A Perspective on the Palestinian Bid for Statehood at the United Nations

A Perspective on the Palestinian Bid for Statehood at the United Nations

Last week both Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu spoke before the United Nations. Both the leader of the US and the leader of Israel spoke against the impending bid by Mahmoud Abbas for the recognition of a Palestinian state. Almost as if out of the realm of the surreal, Barack Obama’s speech before the UN was to the right of  Netanyahu’s. The cheers must have been deafening at The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).


Obama’s attempt to squash the hopes of the Palestinian people at the UN was a bald-faced attempt to garner support from Jews in the US (as if we vote in one ideological block) in an administration whose public support sinks daily. Even in  Israel, where a clear majority support the establishment of a Palestinian state, Obama’s pronouncements against using the UN as a vehicle to establish Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem must have come as quite a shock.


Since the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has owed a duty to its Palestinian neighbors to withdraw from Palestinian territory and recognize its sovereignty. Caught up in the twin geopolitical disasters of the Cold War and then the wars for dominance of the oil resources of the Middle East, no such recognition of a Palestinian state has ever happened. The so-called peace process has led to just about nowhere.


Statements from many members of both houses of Congress, as if the President’s statements weren’t sufficiently damning to the hopes of the Palestinian people, were even more to the right of the deniers of the right of the Palestinian people to have their own land.  Many in Congress who represent, or claim to represent, fundamentalist Christian groups were even farther to the right of all of the above, their hope being that some sort of Armageddon will be unleashed in the Middle East, which will hasten the fundamentalists’ so-called End of Days.


Many Jews with liberal and left political beliefs have traditionally been hesitant to criticize Israel, fearing that they would be categorized as self-hating Jews. (The latter being a favorite tactic of the right.) Others in the middle feel that keeping quiet is the best course of action. Public opinion polls in the US show that a small majority of Jewish Americans favor peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.  Chastisement, however, can be severe as the renowned scholar Norman Finklestein learned. In Finklestein’s case,  the chorus of condemnation from right-wing supporters of Israel led to the loss of his job as a professor.


And then there are the crazies like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a Holocaust denier, who perhaps matches in insanity the fundamentalists in Congress. With such actors, it’s no mystery that thirty-four years have passed without Palestinians being granted statehood. The vicious blockade of the Gaza Strip continues upon the heels of a ferocious military action, Israeli settlers continue to flock to the West Bank to build settlements, and East Jerusalem continues to be “off the table” in regard to returning land seized from the Palestinians in the ’67 war.


There are many permutations in behavior symptomatic of the unending occupation and suppression of the Palestinian people. The West Bank barrier wall is one such symbol of this dysfunction. The prejudice toward Palestinians in everyday encounters with authority figures in and outside of Israel is yet another. And finally, the legions of Palestinian prisoners in Israel’s jails speaks to the injustice of the powerful over the nearly powerless.


What about Jewish values and a Palestinian state?  Hillel, the great Jewish religious leader put it this way: “That which is hateful to you, do not do onto your fellow. That is the whole Torah (Judaism’s founding legal and ethical religious texts); the rest is explanation; go and learn.” Obviously, however, this “simple” pronouncement has been lost on many in the Jewish community (and to the leaders of both the US and Israel) around the world who believe that unquestioning and uncritical support for Israel is the only possible course of action worth considering. As noted above, many, many others remain silent on the issue of Palestinian statehood, one of the most pressing contemporary moral and political issues.


The time for the establishment of a Palestinian state is long overdue. With the US moving farther to the right, and ultraconservative Republicans gaining a greater foothold on power, the move by representatives of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people to seek recognition as a state at the UN is a  move that is long, long overdue!


The Rhode Island Pension Debacle

I learned about the pension debacle in Rhode Island from a security guard in a parking garage in upstate New York. We were chatting about retirement when he asked where I originally came from. His next statement caught me off guard as he related the news about attacks on teachers’ pensions.


It took a day to have the news confirmed by reading articles on possible pension cuts in The Journal and from speaking to a representative from the American Federation of Teachers. That Rhode Island was planning to renege on legal promises made to its retirees made sense in the context of articles I had previously read in The New York Times that listed Rhode Island as one of several states with underfunded state pension systems. Earlier in the year, I had read of the attempts to strip benefits of retired police officers and firefighters in Central Falls.


After 30 years working as a teacher in Rhode Island, I hardly think that I, and thousands like me, should be penalized by bad investment decisions of The Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island, the notoriously dysfunctional state government, and the disastrous lack of economic planning of the part of both major political parties in Washington, D.C.  Also, retired state workers and retired teachers and future retirees ought not to have to pay the price for the ill-advised early retirement disaster of the late 1980s in Rhode Island that caused serious problems in funding future retirement payouts, a situation now worsened by the “Great” Recession.


