SermonsPalestine

Writing Cross-Culturally

In March, I attended the 2017 MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Workshop. Although I was disappointed that more adult literary writers did not attend, much of what I learned was helpful to any writer about representing worlds—fantasy, Sci-Fi or real life—accurately.

In order to write accurate representation of the world around us, having actual relationships with people outside your own ethnic/religious/etc. group is helpful. Maybe some of those people will even read your novel and tell you where you’ve gotten their culture right and where you’ve really messed up. And now you can pay someone from a marginalized group, called a Sensitivity Reader, to evaluate your manuscript for offensive, weird or “off” content.

The photo comes from an interview with Ireland in Locus Online. Her upcoming novel Dread Nation, about a zombie apocalypse during the civil war is on the top of my list of audiobooks to download when it comes out in 2018. Also for sure follow her on Twitter: @justinaireland.

However, sensitivity readers are not a panacea. One recent book that caught the attention of author and social critic Justina Ireland is the Young Adult book American Heart. Set in a time when the U.S. government is detaining Muslim Americans, the narrative, according to its critics, seems designed entirely to support the emotional growth of a white teenage girl as she helps a Muslim university professor escape to Canada. What the professor experiences is beside the point. As someone on the Twitter feed pointed out, American Heart is analogous to a man writing the The Handmaid’s Tale. The author had a Pakistani American read it, but Ireland maintained on her Twitterfeed the author used a sensitivity reader as a stamp of approval, rather than a wish for honest engagement.

For my fourth novel (working title Don’t Call Me Buffy) I have paid three sensitivity readers to take a look at the manuscript in addition to my usual faithful crew of beta readers: a neurodivergent MIT graduate student, a Palestinian Christian, and a Muslim. I am also asking a white evangelical writer to take a look at it, since I have not lived in that culture for some time, and I am actively looking for someone from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to read it.

I felt confident enough to have a young Palestinian woman be one of the three viewpoint characters in my narrative, because of my relationships with Palestinians. I deliberately chose not to write from the viewpoint of a Seneca Nation character, because, I am ashamed to say, I have traveled halfway around the world numerous times to Palestine, but spent very little time on the Seneca reservations near my home in upstate New York.   I also chose not to make the novel primarily about the encampment that follows when the Seneca nation takes over a church property on their land—a church pastored by the father of another viewpoint character.  Given the profound spiritual importance of the #NODAPL encampment in Standing Rock last year, I knew that the right to fictionalize the encampment experience belongs to an Indigenous writer. Nevertheless I want to have a Haudenosaunee reader look at my novel to correct mistakes of culture, etc. that I assume I will have made.   Also I have some concerns that I have created a fictional piece of land, and a fictional treaty abrogation, and fictional medical waste dumping by a fictional western New York University on the actual Allegeny Reservation, when the real life traumas that the Federal government and State of New York have committed against the Seneca Nation are immense. The database of Writers from the Margins does not contain Haudenosaunee readers, so I have taken out classified ads in the local papers, and have contacted the Director of Indigenous students at nearby University to see if any of her students might like to make a little extra income reading it.

If any of you have Haudenosaunee friends who like to read, I’m hiring!

 

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What I’ve been doing for the last nine months

Yeah, my synopsis is pretty much crap

I took a leave of absence from Christian Peacemaker Teams beginning in January 2017, having a long list of goals to accomplish in mind. I knew from the experience of my sabbatical four years ago that I would not accomplish all or most of these goals. Still, despite the fact I have played way too much Plants vs. Zombies and have been dealing (gladly) with unexpected health crises of elderly relatives, here are some things I have accomplished:

 

I wanted to finish my novel, working title Don’t Call Me Buffy, and I did. I don’t have the perfect pitch yet, but here’s a summary:

 

Jubilee McVey, brought up in an evangelical purity culture, deals with the shames heaped on her by her family and church by brutally restricting calories and indulging in mutilation fantasies. Then Rania Khalidi, an energetic social justice activist and Lior Artzi—who views the world through the lens of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, approach her one day to tell her that she has been called by the Council of Huldah to convince her father to stop building his dream church on land belonging to the Seneca Indian Nation. She assumes that what they are asking her to do is impossible, but the encounter pulls her into a world where she discovers abilities she had not imagined.

