Monthly Archives: February 2011

yad vashem

I never liked being tickled as a child. Someone was eliciting a response from me that was not 100% genuine and was completely beyond my control. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized this happened all the time. When you walk out of a movie crying, you’re feeling something completely manufactured and often cheap. I didn’t like horror movies because it seemed so manipulative. I enjoy film and music that makes me feel something, but I prefer to have control over my emotion. A song might make me feel happy and think of a loved one, or a film might fill me with a kind of dread that I can reflect on in my own life. I hated Passion of the Christ because it took a story so integral to the Western experience – the story of Jesus of Nazareth being crucified – and turned it into a cheap kind of horror film. Without exploring the messages behind Jesus’s life or feeling the impact of the sacrifice (according to Christianity) we were simply disgusted and horrified by CGI chunks of flesh flying off the Roman’s cat-o-nine tails and the seemingly endless rivers of blood pouring down the face of Jesus. It’s like pornography, I thought. I’m just supposed to be feeling something… not for any reason, not to change my mind about something, but just to feel something. I felt like using Jesus as the vehicle for this kind of elicitation was cheap. After all, the Christian story of Jesus is so deep, so laden in mystery and humanity, that to boil it down to weeping audience members, vomiting children… it all seemed so besides the point.

Likewise, when I visited Yad Vashem yesterday I felt that since the presentation of the Holocaust was so manipulated, I should be as critical as possible to do honor to the subject. Nevermind the fact I was aware of the political situation outside of the walls and had just come from a checkpoint with automatic weapons, barbed wire, and endless swaths of concrete. Nothing can compare to the horrifying nature of the Holocaust, as man’s technology finally advanced to the point where we could make killing factories and machines, an entire mechanized industry out of eradicating human life mirroring some sort of industrialized assembly line. Yet what am I supposed to feel when I am walking through Yad Vashem?

The building itself is remarkable – poured concrete and little light – and the exhibits are created so one is forced to step back and look up. Your first introduction to the story is antisemitism. Christianity is blamed for its spiritual creation – complete with quotes from St. Augustine – and its biological and racial roots are traced to the 19th century. We are then told in brief and in passing that Nazi antisemitism was somewhat of an economic thing, that the Europeans were jealous of the Jewish people’s accumulated wealth in a time of poverty. This is the end of explanation and by the time you exit the first room of the museum there is no more explanation necessary and you are instead launched into an orgy of emotion.

When we look at locks of a little girl’s hair, of toothbrushes, family heirlooms, tefillin, and shoes in the floor, what is it we are supposed to feel? Miniature pewter models of death camps Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek… plaster models of the gas chambers at Auschwitz complete with writhing bodies suffocating in agony. Here: stand next to a bunk or walk on cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto. How does this make you feel? Is it not enough? Perhaps photographs of naked women huddled before a pit of bodies, a wide eyed man sitting on the edge of a pit with a gun to his head. The video display of an old woman describing in broken Hebrew her experience clawing through dead bodies after the bullet missed her. The culmination is a red-cheeked fat American woman sitting down and shouting to her companions that she is going to be sick.

So you’ve elicited the response, now what? Besides the lack of the word “Palestine” anywhere in the Museum, the only outwardly Zionist gesture comes at the end, when you are standing before the placid hills of West Jerusalem, the sun setting behind them in a wonderful way. Perhaps the motive is in the glorification of Jewish resistance fighters near the end, the rehabilitation of the “sheep to the slaughter” image you might have cultivated until this point. Who knows what it is? I walked through taking notes as photography was not allowed, but even I had to put away my notebook eventually as the bile rose in my throat and my cheeks burned pink.

Yet I felt silly. After all, little of this had anything to do with me. That American woman feeling faint and needing to sit down – chances are it had little to nothing to do with her either. Guides took through their American charges, whispering in low tones, “You know, I heard this one story about a man in America who realized he was living next to a Nazi.. did you know Europe and America took in Nazis?”

No one can deny the scale. No one can deny the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Yet the stated cause behind it – the racial motivations of the Nazi party as opposed to capital, war, etc… the thinking part is shelved and the emotional part is coaxed out instead. If the goal is to “never forget” – well, who would be in Israel and forget the Holocaust? If it is a memorial to the victims and their humanity, why the photographs of naked children in medical experiments? So then why Yad Vashem, why in Jerusalem, why such a presentation and display? It was a strange museum to human evil and yet offered little in the way of solutions or even reconciliation. The only real emotions to be felt there were anger and burning shame.

The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as a spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ‘n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.

– Thomas Pynchon

assistance

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this is america

As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her speech at George Washington University in the middle of third week of February 2011 condemning governments that arrest protestors and do not allow free expression, 71-year-old Ray McGovern was grabbed from the audience in plain view of her by police and an unidentified official in plain clothes, brutalized and left bleeding in jail. She never paused speaking though.

