“Until” by Ayisha Knight

5 Jun 2009 In: Arts and Culture

Thanks to Leroy Franklin Moore Jr for the link to this poem, “Until” written and performed by Ayisha Knight. I’m loving the clip, but since it’s an excerpt of the piece, I’m also posting her performance on Def Poetry Jam so you get the full effect.

Full Text After the Jump More »

Bay Area folks, please join me Monday, June 8th for this upcoming event/extravaganza I’ve put together with my friend Griselda Suárez for the 2009 National Queer Arts Festival, featuring an amazing line up of established & emerging poets crossing generations, genres and borders of any and all imaginations. I’d love to see you there!

Artists include Dorothy Allison, Ching-In Chen, Elana Dykewomon, Rigoberto González, Eloise Klein Healy, Cole Krawitz, D.A. Powell, Ely Shipley & Griselda Suárez. Hosted by Jewelle Gomez.

First Published in Hebrew in Ynet

The proposal to legally bar the commemoration of the Nakba on Israel’s Independence Day reflects growing trepidation in Israel about the inevitable encounter with the Palestinian Nakba and the understanding that the Nakba is a foundational part of Israeli identity. Until recently, the threat of exposing the Nakba was barely felt. There was no need to fight this repressed demon, which might suddenly reveal itself and disrupt the seeming calm of a harmonious Jewish democracy. But the Nakba is not a demon, not the fruit of deceptive imagination, and therefore we should not underestimate the challenge facing Israeli society: to recognize Israel’s part in the expulsion of most of the Palestinian inhabitants of the land in 1948, the destruction of most of their localities (upwards of five hundred), the annihilation of urban Palestinian culture, and tens of massacres, rapes, incidents of looting, and dispossession. Looking into so dark a mirror takes courage and maturity, demonstrated in the research of such scholars as Morris, Gelber, Milstein, Khalidi, Pappe, and others, as well as in the diaries of Netiva Ben Yehuda and Yosef Nahmani.

It is not surprising that the “appropriate Zionist response,” to inscribe the forgetting of this human horror into law, comes from the circles of the political right-wing. They have always been more sincere in their racist attitudes toward Arabs in Israel, compared to the Left, which marketed to the world and to us its honest (yet illusory) longing for peace.

More than eighty years ago, it was clear to Jabotinsky, the leader of the historic Right and perhaps the most realistic Zionist thinker, that the establishment of the Jewish state required citizens to be forever soldiers under the protection of the “Iron Wall.” Jabotinsky understood that Jewish existence depended upon violent strength, on killing and being killed in a predominantly Arab region that would never accept them. A year ago his student, Tzipi Livni, suggested that Palestinians remove the word ‘Nakba’ from their lexicon as part of a comprehensive peace deal. Our current Prime Minister announced during his recent campaign that he would expunge the Nakba from educational curricula (since when has the Nakba been taught anyway?) and would order the teaching of Jabotinsky’s legacy.

The Greek philosopher Thrasymachus taught us that “the law is what is good for the stronger,” but no law, not even that of the democratic Jewish Knesset, can erase the horrors of history. Traces of these horrors will always be visible, in both personal and collective memory and forgetfulness. In Israel, the sabras, prickly cactus bushes, have become vivid and thorny monuments of the Palestinian Nakba. This obstinate plant was brought by the Palestinians from Mexico to mark and defend their territory. The sabra not only persists in the landscape long after Israel expelled those who planted it, it also grows wild despite attempts to eradicate it. Perhaps, in response, the Israeli government should make it unlawful to eat its fruit?

At the same time, remembrance of the Nakba is growing and takes root in the deepening fissures in the Iron Wall. The Palestinian refugees – the majority of Palestinians are, indeed, refugees – have mourned the Nakba from the moment it occurred and demand justice. After the Oslo Accords, when they realized their concerns would be pushed aside indefinitely, they began to struggle effectively against the worldwide disregard for their tragedy. However, the proposed law to forget the Nakba is in actuality a response to cultural shifts in Jewish-Israeli society to coping with this disaster. The real threat to the colonialist Iron Wall occurs as the majority of its soldiers refuse to obey the commandment not to remember. In the last few years, hundreds of Jews in Israel (and around the world) have participated in events commemorating the Nakba during Israel’s Independence Day. In recent years hundreds of Israelis have turned to Zochrot – an organization working to bring the Nakba to the consciousness of Jews in Israel – to request information on the topic. Journalists, writers, architects, as well as people in film, television, and theater who grew up on the good old stories of Israel seek to discover their repressed past. Educators are requesting the educational packet on the Nakba developed by Zochrot. Soldiers from the Palmach are turning to Zochrot towards the end of their lives to share stories of what they did and saw in 1948.

