Monday, 21 June 2010

Echoes From The Warsaw Ghetto In Gaza


An Interview with Cecilie Surasky By Christiana Voniati

Gazing at letters that her grandmother wrote from the Warsaw Ghetto before she was killed , Deputy Director of the global organization “Jewish Voice for Peace”, Cecilie Surasky, discusses Israel's “anti-Jewish” crimes and the inescapable comparison between the sufferings of Gazans and the gradual crushing of Jewish life in the Nazi ghettos in the period that led to the Final Solution . More significantly, the Jewish activist for peace reveals and explores the relationship between Jewish collective trauma and Israel 's aggression


“Jewish Voice for Peace” is based in the United States of America . Was this choice of location intentional?

We are based in the US and we have one hundred thousand people on our supporter list, mostly in the United States but certainly across Israel , Canada and all over the world. We think it is important to be in the United States because most of the terrible things you see happening in Israel (the expansion of settlements and taking of land, the attack on Gaza , the construction of the wall, attacks on human rights activists) couldn't happen without US support.
We pay for it with billions in aid, we offer Israel diplomatic protection in the UN, and we have many Jewish and Christian Zionist institutional leaders in this country who are very vocal about defending Israel unconditionally. They want the US government to continue to give Israel permission to do whatever it likes including violating international law. And unfortunately, the majority of members of Congress are only too happy to oblige. The U.S. Congress, which is largely made up of Christians by the way, is shamefully committed to giving the Israeli government whatever they want. With relatively few exceptions, they have very little regard for Palestinian life or for Israeli life for that matter since this unconditional support is so destructive to Israel and to Jews everywhere.
That's why we think one of the most important places after Israel , to have a strong and powerful Jewish voice for peace, justice and equality, is in the United States . Once we stop sending billions of dollars in military aid with no strings attached, once we stop diplomatically protecting Israel in international bodies when they violate the law, Israel will have to change. This movement is primarily about accountability and ending the attitude of exceptionalism which allows Israel to consistently violate the human rights of Palestinians, and increasingly its own citizens, with impunity.
At Jewish Voice for Peace, our values are pretty simple: Full equality for Israelis and Palestinians. There is absolutely no difference between the value of life of my 7 year old son and the value of life of my Palestinian friend's child. They are equally precious and have the same rights to health, education, to safety and well-being. Palestinians have a right to land which is justly theirs without having it stolen from beneath their feet. But the Israeli government has absolutely no respect for their rights. New settlements are built every day on Palestinian land. Even president Obama has said this theft of land must stop, but the Israeli government refuses.
Nonetheless, the western media represents Arab life as being less “grievable” than that of a western or Jewish life…

One of the most important things about doing this work is the connections that we make, as Jews, as Muslims, as Arabs or Westerners. And what you discover when you connect on a human basis is that we are remarkably similar. We value the same things. All people really want is to be connected to their family, to have work that means something to them, to have education and joy in their lives. It's very simple when you break it down. I know there is a long history of western racism, colonialism and Orientalism and we see ourselves as being superior to people all over the world. The only way to break down that false thinking to help people connect to each other, and it's a revelation when you do.

One of the things to remember is that the very idea of international law and human rights is a product of WWII. It was institutionalized because of WWII, because of Hitler, because of what happened with the Nazis and to the Jews. And Jews like Rene Cassin were among the pioneers of this idea, that all people are equal and equally deserving of certain basic rights. Today, we know this, whether they are gay, disabled, whether they are black or white or Muslim or Jew: this is the foundational framework for human rights advocacy, So it is particularly appalling and outrageous to see 60 years later many Jewish organizations actually working to undermine this idea of international human rights. This goes against an incredibly important Jewish tradition and it's a violation of everything we stand for and it's anti-Jewish in the end. There was a time when much of the Jewish institutional world realized that freedom for one person required freedom for all. That if you let bigotry and hatred against one group to stand, eventually it would come and take you. All of our fates are intertwined, let us not forget this. Jewish Voice for Peace is holding onto and celebrating this tradition. We are actively opposed to groups that are trying to undermine international law as a way to keep Israel from being accountable.
Exactly because of your fate as Jews, as a historically hunted people, one would expect that you would be the first to recognize the human rights of Palestinians.

Yes, historically, Jews are a hunted people. Some people survived and some others didn't and that's true for most of us. Yes there is a huge tradition of taking from that lesson and realizing that “Never Again” means never again for everyone. Period. Fullstop. “Never Again” is a phrase we say for the Holocaust. “Never Again” genocide, “Never Again” slavery. And the truth is that in the United States , Jews are one of the most liberal voting blocks. Somewhere around 80% of Jews voted for Obama. We contribute in this country to many of the most important human and civil rights causes. So that tradition is alive and well. But in the case of Palestine and Israel , many in our community simply have blinders. We call it PEP, Progressive Except Palestine.

You don't have to compare what happened to Palestinians in Gaza to the Holocaust to make it seem more important than it already is. It already is so important and so unique in its own way.

The Holocaust was a systematic, well planned extermination of millions of people… And it was six million Jews but it was 11 million people altogether. The other 5 million were homosexuals, socialists, artists, intellectuals, people with disabilities. Obviously in the case of Gaza and the Occupied Territories we don't have anything like that. But I do think that people do draw lessons from the rise of the Nazis.

