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The Journey of Derek Black – posted 11/11/2018

November 11, 2018 2 comments

Sometimes a story comes along that is so instructive and inspirational, it demands to be told. I think the story of Derek Black, who transformed from a top leader of the white nationalist movement to a committed anti-racist, is such a story.

Derek Black was not any routine, rank-and-file racist. He was the heir apparent to the American white nationalist movement. The son of Don Black, a long-time leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and the godson of David Duke, Derek had impeccable white nationalist movement credentials.

Yet, even though Derek was expected to become the new American Hitler, in 2013 he left the white nationalist movement, rejecting and repudiating it.

How that transformation happened is a tale that offers critical lessons for anti-racists. The story of this transformation is told in a wonderful book, Rising Out Of Hatred, by Eli Saslow, a Washington Post staff writer.

As a young boy, Derek was heavily influenced by his birth family. Both his parents were active white supremacists. His father was instrumental in setting up Stormfront, probably the largest neo-Nazi website. Derek was a regular contributor, posting thousands of times on the site. He started a white pride website for children. Derek also started an online racist radio station. He and his dad had a daily talk radio show.

At a white nationalist conference organized by David Duke shortly after the election of President Obama, here is how Duke introduced Derek:

“I’d like to introduce the leading light of our movement. I don’t know anybody who has better gifts. He may have a much more extensive national and international career than I’ve had.”

Derek was a smooth racist. Committed to mainstreaming white nationalism, Derek did not use racist slurs. He never advocated violence or breaking the law. He favored sanitizing and repackaging white nationalism. Instead of donning Klan robes for cross-burnings, Derek favored business suits with a message against illegal immigration. It was an approach pioneered by Duke.

Derek saw white people as the victims of discrimination. He aggressively argued that there was an ongoing white genocide. Derek marshaled pseudo-scientific arguments to justify his views. He maintained that whites had bigger brains than non-whites and were genetically superior.

Saslow describes the debate in the white nationalist movement over what they called the Jewish question. At issue was whether Jews were considered white or outsiders. In 2008, Derek wrote, “Jews are the cause of all the world’s strife and misery.” He felt Jews were not white.

Because Derek was an excellent student, in 2010 he got admitted into New College of Florida, the state’s honors college. New College had a reputation as an alternative school, welcoming to non-conformists.

Once at college, Derek quickly realized the danger in going public with his racist identity. As a survival move, he decided to hide it. In his first year, Derek made friends with a Peruvian immigrant student and two Jewish students. He also started dating a Jewish woman.

Derek had difficulties squaring his ideological beliefs with his personal relationships. He struggled between the different parts of his life. He liked his friends and he agonized over the contradictions. He believed white Europeans needed to date only white Europeans but still he dated a Jewish woman.

Things came to a head for Derek when he was outed as a white supremacist by another New College student who was writing a thesis on extremists. The student accidentally discovered the Derek Black he read about was a student at New College. The student decided to share this information online with the entire New College community. Derek was studying in Germany at the time.

Derek decided he was not going to leave New College.The disclosure about Derek provoked a major split among New College students about how to relate to Derek. The split was between advocates for inclusion or exclusion. Some favored reaching out to him and some wanted to shame and shun him.

Genuinely liking him, Derek’s two Jewish friends on campus decided to engage him with the hope he could evolve over time. They regularly invited him to Friday night Shabbat dinners. Although they were horrified by his views, they did not write him off. They maintained an active dialogue. They practiced what Saslow calls non-judgmental inclusion.

While it took a period of three years, Derek eventually could not reconcile his old ideology with his friendships. Critical to this evolution was the role of Derek’s girlfriend Allison who challenged his views continuously. In an email Derek sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he renounced white nationalism, saying:

“I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s race requires me to think about them in a certain way or be suspicious of their advancements.

Derek’s story provides a powerful lesson about the positive value of inclusion. It is an argument against the dehumanization of political opponents. We are all more than our current political positions. It is reductive to view our current political opponents statically rather than dynamically. To quote Derek again:

“Outreach and discourse won’t magically solve the problem of hate. But without those private conversations with people I cared about, I might not have seen the weaknesses in my arguments.”

