Monday, November 19, 2012

Operation Pillar of Cloud and the need for a fresh perspective

Anyone who's been watching the news lately knows that, once again, violence is ramping up in Israel-Palestine. Once again, innocent Palestinians and Israelis are being killed. And once again, ideologues of all stripes are burying their heels in the sand, convinced that their side is completely in the right, stubbornly insistent on "staying the course" no matter what the cost.

Especially here in the West, it's pretty common to hear that "this has been going on for centuries," that "Arabs and Jews just hate each other," that these two sides are just going to keep fighting no matter what. But I have a problem with the narrative that this is merely two "equal" sides battling each other. If that were truly the case, for example, Israel shouldn't act so surprised when Hamas fights back. Israel's stated aim in this recent attack on Gaza, as well as previous ones like Cast Lead and the ongoing siege in general, is to inhibit rocket fire from the Strip. The number of rockets fired in recent days has exploded, so either Israel is failing miserably in its stated goal, or it is trying to accomplish something else entirely.

It is true that Hamas has disgusting anti-Semitic language in their charter. But too often I see people equating all Gazans with that language in ways that are untrue and counter-productive. One of my good friends, for example, is a Palestinian Catholic from the West Bank. He has relatives in Gaza, also Catholics, who voted for Hamas. This was obviously not a vote of fundamentalist Islamist furor. Much like the Republican party here in the U.S. is often more extreme than your everyday conservative Joe, the average Gazan is not out to slaughter all Jews. These relatives of my friend, for example, voted for Hamas because they were building schools and health clinics when the moderate party was doing absolutely nothing to ease hardships for average Palestinians. It was a vote of desperation, not fundamentalism. Israel needs to understand that it cannot pen these people in and restrict their futures forever. Not only is it morally reprehensible, it has only made Israeli citizens less safe. It is not exactly difficult to predict that trapping people in an increasingly dire situation with fading hopes for improvement only breeds more violence. I hope and pray for peace, and that is why my heart breaks to see this dead-end spiral of violence continue.

It is true that there are some who have deep-seated anti-Semitic feelings that inspire them to wish violence against the Jewish people. But there are also those who believe Judaism gives them the right to persecute and kill Palestinians, burn their olive trees, build walls and steal land. This is an ongoing problem that is one of the greatest roadblocks to achieving peace, and all the talk about a two-state solution has done nothing to stop it. The result is that Gaza is basically still ruled by Israel (despite the historic "disengagement"), and the West Bank is no longer viable as a state; the largest settlement blocks now split it into pieces, with settler-only roads essentially turning the West Bank into a labyrinth of checkpoints and areas entirely off-limits to Palestinians. You cannot create a state out of a piece of land that has almost no geographic continuity and that, with the settlements taken out (as Israel consistently refuses to consider shutting down all but the smallest of these settlements -- which is why peace talks are still at a standstill) amounts to less than 20% of historic Palestine.

The inevitable end result of all this is annexation. The two-state solution is pretty much dead. All that really remains to be seen is how the government will treat the current residents of the occupied territory once this finally becomes the reality. It could be continued apartheid, or it could be equal democratic representation. Zionist lingo demonizes the latter as equivalent to the destruction of Israel, as the current demographic reality shows that there simply are not enough Jewish people in Israel to ensure a majority without significant demographic engineering. But it doesn't take a genius to recognize that "demographic engineering" eventually amounts to ethnic cleansing. This is not exactly democratic behavior. And countries that have grappled with past ethno-religious conflicts have been able to find ways to ensure each group has the ability to be represented fairly in government, have their own institutions, develop their own schools and preserve their own culture in the context of bi-nationality. It seems a pipe dream now for Israel-Palestine, but it is possible.

It's a popular talking point that "Palestinians want to wipe Israel off the map." But likewise, there are elements of Israeli society that deeply desire to wipe the rest of Palestine off the map. In fact, many such elements already claim boldly that Palestinians never existed at all. "A land without a people for a people without a land" was not a statement made by people who genuinely had no clue that hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Arabs alongside a sizable minority of Jews, were indeed living there; it was a statement made by people who genuinely just did not believe that most of these individuals counted as people. Palestinians allegedly teach their children blindly to hate Israelis (even though reputable studies of Palestinian textbooks have concluded that such allegations are not true). Yet many Israelis also teach their children that Palestinians' lives are unimportant, that they have no right to exist in Israel as equal citizens. In either case, I'm not sure what makes one more palatable than the other. Right-wing elements in Israeli society glorify militarism in ways I find equally disturbing to those of hardcore Palestinian nationalists like Hamas. I can't support either one.