They don’t need to take this off the internet and they don’t need to address it through press releases. Nobody knows and nobody cares. This is America.

I’m sick of it. I’m sick of it. Things are worse than ever. The poor are dying and debt is strangling them. The old can’t retire, the young can’t get an education, and the educated can’t get a job. Meanwhile we fight imperial wars overseas and let the rich plunder our legacy. It’s too painful. I can’t work in America – I can barely even stand to look at the situation. A friend of mine works for a senator in the states and she vented for nearly an hour about how frustrating it all is, how deep the corruption goes, and how hard off people really are. Meanwhile we’re thrown into a cyclone of material distraction, drugs, waste, television. Real wages haven’t risen in over 30 years. What’s the point of cheering on protests overseas when you can’t even see how badly you need a revolution at home? Will oil pipelines inject us with discontent? Will rising prices force us onto the streets? Will we wake up to see empty swaths of burnt-out Detroit and New Orleans and decide to demand our legacy? Will we see our parents dying in their poorly-heated homes and finally ask for something more? I’m sick of it. I’m sick of watching people play games with our future. We’ve made so many mistakes in the past and we can’t stand to keep passing the buck to the next generation. Where is the youth in America? We are all asleep at our laptops or stoned and playing video games. We live off nothing and as long as we have our microwave dinners and occasional lay from the bar we can’t find much of a reason to complain.

Where is that sacrifice your forefathers made in bringing you to this point in time? Whether a slave, a servant, a soldier, a teacher, a farmer a miner, an assembly line worker… whatever it was, they worked hard to give you more than you have now. You feel entitled to the wrong things. You feel entitled to your wants but assume the needs will always be there somehow. You are entitled to a free education, to free healthcare, to decent housing, and well-paying jobs. You are entitled to justice and you are entitled to dignity.

Where are the marches, where are the protests, where are the movements towards liberation from our situation? What are we waiting for – rock bottom?

حب

What is love if not two old people holding hands on a train, falling asleep on your shoulder, or watching you in the morning? Love is a dignified thing, held close to that peaceful song you listen to alone in the dark at night or next to your memories of being in a city by yourself. Love is a solitary thing you do in concert with the rest of the world. It is walking through the catacombs and looking at art in a museum. Love is about the ephemeral things in life and how striking they are in the short time that we have them.  Love is important and is closest we can get to resting in the shade of God – love and terror – and loss is the fullness of these things and the promise of eternity is a moment in time. Love reminds me of solitude, of sounds and light in train cars, pretty boulevards and rivers and old buildings. Love can be about two people but it’s also about being alone and reflecting on the beauty and miracle of the world, and of the yawning majesty of God. Love is something cold and light and clear like church bells in the morning. To share something like that is such a mercy.

between worlds

Where else on earth do you travel so far as along the road from Ramallah to Jerusalem? Finish up with the wall, the checkpoint, the watch towers, the barbed wire, the guns, the soldiers, the questions, the passports, the turnstiles, the crackling loudspeakers. Ride a little ways, take a little walk, and suddenly be transported to another world completely. Surround yourself with well-dressed people sipping coffee and listening to Billie Holiday. Go wandering boutiques and sanitized markets, eying sales and new arrivals.

Realize for a moment, after you imagine the impact of an explosion on this place you stand, that you are the connection between these two places. You are a wormhole through which both experiences exist nearly simultaneously. In other times your apparition would be an expression of rage or  violence, but at this moment it is a swallow and a dizziness, a sense of disconnection and an emotional dead-end. You are that which exists between two worlds, both here and when you go home.

Perhaps it is easy to imagine the severity of the shift when you walk it yourself, down back alleyways of Jerusalem past Arabs who turn into Jews who turn into hip young twenty-somethings on vacation from America. Yet it is the same all over. Take the walk from the North Side to the South Side, step over train tracks or MLK Boulevard and it can be the same thing anywhere else in the world. Sure, differences are even more cartoonishly apparent here, what with the change of printed language and lack of barbed wire, but the occasional soldier walking past you on Jaffa Road, notably more at ease with an ice cream cone in their hand and gun bouncing their hip as they walk, will remind you of it all. Are you more at ease here? If you forgot the change, would you relax and have fun too?

This little ride, this little walk, illustrates perfectly the relationship of violence in our modern times. One exists because of the other, and one would not exist without the other. Without the checkpoints, there would be no bare-armed girl flirting with the barista at the cafe. Without the soldier playing video games at the arcade, there would be no empty-eyed disconnect at the checkpoint. Without the Deleuze and Guattari at the second-hand bookshop, there might not be modern justification for all of it.

