Before I left for Palermo, an old friend of mine asked, "Of all the possible causes, why Gaza?" It was a question echoed by the owner of the place where the Al Awda was docked the last few days before departing. He asked a couple of times whether we had anything to do with the efforts to rescue migrants sailing from Libya. (I overheard him on the phone talking to someone, explaining that we were "pacifists").
In Italy, as an Italian, it's a difficult question to answer. There are other issues, much closer to home, which seem urgent: the worsening domestic climate in Italy, with the increasingly noxious xenophobia promoted by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini being the most prominent (by no means the only) one.
However, for me, the answer is simpler, because I am a U.S. citizen. Israel is by far the leading recipient of U.S. military aid, to the tune of over $3 billion a year, and it receives crucial diplomatic, bipartisan support from our government. If we could move public opinion in the United States against Israel's routine violations of international law (the blockade of Gaza, settlements in the West Bank, their separation wall, and more broadly the occupation of Palestine), there is every reason to believe that those violations would stop.
Furthermore, working on the case of Palestine helps to expose the underlying hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy more broadly: It was hard to listen with a straight face as Vice President Biden called on Russia to end its illegal occupation of Crimea in 2015, knowing that our government provides crucial support for the longest military occupation in modern times -- though all the national media successfully did so. Media behavior will be unsurprising to anyone who has read the indispensable "Manufacturing Consent" by Herman and Chomsky. I think it's worthwhile to bring up Herman and Chomsky's "Propaganda Model" particularly in this case because, even in "liberal" Bellingham, I have heard the anti-semitic lie that "the Jews control the media" -- a lazy, bigoted, outdated explanation for a phenomenon that is much better understood by reflecting about the corporate institutional structure of the media.
Returning to why should we care about the Israeli occupation of Palestine in particular, when there are so many other issues: The moral thing to do is to reflect on one's own responsibilities, rather than accusing others. So for example, when we name Israel's polices as "settler colonialism," for a citizen of the United States the appropriate reason would be to reflect back upon the similarities to our own history. There is a widely circulated map that shows the decreasing amount of land controlled by Palestinians. I found out in Palermo that it was explicitly inspired by a similar map that showed the decreasing amount of land controlled by Native peoples in what is today the United States. Even the official narratives are very similar: our own Declaration of Independence refers to the "merciless Indian savages" who were defending their homelands from an expanding settler colonial enterprise. In today's words, the Natives would probably be described as "terrorists."
Perhaps few other incidents highlight the closeness of Israel's ties to the United States (and reinforces our resposibility for speaking out about U.S. support for Israel) as the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in 1967. Israel was at war with its neighbors (a war that Israel started, with tacit U.S. approval, at the end of which it was occupying the West Bank and Gaza), and their air force and navy attacked the USS Liberty in international waters, killing 34 people, wounding over 100, and severly damaging the ship. One of the survivors, Joe Meador, is sailing on the Al Awda towards Gaza. In my limited interactions with him was a gentle, soft spoken man with a sharp sense of humor. At the end of lunch on Friday, he deadpanned that he had not yet received his meal (though of course he had), and we all laughed and said that he would probably find that same composure handy when he will be interrogated by the Israeli Defense Forces.
Discussing the exact details of the USS Liberty incident would take us down a long, unnecessary road. But it's instructive to compare it to another, much more famous naval incident, that took place in the Gulf of Tonkin (Vietnam) in 1964. (Veterans for Peace sponsored a play about the Gulf of Tonkin incident at Bellingham High School a few years ago).
President Johnson used a (likely fictitious) attack on the USS Maddox in the Vietnamese Gulf of Tonkin by the Vietnamese navy to greatly expand the scope of the U.S. invasion of South Vietnam. Notably, no U.S. service members were killed, and the USS Maddox suffered only minimal damage.
On the other hand, the very real and deadly attack on the USS Liberty is virtually unknown to the general public, and merely represents a momentary blip in the decades-long relationship between the United States and Israel. Again, it's worth saying that the difference in our governments' reactions in the two cases is best explained by the logic of power: the lives of U.S. soldiers and sailors are completely expendable in the pursuit of global domination, they only become sacrosanct when they are attacked by official enemies and can be used to stir up xenophobia and promote war. It's worth saying this to pre-empt and refute the anti-semitic trope that "the Jews control the government," which was even hinted at in the Cascadia Weekly some years ago. (To learn more about Israel's subservience to U.S. global power, as well as more background about the 1967 war, I recommend "The Fateful Triangle" by Noam Chomsky, available in the WPJC library).
What about the other people who were involved in the flotilla? What were their motivations for participating?
I certainly can't speak for them, but fortunatly they have spoken for themselves: Below is an interview with Zohar. The media team was preparing statements and videos from the other participants as well.
Written by Matteo Tamburini
I grew up in Pistoia, Italy. My father and all his family were Italian. My mother’s family was primarily composed of Irish immigrants to the United States. Lucky to have dual citizenship, I moved to the United States in 1999 to go to college. Since 2009, I have been teaching (and learning) Mathematics at Northwest Indian College, a college chartered by the Lummi Tribe. I have served on the Board of the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center since 2010. My primary cultural commitment is my dedication to study the Afro-Brasilian artform Capoeira Angola, under the guidance of my teacher, Mestre Silvio Aleixo dos Reis, of the International Capoeira Foundation, who I have been learning from since 2008.
We invite the WPJC community to contribute fact-checked submissions on local, national and global current events. Linking to original sources and articles is required. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org for review.