Gaza and my political conscience

American universities are trying to silence anyone who speaks up against Israel’s occupation and bombardment of Gaza.

Image credit Steve Rhodes via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

The temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine to a state of their own.

– Nelson Mandela, 1997

On October 6, the night before Hamas attacks that were to leave 1,400 Israelis dead and 200 kidnapped started, my family and I traveled from Ithaca, New York, to attend a Bar Mitzvah in San Francisco. And so, the morning that was supposed to be a joyous occasion also carried the weight of what was happening in Israel. As one of the officiants reminded us, as if to permit us to celebrate, we had to hold both the Bar Mitzvah and what was unfolding in Israel in our hearts.

There were about 100 of us there, mostly families. I kept looking around and thinking about families and friends like ours going about their business, suddenly losing their lives. I recalled how, when Al-Shabaab attacked Westgate Mall and Dusit Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya where I am from, everyone in there was a target.

At Westgate, among the killed was the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awonoor, who had gone shopping after visiting a book festival in Nairobi. At Dusit Hotel, one of the slain was a manager I was familiar with because whenever I visited Nairobi that was my favorite hotel. The people who survived only survived by chance—that is how random and unseeing terror is.

In British colonial Kenya, there was the terror of concentration camps and massacres. One of my uncles, who was deaf, was ordered by the British police to stop moving; he could not hear them, and they shot him dead.

In the end, terror touches someone you know.

So, I know I don’t have a single cell in my body that can justify killing civilians, willful or otherwise—and therefore, I extend the same logic to the US and Israel. How many weddings and funerals has the US, for example, targeted and later called collateral damage?  As the US withdrew from Afghanistan, one of the last acts, as if to underline how little it cared about Afghani life, was to kill ten Afghanis, including seven children, by a drone missile.

What have the 1,400 dead civilian Israelis done to Hamas? And by the same token, what have the more than 5000 dead or the 1 million displaced Palestinians done to Israel? What did the 300 to 500 dead at the Gaza hospital do? Under what humanitarian rubric do we calculate this, not to call it terrorism?

The argument that the Israeli state will kill—take a number—ten, one hundred, or four thousand civilians to get to Hamas because, they claim, Hamas is using them as human shields, to me, is a fallacious argument. Even if it were true, would it not be logical to always kill hostages to kill their takers? If we are going to be callous about it, why does the IDF not airstrike the Israelis being held hostage by Hamas to kill the militants? We cannot allow ourselves to be this callous about Palestinian lives.

I am a professor in the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University in upstate New York, though given the irrationality of any discussions around Israel and Palestine in some quarters, I should state that I write this strictly as a private citizen. And that I avoid bringing my own politics into the classroom.

Professor Russell Rickford, a historian at Cornell has been in the news following remarks he made at a pro-Palestinian rally in Ithaca town on October 15. To conclude, he said that he found the Hamas attacks to be exhilarating. I want to be very clear that I vehemently disagree with his expression of exhilaration.

But I also want to note that Prof. Rickford himself has apologized for his “horrible choice of words” and termed them “reprehensible,” while recognizing “the pain that my reckless remarks have caused my family, my students, my colleagues, and many others in this time of suffering.” And he reiterates that he “abhor [s] violence and the violent targeting of civilians.”

The university’s president, Martha Pollack, and the board of trustees have called his remark “reprehensible,” saying it “demonstrates no regard whatsoever for humanity” adding that Cornell “is taking this incident seriously and is currently reviewing it consistent with our procedures.”

And yet even though the matter is in the hands of Cornell institutional authorities and he has apologized, Professor Rickford and his family remain targets. Currently, a billboard truck is driving around the Cornell campus with his photo calling for his firing—a silencing tactic that has been deployed on other campuses, including Harvard University. And there has been a torrent of racist hate against him and his family and death threats on social media.

At the same time, Cornell as an institution has a history of radical (getting to the root) ideas that have contributed to political changes. The African Studies and Research Center was founded after students took over Willard Straight Hall in 1969 and now we are considered “the birthplace of the field of Africana Studies.” Cornell students were also at the forefront of divestment from Apartheid South Africa campaigns.

In the end, I cannot help but ask, is it not just possible that Professor Rickford has become an easy and useful distraction for those who would instead not focus on the Israeli government and military’s disproportionate response? Or the larger question of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands? Or, on the most critical question, how is peace to be achieved? Not just an immediate ceasefire, but long-lasting peace, and what that peace should look like?

In my classes last week, understanding that we cannot pretend the outside world does not exist, I told my students that, in the end, we are responsible for our political consciences, irrespective of our ideologies.  And political conscience has to be informed by history. In short, I told them to be students of the problem and write it out. I told them it is the same advice I give myself whenever I am confronted by something that I don’t quite understand (this essay is a practice of that). And I like to listen to those who know more than me.

So, I listened when Nobel Peace Prize winner, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, said in a 1964 speech:

Clearly there is much in Mississippi and Alabama to remind South Africans of their own country, yet even in Mississippi we can organize to register Negro voters, we can speak to the press, we can in short organize the people in non-violent action. But in South Africa even the mildest form of non-violent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned. We can understand how in that situation people felt so desperate that they turned to other methods, such as sabotage.

King obviously was not calling for targeting civilians; he would, as would the South African freedom fighters Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, have been abhorred by it. But he also recognized resistance to oppression will take different forms, and violence can be one of those forms, as a last resort.

If King was non-violent to the bone but could recognize that different political realities demanded different methods of resistance, why is it so hard for us to grant Palestinians the right to a resistance adapted to their political realities?

I listen to Nelson Mandela, another Nobel Peace Prize winner now mainly remembered for negotiating South Africa’s troubled political transition. We tend to abstract this Mandela from the revolutionary Mandela, who founded the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe, who was on a US terrorist watch list as late as 2008, and who, in 1961, explained that at every turn black people’s peaceful protests were met with violence and therefore they had no other choice but to turn to targeted violence.

In 1997, three years after he had been elected as South Africa’s first democratic president, Mandela said of Palestine: “The temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine to a state of their own” before proceeding to say in part that “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” I believe this remains true today.

I listened to Nobel Peace Prize winner and anti-Apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who in a 2014 must-read essay  argued that “Ultimately, events in Gaza over the past month or so are going to test who believes in the worth of human beings.” In 2023, this is an indictment against those who choose silence.

Listening to, and learning from these collective voices is even more urgent today.

I am a poet and storyteller, so let me end this way. One day, a few years ago, my father, who grew up in colonial Kenya, took me up on a hill above the Limuru market and said this used to be our land. I went to Tigoni Primary School in Limuru, a beautiful school surrounded by tea plantations. Later, I learned that land used to belong partly to my great-grandfather, Mukoma Wa Njiriri, the one I named after. The British colonial settlers pushed him and my relatives onto an arid piece of land.

To be displaced. The pain of being able to say to your child: “look over there, you see that? We used to live there.” How do we quantify that? Why can’t we see the humanity of loss that is Palestine?

I fall back on Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, I Come From There.

I Come From There

I come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.
I come from there. I render the sky unto her mother
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up
To make a single word: Homeland … .

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