Juan Cole: Israel, Gaza and Campus Protests, Part II

This week on Sea Change Radio, the second half of our discussion with Middle East expert Juan Cole of the University of Michigan. In this episode, we talk about some of the problems presented by certain trigger words when discussing Israel and Palestine and look at the handling of recent campus protests by police and college administrators. Then, we revisit part of our 2022 conversation with Prof. Cole to examine environmental and energy-related issues in the Fertile Crescent.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Juan Cole (JC) | 00:19 – I don’t see how anybody can investigate what’s been going on in the Palestinian West Bank since 1967 and not come to the conclusion that this is an, is an apartheid arrangement.

Narrator | 00:33 – This week on Sea Change Radio, the second half of our discussion with Middle East expert Juan Cole of the University of Michigan. In this episode, we talk about some of the problems presented by certain trigger words when discussing Israel and Palestine and look at the handling of recent campus protests by police and college administrators. Then we revisit part of our 2022 conversation with Professor Cole to examine environmental and energy related issues in the Fertile Crescent.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:05 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Juan Cole. Juan is a professor of history at the University of Michigan. Juan, welcome back to Sea Change. Radio.

Juan Cole (JC) | 01:26 – Thank you so much.

Alex Wise (AW)  | 01:27 – Let’s talk about the language for a second, because I think there are these trigger words like anti-Semitism and genocide, and Zionism, which can be in the eye of the beholder used either as a cudgel, a pejorative, but also a compliment. There’s a lot of wiggle room within these words, and I think they’re, they’re lightning rods for a lot of misunderstanding. For example, what you just said, if somebody is protesting what’s happening in Gaza, does that make them anti-Semitic, some people would say, yes. You talk about Trump. There’s that refuge that they constantly seek in victimization, right? He’s always the victim when he’s in court. He wants to be a martyr, even though he’s, he’s led one of the most privileged lives anyone can possibly consider. Antisemitism is also, it’s used to be victims when there’s not necessarily anybody being victimized in this sense, except that you happen to be Jewish and you disagree with me. It’s difficult because I want to respect the people who have had to deal with a lot more antisemitism than me, for example. But I can’t help but draw some parallels with the MAGA victimization and some of American Jewish people who are very quick to assign this term to people. And on the flip side, I think genocide is a trigger word, like apartheid was, it’s not necessarily inaccurate, but it’s a trigger word because people think, “oh, well, genocide is.. that’s the holocaust. That’s not war.” It definitely can incite, escalate the rhetoric, I think sometimes unfairly and to a level that I think is counterproductive. 

Juan Cole (JC) | 03:17 – You’re right, these words, are not used in the same way by everybody. And the differences in nuance can cause problems. There are people who would say that Zionism is a settler colonial ideology. And if you identify as a Zionist and you’re identifying with, with a historic wrong, I think for a lot of American Jews who say they’re Zionists, what they mean is they’re proud of Albert Einstein, and they’re proud of the accomplishments of, of the Jewish people by saying they’re Zionists. They don’t mean that Itamar Ben-Gvir is allowed to invade a Palestinian’s property in the West Bank and usurp it. 

AW | 04:00 – I think it’s such a hard word to generalize. I just have family members, for example, who might think they’re Zionists because they think that Israel has a right to exist versus somebody who thinks that Israel has a right to the whole region, or that American Jews have an obligation to go back and live in Israel. There’s a wide spectrum of that definition.

JC | 04:22 – Yes. It doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. And, uh, you know, I’m a historian, so I I’m trying to be, uh, sensitive to nuance, but, you know, you get out there on social media or you’re in a campus protest, it’s not a place of nuance. Uh, and, uh, with regard to, uh, charges of apartheid and, uh, genocide, uh, frankly, these are legal matters. Uh, and, uh, uh, there’s a, a technical legal definition of, of these things. Uh, in international humanitarian law, I advise everybody just to go to the Rome statute. It’s online, it’s easily Googleable. Uh, and it’s kind of a summation of international humanitarian law that was drew on the Geneva Conventions and the Genocide Convention and so forth. And it was finalized between 1998 and 2002, and about 124 countries have signed onto it. It became the charter for the International Criminal Court. So it has a section on apartheid. It has a section on genocide. Go and see what it says. Uh, so some people who get offended that, the current, Gaza campaign conducted by the Netanyahu government, uh, has been characterized by South Africa as a form of genocide. Don’t know what the word means in that context, because they, the South Africa brought this action at the international Court of Justice, which is the court that was set up at the United Nations to adjudicate disputes among member nations. And it has a very specific set of meanings. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to kill millions of people. A genocide can be conducted by killing a relatively small number of people has to do with why you killed them, how you killed them, if you kill them because of who they are. That’s genocide. Likewise with apartheid, it’s not that everything has to be exactly as it was in South Africa. Apartheid has become a term of art in law, and there are some actions that a government takes, uh, disadvantaging people because of their race, uh, that that constitute a crime of apartheid. I don’t think, I don’t see how anybody can investigate what’s been going on in the Palestinian West banks since 1967 and not come to the conclusion that this is an, is an apartheid arrangement. 

