Sunday, April 26, 2015

being Palestinian makes me Smile

by Amer Zahr
Simsim Publishing 2014

A review

This past summer the world witnessed the horrendous Israeli government ordered bombing of the Gaza Strip.  This bombing destroyed entire neighborhoods and over two-thousand people died as a result.  So, we might ask why would Amer Zahr, a Palestinian, write a book titled, being Palestinian makes me Smile?  This is how Zahr answers that question.

“As a Palestinian, it can be very easy to become consumed by depression and despair.  But I have noticed that laughter and crying are not as different as they might seem.  We have all seen people laugh so hard that they begin to cry.  But have you ever seen people cry so hard that they begin to laugh?  I have.  See, not that different.”

Amer Zahr’s parents were both born in the land that was once called Palestine.  His father and grandfather both lived as refugees in Jordan.  His parents met while they were university students in California.  Amer Zahr was raised by a loving family in a suburban community in Pennsylvania.  His first language is Arabic, and, his story is about why Palestinians just can’t forget where they came from.

For many employers, Zahr’s resume would be impressive, but also a bit strange.  He has a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies, and a law degree.  He is also a comedian.  Reading Zahr’s book demonstrates why this seemingly strange resume makes perfect sense.

My background

I happen to be Jewish.  My parents wanted me to understand a bit of our heritage, so they sent me to Hebrew school.  I learned a very little bit of the Hebrew language, and the teachers routinely attempted to fill my head with images of how the state of Israel was a wonderful homeland for Jewish people.  Along these lines, I remember donating one dollar to plant a tree in Israel.

While I must say that I was influenced by the Zionist arguments, I never embraced the idea of a homeland for Jews in Israel.  I grew up in the Weekquahic section of Newark, New Jersey.  At one time this neighborhood was almost exclusively Jewish.  Then, there was the national phenomenon known as “white flight.”  Black people moved into urban areas and white people moved out. 

Growing up I saw how there was a stark difference between the neighborhoods in Newark and the suburban neighborhoods.  While the inner city school I attended didn’t have a full sized gymnasium, suburban schools had tennis courts as well as swimming pools.  I began to see that this immense disparity didn’t happen because of insensitivity or incompetence.  No, the reason for this disparity had to do with something profoundly wrong with the political economic system in this country. 

Upon reaching the age of thirteen, I celebrated the occasion with the typical Jewish ceremony called the Bar Mitzvah.  The name of the Rabbi that officiated this service in Newark, New Jersey was Joachim Prinz. 

Rabbi Prinz had quite a history and I remember my parents being impressed by who he was.  Prinz was a Rabbi in Nazi controlled Germany for several years.  After coming to this country, he became the President of the World Jewish Congress.  He supported Martin Luther King’s struggle to do away with Jim Crow segregation in this country.  In this capacity, Prinz marched with King at the head of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington.

However, the core belief of Rabbi Prinz throughout his life was support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  Although Prinz could have settled in Israel, he, like most Jews, decided to live in the United States.    

I wasn’t a very good student in high school, but liked to participate in sports.  I also liked to watch the movies.  I remember two films released in the 1960s that attempted to glorify the state of Israel.  One was the film Exodus staring Paul Newman.  The other was Cast a Giant Shadow staring Kirk Douglas, the so-called “Duke” John Wayne, and none other than Frank Sinatra. 

These films portrayed the people who colonized Israel as heroes.  In the few times these films portrayed Arabs, they were seen as mindless villains who had nothing better to do than get in the way of those heroes who attempted to create a wonderful Jewish homeland.

We might also think about the fact that during those years we also had numerous films of the Cowboys and Indians.  I might have seen hundreds or even thousands of portrayals of Indians being murdered as if they were mere targets used for shooting practice.

The first time I recall seeing an Arab portrayed as a human being was in the film Lawrence of Arabia.  This film portrayed a flawed, but basically heroic white man who came to the Middle East to rescue Arabic people by way of British colonialism. 

In the course of this film I saw the Egyptian actor, Omar Sharif.  Although the film glorified British colonialism, Sharif’s Arabic character, was portrayed as a genuine human being.

After graduating from high school, I got involved in the movement against the war in Vietnam.  The Vietnamese people sustained a heroic resistance to the foreign occupation of their country.  The U.S. government demanded that I, and every young man of my age, participate in the effort of effectively making Vietnam a U.S. colony.  In those days, some of us made the argument that the United States became a nation because of a political revolution against colonialism.

During those years of the early 1970s, I began to question many of the ideas teachers attempted to instill in my head in high school.  I became a communist.  I also met a Palestinian woman who began to shatter my ideas of what the state of Israel is.