At a time when America is so bitterly divided, Derek’s example shows the value in reaching out to those with whom we disagree. If a top racist in the country can transform into an antiracist, there is hope for all kinds of people to grow and change. There remains no substitute for the power of persuasion.

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Unhinged Hate and the Caravan Boogeyman – posted 11/4/2018

November 5, 2018 1 comment

Usually in trying to understand the reasons for murder, the motives and thinking of a gunman are not starkly etched. A degree of mystery is the norm. That cannot be said in the case of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers.

Immediately before shooting and killing eleven people in the Tree of Life Synagogue, Bowers left a record. He went online and posted on Gab, an extremely anti-semitic and racist social media site.

In his last post before the shooting, Bowers singled out HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a little known immigrant advocacy organization. Bowers wrote:

“HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Witnesses at the temple said that before he started shooting, Bowers shouted, “All Jews must die”. It would appear that Bowers blamed Jews in America for an invasion of non-white immigrants. Somehow he saw these immigrants as destined to slaughter white people.

Bowers had a history of making disparaging comments about Jews on Gab. He had previously written “Jews are the children of Satan”. He posted a picture of a fiery oven like those used in Nazi concentration camps to cremate Jews with the caption “Make Ovens 1488 F. Again”.

In considering Bowers’ acts, context and timing matter. The invasion he feared, the so-called caravan, has been a recent obsession of President Trump and Fox News. By relentless fear-mongering and constant repetition, Trump and his media servant worked to create a boogeyman.

The caravan, a collection of up to 7,000 Hondurans, seeking to escape violence in their home country and to obtain asylum, was made out to be an existential threat to the United States, even though it was still in southern Mexico.

It is inconceivable Bowers would have acted as he did when he did without the caravan narrative promoted by Trump and Fox News. That narrative flipped Bowers’ switch and led him to act out.

Those who fail to see the connection between the hate and fear Trump promotes and the actions of Bowers are kidding themselves. While Trump may have seen the caravan as a ploy to mobilize his voters to the polls, Bowers’ murders are a form of collateral damage. Trump’s anti-immigration rants have emboldened and inspired white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Right wing authoritarian movements invariably collect and surface unhinged sociopaths like Bowers. The fact that he was even more extreme than others in the alt right does not minimize Trump’s responsibility. With his support for the “good” Nazi collaborators at Charlottesville, Trump has given the alt right a pass on violence.

People like Bowers and other white supremacists are an integral part of Trump’s base. They totally stand behind his presidency because they see him advancing their racist and anti-semitic movement, mainstreaming their views.

I was surprised by Bowers’ focus on HIAS. I have a personal connection to the organization. My sister, Lisa Baird, was HIAS Pa’s first staff attorney. Based in Philadelphia, Lisa primarily handled asylum claims. She had an extremely diverse caseload representing clients from all over the world. She worked for HIAS from 1993 to 1998.

HIAS Pa now has a staff of 40 and about 14 attorneys. It is the largest nonprofit provider of immigration legal services in Pennsylvania, specializing in representing unaccompanied minors and survivors of domestic violence and victims of crimes.

There is also a part of HIAS that focuses on refugee resettlement. It is largely a social service department, providing case management to newly arrived refugees assigned to the agency.

HIAS has actually been around for well over 100 years. On TV, I saw the writer Masha Gessen explain that HIAS had helped her emigrate from Russia. The organization has a history of helping Russian Jews, escaping anti-semitism there, come to the United States.

Bowers’ view that Jews are behind immigration of non-whites is part of the white nationalist world view. In this fact-free perspective, Jews are the puppet masters pulling the strings, financing the caravan and promoting non-white immigration.

To these folks on the alt right, any immigration of non-whites conflicts with their goal of a white ethno-state. For them, just the presence of non-white people equals slaughter of white people. They want to deport all whom they classify as non-white, including Blacks, Latinos and Jews.

