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Q&A: Marisa Handler explores global activist journey in memoir
For Marisa Handler, 31, her coming-of-age as a global activist happened just after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, when she was working in India as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.
“My trip to India played an interesting role in my journey as an activist, because I was writing about the world fragmenting after 9/11,” Handler told the Iowa Independent during an interview. “Because of the U.S. actions in Afghanistan, the relationship between India and Pakistan worsened and the Hindu-Muslim tensions in India had been exacerbated.
“So while I was writing about everything falling apart, I went on a 10-day meditation retreat in Nepal, where I came to the insight that it’s all connected,” Handler said. “Underneath the surface there is a unity, and I knew then it was up to me to figure out how to fit the two together.”
Handler explores this definitive moment and other experiences in her memoir, Loyal to the Sky: Notes from an Activist, the winner of the 2008 Nautilus Gold Award for world-changing books.
“My experiences at the meditation retreat helped me see an alignment between my work as activist out in the world and my journey inward,” she said. “The biggest thing that I can offer is the crucial connection between work in the world and inner world, and it is not enough to only work on change the world, but we have to work on transformation of ourselves.
“I say this because I have so often seen activists who are working so hard and are so committed that the way they are working to change the world is replicating the cycles they are critiquing,” Handler said. “In other words, they are critiquing the institutionalized violence of war or occupations or free-trade agreements, but the way they are organizing is angry, and it pushes people who don’t already agree with them away.”
For Handler, writing the book helped her chronicle this spiritual crossroad, which helped shape her notions of what it meant to be an activist. “I came to the point that I realized a lot of the work I was doing as an activist came from an angry place,” she said. “I had to ask myself if I was actually helping or making things worse. I think there are a lot of people seeking this self-awareness.”
Handler’s journey, however, began in her birthplace of Cape Town, South Africa, where she witnessed injustices firsthand during the apartheid era. It was these experiences that helped initially feed her passion for activism and global political organizing.
When she was 12 years old, Handler’s family relocated to Southern California, which served as the catalyst for her quest for global justice — her journey traversing the Berkeley campus, Israel, India, Nepal, Ecuador, Peru, and all over the Unites States — including the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Ga.
Handler has written for Salon.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, AlterNet, and Tikkun, Orion, and Bitch magazines. She has worked as an activist with numerous organizations, including Direct Action to Stop the War, United for Peace and Justice and the Tikkun Community, where she was national organizer.
Handler recently shifted gears in her writing journey, enrolling in the fiction program at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City.
“In some ways, I feel like writers workshop offers me a retreat where I can work on developing my craft as a writer,” Handler said. “I will keep writing nonfiction as well. I want an opportunity to step into another world.”
Iowa Independent interview with Marisa Handler:
Iowa Independent: When did you first feel you wanted to partake in something bigger than yourself and embody more of an activist role?
Handler: Growing up Jewish in a country like South Africa during the apartheid era, my eyes were certainly open to racial issues. But it wasn’t until I was nearing adulthood that I first came into activism. In high school, I had my feminist awakening and started a feminist club.
That was the first concrete step to make some kind of waves. We got a lot of flak from both teachers and students for starting this group. I was called a “dyke” and a “man-hater” by my fellow students. Nonetheless, we actually did make some waves by bringing attention to a male teacher who was harassing female students. We sent him a letter and sent a copy to the administration, and he was eventually put on probation, but not fired, and the harassment of his students stopped.
But it wasn’t until I spent a year in Jerusalem during my junior year in college at Berkeley that my eyes were opened to a whole new set of issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Iowa Independent: What specifically opened your eyes while in Israel?
Handler: There is a lot of racism among Israeli Jews against Arabs. Jerusalem reminded me of apartheid. Like South Africa, it’s split. West Jerusalem is Israeli-ruledand is more of a First World country, whereas East Jerusalem is more Third World, more or less.
However, Jerusalem differs from apartheid in South Africa because of several underlying complexities. On the surface it’s not the same as South Africa where the colonialist power came in and settled the country. The Jews came from a very different history and Israel was established in the wake of the Holocaust. I was unsettled by what seemed like blindness on the part of my fellow Jews towards the Palestinians, who were living in occupied territory.
Iowa Independent: What do you mean by “blindness”?
Handler: On a deeper level, I have a friend who is a psychotherapist and she uses trauma therapy to describe the Israel-Palestine conflict. I think the Jews are a heavily traumatized people, having undergone millennia of persecution and in some ways are stuck in that history and are collectively unable to see the pain of their neighbors. Palestinians can look at it from a similar lens and both sides are blind to the others’ plight.
What manifested for me as a 20-year-old in Israel at the time was that I didn’t understand why people around me could not see that the Palestinians were suffering and wanted freedom. And my people, who had longed for freedom for so long, more than anything should be sympathetic toward people who want the same thing.
