Walls Can Come Down

We want everything, everything, everything

Other men aspire to.

What another’s entitled to we’re entitled to too.

– lyric excerpt of “Everything,” from The Rothschilds musical (Brock & Harnick, 1970)

There is an emergency in Palestine right this very moment, but most internationalists are too caught up in our own entitlements, our own misunderstood history based on Broadway mythologies and Western distortion, to act with the intensity that is warranted. Unless solidarity and struggle shifts into high gear fast, there may be no averting the tragedy already in the making — one on a scale which dwarfs what has come before. These are the thoughts that whirl through this author’s head on traveling to the Middle East with my just-turned 13-year-old son, my daughter, and my partner.

A 21st century family trip to Israel, whatever one’s beliefs, should be filled with the wonder of any visit to ancient sites studded with history and spirit. When one has been brought up a Brooklyn-based, Bar Mitzvahed Jew, this dynamic can be especially poignant — even when brought up with enough theological ambiguity that includes “strict” keeping of three sets of dishes: one for dairy, one for meat, and a steady supply of paper plates for non-kosher pork and shellfish! Despite tendencies towards agnosticism in my teen years, it is hard to break the sense that what most of the world calls “the Holy Land” is actually, for us chosen people, “the Promised Land” which might just be our one true home. Embracing ones cultural heritage and parental foibles while rejecting Zionism as a form of Xenophobia and racism still doesn’t quite break those old, entrenched ties that bind. Those well-taught tales of every manner of persecution maintain deep-seated pockets of entitlement: we were ghettoized and survived so we are entitled to the wealth of the world; we were subject to one of the most successful attempts at modern genocide and survived so we are entitled to a land of our own even if others are living there.

Evidencing Entitlement: A View from Outside

Still, when one stands face-to-face with a piece of a wall which once stood near a sacred temple two thousand years ago, when one walks on the streets where Jesus of Nazareth took his last steps, when one ponders the ground where Abraham brought his son to sacrifice, where Muhammad instructed his followers to pray in the direction of from the very foundation of Islam, it is hard to stay devoutly secular and politically dispassionate amidst all the spiritual echoes. It may be hard for outsiders to reckon with the fact that Jerusalem is not a museum but a modern-day city, complete with traffic jams and screaming taxi drivers, with haggling over the price of things and scams ripping off the unsuspecting, even by people dressed in the most religions of robes.

My son Michael Del, clear in his own path that he is not necessarily even a monotheist, wrote a research paper for the occasion of his first teenage birthday on the ways in which religion and Judaism have been used as forces for liberation and oppression. Citing the prominent Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, who his Pan African pacifist grand-father Bill Sutherland worked with in the formation of the World Peace Brigades, Michael Del wrote:

“Martin Buber believed that the people of Palestine should not be affected in any negative way by the creation of Israel. Buber himself was an exile from Nazi Germany who settled in Palestine, on land which would become Israel after World War Two. Buber felt that people’s liberation required the freedom to be able to acquire land, a powerful group of young people to settle the land, and the principle of self-determination—in his case, of the Jewish community, being able to go about its own way of life. I don’t agree with all of those. I believe more in the Native American view of land and land ownership: that land is owned by no one but the earth and can only be used by those who need it. I strongly agree, however, with his point about Palestinians. Buber wrote: ‘Jewish settlement must oust no Arab peasant, Jewish immigration must not cause the political status of the present inhabitants to deteriorate, and must not continue to ameliorate their economic condition.’ He said ‘we have to face the reality that Israel is neither innocent nor redemptive.’”

Michael Del also quoted prominent US-based Palestinian activist Riham Barghouti of Adalah-NY in noting the information basic to anti-occupation advocates. It is no coincidence that he met Riham at a conference in Puerto Rico looking critically at the situation of colonialism and settler-ism today.

  • * In 1948, over 500 villages and over 750,000 Palestinians were displaced by the formation of Israel;
  • * A Palestinian who has lived in Palestine for their entire life (or for generations back) does not necessarily have access to land or even have citizenship while a person of Jewish descent living anywhere in the world can move to Israeli or Occupied Palestine, and gain immediate citizenship for themselves, their spouses, their children, and their children’s spouses;
  • * There are at least 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners today, including children younger than 12 and many in “administrative detention” without formal charge;
  • * Israeli “settlements” — mini-colonies, really — continue to grow despite their illegality according to the agreements Israel itself signed under the 1994 Oslo accords.

