Last month, Greg Selinger, the New Democratic Party (NDP) Premier of the Province of Manitoba, and two of his ministers visited Israel. Among other things, the official delegation strengthened the longtime “progressive” government’s ties to the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The trip was a sad spectacle that should embarrass every Canadian who opposes racism. Indeed, J.S. Woodsworth, the Winnipeg-based founder of Canada’s social democratic party, must be turning in his grave.
The province and JNF signed an accord to jointly develop two bird conservation sites while Manitoba water stewardship Minister Christine Melnick spoke at the opening ceremony for a park built in Jaffa by the JNF, Tel Aviv Foundation and Manitoba-Israel Shared Values Roundtable. During the trip Mel Lazerek, a regional JNF president, was also appointed Manitoba’s special representative to Israel for Economic and Community Relations.
Manitoba’s ties to this openly racist institution are shocking, but also part of a decades-old pro-Israel policy of the NDP that must be challenged by real progressives.
Shutting out Palestinian citizens of Israel, JNF lands can only be leased by Jews. A 1998 United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights found that the JNF systematically discriminated against Palestinians in Israel. According to the UN report, JNF lands are “chartered to benefit Jews exclusively,” which has led to an “institutionalized form of discrimination.” In 2005, Israel’s high court came to similar conclusions. It found that the JNF, which owns 13 percent of the country’s land and has significant influence over most of the rest, systematically excluded Palestinian citizens from leasing its property.
JNF Canada officials are relatively open about the racist character of the organization. In May 2002, Mark Mendelson, JNF Canada’s executive-director for Eastern Canada, explained that “We are trustees between world Jewry and the land of Israel.” This sentiment was echoed by JNF Canada’s head Frank A. Wilson in July 2009. Wilson stated that the “JNF are the caretakers of the Land of Israel on behalf of its owners, who are the Jewish people everywhere around the world.”
Established in 1910, JNF Canada is one of the most important Israel-focused charities registered in Canada. It raises about $10 million annually in tax-deductible donations. Despite projecting itself as “an environmentally friendly organization concerned with ecology and sustainable development,” it is a linchpin of Zionist colonialism.
The Canadian branch of the JNF has been directly complicit in Palestinian dispossession. At the end of the 1920s, a JNF representative came to Canada to raise $1 million for the lands of Wadi al-Hawarith (or Hefer Plain). A 30,000 dunam (roughly 7,500 acres) stretch of coastal territory located about half way between Haifa and Tel Aviv, the land was home to a Bedouin community of 1,000 to 1,200 persons. Without consulting the Palestinians living on the land, in 1928 the JNF acquired legal title to Wadi al-Hawarith from an absentee landlord in France.
For four years the tenants of Wadi al-Hawarith resisted British attempts to evict them. In All That Remains historian Walid Khalidi explains that “The insistence of the people of Wadi al-Hawarith to remain on their land came from their conviction that the land belonged to them by virtue of their having lived on it for 350 years. For them, ownership of the land was an abstraction that at most signified the landlords’ right to a share of the crop.”
The conflict at Wadi al-Hawarith became a lightning rod for the growing Palestinian nationalist movement. In 1933 a general strike was organized in Nablus to support the tenants of Wadi al-Hawarith. Palestinians, especially those without title to their lands, resented the European influx into their homeland.
After the June 1967 War, JNF Canada raised $15 million to build Canada Park on illegally occupied land. Three peaceful villages (Beit Nuba, Imwas and Yalu) were demolished to make way for the park.
Despite repeated attempts, the 5,000 expelled Palestinians were not allowed to return home. A 1986 UN Special Committee reported to the Secretary-General that it considers it “a matter of deep concern that these villagers have persistently been denied the right to return to their land on which Canada Park has been built by the JNF Canada and where the Israeli authorities are reportedly planning to plant a forest instead of allowing the reconstruction of the destroyed villages” (UN Report A/41/680, 20 October 1986).
The JNF Canada, which launched a $7 million campaign to refurbish the park in 2007, replaced most traces of Palestinian history with signs devoted to Canadian donors such as the Metropolitan Toronto Police Department, the City of Ottawa and former Ontario premier Bill Davis. Inaugurated by former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1975, the Diefenbaker Parkway bisects the park.
In the early 1980s JNF Canada helped finance an Israeli government campaign to “Judaize” the Galilee, the largely Arab northern region of Israel. “The government is building Jewish settlements on our land, surrounding us and turning our villages into ghettos,” Khateeb Raja, mayor of Deir Hanna, a Palestinian-Israeli town in the Galilee, told The Globe and Mail in 1981. Ishi Mimon told the paper that he planned to move his family to the newly settled “Galil Canada” area because “the Galilee should have a Jewish majority” (John Goddard, “14 settlements financed Canada’s stake in the Galilee,” The Globe and Mail, 27 June 1981).
JNF Canada’s representative in Israel, Akiva Einis, described the political objective of Galil Canada stating that “The government decided to stop the wholesale plunder (by Israeli Arabs) of state lands [conquered in the 1947/48 war]. … The settlements are all on mountain tops and look out over large areas of land. If an Arab squatter takes a plow onto land that is not his, the settlers lodge a complaint with the police.”
