Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tears for Palestine: What I have learned

True confession: Even though I'm an avid traveler, I haven't always pored over the foreign news in the paper...especially the news that depresses me. So until a few years ago, I was ignorant about the situation in the Holy Land...and what I knew was heavily biased toward Israel, fed to me by the one-sided American mainstream media.

How I got educated: Several people at our church (Mission of the Atonement: A Community of Lutherans and Catholics) have traveled to Israel and Palestine and created a Holy Land team for education and advocacy. Pastor Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and a fierce advocate for peace in the region, spoke at our church, as did an articulate and impassioned Jewish man from Jewish Voice for Peace. Lutherans and Episcopalians are heavily involved in peacemaking efforts in the region.

This spring, our Lutheran pastor, Catholic lay leader, my second cousin and her husband, other friends, and our Bishop traveled there on a trip sponsored by the ELCA Oregon Synod. This was not a tourist jaunt...they visited holy places, but they also met with Palestinians and Israelis and organizations working for justice. Many Americans who visit Israel do not meet Palestinians...and in fact, many Jewish Israelis do not know Palestinians themselves, even though they are among them. It's a more extreme form of apartheid. Hearing my friends' stories about the plight and extreme hospitality of the Palestinian people has moved me and woken me up from my ignorance. In spite of the violence, lack of resources, prejudice, and exclusion, the Palestinian people they met were full of hope and optimism about peace in their future. Our pilgrims returned right before the recent violence in Gaza flared up, and it's breaking all of our hearts.

What I know now: After the horrific Holocaust in Europe in the 1940s, Jewish people fled to the Middle East to create a new state: a place where they could finally be protected from anti-semitism and hatred. A great intention, but soon they were perpetrating discrimination, exclusion, and violence on the Palestinians whose lands they took over. For a quick overview of the history in Israel and Palestine, watch this great 6-minute video:

As Phyllis Bennis writes in Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer (which you can read online here),
"When Israel was created as a state in 1948, 750,000 indigenous Palestinians, whose families had lived in Palestine for hundreds of years, were forcibly expelled by, or fled in terror of, the powerful militias that would soon become the army of the State of Israel. The one million or so Palestinians inside Israel today, who constitute just under 20 percent of the population, are those that remained and their descendants. Despite international law and specific UN resolutions, none of those forced into exile have been allowed to return. In fact, Israel's admission to the United Nations in 1948 was conditioned on on its willingness to abide by General Assembly resolution 194 calling for repatriation and compensation." (This repatriation and compensation has never happened.)
What about the Intifada, PLO, and Hamas? It's important to understand the context. As Phyllis Bennis explains, the Intifada (or "rising up" or "shaking off" in Arabic) grew out of Palestinian frustration with military occupation and the daily discrimination Palestinians face. Noam Shaif, a Jewish Israeli who opposes Israel's military campaign, compares living in Gaza to living in a maximum-security prison:
"The prison facilities now hold a total of 3.5 million people—an entire nation—all sentenced to life. Under such conditions, prisoners can turn to desperate measures, such as suicide missions, digging long tunnels, or swimming miles and storming our tanks with their old rifles. Often it ends up with a killing that looks like it was taken from some old video game. On the rare occasions that they kill one of our guards, they hold celebrations in the prison, and we become even more sickened by them. This, of course, also causes us to fear the day that they find a way to break down the walls."
I do not condone violence, but understanding the history and context for the uprising and fighting back is critical. In the current conflict, Hamas is throwing the equivalent of stones, and Israel is lobbing back bombs, killing women and children, destroying infrastructure, and even bombing hospitals.

My tax dollars are funding Israeli violence: Through a military strategy called "The Dahiya Doctrine," the Israeli government commits asymmetric warfare in an urban setting, deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure and inducing suffering for civilians. And the U.S. gives $3.1 BILLION PER YEAR in military aid to Israel, even though Israel's economy is robust. That is $121 billion since Israel was funded. My tax dollars have funded this war, daily discrimination, and bloodshed. I am thoroughly disgusted by this. To date, 586 people have died in the recent Gaza attacks, 157 of them children.

