Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Novel Triumph

For the second year in a row, I took part in National Novel Writing Month - better known by its acronym NaNoWriMo.

With the philosophy that inside everyone is at least one novel, the goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days during the month of November. That is an average of around 1667 words per day. Results are entirely self-reported. There is no outside verification. What one writes does not have to make sense, or even be any good. A suggestion often repeated is if you get stuck, add ninjas.

The daily word count may not seem like a lot, but when you are sitting there trying to think something up, it can be daunting. I am someone with a lot of flexibility in my schedule - I have no idea how someone with a typical job can do this.

I wasn't even going to do it this year. Last year, I have personal reasons for taking part. I had a few things I needed to work out of my system, and I chose to do it through writing. This year, I was blank. Blank, until I woke up in the wee hours of November 1 with an idea. An idea that was too good to let go of. So far, this has been the biggest advantage of morning insomnia.

In general, I have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. The sheer speed with which the novel has to be produced probably results in a lot of unreadable manuscripts forever to be hidden on a hard drive. Does encouraging people to write page after page of crap accomplish anything? I think so, ultimately. Writing for the sake of writing is wonderful, and if it gets people thinking creatively, then it's all good.

How much did I write? The final word count came in at 50,456 completed on November 28. The most I wrote in one day was around 4000 words. The least I wrote was around 300. On average, I wrote around 2000 words, which was my goal.

As someone who writes and edits for a living, I wanted to write something that actually flowed and made sense. While it is going to require some extensive editing, I feel I have accomplished that. I know you're probably wondering what I wrote. It's an erotic novel that goes places 50 Shades of Grey doesn't, in several regards (I am talking about both the storyline itself and, ahem, "activities"). In addition to many scenes of a sexual nature, there is actually a strong storyline that delves into issues of life, love, and identity. If you are a literary agent who would like to have a look, please contact me.

I hope everyone taking part in NaNoWriMo this year had a meaningful experience!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Involuntary Anti-Semitism: Confronting Ignorance

I like to think that we live in a more enlightened age, where people are cognizant of speech that is offensive. Racial slurs, comments pertaining to sexual orientation in a derogatory manner, jokes about women (or men, for that matter) - these are all things that a modern, intelligent, education person should know are not acceptable.

You would think, right? Something happened to me today that made me wonder how prejudicial language could become normalized to the point where the person speaking the language has no clue that he or she is being offensive.

I was shopping with a friend of mine for an item in a store that was having a "buy one, get one half off" kind of sale. At first, he was going to get something, and then I was going to get another item with the discount. My friend changed his mind and decided to get two things for himself.

Our young, bubbly salesperson who up until that point was being very helpful, looked at me and said in her cartoon-ish voice, "Looks like you're getting jewed."

My friend and I were silent. Did I hear her correctly? She gave me another chance to clarify. "Yup, he jewed you." I still could not believe what I was hearing.

"Did she just say, 'jewed'?" I asked my friend, in a whisper. He nodded.

Let me explain that this young woman was very, how shall I put it? - unsophisticated. I had shopped in this store before, found her very friendly, albeit a bit chatty to a point of being somewhat too personal. I chalked it up to a personality thing combined with perhaps bad boundaries. In any case, she did nothing to put me off coming back to the store, which specializes in the particular item of which we were in search.

I had a sneaking suspicion that she honestly had no idea that the term she just used was offensive. She also had no idea that the customer she happened to say that too was Jewish. I have a degree in secondary education. This was what we would call a 'teachable moment.'

When it came time to pay, she noticed my friend had by now left the store, appearing to have stuck me with the bill. Actually, he has been suffering from a leg problem and needed to go somewhere to sit down, but I played along. Guess what she said? "Looks like he jewed you again."

"I have some friendly advice for you," I began. "Using the term 'jew' in that manner is offensive. I happen to be Jewish and I wanted to let you know this, because somewhere along the line you're going to say that to someone and they are going to get very upset."

She was immediately apologetic. "I am so sorry," she said. "To me, it is just a word used to mean what I was saying." She meant that my friend screwed me over. Usually, that particular epithet is also used to refer to someone who is cheap.

I compared her use of the word 'jew' to the way my classmates and I used to use the word 'gay' in elementary school, to refer to someone being stupid. At that point, I did not realize that the word also referred to a group of people and as such, using the word in that manner was insulting to them.

Apparently there are people still left in the world who also don't realize that using 'jew' as a verb is offensive. They don't understand that using the word in that manner is offensive to Jewish people (and should be offensive to everyone, for that matter). A close friend of mine used to use the word in that manner, until he met my brother and later me. He told me that we were the first Jewish people he had ever met, and suddenly 'jew' had a face and a name. It wasn't just some word any more to mean a cheap swindler or a method of haggling.

Back to the young woman in question. She kept going on and on that she did not mean anything bad by saying that, and that we're all the same people of flesh and blood and she actually is not prejudiced against anyone. And you know what? I believe her. I believe that she just seriously did not know that what she was saying was inappropriate. I shudder to think what could have happened if she happened to use those lines on someone other than me.

My friend later told me that he at first did not know if he was hearing her correctly, and was shocked. He was also concerned for how I was going to react. I told him how I handled the situation and he agreed that it was the appropriate thing to do.

I could have reacted in a number of different ways. I could have asked my friend to quietly put down our merchandise and leave the store, never to return. I could have lost my temper and thrown a fit. I could have ignored it and done absolutely nothing. I could have contacted the store's management when I returned home.

Of utmost importance to me was making sure the young woman knew her language was offensive, why it was offensive, and to hopefully ensure it never happens again. Everything happens for a reason, and I think that is why we ended up at this store and she just coincidentally happened to speak that way to a Jewish person (in case you are wondering, my coat was concealing my Star of David - there was no way she would have known I was Jewish).

When we are confronted with ignorance, we have a responsibility to speak up. In most cases, the other person is not a hardcore racist or anti-Semite. Just like this young woman, they are most likely just unaware. Usually, all we have to do is make a simple statement identifying someone's words or behaviour as not acceptable. If we remain silent, we're being just as ignorant as the offender.

Postscript: I purposely did not name the store, the shopping centre where it is located, or the items for which we were shopping. I honestly believe this woman meant no malice and I feel the situation has been resolved appropriately. So, if you ask, I am not going to tell.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Dubious Honour: My Reaction to Being on the Masada 2000 S.H.I.T. List

Me Juggling

My name now appears on the Masada 2000 S.H.I.T. List. I have officially arrived.

Now, most of you are scratching your heads wondering, "What on Earth is the Masada 2000 S.H.I.T. List?" The list of over 8000 names (and counting) is compiled by the people behind the website, of Jews who are "Self-Hating and/or Israel Threatening" (can you see where they got the S.H.I.T. acronymn from now?).

Organized alphabetically, names include many well-known Jewish people who take a stance against colonial Zionism and support Palestinian rights. People like Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Ilan Pappe, and even people who are quite moderate and working towards a just world full of peace, like Rabbi Michael Lerner. Even Woody Allen and Roseanne Barr are on the list.

In fact, it's really a Who's Who of the Jews - and now, I am part of it! Just follow this link to get to the 'K' page, and scroll down to find my name. There, you will find several photos of me, an extremely vitriolic ad hominum attack, links to my websites, and a couple of my email addresses.

At first, I was surprised at how much space they gave me. They put more photos of me and more information about myself than almost anyone else (at least on the 'K' page), including Naomi Klein and Henry Kissinger! They certainly must view me as a real threat. Little, old me. Who'da thunk it? Obviously, my activism must be very effective if I am pissing people off.

What also struck me is that these people have nothing really to say against my point of view. They do not engage in critical arguments. Instead, they engage in ad hominum attacks. This is a form of bullying.

That being said, let me address a few of the things said on the site. First of all, yes, I am a stick juggler. They are actually called devil sticks, or flower sticks (if they have tassels). I have been juggling since my last year of university, for exercise and stress relief. I am a huge hit at picnics and children's birthday parties. I have even had offers to perform at carnival-types of events and to teach classes to children as part of physical education.

They refer to me as "plump and unattractive" and that one should feel pity for me. Rather than debating my point of view, they try to discredit me by attacking my looks? What is this - junior high? Does my mother also wear army boots? I am the first one to admit that I am not a piece of calendar art, but to attack someone based on something having nothing to do with the issue at hand is bullying, plain and simple. But I have to say, about the accusation of being 'plump' - I'm not plump! I'm just so awesome, I am supersized!

In fact, much of what is said in their blurb about me resembles comments made about me a while back on YouTube. These were people who were obviously not using their real names or photos and saying thinks about my weight, looks, and perceived sexual orientation. I can't help but think that these people are the ones who need pity, having nothing better to do than troll the Internet stirring up trouble.

The quote that the Masada people used from me does indeed contain a spelling error. However, their website is not exactly error-free. I found several. Now, I do editing work on a per-hour basis and would normally offer to help out with something like this. However, I don't work for projects that promote hatred.

One of the pictures shows me "sucking up" to "an Arab in a kuffiyeh." That was taken at an emergency rally concerning the Gaza Freedom Flotilla that was attacked by the Israeli military in 2010. What more beautiful, peace-inspiring image could there be but of a Jewish woman and an Arab man, side by side, sharing a musical moment? Except, in this case, the man holding my microphone (a mic stand was not available) is not an Arab. He's Persian. Just because someone is brown-skinned and wearing a kuffiyah does not automatically mean the person is an Arab. Generalization, much?

I guess I should not be surprised. Prejudicial views run rampant at Masada. To the people at Masada, Jewish values apparently include sexism. Most of the women mentioned on the list are made fun of for their looks in one way or the other. I did not notice the same treatment being given to the men. However, homophobia and transgender phobia are also prevalent. If someone is gay, lesbian, or transgender, that fact is held against them and in a mocking way. Finally, the site is incredibly racist and Islamophobic. I went to the main page of the site in an attempt to figure out who these people are. It's a good thing I had not recently eaten. The hatred against Muslims is just disgusting. If another website spoke about Jews the way they speak about Muslims, they would be the first to accuse it of anti-Semitism.

Yet ironically, people like the ones behind this site accuse Jews like me of being anti-Semitic and self-hating. They, in fact, are the ones who are anti-Semitic. I have never said anything against public and personally against another Jewish brother or sister. However, this list insults just about every Jewish intellectual, academic, and artist who has made any sort of impact, especially within the last century.

As far as the accusation of being 'self-hating' goes, I like myself just fine. Let's face it - you have to have just a little bit of an ego to get up in front of large groups of people and sing and speak. I am also very proud of being Jewish. I have never hidden my religious identity in any situation and always wear a Star of David or Chai pendant. Although I am no longer Orthodox, I still observe many of the holidays and dietary laws. On the contrary, it is people like the Masada folks who turn others off from Judaism.

This is is currently at over 8000 people and is growing all the time. If the people behind the site would get their heads out of their right-wing extremist asses, they would see that that number speaks for itself - that more and more Jews are speaking out against the actions of the Israeli government and military. We are not anti-Israel in terms of the people or the existence of Israel itself. We just believe that violence begets more violence. Attitudes like the one promoted on the Masada site do nothing to promote a world of peace and justice.

I personally view the people behind the Masada site not only as bullies, but as cowards. Who are they? I see no names, no faces. My name (my real name) and often my image (my real image) is associated with what I put online. I realize I am putting myself out there and expect criticism. Constructive criticism and intelligent debate are welcome. But if the best you have are personal attacks that have nothing to do with my politics, let alone my religion, it reflects worse on you than it does on me.

To be named in the company of so many people I admire is an honour. In fact, I have heard reports that to be included on the Masada 2000 S.H.I.T. list is indeed an achievement, and people have contacted the site to try to get on (where they found contact information, I have no idea). My first reaction was something like, "Yay!" followed by intense laughter. Look that the photo of "evil me" juxtaposed near the one of me juggling.

However, I am not sure when my name was added to the list. In any case, they have missed such up to date information as to my involvement with Independent Jewish Voices, having spoken on the organization's behalf at several recent rallies. I also tweet on behalf of Norman Finkelstein. There are photos of me wearing a kuffiyeh. These people really need to stay up to date. After all, I am apparently so important to them.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Emergency Gaza Rally - A Jewish Perspective

An emergency rally for the people of Gaza was held in Edmonton on November 17. Organized by the Edmonton Coalition Against War & Racism (ECAWAR) and the Palestine Solidarity Network, the rally joined others that have been taking place around the world over the past few days in light of Israeli aggression against Gaza. What else can the world expect - there is an election coming up in Israel, and Netanyahu has to play the big man now, responding with force far times greater than the rockets being fired into Israel. While I certainly don't agree with aggression on either side of this conflict, it is hard for me to understand the concept of Israel's argument of self-defense. When a people who are under an illegal and inhumane blockade rise up in arms against those who put them in that situation, the argument that Israel is defending itself it almost ridiculous.

