Saturday, January 15, 2011

Palestine-America: One Year Away, a Million Miles

Well, it's been a whole year since I last set foot in Palestine, and this blog has been dormant for even more than that. But this morning I woke up self-reflective about the distance this has put between me and Palestine, Israel, the unevolving situation and my friends there. This quickly led me to some thoughts about living in the US after having witnessed the Israeli occupation and conquest, in a universe of bias and ignorance.

This is not going to be a happy blog entry. If I can muster it, I'll make it hopeful.
Don't ask too much of me this morning.

After a year, I've gotten used to living here. Life in America is pleasant, work is stimulating, and there's still a sense of openness to new ideas and new people, which makes my work quite often stimulating. Our neighborhood is lovely, peaceful, well kept but not too suburban -- it's still lively and close to places of culture. In spite of the stereotype, there are a lot places for cultural expression in the US, for art, for creativity, even for community. The city where we live is international enough, that you will run frequently into first and second generation immigrants, as well as old-blood Americans with ties to the Peace Corps and other opportunities to see the world. You can find places of eclectism, diversity, culture and intellect.

The dominant flavor is one of ease, peacefulness and comfort. Although weekend conversations can drift to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, which presumably is over, those are distant, potential risks for the nation, not pressing threats. The news are full of crises, as everywhere, but there was far more debate about the potential invasion of privacy of the TSA's new procedures, than the why and how we ended up in a Total Recall-like brand new world. The news are full of Tea-Party folks trying to "take back the country". And it seems that their main source of anger against the current president (who is black but this has nothing to do with it) is that he is a tyrant who is increasing health insurance coverage to the American working class. Also he pursued the Bush policy of saving capitalism by bailing out the banks -- a clear sign that he is an anti-capitalist set on establishing socialism (which I hear is a bad thing). Also he is black, but this has nothing to do with it.

That's what the news cover. That and the fact that a lunatic used a semi-automatic to kill a dozen people or so because he was deranged and having a bad day. The news debate whether this proves the danger of the right-wing's "lock and load" rhetoric, or the dangers of the left's criticism of the "lock and load" rhetoric. There's also a debate about whether Obama's speech asking people to mourn together and get along without blaming each other, wasn't a treasonous attack on the right. That and the fact that he's black, but this has nothing to do with it.

In this context, it's already hard to pay attention to Afghanistan were the US and NATO Coalition are at war. How is one to pay attention to Israel and Palestine?

When circumstances or my own sheer stupidity lead me to breach the topic, I am faced with three types of responses:
1- Absolute total and crass ignorance. I will try to describe what is happening, and how the US are heavily involved, subsidizing and arming the military occupation and terrorizing of a civilian population, and I will get blank stares, occasional gratitude for having brought some "awareness of the larger world", and the kind of nods Stephen Hawkins must get from his aunt Irma when he explains his theory about a negative value of time preceding the Big Bang.
2- Vague interest and concern for "those poor people who are suffering, but what can we do?". This gets compounded with a lot of different strands, from the classic "It's been going on for thousand of years - there's nothing to do about it.", to "Those poor Palestinian people; it's really the fault of politicians -- they never try to help the people.", or "We should remain neutral; it's not our job to intervene" (based on the assumption that arming and funding the most powerful military in the Middle East is somehow "neutral").
3- Finally, the implied or articulated cold rhetoric of "there will be more Palestinian blood spilled if they don't get the point that Israel will have its way."
It's almost refreshing to run into people who really do get what is happening. "The Palestinians have a boot on their face, a gun to their temple, and we'll pull the trigger if they continue being a nuisance." Now, it doesn't always come out as harshly. A lot of this is implied, muted, hidden behind the propaganda tales of Ehud Barak's "generous offer", clear convictions that Israel is a peaceful state, a democracy, faced by rabid fanatics who do not want peace and who want to kill all Jews. I'm serious, it's almost refreshing when someone stops the pretense for just one second and says--as I've heard--"listen, you may be right, and all this peace talk may sound sensible, but at the end of the day we just have to make sure that, when all hell breaks loose, we are left standing and they learn the lesson."
As I said, refreshing... Or something like this.

So, at some point, given the pleasant environment and the option of an interaction that leaves you dumbfounded, frustrated, or fuming, you start going along with the flow. Put a cartoon on your office door. Hang a keffyah over a window frame. Post an article on Facebook. "Like" someone's comment. On occasion go to a movie. Refrain from listening or watching the news on the networks or even on cable. Listen on NPR until the lesser but still present bias makes you sick. Switch to Radio Pacifica and Democracy Now, ill-comforted by the thought that you're listening to a broadcast which most people ignore or would consider "alternative". In this case it is truly "alternative".

