Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A state without a state - Part II - When Is a State Not a State?

When is a state not a state? When it’s called Palestine.

It’s ironic on so many levels that the “unilateral” action of President Mahmoud Abbas in going to the U.N. to ask for Palestinian statehood is so roundly condemned by the U.S. and the Israeli government.

First, it’s not unilateral, at least not with regard to the international community. It’s precisely the opposite. Abbas and others in the Palestinian Authority traveled to many countries in the last year, rounding up the support they needed for a multilateral declaration of statehood, and he made his request to the ultimate multilateral body – the United Nations. It’s only “unilateral,” as I explained in my last post, with regard to the Palestinian people, who have expressed no mandate for seeking statehood for some Palestinians while permanently sacrificing the rights of others. The fact that the U.S. and Israel don’t agree that this – or any other time – is a good time for Palestinian autonomy doesn’t make it “unilateral,” it merely makes it not subservient to U.S.-Israeli interests.

Second, the Israeli government has always been a big fan of unilateral actions. Establishment of more than 120 settlements housing half a million Israeli citizens on Palestinian land has been the biggest one, pursued by every Israeli government since 1967 (or really since 1949, when Israel claimed territory it had conquered in the war that followed the U.N. declaration which declared its borders). It’s a supreme irony that one of the bases on which Israel today claims that Palestine has no right to statehood is its failure to “establish clear borders,” when it is Israel that has been whittling away at Palestinian borders for sixty-three years. [Huge shout out to my friend Henry Norr for getting NPR to publish on its website, “In two stories posted on npr.org in less than a year, NPR has underestimated the number of Israeli Jews living in settlements in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. NPR was wrong simply because the source it used – the much-respected CIA “World Factbook” – is wrong on that point and has been for several years.” I stumbled on that when I was checking to make sure my numbers were accurate – which they were.]

Remember unilateral disengagement? This was the comatose former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for withdrawal from Gaza in recognition that the “Roadmap to Peace” championed by the Quartet – U.S., European Union, Russia and U.N. had failed. Sharon announced the plan in December 2003, saying “…if in a few months the Palestinians still continue to disregard their part in implementing the Roadmap then Israel will initiate the unilateral security step of disengagement from the Palestinians.”

Though at first, the Bush administration condemned the move in language very similar to the Obama administration’s statements on Abbas’s initiative: “The United States believes that a settlement must be negotiated, and we would oppose any effort -- any Israeli effort to impose a settlement.” (statement by Scott McClellan, December 18, 2003)¸ four months later the administration “caved in” to the fact that Israel could not be dissuaded and supported the plan, which was carried out with great fanfare in the summer of 2005.

So why must unilateral actions by Israel be “dissuaded” and eventually acceded to, and “unilateral” pronouncements – with no action to back them up – by Palestinian leaders punished with cutting off aid? Especially when Israel receives five and a half times as much U.S. aid as the Palestinian Authority - $3 billion compared with $550 million this year?
We don’t really need to answer that.

Third, Palestinian statehood has already been declared twice by the international community, so what Abbas is asking for is nothing new. As Salman Abu Sitta, one of the leading Palestinian historians, points out,

The League of Nations acknowledged in Article 22 of its Charter the independence of Palestine from the sea to the river, and from Ras al Naqura to Um Rashrash, and placed it under category A Mandate, like Iraq; that meant an independent state which only needed assistance and advice from the Mandate government to build its institutions. Iraq was Palestine's twin, with the difference that Iraq became an independent state; and Palestine did not.

The British Mandate undermined these legal foundations by admitting Jewish immigrants to Palestine and not allowing Palestinian parliamentary representation as long as the majority of the population of Palestine were Arabs. Then the Zionists undermined the whole foundations by occupying Palestine in two stages, in 1948 and 1967.
United Nations Resolution 181, approved on November 29, 1946, specified that:

Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem, set forth in Part III of this Plan, shall come into existence in Palestine two months after the evacuation of the armed forces of the mandatory Power has been completed but in any case not later than 1 October 1948.  [my emphasis]
It’s irrelevant that the name of “Palestine” for the “Arab state” was not included in the resolution; the name “Israel” was not used either. And obviously, that has not meant that Israel did not exist.

But the final and deepest irony is that if United States Ambassador Susan Rice sat on her hands and did not veto the Palestinian statehood resolution in the Security Council, it would give Israel exactly what she has always claimed to want – more, in fact, than any of the so-called peace plans that Israeli governments have offered. A state of Palestine recognized by the UN today, would be, as Abu Sitta and Ali Abunimah and many others have pointed out, a disconnected, dysfunctional state on less than 22% of the land that Palestinians were peacefully inhabiting in 1947 (less than 22% because the 22% figure, quoted by Abbas in his speech, comes from 2000 http://www.palestine-pmc.com/pissue/borders.asp and predates Israel’s Apartheid Wall which has expropriated up to 46% of the West Bank).

Such a state would have no way of surviving but by providing cheap labor to Israel’s settlement industries, which are constantly being expanded despite alleged plans to dismantle the settlements. (I participated in a flash mob publicizing one such settlement industry – SodaStream – a couple weeks ago; watch my fun video of it.)

Israel would, presumably, continue to control all the water and mineral resources under the ground, just as it now does, as well as the air space above, meaning that anything like cellphone towers or cable television that the Palestinian government wanted to provide would have to be negotiated with Israeli authorities.

Palestinian refugees would have nowhere to go, permanently exiled unless the tiny Palestinian state could make room for them and find a way to get them home – given, as just mentioned, that Israel controls the air space.

Palestinians would not be able to visit their holy sites in Jerusalem, just as they cannot now. Settlement construction would, presumably, continue unabated in East Jerusalem.