In Nazi Germany, the reign of Hitler was 12 years and before the Final Solution, the agenda to exterminate an entire people, you had a gradual legalized crushing and tightening of people's lives. And there are Jews who we have worked with and Jews who lived through that time and they say “look, you can't compare the systematic extermination in terms of the deaths of people. But I lived through that experience of dehumanization, of the crushing of people's freedom and spirit. And there are things that are similar.” The culture of collaborators that Israel creates to monitor and divide people. The black market that has emerged in Gaza similar to those in the ghettos. The sickness. The way those with money find a way to survive and perhaps even profit, and those without have little recourse. The slow death by bureaucracy and laws—in the West Bank farmers need multiple permits just to farm their own land- no guns are needed to destroy a family.

The crackdown on human rights activists in Israel right now- the midnight raids and media gag orders on arrests of Israeli citizens, banning people like Noam Chomsky from the country simply because of their ideas, attempts to shut down human rights organizations…. These are not the elements of a healthy democracy. These are signs of an incipient fascism. And I use that word because our many friends on the ground in Israel use that word now.

I have letters of my great grandmother –I am looking at them right now sitting at my desk- from the Warsaw ghetto. That's where she was tortured to death and she wrote these letters to my grandparents asking for help. And I have letters from friends in Gaza . The tone of the letters feels similar to me. They're prisoners. They're trapped. They don't have enough food or supplies. They want help getting young relatives out. And they don't know what may happen the next day- a bomb, a lethal attack. And mostly, a sense that the world doesn't care. I am deeply haunted by that common message I heard from my great grandmother in the Ghetto and from people I've known in Gaza .

Of course we see the echoes of that and of course Jews in Israel are a traumatized people. But the problem is, it doesn't help to compare Gaza to the Holocaust. Eleven million people are not being systematically slaughtered in Gaza . But what you do have is, as I said, a kind of a slow destruction of a culture, a slow destruction of life. It's a slow ethnic cleansing that is not only killing people but destroying families, destroying spirits, destroying an entire culture with a cruel and callous deliberate intention that causes massive unnecessary suffering on almost every level. They are literally prisoners. And that doesn't need to be compared to the Holocaust to know how horrible and immoral and outrageous it is and how it must be stopped.

Operation Cast Lead killed some 1,400 people and injured countless others. The attack didn't just kill civilians including children, it terrorized an entire population of 1.5 million. It sent them a message that they can never be safe, they cannot protect their families. The level of dehumanization required to justify this kind of treatment of an imprisoned population of 1.5 million people is terrifying. Of course when I hear Israeli government officials use almost identical language that Nazis used to describe Jews, calling Palestinians a virus or bug that must be eradicated, it gives me terrible chills. That process of dehumanization is universal….it has happened in every corner of the earth, and the lesson is that Jews are just as capable as everyone else. We are not better or worse. We are the same.

As Jews, we have an obligation to strengthen and nurture the tradition within our community that struggles for peace and justice, and win out over this other culture that has taken over in the Jewish tradition that is traumatized and fear-based and supports Israel no matter what and really cultivates fear and hatred. It is a struggle within our very own community. I promise you, there's not one Jewish family that is not divided on this issue. There is a huge Jewish closet and people are finally starting to come out.

You say that the Jewish opposition to Israel 's criminal policies is quite strong, and yet those voices don't come out through the media. The only voices that do come out of Israel and the United States are quite reactionary and belligerent. Why is this?

In Israel the Left is much smaller than it used to be, and there are historical reasons for this, most of which are relevant to the colossal failure of the Oslo Accords. But things are changing, especially outside Israel . The numbers of people who are joining our struggle for peace in the Jewish community are rising dramatically. There's a lot of struggle happening in the Jewish world right now, more than we have ever seen since the founding of Israel . Jews are finally taking off their blinders and at least starting to ask questions.
But most people don't know this, and I will tell you why. Because we have all these dinosaurs running all the powerful Jewish organizations in this country who have been there forever. They are funded by an older generation that supports them and has a lot of money. And I am talking about people like Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League or David Harris of the American Jewish Committee. We don't have a spokesperson. Every Jewish community, every Jewish person has a different opinion. But the closest thing we have from visible Jewish representation are people like Abraham Foxman and he is from a completely different generation. Nobody under 45 identifies with him. But there is a generational change that is happening which isn't visible yet. Because the older people are dominating the airways. But that generation is going to have to leave the stage sooner or later.
How do you deal with people coming and criticizing you for anti-Semitism?

Since we started, we have been getting hate mail and death threats. Some said: “you should have burned in the ovens”. Interestingly enough, we get much less of it now, while our movement is growing. I won't lie to you; it has been very difficult to do what we have been doing, because we are also all struggling in our own families. As I have said before, there is not one Jewish family in the world that is not divided on this. But things are changing. What is extremely important is that younger Jews are educating and opening the eyes of the older generation. They go to school, they learn the facts and then they go back home and try to educate their parents. But we need to remember, it's not malicious. It's just that many elderly are closer to the memory of the Holocaust. (We also have many members over 60 who are absolutely clear about supporting Palestinian equal rights.) They lived the horror. It's easier for them to see enemies everywhere. But, like in your case with Turkish-Cypriots, so do we, with our Arab neighbors, share the same physical closeness and genetic closeness. Young people are beginning to realize this more and more and they try to deconstruct their parents false and phobic convictions and it's then that you realize how identity is constructed and even false. We need to collectively write a new national narrative.

We're told that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about terrorism or anti-Jewish hatred or the need for security. And we believe it because Jews have been so persecuted for so many generations.

