Hold It All

Philosophy/Poetics/Politics

Month: September, 2004

In Gratitude for Howard Zinn

The other night at the Webster University Film Series, I saw the documentary-tribute: Howard Zinn: You Be Neutral on a Moving Train. It is an inspirational portrait of a working-class Jewish man who served as a bombardier in World War II and went on to become a historian and teach at Spelman College in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement and then at Boston University during the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

Zinn is best known for his A People’s History of the United States, which considers American history from a different perspective from that of generations of high school and college textbooks, which might be fairly called the cheerleading perspective on American history. Zinn’s contrary starting point is: What was this history like for the natives, blacks, women, workers, minorities and activists? In the film Zinn points out that the book has been widely reviewed in newspapers and magazines, but never in the official academic journal of U.S. history.

Perhaps Zinn is not taken seriously by his fellow academicians because he writes primarily not for other academics but for students (of all ages) and citizens to understand the past so as to have a positive influence on the present. In this respect, Zinn reminds me of another Boston-area professor, Noam Chomsky, whose scores of books demystify U.S. foreign policy and the role of the intelligentsia in propagating the agenda of elite groups, which is typically passed off as “the national interest,” rather than the special interests they really are.

The film is obviously an admiring portrait of Zinn, whose warmth, determination and conscientiousness shine through the still photos, the film clips from the 1960s (including one with Dan Berrigan before and after their 1968 trip to Hanoi), and the latter-day interviews with Zinn. His critics weren’t interviewed, and I am sure former Boston University president John Silber would have harsh words for Zinn, who has been bestowed, I’m sure, with the usual invective lavished on critics of power over the last forty years – Communist, anti-American, traitor and maybe even “self-hating Jew.”

Perhaps because I saw the movie a couple of days ago, Zinn was on my mind in my Saint Louis University Social Justice class today. As an opening reflection, I shared the following quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King;’s “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” at the Atlanta Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1967: “Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather that sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we are all going to perish together as fools.”

I invited my students to prove me wrong: I suggested that, no matter who is elected President in November, when the national MLK holiday comes around in mid-January 2005, neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Kerry would dare, in their speeches about King’s legacy, to mention this King, the anti-war King. Sure, whoever is president will remember and approve of the “I Have a Dream” King, but not the relentless critic who discerned God’s judgment on the U.S. for its mass murder in Vietnam. Around the time of the King holiday, the President (or any mainstream Democrat or Republican leader) won’t be quoting from King’s April 1967 Riverside Church speech, in which he described his own country as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

And lest my students think I am somehow a zealot for the liberal Mr. Kerry, I pointed out that John Kerry at age 27 could at least have understood Dr. King, for this is the Kerry who spoke before Congress about the war crimes and atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam. That Kerry is now gone, replaced by one whose loyalties are all too predictably “sectional,” to wit, his support of the war in Iraq.

The title of the movie sums up Zinn’s committed, engaged brand of scholarship and activism, best exemplified, I think, in the following quotation from South African bishop Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” As a professor and writer, Howard Zinn is not neutral and, in his own modest way, he has found a path similar to the Jesuits at the University of Central America in San Salvador: to put research and knowledge in the service of the people who can find within themselves and in their communities the power to change the way things are to the way things ought to be.

I’ve read Zinn for years before I saw this documentary, which only increased my respect for him. I also have had a personal reason for gratitude. In early 2001 I had just finished the proofs for my book on Elie Wiesel, and I needed people to write blurbs for the back of the book. I sent an email to Howard Zinn (who didn’t know me) to inquire if he’d be willing to do this. I realized that he probably gets asked to do this once or twice a week. In very short time, I heard back that he was happy to do so, so I sent him a copy. He sent me some weeks later the following blurb: “Mark Chmiel offers a bold and much-needed analysis of the moral pretensions of one of our country’s most prominent public intellectuals. His thoughtful and measured examination of Elie Wiesel’s ideas and actions reaches beyond the subject of this book into the heart of what is moral behavior in a troubled world.”

