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Person-to-Person: A Professor and Student on the Recent United States’ Jerusalem Decision

The United Nations has shared a global sentiment in their recent vote to admonish the current American administration lead by President Donald Trump.  The world body’s recent 128 to 9 vote, (with 35 abstentions), was meant to reject the United States’ choice to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

It is clear that the U.N. has spoken loudly about the lost opportunities for regional and global peace and security. In the view of many, the UN has stood its ground even as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley and President Trump each wrote about “taking names” and withholding aid and assistance should any nation vote against the United States on its view as to the status of Jerusalem.  But false bluster aside, the UN has essentially told the Trump Administration that it has squandered its opportunity for peaceful negotiations for a two-state solution.

The term “two-state solution” works as both diplomatic catch phrase and has entered our common vernacular to describe a possible modern tepid peace to an inter-generational conflict. Ancient grievances have evolved into the modern Arab-Israeli state of war. A war that at its heart has put two ethno-religious groups on a collision course as they each claim the same territory for their legitimate national capital, and foster a deepening cycle of mistrust and violence.  By overtly choosing one group over the other, the United States’ place as legitimate peace broker is now diminished in the eyes of many at home and abroad.

How can we work towards peace in the region when those whose charge it is to bring peace and security work at cross-purposes with human rights and humanitarian groups? Such bungling on the part of the Trump administration, to essentially thumb its diplomatic nose at modernity, only enforces a view which places the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian war not on the side of those working for a peaceful solution but, in America at least, with the religious zealots made up of Trump’s cabinet, as well as Evangelical Christians and hardline Jews.

But let’s not join the ever-growing chorus of placing blame on one side or the other within a war that has been going on for thousands of years. We actually can lose a bit of our humanity when we just look at history and current events as a chess match of regional middle-east politics. Real people are harmed when politicians and diplomats, as well as warmongers and peacemakers differ, as third-party combatants, in this never-ending cycle of blame, state-violence, ethno-religious violence and loss of human capital to war.

Last semester, I had the opportunity to teach a young Palestinian-American woman who, along with about thirty other students, was enrolled my cultural anthropology course. She shared much about the events in Israel and Palestine, worried that her words would be considered anti-Semitic, she explained that she has no hate in her heart for any Jewish person, but feels deep anger towards the Israeli government. A government backed by American interests that has, through its policies, committed human rights crimes against her family.

Here is her story, a story that all of us, and certainly those within Israel can relate to as well if they too have been touched by violence:

My name is Rawan Alhaj. I am married and the mother of a young daughter. I am an American of Palestinian descent. I stand witness to the violence against the Palestinian people, and most of all towards the violence committed by the Israeli government against my family and my sickly grandmother. My grandmother is a-political and wants, just like Jewish grandmothers and all grandmothers, to live in peace and not see her children or grandchildren harmed by violence and war.

It has been nearly 70 years since Palestine no longer held its name over the land. Palestine was wiped off the map in 1948 and is now officially recognized as Israel. My people were left in chaos after that United Nations decision was made to create the modern state of Israel. My people were forced from their homes and remain stateless.

Although my immediate family all reside in the United States, I have many family members currently living in Jerusalem who are in a quandary over the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Sadly, the death toll is rising as protests break out throughout the West Bank. There is anger and mass uncertainty as to what everyday Palestinians can do over America’s choice to move its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. A move my people see as outright bias and further ignorance in favor of Israel over the Palestinian people.

On December 21, 2017, the United Nations took a vote to condemn President Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The United Nations General Assembly voted 128-9 to declare Israel’s new capital as void. The President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, hailed the resulting vote as a “Victory for Palestine”, although I believe it is also a victory for humanity. It is evident that nations are pursuing justice and morality for the state of Palestine without U.S. diplomatic support.

The world should be aware of the extremity of the situation. Palestinians have been victims of police brutality for decades. Thousands of Palestinians get arrested, beaten, and are killed just for being a Palestinian. Bias in the media does not report the violence and everyday injustices faced by my family and millions more like them. Fortunately for humanity and perhaps a bit ironically, the recent United States embassy decision allowed more people to be aware of the plight of the Palestinians, and this will hopefully allow many more people to courageously speak up against the violence.  

The Israeli government has at times cut off water, electricity, and has taken away Palestinian homes. All without warning and as a form of state action like what was done to the native peoples in America. Under any other circumstance such state action would be seen as ethnic cleansing. On a daily basis, the Israeli army bullies Palestinian children as they walk to and from school, they have beaten young Palestinians and have left parents to pay for funerals and in other cases, left children as orphans. Such everyday violence takes a cumulative physical and psychological toll on those living under occupation – and on me who worries about her grandmother and family so far away.

My grandmother is old and frail and wants nothing to do with politics. She is innocent of any wrongdoing. She has never lifted a finger to harm anyone, yet the Israelis make her life a living hell through their actions. They deny her the most urgent of needs, the simple and universal need for water. They withhold it from her and her community as a form of group punishment for the actions of a few. It is unjust. It is inhumane and goes against the idea of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish biblical idea of repairing the world through kindness.

Palestinians believe and have proof of genocide committed by the Israeli army. In some cases, it is clear that Israeli soldiers have targeted infants and children. Therefore, in no manner shall this genocide be alluded to as a “war” where the Palestinians throw rocks, while Israelis fire bullets. As an American, I will say that in no circumstance do I see myself as anti-sematic or hate Jews at all. I live in New York and have a diverse group of friends from every walk of life, including many Jewish friends.  But I will accept the fact that I am against the arrogant state of Israel and the cruelty that they choose to display towards my family and my people.                                               

In the case of such ongoing violence we have seen both Israeli and Palestinian’s call for endless eye-for-an-eye retribution. The Trump administration’s Jerusalem decision not only hardens such feelings of animosity between Israelis and Palestinians, it creates controversy in diplomatic circles. It also leaves lay citizens in America and around the globe to worry about the future of both peace and stability in the Middle-East and perhaps around the world.

After all, many terrorist acts of violence claim their validity when governments are seen as colluding to harm those who cannot adequately defend themselves. Violence though is hardly ever the work of peace. It should be vehemently rejected whether it is from the state or from a group claiming to act in the name of their faith or their people.

Rawan’s family as they live in Palestine are not atypical, nor are they aloof to the policies, events and violence on the ground. They and the Israelis’ who wish for and work for peace are living at a time when the voices of empathy and reason are not with the diplomats and peacemakers. Sadly, the policies of occupation are now fully made by, and with the admiration and support of zealots’ world over who cannot accept a common ground that is not soaked with blood.

This only bodes well for three groups. Those who believe their messiah will be returning in their lifetime, the manufacturer of weapons and the governments that support, purchase and supply one or both sides with the means to ongoing violence. Coupled with complicit and tacit political statements of any government that chooses sides in this inter-generational war leaves little room for the work of peace.

But we have little choice but to soldier on. To work for and demand peace. For the sake of Rawan’s family, for the Jews and Palestinians, and for the sake of all of us who see life as too short and humans as one very special group of primate who share too much in common not enjoy the benefits of love, fairness and joy, however temporary. This level of empathy is our greatest gift, our greatest protection and is our greatest connection. If we foster it no amount of land claim, or ethno-religious difference or political opinion can weaken its bond or its ability to heal our common humanity.

Dr. David I. Orenstein, Professor of Anthropology and AHA Representative to the United Nations.

Ms. Rawan Alhaj, Student and Concerned Palestinian-American Mother.

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