Pages

6.29.2013

my journey to palestinian solidarity and the myth of the self-hating jew, part 3 and final

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

By now it should be clear that my abandonment of my ties to Israel, and my support for the liberation of Palestine, are not based on denial of my Jewish heritage or on anti-Semitism. This is a political issue, and a moral one. Jewish people cannot be - and should not be - expected to adhere to some kind of party line of political views. I am heartened that increasing numbers of Jewish people are making their own journeys away from unconditional support for Israel - away from nationalism and towards justice - and I'm frustrated and saddened that so many others are completely entrenched in their loyalties.

In this post, I try to address some of the issues many Jewish (and many non-Jewish) people raise when explaining their support for Israel, and their negative beliefs about the Palestinian cause. If you recognize yourself in this post, be assured that whatever conversation I may have had with you, I've had with many others, and I've read and heard many more.

Your response, from any point of view, is welcome, as long as it falls within my comment guidelines. And, as always, I do not wish to debate.

Violence

For many people, the biggest obstacle to support for the Palestinian cause is the use of violence by some portion of the Palestinian people. I want to try to unpack this.

What is terrorism?

Most of us, when we hear about terrorism, feel sympathy and empathy for the victims, and feel only antipathy and alienation, or worse, towards the perpetrators. Most of us do not support groups that use violence, especially violence against civilians - people who, we feel, are innocent victims who have not wronged the other party in any way.

Palestinian violence is almost always characterized as terrorism, and therefore is almost always condemned. But what is terrorism?

Here's one definition, from Merriam-Webster:
The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.
Even using this strict dictionary definition, many military actions - such as the US-led invasion of Iraq - qualify as terrorism.*

In the media, violence is characterized as terrorism when it is perpetrated by people outside the structure of an organized, state military. Thus, Afghans defending their land are terrorists. US and Canadian forces occupying that land are not. Some call the US's actions "state terrorism".** If we distinguish between terrorism and state terrorism, state terrorism is by far the more dangerous and lethal, as it draws upon enormous, unmatched resources that are impossible to repel.

Which of these is terrorism?

A roadside bomb.

A bomb planted on a bus.

Bombs falling from jets.

House raids: doors blown off with explosives, male occupants rounded up and disappeared, home ransacked, family terrified; male occupants never seen again.

The destruction of homes, either by aerial bombing or by bulldozer.

Mass round-ups and imprisonments.

The widespread use of torture.

Imprisonment without charges, and without access to representation, defense, or a judicial system.

I maintain these are all terrorism.

Hiroshima was terrorism. Guernica was terrorism. Gaza was terrorism.

Colonialism is violent. Imperialism is violent. These are by definition brutal, repressive systems. A system that can only be maintained through violence will be resisted by violence.

Many of us recoil at the acts of a suicide bomber, but ignore or dismiss widespread destruction, imprisonment, and extra-judicial killing - although the latter is more lethal, exponentially so. Bombs on buses evoke a particular kind of horror. Should not indefinite detentions, torture, destruction, and murder of civilians by an army evoke horror, too?

All people deserve autonomy and self-rule.

You may abhor Palestinian violence, but Palestinians have human rights.

Many people claim that if only the Palestinians would cease the use of violence, then Israel could and would allow them to live in peace. But Palestinians are not children. We cannot require them to behave - to be passive and compliant - before granting them the same rights and freedoms we take for granted for ourselves. They are human beings who must be free. You may disapprove of their methods, but that does not diminish their claim.

This may seem like a strange analogy, but some of the rhetoric I hear around this issue reminds me of society's judgements of women. The "good girl" who is raped is a victim, but the slut brought it on herself. A teenager who was raped deserves the right to choose abortion. A woman with multiple partners who never uses contraception doesn't.

Rights are rights. If some Palestinians don't appear to be "good victims", holding sit-ins and singing "We Shall Overcome," that doesn't make their rights any less urgent or less deserved. The Black Panthers were also part of the freedom struggle.

There is no liberation without violence.

This, to use an overused phrase, is an inconvenient truth that many first-world people prefer to deny.

No unwilling colony, no occupied country, no oppressed people has ever achieved freedom without the use of violence. There have been nonviolent movements, of course. But no nonviolent movement was ever successful without the existence of some alternative organization that used violence and the threat of violence. In other words, nonviolence, when it succeeded, was never the only factor. The riveting nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have succeeded without Malcolm X's "by any means necessary". Gandhi's powerful methods of nonviolent resistance worked alongside many militant independence movements. Would Britain ever have sat at the negotiating table with Ireland had it not been for the IRA? (If you believe the answer is yes, ask yourself, Why would they?)

Nelson Mandela, now at the end of his life and justly celebrated the world over, has been transformed through celebrity into a man of peace. This sleight of hand omits Mandela's true role as a leader of the African National Congress, a group that engaged in armed resistance against the apartheid regime. Mandela's long imprisonment was not for his political beliefs; it was for acts of political violence. Mandela himself was instrumental in the ANC's adoption of armed struggle after nonviolent methods failed to move the white ruling class.

While in prison, Mandela never renounced violence. When South Africa offered to release Mandela from prison if he would sign a statement condemning terrorism, he refused, saying that armed resistance was legitimate when other channels of free political activity were no longer available.

One observer writes, "Mandela was more the Rory O'Brody than Gerry Adams of the ANC." The quote comes from an interesting blog post describing Mandela's role in the use of violence. The writer says:
This, I believe, is really the principle that articulates the natural law right to engage in armed struggle against oppression when other forms of resistance are no longer available. And, perhaps more importantly, to support publicly the rights of others to engage in armed struggle against state ideology which condemns all political violence as "terrorism", and therefore de-facto illegitimate. Thinking seriously and honestly about conflicts in the world today means not ignoring the potential legitimacy of armed struggle, and not white-washing revolutionary leaders in the past in order to put up their posters in public schools whilst no one is offended.
Imagine the situation reversed.

If we swap the Israelis' and Palestinians' positions - if your people were in Gaza, being held in the world's largest open-air prison - would you support the armed struggle? Would you understand it? Would you agree that a government has the right to force you to live behind a wall, to pass through checkpoints, to live under a surveillance state, in order to survive?

Under this imagined scenario, if your sympathies change, I suggest those sympathies are based not on morality or justice, but on nationalism.

When can the use of violence be condoned?

I realize that many, maybe most, Western Jews - and many first-world people of any background - will never support the armed struggle of Palestinians against Israel. I wonder, though, if the same people condemn the use of violence in all resistance movements. Would they, I wonder, condemn or condone the use of violence by black South Africans under apartheid? By Native Americans as Andrew Jackson's armies rode in? In the Warsaw Ghetto uprising?

If you draw a moral distinction between these examples and Palestine, what is it? Are Palestinians less deserving of their freedom? Do Israelis deserve to be shielded from the human consequences of their government's policies?

Or does Jewishness trump all?

To achieve a goal, people will use whatever means are available to them.

Israel seeks to expand its borders, and to control and subjugate the Palestinian people. To do so, it employs a powerful military and a brutal police state.

The Palestinian people seek to regain their occupied territory and expel their oppressors. What means are available to them?

To me there is a moral distinction between violence in the service of state repression and violence committed by people trying to resist and retaliate against state repression.

To alleviate the effect, remove the cause.

The achieve certain political, economic, and military goals, the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

When some Iraqis fought back - physically resisting the invasion and occupation of their country - the US labelled them "insurgents", then used the presence of this "insurgency" to justify its continued presence.

To condemn Palestinians' violent resistance, but not to recognize and condemn the systemic, continued violence against, and persecution of, Palestinians by Israel can, at this point, only be an act of wilful blindness.

If one condemns the violence of the oppressed against their oppressors, and not the violence of the oppressor against the oppressed, one is siding with P.W. Botha, with George Wallace, with the Raj, with the Conquistadors. With Israel.

"Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East"

File this with George W. Bush bringing democracy to Iraq.

Was the United States a democracy when about 15% of the country's population - one-third of the population in the southern states - were owned as property? The US called itself a democracy before the emancipation of slavery. Was it?

Was apartheid South Africa a democracy?

Those who call Israel a democracy are either narrowly defining Israel to exclude the occupied territories, or parrotting something they have heard but not investigated, or believing propaganda disguised as news reports.

