Ammiel Alcalay

Israel/Palestine 101: A Letter to Robert Creeley

     Invitations to Jerusalem, particularly international festivals or gatherings of one kind or another, can serve multiple purposes, depending primarily on the kinds of information one arrives with or, more accurately, what kinds of things one is alerted to pay attention to. For a certain kind of Israeli elite, these festivals promote the perpetuation of a particular take on reality while globalizing it through subtle recruitment of other information recorders and bearers (such as writers and artists), who leave with very distinct impressions. This, naturally, makes it more and more difficult to find the right leverage to create a wedge into which alternative realities might fit. To this end, I felt very strongly -- having been back in the United States for little over a year -- about presenting alternatives to friends invited to such gatherings. I found, and continue to find, true distinctions between people prepared to grasp and absorb new information as simply another aspect of their kinds of knowledge about the world and those finding it a burden. At a time when, with some "networking" and "modification" of my positions, I might have been able to turn to a kind of writing that would "reach" a wider "public" in the form of articles for larger circulation magazines, I thought my efforts were better spent on reaching people for whom I knew the information would not become an expendable commodity, tossed -- in the best case scenario -- into the recycling bin at the end of the week. Here is one such effort, in the form of a letter to Robert Creeley, not exactly a beginner in any sense of the word, and someone whose subtlety of thought and keen intellect made the task a pleasure, since I knew I could present things in a kind of shorthand that would be caught by analogy on the other end:

29 January 1990

Dear Bob,

      Alright, here's my missionary quotient, propaganda bit, information binge package: I had planned something more ambitious and organized/coherent but this is as far as I got... And since you really asked for what could be useful, I've put some thought into the kinds of discourse you're likely to encounter & how you might identify it rather than present you with the comprehensive solution to the ME conflict & human rights in the West Bank & Gaza Strip etc. etc. I've also gathered up some stuff, more of a paradigmatic nature than anything else since much has been superceded & there is also certainly no dearth of further cases (i.e. quantity) involved, but simply to illustrate how some of the information (or lack thereof) fits (or doesn't) into many of the kinds of discourse you're most likely to encounter.

      To backtrack somewhat: modern Jewish dogma has accepted persecution as the canonical form of religious identification and belonging -- to question this is anathema. Zionism & the Israeli structure of things was created / creates itself in the face (reverse) of this image: Offense as a means of defense. The Israeli army is called the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). Without going into the whole hullabaloo of who did what when, it is a remarkable fact that over 400 Palestinian villages were literally wiped off the face of the map in 1948/9, yet this has rarely -- if ever -- been used as a primary propaganda point on the Palestinian side. More interesting is the fact that Israelis always claim to fear that Palestinians want to return to Jaffa and Lod and Ramla etc., places they only left 42 years ago (i.e. in this lifetime), also saying that such wishes are totally unrealistic, while at the same time themselves laying claim to lands and places "they" claim to have lived in over 2000 years ago!

      That is how some of the internal wires are set: the bells ring and the lights light up at the mention of: in other words, I always find it (and during the uprising even more powerfully so) absolutely astounding how much self-control Palestinians exert in meetings, debates etc. when they are presented with an Israeli who speaks like a victim. This victimization is like gender, an entirely acquired social construct. The usual scenario is that the Palestinian (whose parents might have had a house on the land that the anguished Israeli's kibbutz now happens to be on), will not even mention that fact. You can see some of the communication problems that might develop. What appears self-evident in the eyes of a Palestinian as simply a gesture of acknowledgement, of reciprocity, is already IN THE SUBCONSCIOUS as well as conscious social make-up of the Israeli an admission of guilt and, in fact, a complete reversal of the whole value system hierarchy that he/she has been brought up to accept & believe in.

      To skip some stages: on a collective level, Israelis have only begun to approach even the possibility of addressing the fact of their active involvement in the destruction of Palestine; naturally, the right wing, as is usual in such cases, has a much easier time dealing with this: in fact, they know precisely what they did and are not afraid to admit it. But here is where things get tricky: Israel's whole culture, both internally & what gets dispatched out has been built on Labor Zionist liberal mythology. This mythology pitted the perfect blend of stereotypes to achieve their goals: the once weak but now strong & heroic Jews defend themselves against the barbaric masses of fanatical Arabs who, in any case, were too stupid to realize that the coming of the Jews was a blessing since the Jews would bring them houses and water and a higher standard of living etc. Suffice it to say that the "Jaffa" orange had been a Palestinian staple for quite some years before the coming of the Jews... The persistence of this ethos can be seen in the whole development of Peace Now which began as a select group of officers addressing "their" Minister of Defense & Prime Minister. The amount of time it has taken them to move towards the possibility of expressing solidarity with Palestinians is remarkable in terms of any other kind of protest movement I am familiar with. Their elitist & exclusionary tactics I won't even go into (of course I will: we were invited to Hebron once -- a group of "Oriental" peace activists -- and one of our members prepared to address the gathering in Arabic. A riot almost ensued as the Peace Now organizers of the gathering expressly forbid any Jews from addressing the crowd in Arabic... Nor is this an isolated incident -- the history of the conflict, from the 1870's to the present -- and I've documented it quite well -- has always had its quotient of tourist vs. native).

