Archive for September, 2018

Revisiting the Japanese-American Internment – posted 9/28/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 9/27/2018

September 29, 2018 Leave a comment

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided the travel ban case this last term, public discussion has compared the current situation with immigrant detention to the Japanese-American internment. Interestingly, in his majority opinion in the travel ban case, Chief Justice Roberts explicitly rejected a ruling from the 1940’s – Korematsu v. United States – that had allowed the government to place Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II.

I think what happened to Japanese-Americans then still remains shrouded. Lip service has been paid to the essential wrongness of the internment and some reparations have been paid but the full story remains inadequately told.

In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, public officials and the press demanded the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast. The press featured paranoid hysteria, demonizing Japanese-Americans as enemy spies and saboteurs.

A Congressman from Los Angeles, Leland Ford, advocated that “all Japanese, whether citizens or not, be placed in inland concentration camps”.

Military leaders made wild, unsupported claims of sabotage and espionage. The lack of evidence for such crimes by Japanese-Americans was explained away by assertions about their “sneaky nature” and their secret inclination to bear allegiance to Japan. According to military leaders, “racial affinities” of Japanese-Americans predisposed them to disloyalty.

On February 19, 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and his subordinates to designate military zones ” from which any and all persons may be excluded”. General John L. DeWitt, the West Coast army commander, issued orders, backed by criminal penalties, emptying parts of California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona of Japanese-Americans.

The majority of nearly 130,000 Japanese-Americans living in the United States were forcibly relocated from their West Coast homes during the spring of 1942. Once the relocation order was issued, Japanese-Americans were given one week (in some cases, 48 hours) to register with the authorities, gather the possessions they could carry in their hands (usually one suitcase) and report for incarceration.

Out of dire necessity, many internees had to liquidate their assets in a few days, including selling their homes and businesses, at a staggering loss.

Japanese-Americans had to report to 16 “assembly centers” where they lived for months in racetrack barns or on fairgrounds. Those interned slept in stables, livestock stalls and in the open air. The largest site was Santa Anita Race Track in Los Angeles where those interned were moved into horse stalls.

Later, those interned were further removed to ten “relocation centers”. All the internment sites were rural and remote. Topaz in Utah, Minidoka in Idaho, Gila River and Poston in Arizona, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Amache in Colorado, Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas and Tule Lake and Manzanar in California were handpicked for isolation.

The internment camps were overcrowded and provided poor living conditions. Those interned were mostly housed in tarpaper-covered barracks of simple frame construction, without running water, plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind. People ate in huge barrack mess halls.

Barbed wire surrounded the camps. Snipers manned guard watchtowers with searchlights illuminating the camps. To call such places “relocation centers” is to miss the reality of punitive confinement.

Throughout the war, many interned Japanese-Americans tried to demonstrate their patriotism by enlisting in the U.S. armed forces. By 1943, the army recruited Japanese-Americans to join new all-Japanese units. Many thousands joined, mostly serving in Europe.

The exclusion orders were ultimately rescinded in December 1944 when it became clear Japan was losing the war. Still, even after Japan surrendered in 1945, the internment did not end. It was another whole year before the last internment camp closed.

Many former internees returned to their communities and attempted to rebuild their lives as hardworking and law-abiding citizens. 43,000 Japanese-Americans left the West Coast to try and start new lives in the East and Midwest. A large number returned to find their goods stolen and their properties sold.

It is now readily apparent that the Japanese-American internment resulted more from racism than from any national security concern posed by Japanese-Americans. It is telling that the 1940’s internment met with almost universal approval by the non-Japanese population. No explanation was ever offered as to why there was no internment of German or Italian-Americans.

Behind the internment lay decades of racism against Asian people of all nationalities. in the early 20th century, organizations like the Asiatic Exclusion League advocated to prevent immigration of people of Asian origin. In 1924, Congress completely shut off the flow of all Japanese immigration.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized for the Japanese-American internment on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 to each camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership”.

Now there is an effort afoot to terminate the Flores Settlement Agreement, the federal consent decree that has shaped detention standards for underage immigrants since 1997. Flores limits the detention of children to a 20 day maximum limit. Changes proposed by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services could lead to the rapid expansion of detention facilities and much longer detention time for children. The new proposed changes do not set limits on the amount of time children could be held in detention.

It is not widely known but according to data from the government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, as of September 19, there were 13,312 immigrant children in federal custody. The number is substantially up from 2,400 children held in May 2017.

While there are certainly differences between the Japanese-American internment and our current situation with immigrants, we need to ask: is this a road we want to go down again?

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blog name change – posted 9/28/2018

September 29, 2018 Leave a comment

For those of you who were looking for my blog and could not find it, I wanted to let you know it was down for a while. I changed the name domain from to Sorry for any inconvenience. Jon

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The Passing of Uri Avnery – posted 9/9/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 9/13/2018

September 10, 2018 Leave a comment

On August 20, Uri Avnery, a visionary Israeli peace activist and the first prominent Israeli to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, died in Tel Aviv, He was 94. Avnery had devoted his life both to the struggle for peace between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people and to Israel’s peaceful integration into the broader region.

