“Déjà vu and White Noise Over Gaza” or “Who Would Howard Zinn Bomb”?

Photograph Source: Jeremy Weate – CC BY 2.0

Over the past week few weeks, it’s been stunning to observe the speed with which decades–if not centuries–of history have been erased, flattened out, dumbed down, written out, censored, silenced, disappeared in news coverage, official government and university narratives and pronouncements. If the last 9-11 is anything to go by,–and it sure as shit is–then the space to speak truth can be expected to rapidly telescope, its warp speed ratcheting down inversely proportionate to the rise of market shares and dancing in the halls of Halliburton, KBR, Raytheon, Lockheed, Flir, Fluor, and Northrup Grumman, their “elected” subsidiaries in Congress making like the three monkeys, hands over their eyes, ears and mouths, as Joe Biden goes full Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove.

If truth is the first casualty of war, there’s no getting at it now except through the rubble, the mass graves of history, the missing limbs, the charred bodies of children, women bloodied, raped and giving birth in camps and war zones; of old men and women, pelvises hollowed by hunger, bones– whole bodies– splintered by bullets and bombs, by barbed wire and silence enough to wrap around, to mute the sound, to hide the contorted faces of screaming, terrified children. From Cherokee Country to the Congo, from Warsaw and Auschwitz, to Nagorno-Karabakh, Ferguson, Missouri; Portland, Oregon; and Gaza, it’s always the same. Aime Cesaire’s Thingification, the birth of ever more high-tech forms of death. Dig or read deep enough anywhere, and you’ll start to see for yourself: you’re standing atop the charnel house of colonialism, of history. Wherever you start, whatever you do the moment you realize where you’re standing–that’s what matters. It’s what you do next that matters.

“Not In My Brother’s Name”

This past Friday, while Joe Biden was busy writing blank checks to Israel for yet billions more in weapons, and rehearsing his talking points about good and evil, some 300 protesters–including two dozen rabbis and The Nation’s most excellent sports commentator Dave Zirin– were arrested at a congressional office building in an action organized by Jewish Voice for Peace. In a piece entitled “The Jewish Justice Movement is Being Reborn,” Zirin wrote that the action “recalled our ancestors who stood with the oppressed, who helped build the labor movement, and who devoted their lives to anti-racist struggle….”

On October 13, in the wake of the horrors that unfolded at the music festival and kibbutz close by the border of Gaza, the body counts in Israel are still being tallied, and the U.S. and Israel are busy blowing apart bodies and buildings in Gaza, Seattle rabbi Rabbi David Basior spoke with DemocracyNow’s incomparable Amy Goodman about the life and death of his congregant: 32-year-old Israeli Hayim Katsman.

Following mandatory service with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Hayim joined the ranks of IDF whistleblowers with Silent No More, an Israeli organization that gathers testimony from IDF veterans about the gratuitous and routine violence they witnessed– or perpetrated–  on Palestinians during their service. The commitment of IDF veterans to speak out about their experience has been tested again and again by an Israeli government bent on harassing and intimidating them into silence.

Variously described as a DJ, a mechanic, and a gardener, Hiyam tended fruit trees on the progressive Kibbutz Holit, a few miles from the Gaza border, which Hamas militants breached by bulldozer and paragliders on October 7. As his brother Noy later recounted also on Democracy Now, Katsman volunteered time in a garden in the Bedouin city of Rahat. Few Palestinians these days have the luxury of tending their own gardens. It’s one of so many cruel facts of the occupation that Palestinians are all too frequently cut off by walls and checkpoints from groves of ancient olive trees their families have tended for generations.

The same U.S.-made bulldozers “Caterpillars” that snapped the spine of twenty-three-year-old Rachel Corrie, a student at Evergreen State College, as she put her fragile body on the line to try to block the demolition of yet another Palestinian home, are routinely used to plow through Palestinian olive groves to make way for more settlements that have long been recognized as illegal under international law.

Hayim, as his brother Noy also recounted, spent time at “Masafer Yatta, where Palestinians are suffering from displacement and terror from settlers and soldiers.” “He would go there,” Noy said, “and help them, protect them and use his knowledge as a car mechanic to fix the 4-by-4 car of the volunteers.”

