Shailja Patel. patterned sari border
 About/Press KitWorkMigritudeBlogNews/AwardsCalendar ShopContact Shailja
decorative pattern

Be a part of Migritude's journey.
No contribution is too small - or too large. $2 buys coffee for a volunteer. $15 rents a rehearsal studio for an hour. $100 covers 2 hours of lighting / tech / set design. $500 helps fly Shailja to international festivals!!

You can also make a tax-deductible donation by check. Please email for details.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

the case for boycotting Israel

This is the best, most comprehensive piece I've read showing the similarities between apartheid South Africa and Israel. Virginia Tilley is a professor of political science, a US citizen working in South Africa, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock (University of Michigan Press and Manchester University Press, 2005). She can be reached at

This piece appears in this weekend's edition of Counterpunch, an excellent source for progressive political writing.

The Case for Boycotting Israel
Boycott Now!


Johannesburg, South Africa.

It is finally time. After years of internal arguments, confusion, and dithering, the time has come for a full-fledged international boycott of Israel. Good cause for a boycott has, of course, been in place for decades, as a raft of initiatives already attests. But Israel's war crimes are now so shocking, its extremism so clear, the suffering so great, the UN so helpless, and the international community's need to contain Israel's behavior so urgent and compelling, that the time for global action has matured. A coordinated movement of divestment, sanctions, and boycotts against Israel must convene to contain not only Israel's aggressive acts and crimes against humanitarian law but also, as in South Africa, its founding racist logics that inspired and still drive the entire Palestinian problem.

That second goal of the boycott campaign is indeed the primary one. Calls for a boycott have long cited specific crimes: Israel's continual attacks on Palestinian civilians; its casual disdain for the Palestinian civilian lives "accidentally" destroyed in its assassinations and bombings; its deliberate ruin of the Palestinians' economic and social conditions; its continuing annexation and dismemberment of Palestinian land; its torture of prisoners; its contempt for UN resolutions and international law; and especially, its refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. But the boycott cannot target these practices alone. It must target their ideological source.

The true offence to the international community is the racist motivation for these practices, which violates fundamental values and norms of the post-World War II order. That racial ideology isn't subtle or obscure. Mr. Olmert himself has repeatedly thumped the public podium about the "demographic threat" facing Israel: the "threat" that too many non-Jews will - the horror - someday become citizens of Israel. It is the "demographic threat" that, in Israeli doctrine, justifies sealing off the West Bank and Gaza Strip as open-air prisons for millions of people whose only real crime is that they are not Jewish. It is the "demographic threat," not security (Mr. Olmert has clarified), that requires the dreadful Wall to separate Arab and Jewish communities, now juxtaposed in a fragmented landscape, who might otherwise mingle.

"Demographic threat" is the most disgustingly racist phrase still openly deployed in international parlance. It has been mysteriously tolerated by a perplexed international community. But it can be tolerated no longer. Zionist fear of the demographic threat launched the expulsion of the indigenous Arab population in 1948 and 1967, created and perpetuates Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, inspires its terrible human rights abuses against Palestinians, spins into regional unrest like the 1982 attack on Lebanon (that gave rise to Hezbollah), and continues to drive Israeli militarism and aggression.

This open official racism and its attendant violence casts Israel into the ranks of pariah states, of which South Africa was the former banner emblem. In both countries, racist nationalist logic tormented and humiliated the native people. It also regularly spilled over to destabilize their surrounding regions (choc-a-block with "demographic threats"), leading both regimes to cruel and reckless attacks. Driven by a sense of perennial victimhood, they assumed the moral authority to crush the native hordes that threatened to dilute the organic Afrikaner/Jewish nations and the white/western civilization they believed they so nobly represented.

A humiliated white society in South Africa finally gave that myth up. Israel still clings to it. It has now brought Israel to pulverize Lebanon, trying to eliminate Hezbollah and, perhaps, to clear the way for an attack on Iran. Peace offers from the entire Arab world are cast aside like so much garbage. Yet again, the Middle East is plunged into chaos and turmoil, because a normal existence -- peace, full democracy -- is anathema to a regime that must see and treat its neighbors as an existential threat in order to justify the rejectionism that preserves its ethnic/racial character and enables its continuing annexations of land.

Why has this outrageously racist doctrine survived so long, rewarded by billions of dollars in US aid every year? We know the reasons. For too many Westerners, Israel's Jewish character conflates with the Holocaust legacy to make intuitive sense of Israel's claim to be under continual assault. Deep-seated Judeo-Christian bias against Islam demonizes Israel's mostly Muslim victims. European racist prejudice against Arabs (brown-skinned natives) casts their material dispossession as less humanly significant. Naïve Christian visions of the "Holy Land" naturalize Jewish governance in biblical landscapes. Idiot Christian evangelistic notions of the Rapture and the End Times posit Jewish governance as essential to the return of the Messiah and the final Millennium (even though, in that repellent narrative, Jews will roast afterwards).

All those notions and prejudices, long confounding international action, must now be set aside. The raw logic of Israel's distorted self-image and racist doctrines is expressed beyond confusion by the now-stark reality: the moonscape rubble of once-lovely Lebanese villages; a million desperate people trying to survive Israeli aerial attacks as they carry children and wheel disabled grandparents down cratered roads; the limp bodies of children pulled from the dusty basements of crushed buildings. This is the reality of Israel's national doctrine, the direct outcome of its racist worldview. It is endangering everyone, and it must stop.

Designing the Campaign

Much debate has circulated about a boycott campaign, but hitherto it has not moved beyond some ardent but isolated groups. Efforts have stalled on the usual difficult questions: e.g., whether a boycott is morally compulsory to reject Israel's rampant human rights violations or would impede vital engagement with Israeli forums, or whether principled defense of international law must be tempered by (bogus) calls for "balance". Especially, recent debate has foundered on calls for an academic boycott. Concerns here are reasonable, if rather narrow. Universities offer vital connections and arenas for collaboration, debate, and new thinking. Without such forums and their intellectual exchange, some argue, work toward a different future is arguably impeded.

But this argument has exploded along with the southern Lebanese villages, as Israeli university faculties roundly endorse the present war. As Ilan Pappé has repeatedly argued, Israel's universities are not forums for enlightened thought. They are crucibles of reproduction for racist Zionist logics and practice, monitoring and filtering admissible ideas. They produce the lawyers who defend the occupation regime and run its kangaroo "courts"; the civil planners and engineers who design and build the settlements on Palestinian land; the economists and financiers who design and implement the grants that subsidize those settlements; the geologists who facilitate seizure of Palestinian aquifers; the doctors who treat the tortured so that they can be tortured again; the historians and sociologists who make sense of a national society while preserving official lies about its own past; and the poets, playwrights, and novelists who compose the nationalist opus that glorifies and makes (internally, at least) moralistic sense of it all.

Those of us who have met with Jewish Israeli academics in Israeli universities find the vast majority of them, including well-meaning liberals, operating in a strange and unique bubble of enabling fictions. Most of them know nothing about Palestinian life, culture, or experience. They know strangely little about the occupation and its realities, which are crushing people just over the next hill. They have absorbed simplistic notions about rejectionist Arafat, terrorist Hamas, and urbane Abbas. In this special insulated world of illusions, they say nonsense things about unreal factors and fictionalized events. Trying to make sense of their assumptions is no more productive that conversing about the Middle East with the Bush administration's neo-cons, who also live in a strange bubble of ignorance and fantasy. Aside from a few brave and beleaguered souls, this is the world of Israel's universities. It will not change until it has to - when the conditions of its self-reproduction are impaired and its self-deceptions too glaring.

The Real Goal: Changing Minds

The universities represent and reproduce the bubble world of the Israeli Jewish population as a whole. And no people abandons its bubble willingly. In South Africa, Afrikaners clung to their own bubble - their self-exonerating myths about history, civilization, and race -- until they were forced by external sanctions and the collapsing national economy to rethink those myths. Their resistance to doing so, while racist, was not purely vicious. Many kind and well-meaning Afrikaners simply didn't believe they had to rethink ideas that manifested to them as givens and that shaped their reality. (One valued Afrikaner friend here recalls her life during apartheid South Africa as being like The Truman Show, a film in which a man unknowingly grows up in a television show, set in an artificial dome world designed to look like a small town.) When their reality fell apart, suddenly no one would admit to ever having believed or supported it.

