Silenced No More
Jewish Supporters of Palestinian Rights Speak Out During Intifada
by Sherri Muzher
How often I had written the draft in my head. How often I would sit at my laptop and begin to type. But then, I would reflect on the bloody day’s events and the pain of my people. I thought of how hopeless the situation in the Palestinian Occupied Territories had gotten. The tears turned to rage as poll after poll revealed that the general Israeli public wanted to see more force used on Palestinians. How often I would then close my laptop.
I first decided to write an article about Jews who support Palestinian rights back in May 2001. The Intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation was going on and I felt it was important for others to be able to distinguish between a Jew and a Zionist. It was important for people, including pro-Israeli supporters to know that there were Jews who did not embrace this ideology. It was important for Palestinians to know that while the civilized world seemingly lost its humanity toward their suffering, some of their closest allies could be found in the Jewish community. And, it was important for people to know that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict was not as black and white as it was portrayed in the western media. And so, I overcame my own inner struggle and have finally written this piece.
This article is, ultimately, about nine courageous Israelis and Jews who have put humanity first.
"I have supported Palestinian rights since 1972, long before you could say "PLO" without being branded a terrorist," reflected Ellen Siegel, a nurse who worked at the Gaza Hospital in the Sabra Camp during the infamous 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps by Israeli-led Lebanese militiamen.
Siegel had volunteered to go to South Lebanon in 1972 to assist the Red Cross after Israel’s bombing campaign -- its collective punishment after 12 Israeli athletes were killed in Munich, Germany.
"I saw terrible things [at the Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp]," said Siegel. "I believe in my heart that I never really left the camp. The plight of the Palestinian has stayed with me."
For graduate student Irit Katriel, the turning point was correspondence with someone in Beirut during another of Israel’s bombing campaigns. "For the first time, I had the chance to look at Israel through the eyes of one of its victims."
"When you ‘cross the lines’ and reach a certain level of identification with someone on the other side, that is when you begin to understand," Katriel continued.
But how does this understanding affect people in their own Jewish community?
"There were times that the so-called mainstream Jewish community cursed and shunned me," said Siegel. "But, there were and increasingly are Jews who thank me for the work that I have done and continue to do."
Trade union activist Roland Rance also talked of vilification by the Jewish community for his support of Palestinian rights. "About 15 years ago, there was an attempt led by the Union of Jewish Students at Manchester University, to have me branded as an ‘anti-Semite’ and ‘self-hater’."
"I am, however, part of the (growing) critical Jewish community," said Rance.
Has the enthusiasm for Palestinian rights ever diminished during the Intifada or Uprising?
"Yes," said music teacher Michael Bootzin. "Though the actions of suicide bombings are understandable, I find that type of reaction as irrational as the present Israeli policies toward Palestinians.
"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves everyone blind and toothless," Bootzin said.
But most answered that their enthusiasm has never diminished.
"No. I am depressed when a suicide bomber attacks, knowing that it makes things so much harder for most Palestinians, and knowing that most Palestinians do not support such attacks on innocents," said professional Mitchell Plitnick. "But I recognize the generators of such anger."
Former combat officer [‘67 and ‘82] and current professor Jacob Katriel noted, "On the contrary, I am more convinced than ever before that the official Israeli policy and the position of most on the Israeli Left was never sincerely committed to peace with the Palestinians, which implies perceiving them as equals."
In fact, there have been a barrage of recent articles in international papers about the disenchantment of the Israeli Left since the 2000 Intifada began. But is the Israeli Left as homogeneous as perceived?
Israel’s Left, sometimes known as the peaceniks have often been on the forefront of pushing for the Oslo Accords. They make up Israel’s Meretz Party [considered the human rights party in the Knesset], as well as Peace Now – a movement seen as pushing for peace and an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. But since the Palestinian uprising for freedom was re-launched in September 2000, the peaceniks have sounded a more militant tune.
"[P]eaceniks is the wrong word here,"Irit Katriel said. "It's a word used by the Left against people like Peace Now and Meretz, who sing a song for peace and pat themselves on the back but don't really have any political analysis or views."
"I want peace, I really want peace. Do you want peace? Why don't we just make peace?" Katriel mused. "See, peace is the only political word they use. It's a negative word, at least in the eyes of those who are leftists and not peaceniks. Some peaceniks think that they are doing just what's right: avoiding anything that can complicate the issues and just saying ‘peace, peace, peace, peace.’ After all, if important people like them will repeat the word enough times, there will eventually be peace."
Human rights activist Cindy Levitt expounded on this. "I am disappointed in the short-sightedness of many Jews who are progressive on most other issues but seem to be blind about what human rights violations are occurring in Israel/Palestine."
