Reflections on Gaza, “Empire,” and Who and What is Breaking the World

Image by Nat.

I recently attended a moving presentation of Palestinian poetry at the public library in the University of Iowa campus town of Iowa City. The presenters and audience were largely (though not exclusively) university-based and included a number of folks from the university’s renowned Iowa Writers Workshop. There was an invitation for audience members to speak after the presentation. Here below is a write-up based on some notes I took during the talk. I should have spoken but didn’t. I didn’t feel on my game to bring across what needed to be said on such short notice. Next time I’ll try to do better.

I think it’s possible that me not being employed in “higher ed” anymore or anywhere else for that matter leaves me freer than others might feel to say things that could get you in trouble at a major public university in a dark red state like Iowa.  There’s a new Zionist version of McCarthyism haunting campuses right now and if its haunting them in bright blue places like New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, you can be sure its haunting them in right-wing Iowa. This new McCarthyism smears honest discussion of what’s happening now to the Palestinian people (and what’s happened to those people in the past) as “anti-Semitism.”

The poetry shared here just now was both beautiful and painful to hear.  I am still having a hard time processing the depth and degree of the horror that has been inflicted on the people of Gaza over the last nearly half a year. I just saw a report suggesting that the real Gazan death count so far is 50,000 not 30,000 if you factor in “missing” people, including whole families, still buried in the rubble of America and Israel’s bombs. We should also note that Israel has been stepping up its slaughter rate in the West Bank.

What are we supposed to say about such terrifying and appalling mass murder? It’s soul-chilling, mind-numbing, sadistic madness taking place in broad daylight, in full public view. It’s almost beyond words but the poets we just heard remind us that words, like Palestinian and Black lives, still matter.

I want to pick up on a couple things this event’s eloquent moderator said. Early in his remarks he read from a poem whose author challenged us to “name” those who have “broken” Palestine.  Later on he indirectly took up the challenge by making a reference to “empire,” noting his sensitivity to “empire” as a native of Haiti.

Empire indeed. Let me try to add a little historical specificity to that word. Without discounting or apologizing for the criminality of the Zionists and their occupation, the Zionists’ guns have always been loaded and equipped by empire, by Western Empire.

It was the British who for their own imperial reasons sponsored and oversaw the initial Zionist presence in Palestine and it was the British who trained and equipped the Zionist militias who savagely and genocidally drove out hundreds of thousands of Palestinian people to form the occupation, terror, and apartheid state of Israel in 1947-48.

Since 1947 and especially since the Six Days War in the 1967, it has been Britain’s global hegemonic successor the American Empire above all that has provided the critical funding, equipping, and political-diplomatic protection for Israel as Tel Aviv has steadily increased its bloody displacement of the Palestinian people. Since 1948, Israel has received more than $200 billion dollars’ worth of assistance from Washington. It gets $4 billion in military aid annually, with Joe Biden pledging an additional $14 billion in the wake of the Hamas attack last October. United States bombs rain down on Palestinian hospitals and apartment complexes and children. The U.S. has shot down one ceasefire resolution after another at the United Nations since last October.

It’s not really “the Israel-Hamas War”: it’s been the one-sided US-Israeli Crucifixion of Gaza, the latest and worst escalation of a 76-year Palestinian “Nakba” (the Arab word for catastrophe) that the world’s leading imperial superpower the US has backed from the start.

And this isn’t just about AIPAC, the Israel Lobby.  In pursuit of its own strategic imperial interests around the world, Washington has a long record of supporting repressive right wing around the planet, with disastrous consequences on every continent.

Empire, and after WWII the US Empire has broken Palestine.  Washington has also broken Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea, Chile, Honduras, El Salvado, Honduras, the Congo, Libya, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Paraguay, Iraq, Iran, and …the list goes on.

(Washington has for years been breaking Ukraine, about whose white victims of Russian aggression our ruling class has told us to show great concern while expecting us to tolerate Israel’s US-funded/-equipped/-protected genocidal ethnic cleansing of brown-skinned Arabs.)

And the American Empire has long enlisted Israel in the imperial breaking of people and nations all over the world, not just in the Middle East.

If you attend any of the big Palestinian demonstrations in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles or any other big city, you will hear activists and thousands of people chanting something powerful: “There is only one solution, Intifada revolution.”

Contrary to what the new McCarthyites are saying, there’s nothing antisemitic or genocidal about the word intifada.  Its Arabic for “uprising against oppression.”

Rising up against oppression… imagine that! Isn’t that what US-Americans are told their nation’s Founders did in 1776?

Let me finish with something I get to say without fear of losing a job I don’t have or a promotion or grant I’ll never get, and without any of the doctrinal inhibitions that are so commonly internalized in the academic world: we need an Intifada Revolution in the heart of “empire,” right here in the belly of the beast of the most dangerous and aggressive imperialist state on Earth. And we need to confront not just who is breaking Gaza and the world but what is breaking Gaza and the world. The what is the underlying system of US capitalism-imperialism, which will always find new leaders — new whos — to blame for its crimes until it is overthrown by an intifada revolution at home and abroad.

This essay originally appeared on The Paul Street Report.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).