The Zionist worldview is an even more complete system. All historical and geographic details are provided to create a total mythical world, in which Jews have rights to the land and Palestinians have none. It is a fully realized construction, like those Hebraized maps carefully drawn by the Zionist movement in the 1930s to erase the ancient Arabic landscape and substitute Hebrew biblical references. It is also very resilient. The "new historians" have exposed the cherished national historical narrative of 1948 and 1967 as a load of fictions, but the same fictions are still reproduced by state agencies to assure Israeli and diaspora Jews of their innocence and the righteousness of their cause. The vast majority of Israelis therefore remain comfortable in their Truman Show and even see any external pressure or criticism as substantiating it. We need no more graphic evidence of that campaign's success than the overwhelming support among Israeli Jews for the present catastrophic assault on Lebanon, reflecting their sincere beliefs that nuclear-power Israel is actually under existential threat by a guerrilla group lobbing katyushas across the border. Staggering to observers, that belief is both sobering and instructive.

To force people steeped in such a worldview to rethink their notions, their historical myths, and their own best interests requires two efforts:

(1) Serious external pressure: here, a full boycott that undermines Israel's capacity to sustain the economic standards its citizens and corporations expect, and which they associate with their own progressive self-image; and

(2) clear and unwavering commitment to the boycott's goal, which - in Israel as in South Africa - must be full equality, dignity, safety, and welfare of everyone in the land, including Palestinians, whose ancestral culture arose there, and the Jewish population, which has built a national society there.

That combination is essential. Nothing else will work. Diplomacy, threats, pleading, the "peace process," mediation, all will be useless until external pressure brings Israel's entire Jewish population to undertake the very difficult task of rethinking their world. This pressure requires the full range of boycotts, sanctions, and divestment that the world can employ. (South African intellectual Steven Friedman has observed wryly that the way to bring down any established settler-colonial regime is to make it choose between profits and identity. Profits, he says, will win every time.)

What to Target

Fortunately, from the South African experience, we know how to go forward, and strategies are proliferating. The basic methods of an international boycott campaign are familiar. First, each person works in his or her own immediate orbit. People might urge divestment from companies investing in Israel by their colleges and universities, corporations, clubs, and churches. Boycott any sports event that hosts an Israeli team, and work with planners to exclude them. Participate in, and visit, no Israeli cultural events - films, plays, music, art exhibits. Avoid collaborating with Israeli professional colleagues, except on anti-racist activism. Don't invite any Israeli academic or writer to contribute to any conference or research and don't attend their panels or buy their books, unless their work is engaged directly in anti-racist activism. Don't visit Israel except for purposes of anti-racist activism. Buy nothing made in Israel: start looking at labels on olive oil, oranges, and clothing. Tell people what you are doing and why. Set up discussion groups everywhere to explain why.

For ideas and allies, try Googling the "boycott Israel" and "sanctions against Israel" campaigns springing up around the world. Know those allies, like the major churches, and tell people about them. For more ideas, read about the history of the boycott of South Africa.

Second, don't be confused by liberal Zionist alternatives that argue against a boycott in favor of "dialogue". If we can draw any conclusion from the last half-century, it is that, without the boycott, dialogue will go nowhere. And don't be confused by liberal-Zionist arguments that Israel will allow Palestinians a state if they only do this or that. Israel is already the only sovereign power in Palestine:
what fragments are left to Palestinians cannot make a state. The question now is not whether there is one state, but what kind of state it comprises. The present version is apartheid, and it must change. However difficult to achieve, and however frightening to Jewish Israelis, the only just and stable solution is full democracy.

Third, be prepared for the boycott's opposition, which will be much louder, more vicious, and more dangerous than it was in the boycott of South Africa. Read and assemble solid documentable facts. Support each other loudly and publicly against the inevitable charges of anti-Semitism. And support your media against the same charges. Write to news media and explain just who the "Israel media teams" actually are. Most pro-Israeli activism draws directly from the Israeli government's propaganda outreach programs. Spotlight this fact. Team up to counter their pressure on newspapers, radio stations, and television news forums. Don't let them capture or intimidate public debate. By insisting loudly (and it must be sincere) that the goal is the full equality of dignity and rights of everyone in Israel-Palestine, including the millions of Jewish citizens of Israel, demolish their specious claims of anti-Semitism.

Finally, hold true to the principles that drive the boycott's mission. Don't tolerate the slightest whiff of anti-Semitism in your own group or movement. Anti-Jewish racists are certainly out there, and they are attracted to these campaigns like roaches. They will distract and absorb your energies, while undermining, degrading, and destroying the boycott movement. Some are Zionist plants, who will do so deliberately. If you can't change their minds (and don't spend much time trying, because they will use your efforts to drain your time and distract your energies), denounce them, expel them, ignore them, have no truck with them. They are the enemy of a peaceful future, not its allies - part of the problem, not the solution.

Boycott the Hegemon

This is the moment to turn international pressure on the complicit US, too. It's impossible, today, to exert an effective boycott on the United States, as its products are far too ubiquitous in our lives. But it's quick and easy to launch a boycott of emblematic US products, upsetting its major corporations. It's especially easy to boycott the great global consumables, like Coca-Cola, MacDonald's, Burger King, and KFC, whose leverage has brought anti-democratic pressures on governments the world over. (Through ugly monopoly practices, Coke is a nasty player in developing countries anyway: see, for example, Think you'll miss these foods too much? Is consuming something else for a while too much of a sacrifice, given what is happening to people in Lebanon? And think of the local products you'll be supporting! (And how healthy you will get).

In the US, the impact of these measures may be small. But in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the Arab and Muslim worlds, boycotting these famous brands can gain national scope and the impact on corporate profits will be enormous. Never underestimate the power of US corporations to leverage US foreign policy. They are the one force that consistently does so.

But always, always, remember the goal and vision. Anger and hatred, arising from the Lebanon debacle, must be channelled not into retaliation and vengeance but into principled action. Armed struggle against occupation remains legitimate and, if properly handled (no killing of civilians), is a key tool. But the goal of all efforts, of every stamp, must be to secure security for everyone, toward building a new peaceful future. It's very hard, in the midst of our moral outrage, to stay on the high road. That challenge is, however, well-known to human rights campaigns as it is to all three monotheistic faiths. It is what Islam knows as the "great jihad" - the struggle of the heart. It must remain the guiding torch of this effort, which we must defend together.

believing long enough

The greatest problem of novel writing for me is to believe in the book long enough for it to reveal its secrets.
Erica Jong, Seducing the Demon

That rings uncomfortably true for me. I'm all too apt to abandon pieces in draft, because they don't seem to be going anywhere. I shudder to think of how much of Migritude I would have discarded, instead of letting it come to fruition, if it hadn't been for my director Kim telling me to hold onto it: There's something there.

Friday, August 04, 2006

thank you!!!

to everyone who's subscribed to my mailing list in the last couple of days, to show their support. You renew my determination to tell the truth - and my trust that there are people who want to hear it.

One of my favourite poems, from one of my favourite warriors for justice:


For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children's mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother's milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive

- Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn

last night at the Asian Art Museum

a guy tried to interrupt my performance to respond to what I'd just said about Israel's bloodbath in Lebanon. When I asked him to wait and talk to me after I got off stage, he stood there fuming for a couple of minutes and then left the room. I didn't see him again.

Every US legislator and mainstream media outlet continues to support Israel's war crimes. In the face of that giant public momentum, why does the a lone dissenting voice still cause such discomfort?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

within an hour

of sending out my mailing to my list last night (it included some of the postings below), 3 people had unsubscribed or asked to be taken off the list. That's a new record.

If you want to know what got them riled, you can join my mailing list here.

Last night in bed, I read Erica Jong's Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life. She says:

Don't expect approval for telling the truth.

Remember that writing is dangerous if it's any good.

What use is a writer if she doesn't rile people up? What use is a teacher if he isn't made to drink hemlock in the end?

Practicing writing is like practicing freedom. You are always on your way, never there.

This morning, I woke with my own advice running through my brain, the advice that I give to new writers:

Tell the truth.
Live the consequences.
Be brave.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

the piece I've been trying to write

and just found written already.

Hezbollah, Hamas, and Israel: Everything You Need To Know
, by Alexander Cockburn

Dreamed that Israel was bombing Kenya

It's not that far-fetched. The Uganda Proposal, put forward at the International Zionist Conference in 1903, would have established a Jewish state, Israel, in what is now Northern Uganda. 6 million Ugandans would have been displaced by 6 million European Jews.

Kenya would be Lebanon.

I dreamed the Israelis were bombing Kileleshwa, the neighborhood in Nairobi where my parents live. In revenge, mass reprisal on Kenyan civilians, for a rocket fired at a plane of Israeli tourists (this actually happened in Mombasa in 2003). Claiming that our neighbors from Somalia, from Uganda, driven into Kenya by civil wars in their own countries, were terrorists.

I dreamed that the complex of maisonnettes our home is in was hit. My parents were buried beneath. Trapped in the small storage space under our stairs where they had taken refuge when the shelling started. My father was still conscious. He was trying to text me on his cellphone. But his glasses were lost, blood was running into his eyes, clouding his view of the tiny cellphone display - the only source of light. His fingers kept slipping on the keys. He was crying, cursing, yelling for my mother, who he couldn't see, or find with his hands in the dark: Chandree, are you alive? Are you OK? Answer me!

I was at SF airport, running from airline counter to airline counter, skidding on the smooth airport floor, begging to buy a plane ticket to Nairobi. The counter staff kept repeating, like automatons: Sorry ma'am. All flights to Kenya have been suspended.

I woke up numb. Body icy, frozen in fetal curl, heart pounding. Mouth a rictus of horror over clenched teeth. Tears squeezing out of the corners of my squinched-up eyes.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Israeli and Jewish voices against the carnage

The ones we're not hearing or reading. Did you know, for example, that 22,000 Israelis marched in protest against the attacks on Lebanon? That Israel's Haaretz newspaper has carried daily ads calling for the massacre to stop?

Gush Shalom
- the Israeli Peace Bloc

"We warned them
And called on them
To escape!"

That is disgusting

Because we have:
Bombed the roads.
Destroyed the bridges.
Cut off the supply of gasoline.
Killed whole families on the way.

There is only one way
Of preventing more such disasters,
Which turn us into monsters:
T O S T O P!

There is no military solution!

Ad published in Haaretz, July 31, 2006

From Tikkun, the Jewish faith-based social justice organization:

Over the course of the past few weeks, every attempt we’ve made to reach the media—either in press statements, speaking to journalists and TV reporters, or by publishing op-eds—have been denied.

From Jewish Voice for Peace:

On July 6, in a full-page ad in The Times of London, 300 British Jews cried out against the collective punishment of the people of Gaza with the anguished question, "What Is Israel Doing?" Several weeks later, as the Middle East sinks deeper into chaos, that question is ever more urgent.

Hezbollah's attack on an IDF outpost was a violation of international law. And after Israel attacked Lebanon, Hezbollah fired missiles at Israeli cities, killing and injuring civilians.This is not morally acceptable, whatever the provocation.

But Israel's response-- an explosion of violence and collective punishment directed against airports, bridges and populated neighborhoods of Lebanon--is an even greater crime. And now Lebanon, like Gaza, is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

In the face of so much violence and suffering, the United States' vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions calling for a cease fire are immoral and irresponsible.

We call upon U.S. Jews and others to join us in support of Israeli peace groups who write: "The only way to guarantee a different future of peace and security is by ending the occupation and establishing a relationship of equality and respect between Israelis and Palestinians and between Israelis and the neighboring nations."

We call upon the U.S. government to use its influence with Israel to stop the collective punishment of the people of Gaza and Lebanon; to work with the international community to impose a cease-fire and prevent any further loss of civilian life; and to work for the immediate start of direct, good-faith negotiations.

Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories and massive human rights abuses against the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples are opposed by many Jews in Israel, the U.S., and throughout the world.

Attacks on civilians will not bring peace, security or justice to Palestinians, Israelis, or Jews anywhere.


I touch walls and sweaters
and keyboards
as if they bruise easily.
I do not want to be touched
in these charred and sizzling days
when all flesh
is frangible.

Killing killing killing killing:
repeated enough it sounds
almost beautiful.

The world's most moral army

he says
the birth pangs of democracy

she says
and now titanium-
jawed parasites swarm over language;
who can restore its meaning?

* * * * * * * *

Use everything in your life to deepen your art

says Stanislavsky.
If it hurts,
write it. If it burns
voice it. If it numbs and deadens,
if you cannot hold it
in your body, if you stifle
speech for fear only screams
will rise out of your throat; move
and breathe, breathe
and move, write it,
write it, write it.

This rock I lay my spine against
is 12 million years old.
uranium remains radioactive
for billions of years.

Cluster bombs explode
into up to 600 fragments
specifically designed
for the penetration
of human flesh.
White phosphorus content
is a pretty term
for napalm.

The earth has existed 4.6
billion years.
Listen, she says
microscopic daughter
of a tiny raging species:
in the breath before
all stories die, listen
I will tell you how it was
before the destroyers.
Shailja Patel. patterned sari border
©Shailja Patel