Saturday, July 26, 2014

Getting Past Cowardice—Time to Act in the Name of Humanity


If you were to look up the word coward in a magic dictionary you would find my picture.  For weeks now this supposed peacenik and old anti-war activist has watched with mounting horror and simmering outrage a bloody eruption in the seemingly endless cycle of violence between the State of Israel and Palestinian people in Gaza, the West Bank, and now even in the sacred old city of Jerusalem itself.  And I have not uttered a word.  I have not taken to the streets or even signed a hollow petition.  I have not shared on Facebook the endless pictures of dead children, smashed homes, and blood on the pavement.
I grew up on The Diary of Anne Frank, Exodus the book and the movie, tales of the Holocaust and the idealistic establishment of a Jewish refuge and homeland.  I lived in my teen years in Skokie where almost all of my friends were whip smart and creative Jews and where men and women you passed on the street had faded numbers tattooed on their arms.  I was there when the Nazis tried to march there.  I sat at Seders and was invited to open the door for Elijah.  I learned to say never again! and mean it.  I was as good of a goyish ally as Jews or Israel could expect.
I still have many Jewish friends all over the world, including some in Israel who live close enough to hear the explosions of Hamas rockets fired from the Gaza and who now spend hours daily in shelters.
But I have also learned the other side of the story—the story of the Palestinian people made suddenly alien in their own land, of their displacement by war, made stateless and refugees, been made pawns in proxy battles between east and west, having their homes and orchards simply stolen from them, become pent up in ever shrinking islands surrounded by miles upon miles of mighty fortress walls, and penned in Gaza into the world’s largest prison.  I have come to understand their righteous anger and to admire the plucky courage of the intifada and facing tanks and overwhelming might with stones and slingshots.
I have also been repulsed by acts not of resistance but of terrorism whose sole aim seems not to be the advancement of the Palestinian people, but simply the murder of Jews, their allies, and any one unlucky enough to be standing by.
There are no clean hands in the supposed Holy Lands.  Halos are badly tarnished.  It is easy, far too easy to just say a pox on both your houses!  and walk away.  Or, worse yet, to fall into the trap of false even handedness—the familiar on-the-one-hand-an-on-the-other supposed neutrality of the American press and establishment that always somehow ends up supporting the powerful side that has come to deal in death and destruction on a wholesale level rather than in dribs and drabs.
I always pinned my hopes on the peace process, whatever that might be at the time.  Surely, I said to myself time after time, that people of good faith would see their way to end the madness.  But I learned, time after time, that each side was always the hostage of the most extremist who would inevitably provoke the other into new, and always escalating round of violence.  Simple despair seemed the only option.

