Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Philip Weiss on Anna Baltzer's talk

October 19, 2008


Finally Meeting the It-Girl of Anti-Zionism: 'Anna in the Middle East'

I first heard about "Anna in the Middle East" in July from my friend Andrea Whitmore, a Christian activist in Kansas City. "You have to meet Anna, she's glorious and beautiful," Whitmore said. I looked up her website: Anna Baltzer is a 29-year-old Jew who has utterly thrown herself into The Issue. She's lived in Palestine, written a book bearing witness, and now travels the country giving talks on how Israel gobbles land and destroys Palestinian human rights. I missed a big event with Baltzer in September, then two weeks ago Whitmore wrote me again with a link to Baltzer's speaking schedule.

"Please go hear my dear Anna at one of the events below...Finally you'll have a chance to meet her. She's warm and kind and you'll find her entirely engaging."

If that wasn't enough, that tentacle of the Israel lobby, CAMERA, then published an attack on the new generation of Jewish non-Zionists--happily, these attacks are becoming a form of lobby-shtik--and called Baltzer "Chomsky Lite." Who wouldn't want to be Chomsky Lite? So Friday night I drove an hour and change to Kingston, N.Y., to see Baltzer at a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

I got there early and chatted with Bard professor Joel Kovel, a leader of the group hosting Baltzer, the Middle East Crisis Response. Like Whitmore's group in Kansas City, this is one of scores of groups around the country that are engaged on The Issue. Kovel wrote the book Overcoming Zionism, and I asked him when he got into the issue--this leftwing psychoanalyst who's authored ten books. He got a tortured look and said it took the Second Intifadah, that he finally said, I'm not going to restrain myself any more and defer to family and community on this issue. I nodded, having gone thru a very similar process, post 9-11. Then Kovel said what everyone says, that the climate is changing. We used to be completely marginalized. Now we're only partially marginalized. (And Obama's about to reframe everything, dude!)

A thin woman in black shot past us and Kovel grabbed her, introduced me. Anna Baltzer was bringing in her equipment, moving stuff around. In a room full of old lefties it was hard not to focus on her. It was a little like when you're visiting old friends and there's a new black cat, running over the curtains and the countertops and tables. The air changes, everyone's watching the cat. Baltzer has that lithe, kinetic air. And her presentation had a professional air to it. There's a table with kaffiyahs on it, her book and DVDs, a computerized set of slides.

I got out of the way and sat down to read, and then Baltzer sat down in order to "introduce myself properly."

I asked her how her talk had gone the night before, at her alma mater, Columbia U. She mentioned that an Israeli Jew she had known as an undergrad, when she was a different person, had come with his parents. He was upset by the talk and needed to express himself a lot, and Baltzer gave him the space. He was in a little shock. Her talk can serve that function. He's at that point in his journey, Baltzer said, where he can't really accept this stuff... She had passed that "hump" a long time ago. I thought to myself, I haven't really passed it yet; I'm still strung out about being pro-Palestinian--in part because I've only spent 10 days over there and don't like taking people's word for something. Well this girl has spent months and months over there. She's very clear.

Whitmore's description was accurate. Baltzer is great-looking. She has an angular face, a lovely smile, glossy shoulder-length hair. She's the girl that Jewish parents dream their son might bring home. And there's "a lot going on," as we say of people who have an active interior life: I got the impression that Baltzer is high-strung, intelligent, unwavering.

There were about 70 people in the room, mostly old lefties. Some churchgoers, not many. Kovel opened it up, telling told about Baltzer's amazing commitment to "this priceless cause," doing 100s of talks per year, around the country. Then he spoke about how Zionists control the media, Hollywood, the Congress, the government, but "they don't control what's most important, and that's the people and civil society--patient, passionate, and enduring efforts to speak out at the base of society." The grass roots.

I want to interject here that this is something I love about Joel Kovel. Journalists like me will run away from the word "control" because of the predictable bugaboos; and we're going to parse Zionist influence, in this very Talmudic fashion (consider my post on Jews in the media), but Kovel comes out and calls a spade a spade. Because we truly are living in an age of blunt orthodoxy and blacklists on this question; the history books will be emphatic.

The presentation that followed was staggeringly effective. Maybe it's because she's done so many, but Baltzer never really left the human scale of any of this. She avoided hot-button words. She skirted talk of violence or solutions or politics, she made the occupation real and human. She has a gift of speaking simply, and talking about people as people and making it feel like they're your neighbor. And then she would click on little maps to show the enormity. Like a map of all the checkpoints. Or a map showing the Jewish colonization from the beginning of the last century to today. Or she would say, "Almost all the water in historic Palestine" is controlled by Israel.

The audience followed her every word, in part because she spoke so transparently of who she is. In her book she says the only point of view she has is her own, a great line. A California girl, she didn't care about this stuff at all in college, then she went on the free birthright trip to Israel and bought the whole birthright program. She didn't start to wake up till she went on a Fulbright to Turkey and began backpacking through the Middle East and met Palestinians, in Lebanon and Syria, and for the first time she heard the other narrative and it upset her. "It seemed unbelievable to me, when I discovered these things." She had to look into it. Well before long she threw herself into it. In this great clear way, she understood the issue was hers, and she signed up with a feminist group to go to the West Bank.

She showed us where she had lived in the West Bank, eight miles from Nablus, then asked us how long it takes us to drive the 8 miles to Woodstock. Fifteen minutes, people said. Well it takes an hour and a half to get to Nablus, and sometimes it takes four hours or even six. This means that no one can really have a job in Palestine, and no one can get an education. She showed us pictures of Palestinian women in cars stopped at checkpoints. Or stopped by a soldier. They get an education, but it's only by overcoming these extreme obstacles, getting up at 4:30 in the morning, etc.

I always find this stuff heartbreaking. I don't need more information, but it's like a passion play, and I do get more. Or like the gospels, trying over and over to find the simple story that will best communicate the matter. The emotional climax of Baltzer's talk was when she showed us photographs taken by Palestinian children who have been taken on visits into Israel to see the sea and their ancestral villages. It's an undertaking called Birthright Replugged, to take Palestinian kids who are under 15, before they're issued a card that serves to control their movements, to bring them into Israel. The villages are unrecognizable, covered in trees that Baltzer and Kovel and I all paid for when we were younger, in little cans, collecting coins, from Jews, for Jews, and inevitably these kids call their grandparents on their cell phones and the grandparents direct them how to find their old house, or the pomegranate orchard, or that kind of thing. The grandparents aren't 50 miles away.

"I can farm their land," Baltzer said. "I can live in their house, on their land. They can't even visit. Because they're not Jewish."

One of those moments when you just want to go outside and puke.

She riffed about what it's like for these kids who have only seen the sea from their rooftops to actually go down to the sea and feel it, smell it, bathe in it. "How thrilling it is to go to the sea for the first time." We all know that feeling, she said. They run into it in their clothes. "Then they go back to their camps..."

The politics of the talk were anti-Zionist. Baltzer began in a very didactic but helpful fashion by laying out the categories of Jewish, Israeli, and Zionist, and explaining how they do and don't overlap. And as for 1948, she presented simply as a motion of colonialist ethnic cleansing to obtain a majority Jewish state--"not an organic majority, an artificial majority." She did not honor the idea of Palestine as a refuge, and even the first Arab war she treated as a predictable response to the expulsion in early '48 of 250,000 Arabs into neighboring lands. She noted that when she came out of Grand Central Terminal the other day for the first time in years, what did she see-- 43d Street renamed David Ben-Gurion Place, after the architect of ethnic cleansing.

I'm trying to convey that she was very straightforward and untortured, but sophisticated, in black pants and a fine gray jacket, skinny, a little breathless, crossing the stage with a cordless mike.

There was one slide she presented that I need to get on this blog, it was so striking. It was the cover of Newsweek International that a friend picked up on a plane in 2004, she said, and there was a sell-line across the top, PLIGHT OF THE PALESTINIANS. Baltzer had the identical cover of Newsweek from the U.S., with the same cover story, "The Race to Unearth the Bible," but that line was replaced by another line. And the story wasn't in the magazine. "This is a pattern," Baltzer said, and I wanted to shout Amen. I loved this slide because it shows what any journalist who cares about The Issue has had to deal with. Acceptable speech elsewhere in the world puts you "in the tank" here--the latest term of art for a biased headcase.

Baltzer kept her focus on real-world detail, and kept the ideology at a minimum. She didn't get into the on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand stuff, no two state solution and Barak offered X at Camp David type of argument. It was all human and personal, a girl in her 20s, using everything she's got on behalf of, as Kovel put it, the Voiceless. "Is this a symbol of inclusiveness?" she said, with a slide of the Israeli flag. "What does it really mean?" How would we feel about separate roads? putting up photographs that juxtaposed the two systesm. The presentation ended with Baltzer playing an Arabic folk tune sung by two girls she knows as she showed images of non-violent protesters. A lot of slides or Arab life and humanity. It ended with a guy carrying a placard saying "Palestinians and Jews Refuse to Be Enemies."

Then there was Q-and-A. A guy named Jim Mathes, from Rhinebeck, saaid, Jews have been on the left forever, at the vanguard-- well they are the people who have to deal with this. "They're asleep on their feet or dead in the head on this issue." That's where the work has to happen, in order for American policy to change. Baltzer rejected this. She said it's all Americans' issue and not just Jews. I think Mathes is right. Jews care, and Jews are powerful. Few other Americans care. When Harvard faculty and students began a South-Africa-style movement to divest, it was crushed by Lawrence Summers, the Jewish president of the school, when he said it was antisemitic. We have to change that idea of caring. Baltzer and Kovel and I are all engaged in that work.

Hundreds of talks; but Baltzer said she has been invited to only one synagogue. In Albuquerque. The west, of course. Not out here. Usually she's the guest of Arab students or feminists, Women of a Certain Age. The SDS hosted her at Columbia. No synagogues. This will all be taught in history books some day. How a young Jewish woman of complete and pure commitment, of star quality, from the finest institutions, would devote herself to human rights and be shunned by her own, minority, community, which has licensed pogroms against a minority in a land far away.That really happened, once upon a time in America.

After the Q-and-A, Baltzer said, "I will answer as many questions as you have and I'll hang around as long as you want." I went off to the hummus table. The presentation here was beautiful. There were dried figs, and oven-toasted pita bread pieces, and an orange and red petal-like formation in the middle of the big bowl of hummus. And dishes of Palestinian olive oil. Very pro-Palestinian. Very Woodstock. No Zionists to be seen, in miles.

Then I looked around for Baltzer and didn't see her. Finally I saw her in a chair, in a corner, with a line of people going up to her. She was meeting one person after another, talking to them intensely. This older guy, goodlooking, whitebearded, late 70s, was talking to her and he walked away with a beatific look on his face. I introduced myself. His name is Amos Sunshine, from New Paltz.

Sunshine left Vienna, Austria, as a child on January 11, 1939, two months after Kristallnacht. His brother went to Palestine. Much of his family was blown and burned to the heavens. He told me that he's never opened the curtain really on the Israel Palestine business. He noticed once on a visit, in 1952, that someone was living in an Arab's house in Jaffa, near his brother, and that didn't seem fair. "Why wasn't that person paid? Or allowed to return to their house?" There were no reparations. (There still aren't, 60 years after those atrocities, in that place where the Arabs were forced into the sea.)

Sunshine says he knows a lot of Jews who close their minds when people talk about the Palestinians. "They have a sense of identification with Israel. Some of their relatives, when they left the concentration camps, it was the only place they could go. There's a sense of redemption about it, also a little bit of religion to it." He knows faculty at SUNY New Paltz, "set in their minds, it's impossible to break down the emotional attachment. And I was guilty of that as well." Well tonight that guilt was shaken.

Watching the presentation by someone he could "respect," Sunshine was "struck by the unfairness and the blind spot of the people who have such a strong attachment to Israel.

"How can I walk out of here tonight and not know, that this is wrong. And it's goddamn wrong."

I wondered what Anna in the Middle East had been able to do that so many other arguments and protests had not. Well it was that she made it so human and real, Sunshine said. He thought she was on the verge of tears once; and Sunshine started to cry.

I think it goes without saying that there's a strong Jewish/tribal component in this type of communication: when you see the future reflected in the face of a young woman from your tribe. But so be it. And I would add that if the upheaval-narrative of my parents' Jewish generation, and mine, was bringing home a gentile, a source of endless jokes and misery--that story is over. When my uncles did it, they were among 13 percent of American Jewry, I am among 62 percent and counting. And today the upheaval narrative is: bringing home a Palestinian.

I bought a bottle of Palestinian olive oil and Baltzer's book and said goodnight. Then I couldn't help myself but grabbed her arm. She'd taken off her jacket, it was skinny and white. Honey, I hate to sound the Jewish mother, but you have to eat something. I know, she said, there's going to be nothing left of me.

I close this report with a solemn appeal. The hummus was prepared by someone named Pia. I didn't get to meet her. The hummus was spectacular. I want the recipe. I will put it on this site. Help me!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Anna Baltzer - Woodstock Times letter

I'm so pleased that Anna Baltzer will be coming to the Mid-Hudson community next week on her northeastern tour. Anna is a 29 year-old Jewish American woman, a Columbia graduate and Fulbright scholar who has lived and worked for peace in Israel/Palestine and has also dedicated herself to writing a book that describes her experiences: Witness in Palestine: Journal of A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories. In her time here, Anna will be sharing her observations on nonviolence and the hope for peace in the Middle East. Anna has a great gift: she speaks in the most open, non-violent way and really enables listening. I hope that many of you will be able to talk with her while she is here. Anna will be giving a presentation on Friday, October 17, 7:30 p.m. at the UUCC (Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills), Sawkill Road, Kingston. Since this is the first night of Sabbath, Anna would also very much appreciate being invited to Jewish congregations in our community to share with them at other times. If individuals, families, groups, schools, congregations, synagogues, mosques, churches are interested in hosting Anna or just learning more about her, please e-mail me: Jane.toby7@gmail.com.
Jane Toby