Ray McGovern / CommonDreams & Agence France-Presse & Paul Rosenberg / Al Jazeera – 2011-07-03 23:34:16
From the US Boat to Gaza:
A July Fourth Shame on the Founders
Ray McGovern / CommonDreams
ATHENS (July 2, 2011) — Yes, that was I standing before the US Embassy in Athens on the eve of the July Fourth weekend holding the American flag in the distress mode — upside down.
Ret. US Army Colonel Ann Wright, 64, from Honolulu, chants slogans as she and other activists rally in protest outside the US embassy in Athens, Greece, Friday, July 1, 2011. The activists hope to join an international flotilla and to sail to Gaza.
Indignities experienced by me and my co-guests on The Audacity of Hope, the American boat to Gaza, over the past ten days in Athens leave no doubt in my mind that Barack Obamaâ€™s administration has forfeited the right to claim any lineage to the brave Americans who declared independence from the king of England 235 years ago.
In the Declaration of Independence, they pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to a new enterprise of freedom, democracy and the human spirit. The outcome was far from assured; likely as not, the hangman’s noose awaited them. They knew that all too well.
But they had a genuine audacity to hope that the majority of their countrymen and women, persuaded by Thomas Paineâ€™s Common Sense and the elegant words of Thomas Jefferson, would conclude that the goal of liberty and freedom was worth the risk, that it was worth whatever the cost.
These days we have been seduced into thinking that such principles have become “quaint” or “obsolete” — words used by President George W. Bush’s White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to make light of important international agreements like the Geneva Conventions.
As every American should know, and remember, the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence were based on the firm belief that ALL men are created equal, that they have UNALIENABLE rights — among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Not just “all Americans,” mind you, but all people. The Declaration of Independence was meant to be a statement expressing the “self-evident” rights of all mankind. Those principles had a universality that was a beacon to the world.
True, American democracy and, indeed, the Founders themselves were far from perfect. In the early decades of the Republic, basic rights were denied to women, to black slaves, to Native Americans and to many of the poor. But Americans worked on building that “more perfect union” and are still working on it.
Justice was always at the heart of the American ideal. That we still have a long way to go in securing that justice must not be allowed to obscure the fact that ours is a noble and courageous experiment. Or at least it was.
That President Barack Obama would have popularized the phrase “audacity of hope,” after which we named our boat, now seems a cruel hoax, particularly as many of us recalled the high hopes we had once harbored for Obama the candidate. Instead of an “audacity of hope,” Obama the president has often displayed a “paucity of courage.”
But it’s not just Obama. Sadly, all too many of Americans now think of the sacred principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence as applying to Americans, but not to many others — like the 1.6 million people locked in the narrow confines of Gaza.
The tendency is to think of ourselves as “exceptional” — so special that we need not care about suffering elsewhere in the world, including the suffering enabled by our own tax dollars.
It is also sad that many US politicians — from the Chief Executive to members of Congress — have been seduced by money and political expediency into disregarding our first presidentâ€™s farewell address, George Washington’s warning to avoid what he called “entangling alliances” and a “passionate attachment” to goals of another country.
At the time, it was France that Washington had in mind. Today, the “entangling alliance” and “passionate attachment” relate to Israel. Common values are adduced to try to justify conflating US objectives and actions with the goals and behavior of our “ally,” Israel.
Why the quotation marks around “ally?” Because decades ago, when the US government broached the possibility of a mutual defense treaty with the government of Israel, it refused to go along. Mutual defense treaties, you see, require internationally recognized borders and normally a mutual commitment to avoid attacking other countries at will and without forewarning.
The difficulties, which we on The Audacity of Hope have encountered at the hands of the Greek government, are clearly a result of Israeli pressure with a likely assist from Obamaâ€™s diplomats.
In my own writings, I have highlighted what I have learned about the extraordinary power of joint US-Israeli influence. But it is something quite different to watch that influence be brought to bear on the government of Greece, a seafaring nation normally devoted to unfettered navigation.
And for what purpose? To prevent our “ally” Israel from being exposed for its brutish behavior vis-a-vis the people of Gaza.
I thought I’d seen everything. But the Israeli accusation that our Gaza flotilla is carrying sulfur to pour on Israeli commandos attempting to board our boats… well, that one takes the cake. Plus, the accusation by an Israeli official that we had vowed to shed the blood of Israeli Defense Forces. Amazing.
On the US side, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears as unconcerned about what might happen to us at the hands of Israeli (or Greek) commandos as she was on Feb. 15 as she watched me brutalized just 12 yards in front of her during a speech she was giving at George Washington University.
My offense then? Standing quietly — motionless, actually — with my back turned toward her, as a way of showing that not everyone in that audience was oblivious to the killing, maiming and other suffering inflicted on millions of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen… and the list goes on.
Last week, Clinton charged the international flotilla, of which The Audacity of Hope is a part, with planning to enter “Israeli waters” and warned of the consequences — in effect, giving Israel carte blanche to have its way with us.
Meanwhile, descriptions of last year’s violence, in which Israeli commandos staged a night-time boarding raid on the Turkish ship Mari Marmara in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea and killed nine passengers including one American, get expressed in the passive voice. “Violence by whom?”, a Martian might ask.
In any event, we have long since made it abundantly clear that we had no intention to enter “Israeli waters.” Is it conceivable that Madame Secretary still doesn’t know that or is she simply spreading a falsehood meant to discredit our mission? Gazan waters are not Israeli waters. Neither, we thought, is the Aegean Sea.
Adding transparent insult to injury, eight days ago the State Department spokeswoman obfuscated when asked directly, twice, whether the US government considered the Israeli blockade of Gaza legal. This determination to fudge on this key issue (the blockade is, on the face of it, against international law) has not stopped US government functionaries from speaking as if the Israelis are well within their rights.
Worse still, we have learned that some US officials wouldn’t shed a tear if we got our comeuppance at the hands of the Israelis.
Before leaving the United States, I was cautioned by a source with access to very senior staffers at the National Security Council that not only does the White House plan to do absolutely nothing to protect our boat from Israeli attack or illegal boarding, but that White House officials “would be happy if something happened to us.”
They are, I am reliably told, “perfectly willing to have the cold corpses of activists shown on American TV.”
So here we are, passengers and crew of The Audacity of Hope, awaiting further instructions from the local Greek authorities, some of whom have been quite candid in expressing their embarrassment and resentment at being manipulated by Washington/Tel Aviv in this new Great Game.
The instructions, of course, come from a weak Greek government unable to stand on principle because of the economic damage that can be done to Greece by the US-dominated IMF, the European Union and Israel, a major trading partner.
We await a deus ex machina to extract us from this seemingly intractable situation. We remain determined to sail to Gaza at the earliest opportunity. And so do the passengers on the other boats in our international flotilla, at least on those boats that have not been physically sabotaged.
(No one has claimed credit for the damage to propeller shafts to two of the boats, but Israeli officials won’t exactly deny that they had a hand in the underwater operations.)
Delays seem to be built into the scenery in this part of the world. After all, It took Odysseus 20 years to get back to Ithaca.
In this day of instant communication, in which audacity can trump cowardice, we continue to hope. Whatever our circumstances, they are light-years better than the everyday experience in Gaza. We are holding that before our eyes. We do not intend to let the suffering Gazans down.
On Friday, The Audacity of Hope did make a move to set sail, before being turned back by the Greek coast guard. On Saturday, we were on a coast guard wharf with the boat impounded, the crew restricted, and the captain facing some significant charges.
The authorities said the guests were free to leave the boat, but it wasnâ€™t clear that weâ€™d be allowed back on. So, we decided not to leave the captain. We remain determined to go to Gaza.
It would be a fitting way to celebrate the Fourth of July.
US Captain of Gaza Ship Held in â€˜Shocking Conditionsâ€™
ATHENS (July 3, 2011) — The captain of a US vessel intercepted after it tried to defy a ban and sail for Gaza from Greece was being held in “shocking conditions” Sunday and has not received consular assistance, a lawyer said.
Activists boat “Audacity of Hope” is escorted by the Greek coast guard ship in town of Peramat, near Athens, Greece, Friday, July 1, 2011. The captain of the US vessel was being held in “shocking conditions” Sunday and has not received consular assistance. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
Captain John Klusmer was arrested when the US boat Audacity of Hope — the flagship in a flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists — attempted to leave Greek waters on Friday after Athens banned all Gaza-bound ships from setting sail.
Klusmer was charged with felony and ordered to appear in court on Tuesday. The US Boat to Gaza organisation said he was being held in jail in “shocking conditions” and as far as it was aware, had not yet received consular assistance.
New York lawyer Richard Levy — a passenger on the boat who has visited Klusmer in jail in a port town near Athens — told enraged US activists that “he had no bed or toilet in his cell, and is receiving no food or water”.