So why hasn’t there been more outrage about the Israeli occupation of Palestinians among world Jewry?
Levitt believes that, "[I]f we could educate more Jews and others about the Occupation and the day-to-day lives of Palestinians living under it, we might see more outrage. For other Jews who do know what is going on, I believe their fear is keeping them from seeing the truth."
Not in My Name organization founder, Steven Feuerstein, stated that "Jews, by and large, are raised with very strong myths about Israel, and a ‘narrative’ that allows them to very easily dismiss the brutalities visited by Israel upon Palestinians, even Palestinian children."
For Feuerstein and others interviewed, there is no blurring of the lines between the religion of Judaism and the ideology of Zionism – the movement behind the creation of Israel in 1948.
Plitnick, who was raised in an "intensely" Zionist environment, added, "A major component of Zionism is the notion that everyone is out to kill Jews all the time.
"When you have convinced people that they are in perpetual mortal danger, any action is justified. For the masses of Jews around the world, the Palestinians have successfully been portrayed as a threat," Plitnick said.
"I was brought up believing that Zionism and Judaism were the same thing," concurred Bootzin. "I now understand how fear-based that attitude is and find myself uncomfortable towards certain parts of my Jewish ancestry."
Activist Sierra Zweig reflected, "I have struggled with being a Jew, impatient as a child with story after story of oppression and righteous indignity, incensed as an adult by Israeli aggression and the sense of entitlement that pervades the community."
"Time and again though, I returned in my mind to the efforts Jews made throughout history to promote social justice all over the world, and have decided to embrace and express my own Jewishness in this way," Zweig, also the daughter of a Quaker-schooled mother, continued.
It became clear that the individuals I was interviewing were not only well-versed about Judaism but they exuded a confidence and self-assuredness about their identities as Jews.
"I believe that the Jewish religion, in particular, teaches great respect for life and that Israel’s policies contradict the fundamental tenets of Jewish beliefs, thereby compelling [us] to act and to speak out: Israel does not do these things in my name!" said Feuerstein.
Rance adds an interesting twist, "As long as there is a state which describes itself as ‘the state of the Jewish people,’ I cannot feel fully secure as a Jew elsewhere, and it is in my immediate interest to challenge this. The dispossession of the Palestinian people and the suppression of Palestinian rights was a by-product of this attempt to accommodate anti-Jewish racism."
But with so many years of hatred and bloodshed, and with the blurred lines of Judaism and Zionism, is peace even possible?
Professor Katriel answered the question with a question. "Can you believe that a conflict can go on forever? The key is acceptance of the Palestinians, by the Israelis, as equal human beings."
"This is not going to happen very soon," said Professor Katriel. "In the immediate future, there are two possibilities: Either the Israelis and the Palestinians are left to themselves and the amount of bloodshed will be a lot worse. Or the US and Western Europe will get involved and forcefully restrain Israel before things get totally out of control."
Plitnick agreed with the concept of exhaustion and added that one thing needs to happen to move the process along: it is an acknowledgment by Israel that its birth caused a massive injustice and enormous harm to the Palestinians.
Levitt optimistically noted that peace is also possible when Israel ends the Occupation and evacuates the Israeli settlers. Further, she sees a need for anti-racism training for the Israelis. "[S]o that they can see Palestinians as people who value their families and just want to lead normal lives as they do."
And is it fair that so many around the world have linked the September 11 tragedy to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?
"Yes, absolutely," replied Zweig. "Everyone worldwide knows about the US commitment to supporting Israel with financial and military foreign aid. When Ariel Sharon took power and it became painfully obvious that Israel had no intention whatever of dealing justly with the Palestinians, our continued loyalty to the Israeli government flew more than ever in the face of the Palestinian struggle.
"This is not to say that the September 11 attacks were precipitated directly by the American/Israeli/Palestinian problem. Rather, I think, the folks in charge . . . have sought to ally their acts with the passions surrounding Palestine, in order to lend legitimacy and passion to their own cause."
Many had final words, ranging from reaching out to media to put out more stories about peaceful co-existence to urging Jews to take a moral lesson out of the Jewish Holocaust rather than fear and hatred. One person encouraged more Jews to come forward and speak out so that the inflammatory label of anti-Semitism is no longer used on those who choose to speak out.
One general theme ultimately resonated with everyone, however. "I would hope that Palestinians, progressive Jews, and Israelis continue their work toward the road to justice," Siegel concluded.
Few could disagree.
Sherri Muzher is a Palestinian-American lawyer, writer and activist based in Michigan