So you would think the Israeli government would be dancing for joy at the prospect of getting U.N. recognition for this plan which would reward every aggressive move it has made since 1948 and dress it all up as a great deal for the Palestinians. And maybe they are, really, but in an op-ed last week, Ehud Olmert, the former Prime Minister of Israel who belatedly came out for “peace” on his way out of office in 2008, (re)articulates the difference between what the Palestinians are offering and what is demanded:

“the Palestinian state would be demilitarized and it would not form military alliances with other nations.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reiterated this call for Palestinian demilitarization in his speech at the U.N.

Now I’m all for demilitarization. If Israel wants to dismantle its army, of which nearly every adult male under 50 is part (well, that’s the theory – in practice, only about 20% actually are), give back the nearly $3 billion of U.S. tax money that our government sends it for weapons every year, dismantle the nuclear weapons it won’t confirm or deny that it has, take down all the checkpoints it will have no soldiers to staff and replant the Palestinian olive trees it uprooted for all the security roads it won’t need for jeeps and armored personnel carriers, I’ll be the first to demand that the Palestinians dismantle the twelve different security forces it’s built with help and encouragement from successive U.S. administrations.

Otherwise, I don’t really see how Israeli Prime Ministers can say this with a straight face. Go back and look at UN Resolution 181and note that link is to the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s own web page. It may have given the Jewish state 56% of the land, but it didn’t give them the right to have all the guns.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A state without a state, Part I – Who Is “The Palestinians”?

This was going to be my definitive piece on the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood, but I got distracted by arcania about the PLO, so four pages in, I decided to make this Part I.
The Palestinians, so we hear, are going to the United Nations this week to demand recognition as a state. Something many people would say they should have done at least twenty if not sixty years ago.

Now let’s get one thing clear: if they get it, whether from the Security Council, which will not happen because the U.S. has promised to veto it, or from the General Assembly, which seems likely, it will not make any discernible difference on the ground. The Israeli tanks will not pack up and leave their bases in the West Bank, Apache helicopters and Heron drones will not stop assaulting Gaza whenever they feel like it, Israeli border guards will not abandon their posts along the Apartheid Wall inside the Green Line, officially recognized as Palestinian land. Life on the day after statehood will be exactly like life on the day before, a condition of change without change Palestinians have become very accustomed to in the 18 years since Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Yassir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn.

The fact that it will not change life as they know it is only one reason that many parts of Palestinian civil society, contrary to what you may have heard, are not enthused about, or even in favor of, the demand for statehood.

The Boycott National Committee, which was formed in 2007 to direct the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel and includes representatives of 20 of the largest Palestinian organizations, said in a statement issued in August:

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority’s (PA) effort to seek UN recognition of “statehood” unilaterally, without consulting the Palestinian people from which the PA has absolutely no mandate, has raised fears among Palestinians that the move could actually harm Palestinian rights.

If the UN votes to admit the “State of Palestine,” it is likely that the unelected representatives of the Palestinian Authority would be seated in the General Assembly instead of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which currently holds the Palestine observer seat at the UN.
As the above makes plain, one of the problems is who is asking. The only entity which has the right to represent the Palestinian people at the U.N. is the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO. So officially, that’s who’s asking. It’s a plausible claim, because Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, is also Chairman of the PLO. Abbas inherited both positions when Arafat died, and he continues to occupy them because he and the PLO leadership put the scheduled elections for both on indefinite hold in 2009. Most factions of the PLO have publicly come out in support, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the largest of the left-wing parties (best known for the 1969 hijacking of a TWA jet led by Leila Khaled). Hamas and the other Islamic parties, as well as PLO leaders such as former Minister of Information Nabil Amr, have come out against it.

Most of us know little to nothing about the PLO. Growing up I knew only one thing: that its original charter called for “driving the Jews into the sea.” Many Zionist propagandists continue to assert that (see, for instance, a quote from Daniel Gordis’s 2000 essay “Home to Stay" or “The Truth About the Palestinian People”), while some allow as how that clause was dropped or amended in 1993, when Arafat agreed to begin the Oslo process. I’ve now read the original charter, which was signed in 1968, four years after the PLO was formed by the Palestine National Council. It’s officially called the Palestine National Charter. Here are the only things it says about Jews:

“Article 6: The Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion will be considered Palestinians.” [That’s not an idle promise; I know Jewish Palestinians]
“Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood. Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.”
There’s a very interesting article by William James Martin in Counterpunch on the origins of the phrase “drive the Jews into the sea.”

What the charter does say is that:

“Article 15: The liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint, is a national (qawmi) duty and it attempts to repel the Zionist and imperialist aggression against the Arab homeland, and aims at the elimination of Zionism in Palestine.

“Article 22: Zionism is a political movement organically associated with international imperialism and antagonistic to all action for liberation and to progressive movements in the world. It is racist and fanatic in its nature, aggressive, expansionist, and colonial in its aims, and fascist in its methods. Israel is the instrument of the Zionist movement, and geographical base for world imperialism placed strategically in the midst of the Arab homeland to combat the hopes of the Arab nation for liberation, unity, and progress. Israel is a constant source of threat vis-a-vis peace in the Middle East and the whole world. Since the liberation of Palestine will destroy the Zionist and imperialist presence and will contribute to the establishment of peace in the Middle East, the Palestinian people look for the support of all the progressive and peaceful forces and urge them all, irrespective of their affiliations and beliefs, to offer the Palestinian people all aid and support in their just struggle for the liberation of their homeland.

