Thursday, January 15, 2015

I’ve Been Training All My Life to Run this Race

I am Charlie, I am Ahmed, I am Jewish
I was moved and inspired by the unity rally in Paris last week. After the horror stories I’d read about European and French anti-Semitism this past year it was particularly heartening to see the signs that read, “je suis Charlie," "je suis Juif,"and some that read, “je suis Ahmed," the name of the Muslim policeman who was murdered at the Charlie Hebdo office. 

A united front is neccesary at this historical moment when overt anti-Semitism is worse than any time since the lead-up to World War II and Islamophobia is being weaponized as a fascist organizing tool.

Of course prejudice against Jews is not the only problem now. Islamophobia is a massive concern in non-Muslim countries worldwide. The deluded thinking that makes each individual Muslim responsible for the actions of any other Muslim embodies the very essence of bigotry. Muslims are a stigmatized underclass in Europe. As such they are often victims of racism and have limited prospects for upward moblility. The anti-Muslim rallies being held almost weekly in Berlin are actually quite reminiscent of the anti-Jewish rallies of the thirties!

A few journalists have even gone so far as to label Muslims the “new Jews.” This is ridiculous. To even consider this to be the case we would have to be living in a post anti-Semitic world. The fallacy that anti-Jewish hatred has been eradicated makes as much sense as calling our society “post-racial,” In other words, it makes absolutely no sense at all.

Some of my friends have been posting articles and cartoons pointing out that Jews receive an inordinate amount of attention when bigotry rears its head. This "special privileges" strategy has a tried and true history. It is the pedestal approach that has been applied both to women and gays as well as Jews. It denies the reality of both minority status and varying levels of race and class within a group. Once you’re up on that high perch it is easier to be the recepient of all sorts of projectiles. Neo-nazi groups and their followers find this school of thought appealing.

As a child growing up in Ohio in the 1950’s, I was warned repeatedly by virtually all family members, that it was only a matter of time until the gentile world, would try to eliminate us again. That undercurrent of fear has always been deep in Jewish communities, and not without reason. In many ways this fear has shaped my life. It has driven my politics and directed my struggle and fueled the determination to make my presence felt in opposing all forms of oppression.

It is difficult to impossible to be proudly Jewish in the left. We can be Jews but we have to be careful about talking about it. LGBT folks have experienced similar constraints in the past. There was a time when you could be discreetly queer, just keep your mouth shut about it. As leftist Jews today, we are required to bury our memories of discrimination and harrassment and simply pass for "white." Our loudest accusations of racist or Zionist are often reserved for fellow Jews, due to peer pressure, due to fear. We are terrified of bringing that undercurrent of disdain, of hatred to the surface.

It is true, Israel is a travesty in so many ways. How ironic that the very country that was supposed to keep us safe is the one now most likely to lead us into danger just because the Germans wouldn’t just give us Germany but saddled us with someone else's country instead! But this purpose of this piece is not to discuss the Middle East. The establishment of Israel was the result of a massive and brutal genocide. But it has nothing to do with our individual histories as Jews outside of that state today. Our attempted assimilation, our wounds, our victories, the struggles of our parents and grandparents, all that doesn't change. As secular, American, activist Jews, these are the stories we must tell.
 
The far-right is practically orgasmic over the Paris attacks. The burgeoning neo-Nazi organizations in Europe would adore seeing Muslims and Jews fight to the death of every last one of us. Unity is of ultimate importance now. Arab Muslims are Semites; they are our cousins who, under different circumstance, could have been our closest allies. Perhaps there is still time. Today both Jews and Muslims are in the crosshairs, our destinies intertwined. We will rise or fall together.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Diversity in December

That holiday in December that customarily brings the USA to a grinding halt has passed and I am so relieved. Now, there are nearly a year of days until it rears its head again. I am not a grinch, I am a secular Jew. Certainly, I do not begrudge anyone their religious practices or celebrations, nudism, paganism, polyamory and devout atheism included. Just go for it, whatever it may be!

I almost succeeded in completely ignoring Xmas this year and I am grateful to immigrants for this bliss. Before large groups of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists came here en masse, this place was truly a Christian country. Yes, there existed a meager six percent minority of Jews and a few Buddhist Chinese around in the fifties and sixties while I was growing up. We were thankful to those who kept their restaurants open on that fateful day. Beyond that, there were few dissenting voices within earshot.

