the power of AIPAC


The power of AIPAC

I recently attended a program at a local synagogue. The guest speaker was my congressional representative, Charlie Crist. He gave a glowing report about his recent trip to Israel, an all expense paid trip offered to members of American congress.

A question and answer session following the congressman’s presentation showed a limited knowledge about Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Primarily, his talk reiterated the words of both U.S. and Israeli leaders – America’s commitment to Israel’s security is solidly unshakable.  A statement in the “We are AIPAC” booklet quotes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “I represent the entire people of Israel who say, ‘Thank you, America.’”  The pro-Israel lobby states: AIPAC is the one organization charged with ensuring America’s support year after year – no matter which U. S. party candidate holds office.

I first heard this when I was in Jordan from a former Jordanian general. It was shortly before the 2004 presidential election between incumbent George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry. During our conversation, I asked him who he would vote for if he were American. The general smiled wryly, then answered with slow deliberation. “It doesn’t matter, your policy is set,” then added, “ But Bush will get in.”

Recently I was reminded by a Palestinian of the first of four basic facts of geopolitics: U.S. Presidents no matter how “unconventional” must always obey the rules set for them, which include regime change across Western Asia.

Heavy-handed propaganda heaped on Americans imposes fear and bends toward justifying the need to bolster military security for Israel.

After the presentation, I spoke with Jewish members of the synagogue where the Congressman spoke. Some told me they had been on Israel guided tours. I listened as they told me of cancellations to Bethlehem due to the danger. One woman said they were warned against making eye contact with Palestinians, others said they were told not to leave the group and to stay close to the guide. When Bethlehem is included, the tour is brief and contact with Palestinians is discouraged. One woman said she felt relieved to get back on the bus to Jerusalem.

None of these fears are based on reality. A statement In AIPAC booklet says,  “Israel now faces the largest threats since the founding of the state…”  The focus of AIPAC is consistently on threats and on the promotion of fear. Pro-Israel politics concentrates on grabbing the ears of Congress and tenaciously hammering them with issues that serve the interest of Israel.

In Palestine, I met Amira Haas, a prominent journalist for Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper. “If you work to force Israel to see what they are doing, they will be forced to change… Jews create so much hatred,” she said, “politically it is possible to convince the U.S. and Europe that to support Israel is to destroy it.” Haas, who is Jewish, lives in the West Bank so sees the scene with a clear eye. “Can’t Israel see what she is doing? She has planted the seeds of her own destruction.”

Unless you go there, it is not possible to see the obvious, the brutality of Israel’s occupation.

Kept silent by popular news reports pushing “conflict,” “crisis” and “terrorism” as needs to be addressed with military support for security, obliterates reality and sets the course for war.

AIPAC local and Washington D.C. training programs recruit and “educate” members of Congress, political candidates, the media and students: their aim is to cement and control strong support of a U.S./Israel relationship. They have a club and AIPAC club members interact with top political leaders who can shape the U.S.-Israel relationship. Club members are invited to exclusive events around the globe. It all sounds good on the surface. But with the longest occupation in modern history, an unanswered question never addressed remains – What about civil rights for Palestinians?

I did not hear Congressman Crist talk of human rights, nor of help for the people bombed by Israel in Gaza or relief for people denied the freedoms enjoyed in democratic states. Israel has built a wall of fear that keeps the occupied people hushed by the resounding noise of AIPAC.



Excerpt from Future Book “Silenced Voices”

Creating suicide bombers

In Palestine, the young and impressionable are easy targets for becoming “suicide recruits.” On my first visit to occupied Bethlehem in 2008, I learned from two university “drop-outs” how readily frustration becomes hopelessness that makes suicide seem liberating.

After walking from class at Bethlehem University, I rest in Manger Square, the plaza adjacent to the Church of the Nativity,  Sitting so close to the  birthplace of the “Prince of Peace,” myth and reality settle on peace in the heart of the holy land. I watch local Palestinians, feel their mix of acceptance and hostility of the occupiers. Bethlehem’s “living stones,” they are Palestinian descendants of the rulers and the ruled, survivors on land trod by centuries of invaders, Israel merely the latest.

I was particularly amused by watching the antics of two teen aged boys who drifted aimlessly around the plaza, arm in arm, sometimes singing or laughing, seemingly in a world all their own. I was surprised when quite suddenly they were standing before me.
“Hello, welcome, how are you,” the older boy said in clipped English.
“Fine and how are you?”
“You American?” He was tall and thin and had an engaging smile, a tangle of dark curly hair framed deep set dark eyes.
“Yes. Weren’t you outside the University a while ago?” I challenged.
The two boys looked at each other sheepishly and did not answer.
“Are you students?” I demanded suspiciously.
“Not now,” said the younger boy.
He was short and frail and wore a T-shirt—its faded letters Princeton barely legible. A look of hurt showed in large eyes of a striking amber color.
“We can’t go to class, but go to see friends there when we can,” the younger boy said softly.
The older boy interrupted.
“We see you come alone from the class. He wants you should to talk with him, only he’s very shy.
“No! Not my idea, his!”
There was a likable non-threatening innocence about their suppressed smiles and uncertain looks they exchanged as they bantered.
“You ask, no you,” they teased.
Annoyed, I asked sharply, “Why were you following me? .
“We want to practice English!”
Tricky Arabs, I thought recalling the warnings of well-meaning friends who had cautioned me before I left for Palestine. Some of them had been on holy land tours that warned against leaving their group and associating with local Palestinians. But what can happen in a crowd here?
With time to spare before dinner with my host family,  and no article assignment from the media center where I volunteered, I agreed to spend time to help them with their English.

“Well let’s start with introductions,” I said, leading the way to an outdoor table in front of a small café where I ordered drinks. Sipping mint ice tea in the shadow of Nativity Church with my young companions began a modern day Holy Land story.

“My name is Kees, it is spelled q-a-i-s. I am 19 and I was a student at Bethlehem University.”
“My name is Iyad,” the younger boy said, spelling it, then adding that the first letter I sounds like the English letter ē so is pronounced eead.
“I am 17.”
The conversation began with slow formality as if they regarded me as their teacher about to grade their English. I told them they spoke quite well. Listening to broken English, I encouraged and ignored errors. “Being understood is the main point,” I said, occasionally asking them to repeat so as to make sure I understood.

Encouraging conversation, I asked about their education. They said English is taught in elementary school along with French and sometimes Hebrew.
“We learn Hebrew from the soldiers. They yell at us and we yell back and make fun of them because they do not know Arabic.”
Conversation became serious when they talked about life under Israeli control. They said they had to quit school because delays at the checkpoints made them late or caused them to miss classes. they insisted the soldiers deliberately held them so they would fail and have to drop out.

Qais said he is from the town of Abu Dis and explained that wall construction of the West Bank Barrier began in 2004. The route between the town and Jerusalem east of the Green line made it difficult for residents of Abu Dis to get to Jerusalem without a permit. The barrier took over 6,000 dun-um [approximately a third of an acre] of the city’s land and severely disrupted access to services such as schools, hospitals and work.

“Israel claims the route of the barrier is necessary for security but it is really to make it hard for us. I could not get to school because soldiers would hold me to make me late,” said Qais, anger rising as he spoke.

“We like Americans but not your government,” Iyad chimed in. “I will hate America when I see that children are arrested for throwing stones at soldiers. They stay in the prison for six months for that. Bush considers himself judge and executioner,” said Qais.
I asked about their families.
Qais says his father is Christian and his mother is Muslim but they do not practice. Iyad says his father died and his mother is Muslim but is secular.
“We are Palestinian. This is our country. I want to be free to meet girls and go where I want and to live a young person’s life,” Qais says pleadingly.
“I feel a hundred years old. I feel like my grandfather in his grave but I can only sit confused in my home.”
Qais has uncles in Israeli prisons and says his father was imprisoned for several years but is out and cannot find a job.
“In Israel there are high taxes and high salary jobs. In Palestine, there are high taxes and low paying jobs,” Iyad added. “And there is no American Consulate here.”
“I would leave this country if I could, because there is no work and no opportunity.” Clenching his fists, Qais’s eyes became slits, his words venom. “I had a connection in Jerusalem tried to get a visa to visit an uncle in the U.S. It was denied. Israelis can always get a visa—not us.”
“If someone gave money to my mother for my brothers and sisters, I would give my life for my country. Here is no hope. My father is too down from no work. My mother tells me get an education, I think, what for? For no jobs? I cannot tell her I do not go to the school and break her heart. She has only her dreams.”
Iyad said, “There are people who say to join them and fight, but I don’t trust anyone, but maybe I can go if a friend goes too.” He looked at Qais, who said, “I think about what my mother says and think to get back to the school so I could work to build houses in the Jewish settlements.”
“I think it better to be dead,” Iyad replied, looking into his glass of dark pomegranate juice.

Though it was my job at the media center, it was a story I could not write, one that wrestles in the hearts of many Palestinian youngsters. Their words haunted and I told no one, fearing they could be traced and get in trouble.

At the end of that first year, on my way to the airport, the driver told me, “Israel loves it when there are suicide bombings: they ask for foreign aid for security and get it,” he chortled.

I did not see the boys again. The last suicide bombing occurred the following year in 2009 and I wondered.

The Stones Cry Out

Part I

(Based on a letter written by Dr. Munir Fasheh to Pope Benedict XVI)

I received holiday greetings in February. The hefty envelope had been neatly slashed and left open but the contents, a card and a pamphlet appeared undisturbed.

It was sent by my friend who lives in Bethlehem, the Palestinian territory currently occupied by Israel. I examined the envelope with his neatly printed handwriting; studied the stamps and the postmark – January 8, 2017. There were two stamps; one dated 2012 had a brightly colored Christmas tree with “Merry Christmas” written in script below it. The other, stated ‘State of Palestine,’ in Arabic and English and pictured the star of Bethlehem as it appears inside the nearby Church of the Nativity: many Christians believe it to be the exact spot where Jesus, “Prince of Peace,” was born.

Inside the envelope was a pamphlet and a picture post card showing an aerial view of Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock at the center and a view of the Wailing Wall in the left corner. On the back, my friend had written in bold type: Prayer For 2017: and a quote of the ‘Serenity Prayer’: God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference. Printed in English and in Arabic, he gave its attribution to Reinhold Niebuhr and followed it with his own simple thought: “In Hope is Life” – Remembering Palestine – and scrawled his initial.

The enclosed pamphlet intrigued me. I read it over several times before realizing that had inspectors read and understood it, I would likely not have received it. The nineteen page booklet, written by Dr. Munir Fasheh, was written in the form of a letter addressed to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI as a response to a lecture the Pope gave at the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006.

The lecture was titled: ‘Faith, Reason and the University – Memories and Reflections,’ and during his delivery, the Pope quoted 14th Century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II:

“Show me what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Dear Pope Benedict, the letter began, I am writing you as a Christian Palestinian. “When did I become Christian? Since the days Jesus walked on the land of Palestine. I belong to the only indigenous Christian community in the world, which makes us a very special and precious community”

Dr. Munir Fasheh continues, telling about his mother who did not know how to read and write and wouldn’t be able to recite scripture; “Yet, she beautifully embodied the spirit of Jesus in her life…” And asked about what Jesus said, her answer was ‘love one another.’

How, he asks in his letter, did my mother get this knowledge, the ability to embody Christ’s spirit without words in texts or brought by missionaries? His answer is by belonging to the precious indigenous Palestinian Christian community, which carried the spirit of Jesus in their hearts and in daily living as it passed from generation to generation.

Unlike organizations, which are created rationally by professionals through institutions, planning and budgets, our people’s community Christianity is not a mind creation. “Thus, I know very well the difference between people’s Christianity and institutional Christianity. They are worlds apart.”

This spirit was felt in the Jerusalem home where Fasheh grew up; and lost in 1948 when his city became occupied “by civilized democratic” European Jews who were promised my homeland (including my home) by “civilized democratic Christian” Britain. His letter extends an invitation for the Pope to visit his present house in the Palestinian city of Ramallah and to experience the “spirit” and feel the difference between “my mother’s Christianity and “western Christianity.”

The disappearance of Palestinian Christian communities started with the creation of Israel in 1948. Helped and supported by “Christian” Britain and US, Muslim and Christian Palestinians were driven from our lands and homes.” The scattered Christian families remaining in Jerusalem lost the spirit of community he knew in his childhood. Groups such as SABEEL in Jerusalem and Dar an-Nadwa in Bethlehem work to keep the spirit of Jesus alive within the shattered remains of the community, he says, “Once we disappear as a community – it is not possible to re-create it.”

“Never did I meet one missionary who came to Palestine to learn from this special and precious community. Imprisoned by words, symbols and images, they all came to preach and convert us with facts from “area studies” learned in Universities but seemed unaware of the special Christianity embodied in his parents’ way of living. and do not learn the special and radically different Christianity that existed. The assumption that one can understand through words and concepts is a myth of the modern world. To understand another world, one has to experience it, “enter it without prior concepts and thoughts.”
“I was lucky to live, feel, and experience this spirit in my home, but at the same time I am a product of institutions.”

Referencing the Pope’s quotation, he says he could excuse Manuel II for what he said about Muhammad in the 14th century – he probably didn’t know any better but “this is not your case, he admonishes, especially in light of what is happening in the world at the “time you repeated that statement in Germany without qualification and with apparent approval.”

Not to acknowledge the current bloody and brutal destructive wars waged by “Christian” and “Jewish” countries against mainly Muslim peoples and communities, failing to see the decades old military occupation and how Israel, the US, Britain, and EU are literally starving a whole population… The crimes in Gaza are the making of the “Jewish” state with full support from “Christian” US, Canada, EU, and Britain, claims supported by Mr. John Dugard, UN special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights on his fact finding mission to Gaza. Instead, to recite an ugly and false statement of ignorance and hatred said by an emperor more than 600 years ago is “pulling the church out of this world and rendering it irrelevant to those who suffer -Incomprehensible – to say the least!”

Continuing, Fasheh’s letter says, that during the past 200 years, there is no Arab or Islamic country in the region that was not bombarded by either “Christian” or “Jewish” armies. Ignoring facts, accusers revert to the 14th century falsehood of Islam describing it as being a religion of the sword, hatred, out to destroy “peace loving Christians and Jews…” Dismissing history, churches and governments further add insult by disrespecting the intelligence of the people.

He recalls the words of Black Hawk, a Sauk chief who in 1832, said, “How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong and wrong look like right.”

It’s easy when you never lived under military occupation as Fasheh had for most of his life. The word doesn’t mean much to people who have not experienced daily terror and insecurity of living under occupation. People in the West are ignorant and unaware of the horror caused by their nations to inhabitants of five continents for five centuries that have often wiped out whole civilizations!

“Occupation of Iraq is another type of Holocaust where instead of burning people in furnaces, they are burned in their homes by smart weapons!”

“I wish you had followed Jesus’ wisdom, he admonishes with a biblical passage – “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Mathew 7: 3-5). “I wish you had followed Jesus’ wisdom and said that you want to try to take out the planks that fill Christian eyes, …” and hopes others would do the same so all would see each other more clearly and humanly – it would have created dialogue and been in harmony with Christ’s message and spirit.

If Christians remain silent in the face of what is happening to peoples in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan then the very stones would cry out. The attempt to silence Palestinians and Lebanese summons another lesson: when the Pharisees wanted to silence the disciples, Jesus was told, ‘teacher, rebuke thy disciples!’ Jesus replied,’ if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19: 39-40).


Israel’s Weapon of Mass Destruction

It’s called “skunk water” because of the horrible stench; and the Israeli occupation forces use it in Palestinian villages like Bil’in to disperse the crowds of peaceful demonstrators.

I first heard about the use of skunk water last October from Bettijo, a peace activist I met back home in Florida. We met again in Jerusalem in a café across the street from the Old City, where I was staying after my recent arrival. She had just completed a three-month service with IWPS (International Women’s Peace Service) in Iraq Burin, a village of about a thousand people south of Nablus. I asked her about the smelly substance I had heard about. Her eyes welled, and her chin began to quiver. For a long time she did not speak, only stared blankly at something far off. Then, her lips moved and in a voice barely audible said,

            “They came in trucks with tanks mounted on them and sprayed everything – houses and trees and gardens and people – streams of watery sewage from long thick hoses: and they kept it up driving back and forth up and down the streets, soldiers with gas masks spraying everywhere.” Her voice had risen, and then stopped. She shook her head, as though erasing the vision, then began again softly,

“The smell was horrid,” she said, looking down into her glass of dark pomegranate juice, stirring it absently with the straw. Suddenly she looked up at me.   

“Weeks later we could still smell it; but now I think about the diseases – cholera, dysentery, the polluted water and soil, there after I have left, and long after the smell has gone.”

I thought about Bettijo and her time in the little village when news and films of a thick green gas came this morning about its use in Bil’in, where I frequently visit. The chemical with a horrible stench, sprayed on men, women and children from tanks rolled alongside the separation fence where demonstrators gather every Friday to protest land confiscation and the apartheid wall built along the Green Line, which separates Israel from Palestinian land.

 Demonstrations began in Bil’in in 2005; Organized by the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements in Bil’in, every Friday nonviolent protestors march the short distance from the village to the barrier wall. And just as regularly, the occupation soldiers drive them back with tear gas, sound grenades and rubber bullets. In spite of frequent injuries, tear gas suffocation, two recent deaths and numerous arrests, the protest marchers persist, their ranks swelled by a growing number of Israelis and internationals.

Week after week I read the same reports from Bil’in telling of dozens of people suffering tear gas asphyxiation. To those who have not experienced it as I have, it is debilitating. The US made gas canisters are thrown at nonviolent demonstrators by Israeli soldiers dressed in full battle gear and wearing gas masks. They hurl the tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound bombs from behind the annexation wall at men, women and children who come armed only with Palestinian flags and pictures of martyrs. Basem Abo Rahma was struck and killed by a canister, his sister Jawaher died as a result of asphyxiation. The effects of tear gas are incapacitating; coughing, temporary blindness and marked dehydration, water pours relentlessly from every pore creating incredible thirst.

Undeterred, the protest marches continue. Organized by the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements in Bil’in, every Friday citizens from nearby villages join residents, Israelis and international activists; and each week, soldiers react with violence to drive them back, now with their newest weapon – skunk water. Still demonstrations continue and their ranks swell with more supporters.

When Losing Becomes a Win

At the quadrennial General Methodist Conference, held in Tampa, Florida, a vote to divest church funding from companies that support military occupation in Palestine lost. A disappointment, it came as no surprise to delegates who had seen it regularly defeated in the past.

The divestment issue comes up each year at regional church conferences; and this year again it was a heated issue at the worldwide Conference, where a two to one loss, was a disappointment for a strong coalition of divestment supporters.

But disappointment also signaled hope. Sporting bright yellow T-shirts, advocates from several groups had united in an all out effort to educate visiting delegates about humanitarian concerns repeatedly trampled by votes that defy Christian values by using church funds for companies that oppress Christian as well as Muslim Palestinians. Homemade signs pinned to the distinctive yellow shirts were designed to inform nearly a thousand attending delegates by asking them to question funding, which sustains a brutal occupation by supplying weapons and machinery.

The Jewish Voice for Peace joined Christians, visiting Palestinians, ministers, peace groups and individuals to support the United Methodist Kairos Response in a unified appeal to Christian conscience for divestment from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard, companies that make and supply equipment designed to destroy property and impose human misery while reaping profits from church funding.

Humanitarian as well as religious grounds justify a position to support withdrawal of church investments. The campaign was part of a growing BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction) strategy to garner support for Palestinian justice through nonviolent movements that appeal to Christian values. Organizer Anna Balzer of JVP and Suzanne Hoder, representative of UMKR, though disappointed, said that the vote had a bright side. Supporters imparted information to delegates unaware of facts on the ground, and said more teaching about the cost and human impact is needed.

The strong unified advocate presence evidenced a future “win” for divestment at upcoming regional conferences. Conferences in Northern Illinois, California Pacific, New York and Western Ohio had already voted to pull investments. Hoder said she expects more will follow their lead.

A reception sponsored by UMKR, drew delegates, many from African countries, to hear experiences from indigenous Palestinians about injustices suffered by Christians in Palestine. Rev. Alex Awad of Bethlehem Bible College, Zahi Khouri, Chairman of the Coca Cola Company in Palestine and US Government economist Philip Farah were among Christian Palestinians who described the impact of occupation on Christians, often marginalized or neglected by the mainstream media.

Kairos Palestine, a doctrine written by patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem, attacks divestment on humane and moral grounds and calls upon world leaders to heed the cry of the oppressed. Used in 1985 during the struggle in South Africa against apartheid, it received strong support by highlighting Christian principles that promote human dignity for all peoples.

The impassioned speeches by influential Palestinians affected a compromised vote. While Christian fundamentalism and heavy pressure by Israeli lobbyists influenced the outcome, the call for “positive” investing to bring about change for peace, may indicate that the Christian speakers who emphasized being strangled by the occupation had influence.

Though the failed vote ensures United Methodist Pension Funds would continue, two proposals, one against the occupation and another condemning the settlements passed. Regarded as “token,” it indicated thought concerning Christian values and humanity sacrificed to occupation.

On the same day the outcome of the vote was learned, the Islamic Community of Tampa had invited Christians, Jews and advocate supporters to an evening meal prepared by Muslim members. Speaking in front of Christians, Jews and Muslims, Anna Balzer said that in spite of disappointment, important connections had been made, information was widely distributed, and personal contacts increased more supporters.

Hoder said defeat reflects disregard for the Christian principles; talking to people raises awareness and connects the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination with other movements as did the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa. Delegates carry home a message of justice for Palestine represented in cooperation among diverse faiths and ethnicities working together to uphold justice as the cornerstone of all civilized religions.

The Human Toll of Occupation

When I arrived in Jerusalem in November of 2012, I received a disturbing phone call from the director of the news service where I work as a volunteer.  News travels quickly in Beit Sahour, the quiet suburb of Bethlehem where the apartment where I stay is located. His voice somber, he told me that the husband of my landlady had died a few days before. “It was sudden and it shouldn’t have happened,” he said, his voice heavy with despair.

I arrived to find Samia, her two sons and their families distraught with grief. For days, I watched a steady parade of visitors pass my apartment on their way to her house. It was mostly women who came during the day, some wearing the Muslim headscarves, others  bareheaded but all were dressed head to toe in black. Men came evenings after work, walking head down and slow. They came singularly or with families, others in groups as large as eight or ten. For forty days the stream of friends and neighbors came to share grief.

Respectful and accepting of Orthodox Christian ritual, tradition proved wearing for the bereaved widow obliged to endure unrelenting days of communal grieving. She greeted each guest hospitably, accepting with a tired smile the bitterness of her loss while serving   tea, coffee and a sample of sweets.

The tedious days ended with a long funeral service at the Greek Orthodox Church nearby. We sat on hard chairs set up for the overflow surrounded by vividly painted icons of angels and the holy family. Over a thousand people came to pay tribute and say farewell to the community leader who had given so much and to share compassion that knows no single religion but embraces all.

The daily visits by caring people, many coming from villages and experiencing checkpoints, interrogation and humiliation that served to bolster commitment to humanitarian concern.

As the days went on, gradually, Samia’s story, one of the many experienced daily by Palestinians of all faiths unfolded; and I would learn later that Samia’s brother-in-law, living in Jordan, had been denied a permit by Israel to attend the funeral of his brother.

In spite of help from her two daughters-in-law, who kept coffee and tea ongoing to serve guests, the continuous flow of visitors and sleepless nights were taking a toll on Samia.

One day, she knocked on my door and humbly asked if everything in the apartment was all right. I sensed her need for relief and refuge and invited her to sit and have coffee. Graciously she accepted, a thin smile of appreciation crossing her tired face.

She began to talk, words tripping out in a jumble of English and Arabic that began softly as apology then became a story edged with anger.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” she interjected repeatedly as she told her story. He had been healthy, had returned from working in the U.S. in construction a few weeks before.

She said he had complained of mild discomfort; and when it did not pass, she took him to the local clinic. Though equipment was minimal and there were no specialists on staff, she was assured that everything they could do would be done and he would be all right.

There was no time to request the permit from Israel needed to travel to Jerusalem, six miles away, for attention at a good hospital; and, in any case, it could be denied. Likewise, a trip to Ramallah, which has adequate hospital facilities, requires an Israeli permit with time an added factor.

A bustling city in the West Bank directly north of Bethlehem normally would take about twenty-five minutes to get to by car; but Palestinians cannot take that route, which goes through Jerusalem in Israel. Instead, they are required to take a precarious winding mountainside road that avoids the city and takes well over an hour.

Samia said the last time she saw her husband alive was at the clinic. He had a smile and waved cheerfully as they wheeled him into another room. A short time later, a doctor came and said he was gone.

“There was no time… if only… it’s Israel and occupation…” She sniffled and dabbed her eyes. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be telling you, you know… those who haven’t been here, don’t know how we suffer, all of us, Christians, Muslims, even the Jews…”

In Beit Sahour, my second home, I see no hostility between Muslims and Christians. I see children of both faiths walk from school arm in arm; there is no crime and I feel safer than when at home in my St. Petersburg, Florida neighborhood.

Deaths occur because Israel denies permits; students and workers are delayed and harassed at checkpoints; and whether Christian or Muslim, are prevented from going to see holy sites and visiting their families during the holidays.

Every Sunday, church bells ring throughout historic Palestine; in Bethlehem, they chime and blend with the Muslim call to prayer, a harmonious call for peace among Palestinians who live and suffer together under Israel’s brutal occupation.

Theater Power, a Beautiful Resistance

I spent last Christmas in the Aida refugee camp in occupied Bethlehem watching children dance, then looking in as a teacher gave a piano lesson to a young boy.

The day was cold and rainy; and far from home and family, I was feeling somewhat down until peace activist Mazin Qumsiyeh invited me to join him on a visit to meet Abdelfattah Abusrour, playwright and director of Al Rowwad, the cultural and theater center based at the camp.

Four of us crammed into the back seat of Mazin’s car as he swerved along the rain slicked stone streets heading for Aida, where he served on the board of directors.

As we rounded narrow roads leading to the camp, hillside grapevines and olive trees gave way to high walls blocking the restful view of farmlands on the other side. During past visits to Palestine, I had watched teary-eyed farmers look on helplessly while tractors tore up crops, workers poured cement, and walls expanded; their grotesque monotony broken later only by spray-painted pictures and graffiti, pitiful cries to free Palestine.

Aida Camp lies north of Bethlehem and south of Jerusalem; two holy cities separated by a thirty-foot wall. In 2002, during the Second Intifada, wire barricades began to appear around the refugee camp and within the next few years, giant walls circled it on three sides. A short time later, the ugly gray concrete began to take on a new face. Colorful pictures told stories of the dreams of youngsters who lived within its prison-like walls. A stairway showing children walking up to the top needed no words.

We meet Abusrour (Abdel for short) in his office. A copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights hangs on the wall behind the desk accompanied by pictures of peacemakers, among them, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, and Albert Einstein.

 We are served coffee as Abdel begins telling us about Al Rowwad, an Arab word, he says, that means “pioneer.” Describing himself as a “social entrepreneur,” he speaks enthusiastically about the cultural center and the programs offered to children who have nowhere to go and have known little about the world beyond walls and soldiers with guns.

“Our goal is to show an image other than violence; teaching children to rise above the violence and humiliation they face daily is an effective way to resist without bloodshed and to rebuild hope. Art, music, dance and theater are tools with power to resist occupation and to instill ‘peace within.’ We focus on youth and parents, especially mothers.”

He explains that when Israeli soldiers intimidate and goad youngsters to react in anger, in the past, frustration led children who saw no hope, no future to react violently – throwing stones, and even driving some to become suicide bombers. Each martyr brought pity for Israel, more funding for security and increased suppression of our people.

 “Growing up under occupation, these children know only images of violence; everyday they see Israeli soldiers with guns, feel defenseless and have low self-esteem.”

As violence from Palestinians diminished, resistance to occupation grew and took another direction. With no army, no airplanes and punishing long prison terms for anyone caught with weapons, armed confrontation against Israel’s strong military was senseless; non-violent resistance was the only reasonable option.

“Occupation creates despondency,” he says, “but blaming it does not bring change; we don’t have the luxury of despair; what counts is to make each day more beautiful than the last.  We ask the question, ‘who am I?” then let them see they are Palestinian through art, music, dance, sports and theater. Peace within comes before peace with Israel… children must believe they can create miracles within instead of reacting outside.”

“All religions share these values… and with or without money, we do it; it’s an act of partnership to keep us human.”

The theater program began in the home of his parents. He says the values he learned from them growing up is the “engine” that keeps Al Rowwad (an Arabic word that means “pioneer”) going. They taught me that if you practice violence, even if the cause is just, you lose part of your humanity.

Abdel grew up in the Aida refugee camp and understands the frustrations of children and the parents who have lived all their lives under the control of foreign occupation. As a young adult, he studied medical engineering in Paris; he also took acting classes and performed in French theater, where social change is a common theme. He returned to Palestine on the brink of the Second Intifada, which began in 2000. During Israeli invasions of Bethlehem, Al Rowwad became the emergency clinic at Aida camp.

 “Artists should use their power to make a statement not just to entertain…when we are involved in the arts; we are united in [our] culture against tragedy.”

Abdel led us into a large room where other internationals joined our small group as we took seats along one side of the room. About a dozen children aged from pre to late -teen filed in and sat quietly facing us a short distance away. Abed spoke to them in Arabic, introducing us and acknowledging our respective countries; then asked them if they had questions for us. Curious, but shy, they were hesitant. Mazin broke the ice by telling them that today was Christmas, a major holiday where we came from; then described Santa coming down chimneys with sacks of toys for good children. Amused, some children stifled giggles, looked quizzically at a neighbor or just stared back wide-eyed. Asked to tell about their traditions, we heard about gift giving and traditional new clothes during Ramadan. One girl said she hid hers under her pillow.

Abdel then appealed to the reluctant children to show us the debka dance they had been rehearsing. Led by an older student, they performed the traditional Palestinian dance with confidence and pride, synchronized to near perfection.

“The older ones become teachers,” Abdel explained, “that way, we pass on tradition.  Children see how they can be change makers; and we should be proud when they ask us, what did you do to make a change?”

Similar to Alrowwad, the cities of Jenin and Ramallah also have theater groups that do not work with Israel. Abdel explains, “When Muslims, Jews and Christians are all treated equally, then we can work together.”

Throughout history, artistic expression has been the target of tyrants aware of its power to challenge authority and create change. Armed only with the power to influence, oppressors take action with censorship and violence. On April 4, 2011, theater director Juliano Mer-Khamis was gunned down in front of the Freedom Theatre where he taught drama to children in the Jenin refugee camp north of Bethlehem.

 The son of a Palestinian father and Jewish mother Arna Mer, founder of the Freedom Theatre, the cultural activist had continued her work of teaching theater to children. Like Juliano, Abdel believes theater and culture redirect anger and empower young people to resist militant threats nonviolently.  Abdel smiles, “It’s a beautiful resistance.”

The children of Al Rowwad have performed in Europe and in the United States. Abusrour tours the US again in April and May 2012.  His visit includes Tampa and Pinellas County.


Tea Party II Defiance in Palestine

January 1, 2012 was my last day in Palestine and I was busy packing when my friend Jessie came to the door.

“There’s someone you need to meet before you go,” she announced solemnly.

“I can’t…”

“Madeleine isn’t far and we won’t stay long,” her tone uncharacteristically serious.

Sure, Arab time, I thought, short means long and long means indefinitely. Yet, I couldn’t refuse the chance to hear another story about life under occupation in the holy land. Anyway, I rationalized getting into Jessie’s car; I had all night to pack.

We stopped in front of a house, half hidden behind citrus trees choked by tangles of vines; a ground cover of weeds tumbled over the stone pathway leading to the door. The place was a misplaced spectacle among the neat row of sand colored houses in the suburban district of Bethlehem.

“It’s her sustainable garden,” Jessie explained spotting my forlorn look at snarls of twisted creepers, straggly wildflowers and thick clumps of odd greenery. The strong odor of citrus mingled with mint, cinnamon and eucalyptus greeted us as we entered the house.
A slightly built woman stood in the kitchen area vigorously stirring a pot that seemed half her size.

“We don’t buy anything,” she announced, not turning to face us, “picked these oranges and lemons this morning and got to get this jam going.”

I watched as she stirred, poured in sugar, tasted and stirred again, before turning to meet us. Smiling, she wiped her hands and began to slice cheese and arrange an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables on a plate and to pour tea for her guests, Jessie, a woman from Germany who had come earlier, and me. Madeleine was in perpetual motion; never stopped to sit and talked incessantly.

“The cheese, yogurt and butter are from our goats, the rest is from my garden; we’ll go there soon as the jam gets underway.”

She served us a plate of homemade cheeses and biscuits with butter she said she made from the unusual breed of goats she and her husband raised. After tea, Madeleine took us out into the back yard. Chickens roamed free scuttling in and out among the herbs and greens. She snipped and named each herb too rapidly for me to remember all except the spearmint, regularly added to tea served in Palestine. We followed her as she trailed in and out among bushes and trees, snatching off sprigs and handing them to us to smell or to sample for taste.

Back in the kitchen, she returned to stirring the jam, now and then stopping to sort and snip the greens she had collected for a salad during our walk.

“Where did you learn about living off the land and food preparation?” I asked.

“Had to,” she answered abruptly, “during the Intifada, it was survival.”

I recalled Emili’s story about Palestine’s Tea Party during the Intifada, when in 1989, citizens revolted against taxes and boycotted Israeli products; the arrest of the agronomist who was teaching Palestinians how to grow and prepare their own food when curfews forbid travel and gunfire made venturing outside risky.

“We had to do a lot of things to survive then,” Madeleine said, “and we had to take life threatening risks.” She stopped talking, reflectively she continued to snip, sort greens, and shred them into a salad bowl. She shook her head, “they were bad times, Israeli soldiers were everywhere, there was shooting in the streets, and arrests, a curfew; and my husband was dying.

For forty days, we were not allowed to leave the house; my husband had cancer and needed oxygen. I couldn’t stand listening to him gasp for air; knowing relief was only a few kilometers away in a Bethlehem hospital. You don’t think right when you see someone you love suffer like that; I just knew what I had to do.

I got into the car and drove straight to the checkpoint; only I didn’t stop. I gunned the gas, crashed through the gate, kept going and didn’t look back. I remember waiting for gunshots and not caring; but I heard nothing and just kept going. I reached the hospital and headed straight for the dispensary. Doctors, nurses, everyone stood in shock; then riddled me with questions – how did I? I was breathless, ‘just give me the oxygen,’ I ordered. One doctor offered to return with me, said he knew an alternate route.
‘Hell, no,’ I said, ‘No sense in two of us getting shot. I’m going the way I came – alone!’

They put the tank of oxygen in the car and I left, racing back the same way. Ahead was the checkpoint, this time heavily fortified; soldiers, rifles poised waited. There were jeeps blockading the road and on either side of the gate; no way to crash through. I had to stop. Soldiers surrounded my car; questions followed: Where are you from? How did you get through? Who let you through? Something inside said,’ bolt, go but there was no way and bullets would follow.

A tall older soldier sauntered up to my window. He appeared to be in charge as the others cleared the way for him. My heart sank; my throat tightened; all I could do was point to the tank on the seat beside me.

Leaning close to me, he hushed, ‘Go, go quickly.’ Then he signaled to the guards ahead to raise the gate, and waved me through.

Yes, occupation must end for the sake of all – Palestinians and Jews; yet, over these sixty-three years, occupation has been our teacher,” she said, raising and shaking a bundle of radishes triumphantly.

“People who do not know us say there can never be peace because Arabs and Jews hate each other; but when we meet face to face, we see the fine human threads that bind, teach and strengthen resistance.”

Palestine Freedom Riders, a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In early November 2011, six Palestinians boarded a bus in the occupied West Bank, which was headed toward Jerusalem. A line of press cars followed. At the boarder, the bus was stopped by the Israel police and the Palestinians were arrested. It is illegal for Palestinians to enter Jerusalem, which is in Israel. Mazin Qumsiyeh, a doctor, author and Palestinian activist was among the arrested. A few hours later he and the others were released. The daring act made a statement that recalls another time in another country.

I was reminded of the bold actions of the Freedom Riders in the US, back in the 1960s. The poignant words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still resonate with his stoic call for the freedom of all human beings regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. Denying Palestinians entrance to the nearby city of Jerusalem, with its historic churches and mosques, because they are Palestinians (and therefore suspect) seems a clear case of discrimination.

A few days later, Sherrill and I drove with Mazin and his wife Jessie to Ramallah for a meeting to evaluate the results of the brazen act. The trip from where we were living in Bethlehem is a distance of about 70 kilometers and should take no more than 25 minutes to drive if taken directly. But we could not take the direct route, which passes through Jerusalem. Palestinians are prohibited from entering Jerusalem without a permit from Israel. License plate color; white with green lettering distinguish West Bank Palestinians from Jerusalemites and Jews living in the [illegal] West Bank settlements who are issued yellow license plates and permit passage on “Jewish only” roads that connect directly to Jerusalem.

Leaving Ramallah, Mazin takes the circuitous alternate road that circumvents Jerusalem. The route takes us along a narrow road with dizzying hairpin turns. Navigating a winding poorly lit mountainside road in the dark takes over an hour. Privileged, Jewish colonials with yellow plates ease along a well-maintained direct road that routes them directly from settlement homes to Jerusalem. Separate roads based on ethnicity? I recalled the days when blacks rode in the back of the bus, had separate drinking fountains, and could not use the same rest rooms as whites.

In spite of Israel’s blatant acts of discrimination, Palestinians will not bend to Israel’s abuses of basic human rights. The young are learning from our history; and taking the lead from America’s revolt against injustice – whether the “tea party” tax revolt or laws that fly in the face of civilized values of fair play – Palestinians vow to continue resisting against injustice and discrimination.

Like the US of the 60s, Israel will have to grow up! It took generations for the United States to realize not all its citizens were equal in rights or treatment. We made amends, fought for and passed laws against inequity based on race, gender and ethnicity. Like Israel, we too had called ourselves a democracy, but lied. We’re still working on getting it right. When will Israel start working on real democracy with justice for all? I believe, many are.

Slowly Racing Toward Peace

My friends Erez and Shimona would like to visit me in Bethlehem but by law, they cannot. Israeli law forbids Jews from Israel to enter Palestinian territory. A big red sign at the entrance to Palestinian Area A reminds Jews of the law. My friends live within the gated community of Newe Daniel, which though inside the Palestinian West Bank is considered part of Israel.

Visiting them in Newe Daniel is in itself complicated. My Palestinian friend Johnny drives me to the center of Bethlehem, and guides me to a shared taxi, called a sharut. But the taxi leaves me off at the base of el Hadr instead of at the summit, the “neutral” zone where I am to meet my Jewish friend. I walk up to the summit, a good kilometer away, and pleasant as I was in the company of Ala’a who spoke English and directed me.

If a direct route were possible, the trip to his house should take no more than twenty minutes. However, given all the restrictions, it takes several hours. That aside, my second visit was pleasant. Each time I learn more.

My activist friends, staunch defenders of Palestinans, find my curiosity and visits to a Jewish community unsettling. But I want to know real people of any race or religion and refuse to pre-judge.

Palestinian news report attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinian farmers and describe settlers beating them and uprooting their olive trees.

I want to know more. Who are these people? Where did they come from? And why do they act this way toward other human beings? I still haven’t gotten answers. But each time I talk with Erez and his family, I feel I take another baby step toward understanding.

The family moved from New Jersey with their two teen daughters and two younger boys to a community where traditional religious and ethical values would be honored. Seated at the living room table, I listened as Erez explained the community.

Residents prefer to call their neighborhood a community rather than a “settlement,” he says. About 400 families of around 1500 people live in tidy close homes. The by-laws of the community state that residents must all be orthodox and therefore agree to abide by orthodox laws – no driving on Saturday.

Later a tall blond man joined us. Nethanel told me he came from Germany thirteen years ago. Born to a Protestant family, he was first raised as a Christian. His mother began to study Jewish history and converted. He married an orthodox Yemeni woman. He says Judaism made sense to him. “Moses got the commandments… passed from father to son, they are pure.” Jews are taught to question, but the commandments remain law, he explains.

“If they don’t want to follow those rules, there are other Jewish communities such as Efrat, which are mixed. But here, we are all orthodox,” says Erez. He is having a house of his own built across the street from where the family lives in a large rented house.
Asked about the Palestinian plea for their own state, Erez says, “we are troubled by talk about a Palestinian state,” but says that Newe Daniel would be annexed to Israel. According to Abbas, the Palestinian leader, a Palestinian state will not have any Jews, he says.

What would you like to see happen? I asked. Erez said Arab states so far have been failures. And there is a fear of radical Muslims. The Arab mentality is simple; no TV, they want to work.

Shimona, who had been listening from the adjacent kitchen, came in. Since they opened the new Rami Levi, everyone shops there – Arabs, Jews, we all mix. She says, “especially the women… we’re there with our coupons and talking about what’s on sale; we never mixed like that before…”

She says she’s also talking with the Palestinian workers who are building their new home, and had asked them politely to remove graffiti she saw on the walls. “I didn’t know what it said, but I told them the children shouldn’t see it… they got rid of it.” She says it’s important to respect one another; and keep doors open for communication.

“I feel in day to day life, when we’re all interacting – Arabs and Jews – all moms in a supermarket, side by side; we share a deep history of caring for our families; and we see there’s room enough for all.”

I saw through her, a crack in the wall, and can only wish for it to widen. But that will take time. Slowly we will race toward understanding and peace with justice for all.