Brain kneidlach

When I was a kid learning about Pesach at school, the story we heard was more or less an analogy for the Zionist narrative. The oppressed Israelites fight against Pharaoh’s oppression—with God’s help of course—and then escape from the old land of slavery to the new promised land. In the process they also invade and colonise the people already living in Kna’an. This version of the story reflects the us vs. them mentality I grew up with. The Egyptians were the bad guys. They were our enemy. If their firstborn children died in the plague or if they drowned in the Red Sea, that really did serve them right.

Now when I celebrate Pesach I see it not as a festival of nationalism, but of liberation. I think of Shiphrah and Puah, the Egyptian midwives who risked their lives to protect Jewish babies from Pharaoh’s campaign of infanticide, even though as Egyptians they were benefiting from Israelite slavery. There’s an important lesson here about solidarity. It’s not really us Jews vs. them Goyim, it’s people who desire justice vs. people who are content to benefit from oppression.

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Jewish feminists established the tradition of honouring the prophetess Miriam on Pesach. It’s said that when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, Miriam carried a magic cup that would refill with water each time it was emptied, and that is how the former slaves quenched their thirst. So we place Miriam’s cup on the seder table alongside Elijah’s cup, as a reminder that Jewish women have always played a central role in protecting and nurturing Jewish communities.

But this Pesach I had a different Miriam on my mind. Mariam actually. Twenty-year-old Mariam Barghouti is a Palestinian activist, translator, and student at Birzeit University. I know about her work from her excellent blog, and from her Twitter updates of protests in the West Bank.

A few days before Pesach, Mariam was arrested by the IDF in Nabi Saleh. According to a statement published by the ISM:

On Friday, April 11th, 2014, 20-year-old Mariam Barghouti, a university student at Birzeit, was arrested by Israeli forces. She was brought to court on Sunday, April 13th where she was charged and her detention extended until Wednesday, April 16th.

Mariam was arrested while leaving the village of Nabi Saleh. Mariam, along with Abir Kopty (a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who was later released on bail), and three foreign journalists were detained by soldiers and searched. Mariam had been in Nabi Saleh accompanying some of the journalists on their assignments and translating for them. Soldiers on the scene fabricated charges against her and handed her over to the police who arrested her along with Abir. At her hearing yesterday Mariam was charged with stone-throwing and entering a closed military area; her detention has been extended until Wednesday. Mariam sobbed throughout the whole hearing and told her lawyer that the charges are simply lies.

Mariam is a student at Birzeit University where she is majoring in English Literature and Psychology. Mariam is also active in community work and organizing and received a two-month residency scholarship in the UK, part of a program supporting women.

Abir said that during the arrest incident on Friday, “one of the soldiers who detained us looked at me and with a big smile said, ‘I’m going to mess up your life.’ It was obvious to me then that not only will he fabricate everything for his own purposes, but he knows he has the power to do so.”

Mariam was released on bail on April 17, the third day of Pesach. 5224 other Palestinians are still imprisoned by Israel, including 210 children.

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The day before Erev Pesach (actually it was Erev Pesach for me, New Zealand is about 24 hours ahead of the USA) a White supremacist and former KKK member named Frazier Glenn Cross shot and killed three people outside a Jewish Community Centre and a Jewish retirement community in Kansas.

The scary thing is, I wasn’t even that shocked when I heard about it. I know that during times of economic recession anti-Jewish racism grows. I see it all the time, even in supposedly leftist spaces like Occupy, or anti-asset sales protests: the banks are controlled by Rothchilds, John Key wants to privatise state assets because he’s a Jew. Anyone who’s ever read a history book knows that anti-Jewish racism can quickly escalate from scapegoating rhetoric to murder.

Most of the reactions to the shooting were predictable too. We had Zionists blaming Palestinians and BDS activists—as if there’s any connection between anti-colonial struggle and the KKK. We had anti-Semites blaming Israel—as if shooting Jews living in the USA is an act of resistance to Israeli apartheid. I’m used to this. Conflating the state of Israel with Jews worldwide is in the interest of both Zionists and Jew-haters, and they’re both opportunistic enough to exploit a horrific act of racist violence to reinforce their views.

The thing that did surprise me was the response of US media. Over and over and over I heard that the shooter’s motivations weren’t clear. The man was a White supremacist. He targeted Jewish sites. But no one would call this a racist attack. His motivations weren’t clear.

If Cross had carried out an act of racist violence against Muslims, or Arabs, or Sikhs, or Blacks, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see his racist motivations erased. I’m not stupid, I understand the role that mainstream media plays in perpetuating racism. Acts of violence committed by Whites are rarely attributed to a problem with White culture. They’re more likely to be seen as exceptional events perpetrated by a crazy individual.

I was surprised to see anti-Jewish violence treated the same way, because I’ve consistently been told that in America, Jews (at least Ashkenazim) are White. The USA is supposed to be the land of opportunity where Jews aren’t seen as outsiders or expected to give up our traditions and assimilate. At least that’s what I learned from films like Yentl and An American Tail, as well as conversations with both Jewish and Gentile Americans. But clearly Jews aren’t White enough to be protected from acts of racist violence.

