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A Brief History of Squatting

On Avenue A on New York's Lower East Side, a couple shares a futon under Old Glory. (Courtesy of MoRUSNYC)

On Avenue A on New York’s Lower East Side, a couple shares a futon under Old Glory. (Courtesy of MoRUSNYC)

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space chronicles decades of Lower East Side occupations.

by Arun Gupta August 1, 2013 In These Times

He had warned me about showing up unannounced, but it’s easy to rationalize such things when you’re jonesing. It was 1999. I stood outside the Lower East Side squat bellowing, “Laaaarr-rreeee.” Making myself a nuisance earned me admission into the building, though the squatters clustered out front looked at me with expressions that read: “Who is this idiot?”

Larry was livid when I stepped into his apartment. “Don’t ever fucking do that again!” he roared. But in an instant his eyes were smiling and he sweetly inquired, “Now, how may I help you?”

Chagrined, I conducted my business and exited. Striding past the German beer garden, I mentally savored my spliff while lamenting the disappearance of the storefront dealers who peddled dime bags with the convenience of a 7-Eleven. That’s routine for denizens of the Lower East Side: to wistfully recall what once was.

Before Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1994, the neighborhood was alluringly feral. The withdrawal of public services, crime epidemic and abandonment of housing decades earlier had spawned a multiracial movement of neighborhood associations, building takeovers, community gardens and thriving institutions such as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the punk-centric ABC No Rio and the housing-rights organization Good Old Lower East Side.

No one misses the muggers, street dealers hawking smack, or addicts openly sticking needles in their arms. Social pathologies were the last line of defense against capital, until Giuliani used his “quality of life” campaign against the homeless, potsmokers, bicyclists and the poor to also sweep away Bohemia.

The transformation from heroin shooters to oyster shooters is now complete, but the past still pokes through the present landscape of faux speakeasies, fin-de-siècle bistros and bucolic gastronomica.

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS), located in a storefront of C-Squat, is one of 11 surviving squats that have made peace with the city. The mini museum, a tribute to local activism, contains a photographic journey through decades of squatting, gardens, Critical Mass, Reclaim the Streets and Occupy Wall Street. Co-founder Bill DiPaolo calls it “living history,” and it faithfully evokes decades of resistance to a hidden market and its visible fist.

The tone is set by one of the first photos, an image of an armored police vehicle with tank treads deployed to evict two squats in 1995. As the photos progress, a changing cast faces off against the police: homeless people living in Tompkins Square Park in the early ’80s, their expressions defiant or pleading; the street punks and squatters of the late ’80s; Reclaim the Streets’ impromptu dance-party protests and community garden defense in the ’90s.

Artifacts are grouped thematically. An egg carton of seed bombs ($12 a dozen), designed to be thrown into fenced-off vacant lots for guerrilla greening, ac- companies photos of the campaign that saved scores of gardens from Giuliani’s bulldozers. The stairway chronicles the history of Critical Mass, which popularized bicycling in New York City by drawing thousands of pedal-pushers into the streets for monthly rides before being smashed by the cops in 2004. The banister is built from wooden blue police barricades that were a fixture in the neighborhood until the mid-’90s and the fuel for riotous bonfires. The Occupy Wall Street section features a sign liberated from Zuccotti Park listing activities now banned—skateboarding, camping and lying down. Helmets and dark-blue uniforms emblazoned with “Squat Team” patches hang in the front window.

The focus, says DiPaolo, is “groups, causes, spaces and places,” not art or individuals. But the most captivating images are of art and people: Gardening pioneer Adam Purple standing above his “Garden of Eden” of trees and edible plants arrayed in concentric circles around a blooming yin-yang symbol; a half-dressed black couple on Avenue A lying on a futon under an American flag; an abandoned car plastered with graffiti in a vacant lot carpeted with foliage.

