On Thursday 21 August 2008 the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit will host a celebration for Israel’s 60th anniversary.
From their website “For Israel’s 60th anniversary, we are going to rekindle the spirit, energy and pride of those exciting days by holding the largest gathering of the Jewish community in more than half a century. On August 21, 2008 over 15,000 people from Detroit and neighboring Jewish communities will join together at the Michigan State Fair for the greatest celebration in the history of our Jewish community. We will have exclusive use of the State Fairgrounds (including rides and attractions) the day before it opens to the general public, which allows us to “Israelize” the State Fair.”
An ad-hoc group of activists, pulled together by the Middle East Task Force of Ann Arbor has organized a protest of this event. Michigan Peace Team agreed to endorse the protest. Below is an open letter in response to those who have questioned this decision.
Recently Michigan Peace Team agreed to endorse a protest of the event “A Fair to Remember”. Since then I have heard “through the grapevine” that there is some concern and surprise about this. I wanted to put out there where we are coming from. As I stated to write, however, I realized that really this email is about where I am coming from, and not necessarily something all of us at MPT have discussed. (Although we did agree by consensus to endorse the event.)
Initially the group organizing the event asked MPT to place a peace team. We thought long and hard about that and I asked (via email) for input from a number of MPT members. In the end it was determined that we could not place a third party peace team because we would not be seen as a 3rd party. That, given our work in Palestine, our outspoken opposition to the occupation, and the articles and opinions and expressed by returning team members and on the web site that those organizing “A Fair to Remember” would simply not see us as any different from those doing the protesting. Therefore, we would not be a deterrent to violence – and may even be a lightning rod for it.
Those organizing the protest were disappointed in our response and, at least some, did not really understand where we were coming from with it. They asked if they could meet with some MPT folks and I and another MPT member met with them. It was a good meeting. By the end of the meeting they were essentially asking MPT if we would reconsider placing a team, and if not would we consider endorsing.
In the end we agreed to endorse, ask those from MPT who come to be willing to be in high tension areas, and to offer workshops if needed/wanted in some de-escalation skills.
That’s the “what”. With that background here is my thinking on the “why”.
From my email inviting people to attend:
“You may wonder why I think it is important to protest this event – isn’t it just a celebration of culture and tradition, and aren’t such celebrations and rituals important? Of course, celebrations and rituals are important and celebrating Jewish culture and faith is something to be respected. That is not, however, what this is. This is a celebration specifically the establishment of Israel 60 years ago. And whatever your beliefs are about Israel, a student of herstory cannot deny that for Palestinians the Nakba (“the catastrophe”) is nothing to be celebrated. Celebrating the Nakba is – to many – celebrating the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, occupation, home demolitions, building of the apartheid wall, settlements, and checkpoints. Celebrating the Nakba is – in my opinion – celebrating genocide. I think it is important that this message be heard also and not forgotten in the celebration. And I think it is important that a strong nonviolent voice be present to share “the other side of the story.”
So, my goals for the protest are more or less 3 fold:
The first is obvious – to stand in solidarity with those who are the most victimized by Israel.
The second is simply “to speak truth to power”. To stand in the face of a group whose pro-Israel stance has proven to be powerful and say basically that I am not intimidated by that power and that I will continue to seek and to speak truth.
The third is to remind everyone that there is a flip side to the celebration; that the celebration comes at a cost that is too high; that it is a celebration of racism, theft of land, great suffering, apartheid… that at the core this is a celebration of genocide.
And as I type I realize there is actually a 4th thing – what one of the organizers of the protest spoke about at a recent meeting; making connections– billions spent to demolish homes in Palestine and so little spent to protect people from losing their home in Detroit.
Her comments about connection remind me: Oppression and occupation can take many forms.
So – that is the why, at least for me.
One of the concerns that I always have when doing Palestine Solidarity work (especially, sadly in and around Ann Arbor) is the spirit and tone of the event. For me, it is critically important – both ethically and tactically – that we remain nonviolent.