It’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t confuse access to White power with liberation. Jews might be accepted into the fold of Whiteness when it suits the interests of White supremacy (for example when they can use us to perpetuate oppression of Muslims and Arabs) but our Whiteness is always provisional and can be taken away as political and economic circumstances change. Instead of seeking to become White we should be fighting to dismantle Whiteness.

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This year I went to a seder organized by a Jewish discussion group I occasionally attend. I was apprehensive about going. I never feel like I belong at Jewish community events, mostly because of my opposition to Zionism and the state of Israel.

The seder was different from what I’m used to. There was no faux-chicken soup with kneidlach, we read the haggadah in English instead of Hebrew, and we didn’t sing Chad Gadya. There was much more talk of God than we have in my family, and less talk of politics.

There was also a different version of the Pesach story. In the story I learned at school, Jacob and his sons migrate to Egypt to seek relief from famine. Jacob’s descendants live peacefully in Egypt for several generations until a new Pharaoh decides that the Israelites are a threat and decrees that they will be slaves, and their sons will be killed. In the version I heard at this seder, Jacob’s son Joseph was responsible for stocking up on grains on Pharaoh’s behalf, which he then sold to the Egyptian peasants at inflated prices during the famine, forcing them into poverty. The Egyptians rebelled and installed a new Pharaoh, who enslaved the Israelites as punishment for Jacob’s greed. The story becomes very different when you look at it from the Egyptians’ point of view.

Halfway through the haggadah someone said that it felt hypocritical to be speaking about freedom when Palestinians are being colonised and oppressed by Israel. We had a short discussion about whether diaspora Jews bear any responsibility for Israel’s actions. No one wanted to get into an argument so we went back to the haggadah. But it was validating to know that other people there were thinking the same thing I was.

*

Pesach is a holiday of asking questions. So here are some questions:

What if the Israelites had chosen a different path? What if instead of organising as Israelites, they’d united with others who were being oppressed by Pharaoh? What if instead of escaping Egypt to a promised—but already inhabited—land, they’d worked to install an egalitarian form of government in Egypt? What if instead of organising as Jews today, we unite with others who are oppressed by White supremacy? What if instead of working to uphold a Jewish-supremacist colonial regime on Palestinian land, we fight racism and other forms of oppression right here where we stand? What kind of possibilities are there for a Jewish liberation movement that isn’t nationalist? What do we do now?

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Ariel Sharon is dead

I have thought about this day for quite some time.

I thought that when it finally came, I’d be dancing around my bedroom to Pollyanna Frank drinking bubbly hugging everyone in sight.

Actually I don’t really feel like celebrating[1]. I sure as hell don’t feel like mourning either. I don’t feel much of anything. I realise that I actually don’t give a fuck about Arik Sharon. The man’s been in a coma for years, he’s been powerless to hurt anyone. I don’t really care about revenge or about punishing the guilty; I just want to take away the power they have to oppress others.

But just because I’m not celebrating, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be celebrating. I am sick to death of all the sanctimonious bullshit going round about how ‘all life is sacred’ and ‘we should never celebrate anyone’s suffering’. Reading some of the reactions to Sharon’s death online really brought home just how huge an impact he had on the people he terrorised. Palestinian and Lebanese people are perfectly entitled to celebrate the death of a man who devoted his life to their annihilation.

People are so quick to rewrite history at times like this. If you need to be reminded what kind of man Arik Sharon was, I suggest you go read Miko Peled’s pre-emptive eulogy:

Ariel Sharon was an ambitious man. He was brutal, greedy, uncompromising and dishonest. He possessed an insatiable appetite for power, glory and fortune. His tendencies as a cold-blooded, merciless killer were evident from early on in his career when he commanded the Israeli army’s Unit 101 in the 1950’s. Unit 101 was an infamous commando brigade with special license to kill and terrorize Palestinians. It operated mostly in Gaza, but also in other parts of the country and beyond. Unit 101 was so brutal in its practices, and claimed so many innocent lives, that even by Israeli standards it was thought to have gone too far and the unit was eventually disbanded.

Sharon went on to be promoted to other commands in the Israeli army earning a name for himself as a promising commander and all were expecting that he would one day be the Israeli army’s top commander, or Chief of Staff. But this was one job he never got, he did better. Sharon entered politics and was nominated to be Defense Minister under Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In that capacity he lead Israel’s catastrophic invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

This invasion left countless Lebanese and Palestinians dead, wounded and displaced. Sharon was also behind the massacres that took place in September of that year in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut, and here once again, even by Israeli standards Sharon had gone too far and was removed from office.

My empathy and my solidarity are with the people Sharon murdered and the people he tried to destroy.