I discovered that all the glorifications that I heard about the state of Israel were boldfaced lies.  The British colony of Palestine had a population that was over 90% Palestinian.  Palestinians lost their homeland due to British decrees, UN resolutions, Israeli racist terrorism, as well as laws designed to steal land from its original inhabitants.

being Palestinian

Amer Zahr gives us a somewhat thorough analysis of how Israeli government officials, as well as the media in this country, routinely distorts the reality of Palestine.  Even before the creation of the state of Israel, people who called themselves Zionists argued that the indigenous people who lived in that region would have to be displaced.

Golda Meir actually argued that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people.  Israeli government officials routinely talk about Palestinians as if they didn’t exist.  When they acknowledge their existence, it is usually to justify Israeli genocide against Palestinians.

Israel hasn’t just stolen Palestinian land, they now say that Palestinian foods like falafel and humus are Israeli creations.  While on a United Airlines flight, Amer Zahr was reading their magazine “Hemispheres.”  The title of one of the articles in the magazine was:

“Meet The Rowdy Revolutionary Chefs Who Are Shaking Up Israeli Cuisine.” 

The article argues that Israel is “a nation of immigrants.”  This article misses the point that amongst the so-called nation of immigrants are Palestinians who can trace their ancestry to that land for over 12,000 years.  The ancestors of these people were the ones who created the so-called “Israeli cuisine.”

We might also consider that many of the foods people eat in the world today were developed by Indians in North and South America.  I’m talking about corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and chocolate.  Clearly, there are many similarities in the way Palestinians and the Indians have been treated.

Obay Aboushi is a Palestinian-American who is a member of the New York Jets football teem.  Yahoo Sports published an article by Adam Walkman who accused Aboushi of “anti-Semitic activism.”  The so-called evidence of Aboushi’s so-called offense was that he attended a family get together at a hotel outside of Washington DC. 

In the United States, Amer Zahr jokes that Palestinians don’t like to leave their homes for too long.  He says the last time they did this they lost their homeland.  Instead, Zahr’s mother took her children to New York and Washington DC, where they marched to protest the genocide against Palestinians.

A different perspective

While I support most of what Zahr says in his book, I look at the ideas he raises from a different perspective.  He argues that the United States and Israel do not share the same values.  This argument is based on Zahr’s point that the U.S. has a Constitution that claims to represent everyone in this country.  Israel has no such constitution.

To counter this argument I will turn to another comedian by the name of Lenny Bruce.  Bruce was arrested several times and prevented from performing because he was allegedly guilty of obscenity laws.  In other words, he occasionally used profanity in his comedy.

In the very First Amendment to the Constitution it says that in this country people have the right to freedom of speech.  If this were a nation of laws, Bruce could have answered all of his accusers by showing them the First Amendment to the Constitution.  However, District Attorney’s as well as judges violated the Constitution by preventing Bruce from performing because he allegedly violated their obscenity laws.

Lenny Bruce responded to this situation with his definition of the word truth.  “What is, is.  What should be, is a terrible, terrible lie they told the people a long time ago.”         

Do the governments of the United States and Israel have similar values?  This is the record. 

The origins of the state of Israel

Before the first and second world wars Britain was the world’s superpower.  However, Britain’s empire was collapsing and the Brits had huge debts to U.S. bankers.  The first and second world wars decided what nation would be the new superpower.  Capitalists from the United States won that contest.  Tens of millions of people lost their lives as a result of these two wars, but the capitalists in the United States became, in effect, the royalty of the world.

After the two world wars, in the year 1948, both Israel and apartheid South Africa became nations.  At that time the United States had stolen immense areas of land from the Indians and placed them on reservations.  The U.S. also had the Jim Crow laws that denied Black people citizenship rights in this country.

Both South Africa and Israel followed the U.S. example.  South Africa instituted their apartheid laws that denied the first inhabitants of that land citizenship rights.  The apartheid government also set up Bantustans that were reserved for Black people. 

The Israeli government also stole the land from its original inhabitants.  They set up laws that, in effect, discriminate against anyone who is not Jewish.  They also set up the equivalent of the reservations or Bantustans.  In Israel, these reservations were called the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Amer Zahr calls the U.S. government “enablers” of Israel.  This is because the government in this country gives Israel about five billion dollars every year.  Why does the government in this country give so much money to the relatively small nation of Israel?

In the United States no corporation will make even one dime’s worth of profit without a continuous flow of oil.  Without oil, workers will not be able to travel.  Without oil, corporations will not be able to send their commodities to market.

The nation of Israel sits in the middle of the region where most of the oil on this planet is located.  While the Israeli government may have occasional disagreements with Washington, Israel has been the most dependable of all the U.S. government allies in that region.  This is why Washington gives Israel about five billion dollars every year.

Is Israel a failed state?
Amer Zahr argues, in effect, that Israel is a failed state.  He also clearly has a point when he says that Israel is not a democracy.  However, I look at these questions from a different point of view. 

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a central leader of the Russian Revolution.  He was arrested, sent into exile, and then led the Bolsheviks to take state power.  The Bolsheviks promised the people of that part of the world three basic things.  These were: peace, bread, and land. 

Unlike politicians who say one thing, then do something else, Lenin was willing to risk everything in order to deliver on these promises.  The horrors that took place in the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin came about because of betrayals by the government headed by Joseph Stalin. 

Lenin wrote two pamphlets that I believe are relevant to this discussion.  One is State and Revolution.  There is a basic fact of life the universities and the media would like to ignore.  This is that the most affluent people of the world never produce the wealth they own.  There are two sources to all wealth.  These are human labor and the land.

Lenin argued that the state, as we know it, is a “special repressive force” that was invented to be used to extract wealth from working people, and transfer that wealth to a tiny minority.  Lenin’s idea of democracy was a democratic dictatorship of workers and farmers. 

This meant that the new workers government would make the human needs of all their top priority.  Because profits would no longer be a priority, the new government would use the “special repressive force” of the state to repress the interests of the former capitalists as well as their government.

Many people have difficulty with the idea that the government in this country, that pretends to represent “democracy,” is in fact a “special repressive force.”  However, the facts speak for themselves.

Amer Zahr argues that when Palestinians saw the horrendous bombing of their homeland this summer, they were enraged but not surprised.  They had seen all this before and have come to expect this kind of horror from the state of Israel.

The question is: Why would we think that the government of the United States is different?  While the Israeli government has murdered thousands in their genocidal wars, the U.S. government has murdered millions in places like, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

Before the Civil War, there was a law in this country called The Fugitive Slave Act.  This law required state governments in the North to apprehend escaped slaves and return them to bondage.

Today, most immigrants in this country come from Mexico where they might have had wages of $2 per day.  In the United States many immigrants have jobs in the food industry, working the fields, or in food processing plants, or preparing food in restaurants.  These are jobs many people in this country don’t want to do.  If all of the 12 million immigrants in this country were deported, the economy would clearly fall apart.

President Obama has been deporting immigrants at a rate of close to 1,000 every day.  The thousands of people who President Obama deports aren’t returned to the system of chattel slavery.  However, the similarities between Obama’s deportations and the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act are striking.

Lenin also wrote a pamphlet titled, Imperialism The Highest Stage Of Capitalism.  Here he argued that the ultimate goal of capitalist powers is to dominate the politics as well as the economies of nations throughout the world.  In other words, President Obama shares responsibility for all the deaths and destruction we saw in the Gaza Strip this past summer.  

So, the problem with Israel isn’t that it is a failed state.  As a nation that is a colonial settler capitalist state, it can only be a special force of repression.  Clearly, giving Palestinians the same rights Black people have in South Africa and the United States would be a clear advance.  However, I would think that the ultimate goal would be to have a government in that region dedicated to preventing the crimes of the Israeli government from ever happening again.

The laws of capital and the opportunities for revolution

In the year 1929 the capitalist economy of the world fell apart.  In the year 2008 the most powerful banks in the world nearly closed their doors.  Why would this happen when there are resources in the world to eliminate poverty?

Capitalism has certain laws that no one ever votes for.  This means that corporations are always obsessed with selling more and more commodities.  At the same time they are also obsessed with cutting costs.

Sooner or later there are more commodities on the market than people are purchasing.  This is when recessions and depressions occur.  We might consider that economic crisis under capitalism is created by overproduction and not because of shortages.

Politicians and corporate officers will not be able to prevent the economic collapse that will happen.  In fact, the first theoreticians of capitalism, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, both understood that the total collapse of the capitalist system is inevitable.

Understanding these facts, we can see how workers and farmers will have an opportunity to put in place a government that places a priority on human needs above profits.  These will be the kinds of governments that will begin the liberation of humanity all over the world.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why I Support Playgrounds for Palestine

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a six-year old child who lives in a part of the world known as the Gaza Strip.  Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and occupied by the government of Israel.

Imagine that you have already experienced three wars in your lifetime.  Imagine that during these wars your parents, who loved you, had been murdered.  Imagine that some of your friends, whom you liked to play with, were also murdered.  Imagine being a six-year old child living on one dollar per day.  Imagine that all the homes in your neighborhood had been destroyed as a result of these wars.  Imagine experiencing all of this, and now you are homeless.

This is not a story of fiction.  This is the story of thousands of children who live in a place called the Gaza Strip. 

I learned of this story from Jess Ghannam, who is a clinical professor of psychology, and has been working with Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip for over twenty years.  Ghannam presented this information at a recent fundraising dinner for an organization called Playgrounds for Palestine.

Playgrounds for Palestine has been raising funds to build playgrounds in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for about fifteen years.  The idea for this organization came from Susan Abulhawa who continues to be one of the organizers.  Abulhawa wrote a wonderful book titled Mornings in Jenin that traces the history of a Palestinian family.  You can see my review of this book at the highlighted link.  This summer, Abulhawa’s new book is scheduled to be released.

Now, we might ask an interesting question.  With all the horrors the Palestinian people experience, why is there an organization dedicated to building playgrounds for Palestinian children? 

In order to answer this question, I believe we need to remember the time when we were children.  Perhaps our parents told us we needed to come in the house to eat dinner or to do our homework.  We didn’t want to come in the house because we wanted to stay outside and play.

Remembering the times we enjoyed as children allows us to begin to appreciate what the Palestinian children of the Gaza Strip want.  The playgrounds that now exist in the occupied territories allow children to play and begin to mentally escape the horrors they have faced.  Jess Ghannam has seen how children who have experienced these unspeakable horrors have an amazing amount of resiliency to begin their path of recovery.

Why do I contribute to Playgrounds for Palestine?

At this point, I should say that I don’t generally contribute to organizations like the Playgrounds for Palestine.  I am what some people consider an unspeakable word in this country.  I am a communist.

There are organizations dedicated to teaching people how to read.  Clearly, teaching someone to read can transform a person’s life.  The problem is that while one person is learning to read, the school budget of Philadelphia is being cut to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are organizations dedicated to feeding hungry people.  Yes, giving food to someone who is hungry is a wonderful thing to do.  The problem is that one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat.  In the world, about 40% of the population on this planet lives on about two dollars per day or less.

Understanding this reality, my focus has been to support movements that strengthen workers and farmers rights all over the world.  In the words of Malcolm X, “Either we will all be free, or no one will be free.”

Clearly, the Playgrounds for Palestine has not changed the overall political reality in the occupied territories.  This past summer the Israeli government ordered a bombing raid that destroyed much of the Gaza Strip, and murdered over 2,000 people, including 500 children.  So, why contribute to Playgrounds for Palestine?

Amer Zahr was the Master of Ceremonies at the PFP dinner I attended.  He is also a Palestinian comedian who is the author of a book titled: being Palestinian makes me Smile. 

In a chapter of his book, Zahr compares the struggle of the Palestinians to the movement protesting the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Zahr argues that Palestinians are writing to the protesters of this movement and giving them advice on how to deal with being tear-gassed.

Zahr also quoted a Ferguson police officer who argued that Black people are “animals.”  He compared this attitude to Israeli soldiers who use Palestinian children as target practice using live ammunition.  In both cases, individuals who have power view human beings as less than human.

For this reason, Zahr argues that the primary Palestinian goal is survival.  In this battle, the Palestinians, despite all the obstacles they face, are winning.  This is why I have supported the Playgrounds for Palestine.  Palestinian people are a part of the human race and deserve to be treated with the same human dignity we would all like to have.

The Cuban reality

This past February Judi and I spent seven days in Cuba.  This was enough time to see how the Cuban reality is unique in the world today.  While the Cuban people face numerous challenges, their example gives us hope for the future.  Here are three examples.

1) One morning I went for a walk on one of the main avenues in Havana.  I noticed that there were children of various ages doing their morning calisthenics.  These children had their own student leaders.  They were disciplined, but also relaxed.  There wasn’t the kind of regimentation I experienced in this country when I was their age. 

Watching these children do their exercises, I began to see how the Cuban government views education as a central priority.  The Cuban constitution guarantees children the right to nutrition.  Cubans also have a lifetime right to education and health care.

2) Then, we visited a school for children with Down Syndrome.  The building this school is housed in didn’t appear to be special.  However, what was going on inside the school was truly inspiring. 

The walls of the inside of the building were covered with artwork.  Many of the paintings were of children with Down Syndrome and the children created many of these works of art. 

I spoke to a parent of one of the students who volunteers his time to teach the children art.  I asked him if he was proud of his daughter.  He answered that he wasn’t just proud of his daughter, but proud of all of the students at this school.

