There are thousands of gifs of Palestinian children laying dead in crying mothers arms. There are hundreds of stories of bat mitzvahs blown apart by suicide bombers. There are “in-depth” articles dissecting the lives of the families of those suicide bombers/martyrs/murderers. There are lists promising to tell you about the 10 things you need to know about the Israeli Palestine conflict. There are arguments on Facebook news-feeds and a centuries old conflict is boiled to 142 characters on twitter timelines the world over. Yet in all the noise, there is little coherence.
I’m sorry to say that, despite the headline, I have no new information or perspectives to offer on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. I don’t really understand the history of the conflict and despite its recent discovery by white college students around America bringing it to the forefront of what now passes for public discourse, I have no desire to read or learn about it. The featured image on this post is actually from the Bosnian conflict in the 90’s. This is one of those: “What We Mean When We Talk About___” kind of posts.
You’re probably disappointed…
You might feel let down that you won’t find that one piece of information or perspective that could make sense of the horror.
But you should probably think about why in the world you clicked on a link that said “Everything You Need To Know About Gaza.”
The Unbearable Whiteness of American-Palestinian Solidarity
I said that I have no desire to read about what is happening in the middle east, which is true, but I read about it none the less. I read about it, and talk with people on all sides about it, because sticking my head in the sand will not end anyone’s suffering. Hiding from the horrors of the world will do nothing to end them. In fact, given that I’m privileged to live in a country whose wars are often so far from its shores, I imagine all my ignorance could do is ensure that systems that create violent conflicts go unchallenged. Also, let’s be honest, it would be impossible to avoid hearing about the conflict anyways.
I am amazed at how quickly it became a national issue once white college students discovered the suffering of Palestine. The calls for Bush staffers and Guantanamo Bay guards to be called before war crimes tribunals have ended but the mix of shame and guilt has remained. Over a decade of exporting our violent tendencies into communities of color around the world without receiving the violence of terrorism we were conditioned to fear has got some people second guessing their politics.
*I support this. There are few things more productive that reflecting on one’s politics. *
It seems almost as if, as Americans start to wonder [after a decade of war in the Middle East] if maybe bombs are not the answer, we can conveniently turn all the outrage we have stored at our own moral complicity in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people towards a “senseless” conflict in which we are but
disinterested bystanders. In this way, the comparison made on every college campus between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and South African Apartheid is especially apt. White people could focus on what white people were doing halfway around the world and ignore their complicity in the War of Drugs criminalization of Black bodies.
This is not to say that there is not merit in American-Palestinian solidarity, nor that all white BDS supporters are organizing merely out of displaced white guilt. Nor is it to say that white people are the only people that do this. This is merely to say, if pictures of the bombed out schools in Gaza led you to boycott Soda stream but you ignore pictures of Detroit citizens fighting for water you need to check your politics. There is a long history of white guilt manifesting itself in “solidarity” with humanitarian causes located conveniently far away while overlooking racial injustice in their own country. There is also a long history of American men pointing at sexism in Muslim countries so as to not have to address sexism in out own. All of us are complicit here.
While it may seem like a problem of incomplete politics or insufficient radicalism, white liberal fixations on international tragedy to the exclusion domestic woes is actually often an outright refusal to perform even the most basic self-reflection. To view the erosion of public services and democracy in Detroit as a humanitarian crisis would require a alienation to claims of American exceptionalism that are second nature to people of color but paradigm shifting to white America.
Further more, it would cause all of us–especially those of us with political and economic privilege–to wonder “what should I do?”
For those white radicals for whom this disillusionment is nothing new, and for non-white radicals seeking to escape domestic struggles, international solidarity offers another solace.
The Comforting Simplicity of Political Voyeurism
Do you ever watch a Hollywood movie about historic struggles for equality and find yourself wishing you could escape into “the struggle?” Do you ever find yourself wanting to be organizing next to Norma Rae, wallowing in prison next to Malcolm, Martin or Mandela or imagine how great it would be to AIDS activist in the 90’s? While part of this desire is no doubt from idealizing historical figures, a large part of it is also the comfort of knowing the way forward. Few people would accept decades in prison for 4 years as President, yet we fantasize about it none the less.
