Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course. In the meantime here’s a taste:
“A People Without a Land,” is a feature-length documentary that challenges the conventional wisdom about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (It) grew out of our frustration with the narrowness and lack of depth that characterizes so many discussions about the conflict. We wanted to make a film that would both broaden the conversation and articulate a vision for a real and lasting solution. Unlike many films about Israel/Palestine, we do not limit our field of vision to Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A People Without a Land examines the questions that lie at the heart of the conflict: Why has the peace process failed? What does it mean that Israel is a Jewish State? What should happen to the millions of Palestinian refugees? How about the Palestinian citizens of Israel, or the West Bank settlers? We believe that by directly addressing these questions, we can jump-start a conversation that will ultimately lead to a just solution.
This project promises to be pretty special: among those interviewed are Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, Eitan Bronstein, founder of Zochrot, Middle East scholar Ghada Karmi and Neta Golan, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement. It will also feature the music of klezmer great Daniel Kahn and the Painted Bird as well as a score by Alan Sufrin of Stereo Sinai.
In honor of Passover, I’d like to share an excerpt from article I’ve recently finished that attempts to articulate a Jewish Theology of Liberation. The longer piece will hopefully be published soon – in the meantime, I offer this snippet to you as “food for thought” for your seder table. All the best for a liberating Pesach!
The Exodus is, of course, the sacred liberation story par excellence, in which God hearkens to the cry of the persecuted, rebukes the oppressor Pharaoh and frees the enslaved. While this narrative is clearly presented within a particularist context (God hearkens to the cry of God’s oppressed people), it has historically resonated with universal power. As the social and political scientist Michael Walzer has observed, a myriad of liberation movements have been indelibly marked with Exodus consciousness throughout the course of Western civilization.
On the most basic level, then, a Jewish theology of liberation must necessarily view the Exodus as both a particular narrative of a certain people as well as a universal narrative that encompasses all humanity. The oppression of the Jewish people must be understood as inseparable from the oppression of all peoples – likewise the liberation of the Jewish people must be inextricably linked to the liberation of all peoples. While the historical events may differ in the details, they are all bound by a common sacred truth: the voice of the God of Liberation calls out in every language and in every generation to demand the liberation of the oppressed.
However, if we read the Exodus story honestly and unflinchingly, we must be ready to admit the presence of another, darker voice present in this narrative. The Exodus does not only describe the liberation of an oppressed people from bondage – it also contains the story of a journey toward and entrance into a “Promised Land” inhabited by other peoples – indigenous inhabitants whom the Israelites are commanded to dislodge and exterminate without pity.
As difficult as it may be to read morally repugnant passages such as these in one’s “sacred” text, it is even more unsettling when we consider that these imperatives are deeply embedded within our cherished liberation narrative. In a sense, the “Exodus” is only the first half of a much longer story – a saga that begins with the Israelites exit from Egypt (Exodus) and ends with their entrance in Canaan (Eisodus). As the narrative would have it, we cannot have the Exodus without God’s promise of the land – and this promise cannot be fulfilled without the Israelites obedience to a commandment that demands nothing less than ethnic cleansing and even extermination.
Now that the dust has cleared from Israel’s “Operation Pillar of Defense,” Gaza has sadly faded off the media radar screen once again. In the meantime, if you’re interested in some new essential reading about this significant but chronically misunderstood region, I have just the thing: a cookbook.
Yes, “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey” by Palestinian blogger Laila El-Haddad and Madrid-based writer/researcher Maggie Schmitt, newly published by Just World Books, is far and away the most important book I’ve read on Gaza in some time – and I’m not even a cook.
I’ve been a huge fan of Laila El-Haddad’s work for years. Her blog “Gaza Mom” provided me with my first real “beyond-the-headlines” insights into Gazan life and culture and I remain a devoted reader. For those unfamiliar with her work, her “Gaza Mom” anthology (also published by Just World Books) is the perfect introduction – if it leaves you hungry for more, then you must check out “The Gaza Kitchen.”