Meanwhile, the majority of Palestinians are simply trying to live their daily lives in spite of having most all aspects of those lives controlled by a country whose core identity willfully excludes them. And likewise, most Israelis also simply want to be left alone and wonder why the violence continues. The current situation allows the worst elements of both sides to dictate life for the majority. Ultimately, neither side benefits. It is a dead end that desperately calls for a new approach.

No one is saying Jews don't have a right to live in the Holy Land. But I don't see how it's fair for one group to live there at the expense of the other. At the time of Israel's creation, Palestinians owned 92% of the land yet were only offered to keep less than half of it. Hindsight is 20/20, and many Palestinian leaders now admit that they wish this had been accepted. A common argument that Israel was formed through land purchase is a little disingenuous; with the blessing of the U.N., many parcels of land were indeed sold, but only because of legislation formed by the fledgling state of Israel that allowed land purchase if the current owners were deemed "absentee" -- and many of these owners were absent because they had fled the violence in a hurry only to be forcibly prohibited from returning. That's not exactly the same thing as an honest sale. Does that make it OK for anyone to hurl rockets at civilians? Absolutely not. But it does call for acknowledgment that many people still living today have a legitimate grievance against the Israeli government that should not just keep getting swept under the rug.

So if you see Palestinians expressing a desire to abandon the "peace process," do understand that it is not because they don't want peace. It is because every applauded "resolution" and "step forward" has ultimately only offered cover while facts on the ground made their situation worse. They no longer have any faith in the international community, because the international community has repeatedly violated their trust. The PA, for example, merely runs the occupation on behalf of Israel while its top politicians pad their pockets, safe in cozy Ramallah. Hamas claims to offer an alternative, and this is why they have been politically successful -- not because all Palestinians just hate Jews that much. I say this not to speak on their behalf, but simply to tell their concerns as I have heard them expressed to me: Palestinians want to be able to get to school, to move around, to get jobs, to be safe, to have access to places important to them, to travel, to escape from political no-man's land, to have a passport again, to be represented in their country and not marginalized. When these issues are addressed, extremist elements like Hamas will not have the fodder to incite people as they now do. They will not have scores of youth who are facing fewer opportunities and increasingly dire futures willing to do just about anything to resist their situation. Perhaps a belief in compromise is tantamount to "negotiating with terrorists." But I have a hard time seeing how anyone who genuinely wants innocent people on both sides of the green line to have peace can instead keep advocating for strategies that have only exacerbated the situation.

There is plenty of room in the Holy Land for all its citizens. I hope one day we can see this happen. One person, one vote. No permits, no demolitions, no Area C, no Jewish-only roads. Settlements and refugee camps can both just become towns, part of the fabric of the land, instead of hotbeds of controversy. Resources should be distributed fairly, so that no one has to have their water turned off so settlements can have swimming pools. Refugees who still hold keys and deeds to existing properties in Israel should have the ability to return, or at least to receive some kind of restitution. Jews from other Middle Eastern countries who were forced to emigrate to Israel in past decades should likewise be able to return if they desire (a few have already done so in Tunisia, actually). Palestinians whose former homes have since been destroyed should still have the option to move to Israel, buy property, and become productive members of society. They should not be excluded because they are not Jewish. And Israelis or Jews or anyone who wants to live in Nablus or Bethlehem or see the seashore in Gaza should have the option to do so fairly and without excluding or causing hardship on their neighbors. That is a true democracy.

I realize this may sound ridiculously idealistic. But I just can't accept a situation that offers no hope of any sort of equitable solution. Previous ethnic and/or religious conflicts like Ireland, S. Africa, Brussels, etc., were also once thought to be intractable, yet history teaches us that reconciliation is possible. Bombing the shit out of Gaza, on top of the continuing occupation, only makes Israel less safe -- not to mention the high civilian casualties make it simply an unacceptable policy. I view every life lost, whether Palestinian or Israeli, as a tragedy. This is why I think it's time to be honest that Israel-Palestine desperately needs a new approach.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Extremist who?

A complaint I hear (or read) on just about every platform for discussing Islam's role in America goes something like this:

"If the majority of American Muslims are moderate, why don't we see more of them speaking out against extremism?"

