Write Back in Anger

Posted on October 15, 2006

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Its become a tradition for the letters to the editors pages of American papers and magazines to publish a dozen or so wrathful communiques in response to in-depth writing on the issue of Palestine and Israel. This is meant to make the publication appear balanced, which in this case, generallly means letting the kooks from both sides cry out for death to the kooks from the other side in great numbers. These letters are mostly reactive and badly reasoned, drawing attention to one injurious paragraph, phrase or word in the work, while ignoring much of the rest, even if it actually supports the position of the letter writer. In this genre, I am one of the most prolific offenders. Forthwith, I began writing this as a response to the following words and sentence fragments contained in Stephen Elliot’s “The New New Middle East” in October’s Believer:

“What the Palestinians don’t understand, when they launch their rockets at Israel is that the damage may not be the same, but the fear is the same. People get distracted by the magnitude of force.”

“They [Palestinians] also have to recognize Israel and recognize existing agreements”

“He talks about the right of return…its the kind of idea suggested by people who aren’t looking for solutions…a Gazan individual with a good job cannot see the part his own people must play in the solution…”

I wrote a hellacious letter in response to those words, but deleted it, almost immediately. There were two reasons. I’m trying not to be that reactive person anymore. Its a purely selfish thing; I find that I get more bang from my buck by cooling my heels for a moment or two and thinking things through. But I also know Stephen, and I knew that the day would come when I would have to take responsibility for the words I wrote, and fortunately, this made me think a little bit harder about what it was that made me angry about the article.

But first I should talk a little bit about the origin and nature of my relationship with Stephen. I met him at a reading I gave for my then-nacent novel in 2003. I was nervous, I hadn’t read anything in front of a group of people since high school, I had no idea what I was doing, and I was sure that my work was crap. Stephen was reading that night as well. He was already getting some acknowledgement in the small SF scene, although I’d never heard of him. Though it seemed impossible, he was more nervous than I was, the beer can in his hand almost seemed to be buckling from the pressure of his fingers, as he stood and read, and his face twitched. We ended up drinking at a bar down the street, talking about Palestine and his and my experiences there. We never became friends or anything, but I had a girlfriend attached to the SF literary scene, and I ran into him from time to time and we always had a good word to exchange.

Since then Stephen has published another novel, and his non-fiction work has appeared in several high-profile magazines. In the meantime, I struggled with my book, and with the novel format, mostly feeling as if I were failing to convey the complexity of what I experienced in Palestine and New York at the dawn of the new millenium. I also struggled with my life here. Everything felt flat and meaningless, and I saw nothing more than a large void between myself and the people around me—no matter how progressive or sympathetic to the cause. In a way, it really didn’t have anything to do with Palestine, for the Bay Area is full of both Palestinians and devotees of the conflict. It was not only that the things that I saw and experienced in Palestine had filled me with a itchy kind of hopelessness; if you’ve seen a man ripped to shreds by your neighbors, or huddled in your home as an F-16 buzzed your block for an hour before firing a missile at the building down the street, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. It was also the loss of the pristine altar of the oppressed where, for over a decade, I had hung all of my beliefs about people and the way the world should work. My peoples were not heroes, they were just people, dumber than most half the time, it seemed, just as anyone’s affiliate appears from the inside looking in. More often than not, my Palestinian brethren seemed to take a certain amount of satisfaction in marginalizing me and making me feel guilty about my western upbringing—the many potential places I could travel with the magic teleportation device that they apparently thought was implanted in my little blue passport, all the years that I had not spent in administrative detention, and all the rubber bullets that had not knocked out an eye, the military batons that had not shattered a limb. To them, all of my problems seemed ridiculous, a product of Yankee self-absorption. What could I complain about? Wasn’t I allowed to go to school without crossing a checkpoint, wasn’t that school guarded from harm and closure by the authorities instead of being shot at and and closed by them? Hadn’t I gotten laid, didn’t I speak English? What did it matter if I was a working class and mired in stagnant poverty? Then get two jobs, they would no doubt say. What’s the big deal? And obviously, they were right, which meant that in some way, I was a failed Palestinian by most definitions, living a wonderful life that was beyond my ability to appreciate, unlike those deserving of the name with their famous and miserable existence. All the pain I had witnessed, the murder and death, the fear and sorrow, meant nothing, it was supposed to slide off of me; for if I wasn’t an authentic Palestinian, then I was one of the Westerners who had come specifically to experience those things for all the bizarre reasons that they were wont to—to earn their advanced degree, to create meaning in their lives, to make a video documentary or publish an article. To utilize the conflict for their own ends.

The burden of those tumultuous feelings alone would have been enough, but on some very deep level, I had become used to the heightened adrenalin of living in a low-intensity battlefield and the embarrasing self-importance that comes from being involved in the issue most central to the world. Returning to the US, I became a humble nobody with a dead end job involved in nothing more important than getting to work on time and making sure I turned the lights off when I got out of my car.

