HISTORY REPEATS - Several years ago I went to a small conference in Washington, D.C., and sat in on a lecture on “a new era of statecraft.”
The presenter, who worked for the U.S. government—though was not putting forth any official views—was supported by several friendly companions in the audience. His argument was that states were now shaking off international rules and organizational—he named the UN—regulations so as to “reassert their lawful sovereignty.” This “shaking off” was presented as progressive because it would let a state more freely pursue the interests of its citizens. Again, the presenter claimed this was all worth supporting.
I was shocked and angered by this presentation. During the Q & A, I told them they either knew no history or were consciously trying to mislead us, for what they were describing was a move backward in terms of regulating state behavior, to a time prior to World War II. They were trying to resurrect an ugly and very dangerous period in history. I think they would have ejected me from the room if they could have gotten away with it.
As misleading as this presentation was, it framed a seminal issue: we are in fact regressing in terms of post World War II values and obedience to international laws. One can rightly ask, going backwards from where, to what, and why?
Going Backwards from Where?
The “from where” was the progressive period inaugurated just after World War II. This period was a reaction to the horrors of Nazism, fascism and war. As a consequence of these horrors, imperialism and colonialism lost their luster and some of the Western political leadership started to move in the direction of decolonization.
Roughly at the same time (1945-1950), treaties and “universal declarations” were drawn up, outlawing the behaviors of the Nazis. By treaty, genocide was outlawed and eventually made a crime against humanity. The Fourth Geneva Convention was created to “deal with humanitarian protections for civilians in a war zone.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which according to Eleanor Roosevelt represented “a great event in the life of mankind” guaranteed, rather optimistically, the right of every individual to “live their lives freely, equally and in dignity.” Finally, the International Court of Justice, an organ of the UN, was established at the Hague in the Netherlands followed by the founding of the International Criminal Court, a complementary organization set up by international treaty.
If these new standards had prevailed in practice, the result would have been restraints on sovereignty—rules covering what things a nation’s rulers could or could not do within or without their borders. They would also act as a guide to a better world—a set of new standards of civilized behavior. For instance, an impulse toward racial equality began at this point and lasted at least into the early 1970s: the U.S. Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and apartheid was declared a crime against humanity in 1973 by the UN General Assembly. However, maintaining this progress was not to be as easy as Eleanor Roosevelt and so many others thought.
Why Are We Going Backwards?
There are two sources of erosion that work on these new progressive standards.The first one was the pull of sovereignty. The horrors of Nazism and fascism demonstrated the inherent dangers of sovereign national behavior, yet the claim of supreme authority for state government turned out to be a habit very difficult to break. Thus you have a constant tendency to overlook or forget the rules set down by international law or treaty because they restrict sovereign action. And, if you are a “great power,” or a smaller state that has a great power patron, you are all but immune from the dictates of international law. So, it has been only the small-time dictator of an unprotected state, usually African or Balkan, that gets held accountable for breaking rules.
The second source that continues to erode the progressive measures of the post-war period is an invasive and parasitic force. This is the post-war growth of lobbies, or interest groups powerful enough to force their own will on democratic governments when it comes to formulating the national policy they wish to influence.
It turned out that my conference state-power stalwarts had something to do with this interest group phenomenon. The presenter and his audience cadre were Zioists, which made them associated with one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States. The Israel lobby (hereafter the Lobby) is powerful enough to impose its will on the U.S. State Department in those areas reflecting the Lobby’s interest. And what is that interest? It was the protection and promotion of the colonialist power of Israel, a state that breaks international law and violates international treaties on a regular basis.
Going Backwards to Where?
The behavior of states like Israel, which has a patron in the United States government, essentially mimics state behavior before World War II. Among these behaviors are colonial expansion, cross-border aggression, persecution of captive peoples, targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure—the list goes on and on. These are behaviors that ultimately lead to state-based racism, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Thus, we have a pretty good picture of “where to” takes us: it takes us back to a lawless international scene.
Since the conference presenter and his entourage were such supporters of Israel, we will first take a look at a recent Israeli action that reflects its colonial, racist behavior, then at the aftermath of the action.
