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Irish Recollections: After the Cork Conference on ‘International Law and the State of Israel’

Emek-Shilo

Having recently spent several days at a very intense academic conference held in seductive Cork gave me the opportunity to reflect upon earlier experiences in Ireland, admittedly an unabashedly self-indulgent diversion.

I realize that this will probably disappoint most regular readers who subscribe either to vent their strong disagreement with my views, often accompanied by harsh assaults on my character or personality, or by those likeminded persons who share enough of a common understanding of what it means for our species to exist in bio-political end time to find this website congenial enough to stay connected.

On this occasion I am admittedly exploring the depths of autobiographical banality to take advantage of the relationship between Ireland and my own highly individual end time, as well as an earlier period of my life when dark cosmic thoughts rarely clouded my inner space.

This reflective mood was further stimulated a few days ago by an interview to be broadcast sometime soon on a Cork radio station. The interview was conducted by the kind of personable Irish young woman with dancing eyes that we dream about: She seems to dwell in realms of gleeful immediacy as imprudently as a wayward leprechaun. After a longish exchange about the visit and the visitor she poses questions of more current interest, in this instance, about the conference that brought me to the city of Cork for the first time ever. This academic event was indeed a rather unusual occurrence for this serene and magical place, one of the oldest, yet small scales, urban habitats in all of Europe.

The conference [“International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Exceptionalism, and Responsibility”] that brought me to Cork was treated as sufficiently controversial to have been cancelled the two prior years in England, specifically at the University of Southampton whose administrators yielded to heavy pressures exerted by pro-Israeli Jewish groups.

With exceptional perseverance, the Southampton conveners, determined not to be silenced, teamed up with colleagues at the University of Cork, and despite some minor friction with Irish university administrators, went ahead with the conference. It took place between March 31 and April 2 without a single disruptive glitch, three long days of serious discussion exemplifying the highest ideals and spirit of academic freedom. I will comment further about this happy outcome toward the end of this post, but in the meantime, I will without further wimpish evasion, walk softly upon the thin ice of my Irish past.

My earliest contact with Irish sensibility was undoubtedly my most profound. From the ages of two or three until eleven or twelve, my almost continuous companion was a young Irish woman, Bridie Horan, a recent immigrant to the U.S. from County Kerry, who became more of a mother to me than my biological mother who was supremely unmotherly, a quality undoubtedly accentuated by a strained marriage with my father that led to their separation, which was quickly followed by a Nevada divorce well before I was seven. During this period we moved twice, once to the countryside from mid-Manhattan, and then a year or two later back to an adjacent apartment building in New York City half a block away. Both buildings fronted Central Park, between 64th and 65th streets, and both had good views of the park. The earlier apartment building, 50 Central Park West, was the setting for the film “Four Men and a Baby.”

From this childhood experience, I remember particularly being taken quite often by Bridie to the neighborhood Catholic Church, absorbed by the ritual of the Mass, but performed in Latin; I didn’t grasp the religious symbolism. I did develop an appreciation of religious mystery and the power of communities of faith. In these years this was my only exposure to religious practice. My parents were totally assimilated Jews who never bothered to explain what that meant, nor did they exhibit any ethnic consciousness associated with Jewish tradition, Yiddish language, and a cultural understanding of what it meant to be a Jew in American society in the 1930s.

I was especially impressed by the devoutness of those devotees who daily approached the altar to receive communion. Bridie was among those who stood in line to receive a wafer and a sip of wine from a silver chalice, but she never explained why or what. It was clearly an organic part of her fragile identity, which was torn from its deep Irish roots. She retained strong nationalist feelings for Ireland, but I do not recall her speaking of her Irish life or family. She expressed hostility toward the British who terrorized her community, sending notorious colonial troops known as ‘the black and tans’ tasked with subduing the rebellious Irish.

I didn’t realize until now that this was my first exposure to anti-colonial struggle, but at the time it seemed to me something distant and unreal. As a somewhat loutish child I teased Bridie until tears came to her eyes by praising Winston Churchill, who as colonial overlord personified for her British cruelty to the Irish. Bridie also daily escorted me back and forth to the Ethical Cultural School a half block away where I was enrolled in pre-kindergarten from the age of three. She was very Irish in her temperament and way of speaking, and remains a vivid remembrance brought to life while in Cork.

Bridie would also take me to visit friends of hers, presenting me as if her own child, a feeling that I remember enjoying at the time without much thought about what this meant. After the divorce of my parents and my mother’s departure, first for NYC, and later California, I lived briefly with my father in Pound Ridge, NY, near Stamford, Connecticut, for a year or so, before we returned to New York. We lived in a rather modern house far from the nearest neighbor, representing it seemed a final effort to save a doomed marriage. What I remember most from this period of rural isolation was acute loneliness, a fear of snakes, affection for snowscapes, wiling away hours hitting a jai-lai ball against the garage wall, and an early minor talent in basement table tennis. I was so alone that I even listened to news broadcasts, recalling now the excited voice of network commentators describing the onset of World War II, signaled by the attack of Germany and the Soviet Union on Poland, followed by the German attack on the Soviet Union. I had the most minimal comprehension of what was transpiring beyond a vague realization that something historically significant was unfolding. What this war meant was completely unreal to me at the time, and Bridie was probably as confused as I was, doing little to help me grasp this epochal turn of events.

When the American entry into war occurred in 1941, I recall listening to a radio broadcast a few days after the war started that warned of an expected German air attack against New York reported as being only hours away. Before realizing that it was a false alarm, I felt no fear, and a kind of ill-defined disappointment that the attack never happened, disclosing my perverse ignorance of the horrors of warfare. At this time, maybe a result of wartime tensions, Bridie later ran afoul of my father for reasons that were never clear, and likely were connected with personal feelings gone astray.

 My father insisted that Bridie had built up an obsessive desire for a close relationship with him, but I never heard her version. His story was that it became impossible to juggle a responsible childrearing framework with an intimate connection that he denied wanting. I mourned the loss of this original Irish connection, and for weeks suffered from the loss of the only female that touched me deeply during those childhood years. It was a broken connection never to be restored.

Long before I went to Ireland or ever read a serious book I had a short adolescent acquaintance with Stephen Joyce, grandson of the great James Joyce, son of Helen Joyce married to the author’s son, and the sister of one of my father’s closest and most unconventional friends, Robert Kastor. I recall being told that Helen would read to the famous Irish writer as he was losing his eyesight. I remember Stephen as a congenial boy, but later lost touch with him. I was told by an Irish diplomat at Cork that Stephen grew to be a wily adult who pursued business interests linked to his grandfather’s legacy, which may or may not have been true. Perhaps, my visit to the Dublin home of Joyce twenty-five years ago and a devotional reading of Ullyses, as well as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, allowed me to see Ireland through the impassioned prose, flow of consciousness, and extraordinary literary rendering of the Irish imaginary by Joyce.

Then came Yeats and Sean MacBride, each imparting distinctive dimensions of the Irish experience, and linked through the mystery of Sean’s mother, Maud Gonne, who seemed to provide Yeats with romantic inspiration tempered by his impassioned rejection of her political alignments and aspirations. As a young adult I came to regard Yeats as the greatest poetic voice of our time, and the one that resonates most with my own somewhat pathetic strivings that persist to this day.

I had three significant contacts with Sean MacBride (winner of Nobel Peace Prize in 1974; Lenin Peace Prize in 1975) each of which seemed peculiarly relevant to the substantive side of this recent visit to Ireland. The first of these occurred early in 1968 when Sean was Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists, a widely respected NGO with headquarters in Geneva.

There was an impending trial of 35 political and cultural leaders of what was then called South West Africa, a territory held as a Mandate by South Africa, since independence known as Namibia. I had been asked by defense counsel to be an expert witness, an invitation that probably resulted from my role as part of the defense team that represented Liberia and Ethiopia in the International Court of Justice in a 1964-65 case focused on whether the extension of apartheid to South West Africa violated the trust relationship between South Africa as mandatory power and these two former members of the League of Nations who had the authority to raise such legal questions.

The decision rendered in 1965 shocked the UN, actually supporting the basic claim of South Africa that it was acting in accord with its obligations under the mandate in good faith by doing in South West Africa what it did with respect to race relations in its own country under the heading of ‘separate development’ of distinct races. The General Assembly reacted to this decision that flaunted the moral and political anti-apartheid consensus by revoking the South African mandate, and granting independence to South West Africa, since known as Namibia.

The South African Government obviously didn’t want my participation in the trial in Pretoria as an expert witness, delaying indefinitely a decision on whether or not issue a visa. Assuming that the visa would not be issued, the defense shifted tactics, requesting that the International Commission of Jurists (a respected NGO supportive of the rule of law) designate me as an official observer of what was anticipated to be a political trial. Sean’s father, Major John MacBride, who fought on the Afrikaaner side in the Boer War, and later executed by the British due to his activist role in support of Irish revolutionary nationalism, used family connections with South African leaders to arrange my visa.

 It was a memorable experience, especially as the trial coincided with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam that reshaped the mainstream approach to the Vietnam War in the United States, but would be a diversion to discuss here. What was relevant to my time at Cork was this earlier exposure to apartheid as a system of discriminatory oppression in the South African context, as well as the recollection of Sean MacBride’s unlikely facilitative link that enabled me to observe and report upon the trial. My report to the International Commission of Jurists on the various horrors of the trial and the heroics of the defendants was condemned by a South African government spokesperson, observing that I wrote with ‘a poison pen’ making me subject to criminal prosecution if I dared to return to South Africa. I took this criticism as a compliment, some sense that my reportage was on target.