If you had any doubts that this was not your typical cookbook, the authors of “Gaza Kitchen” will explicitly lay them to rest for you in their Introduction:
“(This) is a hybrid sort of book: it is mostly a cookbook which recovers and compiles both traditional and contemporary elements of a rich and little-known cuisine. But it also attempts to do a little ethnography, a little history, a little political analysis. Cuisine always lies somewhere at the intersection of geography, history and economy. What makes it such a compelling subject is that it serves as a cultural record of daily life for ordinary people, traces of a history from below made palpable in something as evocative and delicious as a plate of food. Our hope in this book is to share this food with you and in so doing, something of the indefatigable spirit of the people we interviewed.
Indeed, history has indeed left an indelible imprint on Gazan cuisine. Gaza was historically an important station along the spice route, providing a link between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean – and eastern spices continue to shape Gazan cuisine to this very day. Food historian Nancy Harmon Jenkins illuminates this point vividly in the Foreword:
In many ways, food in Gaza is classic Palestinian, Middle Eastern cuisine, but it is unique with its own regional diversity, which includes a deep appreciation for the kick of red chili peppers, the zest of eastern spices (cardamom, cloves, cinnamon), and the soothing calm of fresh dill and dill seeds. You can see this immediately in Gazan-style falafel, those those delectably crisp, deep-fried morsels of ground chickpeas with spices, universal street food throughout the Middle East, from Turkey to the banks of the Nile. In Gaza, however, the addition of chopped chilis and fresh green dill gives a special twist to felafel. (Only in Greece is dill used to the delicious extent it is in Gaza.)
More recent history has also impacted Gazan cuisine. After the Nakba of 1947/48, Gaza was filled with a massive population influx of Palestinian refugees. As Jenkins points out, this event turned the newly-created Gaza Strip into “a repository of traditional foods and dishes from all over historic Palestine, a living legacy of the refugees who flocked here, driven from their homes in the north and the east.” All this to say that “The Gaza Kitchen” succeeds not only because of its delicious recipes, but through its illumination of the social-cultural-political context from which they emerged.
Moreover, sprinkled among the dishes the authors include brief essays that consistently debunk the image of Gazans as either “hapless objects of pity or as vicious objects of fear.” It is impossible to read this book and not be powerful affected by the lives of ordinary Gazans (notably Gazan women) who struggle to maintain their cultural dignity amidst an almost total socio-economic isolation from the rest of the world.
In addition to learning new recipes, we meet Gazans themselves: we eavesdrop on neighbors sharing Arabian fables while kneading dough for hulba (feungreek cake); we meet Fatema Qaadan, a widow and single mother who supports her family by rearing rabbits through the help of a local community center; and we learn about al-Muharrarat (“Liberated Lands”), a Hamas government-sponsored initiative that responds to blockade shortages through a variety of innovative agricultural projects.
The authors also do not flinch from exploring the political impact of Zionism on Gazans and their cuisine. One interesting short essay entitled “On Schnitzel,” points out that many Gazan fast food joints serve schnitzel – the classic pan-fried “Wienerschnitzel” brought to the region by European Zionist immigrants. The authors continue:
Now, with Gaza totally isolated, it is easy to forget that for decades thousands of Gazans went every day to work in Israel, that Israeli and Gazan entrepreneurs had partnerships, that both commerce and social relations existed, albeit on unequal footing. Adult Gazans remember this, and many speak admiringly of aspects of Israeli society or maintain contact with Israeli business partners, employers and friends. But for the enormous population of young people who were not old enough to work or travel before Israel sealed the borders in 2000, this is impossible. Though their lives are completely conditioned by Israeli political decisions, they have never laid eyes on a single Israeli person except the soldiers that have come in on tanks or bulldozers, wreaking destruction. And the generation of young Israelis to which those soldiers belong has likewise never met a single Gazan Palestinian in any other context. A terrible recipe for continued conflict.
I personally consider the legacy of Israeli cuisine to be a complex and painful one. Reading through this book through the eyes of an American Jew, I was constantly reminded that so many of the foods that we assume to be uniquely “Israeli” are in fact dishes that have long been indigenous to Palestinian culture.
