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Put Yourself In Their Shoes: Taking Obama Seriously for Nakba at 65

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

By Robert Cohen

Put yourself in their shoes,” said President Obama. “Look at the world through their eyes.”

Good idea. And easily the best lines in his Jerusalem speech deliveredon 21st March.

Put yourself in their shoes.

It was a direct challenge to Jewish Israelis (and Diaspora Jews too).

Look at the world through their eyes.

But how hard is it to imagine the world of the Palestinian ‘other’?

Today – May 15 – marks the 65th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba – ‘Catastrophe’. The date follows one day after the anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. What better moment to take seriously the Obama shoe-swapping challenge.

I thought I’d try the experiment by revisiting that speech in Jerusalem since it contains a near pitch-perfect rendition of the Zionist telling of Jewish history.

Here are a few sentences that now demanded revisiting.

“For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the State of Israel wound through countless generations.” said Obama.

So how does that familiar statement seem to me now as I walk around in my borrowed shoes?

Well, I can’t help but spot the verbal sleight of hand as God’s “promise” gets retrospectively upgraded from a biblical homeland to a modern State.

But then I shouldn’t blame Obama for getting confused about this. After all, my fellow Jews from across the globe have also become muddled on the topic. We have happily accepted the fusing together of religious concepts of ‘exile’ and ‘return’ with 19th century ethnic nationalism and then happily bolted on our own special take on European colonialism and justified it all through a clumsy reading of our own prayer book liturgy. With my Palestinian outlook, the consequences of all this start to look much clearer.

Then there was this: “Through it all, the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home.”

But as a Palestinian would I not question how much ‘return’ actually took place during all those centuries of ‘longing’? My Jewish learning could give my Palestinian alter-ego the explanation for this historical discrepancy.

Wasn’t exile rather more than a geographical condition? Wasn’t ‘return’ a messianic concept that meant even a physical presence in the Holy Land did not guarantee the end of exile. Isn’t that what our rabbis taught us over two millennia, until Zionism took hold of our thinking?

Never mind, Obama was on a roll by now: “…the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea — to be a free people in your homeland.”

With my Palestinian eyes this too might jar with me. I might want to ask the president where he thinks this leaves the six million American Jewish citizens who consider the United States to have fulfilled the “dream of true freedom,” giving them self-determination unparalleled in 2,000 years of Jewish history. Why have the vast majority stubbornly stayed there, apparently against their best interests?

After so much flattery about the achievements of the State of Israel (business, cultural and scientific), I would have been pleasantly surprised that Obama finally got around to mentioning the Palestinians.

However, I would have noticed that, unlike the Jewish story, the Palestinians were not accorded the grand sweep of history in the telling of their narrative. And the president’s description of the birth of Israel itself made no mention of terror tactics and murder, the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of families, the deliberate destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages and the blatant grab of Palestinian land – all carried out under the fog of war and the justification of Jewish national liberation.

The story of the 1948 Nakba was easily available to Obama. And if he could not bring himself to accept Palestinian accounts, or preferred to dismiss them as so much Arab propaganda, he could have flicked through the works of numerous Jewish Israeli historians writing over the last thirty years.

If confronting the truth of the 1948 Nakba isn’t what ‘looking at the world through their eyes’ means, then what’s the point of the exercise?

So finally, we come to the half-dozen sentences that got me started and that gave the speech some political bite and the president a small degree of credibility as a broker for peace.

“Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer.”

With my Palestinian eyes and ears I would probably have thought that this list was not even the half of it. What about the cleansing of Palestinian homes in annexed East Jerusalem? What about the continuing confiscation of Palestinian land in the 60% of the West Bank that Israel controls entirely? What about discriminatory planning regulations, house demolitions, the appropriation of water resources, military courts, the unilateral expansion of Jewish settlements in continuing breach of international law?

And then there’s Gaza.

No mention of the on-going blockade of land, sea and air that stifles any chance of normal economic development.

And did he mention the rights of Palestinians in Israel itself? Immigration laws, marriage laws, employment discrimination, education policies, town planning?

With Palestinian eyes and Palestinian shoes, all of this is what makes the Nakba not just a moment in time but an on-going catastrophe.

And so it becomes clear, as I put my own shoes back on, why Obama’s plea for empathy is such a radical challenge for Jewish Israelis (and certainly for Diaspora Jews as well).

Once you take Obama seriously, and try out the shoe-swapping thought exercise, it becomes clear what is stopping our ethical imagination from understanding Palestinian suffering.

It is the Palestinian story that messes with our sense of identity and the privileged entitlement to what we insist on calling the ‘Land of Israel’. Their counter-narrative to Zionism with its language (and experience) of colonialism, dispossession, exile and apartheid is such a fundamental challenge to our story of eternal victimhood and biblical destiny that it cannot be acknowledged without (as I discovered for myself) everything starting to unravel.

Our national renewal, our redeemed homeland, our resurrection from the ashes of Europe, was paid for not with reparations from post-war West Germany, or arms from the Soviet Union, or aid from America. The invoice was sent to the Palestinians.

But none of this can be accepted into Jewish consciousness. For the Jewish narrative to remain intact, every Palestinian must remain a would-be terrorist afflicted with the latest mutation of anti-Semitism. Even non-violent opposition, from economic boycotts to prisoner hunger strikes, are seen as just another form of terror and an existential attack on the Jewish people.

And if, as a Jew, you do choose to take Obama’s words seriously you soon find yourself in hot water with your own community and your own family. Such has been the success of the Zionist narrative, that to choose to see the world through Palestinian eyes immediately places you at the dissenting margins of the Jewish community, easily dismissed and easily ignored.

For myself, I refuse to accept that my views have disenfranchised me from Judaism or the Jewish community. My position of solidarity with the Palestinian people is not borne out of enmity to my own people but from a commitment to Jewish values and Jewish well-being.

I care about what the Jewish community says and does when it comes to Israel/Palestine. I care about its pronouncements, I care about its silence, I care about its denial and its indifference.

To ‘put yourself in their shoes and see the world through their eyes’ is a huge ask. For me it has meant overcoming my own racism and prejudice to allow myself to hear Palestinian voices and accept the validity of their story. It’s become an exercise in un-installing the cultural software in my head.

As it turns out, I don’t think Obama takes his own words seriously enough.If he did, the first thing he would need to do is to re-write his whole speech to tell a more rounded and truthful story about how Jews and Palestinians have faced each other for the last hundred years and more.

I believe the Jewish future is dependent on us upholding what the Jewish Liberation theologian Marc Ellis describes as: Jewish prophetic consciousness. That can only mean hearing and seeing the Palestinian narrative and allowing it to shape a new post-Zionist Jewish self-understanding. That doesn’t mean supporting a second Holocaust in Israel but it does mean growing beyond an ethnocentric State to a nation that respects the rights and national stories of all of its citizens.

Right now, that looks like the only way to rescue the Hebrew covenant.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Micah’s Paradigm Shift.

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