Back to School: Life in Palestine (2)

Second day of school, Tekoa (Tuk’u) village, Palestinian West Bank: once again, life in Tuk’u is disrupted by an Israeli military incursion with tear gas fusillade. And once again, school is canceled. The main road is blocked by military vehicles and the threat of gunfire. 

Just to repeat something I’ve said in a previous post, and something I’ve repeatedly seen with my own eyes: Israeli military incursions into Palestinian villages are blatantly obvious, egregious cases of initiatory violence against Palestinians. They are in no sense defensive. The Israeli military simply comes in at will, and attacks at will, with the express purpose of intimidating the inhabitants and reinforcing its monopoly on violence. There really is no more to it than that; like it or not, military occupations function on threats and intimidation. If any readers of this post feel like coming up with a different explanation for this unprovoked, outright aggression–on schoolchildren–feel free to be my guest. But unprovoked aggression is what my sources in Tuk’u say this is. I believe them. I’ve seen too much not to.

I keep seeing people here in the US complaining bitterly about how the pandemic has set children “back” or “behind” by months or a year. A kind of caricature of this attitude can be found in this article by Angela Duckworth, founder and CEO of “Character Lab,” professor of psychology at Penn, and author of the best-selling book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Starting from the unargued assumption that the pandemic has caused students to “fall behind,” Duckworth suggests that the proper prescription is “acceleration, not remediation”: 

A new analysis of more than two million students in over 100,000 schools suggests that acceleration is a more effective pedagogical strategy than remediation. Specifically, students made more progress in math when their teachers taught grade-level content and used just-in-time-support to patch learning gaps as needed compared to when teachers instead took a more traditional approach, teaching below-grade-level content to make up for pandemic-related learning loss. 

Let me translate this characteristically American thought into plainer, if more cynical English: Students facing a pandemic, it assumes, have “fallen behind” a baseline defined by the academic achievement of students who have not faced a pandemic. If we simply subtract the pandemic from the equation as irrelevant statistical noise, we can safely infer that our collective task is to restore those students who have suffered a pandemic to the level of academic achievement they would have achieved had there not been a pandemic. The way to achieve this eminently reasonable goal is to induce students who have fallen behind to hurry up and catch up, precisely as though they had not fallen behind.

No argument is given, or thought necessary, for why the baseline for academic achievement ought to be defined in terms of the non-occurrence of a global pandemic that did in fact occur, did in fact disrupt life around the world, and did in fact claim 4.55 million lives, 668,000 of them in the US. The assumption is that we ought to act as though it all didn’t occur, a kind of strangely Kantian sentiment lurking amidst the Martin Seligman-inspired good cheer. Evidently, there’s nothing that a bit of grit, spunk, and positive attitude couldn’t overcome, including a pandemic. 

Can we generalize? If grit works at wishing away a pandemic, can it work at wishing away a military occupation? Well, why not? Tellingly, Duckworth’s mentor Seligman, in his book Authentic Happiness, goes out of his way to suggest that Palestinians (in particular) embody the reverse of the right attitude on such matters: they are, with their backward and self-pitying attitudes toward misfortune, the chief obstacle to their own authentic happiness. If only they’d just chin up, face forward, and put on a happy face, they wouldn’t remain mired in the misery that they so avoidably face.

More than a little debatable. So pause for a moment and imagine that the conditions that predominated at American schools for the last year came, for fifty-four years, to predominate an entire society to an exponentially higher degree. American schools were “under lockdown” for the past year or so, a condition that has brought American political culture to a boiling point of rancor, bitterness, and division. With that thought in mind, imagine lockdown conditions that have been in place since 1967, across the whole of a society–but especially its schools–and enforced with tear gas, stun grenades, and occasionally, M16s, F-16s, and phosphorus bombs. A lockdown of that nature would put an entire society “behind”–and in a way well beyond the reach of either “remediation” or “acceleration.” It would put them behind forever, in just the way it’s done on Native American reservations here at home.

If you think a pandemic lockdown is such a terrible thing, how about living under a much harsher ones for the next 54 years? Because that’s what your government has subsidized and supported on a bipartisan basis for that long, with no end in site. The pandemic will end, but the occupation will outlive it, sustained with American support and American dollars. And that’s what you’re looking at in the video here: students sullenly filing home because the army blocks their path to school–an army equipped with American weapons, and given American carte blanche.

Americans are blithely used to assuming that a better “attitude” can get anyone out of any jam. Why don’t the Palestinians just pull themselves together, and act nicely? Then the Israelis will treat them nicely, and the “Arab-Israeli problem” will be “solved.” 

What if that description of both the problem and the solution is systematically wrong? What if the actual problem is that the Israelis are engaged in an extended act of imperial conquest, that this conquest is pure aggression, and that they don’t intend to stop until they’ve successfully subjugated the Palestinians in the way that Americans once subjugated, say, the Lakota Sioux? What if, in this light, American exhortations to the nostrums of positive psychology are just pure nonsense? And what if, besides being pure nonsense, they sound particularly nonsensical coming from people who can’t uphold them when facing lesser challenges? 

These questions have stared Americans in the face for decades. They’ve found every expedient for evading them, but made little attempt to answer them. But time is running out on answers. Little by little, the wholesale Israeli subjugation of Palestine is becoming a reality. And little by little, the ticking time-bomb of rage it has so long suppressed is ticking its way to resolution. Don’t be surprised when, emboldened by events in Kabul, Palestinians start to give in to desperation and despair. When it happens, if it happens, it’ll have taken them a long time, and the patience of martyrs, to get there. Martyrdom, after all, is grit played in a tragic key, and played at a volume that temporarily deafens its audience. The problem with Americans is that they’re congenitally tone deaf to tragedy–even the ones they’re responsible, or at least half-responsible, for having brought it about. As they are here.

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