On Friday, September 16th, the Baltimore and Maryland Greens held a rally and party for the Stein-Baraka campaign at the Downtown Cultural Center in Baltimore, Maryland. The rally featured keynote speeches by Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka, as well as a host of performers and Maryland Green candidates. The following day, Green Party vice-presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka agreed to sit with me and talk about Israel/Palestine, and the broader Arab world. We sat at a table in the lobby of Hotel RL and had an in-depth discussion. This interview has been transcribed and edited for length.
Kim Jensen: Thank you for meeting with me. You are a long-time grassroots organizer. You have deep roots in the Black liberation movement and the anti-Apartheid and Central American solidarity struggles. Do you connect these issues to the movement for Palestinian liberation? And in what way?
Ajamu Baraka: Well, of course. The linking of these struggles for liberation in Central America and South Africa with the struggles in the US is a part of the tradition of black internationalism, the center of which is a struggle against the continuity of the colonial, capitalism system. So the quite natural connection has always been with Palestine. In fact, one of the first real structural, organizational connections we point to is the fact that SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee issued a statement standing in solidarity with the liberation aspirations of the Palestinians in the mid-1960s. And of course there was a very negative backlash for that. So solidarity with Palestinian struggles for self-determination has always been part of the black internationalist tradition. The connection for us has always been clear.
You mention the colonialist and capitalist connection. Explain how you understand that capitalist exploitation is specifically linked to the question of Palestine?
As I see it, what we have is a traditional settler-colonialist project in Palestine. And part of that project was the appropriation of the land, and for a number of decades, the exploitation of Palestinian labor—until it was no longer needed. So that has always been a central component of the colonial project.
You have worked within a human rights framework for many years—can this framework be effectively applied in the case of Palestine and Israel?
Of course. Because the struggle for self-determination is a struggle that is supported by the human rights framework. The violations that Palestinians suffer are human rights violations. Now the problem we have with the international human rights framework relating to Palestine is that the enforcement mechanisms have been relatively weak. Even though it is clear that we have a situation of occupation, of systematic exploitation, and oppression, it has been very difficult to get structures such as the Security Council and other mechanisms like the Human Rights Council to be able to effectively intervene and enforce compliance with various international conclusions.
The lack of political will and the acceptance of non-compliance by the Israeli state. The cover for that has been provided by the UN. So there is some degree of cynicism among Palestinian activists when it comes to UN structures and even the international human rights framework— because there is no ambiguity regarding whether we are looking at systematic violations. But in terms of the international community responding, as it pretends to respond to other kinds of human rights situations, it has not been as forthright and aggressive as it could be.
So what would a Stein-Baraka administration do to push this forward and change the political will?
One thing is that we would not wait until the last few months of our administration to begin to talk about addressing some kind of resolution to the conflict. Almost every US administration will come in and talk about how it will be a priority to deal with resolving that problem. But we find that the steps are truly perfunctory. They lack the determination to put pressure on the Israeli authorities to reduce and reverse its settlement policies. They are reluctant to publicly criticize Israel when the state engages in clearly illegal acts. Then toward the latter part of the administration there will be some grand spectacle that is supposed to be leading toward some kind of resolution.
Ironically, the “grand spectacle” now is that the Obama administration just green-lighted a 38 billion dollar military aid package to Israel in a meeting with Netanyahu just a couple days ago.
Yes, and that is a dramatic departure from other administrations. But he [President Obama] coupled that with the obligatory comment about a two-state solution, hoping that the Israeli government would begin to move in that direction. It is so cynical.
Speaking of a two-state solution and the burgeoning movement in favor of a one-state solution—do you have a position on that?
A personal position?
Well, the personal position is that the notion of states that are characterized and grounded in anything other than a secular position, to me seems anachronistic. So I am opposed to an Islamic State, a Jewish State, a Christian State—any kind of state in which the identity is grounded in that way. The idea of two states may have been viable, even though that was always questionable, but the realities on the ground now make a two-state solution almost impossible. So the only real solution has to be a one-state: one-people with democratic rights—with built in guarantees for protections for various communities. And it seems to be something that is not only logical, but morally—the right direction to go.
I know you attended the World Conference on Racism (WCAR) as a delegate in Durban, South Africa in 2001. This is the well-known conference from which the US and Israeli delegation withdrew over the draft document that equated Zionism with racism. Can you comment on that—whether you were involved, and what you position was then—and now?
