From May 25–June 5, I joined in a Compassionate Listening Project delegation to Israel-Palestine, where I spent seven days in Israel and East Jerusalem and four days in the West Bank. Our group consisted of 24 people from North America that included Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
At the essence of the Jewish soul, and in mine as well, is the longing for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel. Jewish history, in ancient Israel and throughout 1,900-plus years in Europe, culminating with the Holocaust, created tremendous political energy and world support for the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people.
However, we must also acknowledge that the events surrounding the influx of Jews from around the world resulted in the inevitable fact that the Palestinian people were moved from their land, creating for them their Nagba, or catastrophe. We cannot ignore the fact that for the past 43 years we have occupied their land and have not permitted them to live with full dignity.
Events during the past two years in Gaza and the West Bank, with settlement policies brought on by the current Israeli administration, are alarming and jeopardize any realistic possibility of a just two-state solution. I believe Israelis and American Jews have an obligation to understand the reality of what is happening in this nation we love.
We can see the existential fear in the Israeli soul today fed by four wars, the suicide bombings resulting in the separation barrier, and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza resulting in the rise of Hamas and the rockets on S’derot.
During our trip we visited with Naphtali Lau-Lavie, a former journalist and diplomat, and a Holocaust survivor. He told his harrowing story of his time in Auschwitz, and about how he smuggled his baby brother — who went on to became the chief rabbi of Israel — into Buchenwald in a sack for his protection. I could feel the desperation for the immediate need for a place where Jews like Naphtali could go for refuge. He told us of his work in building the State of Israel as a part of Moshe Dayan’s administration. He of course takes much pride in Israel’s formation and his contribution to that effort.
When asked about how he felt about the treatment of the Palestinians over these 60 years, he succinctly stated there were some problems along the way, but did not acknowledge Palestinian suffering.
To gain perspective on Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, we visited Gilo, a settlement/neighborhood in East Jerusalem built on Palestinian land annexed to Jerusalem in 1967. Gilo provides a vantage point to see the security barrier, and how neighboring Israeli settlements dominate the area both in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
“Since the wall has gone up, we have had almost no suicide bombings,” stated our guide, Eitan Katz. “It is for security.”
“I like to show Israelis from Jerusalem the Palestinian neighborhoods at their back door,” he said. “They never come out here and when they see this they are shocked. No garbage pickup, poor roads, no permission to build and so what they build could be demolished at any time.”
But nothing could have prepared me for what we saw in Hebron.
In Hebron, there have been numerous encounters where Jewish settlers have committed acts against Palestinians that can only be classified as criminal. However, the most troubling aspect of this is that the settlers are supported and protected by the Army. Since the founding of Kiryat Arba in 1968, these religious settlers have had only one aim: To make the West Bank, Judea and Samaria a part of Israel. We visited with an articulate Palestinian, Hashem, and his family in downtown Hebron, just below the homes of Israeli settlers who continually harass them by throwing garbage and cutting down their fruit trees. Hashem told us about the more serious incident of two settler attacks, both of which caused his pregnant wife to miscarry, and left their home in ruins.
I am still trying to rationalize Israeli support of these criminal acts with my love for Israel.
Happily, however, I found several people to give me insight, hope, and clarity for what must be done.
At Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, an organization focusing on non-violent programs to end the Israeli occupation, we met with its founder, Sami Awad, who has twice joined government-sponsored trips for Israeli teens to visit Auschwitz and listened first-hand to the story of the Holocaust and the tragedy it was for the Jewish people. This Palestinian-Christian Arab has undertaken the time and expense to see, listen, and understand our Jewish story.
“Some [teens] know full well that their own relatives perished in the buildings they stand in,” Sami explained. What a powerful and important impact this must make on these youth. One time, as Sami listened, he heard the Israeli guide say, “This slaughter of innocent people should never happen again to….”
At this teachable moment, Sami said he prayed the guide would say, “never happen to any people.” However the guide said, “never happen to the Jewish people,” ingraining into the young people a fear that may never be erased from their psyche. It is Sami’s perception that when the youth go home and, shortly after, enter military service, they are given a machine gun, assigned to a checkpoint in the West Bank, and told to “deal with it.”
“Non-violence is not taught in Israel as an alternative to force,” Sami said.
He reflected that perhaps those Palestinians committed to non-violence might help Israelis in establishing new alternatives. Given the real historical pain and fear in the Israeli psyche, Sami said, Palestinians need to take responsibility for how the Israeli soldiers view them, at the checkpoints and at non-violent events.
We next visited the Israeli town of S’derot, near Gaza and where Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets on the citizens there, causing death and injury. Most destructive, however, has been the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder suffered by its citizens when faced with the psychological impact of having 20 seconds to make their way to a shelter with little time to look after family and other loved ones. We talked with three wonderful women, including Israeli Julia Chaitin, from the faculty of social work at Sapir Academic College.
In an article written for the Berkeley, Calif. Daily Planet, Julia wrote:
We (Israelis) constantly push ourselves deeper and deeper into this black hole called “the conflict.” It consumes us, shutting out any other way to see our relations with the Palestinians. We can no longer see any option but the military option. Anyone who does not agree with the government and/or military policy is perceived as a traitor. Democracy is to be feared and freedom of speech has become profanity. Any call for human rights is seen as a call against Israel. We are so obsessed with our own victimhood, that we do not see how we are victimizing others.
The women in S’derot and Sami Awad’s commitment to Israeli-Palestinian dialogue amid these current dangers demonstrate three attributes all people of compassion must have to bring about healing and movement toward peace.
They all come from the heart to support all people’s rights to live with dignity and raise their children in an environment honoring peace. They have the courage to speak out with a truth that represents balance and reality of what is happening to all people in the area, even when others around them are trying to attack their credibility.
I truly believe both sides yearn for a lasting peace. The Palestinians know full well the reality of their lives in the occupied territories. I believe they must also seek out opportunities to better understand the deep-seated fears of the Israelis.
I also pray that Israelis and American Jews have the courage to discover the reality of the impact the occupation has on Palestinian dignity in the West Bank and Gaza, and to see the Palestinians as human beings dealing with an oppression brought on by the founding of the State of Israel. Once this reality is understood in moral terms, they will be better able to work with their Palestinian counterparts to move to healing and, ultimately, peace.