From his ’69 awakening to the ‘wild-animal’ state and lobby– Hilton Obenzinger on Israel

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Besides writing the book, Busy Dying, Hilton Obenzinger is a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who now teaches writing at Stanford University. Following is the text of a recent email interview between Bob Feldman and Obenzinger, whom he met at Columbia University.

BF: An interview you did last year about your Busy Dying book that’s posted on the site mostly just discussed the 1968 Columbia anti-war student protests, but doesn’t make much reference to the impact of the Israeli military occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights that happened less than a year before the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt. Would readers of `Busy Dying’ find any indication in the book as to why you later become such a strong supporter of Palestinian human rights?

Hilton Obenzinger [HO]: In 1968 many of us didn’t want to be “Good Germans,” passively accepting genocide and vicious Jim Crow racism. Engaged in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, right after graduating college I taught school on an Indian reservation – and my eyes opened. I began to understand the US more deeply as a settler society, and consequently the similarities between the US and Israel .

I wrote Busy Dying trying to stay within much of the consciousness I had then – and Israel was not a central part of my concerns at the time. It’s an indication of just how un-Zionist many of us were, and how much Israel was on the periphery of our consciousness (although I know I was deeply aware of being Jewish, of my family’s murder at the hands of the Nazis, the narrative of Israel as Jewish redemption after death and persecution).

Rejecting being a “Good German” expanded in time to include other things, such as rejecting silence about Israel ’s colonization. So, Columbia 1968 was a decisive, formative experience for me. I got a glimpse of a new world, of the possibilities of change, and of overturning injustice, and that glimpse has kept me going ever since.

BF: Why do you think anti-war students at Columbia University in 1968 did not also protest against the U.S. government’s support for Israeli militarism in 1968?

HO: When the 1967 war broke out I was very confused and conflicted and ignorant. To illustrate: Edward Said was my teacher but I didn’t know he was a Palestinian – I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Palestinian. I didn’t even know he was an Arab – I thought he was Jewish!

We later became friends and colleagues in terms of literary studies and working on Palestinian rights, and we joked about that moment.

I stayed up one night during the war, upset about it, and in the early dawn sat on the Sundial in the center of the campus to read the NY Times, weeping. Wasn’t Israel sort of socialist? Weren’t they advanced, democratic and progressive? Why did the Arabs want “to push the Jews into the sea”?

My moment of awakening was in 1969 when Moshe Dayan went to Vietnam on a fact-finding tour and offered complete support for the US war. This was cognitive dissonance in a big way – and I either had to be consistent with my principles or begin fudging them out of some sense of ethnic loyalty (and fudging became the process for many progressive, anti-war, pro-civil rights Jews, trying to support their principles while apologizing for Israel – ultimately, an untenable position).

When I taught on the Yurok Indian reservation in 1969-70, I began a process of understanding settler colonial societies. In the 1970s, I studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sympathizing with the Palestinians as a national liberation movement, and I began to speak out.

Then, in the mid Seventies, I was working with the American Indian Movement, and I was going to collaborate with the Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz on a book on how history made it so that we both ended up in California. Simon quickly realized he had to get the hell out of California, and he returned to New Mexico where he wrote a terrific book about his early experiences working in uranium mines.

I ended up writing This Passover or the Next I Will Never Be in Jerusalem, a collection of poems and sketches about Jews, Indians, and Palestinians that invokes a Jewish American sensibility free of Zionist assumptions – and that became the basis for my support of Palestinian rights. While writing that book I helped to establish a Jewish group in the Bay Area in order to protest the Israeli occupation and to provide a clear ideological alternative to the Zionist consensus that even held the left in thrall.

The book received the American Book Award, and I was invited to campuses to speak about what it means to be a Jewish American critical of Israel and Zionism. At this point I would be regularly attacked as a “self-hating Jew” and would have my life threatened.

That book appeared in 1980, and in 1981 I was invited to Beirut as part of an American delegation to the PLO to investigate the bombing attack by the Israelis on Fakhani, in downtown Beirut , a prelude to the 1982 invasion.

From that point Palestine became the focus of my political work through the first intifada, and eventually the “Holy Land” and the study of comparative settler colonial societies became the main interest in my scholarly research, which culminated in the cultural and literary study `American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania’, and continues today with a book I am working on called `Melting Pots and Promised Lands: Zionism and the Idea of America.’

BF: In what way is your `Busy Dying’ book different or similar to former Columbia Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] chairman Mark Rudd’s recently-published book, `Underground’, from both a political and literary point-of-view?

HO: I worked with Mark on his book for years, including the first time he attempted to write it in the 80s.

My book is fiction because I began to doubt whether I could ever write a memoir without inventing memories – and it became easier to tell the truth by releasing myself from the memoir format. I spoke with people who were there, such as Mark but also other friends who were part of the Low Library Commune – it’s an interesting thing, doing research on your own life from others’ vantage points – and I used real names when I could, but if I couldn’t contact someone, I used fictional names.

My book has additional, different themes than Mark’s – including coming to terms with the death of my brother and the literary scene at Columbia and in the Lower East Side – and it moves back and forth between students at Columbia back then and the work I do with students at Stanford today.

Mark’s description of Columbia 1968 is from his vantage point, of course, and it’s well done. It’s a welcome addition to the historical understanding of Columbia 1968, and the growing library of Weather Underground literature. The book gained greatly because of the 40th anniversary conference in 2008, and he was able to provide an even broader perspective, particularly on the media distortions of the occupation and strike that created “Mark Rudd,” the Great Revolutionary Leader.

But his biggest struggle was figuring out how to discuss his post-1968 Weather Underground experience. I wrestled with him many times on how to characterize mistakes while historicizing them, and we don’t always agree. It’s a tough job trying to understand one’s own involvement in the 1968 moment and its aftermath in a larger (even worldwide) political, even sociological context.

I think, in the end, he did a fine job in the book. He tried staying honest throughout, tried to be judicious, and he certainly did not romanticize – and it’s well written.

BF: In what way is `Busy Dying’ different or similar to Professor Stefan Bradley’s recently-published book,` Harlem vs. Columbia University ’, from both political and literary point-of-view?

HO: Stefan Bradley’s book is not at all fictionalized, and it’s not memoir like Mark Rudd’s book; the book is history, based on interviews and archives, and projects a historian’s analysis of events, strategies, and motivations.

The book provides a needed revision of the distorted accounts of 1968, situating members of the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) and other black students, along with Harlem , as central players in how events unfolded. This is wonderful, as well as Bradley’s extension of his analysis of other black student-community eruptions at that time in elite universities, such as at Harvard, Yale, and Cornell, and the struggle for African American Studies at Columbia and other universities.

Professor Bradley’s work was also well-served by the April 2008 conference. I have some disagreements with his account, particularly his account of the white students, but that does not take away from the book as a major accomplishment.

There’s still more to do: I hope Ray Brown, Jr., Cicero Wilson, and the other leaders of the black students in Hamilton Hall write their accounts of the occupation and strike; and there’s certainly room for other historians to explore Columbia 1968, pulling together an account and analysis of all the threads of the story.

BF: In 1968 many white Columbia and Barnard students protested against the Columbia University Administration’s attempt to grab a few acres of Harlem parkland in order to build a new gym for Columbia students. Yet at a 40th anniversary reunion of ’68 student protesters in 2008 there didn’t seem to be that much discussion about Columbia’s current attempt to grab 17 acres of West Harlem land, north of West 125th Street , for its latest campus expansion project. In what ways do you think people who participated in the 1968 Columbia protests have generally changed politically and philosophically since 1968? And in what ways do you think U.S. universities like Columbia University have changed or not changed since 1968?

HO: For the conference in 2008, the ad-hoc organizing committee assessed the situation of Columbia ’s expansion, talking with a number of people involved, including Manning Marable, who heads up Columbia’s African American studies program.

We reached the conclusion that we–the conference organizers and the attendees–had no basis as an organization–if you could call it an organization!–to take a position on the decades of controversy surrounding Columbia’s plans. But we also decided to encourage everyone’s positions and discussion, and it was distressing to see Columbia President Lee Bollinger leave one panel he participated in just when questions were opened from the floor.

When we had our initial meeting with Pres. Bollinger, we pointed out that there were parallels between 1968 and today – Vietnam/Iraq, Gym/Manhattanville – and he said that Columbia is different today, and in terms of expansion, they were working with the community, with Harlem leaders. I’m sure that many would dispute that.

I had not followed the controversies and felt ill prepared to take a position, and I didn’t want to take a knee-jerk position that everything Columbia does is evil, tempting as that may be. Others I spoke with thought it was too late to stop the project, that gentrification involves a lot more players than Columbia and the community needed to pressure Columbia to win concessions (such as housing and jobs), while others thought it was a betrayal of 1968 to invite Bollinger to the conference when Columbia was once again engaging in what many consider a land grab.

Our goals for the conference – one of which was to insist that 1968 be accepted as part of the university’s history with our active involvement and not have our role erased or distorted – meant that we welcomed a tactical relationship with the university (which helped us with space and the participation of many sympathetic faculty) while encouraging a wide range of views on the current situation. I think we were successful in this regard.

Bollinger ended up getting attacked by a right-wing columnist in the Daily News who was outraged that the university president would participate in “an all-Bolshevik affair.” Hilarious.

I don’t think I can talk of how all the people involved in 1968 have changed politically. About 400 people were involved in the conference, but there were thousands of people involved in the anti-war, anti-gym side of the conflict (not counting those against us or in the middle), and they have probably gone in many directions.

A great many who came to the conference or who signed up on our on-line discussion group have continued their progressive political stances, although most do not adhere to radical views popular in the 60s. Quite a few shaped their lives to a great degree around their commitments to change in whatever career they took up – people who are academics in women’s studies and African American studies and other fields, union and community organizers, activists in social movements such as the women’s, environmental, anti-war, anti-racist movements, writers with left politics, lawyers and physicians for change, and more.

It’s probably safe to say that the majority opposed the war in Iraq (if not at the outset, at least by the time of the conference). As a generation at Columbia in 1968, I would say that, as far as the people I know and those who participated in the conference, we have been mainly true to our roots.

Universities have changed enormously as a result of Columbia and the whole student movement of the 60s. Universities now have ethnic studies, women’s studies, GLBT studies as separate programs emerged, and a lot more social consciousness in teaching and research. Not enough, but things are very different. Ivy League schools are now co-ed, students are regularly invited to contribute to university deliberations.

BF: A lot has changed, but elite universities like Columbia are still instruments of the ruling elite, and particularly when it comes to military research, most are as deeply involved as ever, if not more.

In 1968 anti-war students at Columbia University protested against Columbia ‘s complicity with the U.S. war machine. In recent years the Pentagon has funded millions of dollars of research work at many U.S. universities. At Stanford University , for example, $37 million worth of research work was being funded by the Department of Defense in 2000. Do you think it’s now appropriate for U.S. universities like Columbia and Stanford to continue to accept research contracts from the Pentagon while the Pentagon is using drones and robot weapons–that were often initially developed with Pentagon funding in the labs of U.S. university campuses–to continue to wage endless war in places like Afghanistan , Pakistan and Iraq ?

HO: At Stanford, students in 1969 demanded an end to secret military research. They won that demand and that still stands.

However, military research that is not secret is tremendously active. Not just military research, many economic and political science scholars, in particular, purposely keep their visions narrow, and the departments exclude scholars with alternate world views, otherwise the smart guys could have known the economic disaster was coming, and they didn’t.The Hoover Institution looms over Stanford, even though it’s supposed to be an autonomous organization and not part of the university.

As soon as the military rescinds the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, ROTC will return to campuses, since what prevents their role on campuses is the discriminatory position of the military and not opposition to militarism. And most students I teach are just fine with the military; even if they are opposed to the current wars, they support the military as an institution, and there’s little anti-imperialist analysis of the US .

The country seems headed into disaster with endless wars but not an endless flow of money. Elite universities are part of the ruling apparatus, even if the students and faculty are not following that agenda. When there is an even deeper crisis and a real challenge to the priorities of the country as a whole, then students will also move. When there really is a mass movement challenging the assumptions of militarism, then students will target universities.

But I don’t see that movement in the near future. There was an awakening because of the Obama campaign, but I’m not sure that has gelled into anything on-going – it’s too soon to tell. There is hope of mobilization, but it’s—rightfully–coming from the terrible condition of education, such as the dismantling of the UC and CSU systems in California . We’ll see how this all develops when connections to the military budget and the prison-industrial complex are brought into the students’ protest programs.

