Confessions of a Filipino American in Palestine

One of the chief disadvantages of being from the greatest country on Earth is that the vulgar and triumphalist myth-making we call “patriotism” leaves one susceptible to suspicions of irony. The preceding sentence proves its own point. To be as well a Filipino and a comrade in the Palestinian struggle is thus a triple burden—to say the word “American” without the obligatory condescension is to incriminate oneself as an imperialist; and am I not, after all, descendent from the same “savage” Austronesians for whom “The White Man’s Burden” first applied? One finds one’s fingers gesturing an instinctual scare quote whenever one dares to speak sincerely of the “American Revolution.”

Yet it was without irony that Marx wrote, in 1864, that “the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class.” And it is without irony that an Old American Whig (or classical radical, I like to say) still feels a frisson of rebellious pride at the thought of dumping tea into the sea. It has become a bit tedious always to preface this by mentioning the sex and colors uninvited to the white man’s tea party. (This has always seemed to me the height of inexpensive jabs, as if one were not permitted to admire Plato because he was a pederast.) We know the French Revolution devolved into a Jacobin bloodbath, less concerned with liberty than with absolutist perfectibility, and that it peaked with an imperial absolutist. We know, as Trotsky conceded, that Stalinism issued from Bolshevism. I know of none who takes the Maoist struggle seriously. Might credit not be due to a revolution whose regime, however flawed, has yet endured, and whose legacy has been to extend, however tardily, its revolutionary vision?

It is surely to the credit of our founding revolution to have seen autocracy and empire as nearly the same threat. I regard our little uprising as both the consummation of a long historical process (dating from Magna Carta through the Bloodless Revolution) of enfeebling the Crown, and a portent of colonial resistance to come. To have been born a Filipino—the unwitting heir of various imperial endeavors, for each of whom my islands’ history is always but a footnote—has made me rather sensitive to this, not least because the United States is both the worst example and the best repudiation of an empire. For radicals like yours truly, America’s has the curious distinction of being the most overrated and most underrated of history’s revolutions.

If I could make just one amendment to our patriotic litany, it would be to restore to it the spirit of radicalism which nationalism obscures. See how July Fourth looks in the absence of that spirit. It turns a revolutionary moment into a sentimental circle jerk, a horrorshow of hackneyed puffery (or else a mockery of American vulgarity). It lets the lumpenprole to spoil in parochial hero-worship, mindless of what it means to have had a revolution at all. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I have always thought authority exists for the singularly useful and cathartic role of being something to oppose.


Only a true noblesse of mind would permit one to appreciate what Jefferson confided to his presidential predecessor’s wife: “I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.” To be in Palestine is to feel that one is on the cusp of a revolutionary moment. Of course, one can make, with only slight equivocation, the argument that all blood-soaked tyrannies look the same. I am reminded of the cryptic words of Jorge Luis Borges— “All men, in the dizzying instant of copulation, are the same man”—and of the precious and yet sinister term the French employ for “orgasm”: la petite mort.

It must have been in Hebron, the divided and besieged Palestinian city whose barbed and beige bleakness gives “apartheid” a bad name, that the occupation’s two most stirring things exacted my attention. The first was the uncanny familiarity of it all. This is a town whose landmark mosque sits caged by Israeli soldiers; where real estate boasts the astonishing perk of having settler homes built literally on top; and from which children can be spirited away by an inscrutable foreign army. And this is to say nothing of warrantless raids and seizures of property, the dim and indefinite detentions, and the military trials one must bear—if even given the luxury of kangaroo tribunals. To be a Palestinian is to know what the Framers feared when they composed the Bill of Rights. If ever a son of liberty felt a revolutionary drought, he would find in occupied Palestine an embarrassment of riches.

The second was a little snot-nosed Palestinian boy ambling his bike about al-Shahada street. It was on this embittered thoroughfare—variously restricted to its Palestinian inhabitants, and haunted by memories of the 1994 massacre of Muslims by the demented Baruch Golstein—that I beheld the absurd sight of a settler mother and her toddlers strolling leisurely through the neighborhood, while the aforementioned Palestinian child struggled to negotiate his bicycle through a military turnstile. If I could elect one image to depict the daily degradation of a military occupation, it would be this. Perhaps not incidentally, it was on this very street that Eyal Yifrah, one of the three teenage Israeli settlers kidnapped and killed in last month’s butchering, attended yeshiva. I hope that I will not be taken for a victim-blamer when I say: Did anyone not expect this? Shame on him who thought it wise to place civilians in the shriveling land of a dispossessed and humiliated people.

One needs hardly to be told that the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is really a misnomer; any moral or tactical equivalence between an Israeli M16 and a Palestinian stone is an insult to both. There is no such symmetry. This is an Israeli military occupation, which is a kinder way to say the “conflict” has been already won, punctuated now and then by the barbaric and repulsive (it must be granted) acts of a brutalized few. Though wishing not to absolve them, I note once more that “to brutalize” means “to make someone a brute”; both the victim and the offender, as it were, are made monsters in the process.

Is it any wonder that the only resonant force of Palestinian resistance are the nihilistic theocrats of Hamas? They are the tail-end side of the delusional and messianic head of modern Zionism; and Israel’s hand in encouraging Hamas’ growth to splinter Palestinian resistance should forever be a blight on Israel’s conscience. I share the views of the secularist Edward Said, who thought Hamas is but a boon to Israel, for whom they are a “ready-made excuse” for collective punishment, and whose agenda is both primitive and suicidal (in more than one way). And yet anyone who’s read the emasculating Oslo Accords must know that the recognized Palestinian Authority is barely more than a puppet state. It is no wonder then that following the recent military ransacking of Ramallah, the shabab turned their stones upon the Palestinian police, who had stood idly by as the Israelis spat their bullets.

I cannot help but think of the fate of José Rizal, the Filipino revolutionary and apostate whose seminal novels, Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo, were scathing screeds against the clerical tyranny of Spain. That this excommunicado and free thinker should become the national hero of the world’s third most Catholic country is a damning case of deposing the oppressor and retaining his worst part. It was the genius of the American revolutionaries to take religious fervor and to channel it toward a revolutionary purpose—and not vice-versa, as with Hamas and the goons of Islamic Jihad. Might I risk credibility when I say that the same reasons that I love America are precisely why I hope and fear for Palestine? To ignore their plight is to forfeit all claims to the revolution, and to ask to be called a hypocrite and a fool.

Ramallah, 2014.

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