I would contend that the subject of the documentary on Howard Zinn is “the heart of what is moral behavior in a troubled world,” a world that has been ravaged by U.S. military and economic intervention (from Vietnam to Central America to the Middle East, etc.), by the growing economic disparity between the nations of the North and the global South and by the reliance on violence as the supposed cure-all to any social problem. After seeing the film, I went to my shelves and found a book of interviews between David Barsamian and Zinn, entitled, The Future of History. In the following passage, Zinn reflects on his days at Spelman College in the early 1960s and offers an inspiring and challenging vision for those of us who spend a good part of our life in schools, whether as teachers, students, administrators or staff:

Anybody who was in any way in the U.S. socially conscious knew vaguely that there was racial segregation. But to be right there and witness it in action, to talk to my students about their early lives, about the first time they realized that they were black and being considered different and treated differently. To participate in sit-ins and to see the atmosphere around us in Rich’s Department Store suddenly change from friendly to hostile when four of us, two black and two white, my wife and I and two black students from Spelman, sit down in this lunch counter at Rich’s. Suddenly it’s as if a bomb had been dropped or plague been visited on it. The people gathering around us and shouting and cursing. Getting an inkling, being white people, just an inkling, of what it is to be black and be subject all your life to the thought that if you step one foot out of line you’ll be surrounded by people who are threatening you. That’s a learning experience. Learning comes in layers. There’s something you think you know? You don’t know it until you see it very up close, penetrating you. So it was a learning experience.

I learned about teaching, too. I learned that the most important thing about teaching is not what you do in the classroom but what you do outside of the classroom and what you do to bring the lessons of books and the writings of thinkers and the facts of history, what you do to make a connection between that and the world outside. To go outside the classroom yourself, to bring your students outside the classroom, or to have them bring you outside the classroom, because very often they do it first and you say, I can’t hang back. I’m their teacher. I have to be there with them. And to learn that the best kind of teaching is the one that makes this connection between social action and book learning.

Through truth-telling, nonviolent direct action and solidarity with people living on the underside of the American Dream, domestically and internationally, Howard Zinn provides an example for me, as a university adjunct professor, how to work, teach and learn in a constructive way in these dark times.

zinn_arrest

Righteous Jews

for Hedy Epstein

A reflection on Roane Carey and Jonathan Shanin, ed., The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New York: The New Press, 2002).

1.

When I came back from Palestine after working with the International Solidarity Movement for ten weeks, I was invited to give many talks on my experiences there – at churches, civic forums and universities. Because I had just witnessed some heart-breaking and grim realities, I often included as a meditation in these presentations the following reflection from George Steiner, a Jewish literary and cultural critic.  In 1967 Steiner addressed a group of Jewish intellectuals on the meaning of Jewish values in a post-Holocaust world. He spoke with characteristic gravity:

I’ve made it clear in my own work a thousand times that I agree with Elie [Wiesel] about the absoluteness, the ontological horror of the catastrophe [of the Holocaust]. But I’m also a man, and a million Indonesians — this is the latest good estimate — were massacred in cold blood, and without America moving. It was very convenient; they were allegedly Marxists. This happened within the last six months. Massacres are also going on right now, and, if I cannot comprehend how men in this room did not move in 1940 or 1941, I am not sure I can comprehend why I do not move now when certain things are going on in Asia, at the very moment when I’m speaking. This evening we’ll go to our friends, to our dinners, to our good sleep, while torture is going on and many human beings are being burned alive. And the great difference is this: it is at least conceivable that when the first news got through about Auschwitz — and there is some evidence on this — there was not actually in the minds of those who heard it the possibility of believing it; it seemed outside the categories of understanding. We who come after know that whatever the news is, it may be so. Whatever the massacre, the torture, the children being burned now in our name — it may be so. . .  I think it is our job as Jews, if anywhere in the world human beings are being burned alive, to ask ourselves: How can we sit still?

After these talks, sometimes, a few people – Jewish and non-Jewish – would come up to me and say about Steiner’s question, “That doesn’t just sound like a Jewish vocation. Human beings should not sit still.” A point well made.

 

2.