In spite of those basic facts, so many of Jewish heritage or belief, especially in the US and other parts of the Diaspora, fail to take up the cause of peace and justice in the Middle East and in fact turn silent or worse when facing these issues which are particularly and peculiarly our responsibility. What becomes clear when on a family trip in 2013, in the context of growing calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the State of Israel responsible for growing injustice, is not so much the continued sense of entitlement which so many Jews still feel, able to ignore these facts and enjoy the fruits of others peoples land and labor, but — more seriously — the urgent and emergency nature of time running out to forestall even greater and longer-lasting catastrophes.

Evidencing Emergency: A View from Inside

Learning about the life of anti-militarist Noam Gur helps explain the deep contradictions of modern Israel. Critical of the occupation, this young woman — who is a dog lover, vegan, and nonviolent activist with the feminist-oriented New Profile movement — decided she could only remain true to her conscience by refusing to serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

The draft in Israel is compulsory for all men and women, though the regulations for the service of women remain a bit complicated. Women can avoid conscription by simply stating, without substantiation, that they are observant Orthodox Jews and that military service does not fit their “way of life.” This does not make then pacifists, or objectors to the structural or personal violence deeply laden in Israeli society; New Profile has one campaign against what they call “the gun on the table,” when male IDF veterans take their issues of frustration out at home in highly militarized ways. Conscientious objectors like Gur get the weight of the Israeli judicial system thrown at them, as she served several concurrent prison terms for her own peace position. As one progressive Israeli blog site, +972 Magazine, put it, if Gur was willing to lie about her faith, she would just slip away. But by choosing to tell the truth and be conscientious about her belief in truth and justice, Gur becomes a pariah. “That’s life for you in the Jewish State pretending to be democratic,” wrote +972 author Yossi Gurvitz. “There is no conscience, there are only religious edicts.”

No moment of our brief time before passing over into Palestine’s West Bank saw relief from anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-UN, and extremely anti-Palestinian propaganda, comments, asides, and assumptions. Despite being the victors, with control of one of the world’s largest militaries, the full police and state apparatus, untold diverse religious, social, cultural, media, and political institutions, there is a permanent persecution complex which permeates all life under Zionism. There is no liberation on the land mixed up in ancient histories, contested dreams, and stolen property.

There is wonder, no doubt, on the spaces in old Jerusalem where so many memories from so many people have collided over so many thousands of years. But while Jewish, Muslim, and Christian inhabitants of the old city find ways to get along with their daily lives and differences, the divergences and dichotomies of a peace not yet obtained make movement for any visitor a matter of some tension. If anything, however, though there is some relief from the highly charged atmosphere once one crosses the security check point into the Palestinian Territory of Bethlehem, the sense of tragedy increases as it is easy to see how a new form of colonialism is being played out on a grand scale. Bethlehem has been invaded; Bethlehem is surrounded.

Based in nearby Beit Sahur with nonviolent direct actionist, human rights author, and master biologist Mazin Qumsiyeh, an eagle-eye view of occupation reveals that the “fences make good neighbors” rationale of Israel’s separation wall is little more than a thinly veiled international public relations scam. What has come to be known as the “apartheid wall” marks nothing which could logically be called a border — whether internationally recognized or not. What the wall is is an ever-changing zigzag of concrete springing up whenever and wherever there is a piece of arable land, access to water, high ground, or desired space which the Israeli government wants to confiscate. There is no West Bank Palestinian Territory; there are only temporary spaces not yet enclosed by a quickly expanding series of Israeli military, settler, or economic bases.

In addition to bearing witness to the political devastation which these colonial endeavors bring, Mazin, his wife Jessie, and a network of students, scholars and grassroots community folks chronicle the environmental and ecological impact of this rapidly changing landscape. Few places showcase these changes, however, as dramatically as the ghost towns of Hebron. Located deep in the southern section of the West Bank, walking through the marketplace of downtown Hebron is a desolate affair, with many shops abandoned because of the violence and many more forcibly closed by Israeli decree because of their close proximity to the mini-colonies (“settlements” is a poor term for these opportunistic land grabs). It is bad enough to see makeshift roofing constructed by some Palestinian shop-keepers to safeguard against trash and bottles and urine being thrown down from adjacent Israeli high rise apartments above the market; far worse is the sight of storefronts sealed and locked by government decree and marked with the Star of David to signal that no Palestinian need return here to reclaim lost goods, business, or livelihood.

