By Raouf J. Halaby
professor of English and Art, Ouachita University
While co-leading a group of university students in Europe, on May 19, 2010, I received an e-mail from a former student. “I am honored to join the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ departing from Greece … in an attempt to break the Israeli siege on Gaza and provide desperately needed humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. … Please keep us in your prayers.” Even though my former student was a naturalized U.S. citizen, I feared that his lobbying activities in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Palestinians would make him a target.
K was one of 500 activists representing 40 nationalities from all professional backgrounds and walks of life, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner, German parliamentarians, a former U.S. Ambassador (Reagan’s Deputy Director of the Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism), and Joe Meadors, a decorated U.S. Navy veteran and a survivor of the June 8, 1967 tragic attack on the USS Liberty. Add another irony: The Liberty was attacked in the same area as the Marmara was.
The Israeli government attempted to gloss over the violence by linking the activists to terrorism and by providing their own video footage. As expected, by and large the U.S. media and politicians defended Israel’s right to intercept the ships, even though they were still in international waters. At the insistence of the Obama administration, a watered down UN resolution was passed, yet condemnation from all over the world was swift.
As far as I am concerned, the most edifying condemnation has come from Israeli Jews and from Jewish voices of conscience from across the globe. These include acclaimed Israeli author Amos Oz and Ha’aretz’s Amira Haas and Gideon Levy. In a June 6, 2010, column and under the title “Strenger (sic) Than Fiction/ Israel’s Bunker Mentality“, Carlo Strenger opined in Ha’aretz that “Israel is stuck in the belief that it is right, and everybody else is wrong and hence incapable of admitting that its policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians has been disastrous.” On the same day Ilan Pappe, an Israeli academician currently affiliated with Exeter University and the author of a book under the title “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”, warned in the British Independent about the dangers of “The Deadly Closing of the Israeli Mind”. Add to the list Noam Chomsky, a long time critic of Israel’s brutal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and Sir Gerald Kaufman, a member of the British Parliament’s House of Commons who only last week castigated the Israeli leaders and the blockade as “a terrorist and criminal siege [with] disregard for international law.”
My desire to become a peace activist began in 1988. I served on the National Executive Committee of the Coalition for Middle East Dialogue, a committee that represented regional dialogue groups whose intention was to bring American citizens of Jewish, Palestinian and OTHER backgrounds together to initiate a dialogue whose purpose was to bring understanding and eventual peace between Israelis and Palestinians. For sure a most idealistic notion. In an attempt to understand the complexity of the situation, a 15-member delegation headed to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel to meet with government officials, NGO leaders, academicians and others. What happened at the Allenby Bridge, the crossing point between Jordan and the Israeli occupied West Bank, is perhaps the best testimonial of what I believe the Israelis have done to foster and perpetuate a siege mentality that governs most of their decisions vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
Huda, a 20-something American woman born in California to Palestinian immigrants, and I were pulled out of the line and subjected to demeaning strip searches. Later, as my Arkansas-born wife and I and Huda stood behind our luggage as four different teams of Israeli soldiers inspected every item of clothing, every photograph and every receipt, I watched helplessly as Israeli male soldiers fondled the cups of my wife’s brassier and grabbed the crotch area of her sheer panty hose and underwear. It was a most pathetic attempt to humiliate me in the same manner black men were humiliated in the Old South. One soldier wanted to confiscate a suitcase full of candy and chocolate bars Huda was carrying for the starving children in the Ramallah of her parents’ childhood. A group of some 40 German tourists happened to walk past us and, on a whim, they became the beneficiaries of my scheme. I thought it ironic that their assenting and grateful smiles gave them the impression that I was part of an Israeli hospitality committee. Weeks later, J.D., a Jewish member of the delegation from Seattle, Washington, wrote the following in her journal: “Now I know what it was like to be a Jew in Nazi Germany.”
A closing comment. As the officer finished the strip search ordeal in the narrow confines of the cubicle, he took a can of disinfectant off the shelf, sprayed his hands, reached for a paper towel, wiped his hands, and discarded the moist wad in the waste basket. All I could think of was the epithet Aravi Meluhlah (parasitic/dirty Arab), an epithet I frequently heard from uzi-toting Israeli soldiers and mean neighborhood children during the time I lived in West Jerusalem. I wanted so badly to say or do something, yet I felt helpless and impotent. And so, to claim some measure of dignity and self worth as a human being, I mustered enough courage to place my hand on his shoulder, and to firmly brush it till it reached his wrist, and I simultaneously half-muttered, half-whispered, “I hope that some day peace will come so you won’t have to do this again.”
Somehow I connected with this stranger who was following orders, and somehow this physical connection evoked an unlikely response, for never in my life did I see such a drastic change in a person’s expression. Eyeball to eyeball, I witnessed his hazel green eyes change from a blank and perfunctory stare to a discerning look. Sensing the anguished look of vulnerability on my face, I was somehow able to reach into the depth of his soul, and he saw me for what I was, a human being just as he was, and his voice, equally muted, responded with a most sincere “I hope SO!”
Only yesterday I heard that an Israeli civil rights lawyer connected my former student with a U.S. Embassy employee who arranged for safe passage out of the Ashdod prison.
The Marmara tragedy is merely a footnote in the ongoing danse macabre between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and living conditions in Gaza and the West Bank are not only intolerable, but they are an insult to common decency. And firing rockets on innocent Israeli civilians is equally repugnant. For years now I’ve claimed that there exists in the Jewish tradition and in the teachings of the Torah, the Talmud and Jewish literary lore a tradition of justice, fairness and fair play, something Israel’s leaders have ignored for the past 62 years.
The growing voices in the American, Israeli, and international Jewish communities are the best hope for a lasting peace, and people of good will from all faiths and climes must reach into their collective consciences to join forces with their Jewish counterparts to help save the Israelis and the Palestinians from themselves and from the pit of festering hatred into which they’ve boxed themselves.
Raouf J. Halaby has been a professor of English and Art at Ouachita University, Arkadelphia, Ark., for 37 years and is a naturalized U.S. citizen of Palestinian Christian heritage.