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.
Last Thursday, Ta’anit Tzedek hosted a fascinating, stimulating conference call with Palestinian-American journalist Ahmed Moor. Moor, who was born in Gaza, has reported from Lebanon and Egypt and is currently a graduate student in public policy at Harvard. He has been an outspoken advocate of a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine – and during our conversation he elaborated extensively on a subject not commonly countenanced in the American Jewish community.
We recorded the call and will be posting it on our website soon. In the meantime, I’ve transcribed portions of our conversation and have posted them below. Personally speaking, I find Moor’s way of thinking to be fresh and important and I believe these kinds of ideas deserve a fair hearing in our community.
On the notion that Israel must exist in order to safeguard Jewish culture:
First I want to address this idea that a Jewish state has a right to exist because Jewish culture is valuable. Jewish culture is valuable. Hebrew culture is valuable. It is intrinsic – that’s true whether or not Newt Gingrich thinks it’s invented. But the question of whether culture needs to be mapped on a geographical space in a state environment, I think, is one that is open to discussion.
And so when we think about Jewish life here in America, I don’t know that many people would disagree with me when I say that some of the most vibrant examples of Jewish life are here in America, in the diaspora, amongst non-Jewish people. So right-wing Israelis like to make the argument that where Hitler failed, assimilation is going to succeed. Intermarriage is the biggest threat to the Jewish people, not Iran.
Well, if you believe that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and that it’s the only state guarding Jewish culture, well then you are in a sense aligning yourself with those arguments. It’s illiberal, fundamentally illiberal. We know from American experience that a multiplicity of cultures can exist alongside one another and engage with one another and strengthen one another and maybe, even yes, impact one another in positive ways.
And when it comes to Palestine and Israel, American Jews say, “Well this is kind of the homeland of the Jewish people, it’s going to preserve Jewish culture for us,” but it’s almost a relationship apt to an amusement park. “I don’t want to live there – I want to experience it for two weeks. I want to take some of the symbols home with me, but I don’t really want to engage with it in the way that I do at home.”
Well, that’s unfair. No matter how much you value Jewish culture, and no matter how much you believe Israel needs to exist for the preservation of Jewish culture, if it’s a museum, which I don’t think it is, you’ve got to realize that your cultural progress is coming at the expense of somebody else’s freedom. And I think that there’s an asymmetry there in what matters.
On the notion that Israel should exist in case another Holocaust should occur – and Israelis’ fears that a one-state solution is just a pretext for “throwing them into the sea:”
I think that first we’ve got to look at the reality today. The status quo is about expelling Palestinians from Jerusalem, their land in the West Bank, and disenfranchising them in greater ways in Israel proper…So the reality is exactly the opposite. The status quo, the two-state solution process, is about pushing the Palestinians not into the sea, but in the other direction.
First I want to address Jewish American fear, and I hear this from a lot of Jewish Americans of a certain age, when they talk about the Holocaust, which is obviously an evil, genocidal but I want to emphasize, a historical act. I had the benefit of speaking with (New York Times columnist) Roger Cohen recently, and we talked about American Jewish life and I asked him whether he feels unsafe in America. And he was unequivocal: “Absolutely not, America is safe for the Jewish people, we’re welcome here, we’re part of the people, we’re part of the cultural fabric. We are America. America is us.”
Do you ever believe as American people that there’s ever going to be something like Kristallnacht or a pogrom targeting the Jewish people in America? If the answer is yes, well then perhaps it’s time to move to Israel – and that’s what most right-wing Israelis say. If the answer is no, well then you’ve got to realize that you are opting for the preservation of an insurance policy, but the price of that insurance policy is being borne by another people. The Palestinians are paying the cost of a Jewish American insurance policy. There’s that asymmetry again. That doesn’t work. That’s not a moral position to take and it’s unsustainable.
As for Israelis’ fear about whether we seek to ethnically cleanse them, I think there’s again a gap in perceptions of realities. The Israelis are the ones with the guns. The Israelis are the ones with the American support. When the one-state solution is actualized, it’s going to be necessarily through Israeli consent. The idea that the Middle East or Palestine has to be in any way ethnically cleansed of Jewish people is a European action transplanted onto Palestine.
