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Portland Jews Say No To Genocide
And then they start shouting at one another afterwards.
It's fair to say that me and the folks around the world who I think of as my friends and comrades have been more overwhelmed with grief and outrage than usual, over the past two weeks or so. Those of us who are old enough to remember the years when the US occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were regularly in the news, some two decades ago now, also might remember the frequent protests with hundreds of thousands of people at them in places like Washington, DC, New York City, and San Francisco. And the protests in small towns that had never had a protest, but were now seeing three thousand people show up, seemingly out of nowhere.
Of course, with all those big and small protests, acts of civil disobedience, weekly vigils in the town squares, and the many efforts at popular education and counter-recruitment that went on, although all that was also happening in other countries participating in the so-called War on Terror like the UK, those in power weren't listening, and the bombings, drone strikes, and total corruption of any rebuilding efforts in the occupied countries ground on, as the prisoners in the Black sites continued to be tortured, and those in Guantanamo continued to be held there on no charges, with no trials.
Ineffective as we seem to have been, I think back on those years of the antiwar movement of that period very fondly. As my unhinged critics would say, I'm a grifter -- opportunistically sponging off of social movements such as the antiwar movement by traveling around and singing at protests in order to avoid a day job or something. But at the same time it was technically the case, as I darkly quipped on more than one occasion back then, "the more bombs they drop, the more CDs I sell." (Now I'm getting nostalgic for the days when anyone bought CDs, too...)
I was not, and am not, in this line of work, such as it is, touring and writing songs and essays about politics, history, and popular struggles, in order to live an easy life. Like so many other artists and activists that I know, I do this because I have to, because I would lose my mind if I didn't. Ineffective as it may be in stopping US wars of aggression or genocides committed by authoritarian US client states such as Indonesia, Guatemala, or Israel, there will be people like me, all around the world, in every language, who feel compelled to talk, write, and sing about these horrors, hoping to somehow make a little difference, at least in helping a few more people question the propaganda.
But while the reason why we were in the streets and having teach-ins and marches, etc., back then were about unspeakable horrors that the US military was being ordered to visit upon the populations of so many countries, the community that grew up around the antiwar movement in so many places was a beautiful thing. So many of the people involved with the movement were regular folks, many of whom were attending a demonstration for the first time, even though many of the participants at that time were old enough to have had a chance to go to protests against the Vietnam War way back when.
Regular folks tend to do things like make plans for important daily activities like eating and drinking when they get together. This is true everywhere, but it's even more true for people from certain places, like Palestine, so the Palestine solidarity events that involved a diverse array of folks from across the Palestinian community always had the best food. But along with them were the folks who, before 9/11, had been self-described tailgate moms, grilling burgers at the local high school football games. Then when the War on Terror started they got political, and started grilling those burgers at antiwar events instead.
There were a lot of regular folks in that movement, and then there was the stalwart and very significant presence of the folks who, if you knew them, were coming out of a Communist Party background. I say this was significant because, for better or for worse (I'd say a bit of both), the Communist Party, USA has long had an orientation around backing the Democratic Party when it comes to electoral politics, in the hope of dragging it to the left, and operating on the theory that it's not as horrible as the Republican Party alternative.
I think of the folks coming out of that kind of background when I think of the coalition, United for Peace and Justice, which organized the biggest events of the period, such as the rally on that extremely cold and windy day in February, 2003, when all the streets and highways coming into Manhattan were at a standstill, because although it was the weekend (no rush hour), the roads were all clogged with people trying to come to the rally. Estimates of a half million seemed conservative, with all the people who didn't manage to even get close to the actual rally area.
It was one of many big rallies that I sang at during those years, in a number of different countries, but I think of UFPJ in particular at this particular juncture because of the wonderfully ecumenical attitude of the chief organizers that I worked with, such as Leslie Cagan in New York City. It was clear that the reason I was invited to sing at so many antiwar rallies back then was because people had heard some of my songs who were involved with organizing an event -- and they were often folks I had known for years already from what had been a much smaller anti-imperialist left, in the decade prior to 9/11.
