"Were I Human"

"Were I Human"

Ariel: Your charm so strongly works 'em.
That if you now beheld them, your affections
would become tender.

  PROSPERO
Dost thou think so, spirit?

 ARIEL
Mine would, sir, were I human[1].

Nita Schechet, a feminist literary scholar and peace and human rights activist passed away last November. I was deeply saddened by her untimely death not only because I knew her personally, but because she died before her writing and scholarship received proper recognition. I decided to write this blog post as a tribute to her contribution to the world of actively political literary critique. I wish I had thanked her sooner for the profound and wise way in which she wrote about the catalytic role that literary texts play in our work for social transformation. From the minute I first opened her book Disenthralling Ourselves: Rhetoric of Revenge and Reconciliation in Contemporary Israel[2], it felt like it was written especially for me. It is a book of artful intertextuality that pays tribute to texts – literary, scholarly and other forms of human discourse – from Shakespeare's Tempest, to Rachel Tzvia Back's On Ruins and Returns[3], and Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope[4]

Schechet's book title is inspired by Abraham Lincoln's address to the US Congress on December 1st, 1862, where he called for the emancipation of the slaves:

 “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Lincoln called upon the American people to hold themselves to higher moral standards, to re-create themselves as a nation.

Writing is a form of creation. In writing, we take that all-too-familiar raw material called words to create new meaning. Writing about Nita Schechet is my way of recognizing and appreciating her scholarly legacy; it is my way to make a small contribution to a body of works that seeks to make this world a better place.

Oh. And how our world needs healing right now. In times of politics of hate, racism and misogyny, of politics that mocks the rule of law and the values of justice and equality, our world is in desperate need of politics of profound humanity.

Humanity. This is what Schechet's book is about. It is about the human potential capacity to hold itself to high moral standards; about humanity as that which urges us to disenthrall ourselves of violent and oppressive behaviors deeply rooted in a culture of victimhood and revenge.

Schechet wrote about the moral imagination as vital to achieving social transformation. Moral imagination requires two essential ingredients: first, the capacity to imagine a shared future good, even when it is out of sight, and second: the capacity for empathy and compassion. She believed that active reading of literary texts and narratives serves to spark moral imagination and foster communal resilience that can facilitate the transition from a culture of victimhood and revenge towards a culture of reconciliation:

"The catalyst for the essential change from collective repetition-memory to the recollection memory of reconciliation is the development of a moral imagination through active reading".

Rachel Tzvia Back, a wonderful Israeli poet gave me Nita's book as a gift. It dedicates a whole chapter to Back's second book of poems On Ruins and Returns that she wrote during the terrible years of the second Intifada.

Back's poetry is profoundly compassionate; her poems are woven with the deep concern for the safety and well-being of her own children, as well as for those of other mothers, Jewish and Palestinian. And at the same time, her poetry takes no mercy on its readers; it is a poetry that focuses its gaze on the death, loss and excruciating pain that are part and parcel of every war. Back's poetic language takes the dust off the worm out words; it caresses them with a loving, firm hand, and gives them back their full and deep meaning. Death, in Back's poetry is very graphic: dismembered bodies, blood, human tissues and nails scattered in the battlefield:

Soldiers on their knees in the sand

Mothers watching

soldiers on their knees

sifting and searching for body parts

do not think of next worlds

they think only of

lost worlds

I hope that after reading this blog post, you will want to read Rachel Tzvia's Back poetry and Nita Schechet's book. I hope that every elected politician that tells the world that "the next war in Gaza is inevitable" and every elected politician who will support this statement will read Back's poetry and be reminded of the devastating, tragic, shattering, wounded and bleeding meaning of war.

[1] Shakespeare, William: The Tempest, Act V, scene I
[2] Schechet, Nita. Disenthralling Ourselves: Rhetoric of Revenge and Reconciliation in Contemporary Israel, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009
[3] Back, Rachel Tzvia. On Ruins and Return. London: Shearsman Books, 2007
[4] http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674027466

Passover: a Journey Through Tradition and Change

Passover always brings with it memories of smells and tastes and sights and sounds.

The smell of cooking and cleaning.

The taste of the gefilte fish that Grandmother Luba, may she rest in peace, used to make, that we will never taste again.

The sight of the shiny patent-leather shoes that I wasn’t allowed to wear until the night of the Seder.

The sounds of the reading of the Hagada, the songs, the family jokes that we tell year after year.

overcoming2

Memories….

The imperative, “and you shall tell it to your son” takes on a new meaning, as Daniel, my first born, sits on my knees for his first Seder, nine months old, smiling and enchanting.

My private exodus from Egypt, several years later, with a small suitcase and a shattered heart.

The first time that I took Na’ama, my daughter, to buy shoes for the holiday, so that she could stand tall and proud on a chair as she recited the four questions.