It is certainly true that there is really no such thing as uniquely “Jewish food.” To be sure, Jews have lived (and cooked) in a myriad of societies and cultural contexts over the centuries – and our cuisine has traditionally emerged from a (pardon the expression) fusion of Jewish sensibilities with our respective host cultures. Given the circumstances of Israel’s creation, however, I have long been troubled by Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian/Mediterranean culture – and the assumption, for instance, that dishes such as hummous and felafel are somehow “uniquely Israeli.”
(An interesting case in point occurred when the Harvard Business School cafeteria recently featured an “Israeli Mezze station” with such “authentically Israeli” dishes as Cous Cous, Za’atar Chicken, Fattoush, and Tahini Sauce. In response, Lebanese Harvard graduate Sara el-Yafi posted an impressively researached and widely shared Facebook comment that sought to set culinary record straight once and for all. Also highly recommended reading).
For their part, El-Haddad and Schmitt have now created their own cultural reclamation project. It deserves to be read, served up and shared widely. Bravo to my good friends and colleagues at Just World Books for making this delicious document available to the world.
Received from my friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Walt:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
An immediate end to Israel’s assault on Gaza, “Operation Pillar of Defense,”matters. An immediate end to the violence—the onslaught of missiles, rockets, drones, killing, and targeted assassination—matters. An end to Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza matters. An end to Israeli’s 45-year occupation of Palestine matters. A resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes in 1948, many of whom live in Gaza matters. Equality, security, and human rights for everyone matters.
We write as individuals who recently traveled to the West Bank with the Dorothy Cotton Institute’s 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation, organized by Interfaith Peace-Builders. We cannot and will not be silent. We join our voices with people around the world who are calling for an immediate cease-fire. Specifically, we implore President Barack Obama to demand that Israel withdraw its forces from Gaza’s borders; make U.S. aid to Israel conditional upon Israel’s adherence with relevant U.S. and international law; work with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to bring an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and to secure a just peace that ensures everyone’s human rights.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” As Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared in 1993, “Enough of blood and tears.” Enough!
We deplore the firing of rockets on civilian areas in Israel. We also deplore and are outraged by the asymmetry, the disproportionality, of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, evidenced by the growing number of Palestinian civilian deaths and casualties. This is not a conflict between equal powers, but between a prosperous occupying nation on one hand, armed and sanctioned by 3 billion dollars in annual U.S. military aid, and on the other, a population of 1.7 million besieged people, trapped within a strip of land only 6 miles by 26 miles, (147 square miles) in what amounts to an open-air prison.
United States military support to Israel is huge. From 2000 to 2009, the US appropriated to Israel $24 billion in military aid, delivering more than 670 million weapons and related military equipment with this money. During these same years, through its illegal military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, Israel killed at least 2,969 Palestinians who took no part in hostilities.
During our trip to the West Bank, we witnessed for ourselves the injustice and violence of the Israeli occupation and the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians, in violation of international law and UN resolutions.
In the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, for just one example, we observed a weekly nonviolent protest. The neighboring Israeli settlement of Halamish was illegally built on Nabi Saleh’s land. This settlement has also seized control of the Nabi Saleh’s water spring, allowing villagers to access their own spring water for only 7-10 hours a week. Demonstrators of all ages participated in the protest, including several who, in recognition of the civil rights veterans in our delegation, carried posters with quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We watched in horror as heavily armed members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded to this peaceful assembly with violence, strafing the demonstrators with a barrage of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, gas grenades, and even a round of live ammunition.
The IDF assault in response to these weekly nonviolent demonstrations can be deadly. Rushdi Tamimi, a young adult Nabi Saleh villager, died this past week while he was protesting Israel’s attack on Gaza. The IDF fired rubber bullets into Rushdi’s back and bullets into his gut, and slammed his head with a rifle butt.