Roane Carey and Jonathan Shanin’s collection of short articles, The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent, calls to mind the ethical impatience of George Steiner in a world marked by political atrocity. It is a valuable record of Israeli Jews who denounce with words and oppose with actions the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These men and women refuse to sit still and accompany Palestinians in the most excruciating and dangerous of situations as well as refuse to serve in the occupied territories. Since many people in the United States are subject to a line of thought that equates criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism, this book makes for eye-opening and, ultimately, inspiring reading. Mohandas Gandhi stated that non-cooperation with evil is a sacred duty (see Gandhi on Nonviolence, edited by Thomas Merton, p. 56). These Israelis – including historians, journalists, a former Knesset member, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, novelists, attorneys, philosophers, doctors, among others – follow this principle of Gandhi and make a deep option for life and justice, for both Palestinians and Israelis, as they see their well-being inextricably woven together. Are these Israelis to be condemned, in toto, as “self-hating Jews” for refusing to close their eyes? Are they to be derisively categorized as “traitors” for insistently calling attention to Ariel Sharon’s bellicosity? Are these officers and soldiers “cowards” for their decision to face ostracism and scorn for following their consciences?

Consider these cullings from the book that reveal what motivates and agitates these dissidents.

Tom Segev, one of the New Historians in Israel: Life in a society that is not being conducted in a manner that seems right to us, acts of wrongdoing, and sometimes even real war crimes perpetrated in our name arouse in us the need to at least leave behind a testimony that we were against it. Xiii

Ishai Menuchin, chairman of Yesh Gvul (“There is a Limit,” the soldiers’ selective refusal movement in Israel): Being a citizen in a democracy carries with it a commitment to democratic values and a responsibility for your actions. It is morally impossible to be both a devoted democratic citizen and a regular offender against democratic values. Depriving people of the right to equality and freedom, and keeping them under occupation, is by definition an anti-democratic act. The occupation that has now lasted a generation and rules the lives of more than 3.5 million Palestinians is what drives me, hundreds of other objectors in the armed forces, and tens of thousands of Israeli citizens to oppose our government’s policies and actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. [124]

Adi Ophir, a philosopher: In this state one must focus on the Jewish victims and look aside, systematically and deliberately, every time Palestinian victims come into sight. The daily victims of closures and encirclements are not even mentioned. The other victims are dismissed with military rhetoric: they are objects of “targeted eliminations” or subjects of “collateral damage.” The blindness is systematic and contagious. [62]

Shamai Leibowitz, a lawyer: To maintain our rule we will have to continue to mete out collective punishment that often cruelly affects those who are not guilty. Among the steps we have taken is the enclosing of millions of human beings in their cities, towns, and villages. We often deny basic rights, such as the right to earn a living, to study, to move freely, to purchase basic necessities, to vote, to travel for medical care, to move sick or injured to medical facilities, etc. But most severe is that innocent civilians die. While this occurs in every violent conflict throughout the world, and throughout history, what is happening now is more than unintentional collateral deaths of civilians. Ruling over millions of people who despise your rule necessitates such deaths of youngsters, women, and elderly. [145]

Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions: If Palestinians are to be held accountable for their terrorist actions, then Israel must be held accountable for policies and acts of state terrorism (for example, attacks on densely populated civilian centers with F-16s and Apache gunships, disproportionate violence against civilian populations, collective punishment, assassinations, and the indiscriminate use of snipers). Israel must also be held accountable for the structural violence inherent in its occupation (house demolitions, land expropriation, settlements, destruction of agricultural land, monopolization of water supplies, impoverishment through economic closure, induced emigration, and all the other expressions of occupation). Like other human rights covenants, the Fourth Geneva Convention holds accountable individuals who have committed “grave breaches” of the Convention (Article 146). Yet, with the help of its own legal system and the connivance of the international community, Israel acts with absolute impunity vis-à-vis international law, and has thus far escaped accountability. [39]

