Four packed days about Israel-Palestine, from the scholarship angle, not so much the activist. Two days at University of Massachusetts Boston for the conference, One state for Palestine/Israel: a country for all its citizens? And 2 days at Harvard-MIT for a symposium about Gaza, the 2nd annual such symposium.
Gaza Symposium at Harvard University
I was tremendously excited to be swimming in this heady sea of deep thinking concerning Palestine/Israel. Contemplate this list of luminaries, in one city in one relatively compressed period: Ilan Pappe (Israeli Jewish academic and author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine), Meron Benvenisti (Senior Israeli geographer and former director of the West Bank Data Base, author of Sacred Landscapes), Richard Falk (UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories), William Corcoran (president of American Near East Refugee Aid, ANERA), Anat Biletzski (former chairperson of B’Tselem—Israeli Information center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and Professor of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University), and Sara Roy (Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard),
Also: Congressman Brian Baird (Washington State representative recently in Gaza), Leila Farsakh (Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston), Phyllis Bennis (Fellow and Head of the ME Program at the Institute for Policy Studies), Nadia Hijab ((Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies), George Bisharat (Professor of Law at the University of California), Joel Kovel (author of Overcoming Zionism and Distinguished Professor of Social Studies at Bard College, recently fired presumably for his political views), Smadar Lavie (Distinguished Visiting Professor International Studies at Macalester College), Saree Makdisi (Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA), Nancy Murray (founder and president of the Gaza Mental Health Foundation, Inc, on the advisory board of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation), Ali Abunimah (Palestinian political activist and co-founder of the on line Electronic Intifada), Andrew Whitley (director of the UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA), and people I’d not heard about who were highly lauded by others at the 2 gatherings. Most were academics, professors, authors, and most were over the age of 60, but some were younger; some were activists as well as writers. One, Sami Abdel Shafi, was prevented by Israel to leave Gaza so we could only hear from him via phone link at Harvard’s Law School, of all places.
For the first time dealing with Palestine/Israel I felt I’d entered the realm of metaphysical light—its power of illuminating dark places. Where, I’ve asked, is the wisdom from the Holy Land that will help us solve this crisis?
So number 1 impression was being with peers as we considered the issue that is foremost in my life.
Congressman Brian Baird, recently returned from Gaza
Number 2 was the set of insights I gained, new perspectives, questions, and perhaps some loss of innocence and erroneous preconceptions. About one state, its viability, the obstacles facing it, the fact that very few support it, whether key players such as government officials, or grass roots populations such as the Palestinians and Israelis. Hearing from the president of ANERA (the group I went into Gaza with on my first venture there) about the details of the devastation was demoralizing. In fact, about Gaza, the situation is much worse than I expected. No lifting of the blockade and little challenge so far to the impunity of Israel.
However, balancing this, and spoken mainly by Richard Falk, the movement is experiencing a rise in the concept of rights, international law, accountability. A shift from bargaining to demanding human rights—I see the end of Israeli impunity.
Most agree that the global community is now focusing more on Israel-Palestine, that dire as the situation is for Palestine and Israel, Israel has increased the risk to its global acceptance. That is, they are losing credibility as evidenced by the rise in mainstream media attention to the plight of the Palestinians. They are becoming a pariah state, much like South Africa during apartheid.
Professor Smadar Lavie: Israeli Feminism and the One State Solution
Ali Abunimah: Challenging the Consensus Favoring the Two State Model
Third impression might be a confirmation of my direction, Israel-Palestine, especially visiting there—so many called for on the ground visits, get those damned feet wet!—and depicting what I experience, challenging myself and others, staying on the road.
Fourth and related to some of the above is the apparent acknowledgement by major institutions that significant transformations are required to deal with the conflict. So, Harvard, MIT, University of Massachusetts, and the universities the speakers were from are all now wedded in a joint challenge to conventional thought and practice. Not the entire institution, of course, but by agreeing to host the two events and continue employment of the speakers, they are giving a sort of imprimatur to perspectives that challenge the dominant argument supporting Israel.
I assume some if not many attending, especially younger people, students—since the venues were institutions of higher learning—may have experienced mind shifts as a result of dropping by for a few sessions. This is seeding the future.
Professor Ilan Pappe: Proposal For A New Israeli Political Organization: Building A Movement For The One State Solution
Saree Makdissi, giving the Conference summary statement draft
On a more personal note, I felt gratified to have seen a few of my Gaza photos streaming from the screen at the Gaza symposium thru the slide show Nitin prepared. All the other photographers in the show had been in Gaza recently, some during and most after the slaughter, so my photos were more like backgrounders. I felt they held up. And my Gazan friends might be proud that their friend’s photos—and them—were represented.
I took detailed notes during the entire 4 days; what I’ll do with them remains a mystery. I could sort thru them and write them out more fully, I could simply browse them from time to time to be refreshed, or I could store them somewhere perhaps never to be read again.
Another impression is that the twin events served as the Readers’ Digest of perspectives about Palestine/Israel. Not to demean the conference and symposium, not to compare it with what some people regard as the dumbing down of literature by Readers’ Digest, only to suggest we were presented a capsule view of a wide span of perspectives. So that, if interested, we can dig into selected speakers later. I believe plans are to publish a book within the year from the conference and put the papers from the symposium on line.
Talking with Ken B recently to digest the powerful experience he was troubled by the tightness of the conference schedule, allowing little time for expansion of thought by the speakers and discussion by the audience. Everyone seemed rushed, not the best atmosphere for deep deliberation. The symposium was more spacious in time.
I asked Ken what he thought the overarching objective of Israel was in attacking Gaza recently, a question not much dealt with at either event. Is it Israel planting a warning: do not transgress the limits we establish or you (in the West Bank) will be next. Uri Avnery’s analysis of the “boss has gone mad” idea, comparing it to the Mutually Assured Destruction, MAD, policy of the Reagan era, might be germane. Certainly it is more than the prima facie argument of stopping the rockets since there are other methods for doing this, perhaps much more effective and not generating the blowback of the attacks—such as ending the siege. Is it something akin to ethnic cleansing, but instead of removal it’s containment, a thought voiced at the symposium? Is it to cause slow death thru disease and demoralization, rotting from inside the civil and social structures of the Gazans? Is it a playing out of a perhaps millennial-long suicidal tendency among Jews—doing exactly what prompts the outer world’s hatred? The perpetual outcast, pariah, monster? Could Israel not have foreseen the negative world opinion? Is this not mass psychosis?
Unmentioned, burning deeply in my heart during the entire 4-day proceedings, was Fadia Daibes Murad, now dead. I’ve written about her on my blog. I considered mentioning her at some appropriate point but never found it. How many would have known her, or cared? Not more than a handful I surmised. This added to my grief: being with so many knowledgeable and active people about Palestine/Israel, and so few would be able to share my grief. Thank god for the blog and the responses it’s generated, the caring people, both those who knew her and added their insights, and those who didn’t, who took the time to grieve with me.
Despite this pain from Fadia’s death, from the agony of the troubles generally, I felt healing and inspiration—for me, for others active in the movement, and for the people of the Levant.
I invite those who attended either event to post their interpretations here.