Monthly Archives: June 2010

While No One’s Looking, the Palestinians Are Building a State

In the world of Palestinian politics, the recent weeks have been a study in contrasts. The international media has trained its focus off the shores of Gaza, where the flotilla fiasco has generated dramatic images of dead civilians and battered Israeli soldiers. The politics of this incident reflect the traditional sturm und drang of the Palestinian national movement: full of grand gestures and transformative ambitions that might result in bloodshed and embarrassment for Israel, but make no substantive contribution to Palestinian liberation.

But in Bethlehem, far away from the television cameras and breathless news reports, 2,000 Palestinian financiers also gathered recently at the second Palestine Investment Conference to quietly go about the business of building the economy of a viable Palestinian state. They discussed almost $1 billion in new projects targeting high-growth sectors, including information and communications technology, housing, and tourism. The politics of the conference represent a paradigm shift quietly taking place in the West Bank under the leadership of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in which Palestinians are increasingly turning to the mundane, workaday tools of governance and development as their principal strategy for ending the occupation.

This strategic transformation is the result of a conundrum facing the Palestinian leadership, which has gambled its political future on a two-state agreement with Israel. If they fail, it is likely that both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) will permanently fade from history and the national movement will be captured by Islamists led by Hamas. Even PLO leaders, however, are still extremely skeptical about the ability of diplomacy to yield significant short-term progress, given the hard-line attitude of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Therefore, Palestinians have gravitated toward solutions that avoid exclusive reliance on diplomacy, which depends on American determination and Israeli seriousness, or slipping back into counterproductive, self-defeating violence.

The most important of these initiatives is the state- and institution-building program adopted by Fayyad’s cabinet last August. This program marks an attempt to build the administrative, infrastructural, and economic framework for a Palestinian state — not only in spite of the occupation, but as a means of confronting it. The plan calls for every PA ministry to meet a series of administrative and institutional goals, from economic and infrastructural developments to good governance and transparency measures. A budget document released in January added even more details to the program. The idea is that, if you build the state, it will come.

Palestinian nationalism had previously been conceived of as largely a top-down affair, concerned with success on the battlefield or at the highest levels of international diplomacy. But rather than seeking an impossible military victory or waiting for the sudden achievement of a major peace treaty, the state-building program seeks to create Palestine as a practical reality. Even as they continue to insist on their moral right of self-determination, Palestinians are seriously taking up their practical responsibilities of self-government.

Palestinians have also adopted nonviolent tactics designed to confront the occupation — particularly the PA’s boycott of settlement goods and mass protests against abusive occupation practices, such as the West Bank separation barrier. These tactics are designed to ensure that both Israelis and Palestinians understand that the state-building approach is not, as is sometimes claimed, a form of collaboration or “beautifying” of the occupation, but rather a sophisticated form of resistance to it. This approach also seeks to achieve clarity on the status of the occupied territories and confront Israelis with a simple question: Is this land going to be part of our state, or is it a part of yours?

This strategy is making quiet but significant progress. Last year, the PA completed more than 1,000 community development programs. It has created the nucleus of a Palestinian central bank and developed a transparent and accountable system of public financing. Hundreds of major development and public-private initiatives are under way, including at least two major telecommunications companies and the first planned Palestinian city. With significant international support, the framework of the Palestinian state is starting to take shape before our eyes.

The bedrock of the state-building program is the new security services trained by multinational forces Palestinians have deployed 2,600 officers in five major West Bank cities, ensuring unprecedented levels of law and order and facilitating the removal of a number of Israeli checkpoints. Israelis themselves have commended the effectiveness of the forces and praised their security coordination with Israeli forces. The combination of security improvements, increased access and mobility for Palestinians, and the PA’s economic development projects led to a growth rate of 8.5 percent in the West Bank last year, one of the highest in the recession-plagued world economy. Perhaps even more significantly, about half of the PA’s budget is now provided by Palestinian taxes and not international support.

In addition to this paradigm shift in the West Bank, Palestinian diplomacy is finally back on track after a difficult 12 months. Abbas’s June 9 visit to the White House revealed that the PLO is presenting itself, for the first time in many years, as a real political partner to the United States. Abbas was able to achieve broad agreement with President Barack Obama’s administration on most key points, including the necessity of easing the siege of Gaza without benefiting Hamas and reaching an agreement that, though direct Israeli-Palestinian talks are important, more political and diplomatic preparation is still required before they can be launched.

There have been some significant failures, of course, particularly regarding the problem of Hamas’s grip over Gaza. Hamas stymied plans to hold national elections in January and July, which represented the only viable peaceful option for reunifying the Palestinian national movement. For the foreseeable future, therefore, national reconciliation appears to be a slogan rather than a practical possibility. The PLO and Hamas currently agree on absolutely nothing, from how to deal with Israel to the cultural and religious foundations of Palestinian society. The future of Hamas will likely be determined by the success or failure of the PA’s state-building project, and its diplomatic efforts. A decisive failure of the new Palestinian tactics will probably make an Islamist takeover inevitable, but its success will discredit Hamas and weaken the organization’s appeal.

The recent Gaza flotilla disaster and Israel’s unconscionable and counterproductive blockade of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza poses a significant challenge to the PA’s strategy. In the coming months, its leadership will attempt to deny Hamas the ability to reap political benefits from Gazans’ suffering. Particularly after Israel’s bloody attack on the flotilla, PLO leaders are determined to help find a way to ease the siege without strengthening their rivals. They think that the blockade has primarily strengthened Hamas’s grip on power in Gaza and are calling for a new way to separate the interests of Hamas and ordinary Gazans.

Palestinian strategy must contend not only with the fallout from the flotilla debacle, but with the constant stresses imposed by the occupation’s continued restrictions on Palestinian economic development and the meager progress of diplomatic negotiations. RecentWorld Bank and IMF studies confirm that, though the institution-building project is meeting its stated objectives, under present conditions it can only go so far: The occupation must continue to recede for it to develop further. This means that increased Israeli cooperation is essential. The PA’s state-building approach and its nonviolent tactics are means for achieving progress on the ground, but in the end they cannot be a substitute for a negotiated agreement.

Although the flotilla fiasco and international outrage concerning Gaza may be more dramatic, all parties have an interest in ensuring the success of the groundbreaking developments in the West Bank. International support and Israeli cooperation are essential for this project to realize its full potential. If that happens, the creation of a viable Palestinian state might attract more than a few newspaper headlines of its own soon enough.

Knowledge, power, vulnerability and the death of alchemy: a conversation with Richard Byrne

In the first ever Ibishblog interview, I talk to Richard Byrne, author of the recently produced play Burn your Bookes about the 16th century alchemist Edward Kelly which was performed by the Taffety Punk Theater Company at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington DC.