And the questions that repeat, year after year.  Why are women absent from the Hagada, and why are the answers to “How is this night different” always the same.  And what should I tell my son and daughter – what have I done to make a difference since last Passover?

And so, I wish everyone a happy holiday.  May this be a good holiday, celebrated with loved ones, and may you lack for nothing.  And, this holiday, as we sit around the table, we will ask, “How is this night different,” but we won’t be satisfied with the same answers.  Because there are many who are still waiting for an exodus from their own personal Egypt.  Because slavery has not been banished from the universe and freedom has not been distributed evenly to all.

May we be part of those who make a difference.

breakfree

My People

The plane finally landed at Oakland Airport. Only a short trip from there to the home of Akaya Windwood, the President of Rockwood Leadership Institute. I traveled all the way to California to participate in a Rockwood Art of Leadership Seminar, as part of a process of exploring the idea to bring the program to Israel. .
I have never met Akaya before. We spoke on the phone a couple of times and exchanged e-mails, and she invited me to stay with her over the weekend, before the seminar. The taxi drove up a peaceful street, and pulled over just as Akaya came out of the house to greet me, a tall, beautiful woman. I was so happy to finally meet her, and we embraced as if we were long time friends. I felt like I was home away from home.
The Art of Leadership seminar started on Monday afternoon. I was the oldest participant in the room, and the only one from Israel. It was March 2009. America was in love with its new black President, while in Israel; Benjamin Netanyahu was putting together another coalition. On that first evening, we stood in a circle, 24 people from different places, races, religions and genders, and with endless stories to share. Our two amazing trainers, Helen Kim and Toby Herzlich, asked us to say: who are my people?
– My people are my family…
– My people are my family and friends…
– My people are my friends and colleagues who are working to end racism and prejudice…
– My people are all those fighting for justice and equality…
The seminar was a truly transformative experience. I experienced a whole spectrum of emotions; I felt the pain of revelation, I shed some tears, and was inspired, and curious; I learned a great deal about my own leadership, my privilege, my responsibility. I discovered myself through the eyes of people I have just met, but I had to trust them to share their wisdom with me, and let me share mine with them. For four intense days they were “My People”, as we all shared in an experience of learning and discovery. It’s been five years since then, and what I learned there about myself, about leadership and about social change is still alive within me, like a potent “suspended release” medicine, that runs through my veins, through my system of values and beliefs.
And the learning and revelation continued, in the four years in which I was the program Director for the Rockwood Art of Collaborative Leadership for Social Change in Israel, thanks to the generous support of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Social Justice Fund. I met amazing people, our participants; so dedicated and passionate about their work, even when it gets so frustrating, challenging and downright unthankful. I met people who represent such a rich diversity of ethnic, national, gender, cultural and political identities. Each and every single one of them holds a special place in my heart. Our alumni in Israel, along with many other remarkable people I met during my 25 years in working for social change, are “My People”. I wish I could name each and every one of them, but the list will so long. My people are the feminist activists and professionals who never take a break to breath; my people are the human rights and peace people; the environmentalists, and those working to keep Judaism pluralistic and inclusive, and those fighting against racism and injustice, and all of those who insist to end the occupation. My people are kind. They are my kind of people.
And each and every one of them has a voice, loud and clear, complex and fascinating; a voice that holds a richness of identities, of stories, of affiliations. My people give me hope, despite the ill winds that keep blowing in our country, despite legislation initiatives that threaten to deepen the rifts between Jews and Palestinians. They give me hope, because I know that there are people, amazing people, who work to bring people together, to create circles of conversations, to create spaces for shared living.
It gives me great pleasure to host my people on my blog. And this time, I invite you to gather around an imagined fire place, or an imagined town hall, and listen to two of our Rockwood graduates in Israel: Shahad Abu-Hamad, a Palestinian pre-school teacher, a special education fairy godmother, and Prof. Daphna Golan. A Jewish scholar and educator, a magician in her own way, and the founder of the Academy-Community Partnership.

storyteller2The Storyteller, Illustration by Daniel Gouri de Lima

Power Failure/Shahad Abu-Hamad

Power failure
Darkness
Waiting for the light
Power failure
Painful memories
And people’s stories

System overload
Power failure
Pouring rain
Thunders roaring
The voices of whole nations
System overload
Power failure
Paralyzing thunders
And the rain washes away painful memories
Feeds a new scent of hope
A scent of love

Power failure
Darkness
Hot and cold
Will you make up your mind already…
Don’t say it’s impossible
We are out of words
Silence
Power failure.

This powerful poem was written at the end of a whirlwind week of the Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day that were followed by a rain storm, in early May.

Learning with students, Acting for Change: a TED talk by Prof. Daphna Golan, Founding Director, Academy-Community Partnership

http://youtu.be/uvEwl2PHDgE