Tag Archives: palestine

Nightmares and ghosts

When I was seven, my parents took me on a day trip to Ein Hod, an artists’ village near Haifa. I thought it was the coolest place I’d ever been. We walked through galleries, studios, and workshops, and I even got to make some prints of my own.

Years later, when I was an adult, my mother told me the true story of Ein Hod. It had been a Palestinian village – Ein Houd. In 1945 the village occupied 12,605 dunams (1,260.5 hectares) of land and had a population of around 700. In May 1948 Ein Houd was invaded by the newly-established Israeli Defense Force and its inhabitants were ethnically-cleansed. In the early 1950s the village’s buildings were settled by Israeli artists who renamed it Ein Hod. Most of Ein Houd’s Palestinian residents ended up refugees in the West Bank, but a group of 35 villagers stayed in the area and re-established Ein Houd near its original site. In 2005, after 57 years of struggle, the state of Israel finally recognized the village and allowed it to join the electricity grid.

Haifa-born Palestinian novelist Salman Natour, who died this week, wrote about Ein Houd in his book The Chronicle of the Wrinkled-Face Sheikh:

The village of Ayn Houd was transformed into a Jewish artists’ colony known as Ein Hod. In the old days, there was a grand mosque whose spire rose high above the ground. In the artists’ colony the mosque had been converted into a highbrow restaurant. At the entrance stood a female host who catered to the artists’ needs, and to those of their respectable guests.

A few years ago, an old Sheikh arrived at the artists’ colony from Siris, a village located in the Jenin district. He headed to a house, inhabited by an artist who had immigrated from Europe or America. The artist’s wife opened the door and was startled at first, seeing the strange keffiyeh-wearing man staring back at her. The man was silent as a stone, as he had never seen a half-naked woman opening the door of a house. The woman recovered quickly and gently invited the man inside. She summoned her husband, the artist, who was also apprehensive when he saw the keffiyeh and the thick mustache of the visitor. But the artist also recovered quickly, particularly after he saw the smile spreading across the visitor’s face.

‘What brings you here?’ he asked.

The Arab man answered without hesitation: ‘I was born here. This is my home.’

‘This is your home?’ The artist’s voice expressed great amazement. ‘What do you mean? Tell me. What happened?’

The guest seated himself on a comfortable armchair and told his story from beginning to end. The artist served him a cup of coffee. He even offered him a glass of whisky. He sat next to him and begged to hear the details. The artist believed every word.

The Arab man went back to his village in the West Bank. The artist, however, was seized by guilt, sadness and irritability. He decided to leave the house and moved to another. But the ghosts kept pursuing him to the new home. Every day he woke up expecting another Arab man to visit the house where he had been born. The nightmares and ghosts never vanished.

Ein Hod encapsulates my relationship with the country I was born to. There are so many things I love about Israeli culture. But all of them, every last one, are built on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. And none of them, no matter how brilliant, vibrant, and amazing, can ever, ever make up for the ethnic cleansing on which this culture and society is built.

The nightmares and ghosts will never vanish. Not until Palestinian refugees can return to their homes and live freely and without fear.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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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No to anti-Semitism, no to Israel

I love the Symonds St cemetery. I love that it’s right in the middle of the city where anyone can enter, not locked up behind a fence. I love that a Jewish cemetery in a mostly non-Jewish country can be in the middle of the city where anyone can enter.

I love sitting in the cemetery and reading the inscriptions on the headstones. It’s comforting reading Hebrew in New Zealand. It makes me feel less alien here. I don’t know anything about the lives of the people buried in that cemetery, but it’s reassuring to see that Jews have a history in this country—as much as any other Tau Iwi anyway.

I imagine that’s exactly why neo-Nazis targeted the Symonds St cemetery. To them, Jewish people are not part of New Zealand society (along with other non-White, non-hetero people). Attacking a 19th century Jewish cemetery is a way of attacking Jewish existence in New Zealand.

It’s hard to describe how I felt when I read about it. It’s not the first time something like this has happened. In 2004 the Jewish cemeteries in Karori and Makara were vandalised by neo-Nazis. So it’s always at the back of my mind, the possibility of anti-Semitic attacks. But that didn’t stop the shock that hit me this afternoon. It’s the same shock I felt the first time I saw swastika jewelry being sold at a New Zealand shop. It took me a few minutes to notice I was shaking.

The people who attacked the cemetery spray painted swastikas and 88s on Jewish headstones. They also sprayed ‘fuck Israel’ on a grave. Why spray anti-Israel slogans in a cemetery that pre-dates the Israeli state’s existence?

I am not a Zionist and I don’t support Israel. I support freedom and equality for everyone living in historic Palestine and I support the right of Palestinian refugees to return home. I don’t think that ‘fuck Israel’ is an anti-Semitic slogan—except for when it’s spray painted on a dead Jew’s grave.

Whoever vandalised these graves wasn’t acting out of solidarity with Palestinians. White supremacists attack Muslims just as much as they attack Jews. But anti-Semites are perfectly happy to hijack Palestinians’ struggle for liberation from a racist state, when it serves their racist agenda. That’s something the global Palestine solidarity movement has been addressing recently after a Palestine solidarity organisation tweeted an anti-Semitic video. Both Bekah Wolf and Ali Abunimah have written about it. The discussion on anti-Semitism in the Palestine solidarity movement lead over 100 Palestinian activists to sign a statement condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Zionism and all other bigotry.

Anti-Semitic attacks on diaspora Jewish communities hurt both Jews and Palestinians. They reinforce the Zionist claim that Jews aren’t safe unless Israel remains a Jewish-supremacist state—and that this justifies the horrific consequences for Palestinians and other non-Jews. Anti-Semitism and Zionism are both racist ideologies and they reinforce each other.

I’m sad that the response to these racist attacks is to increase security, including building a $250,000 security fence around the cemetery. We should be addressing the root of the problem, which is to say, we should be addressing anti-Semitism and racism.

I’m relieved that so far no one’s attempted to exploit the situation to garner support for Israel.

Defending Jewish people’s right to live in peace anywhere in the world is part of the wider struggle against racism and colonialism, in Palestine and elsewhere. Conflating Jews with Israel serves anti-Semites like the people who spray painted swastikas on 130-year-old graves, and it serves Zionists like the IDF soldiers who terrorise West Bank Palestinians. It doesn’t serve anyone’s struggle for liberation.

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