Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Our Road Trip to Adelaide, June 2009

Spirit of Humanity Imprisoned, Stonewall Memories, Israeli Peace Activist Arrested--and Geographies

Dear Dear Lepa--your words find me as always, in these new ways, as they did in the old ways. Yes, in the middle of the night after I wrote that entry I thought of Olivera and you and that other forest, another geography of killing, where Muslim boys and men were disappeared. You see, they cannot blind us, not one from the other, not from each other's histories, not from saying in our women's voices, we know the cruelties in our bones, we know the excesses of power, we know in our queer bodies that we can so easily loose our human face in the vision of the state, we know how a rifle slung over a young shoulder and an anthem of supremacy humming in the soldier's head can lead to never ending silences, to life butted into despair because I am young and the state tells me that my glory lies in my brutality. But the years will come and soldiers and haters will grow old and pray in their deepest parts that the new soldier takes no notice of them.

So much is broiling in my head--Rosa Luxemburg's small figure, with her hat adding an inch or two to her tilting body surrounded by all those men at the early international conferences in the first years of the 20th century, her struggle to work to have a home with her lover Jogiches, to run her home in between running the party and away from the police, how she calls him by a woman's name when she writes to him from prison so her letters will not end up confiscated by the state who will take her life, the news of the seizure of The Spirit of Humanity, a boat filled with international peace activists trying to bring hope to the people of Gaza only to be attacked and confiscated by the Israeli Occupation Forces--they embargo the sea, the land and the air above--this is called withdrawal from occupied lands--see our Women in Black site, womeninblack.org.au--the news section for ways to help and more information. And then the pending imprisonment of Ezra Nowri, a gay Israeli peace activist who tries to intercede for Palestinians living outside of Hebron whose homes are bulldozed--all the smashing, the planned cruelty, all to make life harsh and unwanted, while like here, so many Israelis live their full lives, allowed to have their natural growth as the government calls it when defending the settlements, turning their heads away from the loss of life just beyond the wall that allows them to see nothing. Such a life cannot stand, there is too much pain under it and around it--the pain of Jewish suffering in the face of state certainties that we were not human, not seeable except to eradicate and now the new history of pain created by this Israeli state that will not relent in its right to punish an occupied people. All that will be left as Nawi says, will be hate.

And yet, La Professor, Cello and I saw a baby lamb drop from its mother's withers on our way to Adelaide, the grass newly green, the lamb all wet with life blood. We saw the wide sky, always the possibilities of another way where tenderness has its own power and the body of a lover reminds one of our divine fragilities.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The State and Memory

Yesterday early in the gray Winter morning here, I sat in the smallest theater in the Nova, the movie house in Carlton that shows international films, along with 8 other gray haired people to see the Polish film, Katyn. As the curtain lifted, history descended on us and I have been in its grip ever since. History and how the state fears memory, how it struggles to own memory, how unreconciled shame is most deadly when joined to the power of an unchallenged State. The opening image: two sets of civilians running towards each other, battered suitcases in hand, over an old wooden bridge, one panicked crowd warning the others of the terrors behind them--the Russians are coming, scream the frightened masses trying to escape out of Poland, the Germans are coming, warn the approaching others, trying to flee into Poland, and in the middle of it all is a family dog tied to a bridge railing, unable to move in any direction and crying for release as the humans run by him.