What's more, the Palestinian territories hold elections, too.

Here I can only urge you: please educate yourself. One place to start might be The Only Democracy in the Middle East?, a project of Jewish Voice for Peace.

If you wonder why you and I have such different views on this "democracy," you might be interested in Muzzlewatch, also from JVP.

For a perspective from a South African, you might want to read the series of wmtc posts that begins here: "is israel an apartheid state? a south african perspective, part 1".

"Palestinians and their supporters are anti-Semitic"

Many Jewish people believe that Arabs and others in solidarity with the Palestinian cause are anti-Semitic. They may have heard or read anti-Semitic statements, or they may be basing their feelings on assumptions.

Jewish friends have said to me, "Palestinians hate Jews. They are taught to." I'm not sure how they possess this information, where it comes from, or how much or little it represents reality. My own liberal, suburban, Jewish parents taught me to look down on Arabs, to see them as violent, lawless, ignorant, "backwards", dirty (yes, physically dirty). Is it possible that the idea of Arab children being taught to hate Jews is part of that same bigoted stereotype? Or do Arab families actually teach hatred towards Jews? Do Jewish families do the same, in reverse?

I personally have encountered no anti-Semitism in the pro-Palestinian movement; indeed, I have seen quite the opposite, a great multicultural solidarity in the struggle for justice. On the other hand, I hear casual Islamophobia on a regular basis both in person and online.

Of course, one can find a flood of anti-Semitism online without too much difficulty. And some Jew-haters use the Palestinian cause as cover for their own hatred.

So let's assume all this is true. Let's assume that at least some Palestinians are anti-Semitic and some Jews are anti-Arab or anti-Muslim. So what? It may be true, but it's irrelevant.

You may believe that the pro-Palestinian cause is rife with anti-Semitism. But what does that have to do with the Palestinian people's right to autonomy and self-determination?

Some Black people may hate all white people, but could that have been used as a moral justification for Jim Crow? If you read a Black South African's rant against his white oppressors, would that have caused you to support South African apartheid?

Human rights belong to all people, without exception. There are bigots everywhere. There are good people everywhere. If you've heard or read anti-Jewish rhetoric within the pro-Palestinian cause, would you really use that to justify the continued repression of millions of people?

An Israeli friend once said to me, "How long will we use real or imagined anti-Semitism to justify The Occupation?"

Israel's "right to exist"

One often hears the expression, "Israel has a right to defend itself" and "Israel must use violence or it will cease to exist." Many people claim that Israel must act aggressively to contain and neutralize the Palestinian people, or its existence will be threatened.

Every Israeli person and every Palestinian person has the right to exist.

People have an inherent right to exist.

Regimes do not.

The apartheid regime in South Africa no longer exists. Jim Crow no longer exists. The Raj no longer exists.

If the survival of your state - your state, not your people - depends on the subjugation of others, can you credibly plead self-defense? The survival of the Confederacy depended upon slavery. The survival of Afrikaan South Africa depended on apartheid.

The westward expansion of the early United States was predicated on genocide. Did the US have a right to that expansion? How can expansion be equated with survival?

How can this


be considered survival?

If Palestine is free, can Israel continue to exist? If Israel the state, acting in concert with all the people who live in its territory, can figure out a way to become a democratically ruled country, equally open to all people, equally governed by all people, granting the same inalienable rights to all people, regardless of origin or heritage, then it will continue to exist, as South Africa has done, as the US did after its Civil War.

But if by Israel's "right to exist," we mean its self-proclaimed right to be exclusively governed by, and grant exclusive rights to, one set of people but not another, based on hereditary, then no, it has no right to exist.

If you support Israel's right to maintain itself as a Jewish state, do you also support other exclusive states? An exclusively white state? An exclusively blond and blue-eyed state?

Here are two premises I think we would all support.

1. A government that can only maintain power through force and violence and repression is not a legitimate government.

2. All people have the right to be free.

Why should Israel be an exception?

"Without Israel, Jews cannot be safe, and there could be another Holocaust"

I'm very familiar with this argument, and I used to believe it. Under closer scrutiny, however, it fell apart.

The existence of a Jewish state cannot prevent anti-Semitism. Indeed, I would argue that it does just the opposite. The Jewish claim to special status and the insistence of a birthright, a claim we would view as illegitimate from any other people, is the perfect fodder for anti-Jewish feeling.

Recognizing that a certain degree of bigotry will always exist, our goal should be to prevent such bigotry from resulting in discrimination, persecution and, ultimately, genocide. But our goal cannot be merely to protect Jews. We must protect all people from discrimination, persecution, and genocide - or what are we?

What's more, continued segregation will only perpetuate bigotry, on both sides. In the US, we've seen that the key to dispelling bigotry and helping people recognize our common humanity has been integration. Integrated workplaces have probably done more to normalize (so-called) "race relations" in the US than anything else. (Of course, integrated workplaces would not have been possible without court-ordered desegregation of education and other civil rights legislation.) If we want to reduce both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, segregated nation-states should not be our goal. Until Israeli and Palestinian, Jew and Arab and Christian, co-exist in one country, as equals, there will never be peace.

But is peaceful coexistence your goal? Perhaps you're less concerned with the prevention of another genocide than with the prevention of another Jewish genocide - not a holocaust, but only The Holocaust.

As Jews, do you really feel that your own safety and the safety of other Jewish people are more important, more valuable, than the safety of people who are not Jewish? Can you admit such a thing, even to yourself?

How much repression is your safety worth? How many deaths? How much oppression should be tolerated so that our people can have a "homeland"?

Why do I have more rights to live freely in Israel, a country I have never even visited, than someone whose family has lived there for generations?

If a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto calls for continued Palestinian resistance, if the child of two Holocaust survivors knows that Israel maintains an apartheid state and it must end, how can you continue to close your eyes?

How can you, as a Jew, tolerate this?

* * * *

The following is excerpted from a report by Richard Falk, UN special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories.
Israel continues to annex Palestinian territory; Israel persists in demolishing Palestinians' homes and populating Palestine with Israeli citizens; Israel routinely detains Palestinians without charges; Israel maintains an policy of collectively punishing 1.75 million Palestinians through its imposition of a blockade on the Gaza Strip; and Israel prosecutes its occupation with impunity, refusing to accept the world’s calls to respect international law.

The Israeli population registry confirms that around 650,000 Israelis had settled in the occupied Palestinian territory by the end of 2012. Just last week Israel took another step toward building the 3,000 additional settlements authorized by Prime Minister Netanyahu in November, even as Israeli leaders pay lip service to peace negotiations.

In the first three months of 2013, Israel demolished 204 Palestinian homes, and violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians is an everyday occurrence, with 146 incidents documented through April.

[According to the independent expert designated by the UN Human Rights Council, Israel is actively confiscating Palestinian water and land, having seized an additional 60,000 square meters of land near Nablus just this week.]

My new report reminds the Human Rights Council that a Security Council report raised these same concerns in 1979, but 34 years later Israel remains committed to ignoring international law and pursuing its own set of facts on the ground.

. . . since the occupation began 46 years ago, Israel has detained approximately 750,000 Palestinians, equaling nearly 20% of the entire Palestinian population. At the end of May Israel had 4,979 Palestinians, including 236 children, in its prisons. Another fact is that Israel constantly holds around 200 Palestinians in so-called administrative detention, which is a euphemism Israel uses for detention without charges.

[Turning to the situation in the Gaza Strip, Mr. Falk recalled that, in mid-June, Palestinians in Gaza will enter the seventh year of living under Israel's oppressive and illegal blockade.]

My report discusses my visit to Gaza last December, just after Israel's last major military operation. In short, Israel's blockade is suffocating Palestinians in Gaza, with an incredible 70% of the population dependent on international aid for survival and 90% of the water unfit for human consumption.

These violations deprive Palestinians of hope and make a mockery of revived peace negotiations.
I ask you again: as a Jew, and as a human being, how can you continue to support this?



-----
* For some people, the word "unlawful" in the above definition is a sticking point. Internationally, the US's invasion and occupation of Iraq were and are unlawful. But the US makes its own laws. It invades countries at will, using whatever pretext or contrived incident is convenient, and using the media as its propaganda agent. For more on this pattern, please read Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer, an excellent and very accessible book.

