Untold Stories from Gaza: A Conversation with Ayman Qwaider and Sameeha Elwan

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I’ve written before about the wonderful Chicago initiative “Untold Stories,” which features Palestinians sharing their personal stories of their lives under occupation. While it began as a project of my congregation, it has since expanded to become an interfaith community effort. I’m so gratified by the success of this program, which draws upon the unique power of narrative rather than political rhetoric. As ever, the simple sharing of stories has an uncanny ability to cut through the convoluted complexities of political issues like little else.

Up until now, “Untold Stories” has featured Palestinian-Americans (and recently, the addition of Israelis as well.)  This past Sunday, however, for the first time participants were able to hear from Palestinian presenters speakers speaking to us directly from Palestine. I was honored to serve as the facilitator of a Skype conversation between attendees at the Evanston Public Library and a young Palestinian couple in Gaza: Ayman Qwaider, a community educator and peace activist and his wife Sameeha Elwan – a blogger/student/activist.

For well over an hour, Ayman and Sameeha shared details of life inside the Gaza blockade.  Ayman, 26, received his degree from the Islamic University of Gaza in 2008, after which he worked for two years as an international humanitarian aid worker. In 2010, he was granted a scholarship to travel to Spain, where he received his master’s degree in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies. He currently works for a non-governmental organization in Gaza.

Sameeha is a talented writer and blogger who, like Ayman, received her BA at the Islamic University, then received a scholarship to earn an MA in Culture and Difference at Ustinov College in Durham, UK. Her work is featured in the important new anthology, “Gaza Writes Back,” recently published by Just World Books. Sameeha has received a scholarship to pursue a Phd in English literature but it is as yet unclear if she will receive permission to travel once again pursue her studies.

It was clearly important for Ayman and Sameeha to be able to share their stories with us, particularly since the plight of Palestinians in Gaza is the chronically forgotten story in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Now six years into this blockade, Gazans still live in a virtual open-air prison with severely curtailed access to the most basic necessities of living.  As Ayman and Sameeha told us, 80% of the population is dependent on international aid, the economy has all but collapsed, the percentage of children suffering from malnourishment is rising, unemployment is at 60%, there is a shortage of drinkable water and access to electricity is limited to several hours a day.

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To drive this point home, Ayman told us at the beginning of the program that we should expect their electricity to go down in one hour. At that point, we would need to wait for a few minutes while they hooked their computer up to a reserve battery. When we reconnected, they were sitting in the darkness of their Gaza City flat, their faces illuminated only by the light from their computer. (Compare top pic with the pic above).

I’ve written extensively about the politics dimensions of the Gaza crisis so I won’t belabor the point here. I will only say that I am deeply grateful to “Untold Stories” (and its coordinators, Sallie Gratch and Mark Miller) for enabling us to hear Ayman and Sameeha’s story – and help us bear witness to this injustice with a unique kind of power.

It’s truly difficult to describe how it felt to converse with a young couple who were sitting in the darkness of their apartment from inside a blockaded strip of land while we sat in the comfort and freedom of an Evanston library. It is so very, very important to hear these untold stories and to create real relationships with those who are living them out day after day. I’d add it is even more important to view ourselves as an integral part of these stories, so that we might somehow participate in their just resolution.

Some links I encourage you to read: click here to read Ayman’s blog and here to read Sameeha’s. Click here to read an excellent article by journalist Ruth Pollard which describes the current reality under the Gaza blockade and prominently features Ayman and Sameeha’s story.

And finally, click here to donate to ANERA – a heroic NGO that has long been endeavoring to provide sustainable support to the people of Gaza.

"Untold Stories" co-coordinator Mark Miller

“Untold Stories” co-coordinator Mark Miller


Sharon’s Legacy: Survival at All Costs

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From Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks at the funeral of Ariel Sharon today:

Like all historic leaders, Prime Minister Sharon was a complex man about whom, as you’ve already heard from his colleagues, who engendered strong opinions from everyone.  But like all historic leaders, all real leaders, he had a North Star that guided him — a North Star from which he never, in my observation, never deviated.  His North Star was the survival of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, wherever they resided.

In talking about his spiritual attachment to the land of Israel back in an interview in the late ‘90s, he said, and I quote, “Before and above all else, I am a Jew…”

As a Jew – and as a human being of conscience – I submit that this myopic obsession with Jewish physical survival “before and above all else” has led the Jewish people down a very dark road indeed. In so many ways, Ariel Sharon represents the embodiment of this obsession – and I for one recoil at the suggestion that he might in any way be held up as a Jewish exemplar.

As the tributes of world leaders continue to roll in, please consider the life’s work of a man Joe Biden quite mistakenly claimed is “loved by the Jewish people:”

- In the early 1950s, as a young major in the Israeli army, Sharon led the infamous Unit 101, which carried out numerous cross-border “pre-emptive” and “retaliatory” attacks into the West Bank, deliberately killing and wounding Palestinian civilians.  In the most notorious incident involving Unit 101, between October 14 and 16, 1953, soldiers under Sharon’s command massacred 69 Palestinian civilians, most of them women and children, in the West Bank town of Qibya. Sharon’s orders included “total destruction of the village and maximum harm to the villagers, again forcing them to flee.”

- On October 29, 1956, Israel attacked Egypt, part of an invasion in conjunction with Britain and France. During the resulting hostilities, soldiers under Sharon’s command committed a series of massacres of POWs, including more than 100 civilians. In one incident, Israeli soldiers shot and killed 49 Egyptian prisoners of war, including civilians, after binding their hands and forcing them into a quarry. In another, 56 Egyptian civilians were murdered while sheltering in the back of a truck. In a third incident, some 50 Egyptian civilian workers were murdered by Israeli soldiers near the town of Ras Sudar.

- Following Israel’s surprise attack against Egypt in June 1967, which resulted in Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Egyptian Sinai peninsula, and Syrian Golan Heights, Ariel Sharon, by now a general responsible for Israel’s southern command, was tasked with “pacifying” Gaza. In his efforts to crush resistance, Sharon ordered his soldiers to execute without trial any Palestinians suspected of involvement in the resistance, resulting in the killing of more than 1000 Palestinians.

- On June 6, 1982, Israel launched a massive invasion of Lebanon, masterminded by then-Defense Minister Sharon. Between June and September, the Israeli army killed between 18,000 and 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, bombarding and laying siege to the western half of the capital of Beirut.

- On September 16, 1982, under Sharon’s direction, Israeli soldiers surrounded the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and sent in about 150 of their local Christian Phalangist militia allies, even though the long and bloody history between Palestinians and Phalangists in Lebanon was well known to the Israelis. Over the next three days, between 800 and 3500 Palestinian refugees and Lebanese, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were butchered by the Phalangists, who sexually assaulted, tortured and mutilated many of their victims, in one of the worst atrocities in the modern history of the Middle East.

For more details on these facts – and other aspects of Sharon’s legacy that were likely not recounted at his funeral today, click here.


“Wrestling in the Daylight” in Seattle

Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course.  In the meantime here’s a taste:


My “Wrestling” Interview with Just World Books

mikeClick here to listen to a podcast interview I did with Just World Books last February.

In this podcast, Rabbi Brant Rosen, author of ‘Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity,’ shared his reflections on his book and how it has impacted his understanding of “what to do” with his beliefs and convictions as well as provided his insights about the effects of Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza flotilla incident, and other Israeli actions on both the views of young American Jews and the Arab Spring. He also offers his opinion on what President Obama should do in his second term about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Pay a Visit to the Gaza Kitchen

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Now that the dust has cleared from Israel’s “Operation Pillar of Defense,” Gaza has sadly faded off the media radar screen once again. In the meantime, if you’re interested in some new essential reading about this significant but chronically misunderstood region, I have just the thing: a cookbook.

Yes, “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey” by Palestinian blogger Laila El-Haddad and Madrid-based writer/researcher Maggie Schmitt, newly published by Just World Books, is far and away the most important book I’ve read on Gaza in some time – and I’m not even a cook.

I’ve been a huge fan of Laila El-Haddad’s work for years. Her blog “Gaza Mom” provided me with my first real “beyond-the-headlines” insights into Gazan life and culture and I remain a devoted reader. For those unfamiliar with her work, her “Gaza Mom” anthology (also published by Just World Books) is the perfect introduction – if it leaves you hungry for more, then you must check out “The Gaza Kitchen.”

If you had any doubts that this was not your typical cookbook, the authors of “Gaza Kitchen” will explicitly lay them to rest for you in their Introduction:

“(This) is a hybrid sort of book: it is mostly a cookbook which recovers and compiles both traditional and contemporary elements of a rich and little-known cuisine. But it also attempts to do a little ethnography, a little history, a little political analysis. Cuisine always lies somewhere at the intersection of geography, history and economy. What makes it such a compelling subject is that it serves as a cultural record of daily life for ordinary people, traces of a history from below made palpable in something as evocative and delicious as a plate of food. Our hope in this book is to share this food with you and in so doing, something of the indefatigable spirit of the people we interviewed.

Indeed, history has indeed left an indelible imprint on Gazan cuisine. Gaza was historically an important station along the spice route, providing a link between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean – and eastern spices continue to shape Gazan cuisine to this very day. Food historian Nancy Harmon Jenkins illuminates this point vividly in the Foreword:

In many ways, food in Gaza is classic Palestinian, Middle Eastern cuisine, but it is unique with its own regional diversity, which includes a deep appreciation for the kick of red chili peppers, the zest of eastern spices (cardamom, cloves, cinnamon), and the soothing calm of fresh dill and dill seeds. You can see this immediately in Gazan-style falafel, those those delectably crisp, deep-fried morsels of ground chickpeas with spices, universal street food throughout the Middle East, from Turkey to the banks of the Nile. In Gaza, however, the addition of chopped chilis and fresh green dill gives a special twist to felafel. (Only in Greece is dill used to the delicious extent it is in Gaza.)

More recent history has also impacted Gazan cuisine. After the Nakba of 1947/48, Gaza was filled with a massive population influx of Palestinian refugees. As Jenkins points out, this event turned the newly-created Gaza Strip into “a repository of traditional foods and dishes from all over historic Palestine, a living legacy of the refugees who flocked here, driven from their homes in the north and the east.” All this to say that “The Gaza Kitchen” succeeds not only because of its delicious recipes, but through its illumination of the social-cultural-political context from which they emerged.

Moreover, sprinkled among the dishes the authors include brief essays that consistently debunk the image of Gazans as either “hapless objects of pity or as vicious objects of fear.” It is impossible to read this book and not be powerful affected by the lives of ordinary Gazans (notably Gazan women) who struggle to maintain their cultural dignity amidst an almost total socio-economic isolation from the rest of the world.

In addition to learning new recipes, we meet Gazans themselves: we eavesdrop on neighbors sharing Arabian fables while kneading dough for hulba (feungreek cake); we meet Fatema Qaadan, a widow and single mother who supports her family by rearing rabbits through the help of a local community center; and we learn about al-Muharrarat (“Liberated Lands”), a Hamas government-sponsored initiative that responds to blockade shortages through a variety of innovative agricultural projects.

The authors also do not flinch from exploring the political impact of Zionism on Gazans and their cuisine. One interesting short essay entitled “On Schnitzel,” points out that many Gazan fast food joints serve schnitzel – the classic pan-fried “Wienerschnitzel” brought to the region by European Zionist immigrants. The authors continue:

Now, with Gaza totally isolated, it is easy to forget that for decades thousands of Gazans went every day to work in Israel, that Israeli and Gazan entrepreneurs had partnerships, that both commerce and social relations existed, albeit on unequal footing. Adult Gazans remember this, and many speak admiringly of aspects of Israeli society or maintain contact with Israeli business partners, employers and friends. But for the enormous population of young people who were not old enough to work or travel before Israel sealed the borders in 2000, this is impossible. Though their lives are completely conditioned by Israeli political decisions, they have never laid eyes on a single Israeli person except the soldiers that have come in on tanks or bulldozers, wreaking destruction. And the generation of young Israelis to which those soldiers belong has likewise never met a single Gazan Palestinian in any other context. A terrible recipe for continued conflict.

I personally consider the legacy of Israeli cuisine to be a complex and painful one. Reading through this book through the eyes of an American Jew, I was constantly reminded that so many of the foods that we assume to be uniquely “Israeli” are in fact dishes that have long been indigenous to Palestinian culture.

It is certainly true that there is really no such thing as uniquely “Jewish food.” To be sure, Jews have lived (and cooked) in a myriad of societies and cultural contexts over the centuries – and our cuisine has traditionally emerged from a (pardon the expression) fusion of Jewish sensibilities with our respective host cultures. Given the circumstances of Israel’s creation, however, I have long been troubled by Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian/Mediterranean culture – and the assumption, for instance, that dishes such as hummous and felafel are somehow “uniquely Israeli.”

