Friday, June 3, 2011

“We Are the World” for Palestine Runs into Trouble

When the megagroup calling itself USA for Africa recorded “We Are the World” in 1985, no one put out an opposition message. But a new international effort called “Freedom for Palestine” is having a little more trouble getting its message out.

Kickstarted by the British Palestine solidarity movement with the support of the band Coldplay, the “Freedom for Palestine” video by artists calling themselves One World is on YouTube (at Along with clips of the “Freedom for Palestine” performers, it shows the terraced hillsides of the West Bank and the faces of Palestinians young and old; it shows the refugee camps that dot the land, and the 26-foot high “separation” wall that snakes through it; and it shows the graffiti that cover miles of the wall and that constitute a continuing act of nonviolent resistance to the Occupation and the Wall.

But when Coldplay listed the video’s URL on its Facebook page, Facebook received complaints that the song was “abusive”—and deleted the URL. YouTube, on the other hand, is blithely showing both “Freedom for Palestine” and an anti-Freedom for Palestine video that was put up two weeks after the original appeared on YouTube. Same song, different video: Viciously pro-Israel, it juxtaposes clips of children being educated as terrorists with shots of huge convoys of aid allegedly being sent from Israel to Gaza and images of a “prosperous marketplace in Gaza.”

It’s at, and its existence and placement on YouTube is a blatant act of intellectual property theft that violates YouTube’s most basic rules. Presumably when the theft is brought to YouTube’s attention, they’ll remove the counter video; meanwhile, we can help bring it to their attention—and support the real “Freedom for Palestine” video, including demanding that Facebook restore the URL.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Palestinian Nonviolence—Alive and Sometimes Victorious

Some landscapes are more political than others, like the village of Budrus, in Palestine (that is, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory called the West Bank).

Like many other such villages, Budrus is dependent on its centuries-old olive trees for its economic survival and for the villagers’ connection with their past and their land. But in 2004, the village’s survival was threatened when the State of Israel announced that its 26-foot high barrier wall would pass through Budrus, requiring the uprooting and destruction of 3,000 of the village’s olive trees. (In flagrant violation of international law, the wall would pass well within the “Green Line,” the border between Israel and the Palestinian Territory.) At that moment, Budrus was like many other villages in the path of the wall in one other respect: It was threatened with slow death as a viable community.

Budrus, however, was not without resources. It had Ayed Morrar, a five-times imprisoned Fatah activist for Palestinian self-determination. It had his 15-year-old daughter Iltezam. It had Hamas activist Ahmed Awwad. And, in the end, it had friends—friends from the international community and from within Israel itself.

Morrar called a meeting. He and Awwad agreed to work together to unite the village. They called on the whole community to resist—and Morrar persuaded the village that nonviolence was “in the best interests of the Palestinian people.”

The morning that the bulldozers were scheduled to arrive, the men of Budrus marched en masse to the site of the proposed uprooting and put their bodies in the path of the earth-moving equipment. The bulldozers—and their military escort—backed off, but, of course, returned the next day.

That was when Morrar’s daughter Iltezam observed that the resistance had to that point been all male and told her father that the women of Budrus had to join the protests (pictured above). When he conceded the point and asked the women to join in, Iltezam led the way by leaping into the hole a bulldozer had dug. Soon after that, international supporters came to Budrus to join the villagers; so did Jewish Israeli peace activists. After ten months of blustering insistence by Israel that no protests could make it back down, it did exactly that, moving the route of the wall away from Budrus and its olive trees and closer to the Green Line.

(Depending on your definitions, the defense of Budrus was almost entirely but perhaps not 100 percent nonviolent. There were moments when the youth of Budrus were provoked to the point of throwing stones at the armed intruders, who responded by firing guns. But Morrar and Awwad begged for absolute nonviolence, and in the end, the villagers complied.)

After their victory in Budrus, Morrar and his comrades organized nonviolent resistance to the wall in other Palestinian communities. Now the map of the West Bank is dotted with such pockets of resistance—and the struggle for Budrus itself is available in Budrus, a documentary by filmmaker Julia Bacha and the Just Vision production company. Using footage of the events filmed at the time, plus interviews with Ayed and Iltezam Morrar, Ahmed Awwad, one of the Jewish defenders of the village, and two members of the Israeli military who attacked it, they answer the often-asked question, “Where are the Palestinian Gandhis?” They make it abundantly clear that Palestine does have its Gandhis—and that, as happened in India, Gandhian resistance can sometimes defeat armed aggression. Budrus will inspire all nonviolent activists, although it may also make you wonder why you’re here and not in Palestine, putting your own body on the line for justice.