My second link to MacBride was associated with a fact-finding commission set up in Britain to investigate Israeli war crimes associated with the 1982 attack on Lebanon, including the siege of Beirut. I was invited to be Vice Chair of the Commission, and became acting Chair when Sean’s health made it impossible for him to make the trip to Lebanon and Israel to assess the evidence. The rest of us came to the Lebanese port of Jounieh by ship from Cyprus, and as we entered the harbor, there were young Lebanese women water skiing, while we could hear gunfire from the other side of the hills in the Beirut area. Again the experience was quite extraordinary as Beirut was under Israeli siege, the Maronite leader then President-elect of Lebanon, Bachir Geymayel, was assassinated, and several days later the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps occurred with guidance and support of Israeli invading forces headed by Ariel Sharon. Returning to London, Sean took charge of the discussions leading up to the submission of our report that found Israel responsible for a series of major violations of the laws of war.

Our initiative came to be known as the MacBride Commission, the report was a collective effort, with the initial draft prepared by Kader Asmal, who was living in Dublin in exile from South Africa at the time, dean of the faculty at the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, a prominent figure in the Irish anti-apartheid campaign, and later a principal author of the South African Constitution. [published under title Report of the International Commission to enquire into reported violations of International Law by Israel during its invasion of the Lebanon (London: Ithaca Press, 1983)] Kader became the only Indian member of the cabinet formed by Nelson Mandela after his election as President of South Africa. I became a lifelong friend of Kader as a result of sharing this experience, and maintained close contact until his death a few years ago, a tragic loss on many levels of personal and public engagement.

The third and final link with MacBride was to serve under his chairmanship as a participant in a civil society initiative known as the London Nuclear War Tribunal held in London, 1985. In addition to Sean and myself, Dorothy Hodgkin (Nobel Prize, chemistry, 1964) and Maurice Wilkins (Nobel Prize, medicine, 1962). The proceedings involved a comprehensive inquiry into the status of nuclear weapons in relation to customary international law, and produced a declaration and series of findings and recommendations that remain relevant at present. [For the full account see Geoffrey Darnton, ed., Nuclear Weapons and International Law: From the London Nuclear Warfare Tribunal (Bournesmouth, UK: Peace Analytics, 2nd ed. 2015)].

There are other recollections of Ireland based on several visits to Dublin. Perhaps, the most memorable was participation with the late Fred Halliday at a conference in 1996 on the sociology and politics of terrorism that was partly held under the auspices of the army of the Republic of Ireland. After the conference there was a dinner at the army headquarters, and I was greeted on my entry to the building by a full-length portrait of William Butler Yeats. Although an ardent cultural nationalist, Yeats was a relatively conservative figure in the Irish struggle for independence, and is celebrated around the world for the lyric universality of spirit embodied so enduringly in his poetry. I continue to feel that only in Ireland would that sense of nationalism and national security become merged with reverence for a poet of global stature so displayed by the country’s armed forces.

Actually, the most memorable part of the experience came during dinner. I was seated next to the commander-in-chief of the army of Ireland. Midway through the dinner a waiter handed the general a note, which reported the major IRA bomb exploded in the city center of Manchester, England. His only words at the time were “I guess I won’t be going home this weekend.” Apparently, military officers could normally spend weekends with their families.

All of this as background to my days in Cork, culminating in the conference partly held in the City Hall of Cork (due to a compromise with university officials under Zionist pro-Israeli pressures of the sort that had led to University of Southampton cancellations), with the third and final day held on the new campus of the University of Cork, one of Europe’s most venerable universities. The extraordinary perseverance and good will of Oren Ben-Dor, a historian on the faculty at Southampton, and the willingness of the Irish organizing team at Cork to withstand the usual pressures, allowed the conference to go forward without incident.

The conference consisted of three long days of high quality academic presentations that were organized as panels with ample time for audience participation. It was a lively participatory audience whose member posed challenging and probing questions. I was the first of two keynote speakers (the other was Ugo Mattei, a very imaginative Italian legal scholar who insisted that there was no solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict without taking account of the broader context of neoliberal capitalism and geopolitical militarism, a position I regarded as extremely important). My talk focused on the significance of the recently released UN report, co-authored with Virginia Tilley, on Israel as an apartheid state.

The basic policy contention derived from the report, which can be found on this website, is that 50 years after the 1967 War it is more appropriate to call for ‘ending apartheid’ rather than continue to mouth the slogan ‘end the occupation.’ This conceptual move is significant for at least two reasons: as signifying a shift from ‘territory’ to ‘people,’ and as a belated acknowledgement that the Palestinians as a whole (including those in refugee camps and exile, minority in Israel, and those residing in Jerusalem) are being subjugated by an Israel regime or structure of apartheid that fragments, discriminates, and dominates on the basis of race, and violates relevant international legal norms.

There is much more that could be said about this conference, rich in ideas and devoted to a search for a sustainable peace for both peoples on the basis of equality in form and substance. Although there was considerable attention paid to the illegitimacy of Israeli state formation, the emphasis of the conference was on finding a just peace for the future rather than dwelling upon the necessity to redress past grievances. At the same time, the past could and should not be ignored. Palestinian wounds will not heal until there a credible reconciliation process is established that includes Israeli official acknowledgements of historic wrongdoing centered on the nakba, conceived of as a process of dispossession, displacement, and domination.


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