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Parvez Sharma Headshot

There Are No Direct Flights from Tel Aviv to Tehran

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The Facebook Universe is remarkable. After my recent post "Poor, Israel? Sure, and I am Barack Obama" I got a flurry of immediate responses. I had blogged hastily, still shaking with anger at the events that unfolded yesterday on a panel organized by UN Watch, an organization with a very particular worldview, as I now know. I blogged pretty much on the run and realized that in an instant world, people do react instantly. One gentleman took it upon himself to berate me repeatedly in comments that came fast and came furious.

He said: "I was responding entirely to what you wrote in your HuffPost piece: 'an erudite Canadian professor. . . threw around a baffling and hard-to-explain term: "genocidal anti-Semitism." Only he knows what he means, I certainly do not!' As far as I can figure, there are only two ways to interpret this statement: either (1) you're casting doubt on the existence of genocidal anti-Semitism as a phenomenon; or (2) your vocabulary is so challenged that you literally don't understand the meaning of the words."

He then proceeded soon after to "un-friend" me making a ceremonious announcement on my "wall" and this of course lead to other messages from "friends" who either agreed with me or with him.

Shattered (!) by the un-friending I have now composed myself enough to offer the following.

I do understand "genocidal anti-Semitism" rather well, at least as it applies to the horrors of the Second World War. As someone said to me once, "Parvez, but some of your best friends are Jewish!" This still remains true and at least two are, and both unlike me have visited Israel and hated it. On the misguided panel at the UN, sitting next to me was a Rwandan woman, survivor of a rather recent genocide, which receives close to no attention compared to the annual commemorations of the Shoah. Next to her sat a man from Darfur, where the genocide that is now fashionable for Hollywood stars to opine on, continues. Both the Rwandan and the Darfur-ian got time to speak in their accented English and there were collective sighs from the assembled, majority White audience when they mentioned the recent massacres of their entire families. When it was the turn of the moderator to introduce a Canadian professor I felt a complete shift in rhetoric as he chose to preface his introduction with the presence of the President of Iran in the same building. What followed was the Professor's written argument against the Iranian state and the conflation of the Shoah with the massacres in Rwanda and Sudan. The Professor was not interested in discussing the continuing racism and apartheid of the Israeli nation. He extolled the virtues of a shared history of genocide with the unsuspecting Africans. He went on to share his horror and disgust at Iran's parading of its missiles and the possibility of its nuclear program. The coming Islamic bomb and its ability to add to the insecurity and neuroses of the Israeli state were cause for immense fear in his argument. What finally did it for me was to use the horrific history of the genocidal anti-Semitism of the second world war as a contemporary argument to denounce Ahmadinejad, who has been more bluster than action and has certainly not yet engaged in any kind of Hitlerian pogrom to annihilate millions of Jews.

I was angry at how the Rwandan and the Darfur-ian were paraded in front of this group, only to have their real loss confronted with the polemics of an obviously well-paid, comfortable, white professor living clearly in the so called "free world." Later this very shy and gracious Rwandan woman thanked me quietly for being "honest," as she put it. I still wonder if she fully understood the flawed logic of that particular panel and how I, at least, perceived her as being "used" to present reductive anti-Iran arguments.

As the room nodded sagely and mostly in agreement, my turn to speak arrived. I was horrified by this pro-Israel (to the point of being oblivious to everything else to do with the Palestinians especially) professor's reductive logic and the hysterical fear-mongering that the Israeli state successfully does and most of its Western allies buy into. Most horrific was the idea of a second holocaust, of a second wave of genocidal anti-Semitism wrought forth by the evil and dictatorial Ahmadinejad who had dared to enter the UN. To talk of "genocidal anti-Semitism" in the context of a 2009 Iran and its provocateur-president is ridiculous and smacks of the problematic conflations and the huge successes of the AIPAC's of the world.

I was there to speak as a gay Muslim, my current raison d'être, supposedly. The panelists had surely assumed that I would be the perfect candidate to trot out to launch into anti-Iran and also anti-Muslim rhetoric. I knew I could not. In the last year I have often disagreed publicly with some of the content of my own film and certainly felt I would have executed its Iranian content differently if I knew then what I know now. I have treaded a fine line, continuing to defend my religion and somehow successfully criticize it for its alleged persecution of homosexuals. I have insisted that the film cannot be shown in what I view as the Israeli apartheid state and even resisted the possibilities of filming with Palestinian-Israeli gay couples, knowing that to enter that contested land and its politics would merit a separate film. The recent massacre in Gaza and falsehoods of the Israeli state during the bombardment--the loss of more than a thousand lives; the use of white phosphorous on civilians who live in abject poverty, surrounded and hemmed into a tiny piece of land; the very fact that Gaza is nothing but a large and fetid concentration camp created by the Israeli state--these were the issues that came to mind. I could not sit there and attack Islam or Iran. I had to speak out and I did so, briefly also pointing out to the Professor that in his harangue on the missile power of the Iranians and the impending doom of the Islamic bomb, he had conveniently, amongst other things, forgotten to mention the "undeclared" nuclear arsenal that Israel possesses and the infinitely more sophisticated weapons it uses on the Palestinians from its own tiny nation, which has all the trappings of the West, including nice homes, smooth-as-silk roads and constant water and electricity.

I have never been to Israel with the principled notion of not going and submitting to its checkpoints to go and look vicariously at a trapped and stateless people, beaten into submission by the state itself and their own supposed Arab allies that have done nothing for them. But now I would need to speak briefly and get out. The claustrophobia of the room was enormous and I would see later throughout the building not an Israel hate-fest, as surely the US media would portray it back home, but quite the opposite. The ability of the well-funded Zionist lobbies to function as well oiled machines in portraying an Iranian president with limited powers as almost the next anti-Christ and certainly a Hitler, reborn-was startling and in full display.

Three other non-white people in the audience clapped when I spoke. As I ran from the room after the panel, they met me outside. Two were Palestinian and thanked me for speaking up for them. I reminded them that I was an Indian and had never been to their land. They said it did not matter and called me "brother," in the comfortable (for all of us) assumption that there still existed some sense of Muslim brotherhood. As we walked past some young, white protesters holding signs against both racism and Iran--I still fail to see the connection--a young Egyptian activist said simply to me: "One person's terrorist is another persons freedom fighter." That is a powerful statement that does lack a certain nuance of complexity. However coming from India, where similar logic could be applied to Kashmir depending on what side you are on or even coming from a family that had been split apart by the blood of partition that followed the freedom movement from the British colonizers, I understood the truth of that statement.

The farce that was this Geneva round became clear to me as soon as I stepped into the haloed confines of the UN. As the much reviled, almost made-to-be Hitlerian Mr. A. was a few minutes into his speech, the all-Caucasian EU delegations (23 members, we are told) walked out ceremoniously only a few moments after the "humble" (his own term) former mayor of Tehran was pelted with red clown noses, also by Caucasian protestors. But as they made their displeasure known, delegates from African and Asian nations applauded. I wonder if a discussion of race, in terms of skin color, and indeed, the institutionalized racism in many European nations, is even noticed by the White gentleman's club that usually represents European nations at the UN. Where, indeed, were the voices from within Israel who oppose the disturbingly rightwing, bellicose government that has been chosen to speak for the entire Israeli nation?

The schism between the West and the Rest on Israel and its racism or its institutionalized apartheid of the stateless Palestinians cannot be more obvious. As Mr. Ahmadenijad walked into his press conference, again a motley crew of twenty-something, entirely White protestors hissed at him with quickly printed signs and hissed, stressing their sibilants: "Racccissst." A British Pakistani man and I were the only two who questioned them on whether they actually had any experience of racism, manifest most simply for both of us in just getting around with our brown skins or Muslim names in most Western nations. These well-dressed kids surely had not experienced racism.

