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"It's Important to Remember Their Names:" Review of Midnight on the Mavi Marmara

[Cover of the book, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara] [Cover of the book, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara]

Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How it Changed the Course of the Israel/Palestine Conflict. Edited by Moustafa Bayoumi. Chicago: Haymarket Books / New York: OR Books, 2010.

First things first: Midnight on the Mavi Marmara is necessary reading. It also provides a strong model for the practice of combining scholarship and activism, and for future endeavors in left publishing more generally. Published as a collaboration between OR Books, a new progressive publishing company specializing in print-on-demand and e-books, and the venerable Haymarket Books, the collection appeared at the beginning of September, barely three months after the attack by Israeli commandos on the Mavi Marmara and the other ships in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. As a result, the book is well positioned to become part of the continuing struggle of narratives being carried on, especially in the face of the massive Israeli media campaign to try to spin the attack on the flotilla. Not long after the publication of the book, the UN Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission released a report that essentially upheld the version of events put forth by eyewitnesses on the ships, and accused Israeli forces of violating international law, “including international humanitarian and human rights law.” Needless to say, the report was largely ignored by the U.S. media, despite the fact that one of the victims of the “arbitrary and summary executions” (this is the wording used by the UN report) carried out by Israeli forces was a U.S. citizen, nineteen-year-old Furkan Dogan, who “was shot twice in the head, once in the back and in the left leg and foot the face at point blank range while lying on the ground." Midnight on the Mavi Marmara thus comes at exactly the right time, and represents a valuable tool for those unwilling to let the story of what happened on the night of May 31, 2010 disappear.

Given the speed with which the book was assembled and published, the quality of the contributions is strikingly high. Moustafa Bayoumi, the editor of the collection, has skillfully assembled a set of eyewitness accounts by those on the Mavi Marmara and other ships in the Freedom Flotilla together with pieces published in the days immediately following the attacks and analyses written in their aftermath. He provides a powerful framing for the book as a whole in his introduction, which also presents the basic facts of the case (hardly an easy feat when every important “fact” has been a site of controversy). Bayoumi explains the book’s rather bold claim (expressed in the book’s subtitle) that the attack on the flotilla has “changed the course of the Israel/Palestine conflict.” The impact of the attack on the Mavi Marmara, Bayoumi argues, will be felt along three significant and related lines. The first line of influence concerns what he calls “the internationalization of the struggle for equal rights in Israel/Palestine” (8); the second concerns the ongoing debate about Zionism in the United States, among American Jews but also among liberal supporters of Israel more generally (Bayoumi quotes Peter Beinart’s argument, expressed in the New York Review of Books, that “for several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead” (11); the third relates to the “ongoing crisis among the Palestinians regarding their own political leaders” (as Bayoumi puts it, “all the established parties are so far away from fulfilling the needs and aspirations of their constituents that they have become a major hindrance rather than a vehicle for a just resolution of the conflict”) (12-13).

These three lines of impact provide a loose framework for the disparate voices collected in the book, which includes a total of forty-eight chapters. The contributions range from personal recollections to political analyses, from a simple statement that lists the items prohibited from and permitted into the Gaza Strip, painstakingly assembled (since Israeli authorities refuse to disclose information regarding the restrictions on transferring goods into Gaza) by and delivered without editorial comment (except for one deadpan line: “Gisha is pleased to learn that coriander no longer presents a threat to Israeli security” [115]), to Richard Tillinghast’s poem “What Is Not Allowed,” which approaches the same theme in a very different voice: “Pumpkins and carrots you may have, / but no delicacies, / no cherries, no pomegranates, no watermelon, no onions, / no chocolate” (148). Given the wide range of Midnight on the Mavi Marmara, Bayoumi’s analytical framework is quite welcome; the book otherwise could have become an unwieldy collection of unrelated documents rather than what it is, a sharp and readable account. It is equally commendable, however, that Bayoumi’s introduction, and the collection as a whole, does not equate the need for a cold-eyed analysis of the situation with cold-heartedness towards the human costs of the attack, and of the siege of Gaza more generally. This is a point familiar to those who have read Bayoumi’s acclaimed book How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, where he argues for the political power of stories, a power not possessed by polemics or statistics, the power “to convert a line drawing into flesh, to dislodge the power of the presumption and prejudice.” In his introduction to Midnight on the Mavi Marmara, Bayoumi expresses this point eloquently, in a passage describing the nine men killed on board the Mavi Marmara that is worth quoting in full:

