‘The greatest sustained exercise of utterly arbitrary authority world has ever seen’ — Chabon on occupation

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The writer/couple Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon have produced a book of essays about the 50th anniversary of the occupation titled Kingdom of Olives and Ash (which we and Haaretz ballyhooed a year ago). The two editors are now touring the country in an effort to raise consciousness about the occupation. Their speakers include Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence. Among the partners on the tour are liberal Zionists (New Israel Fund, Beth Elohim).

Fida Jiryis’s entry in the book is excerpted at the London Review of Books. The collection also includes essays by Raja Shehadeh, Colum McCann, Jacqueline Woodson, Colm Toibin, Geraldine Brooks, Dave Eggers, Hari Kunzru, Mario Vargas Llosa and Assaf Gavron.

Chabon’s piece from the book is up at Literary Hub, and is excellent. Titled “The Tallest Man in Ramallah,” it is about traveling with Sam Bahour around the occupied West Bank, which Bahour describes as a series of cages. “He was a giant in a cage,” Chabon says.

The best parts are when Chabon documents the humiliating permit system that regulates Palestinians’ movements.

[Bahour] reached into the billfold again and took out a second note of the strange tender of his captivity. He took out another, and then a third. He dug around with his fingers and came out with a whole little pile of them, a jackpot of winning tickets in a bitter lottery, all of them expired.

“These are all permits,” he said. “I have many more tens of them at home. I’ve promised my kids that I would wallpaper my office with permits.” It was a laugh line—probably an old one—but he didn’t sound like he really thought it was funny. We laughed at it nevertheless. “A permit is a single piece of paper issued by the same people that issued this.” He held up the green sleeve that held his identity card. “But a permit, usually, is only good for one day, from 5 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock at night. I can use it to travel to Jerusalem, as long as I’m back by 7. If I don’t come back at 7 p.m., they could arrest me. If I got caught coming in late, and the soldier who caught me wanted to arrest me, I would never get a permit again.”

The piece is scanty on sermons, though Chabon offers insights about Palestinian persistence:

I had met a lot of brutalized people and heard a lot of awful stories over the course of the week. What they did was overshadowed, what they needed was denied, what they carried was encumbered by the occupation, and what they owned had been broken, diminished, or taken….

I found myself thinking the same thing I had thought while touring East Jerusalem, where well-financed settlers were attempting to drive out the residents of Silwan; or in Hebron, where the local Arab residents had been banned from their own shops and main street; or in Susiya, where the people were forced into makeshift tents after their entire village was seized: These people aren’t going anywhere. Was the occupation a grievous injustice on a colossal scale, so brutal and unremitting that it would lead anyone to consider the appealing alternative of fleeing and never coming back? Of course! And yet here they still were, after 50 years of violence and deliberate degradation, listening to reggae music, shopping in their marketplaces, eating their sticky ice cream, and sending their children out to play…

Chabon then shares his understanding that Palestinians aren’t going anywhere with Bahour:

“Yes,” Sam said gravely. “That’s our problem. We’re too resilient. We can adjust to anything. You put up a roadblock for a while, everybody complains, but then they get used to it. And then when you take it away, they say, ‘Ah! Progress!’ When all it is, they just got back what they always had a right to, and nobody should have ever been able to take it away from them. That isn’t progress at all.”…

Then there is this insight, which is surely very close to the understanding of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS):

When Sam said that Palestinians’ problem was being too resilient, I saw that accomplishments of this nature—accomplishments like Sam’s—were not merely futile; secretly they served Israel’s strategic goals. They lent the color of “normal life” to an existence that every day deliberately confronted four and a half million people with the absurdity of their existence, which was determined and defined by the greatest sustained exercise of utterly arbitrary authority the world had ever seen. Under occupation, every success was really a failure, every victory was a defeat, every apparent triumph of the ordinary was really a gesture empty of any significance apart from reinforcing the unlimited power of Israel to make it. That, more than any roadblock, checkpoint, border fence, or paper labyrinth of permits and identity cards, was the cage that Sam Bahour lived in. It was the limit of every reach, and the ceiling that he bumped against every time he tried to stretch himself to his full height.

That is a fine insight indeed. I do wonder when American Jewish supporters of Israel will do the next good thing and endorse what we enjoy in the U.S., equal rights. And recognize that, as Scott Roth says, the Zionist cake is baked; and the oppression we see today is very much the accomplishment of the 120-year-old project to build a Jewish state.

Thanks to Terry Weber. 

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RE: ‘The greatest sustained exercise of utterly arbitrary authority world has ever seen’ — Chabon on occupation AND RE: “Under occupation, every success was really a failure, every victory was a defeat, every apparent triumph of the ordinary was really a gesture empty of any significance apart from reinforcing the unlimited power of Israel to make it. That, more than any roadblock, checkpoint, border fence, or paper labyrinth of permits and identity cards, was the… Read more »

Thank you for sharing such eloquence. How can one write about and capture the situation with mere words?

The trick is in focusing everybody’s attention on 50 years of occupation, hoping that the theft itself, preceding it by 20 years, will be forgotten.

… When Sam said that Palestinians’ problem was being too resilient, I saw that accomplishments of this nature—accomplishments like Sam’s—were not merely futile; secretly they served Israel’s strategic goals. They lent the color of “normal life” to an existence that every day deliberately confronted four and a half million people with the absurdity of their existence, which was determined and defined by the greatest sustained exercise of utterly arbitrary authority the world had ever seen.… Read more »