Friday, July 1, 2011

Interview with myself: Debriefing on the FAQ's of the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict

I'm not an expert anything. I'm just a guy. With a blog. Ugh. And most of the time I'm fine with that, but today I feel like I have some answers. So I got the most credible journalist I could find within ten feet of myself: me, to interview... me. I've been in Palestine five months at this point and I think a thing or two about a thing or two. Read on to see my personal take on those sound-bytey political questions we all think contain some kind of truth about the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

What is the situation on the ground in the West Bank?
It is an occupation, where an Israeli state descended from the people who took the land by force in 1948, control, by military might, all aspects of Palestinian daily and long-term existence. This means that travel between areas, building, goods exchange, resources, infrastructure, and legal and police matters are either directly under Israeli control or heavily influenced through the control of a proxy government. This means Israelis are, under international law, responsible for the human rights conditions of their occupied populations. These conditions aren't great, nor are they encouraging to any long-term development from the occupied region. Palestinians are frustrated and often subjected to collective punishment in the form of arbitrary searches and seizures, interrogations, imprisonment without due process on the individual level, and societal/systemic crimes like land grabs, farm and house demolition, barriers that geographically make life impossible for transit or agriculture, and so on.

Every day settlers and hard-line zionists take more land in the West Bank and violently
attack nearby villagers with impunity, under protection from the Israeli army. This results in the fracturing and disabling of the society at slow and unsensational rate. There is no legal recourse for these crimes, so people simply try to live a normal life and let resentment and anger build up under the surface, exhibiting astonishing patience overall. It is very safe for internationals to be in the West Bank, and most Palestinians I know hold resentment only against the occupation as a system rather than the Jewish people as a whole.

Can you address the notion of anti-semitism as it pertains to the Israeli- Palestine question? Why are you sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view?
It's an important but rather simple question. I continually remind myself in the face of the inequality and violence of the root reason I am here: To struggle for a system that is just and equal in its consideration for all people, a system that is motivated for humanitarian rather than capitalistic or militaristic ends. In this vein I fully support an Israeli desire for self-determination and the international concept of Jewish safety. What I cannot support and in fact work or advocate against is the idea that the self-determination and security of Israel can come at the direct detriment of a captive and oppressed people. In the current occupation, the long-term quality of life for Palestinians is ruined. Their ability to have agency, dignity, and respect is completely demolished in the name of Israeli security, based on motivations that are as unconscionable as they are illogical. From a humanitarian perspective I am obligated to fight this, especially because the Jewish people I know and love and talk to pride themselves on their humanitarianism, democratic outlook, and fair-mindedness. Just as from a humanitarian perspective I struggle against endemic injustice, militarism, and class violence in the United States, which theoretically prides itself on similar values. I am against the idea of 'sides' however, more on that later.

None of this is anti-semitic. Anti-semitism was a real blight and the reason we're aware of the term today is because massive atrocities in the past were suffered by the Jewish people, but at their root those atrocities were atrocious because massive groups of people were systematically imprisoned, oppressed, and killed under rampant nationalism and militarism. I resist the manifestations of those things in my time, which include the actions of Israel as a state and Zionism as a movement.

There's also the issue of relative injustice. Israel often justifies its actions by citing violence from Palestinians. The most fair-minded voices cite this violence as evidence of a continuing conflict between an oppressor and the oppressed, the most hawkish and hateful voices bring up racist arguments and dwell on the western misconception of Islam as inherently violent and Arabs as bloodthirsty savages. In a Post-colonial world it's not even worth dealing with these straw man arguments. But what is troubling is when Israel will kill 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza over one winter with large scale explosives, flooring entire city blocks of civilian housing, in response to some randomly fired missiles which are dangerous and inhumane but a minuscule threat in comparison. I focus on the systemic root of the violence: constant militarization, not the hollow justifications for that militarization.

