Contrary to the Palestinian adage negating the likelihood of mountains meeting, Paul Jay (founder and senior editor of the Real News Network) and Ali Abunimah (co-founder and executive director of the Electronic Intifada) meet and discuss the past, present and future of Israel and Palestine. They succinctly scale the moral and intellectual heights of the rough terrain in a convincing and clear interview that TRNN posts divided into five captivating segments. Clearly, both are deeply concerned and well informed on their subject matter, Jay with his pointed questions and Ali with his well considered, rational and highly controlled responses. I look at Ali and judge him to be the age of my two children. I hear him and am struck by his civil demeanor and ability to control the energy and fury that rages in every Palestinian’s heart when facing the standard platitudes of American diplomatic doublespeak. I smile in appreciation.
In the first introductory segment Ali briefly sums up his refugee family’s background and his childhood years as the son of a Jordanian diplomat. The father’s post keeps the family on the move across Western capitals. His parents never fail to remind Ali of his Palestinian roots. Despite the inherited cross-generational memories of Palestine, only with the First Intifada do the images on the screen finally captivate him. Then on college campus at Princeton he meets with the invented but dominant Zionist narrative and the clash is transformative: The engineering student waxes a journalist, a writer, and a visionary activist. In fact he quickly becomes one of the most eloquent and convincing advocates of the one-state solution writing the lead argument for it as the only way out of the violent morass the Zionists had visited on his homeland with the West’s and especially with America’s backing. He fires off his first book, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israel-Palestinian Impasse, and starts advocating for BDS as the strategic tactic to actualize his vision of turning the tables on liberal Zionism. He grabs the headlines enough to where TRNN now grants him its limelight and I see him with Jay.
Ali’s roots are deep in two romantic Palestinian villages: Lifta, surviving as a few-dozen bare stone houses pockmarking the western slopes of Jerusalem’s fast disappearing mountainous wilderness of old, and Battir with its Iron-age terracing and irrigation technology that had brought it recent international fame. Lifta is flashed on my computer screen as I watch the informative discourse of these two American journalists. I stop the video to check the rich masonry and architecture that has stood 66 years of the unopposed assault of the elements and the malicious misuse by the sex and drug gangs of West Jerusalem. The sight is arresting and I enlarge the photo on my screen to peer inside: I see Lifta’s former inhabitants flitting across the denuded doors and windows of their homes. I focus my gaze and see a young Lifta woman, barely past her teenage years, tall and tantalizing in a traditional dress adorned with artistic embroidery matching that of her headscarf. The bride’s attendants see me intruding on their privacy and a worried glint flashes across their black eyes as they hasten to call their menfolk from the fields and from the two village coffee shops. Assured of my peaceful intentions they go back to their bridal party and merrymaking. Others are preoccupied with house chores, preparing for the return of their boys and girls from their two separate schools. Others are on edge, busy with the anxious task of keeping watch over the last vestiges of their withered orchards in the hills and vales below their fortress village. Have they caught up with me and assumed their ghostly identities, I wonder? As if they own it as well, they wistfully cast a gaze towards the Mediterranean at the far horizon. I can hear the shuffling of their bare feet on the dried weeds that had overtaken their fields. Would those Palestinian ancestral ghosts invade the dreams of the Jewish-only occupants of the plush villas with which the Jerusalem municipality plans to replace Lifta’s haunted spaces? Would their pensive glancing towards the sea drive those invaders to it lemming-like? I imagine Paul Jay asking Ali Abunimah about the revenge of the ghosts. The latter spends the remainder of the five segments giving his reassuring answer. He never rushes into hasty conclusions, never looses his cool, never leaves a logical stone unturned in conveying his message: A nation and a culture do not evaporate into thin air regardless how hard you blow your hot air at them.
Take a look!
The Iron Age man-made stone terraces and irrigation ditches with their manually operated sluices have sustained their custodians for over four millennia, the system adequately indemnifying its attendants whether Canaanites, Jewish rebels, Roman conquerors or Palestinian peasants. The innate unity of the Battir farmers and their land has withstood foreign intruders’ nightmarish schemes, whether for a railroad or for a separation wall, forcing them to divert their demonic plans to less harmful paths. Battir has challenged manmade intrusions on its natural logic before, forcing the world to grant it an eight-day week to fit its irrigation schedule and a seeming upward flowing water table feeding its seven springs that gush way uphill to feed an irrigation scheme worthy of international recognition as a World Heritage site.
I replay the first match of the two heavy weights a few times till its riveting ache settles deep in my gut. I go on to the second segment where the two have set their snare so cleverly that I am trapped at the very gate of their circus tent: With his first book in 2006 this cool Palestinian American, Abunimah, has not only left me catching my breath as a fellow traveller on the peace and justice path. Now, while I am still repeating his mantra of one democratic and secular state, he has forged ahead with the next step of how to do that, flinging his solution at me with Paul Jay’s complicity in the matter. Plunging directly to the key issue of what the Palestinians can learn from the African American experience in the USA, he quotes from Abunimah’s second landmark book entitled “The Battle for Justice in Palestine.”
While abolishing the racism and violence of Zionism practices against Palestinians is the key to justice and peace in historic Palestine, no less than the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States were absolutely necessary, recent American history demonstrates that systems of racial control and the ideologies underpinning them remain robust and adaptable. A formally liberal and rights-based order can allow a system just as oppressive as Jim Crow to hide and flourish in plain sight.
How did these two learn about my closely kept secret? I didn’t cry seeing the funeral of Arafat or Edward Said. But I couldn’t stop crying at Martin Luther King’s televised burial ceremony even though I was younger and less emotionally labile than I am now in old age. When Martin Luther King spoke he always spoke for me; his dream has always been my dream. Except that in the meantime I had fallen back into dreamless sleep. And now these two journalists are shaking me awake again. We share the same injustices committed by the same forces. I had been repeatedly drawn to the analogy of the fate of the Palestinians in their ethnic cleansing and continuing oppression to that of Native Americans and of Hawaiians and to the enslavement and continuing racial discrimination against the African Americans. That is rather elementary in its truth and significance. But here, Abunimah is ahead of the game: He is already warning us rightly to the pitfalls of the African American experience and how America’s dominant capitalism pulls the rug from under the feet and the wool over the eyes of its public regarding its continuing and institutionalized injustices.
“[Equality] before the law officially in the United States can coexist with mass incarceration. And that serves as a warning for Palestinians that, you know, even if they achieve, you know, full liberal rights in a single state, they may not get out from under the yoke of racism and oppression and apartheid.”
Before we delude ourselves with the promise of formally abolishing Zionist legalized discrimination in Israel, let us not forget that it is a necessary but not a sufficient step in the struggle for effective equality and justice. Here Abunimah refers to Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, while I jot down the name of his own second book for my compulsory reading list.
And without hanging a clear tag on their discovery, the two beat around the bush of losing hope in the American democracy as a source of inspiration for the world’s oppressed masses. Again and again, the two allude to the problem but it keeps slipping from between their fingers: America as the banner bearer on justice and equality for all, and yet it increasingly contracts out its homeland security to Israel and sends its top police brass on junkets to learn from Israel how it deals with its subjugated Palestinians. Those USA lead law and order enforcement agents in turn see Israel as the paragon of democracy from which they learn how to protect their own democracy. Now step back and look at how this circle has closed: Palestinians aspire to seek American-style law and justice while the American law and justice apparatus aspires to emulate the Israeli system that uses the very same Palestinians as the training Guinea pigs for them. It is the perfect vicious cycle but neither of the two names it fully. I hereby claim the full credit.
Here Paul Jay eggs his sparring partner on with a direct challenge, gesticulating with both hands in illustration:
“Like, I've always wondered why there wasn't this, like, million-Palestinian march coming from the West Bank to the separation wall and hundreds of thousands of Arab-Israeli citizens marching to this side; and that level of mass civil disobedience and civil protest we haven't seen. And why?”
I catch myself competing with Abunimah in giving a convincing answer: an entry in my blog from three years earlier lights up on my memory screen: With the onset of the Arab Spring I had imagined a horde of tens of millions of youth from across the world marching on Israel. Abunimah lunges back at Paul Jay with his answer supported with the same it-is-the-world’s-responsibility logic:
“But I think that in a sense the way Palestinians have found now to in a sense catalyze not just a Palestinian movement but a global movement to mobilize people is through boycott, divestment, and sanctions.”
And as if to reconfirm his knockout answer he goes on to harsher finger pointing, soft-peddling it with half a dozen “you knows”:
“But that kind of segregation, which we view today as a negative result of racism that we now repudiate, is actually the goal that Israeli policymakers are working towards with many of the laws.
“But this doesn't stop, you know, President Obama from, you know, these heartfelt declarations of the values he shares with Israel. And I find that to be a particularly tragic and cruel irony, given that his own election victory is seen as being, you know, one of the fruits of the sacrifices so many people made in the civil rights struggle, that, you know, someone like him, whose election was unimaginable, you know, even a decade ago, is today promoting a country like Israel, whose racism against Palestinians, against Africans, against others is so systematic.”
I chuckle. Even Abunimah has learned a thing or two from the Israelis. He ‘verifies the kill’ even at the extra cost of few more bullets.