I was asked to speak on behalf of Independent Jewish Voices as well as sing. Unfortunately, the temperatures were a bit cold to play the guitar outside, so I recited the lyrics to one of my songs about the Middle East conflict called "The Side of Peace." Below is my speech and poem. For a full set of photos from the event, click here. For videos, click here.

Independent Jewish Voices has chapters in eight cities across the country and consists of Canadian Jews from diverse backgrounds who share a strong commitment to social justice and universal human rights, to reclaim the tradition of Jewish support for universal freedoms, human rights, and social justice. In fact, we believe that the broad spectrum of opinion amongst the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by institutions that claim to represent Jewish communities as a whole. We believe that individuals and groups should feel free to express their views on any issue of public concern without incurring accusations of disloyalty and we are compelled to speak out because of the lessons we have learned from our own history.

As such, Independent Jewish Voices condemns Israel’s latest attack on the Palestinians trapped in Gaza by Israel’s illegal blockade. Israel has euphemistically dubbed the operation “Pillar of Defense” (alternately Pillar of Cloud).

However, as one IJV Steering Committee member, Dylan Penner, has pointed out, “Israel’s latest attack on Gaza is not a ‘Pillar of Defense.’ It’s a Pillar of War Crimes, which we have a moral obligation to oppose.” He also goes on to say that, “This latest atrocity is compounded by the fact that, thanks to Israel’s illegal and inhumane blockade, for the people who live in Gaza there is no escape.”

Just look at recent history - four years ago, Israel launched its “Operation Cast Lead” on the Gaza Strip. Over 1400 Palestinians were killed — over a third of whom were innocent women and children. Israel claimed moral righteousness while committing this massacre, but the United Nations later found that Israel committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity and that “the assault was designed to humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” Amnesty International concluded that Israel’s aggression amounted to “22 days of death and destruction.”

I am a Canadian-born Jewish woman who believes strongly in the Jewish value of tikkun olam, which means healing or repairing the world. When I see the devastating and inhumane and illegal treatment of the Palestinian people by a government and military supposedly representing my religion and culture, it is with a deeply broken heart.

The actions of the Israeli government and military is antithetical to the true values of Judaism which include compassion, reason, and social justice. It is for these reasons that I cannot support such actions. I find it horribly offensive for any of the brutality in Palestine to be attributed to being in my name – it is not in my name. It tarnishes my religion and culture.

I encourage other Jewish people to really look at the situation objectively and not through the idealized notions of Israel with which many of us were raised. To blindly support a nation and its government because of misplaced nationalistic fervour or perceived ownership based on selective Biblical interpretation is illogical.

Zionism and Judaism are not the same thing. Historically Zionism was opposed by almost all organized branches of Judaism. Even today, not all Jews are Zionists. Actually, Zionism’s strongest cheerleaders today are Christians. So, accusations that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism are very much unfounded and merely a way of stirring up trouble towards those people who are critics of Israel.

In fact, there are many Jewish voices from within Israel and around the world who are opposed to the Israeli colonial settlement policy in the Occupied Territories and those voices are getting stronger. Thank you.

The Side of Peace I’ve marched in Gaza rallies
And sung for Arab crowds
Though some of my relations
Think I should not be allowed.
I’m asked why do I do it?
Or if I’m scared at the very least;
The only answer that I have,
Is I’m on the side of Peace.

I always say I’m Jewish,
It’s part of who I am.
So is speaking out
For human rights as best I can.
This conflict is immoral
I want it all to cease
And that is why I take a stand
On the side of Peace.

When innocent civilians
Are killed day after day
By military massacres
I have the right to say
Collective punishment is wrong
As the death tolls increase.
The only way to save lives
Is on the side of Peace.

Unlike so many others
I can’t support a nation
When it’s so horrific towards
Part of the population
Yes, the leaders are not innocent
But the children are, indeed
So are all the others who
Are on the side of Peace.

It’s easy to be silent
Or toe the party line
Complicity is for cowards
Who are part of the crime.
I will never be accused
Of groveling on my knees
I stand with my conscience
On the side of Peace.

© 2009 Paula E. Kirman

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Social Media and Social Responsibility - Salvos Prelorentzos Peace Award

Salvos Prelorentzos Peace Awards 2012 by raise my voice

On November 6, 2012 I received the Salvos Prelorentzos Peace Award from Project Ploughshares at City Hall. In its 17th year, the award is given annually to someone in Edmonton who has worked towards the goals of peace and social justice but who has not yet been formally recognized for their work. I was chosen for my pioneering efforts in documenting the local activist scene and using social media and other online tools to share and connect. This is my acceptance speech. For a full set of photos, click here. For all of the videos, here is the playlist.

Social Media and Social Responsibility
Salvos Prelorentzos Award Acceptance Speech
Paula Kirman
November 6, 2012

When Jim Gurnett called me back in January to inform me that I had been chosen as this year’s recipient, I was at a loss for words – and for someone like myself who makes a living with words, that is indeed very rare. Then, I found myself in a similar situation when I sat down to write my words of acceptance.

So, let me begin by giving thanks. Thank you to Project Ploughshares for making this event possible. Thank you to the award’s organizing committee for selecting me, especially to Alison Scott-Prelorentzos for honouring her late husband in this manner. Thank you to David Climenhaga for speaking tonight, and to Terry Morrison for gracing us with her wonderful music. Congratulations to Mr. Kalia for his lifetime service award. And thank you to all of you for coming out this evening. It really does mean a lot to me, more than I could express.

I am very honoured and humbled to have been chosen as this year’s recipient, especially when I reflect upon the incredible people and organizations who stood up here in past years, many of whom I am privileged to call my friends and my brothers and sisters in our common struggle to bring about a world of peace and justice.

Now, I will tell you a bit about myself. As a child, I made an impassioned plea to my parents for two things: a camera and a guitar. I am fortunate that my parents indulged me, although I have to admit that the guitar took a little more convincing.

Communication is what I do professionally, and there is a need for communication about peace and matters of social justice between organizations, individuals, and the world. We have the technology at our fingertips to do this. I am fortunate to be part of a generation to embrace social media as well as the technological gadgets that make archiving and sharing possible.

Then, it was just a matter of connecting with the local peace community – something I did not know existed until I purposely went about looking for it. When I found it, I showed up at a peace rally with a digital camera and started taking pictures. At that time, I was really the only person taking pictures at these sorts of events, and then the first to get the images online to be shared.

When I saw the possibilities to really show the rest of Edmonton and beyond that the city really does have an active, engaged peace community, this expanded into acquiring a video camera, learning to edit film footage, as well as increasing the number of social networks upon which I share my work while getting into more sophisticated forms of blogging and website design.

I am now so enthusiastic to see others showing up to events with cameras and getting online and sharing and commenting. Those of us who are privileged enough to be able to access and use technology have a choice to use developments like social media for the good of society. It gives us the opportunity to become independent citizen journalists and present our perspectives in a widely public forum but in a way that is very real with a human element.

Equally important to presenting and showcasing the city’s activist movement is sustaining it. In order to make sure the city has a peace movement that stays active, it has to stay relevant and attract younger people. Love it or hate it, the so-called “new media” is how to make this happen. When I do things like get Project Ploughshares onto Facebook and reviving the website for the Edmonton Coalition Against War and Racism it is with a sense of excitement for the future.

Now, about that guitar - when I got involved in the local peace movement, it was a natural transition to write songs with social meaning. I was, after all, raised on a steady diet of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. It was also a way of being more directly involved with events rather than always just standing on the sidelines with a camera. And again, thanks to social media, I’ve been able to reach an audience far beyond just the people who show up at the events.

At the same time, thanks to social media, my activism has been very public and that is not without its challenges, personally and professionally. But like I said earlier, we have the tools at our fingertips to share and build our movement. It comes down to a matter of choice, and I have considered working towards peace to be a personal responsibility.

And on that note, I will end with the chorus of the song I wrote about choosing to stand up for peace in the face of resistance, called “Walls”:

I can’t sit on the fence anymore
When I have to choose between peace and war
And object to oppression where it arises
No matter what else it is disguised as

I hope that we can all make similar choices in our lives. Thank you.