Friday, July 3, 2009

No taxation without representation

In June 1992, as a young psychology professor, I participated in a home-stay in the Palestinian Town of Beit Sahour, along with American undergraduates from Occidental College.

I chatted at length with a local psychology professor who was studying teens' construction of sexuality. I read his technical reports and saw that Palestinian teens' knowledge was reminiscent of a 1970s America. The intro psych textbook used at Beit Sahour university was an Arabic translation of the classic American text by Atkinson and Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology. The textbook I saw seemed a home-made job, with printed Arabic, but the pictures had been pasted in without captions translated. I wondered if this literal translation of an American text was the best way to teach psychology. Wouldn't one want to construct a book grounded in themes and examples from Arab or Palestinian society?

We Americans stayed in the homes of the town's Christian Palestinian middle class. We spent hours talking with members of the families; our students did clean-up project with teens from a high school. The kitchens had modern appliances; "my" family was eager to show me the video of their eldest daughters' wedding. I walked the dusty streets, gazing at the beautiful countryside. This wouldn't be a bad life, I thought to myself.

But once you start talking about business and livelihoods, other perspectives appear. The father of "my" family took me to his shop. He ran a building/construction store, kind of home-depot packed into one storefront room. Tools, building materials filled every available space. Somehow we began talking about the tax revolt of 1986. Because my parents were Palestinian activists, I'd heard of this years before as a college student, but it was good to hear of it from someone who participated.

"You know we pay taxes to the Israelis" -- four syllables, "Iss-rah-eee-lees" -- pronounced as quickly as one. "We pay for our own occupation. So we said No." And I remember what my parents had said: a letter sent to every American senator and congressman declaring a refusal to pay taxes to an illegal occupation. How could taxes be levied on a people who had no rights of citizenship, no right to even build a home? And not a mention of the revolt in the American press. All those carefully mailed letters sunk without a sound.

"So what happened when you all refused to pay taxes? What did the Israelis do?"

"They came and took everything, it was an empty room." And he flung out his arms to encompass the room and conjure up images of bear metal shelves and a cracked dusty concrete floor.

With his lip curled and his angry face, it seemed that even 6 years later he keenly felt the pain of that lost merchandise, of rebuilding back his stores of building supplies while still paying taxes to the occupiers.

I wish non-violent resistance would work. I wish that every suicide bomber would imitate the Buddhist monks who protested the Viet Nam war, and just light himself on fire (or detonate his bomb) in an empty city square or farmer's field, rather than cause others' deaths along with his own on a crowded bus. But I'm not the one who had my store stripped or my father imprisoned or my sister forced to give birth at a checkpoint en route to the hospital. My house and my kids' school haven't been bulldozed. My students don't have to read hasty translations of another country's psychology textbooks.

I've been getting a lot of email about a "new" move to boycott Israeli products. But hasn't the idea of disinvestment been around for a long time? And it hasn't worked. But if something different is happening now -- if there can finally be nonviolent resistance, praise be to the Universe.

I found the statement by Radhika Sainath, of The Electronic Intifada, arguing for a boycott, particularly powerful.

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