“Article 23: The demand of security and peace, as well as the demand of right and justice, require all states to consider Zionism an illegitimate movement, to outlaw its existence, and to ban its operations, in order that friendly relations among peoples may be preserved, and the loyalty of citizens to their respective homelands safeguarded.”
The clauses calling for “elimination of the Zionist presence” – i.e., the state of Israel – were repealed in 1996, when, according to the website of the PLO Mission to the UN, “On 21 April, the Palestine National Council (PNC) holds its twenty-first session in Gaza City in Palestine for the first time since 1964, and decides by majority vote to “abrogate the provisions of the PLO Charter that are contrary to the exchanged letters between the PLO and the Government of Israel of 9 and 10 September 1993.” That’s one reason – possibly the only reason – Hamas and the other Islamic parties are not members of the PLO.

So Who Is the PLO?

As explained in a memo (released as part of the "Palestine papers") written by Mazen Masri for the PLO Negotiation Support Unit in 2006, “The PLO was initially founded by Arab states in 1964 in order to deal with the Palestinian national cause. It was controlled by Arab states till the late 1960s when the Palestinian factions gained more representation in the PLO. In 1969, the late Yasser Arafat, then Head of Fateh faction was elected Chairman of the PLO Executive Committee. Ever since then, the PLO became the umbrella organization for most of the Palestinian factions, and is widely acknowledged as the embodiment of the Palestinian national movement.” (I have to say, I just love that the PLO has researchers writing them memos about their own history. Maybe certain members of the U.S. Congress and former governors of Alaska could take a lesson from them.)

The PLO is a coalition of ten organizations. Fatah, the party founded by Arafat, is the largest, followed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Palestinian People’s Party (PPP, formerly the Palestinian Communist Party), and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Most of the other six are split-offs from one of the original factions. In the last Palestinian legislative council elections, the DFLP, PPP and a smaller faction, the Palestine Democratic Union, ran candidates together as al-Badeel, The Alternative.

Officially, the highest authority in the PLO is the Palestine National Council, or PNC. The Masri memo calls it “the parliament for all Palestinians inside and outside of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem.” It elects the 18-member Executive Committee, which makes day-to-day decisions. So far so good. The problem? The PNC didn’t meet for thirteen years, for elections or anything else. They finally met in late 2009, primarily for the purpose of replacing six dead members of the Executive Committee.

To complicate matters further, Masri explains, under an elections law that was enacted in 1995 by the PA, the members of the Palestinian Legislative Council – the Parliament of the Palestinian Authority, would become members of the PNC. This, presumably, was a step on the path of substituting the PA for the PLO. Under that provision, 1) there would be a PNC that had been elected in this century, and 2) a bunch of Hamas legislators would automatically become members of the highest body of the PLO, which would be interesting. But, alas, that law was repealed in 2005, prior to the elections which swept Hamas into power.

The PLO’s obligation is to represent all Palestinians in the world, not only those in the West Bank and Gaza or even inside the borders of historic Palestine. So any decision about statehood, if it’s coming from the PLO, would need to be consented to by the refugee population, which is almost twice the size of the Palestinian population inside the country, and presumably they will not accept any solution that does not guarantee their right to return to Palestine. It also needs to satisfy the aspirations of Palestinians living within the 1948 borders of Israel for full equality as citizens of whichever country they choose to belong to (or both), and that is not possible as long as Israel defines itself and is internationally recognized as a Jewish state.

In practice, the decision to go to the U.N. seems to have been made by the Palestinian Authority leadership, which overlaps with, is close to and at times indistinguishable from the PLO. But there are key differences between the two bodies.

Who Is the Palestinian Authority?

The Palestinian Authority was created by the Oslo accords as part of the transition to statehood which never took place. There have been four rounds of PA elections – two legislative and two presidential. All have been marked by nearly unparalleled fairness, and the only curtailment of freedom has come from the Israeli authorities, who in the last round arrested both candidates and voters in order to ensure that Palestinians in East Jerusalem, who are entitled to vote for the PA, did not have the opportunity to do so.

The PA, unlike the PLO, represents only the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, not those in the 1948 areas and not those outside the country.

Moreover, the PA leadership is also at this point basically self-appointed. Presidential and legislative elections which should have taken place two years ago, were cancelled in the wake of the U.S.-backed coup attempt against the Hamas government and never rescheduled. In the early months of the “Arab Spring,” Abbas announced that local and legislative elections would be held this fall, and Hamas – which won the last round of legislative elections but is considered unlikely to win the next – condemned the unilateral move. As part of the unity agreement was reached in Cairo in April, both factions agreed to postpone the elections, apparently united in their fear of the people’s will.

So any effort now for the PA, over the protests of Hamas and members of Palestinian civil society, to take its statehood demand to the U.N., looks like a power grab by the PA, which will permanently separate Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza from those in the 1948 borders of Israel and most of East Jerusalem, and permanently disenfranchise the refugee population. There has even been speculation that Israel and the U.S. are only pretending to oppose the bid, in hopes that that will encourage the Palestinians to support it, since if it succeeded, it would give them exactly what they have been clamoring for.

Next time: When is a state not a state?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Confessions of a Bookaholic

On July 4 weekend, I decided to stroll up to Walden Pond, my local (about a mile away) progressive independent bookstore. One of my goals was to find interesting authors to interview on Women’s Magazine, and I did – a couple weeks ago, I interviewed the highly entertaining and knowledgeable Leonard Sax, whose book Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls seemed really on point to me. I especially liked the sections on sexuality and the “cyberbubble.” Dr Sax agrees that “crisis” is kind of melodramatic – he explained that noncelebrity authors don’t get to pick their titles. But the problems he identified correspond to the ones that most of the teenage girls I know (and their parents) are dealing with.
I picked up the Sax book and headed to the counter, but on the way, of course I had to stop by the Staff Picks table. Oh my Goddess. There was a Maisie Dobbs I hadn’t read. Okay, that was a no-brainer. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Someone in a writing class I had just taken was naming Jennifer Egan among her favorite writers. Plus anything that has goon squad in the title is sure to be up my alley. As it turns out, it was and wasn’t. But I wouldn’t know that if I hadn’t bought it.

