"The Human Face" in the Conflict & Overcoming Separation
Coming Home & Looking Back
Jerusalem: Friday, August 8, 2008
I get on the plane home tomorrow morning (Israel time) at 0600. Boy, do I need to be home right now. In the past two weeks, I have heard so many tragic stories form the people who have to live with the conflict here every day. They can’t escape on a jet to the States like I can. Let me share with you the most significant story I can recall at the moment. Yesterday, I was in a village called Ni’lin, 17 kilometers west of Ramallah. I had no idea that this visit would quickly become the most emotional of the entire delegation.
On July 29, 2008, ten-year-old Ahmed Moussa was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier during a protest against the Israeli occupation. The villagers, still in mourning, welcomed us and shared Ahmed’s story. The first man we met with was a school teacher in the village. Just a few weeks ago, he was supervising Ahmed and his friends as they made drawings about their hopes and dreams. Ahmed drew this picture.
The curious teacher asked Ahmed why he had drawn both Israeli and Palestinian flags over the houses. Ahmed explained that he hoped he could one day live beside Israelis without soldiers or walls. Ahmed was killed just a week later.
Later, we met Ahmed’s uncle, who is also the communications director for the town council. As he walked us through Ni’lin, he explained that Ahmed’s fatal wound was a shot to the head; the product of direct and intentional sniping. He then explained that the protesters in Ni’lin are well-trained in nonviolent action. They often carry olive branches on their protest route to demonstrate that they intend no harm against the soldiers. Considering the circumstances, I have yet to understand how a ten-year-old can pose a threat to a soldier with an assault rifle.
I’m not going to try to reproduce for you the emotions this story–and others like it–have brought to me while on this trip. I don’t think anyone is eloquent enough to convey what I have seen. I do, however, encourage you to bear with me as I process the events of the last two weeks. It has really been a roller coaster for me, and I will need so time to sort it all out.
I take comfort in the many people I have met who are working for a better future through dialogue and education. These are people like Daoud, a farmer who teaches nonviolence to kids despite the fact that Israeli settlers are attempting to confiscate the land his family has owned for generations. People like Eric, who is facilitating conversation between Israelis and Gazans despite that fact that rockets were landing on his town just a month ago.
Please pray for safe travels for me, for mental clarity, and for encouragement. More importantly, please pray for those suffering here and for those brave enough to rise above their pain.
Justice, Not Revenge
Jerusalem: Thursday, August 7, 2008
From Ni’lin we returned to East Jerusalem to meet with Bassim Aramin, a representative of Combatants for Peace. This is a relatively new organization comprised of former Israeli soldiers who believe that this conflict cannot be resolved by force and militarism and Palestinians who have served time in Israeli prisons due to their resistance to the occupation, whether violent or non-violent. Mr. Aramin is a Palestinian who has spent six years in Israeli prison. He told us briefly the history of this organization, which started in 2005 when he and a few other Palestinians met with some Israeli soldiers who were disillusioned with the militaristic activities of the Israeli government and began dialogue. Their group gradually grew in number and held a big meeting in 2006 with over 400 people in attendance, including members of the PLO and Hamas.
In January, 2007, Mr. Aramin was asked to speak at Tel Aviv University. He went to do his talk and there were demonstrators there because by then this organization was well known and protests were common when they were doing speaking events. During the course of that day, Mr. Aramin’s nine-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier. Her younger sister was standing right next to her, holding her hand when she fell to the ground. Mr. Aramin has made it clear that he wants justice for his daughter, but not revenge. He is pursuing justice through the military tribunals of the Israeli army, assisted by a human rights organization that provides legal assistance. Mr. Aramin does a lot of public speaking, using this tragedy as a platform to promote his belief in non-violent resolutions to conflict. There was nary a dry eye in the house when he held up a picture of his daughter and said, quietly, “This is not the face of a Palestinian terrorist.”
He and the organization have made it part of their agenda to educate the public about the number of incidents of brutal behavior by young Israeli soldiers, incidents that they regard in many cases as “war crimes.” Mr. Aramin says he is convinced that the average Israeli parent who sends their teenagers off to the mandatory military service required of all 18-21 year olds have no idea exactly what they do during that service. He believes many of them would be outraged at what really goes on and would be sympathetic and desirous of stopping it.
Today was another tough day, emotionally. Once again I was struck by the impact this endless conflict is having on another entire generation of children. The slaughter of the innocents continues day after day. The bullets, the tear gas, the endless, senseless violence. What is encouraging is again to meet people who are committed to working for peace through non-violent means, who believe that fighting with weapons and continuing the cycle of violence will do nothing to end the conflict. The Palestinians we met today are inspiring in their commitment to work for justice without revenge, to pursue peace even when they are being consistently made the victims of violence, when their lives are unnecessarily complicated and oppressed by the occupying force. In the past two weeks we have met many, many Palestinians who want to work for a peaceful resolution to this conflict. The notion that all Palestinians are terrorists is nothing more than Israeli (and all too often American) propaganda, designed to dehumanize an entire people and to justify relentless violence at their expense. It is time we put a human face on this conflict so that Mr. Aramin’s nine-year-old daughter, the ten-year-old boy who was shot two weeks ago, and a teenager in Ni’lin who was shot last week will be among the last children to die in this adult conflict.
A Mizrahi Perspective on the Conflict
Jerusalem: Friday, August 8, 2008
This morning we met with Ayala, a woman who is the current head of the Israeli Black Panther Party. She is a Moroccan Jew. Her parents came to Israel in 1952 during what was a second wave of Arab (or Mizrahi) Jewish immigration. During the War of Independence in 1948 many Jews in Arab countries felt they were no longer welcome in Arab countries and about 1 million of them immigrated to Israel. Israel encouraged them to come here because it was eager to populate the country with as many Jews as possible.
However, given that their culture, as Arabs, was very different from that of the European (or Ashkenazi) Jews who were the founders of the Zionist movement and the leaders of the newly formed state, they found themselves ghettoized almost immediately upon arrival. They were first put in settlement camps and then relocated to homes vacated by Palestinians. Many were sent to locations along the border of the newly created state to stake the claim of Israel to those new borders. They generally held the lower paying, lower status jobs in Israel and were not welcome to mix with the European Jews. In Jerusalem, they were housed in an urban ghetto, not far from the Old City. They did not have the same educational opportunities as the European Jews and they faced considerable discrimination. Their situation was, and remains, similar to the conditions that African Americans suffered even after the abolition of slavery in terms of being second class citizens, living in segregated, walled off areas of cities and towns, with much less economic opportunity available to them and facing prejudice because of their dark skin.
Ayala was one of 10 children. When her family first arrived in Jerusalem, they were housed in a home in the Mizrahi section of town that had formerly been a Palestinian neighborhood. After the 1967 war the Israeli government moved her family to a housing project that they built for the Middle Eastern Jews. As Ayala described her childhood, she said that the Middle Eastern Jews got along well with Palestinians because they all shared a language and culture. They all felt alienated from the European Jewish majority. During the early 70s her brother founded the Israeli Black Panther party, which worked to bring justice to the Middle Eastern Jews, sometimes with violent consequences. Ayala’s brother spent time in jail and she has done her share of jail time too. In fact, she is going to jail next week for 8 days, because of her current activities among the homeless population of her neighborhood. They had a “tent-in” (like a sit-in only they stayed in tents) to protest the lack of affordable housing for the poor and the plight of the many homeless people in their neighborhood. When the event was over the Israeli police arrested her because they said she didn’t clean up the area properly. (If you could see the streets of E. Jerusalem and her neighborhood in particular you would see that littering is quite obviously a common practice by everyone!!).
