Thursday 28 November 2019

Legitimate and illegitimate Criticisms of Israel

On November 19, 2019, Canada voted at the United Nations for the establishment of a Palestinian state. At the same time, Canada reiterated its position that there were too many UN resolutions about Israel, unfairly singly it out for criticism.   Nevertheless, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN claimed that Canada’s vote delegitimated Israel.

This event prompts the question of what is legitimate or illegitimate criticism of the state of Israel, and when such criticism is anti-Semitic.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” It states that manifestations of anti-Semitism “might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” However, it also states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

Using this definition, Canada’s vote for creation of a Palestinian state does not delegitimize Israel, any more than Canadian criticism of any other state delegitimizes it.

One the other hand, activists for Palestinian rights who call for the state of Israel to be destroyed engage in illegitimate criticism. Regardless of the circumstances of its creation, Israel is a sovereign state that enjoys the right to exist. Like any other state, it also has the right to defend itself against attack

Activists who claim that Jews have no right to live in Israel also engage in illegitimate criticism. All states are permitted to determine who will live within their borders. Moreover, to suggest that Jews should not live in Israel is to advocate the creation of a huge refugee population based on religio-ethnic criteria.

Some critics call Israel a colonial power, assuming that it is illegitimate for any Jewish “settler” to live in Israel proper. This assumption is based in part on the notion that Jews are not indigenous to the Middle East. But Jews have lived in the Middle East for millennia. Israel was created in 1948 and an estimated 600,000 to 760,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled in the subsequent Arab-Israeli war. In later years, about 800,000 Jews left Arab countries, about two-thirds settling in Israel and the other third elsewhere: many of these Jews had been forcibly expelled.  As for European Jews, it is important to remember the context of pogroms and genocide that obliged many of them to flee to Israel.

This does not justify Israeli violations of the human rights of either Israeli Arabs or Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It merely provides some context as to why so many Jews have settled in Israel.

Having said this, it is legitimate to criticize Israel as one might criticize any other state. Thus, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel is legitimate, as long as it does not simultaneously question the right of Israel to exist as a state. Many Jewish people both within and outside Israel who are concerned about Palestinian rights support this movement. Similarly, although it is not strictly accurate to call Israel an apartheid state, it is within the realm of acceptable political rhetoric. Technically speaking, apartheid can only occur within a state, so that calling Israel an apartheid state suggests that it has legal sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza.

A better way to judge Israel’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank is through the universal standard of international humanitarian law, especially the fourth Geneva Convention. This Convention prohibits transfers of population, either from or into conquered territories. Thus, Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal. So is the wall separating Israel from the West Bank, in so far as part of it is built outside Israel’s territory, as the International Court of Justice ruled in 2004.

International human rights law is also a universal standard that protects Palestinians. Israel definitely denies some human rights to people in the West Bank and Gaza. But so do Palestinians’ own political leaders, Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. Both these political groups deny their subjects civil liberties and use torture and arbitrary arrest, all prohibited by international human rights law.

Other states also adversely affect the human rights of Palestinians. Not only Israel but also Egypt periodically blockades Gaza, thus denying Palestinians freedom of movement across national boundaries. Both these states have the right to control their own borders, but they frequently do so at the cost of Palestinians who cannot buy food, go to hospitals, or work in these sovereign states.
Arab states who have given shelter to Palestinian refugees and their descendants for decades, but refuse to grant them citizenship, also detrimentally affect Palestinians’ human rights.  However, these states are not obliged to grant citizenship to refugees and their descendants.

Serious concern for the human rights of Palestinians requires consideration of all the actors who violate their rights under international human rights and humanitarian law. These legal standards are universal. As long as they do not advocate eradication of the state of Israel and/or expulsion of Israeli Jews, states and activists who adhere to these standards are engage in legitimate criticism.

Thursday 31 October 2019

Jagmeet Singh Owes Canadians an Apology

Jagmeet Singh Owes Canadians an Apology

During Canada’s 2019 federal election campaign, voters learned that in 2001 Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wore brown-face makeup at a party in the private school where he was then a teacher.

This was shocking, and the excuse that times were different in 2001 is nonsense. Decent white people in North America have known since the 1950s that it is at best insulting, at worst racist, to wear “black-face” makeup, with its demeaning implications for people of African descent. “Brown-face,” which Trudeau wore when he dressed up as the mythical figure Alladin, is also demeaning, if not racist. Trudeau repeatedly apologized, as he should have.

Jagmeet Singh
But now that the election is over, Jagmeet Singh also owes Canadians an apology. Singh is the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, whose general position is to the left of the Liberals, and which holds the balance of power in Canada’s new minority Liberal parliament.

In February 2018, the New Democratic Party invited Tamika Mallory, an African-American organizer of the Million Women March against Donald Trump, to speak at its convention. Mallory was accused of being a supporter of Louis Farrakhan.   This accusation was based in part on her attendance at a speech by Farrakhan and on previous statements she had made in his support.

Farrakhan is an anti-Semite who as recently as 2018 said "the powerful Jews are my enemy.” He is also homophobic, and attributes homosexuality to Jewish influence. In 2019 he said “Pedophilia and sexual perversion institutionalized in Hollywood and the entertainment industries can be traced to Talmudic principles and Jewish influence.”

Mallory has since acknowledged the reality of anti-Semitism and the need to combat it. At the same time, however, she argues that it is unnecessary for her to condemn or denounce Farrakhan. Nevertheless, Mallory’s attendance at Farrakhan’s speech and her unwilling, then and now, to denounce him for his anti-Semitic and homophobic views suggests that she was not an appropriate speaker for a national Canadian political convention.  
Tamika Mallory

Mallory has also declined to agree that Israel has a right to exist, saying "everyone has a right to exist” but not acknowledging Israel’s right to exist as a state

It is legitimate to criticize Israel for its discriminatory treatment of its Arab citizens and for its violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the West Bank and Gaza. It is even legitimate to compare Israel’s current treatment of its Arab citizens and of people in the occupied territories to apartheid. This is not necessarily anti-Semitism; indeed, many Jewish critics of the policies of the state of Israel make such comparisons.

But when you refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, you are applying a standard rarely, if ever, applied to any other country. Anti-Israel activists do not, for example, campaign against the right of Serbia to exist as a state, yet it was founded in violence 50 years after the founding of Israel.

I have almost always voted for the NDP, as I believe that Canada needs a strong social-democratic party in Parliament. Therefore, when I learned about Mallory’s connections to Farrakhan, I contacted NDP headquarters three times to ask why it had invited her to speak. I would have been satisfied with a reply acknowledging that the NDP should not have invited her. But I received no reply.

As the leader of the federal NDP, Jagmeet Singh should apologize both to Canada’s Jewish community and to its LGBT+ community for the NDP’s having invited Malika Mallory to address it in 2018. He should acknowledge that, at best, the NDP made a mistake.
Singh should also acknowledge that anti-Semitism is not merely offensive to Canada’s Jewish population. It is offensive—or should be—to anyone who cares about any kind of racism in Canada. Singh should acknowledge the harm the NDP did by inviting someone connected to a known anti-Semite and homophobe to address its national convention. He should officially apologize for this invitation and for the NDP’s silence about the matter over the last 20 months. He should deliver this apology in the presence not only of leaders of Canada’s Jewish community and its LGBTQ+ communities, but also in the presence of other members of Canada’s social justice community who actively oppose both homophobia and anti-Semitism.

Singh should also apologize for—presumably--wishing that this issue would go away, much as Trudeau apologized for hoping that pictures of him in brown-face would never be exposed.
Trudeau last wore brown-face in 2001. 