Israel’s assault on Gaza is exponentially more violent than what we witnessed in the West Bank, but the context–the oppression of the Palestinian people—is the same. Most of the inhabitants of Gaza are refugees or descendants of refugees expelled from their homes in Israel in 1948. This dispossession of the Palestinians that they call the Nakba (The Catastrophe) continues on the West Bank where Israel has built extensive Jewish settlements on confiscated Palestinian land. We saw with our own eyes how this settlement expansion and the systemic discrimination has further dispossessed the Palestinian people and is creating a “silent transfer” of Palestinians who are either forced or decide to leave because of the oppression. This injustice—Israel’s decades-long oppression of the Palestinian people—has to be addressed by honest and good-faith negotiations and a genuine agreement to share the land. The alternative is a future of endless eruptions of aggression, senseless bloodshed, and more trauma for Palestinians and Israelis. This surely matters to all people of good will.
To President Obama, we say, use the immense power and authority United States citizens have once again entrusted to you, to exercise your courage and moral leadership to preserve lives and protect the dignity and self-determination, to which the Palestinian people and all people are entitled. Israel relies upon the economic, military, and strategic cooperation and support of the United States. You have the power to not only appeal to Israel to show restraint, but to require it.
Feeling ourselves deeply a part of “We the People,” sharing so much of your own tradition of organizing for justice and peace, we believe it is just, moral and in keeping with the best spirit of Dr. King to urge you to:
§ Call for an end to violence by all parties and an immediate cease-fire for the sake of all people in the region.
§ Use your power to demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF cease the bombardment of Gaza and withdraw their armed forces immediately.
§ Join with the international community in using all diplomatic, economic, and strategic means to end Israel’s illegal, brutal siege of Gaza.
§ Insist that the United States condition aid to Israel on compliance with U.S. law (specifically the U.S. Arms Export Control Act) and with international law.
§ Work with the leaders of Israel and Palestine to secure an end to Israel’s occupation and to negotiate a just peace.
As citizens of the United States, we are responsible for what our government does in our name, and so we will not be silent. Justice, peace and truth matter. The future of the children of Israel and Palestine matter. We cannot be silent and neither can you.
Members of the The Dorothy Cotton Institute 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation:
(List in formation)
My dear friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Walt just posted a transcript of his talk, “Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity Without Zionism” – a breathtaking piece that deserves the widest possible audience. I don’t know exactly how describe it except to say it’s at once an intensely personal confession, spiritual autobiography, political treatise and most of all, an anguished cri de coeur.
I finally had to admit to myself what I had known for a long time but was too scared to acknowledge: political Zionism, at its core, is a discriminatory ethno-nationalism that privileges the rights of Jews over non-Jews. As such political Zionism violates everything I believe about Judaism. While there was desperate need in the 1940s to provide a safe haven for Jews, and this need won over most of the Jewish world and the Western world to support the Zionist movement, the Holocaust can in in no way justify or excuse the systemic racism that was and remains an integral part of Zionism.
In the past I believed that the discrimination I saw – the demolished homes, the uprooted trees, the stolen land – were an aberration of the Zionist vision. I came to understand that all of these were not mistakes nor a blemishes on a dream – they were all the logical outcome of Zionism.
As a Jew, I believe in the inherent dignity of every human being. As a Jew, I believe that justice is the core commandment of our tradition. As a Jew, I believe that we are commanded to be advocates for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. Zionism and the daily reality in Israel violated each of these core values. And I could no longer be a Zionist. I will always be a person with deep and profound connection to Israel and my friends and family there, but I was no longer a Zionist.
I’m sure many readers will not agree with Brian’s conclusions. I’m even surer he will be attacked viciously by many for such “apostasy.” As for me, I salute the courage it took for him to venture out onto such a precarious limb by sharing his thoughts.
Whatever your reactions, I hope you will be open to the challenge he lays before us.
There are many in the Jewish community who view the Nakba as simply a historical fait accomplis. The attitude goes something like this: “Yes, during the creation of the state of Israel, Palestinians were displaced. That’s how nations get created. Today the state of Israel is just a fact – it’s time to get over it.”
The problem with this attitude – beyond the sheer injustice of it – is that the Nakba isn’t actually over. In truth, government-sponsored displacement of Palestinians from their land has been continuing apace for the past 63 years.