JNF Canada spent tens of millions of dollars ($35 million was the total fundraising target) on 14 Jewish settlements in Galil Canada. In the contested valley of Lotem a stone wall and monument was erected, reported the Globe, with “hundreds of small plaques etched with names and home towns of Canadians who have contributed money to the Galilee settlements.” Most of the donors to Galil Canada were Jewish, “but a Pentecostal congregation in Vancouver, the Glad Tidings Temple, has given $1-million.”
Tawfiz Daggash, Deir Hanna’s deputy mayor, denounced Canadian financial support for the settlements. “I want to say to the people of Canada that every dollar they contribute [to JNF] is helping the Israeli government in its attempt to destroy the Arab people here.”
The JNF has long been supported by key figures in the Canadian political elite. Former Prime Ministers John Diefenbaker, Lester Pearson and Brian Mulroney have all spoken at JNF events and leading politicians continue to endorse the organization. In addition to this political support, the JNF is a registered charity, which means that up to a third of its budget effectively comes from public coffers. Yet Canada is supposed to outlaw institutional racism.
In 2007, Lebanese-Canadian Ronald Saba filed a detailed complaint concerning the JNF’s charitable status with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The claim was leveled at the “Government of Canada for violating the Canadian Human Rights Act and Canada Revenue Agency Policy Statement CPS-021 by subsidizing racial discrimination through granting and maintaining charitable status for the Jewish National Fund.”
Considering the group’s political connections, it’s not surprising that Canadian officials refused to address Saba’s complaint or follow-up ones (all the documents can be found at Montreal Planet Magazine). With the government’s failure to address Saba’s legitimate complaint, it is now time to launch a political campaign to push the Canada Revenue Agency to revoke the JNF’s charitable status.
Victory won’t be easy but the educational work involved in such an endeavor will be invaluable. With quasi-state status in Israel, the JNF is at the heart of Israeli apartheid and drawing attention to this institution is a way to discuss the racism intrinsic to Zionism.
Real progressives in Canada have never shied away from difficult, but important tasks such as fighting racism wherever it raises its ugly head.
Yves Engler is the author of Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid and The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy. For more information visit yvesengler.com.
What kind of institutional entity do the hacks in Washington constitute such that they can have a “dean”?
When David Broder is referred to as the dean of the Washington press corps, I guess it’s just a complimentary way of saying the old guy. But Broder’s nine years younger than Helen Thomas. How come she never rose to the same stature? Is baldness a requirement?
In spite of his institutional stature, Broder’s mental capacities have in recent years come into question and his op-ed in the Washington Post on Sunday provides yet another occasion to wonder what is going on inside this man’s brain as he pushes for war against Iran.
War and peace influence the economy.
Look back at FDR and the Great Depression. What finally resolved that economic crisis? World War II.
Here is where Obama is likely to prevail. With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.
I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.
So another war is going to rescue the economy? But just a minute — if war’s such an excellent economic tonic, how come we aren’t already in great shape? A decade of war just hasn’t been quite enough?
It’s easy to mock Broder’s prescription and even to wonder whether he’s lost his grip on reality, but maybe he’s not quite as crazy as he sounds. Read more carefully, this is not actually a call for war — it is a call for the continuously escalating threat of war.
This is indeed the most likely “lesson” that some have drawn from the experience of Iraq: that the best kind of war is the one that has yet to be fought. A war that can be budgeted for, equipped for, and around which politicians can construct their postures of strength, resolution and righteousness. The context is one in which we have been encouraged to think that war is normal. War is in fact so normal that Washington pundits can now present it as a useful economic tool.
Washington’s lead comes from Israel, which has less interest in starting a war with Iran than in promoting the idea that war might be just over the horizon — a kind of Goldilocks war, not too far away and not too close, but just close enough. In this delicately modulated threat of mayhem, Iran itself remains politically and economically boxed in, while issues which merit more urgent attention — namely the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict — can be shunted to one side.
Two countries so heavily invested in manufacturing the means for engaging in war, actually have less interest in wars being fought than in a war-footing constantly being maintained. The problem is, a war posture can only be maintained for so long and momentum only be built up so much before a turning point is reached: war either then becomes inevitable or a real alternative has to be pursued.
Only through the hubris which metastasizes inside the brains of those trapped inside the Washington bubble, can anyone fail to see that the process of backing Iran into a corner risks the United States becoming trapped by the narrow logic of its own strategy. War is not normal. It is a failure of imagination.
A new study has revealed that Israeli settlers have intensified acts of violence against Palestinian children over the past two years.
The study conducted by Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI) said on Monday that it has investigated 38 cases of settler violence against minors.
The attacks caused the deaths of three children and left 42 others injured, the rights group said.
The study also found the attacks are usually carried out in groups and include verbal harassment, intimidation, physical assault and the destruction of property.
Physical assault and intimidation was reported in at least 15 cases, and stone throwing in another nine incidents. In 13 of the cases, settlers opened fire, killing three children and injuring another 10.
Verbal abuse was documented in almost every case, according to the report.
“Continued settlement expansion and a growing settler population in the occupied territory have severely impacted the security of the Palestinian population, particularly children, whose lives are increasingly threatened by willful attacks perpetrated by extremist settlers,” the report said.
