Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Belated Responses to Gaza - 1

Browsing through my favourite secondhand bookshop in London, several months ago, I came across a volume of poetry by someone I'd never read or heard of, an Israeli dissident poet named Meir Wieseltier. It appears that this selection is the only available English translation of his work, and more's the pity. His apparently iconic status in Israel points to some of the complexities that have to be hidden beneath the surface of his country's rampant brutality towards the Palestinians, and the shrill rhetoric and shriller missiles that define its policy. In 2000, as his translator Shirley Kaufman puts it, Wieseltier became

the distinguished recipient of the Israel Prize, his country's highest honor, awarded on Independence Day in the millennial year 2000 in the presence of the Israeli establishment (president, prime minister, minister of education, chief justice of the Supreme Court, mayor of Jerusalem, and so on) to its most antiestablishment poet.

Here is Wieseltier himself, in a poem that is precisely dated, and precisely targeted. It is dated April 15, 2002, four days after the Israeli invasion of the refugee camp at Jenin on the West Bank, which had claimed over fifty lives and unleashed terror in the daily lives of Palestinians, as numerous personal testimonies recount. Here's Wieseltier's account of the mentality that drives such slaughter:

Sonnet: Against Making Blood Speak Out

If I die one day from the bullet of a young killer -
a Palestinian who crosses the northern border -
or one day from the blast of a hand grenade he throws,
or in a bomb explosion while I'm checking the price
of cucumbers in the market, don't dare say
that my blood permits you to justify your wrongs -
that my torn eyes support your blindness -
that my spilled guts prove it's impossible
to talk with them about an arrangement -it's only possible
to talk with guns, interrogation cells, curfew, prison,
expulsion, confiscation of land, curses, iron fists, a steel heart
that thinks it's driving out the Amorites, destroying the Amalekites.
Let the blood seep into the dust; blood is blood, not words.
Terrible - the illusion of the
Kingdom in obtuse hearts.

One of the biggest tragedies of our times is the resonance of these lines. How I wished, while reading this poem, that it was written of a different time, that times had changed. That it was, like Auden's Spain, written seventy years ago, so that old injustices had been reversed, and spoke only of the memories of old women and men, and perhaps enshrined a popular mythology. That it was possible to shudder, and think, those were bad times, I'm glad I wasn't born in those times. But there is no waking from the repeated nightmares of history: if the poem seemed apt then, back last year, it seems a precise, prophetic indictment of the present predicament facing the Palestinians in Gaza today. A document about Jenin holds a clue to Gaza, and it is important to take note of this, for it is no coincidence. The resonant power of this sonnet, across two distinct historical events - for who would read it today and not be struck by the purchase it has upon the experiences of December and January? - tells us a story too stark to be ignored.

Reading it now reveals the Gordian knot that ties the present bombing to the permanent, everyday reality that Palestinians experience: a reality of checkpoints, daily humiliations, expropriations of land and property, and the eternal prospect of military invasion. It isn't hard at all to get to the heart of that reality if one simply inverts the standard myth: that Israeli military and state action is basically reactive, that these are punitive reprisals for terrorist action. This is a myth. Reverse it and you begin to approach the truth: a classic colonial occupation, the last of the settler colonialisms, has generated this sequence of events; the totality of the Israel/Palestine question can only be understood within this historical framework.

The Israeli rhetoric of reprisal, in its subliminal, and sometimes explicit meanings, is enacted in Wieseltier's poem, '....a steel heart / that thinks it's driving out the Amorites, destroying the Amalekites.' These are standard tropes of justification that circulate in state rhetoric, fundamentalist propaganda and popular discourse. We are told this is a timeless battle, not between Israeli and Palestinian but, transcendentally, between Arab and Jew; between, in short, civilizations. The creatures in Gaza and the West Bank are not fighting against a state that battens down on them with force and death, but against Joshua and Saul. They do this because this is what 'Arabs' or 'Muslims' do, as their election of a fundamentalist organization like Hamas to power proves. The daily injustices of occupation, the erection of a wall that annexes vast swathes of agricultural land the Palestinians need to survive, the herding of people into Gaza like pigs in a pen and blockading them from food and fuel: these are footnotes, glosses on the grand text of terrorist fundamentalism and anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitism undoubtedly present, and growing, among many Palestinians naturally bears no relationship to the fact that the IDF soldiers who humiliate them at checkpoints are compelled to wear the Star of David on their uniforms, to the fact that Palestinians are routinely told by their adversaries that this brutality is necessary for the survival of Judaism. Israeli Zionism's disgusting manipulation of Jewish history, reified into myth, casts Palestinians in the manner Wieseltier distils in his phrase - they are the Amorites, ganging up on Joshua; they are the Amalekites, ambushing Saul. Or they are carrying out Hitler's orders, issued beyond the grave. Historical time and space are evacuated, and repopulated with this timeless conflict.

The repeated nightmares of history: this is crucial. The repetition, the sheer force of the same event recurring, time and again, over a condensed period of sixty-odd years, is striking. This takes the events of the last three months out of the purely tragic realm, for such a repetition, the brute beast of military power rising after every rebuff to lumber after its shrinking, almost entirely civilian prey, can only belong to the world of comedy. And that is why Jon Stewart, who recently broke a long, mostly consistent liberal silence on Israel in American public discourse, probably captured the true dimensions of what happened in Gaza most accurately, on The Daily Show. Not because he said anything new or anything particularly remarkable, but because he said it laughing. For only laughter can give the colossal events of December and January their true meaning, their magnitude. The parallel spectacles of a people bombed out of their homes, their sanity, their bodies - and, on another channel, the Panglossian reiteration that this was the best thing that could have happened, that Hamas had to bear full responsibility for it, that the Israelis, with the best and most lethal technology on offer, were simply forced to do it, as they were in Lebanon, as they were in Jenin, as they were everywhere....what could possibly capture this absurd concatenation but comedy? How else to execute the one meaningful act in the hysteric rhetorical world of militaristic, retributive discourse, and reduce the beast to its own size, give it its own shape and form? Not the shape and form of a beleaguered democratic oasis holding out bravely against another hydra head of the Axis of Evil, but that of a powerful military machine grinding down a subjugated, angry people. Only comedy can lay this bare, for that's what Israel and the United States' politicians, military strategists and analysts were, on prime-time TV: professional comedians rehearsing a tired, played-out routine. And it's only fitting that it was Jon Stewart who, by not saying anything very much at all but by playing their words and the images from Gaza in juxtaposition with each other, told it like it was.

The motive force of Wieseltier's sonnet comes from these lines: 'don't dare say / that my blood permits you to justify your wrongs'. Here the accusation, the injunction, is given its prophetic dimension by history and the present. The blood of Israeli people, as of all human beings in this conflict, is simply that: blood. The astonishing phrase that rounds off this line of thought is this: Let the blood seep into the dust; blood is blood, not words. The words that envelop the tragedies suffered by human beings in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank are words that manipulate their blood, make it bear burdens it cannot possibly bear, make it speak against its will. These words are a vampiric act: they shed blood, grow on it, and extract more blood, as tribute. The Final Solution is paranoically, masochistically implanted in public memory, as a reminder of the fate to expect if you let up on the bombing. An Israeli friend who'd been through military training and experienced this propaganda at close quarters once told me of her experience as a schoolgoer, being taken to Germany at her government's expense, as schoolchildren are, taken to one of the concentration camp sites (I forget which), and being herded into a pitch-dark room, and forced to listen while the instructions of a guard were reproduced, in loving detail. The Holocaust being drilled into the heads of young Israelis, by the state that claims to have been founded to relieve Jews of that historic burden. 'And then', my friend continued, 'we were told that this is what the Arabs would do to us.'

Zizek writes in several places, more or less persuasively, of the ideological illusion involved in looking for the human depth that redeems inhuman acts, the veil that separates people and their acts, relieving them of the burden of their responsibility by propounding a distance between person and action. 'I am a politician who orders the death of hundreds, but deep down inside I'm a warm cuddly human being': this would be a typical instance of such ideological self-distancing. I persist, ideologically no doubt, to believe in 'human depth', and to believe that we often feel our decisions, our spines and our ethics bent and twisted beyond our control as we confront our world. But I see his point when I think of Wieseltier being handed the Israel Prize by, probably, Barak, Prime Minister in 2000, riding a crest of liberal hope. Barak more recently returned to his IDF roots as Defense Minister, in 2007, and, as barely needs mention, orchestrated the rape of Gaza. I can't help but wonder the thought ever crosses his mind: 'I am a politician who has just ordered the killing of hundreds, but deep down inside I'm a warm, sensitive liberal who reads and appreciates Meir Wieseltier....'

Such conceits of human depth, of course, suffuse the representations of the Middle Eastern tragedy in dominant discourses. From the professional lies of an Alan Dershowitz, to the debates on websites oriented towards a liberal Zionism, one side receives its due share of human complexity, whereas the other serves as straw man, depthless force of ressentiment, or rhetorical counterpoint to Israeli democracy, fundamentalist certitude pitted against liberal pluralism.

The 'liberal middle ground', not only within Israel but globally, reproduces this line of thought, often against its will. Philip Roth's absorbing and profound Operation Shylock, for instance, falls short despite its complexity. His dissections of Israeli society are acute and merciless: they show us a complex, suffering, flawed and fragmented people. His Palestinians, despite his efforts, remain at best a place-holder for the conscience of the liberal Zionist - even if, in all his other writing, Roth is no Zionist at all. Spielberg's Munich, needless to say an inferior work in every respect, but nonetheless interesting because it demonstrates a once committedly Zionist filmmaker grappling with realities he can no longer wish away as fictional, falls into the same trap. ' Is it really your father's olive trees that this is about?', asks a Mossad agent of a Palestinian guerrilla in the movie. The latter's silence tells us all Spielberg would have us know.

