A lot has been written and said about the Israel- Palestine conflict since ages. The current air strikes by Israeli forces on Gaza have dominated the headlines recently in media and it did get people’s attention especially after the World Cup fever was over. It is true that we are filtering realities on daily basis in our lives. Some realities go viral and Israel- Palestine conflict is one of them especially after Germany’s astounding victory in the World Cup. Just to mention the conflict started late 1940s in that part of the world is ongoing even as we breathe at this very moment.
In some places there are one sided stories highlighted in the media where the link between the victim and perpetrator has been blurred. In other places the hatred against one ethnic group over another strikingly stands out, from debates like to whom this land belongs to or who has been entitled this land by God. Undoubtedly the heart of the conflict here is a struggle for land, for the precious water, for the fertile soil and the valleys and hills of Palestine. This struggle overshadows the ordinary lives and how these lives have become a maze of control, checkpoints and road blocks. This bizarre struggle is like a cancer that is eating the lives of poor people.
It was sad to see on social media how some people started glorifying what Hitler did in Germany. Moreover when a debate was raised on humanitarian grounds many hushed the debate by saying that it is a religious issue and Muslims or for that matter Jews will take control of the land one day as it inherently belongs to them. These debates boggle my mind. This hatred deliberately induced by the propaganda machines of the powerful has blinded the people to see the real picture.
I remember once I got an opportunity to listen to a Christian Palestinian friend, Mike Haymour, who was from Bethlehem and he spoke about the plight of Palestinian people as any Muslim Palestinian would do. I still remember the anger and passion in his eyes. There was also one incidence in which during a UN meeting in Malta, an Israeli Jewish friend started to talk about her solidarity movement and she was not well received by the Arab world participants who discouraged her by saying that she should not be too bothered about the Palestinians as she herself is a Jew. That broke my heart and I still feel that we need to shake away this thought that glorifies divisions. Because I am a Muslim hence only I can feel for the other Muslims or I am a Christian hence only I can feel for the other Christians. Similarly there are a number of other religious and ethnic groups and if we start thinking like that we deliberately create divisions and mental borders.
We have been victims of these borders and boundaries all our lives. The divides what do they give us? Have these divides ever done any good in our lives? These walls which we have built have only stopped us from getting to know the other; the possibility of peaceful coexistence has been minimized by these mental barriers. We all want the occupation to end be it Muslims, Christians or Jews. Our ignorance should not stop us from distinguishing between the ordinary people and the games being played by the powers for more control.
So today I would like to share with you what my friend Sara Benninga has been doing in East Jerusalem. She inspires me and there are many like her around the world fighting for a cause not bothered about the distinctions and marching for just peace. Sara Benninga is one of the founders and main organizers of Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. She can be seen every week walking back and forth with a bull horn in her hand and a determined look in her eyes, surrounded by Israelis and Palestinians of all stripes demanding justice for the Palestinians whose lives are constantly squeezed by Israeli settlement policies. Sara Benninga exhorts the marchers leading them in chants in Hebrew and Arabic, keeping everyone moving forward their eyes on the prize that is a shared future for all Israelis and Palestinians. Occasionally they go to other neighborhoods, other towns, other fronts and battles for genuine peace and true coexistence.
I have watched the ebb and flow of emotions surrounding Israel and the Jewish community over the years and today the only best way to support Israel is to encourage her governments and people to find a path to peace, trying to be a force for good in conflict. These are words however that are easy to say and presumably aren’t sometimes well received by even like minds like the example I gave earlier of a UN meeting. If Israeli and the Palestinian people are to ever achieve peace and security it will require action. Action that truly shakes up what’s gone before, action that tells the truth more powerfully that even our words can’t.
Sara Benninga and her fellow activists are continuing the legacy of Israeli activism that was pioneered by certain groups in the history and Rabbis for human rights. They have told the truth. Sheikh Jarrah movement is also telling the truth with their feet. They are telling the truth that Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians or Muslims need not fear or hate each other on the contrary they can march, work and build together towards a future in which everyone finds hope. Sara Benninga and many other activists are facing arrests and trials on the charge of illegal assembly and a libel suit for chanting slogans but they are not afraid by the vulgar threats of the forceful.
This is what Sara has to say:
“If you would have met me a few years ago and asked me what I think about the occupation, the most you would have gotten out of me would have probably been a few vague utterances, expressing a bit of shame and a bit of distress but mostly confusion and unawareness. There can be many reasons for this but one of the main ones is that the occupation had not touched upon me personally, at least not directly. It was so easy growing up in West Jerusalem without knowing of the injustice taking place a few hundred yards away in the Eastern part of the city.
