Building the BDS Movement for Justice in Palestine
Video and Edited Transcript Chris Hedges Transcript No. 440 (14 September 2015)
My name is Zeina Azzam, and I am the executive director here. I am very happy to have all of you with us today. We are so pleased and so honored that Christopher Hedges has accepted our invitation to speak at the Palestine Center. Welcome, Chris. Ahlan wa sahlan. And the subject he’s addressing, the BDS or boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, is most timely indeed. He links the growth of this movement to an increase in economic pressure on Israel, which could help pave the way to a fair and equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Our speaker will have the floor for about forty minutes, after which I’ll invite you to ask your questions, and viewers online can tweet their questions to @PalestineCenter.
So let me introduce our distinguished speaker: Christopher Hedges is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and former Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times. He writes a weekly column on the truthdig.com website that tackles a wide variety of subjects, such as American militarism and imperial power, BDS, human rights, the agriculture industry, police brutality, and the prison system, and these are just a few of his recent articles. His breadth and depth of knowledge and analysis is truly amazing. Chris is the author of twelve books, notably the New York Times bestseller Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which he co-authored with the cartoonist Joe Sacco. His other books include: Death of the Liberal Class, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, and the best-selling, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. He’s a senior fellow at the Nation Institute in New York City. He has taught at Columbia, NYU, Princeton and the University of Toronto and currently teaches prisoners at a maximum security prison in New Jersey. Chris Hedges has covered conflicts for twenty years in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than fifty countries and has worked for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, the Dallas Morning News, and the New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years. He has also written for a number of publications, such as Harper’s Magazine, Le Monde, the New York Review of Books, and Foreign Affairs. He speaks Arabic, French, and Spanish; in fact, he just held an interview in Spanish. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard. In 2014, Chris Hedges was ordained as a minister at the Second Presbyterian Church. So welcome, Christopher Hedges.
Thank you very much.
The corruption within our own political system [has] reached a point where money has replaced the vote, where our two major political parties are completely hostage to corporate power, where the judiciary has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the corporate state, and where the arms industry and our bloated military have essentially seized control of foreign policy, sucking up massive amounts of our national budget. [They constitute] about 54 percent officially, but that doesn’t count veteran’s affairs, it doesn’t count our nuclear weapons program, and it doesn’t account for the millions of dollars that are hidden within black budgets that we’re not allowed to see, by some estimates pushing expenditures on the military up to 1.6 trillion dollars a year. It means we have undergone what the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul correctly calls a “coup d’etat in slow motion,” and it’s over. They’ve won.
We live in a system now that the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin—our greatest living political philosopher and the author of the seminal work Politics and Vision, which is the history of western political thought, and the book, Democracy Incorporated, which examines the actual configurations of power in the United States—describes as “inverted totalitarianism,” by which he means it’s not classical totalitarianism. It doesn’t find its expression through a demagogue or a charismatic leader, but through the anonymity of the corporate state. [There are] corporate forces that purport to pay fealty to electoral politics, the constitution, and the iconography and language of American patriotism, and yet internally [they] have seized all of the levers of power to render the citizen impotent.
We have seen a consolidation of corporate power, in particular in the media, and this was given to us by Bill Clinton. Clinton was embodying, like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, new Labour. And of course we’ve seen a dramatic insurgency in Britain with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, who actually, unlike Bernie Sanders, is a socialist. We will watch the Labour party and the neoliberal establishment work to destroy [Corbyn] as fast as they can, in the same way that our own insurgency in 1972, with the rise of George McGovern as the Democratic nominee, saw the Democratic establishment allied with the Republican [establishment]. The rest of the powerful elite made sure that another McGovern would never happen within the Democratic party. But the media is quite worrying—and I write in my book, The Death of the Liberal Class, a lot about this process—and Clinton, like Obama, embodies this kind of faux-liberalism, where you continue to speak in that “feel-your-pain” language of the liberal but assiduously serve corporate power. So many of the assaults on working men and women [occurred] and so many of the impediments that were used to stay the hand of imperialism were lifted under the Clinton administration: NAFTA in 1994 (the greatest betrayal of the working class in this country since the Taft-Harley Act in 1948, which made it hard to organize), the destruction of welfare under Clinton (70 percent of the original recipients under our old welfare system were children), the destruction of the Glass-Steagall [Act], the explosion of the prison population with the Omnibus Crime Bill that Clinton passed, and these draconian three-strikes-you’re-out laws.
But I’m going to focus on [the media] in particular because Clinton deregulated the FCC. And what that did was [that it] allowed the airwaves to be consolidated into the hands of about a half dozen corporations: Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, Viacom, General Electric, Clear Channel, and Disney. And this is unlike the old media monopolies, the old Hearst monopolies of an earlier period. These essentially put media entities under the umbrella of giant corporations; the media becomes just one revenue stream that has to perform against other revenue streams, including that of General Electric’s huge defense contracts. And that really destroyed electronic media completely and shut out any kind of rational debate about anything in American society, and in particular, [about] foreign policy.
So if you remember, if we go back to the debate about whether we should intervene in Syria, the debate largely broke down around two arguments. One was: “Should we just bomb them?” or “Should we bomb them and put boots on the ground?” That was really the debate, as if those were the two options laid out for us. And I now look at the media, and I’m old enough to have begun in the press: I started covering the war in El Salvador in the early 1980s. I’ve watched the devolution of the press, the deterioration [and the] destruction, of public broadcasting and NPR [in particular]. And so, voices that should be heard have essentially been locked out; options that should be discussed have been silenced. And that has benefitted the power elite and in particular the neoliberal forces that are defined in the United States as the Israeli Lobby. It isn’t, of course, the Israeli Lobby. I’m old enough to remember (and have covered) Yitzhak Rabin’s campaign for Prime Minister. When Rabin ran for Prime Minister in Israel, this so-called Israeli Lobby was funneling money and advisors into defeating Rabin and promoting Likud, and later, Khadima, Netanyahu, and the neoliberals.
This is a movement, and Norman Finkelstein has pointed this out correctly: it is a neoliberal project, not an Israeli project. I lived in Jerusalem in the late 1980s; I actually got there just in time for the First Intifada. Israel now has some of the highest levels of inequality, harsh security and surveillance, and harassment, and I’m just talking about Israeli dissidents, not even the repression of Palestinians. [What has happened in Israel] mirrors what has happened within the American project. It’s a neoliberal project, and AIPAC and groups like that were picketing Rabin’s house outside of Tel Aviv; I think he was in Herziliya. And they did everything they could to make sure that Rabin would not become Prime Minister, and when he did, Rabin did not invite any of these groups to his inauguration. There was a story—maybe apocryphal, though knowing Rabin, it sounds credible; he was a fairly earthy guy—[in which] I heard from someone in his office [that] on his first trip to Washington, AIPAC put out a request to meet with him, and Rabin’s response was, “I don’t meet with scumbags,” or the equivalent in Hebrew. If he didn’t say it, that certainly was his attitude. I think we forget that the so-called Israeli Lobby does not serve the interests of Israel, it serves the interests of the neo-cons and the neoliberal mandarins who speak to their own citizens and to the rest of the world exclusively in the language of austerity and violence. And these people are frightening because they are culturally, historically, and linguistically illiterate.
You look at the whole project to invade Iraq—I spent seven years in the Middle East, much of that time in Iraq—and all of the excuses and visions that were imparted to justify that invasion and occupation, which I think has arguably become the most dangerous and costly strategic decision ever made in American history, were not reality-based. The idea that Ba’athists would greet us as liberators, that democracy would be implanted in Baghdad and would emanate outward across the Middle East (in particular to Iran), or that the oil revenues would pay for the reconstruction: all of this was utopian, to go back to the original root of the word, which means “no place.” It’s hard to think of Dick Cheney as utopian, but in this way he was, and we have paid for that ignorance. Iraq as a unified country is never coming back, we’ve lost the war in Afghanistan, and the only people who profit from this war [are] General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Halliburton. And believe me, they are not sitting around their boardrooms asking, “How can we make peace in the Middle East?” because their stock prices have quadrupled since 9/11. They are sitting around—along with our war machine, the Pentagon and the military, which I think has become the most dangerous institution to American democracy—figuring out how they can perpetuate endless war, and it’s a seamless transition. Guess where all these generals go to work once they retire.
[There is] corruption within the political landscape: we have seized up. One hundred senators last summer, like AIPAC wind-up dolls—including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—voted to justify what can only be described as a massacre. When you attack a population that has no army, no navy, no mechanized units, no air force, and no command and control – that is not a war – that is murder. And of course, because the media is completely controlled, [there was an] inability to present the fact that under international law, a subject population that is attacked has the right to defend itself. Hamas had a right, under international law, to defend itself. And that is not to defend the Qassam rockets (Norman Finkelstein called them “enhanced fireworks”): they were a war crime because they were indiscriminate. But [they don’t compare to] the war crimes perpetrated by Israel: [there were] 2,000 dead, including over 500 children. Tens of hundreds of tons of explosives were delivered on Gaza. Almost all of the Israelis that were killed were soldiers, and almost all of them were killed in Gaza or near the border of Gaza by Hamas fighters. But that fact, that reality, is something that was utterly locked out of public debate.
