Spanish perspectives II: an interview with Teresa Aranguren (Part 2)

(Part 1)

JC: With these similar histories among Native Americans, South Africans and Palestinians comes the possibility to create linkages and to feel solidarity. I’m sure that Spain had an anti-Apartheid movement during the 1980s, and now there is solidarity with Palestine. What is your opinion of the Palestine solidarity movement today?

Yes, as you said, in the 1980s things were much more lively, and Spanish society was much more involved politically. Since then there has been a general movement, and not only in Spain, to the Right, or simply of conformism. Among young people and university students there is a sort of disenchantment regarding the possibility of making the world better. So now we have the idea that things are what they are, you have to accept them and try to manage with them, find your little place in the world. It’s individualism taken to the ultimate extreme. At the same time, radically opposed to this vision, there is a movement that is minoritarian but very active. So here in Spain there is a sector not only of young people but of people who are organizing, from NGOs to coalitions in which the Palestinian issue and the Iraq war are key elements along with the growth of solidarity with Latin America.

Teresa Aranguren reports from outside of Jenin, April 2002

All of this is very closely connected and has its power, but it is limited to groups that meet among themselves and are not able to surpass that, except in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq. In that moment they were able to create an ethical movement of conscience and solidarity with the other that started to look like a wider social movement, including some sectors of the Right. Because what we saw in the invasion and bombing of Iraq was so insane that it took what had previously been the demands of a few sectors, and turned it into a social phenomenon. In this sense I want to say that all is not lost. The people’s capacity to react survives, even though it is very dormant or has been crushed under the weight of this general idea that we have to accept the world as it is and that you shouldn’t worry about doing anything because if you do, you’ll be crushed.

JC: Yes, yes. And it seems to be that this sort of conformism is the product of a system of global capitalism that says that there are no alternatives, that we must accept….

What there is.

JC: …what there is, what exists, and make small changes. But the system is the best that we can hope for.

Yes. It’s the philosophy that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This is obviously one way of perceiving the world, and one can disagree with it. It reflects a sort of provincialism, like people who have never left their village. It’s a very limited vision.

JC: Navel-gazing.

Right. And what’s more, the heart of this thinking is in our culture, which is radically ethnocentric. This makes it difficult to widen one’s view. To use a phrase from Juan Rulfo, “The world is wide and belongs to no one.” We have think tanks full of experts who tell us that the economy requires this or that, all of these things that are just assumed. This is a very narrow vision of reality. Reality has a way of surpassing all of these well-designed plans created by experts. The problem is that if this reality doesn’t count — that is, if it doesn’t matter what people of color think, what Africans think, what Asians think — then we can just go on living in ignorance of them, constructing our everyday world and believing that we are the only thing that matters in the world. And this is very dangerous.

JC: I’ve noticed since my arrival last June that the idea of “solidarity” is very present here, for example after the Asian tsunami. There is a man who sits every day on the sidewalk near my house asking for alms, with a small sign that says, “Have solidarity.” He is asking for solidarity. And I always wonder, what does “solidarity” mean in this cultural context?

I think that this term has come to be substituted for another that is generally out of favor, which is “charity.” In Spain, a society that is particularly Catholic, we have had this idea that the world is as it is, but we have to help those who are weaker. So alms-giving and other kinds of charity are a part of our history in the idea that the rich need to help the poor through charity. At a certain point this old concept of charity came to be challenged by a new mode of thinking that was more progressive, secular, and critical of the old values. And then a term that was disparaged, because it came out of a progressive movement of workers’ solidarity that believed the weak should support each other, was hijacked in a certain way and arrived on the terrain of “charity.” The idea of solidarity, though, has a progressive heritage rooted in the labor movement, miners’ strikes, and so forth, so it has nothing to do with the “charity” of the boss who would bring his workers a bag of rice on the weekend. It’s almost exactly the opposite.

I think there has been a shift that has ended up contaminating the perception of what solidarity actually is. For example, we have these huge campaigns of “solidarity” with the victims of the tsunami, or an earthquake, organized the television networks — “please call now” and all of that. This clearly has all the characteristics of the senoras marquesas who would give a bit of their discarded clothing to the poor. We’re in the same territory here. But they don’t call them “charity” campaigns — they call it “solidarity.” The real solidarity movements, such as the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine, involve a much deeper connection with the other. They don’t go with the idea of looking down on the other, they don’t go in order to give lessons — they go in order to understand the situation better. In general I think we’re in a negative period with respect to the issue of solidarity. What they’re doing is strengthening the idea that we are superior, and that because we’re superior, we can help the tsunami victims a bit, or we can bring Iraq the gift of democracy by bombing them and sending in the tanks. All of this, I think, is closely connected.

JC: And meanwhile we are fortifying our borders.

Right. At the same time, we put the strongest barriers in the way of immigrants and create more xenophobia and rejection. It’s like, not only to these people want to come here, but they even dare to claim that they are equal to us! And then charity doesn’t work any more. As long as they are poorer than us, that’s fine. But it’s always been this way. During the civil rights movement in the United States, for example, the violence was strongest when [African-Americans] began demanding equal rights, when they started saying, “Look, I am equal to you.” As long as you’re taking care of me, serving me my food, sure, I can be very good-hearted with you. As long as you’re “my Negro,” I can be perfectly charming with you…..

JC: I’m thinking about the proposal that was made in the EU to create camps in North Africa to hold migrants [who want to come to Europe].

Sometimes I think we’re so embedded in the social and political dynamic that we don’t notice what we’re proposing. You have to take a step back and look and what we’re actually saying — I mean, we’re talking about internment camps! And in Europe, we know very well what than means.

JC: It seems to me that we’re in a period in which people are giving more and more power to the executive — to governments, to institutions of all sorts, allowing employers to read their employees’ mail. And why? To make us more “secure,” to give “security” to the people. Because it’s a period of fear.

It’s all a strategy of fear. There is a strategy of fear because the fear of the people generally favors power, favors those who are in control. Fear is a wonderful method of control. After the trauma of September 11 in the U.S., in the television station where I work we would constantly see these images suggesting that they were living in a constant state of alert. It seemed like every week there was someone saying that another attack could be coming from here or there. I’m not saying there aren’t reasons to be cautious, but there are also people who have an interest in fomenting the fear as a way of justifying their techniques of control. And in the West, which has always presumed to be the society of freedom, people are accepting, like lambs, the reduction of their freedom and the creation of situations that are just crazy, given where we come from. The Guantanamo prison, I think, will someday be viewed as one of the great shames of Western society, as we recognize Nazism to be.

Many times we forget, and it drives me crazy when I hear colleagues displaying this vision of the other, saying things like, “Well, you know, the Arabs have been killing each other for centuries.” And this is being said by Europeans, who were the authors of some of the greatest massacres in the world. Nazism is a completely European phenomenon, with no external influence. We had no colonial power to twist and distort things. It’s European. And the concentration camps are European. All of this arises from our culture. Yet it seems that this has no effect on our perception of the other. We continue to view ourselves and our culture as the great defender of freedom, even as we are creating from within our own culture a sort of legal black hole in which we are putting Afghan men who we have kidnapped and sent [to Guantanamo], some of them children taken when they were as young as twelve years old. Sure there are voices [of opposition], but there is no great movement of indignation in the international diplomatic community asking why this is allowed to happen. In Western culture we are very complacent with our own, Europe and the U.S. alike.

JC: Are there many Spaniards who have volunteered in the International Solidarity Movement?

Yes, I always came across Spaniards when I was there. And in Palestine, I think there is a difference when compared with other areas where an NGO might go temporarily. There is a continuity. The people who work there continue to go, many of them putting in more than ten years of work. So they are very well informed and they know the area well. In Spain you have the ISM, as well as NGOs like Third World Peace that are very involved [with Palestine]. It’s always a minority, but they are very active.

JC: It’s interesting, because this movement reminds me of the International Brigades that came to Spain during the Civil War. [The ISM volunteers] are the Brigades of our time, aren’t they?

