A true tale of the recession

 Auckland’s Shortland Street is perhaps New Zealand’s equivalent of Wall Street, the financial heart of our market economy. Half way up the street is the towering Vero building which houses some of the big names in merchant banking, accountancy, stock trading and law.

The expansive foyer features a two-storied wall of quirky quotes from a multitude of New Zealanders such as Ernest Rutherford, Janet Frame and James K Baxter. The corporate sector are always adept at tying their credentials to local icons.

On the 38th floor, in an office which commands sweeping views of the Hauraki Gulf and upper Waitemata Harbour is the New Zealand outpost of Goldman Sachs JB Were. This is one of the biggest names in international banking and one of just two of the big five Wall Street banks yet to require a US taxpayer bailout.

It has been at the beating heart of the capitalist economy and it has fought hard against government regulation or any community control on its behaviour. With the other big banks it pumped hard to inflate the bubbles of overvalued financial assets. Rather than subject themselves to government controls the banks worked hard for even greater control of the government. So much so that a former GSJBW chief executive, Henry Paulson, was appointed George Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury. Deregulation of the financial sector undertaken by Bill Clinton was continued under Paulson’s leadership and he was blind to the looming crisis. The dogs had been let loose in the chicken run.

GSJBW is not the sort of place you’d expect to find a union official but I was there late last year in support of a union member because the company had decided to outsource her job. In other words an external company would now employ someone to fill the role she was doing. The bank said it needed to save money as a response to the global financial meltdown.

Outsourcing is opposed by employees and unions because the much-vaunted savings, efficiencies and flexibility for the employer inevitably come from the pay and working conditions of employees. And so it was here. In her role at GSJBW she was earning $21.50 an hour and the bank said they were keen for her to continue under the new employer. However when the outsource company offered her job back to her it was at just $17 an hour. In effect half her 21% pay cut would go back to the bank and the other half would go to pay the outsourcing company as the middleman in the employment relationship. A win for the bank, a win for the outsource company but a 21% loss of income for the worker.

Here she was in the few weeks before Xmas faced with a sudden loss in income. In all likelihood she would have been the lowest paid person at the bank and as a widow almost certainly the least able to absorb the impact of such a dramatic drop in earnings. To cap it off her individual contract provided for no redundancy pay should she not take up the outsourcing offer.

We can all be absolutely sure none of the company’s senior managers will face a 21% cut in pay and if they ever face redundancy a golden parachute will be polished up for them.

What we see here is a microcosm of the world financial crisis. The international bankers and others who brought on this disaster through their greed and stupidity are shielded from its worst effects while those who suffer the greatest are the people on the lowest incomes with the least resources to manage their way through.

GSJBW will report proudly to head office on the savings they’ve achieved. There will be no human faces, just figures on a spreadsheet. The real life drama will be invisible to the Wall Street bankers as they check the numbers.

Back on the street the government has set aside $54 million to assist people to find a new job after being made redundant. It will provide a small amount of help for a short time for the large numbers of people chasing fewer and fewer jobs but compared to the $150 billion in deposit guarantees the government has provided for our foreign-owned banks it’s a pathetically small amount.

Last month International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn talked of the financial meltdown causing suffering to the “whole of society”. Perhaps that’s right but the real suffering will be so one-sided as to make his remark particularly pointless.

Zionist Racism – “The Arabs will have to go”

These past two weeks I’ve received plenty of email and phone messages about things I’ve written, said and done on the massacre in Gaza.

Many have come from Israel and those who disagree have generally been assertive but polite with some apologising later after an email exchange they began rudely.

The negative comments from New Zealanders have been far more extreme with absurd claims even the most right-wing Israelis would reject.

From more thoughtful people a recurring theme has been along the lines of “why won’t the Palestinians just accept Israel’s right to exist?”

It sounds simple but as Israel is currently constituted that bald question can only be answered with several qualifications. Agreeing outright would mean a denial of Palestinian history, accepting Israeli possession of confiscated land and still no guarantee of a national state for Palestinians. The more important questions are “Why won’t Israel agree to a sovereign, viable, independent state for Palestinians?” and “Why won’t Israel agree to the right of return for Palestinian refugees?” This second question goes to the heart of the conflict with a rock-solid Palestinian case up against an Israeli case based on racism.

As things stand a Palestinian refugee whose family has lived in the middle-east for thousands of years is refused entry or citizenship in Israel while a Jew from the other side of the world whose family has never sighted the middle-east is welcomed and encouraged to immigrate. It’s a racist policy which rankles with Palestinians and the history of the policy is clear.

In 1937 a Zionist leader and the future Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote to his son saying bluntly “The Arabs (Palestinians) will have to go.”

Ten years later, on 30 December 1947, after the UN had allocated land for a Jewish state Ben-Gurion told the Central Committee of the Histradut:  “In the area allocated to the Jewish state there are not more than 520,000 Jews and about 350,000 non-Jews, mostly Arabs… Such a composition does not provide a stable basis for a Jewish state.  This fact must be viewed in all its clarity and acuteness…There can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60 percent.”

Two days later, on 1 January 1948 he described his plans for dealing with the Palestinians in this diary entry: “There is a need now for strong and brutal reaction.  We need to be accurate about timing, place and those we hit.  If we accuse a family – we need to harm them without mercy, women and children included.  Otherwise, this is not an effective reaction…There is no need to distinguish between guilty and not guilty.”