(An interesting case in point occurred when the Harvard Business School cafeteria recently featured an “Israeli Mezze station” with such “authentically Israeli” dishes as Cous Cous, Za’atar Chicken, Fattoush, and Tahini Sauce. In response, Lebanese Harvard graduate Sara el-Yafi posted an impressively researached and widely shared Facebook comment that sought to set culinary record straight once and for all. Also highly recommended reading).

For their part, El-Haddad and Schmitt have now created their own cultural reclamation project. It deserves to be read, served up and shared widely. Bravo to my good friends and colleagues at Just World Books for making this delicious document available to the world.


Khaled Meshaal’s Speech: Actions Speak Louder

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I’ve just finished reading Hussein Ibish’s excoriation of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal’s victory speech in Gaza last week, in which he accuses Meshaal of “unhelpful escalating rhetoric” against Israel. Along the way, Ibish dishes out a fair amount of rhetorical hyperbole himself, calling Meshaal’s speech “one of the most cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches in the history of the Palestinian national movement” and “profoundly toxic from every perspective.”

It’s certainly true that Meshaal’s speech, which he delivered as he made his first-ever visit to Gaza on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Hamas and the end of Israel’s latest military campaign, Operation Pillar of Defense, struck a note of resolute defiance.

Here’s a translated excerpt from an Al Jazeera report:

“Palestine is our land and nation from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, from north to south, and we cannot cede an inch or any part of it,” he said. “We fight Zionists, not Jews. We fight whoever occupied our land, regardless of religion … Statehood will be the fruit of resistance, not negotiations,” Meshaal told cheering fans.

Hamas does not belong to the PLO, but Meshaal said a year ago that it and other factions were “on the path to joining” it.

While this is certainly strong – even incendiary – stuff, are we really to believe it was “one of the most cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches in the history of the Palestinian national movement?”

First of all, let’s take a closer look at the context in which this speech occurred. Shortly before Meshaal’s visit, Israel had leveled a devastating military assault against Hamas in Gaza. During two weeks of fighting, Hamas sent numerous missles into Israel – some of which landed close to major population centers in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The violence was eventually quelled through a US/Egypt brokered ceasefire. 

In other words, this is what it took to elicit the US’s active engagement with Israel and Palestine. Years of IDF crushing of Palestinian non-violent demonstrators have garnered nothing but silence. The PA’s attempt to gain recourse through the UN was met with active opposition from the Obama administration. It was only the armed resistance of Hamas in Gaza that managed to bring Hilary Clinton to the region and actively engage with the Israelis and Palestinians. In the end, what kind of message does that send to the Palestinian people?

So yes, Khaled Meshaal, told a cheering crowd that “statehood will be the fruit of resistance, not negotiations.” But should we really be so surprised? While negotiations have proved disastrous for the Palestinian people, armed resistance seems to be the only way they ever catch the attention of the international community.  Did Ibish really think Meshaal was going to get up on the podium and call for a resumption of the peace process?

Although those who consider Hamas to be an unrepentant “Islamist” terror organization would likely scoff, Meshaal and other Hamas leaders have in the past made noteworthy overtures that indicated a willingness to engage in a US-led peace process (albeit fundamentally different than the one embodied by the follies of Oslo.)  Most notably, following President Obama’s Cairo speech (which signaled at the time, a different American attitude toward the Muslim world), Meshaal responded with an important 2009 policy speech in which he welcomed a “change of tone” from Obama.  He went on to attribute this new American tone as the fruit of the “stubborn steadfastness of the people of the region, while resisting in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan” and stressed that it was not merely a change of tone but a change of policy that was needed to make progress in the region.

Meshaal added that Palestinians would judge the US not by its words but by its actions, which would have to “begin with reconstruction of Gaza and the lifting of the blockade, lifting the oppression and security pressure in the West Bank, and allowing Palestinian reconciliation to take its course without external pressures or interference.”

Whether or not one believes these overtures were genuine, we’ll never really know. Meshaal’s opening went utterly unregarded by the Obama administration, who refused to deal with Hamas and chose to maintain its support of Israel’s crippling siege of Gaza.

Given this history, are we really to believe, as Ibish would have it, that Meshaal’s recent speech is one of the most “cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches” Palestinian history?  Or is it merely a reflection of its time – a moment in which the Obama administration has thoroughly squandered its own stated desire to usher in a new era of engagement in the Middle East?

