Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.
Monday, May 25, 2009
Thanks for reading.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I sat aboard a Boeing 767, headed from New York to Atlanta (one of my connecting flights on the journey from Amman to Sacramento). Playing on my iPod was a new single by Dave Matthews Band, entitled Funny the Way It Is. Sitting next to me was a woman heading to Atlanta for her son's medical school graduation – she was reading a magazine with lots of kitchens. Lots of really, really nice kitchens. As I looked at these unbelievable, immaculate, and gaudy kitchens; I began to think about the houses in the South Hebron Hills, no actually, the dwellings in the South Hebron Hills. Most of the dwellings in Tuwani are made from cinder blocks. Yet, as you move away from Tuwani, into the more remote villages, most families live in caves or tents.
I turned to look at the centerfold of a beautiful Maine kitchen. “10 things that make this kitchen great” was the headline on the page. If I were a betting man, I would place a confident wager that this centerfold kitchen costs more than most people in the South Hebron Hills will earn in their lifetime.
With this juxtaposition clashing in my head, my focus came back to the music.
“Lying in the park on a beautiful day, sunshine in the grass and the children play.
Sirens passing, fire engine red, someone's house is burning down, on a day like this.
Funny the way it is, if you think about it, somebody's going hungry and someone else is eating out.
Funny the way it is, one kid walks 10 miles to school, another's dropping out.
Funny the way it is, if you think about it, you hear the laughter as the kids play war.
Funny the way it is, on a soldier's last breath, his baby's being born.”
I glanced back at the magazine to see the 'Classical Perfection' kitchen. It was quite beautiful, and quite elaborate.
As I reached for my laptop to start writing my thoughts, I realized my own part in this juxtaposition. I am sitting on a large airplane, flying 24 hours across the world to 'relax' and 'take a break' from the frantic pace of life in occupied Palestine. I purchased a plane ticket that most people in the world aren't able to purchase, and then entertained myself with electronic toys that are an extreme luxury, sort of like a centerfold kitchen.
We need to find ways of getting better at this: distribution of resources, seeing and loving our neighbors, and participating in the in-breaking of God's Kingdom. We need to move from a place where we say, “funny the way it is, if you think about it;' to a place where we say, 'the way of the world it is, if you think about it, so how do we live justly?”
Saturday, May 09, 2009
Last weekend I found myself sitting in Sacher Park. Sacher Park is a park in West Jerusalem which boasts exercise equipment and lots of open green grass littered with even more cigarette butts. A group of people were gathering to celebrate a birthday, play ultimate frisbee, and play kickball. The ultimate frisbee and kickball certainly contributed to the “comfort” side of my conflicted state while in West Jerusalem. The group that gathered to play was largely comprised of internationals and Israelis, with several Arab Israelis (one name given to Palestinians who remained on the land that became the State of Israeli in 1948). So after the Americans present explained the rules of kickball to the Israelis and Palestinians who were unfamiliar with this apparently American (maybe North American or Western) game, we split up into teams.
I began met some of my teammates: Israelis, Americans, Canadians, Brits, and the mystery man.
“Hey, what's your name.”
“Hey, I'm Tarek. What's your name?” There was a slight pause because I was caught off-guard. He did look Arab, his name certainly sounds Arab, but he spoke English without an accent.
“My name is Sam...Are you Palestinian?”
“I don't know what I am.”
“Are you from all over or what do you mean.”
“Well I guess no one knows what we are, and I don't know what I am. I guess I am Palestinian, but I am an Arab Israeli, an Israeli Arab, a Palestinian living in Israel, a '48 Palestinian, call me whatever you want.”
The conversation trailed off quickly, salvaged by Tarek beginning to talk about his journey through medical school, and me relating by sharing about the experience of one of my good friends going through medical school in the States. We talked about the differences in requirements and structure between medical school in the States and in Israel.
After kickball began I found myself thinking about Tarek's identity. There was clearly some angst, and some confusion in his response to my question, “are you Palestinian?” I realized the marginalization that an exclusive religious state has created for Christian/Muslim Palestinians. I also sensed the disconnect that has been orchestrated between Palestinians living within Israel and those living in the Occupied Territories (Gaza and the West Bank). The disconnect and confusion of identity has been orchestrated in such a way the Palestinians living within Israel aren't sure what they are. They are 25% of the population, but at the same time, are a forgotten anomaly living in a Jewish State.
Monday, May 04, 2009
Farid Esack, 2009
My dear Palestinian brothers and sisters, I have come to your land and I have recognized shades of my own. My land was once one where some people imagined that they could build their security on the insecurity of others. They claimed that their lighter skin and European origins gave them the right to dispossess those of a darker skin who lived in the land for thousands of years. I come from a land where a group of people, the Afrikaners, were genuinely hurt by the British. The British despised them and placed many of them into concentration camps. Nearly a sixth of their population perished.
Then the Afrikaners said, ‘Never again!’. And they meant that never again will harm come unto them with no regard to how their own humanity was tied to that of others. In their hurt they developed an understanding of being’s God chosen people destined to inhabit a Promised Land. And thus they occupied the land, other people’s land, and they built their security on the insecurity of black people. Later they united with the children of their former enemies – now called “the English”. The new allies, known simply as ‘whites’, pitted themselves against the blacks who were forced to pay the terrible price of dispossession, exploitation and marginalization as a result of a combination of white racism, Afrikaner fears and ideas of chosenness. And, of course, there was the ancient crime of simple greed.
I come from Apartheid South Africa.
Arriving in your land, the land of Palestine, the sense of deja vu is inescapable. I am struck by the similarities. In some ways, all of us are the children of our histories. Yet, we may also choose to be struck by the stories of others. Perhaps this ability is what is called morality. We cannot always act upon what we see but we always have the freedom to see and to be moved.
I come from a land where people braved onslaughts of bulldozers, bullets, machine guns, and teargas for the sake of freedom. We resisted at a time when it was not fashionable. And now that we have been liberated everyone declares that they were always on our side. It’s a bit like Europe after the Second World War. During the war only a few people resisted. After the war not a single supporter of the Nazis could be found and the vast majority claimed that they always supported the resistance to the Nazis.
I am astonished at how ordinarily decent people whose hearts are otherwise “in the right place” beat about the bush when it comes to Israel and the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinians. And now I wonder about the nature of “decency.” Do “objectivity,” “moderation,” and seeing “both sides” not have limits? Is moderation in matters of clear injustice really a virtue? Do both parties deserve an “equal hearing” in a situation of domestic violence – wherein a woman is beaten up by a male who was abused by his father some time ago – because “he,” too, is a “victim?”
We call upon the world to act now against the dispossession of the Palestinians. We must end the daily humiliation at checkpoints, the disgrace of an Apartheid Wall that cuts people off from their land, livelihood, and history, and act against the torture, detention without trial, and targeted killings of those who dare to resist. Our humanity demands that we who recognize evil in its own time act against it even when it is “unsexy” to do so. Such recognition and action truly benefits our higher selves. We act in the face of oppression, dispossession, or occupation so that our own humanity may not be diminished by our silence when some part of the human family is being demeaned. If something lessens your worth as a human being, then it lessens mine as well. To act in your defense is really to act in defense of my “self” – whether my higher present self or my vulnerable future self.
Morality is about the capacity to be moved by interests beyond one’s own ethnic group, religious community, or nation. When one’s view of the world and dealings with others are entirely shaped by self-centredness – whether in the name of religion, survival, security, or ethnicity – then it is really only a matter of time before one also becomes a victim. While invoking ”real life” or realpolitik as values themselves, human beings mostly act in their own self–interest even as they seek to deploy a more ethically based logic in doing so. Thus, while it is oil or strategic advantage that you are after, you may invoke the principle of spreading democracy, or you may justify your exploitation of slavery with the comforting rationalization that the black victims of the system might have died of starvation if they had been left in Africa. Being truly human – a mensch – is something different. It is about the capacity to transcend narrow interests and to understand how a deepening of humanness is linked to the good of others. When apartness is elevated to dogma and ideology, when apartness is enforced through the law and its agencies, this is called Apartheid. When certain people are privileged simply because they are born in certain ethnic group and use these privileges to dispossess and discriminate others then this is called Apartheid. Regardless of how genuine the trauma that gave birth to it and regardless of the religious depth of the exclusivist beliefs underpinning it all, it is called Apartheid. How we respond to our own trauma and to the indifference or culpability of the world never justifies traumatizing others or an indifference to theirs. Apartness then not only becomes a foundation for ignorance of the other with whom one shares a common space. It also becomes a basis for denying the suffering and humiliation that the other undergoes.