AW | 07:00 – It’s not inaccurate, but it becomes inflammatory because of the lack of curiosity, let’s say, or, or not being educated on the topic. 

JC | 07:09 – Yeah. And as you said before, there’s a lot of tribalism, uh, so on all sides. So, um, there are, uh, Jewish Americans who’ve grown up with a vision of Israel as a place that can do no wrong. It is the most moral army in the world, according to them. And, and I mean, frankly, they say silly things, and it becomes a form of ego inflation. They invest a lot of their, their own being in it. It’s a form of nationalism. You see Americans who do this, they won’t, won’t accept any criticism of anything the US government does. 

AW | 07:48 – I think Trump has kind of changed that calculus for a lot of Americans. <laugh>. 

JC | 07:52 – Yes, exactly. Well, it’s nothing peculiar to Jewish Americans devoted to Israel, but it’s, it’s a wrong way of thinking, and it, it gets you into intellectual trouble. My country, right or wrong, uh, was a, uh, a saying that, uh, was put forward by an American, admiral, I believe, in the mid 19th century, and which was rebuked, uh, by, right thinking, members of America’s, political establishment. We have to critique, uh, what our government does. There was a famous exchange by, I can’t remember who it was. It was a senator who called Ollie North, to testify before Congress. And North was one of those who thought that, you know, if the president does it, that it’s, it’s by de facto legal as, as Nixon said, and, whatever you have to do what you have to do for the United States. And so he was, Oliver North was taking money from Khomeini in Iran, selling them, illegally, selling them weapons in the Iran-Iraq War, and taking that money and giving it to right wing death squads in Central America, all off the books and, and explicitly beyond what Congress had authorized. And he was defending it. He defended what he did, and it was clearly unconstitutional. And if Senator said, you know, in the United States, critiquing the government is a good thing. It’s, it’s the foundation of our nation. So we have to be able to critique Netanyahu’s government. We have to be able to critique, uh, the US government. We have to be able to critique Joe Biden and, and Donald Trump. And if we don’t, then, then we end up with the Soviet Union. You know, we end up with gulags and, uh, and, and totalitarianism. And I don’t know why anybody would want that. And certainly, I can’t understand why Jews would want that, because that doesn’t lead in a good direction for minorities.

(Music Break) | 10:08

AW | 10:48 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Juan Cole. He’s a professor of history at the University of Michigan. So as an academic, how do you feel when you see video of the professor in Emory University being pushed to the ground by the police and, and elsewhere? I mean, and it makes my blood boil, but I’m not a colleague of hers – you are.

JC | 11:10 – At Washington University in St. Louis also, there was an incident where a professor had ribs broken. Well, I mean, I mean, I think that it’s police brutality and it’s overreaction. I am an army brat, and I grew up in a family where my father was in the service. And I don’t approve of using insulting words for police. I respect our police but some of them are bullies who happen to get into uniform. Some of them are prone to overreacting. And, I think, that’s why you don’t call them if somebody is used to dealing with bank robbers who, who, who might be armed and might hurt you. And so the first thing you want to do is get them on the ground and, and make sure they’re not armed. That’s not the kind of person that you want to call on a college protest, because those are not dangerous situations. And, they shouldn’t be dealt with by police.

AW | 12:23 – You can see a, a whiplash effect against these rich college kids where you have the police force coming in with a carte blanche to bash some heads could be dangerous. 

JC | 12:34 – Well, this is not new. I mean, we, we saw those kinds of fissures in the Vietnam War when a lot of police were angry at young people for not supporting the war and couldn’t see that it was a kind of genocide. You know, the United States probably killed between two and 5 million innocent civilians in Vietnam. And the police were, were angry that they were protesting against their own government. Ao, and that, you know, the class comes into it. But nowadays, in, in American University, and you talk elite universities, there are very substantial number of scholarship students. There are working class kids on that campus, and some of them are involved in these demonstrations as well. So if anybody thinks it’s just a matter of a elite, spoiled children, acting out, that would not be accurate, and it wouldn’t be fair to the students. So I think in some instances there has been police brutality and, and, and the police who undertook it should be blamed. They should be investigated. They’re acting, not as law enforcement, but as bullies. But I don’t think that’s typical of police. And I think the real problem is that the police have been put in an impossible situation that they’ve been called to deploy the tools that they have, against people against whom those tools are not appropriate. You should never call the police in, on a nonviolent, non-disruptive event. And, and even the definition of disruption is open for debate because I think protests is inevitably to some extent disruptive. But I don’t know of any of these protests that have prevented, people from learning or from, from taking their classes. And, I think, that the charges of, of such things are in every case that I know about overblown. 