But it was also clear to leaders of the movement that I might not be a pacifist, and might probably have a lot of other philosophical differences with some of them. So many of the folks involved with antiwar movements throughout history have been pacifists, while so many have not been. But certainly pacifism is often a dominant orientation among antiwar movements. So when I suggested to folks at UFPJ that maybe they would like to use my CDs as fundraising items for folks who donate, I don't know if they had to bring this up as an agenda item in a meeting or anything, but I don't recall there being any hesitation, despite the fact that the new album I was then promoting was called Halliburton Boardroom Massacre. The title track is a fantasy about a disgruntled veteran who feels compelled, upon returning from Iraq, to kill everyone in the Halliburton boardroom in a suicidal act of vengeance, and UFPJ featured it on their website.
I remember Leslie telling me I was an artist employing artistic license, and we have free speech. No one told me not to sing "Halliburton Boardroom Massacre" at the next antiwar rally, but I always preferred to sing songs that would be most likely to connect with audiences, so if I were singing for a big crowd at an antiwar rally, I'd tend to pick more straightforward antiwar songs, rather than antiwar-inspired fantasies about killing war profiteers.
Moving back to the present, I awoke yesterday morning before dawn as usual, with the usual feeling of despair for the people of Gaza, thinking of the people dying by the minute under constant bombardment, who now have almost completely run out of drinkable water. Untold thousands are buried beneath rubble, which people are unable to move, and they're dying under there. Almost half of those who have died have been children, and the bombing continues to be totally indiscriminate. It's like some combination of the siege of Stalingrad and the Christmas bombing of Hanoi. Totally genocidal slaughter.
In other words, they're in a situation in Gaza much like people under US bombs have been in in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and so many other countries. I was just a small child when the Vietnam War was still going on, but millions of people were regularly in the streets back then. There was an antiwar coffeehouse outside of every US military base. People were organized. But as with the movement of two decades ago, not enough. The bombing continued, for years and years, and then came the next invasions.
Those of us who watch the news have heard about the demonstrations happening all over the world since this most genocidal round of Israeli bombardment of Gaza began. They've been happening all over the US, too.
It's not surprising that the segments of the population in the US and many other countries who are most engaged with organizing protests against the bombing are people with some kind of connection to Muslims or Jews. It is here overwhelmingly a case of Jews bombing Muslims. (Not like with the US in Iraq, where there were at least a handful of Muslims in the occupation army.) Not surprising to see protests organized by people with different sets of connections, attracting different crowds.
Whether it might stop the carnage or not I don't know, but my hope would be for a mass movement to develop against Israeli genocide and US military aid to genocidal regimes, across this country. It would seem abundantly obvious that if this is to happen, it is going to need to be, overwhelmingly, a movement of people with a Christian background. Last I checked, the overwhelming majority of people in the US are neither Jewish nor Muslim. So whether it's Jews or Muslims organizing protests, it would make sense, from a pragmatic, emergency, "let's grow this movement as fast as possible" orientation, to try to attract as diverse a crowd as possible, and unite as much of society as possible behind the common goal of stopping the bombing, and ending the siege that has been in place for decades, whether bombs are being dropped that day or not.
So, I don't say this to criticize any of the good people who organized protests in Portland, Oregon yesterday, to be clear. We desperately need anyone willing to take such initiatives. But it's indicative of the state of things these days in this country and particularly in this city, seems to me, that we had two protests in different parts of town at different times, one organized by a Jewish-identified group, the other organized by a group from the campus of Portland State University which has historically been mainly led by some wonderful Palestinian folks. I don't know about the current makeup of the group, and only made it to the first of the two rallies.
A lot of the folks among the 200 or so in attendance yesterday outside of Congressional offices in northeast Portland were not Jewish (I'm a local and I knew a lot of them already, among the older set), so clearly folks didn't get the message from the publicity that only Jews were welcome, which is good, because the graphics being circulated were focused on the "Portland Jews say no to genocide" theme.
By some definition, I'm a Portland Jew, so it did at least seem perfectly appropriate to me when I got an email a couple days ago asking if I could sing at the rally, and if I had any sound gear for the occasion.