*

When Hannah Arendt wrote about the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem, she noted that many Germans passionately supported the trial and were glad to see Eichmann convicted and executed. Arendt suggested that the reason Germans were so eager to see Eichmann brought to justice was because they felt it would somehow exonerate them. If the responsibility for the final solution could be pinned on Eichmann, and only Eichmann, then ordinary Germans would no longer need to feel guilty for their failure to oppose their state’s acts of genocide.

I’ve been thinking about that today, while trying to untangle my visceral loathing for Sharon. Of course, he was a cruel, racist, brutal, violent, hateful man; responsible for massacres, land confiscations, house demolitions, imprisonment, torture, settlements… the list of the man’s crimes is endless. There is no one more deserving of my hatred.

But it’s more than that—I hate Arik Sharon because I feel that he has made me complicit in his crimes. I hate him because I know that I—and every other settler-colonist in Palestine—share some of the responsibility for the atrocities committed by this man.

For a long time Sharon has personified the worst excesses of Zionist colonisation. He represented the most militant, the most racist, the most violent strand of Israeli politics. Nice liberal Israelis could pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we were better than him, because we were shocked and disgusted at the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, at the invasion of Jenin, at the settlements in the West Bank. Never mind that we also live on ethnically-cleansed Palestinian land. Never mind that most Israelis who view Sharon as a war criminal also oppose the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

This is part of why I feel ambivalent about celebrating Sharon’s death. It’s too easy. It’s too easy to pin the responsibility for Israeli violence and brutality on Arik Sharon, so that I don’t need to feel guilty. It makes it easy to forget that I too, am complicit. I too, benefit from the continued Israeli colonisation of Palestine.

I’m not arguing that Sharon is no guiltier than any other Jewish-Israeli. He had more political and military power than your average Israeli civilian and he went out of his way to use that power to dispossess Palestinians and Lebanese. He wasn’t a victim of circumstance who was simply acting on the demands of his superiors or his constituents. He was committed to entrenching (Ashkenazi) Jewish supremacy in Palestine and the Levant. Ariel Sharon, and all Israeli political and military leaders, should be held accountable for his crimes. But a few evil people cannot perpetrate this scale of ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Jewish-Israelis as a whole carry some of the responsibility—because collectively we have always had the power to stop them.

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Today a cruel and brutal man is dead. Indigenous resistance lives on. In spite of Sharon’s best efforts, Palestine will be decolonised and the refugees will return to their homes. I may not care enough to celebrate his death, but I will celebrate the certainty that his life mission will turn out to be a failure. I celebrate the victory of justice over oppression.


[1] I’m lying, I feel a little bit like celebrating. Just seeing how happy Palestinians and Lebanese are makes me feel happy too.

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2013: less shit than 2012

This time a year ago I was spending most of my time in bed, streaming episodes of Once Upon A Time, subsisting on a diet of hommous and crackers because the anxiety was so overwhelming that even going to the kitchen was too scary. I was trying out extended-release Ritalin to see if taking it on a daily basis helped. Mostly it just turned up the anxiety to full volume (which is the exact reason I’d been avoiding Ritalin).

There’s a bunch of things that helped me recover. One was moving to a flat where I could use the kitchen without worrying about flatmates giving me judgmental looks for eating food that comes in a can. Another was that my grandmother left me some money when she died, which gave me the freedom to take time off and work on recovering without having to battle WINZ every few weeks. I think maybe the most important one was that after a ten-year break I decided to give anti-depressants another go. I’ve had such terrible experiences with anti-depressants in the past that things had to get pretty desperate for me to even consider it. I’m glad I did, because right now the combination of venlafaxine and atomoxetine seems to be working out ok. I keep waiting for the meds to stop helping, for everything to revert back to the way I felt before. It’s like tiptoeing in the dark waiting to step over the edge of a cliff. Past experience has taught me that depression is never solved; you just learn to make the most of the good times and be prepared for the worst times.

I started making a list of significant things that happened in 2013:

  • Margaret Thatcher died
  • George Zimmerman was acquitted
  • SCAF took power in Egypt
  • Beyonce released a surprise album
  • Chelsea Manning came out as trans
  • Cis boys wrote earnest facebook updates about how they were gonna call Chelsea Manning by her correct name and pronoun
  • Cis boys patiently waited to be showered with cookies 

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Last year we had the first NZ-wide conference about Palestine in two decades. Organising the conference was an educational experience regarding working with people who have drastically different political outlooks and approaches to organising. At times it felt like performance art on the nature of White Supremacist Patriarchy (White men making the decisions, Arab women doing the work).

I’m really glad it happened. It was awesome and inspiring and validating to meet people from around the country who are committed to the decolonisation of Palestine.

The highlight of the conference was the Palestinian writer and youth worker Yousef al-Jamal. He talked about his life in Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza, BDS, and the Palestinian prisoners’ movement. Building personal relationships between Palestinians in Palestine and solidarity activists here (as well as Palestinian New Zealanders) is really valuable and I hope that in the future we can bring more Palestinians over here, not just from Gaza but also from the West Bank, the ’48 territories, and the refugee camps. It’s far more useful than sending New Zealand journalists over to Palestine—there are plenty of Palestinian journalists who report from there.

