I post this message in response to the invitation and pressure for the Council on Anthropology & Education (CAE) to sign onto a statement by another section of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the Middle East Section (MES). Their statement [http://mes.americananthro.org/mes-statement-on-palestine-updated-5-19-21/#_ftn1] is called the MES Statement on Palestine and has been signed by many entities with the support of many peers, mentors, students, and friends in anthropology and education. I offer another perspective and an invitation to engage in nourishing dialogue. As a scholar of L2 Education who was honored to speak to the English Teachers Association of Israel including Arab, Jewish, and Palestinian teachers in Jerusalem (2017), I view English language education and ethnography as important tools for complex and caring actions toward peace.
An Endorsement for History, Ethnography, Language Education, and Peace (written in consultation with Dr. Alma Gottlieb and other scholars who may wish to remain anonymous)
Bearing witness to the takeover of the Right in the U.S., Israel, and other countries around the world is frightening, and it is important to denounce this trend as members of any institution with power–the power of words against the power of weapons. With this statement shared with the CAE board and now with all CAE membership, I wish to express solidarity with Palestinians under the occupation, and opposition to disproportionate use of violence by the Israeli military over the 11 days of the recent war and in everyday practices of oppression. However, I cannot endorse the MES statement as it is written. The statement is inflammatory and assumes a monolithic “Israel” and “Palestine”–both, spaces that contain many diverse and vulnerable groups who are victims of oppressive actions taken by their respective governments. The MES statement fails to acknowledge these ethnographically specific vulnerabilities.
It is painful for many of us to observe that Jewish people who helped build the Jewish state of Israel as a space of refuge from the Holocaust, tracing centuries of ancestry to this homeland, could also support a prime minister and a government that actively promote the oppression and denigration of Palestinian people, and suppress LGTBQ rights and interfaith marriage within Israel. Many progressive, Jewish Israelis oppose their own prime minister’s actions and that of the right-wing settler movement actions much as many of us in the U.S. opposed the Trump leadership.
At the same time, the MES statement now endorsed by many AAA units, including the CAE, adopts an unrealistically ahistorical perspective that concerns me. Some of us remember the 1978 Peace Accords, when Egypt lost ten years of rights to belong to the Arab League simply for acknowledging Israel as a legitimate nation. More of us remember in 1995 when Yizhak Rabin was promoting peace between Israel and Palestine and was assassinated by a young Jewish, right-wing Israeli. Training in educational anthropology can help one understand the ways that words and passions mobilized to fight oppression can also unintentionally reignite other forms of oppression. As an educator and an educational anthropologist, I see an urgent need to question ‘group think’ mentality that may attract those who stand on the side of anti-oppression, and a need to consider the importance of studying both what is said and what is not said, as well as what is implied by silences and omissions. I ask myself now, and I ask my CAE colleagues: What further damage is done when endorsing statements that omit discussion of the ways in which both the Israeli military power (backed by the U.S. government that invests wealth in violence and oppression in the name of defense) and Hamas military power (backed by a terror superpower that invests its wealth by sponsoring radical Islamist militants at the expense of Palestinian civilian safety) reject efforts to engage in any real diplomacy and forge a lasting regional peace?
I understand that the Middle East Section Statement rejects a “two sides” narrative because of clear power imbalances distinguishing Israel and Palestine. While I recognize these power imbalances, I also recognize the on-the-ground realities that have left many Israeli civilians wounded or dead from direct attacks by Hamas into Israeli cities. The frustration over Palestinian land rights that underlies these attacks is undeniable, but the MES statement declines to condemn Hamas attacks directed at civilians. Neither does the MES statement acknowledge the multiple past attempts to create a viable two-state solution. The statement falsely aligns the Jewish state and all endorsements of its right to exist as a form of white supremacy, a statement that I fear is exactly the kind of rhetoric stoking the rise in hundreds of cases of anti-Semitism recently (and ongoing) around the world.
The MES statement selectively omits other uncomfortable truths about the region. For example, it declines to condemn Hamas for not holding free and fair elections for Palestinians in Gaza since 2006. It declines to condemn Hamas leaders as perpetrators of cruel violence within Palestine, and for their rejection of peaceful negotiations to establish a democracy. Likewise, the MES statement omits connections between the 11 recent days of violence and powers far outside of Israel/Palestine–both those that want a Jewish state of Israel and those that do not–that are using Israelis and Palestinians as pawns. Furthermore, I am concerned that scholars who sign this statement are missing important acknowledgement that Hamas leadership speaks plainly for the destruction of Israel, and uses Palestinian civilians as human shields for rockets and ideology.
The current crisis is rooted in long, complex histories, and I find myself frustrated that the MES statement does not leverage the power that a nuanced, anthropological approach to conflict can offer to complicated ethnographic realities. As an anthropologist dedicated to probing the messy complexities of lived realities and training my students to do so with all available scholarly tools of our and adjacent disciplines, I prefer to use the great strengths of the fields of both education and anthropology to nourish understanding of the complicated history of a fraught region. It is critical to acknowledge that that history includes attempted genocide against Jews, and anti-Semitism and violence in the Arab world against both Jewish Arab (the majority of Israel’s population) and Muslim Arab populations and, more recently, Israel’s Ashkenazi population of east European origin. Any statement that does not acknowledge this historical complexity is one-sided and I believe should not be supported by educational scholars of anthropology.
A simplistic condemnation that one side in a political conflict–any political conflict–has a monopoly on righteousness to the exclusion of the other side betrays our training as anthropologists. Due to omissions and misunderstandings perpetuated in this MES statement, I stand as a minority dissent to the CAE board decision to support the MES statement as it is written. With this dissenting statement, I stand in solidarity with those Israelis and Palestinians who stretch out their hands for peace, and with those who say “No!” to continued violence and rhetoric that does not clearly support both Israel’s and Palestine’s right to self-determination and statehood. I also stand in defiance of terrorists, of disproportionate use of military force, and of those who support violence against civilians. We must stand for a complicated and considered peace.
For reasons well articulated yesterday by Zack Beauchamp on Vox, I retain hope that the struggle for a two-state solution that honors all actors in this fraught land–a struggle that precedes many of our lifetimes–can yet be realized in our lifetimes.
$23.96 now on Amazon and less if you attend AERA (AERA2021). If you use in a class, you can get an “instructor’s copy.” Teaching and Learning languages should be joyful and full of meaningful communication! Allow students make you laugh!!!!
It doesn’t matter. I say this and yet I do dedicate some small portion of time to what I call “Po-Biz”–the business of getting the poetry I write (because I must), into a more public sphere where I can call it art.
I keep the eye on writing new and better poems, poems that I need to get through the collective trauma of our lives. And yet, if I am to take myself seriously as a poet, a maker of art, I must share these poems to see if they work and how they work in the larger world.
*Postscript December 2020: “Cardi” was taken to the shelter and then to the vet clinic for diagnostics where the vet clinician fell in love with her and adopted her. At a healthy weight, her leg seems to have healed enough to walk and run and so it has not (yet) needed amputation. It’s a happy ending. Cardi is in the happy care of a dog loving owner and has a sibling dog, gets to sleep on the owner’s bed. Ah, so there are still some really nice humans.
New Interview Published in The Napkin Poetry Review:
“According to Dr. Melisa (Misha) Cahnmann-Taylor, poetry “can wiggle its way into so many lives and minds because of its unmarked visibility. Poems are small tastes of revolution that can pass.” Here, she talks about how poetry can be used as a research tool, particularly in ethnography, and the creative value of bridging arts and sciences—where can quantitative research miss out or benefit from poetry? How can this cross-disciplinary mindset be incorporated into classrooms?” Link below.
***Warning***Changing Languages***You Must like Languages and the Speakers of Any Language to Continue onto this beautiful Spanish translation of my bio that I tried to do but was much improved by Helena Alonso and Khédija Gadhoum (mil gracias). Bio and then some thoughts on being translated (oh díos mio, what a feeling).
Melisa “Misha” Cahnmann-Taylor, es profesora de educación, lengua y alfabetización en la Universidad de Georgia. Es autora del poemario Imperfect Tense, (White Point Press, 2016 https://www.amazon.com/Imperfect-Tense-Melisa-Cahnmann-Taylor-ebook/dp/B01HPA9RBA), y varios libros de investigación en el campo de educación, entre ellos: Teachers Act Up: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities Through Theatre (Teachers College Press, 2010); Arts-Based Research in Education(Routledge, 2008; 2018), y Enlivening Language Education through Drama & Improv (con publicación en curso en Routledge). Es recipiente de cuatro becas de National Endowment for the Arts (NEA “Big Read”), El Premio Beckman para “Los profesores que inspiran cambios sociales”. En poesía, ganó los Premios Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg y Anna Davidson, y una beca Fulbright de nueve meses, para investigar el tema del aprendizaje del español entre los adultos, en el estado de Oaxaca, México. Es oradora en materia de pedagogía y desarrollo de lenguajes artísticos y consultora en lingüística,. Desde el 2005, se ha desempeñado como editora de la revista Anthropology & Humanism, y ha servido como jueza del concurso anual de poesía etnográfica. Actualmente es embajadora Fulbright de los EE.UU. Es graduada del programa MFA Low-Residency del New England College, y del programa de doctorado en educación lingüística de la Universidad de Pensilvania. Sus poemas, ensayos y artículos sobre el aprendizaje de idiomas se encuentran en su blog: http://teachersactup.com
The above is the bio that two Spanish speakers helped me to write because even though I can (I think I can) communicate myself in Spanish, there’s a literary eloquence that I never acquired that these two women have. This after Khédija sent me the final translation of 6 of my poems. I read them outloud and I felt like a college student reading a Spanish literary text. It was so beautiful and the Spanish words were often so out of my reach, that I had to go to my own translation to confirm what I had originally written in English. This is not to say that I didn’t understand the Spanish–that’s not entirely true. What I couldn’t understand was how good a really good translator really is. Their combined efforts made me feel like I was reading a different person’s poem, but it was my poem–my ideas transformed by their artfulness in their first language. It’s a strange feeling of exhuberance as a bilingual–to feel seen and deeply understood from English to Spanish. I approximate this when speaking in my second tongue but I still feel so limited in my eloquence, my reach for words, and my intensions truly communicated fluently and personally.
I am so grateful to experience this feeling, one I don’t expect to be lucky enough to have often. Maybe like childbirth and owning my first rescue pup, this experience of having one’s poems translated into another language feels special, unforgettable. I don’t take this experience lightly. I feel the burden of how often I might wish for this level of bilingual expression and how so few of us ever achieve this feeling of self in a second or additional language.
Isn’t this the wish we have for all bilingual youth, to become themselves their own best translators? To interpret this experience to the rest of us so stuck in the habits of a single mother tongue that even years of study and practice later, we feel misunderstood.
Or maybe we are always misunderstood. Maybe the best we can do is to try to find the language to articulate through the limitations of any language. There comes a thrill when writing through a poem toward some newer understanding of what it means to be human, to feel as though you are both predator and prey caught in a web that will inevitable get knocked down.
You don’t know if anyone really gets you.
But maybe, in two languages, you have twice the opportunity to try to be understood.
These eleven educator poets have been working with me via Zoom all July to acquire the craft, practice, and possibility of poetry when teaching and learning language. Some of these poets are grappling with the uncertainty of online or face to face K-16+ instruction in the near future; others continue full time Ph.D. and/or graduate work; many do both: full time teachers and part-time graduate students. I marvel at how wide open our hearts and minds can be via online instruction. Sometimes fearful of being too personal or too specific in terms of diverse ages, genders, sexualities, races, countries and languages of origin, we say to one another: go deeper, go darker, give us the resonant details of experience.
And each poet has done so.
Tomorrow, Friday July 24, these poets get to sit back, relax and listen to two dynamic and experienced poets read from their work.
Then each teacher poet in the class will share the results of their poetic journeys with the public on July 29, Wednesday at 5pm by Zoom.
No one, no one, knows what to do in this situation.
My communities online are remarking our leadership’s blunders in policy (changing from morning to afternoon), misspellings, grammar gaffs, missed curfew opportunities, misdirections. Sometimes, I laugh. Sometimes, I worry. My wish now is that we’d all stop complaining about the lack of direction or uncertainty.
No one, no one, knows what to do in this situation.
Everyone in my area and state (yours too?) are trying their best, Georgia style, for better and for worse. Everyone also has self interest at stake. Everyone has questions. How can a small business person survive if no one is leaving their home for services or goods? How can those who need to work at home possibly continue to work if children are around and we must suddenly become full daycare providers and home-school educators? How are we going to get through this?
It’s so hard not to know what the plan is. All the more difficult when our leaders are compromised at the very top, eschewing science and pandering to greed and ignorance. In light of this 1) lack of leadership or 2) leaders who are uncertain; 3) leaders who are compromised in intelligence or 4) by greed or 5) leaders who do “know better” but are following orders from above (#s 1-4), we all suffer.
This is why it is essential that we rethink leadership at every level. This means me. This means you. We must lead like we wish to be lead, with patience, curiosity, compassion, and wisdom, in our homes and in our online forums. Be the leader you wish were the one making decisions now at your school, workplace, city, state, nation.
We parents, who always have so much to complain about, need to lead our households in this new normal–how to give our kids stimulating tasks at home, what meaningful life information to teach them, what online tools are available, and how to keep ourselves fit and sane through this pandemic while trying to juggle any work we are lucky enough to still have (I cannot overlook my great privilege now, still having paid work). We prepare for two weeks which will likely turn out to be a much longer ride. I am preparing to be home through May, maybe longer. I am frightened. I am unclear.
I wish all our current leaders, including leaders of our own homes, the greatest of wisdom and courage in these uncertain, “unchartered” (ha! amusing blunder!) times.
I am pleased my state suspended schools and primaries. I am disappointed my own city government will not enforce (not yet) a curfew that I believe would be the necessary bad guy move. But can we afford to support our local businesses if we require them to close? Without an authoritarian regime, how do we enforce rules to keep us all safe and at home?
No one, no one, knows. No one wants our town, city, state or nation to follow Italy’s example, multiplying speedily the disease because we were afraid to shut ourselves down. But we will follow Italy in our towns and nation unless we act with speed to curtail our actions–the U.S./North America is just bigger than Italy, COVID’s spread will just take more time.
My husband, a great family leader, reminded us at our house meeting that previous generations have each had their great challenges: Vietnam(parents), World Wars (grandparents), the Great Depression (great grandparents). What have our generations had? Have we ever had that was like this? Global warfare where the bad guy is a fast spreading, deadly disease? No. Never. Never at this scale.
Peer parents in despair, when you complain about our local leaders and local decisions, please consider being a leader at home and in your online communities. Share good information, indications of positive action, ideas to support those who have less, activities to generate new thinking and thoughtful conversation at home. Make us laugh! Help us see the flaws in our system and leadership decisions but also help us see opportunities. Write to your leaders with these good ideas, float them to others to see if they stick. The only hope we have is that this current pandemic can unify us all to be in this together, at our very best, against common enemies: greed, ignorance, disease, untimely death.
We are all online now, eating up news that zaps our spirit and energy. Send someone a kindness, a query. If they are too busy, they may not respond. But you might just hit the right soft spot in someone else, reminding each other that the virtual world, in groups and in individual correspondence, can be a source of cynicism and fear mongering, but it can also be a source of strength and renewal too.