Monday, June 29, 2009

What about Palestine? - Part 2

Dandelion - Weed? or Flower?

Historian Noam Chomsky writing about the Palestine/Israel conflict provides a few perspectives that are highly discouraging to those who would like to see a resolution to the struggle. As we all know, Israel has established numerous settlements in the West Bank and on the Golan Heights, in defiance of assorted resolutions at the UN and accords made over the years at Camp David, Oslo, etc. The world community has protested this expansion into what is occupied territory, but no action has been taken to cause this practice to stop. The US could have insisted and taken steps to make certain that Israel respected established borders, at least. This could easily havebeen achieved by tying aid to compliance.

There exists an often-reiterated opinion in Israel that Palestinians are not “a people” and Judea and Samaria do not constitute a country. If this is false, Israelis are invaders and plunderers; if it is true, they are simply repossessing what has always been rightfully theirs. The argument seems absurd when one considers how Arabs in the area have had vineyards and farms, homes and villages confiscated and have been driven off land that has been in their families for centuries. What does it matter if the area they inhabited as a people is or was a nation or not?

The encroachment into the West Bank particularly is not simply a natural evolution; it’s a deliberate policy to establish a fact. This fact is that as ever more settlers make a home in disputed territory, their presence there makes it ever harder to reverse the process. It could be compared to the expropriation of North America, Australia, Latin America, by colonial powers. The push to settle the prairies of Canada, for instance, made it more and more difficult for the aboriginal people to assert their rights in the land, and the argument that this was not “their nation” after all served to excuse their eviction as it does that of the Palestinians.

So who benefits from Israeli expansionism to such a degree that putting an end to it is outweighed by other interests? Well, the state of Israel, one supposes, but according to Chomsky the future of Israel has been placed in grave jeopardy by its actions. One would think that the US would benefit from peace in the Middle East, but it has to be remembered that the US is an oil importer on a large scale and Israel’s neighbours are sitting on much of the oil needed by US industry and people. Israel as it exists right now serves as a policeman in the area; it has weapons and a military machine that is unmatched by any of its neighbours. Israel has disciplined Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, in the past and the US is commercially better for it (and by extension, possibly, Canada and Europe).

Aboriginal people in North America resisted the colonialism that eventually resulted in the countries of Canada and the US. Their resistance was put down brutally, pitilessly, as if they were less than human and their lives counted for very little. Such an obscenity ripples through the centuries; it’s being repeated in Palestine, a place where it is not nearly as clear that the colonialists will prevail. Reading Chomsky, in fact, could easily lead one to believe that a catastrophe that will destroy both Israel and the Palestinians is in the making.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What about Palestine? - Part 1

I've often wondered why Christian Peacemaker Teams people are so unapologetically pro-Palestinian. I'd assumed the story was two-sided, and that they had chosen one side because of an “underdog bias,” and the fact that they were doing their work in the Palestinian enclaves, by and large. I should have read Sami Hadawi's Bitter Harvest a long time ago. First published in 1967, it's been reprinted repeatedly; the edition I'm reading was copyrighted in 1989.

To say there are two sides to the Palestinian conflict and its history is to say that when a man blatantly shoots a neighbour, drives his family off land that had represented their family's livelihood for centuries and seizes it all for his own, fairness would dictate that there are two equal but opposing parties whose stories must be weighed. There's only one side to this story; the story is one of theft, murder, deceit, prejudice, discrimination and disregard for the value of human life in order that Zionism could dispossess Palestinian Arabs of their land and cleanse the area of the "riff-raff" that lived upon it.

So says Hadawi, and he makes the case with copious statistics, documents, quotations, citations and his own experience as one born in Jerusalem and as an official land valuer during the British Mandate period and later for the Jordanian government and the United Nations Palestine Conciliation Commission. In 1965, he was appointed director of the Institute of Palestine Studies in Beirut and his books and pamphlets on Palestinian affairs are numerous.

Much of the West lives with an uncomfortable double standard with regard to Palestine. On the one hand, the memory of the Holocaust is still fresh enough that providing Jewry with a safe place feels like “the least we can do,” given our complicity in anti-Semitic historical events. This coupled with the enormous potential for being fingered as anti-Semitic for criticizing Israeli policies weighs heavily in our pernicious tendency to overlook Israel's transgressions and their excuses, namely that their theft and killing excesses are carried out in the interest of their security. On the other hand, we have seen the seizure of properties, the failure of Israel to carry out its commitments to the UN, the deadly overreactions and we know that these are morally very, very wrong. And yet, the former sensitivities paralyze the West and have historically allowed the Israeli state to commit atrocity after atrocity with impunity.

But I still have much to learn on the subject. I've also ordered a few books from the library that are authored by Jews. At present, I've come to some conclusions that need to be tested:

1) The state of Israel should not be confused with the “Children of Israel” of the Old Testament, nor should it be considered an extension of the stories of Abraham, Moses, Joshua and the prophets. Israel is a modern country like Liechtenstein and Canada, but one that uses the pretext of Biblical manifest destiny to excuse ethnic cleansing.

2) Judaism is not a race. There are plenty of people of the Jewish faith who are not Semitic and there are plenty of people we know as Jewish who are not adherents to Zionism's world view. We must separate our evaluation of the state of Israel's policies from our sensitivities about antisemitism.