Yigal Bronner, an activist with Ta’ayush (Arab-Jewish partnership): I haven’t seen the really devastating scenes of Jenin and Nablus. But what I saw, heard, and experienced – the child confined to his home for a month, the old lady running after the food truck, the men lying on the floor of the army vehicle, the soldiers humiliating my Palestinian friends at the roadblock – all that was quite educational. It allowed me to understand that what Israel has been destroying in Palestine is much more than the infrastructure of terrorism. It has been destroying the agricultural, educational, medical, and road infrastructure; it has been eroding goodwill and underlining whatever is left of the Palestinian desire for peace. It has been sowing hunger, poverty, humiliation, and hatred, all of which only serve to fortify the infrastructure of terrorism. [92]

Baruch Kimmerling, a sociologist: I accuse everyone who sees and knows all of this of doing nothing to prevent the emerging catastrophe. Sabra and Shatilla events were nothing compared to what has happened and what is going to happen to us. We have to go out not only to the town squares, but also to the checkpoints. We have to speak to the soldiers in the tanks and the troop carriers — like the Russians spoke to their soldiers when they were ordered to retake control in Red Square — before entry into Palestinian cities turns into a murderous urban warfare. And I accuse myself of knowing all of this, yet crying little and keeping quiet too often. [76]

Neve Gordon, professor at Ben-Gurion University: Many years from now people may ask (just as we wonder about other times and places) how it was that a whole population did not realize what was happening. 100

Gideon Levy, a journalist: (in an open letter to Shimon Peres): Have you actually seen the Qalandiyah checkpoint, even once?…Then you could go to the village of Yamoun and meet Heira Abu Hassan and Amiya Zakin, who lost their babies three weeks ago when IDF soldiers wouldn’t let their cars through the checkpoint, while they were in labor and bleeding. Listen to their terrible stories. And what will you tell them? That you’re sorry? That it shouldn’t have happened? That it’s part of the war on terror? That it’s shocking? That maybe it’s Shaul Mofaz’s fault and not yours? [81]

Ilan Pappé, professor of political science: How can people like myself, so alienated by their own society and so revolted by what it and its government are doing, be effective in changing local public opinion? It sounds like a quixotic exercise. But then I remember all the Jews who joined the ANC, the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-colonialist movement in France. I remember the brave Iralisn and Spaniards who did not succumb to the lure of fascism, and I draw courage from all these examples to go on telling my own people, from within, to break the mirror that shows them a superior moral body. They must replace it with one that exposes the crimes they, or on their behalf their various leaders and governments, are committing against humanity and the Palestinian people. [115]

Ze’ev Sternhell, author of The Founding Myths of Israel: In colonial Israel, and more especially the Israel in which advocates of “transfer” sit in the government, human life is cheap – and therein lies the most serious danger to our future. A society in which dozens of children are killed as a result of army operation can easily lose its last remaining moral inhibitions. The fact that the Palestinians are also killing indiscriminately cannot absolve us of responsibility for what is going on in the territories. The killing of innocent people is gradually becoming a norm, and that norm is being implemented in the service of a goal that seeks to deprive another people if its freedom and its human rights: The Sharon government is turning the territories into one huge jailhouse, and is turning its citizens into wardens who are called upon to suppress a prisoner uprising. That was not quite the purpose of Zionism. [160]

Shulamit Aloni, a former Member of the Knesset: Whoever claims that the settlements are Israel’s catastrophe from a security and economic point of view is not an anti-Semite but a patriot. Whoever says that this government is committing crimes against humanity is not an anti-Semite but an honest and humane person. Whoever condemns the demolition of houses in Rafah and Jerusalem, opposes the provocative liquidations and fostering of ferment in the area so that we can avoid going to the negotiating table, does so out of love for their homeland. [87]

Neve Gordon: Ever since September 2000, much of the Israeli media, which had been well known for its critical edge, has turned into a government organ. For Israeli television viewers, Palestinian suffering is virtually nonexistent, while attacks on Jews are graphically portrayed, replayed time and again, thus rendering victimhood the existential condition of the Israeli Jew. The deeply rooted victim syndrome has been manipulated over the past year in order to rally the public around the flag. [102]

