Saturday, June 14, 2008

Selling Out in Boston

I am sitting at a large table covered with nice white cloth, laid out for three course dinners for ten guests. Only eight of us are at the table and two empty seats are to my left. A cheerful man comes and sits to my left and introduces himself in English. Even though this is an Arab American gathering, perhaps the vast majority doesn’t actually speak Arabic, many are second and third generations, few are even fourth and fifth generation. We are in Boston, the roots of the Arab American community run somewhat deeper than many may believe; Boston had more Arabic language newspapers in the 1890’s than most cities in the Arab speaking Middle East.

The cheerful man is from Lebanon originally, must have been in the US for at least twenty years. I am never very good judging age but he could be anywhere between thirty five and forty five with graying hair and a constant smile with a very friendly demeanor. We speak of Lebanon I tell him of my time in Beirut as a child pre and in the very early days of the civil war. For three years, I spent my long summer holidays and sometimes also winter breaks in Beirut where my father worked at the time. I mostly have very fond memories of Lebanon. The Israeli sonic booms were scary, the PLO or other factions check points were even to me then as a child not so scary but strange. With my Egyptian Arabic language giving my origin away easily, I felt that I had to bear the brunt of Egypt’s disengagement agreement with Israel in 1974, it got better when I learnt to sound more like the Lebanese.

Back to Boston, so I am chatting with my new neighbor about the “old country”, always a favorite topic in a gathering like this for both immigrants like two of us and even those who have known no other country but the USA. He asks, have you been to Lebanon recently? I said I have not, but I have such great memories, I used to walk all over the city and I recite several names of districts and other landmarks. I then mention that going to Tel Aviv and Haifa earlier this year somehow reminded me of Beirut a lot. This was the end of the chit chat and we plunged deep into a political discussion.

My new friend, while not a Palestinian, is not about to “sell” the Palestinians “out”. Wham, it comes, so my visit to Israel is “selling out” Palestine? My friend came to the dinner with progressive Jews who did not “sell out”. He is Lebanese, he could just ignore Palestine and “sell out”. Well my friend, I feel deeply for the suffering of the Palestinian people and for the justice of their cause, but my main way of expressing a commitment to this cause is through dialogue and engagement. There is enough propaganda out there, from both sides; while grossly uneven in the main stream with a general bias always in favor of Israel, this is not how I wish to express my commitment.

There are many progressive Jews, I know, some are my friends, but they are not the ones I am looking for a dialogue with! Why not? … Because I want to understand what the mainstream Israelis and Jewish Americans think, I want to know where they are coming from. ….. Do I try to convince them of the justice of the Palestinian cause? Well …my friend in a dialogue, a true dialogue, at least the way I try to practice it, I focus on expressing my own ideas and narratives rather than trying to form or manipulate the opinion of the other. So, you just sit and talk as normal as if no issues with Palestine? I too could just “sell out”? I tell my friend that if through my dialogue I help one or two people every year look at things differently, then I am satisfied. He insists but what do you talk about? Do you just accept their story? No I don’t, I give them my narrative and listen to theirs. I tell my friend, I am not really interested in spending my energy getting the average Joe away from his Celtics game to talk to him about the justice of the Palestinian cause. Joe Average will vote many other issues before this issue become central to him, if he votes at all and I add jokingly I am Lakers fan anyhow. Wham again; I am not sure which is worse being a Lakers’ fan or having visited Israel. My friend is getting to the point where he is losing patience with me.

Justice, basic dignity for the people of Palestine will happen with peace; peace will happen when enough Israelis and American Jews feel that peace is a serious possibility and believe that peace is a genuine goal for the Palestinians and their supporters, not just a short term step on the path of more war. In my dialogue, I am seeking to know the “Zionist Enemy” directly and I want them to know me; because I believe peace is really possible and with it justice for the people of Palestine. Turning all Israelis into progressive Jews is not a realistic path to peace, we need peace with those we disagree with on very fundamental and difficult thorny issues, we need peace with the “enemy”; yes this is indeed possible!

The first award for the gathering is to radio program on Palestine broadcast on Boston College Radio on Sunday mornings. I think my friend is part of this program or affiliated with it somehow. This program has created so much hostility and a lot of people have tried unsuccessfully to take it off the air, a big round of applause. The Palestinian voice is being “heard” in Boston, or should I say it is being broadcast in Boston …not everyone is a sell out! And the Celtics are winning too!


July 14, 2008

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