Penny Rosenwasser is a Jewish American peace activist who refuses to accept a single label of being either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. “For me, it’s about supporting the survival of both peoples,” she says. “There’s no contradiction there.” Rosenwasser, affiliated with A Jewish Voice for Peace and the Middle East Children’s Alliance, has lead four women’s peace delegations to Palestine and Israel. Rosenwasser has been travelling in the U.S. giving presentations on “The Face of Re-Occupation.”
Quigley: When you say you are a supporter of both Israel and Palestine, does that confuse people?
Rosenwasser: It does sometimes, and I think it speaks to the dualism that we are taught in this country. We see it in the way Bush articulates foreign policy: “You’re either with us or against us.” But Palestinian lives can be as valuable as Israeli lives, and it doesn’t take anything away from Israelis to say that Palestinians are also human beings. For me, it’s about supporting the survival of both peoples. There’s no contradiction there.
As a Jew, I very strongly support the survival of Jewish people. We’ve been through a lot: there’s been so much persecution over thousands of years, including sixty years ago when a third of our people were annihilated. I feel the grief around suicide bombings just as much as I hold my grief around what’s been going on in Palestinian lives. But it’s not a contradiction for me as a human being, as a woman and as a Jew, to also support Palestinian survival.
Quigley: Is there a real chance for peace?
Rosenwasser: There are leaders on both sides who could negotiate a just peace right now. Every poll that comes out says two-thirds of Israelis support evacuating most of the settlements, and support a Palestinian state. The same amount of Palestinians support an end to violence and a start of negotiations for a sovereign Palestinian state.
As to the terms of a just peace, I follow the leadership of the Israeli peace movement. The main thing is ending the occupation, which means retreating to the 1967 borders, so that the Palestinians can again control the West Bank and Gaza. It means sharing Jerusalem, meaning that every group, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, would have access to their holy site. There must be evacuation of the settlements on Palestinian land and a negotiation that is mutually agreeable on the right of return (of Palestinian refugees). It will be tricky, but both sides so much want a just peace, I definitely think it is possible.
Quigley: What is the U.S. role in resolving the conflict?
Rosenwasser: The U.S. has been such an ally for Israel in terms of offering aid and really giving (Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon the green light for everything he is doing. If the U.S. took a strong stand and said that we are going to condition military aid on ending occupation and removing the settlements, it would happen.
The Palestinians are asking for a contiguous state, a sovereign state, a state that allows them to build some sort of economy. The U.S. has complete power to pressure for that to happen.
As U.S. taxpayers, we really need to be aware of where that $3 billion we give in aid to Israel every year is going. Out of that $3 billion, 75% is required to go to American weapons manufacturers who make the F-16 planes, who make the bullets, who make the Apache helicopters. When doctors in Palestine operate on children who have been shot and take the bullets out of their bodies, the bullets say “Made in the U.S.A.” That’s what our tax money is going for.
Quigley: Sometimes we hear the allegation that the Palestinians were offered 95% of what they were asking for in negotiations with then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton, but Arafat refused it.
Rosenwasser: That is a lie. It’s the work of the Israeli propaganda machine. The closest we came to peace was in Taba, Egypt (in January 2001) when Clinton was trying desperately to pull off an agreement at the last minute. Israel was still going to keep bypass roads, huge highways that cut right through Palestinian villages, and there was not a plan to dismantle lots of the settlements. It would be like an enemy army having villages and towns right through the middle of Indianapolis, and you couldn’t go across town to visit your family. That’s the kind of state that would have been set up.
Quigley: How strong is the Israeli peace movement?
Rosenwasser: Last May, there were 100,000 Israelis in the streets in a peace rally calling for an end to the occupation. There are Israeli groups that are rebuilding Palestinian homes that the Israeli army has destroyed. There are Israeli groups bringing humanitarian aid past the tanks and guns and into Palestinian villages. One of the big movements is the “refuseniks,” over 500 Israeli soldiers who have signed a statement that they will no longer serve in an occupation army that is oppressing Palestinians.
Women are the heart of the Israeli peace movement. One of their slogans is “We refuse to be enemies,” and they build alliances with Palestinian women. My friend Terry Greenblat, the leader of an Israeli peace group called Bat Shalom, and her Palestinian counterpart Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas spoke before the UN Security Council last May, calling for the creation of a women’s peace commission. We believe that women understand peacemaking in a particular way. I think it is a real cause of hope that together they are building this joint women’s movement.
Quigley: What is your presentation on “The Face of Reoccupation” about?
Rosenwasser: I’m trying to humanize the situation, just trying to show more of what’s really happening. During my first trip in 1989, I was so moved by the humanity of the Palestinian people because it was in such contradiction to what I heard from the media of them as the “other,” the enemy, terrorists. I just feel this responsibility as a Jew to humanize Palestinian people as my cousins, and help American people see them as human beings just like folks down the block.
I hope that the humanizing effect happens when you see the slide of a 13-year- old West Bank boy named Hassan in a wheelchair. I asked him what happened to him and he said, “I was playing outside my village and I saw some soldiers far in the distance. The next thing I knew, 5 bullets were in my body.” One of the bullets severed his spinal cord and he will never walk again.
I want to emphasize that I am in no way wanting to minimize the oppression that has happened to Jewish people over thousands of years. There is a reason Jewish people are afraid, there is a reason we want security. We’ve been terrorized and terrified, and that has been passed down through our families. And the Palestinian people are being terrorized right now by the Israeli army, and there is a reason they want security, too.
Both narratives are legitimate. Accepting one does not mean we have to deny the other, it just means we have to open our hearts bigger and allow room for all of these stories. I’ve met a lot of Israelis and Palestinians who have these open hearts and can hold all of that. And I think Americans can, too.
FRAN QUIGLEY writes for the Indianapolis alternative paper, Nuvo. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org