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Voices from a "Promised Land": Palestinian and Israeli Peace Activists Speak Their Hearts: Conversations with Penny Rosenwasser

Voices From a "Promised Land": Palestinian and Israeli Peace Activists Speak Their Hearts: Conversations with Penny Rosenwasser
by Penny Rosenwasser. 272 pp. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1992. $12.95 paper.
Until the Gulf War, the Middle East had always been the poor cousin of the U.S. peace movement, unable to attract the numbers and level of interest of, say, Central America or South Africa or even Cuba. The reasons are complex and varied, ranging from the moral complexities of the situation there to the pro-Israel lobby's cynical use of the label "anti-Semitic." In my own case, I deliberately avoided involvement in the Middle East, even while I worked on those other areas.

I told myself it was because, as a Jew born and raised in the wake of the Holocaust, I had an emotional involvement with the concept of a Jewish state that would preclude an objective view of the situation. That was certainly part of it. But more than that, I think I was afraid to allow myself to take a dispassionate view of the situation, because I knew what truths I would have to face if I did. My being Jewish, my sense of an ethical, moral and progressive political tradition within Jewish history, was a large part of what led me to left political activism. I long felt that because of our long, unique history of persecution, Jews should understand better than anyone the suffering of others, that we should understand better than anyone else the anarchist dictum to refuse either to be dominated or to dominate, that we should be the last people on Earth to ourselves become oppressors.

The hard truth I was avoiding was the undeniable fact that the Jews of Israel had, in the name of Jewish survival and "security," become oppressors; had, almost from the beginning of the Jewish state, treated Palestinians as others had treated Jews throughout history, and denied them not only their internationally recognized right to self-determination, but in many cases their basic human rights as well. (This "disapointment" is not confined to Israel; it's a long way from Emma Goldman to Elliot Abrams. But that's another article.)

Even after I faced that truth, it was still a giant step for me to act on it, to become involved in the struggle for what I came to consider the only feasible path to peace in the Middle East: the two-state solution. What finally forced me into action was meeting Israeli Jews who had faced this truth and, at far more risk than I would ever face, acted on it. The particular Israeli peace activists who inspired me were members of Y'esh G'vul (a Hebrew phrase meaning, colloquially, "enough is enough"), Jewish soldiers who have refused to serve in the occupied territories, and often faced imprisonment as a result, because of the violations of human rights that the Israel Defense Force has perpetrated against the Palestinian population there.

The members of Y'esh G'vul are among a growing number of Israeli peace activists who, within their own society and in solidarity and cooperation with Palestinian activists, have begun to try to—in my own sense of what drives them—make Israel's Jews live up to their own finest traditions, to their own best instincts. Voices From A "Promised Land" is a series of interviews with some of them, and with Palestinian peace activists. It is both an inspiring collection of portraits of men and women willing to risk their livelihoods and lives for their ideals, and a useful corrective to the common American perception of a Jewish society unanimous in its opposition to Palestinian rights.

Interviewer Penny Rosenwasser followed a path similar to mine, coming to realize, as she says in her introduction, that "my freedom, in terms of a secure homeland, couldn't be built on the displacement of another people." Following the beginning of the intifada —which, it must be stressed, is not merely resistance to occupation, but also the building of an alternative society, in effect, the creation of an incipient Palestinian state— she traveled to Palestine and Israel, moved by a need "to witness, to document, to understand, to listen," and interviewed a number of Palestinian and Israeli activists.

Among them are a concentration camp survivor who became a peace activist because she doesn't "want the Palestinians to suffer what I have suffered"; an Israeli lawyer who does advocacy work for Arab families with loved ones detained as political prisoners; a Palestinian activist imprisoned for three months for the "crime" of visiting her brother, who was active with the PLO; Palestinian leaders of the famed tax resistance in the town of Beit Sahour; a Palestinian-Israeli woman who directs a peace and social welfare organization of Arabs and Jews; and members of Palestine-Israeli dialogue groups. What all share in common is a desire to reconcile their two peoples, to achieve justice for both; all see that as the basis for a lasting peace.

Several themes emerge from these conversations. One is the effect the occupation is having on both societies. Though it is the Palestinians who are suffering in the most obvious ways, the Israeli peace activists recognize that the oppression their government is involved in, the denial not just of Palestinian rights but of the very humanity of the Palestinian "enemy," is corroding the moral fiber of Israeli society.

Related to this is a frustration, expressed by several activists, with the role of the United States in the Middle East, and particularly with the role of American Jews. They argue that mainstream Jewish organizations refuse to recognize the realities of Israeli life, either in terms of the oppression itself, or the very existence of "hundreds of thousands" of Israelis who have disagreed with government policy. American aid, private and governmental, allows Israel to continue the occupation without the Israeli people feeling or understanding the true cost, in either human or economic terms. In the words of one activist, "the average Israeli has not paid the price of maintaining the Occupation, has not paid the price of repressing the intifada." That remains as true today as in December 1990, when the interview was conducted.

When asked what American activists can do about the situation, several of those interviewed call for them to press for either a cut-off of U.S. aid, or conditioning it on changes in policy with respect to the Palestinians. This, again, is a highly emotional issue among American Jews, and the very mention of even conditioning, much less cutting off aid brings accusations of anti-Semitism and "self-hatred" and worse. But if more Americans could hear calls for such pressure from Israeli activists, could hear them say, as Knesset member Tamar Gozansky does, "I personally think that without this aid we would live better, and peacefully," there might be more understanding of what Israeli peace activists have been trying to get across at least since 1967: that real security for Israel lies not in arms and occupation, but a peace settlement based on granting to Palestinians the same right of self-determination that the Jews of Israel ask for themselves.

Rosenwasser went on one of her trips with a group called the U.S. Women's Peace Brigade, and as a woman and feminist she is particularly interested in the role of women in the struggle for peace. Women have played a prominent role on both sides of the "green line." Israeli women have been, as Rosenwasser puts it, the "heart of the Israeli peace movement" from its beginning. And Palestinian women have redefined the role of women in Arab society in the course of the liberation struggle, partly as a matter of necessity, with so many male leaders imprisoned or in exile, but mostly in a very conscious way. The intifada, as I said earlier, has been about more than ending the occupation; it has also been about building a different kind of society, and Palestinian women are very much aware that their struggle will really be just beginning when a Palestinian state is realized. They are also, to judge by the interviews in this book, very much aware of their connections to a broader struggle.

"When Palestinian and Israeli women struggle together against occupation," says Nabila Espanioli, a Palestinian-Israeli psychologist, "they are struggling for their own liberation, for their own emancipation—and I believe that after having peace we will have more common issues to struggle for."

The very nature and existence of a book like this is part of an encouraging new trend in peace and justice work, the creation of international contacts and linkages among activists. The group of women Rosenwasser traveled with lived, ate, conversed, played and demonstrated with Palestinian women's committees and Israeli women peace activists. And through this book and undoubtedly in other ways they brought those women's vision of Middle East reality—clearly a very different version than the one most Americans see in the mainstream media—back to this country.

Though they have received little attention from the mainstream media, other, similar ties are being created in many different parts of the world—as, for example, among anti-NAFTA activists in Canada, Mexico, and the U.S., or through recent humanitarian circumventions of the embargo against Cuba—bypassing governments, but increasing pressure on them through the exchange of information and resources, the coordination of strategies, and mutual support. An article in a recent issue of Our Generation, for example, refers to coordination between an environmental struggle in Austin, Texas and a group in West Papua, Indonesia, fighting environmental destruction by the same corporation (Robert Ovetz, "Assailing the Ivory Tower: Student Struggles and the Entrepreneuralization of the University," Our Generation, vol. 24, no. 1).

These connections promise to go beyond the solidarity movements of the 80s. The latter were in effect defensive reactions to American imperialism, and were inevitably caught up in the false dichotomies created by the Cold War. They were also in many, though not all cases caught up in an unconscious kind of patronization of the people they were trying to help. These new transnational movements are more active, and premised on relationships of equality and mutual respect between activists from industrialized and developing countries. They have the potential to create alternative visions and institutions, "third ways" that can serve as meaningful challenges to the apparent hegemony of liberal capitalism in the post-Cold War world. Rosenwasser's conversations offer a tantalizing glimpse of those possibilities.

Some of these discussions are a bit dated, particularly those centered around the Gulf War. But most are, sadly, as relevant as ever. Noam Chomsky began a recent article in Z by noting that because of his tight speaking schedule, he often has to chooose a speech title several years in advance, and that he's found one that always works: "The current crisis in the Middle East." It's a title he can probably continue to rely on for some time to come. But Rosenwasser's book gives some cause for optimism at least as regards Israel and the Palestinians.

The book includes a useful set of maps, and photographs of many of those interviewed. An appendix offers a list of resource groups in the Middle East and the U.S., and periodicals; summary data on human rights violations through May 31, 1991; texts of U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338; and a 1991 memorandum from the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks to then-Secretary of State Baker. It does not, unfortunately, include an index.