Yes. I think the younger generations [in Spain] don’t have a clear awareness of what the Spanish Civil War meant in Spain, and what it meant outside of Spain, and of the significance of the International Brigades. As I said with Beirut, this was one of those moments in which certain human beings give the best of themselves. Extreme situations can bring out the worst in people, but sometimes they can also bring out the best. Because the Francoist dictatorship lasted so long, the theme of the International Brigades was silenced. And because the transition [to democracy] in Spain was so determined not to look backwards, the first years of the democracy didn’t really see any kind of attempt to recover the legacy of the Brigades and to remember what the struggle of the Spanish Republic against the Francoist revolt actually was. But during the 1980s we began to recover a sense of the significance of this solidarity movement that came from outside the Spanish Republic. And now, in the movement in solidarity with Iraq before the invasion, the people who went there insisted on calling themselves “brigadistas,” not “human shields.” They were recovering something with great dignity.

JC: And for you, with all of your experience in Beirut and former Yugoslavia, with all of that, what does “solidarity” mean to you?

Most fundamentally, I think, it means not looking the other way, at least letting the other know that while they may be victims, they are not forgotten — even if you can’t actually do anything. For a Palestinian who is living under curfew, or whose husband is in prison, or who has had their house demolished, being forgotten by the world makes it much worse. Whenever I have been abroad, witnessing everything in Baghdad and Palestine, or in Belgrade when it was being bombed by NATO, I have seen that what is important for people is that someone knows what is happening, that someone is concerned about what is happening even if they don’t have the power to change it. It’s like the solitude of the torture victim, who is in the torture chamber at someone’s mercy and no one knows, no one hears their cries. It is this added element that makes it infinitely worse, because it makes you lose any confidence in humanity.

JC: This is where the importance of journalism comes in.

Yes, but right now journalism is in a very deteriorated state. In large part it has turned into a simple transmission of the official story, whatever that happens to be, the version of the establishment, of those in power. Now there are always cracks, of course. Sometimes when you are reporting on a situation, you see that in the world where you come from, people don’t want to hear about it, but you realize that what you’re doing is important and you have to do it anyway, even if it’s just a drop in the bucket. One of the great dramas of our time is the power of the mass media and the deterioration of the work of informing people. Today [journalists] don’t search — they transmit. They transmit what is in the air, and what is in the air is what comes from the Pentagon press office and the other sites of power.

Here we have to recognize that journalism has committed some tremendous errors. It drives me crazy to hear now this idea that the weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq] were never found, but that we thought they were there. This is a total fabrication. They knew perfectly well that [the weapons] weren’t there. I remember those months when we had all those reports of Hans Blix in the Security Council, and we had Scott Ritter, who was the head of the last UN inspections team in Baghdad in 1998, saying until he was blue in the face, to anyone who would listen, that there could be no WMD because everything had been destroyed since 1991. He was the head of the last inspection team that was in Iraq. So there were plenty of chances to know that it was false. But the official story planted this line, and the journalists followed it completely instead of investigating. And it was easy for anyone who was there, who had been to Iraq during the years of the sanctions. If you can recognize that two plus two equals four, you could recognize that Iraq didn’t have the capacity to produce anything. Iraq was a country crushed by sanctions. Despite all of this, when they admit that there were no WMD, they say, “but all of us thought that they were there.” It’s totally false.

JC: Yes, Scott Ritter gave a lecture at my university before the war began and he said exactly that.

In the beginning Ritter did appear in reports produced by some of the larger news agencies. I remember fighting to let him appear in the news here, and it was very difficult. People were asking “Who is this guy?” and I was arguing that it was very important to hear him. And then we stopped seeing him. In recent months we haven’t seen him at all, and why? Because they silenced him. There were rumors that he was an agent of Saddam Hussein, this sort of nonsense. Here you had a voice that was authoritative in terms of knowing the situation regarding the weapons potential of Iraq, so wouldn’t it make sense, as a journalist, to hear from the head of the last inspection team that was there? But because it didn’t correspond with the official story, there wasn’t much interest, and eventually there came a moment when he was silenced. Discordant voices get silenced. This happens now, and it happened during the first Gulf War as well. We had the intervention of the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in the UN and the US Congress and all of that, and how is it that not one journalist bothered to ask, “And this girl, who is she? Where does she come from?” Journalism is increasingly polluted by the tone of television news, and they have lost one of the keys to what used to be considered journalistic work, which is to doubt initially all versions, and to investigate, and to confirm the source.

