Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Hollow Costs

"Our Father, with Art in Heaven, Howard be thy name..."

When we were children, my brother and I were briefly sent to Catholic catechism classes in an effort to give us a bit of religious education. I was perfectly convinced that Our Father, who clearly never got tired of making children, was named Howard, and he was an art dealer like all of my mother's athiest art dealer friends. I imagined that he sold only Byzantine style art, where everyone had a golden hallow around their heads.

I was at the age that when I heard words spoken around me, vivid images danced through my head. Either this or everything was taken literally. Even at a young age, I was somewhat of a linguist. Like the first time I heard the word "Holocaust". When I heard the word itself, I immediately took it as two words: "Hollow Cost". Bearing in mind that this also came at the age when my family had just moved to a small city in the American Southeast, when I interpreted something called a "Southern Accent" as something more akin to a "Southern Accident". Since I was morbidly afraid of car accidents, I became rather shrill in my insistence from the backseat that my mother drive more carefully because I did not want us to be a victim of a Southern Accident…of any sort. With great disdain, I insisted on my desire to wear a helmet in the back seat of the car, to prevent head injury from Southern Accidents. My mother actually cursed at this and said that I didn't need a helmet, but I definitely needed to get my head examined.

From what I surmised of the Holocaust, the words "Hollow Cost" made perfect sense to me. After all, a big war was fought in the name of the Hollow Cost, which was very costly. Since a bunch of people died, death was a hollow thing to happen for no good reason. I remember being told that both of my grandfathers fought for freedom on the American side in this big war, and that we had distant relatives that died in concentration camps because of the Nazis who hated people for not having blond hair and blue eyes and being a Christian. In my religious education classes, I learned I must pray that nothing like this ever happens again in the world because it makes the Howard Guy Upstairs very upset with us little people. Lord knows we didn't want to get Howard upset again, because he'll cause another Flood, and not everyone knows how to swim…

During my catechism classes, I remember looking up at the ceiling, mimicking what my Catholic grandmother did with her rosary when she did the Hail Mary. When Grandma prayed to the Hail Mary, I always sat very still with utmost wonder, perched upon my plastic covered stepping stool chair in the kitchen. This was because I was certain that if anyone could get Mary to drop any Hail from the ceiling, it would be my grandmother. I mostly attributed this to Grandma's preeminent magical powers--she was well known for her ability to get all grass and chocolate stains out of anything white. As far as I was concerned, Grandma was (and still is) a living saint, and so I was determined not to miss being there when the kitchen filled with Hail from Mother Mary. Yet, after weeks of watching and waiting for a mountain of hail to materialize every day during a commercial break for "Days of Our Lives", I told Grandma that I doubted if Mary understood what she was saying. Maybe Mary didn't speak Italian? Maybe Mary spoke English? Maybe--if Grandma asked her for the Hail in English--Mary would listen? Grandma looked at me like I was nuts, but assured me that Mary not only understood Italian, but that Italian was the language that The Baby Jesus knew best because The Pope lived in Roma-Italia, and The Babsy Jesus and The Pope got to hang out together every day. (Grandma didn't answer me when I asked if Mary left her Hail in Roma-Italia for safe-keeping? This was answered later, and I was completely destroyed upon learning that the Mary had no magical connection hail or hail storms. After that, I just really felt sad for Mary for her unplanned teenage pregnancy. To this day, I still grapple with the fact that Mary was impregnated without giving consent. This still bothers me for Mary. But I digress...)

During each Sunday catechism class, we were told to pray for things that mattered in the world. My prayers included my family, my friends, my cat, Gizmo, all of the children in Africa, and the poor people who suffered in the Hollow Cost. This was because the Hollow Cost, like Mary's unplanned pregnancy, bothered me very deeply. I especially connected the Hollow Cost as the central reason for human suffering in my own time. The Hollow Cost explained why we were in a Cold War with the Soviets in Siberia, (it was very, very cold in Siberia, you see), and why President Reagan got on the news and talked about Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movie coming to save us from nuclear war from the Soviets that will happen like the one that happened to all of the frozen and melted Japanese people in Japan. Like my fear of Southern Accidents in America, I had no desire to be a frozen and melted victim of nuclear fallout. But, in light of all of the big, scary things in the world that I watched with my parents on 20/20, I was pretty sure that I had magical powers like Mary and my grandmother. Because of my own sense of magic, I was convinced that I could put a stop to all of the bad things in the world if I started looking towards the the ceiling and talking to the magical Howard guy who all of the nuns married to make us all his children (of immaculate conception). If I did this enough, then maybe Mister Howard Up in the Sky would start to listen to me, and the costs to the human condition would not be made so hollow...