Even allowing for the museum’s space constraints, there are curious omissions. Housing was the central struggle, but there is little explanation of how bankers and landlords used finance and zoning to initiate disinvestment, then gentrification. The museum selects the Green Guerrillas in 1978 as the starting point, and, aside from a section honoring the work of Chino Garcia and Armando Perez, excludes the Puerto Rican activists of the ’60s and ’70s who staged the first building takeovers and created gardens, tenants associations, an arts revival, and community and environmental organizations. Some of that is covered in MoRUS’s guided tours of the neighborhood, but the exhibit appears to reflect DiPaolo’s own history. He is the founder and director of Time’s Up!, “a direct action environmental organization” that spawned Critical Mass, participated in Reclaim the Streets and Occupy Wall Street, and engaged in nonviolent direct action that preserved the gardens. (DiPaolo also homesteads in Umbrella Squat down the block.)

Try though it may to present a picture of protest springing eternal, the museum reveals the shifting dynamics of the Lower East Side. As the photos tick off the years, the people become whiter, the reclaimed spaces narrow from houses to gardens, from street occupations to sidewalk protests, and the protesters grow older and middle class. In the end, the visionaries who proclaimed, “We will build a new society in the vacant lots of the old,” defend fragile stands of bohemia by adapting to the invasive monoculture of condos, clubs and cafes. MoRUS pays $2,000 in rent, a token sum compared to the $15,000-to-$20,000 payment a landlord is demanding of the nearby Yippie Café.

Unfortunately, MoRUS glosses over daily life. Lawless creativity and politics attracted youth fleeing a consumer society for a hotbed of radical writers, artists, musicians and poets, studios and playhouses, punk shows and underground newspapers, squat parties and park festivals. This political culture nurtured space for everyday wonders that have been stomped out: from all-night gatherings in gardens to youth launching cannonball-sized fireworks in a Chinatown schoolyard to locals making carrion of abandoned cars, taking months to strip them of salable parts.

But real-estate speculators sealed the Lower East Side’s fate by pouncing on the marketing potential of its distinctive culture. Then again, efforts to preserve the uniqueness were undercut by those punks and anarchists who opposed efforts to tame excesses because that’s “fucking authoritarian, man,” enabling loudmouths, slackers and self-destructive drug use to alienate potential allies in local communities and movements.

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space captures the duality of a movement that saw its struggle as the only struggle, limiting its vision and audience—yet against all odds it triumphantly managed to scratch out reclaimed space in the heart of the 1%.


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Meet the New Obama, More Dangerous Than the Old Obama

The G C Advocate
November 17, 2012
By Arun Gupta

It’s a given that elections are about stagecraft – the management of image and perception. Public policy plays a subservient role, crafted for electoral advantage. This maneuvering impelled Obama to suddenly adopt positions less than six months before the election that he had avoided for three years, such as “deferred action” for unauthorized immigrant youth, his flip-flop on gay marriage and the anti-offshoring “Bring Jobs Home Act.”

What’s not a given is the permanent electoral state. The day after Obama was re-elected, wags were joking about 2016 front runners and potential candidates like Sen. Marc Rubio were booking tickets to Iowa. The never-ending election cycle means the most the public can hope for is policies that are designed for solidifying partisan advantage might trickle down to help them.

Take immigration, which will be high on Obama’s second term-agenda, after he punted it during the first. Democrats are salivating at the thought of locking in Latinos for generations to come and Republicans are panicking after realizing their days are numbered as a party of angry white guys. So there will be action, but nothing as sweeping as Reagan’s 1986 immigration amnesty that legalized 2.9 million unauthorized immigrants. For one there are 12 million undocumented immigrants meaning the right could still stoke a racial backlash when the voting public is 72 percent white and African-Americans are as opposed to a “path for citizenship” as white Democrats. More important, big business wants an army of labor in the shadows. Legalizing all immigrants would bestow workplace rights now denied to them, make them fertile ground for union organizing and “raise the ‘wage floor’ for … the benefit of both immigrant and native-born workers,” according to the Center for American Progress. Obama will likely use the bureaucratic healthcare reform as a model, opting for a tightly regulated “guest worker” program combined with a narrow path to citizenship along the lines of the Dream Act.

