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Consonance, Dissonance, Harmony

Itinerary of some thoughts on thinking politically

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

This is my fourteenth “Blue Monday” column. In but a few weeks, I have already written over forty thousand words in this virtual space. It’s not as if I don’t have a life. The column is not even my only writing activity! And yet each week I manage to have something to say, and at least some people seem to be interested. Sometimes it can be hard to know what to write about. But the real challenge that I experience is that there are so many things worth writing about, and they all feel pressing to me. This is related to the complexity of the world and the speed at which things take place and are shared. And it is greatly magnified by our media world — which increasingly enfolds everything within it and simply is our world — with its 24-hour cable news, and Twitter, and Facebook, and Google, which places virtually everything that is “known” at our almost instantaneous disposal.

This week I’ve felt particularly overwhelmed by news and by my own thinking. I decided to write about teacher strikes in the U.S. Then I decided to link strikes in Arizona with the special Congressional election in that state, which represents a promising development for the effort to “flip” the House of Representatives back to the Democrats. Then Korea. Then Macron. Macron and Trump. Macron and French strikes. Then the “final” report of the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee, which represents not simply a failure of Congressional oversight but a frontal assault on both the rule of law and the most minimal standards of public veracity. Then — nothing. I spent all day yesterday with these ideas swimming around in my head, jockeying for space, raising my adrenaline level, confusing me, and immobilizing me. Nothing.

I sometimes think I spend too much time thinking.

I went to sleep. And with the help of 5 milligrams of Melatonin, I slept.

I woke up this morning rested, relaxed, and still uncertain about what I would write about today.

I made some coffee and decided to forego my normal routine of immediately checking Facebook and e-mail. And so I sat down with a book I’ve been reading in my spare moments: Against Anti-Semitism: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Polish Writings, edited by my friends Adam Michnik and Agnieszka Marczyk. It’s a great book, and an important one. It is against anti-semitism in general, and Polish anti-semitism in particular, in a very particular way: it both enacts and underscores the falsity of all forms of ethnic, national, or religious essentialism. Through its Introduction, and its explanatory notes, and its selection of texts, it makes clear that while there is a powerful history of anti-semitism in Poland, and its practitioners have sought to present Jews as alien to an “essential Polishness,” this effort has always come up against limits and critiques and resistances. And the effort to repress or downplay these resistances is a source of both injustice — to the victims of anti-semitism — and political stupidity. For otherness is a fundamental feature of the human condition. And while racists, xenophobes, and authoritarians of all stripes might suggest otherwise, the effort to suppress or eradicate otherness cannot fully succeed — though the effort itself can surely bring great harm.

I’ve been thinking about anti-semitism a lot lately, because of this book; because of the anti-semitic campaign being waged against George Soros by the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban; because of the very heated debate taking place within the British Labor Party on the topic; and because of important controversies closer to home, related most recently to ties between some of the leaders of the Women’s March and Louis Farrakhan, the anti-semitic leader of the Nation of Islam.

And so I pondered.

Then I opened up my computer, went to the New York Times, and quickly came upon an op ed published Friday: “Why I March in Gaza,” written by Fadi Abu Shamallah. The piece is very personal and very powerful. In it the author explains his commitment to non-violent protest on behalf of Palestinian rights; his willingness to risk injury and even death in the face of the lethal violence that has been employed against protestors by the Israeli military (in this matter, I simply refuse to refer to such troops as a “defense force”); and his poignant imaginary conversations with his young children, about why he will not allow them to accompany him in the protests, for fear for their safety, and why at the same time he must protest for the sake of his own dignity as a man and as a father: “If Ali asks me why I’m returning to the Great Return March despite the danger, I will tell him this: I love my life. But more than that, I love you, Karam and Adam. If risking my life means you and your brothers will have a chance to thrive, to have a future with dignity, to live in peace with all your neighbors, in your free country, then this is a risk I must take.”

I am always draw to essays with titles like “Why I March” (one of my favorite essays is Adam Michnik’s 1982 essay “Why You are Not Signing. . . A Letter from Bialoleka Internment Camp,” in his Letters from Prison), because I am interested in the ways that activists think about what they are doing, about their own internal dialogues and the ways that they both enact and explain their thinking. There is a kind of reflexivity, wrestling with doubt, and self-limitation, that has long interested me, and that I have thought seriously about at least since I first read Hannah Arendt on the political importance of “an enlarged mentality” which allows one to “think in the place of everybody else.” This is what Arendt writes:

The power of judgment rests on a potential agreement with others, and the thinking process which is active in judging is not, like the thought process of pure reasoning, a dialogue between me and my self, but finds itself always and primarily, even if I am quite alone in making up my mind, in an anticipated communication with others with whom I know I must finally come to some agreement … It needs the special presence of others “in whose place” it must think, whose perspective it must take into consideration, and without whom it never has the opportunity to operate at all.

This is a complicated idea in Arendt, and it wrestles in her writing with a number of conceptions of judgment. At the same time, the basic idea is straightforward, and I cite it because it seems right: to judge is to think beyond oneself, and to consider a range of relevant perspectives before acting (I doubt that Arendt means “in place of everybody else” literally; for this would seem to render judgment, much less action informed by judgment, impossible!), and then to think beyond oneself yet again, ad infinitum. Fadi Abu Shamallah, in his piece, describes primarily an imaginary dialogue with his children, and perhaps with “posterity” more generally. But there are also his fellow protestors, and Palestinians more generally who continue to debate about the limits of non-violence. And, by publishing in the New York Times, he clearly is thinking about –and trying to relate to and to reach — a broader audience, including many supporters of Israel and almost certainly many Israelis themselves. He is thinking here — and writing — as a father who wants to live in peace and who wants a life of freedom and opportunity for his children, and as someone who is willing to place his personal safety at risk in the name of a non-violent resistance to Occupation.

Fadi Abu Shamallah is one man. Like all human beings, his personal psychology, and range of ethical and political commitments, is no doubt complicated and imperfect. Under current circumstances I have neither the time nor the interest in knowing him deeply as an individual (though I think I should very much welcome the chance to meet him!). I am pretty sure that in at least some ways we think about politics rather differently. We surely experience the world differently — I cannot even imagine living in a place like Gaza — and it is likely that on at least some things we might disagree. At the same time, his words, and the thought processes they explain and communicate, move me, and I regard them as exemplary.

And so they led me, in the spirit of “enlarged thinking,” to know more, and thus to think further beyond myself.

The Times identifies Fadi Abu Shamallah as the executive director of the General Union of Cultural Centers in Gaza and a co-producer of the documentary film Naila and the Uprising.

And so I simply “clicked” on the film’s hyperlink, which led me to this description:

While the First Intifada provides the backdrop for Naila and the Uprising, its lessons transcend that particular time and place. Through the experience of countless women engaged at all levels of society, we learn what is possible when women take the lead in struggles for rights and justice — from a movement’s inception to peace talks — and what we lose when they are stripped of their roles. Echoing struggles around the world, we also witness the tremendous power of nonviolent organizing: women’s committees, drawing on all the hallmarks of civil resistance, were able to mobilize hundreds of thousands through massive street rallies, mobile health clinics, underground schools and concerted boycott campaigns, sustaining the uprising while generating indigenous self-sufficiency. In Naila and the Uprising we see how women-led civil resistance can stir the masses, put pressure on power-holders, and affect real structural change.

Full disclosure: I have not (yet) seen the film. But the website brought me easily to around thirty reviews of the film, published in a wide range of outlets, including the Daily Beast, the Nation, and the Hollywood Reporter. The reviews tell me that the film is a serious and high-quality film that has gotten a great deal of serious attention; that it tells a story about the First Intifada that clearly and understandably serves the broader cause of Palestinian independence; and that it tells this story in a way that links resistance to both non-violence and gender equality. Whether or not the filmmakers were informed by theories of “intersectionality,” it is clear that the film presents politics in a rather complicated way that eludes the terms of simple binaries, even as it clearly is motivated by a very specific and historically contingent political binary — the one that separates Israeli Occupation and Palestinian independence. This topic is obviously a fraught one, and it is one that has consistently brought out the worst in many on either side of this divide. Naila and the Uprising seems designed to bring out something better.

Again, in the spirit of “enlarged mentality,” I gravitated toward one review in particular, entitled “It’s Time to Admit the First Intifada Was Non-Violent — And Led By Women.” I was particularly interested in this review because it was published in the Daily Forward, which is a highly respected Jewish periodical, and I was interested in “testing” the response here against the favorable responses reported in other periodicals, such as the Nation, where it would be more likely to see a favorable review. The piece is careful, and it is terrific. It centers on the way the film challenges misleading conventional wisdoms. Here is its takeaway:

The misleading narrative that erases the civil disobedience of women leaders is not simply incomplete; it is damaging, too, with high stakes ramifications. How we tell the story of the First Intifada, of unarmed organizing of communities on the ground today, and of countless other movements for freedom, dignity and equality the world over, has profound consequences. For the actors — the thousands of Palestinians and Israelis engaging in nonviolent civil resistance — it could determine whether they can maintain and grow their efforts. Nonviolent resistance is incredibly difficult to sustain. Movement leaders depend on frequent victories to convince their constituents that civil disobedience — which comes at a high personal cost, often in the face of brutal repression — is a viable strategy. Victories come more often when international audiences, people like you and me, take note and offer our support. Moreover, when women are erased from the narrative, it is that much easier to also erase them from political processes.

The review — actually billed as an op ed — is written by Suhad Babaa who, it turns out, is the Executive Director of “Just Vision,” the producer of the film. A simple click brought me to the website of “Just Vision.” I learned that it is an organization of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians, and that it is dedicated to a broad mission:

Just Vision increases the power and reach of Palestinians and Israelis working to end the occupation and build a future of freedom, dignity and equality for all.

Our overarching goal is to contribute to fostering peace and an end to the occupation by rendering Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders more visible, valued and influential in their efforts.

We drive attention to compelling local role models in unarmed movement-building and demonstrate to journalists, community leaders, public intellectuals and students — in the US, Israel, Palestine and beyond — what is possible when leaders at the grassroots choose to act. We tell their under-documented stories through award-winning films, digital media and targeted public education campaigns that undermine stereotypes, inspire commitment and galvanize action.

We are a team of human rights advocates, journalists, and filmmakers who have a reputation for leadership, credibility and excellence. Based in East Jerusalem, New York and Washington DC, our team reaches tens of thousands of people in direct programs and screenings, moving fluidly from refugee camps and villages to high-level talks with the world’s top decision-makers. We touch millions more through TV broadcast and international press coverage. Founded in 2003, Just Vision is nonpartisan and religiously unaffiliated.

Suhad Babaa, like her colleagues on the “Just Vision” team, is an accomplished and impressive professional involved in a range of NGO activities seeking to promote mutual understanding across hardened divides, and to thus promote a just outcome in Israel-Palestine through non-violent means. And when I sought to learn more about her, a Google search quickly brought me to this important and also revealing piece that she published in June of 2016: “Muslim and Queer: Mourning After Orlando,” a profound reflection on the Orlando night club mass shooting.

Interesting intersections. And boundary crossings.

Having discovered some interesting things about Shamallah’s cinematic connections and associates, I then returned to his General Union of Cultural Centers. I learned that the organization has consistently received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy for its “civic education” projects and especially its promotion of youth civic participation and leadership development, oriented around themes of “tolerance” and “reconciliation”; and that among its projects was this 2015 effort, as described in a UN Relief and Works Agency Report:

Approximately 50 young talented artists from Gaza have painted a 100-metre-long mural under the theme of ‘youth civic engagement’ on the northern wall of the UNRWA compound in Gaza City. The mural, which is painted on a canvas hung on the wall, attempts to break a new record as the longest mural in Palestine. “We paint for the people of Gaza,” commented artist Mohammad Likruns on his motivation to participate in the project. “In Gaza, we still have not woken up from the nightmare of the past three conflicts. In Gaza, we need life. With this mural, we are painting for hope and life,” added journalist Nael Khader, who decided to volunteer for the project.

Artistic collaboration in the service of human life and human dignity. Interesting.

A bit of further Googling led me to a “Music for Reconciliation” initiative at Gaza University, which seeks to “involve youth in promoting reconciliation and community peace”; to a profile of Reem Ambar, a musician and music therapist who “is transforming the lives of war-traumatised children” in Gaza; and to a profile of a 2017 UK tour featuring “Palestinian Jazz”:

And this led me to Nai Barghouti. Here is Nia Barghouti, a Palestinian musician, performing the jazz standard “Angel Eyes”:

Three things are particularly notable about Barghouti. The first is that she is an extremely talented young Palestinian woman from Jerusalem with links to the Palestinian Youth Orchestra and the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. The second is that she is a Jazz Studies student at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music — an oasis of cosmopolitanism far from the Middle East, and a place with which I happen to be very familiar, though I have never met Barghouti. And the third is that she is an exceptionally articulate woman with a clear sense of the politics of her personal and musical identity. She is a Palestinian nationalist. She is also an artist who wishes to freely express herself and to perform. In 2015 she published a terrific op ed in the Indianapolis Star about her complex feelings regarding being in Bloomington, Indiana while her relatives and friends remain stuck, many under actual or effective Occupation, in Palestine, and about how her music, and especially her singing, is a form of resistance. “I shall sing and continue what I’ve started,” she declared. Barghouti is a musician, not a political theorist or a politician. At the same time, she is clear that “music is my form of cultural resistance. Silence is just not an option.”

Silence is not an option.

I used to be a local “representative” of sorts for Americans for Peace Now. For a variety of reasons, some political and some personal, I gave up that role long ago. The truth is, while I once believed that a “two state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was possible and desirable, and while I once strongly criticized those who said otherwise — I had public run-ins here in Bloomington with both Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, and a private disagreement with Tony Judt, who was a friend — I now seriously doubt this. I still follow the arguments, though less closely than I used to. I wish a “two state solution” were possible, and I do not disparage those who continue to seek it. But I see no obvious way forward.

At the same time, one thing is very clear to me: it cannot be right to keep 1.86 million people permanently confined, embargoed, and repressed within a tiny territory around 25 miles long and 5 miles wide, and it is absolutely criminal to use live ammunition to kill and maim civilians so confined who are for the most part non-violently protesting this treatment. It doesn’t matter that Egypt is complicit. It doesn’t matter that Hamas is an enemy of Israel (and Israel is an enemy of Hamas). What the Israeli military is doing now to the human beings who live in Gaza is wrong. This wrong is linked to a broader set of wrongs against Palestinians more generally. But however much we might debate the history of wrong and the political future of the conflict, it is a despicable crime for live ammunition and lethal force to be used against civilians as a means of crowd control.

I’ve thought this for some time. Reading Shamallah’s piece brought it home to me with particular power, and compelled me — in the sense of moral obligation, not “natural necessity” — to write about it now.

Based on his words and his deeds and his film, it seems clear to me that Fadi Abu Shamallah is a good and brave man facing a horrible situation and living with his family and neighbors under demoralizing and deplorable conditions.

There is a group called NGO Monitor. It regularly criticizes the funding of Palestinian NGOs, including those with which Shamallah is associated, and it reports that “U.S. funding continues to go to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active in anti-Israel and BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaigns that directly contradict U.S. government support for peace efforts and strong anti-BDS policy.” It turns out that this monitoring group is a privately-funded Israeli group whose International Advisory Board is headed up by Alan Dershowitz, R. James Woolsey, and Elliot Abrams.

I am not aware of Shamallah’s position on the BDS movement. It seems perfectly believable that he might be a supporter. But it is also perfectly understandable, and reasonable, that he would be a supporter of this movement, which is a form of non-violent resistance to an unjust situation that has been led by Palestinians seeking justice and living under the conditions Shamallah describes. Nothing about his obvious moral scrupulousness or his efforts to promote reconciliation — among Palestinians, between Palestinians and Israelis — is inconsistent with his possible support for BDS. I am not surprised that neoconservatives such as Dershowitz and Abrams would be hostile to BDS; such people are hardliners who support the Netanyahu government and a bellicose approach to Iran. I am not surprised that many supporters of Israel, including many Jewish-Americans, might be against BDS. I am not personally against BDS. But neither am I a supporter. I am not a big fan of cultural boycotts, and in this case I suspect that such a boycott might serve to penalize those in Israel most likely to support a just peace. I will go further. I know that while BDS is a Palestinian movement, in some situations, especially among some campus and left groups in the U.S. and U.K., support for BDS can sometimes shade off into a kind of Manicheanism, and sometimes even into anti-semitism (and please note how many times in that last sentence I said “some”). This I oppose, on ethical-political grounds, both as a Jew and as a principled supporter of human rights and political dialogue.

But my complex reasons for my own complicated feelings and thoughts about BDS are my own, and it would be literally absurd for me to imagine that a decent Palestinian person living under veritable siege in Gaza would or should share my thoughts and feelings.

Only a kind of political autism could lead thinking or feeling human beings living in Boston or New York or Tel Aviv to imagine that Palestinians should feel and think the same ways as them.

Of course Palestinians, like any human community, are diverse, and indeed among them there are serious and sometimes deadly conflicts. At the same time, it is important to understand these conflicts before engaging them. And it is even more important to try to understand the experiences and thoughts of those civilians who are trying to live with some dignity under conditions that are undignified. Understanding the depth and complexity and passion of people like Fadi Abu Shamallah, who are engaged in the non-violent resistance to a political-military dispensation that is harsh and unjust, is the least that we who are not them can do.

This can only be done from a position of honest and respectful difference. To embrace an “enlarged mentality” is to proceed from the premise that, in a very complicated political sense to be sure, a range of moral and ethical perspectives must be taken into account, understood, contended with, and reconciled, if we are to share the earth together.

It would perhaps be wonderful if we all together inhabited a world of perfect and mellifluous harmony. Perhaps.

Here is Esperanza Spalding, singing and playing a beautiful version of the classic song “A Wonderful World,” whose lyrics invite us to imagine such a world:

A beautiful, harmonious song, about a wonderful, harmonious world.

But listen again. And think.

The tune is a simple one, with a pretty melody. But hear this version’s complicated harmonization, and the very complex interplay of Esperanza Spalding’s voice and bass, Danilo Perez’s piano, Jimmy Heath’s tenor saxophone, and Vinnie Colaiuta’s drums. There is point and counterpoint; a blending of different sounds, timbres, and even rhythms; a combination of arranged music and improvisation; consonance and dissonance.

The beauty of this performance lies in its musical complexity and in the ways that its performers freely combine differences.

Consonance and dissonance.

A world of perfect unity, or even perfect harmony, would be a world of monotony.

And, to mix metaphors, what Albert Camus once said of theater is true of all things human: “On the stage as in reality, monologue precedes death.”

We could do with less monologic death. And more dialogue. Dissonance and consonance.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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