Start to wonder which way things flow over this bridge you represent. Are you observing or carrying? When you left America you swore to try and be like the signs in the national parks. Leave things as you found them. So then, do you start to doubt the cut of your coat in the windows of the boutiques on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem or do you start to hate your uncovered hair in the eyes of the young men on at-Tiere Road in Ramallah? Have you tried your best to move among these worlds, not changing anything?

After all, it is not your place to do anything but go between them.

February 11th

The aim is not to promote an organic Arab democracy ‘of the people, and for the people,’ but rather to promote an evolutionary “democratization” in which the old despots of American strategic support are removed in favour of a neoliberal democratic system, in which the outward visible institutions of democracy are present (multi-party elections, private media, parliaments, constitutions, active civil society, etc); yet, the power-holders within that domestic political system remain subservient to U.S. economic and strategic interests, continuing to follow the dictates of the IMF and World Bank, supporting America’s military hegemony in the region, and “opening up” the Arab economies to be “integrated” into the world economy. Thus, “democratization” becomes an incredibly valuable strategy for maintaining hegemony; a modern re-hash of “Let them eat cake!” Give the people the ‘image’ of democracy and establish and maintain a co-dependent relationship with the new elite. Thus, democracy for the people becomes an exercise in futility, where people’s ‘participation’ becomes about voting between rival factions of elites, who all ultimately follow the orders of Washington. 

This strategy also has its benefit for the maintenance of American power in the region. While dictators have their uses in geopolitical strategy, they can often become too independent of the imperial power and seek to determine the course of their country separate from U.S. interests, and are subsequently much more challenging to remove from power (i.e., Saddam Hussein). With a “democratized” system, changing ruling parties and leaders becomes much easier, by simply calling elections and supporting opposition parties. Bringing down a dictator is always a more precarious situation than “changing the guard” in a liberal democratic system.

from America’s Strategic Repression of the ‘Arab Awakening'”

The fever pitch excitement and elation on February 11th echoed another event in recent history: the Obama election. The power of the people was hailed and a new chapter in history emerged. After the disastrous upset of a false success the night before, when Mubarak appeared on television and called the Egyptian people his children, a pallid Omar Suleiman appeared the next night and said he was gone. Rejoice! Television presenters wiped tears from their eyes. The people danced in the streets. Finally – justice prevailed. Egypt was free! But what did that mean?

I was called a cynic immediately for not joining the rejoicing masses. Yet I’d been led on before. The election of Obama was supposed to herald a new age in progress and democracy and it has done nearly the opposite. Likewise, the day after Mubarak left office and the television cameras began to be shipped back home, the Egyptian military began a quiet bust-up of the few hundred protesters remaining in Tahrir Square who insisted with some confusion that their demands for democracy and a free society had not yet been made! The promises of the army to hold elections in September nearly echoed the ones made by Mubarak. Yet the people had cried for his resignation. Well, give the people what they want – but not what they really want. With so many slogans centered around one man, the dangerous possibility of the entire movement being co-opted by his name became a reality. With Mubarak gone, what was there left to complain about? You got what you asked for – now get back to work!

I still plan on traveling to Egypt in the coming weeks and will report back what I see, if these steps towards democracy – this outrageous show of the people’s power – have gained any wins towards alleviating the day-to-day situation of the Egyptian people.  I sincerely hope things have improved, yet it remains to be seen if the conditions of over 20 million living in slums on less than a dollar a day will have changed much. A social movement is only gauged in how it uplifts the lowest members in that society. I would hate for Mubarak to be right on this point. I sincerely hope the protesters were not simply the petit-bourgeois reacting to satellite television. I hope history sees February 11th as the first battle won in a broad people’s movement for actual change.

where the cynicism is born

In the past week, the Palestinian Authority has violently suppressed two separate rallies in support of the Egyptian people and their rights to revolt against an unjust government (not reported in Ma’an news). At the same time, the Palestinian Authority set up a fake protest in support of the Mubarak regime (also not reported). Today, we see the Palestinian Authority calling for the people of Gaza to emulate their brothers in Egypt (!) and rally to overthrow Hamas.

1. This page is not affiliated to any party or religion but it is working for Palestinians
2. Friday 11 February will be the day the Palestinian people say no to division and yes to national unity, they will stand in the face of the challenges facing the Palestinian cause
3. We call on Hamas to stop its coup and go back seriously and immediately to reconciliation to unite again with our people
4. Overthrow the unjust government in Gaza by coordination with the rest of the national parties in the Palestinian arena
5. Initiate an intifada against the current situation in Gaza. A peaceful intifada to say yes to unity and enough to the emirate of darkness.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority is currently amending their election law to dis-include the Gaza Strip from elections supposedly to be held in May – over a year since they were previously scheduled to be held.

Palestine is the canary in the mineshaft. I have serious doubts about Egypt’s prospects for success when Palestine – the heart of the anticolonial movement in the Middle East – is this infested with thuggery and juvenile propaganda tactics and no one here responds.