Avnery died as an outlier in Israeli politics. He believed Israel needed to make concessions for peace, a view that is not currently widely held. As Israeli politics have shifted rightward and as the Orthodox parties have gained power, Avnery remained a peace advocate, an independent leftist, and a hardcore secularist.

People forget that israel was founded by very secular idealists like Avnery. Many of the Israeli Founders saw religion as a relic of the past and they opposed giving privileges to Jews over Arabs and all other ethnic groups.

Avnery’s life story is cinema-worthy. Born in Germany in 1923, his family fled the Nazis and moved to Palestine shortly after Hitler came to power. As a young boy, Avnery refused to give the Nazi salute at school. Although his family had been financially well-off in Germany, after the move to Palestine, Avnery grew up poor in Tel Aviv. He went to work very young.

At the age of 15, Avnery joined the Irgun (the National Military Organization), an armed underground Jewish group that was labelled “terrorist” by the British authorities. The Irgun fought both the British and the indigenous Palestinian population.

Avnery came to have misgivings about the Irgun’s approach to the Palestinians and he broke with them in 1941. It was the beginning of his estrangement from right wing israeli perspectives. By the early 1940’s, Avnery came to believe that Jews and Arabs had to share the common space on which they lived.

In 1948, Avnery fought in Israel’s War of Independence as part of the Givati Brigade, a branch of the Israel Defense Force. He was wounded twice in the war.

After the 1948 war, Avnery turned to journalism, which became a life-long pursuit. He bought a newspaper, HaOlam HaZeh or This World which was a muck-racking, anti-Establishment tabloid. The paper became famous in Israel for its irreverence and its sensationalist investigative reports. It exposed the 1956 Kafr Qassem massacre when Israeli border police shot dead 49 men, women and children who unwittingly broke a curfew.

In 1965, Avnery turned politician and he got elected to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. He served in the Knesset in two periods from 1965 to 1973 and later from 1977 to 1981. He was a member of the Left Camp of Israel, the Sheli party, in the Knesset.

In late 1975, he started an organization, the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace in which he argued that Israel should challenge the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO, to make peace on the basis of Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in June 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and carefully negotiated agreements to guarantee the security of Israel. He argued Jerusalem should be the capital of both states.

Avnery was attacked and stabbed twice after he took this peace initiative. However, that was not his greatest notoriety. He crossed front lines in Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and met with Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader. He famously played chess with Arafat during the siege of Beirut.

After the meeting with Arafat, many in Israel denounced Avnery as a traitor. Avnery was the first Israeli to meet personally with Arafat. Unknown to Avnery, he was tracked by an Israeli intelligence team in Beirut. The Israeli intelligence team planned to assassinate Arafat even if it meant killing Avnery. However, the operation failed when the PLO managed to evade the Israeli team in the back alleys of Beirut. The Israelis never found Arafat’s hideout.

Avnery had been appalled by the 1982 massacre of 1,700 unarmed Palestinian and Lebanese Shiites in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp. Israel’s allies, the Christian Lebanese Phalangist militia, committed the atrocities while the Israelis looked on and did not intervene. Both a UN and an Israeli Commission later investigated and found that Israeli military personnel were aware a massacre was occurring but failed to take steps to stop it.

The journalist, Robert Fisk, interviewed Avnery at the time and asked him how Holocaust survivors and their heirs could look on passively at mass murder. Avnery replied:

“I will tell you something about the Holocaust. It would be nice to believe that people who have undergone suffering have been purified by suffering. But it’s the opposite, it makes them worse. It corrupts. There is something in suffering that creates a kind of egoism. Herzog [the Israeli president at the time] was speaking at the site of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen but he spoke only about the Jews. How could he not mention that others – many others – had suffered there? Sick people, when they are in pain, cannot speak about anyone but themselves. And when such monstrous things have happened to your people, you feel nothing can be compared to it. You get a moral “power of attorney”, a permit to do anything you want – because nothing can compare to what has happened to us. This is a moral immunity which is very clearly felt in Israel.”

In 1993, Avnery founded Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace movement. He opposed West Bank Jewish settlements as “landmines on the road to peace” and he also said “the main reason for setting up settlements is to prevent the two-state solution – the only peace solution there is”.

For the rest of his life, Avnery opposed israel’s creeping annexation of the West Bank as well as its policies designed to make life in Gaza miserable. In one of his last articles, he disassociated himself from the Israeli army sharpshooters who were murdering unarmed Palestinian demonstrators near the Gaza border fence. He expressed shame and criticized the Israeli media for becoming a tool of the government. He wrote that if the late historian Barbara Tuchman were still alive, she could add a chapter to her book “The March of Folly” entitled “Eyeless in Gaza”.

Many readers may think that all American Jews support the actions of the Bibi Netanyahu government. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many American Jews who are utterly opposed to the corruption and racism of the Netanyahu government just as there are a number of Israelis like Avnery who are equally repelled.

While it seems unlikely now, I expect that israel will eventually see that uncompromising militarism is not the way to achieve peace. Avnery had the wisdom to see that genuine peace will require some compromises. His voice will be missed.

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