From the Editors
This week, walking through Columbia University's campus, I noticed a piece of paper stuck to the metal railings around me. It was a flyer advertising Israel week at Columbia University, a popular yearly event meant to discuss issues related to Israel and foster support on campus for that state. This year, one of the events in particular caught my eye. The event was titled Mapping Israel's Borders, and the blurb read:
“Do you want to learn more about the history of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict? Do you love CANDY? Map out the history of Israel's map . . . with candy! Watch how the borders of Israel have fluctuated over the years and discuss how these historical events affect the current situation in the region.”
I was intrigued, and not (only) because I like CANDY. I couldn't help it, I laughed out loud (and my loud laugh is quite loud), right there on Low Plaza. I couldn't believe that anyone would imagine to represent subjects as contentious, and as violent, as Israel's border and the Arab-Israeli conflict through the medium of high fructose corn syrup. These borders mark the site of countless violences, have ripped families apart and cratered the lives of a people, and are continuously remade in order to encapsulate more land and resources (namely water). Moreover, these borders bear the scars of ethnic cleansing, the illegal annexation of land, and one of the most perfected military (and civilian) surveillance systems in the world. Yet somehow, a group of students had thought that it would be “fun” to talk to their peers about these borders through the creative use and ingestion of Twizzlers, M&Ms, and frosting. Such an act was, to me, unthinkable. But then again, I am older, and have always preferred chocolate (preferably ice cream). Perhaps more importantly, I have lived through three Arab-Israeli wars and am from a place where the term “Palestinian refugees” is not (only) a theoretical concept.
The night of the event, I went with two friends. Still unbelieving, I was wondering whether they would actually do it, and I had a morbid fascination with what type of candy (not an acronym, we were told at the door) they would use, for example, to represent the Apartheid Wall. Over the course of the next forty-five minutes, the borders of mandate Palestine, the U.N. partition plan, 1948 Israel Palestine, 1967 Israel Palestine, and the accords (not a type of car) of Camp David, Oslo, and the plans drawn up at Camp David II were drawn and redrawn using color coded Twizzlers. Perhaps it made sense to to capture Israel's expanding borders, and Palestine's contracting borders, gelatinously. Then the color-coded M&Ms came out, green for Palestinians, blue for Israeli Jews. They were scattered within the map to denote demographics. Palestinian refugees, reflecting the sad state of the world, went M&M-less. As this chocolatey demography was viewed, a thoughtful discussion about Palestinian birth rates ensued. Finally, major settlement blocks looking very much like purple and yellow candied lego blocks were erected on top of a land of frosting that had been crisscrossed time and time again by Twizzlers. When the talk was over, we were invited to eat the map, the people, and the settlements. One student profoundly remarked that under the blue and green exteriors, all M&Ms taste the same.
Throughout all the years (and there have been many) that I have attended higher education institutions, I have been involved in the planning and execution of events related to the histories, peoples, and politics of the Middle East. I have attended hundreds of events on these issues in Beirut, DC, and NY. At these events, invariably video, photographs, and eyewitness accounts about the horrors of war, occupation and authoritarianism are displayed. Statistics are cited, impassioned presentations are given, and sometimes fights (verbal, mostly) break out. The hope is that for one or two hours people will listen and engage with the lives of others and the terror of politics in action. It would be unthinkable to represent the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib tortures, the Lebanese or Algerian civil war, or the siege of Gaza with confectionary sugar. But this unthinkability has nothing to do with morality or gall or tactics. It has to do with power, and the power of abstraction. It has to with the fact that the Israel's colonial project has succeeded to the extent that it can be represented by something as innocuous (and yummy!) as candy. It has to do with the fact that Palestinian lives and livelihood are weighted so much less than their Israeli counterparts that their continued dispossession and segregation can be mediated through the twisted ropes of red and green licorice. The students who planned this event did not mean to offend, and I want to stress this. They truly thought that this might be a good way to discuss some of these serious subjects. They wanted to foster a debate, and indeed there were several different points of view expressed that night. To them, the idea that a Palestinian sitting in that room might experience the plotting and eating of a green M&M in Gaza as violent was unthinkable. They really didn’t think that it was a big deal. And that is what terrified me the most.
The ability to abstract the Arab-Israeli conflict to such an extent is not only an act of power, it is also re-constitutes (fatal) power relationships by sugar coating a colonial project as an edible “border disagreement” and mediating ethnic cleansing through the dispersion of what seemed to be the most popular candy that night, M&Ms. The more abstract this conflict is, the more Israel can transfigure its war crimes, military occupation, and colonial expansion into a counter terrorism strategy and/or defensive policies. The more this history is packaged as something ingestible and digestible in forty-five minutes, the stronger the dominant discourse on Israel-Palestine will become. The commodification, consumption, and marketing of knowledge through the abstractions of maps, graphs, charts and expertise is how power is made and exercised, as several theories have taught us. That night, while my friend was furiously eating a settlement (that tasted like chalk, by the way) I tried very hard to think of how one could mediate the Abu-Ghraib photographs or the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo through cheese spray, gummy bears or perhaps popcorn. But I experienced even this exercise as unthinkable outside the realms of absurdity or farce. For others, luring college students with the promise of a sugar rush seemed like a good way to discuss a conflict that has made refugees out of millions of people, kept millions more under a brutal military and civilian occupations, and has galvanized the Middle East for the past century and counting. The organizers were not trying to trivialize the Arab-Israeli conflict, but their actions demonstrate that the power relationships that unfairly weigh Israeli and Palestine lives, rights, and vulnerabilities have been normalized and abstracted to the extent that they seem “natural.” The differences between two people's experience of this history and this present is one of color, not of content. And that is why an M&M is sometimes not just an M&M.
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