants?

What made the double jeopardy comparison apt for me were these haunting images of doubling down on punishment of those who were not only innocent, but already victimized by circumstances beyond their control, and then again punished for acts that deserve empathy and accommodation, not punishment, if humanitarian values were extended to  refugees/migrants. My existential premise, borne out by some experience, is that persons almost never leave their place of birth and family residence without overwhelming provocation, and are especially hesitant to use their small saving and meager borrowings to embark on a voyage to a distant land with a different language and culture. Most of us, even if dissatisfied with conditions in our native land or our personal circumstances will still not voluntarily depart from the familiarities of family and friends, and of language, traditions, and nationality. Only circumstances of grave danger such as presented by ravaged combat zones or resulting from grinding poverty found in societies that confront residents and entire communities with gray horizons of hopelessness that offer neither safety nor security, can induce most persons to so uproot themselves. In other words, the motivation underlying the emotional reality of the overwhelming majority of refugees and migrants is one of desperation, of grasping at straws and escaping doom. Of course, the small nomadic elites of adventurers, exiles, and expatriates are examples of persons leaving their home countries not from necessity, but in pursuit of the exotic and the paradisiac.

This sad depiction of the decision to flee to safety or to search for economic security is then generally accompanied by a treacherous and harrowing journey that often drains the traveler of his or her small savings. Many trips end with death and illness for many in the group, or perilous trips across stormy seas or barren deserts, only to be confronted by a coercive ‘no’ in the form of barbed wire, walls, detention centers, and even live ammunition if and when the destination is reached. To be placed in detention centers with long waits may be the best that can be hoped for by such forsaken souls, often including young children, that experience the depths of insecurity in their homeland, and also along the way that reaches a negative climax when and if the national goal is ever reached.

I am not suggesting that this refugee/migrant experience is double jeopardy in a legal sense, but it seems to possess the same ingredients of the unjust repetition of indictment and prosecution, itself punitive, that is prohibited as a part of civilized behavior in a society responsive to the rule of law, and protective of human rights. It is a kind of morally grounded, culturally and spiritually debasing, and often life-threatening duplication of criminal prosecution without any account being taken of human dignity and fundamental innocence of those being victimized, or the ordeal of struggling against a criminal allegation.

And yet, moral outrage or a call for compassion does not acknowledge the complexity of the issues raised. Unlike the individuals accused of the same crime a second time, the refugee/migrant does not, as such, pose real threats to the countries that are being expected to act as benign hosts or to extend hospitality to strangers in need. This is notto say that a country does not have the right to deny entry to those with criminal records or contagious diseases, provided due process is accorded, and similarly have authority to insist that those who enter do legally.

We live in a state-centric world where international boundaries define the outer limits of community, which has not changed fundamentally no matter how much we hear cosmopolitan sermonizing and ecologically persuasive calls for planetary identity. In such a framework, the citizenry of a country feel threatened in various ways by the influx of large numbers of strangers, especially if their racial and cultural characteristics clash with that of the country asked to show hospitality or grant asylum. The reality of this resistance is producing extremisms of scapegoating and xenophobia, which make moderates search for compromises in the form of requiring lawful entry, quotas, job training, and language and civilizational educational resources. Given the scale of the challenge, and the unlikely emergence of greater receptivity, the main line of an effective and humane response structure should be a large investment in overcoming the conditions in foreign countries that give rise to massive displacement and large numbers of persons desperate to find more sustainable life conditions. Overcoming double jeopardy in these settings depends on a self-interested globalization of responsibility for achieving peace and security, as well as lifting the curse of poverty, and this requires the drastic reform of the way the benefits of neoliberal globalization are distributed much more equitably than in the past.      