The conference also included Jewish-Israeli anti-Zionist Miko Peled. It was revealing that—with the exception of Native Affairs—every mainstream media outlet was only interested in interviewing Miko and not Yousef. They all thought the voice of the coloniser was more valid and impartial than the voice of the colonised.

*

The conference gave birth to an Aotearoa BDS Network, which is where most of my time and energy went towards the end of the year. The global campaign of boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel is something that I’m incredibly invested in on a personal level. It’s the most useful way that people living outside Palestine can be actively solid with Palestinians. It’s an opportunity to abolish Israeli apartheid and see the refugees’ right of return honoured using non-violent tactics. I would much rather see Palestine liberated without more bloodshed. I also know that right now the chances of that happening are looking pretty slim.

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I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions but this year I’m resolving to be nicer to myself. I’m giving myself permission to do things just because they’re fun and make me happy, even if they don’t contribute towards The Revolution. My list so far:

  • Play music
  • Make street art
  • Pat dogs
  • Drink beer

I considered adding ‘have sex’ to that list. There are good reasons I decided to take a break. I miss having sex with other people, but I’m not sure I’m ready either. I wish I lived in a culture where being a rape victim wasn’t stigmatised. I wish I lived in a culture where knowing how to support rape victims was considered such a vital skill that everyone knew how to do it. I wish I felt comfortable talking to potential lovers about what my boundaries are and what I find triggering, and be confident that they would listen and respect that and respect me for telling them. I wish I never had to see that expression on someone’s face when they go all awkward and uncomfortable and I know that they find all this stuff too weird and scary to be thinking about. I wish I didn’t constantly feel like I’m not worth the trouble of having to navigate through my trauma.

*

Last year was a ruthless reminder that I live in a rape culture. The group of teenage boys who got girls drunk, raped them, then humiliated them on Facebook, is one of the scariest things I’ve ever heard. The response—from the boys’ schools, from the police, from the media—was horrific. It’s no wonder that boys think it’s a good idea to rape girls when they grow up in a culture where rape is minimised, condoned, laughed about, and blamed on the victims. I’ve seen so many people blame these boys’ behavior on drinking culture, on hook-up culture, on the girls they raped. The reality is that this entire culture is at fault for making it so easy to rape, and to get away with it.

Watching the story unfold in the media brought back so many shitty experiences that I’ve had. Almost every woman I know was feeling the same. Maybe one of the positive things that came out of it is that it encouraged people who’ve been raped to talk about what happened, to talk to each other, to know that we’re not alone.

It was amazing to see Civic Square full of people who came for the Stop Rape Culture Now march. It was amazing to hear so many brave smart women speak. I know that it’s much easier to come to a protest than to actually respect boundaries and pay attention to consent in all of your sexual relationships (not that paying attention to consent is that fucking hard!) but I really really hope that all the protests, and blog posts, and discussions did have an impact.

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Wishes for 2014:

  • No more rape culture
  • Decolonisation of Palestine
  • Anarchist revolution
  • Vegan pizzeria across the road from my house
  • Good science fiction with lots of trans, disabled, POC, queer and women characters
  • Introduction of transport beam technology 

Failing that, I’ll settle for satisfying work that makes me feel useful and lots of time spent with awesome people who make me feel loved.

Happy goy new year.

 

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Don’t bite

The man
whose eyes are sharp stones
also has a fishhook for a tongue

Too late I see it dangling
shiny, silver
Too late I think
‘don’t bite’

Now that hook is lodged deep in my jaw
Now I’m spitting blood
everywhere

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Your body is a battleground

Back in June I spoke at CLITfest on a panel titled ‘body politics: food, health, fat, disability, class and moral virtue’. This is adapted from that talk.

I want to start out by talking a bit about the way our culture views the human body, and by extension issues around health, fatness, disability and food. I’m actually going to use an example from science fiction, specifically from the BBC show Torchwood. For those that aren’t familiar with it, Torchwood is a spinoff of Doctor Who, it’s about a covert British government agency who deal with matters of extra-terrestrials, time travel, and other science-fictiony type threats to humanity.

 Reset_(Torchwood)

There’s one episode about a pharmaceutical company that creates a drug called Reset, which cures any and all diseases. It works by ‘resetting’ the body back to its ‘factory settings’.

I’m really interested in this idea, that the human body has factory settings. Because as we all know, people are not created on a mass production line in a factory. But I constantly hear people talk about bodies as if they were created in a factory—as if all bodies (and brains) are  ‘intended’ to be a certain way, and have certain capabilities. I hear that ‘humans weren’t meant to eat this food’ ‘humans are supposed to be able to do this thing’ ‘humans weren’t intended to live in these places’. And what this does is, it constructs this idea that any body with any kind of physical or neurological impairment, or even difference, is a wrong body, a body which does not fit its intended ‘factory settings’ and therefore needs to be fixed.

I find this particular discourse rather illogical. If you’re an atheist, which I am, then presumably you subscribe to the theory of evolution, and you should understand the importance that genetic, physiological and neurological diversity play in human survival.

If you believe that humanity was created by a benevolent omnipotent higher power, then you’ve got to trust that that power knows what it’s doing and that human variation is there for a reason.

The question we need to ask is, why is this particular discourse about bodies so popular? Whose needs does it serve? What kind of social impact does it have, especially on people who have physical or neurological impairments?

There are two dominant narratives around illness and disability. One is the disabled person as an object of pity:  the helpless victim of fortune who needs our charity. The other is the disabled person as object of contempt: the person whose hardship is their own fault, because if they just had the correct attitude and worked hard enough, they could overcome their disability. This attitude is also applied to fat people, and to poor people.

We constantly hear that the reason that poor people have poor health is because they’re stupid, lazy and don’t take good care of their bodies. Al Nisbett’s cartoon voiced something that a lot of middle-class Pākehā really do believe: that poverty and poor health are people’s own fault because they spend their money on the wrong things (alcohol, cigarettes, pokies).

Al NIsbett cartoon 1

I once heard a nutrition expert discuss child poverty on National Radio and he explained that oatmeal and liver are foods that are very high in protein and also very cheap. So poor people would be fine if they just fed their kids on liver and oatmeal. How many parents think your kids would be ok with that?

When I was a kid I was a very fussy eater, I refused to eat fruit, vegetables, and most kinds of meat. My dad used to get so frustrated that he’d tell me ‘food is medicine, you don’t have to like it, just eat it because it’s good for you’. But that’s not really how it works. People aren’t machines, and food is more than just fuel. We don’t just need it to be nutritious. It also has to taste good, and we need more variety than just two kinds of food.

Those aren’t frivolous things, there’s a good evolutionary reason for them. Food that tastes good is likely to be food that’s safe to eat, and that contains the nutrients we most need (fat, carbs, protein). There’s also a good evolutionary reason why most of us get bored if we eat the same thing all the time: the wider the range of food we eat, the more likely we are to get all our nutritional needs met. So not wanting to live on liver and oatmeal is actually pretty reasonable.

The idea that people can control their health—and therefore should be blamed for being ‘unhealthy’—is expressed in different ways. Sometimes it’s the idea that you manifest your destiny with your thoughts, sometimes it’s the idea that you can get what you want by praying, sometimes it’s the idea that you can overcome poverty, disability and illness through sheer willpower, determination and hard work. What all these have in common is the idea that if individuals are disabled, it’s their own fault.

Blaming the individual for their problem is consistent with neo-liberal ideology, which is all about dismantling collective responsibility and replacing it with individual responsibility. If, as Margaret Thatcher said ‘there is no society, there is only the individual’ then there’s no such thing as social responsibility.

It’s a convenient idea because it lets us off the hook when it comes to supporting other people. Taxpayers don’t need to fund sickness and invalids benefits if we can all agree that those people are to blame for being sick or disabled. We don’t need to put energy into supporting people with mental illness if we think that they could overcome mental illness through positive thinking. We don’t need to build public spaces that don’t disable people if we believe that anyone can overcome physical impairments through hard work and willpower.

The other convenient thing about blaming people for their health problems is that we don’t have to be scared that it could happen to us. We can tell ourselves that we won’t get sick because we exercise and don’t eat meat, or because we say positive affirmations every day, or because we are pious and God-fearing. In reality we have very little control over our health, which is a scary thing. Life is much easier if we believe that we can protect ourselves from illness or injury.

It’s ironic that we have a culture where people’s health is viewed as an individual responsibility but at the same time a public matter that we all have a right to pass judgment on. As if poor health is an indication of a lack of moral virtue.

Here’s something else to think about: in a capitalist economy which bodies are valued? Bodies that can perform waged work and thus contribute to the economy. Bodies that aren’t able to do so are excluded and disabled because they are disposable to the economy.

In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay the Capitol bombs a hospital full of injured rebel soldiers. Katniss doesn’t understand why the regime would do such a thing, until Gale points out that to the Capitol, people are only useful if they can perform the kind of work the Capitol considers productive. Injured people do not make good workers therefore they are disposable.

At this point I’m going to get personal and talk a bit more about my own experience. I have ADHD with inattentiveness. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 17. This has to do with sexism—girls with ADHD are less likely to be diagnosed, because of the different ways children are socialised based on their assigned gender. It also has to do with racism. As an immigrant from a Westernised but not Western country, teachers didn’t expect much from me. If I was quiet in class and had trouble understanding some material they assumed it was because my English was bad or because I wasn’t very bright.

Growing up with undiagnosed ADHD meant constantly being told that I was lazy, unreliable, inconsiderate, stupid, and socially inept. So it’s not surprising that I ended up with anxiety disorder, clinical depression, and a tendency to distrust my own judgment—something that’s actually really dangerous and makes you vulnerable to abuse.