Who knows, maybe the day is not far off when the choice at the center of the political debate will be the State of Israel as it is today versus recognition of the Nakba and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. When this day comes, the citizens of Israel will be able to choose between two clear visions: separation and perpetual violence versus a life of equality for all the country’s residents and refugees. To hurry this day forward, maybe we should make up another Hebrew word: “de-colonization.”

Eitan Bronstein is director of the Israeli organization Zochrot.

For the Sake of the Innocent Fifty

27 May 2009 In: Social Justice

First published in Reconstructionism Today Autumn 2006, and is still relevant today. Tonight, Wednesday evening, May 27, we count forty nine days, which is seven weeks of the Omer.

Genesis 18: 22 – 33: God determines to destroy Sodom. Abraham argues with God, reminding God that God must live by the moral rules God established, and asks if God would destroy the guilty along with the innocent if Sodom had fifty innocent people. God says that, if there are fifty such people, the whole will be forgiven for their sake. Abraham continues haggling, bargaining God down to saving the entire city for the sake only ten innocent people. God agrees, “I will not destroy, for the sake of ten.”

This is the scale of justice established by Abraham and God – all of the evildoers on one side, ten innocent people on the other. And, as Jewish commentary cautions, not just any ten people, but ten people who are a subculture of righteousness, who work together to try to change their society from within. For only ten such people, even a land mired in deceit and destruction must be spared.

As a U.S. citizen, I find this equation reassuring. Within the deceit and corruption and violence and hate, there are so many more than ten of us working together so hard, so constantly. But can I, can we, apply the standard of God’s justice to other societies? In other societies, as in our own, where some people commit, justify, and glorify acts of tremendous violence, can we even begin to believe that ten justice-seeking people might turn the tide? That just ten people, working together, can be reason enough to save a civilization from the power of God’s wrath, or even from the human-made curses of confinement, starvation, of death by disease and hunger and despair?

Can my own people – as human and frightened and irrational and generous and kind and vengeful and forgiving as any other – can my own people honor God’s scale for mercy, compassion, justice? Dare we? If so, how many of the thousands upon thousands upon thousands upon thousands of non-violent, justice-building Palestinians need my people acknowledge before we stop our obsessive counting of only those few who do violence? How many, knowing that God, with God’s compassion and mercy beyond understanding, established that all must be saved for the sake of ten?

Can we be one-half as compassionate as God?
Then twenty is the number of good people, working for change, to require that all be saved.
There are twenty such people in Palestine.

Can we be one-quarter as compassionate?
Then forty is the number.
There are forty.

Dare we try to be 1/60th as compassionate as God?
Then six hundred is the number.
There are six hundred.

And what if, as human as we are, we can be only 1/1000th as compassionate as God?
Then the number is ten thousand.
There are ten thousand.

Oh, my people, my chosen people, can you see them? Do you dare let yourself see them? And when you dare see them, do you dare be Abraham, willing to barter for their lives even with God, so certainly with our elected and hired and self-appointed community leaders – our rabbis, institutional officials, even with the Israeli government? How many will be enough, for us to stop counting only the bombers and the rocket launchers and their screaming supporters? How long until we look through Abraham’s eyes, and seek reasons to save, not to condemn, knowing that merely ten is the number bargained for in our names?

On this, the 49th day of a counting which we do to remind ourselves that counting matters, I offer this prayer for the 50th day: Baruch atah Yah, eloheynu veylohey avoteynu ve’imoteynu: For the sake of the righteousness of my ancestors, for the sake of their good deeds, please hear my prayer: Please teach us to count with compassion, even when we are afraid, and to count with justice, most especially in the face of violence. May we stand proudly in the long shadow of Abraham, and count with a fierce determination to stand up for we know to be right.

Recently, a group of authors and poets gathered at Afikomen Books in Berkeley, CA, for an event titled Jewish Women & Spirituality, to read work they had published in Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal. I read an excerpt from “Second Glances,” which appeared in Bridges last year. It’s a piece I wrote with my friend Nzinga Kone-Miller, about the intersections of our identities as African American Jews.

I found the reading extremely moving. My fellow writers were/ are a phenomenal group of women, with incredible stories to share. I felt very privileged to be in their presence, and to hear their words. Unfortunately, my co-writer Nzinga couldn’t make it to the event, so I read excerpts from our piece on my own.

During my time at the podium, I felt a deep sense of connection with the audience, and it was a very powerful experience for me. The excerpts I read were about the experiences I’ve had of people reading my face, or, more specifically, reading (or not reading) Jewishness in my face. It was a strange sensation, to talk to a room full of Jews about my face, and what other Jews have had to say about its Jewishness — while the audience members were looking at me, at the very face I was describing! It felt vulnerable, delicate, and odd. But wonderful, too.

Thank you to Nitza Agam for organizing the event, to Alison at Afikomen for coordinating things, to JVoices and Zeek Magazine for co-sponsoring, and to Nitza, Abby Caplin, Juliana Birnbaum Fox and Lenore Weiss for sharing their work.

Ezra Nawi is a veteran activist who is facing jail time for protecting the livelihood of Palestinians in the southern West Bank and standing up to the army. To say that Ezra Nawi is a caring individual is an understatement. He exudes a tender and warm spirit that I have not seen in many people. He has been an important fixture of Israeli activism against the Occupation for decades and, as a result, the Israeli government would love to see him out of commission.

Ezra has lived his whole life in Jerusalem and knows it well. His complex love for the city is evident to anyone who has ridden with him in his old Nissan truck, winding through its streets as he reminisces about the city before 1967. Being of Iraqi descent, he speaks fluent Arabic and is the connection point between Israeli activists and Palestinians in the southern West Bank.

Ezra is a raw and open human being. He is patient and tranquil but on occasion will give the authorities a piece of his mind. After so many years of working against an Occupation that only gets stronger, and in dealing with the insults of the police and settlers, I understand his frustration. Last Friday, as we were leaving the city of Hebron after being forced out, a police officer that harbors a unique hatred for Ezra stopped us. This officer has on numerous occasions used vicious homophobic insults against him. On this day, Ezra had had enough and called the officer ‘stupid’. This offense, of course, wound Ezra up in jail for the afternoon.

I have been with Ezra on many excursions in the West Bank and have appreciated his ability to ease tense situations. A couple of weeks ago in the village of Safa, the IDF invaded using tear gas and live ammunition. Members of Ta’ayush came face to face with the IDF, documenting the violence. This was my first confrontation with extreme violence from the IDF. Ezra could sense my anxiety and approached me, slapped me on the back three times and smiling, said, “quite an adventure you are experiencing!” His presence cut the tension in the air, including, I think, the tension of the soldiers surrounding us.

The Israeli government knows that if Ezra was put in jail Israeli activists would not be able to function as well in the West Bank. I believe this is the motive behind their efforts to incarcerate him for an offense that he has told me he did not commit. Neve Gordon has recently written a piece in the Guardian about Ezra. His “crime”, writes Gordon, was trying to stop a military bulldozer from destroying the home of Palestinian Bedouins from Um El Hir who have been living under direct Israeli control for 42 years. He is accused of assaulting an IDF soldier while standing inside the house just before it was demolished. Ezra has mentioned to me that the lawyers have offered him a plea bargain that would largely diminish his sentence, but he insists he cannot admit to something he has not done.

Ezra is an example of those activists in Israel that refuse to conform to the notion that Israelis and Palestinians cannot forge and maintain friendships and work together. The government is trying to make him an example by throwing him in jail, to send the message that Israelis shall be punished for attempting to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians. As Ezra has said, if these types of actions continue, only hatred will be left in this land. I feel privileged to count Ezra as one of my friends and am honored that he refers to me as “Yosef HaZadik.”

Joseph Dana is a member of Ta’ayush and maintains the blog ibnezra.wordpress.com

Today was the start of the 2nd Palestine Festival of Literature, slated to open at the Palestinian National Theater in East Jerusalem. The festival began as a call from Edward Said, to “reaffirm the power of culture over the culture of power.” As participants were gathering, the Israeli police shut down the theater. The French consul who was in attendance, offered the French Cultural Center as a new venue in the moment, in order for the festival to continue.

And at 6.10pm around 15 Israeli soldiers marched in, declared the event over and told everyone to get out. After a few of minutes of protest and confusion the the French Cultural Attaché declared we could move to the French Cultural Insitute – saving the day. And so followed a mass move down the road.

Chairs were hurriedly arranged in the garden of the Institute and a speaker system was set up but we weren’t able to transfer our translation facilities. Which lost us some of our audience. For the first half hour three police vans loitered outside, but they left eventually and left us to get on with the evening. After which it was only really the noise of a passing wedding that interrupted things.

Because of restriction of movement under Israeli military occupation, from May 23-28th, the festival of internationally acclaimed writers and poets will be traveling across checkpoints to perform and speak in front of audiences in Ramallah, Jenin, al-Khalil/Hebron and Bethlehem, with the festival beginning and ending in Jerusalem. Participants include Suad Amiry, Suheir Hammad, Nathalie Handal, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Jamal Mahjoub, Raja Shehadeh, Ahdaf Soueif, Henning Mankell, Victoria Brittain, Clare Messud, Deborah Moggach, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Michael Palin, Alexandra Pringle, Pru Rowlandson, Jeremy Harding, Rachel Holmes, Brigid Keenan, M.G. Vassanji and Iamal Mahioub.

Last year was the start of the festival. Author Andrew O’Hagan was part of the festival last year, remarking:

“I had come as one of the writers attending the first ever Palestine Festival of Literature. Thousands of people turned out: they wanted to believe that Palestine is not just a cause but also a culture and a country, a place not simply for stone-throwing but for ideas and for modernity.”

Chair and Founder of PALFEST, Ahdaf Soueif said: “We were overwhelmed by the responses of both our audience and our authors last year; so we can’t wait to go back. We found that Palestinian cities — even in the extraordinarily cruel circumstances in which they find themselves — manage to produce brilliant art and top class education. PALFEST aims to help them carry on doing that.”

Below is a video clip of the first day of the festival (including waiting hours to cross the border near Amman, Jordan) and a trailer from the 2008 festival. You can also keep up with the festival on their blog, and on the author blog as well.

I’m finally posting a few stories that were in the cue. We’ll start with France. This was huge. Last Saturday, the night before International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, France became the first country in the world to no longer classify trans identities as a mental illness. Advocates in France have been putting the pressure on for awhile now to have this changed, and a handful of public figures also called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to change their classification. The full article was translated, and I’m posting it below.

Transsexualism will no longer be classified in France as a mental illness, a government decision hailed Saturday as “historic” by the associations concerned, on the eve of the International Day Against Homophobia and transphobia.

The Minister of Health, Roselyne Bachelot, has appealed “in recent days” to the High Authority of Health in order to make a decree that transsexualism be removed from the category of psychiatric disorders, a spokesman for the department stated.

Until now, transsexuals benefited from a fee waiver for their medical care by being classified under ALD23 (affection de longue durée 23 – long term condition 23) for “recurring or persistent disorders”.

For the Department of Health, it is a “strong signal sent to the whole community”, since transsexuals felt that being included under the ALD23 was stigmatizing.

This classification, arising from that of the World Health Organization (WHO), was also linked to the fact that transsexualism appeared on the list of pathologies identified in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to which the medical profession refers, as was the case for homosexuality a few years ago.

In a forum published in Le Monde (newspaper) dated Sunday-Monday, numerous personalities including first secretary of the Socialist Party Martine Aubry, the communist Marie-George Buffet, Green (party member) Daniel Cohn-Bendit and even Nobel Prize winners such as Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (medicine) and Elfriede Jelinek (literature), asked the WHO “to no longer consider transsexuals as being affected by a mental disorder”.

