A Conversation with Barbara Lubin

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Barbara Lubin is a lifelong activist who has fought for human rights and civil liberties on a number of diverse fronts. From antiwar work in the Vietnam War era to disability rights and human rights campaigns in the U.S. and abroad, Lubin has struggled on behalf of the oppressed from more than 40 years. In 1988, she cofounded the Middle East Children’s Alliance with journalist Howard Levine, and since then has shipped millions of dollars worth of food, medical supplies, and art supplies to children in war-torn Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. MECA is a 2012 Utne Visionary; below is our interview with Lubin from August 2012. 

Sam Ross-Brown: What was it about your experience in Palestine that prompted you to get involved?

Barbara Lubin: I grew up in a very right wing Zionist home. We supported the policies of the State of Israel blindly. And it was only after I had been elected by the board of education in Berkeley, California, that a group of young Palestinian students from San Francisco State came to see me and said to me, “you go to El Salvador, you’re involved in Nicaragua, and in the anti-Apartheid movement in Berkeley around South Africa, and you say nothing about Palestine and Israel.”

I said I was Jewish, and they said, “What does that have to do with it?” And for me it had everything to do with it, but little by little, these guys from San Francisco State educated me and made me realize what was really happening and what the founding of Israel and Zionism really meant. And when the first intifada began I decided to take a delegation of locally elected officials from around the United States. One of us was a Catholic priest, two of us were Jewish, and were the first internationalists to be in Palestine after the intifada began a week later. And it was that trip and really those young students who really made me understand what was happening and changed the whole way I look at this issue.

When I came back we had a press conference at the San Francisco Press Club. Howard Levine–a friend of mine and the East Bay stringer for the San Francisco Examiner–covered it and we went out to lunch. He said, “What are you going to do now?” And I said, “I’m definitely going to do something on this issue. I’m just revolted by what I saw in Palestine and Israel.” And he said, “I’ll do it with you.” And two months later we opened our office, and since then, we’ve delivered over $13 million in food and medicine to the children in Palestine and Lebanon and Iraq. We’ve built playgrounds and preschools. We’ve been doing this work around the clock for 25 years.

SR: Where have you seen the most success? You mentioned the playgrounds and medical equipment.

BL: Yes, actually I’m trying to get information about a playground we completed this year in Syria, but I’m not having much luck with that. And in fact, I’m getting ready to visit the camps on the border in Jordan and Lebanon and all over to talk with the Palestinians who are fleeing from Syria. It’s like a second Nakba–catastrophe–for the Palestinians. In 1948 they fled their homes inside of Palestine when the State of Israel was founded, and many of them ended up in Syria. Now, once again after all these years, they thought they had found a safe home, but are now on the run again and being forced into camps in these other countries. So I’m going to see what’s going on.

I don’t know if I can say what has been most successful. I’d like to think that the project we’ve been working on for the past three years continues to be an important and successful project. We’ve been building water purification and desalinization systems at the UN schools in Gaza. The water table has been lowered to such an extent because Israel over the years has been stealing the water from the West Bank and Gaza. And it lowered the water table to such an extent that the water is undrinkable and many babies get blue baby syndrome, children have died from this water, and the salt content is so high that it’s undrinkable.

And when our project director in Gaza went to a boy’s school in Bureij refugee camp, she asked what MECA could do for them. And they said what they wanted more than anything else was to be able to come to school and have a clean glass of water to drink. And that’s really what our main focus has been for the last three years.

SR: That’s the Maia Project, right?

BL: Yeah, that’s the Maia Project. Maia means water in Arabic.

SR: One of the most public campaigns that MECA has been involved with has been Let the Children Play and Heal, which focuses on traumatized children expressing themselves through art. What is it about art that has a healing potential?

BL: It does have a healing potential. That program came about because I was in Egypt throughout Operation Cast Lead in 2009, when close to 1,500 Palestinians were murdered within four weeks. Close to 400 of them were children. And the last two days of the bombing, after all of our aid went in–we sent in five tons of baby food and milk, wheelchairs, beds, all kinds of things that kids needed, truckloads of supplies. After that went in from Egypt, I went across the border and went into Palestine and Gaza and was there the last two days of that bombing. In some communities–in one neighborhood there’s a family called the Sammoni family and over 40 people were murdered in that one family.

After I came home, they contacted Dr. Mona El-Farra, our project director in Gaza, and said that they wanted MECA to set up some sort of summer camp or program for the kids to help them deal with the emotional problems that they were dealing with. They were wetting their beds, they were unable to sleep, they were acting out, all over Gaza after that bombing.