In eight cases, soldiers colluded with the assailants either by joining in, turning a blind eye to or punishing the victims rather than the perpetrators.
Israel’s failure to enforce the law and hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions has “created an atmosphere in which settlers enjoy impunity and Palestinians live in fear,” the DCI study concluded.
It is true that I am ‘much, much more invested’ in ‘all of this’ than she is.
I received a lovely letter from a reader who identified herself as a Jewish American. To preserve her anonymity, I’ll call her ‘Sally’. She wrote that she loved Mornings in Jenin, even though the historic backdrop of the narrative did not reconcile with what she learned about Israel growing up. It seemed a heartfelt letter and thus worthy of a similar response. I did not see Sally as a Zionist or even as a Jew. I saw her as a woman, a mother, and a fellow writer. So, I was delighted when she came to my panel debate with Alan Dershowitz at the Boston Book Festival, and when she asked if we could talk more after the event, I was happy to invite her to lunch with a group of friends. She was soft spoken, with a gentle demeanor and through the course of the table conversation, I realized that we also shared similar beliefs regarding some matters of spirituality.
Sally and I continued to correspond occasionally, both privately and with a group of people who were at lunch that day. Soon, she let me know that one of her friends was now questioning her own Zionist beliefs because of something she heard at her Temple. As a result, Sally’s friend had chosen a list of documentaries to watch. Naturally, I asked what those documentaries were and she sent a list of about 12 or so films that were made 1) to show how awful Arabs are, 2) to present rosy pictures of normalization of Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, 3) to show what Israel’s aggression against Lebanon was like from an Israeli paratrooper’s perspective!, or 4) to depict mixed Arab and Israeli towns as a paradise where everyone is equal.
I find that when people are truly searching to understand, they can find the right sources, especially in this information age. Likewise, when people are confronted with an uncomfortable reality that jars an existing belief, they can turn around and find what they need to prove that they were right all along. Reading the list that Sally sent to me, it was easy to see what category she fit into. Here is the response that I sent to Sally:
“If I were trying to get a better view of something, i’d at least look for ones made by third party sources who don’t have their own personal beef in the situation. Although with this list, she’ll be able to put her head back in the sand and say she did her research and it all proved she was right before.”
Sally’s response was immediate and indignant. I’ll spare you the full email, but suffice it to say that she was offended that I had “insulted” her dear friend, and she closed with this:
“I know you are much, much more invested in all of this than I and therefore more passionate than I, but please give me the benefit of the doubt before writing words that insult my friend. You may not realize it, but we are two people who will spread our knowledge with others and that can only help you. I am also getting ideas for my next book that can include this message as well.”
Let me start here: “I know you are much, much more invested in all of this than I and therefore more passionate than I.”
It is true that I am “much, much more invested” in “all of this” than she is. How much more? I’d say at least a few centuries more, several generations of grandparents more, many acres of family property more, and one shattered and dispossessed family more. And what is “all of this”? That would be my country. My history. My family. My countrymen. My only heritage and only inheritance. The place where I belong. The place to which I am not allowed to return because of my religion. “All of this” is a collection of refugee camps where people have lived their entire lives in destitution – honorable people, of nobility and peasantry alike, who have been stripped of everything for the sole crime of being born into their own skin.
Now: “but please give me the benefit of the doubt before writing words that insult my friend.”
As if it is not insulting to me that an American woman, with absolutely no ancestral, historic, cultural, or biological ties to the land, should announce to me that she needs to do more research to determine whether or not I indeed have a right to inherit my grandfather’s farm, reserving, of course, her own right to my grandfather’s farm.
But the most egregious insult is this: “You may not realize it, but we are two people who will spread our knowledge with others and that can only help you. I am also getting ideas for my next book that can include this message as well.”
I suppose she misunderstood my intentions in corresponding with her in the first place. Perhaps she thought I was trying to win her over, to “help [me]” spread the word. So let me make one thing very clear, to her and to anyone who isn’t sure if they should maintain that they are entitled to keep Palestine as their summer home away from their own home. You are standing on the wrong side of history. That’s why the ground feels shaky beneath your support of Israel. You are standing on the side of a military occupation that daily strips people of their belongings, of their livelihoods, of their dignity and cuts off the very food they eat, the water they drink. You are on the other side of Nelson Mandela’s legacy. The other side of every native people’s struggle for self-determination, for human rights and for basic human dignity. It is not for me that you educate yourself. It is for your own soul. For your own conscience. I am comfortable on solid ground. It is physically defenseless, but morally impenetrable ground. Whatever research you chose to do and what you choose to learn is for you and only for you. My correspondence was with you, as a woman I thought I could be friends with. I was not asking for your help. But one day you will be asked for something else. Perhaps your children or grandchildren will want you to explain what you did when Palestinians were being wiped off the map so you and every Jew around the world could have dual citizenship, a summer home, if you will, on top of my grandparent’s graves.
– Susan abulhawa is the author of Mornings in Jenin, a Palestinian story.
