Columbus statues are coming down, and it is time to abolish Columbus Day

Throughout 2020, dozens of Christopher Columbus statues in the United States have been dismounted; some vandalised, and others demolished. This in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, and increased examination of American systemic racism. The veneration of Columbus, epitomised by the national holiday dedicated to him, has come under renewed and heavy criticism from anti-racist organisations.

While Columbus needs to be dethroned from his exalted position as a pioneering explorer, it is also necessary to guard against the recycling of pseudoarchaeological pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact theories. In the effort to challenge racist scholarship in the United States, demolishing the myth of Columbus as the original navigator and intrepid entrepreneur is essential. We must stop mythologising Columbus, and his voyages, as motivated by scientific concerns – no, he was not out to prove the Earth is a globe.

Centuries before Columbus, the Vikings successfully navigated their way across from the Old World to the new. There is extensive archaeological evidence to prove this contention beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, the question of ‘who was before Columbus’ has opened up a field of speculation, pseudoscientific nonsense and fringe theories that do harm to the cause of anti racism.

We are not questioning the longevity and solid evidence of the presence of indigenous nations in the Western Hemisphere. Whether the native peoples crossed the Alaskan land bridge – prior to the emergence of the Bering Strait – or not, it is indisputable that the indigenous nations formed their own civilisations before the arrival of Columbus and his conquistador practices.

Since the death of Columbus, numerous theories about pre-Colombian trans-oceanic contact with the indigenous American civilisations have proliferated. Since Columbus was acting as a paid agent of the Spanish crown, rival colonial powers have encouraged the spread of pseudoscientific scenarios which challenged Columbus’ status as the pioneering navigator.

Columbus himself, dissatisfied with the financial compensation offered him by the Spanish crown, began legal proceedings and thus, earned the hostility of the Spanish monarchs, who quietly encouraged rival theories of pre-Colombian trans-oceanic contact to spread. The French, English and other colonial powers – including Venice, the fierce rival city-state of the Genoan Columbus – all had motives to deprive Columbus of credit as the original navigator.

The English monarchy, desiring to lay claim to extensive lands in the Americas, promoted the Welsh folkloric myth of Prince Madoc (or Madog) who purportedly sailed to the Western Hemisphere in 1170. This has in turn given rise to a flurry of racist speculations about ‘Welsh Indians’, which holds that Native American peoples mixed with, or are descended from, the Welsh.

Not to be outdone, long term Turkish President Reyyip Erdogan suggested in 2014, that it was the Muslims who first traveled from the Old World to the Americas. His claim is based upon a long line of pseudoscientific and dubious ‘scholarship‘, which suggests that Columbus – and the ensuing Spanish conquistadors – observed mosques in the Western Hemisphere.

This is a deliberate obfuscation; when the Spaniards said they saw mosques – mezquitas – they were referring to the indigenous American places of worship. The only non-Christian referential experience the Iberian kingdoms had was of Muslim civilisation. Not long before Columbus set sail, the Reconquista had been completed, expelling the longtime Moorish (Muslim) present in the Iberian peninsula. When the Spanish explorers observed the indigenous American women, they commented on how they resembled the moriscas – Moorish women.

The late Ivan van Sertima, an African American scholar, published a multivolume history purportedly demonstrating that black African navigators made their way to the New World, and seeded what became the Olmec Mesoamerican civilisation. The origins of the Olmec is still shrouded in mystery, and so various pseudoscientific alternative theories have circulated.

The notion of ‘black Indians‘ has been promoted by numerous Afrocentric writers over the decades. Responding to racist scholarship, and upholding the originality and vitality of African civilisations prior to the rise of Europe, these writers have unfortunately reflected a kind of distorted ethnic supremacist view of history. The Olmecs have been subjected to an Afrocentric perspective, where their civilisational achievements are reported to be ‘African’ in origin.

We could go on with the list of African – and ancient – peoples which have supposedly pioneered trans-oceanic contact with the New World: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Malians, Egyptians, Irish, Scottish, Chinese, Arabs, biblical Hebrews – and this article would run into volumes responding to each claim. Continuing to play this game of ‘who was first’ is counterproductive and unresolvable.

