Friday, May 26, 2006

On the right side of justice: An interview with Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a senior producer for the investigative radio program FLASHPOINTS RADIO in Berkeley, CA. The mother of a six-year-old daughter (and potential future journalist), she travels twice annually to Palestine to facilitate the development of young Palestinian grassroots media workers. Ms. Barrows-Friedman has been an out spoken critic of Israeli government policy and has continually received attacks from those within the Jewish community who have called her: “A self-hating Jew”, “traitor of Israel”, an
d “terrorist lover”.

Ms. Barrows-Friedman’s reports have continually been featured in online publications like The Electronic Intifada, to the political online newsletter CounterPunch, as well as Free Speech Radio News. Ms. Barrows-Friedman is highly regarded amongst her peers in the media and consistently lobbies for a free and independent world for journalist to operate. I received the chance to talk with Ms. Barrows-Friedman on a Saturday afternoon by telephone about the media, her facilitation of media work with youth in Palestine, Al Nakba, and the pursuit of the perfect cupcake.

Christopher Brown: Nora Barrows-Friedman, the profession of journalism in America is on the threshold of being nothing more than a lapdog for corporate and government interests. With the continued deterioration of investigative news reporting and the emergence of celebrity newsreaders, how are radical grassroots journalists, such as yourself, combating this arena that is paved with the misinformation of corporate drones?

Nora Barrows-Friedman: In the first place where we start is getting in touch with tried and true, independent, non-embedded, investigative journalists, who live in the communities from which they report. And if we can’t find them, we make them. So we have been able to, at least on Flashpoints over the years we’ve been able to get in touch with people who are fresh out of journalism school or, as in the case of my dear friend Dahr Jamail, he was just a mountain climber in Alaska who was sick and tired of being lied to at the start of the Iraq war by this (US) government.

And so, he went to Iraq himself as a civilian as a witness. And he started bloging and writing diary entries. In November of 2003 when I got in touch with him. I sent him an email saying: ”I really like your writing and its really important that your there to bear witness. I know your not a credentialed journalist but I was wondering if you would be able to report a little bit about what you see for the show?” And from there, Dahr’s work has completely blossomed and he is one of the most preeminent experts on investigative journalism when it comes to Iraq and US policy. And that is less than three years ago. His reporting has been found in reports, in journals, in essays, all around the World for over two-and-a-half years now.

And you know, he’s not a talking head. It’s people like Dahr Jamail that we rely on to be the civilians of conscience, to be there as witnesses, to be there as our eyes and ears. So that we can take these reports and we can make a vehicle to be between the civilians that are suffering under US policy and the public here who are hungry for information. And they desperately want to bypass the corporate stenographers of the corporate media and really get to the real information.

CB: Twice a year you make a pilgrimage to Palestine to Deiheisha refugee camp, located near Bethlehem, to assist young Palestinians realize their dreams of becoming grassroots journalists and learning how to tell the stories that the mainstream press refuses to tell. Could you speak about your work with the youth in Palestine?

NB: The most incredible thing about working with these young people is that I don’t have to teach them anything. I’m not there as an instructor. They already have the ability; it’s inherently inside themselves.

Children in Palestine are born into politics. They’re born into this “so called” conflict. They’re born under occupation, especially the children in refugee camps. You know, I have one student who’s one of my star students…I look at these kids not as my students, but as my peers. Anyway, one of kids there, he was born at the same moment that his house was being broken into by soldiers during a raid. The door was broken in and two of his uncles were arrested in a matter of five minutes. And so these children, they grow up…many times the first words that these kids learn are: the names of tanks, names of different fighter jets. Children of a very young age learn to differentiate the sounds of different caliber bullets being fired.

When I go to ibdaa, really what I’m doing is using the privilege that I have as an American and as a journalist who has been in media for several years and I can get people to easily donate money and equipment. So I basically come there with suitcases full of digital recorders, microphones, headphones, mini disc tapes and just letting them use it and giving them technical instruction and troubleshooting. But really what it is about these kids is that they have these stories inside them. They are reporting in their own backyards. So when I come there, its just kind of an opportunity for them to tell other people, to tell their communities, to tell the outside world what their going through on a daily basis.

And it’s very empowering for them and these kids really understand the importance of independent media, being able to speak for one’s self, especially Palestinians who are often kept silent and ignored, and really not, very often, given a chance to tell their own stories. Being able to be there with these kids and working with them on radio projects and seeing what they produce it is just so satisfying and it is overwhelmingly emotional to be there and to listen to what they have to say. They do the most incredible things.

They really put they’re heart and soul into these radio pieces and I know that at least five or ten will become journalists in the next few years, they’ve already expressed it. They really look at journalism as a tool of resistance. And a lot of them are really getting interested in the field and are really going to make a difference in terms of getting the information out there. And I’m looking forward within the next few years to call them up as correspondents and having them be there on the scene for us 10,000 miles away to record them and put it on the air.