Israel does not want anything that could conceivably be called a genuine peace
This turning point has arrived quietly, no fanfare or advance warning signifying its importance. After 62 years there is nothing left to talk about with Israel. Finally, all possibilities have been eliminated. Past plans are scattered across the landscape like the whitened bones of dinosaurs, their only purpose to remind us and future generations of what might have been but never was. The last flimsy veil has been pulled away from a ‘peace process’ that was never a peace process in the first place but a different kind of war process. Netanyahu slaps Obama’s face time after time (and Obama does not react). Michael Oren tells the world Israel will decide its borders and noone else. Lieberman tells European Foreign Ministers to mind their own business. When you have solved your own problems come and talk to us, he says, and by the way, Israel is not going to be the Czechoslovakia of 2010, demonstrating that his knowledge of history is as twisted as his understanding of manners, ethics, law and morality. Only this week, Netanyahu paid a special visit to the ‘commandos’ who killed nine civilians on board the Mavi Marmara. They have already been decorated for their bravery but Netanyahu wanted to congratulate them in person. Livni made belligerent statements of her own. Why would Israel not want to settle this problem with a country which over the centuries was a haven for Jews and which was well placed to arbitrate between Israel and the Arab states? Why would it actually go out of its way to antagonise Turkey, and even to rub salt into the wound? The answer would seem to lie at the intersection between folly, stupidity and lunacy. Meir Kahane, whose followers celebrated his genocidal ideas in the streets of Umm al Fahm only the other day, would be dancing with delight at the way things are turning out.
Israel has rejected every opportunity that ever came its way to make peace with the Palestinians, and through them with the broader Arab world. The process did not begin in 1988 or even in 1973 but goes back to Nasser’s approaches in the 1960s. In the past two decades the Arab states have laid out a simple formula for peace – you keep 80 per cent of the land but you return the 20 per cent you took in 1967 and you take the refugee question seriously. The offer was almost insanely and irresponsibly generous, but it was still not enough for Israel. By ignoring or rejecting these open offers, by taking what it wants from the ‘peace process’ and dumping the rest, Israel has repeatedly turned its back on peace. For peace to be durable, viable, all those words used by American presidents and British Prime Ministers, something has to be on offer for both sides, but now nothing is on offer for the Palestinians. Israel is going to do what it wants, take what it wants, and to hell with international law and what anyone else thinks. These are the clear signals coming from the Netanyahu government, backed up on the ground by a feverish acceleration of settlement-building.
There is nowhere left for Mahmud Abbas, Husni Mubarak and the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan to hide behind, not a rock, a fig leaf or even a blade of grass. If we are not hearing much from any of them these days that is because there is nothing left to say. Obama has gone completely silent on the question of Middle East peace and, except for the occasional pro forma statement about getting the peace process back on track (i.e. giving a corpse mouth-to-mouth resuscitation), so has Hillary Clinton. Obviously, they are focused on the coming congressional elections but they have nothing useful to say either. Israel has driven everyone into a corner. The ‘peace process’ was based on the assumption that sooner or later Israel would come to the party, that when the point was reached where the ‘core issues’ could be discussed Israel would make the necessary ‘concessions’ (i.e. handing back stolen property). But it is not coming to the party. There is no party, except for the settlers and the fascists marching on Umm al Fahm calling ‘death to the terrorists’. They are having a wild old time. The champagne corks are popping everywhere.
Israel claims legitimacy and the ‘right’ to exist. Yet its first act was to drive out the indigenous people of Palestine so that they would have no rights at all, not just the right to vote but the most basic right of all, the right to live in the land where they were born. In other words, Israel is claiming rights which it completely denies to another people. Not only does it do this but it demands that its victims accept that the wrongs committed against them were in fact a ‘right’. This is totally absurd but if the full blown fascists in the Knesset have their way, even the commemoration of the nakba would be criminalised. That the government would actually allow the followers of the genocidal Meir Kahane to flaunt their repulsive doctrines in Umm al Fahm, right amongst the people they want killed or removed, is a measure of the depth of the racism in its ranks.
The life of a state is also based on the harmony of its relationships with those living alongside it and on its willingness to live within the remit of international law. On both of these counts Israel is a miserable failure. In the name of security and defending borders which it refuses to declare, it has spent the last six decades antagonising the Arabs. This has to be regarded as extremely strange behavior for a state which endlessly proclaims its desire to live at peace with its neighbors. In fact, Israel has no ‘neighbors’ in the cozy sense of that word. It has treaty arrangements with Egypt and Jordan, whose rulers do not represent the sentiments of their own people, let alone the feelings of the broader Arab world.
Israel does not want anything that could conceivably be called a genuine peace. For the sake of holding on to its ill-gotten gains, it is prepared to remain a garrison state forever. It is prepared to fight wars and to launch them to destroy anyone who stands in the way of the fulfillment of the Zionist dream/nightmare. Nothing is left for the Palestinians in this situation but to declare that, as the Oslo process succeeded or failed as a package, as it has now not so much failed as been killed off by Israel, all the agreements that were made along the way are null and void. Effectively, they, the Palestinians, and we, the rest of the world, because there is no way that the world can avoid becoming embroiled in the very large crisis that will inevitably arise as the apotheosis of all these smaller crises (small by comparison), we are back to 1948. Blocked from swinging in one direction, the pendulum between war and peace must now swing in the other.
– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne.