Times have never been better for wealthy Rhode Islanders and big Rhode Island corporations. But of course, there is no state and national will to tax those at the top of their game, so those in the middle class and working class are being made scapegoats for the national party that has been going on since the Reagan administration. And times have never been better for those mega corporations who ship jobs overseas and make use of offshore tax havens to shirk their tax responsibility.


Rhode Island officials, bent on attacking retired state workers’ and teachers’ benefits, have focused on the 3 percent yearly Cost-of-Living Adjustment (C.O.L.A.). Those officials ought to try to survive in the current economy with the astronomical price rise for items such as food and gasoline. Some of these same officials need to try looking for work after retirement, as the economy has cast off millions of older workers, treating them as disposable.


Nationally, there’s lots of energy being poured into the anti-union movement and the anti-teacher movement. Threats to in-service and retired teachers’ future and present retirement benefits are but one facet of this anti-union and anti-teacher movement that seeks to portray everything public as evil and everything private as good. Teachers across the nation take hits because they are the most visible segment of public sector unions. While the economic race to the bottom proceeds in Rhode Island, state government seeks to hoist its dysfunction onto the backs of those who labored for decades with the promise of pensions and some measure of dignity.


September 11, 2001-September 11, 2011

September 11, 2001-September 11, 2011

The decade from September 11, 2001 to September 11, 2011 seems like an instant ago and an eternity! There is no one in the U.S. who will ever forget where they were when news of the attacks in New York City reached them. I was sitting in my car at a small park that meets the Atlantic Ocean at the Rhode Island shore. Years before I would have been surfing at a treacherous part of the nearby shoreline where good-size waves never quite hid the huge and ancient boulders that lie just under the surface of the foaming ocean.


Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the news from my car’s radio seemed both surreal and unreal. And like Kennedy’s death, it was hard to believe at first. Once home, the news on TV confirmed the awful events of the pristine, late-summer mid morning.


As the days following the tragedy ground on, I knew that the response of the Bush administration     would be a military action massive in its breath. Ten years later it is difficult to imagine a police action that could have been mounted by Washington to apprehend Bin Laden and his coconspirators. Instead, the attack took the form of a now unending war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan (and often innocent civilians), even after the killing of the plot’s author.


Jogging through my neighborhood and adjacent ones, I noticed more and more U.S. flags displayed as the days went on. It seems as if mass expressions of patriotism are now one of the few ways Americans have of expressing solidarity these days. I can’t imagine a national solidarity movement in favor of a jobs program, or a system of taxation based on equity, or repairing a despoiled environment, or a fully funded and supported public education system. When it’s all about empire and profit, there’s little room for hope of breaking away from accepted norms of behavior.


Although I took part in the antiwar movement following the inception of the now ten-year war in Afghanistan, it was a loosing battle. Rumors of a  death threat phoned into a local radio station against the band of protestors who regularly showed up to protest in front of the federal building in Providence, Rhode Island was disturbing given the nation’s tenor. In the end, the peace movement was not able to maintain an effective  presence in the streets as the either you’re with us of against us ethos and juggernaut of war and militarism seemed to permanently take hold of this nation.


Emboldened by their “success” in Afghanistan, the Bush administration (notably Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, with the help of others), mounted the war for regime change in Iraq. The rest is history, with the loss of liberties for citizens of the U.S. by way of the U.S. Patriot Act (dating back to the war in Afghanistan), the massive civilian casualties of the Iraq War, and the unleashing of a torture regime in Washington, D.C.


The response by the peace movement to Iraq was more credible than to Afghanistan. I marched along with thousands in New York City on several occasions. With the election of the “peace candidate” Barack Obama, an already mortally wounded antiwar movement lost all of its steam. Democrats seemed to think that if a candidate said he was for peace, then peace would come. With the expansion of the war in Afghanistan (and a host of smaller wars conducted by the U.S.), no opposition to the insanity of unbridled militarism seems possible. It’s as if the worst prognostication of the Eisenhower administration on the danger of the growth of the military-industrial complex has happened!


Bin Laden, a former ally of the U.S., until cut loose after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, was a bloodthirsty murderer. There have been exponentially greater acts of murder by officials of the U.S. government (Vietnam is but one example), while the U.S. moves farther and farther to the political right domestically. Tens of thousands of dead all over the globe leave nothing but a vast sea of mourners.


In 1970, as a graduate student at New York University, I would occasionally go up to the roof of the dorm in which I lived. On crisp, clear Manhattan nights the view to the Twin Towers from the dorm roof was mesmerizing. The Towers glowed in a golden light with work still being completed on some levels of the buildings. It seemed as if by reaching out the Towers could be touched in the magic of a New York evening. Fast forward thirty-one years to the scene of workers jumping to their deaths from the burning towers. The horror was palpable!