In the end, Meshaal’s speech was simply that – a political speech. And history (particularly Middle East history) has shown us time and again that parsing a politicians words are a notoriously bad way to predict what he/she will eventually agree to. In the words of the very insightful Israeli blogger Noam Sheizaf:

The bottom line is that none of this matters. It’s all a huge red herring. Nothing a leader says now determines the way he will act in the future. Public statements are important only to a limited extent and agreements depend on the continued willingness of both sides to uphold them. As long as both parties feel that they benefit from a certain status quo, or that their interests are better served than by any alternative, the deal they reach could hold. If one party is coerced into signing but doesn’t have its interests and desires addressed, all the nice declarations won’t matter. Twenty years after the historic peace deal that should have ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but didn’t, you’d think that people would get it.

The arguments about the meaning and importance of the Hamas charter are all but identical to the decade-long debate over the PLO charter. How much effort and time was put into forcing Arafat to change it, and how little did it matter when negotiations collapsed in Camp David and violence returned. The same goes for today: Given the right pressure, a certain Palestinian leadership could be made to promise Israel anything. Yet none of it would matter if you don’t address the fundamentals of the conflict: The occupation, the refugees, the holy sites, the settlements, the access to land and to water. The leaders would change their minds and if they don’t new leaders (“more extreme”) will come. Reality will prevail over rhetoric.

So let’s be honest. Meshaal didn’t mince his words -  but in the end it is actions that ultimately matter.  And in this regard, Meshaal’s words were considerably less damaging to the cause of the Palestinian national movement than the Netanyahu government’s announcement that it would build 3,000 more units in the E1 region, which would successfully cut the West Bank in half and cut it off completely from East Jerusalem, ending any reasonable hope for a viable two state solution. Sadly, the only response this deeply damaging action elicited from the Obama administration were words such as “counterproductive” and “we urge restraint.”

To my mind these kinds of words are considerably more dangerous to the cause of a just peace in Israel/Palestine.


Marching in Solidarity: A Guest Post by Hallie Rosen

Gaza March

Guest post by Hallie Rosen

Like almost every Jew, I too have a complicated relationship with Israel.

Israel has always been an important part of my Jewish identity. Brant and I met doing Israel activism on campus at UCLA and we spent almost two years in Israel before we were married. I’ve worked in the organized Jewish community for almost twenty years, first at the Anti-Defamation League and more recently at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

And like Brant, my views on Israel/Palestine have evolved. While I admire Brant’s courage regarding the Israel/Palestine issue, I haven’t felt completely comfortable taking the same kinds of public stands that he does. I agree with many of Brant’s viewpoints, but I admit there have been times I have felt uncomfortable with his being so public with his views – my ingrained impulse against airing Israel’s “dirty laundry.”

While I have read his blog and his book, and we have had many conversations about his activism and the general political situation in Israel/Palestine, I have never personally taken such a public stand on the issue until November 19, when I marched with Brant at a Chicago rally protesting Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

It was not a major decision on my part. I was very upset by the news out of Gaza, so when Brant invited me to join him in the march/rally, I readily agreed.  Since I work near the rally site and it took place at the end of the day, it was a simple matter to walk over and join the group as people gathered at the Federal Plaza.

My first impression was surprise at how many young families were in attendance. I expected to see primarily college age students, but I was struck by the sight of many parents with school aged children and a fair amount of strollers.  Since Brant was wearing a kippah, people knew that he was Jewish and several people came up to him to thank him for attending the rally and showing his support.  They didn’t necessarily know who he was, but it clearly meant a lot for see a Jew walk with them.  For me, it underscored that this was an issue of conscience for all peoples – not just Palestinians.

I expected to see protest posters and I braced myself for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments.  From my ADL days, I knew that these kinds of protests can easily become an opportunity for fringe elements to chant anti-Semitic slogans.

But that didn’t happen.  All of the messages were strong, but on target. As the group of about 700 people walked peaceably through the Loop during rush hour, there was chanting  but also simple non-political conversations among the marches – about shopping, uncomfortable shoes, upcoming holidays, etc.  I only saw one incident of an onlooker, who provoked some of the crowd – the police quickly subdued him and we continued on our way. As a relative newcomer, I didn’t fully feel ready to join the chanting. Perhaps I’ve not fully come to grips with what it means to be a Jew in solidarity with Palestinians.

We gathered once again after the walk to listen to speakers. Everyone was on message, asking for sanctions from the US, end of violence and settlement building, requesting a just peace, etc. When Brant spoke, he received a strong enthusiastic reception from the crowd – particularly when he was introduced as a rabbi.

