Besides writing the book, Busy Dying,
Hilton Obenzinger is a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who now teaches writing at Stanford University. Following is the text of a recent email interview with Busy Dying author Obenzinger. (See below for part 1).
Why do you think anti-war students at Columbia University in 1968 did not also protest against the U.S. government's support for Israeli militarism in 1968?
Hilton Obenzinger: When the 1967 war broke out I was very confused and conflicted and ignorant. To illustrate: Edward Said was my teacher but I didn’t know he was a Palestinian – I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Palestinian. I didn’t even know he was an Arab – I thought he was Jewish!
We later became friends and colleagues in terms of literary studies and working on Palestinian rights, and we joked about that moment.
I stayed up one night during the war, upset about it, and in the early dawn sat on the Sundial in the center of the campus to read the NY Times, weeping. Wasn’t Israel sort of socialist? Weren’t they advanced, democratic and progressive? Why did the Arabs want “to push the Jews into the sea”?
My moment of awakening was in 1969 when Moshe Dayan went to Vietnam on a fact-finding tour and offered complete support for the US war. This was cognitive dissonance in a big way – and I either had to be consistent with my principles or begin fudging them out of some sense of ethnic loyalty (and fudging became the process for many progressive, anti-war, pro-civil rights Jews, trying to support their principles while apologizing for Israel – ultimately, an untenable position).
When I taught on the Yurok Indian reservation in 1969-70 I began a process of understanding settler colonial societies. In the 1970s, I studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sympathizing with the Palestinians as a national liberation movement, and I began to speak out.
Then, in the mid Seventies, I was working with the American Indian Movement, and I was going to collaborate with the Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz on a book on how history made it so that we both ended up in California. Simon quickly realized he had to get the hell out of California, and he returned to New Mexico where he wrote a terrific book about his early experiences working in uranium mines.
I ended up writing This Passover or the Next I Will Never Be in Jerusalem, a collection of poems and sketches about Jews, Indians, and Palestinians that invokes a Jewish American sensibility free of Zionist assumptions – and that became the basis for my support of Palestinian rights. While writing that book I helped to establish a Jewish group in the Bay Area in order to protest the Israeli occupation and to provide a clear ideological alternative to the Zionist consensus that even held the left in thrall.
The book received the American Book Award, and I was invited to campuses to speak about what it means to be a Jewish American critical of Israel and Zionism. At this point I would be regularly attacked as a “self-hating Jew” and would have my life threatened.
That book appeared in 1980, and in 1981 I was invited to Beirut as part of an American delegation to the PLO to investigate the bombing attack by the Israelis on Fakhani, in downtown Beirut, a prelude to the 1982 invasion.
From that point Palestine became the focus of my political work through the first intifada, and eventually the “Holy Land” and the study of comparative settler colonial societies became the main interest in my scholarly research, which culminated in the cultural and literary study American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania, and continues today with a book I am working on called Melting Pots and Promised Lands: Zionism and the Idea of America.
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