So Dr. Mona El-Farra, along with some psychiatrists, set up Let the Children Play and Heal. It was training 400 mothers and women, most of them uneducated, ordinary women, and they trained them to go work in the schools and work in homes to help kids deal with their emotions around that horrendous attack. And part of that project was an art project that took place. And the kids were encouraged to draw pictures of what they saw and what they felt. As a matter of fact, a woman from Philadelphia several years after that was in Gaza and she saw the pictures and brought them back to the United States.

When the art exhibit came to Berkeley, we had made arrangements and had worked with the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland (MOCHA). And we worked for them for six months on showing the exhibit. And it was a very graphic exhibit. A lot of tanks, drawings of people dying. But we had worked with people at the Museum, and we worked with teachers and a lot of public and private schools who were going to go visit the exhibit. And two weeks before the exhibit was to open, the head of the Museum came to see me at MECA and said that they had changed their minds. That they were not going to show the exhibit.

I just couldn’t believe it. I sent out an email to our list saying that MOCHA had refused to show the exhibit, but we were committed to showing this exhibit. We said that we had sent out all of these emails, we worked with the press, and we sent out another email saying that we’d be out in front of that museum, with the art, holding the art on September 24 of last year. During those two weeks, I went around and tried to find space for this show.

And outside the Museum, I found an open storefront and it was right around the corner from the Museum. We spent all night hanging the exhibit. And the next day, over 500 people showed up to see the exhibit that we were holding. We held a copy of the exhibit outside the Children’s Museum, and we marched around the corner. Over 1,000 people came that day to see the show, and over the two months that we had that exhibit up, thousands of people came to see the exhibit. School buses were showing up everyday, kids were coming in. They would look at the exhibit and then we’d have them sit down on the floor, and we would talk about the exhibit and what they felt about it and what was happening. And it was an incredible thing.

People from all over the world wrote to me. They were outraged that children’s art would be censored. They were furious. Right before we took the exhibit down, I said to Howard Levine, my partner and MECA cofounder, “You know, we should do a book about what just happened.” And 28 days later, the book was done. It was published. It’s really amazing: within four weeks, we had the idea, our artist Josh Sampson put the book together, and it was published. Twenty-eight days. The proceeds from this book all go to the children who did the drawings and art centers in Gaza.

SR: The exhibit also traveled around the country. Did you get a similar response in other places?

BL: No other place had the response that we had here in Berkeley. Nobody. I gave a talk in Vancouver about the exhibit and people were very open to it. Only in Berkeley, the home of free speech, was it shut down. That’s a pretty remarkable thing.

SR: The idea that an exhibit of children’s art could be controversial is amazing.

BL: Oh no, it’s not amazing. It’s sad. I remember in 1991 I had just come back from the Middle East during the Gulf War, and Noam Chomsky was going to give a talk at the Berkeley Community Theater. And the Zionists here in the Bay Area sent out letters telling them to boycott bookstores that sold Chomsky’s books and sold tickets to this event. And 17 professors from University of California, Berkeley published a letter saying that Noam Chomsky and Barbara Lubin were self-hating Jews, that we supported terrorism, and people should boycott the stores and boycott the talk. And 3,200 people showed up to hear Noam speak that night. Most of the people here were furious about it. But the art exhibit is not the first time that MECA has had this kind of thing happen to us.

The same thing happened with another art exhibit we did with 12 artists about 10 year ago. It was called Justice Matters, and we did it at the Berkeley Art Center. It was beautiful. It was a portfolio we did about Palestine. And 12 rabbis went to see Tom Bates, the mayor of Berkeley, and demanded that the city stop funding the Berkeley Art Center, and they demanded to have the exhibit taken down. Fortunately, the mayor said, “No, we won’t do that,” and the exhibit stayed up. It’s a funny town. They’re for free speech, but when it comes to Palestine, there’s a very strong Zionist community here in the Bay Area and they have been very vocal, and it’s very difficult doing the work here.

SR: It’s such a strange mix there. At the same time, you have people like Rabbi Michael Lerner and Tikkun magazine doing very different work.

BL: Well, Michael Lerner has had many death threats. This is the place where Mario Savio stood on top of an automobile at the University of California and kick-started the Free Speech Movement. And yet his wife, and all those people from the Free Speech Movement wrote a letter condemning me and MECA when we did a demonstrated against having Netanyahu speak at the Berkeley Community Theater. They said we were shutting down free speech. It was unbelievable. So it’s hard to do the work, but it just makes us work that much harder.

SR: Are you hopeful about a changing atmosphere around Palestinian issues? Are you hopeful about the Freedom Flotillas or the BDS movement?

BL: I feel mixed about it. So many of the people doing this work now–so many of them I went over these 25 years and begged them to speak out about Zionism and speak out about what was happening to Palestinians. And they refused. And they’ve been doing it now for the last six or seven years, which is great–better late than never. But the BDS movement is very important, and it is growing.