As the crowd dwindled, we walked to the train station and back home. Later that night, I watched the news coverage of the rally and was surprised, at how violent the images were.  The piece included edited snippets of protestors chanting and because there were kafiyyahs and head coverings, it seemed that the news media was only interested in showing us the familiar images of “angry Arabs.”

The news report failed to convey the racial and religious diversity of the crowd – and there were none of the mothers and young children with whom I had just spent a few hours marching.  Once again I became profoundly aware of the power of stereotypes – and to a greater extent, of racism and how the images that we see on a regular basis prejudice our views and shape our opinions.

I also became aware of how important it is to step outside of one’s own comfort zone and find common cause with those whom you’ve previously assumed to be your enemy. In the end, marching for justice was for me an affirmation of our common humanity.


Upcoming “Wrestling in the Daylight” Gigs in Baltimore and DC!

This Sunday and Monday (December 2 and 3) I’ll be making a quick trip through Baltimore/DC for some “Wrestling in the Daylight” book readings. I’m looking forward to my first “Wrestling” gigs outside of my native habitat of Chicago.

On Sunday I’ll be appearing at a program sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace – Baltimore at Space 2640, 2640 St. Paul Street at 1:00 pm (click here for the Facebook event page). That evening I’ll be in DC at Busboys and Poets on 5th and K at 8:45 pm  for reading sponsored by the DC Metro chapter of JVP.

On Monday, I’ll visit the Friends Committee on National Legislation, 245 2nd St, NE Washington (Wilson Conference Room) at 12:30 pm. And finally, I’ll speak that evening I’ll speak at St. John’s Church in Georgetown, 3240 O St. NW for a program sponsored by the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace.

If you live in or near the area, please drop by. I look forward to seeing you there!


American Civil Rights Leaders: End the Violence and Secure a Just Peace

Delegates on a tour led by Ruth Edmonds of the Israeli Coalition Against Home Demolitions (photo: Allie Perry)

Received from my friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Walt:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

An immediate end to Israel’s assault on Gaza, “Operation Pillar of Defense,”matters. An immediate end to the violence—the onslaught of missiles, rockets, drones, killing, and targeted assassination—matters. An end to Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza matters.  An end to Israeli’s 45-year occupation of Palestine matters. A resolution of the issue of Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes in 1948, many of whom live in Gaza matters.  Equality, security, and human rights for everyone matters.

We write as individuals who recently traveled to the West Bank with the Dorothy Cotton Institute’s 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation, organized by Interfaith Peace-Builders.  We cannot and will not be silent.  We join our voices with people around the world who are calling for an immediate cease-fire. Specifically, we implore President Barack Obama to demand that Israel withdraw its forces from Gaza’s borders; make U.S. aid to Israel conditional upon Israel’s adherence with relevant U.S. and international law; work with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to bring an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and to secure a just peace that ensures everyone’s human rights.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”  As Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared in 1993, “Enough of blood and tears.”  Enough!

We deplore the firing of rockets on civilian areas in Israel.  We also deplore and are outraged by the asymmetry, the disproportionality, of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, evidenced by the growing number of Palestinian civilian deaths and casualties.  This is not a conflict between equal powers, but between a prosperous occupying nation on one hand, armed and sanctioned by 3 billion dollars in annual U.S. military aid, and on the other, a population of 1.7 million besieged people, trapped within a strip of land only 6 miles by 26 miles, (147 square miles) in what amounts to an open-air prison.

United States military support to Israel is huge.  From 2000 to 2009, the US appropriated to Israel $24 billion in military aid, delivering more than 670 million weapons and related military equipment with this money.  During these same years, through its illegal military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, Israel killed at least 2,969 Palestinians who took no part in hostilities.

During our trip to the West Bank, we witnessed for ourselves the injustice and violence of the Israeli occupation and the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians, in violation of international law and UN resolutions.

In the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, for just one example, we observed a weekly nonviolent protest.   The neighboring Israeli settlement of Halamish was illegally built on Nabi Saleh’s land.  This settlement has also seized control of the Nabi Saleh’s water spring, allowing villagers to access their own spring water for only 7-10 hours a week.  Demonstrators of all ages participated in the protest, including several who, in recognition of the civil rights veterans in our delegation, carried posters with quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We watched in horror as heavily armed members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded to this peaceful assembly with violence, strafing the demonstrators with a barrage of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, gas grenades, and even a round of live ammunition.