The sound gear debacle that followed was actually perfectly typical of at least half of the rallies I've ever been to in Portland, but unfortunately on this occasion I was part of the problem on that front, and I'll tell you about it in case it's at least mildly entertaining.
First of all, it had been such a long time since anyone had asked me to sing at a protest or bring sound gear to one here in my wildly dysfunctional home town that my poor neglected battery-powered sound system's battery had gone permanently dead, having been left uncharged at the home of the friend I had loaned it to. My friend had a really dinky one with only one channel we could use instead, so I brought that one. In the meantime another person from the group that was organizing the rally brought something somewhat better, so it looked like we'd be OK.
With this person's speaker combined with the mic I had brought plus my friend's mic cable, my sound check went fine -- both the voice and the mandola sounded fine, we were ready to go.
After a few minutes, when we were starting the rally, the MC went to the mic and no sound came out. Somehow or other, the speaker that had been just fine was no longer working. I ran to my car to grab the dinky one I had brought as backup. It didn't work with the mic and cable I had brought, but it did work with the other one that we had put aside in favor of the better one I had brought.
With only one channel now, the option of performing and being heard playing a song for this crowd was not looking good, so I figured for my part, I'd say a few words. There were seven speakers on the list.
They were all really good. One was an older Jewish woman who had spent a lot of time as a solidarity activist in the occupied territories. Another was my old friend Dan Shea, with Veterans for Peace. Another was an Israeli woman. Most of the speakers were older than me. They all made very relevant points about US aid to Israel, Israeli apartheid practices, and the utter desperation of the current situation.
Some folks, particularly the younger ones, talked about how heartened they were to see so many people show up. It was a bigger crowd than I had been expecting. But I've learned to have very low expectations for the size of any protest in this town that wasn't mentioned in advance on NPR, in the atomized social media age that we're in.
When it was my turn to speak, someone in the back of the crowd started yelling. I couldn't hear what they were saying aside from the word "podcast" but it was clear that their intent was hostile. This created a scene, with lots of people looking around nervously, naturally enough. I figured it was best for me to say something anyway, although I hadn't put together a very coherent presentation in the short time I'd had to think about giving a speech, when I had been planning on singing a song.
Having someone in the back yelling at me while I was trying to come up with some coherent things to say was disconcerting, and my speech definitely suffered as a result -- though if it had been the best speech I'd ever given, it would have been unlikely to have made any difference either way.
At one point one of the young folks who was introducing speakers commented about the importance of "centering Palestinian voices." I wasn't sure if this comment was related to me, somehow, or to one of the other Jewish speakers at this Jews Say No To Genocide rally. I had, intentionally, focused on the history in Germany and the US that had helped fuel the success of the Zionist movement and the ever-increasing militarization of the state of Israel. Other people had already talked about how horrible things are on the ground in Gaza right now, which was obviously why we were all there.
I wonder, too, about this comment, in terms of where it's coming from. The idea of centering Palestinian voices in a situation where a thousand Palestinian civilians are being indiscriminately massacred every day in an aerial slaughter seems like an obviously good idea on one level, but this was a rally emphasizing Jewish opposition to genocide specifically.
In a broader sense, in the course of the Palestinian struggle, lots of non-Palestinians and non-Muslims have played a vital role, international solidarity has been essential, if insufficient. Just as with many other struggles for national liberation, from the fight against apartheid in South Africa to the amazing and successful struggle of the Vietnamese people against the world's biggest military power to the Spanish Civil War. For purposes of popularizing a struggle as broadly as possible, and humanizing those from the struggle who are constantly being dehumanized by the western press, people from all over the world speaking every language, familiar with every culture, are of vital importance.
This is nothing new, of course, which is why I'm saying it so confidently. It's not an idea I'm inventing, I'm just talking about reality as it has transpired. International solidarity has played pivotal roles in all kinds of struggles globally, and this has involved people speaking the language, whether literally or musically or culturally or whatever else, of their people, in order to mobilize support for the cause.