Since writing these few words, I have availed myself of this immediate source of knowledge that lies under my fingertips--Andrzej Wajda, in his 80s now, the famous Polish director, walks into the Katyn forest of history, the site of the 1940 mass murder of of thousands of Polish military officers, intellectuals and civilian prisoners by Stalin's occupying forces. Occupation, state control over the stories that can be told of disowned brutalities, the refusal of some to sign on to the lies at the cost of their lives--a patriotic myth perhaps--but as I sat there all I could see were haunted, hunted civilians running through the map of the world, some waving shopping bags at tanks, some trying to quickly tap into their cell phones what the state police were doing to their friends as election despair fell into the streets, some marshaling their strength for one more uprising, against impossible odds, the general images of my time and the specific voice of one young man standing in the streets of Tehran, an actor by trade, saying "No not revolution, we want reforms, we want kindness, we want friendship with the world." Perhaps a blog is not the place to write at length about memory, about the decrees of the state demanding no coffins of fallen soldiers be shown, that allows no reporters or cameras into war zones, that wants to make mourning a historical catastrophe a crime against the state, all the disowned genocides that rend the past of its grief, in the name of national vanities. But the artists will tell the stories, the cultural workers who seize back from the denied past the trampled forest floor, the empty ghetto lane ways, the blood stained cell.
I live my every day now here--often a wanderer in strange streets--but more and more, as my body aches, and I read, read, I am many places at once--the images come to me--from friends like Dorothy forwarding a video of what the Palestinian workers, or people trying to be workers, have to go through every morning to get through the cages of control--and I stood at that checkpoint, I know the sound of the gates and locks and chains, I saw the old people waiting, waiting as young men with machine guns, checked and rechecked their papers, talking to each other, not even seeing the tired woman in front of them. Dr Ruchama Marton, the Founder of Physicians for Human Rights--Israel, has made us all part of the workers' endless mornings--"Palestinian workers at the privatized IRTACH gate"--embedded in YouTube --http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=914x3Z_7gvY htttp://www.leftinhebrew.org./LIH/video.asp?p=86&L=english, filmed and edited by Eran Torbiner --privatized dehumanization--and the company gets paid for it!
A little kindness the young man asks for, the valuing of life for life. Let me work, let me live, let me feed my children. All our children.
I want to add something here--I know some of my old friends are up set with me for my constant writing about the injustices, the racism that is at the heart of the Israeli occupation and its treatment of its own non-Jewish citizens. I have explained elsewhere that never do I feel more Jewish then when I am challenging the silence in the forest about what goes on every day in the occupied territories and in Gaza, but I know the other side as well. Because I stand in the streets once a month with Women in Black in Melbourne, I also hear the antisemitism, the denials that the Holocaust ever happened from regular people. All of us who do this work never for one moment forget those who did not live to see the sun again, the ships turned away, the easy hatred of Jews that floats to the surface when economic hard times strike--again and again I hear in the streets--it is the Rothchilds and the IMF who are responsible for all the bad things, the Rothchilds--that collective surname for all our imagined wealth and power--never do I forget and always I answer--and so we walk this narrow strip of land between my lancemen who call us traitors and the antisemites who call us the spoilers of the world--I have left the safe confines of New York City--but I have found wonderful new comrades, Jewish and not, who walk that path with me. And in the past and out there where these words go.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Books, Birds and the Heart