I: First of all, let me say congratulations on a really brilliant play, Burn your Bookes, and I want to just ask you the outset what exactly overall you were trying to communicate? Thematically, what’s the essence of your play, or does it defy a reduction like that?

B: It’s a play about knowing, and the costs of knowing to yourself and, more importantly, to others. Alchemy and the story of Edward Kelly was a good way to get into that topic because so many characters in it are obsessed with knowing and different kinds of knowing. We have John Dee, the great Renaissance polymath, who was one of Marlow’s models for Faustus, and very much so since Dee only began to engage in what he called ?angelic conversations? because he felt that he had exhausted human knowledge. And then you have Edward Kelly who, as we learn more about him…

I: Who could have been Jonson’s model for The Alchemist.

B: He was in some ways. In reputation, he was certainly the model. But Kelly clearly had some knowing and couldn’t properly capitalize on it.

I: The knowing you’re talking about here is proto-metallurgy?

B: Yes, and I think he was also very keen student of human nature.

I: Like any good grifter? A lot of what goes on in the play is other people being manipulated by Kelly: Dee, Dee’s wife, Kelly’s own wife, his stepdaughter and rival alchemists or other figures. Kelly is the central figure in your play because whatever he’s doing, it crucially involves manipulating other people.

B: Manipulating them to what end is really the question, and if you wanted to really reduce it, you’d say he was an entrepreneur. But his writings make it clear that he really did feel he was onto something real, that he had solved a lot of the riddles in the alchemical writings he had read and was attempting to communicate them somehow. That is where I think the theory that he was engaging in metallurgy under the cover of alchemy is convincing. It’s convincing because we know about what properties and duties he was given by the Emperor and nobles, many of which had to do with production in their mines.

I: He was sort of a minister of mining, 500 years ago version.

B: Yes, and almost every alchemist in that period who was a fake was eventually caught, and we know how and why they were busted. Kelly was never caught.

I: He died in debtors’ prison.

B: In those days you wouldn’t be just put in prison for being a fake alchemist, they did nasty stuff to some of the folks I read about.

I: Well, in the second act, which is I think in many ways the most perfect of the three and is brilliantly done, you’ve got Kelly having a conversation with two fellow alchemists, one, Muller, a self-avowed con man and fake, the other, Syrrus, a credulous and earnest fool. Kelly is kind of positioned triangularly between the two of them, as they are being hung up in cages literally to rot. That’s the kind of punishment you are talking about, I take it?

B: That was apparently a punishment that Rudolph meted out to some alchemists. The alchemists went on strike, and he made an example of them. I took his punishment for the striking alchemists and imposed them on the fakes, because execution wouldn’t have served my dramaturgical purposes.

I: To return to the first act for a second, Kelly is still the central figure but his principal target and victim isn’t his wife or Dee, it’s Dee’s wife. The intention of his manipulations is twofold: he wants to possess Dee’s wife, for whatever reason, and he’s also plotting to unseat and remove Dee and take his place in Bohemia. Your play does an interesting job of juxtaposing and pairing the kind of manipulation designed to betray his patron and virtually rape his wife with his actual proto-scientific stuff, so where does it fall in the realm of knowledge? There are at least two angles here: Kelly and Dee’s wife.

B: That’s a great question. The events concerning Act I are heavily documented, and I feel as a playwright the need to maintain a certain fidelity to the known facts. Kelly certainly adhered to the school of belief that predominated at that time, which held that to be a true alchemist, and if you wanted to bring forth fertility or health in other human beings, you have to be proven fertile yourself.

I: You had to have the power of essence.

B: So, much of Kelly’s desire to possess Dee’s wife is bound up with that.

I: He never had any children with his own wife?

B: These are the little cross currents of history. His actual wife, Joan Kelly, did have two children with her first husband, but the suggestion is that her second child was a difficult birth that left her subsequently barren and infertile. So Kelly was left, in my view, in a state of unknowing as to whether he was fertile or not. And when you read the angelic conversations and Dee’s private diaries much of the machinations of Kelly seem to be to prove himself fertile. He certainly didn’t want to kill Dee and marry his wife.

I: He was a scryer for Dee. Is there any reason to think that he was sincere, or was he simply manipulating him, or something in between?

B: There is a range of possibilities. The first possibility is that Edward Kelly could see angels in a glass.

I: Okay, let’s move right along from that one.

B: But there are a lot of people who believe that. Number two is that Kelly was somehow mentally ill and thought he saw things. When you read the angelic conversations he had you are struck by the amazing language and imagery, and it’s all coherent, not incoherent. So it tends to make me feel that it’s not really anything about mental illness. That leaves us with a third possibility, which was that Kelly knew exactly what he was doing and he was making up stuff as he was looking into the glass. And then there is a range within that, because he clearly wanted to stop. He didn’t want to be a scryer, because they’re often mentally ill but they had that weird quality of knowing. Nobody pays you to do that anymore. This was a big question for the actor playing Kelly. Daniel Flint was brilliant in the role. But my feeling is that even if Kelly was seeing what he wanted to see and was using those visions for his own purposes all along, over a five-six-year relationship, to live that kind of a lie in very close proximity with someone, who was one of the most brilliant people in the Renaissance, by the way, I would think that your version of what is reality starts to blur slightly. And ultimately I think that’s where I land. So I think he was very convinced of his own power to see or to create or to imaginatively inhabit this universe.

I: In a certain sense, if you do it for seven years to a very willing audience including yourself and all the other people around you, the difference between what you actually see and what you say you see ultimately would become almost meaningless.

B: Especially if you’re being rewarded for it. Let’s get back to Dee’s wife. During the production we had a lot of conversation about what was rape, what was consensual, not consensual, and what I was always trying to impress upon Marcus Kyd, the director, and the actors involved was that to my mind this is more sinister than a rape. This is two men, essentially, colluding to use one of their wives as a test tube.

I: Because Kelly wants to prove himself fertile in order to prove himself worthy as an alchemist, and Dee wants Kelly to impregnate his wife so that he can have a scryer on hand.

B: It becomes very much a transaction. I think some historical facts either speak to the abject helplessness of Jane Dee or to some sort of ambivalence because we don’t really know. The historical fact is that after this incident in 1588, Jane had this child and a few more children by Dee, so clearly the marriage didn’t end, and for the same reason that I was trying to signal to the audience that this is a very complicated situation and this isn’t a sort of ?no means no? modern sensibility of rape. There’s something very complicated going on here and in my view something very sinister.