3) Our tour guide told us a story of a child who lived in his neighborhood who had a problem with her kidney.  The doctors who treated this child recommended that the home she lived in be upgraded. 

The government responded to this diagnosis by organizing a team of workers to modernize the home this child lived in with her parents.  These workers installed air-conditioning so the child might have a better and longer life.  I mention these three Cuban examples to show how a better world is possible. 

Every year the United States government has been giving the state of Israel five billion dollars in so-called aid.  This column has shown some of the results of that aid.

Today, while the U.S. government is giving Israel all this money, many Israeli children live in poverty.  We might think about a seemingly impossible dream.  This is the idea of a future world where Israeli and Palestinian children might play together in peace.  My opinion is that the organization Playgrounds for Palestine is working to make this dream a reality.               


Mornings In Jenin

A review of the novel “Mornings in Jenin”
by Susan Abulhawa, published by Bloomsbury

While we see news from the Middle East almost every day, rarely do we see a description or a history of the people known as Palestinians.  Susan Abulhawa has dealt with this problem in her novel Mornings in Jenin.  This is the story of a Palestinian family from before the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, all the way up to the present reality.   

The title of a previous edition of this book was, The Scar of David.  David is the brother of the main character of the book, Amal Abulheja.  David, who’s initial name was Ismael, had a scar on his face and was kidnapped by an Israeli soldier in 1948.  This is when Ismael became David and was raised in an Israeli family.

This story starts out in the Palestinian farming village of Ein Hod.  Like farmers from around the world, the people of Ein Hod had a special relationship to the land.  They knew all the work that is required to raise animals and to reap the harvests of olives as well as several other crops.  Although they had a long history of subjugation from the Ottomans and the British, their ancestors farmed the land of Ein Hod for 40 generations. 

Then, in 1948 Israel became a nation.  Palestinians refer to this time as “el Nakba” or the catastrophe.  This is how Susan Abulhawa describes what this meant to the people of Ein Hod.  Yeya is Amal’s grandfather.

“Thus Yeya tallied forty generations of living, now stolen.  Forty generations worth of childbirth and funerals, weddings and dance, prayer and scrapped knees.  Forty generations of sin  and charity, of cooking, toiling and idling, of friendships and animosities and pacts, of rain and lovemaking.  Forty generations with their imprinted memories, secrets and scandals.  All carried away by the notion of entitlement of another people, who would settle in the vacancy and proclaim it all--all that was left in the way of architecture, orchards, wells, flowers, and charm--all of it as the heritage of Jewish foreigners arriving from Europe, Russia, the United States, and other corners of the globe.”

While we see how the theft of Palestinian land was a horrendous act, this is only the beginning of the story.  We see through the course of this book that there were more Israeli invasions in 1967, 1982, 2002, and an invasion not included in the book that occurred just last year. 

However, this is only one part of the story.  We also see how Amal’s brother was raised in an Israeli family.  How his mother experienced the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.  We see how David was forced to serve in the Israeli armed forces, and how he and the person who claimed to be his father felt shame for the atrocities they committed.

This is the background to the meeting between Amal and her brother David in, of all places, the suburbs of Pennsylvania.  Amal and her family had endured atrocities, while David, and the man who pretended to be his father, committed some of those atrocities.

Here is where, out of the ruins of the nightmare of the Middle East, we can see some hope.  David and Amal learn to care for one another.  At first, neither wanted to accept that they were of the same family.  Then, when each learned the reality of the other, they would accept that they were brother and sister.

Clearly this is not the whole story and perhaps I’ve divulged too much already.  However, while the media routinely portrays Palestinians as mindless terrorists, the novel Morings in Jenin tells a completely different story. 

Understanding this story forces the reader to question the fact that every year the United States government gives Israel billions of dollars as an outright gift.  How can a government give so much money to a nation that has committed the horrors outlined in the book Mornings in Jenin?

Well, we might keep in mind that the native people of the United States were also forced off of land they had lived on for centuries.  In the year 1830 the United States government adopted a piece of legislation called The Indian Removal Law.  All Native Americans who lived east of the Mississippi River were forced to move to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma.  This land was also stolen from Native Americans after the Civil War.

Recently the US government built a wall to prevent immigrants from Mexico from entering this country.  This wall is similar to the wall that separates Israel from the Occupied Territories.  However, the native people from both the United States and Israel continue to experience systematic discrimination.

In other words, the story Mornings in Jenin isn’t just about a family living half way around the world.  This story is similar to the reality of what continues to transpire in a place called the United States of America.