I was born with a gift. I was born of Jewish/Muslim Arab descent. Yes, my friends, I am a clear headed, unconflicted Jewish Arab-American that deeply values and respects my Semitic roots and the histories and cultures of my peoples. At 38 years old I have already been asked a lifetime of questions about my ethnicity, racial identity and faith practices.
Some of my all time favorite questions include: "given the circumstances" do you live in a constant state of confusion? How do you know what side to take in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? How in the hell did your parents meet?
What I tell inquiring minds is that I grew up in a household where I received two very conflicting messages. On the one hand, my Jewish father and Lebanese, Syrian Muslim mother had a very volatile relationship fueled by a struggle to understand the complexity of their differences based on faith, culture, race, gender, class and the politics of Israel/Palestine. On the other hand, my Jewish and Arab grandfathers, both of whom died far too young, were the best of friends. They were able to find common ground and relish a friendship based on the complexity of their shared cultural and Semitic experiences in the "old country".
As a Jewish/Arab-American disabled, lesbian feminist I came to understand early in life that I had one of two paths I could take: the volatile path of my parents or the bridge building path forged by my grandfathers.
I chose the path of justice because I believe that those of us who hold multiple identities have unique perspectives to bring to the world. Simply put, our bodies embody what it means to truly live, love and organize across issues, identities and communities.
As always, there is much going on around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Let me say right up front that I am no expert on the conflict, yet I follow it very closely. As someone who lives in a Jewish/Arab body, I do have a perspective to bring to this conversation.
Although I am not of Palestinian descent, I stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Occupation is never acceptable and I reject the notion that I am a self-hating Jew because I believe in my heart that the Israeli government should not do to the Palestinian people what was done to it's people.
Six million, six million, Jews were exterminated in the holocaust and its critical that we use this horrific experience to stop all forms of oppression wherever and whenever we can. Using the Holocaust, or the fear of another Holocaust in a deeply anti-Semitic world, as a justification for defending Israel's actions only perpetuates the narrative that Israel's actions are always justified given the history and reality of anti-Semitism.
This is simply untrue and Israel must be held accountable for it's actions and power over relationship to the Palestinian people. In the case of Palestine, the state of Israel has been an agent of oppression and genocide for generations. Palestine must be free now! Free forever!
In the words of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., "Whatever affects one directly, affects all directly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality." In relationship to Israel/Palestine, I believe that Dr. King would call upon each and every one of us to understand the daily and inhumane conditions that the Palestinian people have been living in for generations, beginning with the 1948 expulsion of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians who have lived since that time in refugee camps in Lebanon.
In an article written by Gideon Levy for Haaretz.com (an Israeli newspaper and blog mind you!), entitled "Gaza's Darkness," he starkly details the daily, sustained and inhuman conditions in this way:
More than ever, Gaza is also like a prison. The Erez crossing is empty, the Karni crossing has been open only a few days over the last two months, and the same is true for the Rafah crossing. Some 15,000 people waited for two months to enter Egypt, some are still waiting, including many ailing and wounded people. Another 5,000 waited on the other side to return to their homes. Some died during the wait. One must see the scenes at Rafah to understand how profound a human tragedy is taking place. A crossing that was not supposed to have an Israeli presence continues to be Israel's means to pressure 1.5 million inhabitants. This is disgraceful and shocking collective punishment. The U.S. and Europe, whose police are at the Rafah crossing, also bear responsibility for the situation.
Gaza is also poorer and hungrier than ever before. There is nearly no merchandise moving in and out, fishing is banned, the tens of thousands of PA workers receive no salaries, and the possibility of working in Israel is out of the question.
And we still haven't mentioned the death, destruction and horror. In the last two months, Israel killed 224 Palestinians, 62 of them children and 25 of them women. It bombed and assassinated, destroyed and shelled, and no one stopped it. No Qassam cell or smuggling tunnel justifies such wide-scale killing. A day doesn't go by without deaths, most of them innocent civilians.