Triple Jeopardy for Palestinian Prisoners at a Time of Pandemic

This metaphor for layers of unjust suffering initially occurred to me while preparing a ZOOM presentation on the abuse of Palestinian prisoners in the context of the health dangers associated with the COVID-19 challenge. Such dangers were present for Palestinians under pre-pandemic conditions, but greatly aggravated by Israeli failures to mitigate the additional and aggravated risks that come from keeping around 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in overcrowded prisons where some of the guards and security personnel were reported as testing positive for the virus yet continued to interact with prisoners without prescribed personal protective gear (PPE), and where insufficient hospital and medical capabilities existed in the event that the disease started to spread. This overall sub-par situation was further accentuated in relation to an. estimated 172 child prisoners, many elderly and disabled prisoners, and almost all inmates incarcerated for nonviolent security offenses that should never have been criminalized because of falling within the scope of a right of resistance possessed by persons living under an apartheid regime, which is itself a serious violation of international criminal law. The right to resist Israeli apartheid, at least within the limits of international law regulating violence by reference to choice of targets and other considerations. Israel has not accepted WHO guidelines or a variety of humanitarian appeals by respected NGOs to release at least ‘low-risk’ prisoners as well as those with ‘underlying conditions,’ children, and the elderly.

Taking these considerations into account the ‘triple jeopardy’ framing seems justified to underscore the layers of injustice endured by Palestinian prisoners at this time. As the Palestinian writer, Ramzy Baroud, writes, “..all of Palestine has been in a state of ‘lockdown’ since the late 1940s when Israel became a state and the Palestinian homeland was erased by Zionist colonialists with the support of Western benefactors.” To drive the point home, Baroud adds, “In Palestine, we don’t call our imprisonment a lockdown, but a ‘military occupation’ and apartheid.” [See Baroud, “A Palestinian Guide to Surviving a Quarantine: On Faith, Humour, and ‘Dutch Candy,’” Middle East Monitor, April 5, 2020]. In effect, Baroud is insisting that all Palestinians are enduring an unjust ‘imprisonment’ that has lasted for more than 71 years with no signs of abatement, and is itself a punishment of individuals of a certain ethnicity for the ‘crime’ of existing.

On this basis, the criminalization of resistance, including nonviolent and symbolic forms, extending even to poem and poets (for example, Dareen Tatour, and her crime, the poem “Resist, my people, resist them”), has resulted in harsh confinement in Israeli prisons, including reliance on such legally dubious mechanisms as ‘administrative detention’ (imprisoning without charges or any due process for extended periods) and the unlawful transfer of prisoners from detention in Occupied Palestine to prisons in Israel [behind the green line], andd out of reach of family members). In effect, the imprisoning of any Palestinian in Israeli jails is Double Jeopardy because it puts Palestinians already punishment by lockdown, displacement, and dispossession behind bars because they dared to assert their right of resistance.

The allegation of Triple Jeopardy arises from the failure to suspend or mitigate prison condition in light of the Coronavirus Pandemic, and the related failure to take responsible steps to protect those so confined from contracting a highly contagious and potentially lethal disease. A virtual death sentence hangs over every single Palestinian prisoner for as long as the pandemic lasts, and poses especially acute risks with respect to particularly vulnerable categories of Palestinians living in prisons.

 Toward Solutions?

It is not possible to set forth detailed proposals to overcome double and triple jeopardy as depicted. I will only indicate the vectors that point in a direction sensitive to practical and normative aspects of the challenge.

For Double Jeopardy: seek to accommodate an ethos of hospitality and empathy with a major commitment at the UN and by national governments to take steps to remove the conditions of mass desperation prompting large numbers to leave their homelands, an undertaking ideally funded by a globally administered tax on luxury goods, financial transactions, fossil fuels, and transnational air travel.

For Triple Jeopardy: release all Palestinian political prisoners immediately, with a sense of urgency, and commit to ending apartheid as the essential step toward a sustainable and just peace based on the equality of rights of Jews and Palestinians.

Image by Fifaliana Joy from Pixabay

The post Triple Jeopardy: Refugees/Migrants/ Palestinian Prisoners appeared first on Just World Educational.