Sunday 30 June 2013

In defense of Marriage (Gay and Straight)

In Defense of Marriage (Gay and Straight)
Celebrations outisde the US Supreme Court after DOMA was ruled unconstitutional, Wikimedia Commons
Last week the US Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act by a vote of five to four. Shamefully, President Bill Clinton had signed this act in 1996. It outlawed federal benefits to same-sex partners of individuals who worked for the federal government, even if two same-sex individuals had been legally married in a US state. Marriage in the US is regulated by the states, and the federal government is supposed to recognize the marriages that the states authorize.
I live in Canada, where same-sex marriage has been universally recognized since 2006. Before that, most of Canada’s provincial and territorial jurisdictions had already legalized same-sex marriage, although the new government of Nunavut, whose tiny population is composed mainly of indigenous people, hadn’t got around to legalizing it yet. The anti- gay marriage lobby frequently argues that homosexual marriages will undermine male-female heterosexual marriages. Since gay marriage was legalized in Canada, there’s been no evidence that this is true. Straight people aren’t any less likely to get married because gay people can get married. If anything, gay marriage strengthens marriage as a social institution. It affirms the partnership of two people, whether gay or straight; it grants them all the legal rights and responsibilities of straight marriages; and it protects their children.
In 2005 I spent four months teaching in the human rights master’s program at the University of Goteborg in Sweden. While I was there, I was asked to spend a morning at Lund University’s Faculty of Law teaching in one of its short courses for international human rights activists. The group I taught was eleven Muslim activists from Indonesia, of whom one only (if I remember correctly) was a woman. This was a fairly liberal group of Muslims; only one man refused to shake my hand (I am a woman), and all the others stood up and offered their hands to me so that I would not be embarrassed.
The morning’s topic was human rights and cultural relativism, and I had been advised not to discuss gay rights, so of course I did. Immediately, the activists told me that they opposed gay marriage, so I said, “Let’s start at the beginning.” I wanted to see how far this group of activists would go in defending homosexuals’ rights. Should they be killed, I asked: No, was the unanimous response. Should they be imprisoned? Again, the unanimous response was no.  Should they be denied an education or a job because they are gay? Again, unanimously, no.  Should a landlord have to rent a room to a gay couple if it is in the same house he lives in?  Here, the activists defended the landlord’s right to refuse to rent the couple a room. And finally, should gay marriage be recognized?  The answer to this one was no, all around. So this group of Indonesian activists had more or less the same attitudes to homosexuals as existed in Canada around 1980, when homosexual acts were no longer illegal and discrimination against them was gradually being outlawed. 
Marriage Equality symbol, Wikimedia Commons
 I mention this discussion because of the recent upsurge of anti-homosexual lawmaking in some African and Eastern European countries. President Obama was in Senegal last week, and when he mentioned the rights of gays in his speech there the Senegalese President responded with a defense of anti-homosexual laws. It’s common in Africa now to argue that gay rights are just another Western imperialist plot (much as many Africans used to argue that women’s rights were a Western imperialist plot, until so many African women scholars, lawyers and activists started defending women’s rights that that argument became ridiculous). Also, anti-gay evangelical Christians are influencing the debate in Africa. At the same time, Russia has passed a law outlawing homosexual “propaganda.” This is a nationalist assertion of Russian “values” against the “corrupt” West, and a way for President Putin to gain cheap points against human rights defenders.
These reactions against gay rights are a worrisome trend, and show us that there is nothing inevitable about progress toward their complete defense. Gays still face execution in some countries, imprisonment in more, and rampant discrimination in many places.  But the thoughtful exploration of gay rights that I had with my class of eleven Indonesian Muslim activists in 2005 gives me hope that more and more people are beginning to acknowledge them. It will take quite a while before every country gives gays and lesbians the right to marry each other and become what they are; ordinary people who want to establish families, raise their children, and have their relationships acknowledged by their relatives, society and the state.  Indeed, this may never happen, if we are not vigilant in protecting gay rights/
I think marriage is a useful social institution. It regularizes each party’s rights and responsibilities, and makes sure that children are protected in cases of divorce or death. Society’s commitment to the relationship—through the legal institution of marriage- also strengthens the partnership. Everyone has an interest in making sure the partnership survives. Children of the partnership feel more secure knowing that their parents have legal commitments to one another. This doesn’t mean that I favor the old-fashioned patriarchal marriage that existed in Canada, and everywhere else, until the 1970s or so. But I do think it’s a good idea to defend the institution, and to extend it to everyone.