 

What Rania, Jubilee and Lior do not know is that the Prophet Huldah, briefly mentioned in the book of II Kings, is alive and grumpy and teaching Biochemistry in western NY. She has little interest in God or prophecy. Mostly, she wants to support her talented student Jayce, a member of the Seneca Nation who is investigating medical waste dumping on the Allegeny reservation. But as she sees a prophetic movement beginning to emerge in Western NY the way it did in Israel and Judah, and as Jubilee flees to Jerusalem to escape her prophetic obligations, Huldah wonders if the land belonging to the Keepers of the Western Door has been chosen to change history.

 

Currently, my beta readers say it reads very fast, so that’s always good news.

 

I also cleaned out boxes that had been sitting in the upstairs alcove of our house pretty much since we had moved in, as well as some that came my way after Mom moved into the nursing home. I found recycling my mother’s stuff emotionally wrenching as well as other keepsakes, so I dealt with it by posting about it on Twitter:

 

Today I recycled my mother’s proofreading notes on my second novel.

Today I recycled a handwritten coupon good for “1 hour of sewing help from Sylvia D. Klassen exp. 12/25/04” @SylviaDHook  

Today I recycled my 1984 college commencement program and dozens of Christmas letters from people I love.

 

A more amorphous “success” for the year was that I generally said “yes” to my husband Michael when he suggested an activity for the evening or weekend instead of telling him I was too tired or had too much work to do and that felt good.

 

When I think of what I did not achieve around the house and yard, well, it’s a pretty long list, and I won’t go into it; besides, I’ve still got two months, right? Probably of most concern was not just my neglect of spiritual growth, but my inability to focus on spiritual growth.   I found sustained attention on prayer, meditation, or anything remotely spiritual almost impossible. Coming along with this acknowledgement of my deficit is that I realized I have for some time been dealing with low-grade PTSD, and I’m not sure what to do about it. After serving in Palestine since 1995, and seeing small victories, friendships built all get swept away, seeing the relentless cruelty of occupation get more and more entrenched—I think it has broken something in me. And I am reluctant to use the word “trauma” in relationship to myself when I’ve been coming over just once a year, because the people of the Old City are living with this brutality every day. It seems like whining, or attention-seeking behavior.

But this year, for the first time I had to walk out of a movie at the Palestine Film festival after eight minutes. I had already seen those faces at home demolitions. I had seen those terrified children being dragged away by soldiers. I didn’t need to watch them on the screen. And I had to stop watching a documentary about Israeli women soldiers on our local public television station for the same reason. I acknowledged it was a good thing they were coming clean about their abuses of Palestinians, but I kept seeing the faces of those Palestinians they had abused.

 

So I probably won’t be going back to Hebron when I return to work in January. Perhaps I will work on another team, or perhaps I will just take a year off to work with Christian Peacemaker Teams’ new Communications Director. And maybe I’ll figure out how to classify my stupid trauma. Maybe I just did.

 

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Letter to Australian MP Richard Marles: “Peace in the Middle East” is not a joke

 

Dear Mr. Marles,

I am a U.S. citizen who has worked in the West Bank City of Hebron since 1995 with the human rights organization Christian Peacemaker Teams. I am currently serving with two Australian teammates who brought to my attention a picture of the four you enjoying time in Jerusalem under the caption, “Bringing peace to the Middle East.”

I do not know you, but if I were to see a similarly captioned photo of Democratic and Republican lawmakers from my country in Jerusalem, I would feel it like a kick in the gut. People are dying over here. In our context, it happens most often when soldiers shoot them at checkpoints in extrajudicial executions with complete legal impunity.  For years at the checkpoints we monitor in the morning, we have watched Israeli soldiers shoot teargas at small children walking to school—something that you would never tolerate in your own electorates.  We cannot count all the other indignities and humiliations we have witnessed this military occupation inflicting on the inhabitants of Hebron—as it is in the nature of all military occupations to do.

And the geographically expansive region of “The Middle East,” to which you referred encompasses the people caught up in the carnage currently engulfing Aleppo, Syria, as well as the violence in Iraq, Yemen, Egypt. These are real human beings, loved by their families, who feel pain when bombs and bullets slice though their flesh, or who who suffer that stab of utter horror when they realize it is their child buried beneath the rubble. In other words, peace in the Middle East is not a joke, Mr. Marles, it is a moral imperative for all people of conscience.

Sincerely,

Kathleen Kern

Colleague of [names redacted in order to foil Israeli security officials who think Palestinians have no right to have internationals spend time with them and who have complete control over the borders of Palestine.]