I’m actually just reading as I’m talking to you that the Israeli courts have ruled–just this minute–that the State of Israel is not responsible for the murder of Rachel Corrie. So on one hand, the movement is growing, but on the other hand, the State of Israel continues to support murderous activities. It’s shameful.

SR: Yesterday, the UN released a report called Gaza in 2020: A liveable place? According to the report, by 2020, Gaza will need double the electricity provision and hundreds of new schools and housing units.

BL: Yeah, I just came back from Gaza. I’ve been working with the UN in Gaza on our schools and it was just impossible. I was just there in February for three weeks and then I was just there for three weeks. It was impossible to do the work. The electricity was only on for eight hours–and in the night usually when you’re asleep. And then it’s off. So you can’t use your computer, you can’t use email. And when I was there in February it was one of the coldest winters they’ve ever had. We couldn’t have any heat in any of the homes. It was freezing and it was raining and it was windy. It was just impossible.

I don’t know how Palestinians continue to struggle in the way that they do. I have a lot of respect for them. Life is very tough. People talk about how, “now we’re going to have a nonviolent struggle.” Well 99 percent of the Palestinian population has been struggling nonviolently forever. The fact that you would go to a checkpoint–one of the hundreds and hundreds of checkpoints–and stand there in the hot sun or the freezing cold winter with your children and have to wait for hours and hours and hours until some 17-year-old Israeli soldier says you can go to your home. And you do that. And you do it quietly. And you just stand there. That is nonviolent struggle. They have been doing nonviolent struggle forever.

I just hope it’s not too late. I’m not real optimistic. I’m very worried about Israel and all of this talk about Iran and working it up for God-knows-what they’re going to do, and that’s very frightening. You know that whole region is changing. It’s very interesting to me that the new president of Egypt was meeting today with all the nonaligned countries, including Iran. It’s all changing over there. The treaties Egypt has had with Israel–who knows what’s going to come of those? It’s a very, very tricky time. I think we should all be worried, and we should pressure our congresspeople.

You know, almost every congressperson has been taken–U.S. congressperson–to Israel by the Zionists. And they’re shown all of the Jewish sites, and they’re told one side of this story. They never get to see Palestine; they never get to hear what the impact of the founding of the State of Israel has been on the Palestinian community. We need to do the same work. We need to get them there to go to Gaza, to go to the West Bank to see what life is like living under the longest occupation in history. But I don’t know how much time is left. I really don’t.

And on the other hand, the dynamics are changing. Just looking at how many Palestinian children are born, and how many Israeli children are born–it’s all changing. The demographics are going to be such that in five years, there will be more Palestinians living inside the 1948 borders–what’s called Israel–than outside. And who knows what that’s going to mean? I think time is running out. I think Israel has to come to some just resolution soon or all is lost.

SR: What keeps you going in the face of all that?

BL: Oh, I don’t now. I’m 71 years old now, and I dropped out of high school in 11th grade, and I’ve never gone back. Everything I learned has been on the street. I was president of the board of education in Berkeley. I ran as a high school dropout in 1981. But I grew up in a home where you took care of people. Where you helped people. If someone was ill in the neighborhood, my mother went and made sure there was food and helped take care of people. I think what carries me on is my anger at injustice. I know a lot of people say it’s not good to be angry, but in reality, it’s the anger at the unfairness in this world that just spurs me on.

I have four children and seven grandchildren, and one of my children has just turned 43, my son Charlie. And Charlie has Down syndrome, and lives with me. When he was born, there were no programs, there were no laws for people with disabilities. I was in the first generation of parents who got involved and helped write the laws that forced the school systems to close the special education schools and put our kids on the regular school site and integrate them into the classroom. And I think it’s that kind of fighting for Charlie and fighting the system and making sure he has the right to go to school and be in the regular classroom. And even before, I was very involved in fighting against the Vietnam War, and going to jail all the time. Being involved in demonstrations.

I remember the first flotilla, when Sloan Kaufman and myself and a few other people, we organized a peaceful pillage to go out and try to stop the USS New Jersey from going back to Vietnam to kill innocent Vietnamese people. And it was a six-story warship and we were in these little catamarans and canoes. And they overturned our boats and we were taken into the Philadelphia police station in leg-irons. It’s just been a long history for me of being outraged by all of these things. So it’s that anger that spurs me on.

Sometimes I get really tired. I don’t know. I’ve lost a lot of friends. I used to be the sweetheart of the left in Berkeley. I helped save our soda fountain, and I helped write the first commercial rent control law that was for two blocks in Berkeley to save the fountain. This was many years ago. The US had never had commercial rent control ever outside New York City during World War II. But Berkeley had it for three years before it was overturned.