Speaking of that, what about the question of security for the Israeli people?
Security for any people is an important goal, as is the wonderful motivation of a life without fear. In light of these goals it is important to consider the root origins of that insecurity and where the chosen solutions are likely to lead you. One of the most sustainable ways to live without fear is to love your enemies, not in some cheesy idealistic way, but to cultivate a considerate relationship with them over generations that precludes violence and leads to a diverse, multicultural society. This may sound all cutesy in terms of the reality on the ground, but it has existed for centuries around the Holy Land and elsewhere in tolerant pockets. It's just a question of muzzling the war hounds and encouraging this kind of dialogue in the larger political discourse.

One of the most sure-fire ways to live without security and true safety is to separate yourself from what you fear and characterize it as an irrevocable lost cause. This form of prejudice doesn't solve any problems, especially when it's attached to hyper-militarism. If Israel continues to force the solution of a hyper-vigilant militarized compound as their future state, that is exactly what they will get, until they kill themselves or every Muslim around them who they (and we) have incited into violence over 100 years of otherization and colonialization. We owe it to ourselves to recognize the common ground and common future with a population that in reality is incredibly un-scary, and by-and-large patient and steeped in ideas of hospitality and peace.

In short justifying the occupation from a security perspective, or the American support of it, is a short-sighted, self-fulfilling, and destructive attitude to harbor.

What is the current relationship between Israel and America about?
America and Israel have a mirrored relationship to the Arab Middle East as they both base their approaches in defense of an exaggerated fear: which at the moment is called militant Islam, but for America it has worn many masks over the years. The root problem is that America and by extension the world economy is built on unstable capitalist practices that require resource and wage imperialism all over the globe so that the pace of modern life can continue unhindered. This imperialism takes form in the destabilization of local power in order to reap the resource benefits from a weakened and turbulent region. Also it justifies massive military spending, which puts money into the hands of extremely rich organizations and individuals and keeps the population in fear, hesitant to dissent, and chronically under-educated. America's tactics vary from place to place in these matters, but in the Middle East the foreign relations policy has been to support Israel with military aid to the tune of three billion per year (money which perpetuates an otherizing political mindset, excessive militarism, and symbiotically funnels money back into the U.S. military-industrial complex), and support governments that are open to US intervention rather than ones that encourage a representative democracy. Thus, since the foundation of Israel America has treated them as our only true ideological ally in the region, and contributed to inequality and turbulence ever since. I'm reminded of a hard-to-cite quote floating around the internet: “Every time anyone says that Israel is our only friend in the Middle East, I can’t help but think that before Israel, we had no enemies in the Middle East.”

In any case, our ardent support for Israel is was one of the main reasons we are written off by everyone in the Middle East, from Osama Bin Laden to random six-year-olds, as the enemy. Until we move this policy in the direction of true, non-Islamophobic, non-racist humanitarian aims we will make very little progress in diplomatic and civil negotiations, and our self-appointed fate will be endless militarism, violence, inequality and war. No fun.

What can Americans do who are interested in effecting change?
This is where I have to bring up the 'taking sides' thing. I'm clearly against some things, and those things include perspectives that put the security of a few at a vast premium before the human rights of many, especially when the security is an unattainable fantasy in the context of the situation that's been created. I'm also against systemic injustice, and fear as a primary motivator all across the world. At this point I'm not against a Hebrew-speaking place for Jews existing next to or in the same place as an Arabic-speaking place that's predominantly Muslim. I don't care what its name is or who's in charge of it, as long as there's a power balance and every person or culture in that region as access to freedom of expression, dignity, respect, and self-determination within the limitations of what that society can support.

Support of these goals doesn't have to manifest itself specifically toward the Israeli-Palestine conflict, there are huge areas needing work everywhere. From the post-earthquake destruction of Haiti to the failing social systems in the face of drug and gang violence in inner-city America to the brutal responses to democratic voice in Syria, Libya and Bahrain. It's important that we as a people learn as much as we can about these and other conflicts and use them constructively in the context of improving our way of existing in the world. So do what you can, where you're drawn to, and keep an open ear to the similar work being done in other venues and directions.

But as to the specific Israeli-Palestine conflict, basically, you can encourage law-makers to quit spending most of your money on militarism, war mongering, and Israeli aid (again, not because Israelis are BAD, but because there's a power imbalance and we as Americans contribute to it). But more simply you can normalize the dialogue on a understandable level, by arguing that it doesn't make sense to support Israel to the extent we do from a human rights perspective. This can take many forms. There's the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign, which starts with consumer options (bleh, I say just live simply and don't buy crap you don't need in general, not for a political motivation alone) but goes up to policy advocacy and divestment in economic and academic arenas. You can talk to friends and family that unconditionally support Israel and dispel them of unfair or unjust notions with evidence. Or you can come to Palestine and suffer near-death by over-feeding while meeting people, thinking and writing, and doing volunteer work with community-reflective locally-informed projects.

If you're Jewish, however, whoa boy do you have a job to do. Because you're already miles ahead of the rest of us in the lazy public-dialogue scale of credible sources. People will listen, American people will listen, American POLITICIANS will listen if you speak out against crimes against humanity being perpetrated in the Jewish state. Also because whether you like it or not, you're attached to those crazy Zionists in Israel! They're doing things in your name, every day, strapping on M-16's and allowing settlers to assault people in broad daylight in the name of a Jewish homeland. Just like my government has spent the last ten years systematically bombing the Middle East in my name, for the sake of American freedom. So if it bothers you to be conflated with those people because of a common ancestry and common religion, speak out! Change the paradigm! Because unless you represent yourself, they'll continue to represent you.

Feel free to re-post this or share it anywhere if it's of interest to you, just let me know in the comments section. Also if the comments happen to take a turn towards the way public internet comments sometimes do (i.e. knee-jerk ad hominem attacks and obfuscating rants that don't actually address the claims of the article) I'll consider deleting them.


Steve said...

I must commend you on an excellent post, which stands perfectly in line with my feelings on the subject.

The biggest obstacle to peace in this region is 'otherization'. Only a compassionate understanding view of people can overcome this.

Just posted a link-to on facebook.

Jared Alford said...

"Also because whether you like it or not, you're attached to those crazy Zionists in Israel!"

Absurd. Those who speak out against Zionists' occupation would best be advised to lend no credence to representative pretensions, for purposes militaristic or conciliatory, and propose none of their own. Rather than represent an opposite common identity or change the paradigm, one should resist any ideological urge whatsoever. No persons, Jewish or otherwise, has duty or authority to defend against a supposed state's atrocities committed in the name of a national or religious community unless they depend on recognition by that community's values (and they've all sorts of impossible justifications required them). Those who are actually oppressed and disgusted, of any ancestry or religion, ought not authenticate any representative claims in resisting violent acts, but speak directly against the disproportionately violent acts as such and refute all ideological pretensions afterward.

The American government itself has a long way to go before any claim to represent me deserves anything more than a haughty laugh, and anyone of Hebrew descent concerned better have more than that to complain with before I admit their view superior to my own. In my experience, it's far from the case that a Jewish person necessarily or even generally has a more credible view than I do, and I'd feel utterly ludicrous calling the American government mine, knowing even bits about how that government actually operates.

I like the article otherwise, though I still recommend the Le Monde article by Deleuze as one of the best places to start, found here: If you're really a concerned American you'll likely do best to read Edward Said's work.

DBR said...

Hi Steve, thanks! Good to hear and I'm glad you felt it worth spreading.

Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I think in my basic personal beliefs I agree with you completely, no one should feel beholden to the ideologies that make claims in their name. In fact I don't think we disagree at all, I think my language above was lazy.