Human rights defender and founder of the Arab Nonviolence Network Issa Amro, who has been jailed and had his life threatened numerous times over the past two years, spoke of how campaigns to “open the street” have only been met by hostility from new Jewish residents (many from Brooklyn and elsewhere in the US), who have sealed off the center of town such that native Palestinians who have lived in town for generations can no longer walk down simple paths from one part of town to another. As internationals, we took the walk through the Jewish neighborhood lined with posters and murals about the murderous “Arabs,” itself a ghost-like community filled with fear. Amro, who has been part of the Youth against Settlements movement, spoke of a recent direct action involving participants wearing Martin Luther King masks and sporting “I Have a Dream” tee-shirts during the time when US President Obama was visiting Tel Aviv. Marching peacefully down one of the streets closed to Palestinians, the protesters urged Obama to visit the West Bank community which has, in their words, become a “museum of apartheid” being lived out day to day.

Hebron also serves as a center of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an international pacifist presence which helps document and accompany Palestinian community members — especially the youth — through their trials and travails. Just days after our visit, a five-year-old boy made world headlines when he was arrested for accidentally hitting an empty car, throwing pebbles in the wrong part of town. Picked up by the heavily armed Israeli Defense Force soldiers and escorted to his home, he and his father — who, as part of regular detention policy, was handcuffed and blindfolded — were then brought to the officials of the local Palestine Authority who nominally police and manage the non-Israeli part of the city on behalf of the governing Israeli authorities. CPT is just one of the many non-governmental organizations whose rapid outcry helped frame the response: only children aged twelve and up should be detained for such “potentially violent” behavior. Aside from the multiple absurdities of a society losing its sense of ethics, it was difficult for this commentator not to wonder: shouldn’t there be Jewish Peacemaker Teams, speaking out in our voices against the violence and injustices being brought forth using our symbols, putting our bodies on the line against our own kin in a battle not of religion, culture, or lifestyle, not of nationality, ethnicity or race, but of basic justice and fairness against colonial expansion, imperialism, and theft?

In Ramallah, the quasi-official center of the Palestinian Authority which so many grassroots folks we spoke to clearly thought of as a primarily collaborationist force, the organization Addameer chronicles the massive rate of incarceration across Israel and Palestine: from the temporary detention of youth to the long-term holding of political prisoners incarcerated for their beliefs and for their work for Palestinian liberation. Director Sahar Francis spoke if the close to 5000 political prisoners monitored by her group; there have been over a quarter of a million since 1948. Together we pondered the similarities between the ways in which the Israeli and the US governments criminalize and persecute (and sometimes prosecute) activities which they deem unacceptable. A joint video statement was issued on July 4, 2013, to signify our mutual solidarity and the hopes for a world independent of colonies, free of apartheid-type racist segregation, with freedom for all political prisoners.

For many, however, the core issue of Palestinian rights and justice centers around the question not just of land but of long-term residency; what will become of the refugees displaced over the past sixty-five years? Bedil, the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, has detailed the over thirty different Israeli laws which differentiate between Israeli citizenship, Israeli nationality, and others. These laws effectively create a Jewish-specific, Euro-centric national status which puts certain people atop a labyrinth of others to form a dominant, superior social caste. “For many,” noted Bedil Administrative Organizer Lubnah Shomali, “the talk of a 1948 catastrophe — in Arabic known as the Nakba — has never ended. For many, as land continues to be taken at ever-increasing rates with little legal ability to fight back, what we face is an ongoing Nakba.”

Despite growing global support for basic Palestinian human rights, and a growing sense of solidarity with the people of Palestine among US-based peace activists including many of Jewish descent, there is still not a true sense of emergency — that the current rate of colonial expansion could lead to something as fierce as ethnic cleansing and as outrageous as a “final solution” to the Israeli “problem” of Palestine. Shocking as it was to hear and as it is to write, some of the Israeli peaceniks spoke with dread about such an almost-expected option, and our own experiences verified the absolute urgency of the current situation. The fact that during our visit, Israel increased its efforts to expel all Eritrean refugees back to their homes in the Horn of Africa where they would surely face arrest and persecution or worse, as well as their efforts to displace and make homeless tens of thousands of Israeli Bedouins, only reinforced the feeling that ethnic cleansing was very much on the current agenda, covert if not overt.

