Harvie Branscomb: A call for substance in the Middle East debate
I just returned from Israel/Palestine – Nazareth, Tel Aviv, Hebron, Sderot, and even Eilat. Yes, Jerusalem, too. Then I read Melanie Sturm’s column “On Israel, Americans aren’t Mad Hatters” (The Aspen Times, July 21, 2011).
If you were disturbed by her characterization of the American mindset, here’s my condensed antidote to her column.
Americans who agree with Melanie that “We know that Israel’s enemies are our enemies” are confused by the effects of Israel’s “looking glass.” Such Americans see a world motivated by fear and expect our country to respond by replacing our democracy with a security or police state.
Polls may show support for “Israel,” but where does Israel end and the next state begin? Recent news suggests that Israeli sovereignty extends into Greek harbors where the American-flagged vessel the Audacity of Hope was impounded for attempting to carry letters and Americans to Gaza. Is Gaza part of Israel?
Although a state named Israel obviously exists, I find it hard to stomach its undisclosed nuclear weapons, uncertain borders and persistent violations of human rights and international law. “Right to exist” is unwise to deploy as a sound bite as is “right of return.” These concepts require description and discussion impossible here.
Here are observations from my visit to Israel/Palestine that differ from Melanie’s opinions:
• Israel isn’t necessarily liberal, isn’t always free, and is only selectively immigrant-friendly. Citizens in Israel vote and pay tax as equals, but other rights and services are not evenly shared with Palestinian Israelis. Israel’s “bedrock values” haven’t yet led to constitutionally guaranteed rights. In the occupied territories, Palestinians are governed separately from Israeli settlers. Israel deliberately terrorizes its colonial subjects with little evidence of regret. In the West Bank, Israel regularly imprisons Arabs as young as age 12 on minor pretense and extends detention indefinitely without trial. There are currently about 8,000 political prisoners in Israeli jails.
• Israel appears not to tolerate verbal or visual dissent: I watched security forces pummel and then imprison a Jewish American youth who spoke out in East Jerusalem in support of Palestinians during a parade. His mixed Jewish and Arab attire (kippah, keffiyeh) and U.S. passport all attracted attention. In another example, Israel recently detained and deported dozens of people for entering the country because of declaring Palestinian destinations. Israel also voted to criminalize the promotion of boycotts deemed undesirable. These are examples of interference with free speech that America would, one hopes, never tolerate. Israel even has considered criminalizing NGOs staffed by liberal Israelis who defiantly support Palestinian human rights.
• Israel’s failure to achieve recognition as a “legitimate nation-state at peace with its neighbors” is easily explained. Israel has yet to end its occupation of the West Bank or Gaza, where there was a strategic conversion into a blockade. Israel issues building permits for construction in Gaza because it can control the supply of construction materials. Having seen hundreds of bomb shelters in Sderot, it bothers me that Israel is able to prevent Gazans from building shelters against far more destructive American-made guided missiles. The brute force Israel can and does unleash, with our support, to control Palestinians suggests that we ought to be well-informed.
• Israelis have excuses to be unaware of Palestinians. Israelis are told not to enter the Palestinian areas. Not surprisingly, anyone who looks like they own the place can usually drive through a checkpoint, even into Israel, demonstrating that security is not the actual effect of the barrier.
But Israelis and Americans will, by staying home, probably learn about Palestinians through crude racist generalizations like Sturm’s incredible statement that “many Palestinian children prefer jihad to jobs.” Groundless and provocative myths and oversimplifications are clearly counterproductive, yet they constitute a relentless component of pro-Israel rhetoric that brands imagined Arabs as terrorists.
Palestinians under occupation experience not necessarily brutal, but deliberately obnoxious interactions with uniformed officials. They learn about Israelis from teenagers in Israel Defense Forces uniforms or border police carrying overwhelming armament, prepared to kill.
Arabs experience Israeli soldiers and settlers directly, while typical Israelis learn about Arabs from childhood stereotypes about hatred, during compulsory military service, and later from dramatic news stories. Some Israelis become part of the solution as they take time to learn about what Arabs experience and may even join in non violent protests of the occupation.
On my trip I didn’t meet any Palestinians who “hate Jews more than they love their children.” Among the people I met, all could distinguish between Israelis who support the occupation and those who support human rights. The Palestinians I met hate the occupation and colonization, not the Jews.
Let’s discard tired myths and propaganda, and start electing representatives who are dedicated to learning who is doing what to whom in the Middle East. Then let’s agree to cross our own self-imposed checkpoints to talk with each other instead of beating the drum.
Harvie Branscomb lives in Carbondale.
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