Thanks to zimpenfish, whose room looks
even worse than mine
I stuffed my new books in my version of Hermione Granger’s infinitely expandable purse and headed home, one shoulder drooping with the weight. Wait, what’s that? A box of free books, lurking by the side of a ramshackle apartment building. I tried to make myself walk by, but then a little voice said, “You just spent $40 on books, and you’re going to turn down free ones? What kind of American are you?” There were some mysteries by writers I like – a Nevada Barr, a Linda Barnes, and a historical mystery about Tudor England with a blurb by P.D. James – couldn’t resist. I added four or five to my bag and stumbled home in danger of becoming a hunchback (the protagonist of the Tudor England book, which I’m reading now, is a hunchback).

Fortunately, a few years ago, someone left a disassembled Ikea bookcase in my storage space. She was going to come get it in a few days, but she never did. When I moved, I took it with me, even though I wasn’t sure I would be able to figure out how to put it together or that I would have a place for it if I did. I decided the time had come to break it out. I figured out what little parts I needed that I didn’t have and went to Ikea and picked them up and came home and managed to assemble it without too much difficulty – you’ve met one Ikea cabinet, you pretty much know them all. Cool. Now I had six new shelves to fill. I unpacked the last box of books that had been waiting in my new house for a home and then stacked all my new books on the remaining shelves and STILL had a couple empty shelves. I cannot tell you what joy filled my heart.

A couple month later, the shelves are nearly full. I got books for my birthday: Sherman Alexie, Patty Smith, The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea, a great book about Pluto and two about witchcraft. I special ordered The New Jim Crow from Book Passages. I was sent review copies of several new feminist books.

The other night I went to visit a friend who just returned from China and Africa. She has a new roommate moving in so she needs to clear out bookshelves. She had put aside about ten mysteries she thought I would like. Then she started throwing other books at me: do you want this? How about this? She handed me Joel Beinin’s Was The Red Flag Flying There? a history of Marxism in Palestine. I tried to resist. It’s the kind of book I would look at and think I should read, not really the kind I will read. But if I didn’t take it, she was going to give it away. Couldn’t let that happen. I might want it sometime. She tried to give me The Tragedy of Zionism by Bernard Avishai but fortunately, I remembered I already have it. As I heaved the overflowing bag of books into my car, I said, “I will not buy another book until I have read all these.”

That was five days ago and I haven’t bought a book. So maybe I’m kicking the habit?

On his way to lunch, my coworker said he had just heard on the radio that the U.S. Census Bureau is reporting what he has known for years: that this is the first generation of kids who will not outlive their parents. He implied that this finding was based on the increase in environmental toxins, nuclear accidents, oil spills and depleted uranium. I was surprised and a little skeptical, because that sounded awfully political for the Census Bureau. I also wondered which generation they were actually talking about – mine (I think we’re officially the Me Generation)? Gen X? Gen Y? The kids being born now, whose gen doesn’t have a name yet? While he was at lunch, I went looking for it on the net. Didn’t find it. What I did find were about a thousand articles projecting that today’s children will not outlive their parents because of – you guessed it, childhood obesity. And among the many prognostications of gloom and fat – none of which, as far as I could tell, contained any actual statistical evidence that kids are going to die sooner than their parents - was a diamond in the rough called “What Michelle Obama's childhood obesity project gets wrong,” by Kate Harding. I clicked on the link taking me to Harding’s blog, and there I found out that she is a coeditor of a book called Feed Me!: Writers Dish about Food, Eating, Weight, and Body Image.  I really think I might have to have that book. I didn’t buy it, but I recalled that I actually have some money on a Powell’s gift card yet to be spent.

My coworker came back from lunch and I asked him if he remembered where he heard about that census data. He said it was on Randi Rhoads’ show and allowed as how it might not have actually been from the Census Bureau. He said Randi usually has her sources on her website, so I went to it. Didn’t find anything about that segment, but I did find an op-ed about the social base of Tea Party, authored by two professors named David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam who, I learned, are the authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.  Oh no. That sounds so interesting.
The op-ed was in the New York Times, and while I was there, my eye fell on another opinion piece, this one about the educational value of various types of homework. Some of you know that this is an obsession of mine. Don’t ask me why, either bad memories of time spent making castles out of sugar cubes as a kid or maybe it’s that several nights a week when I get home from work and a meeting or social gathering, I have to spend a few hours working on a blog or a radio show. Anyway, this article, which I found fascinating, cited various studies on how people learn, including “spaced repetition” (you retain material better if you see it a number of different times for shorter periods, rather than for a longer period all at once) and “retrieval practice” (drills and tests) was written by Annie Murphy Paul, and of course she has a book too, called Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. Really exciting to me, especially since I just read something else that seemed to dispute the premise that prenatal experience is crucial in our development. And hey, this book is about pregnancy so that would be a natural for Women’s Magazine, which means … I might have to get it.

Now you might ask, why don’t I get these books at the library? I’ll tell you: because I don’t read fast. Plus with all this blogging and keeping a weekly radio show on the air, I don’t have as much time for reading as I wish I did. So when I go to the library, I see four things I want and get them all, but then I don’t always get through them in three weeks, and I end up owing fines. I know you can renew stuff online nowadays, but the fact is, I’m just not that organized. I like having a choice of what to read, being able to start something, put it down, start something else, come back to the first one, have several half-read choices on my nightstand. Call me old-fashioned.