After I was diagnosed my family’s reaction was mostly relief. Now that they knew what was wrong with me they thought they could fix it. And that goes back to what I said earlier about thinking there is only one kind of brain that people are ‘intended’ to have. They didn’t see neurodiversity as a difference, but as a problem to be fixed, and so I saw it the same way. I’d read that you could manage ADHD through a high protein, low carb diet. I became really obsessive and controlling about my food intake, and I often went without eating if I couldn’t find food that met those requirements. You don’t need a psychology degree to work out that it was my way of ensuring that there was at least one thing in my life that I had control over.

One of the ways that I’ve managed ADHD and mental illness is by taking medication. At some points in my life it’s been really helpful, and at other points I decided it was doing more harm than good so I stopped. What I learned is that you’re stigmatised if you do take meds and you’re stigmatised if you don’t. I’ve had friends tell me that taking Ritalin to help me study for exams is like taking steroids to play competitive sports. I’ve also been told ‘you don’t need drugs to be happy, you should just be happy’. On the other hand, I once had a close friend ask me ‘have you considered taking anti-depressants?’ while I was having an anxiety attack. I had family members get angry at me for refusing to take Ritalin because I didn’t like the anxiety it caused.

There’s a lot of pressure on neurodiverse and mentally ill people to take medication so that we can just ‘be better’. Refusing medication is seen as a selfish act, as if we’re forcing people around us to have to deal with our impairments or difference when we could just choose to be normal. Psychiatric medications are not aren’t magic potions. They won’t instantly fix mental illness or make you neurotypical. They also aren’t a cop-out or a crutch that people rely on because they’re weak. Meds are a strategy that people can use to manage mental illness and/or neurodiversity. It’s a strategy that some people will find helpful at some times, and other people will not. It’s up to individuals to decide for themselves whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Neurodiverse people do not have an obligation to ‘fix’ themselves so that they can be like neurotypical people. Being neurologically atypical isn’t a disorder, it’s a difference in the way someone’s brain works. It only becomes a disability when someone is disabled by the society they live in. I know there are particular things that make it hard for me to participate in society: when university courses consist of three-hour long lectures (because I can’t maintain concentration for that long) or when social occasions are at noisy bars or cafes (because I can’t block out background noise, so I can’t concentrate on conversations).

Our goal shouldn’t be to change people, so that all bodies and brains have the same abilities (because that ain’t gonna happen). Our goal should be to restructure our society so that we don’t disable anyone.

One last point about meds: the existence of psychiatric medications is not an evil capitalist plot. What is an evil capitalist plot is that people’s access to medications is limited, and access to information about medications is also limited. The problem with the pharmaceutical industry isn’t that it manufactures drugs, it’s that it charges money for drugs. We need to distinguish between the industry and the product. The problem isn’t medicine, it’s capitalist economic relations.

The thing about capitalist economic relations is: it requires a particular set of moral values to sustain it. It requires a culture where most of us have very little power and autonomy over our lives, but we’re expected to take full responsibility for ourselves. We need to turn that on its head. We need to build a culture of collective responsibility, where everyone contributes according to their ability and gets according to their needs, so that no one is disabled. We need to build a culture that respects both community and individual autonomy, where people are trusted to be the experts on their own bodies, and everyone’s bodily autonomy is respected.