** For a discussion on varying concepts of terrorism, including the concept of "state terrorism," try this article by John Sigler: "Palestine: Legitimate Armed Resistance vs. Terrorism".

6.24.2013

my journey to palestinian solidarity and the myth of the self-hating jew, part 2

Part 1 here.

For a while I had been reluctant to write this story, because it seemed so baggy and shapeless. The best essays are crisp, with a clearly defined turning point and an easily identifiable ah-ha moment. This story has none of those that I can see. A clear path would make a better essay, but all I have is this murky stew.

My path of change of mind and heart about Israel and Palestine was a long one, and when I try to trace it, many seemingly unconnected points stand out.

Early warnings

In university (1978-1982), I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement, which at the time was focused on divestment from South Africa. I learned a lot about the apartheid system, which was so much more brutal and more repressive than was generally known. I learned about US complicity and involvement in the apartheid regime. No surprise there. But I also learned about Israel's role in South African apartheid. That, I can tell you, I found shocking. Remember the Israel I had learned about at home?
Israel was, to them, a fragile but tenacious outpost of democracy in an otherwise backward region of the world. Israel had made the desert bloom. Israel was experimenting in socialism. Israel was fighting for her life. Israel was where Jews could find refuge if they were suddenly unwelcome in their countries of origin. Israel was surrounded by enemies who sought to destroy her. Jews needed the possibility of Israel and Israel needed our support.
I didn't know what to make of this new information. It was confusing, a cognitive dissonance. I tucked it away, and did nothing. By "did nothing," I mean that if asked, I might have repeated the platitudes I grew up with, about the only democracy in the Middle East or how there is no Palestine. I might have said, "It's a very complicated situation." Mostly I avoided the issue.

Once in university, I also saw the omissions and inconsistencies in my family's worldview. This is not the classic case where a little distance allows a young person to see the imperfections in a happy home; quite the opposite. My family life had been so filled with turmoil that I never had space to process these details, to question the little things. Now I realized how the word "Arab" was always preceded by an epithet. I recognized how my parents rejected the my-country-right-or-wrong jingoism of many Americans, but embraced that same ethic about Israel. Their progressive politics were genuine, but they maintained a strict double standard when it came to Israel.

Again, I didn't do anything with this knowledge. I just tucked it away.

Here's a moment which may seem unrelated, but feels essential to my awakening: in university, a classmate talked to me about the Armenian genocide. I had never heard of it - not one word. This young man was very passionate about raising awareness about his people's history. I was ashamed of my ignorance. (He was an excellent educator. I wish he could know how he opened my mind that day.*)

When I next spoke to my mother, I mentioned this: "Did you know there was an Armenian genocide?" She did. She knew a lot about it. I think at that moment I began to question - and to shed - the special status of Jews as Most Persecuted People. It takes nothing away from the Holocaust to know that others have been slaughtered. I note with sadness that in Hebrew School, I never learned that other people were targeted by the Nazis, too. I never learned that Romani, gay people, people with disabilities, people deemed mentally ill, and others were also rounded up and exterminated. Why was it necessary to erase those histories in order to teach us ours?

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, and the Sabra and Shatila massacre became public, I argued in Israel's defense and did not understand why people blamed Israel for the atrocities. I feel great shame as I admit this. (An investigation into the massacre by an Israeli commission has since laid responsibility with Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Minister of Defence.)

A short time later, I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I really appreciated how, after the exhibits on the Frank family and the Jews of Amsterdam, the story was widened to include the victims of repression and genocide everywhere.

These two disparate events - a massacre in a distant refugee camp, and my visit to the Anne Frank House - became linked in my mind. I was starting to see a bit more clearly.

A revelation

I began to think that the Jewish community in which I was raised had taught the wrong lessons about the Holocaust. I felt they were saying, "Jews have been persecuted throughout history, and now they must be protected. Israel is our special protection." But the more important lessons of the Holocaust would be about recognizing escalating scapegoating and repression, about how small steps of degradation and dehumanization can progress to genocide. It would be a lesson about universal human rights, about oppressed people everywhere. About how, as the famous saying goes, evil happens when good people are silent.

I felt that if we are to glean any meaning from the carnage of history, if we are to make any attempt to prevent genocides, the lesson of the Holocaust cannot only be about Jews.** Jews are not the only oppressed people, neither now nor through history. Acknowledging this does not change the facts of our own past oppression. It merely connects us to the larger family of humanity.

Here's another point on the path. In university and later in New York, I met Palestinians. People who identified themselves as Palestinians! I was taken aback, although hopefully I didn't show it. Wait, I thought, there is no Palestine. Then I thought, what does that mean?

This, finally, was the basic disconnect lying beneath that cheery suburban Zionism I was raised with: people were already living there. People were already living there. When the "world" - the dominant powers that gave themselves the right to divide up the globe according to their own interests - gave Israel to the Jewish people, there were already people living on that land. Who were those people? Where did they go? What happened to them?

By the time I read this 2008 essay by Howard Zinn, my mind had already changed, but he expresses almost exactly what happened to me. Of course the precise details are different, but his awakening - "It did not occur to me" - resonates deeply with me.
I was not long out of the Air Force when in 1947 the U.N. adopted a partition plan for Palestine, and in 1948, Israel, fighting off Arab attacks, declared its independence. Though not a religious Jew at all, indeed hostile to all organized religions, I had an indefinable feeling of satisfaction that the Jews, so long victims and wanderers, would now have a "homeland."

It did not occur to me--so little did I know about the Middle East--that the establishment of a Jewish state meant the dispossession of the Arab majority that lived on that land. I was as ignorant of that as, when in school, I was shown a classroom map of American "Western Expansion" and assumed the white settlers were moving into empty territory. In neither case did I grasp that the advance of "civilization" involved what we would today call "ethnic cleansing."

It was only after the "Six-Day War" of 1967 and Israel's occupation of territories seized in that war (the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the Sinai peninsula) that I began to see Israel not simply as a beleaguered little nation surrounded by hostile Arab states, but as an expansionist power.

In 1967 I was totally engaged in the movement against the war in Vietnam. I had long since understood that the phrases "national security" and "national defense" were used by the United States government to justify aggressive violence against other countries. Indeed, there was a clear bond between Israel and the United States in their respective foreign polices, illustrated by the military and economic support the United States was giving to Israel, and by Israel's tacit approval of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

True, Israel's claim of "security," given its geographical position, seemed to have more substance than the one made by the U.S. government, but it seemed clear to me that the occupation and subjugation of several million Palestinians in the occupied territories did not enhance Israel's security but endangered it.
Perspectives

Once this basic fact sunk in - people already lived there - I saw the Law of Return as if for the first time. I had never stepped foot in Israel. My family had lived in the United States for three generations, and before that, in Eastern Europe. Yet I, an American, had more right to live in Israel than people who were born on that land and whose families had lived there for countless generations. I had this right whether or not I was an observant Jew. I had the right because my mother was Jewish.

This no longer looked like the sacred birthright of an oppressed people. It looked false and corrupt, like some kind of legal double-speak. I couldn't articulate it at the time, but what it looks like, more than anything, is the South African system of manufactured "homelands" and "passports" and racial designations that were instituted to justify apartheid.

I may have been taken aback when a friend identified himself as Palestinian, but I was shocked when I first heard of the Nakba. It was a lot to take in: that the day our synagogue and Jewish youth groups and marching bands and parades had celebrated as Israeli Independence Day was, for other people, a day of mourning, the commemoration of the expulsion from their homeland. Well, sure. Think about Columbus Day from the Native American point of view. You won't find any celebrations of Pizarro in the Andes.

It's getting mighty crowded

File enough papers in the back of a drawer, and eventually the drawer won't close. At some point, all the information I was avoiding became impossible to ignore.

Sometime in the 1990s, I don't know when, I read about the Wall, and I saw the words Israeli apartheid. It took time for me to process this. Gradually, I steeled myself and read more. I read about the conditions Israel had placed on the daily lives of Palestinians. I read about bulldozers. Read about the occupation. I already knew quite a bit about South African apartheid. It wasn't much of a leap.

I had two choices. I could deny reality, or I could admit that Israel was an imperialist, expansionist power. It had built an apartheid system and was guilty of massive human rights abuses.

I wish I could tell you what year it was, what I was doing. I wish I could identify a final straw. I can't. It was a gradual awakening, like layers of gauze being lifted from my eyes. One day things came into focus. It was time to bring my thoughts about Israel and Palestine into line with my core values. I realized that because I support the rights of all people to autonomy and self-determination, I must support Palestinians' rights to those, too. And just as I oppose repressive regimes the world over, I must oppose the repressive Israeli regime, too.

I could say it didn't matter that the oppressors are Jewish and I am Jewish: right is right and wrong is wrong. Or I could say that our shared heritage makes it more horrible - that Jews, of all people, should know better. It makes no difference. The only ways I could justify support for Israel's policies and actions were either with claims to nationalism, which I abhor, or worse, with a claim of racial or genetic superiority. There was simply no other defense.


Next: some stumbling blocks for many Jewish people: violence, anti-Semitism, and the non-existence of Israel.

Continue to part 3.


-----

* See? Talk to people about justice. You never know.

** Much Holocaust education is now about this.

6.23.2013

my journey to palestinian solidarity and the myth of the self-hating jew, part 1

The Self-Hating Jew.

This is what I am, according to some.

There's a line from an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical: "I've been called many names, but they're the strangest."* I think of this every time I hear or read the expression "self-hating Jew". What a bizarre turn of phrase. Is it like a self-cleaning oven, or a self-basting turkey? No need to hate me, thanks, I've got it covered!

A "self-hating Jew" is the term given by some Jewish people who support Israel's policies and actions towards the Palestinian people to other Jewish people who do not support those policies and actions. If that's an awkward sentence, it's because I'm avoiding the shorthands of "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestinian," as that is oversimplified, and open to complaint.

In short, a "self-hating Jew" is a Jewish anti-Semite. A Jew who is ashamed of being Jewish, who doesn't like to admit her Jewishness, and who avoids being identified as Jewish. A Jewish person who wants to "pass" as non-Jewish. An Uncle Tom.

Apparently the expression has a complex history. However, the way I see it used - the way it's been hurled at me from time to time - is anything but complex. It means: shut up. It means: I'm not listening. It means: your opinion was formed by your own personal issues, not by your examination of any material conditions, not by reality. It means: I am avoiding meaningful discussion by dismissing your views with an ad hominem attack.It's like a man, when confronted by a woman upset at his behavior, saying, "You must be PMS". A nasty piece of avoidance.

I've long wanted to unpack this accusation, and to examine it in the context of my own life. Three facts are given: I am Jewish, I was raised to support Israel, and I now support a free Palestine. How did I get from there to here?

I am Jewish

I am Jewish. As an adult, I am a non-observant Jew, which means I no longer observe any of the prayers, holidays, or rituals associated with the religion of Judaism. I've chosen to be non-observant because I'm an atheist, and this path feels most comfortable for me. Many atheist Jews choose to celebrate Jewish culture in a secular way. Mine is a personal choice, and certainly not the only way to reconcile a Jewish identity with atheism or irreligiousness.

Being Jewish is my heritage and my original culture. It is my ethnicity. When my ancestors lived in Eastern Europe, Jews were isolated into ghettos or shtetls, not integrated into the dominant culture. Thus, my people were not Russian or Polish or Belorussian. They were Jews.

Both my parents were raised in Jewish households, with some idiosyncratic mix of old-world Yiddish culture and new-world Jewish Americanism. My parents, uncomfortable with the conservative, Yiddish type of Jewishness, accidentally found a better fit with a liberal, reformed synagogue in the New York-area suburbs where I grew up. That culture was Jewish, liberal (in US terms), and Zionist. There was no contradiction, in their minds, between liberal values and Zionism. More about that in a bit.

I was raised to love Israel

I grew up in a political household. I can't call myself a red-diaper baby, but my parents' progressive political views were very present in our home and a strong influence on my development. I grew up during the era of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. My parents were adamantly opposed to the war and strong supporters of integration and equal rights.

I grew up in a Jewish household. My siblings and I all attended Hebrew school, meaning after-school religious instruction. We were Bat and Bar Mitzvah. Through most of my life, on Friday nights we lit candles, said the Shabbat prayers over candles, bread, and wine, and attended Friday night services. My parents never worked on Jewish holidays and we never went to school on those days; we would normally go to temple and do whatever one did at home for that holiday. Our synagogue was reform, which means there were a lot of things we didn't do - we weren't kosher, we drove to synagogue (as opposed to walking), and all kinds of other things that, according to some people, made us barely Jewish at all. But we identified as Jewish in every way.

I also grew up learning about anti-Semitism. I knew about the concentration camps, about pogroms, about the Russian Jews who were not allowed to emigrate. I knew about the outsider status of Jews in the US, less so in my world than in my parents', and less in their world than in my grandparents' day. My parents believed that Jews had a special interest in the civil rights movement, a special obligation to justice and equality. Our Passover seder was always about civil rights. Our rabbi always related the story of the Exodus - the story of an oppressed people moving from slavery to freedom - to Selma and Montgomery, to the bus boycotts, to the huge marches on Washington. You may find this ironic, given some of their other beliefs, but they intended no irony, nor did they detect any.

My parents were Zionists. Our synagogue was Zionist. This meant supporting Israel against her Arab antagonists. Israel was, to them, a fragile but tenacious outpost of democracy in an otherwise backward region of the world. Israel had made the desert bloom. Israel was experimenting in socialism. Israel was fighting for her life. Israel was where Jews could find refuge if they were suddenly unwelcome in their countries of origin. Israel was surrounded by enemies who sought to destroy her. Jews needed the possibility of Israel and Israel needed our support.

Whether you consider this a completely fabricated myth, or completely accurate, or anywhere in the middle, this was the Israel of my childhood, the Israel I received from my parents and from my Jewish community.

My understanding of anti-Semitism was intimately connected to my understanding of our support of Israel. I knew I could claim Israeli citizenship if I needed to. We needed Israel because we were Jews, and without Israel, Jews were vulnerable to discrimination, persecution, even genocide.

I'm not saying this was spelled out every night at dinner. But it was the message we received.


Next: I discover a disconnect, and have a gradual awakening. Part two here.


-----

* It appears that this line was altered in the movie version of "Evita," but if you can find the excellent original Broadway cast soundtrack with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, you'll find the line in "High Flying, Adored". I wonder if the film producers thought Madonna shouldn't say that line?

** I use the term support, but really, what does my support amount to? What did I do for Israel and what do I now do for Palestine? These are difficult questions for every activist, and any compassionate person. For now, let's agree that the term support refers to my own opinions, however insignificant they may be.

6.21.2013

rtod

Revolutionary thought of the day:
This war is murder, this conquest is robbery... If this war be called patriotism then blessed be treason.

Clarence Darrow, 1898, on the Spanish-American war

healthy slow-cooker recipe of the week: beef, barley, and mushroom stew

This week's healthy slow-cooker recipe features barley, a yummy and healthy grain. I especially love the chewy texture.

Barley is one of the four oldest grains to be cultivated by humans.* Unfortunately, whole-grain barley is difficult to find. The more common pearl barley is not a whole grain. I haven't found a convenient place to buy whole-grain barley, so I reluctantly use the pearl version. It's just as tasty and contains fibre, but lacks the full-impact health benefits of whole grains.

I don't know if it's cultural predisposition, being raised on mushroom-barley soup as I was, but to me barley's natural partner is mushrooms. I prefer the cremini variety, but you could use any kind you like.

This recipe was adapted from my friend and cooking guru Matthew Bin. I got the barley idea from Matt, but I suspect this version would be too mushroomy for him.

2 lbs. beef cubes, preferably locally sourced and traditionally raised
1 large onion, chopped or run through food processor
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or food processor
1 large carrot, sliced
1 large rib of celery, chopped
16-20 cremini mushrooms, sliced or quartered
1 tablespoon olive oil (optional)
1 cup barley
3 cups low-sodium beef broth
1/2 cup of red wine
thyme
salt & pepper

Brown the beef on all sides, put in cooker, cover.

Soften the vegetables in olive oil, one type of vegetable at a time, or skip this step. Add vegetables to cooker.

Add broth and wine, season with thyme and S&P according to your preference.

Cook for about 4 hours on low.

Add barley, stir, cook for another 4 hours on low. If it's too thick, add more broth.



* The other three are wheat, rice, and millet. Corn and quinoa came much later in Mesoamerica and the Andes, respectively.

wmtc rebooted

I was in the middle of writing a post about my plan to get back into an exercise routine... when I broke my foot. Doing almost nothing. Walking along in the mall, on my way to get my hair cut and then go to work, my ankle turned over sharply. I was horrified, thinking it was yet another ankle sprain. But no... turns out it's a three-part fracture in my foot.

I was worried at first: if I could break a bone just by walking, is there a problem with my bone density? Are my bones becoming fragile? But I've learned that fractured foot bones are very common among people who have a history of ankle injuries. Every time your ankle turns over, a ligament pulls at those small, friable bones in your foot, weakening them. This was an accident waiting to happen.

I was very sad and frustrated at my ruined plans to be more physically active. But before long, those feelings were replaced with relief that this happened after our trip to Spain and not before.

I'm in a walking cast, like a ski boot, so as far as fractures go, I'm pretty lucky not to have the inconvenience of a plaster cast. I spent a good portion of my early teenage years on and off crutches, an experience that permanently changed my perspective on life. Now, hobbling around the house with a cane, I'm remembering what it's like to be less mobile, to have one or both hands used for stability so you can't carry things, how long it takes to get things done. We live in a house with three floors and no bathroom on the ground floor, so life will be a bit more challenging for a while.

* * * *

This is another opportunity for me to praise Canada's excellent public health care system, and to remind us that Ontario's coverage should be further expanded, not continually reduced. My doctor took x-rays, found the fracture, and sent me to Urgent Care, where (after a wait), I was fitted with a temporary plaster cast, and given instructions about visiting the Fracture Clinic the following day. At the Fracture Clinic, I was seen by the orthopedic surgeon on duty, a specialist who does nothing but treat fractures. They gave me the walking cast, scheduled a follow-up appointment, and here I am.

This would have all been "free" - paid for by our taxes - but Ontario covers only plaster casts. Walking casts are out-of-pocket. If you have supplemental health insurance, you're reimbursed, and if you don't - as is increasingly the case - you're on your own. The friendly technician who made my temporary cast said that some people opt for plaster because they can't afford, or don't want to pay for, the walking boots. That's wrong. Everyone should have the same options, regardless of ability to pay. I'm sure in some cases this is regardless of desire to pay, not ability, but I don't like to see that two-tiered system creeping in. I'd much rather my taxes fund someone's increased mobility than fighter jets or worse, the Conservative Party's slush fund.

* * * *

Now, time suddenly has been returned to my life, time in which I had been planning on walking, hiking, swimming, or doing exercise classes on Roku. This seems like the perfect opportunity to write. If I'm successful, this blog will again reflect something other than my own small corner of my world.

6.19.2013

i am bradley manning

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: # 9, or why this new librarian found the reference desk a little scary

In this post, I described doing reference as "a bit scary," and Impudent Strumpet asked why.

I started to write an answer, ran out of time, then found myself on my first real shift at the reference desk!

During my training and orientation weeks, I did two half-shifts at the desk during non-busy hours - a second chair, so to speak, when there is normally only one person working. But this week I had my first proper evening shift, during peak hours.

It is also exam week for high schools, so every available space in the entire library is filled with groups of teenagers studying (or not studying, as the case may be). The library actually opens up meeting rooms to accommodate them all.

So I did it: I got through my first real reference shift, and I really enjoyed it.

* * * *

But first, why reference is scary.

In the general sense, it's scary because I take the job seriously and want to do well. As a page and a circulation clerk, I observed library staff doing reference every day, and I've seen skills from the truly excellent to the truly awful. I want to use those role models, both positive and negative. I want to give customers good service and good information.

Specifically, doing reference is not necessarily intuitive. It's a learned skill. Customers often can't or don't articulate their real information needs. In other words, what they ask for is often not what they want. If you simply listen to their question, then march off to get a book, or start typing in the catalogue, chances are high that you will not find what they need, because you haven't yet established what that need is.

Instead, you must engage with the customers. You must perform a "reference interview," where you ask pointed, specific, open-ended questions, to discover what the customer is looking for. There are very specific ways of doing this that work beautifully, and a whole lot of ways that work very poorly.

Plus, the reference interview alone is not enough. There's a whole set of customer-service behaviours that go should surround it: appearing approachable in facial expression and body language, showing interest in the customer's question, giving your answer in plain, non-jargon words, taking the customer to the resource they need, or, if you're sending them elsewhere, calling ahead to that branch or department, and following up when you can.

I know all this very well, and in much greater depth than I can write about here. But I know it in theory, not in practice. There are so many things to remember, and when it's busy, I have a tendency to feel pressured and rush. That's a pitfall I must always be conscious of and work against (on every job I've ever held). No one is actually pressuring me, the pressure is entirely internal. I must remember to take a breath, take the extra few moments to do the job correctly. I don't want to rush customer A to get to customer B - that's unfair, and it provides poor service.

So, there are many pieces to put together. I want to get into good habits. I want to do a good job, for the customer, for our department, and for myself.

* * * *

On my first true reference shift in the Central Children's Library, here are some of the questions I was asked, and here's what I did.

From a mom: Do you have any books to help children learn how to use the toilet?

We have lots of great books on toilet training, but none of them were on our shelves at that moment. I took the customer's card, found five or six books in the system, and put them on hold for her.

This reference interview involved asking... Does she want books to read together with her child? Is it a boy or girl? (Many of the potty books are gendered.) Would she like me to put some books on hold for her? Where would she like to pick them up, here at our library, or is there another location that's more convenient?

From a girl, probable age 11: I want some good books to read over the summer.

This involved asking... What kinds of books she likes to read? What are some of the books she has read and enjoyed? To my delight, she said, "I like adventure stories, also animals. Animal adventures. None of that princess stuff!"

We went to the stacks together and I gave her several choices. As I selected them, she told me her brother read and loved those same books. I asked, and learned that he's an older brother, and she's excited to read what he liked. So my choices had the stamp of approval!

It turned out she didn't have her library card with her. So I wrote down all the titles, and suggested she come back soon with the list. She left very happy! I also used the opportunity to promote Summer Reading Club, so hopefully I'll see her again.

From a boy, probable age 7: When is Summer Reading Club? I heard about it at my school! (That's from our department doing outreach! Yay us!)

From a mom: Do you have any books on how to teach children what to do, for parents on how to teach?

This woman spoke very little English, and had trouble expressing her needs. After asking several questions, I thought she wanted books on parenting - although she was not familiar with the word. I wrote down the general call number for parenting books, and suggested she go to a different floor and ask at the desk there.

From a newcomer family - a mom, dad, and three children, including a baby - at the library for the first time: We are new here. What do we do? What do you have for our children?

This is a very typical question in our department, and a hugely important one. I gave them a newsletter with all our children's programming, showing them how to find programs at our branch. I showed them how to log on to the catalogue from home; they were thrilled with this. I found some Star Wars books for one of their boys. I gave them a list of all our branch libraries, which has the opening hours and a map, and explained that they can use any branch at any time. And later I found another Star Wars book and brought it over to them. They were very happy.

* * * *

In addition: I gave out puzzles for parents to do with their kids, gave out headphones for the computer, gave out many program schedules, and answered many questions about Summer Reading Club. I took a brother and sister to where Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries would be if there were any copies the shelf, and told them, to their great joy, that we were expecting many new copies for the summer. And every so often, I did a walkabout to see if anyone needed help and to check on the teen groups.

When the closing announcement came on, there were still more than 50 people in our department. There are always a few stragglers who stay until the last minute, but that night, we could have used a crowbar to get some of the teens out of their chairs.

6.16.2013

rtod

Revolutionary thought of the day:
No healthy democracy can endure when the most consequential acts of those in power remain secret and unaccountable.

Glenn Greenwald

6.15.2013

dave zirin writes to dan snyder: why the washington nfl team must change its name

Here is the definitive piece on why the NFL team in Washington DC must change its name, written by - who else - Dave Zirin: Enough: An Open Letter to Enough Dan Snyder, at Grantland. Please go and read it.

my role model, joni mitchell

Next week, Toronto's Luminato arts festival will present "Joni: a Portrait in Song," various musicians performing and celebrating the work of Joni Mitchell. For months, speculation flew about whether or not Mitchell herself would attend, and if she did, whether she would perform. Finally, a few weeks ago, it was announced: Joni will appear at the Massey Hall event; she will recite a new poem with musical accompaniment.