It is because the WHO decided on the 17th of May 1990 to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses, that this date has been retained for the International Day Against Homophobia and transphobia, celebrated Sunday, starting Saturday in many places.

It is therefore symbolic that France chose this time and date to be “the first country in the world” to “remove transgender identity from the list of mental diseases”, commented the IDAHO Committee. This “historic decision” is also “an explosion of hope for all trans persons around the world”, according to Joël Bedos, secretary-general of the IDAHO Committee.

The HES (Association for Homosexuality and Socialism) also “hailed” this announcement which is in response to “demands that the LGBT community have been making for a long time in France.” For HES, it is time, at present, to go beyond the symbolic and take concrete actions to fight against the violence and discrimination facing trans persons.

Because beyond “this measure for declassification, there is still much to be done before transsexuals (…) are recognized as full-fledged citizens”, insisted the coordinator of the group Inter-LGBT.

Two days later, on Monday May 19th in the United States, activists were both inside and outside of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) annual convention in San Francisco, presenting to attendees (by Dr. Kelley Winters), and protesting outside, calling for the reform of gender identity related diagnoses.

Judy Berman on Salon.com reported:

“We got homosexuality out of the DSM because of protests at the APA,” [Ehrensaft] told Psychiatric Times. “Now it’s time to do the same with GID.” She also noted that a movement within the association is moving toward a “more balanced” Task Force. With psychologists and activists working together to reform the APA’s position on gender identity, it may be only a matter of time before we stop labeling perfectly sane transpeople mentally ill. Imagine that!

Ruby Cymrot-Wu, a local Bay Area LGBTQ Jewish organizer protested outside the APA convention:

Last Monday, I participated in a protest as part of the larger fight for liberation from institutional gender oppression. I was honored to be part of something so powerful. We called for the APA to recognize gender identity and expression as natural human variation, not as disease or mental illness to be systematically diagnosed. Activists from all over the country, including several queer, genderqueer, and trans-identified health care professionals, took up the megaphone in a collective cry for justice from institutional discrimination. In a time when the debate about access to services for LGBTQ people is often only in terms of how it relates to marriage rights, the GID rally was truly refreshing and empowering for me. Access to high-quality, holistic health care is a must. I hope my work as an activist and advocate for LGBTQ people in the Jewish community creates room for dialogue about making comprehensive change, like health care reform, rather than continuing to pour resources and energy into efforts that secure rights for only some of us.

Listening to all the endless, pompous rhetoric about Jerusalem, one might be convinced to believe that this is a city inhabited by divine symbols, not by real human beings, flesh, blood, sweat and all. But Jerusalem is obviously both: a city of unique international symbolism and home to more than 700,000 people.

Each year since 1967 Israel celebrates “Jerusalem Day,” commemorating the city’s “unification.” Forty two years have since passed, and this year the occasion was noted on May 21st. Forty two years, and “unification” has remained one of those lofty Jerusalem symbols, but with very little factual basis. High rhetoric simply cannot obscure the harsh reality.

As detailed in the new “Human Rights in East Jerusalem 2009: Facts and Figures” report, published by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), an alarming picture of systematic discrimination is exposed. Written by ACRI attorneys Tali Nir and Nisreen Alyan, some of the unfortunate highlights in the report are:

  • 9,000 children in East Jerusalem cannot attend school: they simply don’t have classrooms to study in.
  • 2 out of every 3 residents live below the poverty line.
  • More than 150,000 people living in East Jerusalem cannot get a legal connection to the water network.
  • Systematically, it is all but impossible for East Jerusalemites to build legally, for lack of city planning or building permits. The result: a growing number of house demolitions, while thousands live in fear that they might be next.

Hundreds of Jerusalemites, Israelis and Palestinians, demonstrated together near the Old City’s Damascus Gate, in protest of this unacceptable reality which denies the human rights of close to a third of the city’s population. It wasn’t a grand demonstration, and there were no divine symbols.

It was an earthly thing led by people who feel strongly about very real problems such as injustice and discrimination. And yet, for an hour just outside the walls of the old city, East and West Jerusalem, ordinarily worlds apart, were ever so slightly closer.

A version of this article is also on Huffington Post.


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