Progressive Jews like Katsman, 85-year-old Yochaved Lifshitz, and 75-year-old Vivian Silver, a founding member of Women Wage Peace, who were both taken hostage by Hamas, have long been at the foreground of social justice movements in the U.S.–and of the Israeli peace movement. In 2005, when I was on a Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) delegation to the West Bank, we spent time meeting with Israeli activists with B’Tselem, which has long documented human rights abuses, including house demolitions, and the routine IDF targeting of Palestinian children for injury, death, and indefinite detention.

And we spent time talking with and observing the work of Israeli women with Machsom Watch–or checkpoint watch. Since 2001, volunteers with Machsom watch have spent thousands of hours monitoring and documenting IDF interactions with Palestinians at what are euphemistically called “checkpoints,” but are better described as militarized human cattle shoots that so many Palestinians– including heavily pregnant women, the elderly, and infirm– are forced to navigate daily on foot, and all too often in searing heat.

With a dissertation on “Religious-Nationalism in Israel/Palestine.”  Hayim Katsman had only just finished his Ph.D. in International Studies at the University of Washington (UW).

With his wild hair, and rugged outdoor crunchy granola look, he’s someone I can imagine kayaking on Lake Washington or climbing Mount Rainier– or holding a bullhorn in “Red Square” or in front of the federal building.  His whole life is ahead of him.

“During the attack,” as DN reported, “he shielded a woman from bullets with his own body, saving her life at the cost of his own.” Reading his story, I couldn’t help but think of Ben Linder, another idealistic, progressive, albeit secular young Jewish activist who also studied at the University of Washington.

Linder inspired the song “Fragile,” which an impossibly young Gordon Sumner, aka Sting, performs in this 1987 video.  An iconic poster of Ben Linder hangs on the wall of our living room in Portland, Oregon, the city where Linder grew up and his family lives still. In the photo, taken on the campus of the UW, a young man in his twenties smiles into the camera, balancing on a unicycle and holding a banner in one hand that reads “Stop the War Before It Starts.”

When Ben Linder finished his degree in mechanical engineering at the U.W. in 1983, like so many idealistic young progressives of that era, he headed down to Nicaragua, which the U.S. was perennially poised to invade, incensed as it was by the first Sandinista regime and its promises of land reform. Linder would work to build small-scale hydropower projects that helped poor villages living without electricity–and hence access to water filtration and the refrigeration needed to preserve and administer basic vaccines.

At age 27 in 1987, Linder was barely two years older than me when he was gunned down– along with Sergio Hernandez and Pablo Rosales– hit first by a contra grenade, and then executed at close range by U.S.-funded supporters of the Somoza dynasty of dictators.

Commenting on the death of Ben Linder, President Reagan’s White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater barely qualified his paper-thin regret, suggesting that like so many other Americans doing solidarity work in Central America, Linder had put himself “in harm’s way.” Linder, in other words, had it coming.

As reported in a 2004 article in CounterPunch, at Linder’s funeral, his mother Elizabeth, who has spent the better part of her life organizing against war, reflected that Linder had put his body on the line so  “the peasants in a few villages [could] have a lightbulb in their homes” and “drinking water so their children don’t have to die of diarrhea in the first years of their lives…so they can raise their children with hope for the future….” “It’s a wonderful feeling,” Ben had once told Elizabeth, “to work in a country where the government’s first concern is for its people, for all its people..”

At his brother’s funeral, Noy Katsman homed in on the weaponization of grief in the face of what has been roundly recognized as the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. ”The most important thing for me, and I think also for my brother, was that his death won’t be used to kill.”

The Israeli government, Noy reflected:

always tel[s] us, …that if we… kill enough Palestinians…it’s going to be better for [Israelis]. But, of course, it never brings us peace, and it never brings us better lives. It just brings more and more terror and more and more people killed, like my brother.…I don’t want anything to happen to people in Gaza like it happened to my brother….

[T]hat’s my call to my government: Stop killing innocent people. And that’s not the way that brings us peace and security to people in Israel.

Reflecting on last Friday’s JVP action in D.C., Dave Zirin echoed Noy’s call. “[W]e will no longer allow the suffering of our people—the pogroms, the Holocaust, or the Hamas killings—to be weaponized against others. Our history,” Zirin wrote, gives us an extra responsibility to speak out for those facing the specter of genocide.”

I.G. Farben and Hell’s Cartel Redux

In 1991, the year Hiyam Katsman was born, the U.S. was just wrapping up the business of lobbing “smart bombs” at Iraq, and the landscape was littered with U.S. made- weapons deliberately coated in radioactive depleted uranium, a practice that continued through the second Gulf War. A known carcinogen that contaminates the soil and food system, depleted uranium has now been linked with as much as a two or three-fold increase in “breast and lung cancer, Leukaemia and Lymphoma” in Iraq as of 2012.

In both the first and second Gulf wars, shades of the hell that’s being unleashed in Gaza today, U.S. “smart bombs” routinely struck civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, electrical grids and water filtration plants. Policies euphemistically dubbed “sanctions” against Iraq, effectively criminalized attempts by international aid groups to bring humanitarian relief–including medicine and water filters to Iraqi civilians in desperate need. As an article in the peer-reviewed medical journal BMJ recounts, “The sanctions have led to the deterioration of what was an extremely good national health service,” and two years before the start of the second Gulf War, Iraqis were still dying in droves “from malnutrition, infectious diseases, and the effects of shortages or unavailability of essential drugs…” with “[m]ore and more children… dying from cancer” from exposure to depleted uranium.

What was it Martin Luther King, Jr. said, in that speech they rarely teach in school? The one he gave on April 4, 1967, a year to the date before he was shot down in Memphis, where he’d shown up to support sanitation workers’ rights to a living wage– and to not being treated like “human animals,” like refuse, like garbage?

Outgoing Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower might have popularized the term “the military-industrial complex” (MIC) when he warned of it in his 1961 farewell speech, but MLK painted its consequences in far starker, more vivid, human and urgent terms. “What,” King asked, do the Vietnamese think as we test out our latest weapons on them,” asked King, “just as Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?”

Today, Vietnam is witnessing the third generation born with Agent Orange-related health effects, from missing eyes and limbs to spinal bifida and severe intellectual disabilities.

The Vietnam War, King argued, was poisoning the country with racism and hatred: The U.S., MLK suggested, was a war junkie–and it was a given that war and racism went hand in hand:

This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.

In his 1967 speech, King famously compared the war in Vietnam to a “Demonic destructive suction tube” that vacuumed up funds that might have otherwise gone to LBJ’s “War on Poverty.”

It’s a simple, easily verifiable fact that  “U.S. military expenditures are higher than the combined military budgets of China, India, Russia, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, and South Korea.”

As I’ve written elsewhere in Counterpunch, “[t]o put the problem in perspective, Brown University’s National Priorities Project estimates the total financial cost of the U.S. wars in the Middle East since 2001 at $8.04 trillion, or nearly 5 times the full $1.7 trillion in student debt owed.”

The total human cost of all that [post 9-11] liberation, according to the Brown University Costs of WarProject, includes …7,057 Americans killed in the war; an additional 30,177 American service people lost to suicide; an estimated 387,073 civilians in the Middle East and Pakistan killed directly by bullets, bombs, drones, etc.; and millions more dead from ‘battered infrastructure and poor health conditions arising from the war,’ malnutrition, etc.”

When it comes to the business of weapons and war, MLK’s oft-quoted adage/koan, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is a basic law of nature and economics. “The definition of ‘insanity’,” said that venerable Jewish peace activist Albert Einstein “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” then we’re reaching peak madness in the U.S. in believing we can keep feeding the petrochemical military industrial beast without expecting it to come slouching back to Bethlehem.

Bending the Arc of the Moral Universe Toward Gaza

This past week, with the U.S. and Israel flipping their customary diplomatic middle fingers at the U.N. and the Hague amid reminders that collective punishment is a war crime, across the Middle East protests erupted as people reacted to footage of chaos and carnage in the wake of the hospital bombing in Gaza, progressive Jews took to the streets alongside Muslims and Arabs across the U.S. and Europe. Except, of course, in France and Germany, where expressions of solidarity with Palestine have been cynically criminalized as antisemitic.

In Portland, Oregon last weekend, where thousands converged outside congressional offices, progressive Jews stood side by side with Palestinians–yamalkas alongside keffiyes and hijabs. Protesters surged across all four lanes of the Burnside Bridge calling for a cease-fire and an end to the occupation.  “Jews Against Fascism,” read one sign. “NO! to Islamaphobia/NO! to Anti-semitism/NO! to Empire,” read another, another identifying as the Jewish descendent of survivors of the Armenian genocide.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of teachers in the crosshairs of the rightwing backlash against history, converged at the 16th annual Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference, organized by Rethinking Schools and inspired in no small part by the work of American historian Howard Zinn. Author of the perennially best-selling People’s History of the United States, Zinn was born to Jewish immigrant parents who scraped by working in factories digging ditches and cleaning windows. Zinn would go on to serve as a bombardier in World War II, an experience that helped transform him into a lifelong critic of U.S. militarism.

As a historian, Zinn’s life work would illuminate the ways in which multiracial coalitions of ordinary Americans have bent what MLK called “the arc of the moral universe” toward justice. “You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” Zinn famously said of the ways in which his political convictions shaped his work as a historian/academic. “To be neutral,” Zinn said, “to be passive in a situation is to collaborate with whatever Is going on.”

On Sunday afternoon in Portland, the parking lot of the Muslim Educational Center (MET) spilled over into the surrounding streets as people gathered for an interfaith service. In his opening comments, Wajdi Said, co-founder and president of MET, began by invoking the courage of three non-Muslim men who were stabbed in 2017– two of them fatally– defending two Muslim women in hijabs who were being harassed by white supremacist Jeremy Christian on Portland’s rail line. Their courage, Said suggested, like the gathering itself, held out hope for realizing MLK’s vision of a “beloved community.”

For millions globally, no reminder is needed that the U.S. president who has refused to condemn, except in the most tepid terms, Israel’s genocidal assault on 2.5 million Palestinian children, women, and men of Gaza had no problem in reaching across the aisle to Strom Thurman to pass the 1994 crime bill that ramped up mass incarceration of BIPOC Americans– or to Saudi prince MBS over the mutilated corpse of WaPo columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. If the question is “Sir, have you no decency?” the answer now would seem to be clearer to many as we stare over the brink of World War III.

It bears reminding ourselves that the U.S. military is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and the window to scale back carbon emissions and avert total climate collapse is rapidly closing.  If the question is “If not Biden, who can lead the Democrats to victory?” the answer in 2024 would seem to be the same as it was in 2020: Bernie Sanders, imperfect as he is, and then only if he does as his staffers are pressing him to do: back a cease-fire now. Personally, my money’s on Sarah Silverman for VP, and barring that Ilhan Omar or Pramila Jayapal.

Finally, how can we possibly read the daily missives coming out of Gaza, see the videos and photos, the terrified children clutching their cats; whole families bloodied, wailing over bodies or wading through limitless rubble, their homes, lives and bodies blown apart, and conclude that the war that Israel and the U.S. are waging on Gaza is just?

Our best hope right now to pass down a livable planet, to stave off the escalating threat of World War III and nuclear annihilation, to keep the men in suits from boiling our precious, collective mother-loving dust speck, is to commit ourselves to Tikkun Olam, to repairing the world, and to do that, we need to shut shit down now. We need to be clear that there will be no business as usual until Gaza and the West Bank–until Palestine–is welcomed at last into the beloved community.

Desiree Hellegers affiliated faculty with the Collective for Social and Environmental Justice (CSEJ) at WSU Vancouver; director of The Thin Green Line is People History Project and a member/producer with the Old Mole Variety Hour on Portland’s KBOO Radio. Their serialized solo play “How I Learned to Breathe thru the Apocalypse” is airing on Portland’s Open Signal cable television. Their personal website isdesireehellegers.com.