It occurred to me that I would never finish my novel until I returned to Palestine, if not for good, then at least for a while. I wanted to settle some of the things that had haunted me, some of the positions I had taken, the self-absorbed attitudes that had prevented me, or so I thought, from really seeing what was going on there, and later that same year I tried traveling to Palestine again. I was detained by the Israeli authorities at the airport, interrogated and deported. I could fill a book about the humiliating treatment I received. The airfare—about a thousand dollars—was wasted, of course, but that really seemed like the least of it. They confiscated my laptop, broke it open rather than taking the few moments necessary to ask me how to open it, then sent it back in the mail two weeks later. They put me in jail for 16 hours after 8 hours of interrogation and a 23 hour plane ride. The American Consul refused to help me when I called him on the phone—he implied that I had gotten into this trouble myself and Uncle Sam was not going to lend a hand. Indeed, though no one knew what wrong I had committed to end up in the predicament, and I actually never was told, I was treated like the lowest criminal by everyone I came into contact with. I know enough Hebrew to be familiar with the curse words. I haven’t traveled by air since..

If I had been angry before, it was a mellow emotion compared to my new rage. I continue my life, I keep it hidden, but the anger is like one of those viruses, Mono or Epstein-Barr, it never really goes away, stays nestled in my cells waiting for moments of extreme duress or fatigue to flood my body with toxin. And the worst thing is that it gets tangled with the every day, with the mundane disappointments that constitute a life, in petty conflicts with strangers, with my own fears, my own failures. When I read Stephen’s article I was angry, it was that old anger of Palestinian vintage, but it is also rage at other things no longer easily separable. As a professor, Stephen is in a position to write while earning a decent living, while I struggle on the poor man’s grant—unemployment—supplementing its paltriness with humbling temp work and exhausting Craigslist jobs. Stephen had already published a few novels, was writing, and writing, was well-known and in demand. No one knew me, no one asked me to write about anything, no one gave a shit about what I had to say. Stephen could contemplate travelling to Palestine to write something important and poignant about the nation of my father’s birth and that is something that I will probably never be able to do. I am 37; I have most likely missed my chance to be relevant.

The most difficult thing, what I have avoided until just recently, has been the seperation of these various rages, recognizing what is justifiable, and what is self-defeating self-pity. But once this seperation has been accomplished, what do I do with the anger that should not be set free, that I have a responsibility to contain? And I think its fair to ask Stephen, especially since he casts such an emotionally distant eye on his Palestinian interlocutors, if he has ever asked himself these questions, if he had to experience any thing on the order of these things to attain the knowledge he claims in his analysis, and if any knowledge of the conflict not gained by this kind of intrusive, withering and confusing experience has value.

I ran into Stephen just a few weeks ago as I was headed to my current job at the city’s end. We talked for a moment. I must admit that I am bothered by the fact that I get kick out of Stephen’s acknowledgement of me as an equal to be stopped and talked with as if I was worthy of the attention of a published writer. Looking back, after reading the article, I find it a little odd that he did not mention where he had been. We didn’t talk about politics certainly, or the Believer piece. I asked him what he’d been up to, he told me about a short story collection about kinky sex and I told him that I was working for the moment but would get back to the book soon with any luck. There was an awkward moment, I’m still not sure what was said, or what gesture was made, or what was suddenly caught from the corner of an eye, but there was an uncomfortable silence and I was late for work anyway and we parted company. Perhaps, he wasn’t sure how I’d react if he told me where he’d been and the perspective he had taken in his writing, and to tell the truth, I am not so sure myself.

I still want to write that enraged, breathless letter to the editors of the Believer and its general theme would be as follows: Who the fuck is Stephen Elliot to tell me what Palestinians do not understand, and what role it is that they have to play in the solution, and God, I don’t even know how to address the idea that the magnitude of Israel’s use of force is distracting me from understanding the effect of fear on Israel’s people when Israel killed nearly two thousand people in a month and left enough unexploded ordinance in Lebanon to ensure decades of misery to come.

I want to write these things, and as I wrote earlier, the reactive person in me wants to ignore the legitimate points Stephen made in his article. There are quite a few, though they are not new. I’ve heard this sort of perspective often from journalogue-tourists who have no personal link to the conflict, and they are correct: clinging to concepts like the Right of Return is, indeed, a recipe for self-defeat just as Stephen observes. The homes are gone, the villages buried, the people who lived in them dead but for a few. But it wasn’t always that way. Even twenty years ago, it was a tenable position, the only just way to resolve the conflict. From 1948, when it would have only taken a few months and a half dozen boats and trains and compassion and communication to solve that problem, the Palestinian people were denied the return to their homes and told that it was an unsupportable idea, that it was not realistic. In the subsequent years, as they waited for someone, somewhere who had the power to do something about such things to get moving, their homes were bulldozed, their villages buried.

