Vijay Prashad.: Not backing down: What it means to speak for Palestine

  • The panelists of the “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech & The Battle for Palestinian Rights” held at UMass May 4. From left are Linda Sarsour of MPower Change, moderator Vijay Prashad, Marc Lamont Hill of Temple University, Dave Zirin of The Nation and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 5/9/2019 11:20:54 AM
Modified: 5/9/2019 11:20:44 AM

I’m surrounded by young people from the camps on the outskirts of Ramallah (Palestine). They are frustrated and angry. Each day, they see their threadbare lives encroached upon by settlements and by Israeli troops.

They ask, “What do you expect us to do?” They have in mind the end of the two-state solution, as the Israeli territory slowly edges toward the Jordan River and erases both the West Bank and East Jerusalem from a future map of Palestine. Answers do not exist.

They are right to be both frustrated and angry. The bulldozers that demolish their homes do not come to bring peace. Israel, as its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son recently said, wants the land from the (Jordan) River to the (Mediterranean) Sea.

To offer the dilemma of Palestine — even in the most reasoned terms — has been very difficult in the United States for a host of reasons. Each time I’ve written about the Israeli asymmetrical bombing of Gaza in this paper, the reaction has been severe. My employer would get phone calls (and even a private visit from the Anti-Defamation League) asking that I be fired, and awful things would be written about me on social media in response.

But the eyes of the young Palestinians reminded me of the stakes of this discussion. To ignore them is perilous. It is to halve humanity, to pretend that they do not exist, to allow the bulldozers and the bombers to do their work without resistance.

The event

Sut Jhally and the Media Education Foundation have been truth-tellers about many things — patriarchy and the advertising industry, racism and the wars of aggression, as well as about the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people. Their film, “The Occupation of the American Mind,” is precisely about the difficulty of having a reasonable conservation about the situation in West Asia.

When Sut asked me if I’d be involved in an event to be held at UMass called “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech & The Battle for Palestinian Rights,” I thought about those young people in Ramallah. Their voices needed amplification. I was certainly going to be involved.

The panel came together — Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Linda Sarsour of MPower Change, Marc Lamont Hill of Temple University and Dave Zirin of The Nation. We expected it would be — because of Roger and Linda — a grand event. I mean, we’re talking about Roger Waters. He is an emblem of my childhood. Without Pink Floyd and the occasional joint — as well as the clarity of Marx — I doubt I’d have made it sane through my teenager years.

But I didn’t expect the kind of reaction to the event. A lawsuit, an avalanche of hate mail. I’m used to hate mail. It is the occupational hazard about writing about difficult things — the U.S. wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the refugee crisis, the assault on Iran and Venezuela, the occupation of the Palestinians. I’ve traveled to each of these places and written from inside their crises, studying the other side of violence, the victims of ugly wars that are decided upon from antiseptic offices such as in the White House.

Most of my dispatches have been against the grain of the corporate media, a series of reports that try to bring the human story of conflict to the breakfast table of people who are far from such violence. I recent wrote of Porgera, in Papua New Guinea, where Barrick Gold — a Canadian mining company — is tearing the earth to pieces and tearing the heart of the communities that live on the gold. No one wants that kind of story. It encourages hate mail. Somehow if you report against the grain you are treated like a pariah.

Groups like the UMass chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and the Western Mass chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace built the stage on which we were to stand. It is important to recognize that ideas aren’t heard or treated as reasonable until people fight for them to be taken seriously.

For years, it has been impossible to offer a balanced point of view on the conflict in West Asia. Attacks on the integrity of journalists who are not stenographers of the Israeli and U.S. state are routine. I am often called “anti-Semitic.” For someone who is a lifelong anti-Nazi and anti-fascist, I shudder when I am accused of anti-Semitism. It makes me feel ill to be accused of anything so hateful.

It was so powerful to sit on the stage with the panelists and hear them fight back against that false accusation. As Linda put it, we are the frontline fighters against fascism and have no dealings with any kind of discrimination. I agree with her. Those of us who want to amplify the voices of Palestinians and who want to see justice in West Asia do so from the standpoint of anti-discrimination — from the same standpoint that animates the work of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

As we sat in the Fine Arts Centre, Gaza experienced the hard edge of the Israeli military. A question came to us about the rockets fired from within Gaza. This is the question without context, as Marc Lamont Hill put it. It wants the focus to be on Hamas, but not on the occupation, on the harsh social conditions that produce the conflict.

History is supposed to start with these rockets, each time they are fired. And yet, history has a longer arc. Almost a year of marches to the Gaza perimeter fence for the Great March of Return resulted in the death of almost 200 Palestinians, most killed by Israeli snipers. This is the pressure cooker situation that resulted in the death of 32 human beings (four of them Israelis) this past weekend.

There is no celebration for the death of any of these human beings. Each is a tragedy. The temptation to say that the author of all this is Hamas is high for those who would not like to see how the occupation produces a terrible situation, an ugliness that produces ugliness, an unsettled and fragmented humanity yelling at each other, unable to grasp that there is no exit unless people learn to treat each other with dignity.

Those young people in Ramallah haunt me. They want deeply to live different lives. So do the Israelis, even the soldiers. Their conflict is in front of them, the anxiety of hatred at their feet. It is hard to explain to people in the United States what this is like. People in places like the Pioneer Valley do not live near war. The U.S. conducts its wars far away, the detritus in places as broken as Afghanistan and Iraq.

These “outsourced wars” allow people in the United States to pretend that they are not bringing ugliness into the world. But we do. You do not need to pull the trigger to feel like you killed someone or destroyed a community. Both the victim and the perpetrator live as less than human.

When our panel said, “we won’t back down,” I think what we meant was that we will refuse to stop trying to bring humanity into the world. Just because we’re alive does not mean we are human. It takes effort to become a human being.

Vijay Prashad, the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, is the editor of Strongmen (O/R Books, 2018). He lives in Northampton.

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