Boycotts Must Happen in the Heart

As a writer born in the South, both black and a woman, I’ve had my share of disagreements with the legendary white male writer, William Faulkner, who, in the Sixties, was quoted as saying if it came to that, he’d join the white Southerners refusing integration in the South and “shoot down n—–s in the street.” He was an astonishing writer, with the same intense fidelity to the psychic history of his terrain – Mississippi – as Gabriel Garcia Marquez has to his, in South America. It was incredibly painful, and disappointing, to think of him in this light. I consider this disappointment, oddly, as I sign on to the boycott of the current International Film Festival inToronto, which intends to showcase Israeli films in a celebration of Tel Aviv’s 100 years of existence, as if Gaza was not recently besieged and bombed, and as if no Palestinians ever lived in Tel Aviv.

Occasionally I visit black churches (for the infusion of color and culture from my Southern childhood) and I hear the same stories I heard as a child: of the Hebrew children, a.k.a. Israelites, still told with admiration to our young people in order to help them along Life’s way. To be devoted, as Ruth was to her mother-in-law, to be brave and loving as were Jonathan and David, to trust in “God” and Moses and any number of characters whose stories were drilled into the consciousness of a captive slave population that was forbidden to read. It amazes me, in these churches, that there is no discussion of the fact that the other behavior we learned about in the bible stories: the rapes, the murders, the pillaging, the enslavement of the conquered, the confiscation of land, the brutal domination and colonization of all “others”, is still front and center in Israel’s behavior today. I’m always struck by it, myself. In fact, going into Gaza recently to celebrate International Women’s Day, felt like entering that part of the Bible that I think frightens every child: the bloody part that everybody accepts because “God” tells them they have to, and any back-talker is likely to be struck by lightening. Or turned into a seasoning.

When I perceive the knottiness in people’s thinking that any discussion of Israel’s behavior causes, I understand a deep battle is occurring re: denial and acceptance: denial of copiously documented crimes against humanity, on Israel’s part, and acceptance of who many of today’s Hebrew children, whose ancestors are so lovingly studied and relied upon by countless generations all over the globe, have turned out to be. As with my experience of William Faulkner, we are seeing a deeply disturbing side of the very people we’ve been taught to admire, and it is hard to separate actions we deplore from our feelings of familiarity, gratitude and solidarity. Indeed, it has felt to far too many people who choose to remain silent in these grim times, as if they are losing mentors and spiritual guides, as if they are losing friends. So effective has been the weekly indoctrination from our churches; so effective has been the centuries of propaganda.

However, over fifty years – roughly the amount of time it has taken to destroy most of Palestine and to replace it with Israel – is too long a period to indulge in moral fence straddling. It is bad for our health. Something must be done; and it must be done without bloodshed and without, hopefully, sowing more dragons’ teeth. Which is to say, making more bombers, besiegers and “warriors.” Saying no to complicity, with a spirit that acknowledges suffering of everyone involved, is a good start. Boycotts were made for this.

What is good to grasp is that boycotts, to be effective, must happen in the heart. That is why, when the empty buses rolled through the streets of Montgomery, Alabama in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and no black persons showed any interest in being on them, those of us who heard about it or saw the photographs, wept. We realized we were one. A people. When the white supremacists arrested Rosa Parks, we felt her love of us. At that moment it was the strongest nutrient for our growth we could have imagined. We were young and seemingly weak, but we saw that we were cared about and represented, by her bravery, in the adult world; our value sanctioned. When Martin Luther King and Ralph David Abernathy and Coretta Scott King and others joined hands and said: You know what? We can do without whatever it is you’re selling that is harmful to us, we were filled with joy. There is a connection that happens, when we make a stand; of that we can be sure. It is fueled by sacrifice, but the sacrifice is, ultimately, liberating. It is fueled by love, which is infectious. It is ignited by our determination not to lead the young into gray areas where it is easier to smoke a joint than to figure out why grown ups don’t speak out about wrongs that are apparent to everyone.

A boycott story: The Beautiful Israeli Sandals That Fit Me and Looked Great.

