These remarks were delivered on 17 November 2019 at the 19th annual Mikhail Memorial Lecture.

Phyllis Bennis: “Syria, Turkey, the Kurds, ISIS and the New Global War on Terror” 

On behalf of our extended Mikhail family, I am humbled and pleased to welcome you all to the 19th annual Maryse and Ramzy Mikhail Memorial Lecture series and to introduce our distinguished lecturer and guest this afternoon, Phyllis Bennis.  November is Native and Indigenous People’s heritage month and honoring the historical legacies that bring us here I would like to begin by saying that, Phyllis, I am delighted to welcome you to Toledo Ohio, a city built on the lands and histories of the Peoria,   (Potawatomi) and Miami tribal nations. It is also the city where my grandparents, immigrants from Egypt, settled, built their lives, and raised their family and shared in a beautiful community that included so many kind families and friends are with us today. Thank you all so much for being here.

In June 2000 what would come to be known as the Maryse and Ramzy Mikhail Endowment Fund was established by the Mikhail family at the University of Toledo. One core aim of the fund was to sponsor an annual lecture dealing with “Arab culture, literature, history, politics, economics or other broadly defined aspects of life in the countries of the Middle East, including issues of peace and justice.”

The inaugural lecture was titled, “Prospects for Peace in the Middle East,” delivered in March 2001 by internationally renowned scholar and activist Noam Chomsky. Referencing the title of the address Professor Chomsky opened by remarking that as we consider what those prospects for peace might be, that we should take, in his words, the realistic approach, which is “to adhere to the famous dictum that we should strive for pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will.”

Our current moment is so precarious, so intense, so polarized and chaotic, so full of human suffering. It is sobering to consider how much has shifted in the time since Chomsky brought those words to us here in Toledo, but also how much has not. I believe this moment demands pessimism of the intellect, by which I understand both Chomsky and Gramsci to whom he’s alluding to mean a critical examination, an accounting. Pessimism here is not defeatism, it is diagnosis.

He then identified Israel Palestine, Iraq, Turkey and the Kurds, and Iran as “areas of ongoing serious violence” and immediately proceeded [at the outset of his remarks] to emphasize the significance of the US role in each of these cases. Here we are, almost twenty years later, gathered here today to hear from, to learn from a distinguished author who has spent much of her life speaking truth to the injustices that occur against the peoples in Israel/Palestine, in Iraq, in Anatolia and the northern Levant. Each of those places, often, though certainly not exclusively, at the hands of the United States government. Because unlike so many of the leaders, forces and movements in the US and in the region that is the subject of today’s talk who are shaping and reshaping our understandings of sovereignty across the world, some of us still believe in the power of the human optimism of the will.

So today we have chosen to bring to Toledo a woman whose life’s work has so powerfully negotiated the pessimism and optimism the challenges we face require. Phyllis has spent much of her life examining the nexus of war and peace and advocating for approaches that bring us closer to the peaceful and just world my grandparents fought for. And in fact, a woman they looked to shape their own understandings of the region and the results of us actions there. When I suggested Phyllis as this year’s speaker, I had no idea that my Teta, Maryse, used to mail my uncle John clippings of her articles while he was away at college. Now, for anyone who knew my grandmother this is wholly unsurprising; but it also wouldn’t surprise those familiar with Phyllis’ work and impact in the anti-war movement in the US. 

She is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, and of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. She writes and speaks widely across the U.S. and throughout the world on Middle East issues including Palestine-Israel, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and US foreign policy — appearing in the media, lecturing at universities and teach-ins, briefing parliamentarians and government officials.  Though it isn’t the focus of our discussion today, Phyllis has been a leading advocate for peace justice and dignity in occupied Palestine. She is a co-founder of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights and the Iraq-era anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice. She co-chaired the UN-based civil society International Coordinating Network on Palestine, and serves on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace. She has served as an informal adviser to several top UN officials on Palestine issues, and was short-listed twice to become the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territory. I believe that her principled stance and analysis over the years has been foundational, instrumental in laying the groundwork for the incredibly inspiring activism of young Jews of conscience on that issue in particular. 

Phyllis Bennis is a force for peace, an advocate who has spent her life analyzing US foreign policy and making accessible to the broader public the debates and complicity they hold. She speaks forcefully in clear terms, providing a window into a region so many dismiss as too complicated. She breaks it down. She helps us digest it. And she shines a light. 

Her most recent books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.

Bennis is the author of nine books. She is also co-editor of Beyond the Storm: A Gulf Crisis Reader (1991) and Altered States: A Reader in the New World Order (1993).

She has contributed articles to the New York Timesthe Washington Post, and USA Today, the Baltimore SunNew York Newsdaythe Christian Science MonitorThe Nation, among many others.

She also provides commentary on TV and radio in the U.S. and abroad, including being on  CNN, the PBS News HourMSNBCDemocracy Now on Pacifica RadioGrit TV, the BBC, and NPR.[4]

My Teta never missed the chance to turn something into a teachable moment, so indulge me for just 30 more seconds….

There are still those of us who believe in certain truths. There are those of us who believe in the pursuit of justice. There are still those of us who live, not only in hope of peace, but who work to build it every day of their lives, by building relationships with others. “There can be no peace without justice, nor justice without truth” and it is in that spirit that I am so delighted to welcome you, Phyllis to Toledo today.

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