2014-07-20 20.10.01


I’ve visited the issue of grief’s visibility a lot on this blog.  I’ve also been drawn to the comparisons of grief to a physical loss or impediment.  The healing, or perhaps “coping” is really the word, process involves a subjugation of that visibility and a circumventing of the physical limitations.  It is a sign that I’m doing “better” that people don’t see the pain in my features anymore; it is a sign of improvement that I can interact with the world in a way that doesn’t reveal my amputations.

It is a sign of improvement, but it also feels like a betrayal and like a disguise.  And so, to honor that this loss is physical and keep it visible, I got a memorial tattoo for the 2 year anniversary of Alex’s death.  I wanted a visible, physical marker that I have lost, but I also wanted it to demonstrate the enduring Alex, his extremism and his humor.  When it came down to it, I wanted an image that would capture my loss without making me cry every time I looked at it.  Since I can’t draw for shit, an image that captured that spirit was a while in the making and largely entrusted to the tattoo artist.  I gave him some concepts, a story, and a glorified stick-figure drawing.

I’ve known I wanted a memorial tattoo for some time, but I didn’t realize how right it would be.  I just thought of it as something else to do; as someone told me this weekend, when you’re stuck, your only non-option is doing nothing.  It isn’t just that it serves as a prompt for me to talk about Alex with strangers, as I initially hoped; it also allows me to feel that I am carrying Alex with me at all times.

I still talk about Alex frequently, since our lives were constantly intertwined for some 15 years and only slightly less tightly woven for the next 14, so many of my stories feature him.  Sometimes I talk about him in the present tense, which occasionally leads new people to ask where he is, a question I have answered variously with “that’s a bit of an existential question,” or “dead,” or “his body is buried in a suburban cemetery,” depending on whether I’m feeling snarky, or kind, or curt. None of those answers feels good.  They don’t even feel honest — “dead” is not a where, and his body is not him.

I don’t get much cheesier than this, so grab a cracker and some wine and hang on: this tattoo has allowed me to answer the question of where Alex is with, “Here.  He’s here, with me, and with everyone who knew and loves him.”  (Those mismatched tenses are intentional.)  And that feels honest, and, in the way that we make do with loss, good.

The point of this road trip was to change my narrative, the story of who I am and how I ended up here, wherever here is.  I have suffered, I have lost, and I will not be made whole again.  I won’t pretend otherwise.  But I did not want to lead with my self-pity.  Now, through distance, friends, and the unlikely aids of needles and ink, I’m at least beginning to change my lead, edit out the minor villains, and spend more chapters building my co-protagonist’s character rather than focusing on his cataclysmic demise.


Let’s talk about tunnels.

Since the latest excuse for the current Israeli assault on Gaza is the tunnels, let’s talk about the tunnels.  Let’s talk about a population of 1.8 million people in a 140 square mile zone who cannot leave via land, air, or sea.  Let’s talk about a place where outsiders are not allowed in.  Let’s talk about a place where farmers and fisherfolk cannot get their wares outside the perimeters for sale, and strawberries and watermelons rot awaiting passage.  Let’s talk about a place where basic goods cannot be brought in; sometimes cloth, sometimes concrete, sometimes medication.  Where fuel is (over)priced and allocated by the very same force that controls the entrances and exits to the territory, allocated at such small amounts that electricity is never available all the time, and during times of acute crisis is only available a few hours a day.  Where my friend, now an American citizen, couldn’t enter for his brothers’ weddings.  Where the unemployment rate is at 60%, and even government employees have their pay frozen by foreign powers who don’t like the current ruling party.  

Let’s talk about people with sumud (steadfastness), who have lived in this situation for over 60 years, increasingly awful for the last 7.  These people can die, or they can dig.  Tunnels represent a literal underground lifeline for Palestinians.  The light at the end of the tunnel has been used to smuggle goods, livestock, people; my friend did get to the weddings, because he entered through the tunnels.  

If you lived in Gaza, would you wither or would you build tunnels?  And when the screws were tightened even further, elevating the usual mostly starvation style of violence into epic bursts of bombing flattening whole neighborhoods and their inhabitants, would the idea of using those tunnels for weaponry cross your mind?  We ask amazing feats of sacrifice from Palestinians, and amazingly, most deliver: we ask that they bear their wrongful imprisonment in silence and peace.  The tunnels are still primarily used for civilian purposes, or would be, if they aren’t all destroyed.  So let’s talk about tunnels, and why they are there in the first place; then let’s talk about destroying the tunnels by opening the fences.    