I: You present it as quite evil and tragic, and almost devastating, it’s not overstated but it’s almost overwhelming.

B: This is the human cost of knowing. These are two men who are pursuing knowing to the destruction of a third-party.

I: What about her form of knowing? She doesn’t believe Kelly. So all of these people are running around pursuing knowledge, and everyone’s taken in to some extent, and the only one who isn’t taken in, in your play, is Dee’s wife, the ultimate victim.

B: That’s the essential tragedy of the first act. Knowing doesn’t save you.

I: Let’s talk about knowledge and the second act, because these sorts of imperfect versions of knowledge in the cages, the knowledge of how to con people but not well enough not to get caught, and knowledge of alchemy that is superficial enough to get you earnestly, credulously strung up in a cage. But then you’ve got Kelly, who is armed with a lamp and a staff as he is triangulated between the two, which give him the symbols of insight and action, so that is an encounter between three forms of knowing: two naïve kinds and one that avoids a certain kind of naïveté, or does it?

B: That’s the basic structure.

I: It has a wonderful geometry on stage.

B: When it was produced in the Prague Festival, the director had Kelly making a figure 8, an infinite loop, around each of the cages. In this production we were more interested in having Kelly interact with and take power over the other two. But there is also compensating knowledge in each. The con man knows enough to get away with it unless a certain kind of knowledge intervenes.

I: The knowledge of a better con man, Kelly, who exposed him.

B: And the fool who actually possesses the raw material, the tincture.

I: What is tincture?

B: There are two sorts of tincture. Alchemically, tincture is a combination of elements that are boiled in liquid. But by the late 16th century the definition of tincture had expanded. In earlier alchemical times, a red powder would never in and of itself have been tincture, which would have needed to have been reduced to some sort of an oil. In Kelly’s time, it could encompass almost anything that’s transformational, so the red tincture in this case is the powder that the earnest fool Syrrus has, and doesn’t know its power.

I: Did it have any power?

B: That’s an excellent question, at the essence of the whole Kelly/metallurgy theory, which was first proposed by Ivan Svitak, a Czech political philosopher who got caught up in the Prague Spring and ended up at UC Chico. He posited that what Kelly was actually doing was reprocessing waste from mines that hadn’t been thoroughly processed and was using mercury ? “red tincture” ? to do it. So in my universe the fool in the cage, Syrrus of Augsburg, is in possession of large quantities of mercury, which is very hard to come by, and he doesn’t know what to do with it, whereas in Kelly’s hands it could be used to make a lot of money.

I: Let’s talk about Syrrus’ form of knowing.

B: He knows just enough to get into real trouble. And the con man, Muller, knows enough to be a knight unless a superior knowledge intervenes. He’s learned a lot, but not quite enough.

I: Yes, because Kelly is responsible for both of their predicaments by exposing them. Before we leave the second act, I’d like you to talk about Kelly’s drunkenness. I’ve seen it four times, performed by the same actor, and each time it’s been played at a different level of drunkenness in that scene. He’s never sober, since it’s late night and he’s staggering home, and that’s built into the script. But I’ve seen it performed with him just tipsy enough to be obnoxious and also with him very drunk indeed.

B: That’s an acting choice. Daniel was never unfaithful to the logic of his own choice. His choice of degree of drunkenness was always calibrated to reach the end result I built into the second act which is that Kelly is empowered and knowledgeable. I think by the logic of the act, Kelly can’t be too drunk and my feeling is that Kelly comes there thinking, “by the end of the night I’m going to be in possession of a whole lot of tincture,” and I think that would lend him to a celebratory mood. And they’re both caged up and pose no threat to him. The question for an actor is, are you consistent with the inevitable draining away of inebriation to get to where you need to be at the end.

I: The third act is still about knowing. In this case Kelly appears only in flashbacks, only in the memory of his stepdaughter Westonia. And now we see Kelly in a new role, suddenly he is a doting stepfather, almost a model stepfather in a sense. Or is he?

B: I think it’s clear that Kelly sees a lot of his own intelligence in her, but the question is, is the kind of knowing he’s giving her not going to eventually make her very unsafe?

I: Because, again, it’s not enough. Like Muller and Syrrus she has some knowledge but not enough knowledge, and she has tincture.

B: Even with someone he clearly adores and clearly is mentoring at some level, he is still capable of manipulating them to his own ends, and in this case it’s hiding his tincture.

I: Would you we relate that to the title of your play, Burn your Bookes, which refers to a poem by Kelly which culminates with ?go burn your bookes, and come and learn of me,” suggesting that all existing knowledge other than what he possesses is useless and anyone who wants true knowledge must learn from him. He gives his stepdaughter knowledge, but not enough for agency. The agency she has is not a reflection of what Kelly has taught her, unless it’s a kind of linguistic facility. So, in a sense, it’s a very false promise.

B: It’s a very false promise for Muller as well. He is supposed to be learning from Kelly, but Kelly is only telling him just enough to get by. And you get that with Westonia, but you are dealing with a child or young teenager, so you really can’t explain that much detail to them.

I: He doesn’t tell her what they’re hiding is tincture, he just tells her it’s a powerful thing that isn’t for her and she must give it to some man.

B: And he doesn’t tell her even that until the very moment that he has to tell her so that the secret won’t get out. He tells her, but he doesn’t tell her. He gives her what we could consider a Renaissance version of a password to get into it. But I really did want to complicate that knowing for Westonia. What does she know, especially given that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, particularly so for her because it is a very physical danger that Kelly has put her in.

I: The danger comes from a spy who keeps breaking in and demanding tincture and information at knife point. Were there incidents like that in her life or is this a generalized metaphor for predators who wanted Kelly’s knowledge?

B: We don’t have a recorded moment of this kind of thing actually happening. But Act I was more difficult to write because there is such a mass of historical documentation, and with Act III, while there is much less of that, we are true to the general outline: she was a young woman trapped in Bohemia and writing poetry to the Emperor.

I: Are the poems you include genuine?

B: They are by her, and I translated them into rhymed couplets. She wrote in Latin, in traditional Latin blank verse. I wanted to do two things: I wanted to heighten the poetic language, because the play is already full of a lot of wordplay, so I wanted to make sure that the poetry was obviously such and that’s why used rhymed couplets. But it was easier to write Act III because while I had the general outline I was able to bring in a lot of other characters. I didn’t feel quite as hemmed in by the actual history, which there is a need to respect. For instance, Amadeus is a great play, but it’s totally unfair to the character of Salieri. This was basically a character assassination, and I didn’t want to do anything like that.

I: I’m glad to say I think that almost everyone knows that Amadeus is completely fictional, but maybe there may be some who don’t.