Beyond that, I confess to sometimes being very uncomfortable with the “spirit” of such events – and some who often take part in them. A spirit that while may be technically nonviolent (of course, there is a diversity of opinions on what is violent/nonviolent even among good willed people with smart analysis.) engages in rhetoric and tactics that seem to me counterproductive, and not calling people to act from their highest selves
So, it is a risk. But I think it is a risk worth taking. It is a risk that is there at every demonstration on this issue.
I know that those who are planning this are committed to ensuring it is a nonviolent protest. I believe that is, in part, why MPT was approached. And when we met with them they reiterated this intent.
Yet, they are also aware that the event is a public one and we do not have the right to tell people what signs to hold and what they can and cannot say. So we can tell individuals we are uncomfortable with a sign that says ‘fuck Israel’ or express our desire not to have any signs that are attacking or contain symbols – such as swastikas that make me sick to my stomach and seem only to shut out any chance of creating and opening for change. But the bottom line is we cannot forbid them to be there.
So, I want to be there with alternative signs because I don’t the only voice speaking up against the celebration to be one that says “fuck Israel.” I want outside observers, media, and yes- those organizing and/or attending the “A Fair to Remember” event to know there is caring, committed, nonviolent, sane, loving, rational people who do not see this as something to celebrate!
(Now, I am not saying that those who choose to protest in ways that I am not comfortable with are not sane, loving….sometimes it’s a matter of perception….but that’s another post.)
I admit too that the language currently used in the flyers and advertising is not language I am most comfortable with. It’s not violent. It’s just not my style. Just doesn’t feel right somehow. But, am free to make up my own leaflets, and flyers – I haven’t. So….
I also worry too that there is a great deal of “guilt by association” going on. Again – the rumor mill is always rampant – so I take it all with a grain of salt. But I do want to put it out in to the open rather than “talk around” issue. I have heard that there is concern about getting involved because it is “the vigil group” that is organizing this and that a few individuals in particular are the catalyst.
Actually, that is not true. They may come – they have endorsed and being genuinely concerned with what is happening to Palestine usually do come to such events. But they are not the ones who initially put the call out there, and have not been among the primary organizers.
But, I almost hesitate to point that out because so what if they were? I know the vigil has been a divisive tactic. I know that some disagree with it, and have had disagreements with some of those who consistently attend. I remember again that good hearted people with strong analysis can disagree over the best tactics and messages. And even over what is violent. I believe it takes a variety of tactics and strategies and personalities to bring about change.
A little over a year ago I had put out a call to an eclectic group asking for help to do an MPT fund raising event. I had blind copied folks on the initial email until I was sure folks were comfortable having their email used. People from every “side”, every “camp” emailed me privately, essentially saying “I love MPT and I will do anything for them. Or MPT does great work in Palestine and I will do anything to support that. But if ____________ is involved I don’t want to be. (The ___________ was always a different person.) I remember feeling so sad, and so angry all at once. I still feel sad and angry when I think about it. How will we ever make a difference if this is our attitude? We don’t’ need “the powers that be” to tear us apart and make us ineffective if we can do it all by ourselves!
It brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from a very wise woman. “I feel as if I’m gonna keel over any minute and die. That is often what it feels like if you’re really doing coalition work. Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing……If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable it is not a broad enough coalition.” – Bernice Johnson Reagon
I believe we need a broad coalition of we are going to bring about Justice in the face of AIPAC, and others who unconditionally support Israel. I am not willing to support violence, I am not willing to engage in it myself – but I am willing to be uncomfortable.
I believe protesting this event is important. I don’t want to let others set the stage for me. I don’t want there to be no voice showing oppositon to a celebration of 60 years and I don’t want to let the only voice against it be one I don’t feel comfortable with. I want my voice, and those I trust and feel comfortable with to be heard as well.