My fear is that this kind of notion of centering Palestinian voices can be, or can become (and has in recent years in the context of what has been called the racial justice movement), a mantra that is repeated by folks who think that the idea of centering the voices of marginalized people is very important, as a matter of principle. And I would just say that this can be true in principle at the same time as the idea of only using the voices of Palestinians to communicate to everyone in the world why Israeli apartheid and genocide is so terribly wrong and needs to end now would be a totally bonkers idea, if it were taken to that kind of extreme, but even in a more moderate form, it's very questionable, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone.
It's a very big world with not all that many Palestinians in it. We absolutely need to hear from Noam Chomsky, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Phyllis Bennis and a hell of a lot of other people, in addition to Hanan Ashrawi, Mustafa Barghouti, and so many other brilliant people.
When Sharon's massacre at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the anniversary of Sabra and Shatila took place in September, 2000, I wrote a song called "Children of Jerusalem," which got my next tour of Israel canceled, with my former friends there calling me a Nazi for writing a song sympathetic to Palestinians. Then lots of other Israel supporters found out about the song and started calling me a Nazi, too.
Then the Palestinian diaspora started hearing about the song. At that point I started getting flooded with love from Palestinians writing me from all over the global diaspora. Two of them were TV producers in Manhattan, who asked me to come there so I could sing the song on a street corner with other people holding candles, a very well-staged event for TV.
Now, why did these folks like that song so much that they wanted to center it in their TV broadcast? Why did it spread around in the Palestine solidarity community, as well as in Palestine itself? Why did I hear stories of people getting a ride in a Palestinian taxi in the West Bank, and the taxi driver was playing my music, clearly for the educational benefit of their passengers? Why didn't the TV producers and the taxi drivers play Feyrouz or Marcel Khalife instead?
The answer to this question was delivered to me with profound eloquence outside of the city of Jenin in 2005. I had played my song, "They're Building A Wall" (which they were at the time), at an event at a place that was originally hoping to be a resort, but with no tourists allowed in and the Israelis cutting their electrical lines regularly, it never became much of one. I was doing a tour of the West Bank organized by the nephew of the recently-assassinated head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, my good friend Haithem El-Zabri. Another man who had performed at the event along with me, a brilliant oud player, came to sit at our table, where several other Palestinian men were sitting, along with me and Haithem.
"I used to live in Europe," the oud player told me. "But when I played my music there, it didn't affect people. Here, I can just play a few notes, and people cry."
Incredibly, he then demonstrated this, even after telling us all what was about to happen in advance. He played a few notes, and every Palestinian at the table had visibly watery eyes.
As a fellow musician, I actually knew exactly what he was talking about. Most of the Palestinians I was playing for on that tour appreciated what I was doing on an abstract level. They could read the lyrics and approve of them, but people who mainly listen to Arabic music are not likely to be emotionally affected by, say, Appalachian-sounding or Irish-sounding music. It's too different, it doesn't play on the same heart strings, the heart strings are tuned differently in different cultures, they use different scales.
Music is a universal language, but some music is more universal than others, depending on who's listening. The point is to communicate effectively, however we possibly can, and stop a genocide, isn't it? If there's any point at all to communication in the first place, then it needs to be effective, to convey messages that people want to act on, messages that change people's consciousness and inspire them to action. This is why music has always been so central to social movements, and continues to be, across the Arab world, very much including among Palestinians, today. It inspires and educates and builds community, and it does that best when it's in the language of the listeners, and in a musical style that they connect with. The oud player and I both understood that viscerally, and obviously.
At the end of the Portland Jews Say No To Genocide rally I milled about a bit, talking with folks I hadn't seen in a long time. A lot of folks were rushing to get off to the next rally at PSU, while others were taking it slower. When maybe half the crowd was still around, a tall trans woman approached me, stood directly in front of me, and starting shouting loudly.
"YOU COMPLAIN ABOUT CANCEL CULTURE BUT THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS CANCEL CULTURE! YOU INTERVIEWED A NAZI ON YOUR PODCAST! YOU'RE A NAZI CONSORTIONIST!"
"Do you want to talk about this?" I asked. "Shall we go sit down and have a conversation?"