A curtain of ignorance was and still is part of the methods of concealment in which I as a Jewish Israeli woman grew up. Like many of the young people who protest weekly in Sheikh Jarrah I was raised on democratic and egalitarian values. High school civics classes taught us that while Israel does not have a constitution, its declaration of independence is our bill of rights. We learned that the founders of Israel vowed that the Jewish state and I quote ‘ will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants, that it would be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel. That it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex. That it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture. Safeguard the holy places of all religions and will be faithful to the principles of the charter of United Nations.’
I ask you how would you react if your government treated the constitution as empty words? I have chosen to fight. I have chosen to fight against injustice in Sheikh Jarrah, to fight for the Israel that could have been, to fight for the Israel that still can be.
Witnessing the ways in which my country disposes individuals of one ethnic affiliation and privileges those of another, seeing the blatant injustice and discrimination perpetrated by my own government opened my eyes to a reality I did not know and generated in me and many others a determination to create a different future. Difficult as it has been my Sheikh Jarrah experience is not one of despair or resentment. Alongside injustice I found new hope and purpose, the commitment of thousands of fellow Israelis to justice and equality and the renewed ability to bridge over ideological and national divides in favor of a shared vision restored my faith in the possibility of change. Since those days in 2009 these initial impressions have not faded but rather have been reinforced. In every town and village where our movement is active, whether it is Lod, Tayibe and Beit She yan or Silwan we encounter alongside dispossession and discrimination, willingness and enthusiasm and meaningful partnerships. In a small compound in Sheikh Jarrah 30 families face the threat of eviction. A disturbing alliance between Israeli custodian of absentees’ properties, a state agency and the American millionaire Irving Moskwitz allows Jews to reclaim properties they owned prior to 1948. We know that Jewish families who left the compound during the war received abandoned Palestinian properties in West Jerusalem as compensation for their loss. And yet they return today to claim back the land. The Palestinians living in the compound used to own property inside the green line but Israeli law doesn’t allow them to reclaim their houses or request compensation.
Thus a young generation of Palestinians learns that the law is just a reflection of national and racial prejudices. They learn that the first time refugees can easily become refugees a second time and now it is all done under the auspices of Israeli law. While it is clear that this inequality before the law is morally and politically intolerable, we believe that mere condemnation is not enough. Together with a growing number of young Jewish Israelis I have come to the understanding that these times call for Jewish Palestinian cooperation and it is both our duty and our interest to work together with Palestinians. We have chosen a path of non violent resistance to the occupation. This is the only way to build a tolerable future for all of us in Israel and Palestine, a future that recognizes the dignity of every human being but we discovered that Israel treats our peaceful Jewish Arab solidarity as a serious threat.
We are committed to direct engagement, when and where injustice occurs. Solidarity believes in the transformative potential of Jewish Arab cooperation. We know for a fact that the artificial barriers between Arabs and Jews are surmountable. We uphold the moral permissibility of non violent civil disobedience in the proud tradition of the American Civil Rights movement. We believe that privilege corrupts and that systematic discrimination is incompatible with democracy. Our critics portray us as enemies of Jewish state but it is ironic that a country claiming to be a victim of a campaign of delegitimization shamelessly delegitimizes sections of its own citizenry. We reject the false dichotomy between security and democracy. We refuse to settle for anything less than a true end of occupation that is necessary but not a sufficient condition for realizing our goal of substantive equality and genuine democracy in Israel.
There is much work ahead of us and I am sure that together we can make it happen.”
Listening to her makes me wonder where does that positivity and hope come from. In the backdrop of dead bodies piled up and bombs being dropped to kill terrorists in fact killing innocent civilians she still manages to keep her optimism intact not ready to give up yet.
As Sara mentioned the American civil disobedience movement carrying with it the moral permissibility of non violent civil disobedience, I also believe that the best strategy to end the bloody occupation is to target Israel with some kind of a global movement that did put an end to apartheid in South Africa.
The noted civil rights leader and a Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the apartheid regime that discriminated against blacks in South Africa. Tutu criticized the policies of Israelis towards Palestinians as humiliating. To him the humiliation looks familiar to the black South Africans who were corralled and harassed by the security forces of the apartheid government. Tutu believes that in achieving democracy in South Africa people around the world have helped by using non violent means and similarly the international community needs to come together in trying to end Israel’s decades long occupation. Tutu says, “It doesn’t matter where we worship or live. We are members of one family, the human family, God’s family.” The words uttered by Desmond Tutu explain the principles of Ubuntu which we need to learn today. A belief we need to adopt to the core that talks about the universal bond of sharing that unites the human kind.
It is not difficult to adopt the belief of humanity and love and compassion for the fellow beings. I remember once being told the story of Binti, the gorilla. The story was about how Binti saved a three years old boy who fell in her enclosure in the zoo. Binti not only held the boy in her arms but also protected him from the male gorilla from causing any harm to the boy. Binti did go against her instincts and so can we.Here is a short introduction to the Israel-Palestine conflict from jewishvoices.org.