When I think something is really wrong, I’m not going to be quiet. I get up and I fight and I try and change it. And I’ve been really lucky to meet the people that I’ve met. I’ve met kings and queens. But most of all, I’ve met the real royalty, Allen Ginsberg (who did events for us), Gore Vidal. A lot of them are gone now, and it’s very sad for me. Every week somebody else that I love and adore and that has helped us has died. I remember being the youngest person in the movement, so many years ago, and now I’m one of the oldest people. I just don’t know how it happened so quickly.

SR: Do hold out hope for movements like Occupy to put some of these issues back on the table?

BL: Well I think there are a lot of young people who are now getting involved, but you know this is a tough time for young people. We were just talking about this last night–my niece and nephew were here from the East Coast. There isn’t the movement anymore. It’s too hard. This country has become so sick and so right-wing. I just don’t see it. I don’t see new leadership coming up. I think there are some wonderful, terrific young people doing things, but it’s much harder for them today than it was for us. It was so much easier back then for us to struggle; it’s much harder today. There’s so much out there that’s against kids speaking out and making change–things like anti-terrorism laws. For a minute I thought maybe the Occupy was going to happen and that was encouraging, but even that faded out. So I don’t know where it’s going to go. Of course there’s going to be young people who are just as angry as I was and make change.

But it’s not as easy today. Look at these people–these Republicans and Democrats. It’s really frightening, the kinds of things that they’re saying. It’s like 1950 all over again. To talk about a woman’s right to an abortion. To talk about the right to speak and say what you think. All of these rights are being taken away from us. I really think young people have got to wake up and realize that if they don’t get out there fight this, we’re finished. I’m worried for my grandchildren. I look at them and think, “My God. What is going to happen to them? What is it going to be like for them?”

SR: In terms of MECA’s future, do you plan to continue Let the Children Play and Heal?

BL: Yes we do. In fact, we have a new project. We also have 150 young people that we send to college in Gaza and in the West Bank. And many of the women who had graduated from the university there have started a new project. They are working with battered women who are having problems with their husbands. And they’re working with children–this is so fascinating to me–they’re working with children whose parents were collaborators with the Israelis. These children have been isolated and other children don’t want to play with them, and don’t want to be around them, and life is very difficult for them. And about eight young women who have come through the Play and Heal program and college are now working with the children and working with the women who need help. So it’s continuing the next generation.

When I was there in Gaza last time I had a meeting with 75 of the women who came through that program and they all begged us to start the program over and do it for the men, for their husbands. They say the men need to be trained in the way the women were trained. So we’re trying to figure out how to do that.

SR: That kind of resilience is so inspiring. In her introduction to A Child’s View From Gaza, the book of children’s drawings from Let the Children Play and Heal that appeared last year, Susan Johnson told a story of children creating their art even through rolling blackouts, sometimes working by candlelight. It’s inspiring, but you have to wonder, where does that come from?

BL: They’ve never known anything else. I look at children all over the world who are suffering and I wonder, how can they do that? I can’t believe this is happening. These children have never known anything else. These generations of kids in Gaza, this is all they’ve ever known. All they’ve known is occupation, oppression, lack of electricity, being beaten, their parents, their fathers in prison, children in prison. So this is all they’ve known. We look at it and say, “Well how do they do it?” They look at it and say, “Well it’s all we’ve ever known.” And it’s very sad.

But there is a resilience. Palestinian people amaze me all the time, because they have not given up. They’re angry, sometimes they feel furious and their hope isn’t there, but they don’t give up. And they will not give up. And there is not a Palestinian alive in the West Bank or Gaza or inside 1948 that doesn’t say, “This is our land, and we are not leaving, and we are not dying.” And they use this one word–I’ve heard it for 25 years from the mouths of thousands of Palestinian people–the word is steadfast. Sumud. They use it and they mean it. “We are steadfast. We will not be moved.” They’re incredible people.

Image by Middle East Children’s Alliance. Used with permission. 

Middle East Children’s Alliance: Where to Learn More

20 Years of Caring for the Children from Middle East Children’s Alliance on Vimeo.

Video: Drawings from Let the Children Play and Heal, along with some background on Operation Cast Lead.

Video: PressTV covers MECA’s Maia Project and the Water Writes mural campaign.

Middle East Children’s Alliance Launches Campaign to Provide Clean Water for Children in Gaza to Honor the Legacy of Howard Zinn,” Common Dreams, January 27, 2011.

Oakland Museum Cancels Palestinian Kids’ War Art,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 9, 2011.

“‘You Never Know What’s Next’: An Interview with Barbara Lubin,” Electronic Intifada, October 7, 2006.

No Justice for Rachel Corrie,” The Nation, August 31, 2012.

Gaza in 2020: A liveable place?UN Country Team, August 27, 2012.

A Child’s View from Gaza: Palestinian Children’s Art and the Fight Against Censorship. Edited by Howard Levine. Pacific View Press, 2012.

Main site: MECAforpeace.org

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