Monday, June 11, 2012

A beautiful column by Amira Hass

When I'm in the United States, it's easy only to see the threats that Israel faces, both the military ones (for example, from Iran), and the cultural ones (for example, the movement for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel), and be moved always to defend Israel against those who defame it and see only the bad side of the country.

When being here, I find that I can't just adopt that defensive posture. I can't just defend Israel against its detractors. I have to pay attention to the bad things that happen here, whether initiated by the government (for example, the settlement policies of the Netanyahu government, which seem to be intended to destroy any possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) or by private individuals, religious and cultural organizations, or corporations. Israel, like any country, is a mixture of good and bad - and that mixture gets lost when one is out of the country and isn't participating in life here. It's all too easy either to see Israel only through rose-colored glasses, or through shit-covered glasses - without very much in between.

Which brings me to today's column in Haaretz by Amira Hass: Otherwise occupied / Religious restraints. I know that supporters of Israel in the US often find Hass's columns (and Gideon Levy's) incredibly aggravating, and attack her for never saying anything good about the country. She focuses on Palestinian life in the occupied territories, and documents the horrible things that the government, the army, and the settlers are doing in the West Bank. Before the disengagement of Israeli military forces and settlers from Gaza, she lived in Gaza for a period of time and reported from there.

But I find that if I can calm down the part of me that is defensive on behalf of Israel, I can learn a lot from her columns. Her humanistic spirit shines through in the best of them. This column deals with three topics: about a lecturer at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank who hung up cartoons caricaturing polygamy and the burqa; whether Israeli reporters should write about "oppressive (or not) social customs in Palestinian society"; and how she answers when Palestinians ask her if she believes in God.

On the first topic, she wrote:
A young friend thought that I shouldn't write. That I shouldn't write what? That students at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah threatened a lecturer who hung caricatures on his office door about polygamy and the burqa (the robe that covers a woman from head to toe ). The lecturer himself refused to talk - as I heard indirectly - and the university's public relations department thanked me for my interest, but said it was a very minor internal issue that was being handled.... 
One caricature showed Superman with a beard, with a woman next to him who wanted to marry him. "I'm sorry," he says to her, "but on our planet we can only marry four." The second shows a man talking to a curtain, thinking that it's his wife, who always wears the burqa.... 
At a very early stage in the crisis the university established an investigative committee. About a week ago the students and teachers received its decisions in an e-mail from the president's office. First of all, said the message, the teacher explained that the illustrations he had hung in no way meant to mock Islam, but were an invitation to a critical discussion of certain social customs. Second, the committee will keep track of the complaints submitted by the dean against the students suspected of threatening the teacher. Third, there are ways of deciding on an academic curriculum, and doing so by e-mail is unacceptable. And fourth, the university adheres to freedom of research, teaching and opinion, respect for religions and beliefs, and condemns any use of violence or threats.
On the second topic, she wrote:
The young friend who suggested that I refrain from writing said: "They'll say that an Israeli reporter supports the teacher and his opinions, and that will work against him." This reporter also writes about the popular struggle against the occupation and about courageous activists, residents of the villages of Al Nabi Saleh and Bil'in such as Nariman Tamimi and Abdullah Abu Rahma. Is that supposed to work against them among the Palestinian public? 
Were it not for the fact that the event in Bir Zeit points to a phenomenon of silencing opinions with the excuse that they offend religious sentiments, there really would be no reason to mention it. And incidentally, a few years ago students in the Arab American University-Jenin brought about the removal of a teacher who taught selections from "Persepolis," the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. They claimed that one of the Iranian-French artist's caricatures offended religious sentiments. 
Of course, the natural place for discussing oppressive (or not ) social customs in Palestinian society is not in an Israeli newspaper. Even if there is a similarity to Israeli tactics for silencing other discussions. There is also logic in the implicit question as to whether an Israeli reporter suffers from a shortage of issues that touch directly on her society, but for reasons of lack of public interest do not come to the knowledge of Israeli readers. For example: the blocking of the road that connects Kufr Qaddum to its agricultural land and Nablus. The village holds a weekly demonstration because of that, and the Israel Defense Forces disperse it by force. Every week people are wounded.
And on the third topic she wrote:
Long ago I learned that it's hard to answer Palestinians directly when they ask "Do you believe in God?" I couldn't lie when I was asked this question by Shukriya Abdul Hadi, from the village of Nebi Samwil, which is besieged and cut off, and groaning under prohibitions against construction and movement. 
This woman, who is in her 70s, has spent most of the past 45 years protecting what's left of her land, which like most of the village land was confiscated by Israel and was replaced by security fences and a national park, or fell into the hands of bogus owners. In response, I cited to her what a (Jewish) female acquaintance says when she hears about another of the methods of our foreign rule: "There's no question, our place in hell is assured." 
"Aha," Abdel Hadi said to me. "I understand. You don't believe in God, but you believe in hell."
Amira Hass doesn't write columns to incite her readers to be reflexively anti-Israel - she writes columns to make us think, to realize that Palestinian society is complex and diverse, and to realize that the actions of the Israeli government and military are not injuring a group of faceless victims, but rather people who are living ordinary lives and trying (some of them) to build a better society for themselves and others, in the face of Israeli oppression and the struggles within their own society.

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