By Alex Knight | November 5, 2009
This Halloween season, there is no book I could recommend more highly than Silvia Federici’s brilliant Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia 2004), which tells the dark saga of the Witch Hunt that consumed Europe for more than 200 years. In uncovering this forgotten history, Federici exposes the origins of capitalism in the heightened oppression of workers (represented by Shakespeare’s character Caliban), and most strikingly, in the brutal subjugation of women. She also brings to light the enormous and colorful European peasant movements that fought against the injustices of their time, connecting their defeat to the imposition of a new patriarchal order that divided male from female workers. Today, as more and more people question the usefulness of a capitalist system that has thrown the world into crisis, Caliban and the Witch stands out as essential reading for unmasking the shocking violence and inequality that capitalism has relied upon from its very creation.
Who Were the Witches?
Parents putting a pointed hat on their young son or daughter before Trick-or-Treating might never pause to wonder this question, seeing witches as just another cartoonish Halloween icon like Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula. But deep within our ritual lies a hidden history that can tell us important truths about our world, as the legacy of past events continues to affect us 500 years later. In this book, Silvia Federici takes us back in time to show how the mysterious figure of the witch is key to understanding the creation of capitalism, the profit-motivated economic system that now reigns over the entire planet.
During the 15th – 17th centuries the fear of witches was ever-present in Europe and Colonial America, so much so that if a woman was accused of witchcraft she could face the cruellest of torture until confession was given, or even be executed based on suspicion alone. There was often no evidence whatsoever. The author recounts, “for more than two centuries, in several European countries, hundreds of thousands of women were tried, tortured, burned alive or hanged, accused of having sold body and soul to the devil and, by magical means, murdered scores of children, sucked their blood, made potions with their flesh, caused the death of their neighbors, destroyed cattle and crops, raised storms, and performed many other abominations” (169).
In other words, just about anything bad that might or might not have happened was blamed on witches during that time. So where did this tidal wave of hysteria come from that took the lives so many poor women, most of whom had almost certainly never flown on broomsticks or stirred eye-of-newt into large black cauldrons?
Caliban underscores that the persecution of witches was not just some error of ignorant peasants, but in fact the deliberate policy of Church and State, the very ruling class of society. To put this in perspective, today witchcraft would be a far-fetched cause for alarm, but the fear of hidden terrorists who could strike at any moment because they “hate our freedom” is widespread. Not surprising, since politicians and the media have been drilling this frightening message into people’s heads for years, even though terrorism is a much less likely cause of death than, say, lack of health care.1 And just as the panic over terrorism has enabled today’s powers-that-be to attempt to remake the Middle East, this book makes the case that the powers-that-were of Medieval Europe exploited or invented the fear of witches to remake European society towards a social paradigm that met their interests.
Interestingly, a major component of both of these crusades was the use of so-called “shock and awe” tactics to astound the population with “spectacular displays of force,” which helped to soften up resistance to drastic or unpopular reforms.2 In the case of the Witch Hunt, shock therapy was applied through the witch burnings – spectacles of such stupefying violence that they paralyzed whole villages and regions into accepting fundamental restructuring of medieval society.3 Federici describes a typical witch burning as, “an important public event, which all the members of the community had to attend, including the children of the witches, especially their daughters who, in some cases, would be whipped in front of the stake on which they could see their mother burning alive” (186).
Witch burning was the medieval version of “Shock and Awe”
The book argues that these gruesome executions not only punished “witches” but graphically demonstrated the repercussions for any kind of disobedience to the clergy or nobility. In particular, the witch burnings were meant to terrify women into accepting “a new patriarchal order where women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources” (170).
Federici puts forward that up until the 16th century, though living in a sexist society, European women retained significant economic independence from men that they typically do not under capitalism, where gender roles are more distinguished. “If we also take into account that in medieval society collective relations prevailed over familial ones, and most of the tasks that female serfs performed (washing, spinning, harvesting, and tending to animals on the commons) were done in cooperation with other women, we then realize… [this] was a source of power and protection for women. It was the basis for an intense female sociality and solidarity that enabled women to stand up to men.”
The Witch Hunt initiated a period where women were forced to become what she calls “servants of the male work force” (115) – excluded from receiving a wage, they were confined to the unpaid labor of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, nurturing their husbands or partners, and maintaining the home. In Federici’s words, this was the “housewifization of women,” the reduction to a second-class status where women became totally dependent on the income of men (27).
The author goes on to show how female sexuality, which was seen as a source of women’s potential power over men, became an object of suspicion and came under sharp attack by the authorities. This assault manifested in new laws that took away women’s control over the reproductive process, such as the banning of birth control measures, the replacement of midwives with male doctors, and the outlawing of abortion and infanticide.4 Federici calls it an attempt to turn the female body into “a machine for the reproduction of labor,” such that women’s only purpose in life was supposedly to produce children (144).
But we also learn that this was just one component of a broader move by Church and State to ban all forms of sexuality that were considered “non-productive.” For example, “homosexuality, sex between young and old, sex between people of different classes, anal coitus, coitus from behind, nudity, and dances. Also proscribed was the public, collective sexuality that had prevailed in the Middle Ages, as in the Spring festivals of pagan origins that, in the 16th-century, were still celebrated all over Europe” (194). To this end, the Witch Hunt targeted not only female sexuality but homosexuality and gender non-conformity as well, helping to craft the patriarchal sexual boundaries that define our society to this day.