Okay, so I’m obviously a bookaholic. But my question is, is that a problem? I mean, it’s a harmless addiction, right? It might even be called healthy – after all, reading is better for me than watching TV, isn’t it? Less likely to make me obese, anyway, from what I’ve read on the net. In fact, book-buying might be called paying it forward, since I am hoping people are some day going to buy my book(s). (Okay, for those of you who have been bugging me about when Murder Under the Bridge is going to be available to buy - don’t start. Soon, I promise.) But consider this: what if, some day, the weight of all my books causes my apartment to slide into the mud? And since I’m on the first floor, the apartment upstairs from me could collapse.

Maybe I’d better check out Books Anonymous. No doubt some of the other people there will be trying to cleanse by giving away their books.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

First They Came for the Jewish Film Festival …

I am so upset that I am nearly incoherent.  Once again, the bullies who pose as protectors of Jews have bullied an institution into canceling a cultural event – in this case, an art exhibit by children from Gaza.  The exhibit, initiated by Middle East Children’s Alliance, has been planned for months and was scheduled to open in just two weeks.  The cancellation not only robs the Gazan kids of the opportunity to share their work with international kids; it also deprives Bay Area kids of the chance to participate in a number of events and workshops that were planned to accompany the exhibit.

The people who pressured the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland to cancel the show have not made any statement explaining what’s so threatening about children’s art.  It’s hard to imagine what they could say.  But the question is not why they wanted to shut it down – that’s obvious.  They feel that kids’ drawings of soldiers pouring into houses, people running from helicopters raining ammunition, demolished homes, kids in prison, will make people sympathetic to the kids and hostile to the people – the Israeli government – who sent the soldiers and the helicopters.  People are likely to believe that if kids are drawing such things, it’s because they have seen them.  So the victims of the attacks must be forbidden to speak about it.  It is not very different from our culture’s use of shame to prevent women from speaking out against rape.  It is an extension of Israel’s new “Nakba Law,” which prohibits schools and other public institutions from talking about the war crimes committed against Palestinians in Israel’s 1948 “War of Independence.”

The question is why a public museum here in the United States, in the supposedly progressive Bay Area, could be persuaded to participate in this act of censorship.  This is only the latest in a long list of such successful campaigns – from the one that got the Toronto LGBT Pride Parade to ban the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from marching to the one that got the LGBT Center in New York to cancel an Israeli Apartheid Week party, to the one that got DePaul University to deny tenure to Professor Norman Finkelstein, to the one that got City University of New York to rescind an honorary degree offered to playwright Tony Kushner (an action which was ultimately reversed).  It’s a continuation of the mobilization that brought new restrictions in the activities of Bay Area Jewish organizations after the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival had the temerity to show the film, ‘Rachel,” an Israeli film investigating the death of U.S. peace activist Rachel Corrie in Gaza.

Usually the rallying cry of the organizations that demand these events be cancelled is “Why are you singling out Israel?” although in fact, the institutions targeted rarely are doing that.  But in this case, it is the Palestinian children who are singled out.  They alone, among all the children in the world, are not entitled to a voice, because allowing their voices to be heard might bring criticism to Israel.

Imagine for a moment that MOCHA were presenting an exhibition of Tibetan children’s art, and supporters of the Chinese government protested that allowing people to see drawings by children who lived under Chinese occupation was anti-Chinese.  Not only can I not conceive that MOCHA would cave in to the pressure and cancel the show, but if they did, every human rights and civil liberties organization in town, or in the country, would be screaming foul.  In fact, I would bet that the same Jewish organizations who act so decisively and aggressively to shut down anything that might generate sympathy for Palestinians would be among those decrying censorship by pro-Chinese forces.

While we don’t know exactly which organizations brought what pressure to bear on the museum and its donors, we do know that Palestinian cultural events are among the targets of a six million dollar campaign launched last year by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.  I happened to run across a blog urging people to protest the exhibit.  Under this photo of a piece allegedly part of the planned show,

the author(s) of the blog write(s):
“Notice the use of Jewish stars in the "art" turning this from simply a chronicle of childrens experiences during war, into a demonization of Jewish state. The anti-American imagery provides a nice touch, too.”
Now I would point out that every one of the “Jewish stars” in the drawing is in fact an Israeli flag.  The American flag is a representation of the well-known fact that much of the ammunition Israel uses in Gaza is supplied by the U.S.  Are Gazan kids taught that in school?  Yes.  Why shouldn’t they be?  If our country believes in arming Israel to the tune of $4 billion a year, including supplying illegal white phosphorous bombs used in populated areas during Operation Cast Lead, we should not mind that being depicted in a child’s drawing.

The blog then goes on to make this claim:
“The Children of Sderot, just a mile from the Gaza border are truly living under siege, suffering from daily missile attacks. Indeed, there are common threads in the drawings, yet the Israeli children manage to convey the horrors of war without the use of anti-Islamic imagery.”
This is one of the photos they used to illustrate their point:

 In fact, the Israeli child's picture is remarkably similar to the Gazan child's.  The rockets are painted in the colors of the Palestinian flag.  But by conflating “Jewish” with “Israeli”, and contrasting it with “Islamic,” the Zionists hope to convince the uninformed that this is a religious battle between Islam and Judaism, and also to wish the Palestinian nation out of existence.  This builds on Golda Meir’s assertion that “There are no Palestinians.”
And therein lies the basis for their objection to the exhibit.  If people are allowed to see art by children in Gaza, they might get the idea that Palestinians actually do exist.

The good news is that the censoring of the exhibit has drawn much more attention, both in the mainstream press and the blogosphere, than the exhibit ever would have.  We need to use that attention to turn the focus on the real issues:  bullying and censorship.

We learned that Niemüller poem, “First they came for the unionists…” in Hebrew school.  It’s time to make a new version:  “First they came for Norman Finkelstein …”

Don’t wait til they come for you.  Speak out now: call/write/email MOCHA.  Be polite and respectful, tell them how much you were looking forward to the exhibit, tell them you believe all children have the right to be heard and ask them to change their decision.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Writing Is Theft: "The Help," Kathryn Stockett and Me

The other day, I went to see “The Help” with some other white feminists. On my own, I probably would have skipped it, because one, nothing I had heard made me think I would enjoy it much, and two, I might have felt it was politically incorrect to contribute even a teensy amount to the success of a film so many African American feminists find racist. But my friend wanted to see it so we could discuss it, I’ve already participated in some debates around it, and as another friend said, “It’s not like you’re breaking a cultural boycott.”

I decided if I was going to criticize something, it could be considered good intellectual practice to see it first.

Some of my white friends have been confused by the anger of African American feminists over the film and book. They point out that the white characters are unsympathetic, even the heroine, Skeeter, isn’t that heroic. The movie does make the point that Black children were left alone or with other relatives while their mothers cared for white kids who grew up to become racists. One friend said she felt the book did portray some of the complexities and missteps of white women doing antiracist work.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I have nothing much to say that hasn’t already been said very well. The best thing we as white women can do is listen to what our African American sisters are saying, and try to understand it. It's time to put into practice all those years of Unlearning Racism workshops – read the myriad commentaries and discuss them among ourselves. The blog that resonated the most for me is by Nicole Sconiers, who writes, “None of the black women seemed to have any agency, seemed to have a life outside of a white woman’s kitchen. Did Aibileen like to sing or dance? Did she like to pick flowers or make lemonade? If she or any of her fellow maids had an interior life, it was drowned out by the incessant drumbeat of despair.”

Kelly Sims says "Good inspiration here, whether you're in 2nd grade or well past grade school."
One thing I have been looking for and haven't found, except in a couple comments on blogs, was the reaction of African American who worked in white people’s homes, especially in the South. It’s not terribly surprising, perhaps, that working class women of my mom’s generation are not big in the blogosphere (my mom steadfastly refuses to allow a computer in her house), but I figure there must be some out there, and I’d really like to see what they have to say, so if anyone has seen something, please send it my way.

What I do have something to say about is writing and the question of fiction versus appropriation.

I obviously have no idea if Kathryn Stockett intentionally stole Ablene Cooper’s name and personal details for her book. The only thing I can say is that if she did, it’s hard to believe such an idiot could write a book. The theft – if there was one – is kind of like the theft that occurs in the movie: destined to be discovered. Ablene Cooper isn’t someone Stockett could imagine would forget they ever met. She’s Stockett’s brother’s long-time employee. If Stockett wanted to get away with using Cooper’s details, changing the character’s name and making the gold tooth a gap or mole would have been the ultimate in good sense.

But this I do know: Writers write. We also steal.

Occasionally someone says to me, “I wish I could write novels like you, but I don’t have enough imagination.” I used to say exactly that. I would read my favorite writers like Marge Piercy and think, “How did she get that idea?” And then I noticed those pages that I usually skip at the back of books, where the author thanks all the people who helped her. Piercy often gives pages and pages of books she read in the course of her research. Elizabeth George will thank dozens of experts in whatever arcane fields are involved in her intricately plotted mysteries. That’s when I realized that fiction writing is about two-fifths inspiration and three-fifths stealing from other people’s lives.

Be careful what you tell a writer. She will write it in her notebook and you never know when it might surface as the backstory or frontstory of some character of questionable virtue. If she doesn’t thank you in the acknowledgements, don’t feel too bad. There’s a fifty-fifty chance she doesn’t even remember who told it to her.

I write mysteries about Palestine. I’m not Palestinian. My series has two protagonists, a Jewish American lesbian peace activist (not like anyone I know) and a Palestinian policewoman. I don’t know any Palestinian policewomen, at least not well enough to milk them for their stories. If any actual Palestinian policewomen, or men, ever read my novels, they’ll probably find the description of their work life unrecognizable.

I started writing my first book in late 2004. I named my Palestinian protagonist Rania. I picked that name because I liked it, and because I thought – incorrectly, as it turns out – that it would be easy for non-Arabic speakers to pronounce. More than a year after I finished my first draft, my friend Marilyn sent me an article from the New York Times about a new women’s police force being formed in Gaza. The head of the squad was a young woman named Rania.

I know a number of women named Rania. I did not name Rania after any of them, and I don’t believe she bears any similarity to any of them except that she’s brave and so are many of them. But of course I don’t really know. She had a brother who was killed in the First Intifada, but who didn’t? I did not consciously model her after any specific person, but I based parts of her character and her history on a number of women I know and admire. She became an activist in her teens, like Intisar and Hanan and Amal; she went to college in Jerusalem like Fatima; she lives in Mas’ha like Munira; she grew up in Aida Camp where I have a number of friends.

I try to make my Palestinian characters authentic flesh and blood people, and in the service of that end, I steal biographical details, physical and psychological traits from Palestinians I know. I hope this is okay because my intentions are good; I am trying to further the Palestinian struggle for justice as I understand it. But I’m also writing fiction. Not all of my Palestinian characters are admirable. Some of the situations I have imagined have never, as far as I know, happened, though most of them have. I put words in my characters' mouths and I'm sure some of them are words no Palestinian would ever think.  How could they, when they think in Arabic and I think mostly in English?  My readers see Rania as a nonstereotypical Palestinian woman, but in fact, I think she is a stereotype - the brave, smart, feisty, idealistic Palestinian woman.  That just happens to be a stereotype we don’t see much.