The action of note was the recent murder of Shireen Abu Aqleh, the Al Jazeera reporter shot in the head by an Israeli military assassin while she was reporting on an Israeli raid into the occupied Palestinian city of Jenin. Later her funeral procession was literally attacked by Israeli police. This behavior on the part of the Israeli state was not only a colonialist one but was also fascist in nature. Again, mimicked pre-World War II behavior.
In the aftermath of the murder, was there any move to hold Israeli personnel accountable? There was certainly no significant reaction in Washington. The power of the Lobby is such that it can cause the U.S. government to ensure that Israel escapes accountability for its crimes. Over the past one hundred years, this Lobby has cultivated friendships of and financially supported U.S. politicians to the point where they are able to secure their long-term support. They also heavily spent to defeat those who will not support Israel. Over time this has resulted in the seeding of the U.S. government with elected and appointed pro-Israeli personnel.
Thus, what was Washington’s reaction to Israel’s display of fascism?
With many civil society organizations agreeing that Shireen Abu Aqleh’s’s murder deserves an independent, objective investigation, and with both logic and past history demonstrating that Israel cannot investigate itself, the spokesman for the State Department, Mr. Ned Price, declared, “The Israelis have the wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation.” Whether they literally do or do not have such “capabilities,” history has demonstrated they never use them when it comes to their accountability for criminal behavior toward Palestinians—who are their colonial subjects.
There is another incident worth mentioning and this one originated in Washington, D.C. In February 2022 the human rights group Amnesty International released a report that described Israel as an apartheid state. The report proved to be so factual and complete in its coverage as to be definitive.
Nonetheless, the State Departments rejected the report, The government spokesman, again Mr. Ned Price, objected to the use of the term “apartheid” when describing Israel. Then, still within the context of discussing the apartheid label, Mr. Price reminded us all that Israel was “the world’s only Jewish state,”and it is important that “the Jewish people not be denied their right of self-determination.” I don’t know if Mr. Price understood that he was interjecting “Jewish self-determination” into a discussion of a report that definitively demonstrated that Israel was maintaining and growing the “Zionist Jewish state” through apartheid practices. In other words when it comes to Israel, self-determination = apartheid. This all occurs at the 67-minute mark of the press conference cited above and recorded in its entirety by PBS.
There is something frustrating, and also offensive, about the State Department’s dancing around the obvious. The implication is that it is acceptable for a state, be it of Jews or any other group, to be racist in practice if that is where their “right” of self-determination takes them. This was the position taken by Adolf Hitler and is now in stark contradiction to international law. But who obeys the law?
Israel is just the most obvious example of the erosion of international law and such agreements as the Fourth Geneva Convention. In the proxy and civil wars that go on more or less constantly, international law, the 4th Geneva convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are simply ignored. It is not just minor powers that are guilty: the rules aren’t observed by the Russians in Ukraine, as they weren’t observed by the United States in Vietnam.
That being said, Israel has certainly led the way backwards, and ironically so. For much of post-World War II’s rules were put in place in response to crimes committed against the Jews. For example, genocide was made a crime against humanity, and here the motivation comes from the Nazis’ attempt to eradicate the Jews, among others. When Hitler began this project, there were no rules regulating sovereign behavior, be it in domestic or foreign affairs. Sovereignty reigned supreme. The League of Nations had floundered, and its Mandate System established after World War I really masked colonial expansion. From the point of “legal” state action, the Nazis had a clear field for slaughter as long as they restricted their efforts to Germany.
It is back into that environment that Israel, numbly and dumbly protected by its patron in Washington, is taking us all. The irony gets greater. In the early 1970s apartheid was declared a Crime Against Humanity. The Zionists ignored the declaration and proceeded to create an apartheid society for themselves and their colonial subjects, the Palestinians.
This return to a time of unfettered violence and the suppression of others’ human rights is folly. The only ones crying out in the darkness are civil society organizations, and they are being pointedly ignored by governments. Yet there is nothing for it but to keep up the protests, the boycotts, the investigations and the writing of essays that relatively few will read.
(Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA. This story was first published in Counter Punch.)