Less than two months ago, I was at a hastily-organized report-back from survivors of Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara when someone, almost as an afterthought, suggested that an American boat should go to Gaza with the next Flotilla, proudly flying the red, white, and blue to show the world that not all Americans supported Israel’s policies, and challenging Israel, who thought nothing of assaulting a Turkish ship, to try the same trick with a ship full of citizens of its closest ally. The crowd cheered enthusiastically.
Later someone said half-jokingly, "We should call it The Audacity of Hope!" The crowd cheered even louder.
A matter of weeks later, more than half of the $370,000 necessary to send a US boat, The Audacity of Hope, has already been raised. (Read more about the campaign here.) Last Thursday was the most ambitious fundraiser so far, a sunset cruise around New York on a giant boat that (barely) held 400 passengers. As reported here, one of the most striking things was that most of the speakers at the program that night were young Palestinians articulately (often artistically) voicing feelings and opinions that their elders would never have dared speak in public. What that reporter called the "monopoly" of "smart Jews" on speaking about this matter and being heard by the mainstream of the left appears to be ending.
Which brings up another important point. The "center" of the left is shifting. And this issue is finding a tremendous amount of traction there. Things are moving faster than we ever dreamed. There was, naturally, a small protest against our sunset cruise with about half a dozen angry-looking people holding placards accusing us of supporting terrorism. It was the most pathetic counter-protest yet. I truly felt bad for them. They looked like clowns, like some kind of bizarre anachronism.
But that wasn’t the real threat. The day before the fundraiser party boat was scheduled to depart, the organizers got a call from the owners saying the engine was missing a part, so they would have to reschedule the event. The organizers were savvy enough to know this had nothing to do with engine parts. They suspected some individuals or organizations had gotten hold of the owners of the boat and pressured them to cancel the cruise. Pressured them how, I wonder? Threatened bad publicity? Tried to convince them it was a mission tied somehow to terrorist groups, which meant they might be prosecutable under the vague and slippery Material Support Law that snagged Noor’s father? Called them anti-Semites? Offered a bribe?
We may never know. But if you think I’m being paranoid, read on. Normally when these unnamed groups try to shut down Palestine-related events, the owners of the venues cave and the organizers of the events mourn their tough luck. Not this time. This time the organizers held firm. They had a written contract, they had 400 people coming from all over the US, and they said the company would owe them for all the travelers’ losses, not to mention the fact that 400 people would show up the next day and stage a protest against the boat company for breaching the contract. They kept arguing, countering any arguments by the owners, until… Lo and behold! The engine could be "fixed" after all!
But… would the organizers please reconsider flying the banner that said, "US BOAT TO GAZA — THE AUDACITY OF HOPE"? Absolutely not, the organizers said. It’s called free speech. And that was it. Whoever had tried to twist the arm of the boat company lost. The good guys won. And they’re winning more and more. They’re not scared anymore. Bring it on.
As Chris Hedges (a former New York Times Middle East Bureau Chief who quit the Times rather than submit to their pro-Iraq-war dictates in 2003) said in his powerful speech that night:
I would like to remind them that it is they who hide in the darkness. It is we who stand in the light. It is they who deceive. It is we who openly proclaim our compassion and demand justice for those who suffer in Gaza. We are not afraid to name our names. We are not afraid to name our beliefs. And we know something you perhaps sense with a kind of dread. As Martin Luther King said, the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, and that arc is descending with a righteous fury that is thundering down upon the Israeli government… Note this well. It is you who are afraid of us. We are not afraid of you. We will keep working and praying, keep protesting and denouncing, keep pushing up against your navy and your army, with nothing but our bodies, until we prove that the force of morality and justice is greater than hate and violence. And then, when there is freedom in Gaza, we will forgive you. We will ask you to break bread with us. We will bless your children even if you did not find it in your heart to bless the children of those you occupied. And maybe it is this forgiveness, maybe it is the final, insurmountable power of love, which unsettles you the most.