CB: Recently the US and EU had to reverse course regarding monetary sanctions on the Palestinian Authority (PA) which is being run by Hamas. Pressures for a reversal of they’re policy came at the behest of several European countries.

In addition, Israel has recently reopened the main cargo crossing to the Gaza Strip. The crossing has been closed since April 4th and a total of 55 days since January, due to terror alerts caused by the crossing being a target by militants.

How do you perceive these recent events after a protracted time of collective punishment on the Palestinian people, and how do you see these changes manifesting themselves for the future?

NB: That’s a really good question. Of course it’s been collective punishment. After the January 26th elections we saw the closure of Karni and we saw the High Israeli officials putting Palestinians on a “Diet”. Not letting them die but merely just putting them on a diet. And that has been implemented in various ways not only the closure of Karni but also, increased home invasions. We saw an attack on Balata refugee camp about a month and-a-half ago that was absolutely unprecedented.

The Nablus area has been under continued attacks over the last six years. We saw the storming of the Jericho prison. We could go on, we saw the killing of 20 people in a two-week period in Gaza and The West Bank. So this collective punishment, it’s interesting to see how US policy really plays itself out in the hands of Israeli officials. It is like what is happening in Haiti: “Well you have to have a democracy, but you can only vote for the people we really want.” This is American “so called” democracy; this is Israeli “so called” democracy. “You have to have elections but you can only vote for the people we want”.

The Palestinian people have more intelligence and more fortitude, and more resilience than that. And of course they went to the polls and they elected who they wanted and it’s not for us to decide who they should vote for it’s not for anybody but the people who it affects. And the real issue is not the humanitarian aid, it’s not the closures, it’s not whether the EU or the UN or Sweden can come to the aid of the Palestinians, it’s who is holding Israel accountable? Who is holding Israel’s feet to the fire? Who is taking responsibility? And really, we’re not seeing that happen.

So all of these maneuvers, these various transitional heads of state international maneuvers are very distracting from the real problem, which is the occupation. The real problem is the multitude of UN resolutions that are not being fulfilled year after year. The real problem here is Palestinians not having the same civil rights and human rights as their Israeli neighbors. And no one seems to really show that in the light anymore, people are not interested.

The withholding of the tax revenues Israel owes Palestine have been devastating to Gaza. We’re seeing 1.4 million Palestinians, basically, on a slow starvation. Just recently there were several children in the main Gaza City hospital who died because they couldn’t get enough medicine for kidney dialysis treatment. So this is collective punishment. What fault do they have in all this? When Israel can close a border; Israel can switch off the electricity and switch it on; Israel controls the water resources; Israel controls the land, the sea, the air, and no one is talking about it and that’s the real issue here.

CB: On May 14th the Israeli High Court narrowly upheld the law, which states that a person with a West Bank ID cannot live with their spouse who is an Israeli inside of Israel. How do you see this decision affecting Palestinian families?

NB: You know it’s interesting the very same day this law was upheld it was the 58th anniversary of the Al Nakba when on May 15th 1948, 750,000 Palestinians began their long and arduous displacement.

As Palestinians were commemorating this very solemn anniversary, the Israeli court…it’s kind of ironic and I’m not sure if it was deliberate, but it was kind of like a punch in the face that this apartheid system is real and it is entrenched, and this is only the beginning of separation.

In 2002 we saw the first block of the apartheid wall spring up. And now they’re working on phase three, four years later we’re seeing phase three in the Jordan Valley; we’re seeing the “Bantustanization” of the entire West Bank. People look at a map and they want to say: “Well, where is the Palestinian State?” It’s more like where are the pieces of a Palestinian State? There are 18 Bantustans that make up the West Bank. Talk about apartheid, talk about separation this is really the reality that Palestinians are facing. There are polls coming out that mirror the racism within Israeli society. 62% of Israelis “supposedly” would not want to live in the same apartment building as a Palestinian. So what does that say? How has this apartheid been collectively entrenched in the psyche of the populous?

It’s very interesting and I think, as we’re heading more and more towards this apartheid system, this fully realized apartheid system, I think we also have to mirror the ways in which South African apartheid polices were counteracted and that means immediate boycott, divestment, sanctions, it means really coming to terms with the responsibilities we have of the international community to hold Israel accountable for it’s crimes and say: “It’s never okay to inflict apartheid against people. It’s never okay to take someone’s land, to build a wall, and slice someone’s communities and tear apart families. It’s never okay and we’re not going to support this.” And that’s what we need to do right now.

CB: You remarked that May 15th was the 58th anniversary of the creation of Israel and Al Nakba (The Catastrophe). June 7th will mark 40 years of Israeli continued occupation, land confiscation, extra-judicial killings, administrative detention, and collective punishment. With the current situation in The Middle East The War in Iraq, The War in Afghanistan, contingencies for war with Iran, and the overall War on Terror, do you feel that the World will overlook the current events happening in Palestine?