In the lead-up to this rare public appearance, Mitchell - who, of course, is Canadian, and who turns 70 this year - gave a few interviews to Canadian media. Mitchell rarely grants interviews - having long ago detached herself from the "star maker machinery" - but when she does, they are usually candid and enlightening, and often a bit unsettling.

* * * *

I often refer to Joni Mitchell has my idol. That's no less true now than it was 30 years ago.

I've been listening to Joni's music since the age of 10, when I discovered her through my older sister, and I continued listening through all her musical changes, as droves of fans turned away. Sometimes I didn't understand her music at the time it was released, only to fall in love with it years later. I've been fortunate to see Joni perform a few times, each concert an incredibly meaningful experience for me.

I regard Joni Mitchell as an artistic genius, a category that very few people inhabit. I rankle when she is compared to competent but pedestrian "singer-songwriters", or pigeonholed based on one phase of her long and varied career. It isn't that everything Joni composes is great. How could it be? It's the expansiveness of her vision, her constant movement into new territory, her restless need to explore. She is a songwriter of unparalleled talents, a brilliant composer and arranger, and a talented and noteworthy painter.

But although I love Joni's music, that's not why I call her my idol. What I admire is her uncompromising vision - her decision to detach herself from popular acclaim or approbation - her insistence on traveling her own path. She doesn't self-consciously display herself as different, as an angle for attention. She is just herself, and you can take it or leave it.

Reading Joni's interviews over the years, I came to understand (as much as she made public) how she feels about her life and her art. And Joni's profound need to forge her own trail, to follow no predefined path, least of all the path of other people's expectations, became a profound influence on my own life. In that sense Joni Mitchell has been my role model.

Joni's latest round of interviews upset many people, especially women who identify as feminists. Her comments about feminism are difficult to understand, given what we know about her life and her career. But the way I see it, I don't have to agree with all of Joni's opinions, or share her vision of the world. I don't call her "my hero," the way I do, say, Howard Zinn or George Orwell. Other people have been a greater influence on the development of my identity and my political thought. Joni taught me how to live.

* * * *

Joni Mitchell interview in Toronto Star

Joni Mitchell interview and links from CBC

Joni Mitchell speaks with CBC's Jian Gomeshi, one-hour audio. Many, many thanks to my old blog-friend who remembered both my love of Joni Mitchell and that I don't listen to the radio.

Also:

Why Joni Mitchell's rejection of feminism broke my heart a little (and why I'm tired of talking about Beyoncé) by Meghan Murphy
(This would be a much better story if it were only about Joni Mitchell and feminism. I didn't know anyone was talking about Beyonce, but if you're sick of talking about her, then don't.)

Ani DiFranco interview with Joni Mitchell from 1998

6.14.2013

healthy slow-cooker recipe of the week: vegetarian chili

This has turned out to be one of our favourite slow-cooker meals. It's delicious, incredibly easy to make, super healthy, and inexpensive. Adapted from nowhere: it's my own.

Canned beans, properly rinsed and drained, have the same nutritional value as dried beans. They're much easier to use and work well with the slow cooker. Combined with brown rice, they make a perfect protein, and give you lots of fibre. And lots of yumminess.

1 19-ounce can of each:
- corn niblets
- black beans
- white beans
- chick peas
- diced tomatoes
1 large onion, diced or run through food processor
1 red bell pepper, core and seeds removed, diced or cubed
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
4-5 cloves of garlic, minced or run through food processor
bit of olive oil
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
anywhere from 1/2 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon dried chipotle, according to your preferred level of spice
anywhere from a dash to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2-3 dashes of salt
a few turns of freshly ground black pepper

Soften onion, bell pepper, carrot, and garlic in olive oil. Put in cooker.

Time-saving tip. While cleaning and slicing carrot, heat up the oil. Put carrot in oil to soften, and core and dice the bell pepper. Carrot goes in cooker, cover cooker, pepper goes in skillet. While pepper is softening, run onion through food processor. Pepper goes in cooker, cover cooker, onion goes in skillet. And so on; the order of vegetables doesn't matter.

Put colander in sink, and rinse and drain: black beans, chick peas, white beans, corn. Rinse and drain each can separately, put in cooker, repeat for the next can.

Empty canned tomatoes directly into cooker.

Add seasonings to taste and stir well. Cook for 6 to 8 hours on low, depending on how soft you like the beans and vegetables. If you're around, stir occasionally. If not, it might stick a little, but that's not a big deal.

For the healthiest meal, serve with brown rice and plain, low-fat, Greek-style yogurt.

For a more fun but less healthy take, serve with tortilla chips, grated cheddar, and full-fat yogurt, or mix a little sour cream in with the yogurt.

6.13.2013

my life at the children's library so far (plus happy birthday to me)

What a difference it makes when you enjoy going to work. What a difference when you don't dread your job. Wow!

This is what I've done in my new position so far.

- I participated in the finale of Grade 4 Read To Succeed, in which the winning classes - the classes that read the most books in each branch library's catchment area - attended an event at Mississauga City Hall. There were songs, games, prizes, and readings by two children's authors. It was a bit weird for me, as I hadn't been involved in the program, but great fun and very instructive.

- I did my first programming!! I assisted a more experienced librarian in a kindergarten class visit - two classes, 45 kids. I read Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard. Seemed like it went over well. A little girl ran up to me and hugged me!

- I attended a workshop on reference and a webinar on storytelling.

- I am compiling a number of readers' advisory lists, as part of a departmental goal, based on a suggestion of mine last summer. We will have laminated book lists at the shelf ends, with staff picks in different categories: humour, adventure, animals, scary, and so on. I'm doing all the nonfiction. So far I am working on these lists: Amazing Animals, "When I grow up, I want to be...", I Love Science!, "Weird and Wacky, Spooky and Scary, and just plain GROSS," Biographies, Stuff To Do (crafts, game, magic, gardening, cooking, bird watching, etc. etc.), and Life Long Ago (ancient civilizations).

- I am learning how to order books for the department. I'm doing nonfiction, not from scratch, but filling in gaps and reordering popular titles.

- I am preparing for a school visit to promote Summer Reading Club. I'll be doing this with another librarian, one program for Grades 3 through 5, then for K through 2. This will be a skit, a mini scavenger hunt, games, prizes, stories, and of course, information about Summer Reading Club.

- I have been on the reference desk only a little so far, but will be getting my regular shift on the desk soon. I love it, but it's a bit scary!

- I attended a workshop on the libraries' databases, to encourage and remind reference staff to offer these great resources to our customers, and teach customers how to use them.

Today is my birthday. I have been alive on this planet for 52 years. I'm grateful for all I've been given, and proud of what I've created with it. Some days I feel like the luckiest person in the world.

6.09.2013

what i'm reading: the casual vacancy by j. k. rowling

The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling's first non- Harry Potter book, received almost universally poor reviews, ranging from tepid to savage. Reviewers found the book too long for the subject matter, too slow, poorly paced. They thought the plot was a soap opera. They found the writing cliched, studied, heavy-handed. In a book full of characters, they found few noteworthy. As one reviewer put it: "Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that “The Casual Vacancy” is not only disappointing — it’s dull."

I disagree.

Backlash? Impossibly high expectations? A certain measure of that is to be expected, given that Rowling is one of the most successful writers of our time. But it's no excuse. Reviewers have an obligation to put Harry Potter aside and review the book that's in front of them. Maybe they did. Maybe I just happen to disagree with almost every reviewer. Or maybe not.

Putting the Harry Potter series aside is easy for me: I haven't read any of those books. I might read part of one one day, but in general, I have little interest - except, of course, as a children's publishing phenomenon. I know how to help a child find Rowling's books in the library, and how to find other books a Harry Potter fan might enjoy, but I've been unmotivated to read any of them yet. So my reading of Rowling's first novel expressly for adults is untainted by what came before it.

Here's another reason I like it: it's very good.