I was raised in a left-leaning Zionist movement, which helped me to see both sides. By the time I left Israel, I nolonger called myself a Zionist because that meant supporting Israel’s policies as well. My work with the Tikkun Community comes out of my love for Israel, and I felt the destruction towards the Palestinians was a destruction of the Israelis as well.
Iowa Independent: What role did your experiences in Israel play in your activism stateside?
Handler: I took a job as the national organizer of the Tikkun Community and my job was building a national student network and building the existing national community of people who supported what we called the “middle path” to peace in the Middle East and an end to suicide bombings and the occupation in an attempt to get both sides to listen to each other.
I got a lot of abuse from both sides, but more so from fellow Jews who called me a traitor and a self-loathing Jew and felt I was betraying them by offering a public critique of Israel at all.
Focusing on Israeli policy as the way it stands could not be as strong without support from the American government. The American-Jewish community wields a lot of clout in our government’s foreign policy, so it’s important to start the dialogue here to help provide a counterpart to AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] — which tends to be right-wing and is very powerful lobbying group in D.C.
AIPAC’s motto is support Israel, right or wrong, whereas I see it as someone who is a citizen of Israel and loves Israel and supporting Israel does not meaning supporting policies that will be destructive to future populations of Jews. It’s like being a patriotic American means dissenting when your conscience tells you something is not right.
Iowa Independent: What is your pulse on activism in the United States? Why is it so challenging to get Americans riled up and hit the streets?
Handler: The simple and common answer to this is that we are too comfortable, but it’s more complex than this, psychologically speaking. We live in a country where we are constantly active and rushing around. We work more than any other country and when we aren’t working, we are bombarded with messaging. This is a culture in which we are uniquely alienated from primarily a deeper sense of ourselves, other people and the planet.
Unlike other countries, like the ones in Europe, Americans aren’t as rooted because it’s still a newer country, which means it’s harder to care about everything and connect as well. I would go as far as to say that there is a spiritual dilemma in this country. I think it was Houston Smith who said something to the effect that in developing countries there is a crisis of material, and in the West we are facing a spiritual crisis. I think there’s a real hunger in the West, but it is hard to recognize this hunger when we are so distracted.
Iowa Independent: So, based on your experiences as a global activist, what lesson have you learned that you would like to share with fellow activists?
Handler: Oftentimes we look for others to save us, but only we can save ourselves. It’s the forces that we see as destructive that are the vast faceless entities people tend to look to for answers, but out of necessity, the answers we seek have to be small and diverse. People who feel their work is not relevant, because it’s a community project, are mistaken because it’s all of those efforts that are part of the solution.
I have been fortunate to visit small communities that are making what would appear to be insurmountable change happen, and I have found this inspiring. The one thing I’ve gained is that we are not really alone and we don’t necessarily know our power. Oftentimes we look for others to save us, but only we can save ourselves.
Iowa Independent: Is this what compelled you to write a memoir?
Handler: Yes. I feel like a lot of people are looking to understand the world and how they can make a difference. What I have seen is that the most powerful way to connect to the world is through stories. Stories are incredibly powerful. Statistics and news stories are one thing, but when you hear personal stories of what people are doing, and what odds they are up against, you realize what a powerful medium this can be. Writing this book gave me an opportunity to share stories of others around the world in all kinds of places most people don’t get to visit and provide insight to the people behind the scenes.
The book really encourages people and leaders to listen to the voice inside them, which is often quiet. Writing the book was about my own spiritual journey, although we are all on that journey in some way whether we know it or not.
I think there are a lot of stereotypes of activists out there, and I think we are all activists or potential activists. We live in such a powerful country and we are bombarded with choices that even what we buy is an active choice. The thing that draws me and anyone to social change is compassion. We all have that, and I wanted to expand the definition of what it means to be an activist. Some people view what they are doing does not change the world, but what they are doing does change the world in its own steady way.
The most rewarding part about the book so far is the letters I have received from readers, who said the book helped inspire them to find their own path to activism.
Iowa Independent: What about activists who pour everything into something, yet they don’t see any visible change?
Handler: It’s inevitable that activists will feel overwhelmed, distressed or defeated. I think it is normal to have these feelings, and it’s important to let ourselves have these emotional moments. Otherwise I think it will block us. I have seen a lot of burnout with people who have worked so hard only to perceive that nothing has changed, but that’s not how change happens, rather, it is something that slowly moves on and it’s important to keep moving on and allowing painful emotions to live inside of us.
Iowa Independent: What made you want to shift gears and go into the Writers Workshop for fiction?
Handler: I’m an artist and have a lot of creative energy, which has come out through my songwriting. There’s a power of telling stories, and I think there are ways that fiction can reach people that nonfiction cannot.