Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Discussing Faith & Peace with Old Friends

I recently visited my friend Reem, whose family I stayed with during last year’s Deir Ballut Peace Camp Against the Wall. My fondest memory of Reem’s family was the day we took two old village jeeps, overflowing with children and food, and drove to the family’s land for a picnic. I remember how, as we drove, we could see the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Petah Tiqvah in the distance, along with closer illegal settlements, outposts, and military camps. When the jeep stopped, the children bounded out and spread across the great fertile land. Two girls gathered flowers to put in their hair, while several kids played hide-and-seek among the olive trees. When I sat down to write in my journal, a crowd of children gathered around me. I asked them to teach me their favorite song. It’s a song about Palestine, about their love for their land and their capital, Jerusalem. The song’s chorus goes, “We are not the terrorists.”

Meanwhile the adults were busy. Several men had made a fire and were balancing a teapot on uneven rocks to make tea with freshly-picked sage. Several women had unfurled blankets and spread out plates piled with pita, tomatoes, hummus, and barbequed chicken. After the meal we played charades. Reem fed her husband Hazem ideas, and everyone laughed as he made a fool of himself. It felt like a normal picnic in the park, except for one thing: the land would be gone in a matter of months. The Wall was coming and the families would lose it all. Time was short and our pleasure was bittersweet.

Hazem was so heartbroken by the idea of losing his land that he decided to leave. Last year, he went to work in Jordan for 6 months. I was disappointed when he left, thinking this meant defeat, but he told me he could see no other choice. He used to be an activist, and then his name came up on a list somewhere and he was sent to prison for 2 years. He told me he was blindfolded and handcuffed for several weeks and periodically deprived of sleep: every time he would doze off the soldiers would punch him, until he was so delirious that he thought he was going to die. They leaned their weight against his chest with their feet and made him hold himself upright on a stool despite his fatigue. He related these stories somberly and said he couldn’t do it again, not to his wife and their children. He swore he would stay out of politics, because if he died or went away he couldn’t imagine what would happen to them.

This year, Hazem looked even more depressed and asked what it would take to move to the United States. I told him the United States was not as generous to foreigners as people believe it to be, moreover it is extremely difficult to get a visa. He sighed; “There is no future here for my children. I want my kids to go to college, to find work to support their own families in the future.” We watched together as his daughters practiced writing Arabic next to the electric heater in the living room. The oldest daughter, Athir, is first in her school.

Much of my visit was spent next to that heater, sheltered from the rain, consuming fresh persimmons and hot chocolate. Reem’s sister-in-law gave me a lesson on Arabic script, and Hazem took his first beating from me in backgammon. When it stopped raining, we went back by jeep to where we’d picnicked a year ago, this time to take pictures of the bulldozers clearing away the village’s land to make way for the Wall. I took photographs while Hazem walked with his youngest son on his shoulders, pointing out a gazelle racing by and the ruins of an ancient city. Hazem’s friend made a fire, and one at a time the men left the circle to pray while the rest of us sipped tea together. The praying men bowed towards Mecca across the valley, with the half-constructed Wall in the distance.

Hazem asked me if I was religious. I told him I wasn’t, but that I was always open to spirituality. When I admitted I didn’t feel the presence of God, he shook his head and said in a low voice that that was very bad. I smiled and asked why it was so important that I believe in God if I am a good person. Several others joined into the conversation, and one asked if I believe in Heaven. I said no. They were shocked. I defended myself: “Some people do good because they want to go to Heaven. But I work for justice because it’s the right thing to do.” Hazem’s friend Lutfi understood and nodded to himself. He said in a low voice next to me, “You have a good heart, so you will go to Heaven.” “Insha’allah (God willing),” added Hazem, still worried.

I had spoken with Lutfi the evening before about extremists in Israel and Palestine. It was just after Sharon and Abbas’s summit, and Lutfi was criticizing Sharon, saying he pretended to want peace but encouraged more suicide bombs by keeping the situation in the West Bank and Gaza so intolerable. I said that the fear generated by the suicide attacks is what drives moderates in Israel to support someone like Sharon, and without it maybe he would have no power. Lutfi reminded me that the track record of Likud, Sharon’s political party, on Palestinian rights and statehood is no worse than that of the only realistic alternative, the Labor party. Although at times Likud has been more explicit about colonizing the West Bank and transferring non-Jews away from the area, even the celebrated Israeli political dove Yitzhak Rabin recognized that his party “Labor does not differ from Likud about the ‘right of settlement’ but only about its manner.”[1] And the notion that the conflict would best be solved if all the Palestinians would leave Israel/Palestine has deep roots in the socialist and liberal Zionist philosophies on which Labor was founded.[2]

I asked Lutfi what he thought of Sharon’s idea to put the West Bank under Jordanian control. Hazem, nearby, scoffed. “The Jordanians are just as bad. We don’t want a changing of the guard, we want our own country! We want freedom to move, build, study, and work as we please.” That Sharon would think Palestinians would rather be occupied by Jordanians than Israelis just shows the extent to which people misrepresent or misunderstand the problem. The problem is not about Jews and Arabs; it’s about oppression and freedom.

Most Israelis have learned to use the word “Arab” instead of “Palestinian.” Some even say “Palestinians don’t exist” because the term “Palestine” was not commonly used to refer to the area before Zionist immigration began. In actuality, “Filistin” (Arabic for Palestine) and its historic borders became known throughout the Islamic world as early as the end of the 7th century.[3] But regardless, it is not the word that is most important; the main point is that the majority of the people living on the land that was declared the state of the Jews were part of a non-Jewish indigenous population, the majority of which was expelled in 1948. Using the word “Arabs” to refer to all Palestinians is a way of ignoring their particular historical connection and claim to the land that is now called Israel.

The tendency of Israelis and others to group Palestinians, Jordanians, Moroccans, and Kuwaitis all into the category “Arabs” is also misleading, because it implies a camaraderie between the groups that for the most part does not exist. Under orders from King Hussein, Palestinian refugees were killed by the thousands in Jordan. In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are an oppressed minority prohibited from holding a large majority of jobs. It is absurd to say that the Palestinian people should somehow just be absorbed into “the Arab world” when their culture, dialect, and lives had been evolving in Palestine for hundreds of years.

I also speak up at times when I hear Palestinians talking about “the Jews” in reference to violent soldiers and settlers, another attempt at clumping a large and diverse group of people into one sweeping category. I sometimes point out that I am Jewish, yet I stand in opposition to the Israeli government’s policies of discrimination and colonization. While it is true that the soldiers and settlers that Palestinians complain about are probably Jewish, that has nothing to do with their crime. Such wording can also be easily misunderstood as anti-Semitic, when in my experience its source is generally not an irrational or abstract hatred of all Jews, but real grievances of discrimination and dispossession.

[1] Davar (November 11, 1982); interview with Trialogue, journal of the Trilateral Commission (Winter, 1983); As cited in Chomsky, p. 112.

[2] Chomsky, p. 49.

[3] Edward Said, The Question of Palestine; As cited in The Origin of the Palestine-Israel Conflict, published by Jews for Justice in the Middle East, third edition. www.cactus48.com

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