Friday 21 June 2013

On Criticizing Israel

On Criticizing Israel
In the past few weeks I’ve had conversations with three Jewish friends about the ethics of criticizing Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel is a pariah state; the world pays much more attention to its many wrongdoings than to the terrible events than occur in many other parts of the world. I believe that the inordinate amount of attention paid to Israel in the United Nations, especially in the Human Rights Council (so-called) is partly caused by anti-Semitism. Also, as one friend pointed out, Israel is a democracy, and there’s lots of criticism of its policies from the press, academics, and activists. So there’s lots of information for the Human Rights Council and other agencies to draw on.  
Many critics also think of Israel as the last Western colony. People who hold this view often think that all Jews in Israel are from the West. But many Israeli Jews, or their immediate ancestors, are or were from the Middle East. At one point, for example, there was a large Jewish community in Baghdad, which centuries ago was a centre of Jewish learning. Critics of Israel should be aware of the many Middle Eastern Jews who live there and should accept that as the cradle of the three Abrahamic faiths, the Middle East for centuries housed Muslims, Jews and Christians living together. The ethno-religious cleansing facing Christians in some Middle Eastern countries today is another aspect of the tragedy there.
Jewish activists claim that as many as 800,000 Jews were expelled from Middle Eastern countries after the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel before and after Israeli independence in 1948 (on this, see Ian Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, London, Oneworld Publications, 2006). Some activists think that reparations to Palestinians for their expulsion from Israel should be tied to reparations to Jews for their expulsion from other Middle Eastern countries. I disagree with this point of view: Israel is a sovereign state and it is responsible for what it does, regardless of what other states do. As a pragmatic matter, financial reparation to displaced Palestinians is a crucial aspect of the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Another criticism that bothers me is comparison of Israel to Nazism. A couple of years ago, some students at my university staging “Israel Apartheid Week” put up a poster of a man in striped pajamas lying behind a fence: the idea was to compare the situation of Palestinians to that of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. As one of the students said to me, “Oppression is oppression, right?” But she wasn’t right. If Israel were a Nazi state, there would be no Palestinian problem. The Palestinians under Israeli control would have been long-since murdered. Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli attack on the Gaza strip in 2008-9, would have killed one and a half million people, not (at the upper estimate) 1400. We should be able to criticize Israel without making such a nefarious comparison.
Israeli apartheid week is a week to suggest that Israel is imposing apartheid on Palestinians. Indeed, some aspects of Israeli control of the West Bank resemble apartheid, especially the existence of Jewish-only settlements and the existence of segregated roads (about which I wrote in my post of May 17, 2013) on which Jewish, but not Palestinian, residents of the West Bank can travel. There is also de facto and de jure discrimination against Palestinian citizens within Israel. I oppose all these measures, as I also oppose declaration of Israel as a Jewish state. I am against all full or partial theocracies, even though Israel does not prevent citizens from other religions from practicing their own faith.
But as one of my Jewish friends, originally from South Africa, said to me, apartheid there was a much more pervasive system. Blacks could not vote or form political parties. They were not allowed in “White” cities without passes. And families were often split up, with mothers and children legally confined to Bantustans while fathers worked in the cities or the mines. Everyone was racially classified: families were split up if the government deemed that members did not all belong to the same “race.” This is not a defense of the many discriminatory aspects of life for Palestinian citizens of Israel, but it does point out some of the differences.  Palestinians in Israel can vote, can form political parties, and they do have freedom of movement. The government does not deliberately separate their families or use “racial” criteria to judge who can live with whom.
Another criticism of Israel is the contention that Zionism is racism. I am sure there are some Zionists who are indeed racists against Arabs. But Zionism is principally a philosophy that argues for a Jewish homeland. Some Zionists think that means they should be allowed to take over the West Bank, which they call Judea and Samaria. I don’t think they should: again, Israel is a sovereign state, and it should follow international law, which says that its settlements in the West Bank are illegal; indeed, they are theft of Arab land and water.  But the key here is, indeed, land, not race. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about land, although it’s also morphed partially into a religious conflict, in part because of the world-wide rise of Islamism. 
So these criticisms of Israel: that Israel is a Western colony; that Israelis are like Nazis; that Israel is an apartheid state; and that Zionism is racism, all have serious flaws. They are rhetorical exaggerations that don’t help to solve the very real problems of Israel’s increasing occupation of the West Bank and its control over Gaza. I don’t like Israel’s policies, but I think the best way to criticize it is to refer to international human rights, humanitarian law, and the laws of occupation. Israel is a state that has the right to exist without being attacked, but as a state, it has to follow the same laws as any other state. We shouldn’t demonize Israel.