The IDF assault in response to these weekly nonviolent demonstrations can be deadly.  Rushdi Tamimi, a young adult Nabi Saleh villager, died this past week while he was protesting Israel’s attack on Gaza.  The IDF fired rubber bullets into Rushdi’s back and bullets into his gut, and slammed his head with a rifle butt.

Israel’s assault on Gaza is exponentially more violent than what we witnessed in the West Bank, but the context–the oppression of the Palestinian people—is the same.  Most of the inhabitants of Gaza are refugees or descendants of refugees expelled from their homes in Israel in 1948.   This dispossession of the Palestinians that they call the Nakba (The Catastrophe) continues on the West Bank where Israel has built extensive Jewish settlements on confiscated Palestinian land. We saw with our own eyes how this settlement expansion and the systemic discrimination has further dispossessed the Palestinian people and is creating a “silent transfer” of Palestinians who are either forced or decide to leave because of the oppression.   This injustice—Israel’s decades-long oppression of the Palestinian people—has to be addressed by honest and good-faith negotiations and a genuine agreement to share the land.  The alternative is a future of endless eruptions of aggression, senseless bloodshed, and more trauma for Palestinians and Israelis. This surely matters to all people of good will.

To President Obama, we say, use the immense power and authority United States citizens have once again entrusted to you, to exercise your courage and moral leadership to preserve lives and protect the dignity and self-determination, to which the Palestinian people and all people are entitled.   Israel relies upon the economic, military, and strategic cooperation and support of the United States.  You have the power to not only appeal to Israel to show restraint, but to require it.

Feeling ourselves deeply a part of “We the People,” sharing so much of your own tradition of organizing for justice and peace, we believe it is just, moral and in keeping with the best spirit of Dr. King to urge you to:

§  Call for an end to violence by all parties and an immediate cease-fire for the sake of all people in the region.

§  Use your power to demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF cease the bombardment of Gaza and withdraw their armed forces immediately.

§  Join with the international community in using all diplomatic, economic, and strategic means to end Israel’s illegal, brutal siege of Gaza.

§  Insist that the United States condition aid to Israel on compliance with U.S. law (specifically the U.S. Arms Export Control Act) and with international law.

§  Work with the leaders of Israel and Palestine to secure an end to Israel’s occupation and to negotiate a just peace.

As citizens of the United States, we are responsible for what our government does in our name, and so we will not be silent.  Justice, peace and truth matter.  The future of the children of Israel and Palestine matter.  We cannot be silent and neither can you.

Members of the The Dorothy Cotton Institute 2012 Civil and Human Rights Delegation:

(List in formation)

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Outrage in Gaza Redux

Israel’s military assault on Gaza in 2008-09 represented an important turning point in my own relationship with Israel. I recall experiencing a new and previously unfamiliar feeling of anguish as Israel bombarded the people living in that tiny, besieged strip of land over and over, day after day after day. While I certainly felt a sense of tribal loyalty to the Israelis who withstood Qassam rocket fire from Gaza, I felt a newfound sense of concern and solidarity with Gazans who I believed were experiencing nothing short of oppression during this massive military onslaught.

And now it’s happening again. Only this time I don’t think the term “anguish” quite fits my mindset. Now it’s something much closer to rage.

It’s happening again. Once again 1.7 million people, mostly refugees, who have been living in what amounts to the world’s largest open air prison, are being subjected to a massive military assault at the hands of the world’s most militarized nation, using mostly US-made weapons. And our President is not only looking on – he is defending Israel’s onslaught by saying it has a right to “self-defense in light of the barrage of rocket attacks being launched from Gaza against Israeli civilians.”

Let’s be clear: this tragedy didn’t start with the Qassams.  It didn’t start with the election of Hamas. And it didn’t start with the “instability” that followed Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.

No, this is just the latest chapter of a much longer saga that began in 1947-48, when scores of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their cities and villages in the coastal plain and lower Galilee and warehoused in a tiny strip of land on the edge of the Mediterranean. By all accounts, most were simply too overwhelmed to realize what was happening. The ones who tried to return to their homes were termed “infiltrators” and were killed on sight. Others resisted by staging raids in the newly declared state of Israel. Sometimes they succeeded, more often they did not. Either way, Israel decided early on that it would respond to each of these reprisals with a overwhelming military show of force.  And those reprisals and that show of force have essentially been ongoing until this very day.

