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The Little Mermaid on Highway Six

by DEB REICH

Palestinian children are not made for war, any more than Israeli children are made for war. Yet while the politicians jockey for power, our Israeli mothers go on loyally sending their children to join the army and terrorize the neighbors, as if that were a normal thing to do, believing it their duty to the nation; and Palestinian mothers continue to live in fear when their kids sneak out to throw stones at the tanks those Israeli kids are driving, and sometimes they come back in a box. Miki, a former babysitter for my children, granddaughter of a good friend, a sweet, charming girl, was conscripted into the Israeli army at 18 with all the other kids, and became a sharpshooter instructor. Her trainees, still children themselves, go out and shoot Palestinian children in the streets of Nablus or Hebron. Who can make sense of this? And what of another friend’s only son Haggai, the dreamer, the nature-lover, who will never sit under a tree again on a summer’s day, watching the clouds sail by in the sky? The Czar’s army (they call it the IDF here) got him, and ate him alive.

Indeed, the callous Israelis the Palestinians see are not the caring Israelis I know; and the one-dimensional caricatures of Palestinians the world sees in the media are not like the actual Palestinians I know, either. The Palestinians I know are regular, ordinary people, with good days and bad days like everyone else; not perfect, but human; people like me; just people. The Palestinians in the news are always either bad guys, or in mourning–either crazed perpetrators or hapless victims of violence. Why don’t the newspapers ever talk about regular Palestinians, just trying to have a life, just like you and me? A baker in Jenin bakes bread just like a baker in Kansas City or Calcutta, or Beersheba or Haifa; and some kid in Jenin named Mahmoud or Soheila eats it for breakfast with the same satisfaction your kids display, scarfing down their toast and jam in the morning. A minister friend of mine visiting Israel from the USA recently took an Israeli Jewish couple she knows to visit a Palestinian- Arab Israeli couple she knows, and the Jewish woman confided afterwards: “But their children are just like ours!” Well yeah.

Consider my friend, our brother in the quest for peace by nonviolent means, Sam Bahour, a fortysomething Palestinian-American who lives in Al Bireh (next to Ramallah) and believes in “business for peace.” You know he has to be an imaginative, creative, optimistic guy because he built a mall made mostly of glass in a town where any teenage Israeli tank commander could decide to achieve security for Israelis by shooting at someone or something in front of the Plaza Mall’s impressive glass façade, pretty much at any time. The Plaza Mall is still standing (as of this writing). I think Sam keeps it intact by voodoo. Meanwhile, whenever things heat up politically, armored vehicles, sometimes tanks, rumble through his home neighborhood at 2 or 3 or 4 AM, scaring the daylights out of his neighbors and his two young daughters. Israeli conscript soldiers not much older than Sam’s children, periodically roust pajama-clad people out of their beds to stand fuming in the street till dawn while their apartment complexes are searched for bad guys. It’s a relatively upscale neighborhood. The people in their pj’s are not very frightening types — teachers, social workers, accountants. Try to picture a parade of tanks squashing all the parked cars in YOUR neighborhood some night. Sam’s wife won’t do lunch with Israelis like Sam does occasionally — no matter how peace-seeking the Israelis proclaim themselves to be. Can you blame her?

In 2004, I left Israel with my family for California and lasted two years. I was homesick. My daughter was homesick. We came back. My son and his dad stayed there; now we’re a fractured family like many others from Israel/Palestine–but at least we were free to choose; too many are not. Sam, for instance, lives with his family in Al Bireh from visa renewal to visa renewal because he’s never been granted permanent residency–by Israel–to live in Palestine (the West Bank). What kind of chutzpah is that, making a guy crawl for permission to be with his own wife and kids? What kind of danger to the security of Israelis is posed by a visionary who builds a shopping center with a glass facade in a shoot-em-up, tank-infested, demolition-driven, besieged town? Local moms with no money bring their little kids to the Plaza Mall for free entertainment: Disney video screenings, tumbling mats in the play areas, and maybe clowns or musicians sometimes. The kids are welcome there even if their moms can’t buy anything. That’s the policy crafted by the team Sam managed for five years. Give the guy a residence permit already, you dumb bureaucrats–he’s a veritable community welfare association all by himself. (And what about the thousands more just like him? What crime are they guilty of? Breathing too regularly?)