B: I think there are a lot of people who don’t.

I: Unfortunately, I guess you’re right. You know Shaffer didn’t come up with that on his own. It was a play by Pushkin originally, that got turned into something much better by him.

B: I’m not familiar that.

I: I mean it’s not entirely his fault. He took the conceit and turned it into something better, but it’s totally unfair. What about Westonia’s two suitors? You’ve got George of Silesia and Leo the lawyer, who she ended up marrying. The way you present them they seemed to me a couple of idiots.

B: I don’t think that they’re idiots. I think George is an aesthete, he’s fallen in love with her poetry, and hence with her. This is one of the great things about that doing a play with a company like Taffety Punk, which has a frame of reference that is very modern. A lot of them having been in punk rock bands, they all thought he was like the classic A&R guy from a record company. He’s very much a talent scout, but he’s very much in love with her. He sees himself very much mirrored in her. So I don’t think he’s an idiot, I think he’s young man who is infatuated and in a way that young men are when your sexual passion and your aesthetic passions are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable. And Leo I think very much views her as a singular personality and something attractive that he wants. He feels the path he’s chosen as a lawyer is somewhat more boring than his actual aspirations and by marrying someone who is on a more interesting path he is somehow filling a void. It’s more like an enzyme fitting operation. They are definitely young men who aren’t operating on the level of Kelly or Westonia.

I: She’s miles ahead of both of them, which is I guess what I meant. None of them seem to me to have anything you could call systems of knowing, or if they do it seems rudimentary. In the end of the play, alchemy dies, in a couple of ways. First, because she doesn’t know what to do with a tincture and doesn’t know how to interpret Kelly’s poems, and her new husband either isn’t interested or up to the task.

B: He doesn’t know.

I: So in that sense, the legacy dies. It ultimately proves to be infertile, it cannot pass it to the next generation. It is a barren legacy. The second way in which it dies is that she declares at the very end that they are forbidden by law to ever speak of alchemy, because the authorities have felt that it’s a criminal racket. So that means also that it’s dead not just within the milieu of Kelly’s family, but it’s dead socially because authorities have banned it. And thirdly, we are moving out of one system of knowledge, out of the medieval and Renaissance system of knowledge and structure of viewing the world as a collection of symbols that have to be interpreted mystically and metaphysically, into a world of testable reality, that is measurable and verifiable rather than interpreted. So all the background of the alchemical symbols on your set were rendered moot and meaningless, and the idea of interpreting these monads of the world becomes ridiculous as alchemy gives way to chemistry and metallurgy, and metaphysics to science.

B: I think you’ve hit all the major points about the end of the play. There are two other things though. To your second point about alchemy becoming socially unacceptable, I’d like to fast forward on that a little bit. Alchemy doesn’t really die out until the end of the 17th, early 18th century. Let’s think about the battering rams that discredit it. First of all, Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist as a satire, and just the overall sense that none of this stuff works.

I: But it’s not alchemy that gets overthrown, it’s the entire metaphysical worldview that gets overthrown by the scientific revolution in the 17th century.

B: And Kelly is one of the last of them. In the play he’s sort of moving away from it as well. Those are the books that you’re burning.

I: And what he’s offering his proto-metallurgy.

B: Exactly. I want to push that home a little more. If you think about the monad, that’s the journey of the play. The journey you’ve just talked about from a world where alchemy is considered something that makes perfect sense to one in which it is thrown out altogether. Remember we end with a candle being blown out.

I: And in your play the lighting of a candle is always the sign of a metaphysical process at work.

B: But the play begins with Dee describing to Dyer his hieroglyphic monad. What’s at the center of that? The earth, with the sun revolving around it. It’s a Ptolemaic model, not a Copernican model. So these are not dueling arcs, they are parallel arcs.

I: This is probably a question for the director, but I’m going to ask you anyway. The characters’ faces are painted with symbols and a lot of the people I went with were puzzled by this. Of course that added a punk feel to it and everything, but the sense I could make of it is the way it doubles back on what we’ve been talking about. Because you have the characters represented by these images painted on their faces, they are therefore in a sense readable in symbolic ways. At the end of the play when we’re no longer permitted to speak about alchemy, Westonia is wiping the painted symbols off of her face because we are no longer in a reality which is about symbolic interpretation, but are now in a reality that is measurable, testable and verifiable because we are in the middle of the scientific revolution.

B: Yes, and I was very much in favor of the face-painting. But it was also supposed to represent some of the interiority of some of the characters. I think we wanted to give audience more signposts. Especially Act I is a very dense piece that is asking a lot of the audience to follow. With Act I, everything has to go right to make it work. I think if you’re reading it, Act I is easy to make out. The question is, is everything working as well as it can on stage. I was amazed at how well it did end up working. But the writer here is taking some responsibility for clarity, and it’s something you learn as a playwright. Act I was by far the bit that took the most drafts, and in contrast Act II and Act III were a doddle to write. This is something you learn as a playwright to solve conceptually. The triptych element asks the audience to process a lot: three different views of Edward Kelly that inform against each other at some level. That’s not the easiest thing in the world.

I: I think people responded very well and you could have had at least another two weeks out of that run.

B: As a playwright I want to set the bar high for myself and for the audience.

I: Let’s talk a little bit about language. You play a lot of interesting games with the language in the play and some of it is quite subtle.

B: What I was aiming for was an active language that was going to evoke that period without replicating it, and certain characters like John Dee need to be a lot more in that realm. There are moments when I knew the audience wasn’t going to take in everything he was saying, but it was more important how he was saying it.

I: What’s next?

B: I had read Tacitus’ Annals but I had never read his Histories and last summer when I did, I got to this point very early when he mentions the fake Nero who showed up very shortly after Nero’s suicide, who looked like Nero, played the lyre, and raised an army of rabble, criminals and slaves. They caught up with him on an island and cut his head off and sent it on a tour of the empire, on which everyone said, “oh wow, he does look a lot like Nero.”

I: So the message was both this is what happens you if you do this and, by the way, doesn’t it really look like him so it’s not that surprising some of us were fooled?

B: Yes. So I’ve written a play about that called Nero Pseudo.

I: Not Pseudo Nero?

B: Pseudo Nero is the correct term, but I’m inverting it for reasons that will become apparent. And I’m starting to research and write a play about the original Luddites. It’s a lot of fun.

I: Very topical. We’ll be waiting with bated breath to see it. Thank you very much for joining me on the first Ibishblog interview.

Israel must clarify Palestine’s status

While world attention has been heavily focused on efforts to break the siege of Gaza, Palestinians in the West Bank are pursuing a series of new, nonviolent, strategies challenging the Israeli occupation. What they are primarily seeking, and what the Israeli government is desperately trying to avoid, is clarity about the status of the occupied territories.

