Opinion: As politicians defend Israel's actions, I go crazy every day | Pittsburgh City Paper

Opinion: Elected officials are gaslighting us about their support for Israel

click to enlarge Protestors hold signs supporting Palestine on a cold, rainy day.
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Protesters hold signs in front of John Fetterman's office on Grant Street demanding an end to US funding for Israel on Jan. 10, 2024.
When people ask me how I’m doing these days, I’ve found myself responding “oh, you know, going a little crazy every day.”

I spoke recently to a Palestinian friend who shared with me the story of a cousin who was murdered by the Israeli Defense Forces when they attempted to return to their house to shower. He told me as well the story of nine other family members and their friends. They were innocent people sheltering together in fear, and they were murdered in their home, which Israeli airstrikes collapsed on top of them.

That same week, as I have many times in the last months, I spoke to a staffer at John Fetterman’s DC office, who told me tersely that “you don’t know what you’re talking about,” and then hung up on me.

This is what I mean when I say I am going crazy every day. No matter how high the public support for a ceasefire, no matter how explicitly genocidal the rhetoric of Israeli officials, no matter how obvious it becomes that the IDF is targeting civilians, journalists, and health workers — as they have many, many, many times prior to Oct. 7 — the message received from my elected officials is the same:

You are mistaken. You do not see what you see. Leave this to the professionals. Israel has a right to defend themselves and self defense is whatever they say it is. We stand with our allies, the only democracy in the Middle East. Besides, what are you going to do, vote Republican?

As I wrote the first draft of this piece, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby claimed to reporters that no nation “is doing as much to alleviate the pain and suffering of the people of Gaza” as the United States. The very next day the US exercised their veto to block a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire.

They spit in our faces and demand our thanks. I know this is only a small fraction of the repression Palestinians face. As my friend puts it: “a fundamental experience of being a Palestinian in diaspora turns out to be knowing that your right to existence is subject to debate every day, and that one day, you will watch from far away as your family gets destroyed.”

At least the Fetterman office answers the phone.

Only once since Oct. 7 have I spoken to a human being at the office of my other Senator, Bob Casey, and it seems I am not alone in that. I call, press 3 to talk to a staffer, and hear an anodyne message about how they are experiencing a "high call volume," but that Senator Casey cares deeply about hearing perspectives from across Pennsylvania.

Though nothing I’ve seen indicates that the Senator means this, I leave my message anyway. I am tortured by the certainty that some professional lanyard collector will delete it without ever listening. They know what it says and they do not care.

This past week, as the death toll in Gaza crept toward 25,000 human beings, both of my senators voted to continue unconditional military aid to Israel. In doing so they rejected Senator Bernie Sanders’ frankly too-little-too-late demand that the State Department produce a report on human rights abuses by Israel in order for aid to continue. What even is the point of pretending these people are accountable to us? I lose my mind a little at a time.

I’ve been in the street here in Pittsburgh, and in Washington, DC. I’ve been in crowds numbered in dozens and those in the hundreds of thousands. Recently, I took an hour-plus round trip drive on my day off to gather outside the office of Chris Deluzio, who represents me in Congress. Forty-five or so people gathered in a grim and rainy parking lot outside a nondescript office block in Carnegie, many of whom I recognized from actions I’ve attended here in the past.

We’ve gathered downtown, outside the offices of my aforementioned senators. We’ve marched across the Warhol bridge to rally in freezing rain outside the corporate headquarters of an arms manufacturer. We’ve taken to the streets in Oakland, stopping traffic between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. I haven’t been to everything, but I am doing what I can. It is far from enough. I go crazy every day.

By the time I arrived at Deluzio’s office, I knew what most of the gathered speakers would say. The only real question in my heart was whether or not those with relatives or friends in Palestine would have new names to add to their litanies of grief.

This is not to say these gatherings have become perfunctory or are deflated. They are powerful expressions of rage and profoundly hopeful affairs which call for a free and equal resolution for all people. They are explicitly anti-Zionist and make no space for antisemitism. They are, in a literal sense, a visionary act, asserting with oracular clarity that a future without islamophobia, antisemitism, apartheid, and, yes, without an ethnonationalist Israel, is not only desirable but necessary if we want any measure of peace.

Days after we gathered outside Rep. Deluzio’s office to deliver an open letter pleading with him to do the bare minimum and call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, he voted for a nonbinding resolution which, among other things, unequivocally states that the House holds anti-Zionism and antisemitism to be equivalent.

To fully delve into the profoundly dangerous nature of this equivocation is beyond me at this time. I will leave it at the fact that I love, know, and respect a great many anti-Zionist Jews, and I paraphrase them here: to identify all Jews with the state of Israel is to ratify an explicitly antisemitic worldview that considers Jewish people as permanent outsiders who are loyal only to their mysterious polity and are never full members of the societies in which they live.

My representative spends his time on nonbinding resolutions. As for me, most weekdays I call and speak to the same staffer in his office. By now, he knows my voice, and I know his. Our interactions are rote. Sometimes I like to imagine that I am getting to him. If I can’t reach the representative, maybe I can talk this guy into quitting his job. Occasionally I say this explicitly. It must be tiring to get calls every day telling you your boss is running cover for genocide. But let’s not kid ourselves, even if I call next week and "my" staffer is gone, some other eager beaver will answer the phone, and Chris Deluzio will keep ignoring my messages.

I go crazy every day.

What’s the lesson then? I cannot pretend to offer anyone a prescription here. I cannot tell you how or when to fight, just that it is necessary to do so. However, I will say, in closing, that it’s imperative to reckon with our misidentifications of where power lies.

I go a little crazy every day because we are all trapped in an electoral busy box. This is not an original thought, but it is one worth reiterating. We slam on buttons and yank on levers which are connected to nothing. At appropriate intervals, a light may come on, one time blue and the next red. We sit back and wonder if some combination of our prior inputs led to this outcome. Meanwhile, the war machine churns on, and you will never ever be able to vote on that.

Trying to move the wheel of history is a crazy-making task. That is not to say it is a foolish goal. I think often of the late anthropologist David Graeber’s assertion that “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” I believed that last year and I continue to believe it now.

It’s crucial to note that the ‘we’ in that sentence is an invocation of the collective. People in the aggregate are endowed with the ability to make choices about the world they wish to create. At a protest, I feel that potential all around me. To surrender that power to the warmongers who claim to speak in our names is an abdication of our humanity. History is made a little at a time, then all at once. In the street I can feel it happening.

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
21 images

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson