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The Pattern (Musically Annotated)
I’m getting older, and the pattern is now a familiar one. Israel starts committing war crimes on a daily basis in Gaza (or the West Bank, or Lebanon). “In response” to Hamas missiles. (Or Hezbollah provocations, depending. But always in response.)
The war of words heats up. Israeli and US leaders are all over the airwaves, saying Israel has a right to defend itself and that Hamas is responsible for all deaths on both sides. The news organizations feel they have to have some reporters in Gaza for a change. They keep trying to spin the news in Israel’s favor, but once they’re showing even a little bit of the reality on the ground, it all starts looking really bad for the Israelis with each new dead Palestinian child buried beneath the rubble. The US Secretary of State goes to Israel and defends the regime there.
Across the globe, the ever-nascent, uncomfortably diverse movement of people in solidarity with Palestinians protests. In some places they attack synagogues, believing that Israel represents the Jews of the world, as its leaders have been claiming every day since 1948. They are denounced as anti-Semites. (With some apparent justification in this case.) In other places the occasional Israeli embassy gets overrun by angry protesters. In most places, hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people or more gather weekly, sometimes more often, to decry Israel’s war crimes.
The Israeli spokesgenerals remind us that not only must Israel defend itself from foreign terrorist aggression, but how can Israel even think about talking to Hamas, when Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist? The term “right to exist” is never explained by them, or by the vast majority of the western media outlets, ever. No one ever asks where are the borders of this state called Israel. Such an obvious question, but you’ll rarely find it asked anywhere outside of Pacifica Radio or Al-Jazeera. How can they recognize a country that refuses to acknowledge where its own borders begin and end? It’s a non-question, that goes perpetually unanswered by anyone but the terrorists and their apologists.
I ask that question, and I’m called a terrorist sympathizer for doing so. I sing at the protests, wherever in the world I happen to be at the time of Israel’s current spate of atrocities. If I’m home in Portland, I sing for dozens, maybe hundreds, of protesters, half of them university students of Arab origin. If I’m lucky enough to be outside of the US at the time – Australia, England, Denmark, Sweden – I sing for thousands. I literally profit, in terms of CD sales and an increased fan base, every time Israel drops lots of bombs on Palestinians. (Kind of like Lockheed, if you remove the last nine zeros or so.)
I hear from old and new friends, thanking me for the latest song about the latest atrocity. I hear from other people who had been fans until they heard the last song, who tell me I’m an anti-Semite, or at the very least, “one-sided.” Social media lights up with praise and denunciations – of Israel, of Hamas, of the BDS movement, of me. To varying degrees of course, depending.
I do gigs, and I sing more songs about Palestine than I normally do. Most people respond with more enthusiasm than usual, especially outside of the US, where the media is somewhere between a little and a lot better, where they’re more likely to be tired of seeing pictures of the dead or dying victims of Israel’s latest bombing of a UN compound packed with terrified refugees who they’ve recently made homeless.
The most vocal support comes from Arabs and Jews. The most vocal opposition comes from Jews, too. The handful of people at each gig who don’t clap after I sing “Jenin” are Jews who resemble my grandparents’ neighbors in Brooklyn. One of them might walk out of the show at that point. The rest stay.
There is some debate in the media. More or less depending on which media, which country. About Israeli history, the plight of the Palestinians in the refugee camps, about UN Resolution 242 and the right of return. There is much more discussion than usual about whether artists like me are anti-Semitic terrorist supporters or brave dissenters against Zionism and empire. The web is more full than usual with racist denunciations, hostile ranting, and the occasional, eloquent defense of a principled position.
Far right Israelis in Tel Aviv and Haifa and on the settlements gather in large numbers, repeating such chants as “kill the Arabs” and “gas the Arabs.” The western media ignores these protests. Jews are holocaust survivors and they don’t believe in that sort of thing. They would never say things like that. Even though thousands of them do. On camera.
Bearded men somewhere in Gaza talk about killing the Jews. The only Jews they’ve ever met have been the ones who bomb them from the air or shoot them from inside tanks, but no one in the media explains that fact. You’ll see them chanting about killing Jews, anyway, which is the important bit. You’ll see their kids saying it, too. That’s how they raise their kids, you know.
Some people make generally sensible comparisons between Israeli policies and Nazi Germany. Mostly the people making those comparisons are Jews, but some others dare make them, too. They are all denounced at crazed anti-Semites (including the Jews).
Other people say Israeli policies are terrible, but there are other countries that do even worse things, so why do you focus so much on Israel? Perhaps this Israel focus is a veiled form of anti-Semitism, because we’re ignoring some other place. It’s a strange argument.
For some of us, this focus on Israel is partly because it’s not some other place. It’s Israel. Growing up in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City, I thought Israel was somewhere near New Jersey. Half the people I meet around there have cousins in Tel Aviv. Who are right now killing people in Gaza with American weapons, American money and American political cover. For all kinds of reasons, it’s personal. A lot of the people doing the killing have New York accents. Many of the rest are from the part of the world that us Ashkenazis came from. It’s personal.
I hear from apologists for Israel who lecture me knowingly about how Israel is “just doing to the Palestinians what you did to the Native Americans.” Which of course makes everything OK. And if that line of reasoning doesn’t seem to be working, they tell me about how they’re under attack by crazed Islamists and so they have to defend themselves with indiscriminate slaughter of the families of the Islamists, and anybody else who lives nearby. I wouldn’t understand, they say. Their line of reasoning there is a bit outdated, since 9/11, but no matter.
Israeli leaders make noises like what they really want to do is completely overrun Gaza to wipe out the “terrorist infrastructure” once and for all. Secretly, they know that the only way this would be possible would be by committing actual genocide, in the sense of actually physically bulldozing the entire place, one building at a time (like the Nazis did in the Warsaw Ghetto, or like the US did in Hue and Fallujah), and forcing the entire population to flee across Egypt’s locked borders or to die. Secretly, the Israeli government knows it’s not prepared for the fallout that would result from that kind of thing. Secretly, they want to have an excuse to call off their murderous campaign.
Hamas will run out of missiles. The US will suddenly find success in their pathetic efforts to negotiate a ceasefire because Israel secretly is in favor of one now, though they don’t want to admit it to much of their population, or to the Palestinians. Israel will publicly agree to some of Hamas’s demands. They won’t lift the siege, but they’ll partially lift it. They’ll free a few prisoners.
Almost all of the western journalists will leave Gaza. A few weeks later, Israel will go back on everything, collectively punishing the entire Palestinian population for the rogue action of some Salafist through more indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian homes and a reimposition of the embargo. They’ll also announce more settlement-building in the West Bank, for good measure.
I’ll write another song on the next chapter in the annals of Israeli occupation. This time very few people will notice. There will be the occasional small protest. The hardcore few among the perennial activists will discuss tactics, wondering how it might ever be possible to mobilize a sustained movement against Israeli apartheid.
They’ll keep wondering, until the next time enough blood is spilled to warrant the attention of the world’s media. Because slow starvation isn’t interesting enough.
David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He just put out a new album, and is currently booking a fall tour of North America. His website iswww.davidrovics.com.