Words without Borders initiative does not explicitly oppose the many borders that exist for Palestinians under occupation. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)
An initiative recently launched by the prestigious online literature magazine Words without Borders entitled “Cross-Cultural-Dialogues in the Middle East,” rings alarm bells in light of the Palestinian civil society call for boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) on Israel.
The initiators of this series of articles are Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, who describes herself as being of Iranian Muslim background, and Chana Morgenstern, an Israeli fiction writer, who met as graduate students at Brown University in the United States. Van der Vliet Oloomi and Morgenstern are now in Jerusalem undertaking to travel around “crossing borders,” and opening “dialogue” with persons from many different cultural and political locations.
In their statement of purpose, Van der Vliet Oloomi and Morgenstern explain that: “We are hoping to gain a broader perspective on the ways in which contemporary Palestinian cultures negotiate the region’s complex and hybrid social landscape.”
They add, “The series, as we foresee it, will cover emerging guerilla poetry movements, collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and writers, interviews with international and local film makers, reviews of the Jerusalem Film Festival, as well as an overview of various grassroots cultural organizations in the West Bank” (“New Blog Series: Cross-Cultural-Dialogues In the Middle East,” 29 July 2010).
Though this statement of purpose may be intentionally vague, it is important for anyone who wishes to engage in serious “dialogue” in this area to be aware that a condition of utmost serious conflict exists between a colonial, apartheid occupying power — Israel — and the indigenous people. As part of a strategy for nonviolent resistance, the Palestinians have issued an international call for BDS against Israel until it complies with international law and respects the universality of human rights.
Briefly stated, the BDS call sets out the following demands: Israel must end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the West Bank wall declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004; recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194 (“Palestinian Civil Society Calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel,” 9 July 2005).
Is the Israeli partner in this project going to acknowledge the horror inflicted on its Palestinian counterpart? There are no two “equal” parties here: there is one side that has colonized both history and the land, ethnically cleansed most of the natives, and has been discriminating racially against the 1.5 million Palestinians who remain inside Israel as nominal citizens, as well as the millions more in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the diaspora. Is this proposed dialogue going to “speak truth to power” and take cognizance of the three demands endorsed by the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society organizations?
Indeed, the guidelines issued by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), explicitly warn against events or projects that promote “false symmetry or balance.” PACBI condemns initiatives “based on the false premise that the colonizers and the colonized, the oppressors and the oppressed, are equally responsible for the ‘conflict,’” as “intentionally deceptive, intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible” because they often seek “to encourage dialogue or ‘reconciliation between the two sides’ ” without ever acknowledging basic injustices and power imbalances. Thus, such initiatives serve to “promote the normalization of oppression and injustice.”
Under these guidelines, all “events and projects that bring Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis together, unless framed within the explicit context of opposition to occupation and other forms of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, are strong candidates for boycott” (“Guidelines for Applying the International Cultural Boycott of Israel,” 20 July 2009).
In discourse with those living in Palestine/Israel, it must be borne in mind that Israel holds thousands of political prisoners, among them many children. Millions of displaced Palestinians reside in refugee camps under conditions of deprivation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, and many others are scattered all over the world. When the United Nations recognized Israel it was on condition that the refugees be allowed to return, a condition that, though promised by Israel’s tearful representative Abba Eban, has never been fulfilled.
The Gaza Strip, where I live, remains under a stifling siege notwithstanding international demands that the siege be lifted. International shipments of vitally needed medical supplies, food, clothing, and building materials have been systematically diverted by Israel using pirate-like raids against ships in international waters, as well as overland caravans. The last attack resulted in the massacre of nine peace activists and the injury of several dozen others aboard the Mavi Marmara when Israel attacked it and other vessels in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May.
Because I am a Palestinian, I do not have the option of “crossing borders” like Van der Vliet Oloomi and Morgenstern. Along with the other 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, my horizons are confined to this narrow strip of land. If we in Gaza were Jews, then under Israel’s racist system, we would not only be invited back to our homes throughout historic Palestine, but provided all sorts of subsidies, housing and support. This mass imprisonment of 1.5 million human beings, most of us refugees, just because we are the “wrong” religion, finds precedents only in the darkest chapters of human history.
Not only are we imprisoned, but we are subjected to regular attack. During its 23-day long assault on Gaza starting in December 2008, Israel killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. The UN-commissioned Goldstone Report as well as numerous local and international human rights organizations documented illegal use of weapons such as white phosphorus and cluster bombs. Of the thousands of homes, schools and businesses intentionally destroyed or seriously damaged by Israeli bombing and bulldozers, only a fraction has been rebuilt, since Israel uses the pretext of “security” to prevent the shipment of cement and other building materials into Gaza.
But the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank is also dire. The gigantic apartheid separation wall cuts Palestinians from their social, economic and cultural centers and prevents them from working their land. Hundreds of checkpoints prevent normal travel including visits to hospitals for essential medical care and attendance at schools and universities for both students and teachers or just to maintain normal family and social life.
A new report by the British-based Save The Children non-governmental organization documents that in certain places in the West Bank, malnutrition is even worse than in Gaza: 61 percent of children in Gaza are seriously malnourished, but up to 79 percent of children in “pockets of poverty” in the West Bank are malnourished as well. In both Gaza and the West Bank, “targeted killings” — extra-judicial executions — are a common Israeli practice.
Unless the well-meaning bloggers and Words without Borders are prepared to take into account this climate of colonial-settler oppression, it is doubtful that their ministrations can bear fruit. An appeal can be made to Israeli individuals and institutions to join the boycott — and some courageous Israelis have indeed done so — like members of the group Boycott from Within.
How do Palestinians negotiate this “hybrid social landscape?” By raising their own and others’ consciousness that we are under a state of siege, facing the daily threat of extermination, and using all means in our power to resist and to preserve our communities and our culture.
Unfortunately the Words without Borders initiative appears oblivious to these realities and speaks about Palestinians and Israelis in a language that obscures vast power differences that must be at the center of any serious, engaged and principled inquiry or action.
Given these realities and the fact that this project is a blatant violation of the boycott guidelines endorsed by most Palestinian intellectuals, it is unlikely that many Palestinians will choose to participate. Those who do participate will not be members of the University Teachers’ Association in Palestine, or the Palestinian Writers’ Union, or even most Palestinian universities. Indeed, the choice is clear to the vast majority of Palestinians, and intellectuals must recognize that true “cross-cultural dialogue” is impossible when one voice is being stifled, silenced and erased by another.
Dr. Haidar Eid is an associate professor of Cultural Studies at Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University and on the steering committee of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.