Ayala believes there should be one, binational state. She also suggested that the Israeli government would be well served to invite the Mizrahi Jews into the negotiations with the Palestinians because these Jews and the Palestinians get along well, understand each other’s language and culture and they could be very helpful in bridging the gap between the Palestinians and the mainstream Israeli Jews. She also said that considerable work needs to be done in Israel to heal relations among the Ashkenazi Jews and the Mizrahi Jews. As she described the situation here, it sounded remarkably like the issues between whites and African Americans in the United States. A lot of churches and other groups are working hard to do anti-racism work, to begin to bridge the cultural and economic gaps between whites and African Americans. From what Ayala told us, the same anti-racism process would be most helpful here between these two very different groups of Jews.
We have come to the end of our incredible journey and we are all feeling exhausted and somewhat overwhelmed by all we’ve seen and heard. It has been a very full and rich two weeks as we have gone into the belly of the beast in this conflict. Several of us have remarked that although we have not done the traditional “Pilgrimage Tour” of the Holy Land, visiting religious shrines and sites of Biblical significance, we have in fact walked in the steps of Jesus by spending our time among the oppressed and marginalized. Ironically, if Jesus were alive today, he would be dealing with the prejudice, the apartheid, and the oppression that we have witnessed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem because he was a Palestinian Jew! It seems fitting to have spent my first tour of the Holy Land doing this work, rather than visiting tourist shrines.
Overcoming “Separation”: The Need for Dialogue & Action
Jerusalem: Friday, August 8, 2008
One of the most disturbing elements of the occupation of Palestine is the separation of Israeli Jews from Palestinians. Early in the trip we had an evening meeting with five students from Hebrew University who represented a broad spectrum of political views in Israeli society. The conversation was lively and there was plenty of respectful disagreement among them.
One thing they all agreed on, though, is that almost no Israeli Jews their age knew any Palestinians personally. They might have conversations in shops while trying to buy something, but had never in their lives sat down to have a substantive conversation.
As we continued the trip, I continued to ask this question of various people, whether they had ever had a real friend who was Palestinian (if they were Jewish Israeli), or a Jewish friend (if they were Palestinian). Time and again I was met with confirmation of a staggering level of separation in Israeli society. Jimmy Carter caught a great deal of heat for using the word 'apartheid' in his recent book about Israel and Palestine, but it is at least technically defensible, given that apartheid is simply the word for “separation” in the language of Afrikaans, and there is no reasonable person who could deny a staggering level of separation in Israel and Palestine. Official Israeli government documents call the wall the "Separation Barrier."
There are legal and logistical barriers to people knowing each other, as well as social, political and cultural divisions. Israeli citizens are legally prohibited from visiting major Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Palestinians from the West Bank must obtain permits to visit Israeli controlled areas. These permits are frequently denied, and often not honored even after they are obtained. Checkpoints may or may not let them through or even be open.
It seems to me that this kind of separation is almost guaranteed to thwart any efforts at building peace, which is necessarily predicated on a sense of knowing one another. If we can’t have our own personal experience of each other as human beings, we are left with the extremist versions of each other that the extremists on our own side of the issue feed us, and progress is nearly impossible.
We had a presentation and meeting with David, a representative of the Jewish settlement in Hebron. He spoke with us for a little over an hour and a half and told a lot of stories, including one to illustrate his belief that the true goal of Muslims is to set up their international capital city in Washington, DC. Yep, Washington, DC. As we left, it occurred to me that every story he told of a non-Jew, including Muslims and Christians, involved extremists — both real and imagined. It seemed to me that David has no experience of or belief in the existence of moderate Muslims or sane Christians.
We heard a couple of voices from the Palestinian side that were almost as dismissive, saying “We could live in peace with them again as we once did, but they will never live in peace with us.” Thankfully, we also heard much saner voices on the trip, from across the political spectrum. The pattern seemed to hold, though: the saner voices were voices of those who actually knew some people well from the other side of the divide.
Dialogue isn’t enough, and it’s non-productive if it serves only to justify the status quo. It seems to me that it is an essential part of moving forward, though. The power structures on all sides will be reluctant to move toward peace until the civil societies on all sides demand it, which will only happen when we stop believing the extremist rhetoric. That will only happen when we come to know each other.
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