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Rachel Corrie Sister City Project Thwarted

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    A Sister City Debate in Rachel Corrie s Hometown By ALEVTINA REA, Olympia, WA April 26, 2007 http://www.counterpunch.org/rea04262007.html Hope is a little
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2007
      A Sister City Debate in Rachel Corrie's Hometown
      By ALEVTINA REA, Olympia, WA
      April 26, 2007

      "Hope is a little child."

      Charles Péguy (1873-1914)

      Charles Péguy, French poet and essayist, once said:
      "It will never be known what acts of cowardice have
      been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently
      progressive." However, after the April 17, 2007, City
      of Olympia, WA, Council public meeting where six
      council members, including the Olympia mayor, had
      every chance to prove that they lead Olympia toward
      being a progressive and forward-thinking community, I
      had to rethink its meaning. The ratio of the council's
      progressiveness, if I may venture to come up with this
      definition, was 2-to-4, with Councilmember T.J.
      Johnson and Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ware being the only
      ones who were admirably courageous and eloquent in
      their heroic effort to grant official status to the
      Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project (ORSCP) and, thus,
      recognize as an official sister city of Olympia a city
      in Palestine, Rafah, an ill-fated city by dint of the
      Israeli occupation and pathetic political passages by
      the U.S. toward peace in the Middle East. To reflect
      the situation at hand, I had to paraphrase Péguy's
      quote thus: "It will always be obvious when acts of
      cowardice have been motivated by the fear of looking
      too progressive." On April 17, my interpretation of
      the actual saying was a close match to what's
      transpired in the Olympia City Hall.

      In many regards, this meeting could be named as one
      portending a national political watershed because the
      people of Olympia and a few others who arrived from
      Steilacoom, Lacey and Tumwater had an opportunity to
      openly voice their opinion--in a very civilized way,
      as the mayor of Olympia commented at the end of the
      meeting--about the possibility of friendship with the
      people of Rafah and of all the pros and cons that
      official status for such a friendship entails. The
      issue of Palestine has never been a comfortable topic
      of any discussion in the U.S.A., and a few years ago,
      such a meeting could never have happened in the
      sanctum of the Olympia City Hall; moreover, even
      having such a word as "Palestine" on the agenda could
      be, and still is, considered by some timid souls as
      the egregious act of an importunate and impudent

      However, since Olympia purports to be in the ranks of
      the progressive avant-garde--when compared to other,
      less free-thinking and more narrow-minded
      communities--the House of Olympus, or the Olympia City
      Hall, on April 17 was the place where Olympian
      political gods, presided over by Zeus--pardon me, by
      Mayor Mark Foutch--had a right to decide whether they
      will deign to concede the ORSCP's request
      legitimization of the town's existing friendship with
      people in Rafah. The myth of democracy was truly at
      display that evening, for the only voices that were
      counted were the voices of "elective aristocracy," to
      use the term coined by Benjamin R. Barber, a political
      theorist and professor at the University of Maryland.

      We Americans are very often to be found patting
      ourselves on the back for living in a truly democratic
      society. However, this naïve belief is rather a sign
      of either complete ignorance or of the insidious
      mutation of our cerebral faculties. In the cradle of
      democracy in ancient Greece, the collective nature of
      the law and of public decisions was truly the
      foundation of a democratic society. Whereas all other
      societies before and most societies since would rather
      say of the rules they proclaimed and enforced that
      they are good and ought to be obeyed for that very
      reason. Self-government of a true democracy is a
      utopian dream, no less, no more. Nowadays, we observe
      that our government decides what is good for the
      people, as it was with the April 17 meeting in the
      Olympia City Council chamber, where representatives of
      the people, in this case, six council members, were
      the only ones who had full authority in a matter of
      vital importance. On that evening, the City Hall had
      been filled to its capacity, and there were many more
      people who gathered outside and listened to the
      proceedings through microphones. There were 83
      community members who signed to testify and--because
      people didn't have enough authority to decide for
      themselves--they urged the City of Olympia council
      members either to support or reject the proposal.

      Indeed, the public hearing was conducted in an
      exemplary pattern. Out of 83 speakers, 28 were against
      and 55 for the proposal. There were no speciously
      expressed rude remarks or raised voices. However, some
      of those 28 were mere mouthpieces of an insidious
      racism--toward Arabs in general and Palestinians in
      Rafah in particular--commonly spread throughout the
      U.S.A. Let's heed some of the reasons why the
      opponents thought that the proposal should be

      "Rafah is a known violent area associated with
      multiple terrorist attacks."

      "Rafah is associated with terrorism."

      Palestinians try to "destroy Israel and drive Jews
      into the sea"; it is "an anti-Israeli proposal."

      "Violent country, violent city."

      All in all, the comments opposing official sisterhood
      were lacking in creativity. They were mostly confined
      to common prejudices against Palestinians, who were
      stereotyped as terrorists, and to repetitive comments
      to the effect that this proposal is divisive and
      controversial. One may ask, why it is so divisive and
      controversial? Logically thinking, the answer is
      simple. It is, indeed, divisive because people
      themselves made it so. Moreover, listening to the
      opposing voices, I could not help but think that the
      sharp division between "them" and "us" underlay
      everything said at this public hearing. They--people
      in Rafah--are definitely different from us, and this
      difference is scary, nay, even terrifying for some
      people here, in Olympia.

      In his essay "The Melodrama of Difference," the late
      French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard
      tackled the issue of difference and ensuing racism
      with an explanation that seems to me perfectly matched
      to "the psychodrama of difference" demonstrated on
      April 17. "Racism does reveal the temptation to
      fetishize difference." However, "differences mean
      regulated exchange," in whatever field--cultural,
      social, or political--it may occur, and this exchange
      would definitely happen, as the ORSCP's proposal
      revealed, through people-to-people connection, fair
      trade, and art and pen pal projects between people in
      Olympia and Rafah. However, when this "exchange is
      impossible, what we encounter is terror. Any radical
      otherness at all is thus the epicenter of a terror:
      the terror that such otherness holds, by virtue of its
      very existence, for the normal world. And the terror
      that this world exercises upon that otherness in order
      to annihilate it."

      No, those opposing the proposal didn't want to
      annihilate anybody, they just didn't want to have
      anything in common with people in Rafah, who are so
      different from and instill terror in us. They appealed
      to the members of City of Olympia Council to "stick to
      the issues here, in Olympia," instead of endorsing an
      official relationship with "others," people in the
      Middle East. Little did the opponents realize, though,
      that they were direct proponents of racism, which,
      according to Baudrillard, "does not exist so long as
      the other remains Other, so long as the Stranger
      remains foreign. It comes into existence when the
      other becomes merely different This is the moment when
      the inclination to keep the other at a distance comes
      into being." As the end of the meeting on April 17
      disclosed, opponents managed to keep people in Rafah
      at a distance indeed, thus--unbeknownst to
      themselves--being puppets on the stage of racism and
      in the hands of some political leaders in the U.S.
      government "who manipulate otherness for their own

      As to supporters of the ORSCP's proposal, they were
      eloquent and brilliant. There were many of them, 55,
      which is almost twice as many as the opposing voices.
      Supporters talked about the "potential to reduce
      hatred and dehumanization" of Palestinians, the
      "opportunity to see people in Rafah as people, not the
      people whom we fear," also about "influencing choices
      that Palestinians kids will make in their future" and
      the positive impact of the Council's favorable
      decision, the "impact that could change the world" in
      the long run. Finally, there were words to the effect
      that accepting Rafah as the official sister city
      "defines what kind of community we are--either willing
      to extend the hand of friendship or just go with the
      common opinion of Palestinians as terrorists."

      One of the supporters quoted from the ORSCP's proposal
      the appeal that had been written by children under the
      care of the Association for Woman and Child
      Development in Rafah, Palestine. In this appeal,
      children wrote: "When we lack security, we dream of a
      secure world. When tomorrow becomes dark, we'll hold a
      candle to light the tunnel. When we lose our school
      bags, clothes and toys under rubbles, we will look for
      HOPE and PEACE. When we lose everything, our hearts
      will go on and we'll look for a friend. OUR FRIENDS,
      WE NEED YOUR VOICE " This heart-breaking appeal didn't
      matter. It either was dismissed or just didn't reach
      the ears of the four councilmembers who voted against
      the proposal. After all, it had not been written by
      children of Olympia, or Israel, for that matter. It
      also didn't matter that there were 400 signatures
      gathered around the community in support of making
      Rafah our official sister city. The motion failed
      2-to-4. The closing remarks of the four community
      leaders who voted against it were strikingly
      alike--they felt "uncomfortable endorsing" the
      proposal while community members are not united on the
      issue. Will community members ever be united on any
      issue at hand? Let me assure you, it can be easily
      arranged, but mostly in a totalitarian nightmare.
      Would those four council members vote differently if
      this proposal offered official statue to a sister-city
      relationship with one of Israel's cities and if
      Muslims of Olympia protested it? One might wonder

      However, all in all there were many positive things
      that transpired during the public hearing in the
      Olympia City Hall on April 17, 2007. Community members
      brought forward the issue of having Rafah as an
      official sister city of Olympia, the issue that was
      met "with defensiveness by some community members,"
      but everybody involved--either by speaking and being
      present at the meeting or by watching the proceedings
      through website video--had a great educational
      experience. Stories shared by supporters--stories
      about the human aspect of either Palestinians visiting
      Olympia or Palestinian families, women and children in
      Rafah--were generously offered to supporters and
      opponents of the proposal at hand, to Olympia
      community leaders, to the whole Olympia community, and
      to the national community, as well as people in Rafah.
      On April 20, 2007, Khaled Nasrallah, brother of a
      Palestinian pharmacist whose house Rachel Corrie, the
      daughter of Olympia, tried to protect from demolition
      in March 2003, sent an email, in which he
      congratulated Olympia community members for their
      successful--in many regards - meeting:

      "It was my pleasure to see all of you at the meeting
      with the Olympia council regarding [efforts] to
      convince them to approve our dream of start[ing] the
      legal form of the ORSCP as a bonus of your great work
      [you did]; it was a fantastic effort you all made, and
      we in Rafah are very proud of you, and sure will all
      continue struggling in both sides to achieve our dream
      [that] Rachel started alone, but now thousands of
      people heard about, even thousand support or
      participate. Please do not [be] disappointed, as what
      happened was great success to reach this level, even
      we fail this time for unknown reasons against [the]
      logic and law."

      At the end of the meeting, two valiant council
      members, T.J. Johnson and Laura Ware, who--admirably
      so--had not "been motivated by the fear of looking"
      too progressive, offered their remarkable and
      sagacious conclusion--one that would make anyone of
      our political leaders on the national level pale in
      comparison. T.J. Johnson admitted that indeed, "Gaza
      is a mess, and it will continue to be a mess for a
      longer time if we continue policies of the past,
      replicate all the mistakes we did in the past." He
      proposed to try "something new, talking to each other,
      reaching out to people you are not agreeing with and
      find common humanity." Laura Ware said that they, as
      community leaders, "are elected to lead and if I
      afraid what somebody will say about me, I would not
      be" a councilmember for 12 years. Moreover, feeling
      "uncomfortable is a good thing sometimes and being
      divisive makes us talking about things," as it
      happened during this public hearing.

      I would like to finish my narration about the ORSCP's
      proposal and ensuing discussion in the Olympia
      community by appealing to the genius of Charles Péguy,
      again, but substituting the word "philosophy" in his
      quote by the word "community." After all, community is
      where display of interwoven differences, prejudices,
      heroic efforts toward inclusion, education, etc., are
      being offered for all of us to transform and to be
      transformed, in short, to make a difference. "A great
      [community] is not that which passes final judgments,
      which takes a seat in final truth. It is that which
      introduces uneasiness [or feeling
      uncomfortable--sic.], which opens the door to
      commotion." As Charles Péguy said, "hope is a little
      child," and little children in Rafah extend their hope
      for friendship and peace.

      Alevtina Rea lives in Olympia, Washington and can be
      reached at sailcool @ comcast.net



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