It is advisable to listen to Danielle Battisti, associate professor of history, who wrote that while Columbus Day may have had value for Italian Americans in the past, it is now time to abolish it. Responding to white racism, Italian Americans promoted Columbus as an exemplar of entrepreneurial ingenuity, a typical American story of how an immigrant picked himself up and found success. Unfortunately, this appeal to pluralism was predicated on Italians becoming ‘white‘, and thus reinforcing the racial pyramid that is American capitalism today.

It is urgent now more than ever, to abolish Columbus Day, if for no other reason than a basic recognition that Columbus was a genocidal maniac, intent on exploiting to death the indigenous nations he contemptuously dismissed. There are numerous Italian Americans who actively fought racial discrimination and economic inequalities. They are better anti-racist icons for our times.

Morocco and Israel agree to normalise a sordid relationship

Morocco has become the fourth Arab nation to normalise relations with the state of Israel. Previously clandestine, Morocco’s cooperation with the Israeli government stretches back decades. The US, for its part, has officially recognised Morocco’s annexation of the fledging nation of Western Sahara. Lame duck US President Donald Trump overturned years of official US neutrality by taking this step.

Let’s untangle the many threads of this issue. Israel has cultivated extensive military, intelligence-sharing and economic ties with the Moroccan kingdom since the 1960s. This latest normalisation only formalises an existing secretive relationship. Pursuing ties with African and Muslim-majority nations located outside the direct Middle East is part of Tel Aviv’s periphery strategy – outflanking its immediate hostile Arab neighbours by building links with periphery nations. Morocco is considered part of the peripheral zone.

Interestingly, in the 1960s, then King of Morocco Hassan II, allowed the emigration of Moroccan Jews to Israel, thus boosting the number of settlers to counter the demographic problems of colonising occupied Palestinian land. Israeli leaders have always encouraged Jewish populations in the Muslim-majority nations to emigrate. Today, one million Israelis are either Moroccan Jews, or descendants of the original migrants from Morocco.

Ronen Bergman, writing in the NY Times, states that:

The king permitted mass emigration of Jews and allowed Mossad to establish a station in Morocco. Israel provided weapons and trained Moroccans in using them; it supplied surveillance technology and helped organize the Moroccan intelligence service; and the two shared information gathered by their spies — the start of decades of such cooperation.

Morocco acquired Israeli weapons, its intelligence service was trained by and coordinated with Mossad, and opponents of the Moroccan royal family were tracked using Israeli-made surveillance technology. Mehdi Ben Barka, a left wing nationalist opponent of the Moroccan regime, was kidnapped and murdered by Moroccan intelligence agents with the cooperation of the Mossad.

It was the intelligence sharing by Moroccan authorities with Israel about the military capabilities and numbers of Arab armed forces that gave Tel Aviv a decisive edge in launching the 1967 war. Knowledge of the troop movements, logistics and military technology of the Arab nations was provided to Israel by, among others, the Moroccan regime.

The quid pro quo for Morocco’s formal recognition of Israel consists of a scandalous ‘bribe’ – official US recognition of Morocco’s occupation and annexation of the Sahrawi republic, otherwise known as Western Sahara. Overturning decades of US foreign policy and in violation of international law, Trump’s recognition of the Moroccan occupation inflamed a long-simmering conflict.

Western Sahara, formerly a Spanish colony, was forcibly occupied by Moroccan troops in 1975. Listed by the United Nations as a non-self-governing territory, the people of Western Sahara – the Sahrawi – rose up in rebellion in the 1970s. Launching an armed insurgency, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is the internationally recognised authority in the country. The conflict continued for decades, until the signing of a ceasefire in 1991.

The insurgency simmered after 1991, and Morocco continued to control most of Western Sahara. The political authority of the Sahrawi people, the separatist Polisario movement, continues to fight for the independence of Western Sahara. Its representatives are deployed overseas to promote the cause of Sahrawi national self-determination.

Trump’s decision to officially recognise Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, accompanied by his usual narcissistic Twitter-bragging, has ensured that this conflict will continue for decades to come. The US has formally taken the side of Morocco. Kamal Fadel, the Polisario representative in Australia, reacted to this news by stating that only the Sahrawi people can determine the future of their nation.

Sahrawis and Palestinians, along with pro-independence activists, have condemned the cementing of ties between Morocco and Israel. The hashtag ‘Moroccans Against Normalisation’ has taken off, uniting online outrage against this latest deal. Hanan Ashrawi, longtime Palestinian legislator and activist, branded the Morocco-Israel normalisation as sinister and ugly.