"One of the dead was the tae kwon do coach of the Turkish national team, himself a former European champion of the sport. Another was a sixty-one-year-old electrical engineer. Also killed were a Kurdish telephone repair shop owner, a former newspaper journalist who traded in that job to work for the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a firefighter with four sons, a thirty-two-year-old aid worker with a young daughter, two family men, and the nineteen-year-old American-born high school student from inner Anatolia. Their ages ranged from nineteen to sixty-one, and their names are Çetin Topçuoglu, Ibrahim Bilgen, Ali Haydar Bengi, Cevdet Kiliçlar, Fahri Yaldiz, Necdet Yildrum, Cengiz Songür, Cengiz Akyüz, and Furkan Dogan. It’s important to remember their names. The dead are easily maligned and even more easily forgotten. What we need to recall most is that these were ordinary men, shot to death in the middle of a humanitarian mission." (4)

In keeping with this emphasis on remembering, and in particular remembering the human aspect of what happened on that May night, the first section contains a series of eyewitness accounts from a wide range of voices with differing relationships to and experiences of the attacks. Henning Mankell, the best-selling Swedish novelist, provides a diary from onboard one of the other ships in the flotilla, while Iara Lee, a filmmaker who managed to smuggle footage of the attacks off the ship, describes the events from onboard the Mavi Marmara, joined in her account of the attacks by Lubna Masarwa, one of the organizers of the flotilla, Jamal Elshayyal, a producer for Al-Jazeera, and Sümeyye Ertekin, a Turkish journalist from TVNET, among others. All these writers provide details of their own particular experiences of the attack and its aftermath, each reflected through the prism of their own backgrounds and experiences. Each individual reader will be left to pick out the specific details that s/he finds most moving, horrifying, or infuriating (for me, one particular image from Masarwa’s account triggers all three of these emotional reactions simultaneously: “There was a small mountain of passengers’ bags, open, and flags stained with blood. Letters written by hundreds of children to children in Gaza were on the floor, under the soldiers’ boots” [43]). This is the section of the book that one would most like to see read by those in the U.S. whose only understanding of the events came from watching or reading mainstream news or from the statements of American politicians from both parties, all of which provided unblinking support for the Israeli “self-defense” narrative.

The sections of the book that follow provide analyses aimed at understanding the attacks themselves, the larger context surrounding them, and the potential effects upon the situation in Israel-Palestine. The section “Understanding the Attacks” collects a series of articles and posts written in the days immediately after the attack, together with a chapter written for this collection by Rashid Khalidi and an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Noam Chomsky. While most of these pieces are already available online, there is a value (especially given the needle-in-a-haystack nature of online information) in bringing these together in one place. Especially noteworthy are Khalidi’s reflections on the attacks, which combine a focus on the American political context with an analysis of the regional ramifications of the attacks and their aftermath; Adam Horowitz’s and Philip Weiss’ piece (adapted from writing that first appeared on Mondoweiss), which argues that the attack on the flotilla, together with the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza, represents Israel’s ultimate “anti-1967 moment,” one in which the image of Israel as “the scrappy underdog beating the odds” has been changed forever (104); and Alice Walker’s moving essay, published a few days after the attacks, in which she links the attempt to break the siege of Gaza with the actions of the U.S. civil rights movement, citing Medgar Evers’ declaration to civil rights activists in Mississippi — “You will have no protection” — made shortly before he was assassinated in 1963 (108).

The next two sections of the book provide a valuable context for interpreting the attacks and their aftermath. “The Blockade of Gaza” includes a number of pieces that stress the almost unimaginable cost, not just of the present siege of Gaza, but of the ongoing efforts of the Israeli government to isolate Gaza from the West Bank and thus further fracture Palestinian resistance to the occupation. This latter point is made most strongly, and most provocatively, by Amira Hass, who maintains that the process of isolating Gaza began in 1991 and, furthermore, that the strategy of the flotilla movement unwittingly “serves the Israeli goal”: “Unintentionally, the runners of the maritime and media blockade focused attention on aspects that do not undermine the essence of Israel’s closure of Gaza. And that essence is denying the right and thwarting the will of Gazans to be an active, permanent, and natural part of Palestinian society” (128-29). Also included here is Sara Roy’s “Gaza: Treading on Shards,” first published in the Nation several months before the attack on the Mavi Marmara, which provides a thorough and horrifying account of the “consciously planned, implemented, and enforced” disablement of Gaza’s economy and society (120).