It is not anti-Semitic to name the conditions that the Palestinian people are living in as inhumane. Jews that oppose the occupation are not self-hating because we deeply understand that our history and faith call us towards justice and liberation and away from occupation and oppression. I believe this in every fiber of my being, as a Jewish Arab-American.
I know that I am in very good company as I read the words of holocaust survivor Hajo Meyer, the author of "The End of Judaism: An Ethical Tradition Betrayed," on the Huffington Post.
Auschwitz existed within history, not outside of it. The main lesson I learned there is simple: We Jews should never, ever become like our tormentors -- not even to save our lives. Even at Auschwitz, I sensed that such a moral downfall would render my survival meaningless."
I am pained by the parallels I observe between my experiences in Germany prior to 1939 and those suffered by Palestinians today. I cannot help but hear echoes of the Nazi mythos of "blood and soil" in the rhetoric of settler fundamentalism which claims a sacred right to all the lands of biblical Judea and Samaria. The various forms of collective punishment visited upon the Palestinian people -- coerced ghettoization behind a "security wall"; the bulldozing of homes and destruction of fields; the bombing of schools, mosques, and government buildings; an economic blockade that deprives people of the water, food, medicine, education and the basic necessities for dignified survival -- force me to recall the deprivations and humiliations that I experienced in my youth. This century-long process of oppression means unimaginable suffering for Palestinians.
The conditions in Palestine, along with the nuanced historical and political context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, are what we should be using to analyze current events. From deep experience, I know that it is possible to understand and speak out about the historical and current reality of the Palestinian people without being a self hating Jew or an anti-Semite.
However, the American government, many elected officials, mainstream media and people and have a long history of maintaining a false and dichotomous narrative that pits challenging anti-Semitism against an unequivocal support for the actions of the Israeli government. Some of the current events of the day clearly highlight this reality.
Helen Thomas, the longest standing member of the White House Press corps, expressed comments that clearly articulated her solidarity with the Palestinian people. She named the conditions in Palestine as an occupation and she was right to do so. Yet, she also called for Jews to get the hell out and "go back to Poland and Germany."
It is deeply unfortunate that her frustration and anger about the Palestinian occupation led her to make an anti-Semitic comment. A reasonable solution to the conflict cannot be sending Jews back to countries that actively participated in the extermination of six million of us.
This is about calling upon the Israeli government to stop using the power of the state to justify, as Hajo Mayer so aptly calls "settler fundamentalism." That is the point that Helen Thomas needed to make, a point that would not have reinforced anti-Semitism and, at the same time, spoke to her deep commitment to a free Palestine.
In the end, these comments forced her into retirement over charges of rabid anti-Semitism when the conflict, frankly, is much more complicated than this. As well, it has given the US mainstream media a sideshow on which to comment and bloviate, while the people of Gaza suffer and die.
The situation with Helen Thomas not only highlights that one has to be very thoughtful and accountable about what one says, but also that any criticism of the Israeli government is often seen as Jewish hating, anti-Semitic speech. I simply do not agree with the fact that naming the power held by the Israeli government and the conditions Palestine is forced to live in is anti-Jewish.
Recently, a flotilla carrying humanitarian aid supplies to Gaza was raided in neutral waters and dozens of humanitarian aid workers were murdered or injured. The flotilla was on its way to Gaza to break a long standing blockade that deprives the Palestinian population from much needed medical supplies and food. In a recent article written by Hagai El-Ad, a gay Israeli activist, for ColorLines magazine he describes the dire economic and humanitarian conditions people in Gaza are facing as a result of the blockade:
The blockade of Gaza is in fact the siege of an entire civilian population. True, the Hamas government in Gaza is a brutal, anti-democratic regime that violates human rights on a regular basis. It deprives [captured Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit of his most essential basic rights and does not hesitate to attack innocent Israeli civilians. But the price for the crimes of the Hamas government is being exacted by Israel on a civilian population of 1.5 million people under siege, unable to leave Gaza, their lives kept just above the bar of a humanitarian crisis.