My Jewish parents made the decision to bring secular Christmas to my sister and me. We had a Chanukah bush that looked and smelled deceptively like a Christmas tree. We lit candles on the menorah perfunctorily. And, like other Americans celebrated on the 25th. The reason for this was that my parents, like so many Jews, had just felt odd and left out on that day. They wanted their children to be more part of this country’s culture. Why not indulge in some harmless trees, ornaments, lights, reindeers and Santa. American Christmas really has very little to do with old J. C. and besides that, it was fun.

It’s true, secular-Jewish Xmas did make me love the holiday season. But today, something makes me even happier this time of year. It is the fact that many new immigrants do not make these concessions at all! The motel my friends and I stayed in near Monterey California is owned by East Indians. Our small coterie of wandering Jews stayed there right through that holiday with neither a decoration nor a single mention from the very diverse group having coffee and waffles on Christmas day. To me, that was a gift of unbelievable magnitude and spirit.

So keep on coming Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and even, goddess forbid, other Jews. We are broadening the spiritual scope of this country. And I love it!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Organizing Matters

Black lives matter. Women’s lives matter. Queer lives matter. Disabled lives matter. Every member of every ethnic group's lives matter. Working-class lives matter. All lives matter.

I am trying to be inclusive here, not divisive. Murder by law enforcement is appalling and wrong. It happens because the police, increasingly the arm of the new authoritarian state that is struggling for control, are the weapon of the one percent. They have been bought and paid for by the corporate personhood of the sickeningly wealthy. Yes, we must demonstrate against indiscriminate police murder without any accountability.

Getting out in the streets to demonstrate has always been a powerful tool to fight oppression. But now, more and more, the protests become the control group for testing every new military weapon. Sound canons that damage hearing are a new toy. The powers that be now bring strobe lights to make photo or video recording impossible. And, every day, more and more places are making the recording of police an illegal activity thus threatening the very basis of free speech.

This is a rat race and, unfortunately, the rats are winning. We are all potential criminals under constant surveillance. Survival itself has become so much more difficult since the banksters overthrew the economy taking away middle-class jobs and any remaining semblance of workers’ rights. Racism, sexism and ethnic prejudices are running wild. As far as trashing some minority group, anything goes It is no co-incidence that the atmosphere is starting to feel like Germany in the early 1930’s. The conditions are similar.

Massive demonstrations may take us in a different direction and they are worth a shot. It is also possible that we will see repression on a massive scale, unlike any we have seen before.

I’m not arguing for fear, just saying that we have to organize. Single issue struggle is fine but we need much more, a program that encompasses all our issues combined with the unity and commitment of each of us to fight for everyone. We will also need representative democratic structure with leaders we can trust.

Knowing that something is very, very wrong and desiring to fix it is the first step. We are on the tightrope now. On one side is a more egalitarian, compassionate society. Fascism on the other. The direction we will fall remains to be seen.

Monday, November 10, 2014

"Distant Music," Poems by Joan Annsfire

Distant Music
My poetry collection, Distant Music has finally arrived. The poems in this collection span over twenty years of my experience of trying to live fully and honestly. They encompass relationships, illness, travel and coming to terms with lesbian identity. But the main focus here is the time-limited nature of this journey. It is the thread that weaves these poems together to illuminate the complex, painful and wondrous nature of all our short and fragile lives.

Thanks so much to Mary Meriam and Risa Denenberg of Headmistress Press and the four reviewers whose blurbs were excerpted on the cover: Carolyn Boll, G.L.Morrison, Ann Tweedy and Julie R. Enszer.
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Reviewer's Blurbs:

The dance of light and shadow unfolds across each and every page of Joan Annsfire’s Distant Music. Life and death, love and loss, and the shifting patterns of time and memory, hope and regret, all swell, surge and release as steps are taken, hands are held, a face is stroked, a life is lived and examined, and a poet is born again and again, poem by poem, word by word. The movement of a revolution. The revolution of a world. A world within. And without. Distant Music is a compelling and moving collection of poems that draws us forward from beginning to end. And beginning again.
—Carolyn Boll, poet/writer/dancer