I am about halfway through The Casual Vacancy, and I'm enjoying it very much. It's a "what lies beneath" novel: a picture-perfect English village, its charming exterior pulled back to expose the pettiness, the nastiness, the bigotry, the loneliness, the unfulfilled desires, and the genuine psychic pain that seethes and boils beneath it.

The plot itself is very small, but that should not be a problem. One, the book is not plot-driven, it is character-driven. And two, the seemingly minute scale of the plot should be seen as a stand-in for something much larger: the class divide in contemporary United Kingdom.

The characters that people the novel are rich and varied and real. Some of the characters are more fully realized than others, but none are caricatures. Many are painfully memorable.

Some choice bits from reviews make me wonder if the reviewer was paying attention. (I often wonder this.) In The Guardian, Theo Tait writes: "Rowling relies on stock situations and verbal clichés; if you're irritated by important episodes being telegraphed with phrases such as 'But then came the hour that changed everything,' then this is probably not the novel for you." But that singled-out phrase is not the narrator's voice: it's from a character's thoughts! And that character - a teenager in love for the first time - would think of this singular moment in his life in those terms.

The book is criticized for being too long, but I'm finding the pacing perfectly suited to the form. There are multiple subplots of interlocking stories, which take time to unfurl (and which Rowling juggles brilliantly, by the way). Most importantly, it takes time to introduce so many finely drawn characters. A lesser writer of a more facile novel would give you a few sentences of cliches for each. Rowling offers each character's internal monologue - their fears, their frustrations, their pain, their dreams - and lets their personality come to you in their own thoughts. This takes time.

Rowling's writing is precisely descriptive without being ponderous or self-conscious. The characters, for the most part, are authentic and complex. The issues of class, of a divided society, that play out through the characters' lives are weighted and shaded towards a point of view, as they should be, as they are in any art, but there's little grandstanding or speechifying.

One of the few positive reviews of The Casual Vacancy was in The Observer, the Sunday edition of The Guardian. Melvyn Bragg writes:
This is a wonderful novel. JK Rowling's skills as a storyteller are on a par with RL Stevenson, Conan Doyle and PD James. Here, they are combined with her ability to create memorable and moving characters to produce a state-of-England novel driven by tenderness and fury.
I agree.

amnesty international calls for release of war resister kimberly rivera: please write a letter in support

Amnesty International is calling for the release of war resister Kimberly Rivera, who was forced out of Canada by the Harper Government. Will you please write a letter in support of her release? Here's how.

If you want to write to Kim, you can reach her at:
Kimberly Rivera
P.O. Box 452136
San Diego, CA 92145-2136
You can also write to war resister Justin Colby at:
COLBY, Justin
1450 Alder Rd.
Box 339536
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA 98433-9536
Important Note: The military has very strict (arcane, incomprehensible) rules about what prisoners can receive. Please do not include anything in the letter but the paper you write on. If you send gifts - even stamps, writing paper, or stickers - the letter will not reach Kim or Justin.

Be sure to include your full name and address in the return address area of the envelope. Mail with incomplete return addresses will not get through.

Even if you do this, there is no guarantee that the war resisters will receive your letter. But if you don't follow these instructions, they definitely won't.

You cannot send books through Amazon or any other online book distributor. Books can only be sent directly from the publisher. Look on publishers' websites for this information. For example, from the FAQ on the HarperCollins website:
Special Orders

I would like to send a book to someone who is in prison. Prisons will only accept books directly from publisher. How can I pay and have you ship it?

Send an e-mail with the specifics to orders@harpercollins.com or phone 1-800-242-7737 -- a customer service representative will respond to you.

6.08.2013

read matt taibbi on bradley manning court martial

While I'm not writing, I hope you will read this excellent article by Matt Taibbi on mainstream media coverage of the Bradley Manning court martial.

I cannot understand why good writers like Taibbi continue to refer to the "Bradley Manning trial". A trial is, in theory, an impartial hearing, where an unbiased judge and 12 ordinary citizens hear a full range of evidence from both prosecution and defense.

Bradley Manning, by contrast, is being tried by his accusers. The accusers are judge and jury, and they write the rule book.

What's more, the court martial procedures used by the United States military do not comply with accepted international standards of justice. This was proven in the cases of Chris Vassey and Jules Tindungan, US Iraq War resisters living in Canada.

Calling Bradley Manning's court martial a trial connotes justice, fairness, and due process, where none exist.

6.07.2013

healthy slow cooker recipe of the week: thai peanut chicken

In defiance of current internet rules, I am posting this on my own blog instead of on Pinterest - but please feel free to share this on Pinterest if you like.

I'm going to post one slow-cooker recipe each week until I run out of ideas. Each recipe will use whole foods, be high in fibre and low in salt, and contain no processed foods of any kind. They'll also be easy to prepare.

Thai Peanut Chicken, adapted from The 150 Healthiest Slow Cooker Recipes on Earth, by Jonny Bowden and Jeannette Bessinger.

chicken drumsticks and thighs, on the bone but without skin
1 sweet onion, run through food processor
1 cup peanut-only peanut butter (i.e. no added salt, sugar, trans fats, or chemicals)
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup low-sodium tamari sauce
juice of 1 large or 3 small limes
4 cloves of garlic, crushed or minced
1 inch chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and grated or minced
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon red pepper (optional, I don't use this)

Brown chicken pieces, or omit this step. Put chicken in slow cooker.

Soften onions, put in slow cooker. If you browned the chicken, you can throw the onion in the same skillet so it cooks in the chicken residue.

In food processor or blender, or with hand mixer, combine all remaining ingredients until well blended.

Pour sauce into slow cooker and move chicken pieces around so that all are coated thoroughly.

Cook 4 hours on low.

Remove chicken and keep warm. Continue cooking sauce for 4 more hours on low. Return chicken to sauce for last half hour.

You could serve this with rice noodles or rice. I make a pot of brown rice, which is healthier and re-heats beautifully.

in which i remember what big life change feels like

Even though I'm following several important news stories - from the revelations about the massive NSA domestic spying campaign to the slow-motion implosion of the Conservative Party of Canada to the show-trial of Bradley Manning - I seem unable to blog about anything but my own life. I remember two other times when this happened: just before and just after we moved to Canada, and when I started grad school. Big Life Change has a way of swamping everything else.

Career changes are huge transitions, but librarianship is even more than a career change for me: it's an entire change of lifestyle. With the exception of a few years after graduating university and some scattered months here and there, my working life has been fluid and unconventional. As a writer, editor, and activist, I worked from home, and always had the flexibility of my own hours. The paid employment that subsidized that work was usually compressed into either weekends or evenings, and required very low commitment or personal involvement.

This means that for nearly 30 years, I've scheduled appointments at my own convenience, gone shopping or out to dinner without crowds, gone to the for a walk or swim in the middle of the day, and so on. I'm glad that public librarianship is not strictly a Monday to Friday, 9-5 job. I'll be working one or two evenings each week, plus every-other Saturday, and some Sundays. That means I'll have some time off during the week, and I like that. Plus, Allan is still working on weekends, and we need at least one day off together.

But still, I'm working a defined schedule, in a workplace, and figuring out how to fit the rest of my life around that. I'm working in a field that demands personal involvement, which means it can encroach into your non-work time - or take over, if your boundaries are weak.

* * * *

Much of what overwhelms me is my reluctance to work full-time. My position right now is 24 hours per week. With that, it's still possible to have outside interests (like activism) and have a balanced life, with free time and without a lot of pressure.

But as Allan and I get older, I feel it's important that I increase my income and have better job benefits. Also, I will want to advance in my field. This means that I will have to pursue full-time work.

And full-time work scares me. I fear I will not have enough down-time, or time to pursue other interests. I do not want work to be my life.

I know I will eventually sort this out. I'm just explaining what's on my mind these days.

* * * *

Sometimes my mind reels with questions, as it has done throughout this entire process, beginning with my decision to go to graduate school, back in 2009. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. When that happens, I take deep, slow breaths, focus on the present, remind myself I can't answer all the questions in advance, remind myself that the answers will become clear in time.

6.04.2013

in which i enjoy my first day as a librarian, and explain something about library work

Yesterday was my first day as a librarian! And it was great!