The implied meaning, of course, is that despite the earnest attempts of countless American Muslims to intone their peaceful views until they are blue in the face, despite those who continue to jump through hoops in an attempt to make an increasingly hostile wider society accept them, despite the fact that nearly half of all arrests made in terrorism cases here in the States are directly based on tips from within the Muslim American community, somehow American Muslims still "aren't doing enough."

So in the interest of objectivity, let's observe a few facts:
1. Though estimates are notoriously difficult to come by, there are somewhere between 1 and 8 million Muslims living in the United States.
2. That number is further complicated by the diversity of practice that exists within the Muslim community. Not all of those who identify as "Muslim" would consider themselves terribly religious. Moreover, those who do consider themselves religious are hardly monolithic in their practice and beliefs.
3. In 2009, 47 Muslim Americans committed or were arrested for terrorist crimes. In 2010, that number dropped to 20. Out of 1-8 million. That's about .001% of the American Muslim community, depending on what estimate you're using. Can you think about that please?
4. Roughly 150,000 Americans have been murdered in the years since 9/11. 33 of those were killed in terrorist attacks carried out by 11 Muslim Americans. That's .022% of all the murders in the past 10-ish years.

Does that excuse any of those attacks that did occur? Of course not--but it does offer some much-needed perspective. Personally, I abhor violence, no matter who does it. That's why it's important to me to know where the majority of it is coming from, and in this case, it seems I have a lot more to be afraid of from wider American society than from the American Muslim community. The majority of terrorist attacks in the U.S. are perpetrated by white, right-wing radicals. In my hometown of Chicago, I've witnessed the number of children killed in school shootings reach alarming levels; dozens of students have died in recent years. Gang-related violence claims thousands nationwide. So why is the outcry on a few dozen terrorists getting so much more airtime than the outcry against skyrocketing numbers of dead schoolchildren? Where are the Peter King-style Senate hearings on those shootings? Where are the self-made "experts" making millions on books, blogs and speaking engagements about the threat of creeping white supremacy in America? The lack of logical priorities boggles the mind.

But back to the "American Muslims aren't speaking out enough" premise. Have any of the individuals who continue to assert this ever stopped to consider that, if Muslims make up only 1-8 million of a 308 million-strong population, they're going to have a hard time being heard simply by virtue of being a minority? More importantly, have any of these "concerned" individuals considered that, just because they may not be personally acquainted with the efforts of American Muslims to combat extremism, they are still occurring? Because at least in my experience, I see and hear Muslim friends of mine, both here in the States as well as abroad, speaking out against injustice and violence on a day-to-day basis. Who'd've thought that having actual human relationships with members of a marginalized community can help you hear what they actually think?! Shocking, I know.

And moreover, not every American Muslim is going to make a full-time job of policing their community, or addressing the constant barrage of Islamophobic speech from outside--nor should they be expected to. As we know, those who continue to rail against the American Muslim community are, well, kind of overwhelmingly shrill, and at least in my experience, don't take very kindly to being challenged. It takes a pretty strong stomach and a lot of free time to effectively address that level of poisonous discourse while maintaining one's own sanity. It takes so much time and effort to make oneself heard above the clatter, in fact, that I would hardly be surprised if most people simply throw up their hands and try instead to lead by example. I think it's safe to say that a majority of the American Muslim community are, much like the rest of us, just trying to go about their daily business, do their jobs, feed their families--you know, human stuff. To blame them all for the actions of a proportionally miniscule faction of nutjobs seems silly, and to expect the entire community to singlehandedly shoulder the burden of babysitting them is just downright unfair.

Indeed, the responsibility for dealing with extremism from within any particular religious community doesn't fall only to that community. If we all have a mutual interest in preventing extremism, any kind of extremism, then we all share in that responsibility. We have the freedom to shape our own culture, not with dominance and hate speak, but with free thought and flow of ideas. That is one of democratic society's greatest traits: any lasting cultural ideology not only has to be compatible with that society's constitution, but it has to stand up to a Socratic method of evaluation. Instead of having one power source inflict its views on a captive majority, we get to be one another's checks and balances. When ideas can't stand up to scrutiny, they fizzle out from their own lack of merit. No segregation, no guns, no battles. They're not necessary.

And though the ubiquitousness of half-truths and mudslinging in today's public discourse often tempts me to give up on the notion of human intelligence and civility, I still believe that human beings can do better than stupid and hateful. When they say stupid and hateful things, it's probably because they don't know the whole story. If they did, they'd probably come to more prudent, logical and balanced conclusions. That is the beauty of being human: to be able to understand, appreciate and work for things that are bigger than we are as individuals. To be one step up from basic fear response when confronted with something "different." To think critically and rationally and cultivate an attitude of embrace. To seek understanding and reconciliation with the "other," and perhaps in the process find that they were not as "other" as you originally thought.

This is why, though I myself am not a member of the American Muslim community, I have taken a particular interest in the issues that pertain to them--particularly when I continue to see that community demonized for "not doing enough," when that assertion has been soundly and repeatedly debunked. I do it because I value my neighbors and I value my freedoms, and because I know the importance of putting things in perspective. I have seen what misinformation and dogma have done to the world, and conversely I believe in the potential of understanding and tolerance to fundamentally challenge that unfortunate reality.

We all want to be safe. We all want to feel secure in our communities. We all want to enjoy our freedoms and see our societies prosper. So can we please look at the facts beyond the prejudices and make it happen?

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Please, don't help us": On humanitarian aid

Imagine a neighbor was going through his garage and decided that you, his needy non-golf-playing neighbor, could use his old golf clubs. Unsolicited by you, he leaves them on your doorstep. Maybe he really did it to be nice, and that's great. But you still now have to deal with the stuff he didn't want that you also cannot really use. It seems silly, yet it's essentially the premise behind a lot of aid groups -- and because I believe that people really do deep down want to help, I think it's important that we have the conversation on how to do aid better, difficult as it might be.

When it comes to humanitarian aid, there's an interesting tension between giving freely from one place and encouraging economic prosperity in another. Disaster relief is one thing. An earthquake or a flood strikes, of course people need to get food, water, healthcare, etc. from somewhere, and there are plenty of programs that facilitate this. But programs that move around "SWEDOW" (aid jargon for "stuff we don't want") are expensive, inefficient, and sometimes do no more than make the donors at home feel like they did something. It takes a lot of time and money to move that stuff around. "Yoga Mats for Haiti" is perhaps the most aptly lampooned example of this. The money it took to collect, ship and distribute those mats could have been much better spent buying crops from Haitian farmers in order to get people fed. Instead, the influx of foreign food and donations outsold those farmers who otherwise would have been able to salvage enough crops to make a living. It put them out of business and took that money out of an economy that needs to conserve and re-circulate every penny it can. So as someone who genuinely wants to help, I would have a hard time supporting an initiative like that, because while it might get people fed for a day or a week, it has actually made things worse for them in the weeks, months and years down the road.

Yoga mats? Really?

Thankfully, there are many other ways to give freely as well as mindfully. Perhaps the most critical, but also arguably the least warm and fuzzy for the donor, is giving money. There are many organizations that are already a part of communities that need help, that have the local connections to get things done, and a more complete understanding of what is really needed -- after all, those communities would know what would benefit them better than we would. It would be better for them to receive money which they can spend locally and allocate more wisely than mountains of other people's unwanted stuff.

My biggest concern is that people who seem to mean all the good in the world settle for championing initiatives that are, at the very best, only a superficial fix to complex problems. I don't blame people for wanting to help, I applaud it! But we seem to have this idea that doing "something" is always better than doing "nothing" -- and that is just not true. Sometimes doing "something" just makes things worse, and no one wants that. All the good intentions in the world are only as good as what we do with them, and we will never be perfect at it, but if we genuinely want to help heal the world, we need to be constantly vigilant about what our well meaning projects actually accomplish.

I have learned the hard way that this kind of constructive critical approach makes some people extremely uncomfortable. People really are kind, and really want to help, but tell them that their favorite organization is actually making things worse, and it touches a lot of raw nerves.

I've been there too -- I actually participated in TOMS A Day Without Shoes several years ago, long before I learned to my horror how counterproductive those kinds of aid programs can be. Though more or less unconsciously, I had bought into the false premise that all us rich kids need to do to "fix things" is just buy the right shoes and cool t-shirts, or swoop into any far-flung place and start a program to "save" it. The world's problems seemed no more than a puzzle that could be solved by "awareness," hip and intrepid social entrepreneurs, and the steady purchase of free-trade coffee. I was oblivious to the ways that other people's suffering is basically turned into products that I bought without many questions asked. I was unaware of all the incredible things that so many people are quietly and patiently accomplishing in their own countries, in more sustainable and locally beneficial ways. My own goal for myself now is simply to stand behind local people in their own initiatives, help to spread their stories, basically to be a bridge between their work and folks around the world who want to help it succeed. Because the last thing we need is another program -- there are plenty of worthy ones that need support. And it's not about me. I'm just a pair of hands.

Aid groups have done something really fantastic in recent years: they've gotten really good at raising awareness on issues. They do an excellent job of encouraging people who want to help and enforcing the idea that every person can make a difference. Every person can "get involved." And that is true, but I think one of the biggest trade-offs is that the latest generation of humanitarians and activists have a tendency to throw all their weight behind shock campaigns and quick fixes, without due diligence in understanding the global power dynamics and economic realities that create so much need and suffering in the first place; I know I am a long way off from understanding them myself. And when aid organizations stress simple -- or downright simplistic -- means of involvement without pushing for the diligence that comes from nuanced understanding of complex humanitarian issues, quantity of involvement starts to take precedence over its actual quality.

The result is that organizations set up to work on worthy causes can take on a life of their own in a way that is counterproductive. Kony 2012 is a perfect example. An extremely worthy cause is marketed in a way designed to get people to care. That is a good thing. However, the "plan" advocated in the video -- military intervention by the U.S. government -- is definitely not a good thing. And worse, this marketing is done in a way that basically says "support our organization and how we think we should deal with the situation, or you obviously don't care about Ugandan kids." Meanwhile countless Ugandan and other African voices critiquing the video for being outdated and overly simplistic are more or less ignored, condescended to, rendered "voiceless" and "helpless." The campaign and the organization become detached from the very people it claims to support. Millions of actual Ugandans have not even seen this video, yet it's supposed to be about them, for them even, and would affect them most directly. That, to me, is unacceptable.

And even worse, without diligence and understanding, without thinking about the big picture or simply listening to what people actually need and want, well-meaning individuals can become pawns for industry, politicians and the like who exploit people's humanitarian concerns to expand their economic empires and consolidate more power. Aid that's supposed to fill bellies and build schools instead goes to pad the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats the world over. Governments pat themselves on the back for providing a few million in aid to the people of a foreign country with one hand, while the other closes a far bigger arms deal with their oppressive leaders. It's clear that this top-down approach is ineffective at best and downright detrimental at worst.

People's response to that criticism, I've found, is often something along the lines of "I give up then, I guess I can't do anything." This makes me incredibly sad because it is also not true. We (myself entirely included) need to learn how to separate worthy causes from worthy plans and programs. A good aid campaign is designed to render itself obsolete. Programs that essentially put band-aids on important causes, on the other hand, can be merely fronts for the continuation of the real root causes of that situation. That's not cynicism, it's just common sense. Throw enough money and stuff at a population without addressing structural problems, and you essentially make and keep them subservient. I don't think that's quite what most people intend when they set out to "make a difference."

So we shouldn't be asking ourselves "how can we get them stuff?", we should be asking them why they can't afford what they need in the first place, and working with them to address it. That's why I am such a fan of micro-finance, for example, because it allows people who wish to donate to "put their money where their mouth is" in a way that directly stimulates local economies in the places receiving aid, yet still feels a little more personal than just writing a check. I understand that people want to feel good by doing good -- I just don't think that should be our litmus test for what's a good project to get behind. It's not about us. It's about creating a fairer world for everyone to prosper in.

Being more responsible consumers here at home is a key part of correcting the imbalances of privilege and power that perpetuate and exacerbate need and suffering in the first place. Affluent society's expectations for what constitutes a reasonable standard of living are completely unsustainable. This is a huge part of what necessitates the wholesale pillage of other continents' resources that make those other economies so problematic in the first place. (I don't excuse myself from this by any means, because I live here too and am part of the same grid.) Cultivating an understanding that there are plenty of resources in this world to go around, and that we owe it to our human brothers and sisters to make sure everyone has access to them, is one of the most important things we could possibly do. Consuming less in one continent obviously means more for another. Governments cannot, and should not, enforce that -- the onus is on us as individuals to live as ethically and mindfully as possible, and to put our weight behind structural solutions to the issues we care about, instead of quick fixes.

Spiritual solutions to economic problems. I know it's a lot of talk that's much easier said than done. But I'm having trouble figuring out a better way to do it. :)