Alex MacDonald, writing in Middle East Eye magazine, states that Palestinian and Sahrawi activists will seize this opportunity to renew solidarity between the two struggles for self-determination. The Palestinians and Sahrawis find themselves victims of post-colonial intrigues and backroom manoeuvring between imperialist powers.

These kinds of deals are arrived at by sacrificing the legitimate demands of the Palestinians – and Sahrawis – for an independent state. Nazha el-Khalidi, a Sahrawi human rights activist, denounced the Morocco-Israel agreement, and stated that the resolve of the Sahrawis and Palestinians remains undiminished.

The Japanese Hayabusa-2 mission and the origins of the solar system

Hayabusa-2, the Japanese Space Exploration Agency’s mission to the Ryugu asteroid, deposited a capsule carrying fragments of asteroid rock at Woomera, South Australia. This was the culmination of a six year project.

The Australian corporate media pounced on this story because of the ‘Aussie connection’. However, that is the least interesting reason for understanding the importance of the Hayabusa-2 mission. The asteroid samples returned by the spacecraft contain clues regarding the origins of life in the universe.

The Hayabusa-2 mission deployed hopping rovers on the asteroid Ryugu. They were able to pierce the surface of the asteroid, and retrieve contents from the underground. This is an extraordinary achievement in itself – no other space agency has been able to accomplish such a scientifically important goal on an asteroid.

First of all, let’s address one misconception that people may have. An asteroid is usually thought of as a lifeless, irregularly-shaped lump of rock, hurtling through space and occasionally crashing into Earth as in the movie Deep Impact. This view only hinders our ability to understand the geological importance of asteroids. Each one, like Ryugu, contains minerals and features from the origins of the solar system.

A near-earth asteroid, Ryugu contains organic compounds and ice, geological features that are remnants from the earliest origins of the solar system. Examining Ryugu’s minerals – contained in the capsule deposited at Woomera – will help scientists unveil vital clues on the formation of the solar system, and perhaps of life itself. Hayabusa-2’s cameras obtained pictures of Ryugu, revealing a surface hit by meteorites and weather-beaten by cosmic rays.

Australia and Japan, while depicted as rivals from media-driven anti-Asian racism, have a long history of scientific cooperation. A Japanese team of scientists and experts were deployed by JAXA – the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency – in South Australia preparing for the return of the Hayabusa-2 cargo.

Earlier, we mentioned that Hayabusa-2 deployed hopping rovers on the surface of the asteroid. These bouncing explorers, equipped with cameras, relayed images of Ryugu. You may see examples of the pictures sent back by the hopping rovers in this NPR article. Asteroids have weak gravity, so keeping movable rovers on the surface of Ryugu presented particular technical challenges.

John Bridges, professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester, explains the following:

Ryugu could tell us a lot about the Solar System’s history. The Earth and the other planets formed from small, rocky bodies in a disk of gas, ice and dust called the solar nebula. Asteroids are the leftovers from this process. While the planets have undergone extensive changes, developing crusts, mantles and cores during their lifetimes, asteroids have not. By studying primitive samples from asteroids, we can therefore crack many secrets about how the solar system formed.

The organic compounds in the Ryugu samples remain unchanged since the earliest ages of the solar system. Planetary bodies such as the Earth went through enormous geological changes, altering the composition of its formative materials.

The asteroid fragments will be shared for analysis between Japanese space agency and NASA. Hayabusa-2 continues its mission, aiming for two more asteroids for research.

There are numerous problems confronting humanity at the moment – climate change, ecological destruction, and the current pandemic, just to name a few. These ecological issues, in combination with socioeconomic inequalities, require urgent attention. Exploring the vastness of outer space may not seem like a priority. However, counterposing scientific ventures would be a colossal mistake.

Space exploration has provided a powerful impetus to develop technologies that we regard as everyday conveniences today. The smartphones we use, satellite navigation – these innovations rely on technology originally developed by space agencies. The camera in your smartphone is using small imaging sensors first created by NASA.

Questions regarding outer space exploration occupy a significant chunk of our attention – landing on and terraforming Mars, space travel, exploring the Moon – among other subjects. These topics inspire generations of students – and adults for that matter – to consider scientific issues in the larger context of human culture and social organisation. While nationally-based space agencies compete to launch and accomplish missions, it is international cooperation that is necessary to understand the results of what we find.