      I'm losing the thread. The point is this, to get us into the present. The first real challenge to Labor hegemony, both in its ideology & practice, came about with Menahem Begin's victory in 1977. Despite everything, Begin was quite a figure (it was he who vehemently opposed the awarding of German reparation money to victims of the Holocaust in Israel, something Ben Gurion championed and the essential element in solidifying and finally freezing the Israeli class structure into place; Begin was also for the abolition of the British Mandate Emergency rules used so often now because he said a point would come when they could be used against anybody, such as in the Warshavsky case I've included material on). Not to mention (and this is also well documented) that human rights abuses under the Likud government have generally been lower than under Labor (this is expressed in the numbers of deportations, houses blown up, demolished or sealed, censorship, the extent and particular types of tortures used etc.). Now, I'm beginning to get to my point about one of the prevalent kinds of discourse you're going to hear. For liberal Israelis, everything was fine before 1967; "we" lived in our beautiful little country with all its attendant problems but life was simpler and better, people were more honest, there was greater equity etc. etc. These people are generally Ashkenazi and form part of the elite in one way or another; i.e., there are very few garbage men or textile workers amongst them. For these other people, the so-called second Israel (Jews from Arab countries, the Levant, Iran & other such places beyond the pale), 1967 and the occupation represents something completely different: it represents, first and foremost, some possibility of economic escalation due to the expanded economy & the new lines of business opening up in the territories, particularly in the construction field. Next, it represents some return to the Arab world from which they were so abruptly and hermetically excised. Ironically, for the Ashkenazi / western oriented elites, 1967 really does present a crisis since it becomes clear just how marginal they are in the complex of this world they inhabit & just how tenuous a hold on power they have. Thus, the need to become a superpower, nuclear development etc. (Please note the material on Mordechai Vannunu here, mention of whom will bring paroxysms of horror from the most liberal figures: also ask Allen [Ginsberg] about his reading at the Jerusalem Cinemateque, a bastion, actually a shrine of liberal secularism, in which Steve Taylor sang a song by Tuli Kupferberg about Vannunu and got a standing ovation from 3 of us in the packed auditorium - catcalls and hisses followed and I thought we would, literally, get lynched after what had been an audience enthralled with Allen the whole evening, awaiting every syllable and move). Am I moving too fast???

      At any rate, besides all the racism engendered by such divisions, keep in mind that "Peace" for the Israeli liberal means getting rid of the Palestinian "problem"- in precisely those terms; it means "us" living nicely in our highly defended & secure state and them doing whatever the hell they want with themselves in their own state. This kind of arrangement clearly precludes realia of any kind & it is interesting to note that there is a completely different rhetoric of "arrangement" amongst even the most right wing of Arab Jews. Naturally, the liberals feel that the Oriental Jews should be back where they were 25 years ago since there will be a dearth of Arab labor, one of the true inconveniences of the two state solution but an entirely soluble one. All of this gets played out on the literary / cultural plane as well. I could tell you stories of my own experiences of trying to get published or of trying to publish translations of not in people. And this is me, who can certainly, and more so, pass for white. The poet Nathan Zach, for all his professed Palestinophilia, wrote a series of columns towards the beginning of the uprising that were remarkable in the openness and extent of their anti-Oriental Jewish feeling; they even prompted a debate of sorts & exchange of letters. There is nothing unusual in this, it's simply the norm. What is unusual is that there is very seldom anyone there to call these people on these things TO A FOREIGN AUDIENCE (I did what I could when I was there, which was something), so they continue to get away with murder. It is unimaginable to me to think of figures of similar stature in the States making remarks about Jews or Latinos or Blacks or Asians or Gays or any single block of people (except maybe Arabs!) and not being drummed out of the business or made into a laughing stock.

      Is this what I really wanted to tell you? I'm not sure... On the practical level: there are the university closings, the question of academic freedom and censorship, issues which a group of writers are certainly qualified to comment on. Beware (as I'm sure you will be) of the blanket statements: two people living side by side etc. la de da. The system is oppressive to everyone & will silence whomever, Palestinian or Jew, it chooses to. This has become more than evident in the trials of Jewish activists, as well as the imprisonment of a number of Jewish journalists. I've included material on a case close to me (since I used to work at the Alternative Information Center); this is an important one & the harshness of the sentencing only shows how scared the authorities are of the populace getting out of control & thinking; in this, I find it encouraging.