Still later, as the young adults, teens and children driven from that place grew to adulthood and had their own children in exile, they were taught them about their real home, and implanted their own longing to return to the place that they belonged. Cactus and pine were planted over the turned earth that covered those villages, then Israeli housing tracts placed over them. The oldest Palestinian’s who could still be called refugees died waiting. As their children grew old, forgot those dreams, became bitter, the Israeli communities that had been placed over the dead villages were abandoned then bulldozed, replaced by big box stores, factories, and, in one case, at the site of the massacre of Deir Yassin, a holocaust museum. The children, grand children and great grand children of the refugees have become a new sort of entity without a legal definition to call their own—not citizens of any land, nor residents, nor refugees, nor displaced people, nor exiles. Unjustly treated by all actors in this drama, they wait for some kind of justice to be done, but the longing, the inherited anger at the wrong, have been passed from generation to generation and it is the only thing that they own.

Stephen’s analysis is accurate. The Right of Return is decrepit and toothless and the rhetoric of it being the foundation for a just end to the conflict, arthritic—no Palestinian alive can even imagine what such a return would look like, how it would be undertaken, it is beyond even dreaming. But that does not mean the Right of Return granted, would not have settled the conflict a dozen years ago. It cannot now, it is not now possible to give Palestinians a just settlement. Israel has missed one opportunity after the other to do adhere to the rule of law, or at the least, to give Palestinians justice. That time is past and granting Palestinians the Right of Return would be like repatriating descendants of African slaves as compensation for everything that was lost to slavery.

This being said, I am now more able to calmly point to the legitimate problem with the perspective adopted by Stephen. Firstly, he mischaracterizes Palestine’s government as somehow legitimate; it may be the only thing Palestinians have but it is hardly a real government. It was created to suit the security and political needs of Israel in 1991 and its leadership populated with PLO insiders. If the Palestinian people had elected a legislature full of nuns, nobel prize winners and baby Pandas instead of Hamas activists, Israel would still find a way to ignore its legitimacy to avoid ending the conflict. Secondly, Stephen gives the impression by his “balance of fear” description that Palestinian missile barrages against Israel’s northern communities were an institutionalized part of the conflict. The practice is only a few years old and has been largely ineffective–by design. It is meant to only cause fear, and the heavy barrages that accompanied Israel’s wanton destruction of life and property during the recent period was unique and unsustainable. Israel has invaded Lebanon and Palestine countless times and in this latest invasion of Lebanon used Cluster Bombs, a weapon so cruel and inhuman that it makes any suicide attack by Palestinians against Israeli civilians appear humane by comparison. These bombs, which rain bomblets over wide areas kill and maim horribly, literally slicing people to ribbons. The unexploded bomblets can cripple and maim for years to come–there is no Palestinian or Lebanese moral equivalent in this regard.

In general, however, Stephen describes Palestine quite accurately. Indeed, almost every comparison of life in Palestine and Israel is represented with sickening vitality. So it is unbelievable that Stephen can still judge Palestinian actions and prescribe solutions, as if there is some parity in the situation, as if Palestinians have power to negotiate with Israel for anything but the right to bring the garbage to the curb, when everything he has described shows a Palestinian people at the abject mercy of an Israeli military and political juggernaut. This may be the reason why Stephen is so puzzled by Palestinian political perceptions and behavior. There is not a generation of Palestinians who have ever successfully appealed for justice from the rule of law; no Palestinian adult in the Occupied Territories has ever known a representative government, or even an indiginous tyranny. By denying Palestinians access to a legitimate juridical process designed to account to their grievances, Israel has taught Palestinians that it really doesn’t matter what they do. What use would it do to honor previous committments, as Stephen suggests, when Israel dictated those commitments instead of negotiating them with a government that was in its most generous description, at the service of Israel and the US. What good would it do to Palestine to live up to its agreements with Israel? For nearly a decade while the corrupt and ineffectual Fatah led government moved heaven and earth to please every Israeli political whim, Israel doubled its population of settlers in the very areas it was supposed to give back to Palestinians at the end of the autonomous period. What neutral arbitrating body can Palestinians turn to when the International Court condemned Israel’s wall as illegal and Israel kept on buildng it anyway, seizing land and displacing more people along the way, with the full support of the conflict’s honest broker, the US. More to the point, what difference does it make if Palestinians under occupation recognize Israel when Israel does not recognize Palestine? It makes as much sense to follow Stephen’s recommendations, as it does to lob a missile at Israel, as it does to lob a hundred, as it does to burn down an Orthodox Christian church in retaliation to an offensive pope. The net effect is the same. And it is sad and a little hard to believe that Stephen somehow missed the deeper meaning of the things he saw, and that now the readers of the Believer, a not especially politically knowledgeable bunch from my experience, will come away with this lopsided, ahistorical view of the situation.

But again, it doesn’t really matter. Had I written an angry letter, instead of this more measured response, had I gotten it published and made pro-Palestinian converts of all The Believer’s readers, it would not change much. The conflict would continue, writers would still travel to Palestine to retrieve narrative journalist travelogues designed to trigger a polemical response and all the while nothing will change for Palestinians, whether I get angry or not.

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