On Zion and Zionism (1/4/2015)

It was late in the afternoon in Bethlehem on Christmas day.  A group of about 40 Jews, mostly American, sat in the Nativity Hotel meeting room asking questions of a panel of three Palestinian civic leaders and one Palestinian translator.  This meeting was done through Encounter, an organization that allows Jews to listen and to better understand a Palestinian side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  Someone asked the panel what Zionism meant to them.  Ala’ Nusseibeh, a young, German educated woman from East Jerusalem, said that Zionism stands for expansion, colonialism, oppression, theft, and exploitation.  The room gasped with shock.  She recognized her definition had offended, but stood by her truth.  That was her lived reality.  When she encounters Zionists, they are throwing rocks at her when she goes to a Jewish doctor in East Jerusalem, they are harassing her at checkpoints, or they are the strangers who lived across the street from her childhood home.  She said that the values of Zionism are not compatible with peace.  Fatima Faroun, an older woman who organizes women’s groups, told us how she used to work with peaceful Zionists decades ago, but she said there are no more left to talk with.  An American Jew said, you were just talking about how Islam has been misinterpreted in the west, is it possible that you are misinterpreting Zionism?  Ala’ suggested that there are two different definitions of Zionism.  Sheikh Maher Assaf, an Islam teacher in several Palestinian schools, said that if he ever met a peaceful Zionist, he would be happy to talk with them.  The room eagerly said hello!  Sheikh Maher beamed and said, ‘Salaam,’ with his hand over his heart.

Before the panel, we met with Ali Abu Awwad.  Ali was born in 1972, and spent four years in jail from 1990-1994 for throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers and participating in other violent actions against Israel.  The first intifada in the late 1980’s, Ali said, was his time to explode and express his rage.  In jail, Ali participated in a 17 day hunger strike and spent time studying Gandhi, King, and Mandela.  After the Oslo Accords went into effect in the mid-1990’s, Ali joined the newly created Palestinian Authority security force to police the self-governing Palestinian sections of the West Bank.  When the Oslo peace process failed, and the second intifada began in the early 2000’s, Ali was seriously wounded in the leg and forced to leave the area for medical treatment.  While gone, his brother was killed in a clash with Israeli soldiers.  Ali describes the year following his brother’s death as the most depressed period of his life.  Ali joined the bereaved families program, where both Israeli and Palestinian grieving families meet and recognize each other’s suffering.  From these experiences, Ali emerged with an active commitment to non-violence.

Non-violence for Ali is not a strategy, it is an identity.  To be non-violent is to know that your humanity is not dependent on Hamas or Fatah or Israel or anybody else.  It is to not be occupied by your anger, to not allow fear to be your identity.  To be non-violent is to be free from victimhood and to be free to claim your choice.  It is to recognize your humanity and the humanity of all, and to realize that your occupier is suffering alongside you.  Ali told a story about a time he was stuck in line at a checkpoint in the Gush Etzion Jewish settlement area on a cold and rainy day.  A young Israeli soldier was goading him while he waited, trying to get a rise out of him.  Ali asked the soldier how he was.  The soldier said he was fine.  Ali told the soldier he looked cold and he looked like he was suffering.  The soldier told Ali that Ali was the one who was suffering.  Ali agreed and said that he was, but the soldier also was.  He was the one standing in the cold rain while Ali sat in a warm car.  The soldier broke down.  He told Ali how he had grown up in Kiryat Arba, a settlement next to Hebron, and no Palestinian had ever recognized his fear and suffering and seen him as human.  Violence, Ali says, is caused by not dealing with suffering.

Israel is suffering.  The Jewish people are suffering.  My people are suffering.  I am suffering.  The popular story of every Jewish holiday is, ‘They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.’  It was only 69 years ago that a third of the Jewish people were murdered in the holocaust.  It was only 66 years ago that the state of Israel, the place where Jews could finally live with dignity and peace, was born into violence, forced to defend its own existence with violence from the beginning.  Ali made it a point to recognize the Jewish history and consciousness of trauma and suffering as truth.  He acknowledged the source of my mistrust and fear.  I came to Bethlehem needing to hear a Palestinian answer this question, ‘Do you recognize my right, and Israel’s right, to exist?’  I asked three Palestinians this question and I received three thoughtful, serious, and friendly answers.  I of course do not know how representative this response is, and to speculate misses the point.  I know in those moments how moved and relieved I felt, after so many years of war, to hear a human being on the other side recognize my right to exist as a Jew living in the Jewish state.  Ali and others recognized our pain.

The Palestinians are also suffering.  The occupation is real.  There are over 600 checkpoints across the West Bank making travel extremely difficult and dehumanizing.  The settlements in the West Bank are expanding and strangling Palestinian villages.  The security barrier cuts through private land and creates a physical feeling of being trapped.  A few Israeli settlers harass Palestinians, a few Israeli soldiers make their lives difficult.  Olive groves are torched and mosques are defaced.  To grow a business or build a building requires Israeli permission that is tough to obtain and often times impossible.  Water and electricity are erratically supplied.  There is a frustrating mix of Israeli military, Palestinian Authority, Jordanian, British, and Ottoman legal systems frozen into place under international law.  One of our encounter tour guides said, ‘I recognize that we Palestinians have a higher material standard of living than any other Arab country.  This does not matter if we cannot be free and live with dignity.’  Dignity and the feeling of living in a cage were themes for every speaker.  A life without dignity, without the freedom to be fully human, is a life of suffering.  It is on us,aleynu, to recognize the real pain of the Palestinians.

I’m certain that many people reading this reacted negatively to that last paragraph.  It was difficult to write.  Yes, I agree, checkpoints are there to actively stop terrorists, and they work.  Yes, the security barrier stops suicide bombers from murdering civilians.  Yes, the IDF is perhaps the most moral army in the history of the world, and I too am extraordinarily proud, thankful, and supportive of the Israeli soldiers who keep Israel and the Jewish people around the world safe.  Yes, the occupation of the West Bank is because if we immediately take down the checkpoints and remove our soldiers, Hamas might take over and move to push us into the sea.  Yes, we are right.

But there are Palestinians who claim that they are right.  There are Palestinians who are certain that they are right to do everything they violently can to protect themselves from settlers and to evict Israel.  They are certain that they are right to say that Israel is a colonizer and an occupier.  The Palestinians were on the land for hundreds if not thousands of years before these Europeans showed up and started pushing them around.  Ali said that when he talks to Palestinians, he says, ‘If you want to be right, go pick up a bomb or a gun.  Go choose blood, hatred, and suffering, because you are right.  But if you want to succeed, you must choose and believe in non-violence.’

We asked Ali if he is optimistic that we can reach peace.  He said he isn’t optimistic, but he is a believer.  It sounded like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel saying he was an optimist against his better judgment.  We asked Ali when peace would happen.  He said it would happen when fear is no longer the guiding ideology for Jews.  When Jews recognize that Israel is a nuclear power armed to the teeth, and when the Jewish people feel safe.  Peace would happen when the Palestinians recognize that the Jews need to feel safe, that every verbal and physical attack on Israel is an attack against themselves.  When the Palestinians abandon anger as an identity, and when they give the Jews no option but to love them.  Somebody asked if the boycott (BDS) movement is helping or hurting.  Ali said, that at this time, the boycott is seen by most Jews as a threat intended to hurt and cause pain.  He said boycotting only works if it comes from a place of love, and the Palestinian movement of love and non-violence is still under construction in the West Bank, so he is currently not in favor of BDS.  Somebody asked, what can we do to further peace?  Ali said that we should talk and listen to Muslim and Arab communities back home.  We need to hear their story, affirm their safety and dignity, tell our story, and have our safety and dignity affirmed.  The problem is that we trap ourselves in echo chambers and neither side is seeking to understand the other.  Somebody despaired that there are too many extremists on both sides.  Ali said, ‘The extremists aren’t stronger, they are just louder and better organized.’