I want to thank Lepa, Stephanie, Lee for your answering words. I can see that my blog is not a free flowing conversation so it is wonderful when I can read your responses. Yesterday I received my own version of a care package, a large gray plastic bag containing the books I had been waiting for. The delivery man throws them over our front gate to Cello's accompanying din, and I run out as if I am meeting the clipper ship, long over due, only it is not a husband I am welcoming home but words, faces, lives, histories. This joy at the arrival of books started many years ago when I was in the lower grades of PS 94 in the Bronx--mid 1940s--and amidst the 2 penny pretzel and the free carton of milk my greatest joy was being the class secretary to check in the box of Scholastic books we each had been able to order--I can still feel the pure joy of pulling back the cardboard flaps and there, nestled against each other, were slim cheap paperback versions of the classics and some recent favorites like the Nancy Drew
series. Here I found my Albert Payson Terhune and his Scottish collies cavorting on the moors, the black stallions of Walter Farley, the hanging head of Black Beauty--I can still hear the clip clop of the tired wagon horses as if they were coming up Gun Hill Road that I thought I could hear back then.
Forgive me if my dates are wrong--perhaps these wondrous boxes appeared later in my life, when I was living in Bayside, Queens in the early 50s--time flashes in strange ways now but the river that it is still washes up the bits of gold that form a shining center of remembered life.
No longer do I scoop up from the long traveled box the adventure stories of families lost on deserted islands or young girls on mountain tops with goats and old wise uncles. Now I await the writers, the thinkers , the brave, who have made a claim on my interest, on my passions. Rosa Luxemburg came to me because I was asked to review an article about the new release of her Letters from Prison in Tel Aviv and Ramallah for the Australian Jewish Democratic Society's Newsletter. My friend Daniel andI read her letters out loud around a small cafe table outside the Melbourne hospital where his mother was fighting for her life. I thought these pages, downloaded from the free Rosa Luxembourg Archives on the web, would be a good distraction--but letters from prison are never just distractions and this woman who looked into the soul of an exhausted beast of burden through her prison window and saw the bent backs of the working classes, this woman difficult and dedicated now sits on my desk, sits my bed, and always behind her polemics or letters of demanding desire, I see the rifle butt that will smash into her oh so Jewish face, the bullet that will crush her heart, fired by her own party comrades because she would not, could not, under her doctrine, support the first World War, I see her marble bust rising from the German canal so many years later, the narrow body of urban water where the lackey soldier dumped her small Polish body with its richness of up swept hair and its pockmarked hip. Over the seas have come her words, small things but oh how they travel--not in their "truth" but in the song they seen of a life straining with every step to rethink the world. I better stop now, but now my other comrades, the word givers whose gift I await, hanging onto the swinging gate: May Out West, poems and Dear Elisabeth: Five Poems and Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop, both by May Swenson (thank you, Lee); China Mielville's The City and The City, my dear Meilville who rethinks and subverts and interchanges shadows and facts on the ground, species and cities and wounds; Pen America: A Journal for Writers and Readers--10 Fear Itself, with Edwidge Danticat's profound meditation on the danger of not fearing--Dear Edwidge, who came so many years ago now it feels like, to speak with our special seminar students in SEEK at Queens College, The Literature of Caribbean Women Writers, Dr Bobb and myself welcoming this young beautiful Haitian author, now a mother of two daughters, and how at that long table we all poured over the underlined passages of her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, our students forgetting their awe at meeting a real author and diving into her text so to pull up their own discovered treasures--that was teaching and learning and reading at its best and all because a writer did not think herself above the journeys of those around her, but understood with all her generosity, the gift they had brought from their struggling lives to her words.
And finally, the books that do take me back to the those old Scholastic specials--the 7 volumes of Kevin J. Anderson's The Saga of Seven Suns; how I love rolling around the star clusters in the warm embrace of his green priests and the outlaw Roamers, gazing with amazement at the planet sized tree ships and peering into the depths of gas giants to see what will come zooming up into darker space. Transport gates all, I swing upon. And still I stand with Women in Black, the suffering of those imprisoned by national meannesses, always in my mind.
It is now August 11, 2009: I am adding here the article I wrote for the Australian Jewish Democratic Society Newsletter, May 2009.
Rosa Luxemburg Speaks to Us
Back in February, two things happened in Palestine/Israel, one huge, the other almost overlooked: a national election culminating in a right wing government, stiff with reactionary posturing, and the opening of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation's offices in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, the occasion marked by the re-issuing of a small book that influenced many of Israel's pioneering Left thinkers like Shulamit Aloni--Luxemburg's oddly idyllic and thus chillingly heartbreaking, Letters from Prison.