BF: Following the Israeli war machine’s late 2008-early 2009 military campaign in Gaza , many anti-war students in the UK began to stage campus protests there in support of some kind of anti-apartheid divestment and academic boycott campaign for Palestinian human rights. Do you think it might be desirable and/or possible for a similar campaign to happen on many U.S. campuses during the 2009-2010 academic year–especially if the Israeli war machine gets the green light from the U.S. government to attack Iran ?

HO: The BDS campaign could have some impact, although I’m wary of its effectiveness.

A few years ago, students at Stanford set up a committee to call for divestment and called Israel an apartheid state. They made some headway, but much of the discussion got deflected into the Zionist outrage that Israel could be associated with the racist South African regime.

Likewise the boycott debate – it often gets deflected into a freedom of speech or academic freedom brouhaha. Maybe getting into academic freedom debates is good, but I have my doubts.
If Israel attacks Iran , all kinds of things may make sense – but the propaganda about Iran as evil is very intense–not that I support theocracies–and I’m sure many will support any attack. Perhaps better would be a campaign for Israel to join the non-proliferation treaty so that UN inspectors could check their bombs?
In the main, though, I consult with students but I leave it up to them to take the lead. They don’t need one more moth-eaten old radical to tell them how to do things.

BF: In recent years, U.S. university professors like Norman Finkelstein and Joel Kovel, who have written books that were critical of Israeli militarism and expressed support for Palestinian national self-determination rights, have ended up losing their academic jobs–apparently due to pressure from the Zionist lobby in the United States. How would you characterize the role that the Zionist lobby presently plays on U.S. university campuses in 2009?

HO: The campaign by Zionists to purge campuses of critical views has been going on for decades, and it’s shameful. Finkelstein and Kovel are by no means the first. For example, Breira—Choice–a Jewish peace group–was crushed in the Seventies with McCarthyite type attacks on those who worked in Jewish communal organizations.
I was on a list of people to ban from speaking on campuses in the early eighties – I was honored to be on the same list with Edward Said and Rabbi Elmer Berger and Noam Chomsky, probably the only time I would be on the same list with such luminaries.

When Jewish students at Stanford organized to support the divestment campaign, they were banned from meeting at Hillel until they denounced the “apartheid” label of Israel . They refused, and it’s the same old story.

The Zionist lobby has been focusing on campuses since the late Seventies because they correctly determined that it’s necessary to prevent critical approaches, alternate theoretical and historical frameworks, from becoming legitimate. They want only fringe groups or actual anti-Semites to become the critics of Israel so that they can smear everyone else as “anti-Semites” or “self-hating Jews.”

Now that they have attacked well-known academics like Tony Judt they are even crazier than ever, and even many who consider themselves pro-Israel think they have gone too far. Nonetheless, when you believe they can’t get more fanatical and shrill, they pull something even crazier else off.

I think their approach may be similar to Israel ’s military thinking in their attack on Gaza : The military wanted to be regarded as a crazy animal, capable of doing anything, going totally bananas. That was on purpose, the lesson being that if Israel believes it’s provoked, it will unleash widespread, wild violence, and civilians will be chewed up in the IDFs jaws.

Likewise on the intellectual level. It seems absurd to attack Judt or Jimmy Carter, people who are not radical at all, but they are following that wild animal strategy, and any mild-mannered critic will be blown away. When I heard that Netanyahu called Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod “self-hating Jews” because Obama called for a settlement freeze, I thought that it’s consistent with that wild animal strategy.
Academics do resist, and there have been successes. But the fact is that the campaign has been debilitating, and, once again, a distraction from Israel ’s on-going colonial project.

My bottom line is simple and not even ideological: Through everything in the past 40 years, Israel keeps doing one thing: they keep building settlements in land occupied in 1967. Rain or snow, storm or drought – intifadas or Oslos – they keep building gated, segregated housing projects on stolen land. Can professors and students object to such outlaw behavior without getting smeared?

BF: If readers find that their local university and local public libraries did not purchase copies of your `Busy Dying’ book, how can they obtain copies of your book?

HO: They can order from the usual outlets, such as Powell’s Books or Amazon, or they order from the publisher (CHAX). They can also go to a web site a friend made of my work. There’s information on how to order `Busy Dying’ along with other books, including `This Passover or the Next I Will Never Be in Jerusalem ’, directly from me. The website is

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