As a follow-up, have a look at what the Hayabusa-2 mission has accomplished.

Israel was not created because of the Holocaust – Zionism, the Jewish Ulster and the Israel-Palestine conflict

Let’s keep the subject of the Holocaust separate from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sadly, this is not always the case. Why? There is a widespread and false assumption – that Israel was formed because of the Holocaust, or at least as a human response after the horrors of the Nazi genocide of the Jews was exposed.

No, Israel was not created because of the Holocaust. The Israel-Palestine conflict is not based on ancient and atavistic religious hatreds between Jews and Muslims.

Let’s untangle this subject.

Dov Waxman, professor of political science at Northeastern University, addressed this very question. He wrote that while the Holocaust and Israel’s founding occurred within a few years of each other, they are not causally linked:

The chronological proximity of the Holocaust and Israel’s establishment has led many people to assume that the two events are causally connected and that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. Contrary to this popular belief, however, a Jewish state would probably have emerged in Palestine, sooner or later, with or without the Holocaust.

So why was Israel formed? For the purpose of creating a pro-imperialist Jewish Ulster in the Middle East. This is not my own formulation. The first British military governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs, elaborated Britain’s approach to the Palestine issue in the aftermath of the Ottoman Turkish empire’s defeat; to establish a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism. Just as Britain created a loyal Protestant Ascendancy statelet – commonly known as Ulster, in the north of Ireland – Zionism would form the equivalent Orange order of the Jewish people in Palestine.

There are, of course, religious differences between Jews and Muslims. These theology differences have existed for centuries. However, the Israel-Palestine conflict is not motivated by religious divisions. Reducing the conflict to atavism and ancient religious hatreds is a fundamentalist misreading of the Israel-Palestine issue. So when did the conflict start? It started in 1917, towards the end of World War One and the issuance of the Balfour declaration.

Britain, emerging alongside France as the preeminent imperialist power in the Middle East, promised to create a Jewish national home in Palestine. Simultaneously, the leaders of political Zionism, such as Theodore Herzl, were manoeuvring to acquire the backing of major powers for their project of constructing a Jewish state. Herzl had already approached the Ottoman Turkish sultan, Tsarist Russia (an antisemitic government in its own right), and others, to obtain support for the Zionist cause. It was Britain, with its own interests in the Middle East, which provided the crucial backing needed.

The creation of a Jewish Ulster has begun. The Palestinians were being pushed out of their ancestral homeland, as Zionist settlements began to be constructed. From the 1930s, in British-mandate Palestine, the Palestinians resisted as best they could. The conflict evolved its own dynamic. None of this is to ignore religious differences. However, let’s not speak of ‘centuries of mistrust’ between Jews and Muslims, because such comments are cynically deceptive and designed to distract from the settler-colonial nature of the Zionist project.

The ideology of Zionism corresponded to the intention of European elites – Christian and traditionally antisemitic – to expel Europe’s Jews and corral them into a statelet. Palestine was a convenient target, given European Christendom’s familiarity with Biblical history. British antisemites, such Churchill and Balfour, were strong supporters of Zionism. What has all this got to do with the Holocaust?

Palestinian opposition to Zionism has routinely been smeared and dismissed as antisemitic by Israel’s leaders and supporters. In fact, there is a deliberate manipulation of the Holocaust, on Tel Aviv’s part, to channel sympathy for Jewish suffering into support for the colonial project of Zionism. Joseph Massad, professor of Arab Politics at Columbia University, has elaborated how Israel’s political leaders coopt the memory of the Holocaust to gain support for their own policies of occupation and dispossession directed against the Palestinians.

Earlier this year, on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, current US Vice President Mike Pence accused Iran of planning a ‘holocaust’ against the Jewish people. This was at an event organised by Tel Aviv in opposition to the internationally recognised commemorative activities. Deliberately invoking a slanderously false continuity between Nazis and Arabs/Muslims, Pence purposefully maligned the Palestinians (and the wider Muslim-majority nations) as motivated by homicidal antisemitism.

Holocaust denial – the pseudoscientific endeavour to cancel or minimise the genocidal crimes of the Nazi regime – has unfortunately made a comeback with the rise of ultrarightist parties and groups in Europe. We must all remember the Holocaust and say ‘never again’. We must also understand that opposition to the settler-colonial state of Israel is the repudiation of a political ideology, and not a platform for antisemitism.