Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hatim, King of the Natoufians

A college friend of mine has a crude sense of humor that belies his academic turn of mind. At one point he reached the rank of top expert on Abraham Lincoln’s economic policy. I still recall my pride at seeing him serving as personal guide to president George W. Bush around Gettysburg before both men slipped quietly into the historical background to the nation’s greatness. Not withstanding such prominence, my friend is capable of posting a story on his Facebook page straight out of our collage days over half a century ago. Please bear with me while I share it here to make a point: It speaks of a farmer who buys an especially fecund rooster to service his large flock of chickens. He advises the bird to take it easy. But the super stud proceeds to mount every hen on the farm including ducks, geese, turkeys and more. By sunset the farmer finds the rooster “dead as a doorknob” with vultures circling overhead. He utters some words of blame and the dead rooster opens one eye and winks conspiratorially at its owner begging him not to scare the tricked vultures away.
That all flashed across my mind as I read Gili Cohen’s first page article in Haaretz entitled “IDF general indicted for rape and indecent acts” about Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris, a resident of neighboring Mitzpe Netoufa. Here are few relevant quotes from the investigative report:
He was charged with three counts of rape, one count of sodomy and six indecent acts against a lower-ranking female soldier, identified only by her first initial, A. He is also accused of six indecent acts against a female IDF officer identified as L.
Neither weather conditions nor the terrain seem to hamper our top rooster’s urges:
Buchris is alleged to have committed the offenses against the women at his office, in his military vehicle, at an army camp, in his living quarters and at several other locations.
The prosecution alleges that Buchris raped A. three times, beginning in April 2011, when she is said to have accompanied him to buy supplies for a weekend stay that he and his family had arranged at a bed-and-breakfast in the north.
It is alleged that on several occasions when A. reported directly to Buchris as a Golani brigade commander, he allegedly called her to his living quarters, undressed her and touched her against her will.
Mind you, all the infractions the prosecutors allege against our neighbor were presumably committed against fellow Jews. If true they were immoral acts. I would add that they were plain foolish as well. After all he could satisfy his urges without violating the accepted rules of the game. All through the many years of our general’s alleged repeated offenses Israel has been at war with the Palestinians. As such, and according to the fatwa issued by the IDF’s current chief Rabbi, “in time of war it is permissible for soldiers to have sex with comely gentile women against their will” to relieve the anguish of war. Besides, some Israeli academicians have advocated the practice as a weapon against Hamas in Gaza. So instead of wasting his energy (and precious seed, one may add) he could have served “our goal” of “the success of the whole at war” while satisfying his “evil urge.”
To be frank, I find Rabbi Eyal Karim’s ruling and Dr. Mordechai Keidars recommendation wicked; they reek of misogyny on two counts: First, the concept of rape as a weapon is repulsive and masochistic. Second, it is discriminatory. Woman serve in the IDF’s combat units despite Rabbi Karim’s express objection. How are they to satisfy their evil urges. Does the rape fatwa apply to them as well? And can we interpret the phrase “comely gentile women” to include comely gentile men? What are we to do about all the ‘uncomely’ enemy folk dying for intercourse with top generals of “the most moral army in the world?” This last thought calls forth an unending litany of worries: Given the weighing of options and of relative psychological pros and cons on each side of the inter-racial and intersexual dual finely balanced in each such case of battle sex, how do we know who would be raping whom? And what would the criteria for comeliness be? Would Ashkenazi or Mizrahi features be given higher marks? Our fighting cock himself may well not pass the selection threshold for participation in the official Sex Hunger Games.
Part of my anguish about the said report is the geographic location of the accused general’s residence; Mitzpe Netoufa is practically in my backyard. The basic concept of a Mitzpe—Hebrew for ‘lookout’—the hilltop-positioned barbed-wire-encircled Jewish-only settlement dreamt up by Ariel Sharon in the 1970s, possibly after battling it out with another comely enemy woman, is to protect the promised land of the Jews from potential ‘goy’ usurpers. Those ‘goys’ turn out actually to be us, the Palestinians who have been ‘squatting’ on the land since the Romans destroyed their second temple and eventually abandoned them to the whims of Christian and Moslem conquerors who have converted them out of Judaism while the Khazari ancestors of Sharon were welcomed into the Jewish faith. Be that as it may, the good general’s purpose in life and that of his fellow Mitzpe Netoufa religious Jewish residents, is to watch over me so I won’t steal my own Netoufa (Battouf) Valley Land. But mind you, I have already sinned against the folks: Let me quote from page 93 of my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee (Pluto Press, 2008) about my father selling his land to put two brothers and me through high school in the city of Nazareth:
For a total of seven years he had to cover our not so negligible expenses. For that entire period he stood the shaming of and the social pressure brought on him by relatives and peers to change his ways and to refrain from selling his land to [put us through school.] By the time I graduated he had only one last piece of land in the Battouf Valley, the village’s fertile source of livelihood. Even that last piece he had to sell to pay for my ticket to travel to the States in pursuit of my own wacky dream [of studying medicine].
In recent years I attempted to re-own that specific last piece of my father’s land. Failing that, I managed to purchase another piece of farmland of equal size in the same vicinity from a fellow villager. With the help of another village friend who is a better farmer than us, my wife and I now enjoy summer vegetables from our little slice of the magic Battouf Valley, our community’s own Promised Land.  That is how we have become intruders on the sensitivities of the residents of Mitzpe Netoufa. Who knows but we may well be the descendants of those Natufians of old who invented agriculture in the first place. It is difficult to prove, I know. But no one is watching so I might as well lay claim to the conjuncture. It is no less valid than the priest Nadaff’s recent claim to being Aramaic is or the once popular slogan of “Sharon, King of Israel” was.
I am sure, our neighbor, THE GENERAL, spots us on occasion in our land from his watchtower whether through his binoculars or through the crosshairs of his automatic weapon. That is not scaring us off of our little piece of heaven. But in light of the man’s indictment “for rape and indecent acts,” and until he is proven innocent or is incarcerated, my wife and I will not be running around picking vegetables from our land in shorts.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2016