One recent example: Ha’aretz recently revealed that Israel used a covert procedure to banish Palestinians from the West Bank by stripping them of their residency rights between 1967 and 1994:
(The) procedure, enforced on Palestinian West Bank residents who traveled abroad, led to the stripping of 140,000 of them of their residency rights. Israel registered these people as NLRs − no longer residents − a special status that does not allow them to return to their homes…
The sweeping denial of residency status from tens of thousands of Palestinians and deporting them from their homeland in this way cannot be anything but an illegitimate demographic policy and a grave violation of international law. It’s a policy whose sole purpose is to thin out the Palestinian population in the territories.
The ongoing Nakba was also evident in news last month of a new military order that will enable the military to summarily deport tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank:
The order’s vague language will allow army officers to exploit it arbitrarily to carry out mass expulsions, in accordance with military orders which were issued under unclear circumstances. The first candidates for expulsion will be people whose ID cards bear addresses in the Gaza Strip, including children born in the West Bank and Palestinians living in the West Bank who have lost their residency status for various reasons.
Israel’s founders understood full well that the Arab population of Palestine was the most significant barrier to the creation of a Jewish state. At the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Palestine was around 4% Jewish and 96% Arab. Although the events of 1948 tipped that scale significantly, it’s common parlance in Israel to view the growing presence of Palestinians as a “demographic threat.” So it’s not difficult at all to understand why Israel continues to institute these kinds of “thinning out” policies.
In a lengthy (but highly recommended) +972 post entitled “Why Jews need to talk about the Nakba,” Israeli blogger Noam Sheizaf writes:
The Palestinians won’t forget the Nakba. In many ways, it seems that with each year, the memory is just getting stronger.
It’s an interesting, counter-intuitive phenomenon: one would expect that the the memory of displacement would fade as the event itself recedes into the past and new facts in the ground take hold. In fact, the exact opposite seems to be happening. There are doubtless many explanations for this, but primary among them must be the fact that displacement continues to be the very real experience of succeeding generations of Palestinians.
This fact was very much on my mind as I read news reports that thousands of Palestinian refugees crossed Israel’s borders during Nakba Day demonstrations last Sunday. As I watched scores of unarmed Palestinians willing to face live ammunition as they jumped the border fences, it was clear to me that they weren’t simply commemorating a “long-past” event.
For them, as for Israel, the Nakba isn’t over yet.
I’ve written before that as a Jew, I no longer consider Yom Ha’atzmaut to be a day of unmitigated celebration – but rather be an occasion for honest reckoning and soul searching. In particular, I believe we need to struggle with the very meaning of independence itself. In our profoundly interdependent world, what does the concept of “independence” ultimately mean? Is independence a one-time occurrence or an ongoing process? And, perhaps most painfully, in what ways has Jewish independence come at a very real cost to the rights of another people?
To help us reckon with these kinds of questions, I encourage you to visit the new website, #Nakbasurvivor. This is an amazing new project from the Institute for Middle East Understanding that invites Palestinians to tell their family’s story of the Nakba over Twitter and YouTube. It’s a brand new effort, but already the stories seem to be pouring in. (Click above for one such story.)
As Jews, we know as well as people that memory is profoundly sacred – and that it is our duty to transmit our memories to the next generation so that we might be transformed by the lessons they teach us. As I watched these videos, I felt a myriad of emotions: a sense of honor that these sacred stories were being preserved and transmitted, a sense of pain that my own people’s independence came at the cost of another’s, and a sense of responsibility to acknowledge this memory – and to speak out against the injustices that still continue to this day.
When it comes to memory of the Nakba, there is no justice. This past year, the Knesset has passed legislation that makes it illegal for any Israeli communities that hold events commemorating the Nakba on Yom Ha’atzmaut. In other words, Israel has essentially criminalized the memory of 20% of its citizens.
Today, on the first Yom Ha’atzmaut since this law was passed, Nakba demonstrations have taken place across East Jerusalem and the West Bank. There have been widespread clashes with the IDF and numerous Palestinian casualties have been reported. (In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras el-Amud, a 17 year old was shot in the stomach with live ammunition – as of this writing, he has no pulse and the doctors are now fighting for his life.)
There will be no independence for anyone – Israeli or Palestinian – until there is justice. And there will be no justice until we truly honor memory, no matter how painful.