Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 2014

The chilling pictures of Israeli civilians watching and cheering from a hilltop the heart-rending massacre of people in Gaza by tanks and aircraft invite comparison with the worst Nazi horrors. Gaza is neither a state nor a country. It has no army. Sandwiched between Egypt on one side and the Israeli army on the other, the mostly defenceless Palestinians have been slaughtered in more than two weeks of relentless bombing by one of the most powerful militaries on earth, armed to its teeth by the United States and its European allies.

Disgracefully, the U.S was the only state that voted against a recent UN Human Rights Commission resolution calling for an international investigation into war crimes committed by Israeli forces in Gaza. Several EU states abstained. The typical Orwellian Newspeak of “Israel has the right to defend itself” flounders in the face of the horrendous statistics: more than a thousand Palestinians killed while the number of Israeli civilians killed by Hamas rockets is counted as less than a dozen!

This is the way Israel has fought its wars in recent decades- showing contempt for international laws and the rules of military engagement. (For the disproportionate figures in recent conflicts in Gaza, see http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28439404) I have often enough commented on this Blog of the hypocrisy and double standards of U.S administrations when it comes to human rights, a hypocrisy that undermines the efforts of all of us who seek to hold our own governments accountable for crimes against humanity.

If the U.S government and its timid European allies cannot be pressured into defending human persons in Palestine, to whom should we turn?

The Israeli military machine is dependent on Western business corporations. This raises the question of corporate responsibility regarding international law and human rights.

Israel procures a significant amount of its military hardware from US-based defence companies, a fact that solidifies the connection between US foreign policy and business agendas.

I am glad, therefore, to learn that the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted in June to divest from three companies (Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard) that sold equipment to Israel that facilitated illegal activities such as the bulldozing of Palestinian homes, building an apartheid-like wall of separation, and the use of military drones in heavily civilian areas.

“Hewlett-Packard provides bio-scanners that are used to racially profile Palestinians and to track and control their movement,” explained Anna Baltzer, national organizer for the “US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation”, a national coalition that has mobilized support for boycott and divestment efforts. “It is no overstatement to say that many of these campaigns have dramatically shifted the discourse around Israel/Palestine – in the mainstream media, on university campuses, in the church pews, and beyond – in an unprecedented way,” she added.

In 2012, the United Methodist Church passed resolutions supporting the boycott of products made in Israeli settlements; and the Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation divested its stockholdings in Caterpillar, HP, and Veolia Environnement, a French water, waste and transport management company involved in the construction of a tram system being built by French engineering companies on occupied Palestinian land. A year later, several Methodist regional conferences also voted to divest, and the Mennonite Central Committee board of directors unanimously decided that MCC (U.S) will not “knowingly invest in companies that benefit from products or services used to perpetrate acts of violence against Palestinians, Israelis and other people groups.”

These are, admittedly, small steps. But several small steps can precipitate a social avalanche.

Corporations with internationally renowned brand names (such as the three above) are quick to respond to criticism with pious pronouncements about their ethical policies and commitments to respecting rights. However, reading Motorola’s human rights policy shows that the company only addresses internal employee issues such as safety in the workplace and fair working hours.

Of course it is not fair to blame business corporations for the use to which their products may be put by their buyers. But shouldn’t they be more discerning in their sales? Wouldn’t we be right to blame somebody who knowingly sold alcohol to an alcoholic or cigarettes to a schoolboy?

The 2011 United Nation’s “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” calls on business enterprise to “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” The document also calls on them to understand the “concerns of potentially affected stakeholders by consulting them directly… In situations where such consultation is not possible, business enterprises should consider reasonable alternatives such as consulting credible, independent expert resources, including human rights defenders and others from civil society.”

Ignorance of the Bible (especially the Old Testament) was largely the reason for the shocking complicity of many European Christians in Europe’s centuries-long maltreatment of the Jews. Today it is still ignorance of the Bible (especially the New Testament), coupled with ignorance of the 20th-century history of Palestine, which has led to the shocking betrayal by many American Christians of their brothers and sisters in Gaza and the West Bank.