Distant Music is no “carnival of disorder...seducing with a wild and discordant song.” There is order to these poems. They become a history, a feral memoir, the travel diary of a revolutionary. A travelogue navigating the white-waters of time through the sharp hazards of health and family and love. These are companionable poems (though sometime reckless companions) that invite you to swim naked or leap from bridges. They sing of geography’s immutability; memory’s flexibility and betrayals of the body; but ultimately these poems sing of survival. While they lay flowers at the side of the road for peoples and things that didn’t survive the journey, these are poems of passionate endurance.
—G.L. Morrison, author of Chiaroscuro Kisses

Distant Music is full of visceral, surprising images. If you’re brave enough to stay the course, Joan Annsfire will take you “joyriding on the rushing rapids,” through the “searing pain” of childhood and a stigmatized youth, through the speaker’s mother’s illness and death from cancer and then her own diagnosis and recovery, finally to land in “an older body, baggy, stretched and / soft as a favorite pair of flannel pajamas . . .” Annsfire’s is a world where “intense, immeasurable hunger” is an “elusive prize” in pursuit of which one must “scour the earth.” The reader who scours these pages will be enriched by Annsfire’s wisdom, her skilled use of metaphor and language, and her jarring honesty.
—Ann Tweedy, author of White Out and Beleaguered Oases

In Distant Music, Joan Annsfire’s poems dance with delicate intimacy and shout their angry love. A long-awaited collection from the widely published, Berkeley poet, Distant Music is filled with poems to savor and enjoy.
—Julie R. Enszer, author of Sisterhood, editor/publisher of Sinister Wisdom

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ebola: When Poverty Equals Death

Over 2,300 people in West Africa have succumbed to the Ebola epidemic and over 240 of them have been health care workers. Finally, Obama is sending in 3.000 military troops to help deal with the epidemic. It's too bad that the world stood by silently as this epidemic took hold. 

The nations of West Africa are extremely poor. Many “hospitals” there are simply places with beds and a few staffers who may or may not have even gone through medical training. Even before this epidemic, meals were brought in by family members, not provided by the facility.

Training in the handling of contagious disease is haphazard to non-existent but, that is not the reason for the tremendous loss of lives. The majority of deaths of care providers have been due to lack of equipment, understaffing and exhaustion, not negligence. There is not enough protective clothing or personnel to treat, or contain, the infected whose numbers are spiraling out of control.

Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal are not countries that attract the attention of the pharmaceutical drug industry. A majority of their citizens are black and live at a level of poverty unimaginable in the United States. They have no plumbing, running water and much cooking is done with open fires, not stoves. 

People lives can be saved. Research, that should have been done at the first sign of this new disease, is happening. But vaccines for ebola, like all of our medical care, are available only to those from wealthy nations. Two infected an American medical personnel, a doctor and a nurse, were flown out of Liberia and taken to Emory Hospital in Atlanta, quarantined and given the rare, expensive, experimental drug called Z-mapp, which helped them survive the disease.The infected of Africa, even doctors and nurses have been essentially on their own.

The pharmaceutical industry has no interest or desire to manufacture complex and costly vaccines when there is no financial incentive to do so. Poor Africans cannot lay down big money to cure themselves or their relatives. This would not be a profitable enterprise like Statin drugs for high cholesterol or Viagra for erectile dysfunction.

The brutally sad truth of the matter is that what drives the search for cures for diseases is this potential monetary windfall. Even if the big medical think tanks found, say, a cure for cancer, they would make sure that what was required would be that people take a certain amount of medication every day for the rest of their lives.This would provide them with continued financial security.

That insures the continued prosperity of Big Pharma. Stocks rise, doctors get samples and desperate people, without adequate health options, find some way to gather the financial resources required to save their lives.

Finding a cure for Ebola offers none of these remunerations. If it did, the epidemic would have been halted in its tracks before it spiraled out of control. Instead, we all are forced to witness the way the so-called developed nations of the first world allow fellow citizens in Africa to be ravaged by a merciless disease!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Where Ferguson and Occupy Meet...