Budrus, a Just Vision production directed by Julia Bacha, is in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, with English subtitles and at this writing is playing at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village. For more information, see

©2010 Judith Mahoney Pasternak

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Blight: A Meditation on Indigenous People’s Day

October 12, 2010—For 80-plus miles, from just north of New York City to the upstate city of Poughkeepsie, the Metro North railroad tracks run along the eastern shore of the Hudson River, only yards away from the water. In my childhood and youth, that ride along the Hudson was merely “home” to me—I was raised in Croton, which sits more or less halfway between the two cities. It was only later, after I had seen the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Ohio, the Nile and the Rio de la Plata, the Rhine from beginning to end, and the Danube, the Thames, the Avon, and most of the rivers of France–only then did I grasp how extraordinary that stretch of the Hudson shore is. Across the river, which widens at the Tappan Zee and then narrows again, are the cliffs of the Palisades; in every direction, hills rise out of the water, somehow rising out of mist even on the sunniest day. Its beauty never fails to thrill me, nor have I ever seen anything to match it.

Only a few score miles away is its opposite number in every sense, the ravaged country along the Amtrak railroad between New York City and Washington, DC. The first time I rode that train was on August 28, 1963, from New York to Washington. (That was the day Martin Luther King told the world he had a dream.) Between family visits—my oldest son and his family have lived in Maryland for decades—and protest marches, I’ve taken it scores of times since. For mile upon mile, the tracks pass a nightmare spectrum of blight: dying trees and poisoned waters give way to long-abandoned factories, windows broken, walls graffiti’d, which yield in turn to piles of garbage and old tires dotting tract after tract of decaying homes and broken neighborhoods.

Yesterday I traveled from New York to Washington and back on Amtrak (headed, as it happens, for a family wedding). As I looked out the window, I was struck by a curious thought. Inspired, no doubt, by the fact that it was Indigenous People’s Day, I wondered, what if a Lenni Lenape Indian of 500 years ago—one of the First People of New Jersey—were to time travel along this very route today, as Amtrak skirts the toxic land along the water we call the Hackensack River? What would she think?

What would she think of the deadly marshes? What would she think of the now-useless buildings? What questions would she ask in the face of this endless blight, the bitter fruit of “development” and greed?

Only two, I should imagine, one of which we know the answer to, the second of which is as agonizing for us as it would be for the time traveler: “Who has done this to our Earth, and how can we heal Her?”

Saturday, October 2, 2010

For My Mother, on Gandhi’s Birthday

There are dozens of lovely, tree-filled squares in London, but only one—Tavistock Square, in northern Bloomsbury—is dedicated as a peace park. Surrounding a statue of Mohandas K. Gandhi, India’s Mahatma (“Great Soul”), are benches with plaques asserting the commitment of one Londoner after another to Gandhi’s vision of peace and the “soul force” of nonviolence.

One of the plaques, however, carries the name of someone who would have loved to be an honorary Englishwoman, but was in fact a New Yorker, born and bred. It says, “From Beatrice Kelvin of New York City, who works for world peace and loves London.”

Bea Kelvin was my mother, and thanks to her determination and that of her daughters, the plaque was placed there in her lifetime, as she wanted it, on a bench facing the back of Gandhi’s statue (why the back of his statue is a different story, equally typical of my mom). Today being Gandhi’s birthday and the World Day of Nonviolence, I put this out in my mother’s memory and his.

The Hotel Tavistock, across the street from Tavistock Square, is a little the worse for wear since its construction in the Art Deco-mad Thirties. But it’s still a handsome example of that then-modern school of architecture, and the slight wear-and-tear has brought the price down to my family’s preferred range. So it was that my peripatetic mother discovered the Tavistock in her world-traveling heyday, learned that the square across the street was a peace park, and began to conceive a desire to have her own plaque there, talking about it from time to time as another might talk about where she wanted to be buried. So it was, too, that she and her two daughters continued to stay there even after Bea could no longer travel alone and I had to accompany her when she left the country. And so it was that in 2005 my sister Joan and I found ourselves at the Tavistock without Bea, who had had a stroke the year before and couldn’t go anywhere at all anymore.