Capitalism – Born in Flames
What separates Caliban from other works exploring the “witch” phenomenon is that this book puts the persecution of witches into the context of the development of capitalism. For Silvia Federici, it’s no accident that “the witch-hunt occurred simultaneously with the colonization and extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, [or] the beginning of the slave trade” (164). She instructs that all of these seemingly unrelated tragedies were initiated by the same European ruling elite at the very moment that capitalism was in formation, the late 15th through 17th centuries. Contrary to “laissez-faire” orthodoxy which holds that capitalism functions best without state intervention, Federici posits that it was precisely the state violence of these campaigns that laid the foundation for capitalist economics.
Thankfully for the reader, who may not be very familiar with the history of this era, Federici outlines these events in clear and accessible language. She focuses on the Land Enclosures in particular because their significance has been largely lost in time.
Many of us will not remember that during Europe’s Middle Ages, before the Enclosures, even the lowliest of serfs had their own plot of land which they could use for just about any purpose. Federici adds, “With the use of land also came the use of the ‘commons’ – meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures – that provided crucial resources for the peasant economy (wood for fuel, timber for building, fishponds, grazing grounds for animals) and fostered community cohesion and cooperation” (24). This access to land acted as a buffer, providing security for peasants who otherwise were mostly subject to the whim of their “Lord.” Not only could they grow their own food, or hunt in the relatively plentiful forests which were still standing in that era, but connection to the commons also gave peasants territory with which to organize resistance movements and alternative economies outside the control of their masters.
The Enclosures were a process by which this land was taken away – closed off by the State and typically handed over to entrepreneurs to pursue a profit in sheep or cow herding, or large-scale agriculture. Instead of being used for subsistence as it had been, the land’s bounty was sold away to fledgling national and international markets. A new class of profit-motivated landowners emerged, known as “gentry,” but the underside of this development was the trauma experienced by the evicted peasants. In the author’s words, “As soon as they lost access to land, all workers were plunged into a dependence unknown in medieval times, as their landless condition gave employers the power to cut their pay and lengthen the working-day” (72).
For Federici, then, the chief creation of the Enclosures was a property-less, landless working class, a “proletariat” who were left with little option but to work for a wage in order to survive; wage labor being one of the defining features of capitalism.
Cut off from their traditional soil, many communities scattered across the countryside to find new homesteads. But the State countered with the so-called “Bloody Laws”, which made it legal to capture wandering “vagabonds” and force them to work for a wage, or put them to death. Federici reveals the result: “What followed was the absolute impoverishment of the European working class… Evidence is the change that occurred in the workers’ diets. Meat disappeared from their tables, except for a few scraps of lard, and so did beer and wine, salt and olive oil” (77). Although European workers typically labored for longer hours under their new capitalist employers, living standards were reduced sharply throughout the 16th century, and it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that earnings returned to the level they had been before the Enclosures.5
According to Federici, the witch hunts played a key role in facilitating this process of impoverishment by driving a sexist wedge into the working class that “undermined class solidarity,” making it more difficult for communities to resist displacement from their land (48). While women were faced with the threat of horrific torture and death if they did not conform to new submissive gender roles, men were in effect bribed with the promise of obedient wives and new access to women’s bodies. The author cites that “Another aspect of the divisive sexual politics to diffuse workers’ protest was the institutionalization of prostitution, implemented through the opening of municipal brothels soon proliferating throughout Europe” (49). And in addition to prostitution, a legalization of sexual violence provided further sanction for the exploitation of women’s bodies. She explains, “In France, the municipal authorities practically decriminalized rape, provided the victims were women of the lower class” (47). This initiated what Federici calls a “virtual rape movement,” making it unsafe for women to even leave their homes.
The witch trials were the final assault, which all but obliterated the integrity of peasant communities by fostering mutual suspicion and fear. Amidst deteriorating conditions, neighbors were encouraged to turn against one another, so that any insult or annoyance became grounds for an accusation of witchcraft. As the terror spread, a new era was forged in the flames of the witch burnings. Surveying the damage, Silvia Federici concludes that “the persecution of the witches, in Europe as in the New World, was as important as colonization and the expropriation of the European peasantry from its land were for the development of capitalism” (12).
A Forgotten Revolution
Federici maintains that it didn’t have to turn out this way. “Capitalism was not the only possible response to the crisis of feudal power. Throughout Europe, vast communalistic social movements and rebellions against feudalism had offered the promise of a new egalitarian society built on social equality and cooperation” (61).
Caliban‘s most inspiring chapters make visible an enormous continent-wide series of poor people’s movements that nearly toppled Church and State at the end of the Middle Ages. These peasant movements of the 13th – 16th centuries were often labelled “heretical” for challenging the religious power of the Vatican, but as the book details they aimed for a much broader transformation of feudal society. The so-called “heretics” often “denounced social hierarchies, private property and the accumulation of wealth, and disseminated among the people a new, revolutionary conception of society that, for the first time in the Middle Ages, redefined every aspect of daily life (work, property, sexual reproduction, and the position of women), posing the question of emancipation in truly universal terms” (33).