The coverage subservient to Israel [was constituted of] pictures of Israelis running to their basements and rockets and air-raid sirens going off, while [in Gaza] entire apartment complexes were blown to smithereens by 1,000 pound iron fragmentation bombs. I have been in Gaza when the Israelis have bombed it. I have gone to the bomb sites. The description is always a “surgical strike against a bomb making factory” in Jabaliya or wherever, and then you go to the bomb sites and see the destructive power of these bombs, where whole blocks are taken out and civilian bodies, including children, are lined up. To hear the account of what happened emanating out of Jerusalem and echoed by the international press, and to stand on the street and see the reality, is a window into the big lie. Israel is quite adept at [espousing] the big lie. It is [told] for two reasons. One, the Israeli public no longer has any contact with Palestinians, so their version of reality is created for them by the Israeli government. Secondly, it is a message to the Palestinian people. They talk about how they don’t target civilians and [how] they drop warning thuds on roofs. When the message is so at odds with the indiscriminate use of high explosives, it sends a message to the Palestinian people that says, “Your truth is utterly irrelevant.” It is a way of reinforcing the fact that Israel will never cease its reign of terror against the Palestinian people.
I have no hope left that we are ever going to be able, through the formal mechanism of politics [or] perhaps even the press, to bring justice to the Palestinian people. What has been happening is the rise of an unfettered, racist, rabidly right wing [group]. When I covered Israel, the idea that the ideology of Kahane would become mainstream was unthinkable. Yet, you listen to Avigdor Lieberman and others; they echo Kahane and these racist, fascist, Jewish groups now within the mainstream. We have seen physically huge seizures of land. East Jerusalem is unrecognizable because of building by the Israeli government and the mass evictions. Forty percent of the West Bank is gone, and the aquifers have been seized. I don’t have to tell many people in this room that if you look at the map of the West Bank, they have just created a half dozen or more isolated pods, ghettos, completely surrounded by ring-roads and closed zones that at a flick of the switch create little Gazas. There has been an Africanization of the Palestinians on purpose, so those with means flee, and the rest of the Palestinian population—especially in Gaza, but also in the West Bank—are forced to put all of their energy into survival, into subsistence level [livelihood]. It is, as Pappe said, a slow-motion genocide. At this point, all restraints on this slow-motion genocide are lifted. Obama’s White House has made no secret of its distaste for Bibi Netanyahu. (Not surprisingly: having met Bibi that is understandable. He is certainly one of the most arrogant, unpleasant human beings that I have ever run across.) And yet they are powerless. They are utterly powerless because the Israeli lobby—through money, just like corporations—have essentially gamed the system and prevented any kind of restraint and any kind of rational debate.
That brings us to BDS. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement is the last, best hope to save the Palestinian people. If it fails, Palestine will be obliterated. If you don’t think that is the plan, pull out a map and look [at] what Israel is doing. The BDS movement will succeed only through the grassroots. Lobbying your congressman, writing letters, or signing petitions is an utter waste of your time. At this point, we have to begin to mobilize at the local level, within institutions. I come out of the Presbyterian church, and by four votes last year, they approved sanctions against Israel. We are seeing a war carried out [at universities], orchestrated by the Israeli lobby against groups like Students for Justice in Palestine. I spoke at Northeastern [University] right after that movement had been banned by the administration. When they ban those students, it always follows the same pattern, where they not only ban the organization, but all the students who are in the organization are stripped of their leadership positions on the university campus, even if they have nothing to do with Palestine. You are watching student council members [and] student presidents being stripped of their positions. Often, these students are then placed on probation. The fact that the forms of punishment are replicated from university to university, I think, are an indication of how coordinated this effort is. Israel is running scared.
We just saw the election of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party, a strong supporter not officially supporting BDS, but who supports all of the goals of BDS, including a two-way arms embargo: i.e., we will not ship or sell arms to Israel. That is why you have a two-tiered response, where the Israeli lobby, through money, essentially neutralizes or buys off the power elite and then on the grassroots level orchestrates a war [against] those people who are organizing around Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Just like South Africa, it will work in exactly the same way. [Firstly], it is going to take time. Secondly, it will work institution by institution by institution. Israel is terrified because in the international community, it is a pariah. If the props of the United States are knocked out from under Israel, then it will be forced to negotiate a solution with the Palestinian people. People ask, “two-state, one-state” and whether the BDS should endorse [either of the two], but that’s not what we are working for. At this point we are working to cripple Israel in the only language it will understand, to force it to sit down and negotiate with the Palestinians to create a system by which the Palestinians can live with justice and with dignity. This will only come when the BDS movement gains significant momentum within the heart of empire itself. It is there.