Update on the Khalils in Jabaliya Refugee Camp

Many people have asked me how Basel’s family is doing.  I wasn’t sure if an update alert would be sent if I edited the original post (“Your home is about to be destroyed”), so I’m just adding a quick one now:

The Khalils of Jabaliya Refugee Camp are still alive as of now.  They have a new baby, Basel’s niece Taleen; she is healthy.  They have not left their home; there is nowhere to go.  Others in Jabaliya and Beit Lahiya have fled to UN shelters, but as we know from 2008-2009, UN shelters are not safe.  Nowhere in Gaza is safe.  

Israel is using white phosphorus gas again.  The magnificent, firework-spectacle screaming streaks through the night sky, the ones that burn flesh off on contact, melt babies alive, keep wounds open even on the survivors for years with nerve damage and bleeding reminders of the world’s abandonment.  That stuff that was declared a war crime when Israel used it on Gaza in 2008-2009.  Where do they get it?  

Israel is also using another unidentified poison gas.

Basel’s family is trying to shield part of their home with plastic sheeting and put the children there, so they don’t breath the poisoned gasses.  Please tell your local media and elected officials about the Khalils.  



Jewish privilege in Palestine solidarity

I just got off the phone with a dear old friend.  She thanked me for keeping her updated with what is happening in Gaza, and for sharing my views, because, as she rightly pointed out, the news in the U.S. is impossibly tangled. The pictures accompanying headlines about rocket fire into Israel have several times now been pictures of flattened Gazan homes (thank you, Diane Sawyer and Fox News).  

But this friend didn’t just thank me because I was able to sort out some of the facts.  She also thanked me because it was important to hear this from a Jew.  This is a smart, caring person, a lawyer, human rights activist, and religious Christian.  She has known me for years, known my views on this for years, and yet she still feels like she needs my permission to get involved.  

And thus, we get to Jewish privilege on the issue of Israel/Palestine.  The kneejerk cry of “Anti-Semitism!” is still so common a reflex that people shy away from making their unease with Israel known, or even learning more.  Information from organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace becomes more trustworthy than that from “neutral” sources, and certainly more than that from Palestinian/Arab/Muslim sources.  Signs like the one my dad held this weekend, “Occupation: Not in My Name” alert passersby that a Jew has weighed in, criticized Israel, and therefore said passersby can now engage in conversation, take literature, think about the issue.   

This is deeply problematic.  It is problematic because it means we need permission from people within the oppressor group to criticize oppression.  It is problematic because it negates the voices of others, but especially and most importantly because it negates the voices of the victims themselves.  It deems the Palestinian narrative less trustworthy, in this weird belief that bias exists only on the side of the oppressed.  

And yet.  And yet.  As deeply uncomfortable as it makes me to write on my demo sign that “I am Jewish AND. . . ,” my friend reminded me that this is what gets those people who are disquieted by the news but not engaged to stop and read the rest of my sign.  It should not matter that I am Jewish; it should only matter that Gaza is constantly under siege and is now undergoing a massacre.  But if I refuse to use my privilege in this case, I may have lost a group of nice nervous people who really do feel they need my permission to get involved.  It’s not really their fault; Holocaust guilt runs deep, as it well should, and it is cleverly and constantly exploited by defenders of Israel.  

Jews involved in Palestine solidarity work get invitations to radio programs, to churches, to civic organizations.  Jews involved in Palestine solidarity work get pats on the back for being so courageous. It can be flattering, and we can let it go to our heads and forget that Palestinians are being ignored in their own struggle.  We must use our privilege in a constructive way, one that alerts concerned people to listen to Palestinian voices.  My mother once refused to speak on a panel unless the hosts invited Palestinian speakers, and then provided a list of local qualified speakers. Jews are the bouncers at this event: we get the crowd to listen up by shouting our Jewishness into the loud-speaker, then we hand the mike over to the Palestinians.  I would like this not to be the case, I would like us not to have to grant permission to criticize Israel, but even more I would like the Occupation and war crimes to stop.  If that means I have to write “I am Jewish AND . . .” on my sign next time, I guess I will.

Your home is about to be destroyed; you have no shelter

On this, the 2 year anniversary of my brother’s death, I awoke to a message from a Palestinian friend.  His family, in Jabaliya Refugee Camp in the Northern Gaza Strip, has just received the phone call from Israel: their home is about to be destroyed, get out.

The family of Ali Rajab and Leila Khalil lives in the Hay Raid al Saliheen neighborhood of Jabaliya Refugee Camp.  They are refugees, from Israel-proper.  They are a family of paramedics. They have no connection to rockets, to fighting, or even to a political party.  

Basel’s family received 5 phone calls.  The first said to get out by July 15th, their home would be destroyed then.  The most recent one said they had 4 hours.  I said, Basel, they need to get out now.  Israel doesn’t give people the time it says it will.  Basel said, they can’t.  There is nowhere safe to go in Gaza.  Nowhere.  In 2008, people in his neighborhood taking shelter in a UN school were blown to smithereens.  Basel’s dad, Ali, nearly got blown up a few days ago when the Red Crescent Ambulance he was driving was narrowly missed by an Israeli missile.  

I really don’t know if his family plans to try to leave their house and risk assassination on the streets, where Israel is now firing missiles at groups of people, or to stay and risk death at home.  Again I asked Basel if they had anywhere they could go.  Again he told me that there is not a safe place in all of Gaza, and there is no way out.  

Israel called the family on the landline.  If their intelligence has the phone number to the house, and the address, then surely it has the intelligence to know there is nothing in that house but civilians. Israeli public relations states that the “warning” calls and bombs (gentle, warning bombs, like a soft kiss in the morning) are an indication that it is humane, because it gives people time to evacuate.  But this would require somewhere safe to go, and unlike Israel, Gaza has no bomb shelters, and no safe places.  It also implies that somehow, a civilian home in which all the civilians should be given a chance to leave, is still a target; that doesn’t even make any sense.  Are the Khalils’ bedsheets or family photos threatening to Israel?

My mom suggested that Israel “warns” its victims because it is engaging in a new form of torture, psychological torture.  Like a cat torturing a mouse before dispatching of it, except in this case the mice are people.  Basel says Israel is doing all this to try to turn the majority Gaza population against Hamas, cause an uprising, but this might only work if the Gazans weren’t so busy trying not to be killed; also, it’s one hell of an evil way to provoke a civilian uprising.  I search for rational, if still evil, motivation in the action of nation-states, but I come up empty-handed.  I suppose that genocide lacks reason, except perhaps to whip the majority population up into a patriotic blind frenzy.  And I can no longer think of a word that better describes trapping a huge population, denying them essential supplies, and then engaging in massive bombing campaigns against them other than genocide.  (See the UN Convention on the Crime and Punishment of Genocide, http://www.hrweb.org/legal/genocide.html)

Basel called me I think mostly because he needed to talk to someone.  I hope it was not because he thought I could do something, because I feel completely helpless.  A family — Leila, Ali, Ghassan, Mohammed, Ahmed, Hannan – has just been told that their countdown clock is on, and given no ways to stop it.  All we can do is tell people.  I’m telling you.  Please tell someone.  

I feel that I am watching helplessly as a military I fund commits genocide.  I have not forgiven the Americans, Germans, and other citizens of the world who watched this happen to my grandparents. I do not want to be among the helpless enablers this time.  

It’s the 2 year anniversary of my brother’s death.  But as my mom, who I called this morning, said, Alex will still be dead in a week.  For now we focus on the people who have a chance to remain alive.  Please call the White House at 202-456-1111, the State Department at 202-647-4000 (ask for the comment line), your Senator at http://www.senate.gov/senators and Representative atwww.house.gov/representatives, and write your local media. Please tell people about the Khalils.  

Everything you have been told about Gaza is a racist lie

I have an app on my fancyphone called iGaza.  Every time I hear its alarm beep, I get scared.  Being a white person safely housed in non-ghetto America, I had the liberty of shutting my eyes a bit longer today to block out the latest update from the killing zone.  Gazans can’t roll over and go back to sleep; this morning the death toll reached over 100 from the past 4 days.

100 lives.  One hundred human beings extinguished.  Gone, nil, axed, snuffed, murdered.  My brother’s death shattered my world, my mom’s world, my dad’s world.  Imagine how many galaxies have just been destroyed.

And yet people have the audacity to say that this is necessary.  Some decent people, some people I love and worship with; politicians as well, but they’re not even worth discussing.  This morning Ma’an News had a story of a young mother who died moving her kids to a “safer” room in the house; she saved all but one.  I wonder if these defenders of Israeli aggression can look me in the eye and tell me this was necessary.  I know they’ll try, because they don’t believe a word of it.  Because their vision is clouded by a lifetime of lies, lies that don’t even really make sense unless you swallow the racist syrup that binds them.

I am and was raised Jewish, in a synagogue, attending a Jewish summer camp, so I’ve been exposed to these tales.  Let’s start to dismantle some of my favorite lies:

1.  “There is no such thing as ‘Palestinians.’ ”  Yesterday I spoke with a bright young Palestinian woman who has been told this by someone who seemed to think it was an appropriate thing to say.  (She’s actually not the first Palestinian-American I know who has encountered this.)  The fact that someone would tell someone there is no such thing as their ethnic group is astounding; it rings vaguely of the very few times I’ve been told there was no Holocaust (my grandparents are survivors).  Palestinians are people who are from areas that are within historic Palestine, be it the West Bank, Israel proper, or the Gaza Strip.  Not Jordan.  Not Lebanon.  Still want to fight because Palestine isn’t a “country?”  The entire Levant has been carved and re-carved for centuries, no current country borders have existed for very long, get over it.

2.  “Hamas is a militant terrorist organization.”  Hamas is a political party.  It was democratically elected (which is more than we can say about our government) in 2005; the response was punishing sanctions from Israel and the U.S.  Hamas has a military wing that has killed people, innocent people (so do we).  Its sole purpose is not the destruction of Israel; in fact it has brokered and maintained ceasefires with Israel frequently, far more often than Israel has maintained the ceasefires.  Not everyone affiliated with Hamas has any connection to violence.  Making the comparison to our own set-up, a “Hamas-supporter” is kind of like a registered Democrat, a “Hamas” official could be an EPA employee.  Neither Democrats nor EPA employees are particularly threatening, nor are they legitimate military targets.

3. “Hamas (or Islamic Jihad, or whoever) operates from crowded civilian areas using human shields.”  Gaza IS a crowded civilian area; this is the doing of Israel, which does not let people in or out.  It has 1.8 million people in an area of about 140 square miles. There is no evidence that they are using pharmacies, marked tv cars, ambulances, hospitals, or residential homes to plan attacks on Israel, yet Israel targets all of those things. That anecdote you heard about the ambulance?  Put it in the bs file, along with the school books story.  As far as human shields go, this morning a young mother used herself as a human shield to save her children.  That’s the recent evidence we have on human shields.

4.  “Most humane army in the world” la di fricking da.  The only humane army in the world is Costa Rica’s.  “Precision weaponry and intelligence.”  Look, either Israel is deliberately targeting civilians or it has some really terrible intelligence and is using it with gross negligence.  Given the death tolls and the targets, you can’t have it both ways.  In either case, it’s committing war crimes.

The overall picture that we get of Gaza is a land teeming with terrorists who chose that perch because of its unique ability to launch mostly ineffective missiles into Israel, a neglected ghetto of Israel, I might add; they have no legitimate grievances, only an irrational and obsessive hatred of Israel.  The primary driving force of most Gazans, as of most human beings, is living a good life; this is no small feat for a refugee population whose resources and movement are under total control by an occupying power.  And yes, Israel still controls land, air, and sea, in spite of the “withdrawal.” Kind of like a prison is still a prison even though the prison guards stick to the hallways.

5.  “Unfortunate killings, necessary for defense.” There is no such thing as an unfortunate killing of a person.  It is unfortunate when you hit a deer with your car.  It is tragic at best and murderous pure evil at worst when a human being is killed.  Unless. . . it’s not a human being!  I loop back to this again and again and again.  I cannot fathom a way that someone can brush aside the deaths of all those children and young people unless they don’t think they’re real people.  Btw, both Islamic Jihad and Hamas claim and name when one of the dead is one of their fighters, and those are few and far between on the death toll; young men in their 20′s, obnoxious though they can sometimes be, are not all or even mostly combatants.  And no, Palestinians don’t rejoice when their children are killed; a more racist understanding of people would be hard for me to imagine. (You say that Palestinian martyrs are celebrated?  American military parents and widows, Veteran’s Day, 4th of July, right back at ya; doesn’t mean we don’t mourn our dead soldiers.)

And that “necessary for defense” bit?  Given that zero Israelis have been killed by the Gazan rockets this time, I’d say that the combo of Israel’s advanced missile defense shield, air sirens, bomb shelters, and the inefficacy of the Gazan rockets are doing a pretty good job of defense.  And Israel could just accept the ceasefire offered by the Hamas-P.A. government, but Netanyahu stated unequivocally yesterday that a ceasefire is off the table.

6.  “Rocks kill people.” You really think that a boy with a slingshot and a soldier with a gun are on equal footing?  Yeah?  I have some ocean front property in Arizona I’d like to sell you.

7. “Palestinians teach their kids to hate.”  Having your house blown up, your sisters arrested, your brothers beaten, your orchards destroyed, your requests to travel denied, and your hospital generators regularly run out of fuel are really far more effective teachers of resentment and anger.  Even in the face of all those professors of hatred, though, as an American Jew I have been treated with nothing but kindness from Palestinians; that is love, that is humanity, and that is hope.

Anyhow, we don’t get to kill members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and we know they teach their kids to hate.

8.  “Israel has a right to defend itself.”  Palestinians don’t?  How can Israel have a right to defend itself when Palestinians, under constant attack from Israel (Gaza takes missiles and gunfire from Israel every single week of the year, whether we hear about it or not; West Bank residents are rounded up and roughed up regularly) do not?  This makes no sense, unless only certain types of people have the right to defend themselves.

There’s a simple racism test that I like to use in cases like this: reverse the parties (like Matthew McConaughey did in “A Time to Kill,” because, you know, the jurors don’t think little black girls don’t deserve to get gang-raped until we picture them as little white girls).  Would 100 dead Israelis not be mentioned until the 4th paragraph of a New York Times article (they did it again today!)?  If you think so, about that ocean front property . . .



Palestinians, the New York Times, and the art of picture cropping

Messaging is an art.  The accomplished spin artist uses no lies in her palette, but instead paints through placement, emphasis, and omission.  Thus it is with the New York Times in its coverage of Israel/Palestine.  I’m sure other news sources are just as bad, but the New York Times, with its vast readership and claim to first-rate journalism, singles itself out for my condemnation.

Yesterday’s headline piece on the latest assault on Gaza detailed every rocket fired from Gaza into Israel (mostly destroyed through the Raytheon-created Iron Dome).  Only at the bottom of the 4th paragraph did it mention the human victims: 29 Palestinians.  None listed by name, age, or explanation of where they were or why they were killed.  Their guilt is implied; they are Arab, Muslim, and in the wrong place (as the old joke goes, I didn’t hit him, his face got in the way of my fist).  And it’s important to note that those human beings weren’t “killed” in Israeli attacks, according to the Times; they simply “died.”   It’s unthinkable that the deaths of 29 Israelis would be after-thought 4th-paragraph mention.  It’s unthinkable that the death of a single Israeli person would be buried that far into the story; fortunately, so far that death toll stands at 0.

Today the death toll rose to over 80 Palestinians, but the New York Times coverage of this stays “even and balanced” by making sure to include both in the headline and the opening sentence that Gazans launched 100 missiles into Israel.  One would think that missile to missile ratio would make for a more accurate comparison, but that would only be if one carried the mistaken notion that the death of a Palestinian is equal a tragedy to the mostly-unfounded fear of an Israeli.  (“Can you imagine just going about you business and having to rush to a bomb shelter,?!,” asks the rhetoric.  No?  Then you probably also can’t imagine putting your kid to sleep and then having your entire house flattened because there are no air raid sirens and no bomb shelters.)  Also, that would make Israel look like an aggressor, because it launched far more missiles into Gaza (322 to about 80) last night.  And we can’t have that.

The accomplished spin artist (we might call her a propagandist) also understands that by selecting part of a picture, she can make it look like an entirely different animal.  A picture of a snake might, in fact, turn out to be the tail of an elephant when we remove the rest of the drop cloth.  So it is, again, with the New York Times coverage of Gaza.  The elephant in the room is the occupation.  The elephant is the open-air prison of Gaza, 1.8 million people (mostly refugees) in an area 1/10th the size of Rhode Island who cannot get in or out.  The elephant is the fact that every single week of the year, whether we hear about it or not, Israel is shooting guns or missiles into Gaza from the land, air, or sea space it controls; every single month it kills Palestinians.  The elephant is that those guns and missiles come from the United States, and they’ll keep coming so long as it is good for business.

When I first realized the snake was an elephant’s tail, it was because I saw the word “refugee” pitted against the word “bulldozer;” all of a sudden, something seemed fishy.  Like maybe my picture had been cropped at the edge.  The spin artists aren’t infallible; they usually forget to wipe up a fingerprint or two.  They are banking on the fact that most of us won’t put on our Sherlock hats and pull out our magnifying glasses, that the confusion they’ve sown is sufficient to keep us from delving in deeper.  We’ll prove them wrong.  We’ll remove the drop cloth and reveal the elephant.  We’ll name the dead as fight to save their brothers.  We’ll call bullshit when we see it; only in this way can we save the world.