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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace


Chapter Activities

Discussing Israel: Reflections after a Trip to Israel and the Territories

By Madi Hirschland

My family and I recently traveled to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We went because we long for peace and believe that American Jews have an important role to play in helping resolve the conflict - but that this requires understanding both sides more completely. So, we went to see and hear what Americans usually do not see and hear: how "regular" Israelis and Palestinians experience the situation. We went on our own, though with the support of a group of local Jews deeply committed to Israel and a negotiated two-state solution. I went as one whose parents escaped the Holocaust.

Upon our return, my husband and I spoke about our trip in our synagogue. In a moment, I will share with you what we shared with our congregation, but first I want to reflect on our talk's aftermath.

Differences here: Is public discussion O.K.?

Not surprisingly, our talk opened a floodgate. Vis a vis the conflict, our community learned that we agree on this - supporting Israel's right to exist as a secure Jewish state is crucial- and little else. It's been five months now and our dialogue has yet to ebb.

But we are living to tell the tale, indeed are more engaged with Israel because of it. Many - though not all - in our community agree: although rough at times, naming the elephant in the room has been good for us. For this reason, I would like to weigh in on one of our fundamental debates: Is it appropriate for American Jews to openly debate Israeli policy?

Many of us fear that doing so will stoke anti-Semitism and legitimize Israel-bashing. As American Jews, we can feel under attack from people who do not recognize the complexity of the situation and demonize Israel. Their tone, renewed anti-Semitism here and far, and our memory of the Holocaust can leave us fearful and defensive. Yet, anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing may be fueled by the occupation itself - and by our monolithic public support for it.

By limiting what we say, we allow the public debate to polarize between critics of Israel who may know and care considerably less about her than we do, on the one hand, and those who unconditionally support current policies, on the other. In place of the middle is silence. What transpires in the territories is hotly debated within Israel, broadcast around the world and publicized by activists here at home. Are we hiding our heads in the sand - and hurting ourselves - to maintain our public silence?

Should the right to debate Israeli policies be restricted to Israelis - those who live daily with the conflict's complexities in the shadow of suicide bombings? The Star of David on Israeli flags, tanks and helicopters represents all of us. We learn from childhood to dance Israel's dances and sing her songs, are taken to Israel as teenagers and take our children there. Our Jewish values obligate us to repair the world. Should we really cut off both identification and duty when it comes to "the situation"?

According to Amram Mitzna, former IDF Commander and recent candidate for Prime Minister, "It is very, very important that Jewish communities in the U.S. raise their voices… Israel, the idea of a Jewish state, has never been in more danger than it is now… You (American Jews) have a right to say this loud and clear. We (Israelis and American Jews) are partners, partners in a struggle for the benefit of the state of Israel."

If we love Israel, fear for her security and yearn for peace, then we must, I believe, speak up.

But, because anti-Semitism has revived again, we must take care to preface our messages with some things that we Jews take for granted - that the history to the current situation is complex, that Israel is tremendously important to Jews, and that her right to exist as a Jewish state is indisputable.

Differences there: "Disconnects"

So, what opened the floodgate? Despite my knowledge of the conflict's long difficult history, what we saw and heard during our trip left some part of my mind wrestling day and night to understand how the decent people that we met on both sides could be party to such a violent struggle. What we related to our synagogue - and I will convey to you here now - was what I came to see as the key "disconnects" between how Israelis and Palestinians we met seemed to perceive the situation.

For Israelis, the ultimate issue was the suicide bombings. Since September 2000, nearly 900 Israelis have been killed, over 400 of them in suicide bombings. The horror of these random attacks is magnified by a sense of hopelessness. The failed negotiations in 2000 convinced most Israelis we met that Arafat has no interest in peace. To Israeli ears, the bombings can shriek: "We reject your right to exist. As long as you stay here, we will try to kill you. We do not care - in fact, we are proud - if we lose our own lives in the process." In the words of an Israeli friend,"How can you make peace with that?"

While welcoming us as Jews, the Palestinians with whom I spoke expressed neither support nor regret for the bombings. Ever-present for them were their dead; the confinements and humiliations of the occupation; and their on-going loss of land. Since September 2000, over 2400 Palestinians have been killed. A colleague of mine reticently explained that her aunt, a 60-year old social worker, was shot by a soldier in Nablus while embroidering on her front porch during a curfew.

Beyond the dead, there is the fence. Up to 8 meters high, flanked by a security road, ditches and large coils of razor wire, the fence could be a powerful sign of hope, spelling security for Israelis and a viable state for Palestinians. However, already one-third built, it does not follow the contours of the Green Line, but cuts deep into parts of the West Bank in order to include the settlements. Because the fence promises relief from suicide bombers, most Israelis support its construction.

On Tisha b'Av, I walked from the Palestinian village of Jayyous to the fence with two peace activists - one Israeli-American, one Palestinian. They pointed to the farmlands on the other side of the fence that the people of Jayyous can no longer reach. In this quiet place, the continual movement of trucks carrying supplies to further the fence distressed me deeply. For tens of thousands of Palestinians, the fence represents a loss of land and livelihood.

Then there are the settlements. Settlement growth continued throughout the Oslo accords and, according to B'Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories,) settlements now control 42% of the land in the West Bank. An Israeli woman stated, "Many, many (Israelis) are sick of the settlements, of what keeping them is doing to us demographically, morally and as an obstacle to peace…(and are) upset about the way the Palestinians are suffering." In explaining her anger with the Palestinians over the failure of the 2000 peace talks, she noted, "Everything can be negotiated - including the settlements."

Indeed, many Israelis see the existing settlements as a crucial bargaining chip that should be exchanged only for security. This negotiability is not obvious to many Palestinians, including an Israeli Arab who described the view as we drove from Hebron to Jerusalem:
"Settlers all over… What is (this settlement) doing in the middle of the Palestinian land? This is the West Bank! …The settlers will be in this area too, any day soon. The peace negotiations? A waste of time. The only way they see it is Palestinians out."

His conclusion mirrors precisely the fear of many Israelis, that the Palestinians will not be happy until Israel is in the sea. Indeed, Hamas proclaims this regularly. These views notwithstanding, every Israeli and Palestinian with whom I spoke seemed to assume that peace - should it ever come - would take the form of two states existing side-by-side.

Prominent Israelis of many stripes are voicing deep concerns over Israel's current path. On November 14th, four former Chiefs of Shin Bet, Israel's security service, gave a joint interview. One called the current situation "nearly a catastrophe." Another stated, "We are taking sure and measured steps to a point where the state of Israel will no longer be a democracy and a home for the Jewish people." Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and renowned Zionist, agrees and declares, "Diaspora Jews for whom Israel is a central pillar of their identity must pay heed and speak out."

Pay heed and speak out: Read about the fence and the settlements, the Geneva Accords and the other recent peace proposals. www.haaretz.com and www.heskem.org.il/heskem)

Discuss them with your friends, family and legislators. For the sake of Israel's future, let your voice be heard.
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