Saturday, October 30, 2010

Talkin' bodega drink bottled water Middle East blues

When I walked into the bodega a few Wednesdays ago for a flavored water drink, I looked for a moment at the assortment of bottles in the cooler. Earlier in the day, I had been reading an article by Jeffrey Greenberg in The Week (the article had originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly) about a series of conversations and hang-outs the writer enjoyed with Fidel Castro earlier in the year. It was a beautiful article, especially when Castro took Greenberg to an aquarium in Havana to see the dolphins. “‘Do you like dolphins?’” the Cuban leader asked the writer. “‘I do,’” Greenberg replied. Castro claimed that they were watching the world’s only underwater dolphin show, and picturing the dictator and the journalist in front of a large, blue-tinged glass window in Cuba was marvelous.

Before describing this episode, Greenberg writes about Castro’s complex, reasonable thinking about Israel. Castro believes that Israel has an unqualified right to exist, despite calling the nation the “gendarme” of the United States in the Middle East. He thinks that Israel needs to relinquish its nuclear weapons for regional peace to occur, and calls for every nuclear-armed nation on earth to do the same. Castro also chastises illegitimate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for calling for the destruction of Israel, and even says that Ahmadinejad should “recognize the special character of anti-Semitism” (Greenberg’s words). For me, Castro’s remarks reflect an unusual level of sensitivity, education, and candor. I wish more people were as thoughtful as he is, at least in regard to these subjects.

Probably because I had read the piece, Israel was somewhere in my mind when I walked into the bodega to buy the drink. When I saw the rows of brightly lit bottles in the cooler, including various flavors of Vitamin Water, Honest Ade, and some new aloe vera drink, it occurred to me that some criticism of Israel is kind of like criticism of bottled water. Here’s the parallel: While some writers and activists focus attention on Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians—of which there is plenty to pay attention to—there seems to be far less discussion of the harmful acts and/or cold shoulders of neighboring countries such as Syria, whose leaders may prefer that the democratically inclined Palestinians remain stateless and oppressed. Similarly, while everyone seems to discuss the environmental cost of bottled water, I’ve never heard anyone question the cost of the myriad other drinks that are also bottled in plastic. But it may be that sourcing the various ingredients in these drinks and manufacturing them is more harmful to the environment than tapping a spring.

Focusing on the beverage side of the analogy, the obvious response is that cold water flows freely from home taps, so it’s inexcusable to purchase water in plastic containers that require shipping to get to market—we should purchase metal thermoses instead. It’s a great point, even though tap water in some places (I love you, but hello, Greenpoint) tastes much worse and probably contains more harmful chemicals than spring water. For substandard water, there are Pür filters, there are Britas, and there is our planet to think about. With all of these available resources and ameliorants, it’s an affront to our environmental health to purchase bottled water.

But not everyone has access to tapwater. In most cases, a prerequisite for tapwater is a sophisticated, functioning state. During the European Holocaust of 1939—1945, most of the Jews of Europe were dispossessed of their states. After the war, many remained dispossessed, and were also traumatized. Literally and metaphorically, they didn’t have dependable access to tapwater. Neither, I would guess, do many of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank today, along with numerous other staples that middle class people in even moderately prosperous countries enjoy. We know that Israel sets the policies that forbid delivery of certain staples into Palestine, and we also know that some policy makers claim that it is the violent attacks of a minority of Palestinians that make these policies necessary. I’m not equipped to comment on the specifics of these policies or make an informed evaluation of their justness, but I do think that the larger point is that both peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, need tapwater. And it also might be fair to draw a particular, limited comparison, with regard to the issue of statelessness and statelessness only, between the Palestinians of today and the Jews of Europe during and after World War Two.

Returning again to the physical bottle of water, the counterpoint to the environmental criticism of bottled water is that not everyone has enough access to tapwater to survive. If we affirm the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s principle that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, then we should all advocate for people who do not have tapwater, or, by extension, a functioning state that provides them with it. Clearly, the conditions in Gaza and the West Bank must concern all the peoples of the world, as should the suffering of anyone.

But I guess seeing the many-colored drinks in the bodega made me think that the problem in the Middle East is not a problem between Israel and Palestine alone, or even the surrounding countries in the region—it involves all of us, and the decisions that we make every day. Why should buying a bottle of Vitamin Water be any different from buying a bottle of Poland Spring? Both bottles may end up in landfills, and we can certainly make fruit juice at home. Perhaps the point is to keep the manufacture and purchase of all drinks that come in plastic bottles to a minimum, just as the point is to keep injustice to a minimum, everywhere and at all times.

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