I realize, of course, there is plenty of political subtext to this latest go-around.  I’ve read the timelines and have formed my own opinions on the latest “who started it?” debate. I’ve also read plenty of analyses by Israeli observers who believe that this was not a response to Qassam fire at all but was very much a “war of choice” waged by an Israeli administration looking to shore up political support in an election season.

I’ve also read a widely circulated article from Ha’aretz about Israel’s recent execution of Ahmed Jabari (the head of Hamas’ military wing). I learned that up until now, Jabari was “Israel’s subcontractor” for security in the Gaza Strip, that Israel has been literally funding Hamas through intermediaries in exchange for peace and quiet on their southern border, and that when Jabari failed to deliver of late, the decision came down to take him out. Another article, written by the Israeli who negotiated with Jabari for the release of Gilad Shalit, revealed that negotiations were still ongoing with Jabari when the Israeli military assassinated him with a drone strike.

Yes, the wonky side of me has been avidly reading all these analyses. And while I do believe they provide an important counterbalance to the mythic statements by Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the US State Department, the more I read the cynical political subtext for this war, the sicker I get. No, this isn’t about Qassams, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s about elections either. It’s really just the most recent chapter in a much longer litany of injustice – the latest attempt by Israel bring the Palestinians to their knees through the sheer force of their formidable military might.

Of all the analyses I’ve yet read, one of the very few that truly seemed to grasp this truth came from Yousef Munayyer, of The Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center:

The problem Gaza presents for Israel is that it won’t go away—though Israel would love it if it would. It is a constant reminder of the depopulation of Palestine in 1948, the folly of the 1967 occupation, and the many massacres which have happened since them. It also places the Israelis in an uncomfortable position because it presents a problem (in the form of projectiles) which cannot be solved by force…

Israel has tried assassinating Palestinian leaders for decades but the resistance persists. Israel launched a devastating and brutal war on Gaza from 2008 to 2009 killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians, but the resistance persists.

Why, then, would Israel choose to revert to a failed strategy that will undoubtedly only escalate the situation? Because it is far easier for politicians to lie to voters, vilify their adversaries, and tell them ‘we will hit them hard’ than to come clean and say instead, ‘we’ve failed and there is no military solution to this problem.’

Like last time, I know many in the Jewish community will say it is unseemly of me to criticize Israel this way while Israelis live in fear of Qassam fire out of Gaza. I know there are those who believe that by writing these words, I’m turning my back on my own people in their time of need. But I know in my heart that my outrage at Israel’s actions goes hand in hand with compassion for Israelis – particularly those who know that their leaders’ devotion to the sword is leading them into the abyss.

Additionally, as I wrote under tragically similar circumstances in 2009:

I believe Israel’s response to Hamas’ missile attacks have been disproportionate and outrageous. I believe their actions only further endanger the security of  Israelis while inflicting collective punishment and a severe humanitarian crisis upon Gazans. Indeed, just as I cannot understand what it must be like to be a citizen of Sderot, I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to be a Gazan citizen at the moment, living under constant air attack, with no running water or electricity and dwindling food, as hospitals fill up with wounded and corpses lie rotting in the streets because relief workers are unable to reach them.

When will we be ready to accept that this is not a “balanced” conflict or even a “war” by any reasonable definition – and that it never was?  When will we face the painful truth that this is not a story about one side versus the other but about one side oppressing the other?  Frankly, all the well-meaning liberal comments about “praying for peace on both sides” and leave me cold. Worse, I find them insidious because they simply serve to support the myth that this is a conflict between two equal parties. It is not. And peace will not come until we admit this – until we admit that there is an essential injustice at the heart of this tragedy and that try as it might, Israel will never be able to make it go away through the sheer force of its increasingly massive military might.

Beyond the rage, I’m heartened that this time around there is a growing community of conscience that is speaking out publicly and in no uncertain terms to protest Israel’s latest outrage in Gaza. I am so deeply grateful for my friends and colleagues at Jewish Voice for Peace, who is alone in the Jewish world in condemning this latest assault.  I urge you to read JVP’s courageous statement, which I know gives voice to increasing numbers of Jews and non-Jews, young and old, religious and secular, who are coming together through the courage of their conscience.

At this point in my posts I would typically write “click here” to lend your voice to some kind of collective statement.  I’m going resist that temptation and urge you instead to take to the streets.

I’ll see you there.


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