My tribute to Mary Jo Nadeau

Organizing an academic panel or a public meeting is something many people can do: it just takes energy and experience, an interest in the matter being discussed and some consideration for the people attending. If it is a matter of public interest, of injustice and oppression, and the meeting itself is part of a struggle for justice – now there are fewer people who can do it. Now, make the topic Palestine, where saying obvious truths in public brings counter-demonstrations, threats, and condemnation from the major media all the way to the parliaments of the country, and the people who can enable education in this context are just a few rare gems. We just lost one of those gems in Mary Jo (“MJ”) Nadeau.

***

For me MJ is the perfect example of the Lao Tzu proverb.

“A leader is best

When people barely know she exists

Of a good leader, who talks little,

When her work is done, her aim fulfilled,

They will say, “We did this ourselves.”

***

In 2010, Studies in Political Economy published an article by MJ (with co-author Alan Sears) called The Palestine Test: Countering the Silencing Campaign. The article was about this element of MJ’s life’s work. MJ and Alan argued “the Palestine test is becoming a crucial measure of commitment to freedom of expression, social justice, and academic freedom on North American campuses in the context of a silencing campaign to shut down Palestine solidarity work.” The following decade, the silencing they outlined in the article has positively roared. 

***

It is not easy to define what an organizer is. For activists, it’s an exalted title. I can try to put it this way: Much writing, speaking, marching, and demonstrating goes on. Whether anything changes, whether there is a chance to struggle another day – that effort succeeds or fails based on what organizers do. To put it another way: what’s the difference between a mailing list and an organization? The difference, in at least one case I know of, is whether there is an organizer – in this case, MJ. Often those who know appear arrogant or unapproachable in proportion to their experience of knowledge – MJ proved the opposite to be true, with vast knowledge and vast humility. 

*** 

Around when the article was published I had to call MJ about some organizing problem. When she picked up, I said, “I’m ready.” “For what?” “To take the Palestine test. I think I’m ready to take it.” 

The silencing campaign MJ warned about is pervasive and now involves the tech giants and social media platforms that promised to make communication easier. Amid the ever-intensifying silencing, it seemed that less and less was possible to do. But if you wanted to know what was possible, and what people were doing, you could find out by going to MJ.

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 37: Postcoloniality and the Racist Legacy of the British Empire

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 37: Postcoloniality and the Racist Legacy of the British Empire, with Navyug Gill and Dan Freeman-Maloy

A wide-ranging and admittedly bookish discussion with William Patterson historian Navyug Gill and frequent guest and sometimes host of the show, Dan Freeman-Maloy. We talk about postcolonial studies, history, and the British Empire, and the ways that its racism lives on. 

Anti-Empire Project Episode 36: Siegebreakers at York University

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 36: Siegebreakers at York University

On November 19, 2019, York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies hosted a panel called “The Art and Politics in Imagining a Free Gaza: A Discussion of Justin Podur’s new novel, Siegebreakers.” It featured poet, theatre worker, and Associate Professor Honor Ford-Smith; writer and Professor Catriona Sandilands; and Lebanese-Palestinian activist and Executive Director of Canadian Friends of Sabeel, Yara Shoufani. The event began with me reading Chapter 1 of Siegebreakers, and interventions by the panelists followed.

So, if you still haven’t read Siegebreakers, you can let me read the first chapter to you!

Getting in and out of Gaza in Siegebreakers

In Siegebreakers, all of the main characters face a serious, and very concrete, problem: getting in and out of Gaza.

Some are trying to get out, and to do that, they have to go through Israel – through Erez Crossing, which is a scene out of a dystopian future. A few years ago I interviewed a doctor who had made the crossing. He talked a bit about what it was like coming and going from Israel, but I also put a description together (for the book) from that and a few other interviews of what it is like to go through Erez (I went through Erez myself in 2002, but that was before it was rebuilt into its current form):

Laila made the long walk through the wire-encaged sidewalk, like an enclosure at a zoo, to the first turnstile. Israel modified these turnstiles to reduce the space between the arms, to press harder against Palestinian bodies. Remote-controlled, of course, by the occupier’s security who watched her progress through the tunnel from above. Through the turnstile — if the invisible occupier chose to open it, by remote control — then, a big steel door. Also, remote-controlled. Once it opened, there was another long, outdoor passageway to the terminal. She rolled her bag along behind her, her shoulders slouching when she forgot herself, but when she remembered, with her back arched and her chin up. She faced the sliding steel doors at the entrance to the terminal, waited in suspense for the occupier’s decision to open or close it. They opened it for her, so she could go through the metal detector and the next set of turnstiles. She put her luggage on the carousel and it disappeared into another room, where someone working for the occupier went through her every possession. Then, the occupier used a scanner to create a three-dimensional model of every centimetre of her body… More remote-controlled doors. More modified metal turnstiles. Laila claimed her bag and went to face the occupier’s passport inspectors, who sat in blast-proof booths. She handed the inspector her documents...

