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This week, we welcome Maya Rosen to her new role as the Jewish Currents Israel/Palestine fellow.

Maya Rosen (Israel/Palestine fellow): Since October 7th, many in the Jewish community have been working to untangle what it means to have gone from enduring a genocide to being charged with perpetrating one, and the parallels between colonialism in North America and Israel/Palestine. The PBS miniseries, Little Bird, presents a rare opportunity in television to think through questions of trauma, culpability, and the legacy of violence.

Drawing on the personal experiences of co-creator Jennifer Podemski, who hails from a half-Ashkenazi Jewish and half-Anishinaabe family that survived both concentration camps and residential schools, Little Bird depicts the horrors of the Sixties Scoop, when tens of thousands of indigenous children in Canada were forcibly removed from their families and placed in the foster care system to be adopted by white families.

The opening scenes of the show toggle back and forth between the morning routine of Bezhig Little Bird and her family on Long Pine Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1968 and the 1985 engagement party of Esther and David, who first met at their Montreal synagogue as children. In 1968, Bezhig and her siblings happily play outside as their parents get ready for the day, though when a police car drives past, their doting mother hurriedly rushes them inside in a panic; meanwhile, in 1985, Esther, standing in the affluent home of her future in-laws, gives a speech at her engagement party explaining that the family she and David will build will counter the destruction of the Holocaust. We soon learn that they are actually the same person: Bezhig Little Bird, the five-year-old indigenous child on the reservation, has grown up to be Esther Rosenblum after she was abducted from her family by the Canadian government and later adopted by Golda, a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Montreal.

Esther/Bezhig is pushed to search for her birth family and explore her indigenous roots following a racist comment by her fiancé David’s mother. This journey leads to potent yet painful collisions between her identities and their intersecting histories of genocide. After finding out more about her birth family, Esther/Bezhig confronts Golda, who explains to her: “You were not taken care of. This is what they told us. Save these children. They need good homes. It’s a mitzvah!” Bezhig/Esther retorts, “You don’t think governments have lied before?... You can’t take a five-year-old child away from their family and think they’re just going to forget. You should know. Have you forgotten your family that you lost?”

Despite its name, the Sixties Scoop ended only in the 1990s, and the last residential schools in Canada closed only in 1996. As the show notes in a concluding slide to each episode, there are currently more indigenous children being held in custody than ever before. These high numbers—sometimes called “the Millennial Scoop”—is a direct outgrowth of hundreds of years of attempts by the Canadian and US governments to destroy indigenous families. “We’re not very far removed from that dismantling of families and that’s all by design in the Indian Act,” Podemski has explained. “It says ‘remove the Indian in the child,’ that’s the legislation that still exists today. And to do that, you need to go to exceptional measures to make sure that’s done and that there’s no more kids, so that the land becomes available and the resources become available.” All of this, Podemski explains, means that we are “still living very much in a colonial violence state.” Given the persistence of colonial violence—from North America to Israel/Palestine—Little Bird provocatively probes what kind of repair can be done.

Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): Abdallah Al-Khatib’s harrowing documentary Little Palestine, Diary of a Siege (2021) follows the Assad regime’s siege of Yarmouk—once the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria—from 2013 to 2015. The filmmaker paints an intimate portrait of daily life under extraordinary duress: Residents live off weeds, and express disappointment when the vendor tells them the weeds have run out; children’s dreams orbit satiating meals and the return of dead relatives; and men pray in front of a row of white body bags. Yet the film also has a transcendental quality. These scenes are interspersed with voiceovers in which Al-Khatib meditates about the state of siege. We watch, for example, as snow lashes against pedestrians, and Al-Khatib tells us: “Under siege, individual sorrow is a luxury, and secret sorrow an unforgivable betrayal. For the besieged, collective pain is a quality and path to survival.”

About a decade on from the events of Al-Khatib’s film, the Gaza Strip—where more than two-thirds of the population are refugees or descendants of refugees driven from their homes during the Nakba, when Zionist militias displaced more than 750,000 Palestiniansin order to establish the State of Israel—is subject to an even more brutal siege. Little Palestine, with its terrible echoes in the present, makes poignantly present the layers of dispossession in Palestinian history. We listen as Yarmouk’s residents recount their lives before they were forced to flee Palestine in 1948; and, as the film ends, they are scattered once again. But displacement, Little Palestine makes evident, is also a route to multiple attachments. As one refugee in the film says, he wants “the right to return from this place.”

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Jonny Steinberg’s Winnie and Nelson is an enormously interesting account of the marriage between Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. A model work of demythologization, this revealing and often disturbing book not only presents an unsentimental picture of its central couple, but also raises larger questions about our need for myths—and our willingness to either ignore or shape reality to sustain them.

