Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Spirit of the Palestinians

The "Spirit of Humanity"... what a lovely name for a ship. Coincidentally, I had been contemplating on the meaning of the word "spirit" in a recent post. It is by definition a nebulous concept. When we speak of a spirit we speak of something unseen yet whose presence is somehow felt or sensed. In Christianity there is the mystery of the Holy Sprit,  which is embedded in the even greater mystery of the Trinity. And one cannot help but to associate spirit with ghosts and all the supernatural world that evokes. And then there is the word spiritual, which hints at something which is the essence of religion and our belief in something which is beyond our human comprehension.

Today I am reflecting on the fate of the passengers and crew of the Free Gaza ship, the Spirit of Humanity, which sought to bring needed supplies to the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip which has been under a siege by Israel. And this led me to think about the spirit of the Palestinians which inspired the voyage of the Spirit of Humanity. It is the Palestinians who have battled implacably against the Israeli occupation of their land. It is they who have maintained their dignity throughout this 60 year old saga. It is they who with their indefatigable will have been able to resist for decades against a seemingly insurmountable enemy.

In order to survive they have dug tunnels and built homes with mud bricks. But it is the quiet inner toughness which impresses me the most. The simple act of a Palestinian mother raising her child under the harshest of conditions. Or a Palestinian father's ability to continue to challenge the occupying powers with his head held high, while always knowing that his very life is at the mercy of the occupiers.

The other day I watched Bill Moyers as he interviewed his guest W. S. Merwin, a poet. And during that interview they had this exchange.
BILL MOYERS: I had a portent of our meeting the other day. We took our two small grandchildren to the Central Park Zoo. And entering the preserve they have there of the Rain Forest every visitor looks up and sees a quote from W.S. Merwin. Did you know that?


BILL MOYERS: Yeah. It says, "On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree." Why would you want to plant a tree?

W.S. MERWIN: It's a relation to the world. It's nothing to do with thinking that the world is going to be there forever. But that's a relation with the world that I want is to be putting life back into the world, rather than taking life out of it all the time. We do a lot of that, you know? I've lived on Maui for 35 years. And I feel very, very lucky.
For the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank, every day is like "the last day of the world". And yet they choose life. Isn't that amazing and wonderful, and a great example for all of us.

On board the Spirit of Humanity was an olive tree. The day that I finally realized the horrible injustice of the Israeli occupation was when I read in a news article that Israelis had destroyed the olive trees of some Palestinians. How can anyone destroy an innocent olive tree?  Somehow this impacted me more than if I had read about the Israelis killing the same Palestinians. A human being, any human being, can be guilty of something. But what can an olive tree be guilty of?

An olive tree can live for thousands of years and continue to bear fruit. Imagine generations upon generations tending and benefitting from the fruit of the same tree. An olive tree asks for little from the land - little water and little nutrition. And yet it returns the gift of the olive fruit and the oil that is extracted from it. The color and shape and appearance of the olive tree exudes humility. There is even a word for this - drab. It harms no one. Even in death its wood has an exquisite beauty. How could anyone think to harm such a humble creation of God? Surely this would be prohibited by any religion and subject the perpetrator of such a crime to a curse. Why is it that the ancient Greeks considered olive oil to be sacred and burned it in lamps in their temples, and that an olive branch is a symbol of peace?

If indeed there are spirits in nature, then surely the spirit of the land and the trees is calling out  to us in the Holy Land. Look at the Palestinians. Look at their towns. These are the people of the Bible. They live in harmony with the land.

And so I ask you to do anything you can to help the Palestinian people. And remember that fundamentally this is a war of ideas and ideologies. So talk to a friend. Write an article. Send a tweet. Participate in online discussions. Don't underestimate the importance of these seemingly insignificant acts. It is through these small actions that we slowly and gradually build up the zeitgeist that will eventually lead to practical and political actions. The spirit of humanity must be nourished if it is to bear fruit. Otherwise it will shrivel up and lay dormant, as it sometimes seems to be in today's world.

That is why I support the action of the Free Gaza movement. Theirs is an act of civil disobedience in the spirit of the non-violent struggles of the civil rights movement. And indeed in the spirit of the American philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau published "Civil Disobedience" in 1849 in which he discusses the subjects of slavery and the US invasion of Mexico in the 1840's. The relevance of his thoughts to the current situation in Palestine, Israel and the US is I think self-evident. So I leave you with these excerpts to ponder.

... when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country [Mexico] is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign [U.S.] army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.

If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.

I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-operate with, and do the bidding of those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless. We are accustomed to say, that the mass of men are unprepared; but improvement is slow, because the few are not materially wiser or better than the many. It is not so important that many should be as good as you, as that there be some absolute goodness somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump. There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both.  

Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair of him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought. Oh for a man who is a man, and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through! 

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?

If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn

As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. 

For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission.

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her — the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.

If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, "But what shall I do?" my answer is, "If you really wish to do anything, resign your office." When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man's real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.

But the rich man — not to make any invidious comparison — is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it. It puts to rest many questions which he would otherwise be taxed to answer; while the only new question which it puts is the hard but superfluous one, how to spend it. Thus his moral ground is taken from under his feet. The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the "means" are increased. The best thing a man can do for his culture when he is rich is to endeavor to carry out those schemes which he entertained when he was poor. 

I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it

When I meet a government which says to me, "Your money or your life," why should I be in haste to give it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society.

I do not wish to quarrel with any man or nation. I do not wish to split hairs, to make fine distinctions, or set myself up as better than my neighbors. I seek rather, I may say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this head; and each year, as the tax-gatherer comes round, I find myself disposed to review the acts and position of the general and State governments, and the spirit of the people, to discover a pretext for conformity.

Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?

The lawyer's truth is not truth, but consistency or a consistent expediency.

They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain-head.

We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation. They have no genius or talent for comparatively humble questions of taxation and finance, commerce and manufacturers and agriculture. If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations. For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds on the science of legislation?

The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to — for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well — is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

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