Silvia Federici shows us how the heretical movements took many forms, from the vegetarian and anti-war Cathars of southern France to the communistic and anti-nobility Taborites of Bohemia, but were united in the call for the elimination of social inequality. Many put forth the argument that it was anti-Christian for the clergy and nobility to live in opulence while so many suffered from lack of adequate food, housing or medical attention.
Another common thread weaving the European peasant movements together was the leadership of women. Federici describes that, “[Heretical women] had the same rights as men, and could enjoy a social life and mobility that nowhere else was available to them in the Middle Ages… Not surprisingly, women are present in the history of heresy as in no other aspect of medieval life.” (38). Some heretical sects, like the Cathars, discouraged marriage and emphasized birth control – advocating a sexual liberation which directly challenged the Church’s moral authority.
The gender politics of peasant movements proved to be a strength, and they attracted a wide following that undercut the power of a feudal system which was already in crisis. Federici explains how the movements became increasingly revolutionary as they grew in size. “In the course of this process, the political horizon and the organizational dimensions of the peasant and artisan struggle broadened. Entire regions revolted, forming assemblies and recruiting armies. At times, the peasants organized in bands, attacking the castles of the lords, and destroying the archives where the written marks of their servitude were kept” (45).
What started as a religious movement became increasingly revolutionary. For example, in the 1420s and 30s, the Taborites fought to liberate all of Bohemia, beating back several Crusades of 100,000+ men organized by the Vatican (54-55). The uprisings became contagious all across Europe, so much so that in the crucial period of 1350-1500, unprecedented concessions were made including the doubling of wages, reduction in prices and rents, and a shorter working day. In the words of Silvia Federici, “the feudal economy was doomed” (62).
The author documents that the initial reaction by elites was to institute the “Holy Inquisition,” a brutal campaign of state repression that included torturing and even burning heretics to death. But as time went on, ruling class strategy shifted from targeting heretics in general to specifically targeting female community leaders. The Inquisition morphed into the Witch Hunt.
Soon, simple meetings of peasant women were stigmatized as possible “Sabbats,” where women were supposedly seduced by the devil to become witches, but as Federici clarifies, it was the rebellious politics and non-conforming gender relations of such gatherings which were demonized (177). Strong, defiant women were murdered by the tens of thousands, and along with them the Witch Hunt also destroyed “a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism” (103).
For elite European nobles and clergy, the Witch Hunt succeeded in stifling a working class revolution that had increasingly threatened their rule. Even more, Silvia Federici puts forward that the Witch Hunt facilitated the rise of a new, capitalist social paradigm – based on large-scale economic production for profit and the displacement of peasants from their lands into the burgeoning urban workforce. In time, this capitalist system would dominate all of Europe and be dispersed through conquistadors’ “guns, germs and steel” to every corner of the globe, destroying countless ancient civilizations and cultures in the process.6 Federici’s analysis is that, “Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle – possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide” (22). How might things be different if the forgotten revolution had won?
Conclusion – Rediscovering the Magic of Truth-Telling
Caliban and the Witch is a book that challenges many important myths about the world we live in. First and foremost among these is the widely-held belief that capitalism, though perhaps flawed in its current form, started out as a “progressive” development that liberated workers and improved the conditions of women, people of color and other oppressed groups. Silvia Federici has done impressive work to take us back to the very foundations of the capitalist system in late-medieval Europe to uncover a secret history of land dispossession and impoverishment, gender and sexual terror, and brutal colonization of non-Europeans. This terrible legacy leads her to the profound conclusion that the system is “necessarily committed to racism and sexism” (17).
Most strongly, she writes, “It is impossible to associate capitalism with any form of liberation or attribute the longevity of the system to its capacity to satisfy human needs. If capitalism has been able to reproduce itself it is only because of the web of inequalities that it has built into the body of the world proletariat, and because of its capacity to globalize exploitation. This process is still unfolding under our eyes, as it has for the last 500 years” (17).
It’s been said that we can measure a society by how it treats its women. This book provides compelling documentation to suggest that capitalism is and has always been a male dominated system, which reduces opportunities and security for women as well as marginalizing those who don’t fit within narrow gender boundaries. In particular, Silvia Federici uses the story of the Witch Hunt to illuminate the inner workings of capitalism to show the restraining, silencing, and demonizing of female sexual power built into it.7 Responding to our question that started this essay, she writes, “The witch was not only the midwife, the woman who avoided maternity, or the beggar who eked out a living by stealing some wood or butter from her neighbors. She was also the loose, promiscuous woman – the prostitute or adulteress, and generally, the woman who exercised her sexuality outside the bonds of marriage and procreation… The witch was also the rebel woman who talked back, argued, swore, and did not cry under torture” (184).
In other words, the witches were those women who in one way or another resisted the establishment of an unjust social order – the mechanical exploitation of capitalism. The witches represented a whole world that Europe’s new masters were anxious to destroy: a world with strong female leadership, a world rooted in local communities and knowledge, a world alive with magical possibilities, a world in revolt.
We need not despair for the world that has been lost. Indeed, it is still with us today in the struggles of people everywhere organizing for justice.