And so what are these shared values? And I argue that it includes things like a really racialized view of the world, where Palestinians, in the case of Israel, and African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color in the United States are viewed as some kind of demographic threat that needs to be policed and controlled and surveilled.
In the following segment Paul Jay throws a fast ball at Abunimah: Does Israel have the right to exist as a Jewish state? The next 15 minutes are spent in hitting at it with obvious astuteness and studied candor. It turns out the man had asked the question and answered it in his new book:
States come and states go. No other state in the world has the a priori and abstract right to exist beyond the rights of its population to self-determination.
But what about the Holocaust? What if it were to happen again, God forbid, and the Jews were to need a safe haven?
Ali delivers a knockout blow: The Zionist colonial scheme predated the Holocaust by several decades. With this ploy and with the need to maintain a fortress state Israel has become the most dangerous place in the world for Jews. And
“… you have to examine from a moral and ethical point of view the notion that Jewish Americans or Jewish Canadians should have a spare country as an insurance policy when the creation and maintenance of this spare country comes at a brutal price and brutal suffering of its indigenous people, who have to be expelled, kept as refugees, corralled in ghettos like Gaza or Qalqilya, treated as second-class citizens, and constantly demonized. Is that ethically a price that anyone should be asked to pay as an insurance policy for people living quite comfortably in Montreal or Chicago or other parts of the world? I think that's questionable.”
Abunimah is a master of understatement. As a Palestinian I found it simply riveting to hear him recount the intolerable transgressions committed by the Zionist enterprise against his people and then to have him end with that perfectly calm, cool and collected “I think it is questionable.” That phrase alone, delivered at the right moment in the debate, is the most eloquent answer to the question that Paul Jay had posed at the start of this segment. Nothing more is needed. And yet the intellectual duel continues back and forth with Iran, Saudia Arabia, South Africa, Ireland and more dragged into it and with other compelling arguments like:
“What's the price of maintaining it? How do you do that? What remedies do you have if Palestinians have too many of the wrong kind of baby? It creates an ugliness and a violence that I think many liberal Jewish supporters of Israel in this country and around the world have refused to reckon with. And they think that this can all just be wished away by continuously repeating these slogans about two states living side by side in peace and never having to reckon with the reality of what ethnic segregation means in Palestine. It means ethnic cleansing. It means violence. It means racist laws. It means constantly viewing Palestinians as a presence that pollutes the land.”
But that punch line of “I think that’s questionable” retains its convincing finality.
In the fourth segment of the five-part series the side issue of Palestinian economics and class struggle is addressed. Thomas Friedman, Hillary Clinton, Germany, France and Israel are all brought into the discussion to discredit and malign the Palestinian National Authority oligarchs and top capitalists, as if they need further maligning beyond their failed striptease show. Little enlightenment is gained here though the strategy of economic peace does get a well-deserved exposure for the Israeli tool it is.
Then, with a deserved finality, the two intellectuals slug it through the most hopeful segment of the series. It opens with a cover photo that belies its content: a taciturn Israeli soldier aiming the sight of his automatic gun at the head of a smiling and bemused Palestinian man as a Palestinian crowd in a typically Palestinian space seem to go about their life including the distinct image of one child pulling the other away as if unconcerned with the triviality of the violence around them. And that is what Abunimah’s final analysis boils down to: He has been to Northern Ireland and had seen a generation of youth who have no recollection of the violence and bloodshed in their homeland.
Who will bring this about?
Well, Palestinian civil society activists have launched the BDS movement; youth and intellectuals the world over have emblazoned it on their ambitious horizons of hope including Jewish youth and intellectuals in the USA and Europe and even in Israel itself. True, there is an extreme rightward shift in Israel’s politics. But that was what happened in South Africa and in Northern Island before justice and freedom dawned there. I weigh the evidence and my options again. I re-assess the likely impact of Ali and Paul on their viewers: Paul is firmly established, a known entity on the American intellectual left. But what with Ali? He is an American, of course. I am struck by the man’s mastery of the way Americans process and express their thoughts without buying into their convoluted logic on Middle East issues. I find his ways un-Arab, un-Palestinian and post-Nakba, I am tempted to say. But how could that be? The Nakba continues daily. I am trumped. If that is what some of the generation of our children, Palestinian and Jewish, can feel, think and express, then hope has a role; Wait till you see the generation of my grandchildren.
We shall overcome!
Well, wasn’t that what we started with? Take my advice and watch the whole thing. I found it stunningly spot-on.
Well, wasn’t that what we started with? Take my advice and watch the whole thing. I found it stunningly spot-on.