      Another odd issue: the Russian Jews are Israel's last great white hope & are being encouraged to come specifically to maintain the present ethnic/class structure of the country. This issue will be completely buried except on the most local level. The statistic to add to this equation (and the misplaced rage found amongst 18 year old working class Israelis sent to beat up kids and old ladies in the territories), is that there are now more Israeli Palestinian citizens of Israel attending and finishing Israeli universities than Oriental Jewish Israelis, who constitute over 60% of the population, maybe even more so in that age bracket. So, when a working class Israeli getting several hundred dollars a MONTH working in a sweat shop in the middle of the desert with 4 or 5 kids at home hears how nice it would be to go back to the good old days so he/she can pick up a mop/broom again... In other words, in the so-called peace camp, you will hardly ever hear of global solutions (i.e. peace = social justice), only anguish, misplaced guilt, fear, exhaustion etc. Not hearing any such rhetoric from any quarter remotely connected to "peace," this not unenlightened & hardworking citizen will naturally put two & two together and vote, if not for something, at least against that: thus, Israel's famous and ominous "turn to the right" amongst the "popular classes."

      Keep in mind that the torture sequences in my cairo notebooks were mostly taken from testimony of prisoners held at a place called the Russian Compound or in local parlance, the Moscobiyya. This is the local torture chamber, not on tourist maps as such, but well worth a visit (i.e. a walk by if there's a vigil or protest taking place). It's in the heart of town, only a hundred yards or so from the Central Post Office. Also, the Women in Black, Friday afternoon at 1 p.m. in Paris Square (about a 10 minute walk from where you'll be staying at Mishkenot) can be quite impressive. But, more importantly, it would be significant for people to have a look (not in a "deeper" way which is impossible given the timing of such things), but in an active way that could level the stigmas of addressing these issues in a pragmatic fashion. This is why I think the academic freedom / university closure issue is important because it could provide something for people to take a bite into and digest back home, wherever that may be. And, naturally, once the universities are reopened & there are exchange programs with Palestine, there will be some acquaintances in place...

      I obviously feel frustrated & wish we were still living there so all this could be peripatetic. For what it's worth, this is my grab bag & I do hope you'll find it of use -- also, please feel free to spread/share the material if you think it can be of use. Some of the particular cases I included (the one page kind of appeals, like the case of Dr. Riad Malki), have been resolved and are way out of date. It's just to give you an idea of how these things look since they won't be on the newsstands. Also the institutional information would still be valid and I'll go on to list a number of places & people whom you could get in touch with should such a need arise. I've included some odds & ends from News From Within simply because I used to work there & feel rather proud of it as a truly lively alternative source. The nuclear piece is in the old style, before the office equipment was confiscated for the trial; other articles are in the latter, more haphazard modes we had to use. Other things really are odds & ends that for one reason or another I put in; the Arab Studies Society material would relate to issues of academic freedom etc. Also, the little piece by Gabriel Bensimhon (which I hope I'll have typed) is one of the talks given at a meeting I went to last summer in Toledo, Spain where about 40 Israelis (all of "Oriental" extraction) convened with very senior PLO people, including Mahmoud Darwish.

      As far as people & places go. Should nothing be set up, you or someone else might want to try & get in touch with Dr. Hannan Mikhail Ashrawi who is a poet as well as the Dean of Humanities at Bir Zeit University. She might be miffed at the late notice, but beyond that I'm sure she would be open to meeting or at least explaining the university situation to people. The El Hakawati theater (like the Arab Studies Society) is an open & shut case; i.e., they might be open, or they might be shut. Both would be worthy places to look into. The head of the Arab Studies Society, Faisal Husseini, may or may not be in prison. People there (at the Society), who could also be contacted would be Mahmoud Hawari or Ghada al-Shammali. Great people who could also facilitate any contacts that need to be made (though their days are filled with cataloging broken bones & spontaneously aborted fetuses through tear gas inhalation etc.) are Samir & Jan Abu Shakrah at the Palestine Human Rights Commission. Also Tikva Parnas at the Alternative Information Center. I've put phone numbers and addresses at the end of this letter. Again, some of these instances might be more along the lines of arranging a solidarity visit or something of that sort. Things don't always move quickly because there are so many foreign groups coming in but should the magnitude of the thing be made known (along, hopefully, with the will), then the idea of arranging something like a meeting of writers or academics in solidarity with the closing of institutions or something like that might prove to be an interesting or possible activity. Let me hear how it went...         1990 / 1999