“We’ve offered to pay his bail,” said passenger Robert Naiman, from the Washington-based Just Foreign Policy organisation. “But we have had no indication at all that he will be allowed out of jail before Tuesday.”
The US embassy in Athens was not available for comment.
The Audacity of Hope — which was carrying 3,000 letters of support for Palestinians — set sail without warning, leaving behind nine other ships that had hoped to sail together to challenge Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza.
It was quickly intercepted by a coastguard vessel with masked, armed men on board. After a two-hour stand-off, the boat turned back to a small naval port.
Passengers were free to go but initially chose to stay on board in defiance of the Greek authorities.
Sunday morning they were back in Athens to “do what we can to help the captain”, including “reaching out to members of the US Congress” for help in getting Klusmer released or improving the conditions in which he is held.
The flotilla has been beset with bureaucratic problems and two cases of “sabotage” over the last week and only four of the initial 10 boats — two French, one Spanish and one Canadian — were in the running Sunday.
Organisers said three of the boats planned to set sail Monday morning, despite the Greek ban which is in place “until futher notice”. Activists said they were “resigned” to being intercepted by the coastguard.
A fourth boat, the French Dignity, was going to attempt to sail Sunday, but was thought to be heading for Crete, not Gaza.
The ships will be sailing illegally because they have not resolved a series of bureaucratic issues and some have had key documents confiscated by the Greek authorities.
Israel credited its “diplomatic efforts” for the delays and setbacks that have kept the vessels grounded.
“I welcome all the efforts that have been made to stop the flotilla,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman Lieberman said Sunday.
“The success… is the fruit of intensive contacts with states in the region and the international community,” he said.
Hope Lost, Audacity Found:
Obama’s Administration Has Pursued a Multi-Track Effort to Prevent Americans from Participating in the Flotilla
Paul Rosenberg / Al Jazeera & CommonDreams
(July 3, 2011) — Despite the campaign hoopla, it was never in the cards for Barack Obama to be a transformational leader, an FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) or even an LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson). The bold new programs that they introduced to help transform America into a more just and broadly prosperous land were not his style, as should have been clear from a 2006 interview in The Nation magazine conducted by David Sirota.
Still, it did seem possible Obama might stumble into being a bit of a JFK, someone whose skillful, inspiring rhetoric raised people’s expectations and aspirations, leading others to go out and make history far beyond the bounds of what he himself dared to imagine. This was certainly the impact Kennedy had on civil rights, which helped set the tone for entire decade of the 1960s.
Things did turn out that way in exactly one case: the repeal of the military’s anti-gay “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But in virtually every other instance, Obama’s influence has been much more reminiscent of the “practical”, if not paranoid side of Kennedy, who spent a good deal of time and energy trying to restrain the Civil Rights Movement, ever mindful of the negative impact that headlines of racial conflict would have around the world.
Still, Kennedy clearly wanted progress on civil rights, both because he believed it was right, and because it was vital for gaining Cold War support in the Global South in the long run. He just wished the struggle was not so messy, even as his flamboyant spirit helped fuel that struggle, almost in spite of himself.
In 2008, at least, it could plausibly be hoped that Obama’s election would unleash a similar dynamic across a wide range of issues, encouraging idealistic pressure from below, even while struggling to contain it. But things have not turned out that way, as Obama has repeatedly undercut, sidelined or opposed the more idealistic enthusiasms of his base with a determined seriousness he rarely, if ever, displays against Republicans.
Civil Rights in Gaza
I was reminded of that lost hope once again this week, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and fifty other American citizens aboard a ship called The Audacity of Hope prepared to take part in the second Freedom Flotilla attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza – even as Obama tried to stop them from sailing with the rest of the international flotilla.
Walker – who married a Jewish civil rights lawyer in 1967 — was moved by a lifetime of activism and reflection, beginning with her own childhood experience of suffering under segregation, much like the children of Gaza suffer today. The underlying continuity she sees is obvious, which is why Israel knows it must remain hidden at all costs – no matter how impossible that may be. And so, just as the American South tried to defend the worst of its institutions with brutal violence against peaceful activists during the Freedom Rides of 1961, Israel is pursuing the same sort of madness against the Freedom Flotilla today.
Yet, as Bradley Burston, Senior Editor of Haaretz.com, so simply explained: “There is nearly nothing which more effectively delegitimizes Israel – and makes Israel look more like an uncaring blockhead state -than does the siege of Gaza. The siege benefits Hamas in a thousand ways and Israel in none. But there is one thing that does the work of delegitimisation even better: attacking civilians in order to protect the siege.”
