Last night I joined a three-hour cruise on New York harbor that served as a fundraiser to send a U.S. boat to Gaza in October. This morning I have three strong impressions of the event: 1, the great widening that is taking place on the issue on the American left-- the issue has found a political home; 2, Chris Hedges's spiritual speech on the issue; 3, the strong presence of Palestinian-Americans on the boat, and indeed their increasing role in the intellectual/political leadership on the issue.
1. The excitement. You had 400 people jamming a boat on a Thursday night, many of them putting off their weekend trips to country houses, and when the pails came out, they coughed up thousands more dollars. One man called out a $5000 donation, a woman quickly followed with $2500. The artist Emily Henochowicz, who lost her left eye to Israel militarism, was in the crowd and gave two pieces of art to be auctioned. $3000, $2000, they went for. But I am no materialist. I had the good feeling that the issue has passed out of the leftwing cadre that I associate it with and has gained broader political footing in the wake of the flotilla outrage, amid other signs of widening, from Robert Mackey's fresh blog to the recent stories about Henochowicz to Roger Cohen's outspokenness to Andrew Sullivan's journalistic crusade to Paul Krugman and Peter Beinart's weariness with the ancien Israel lobby. There were young hipsters with tattoos in the crowd. I listened to a Fox News reporter interviewing Ann Wright (retired Army colonel and diplomat) and badgering her to tell him what Israel should do to deter rocket attacks from Gaza. His shrill manner seemed to me desperate. He knows that Americans are getting sick of the Israeli endless-security justification for aggression (which of course the Washington Post purveys this morning, they have not gotten the news). My favorite sign on the boat was a a black placard that said simply, This Is News.
2. I've never seen Hedges in action, he spoke like a churchman; I believe he is the closest thing to a blue-eyed transcendentalist in the Emerson Melville Thoreauvian tradition that you will find anywhere these days. It is amazing to think that this guy was recently a New York Times reporter, amazing to consider what he may have been suppressing to perform that role. For instance, he quoted "my friend" Rev. Jeremiah Wright (the chickens coming home to roost 9/11 sermon) and Edward Said and Rachel Corrie lovingly. The Said quote was savage/knowing: It was about intellectual courage, it was about recognizing those moments when one wants to turn away from the truth because describing it will endanger prestige, invitations, honorary degrees, access. And no truth is more dangerous to professional progress, Said said, than the great injustice of Palestine, which has left many people "hobbled, blinkered and muzzled." Talismanic words.
But Hedges' own incantatory rhetoric deserves quotation. He began by saying that he had no doubt, based on an encounter he had with a hasbara informant when he was in Jerusalem for the Times, that a paid informant for Israel/the lobby was in our company and so he wanted to pass the other side a message.
"I would like to remind them that it is they who hide in the darkness, we are in the light." And now their moment is coming to an end. "The arc of the moral universe is long... You may have commandos who descend on ropes... we have only our hands, our hearts, our voices... But note this, note this well: it is you who are afraid of us, not us who are afraid of you... When there is freedom in Gaza, we will forgive you..."
He spoke of war crimes and Palestinian ghettoes, he said that targeted assassinations are "extrajudicial murders," and "the peace process means the cynical one-way route to crushing the Palestinian people." Wowie zowie. Time to look at the Hedges archive at the Times!
"To be a Christian," he said, means to "speak in the voice of Jeremiah Wright, Edward Said, and Rachel Corrie." Then he invoked many Jewish prophets, from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky to Norman Finkelstein, and ended with the pronouncement that we must know the Israeli militants for what they are, terrorists.
3. The Palestinian-American presence.
A number of Palestinians spoke, Joel Bitar, Remi Kanazi the poet, playwright Ismail Khalidi, and Lamis Deek of al-Awda.They are all very attractive young people, with strong American components or roots; Kanazi, for instance, was raised in a small Massachusetts town and had very little Arab/Palestinian consciousness till after 9/11.
The discovery by these young people (and let me leave Deek out, she was politicized long ago) of their people's suffering is moving. Khalidi spoke of the recognition that Palestinians have of other Palestinians on streets from Amsterdam to New York: "we survive and exist in some dark exile... healing from catastrophe to catastrophe, we sing and dance."
Kanazi was more emphatically political, and disturbing. His declamatory line about Iraqi deaths: "If I had a dollar for every Iraqi who had died since 2003, I'd be a millionaire..." His denunciation of Obama on Gaza: do not pretend that "his 22 days of silence was golden." And on Palestine/Israel: "You can stay here with us, but only as equals... it's not that you're Israelis, it's that you're wrong."
As the Statue of Liberty loomed green and perfect high above us, Khalidi quoted June Jordan saying, We are the ones we have been waiting for; and there was about the Palestinian presence last night a sense of American liberation. I felt that these people were excited to be recognized in an American venue, without judgment, and that this long-withheld recognition had allowed them to let out deep griefs and angers that, say, professors Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi were required to restrain when they addressed the same matters. There was talk of the dispossession that began 63 years ago; and I am sure that several of these Palestinians do not accept the existence of Israel. Myself, I am conflicted about these questions (and indeed a friend said later that the anger at times made her uncomfortable), but I find my own intellectual/political struggle less interesting/important than the presence of young Palestinian-Americans. My struggle is a Jewish one; and the important thing about last night is that smart Jews are willing to yield center stage on this matter after many years of monopolizing it. We want to be there, we were there in good number, Amy Goodman, Jane Hirschmann, Max Ajl, etc. But consider that Emily Henochowicz, a Jewish hero, did not speak (I think she is a shy person), and Palestinian-Americans did. This is a spiritual reckoning and a moral one, but in the end it is essentially political. And while I am wary of any policy built on diasporic emotion, our country can make no progress until the Palestinians whom Palestinians choose to represent them are granted expertise and authority in the American discourse. It's that simple. (And it is also the answer to the Fox News guy's hectoring; any people will respond with violence to dispossession and occupation; these are in the end political questions).