[This article was published in Mondoweiss on July 17, 216 under a different title]

With all the recent events in Europe and the Middle East, you would think Israeli officials would be very busy keeping tabs on events in the neighborhood. But no, they are keeping faithful to their non-interference policies. They stay doggedly focused on issues of justice and equality within the country. That is why the other day, while touring the Golan Heights with friends from the USA, I kept thinking of Haneen Zoubi.
Israel’s Arab Educational Council had as its foundational goal helping the Minister of Education “formulate policy  … that will ensure the equal status of Israel’s Arab citizens.” Too bad many of its members resigned and it went defunct shortly after its establishment two decades ago. We shouldn’t be quick to judge those fountains of educational wisdom for their reluctance to offer their advice. There is precedence for this kind of outcome when Israel is intent on addressing weighty issues of special relevance to its Palestinian citizens. Take for example the Constitutional Assembly that was appointed shortly after the declaration of Israel’s independence. It was tasked with the job of drafting a constitution for the only democracy in the Middle East. It has yet to meet. Very likely the Messiah will act as its head since it will have to meet in heaven. And why the delay, you may ask?  There seems to be a basic conflict between two sparks of enlightenment: the framers of the new state’s insistence on democracy on the one hand and their commitment to its Jewishness on the other with all the absolutism and inborn privilege and superiority of the chosen people that such commitment involves. Simple! Just put the implementation of such side issues off. Besides, how can we be expected to have a constitution when we don’t even have set borders? How can we have equality for all citizens when that means granting equal rights to a 20% “nest of terrorism?” The logical thing to do is to finish the ethnic cleansing that we messed up so badly in 1948 (witness the moral reawakening of Benny Morris on this matter) before dealing with such tiddlywink issues as a constitution and borders. When God is the founder of a country all such issues are secondary, Benny Morris and ISIS can tell you. And I am refraining from mentioning Netanyahu here out of respect for Morris’s historiographical integrity.
The Arab Educational Council’s input is sorely missed in the current tempest in a teacup that the country’s liberal Zionist (yes, I am aware of the oxymoron!) paper, Haaretz, is intent on stirring. On July 7, 2016 it featured the following investigative report as its lead front page article: “Arab teacher trainees to get half of Jewish peers’ budget.” It further highlights the issue with a first-page analysis piece entitled “Separate and unequal.” The entire hubbub is about “a new method of budgeting” that is not new at all. You turn the page and here is what you find:
Meanwhile, from elementary school up, Jewish students receive more state funding than their Arab peers. In high school, per-student funding in 2013-14 was 35 percent to 68 percent higher for Jews than for Arabs at the same socioeconomic level. That statistic comes from the Education Ministry itself.
It has always been there but no one seemed to notice. Nearly four decades ago I sat on a committee headed by the late Dr. Sami Geraisy that looked at the various government services to Palestinian citizens of Israel. If my memory serves me right we found them greatly deficient, some less than a tenth of what a Jewish citizen gets. When little response was forthcoming we leaked the report to the press. Still little happened. Since then hundreds of reports have confirmed this. The official response has since shifted from total denial to explaining the facts away and giving false promises. But this is the wrong approach altogether. The scheme at hand now addresses an altogether different issue. It is designed to deal with the problem of unemployment among Arab graduates of teacher training colleges. Some ten thousand such teachers are unemployed. The obvious remedy is to discourage further production of the unemployable cadre, the simple logic of the shortest distance between two points. So you pay teacher-training colleges half as much for an Arab student as you pay them for a Jewish student. You don’t have to beat around the bush: yes there is demand for teachers in the fields of English and mathematics and in Jewish schools in general as well as in Bedouin schools in the south of the country. But the Minister of Education is a sane man who admits proudly that he has killed many a Palestinian and it never caused him any loss of sleep. So why should he encumber the progress of the Jewish mind by the drag on it of the feebleness of the Arab mind? Why would you expect him to scramble the dividing line between the Arab and Jewish educational systems? That would be intolerable.
With Bennett’s remarkable honesty and openness, the budgeting method is reduced to ferreting of names. A teachers college submits a list of the names of its students and the two ethnic groups are clearly distinguishable: An Arab name (except for those of Bedouins in the south of the country) gets 56% of what a Jewish name does. What happens if the geographic and ethnic coordinates conflict with the subject of specialization, you may ask? What if an Arab teacher trainee, say Ahmad from the north, is registered to study math or English? Tough luck. 56% it is, period! Ethnicity trumps (oh, oh! For some reason that verb sounds vulgar!) specialty. The minister’s straight-line logic now gets fuzzy: Arabs are quick to brandish the libel of racism every time they are faced with their ineptitude.
“In my view it’s real racism,” said a senior official at one of the Arab teacher training colleges. “There’s no other explanation for it.”
Faced with the libel of racism, Bennett’s ministry officials enlighten us about the real reason underlying the difference in support of teacher training between Arabs and Jews. Apparently it is to empower Arab women in Israel.
“Most of our students are women,” the [same] official continued. “In other words, we’re not only talking about studies for the purpose of finding work, but about the empowerment of Arab women. What will happen now – the women won’t work and won’t get an education either? 
“Because there’s no work, they’re not entitled to get an education? The problem of unemployment exists in the Arab community in other areas as well. Not only in education.”
And who is to blame for that? 
He added that when he and others complained to the Education Ministry that its decision was racist, “they told us that it’s because of the Arab Knesset members, who say constantly that there is a glut of Arab teachers and it’s a problem. And they asked that we stop training teachers.”
Every time Haneen Zoabi appears in her burka behind the Knesset speakers’ podium she appeals to all her compassionate colleagues to stop training Arab women teachers. Otherwise alternative methods of reducing their numbers may have to be borrowed from the armed forces’ experience in recent years in dealing with Gaza’s civilians.
That was when my eureka moment hit. One of my American guests lifted his eyes from the newspaper (notice: I intentionally did not use any descriptive for the paper; I am sick and tired of interruptions and bracketed remarks and innuendos) and interrupted me while I pointed out the exact spot where Jesus walked on water to ask why don’t Arab (he actually used ‘Palestinian’ but I am taking into consideration the likelihood that my reader may have gotten irked by my insistence on using the ‘P’ word to identify my people) students study more employable specialties. Why don’t the poor devils shift to atomic science, space science, aeronautics or pilot training? “Who is going to fly and service all the F-35s that Israel is getting?”
Bennett doesn’t seem to worry about that. What bothers him, I think, are those Bedouins who may fall in the cracks. How does he expect his ministry’s Ferreting the Arab Race Taskforce (FART) to tell Ahmad the Bedouin from a village Ahmad? If nothing else, that must keep him up nights.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