The courtyard of a UN School in Gaza where 15 civilian refugees were killed,

At long last I concluded that there was no equality in abominations.  Over many years what started out as self-defense and self-preservation has morphed into something quite different.  In the occupied West Bank an aggressive campaign to build new settlements has resulted in the virtual theft of Palestinian property; the well-publicized bulldozing of homes with all of the possessions of the displaced inside; the carving up of the territory into smaller and smaller and more isolated enclaves; the erection of walls that separate villages from their fields, children from schools, family members from each other;  restrictions on movements that make ordinary daily life a nightmare; and, although the Israelis stream with outrage at the suggestion the imposition of conditions that make South African apartheid pale by comparison.
When the victims of this naturally protest, they are met by overwhelming military and police force.  The slightest and protest, including non-violent ones are immediately suppressed.  Nor is dissent in any other way—writing and publishing, public speaking, teaching—tolerated.  Sweeps of villages and arrests for unlimited preventative detention are routine.  Thousands of Palestinians are in prison.  Occasional releases as “good will gestures” are often followed within weeks or months by re-arrests.  Family members are arrested.  And over the past two years increasingly children as young as nine have been swept off the streets.  Palestinians on the West Bank simply have no civil or human rights that the State of Israel recognizes.
And in Gaza, the most densely populated few square miles on earth, things are worse.  Much worse.  In addition to repeated military assaults, including the current brutal attack, residents have for years been subject to strict embargos on most items, including construction materials to rebuild smashed homes, most consumer goods, and even many medicines and medical supplies.  Power and water sanitation facilities have been repeatedly targeted.  Fishermen are killed in their boats.  International aid is largely forbidden and the Israelis have shown they will kill to prevent the delivery of relief supplies.  Gaza is, at best, a huge prison.
To grasp the huge disproportion of the Israeli response to Palestinian threat one only has to look at the death tolls on each side.  Palestinian casualties—most of them civilian—dwarf Israelis.  And events transpiring as I type are multiplying those disparities. 
The result of all of this has not bought Israel peace.  It has driven the Palestinians into the open arms of the most extremist on their side.  Every bomb, every smashed home, every dead child earns the burning and unremitting hatred of survivors.  No one recruits more future terrorists than does the Israel Defense Force.  The most extreme forces on both sides find their greatest allies among their counterparts on the other. 
Many years ago Golda Meir said “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”  Current political leadership in Israel seems to have taken this as a directive to kill the children to make them stop hating.  Worse, in widening sectors of Israeli public opinion there is no longer a shred of regret. 
A recent article proposed a “total war” on Gaza and its entire population, explicitly calling for the mass death of the “mothers of terrorists,” children, old people.  The response?  In 48 hours the article received more than 40,000 positive, nay enthusiastic comments on line.  This week leading right wing Rabbi Dvor Lior issued a religious ruling stating that the total destruction of Gaza is justified if military leaders consider it necessary:
Therefore, in a time of war, the attacked nation is permitted to punish the enemy population with whatever measures it deems proper, like blocking supplies or electricity. It may bomb the entire area based on the judgment of the war minister and not wantonly put soldiers at risk…deterrent measures to exterminate the enemy are allowed.
This is still a minority voice in Israel.  But it is one that is increasingly sympathized with.  For those of us who once treasured the great humane promise of Israel this is heartbreaking.  But many Israelis and Jews the world over, have resisted the siren call to genocide.  Many are standing up and proclaiming “Not in my name!”  Even at great personal risk.
Where they have been bold, I have been a coward.  Why? Partly because in this country to offer the slightest criticism of Israel or its war policies is to be instantly branded an anti-Semite.  Who want’s that?  I didn’t.  So I stayed silent.
But I can no longer.  This is my declaration of independence from fear and intimidation.  I will stand with the oppressed, not the oppressor.  I will seek peace and justice—for all sides. 
During the incursion in Gaza poet Lena Khalaf Tuffah wrote:
Running Orders
They call us now.
Before they drop the bombs.
The phone rings
and someone who knows my first name
calls and says in perfect Arabic
“This is David.”
And in my stupor of sonic booms and glass shattering symphonies
still smashing around in my head
I think “Do I know any Davids in Gaza?"
They call us now to say
You have 58 seconds from the end of this message.
Your house is next.
They think of it as some kind of war time courtesy.
It doesn’t matter that
there is nowhere to run to.
It means nothing that the borders are closed
and your papers are worthless
and mark you only for a life sentence
in this prison by the sea
and the alleyways are narrow
and there are more human lives
packed one against the other
more than any other place on earth
Just run.
We aren’t trying to kill you.
It doesn’t matter that
you can’t call us back to tell us
the people we claim to want aren’t in your house
that there’s no one here
except you and your children
who were cheering for Argentina
sharing the last loaf of bread for this week
counting candles left in case the power goes out.
It doesn’t matter that you have children.
You live in the wrong place
and now is your chance to run
to nowhere.
It doesn’t matter
that 58 seconds isn’t long enough
to find your wedding album
or your son’s favorite blanket
or your daughter’s almost completed college application
or your shoes
or to gather everyone in the house.
It doesn’t matter what you had planned.
It doesn’t matter who you are
Prove you’re human.
Prove you stand on two legs.

