Can SF artists and activists liberate Palestine? We have to try

As the horrors suffered by the people of Palestine continue, artists and activists in San Francisco are fighting back by closing the Golden Gate Bridge, setting up encampments at UC Berkeley, graffitiing “Gaza” in the streets and blocking access to SFO . Yelled “¡Viva, Viva Palestine!” during a community theater performance.

Day and night they quietly think or loudly discuss issues of genocide and apartheid, talking about what it means to be Jewish, a Zionist, a Nazi, a war criminal, a terrorist, a Palestinian.

What can sometimes feel like a pointless exercise can be a critical invitation to action, to wake up and invite others to do the same, to speak out, to take action. Necessary roosters singing for a new dawn. Loud and annoying for many. Like real roosters are.

Where does the truth lie in this deeply divisive moment? Can we trust our government to ‘do the right thing’? President Joe Biden has long said, “If Israel didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it.” Isn’t that the clearest reason for the continued and nefarious support the US gives to the right-wing Israeli government? Biden’s line loudly implies that the US needs Israel to remain exactly where it was implanted, and therefore must maintain a beachhead position in that part of the world. To protect ‘our interests’. Our ‘way of life’.

By calling Israel ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, the US pretends to justify the unjustified. I believe that the term ‘democracy’ itself and its supposed goodness have become akin to religious dogma. It requires giving up asking questions, sacrificing our doubts in favor of our faith in democratic – and capitalist – systems as the only possible alternatives.

It’s a hard sell. The current state of our own democracy makes many skeptical. It only seems to work if you throw your money at it to keep that war machine running. Any war. An ongoing war. A war that distributes our best-selling product: weapons.

National ideologies try to convert us from an early age. A healthy questioning of ‘the established truth’ is condemned as potential betrayal. For the owners of most countries, a gullible and poorly educated population is easier to control and manipulate. It creates unfathomable alliances between the very rich and the very poor. Alliances that obviously favor the rich. The poorest, by supporting those who are in fact their class enemies, hope for magical solutions that can ‘trickle down’ to them.

A few years ago I showed a film in my “Issues in La Raza History” class I taught at San Francisco State University. It is called “La Operación” (“The Intervention” is an approximate translation). It is a heartbreaking film about the uninformed sterilization of women in Puerto Rico, that colony of the United States.

As the film ended, a heavy silence filled the air. Then that silence was broken by soft and not so silent sobs. The students looked at each other, some using tissues to wipe their tears or blow their noses. Then I asked the students if they could put into words what they were feeling.

Two young women with Puerto Rican roots looked at each other, waiting to see who would dare to speak first. Then they both started talking at the same time! That caused them to burst into necessary laughter, breaking the tension. Now they could talk.

“I had no idea that was happening!” I remember them saying. They were outraged. Disgusting. I asked them, “Now that you’ve seen that… that you’re moved to tears… that you’re so upset… do you think maybe you could do something about it?”

Someone else in the class intervened: “We have to protest!” Another: “Write letters to our representatives!” Another person: “There will be a demonstration next weekend! It is not about Puerto Rico… but is a protest against the American armed intervention in Panama! I’m going!”

The young women looked at each other for a moment and then said enthusiastically: “¡Vamos! Let’s go!” As they made plans, the students no longer seemed burdened by feelings of sadness or powerlessness.

This is how many of us feel today when we see what is happening in Palestine. Just like those students did yesterday, today we are looking for a way – one way or the other – to beat impotence.

Protests are one way. Art is another. Whatever we do, we have to do it daily, and at different levels. Let’s stop the flow of traffic to open the flow of necessary conversations.

A theater production also helps. A poem? Or perhaps a song we write and sing with hundreds of other people who also need to learn new ways to cry – or laugh – in these truly alarming and heartbreaking times.

Ignorance is not bliss! Neither is silence. Let’s talk and co-create, every day.

Once awake it is difficult to fall asleep again.