These should have been the words of Obama as well, if he actually were the “true friend of Israel” he now robotically proclaims himself to be. After all, we have a saying here in America, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk”. Israel has no such friends in America today. Certainly not Obama.
Unlike JFK with the Freedom Rides, Obama has not simply tried to restrain the Freedom Flotilla for the sake of their own safety. His administration has pursued a multi-track effort to prevent Americans from participating, and is even implicitly threatening to imprison those who participate, making himself more like George Wallace than JFK.
Accustomed as Walker was to red-baiting from her early years in the Southern civil rights struggle, the standard hysterical attempt to terrorist-bait the civilian activists rolled off her like water off a duck. When Foreign Policy magazine asked her, “Are you concerned at all that your trip could be used as a propaganda tool for Hamas?” Walker simply answered, “No, because we will never see those people. Why would we see them?”
Foreign Policy continued to press. “You don’t think you’re going to see anyone from Hamas?”
“No. I don’t think we would,” Walker replied. “If we manage to get through with our bundle of letters we will probably be met by a lot of NGOs, and women and children, and schoolteachers and nurses, and the occasional doctor, if anyone is left.”
Foreign Policy took one last stab. “But doesn’t Hamas control the security apparatus of Gaza?”
“They may well control it, but we’re not going to see them,” Walker replied patiently, almost as if explaining things to a grandchild. “It’s like everyone who comes to (Washington) DC doesn’t see the president.”
Walker was similarly prepared for the violence that might lie ahead, should Israel attack the Freedom Flotilla as it did last year, when nine activists were killed.
“Sometimes I feel fear. And the feeling that this may be it,” Walker replied, when this possibility was raised.
“But I’m positive — I’m looking at it as a way to bring attention to these children and their mothers and their grandmothers, and their grandfathers and their fathers, who face this kind of thing every day.”
“I grew up in the South under segregation. So, I know what terrorism feels like – when your father could be taken out in the middle of the night and lynched just because he didn’t look like he was in an obeying frame of mind when a white person said something he must do. I mean, that’s terrorism too.”
From JFK to Obama
In the 1960s, Walker was one of those youths who made the most of the opening Kennedy provided — though she came from a tradition that had never depended on outsiders for validation. She was one of those who made Barack Obama’s Ivy League and White House futures possible. Half a century later, she is still a generation ahead of him — or more — in terms of action and understanding. She knows the struggle for freedom from the marrow of her bones, something that Obama can only try to imagine, and evoke with words whose flowery surface he can never hope to penetrate.
It did not seem that way more than a decade ago, when Barack Obama — then a rising young Chicago politician — was an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights as part of his balanced approach to Middle East peace. At the time, “Obama was forthright in his criticism of US policy and his call for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” recalled Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, writing about Obama’s political devolution in 2007.
Obama was also pro-gay marriage at the time, a position he now denies ever holding. Obama’s backward movement on these and many other issues reflects a much deeper conservatism and cynicism on Obama’s part than anything seen in JFK. Kennedy, at least, clearly believed in his progressive values. His caution — sometimes even paranoia — was distressingly real, but it generally remained confined to the realm of strategy and tactics.
Not so for Obama, who has accommodated himself to — if not fully embraced — conservative paranoia on the very substance of issues ranging from immigration to energy policy to budget-slashing to war-making and “national security”.
On this last point, Obama has not only firmly closed the book on examining — much less prosecuting — Bush Era crimes, such as taking America to war illegally, or massively violating American’s rights, much less the human rights of others. He’s now enthusiastically committed to continuing, even expanding on these same practices.
Obama’s FBI is now actively investigating 23 anti-war, anti-intervention activists, on the theory — recently upheld in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project — that almost anything counts as “material aid to a terrorist organization”, even working with organization members on non-violent alternatives to put an end to violence. It has been pointed out before that under this same policy Obama himself could have been charged for “aiding terrorists” because of his anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s, since Nelson’s Mandela’s African National Congress was then designated as a “terrorist organization”.
Now, a veiled warning in a state department document suggests that Alice Walker and her compatriots could be similarly charged for taking part in the Freedom Flotilla. I cannot imagine that Alice Walker would relish that fight. Why should she wish to humiliate Obama, whose very possibility she helped to create? But there’s no way on earth she would flinch from it.
She has, after all, the audacity of hope.