There they were, I was trying them on. They were fantastic. However, I live in Northern California where political consciousness is quite high and is likely to bring you down to earth when you least expect it. The saleswoman said apropos of nothing: Yes, they look wonderful on you. (Pause). They were made in Israel. Oops. Who came to mind when she said that? Ariel Sharon? Netanyahu? Tsivy Livny? No. No Israelis at all. Who came to mind was a young Palestinian woman I had recently learned about; she had been arrested eight years ago and held in solitary confinement, in an Israeli prison, ever since. Never charged with anything. What did this woman do with her days, I thought. Could she possibly be the person who, in her cell, made these shoes? Suddenly, I could see her there in her cell. It felt cold. It felt barren. It felt lonely. She was all of these things,and more. Seeing her there, torn away from her world, made so strong an impression I lost all interest in the sandals. I could not even bear to look at them. I noticed her cell had a metal door and that there was a huge lock. I could never have purchased anything that would keep her there. I could only wish with all my heart to become a key.

I ended up buying a really boring pair of sandals made in Germany, and the irony of this didn’t escape me either.

I walked out of the shoe store strengthened in some indefinable way; I had kept faith with the part of my spirit that knows what is right to do. As the people of the Toronto film festival know what is right to do. In fact, almost everyone knows what Festivals in the past, festivals leading up to the Second World War, for instance, were used to accomplish. A slanting of the story to make the bully look respectable. History will repeat itself until we stop it.

The attempt to “brand” Israel/Tel Aviv as a benign place, through the propaganda of an International Film Festival celebration, is like pouring deodorant over a smell that has already escaped to the four corners of the world. In any case, I for one will never forget the smell of Gaza. Where the children, at this moment, are playing in the white phosphorous covered rubble left after Israel’s bombardment of their playgrounds for 22 days. I am thankful I can not forget. Because, as Native American writer Paula Gunn Allen writes: “the root of all oppression is the loss of memory.” If this is true, health for humanity will come from never doing to others what we wish to forget.

Faulkner will always have a place in my heart, for his extraordinary novels and stories, and his exceptionally long sentences. I will not permit him to take all of himself away from me because of words he allegedly said that are so unworthy of him. I prefer to remember that he also warned us that there are some things so harmful to the human spirit that we must not only refuse to accept them, bu
t refuse to bear them, entirely.

Though I am unable to verify the information about the Palestinian female detainee mentioned above, which is worrisome to the journalist in me, there is an organization dedicated to keeping a record of Palestinian Prisoners: The Palestinian Prisoners Society. The following is their report about another woman being held, without charge, in solitary confinement. I am especially grateful that this woman has a name.


Female detainee in solitary confinement since 2005

Thursday July 23, 2009 00:42 by Saed Bannoura – IMEMC News

The Palestinian Prisoners Society (PPS) reported that female detainee Mariam Tarabeen, a [female detainee] from Jericho, is still in solitary confinement in an Israeli detention facility for more than four years without any justification.

Tarabeen was kidnapped by the Israeli forces in 2005, and was sentenced to eight years, the Palestinian Prisoners Society (PPS) reported.

The PPS said that one of its lawyers visited Tarabeen, and that she reported that she is subjected to ongoing violations and harsh treatment by the guards.

She has been in solitary confinement for nearly four and a half years. The Israeli Prison Administration hasn’t provided any justification for keeping her under solitary confinement.

There are an estimated 11,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and prisons. There are reports of widespread torture of prisoners, women and men, covering decades of abuse. There is the placing of individuals in grave like boxes for extraordinary lengths of time, beatings and denial of sustenance, and the forcing of prisoners to remain naked, among other horrors. For women there is a double bind: It is sometimes fatal for women in Muslim cultures to admit to certain “violations” of their persons, because, no matter the circumstance, they are blamed and severely punished for their own misfortune. By their own folks. This is almost unbearable to realize. The karma for this injustice for the entire culture is, to my mind, reflected in the suffering we witness in places where women have few or no personal sovereignty rights. And where men of conscience are too traumatized to stand beside women. Or where the men themselves are punished for taking a stand. To change all this will require all the courage the world can muster. But change it we must.

Alice Walker

Items of Interest:
Toronto Film Festival
Brand Israel Campaign
Palestinian Prisoner’s Society