Vinoth Ramachandra

Last Tuesday a gunman walked into a restaurant in a town in the Czech Republic, killed eight customers at random before shooting himself. The incident was reported in small print in most newspapers outside the Czech Republic.

Contrast this with the recent shootings in Ottawa, Sydney and Copenhagen. These were immediately dubbed “terrorist attacks”, although it was subsequently found that the gunmen acted alone, were home-grown citizens, had a history of mental instability (including violence) and were known to the local police. Yet the attacks led to frenzied calls for tighter restrictions on foreigners, more surveillance of vulnerable minorities, expanded powers to the police and security services, and self-righteous affirmations of “national values”.

Following the shootings in Paris, a wave of assaults, arson and vandalism targeting mosques and Muslim organisations occurred in the USA and Europe, including in Copenhagen where Denmark’s only purpose-built mosque, which opened last year, was defaced with Nazi swastikas.

Disturbing questions arise. Are acts of violence “terrorist” only if they are perpetrated by people with a Muslim background? Why are the atrocities committed by ISIL/ISIS given heightened publicity (which is, after all, what groups like this actually seek!) while similar atrocities committed by pro-Western regimes in the Arab world and elsewhere are routinely ignored? Despite the boastful claim to be tolerant, pluralist democracies, how much real civic engagement is there in Western nations among people of different faith-commitments, whether “religious” or “secular”?

The Western media, and especially popular TV channels (like Fox News) and pulp tabloids, are notorious for the profound ignorance they display of the world’s great religions, Christianity no less than Islam. And there are, of course, those deracinated elites who want to obliterate all religious sensibilities while proudly defending “free speech”.

In a letter to a Danish newspaper following the Copenhagen shooting, my wife wrote: “Yet another violent act which no words can suffice to condemn! But this aside – let us take a moment to search our own hearts. When we defend the right to, the need for, and the necessity of free speech for a democratic, truth-loving world, do we Scandinavians really practice this central principle unconditionally? Do we really believe with all of our beings in free speech? Would we defend cartoons that ridicule the idea of the equal worth of women, blacks and homosexuals? Or that vigorously promote a rebirth of Nazism with its history of violence against Jews and other minorities? Do the Muhammad drawings just manage to reveal us as people who do not have enough imagination to understand that there are other sensitivities and values than the ones we hold?”

In an older Blog post (July 2010) I gave the example of Rocco Buttiglioni, Minister of European Affairs in the Italian government, who was selected by the president of the European Commission to be its commissioner of justice. When in his interview he acknowledged that he was a practising Roman Catholic and believed that homosexual activity was a sin but should not be criminalized, he was disqualified from taking office on the grounds that his personal moral convictions were “in direct contravention of European law”. Rocco rightly called his treatment “the new totalitarianism”.

Let me repeat some things I stated in that post of five years ago because they continue to be relevant to debates about freedom of thought and speech in the West.

We can agree that shunning language that demeans and humiliates people is a way of showing respect for the worth and dignity of others. For instance, the use of “invalid” for people with physical or mental disabilities was a dreadful way of speaking (yet, ironically, the same societies that have dropped the term “invalid”- and even “handicapped”- are promoting a public ideology that regards foetuses and elderly people with disabilities as of no intrinsic value, thus demonstrating that language-change alone does not alter our moral perceptions).

But things took a sinister turn when the “political correctness” lobby stressed the political in the phrase and started using naked power to outlaw any moral viewpoint other than their own. How being “sensitive in one’s speech” moved from being a matter of good manners, civility or politeness to becoming political marked a significant cultural shift.

This was the culmination of changes in Western society that thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Jeffrey Stout and Charles Taylor have traced in some detail. Moral languages which were once part of coherent intellectual traditions have broken down. All that is left are fragments of earlier beliefs. There is no shared set of moral values that holds societies together, only institutions such as governments, legal systems or markets. Institutions survive, but the beliefs that gave them meaning are forgotten. And when moral truth itself is seen as a matter of mere personal taste, how can we engage in public moral argument? We only talk past each other. And when we want our way to prevail we resort to the naked assertion of power. The loudest voice or the most airbrushed speaker wins. (Hence the power of rabid tabloid headlines, scurrilous cartoons, and spin doctors).

This is the new repression that masquerades as “political correctness” and “tolerance”. The tragedy, of course, is when it surfaces on university campuses which once held academic freedom to be indispensable in the quest for truth – the freedom to publish any opinion, however outlandish, provided one was willing to submit it to critical scrutiny and debate. It is seen when a Singaporean law professor had her invitation to speak at a prestigious American university revoked after intense pressure from the “gay” political lobby, because of her views on homosexuality; or when some academics in the UK campaigned to exclude Israeli scholars from attending conferences because their views were considered Zionist.

