Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Rhetoric of Engagement or "Why the hell am I doing a blog"

As soon as I got on the Metro right out of the airport, an older lady entered the train and of course, I put my bag on the floor so she could sit down. As she takes her seat slowly, I smiled and said, “Hi! How are you doing today?” with maybe a little more chirp than usual cause …….
HELLO! I’m in D.C. folks! I was super excited.

She gives me a puzzled look, narrows her milky eyes and purses her thin lips with smudged red lipstick and asks, “Are you a psychologist?”
“Cause no one asks “how are you doing today” much less says “hello”.
She then lets out a small laugh, sighs and asks, “ Well, where are you from?”

Then it’s my turn to smile. “Texas” as the curves of my lips turn upward, sensing the satisfaction that like most people, she finds my friendliness amusing and something of a novelty.

With the ice broken, the expected polite conversation follows…what am I studying…why am I in D.C…..what I look forward to seeing….

But when I started to talk about why I was in D.C. , for the training with Interfaith Peace-Builders for the upcoming delegation to the West Bank, she responded with the common, “ It’s so complicated over there.”
Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut…but you know me. I didn’t.

“Well, yes and no. The feeling of complication I think comes more from rhetoric and how the media covers the situation…also, the complexity of Israeli law and restrictions on Palestinians.”
She sighed and turned her head saying, “Welllll....I am more worried about the violence that happens between the two sides.”
“I understand and we have to look at the historical policies that have helped lead to the current forms of violence….”

Then we talked about the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, contradictive British policies between the Arab population and the international Zionist organization, impact of the Holocaust (she volunteers with the Holocaust museum here in Washington D.C. ) and then, as the Metro passes through the Arlington Cemetery, she waves her hand and says, “ Let’s not talk about this anymore. I’m done worrying about the issue. I’ve spent so much of my life studying it and going back and forth. Are you pro-Palestine?”
“Uhmm…yes…but what do you mean by that? ‘Cause by being pro-Palestine, I don’t mean anti-Semitic.”
“Oh, I was just curious….are you American? Are you by chance Palestinian?”
“No, I’m American. My family are Czech immigrants from way back. “
“Ohh, that’s nice. We get lots of folks from the Czech Republic in the museum. I’m pro-Israel myself.”
She pauses and then asks, “ What’s your sun-sign?”
“I’m Taurus.”

And our conversation  continues on until my stop. I realize that I have a long way to go with how I discuss my involvement with Palestine-Israel. I am also realizing that I have so many questions about the rhetoric we use when we talk about it.

People ask me a lot why I want to go “there”. The “there” being the West Bank. The West Bank  in many of our minds, is a casualty of our conscious understanding of what is known as the Middle East. The trigger phrase, “Israel-Palestine” brings wide-eyed acknowledgement that this is a place that is: complicated, dangerous, religious.

But what of acknowledging the experiences of family, hope, pain, and belonging? Too often how we talk about conflict, the people and places involved, is riddled and saddled with academic terms, over-publicized catch-phrases (like “peace process”) and images that show only one side to a person’s humanity.

This is why I am going- to learn and build relationship with the aspects of our common humanity that is too often intentionally hidden from us and to shed light on the true impact of policies on peoples’ lives. I want to help in our common understanding of  how the systematic legacies of colonization, racism, and ideology play into how we choose to engage (or not engage) with conflicts as U.S. citizens.

This is why I am going to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jenin, Akka, Bethlehem and Ramallah. These places must be known by their name and not by the terms we as Westerners give them. The people must be seen and their truths’ and experiences shared and not presented in the over-simplified stereotype that too often gets defaulted to.

I recognize that it ultimately is not my place to speak for anyone. That we must instead support the ability for everyone to speak for themselves and exercise the right to free speech. So I am recognizing my own limitations for what I share and say in this blog. I am asking for critique and challenges to how I am processing what it means to be a white female Unitarian Universalist and U.S. citizen in Palestine and Israel. Wheewww.

I’m also going because I am angry. I am upset that people tell me that it’s too complicated to understand because I believe that humanity is not too difficult to understand. We are all human. We are all living. We are here. So we must witness the life that we embody. What is the alternative? I don’t want to live my life turning away from pain…because I am ultimately turning away from myself. This is an unfolding realization I am beginning to understand better through various speakers at school that we have had and our guest minister at OUUC, Marilyn Sewell the other weekend.

Last year, some folks from First Peoples’ Advising at my college did a workshop where they opened with the poem, “In Lak Ech”.

In Lak Ech
Tú eres mi otro yo

You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti

If I do harm to you,

Me hago daño a mí mismo

I do harm to myself;

Sí te amo y respeto

If I love and respect you,

Me amo y respeto yo

I love and respect myself.
     From Luis Valdez’s “Pensamiento Serpentino”

I have learned that this poem has been read at the beginning of all Mexican-American Studies (MAS) classes in Arizona before MAS was made illegal. (  

My peer Dre Avila, who has done amazing extensive research on this issue, brings up the point of the “right to knowledge” in her presentations. She argues that we all have the right to know of our culture, history and language and that minorities and their stories are too often intentionally kept in the shadow of our white-American history. She details how this happens: the laws, policies, enforcement practices, and resistance to any kind of democratic engagement on the part of officials and those in power in order to shape the commonly known narrative of place, people and history.

I believe we are already witnessing the impact that narrow understandings of history, culture, privilege and sovereignty have on our ability to engage critically  with Palestine-Israel. It is so easy as a white American to default to talking about “wanting peace in such a complicated place” but not do anything to try and understand which narrative you are being subjective to and why. In the words of Noam Chomsky, “ you can’t be neutral on a moving train”. I believe that my privilege as a U.S. citizen that is held up by our aggressive military and ideological force, has allowed me for too long to sit idly by, shrug my shoulders, and say, “ Oh, that’s too bad” without anything of major consequence happening to me. This is privilege: the ability to choose engagement with pain. Well, it's one part of it.

So I want to be clear that I am writing this blog and going on this trip to better understand the Palestinian experience in relationship to the policies and peoples of Israel that have the support of historical world powers such as the United State and Great Britain. I feel that too often, Palestinians' suffering gets overlooked or subverted under Israel's claims for security. This is a point that I hope to explore MUCH deeper so if this upsets you, please challenge me and share your perspective. 

I am writing this blog because I want to practice engaging with an issue critically through a specific “point of entry”. I am not going to be able to be all encompassing( how could I? I am only person, one lens).  I don't think there is such thing as neutrality but I am beginning to believe that we can strive for pluralism. However I do believe there is a way to speak truth to power that is held, shed light on human suffering, and hold space for ideological differences. My hope for myself though this is to strengthen my ability to make critical choices around action while holding space for growth.

Thank you for being with me on this journey.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, I have used my privilege as an excuse to say that the situation is just too complicated for me to understand. There are peoples lives that depend on understanding the conflict. I do believe that if there is anyone that can help me understand this, and my role in it, it would be you. So I shall continue reading.