Initial Impressions and Later Reflections: A Guest Post From Palestine

Photo by Rich Katz

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.

1) Seeing the wall for the first time, I too was appalled by its intrusiveness into Palestinian land, by its disruption of normal life, by the apparent arbitrariness of its pathway, say at Rachel’s Tomb, and by its symbolic assertion of permanent enmity.

But since my return I have also reminded myself about what it was that caused the Israelis to erect this barrier in the first place, chiefly the epidemic of suicide bombings that terrorized Israeli cities during the Second Intifada .  (We as a group might have been reminded of those hellish years had we been able to visit Sderot as originally planned.)

I also found myself wondering about the contrasting accounts, quite typical in this land of dual narratives, about the cause of the cessation of those bombings: Israelis cite the preventive influence of checkpoints and the wall; Palestinians mention the improved security system demanded of the PA by the Quartet.

2) I will not forget the Palestinian families we stayed with and will cherish the memories of their gracious hospitality, their lovely and beloved children, and their willingness to match our efforts to see the Other in human terms. We shared their living space, struggled with them to surmount the language barrier, played with their children, ate their food, and smoked their hookahs.  We were treated like honored guests in the finest Palestinian tradition, and I was happy to learn that our tour organizer paid each household  at the going commercial rate for such tourist services.

But since my return, I have also been thinking about the historical forces that have caused so many people to live in such misery for over half a century. From reading Benny Morris and other Israeli Revisionist historians, I understand that Israel bears a heavy share of the responsibility for the uprooting of three quarters of  a million people which is the origin of the problem. I also understand that Israel has been unwilling to allow refugees to return to their homes, though symbolic return and compensation have been under discussion in the current US-sponsored negotiations.

But additional factors contributing to the perpetuation of refugee – status for displaced Palestinians were also illuminated for me during our tour by something said by a PA spokesman we met in Ramallah tour: he claimed that nothing could be done to improve the lot of the refugees in the UNRWA camps until the achievement of a political solution to the conflict, a position maintained by Arab countries toward Palestinian refugees since 1948.

Whatever the political shrewdness of this position, its dire consequences for the daily lives of Palestinians should also be acknowledged.  By contrast with the Palestinians, other large populations displaced by war and partition in the 1940s and 50s have been long since been resettled in new places.

3)  In our meeting with Rev, Nam Ateek, the director of Sabeel, I was impressed by his unequivocal denunciation of violence, but in retrospect I was troubled by his defense of his use of the trope of Crucified Palestine.  For while the crucifixion of Jesus can be a universal metaphor for ultimate suffering, even when used by a Jewish artist like Chagall to represent the plight of Jews caught in pogroms, Ateek’s using it in the current context resonates with  the belief that Jews, then and now, are Christkillers, a doctrine endorsed by Christianity for centuries and only disavowed in the 1960s by the Roman Catholic Church.

Even more troubling to me was Ateek’s explanation of the theology of the liberation of the land which now strikes me as a negation of the core idea of Zionism – a nation-state for the Jewish people.  Ateek’s view boils down to a single-state solution, which in my view would be the end of Israel.

Flawed, like other states as it may be, and we saw plenty of Israel’s flaws up close on this trip, I do not want to see it transformed into an arena where rival communities compete for power.  In the light of civil discord in  Ireland, the dissolution of  Yugoslavia, and (closer to home) the violence and  instability in Lebanon, I fear a one-state solution would be the site of bloody battles between two communities, each supported  and supplied by powerful allies.

I will continue to mull over what I witnessed on this profoundly stirring trip and expect to draw heavily on what I learned as I teach a course on Israeli and Palestinian literature for the first time this term.  I also plan to increase my support of Israeli civil rights groups like the new Israel Fund, ACRI and B’tzelem, which stand in opposition to suffering and injustice caused by  occupation and settlement, and will urge my own government to continue its efforts to bring about a two-state solution which will end the occupation.

I will also seek for ways to express my views that are consistent with my own evolving understanding of this complex situation, which goes well beyond the Palestinian problem.  It  includes threats to Israel posed by Iran and its proxies, who have stated their intention to destroy Israel and  have fired rockets at Israel in the recent past, and who seem to be preparing to do so again..

2 thoughts on “Initial Impressions and Later Reflections: A Guest Post From Palestine

  1. Jordan

    Shalom Michael,

    Thanks for your balanced post re your recent trip. RE Benny Morris and his revisionist history. His most recent writing appears to rethink and recast
    the ideas he wrote 10 years ago.

    Where will your course Israeli and Palestinian literature be offered?

    Kol Tuv,


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