We do not deny the trauma that the oppressors experienced at any stage in their individual or collective lives; we simply reject the notion that others should become victims as a result of it. We reject the manipulation of that suffering for expansionist political and territorial purposes. We resent having to pay the price of dispossession because an imperialist power requires a reliable ally in this part of the world.
As South Africans, speaking up about the life or death for the Palestinian people is also about salvaging our own dream of a moral society that will not be complicit in the suffering of other people. There are, of course, other instances of oppression, dispossession, and marginalization in the world. Yet, none of these are as immediately recognizable to us who lived under, survived, and overcame Apartheid. Indeed, for those of us who lived under South African Apartheid and fought for liberation from it and everything that it represented, Palestine reflects in many ways the unfinished business of our own struggle.
Thus I and numerous others who were involved in the struggle against Apartheid have come here and we have witnessed a place that in some ways reminds us of what we have suffered through. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is of course correct when he speaks about how witnessing the conditions of the Palestinians “reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.... I say why are our memories so short? Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation?" But yet in more ways than one, here in your land, we are seeing something far more brutal, relentless and inhuman than what we have ever seen under Apartheid. In some ways, my brothers and sisters, I am embarrassed that you have to resort to using a word that was earlier on used specifically for our situation in order to draw attention to yours.
White South Africa did of course seek to control Blacks. However it never tried to deny Black people their very existences or to wish them away completely as we see here. We have not experienced military occupation without any rights for the occupied. We were spared the barbaric and diverse forms of collective punishment in the forms of house demolitions, the destruction of orchards belonging to relatives of suspected freedom fighters, or the physical transfer of these relatives themselves. South Africa’s apartheid courts never legitimized torture. White South Africans were never given a carte blanche to humiliate Black South Africans as the Settlers here seem to have. The craziest Apartheid zealots would never have dreamt of something as macabre as this Wall. The Apartheid police never used kids as shields in any of their operations. Nor did the apartheid army ever use gunships and bombs against largely civilian targets. In South Africa the Whites were a stable community and after centuries simply had to come to terms with Black people. (Even if it were only because of their economic dependence on Black people.) The Zionist idea of Israel as the place for the ingathering for all the Jews – old and new, converts, reverts and reborn is a deeply problematic one. In such a case there is no sense of compulsion to reach out to your neighbour. The idea seems to be to get rid of the old neighbours – ethnic cleansing - and to bring in new ones all the time.
We as South Africans resisting Apartheid understood the invaluable role of international solidarity in ending centuries of oppression. Today we have no choice but to make our contribution to the struggle of the Palestinians for freedom. We do so with the full awareness that your freedom will also contribute to the freedom of many Jews to be fully human in the same way that the end of Apartheid also signaled the liberation of White people in South Africa. At the height of our own liberation struggle, we never ceased to remind our people that our struggle for liberation is also for the liberation of white people. Apartheid diminished the humanity of White people in the same way that gender injustice diminishes the humanity of males. The humanity of the oppressor is reclaimed through liberation and Israel is no exception in this regard. At public rallies during the South African liberation struggle the public speaker of the occasion would often call out: “An injury to one?!” and the crowd would respond: “Is an injury to all!” We understood that in a rather limited way at that time. Perhaps we are destined to always understand this in a limited way. What we do know is that an injury to the Palestinian people is an injury to all. An injury inflicted on others invariably comes back to haunt the aggressors; it is not possible to tear at another’s skin and not to have one’s own humanity simultaneously diminished in the process. In the face of this monstrosity, the Apartheid Wall, we offer an alternative: Solidarity with the people of Palestine. We pledge our determination to walk with you in your struggle to overcome separation, to conquer injustice and to put end to greed, division and exploitation.
We have seen our yesterday’s oppressed – both in Apartheid South Africa and in Israel today – can become today’s oppressors. Thus we stand by you in your vision to create a society wherein everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, or religion shall be equal and live in freedom.
We continue to draw strength from the words of Nelson Mandela, the father of our nation and hero of the Palestinian people. In 1964 he was found guilty on charges of treason and faced the death penalty. He turned to the judges and said: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”Farid Esack, 2009