1 – Harvard University researchers released a study on Sept. 17, 2009 showing that approximately 45,000 Americans die unnecessarily from lack of medical coverage every year, unfortunately many times more than the number killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks. See this article for more on the Harvard study: http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSTRE58G6W520090917
2 – “Shock and Awe”, Wikipedia. Online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shock_and_awe. Accessed Nov. 2, 2009.
3 – This “shock therapy” strategy is examined with detailed case studies by Naomi Klein in the excellent The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Metropolitan Books 2007. For example she offers that the US-led devastation of Iraq’s social infrastructure, including destruction of hospitals, schools, and food and water systems traumatized the Iraqi people such that they could not mobilize to prevent the highly unpopular privatization of the country’s oil wealth.
4 – for more on the Witch Hunt’s effect on the male domination of reproduction and medicine, see Barbara Ehrenreich’s Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, The Feminist Press at CUNY 1972, pamphlet.
5 – “The high point of wages was immediately preceding the ‘long’ sixteenth century [roughly 1450], and the low point was at its end [roughly 1650]. The drop during the sixteenth century was immense.” Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System. Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press, 1974. pg. 80.
6 – see Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, W.W. Norton Press 2005. Jared Diamond’s study of the rise of Europe focuses more on ecology than patriarchy, but is nonetheless useful for exposing the carnage of the colonization process.
7 – for a brilliant collection of insights into the many ways female sexuality is still under attack, see Friedman, Jaclyn & Jessica Valenti. Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape. Seal Press 2008. My review of this book can also be found here: http://endofcapitalism.com/2009/05/17/review-of-yes-means-yes-visions-of-female-sexual-power-and-a-world-without-rape/
- Reproduction and Labor: Silvia Federici and a Feminist Reconstruction of the Commons (marymackfemtech.wordpress.com)
- “The Accumulation of Labor and the Degradation of Women: Constructing ‘Difference’ in the ‘Transition’ to Capitalism” (biopoliticsracegender.wordpress.com)
In a recent Ynet News story, a news group operating within West Bank settlements witnessed “Arabs and Leftists” staging an event in which their olive trees were vandalized, so as to further demonize settlers. According to the piece:
The photos, taken by members of the Tazpit Unit, were shot on Palestinian land Friday, near the Neveh Tzuf settlement. The images allegedly show Palestinians and left-wing activists cutting down Palestinian olive trees using an electric saw.
Many so-called ‘Price Tag’ acts targeting Palestinians were recorded in the last few weeks, and the settlers now claim they were staged by the Palestinians themselves and intended to harm the settlers’ image.
Tazpit photographer Ehud Amiton, who documented the vandalism act on Friday, says that this is exactly what can be seen in his images.
From this evidence we are expected to deduce that these men could possibly be “leftists” (is it that they carry their saws in an apologetic, bleeding-heart liberal sort of way?), and that they attempted to perpetrate this ruse in broad daylight, with no apparent interest in hiding their activity. We are expected to conclude that, while staging the crime, they thought it best to place the branches they cleanly sawed from their olive trees in neat piles, perhaps as a way of implicitly commending settlers for their organizational skills.
We are also expected to suspend our knowledge of the recent culmination of the olive harvest, and of the proper procedures for the maintenance of post-harvest trees.
Here is another example of staged settler violence:
Okay, I lied. It is actually a picture of pruned olive branches from an Italian grove immediately after the harvest season. You can find it here, in a blog dedicated to olive oil and wine from the Sabine Hills in Italy. The post explains:
Pruning olive trees can take place anytime from the Autumn to early spring, depending on factors such as the type of olive, the yield of the previous year and the condition of the tree.
The pruned branches are then collected into piles between the trees. The leaves are then either burnt, or used to produce cosmetics or complimentary health remedies.
As readers, we are also expected to disregard this video, posted by the creator of Olive Abacus, a “permanent online olive information repository” dedicated to “shedding light on all issues related to olives.”
In the video’s first seconds our narrator “Olive Branche” illuminates:
Each year, immediately after the olive harvest in Andalucía, Spain, the trees are pruned of their older branches making way for the younger, more productive ones. As an olive branch ages, it becomes less productive, requiring pruning. Pruning allows more sunlight into more areas of the tree. It also increases the quality and quantity of fruit the tree produces.
The video then cuts to an image of a masked man with a chainsaw, cutting olive branches and placing them to the side. At 2:56 we are shown neat piles of branches (where have we seen this before?), which will then be disposed of.
In essence, we are expected to be utterly devoid of critical thought in order to believe such a wild story. We are supposed to ignore the fact that settler violence against Palestinians is well documented by human rights organizations. We are called upon, instead, to believe that Palestinians are actually victimizing themselves, despite the fact that they reap nothing from such action. No arrests are made in connection with violence against Palestinian property. Police rarely even go through the motions of investigation, and if they do so, perpetrators are never brought to justice.
For most families, they are lucky if they even have access to their farm land, considering blockage by ever-encroaching settlements and the security apparatus they bring along. When they are allowed onto their own land, these olives can be the only source of income they have. If no one compensates them for their losses, if no one but a few human rights organizations and activists even care to notice this long history of abuse, and if abusers are systematically absolved of responsibility, what, exactly, do those who “staged” this vandalism stand to gain? As readers, we must stifle these questions. We wouldn’t want to be construed as “leftists” now would we?