On Israeli historian Gershon Gorenberg’s recent claim that a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine would create civil war à la Lebanon:
Gershon’s fear is related directly to governmental structures – the way in which you structure multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies, or sectarian societies. In Lebanon I think it was structured exactly the wrong way. In Lebanon, whether you’re liberal or you’re somebody who’s more conservative, whether you believe in one policy versus another, the state almost compels you to vote along sectarian lines.
In Lebanon the Speaker of the Parliament has to be a Shia Muslim, the Prime Minister is a Sunni and the President has to be a Maronite Christian. That’s constitutionally true – that’s mandated. And so what that means is that you end up voting – where your vote is impactful and meaningful – is in your sectarian group. The Lebanese demography there is so sensitive – they haven’t had a national census since 1932 or 33, I think.
You have the American case, on the other hand – the structure of this country is along a federal basis. Federalism enabled this country to recover from the wounds of the Civil War and to persist for another 150 – 160 years since the Civil War ended.
It’s important that we think about questions like the ones Gershon is raising, but I don’t think that those questions necessarily stand in the way of a one-state solution. So there are good federal structures, confederal structures even, for dealing with ethnic or religious strife in democracy.
What I’m thinking of specifically is a state with four federal units: the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem is its own district, sort of like Washington DC, central Israel and the Negev and finally the West Bank and the Mediterranean corridor so now you’ve got four districts and Jerusalem. And each of those federal units would be defined geographically and every one of them, with the exception of the Strip, would be made up of minorities either of Jewish people or Palestinian people.
And so in the West Bank federal state you’d have an expression mostly of Palestinian culture. Why? Because 5 out of every 6 people on the West Bank are Palestinians. In the Gaza Strip you could have an expression of Palestinian culture. In the northwestern state there’s a big minority of Palestinian Israelis, but it’s primarily Jewish. I mean we’re talking about the Tel Aviv – Haifa corridor and that would be a majority Hebrew culture state. Same with the Negev.
So you have parity amongst the states because the states are defined geographically and you enable people over time to move for personal preference reasons. Over time your could get a drift across these federal lines, kind of like what happened in the States. You used to define yourself as an American 100 years ago as a South Carolinian or a New Yorker, but today your primary locus of identity is as an American when you deal with the rest of the world. This was the failure of Lebanon – instead of geographically defining the states, the individual community boundaries within Lebanon don’t allow for that drift, so what they’ve ended up with is kind of ossified sectarian structure.
So I don’t think it will be perfect, I don’t it will be easy, but the idea is that you grant people equal rights and give them the freedom to move back and forth across borders. They won’t initially, but they will eventually. That’s been the American experience.
On the political future of the one-state solution:
I heard an Israeli speak recently, an older guy, an activist, and he mentioned the one-state solution is about where he remembers the two-state solution was in the seventies. And so it’s really about changing discourse, changing people’s thought patterns. Lots of people will come into the one-state conversation because they’ve realized the two-state solution is unworkable and that apartheid is just not something they are capable of supporting. We’ll achieve a critical mass. It’s impossible to predict how or when, but two states isn’t going to work and apartheid isn’t going to work. And so you can arrive at this position by default even if you don’t actually believe it’s the best thing anyway.
On cultural autonomy in one democratic state:
People talk about a unitarian model where it would be just one man/one vote and I think that’s a great model to think about. My biggest concern there would be preservation of cultural autonomy, which I think many people at this stage really, really value in that part of the world. Palestinians don’t want to give up what it means to be a Palestinian and I think Jewish Israelis have developed a Jewish kind of culture. I don’t know whether its an Ashkenazic culture or a Sephardic culture, I don’t know. It’s not for me to decide. But there is an Israeli culture and I think those people want to preserve it. And when American Jewish people talk about Jewish culture in Israel, that’s something they’d like to be capable of accessing. And so I’m concerned that the unitary system may not permit the kind of cultural autonomy that many people would like.
But we’re still in the early stages of imagining what it could look like and the question of how to get there really does hinge on people of good will standing up and saying no to apartheid.
On the Palestinian right of return:
The right of return today for the Palestinians is actually about the right to be able to go back and live in Palestine. Lots of people still remember native villages which no longer exist, so the practicalities of it are difficult to map out.
The right of return for the diaspora is more about, I think, official recognition of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and in the period leading up to May 15 1948. It’s an official apology, reparations where appropriate and possible and just recognition. And I think the Jewish people probably understand this better than anybody. Once a historical injustice has been done to you as a people, recognition matters. Apologies matter. Reparations matter. Even symbolic measures matter a great deal.