Many American media outlets and members of Congress have sided with Israel by saying that this raid was a necessary act of self defense. Standing in contrast to these sentiments is Senator Feinstein who was recently quoted as saying:
Israel's forced isolation of Gaza, along with Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist, are the roots of this tense situation," Feinstein said, referring to the militant Islamic group that runs the Gaza Strip. "I believe Israel should reassess the blockade in order to assure that necessary humanitarian assistance and material can get into Gaza." Feinstein added that Israel imposed the blockade in response to "countless unprovoked rocket attacks" by Palestinian militants inside Gaza. The call by Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and commands respect as a moderate voice on foreign and national security affairs, stands in sharp contrast to those of most other lawmakers, who have sided with Israel in the incident. Most have affirmed Israel's right to defend itself and accused the activists aboard the flotilla of deliberately provoking a confrontation.
Given the conditions in Gaza, and the international efforts to try and reach Palestine with much needed humanitarian aid and supplies, how can a deadly raid on a flotilla be considered an act of self defense? The members of the flotilla were an international group of highly recognized humanitarian aid workers and peace activists, not a group out to do harm.
We must be clear about the facts and not rely on a deeply held narrative that reinforces the belief that Israel can do no wrong in the name of self defense or as it relates to the Palestinian people. I believe that fundamentalism and extremism in any form, whether perpetuated by Israelis or Palestinians, or by US anti-LGBT groups, is unacceptable.
I believe that violence is never the solution and that is why I am not in support of the violence used by the Israeli government or by groups like Hamas. Yet, I also believe that violence finds its roots in oppression, anger, marginalization and lack of access and that the only solution to this conflict is to end the occupation and let the Palestinian people live with full self determination on their land.
We also continue to struggle with these issues within the LGBT community as evidenced by an organizing effort undertaken by Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. Twenty honorees from the last decade returned awards in response to Pride Toronto's banning of the term "Israeli Apartheid" (and thus the group) from the upcoming pride march and festivities. In an signed letter by the founding members of Pride Toronto urging the current organizing committee to not censor pride they stated:
As founding members of the Toronto Lesbian and Gay Pride Day Committee, and people involved in organizing the first Pride event in Toronto at the end of June in 1981, we stand totally opposed to the decision of the current Toronto Pride Committee to ban the use of "Israeli Apartheid" at Toronto Pride events. This banning of political speech is clearly an attempt to ban the participation of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) and queer Palestine Solidarity supporters from the parade and from participation in a major event in our communities. This sets a very dangerous precedent for the exclusion of certain political perspectives within our movements and communities from Pride events. We call on the Pride committee to immediately rescind this banning and to instead encourage QuAIA's participation in the pride parade.
This is precisely why LGBT people should care about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict along with other local, political and national issues. You see, our identities as LGBT people are not divorced from the events of the world.
For example, a clear articulation of the importance of developing a global and interdependent worldview was put forward by International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network in their founding charter:
From Poland to Iraq, from Argentina to South Africa, from Brooklyn to Mississippi, Jews have taken up their quest for justice, and their desire for a more just world, by joining with others in collective struggles. Jews participated prominently in the workers' struggle of the depression era, in the civil rights movement, in the struggle against South African Apartheid, in the struggle against fascism in Europe, and in many other movements for social and political change. The State of Israel's historic and ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people from their land contradicts and betrays these long histories of Jewish participation in collective liberation struggles.
I can think of no better way to end this blog than with words by Dr. Martin Luther King. It is not easy to challenge the narrative and power of the dominant culture and power structures. Yet, for justice minded people there is no choice... There simply is no other choice. Dr King calls us forward with the following words:
Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.
(Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales)