I am the son of a Palestinian father. Through countless stories about his family, I absorbed the ethic that the strong must help the less fortunate.
My grandfather, Hanna Ibrahim Bisharat — “Papa” to us — was fluent in Arabic, English, French, German and Turkish and had studied agriculture in Switzerland before World War I. He began introducing mechanized farming to Palestine and dreamed of establishing his own agriculture school. During World War I, our family harbored Australian and New Zealander soldiers who, while fighting the Turks in Palestine, were caught behind enemy lines. They offered refuge to a Syrian sheik who was fleeing powerful enemies. During the riots in Palestine in 1929, Papa sheltered Jewish friends in his stately home in the Talbiyeh quarter of West Jerusalem. Little did he expect that this home would be expropriated in 1948 and serve as the home of Golda Meir — she of the famous quip that the Palestinian people “did not exist.”
Christian soldiers, a Muslim sheik, Jewish neighbors — they were all human beings in need, and we were blessed to be able to help them.
My Palestinian family, in its tradition of compassion and hospitality, is not exceptional. During my last trip to the West Bank, I met a man whose parents had been driven out of what became Israel in 1948 and had settled in the Balata refugee camp outside Nablus. The Friday before, as he was taking his son to prayer, an Israeli tank suddenly wheeled into their empty street, spewing heavy machine-gun fire. The man saw his son stumble, then plunge face first into the stairs ahead of him. When the father reached him, the boy had swallowed his teeth and blood blossomed across his shirt. Within minutes he turned blue, his internal organs destroyed. Amid Abu Sayr, age 7, died before reaching the hospital. No protests nor disturbances had preceded this incident, and no one could explain the tank gunner’s zeal.
As the father related this to me and my companions, he saw my eyes film with tears. Then this humble man — a mechanic, as I recall — embraced me and patted my back. Two days after the most searing experience of his life, he offered comfort to me. “Just tell the world how they stole my heart,” he whispered gently. I was reminded, yet again, of the deep courage, resilience and magnanimity of the Palestinian people.
I am also the son of an American mother, who is from an early settler family. Our ancestor, Samuel Johnson, participated in this country’s constitutional convention. From my mother’s side I took the ethic of civic responsibility — the conviction that in a democratic society, we are the government and that when we fail to exercise true popular sovereignty (by educating ourselves, voting, challenging political leaders and speaking out) we lose the right to call ourselves a free people.
Both of these family traditions meld in my concern over Middle East peace.
I have already suggested that the United States should respectfully counsel Israel to abandon ethnic separatism and embrace equality. Not the equality and pluralism among Jews from different origins that Judea described the other day, but equality between Jews and Palestinians and among all human beings, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity.
I understand why some Jews turned to the vision of ethnic separatism that Zionism offered, particularly after World War II; the reasons are obvious. But Zionism has been a tragic deviation from Jewish universalist ethics, a never-ending nightmare for Palestinians and a source of tension and instability in the Middle East and the broader world. A growing number of Jews and even some prominent Israelis — like Avram Burg, Meron Benvenisti and Daniel Gavron — concur in this assessment.
What does it say that the most prosperous and secure Jewish community in the world is here in the multicultural United States, flourishing under a regime of equal rights, while the Jews of Israel, armed to the teeth, live in chronic insecurity and are fortifying an apartheid wall?
Those who have dominated others always resist losing their monopoly of power and fear vengeance from those they have oppressed. White South Africans defended apartheid on just those grounds. But as South Africa has shown, a blood bath need not ensue, especially when the movement for political change is firmly committed, as was the African National Congress, to equality and reconciliation. If Israelis could muster the courage to admit moral responsibility for the injustices they have inflicted on the Palestinians, they could not find a more forgiving and generous people.
Israelis have comforted themselves over time with a series of myths, among them: that Palestine was a “land without people for a people without a land;” that the indigenous Arabs they encountered upon arriving in Palestine were little but a scattering of individuals with no sense of collective identity (as Judea put it a few days ago, peasants who had never heard the word “sovereignty”); that the settlers’ European outlook and culture made them superior custodians of the country; that Jewish settlers knew the country’s landscape even better than the Palestinians who had cultivated it for centuries; and that Palestinians loved their fields, orchards, villages and towns less than Zionist colonizers, and thus, fled in 1948 not in response to the massacres, rapes and systematic campaign of terror mounted by Jewish militias, but simply walked away from them to mysteriously disappear. The first step toward genuine equality between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs involves liberation from this colonialist mind-set.
I am impelled in equal parts by foreboding and hope. Far from modeling equality for Israel, the United States instead is following the Israeli model of a permanent “war on terror.” Now, like Israel, we have our military occupation of an Arab country. Israeli jurists counsel our State Department on the legal justifications for targeted assassinations. Israeli colonels train our Iraq-bound Marines in urban warfare tactics developed in the Jenin refugee camp. Israeli security contractors teach American police chiefs and airport personnel how to racially profile Arab and Muslim travelers. Israeli policymakers — who strongly supported the Iraq invasion — now egg our leaders on to a new confrontation with Iran.
There is only pain ahead for everyone on this path of confrontation and violence. We must find a way back from the brink and guide Israel back with us. Nothing could enhance the security of the United States more than a just and therefore durable peace in Israel and Palestine.
I am hopeful. In the West’s shame over the Nazi Holocaust, we relaxed our normal skepticism and, deferring to Zionism’s demands, accepted principles we would have denied anywhere else. But more people are recognizing that a Jewish state built on expulsion, repression and ethnic privilege will never know rest. Justice, equality and mutual respect are the salvation of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Ahead, perhaps distantly, a bright future awaits them.
George E. Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.