NB: You know it’s interesting, 40 years of continued occupation I believe that’s the longest running continuous occupation in modern history. And it has been overlooked; day-by-day it’s overlooked. And I think that because it’s such an incredibly slow process it’s been one road here; and one settlement here; and a few Olive trees one day; and it’s very slow.

This very quiet but destructive engine that is continuously running. And with the distractions Iran looks like it’s in the crosshairs now. Iraq, if it couldn’t get any worse, it is. Who knows, Syria, who knows what’s going on? And I think that a part of this is the occupation, because it is the beacon of US foreign policy it is something that really holds together US imperial dominance in the region. And as long as Israel is well fed; as long as the beast of this occupation is well groomed and well fed then I think the US can stand tall and it gets stronger as the occupation of Palestine grinds on, the US imperial dominance in the region gets stronger, and I think that if we really pull together a cohesive movement directed at the economic impact of the occupation of Palestine. If we explore boycotts, divestment, and sanctions and implement them immediately with no time to waste the occupation will crumble.

US foreign policy will have to take a different shift, and the Middle East will be in much different shape, I’m not sure if it would happen soon, but it would look better, and it will take time, and it wont be pretty no matter what happens. But I think that we, here in the United States say that we aren’t going to pay one penny more to the 3 to 6 billion dollars a year that Israel gets to complete it’s military dominance over Palestinians, then I think it will crumble, and I think that is a really important step that we all have to really look at.

And who knows, we see what happens in Afghanistan; we see what’s happened in Iraq, I think more and more the American public is not supporting what’s going on 10,000 miles away.

Finally people are waking up, and people are connecting their government with their checkbooks. And I think we have to really support this movement. We have to support the people who are really questioning this government and it will be for the betterment of people all over the world.

CB: Nora Barrows-Friedman, you have spoken out about what you perceive as the hypocrisy of Jewish Americans who march against the war in Iraq and keep silent about Israeli policies in The West Bank. As a Jewish woman of conscience, how can not only Jews in America but also, those in the Diaspora be convinced to open their eyes to the horrors of Israeli apartheid?

NB: That’s the issue. I think ultimately it is the responsibility of American Jews to tell our elected representatives that Israel does not stand for me. Not in my name. It’s the ultimate White privilege isn’t it? As a woman with a Jewish last name I can easily pass through customs in Israel and I get a welcoming smile, whereas my friends, of course, cannot travel 20 miles between checkpoints in The West bank.

I laugh it off when people call me a self-hating Jew or a traitor, you know what I’m joining the best of them if I’m on that list, I’d love to be on that list, because that list represents people of conscience.

You know what, I have this identity. I was born into this privilege of being a Jew of being an American, and therefore I have the responsibility to hold my elected representatives accountable, to hold my community accountable. To say: You know what, Israel is a mirage; the whole idea was built on racist ideologies. Who in their right minds, for me at least, I don’t understand how people who have suffered so much during the Nazi holocaust can come from that and in a few years later inflict similar consequences on another people. It doesn’t make sense. I’m going to get into a lot of trouble for saying this, but in some ways it de-legitimizes the suffering of the Jews, it really does. As a Jew, I’m not even religious, I don’t really even identify with the religion or culture anymore because it’s tied up with so much injustice right now.

For the past 58 years it’s been tied to this nationalistic fury that’s been pumped up and militarized, and skewed and distorted. I don’t want any part of that. And there are so many Jews, especially here in the Bay Area, who are so good on so many issues. They’re so right there with us on Iraq. They’re right there with us on racism in San Francisco and police brutality in Richmond, CA. They’re so good and so extremely eloquent and passionate about Civil Rights and human rights. But when it comes to Israel, people clam up and they don’t want to talk about it. I heard someone say: “You know Israel has a soft spot in my heart.” And that is so heartbreaking for me to hear that when we can separate. When people think that they can pick and choose what they call injustice. As a human being I don’t support that and as a Jew, it breaks my heart.

And so, people can call me a self-hating Jew, I don’t hate myself, I love myself. I love myself because; I know that I’m on the right side of history; I’m on the right side of justice; And I’m on the right side of peace. And I stand with people, whoever they may be, who are being persecuted and oppressed. It’s a huge conflict and it’s a huge responsibility for Americans, and American Jews in particular, we have to stand up; we cannot let these ideologues speak for the majority.

We have to open our eyes to the reality that’s unfolding inside Israel and inside Palestine and in the Diaspora. We have to join together and really explore what it means to be privileged. As I wrote in an essay recently; how dare we argue over oppression hierarchy. There’s no reason why the Palestinians should have to pay for what Hitler did to the Jews. There’s no reason and that’s essentially what’s being played out there and I’m saying; not in my name.

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