I'm only doing orientation and training right now, but I can tell how much I'm going to enjoy this job. I love the environment; I share the same goals and many of the same values. I have concerns, of course - this is not only a career change for me, it's a complete lifestyle change - but I'm not trying to answer every question in advance. I'm trusting that many issues will work themselves out over time. (Patience, the brighter side of aging.)

I'm back at the Central Library, in the Children's department (CNCS), where I started as a page in November 2011. After 14 months there, I worked briefly as a page in a branch library, then as a circulation clerk in a different branch. The branch experience was invaluable, and I'll want to have more of it one day. For now, though, I'm very happy to be back at CNCS.

I'll write more about my job as it develops. One thing I'm excited about: selection! Each librarian in CNCS is responsible for an area of selection for the entire system. One person does picture books, one does easy readers, one does junior fiction (chapter books), and so on.

By perfect happenstance, I've been assigned junior nonfiction. One of my library issues is that nonfiction is too often overlooked in readers' advisory - that library staff focuses solely on fiction, and forgets to offer nonfiction choices. I used to write junior non-fiction and I've always loved to read nonfiction, so this is a natural fit for me.

* * * *

My part-time librarian position is temporary: full-time librarian A went on maternity leave, part-time librarian B took A's position, and now I fill the part-time B's position. Ideally, a full-time librarian position will post in about six months, after I have some experience, and I'll compete successfully for that. If not, I have another job waiting for me, also in Central, as an "LA3B" in the "Reader's Den" department.

A what? What does that mean?

Something I learned in library school: most people you see working at a public library are not librarians. There are pages, of course - the people sorting and shelving books. In between the pages and the librarians, there are several levels of jobs called Library Assistants or Library Technicians (or something else), each level having more responsibility, requiring more experience and skills, and being better compensated.

In the Mississauga Library System, for example, the different levels are referred to by number: a Level 2 is a materials-processing clerk, a Level 3A is a circulation clerk, a Level 3B does reference and programming, a Level 4 does reference and programming and is a supervisor or "in-charge" person, a Level 5 can run a small branch or a department. Further up the hierarchy is the professional level, with a Master's degree in Library and Information Science as the key to admission. Within the professional level, there are librarians, senior librarians, and managers.

These days, there are fewer librarians in any given library, and you can guess why. Librarians are expensive. Increasingly, over the last decade or so, librarians are in managerial positions - involved in planning and decision-making, while the day-to-day implementation is handled by LAs/LTs.

This is not to say that librarians aren't involved in the daily operations of libraries. They definitely are. But, for example, in the branch I just left, in a typical day, there might be nine staff members present: one librarian who is the manager, one librarian at the desk, one "Level 4" at the desk, two "Level 3Bs" doing programs and helping out at the deks, three "Level 3As" on check-out and check-in, and one page.

This is depressing for people who've invested so much time and money in a Master's program. Despite the huge number of baby-boomer-age librarians retiring, few actual librarian positions become available.

But it's good news for general employment. The library (like the legal industry that I recently left) is one of the few remaining work environments where you can be trained on the job and wind up with decent employment, without an advanced degree. But - and it's a big but, a but that excludes many people - you'd have to be able to afford it. You'd start as a page earning minimum wage, then (if you're good and lucky) land an LA/LT position, where the hourly pay rate isn't bad, but you probably won't work full-time. How many people can afford to do that?

* * * *

Ten years ago, if you were in a public library and went to the reference desk with a question, chances are you would have spoken to a librarian. Not anymore. These days, those jobs have been downgraded - in the sense of education and salary level - and are now LAs or LTs. Whether through job cuts, like in the US or UK, or attrition, as is usually the case in Canada, the public face of the library is increasingly non-professional staff.

That LA or LT has, presumably, participated in training workshops conducted by librarians, has observed and assisted, has guidelines to follow, and so on. Is that enough? I go back and forth.

On the one hand, I learned precious little in my Master's program that is of any practical value. There was one reference course, which included a unit on readers' advisory. If you stripped that course of theory and academic bullshit, the librarian-led workshop probably serves the same purpose, or maybe exceeds it. And these jobs are highly competitive. The people who get them are (usually) really good. At a public library, most reference questions are fairly basic, and librarians and specialists should be available for more involved research.

On the other hand, part of me thinks the library itself has been diminished by these changes. There are people working reference desks who don't read, and who have never done research. They're great at customer service and programming, but their reference skills are limited. Bringing someone over to the general section they need should be only the first step. Offering ideas of where to go next, suggesting other avenues of research, teaching a customer how to use a database - does non-librarian staff dig in this way?

And still, on the other hand... public libraries are much more about customer service and programming than about reference. Programming is king: children's storytimes, teen poetry slams, an English conversation circle, a resume workshop, an older-adult social - and dozens more examples - is what makes the public library today. These programs are planned by librarians, but mostly led by non-professional staff, who are really good at their jobs.

It is, after all, public dollars we're spending. The savings isn't being funnelled into shareholders' dividends or lavish bonuses. We do have an obligation to keep costs down.

So I get it... but I have some reservations.


6.02.2013

thank you, jean stapleton

She was a great actor, a brilliant comedian, and the warm heart of one of the most memorable television shows of all time. "All in the Family" was a pioneering show, and she was an integral part of what it made it shine. She created a character that entire generations will never forget.

The New York Times obituary notes:
Jean Stapleton, the character actress whose portrayal of a slow-witted, big-hearted and submissive — up to a point — housewife on the groundbreaking series “All in the Family” made her, along with Mary Tyler Moore and Bea Arthur, not only one of the foremost women in television comedy in the 1970s but a symbol of emergent feminism in American popular culture, died on Friday at her home in New York City. She was 90.
You can watch full episodes of "All In The Family" on Crackle.

beatriz and savita are not exceptions: abortion bans kill

You may have heard of the latest anti-woman denail of basic human rights to make international news. A few months back there was Savita Halappanavar, who died in Ireland when she was denied a life-saving, medically necessary abortion. Now there is a woman known as "Beatriz" (not her real name) in El Salvador.

Beatriz has lupus, kidney disease, and severe hypertension. She is 22 years old, and she is, or was, pregnant. The fetus she carries is anencephalic (missing most of its brain) and cannot survive outside the womb. Eleven doctors have testified that Beatriz is likely to die if she is forced to continue the pregnancy.

Yet the laws of El Salvador do not permit Beatriz to terminate her pregnancy.

Beatriz took her plight to court.

The Supreme Court of El Salvador apparently so no urgency in this situation, and were slow in rendering a decision. Finally, on May 29, they voted to deny her abortion.

The following day, possibly in response to international outcry, El Salvador's Minister of Health allowed doctors to perform a cesarean section to terminate the pregnancy.

Think of your own life. Your own choices. Imagine judges and government officials having this kind of control over your body and your very life.

Imagine your life - legally and socially - is of no more value than that of a fetus with zero chance of survival.

Then imagine it's not even unusual.

And the final irony? In countries like El Salvador with total bans on abortions, the abortion rate is double, triple, or quadruple that in countries with more humane, ethical, and rationale abortion laws. The rate of abortion in Canada - where there is no abortion law - is among the lowest in the world. (All statistics from the World Health Organization and/or the Guttmacher Institute.)

But for the anti-choice fanatics, these numbers are meaningless, because limiting or ending abortion is nothing but a smokescreen. Their stated objective is saving the lives of future babies. But their real goal is limiting the rights and life choices of women. Keeping women slaves.

* * * *

Abortion in Latin America, via BBC, via WHO or Guttmacher:

* Abortion is completely banned in seven countries in Latin America: El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Chile, Honduras, Haiti, Suriname.

* Only Cuba, Guyana, Puerto Rico and Uruguay allow abortions beyond cases of rape, incest or threats to a woman's health.

* In 2012, Uruguay's congress voted narrowly to legalise abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

* In Mexico, only Mexico City has legalised abortion, during the first 12 weeks.

* Brazil's senate is currently debating the legalisation of terminations during the first 12 weeks.

* The estimated annual number of abortions in Latin America increased slightly between 2003 and 2008, from 4.1 million to 4.4 million, but the rate per 1,000 women remained steady.

* 95 percent of abortions in Latin America from 1995-2008 were considered to be unsafe.

* Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates, the WHO says. For example, the 2008 abortion rate was 32 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Latin America. In Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds, the abortion rate was 12 per 1,000.