The NDP invited a speaker who had attended speeches by a known anti-Semite and homophobe, and who refuses to denounce this individual, to address its national convention in 2018. This speaker has also refused to acknowledge the right of the state of Israel to exist. It would seem that the NDP’s error--as it can best be described--and its unwillingness to acknowledge and apologize for it, is far more egregious than Trudeau’s.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

No Greater Love: How My Family Survived the Genocide in Rwanda: Book Review

Tharcisse Seminega, No Greater Love: How My Family Survived the Genocide in Rwanda, GM&A Publishing, Davenport, Iowa, 2019.
Tharcisse Seminega is an ethnic Tutsi who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide, along with his wife and all five of his children. He is also a Jehovah’s Witness. This book is his memoir of growing up in Rwanda and surviving the genocide. The book also contains shorter memoirs by his wife and some of his children, some short pieces by some of his rescuers, a selection of documentary evidence, and a timeline of the genocide.
Born in 1940, Seminega was raised a Roman Catholic, and was training for the priesthood when he became disillusioned with the Church. He began to notice that some of his schoolmates had been sexually molested by priests (p.37). He also explains how the Church and clergy supported the early colonial division of Rwanda’s population into Hutu and Tutsi, changing a status division into an ethno-racial one (pp. 7-10). Moreover, the Church changed allegiances as it were, shortly before independence in 1959. For many years it had permitted only Tutsi to become priests and nuns, but younger European Catholic priests began to champion the Hutu cause (p.16). From supporting the Tutsi elite, it began to support the then-underdog Hutu, using racial language to accentuate the difference. Church authorities also collaborated with the Hutu-dominated government of Juvénal Habyarimana (p.48).
Seminega became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1983, joining this new Christian group which had first entered Rwanda in 1976, and which did not distinguish among its Hutu and Tutsi adherents. His wife, a former Roman Catholic nun, was afraid to convert because Witnesses were already being persecuted in Rwanda (p. xxiii), for example, because they refused to wear badges glorifying President Habyarimana (p.63).

At the same time, Seminega continued his education, eventually obtaining a doctorate in France in 1988. He returned to Rwanda to teach at the National University in Butare, as he had agreed to teach in Rwanda for at least five years in return for financial support for his studies that he had received from the government. He was well-known in Butare, and the genocidal authorities were actively looking for him. His wife was a member of the extended family of the last Tutsi King of Rwanda, Mutara III, further endangering their family.
Tharcisse Seminega and his family

The family survived the genocide in several hiding places, either together or separately. For a month they hid in a goat-pen. Their protector, Vincent, was a Hutu who was not a Witness but had studied the Bible with Witnesses. At one point two female Hutu Witnesses dressed the youngest son as a girl, taught him to modify his boyish walk, and took him through the marketplace from one hiding place to another in broad daylight (p. 117).

More than a story of survival, Seminega’s tale is one of heroic rescuers who risked their and their families’ lives to save his family. Many, but not all, of these rescuers were fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses, ethnic Hutu who could easily and safely have turned their backs on the Seminega family.
Readers will be familiar with the Judeao-Christian principles, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Seminega himself refers to Matthew 7:12, “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you must also likewise do to them.” (p. 196). According to Seminega, though, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ guiding principle is to regard their neighbors as more than themselves. “Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another more than they loved themselves, putting others’ interests ahead of their own…and…being ready to sacrifice their lives, as Jesus had done, for one another” (p. 42; emphasis in original).

In 1994 there were about 2,500 Witnesses in Rwanda, of whom approximately 400 were killed. Those murdered included Tutsi Witnesses; Hutu Witnesses who tried to rescue Tutsi; and Hutu Witnesses who refused to participate in the genocide. Their teaching taught them not only to put others before themselves, but also not to differentiate among believers on ethno-racial grounds. 
Following Christ’s precept, “You do not belong in the world,” Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to take part in political or military activities. Ambassadors of Christ may not take up weapons against any human being (p.56). Thus, Hutu Witnesses were impervious to calls for patriotic Hutu to take part in mass killings. But this does not mean that they sat back idly when others suffered because of politics or war; to do nothing was also against their Christian principles.

Thus, the heroes who helped the Seminega family were already conditioned to rescue others before the genocide occurred. Indeed, some Hutu Witnesses had already prepared for the genocide; one rescuer had built a tunnel to an underground room so that he would be able to hide victims when the time came. As the rescuers’ own testimonies in the book show, they put their faith in Jehovah while taking enormous risks to their own safety.

Undoubtedly, the close-knit relationships among Jehovah’s Witnesses contributed to the motivations of rescuers. All Christians are taught to love their neighbors as themselves, but few do so. In Rwanda, many Hutu Christian priests, nuns and pastors actively participated in the genocide, their ethnic hatreds easily overcoming Christians’ supposed universal love (pp. 134-142). Indeed, the only Rwandan Christian group none of whose members participated in the genocide was the Jehovah’s Witnesses (p. 142).

Not all the people who helped the Seminegas were Witnesses. Seminega’s former gardener, himself a Hutu militiaman, nevertheless protected one of Seminega’s daughters. He put his hand before her to protect her from another member of the militia, and sustained a cut himself in the process (p. 191). This was a clear, spontaneous act of altruism that could have cost him his life. Some Hutu militiamen “helped” in exchange for bribes of various sorts, or looked the other way when they saw the Seminegas escaping. Such spontaneous acts suggest that many individual Hutu were uncomfortable with the genocide, but they did not possess either the moral framework or the supportive group that enabled so many Jehovah’s Witnesses to risk—and to sacrifice--their lives.   

As of the time of writing of the book, Seminega lived with his wife and four of his children in Canada, where they had obtained landed immigrant status in 2003.

Wednesday 10 July 2019

For Reparations to African-Americans

For Reparations to African-Americans

In a May 2016 poll, 58 percent of African-Americans said they believed that the United States should pay financial reparations to African-Americans who are descendants of slaves. Only 15 per cent of whites agreed.

I am the author of Reparations to Africa (2008) and a co-editor of The Age of Apology (2008).  I also wrote an article entitled “Official Apologies”. I support reparations to African-Americans.

You might ask why my opinion matters, since I am a white Canadian.  But as the poll data show, this debate is largely between white people and black people. So perhaps the scholarly opinion of one white person might have some influence.

In 2005 the United Nations issued a document entitledBasic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.”  

Financial compensation is one aspect of reparations mentioned in this document, but it is not the only one.  Apology is important. So is commemoration and tributes to victims, and an accurate account of the violations.

Ta-Nehisi Coates
The reparations activist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a harrowing account of all the injustices to African-Americans. These did not occur only during the period of enslavement. They also occurred during the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights era, and down to the present.

Coates wants the facts to be accurately reported. He wants all Americans to acknowledge the injustices of enslavement, terrorism, plunder, and piracy committed against African-Americans.

Accurate acknowledgment would be a first step in reparations. Apology is a second step.

So many governments, institutions, and private businesses in the United States are implicated in slavery and post-1865 injustices that it would be impossible for them all to apologize at once.  But a good start would be an apology for slavery by the President, joined by the Governors of every state that ever permitted enslavement.

The text of the apology would have to be carefully negotiated with leaders of the African-American community. The apology would also have to be carefully surrounded by ritual, so that its sincerity and seriousness would be apparent. 

This could be followed by literally thousands of apologies by lower-level municipal governments, religious institutions, and businesses. Every single institution would have to investigate its history and acknowledge and apologize for every single act of enslavement and discrimination against African-Americans.
white American whipping African-America, 19th century

The next step would be to memorialize all these injustices. It is not enough to tear down monuments to leaders of the Confederate Army, for example. Memorials should be put up at public expense to African-Americans who fought against enslavement and later injustices.

Memorials should also be erected at sites of plantations, sites of protest, and sites of known murders of African-Americans, from those who were lynched in decades past to those were unjustly killed by police. These memorials would say that black lives matter.

Finally, there is the question of financial reparations and whether descendants of enslaved people should receive them. How, if at all, can all the descendants of enslaved African-Americans be identified? Even if they can be identified, should they receive individual financial reparations?

Perhaps yes, to compensate for the huge gap in (mostly inherited) wealth between white and black Americans. Perhaps African-Americans should be given a financial “boost” to help them on the road to moderate middle-class security. But many white and other Americans might view this as unfair to other people who don’t enjoy such prosperity.

Alternately, perhaps the federal and state governments should pay group reparations to African-Americans. Whites might be more willing to accept collective reparations of this kind.

One possibility is to invest in education, from shoring up predominantly African-American elementary schools to special scholarships for African-Americans to attend university. One might argue that affirmative action programs have already accomplished this, but they have been weakened over the decades and in any case, only apply at the university level. 