Jeff Halper: The army and police had their backs turned to us as they guarded the bulldozers and drills from the angry Palestinian crowd, including the frantic home owners who were about to see their life savings go up in dust. We quickly ran to the bulldozers and lay down in front of them. A symbolic action, to be sure, but one that created a scene and gave news photographers something to “shoot.” (Because we are Israelis, we have the privilege of being shot only be cameras.) For the soldiers our actions are simply stupid and incomprehensible, and they cart us away unceremoniously. We don’t bother to argue with them or explain to them; it is enough that we act as vehicles for getting the images of demolitions out to the world. Later, when the reporters talk to us, we can explain what is happening and why it is unjust and oppressive. Our comments will find their way into official reports; this evening the U.S. State Department officially deplored the demolitions, and we know that European and other governments take note. That is our role. Helplessness in the face of overwhelming force and callousness, yet faith that all of you, you know, will generate the international pressure necessary to end the occupation, once and for all. As an Israeli, and speaking strictly for myself, I have despaired of ever convincing my own people that a just peace is the way. Israelis may passively accept dictates from outside, but a just peace will not come from within Israeli society. [95-96]

Yitzhak Laor, a poet, novelist and playwright: The military logic behind [Israeli] behavior says: “We have the power and we have to exercise it, otherwise our existence is in danger.” But the only danger is the one facing the Palestinians. It is enough to destroy its social tissue, to starve dozens of villages, to induce high rates of infant mortality. The West Bank is going through a Gaza-ization. Please don’t shrug your shoulders. The one thing that might help to destroy the consensus in Israel is pressure from the West, on which the Israeli elite is dependent is so many ways. [120]

Amira Hass, journalist with Ha’aretz: Without cameras and outside observers, it’s as if these things never happened. [154]

Gila Svirsky, co-founder of the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace: Rather than analyze, this is a time to act. Here in Israel, the peace and human rights movement is working tirelessly on every imaginable front. Soldiers who refuse to serve the occupation are going to jail; convoys of food and medical supplies hastily collected have been distributed and more are being collected; human rights workers are risking their lives to monitor action; peace activists have braved hailstorms of tear gas and stun grenades in facing army checkpoints; foreign activists have served as human shields throughout the territories. In my history of activism, I can recall no parallel sense of urgency, in which lives and daily bread and being set aside to pursue a cause. But I also recall no parallel feeling that a calamity of our own making is unfolding before our eyes. I implore you to take action of your own. [183]

 

3.

Recently at our Friday morning meditation at the Center for Theology and Social Analysis, one of our members, Marty King, shared an excerpt from Jesuit priest and anti-nuclear resister Daniel Berrigan’s Ten Commandments for the Long Haul, a book first I read with fascination when I was an impressionable college senior back in the early 1980s. The passage that stuck with Marty read as follows:

[People] also ask frequently: “Where does your hope come from, how do you keep going?” Which seems to me a serious question, but composed out of insufficient evidence, a question having about it a certain immodest aura, which I’m being invited to stand under. (Should one stand under a light he did not kindle?) I like Philip’s typically laconic answer: “Your hope is where your ass is.”

As in the case, I judge, of those who sit in. Or, in another version: “Your hope is where your feet are” (as in the case of those who march). But hardly ever, in my experience, is one’s hope where his head is. Passing strange, to think of it, that those whose heads are presumably screwed on straight, should ask me, “Where is your hope today?”

Passing strange, and strangely true. Hope dwells in the posterior, or in the hands and feet. But hardly ever in that noblest of human members, whose functions, we are told, are to speculate and ponder and envision and calculate and predict and do all those things named by us, properly human. But in fact, so tragically and often: improperly inhuman.

The Other Israel should embolden us, render us more thoughtful, not only about the situation in Israel/Palestine, but about our responsibility as citizens of and religious practitioners in the United States, the global hegemon. For as we learn of what risks these Israelis are taking to be in solidarity with the Palestinian people under siege, we can extend ourselves – our posteriors, our hands, our feet – in the direction of ethical clarity and social insecurity. In so doing, we can make our own the conviction of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva:

I have two enemies in all the world,
Two twins, inseparably fused:
The hunger of the hungry and the fullness of the full.