Diya (11) is arrested by an Israeli Border Policeman

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Letter to J.K. Rowling: For the sake of all Palestinian children who love Harry you need to say their lives matter

I didn’t add this anonymous letter that appeared on Mondoweiss in October, because I was going to be heading to Hebron in the winter or Spring, but I think enough time has passed now that I can probably post it.

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The following was written by a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron. The author writes, “*I am not using my name because Israel has complete control over the borders of the West Bank and Gaza and routinely denies entry to human rights observers. Israel denied two of my colleagues entry in the last few months and banned another from Hebron because she took an Instagram photo showing the Israeli military violating the human rights of Palestinian children.  Furthermore, Israel may soon deny entry to anyone who advocates any sort of boycott, even of those products produced in settlements, which are illegal under international law.”

Dear J.K. Rowling,

I have worked as a human rights advocate in Palestine for twenty years and most of the people in my circles support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to one degree or another.  I am married to an Israeli who supports the boycott of settlement products and corporations that enable the Israel’s occupation of Palestine, but, like you, does not support the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.  I believe it is possible for people of good conscience to disagree on this issue.

But I want to tell you that in the city of Hebron where I have worked for the last twenty years, I have, with my own eyes, seen Palestinian children attacked, beaten, arrested—without any of the due process the civilized world grants minor children—and in general treated with utter contempt by Israeli soldiers and settlers.  A major part of our work is monitoring the treatment of children as they walk through checkpoints on their way to school everyday in the Old City of Hebron.   The Israeli military’s of teargas has become almost routine when elementary children passing through—something Israeli families would never tolerate for their own children (and indeed the police do not use it against Jewish Israelis inside Israel.)

Several days ago, 17-year-old Dania Arshid was walking to her English class through a checkpoint.  Accused by Israeli Border Police of having a knife, she threw her hands in the air, backed away, and was summarily executed by multiple gunshots.

I can tell you, based on my experience, that no one will go to jail for her murder, or for the murder of Hadeel Hashlamoun, a few weeks earlier or for Fadel al Qawasmi.  In the impossibly slim chance an investigation into her extrajudicial execution occurs, the courts will exonerate the soldiers and racist Israeli social media will hail them as heroes.

As of the end of August, 133 Israeli children and 2065 Palestinian children had died since 2000 in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I view the death of any child of any nationality with horror, but in this conflict, it is the Palestinian children whom the agents of Occupation kill and abuse with impunity.

So Ms. Rowling, you do not have to support the Academic and Cultural Boycott, but for the sake of all Palestinian children who love Harry, you do need to say their lives matter.  You need to say they are entitled to exactly the same rights, dignities and freedoms that Israeli children are.   And you need to say that Israel’s military occupation of Palestinians, this Unforgivable Curse from which all the violence tormenting the inhabitants of this land emanates, must end.

– See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/10/rowling-palestinian-children/#sthash.ewShkzCY.dpuf

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Restricting the life out of Hebron’s Old City– by Kathleen Kern

A repost from The Jewish Pluralist from my most recent assignment in Hebron.

Restricting the life out of Hebron’s Old City– by Kathleen Kern

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Every year when I return to Hebron I have come to expect that I will find the Israeli Military Occupation more entrenched, the people more battered, more resigned. I expect that the Christian Peacemaker Team I have worked with since 1995 will have new challenges to meet. When I rejoined the team in early March, however, the extent of the restrictions on team’s monitoring work at checkpoints during school hours frankly shocked me. Border Police no longer permit us to exit the Old City near our apartment and make the five-minute walk to the Qitoun checkpoint to document how the soldiers treat schoolchildren and teachers passing through. Instead, we must take a fifteen-minute taxi ride over the hills and around to reach a location we can see from the roof of our house.

Once we are there, we must stand on what my teammate Stephanie calls poetically “the teargas side of the checkpoint.” Occupation forces have built up the checkpoint considerably since I left and from where we stand, we can see only from a distance the interactions between soldiers and children. We can no longer hear what happens or ask the children what soldiers said to them. The situation is worse for the children at Qurtuba School. Our colleagues with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme (EAPPI) were intended to be present for students as they passed through Checkpoint 56 and the settlers on Shuhada Street who have a history of attacking them. Now they must remain on the H-1 side of the checkpoint, where they can do nothing if something happens to the children on the other side.

The Occupation’s restrictions on international monitors in the H-2 area of Hebron are of course falling more heavily on Palestinians, and nowhere is this more the case than those living in Tel Rumeida. Last fall, the military began assigning numbers to Palestinians living in Tel Rumeida. Hani Abu Haikel showed us two numbers written on the outside of his green ID case when we brought a visiting CPT delegation to visit. If you don’t have that number, you are not legally allowed to be there. It doesn’t matter if you are a relative or a friend. (Relatives and friends of settlers living there are of course, allowed to visit them.) Three days earlier, Hani had workers pruning his grapevines, and settlers “reported” them to the soldiers, who told Hani he had to get special permission to have his grapevines pruned. The morning we visited, his wife Rheem and daughter Bashaer had been walking to a dentist appointment and a settler boy told the soldiers they didn’t live there, so the soldier made them wait in the pouring rain for twenty minutes while he checked their IDs.

Last month, as Hani was arguing for his right to pass through the checkpoint, a soldier called his commanding officer and asked if he could shoot him, and he overheard the commanding officer say on the radio that Hani was “too old” to shoot. Last fall, when killings in the Tel Rumeida area of Hebron were an almost daily occurrence, the Israeli military authorities evicted the International Solidarity Movement volunteers from their apartment just outside of the Gilbert checkpoint. That was when the neighborhood felt at its most vulnerable, an international married to a Palestinian resident told me after when I ran into him after our Friday afternoon mosque patrol. INTERNEMENT

“They want to make us afraid,” Hani said. Many of his neighbors have moved now. He says the intention of the occupation authorities is clear: to make life so unbearable in H-2 that Palestinians will leave. And of course, that is why they have placed the restrictions on international volunteers as well. They want to make us afraid, too—afraid of deportation, afraid of making the situation worse for our Palestinian partners, afraid that our work is becoming pointless, because we cannot reach the areas that where we need to do our documentation.

Listen to us carefully. If all of H-2 from Tel-Rumeida to Kiryat Arba becomes a settlement corridor, do not say you were not warned, because right now, the Israeli settlers here in Hebron are winning.

***

An Editorial Note—by Peter Eisenstadt
Kathy Kern is one of the bravest persons I know. As she mentions in her article, she has been going to Hebron as a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) for over two decades. CPT is a Christian pacifist organization, with its roots in the traditional peace churches, the Mennonitesand the Church of the Brethren, , though it is broadly ecumenical in its outlook. To quote from its website, CPT “ places teams at the invitation of local peacemaking communities that are confronting situations of lethal conflict. These teams seek to follow God’s Spirit as it works through local peacemakers who risk injury and death by waging nonviolent direct action to confront systems of violence and oppression.” They do not go into war zones, but areas, like Hebron, that are what might be called “near war zones,” areas of great tension between the oppressors and the oppressed, between the occupied and the occupiers.

Working in Hebron is hard and dispiriting. CPTers try to help Hebronites in their conflicts with settlers, soldiers, and Israeli officials. They document the daily indignities meted out to local residents. The team in Hebron is currently short-handed, in part because Israel sometimes does not allow CPT members to enter the country. (Kathy was once denied entry at Ben-Gurion airport.) And in the recent years, its work has been pervaded by the sense that Israel and the settlers are winning; and that it will win its long, slow war of attrition against the Old City of Hebron; as Palestinians are either forced out or leave because living conditions have become impossible.

I was privileged, in December 2014, to spend a day with Kathy and her husband, Michael Argaman, at the CPT apartment in Hebron. It is utterly chilling to think that however bleak things were at the time, the situation has radically deteriorated. As Kathy notes, the Qitoun checkpoint, which was a twisty-turny five minute walk from the CPT apartment is now inaccessible by foot, and unlike when I was there, the CPT team is now limited to the Palestinian side of the border, so they cannot see the interactions of the school children with the IDF soldiers. I accompanied the CPT team early one morning to watch children crossing the checkpoint on their way to school. I can still smell the tear gas. Hebron has been, in recent months, even more explosive. At the Quitoun checkpoint recently there was an incident when the IDF killed a Palestinian youth in an alleged stabbing incident. The Old City of Hebron for many decades has been the site of the hottest of cold wars, requiring little in the way of additional kindling to burst into flames. The Israeli occupation of the Old City of Hebron is where the occupation of the West Bank began, and if it ever ends, it will make its last stand in Hebron. All I can say is that Kathy and her CPT colleagues, trying to salve the half century old open wound of Hebron, are truly doing God’s work.