This also happened during the NATO war in Yugoslavia, when NATO spokesman Jamie Shea would make these crazy, infantile statements. I remember seeing him one time from Belgrade, where we could get the international channels in our hotel. We had just returned from Kosovo where we had seen the remains of a bus that had been bombed by NATO missile. There were 70 bodies scattered all over the place, pieces of bodies. We saw the bodies and spoke with a peasant who had been the first to arrive on the scene. And then we returned to Belgrade to hear Jamie Shea say that he had “very reliable” reports that the Serbian paramilitaries were killing pregnant women, opening their bellies and cutting out the fetuses. Why did no one ask, and who are these “reliable sources”? I never heard that question. Another day they had “very reliable” reports of mass graves with ten thousand bodies in them — things that just made no sense if you stopped to think about them — but it was enough to justify what they were doing, which was bombing cities, hospitals, bridges, buses, trains.

JC: I wonder, in this sort of climate, what must it be like to be an idealistic journalist? Because those people are out there, aren’t they?

Well, you can find a case here or there, such as Robert Fisk, whom I met in Prstina when I was coming from Belgrade. There are voices who are able to obtain a certain credibility, who have built their career earlier and are given a certain amount of space. These are voices that contradict, that give the other side, and this is the case with Robert Fisk, and I imagine that there are others. The problem is the journalist who starts today, or who will start in a few years, and wants to maintain this [idealism]. I think it’s very, very difficult. What usually happens is that they end up in the marginal press, because it is impossible to maintain the work of actually investigating, of not just transmitting messages. So the typical path is to end up writing in leftist newspapers that don’t reach the great majority of people. The system vomits them out, expels them. And this leaves the field wide open for those who don’t question anything. The more docile journalists, it’s not that they have bad faith — it’s that they really believe this is the way things are. It’s like “What do I know? Your Secretary of State said it, so it must be true.”

JC: What is the dominant line right now in Spain with respect to Palestine? What is the discourse of power?

Well, the discourse has changed a bit with the shift from the Aznar government to the socialist government. There are different shades. In general, though, the line is that first we have to stop the Palestinian violence. When they talk about stopping the violence, they are always thinking about the Palestinian groups. And achieving that will reestablish some possibilities for peace. In Spain as in the rest of Europe, the politicians who are most involved in the issue — those in the foreign ministries — know perfectly well that there can be no solution without an end to the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, none of them believe it is possible to act in a way that is consistent with this vision. There is no capacity, no determination, no decision to force Israel to do what it should do. So having renounced this, they put the pressure on the weaker party. We’ve apparently decided that we won’t force Israel to comply with UN resolutions, with the successive peace plans. Instead, we’ll pressure the Palestinians to be “reasonable” and to stop “provoking” the other. I think this is the dominant line.

JC: It seems that Israeli policy is like capitalism. You can’t change it.


JC: So…..

That’s it. It’s as if we were speaking of meteorological phenomena. You know, it happens, it’s there, that’s it. So Israel is immovable, it does what it wants to do, and everyone else has to accommodate themselves to this. The occupation is there, but it’s the occupied who has to solve the problem. Obviously this doesn’t allow one much optimism in the long term. Sure, we may see a few moments that are more peaceful, when there are talks happening, when the Israeli military will retreat from the cities. But the settlements will continue, the Wall will continue, the cities will remain surrounded by the army, and one wonders, how long will [the Palestinians] put up with this? A few months, until the next attack in some street in Jerusalem or on a military patrol? And we will return to the same dynamic. All of this actually supports the colonization of the West Bank, and in the end we may see a moment in which [Israel] will deport en masse the population of certain parts of the West Bank and move them to other parts in order to establish the borders of the colonized territory that has been emptied of people. Or if they can’t do that, they’ll just let it rot.

JC: I’m not an optimist either. But I have hope. And hope is something very different from optimism.

Yes. And after saying all of this, at the same time, as I said before, reality has a way of bypassing the designs of all the experts. I have lived as a witness with the Palestinian people, and I always say that even more than all the political structures, the key to the Palestinian capacity to resist is the social question. The strength of their family structures, and the resulting determination not to repeat 1948, not to allow themselves to be expelled—all of this is a factor in the reality of the situation. Maybe not in political terms, but it is a factor that will impose itself on reality. But how much blood? How much suffering? Until when?

JC: Yes—that’s the question.

