In my last post I rather critically examined the motivations and impact of foreign visitors to Palestine. And I received several very good comments in return. (I hope more of you will comment via email, or on this site now that the comment function is turned on.)
I excerpt a few here:
Diane Shammas, who also lived in Gaza for several months this year, and is returning at the end of this month: “I think we should continue ‘dark tourism.’ You know why? It might attract and develop interest in some folks who will “join our team” (become activists for Palestine). As you and I know, it is not a humanitarian-preferred destination, as maybe Africa or Latin America is. Even if it means the local community must be open to being ‘zoo material,’ at least people are coming. There must be some sagacious saying, not as trite as the following: you get more with honey than vinegar.”
Jean Athey, a leader of the Peace Action chapter in Montgomery County, MD, who volunteered in the West Bank in 2008 and participated in the Gaza Freedom March in 2009: “I do think that seeing things for yourself, firsthand, is what makes for change when people return home. That’s why Israel spends so much money bringing groups to Israel from the U.S.– they want people to go back to the U.S. and talk to all their friends about the terrible security situation in Israel and to donate to Israeli causes and vote for legislators who will support Israeli policy,” explains Athey. “I also think that speaking to the choir isn’t all bad and is maybe essential. We all need reinforcement for our views and the sense that others are in agreement with us and working in tandem with us. So, these presentations help, I think, to solidify struggle and bring people together in a way that can make us all stronger.”
Steve France, a Maryland activist and organizer of the vigils at the DC Holocaust Museum, cautions, however, that “blowback” can occur when visitors to the Occupied Palestinian Territories return and, when speaking to others, magnify the severity and danger of the conditions for better effect. “This can make their listeners feel simultaneously more sorry for the people there and alienated from a population that seems strange and frightening. Instead of taking action to help, they want to flee or devote their time to something more hopeful.”
Steve makes a very good point. I would add that Palestinians often feel offended when they read descriptions of their lives that don’t match their reality. For example, Gazans hate it when someone asks “can you get [some type of basic consumer good] here?” They are quick to set you straight and assert that you can find just about everything you want in Gaza. They wonder why we don’t care as much about their lack of freedom as we do about their lack of things…Do we want to keep them dependent?
And there was Ali Glenesk, who shares my concern about the perhaps unintended consequences of our good intentions. She shared with me a speech delivered in the 1960s by Mexican activist Ivan Ilich. Here is just one excerpt from that speech: “Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America [or any other stricken region of the world]. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”
On that rather sobering note, you might be wondering now what I am doing in Gaza. In other words, am I all talk?
I originally decided to live in Gaza for five months because I realized that I would always be a bit of an ignorant do-gooder if I didn’t live in my chosen region of focus – Palestine – long enough for the people to begin to forget I’m a guest. Five months isn’t long compared to a lifetime, but I do feel it was enough to put “my feet firmly on the ground,” as well to teach me the diversity and nuances within the overall culture.
When I returned, I spent the next three weeks on a speaking tour from one coast to the other…and thinking about what I could do as an individual to make a difference, to not squander the experience and connections I now had. I didn’t want to focus on political activity alone; it’s a given for me, but progress just seems too slow. I also feel a need to do something that has a real, concrete, practical impact. In other words, I want to be a “starthrower.”
So, I asked myself, what can I do that will use my education and experience in communications to both help the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and chip away at the ignorance and stereotypes that prevent more Americans from empathizing with their plight? (Most Gazans will tell you that the greatest contribution you can make to their cause is to change our own government’s discriminatory and biased policies. The only way to do that, I’ve concluded, is to change public opinion, so that pressure is eventually exerted on their elected officials.)
One of the most common comments I hear when I return from Palestine and speak to various groups, even from relatively educated activists, is “what the Palestinians need is a Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr.” It’s the same “cult of the leader” we saw in the United States when Obama was running for president and so many people saw him as a “savior” of sorts. Yet, what the Tunisian revolution should have shown us all once again is that we cannot always wait for a strong leader to emerge, and one is not necessary to bring about the change we need. Palestinians have many “Gandhis” among them who are resisting occupation and corrupt government every day in very creative ways, and my fellow ISM volunteer, Keren Batiyov, and I have set out to document these stories and given them an audience. They do not have the notoriety of Ghandi and MLK, but all they need is a platform, which we hope to help provide. They also do not have a similar mass following — in many cases, because Israel has attempted to snuff out their budding fame by raiding their homes and imprisoning them or their family members. Others are still young, only needing encouragement and recognition to become the leaders of the future. We hope to provide them a platform to amplify their voices
Among the individuals from Gaza I will feature are:
The organizer for the popular resistance committee who leads a weekly protest in the deadly “buffer zone” by the Israeli border, learning from the growing support for protests against the “separation wall” in the West Bank.
- A businessman who has responded to the ban on imports of glass and other construction materials by making tiles, ashtrays and decorative sculptures out of recycled glass from the destroyed buildings.
- Youth who are telling their stories and expressing their emotions through blogs and graffiti. (I have partnered with a graphic artist to produce a poster showcasing some of these powerful images.)
- Troupes who are “acting out” through breakdance and rap, while helping other youth do the same instead of turning to militias or giving in to apathy.
- A young professional who is planning for the return of Gaza’s former status as a favorite tourist spot in the region, refusing to give in to the lack of hope for a “normal” future to which so many others have succumbed.
In April, Keren and I will visit the West Bank to record the many similar stories there, and then proceed to the refugee camps of Lebanon, because among Palestinians, they are perhaps the most neglected. These stories are important to disseminate among Palestinian youth as well; I was appalled to learn recently that one conflict-resolution program in the West Bank was using a film highlighting Martin Luther King Jr. to inspire youth to choose non-violence. They don’t need imported role models; they have their own. Yet it has become obvious to me in Gaza that many Palestinians here are unaware of the rich history of civil disobedience in the rest of Palestine. I’m sure West Bankers have the same ignorance of Gazans. It is time to help them unite.
[One caveat: We use the term “Palestinian Gandhis” because it is easily understood shorthand for leaders who use nonviolence as a resistance tactic. However, it is important to note that Ghandi himself believed in the necessity of violence in some situations – as do most Palestinians – and did not have a spotless track record himself in terms of prejudice.]
Watch this site for more information on how you can get involved in supporting this project. As John Lennon said, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”