Another option is housing investment in predominantly African-America residential areas, especially where public housing projects are located. African Americans have suffered from low quality public housing and from discrimination when they tried to buy their own properties. 

Yet another option is investment in African-Americans’ health care needs, although one could argue that the whole country deserves this kind of investment. Nevertheless, if African-Americans suffer from some health problems at higher rates than white Americans, then reparations could include enhanced health care.

Many Americans may oppose reparations to African-Americans on the grounds that neither they nor their ancestors had anything to do with the many ways African-Americans were and are oppressed. This is true. We are not all guilty of the actions of a few. 

But as citizens—whether of the US or, in my case, Canada, we are responsible to make amends to fellow citizens who have been harmed by the past or present policies of our governments.  Acknowledgement is a first step forward. Apologies, memorials, and financial reparations continue the process.

Reparations are a way of “making whole,” by partially remedying the inherited inequalities that still plague African-Americans. They are a way of saying that African-Americans are, at long last, equal citizens.

Wednesday 3 July 2019

Japanese-American vs. African-American Reparations

Why It’s Harder for African Americans than Japanese Americans to Obtain Reparations

In June 2019 the US Congress held a debate about reparations to African Americans.   One of the questions in this debate  is why Japanese-Americans received reparations for their internment by the US federal government during World War II, yet African-Americans have yet to receive reparations for their ancestors’ enslavement, or for other crimes committed against them.

I published an article comparing reparations to Japanese-Americans and African-Americans in the scholarly journal, Social Forces, in 2004, after an African-American colleague, Professor Rodney Coates, asked me this question.
The answer lies in social movement theory, as I explain below.

My explanation is not a moral judgement on whether African-Americans should receive reparations. I believe that they should. My explanation is a scholarly interpretation of the differences between the two movements, and why it will be more difficult for African-Americans to receive reparations.

It is much easier to obtain reparations when the following characterizes the injustice:

The number of victims is relatively small.
The victims are easily identifiable.
Many of the direct victims are still alive.
The injustice took place during a relatively short time period.
The perpetrator is known.
The injustice is easily identifiable.
The injustice offends values of equality, personal safety, and/or the right to own property.
There is a symbolic victim around whom advocates for reparations can rally.
The amount of reparations paid or demanded is not so large that the public will find it unreasonable.

The number of Japanese-American victims was relatively small, about 120,000. They were also easily identifiable as people of ethnic Japanese descent in the US, whether citizens or not. The injustice took place between 1942, when the Japanese were first interned, and 1945, when the war ended.

The perpetrator, the US government, was easily identifiable. The internment of Japanese-Americans violated the values of ethnic equality and ownership of property, since their property was confiscated. The Japanese Americans were not tortured or murdered, however.

Daniel Inouye’s Conscience | The New Yorker
Daniel Inouye
Quite a few former detainees were still alive in 1988 when reparations were offered. Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga became symbolic victims. They were both WWII veterans, and Senator Inouye had lost an arm in battle. Finally, the amount paid was relatively low, $20,000 for each of 80,000 living survivors, for a total of about $1.6 billion.

 Compared to Japanese-Americans, enslaved African-Americans and their descendants endured much more severe injustices. Enslavement violated all norms of personal safely; owners were permitted to beat and torture enslaved people, and in some cases even to murder them. The violations offend all our contemporary norms of racial equality. Not only were enslaved African-Americans not permitted to own property, they were themselves legally property of others.

After the abolition of slavery, many injustices were perpetrated during the Jim Crow period and beyond, up to the present. These included continued violations of bodily integrity, such as lynchings and police shootings. Segregation and discrimination violated the principle of equality.  Even when, in the present, African-Americans earn the same incomes as their white contemporaries, they own much less wealth.  

It is easy to identify the perpetrators of these injustices, but there are so many that it might be difficult to persuade any one perpetrator to pay reparations. At minimum, perpetrators include the US federal government and the governments of every state that ever permitted enslavement of African-Americans. More broadly, it includes municipal governments, private businesses, educational institutions, and churches.   