"Sonyusha, you are feeling embittered because of my long imprisonment. You ask: "How can human beings dare to decide the fate of their fellows? What is the meaning of it all...my dear little bird, the whole history of civilization...is grounded upon 'human beings deciding the fate of their fellows,' the practice is deeply rooted in the material conditions of existence. Nothing but a further evolution, and a painful one, can change such things. At this hour we are living in the very chapter of transition..." (Letter to Sophie Liebknecht from Wronke Prison, May 23, 1917)
That the strong visage of this controversial political thinker, brutally murdered in Berlin in 1919 along with her comrade, Karl Liebknecht, should be seen once again, peering into the national debates about inequalities and the futility of war and nationalism to create either stability or social justice at a time when the Israeli Left seems an almost futile gesture, is a testament to the hopeful ironies of history. And to the courage and insight of the Israeli Sifriat Hapoalim publishing house which is responsible for the book's reemergence. To commemorate the opening of its Israeli office, the Foundation sponsored a free conference to discuss Luxemburg's heritage and her relevance to the Israeli and German Left, the home base of the Foundation. In Haaretz, Avner Shapira wrote that Dr Angelika Timm, Director of the Israeli Office, explained that the Foundation's activity in the region "reflects German left-wing recognition that it, like all of Germany, bears a historical responsibility for Israel. The Foundation supports civic projects such as educational initiatives or peace and humanism, the empowerment of women and assistance to weakened populations, and tires to promote mutual understanding between Israeli and German society."
Polish-born Luxemburg (1871-1919), founder of the Spartacus League and the German Communist Party, lived much of her life under the threat of political assassination. Undaunted by enemies, on the Right and the Left, she and many others endured periodic imprisonments, long separations from what most of us would just call the daily joys of life. A firm believer in her own ideological visions, she also cherished the social value of dissent. "Freedom," she wrote, "only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of the party--however numerous they may be--is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenter." These words are now engraved over the entrance to the Foundation's headquarters in Tel Aviv, translated into Hebrew, Arabic and German. I cannot help but think of these words when faced with the closing down of discussion in the American Jewish community (from which I hail) and here (where I now live) when it comes to critiquing Israel's version of nationalism--or the connections between a vital democracy and social inequities. Luxemburg, while passionately dedicated to her world view, rejected violence as a useful tool of social change, favoring general strikes and cultural interventions.
Rosa Luxemburg, seen as a traitor to a nation state intent on war, spent her last two years watching for the smallest signs of life in the restricted world of her jail cell and its little yard. Used to the larger stage of international Left politics, she now focuses on the vitality of birds and butterflies, trees blooming on a horizon never to be reached by her again. "On the paper as I write, the faint shadows of the leaves are at play with the interspersed patches of sunlight; the foliage is still damp from a recent shower, and now and again drops fall on my face and hands...At six o'clock, as usual, I was locked up." (Wronke, end of May, 1917).
I know Sol had asked me to only give an overview of Shapira's article , but thanks to the Rosa Luxemburg Internet Archive, I was able to hear her voice again, in her last days writing to Sophie Liebknecht, the wife of her imprisoned comrade, Karl. "How strange it is that I am always in a sort of joyous intoxication, though without sufficient cause. Here I am lying in a dark cell upon a mattress as hard as stone; the building has its usual churchyard quiet, so that one might as well be already entombed; through the window there falls across the bed a glint of light from the lamp which burns all night in front of the prison...I lie here alone and in silence, enveloped in the manifold black wrappings of darkness, tedium, unfreedom and yet my heart beats with immeasurable and in comprehensible inn er joy...but when I search my mind for the cause of this joy, I find there is no cause and can only laugh at myself--I believe that the key to the riddle is simply life itself, this deep darkness of night is soft and beautiful as velvet, if one only looks at it in the right way...."
Hannah Arendt, who includes a chapter on Luxemburg in her haunting Men in Dark Times (1955) warns against over-sentimentalising this often hard-nosed theoretician; like many strong women who take unpopular public stances at the risk of their lives, she was called seemingly oppositional things--the bloodthirsty Rosa, the hopeless romantic. Her Letters from Prison reveal in a matter of 50 pages her toughness, her thirst for learning, for checking her texts--books are as important as birds in these letters--food, give it to the other prisoners, she writes, but for me, send the books!--and her desire to protect fragile lives while she glories in the complexity of the natural world and the challenges of the material one. I think of the Jewish women thinkers, Rosa, Emma Goldman, Hannah Arnedt herself, who dared to be pariahs in their own homelands and I think of the darkness we will forever know as the Siege of Gaza.
(Inspired by the article, "A Red Red Rosa (Not to Mention Green and Pink) by Avner Shapira in Haaretz.)