If you too are disgusted by our funding Israel's violence, SPEAK UP. Jewish Voice for Peace has made it really easy to send emails to our senators, representatives, and president with just a few clicks!

So many voices around the world--Jewish, Palestinian, and Christian--are advocating for peace. Many Jewish people, including in Israel, advocate an end to the violence. Celebrities are speaking out. One of my favorite celebrities, Jon Stewart, is also begging us to wake up to what is going on. And criticizing Israel is not anti-semitic! That is the equivalent of saying one is not patriotic if he or she disagrees with the U.S. government, a tactic conservatives used in the Bush-Cheney era.

The U.S. is alone in siding with Israel. Since I have not been to the Holy Land myself, I do not profess to speak for those who have first-hand experience there...those who have seen the conditions in Palestine for themselves.

Here is a first-hand account by Ellen O'Grady, friend of a friend, who lived in Gaza for three of the seven years she lived in Palestine, and I reprint with her permission.
Dear Facebook Friends.
As some of you know, I lived in Palestine from 1989-1996. Three of those years I lived in Gaza in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City. I made the decision to live in Palestine after I studied for a semester in Jerusalem in the spring of 1989. I didn’t set out to be an activist, but when I began seeing the Israeli occupation firsthand, and how vastly different the reality is from what is portrayed in our mainstream media it felt important to return.
I also returned because I enjoyed–and felt nurtured by– Palestinian culture, which among other things puts a high value on generosity and community. Often I saw whole communities offer support to a particular family, whether the occasion be one of sadness or joy. And that generosity is extended to strangers. In my first weeks in Gaza, there were taxi drivers who would not let me pay the fare, people whose names I didn’t yet know inviting me in for tea or bringing me fruit from their yards, new friends having me over for lunch and providing a lavish meal though they might be very poor. Such free-flowing generosity, and coming from people who live in a place where, because of the occupation, there are shortages of food, water, electricity, jobs, and hospital beds, and where many live in makeshift homes.
At that time in Gaza, the Israeli military patrolled the streets at all hours, and every night we were under house arrest (you were in danger of being shot if found outside). Clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youth broke out regularly and everyone I met had loved ones killed, injured and/or in prison.
There were other foreigners living in the area but at that time I was the only one I was aware of without a car. Sometimes when walking through the city, I would round a corner or come up a street as an Israeli jeep was speeding away. Upon seeing me, Palestinians would run up to tell me someone had been taken and they would appeal to me to go to the detention center to argue for that person’s release. I would often be told something along the lines of there had just been a demonstration that turned into a clash with soldiers and that the young man taken had not been involved, maybe they had been shopping or selling falafel from a cart when things broke out. (I have witnessed these arbitrary detentions in person).
These Palestinians appealed to me because, as a foreigner, I had a chance of being able to talk with an Israeli official who could help that person get released. As a Palestinian in Gaza there was no such chance, which is just one reality of living under occupation. You or someone in your family can be taken from the street or from your home and put into administrative detention, without charge or trial, for several months to several years.
These days, as I watch and listen to reports from Gaza from the comfort and safety of my home in North Carolina, I am heartbroken and often speechless. In moments of despair, it feels any action I might take won’t matter. However, in clearer moments, I know with certainty that every thing we do matters. Every act of generosity, every moment you speak a truth, every time you listen openly to someone who has a view other than your own, every conversation that attempts to open a window onto realities others don’t see or prefer not to be reminded of. It matters.
So. I appeal to you. Do something. Even a small thing like taking a couple minutes to email or call your representatives would be very good.
If you haven’t been following the events in Gaza, please check here.
This is not about which side is right. It's about justice, equity, and human rights for all. I urge you to join your voice with mine and ask Israel to stop attacking civilians and already fragile infrastructure in Gaza and the U.S. to stop bankrolling the violence.


  1. Thank you, Marie. This calls for action. No matter how small, it matters.

    1. You're welcome Roy, and thank you for your comment.