The Voice for a Just Peace: Seeing the Human Face

An excerpt from Broken Promises, Broken Dreams, a collection of stories of Jewish and Palestinian trauma and resilience

Not long after Arafat took his final breaths in a hospital in France, his arch rival, Sharon, briefly sputtered and then sank into unconsciousness. Angry Jewish settlers were dragged from their homes in Gaza while the total Jewish settler population in West Bank continues to explode. Hamas won a democratic election to the Legislative Council, largely interpreted as a vote against corruption and ineptitude of Fatah, provoking a crippling international blockade. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rode to narrow victory with a plan to unilaterally make large Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank permanently part of Israel. After years of skirmishes, forces in Gaza and Lebanon captured Israeli soldiers, Hezbollah launched rockets into Israel, and the IDF unleashed a massive retaliation targeting much of the infrastructure and civilian population. A year later, Fatah and Hamas engaged in a bitter civil war in Gaza, while Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas struggles to maintain his credibility and the Gaza economy is dying under a worldwide economic boycott and three weeks of intense Israeli attacks. Civilian casualties in Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, and the West Bank continue to climb and the Israeli citizens of Ashkelon and Sderot live in constant fear of a resumption of Hamas rockets.

I listen to the news differently now, under every headline I see real people, mothers, fathers, and children caught in this drama. A horrific suicide attack in Tel Aviv; Israeli snipers kill somebody in Nablus. Were the victims or perpetrators somebody I know, their child, their mother, a son wrapped in explosives, lost in self-destructive rage, or a different son fingering the latest in military hardware and cold-blooded hatred? Everything feels much more personal as I struggle with this complicated affair; bearing witness to multiple narratives, feeling complicit, powerless, and outraged all at once. May 10, 2006, I receive an urgent press release from Physicians for human Rights-Israel: “Report: Collapse of Palestinian Health Care System,” describing appallingly desperate conditions. I am awash in emails and internet sites that only heighten my anxiety and despair. In January 2009 I open my email to hear the heart-breaking cries of Izzeldin Abuelaish in the Jabalya Refugee Camp while being shelled by Israeli forces and witnessing the deaths of his three daughters and a niece. The urgency and despair of these reports has only increased over the years. Who is dying from the lack of medication, chemotherapy, dialysis, maternity care, essential services? How many people are hurting because the Palestinian Ministry of Health that provides general health care for 65 percent of the population cannot even pay for basic salaries?

In 2006, reports of the dire consequences of the Israeli bombing of the electrical power plan in Gaza, the public health catastrophe, and the food and water shortages start pouring in. Manar, a student from the Degeisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, now studying in the US, writes me vividly troubling emails while visiting her family. She describes heavily armed Israeli soldiers invading the camp, streets mostly empty of young men who are all in jail or have been killed while throwing stones, the scarcity of food, the intermittent electricity, and the growing poverty and desperation. No one has received a salary in months and increasing outrage and defiance prevail. After a description of a harrowing and humiliating journey and hours of harassment at multiple West Bank checkpoints, she concludes one missive with, “If you don’t hear from me, I’m in jail or killed by Israeli bullet.”

To an American audience, most of this information is accessible only outside of the mainstream media. As a particularly egregious example, in July of 2009, former US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney was arrested by the Israeli navy in international waters as part of the Free Gaza Movement, in a boat bringing medicine and toys to the distressed children of Gaza. She was held in a Ramle prison in Israel after what could easily be described as an act of piracy that would have been condemned if done by any other nation and resulted in an international scandal. The US media and even more importantly the US government remained stunningly silent. Occasionally I see a welcome break in this pattern. On July 16, 2009, The Boston Globe ran an in-depth article describing the disturbing testimony of 26 Israeli soldiers who fought in the most recent Gaza war: “the military used Palestinians as human shields, improperly fired incendiary white phosphorus shells over civilian areas and used overwhelming firepower that caused needless death and destruction.” This confirms the observations of multiple Israeli, Palestinian, and international human rights organizations as well as the UN and WHO reports that have received little attention in the US.

So how do we comprehend and analyze what is happening in the region? It is important to look at the environment in which we as Jews and US citizens attempt to have this troubled conversation. Despite all the emotional anguish, it is imperative to explore the marketing of “pro-Israel” messages, the challenges of having a critical dialogue in this environment, and the social and political consequences and possibilities as we look towards the future…

Trying to Have a Conversation 

My ability to understand the role of Jews in the Diaspora and our relationship to Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living on both sides of the Green Line is complicated not only by silencing within our own communities, but also by our own internal pain and self-censorship. Though most Jews have risen up the economic ladder beyond our immigrant forefathers in the garment industries, and the days of changing our names from “Kleiner” to “Kenmore” in order to find work are long gone, we often behave as a deeply wounded and emotionally defensive people. This existential trauma embraces centuries of anti-Semitism, the horrors of the Shoah, and extends to the boatloads of European refugees and the frightening, tenuous early days of the founding of the state of Israel. It is born of the machinations and betrayals of the dying Ottoman Empire, the British Colonial enterprise, the UN partition efforts, two world wars, new formed Arab states, multiple smaller military conflicts, and growing national and religious movements. Jews are neither the sole victims nor the sole victimizers in this complicated history. By listening to the many narratives, I have come to feel that reducing this story to a battle between good and evil is disastrous and does not help us understand or work towards resolving the current dilemmas. I also believe that for Jews, religious and secular, in this era of ethnic politics, with the U.S. dominating and funding much of the discord, this conversation is no longer optional.

A few years ago, I stood with a group of Jews at a “Solidarity with Israel” rally in Boston, holding a sign that read, “I STAND WITH ISRAEL, AGAINST SHARON, AGAINST OCCUPATION.” A white-haired  bubbe marched up to me shaking her fist and yelled with a thick Yiddish accent, “You should have died in the camps!” I can only weep at her level of raw, wounded rage. I suspect that in order to heal as individuals and as a people, we need to face our agonizing historical wants and at the same time acknowledge the pain, contradictions, aspirations, and equal humanity of Palestinians caught up in our catastrophe. Perhaps, “Never again!” needs to be embraced in its most universal sense to mean we must never again forget the ability of ordinary men and women as well as governments to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty. Each terrible ordeal stands on its own. I ask you, nonetheless, is it possible for us to acknowledge that our Jewish day of coming home was the Palestinian day of mass displacement? Our day of independence was their day of misfortune. Our new towns and cities are built on the rubble of their destroyed homes and villages. Is it possible to comprehend that the occupation begun in 1967, like all occupations, is a corrupting and atrocity producing situation starting at the level of the individual and extending to the policies of the state? Is it within our capacity to understand that Palestinian hostility is often a response to Israeli land acquisition and aggresssion and that as Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan admitted in the early days of statehood, they too would have fought back if they had been Arabs? Surely if Jews as a people hungered for Zion for 2,000 years, we can imagine the yearning of a family disposessed 62 years ago. Increasing military might, humiliating and suffocating an entire people, and building concrete walls will not resolve this human dilemma.


Excerpt from Chapter 12 Finding the Voice for a Just Peace, pages  227-229 and 239-240

See also: What Occupation? News From the Good Palestinians

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