In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I do feel the need to address Trump supporters. I expect many of you were horrified by Bowers’ actions. I also expect many would deny that Trump bears any responsibility for these events. But if you oppose anti-semitism and racism, maybe you should think about how Trump’s pronouncements promoting fear and hatred of different racial groups fuel domestic terrorists like Bowers.

As a society, we have underestimated the danger coming from the far right. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in the wake of Charlottesville in August 2017 found that roughly 22 million Americans call it “acceptable” to hold neo-nazi or white supremacist views. Willful indifference is not an option. It is imperative that we actively resist this pernicious form of homegrown extremism.

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Watergate Parallels – posted 10/21/2018

October 21, 2018 Leave a comment

It is common now to read stories comparing President Trump to President Nixon. Watergate is invariably invoked.

To assess the fairness of this comparison, I think we need clarity about what Watergate was. It was so much more than a petty burglary.

Watergate was an extensive campaign of political spying and dirty tricks cooked up by President Nixon and his subordinates. The image of Watergate that we have inherited is much less than the multi-dimensional criminal enterprise it actually was.

Even now, I don’t think that all the wrongdoing of President Nixon is fully appreciated. You often hear the cliche that the cover-up was worse than the crime but in the case of Watergate, the crime was actually massive.

What began as an effort to sabotage his political opposition in the 1972 presidential race, mushroomed. The effort included: forging letters and distributing them under Democratic Party candidates’ letterheads, leaking false and manufactured items to the press, hiring goon squads to beat up demonstrators and stealing confidential campaign files.

While the 1972 election was a blow-out, the scope of Nixon’s crimes raise questions about the election’s legitimacy. Nixon did not play by the rules.

The fateful break-in at the Watergate Hotel was about repairing a listening device that Nixon’s team had installed at the Democratic National Committee.

Nixon wanted to neutralize anyone he perceived as standing in his way politically. He was paranoid. His enemies list started with 20 names including the reporter, Daniel Schorr, and the actor, Paul Newman. According to John Dean, White House counsel, there was a second master enemies list of 576 people, many who were supporters of Senator George McGovern, Nixon’s 1972 presidential opponent.

Nixon had a plan to undermine his enemies by means of tax audits from the Internal Revenue Service. Misusing his executive power was part of his game plan.

With Nixon’s approval, Charles Colson, Nixon’s special counsel, assembled the Plumbers, an off-the-record black bag group, that operated directly out of the White House. The Plumbers included ex-CIA operative, Howard Hunt, and ex-FBI agent ,G. Gordon Liddy. They hired out a team of right wing Cuban exiles who had Bay of Pigs experience.

The crew, paid through a slush fund provided by the Committee to Re-Elect the President or CREEP, concocted a series of criminal plots, some of which got carried out. The Plumbers broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist looking for dirt. Ellsberg had been the leaker/whistleblower of the Pentagon Papers.

Nixon despised Ellsberg who he saw as a traitor and wanted to destroy him. There was a Colson-designed further plan, never accomplished, to physically maim or kill Ellsberg on the steps of the Capitol during a demonstration on May 3, 1972.

Other plans under consideration for the Plumbers were breaking into or bombing the Brookings Institute, kidnapping anti-war leaders so they could not disrupt the upcoming Republican National Convention and hiring prostitutes to create compromising situations for Democratic leaders like Ted Kennedy.

Former Watergate special prosecutor Nick Akerman has said that the moment prosecutors knew Nixon was done as president was when they had him on tape discussing slush fund payment to silence Howard Hunt and the other Plumbers.

Although taxes was a background part of Watergate, it must be pointed out that Nixon was a tax cheat. He shortchanged the government in paying his federal income taxes in 1970-1972. He falsely backdated a deed to get the benefit of a huge tax break on donating his presidential papers. A change in federal tax law would have prevented Nixon from taking a deduction for the donation. The fake backdated deed made him able to write off the value of his presidential papers against his taxes.

