November 27, 2014

Guest Commentary: Palestine and Israel

By Linda Holtzman – professor of Journalism in the School of Communications

I want to commend Alex Brandt, The Journal Staff and most of all Hanan Rahman and Daniel Movitz for the courage to speak and write about an issue that is so divisive and confusing, the situation between Israel and Palestine.  In the post 9/11 climate, amid the ongoing tensions between Israeli and Palestine, and in the current contested U.N. proposal for Palestinan statehood—it’s almost impossible to speak out on the issue without being condemned or criticized with anger and/or righteousness.
Since 2006, I have traveled to Israel and Palestine three times to listen, interview, research, study, write and ultimately teach about what I’ve learned.  I have listened to and worked with and had meals in the homes of Israeli citizens–both Jewish and Palestinian Arabs–that live together, work for peace, and send their children to school together–in an incorporated village between Jerusualem and Tel Aviv, called Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam,  Oasis of Peace in Hebrew and Arabic.  I have done the same with human rights groups in Israel and in the Bethlehem area in the West Bank, Palestine. The refrain I hear over and over from both Israelis and Palestininans that are desperately and tirelessly working for peace is “Our anger, our disagreement, and our demonstrations are aimed towards governments–not towards people.”
In my first visit to Palestine, I met with men who among others were Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce, News Director of the Ma’an alternative Palestinian TV station, and the Dean of the School of Business at Bethlehem University.  In my ignorance, I was shocked to learn that each of these smart, reputable and non-violent men had at one time or other been arrested and incarcerated in Israeli prisons for speaking out against the Israeli occupation or for other “suspicious” activity.  Some of them were in prison for up to three months without any formal charges or court dates.  I have visited peaceful Palestininan friends in their homes and been shown the bullet holes in their houses from attacks from the Israeli army during the last Intifada.  I have spent the night in the homes of Palestinian friends and attended weddings of friends and have been an honored guest.
One of the things I’ve observed that Israelis and Palestinians have in common is that they are some of the most gracious and hospitable people I’ve ever met.
I have seen Palestinan’s land cut in half and families literally separated from each other and their land by the “Separation Wall”.  I have seen Israeli “settlements” in the West Bank, that are more like US suburbs, perched on a hilltop with paved roads and ample water supply — while the Palestinians in the village below have unpaved water and have to ration their showers.  I have driven through the checkpoints from Israel to Palestine, where young college-age Israeli soldiers have waved me through to the West Bank with no inspection when they’ve seen my American passport.  I’ve stood in line in the walking checkpoint from Palestine to Israel where I’ve seen college-age Palestinians ordered by college-age Israeli soldiers to remove their shirts and belts or to step out of line for inspection before it was determined if they could cross the checkpoint to Israel.
During my second visit, I traveled to Israel and Palestine alone and my Palestinan friend and I had a mix-up about which Palestinian check point I would be wating for him.  We realized that I was at one and he was at another–about 30 minutes from each other.  There I was, a middle age Jewish woman with a cane, on the Palestinian side of the separation wall, in an isolated area where the only people around were several Palestinian construction workers who only spoke Arabic.  Somehow, we managed to communicate and they knew my friend was on his way.  They found a chair for me, insisted that I sit in the middle of the construction area, asked me if I wanted water or a soda and treated me with warmth and respect.  I always feel safe, at least in that part of Palestine.
I know that much of the aggressive and violent actions of the Israeli government in occupied Palestine is due to past terrorism, fear of terrorism and the need to keep Israel secure.  I also know that as a result of some of the policies of the occupation many Palestininans in the West Bank have suffered economically, physically, and some with their lives.  While some of the conflict is based on this passion for Israel’s security, some of it is also based on cynical political considerations­­ — on both sides of the wall —  as well as intransigent politics in the U.S.
As a nation — we have an enormous influence on the conflict and the prospect for peace.  Because of the U.S. role and the money we spend in the region–we as citizens have an equally enormous responsibility to be informed. But how?
I agree with Hanan and Daniel, that as U.S. citizens, we are often so very ignorant about the history, the people, the polticial conflict, and the situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine as well as the role of the United States.  We generally have access only to what we learn from American media and that is at best woefully incomplete and at worse completely inaccurate.  We can each only do our part.  As Daniel said, “…I think it needs to start with us both being nicer”, and as Hanan said, “I feel like they (Webster students) are unaware…They really don’t reflect on what’s going on globally”.
There are some things we can do about that.  Next semester, I will be offering an online course that will be a “virtual” study trip of Israel and Palestine with video footage from both sides of the wall, interviews, and some “real time” conversations with Israelis and Palestininans.  I hope at some point to be able to take a group of Webster students on a study trip to Israel and Palestine to be able to see, first-hand, the extraordinary beauty, the ancient land and monuments, the conflict, and the personal joy and suffering that is so much a part of the land.

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