In the Final Analysis… What does the Middle East do to us?

(An editorial essay on the Middle East) 

What is it that we do here in Montreal or anywhere else in the world, as artists, writers, filmmakers, poets, that somehow draws us into the politics in the Middle East? We are not all Jewish or Palestinian.  And yet, we are deeply emotional, angry, pained and affected.  Can this intolerable tragedy continue to affect the world indefinitely? Does the US  understand that the root cause for un-peace in the world is centered on the Palestine-Israel issue?  There are over 1000 US bases all over the world, with key installations in the Middle East in Qatar, Bahrain and certain other locations as well, that are poised to support not only US geo-political interests but also aid and assist any adventure that emanates from Israel. This has been a major incendiary issue for people of that and other adjoining regions.   A major element of the US’ international reputation hinges around its unqualified support for Israel. (

In these times, canards and half-truths, including some very refined revisionism and guilt tripping can no longer survive the scrutiny of an increasingly web-savvy generation. Blind repetitiousness, stale propaganda and statist perspectives can only have a certain lifeline. A growing number of Jewish people  do not accept a monolithic, bull-dozing lobbyist leadership, to say the least. Even mainstream Jewish opinion has gone alternative and then there are progressive Jews and Palestinians working together and finding not only common ground but reason to work together on common causes. But everyone knows that it is not enough.  Palestinians do not accept Mahmoud Abbas as their representative, nor do they have much faith in the Arab countries. The PLO is comprised of a range of political interests from representatives of the CIA and the American-Israeli lobby and centrists to irrational extremists. The Hamas has repeatedly stated that if there is a referendum of all Palestinian people, that accepts a two state solution, they will accept it. A large section of the Israeli population has repeatedly stated their total rejection of the current Likud confabulation and the murderous blockade of Gaza.  Nothing is black and white, red or green.

Some of the prejudices are also being exposed for what they are. Hateful stereotypes. At the same time while there is some desperation rising, it seems that there is also a clear political direction emerging, a hereditary connection between racism, colonial arrogance and the displacement of people and the growing consciousness to work together, to dialogue together and to remonstrate together.  In the past twenty four years, several poems, essays, theatre and film reviews have appeared in Montreal Serai about the Middle East. The submissions get larger and larger. We have now ventured into producing an entire issue on this sensitive subject as the theme. If for that we are condemned, it is then our time!

The One State/Two State Paradigm and the streets of Montreal

There is the one state/two state paradigm that has lead in effect to a no-state paralysis. There is a chronology that one can go back to, all the way to pre-Roman and Biblical times and end up nowhere or one can go back to 1947 and still end up nowhere. However, it is since 1967 that the equations have changed dramatically and ferociously. The Bantustan-ization of Palestinians into untenable barb- wired, check-pointed and walled enclaves and the rapacious settler mentality and bulldozing of homes lived-in by Palestinians for a hundred years or more has completed a circle of no trust and receding hope in the two communities and as well amongst others who are concerned. A one state solution is made to seem like  an unworkable fantasy, and a two state  compromise  is foisted on the Palestinians as an acceptable fate.  The hegemonic cultural propaganda  of the entire world pushes towards an unworkable bifurcation that is condemned to perpetuate violence endlessly between Jews and  Palestinians. As long as genuine peace is not envisaged, this conflict envelopes everyone.

These are some of what we have heard often from Montrealers.  From the banal and mundane to the profane and dangerous.

How does the Middle East affect us in Canada? Why do we get angry in Montreal when it is all happening there?

“Prove once and for all who the oppressor is and who the victim is and let’s get it over with. Can someone please make a ruling on this?”

“The UN has become useless. It takes resolution after resolution and then has no muscle to implement anything.”

“Tell me some new stuff that will make a difference to my ears…stuff that is only discussed in the quiet of homes, in the quiet of tribal dining tables and in secluded communities. Say stuff that you feel and not what you can put in a sanitized article, because you will offend some groups. It is time to put things down in writing.”

“Why do Palestinians have to pay the price for the killing of Jews in Europe by Christian Nazis, seventy years ago?”

“Why do Islamic preachers encourage suicide bombings and the killing of civilians as a way towards martyrdom? The argument that they have no other weapons, other than their young bodies is without any humanity.”

“Hamas won the elections fair and square and Israel would not accept it. And yet we know that Hamas was set up as a counterfoil to Fatah with the open cynical help of Israel. So the West has gone along with the blockade of Gaza. Why?  Democracy before, not democracy after? Why are fruit juice, jam, chocolate, toffees, diapers etc banned from Gaza? And tooth paste? Will terrorists use tooth paste? This is a merciless embargo.”

“Obama is playing games. He is buying time. He can go fuck himself. We know he will betray the Jews eventually.”

“It was not like this when Israel started out. Now you have an influx of Russian Jews. The Likudniks. They are just racist shits. ”

Keeping it Alive in Canada

We recently ran into an American site  — extraordinary compilation of hard facts on the ground. We are not aware of anything similar in Canada. This site says, “Israel receives about $7 million dollars per day from the United States, and there is evidence that the total cost to American taxpayers is closer to $15 million a day. Yet this information is almost never printed in American newspapers. Coverage of the Middle East in general and of Israel in particular, virtually never reports this enormous American connection with this region.”

In Canada too, we have built up this intrinsic connection, with our country assigned, by no less a magazine than the conservative Economist, as Israel’s best defender worldwide. Far exceeding even the United States. Are we citizens of Canada comfortable with this new tilt? The Economist further elaborates— ““It is hard to find a country friendlier to Israel than Canada these days,” said Avigdor Lieberman, Mr Netanyahu’s ultranationalist foreign minister, on a trip to Ottawa last year. “No other country in the world has demonstrated such a full understanding of us.” Encouraged by a succession of former Liberal governments to think of their country as the honest broker of international politics, many Canadians are uncomfortable with their diplomats so clearly taking a side. Mr. Harper himself has never fully explained his partiality. His opponents say he is pandering to Jewish voters in Toronto and Montreal. His Conservative party has issued leaflets in some districts held by the Liberals accusing them of supporting Hamas and Hizbullah. But the main reason for his Israel policy is probably his own conservative beliefs. In this, at least, Mr. Harper looks like a conviction politician.””

The Economist concludes their May 27th, 2010 piece by stating, “This year, a junior minister declared that “an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada”.”  What is somewhat incomprehensible is what is the basis of the growing affinity of Canadian foreign policy and Canadian aid to Israel?  After all it is our tax dollars that fund our artistic and creative efforts that is inevitably being diverted. Why else would Canada stop funding the core budget of the UN Relief and Works Agency, a body that assists 4.7m Palestinian refugees spread across the Middle East, a fund that the US continues to support? Why did the Canadian government intervene so blatantly in the functioning of Rights and Democracy, the Montreal based Human Rights organization that was once led by Ed Broadbent and Warren Allmand, stalwart Canadian parliamentarians? Why did the Canadian government cut the funds of Kairos, a Christian aid agency for Africa?

The fact is that Canada has tilted towards Israel more than ever before. And the reason is very simple. Evangelical Christians, a type of Protestantism to which PM Stephen Harper belongs, and who form 20% of Canada’s population do believe in the type of right wing ideology that Israel also espouses at the present time. Such philosophies go hand in hand with dismissing global warming, as the Bush regime did and walking away from Kyoto. It tallies well with backing out of support for abortion, when funding United Nations Women’s development programs. It makes sense when Canada also wants to spend billions on new prisons when crime rates have clearly gone down. It makes sense when Canada wants to buy billions of dollars worth of Fighter jets from Lockheed Martin in the name of arctic sovereignty. The swing in the mood of the government affects the mood on the street.

Tiredness and Anger

Every time we have had discussions with longstanding friends or colleagues in the Palestinian and Jewish communities, there has always been tiredness coupled with anger, hopelessness and on rare occasions open intolerance combined with righteousness. Facts are sorted out and upheld in partitioned and segmented clusters. Tribes do not talk to each other; consider the reasoning of the other.

Once in a while we hear open discriminatory epithets hurled, which combine conveniently with the current Islamophobic mentality in the western world and the “accommodation” debate in Quebec to evoke rancor towards people from the Muslim world. And in the quiet of our houses, we also repeat the hypertoxic words to release deeply felt disgust towards Semitic people.  In fact , that Arabs are also Semites essentially, is more or less ignored. The idea of a mosque near “Ground Zero” (What is ground Zero anyway? After all there are a hundred ground zeros around Baghdad’s greatest historical mosques) has   also unveiled the deeply felt prejudices of the non-Islamic community towards Muslims. Arabs and the Taliban stone adulterers to death, they say. Gruesome, medieval. Jews have two laws for a murder of the same magnitude in Israel. An Arab Israeli citizen arrested on a domestic manslaughter charge is tried in a military court by a military judge and can be remanded 3 times for a total of 90 days in police custody. A Jew in Israel, arrested for the exact same charge is always tried in a civilian court, by a civilian judge and can be remanded for 15 days maximum and can get a maximum 20 years  sentence. An Arab Israeli for the same charge would get life. This is written into law.

The divisions are deep, everyone says. But are they really? Who is keeping it alive and why?

If you wander through downtown Montreal you see several score Arab falafel, zatar joints. Jews in general rarely go to these shops. Middle Eastern Jews eat nearly the same food, the same hummus, the same mezze. We know that. Things are changing though. Many Jewish friends do. They do not care. Their parents probably did. Jews mobilize in other parts of our city. They stick up Israeli flags on lampposts in certain parts. Arabs avoid living in those areas. There are neighborhoods where only Arab candidates stand for elections and the reverse is true in Jewish neighborhoods. There are bulky advertising-filled, glossy, well sponsored, free-distribution tabloids that are propaganda mouth pieces for Israel and there are grimy indecipherable Arabic newsletters that defend the actions of obscure Islamic foundations. These are the facts of life in Montreal. There is a crop of Rabbis who openly call for the internment of all Palestinians in camps in the West Bank and Gaza or complete expulsion. There are mosques in parts of the city, where the Imams address their following like they are preaching in Riyadh.  On the other hand we also see neighborhoods where Arabs and Jews live close to each other. I see committees sprouting up where Arabs and Jews work together with other communities to defend peace in the Middle East. But Canada does not seem to like such developments lately.

Should this be all about equal time to both sides and then we arrive at no solutions worth remembering? Peace process? Direct talks? Oslo? Camp David? Beirut? Madrid? Road Map? How many have been tried?  Once again, the Palestinians and the Israelis have sat down for Peace Talks. Abbas has no support from his people and Netanyahu has no agenda that he has discussed with his nation or even his party. It is an American orchestration once again that will not bear any fruit. And it affects us here in Montreal. What is the point of the Peace Talks, when the solutions are demanded in advance? Israel says– no pre-conditions. The Palestinians say there must be an agenda. Is not the process of negotiations a dialectical process itself, where the outcome is a result of what one negotiates? Will Israel make a pre-emptive strike on Iran? Will that scuttle everything? There is also a grand plan at play that goes beyond Arabs and Jews.

Where does this Nation stand?

The questions that we also ask ourselves are the following “Is it anti-Semitic to suggest that Israel should be one bi-national state with equal rights for all its citizens?” In a letter written to The Canadian Parliamentary Coalition Combating Anti-Semitism (CPCCA), Diana McLaughlin, a Canadian peace activist asks, “Twenty percent of Israel’s population within Israel proper are not Jewish; they are Palestinian-Israelis. Many to the right on the Israeli political spectrum want Israel’s minorities to swear a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state – not as a state for all its citizens. In the original wording of the Knesset-proposed bill, any Arab-Israeli who refused to uphold the exclusively Jewish character of Israel would be subject to imprisonment. ” Will Canada support such questioning?

What is crucial to understand is that the present government of Canada is itself testing the country’s charter of rights, its own constitution, by introducing mindsets, religion-bound affiliations, feeding notions to the media and quietly pursuing legal maneuvers that in truth sanctify certain conservative policies and in effect outlaws criticism of the government. McLaughlin says, “It thus becomes legal to harass intellectuals, academics, civic and religious leaders as well as peace activists – to silence them. State-sanctioned legal chill backed by the raw power of the state is a form of violence.”

The truth is unavoidable; the cover up and the spin is essential

Ironically, political leaders in Israel have been speaking far more openly about the one-state two-state debate than here in Canada.

From the McLaughlin letter again,

“Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud):

“I would rather [have] Palestinians as citizens of this country over dividing the land up;

Next – racist, but to the point:

“If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished” – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Another prime minister, now currently Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak:

“If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic… If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.”

In written testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Tuesday, March 16, 2010, General David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. military’s Central Command, shared this view:

“The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests,” he said in the written testimony. “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the [Middle East] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.”

Petraeus’ statement has now been quietly lost. No one is talking about it anymore. When a super war hawk nation like the United States has its moments of doubt, such self-reflections dribble out like uncontrolled ooze from a chancred wound. In some ways they are incendiary statements. They reveal the reality, rather than the constrained consensus that is peddled in the mainstream.

So, is it all about divisiveness being kept alive for other reasons?

Kayhan Irani, a theatre activist from New York, recently back from conducting workshops in Afghanistan writes in her blog    “What I like about the group is that the artists are embodying the change they are inspiring others to make.  They are former combatants who have put down their weapons and picked up theater!  When theater comes out of the artists real lives, it is the most powerful method of engagement.  They are not preaching unity and dialogue, they are living it. ” Perhaps! She is writing about former IDF soldiers and Palestinian militants who have joined hands to form a theatre group. It is a hope we all have. In the end will the Palestinians get a real homeland where they can live as their own first class citizens?

Montreal Serai chose to write on this issue because as an arts and culture magazine it affects us daily. In our art work, in our social criticism and in our daily lives. It is a pernicious affair where injustice is glossed over with falsehoods about democracy, terrorism and fanaticism, whereas murders, assassinations, displacements, massacres of children are lost in the shuffle of convoluted tribal argumentation. We are affected deeply by the Middle East, not only because Middle easterners and Jews live and die with us, but also because it is an issue of race, of international tensions, of fundamentalist assertions, of sowing the original seeds of terrorist activity and finally of cynical geo-political maneuvering.  The War on Terror should have begun in 1967.

In this issue we have presented essays by well-known experts like Michael Neumann, Trent University Professor  who has written many articles and books on the issue, Samia Costandi , a Montrealer and well–known academic, who writes as a Christian Palestinian on her experiences,  Jooneed Khan, long time political affairs reporter of La Presse on his personal experiences reporting from the Middle East, a photographic essay by Montrealer Scott Weinstein on his visit to the West Bank recently, essays on Israel, Palestine  and the discourse in Canada by Ronit Milo from Montreal Dialogue,  and as well several other book reviews and critical art reviews by Najat Rahman, an extraordinary interview of filmmaker Kamal Aljafari  by Nasrin Himada and despatches from Lebanon and the Shatilla camp by Rola Harmouche.

Shalom and Salaam!