 

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Two More Doors Welded Shut on Dubboya Street

Evicted Zuheira, Amal and Amal’s son

Note: This article originally appeared  on the The Jewish Pluralist website. (I sent a penultimate draft from Hebron, so this represents a corrected draft.)

Shopkeepers in Hebron now address me respectfully as ‘Amti, or “Auntie”—a title that means I am not elderly, but well, matronly. And it means that I have worked in Hebron for a full generation—twenty years, minus the five that the Israeli government decided to deny me entry into Palestine.

In 1995, my organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams, responded to an invitation from the Hebron Municipality to address  the violence of the Hebron settlers in the Old City for a period of five months beginning in June At the time, people believed there was a realistic chance Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would remove the Hebron settlers and an actual plan existed to redeploy the Israeli military from Hebron at the end of the summer.

Every Saturday afternoon, at about the same time settlers would attack Palestinians, their homes, shops and cars on a short length of Shuhada Street—formerly the main street of Hebron—referred to as Dubboya Street. Our main focus of that first summer of 1995 was to spend Saturdays on Dubboya documenting settler intimidation of Palestinians there and if possible, intervening to prevent violence.

Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. It turned out that Amir was behind many of those attacks on Dubboya Street and for a time, much of the settler violence subsided. Our focus shifted to home demolition and land confiscation in the late 1990s and then the Second Intifada exploded and gun battles in the streets of Hebron became a nightly occurrence. The stipulations of the Oslo Accords that Shuhada Street remain open to all traffic—stipulations never respected by the Israeli government… well, by that time everyone agreed Oslo was dead.

This week, our team received a call that the Israeli military was evicting an elderly woman and her daughter from their home on Dubboya Street.   As is often the case in fraught situations like these, it took us awhile to get all the facts right. The police said that someone had thrown Molotov cocktails from the women’s roof, but they had given the women no warning before they sealed their home. They said they should have known someone was throwing Molotov cocktails from their roof. And while soldiers were welding their home shut they laughed and settlers taunted them.

We posted an album of photos and our basic understanding of the story on Facebook and our website. And then the comments exploded. On our Facebook page, people kept posting this video, which they say proved the daughter was encouraging her mother to cry on cue, although when my teammates got there they tell me the women were genuinely distraught. JewishPress.com framed the video with an incredibly factually inaccurate piece entitled, “What gets a foreign anarchist up in the morning.”  No, we’re not all anarchists and no, we’re not trying to settle in the abandoned buildings.) If you want to know the facts of the story, see this video by Hebron Defense Committee member and Al Haq researcher Hisham Sharabati.

I went to visit the two women the next day. The older Zuheira was depressed and tired, her daughter, smiling and energetic. I don’t know why she was smiling in the video. My bad photo of the two of them seems to indicate that it seems to be her natural disposition.

Doors Welded Shut on Dubboya Street

I do know this: In 1995, even though many shops on Dubboya Street had already closed due to settler and soldier harassment, some were still open. Many people still lived there. Palestinian cars were still able to drive on it. And today, when you walk on the street, door after door after door is welded shut. As Hisham notes in the video, settlers have broken into the backs of the shops to steal the electricity. Most of the families have moved out. The settlers have largely won the battle for Dubboya Street by a process of attrition.

So don’t tell me that Zuheira was crying over fake losses. The Palestinians of Dubboya Street have seen nothing but loss for the last twenty years. And I find it disgusting that people are trying to score propaganda points off the tears of an old woman who has just been evicted with no warning or due legal process.

Dubboya Street

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Treasure in Ferguson, Colombia, Palestine, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turtle Island

Note: I originally wrote this reflection for my blog, then adapted it for my organization’s CPTnet. I’m adapting it back again a little.

Since a St. Louis, Missouri prosecutor and Grand Jury have determined that Police Officer Darren Wilson killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown did not merit a trial, I have been busy tweeting #Ferguson on the Christian Peacemaker Team Twitter account. Those tweets have been getting a lot of retweets. We have no people working in Ferguson and I have asked myself why I am inundating the account.

I think it has to do with the disposability of human life, with the contempt shown to Michael Brown when the authorities left his body in the street for four and a half hours and did not bother interviewing key witnesses to the shooting for weeks (until there was a public outcry.) That contempt connected directly with our work in Colombia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Palestine, with indigenous communities in North America, and with migrants in Europe. In all these cases, people in power have deemed the people we work with disposable.
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If you want to drive Colombian farmers off their land so that you can make big profits with palm oil plantations, it’s okay to assault them, to threaten to rape their nine-year old daughters, to kill their animals, to burn their homes, to use the instruments of the Colombian state illegally to evict their communities’ teachers. And of course, you can do much worse. The types of violent harassment cited above are just some issues the communities we work with have been dealing with recently.

In Iraqi-Kurdistan, our civil society partners have had to drop most of their work to focus on the some most disposable people in the world: refugees. And these refugees have included those from the Ezidi/Yazidi community, whose wives, sisters, and daughters are now in ISIS/DAESH brothels, women considered worthless except for sexual gratification.

And then there is the project CPT Europe participated in this summer, welcoming the refugees that Europe wishes would just disappear, and who, because of European policies, have drowned by the thousands in the Mediterranean, fleeing the violence in countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

In Palestine, for nineteen long years, we have watched the forces of military occupation say it is acceptable to arrest, jail and torture Palestinian men, women and children without due process, and destroy their homes if Israel wants their land for settlement expansion. It is acceptable for soldiers to shoot teargas at Palestinian children on their way to school and look on as settlers attack them.

In our work with Indigenous partners, we have watched again and again naked racism strip them of their sovereignty, strip their lands of their resources, and leave behind the toxic poisons of their industries. We have watched the Canadian government shrug as 1800 Indigenous women are reported murdered and missing.

So I think it’s all related—Mike Brown, VonDerrit Myers, Tamir Rice, Tina Fontaine, Loretta Saunders, Bella Laboucan-McLean, Marissa Alexander, Jalil Muntaqim, Leonard Peltier…People of color who lost their lives, livelihoods, and freedom because here in North America they were considered just as disposable as the people we work with in Colombia, Palestine, Lesvos, Turtle Island and Kurdistan.

The good news, of course, is that our Colombian, Indigenous, Palestinian, Kurdish, and refugee partners are revealing to the world that they are a treasure—as are the people of Ferguson. The season of Advent is upon us. Let us listen.

Good hashtags to follow #BlackLivesMatter #TheologyofFerguson #StayWokeAdvent. Good accounts: @FaithinFerguson, @BroderickGreer @MikeBrownCover. The #Ferguson hashtag has a lot of good information, but you will also find really racist tweets there.

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There are some forms of sadness more worth having than some forms of happiness.

A young mother shared in church on Sunday the pain her family was going through with their foster child at the moment: a pain coming from loneliness, frustration, anger and yes, love for this child that they welcomed into their home last year, and whom we have welcomed into our church.

It made me think of something I have found to be true in my life—that there are some forms of sadness more worth having than some forms of happiness.

Some people, Christians in particular, find this statement bizarre, or even a little offensive—as though I am romanticizing depression.  And I truly don’t mean that.  There was a time in my life when I did think depression was an essential part of my personality, because I had no memory of a time when I was not depressed.  Then I went to college, and found out what it was like to be happy.  I learned that much of my depression had its roots in external sources like family dynamics and the Findlay, OH public school system, and that I was more myself when I was not depressed.

Usually, I tell people who are alarmed by statement about sadnesses worth having that everyone who has had children has experienced pain they would never have experienced, had they not had children.  Some parents, in particular have had children who experienced illnesses or other hardships they never anticipated when they felt the drive to become parents, but the vast majority of people think that having their children were worth that pain.

But I am usually thinking about the pain absorbed by people who have chosen to take risks, for the sake of love, that most people choose not to.  Like the people at my church who chose to become foster parents (and before that, worked as volunteers with undocumented migrants), I have chosen to take risks in my life that took me to sad places.  I have worked for a human rights organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams, since 1993, that currently has projects in Palestine, Iraqi-Kurdistan, Colombia and with Indigenous communities in North America.  Often it seems that every small triumph our partner communities experience arises out innumerable setbacks, failures, and humiliations.

By choosing to write novels, I also essentially chose a life of rejection.  I think my current depression is partially rooted in the fact that all three of my previous novels came from a very deep place of inspiration, were enthusiastically received by beta readers and then…the end.  So I am struggling with the question of why I was handed these novels—almost compelled to write them—so that maybe 20 people could appreciate them.  (I’m exaggerating a little, but am at a low place.)