Who will safeguard genuine intellectual freedom and reasoned argument in the media and the universities of the future?

The Western media, which comprises the bulk of international media, have provided us with round-the-clock coverage of the Paris shootings, while conveniently under-reporting other deadly attacks against civilians. Violent incidents in Nigeria and Yemen in the last week led to far more civilian deaths than in Paris, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Nigeria lamented that Western countries were simply ignoring the threat in his country posed by Boko Haram.

When hundreds of schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram last April, Obama and Cameron outdid one another in making resounding promises of support for Nigeria. But precious little has been done since then (by way of technological,logistical and perhaps even military help) for the Nigerian government and army to free the schoolgirls and defeat a brutal militia. As so often in our recent past, terror has to strike at the heart of Western cities before the “dark side” of our global interconnectedness awakens people from their slumber.

But awakening can lead to panic and knee-jerk reactions, rather than to a new commitment to understand the historical backgrounds to global events or the causes of Islamic radicalization in Europe. That is what we have witnessed in the more popular sections of the Western media last week. The killings fanned the growing hysterical propaganda about the “Islamification of Europe”, and far-right demagogues were suddenly claiming to uphold “Judaeo-Christian values”!

Surely, a central “Judaeo-Christian value” is hospitality to strangers. Another is self-restraint in speech and action when dealing with particularly vulnerable communities experiencing alienation from the mainstream. A third is “taking the beam out of one’s own eye before one tries to take the speck out of another’s eye”.

All these values have been jettisoned in much (albeit, not all) of the media coverage.

The solidarity rally in Paris was attended by several international leaders who are enemies of free speech and independent journalism. Benjamin Netanyahu was prominent among them, even as the International Criminal Court launches an investigation of Israeli state-inspired terror in Gaza last September. The irony was not lost on Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Holtrop, who said: “We vomit on all those people who are suddenly saying they are our friends… I’ve got to laugh about that.”

In terror attacks like this, the epithet “Muslim” is always applied to the perpetrators, but rarely to the victims or the heroes. The murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet was a Muslim, and so was Lassana Bathily, the immigrant from Mali who saved many Jewish shoppers in the kosher supermarket that was attacked. Responding to a petition signed by 300,000 Parisians, President Hollande has publicly honoured him with French citizenship. The stories of these Muslims need to be told more widely in the American and European media.

One can condemn the sheer wickedness of the Charlie Hebdo massacre without condoning the double standards employed when it comes to “free speech”. All civil rights are limited by other rights and responsibilities. France has tough laws not only against defamation and libel, but also against the denial of the Holocaust (but not other genocides). I doubt if Charlie Hebdo or the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten would publish satirical cartoons offending women, homosexuals or Jews.

The fall out in other countries of the irresponsible application of “free speech” also needs to be taken into consideration. Violent attacks on “soft” targets – such as local Christians in Pakistan and Niger (as this week)- regularly accompany what Western cartoonists may regard as innocent fun. If I know that my exercising “free speech” is going to result in the killing of innocent others elsewhere, and yet persist in that speech, am I not partly responsible for their deaths?

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has pointed out that those who have untroubled access to the dominant discourse in a society like France or Britain simply assume that their moral position is natural. Not so. He wisely observes:

“If I can say what I like, that is because I have the power and status to do so. But that ought to impose the clear duty of considering, when I engage in any kind of debate, the relative position of my opponent or target in terms of their access to this dominant means and style of communication- the duty which the history of anti-Semitism so clearly shows European Christians neglecting over the centuries.”

And he concludes: “The sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grate on the ear. Context is all.” [Faith in the Public Square, 2013]

The abuse of liberty may be the surest way to kill it.

The tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents, prominent among them high-school and university students, whom the world saw on the streets of the territory for two months since September were reasonable and peaceful, even in the face of sometimes terrible provocation.

Last week saw the police clearing away the barricades and the few hundred protestors who remained. One of the business groups that took out an injunction to clear the protest sites is a joint-venture controlled by Chinese state-owned Citic Group.

On 2 December, three of the co-founders of the Occupy Central movement called for protesters to retreat. The three turned themselves in to a police station the next day, though the authorities have not charged them with any offence.

Talks between student leaders and city officials proved fruitless. An attempt to travel to Beijing was blocked by Hong Kong authorities, and two leaders – Joshua Wong and Lester Shum – were arrested for obstructing police and are now out on bail.