When it comes to the practical implementation of the right of return, (Palestinian researcher) Salman Abu-Sitta has done really great work on identifying where refugees could return to. Eitan Bronstein of Zochrot, an Israeli organization, has also done a lot of great work on the right of return…
Who do I believe will return to Palestine? I think most of us will not. The Palestinians in the diaspora have done pretty well for themselves. Palestinians in Jordan have done pretty well, the ones in Western Europe, in Latin America, in Northern America are doing pretty well. I think you could draw a direct analogy to the Jewish American diaspora. You want to go you want to visit, you want to go and hang out on the beach and go home to where you’re from.
The only missing group of Palestinian refugees who will actually return to Palestine if they have the opportunity are the 300,000 or 400,000 Palestinian refugees who live in Lebanon. Their lot really is very, very poor and the Lebanese state is racist in many ways in the way they interact with Palestinians there – it’s inexcusable, but that’s also the reality. And given the opportunity I think many of them will leave their squalid and impoverished camps and return to Palestine. But everywhere else, I think you’ll get kind of a vibrant interaction with a diaspora community and the country itself, which I think mirrors, in many ways, the Jewish experience.
We’ve just uploaded the transcript of our conference call with Nadia Hijab last month – the Ta’anit Tzedek website now contains a recording as well as a full text of the call. I encourage you to read and/or listen to this amazing conversation. (Click here for the audio/transcript.)
Nadia covered a wide range of issues during the call, from the one state vs. two state, to human rights, to the Arab Spring, to the evolving Palestinian grassroots leadership. Listening to the conversation again, I was reminded of her impressively clear-headed, rights-based approach to the conflict – often challenging the conventional liberal American Jewish mindset in important ways.
When we ourselves challenged Nadia to state where she was on the one state vs. two state question, this was her eloquent response:
I believe the Palestinian people have the right to self-determination. I don’t care if that is exercised in one state or two states. I believe that whether it’s one state or two states, they should both be states that guarantee equality for all their citizens.
Now, separately from that, I do believe the Palestinians – and this is an individual right – have a right of return. (They) have a right to say if they would like to go back to what is now Israel and live as equal citizens in that state or if they would like to – we have the individual right to say if we’d like to stay in the countries where we’ve landed up and have rights there as citizens or if we’d like to go back to the new state of Palestine and be a citizen there, etc. Each Palestinian needs to be asked how each one wants to fulfill his or her right of return.
Another highlight from the call:
Rabbi Brian Walt: How do you, as a Palestinian, relate to Jews who feel quite attached to Israel or very attached to Israel and what it offers for Jews? And how do you feel about that sort of liberal Zionist argument that is perhaps portrayed best by J Street and other organizations like Americans for Peace now, that strongly support a two-state solution but don’t want to deal with the questions of 1947-48?
Nadia Hijab: Let me answer that in two parts. First, let me assume, just for the sake of argument that not a single Palestinian refugee returns to Israel. Let’s just assume that. There are 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel and that is a challenge to Israel’s current attempt to present itself as a democratic state. It’s not. It is by law discriminatory to the Palestinians who are not even recognized as citizens. They have passports, they’re called Israelis, but they don’t actually have citizenship. And there are about twenty or thirty laws on the books, and more being added every day, to make sure that they are kept down and, hopefully some day, also out.
There’s a very racist discourse in Israel, a very openly racist discourse, that says: to the extent that we can maybe reshape the borders and get rid of some of these Palestinian Israelis, then we can keep Israel “pure,” ethnically “pure.” Well, in the 21st century that’s nonsense. And in fact, it’s been nonsense since 1948, because 1948 was not only the year that Israel was created but 1948 was the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Humanity had been moving towards that after one horror after another during the World Wars and other wars. So humanity has been trying to define how people deal with each other and how they relate to each other, whether as individuals or as communities or as states.
And in this day and age, it’s no longer acceptable – it’s universally seen as immoral and illegal – to discriminate against people on the basis of their religion or their race or their color, and now growing (on the basis of) their sexuality. You know, discrimination is abhorrent.
And what Israel is doing, even if you don’t take into account any of what’s going on with the occupation…what Israel is doing within its country is abhorrent. So therefore, Israel as it’s currently defined: as a state for Jews, by Jews, of Jews – that’s not a modern state, nor is it, by the way, as many states define themselves in the Arab world, (i.e.) by Muslims, for Muslims.
People have to have equal rights, whether Muslim or Christian or Jewish or men or women. A state is simply a construct in this day and age. It’s a construct for how to manage resources in a way that is fair and equitable and guaranteeing the rights of its citizens. That is what a state is. So Israel faces that challenge irrespective of whether there’s a two-state solution or a one-state solution.
Then I wanted to touch on the other part of your question, which is very important, how Jews feel about Israel or how I feel about Jews and what they feel about Israel. I work a lot with Jews who uphold a human rights approach, no matter what. And these are people who are my friends and I work extremely closely with them. And they struggle for justice for Palestinians as well as human rights for everybody, whether they’re Israelis or Palestinians, in the same way that I do.
I respect the work of many, let’s say, American Jews or liberal Zionists or whatever who stand up for some freedoms and some rights. But then when it comes to a question of Israel’s security they are less clear about where their loyalties lie. That’s problematic for me.
But I recognize that there is now a Jewish attachment to Israel and I think that over time it will be okay, because Israel exists – it was created. It was created in a way that was immoral and unjust to the Palestinians, but it was created. And eventually the attachment and the sense of belonging will be a cultural one, a social one, and maybe of family ties.
And then those attachments can be built across the Arab world as well. They don’t have to be restricted to Israel. And Israel will become a state of all its citizens, in which Palestinians and Jews and Arabs and Muslims and Christians are all equal and just one of the many states of the region.
There are many in the Jewish community who view the Nakba as simply a historical fait accomplis. The attitude goes something like this: “Yes, during the creation of the state of Israel, Palestinians were displaced. That’s how nations get created. Today the state of Israel is just a fact – it’s time to get over it.”
The problem with this attitude – beyond the sheer injustice of it – is that the Nakba isn’t actually over. In truth, government-sponsored displacement of Palestinians from their land has been continuing apace for the past 63 years.
One recent example: Ha’aretz recently revealed that Israel used a covert procedure to banish Palestinians from the West Bank by stripping them of their residency rights between 1967 and 1994:
(The) procedure, enforced on Palestinian West Bank residents who traveled abroad, led to the stripping of 140,000 of them of their residency rights. Israel registered these people as NLRs − no longer residents − a special status that does not allow them to return to their homes…
The sweeping denial of residency status from tens of thousands of Palestinians and deporting them from their homeland in this way cannot be anything but an illegitimate demographic policy and a grave violation of international law. It’s a policy whose sole purpose is to thin out the Palestinian population in the territories.
The ongoing Nakba was also evident in news last month of a new military order that will enable the military to summarily deport tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank:
The order’s vague language will allow army officers to exploit it arbitrarily to carry out mass expulsions, in accordance with military orders which were issued under unclear circumstances. The first candidates for expulsion will be people whose ID cards bear addresses in the Gaza Strip, including children born in the West Bank and Palestinians living in the West Bank who have lost their residency status for various reasons.
Israel’s founders understood full well that the Arab population of Palestine was the most significant barrier to the creation of a Jewish state. At the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Palestine was around 4% Jewish and 96% Arab. Although the events of 1948 tipped that scale significantly, it’s common parlance in Israel to view the growing presence of Palestinians as a “demographic threat.” So it’s not difficult at all to understand why Israel continues to institute these kinds of “thinning out” policies.
In a lengthy (but highly recommended) +972 post entitled “Why Jews need to talk about the Nakba,” Israeli blogger Noam Sheizaf writes:
The Palestinians won’t forget the Nakba. In many ways, it seems that with each year, the memory is just getting stronger.
It’s an interesting, counter-intuitive phenomenon: one would expect that the the memory of displacement would fade as the event itself recedes into the past and new facts in the ground take hold. In fact, the exact opposite seems to be happening. There are doubtless many explanations for this, but primary among them must be the fact that displacement continues to be the very real experience of succeeding generations of Palestinians.
This fact was very much on my mind as I read news reports that thousands of Palestinian refugees crossed Israel’s borders during Nakba Day demonstrations last Sunday. As I watched scores of unarmed Palestinians willing to face live ammunition as they jumped the border fences, it was clear to me that they weren’t simply commemorating a “long-past” event.
For them, as for Israel, the Nakba isn’t over yet.