After the Last [Climatic] Sky

June 21, 2016:
My wife and I are back in our home in Galilee after tarrying for several months in New York. Last night we visited family and dear friends. The sky was phenomenally clear and we stayed up past midnight, a rare event for an early riser like me. It was the coincidence of June’s Strawberry Moon, a reminder of the rich environmental legacy of Native Americans, those forgotten sacrificial victims of othering and settler colonialism, and the summer solstice, a once-in-a-lifetime event. Our last visit for the night was with our age mates Said—Arabic for ‘Happy’--and Nabiha—‘Witty Woman’—, better known in our village parlance by their first born son’s name as Abu- and Umm-Ayman. Said is my retired biochemist fellow villager who has spent more time in his land in the Battouf Valley for pleasure than he ever did in the hospital laboratory that he headed as a career. His hobby farming had kept his family, as well as mine, supplied with fresh vegetables throughout the summer months for many years. Last night he and Nabiha were apologetic about the limited amounts of fresh peas and melons that they insisted on gifting us. Alas, the heat this summer had ruined the crops. As you know, they explained, the Battouf’s best vegetables are grown ba’il—without irrigation—thanks to the nightly dew precipitation in the valley. This year the morning fog lifts early, the dew is evaporated with the first rays of sun that desiccate the vegetation except for a hardy okra plant here and a mutant melon there. To keep himself busy in retirement, my friend had increased the number of goats in his yard and we were treated to our fill of qataif, freshly baked light pancakes stuffed with homemade cheese then deep-fried in olive oil and smothered with spicy syrup. Yummm!!

Always a super housewife, Nabiha still supervises all the household chores despite her failing vision, limited mobility and the confinement of home dialysis. Thank God for small favors! Not everyone has an accomplished biochemist for a husband and not every husband is so loving and dedicated. Said had won her hand in marriage competing with a dozen other suitors, including closer relatives of hers than he was. But that all is history. By the time he retired, they had raised a good family and lived happily for over four decades. It has been only few years now that she stopped her daily trips to their Battouf fields where she pulled more than her fare share of physical labor. She did it more to pamper her children with fresh produce and to keep the traditions of the good old days than for the extra income. Tending the fertile land and gathering the fresh produce was a joy, second nature to the old couple. They passed it on to the next generation effortlessly. You don’t teach kids how to breathe, Umm-Aymen says. By the time Said retired, the family was quite well-off by village standards: He collected a good retirement pay, three out of the four girls worked in the village and their boy, Ayman, was a pharmacist at a hospital in the south of the country. Now Nabiha can hardly ambulate within the house with the help of a cane. She sits in the kitchen and the two surviving daughters are always at the ready to follow her tuitions. She does most of the food preparation for all four remaining members of the family, the two parents and their attentive two daughters. Ayman’s widow and his baby girl, named after one of her late paternal aunts, come to visit every few weeks and that is when everyone gets a life again.

