Space, Mountain, Wadi, Home
This last week, the government of Hawaiʻi called in the National Guard to forcibly begin construction of a huge, super-powered telescope called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on a mountain in Hawaiʻi. The mountain, Mauna Kea or Mauna a Wakea, was selected because its height and isolation will allow astronomers views of the night sky like no where else on Earth, giving them the ability to look so deep into space that they will be able to observe the cosmos in its infancy. But Mauna Kea is also a sacred site to Native Hawaiians, many of whom have blocked roads to the site and rallied to put a halt to the construction. The response to these protestors, along with derision from many scientists, has been to throw them in jail, including important elders of the community.
I thought for a second how this protest could be framed in a similar way if you asked someone to imagine that astronomers discovered that the ideal location for positioning a super telescope would be on the Temple Mount/Haram esh-Sharif in Jerusalem. But the already-tangled situation of multiple claims and long-standing beefs there isn't going to help the case to preserve Mauna Kea. It also isn't a good metaphor because there are ongoing scientific missions taking place if not on top of the Temple Mount, then under it and around it, and though the scientific/historical value of these excavations is real, they are charged with enormous amounts of political motivation and Palestinian disenfranchisement. There's also a backdoor argument in this metaphor that I don't appreciate: someone could use it as fuel for the demented view that opposes and ultimately seeks to uproot the Muslim holy sites that were built hundreds of years ago on the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque.
But there is an analogy to make between the TMT project and Israel-Palestine. The only real connection between these two conflicts is colonial power, and if last week is any evidence, it's the strongest bond Israel and the US share.
Also last week, Israel began destroying apartment buildings in Wadi al-Hummus, ostensibly because they were built too close to the separation barrier. That barrier, an enormous concrete wall, has drawn international condemnation since its construction began in the mid 2000s. But Israel is constantly destroying Palestinian homes, what makes this so different? The activism and international pushback about this has largely been about how this is in Area A, the portion of the West Bank fully under Palestinian control according to the Oslo Accords peace agreement. The homes were built with all the proper legal paperwork filed with the correct authorities. And yet Israel is still going to destroy the buildings. The argument is that this demolition sets a dangerous precedent to violate Area A sovereignty. That is entirely true, but it's destroying somebody's home: it's heinous no matter where it happens.
What does full accountability look like? Last month Haaretz published an article that exposed how the Israeli military is systematically denying access to public documents that prove the military's role in the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. It was around the same time that I moved into a new apartment that I discovered, while looking at maps of 1948, was built on the farmland of a Palestinian village.
I should have known to check first before I signed the lease, but I didn’t suspect anything, partly because no one seemed to be aware of it. The neighborhood was either "like another country" or "not the city anymore, it's the suburbs" but “nice, quiet” where there was "lots of parking."
When I did find out about the neighborhood’s history and brought it up with Israelis, life-long Tel Avivis who consider themselves progressive, no one knew what I was talking about. It was as if this fact did not exist. And for all intents and purposes, it does not. The Haaretz report does a good job of showing the kind of institutional processes at work to ensure that kind of cultural amnesia takes place. As I wrote about in this visual essay in DIAGRAM, many times this appropriated land is done so under the auspices of scientific use: they become reforested and designated an environmental reserve or redeveloped as the site of an educational institution, which was the case in Tel Aviv University or the Teva school in Tel Aviv. That's not the case this time: this is wholly a neighborhood where once were a community's orchards. The only justification for the theft is our lives.
I’m not sure what this all means for me now. I don’t think I would have moved here if I had known this prior to signing the lease. I can’t afford to move again any time soon. How is this any different than living anywhere else in Tel Aviv? It’s the same city here as it was in my last place. Wasn’t I complicit then too? And if I had never moved here? Is living anywhere in the US, or being a US citizen living anywhere else in the world, going to make me less responsible for what happens in Hawaiʻi?
I don’t have any definite answers to these questions. What I have is this. What I can do is not be quiet about any of this, and not try to normalize it, whether it's here or in Hawaiʻi. I can try to imagine a different way, and try to create a space where it can exist.