Wednesday, April 3, 2019

a room of one's own

“What does this place mean to you?” I asked him, elbow to elbow that chilly spring night.
“Mixed feelings,” he said, “I feel free when I’m here...What does it mean for you?”
Nodding, I said, “The same. The daylight is filled with complicated relationships that come from family, customers, from sharing a space with different people in a business way, but at night I feel the most connected to this space.” 

The stars bright, the curve of the night a brilliant arch above us, thinking about space, environment and a sense of place. In the dark, free from everyday responsibilities we wondered how a place can both free one from identity, and connect one to that space in time, that place of intangibility. Whether one owns the place or not, we humans find places to call our own. Maybe this is somewhat the spirituality of indigenous peoples. We don’t own the place, we make it our own, it informs our identity but in nature’s vastness we can submit to the sublime and our own smallness in the universe. 

“Everyone deserves their own place they can call their own,” my dear friend and neighbor interjected as I sat at her table on a high stool sipping tea, sharing with her news about my Palestinian boyfriend. She was culturally Jewish, raised reformed, and hosted a friendly brisket competition for Passover with my family. The fracturing of Jewish identity has many parts. Orthodox are conservatively religious but there are many different schisms within this branch. Zionists, are pro-Israel as a homeland for Jewish peoples, but not necessarily religious. Reformed, are mostly members of synagogues in Western countries that are open to new ways of practicing Jewish religion such as accepting women rabbis. And culturally Jewish, as am I, means having Jewish heritage within a mixed religious family but identifying less with a strictly Jewish identity, hipster Jews, my brother calls us.

My friend Ellen’s upfront decisiveness about such a complicated issue as Palestinian-Israeli politics made me laugh. This is the heart of what we fight over, a place and a space to call our own and pursue a life with dignity. Territory can have tactical advantages but we as humans give land conceptual weight. The places we call cradles of civilization happened because people found places in their environment that nurtured those monumental building blocks of civilization, access to fresh water leading to irrigation and fertile plains and agriculture. With climate change and other contributing factors such as war, disease, overpopulation, even just desire for change, leads to migrations in people and populations shift over time. But sometimes we choose to stay in places even when the elements are against us. Take Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina many people stalwartly returned home, rebuilding their communities. “This is our home,” they said. They have a place that carries cultural weight, that connects them to that space and environment, despite the risks.

Like those people from the Bayou, the cultural weight for other displaced peoples is intractably tied to their ancestral homeland. The Palestinian narrative has been undermined and erased at every political opportunity through forcible violence, blockades, walls, limiting permits, controlling water and resources, demolishing homes, and promoting a culture of fear and intolerance, because it is an inconvenient truth for any Jewish person who claims Israel as their homeland. Most Jews will agree that for the safety of our community Israel’s tactics are a necessity born from history and a result of antisemitism and genocide against our people. But I will tell you a story about my first trip to Israel. On a guided tour I mentioned to my brother, talking about Muslims in Israel, “Salaam, means peace. It’s an Abrahamic religion that can carry a message of tolerance and peace or destruction if manipulated by the wrong people, the same as any religion.” The ex-IDF tour guide overheard this and in an effort to control the narrative, brandished his finger in my face and said, “Muslims are all extremists, they only spread terrorism. They are like rats.” His reaction, put a suspicion in my young mind that all is not well with your narrative if you fail to see the humanity in people, even those people you claim as your enemy. This tactic of of dehumanization is used in every genocide to justify atrocities. It’s used as a political tool to make the masses fear anyone who challenges the status quo, even innocents who by religion, ethnicity, gender, sex, or class fail to homogenize with the mainstream. Politically, this is Israel’s best defense to eradicate any Palestinian heritage and to separate Jewish neighbors from non-Jewish Arabs, because if they had good working relationships and saw the other as human, they might want the same rights for them as we have for ourselves.

It’s funny, having married that Palestinian boyfriend, we’re both completely racist together. I’ll ask him where he parked his camel, and he’ll say did I hear the one about that Rabbi in a bar? But ultimately we’re stronger for it, and it brings me so much joy when he experiences some new freedom he’s never had the chance to do before, like surf, snowboard, travel unmolested in an airport, or feel free in a space he could call his own. I don’t mean to try and quantify his agency in the world, but I saw the double standard with my own eyes and heard enough friends sharing their stories to know that to be Palestinian, limits certain freedoms I take for granted. He has so much positivity and flexibility and being Palestinian is a point of pride but carries with it fresh hurt every day he looks at the news. Nature can challenge our perceptions of rightness, in fact the the school where we met in Israel was full of contradictions inherent in an occupied state, but their slogan is “Nature knows no borders.” It’s amazing to me every time I look up from the blinders in my life, and I see the farm in some new way. In this same vein do we choose to conquer our environment and the people in it, or do we choose to nurture both the people and the land we live with? 

-Chelsea Manoff