Now, the old couple constantly pleads with God for forgiveness. The good lord continues to test their faith and endurance. But how does one deal with the added curse of the fields losing their productivity. Of late the Battouf Valley is turning sterile. But they insist on sharing what little vegetables Said picks every few days with friends and neighbors. Stores are full of fresh produce from the irrigated fields of Jewish commercial farms. But the stuff lacks the bite of Ba’il produce. It tastes like soggy hay and sinks in your stomach, never fills your body and soul with the flavor of the land in which it grew. Nabiha recalls how her late father used to know from the first bite from which exact area of the Battouf Valley a fresh tomato, a watermelon or a dish of cooked greens came. And Said, like some other locals, believes that there is a direct link between the name “Battouf” and the Netufa Spring at its eastern edge. From there the jump is easy to the Netufians who happened to have introduced agriculture to the human race a dozen millennia ago. Alas, it seems like it all is coming to an end. Unless God envelopes us with his mercy and blesses the Battouf again with more rain at the height of winter and with cooler summers.
This morning I woke up with a peculiar sense of dislocation, a fugue state I first attributed to jetlag. I was fully aware of my time and space coordinates and felt in full command of my senses and memory. But when I looked at the newspaper headlines from yesterday I didn’t understand what I read. The meaning seemed to seep out of the words: First, several headings in Arabic, my mother’s tongue, seemed to be confused: “Government approves additional 82 million shekels to build settlement homes,” one said. Then right next to that another heading read: “Government approves 20 million shekels in a plan to demolish thousands of homes of its Arab citizens.” Yes, we are 20% of Israel’s population and the budgets are proportionate, I figured. But I sensed I missed something. For some reason the two statements didn’t make sense. A third heading said “Saudi Arabia supported Netanyahu with $16 billion.” I could already imagine the next double-speak heading about the ‘Green Patrol’ spraying Bedouin crops in the Negev with Agent Orange. First I was lost between the real and the imagined headings. Then I missed the inner coherence of each statement. Finally words seemed to have been stripped of their meaning, the concepts becoming empty shells: What did ‘state,’ ‘king’ or ‘citizen’ mean? They were collections of letters that I could read and I sounded the words out several times. But each had no significance beyond the auditory impact it made on my neurological system. Looking at words and sentences on the page seemed like scooping ladles of alphabet soup. The whole page meant nothing beyond the different black dots, lines, twists and turns on a white background.

Did I suffer from a serious brain dysfunction, I wondered? I checked my memory again by reciting a few lines of poetry from elementary school days. They flowed nicely with rhythm and rhyme. But I couldn’t tell what they signified. Then I recited ‘Alfatiha,’ the opening chapter of the Koran. I didn’t miss a beat. But what did the word ‘God’ mean? I put the paper down, closed my eyes and breathed slow and deep. This was a peculiar neurological symptom, I could tell and I hoped it was a passing one. I went to my study and turned my Mackintosh laptop on. I immediately connected to the instrument and could navigate in its myriad functions. I felt reassured. I checked my email. A welcome name glared at me from the screen: Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh had sent out another one of his weekly messages to his many thousands of contacts. I recognized the name and immediately connected it to the dark face, the bespectacled focused black eyes and the persistent smile, all stored in my memory. I ticked on the message and read. Slowly I made out words other than the inspiring name. The guy is so spot-on! OMG! His words made sense. Yes, ‘God’ is the friendly big guy in the sky. I Knew Him well, of course. Thank you, Mazin, for bringing me back to reality and full comprehension. Your words make sense:
“From Palestine we send our deepest condolences to Brenden Cox and all the family of the murdered British labor party MP Jo Cox. … The best thing we can do to honor Jo is to redouble our efforts for peace and justice. … Please think of how World Wars were started and the devastations they caused. It was not bad leaders but an acquiescent public. …”