The silence of the British government over the events in Hong Kong has been utterly shameful. Britain has yet again betrayed one of its former colonies by failing to honour its treaties and promises. In 1984 Margaret Thatcher’s government signed a treaty with the Chinese that guaranteed Hong Kong’s core values and way of life, including freedom of speech and assembly, until 2047. Thatcher’s successor John Major made a pledge before the handover in 1997 that Britain would ensure that the terms of the joint declaration were adhered to. At the time of the handover, the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, reiterated that Britain would do everything in its power to defend Hong Kong and its freedoms.

Beijing also promised to grant Hong Kong a genuine one person-one vote for the elections of their chief executive in 2017. Instead, a sham consultation resulted in Beijing presenting to the people of Hong Kong the following proposal: you can have one person, one vote, provided we pre-screen all the candidates so that we are 100% in control of the final outcome.

At root, then, the protests on the streets of Hong Kong were not about democracy. They were about keeping promises, honouring treaties. That is a fundamental moral issue. Both the Chinese and British governments have broken their promises to the people of Hong Kong and have so betrayed them.

The truth is that morality, and even democracy, has been undermined by corporate greed. Business-as-usual with China trumps all moral considerations. The young people of Hong Kong are expendable. The super-rich in Hong Kong and Shanghai, just like their counterparts in London or New York, find talk of freedom and human rights irksome. The only freedom they care about is the freedom to make more money; and for that they will, paradoxically, sell their souls to the worst regimes in the world.

Capitalism was once believed to be the hand-maiden of democracy. Open up trade and markets, and political freedoms will follow. That was the myth behind which European and American capitalists and their governments hid in the early 1990s when relocating all their manufacturing industries in China. They chose to ignore fact that capitalism is morally promiscuous and can flourish under both the best and the worst of political regimes. But the more Europe, the US and Australia are economically “owned” by China, the more muted is their condemnation of that regime’s worsening repression.

Anson Chan was the chief secretary in both the British colonial government of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government under Chinese rule. In a column in the British newspaper, The Observer, in October 2014 she wrote:

“I genuinely did not think at the time of the joint declaration that it would turn out this way. I thought that the co-signatories, Britain and China, would honour all the promises laid down in the treaty and guarantee Hong Kong ‘one country, two systems’. They included guaranteeing: independence of the judiciary, the rule of law and our rights and freedoms and, in particular, that we would move steadily towards genuine universal suffrage.”

She went on to note that, where students in Hong Kong were concerned, “For them the big change since I was their age is perhaps the decline in social mobility. Now within the territory there is a sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Those who make money are tempted to stay quiet, to maintain their links, their status. The rest, they want what many people want across the world- a good education and an open society.”

(With apologies to Aldous Huxley)

“Activism, scholarship, dissemination of information, persuasion, protest, and solidarity are the most powerful weapons that powerless people have. Let us use them wisely.”

These words- which provide bloggers with a worthwhile goal other than mere narcissism- come from the pen of Ilan Pappé, one of Israel’s most courageous and controversial scholar-activists. Pappé is one of a band of revisionist historians who, since the release of pertinent British and Israeli government documents in the early 1980s, have been re-writing the story of Israel’s creation in 1948 and confronting the dominant master-narrative of Israeli society.

According to the latter, Israel is the innocent victim engaged in a continuous struggle for survival against dark, irrational forces pitted against it on all sides. This myth is swallowed wholesale by many in Israel as well its supporters worldwide. Pappé has argued that in understanding the current plight of Palestinians we should go back to 1948, even 1882, not 1967. The Israeli state has from its inception been expansionist and colonialist. The expulsion of Palestinians from their towns and villages at the very outset of Israel’s creation constituted the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestine, in accordance with Plan Dalet, drawn up in 1947 by Israel’s future leaders. Moreover, the Zionist ideology that produced the 1948 ethnic cleansing is the one that keeps refugees in their camps today, discriminates against Palestinians inside Israel, and oppresses those under occupation in the West Bank and imprisonment in the Gaza Strip.

We can argue, as scholars regularly do, about the historical roots to the conflict and whether “ethnic cleansing of Palestinians” is the appropriate description; but what we cannot do is deny the present unacceptable reality. What we see in “Greater Israel” is a sovereign state ruling directly its own citizens and, at the same time, ruling indirectly (through its proxies) an occupied and imprisoned community in Gaza and the West Bank. This is the status quo that the government in Israel wants to maintain. Every act of violence by Hamas or unrepresentative Palestinians (as in the recent horrific attack by two axe-wielding men on a Jewish synagogue) is exploited by government propaganda to stereotype and caricature all Palestinians and to tighten its stranglehold on Gaza and the West Bank, crushing Palestinian aspirations for an end to the 66-year dispossession and conquest.

