The “Lebanon primer” in your June issue was quite good. It is difficult to see what more you could have gotten into it. I have only a couple of remarks, which certainly are not a criticism, as I myself don’t see how you could have worked these nuances in within the short space at your disposal.
First, you write that “the civil strife of the last ten years is not rooted in religious beliefs but in access to political and economic power, the preservation or alteration of the status quo.” This was fully true at some time and still remains a very important factor. The prominent Shi‘i role today in Lebanon certainly goes back to their earlier status of “wretched of the earth” within the Lebanese context. However, the growing and rampant confessionalism, generated by various “revivals” — Jewish first, Muslim later on — a phenomenon that has worldwide aspects, has been making its impact on the Lebanese situation as well. That means that a war which was not “religious” is now becoming more so.
The second point concerns your remark that “the most important ingredient for the future of Lebanon is a resolution of the conflict over Palestine.” Yes and no. Yes, because it would liberate Lebanon from the imposed onus of being a freak epicenter for the Palestinian question. No, because Lebanon has now become “elevated” to a main issue in the Middle East, pari passu with the Palestinian question. The argument that the Lebanese question only can be solved provided the Palestinian question finds a solution, might generate the wrong impression (occasionally promoted in bad faith) that, until that happens, Lebanon will have to stay on a “waiting list.” So, while things may not be getting better they certainly get more complicated.
Leopoldo J. Niilus
Middle East Council of Churches
Thank you for the latest issue on Syria (MER 134). I particularly enjoyed Yahya Sadowski’s lead article. Also (but for different reasons) Lenni Brenner’s broadside. Probably the book reviews, which discussed inter alia the Young Turk revolution of 1908, was what Brenner had in mind when he said MERIP was “always far behind events.” Now that he has exposed the magazine for what it really is, what will he do for an encore?
There was one thing about the issue which disturbed me, and I wish to share a few thoughts with you about it. In your introduction to the “Palestinians in Damascus” interviews, you did not give sufficient information about the situation Palestinians are facing in this country, therefore disserving both your readers and the Palestinians in question. “Conditions in Damascus are not conducive to discussing these questions openly” — what does that mean? Certainly it is an insufficient description of what has been happening here, events Mark Garfield must know about. For instance, there have been at least two waves of arrests this year of Palestinian activists and former activists, first in late May/early June, and second this fall. The people arrested are not charged with anything and are held incommunicado, their families often not even knowing which prison or detention center they are in. Those arrested have one thing in common: they refuse to join Abu Musa’s Fatah “rebels.” Some have remained pro-Arafat up till now, others are neutral and refuse to support either Arafat or his Fatah opponents. The families of some of those arrested are also harassed. The arrests are carried out by the Syrian secret police, sometimes with the assistance of Abu Musa’s people. The motives behind these arrests seem to be a mixture of attempts to get information, to get those arrested to agree to work as informers for the secret police, and spiteful harrassment for its own sake (e.g., picking on families). As a recruitment drive for Abu Musa’s faction, it has had only limited success.
In addition to these pressures, there are others. For instance, the two organizations whose spokesmen were interviewed by your correspondent, the DFLP and the PFLP, had the publication and distribution of their magazines banned in Syria last spring, before and during the “camps war” in Beirut. The PFLP’s publications are now allowed to circulate again, most of the time, but the DFLP’s are not. “Conditions in Damascus are not conducive” indeed! To my knowledge such information, particularly regarding the arrests, is not widely circulated abroad. MERIP missed the chance to bring this to its readers’ attention.
[Name Withheld] Damascus, Syria
While I find it commendable to discuss problems and successes of Middle East organizing in this country, I cannot but be appalled at the gaping naivete displayed in “Breaking the Silence” (MER 134)) by Denis Doyon.
I have been an organizer with a Palestine support group for the last few years, of the type Doyon disparages for being ineffective: “They are dismissed as too far left, too disruptive, or worse.” Doyon applies a neat aphorism here: Our group has indeed been accused of being anti-Semitic. Our posters, announcing films, discussions, and speakers (including MERIP’s own editor), have been defaced, with “Jewish baby killers” scrawled over them.
If our group is not “effective” in the terms of a broad-based anti-war movement, it is certainly not because we have focused on exotic problems in a distant land. I know of no better way of bringing home to Americans just what their foreign policy is than of showing them its effects. Conditions in Palestine are ugly, and the anger Zionists have turned on me for showing that ugliness is real. The anger is a concrete obstruction to coalitions between anti-imperialists and Zionists who involve themselves in a broad-based “peace” movement.
