Chapter 1: Introduction
I’d like to begin somewhere in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala, in a narrow internet parlor tucked into a cement crevice off of the main street of Nahualá, from where I have composed this journal. It is from here where my first coworkers in the kitchens of Italian restaurants in Trenton, New Jersey fled in the 70s and 80s, due to a conflict between “guerillas” and “soldiers” that had far more to do with Palestine and the Israeli army than I ever would have thought imaginable. It was here where their stories took place, the ones I heard from a young age, the ones that propelled me into a career as a Latin Americanist, whatever that means. I´m not sure anymore, because it was my obsession with these stories and the Mesoamerican cultures that ended up bringing me to Palestine. It is here where, today, Evangelical churches outnumber catholic ones by six to one, and next to the K’iche Mayan preacher wearing an Italian suit who sings and is back up by a rusty saxophone, a synthesizer and seven singers like the Rayettes where blue huipiles, is a plastic gold flag post bearing the Guatemalan and Israeli national flags. Israeli flags, in the place where Israel trained and armed a massacre.
So what does the Israeli occupation of Palestine look like? And where exactly does it find its support? What rhetorical and aesthetic designs are at the heart of this illicit regime´s long-lasting justification for fascism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing? And finally, what does a settler look like, anyway?
The Aesthetics of Primitivity and the Palimpsest of Settlerhood
What does a settler look like?
There are many types of settlements, and settlers. But often we associate settlers with the image of the pioneer. Surely, this image can take many forms, and also have many similarities throughout different places in the world.
Here in Nahualá, Guatemala, where the cascading domes and archways on the local cathedral look stunningly similar to places throughout the Arab world, including Andalucía, I am interested in hearing the stories that parents and grandparents tell their children. Almost infallibly, the stories here have to do with one heroic settler, the legendary settler-founder of Nahualá, Manuel Tzoc. Outside of the cathedral, just across from the park and the municipal palace, the plaza style almost ubiquitous to so much of Mexico and Central America, as well as elsewhere in the world, including Spain, Turkey and Morocco and Syria, there is a statue of Manuel Tzoc. He has a valiant visage; even in the cement of the statue you can see the strong creases that curve down from the edges of his nose to the corners of his serious lips. He wears a head covering, a simple shawl tied about his head, which looks stunningly similar to a keffiyeh. He stands with one knee up on a rock, postured like good old George Washington crossing the mighty Delaware, which even in the winter turns out to be not so mighty, wears a simple satchel, a long sleeve collared shirt, and the traditional male skirt called a koxtar (Kosh-tarsh) in the K’iche Mayan language. It is something like a kilt, made of thick scratchy wool, held by a sash at the waist and under-worn by a sort of loincloth to keep the family jewels in place, I would suppose. The older men still wear them here in Nahualá, and you can buy them at the central market just twenty meters behind the statue. A new one goes for 700 quetzal (about 90 American bucks) or a used one for less than half that. Manuel Tzoc, he reminds me of Daniel Boone, and so too does the exaggeration, ubiquity, longevity and nationalist quality of his legend. Perhaps you can still buy a coonskin hat near his statue in Cherokee Park, where he protected his family by killing Indians. Finally, he, Manuel Tzoc, holds a staff in his right hand, like Moses.
And so I return to my original question: “What does a settler look like?” Surely the early orthodox Jewish settlers in 18th century Palestine wore hats and coats and carried bags, and have been mythologized by some as having been valiant and brave. But I have a hard time imagining orthodox Jews from the pale of settlement in the same vain as Daniel Boone, Washington and the K’iche Mayan settler Manuel Tzoc. Perhaps mostly because the orthodox Jewish settlers are missing the rifle and the visage of a soldier, a fighter, a hunter. So what then, of the Jewish settlers in Palestine who took up arms in the early 20th century? What of the settlers today, who massacre with machine guns in Hebron or beat up little Arab children, and torture them in prisons? Still, there is a marked difference that I cannot quite put my finger on. Perhaps it has something to do with the juxtaposition of armed conflict and the Jewish doctrine, the Jewish national mythology. Surely, there is David with his slingshot, and the fierce Maccabeus, but Moses?! His words were his weapons, his staff turned to a serpent, not an AK Special, and this is the emphasis of Jewish teachings about Moses: peace. That is why “Let my people go” was such a central hymn for Dr. King and the non-violent movement.
Okay, perhaps there is Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Israel Shochat, the early 20th century founders of the armed defense forces that were precursors to the Haganah and the IDF. They were both born in the Russian empire and were socialist minded (Shochat far more radical than Ben-Zvi). They were both farmer-fighter-pioneers, which fits into the Daniel Boon-Manuel Tzoc mold, however, getting at the subtle differences here is revealing. Just as Manuel Tzoc became the first governor of the independent Nahualá in the newly founded Quiche department of the young republic of Guatemala, Ben-Zvi became the second president of the young Israeli state and also was the longest serving (1952-1963). During Ben-Zvi’s highly influential eleven-year reign, the pieces were put in place to link the military actions of the Nakba to those of the 67 conquest; this is to say that, while Manuel Tzoc used his time in office to maintain the independence, autonomy and self-determination which he had fought for on behalf of his K’iche Mayan community, Ben-Zvi used his time in office to do nothing of the sort. Rather, Ben-Zvi worked towards building a highly offensive regime, one that acted as a force of conquest and not one of self-defense. Nonetheless, both Tzoc and Ben-Zvi utilized and became part of the same vein of aesthetic-rhetoric of settler lore. However, Ben-Zvi’s aims at conquest not only parted ways with Tzoc and other indigenous leaders who settled for autonomy, but also parted ways greatly with his former partner, Israel Shochat, not only in terms of pure self-defense, but political ideology.
From 1952-1963 the socialist, ‘labor’-minded texture of Jewish settlement in Palestine was almost totally erased, scrubbed out only enough to leave signs of it so the world could continue to associate Israel with the left, with workers’ rights and with the back-to-the-land kibbutz flavor. However, atop of this image was inscribed the palimpsest of the Knesset. While Ben Gurion tried to set an example of austerity by living in a simple wooden hut in the Negev (albeit expropriated from an Arab family) with his family while serving as president, and Ben-Zvi an example of cultural appreciation by leading a prize-winning effort to focus national research on the Jewish communities of Africa and the Orient, together the first two presidents worked to scrub away its socialist beginnings. Ben-Zvi ordered the murder of fellow Jewish settler Jacob Israel de Haan, who had parted ways with Ben Gurion and Ben Zvi and had become critical of this new Zionist regime. The palimpsest of the Knesset, built atop that faint shadow of what was once a socialist movement for human rights, self-defense and asylum, dug a foundation for greed, conquest and fascist ethnic cleansing into the very soil of its former self, careful as it was and has always been to preserve that soil for the view of the international public, and for the construction of a national rhetoric and aesthetic that seems to be keeping this illicit enterprise in business.