Steinberg, a South African journalist, writer and scholar, shows that Winnie was far from the simple image of a steadfast, loving wife presented when her husband was released from prison after 27 years, exemplified by the many photos of her marching beside him with her fist raised in defiance and joy. The book details her many affairs, which covered the span of their marriage. Of course, her infidelity is none of our business (nor is notorious playboy Nelson’s), and even Nelson did not insist that his wife be celibate while he was imprisoned. But Winnie’s choice of partners was a matter of legitimate concern, as they were often men suspected of being police plants or spies, which gave the authorities direct access to what was going on in the African National Congress. Even when warned that she was involved with men who may be enemy agents, Winnie carried on with them.

Nelson was alternately alarmed by and supportive of his wife, and in Steinberg’s portrait he is more befuddled and bewitched than betrayed. Politically, the two were dramatically divided: While Nelson, after leading the ANC’s military wing, ultimately opted for negotiated peace in an effort to establish a multiracial society, Winnie remained a vocal supporter of armed struggle in all forms, including the murder of alleged informers by burning them alive. She also had a circle of bodyguards, known as the Mandela United Football Club, who engaged in torture and killing of political enemies at Winnie’s behest. Steinberg points out that as the multiracial democracy that Nelson advocated came into being without dislodging white South Africans from the top of the social hierarchy, Nelson came to be viewed as a sellout, while Winnie’s uncompromising vision made her star rise.

But as Steinberg perspicaciously notes, at the height of Nelson’s fame, many of the hundreds of thousands who lined streets around the world to catch a glimpse of him likely didn’t know he’d been imprisoned for his involvement in armed struggle, carried out alongside the South African Communist Party with the support of the Soviet Union. If the Mandelas’ story is often told in a way that domesticates reality, Steinberg’s book serves as a necessary and vital corrective.

Below, we are sharing a remembrance of the activist Kathy Ottersten, who passed away this week. The remembrance was written by Jewish Currents contributor Hannah Gold, who interviewed Kathy for our Fall 2023 issue.

Hannah Gold (contributor):
I came to know Kathy two years ago—they reached out to me after I published an essay on their early activism in New York. In the time since, they became an important mentor and friend to me, and we kept in touch through hours-long phone calls, email correspondence, and an in-person meeting last October.

Kathy loved to tell stories about the many turns their life had taken. As a teenager in a large Irish American family, Kathy trained to join the Irish Republican Army. Later, they rode with the Hell’s Angels, and had the tattoo to show for it. Kathy’s first civil disobedience arrest was alongside Father Daniel Barrigan, and, soon after, they joined the queer-led activist coalition ACT UP, where they served as a board girl, facilitator, and member of the media and housing committees. Kathy was a full service sex worker, picking up johns in and near Penn Station. They were the second openly intersex person elected to office in this country, and the first in Alaska. Kathy recently moved in with their polycule, and had planned to shift careers and become a therapist, because they believed sex workers and trans people deserve psychiatric care from people who understand their experiences firsthand.

Their life was marked by violence. Their first wife, Maria Fuentes, was murdered, and it took over thirty years for Kathy to find her grave on Hart Island—we visited together, with their sister and their partner, last fall. Even within their queer communities, Kathy was often berated with transphobic comments. Still, as the first openly trans member of ACT UP, they intentionally took on public roles while beginning their hormone-assisted transition, because visibility was a cornerstone of their activism. “My body changed in front of that [group],” Kathy told me, “and I . . . knew it would, and I made sure I was seen.”

It was characteristic of Kathy to put themself or their body on the line in this way. They were the first person arrested in ACT UP’s Stop the Church protest, and risked jail time as a defendant in an ACT UP-coordinated trial that helped to legalize the harm reduction practice of needle exchange in New York. Had the defendants lost their case, Kathy’s then-identity as a trans woman would not have been respected; they’d have been placed in a men’s prison. I admired Kathy for many reasons, but their bravery perhaps ranked highest. I have often returned to their words when I asked them about their volunteering for the needle exchange trial: “I wish risk-taking was understood as a base part of human compassion. You take the risk to save lives. Maybe that’s how you love people.”

Kathy loved fiercely, and they were beloved. They liked to tease and to laugh, and to stay out late. They promised to teach me to walk in six-inch heels (start low, they said). Kathy rejoiced in their queer and activist communities. They mentored younger trans people, sitting alongside teenagers as they came out to their parents, and leading some of the earliest trans support groups in New York. Kathy learned from the activist movements that came before them (“I thought okay, I can sit in jail—a lot of my civil rights heroes had spent time in jail”) and were inspired by those that followed (“I am in love with the people behind me . . . They are able to conceive a world that I can’t even imagine.”). Kathy lived in a world that was often hostile to them and those they loved, but they believed in the power of revolutionaries, of activism, education, and love, to create a world that would be different for the generations that followed. In light of their death by suicide this week, I feel a profound sadness and anger that this world couldn’t do better by them. May Kathy’s memory be a blessing, and may it feed a revolution.