But there is more to policy than stagecraft. There is the stage on which elections, the theater of the absurd, are acted out. That stage is neoliberalism, but it cannot be named. While the public gets a two-year-long and $6 billion song and dance, the real policy happens after the show ends. Think about what the 2012 election will be remembered for. It won’t be serious debates about poverty or unemployment or Wall Street regulation, but Big Bird,“binders full of women” and medieval comments on rape.

Yet following the election attention turned to the crisis of the “fiscal cliff,” while it was studiously ignored during the incessant campaign coverage. It’s a phony crisis, however. The battle now over the future of social welfare is the legacy of Obama’s first term.

One caveat, policy is deliberately complicated so as to hide the true agenda. Healthcare reform was not designed to provide universal coverage or end medical bankruptcies. The real purpose is to ensure new lines of revenue for insurance, drug and medical corporations in the form of millions of captive patients, which is why the healthcare industry backed it. The same is true for the looming fiscal cliff (known as sequestration). It’s hard to understand because the real agenda – Obama’s agenda since 2008 – is to chop up Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare the way Bill Clinton gutted welfare. Let me explain.

Obama’s first public comments after his re-election were about the fiscal cliff created by the Budget Control Act that he rubber-stamped in July 2011. As president, Obama has been in the head of Washington’s austerity class. On the eve of his January 2009 inauguration, Obama called for entitlement reform, meaning cut Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Then three weeks into his first term he supported a deficit-reduction commission. In his 2010 State of the Union Address he backed a three-year freeze spending freeze mainly on social spending. During his 2008 campaign and afterwards he surrounded himself with advisers hawking economic quackery.

The budget deal from the summer of 2011 mandates $900 billion in “non-defense discretionary spending” cuts. This is wonk for social programs, which will shrivel to 1962 levels of the GDP by 2021. Thus, Obama has completed rolling back the Great Society – a process started under Reagan and accelerated under Clinton. The cuts will deepen if there is no deal by the end of the year. Then the economy will head over the fiscal cliff in 2013 and $700 billion in annual tax increases and cuts will kick in.

The fiscal cliff will be used as excuse to try to roll back the New Deal.

This is how it will work. The cliff can be avoided by bringing in more revenue. In post-victory remarks on Nov. 9, Obama called for $4 trillion in “balanced” deficit reduction in which the wealthy share the pain with “students and seniors and middle-class families.” What he didn’t say is that $3 trillion of that amount is slated for spending cuts – and that the only way to achieve that order of cuts with military spending off limits is to carve up Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

But even on his signature campaign plank – raising taxes on the wealthy by a measly 4.6 percent – Obama is backtracking. True to form of surrendering when he holds the high ground, Obama said the next day in his weekly address, “we have to combine spending cuts with revenue.” Revenue is the Republican position. They are steadfast in demanding the wealthy be spared piddling tax increases but are willing to consider closing “loopholes” such as mortgage interest payments and charitable deductions. In exchange, says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), the GOP demands “entitlement reform” because “that’s where the big money is at.”

As Jon Stewart would say, this rolled straight off “Bullshit Mountain.” Economists like Dean Baker and Paul Krugman have demolished every rationale for deficit reduction under present circumstances: interest rates are so low, below the rate of inflation, that bondholders are paying the U.S. to hold their money; reducing the deficit would strangle growth; the best way to reduce the deficit is through growth and inflation; and in any case the plan to hack away $4 trillion in a decade is not going to reduce the national debt meaningfully.

Even more noxious is Obama’s talk of shared sacrifice, which could be granny-starver Paul Ryan’s position. Apparently it needs to be reiterated that Wall Street caused the crash in 2008. The banks profited off the criminal subprime bubble. They profited off $4.8 trillion in government bailouts for the financial industry. Now as “too bigger to fail” banks, they profit off implied guarantees. But to pay for the multi-trillion-dollar meltdown, the elderly will have to sacrifice Social Security, the poor healthcare and students education.