Perhaps it is not such a shock now that I grew up to become a political scientist with a great deal of personal interest in history and theology. Or that my main area of work and research is in the hands-on practice of a little oxymoron that the smart people around me like to call "human rights". Or that the Hollow Cost still remains something which I feel very deeply, if not for entirely personal reasons, but politically as well. Much to my grandmother's chagrin, I never ended up getting that First Holy Communion in the Catholic Church. Instead, I decided to pursue the other side of my family tree, where no teenage girl was ever magically impregnated against her will. Yes, I decided that I was a Jew.

Not surprisingly, discussions of the Holocaust have followed me here to Palestine. Here, I have found a number of well-meaning international workers, most sympathetic to the Palestinian economic and political situation, who often defer to knee-jerk, unnecessarily emotive comparisons between the ghettoization of the Jewish people under the Nazi genocidal regime to the ghettoization of the Palestinians through the construction of the concrete dividing wall that now separates Israel from the West Bank. I admit that I've always found these comparisons entirely irresponsible and inflammatory. I consider them word bombs that hijack otherwise useful and necessary conversations between people, causing far more indiscriminate harm than good. For example, there is just no way even the most patient and liberal Jewish person on the planet will tolerate the accusation that he or his people are acting like the Nazis. But more than this, however, the comparison of the Palestinian situation to that of the Jews under the Nazi regime as a holocaust is not just irresponsible, it's altogether imprecise.

In defense of the wall, it is said that "good fences make good neighbors". The Israelis claim that attacks on Israel, which once came from the West Bank have been proportionally marginalized since the wall's construction. From the Israeli perspective, the wall provides safety and security from the aggression of their neighbors. Fair enough. However, I'm not sure which disturbs me more--the wall, the humiliating checkpoints, or the fact that both the wall and the checkpoints are maintained in concert with Israeli-only military and bypass roads for Israeli "settlers" and military officials. Perhaps it is not enough that the Palestinian folks on the other side already don't have control of their own borders, but they also lack control (ie: sovereignty) of the interior of their land as well. The wall is one thing, but it is important to note that it is not the only thing that tears the West Bank asunder. Beyond the wall, the Israeli-only military and settlement roads themselves casually rip through the landscape here. Unlike local Palestinian roads, the Israeli-only roads are small super highways, protected by tall fencing on either side, armed Israeli soldiers at various posts. The problem with the roads is that they cut through Palestine, and because of the high fences, they render the Palestinian people unable to pass at will. With the Israeli-only roads fragmenting the land of the Palestinians into smaller and smaller sections, transportation for the Palestinian people within their own borders becomes unreasonably fragmented as well. For example, the direct route from here to Jenin is a 30 minute car ride. With the Israeli by-pass roads cutting into the countryside, the Palestinian people are forced to go out of their way to find a place where they can get through the by-pass roads in order to make their way to Jenin, Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus, etc. And, I am not mentioning the strings of military checkpoints in the Palestinian road-ways that Israel maintains as another way of instilling fear among the people and keeping movement to a bare minimum.
Gas isn't cheap here. Life is difficult. Travel is lessened. Families are divided as a result. This is certainly not the main reason, but simply one of the rich milieu of reasons why the Palestinian Authority is politically and economically in a shambles. Where there is no ability to connect, there is no cohesion. Without cohesion, Palestine is crumbling. While there may be no officially sanctioned design by Israel to genocidally reduce the numbers of their good Palestinian neighbors, it certainly seems like there is a long, apparent, if only tacit, plan in effect to the Palestinian people eventually leave to find work elsewhere or inevitably rot from within.