I hope if any Palestinian women read my books, they’ll like them and think they accurately depict the situation and the people, or at least some of the people. But I think it’s very likely that some of them won’t feel that way at all. They might be very angry and feel like I appropriated their stories and did something with them they find frivolous or even offensive. (After all, my books also contain lesbian sex.) If people criticize me, I hope I can listen and hear what they’re saying and learn from it, which doesn't mean I'll agree or decide to change my writing. If I ever make any money off them, I believe I would share it with Palestinians or use it to support Palestinian nonviolent resistance, but that’s easy to say when the money’s all theoretical.

If my goal were only to do something good for Palestine, it would obviously be better to put my energy into helping Palestinian women writers get published in the U.S.  But ultimately, that’s not why I’m writing these books. I’m writing them for fun, and to express myself as an artist. I write about Palestine because I spent time a year and a half there, and those were by far the most exciting eighteen months of my life, and I came home with 1,000 pages of journals I wanted to do something with.  I am an activist for boycott of Israel because I care about Palestinian liberation, but I’m writing about Palestine because I’m a writer.

Kathryn Stockett did not, I imagine, set out to tell the stories of Ablene Cooper or the family maid, Demetrie, she says she wanted to honor. She set out to tell the part of her own story that involves Demetrie. That in itself is not the problem. The problem is really that Demetrie and Ablene and the many other women who shared their experiences do not have the opportunity to tell their own stories to a wide audience (well, Demetrie obviously doesn't, because she's dead, but you know what I mean).  If a woman who worked for decades as a maid and nanny decided, like Aibileen in “The Help,” to start writing late in life, it’s highly unlikely she would get a contract or end up with a best seller and a major motion picture.

That is also not Stockett’s fault. But this is the thing that white people who want to “do good” have so much trouble with. Understanding privilege isn’t about finding fault. It’s about recognizing that we didn’t create inequality, but we do benefit from it. Therefore, we can’t just say, “It’s not my fault.”  We have a responsibility to try to change it. Stockett told NPR that the criticism of her book “makes her cringe.”  I would suggest she stop cringing and start listening.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Venus Williams: Bringing Up Designer Baby

Venus Williams had to withdraw from the U.S. Open due to recently-diagnosed Sjogren’s Syndrome. Big deal, if you’re not a tennis fan, and not earth-shattering even if you are. At 31, Venus’s glory days have been behind her for a while. She has played very little over the last few years, battling one injury after another and, some say, flagging interest in the game.

We feel bad for Venus, but she isn’t the Williams everyone’s interested in anyway. That’s Serena, fifteen months younger, seven major titles more decorated, and everyone’s pick to win a fourth Open this year.

Thanks to by Jayegirl99 for the photo.
Serena herself is just back from a series of debilitating injuries and illnesses, some life-threatening. In May, she was rushed to the hospital with a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in her lung) and a related hematoma in her stomach. Both of those were likely complications from a freak injury – she cut her foot at a bar, requiring two surgeries, which kept her out of last year’s U.S. Open.

Okay, so again, what’s the beef? Lots of people get blood clots, especially after surgery. “Prior surgery, air travel, prolonged sitting, birth control pills, obesity and pregnancy can predispose a patient to a blood clot in the leg that can travel to the lung,” a cardiovascular surgeon told People magazine in relation to Serena’s hospitalization.

It got me thinking, though. Two young women in the same family, legendary for their fitness, with a highly paid entourage helping them tweak their diets and exercise regimens, battling conditions that are fairly rare for people of their ages. Sjogren’s is an autoimmune disorder that, as sports viewers have heard numerous times over the last couple days, “strikes 4 million Americans annually, 90% of them women.” What the commentators haven’t mentioned is that the condition – a disorder in which “a person’s white blood cells attack their moisture-producing glands” – normally appears in women in their late 40s.

Bad luck? Maybe, but I also found this suggestion: “Elite athletes -- often perceived as the epitome of health and fitness -- may be more susceptible to common illness and are therefore proving useful in helping scientists understand more about the immune system…”

What the study tentatively suggests is that “[S]alivary proteins [proteins in saliva] such as lactoferrin and lysozyme act to prevent microbes from infecting the body and typically increase as the body fights off infection … An initial observational study comparing elite rowers with sedentary individuals over five months clearly showed that exercise was associated with a significant reduction in the concentration of lactoferrin. Theoretically, exercise is a stress on the body and leads to a greater susceptibility to illness. The decrease in salivary proteins, one of the body's first lines of defence against infection, may help explain this.’”

So basically, if I understand this correctly, the moistures that our glands secrete are filled with proteins that help us fight infection, but in athletes, some of these fighter instincts are suppressed. Now here’s what I could find about the causes of Sjogren’s Syndrome.

“Researchers think Sjogren's syndrome is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. … Scientists think that the trigger may be a viral or bacterial infection. It might work like this: A person who has a Sjogren's syndrome associated gene gets a viral infection.

The virus stimulates the immune system to act, but the gene alters the attack, sending fighter cells (lymphocytes) to the eye and mouth glands.

Once there, the lymphocytes attack healthy cells, causing the inflammation that damages the glands and keeps them from working properly.”

Once again, it seems to me, we are talking about secretions that are supposed to protect the body being altered in some way that prevents them from doing their jobs.

The health risks of girly sports like figure skating and gymnastics, where prepubescent girl athletes are encouraged if not forced to starve themselves in order to appear delicate and cute and then put enormous stress on their brittle bones, have been well documented – not that anything has been done to stop it.  (Though young girls are most susceptible to that type of abuse, notably because the biological changes of a normal puberty can completely change their balance and center of gravity and destroy their promising careers, it’s plenty damaging to males too. Two time Olympic pairs skating champion Sergei Grinkov died of a heart attack at 28, while Christopher Bowman, whose career was hindered in part by his resistance to “discipline”, died of an overdose at 40.) We all know that repeated concussions leave football players with a huge risk of dementia, sleep disorders and depression, and that boxing causes severe brain injuries, leading the British Medical Association to push for it to be banned.