So, you spend days without raising the issue with anyone. What's the point?
You grew weary of writing to Congressmen and Senators who reply with ready-made politically correct (aka Israel-first) language and who, for 90% of them, supported the bombing of Lebanese children during the last war, voted resolutions of support to Ariel Sharon, or supported Israel in its massacre of the Gaza population.

Even trying to get a church to pray for peace and examine the US astounding investments in weapons of targeted or massive destruction is like pulling teeth. I think it would be easier to turn the annual Christmas nativity scene into a version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, than to try and show Little Town of Bethlehem, a brilliant movie about a Christian, a Muslim and a Jewish non-violent peace activists.

Once in a while, you run into a Palestinian friend, an Israeli heroic peace activist, someone with conscience and awareness who comforts you, reminds you that this isn't just a bad dream, that it is a reality that gnaws at your soul and joy. Then you return to the office.
For your own sake, you make an effort not to bring up the topic all the time.
One of my clients once asked me to share my experience living in Palestine. I did, with all due sensitivity and civility. She thanked me profusely. A month later Israel sent troops to board a Turkish boat in international water and killed I think nine people on that boat, before towing it to Ashkelon and arresting the international travelers for "illegally entering Israeli territory." Normal, regular, expected insanity. My client asked me why the Turks had not "used the normal channels for providing assistance to Gaza?"
How do you stay polite and respond to this. I think I had a split second choice to make. I could--option 1--smile and move on. Or I could--option 2--yell, "Do you have any idea what you're saying, you f***ing a**hole? Are you so racist and blind to call normal what is happening there? Does not your total ignorance and blindness throw even one grain of sand in the well-oiled propaganda which passes for an opinion in your p*ss-poor s**t of a brain?"
I still have my job, so I'll let you guess which option I took.

In the end, it gets difficult to call or write to my Palestinian friends whom I've left behind. At least when I lived there, I had the impression--the illusion perhaps--that I was at least sharing the struggle and the suffering in some small manner. Now, I can drive to California and back without a checkpoint. And, with all its weaknesses, America is still a place where a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian or a Zoroastrian have the same rights in front of the law. No one has to take a separate road and face hours at a checkpoint to go to work. All people enjoy the same roads. Along with me.

To seal the deal of my alienation from Palestine, I just have to read the newspaper. Even "balanced" reporting is so skewed. You get ecstatic when a journalist suggests that Palestinians are not monsters who eat their children and dream of nothing but 74 virgins. "Waw; this guys is more balanced", you find yourself saying, even if the article suggests that Israel is "helping" the Fayyad government establish rule of law in West Bank cities. Once you've read Charles Krauthammer and Georges Will, anyone not cheering for the death of Palestinian children as a humanitarian necessity sounds like a peacenick.

So, when I think of my friends, Bassam, Nassim, Saheer, Fyrial, all the children, Mahmoud, Abdallah, Wajdi, Hanadi, Ali, Nadira, Bishara, our church community in Jerusalem, my former colleagues, I feel close to those who are in exile because they share the powerlessness of distance. I know not to believe this feeling, but I feel somewhat guilty when I think or talk to my friends in Gaza, Bethlehem, Nablus, or Ramallah. I am literally worlds apart and years apart.

The one thing that raises my spirit is when I hear of Palestinian or Israeli groups' initiatives for peace and reconciliation in the land. I'm so grateful for those Israeli, often Jewish friends, like Other Voice, who have taken a stand for conscience, as well as groups like the Holy Land Trust who are pushing for freedom from any alienation in the land of Palestine, foreign or domestic. The illusion about my own relevance has disappeared, so I have to have faith and support them, as modestly as I can.

Finally, I have tried to participate in a prayer initiative.

I know what the less religious among you will think: prayer is a sign of surrender, weakness and despair.
To which I can only respond: point well taken. Yes to all of the above. Haven't you just read about how I feel here?

So, prayer is surrender. And certainly, if I felt any less powerless and weak, I would dodge prayer. But it's sometimes the only thing which turns despair into hope. The least I can do is strive to keep hope, and with this hope and my words and small actions, try to encourage the peacemakers who do the real world. Try to see them persevere also in hope, with persistence and vision, against all obstacles.

Soumoud and Peace.


1 comment:

dennis hodgson said...

I'm sure you don't want my sympathy, but you certainly have my support. As an Englishman, I started by wholeheartedly supporting the policies of Israel: the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War and the raid on Entebbe I cheered. But I started to change my mind following Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and through the intifadas, the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the attack on Lebanon in 2006, and the brutal assault on Gaza in 2009, my feelings have become strongly anti-Israel.

I wrote a detailed analysis of Israel and its policies last year, Revenge Is Sour, which you might care to read.