The new Abominable Trans-Israel Highway gets me to work in under an hour these days, from my house on the coastal plain to my job near Jerusalem. (Israelis call it Kveesh Shesh, which means Highway Six). In building it, the planners did what planners do–they listened to the rich people, the corporate bigwigs, and the politicians in charge, not to the communities they were paving over. As the new state-of-the-art, privately owned commuter highway came into being, Arab towns in Israel like Taibe and Tira saw their built-up areas cut off from their agricultural fields and groves and their open reserves of land for future residential construction, by the route of the Abominable Kveesh Shesh. Environmental and social activists waged a losing struggle for several years to have the route reflect a little fairness and sanity–let the predominantly Jewish towns along the route sacrifice some of their land, too; let everyone shoulder a fair share of the burden of modernization; and put some of the route underground to let the green spaces survive, for heaven’s sake.

But no. The Kveesh Shesh planners knew they could screw the environmental lobby (virtually powerless) and of course the 1.1-million Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel with impunity. The Arab legislators in Israel’s Knesset can’t protect their constituents when the pie is unequally divided yet again, because no Israeli national administration since independence in 1948 has included any Arab party in the governing coalition. Let ’em eat the ballots their votes are cast on. One of every five citizens in the State of Israel is a Palestinian Arab (we are not talking here about Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza). Insure parity in the allocation of state resources to guarantee they get their fair share? Nah. Not even when a string of official Israeli state commissions of inquiry, year in, year out, declares that it should be done, must be done, will be done. It’s never been done. The Abominable Kveesh Shesh is only the latest concrete proof (lots and lots of concrete) of this longstanding but shortsighted policy that continually makes enemies out of neighbors trying to learn to live together. You know what the private company that owns this toll road, taking a heavy toll in so many ways, is called? Derekh Eretz. It’s a play on words in Hebrew, roughly translating as both “national road” and an idiom meaning “courtesy and consideration for others.” They can laugh about that one all the way to the bank with the blood money – pardon me, the toll money.

When I talk about this stuff with my friends in Israel or my family in the USA, nearly everyone has pretty much the same reaction: Why do I always take the side of the Palestinians? Why am I always harping on the bad things Israel does? Do I (as my own child once accused me) love the Palestinians better than I love my own family?

No. Not better. But not less, either. I guess I’ve become a Jesus freak in my old age. I love my neighbor as myself. We need each other. To create a sane, fair, prosperous future here, we need each other the way the light needs the shadow, and vice versa. Yin and yang. My enemy completes me, as some early Christian mystic once said. I don’t know why the politicians and the generals spend so much time, energy, and tax money trying to prove to us that it’s impossible to live together. The help we need is waiting right there on the other side of the wall. Ask the cousins to help us figure out how to live together. Ask Hamas. Tell ’em: Suppose we don’t want to be your enemy any more. Come sit down with us as equals and let us find the better way. -Don’t say it can’t work. Has anyone ever tried it? Isn’t there a new organization of ex-combat soldiers from both sides advocating that we do precisely that? Superior force is never more than a temporary solution; even the guys with the guns are learning that, now.

And what am I to do about the scary guard tower I pass every day on my way to work? Nowadays, I work in a nonprofit enterprise that seeks peace on several tracks: It trains Jewish and Palestinian young people and professionals to encounter the other and redesign their maps of reality to include one another’s presence in this land; it runs a primary school where Palestinian and Jewish Israeli kids can grow up together in comradeship instead of mutual fear and hate; and it runs a spiritual center where inward knowledge is tapped in the service of mutual respect and understanding between national and religious groups in conflict. To get to my office near Jerusalem, I drive right past a section of the Indescribably Obscene Separation Barrier that purports to secure my future as a peace-loving Israeli citizen. Every twenty yards or so, this wall–partially disguised with landscaping to look like any old highway noise barrier–sprouts some kind of electronic device with sensors or cameras or heaven knows what, pointed at the people living on the other side. And at the tail end of this particular stretch of Indescribably Obscene Separation Barrier is an Orwellian- looking guard tower, squat, heavy, forbidding, with medieval-looking slits behind which, I assume, sharpshooters can aim their doubtless radar-assisted, night-vision-equipped, microprocessor-enhanced weapons of small-scale but irrevocable destruction.