One of many other honored guests on the boat was Emily Henochowicz, an utterly adorable slip of an artist. She’s a rising senior at New York’s prestigious Cooper Union, and two months ago an Israeli soldier fired a tear gas canister at her face and destroyed her left eye. She was protesting the killings on the Gaza flotilla at the time, non-violently, away from the main action. (The Israeli army claims it ricocheted off a wall, but there are photos from the event that clear show there’s no wall for it to ricochet off of. Still, the Israeli government has refused to pay her medical expenses. C’est typique.)
She was speaking with Amy Goodman and some others before we boarded the boat. She had her hair combed over the still-somewhat-livid empty eye socket and was wearing a thin pink sweater and black skirt. I was most astonished by how cute she was. None of her pictures did her justice. I joined their little circle, and Emily looked at me expectantly as if waiting for me to introduce myself. I told her I had lived in Palestine for a couple of years, and how much I admired not just her principled bravery but how she was handling it all with such grace.
"I was lucky," she said sincerely, proving my point. "My injury is a nuisance, but it’s not debilitating. Not like what happened to Tristan Anderson. If the canister had hit just a few inches higher, I might be missing part of my brain."
Anderson, another American citizen, took another direct hit from another tear gas canister in the forehead at another non-violent protest in Bil’in in March 2009. He suffered a skull fracture and brain damage, and he may never fully recover. Furkan Dogan, another young American citizen, was killed by Israeli soldiers on the Mavi Marmara. So she was right; in that company, she’s certainly lucky.
Still, that kind of perspective is rare in such a young and beautiful American artist, most of whom would be wailing like Nancy Kerrigan. The Village Voice did the best piece on her of any I saw. I dare you to read it and not fall completely in love with her. (She’s a Jewish grandchild of Holocaust survivors, by the way.) You can also view her blog here.
The whole thing was yet another indication of a real shift in discourse. The energy was so positive, and the fact that $150,000 had been raised in just a few weeks was breathtaking. A clear signal — a strong signal coming straight from the pocketbooks of Americans — that people are sick and tired of standing around watching Israel become increasingly insane while innocent people pay the price in our name. They’re just looking for leadership, and the US Boat to Gaza campaign (among many others) is providing it — the Freedom Riders of our time. For anyone who thinks such a project is "too radical" or it’s "not the right time," I give you the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., written from a Birmingham Jail:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’
And these words from the International Solidarity Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1993:
You will remember the contempt with which they responded when, one after the other, international organisations in all walks of life expelled the representatives of apartheid and committed themselves to the perspective of a free and democratic South Africa. And as the actions and the words of condemnation by the peoples of the world grew stronger and more stern, so did the brutality of the Pretoria regime grow more bestial, as though reason and justice could be expunged by the baton, the gun and the hangman’s noose. It may be that the beginning of the world movement against apartheid appeared then as but a small and lonely voice of protest. When India spoke at the United Nations against apartheid at the end of the 1940s she stood alone to speak. When those who did, began boycotting Cape grapes and wines and Outspan oranges and picketed supermarkets, they were few in number. Their governments, accustomed to treat the apartheid regime as a legitimate entity, neither saw nor heard those demonstrators. When we needed to fight with arms in hand, there were few countries even in Africa which had the possibility to extend assistance to us. And yet, because apartheid is truly evil and because there are men and women of conscience such as you who are gathered here, who would not connive at the perpetration of a crime by refusing to act against it, the antiapartheid movement grew into perhaps the strongest international solidarity movement this century, bringing together citizens of all countries, governments and international organisations. In the end this broad movement against apartheid gave enormous strength to our liberation movement, sustained and helped to free those who were in prison, maintained those who were in exile, enabling us to build… lasting monuments to international friendship and solidarity… and has brought us to the point where we can now say that victory is in sight.
This piece is crossposted at Pamela Olson’s blog, Fast Times in Palestine.