Sunday, December 6, 2009

Words for Palestine

Words for Palestine, December 6, 2009, Melbourne, Australia

Students for Palestine asked me to speak at a rally held in front of the Park Hyatt Hotel here in Melbourne where the Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard was hosting Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, Slivan Shalom. They were discussing, the paper said, Israel's request for help from Australia to help it rehabilitate the Jordan River. This was Shalom's second official dinner--the first in Sydney where the Prime Minister of Australia also welcomed the Israeli government official in glowing terms and never once mentioned the crises that is facing the Palestinians under the present Israeli regime. I was asked to speak as a representative of Women in Black and thus Hellen, Marg, Sue, Geraldine--my Women in Black comrades stood with our banners behind me as I spoke. We clearly were the oldest in presence. Without their support, I could not have accomplished what I had to do. I quote the words of two poets in the talk--I wanted something different, more complex then a typical rally speech--the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and the American writer, always prophetic in terms of what racial failures would bring to States, James Baldwin. Thank you, Daniel, for the image.

Words for Palestine

Salam Alekhim/ Shalom

I want to thank Students for Palestine for inviting the Melbourne Women in Black group to be part of this demonstration against the uncritical welcoming of Silvan Shalom to this country. I speak with two voices today—as a member of Women in Black, and as a 70 year old American Jewish woman who lost one third of her family in the Belzec Concentration camp. Two voices but one heart—the brutalizing of populations by the use of overwhelming military force, by governmental policies of ethnic cleansing and forced expulsion from family homes, by the unquestioned belief in the right of one people to live a full life while another is condemned to hopelessness , to endless humiliations, to erased pasts, to an impossible present and a murdered future—I cannot, will not, not turn my head or heart away from the connections between my Jewish history and Palestinian history of the last 60 years.

In Haifa, after the first Intifada, in 1987, 5 Israeli women stood in silent vigil dressed in black to protest the Israelis occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. the next week Palestinian women joined the protest and a few months later, 5000 marched through the streets of Tel Aviv asking for peace. Now Women in Black stand in over 30 countries demanding an end to the brutalization of civilian populations and the planet, an end to what seems like a time of endless wars. Here in Melbourne Women in Black have been organizing for an end to the occupation since 1988 (Here I referred to Alix Nissen, a founding member of Women in Black both here and in Haifa and Marg Jacobs who has been involved with Melbourne Women in Black since 1988).

From our flyer: "We stand in recognition of peace activists all over the world, to embrace our common humanity, as a bridge to mutual respect, to remind our selves that seemingly small actions can lead both to change and hope. We make the following promises for the new year—we promise to expose the lies that demonize those who discuss nonviolent ways to end the Israeli occupation. We promise to uphold the judgements of the UN’s Goldstone Report and Breaking the Silence. We promise to stand in solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian activists who face jail for their anti occupation work— with the Shminstim, a group of Israeli teenagers declaring their refusal to serve the occupation,with Mohammad Othman, a Palestinian human rights activist,with Kobi Snitz, with Ezra Nawi ,"

with the women who monitor the checkpoints hoping to reduce the daily abuses of Palestinians simply trying to get to work, with the citizens of Bi’lin who take on the Israeli Defense Force every night, with the members of New Profile, an Israeli anti- militarism group, with the Palestinian and Israeli academics who think and teach critically about the occupation and as a result appear on a hate list of those who must be purged from the academy in the so-called democratic state of Israel,with Gideon Levy of the Haaretz newspaper, with Dr Saida Atrash, the Director of the Mehwa Center, the women’s shelter on the West Bank where every day she and others try to comfort Palestinian women who have lost their homes, and with it any sense of security for their families.

We hear the voices of power easily enough, but the voices of alternate visions, of the questioners of certainties, these we must amplify and honor, these are our deepest hope—As Mahmoud Darwish wrote in his homage to Edward Said: "Then you are prone to the affliction of longing? My dream leads my steps. And my vision seats my dream on my knees like a cat. My dream is the realistic imaginary and the son of will: We are able to alter the inevitability of the abyss!"

The voice of conscientious objector Or Ben-David, a 19 year old Israeli young woman from Jerusalem: "To refuse means to say no! No to the military rule in the West Bank, no to the use of violence as a means of defence, no to patriarchy, no to violence against innocent people, no to war and no to a society that claims to be democratic but forces youth to carry weapons, to kill or be killed. I refuse because I want to make a difference. I want all those Palestinian youths who have lost hope to see that there are Israelis who care and who make a different choice. I want all my friends who became soldiers or who are about to become soldiers to see that things do not have to be the way they are, and that doing these immoral things is not something to be taken for granted, that another way is possible." The author of these words is now serving 20 days in an Israeli military prison.

Know that our numbers, the numbers of dissenters, are growing , that cracks are running down that monstrous barbed- wire topped gray wall that tonight’s honored guest calls a fence, know that more and more of us are not afraid of what they call us—traitors, self- hating Jews, antisemitic Jews, renegade Jews. What we are afraid of is what comes on the horizon when a people’s daily dignity is so insulted, when others so absolutely and brutally control the possibilities of one’s life—James Baldwin, an African- American writer who knew in his bones of daily dehumanization, warned of the the "Fire Next Time." What hope will there be for reconciliation if the settlers keep dancing on the hearts of the dispossessed, if leaders like Rudd and Obama and so many others sit down to feast with representative bullies of the Israeli state, pretending that Palestinian agony does not exist. We have seen in the past the results of this calculated refusal to challenge national cruelties. Read the Palestinian poet, read Darwish—"Do I ask permission, from strangers who sleep/in my own bed, to visit myself for five minutes? Do I bow respectfully to those who reside in my childhood dream?"

Mr Silvan Shalom is the minister for regional development and control of the flow of water--one of the regions he is in charge of is the upper Galilee, the one- time site of al-Birwah, a village razed to the ground in 1948, its people forced to flee and among them the poet I now always carry in my heart, Mahmoud Darwish, and his family—his birth place made invisible except in the words of his poems and on old maps, his very presence made absence, a poet in exile for much of his life, but against the roaring ugliness of Israel's dedication to the eradication of a people, I put the poet’s yearning lovely humanity, “The poem is what lies between a between. It is able to illuminate the night with the breasts of a young woman/it is able to illuminate, with an apple, two bodies/it is able to restore/ with the cry of a gardenia, a homeland!" The poet brings us back to the occupied body, the place of devastation, into the night of war he brings the perfume of longing, our rights of desire.

Long after the world forgets the name of the vice Prime Minister of Israel, it will remember the words of Mahmoud Darwish, the poet, for he honors the wonders of life.


It had been a long day and I had been up all night writing the talk, I was emotionally exhausted from the whole event, my anger, my sadness, my speaking as a Jew and so Marg kindly led me to her car. It was only after I had arrived home, that I received the call from Daniel saying that shortly after I had left, the demonstators had attempted to enter the hotel and were beaten and sprayed with capiscum. A young woman friend of his whom I had met was punched in the face by a member of the police. This morning, our daily newspaper, "The Age," carried a picture of the confrontation and the following caption: "Capiscum Spray used to Quell Anti-Israeli Protestors." I want no more violence. Civil disobediance, yes, in the hundreds of thousands, yes, but no more aggressions provoking more aggressions. Enough of this--we will struggle against the Israeli state as we did against the apartheid South African state but in our own way, with an imagined difference. Blood against blood makes reconciliation impossible. Only the fire's devastation comes this way. We "must alter the inevitablity of the abyss." But I am 70.

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