Friday, July 23, 2010

I Am Trying So Hard To Have Patience With Bad History

Alice Walker is trying my last nerve one more time. You may recall that Alice has popped up in this blog in the past, speculating that Israeli sandals are made with prison labor and exchanging racist blessings with little old ladies.

Well, now she's written an introduction to Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation by Saree Makdisi. I will probably never read this book--I imagine that fairly few people will read this book--but the introduction is so very special that I have to share a few passages with you.

Alice begins with what has become a fairly common theme in her writings about Israelis and Palestinians, the analogy that she draws between her childhood in the racist American South, and the situation of the Palestinians. She continues:

After four hundred years of enslavement followed by over a century of brutal harassment and soul thrashing by white supremacists who had all along wanted only our labor or our land (when we, African or Native American people, possessed land) this internalized self-hatred kept people of color in the United States timid and bowed down with feelings of unworthiness and shame. Like the Palestinians of the last Sixty years, since the coming of European Jews to settle in Palestine after Hitler and the Holocaust in the Thirties and Forties, or like the indigenous people of South Africa (or Africa in general) my people (African, Native American and Poor European) could not fathom, for the longest time, what had hit them. After all, who could imagine it?

Please note, once again, that for Alice, Jews living in what is now Israel before the 1930s simply do not exist, despite the fact that in 1914, say, Jews were 7.6% of the population of Palestine, and in 1922, it was over 11%. Once again, also, for Alice, Jews are 'Europeans'. The thought of proud Sephardi families tracing their lineage in Jerusalem back dozens of generations, or of Jews from North Africa and points farther east made refugees from Arab countries simply does not exist in the hypnotic historical fantasy she's engaging in here.

There you are sitting by your own fire, living peacefully with your family and clan, never having harmed anyone (for the most part), praising and worshiping your own peculiar god. In come a trickle, and then a flood of strangers. First, you feed them, offer them a seat by your fire. Let them admire your little ones. Perhaps you generously teach them how to plant whatever grows around your compound. Perhaps you give them a turkey to keep them from starving in what they persist in calling “the wilderness.” Perhaps you lend them a starter set of goats. Living in the lap of generous nature, speaking generally, there is a certain kind of greed and stinginess that is quite beyond your understanding.

And here comes the next part of the fantasy...the simple, tribal, bucolic life assumed to have happened in Palestine before the nasty (not even Poor) European Jews showed up. I think what Alice is presenting here is loosely based on the Thanksgiving story we were taught as children--if she mentioned teaching the Yahud to plant fish in the corn hills, I could be sure--but it does seem to leave out the complex history of the region, in favor of a sort of general sentimentalized fantasy about simple tribal life.

In contrast to that simple, honorable life, of course, is the 'greed and stinginess' of the European Jew, quite beyond the understanding of the innocent and naive Palestinians. Greedy, greedy Jews. Enough said.

And of course, missing from Alice's patronizing portrayal of happy rural Arabs is any understanding that these simple country folk know what Jews are. They have a long history with them. They've banned them from holy sites of their own faith, for example, and occasionally massacred them. Alice refers a few passages back to "being black and living in the United States under American style apartheid. The daily insults to one’s sense of being human. Not just the separate toilets and water fountains with their blatantly unequal lettering and quality of paint, but the apparent determination of the white population, every moment, at every turn, to remind any person of color, no matter how well spoken or well dressed, or how well educated or in what position of authority in the black community, that they were niggers, objects of ridicule, contempt, and possible violent abuse." Yes. That's what it was like to live as a Jew in the Arab world, Alice.

I'm reminded of a seder where I listened as a man told his daughters about growing up Jewish in Baghdad. "We had good friends who weren't Jewish," he said, "but you had to remember all the time that anything could happen." Then he told a story about walking to school while boys threw stones at him and called him a Jew.

But I digress, I digress from Alice's happy ahistorical history of the European Jewish Conquest of the Palestinian Tribal Lands. Let's look at the next paragraph.

Way back in Europe, though, your “guests” have come up with a plan to assuage their hunger for more: more land, more money, more crops, more food, more things to buy and sell, and drawn maps that have your “territory” on it like a large pie, and they are busy dividing up slices of it. You, sitting by your fire, your little ones clamoring for a bedtime story or another mango, date, olive or fig, are not on the map at all.

At this point, please notice, Hitler, who's been so far presumed to be these folks' reason for being here just vanishes, and the Jews morph into full-fledged European imperialist invaders. Please note, also, that I am not actually sure that mangoes were grown in Mandate Palestine. I could be wrong, and Israel does grow mangoes for export now. And this is a dumb thing to focus on. But I'm not sure about the mangoes.

Coming back to your fire, the strangers smile at you, learn your language, as if respecting it, admire your culture. But you notice they’ve brought strange gadgets that they use to measure things. At first you and your neighbors laugh: these crazy people, you say to each other, why, they would measure even the sky! But soon you do not laugh, because they have measured a road that goes right through your living room. They have destroyed all the villages on one side of yours, already. You did not know, because you couldn’t imagine anyone doing such a thing, and besides, you do not understand their language, though they, many of them now, certainly understand yours. Why should you learn the language of your guests, you think.For a long time it doesn’t make sense to make the effort. And when you begin to understand that your guests are your enemies, it seems horrible to you to try to learn to speak their wicked tongue.

I'm deeply intrigued by the way the whole Israeli War of Independence, especially the part where five peaceful, rustic, innocent Arab nations rolled tanks into the fledgling State of Israel, appears to simply not exist in Alice's narrative.

I'm equally impressed at her portrayal of mid-twentieth-century Palestinians as having, apparently, never seen 'measuring gadgets' before.

But mostly I'm appalled. This woman either knows nothing of the history of this conflict she opines so freely on, or she's lying about it to appeal to a certain audience, and either is shocking. Alice Walker's version of the origins of the Israeli/Palestinian struggle is historically false, bigoted against both Jews and Arabs, and based on a twee, prepackaged narrative of the invasion of indigenous lands. Epic fail.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that she is mixing up the Arab-Israeli Conflict with Star Wars and the Palestinians with the Ewoks. Won't someone help this poor woman and direct her to a history book?

BBJ said...

I'm having a terrible image now of Ewoks in khaffiyehs, but yes, that does seem to be where she's coming from...not terribly respectful, IMNSHO.

The Red Headed Rebbetzin said...

I enjoyed Alice Walker's writing in the past and it is important to point out she is an excellent FICTION writer, even here apparently.