But it's a false narrative. It's not really about any of those things, not at its most basic core. It's about land, and Israel 's constant thirst for more and more land that people already happen to live on. Israel wants the land but not the people, hence the strategy of making life miserable so that those Palestinians who can leave will do so. The rest? Israel is basically offering them open-air prisons. This is the real narrative.
Israeli Jew, because of the Holocaust, because they are historically a hunted and persecuted people, wrote a national narrative that has literally integrated into the DNA of Israel which is: “The world hates us!” That is the narrative and so they feel that the world hates them, they act like the world hates them. And when things like this happen, when international public opinion is outraged about the attack on Gaza or the attack on the flotilla, they just say “See, we told you they hate us”. And it becomes almost self-fulfilling in the end.
Of course, part of the problem is that anti-Semitism is very real. There are many people who do hate Jews, and those who would like to see us disappear. The Palestinian freedom movement is so clearly first and foremost motivated by a desire to see justice for Palestinians. And my experience with Palestinian leadership is that they have been extremely sensitive about making sure that genuine anti-Semites do not gain a foothold in the movement. There will always be people who hate Jews, or gays, or Muslims etc…, but I think any of us seriously committed to universal human rights must guard against anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish hatred in all of its forms. The answer to bigotry is not more bigotry. It's acceptance, and the creation of new communities based not on skin color but on values of universal equality. We should interrupt anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim rhetoric wherever we see it.

There can be no Jewish liberation without Palestinian liberation. It is so clear. We are enslaved by this dynamic, just as they are. We have become psychologically enslaved to our fear and our bigotry and Jewish Voice for Peace and the Jewish Liberation Movement is struggling to free our community from the grip of fear and trauma and to celebrate the wonderful diversity and richness of Jewish tradition that puts social justice for ALL people back at its center where it belongs.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Desmond Tutu On Cyprus


“I can smell the scent of peace here… I came to give it a little push, if I can”…


Some call him Father; others call him “the voice of global consciousness”. As a child, he experienced the criminal nature of Apartheid in South Africa. Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the man who, along with Nelson Manedla, brought an end to the racist regime of his country, marking an immense victory of humanity. Small in stature, giant in spirit, Tutu has become a global symbol, not only for peace, but also for reconciliation, which “can only come about through forgiveness”. In the post-Apartheid era, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed at examining the circumstances under which the horrific crimes took place during the resist regime. The Commission had the authority of granting amnesty to those who gave a full confession concerning the politically motivated crimes they had committed. Transferring the wisdom of his struggle and experience, the Chairman of the Elders has recently visited half-occupied Cyprus, offering his moral support to the laborious negotiations for a peaceful solution to the Cyprus problem. When asked why he chose to visit Cyprus, of all the other problematic areas of the planet that may need his support, Tutu answered: “I can smell the scent of peace here… I came to give it a little push, if I can”…

You said you are inspired by the persistent and laborious negotiations of the two leadrers, Christofias and Talat, in working out a solution to the Cyprus problem. Why is that, isn’t it their duty to negotiate?

Well, as you know there are others that take different positions from their own. As you know, when you had a referendum in 2004, one side accepted the solution plan and the other rejected it. So it’s not a straight-forward matter. As leaders, they are up in front where perhaps some of their people in their community, and perhaps a large number of them, they might be saying, “Ah, we have been in this for too long”, and I gather that some of your polls are saying, the people do not expect anything. But they wish if they could be a resolution that meant peace and stability. This is why it’s so important to encourage both leaders to keep negotiating for a peaceful solution to the Cyprus problem.

You say that the worst enemy of peace is suspicion. But how can one overcome all this bitterness if one has seen their loved ones being killed and tortured?


Well, it’s never easy. And you shouldn’t beat yourselves up for being angry. You cannot control your feelings, but what you can control is what you can do with your feelings. What are you going to do with the thing that provoked those feelings. And I think it isn’t fair to expect a mother who has seen her child killed brutally, to say, “it doesn’t matter”. Because what kind of a mother would not be bitter and angry? Bitterness is natural. But then you say, by the way, there are other mothers from the other side who have had the same experience as I have had. I don’t know if you have heard of a thing called “The Parents’ Circle” in Israel and Palestine. I mean, look at that! It would be something you think it could never have happened. But there are two people in conflict who have bereavement in their families. And instead of that bereavement separating them, they say we have had a common experience, let us come together, to comfort one another, but even more, to prevent situations happening that will make other mothers and fathers mourn as we are mourning.

How important is it to deal with the past, during a peace process?

The past always returns to haunt you. You know, it’s like a couple has a quarrel. And the man goes away and buys flowers. And they say “let the past be bygone”. The past never just disappears, because it has a life of its own. If you don’t face up to the awfulness and the beast of the past, it’s going to return and tear you apart. Even if I come along and give you a gift, at the back of your mind you still have a wound that is festering. In South Africa, we discovered -it’s something we copied from Chile and Argentina, we learnt from them and made small improvements- that it is important to face up to the past for people to be able to acknowledge that terrible things happened. People always need to know who ordered those things to happen. What happened to my loved ones? Have they just disappeared? Where they abducted? And I‘ve said, there is really no future without forgiveness. And forgiveness looks back and it looks forward.

Do you see any similarities between Cyprus and South Africa, both in terms of the conflict and the peace process?


One must always be careful not to draw easy parallels with different situations. You know how the Israelis get upset when you parallel the situation there with apartheid in South Africa. And so, each situation is peculiar and unique. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t similarities. A mother whose child is killed brutally in South Africa feels the same pain and ache and anguish as a mother anywhere in the world, as well as a mother in Cyprus. And when people are separated artificially by laws when they are occupying the same land, then there are some similarities to a situation wherein people live in the same country but are told to live apart. Sure there are similarities, but it’s always important to say “what are the distinctive things about this particular situation?” Let’s learn whatever we can learn that might help us understand this particular situation. But we mustn’t draw parallels too bluntly. And that is why for instance, if people say we want to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cyprus, it must be specially tailored for Cyprus. It must be a Commission ad hoc. The situation in Cyprus may have some similarities with South Africa, but it is unique and it has to be dealt as such. Learn from others, and then recognise that our situation has these particularities or that characteristic and take account of it in the arrangements that you make.