Roth and Spielberg, however, give us doubt and self-division that perhaps goes beyond the essentially cynical veil of ideological self-distancing that Zizek describes, for we live in history, and things are changing around us as we speak. The certitudes of a reigning consensus have been shaken over the last decade, and Wieseltier's selection for his country's highest prize tells us that some of this ferment, after all, must be in process in Israel as well. Hundreds of dissident Israelis, some of the bravest people on the planet, refuse to murder for their country, or to lie for it. If Wieseltier's Israel Prize tells us anything, it is that this mood has - or, in the present war hysteria, would it be more accurate to say, has had? - some force in the intangible realms of public conviction. And what of Ehud Barak, poster-boy of Labour Zionism? What of the state that claims to speak for every Israeli citizen, even Meir Wieseltier? A 'steel', yes, and an 'obtuse' heart - Wieseltier's last line sums it up - the heart of a physically brutal and a morally corrupt state.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A dark night in Delhi. The street lamps that are on flicker desperately. They tell us it isn’t safe, tell us the night threatens us all. I’m in a speeding auto-rickshaw. B., a little and mild-mannered boy, probably still in his teens, is driving me back home. We take a fly-over, monstrous arch over a nightmare city, and come down at high speed. We take another, and B. slows down suddenly, peering out of the auto with worried eyes. A bunch of uniforms shuffles across our sight-screens. Policemen stroll over to the truck piled high with heavy wooden boxes, which has skidded to a halt at a peremptory police whistle. Their narrowed, shifting eyes pass over us once, as we slow down and pause by a broken signboard, the smoke from my cigarette curling in the lamp-lit air. The policemen’s eyes jerk us through, and we move on, surveyed and humiliated.

A pause as we gather speed through the dark streets. I bring out a lighter. Click. He takes out a box of matches. Snap. We move on, two glowing dots of red light zig-zagging through the darkness. Load-shedding. The summer’s going to be hard for little people with less food, clothes, money, access to shelter that they need to last out the season. The little people clear their throat. B. speaks.

‘Char hazaar se kam nahin lenge.’ Nothing under four thousand rupees. ‘A chalaan?’ I ask. He nods his head. The guys driving that truck are fucked, then. And it could have been B. I begin asking questions, and he begins talking. How much does he make in a month? He makes about five or six hundred on an average night, for this is his shift: the darkest hours of the cycle, between eight at night and eight in the morning. That would make, I calculate, about fifteen or eighteen thousand rupees a month, a comfortable sum. But B. doesn’t keep the money. Each day he has to hand over four hundred rupees to his boss, most of his night’s earnings. His boss sounds faintly humanitarian: apparently he pays for petrol expenses. Most auto and taxi maliks make their employees pay for fuel.

And then there’s the police. B.’s bitter. The daily humiliations, the lowering of the eyes when a uniform passes. The scraping of the feet and the bowing of the head. The random searches, insults, occasional beatings. Men bound up in small, petty lives taking out their bile on weaker men. The rip-offs that beset most auto-drivers at regular intervals: the misfortune to be caught without identification, or a license, or to be marginally over the speed limit. Four thousand rupees as a fine, a chalaan: it’s the standard going rate, though they might adjust it upwards during this phase of inflation.

So they need to borrow money. And it’s cap in hand, head down, at his master’s mercy the next morning. And it’s a temporary advance, to be deducted from B.’s wages for the next month. On a bad roll, for the next two months. B. is twenty, and he sags like an old man.

We’re nearer home now. A police car lies sprawled insolently across the road, we skid round on a speed-breaker and B. mutters a curse. I snatch a furtive glance at the uniformed body and face inside the car. But the body’s slumped against the back of the seat, and the face is young, asleep, strangely vulnerable. A person’s face and body, for once not filled out in monstrous shapes by the daily role they’re paid to perform.

We approach home. I feel I should say something. Awkwardly, I tell him I might write this up, send it somewhere, see if anything can be done. The puerility of such promises hammers in my ears like a storm. I’ll write, and I’ll be a degree less troubled, my political conscience slightly salved, for, in a small way, bearing witness. Testimony. Narcissism. And B. will go his way, handing his wages – his labour – to his master every day, paying tribute to the police every few weeks. Exploitation. Resignation. He’ll go his way and I’ll go mine.

I know this and so, I think, does he. But he seems neither expectant nor scorning, neither supplicant nor judge. B., a boy far away from home, nods his head gravely.

‘Haan ji, likhiye. Likhiye auto-walon ke baare mein. Likhiye ki humein tang na kare.’ Yes, write. Write about us auto-drivers. Tell them not to make our lives hell.

He nods his head once again, gravely, and then I get off, and he takes the money, acknowledges the tip, and I turn to go, and he’s gone.
I suppose a year - and a bit - is a long enough time for a sabbatical. Time to start blogging again.