Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Overcoming Speechlessness

I notice that Alice Walker has reposted to her blog an essay entitled "Overcoming Speechlessness: a Poet Encounters "the horror" in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Palestine/Israel". I had thought to write something about this essay when I first read it, but I put it aside. Other matters were pressing, and, well, I didn't know where to begin. But now it's back, and rather than grinding my teeth, I'm overcoming my own speechlessness and saying something, hardly everything there is to say, about it.


It's hard to know how to begin to tackle this enormous, sprawling, hateful and clueless essay. Maybe at the top, where there is a picture of Walker posing with "Hamas Sister, Huda Naim, Member of Parliament, and Mother of five children". Maybe just a piece at a time, picking out a piece or two that got my Irish up.

Walker begins the essay with an account of meetings and travels in Africa. She begins with the stories of women in Rwanda and Congo who have survived things that make you want to scream to think of them. And then, she brings us to her understanding of Israel:

Like most people on the planet, I have been aware of the Palestinian-Israel conflict almost my whole life. I was four years old in 1948 when, after being
subjected to unspeakable cruelty by the Germans, after a "holocaust" so many future disasters would resemble, thousands of European Jews were resettled in Palestine. They settled in a land that belonged to people already living there, which did not seem to bother the British who, as in India, had occupied Palestine and then, on leaving it, helped put in place a partitioning of the land they thought would work fine for the people, strangers, Palestinians and European Jews, now forced to live together.

Does the willful ignorance take away your breath yet? The "holocaust" in quotes, which doesn't reflect past treatment of Jews but 'future' disasters, the European Jews who passively "were settled" there? The ignorance of the history of Zionism, of the thriving communities of Jews already living in the land, working and living on land they owned? The communities of Jews living in what is now Israel, since Ottoman times or before? The people who came during the ninteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth, to build a country? The non-European Jews who came after the war--oh, Alice, tell me why you think they came from countries they had lived in since the Babylonian Empire was a going political power, lands like Iraq and Egypt? That's not to even bring up the Jewish people's connection to and presence on this land going back to the Bronze Age, which I'm sure Alice doesn't take into account at all.

So this woman knows nothing, nothing at all, about Israeli history, and yet she is going to write an essay about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From the heart, one supposes.

So many Jews.

Alice wants you to know about all the Jews, seeking justice, who went to Gaza with her. This includes:

A woman in her late fifties or early sixties stood at the front of the bus, as we passed donkey carts and Mercedes Benzes, and spoke of traveling to Palestine without her husband, a Jewish man who was born in Palestine. Several times they had come back to Palestine, renamed Israel, to see family. To attend graduations, weddings, and funerals. Each time they were held for hours at the airport as her husband was stripped, searched, interrogated, and threatened when he spoke up for himself. In short, because his passport was stamped with the place of his birth, Palestine, he was treated like a Palestinian. This Jewish husband sent his best wishes, but he could no longer endure travel in so painful a part of the world.

A Jewish man who was born in Palestine? How could that be, Alice? I thought they were resettled after the war by the Brits. Oh, never mind. I am supposed to believe that Israeli customs officials have never seen a passport issued to someone born in British Palestine before, and treat him like an enemy, because he is 'Palestinian'? Alice, sorry, but this is BS. Your ignorance of the country you see as the stronghold of racism and discrimination is leading you to swallow bubbemeisehs.

Let me tell you another story, and ask why you think this man's wife was not on the bus with you. The grandfather of a woman I know used to go every year, by train, to British Palestine, to pray at the Tomb of the Patriarch. It's a long train ride from Baghdad to Hebron, but he went every year, and then he prayed, not at the Tomb itself, because Jews were not allowed inside, but from the outside, as close as he was permitted to the shrine itself. His children and grandchildren now live in Israel and the United States, because within a decade of the founding of the State of Israel, Iraq was no longer a safe place to live as a Jew. Alice, did your guides introduce you to anyone who could tell you a story like this? Why do you think this man's wife, or his daughter, were not on your bus to tell their stories?


And she describes Gaza, and she asks: If children are not safe playing in their schoolyards, where are they safe?

And I think of pictures of children dead in Sderot, and I wonder at this woman's inability to see more than one snapshot of a conflict.

May God Protect You From The Jews

Alice encounters an old woman in Gaza:

I gave her a gift I had brought, and she thanked me. Looking into my eyes she said: May God protect you from the Jews. When the young Palestinian interpreter told me what she’d said, I responded: It’s too late, I already married one.

What a moment of solidarity, between the Palestinian woman and the leftist American novelist. A racial slur. Beautiful. But of course, Alice has a reason:

I said this partly because, like so many Jews in America, my former husband could not tolerate criticism of Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians. Our very different positions on what is happening now in Palestine/Israel and what has been happening for over fifty years, has been perhaps our most severe disagreement. It is a subject we have never been able to rationally discuss. He does not see the racist treatment of Palestinians as the same racist treatment of blacks and some Jews that he fought against so nobly in Mississippi.

I wonder, Alice, if that might be because you've never bothered to learn the true history and the more complicated stories, and when you hear that from him, you turn off your ears and close your heart. But, no, clearly the ethnic slurs are justified.

I'm being mocking here because I don't know how else to respond. The sheer, stupid, self-justifying ugliness in this passage stopped my heart for a moment.

It's the pretension of awareness that gets to me. The self-anointing as struggler in a cause seen out of context, seen with no historical understanding, or knowledge of the broader world. The photographs with the Hamas 'Sister', with no understanding of what Hamas is, what they have done, who they are. The justifications for everything. The unwavering willingness to be the latest poor dumb American to come along and not look for any hidden truth or moral ambiguities.

May I never have to overcome speechlessness when it comes to lies and ignorance like this.

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