"I DON'T WANT TO TALK TO YOU!" she replied, still shouting at the top of her lungs, though slightly ineffectually, through an N95 mask. "YOU INTERVIEWED A NAZI ON YOUR PODCAST! I WANT YOU OUT! GET OUT! I WANT YOU OUT OF LEFT SPACES! I'LL KEEP SHOUTING UNTIL YOU LEAVE!"
I took a picture of her, having reason to believe that she's the same person who has been working so hard for almost three years now to destroy my career, mainly by spending most of her waking hours on Twitter, contacting anyone associated with me to make sure they know I platform Nazis.
During the week of the siege of the Capitol I did interview a former white supremacist, who obviously this person thinks is still a white supremacist, despite what he says, and that's fine. But apparently it's not fine, and me having interviewed the wrong person, despite how interesting and revealing the interview was, was a heretical sin and the only thing left to do is to shout at me wherever I appear in public, and try to get all my gigs canceled.
Thankfully, being shouted at like this by anyone was a fairly new experience for me. I had no idea how to act, aside from not being the first one to throw a punch, for legal reasons. Not that I'm an expert on this area of the law, but it seems better not to be the first one to get physical, though I naturally found myself meditating upon fantasies about breaking her nose, at least.
Eventually someone else intervened and spoke with her quietly. Since he wasn't me, she spoke with him quietly, too. Then she started shouting at me again when I approached to try to join the conversation, after a few seconds of speaking at a normal tone.
The man who intervened seemed to think the aggressive shouting woman had a legitimate grievance that I was dismissing. When someone is shouting incoherently at you and doesn't want to actually communicate, the idea that this was supposed to be some kind of accountability process, or that one was needed, seems preposterous to me. I believe his thinking is that this very loud, uber alpha male-acting trans person claims she's been hurt by me, therefore she has, therefore we're in need of some kind of accountability process here. Not logic I agree with.
I hung around the area, not being one to be chased away by some dork who wants to shout at me. I hung around long enough to see the tall, masked trans woman with no name walk away with a group of folks who looked like they might be college students. They were apparently friends. If they had seen their comrade shouting abuse at me a few minutes earlier, they didn't seem to be bothered by this behavior.
If Spotify didn't regularly inform me that a very large percentage of my fans are half my age, and live in the US, I might begin to despair about the state of this society, twenty years into most people's lives having been taken over by feeding the algorithms and selling advertisements on corporate social media platforms designed to foment conflict and polarization.
If there are other things that warrant even more despair than what I strongly suspect will be this society's inability to overcome our atomized state and inability to stop this war, it is the children lying beneath the rubble, dying of thirst.
Protest Sound Crowdfunder
Donate to the Portland Sound Crowdfunder and I’ll buy a Bose S1 Pro for use at future protests around here, so we can be loud and sound good.
Protests in Portland, Oregon have a chronic problem of terrible sound systems, like the one I just attended. Very unfortunately, I suspect the war we've been protesting is not going to end soon, and there will be more occasions to make a lot of noise in the streets. It's really a pathetic sight when 200 people are crowding around a dinky little speaker that only half of them can hear. It makes people sad, not inspired.
A couple years ago in Glasgow I was going to sing at an antiwar protest where we were having a similar problem with a shit sound system. I noticed that a nearby busker had a fantastic sound system he was using. We rented it from him and the protest went great. He was using a Bose S1 Pro. They cost $700. I don't have a cent to spare beyond just barely paying for things like rent, transportation, and food, especially since they're cutting us off of food stamps for not quite being poor enough. But if people would like to donate to this crowdfunder I'll get one of these things, and if someone's organizing an antiwar protest in Portland next time, and they don't mind associating with a shady character like me, we can have good-quality and loud sound at the rally next time.
And if no one invites me to do sound for their protests, I'll just stage my own, perhaps a weekly antiwar sing-along in front of our local Israel-supporting Congressional offices. I'll donate my musical/soundperson labor, but maybe you can help with purchasing the means of amplification for it.
You can also find this missive in podcast form on Substack, on Patreon, or at davidrovics.com/thisweek. As with most everything else I put out, it’s free at the point of use in all forms. But your ongoing support on any of these platforms — Community-Supported Art — is what makes it all possible.