The one thing that I find most interesting when I go to universities and meet with the Students for Justice in Palestine [is that] often, half of them are Jewish. The consciousness, among Jewish students, of the war crimes and injustices being committed under the cloak of Judaism has radicalized a significant segment of Jewish-American youth. You can see that when Israel goes after those who are speaking out on behalf of the Palestinians, their special venom is always reserved for those who are Jewish: Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Max Blumenthal, and others. These are Jews who essentially have retained, I would argue, not only their conscience—Noam is as secular as you can get—but their faithfulness to the reality of Judaism itself. Judaism was a religion that was written by an oppressed people, and it was acutely concerned with the oppressed and with the corruption of power.
What is going to happen? Israel will, as this movement grows, and as the consciousness of what Israel has become emanates outwards, have to build alliances with the most retrograde political forces in the United States. That is a tactical decision. They understand that support, especially among young Jews in the United States, is at best apathetic and often hostile to what Israel has done. So they are building, and have built, an alliance with the Christian Right. As you have heard, I come out of the liberal Presbyterian Church. I work in a prison, and I was ordained last year to work in the prison. The failure of the liberal Christian church is that they have not named the Christian Right what it is: they are Christian heretics. They are not Christians. Jesus did not come to give us a Cadillac and to make us wealthy, and you don’t have to spend three years at Harvard Divinity School, as I did, in order to figure that out. These forces have sanctified the most destructive elements in America—capitalism, militarism, imperialism, racism—and given [them] the veneer of religious authenticity. They are a powerful and dangerous force within American society. We are seeing them flock to rallies [supporting] figures like Trump and others. They are a product of despair, of economic collapse, of a loss of hope.
I was just in the South, in Alabama, and [there] is one Confederate memorial after another. I was walking through the streets of Montgomery with the great civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, who spent his life defending death row inmates, not surprisingly, most of whom are black and poor. He said that these have all been put up in the last ten years, including a gigantic confederate flag—half of Montgomery is black—just outside of the city of Montgomery, by the Sons of the Confederacy. They had just had a reenactment of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis. [At a] southern white house in Montgomery, a bunch of white guys got up, dressed up like Confederate soldiers, and marched through the streets of the city, while somebody dressed up as Jefferson Davis in a carriage and went to the steps of the capital. And they reenacted the inauguration. I said to Bryan, it reminded me of Yugoslavia. With the economic collapse of Yugoslavia, [there was the rise of] these mythical, ethnic narratives—Serb and Croat primarily—which were all these people who had left, and they [brought forth] these figures of Radovan Karadžić or Slobodan Milošević. We are seeing the same distortion within American society as we are reconfigured under neoliberalism to a kind of neo-feudalism, in which up to two-thirds of this country is now hanging on by its fingertips. As Barbara Ehrenreich says correctly, “To be a member of the working poor in the United States is one long emergency.” The Israeli lobby and government has tactically built alliances with these forces, which are deeply anti-democratic, celebrate the gun culture, and have fused the language and symbols of American Christianity with the state (which is fascism). I think at that point, we can argue that the Israeli lobby is aiding and abetting the most powerful elements within America that seek to destroy our own society.
As somebody who spent 20 years as a war correspondent, I know what violence is. I am not, finally, a pacifist. I was in Sarajevo during the war when we were being hit with 2,000 shells a day, under constant sniper fire, two dozen wounded a day, and four to five dead a day. We knew that if the Serbs broke through that trench system, a third of that city would be slaughtered, and the rest of the city would be driven into refugee and displacement camps. And that wasn’t conjecture. That is what happened in the Drina valley; that is what happened in Vukovar. But I also know the poison of violence. Once you pick up violence—and I think this is applicable to Gaza—even in a supposedly just cause, you are contaminated by violence. While it is still possible, before our society unravels, I think that it is incumbent upon all of us who care about justice and who care about nonviolence to put all of our efforts into the BDS movement to bring justice, finally, to Palestine.
Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and former Middle East Bureau Chief for The New York Times, writes a weekly column on the Truthdig website. He is the author of twelve books, including the New York Times best seller Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012), which he co-authored with the cartoonist Joe Sacco. Some of his other books include Death of the Liberal Class (2010), Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), I Don’t Believe in Atheists (2008) and the best-selling American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2008). He is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New York City. He has taught at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University and The University of Toronto. He currently teaches prisoners at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey.
Hedges previously spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years. In addition to writing his weekly original column for Truthdig, he has written for Harper’s Magazine, Le Monde, The New Statesman, The New York Review of Books, Adbusters, Granta, Foreign Affairs and other publications. In 2014, Chris Hedges was ordained as a minister at the Second Presbyterian Church.