With this in mind Zionist terror squads adopted and implemented their so-called Plan Dalet to systematically cleanse the new state of most of its Arab (Palestinian) residents and include within Israel a much larger area than that allocated by the UN.

Markets and towns were bombed with the most well-known massacre occurring at a Palestinian town called Deir Yassin which lay outside the area to be assigned by the United Nations. Here in April 1948 commandos of the Irgun (headed by another future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin) and the Stern Gang systematically murdered over 100 men, women and children.

In the face of this intense terror campaign an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes and their land.

British and UN officials were appalled such that when Israel was accepted into the United Nations it was on condition the new country allow the return of Palestinians who had fled the Zionist ethnic cleansing. Israel agreed at the time but has steadfastly refused in the 60 years since. Instead, over the past six decades Israel has expanded its territory to progressively take over more Palestinian land. All that remains is the Gaza strip and a large number of small, discrete pieces of land in the West Bank, criss-crossed with Israeli-only roads. Every year more illegal Jewish settlements are established on Palestinian land and thousands more Jewish settlers move in.

With a viable Palestinian state further away than ever it’s small wonder Palestinians voted for a Hamas government in 2006. I’m not holding a candle for Hamas, its tactics or its policies, but it seems their election to power was a desperate move by a desperate people whom the world had turned its back on. In fact the original formation of Hamas was encouraged by the Israeli government as a counter to the strength of the secular Fatah coalition and a chance to divide and rule Palestinians.

Among the many ironies is the long history of Arabs (Palestinians) and Jews living alongside each other for thousands of years before the Zionist movement terrorised their way to an exclusive Jewish state in the middle east.

Despite Israel’s brutal military occupation of Palestinian land, the siege of Gaza and racist apartheid policies towards the Palestinians there are growing numbers of Jews in Israel and around the world who reject Zionism and want to work towards a middle east where Jews and Palestinians can once more live side-by-side in a secular state which respects all religions.

10,000 marched in Israel last week against the massacre in Gaza. It’s the most hopeful sign for peace yet.


Fighting spirit in Gaza matches the Warsaw Ghetto

In 1940 the Nazis herded Polish Jews and Romani people into a small area of Warsaw which became known as the Warsaw Ghetto. 38% of the population were confined to just 4.5% of the capital’s land area.

It was walled-off with German soldiers manning all entry points.

The human suffering was enormous. The 440,000 inhabitants were allocated just 184 calories of food each day while German daily rations were 2,614 calories. Starvation and disease were rampant.

Despite the terrible hardship the Jews in the ghetto organised hospital care, schooling, soup kitchens and even set up factories to produce goods to be smuggled out and sold while children were used to smuggle in food and raw materials.

From 1942 the population was quickly reduced as train loads were sent to the Treblinka death camp where up to a million Jews and Romanis were gassed or shot and their bodies burned.

In the face of this appalling oppression the Jewish inhabitants staged the first European uprising against the Nazis in 1943. This courageous armed revolt held the German army at bay for several days until the ghetto was razed block by block and the last inhabitants murdered. We can only wonder at the fighting spirit of these Polish Jews against impossible odds.

It’s worth remembering the irony of all this when considering the Israeli siege of Gaza and treatment of Palestinians forced to live on this small strip of land. For the past two years or so Gaza has been an open-air prison for one and a half million Palestinians with Israel closing off all entry points. More than half Gaza’s population survive on food aid but medicine, food and fuel supplies to the territory have been strangled by Israel and eased only sporadically under international pressure on Israel.

Palestinians have built tunnels to get food and provisions in illegally. Last year they blasted and bulldozed several sections of wall so via this mass prison break they could get some relief and much needed supplies from Egypt.

Likes the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto they have used all means possible to survive and fight back against overwhelming odds.

The attack on Gaza has little to do with a few home-made rockets fired into Israel. Instead the object is to destroy the democratically-elected Hamas government. Hamas has advocated the fight-back by Palestinians with whatever means available and for this they have been shunned by the US and European Union who, as punishment for voting for the wrong people, cut support for the Palestinians while Israel applied a chokehold via its Gaza siege. The US only supports democracy for everyone provided they vote for the right people.

Israel had been condemned internationally for the launching of a ground offensive which the UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto calls “a monstrosity”.  However our Foreign Minister Murray McCully endorses the Israeli attacks with his obsequious silence. Like George Bush he blames Hamas for the latest Israeli outrages and expects Palestinians to accept their oppression without fighting back.

As Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi puts it: “We are the only people on Earth asked to guarantee the security of our occupier while Israel is the only country that calls for defence from its victims”

It seems that just as with South Africa the only way to end the decades long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the de facto apartheid policies towards the Palestinian people is to impose comprehensive sanctions against Israel.

As well as the siege in Gaza the situation in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is an affront to humanity. Just last month the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said Israel’s discrimination between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank was increasingly reminiscent of white South Africa’s apartheid system. The group said Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territory have created a situation of institutionalised discrimination and segregation.

Unfortunately none of this is new. As far back as 1989 South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu said “if you change the names, the description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would be a description of what is happening in South Africa.”

Israel is a regime that defies international law and breaks all boundaries of civilised behaviour. No amount of polite criticism will change its behaviour, not that our Foreign Minister Murray McCully is offering even the mutest criticism.

New Zealanders should support the Palestinians who refuse to be second-class citizens in the land of their birth. We should celebrate their fighting spirit just as we do that of the heroic Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto.