Thursday, September 20, 2012

The General's Son

Last night I realized that my friend Tom was still at UC Berkeley. Well, he's my friend's friend. More specifically, he's the Israeli activist with Students for Justice in Palestine that made enough of an impact on the Israel rep (shaliach) at the Berkeley Hillel that she did a 180 on Zionism and ended up volunteering alongside me in the West Bank.

When she and I attended a protest against the Jewish National Fund in Jerusalem, I got to meet Tom, and only realized we were again in the same city last night. I made a plan to come up to Berkeley this weekend, then my first e-mail from Tom's SJP list told me that Miko Peled was speaking there tonight.

Could I get myself all the way to Berkeley? It sounded far. I checked my 511Transit trip planner, and it said it would take 2 hours, and cost $9-11. Woof. I decided to go anyways.


On my way to work today, I stopped by Draeger's grocery, because I'd heard they had goat's milk ice cream (that Carin was really excited about because Al Aqaba had so many goats!) and a great lunch option.

Well, one option turned out to be two hundred options, it was the most overwhelming and awesome grocery store I've ever been in. First off, they played Modern Love and Sussudio and Rich Girl in direct succession. And everything from the soup to the salads to the pastries to the meat to the fish to the cheese was top-notch, and I just.....needed to get myself out of there. I settled on salmon chowder with dipping bread, which made for a great Caltrain platform snack.

I worked with Donna and Rudy at Rebuilding Alliance until five, then Donna dropped me off at the Millbrae BART station, without my bike, which I kind of knew was going to be a problem later, but I decided not to think about it, since the bike wasn't going to fit in the Prius.

I spent my ride on the BART looking up song lyrics to post in my Stuff I Like section. It's more fun when the lyrics come to you, but I couldn't resist the temptation to click through ABBA and Allison Krauss and Ben Folds. I think I made it to Dan Fogleberg before rolling into Berkeley.

Berkeley City College was only a block or two away, so I didn't see much of the town, but it seemed like a really pleasant place. Hopefully I get to come back this weekend...

The lobby of BCC was really nice. People were starting to gather and buy tickets and collect fliers from the Middle East Children's Alliance and Jewish Voice for Peace table, and as I approached the bottleneck, I had this uneasy feeling that almost made me laugh. People looked at me, and it made me really paranoid. At events like these, there's a good chance that someone with an opposing viewpoint will show up and cause a scene. Since I obviously wasn't Palestinian, I could be a trouble-maker. I wondered if any of the Jewish attendees felt this anxiety, like "I totally agree with your cause, don't label me!" There was the more extreme paranoia, that someone would actually fear a security threat. I felt awkward fumbling around my computer bag, and generally being alone.
The event: Miko wrote a book called The General's Son, telling his story as a member of a prominent Israeli military family. His father had fought in the War of Independence in 1948, and served as a general during the 1967 war that landed the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights under Israeli control. After the war General Peled turned to peace activism, though I never got to that part of the book, but I'll get to that...

In 1997, his sister's daughter was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, and the press treated the incident with cynicism.....what good was the peace activism of general Peled, if it didn't keep his own family safe from terrorism?

The next news story was Nurit Peled-Elhanan's response. She publicly announced that she put the blame for her daughter's death on her own government, for pushing those Palestinians to the point of such despair that they turned to killing themselves and others.

Miko said it was a Palestinian-Israeli dialogue group in California that got him to challenge the myths about Israel that he'd been raised with. It took him years to make the transformation, but both him and Nurit are now prominent activists against Zionism, and are both currently on book tour. Miko's book is about his family history and his activism with the Palestinian cause, and Nurit's is about systematic racism in Israeli schoolbooks.

Like Maureen's presentation at Rebuilding Alliance, Miko was definitely preaching to the choir. And this was a gratifying choir. There were a lot of head nods, and mm-hmmm's, and mmm's of indignation (or Palestinian tongue clicks), and laughter, and of course, clapping. I was hyper aware of all this response because I wondered if Miko found it gratifying. Of course, it's nice to have support, and know that your message resonates with people, but where were the adversaries? I saw that questions were to be taken on index cards, so there would most likely be no confrontations. The only evidence I saw of displeasure was when Miko answered a question related to AIPAC, and said that J-Street was more dangerous than AIPAC because it was the "fig leaf" that legitimized it. Two people in front of me just shook their heads and started whispering amongst themselves. I'm fairly new to this scene, but J-Street is really feeling the friction at events like these....

Oh, I forgot to mention, I saw Alice Walker. She was sitting in the second row. She wrote the intro to The General's Son. I wanted to go up to her and say I loved her work and appreciated her advocacy and could I get a picture? I decided to try afterwards.