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I love Hannukah

Hannukah 2013I love stuffing my face with latkes and donuts—you can’t beat a holiday dedicated to fried food.
I love the smell of Hannukah candles burning. It evokes childhood memories of celebrating at my grandparents’ house, all the cousins playing together while the grownups drink whiskey and discuss politics.
I love playing dreidl with my non-Jewish friends and laughing at them struggling to differentiate between נ and ג.
But mostly I just love a good story, and Hannukah comes with a great story. It’s got an oppressive occupying army, and a brave guerrilla struggle, and a miraculous victory against all the odds.
Like all good stories, it develops and adapts as circumstances demand. The version I grew up with was all about nationalism and military might and God’s greatness:
The Greek military (technically they were Syrian but why let historical accuracy interfere with the story), led by King Antiochus, had occupied Judea. Antiochus forced the Jews to worship Greek gods. He placed a statue of Zeus in the temple of Jerusalem, destroyed the holy oil used to light the Menorah (the seven-branch lamp in the temple) and demanded that Jews sacrifice pigs to the Greek gods (not kosher and mean to pigs). In the town of Modi’in, one brave man named Mattityahu (yup like the rapper) the Hasmonean and his five sons stood up to Antiochus and led a rebellion. They became known as the Maccabees. They lived in caves and ate carob and had a bunch of military victories until they liberated the temple itself. They cleaned out the temple and were ready to rededicate it, but all the holy oil had been desecrated. After much searching our illustrious heroes found one tiny jar of oil, enough to burn for one day. It would take eight days to make more oil. They lit the lamp anyway (I never understood why they didn’t just wait a week til they could get more oil) and miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days.
You can see how this story fits into Israel’s nationalist narrative: The brave pious warriors fighting for Jewish self-determination, the cruel and powerful enemy that surrounds the Jews on all sides, but most of all the way the Jews won against their enemies, not because they had the support of the world’s largest superpower, but because they had God on their side.
Luckily I am a champion at tactical reading. If I don’t like a story I just rewrite it in my head. What resonates with me about the story of Hannukah isn’t the nationalism or religious zealotry. It’s the idea that people will always resist economic and cultural colonisation, and that eventually they will win. This is an important message, particularly in relation to the current Israeli colonisation of Palestine.
There’s another important lesson we should learn from the Hannukah story. The Maccabees defeated Antiochus and established a Hasmonean dynasty that ruled for a hundred years. Eventually the Hasmonean regime became as oppressive as Antiochus had been and began persecuting the rabbis. I read this as a warning about the dangers of nationalism. The Maccabee rebellion was motivated by Jewish nationalism, not by a desire for liberation. What started out as a movement for freedom from oppression eventually became oppressive towards others. Again, there are obvious parallels with the Zionist movement.
The lesson I take from this story, is that solidarity should be based in ethics, not identity. If my solidarity is with the Jews because I am a Jew, then I will stand with Jews against anti-Jewish oppression, and I will also stand with Jews when they oppress others in the name of Jewishness. If this is the basis of my politics, then I cannot expect solidarity from anyone who is not Jewish.
However, if my solidarity is with the oppressed against the oppressors, then I will stand with Jews against anti-Jewish oppression, and I will stand against any Jews who oppress others—even if they do so in the name of Jewishness. It means I stand with diaspora Jewish communities against anti-Semitism and I also stand with Palestinians against Zionism and I expect solidarity from both Jews and non-Jews in that stand.
If I were writing a sappy daytime TV special about a group of kids who go on a magical quest to discover the true meaning of Hannukah, this would be the conclusion: Hannukah is about resistance to oppression, it’s about decolonisation, and it’s about the dangers of nationalism and fanaticism.
Chag sameach.

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Queer liberation vs Pinkwashing

A couple of weeks ago I talked at Beyond as part of a panel titled Nationalism, Imperialism and Queer Liberation. This is adapted from that talk.

Note: for the purpose of this article I’m using ‘queer’ as a broad term to describe all of us who are marginalised because our gender or sexual identity isn’t normative. That includes trans, intersex, pansexual, lesbian and gay folks, among others. I know that ‘queer’ is a culturally specific label and that not all gender/sexually diverse people identify as such.

Let me start by explaining a few concepts that are useful for understanding the relationship between struggles for queer liberation and nationalism.

Homonormative: a normative way of being gay. The ‘proper’ gay person is someone who’s cisgendered, monogamous, White, middle-class, and definitely not disabled—because disabled people aren’t supposed to have a sexuality. The normative gay just wants to be allowed to serve in the military, to get a job, get married, have babies, and fit in to heteronormative society.

Homonationalism: means homonormative nationalism. This is about the way that the cause of GLBT rights—but more often than not just G and L rights—gets used to prop up nationalism and justify imperialism and militarism. One example is when people justify military attacks on Iran by arguing that it is a homophobic country. Another example is when people blame homophobia in New Zealand on Māori and Pacific Islander communities, who are portrayed as conservative and homophobic.

It’s worth thinking about the correlation between the social acceptance of some queers (normative ones) and racism, especially anti-Arab and Muslim racism. Identity is always formed in opposition to someone else, it’s ‘us’ and ‘them’. Normative gays are allowed entry into ‘proper society’ in order to emphasise the dichotomy between the White West (modern, progressive, liberal) and the Brown East: Arabs, Muslims, Southeast Asians and other populations who are constructed as conservative, patriarchal, homophobic, violent, backwards and terrorists.

Pinkwashing: a term used to describe the way that GLBT rights are used to whitewash over unethical behavior. We see this when corporations use gay-friendly marketing to distract from the terrible way they treat their workers. We see it when NZ Defence wins an award for being an equal opportunity employer, which is another way of saying that anyone, regardless of sexual or gender identity, can join in the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan.

For the purpose of this talk I’m going to focus on the state of Israel as an example of pinkwashing—partly because I’m an Israeli, or to put it more accurately, I’m a settler-colonist on Palestinian land. Israel is a state that consistently oppresses its Indigenous Palestinian population in order to maintain an ethnically-exclusive state. In other words, it’s an apartheid state. Maintaining an apartheid state requires a huge amount of PR work to convince the rest of the world that they should allow you to continue oppressing people. So the state of Israel has come up with a marketing campaign called ‘Brand Israel’.

Part of ‘Brand Israel’ is to promote Israel as a queer-friendly country. This is really a two-pronged approach: (1) situate Israel as a progressive, modern, pro-LGBT country and (2) construct Arabs and Muslims in general, and Palestinians in particular as conservative, patriarchal, and violently homophobic.

