‘Shukran! So great to feel connected to Gaza. Peace through art. Keep going. Keep spreading peace and love.’ Comment by participant at the HERE THERE EVERYWHERE events
From 7th -11th November 2017 Az Theatre curated an exhibition and ran a series of events at P21 Gallery in London. The occasion was the presentation by our partners, Theatre for Everybody in Gaza, of their stage adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace. The exhibition brought together work by Tanya Habjouqa (photographer), Taysir Batniji (Video artist), Hazem Harb (performance video artist), Palestine History Tapestry Project, Laila Kassab (painter) and the Palestine Regeneration Team. The events video-linked publics and experts in London with: the ‘War & Peace’ company in Gaza; with contributors to the book, Gaza as Metaphor; with mothers in Gaza attending a workshop organised by the Maan Development Agency; with school teachers (including the National President and members of the executive of the National Union of Teachers section of the National Education Union); with women activists from Gaza and from Jazir province in the autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (aka Rojava); with human rights activists and specialists in the study of genocide; with filmmakers who worked on a film about the first intifada (1987-1990) in Gaza; with students of Shakespeare; with the filmmaker of Ambulance, a film about paramedics in the 2014 Gaza war, with paramedics, psychotherapists and mental health specialists, public health experts, environmentalists and poets.
We decided to run such an extensive programme of work in order to help break down barriers between people working in different fields and to offer to other constituencies the kind of immediate working contact that Az Theatre has developed with Theatre for Everybody during our Gaza Drama Long Term project. This is a ten-year (2009-2019) partnership aimed at undermining the blockade of Gaza through friendship, solidarity and creativity. This decision was inspired and furthered by the idea of intersectionality.
I would like to make clearer why this idea is important to me. As I do so I have to admit that I am not knowledgeable about, or well-read in, black feminist thinking nor in critical race theory from which this idea developed. That’s not to say that I will never be but I don’t want to wait until I’m adept before talking about how this idea has struck me. I first came across it in Angela Y Davis’ book Freedom is a Constant Struggle. In this book Angela Y Davis talks about how limiting it is to describe struggles like that of the Palestinian people for justice, or that of indigenous people to protect their land against incursions by multinational oil corporations, or that of black people in many parts of the world against police and judicial violence, as being disconnected from each other. Intersectionality insists on the specifics of a given movement and opens up that which links it to other movements. For example, in a leaked document from a conference organised by an Israeli government-related think-tank it is clear that this ability to connect the Palestinian cause with other social movements was a matter of considerable concern for those committed to sustaining the Zionist project. The report from the conference in April 2017 specifically identifies ‘intersectionality’ as a threat and described it as a major factor in the failure of the Israeli state to counter the BDS movement. The success of the Palestinian solidarity movement was to a major extent attributed to the fact that this struggle had been adopted as ‘symbolic’ in the struggle of many groups and movements for justice and freedom.
Being able to see how the issue of Palestinian freedom relates to a widespread series of interconnected concerns, including ‘humanitarianism’ and the constitution of the ‘international community’, is realistic from the point of view of current political imagination. Giving full weight to the actuality and detail of what Palestinians are engaged with, whether they are in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Israel, in Jordan, in Lebanon and in the other countries of the world to which they have been dispersed, is completely in tune with seeing the impossibility of considering their situation in isolation. Of course their situation is special but it becomes indescribable if similarities, resonances and connections are pushed out of the picture. Of course this is true of many, if not all, of the issues that connect with that of the Palestinians. This is more than saying that they are not alone from the point of view of active solidarity and there is no need to insist – although this may a certain times be useful – that this unity is built on the identification of a common enemy, be it ‘neo-liberalism’ or ‘corporate capitalism’ or ‘neo-imperialism’.
Our events in November were not specifically designed to address questions at this level of generality but they offered an invitation to shift the narrative, to alter the field of play. By addressing people here in London and in Gaza as artists, teachers, parents, environmentalists, filmmakers, activists, paramedics, public health experts, Shakespeare students, poets, human rights activists, architects we were constructing an alternative conception to that which would describe people only as Palestinians (or as English or white or black) therefore seeming to impose identity as a kind of fate presenting people as passive victims. Intersectionality offers us the opportunity of seeing the connection between different movements and struggles as well as seeing the complexity of how we are as human beings. It is the dynamic interaction between the connectivity linking issues and movements and the vision of human beings as relational creatures, making ourselves and each other through a multiplicity of relationships, encounters, groups and institutions, that makes intersectionality so welcome. I am grateful for this idea that can clarify and advance specificity and difference while holding and embracing connection and generality.
For me there are two uses of ‘intersectionality’. One is to gain insight, from its connective capability, into political and social movement(s). The other is to gain insight, from its cohesive capability, into more fully imagining human beings. Of course even more intriguing is what might be the connection between these capabilities.
The general political discourse of our society is almost hopelessly limited to relating the worth of a policy to its immediate benefits for a given sector or group of people. The reduction of politics to a narrow idea of economics is a signature of neo-liberalism. This ideology also articulates a rigidity in the relationship between the governors and the governed. At the same time it obscures the interconnections between ‘home’ policy and ‘foreign’ policy. For example, let’s imagine that a government is elected whose main election promise is to restructure the relationship of the UK to Israel/Palestine. The new policy is designed to bring pressure on Israel to conform with international law and the United Nations resolutions relating to its activities. The UK would commit itself to impose sanctions unilaterally and to open channels of support and communication with the worldwide Palestinian community on the basis of the right of return. The government would encourage civil society solidarity contacts with all constituencies and sectors of Palestinian and Israeli society that were active in pressurising the Israeli state to conform with international law, ending the occupation of territories outside the internationally agreed partition borders of 1948. Although the demands behind this policy are perfectly reasonable it is clear that such a policy initiative in the present circumstances is impossible. A lot of other factors in the circumstances would have to change and, unlike, say, re-nationalisation of the railways or de-privatisation and increased public finance for the health service, which appear to be policy options that are programmatically unlinked, a change in policy towards Palestine/Israel appears unlikely unless there are other consequential changes such as decoupling the UK from US Middle East regional strategies, re-organising military and ‘security’ co-operation with ‘traditional’ allies in the EU/NATO, distancing the UK from the ‘axis of evil’ neo-conservative strategic agenda of the US. A change in policy towards Palestine/Israel would alter the conversation between the UK, Russia and China.
However such a change would have to have engaged with popular opinion in the UK. How could a popular consensus for such a change come about without it being connected to policy changes relating to issues closer to home? Whereas the issue of Palestine/Israel may not be a lynchpin of wider policy change it is related to questions of racism, democracy, environmental sustainability, economic development and growth, freedom of movement, human rights and social justice. Given a little thought it is clear that this policy would have to be a part of a wide-ranging alteration that would break the UK’s relationship to the neoliberal consensus of the ‘international community’. The risk would be, unless a critical number of other nation-states also changed their policy the UK would be isolated and there may be some kind of speculative attacks on the currency, the imposition of sanctions and attempts through the international security and intelligence ‘community’ to undermine the UK government.
My argument is that this change would only be fully possible if there was something amounting to a paradigm shift in ‘home’ and ‘foreign’ policy. However I’m not saying that activism on the Palestine/Israel issue should be suspended until all the necessary co-ordinates are in place for overall political change. I am simply pursuing the political wisdom enunciated by Nelson Mandela’s insight that: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians” . I am searching out the definition of the connection of our freedom with that of the Palestinians. Neither is it necessary to say that that the Palestinians’ struggle for justice is the unique emblem of the struggle for human freedom nor is it true to say that the oppressor, in all instances, is the same, as if there is some central source of domination that, if discovered and expunged, will bring love, joy and peace to the Earth.
It is not always wise to focus too strongly on what might appear to be a common enemy. However, there remains the question of whether ideologies, in order to be cohesive, have common underlying thematics that can link, though affinity and correspondence, a multiplicity of human activities, attitudes, mentalities and beliefs. Without believing that systems of belief move in perfectly-formed phalanxes it is possible to see how ideas and institutions have coherent internal rhymes and external structural symmetries. I have generally expressed this unifying coherence by referring to ‘an image of the human’. This basic idea of humanity is problematic because it can give the illusion of an absolute essence, an irreducible quality that announces itself as ‘the human’. These views of the human can be and must be subjective, reflexive and circumscribed. For example, definitions or even perceptions of ‘the human’ can be subtended by ‘the subhuman’ or ‘the superhuman’. It is clearly no good appealing to the delusions of common sense in this instance. There may be as many definitions of ‘the human’ as there are human beings. Let’s say that an historically and culturally circumscribed ideology is held together by ‘an image of the human’ and one of the ways in which they operate is by providing representations (attitudes, beliefs and events) through which people can recognise themselves, and can even engender a sense of belonging. The most obvious example of this is homo economicus, the ‘image of the human’ that lies at the core of neoliberalism, in other words, the notion that human beings are rational, self-interested, utility-seeking entities. Of course we know that the operationalisation of this idea drives people to exhibit the features that affirm and continue to sustain the system and that this happens, like in any social system, by the internalisation or ‘living through’ of those values. This I believe brings us close to understanding the connection between the two aspects of intersectionality that I referred to.
What is it that makes a human being see in another’s oppression the lineaments of their own? This is the sinew and lifeblood of solidarity between people and it is a deep recognition that so often moves people into action for change, not because of what is happening to them but because of what is happening to somebody else. Political and social institutions are the crystallisations of these urges in people. What seems to happen is that institutions and social structures are constantly refreshed and re-enforced but also can become bereft of credibility and no longer accord with how people see themselves, not only individually but collectively. Of course in periods of change there are defining issues which express a much more general movement and it seems unlikely that the issue of Palestine/Israel will assume this crucial defining role in any social movement in the UK. However, this idea shouldn’t be discounted. Things are strange.
For example, the announcement by Donald Trump that the US will recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel seems at first sight like a ghastly imposition of raw power and a major setback for the cause of peace and justice. I don’t welcome it. But since Trump is generally associated with white supremacist racist views and some of his supporters have expressed anti-jewish views and because the ideological base from which he has emerged is a ruling establishment that have historically united a discrimination against jews with a discrimination against black people, his ‘offer’ to the Israelis may even to them seem like a poisoned chalice. Trump is uniting the opposition against him. Of course this is dangerous because it also means that his supporters become cornered, their animus intensifies, their fear of loss increases and the corner they are in looks similar to the corner that the US is knocking itself into ‘on the world stage’.
At times it feels as if we are living through an epic the subject of which is the passing away of a whole way of life or system of human organisation. This story often reminds me of Shakespeare’s Richard III. This play depicts a figure who is at the threshold of the inauguration of the Tudor dynasty, the final unification of the English ‘kingdom’ after the civil wars of the preceding period, the wars that pitched different factions of the landowning classes with their warlord leaders against each other in the struggle for dominance. Since Shakespeare was concerned with a celebration of the Tudor regime which was founded through the victory in battle by the grandfather (Henry VII) of the monarch that dominated his times (Elizabeth I) his depiction of the key figure (Richard III) of the old regime was like devil who through his outrageous and ostentatious wickedness eventually united all against him so that, with his destruction, all the evil that he had gathered into himself was also destroyed. The movement of the play based on a kind of primitive ritual drama of exorcism has a physiological metaphor at its centre and it is as if by Richard’s death on the battlefield of Bosworth Field (deserted even by his horse, his own mother turned against him halfway through the play) a poisonous boil is lanced and the body politic is cured. Richard flagrantly embodies and personifies all that was wrong, corrupt, dishonest, venal and murderous in the old regime and by his removal a political and social rebirth could take place.
If only political movement were as simple and enjoyable as this brilliant play. Our social and political history has been haunted by the desire for this simple drama, wherein the execution of the king (whether in public or behind closed doors) delivers renewal. It has proven to be an illusion and this illusion has hidden the emergence of real problems. It has usually turned out that the institutional mold far outlives the individuals that enact them. I say this as somebody that would like to see the abolition of the monarchy. Anyway, the point I’m making is that the arrival of leaders like Trump (Italy, being a more advanced society, came up with Berlusconi some time ago) is a sign of the desperation of the ruling elites of a political order that is on its last legs. Trump appears so like the paper tiger that Mao Zedong described as personifying imperialism. That his nemesis might be the regime that Mao played such a key part in creating may haunt his dreams, if he has the imaginative capacity to dream clearly.
Unity will not come solely from opposition to Trump. All I am pointing out is how policies on issues that are not obviously central to a given constituency can have symbolic importance and can act as a conduit connecting up the relationship between ideologies and strategic outcomes. I believe intersectionality gives a powerful optic into this connectivity and sheds light on the nature of political regimes. But also it offers us a pluralistic way of looking at ourselves and our fellow human beings, not as singular predictable representative entities but as complex beings intersected, that is to say made, by different and various interactions. This is what makes it possible for me to say at certain moments that I am a Viking but also at another to say I am a Palestinian (certainly no less credible than when John Kennedy told the crowds ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’).
I am happy that AzTheatre organised the HERE THERE EVERYWHERE events at P21 Gallery. Working with visual arts opened up a dimension in our work that relates to imagining what can be brought together in a creative space. The Gallery is keen to further the work we started. The next phase of the Gaza Drama Long Term project has as yet to be decided upon. The performances of War & Peace in Gaza that have been received with such enthusiasm will be coming to an end soon. We are all thinking about what to do next.