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Jewish-Only Communities, Imprisoned Palestinians: What an African-American Delegation Witnessed in the Holy Land

What happens when people who grew up in the segregated south with fire bombings and lynchings engage with Palestinians living in the West Bank?
 
 
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Protesters supporting Palestinian statehood confront Israeli soldier in a demonstration in Al-Walaja, Sept. 16, 2011.
Photo Credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

The recent war between Hamas and Israel was fought not only in the bloodied cities and refugee camps of a huge civilian population and in vulnerable cities and towns of Israel, but also on newsfeeds and social media. In the papers, the websites and twitter feeds, reports and analysis of the Gaza war rarely revealed any context and no reports of the deadly siege and frequent incursions that have crippled Gaza for years. Reporters and politicians often spoke with a level of racism and disregard for Palestinian civilians that should be disconcerting to anyone who values human life and the right of people to resist oppression.

The Israeli attack seemed triggered by an increasingly belligerent Prime Minister Netanyahu threatening to extract a “heavy price” if Palestinians renewed their bid for observer status at the UN as he also positioned himself for reelection. Post-UN vote, this threat was followed by the promise of renewed settlement building, particularly in the critical area of E1 which would effectively cut the West Bank into two noncontiguous segments, and the withholding of tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

All this raises serious questions in the Jewish community and for our allies. For instance, for decades, African Americans and Jews in the US have united in the long battle for equality and civil rights, stood together fighting racism and anti-Semitism, and also proudly supported the State of Israel. At the same time, African Americans are feeling increasing pressure to stand with their Jewish brothers and sisters, despite difficult concerns about the policies of the Israeli government towards Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Case in point, Stevie Wonder’s booking at the Friends of the IDF event sponsored by Haim Saban, an Israeli-American TV and media mogul on the West Coast, stirred up enough controversy that Wonder canceled his appearance after major public pressure.

So what happens when a delegation of African-American civil rights leaders, theologians, scholars, and activists, (many of whom are Jewish,) under the leadership of the Dorothy Cotton Institute (DCI)and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., travels to the Holy Land? What happens when people who grew up in the segregated south with fire bombings, lynchings, as well as bus boycotts and nonviolent marches, engage with Palestinians living in the West Bank?

Together we witnessed the Jewish settler-only communities, roads and buses, the system of permits and closures that imprisons the Palestinian population, the racially based zoning practices and house demolitions, the confrontations between unarmed protesters tear gassed and beaten by heavily militarized soldiers. Together we also met with Palestinians and their Israeli allies steeped in the spirit of Gandhi and King and deeply committed to nonviolent resistance against occupation, segregation, and discrimination. Beyond Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, the churches of Bethlehem, the breathtaking West Bank hills, (also known as the Judean hills), and the upscale Tel Aviv beaches, a world was revealed that raised troubling questions about racism, colonialism, and apartheid, a world that resonated deeply with people who had lived it all before. While national leaders and the US media paint a picture of an Israel under siege and a Palestinian population committed to violence and terrorism, the DCI Palestinian/Israeli Nonviolence Project found this to be a deeply inaccurate picture.

Take the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, currently struggling to keep its rocky terraces, olive trees, and access to water while the nearby Jewish settlement of Halamish continues its relentless expansion. Since 1967 villagers have watched their lands and their water, their ability to travel, farm, raise their growing families, attend university, not to mention lead a normal predictable life, constricted by continued land grabs, military incursions, home invasions, arrests, and detention.

Last month, Rushdi Tamimi, an unarmed Nabi Saleh villager, died while protesting Israel’s attack on Gaza. The IDF soldiers fired rubber bullets into Rushdi’s back and steel bullets into his gut, and then slammed his head with a rifle butt.

The popular nonviolent resistance was born in 2009 when villagers planted olive trees on their own land and the Jewish settlers ripped them out. Since that time 150 villagers have gone to jail for up to 14 months, including 33 children. Three hundred people have been wounded or injured, 40% children, and 13 houses are under demolition order.

One Friday in October, the DCI delegation met with a group of protesters, waving flags, carrying handwritten banners, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” “A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.” MLK was alive and well. The chanting protesters marched towards the Israeli soldiers who started firing tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets.

We were there in solidarity, initially joining the marchers and then watching the demonstration from a balcony high on a hill. Villagers shared their stories of injuries and death, arrests and repeated detention in Israeli jails. They talked of soldiers entering the village nightly to intimidate and awaken the sleeping townsfolk with sound grenades, lights, and dogs. There are five villages of 15,000 people that rely on a local well that is “shared” with the Jewish settlements. The Palestinians are allotted one day a week for seven to twelve hours to fill their water tanks; the settlers have 24-hour access. The US delegates reflected on their similar experiences in Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s.

The pain of that day in Nabi Saleh was broken by a sharing of song from deep inside ourselves. Vincent Harding’s resonant voice inspired us: “We shall not be moved, just like a tree standing by the water, we shall not be moved.” The Palestinians began a series of rousing melodies, laughing, taking photos, sharing our joyful voices, common humanity and determination. Bearing witness to realities on the ground rather than the tightly controlled image of the “only democracy in the Middle East,” we are confronted by questions rooted in our own civil rights movement: How do we hold the power of nonviolent resistance in a violent world? How do we support Palestinians who are facing an escalating but largely invisible racist and militant Jewish state? How do the leaders of our own civil rights movement share their experiences and support with Palestinians and Israelis who refuse to be enemies? How will this change the relationship between African Americans and an increasingly fractured and agonized Jewish community?

With segregation and discrimination growing in Israel and a Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement on the rise, now is the time for Jews and African Americans to stand together in another long march to justice.

 

Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician, author, and filmmaker who is active in the US Jewish peace movement.

 
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