Boycotts Must Happen in the Heart

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there are some things so harmful to the human spirit that we must not only refuse to accept them, but refuse to bear them, entirely.

As a writer born in the South, both black and a woman, I’ve had my share of fights with the legendary white male writer, William Faulkner, who, in the Sixties, was quoted as saying if it came to that, he’d join the white Southerners refusing integration in the South and “shoot down n-----s in the street.”  He was an astonishing writer, with a similarly intense imagination and fidelity to the psychic history of his terrain - Mississippi - as Gabriel Garcia Marquez has to his, in South America. It was incredibly painful, and disappointing, to think of him in this light.  I consider this disappointment, oddly, as I sign on to the boycott of the  current International Film Festival in Toronto, which intends to showcase Israeli films in a  celebration of Tel Aviv’s 100 years of existence, as if no Palestinians ever lived there.

Occasionally I visit a local black church (for the infusion of color and culture from my Southern childhood) and I hear the same stories I heard as a child:  of the Hebrew children, a.k.a. Israelites, still told with  admiration to our young people in order to help them along Life’s way.  To be devoted, as Ruth was to her mother-in-law, to be brave and loving as were Jonathan and David, to trust in “God” and Moses and any number of characters whose stories were drilled into the consciousness of a captive slave population that was forbidden to read.  It amazes me, in this church, that there is no discussion of the fact that the other behavior we learned about in the bible stories: the rapes, the murders, the pillaging, the enslavement of the conquered, the confiscation of land, the brutal domination and colonization of all “others”, is still visible in Israel’s behavior today.  I’m always struck by it, myself.  In fact, rolling into Gaza recently to celebrate International Women’s Day, felt like entering that part of the Bible that I think frightens every child: the bloody part that everybody accepts because “God” tells them they have to, and any back-talker is likely to be struck by lightening.  Or turned into a seasoning.

When I perceive the knottiness in people’s thinking that any discussion of Israel’s behavior causes, I understand a deep battle is occurring re: denial and acceptance:  denial of copiously documented crimes against humanity, on Israel’s part, and acceptance of who many of today’s Hebrew children, whose ancestors are so lovingly studied and relied upon by countless generations all over the globe, have turned out to be.  As with my experience of William Faulkner, we are seeing a deeply disturbing side of the very people we’ve been taught to admire, and it is hard to separate actions we deplore from our feelings of familiarity, gratitude and solidarity.  Indeed, it has felt to far too many people who choose to remain silent in these grim times, as if they are losing mentors and spiritual guides, as if they are losing friends.  So effective has been the weekly indoctrination from church; so effective has been the centuries of propaganda.

However, over fifty years- the length of the destruction of Palestine and Israel’s criminal behavior against the Palestinian people– is too long a time to indulge in this moral quandary. Something must be done.  And it must be done without bloodshed and without, hopefully, sowing more dragons teeth. To simply say No is a good start.

What is good to grasp is that boycotts, to be effective, must happen in the heart.  That is why, when the empty buses rolled through the streets of Montgomery, Alabama in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and no black persons showed any interest in being on them, those of us who heard about it or saw the photographs, wept. We realized we were one.  A people. When the white supremacists arrested Rosa Parks, we felt her love of us.  At that moment it was the strongest nutrient for our growth we could have imagined.  We were young and seemingly weak, but we saw that we  were cared about and represented, by her bravery, in the adult world; our value sanctioned.  When Martin Luther King and David Abernathy and Coretta  Scott King and others joined hands and said: You know what?  We can do without whatever it is you’re selling that is harmful to us, we were filled with joy.  There is a connection that happens, when we make a stand; of that we can be sure. It is fueled by sacrifice, but the sacrifice is, ultimately, liberating.  It is fueled by love, which is infectious.  It is ignited by our determination not to lead the young into gray areas where it is easier to smoke a joint than to figure out why grown ups don’t speak out about wrongs that are apparent to everyone.

A boycott story:  The Beautiful Israeli Sandals That Fit Me and Looked Great.

There they were, I was trying them on.  They were fantastic.  However, I live in Northern California where political consciousness is quite high and is likely to bring you down to earth when you least expect it.  The saleswoman said apropos of nothing:  Yes, they look wonderful on you.  (Pause).  They were made in Israel.  Oops.  Who came to mind when she said that?  Ariel Sharon?  Netanyahu? Tsivy Livny?  No.  No Israelis at all. Who came to mind was a young Palestinian woman I had recently learned about; she had been arrested eight years ago and held in solitary confinement, in an Israeli jail, ever since.  Never charged with anything.  What did this woman do with her days, I thought.  Could she possibly be the person who, in her cell, made these shoes? Suddenly, I could see her there in her cell.  It felt cold.  It felt barren.  It felt lonely.  She was all of these things, and more.  Seeing her there, torn away from her world, made so strong an impression I lost all interest in the sandals.  I could not even bear to look at them. I noticed her cell had a metal door and that there was a huge lock.  I could never have purchased anything that would keep her there. I could only wish with all my heart to become a key.

I ended up buying a really boring pair of sandals made in Germany, and the irony of this didn’t escape me either.

I walked out of the shoe store strengthened in some indefinable way;  I had kept faith with the part of my spirit that knows what is right to do. As the people of the Toronto film festival know what is right to do.  In fact, almost everyone knows what Festivals in the past, festivals leading up to the Second World War, for instance, were used to accomplish.  A slanting of the story to make the bully look respectable.  History will repeat itself until we stop it.

The  attempt to “brand”  Israel/Tel Aviv as a benign place, through the propaganda of an International Film Festival celebration, is like pouring deodorant over a smell that has already escaped to the four corners of the world.  In any case, I for one will never forget the smell of Gaza. Where the children, at this moment, are playing in the white phosphorous covered rubble left after Israel’s bombardment of  their playgrounds for 22 days.  I am thankful I can not forget.  Because, as Native American writer Paula Gunn Allen writes: “the root of all oppression is the loss of memory.” If this is true, health for humanity will come from never doing to others what we wish to forget.

Faulkner will always have a place in my heart, for his wonderful novels and stories.  I will not permit him to take all of himself away from me because of words he allegedly said that are so unworthy of him.  I prefer to remember that he also warned us that there are some things so harmful to the human spirit that we must not only refuse to accept them, but refuse to bear them, entirely.

©2009 by Alice Walker

Written for the Celebration of Solidarity for the Toronto Declaration

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