My own refusal to liken the self-asserted "defensive" policies of Israel vis-a-vis their neighbors to the Nazi regime cannot, however, be tempered by the question of what the very victims of the previous century's Holocaust would say if they were all alive today to witness the appalling degree of inhumanity taking place at these Israeli checkpoints, in addition to what life is like on the other side of the so-called "safety fence". While this is far from a Holocaust, there is not a single doubt in my mind that there is a profound and obvious ghettoization of the Palestinian people taking place here since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The Palestinians certainly did not build that long, concrete wall themselves, and they certainly had nothing to do with the construction of fenced roads within their land, exclusively designed for Israeli military control. And the settlements? Don't get me started on the appalling growth of the settlements at the expense of Palestinian land and water resources. The infringement on the human rights of the people living on the other side of the wall, and between the demarcated fences of the by-pass roads is appalling.

The other day, I was the only woman at the checkpoint in Bethlehem, standing in the morning queue with about 400 Palestinian men, all going into Jerusalem to earn money as day laborers. We all carried our various identity cards, marking each of as belonging to one group or another. In my case, the American passport in my hand was a golden guarantee that I could come and go without anyone stopping me. Honestly, not only did it make me immune to a lot of interrogation, it felt like a veritable bullet proof vest. No one on either side of the Middle East has any interest in giving any problems to a young, single, American woman. Aside from the usual sexism, I may as well be invisible. Still, I stood in line like everyone else, hearing words being cursed in Hebrew at the unarmed, Arabic-speaking men, who each held their hand up to the bullet proof glass to show their identity cards and permission letters to the young Israeli soldiers within. If they were given approval, they then turned to the left, to a small machine, where they each placed their right hand. The machine was for fingerprint recognition. It looked like everyone had to do it.

The inside of the checkpoint itself felt half like an amusement park, half like march to my own doom, and the fingerprint machine obviously took me aback. All of my knowledge of American constitutional and civil law came to the forefront of my mind. I couldn't help but feel an awful sense inside that this is what my own country might be heading towards in the name of defense and security. In the meantime, I started to think of what the repercussions may be if I refused to be fingerprinted at the checkpoint. Apparently, my mental meanderings must have been picked up by the all-seeing cameras above my head. Just as my turn came to approach the glass to show my passport, an omniscient-sounding voice came over the loudspeaker in English: "American woman, just show your passport and move through please?" Considering the circumstances, I did exactly as the voice on the microphone directed. I showed my passport, I passed through. No problem. Then, out of nowhere, the voice above me came the heavy Israeli accent: "Thank you. You are a good girl."

Deep inside, I felt like I was on the steps of Building 21 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp again, where I once emptied the content of my stomach on the steps of Building 21, simply because the anxiety of being there was too much for me to bear. A world away, I found myself sudding having to resist the urge to vomit.

At that moment, I looked up at the ceiling towards the faceless camera trained on me from above. Looking up, I couldn't help but think of my old friend, Howard Upstairs , and wonder where He is amongst all of this madness. And what about Mary on my grandmother's kitchen ceiling? If, at that moment the skies could have opened, the invisible hail of inhumanity would have furiously pelted me like needles. Perhaps it was a small miracle that I didn't vomit, Hail Mary, full of grace...

I'm deeply sorry to have to say this, but there is only one word to describe this-- the faceless, controlling man behind the curtain, or should I say, camera, the rounding up of specific people behind a fence under the watchful metal of machine guns every 100 meters. Without being sarcastic, emotive or even knee-jerk reactive, it is simply my observation that what is happening in Palestine right now is certainly not a holocaust by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a far more accurate and concrete word to describe this. Simply, the imposed control and ghettoization of Palestinian society under the hands of Israeli military strength is fascism*. Unlike hate speech, for example, one doesn't have to "see it" to know exactly what fascism is. Fascism can certainly be sugar-coated in words like "defense" or "security". It can even be hand-wrapped in some of the latest, creative interpretations of the American Constitution, but, in light of the historical transgressions of the 20th century most pertinently witnessed by God's Chosen People--my people--under Nazi fascism during the late 1930's and early 1940's, there is simply no way and no excuse to disguise fascism behind the Star of David on the Israeli flag.

In my opinion, the current Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinian people is not an end in itself, and, as history tells us, neither is fascism. This fascistic control of the Palestinian people in the name of defense and security is both imminently hollow and costly. It is perpetuating a breeding ground of discontent, where only the most radical version of fundamental hatred can take seed. Not only would the United States be wise to learn from this lesson in Iraq and elsewhere, but Israel, too, must also take a long look in the mirror and question whether the character of its foreign policy has become the evil which the Jewish people themselves most passionately struggled against? "Let us not become the evil which we deplore," warned Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) on the floor of the House of US Representatives just days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

While I certainly cannot claim to have any inside knowledge or daily conversations with the Man (or Woman) Above, it is just my guess that anyone's Howard would agree that fascistic military control of an already disenfranchised people is an untenable long-term solution for Israel. Of course, the terroristic targeting of innocent civilians within the Israeli border is equally unjustified, even if it is a terrorism born from sheer desperation. Granted, it may be a very good fence, but the neighbors happen to disagree. It makes me wonder, if all of these fences, inroads and walls are built at the expense of peace, then they must be leading us somewhere. My fear is that they are leading us away from the admittance that we are all G-d's children...
My hope is that one day we'll wake up and remember what many of us promised to "Never Forget". My question is: How bad does it have to get until we remember that we can all do better?

* For a good read: Paxton, Robert O. The Anatomy of Fascism. (Knopf Publishing Group, 2005), 218. ISBN 1-4000-4094-9


Jay said...

Well said, well said. From a modern-day Christian perspective, there is a temptation to accept wholesale everything that Israel does out of a need to be blessed by God. There's a whole series of complications in Christianity regarding how one squares with Hebraic covenant theology. That said, I don't think Howard is pleased with what is going on. And you're right, the oppression of the Palestinians is especially tragic in light of what happened to the Jews in the 20th Century. God, through the prophets, continually took them to task for their lack of compassion. The oppression of the poor and idolatry were, from a spiritual (not political) perspective, the causes of the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 598, and the fall of Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom. How tragic that those in power, including my leaders, forget about the suffering of others when it's our day in the sun.

FSOgirl said...

How does this ever end?

VJ said...

No I did not expect PolySci. Not one bit. This explains some things. Dreadful stuff in academia. The situation of occupation is of course, nasty, unjust & untenable, and has been for quite awhile. This is far worse for the fact that the Israeli's are not the only oppressors of the Palestinians. Every surrounding Arab state has had a massive hand in this state of affairs, and have consistently refused to actually do anything much in the way of constructive activities for generations by now. We can deplore the occupation, but know that it's presence was foretold and in part designed by those that like to fashion themselves as the 'saviors' of the people, and it's only gotten far worse as the years progress. And naturally there's a very strong Arab constituency for that too. No where do I hear the cries about 'war crimes' for the indiscriminate shelling of Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Or the fact that everywhere in every Arab state the average Palestinian 'citizen' (or more properly, non citizen) has less rights than the average (rare, but still) Israeli Palestinian citizen. After all it's only been 40-50 years or more. And of course, their thought being, there's no place to go but to displace the Israeli's, some of which were the 800K dispossessed from their homes all across the Arab lands of North Africa & the Levant at about the same time. But that never gets mentioned.

The world's first ghetto's were of course made to confine the Jews, to conscribe and dictate their movements & their economy, lasting for 100's of years, at the dictates & direction of local Catholic church leaders. None of the Jews then were at war with their neighbors, or had committed terror upon them. Unfortunately this can not be said for the Palestinians or the Arabs. The shape of the modern states are shaped by war, and unfinished conflict. Coordinated Non violent protest & resistance has never been really tried in shaping the conflict or the occupation.

None of this means to denigrate your experience or research. But the daily protests by Palestinian women for the attacks on their person & property for daring to not wear the hijab or for doing the same by schooling girls, or even schooling kids beyond grade school, all this oppression is not dictated by the Israeli occupiers. People can make excuses for this development, but it's reality just the same. This is beyond mere discontent, it's a very successful, well crafted & thought out modern political movement. Politics can save us as it still continues to oppress us. Unfortunately, if you're getting the wrong sort of politics, this oppression might last for decades, at the hands of almost everyone. Sorry to go on for such length. Enjoy the trip. Stay clear of the gangs. Strangely enough, the BBC is still there too. Cheers & Good Luck, 'VJ'