Women and children of At-Tuwani  in the South Hebron Hills, Palestine remove roadblock to their village

Women and children of At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills, Palestine, remove roadblock to their village

So why live this sort of life?  Why put myself by choice among people who did not have the choice to live the life they did?  Because when ordinary people choose to struggle together to change their worlds, and when the world takes notice, and begins to reach out to them and stand with them and tell other people about what they are doing to claim their human rights and their dignity; and when the systems and powers that are oppressing and robbing those people finally have to stop telling their lies about them and back off; and when you have been a small part of standing with them and telling their story…there’s a deep, tired joy in all that makes you extraordinarily glad you got involved.

And once I get to a certain point in my novel where it stops becoming work, and characters take on a life of their own, and it’s hard to stop writing—that’s an adrenaline rush like no other.

So at times like these, when I feel everyone of my fifty-two years, and all the young writers on Twitter seem to understand how to navigate the publication and agenting system so much better than I do, and the war in Gaza and the ongoing depredations of ISIS, and tawdry reality of Ferguson, MO and the LAPD and Prime Minister Harper make me dread approaching the CPT Twitter account every morning, I remember and believe:

Read More

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On Gaza, Twitter, and Despair

Note: The following post originally appeared on the Jewish Pluralist website.  I have adapted it slightly to avoid confusion.

I manage the Twitter account for my human rights organization, and lately, I find I have to take a deep breath every time I check it.  Since we have a project in Palestine, our Twitter feed follows other accounts concerned with peace and human rights in Palestine/Israel and now, it’s all about the bombing in Gaza.  We also have a project in Iraqi Kurdistan; the team there is dealing with land confiscation by oil corporations and Syrian refugees.  (Remember them?) In Colombia, corrupt authorities have used riot police to evict a community we accompany.  The Supreme Court of Canada has just ruled that Ontario could open the land of our Anishinaabe partners to industrial logging.  But right now, Gaza trumps all on Twitter.

When a friend who runs The Jewish Pluralist website asked me if I had anything to contribute regarding the war in Gaza, I told her that I just could not find the words to write about the current situation.  Part of that may be due to my having entered another cycle of depression this spring, but I think mostly, having worked in the region since 1995, I just see no light at the end of this tunnel, and no light back from where I started, and how can I write in the dark?

However an e-mail I read from Noa Baum—an Israeli woman who does a poignant and educational one-woman show about Jewish and Palestinian experiences of the 1948 and 1967 wars—got me thinking.  She writes, “As despair sees it, anyone who still hopes, who still believes in the possibility of peace, is at best naïve, or a deluded dreamer…”

She made me realize my despair is formed from different stuff.  It grows from love—love of Palestinians and Israelis I have worked with, celebrated with, grieved with.  People who were dreamers at one time and who have for decades, under craven political leadership, seen their work treated like trash.  My despair is based on the knowledge that I have almost no power to facilitate peace or human rights in the region.  I can only witness, document, and at a micro-level, provide accompaniment for individuals, families, and small communities nonviolently resisting the occupation.  Any real change is in the hands of Palestinians and Israelis working at a grassroots level, and people at the roots have been trampled until they are bloody.

I had chosen not to share graphic images of dead and mutilated childrenGazaGirlTear coming across the Twitter Feed.  But one picture this week dug its claws into me and would not let go, so after some internal debate, I did post it on our account.  It shows a little girl in profile, gray eye open in death, with a tear slipping from its corner. Jehan Alfarra (@palinoia), who tweeted the picture from Gaza wrote, “Shedding her final tear, she leaves us.”

And I think, that tear could drown the world.

But we’re still here.

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The BDS Debate In Our House

This post first appeared on The Jewish Pluralist website.
My husband and I met because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A progressive Israeli-American, he came to hear me give a presentation called “Eye-witness to the Intifada” in November 2001 and asked good questions. A few months later, we met at another Middle East peace event, talked for hours afterwards and have been together ever since.

While some may view us as an odd couple—a secular Israeli Jew and a religious Mennonite who works with a human rights organization in Palestine—we agree on the most fundamental issues at work in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. We believe that Palestinians and Israelis are entitled to the same human rights; no exceptions. We agree that the Israeli military occupation must end. We agree that Israeli leaders, supported by the U.S. Congress, have been most responsible for scuttling effective peace negotiations, but that most official Palestinian leaders have not done well by their people either.

