piece by Palestinian-American peace activist Saffiya Shillo
describes the personal experiences at the root of her
community's deep pessimism regarding the possibility of a
Palestinian state. It also addresses the impact that respectful
gestures can have in tearing down barriers and turning
disappointment and discouragement into cautious hope.
--Aliza Becker, Deputy Director
Hope Begins with
The Palestinian American community is watching the moves of
President-elect Obama's transition team carefully. The Bush
administration has been so disastrous for our cause, we're
afraid to hope anything could get better.
in particular got a jolt when Obama named Rahm Emanuel his White
House Chief of Staff. Emanuel is the son of an Israeli who was
involved in the 1940s with the Irgun, the Jewish militia responsible for the
atrocities at Deir Yassin massacre. Immediately after his
son's appointment, the elder Emanuel made racist, anti-Arab
comments about his son's possible influence on the
To the Palestinian ear, this sounded like the same old, same
old. During the campaign, there was a lot of talk of change --
and maybe there would be change on other issues-- but as far as
Palestinians were concerned, we shouldn't hope for much when it
comes to the conflict.
in with a diminishing loss of faith in the possibility of a
two-state solution among Palestinians. The situation on the
ground has changed dramatically in recent years: Once,
Palestinians struggled for independence; today, they're
struggling just to feed and shelter their children.
The inability to pray at our holy places, the difficulty
farmers have getting to their land, the continuous settlement
expansion, the denial of medical care across checkpoints -- all
these are extinguishing the small spark of hope Palestinians
felt about building a state alongside Israel. People on the West
Bank see the suffering of fellow Palestinians in Gaza, and
they're waiting for it to happen to them too, once the Wall
closes them off entirely.
As painful as the occupation always was for the Palestinian
people, it's gotten worse. Not only are the deprivations
greater, it feels as if Israelis have lost a sense of our
I experienced this myself recently, when flying to visit
family on the West Bank. My grown son and daughter were with me,
and when we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, we learned that my
son had been issued a Palestinian I.D. number and was now
considered a Palestinian resident. He was born during a visit to
the West Bank, and four months later, we returned to our home in
Chicago. According to Israeli law, he couldn't travel through
the Israeli airport without prior permission from the
government. He would be deported -- after first serving up to
six months in jail.
Explaining that he hadn't known about the I.D. and had never
lived on the West Bank, pleading for understanding, was useless.
The officials who interrogated us, asking the same questions for
hours, looked not at us, but through us, and told us that we
were "Liars. All Palestinians are liars."
I was luckier than many that day. I got a hold of an
experienced Palestinian lawyer who helped me do whatever needed
doing, and 24 hours later, my son was free. And as difficult as
the ordeal was, I came away most disturbed by my interactions
with the Israeli soldiers.
In the past, I've always been able to connect with these
young people on a human level. This time no connection could be
made. I felt sad for them, and couldn't help but wonder what had
happened to cause these grandchildren of Holocaust survivors to
lack basic empathy.
I came home to Chicago deeply discouraged, and in this mood,
wasn't surprised to hear the remarks made by Rahm Emanuel's
father. I assumed that they reflected on his son.
But I was wrong. Soon after the comments were publicized,
Rahm Emanuel took it upon himself to apologize, and repudiate
his father's statements.
"From the fullness of my heart," he said, "I personally
apologize on behalf of my family and me. These are not the
values upon which I was raised or those of my family."
It's really hard to express what this meant to me. What
Emanuel did was acknowledge that Palestinians are human, we have
feelings, and we count. This is a real rarity for our community,
demonized as we are in Israeli and American society. While I
understand that he was under political pressure to say
something, I cling to the hope that his apology was genuine.
Treating Palestinians in a humane and respectful manner helps
us reclaim a spark of hope. It's not enough to just talk about
bringing change -- everyday life for Palestinians has to improve
or our pessimism and despair will deepen. I hope the Obama
administration will remember our humanity and the humanity of
all of the region's citizens when addressing the
is a Palestinian American peace activist based in Chicago.
She co-developed a dual narrative program with Deputy Director
Aliza Becker that they have given in many Chicago-area
synagogues. Saffiya is a board member of the Palestinian
American Women's Society and previously served as president of
the Palestinian American Congress-Chicago chapter and as
president of Arab American Family Services. She presently works
as a sexual assault crises counselor and bully prevention
trainer. Shillo previously worked as Director of Ethnic Affairs
for the State of Illinois' Office of Lieutenant Governor and
Director of the Arab American Institute's Chicago office.
Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and
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