Ironically, Nixon also installed his taping system into the White House to create a tax haven for himself. The law said he could still donate to the government the value of tape recordings. Nixon had an appraiser who would put any number he wanted on the value of the tapes. Nixon saw it as a huge tax deduction for the rest of his life.

This act of greed, in which Nixon hoped to realize a fortune, was the cause of his undoing. The tapes came back to haunt him.

In comparing Nixon and Trump, I would begin with greed, a quality shared by both men. Nixon cheated on his taxes. The New York Times has reported on Trump’s tax fraud and evasion in the 1990’s. Trump still refuses to release his federal tax returns. He has also refused to place his financial assets in a blind trust, using his brand and his hotels to line his own pockets.

Both presidents have treated the presidency like a business opportunity, placing private over public interest.

Both presidents were surrounded by men convicted of criminal offenses. In Watergate, over 30 Nixon associates did jail time. Trump’s list is shorter, so far. Only Robert Mueller knows the degree of criminality, including the President’s. Laughably, both presidents advertised themselves as “law and order” candidates.

Both presidencies have featured a break-in. We know that the Trump campaign benefited from the Russian election intervention with its digital break-in. Again, only Mueller knows the extent of the collaboration but the timing of email releases by Guccifer 2.0 points to coordinated effort as does the Russian micro-targeting of specific voters in specific states.

Both presidents engaged in obstruction of justice. Nixon carried out the Saturday Night Massacre. Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, as he acknowledged, because of the Russia investigation and has threatened to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Mueller. Trump also revoked the security clearance of numerous possible witnesses in the Russia investigation. These witnesses include John Brennan, Sally Yates, and James Clapper.

Both presidents have demonstrated disdain for the law and hatred for the press and the First Amendment. After Watergate, Nixon did an interview with David Frost in which he said, “If the president does it, that means that it is not illegal”. There can be little doubt Trump shares the same view. He has tweeted that he has an absolute right to pardon himself.

Interestingly, Trump is on record admiring Nixon. Trump publicized a fawning letter Nixon wrote him back in 1987 praising Trump’s performance on the Donahue TV show. Whether Trump suffers a Nixonian fate, we will see.

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Harry T. Moore, Unknown Hero – posted 10/6/2018

October 6, 2018 6 comments

History is an often surprising and unjust thing. Who gets remembered and for what can seem arbitrary and grossly unfair. What Toni Morrison calls “the master narrative” leaves so much out.

In American history, there are some genuine heroes who remain unknown to the general public. Harry T. Moore is such a person. Moore led the struggle for human rights and against racism long before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. His story is untold.

If asked, I expect most Americans would cite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the first great civil rights leader of our modern era. That really is not true. From 1934 to 1951, Moore, who became the Florida coordinator for the NAACP, led the struggle for civil rights in the Deep South in an even more dangerous time than the 1960’s.

Moore and his wife Harriette gave their lives to the civil rights struggle. They were both murdered on Christmas Eve in 1951 in a crime that was never solved. Their home was bombed when they were asleep inside. The bomb had been placed directly under their bedroom.

The closest hospital that would treat African Americans was 30 miles away. By the time Moore’s neighbors brought him to the hospital, he was dead. His wife died the day after his funeral.

As typically happened back then when black people were murdered, no one was ever charged although there were investigations.

Part of the reason for the disappearance of Moore’s story is the fact that his murder happened in Florida. Moore’s murder flew in the face of the fairy tale narrative told by Florida’s boosters. Florida was the vacation paradise from Silver Springs with its glass bottom boats to Key West.

In fact, Florida was a hotbed of lynchings. Between 1921-1946, Florida had 61 lynchings. It was in Mississippi-Alabama-Georgia territory.

The Florida powers-that-be wanted to bury Moore’s story since it was seen as bad publicity and a disincentive for luring tourists and their money into the state. Disappearing Moore also removed the challenge to white supremacy that he represented.