Welcome Back To School?

Welcome Back To School?

Why are teachers and the unions that they belong to being relentlessly attacked by the far right in the US? The key to answering this question lies in the fact that teachers make up the largest part of the unionized workforce in the US today. Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” alarms have been sounded resulting in frontal attacks against public schools in the US, the teachers that staff those schools, and the unions that represent teachers at the bargaining table. Not since the anti-union provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which ushered in anti-union “right-to-work” laws in individual states, has such a concerted effort been waged against public school employees and the unions that represent them. Common themes are aired annually that teachers are not up to snuff, are overpaid, and receive too many benefits.


Since teachers are the most visible segment of the union movement, a relentless contemporary campaign, begun with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, has sought to remake public schools in the image of the recasting of US industry in the 1910s and 1920s through Taylorism. Taylorism (the theory of so-called scientific management of the early 20th century that sought to measure the “workflow” of employees in a “scientific” manner-named after Frderick Taylor, its creator) sought to make all elements of the workplace measurable and thus subject to the scrutiny of managers. The current anti-public school climate, extended by the neoliberal Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, seeks to ratchet up the high-stakes testing agenda (an offshoot of Taylorism) of national, state, and local governments. Along with the high-stakes testing agenda is the charter school movement that allows privately run schools to sap crucial monies away from public schools. For-profit corporations that run charter schools are allowed to siphon off public schools funds, and in some cases public school buildings or parts of public school buildings, and run school enterprises that may pick and choose among their student clientele, a “benefit” that public schools, which must educate all students who come to their doors (irrespective of their individual learning needs), never had.


One of the “best” examples of what the political right has done to defund public schools can be seen in New York City, with approximately 1.1 million students, many of whom come from lower middle class and working class backgrounds. As the national economic recession grinds on, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has seen fit to allow the positions of about 2,500 retiring teachers from the 2010-2011 school year to go unfilled. This attrition of employees was augmented recently when the Bloomberg administration recently announced the firing of about an additional 750 staff from the public schools. New York City is perhaps a prime example of a  high-stakes testing environment. Teachers are forced to teach to the test, and in many cases jettison curriculum in favor of test preparation.  High-stakes testing is a policy that is foreign in elite private schools where students are challenged to think critically. Looking at the demographic data of the city it’s easy to see that this dual policy of cuts and high-stakes testing, coupled with the support of Bloomberg of charter schools, has yielded disastrous consequences for the education of the city’s children.


Union membership, now 11.9 percent of the US workforce, down from a high of just under 28 percent in 1970, has been fair game for the political right and neoliberals across the country. In a recessionary economy that has fostered a race to the bottom of income levels as countries such as China, India, and Brazil (to name just a few) have become the engines of economic and manufacturing growth, high-stakes testing is the “perfect” vehicle to keep students and teachers in line. What the right in the US envisions is an economy of the haves and the have-nots, with the have-nots “comfortably” ensconced in public schools.


Since teachers and public schools are visible, and their workers have won economic benefits such as decent salaries, medical coverage, and pensions, the right has mounted an all-out effort to squash these schools and their teachers in the economic race to the bottom. No matter that charter schools don’t do better than public schools on high-stakes tests even though the playing field between public and charter schools is so uneven. In the far-right’s view, anything public, with the exception of military, is not worthy of support at either federal, state, or local levels of government. The right favors the infusion of billions of public funds into giant corporations deemed too big to fail, but allows public schools to wither!


It’s no wonder that New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg, with a net worth of $18.1 billion, wants to take educational resources out of the hands of children of modest and poor economic backgrounds!  In the current political climate of the US, folks like Bloomberg and his ilk in the education management sector of government and politics want people to believe that they act in the public’s best interest.


In 1981, Ronald Reagan, the “Great Communicator,” fired 11,000 air traffic controllers who were members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Reagan’s so-called supply side  economic revolution marked the official end of the upward movement of workers wages and benefits in the US. The party for the wealthy had begun with tax cuts and the beginning of the attack against public schools, teachers, and their unions had begun in earnest.


The segment of the voting public in the US that installs far right politicians and neoliberals in office makes common cause with the wealthy that controls elections in the US today. The latter is perhaps the “best” example of people who  continue to vote against their own self-interests, a trend that began with the election of Ronald Reagan. People who would benefit by the victories of unions won through struggle vote against the interests of unions again and again! Up until the mid 1970s, union struggles led to increased wages, greater benefits, and a reasonable work week. Now, several members of a family are pushed into the workplace to make ends meet, they work more hours and produce more, all the while seeing their real wages and benefits decline as the race to the bottom proceeds. Often their children are ushered into that same race to nowhere in schools that are attacked from all sides.