It is with great sadness that I note the murder of activist, actor, director Juliano Mer Khamis, the director of the Jenin Freedom Theater. Although there are currently conflicting press reports regarding the circumstances of his killing, Palestinian authorities have reported that he was shot five times by “Palestinian militants.”
Mer Khamis was a remarkable and inspiring man – the son of a Palestinian father and a Jewish mother who devoted his life to giving the young people of the Jenin refugee camp a healing, creative outlet in the midst of unbearably dire cirumstances.
Mer Khamis…has faced threats since forever: From conservatives in the camp who took a strong dislike to the theatre’s liberal repertoire and casting of both men and women, both boys and girls; from nationalists who saw him as an agent of the occupation, a promoter of normalization; and from just about every Israeli who commented on any news piece covering him and his activity.
There will be so much said and written about Juliano in the coming days. Friends and students will laud his tremendous bravery, his contempt for the walls and barriers – especially barriers of fear – that crisscross our country, his sense of stage, his talent. Enemies will pour mud on him, rejoicing in the death of one they see as a half-breed and a turncoat. Comrades will remember a complex and uneasy man, as famous for his rough temper as he was for his devotion to the cause.
I had the honor of visiting the Jenin Freedom Theater this past December with 20 members of my congregation. Although we didn’t get to meet Juliano personally, we can all attest to the inspiring fruits of his life’s work. May it live on forever. And may his memory be for a blessing.
I can think of no great honor to his memory that to watch “Arna’s Children” – an amazing 2003 documentary, co-directed by Mer Khamis, that profiles the history of the Freedom Theater. Please click on the clip above for the first installment. The following eight can be found on YouTube – search: “Arna’s Children.”
Beyond Zero Sum, by Mark Zivin, is a political blog that largely focuses on Israel/Palestine issues. Mark is a National Board member of J Street, a leader of J Street Chicago, and has been a supporter of major American Jewish organizations for decades. He’s an enormously savvy and insightful thinker – and in his short career as a blogger he has already cross-posted at +972!
Ya3ni is written by Beth Miller, a young woman who recently traveled to the West Bank to live and volunteer at Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. She teaches English at the Alrowwad Center, a theater, dance, and arts youth center in Aida – and she hopes to stay in Palestine longer to continue her work with refugees. As you will see, Beth is a delightful writer who blogs about her experiences with genuine empathy and conviction.
As to the title of her blog, Beth explains:
Ya3ni, is the Arabic word for “I mean…” It is often abused in the same way “like” is within the US, though ya3ni is used by one and all, not just teenage girls. Since it is the word I most often use in Arabic–the word that pops out while I am racking my brains to figure out how to say what I am actually trying to say–it seemed an appropriate title for my blog.
(At the risk of mortifying Beth, I have to say I feel like it was only yesterday that I officiated at her Bat Mitzvah. Can’t a rabbi kvell?)
Here’s a guest post by Michael Shapiro, another participant from our JRC trip to Israel/Palestine:
Let me first thank Rabbi Brant Rosen for his vision and leadership in organizing this trip and for his astuteness in working with Aziz and Kobi. They were articulate, deeply knowledgeable, warm and witty guides, but through their life histories and their relationship modeled the struggle for mutual understanding between their communities. I am also grateful to Rabbi Rosen for the invitation to post on his blog.
The trip gave me a deeper understanding of the way the conflict burdens the lives of Palestinians. It was no surprise to me that the weight of military occupation could be oppressive, but I now have a more acute sense of what it is like for those whose daily lives include humiliation and harassment at checkpoints or for those separated from farms, jobs, schools, and families by a wall built on their own land.
I will not forget hearing Marge Frank translate our Jenin host’s anguished and angry account of being made, more than once, to strip to his underwear at a checkpoint he had to pass through on his way to work in Israel. Nor will I forget the head of the Budrus Popular Committee, who led his village in a successful non-violent protest that resulted in a rerouting of the wall. These and other equally indelible memories have deepened my understanding of the conflict and of the unconscionable injustice and suffering inflicted on the Palestinian people by the occupation and settlements.
In some instances, however, I have found that distance and reflection have placed initial impressions in a wider context and introduced “complications,” a word that can sometimes mask moral callousness if not moral cowardice, but can sometimes challenge simplistic thinking by focusing on thorny realities. I would offer three examples.
Our Wednesday began with a visit with Reverend Naim Ateek (above), founder and head of Sabeel, a well-known institute that advocates Palestinian Chrisitian Liberation Theology. As readers of my blog might know, I’ve long been an admirer of Reverend Ateek’s theological writings. In particular, his work has informed and challenged my own thinking about the Jewish conception of the land and the dangers inherent in wedding religion to power. It was a great pleasure to finally meet Reverend Ateek personally and to introduce him to members of my congregation.
To my dismay, Ateek has been unfairly and relentlessly attacked by the American Jewish establishment – largely, I believe, because he does not shrink from illuminating the problems that come with the land-centric nature of Zionist ideology. For myself, I’ve learned much from Ateek’s suggestion that Zionism represents a kind of “Constantinian Judaism” – i.e., a fusing of Judaism with Empire.
Whether or members of the Jewish community agree with him or not, I believe it would greatly behoove us to enter in dialogue with Ateek and others in the Palestinian Christian community – and I told him as much during our meeting. At the very least, it is my sincere hope that there might be Jewish leaders actively participating rather than protesting during the next American Friends of Sabeel conference.
After our visit we were joined by Meirav Zonsztein, (above) an Israeli/American journalist/blogger/activist, who led us on a tour of East Jerusalem. We first stopped at Gilo, a prominent development located east of the Green Line southwest of Jerusalem. Gilo is emblematic of a settlement considered by most Israelis to be part of the Jerusalem municipality, but its ongoing expansion has been severely encroaching upon Palestinian neighborhoods in the area. Gilo is but one of Israel’s many settlement projects that renders a viable, contiguous Palestinian state that much more remote.
We also stopped at Silwan, an Arab neighborhood located alongside the City of David outside the Old City. Silwan is currently the focus of a bitter struggle between Palestinian residents and an Israeli government that seeks to create a greater Jewish presence in East Jerusalem. In this case, the attempt to drive Arabs from their home is occurring under the guise of Israel’s historical “claim” to Biblical Jerusalem.
What makes this situation particularly galling is Israel has handed over the management of the archeological excavations to Elad, a private Jewish organization that seeks to “reclaim” Biblical Jerusalem in order to pave the way for the rebuilding of the Third Temple. Most visitors to the City of David excavations have no idea that their entrance fees to this popular tourist site fund this religiously radical organization.
To make matters worse, the Jerusalem municipality now plans to create an archeological park that will further decimate the Arab population of Silwan. According to a recent article by Israeli academic/activist Alice Shalvi,
The plans call for the demolition of 22 houses in the area, which the city claims were built without the necessary permits. (Ironically, the illegally constructed multi-story Beit Yonatan which towers above the overcrowded hovels of the village has not yet been evacuated and sealed, in defiance of a court order.) Few people are aware that the residents of Silwan, at their own expense, sought professional experts to draw up a plan which would enable them to engage in the kind of urban renewal that has taken place in other hitherto neglected areas of the city…The Jerusalem municipal authorities arbitrarily rejected the plan without even bringing it before the relevant planning forums.
Our group will return to Silwan this Friday to attend a major protest organized by the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement.
We then traveled into the West Bank to visit Wadi Fukin, an Arab village just east of the Green Line in the Gush Etzion bloc. In recent years, Wadi Fukin has been threatened by Israel’s planned construction of the Separation Barrier, which would cut off the village’s water source from numerous natural springs that the villagers use to irrigate their fields and orchards.
In a particularly inspiring example of coexistence and solidarity, the residents of Wadi Fukin were joined by residents of the nearby Israeli village of Tzur Hadassah in fighting the planned construction. Through a massive petition drive signed by hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians, Israel has for now forgone its plans to construct the wall – one of the very few success stories of its kind.
In the meantime, however, Wadi Fukin’s future is also being threatened by the expansion of nearby settlement Betar Illit. Ongoing construction of this populous and rapidly growing ultra-orthodox development is literally encircling the village and would likewise dry up Wadi Fukin’s freshwater springs. To add insult to injury, Beitar Illit regularly dumps its sewage into the village’s water supply, despite the repeated protests of village residents.
Despite these horrid hardships, Wadi Fukin is forging on with the help of Friends of the Earth -Middle East, an environmental NGO that has included the village in its “Good Water Neighbors” project. That’s Iyad Aburdeineh below, project co-cordinator of FOE-Middle East Wadi Fukin initiative, who led us on a tour of the village.
