Friday, February 2, 2007

Runaway monologues

The word "dialogue" presupposes much of the professional work I have begun carving out for myself since college. At UW-Madison, where I worked and affiliated with young Palestinian student activists from Al-Awda (advocates for the Palestinian "right of return" to a pre-1948 Israel), the idea of dialogue, however, meant little more than shifting into spy mode. Attentive listening, within the context of college politics, carried the strategic purpose of forfending the rhetoric of our own educational campaigns from similar ones being carried out by Jewish student organizations. It made sense to all actors involved with the just-then September 11 attacks looming heavy on the American psyche and a vicious ad campaign carried by the largest campus paper, the Badger Herald, which featured a photograph of Palestinians celebrating the news of the attacks.

Pro-Israeli hasbara (literally "explanation" in Hebrew) from also coincided with the rapid escalation of Israeli state-sponsored violence against civilians in the Palestinian occupied territories (most notably, the notorious IDF incursion into Jenin). Vile, below-the-belt insinuations that somehow Palestinians were getting what they deserved, in effect, only served to perpetuate stereotypes of angry Palestinians-- especially to those reporters who woke up, one quiet evening, to the clamor of livid pro-Palestinian activists at their doorstep, demanding apologies, retractions, or whatever it was that could soothe our pain and restore our dignity at that moment.

At the helm of our collective voice was Mohammed Abed, an articulate PhD student of philosophy. As we all waited for the next academic messiah to replace a dying Edward Said, this gallant speaker with a British accent would certainly do. He was a walking, talking PowerPoint presentation featuring statistics of encroaching Israeli settlements, diverted water resources, and violated United Nations resolutions. I remember attending a formal debate where I witnessed Mohammed put to shame some flown-in debater from Israel. The other side was obviously unaware of the danger posed by our intellectual juggernaut, our own Spartan warrior who would entertain us, make us laugh as he slay his opponent in swaggering fashion at the coliseum of reason. We, after all, understood how to effectively deploy human rights narratives for our case. They, on the other hand, were only subscribing to a reactionary, nationalist "self-defense" rhetoric, which, at the time, was but a nascent cottage industry that Dick Cheney and George W. Bush would later milk into political oblivion.

Being a Palestinian advocate, whether one was Arab or not, could be a pretty hip proposition. Curly redheads, Japanese foreign-exchange students and anarchists alike could be found decked out with the ornamental keffiya on campus. It was the new black. But black in the Superman II villain sense. We were "evil" but secretly cool and savvy. Our colors were green, red and black-- much like the bruises suffered by the people. Meanwhile, the blue and white were a bunch of whiny, rich pansies from the suburbs of New York. And no matter how hard our case for victimhood was, there they stood on campus, in ever growing numbers-- with their indignant and hateful messages, replaced year after year by crop of new freshmen parroting the same hackneyed rhetoric every other Jew was taught at Israeli summer camps paid for by their parents' parent's strife and hard work. We, on the other hand, worked in coalition with gays, minorities and 0pressed groups. Vive la résistance!


Perspectives such as these became common for those entrenched in a high-stakes battle where the winner secures American sympathy. These were also very irresponsible and childish ways to spend our energy, as were the silly things I did to impress girls in Junior High. The job of securing peace requires much more seriousness than elaborate Ad Hominem attacks considering all the irredeemable pain already out there. This isn't a criticism of the value of history and about knowing where we come from. I am simply proposing that we protect the peace process from our incisive knowledges (whose sharpness no one is really doubting). No matter how damning our lines of argumentation may be (on either side), they will never lead to airlifting the most hardline settlers and militants to Long Island and Damascus, respectively.

So as hard as it may be to ask from a victim's relative, the purpose of dialogue is, in part, to put people into the shoes of others they don't know, to share in their humanity. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one between neighbors who refuse to see each other eye to eye. Dialogue can remedy this by rescuing opportunities for friendship lost from an epic history of antagonism. No one talks enough about the fact that Palestinians and Jews could be friends with each other, helping the other prosper.

They say we only use 10% of our brains. Perhaps our shortfall is that we've only been using that 10% to feel sorry for ourselves.

pictured from Superman II, "the new black"

No comments: