Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Last week I attended an event at Hunter College called Palestine: Then & Now – The Road to Freedom, presented as part of Israeli Apartheid Week, a seven-year-strong show of support for Palestinian rights, observed on approximately 50 US college campuses each year, and usually attracting some much-needed attention to the BDS movement of nonviolent resistance against the Israeli occupation and brutal treatment of the Palestinian territories. I was still fired up from the previous week’s Baird-Weiner debate and was eager to get information on the growing movement from the mouths of activists on the front lines, so I arrived early. Good thing too, since the organizers failed to mention in any of the advance publicity for the event that attendees would need to go to a different building on campus to receive a pass to be admitted to the North building where the Lang Auditorium was. This, unfortunately, was the first of many frustrations I, and others, had with the event. The lackluster organization, presentation, and attention to detail was a constant irritant, directing attention away from the importance of the message being conveyed and the messengers’ qualifications. Fortunately for the organizers, the audience appeared to be largely sympathetic. Absent was the usual squad of loud-mouthed, young pro-Israeli men in yarmulkes, shouting back at the speakers. Perhaps the word just hadn’t gotten out.

I left my camera bag and coat to save my front row seat and went out to the hall to look for the printed handouts the guy next to me was reading. There was a small group of students outside, none of whom offered me any welcome or any materials, so I dug around in some nearby boxes and found a few cards and a one-sheet that urged anti-Israeli activists to avoid anti-Semitism. Typical apologist Left, I thought. Like the Democrats who allow themselves to be forced to the defensive against the Republican framing of events, here, I thought is the anti-Israeli version. We’re going to be attacked as anti-Semites and as being against the very existence of Israel, so we have to put some pre-emptive energy into emphasizing that it isn’t any more anti-Semitic to deplore the actions of the Israeli government than it is anti-Christian to deplore the actions of the US government and its military. It’ an important point, but I feel that these defenses as a pre-emptive are a waste of time and worse. They buy into the framing of the issue used by dogmatic Zionists, diverting attention away from the litany of Israeli human rights violations, violations of international law, and the ongoing US support for same. It’s a kind of rhetorical dualism that is very easy to get sucked into. Stating these apologies and defenses upfront don’t sway entrenched loyalists to Israel. They’ll still call someone like me a self hater and any Arab an anti-Semite. It doesn’t matter. In the rhetoric of defenders of Israel they will still attribute all opposition to anti-Semitism, and insist that Israel is merely defending itself, an innocent victim, an open democracy, not an abuser of human rights.

The first speaker at Palestine: Then & Now, was Tahani Salah, a Palestinian slam poet from Brooklyn who fired off a couple of spoken word pieces in the now cliched style of hip hop rhythms and angry first-person posturing. I have nothing against performers taking an “in your face” approach, like Salah’s, in fact I appreciate it, but I prefer when they have something coherent and meaningful to say. To me, her performance was all about her delivery and the feelings she spoke of having, or witnessing, without much indication of what brought those feelings forward. I didn’t catch anything of direct relevance to the question of Palestine. She did introduce one piece as being about a conversation she had with a Palestinian mother, but between her lines about “a place of forgotten beginnings,” and her assertion to herself that “if tomorrow never comes you’ll be happier,” she might as well have been wailing about conditions in her neighborhood in Brooklyn. The audience obviously appreciated her a lot more than I did, cheering her on. I’m used to that. A lot of people seem to respond to the conformist style of slam and reward its practitioners for their forcefulness and fire above any genuine gift of language or storytelling. I need something more. Tell me about that place, and its people. Tell me about their plight and yours, not just your anger and sadness. Throwing big truths into the air demands more than volume and passion. True gravitas comes from somewhere more inventive, crafted, and wise.

Next up was Lamis Deek, a passionate and articulate Palestinian-American attorney, and co-chair of Al-Awda New York. She apologized in advance for being long-winded, joking that she makes her living by talking, and has a tendency to go on a bit. I’m always a little worried when speakers or performers warn me about their shortcomings, but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt, having seen a couple of YouTube clips and finding her very knowledgeable, direct and charismatic. I disagree with some of what I believe are her aspirations for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but I’m not unsympathetic. Unfortunately she rambled and digressed her way through more than an hour’s time, attempting to explain the origins of Zionism, and the full history of the entire region of Palestine, giving special attention to the continued displacement of the Palestinian people and bringing it around to the dreary state of the occupation today. It was way too much to present, too wide in scope, and hard to absorb, considering the level of detail Deek employed and her constant leaps of digression, frequent snorting asides to rebut common pro-Israeli revisionism, which only made it harder to follow her overlong oratory. One minute she’d be talking about Lord Balfour and the next she’d jumped back to Biblical time to talk about the Canaanites and then back to the Gaza Massacre of 2008. It was very frustrating to try and take notes. At first I was with her, but frankly it didn’t seem to me that she knew what kind of talk she was there to give; was it a passionate rant of personal views or a scholarly breakdown of “the story so far?” If she had restricted herself to either approach I think she would have been wonderful, but she got herself into sticky situations more than once by blurring the lines between the two. Her introduction to Zionism was mostly very informative and illuminating, in a fairly detached, pseudo-scholarly mode, but later in her talk she made vehement statements of judgment (such as her reference to the “vulgarity of Zionism”) that injured her credibility. If her entire speech had been focused this way it would have been more effective. Instead she came off as struggling to hang on to her objectivity, the kind of demeanor that encourages the suspicions of secret anti-Semitism from pro-Israeli detractors and their cohorts. She occasionally bent facts in subtle ways to make her points more weighty and didn’t distinguish herself very well when at her first mention of Ariel Sharon she broke into an aside saying “last I heard he’s in a vegetative state now, right?” No matter how evil Sharon is, and he is evil, this mocking aside only made Ms. Deek seem callous and unserious. I can surely sympathize, and I am not suggesting we shower thugs with love, but what was the point in this immature aside? She also listed attack after attack on the Palestinians without any mention whatsoever of Hamas’ rockets and suicide bombers. By not mentioning them at all she reduced the credibility of her cause, since anyone critical could have easily assailed her as being a one-sided analyst, making her very important and factual points easy to dismiss as propaganda. Again, fortunately for Ms. Deek the audience was largely sympathetic.