When Ali Abu Awwad went to speak to the House of Lords in London, he was introduced to its two separate groups, the pro-Israel group and the pro-Palestine group.  Both sides defame the other, attack the other, and ignore the other.  He asked both groups where the pro-solution group was, and he received confused looks from the two groups who both knew they were right.  Ali told us about a Jewish friend of his in Tel Aviv, a lefty smolnik, who proudly told him that he would not even talk with the settlers because they are so wrong.  Ali said, ‘If you won’t talk with them, who will!?’  Now, Ali organizes groups of left-leaning Israelis to meet with groups of right-wing Israeli settlers.  The night the Encounter trip ended, I asked some smolnik friends in Tel Aviv if they had ever talked with settlers.  Only the one who grew up in Jerusalem had.  Another said, ‘Settler is too nice a word for them.’  After some intense conversation, that same smolnik declared, ‘If you find one who is willing to talk with me, I will gladly talk with them.’

Sadly, to talk about Israel in America is to lick a third rail.  I want to make clear that I am both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine.  I am not advocating for the IDF to disband, or for the Jewish people to all of a sudden let its guard down.  I think it would be suicidal to immediately and unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank.  I understand why the situation is the way it is, Palestinians have committed unspeakable atrocities against Jewish civilians for almost 100 years.  At this moment in time though, we have two choices: To circle the wagons and give up any chance of peace, or to slowly open ourselves to the chance of peace.  I am advocating for a very active, very courageous, and very slow trust-building process with our Palestinian and Arab partners for peace.  Not every Palestinian (or Jew) is ready to be a partner in dialogue, but enough exist right now to begin, or continue, the process.  I am advocating for a willingness to listen, and a recognition that defaming the other side’s dignity and right to exist is counter-productive.  I am advocating for Jews to recognize that the fate of the Palestinians and the fate of Israel are intertwined, and to quickly and cautiously tip toe down the difficult path of understanding.  Our survival depends on it.

To live in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, one must earn it.  Jerusalem has been conquered 44 times since King David conquered it from the Jebusites 3,000 years ago.  Israel sits at the meeting point between Africa, Europe, and Asia.  It is sacred land for the great monotheistic religions.  In many ways, it is the center of the world, and many people desire it as such.  We, the Jewish people, have a state in Israel, in the holy land where the prophets of the Bible taught us how to live with love and hope.  Our prophets taught us that we are in a covenant with God, a partnership between us and the world.  They taught us how to fulfill that covenant and earn our place on the land, and they taught us what violates our covenant and forfeits our place on the land.  We know that to choose justice and love is to choose life.  And we know that to choose injustice and anger is to choose death.  We know to love our neighbor as we love our self.  We know, justice, justice, you must pursue, so that you may live on the land God is giving you.  We know the dreams of the prophets toward which we must strive: A day when the wolf will dwell with the lamb in peace, and nations will not lift up weapons against nations and will not learn war anymore.  For me, Zionism is the active movement of striving toward the ideals set forth by the prophets of Israel.  It is heartbreaking to hear such a different definition of Zionism from the mouths of Palestinians.

The last Palestinian we met with was Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American businessman and high tech consultant in the West Bank.  He said that he knows our people’s record in the Civil Rights movement, our positions and impact in Central America, the Soviet Union, and South Africa, and of our rich tradition of standing up for justice and truth.  He challenged Jews and our institutions to stop checking our morals at the airport by Tel Aviv.  Sam, a Palestinian, challenged us to be Jewish.

Ali Abu Awwad, Shaul Judelman, and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger do great work to promote dialogue and to teach non-violence in the West Bank with their organization, Roots:www.friendsofroots.net

The organization that I traveled with is called Encounter.  Encounter does not support or voice any political views about the conflict.  It creates a safe space to learn and struggle with the conflict.  They have programs in Israel and in the United States.  www.encounterprograms.org