Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Hawaii-Palestine Connection Revisited

By now you may have correctly surmised that I am already an old hand at enjoying Hawaii and getting some additional side chore achieved while at it, such as getting a college education or starting a family. But whoever heard of five speaking engagements and TV appearances in the space of two weeks while in the Islands for a wedding! And, believe me, the balance was heavily tipped in favor of the pleasure component of our sojourn. In addition to adventures recounted elsewhere we were hosted in the homes of generous island friends in the best of Palestinian and Hawaiian style, we made new friends both young and old, and we dined out with more friends than the number of days in our two-week stay.

After leaving Hawaii the spirit of Aloha continued to accompany us as we stopped to visit the family of Didi's late uncle, then to visit a dear friend from high school who had arrived to California via Hawaii, and lastly the Hawaiian-born son of my friend Jagy.

In Anaheim I spoke at the seventh Al-Awda (Right of Return) international convention twice, once at the plenary session and again at the banquet. The first was attended by a couple of hundred committed members, journalists, inquisitive outsiders and newcomers to Palestiniana. There was ample evidence that even old-timers were not that familiar with the issues of the Palestinian citizens of Israel making up nearly 20% of the its total population. So the Q&A period was very intense and challenging for me. At the banquet it was more of a formal short speech and no chance for interactive dialogue with the much larger audience of members, guests and contributors. Also I was overshadowed by the second speaker, British MP George Galloway, who is campaigning for the Viva Palestina USA Convoy scheduled for July 4th. He is a superb and delightful speaker who is committed and knowledgeable beyond belief. The third speaker, Ramzi Clark, apologized the last minute because of an unexpected family demand on his time.

Altogether, my most demanding speaking engagement was at Cal Tech where, thanks to the efforts of Jai Shanata, Jagy's son who is the chair of the Cal Tech Graduate Student Association, I spoke to a mixed group of over 50 graduate students and some faculty. It was challenging but just short of controversial. Most of the audience were truly neutral in attitude but obviously misinformed as most Americans who draw their knowledge on my subject matter from the mainstream American media usually are. Some were rather hostile but sufficiently collegiate and intellectual in their demeanor to make it all more interesting than frustrating. I came away with the sense that word of mouth is a major channel for accessing the privileged group of college students , the leadership of tomorrow's America, and that Cal Tech is an excellent entry point.

One of my speaking engagements in Hawaii was at Revolution Books where Carolyn, the manager of the bookstore, had arranged a reading and book-signing event for me. As I stopped to thank her I mentioned that the book she had recommended to me last year proved to be a revelation and asked her for an encore. Without hesitation she handed me the revised edition of ‘Nation Within: The History of the American Occupation of Hawaii’ by Tom Coffman. I read it as I made my way east to New York where I write now about my impressions of its contents.

Needless to say, colonialism in modern times the world over was an unjust, racist, and self-serving evil invention of Western civilization. European empire-builders initiated the movement and spread it across the globe. The American Revolution initiated the ebb of its overwhelming flood and for that the USA has never stopped being the inspiration of all the downtrodden and subjugated peoples of the world. Yet, sad to say, by the end of the nineteenth century, the same USA raised the banner of colonialism and commenced to occupy other nations, from Cuba to the Philippines with Hawaii in between as an aside, thanks to the aggressive and warmongering personality of such leaders as President Theodore Roosevelt.

I am not a historian by a long shot and wouldn’t have dared to venture into such uncertain grounds or delve into a one-paragraph summary of the history of modern colonialism were it not for the urge to come to a quick indictment of the USA as the major guilty party, albeit indirectly at first, in the colonial crimes committed against both the Hawaiian and the Palestinian peoples. Yet this last generalization conceals more than a reasonable amount of contradiction and dissimilarity.

Bear with me please and I will try to elucidate the unfathomable depths of this conundrum. I know from experience how frustrating it is to try making sense of this most unlikely simile to neutral outsiders. Yet the unity of the suffering of the Hawaiians and the Palestinians is simpler than it first appears and the principle underlying it has the potential of applicability to all colonized peoples: Land-theft, the dispossession of a native population of its land, is the death blow that all colonial powers deal to their subject nations when the goal is permanent occupation. This is true regardless of how benevolent the occupier, how developed the occupied, or where and when the crime is committed.

I had no problem communicating this to two Hawaiians with whom I shared the podium on Olelo, the Hawaiian public access TV program, while in Honolulu. One was a Hawaiian colleague, a young fellow Public Health Specialist whose insight was clearly more professionally focused as he still practices medicine, and a Hawaiian moderator who turned out to be an elementary school classmate of my wife’s. Didi was surprised that she immediately shouted the wahine’s name, “Lynette Machado!” (she is now Cruz), after some fifty-years’ absence. The moment I mentioned the historic un-justice done my people by a colonial system that dislodged them off the land I was assured that in essence I was talking about the plight of the Hawaiians. Obvious differences are there in terms of the timeframe, the identity of the offenders, and the extent of the offence, the ethnic cleansing, the genocide, and the marginalization of survivors. Yet the experience is highly comparable.

It is striking to compare notes, which we found ourselves doing, regarding the modus operandi of the colonialists in our two examples: A small minority (less than 2% in the case of Hawaii and >5% in Palestine) aggressively claims mastery of the land through violent means and reliance on the support of far-away powerful sympathizers who have vested geopolitical interests in the project; religion is enlisted as the fundamental tool for anchoring the claim to and control of the land and for dismissing the rightful owners as sinful objectors to God’s will as obvious in His “manifest destiny” in the one case and in “the promised land” in the other; military and economic schemes lurk behind the religious fa├žade in the minds of distant powerbrokers, Pearl Harbor and sugarcane in Hawaii and oil in the Middle East; facts are falsified and altered to suit the narrative of the colonialists, witness such declarations as “a land without citizens” for Hawaii and “a land without people” for Palestine: contrary historic accounts are willfully eliminated, facts contorted with ample use of ambiguity, duplicity and doublespeak, the spin-doctoring art of yesteryears, to promulgate a false but jingoistic conventional wisdom; and finally, appropriating the moral high-ground and justifying genocide by benevolent intent credited to the colonization crime as in civilizing the savages for one case and in making the other’s desert bloom, two clear examples of the discredited edict of Social Darwinism.

Let me try here to steer clear of some landmines in this historical terrain: The first missionaries to the Hawaiian people, like missionaries everywhere, can be accused of narrow-minded conceit in their assumption of sole ownership of the truth. But it is unlikely that they had designs on the lands of the natives. A generation later their selfless intentions were turned around by their immediate descendents who became the founders of the biggest five capitalist concerns in the islands, The Big Five. The original religious purity of intent quickly evaporated to the disadvantage of those that were “saved”.

In Palestine too, the motive of the original “missions to the Jews” or the Christian Zionists of old in Europe and of their current heirs, the “born again Evangelists” in the USA, may have started with a fanciful prophecy that bore more ill will towards the Jews than the Palestinians. But with the hypnotic magic of their quest to hasten the return of their awaited Savior to earth, and clearly with the undercurrent of an anti-Semitic wish to cleanse their communities of Jews, they took on the role of promoting the Zionist project of colonizing Palestine, willfully trampling on the rights of the native Palestinians in the process. Despite the difference in the two cases, both in Hawaii and in Palestine the faith of an intruding foreign group played havoc with the fate of the native peoples. (I may have just stepped on a landmine! Had I written this six months ago when an Evangelist still lived in the White House I would know for certain I did. Since I have been already ‘amputated’ from any religious affiliation, not much can be done.)

It is equally instructive to consider the weapons of the weak in the two cases: Across the entire native terrain around the globe, resistance is embodied by the stone-throwing Palestinian child. The image of the Palestinian preteen, arm fully stretched above his head with fist clutching an oversized stone and slight torso emphatically magnified by the towering gun barrel of a monstrous Israeli tank pointing at him, the ultimate parody on the reversal of roles in the biblical ‘David and Goliath’ simile, has come to symbolize the natives’ cry of “we shall overcome!”

An account survives of the very same stone-throwing intifada by Hawaiians with the participation of no less central a personage than the young prince Kalakaua to repulse the first attempted take-over by the British.

More to the heart of the matter in this comparison is the centrality of land to the dispossessed natives: All nationalist Hawaiian declarations spoke of the “life of the land.” The Hawaiian activist groups, that sprung up in resistance to the imposed annexation by the American oligarchy had names connecting them to the land. Each was called a ‘Hui’, Hawaiian for a gathering or a group; one was Hui Kalaiaina, or “gathering of those who shared the land” approximated in English to “Hawaiian Political Association”, and the other Hui Aloha Aina, literally “the group that loves the land” translated into “Hawaiian Patriotic League.” And there was a “Women’s Patriotic League” as well.

In Palestine too, land is at the heart of the experience of dispossession. The iconic image of the old farmer woman holding on for life to the trunk of her olive tree in the face of the menacing armored caterpillar inspires natives and the just the world over. Six decades after their forced departure, third generation refugee children in camps across the Middle East still give their locale as that of the village in Palestine from which their grandparents were driven. Elders or their decedents still hold on to house keys as the emblem of their lost land and home to which they still dream of returning.

And for those Palestinians lucky enough to have remained on their land, mostly by accident, the loss of large swaths of it led in 1976 to a mini-revolt commemorated ever since as “Land Day.” Land loss for them is second only to the threat of losing their identity and dignity as they are subjected to demands on them to swear an oath of loyalty to their oppressors. That was what the Hawaiians were subjected to a little over a century earlier.

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