We had stepped across the street to look at the square for her, so to speak, and were talking wistfully about her desire to have her name represented there. Then it occurred to us that there probably was a sign somewhere in the park that could tell us how one went about acquiring a plaque on a bench, and faster than you could say “Mohandas K. Gandhi,” Joan was speaking to the very parks department representative on her international mobile phone …

Back in the States, I told Bea about our research, thinking it was another installment in our increasingly frequent conversation about her post-mortem arrangements. “So you see,” I said, “we can get you a bench there after you, um—after—well, you know—”

“I don’t want it when I’m dead!” she said. “I want it now, when I can see it.”

She got it. She never did see the real thing, but she saw pictures. She was very proud of it. For the last years of her life, she kept a photo of the bench—taken by one of her sons—in a prominent spot on her piano, along with her pictures of her grandchildren. (She was convinced that the park had put her plaque on the wrong bench and that she had requested it facing the front of Gandhi’s statue, but in fact she had misread the diagram they sent and insisted that the spot she chose—the one where the plaque is—was eye-to-eye with him.) When she died, four years after the plaque was installed, we displayed a large photo of it at her memorial service and noted in her death notice in The New York Times that a “bench in London's Tavistock Square is dedicated to peace in her name.”

On this International Day of Nonviolence, “The Political Landscape” salutes Mohandas Gandhi and everyone else—including my mother—who has ever dreamed of a world without slaughter or cruelty and put their lives to the service of bringing that world to birth. May we finally make it so.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Guest Column: Searching for the Jews, I Find the Muslims

By Sarkis Pogossian

I visited Kaifeng recently in search of traces of China's one indigenous Jewish community, which flourished in the city from the ninth century. By official histories, the last of the Kaifeng Jews disappeared in the 1860s, when the dwindling community sold their synagogue—or, by some accounts, 1841, when the Yellow River burst its banks and the temple was removed to strengthen the city walls. The claim that the Kaifeng Jews do not survive was recently contested by reporter Matthew Fishbane of the New York Times, who visited living self-identified Jews in the city this spring—despite the fact that Jews are not one of China's official nationalities.

The Jews of Kaifeng, who also arrived on the Silk Road from the west, were known to their Han neighbors as the "blue-turbaned Muslims"—the exotic faith of Judaism apparently considered to the Han a mere variant of Islam. Having not yet seen the New York Times article, I arrived in Kaifeng cold—and the responses to my inquiries indicated that the confusion persists to this day.

Kaifeng, China's capital in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), is today a chaotic modern city, with much more of a "third world" feel than Beijing. Like all Chinese cities, it is rife with KFCs and crass commercialism—until the main drag ends in a traditional arch guarded by carved lions. Beyond this lies Old Kaifeng. Crossing over is like going back centuries in time.

Asking locals through my interpreter where the old Jewish district could be found, I was directed to Zhuxian, a peasant village a 20-kilometer bus ride south of Kaifeng—which turned out to be inhabited almost entirely by Hui Muslims. Not a trace of Judaism was in evidence, but a beautiful mosque, probably dating to the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty—in classical Chinese style, but with Arabic calligraphy in the intricate wood-carvings and relief work.

I finally figured out that the city's most precious Jewish artifacts are sequestered in the Kaifeng Municipal Museum—literally kept under lock and key in a secret room on the building's top floor. With special permission from the museum management, I was allowed entry. No photos were permitted. When the lights were turned on, the dusty "Exhibition on the History & Culture of the Ancient Kaifeng Jews" was revealed.

The principal artifacts are three stelae which stood outside the synagogue, telling the history of the Kaifeng Jews—dating to 1489, 1512 and 1679. The interpretive material in English refers to the synagogue as a "mosque." The caption for the 1489 stele, which was erected after the demolition of the original synagogue dating to the 12th century, reads: "Stele of Rebuilding the Mosque." The badly worn writing is all in Chinese.

On a China tourism website, I had read that relics from the last synagogue—particularly blue tiles from its roof—were still guarded by the Muslims at Kaifeng's Dongda Si, or Eastern Grand Mosque. So the following morning, I took a bicycle-taxi to the Dongda Si, another magnificent centuries-old mosque, which lies hidden amid a warren of alleys invisible to the eyes of Kaifeng's few foreign tourists. My interpreter's questions about the Jewish relics were met with incomprehension, but we were welcomed to look around the mosque and take photos. Amid the exquisite wood-carvings with both Arabic and Chinese calligraphic work were two cross-beams which were a special historical prize—carved with lines in an ancient and esoteric script, which I was unable to certainly identify, despite my queries. This was possibly Kufic, the archaic form of Arabic in which the early Korans were written. Or possibly it was the ancient Uighur script, which was loosely based on Kufic through the intermediaries of the Persians—speaking to the ancient roots of the Hui culture.