I wrote that Jews had a special ability to be vocal in this conflict (yeah and I said they're obligated to, that was a bit too preachy), because the reality I see is that those ideological claims of representation become powerful in swaying public opinion and defining what it means to be part of any particular group. When a group speaks for a whole or their actions become damning of that whole, it seems a good step to fight against that characterization while still owning the category as an attempt to re-define or broaden understanding of what it means to be in that category. Your example above, of refuting violence along un-ideological lines but for the sake of opposing that violence, is a good example of people fighting to re-define that paradigm. Further, I think if someone can offer an alternative definition at the same time it becomes more powerful more concerned with causal aspects of the struggle. It also gives us venues and blocs to work in. It's all well and good to say "I'm anti-violence" or "I'm anti-imperialism," I am both those things, but If I don't have an effective venue to work within in response to that then it's going to be violence as usual, militarism as usual, imperialism as usual. Because those ideological blocs don't sleep and they're strong and effective.

I'm not Jewish and don't want to dig myself into a series of extrapolations of the relationship of nationalist zionism and more humanitarian values, but I will talk about it from an American perspective:

I, like you (I assume) am an American who doesn't feel represented by my country. But I'm still an American. I was born there and I'll go back there and I pay taxes there (which will end up supporting imperialism and militarism) and it's the national construct within which I do my work and get my views (even if they're by and large rejections of the political/ideological trends around me). If I rejected this country and continued to exist in it, it may be easier on my personal conscience, but it also will be unrealistic, because I'll still be there. And every time I travel I will be simplified and regarded as belonging to that system. And bastards will still be trying to justify violence, xenophobia, waste, and arrogance as American values.

So when I refute them I say, yes I'm a humanitarian who opposes this from a perspective of justice, yes I'm an environmentalist who opposes this from a perspective of simplicity, and yes I'm a self-confident happy person who opposes logics of fear, but I'm also an American who opposes the dominant paradigms of American foreign policy. That's a different and involved voice than the voice of a Palestinian, just as a Jew's voice from Pennsylvania is different but relevant to the discussion because their heritage, mythologies, and believe structure is being used as a bargaining chip.

I love that article and just about every link by it, by the way. Thanks.

Jared Alford said...

"When a group speaks for a whole or their actions become damning of that whole, it seems a good step to fight against that characterization while still owning the category as an attempt to re-define or broaden understanding of what it means to be in that category."

I think I was wrong in saying that those affected by the violent acts or opportunities lost at the hands of military occupation ought not propose any representative claims. I should say, rather, that they aren't obligated to, but may in fact more frequently do well to attempt to "change the paradigm" rather than oppose trespasses as such, at least if they've already identified with--or, as near inevitable, found themselves incapable of extricating themselves entirely from--their region's dominant communities. It's rare that enraged Palestinians won't be Muslims and folks of Hebrew blood who feel unjustly co-opted won't be religiously Jewish, and both parties will inevitably feel compelled to change the paradigm rather than simply disavow it.

Moreover, you're right to note that any individual, whatever their ethnic origins, beliefs, and 'disbeliefs'/non-beliefs, who attempts to oppose the Zionists' trespasses in a distinctly non-ideological way will likely be interpreted as anti-ideological. In other words, they'll be taken as proposing an anti-paradigmatic (or divergently paradigmatic) stance rather than simply maintaining distance from the paradigms altogether. My hope would be that offended individuals might find a mode of complaint that doesn't rely on identifying themselves with a pre-existent value system, and that those who do rely on such a system might not assume greater efficacy in their complaints (or attacks) ipso facto, but it's unlikely that non-identifiers would be interpreted as doing so even if their articulations succeeded, or that they'd even receive much attention comparatively. Not impossible, but unlikely.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your articles on the time you spent in the Mideast. You definitely had an exciting first hand experience. I suggest that next time you spend more time with the Israelis. From reading your posts it appears you left with the same simplistic, canned, one-sided views you came with. In addition I recommend you read up on the history of Israel as well. There are numerous historical errors in your writing.