Mainstream Western media are not only highly selective but fickle when it comes to reporting on the Middle East. The 50 day war in Gaza this summer has been quickly forgotten, a war in which Israel killed 2,200 Palestinians, including more than 500 children. Courageous human rights and peace groups within Israel (B’Tselem and Break the Silence) are investigating independently what happened in Gaza, as the official army investigation will be a cover-up.

While the attack on the Jewish synagogue was front-page news in many Western TV and print media, the routine killing and maiming of Palestinians civilians by Israeli forces and settlers is ignored in mainstream coverage. Since 2000, about 9 times as many Palestinians have been killed as Israelis. About 20 times more Palestinian children have been killed than Israeli children, and about 7 times more Palestinians injured. To learn these facts, I have to trawl independent media sites, such as al-Jazeera, Counterpunch and Znet. Or consult my colleagues in Palestine.

A report by the International Crisis Group, issued in July, advocates that the PA-Hamas unity government formed in April 2014 be reinstated and actively supported by the West as well as the major Arab states. (Middle East Briefing No. 39, available at Note that in signing this agreement last spring, Hamas explicitly agreed to renounce violence and implicitly accepted the moderates’ strategy of negotiations for peace. Netanyahu saw the unity agreement as a threat and hence launched his all-out attack on Hamas activists in the West Bank that quickly led to war.

Monoethnic, despotic regimes in many countries (such as my own) look to Israel’s example in how to deal with their own intransigent ethnic and religious minorities. Seize land, re-settle it with members of the majority community, protect the latter by sending in an occupation army, label all attacks on the new settlers as “terrorist” or “extremist” acts and use them to justify further acts of repression.

The recent decisions by the Swedish government and the British parliament to recognize a Palestinian state (the UN General Assembly has already recognized Palestine) are largely symbolic gestures. They are welcome as expressions of solidarity with suffering Palestinians. But in practice they amount to little. While insisting that everybody recognizes Israel’s “right to exist”, Israel will never recognize the Palestinians’ “right of return”, let alone their right to liberation and self-determination. Israel’s settlement and development programs in the occupied territories- all illegal, as Israel was informed in 1967 by its highest legal authorities and affirmed recently by the World Court- are designed to undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

As long as it is protected by its rich, benevolent Uncle Sam, Israel can continue to thumb its nose at international law and the international community. (See Noam Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians)

This is why, despite the international consensus on a “two-state solution”, several Arab and Jewish intellectuals and activists have advocated (over several decades) an alternative path to follow: namely, exerting pressure on Israel to become a full-fledged pluralist (or binational) democracy– one that respects the human rights and civil liberties of all its citizens and subjects, and enabling the mutual recognition of collective cultural and religious identities. There are civil society groups within Israel, as well as NGOs working among Palestinians, who continue to promote this vision. They need our blessings and our prayers.

[See for a BBC HardTalk interview with Ilan Pappe]

If the US-led global “war on terror” since 9/11 has taught us anything, it’s that mass bombing campaigns and sweeping punitive measures don’t work to counter violent extremism. In fact, they are not very effective in conventional wars either. The ability of determined armed groups to stand up to air assaults is well attested. They move at night, engage in combat at close quarters and learn how to hide behind civilian populations.

The limited effectiveness of the Coalition’s air attacks on the amorphous terrorist caliphate called Islamic State (ISIL) must eventually compel the deployment of well-trained ground troops. But it should also lead to a more pragmatic approach by Western nations towards Iran, an acknowledgement of the military and political blunders made in Iraq and Libya, and a comprehensive arms embargo in the region (including Israel). Arming supposed “moderates” in Syria is bound to backfire, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The biggest challenge, however, is how to stem the shocking radicalization of young Muslim men and women in some Western nations, especially Britain and France. Islamic State, like its forebear al-Qa’ida, uses killing- particularly beheadings- as mass spectacle. The filmed atrocities are also intended to goad Western populations, which is why the knee-jerk populist proposals by politicians and right-wing media pundits (“strip them of citizenship”) plays into the hands of these killing cults.

For young men and women who, for various reasons, feel alienated from the homeland adopted by their parents or grandparents, images of violence can be seductive- especially when it gives them a sense of personal significance and purpose in life (being part of a higher cause than self-gratifying consumption or collecting celebrity gossip) and is based on romantic images of Muslim heroes and poor information.

There are some signs that the beheadings of journalists and humanitarian aid workers may be rebounding adversely on ISIL. There is widespread revulsion among the Muslim communities, young and old, in Western nations. Tapping this revulsion is the need of the hour. Instead of further alienating such Muslims, governments and the media should be seeking to engage with them and Muslim grassroots organizations which have the experience and ability to influence those youngsters deemed to be vulnerable to mobilisation by Internet jihadists.

According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), based at King’s College London, several of those foreigners going to fight in Syria end up disillusioned and in need of a way out. They have found the reality to be far different from what they were led to believe. The only authoritative study of the issue, based on nearly one thousand Islamist returnees from previous conflicts, showed that one in nine former fighters subsequently became involved in terrorist activity. This does leave a majority who do not wish to become further involved with terrorist causes, for whatever reason. In many cases they are disillusioned, psychologically disturbed, or just tired.

The researchers argue that treating all foreign fighters as terrorists, therefore, risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Arrests and prosecutions will be needed in some cases, but they are just one aspect of a government’s responsibility. It must also offer people a way out.

It is also pointed out that, following the defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Arab-Afghan fighters could not return to their home countries. They were stripped of their citizenship and threatened with long prison sentences. Instead, they regrouped in Sudan and formed a Jihadist Internationale, from which al-Qa’ida emerged.

A programme of rehabilitation for returnees would combine “de-radicalisation” with continued assessment and monitoring. In prison, by contrast, they are likely to be further radicalised while potentially exposing others to a hardened ideology and worldview.

For an innovative approach in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, towards the rehabilitation of disillusioned Danish nationals who went to fight in Syria, see:

There is something deeply Christian about this multi-pronged approach to combating extremist violence. It combines upholding the role of governments in protecting innocent people from assault (and bringing the perpetrators to justice) with the equally biblical injunction to “overcome evil with good” (Rom.12: 21) and thus halting the cycle of revenge and counter-revenge. We need such an expanded moral imagination if we are to sow seeds of shalom even in the most unpromising human wastelands.

The Italian chemist Primo Levi survived Auschwitz and wrote several reflective accounts of that experience. His book If This is a Man is an extraordinary account of his life as a slave on rations that were not sufficient to sustain life. He was saved from death by Lorenzo, a non-Jewish Italian who was working for the Germans as a civilian on an industrial project using prisoners as labourers. Levi tells us what Lorenzo meant to him:

“In concrete terms it amounts to little: an Italian civilian worker brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his, full of patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf and brought me the reply. For all this he neither asked nor accepted any reward, because he was good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward… I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”

“Thanks to Lorenzo”, Levi concludes, “I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”

I am sure there are men and women like Lorenzo among the refugees and prisoners in Syria, Gaza, Iraq and elsewhere, who have not lost their essential humanity. We shall, no doubt, read their stories one day. But, in the meantime, it is hard not to feel sickened at the unending savagery paraded before our eyes on TV screens, newspapers and Internet websites.

But is apathy, the deadening of emotion, the cynical attitude of “let them all kill themselves out there” not also obnoxious? It is understandable when the indifference is born of fear for one’s life; but usually it stems from the fear of having to change our views if we do start asking questions about what lies behind these stories of violent conflict and recognize the complicity of our own nations.

Equally obnoxious is the way some Third World politicians jump on the “Islamic terrorism” bandwagon to court support from the US and Israel. The Sri Lankan Defence Secretary has been talking recently of the “threat of Islamic terrorism” when not a shred of evidence has been offered for the existence of any jihadist group in the country. In fact, it is Muslims who have suffered loss of life and property at the hands of militant Buddhist mobs. The background to this “threat” talk is, of course, the UNHRC’s current investigation of war crimes and other human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

I received the usual brickbats over my last Blog post. One writer accused me of not being “balanced” by mentioning the businesses that support Hamas. I replied that I would like to know who is selling arms to Hamas so that I can boycott them; but that if I were to be truly “balanced” I would have to write a thousand words condemning Israel’s terrorism to every word condemning Hamas’s terrorism- for that, as I pointed out, is how the human proportions actually stack up.

For those who are open to questioning the received “wisdom” concerning Israel and its recent wars, I encourage you to read two brief articles by Professor Richard Falk of Princeton University:

In an Afterword to If This is a Man, Primo Levi wrote: “It is certainly true that state terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”

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 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.


November 2015
« Oct    

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 374 other followers