3) There will be no redress for the degradation and disgrace Israel has heaped on Palestinian Arabs without a forceful determination by the world community that Israel will carry out its commitments to the UN to observe strict boundaries, protect property and human rights for all inhabitants and adhere to the common standards of decency in its dealings.

Hadawi has left me with these impressions. More later.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Madly Off

I dreamed last night that I—a 67 year-old retiree—walked into a Grade 12 Social Studies class as a substitute teacher. I had a lesson in mind; I would engage them in an exciting discussion of the dynamics, the losses and gains particularly, that characterize social transactions. I would start with a simple example: you hire on with a contractor and you lose your freedom for the day, but you gain a paycheck. In my dream this was all tremendously significant stuff; I thought I might move on to choices of a weightier nature, like sex, marriage, etc.

But first one must take attendance: I couldn’t find the register, couldn’t find any list of names, couldn’t find a paper and pencil on which to write it down. I knew an attendance record was an important part of my job on this day. Solving that dilemma took half the time for the class and—if this had been a hockey game—put me down three or four goals in the “keeping order” department, the most significant aspect of any substitute teacher’s task.

I finally got to my lesson, but by then I hardly had an audience. The class had disintegrated into clatches here and there, talking and laughing, and there was no obvious way to get them involved in any discussion short of offering them each an iphone if they would shut up and listen. (Is this the nature of the real loss/gain bargain in the education transaction?)

And then a few at the back drifted away; the rest of the class, assuming they had been dismissed, followed them out without a backward glance. They sealed their victory by scoring into my empty net.

Jump to the second dream of the night, as did I: I’m looking for a certain building on the campus of the University of Alberta. I’m like Leacock’s Lord Ronald who “flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” I go north, south, east, west, but can’t find anything I recognize. Finally I enter a building where I’m accosted by, apparently, a teacher from the school of my first dream; he’s going to report me, he says, to the higher authorities for my debacle in the Social Studies classroom. I assure him that I’m aware of my failure, that I used to be a relatively competent teacher but am old and grey now, that there’s no liklihood of my showing up there again . . . ever, and we part amicably.

Interpretation: Frustration during the day leads to dreams of frustration. We’ve just moved and things are not as rosy as we’d dreamed; basement still not finished, boxes everywhere, I’m having no end of challenges laying a floor. On Friday, I went to a meeting in the Education Building at the University of Saskatchewan. I drove around trying to find it for a time; ergo, my second nightmare. Search combined with frustration. The events of the days rearing up their heads in the random richocheting of electrical firings through the synapses of my mind, passing through a museum of memories and impressions and creating a story with the remnants they pick up there.

I wish you all sweet dreams

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Obama and the Culture Wars

Insane Palette
The first chapter in Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, is titled “Values.” In it, Obama convincingly draws the argument that Americans have come to accept by slow degrees a politic surrounding their differences as opposed to their common values. We’ve come to know this divide as the “culture wars,” although that name may be more misleading than enlightening.

Finding values on which North Americans agree is not difficult. Values surrounding individual freedom of speech, movement and religion and the democratic rights we enjoy are generally hold in common by the inductive and the deductive thinkers among us, by the conservatives, liberals and socialists as well as by the Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. It’s these (and others, of course) that unite us; it’s the hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, abortion laws, stem cell research that divide us so dramatically that it seems like we are a people “at war,” culturally.

And so politics takes on the qualities of a hockey game. It turns itself into a match in which one team on a hot-button issue is pitted against the other. Hockey itself is based on a disagreement between two teams on a trivial matter: the Rockets believe that the little rubber disk should go into the net at the north end of the rink, the Trojans maintain adamantly that it should go into the net at the south end. A competition in which the sides agree would be no fun at all. American politics has turned itself into a hockey game and although the very idea of a party system gives a nod to some division of values, our value differences used to be debated amicably on the sidelines whereas now, they have taken over the core of the game called democracy. So argues Obama.

There are those, of course, who will argue that some hot-button issues of the day are by no means trivial, and I agree. The way we treat embryos as we research the efficacy of stem cells in disease treatment could very well influence how we view the life of the unborn in the future. That’s not trivial. But surely the core value here surrounds the right-to-life principle—a commonly held value—and the way we use embryonic stem cells in research and finally in medical practice is beyond the capability of government, who can render it legal or illegal, but cannot determine in every individual case whether the goals of science and life-preserving medicine in that case are ethical and right.

Same-sex marriage definitely should not have become an election issue. The US constitution declares that every individual has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There are two significant aspects to marriage in Christian circles: 1) the community blesses a union, usually of husband and wife, and 2) the state acknowledges that from that day forward, all legal matters pertaining to spousal relationships will apply to this couple (if the documentation is in place and the minister is licensed properly.) Whether or not the Fenderbender Holier-Than-Thou Christian Church members decide to marry gay couples or not is up to them; the attempt to impose a universal legal restriction on the pursuit of happiness of people with a minority sexual orientation is a case of unnecessarily feeding a culture war.

The wish to have government settle our culture wars in Canada is becoming irksome, even if we haven’t sunk to the level of the USA in that regard . . . yet. The Conservative Party is running attack ads on television as I write this, even though there’s no election campaign in progress. Basing their argument on opposition leader Michael Ignatieff's having lived and worked outside the country for many years, they are attempting to exploit a trivial issue to inflame the gullible against the Liberal Party. Meanwhile, our core values—including courtesy, decency and fairness—are being thrown to the dogs in favour of petty partisanship.

We shouldn’t put up with that.