The following section, “Inside Israel,” gives a series of (largely depressing) accounts of the motivations behind and response to the attacks from within Israeli society. There are a few bright spots — Neve Gordon’s description of protests by Israeli students, Max Blumenthal’s account of successful attempts to expose and counter some of the more outrageous claims made by Israeli government spokespeople (i.e. “Attackers of the IDF soldiers found to be Al Qaeda mercenaries” [187]) — but what we find here, overall, are reports from a society whose siege mentality (even as its government imposes a siege upon Gaza) has precipitated an endorsement of right-wing elements and of what Doron Rosenblum calls a “commando complex” (162). Meanwhile, Lamis Andoni and Yousef Munayyer lay out the twinned history of Israel’s myth of morality and its continuing impunity for violations of international law, one feeding into the other in a circle that dates back decades and that continues to underwrite the Israeli government’s position in the wake of the attacks: no harm, no foul.

The final two sections of the book are more forward looking. Many of the best contributions here provide strategic thinking about the new situations that may emerge in the aftermath of the attacks, while others attempt to concretize this thinking into strategies that can inform the struggle for justice in Israel/Palestine, often in terms of the ongoing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. What begins to emerge in the penultimate section, “Old Friends, New Thinking,” is a cautious optimism, expressed in the titles of two of the pieces: Daniel Luban’s “No Direction Home” and Alia Malek’s “Something’s Got to Give.” Writing from their respective positions — as an American Jew struggling with liberal Zionism, and as an Arab American expressing a sense of disquiet about “what little impact Arab Americans have had on their country’s debate and policy on the question of Palestine” (251) — both writers similarly hold out the hope that at long last, a tipping point may have been reached. Norman Finkelstein pushes this line forward more strongly, expressing the possibility that the attack on the Mavi Marmara will add to the political fallout from the brutal Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008-2009 and taking some comfort in statistics from June 2009: “American voters calling themselves supporters of Israel plummeted from 69 percent before the attack [on Gaza] to 49 percent . . . while voters believing that the United States should support Israel dropped from 69 percent to 44 percent” (256).

This line is then carried forward more strategically in the three pieces that make up the final section, “Palestine on our Minds,” all of which address the continuing non-violent struggles being carried on by the BDS movement and by groups like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Mike Marqusee sees in the attacks upon solidarity activists evidence that Israeli perceives these movements as “a major threat” (269); Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), lists the recent achievements of the BDS movement, and links these achievements to the attacks on Gaza and on the Freedom Flotilla, “which rudely awakened a long dormant sense of international moral responsibility for Israel’s exceptional status for decades as a state above the law” (274); and Adam Shapiro, a co-founder of the ISM, links the recent flotilla movement to other nonviolent solidarity campaigns and suggests that these movements have to some extent “reshaped the dynamic of confrontation and shifted the balance of power away from Israel,” concluding that “there is a radical shift in momentum, in which Israel’s power is on the decline while that of the anti-occupation/anti-apartheid camp is growing” (290). While the continuing disparity in power between these two sides means that “it will still be a long time before concrete results are materialized,” Shapiro’s title expresses the overall sense of growing momentum and cautious optimism: “Expediting the Day of Liberation.”

One of the most admirable things about Midnight on the Mavi Marmara is that the contributors are clear about their desire to do precisely this: to actively contribute to the struggle for justice in Israel/Palestine, to actually expedite the day of liberation. Such a book needs to be taken seriously, and in this context, taking it seriously means engaging actively and critically with the strategies that might follow from the analyses that it offers. Accordingly, in my next post, I want to think through some of the strategic ramifications that might come from an engagement with this book. For the moment, though, I will give the last word to Bayoumi, who concludes the last section of his introduction with a disarmingly simple statement: “There are so many good reasons to end the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and not a single good reason to keep it going.” His introduction ends with a statement that expresses the broken-hearted optimism of the book as a whole: “What the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and actions like it show is that ordinary people may be the ones who are finally going to push the conflict to a resolution, one that guarantees justice for everyone. And the extraordinary power of ordinary individuals working together may very well be the lasting legacy of the attack on the Mavi Marmara” (15). It is to the eternal credit of the contributors to and publishers of Midnight on the Mavi Marmara that they have worked together to produce a book that attempts to be true to this legacy; it stands as an important contribution towards bringing that legacy to pass.

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