Boston Activist on Gaza protests
January 8th, 2009
Emails continue to pour in with heartbreaking accounts of Israel’s Gaza victims, details of worldwide protests, and analyses of events from a conflicting perspectives. Some of these accounts come from Gaza residents I was in contact with before my recent Israel/West Bank visit, psychologists and artists I would have met at an October conference on Siege and Mental Health if Israel had granted us permits. I read obsessively.
Also on my mind are friends and relatives in Israel, some of whom live or work well within range of the missiles from Gaza. Some have children in the army and worry about their safety. Some worry just as much about what their young child-soldiers may do to innocent Palestinians, about their becoming brutalized in the name of ends they may not yet comprehend beyond the superficialities every government instills in its young.
I want to note here a few topics related to different ways of framing issues. Perhaps this effort reflects my background in social psychology, though I hope my general critical psychology perspective has helped me move beyond mainstream social psychology’s narrow, avowedly apolitical, empiricism. In the abstract, it’s easy to understand that how we frame an issue affects our evaluation. Framing matters in everything from the questions of journalists to the speeches of politicians to the proclamations of partisans, academics, and, yes, bloggers. But it’s not easy to keep framing’s centrality in mind in the heat of political hostility.
(There’s also a danger of the opposite: recognizing framing’s importance can lead to avoiding political commitment. If we know that “how you evaluate something depends on how you look at it,” it’s easy to avoid any commitment at all. This stance of either above-it-all cynicism or supposedly objective neutrality is a common academic and journalistic hazard, as I’ve addressed elsewhere. Although I do think it’s important to understand competing perspectives, I do not believe all perspectives are equally valid or just.)
Several questions come to mind related to Israel’s Gaza operations, all of which are reflected in more specific issues. Some of these different perspectives are obvious in comments to several earlier postings on this blog over the past couple of weeks; others have been obvious at protests and counter-protests, or listening to callers on NPR who seem to be living in different worlds. Here I mostly list questions and offer some related thoughts. Full answers, as always, await another time.
- Who started the current hostilities? Instigators always blame the other side. The mainstream media generally parrot the argument that Hamas refused to extend the ceasefire and that Israel seeks only to stop missiles from leaving Gaza. They minimize or even ignore the fact that Hamas had managed to stop missile launches almost completely before Israel itself broke the ceasefire, an earlier violation that the media now fails to point out.
- Who started the broader conflict? This is a central question, or would be if the rest of the world paid much attention. Interpretations vary depending on the starting point. Here are some possibilities: Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, Hamas’s election to office, the 1967 Six Day War leading to the Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, the 1948 establishment of Israel, the late-nineteenth century arrival in Palestine of Zionist immigrants determined to create a Jewish homeland, and even Napoleon’s plan to create a Jewish state in Palestine to defend French interests. Israel’s supporters – and Israeli negotiators in the never-ending “peace process” – refuse to go back in time, while Palestians’ supporters know that the further back you go, the more the violation of their rights is clear.
- What kind of conflict is it? Is this a national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? A religious conflict between Jews and (mostly) Muslims? A geopolitical conflict between Israel, the US, Western Europe, and their conservative Arab allies on the one hand, and on the other Arab states less beholden to the US, Iran, and other states at odds with US dominance? Alternatively: Does the conflict reflect the actions of two equally responsible enemies engaging in tit-for-tat retaliation, who might someday make peace as equals (the framework often adopted by “neutral” peacemakers and dialogue advocates)? Or is this a conflict between Occupier and Occupied, between a powerful nation and a weak but stubborn resistance? If the latter – as I have come to see it – are the sides so unbalanced that journalistic and academic “even-handedness” becomes a support for oppression?
- Does Israel deserve, and does it get, exceptional treatment? This is very touchy. Is Israel held to an unjustified higher standard as its defenders claim, a standard that simply proves anti-Semitism? Or does Israel get away with actions that would not be tolerated for any other modern state, and certainly any modern democracy? Does Israel deserve a Jewish state simply because Zionists took it, following the colonial model of Western states arising over the objections of defeated native peoples, or does the development of international law and the creation of the United Nations after World War II mean statehood by conquest should no longer be tolerated even for a state that absorbed Europe’s Jewish Holocaust victims? Israel’s dismissal of international condemnation as proof of bias often seems to me a convenient excuse. Anti-Semitism exists, but doesn’t explain everything.
- Where’s justice? As I’ve explored at length on this blog and elsewhere, there can be no final settlement until history is uncovered and justice addressed. Justice is tricky, I know, but having been on both sides of this issue over the decades, I think that defenses of Israel are more strained, more rickety, more based on exceptions to ordinary standards of justice and humanity than defenses of Palestinian rights.
For me, resort to tribal notions — often expressed as what’s best for the Jews, or the claim that only a Jewish state can defend Jews worldwide — are mired in comforting nostrums that long ago lost whatever validity they may once have had. If Palestine had really been a land without a people, a Jewish state would have gone differently, maybe even becoming the light unto the nations I learned about so long ago. But creating a Jewish state over the objections of people living on that land was a historical injustice that will never – never – be forgotten. It has led, ironically, inexorably, inevitably to Jews endangered precisely because they live in the Jewish state that was supposed to protect them. And it has led to Jews oppressing, and even today killing, innocent non-Jews in the name of that Jewish state.
Framing the conflict as tribal – the core Zionist argument — justifies Israeli actions no matter how grotesque, from this latest invasion of Gaza to the four-decade occupation to the six-decade imposition of Jewish control over Israel’s own internal Palestinians. I might add it also justifies similarly particularistic views and actions by groups such as Hamas. I would much prefer framing the conflict as one between those committed to a tribal worldview and those embracing a more universal justice-based outcome. There are Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of that divide, and any justice-based future depends on them.
January 3rd, 2009
My postings this week on Boston’s Gaza protests have drawn a fair amount of traffic, with a sprinkling of comments from people who haven’t been here before and aren’t likely to look back at the blog’s beginnings to see what I had in mind. If this applies to you and you’re curious about what I’m up to and why, or if you think I’m just uninformed or simplistic, you might read my new Page that collects in one place some of my history and motivation. You might still think I’m uninformed or simplistic, but at least you can check out some of my links.
January 3rd, 2009
It was a cold afternoon despite the sun, but more than a thousand people rallied at Copley Square and marched through downtown Boston to demonstrate solidarity with Gaza’s besieged people. Some photos and brief comments.
The rally began at Copley Square. People came from a lot of organizations, several of which organized the protest.
The Community Church across the street, an old activist church whose members are involved in a wide array of progressive issues, showed its support.
Once the march began, there were plenty of different signs, moods, and approaches. I always like the drumming.
I was glad to see several signs identifying Jews against the assault on Gaza.
Several ultra-orthodox Naturei Karta came up from New York, as they often do to support Israel’s Palestinian victims.
Their religiously-based anti-Zionism always comes as a shock, as I captured a few years ago at another downtown Boston demo.
After leaving Copley and heading through Downtown Crossing, today’s marchers stopped briefly next to Boston Common. Given the cold weather, even here there weren’t very many shoppers or tourists to pay much attention.
From there on to the Israeli Consulate, where the energy level picked up again.
Back at Copley for some final speeches, the sun now mostly gone behind tall buildings, at least some tourists got to check out the scene.
Now, a few hours later, I’m sitting in my kitchen listening to news of Israel’s ground invasion. I’ve been doing a lot of that this past week, and obsessively reading online news sites and the endless stream of emails each bringing yet more depressing reports and analysis. I just read that Internet access to Gaza has been cut off, which if true means no more direct updates from people on the ground. As always, things don’t look good.
December 31st, 2008
Julia Chaitin, an American-born social psychologist I met at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva two years ago, has a column in today’s Washington Post. She starts and ends with this:
In the winter, the Negev becomes quite beautiful. Though it rains very little here, the rain we get turns everything green, and there is a cleanness in the air that we don’t have during the dry summer months. But since Saturday, when a major Israeli offensive began in the Gaza Strip, less than 20 kilometers from my home and less than two kilometers from the college where I teach, all we have had is darkness, despair and fear.
I know the answer to our conflict will not come with this war. We will know peace only when we accept the fact that the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have every right to lives of dignity. We will know peace only when we recognize that we must negotiate with Hamas, our enemy, even if we are devastated that the Palestinians did not elect a more moderate party to lead them. We will know peace only when our leaders stop considering our lives cheap and expendable, and help us create a beautiful, green Negev, free of fear and despair.
I linked last June to another piece of Julia’s. It’s good to see her still speaking up.
December 30th, 2008
Unlike yesterday’s smaller scattered protests of Israel’s attack on Gaza, this afternoon’s protest in downtown Boston drew larger numbers. More than a hundred came out to denounce Israel’s actions, gathering across the street from the Park Plaza where the Israeli consulate office sits. On the sidewalk in front of the Park Plaza a similar number of Israel’s supporters showed up. What ensued was pretty much a repeat of last night’s competing signs and chants, but with more numbers on both sides there was a lot more energy.
We marched around a lot, spurred on by the cold wind. I spent a few minutes taking photos, but it was really too cold to accomplish much. The whole scene was somewhat bizarre, with protest signs blending into Christmas lights and the towering office buildings beyond in the cold darkness.
Fortunately, the only snow was a week old.
A full afternoon of protest activities, including street theater, is planned during tomorrow’s First Night festivities that will fill Boston’s downtown. But new snow and much colder weather may be hard to take.
At one point during the hour or so I spent there before the cold forced me back to the subway I heard a cop explain to one of the protestors why he couldn’t go across the street with his sign to try to talk to people on the other side. Too much risk of overreaction, he said. He could be right. There were a lot of angry people. Still, the forced separation makes it even harder for people to get beyond slogans.
Back home an hour later, I read that the first missiles from Gaza had reached Beer Sheva, where I spent six weeks two years ago and where I still have friends. It seems ironic that Hamas clearly had missiles capable of doing more damage than the home-made Qassams but wasn’t using them so long as the ceasefire held. Now that Israel has escalated, though, there seems little reason for Hamas to hold back.