Moore began his career as a school teacher. He lived in Mims, Florida, not that far from what became Cape Canaveral. He became the principal of the Mims Colored Elementary School. In 1934, he organized the Brevard County chapter of the NAACP.

As an NAACP member, he followed the progress of a lawsuit filed by Thurgood Marshall in Montgomery County, Maryland, Gibbs v. Board of Education, that challenged unequal teacher salaries. Marshall was successful in that lawsuit.

That success prompted Moore to write Marshall about teacher salaries in Florida. The disparity in teacher salaries between black and white teachers was enormous. By 1939-1940, the average salary was $1104 for whites and $574 for blacks. The NAACP filed suit in Florida and it took a dozen lawsuits over the next decade but the teacher salary battle in Florida was eventually won.

Moore launched his own investigations into the lynchings and mob violence that were occurring in Florida. Florida was the scene of the Claude Neal spectacle lynching in 1934 which became the most publicized lynching in American history. A mob barbarically tortured, hung and dismembered Neal before the remains of his body were attached to the rear of a car which then dragged him around the community.

The Neal lynching was not spontaneous. It was advertised and tickets were sold to it. Several thousand people gathered to witness the event. Afterwards, Neal’s fingers and toes were exhibited as souvenirs. Photos were taken and sold for 50 cents a piece.

Moore publicly threw himself into the investigation of multiple lynchings. He wrote the authorities and tried to pressure Florida’s governor to act when local police refused to investigate. He was especially motivated by a case in which a 16 year old young black man was killed after sending a white girl a Christmas card.

In 1945, Moore authored a pamphlet on lynching that criticized police brutality and implicated white sheriffs in murder. He later locked horns with the notorious Southern sheriff Willis McCall in the Groveland boys case.

To say Moore’s anti-lynching work in the rural south was dangerous does not begin to describe the risks he ran. The Klan targeted him and the Brevard County School Board fired him from his teaching job, a job he had held for 20 years. He regularly received death threats and he was often followed by unmarked cars. Although non-violent. Moore carried a .32 caliber pistol for self-defense.

Moore took on an increasingly active role with the NAACP. This history is described in a biography of Moore, Before his Time, written by Ben Green. In his organizing , Moore crisscrossed the back roads of Florida for 17 years often traveling at night to avoid detection. He travelled through small towns where no restaurants would serve him and no motels would house him. Many gas stations would not let him fill up his gas tank, empty his bladder or use the phone.

Moore built the NAACP in Florida from a few hundred members and 9 chapters in 1941 to 53 chapters and 10,000 members by 1945.

In addition to his anti-lynching work, Moore was also the Executive Secretary of the Progressive Voters League, an organization he co-founded in 1944. He launched a statewide voter registration drive at a time Florida made it extremely hard for Black voters to vote. Florida had used a poll tax to prevent African American voting.

The Progressive Voters League registered 100,000 new Black voters. By the time of his death, Moore’s organization had registered 31% of all eligible Black voters in Florida. That was a rate 50% higher than any other Southern state.

Moore became the most visible African American leader in Florida. In 1949, Florida’s governor agreed to meet with him about police brutality, protection of Black voters and job opportunities. This was the first time since Reconstruction that a Florida governor ever met with a Black delegation.

Moore died in 1951, three years before the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v Board of Education. Back then, there were no federal civil rights laws or federal marshals protecting him. There was no movement. Moore was on his own.

Clarence Rowe, the president of the Central Brevard County NAACP stated:

“He was walking into the lion’s den. To do what he did back then, when the Klan was operating free rein, was suicide. He knew he was dead from jump street.”

Maybe we need to redefine who qualifies as a genuine American hero. By standing up for civil rights so early and so bravely, by putting himself on the line, and by making the ultimate sacrifice, Harry Moore deserves to be honored – not neglected. His story deserves far greater attention than it has received.

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Revisiting the Japanese-American Internment – posted 9/28/2018

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 jpbaird.com to jonathanpbaird.com Sorry for any inconvenience. Jon

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The Passing of Uri Avnery – posted 9/9/2018

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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