A little history is in order. Obama ran in 2008 on repealing the Bush tax cuts. But he betrayed his promise just one month into his presidency even though he was gushing with political capital, the right was in disarray and the Democratic-controlled Congress was ready to pass it. On Jan. 16, 2009, five days before his inauguration, he told the Washington Post, that he was prepared to “spend some political capital” on the“very difficult choices” of cutting entitlements.

Obama was following the script penned by Larry Summers, his chief economic adviser during his first campaign and the Clinton-era architect of the financial bubble that exploded four years ago. In the Financial Times in September 2008, Summers presented the Rosetta Stone for Obama’s presidency. The Financial Times is where the capitalist class speaks openly to each other. The piece was published two weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed, which set off the financial Pearl Harbor that threatened the global economy.

It is a classic example of the “Shock Doctrine”: using the crisis to push for a wholesale economic restructuring. Summers laid out the argument for a fiscal stimulus. But he took pains to mention, “We still must address issues of entitlements and fiscal sustainability.” To that he added no “new entitlement programs or exploding tax measures,” which includes “healthcare restructuring,” but no single payer or universal healthcare. Summers’ silence was just as notable. He sidestepped the issues of financial re-regulation, giving labor more room to organize and the home mortgage foreclosure crisis that remains the black heart of the rotting economy.

Summers saw that the meltdown was a chance to drive a stake through the welfare state. The corporate media plays a supporting role by falsely portraying Social Security as going bankrupt, which Martha Raddatz claimed to be the case during the vice presidential debate, when that is by definition impossible in a pay-as-you-go system. In fact, Social Security is solvent through 2033, and it can be strengthened at any time simply by lifting the payroll tax cap. Medicare is likewise solvent through 2024 at which point the payroll tax will cover 87 percent of projected costs. But Obama – cheered on by liberals – has placed a time bomb in Social Security with his payroll tax cut, which could result in a shortfall in barely a decade.

Hacking with these non-discretionary programs creates the precedent to divert the revenue streams to pay off the debt accumulated by Wall Street.

From a political perspective many liberals are as mesmerized by the dog-and-pony show as Tea Partiers. Both inhabit separate but similar reality-free bubbles. Liberals can’t reconcile their devotion to Obama the messianic liberal with his record of cutting social welfare, coddling investment banks, waging seven separate wars, ordering the extrajudicial assassination of U.S. citizens, attacking teachers unions, letting the foreclosure crisis fester and sabotaging climate change accords.

Glenn Greenwald calls it the “the standard pattern of self-disempowerment used by American liberals to render themselves impotent and powerless in Washington.” He detailed a six-step process of how liberals capitulate based on pragmatism, threats and “Extremely Important Election coming.”

Such is the state of American politics in which the work of dismantling the welfare state and reinforcing the warfare state takes place before our eyes but our minds are so absorbed by the spectacle of the permanent election that we are unable to see the stage beneath.

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Has the FBI Launched a War of Entrapment Against the Occupy Movement? (AlterNet)

Is the government unleashing the same methods of entrapment against OWS that it has used against left movements and Muslim-Americans?

By Arun Gupta
May 24, 2012

With the high-profile arrest of activists on terrorism charges in Cleveland on May Day and in Chicago during the NATO summit there, evidence is mounting that the FBI is unleashing the same methods of entrapment against the Occupy Wall Street movement that it has used against left movements and Muslim-Americans for the last decade.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

In Cleveland the FBI announced on May 1 that “five self-proclaimed anarchists conspired to develop multiple terror plots designed to negatively impact the greater Cleveland metropolitan area.” The FBI claimed the five were nabbed as they attempted to blow up a bridge the night before using “inoperable” explosives supplied to them by an undercover FBI employee.

Then on May 19, the day before thousands marched peacefully in Chicago to protest NATO-led wars, the Illinois State Attorney hit three men with charges of terrorism for allegedly plotting to use “destructive devices” against targets ranging from Chicago police stations to the home of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Defense attorneys for the Chicago activists claim their clients, like the Cleveland activists, were provided with supplies for making Molotov cocktails by undercover agents in an operation that included the participation of the FBI and Secret Service. This was followed up on May 20 by the arrest of two other men on terrorism charges in Chicago for statements they made, which critics say amount to thought crimes. The Chicago cases are also reportedly the first time the state of Illinois is charging individuals under its post-September 11 terrorism law.