In short, Doyon misses the boat. All the Palestine solidarity groups I am familiar with do indeed focus on American foreign policy. The fact that we face obstacles in our organizing is not due to incompetence. It is due to several things: the muscle of Zionists, the preponderance of Zionists among the “left,” the US media and politicians who toe an Israeli line, and insidious anti-Arab racism.
I have also participated in a forum which brought together progressive Zionists from the New Jewish Agenda and Palestine solidarity members. After the forum, the Agenda members came forward with tears in their eyes to congratulate everyone on how civilized a discussion we had had. Such an experience is similar to the type described in the article emanating from the “Breaking the Silence” conference and from which Doyon draws such heady optimism.
But let me explain what my feelings were after this wondrous event: I felt a kind of repressed rage, as if the position I hold had been condescended toward. The word “imperialism” had been squashed from conversation: The emotive factors of each Zionist present had been bandied about. What I learned, and what Doyon fails to realize, is that the strong can always “discuss” with the weak, but no liberation ever results.
Denis Doyon responds: Kiera Powers is correct to point out that concrete obstructions exist to building effective coalitions on Middle East issues. One of them is the inability of some American activists to distinguish between allies and opponents. Powers herself exhibits this by lumping together “progressive Zionists from the new Jewish Agenda” with those who deface her group’s posters. In doing so, she ignores the range of opinions within the Jewish community, among Zionists, on the national rights of the Palestinians. (To equate Agenda with “the strong” is simply ludicrous; the group is under constant attack from mainstream Jewish organizations seeking to marginalize it.) Participants in the “Breaking the Silence” seminar, including Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists, couldn’t agree on everything, but they did understand that they could work together to change US policy, and succeeded in identifying common ground on which all could stand. This discussion, open, frank and honest, and largely free of rhetoric or condescension, was an important step forward. Showing Americans the effects of US foreign policy can, as Powers notes, help to raise awareness of the problem. Changing that policy, however, requires proposing realistic alternatives and formulating a strategy for building broad popular support. Powers is silent on this score; I wonder why.
A disgraceful and humiliating incident occurred in Detroit this week, and the implications are disturbing enough that I believe they should be made public.
On Thursday, October 24, Meir Kahane spoke in Detroit, where he delivered his usual Nazi message. What was unusual was that there was no demonstration, no picket line, no outcry opposing him. The question is: Why not? Kahane’s meeting, sponsored by an ultra-right Jewish Defense League called Jewish Idea, was quite poorly publicized, deliberately so. Apparently the only force in the progressive community here who knew about it ahead of time was the Detroit chapter of New Jewish Agenda, who learned it was happening six days in advance.
Tragically, the brothers and sisters in Detroit NJA did not notify anyone in the Arab-American, pro-Palestinian or general progressive movement. Instead, they informed the leadership of the Jewish Community Council in hopes of putting together a Jewish-based “mainstream” anti-Kahane coalition.
As anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of the politics of the Jewish Community Council in Detroit could have predicted with 100 percent certainty, the Council had no intention of any action against Kahane — let alone in concert with the leftist NJA. Instead, these heroic leaders of the Jewish community issued a statement saying that Kahane’s racism damages the democratic image of Israel, then closed their offices to avoid meeting with him — that is, they hid under the bed until he went away, the same way liberals responded to the menace of Nazism in another time and place.
So much for the flaming hypocrites of the JCC. But what about the people on the progressive, anti-racist side — the NJA? Members of the Detroit NJA to whom I spoke explained that they had not wanted to act against Kahane in isolation from other organizations. That policy is correct; but why did they entertain the utterly illusory hope that the major Jewish organizations would respond in any meaningful way, in a city where the only Jewish community newspaper is controlled by Herutniks and worse?
Even on short notice, the timing would have been perfect for a mass anti-Kahane picket, for the following reason: It would have been the Detroit community’s response to the murder of Alex Odeh of the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee in California two weeks earlier. Such organizations as ADC, Palestine Aid Society, National Lawyers Guild, National Conference of Black Lawyers, organizations opposing US intervention in Central America and others would have quickly united against both Kahane’s obscene racism and the threat of right-wing terrorism that threatens us all.
The Detroit NJA’s failure to make the two or three phone calls needed to set this process in motion is a terrible and twofold mistake. First, they made the classic sectarian blunder of considering themselves the only legitimate organization on the left with a mandate to organize around this issue. They compounded this with a yet more fatal error: They forgot who their allies in this struggle are.
My purpose in publicizing this debacle is not to attack the activists of Detroit NJA, whom I like and respect, but to try to prevent such a mistake from occurring again either in Detroit or anywhere else.