Palestinians are insisting that Israel cannot continue to treat theterritories occupied in 1967 in a selective manner, regarding settlers and settlements as unambiguously “Israeli” but the Palestinian population as fundamentally alien and outside Israel. The new Palestinian strategies are pressing the uncomfortable but unavoidable question: are these territories part of Israel, or not?

Throughout its policies in the occupied territories, Israel picks and chooses according to its convenience, maintaining an untenable ambiguity regarding the legal and political status of the territory and its residents. This ambiguity begins with the legal and political status of the population of the territories. While Israeli settlers live under Israeli civil law and with all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, Palestinians live under Israeli civil and military administration with a very different set of laws and without the rights or responsibilities of citizenship. This structure based on dual registers of reality in the same space extends throughout the entire system of the occupation.

The recent flap over Israel’s OECD membership is an excellent case in point. Israelis were outraged that Palestinians would object to Israel’s attempt to join the organisation, but the Palestinians were making an important point: Israel includes the prosperous, heavily subsidised, settlement economy in all of the “national” economic statistics it submitted for OECD membership, but excludes all aspects of the Palestinian economy that struggles under occupation. It’s not just a question of veracity of Israel’s figures. It is a demand to know on what basis Israel can consider the settlements part of the “Israeli” economy but surrounding Palestinian villages not.

Clarity is also the ultimate aim of the boycott of settlement goodsrecently launched by the Palestinian Authority. The boycott serves many purposes, including bolstering the Palestinian economy and harnessing Palestinian spending power in developing its own society.

However, it is unlikely that the boycott will really damage the economic viability of settlements, which are heavily subsidised and are ideological rather than for-profit enterprises. Probably the most important function the boycott performs is to focus everyone’s attention on the clear distinction between settlement goods and legitimate Israeli products, and thereby isolate and highlight the distinction between Israel itself and the settlements.

Israel’s infuriated reaction to the boycott is a clear indication of how uncomfortable it is with such clarity. The political dangers were illustrated recently when two large Italian grocery chains took a principled decision not to sell settlement products, only to discover that Israel refused to clearly label settlement goods or distinguish them from “Israeli” products generally. As a consequence, the companies decided not to sell any Israeli exports on the grounds that there is no clarity.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s protestations that the boycott is only hurting the Palestinians themselves rings extremely hollow. If that were true, why are he and his colleagues so upset by it? Israelis indignantly ask Palestinians: are you partners or are you enemies? The answer is simple: partners in peace, security and all legitimate matters, yes; partners in occupation and settlements, no.

Palestinians cannot be expected to acquiesce to, much less subsidise, their own oppression and they have every right to peacefully and lawfully challenge the occupation and demand clarity.

The same logic ultimately applies to the PA state and institution building programme. By developing the framework of Palestinian statehood, the programme forces Israel into the clarity of a simple choice: either gradually and however grudgingly cede more and more attributes of sovereignty in greater and greater parts of the occupied territories to the PA in order to allow the programme to develop, or kill it. The state building programme cannot survive stasis. It requires continuous, even if gradual, expansion. It asks Israel a simple question: are the occupied territories ultimately your country or ours?

Israel is alone in not recognising that it is the occupying power in the territories conquered in 1967. Heretofore its policies have been structured around obfuscation that allows the settlements and the settlers to occupy a legal and political space indistinguishable from Tel Aviv and its inhabitants, except, of course, for all the special subsidies and privileges they are accorded, while all aspects of Palestinian life are characterised by occupation. The Palestinian point is that there cannot be two legal and political registers: a virtual Israel that exists wherever an Israeli settler happens to be and an ambiguous, unresolved occupation everywhere else.

Because peace will depend on ending the occupation, it also requires clarity about the occupation. Palestinians are doing themselves, the world, and ultimately the Israelis as well, a big favour in rejecting Israel’s fog of ambiguity and demanding simple, necessary clarity.

Religion and violence: another look at Islamophobia and anti-Semitism

It can’t, and it shouldn’t be, all Gaza flotilla all the time, and forcing a change of subject momentarily, an Ibishblog reader, somewhat out of the blue, poses the following question: "Muslims swear allegiance to the Koran and I read in one chapter about 13 statements instructing followers to kill, silence or destroy people who did not agree with Muslim teachings. Do you really think these people are peace loving and tolerant of others? Have you read the Koran?"

Obviously, this should be answered, since it’s representative of an entire and rather dangerous school of thought in our country today. First of all, whatever this individual thinks they know, it has led them deeply astray. Muslims do not swear allegiance to the Quran, whatever that might mean. In Islamic theology, the Quran is many things, most importantly, by supposedly being God’s literal words, it is above all the sole trace of the divine essence in the profane realm of creation (to be best compared in this sense to the role of the divine person of Jesus in Christianity, and not therefore to the Bible). One may swear allegiance, in a sense, to God, and really that is the essence of Islam (literally "submission," to the will of God) but not to the Quran which is not itself God, or an actor of any kind. The reader claims that because he read in the Quran some violent, intolerant passages that Muslims (or should I say, excuse me, “these people”) can therefore never be peace loving and tolerant of others. If that’s true, all the world’s religions are in deep trouble, and none of their followers could be assumed to be anything other than dangerous, because virtually all of the holy books I have ever glanced through have plenty of violence and intolerance in them.

Let me turn it around and ask the reader: have you read the Bible? Personally, and as an agnostic with no particular dog in this fight, I find the Quran to contain a great many passages with which I am uncomfortable for many different reasons, including some which are disturbingly violent, but I have to say it really can’t compete in this regard with the Bible. Prof. Philip Jenkins’ upcoming book, "Dark Passages," based on his 2004 Sunday Boston Globe article of the same name, I think will make this case most powerfully. This doesn’t mean that Christianity and Christians are more violent than Islam and Muslims, but it means that this whole discourse about religion and violence is not only based on logical fallacies, it’s based on false assumptions. I don’t know if people in the Christian West simply fail to carefully read their Bibles, or are in some cases incapable of reading them in the same way they read the Quran, as an outsider skeptically looking at each passage line by line, and outside of the context of the mainstream religious traditions through which they are interpreted. People in Christian societies understand that the extraordinarily violent, intolerant and draconian passages in the Bible, which are much more elaborate, baroque, far-reaching and lengthy than anything similar to be found in the Quran, don’t represent what Christians think of the world because they understand the traditions through which these passages are interpreted (If anybody wants to challenge me and force me to get into where you can find all of that juicy stuff in the Bible, go right ahead, but you’re wasting your time, since if you just pick it up and start reading from beginning you’ll get to it pretty darn quickly). Yet there seems to be an assumption that the Quran can, by contrast, simply be picked up and read like the New York Times, and that from its passages randomly strewn about here and there, the mindset of over 1 billion people and huge chunks of humanity across enormous sweeps of space and time can be deduced.