Courtesy Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland)
Israel still claims to be issuing such warnings.  And bragging that it is proof of their humanity.  But more than ever there is no place to go.  Indeed places of refuge have been specifically and repeatedly attacked—witness the bombing of a United Nations School this week which was sheltering refugees from the bombing.  Officials three times communicated the schools exact coordinates to the IDF so that it would not be targeted.  It was anyway:

…as the Palestinians gathered in the courtyard on Thursday, believing they were about to be bused elsewhere, blasts tore through the crowd, killing 16 people and sending scores of wounded, mostly women and children, streaming into local hospitals.—Ben Hubbard and Jodi Rudoren in the New York Times. 
The very precision that the IDF boasts about when it warns residents of specific home to evacuate, belies any attempts to claim error or confusion in the attack.  As do other recent attacks on a facility for crippled girls, hospitals, and a gathering of World Cup Soccer views at a beach far from the supposed conflict zone.  And as do sniper shooting of children playing on a beach, family members frantically digging through rubble for loved ones, and emergency rescue teams—all of which have been documented on tape and/or witnessed by reliable Western reporters.
Far from showing any signs of letting up, the government announced more troops will be added to the attack and has called up more reservists.  Major demonstrations against the killing erupting in the West Bank have drawn live ammunition fire killing several and wounding hundreds over the last few days.  Now there are calls for a new full scale attack on the West Bank as well.
I draw inspiration from Israelis and Jews who have been braver than me.


Noa, a singer/songwriter of Yemenite/Israeli/American origins concluded a thoughtful and even handed blog entry on Wednesday with these words:
Where is God now?? Has he been driven to numbness by the abomination of his sacred teachings, by all extremists on both sides???
If we refuse to recognize each other’s rights and embrace our obligations, if we continue to each cling to his own narrative with contempt and disregard for that of the other, if we again and again choose swords over words, if we sanctify land and not the lives of our children, we shall soon be forced to truly seek a colony on the moon, for our land will be so drenched in blood and so cluttered with tomb stones there will be nothing left for the living.
I wrote these words, and sang them together with my friend Mira Awad. They stand truer than ever today:
“when I cry I cry for both of us,
My pain has no name.
When I cry, I cry to the merciless sky and say:
There must be another way”

Naomi Wolf is a noted American feminist, journalist, and recently the author of The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, a historical look at the rise of fascism, outlining 10 steps necessary for a fascist group (or government) to destroy the democratic character of a nation-state and subvert the social/political liberty previously exercised by its citizens.  She posted this explanation of why she walked out of a Shabbat services at a synagogue when no mention was made of the ongoing mayhem in Gaza.
Challenged below for why I am mourning genocide in Gaza. I mourn genocide in Gaza because I am the granddaughter of a family half wiped out in a holocaust and I know genocide when I see it. People are asking why I am taking this ‘side’. There are no sides. I mourn all victims. But every law of war and international law is being broken in the targeting of civilians in Gaza. I stand with the people of Gaza exactly because things might have turned out differently if more people had stood with the Jews in Germany. I stand with the people of Gaza because no one stood with us. I went to synagogue last Friday night and had to leave because I kept waiting for the massacre of Gaza to be addressed. … Nothing. Where is god? God is only ever where we stand with our neighbor in trouble and against injustice. I turn in my card of faith as of now because of our overwhelming silence as Jews…I don’t mean Israelis, a separate issue…about the genocide now in Gaza. 
I want no other religion than this, that is, seeing rather than denying my neighbor under fire and embracing rather than dismissing those targeted with annihilation and ethnic cleansing.
For this Wolf will pay a much deeper personal price than I ever will.  She will be attacked as a self-hating Jew, compared to the collaborators in the Ghettos and extermination camps, shunned by former friends, and be harassed at every public appearance.
So what, after all, do I have to fear?
For the love of the Palestinian people, for the love of the Israeli people, for the love that binds us all together in the end, from this day forward I will be silent no more.


  1. Thank you for this piece, for your courage, for the light you shine. May I find some semblance of this courage.

  2. stop shooting rockets and things will get better. when and if the palestinians let go of their hate, then they have a chance, until then, they do not. you can couch it all the flowery verbosity you want, the issue remains basic: the arabs want all the jews dead, there's no starting point for peace when that paradigm remains in effect. There is no longer any room on planet earth for murderous death cults. I see that you have conveniently left out some facts, like palestinian children are taught to hate from early childhood, in their schools and in their homes and in their mosques. they are taught that jews are animals who drink blood. And you think anything can then be made of those children ? I reject your moral equivalence completely.