Well you know that it wasn’t only the US and Israel who walked out, but most of the European nations walked out. The reason for that was bogus. The conference had a number of issues that it was grappling with. The issue of Israel was just one of them. But that, of course, became the focus and the target—and became the justification for the boycott by Western powers. Now the question of whether of or not Zionism in its application and expression is a form of racism has been a question that people have grappled with for quite some time. It seems relatively persuasive that the application of Zionism has been transformed into a justification for the racialization of Arabs. People like Alice Walker and Reverend Desmond Tutu have clearly characterized it as an Apartheid system in Palestine. So it is clear that Zionism and the way it has been applied and distorted seems to be the ideological justification for that system. That is something that people grapple with to this day.
Do you think that this conversation is still helpful?
At this point it may be a diversionary conversation—in the sense that the colonial project is even more clear than it was in 2001. So the real focus now is on how to we end that colonial project in Palestine. Whether or not the ideological justification equates with racism—that’s something that people can wrestle with—but shouldn’t be the focus of the conversation.
I want to go back to the human rights framework and situate these questions within that discourse. Do you understand the ethnic cleansing of Palestine as falling within the United Nations definition of genocide?
I think it is a principled way to look at this. Because it does seem to fit within the definition of genocide. Genocide does not have to be the complete elimination of an entire people, but parts of a people, sectors of a people. When you begin to eliminate their ability to practice their culture, when you target their children, when you deny them the ability to have education, when you have them under occupation where they are forced to flee their lands—all of the practices we see that have been directed to Palestinians—to destroy them as a people—these fit within the traditional definition, many people argue, and I think that is a correct interpretation.
If we come to the understanding that there are genocidal practices taking place, and the US government is providing billions of dollars of funding for this, what is that saying about our country, especially during this election year?
This is exactly the argument that has disqualified a number of people for my support for the highest office here in this land. And it is quite bizarre to me how support for Israel has become a moral litmus test—that if you provide uncritical support to Israel then that is morally justified. And any position other than that is morally suspect. And that is weird and strange, especially when you know anything about the history of this conflict. But it does speak to the moral confusion that we see in the United States of America.
What practical steps would a Green Party administration be able to do to reverse this unjust situation?
First we have to let this ally Israel know that it is a new day: that a real motion toward resolving this conflict has to unfold. We are not going to support the settlement process. We are not going to provide political cover for obvious criminal behavior. Support from the US is not going to be sustained if Israel continues to deny the fundamental rights of the Palestinians. So it would be a reset of relations between the United States and Israel.
Have you traveled there?
Yes I have. The last time I was there was in 2014.
After or before the onslaught on Gaza?
Right after. In fact we were trying to get into Gaza, but we couldn’t get in. We spent most of our time in the West Bank and some time in Israel.
What were your impressions?
My impressions were, and I have said this publicly, that any moral human being who has a chance to spend time of the West Bank, to go through the checkpoints, to listen to the stories of Palestinians, to go to Hebron, and see how the settlers relate to the Palestinians, to see the Apartheid Wall, and how it has destroyed people’s access to making a living, and split communities—there is no way that you could support those policies, you just couldn’t do it. But that’s really the point—because how many people get exposed to those realities? Very few.
And of course not everyone sees it the same way. It seems easy for a particular kind of American to travel there and see what the Israeli state wants you to see, which is that they have “made the desert bloom” with advanced highways, cities and infrastructure. What makes you see the reality differently than many travelers who might go there?
I come from an oppressed experience. I understand and have lived oppression. So my angle, my lens will be different because I understand history, and understand colonialism, and understand that the “development” that we see in Israel was not innocent. It came about as a consequence of the real suffering of human beings, the displacement of 750,000 people, and the appropriation of their land. It came about as a consequence of the Israeli state being able to exploit Palestinian labor, to have investments from powerful allies and powerful individuals from the West. So when you have land, cheap labor, and capital—within a capitalist framework—then you have development. There is nothing mysterious about that.
You have to know the history, which is so similar in the land [Maryland] we walk on right here.
The racist interpretation, the white supremacist interpretation is to say: “See what we have done? See our development? Before we got here there was nothing. Basically there were these Arabs, these underdeveloped Arabs, who just wasting the land.” This is a complete and utter distortion for anyone who knows anything about Arab history and culture. But it resonates with people in the West who basically have no understanding of history beyond the Western distortion that they call history. It’s the sort of racialized narrative that says that the only people capable of development are Western Europeans.
I want to get your reading of the human catastrophe that has been unfolding for the last five years—the wholesale destruction of Syria. We can’t speak about Palestine without also talking now about Syria and Iraq.