To hear FBI officials describe it, “Law enforcement took swift, collaborative action…to eliminate the risk of violence and protect the public.” To many observers, however, the government itself is the overarching threat, systematically repressing peaceful dissent.

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We’re Back on the Road for the Spring Awakening!

Join us! We are back on the road, telling the unique stories of the Occupy Movement!

Dear Friends,

As we were leaving Tucson last week after three days filled with meetings, interviews and debates about the Occupy movement, a local activist came up to us and said, “Your visit has energized the movement here.”

That one statement was the highest praise we could have ever wished for. When we started on this journey last fall, we didn’t know what to expect. What we discovered was the inklings of a new world in the unlikeliest places: from the Deep South and inner cities to rural plains and crumbling suburbs.

Now we are criss-crossing the country again to report on the Spring Awakening, and we have found a movement that has taken root in many places and which is growing in unexpected directions, whether it’s by attracting older activists who’ve been at it for decades or giving working-class people hope in a hard world.

We’ve just begun our trip, and there are so many tales to tell, but we need your help to make it happen. Please donate today so we can keep bringing important stories to light.

We strive to give life to the deeply moving words and images of people like Guadalupe Barrios, who is organizing Mexican-American youth in an immigrant-hostile Arizona; Amalia, an indigenous lesbian who is part of a resistance movement more than 400 years old in New Mexico; and Beth Stephens, an artist in San Francisco who has turned her neighborhood into a model for the anti-foreclosure movement.

For more than six months we have been telling stories like these in outlets like Salon, The Nation, The Guardian, The Progressive, Truthout, Free Speech TV, Al Jazeera and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. We’re reaching millions of people, and many occupiers have made a point to tell us that our reporting has brought them favorable attention and new activists.

But we can’t do it without you. Every bit matters, whether it’s $15, $50 or $200. Your support enables us to publish the words, ideas and images of the 99% from the bottom up across the country.

Many editors tell us because we have visited more than 35 occupations in 24 states (and counting), no other reporters can offer such a combination of sweeping analysis and on-the-ground observation.

We are not backed by corporate dollars or wealthy benefactors. We edit videos and write articles in coffee shops, sleep in backwater motels and eat sandwiches out of a cooler. But we love it. Reporting on this amazing social movement is the most inspiring thing we have ever done. And despite the perils and pitfalls on the road ahead, we have great hopes that the Occupy movement can profoundly change our society for the better.

Please help make that happen by contributing today!

Thank you,

michelle and arun

P.S. Make this a 99%-powered campaign by forwarding this message to your friends and encouraging them to donate as well!

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Occupying the Inland Empire

Hey there,

Last week we went to Southern California’s Inland Empire to report on an Occupy action to shut down Walmart warehouse distribution centers. If you have never been there, it’s where the American dream degenerates into a landscape of mammoth sprawl, endless highways and rank consumerism. A few hundred people from five different occupations showed up at sunrise in support of hundreds of low-wage workers enduring abusive conditions in Walmart’s gigantic warehouses.

We were with protesters the whole day, and it was a moment where you can see the idealism of a new social movement crashing into the harsh reality of workers scraping by in a crumbling society. You can read the article here:

We’re going to have plenty of new articles coming out, most of which will be on Salon. Next week we have an article coming out in The Nation. All our articles, films and updates are available on our website,

Arun Gupta and Michelle Fawcett

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Empire of Chaos: How 9/11 Shaped the Politics of a Failing State (Alternet)

By Arun Gupta

The neoconservative ideas that shaped the war on terror have evaporated as the United States is battered by an economic depression that shows no end.

September 9, 2011
The events made my mind reel. The angry plumes of smoke, office paper raining like confetti, tumbling windows flashing in the sunlight. I could make out jumpers and watched a jet fighter whoosh by the burning towers, bank and disappear. I thought, “This is like a movie.”

