This past week saw the creation of a new, Palestinian-only bus line. It will take passengers (who must have a permit to work in Israel) from the Eyal checkpoint just north of the West Bank city of Qalqilya, to several cities inside Israel.
On the one hand, the creation of this Palestinians-only bus line is a big step, more than deserving the outrage it has been the target of. The "separate but equal" doctrine has a way of conjuring up that stomach-churning feeling for American on-watchers like myself in particular.
But there is another perspective, one that says these bus lines aren't really that big a deal. Not that living separate but equal isn't a big deal – of course it is. But rather that separating and racializing buses is just one of the more recent policies of separation. That other story goes like this: racialized sovereignty leads to racialized needs, access, and opportunities, forming racialized places and then, finally, racialized ways of getting there. Ethnic divides become political. Israeli settlers requested the creation of separate lines because, they said, Palestinian travellers on the lines already in place, posed a security risk. In the first few hours the new line was in operation, one bus was reportedly set on fire.
Between bus lines and colour lines
W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1903 that the most important question of the twentieth century would be that of the colour line. The early DuBois spoke of ‘skin color’ as signifying a veil between two people, one couldn't understand the other because of assumptions that were so powerful they changed the meanings of words. He was describing the United States under Jim Crow legislation, in which the colour line shaped daily communication.
Some Palestinian activists have instead called for a “Qalqiliya Boycott” of these new lines, invoking the tactic used in Alabama at the beginning of what would become the Civil Rights movement in the United States. How would these activists relate pre-Civil Rights United States to contemporary Israel? Separate but equal?
The later DuBois wrote that people of different races encased in glass boxes, were inaudible no matter how they screamed. Today, walking down Shuhada street, what was once Hebron's main market appears as nonviolent resistance against the street's new role as a space of separation. Riding a particular bus route becomes a symbol of protest for those whose rights to a bus route are racially determined. Marshall McLuhann wrote in 1969 that 'the medium is the message', that how we send messages, or the context of sending a message, speaking out at all, is just as important as what we say - it's one way of breaking a deafening silence.
This past week, 35 young people from Gaza launched an online radio station in five languages from which to stake their own right to be heard. Hundreds and thousands of demonstrators in solidarity with hunger striking activists challenging detention without charge, and the activists who photograph and film life as it happens, whose work is being honored with Oscar nominations, might just be part of a new rising tide of activists who, by their creativity, and shunning violence as the tired tactic it is, stand a chance at breaking through the glass. I'm most optimistic that one day, there will be something that is separate but equal: each one's sovereignty.