And when you’re there, people will tell you that what they want is for you to act here, because they know that their life depends on what you do here. The pessimism that I have is because I live here, and I look around and see very little capacity to take a wider view of things. Everyone here seems to follow a discourse that is totally Eurocentric, so I actually find myself more optimistic when I’m there [in Palestine]. The feeling people share there, that feeling of “here we are and we are not going to move,” that ability to bear things together, is very contagious. When I give lectures I always press the idea that even with all the weight of the Wall and the occupation and the military operations, you don’t see beggars in the occupied territories. There are no children just abandoned to their own fate. No one is totally abandoned. And here, where we are so fond of teaching other people lessons, we should look at this. Elderly people are never abandoned there, never. Nor is there much robbery or the sort of violence associated with common delinquency—even though people there are hungry. Sometimes I’m afraid that we are going to destroy this. Our culture has a great capacity for destruction. The white man can be very destructive. Not that I have a totally negative vision — after all, the great thing about European culture is that it has always generated critiques of itself. Along with the worst excesses, the worst acts of brutality, there have always been voices speaking up in opposition. The two viewpoints are always there. We can create great moments and great works of art, but our culture also generated Nazism. We have to recognize this.

JC: I’m reminded of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri say in their book, Empire. They argue that there are two traditions of modernity: the tradition of power, and the tradition of the multitude with all of their dreams. And both of them survive.

They survive, and sometimes one of them crushes the other for a time, yes.

JC: For the U.S. audience that might be reading this, what are the most important keys for understanding the conflict in Palestine?

I think we have to return to the most basic and obvious terms. The first thing to communicate to people is that we’re talking about a people who were expelled from their homes, and after the expulsion, in the next house, they were either expelled again or had the house destroyed. American culture is so steeped in the pioneer spirit, in the idea of settling yourself on the land and all of that. So you have to try to imagine how it would feel to have your land stolen by someone else. This is what we’re talking about. We also have to break the pattern of perceiving the other as totally different. Here I think the Arab-American communities in the U.S. are very important, people like Edward Said who know that yes, there are cultural differences, but we are much more alike than different. The hopes of a young Palestinian in Gaza are not all that different from those of a young person in any American town. He wants to move forward, succeed, establish a life for himself, and above all be left in peace. The clearest thing that Palestinians feel, and that they have told me many times, is that they are simply asking to be left in peace.

JC: The problem is that the two states, the U.S. and Israel, are very linked ideologically. They are both settler-colonial states.

That’s it, the pioneer spirit, yes. And also the use of the Bible as a book that tells you exactly what you have to do. This is such a deformed vision of religion, confusing myth with history and imagining yourself to be a chosen people. I think the link between the “chosen” American people and the “chosen” Israeli people is deadly for the Palestinians and for the rest of the world. And those who can do the most to combat this are not only the Arab-Americans, but also American Jews. If anyone could transform this idea, denounce this distortion of what Judaism is, it’s American Jews. I’m sure that there are some voices who are trying to do this, but it needs to be a collective movement, a movement of the Jewish community in the mode of the “Not in My Name” movement against the Iraq war. American Jews are the ones who could create this kind of movement.

Teresa Aranguren began her journalistic career filing freelance reports from Jordan in 1980. In 1981 she was in charge of the international section of Mundo Obrero, for which she covered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon as a special envoy in Beirut during the summer of 1982. From 1986-1989 she headed the international section for El Independiente. She was one of only two female journalists to cover the Iran-Iraq war as a regular correspondent. She then began working as a war correspondent for Tele Madrid, covering the first Gulf War and the conflict in the Balkans, among other stories. Throughout her career she has returned repeatedly to Palestine to report on the conflict there. In 2000 she was awarded the Premio AMECO Prensa-Mujer (2000) by the Asociacion de Mujeres Profesionales de los Medios de Comunicacion. A year later she received the Antena de Plata de la Comunidad de Madrid. For her reporting in the Arab world, the Asociacion de Periodistas Arabes en Espana honored her with the 2002 Premio del Club Internacional de la Prensa. Her book, Palestina: El Hilo de la Memoria (Palestine: The Thread of Memory), was published by Caballo de Troya in 2004.

John Collins is Assistant Professor of Global Studies at St. Lawrence University. He is the author of Occupied by Memory: The Intifada Generation and the Palestinian State of Emergency, published by New York University Press (2004) and the co-editor of Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War (NYU Press, 2002).