When Deek finally gave the floor over to Randa Wahbe from Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, I felt a sigh of relief from the crowd, but frustration set in very quickly as Wahbe indulged in the irritatingly all-too-common practice of projecting bullet-pointed Power Point slides and reading them to us. Few things get on my nerves as much as this, which combined with her bashful blushing at every audio-visual fuck up (the guy in the booth wasn’t much help) had many of us squirming with impatience in no time. Her slides were loaded with grammatical errors and other mistakes that distracted from her message, and some of her most adamant assertions were never backed up with facts. Early on, she insisted that “it’s very important to use the word ‘apartheid’” to describe the Israeli policies, but provided no justification other than the fact that it’s accurate. This damaged her credibility in my eyes. There actually are some good reasons to use the word “apartheid,” like the parallel it draws with the history of South Africa that Americans are more aware of and sympathetic to, as well as the inherent racism in the Israeli policies which the word “apartheid” underscores. But I didn't hear Wahbe elucidate these. When a slide came up advocating the boycott of pro-Israeli businesses, with twin logos showing for Starbucks coffee and Sabra hummus, she blushed again, as she admitted that while she personally thinks there are valid reasons to boycott Starbucks (for "corporatism") they “don’t fall under BDS guidelines,” without explaining what those guidelines were, or why Starbucks’ logo was on the slide in the first place. A few minutes later when the a/v assistants were having a hard time getting one of Ms. Wahbe’s videos to play, she took a few questions, and I asked about the Starbucks reference. She said that the logo was just there to show contrast: Starbucks = OK, Sabra = not OK. Meanwhile, there are myriad accusations online against Starbucks for raising money or offering other support for Israel and the IDF, all steadfastly denied by Starbucks’ website, but Wahbe didn’t mention any of this controversy, not even for the purpose of refuting it herself. It made her seem unprepared and less knowledgeable than I know she is, having read good commentary by her, even in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. The question blurted from the audience and met with the most in-kind enthusiasm from the panel was, “what kind of hummus CAN we eat?” Deek and Wahbe batted that one around for a couple minutes, with Deek advocating making your own, (right on) but also lauding Whole Foods’ own brand as one of the best. Funny that this was the liveliest part of the event. Hummus.

This, combined with two slides in a row containing glaring grammatical errors, and a video with unintelligible testimony from a Palestinian man about (I think) Lev Leviev’s West Bank settlements (thankfully, an audience member asked Wahbe to summarize what he’d said when the video ended) caused me to leave a few minutes before the end of the event, feeling that I’d learned nothing new. It felt like I’d just watched a little extra-credit assignment by a couple of undergrads, and if I were their professor I would have given them the credit, but as a concerned Jewish US citizen interested in making connections with pro-Palestinian organizations, learning more about the BDS movement, and maybe making a difference, I found it seriously lame.

On my way out I stopped to check out the refreshments the Hunter SJP had advertised would be available, and it was pretty comical. About a dozen little paper bowls of Lay brand-related chips and Cheetos were laid out; about enough for a tenth of the crowd, and next to them a row of Coke products in cans. Never mind that Frito-Lay are in a partnership with the Strauss Group in Israel (makers of Sabra) and that Coca-Cola are one of the most staunch supporters of Israel since the 1960’s. I had to laugh. Someone just sent out for snacks without thinking about it or checking the list of brands they’d just been showing us in the recital hall. I went home excited to write, and to criticize these women as being an utter disappointment.

But then I woke up the next day feeling guilty pangs. Who the hell am I to criticize? Here are these well-intentioned young people doing important work, direct action to oppose brutal policies my government supports, and I am doing…what exactly? Blogging? Writing? Photographing? Isn’t it rather pathetic of me to sit in judgment while these people, whose lives have been far more directly affected than mine by the Israeli occupation, put themselves out there in a very real and substantive way? I offer my criticisms of the event at Hunter in the spirit that I hope my honest observations will be helpful, just as the work of these women was instructive to me. I mean that. However, the discussion of Israel-Palestine is so important…and I meet compassionate, intelligent American people all the time who were completely unaware of the reality of the Israeli occupation until hearing about it via the BDS movement. This is life and death stuff. We’re not fighting for longer hours at the school library; this is human rights! We need to be serious to be taken seriously. Maybe that’s why the pro-Israeli youth brigade didn’t show up to scream back at Deek and Wahbe--they knew it wasn’t that big a deal. It should have been a big deal.

No comments: