Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas: Palestine and The Other

I'll never forget when my dream of Israel died. I grew up in a family in which we were proud of Israel. We watched "Exodus" with joy. I could not understand Vanessa Redgrave claiming that Zionism was racism. And then came the Israeli massacres of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila. I understood.

How did the dream of a homeland, a place free from discrimination and oppression, become oppression incarnate?

It's evidence, to me, why revolutions don't work. In a Derrida-esque way, the margin becomes the center and carries out marginalization of The Other, in this case Palestinians. Israel as a state, I am sorry to say, learned the wrong lessons from millennia of oppression of Jews - the state learned how to violently control the imagined enemy. That's not to say that some Palestinian groups are NOT the enemy. Clearly they are. But this is to a great extent a created enemy; the state moved from battle with local Palestinian farmers trying to keep their land and life, to the classification of an entire social group as terrorists.

The American valorization of Israel, especially in the 1950s, poses an interesting comparison to the recent U.S. election of Barack Obama. From student papers and overall analysis of media discourse, it's clear to me that even conservatives and others opposed to Obama on the basis of his goals and policies, his vision of civil society, were pleased that he won the election. They were celebratory because it proved that America is "no longer" racist. American support of Israel, I think, arose out of similar social processes. America was anti-Semitic (note our government's refusal to allow Jewish refugees from Europe into the U.S. until after WWII and 'discovery' of the concentration camps). American support of the dream of a Jewish homeland became, similarly, proof that we weren't anti-Semitic.

Does that make it true? Semitism, like racism, runs deeper than politics. Politics express the will of society - but, in a complex state society, only imperfectly because politics is also about power and strategy and compromise in the name of the art of getting things done. How basic cultural ideas are expressed in the political domain do not completely and accurately reflect those cultural ideas work. A conservative can support the idea of a Black president and still be racist in his or her everyday dealings with African-Americans. Similarly, anti-Semitism lies deep in American society. Here, we can use the concept of hegemony. The Christmas holidays permeate American life. Christmas is fundamental to our social and economic relationships - note how essential buying and selling at Christmas is to the American economy. It's the taken-for-granted, so that anyone who chooses not to participate in Christmas is labeled 'wrong' in some way. People who object to Christian nativity scenes are labeled as demanding special rights. The response of people of different subcultures in the U.S. has been to elevate whatever religious ritual they have around northern winter time to a celebration along the lines of Christmas. Hanukkah is a good example of this. Assimilation here means maintain a surface difference that marks membership in a group, but in its key points accedes to and incorporates the larger national ritual (the frenzy of consumerism). Fear of "The Other" (Arabs, Jews, African-Americans) continues, alleviated somewhat by evidence that "they're just like us" if they participate in the national rituals.

And the violence in Israel/Palestine continues. Palestinian children are bombed in their schools; pregnant women can not go to the hospital to give birth; Palestinians are daily harassed and humiliated at checkpoints; a wall is built to enclose "The Other."

So many Israelis support peace and justice. When will this become the dominant mode of interaction? The U.S. is complicit in the violence of the Israeli government. I am ashamed.


Kerim Friedman said...

Interesting post. Reminds me of Marx's argument in "On the Jewish Question."

Kate said...

Hmmm, I haven't read that for ages. I should go back and look at it.

Kate G. said...

Thanks to Kerim: http://www.salon.com/opinion/kamiya/2009/01/06/gaza_war/print.html?acquire