The Palestinians are not the noble indigenous heroes and the Israelis are not the evil European colonialists. These concepts are fed to American students like yourself by equally clueless academics and have little application in the real world.

DBR said...

Thanks for the honest comment Anonymous. Always nice being called simplistic and canned. An interesting thing to me is how complication and nuance can become a paralytic, and yet the settlements are still being built, every day. And people live under a occupier that refuses to try and understand them, every day. And the world gets angrier. So tell me, are your views nuanced? I'd love to read them if that's the case. Or do you just subscribe to a very different can?

I'm aware that I come off as sympathetic for Palestinians, but were the tables turned and Israelis had a massive scarcity of rights, power, options, money, economic clout, media, and international allies, I'd be learning Hebrew quick as 1-2-3! If you spend any time crossing the borders you see a people without power, and a people with lots of it.

Are Palestinians faultless? No. Of course not. Are they oppressed? You tell me they aren't, and we'll talk about who needs to spend more time learning about the other side.

Anonymous said...

My point is that if you had visited Israel in the 1990s you would have seen a very different country. You would also have seen a very different West Bank. The Oslo Accords were proceeding along nicely (more or less) and there was far more free movement and interaction between Israelis and Palestinians.

When the 2nd Intifada started up, only then did these extreme security measures come into being such as the separation barrier and the hundreds of checkpoints between every town. The events that prompted the Israelis to resort to these measures were not imaginary and the product of a militaristic mentality.

Israel of the 1990s leaned much further left and was far more open to reconciliation with the Palestinians. As a result of Palestinian violence and unwillingness to accept Israelis as neighbors, the Israeli left has been completely discredited. With the left no longer there to hold them back, the settler movement and other extremists on the right have run wild.

DBR said...

Aw man, I responded to this about 2 weeks ago and I guess forgot to hit 'send'! Doh. I appreciated you coming back, and think your perspective makes sense. I was only in the region for 6 months in one particular climate, you're right. And I think your point of the left being discredited is a troubling and correct one.

Couple things:
An essential truth about oppression/occupation (you'll forgive me if I roll those two together?), I think, though, is that until the oppressed group is given real autonomy and decision making capability, no negotiations or peace process will be effective. The difference between having no self-determination and using your situation as a scapegoat is a slim one, however, and I certainly don't have any good answers as to how to avoid that until say, the entire developed world takes its big nose out of international affairs. And that's not going to happen. So in the meantime it's a question of knowledge and tactics. The tactic that I see as destined to fail is militarism.

I don't think the threats on Israel are imaginary, no more than the violence in say, Chicago, is imaginary. I do think that it's disproportionately responded to, and that the more military is relied on the more it maintains a certain relationship and power balance that will never allow Israel or Palestine out of their current situation.

Anonymous said...

As far as decision making capability and autonomy, are you saying that Arafat didn't have both of those when he met with Barak & Clinton @ Camp David in 2000? He was undisputed head of the PLO & PA.

Intellectuals always get caught up in the concept of "proportionate" and "disproportionate" responses. As a policy maker, you have to keep your population safe. If suicide bombers are entering your country, even one is too many. You have to prevent all of them from coming in.

If you only respond with tit for tat reprisals, you are losing the war. Israel would not be content if for example: every time 3 Israeli civilians are killed and 10 wounded the IDF went and randomly selected an equivalent number of Palestinians to kill or injure. That would be absurd. The idea is to either shield your population completely so that they can live a normal life or deal your enemy a heavy blow to at least make it more difficult for him to continue to attack.

As far as militarism as an ugly concept, should the Israelis do nothing? You are from Salt Lake City Utah. Do you think the good people of Salt Lake City would be content with suicide bombers blowing up in the middle of their malls? with katyusha rockets landing at random out of the sky on buildings? If that were to happen, the US response would be anything but proportional.

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