The difficulty in organizing for reparations to African-Americans lies in the other characteristics of successful social movements for reparations. It is difficult (although not impossible) to identify which people of African descent in the US today are the descendants of enslaved people. If all descendants are considered worthy of reparations, regardless of the number of generations since their ancestors were enslaved, then the number might be in the tens of millions.  

None of the direct victims, moreover, is still alive. And there is no single individual who can be considered symbolic of the reparations movement, since all the immediate victims are long dead. Perhaps though, one could be chosen, such as Michelle Obama, both of whose grandfathers were themselves grandsons of enslaved people.

Some people who advocate for reparations also ask for such a large amount that the public would probably find it unreasonable. For example, in his 2004 debate with me, Rodney Coates asked for $12-15 trillion, which is 60 to 75 per cent of the US Gross Domestic product of $20.5 trillion in 2018.

Georgetown University
This doesn’t mean that it is impossible for the movement for reparations to African-Americans to succeed. A social movement for businesses, universities and churches to acknowledge their roles in slavery and the Jim Crow era has already started, and some institutions have agreed. Georgetown University, for example, offered reparations in the form of preferential admissions to the 4,000 descendants of the 272 slaves it sold in 1838.

Rosewood Massacre

There have also been reparations for some injustices during the Jim Crow period. In 1923 about 120 African-Americans were burned out of their homes in Rosewood, Florida, and several were murdered. In 2002, victims and victims’ descendants were awarded $2 million in compensation.

Thus, attaining reparations to African-Americans is not an impossible dream.  But it is, and will continue to be, much harder than it was for Japanese-Americans.

Thursday 13 June 2019

Yes, it’s Genocide: The Supplementary Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

Canada is currently embroiled in a debate about whether the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls should have used the word “genocide” to describe our federal, provincial and municipal governments’ past and current treatment of Indigenous peoples. Perhaps this word is too strong and inaccurate.

Sadly and horrifically, some missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

Many horrible events are not genocide. Warfare is not genocide. Apartheid in South Africa was not genocide. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was not genocide.  Torture is not genocide.

In international law, genocide refers to “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” This is the definition in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

One crucial word in this definition is intent.  Did or do Canadian authorities, in the past or the present, intend to destroy the “racial” or ethnic group of Indigenous Canadians, in whole or in part? 

But this is not only the question behind the Inquiry’s decision to describe official Canadian treatment of Indigenous peoples as genocide. The central question it asked was, if you consider all the policies of our governments regarding Indigenous peoples since the time of first European settlement, can  you argue that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous women and girls (and of Indigenous men and boys) is genocide?

The Supplementary Report, “A Legal Analysis of Genocide,” explain the Inquiry’s decision to describe Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples as genocide. It does not rely simply on the text of the 1948 Convention against Genocide. Rather, it carefully reviews legal and social scientific analyses of genocide over the last three decades. It especially refers to decisions by the international tribunals established by the United Nations to try individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The Report explains that before the 1948 law was adopted, there was discussion at the UN on whether to prohibit cultural genocide. Canada along with other countries that had Indigenous populations actively pushed not to define cultural genocide as a crime, and it succeeded.  So right from the start, 71 years ago, Canada knew it was vulnerable to charges of genocide.

At that time, no Indigenous peoples were represented at the UN, so there was no one to present an Indigenous perspective on genocide. Nor was there a gendered perspective on the crime. That came much later, with decisions on the gendered aspects of genocide at the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals.

The Report also notes that as opposed to international law, Canadian law pertaining to genocide (the 2000 Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act) refers to acts of omission as well as commission. So if Canada neglects its Indigenous peoples as they are subjected to genocidal acts, that can be considered part of genocide.

The Report explains that genocide is not always a single event, such as the prototypical Nazi genocide against the Jews and Roma of Europe, or the genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994. Colonial genocide is a composite act. It is composed of the cumulative effect of many discrete actions, such as dispossession from land, neglect of starving indigenous populations, and kidnapping of children.

In adopting this view, the Report argues that analysis of the treatment of Indigenous people must consider the long-term effects of structural violence. It’s not enough to “add up” some discrete events and then try to figure out if the total is genocide. 