Our arguments over points of disagreement never reach satisfactory conclusions, I think, because we are arguing from two different platforms. Israel was Michael’s home for fifteen years and he would still live there if family circumstances had not compelled him to return to the U.S. I, on the other hand, in addition to working in Palestine have worked with my human rights organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), in Haiti, Chiapas, Mexico, Colombia, and with Indigenous communities in North America. So I view the situation in Palestine through the lens of a human rights observer, rather than as from the perspective of someone with ties to a homeland.

This reality colors our disagreement over the Boycott, Divestment, and BDS-Sticker2009Sanctions Movement. Although even in that area, we probably agree more than we disagree. Michael always boycotted items produced in settlements, and as someone who does socially responsible financial planning for a living, he would boycott the corporations that reinforce and profit from the military aspects of the Israeli occupation—e.g., Motorola, Raytheon, and Caterpillar—anyway. But when it comes to boycotting products made inside Israel proper, or boycotting Israeli cultural and academic enterprises, Michael is passionately opposed.

I do not match his passion in my disagreement. Those of us who work on the CPT’s Palestine team could not ourselves agree on an ardent support of the full spectrum of the BDS movement when we tried to write our own statement on the topic. But when Palestinian Christian partner organizations launched the Kairos document in 2009, asking the international community to support them by adopting BDS principles, we felt we had to stand with them. For decades, the international community has lectured Palestinians on using nonviolent resistance against the occupation. BDS is nonviolent resistance, and, as the document says, Palestinian Christians are not viewing it as an act of revenge, “but rather a serious action in order to reach a just and definitive peace.” Those are principles very much in keeping with the philosophy of CPT.

I have heard all the arguments against BDS. Why is Israel being singled out when human rights abuses are so much worse in [insert country]? Answer: Idi Amin’s regime killed exponentially more people in Uganda during the 1970s than the South African government killed in four decades of apartheid. Does that mean the international community should not have been in solidarity with South African anti-Apartheid activists?

BDS will only make Israelis more recalcitrant. Answer: How could Israel be more recalcitrant than it is now? The same argument was used for South Africa, and for a time the South African government did push back, but ultimately, practical people like DeKlerk recognized that Apartheid could not go on forever.

The academic cultural boycott alienates the very Israelis who are most supportive of ending the occupation. Answer: A. there is a distinction between boycotts of artists and academics who are officially representing the state of Israel, and academics and artists who happen to be Israeli. B. Presenting an attractive, cultured face helps mitigate the barbarity of the occupation. It was, in fact the boycott by sports teams and entertainers, that swung white public opinion against apartheid in South Africa more than the economic boycott.

Israel is nothing like South Africa. Answer: Every South African Israeli I know, every South African I have met who has come through Hebron has told me the checkpoints and treatment of Palestinians by soldiers and settlers eerily evoke to them the worst of Apartheid’s heyday.(1)

I can keep generating responses like these. I have used them in many conversations with Israeli and Jewish friends, and I see that I cause them pain when I do so, which I hate. But I have seen Palestinian friends brutalized by soldiers and settlers. I have seen them lose their land and their homes. I have seen Palestinians shot, spit on, and in general, treated worse than animals by the hideous tentacles of the Israeli military occupation. And since I began working in Hebron in 1995, the situation has only gotten worse; no amount of dialogue, solidarity outreach, or top level diplomacy has stopped the erosion of civil rights and human dignity for the people in the Hebron district and the rest of Palestine.

So ultimately, the decision for my colleagues and me to support the BDS movement is this: Palestinians have asked us to participate with them in this nonviolent struggle of last resort. Their lives and livelihoods are not worth more than Israeli or Jewish lives. But they ARE worth more than Israeli and Jewish feelings, even the feelings of those Israelis and Jews I love the most.

(1). Michael and I watched a PBS special on the 25th Anniversary of Paul indexSimon’s Graceland album. During its production, Simon went to South Africa at the time of the Cultural Boycott and used prominent black South African musicians in the recording of his album, which caused a huge debate. Some, including founder of Artists Against Apartheid, Dali Tambo, argued he should be boycotted, while others argued he was providing employment for and celebrating black musicians. The special included a segment with Simon and Tambo cordially discussing the boycott. Dali Tambo still believed Simon should have been boycotted, but they hugged at the end of the conversation. My takeaway? We won’t know ultimately about the effectiveness of BDS in Israel and Palestine until we have some hindsight. Michael’s takeaway? Boycotting Simon was a ridiculous idea then, and it’s still a ridiculous idea.

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