The New York Times article indicated that a couple of small tourism companies are offering trips to Kaifeng for those seeking the city's Jewish heritage, and perhaps I would have seen more of what I was looking for if I had known about them—for instance, the site of the old synagogue on Teaching Torah Lane. But my blind probings led me to an unexpected look at Kaifeng's unique syncretism and fortuitous confusion.

My friend Sarkis Pogossian wrote this as part of a longer piece on "The Mosque Controversy--in China" for Bill Weinberg’s excellent web journal, World War 4 Report.

A Communist Party

On Friday, September 10, while New York was thinking about 9-11, I went to the opening day of la Fête de l'Humanité at the Parc de Corneuve, just outside Paris. The Fête de l'Huma is the annual three-day festival held by l'Humanité, once the paper of the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français), now independent but still close to the PCF. The fête occupies a 173-acre site (that's about one-fifth the size of Central Park) and has, like any fair, a midway, vendors, panels, forums, rock concerts, and booths serving food and drinks. The primary difference between the fête and your local county fair is that the booths represent Communist parties from all over France and from around the world. For someone who grew up in a country (I mean, of course, the United States) where "communist" was a word for scaring children in the culture at large--a word that has since, simply, disappeared from that same culture--that difference is mind-boggling. (More photos at Picasa.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

My Mistake—Happy International Women’s Day!

Yesterday, “Contested Terrain” blogger (and my former Guardian Newsweekly colleague) Dan Cohen suggested that awarding the Best Picture Oscar to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker “would be a great way for Hollywood to celebrate … International Women’s Day.” He was referring to the fact that none of the previous Best Pictures was directed by a woman, nor had any woman ever been recognized as Best Director.

Last night, in accepting her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Precious, Mo’nique said, “I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all she had to so that I would not have to.” She was referring to the first Academy Award given to an African-American, which McDaniel received in 1940 for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind.

My own predictions, based on all that history, were thrillingly off the mark. Handicapping the Oscars in the Indypendent a couple of weeks ago, I said it would be “Avatar all the way,” and added, “Prove me wrong, Academy, Please.”

And just in time for International Women’s Day, the Academy did. I had failed to take into account certain subtleties of Academy Award demographics, to wit, that people in groups that have historically gone unrecognized and un-awarded are more likely to get awards for work that subordinates members of that group.

I've written about this extensively. For example, the first eight Oscars presented to Black actors—from McDaniel’s in 1940 to the historic first presentation of both top acting awards to African-Americans in 2002—were given for performances in movies that were predominantly about white people. In other words, from 1940 through 2002, when Black actors won Academy Awards, it was for playing roles secondary to white people in the cast. Not until 2005, fifty-five years after McDaniel’s Oscar, did a Black actor get an Academy Award for a movie that was actually about African-American life. (The actor was Janie Foxx, playing singer Ray Charles in the biopic Ray.) No movie about Black people has ever gotten the Best Picture Oscar, nor has any by a Black director; indeed, no film by Spike Lee, arguably the country’s most prolific and creative filmmaker, has ever been nominated as Best Picture.

Thus, when I declared that history made Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker an unlikely prospect for the top Oscar, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that it had become one of the most acclaimed films ever made by a woman yet was in no way a “chick flick.” That’s an understatement, of course. The Hurt Locker is a war movie, in which there are almost no women at all—and as such it was, let us say, a little more likely to become the groundbreaking first woman-directed Best Picture. I mean a lot more likely, certainly more than was, say, Danish director Lone Scherfig’s An Education, which is very much a “chick flick.”

None of this is can or should diminish Bigelow’s achievement, which stands on its own, as did McDaniel’s performance in Gone With the Wind. The Hurt Locker is a powerful film (if not, alas, an antiwar film), and Bigelow’s victory brings us closer to the day when a movie by and about a woman may actually be declared the Best Picture of its year. (And she beat out her own ex-husband—James Cameron, director of Avatar, in case you don’t read Hollywood gossip—which may give a little extra frisson of triumph to all the ex-wives out there.)

Happy International Women’s Day, sisters and comrades.

©Judith Mahoney Pasternak 2010