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

These words of Thomas Jefferson, extracted from a letter to George Washington in 1786, are carved in the interior wall of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. Jefferson himself was no orthodox Christian, but he was heir to a Christian heritage, and deeply influenced by the English philosopher John Locke who was a committed member of the Church of England.

I recalled these words when a friend drew my attention to various controversies in the U.S which revolve around the decision of some public universities to exclude those religious groups who have strict conditions of membership. Sometimes the exclusion is couched in the language of “non-discrimination” against people who identify themselves as “gay” or “lesbian”, at other times it targets any kind of “discrimination” that is based on specifically religious arguments, and (in the most bizarre cases) it is directed against any membership requirements at all.

This is the stuff of high farce. And we need a Swift or a Chesterton to do it justice. In a nation that proclaims “In God we trust” on its banknotes and “one nation under God” in its Pledge of Allegiance, some universities and law courts are declaring that religious opinions and arguments have no place in public life. It seems that those who make these declarations are unfamiliar with the Preamble to the American Declaration of Independence; the specifically theological origins of notions such as “equality”, “inherent human dignity”, “human rights”; and even the founding charters of the most famous universities in the U.S.

For those who do not subscribe to the “political correctness” ideology that has overtaken large swathes of American cultural life, the comparison with totalitarian regimes is pretty clear. It seems that while Americans are free to believe whatever they want, their freedom to manifest that belief in individual and collective practices is severely restricted.

The late Czech President Vaclav Havel shrewdly observed that under communist repression individuals were not required to have certain beliefs, but just behave publicly as though they did, keeping silent about what they themselves thought. He wrote: “For this reason they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system.”

Respecting people is not the same as respecting their beliefs. A blanket respect for all beliefs is meaningless. Moreover, when all beliefs are said to be equally respected, all are equally ignored. What remains are the social and political practices of the dominant majority to which others must now conform. That spells the end of a free society.

It also spells the death of the university. Universities are institutions which should be giving the lead to the rest of society in how to engage in civil argument on controversial issues (e.g. whether sexual orientation is given and unchanging; whether “equality” should always trump “freedom”; whether “faith” and “reason” are necessarily opposed; whether “sexual identity” is a cultural construct, and so on). Rather than excluding groups who hold contrary views to the majority, universities committed to truth-seeking should be encouraging students and professors to debate the taken-for-granted assumptions of a society, even to the extent of critiquing the laws of the country. If this is what we expect in, say, Africa, why not in the USA?

It would also be interesting to hear what PC advocates understand by a “religious argument” and how it differs structurally from a “secular argument”. Postmodern philosophy in recent decades has excavated the hidden (and, therefore, all the more powerful) biases built in to the public discourse of “neutrality” and even “equality”. Secularist thinkers may not have sacred texts. But they do have their creedal Statements of Faith: “the autonomy of the individual”, the “sovereign will of the People”, “evolution is atheistic”, “no judgment beyond death”, and so on.

If a Republican student society were to refuse to let socialists sit on its committee, would it be considered “sociophobic”? Would Christians and Muslims be welcome in Atheist/Humanist societies? (If so, what would be the point of such a society?) Are college authorities banning all Sororities and Fraternities, and any ethnic-based student societies? Are the authorities planning to open the college doors to all who desire an education and not just those who have the money and the academic ability? These are some questions on which I seek enlightenment.

No institution or organization that eschewed clear standards of belief and practice would last very long. Without criteria of membership, and distinctive activities, they would soon cease to exist. They would have no character worth preserving. Sociological studies indicate that those institutions that make no demands on their members soon wither and die. It is what has happened to many mainstream churches in North America. It is probably what the militant secularists on American college campuses are hoping for- but the sword cuts both ways.

However, the exclusion of Christian groups may be a blessing in disguise. It can force Christians to stop “playing church” on campus (which is what the majority simply do); and instead to permeate all societies and academic conversations, bringing to these (humbly, yet boldly) a well-thought-through Christian mind and voice. No one can suppress that right.

[See, too, my Blog post of 16 July 2010: The Death of Argument?]


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