A major reason for this sort of previous struggle nostalgia is the comforting simplicity of political voyeurism. In other words, beyond the allure of accolades and fame, what intrigues us about dramas of historic struggles is that hindsight allows us to know the way forward. Unlike in our own life, where our emotional insecurities and visceral ties to outcomes makes the moral landscape seem opaque, historical hindsight is 20/20. Being an ally in 1860 is simple, free your slaves and let women vote. Being an ally in 2014 is inherently more complicated as even the language we use is constantly becoming obsolete in the face of rising consciousness among inter-sectional identities.
Similarly, movies allow us to decide alternative courses of action within the comfortable of a dispassionate logic inaccessible to us in the face of real oppression. Take, for instance, the film 12 Years a Slave. Many movies goers ponder if Solomon Northup should have run away despite the films excellent portrayal of the threat of violence and complex emotional reasoning of many [though not all] characters. It is easy to suggest taking that risk when our bodies are safe from violation.
Unfortunately, these same dynamics play out in international solidarity campaigns. For activist with a truly global lens, who divide their time between domestic and international anti-imperialism, there is still a tendency to towards internationalism because the solutions appear easy from the outside. Liberal Americans tend to view the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with much more black and white thinking than we allow for domestic concerns. In general there are two sides, Palestinian civilians and Israeli Zionism.
If all you have are these two sides then the solution is obvious: Israel needs to stop its aggression. The process for that is also remarkably straight forward. Boycott. Divest. Sanction. I don’t personally think there is anything wrong with that strategy per se. What I find objectionable is the hypocrisy. Surely, as terrible as Israel’s aggression is, it is no more imperialistic than our own Government. Yet we don’t hear calls for Boycott, Sanctions or Divestment against America very often. The American left seems to care about Soda Stream while disregarding the material lives of the Israeli’s who would be undoubtedly harmed by the BDS approached. These same Liberals always cry for nuisance when they personally are affected by boycotts.
*I am aware the BDS was not started by white American liberal college students I am merely criticizing that contingent’s sudden support for it*
You don’t hear nation wide calls to divest from Boeing or other large DOD contracting corporations every time a US drone kills a baby. White liberals who cast shade on Soda Stream buyers and pressure companies to drop Scarlett Johansson are never quite willing to blame individual white people for gentrification or suggest that maybe you shouldn’t drink at the boughie bar in the gentrifying neighborhood. At same time we love to compare Black communities to middle eastern war zones.
There is an understanding that white college grads need cheap housing too and white business owners bring jobs to underserved neighborhoods. Yet, if you question what boycotting soda stream will mean for the Palestinian workers who are unlikely to find other employment you are labeled insufficiently radical or worse and IDF supporter. These labels were hurled far before any one questioned how well these workers were treated or how high the pay was. There was a knee jerk reaction on the left: don’t color the analysis with nuisance or reflection.
I’m not, however, suggesting we use the same logic for international solidarity that we use to domestic action. By that logic, we would do nothing for Palestine but feel really really guilty about it.
Replacing Emotional Processing with “Sharing”
Like most of you reading this, it’s difficult for me to process the terrible things that humans do to each other. Privileged as I am to live a peaceful life– if not devoid of violence, at least divorced from the threat of bombings and war—it is tempting to assume an easy solution to conflict [just stop the violence]. As a liberal, prone to think everything is “problematic,” it’s equally easy to get lost in the myriad complicated solutions hinging on the parties coming to together and compromising. So long as the compromise is something they have to do, I’m generally for it. Sometimes, after talking with a particularly radical friend I might take the step to look at the global economic, cultural and geopolitical structures that lead to such conflicts, but let’s be honest, who has time for that?
So, like most of you, as images of bombed out schools or the mutilated bodies of teenagers fill up my social media platforms I need to release all the emotions that have been building. I feel a need to add my voice to fray. So often I’ll log into my preferred social media platform and I write the first thing that comes to mind. Perhaps I’m worried about offending some of my friends one side so I steer my emotional outburst a little further in the other direction. Perhaps I have friends on many sides of the conflict and so I aim to plead for some common good above the fray. Maybe after I try and coherently articulate my emotions I give up and just ask everyone to stop talking about the conflict and try to put my head in the proverbial sand for a while.