But tennis? What can be more wholesome? It’s outdoors, it’s not one set of repetitive motions; it takes eye-hand coordination and speed and endurance and anticipation. You can be a “thinking” player like Martina Hingis or an ultraphysical one like Rafael Nadal, or a combination, which is what the Williams sisters have always been considered. Though there’s a lot of sexist looksism aimed at the women, and comments about how “fit” someone is and who should lose a few pounds, most of the players don’t appear anorexic or emaciated.

It could be that it’s not what the sport is that causes the most severe injury to a young person pushed into focusing on one thing before they are old enough to choose.

It’s hard to write something that might sound like an indictment of Richard Williams and Oracene Price. They’ve been dragged through the wringer by the tennis establishment and media, who’ve criticized everything from their coaching methods to the way they congratulated opponents’ parents to the way their daughters dressed. African Americans from Compton, with no formal tennis education, were not going to be welcomed into a bastion of white upper-class etiquette if they didn’t bow down to its received wisdom, and the Williams – parents and kids – did not. They weren’t Arthur Ashe or Althea Gibson. They weren’t grateful, they weren’t humble and they weren’t always gracious. They were just good. The girls had to prove over and over that they were smart and polite, while their every expression and utterance was scrutinized for evidence of race.

The story itself is oft-told. Richard Williams was watching television and saw Virginia Ruzici, a Romanian tennis star of the 70s, win a tournament and get a check for $40,000. He decided to have two more daughters and make them into tennis players. He taught himself and his wife to play, sought advice from videotapes, coaches and sports psychologists, and started his new daughters playing when they were three and four-and-a-half. The rest, as they say, is history.

I saw Venus in her first pro competition, which was here in Oakland. She won a round, maybe two, before losing to one of the best players of that period. She was a gangly, happy fifteen-year-old who jumped up and down when she won her first match, but when she lost she was disconsolate. It had, apparently, never occurred to her that she couldn’t be the best the minute she stepped on the court. A year and a half later, she made the finals of the U.S. Open, losing to Hingis. The next day, I happened to see her and her father on a talk show from New York. Her father said something like, “I would rather Venus run track, because she’s never lost a track meet.” He also at that time made a statement which would be quoted widely for years: “Venus is going to be great, but Serena will be better.”

I figured he was just trying to motivate his daughter, but I found his comments abusive. He needed to be building Venus up, not subtly putting her down. I’ve never completely trusted the rivalry between the sisters. I don’t doubt for a second that they’re as loving and close as they appear and claim to be. They’ve had ample time, by now, to go their own ways if they wanted and they haven’t. They continue to live together, play doubles together, root for one another, talk each other up. Serena said today when asked about her sister’s illness, “I can’t put into words how much I care about Venus.”

Venus and Serena seem to have good lives. They’re fabulously wealthy, wildly famous, beautiful, educated. But they are also designer babies. We question the morality of having kids to create a genetic match for a family member who needs a transplant, but what about the morality of having kids to raise their families out of poverty? The Williamses are far from the only ones. Martina Hingis’s mother named her for Martina Navratilova because she was going to be a tennis champion. Tiger Woods’ father put a golf club in his hand before his first birthday. In the book Bounce, Matthew Syed tells the story of Laszlo Polgar, who in the late sixties and early seventies had three daughters to test a theory about chess. Olympic gymnast Dominique Moceanu sued her parents for emancipation when she was 17, after her father squandered $2 million she had earned from competition and endorsements. Danica Patrick’s father has managed her career since she started racing go-karts at ten years old.

In her autobiography, Serena insists no one ever made her play tennis. She wanted to do it, she says, because that’s what you did in her family. I’m sure that’s true. When you’re a little kid, you want nothing more than to do what your older siblings do. Despite all the hype these days about ADD and ADHD, it’s not hard to get kids to practice something over and over and over. In my experience, kids will gladly spend three hours pumping coins into broken video games, sliding down a slide or running back and forth between two trees.

But there’s a difference between the kid who decides to run back and forth for an hour, and a kid who does it because her parents set up starting blocks and a finish line. Even more difference if the parent or an older sibling times the child with a stopwatch.

In my family, it was religious education that was important, so I wanted to be a star in that arena. My sister learned to read Torah – that is, learned to read the notations for chanting the weekly portions, and to read the archaic Hebrew without vowels – at age 10, so I learned at 9. When my oldest sister decided she wasn’t going to ride in cars on the Sabbath – a custom my family, which was Conservative, did not practice – I did too. No one forced me. At the time, I thought religion was important to me. As an adult, I somewhat reluctantly concluded that it isn’t.

I wasn’t hurt by my religious education, and I don’t regret it. But I also wasn’t supporting my family with it.

Ordinary kids in this country aren’t allowed to work until they’re 16, and then their hours are sharply regulated. The days when tweeners went out to pick strawberries or work in textile factories because their little fingers were more nimble than the grownups’ are supposed to be over – though Michelle Bachman and others want to bring them back (and plenty of immigrant kids work in hidden sweatshops). Yet child athletes can get commercial endorsements and financial backing, even in highly dangerous sports like motocross and snowboarding. On a plane a few years ago, I sat next to a 12-year-old kid who was returning from a motocross competition. He showed me a picture of himself in a sports magazine. He couldn’t even get a driver’s license, but he was being sponsored to jump motorcycles over concrete walls. He’d already had two surgeries.

Richard Williams, along with Earl Woods and Laszlo Polgar and the rest, prove that it’s possible to create a champion. What none of them have proven is that that creates a happy, healthy human being. What Venus seems passionate about is clothing design. It’s the career she chose for herself; tennis was chosen for her before she was born. Maybe it’s time for the designer baby to just be a designer.