Of Palestine, Israel and the idea of return

Oh, what a burden I labor under. I poke into this or that corner of the universe trying my humble be

Oh, what a burden I labor under. I poke into this or that corner of the universe trying my humble best to please our readers, and what do I get? Calumny and abuse. Vilification and contumely.

Take the Israel business. I offered a couple of harmless little traveler’s tales following my vacation there and then figured I was finished with that subject and could get back to my regular territory of teachers’ contracts and Family Court cases.

But readers keep clobbering me and berating me, to the point where my grandchildren tremble to look at the letters to the editor.

Most recently it was the director of the Anti-Defamation League, based in New York City, one Ron Meier. Even with his wilder statements edited out, it was a still a devil of a letter that got printed, if you happened to see it on Sunday, accusing me of operating with “pre-meditated animosity toward the Jewish state” and having “preconceived anti-Israel and anti-Jewish biases,” even though Mr. Meier didn’t know me and never had me on the psychoanalytical couch.

It read like a letter generated by a computer. It could have been aimed at anyone at all who spoke unkindly of Israel.

Had I said Israel operates a police state in its backyard? Yes, I had, referring to the occupied territory of the West Bank, where 2 million Palestinians live without basic rights, under the heel of the Israeli military.

Mr. Meier’s response to that hardly novel observation of mine was the banal non-response that Israel is a “thriving democracy,” a “vibrant democracy,” in which Arab citizens have equal rights, which may well be true — on my brief trip I had no experience with the Arab citizens of Israel — but has nothing to do with the backyard police state of the West Bank, where Arabs are not citizens and there is no democracy but only military bullying.

Also that Tel Aviv, where I did not visit, has an “internationally recognized gay-friendly community that is unique to the Middle East,” which is very nice but likewise has nothing to do with the police state of the West Bank.

It does, however, have something to do with official Israeli talking points, as I have since learned. It’s a talking point known among Israeli critics as “pinkwashing” the country’s defects. Talk up Tel Aviv’s gay-friendliness.

Now, you can call me anti-Semitic if you like — it’s cheap and easy and doesn’t require any thought — but what do you say to the disillusioned Israeli soldier I met at the Golub Center in Guilderland just before my trip, the one whose grandfather fought in the 1948 war, whose father fought in the 1967 war and who himself served in the West Bank and now says the occupation there is “poisoning our society.”

And what do you say to prominent Jewish-American journalists David Remnick and Peter Beinart? Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, wrote recently that “a profoundly anti-democratic, even racist, political culture has become endemic among much of the Jewish population in the West Bank, and jeopardizes Israel proper.” (I never used the word “racist” myself.)

Beinart has written a book on the subject, which I have ordered but not yet read, agonizing over the future of an Israel that is being corrupted from within by a growing religious fanaticism and by the related oppression of West Bank Palestinians — related, because religious fanatics are the leading advocates of occupying more and more Palestinian land.

Remnick’s and Beinart’s concern is for the well-being of Israel itself, which to my mind is a rather narrow way of looking at things — like condemning the old South African regime on the grounds that it was poisonous to white people — but all the more, do you want to call them anti-Semitic?

You’ve already heard and you’re going to hear more in letters to come about the generous offers that Israel has made over the years to resolve the Palestinian problem and how they have been rejected by Palestinian leaders, but you don’t hear much about the basic fact that all of the state of Israel is on land stolen from the people who already lived there — Palestinian Arabs — most of it taken in 1948, with the encouragement of Great Britain, the United States and the United Nations, and another big hunk taken in 1967, the so-called West Bank, which continues today, 45 years later, as occupied territory, neither Israel nor Palestine but something in-between.

Israel continues to move Jewish people into that land, protecting them with barbed wire and armed soldiers, thereby carving the land into a network of fortified settlements, outposts and access roads that will be impossible ever to unify into a sovereign state of Palestine, which is the apparent intent — make a Palestinian state impossible even while giving lip service to it.

Any violent action that Palestinians take to resist or protest this takeover of their land is characterized as terrorism, whereas violent action that Israelis take to enforce it is something else, just so you understand the lingo of the conflict.

Remember the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Palestinians and held hostage against the release of imprisoned Palestinians? A Schenectady rabbi told us the soldier was “kidnapped by Hamas terrorists” and put up a poster of him in his synagogue, to honor him.

Armed Israelis who take Palestinians out of their homes in the middle of the night and imprison them without charges, however, are not terrorists. Not in the eyes of the rabbi, anyway.

I picked up a souvenir trinket in the market of Nablus in the West Bank. It was a little enameled pendant with the Palestinian flag on one side and a tiny map of Palestine on the other, with a key superimposed on the map.

In my capacity as ignorant tourist, which I was, I asked the vendor what it was all about. He told me that when the Palestinians were chased off their land by advancing Zionist forces in 1948 they took their house keys with them in the expectation they would soon be able to return. The key symbolizes that hope.

I have since learned it is one of the subjects that comes up whenever there is a peace conference, the so-called right of return, which after 60-plus years is of course a pipe dream.

But please compare that Palestinian tale and Palestinian hope with the Israeli Law of Return, which specifies that any Jew anywhere in the world can immigrate to Israel and be a full-fledged citizen, on the dubious grounds that their ancestors occupied the land 2,000 years ago!

If I were a Palestinian homeowner and a family of European Jews showed up on my doorstep and told me they were back after 2,000 years and I had to get out, I’d ask to see their papers. Wouldn’t you?

Very nice of Israel now and then to offer to give back some portion of the West Bank, but never all of it, in exchange for Palestinians ratifying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, but you can see why Palestinians might not regard such an offer as necessarily generous.

Call me anti-Semitic, call me anything you like. I went, I saw, I listened, and lately I’ve been reading too. I have gotten a glimpse of the other side of the Israel-Palestine question, a side that you don’t hear much about — who wants to risk being called an anti-Semite? — and I’ve passed it along to you as best I can.

Now I’m finished. I am going to return to my proper territory of Schenectady, and I will never write another word about Israel unless it’s a slow day and someone gets me fired up.

Categories: Opinion

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