Sometimes I imagine stopping my car and getting out and walking up the deceptively civilized-looking, artfully landscaped incline toward this guard tower to ask the young Israelis in there to reconsider the choices that have brought them to that place, that task, that venue for war crimes and their own future PTSD. On really bad days I imagine it might be pleasant to keep walking until they shoot me, and be released to wherever Rachel Corrie is now. No more confusion about the clash of narratives. No more feeling like I have met the “Good German” and she is me. The Good German of half a century ago lived close enough to Dachau to smell the flesh burning in the ovens, but went to work every day as usual; gotta pay the rent, gotta put food on the table; she had kids to support, too. Am I her, now? If so, what shall I do about it? If not–just explain the difference, would you? Nearly all my friends cringe if I mention the Nazis, but how is perpetual humiliation and gradual starvation of an entire population any less awful than killing them quicker? In the Banality of Evil Department, who decides on the banality ratings for this or that regime of oppression?

These are the thoughts that give me no rest, so that when a holiday comes around, as Passover did recently, I am unable to celebrate lightheartedly in the ordinary way. Occasionally, as I did this time, I go through the motions, but it seems obscene, somehow. I haven’t had a normal sort of holiday feeling in years. Lately, I finally figured out why. Going about your business as usual, insofar as possible, is an act of defiance when you’re being oppressed; but when you’re the oppressor, it’s an act of indifference. The way Catholics give up meat for Lent, I seem to have given up Jewish holidays for the duration. When the last checkpoint has been dismantled, when the wall has been taken down, when all the political prisoners go free, and the neighbors can celebrate their own holidays normally again, I’ll get my holidays back. Meanwhile I write essays.

One thing is very clear to me now: Once you let the humanity of the other into your consciousness, you can never go back. I often feel like the Little Mermaid of the fable, who wanted to stay on dry land and walk on two legs. Her wish was granted, but at a price: walking around among the other humans, she was perpetually in pain, feeling as if she walked barefoot on broken glass. I think about that sometimes, driving along the Abominable Kveesh Shesh on my way to my righteous job in the peace biz, passing the Orwellian guard tower bristling with unseen weapons, catching glimpses of the cousins’ neighborhoods over there on the other side of the Indescribably Obscene Separation Wall, watched over by well- meaning youngsters in uniform, the good-hearted sons and daughters of my ordinary Israeli friends and neighbors who believe that army service is a national duty, etc., whereas to me it’s the Czar’s army, no more, no less. (Once upon a time, Jews in Europe went to great lengths to keep their kids out of the Czar’s army.) My awareness of all those good-hearted people who are persuaded that it’s necessary to send their kids to kill and die for the nation, but treasonous to dedicate their lives to learning to live harmoniously with the cousins, is worse than fragments of glass underfoot; it’s like fragments of glass in my heart.

There is no equating what Israelis suffer and what Palestinians suffer; the asymmetry is there for anyone to see. But pain is always personal. Consider my friends the T. family, whose only son was Haggai, that dreamy, nature-loving, gentle boy who liked to sit under trees and watch the clouds. He was conscripted a couple of years ago and given a bizarrely unsuitable job as a military policeman. He did his best to get transferred out of there, to no avail. Trapped! Trapped for three years in the Czar’s army. Three years is an eternity when you’re eighteen. Finally, he shot himself. At his base. On Yom Kippur. Now, when I quail at the anger my questions evoke among friends and family, when I feel like an outcast among my own kind, when I get really tired and wonder what it’s all for, I think of Haggai. We have to find a better way because we owe it to our kids. All of them, ours and theirs.

Once I asked an Israeli colleague how to get my writing out to a wider audience and he said, “Get rid of the Wise Mom tone.” I knew he was wrong, even then, and today I’m more certain than ever. The wise mom’s voice is almost the only sane voice left, as Nurit Peled-Elhanan recently told the European Parliament–fragments of glass in the heart notwithstanding. The generals and the politicians haven’t taken us anywhere worthwhile in a long, long, long time. It’s time to check out a new approach. It’s time to listen to the business-for-peace guys and the wise moms. It’s long past time.

DEB REICH is a writer and translator living in Israel/Palestine. Contact her at debmail@alum.barnard.edu .

Copyright 2006 by DEB REICH.

 

 

 

Deb Reich is a writer and translator living in Israel/Palestine, based in Jerusalem and Abu Ghosh, and the author of No More Enemies (2011). 

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