Jan 26, 2008

Asian Americans and Palestine

Does Asian America care about what's happening in Palestine? Sometimes I wonder if folks even see how connected it is to this nation we strive to imagine (or thrive by collecting a paycheck on). More on that in a minute. But seeing the thousands of people streaming across the border from the besieged Gaza territories into Egypt really shook me - I wasn't paying attention to the sealing of the border and embargo that Israel had placed on the territory over the past weeks. People needed food and goods to survive: they were buying what they needed from across the border, not stealing.

I live in relative comfort, and am afforded the luxury to complain on these pages. But real people are struggling with real crisis, and sometimes it gets me how people are so selective about what they care about. A touchstone moment for me was a conversation I had with an activist and lawyer friend years ago who I respect for his commitment to civil political rights of Asian/immigrant communities here, in NYC. We were having some kind of conversation about recent events and I mentioned some things I'd heard about overseas in an Asian nation that doesn't get much play in the media (or didn't at that time). He said, both with some level of chagrin, but mainly with a "don't have the time" response that he really has no idea of what's happening around the world - he's too focused on the fight in front of him.

This isn't uncommon, but the moment is frozen in my memory because the date was Sept. 10, 2001, and the nation I was talking about was Afghanistan. It wasn't that I knew something was up - it was actually a conversation about the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan earlier that year - but even at that time, his relatively sharp rebuke about not knowing/caring about world affairs struck me. Of course, it was only days later that the Taliban became a known and familiar group on the American landscape, but only after something happened here.

Of course, Americans of all kinds just tuning out of world dynamics isn't a new observation, and bringing it up here isn't a revelation. But I feel like folks should wake up and think about the interconnections, especially if they profess some kind of community kinship across the fragile coalition of Asian America and/or they say that they believe in justice. One of the biggest gaps in Asian American spaces and dynamics, aside from the very familiar "East/South/Southeast/Pacific Islander" tensions, is around questions of solidarity, especially related to the faith-based concerns for Asian Muslims and other non-Christians. I haven't read/seen much on this, and I don't have empirical data, but I want to put some things out there that I hope to get back to at some point.

I've mentioned before (I think, and if not, it's a pending post that I will definitely get to soon), that while the narrative of Asian American (and broader) cultural studies sometimes suggests that traditions and sharing around food are one of the ways that different communities build solidarity, there's often a gap for people who observe dietary restrictions. So where the whole "we all eat with chopsticks" or "rice is central" themes are nice, it makes it hard to break bread with APA compatriots when the bread has lard and there's pork or meat in every other dish.

Not understanding how a simple issue like poor menu planning can immediately alienate and make folks less open to collaboration when it excludes consideration of vegetarian and halal diets is a fundamental failing of a lot of pan-Asian American efforts. You want to think that the community and political stuff should take precedence, but I've heard time and again that when something so simple is completely not considered, people lose faith that there's any point in trying for the bigger issues. I've seen this change gradually in cities on the East Coast, perhaps because South Asians and others are still more active in pan-Asian spaces, but it's pretty terrible on the West coast and other places. If I'm going to end up at a "community" dinner where I can't order something, I might as well be part of the NRA.

The bigger picture here, though, is that there are feelings of solidarity and empathy that a lot of people within "Asian America" feel for people suffering under systems of oppression around the world, aside from their so-called homelands. I can't think of a situation more relevant to more people I know than Palestine. The extreme injustices perpetrated as part of the Israeli oppression and occupation, and the world community's acceptance of state actions that are wholly unacceptable in almost any other part of the world, angers many people. No one is condoning outright acts of violence by either side, but state actors have to be held in check by the world community. And beyond an observation of world politics, this really affects the local.

The human rights violations perpetrated by the Israeli government are well-documented and hard to contest. And many see the struggle of the Palestinian people (not the military or insurgency leaders - just the ordinary people) as emblematic of how the rights of certain people -- Arabs, Muslims, whomever else -- are disposable on the global stage. And that's one of the reasons that a lot of people who are not personally tied to Palestine feel so strongly about the plight of the Palestinian people: that so many people who claim to care about rights don't care about Palestinians means that there are some rights that the world community just doesn't care about. And for the last sixty years in Palestine, that's Arabs and/or Muslims. In Kashmir, that's Muslims and Hindus. In tribal lands around the world, that's indigenous peoples. In China, that's Tibetans, Buddhists, Christians. In Burma, it's ethnic minorities and freedom fighters. In Sudan, it's the African Muslims and Christians. And the list is ever long.

Though the conditions aren't as bad in the United States for many of us, seeing that people aren't incensed (or often, are clueless) about the direct ramifications and echoes of these world phenomena upon our states of Asian America reminds people of how a lot of AA leaders played a game of "not our problem' for state actions against Muslims and South Asians in the wake of 9/11.

On that tip, there are some Asian American leaders out there who either don't see why the Israel/Palestine question is relevant, or have actually bought into the idea that the Israeli state is justified in anything/everything that it does. I understand that it is scary for many mainstreamers to voice an open anti-Zionist position because the fringe have convinced the world that speaking out against anything to do with Zionism is anti-Jewish (is speaking out against "Manifest Destiny" in the U.S. anti-European/white, or anti-oppression?). I guess the intersections of faith and politics are hard to navigate, but the perpetrator and originator of the most egregious violence is a state actor preserving power by stoking flames of intolerance and hatred between people with so much in common. Our understanding of Theo-Political fascist states should not be shaped by Dubya's rants. Just look at Modi's Gujarat.

So I'm very unhappy with the way that a lot of people, especially those in positions where they purport to represent Asian America, don't ask critical questions and come up with a reasoned orientation to the situation. By being so out of touch, they continue to show us how they will not be able to hold together an effective, progressive Asian American coalition that recognizes and stands against oppression, regardless of whether it directly (or at least, obviously) affects their interests. It's time to hold them accountable.


burnedouteyes said...

The Israel-Palestine issue is one where the general ignorance and lack of regard for Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. has a direct impact on what happens overseas.

The permission granted (or lack of protest) by the U.S. people to the government supports Israel's aggression over there. And the global conflicts that are fanned by the our involvement all impact us here in the U.S. as well.

re: the org leaders being taken on a trip to Israel -- it's frightening how one-sided the impact seems to be. Are these the "thought leaders" in the APA community? Scary...

Rage said...

Good points. And yeah, it is scary about the leaders who have been co-opted. Let's hope their eyes are opened to this.

thecheddarbox said...

Great post, brother.

Sigh. I have so much respect for those that voice solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, especially given the context of the US political system and how intertwined it is with the interests of Israel.

It is scary to see how much influence the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) has on the US political machine, at least on the federal level. Look at how Obama has changed his rhetoric from being pro-Palestine during his time in Chicago to becoming staunchly pro-Israel in his march towards the White House. Look at how the Democratic party ostracized Cynthia McKinney when she voiced her very public support for Palestine (and bless her for that). It is abundantly clear that to rise to prominence in federal US politics, you must first bow to AIPAC.

I become frustrated with this issue's lack of inclusion in "progressive" APA discussions as well, but to me it's more reflective of my personal frustrations with the left APA community in general. In terms of an overall "progressive" agenda, regardless of what specific ethnic group people belong to or advocate for, I agree with you that it is high time for the Palestinian struggle to be at the forefront.

Rage said...


Thanks for reading and writing in. I know it sounds self-righteous sometimes, and it feels like I'm hating on APA folks, but I know there's a small sliver of folks who actually see why this issue should be included in the "progressive" or radical agenda.

And yeah, AIPAC is so entrenched, it's sick. and with Cynthia McKinney, I feel like USINPAC (the pro-India, anti-Pakistan lobby) got involved too.

But here's to raising the consciousness. Keep on keeping on.