 Mazin then quotes a lovely fable from Kurt Kauter’s  “New Fables: Thus Spoke the Marabou,” to buttress the need for the peace-minded to speak up. He then provides three more links to significant current events and signs off with his standard “Stay Human!”
My wife interrupts me with a loud chuckle from the bedroom. I go over, sit on the edge of the bed next to her and listen to the funny news item from the New York Times: A woman in the Big Apple is offering her sexless cuddling services at the rate of $80 an hour.

I give my wife a good-morning kiss and go back to my study. I choose the last link from Mazin’s email on the strength of Naomi Klein’s name recognition. Lo and behold, in her eloquent 2016 Edward Said Lecture delivered in London on May 5, she speaks directly to me and to my village friends. She addresses our issues and personal concerns more meaningfully than I ever dreamt possible from a lead global environmental campaigner. I wish she were here right now so I can thank her with a sincere hug. Her lecture is entitled “Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World.” It ranges far and wide yet feels personal and immediate. She is talking about our Battouf Valley, of course. I can hardly distinguish her voice from that of my village friends. I swear I can detect in her voice that telling twang of mixed fear and hope I heard during my last visit last night. She decries the fact that “… climate refugees aren’t recognized under international law.” And there is no legal recourse for my friends, local, national or international.

Naomi Klein doesn’t shy away from addressing the mother of all Middle East conflicts, Europe’s settler colonialist project in Palestine. The intellectual legacy of Edward Said, another ‘Happy’ Palestinian, and his mythic relationship to land and exile necessitates that. She avers that environmental racism, designated ‘sacrifice areas’ and ‘sacrifice peoples’ and “The trauma associated with these layers of forced separation—from land, from culture, from family” is at the base of the continuing violence in the Middle East and elsewhere. Said, the legendary exposer of Orientalism, didn’t trust “tree huggers” apparently because of the special experience of the Palestinians with the Jewish National Fund’s successful camouflaging of its “green colonialism” and of its “feel-good conifers” replacing Palestinian habitats. The roots of colonialism, Othering, and massive human rights abuses on one side and of environmental neglect and international debauchery to control carbon resources on the other are one and the same: insatiable greed.

Edward Said “was and remains among our most achingly eloquent theorists of exile and homelessness.” In the spirit of his many relevant insights on the matter, Naomi suggests “climate Sumud” as a strategy. She points to the example of “staying put” practices of the locals in Nauru as they struggle to face the rising seas. Environmental Sumud and the struggle for freedom know no borders. I am reminded of the legacy of such unsung heroes as David Eggers’ Zeitoun in New Orleans (Vintage, 2010), which is one and the same eons-old tradition of steadfastness born of physical rootedness in one’s piece of our shared terra firma. In this same spirit of human solidarity, the one state solution is the ultimate Sumud strategy for us sane Palestinians and Israelis alike. It has been practiced in this crossroads locale over the millennia thus depositing in my native Canaanite genes the layered residues of all the invaders and their slave gladiators from Hittites, Hyksos, Egyptians and Hebrews through Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantine and European Crusaders all the way to the Arabs with a light Turkish flavoring.

Abu- and Umm-Ayman would agree with Naomi a hundred percent. The soil of the Battouf Valley under their fingernails drenched with the oil of the olives they collect from the adjacent hillside gives them instant comprehension of her words. And, like me, they would reach out and hug her. We are ready to offer her all the cuddling she needs free of charge. Who else could better illuminate the relevance of Edward Said’s concepts of ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Othering’ to the global climate change and of ‘Sumud’ as the last global weapon of the weak in facing the impending climate Nakba? Sumud is all that all of us have left. Without Sumud, where would we all set up camp after the last climatic sky?