A steady stream of emails brings heartbreaking descriptions of civilians in Gaza killed or maimed by Israel’s carefully planned surgical attack. It’s now clear from the Israeli press that Ehud Barak spent six months planning the assault, waiting only for an excuse and the right pre-election timing. Planning for an assault the Israelis knew would come, because they knew, or at least should have known, that their effort to topple Hamas by depriving ordinary Gazans of life necessities would not do the job.
As always, I think things will get worse.
December 29th, 2008
I returned a few hours ago from one of today’s several Boston-area support-Gaza rallies. In Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, a handful of Palestine solidarity supporters were outnumbered by maybe a couple of dozen people endorsing the attack and energetically repeating just about every tired defense of Israeli policy we’ve heard for decades. I must say that some of Israel’s critics also used rhetoric not likely to persuade anyone to think about the issues, proving once again that while protests have a variety of uses, encouraging deep thought is not one of them.
I arrived at Coolidge Corner without a sign, so after listening to Israel’s supporters shriek endless inanities that seemed to make them very proud of themselves I went into Walgreens and got some poster board. I wrote the following, trying to avoid sloganeering but knowing that meant coming up with something too cumbersome for people to quickly read:
I’ve heard the same superficial pro-Israel statements
since I was saying the same thing 40 years ago.
Then I started to think about justice.
Beware of unexamined assumptions.
STOP THE ASSAULT ON PALESTINIANS
Despite the cold weather and chilly reception, two developments were encouraging.
First, a number of passersby read our signs (including even my cumbersome one) and gave us a thumbs up or thanked us verbally for being there. They didn’t stick around to take part, but it was good to have the reminder that Israel’s automatic supporters did not represent everyone even in Brookline’s heavily Jewish core.
Second, I had two decent conversations with supporters of Israel that went beyond sloganeering, until in both cases they had enough and moved away. I don’t believe such conversations will change many minds, and I doubt that changing individual minds will change Israeli policy, but it was more pleasant than mutual screaming.
One of my fellow protestors asked me what I thought made sense to do. I didn’t have a good answer.
AND THIS SPECIAL PAGE FROM DENNS:
My Israel/Palestine Focus
I began this blog after deciding to visit Israel and the West Bank in 2004, more than 30 years after my previous visit. The blog offers a chronological account of trips to the region in 2004, 2006, and 2008 as well as informal observations and analysis, mostly but not entirely about Israel and Palestine. I’ve also written longer academic essays, personal essays, and opinion columns about my efforts to make sense of the conflict and about Israeli and Palestinian society. Most of these pieces are available on my website, along with many of my photos.
Things seemed simpler when I became active in the Zionist youth organization Young Judaea in 1960s Brooklyn. I’ve written only a little about that period of my life, during which I absorbed a form of Zionism that highlighted humanistic, socialist, and utopian political thought along with a strong secular Jewish identity. I had some reservations about Israel’s departures from the philosophy I was soaking up, reservations that escalated after the Occupation began following the 1967 Six Day War (which took place while I was in Israel during a post-high school study year). Still, I moved to Israel in 1972 with a group of Young Judaea graduates who planned to start a new kibbutz — a group I co-founded. For a variety of political and personal reasons, the group soon splintered, and I returned to the US in early 1973. (Some of those who remained created Kibbutz Ketura.)
I knew then that my embrace of Zionism had been a mistake, that Israel’s reality could never match my idealized dreams and that Zionism’s victimization of Palestinians had been inevitable. However, I was not yet prepared to follow the logic of that realization. I wrote about some of this a few years ago, after my 2004 visit. Since then, I’ve been back twice, including a six-week Fulbright Senior Specialist placement in 2006 that enabled me to teach a seminar at Israel’s Ben Gurion University on Psychology, Law, and Justice, one of my academic specializations. I also worked with researchers at Birzeit University’s Law and Society unit. During my most recent visit, toward the end of 2008, I presented a paper at a conference in Ramallah on Siege and Mental Health, organized by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. My paper suggested how a perspective from within critical psychology – my other main academic specialization – might help make sense of the conflict’s complexities.
In addition to my academic activities, in 2004 I spent about 10 days with a delegation from Faculty for Israeli Palestinian Peace. In 2006, I spent a week with a Health and Human Rights Delegation from Jewish Voice for Peace (now sponsored by American Jews for A Just Peace). During both visits I spent time with relatives and old friends, some of them Americans who have lived in Israel since moving there three or four decades ago (and most of them now troubled with what Israel has become), and also with new academic and political contacts. In 2008, I spent three weeks in Ramallah, on the West Bank, in addition to briefer time in Israel.
You’ll also see in my essays the impact of anarchist political philosophy, which has helped me understand the destructive nature of national flags, boundaries, and identities. The Israeli group Anarchists Against the Wall impresses me very much.
I speak Hebrew well enough to get around and have decent conversations. I read Arabic script when it’s clear, but can’t yet say much.
I hope someday to write more about this circle of my life and explore what relevance it might have for others, especially other American Jews uncomfortable with mainstream assumptions about Israel. Moving from a narrow concern with what’s best for the Jews (assuming we know what that is) to a broader concern with what justice requires is often a difficult step. It was for me.