The apartheid regime of South Africa, in its fateful final days (when almost everyone thought the end of legal apartheid would not come about in our lifetime or without a widespread bloodbath) did the progressive movement a favor by labeling their own crisis as a State of Emergency. The Israeli regime, in all its coalition manifestations, is too media savvy to do us such a favor, so we must do it ourselves. The state of affairs between Israel and Palestine, and the potential for almost-irreversible damage to all the peoples of the region, especially the Palestinians living under an almost-constant state of siege, is nothing short of a State of Emergency.

Inside and Out: What Now?

Papa has taught us there’s a crack in the Wall,

He’s taught us it’s up to us all,

To probe and pick and push

Until one day that Wall gives way

And we’ll have everything, everything,

Just like other men do.

 – reprise of “Everything,” from The Rothschilds musical (Brock & Harnick, 1970)

It seems clear that dramatic action is called for, led by the Palestinian people themselves but supported and strengthened by the people of the world. If Judaism is to survive as a holy and redemptive force in the world, people of Jewish descent need to play a central and leading role in this solidarity with Palestine — and not as has been the case, very much the reverse: constantly apologizing for the worst of Israel’s crimes, remaining blind or silent in the face of atrocities that even many Israelis have begun to speak up against. If creative imagination in the face of the ghettos of 19th century Europe helped bread the unimaginable fortunes of the family mythologized in the 1970 Broadway musical cited above, surely we can put similar brain power to the current test. If survival and resistance was possible in Warsaw and Treblinka, in Auschwitz and Sobibor, surely we can help figure a way out of the current quagmire.

Mazin Qumsiyeh is on the right track when he reminds us that first we must listen to those most affected and oppressed by the current predicament. This means paying close attention to the Palestinian movement, with special attention when unified calls are made by wide sectors of civil society pushing for specific actions from the international community. Such a call was made eight years ago — for major boycotts of Israeli products, for economic divestment from and sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli State. The BDS movement, however, has yet to penetrate major segments of progressive and human rights communities.

Mazin himself, along with his Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between Peoples colleague George Rishmawi, have compiled a list of 64 additional “things you can do” to act for peace with justice in Palestine. Rishmawi spoke about the Center’s work to prepare a younger generation of Palestinians for nonviolent direct action, for “another wave of resistance or revolution.” The next generation, he stated, must be better prepared “not just for direct action or dialogue, but for resistance through painting, music, poetry, writing,” and all kinds of cultural as well as political and economic forms. If the Palestinian movement can be so prepared, the international community must be similarly well-organized.

In our final meeting, outside of the Occupied Territories and Israel itself where she would surely be one of the thousands of political prisoners, Palestine National Council member and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine representative Leila Khaled noted that “it is always urgent when there is oppression.” Khaled, of course, came to international fame when she took part in a 1969 hijacking to draw attention to the plight of Palestine, then — some six plastic surgeries later — took part in another in 1970. This iconic figure of urban guerrilla warfare, of shocking “terrorism” and public enemy status, spoke softly but intently about the walled-in nature of the current context. “Gaza,” she reflected, “is the biggest prison in the history of the world.” With a siege that cordons off a substantial part of Palestinian territory and no respect or recognition of Palestinian self-determination or the right to develop one’s own state, the terms of the Oslo Accord “made the people’s hopes grow smaller.” “Occupation,” Khaled asserted, “is not only a political expression, it is a lifestyle.”

Though she noted the good work of some organizations such as Not In My Name, Khaled basically emphasized that “a change in the balance of forces” is needed — just as was needed to help push the South African apartheid regime towards more democratic political forms. Though new strategies and new levels of unity must be developed within the Palestinian movement, Khaled noted, major shifts will take place with international support and internal resistance, “when governments are pressured by their people to change.”

The time for such pressure is now; the time for nonviolent social transformation is limited. Walls can come down, and basic human entitlements — like the natural rights common to all religions and democracies — can be enjoyed and shared by all. But until the colonial catastrophe known as Palestine is reversed, until the Palestinian people enjoy justice and rights in their homeland, there will be no blessing or good deed big enough, no mitzvoth, to bring the wonderment of lasting peace into the world.

Matt Meyer is an educator-activist, based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.