Palestine is not so far

I am not an expert on Palestine. Unlike the articles dispensed by major news corporations or the sleek bite-sized clips shared between social media accounts, this essay suffers from a want of facts. Organizing a parade of bloodless numerals to signify the dates of atrocities or sums of murdered children holds no appeal for me. I do not think a statistic has ever really changed anyone’s mind. Still less am I Palestinian. I have never been there, have no familial ties, memories, or objects of sentimental value from that scarred country.

Americans encounter difficulties with the issue of Palestine. It could be a matter of geography. The Palestinian people are very far away from the United States. It strains the eye to perceive such faint outlines as distinct human shapes. But distance is not always measured by space. New York City feels closer to Tokyo or London than to Rochester. Nearness and farness depends upon this feeling and the particular ways we are made to feel it. Like a lazy surveyor, our politicians and media figures have devised methods for simply dictating distance. Here are some of the results: Canada is near. Mexico is far. America is near to something called the West (but straying farther every day!), yet words like “Potawatami” or “Ojibwe” sound strange and distant.

Palestine is entangled within this system of measurement. Some hazy region far beyond the borders of the United States gets lumped together into the “Middle East.” Every few years, we discover some parts of this region in need of freedom and democracy. This discovery tends to align with the discovery of resources which lie under the feet of the people who already happen to live there. These people are brown-skinned and like other sullen brown-skinned people they have been unreceptive to our well-meaning attempts to introduce freedom and democracy into their region: instead, they reach towards AK-47s and rocket launchers. Their women wear veils. Arabic script on black flags. Palestine is transcribed and rewritten through this idea. But out of all nations, America cannot claim to be unfamiliar with armed struggle against a colonial oppressor. The idea of Palestinian liberation could just as easily be understood alongside our own war for independence, yet it is not. It arrives on American soil tainted by images of black flags and veils.

The language of quantity appears more and more whenever we speak of Palestinians. News outlets are very careful not to make this mistake when they write about Israeli hostages and Israeli dead. We know their names, faces, life stories, we hear testimony from their close friends and family. They are real human beings whose lives have been tragically cut short. News presenters show compassion for these deaths, then adopt an air of scholarly objectivity about Al-Shifa Hospital. We read only statistics from the other side: hundreds of schools destroyed, tens of thousands killed, hundreds of thousands displaced. It is hard to remember that beneath this quantified layer, there still lies real, living people. They disappear under algebra. Quantification makes Palestine seem very distant, and it is difficult to feel empathy towards people who are very distant.

If the problem is distance, one solution is to bring Gaza home. Opening a social media app, a row of profile icons appears at the top of my screen. Each icon is surrounded by an inviting orange halo. I tap one of the icons at random. A montage of images and videos greets me. The Israeli retaliation to October 7th left a visual residue: blackened houses, fathers clutching bloodied children, doctors desperately outnumbered by patients. Gaza is in my palm now, Gaza is a few inches from my forehead and eyes. It has been brought to us with the greatest possible immediacy. For all this, Palestinians are not made any nearer. These images make us feel nauseated. But like hunger or exhaustion, this feeling is too instinctive. We try to rid ourselves of it as soon as possible through distraction or inward retreat. They are apolitical feelings. Politics requires a different kind of nearness. When we are near someone, it is their presence that we feel. We rejoice in another’s presence, because without this there is no community. 

James Baldwin once wrote that “One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience.” Though I cannot write as a Palestinian, I can still write about what I saw and heard a few days before Christmas in my hometown. 

A crowd at the intersection between Angela and Eddy Street, their chants cutting through the cold December morning. To the north stood the new art museum, beyond which sprawled the rest of Notre Dame’s campus. Starbucks faced the crowd to the south. From afar, they could have been carolers, reciting sacred hymns, swaying beside lamp posts garlanded with red bows and holly wreaths. Our congregants are gathered for another reason. They did not spend the time before Christmas buying gifts for their loved ones or preparing meals for their families. They have decided to stand against the slaughter of the weak by the strong in a country thousands of miles away from here.

A protest is a brief little community, gathered for one purpose, dispersed in the blink of an eye. No one knew who would show up, the signs people would bring, what chants would be heard. There is an unspoken agreement that what is happening here can only happen once. We let these moments pass by with great reluctance, leaving each with a surplus of meaning. The wind beats upon the unfurled flag and it waves in rhythm as Dammi Falastini plays on loudspeakers. The angles of signs and horizontal lines of banners and placement of bodies momentarily cohere to create a perfect composition. Bright faces chant for freedom, amazed at everyone else, who, like a miracle, each found their way towards each other, each knowing they were called to be here. A protest crescendos before it ends. Someone steps on the bench, striking it with the music, turning it into a makeshift drum, the crowd claps with him, a symphony. No fear or nausea or even anger anymore, we know that waits for us after, for now only joy, a defiant Palestinian joy. Chanting somewhere between song and prayer. “Free, Free Palestine.” 

At the height of the Occupy movement, Slavoj Zizek went down to Zuccotti Park to ask the protestors

What is the holy spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other, and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense, the holy spirit is here now. 

To consecrate means to make something holy, to set it apart for God. We were here. And we know the holy spirit must have been here, too. We have consecrated that place where Angela Boulevard meets Eddy Street. When you find yourself near that intersection, walk with care. You tread on sacred ground.

The rally was organized by Michiana Friends of Palestine. The Northern Indiana chapter of the DSA was also in attendance. When the semester starts up again, join Notre Dame’s Student Voices for Palestine.

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