AW | 14:33 – So how does this play out, Juan, on campuses around the country? Most colleges are looking at commencement on the very near horizon. Do these protests peter out during the summer, or do you think they, they resume assuming that the aggression is still occurring come late August? Do we see a resumption of these protests around the country? 

JC | 14:55 – Well, I can confidently predict that all the campuses in the country will be empty… 

AW | 15:00 – <laugh> going out on a limb there. 

JC | 15:01 – …Within a, within, within about a month, right? <laugh> month, month and a half at most. We’re speaking in early May. So, wise administrations, and I think this is true of Michigan State University to some extent, the University of Michigan, uh, will just wait them out. There’s no reason to take a dramatic action as what is quite crazy, what, what Columbia did and what some of these other campuses are doing. There’s no student activism during the summer. And we’ll have to see what’s going on still in, in the fall. But, these are fast-moving developments. The US government can, I mean, I can’t imagine, frankly, that the, that the Biden administration wants this to go on very much longer. And already, here in early May, there’s just been an announcement of the Biden administration denying, some forms of ammunition to the Israeli military. And again, Israelis ran out of ammunition a long time ago. They’ve been being resupplied on a daily basis by the United States. And often Biden has gone around Congress because Congress should be appropriating,  or making the decision about the use of these weapons. And Biden has just opened the storehouses to the Israelis. But in the same way that he has done that so far, he’s been a, very firm supporter of this campaign. He can also close it off, and I think to any extent that it’s starting to get in the way of his reelection, there will be pressure on him to, to wrap this thing up. And so I don’t feel comfortable speculating about what will be going on next fall. But I do think that the universities are being silly, frankly, to, to use such, uh, um, force against demonstrators when we’re, we’re coming towards the end of the semester, in any case, and they’ll all be gone. The, the University of Michigan has had its commencement. We, we end early, uh, compared to most universities must have something to do with bringing in the spring wheat in the old days or whatever reason. We have our commencement in, in very early May. And there was a demonstration at the commencement. Students lifted Palestinian flags, uh, and, and marched out of the stadium. Nothing happened. 

AW | 17:40 – Juan Cole, thank you so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.  

JC | 17:43 – Thanks for having me, Alex.

(Music Break) | 18:54

(2022 Interview) AW | 18:57 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Juan Cole. Juan is a professor of history at the University of Michigan, and a longtime blogger informed comment is his website. Juan, welcome to Sea Change Radio. 

JC | 19:11 – Thanks so much. 

AW | 19:13 – You wrote recently, you’ve dived into giving us a, a glimpse of the various Middle Eastern countries and how they’re being affected by climate change. Why don’t we start with this region in Iran, Abadan and what they are encountering right now in terms of heat? 

JC | 19:33 – There have been new records set in, in Abadan in, in southwestern Iran this summer with the temperatures getting up to 122 Fahrenheit. These are dangerous temperatures that we’re seeing in the region. 

AW | 19:50 – And talk about their water usage in Iran’s decade long drought and how it’s affecting not just Abadan but the entire country. 

JC | 20:00 – Yes. Well, Iran really only has one big river system and ag, and again, it’s in the, uh, southwest of the country, the Karu River, and its tributaries and the former government of Iran under the Shah, the King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who was overthrown in 1979. But while he was in power, he initiated a lot of dam works in hopes of, uh, creating, uh, artificial lakes that would yield irrigation possibilities, but then also to make hydroelectricity. Uh, and these monumental projects were pursued by the Shah, without much consultation with local people or much understanding of local conditions. And, and so some of the water now has been diverted to a big agricultural use, uh, and, um, that has hurt Iraq, uh, where, where the water used to flow into from Iran. And now, uh, there’s this, uh, long, long term drought that we’re seeing that’s similar to the mega drought that we’re having in our American, uh, Southwest. And so major bodies of water like the Zayanderud, the major river that goes through the city of Isfahan have dried up that that river over which there is a historic ridge from the 16 hundreds does not exist at the moment. And farmers are not being able to irrigate, uh, as they used to from these, uh, streams and have demonstrated against the regime. So the government clearly is not dealing very well, uh, with, uh, with the drought. And it really threatens Iranian agriculture threatens people’s livelihoods, uh, food sources, and it has geopolitical implications because Iraq is furious that it’s not getting the water from the Iran anymore. 