Image shows two men being hanged on the left with the caption 'Palestine: when they find out you are gay they hang you'. On the right image shows two soldiers holding hands with the caption 'Israel: we love and admire gay men and women'.

What’s wrong with this picture?

First of all the image on the right is a bit misleading. The two soldiers in this photo aren’t lovers, and actually one of them is heterosexual. The photo was staged by the Israeli Defence Force Spokesperson’s Office and posted on its facebook page with the caption ‘It’s Pride Month. Did you know that the IDF treats all of its soldiers equally? Let’s see how many shares you can get for this photo.’

The image on the left is just plain incorrect. This photo isn’t from Palestine, it’s from Iran. The two boys in this photo were hanged—though their supposed crime is unclear. Originally Western media outlets were reporting they were hanged for having consensual sex with each other, but human rights NGOs haven’t found any evidence that corroborates this claim, it’s more likely that they had raped a younger boy. Either way, what happened to them is horrific and inexcusable—the death penalty is never ok, especially against children. But this is an example of how information about human rights abuses is manipulated to justify imperialist intentions, whether against Palestinians or against Iran.

Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau in Tel Aviv for their honeymoon.

Part of this ‘Brand Israel’ campaign has been to promote Israel as a gay tourism destination. These are Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau, the first gay French couple to get married after France legalised same-sex marriage. Hila Oren, the CEO of Tel Aviv Global & Tourism, came up with a great marketing idea. She invited this couple to come honeymoon in Tel Aviv during Tel Aviv pride week. According to Oren, ‘the meaning beneath is our mission, to broaden the conversation about Tel Aviv, for people to know that Tel Aviv is a place of tolerance, of business and tourism, a place beyond the conflict’. Vincent Autin told Israeli media that ‘for us it’s very important to be a bridge, especially here in the Middle East, so that what’s happened in France, and the way we are received and embraced here, can become an example for the rest of the Middle East.’ This is homonationalism—the idea that Westerners constitute ‘an example’ that the Middle East should follow.

This kind of pinkwashing has found its way into the queer community in New Zealand too. At Queer the Night 2011 someone showed up with a pro-Israel placard. Queer the Night was supposed to be about standing up against transphobia, homophobia and oppression. But somebody managed to derail it and use it as an opportunity to incite prejudice against Arab and Muslim people.

Pro-Israel placard at Queer the Night 2011 reads: 'Long live Israel, the only gay-friendly mid-east state'.

Sometimes pinkwashing is a lot subtler than that. I was pretty shocked when I read this article in the June issue of Express. The author was clearly impressed with the Gay Cultural Centre in Tel Aviv, and on the surface this seems pretty innocuous. But celebrating Tel Aviv as a queer-friendly city without acknowledging that it is a city built on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is pinkwashing racism—as the Jewish American lesbian writer Sarah Schulman puts it ‘Tel Aviv is a theater set, behind it is the reality of profound oppression and violation of human rights.’

Pinkwashing arguments are built on a false logic. Transphobia and homophobia aren’t limited to Arab and Muslim societies. Israel is also a homophobic and transphobic society. New Zealand has its own problems with anti-queer oppression. More than that, struggles against racism and colonisation and struggles against transphobia and homophobia can’t be fought separately. Homophobia, transphobia, racism and occupation are all intertwined; they are part of the matrix of violence and oppression in Palestine. This isn’t just an abstract idea, it has real consequences for people’s safety. For example, there’s a history of the Shabak, Israel’s General Security Services, blackmailing Palestinian queers into becoming informants—because they know that outing them could endanger their lives. The lack of freedom of movement for Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank means that queers living in transphobic or homophobic communities cannot easily leave.

This is why Palestinian queer groups like al-Qaws, Aswat and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions all work to fight both anti-queer oppression, and the racism and colonialism of the Israeli state.

Palestinian queer groups endorse the Palestinian call for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) on Israel. Palestinian civil society groups launched the BDS campaign in 2005, and part of the campaign is ‘queer BDS’ which is specifically about challenging Israel’s pinkwashing. Joining the BDS campaign is one way that we can be solid with all Palestinians—queer and straight.

Here in Aotearoa we’ve recently established the Aotearoa BDS Network, and our first campaign is focusing on G4S, a private security company that provides prisons and checkpoints for Israel. We’re inviting queer organisations to endorse the campaign by signing the letter we’re writing to Super Fund asking them to divest their shares in G4S. If you want to learn more, you should come along to our campaign launch on November 2 at Thistle Hall.

Further reading

al-Qaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society

Aswat (lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning & queer Palestinian women)

Palestinian Queers for Boycott Divestment & Sanctions

Queers Against Israeli Apartheid

Israeli Laundry

Palestinian BDS National Committee

Palestinian Campaign for Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel

Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Duke University Press: 2007)

Sarah Schulman, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (Duke University Press: 2012)

Ali Abunimah, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli–Palestinian Impasse (Picador: 2007)

Ben White, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide (Pluto Press: 2009)

Omar Barghouti, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket Books: 2011)

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