I watched the coverage of the Ferguson uprising on MSNBC and a lot of what I saw the police doing looked disturbingly familiar to the police riots I experienced when I participated in Occupy Oakland. There were flash-bang grenades, bean-bag projectiles, rubber bullets and plenty of tear gas. The sound cannons were new “toys,”  for our militarized boys in blue.

When I was arrested, as part of a mass arrest in 1991 following the Rodney King excessive police force incident, the cops had little access to all this weaponry. They simply surrounded around the 400 people peacefully participating in the protest, handcuffed us and hauled us away. Today what cops are engaged in is more like a live staging of World of Warcraft.

Let me state unequivocally that racism plays a huge role in out-of-control policing in this country. There exists a rampant, unbridled fear of young, black males in our society. Beyond that, the government and its enforcement arm are tremendously afraid of resistance of any kind and invest everything they have in crushing rebellions before they can spread and take hold. This has been of utmost importance since the economic collapse of 2008.

Sure, the NSA and its defenders will say that heightened security dates back to the September 11th attacks of 2001. But why then has the collection of metadata increased to a loud crescendo at this point in time. Why are racism and all forms of ethnic hatred being constantly and continually promoted just as labor unions, job security and workers’ rights and the right to a living wage are being hammered into non-existence?

It's a simple divide and conquer tactic to perpetuate capitalism. The existence of a cheap, disposable underclass is the foundation that buttresses the wealth of the one percent. Those in power are especially afraid of young, black males but they are afraid of all of us. They know they are sapping our life-blood both as low-wage workers and as an unemployed poverty class.With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the USA is now rounding up folks who can't pay their bills, thus reinstituting debtors' prisons. Economic inequality here has reached an all-time high and that's not going to change anytime soon. The bottom line is:  as long as WE are at each other’s throats, THEY are safe. The second we begin to rise up, they beat us down with ten times the force required to do so.

Racism is a real problem but it is not a "black" issue. It is an American issue that affects all of us. “We must all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” That quote is from Ben Franklin at the signing of the declaration of independence. And he wasn’t including women, everyone considered "non-white," immigrants, non-landowners and a whole host of others. But he still has a point. We can all learn from his mistakes and try to do it right this time!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Suicide / Survival

Robin Williams’ suicide is a devastating waste and loss. The shock waves reverberating around the world seem out of proportion for one comedian however brilliant, poignant and universally respected and loved.

This is a reaction to the big question that if someone like Robin Williams could end his life, how can the rest of us poor fools ever manage to trudge on? If wealth, fame and universal adoration aren’t strong enough reasons to compel someone to stay here on earth, what does that say about all our struggles? It compells us to imagine a depth of despair that is truly terrifying. It speaks to the immense difficulty of this life that someone can go against every survival instinct as opposed to just waiting for inevitable, eventual death, an experience guaranteed to every one of us.  

Death in our culture is very scary. In my sixth decade, I currently see more friends taken down against their will than because of it. That was not always the case. I’ve had friends and family members and friends who’ve ended their lives. My grandmother took pills. my high school friend, Jill hung herself with her knee socks when we were in our early twenties. In those years, my friend Liz stole her uncle’s gun and shot herself in the head. As one of those they left behind, I felt grief was overwhelmed by a sense of failure.What could I have done or said that might have made a difference? Couldn't I have talked them into one more pizza, one more movie?

Yet, I have certainly gone through periods in my life when I’ve considered suicide as an option. Fortunately, there is a vast abyss between thought and action. Taking your own life is a violent act that requires a high level of desperation as well as commitment. It demands totally abandoning the idea that things will improve, that tomorrow will be that proverbial new day.

The tragedy of suicide is that violence is perpetrated not only on the departee but on the survivors. I blame my mother leaving me because of ovarian cancer, but if it had been her decision to go it would have made my anger that much stronger. We all want to debrief with the dead but, except for dreams and visions, they are no longer available to us. Anger, frustration and fear are the collateral damage that suicide leaves in its wake.

So grieve for Robin Williams and for everyone who couldn’t bear to wait around for the grim reaper and instead took things into their own hands.It’s okay to mourn. It’s okay to be pissed off. But the best outcome is to support the people you care about right now and make sure each one of them can keep on keepin’ on!