My view is that the US and Western European powers have been on a veritable rampage across the so-called Middle East over the last fifteen years. The result has been the destabilization of the entire region, and the destruction of stable states, no matter what internal contradictions they had. What we see in Syria is another example of destabilization and war imposed on the state simply in order to attempt to clean up the previous mistakes that the US and the Western states made when they decided to destroy the Iraqi state. They undermined their own strategy in terms of containing regional powers, because they tilted the balance of power toward Iran. So part of attempting to address that imbalance was to destroy the Syrian state, to undermine Iran, as they saw it. So they compounded their mistake with another mistake. Because they miscalculated. They thought they were going to be able to re-enact the playbook of Libya and impose a no-fly zone and use that to provide air force protection for the jihadists and others that they were going to import into the country to overthrow the Assad government; and that didn’t happen.
Do think the Bashar al-Assad bears any responsibility in this scenario?
Of course there were contradictions in Syria, and there were elements inside Syria that were dealing with those contradictions around issues of democracy, the neo-Liberalism that was causing real pain among the Syrian people. But those processes have to remain internal to any nation state, especially when there was an intensification of the pro-democracy movement. There were elements coalescing on the Left that were forcing reforms from the Assad government, which was responding. There was a trajectory that seemed to suggest that there would be some reforms that might begin to lean toward more progressive elements, but that process was destroyed when these external powers—the US, the Saudis, and others— decided that they were going to militarize the resistance, and create this impression that the Syrian people were prepared to engage in armed struggle. And that was a monumental mistake that has resulted in five years of death and destruction in Syria.
The country is tragically fractured and destroyed and there is no end in sight. What would a Stein-Baraka administration do about his?
We have to use the power of the state to engage in a real process of reconciliation. We have the complications of the fact that have now thousands of jihadists who have access to territory in Syria. So now that suggests that there is a military component to this. The reconciliation in terms of providing a process where there can a be a national government reconciliation, bringing all of the elements in Syria together, including the Kurds, has to be the direction that we go.
What about the Russian role in terms of bombing in Aleppo where there are civilian populations? Or the Assad government conducting airstrikes in civilian areas?
Let me go back to your first question. Basically we also have to acknowledge that the Russians are involved, and the Iranians are involved. Everyone has to be at the table to figure out how we resolve this. One thing we are not going to allow is for the dismemberment of the state. I do believe the Kurds have warranted and deserve some kind of process where they have control of their territories, at minimum some kind of autonomous zone, if not outright self-determination. This is something the Assad regime has to accept. And this acceptance is going to be difficult because we see now what appears to be a collaboration between the Syrian government and the Russians in helping to undermine the power of the Kurds. Personally, I have always supported self-determination for the Kurds, so I opposed any efforts to undermine that. Those elements have to be at the table in terms of national reconciliation.
Now in terms of who did what during this war—that is always a very difficult thing to try to untangle. Because even in how you framed the question: “What about the Russians who have bombed in Aleppo?”—most people who will be reading this interview will understand that Aleppo is not just Aleppo. Aleppo has sectors that are controlled by two different sides. So when we say “bomb Aleppo,” we are not talking about an entire city, we are talking the city under the control of the so-called rebels. And that happens in war. Unfortunately, innocent people die. And that is why we are opposed to war and war strategy. That is why we have to try to stop that conflict as quickly as possible. And there is going more destruction in Aleppo until we can get all the parties to the table—because Aleppo is key to the conflict. Without belaboring this point, if the external actors were not involved, I think that some kind of deal could be struck between the rebels and the Syrian government to have some kind of resolution about the siege of Aleppo.
One last question. Today, Sept 17th, is the commemoration of the Sabra and Shatila massacres carried out by the Phalangists in Beirut in 1982 under the aegis of the Ariel Sharon. What did this date mean to you then—and now more than three decades later in 2016?
Today is a reminder of the kind of mindless violence that oppressed people are subjected to, and the continued suffering of the Palestinian people. I have been to Lebanon on a number occasions and I understand what happened in Lebanon. And I understand what is still happening in Lebanon. I have seen to the Palestinian camps and the conditions that people have been forced to live in. And I understand the stories from this massacre. So what this day means to me is that these stories and experiences—people need to be reminded of them. Because they speak directly to the counter-narrative, meaning the narrative from the perspective of the Palestinians—and they have suffered tremendously. And as long as they are occupied and scattered and relatively weak, they will always be subjected to these kinds of assaults, be it in the camps or in Gaza or the West Bank.