If the past 1500 years of world history is anything to judge by, neither Christian nor Muslim societies are in any position to take a superior attitude about being “peace loving” or “tolerant of other people.” Obviously you can find plenty of examples in societies, informed by both faiths, of people generally behaving well, and plenty of them generally behaving badly. An argument about which has generally behaved worse is absolutely pointless because so many people and peoples throughout human history, informed by any number of legitimating doctrines and religions, have taken it upon themselves to bully, abuse and slaughter others. There are no clean hands, and adopting an attitude of unjustifiable superiority in this regard, or, worse, giving into a chauvinistic and paranoid worldview (as many Islamists and western ultra right-wingers do), is intellectually and morally unjustifiable and politically dangerous. I think it’s very clear that religion has been a major, if not the major, source of violence throughout human history, but also a major source of tolerance and reconciliation, and that all religions have shown themselves capable of inspiring and legitimating both.

As I’ve argued many times in the past, people are people, and while cultures differ, the tendency towards violence, bigotry and oppression is universal. One can find more or less of it in any given society at any given time, but the general tendency is always there. The essential virtues and flaws of humanity are remarkably consistent across space and time, and in freer or more oppressive societies. Obviously if we apply this to governments, it’s much easier and more reasonable to make distinctions, but the reader has asked me about “these people,” based on the presumed religious beliefs of 1.25 billion human beings all over the world. So obviously, we’re not talking about governments, or even cultures. When talking about an identity category as large and diverse as that of “Muslim,” which in its broadest sense applies to about one fifth of humanity, it becomes very difficult to distinguish between the category Muslim and the category human. I mean that every element of human experience can be identified in some part or other of the Muslim experience. We are, after all, talking about people, and this is such a gigantic and heterogeneous group that, taken on its own, the category “Muslim” tells us virtually nothing more than the category “human.” So, do I really think that “these people are peace loving and tolerant of others?” Some of them are and some of them aren’t. And, the fact that they happen to be somewhere in the general category of “Muslims” doesn’t tell me anything at all that can help me guess whether they’re more or less likely to be peace loving and tolerant of others.

There is, of course, a cottage industry of bigots and holy warriors in the United States agitating furiously against Islam in an effort to denigrate, exclude and marginalize the Muslim Americans and make sure that they are subjected to the maximal possible discomfort and that their ability to establish a thriving, vibrant community in our country and other Western societies is thwarted. There are several reasons that motivate this desire to promote bigotry, including religious or cultural chauvinism; a sense of religious competition between Christianity and Islam; a genuinely phobic, hysterical pathology of raw, irrational fear; and a desire by certain right-wing supporters of Israel to prevent the empowerment of a community that could, over time, begin to shift the discourse on Middle East policy in the United States. I’m sure there are more, but these are some obvious motivations that are readily identifiable in the attitudes of some of the more famous Islamophobes (if anybody wants a more detailed breakdown of this, you’ll have to ask). The reader’s question strongly suggests that he is familiar with some of this discourse.

In the past, I’ve argued strongly that the best way to understand the structure, strategies and mechanisms of Islamophobia is to study the essential elements of anti-Semitic rhetoric, because the parallels between the two are uncanny and exact and because Americans are familiar with the ugliness and unfairness of anti-Semitism. Since it can easily be shown that Islamophobia is without doubt in most instances a virtually exact replication of anti-Semitism, this ought to prove a decisive platform for exposing and counteracting its pernicious effects. As it happens, last week, completely coincidentally, I was reading with amazement anti-Semitic tracts that attempted to demonstrate all kinds of evils about Judaism and the Jews based on tendentious and malicious quotation and interpretation from Jewish holy books. I refuse to link to any of them, because they are poisonous, but anyone who seeks them out online should unfortunately have no difficulty finding them. In fact, the Quran, the Bible, and certainly also the Talmud, contain passages that, if read literally, out of context and especially outside of the mainstream of both traditional and contemporary interpretation, could be seen as quite alarming. Indeed, in all three cases, especially in the past, their effects upon the "righteous true believers" have been alarming, and in some cases, at the moment especially among Muslim extremists, they continue to be. However, what these anti-Semitic polemical tracts attempt to do is to suggest that contemporary and mainstream Jews around the world have a mentality and mindset defined by the literal or maliciously interpreted meanings of these passages, mainstream Jewish understandings of them notwithstanding. This is precisely what many of the worst of the Islamophobes do to the Muslims.

A 2003 report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), The Talmud in Anti-Semitic Polemics, explains how this process of selectively quoting from and misrepresenting Jewish scripture is being used by anti-Jewish bigots in their campaigns of defamation in exactly the same way in which Islamophobes use the Quran and Hadith to slander and systematically misrepresent Islam and Muslims. The report opens with this telling passage: Recently there has been a renewal of attacks on Judaism and Jews through recycling of old accusations and distortions about the Talmud. Anti-Talmud tracts were originally developed in the Middle Ages as Christian polemics against Judaism, but today they emanate from a variety of Christian, Moslem and secular sources. Sometimes such "studies" have blatantly anti-Semitic tones; sometimes they are more subtle. Yet all of them remain as false and pernicious today as they did in the Middle Ages.

Obviously, all it takes is a simple transposition of nouns to find in this a precise and exact description of the way in which Islamophobes like Robert Spencer, Andrew Bostom and the like go about casting Islam and Muslims in the worst possible light. As the ADL’s report points out, In distorting the normative meanings of rabbinic texts, anti-Talmud writers frequently remove passages from their textual and historical contexts. Even when they present their citations accurately, they judge the passages based on contemporary moral standards, ignoring the fact that the majority of these passages were composed close to two thousand years ago by people living in cultures radically different from our own. They are thus able to ignore Judaism’s long history of social progress and paint it instead as a primitive and parochial religion. Those who attack the Talmud frequently cite ancient rabbinic sources without noting subsequent developments in Jewish thought, and without making a good-faith effort to consult with contemporary Jewish authorities who can explain the role of these sources in normative Jewish thought and practice.

I don’t think there can be a better description of the methods used by contemporary American Islamophobes to defame Muslims, as exemplified in the dispute I had with Robert Spencer about whether or not the Quran calls Christians and Jews apes and swine, and whether or not therefore Muslims view their fellow monotheists in this light. The passage in the Quran in question does not contain the words Christians or Jews, and while both Islamophobes and Muslim extremists have interpreted it in this intolerant, mean-spirited manner it plainly requires an interpretive leap since it simply does not literally say anything of the kind. Moreover, it’s certainly and obviously not the case by any means that mainstream Islam or anything but a tiny fraction of Muslims in our era and historically have viewed Christians and Jews as apes and swine. The total disregard for both mainstream and traditional interpretations of Islamic doctrine by most Muslim scholars and commentators is the hallmark of the work of Spencer and his ilk, who present passages of scripture ripped from their context and traditional meaning as proof of Islam being violent, intolerant and bent on world domination. This is why, of course, their work garners absolutely no respect whatsoever from the qualified and trained academic and intellectual communities that actually study Islam, and can only appeal to the ignorant or the enraged. Unfortunately, that’s a significant constituency.

“Are the polemicists anti-Semites?” the ADL report asks, and answers, quite rightly, “by and large, yes” (they are clearly leaving themselves some wiggle room on the issue of Israel Shahak, who is cited in the report but is almost certainly not vulnerable to such an accusation). It cites as tell-tale signs of bigotry and malevolence, their systematic distortions of the ancient texts, always in the direction of portraying Judaism negatively, their lack of interest in good-faith efforts to understand contemporary Judaism from contemporary Jews, and their dismissal of any voices opposing their own, [which] suggests that their goal in reading ancient rabbinic literature is to produce the Frankenstein version of Judaism that they invariably claim to have uncovered.

In just this manner, Islamophobes dismiss what contemporary and mainstream Muslims say their faith means to them and systematically misrepresent the common understanding of complex ancient texts written in both a language and a style very foreign to the present-day American manner of expression. They too dismiss any voices other than their own, such as renowned academic experts on Islam, even non-Muslims scholars and experts, and denounce them as “apologists” and supporters of extremism. In these cases too, it is clear to any impartial observer that the goal is in no way a good-faith effort to examine honestly what Muslims believe but rather to create “the Frankenstein version of Islam.”

It will, of course, be objected that some extremist Muslims, such as Osama Bin Laden or many others of this radical ilk, do in fact preach an extreme version of Islam that in some cases does mirror the claims of Islamophobes like Spencer and others. This is not disputed. The question is not what fringe elements believe but what is mainstream. Similarly, there are in fact some Jewish extremists who do hold to readings of Jewish scripture and tradition that are similar to the claims made by anti-Semites to defame Judaism and Jews in general. Some extremists in the Israeli settler movement certainly qualify, such as Rabbi Yaacov Perrin who proclaimed that, "One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail" in his eulogy of the Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein, who conducted a massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque (within the Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron killing 29 worshipers and wounding another 150 in 1994. Goldstein’s tombstone, at his shrine-like grave in the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba in Hebron, reads: “Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein, blessed be the memory of the righteous and holy man, may the Lord avenge his blood, who devoted his soul to the Jews, Jewish religion and Jewish land. His hands are innocent and his heart is pure. He was killed as a martyr of God on the 14th of Adar, Purim, in the year 5754 (1994).” Goldstein is buried at the "Meir Kahane Memorial Park," named in honor of the extremist Rabbi who advocated the ethnic cleansing of all non-Jews from historical Palestine and who was the leader of at least two organizations formally designated by the United States government as terrorist organizations. Goldstein, it should be noted, was one of his followers.

It is necessary and important to recognize that such political extremists exist among Jews and Muslims – and Christians, Hindus and others for that matter – who are happy to justify and rationalize their radical acts and opinions by performing eccentric, heterodox or anachronistic and atavistic readings of holy texts and traditions. The ADL report acknowledges that, “Judaism has had its share of bigots, racists and xenophobes, some of whom expressed their prejudices in religious terms.” Obviously no serious commentator can fail to recognize the undeniable phenomenon of extremist rhetoric and action among fanatical minorities of Muslims, not only historically, but certainly also in the present day. It is a critical problem that is currently confronting both Muslim and non-Muslim societies, and should not be trivialized or dismissed. The ugly side of holy books is almost always there and can be used by both external bashers and internal fanatics. But these radical ideas must be recognized as extreme views, which they almost always are, and not falsely posed as mainstream discourse or, worse still, characteristic of the attitudes of whole identity communities.

The parallels between the calumnies the ADL cites against Jews in anti-Semitic literature and those currently being promoting in contemporary American Islamophobia are striking indeed (all of the following in bold are direct quotes from the ADL report):

• “Jews are intent on subjugating non-Jews around the world and even on committing genocide against them” – this finds obvious and clear parallels in the constant refrain that Islam is bent on world conquest and the subjugation of all non-Muslims as “dhimmis” or worse, and in the frequent allegation that Islam has a genocidal attitude towards non-Muslims.

• “Jewish law enjoins or permits Jews to murder non-Jews whenever feasible” – one of the most familiar charges against Islam and Muslims is that “infidels” may or must be killed.

• “Jews are permitted to lie without moral or religious compunction” – Islamophobes frequently claim that Islam authorizes, permits or even encourages Muslims to deceive non-Muslims, as in the calumnies about taqiyyah I have written about in previous Ibishblog postings.

• “Judaism condones the sexual molestation of young girls” – obviously the charge of pedophilia against the Prophet Muhammad is closely echoed here, as are a whole slew of charges that Islam permits, mandates or does not forbid a wide range of sexual perversions and abuses. More on this from the Ibishblog will be forthcoming.

• “Judaism is ‘more of a crime syndicate than a religion.’" – in Islamophobic discourse, it is frequently alleged that Islam is “more of an extremist political movement” (recall statements to this effect by Ayaan Hirsi Ali cited In a recent Ibishblog post, for example) or some such bizarre formulation, than a religion.

I think I’ve made my point very clearly. Islamophobia is a barely warmed over, 20 seconds in the microwave, version of traditional anti-Semitism, and I’m sorry that the reader has fallen for it. If we were transported to the 1920s and 30s, I’m sure he’d be demanding to know if anyone really thought “those people” (the Jews) were really reasonable and decent given what they supposedly believe and what is supposedly in their holy books, etc. Can’t we ever learn our lesson?

Why Israel’s narrative of the flotilla attack is failing so badly

To most of the world, this is a very simple story: elite Israeli counterterrorism commandos stormed an unarmed, civilian ship carrying aid supplies in international waters, in order to enforce a morally indefensible and politically counterproductive blockade, and as a consequence 10 civilians were killed and many others injured. The entire Israeli effort since these realities became known has been to try to complicate the picture and shift the responsibility for the bloodshed away from the military commandos who stormed the ship, or their commanders, and onto the passengers themselves. The effort is failing miserably, in many ways backfiring on itself. It’s worth looking at how and why this is all happening.

The first and most important element of its campaign has been Israel’s effort to create a media blackout. The first move against the ship was to try to shut down all communications and links to the outside world. Reports suggest that commandos prioritized dispossessing and even disabling journalists and photographers on board, reportedly tazering an Australian photographer, Kate Geraghty. Most of the detained activists have been held incommunicado, including many journalists who have not been allowed any contact with their home offices or publications. The names of the dead and any details about their injuries have been thus far suppressed. In short, Israel’s behavior looks exactly like what one would expect a guilty party to do if it felt it had not just something, but plenty, to hide.

Of course, Israel has been releasing information, but in a very fragmented and piecemeal manner, all of which has been designed to bolster its argument that its counterterrorism commandos were trying to storm the ship in a ?peaceful? manner and were savagely, brutally, viciously (all words dominating Israeli official discourse at the moment) set upon by a rioting mob of terrorists. In one of its more ham-handed gestures, Israel has displayed to the world’s press a photo op of a pile of random ship objects in a completely unconvincing effort to demonstrate how heavily armed and dangerous these passenger-activist-terrorists really were. To be sure, some of the video fragments released by Israel demonstrate there was a melee on board, and there is no doubt that Israeli soldiers have been injured, but they don’t demonstrate anything at all to establish a clear narrative. Because of the media blackout, the Israeli narrative is the only one we have, and it’s almost coherent except that nothing in it really explains how and when the melee with the unruly activists really began and how all of the carnage ensued. At the very least, there is a huge missing piece, and probably many missing pieces, to the picture, even if many, if not most, elements of the Israeli narrative are accurate. It doesn’t even begin to explain how a large, well armed and very powerful navy was unable to seize control of an unarmed civilian ship without killing and injuring so many people.

And then there are the contradictions. I had an hour-long debate with the Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, Jacob Dayan, yesterday and I was struck by the numerous logical contradictions in the narrative he was presenting. I almost felt sorry for him. On the one hand he was maintaining that the reason the situation got out of control was that the Israelis expected this to be a simple, peaceful operation (which is why, I guess, they sent in their elite counterterrorism forces), and were shocked by and unprepared for the alleged unprovoked eruption of violence by the activists. On the other hand, he insisted that Israel had no choice but to intercept the ship and do so in international waters long before it approached the Gaza port because the Turkish NGO involved is a group of well-known extremists and terrorists with strong links to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, if not Al Qaeda itself, and that they were well known to be extremely dangerous. Well, which is it? In defending one part of the narrative, Israeli officials are insisting they were taken completely by surprise and expected everything to be peaceful. In defending another part of the narrative, they insist they were well aware that the Turkish group was dangerous ?terrorists,? possibly smuggling weapons and who knows what, and that this was therefore obviously an act of war and aggression by the forces of Islamic jihadism. It’s pathetic.

In another miserable contradiction, echoing his boss Foreign Minister Lieberman, Jacob (who I actually like and respect, but who I think was in a completely impossible position) maintained that it was the clear and stated intention of the organizers to provoke a violent confrontation. I certainly agree, as I wrote in my last Ibishblog posting, that the flotilla was a provocation, but it was a political provocation, not a military provocation. Obviously a political provocation is to be dealt with politically, and not through a military action that results in 10 dead civilians and scores wounded. But more importantly, if as Lieberman said, it was obvious from the beginning that this group was “hoping for bloodshed,? why then did Israel decide the best thing would be to oblige them and go ahead and spill large quantities of blood? In other words, this allegation not only doesn’t help to explain Israel’s actions, it makes them much more puzzling. And, if this were the case, why weren’t these ?terrorists? armed with more than random items to be found on many a ship? If they came for a violent confrontation with Israeli military forces, they certainly came ill-prepared and the outcome strongly reflects that. The whole thing doesn’t add up, and that’s a charitable assessment.

So, even in the context of a media blackout in which Israel controls the overwhelming majority of hard evidence about what happened that is available to the public, its attempts to create a coherent and convincing narrative that explains what happened or starts to shift responsibility away from its decision to storm the ship is a complete failure. It’s likely to become an even greater failure as survivors begin to be released and make public statements and, especially, when the journalists that are being held are able to tell their stories. Those who have been released are strongly contradicting the Israeli version, and that’s likely to continue and intensify, especially since it’s clear that the Israeli narrative is at best tendentious and incomplete.

The coming days will also reveal a crucial, definitive reality: Israel has seized possession of almost all of the documentary evidence about the attack, especially the numerous media and recording devices in the possession of the activists. The few who have been set free have been released with their clothes and passports only. Obviously, there is a huge mountain of documentary evidence, especially from the activist side, that would clearly help to establish the facts. Israel has a few simple options: it can give people their property back so that the activists themselves can make use of their own documentary record, but obviously this is extremely unlikely; it can destroy the evidence, or selectively destroy it; it can suppress it and make limited and propagandistic use of it in a whitewashing and non-credible internal military/government investigation; or, finally, it can retain the evidence and provide it in good faith to either an international investigation or to a credible and independent Israeli investigation headed by respected jurists with subpoena powers and the ability to create consequences. Given the present attitude of the current Israeli government and what is suggested by its extremely suspicious behavior up to this point, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be surprised if it either destroyed or suppressed some, if not most, of this evidence. If it does so, it will be ensuring that the world’s worst suspicions will be considered confirmed forever by many, if not most, observers.

There is only one way out of all of this for the Israelis: a credible, serious independent investigation that has genuine integrity and lets the chips fall where they may. In the case of many countries, one would have reason to doubt their capacity to do such a thing. However, Israel has successfully done this in the past, most particularly the Kahane Commission Report into the massacres at Sabra and Shatila in 1982. The report was not perfect, but it was serious and credible and it had consequences. If the Israelis initiate a similar process regarding the flotilla attack, it could avoid much of the worst consequences that are likely to attach to this ghastly blunder over the long run. The question is, is Israel in 2010 capable of the same introspection it was in 1982? I don’t know the answer to that, but I am sure that if Israel does not launch such an investigation and tries to fob the world off with some kind of internal whitewash like the military’s own investigation of the Gaza war, for example, an international investigation similar to but in many ways exceeding and more significant than the Goldstone Report is inevitable. And then, the extremely negative consequences for Israel and for many other actors in the region will be virtually unavoidable.

Israel’s narrative of the flotilla attack is failing completely because it doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t explain what happened, and it’s all taking place in the context of an information blackout. It couldn’t be less convincing. It’s adding insult to injury. It’s backfiring, big-time.