While in Wadi Fukin, our group was treated to a delicious lunch cooked for us the staff of the village’s Women’s Center. In all, it was impossible for us to be unmoved by the story of the village, one inspiring success story amidst an increasing dire situation in the Occupied Territories.
From there we traveled to Deheishe, a refugee camp near Bethlehem. Deheishe (below) was established as a refuge for 3,400 Palestinians who were expelled from 45 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron in 1948. Originally simply a collection of tents, Deheishe is now a densely packed urban labyrinth of over 9,000 residents.
Adminstered by UNRWA, the camp is bordered to the north by the Jewish settlement of Efrat and to the south by Bethlehem. Like many Palestinian refugee camps, Deheishe has nowhere to grow but up – most of the homes have three stories and the camp seems to be in a constant state of vertical expansion.
Upon our arrival we were greeted by Deheishe resident Mazen Faraj, who coordinated our visit and introduced us to our host families. My group of seven was hosted by Nidal and Newarah and their three children, Haya, 18, Moad 17, and Tariq, 12, who opened their recently built home to us and were utterly gracious hosts to our intrepid little crew. They treated us to a delicious – actually sumptuous – dinner and we enjoyed each others’ company talking, sharing and laughing until the wee hours of the morning.
I spoke at length with Moad, who at one point took me out for a long night stroll through the winding alleyways of the camp, introducing me to friend after friend until it felt like I had met virtually the entire teenage population of Deheishe. After coming home, we continued to talk together as neighbors came and went through their home at a dizzying pace.
For right now, I don’t really know how else to describe our visit other than a genuinely delightful evening with wonderful new friends. I’ll share many more thoughts about our Deheishe soujourn in my next post. For now, suffice to say it today was an incredible journey for us all – and it has only been our second full day.
Much more to follow…
Not long ago I was asked by a friend: why are Israelis and Jews so fixated on the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit? With all of the crises and injustices being committed in the world, why is there such a hue and cry over this one particular man?
I answered that like all nations, Israel takes this kind of thing personally. I mentioned that just like many Jews in Israel and around the world, I also experienced Hamas’ abduction of Gilad Shalit as an injustice committed against one of my own. Even as a Jew living in the comfort of my Evanston home, I felt a visceral sense of pain three years ago when I first heard the news of Shalit’s kidnapping. Over time, my pain turned to anger as Hamas denied him Red Cross visits and refused to confirm (until only recently) whether he was even dead or alive.
I went on to compare Israel’s trauma to the feeling of collective trauma we felt in our country in 1979, when Iranian militants took American embassy workers hostage: how violated our nation felt: how personally we identified with the hostages; how deeply we experienced the injustice of their imprisonment.
On a less tribal level, of course, I do understand that there was a deeper context to the hostage crisis. Underneath our feelings of personal violation were more challenging questions – questions few of us were prepared to ask out loud. Why, for instance, did we have so much concern over 53 fellow Americans, but not for countless other political prisoners around the world, many of them incarcerated by regimes actively supported by our nation?
In just the same way, I believe too few Jews even know – let alone protest – that while Hamas unjustly imprisons Shalit, Israel holds hundreds of Palestinians taken in operations that at best must be considered ethically dubious. While Israel defends its actions legally by terming these prisoners “enemy combatants,” the hard truth remains that for decades Israel’s security services have rounded up scores of Palestinians without charge and have imprisoned them indefinitely – in many cases for years.
Yes, many of the prisoners are undoubtedly guilty of plotting or carrying out violent acts against Israelis. Many of these incarcerations can surely be defended on grounds of security. But it has become impossible to ignore that Israel has also incarcerated considerable numbers of Palestinians who by any reasonable definition must be considered political prisoners.
(One recent case in point: many Jews are familiar with the case of Gilad Shalit, but I’m sure that far fewer know, for instance, about Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a Palestinian high school teacher and coordinator of the non-violent campaign in the West Bank village of Bil’in, who was arrested last week by the Israeli military. According to eyewitness accounts, Abu Rahmah was taken from his bed at 2:00 am in the presence of his wife and children.)
And so, beyond the emotions of tribalism, the question remains: will we ever be able to see past our own loyalties and find equal value in the lives of others – human beings who are just as eminently worthy of fair treatment, justice and dignity? And even more challenging: will we ever be ready to admit that the violence committed against us is often inspired in no small way by the injustices we ourselves have committed – and continue to commit?