The vilification of the Iranian state is complete. I am no supporter of the "humble" former mayor of Tehran. If anything my work has been harsh in its criticism of the Guardian council-run Islamic state. However, as I chatted to two Iranian delegates just outside of the press conference, I felt briefly that they were actually the underdogs. Dressed in tie-less suits (since that "Western" appendage is so reviled by the Shia intelligentsia) they agreed when I said that their PR was the worst. I even dared in a brief moment of courage to propose that having an easily caricatured provocateur as President could not help the case. The latter case was met with cautious looks. The former was agreed. As we stood there, two young girls carrying the Israeli flag hissed at me and spat in our general direction and said they were going to the anti-Iran protest.

"You mean the commemoration of the Shoah?" I said.
"Yes, and you should see what has been done to our people," they yelled.

They seemed to be in their very early twenties and rather well off so I wondered why their harangue would be so contemporary in this particular context, almost as if it were yesterday.

Bewildered, I did stop by the concert held to commemorate the Shoah. Despite the large Shoa commemoration banner over the stage, all it seemed to be was a Bash-Iran concert with signs and banners with that latter agenda aplenty and rousing invective. The Iranians were nowhere to be seen. And yes, once again, it was a sea of mostly Caucasians.

I emphasize skin color here for a reason. The way I have understood racism as it pertains to the color of my skin has always been about being a minority in a majority White nation, which now does have a Black president. At the UN there has been a successful conflation of racism with anti-Semitism, which I continue to find problematic. Many of my Jewish friends would hesitate to be identified in reductive terms that disavow the diversity of the people of the Jewish faith. And I do have an immense problem with "White" or "Caucasian" people who, while not aware of their own privilege, accuse an entire nation in which the successfully implemented post-1979 identity has been one born from the Islamic nation state, not based on the colour of one's skin. These are complicated ideas and certainly the blogosphere and its often off-the-cuff writing style does not invite the easy articulation of complexity and nuance.

I leave Geneva disappointed and sad. Disappointed at the amazing success and desire, evidently, of the Iranians to add value to their ever growing bad rap. Sad that, at least on my panel, the real victims of genocide, discrimination, and racism in our own time were mostly ignored--the dark-skinned African man from Darfur and woman from Rwanda. Disappointed that the mostly Caucasian room at the sham-panel I spoke at could only understand these dignified victims of painfully fresh wounds in relation to the victims of the horrors of the Shoah, now at least five generations past. Surely the simplistic logic of the pro-Israel lobbies that to be anti-Israel is to be anti-Semitic and thus even "racist" cannot be allowed to continue.

The biggest joke in all of this is the continually ineffective, gargantuan bureaucracy also known as the UN. The joke remains on them in their inability to get a single head of state to attend other than the continually reviled Ahmadinejad, a candidate in an upcoming, contentious election, who clearly speaks neither for all of the Mullahs in the Guardian Council nor the anxious youth of Iran, but is, like George Bush was for the grim period just ended, a convenient scarecrow and bogeyman for the rest of the world.

The last and only time I was in Iran was as a young student morphing into a journalist, and that was brief. The fact that I have never been to Israel and the lands it occupies makes me now wonder if I really need to go. Perhaps, they, the Israelis need to see "A Jihad for Love." And perhaps then I can discover the much-touted claims of this most enlightened "Middle-eastern democracy." If they allow me to cross from their first-world, well-paved streets into the third-world rubble and chaos of Ramallah and Gaza, I should definitely want to go. I am told that the enlightened Israelis not only tolerate but supposedly love their gays. I also know that the Iranians seemingly do the opposite. I wonder indeed if Mr. Ahmadinejad would now allow me to enter Iran, since I have made some kind of case in the defense of his nation. I already have stated my regret at portions of "A Jihad for Love" that I would now construct very differently. Maybe, now forgiven, I could cross over into both of these forbidden lands that I have feared in the past. Maybe, just maybe, they will even soon have direct flights from Tel Aviv to Tehran! And maybe, just maybe, we will stop waiting to see who destroys whom first. The Israelis clearly have their nuclear arsenal safe and ready. The Iranians are supposedly working on theirs. The Israelis clearly still have Barack Hussein Obama's America behind them, which reminds me: Is it time to remove the middle name I adopted willingly and proudly during that most famous American election from my Facebook profile?