Judging from the experience you personally had from the TRC, would you think it would be helpful if each community in Cyprus put their own war criminals to trial?


As you know, with our TRC, we were not looking to charge people. We agreed that, if people who had committed politically motivated crimes or atrocities came forward and if they made a full disclosure and tell about all the factors that lead to that particular incident or event, then they may be granted amnesty. The TRC, therefore, was not like the Nuremberg Trials. You have to work out yourselves what to do. We thought TRC worked well for us; in a way it was like a carrot to attract people and persuade us to tell us about things that were very difficult to discover. You see it here in Cyprus too, how difficult it is going to be for the relatives of the victims, on both sides of the border, to find out who killed them and how. So you have to provide a mechanism that is largely acceptable to the people and that people see it as an instrument that is fair. That it is an instrument that is going to ensure that -as far as possible- there is no resentment that remains. It may be that you say well, yeah, we are going to have to chase after the perpetrators and bring them to trial. But that does not usually help the process of healing. We were in Nuremburg when they were celebrating their 50th anniversary of the Nuremburg Trials, and it was quite amazing how Germans felt about it. The Germans on the panel had a deep resentment -50 years later! They were feeling that quite a few of those who had sat in judgement on them had committed worst things. So, your country will have to sit down and figure out how do we deal with the past in a way brings closure to the beasts of the past. Dealing with the past is not about forgetting about it, it’s about saying I want to know what happened so that we can remember, so that we do not repeat. It’s a very sensitive process, and very traumatising. But, back in South Africa, we have discovered that, amazingly, when people were given a chance to tell their story, it had an incredible therapeutic effect on them. Just to be able to tell their story, they felt they were being acknowledged. That their experience was acknowledged as authentic. Just a short example: There was a young black man who was shot by the police (of the apartheid establishment) and he was blinded by that, in the townships. He came to tell his story at the TRC. And when he finished, one of the TRC panel asked hi: “Now that you have told your story, how do you feel?” And a big smile broke out in his face, and he said “you have given me back my eyes!” Most of those stories were told on television, they were broadcast live. And for people that have been told for such a long time that they were nothing, to be the star of the show, to be in the front page of the newspapers, had an incredible power of affirming them. You have to work out for yourselves what will be the best mechanism, one that would not just rouse people but one that makes people feel that they have faced the beasts of the past and now we can walk together into the future.

Our educational system -and particularly the lesson of history- on both sides of the border, has a very nationalistic approach concerning the narratives of the conflict. Do you think a change in how history is being taught could play a role of reconciliation between the two communities?

Absolutely! I know I shock you with this single word answer. But it is true. They say history is in the eyes of the beholder, in the eyes of the one who narrates. In many of our history books in the past, they used to say the white man (Livingston) came and discovered the Victoria Falls! There were Africans living around the Victoria Falls for so long, and they had to wait for Livingston to “discover” the Victoria Falls! So that’s how it goes, one tells the story from one’s own perspective. It will be important for Cyprus that the different perspectives are accommodated. For a long time, Nelson Mandela was described as a terrorist. The one side saw him as a freedom fighter and the other as a terrorist. Which is the truth? I gave a one-word answer to your question. I hope you could set up workshops and look at how you could depict your history. Because what we see in our history books can serve to separate us, or it can serve to bring us together.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Unorthodox reflections of a revolutionary


An interview with pedagogue Bill Ayers, the black President’s “terrorist” friend


On my way to the “Kala Kathoumena” coffee shop, in the old city of Nicosia, I was wondering how a terrorist looks like. I had an appointment with Bill Ayers, whose radical organisation, in the 60’s, had accomplished what the terrorist mullahs failed to accomplish on 9/11: to bomb the US Capitol. During the presidential race that preceded Obama’s election, the 64 year old education theorist and Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois of Chicago had come under fierce attack from the American Right. They called him a “state enemy”, an “unrepentant terrorist” and “Obama’s political mentor”. During the Vietnam war, when Ayers was 25, he co-founded a legendary revolutionary organisation, the “Weather Underground”, which acted in the broader context of the anti-war movement, and Ayers was on the FBI's Most Wanted list. The militant action of the radical organisation, which included the bombing of empty government buildings as well as several banks, was characterised by the US government as “domestic terrorism”. As soon as I met Ayers, from the very moment I shook hands with him, it was apparent to me that this was a case of a charismatic and multi-dimensional man, with inexhaustible faith in, and profound love for, the humankind, and whose fiery yet eloquent spirit can enrapture, inspire and win over a disbelieving intellectual, as much as an illiterate worker. The questionnaire I had meticulously prepared for the purposes of the interview seemed oddly unnecessary. I set it aside and let the conversation take its course…

You say, a teacher’s message is this: “You can change your life -whoever you are, wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve done, another world is possible.”
For all of my life as a teacher –that is, since 1965 - I’ve been saying that the reason why teaching is so powerful and dynamic, so intellectually challenging and so ethically interesting, is precisely because the message of teaching is that you can change! You can change in an individual way, but if you take that message one step further, you can say that you can also change the world. I ‘ve taught everywhere; I ‘ve taught in juvenile detention systems, I ‘ve taught in prisons. When you’re a teacher in prison, you are up against the harsh reality, but you’re still saying to these guys that no matter what you’ve done, you can change. You can create another world. And if we unite together, we can change not only our own lives but we can change the world. This is the message of teaching, this is the message of community organising: a profoundly democratic message. And that’s what draws me back to teaching again and again.