To return to the Iranian hostage example: back in 1979, few Americans cared to even ask why their Iranian captors might have been so motivated to commit this act. Most of us were ignorant to the powerful significance of the American embassy for Iranians – that it was this very same embassy from which our nation had plotted the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. As it turned out, the regime we subsequently installed would persecute and unjustly imprison countless Iranian citizens over the next two decades.
So too in the case of Gilad Shalit. Few of us in the Jewish community are truly ready to examine the source of Gazan’s fury toward Israel – a fury that has been building since long before Hamas even existed. Few of us are willing to face the history of Israel’s oppressive policies in Gaza or the fact that Gazans have been living under an intolerable occupation for decades.
And even fewer of us even know that the overwhelming majority of the 1.5 million who live in Gaza belong to families that originally came from outside of Gaza – from towns and villages like Ashkelon and Beersheba – and were expelled from their homes by the Israeli military in 1948. Indeed, when I think of Gazan rage in 2009, I can’t help but think of these chilling words by Moshe Dayan from back in 1956:
Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us? (They) sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled.
The history of Gaza is indeed a tragic one – and yes, Israel’s oppression of its population is a critical part of this tragedy. Unless we take the time to understand this history – and our part in it – I don’t believe we can even begin to pretend there is a way out of this conflict.
To be clear: understanding the source of Gazans feelings toward Israel does not mean condoning their actions. Hamas’ imprisonment of Gilad Shalit is barbaric. As a fellow Jew, I grieve for Shalit and I pray for his safe return. But at the same time, I cannot look away from the more painful realities that led to his capture in the first place, and I truly believe that until we make an honest effort to face and address these realities, there will invariably be more Gilad Shalits in Israel’s future.
Following Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, journalist Amira Hass wrote these powerful words in Ha’aretz. I believe she presents us with a profound model of an Israeli who is able to hold her own concern for her people together with a willingness to face the truth of the injustices perpetrated her nation. Her words are doubly tragic as we now approach the one-year anniversary of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza:
We are justly concerned about the welfare of northern residents, proud of their fortitude, understand those who leave, are shocked by the death of each person and by every rocket hit, and identify with those suffering from anxiety. Take what the northern residents have been going through for a month, multiply it by 1,000, add an economic blockade, power and water cuts, and no wages. This is how the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been “living” for the past six years.
The Israelis allow their army to continue destroying, trampling and killing in the Palestinian territories. Here, like in Lebanon, the real intelligence and security failure is Israel’s ignoring the extent of our uninhibited, unrestrained devastation and their amazing power of human endurance. This is why Israel has delusions of “victories.” If the homemade rockets are still being fired at Sderot despite the Palestinians’ extensive suffering, it is because they have concluded, correctly, that Israel’s destruction power is not intended to stop Qassam rockets – or to free Gilad Shalit. It is intended to force them to accept a surrender arrangement, which they reject not with military victories but with their power of endurance.
Earlier this year I shared a 2004 Jerusalem Post interview with Arnon Soffer, the architect of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip. It was a painfully sobering read, not least for his chilling predictions of Israel’s post-disengagement reality:
(When) 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day…
If we don’t kill, we will cease to exist. The only thing that concerns me is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings.
I thought of this article today as I read another piece about Gaza: a famous 1956 eulogy given by Moshe Dayan for a young kibbutznik named Ro’i Rotenberg, who was killed by Gazan Arabs who had crossed over the border into Israel.
At the start of his eulogy, Dayan offered these astonishingly candid remarks:
Do not today besmirch the murderers with accusations. Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us? For eight years they sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled.
Not from the Arabs in Gaza, but from ourselves shall we require the blood of Ro’i. How did we close our eyes so as not to see the goal of our generation in its full measure of cruelty? Did we forget that this group of young men and women, which dwells in Nahal Oz, bear on their shoulders the heavy gates of Gaza, gates on the other side of which are crowded together with hundreds of thousands of eyes and hands that pray for our weakness, that it may come, so that they may rip us to shreds – have we forgotten this?
This we know: that in order that the hope to destroy us should die we have to be armed and ready, morning and night. We are a generation of settlement, and without a steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a house. Our children will not live if we do not build shelters, and without a barbed wire fence and a machine gun we cannot pave a road and channel water. The millions of Jews that were destroyed because they did not have a land look at us from the ashes of Israelite history and command us to take possession of and establish a land for our nation.
(Translation, Michael Shalom Kochin, 2009)