It upset me that my only way to comprehend the events was to reference the Hollywood imaginarium. But it was understandable. Where else would I have seen images resembling the war in my backyard – collapsing skyscrapers, gigantic fireballs and thousands of dead?

The need to make sense of the events of Sept. 11 – the plot by al-Qaeda, four hijacked airliners, the demolished twin towers and nearly 3,000 dead – is universal. It is why the state’s first task after 9/11 – before one bomb dropped, one soldier deployed – was to imprint the “war on terror” on the collective American mindset.

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Ireland’s crisis

Economist and Indypendent contributor Rick Wolff has a new post on how the banks, through the European Union, is forcing the Irish public to shoulder the losses generated by the capitalist class, namely the Irish banks and European banks. As Rick puts it, the austerity programs are presented as democratic, while the profits from the bailouts will flow, once more, to the wealthy and corporations.

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Mom, Apple Pie and Islamophobia

The current nativist impulse is not new. The right’s anti-Muslim campaign is eerily similar to 19th-century anti- Catholic bigotry in America. Catholics here were subject to discrimination and violence because many didn’t speak English; religious practices such as confession, veneration of saints and transubstantiation seemed alien; many of their women (nuns) donned strange garb; and they were characterized as a fifth column loyal to a sinister foreign power, the Pope.

Likewise, Islamophobia goes back two centuries to Orientalism, which portrayed much of the world, particularly Arab and Islam, as barbaric and irrational in contrast to an enlightened West. More recently, American popular culture reacted to the Arab oil boycott in 1973 and the Iranian Revolution in 1979 with the image of the despotic sheikh and fanatical mullah who prey upon a West enfeebled by secularism and liberalism. From there followed the “Worse Than Hitler” parade: Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat, Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Islamophobia that sprouted after the Sept. 11 attacks was planted in this noxious soil. Curiously, it has taken nine years for Islamophobia to reach a fever pitch, at least in America (Europe was quicker to the game).

So why now?

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How Pot Friendly Parents Help Sink Legalization

This article, recently published on Alternet, examines one possible factor why Proposition 19, the proposal to legalize pot for personal consumption and cultivation, lost in California in November 2010.

Sifting through the failure of Proposition 19, supporters of legalizing marijuana can point to many factors for why it lost 54% to 46%: The fact that young voters, who reportedly supported legalization by a 40 percent margin, did not stampede to the polls; U.S.Attorney General Eric Holder’s threat to go after “individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law;” and California’s decriminalization, just one month before the vote, of possessing up to one ounce of weed.

Add to that the successful tarring of Prop 19 as a poorly worded measure that was vague on regulation and opponents hysterically warning of “potheads on the road” mowing down hundreds of innocents, and it’s easy to see why the measure fell short.

No doubt new legalization measures will be on the ballot in the future, whether in California or other Western states where acceptance of recreational usage is high. So it’s worth considering another reason that may have doomed Prop 19: cultural factors.

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The Victim That Is Israel

This article was originally published by Alternet and The Indypendent. It is an analysis of how the corporate media frames Israel as the victim, despite whatever crime it perpetrates. A version appears in the anthology, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara, published by OR

Amid the continuing fallout over the deadly confrontation aboard the Gaza aid ship, Mavi Marmara, there is a critical historical lesson: There is only one real victim, and that is Israel. Sure, the “small, isolated” nation may appear to have been the aggressor, having surrounded a humanitarian convoy in international waters with naval assault boats and helicopters before storming in with heavily armed elite forces killing and wounding dozens of civilians, but it was acting in self-defense.

Appearances are deceiving because understanding Israel’s eternal victimhood requires the proper mindset. And once you have the proper mindset, there is no need for facts. Atlantic Monthly’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who has been hanging “around a lot of Israeli generals lately,” kindly advises us that there should be “no particular pain felt for the dead on the boat.” On the other hand, “There’s real pain in Israel…pain at the humiliation of the flotilla raid, pain on behalf of the injured soldiers, and pain that the geniuses who run this country could not figure out a way to outsmart a bunch of Turkish Islamists and their useful idiot fellow travelers.”

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