But how can one determine democracy? You can have a participatory democracy, or an abstract notion of democracy, wherein citizens are kept at distance and distracted from the decision-making processes and the public sphere. Or there’s the “democratisation” that the West is trying to transfer to other countries, such as Iraq, for example.
The “democratisation” of Iraq was a lie on which the US have been permitted to wage a war. There was never any intention to bring democracy to Iraq. In fact my joke always was… I don’t know if you know what an Electoral College is… In the US, we don’t have a popular vote, we have what is called an Electoral College and it’s retrograde, it goes back to the Civil War, it goes back to protecting White Power… In the year 2000, George Bush lost the popular election but he won the electoral college. The vacuum of democracy is evident here. So, what my joke always was: I hope when they export democracy to Iraq, they take the Electoral College with them and get it out of the US. But, what you are referring to is hugely important. I grew up in the student movement, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the core of our values was participatory democracy, direct, local democracy and our ideal was, the people with the problems are also the people with the solutions and our basic slogan was “Let the people decide!”. We were very big in creating what is called a democratic culture. What we meant by that was that formal democracy can and is undermined everyday by, for example, militarism, by corporatism, by consumerism, by racism. These things undermine the culture of democracy. So we were arguing and are still advocating, is that a culture of democracy is much more than the forms. So you can click an election ballot and call yourself a democracy, or you can see the requirements of being a citizen is full participation every day: that you wake up in the morning asking yourself “how can I participate in the civic life today”, not how do I every four years push a button. That’s not democracy except in form. So yes, I make a strong distinction between formal democracy and engaged citizenship. Formal democracy is often a sham used to undermine participatory democracy.

You also advocate that education can never be neutral, that it always has a politics, an ethics, a value. Some people may object this stance. For example, here in Cyprus, we have a private, English-speaking school that has recently decided upon dealing with the challenges for an intercultural and integrated education. The English School’s board has been since under attack by various groups and individuals, for having a politics and not being neutral.
Education can never be neutral. Education always either serves the status quo or change. It always serves either the way things are, or the way things could be. So, even though you can’t always see what the politics of a particular system or school or classroom are, they are always there. It’s a myth that you can be neutral, and most of the people who cry for neutrality are actually crying to keep the status quo intact, as it is. So in the US, when I was young, the great upheaval was: Don’t teach politics. And what they meant by that was don’t teach about racial equality. Just leave politics out of it. Racial inequality was the standard, it was the given. So if you were to bring in something as unsavory as politics, you were bringing in the idea of multiculturalism. But we brought it in and we won. It’s the same with the question of women. Should women be equal? If you brought that in, you were bringing in politics, because the things are is just neutral – don’t raise that question, that’s for the church or for the family to figure out. The current situation is about gay people; if you are willing as a teacher to say gay people have full rights like everyone else, you are accused of being political. But to assume that we don’t talk about that, well, that ‘s a politics too, if you know what I mean. You can’t get out of being political by saying I am not raising that controversial question, because the controversial question is already posed everyday by the social realities themselves.

So, you are suggesting that formal education and schools may well function as an ideological state apparatus. In which case does education reinforce the existing power structures or the status quo and in which case does it challenge them?
Well, most governments and most educational systems -and this is a contradiction right at the heart of education- want people to be obedient and conforming. And that is true across the borders: true of the Soviet Union, true in communist China, it’s true of the US, it’s true of apartheid Africa. What they want is citizens who go along. But education is never that project. Education is always about asking queer questions, it’s always about searching through evidence and arguments, in order to have a mind of your own, which should be dynamic and in motion itself. That’s why education “feels uncomfortable” in schools. Schools are one thing, education is quite another thing; they coexist but they are not the same. I argue again and again back in the US for education to find its way outside and beyond schools. Schools are institutions that want you to go along and be quiet, to stand in line. Education is never like that, education is disobedient, education is unruly…

“Education is unruly”. Unruly is also the activist… Can the street educate us?
Oh yes, absolutely! The workplace and the street are important forms of education. In fact, one of my reference points again and again for my own life, is the Freedom Schools in the 1960’s in the south of the United States. The Civil Rights Movement was going through a down period, a low, and a young volunteer from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), named Charles Cobb, brought a proposal in which he said, the black people of Mississippi have been denied many things: decent facilities, full trained teachers, forward-looking curriculum. But the fundamental injury is that they have been denied the right to think for themselves, about the circumstances of their lives, how they got here and how can they be different. This led to the creation of a Freedom School curriculum, which I was very fortunate to be part of in the 1960’s. it was a curriculum of questions, it wasn’t a curriculum of answers. And the questions were things like, “why are you and I in the Freedom Movement”, “what do we hope to accomplish”, “what do we want, that we don’t have”, “what does the majority culture have, that we don’t”, “what do we want to keep”… and it went on like that for 26 pages, just question after question. That’s curriculum of questioning, that’s a curriculum for citizenship, that’s a curriculum for democracy. And the Freedom Schools did not exist in classrooms, they existed in community centers, back yards, plantations… And to show how revolutionary that was -and it was very revolutionary- three teachers of the Freedom Schools, the martyrs of Mississippi Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, were kidnapped and by Ku Klux Klan fanatics. So Freedom Schools were revolutionary then and Freedom Schools are still revolutionary. To ask the question “how did I get here”, “how could it be different”, those are revolutionary questions.

