Election Section

Commentary: Make 2006 the Year of Talking About Israel/Palestine By JOANNA GRAHAM

Tuesday August 02, 2005

Sometimes when I have ranted too long about Israel/Palestine, my husband tries to shut me down by saying, “Do you know how most Americans feel about this subject? They don’t know and they don’t care!” There is a reason for this, of course, which is part of my frustration. What I have come to think of as Mordor—the eye that never sleeps—is always looking everywhere, making sure that no one ever does learn, or know, or think about this urgent issue. Three recent examples from three different locales. 

(1) Alaska. The premiere performance of a cantata in memory of Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall was canceled after both composer and soloist received threats. 

(2) Houston. The curator who assembled “Made in Palestine,” a show of pieces by contemporary artists, has so far found only two galleries in the entire U.S. willing to display it (in San Francisco and Mt. Pelier, Vermont). 

(3) Berkeley. The Peace and Justice Commission was infiltrated and neutralized by John Gertz following two resolutions on Israel proffered by the commission (Daily Planet, July 22-25). 

What do these three items have in common? One element, probably not immediately apparent, is that each of them describes the disappearance of something which no one is missing. Can there really be anyone in Alaska saying, “I’d love to hear a cantata about Rachel Corrie, why hasn’t somebody written one?” In Los Angeles or New York or Atlanta saying, “Gosh, I’d love to go to a show of Palestinian art this weekend, how come you can’t you ever find one?” Or in Berkeley saying, “Have you noticed that the Peace and Justice Commission has stopped presenting resolutions about the Israel/Palestine conflict?” 

On this last one, I can attest that I, a person who pays a great deal of attention to this very issue, was completely unaware that behind-the-scenes maneuvering had taken the Peace and Justice Commission out of the picture, nor was I thinking about the absence of any recent action on the subject. So how about that “ordinary American” who, according to my husband, “doesn’t know and doesn’t care”? How could she or he do so when any possible pathway into the issue—whether a piece of music or art, a commission resolution, or a book or a film or a conference—has been deliberately blocked and all traces of its one-time existence made to vanish? This disappearance of an urgent topic from our public discourse is what John Gertz means by “peace,” (as in “they want peace to return to Berkeley on this issue,” Daily Planet, July 29-Aug. 1), and it is his function and the function of others like him to strong-arm the composers, the curators, the commissions, the candidates, and me, and you into silence. 

It is worth asking: To what country does John Gertz owe his loyalty? Eric Alterman once addressed this issue head on in the Nation. He said that American Jews feel comfortable being loyal to both the United States and Israel because they assume that the interests of the two countries will always coincide. He pointed out that the time might come when they do not coincide and said that, for himself, if and when such a day arrives, he will side with Israel! 

I, a Jewish-American who is in no way a Limbaugh-listening flag-waver, was taken aback by this declaration. What does it mean in practice? Would he spy for Israel? (It’s been done.) Would he perjure himself for Israel? (That’s been done too.) Would he threaten a political candidate with slush funds and slur campaigns? (Threats like Mr. Gertz’s are not idle. They’ve been carried out successfully many times.) Would he protect Israel when it had deliberately killed American citizens? (Sadly, this too has been done.) Would he carry a bomb onto the New York subway or BART, if Israel deemed it necessary? How far would Eric Alterman go? How far would John Gertz go? 

There is second troubling issue raised for me as a Jew by Mr. Gertz’s diatribe. In the Aug. 1 New Yorker, Jonathan Rosen argues that the novelist Henry Roth, who felt powerless to “be a man” and experienced life-long “Jewish self-loathing,” suddenly rediscovered his Jewish faith during the Six Day War, when he “saw Jews as fighters who were as tough as the Irish kids” who had beaten him up as a child. Although Roth’s life experience was unique, his epiphany was not, for 1967 is demonstrably the year in which American Jews en masse converted to Zionism as the central tenet of their faith. And no wonder. As my sister has put it so clearly, it feels good to be the people hurting other people for a change. In letters like Mr. Gertz’s I always hear the crowing of someone who has finally made it onto the kicking side of history, safe at last to indulge his pent-up need to bully, because watching his back is our very own Jewish cossack/storm trooper, our blue-eyed IDF commando, jackbooted, Uzi-armed. 

Jews have controlled the discourse about Israel/Palestine for many decades. Any small group of people with money, influence, expertise, organizational skill, and a single-minded focus on one narrow issue could accomplish this. But imagine a Bhutanese-American (for example) announcing in the paper that henceforward any official statements made about Bhutan must meet his approval—or else. Or a Danish-American regarding Denmark, and so on. I am quite certain we, citizens and officials alike, would ignore such a declaration and go on speaking our minds. Why do we not do so, then, when the country in question is a permanent crisis zone, armed to the teeth by our tax dollars and under our protection at ever increasing danger to us, smack dab in the middle of the volatile, oil-rich Middle East, where we ourselves are now engaged in war?  

Every intimidator needs intimidatees. And they’re ever so much easier to intimidate when they’re isolated and picked off one by one (Linda Maio this time, maybe Kriss Worthington next). I hereby propose that the Berkeley City Council and the Berkeley School Board make amends for having handed the Peace and Justice Commission to persons with an agenda to dismantle it by unanimously declaring 2006 the Year of Talking about Israel and Palestine. Book groups in the libraries and book stores. Expert panels in various venues. Movies! Classes at Cal! Discussion groups in churches. A school curriculum appropriate for each grade level. (Do not think that Zionists have not been active here: The first two of the approximately eight books my son read in high school were about the Holocaust!) And at the end of the year? I don’t know, because unlike Mr. Gertz, I do not presume to control what my fellow citizens think, feel, say, or do. But at least the spell will have been broken. 


Joanna Graham is a Berkeley resident.