Report from the Hinterland

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A week ago, Professor Marc Ellis, university professor and director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University spoke at Iowa State University about the struggle among people of Jewish faith to respond to moral questions that arise in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. More than 150 people of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith attended the lecture. The audience was polite. Some did not agree with Dr. Ellis’s premises, but none verbally abused him or anyone else attending the lecture.

Now, that Dr. Ellis has gone back to Baylor, however, I find myself, one of the organizers of the event, accused of being anti-Semitic, a user of hateful rhetoric and a too aggressive defender of the Palestinian people. These indictments come at me from many directions. One tenured member of the Iowa State University Religious Studies Program issued a resolution to ban me from participation in the Ellis program or in any other university-sponsored event relating to Palestine/Israel. While the document was not acted upon, it was circulated slandering me as a racist, hate-mongering anti-Semite. The pastor of my church, once solidly behind the idea of bringing Marc Ellis to Iowa, chastised me for being too pro-Palestinian and “scaring people” in our community. Others complain that it was because of me that most of the Jewish community did not attend the lecture, never mind that people from a Jewish Federation in another city sent word that no Jews would attend the lecture and that it should be cancelled.

Interestingly, one person who has stood up for me in all against the rustle of dissent is a long time friend, an Israeli Jew, now living in Iowa. From this individual, I have received love and affirmation in terms of my own motivation for encouraging Marc Ellis to come to Ames. Prior to Dr. Ellis’s visit, my friend and I often argued about how the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority should manage their conflict and we have disagreed loudly, but never beyond the bounds of genuine friendship and respect. When will we in American be allowed to speak in defense of our Palestinian brothers and sisters without being labeled bigots of the highest order on the Zionist scale of response? When will the supporters of Israel who have not or do not live in Israel themselves realize that to accuse a country or a political system of committing a wrong is not to hate that entity’s people?

It is true: I am a Palestinian advocate who urged Dr. Ellis to come and the university community to support his coming. I write about the conflict from a Palestinian point-of-view. I am not quiet about my own complicity as an American tax paying citizen whose money helped establish and sustain Israel’s might. I feel guilty of complicity because I have not always spoken up against my country’s support of the Zionist and Israeli political agenda bolstered by religious or supposedly morally correct justifications. The results are Intifada I and Intifada II.

When I knew that Ellis would come to Iowa, I made a concerted effort to bring Christians, Muslims and Jews together to discuss with Ellis how he saw the conflict in terms of morality within the context of his own Jewish upbringing and from the perspective of the other two great monotheistic religions. We talked about the essential need for those of us who see the situation in the Holy Land as unjust and untenable, to speak out. As far as this particular conflict goes, silence is far from golden and far from the morality of international human relations established by the Nuremberg Trials at the end of World War II. If there was any lesson to be taken from the ashes of the Holocaust and reparations of the Nuremberg Trials, we people of conscience cannot fail to speak now, regardless of our faith.

Over the last few days, I’ve read a number of articles about the direction Intifada II and the peace talks are taking. Diane Roe, a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron was asked to return spent bullets she had picked up on the street of Arab village Baab iZawwiyya to Israel Defense Force soldiers. She said, “These bullets are mine. They were paid for with my taxes. I want to return them to their rightful owner” [the American government]. I agree with Diana Roe. As an American, I feel culpable because I know that my money goes to make one group strong and another group weak.

I read Elie Wiesel’s letter to the New York Times. He talks about the question of Jerusalem and what the city means to him as a Jew. He suggests that the city cannot mean as much to Muslims as to Jews because the Koran doesn’t name the city as frequently as the Bible does. He doesn’t even mention that Christians including Christian Arabs have spiritual ties to Jerusalem. He launches into criticism of the Palestinians’ desire for right-of-return and joins in chorus with American Zionists by suggesting that for Israel to return land they have taken would be tantamount to suicide for the state. He talks about Palestinian hate, but not Israeli hate. I’m sure Elie Wiesel doesn’t know about the young Jerusalemite who arrived at our home a few days ago, hurt by threats leveled at him as the only Israeli Arab on an all Israeli Jewish staff; terrified by Israeli violence he met daily as he went to and returned from work.

I agree with Wiesel, however, that decisions about the Holy City should be deferred until temperaments are controlled on both sides of the Wailing Wall.. Much more important is the question of the Palestinian refugees, the human face of this war, more startling and more significant by far than icons that should be lodged in the hearts of those who profess to worship one God, not just in Mr. Wiesel’s memory of the Holy City as it was 2000 years ago. If the icons and holy sites of Jerusalem that Mr. Wiesel speaks of are all that matter to him and to the Jewish people around the world, what blasphemy, what idol worship has he and have we fallen into. I say we because I do not absolve Christians of this kind of thinking. Mr. Wiesel is not alone in placing more value on stones than on people.

We are the passionate, emotional writers, Diana Roe, Elie Wiesel and me. Reading the political sages of our time gives me a little more hope in a substantive potential for peace, a focus on solution rather than feelings. Amos Oz wrote in the January 7 New York Times, “. . .enable the Palestinian people to set up an independent state, immediately even without a peace agreement.” Good, I think, that might be the grace, the polite concession, the civil appeasement Palestinians need to see from Israel rather than more abuse of power, more collective punishment, behavior that only a terrified bully of a nation would deploy.

But, then, he continues, “Implementing the Palestinian √©right of return’ would amount to abolishing the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.” O.K., I think, but what are we (not just Israel, but all the nations who made Israeli what it is today) going to do about the dispossessed Palestinians “3 million or 6 million people depending on who’s counting. Mr. Oz says, “[let’s] negotiate a comprehensive national and humanitarian solution to the 1948 refugee problem ” involving the resettling of displaced Palestinians in the future state of Palestine.” That’s good, but will there be enough of Palestine left to contain as many as 6 million people? Can a population that has swelled from 1 million refugees in 1948 to 3 to 6 million today be accommodated on the West Bank, approximately 16 percent of the area two generations of Palestinian land owners left behind, and Gaza, a 360 square meter prison?

I turn to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who made a great deal of sense to me when he published “From Beirut to Jerusalem” back in 1989. A logical thinker usually writing without over sensitivity to personal biases, Friedman is now often seen by friends of mine in the Arab World as a compromiser and a born-again Israeli shill. I have to ask those who really know. Is Tom Friedman correct in saying that Anwar el-Sadat got what he wanted when he made peace with Israel? Is he correct in saying the same about the former King Hussein of Jordan? Is he correct in saying that Chairman Arafat never steps up with a plan of the Palestinians’ own, never really says what he or what the Palestinian people want?

Friedman ends his recent New York Times commentary with a challenge to all of us. He doesn’t dodge around blaming this person or that for this or that or crying out about whose bullets are found in the street or taking sides depending on the people he knows or the places he likes to visit. Friedman gets down to basics. He writes, “Barak has put his peace plan forward. Clinton has put his peace plan forward. Now, it’s time for the Palestinians” to say what they want. Friedman asks for an “Arafat plan for peace with the Jewish state.” For me, Tom Friedman’s ideas are the bottom line. As he suggests, any further involvement by the United States in the Palestinian-Israeli argument is futile until the Israelis stop their provocative actions and their proud show of power and the Palestinians get their act together and present logical and reasonable solutions to the refugee problem.

My religion has taught me that reparation is for nations who seek justice; there is no just reparation that can ever make up for the personal human losses. For loss of loved ones or loss of home, there is only forgiveness that can allow a future worthy of what has been lost. That’s where Marc Ellis’s “revolutionary forgiveness” comes in. Read the book, people of Jewish, Muslim and Christian heritage and, then, help Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, the leaders of Israel and America, get on with the business at hand.

You may say, “pretty nervy advice from a person out in the hinterlands.” My first hand experience as a writer once working from Jerusalem and from all the literature coming across the Internet, now, makes me think that nothing will work unless the Palestinians have enough land and freedom from settler and neighboring Israeli torment to build a state and to have the time and quite necessary to be able to process their thinking. It’s also clear that the United States and the European Community must help Israel provide the money to allow just reparation for displaced Palestinians and for the nations where they now reside. It isn’t just Chairman Arafat who has to “put up or shut up” as Tom Friedman challenges, but the rest of us, as well.

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