AW | 22:04 – Yes. I want to dive into that in a second and turn to Iraq, but just staying with Iran for a minute, what are the geopolitical consequences of this drought and possible agricultural shortfall in terms of embargoes and how western countries might approach negotiating with Iran moving forward? How dependent is Iran on foreign imports, for example? 

JC | 22:32 – Yes. Well, Iran imports a lot of food. And, uh, most modern countries can no longer feed themselves. Uh, they’re, they’re part of a globalized, trade in commodities like, uh, grain, the US sanctions, which are very severe, they, they were called by Trump. The maximum pressure campaign have had a horribly effect on the lives of everyday people. But those sanctions don’t target, uh, food imports or medicine, medicine imports. The sanctions do weaken the earning power of people in Iran. And so there may be medicines they can’t afford as a result of the sanctions. And there may be certain kinds of food that they can’t afford, but, uh, the, the sanctions themselves don’t, don’t target that sector. I, I think the, the bigger political fallout from, uh, the drought and, and what I see as the Iranian government’s lack of ability to address it with, uh, engineering, uh, and administration, is that the rural sector could turn against the Iranian government. And the rural sector has been a pillar of this government. So, that’s bad news for Tehran. 

AW | 23:49 – So let’s turn to Iraq for a moment, if you will. You, you wrote not that long ago on informed comment, uh, post titled 19 years ago, America really wanted Iraq’s Basra for its oil, which is now making it uninhabitable. Why don’t you explain, for those who aren’t familiar with Basra, this, this vital oil producing region and what it’s facing with climate change. 

JC | 24:17 – Iraq’s major oil fields are in the south of the country around, uh, the, uh, riverine port of Basra. Uh, and, um, uh, those oil fields had been under us sanction after the Gulf War, uh, because Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, uh, and was illegal in international law. And the US and the un put sanctions on Iran’s oil exports as on Iraq’s ex oil exports as a result. It’s my thesis that one of the reasons for the Iraq war was not so much that Bush and Cheney wanted to steal Iraq’s Petroleum. I think they just wanted to open it up for exploitation and allow American oil majors to get in there. And they couldn’t, uh, under the sanctions regime. And as long as Saddam Hussein was in power, I think there was very little likelihood that the Congress would take off those sanctions. And so I think it occurred to, uh, Dick Cheney in particular that were they to overthrow Saddam Hussein and have a new government, then the sanctions would go away and the oil would be available for exploitation, which is what happened. And Iraq is a major oil producer now and export 4 billion, 4 million barrels a day, which is quite substantial. 

AW | 25:50 – It’s a good opportunity for us to turn to desalinization efforts in the region. This leads to some unintended consequences with the handling of the, the, the byproduct of these plants. And, and I’m curious if this sludge that gets created by desal is affecting these river deltas that you’re talking about with Iraq and Iran at all. 

JC | 26:18 – Yeah, not, not so much the river deltas, but the, the Persian Gulf itself, which is a big important body of water and very polluted with, you know, oil tankers have spilled into it, and, uh, uh, uh, all kinds of runoff is there from agriculture and, and, and chemical plants. But yes, uh, the, the current technology that, uh, is being largely being used for desalinization has, uh, uh, an environmental flaw, uh, which is that, uh, the, the way that the water is de, you know, desalinize is, it’s, it’s taken up from the ocean and, and distilled, uh, and, um, uh, the, the, that creates clean water, uh, when you recover the vapor. But then what’s left behind is the salt and the heavy metals and, and the more toxic, uh, elements in the water, and then they dump that back into the ocean. And if you do that consistently after a while, you create a dead zone, uh, where fish cannot live. Uh, and dead zones are very common throughout the world. There’s a big dead zone off of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico, and that’s just from agricultural runoff. But, uh, but the desalinization plants, uh, also have this problem. Uh, and I believe it’s one of the reasons that, uh, when a desalinization plant was proposed for Huntington Beach, the population voted against it because they, they depend on their beach for tourism, and they don’t want a dead zone. 

AW | 27:47 – Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan, and people can read his blog Informed Comment at JuanCole.com. Juan, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio. 

JC | 28:01 – It’s great being here.

Narrator | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the New Orleans Klezmer All-stars, Bob Marley & the Wailers and Radiohead. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.