What I don’t do is actually process the emotions that these gut wrenching news stories bring out in me. Sure, I often express my simpler, more straight forward emotions. I will often call out logical inconsistencies with common narratives about the conflict. I might intellectualize the history of the conflict [so long as the analysis doesn’t actually look at me and my complicity].
Yet I won’t express how my love for Israel was solidified after a childhood pilgrimage there or how that love is at odds with a profound anti-colonial sense of solidarity I have with the Palestinian people. I won’t explain how the over simplified Wu-Tang mantra “P.L.O Style” comforted me as a child terrorized by white racism. Nor do I care to articulate the intricate feelings that arose when I learned the hotel on the northern tip of Israel I stayed in 2001 was bombed by a suicide bomber targeting two weddings and a bat mitzvah. I certainly don’t want to talk about how I fear that America is becoming a security state based on the model of Israeli and one day the national guard will heed calls to “intervene” in Chicago. Even the idea of wondering if America’s explicit support of Israel keeps the violence comfortably far away my lived experience terrifies me.
I want to yell. Scream. Vent. Or escape by pretending I have it all figured out with my cool dispassionate logic. This is how it always is. When there is a shooting in Chicago I rail against articles calling for the National Guard. I rail against white people talking about how the South-Side they are never visited is dangerous. Every other day I rail against President Obama when he speaks at Morehouse and Speaker Boehner when we speaks at CPAC. I rail. I vent. I sometimes apologize when I offend but mostly I double down. Sometimes, if the argument goes on long enough—and if I think I’ve won—I feel better for a moment. Like I processed some ball of emotions through the vitriol…but I didn’t.
Now, when I read or hear the news, my internal monologue is no more than a glorified twitter feed, packaging my emotions into the 142 characters I’m used to reading.
So what I am saying is I get it.
I get why this is how our generation processes world events. Despite my previous analysis of the whiteness of the our fixation on Gaza, this applies to internet users of all races on almost all issues. It’s just easier to post an article than to articulate pain. It’s easier to share someone else’s emotions than your own. It’s understandable that we might lash out in the pseudo solitude of the internet when the perpetrators of violence are armed and a thousand miles away.
I also realize that while this particular form of mass emotional processing is unique to the younger generations, vicarious emotional processing is nothing new to America. Despite Thomas Paine’s memorable words etched onto the side of the Statue Liberty, America has never really processed news of huddled masses yearning for freedom, or peace, or food and shelter very well.
Despite how we might have learned it in our middle school history class, the American response to holocaust was not a compassionate one. America did not open its arms to the Jews or take every opportunity to stop the final solution. America did not have a national conversation about our responsibility to end the atrocity. Instead, we demonized racial stereotypes of Germany and Japan for “the war effort.”
In fact, America has never really processed its wars. Instead, like a child traumatized by violence, we internalized the trauma of war. We have the disaffected youth of “the lost generation,” the forgotten fighters of Korea and the shattered masculinity of the Vietnam era.
We have fared no better in our domestic tragedies. Instead of processing the grief of the Oklahoma City Bombings we saw an increase of jingoism and anti-Muslim racism. The same can be said of 9/11, Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon Bombings. Columbine was followed by national boycotts of Eminem and Marilyn Manson instead of a nation conversation of alienation and violence. In all of these tragedies we ask, “what could we have done?” but we never want to look deep enough to see if we were partially responsible.
We will blame the NSA for not being strict enough with dark-skinned non-Christians but we won’t blame the CIA for supporting dictators. We will blame artist who are too “urban” or too sexually provocative but we won’t wonder if maybe we should teach boys how to process anger without violence or teach children to not view different as lesser. We will blame everything but ourselves.
Regardless of how this current tragedy in Gaza, or Syria or Chicago unfolds I’m skeptical that we will ever end the tragedy until we learn to reflect on our role in it either as benefactors, perpetrators or bystanders.
This is the part where you are still probably expecting me to tell you what to do, or where I am supposed to talk about America’s role in bombings of Gaza. Maybe I am supposed to end with an anecdote about Jews and Muslims cooperating after processing their emotions. Maybe I will propose a universal logic to connect international solidarity and domestic issues. Sadly, I meant what I said in the beginning. I don’t have any new information or perspective about the conflict. It’s just been on my mind lately and I thought I’d try and talk it out for bit…