Afterwards, I decided to buy a book, mostly because I couldn't see any other way to engage with Miko (and give him the Al Aqaba Charette booklet that Donna had passed on to me). I really wasn't planning on buying one, since our store next to Rebuilding Alliance sells the book already. But I figured it was a cause worth supporting, and I had a $20 in my pocket. I went up and told Miko that I'd just been in Palestine, and said thanks for reinforcing the work I'm doing. Because someone had asked him, "how can we change these minds?" and he just responded, "we can't." As soon as someone tries to justify dropping a bomb on a civilian population and killing a child, the conversation is over. It's not that they don't know it's happening, it's that they think it's ok, and it's justified. That's where the conversation ends. I've only recently learned that it's not doing me any good to engage in Facebook arguments with people like that. What's it's done for me is taken up time and energy that I could be spending on more productive work, and it's also gotten me sucked into this moral slip 'n slide where I argue little details and then realize that I'm actually arguing within someone else's racist framework, and legitimizing it. At one point I laid it out and said, "you know what? I don't care about your comfort level," which they took to mean I don't care if they get killed, so, yeah......

I don't lose friends, and I can't get over it when I do. I still think of Davey, who I saw on the sidewalk while I was at the JNF protest in Jerusalem, and Becca, who I considered might be at the event tonight, since she studies law at Berkeley. Though I figured it unlikely that she'd spend $10 to see Miko. Two people I often wonder about. Will our paths cross again? Will our relationship change in 20, 30 years? I can't but help see our lives as movies sometimes. 

Then there are the Zionists who still talk to me, but that's not nearly as intriguing. Just draining.

After I got Miko to sign my book (To Morgan, Peace! Miko Peled, September 2012) I talked to a couple people in the lobby about our shared love for Israeli passport stamps, then realized that Alice had left, then I went to catch a BART, any BART...somehow I was confident that everything would work out alright, even without a bike...

Sadly, I only pulled out my book when my phone was certifiably dead. I never make time to read books anymore, but this was a good chance to nestle in and get more into the Peled story. The lights were tinny, the train was loud, and there were interesting people all around me, but I managed to tune it all out. I learned about Miko's grandmothers in Jerusalem, and his parents, and the first chapter was just...endearing. It was a good choice in his part, not to intermingle his present-day opinions with his memories of family and childhood.

I thought of the Shabbat dinner I had at my friend Alon's house (oh crap, I realized, he's from San Francisco! What's his last name again? Check CouchSurfing! anyways..) and how warm the family was, and how good the food was, and how for so many Zionism means warmth, and love, and family, and potential for peace, if only it weren't for the elephant in the room. I didn't realize my own presence was provocative until Alon's mother initiated a conversation on the conflict, and how "it's a religious thing." I just nodded, half-heartedly. Earlier her son had asked me if really it's possible to enter the West Bank without being ID'd, and I found that encouraging enough.

At Millbrae I had to wait 30 minutes for the Caltrain, so I sat down and read some more. I wondered if I should keep the book vertical so people can see that I'm reading this awesome book about an "Israeli peace activist in Palestine"

An express Caltrain hurtled by at lightening speed. I think it left us all trembling in its wake...

It was really cold outside. I was in a little hoodie, a long flowy skirt, and leather Jerusalem sandals. I couldn't feel my feet.

Finally the 11:04 came, nearly full up. I was a little mystified by that, until I noticed that half the people were wearing Giants hats. The game had just finished! I settled into a seat in the back of the car, and nestled in again to read. The kids in front of me were comparing Auto Corrections on their phones and cracking up. Miko was talking about his father's term as military governor of Gaza after the 1956 war, and how it motivated him to study Arabic. Talking to the refugees, he realized they weren't bent on violence, rather they just wanted to be free and get on with their lives. He published a well-known report on it. I wanted to ask Miko during the lecture how a report like this could lead to his father getting promoted, I guess I underestimated the diversity of the dialogue in those earlier years...

"Tomorrow I'm gotta sign up for Birthright...." the words carried over from the seat in front of me. I looked up. Hmm. I started reading again, this time with the book in front of my face. After a minute, I thought, this is ridiculous. I started flipping through the rest of the book, gathering some butterflies in my stomach. Not unusually, I thought of my friend Jen, who is the most spontaneously social person I know. Jen also happened to have just gotten back from her Birthright trip.

Before we hit my stop, I interrupted the conversation in front of me.
"Hi, umm, you said you're going on Birthright?"
He looked up at me, "umm, yeah."
"Hey, well, I just saw this guy.....I just got back from there...a few months ago, and I just saw this guy speak in Berkeley and bought his book."
They were checking it out.
"Anyways, I kind of know what it's about already, so I thought you might have better use for it." I offered it to him. 
"You could read it, pass it on, whatever...have you heard of Miko Peled?"
"Him? No, I haven't...thanks!"
"I'm Morgan, by the way."
"Hey, I'm...Dan"
I sat back in my seat, twiddling my thumbs for the last two minutes of the ride. I heard the girl next to Dan say, "ooh, Alice Walker..."
As I got up and walked past them, Dan flashed me this grin and said "hey, thanks again!" I smiled and said, "have a good trip..." and got off the train.

I considered the fact that he might get home, Google Miko Peled, and throw the book in the trash. Or a family member would recognize the name and shut it down. Or he would take it to heart and walk into a very confusing shitstorm. That kind of fed into my insecurity about lurking behind strangers and giving them presents.

What can you do. I walked two miles home, and thought Miko might like to know that his book ended up outside the choir tonight....