The Syria-Turkey Earthquake and the Blindness of US Sanctions Policy
Our call this week will be at our regular time, Friday at Noon EST.
Our guest will be Fida Jiryis, author of the new memoir Stranger in My Own Land: Palestine, Israel and One Family's Story of Home, about what happened when her father, who had been exiled from Israel-Palestine in the 1970s for his work with the PLO, brought the family back after the Oslo Accords. Here are two published excerpts.
As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week.
Sources Cited in this Video
A 2021 New York Times column I wrote on the immorality and ineffectiveness of many broad-based US sanctions.
Is it hypocritical to oppose some broad-based US sanctions but support targeted economic pressure on Israel? Not necessarily.
Things to Read
A gorgeous essay in the London Review of Books by Adam Shatz about the extraordinary life of Adolfo Kaminsky, who forged documents for the French resistance during World War II and then for anti-colonial struggles across the world.
If you’re still on twitter and interested in Israel-Palestine, I highly recommend following Yair Wallach, Reader in Israeli Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He’s a source of consistently fascinating material. Here he discusses a proposal by Syrian and Iraqi politicians in 1936-7 to accept 1-3 million European Jewish refugees into their countries if the Zionist movement would pursue autonomy in Israel-Palestine rather than sovereignty.
Last weekend, former defense minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon asked an anti-government protest in Netanya, “How did we get to the point where only 80 years after the Holocaust a fascist, racist, homophobic group of people sit in the cabinet of the state of Israel?” It’s a good question. It’s also a question that likely constitutes an example of antisemitism according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism that American Jewish organizations are demanding the US government adopt.
I’m speaking at Temple Israel of New Rochelle on February 16.
See you on Friday,
Hi. Our guest this Friday at our normal time of 12 ET will be Fida Jiryis, who’s the author of a beautiful new memoir called Stranger in my Own Land: Palestine, Israel, and One Family’s Story of Home. It’s a really remarkable story. Fida’s father was an important official in the PLO, who was exiled in the 1970s from Israel. She grew up in in Lebanon and Cyprus. But then the family was allowed to return. This is really unusual but a small number of Palestinian families after the Oslo accords in the 90s were allowed to return to Israel proper, and so then she moved to the Galilee with her family. And she tells this story in a really beautiful way, and I’m excited that she’s going to be with us for the hour. As always, the paid subscribers will get the link to that on Wednesday.
I talked on Friday to Ilhan Omar, and one of the reasons that I’m so disappointed and I think it’s such a great loss that she has been removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee is that she was one of the few members of Congress who asked difficult questions about America’s sanctions policy. And that’s particularly important now, it seems to me, in the wake of this horrific earthquake that’s struck Turkey but also Syria, which is under very, very tough US sanctions. The Biden administration, to its credit, has temporarily lifted those sanctions to help bring in earthquake relief. But even that temporary measure is being attacked by Republicans. And we know in the past that US sanctions have impeded countries under sanctions from getting—even in periods of public health catastrophe—from getting the supplies they need.
So, for instance, during the pandemic, US sanctions made it more difficult for countries like Cuba and Iran to import medicine and other gear that was necessary for fighting the pandemic. And I think the question that we need to be asking about the US sanctions on Syria and US sanctions more generally is what is the strategy that these sanctions are part of? It seems to me there are cases where imposing economic sanctions on a country can be justified if the people suffering in that country believe those sanctions might—although they might do short term pain—might in the long term alleviate their oppression. Even in those cases, I think, one has to be extremely careful about broad-based sanctions, which affect not just the people perpetrating and benefiting from the crimes, but also a broad-based population.
People often will say that there’s hypocrisy in questioning US sanctions policy and, for instance, supporting economic pressure on Israel. But I would never support economic pressure on Israel that was so broad-based that it would keep Israelis, for instance, from being able to have access to medicines and other basic humanitarian needs as it happened in many of the US sanctions policies. So, I think sanctions generally should be, the assumption should be, they should be narrowly targeted, and that they should only be imposed when there’s a strong signal that the population—as there was for instance in apartheid South Africa—that the suffering population is willing to pay some price because they believe that sanctions will be part of a strategy that will ultimately lead to them getting greater freedom and human rights.
And I think if one asks that question about Syria, I just don’t necessarily see the answer. Bashar Assad’s regime is a horrifying regime. I think that man more than almost anybody else deserves to be in front of the International Criminal Court and should be in a jail cell for the rest of his life. What he’s done is just absolutely grotesque. But Bashir Assad has essentially won that war, and so it does not seem to me that the people who are imposing sanctions have any strategy or coherent argument by which they can claim that these sanctions are ultimately going to lead to a better government than his being in power in Syria. And this is what you see in general with US sanctions. Maybe Iran is now something of an of a counter example because the protest movement in Iran does seem to have perhaps put the regime back on its heels.
But if one is looking at Cuba, or North Korea, or Venezuela, these are very, very ugly regimes. In the case of North Korea, of course, perhaps the world’s worst. But there doesn’t seem to be any prospect by which the US sanctions are going to lead to a better regime in those countries. That sanctions really just seem to me kind of on automatic pilot, and the effect that they have is—because they’re very broad-based—is that they take a population that is already brutalized by really evil regimes and make their lives even worse because what you find again and again is that the people at the top in these regimes manage to evade sanctions. They’re not going hungry. In fact, often times, they use the sanctions to strengthen their hold in power by essentially controlling what comes in and out of the country. And it’s the people who are already suffering, who find themselves even more impoverished, even more destitute. And what worries me is that in Washington—with the exception of people like Ilhan Omar—it’s very, very difficult to ask questions about whether these sanctions policies really are achieving any purpose because immediately then you get labeled as an apologist for these really, really ugly regimes.
And what particularly I find ironic and really infuriating is you get labeled as an apologist for these very, very bad regimes by people, especially by Republicans, who themselves are more than happy for the US to send arms and weapons to other really, really ugly and terrible regimes: the Saudis and the Emirates, for instance—countries that don’t rank much higher in terms of human ranked rights rankings if you look at Freedom House rankings, for instance, than do countries like Iran and Cuba and Venezuela. So, they kind of have this moral high ground that makes it very difficult to question US sanctions policies. And that moral high ground is enforced by the very same people who seem utterly unconcerned about human rights when it comes to US
allies—countries over which the US does have real influence as opposed to these US adversaries over which we actually have very little influence. And so, we impose these sanctions that make us feel good, but actually often seem to impose even more pain on populations that are already suffering from their really brutal regime.
Now, again, I don’t think there is a general rule here. I think that one has to listen very carefully to the people who in these countries themselves and to the dissident and opposition movements and ask what they want. But I would hope that the Syria earthquake could be a moment where we could open up some of these conversations about asking whether our sanctions policies are really doing any good for ordinary people, or whether they’re just a way of making certain people in Washington feel like they’re taking the moral position even when many of those people themselves are actually supporting deeply, deeply immoral policies in countries over which the US has much more influence. And sadly, without Ilhan Omar on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, there are fewer people in Washington who have the kind of position to bring about that debate in the way it needs to take place.
Again, on Friday we’re going to be joined by Fida Jiryis. I’m really excited for that and I hope many of you will join us.