Sunaina Maira, Jan 29, 2007
I arrived in northern Israel during the second week of the Israel-Lebanon war in the summer of 2006. My husband is from a Palestinian village in Galilee and there was a big wedding in his family to which we had been looking forward for a year. So we went to visit his family anyway, hoping the skirmishes on the border would subside in a week or two. Instead, Israel used the pretext of the soldier captured by Hezbollah to launch its all-out war against southern Lebanon, bombing the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon to smithereens, killing at least 1200 Lebanese—most of them civilians and one-third of them children, and displacing about one million civilians.
While staying in Galilee during the Lebanon war, I found that Palestinians inside Israel continued their lives as normally as they could. This is not surprising, since they have lived through so many wars since Israel was created on their lands in 1948 and many were displaced from their homes. As we heard the fighter jets roaring overhead on their way to bomb Lebanon, and the dull thud of rockets through the day on Israeli military areas, Palestinians probably heard echoes of the other Arab Israeli wars of 1956 and 1967, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982—before Hezbollah even existed. When Israeli soldiers massacred women and children in Kana, Lebanon, sorrow gushed from Palestinians over this horror and the repetition of horror that brought back memories of the Israeli massacre in Kana in 1996.
This summer we did not travel to the Israeli Jewish coastal towns such as Nahariyya, where Israeli soldiers in uniform usually hang out at beaches and cafes with rifles slung over their shoulders, for the cafes and seaside bars were all closed due to the attacks. All Jewish Israeli civilians at some point are, have been, or will be in the Israeli occupying forces. I realized that because Israel is a heavily militarized state, where the occupation is next door and not far away in Iraq, the boundary between civilian society and military life is very thin. Being in Israel during an official war, not just the routine attacks of the military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, was not that much different, it seemed.
Palestinians in the village were tense, understandably, but life went on and so did the family wedding. The venue for the final celebration was changed to a safer location, but the nightly parties, the dancing and henna, deejays and drinking and feasting continued as they usually would have—except for the background thud of Katyushas and the whirring of Israeli helicopters overhead. Guests at the wedding festivities occasionally looked up at the night sky to guess where the rockets were headed, and some mothers nervously looked over their shoulders to keep an eye on children playing outside. But there was also a palpable exhilaration; a hope that the occupation of the Arab lands just over the hills might indeed finally end, that the brutal Israeli military might indeed be defeated, that a just peace might indeed be won.
Palestinians in Israel, who constitute twenty percent of Israel, are Israeli citizens but do not have the full civil, economic, and political rights of Israeli citizenship since these are afforded only to Jewish citizens. They live in segregated Palestinian villages that are crowded and sometimes dirty, without parks, libraries, or recreational facilities. Palestinian villages in Israel do not get the same social services and funding as Jewish towns, which are spotlessly clean much like American suburbs, with lush green streets and flowers blooming in the desert. Apartheid in Israel is a visible fact of daily life. The indigenous Palestinians, like the native blacks who suffered under South African apartheid, go to segregated schools and have to struggle to get acceptance into Israeli colleges and find employment. Many young Palestinians end up leaving the country to study elsewhere. People around the world increasingly come to know that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live under military occupation with separate roads, concrete checkpoints, and a 35-foot high prison wall. However, I realized that Palestinians within the 1948 borders of Israel live with invisible checkpoints and within what some call a "glass wall" of policies that discriminate against them, because they are not Jewish.
During the 2006 war, a few Palestinians in the north of Israel, in Nazareth and Haifa, were accidentally killed by Hezbollah rockets. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, had announced these attacks, warning Palestinians in his regular speeches on Al-Manar television watched across the Arab world. In the village, people were glued to their TV sets during his broadcasts, in which he announced that Hezbollah would fight till they died to end Israeli occupation and aggression and resist U.S. imperialist designs for the "new Middle East." Palestinian Israelis may have partial Israeli citizenship but they understood that this was also their war, not just Lebanon's. This was a war to end decades of apartheid and occupation and a struggle for equality and liberation. While they mourned the deaths of the Palestinians who were killed by stray rockets, they saw these losses as sacrifices in the larger struggle against Israeli racism and oppression.
Soldiers Tripping on Shanti
The wedding went on and the war was won by Hezbollah, despite Bush's squawks about "victory" for freedom. But Lebanon's infrastructure was smashed, the world wrung its hands, the war in Iraq and also Afghanistan continued, and life for everyone else went on. We left Israel to visit India after the wedding, and what did we see? Many things that were hopeful, including street protests against corruption and for women's education, and also some things that gave us pause—such as Israeli tourists in search of "shanti." Beginning about ten years ago, there has been a flood of young Israelis visiting India, usually after they finish their reserve duty in the Israeli military, flocking to Goa to do drugs or to Rajasthan to see the Pushkar fair. Some are in search of an Orientalized mystical culture and peaceful way of life that is labeled "shanti" culture in Israel—as if trekking in the Himalayas could absolve former soldiers from shooting children in Gaza or demolishing homes in the West Bank and Lebanon.
The sight of former Israeli soldiers flocking to India is strange for someone who grew up during the time when India did not have official relations with Israel, like other nations who supported the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. India's solidarity with the Palestinian movement began even before 1948, for Indian leaders opposed the 1917 Balfour Declaration to establish a Jewish state on Palestinian land. In fact, in 1946, Gandhi wrote that Jewish settlers "have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism … Why should they resort to terrorism to make good their forcible landing in Palestine?" Gandhi was referring to Zionist terrorist organizations, such as the Irgun and Stern gangs. It is ironic that today, a romanticized notion of Gandhian non-violent resistance is used as a weapon to condemn Palestinian resistance.
India was host to many PLO members and Palestinian students in exile who came to study in colleges all over India. India was in fact the first non-Arab nation to recognize the PLO in the United Nations, expressing solidarity with other anti-colonialist struggles during the Non-Aligned Movement era, as documented by Vijay Prashad in Namaste Sharon: Hindutva and Sharonism Under U.S. Hegemony. Even though India unofficially recognized Israel in this period by allowing an Israeli consulate in Bombay, Nehru's closeness to Arab nationalist leader Abdul Gamel Nasser led the Congress to distance itself from Israel. I
n fact, India voted to censure Zionism as Racism in the UN in 1975.
The landscape has changed since the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in India in 1988 and established official relationships between India and Israel, deepening the military and economic ties that were already in place. India now buys half of its arms from Israel, making it Israel's biggest customer. It is thus funding the Israeli occupation, because the Israeli economy rests on its defense industry, its main export, as well as the inflow of US tax dollars. The military agreements, collaboration on nuclear and missile defense, and sharing of intelligence has continued even with the new United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. India and Israel have found a shared enemy to target in their respective "anti-terrorism" operations, conflating Kashmir and Pakistan with Palestine, and also common agreement on a framework that has gained global currency with Bush's "war on terrorism," resulting in the new "India-Israel-US axis."
In fact, India's alliance with Israel is part of the burgeoning romance between the U.S. and India, enabling U.S. designs for remapping West and South Asia and India's aspirations for becoming a regional superpower. Pakistan, too, has made overtures to Israel as part of the increased normalization of relations with Israel by European countries as well as some Arab nations after the Oslo Accords. The door to Washington, many have realized, is through Tel Aviv. And in the U.S., according to some, the door to Capitol Hill is through AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group that shuts down all criticism of Israel as "anti-Semitic." Hindu right-wing groups, such as the Indian American Political Action Committee (USINAPAC) and the Hindu American Foundation (linked to the VHP) have forged alliances with AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee, learning strategies to advance their agendas and suppress criticism of their regime's policies in the U.S. Where are the progressive alliances between South Asians on the left and those trying to fight to end colonization in the Middle East?
Solidarity is Our Home
After 9/11, South Asian Americans have begun working with Arab Americans to address shared experiences of racial profiling, detention, and deportation after 9/11 and there have been growing alliances focused on domestic issues of immigrant and civil rights. However, these alliances often stop short at the borders of the U.S. Not all of them acknowledge that the crisis of heightened "racial profiling" and political repression of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans after 9/11 is linked to the overseas wars waged by the U.S., and its client states such as Israel, and is the domestic front of U.S. imperial policies in the Middle East and South Asia. Liberal multiculturalism and liberal anti-racist frameworks have attempted to fit the profiling of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans into a racially-based framework of domestic civil rights, treating "Muslim" identity as just another racial or cultural category. These responses view the problem as one of ignorance or intolerance of religious or cultural "difference" that can be solved by the inclusion of Muslim Americans within the rainbow spectrum of "diversity." They fail to address the "political profiling" after 9/11 that is linked to U.S. interventions in the Middle East and South Asia and reduce the War on Terror to a slightly more liberal version of Huntington's clash of civilizations: a clash of confusions.
Yet alliances between South Asians and Arabs in the U.S. need to be based on the link between the domestic and overseas fronts of imperial power so that we can understand the post-9/11 experiences of South Asian and Arab Americans in relation to the workings of empire, and not just as a breakdown in civil rights or domestic "racial profiling." This is also the case in linking the struggles of Asian Americans with those of Latinos, African Americans, or Native Americans who are disciplined and subordinated by the imperial state. If our communities are being targeted in the U.S. and abroad, South Asian Americans need to find common cause with Arab Americans and other groups to fight for human rights and self-determination, and combat Hindutva-Zionist alliances based on racist and exclusionary ideas.
South Asians in this country have generally had a different relationship than Arab Americans (and Muslim African Americans) to the policies of the national security state, due to varied histories of migration and the different relationships of the U.S. with their home nation-states. While South Asian immigrants to the U.S. in the early twentieth century were involved in transnational movements to liberate India from British rule (such as the Ghadar party) that were surveilled in the U.S., post-colonial South Asian immigrants have generally come to the U.S. seeking economic advancement and have, for the most part, not engaged in political challenges to U.S. state policies. Arab American communities, however, have long experienced scrutiny and surveillance in the U.S., due to their criticism of U.S. support of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Arab Americans who have protested U.S. policy in the Middle East have been targeted by the government at various moments since the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, from the FBI's monitoring of the General Union of Palestinian Students in the 1980s, to the attempted deportation of the pro-Palestinian activists known as the "L.A. 8," to the nationwide monitoring and interviews of Arab American individuals and organizations before and during the first Gulf War. South Asians who forged alliances with Arab Americans after 9/11 have, in some cases, been drawn into an understanding of this broader history of anti-Arab racism that extends well before 9/11 and into deeper support for the struggle to end present-day colonialism in the Middle East and oppose U.S. imperialism.
Our resistance to the empire's War on Terror needs to be based on a broader anti-imperialist framework that can connect the dots between the economic, political, and military fronts of empire. There is a link between the government surveillance of South Asian and Arab immigrants in places such as Lodi, California and the surveillance, detention, and torture in Iraq or Palestine. There is a connection between farmers committing suicide in India, because neoliberal economic policies have made it impossible for them to pay for their daughters' weddings, and the Sri Lankan domestic workers who were stranded in Lebanon because they had no one to help them evacuate from Beirut. We cannot fight on all fronts, but we do need to understand the connections between imperial warfare, repression, poverty, and labor migration created from the ravages of imperial domination and economic neoliberalism.
Forging solidarity between communities in the face of divide-and-rule tactics is one very important strategy of resistance that we have in our hands. Making these connections by challenging imposed borders and speaking out in the face of repression is a powerful weapon that we can choose to use. If we are exiled, displaced, or persecuted, it is in solidarity that we should find our home. But solidarity cannot just be based on good intentions and it not always easy to forge alliances. It is frustrating to battle the liberalism of strands of the U.S. anti-war movement and the self-serving tactics of instrumentalist coalitions. It is difficult to walk the line between an easy politics of representation based on tokenizing categories we may not want and subverting the frameworks of analysis from within movements. It is complicated when South Asian secularists abandon or waver in their support for the Palestinian struggle at large, if an Islamist group has come to power, throwing out the baby with the bath water and failing to see that it is not that we must stand for Hamas but that we
need to take a unified stand against U.S. imperialism and Israeli apartheid.
But there are also alliances being forged on the ground that bring moments of inspiration and clarity, such as the South Asian/Middle Eastern Student Coalition created by students at UC Davis after 9/11 that has a broad agenda focusing on war and occupation. At Stanford, the South Asian student organization, Sanskriti, organized a panel in November, 2006 on South Asian-Arab solidarity against Israeli apartheid, in the face of intimidating threats from Indian American members of AIPAC who tried to shut down the event. The panel took place, was a huge success, and drew a crowd of older South Asian supporters from the community, none of them wearing T-shirts with slogans but full of excitement to take a stand against Zionist-Hindutva alliances and their bullying tactics. The event was organized with the help of members of South Asians for the Liberation of Falastin (Palestine), a recently formed coalition of South Asians, largely from the Bay Area.
I realized this summer that war is nearer than you think, but it is also not as close as you fear. Driving through the village in the early hours of the morning after the wedding, I noticed that the flag that flew the most from rooftops was not the Palestinian or even the Israeli flag, but the Brazilian flag. Most Palestinians in the village supported Brazil in the World Cup. Their sons are sometimes named after Brazilian soccer players, sometimes after Arafat, and occasionally after Fidel Castro. The yellow and green flag of Brazil reminded me, coincidentally, of Hezbollah's own flag that I saw at demonstrations against the war in the West Bank.
I rarely see any yellow and green flags fluttering in the Bay Area, not even Brazil's. But war and weddings are a heady mix and life is stranger than dreaming. So I imagine people climbing onto their rooftops, above the indifference and denial and frustration, and looking out to sea. There are lights in all the windows, even though the streets are in darkness. Silhouetted against the window, I see people in wedding dresses: white, red, yellow, and green. I am not sure where they are from, or even if they are women or men. They are pointing at something, and I look up and see that it is raining hoods, a shower of pointed black hoods and also white hoods, pouring down into the sea. The brides leap from the windows but do not fall. I see their veils floating above the roofs, like pennants of green, yellow, red, and white, traveling far, farther than I can imagine right now.
Sunaina Maira is Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis and the author of Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City. She is currently working on a book about the South Asian Muslim immigrant youth and issues of citizenship and empire after 9/11.