The Report also maintains that genocide does not refer only to the deliberate murder of some or all members of a particular social group. It also refers to the destruction of a group as a social unit. If members of the group are so dispersed from each other, or if their culture, languages, or traditions are so undermined that they can’t act together as a cohesive social unit, then that is genocide. This argument derives from the 1948 Convention, which refers to destruction of groups as groups.

Finally, and extremely importantly, the Report analyses the requirement of intent. It argues that when dealing with states rather than individuals as possible perpetrators of genocide, state policy indicates intent. It is not necessary to go into the “minds” of individuals holding power to see if they intend to destroy Indigenous peoples as a social group.

All these arguments make a compelling case that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples has been and still is genocide.

Monday 3 June 2019

becoming by Michelle Obama: Book Note

Becoming by Michelle Obama: Book Note

The other day I read Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. It’s in three parts, recounting her childhood and student years; her marriage to Barack Obama and early years of motherhood; and her years in the White House as First Lady.

Michelle Obama grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her mother stayed home when she and her brother were small, supported by her father, a city employee who kept on working for years even after he contracted multiple sclerosis. She notes how segregated her neighborhood became during her childhood. In first grade she was in a racially mixed class; by sixth grade, as a result of white flight, her class was almost entirely African American.

Michelle grew up with a large extended family, many of whose members were seriously affected by racism. Several of her uncles were skilled tradesmen who could not find permanent well-paying jobs because the white-controlled unions excluded African Americans. Both her grandfathers were in turn the grandchildren of enslaved people. One grandfather mistrusted white people so much that he would not even go to the dentist.

Ms. Obama attended Harvard Law, and started out life as a corporate lawyer. I had thought that she left the practice of law to subordinate herself to her husband’s political ambitions, but I was wrong.  She dropped out of corporate law to work for NGOs, taking a 50% cut in salary. At one point she got a job at the exclusive University of Chicago. There she startled her boss when she told him that although she grew up on Chicago’s South Side, right where the University is situated, she had never considered applying there, as it was so cut off from its own neighborhood.

Instead Michelle followed her older brother to Princeton, where she spent much of her time hanging out at what was then known as the “Third World Center,” a meeting place for African-American students where she felt more at home than among the white elite students. Once she shared a dorm room with two white girls, but one suddenly disappeared. Years later she learned that her roommate’s mother had vigorously lobbied Princeton to move her daughter away from an African-American roommate.

Throughout the book, Michelle stressed her role as a mother and a woman. In part, this was to play down her identity as a lawyer and a thinker: she had to be careful not to incur the kind of wrath Hillary Clinton endured 20 years earlier when she tried to help her husband design a national health care policy. But she is also strongly committed to the welfare of children. While First Lady she developed some ostensibly non-political programs. One, called “Let’s Move” encouraged children to exercise more. Another, called “Join Forces” aimed to help military veterans and their families. She also campaigned to improve American children’s diets, working especially to improve the quality of school lunches. This last campaign bordered on the political, as improvements in school lunches could cut corporate fast-food profits.

Ms. Obama also had to be very careful about what she said about US politics.  She mentioned Donald Trump in the book only twice. Once was to say that she would never forgive him for endangering her children’s lives when he claimed that Barack Obama was not a US citizen, thus encouraging right-wing extremists. The other was at the end of the book, when Donald Trump was inaugurated. She stopped smiling at the inauguration ceremony, when she noticed the sea of white faces in front of her, as compared to the two inauguration ceremonies for her husband.

I was struck reading the memoir by how sexualized Michelle was. The front picture on her book shows her with one shoulder uncovered. It’s a lovely picture, with her beautiful smile, but why the bare shoulder?  Perhaps for the same reason that while First Lady she had to devote an enormous amount of time, energy and money to her looks, with a personal hairdresser, makeup artist and stylist. It’s possible no other First Lady had to spend so much on these relatively trivial aspects. There was even a debate among her advisers when she decided to get bangs in her hair. But of course if you are a woman, looks are never quite as trivial as when you are a man. And as an African American, Ms. Obama had to be far more careful than any First Lady of European descent about her looks, so that she did not trip any stereotypes about African American women.

This is a frank, warm memoir, about being a woman and being an African American. Worth reading.