Last week I was disinvited from my second Jewish conference in two months for poems I’d written in solidarity with Palestinians, poems that make an unapologetic call for justice. Subsequently, I and the poet I was to read with at the J Street conference, wrote a response to being censored. People from all over the country wrote to us supporting free speech, supporting art as a tool for change, supporting real talk about the degradation of Palestinians, and people wrote to let us know they disagreed. Some more thoughtfully than others.
We decided to hold our reading anyway in Washington, DC during J Street’s inaugural conference at an alternative location. We were hosted by the Busboys and Poets space. The room filled with a spectrum of ideas. We read our poems and during the question and answer period, no one was shouted down. Not the Israeli army refusenik, not the liberal Zionist apologist, not the Palestinian student who asked us to include more about the Palestinian people in our poems, not just the land or idea of nation-state, a point beautifully made and incredibly profound. No one shouted down moderator Laila al-Arian, a brilliant journalist and activist, whose father was a Palestinian political prisoner in America, now freed because of his daughter’s persistence. The crowd was cool and civil, though broad in opinion.
Since the second Palestinian intifada I have thought, written and spoken about these issues, but over the course of these last several weeks, I have arrived at a new beginning. Prior to now, I muddled this issue in complexity. But I have come to realize it is actually simple and clear. I am a Jewish-American man in solidarity with the Palestinian people. I am in solidarity with Israeli and American and All people who work and risk their lives and livelihood for justice. I am not restricted to working within the confines of the Jewish-American community. Justice and resistance to imperialism is a global, human concern for all people. For Jews, yes, but not Jews alone. For Palestinians, yes, but not Palestinians alone. It will take us all to push and demand governments and corporate interests to create fair, equitable living conditions. It will take all peoples to hold history accountable for the atrocities that occur.
This is an analogy. America celebrates Columbus day even though Columbus and American settlers killed, enslaved and pushed indigenous peoples off land they lived on. Tragically, indigenous peoples have been nearly wiped out of existence and pushed to the furthest margins of our culture that revels in amnesia. Main St., mainstream American culture does not expect Native Americans to celebrate Columbus, nor care nor know nor imagine if they do or not. Native Americans are not a demographic population Hallmark cares to account for. It is preposterous to think Jews would celebrate Kristallnacht, the night of glass when SS troops stormed and terrorized their German ghettos. In Israel, Independence Day is called Yom Haatzmaut. Communities gather to play music, dance and watch fireworks. The Chief Rabbinate has declared this day a Jewish holiday in which prayers should be said. But Palestinians remember 1948 and the formation of the State of Israel as al-Nakba, the Catastrophe. A day of murder, displacement and forced Diaspora. A day families are torn apart and ripped away from their homes. A state-sanctioned celebration of their dehumanization and second-class citizenship.
For this reason alone, I cannot believe in the integrity of the Zionist project. It’s built on bodies and lies. It denies the existence of people and a people. One of its slogans, rooted in the same malicious revisionism as American history and Holocaust denial, is a land without people, for a people without land. Columbus didn’t discover shit. He enacted the desires of empire and the fetishization of “discovery.” The formation of the State of Israel is rooted in blood and deceit, is the same story as all colonies built in the name of imperialism, capitalism and dehumanization. Therefore, I am not Zionist.
I am not pro-Israel because in January Israel murdered more than 1,400 Palestinians. They bombed schools and hospitals. They bulldozed homes and bodies. Israel builds a separation wall, as Germany did, as the United States does between here and Mexico, as the rich do between themselves and the rest of us. I am not a believer in borders. I have been mistaken for Italian, Puerto Rican, Arab and Muslim, but I am a suburban Jew who sought out hip-hop cultural space across red lines and Chicago segregation. I learned borders are to be contended and crossed. Israel believes in borders. Israel practices apartheid. On one side, irrigated lawns and swimming pools in illegal Israeli settlements. On the other side, Palestinian disenfranchisement, denied access to drinking water, medical assistance, jobs, the ability to earn an income or vote in the country that governs them, that limits their movement with passports, checkpoints and curfews and closes them into open-air prisons. I cannot be in favor of these practices, nor the state that enacts them. These practices are to be resisted, protested and pushed against. Those whose bodies are legislated against, contained, detained and maimed by state-sanctioned terror are to be stood with and listened to.
This week has provided clarity. This is not a complex issue. There is the brutality of governments and the need for the liberation of a people, all people. I am a Jewish person who stands with Palestinian people relegated to second-class citizenship and Israeli soldiers who refuse to enact racist militarism. I am not a nationalist; therefore I am not a Zionist. I am against the oppression of any person and people. I am not a builder of walls. I believe in equity and democratic practice, therefore I am not pro-Israel. I am an advocate for truth, justice and reconciliation. I believe in this. I believe in this now. I believe in the work ahead.
Kevin Coval is the author of Slingshots (A Hip-Hop Poetica) and Everyday People and co-founder of Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival. He can be reached at kc AT kevincoval DOT com.