Education is revolution then…
Absolutely! At its best, education is revolutionary. It can be revolutionary in that it can take any individual from the kind of sleepiness or the anesthetized condition of not knowing where you are. It can wake you up and that’s why most of us can look back in our lives and say, “oh, there’s a moment when somebody woke me up, a book, a teacher”. That’s why we fall in love with our teachers, because they remind us that another world is possible. And it’s exciting, it’s thrilling. It’s not the person itself that draws you, it’s what that person is doing to you, what they are making you think. So I think that, yes, education can be revolutionary in that sense and then, collectively, when all of us feel for example that, we can’t go forward unless we change the circumstances of our lives, then education is revolutionary in a social sense.

And how does social justice fit in all this?
Well again, that’s a struggle, it’s a point of conflict. In a democracy, education is always about - at least theoretically- adhering to a principle, a recognition: that every human being is of incalculable and immeasurable value. And that together as a community, we have to strive for fairness, for equity, for freedom for all. That means that education and democracy is always tilting towards social justice. In other words, the full development of each single one of us is only possible with the collective development of all of us. So the full development of all is the condition for the full development of each. And that’s a profoundly social justice statement.

Speaking about human development and social justice, let us move to Latin America and specifically to Hugo Chavez. Do you think the paradigm of the Bolivarian Revolution challenges or falsifies the whole “End of History” narrative?
Oh, absolutely. I think Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis is demonstratively false, even as it was written it was demonstratively false. Every generation believes that it’s reached the end of History. If you live long enough you realize it. One of the messages of every power, of every elite is to say, “this is it, doesn’t get any better than this, there is no other possibility”. And then, what revolutionaries always do, is say “no, another world is possible” and they always bring that into the public square. So the idea that History has ended, meaning the defeat of class conflict, is so provably, demonstrably false in the world that we live in. We live in a world of profound inequities and disparities, and those inequities and disparities lead the social conflict again and again. So it is true that, for example in the US or in Great Britain, the export of class conflict and of the working class has been underway for a long time. But we have a gigantic proletariat that is in any minute going to organize itself and rise up and demand equity and fairness and a piece of the world, and that will going to change everything. So I think, Chavez is one example. And the other thing to say about Chavez that is interesting to me, is that, Venezuela is not a country with either a proletariat, nor a peasantry. So you have neither of the 20th century models of what would be the engine…

You do have the oligarchies and the poor though. And intense internal imperialism.
You do have the poor - Absolutely, you do have these kinds of contradictions -no doubt about it, but you don’t have either of the engines of social change that were demonstrated in the 20th century. And yet -speaking of something that neither you or I could predict- here comes a charismatic military leader (and I have inherent distrust in military leaders, I don’t trust them and I don’t trust strong men, my politics make me skeptical right away). You have the poor, you have many many factions of political parties and organizations, none of which can get along, none of which know how to talk to one another. And along comes a charismatic intellectual military man. And by the way [laughs] he’s fuelled with espresso, I ‘ve seen him up close and the guy drinks about 24 espressos a day, he never sleeps.. But he was influenced by books, by ideas. All of us danced to somebody’s ideas. And Chavez was influenced by books by ideas and by his background as an indigenous person, as a person from a poor family… And suddenly he was in a position to make a change. And suddenly all these factions, all these left-wing parties, all these trade-unionists, found it in their interest to begin to talk to one another. And out of chaos came this unity that said “with Chavez, we can move the society forward”. The exciting thing about the Bolivarian Revolution is reading the Constitution. I don’t know if you read it, but to me, this is a brilliant example of a 21st century articulation of what’s possible for humanity. And the parts about education are brilliant, because they basically say something that is far beyond from what we say in the United States. That education should be something not that we do early in life in order to finish and get a job. In the US, why is education a K-12 or a K-16 affair, where you get finished and then go work for the rest of your life? Why isn’t education for life? The idea that education is for the young is so false and yet that’s what we do in the United States. But in Venezuela, education is for everyone. And my own experience there -I ‘ve been to Venezuela several times- of looking at the Education Circles in the factories or the towns or the villages, to see all people who are illiterate to come together and re-name the world, it’s so exciting. It’s a model to me -coming out of the 3rd world, of what we can aspire to in a place like the US. Real education, popular education, participatory education.

Why then is Venezuela widely represented like such an immense threat to the world social order, or to the Washington Consensus?
Absolute power finds anything threatening. When you are aspiring to absolute power, any questioning, any challenge has to be put down. I was in Venezuela several times reading the New York Times, accounts of what was going on. It was like an Alice in Wonderland world, through a looking glass because the NYT had Chavez painted as this monster, suppressing the media. I was staying in a hotel where the right-wing newspapers would be delivered to my door. So the idea that somehow freedom of the press didn’t exist is ridiculous. So that’s one answer. Another answer, a more telling answer, is that, there were those of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era, who would say “why is Vietnam a threat to the US?”. In Vietnam we don’t have any military interest, we don’t have any economic interest, so why? Are we going to spent 10 years, three million deaths, billions of dollars suppressing this revolution? And Chomsky’s answer was “Because the idea will spread”. The idea will spread and ideas are power. What we have to understand instinctively, is that we oppose the power of force with the power of ideas, and the power of people thinking differently. That is the threat Chavez represents. What if you thought differently about economics, about the role of education and about questions of social equity. What if you thought differently? Then the project of the US would be imperiled...

You said something that Obama keeps repeating, that the might of our nation lies not in the force of our guns, but in the force of our ideas…I believe ideas are a good counterforce to guns, but I worry that the US’ sense of itself and its ideas is arrogant and misguided. As you yourself said earlier, what kind of democracy do we want to export? It’s an abstract statement and Obama could mean many things by it, but it is true that ideas have power. It’s why for example, in the US the Conservatives have spent an enormous amount of time in the last 20 years attacking kindergarten to 12th grade education and are now attacking the universities. They are saying that the universities are hotbeds of left-wing thinking. It’s not true, from my perspective. But anything that offers an alternative perspective is threatening to them. So, that is what Chavez represents: a different way of considering lots and lots of questions, and certainly the role of the US in the South is one of those things. I think he has provided an interesting counterweight around development in the surrounding countries and so on. A good example is health care. I mean, the idea that the US has a good health-care and that we should be proud of it is so crazy, and yet if you are in America- 70% of us don’t have passports, we don’t know any better- we guess that, wow, we must have a very good health care system, even though if you’re sick you don’t get care and so on.

Let us return to Obama: he said that the might of our nation lies not in the force of our guns, but in the force of our ideas… Nonetheless, in Afghanistan he keeps sending more troops, even though extreme poverty, hunger and complete lack of social policies are far more serious threats to the country’s population than the Taliban…A couple of things you made me think of by putting it this way: one is that, Obama’s statement is a hopeful one. But it has to be matched by action. The fact that the US spends a trillion dollars a years on military and is happy to use violence to solve its international problems, is happy to invade and occupy countries, this is what has to end, it’s not rhetoric about ideas over guns. It’s actual action to stop the use of weapons and violence to resolve political conflicts. Take the question of Taliban and Afghanistan. After 9/11, it’s true that the US has suffered a terrorist action within its own territory. 3.000 people were killed, it was a terrible crime against humanity, a pure act of terrorism carried out by a retrograde, crypto-fascist group of religious fanatics- that is all true. But after 9/11, there was a great debate in the US about what had happened and that debate was repressed by the powerful voices. One side of the debate as it went forward, which I agreed with, was that even though we had suffered a crime against humanity, as a nation, the response to a crime is a criminal justice response. It’s a police response. If someone gets killed in Chicago, the police gather evidence, look for the perpetrator and put that person on trial. There’s no war involved, it’s a criminal justice matter. Because the war metaphor won the debate inside the US, we went on a WoT. But there’s no monolith called terror. Terror is a tactic. So a war against terror is like a war against nervousness. How do you defeat it, how do you know where it is? A tactic can’t be defeated by a war…

There’s also the problem of defining terrorism. Like Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar argue in “Perilous Power”, even the US government has trouble defining terrorism, because the term may refer to them in some cases.
That’s exactly my point. If you think of a stable definition of terrorism, which I think is important, and you recognize terrorism as a tactic that is used by religious fanatics, political factions, crazy people, governments, states, then you can see in the history of the 20th century, that the most violence that’s been done by terrorism has been done by states. State terrorism is the most prevalent of all. The most spectacular, is things like the World Trade Center, where 3000 people were murdered and that’s unforgivable. But, the number was 3000 lives - meanwhile, the US has killed over 3million in a terrorist war against Vietnam. So how do you measure these things? WoT is the wrong metaphor. After the crime against humanity of 9/11, there should have been a criminal justice response which might have meant calling up military force. But it would have been to seek the perpetrator, it wouldn’t have been to invade countries and overthrow governments. So overthrowing the Taliban even was in itself an aggressive act, it had no meaning vis-à-vis 9/11. They never pursued Bin Laden’s group, they didn’t pursue it aggressively or eagerly. Instead, they’ve opened up a war. How many countries will be invaded when Bush announces a WoT? Nobody knew. How long it will go on? Nobody knows. Will terrorism ever be eliminated? No. That means it’s a war forever. It’s a clash of fundamentalisms, so in that regard, we have to say “no, we do not want a WoT, a war on tactic. What we want is to lower the levels of violence. And that means the US who has in many ways a world monopoly on violence -we spent a trillion dollars a year on violence and the rest of the world spends a trillion. So a country with 4.6% of the world’s population spends half of the military budget of the world. We have a responsibility, if Obama’s words are to be taken seriously, to lessen our nuclear arsenal, to eliminate ultimately our nuclear arsenal, to lessen our weapon systems, to stop exporting hand guns to every country in the world, to stop exporting smart arms to every conflict in the world. We have to take seriously that it’s our responsibility to move in that direction. And yes, it seems to me that if we want it to really be a nation among nations, we would not only resolve questions like healthcare in our own country, but we would export healthcare to other countries instead of violence. We ‘d be exporting books, not weapons. But that’s not what we do, and it’s not in our genetic make-up. So we have to change our history, because our history in these matters is very bad.

Let us discuss Obama’s historic speech in Cairo. To an impressive degree, Obama’s rhetoric has managed to challenge Bush’s manicheanism, along with the absurd representation of the world’s Muslims as a monolithical, one-dimentional community. Do you think Obama’s speech grants the Arab world the “permission to narrate”?
I like the reference to “Permission to Narrate”, I assume you are talking about the Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said. Yes, I think that’s exactly what the speech does. You have to remember the bar is so low because we had George Bush for 8 years. So we are used to an absolute idiot, a person who had never left the US before he was president. He didn’t even have a passport; it’s astonishing if you think about it. But that is so typical of the people of the US. National Geographic did a survey of 18-25 year old American kids. They gave them a blank world map: 80% could find Iraq, 80% couldn’t find Israel or Palestine, 40% couldn’t find Great Britain and 10% couldn’t find the US. It’s astonishing but yet typical that Americans don’t know geography, don’t know history, don’t know language, because we are the center of the universe, even though we’re only 4.6% of the world’s people. My joke always was, you shouldn’t be allowed to bomb a country you can’t find on a map! Having said all that, it seems to me that the speech was hugely significant, because Obama indicated through that speech a willingness to change the narrative. Changing the narrative is a lot of what politics is about. I know for a fact that Obama understands the Palestinian situation. And for him to say in that speech that the Palestinians have suffered for 60 years, that dates their suffering at 1948. No American president has ever said that. For him to say you need to stop the settlements was huge, even though it’s a small step. There is so much more to do, but it was still a step, in the last two decades no US president would say that. Now, what’s more important, is what we do as an international citizenry, as progressive forces, as a movement within the US. What do we do to change that narrative so that more is possible, so that the permission to narrate spreads and deepens. Another thing through which Obama showed his political skill, once again, is, he goes to Cairo, he speaks to the Arab world, and then he puts a tiny little finger in the eye of Israel and given that that’s very difficult to do inside the US, he rushes to Buchenwald (Holocaust Memorial) 24 hours later. By doing that and by going there with Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, Obama inoculated himself against the inevitable firestorm of criticism that the Israeli lobby would bring forward, as the frontpages were dominated by Obama and Wiesel at Buchenwald. It was a politically savvy message.

Let us go back in time, to the “Weather Underground”. It’s been described as a domestic terrorist organisation. Yet you argue that the Weathermen had a moral stance. How’s that?
I don’t think we were terrorists, I think we debated terrorism. When the war went on and we were determined to stop the war, we did in fact debate what direction to go and terrorism was one direction we debated. We did discuss it and we rejected it. In fact the bomb that killed my girlfriend and my two comrades, in March 6, 1970, was to be put in a dance at a military base. That would have been a terrorist act but it never went off. That was hotly debated and after our friends had been killed, the organisation was not resolved in what direction we were taking - we weren’t even underground at the time. That act forced a huge revaluation and conversation amongst us, and we argued that terrorism was never defensible and that politically it is almost always counter-productive. And you could see the counter-productiveness of it in places like Vietnam. The Vietnamese were never convinced that the Americans were right or good because they were killing them. Likewise, the Palestinians, as much as the Israelis, keep saying we’re going to pound them into the ground until they see the way we see - it’s never going to work. It’s politically backwards and morally indefensible. So we chose a different path and we were not terrorists but saboteurs with a political mission and an ethical mission, in that we wanted to end the war as well as the system that created these wars.

But do you claim to have had the authorship of this moral mission? How could you claim that what you did was ethical and not arbitrary? How could this “moral mission” be checked?
Checking such things is very difficult and that is true not only of illegal work, it’s also true of legal work. But I have had this standard for several years and it’s extremely valuable: that you can to be constantly in touch with large masses of people, that you have to have a dialogue. You can’t just go out on your own and do what you want, you must be in dialogue. The responsibility of an activist or a citizen is to open one’s eyes. To see more of the world than you can see when you are half asleep, and then to act. You make your best judgement, you act as well as you can. And then, you must rethink. You can’t just act and act. You must act and rethink and then act and rethink. And in rethinking you must have a pedagogical standard: did I teach people and did I learn? That is the pedagogical gesture. Ordinary people saw what we were doing and understood it. Yes, the Head of the Senate condemned us, calling us communist and all kinds of names. And many newspapers were writing against us. But ordinary people saw what we were doing and they understood it. If you get paralysed because everything is so ambiguous, then you can’t act and you’re paralysed. So you need to act with imperfect knowledge but then you have a responsibility to rethink. And that rethinking involves exactly what you are talking about, trying to be connected with a base of people, so that you are not acting completely on your own. And the Weather Underground was the same. The Republican portrayal of us during the presidential race was that we were somehow a wild group of nutcases. But the fact is that we were underground for 11 years and never arrested. How did that happen? We were recognised in the street every week, people saw me, I mean I lived mostly in the open. Nobody wanted us arrested. We were leaving in a sea of like minded people. We weren’t as crazy as it now may seem. If we were that crazy, why weren’t we turned in, there were hundreds of us. We were living relatively openly, going to cafes and movies and living in apartments and people recognised us and didn’t turn us is. Why? Because people were opposed to the war and didn’t think we were so outside the pale as to be their enemy. We were not their enemy.

Looking back, are you proud of the action of, and the “critique” posed by, the “Weather Underground”?
When we were underground, a movie was made about us by a famous film-maker named Emile de Antonio. We had negotiated with him and he came to our hideout and interviewed us and made a movie called “Underground”. Several years later, I was with some young activists who were looking at the film and wanted to talk about it. So I watched the film with them – I hadn’t seen it for 20 years. I found it interesting that, on the one hand, I found the rhetoric and the posturing kind of macho, embarrassing. On the other hand, the politics, I agreed with completely. So, I wouldn’t stand up now in the way I stood up then and I wouldn’t act the way I acted and throw my head around in the way I did in the film. But, I didn’t disagree with the politics. I found the politics to be accurate. Now, four decades later, our world has changed and our politics need to change too, obviously. But our critique was based on two fundamental truths: The first is that the US is a country that was founded on, and fuelled by, White Supremacy, and that we threw ourselves into the fight against White Supremacy. The second truth is that, the US’ position in the world has been not to be a nation among nations but rather to be an imperial power, and as such, the US’ imperial project is indefensible and the primary responsibility of opposing it belongs to the American people. As citizens of this imperial power, we felt a very personal responsibility to oppose the massacres going on in Vietnam, in Laos and in other places.


** Ayers was invited in Cyprus by the School of Education of Frederick University, which, in collaboration with the Institute for Eurodemocracy Glafcos Clerides, organized the lecture Rethinking Democracy, Justice and Education in the Age of Obama with William Ayers. The speech took place on Wednesday, June 17 2009, Frederick University, Nicosia.