I won’t spoil what happens next, but let’s continue on the problem of getting in and out of Gaza. Anyone trying to get goods in or out of Gaza has to use a different high-tech remote-controlled crossing, Kerem Abu Salem. The description of how that crossing works is assembled from the organization Gisha.org. Play a round of Safe Passage, if you’re up for the frustration.

And then there’s Rafah, the crossing to and from Egypt. Taking a look at Rafah is where you see how much a participant Egypt’s dictatorship is in the siege of Gaza.

Sea and air? Not happening. I wouldn’t even have my fictional characters try. Some years ago I was asked why people don’t just fly into Gaza through Yasser Arafat International Airport. Grand opening: November 1998. Grand closing (via Israeli bombs): October 2000.

The Great March of Return, which has shaped Gaza’s politics for over a year now and which is one event I didn’t anticipate in Siegebreakers, is about all of the rights that are denied to Palestinians, but it is deeply about the fundamental right to come and go, the right to not be born and live one’s whole life in a prison, which is Israel’s (and Egypt’s, and the US, and Canada, and all of the allies collaborating in the siege) design for every single person in Gaza (children included). Abby Martin’s new film, Gaza Fights for Freedom, filmed in large part by Palestinian journalists from Gaza, can show you what it looks like.

Those people marching to the fence every week? They’re the real-life Siegebreakers.

The idea of military stalemate in Siegebreakers

The oppressed in my novel Siegebreakers spend their entire page counts trying to resolve the military problem that seems to hold in several of today’s seemingly endless conflicts – whether it’s Israel’s wars on Gaza, in which the book is set, or it’s the Saudi dictatorship’s war on Yemen. In both cases, the more powerful side (Israel and Saudi Arabia), with all the backing and blessing that the US can provide, cannot seem to militarily defeat their outnumbered, outgunned opponents (the Palestinian resistance in Gaza – referred to simply as “Hamas” in the West, and the so-called “Houthis” in Yemen). So, the stronger side reverts to aerial bombing, destruction of civilian infrastructure, killing large numbers of civilians from the air, siege, blockade, and deliberate, genocidal destruction of the economy.

Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon had a similar character: As it had decades before, Israel bombed the cities and invaded on the ground. Israel’s ground forces were defeated by their Lebanese opponents, Hizbollah. So they withdrew their ground forces and bombed the country for several weeks. In Israeli media there is frequent talk about the next war with Hizbollah, which is supposedly ‘inevitable’ (as is the next war with Gaza, as is war with Iran, etc.) In this hypothetical next war, Israeli leaders have pledged much more thorough bombing of Lebanon, including the usual promises to send it back into the stone age (the idea that these are war crimes seems no longer relevant: it may become relevant again). For their part, Hizbollah has warned that the next war won’t take place in Lebanon alone.

Returning to Gaza, the battle scenes in Siegebreakers are based on Israel’s 2014 war in the territory, and are portrayed, as the saying goes, from both sides. Ari’s experience as a soldier in the Israeli Army is drawn from various sources, but I highly recommend the report This is How We Fought in Gaza, by the group Breaking the Silence. If you find what Ari sees in Gaza shocking, read that report and you’ll see that, as I wrote in the Afterword, the most outrageous things in Siegebreakers are the true things. On the other side, Nasser’s experience fighting the invaders in Gaza draws from, among many other sources, Max Blumenthal’s book, the 51 Day War. Blumenthal traveled to Gaza shortly after the assault, while memories were still fresh, and documented what the war looked like on the Palestinian side. I got the chance to praise him for the book in a podcast in May 2019.

In Siegebreakers, the impasse gets broken in a particular way. I can’t tell you how, despite my love of everything to do with spoilers.

In a slightly better world, one with a powerful anti-war and anti-imperialist bloc within the US, these military impasses would lead to more energetic diplomatic initiatives. But in our world, there’s no need for diplomacy if you have America on your side (which apparently is cheaper and cheaper to attain). The fictional Siegebreakers rely on a few American dissident super-sleuths. The real-life Siegebreakers are part of a multi-decade slog to build an peace movement strong enough to change the current equation.