The mood was somber in Public School 3 this Tuesday, when members of New Yorkers Say No To War gathered to talk about Israel, Palestine and Us. New Yorkers Say No has been meeting each week since September 18th. Each Tuesday the group gathers and not since that first week has the feeling in the room been so heavy, so tangible: Grief.
Grief sank the shoulders of the progressive, activist Jews in the room. New Yorkers Say No is full of them. A public school teacher, a professor, a therapist, a civil rights attorney, a performer, a theater critic, a politician, a journalist. The Jews in the room are men and women who’ve dedicated their lives to fighting racism, segregation, the slighting of the poor, the eradication of culture. Their parents did likewise, in this country and elsewhere.
“My father’s dream of Israel is dead,” said one who grew up in a Jewish family fighting apartheid in South Africa. “I believed there could be a democratic secular state,” said another, who was born, as she put it “A Palestinian. In Palestine, before the founding of Israel.”
“We are losing what I thought it was to be a Jew,” said one and then another. The Jewish tradition dying before us, explained the second, was the tradition of socialism, internationalism and standing up for justice for oppressed people everywhere. In face of Ariel Sharon’s assault on the human rights of all West Bank Palestinians and in defiance of global opinion, she said, “I fear it’s over. It’s dead.”
There are reasons to fear as well as to grieve. The weekend saw two marches in this city. On Saturday, thousands, largely but not exclusively Palestinian and Arab, marched against Israel’s re-occupation of Palestinian lands. There were a handful of signs on the march which read “Sharon=Hitler,” that equated the Star of David with the Swastika, one that read “Palestine Yes/Israel No.”
“I’ve marched many times,” said a NYSAYNO member who had talked about travelling from Oklahoma to Israel in her youth and finding — to her horror and disappointment — racism in the so-called “promised land.” A civil rights activist, a feminist, a leftist, she said she’d participated in no end of marches alongside Palestinians. “This was the first time I felt bad, scared, so sad.” Tears cut off her voice.
Sunday brought thousands more, mostly Jewish New Yorkers into the streets in “solidarity with Israel.” A couple of NYSAYNO members, like those who belong to the Israeli-based peace group, “Women in Black” had attended that march too. The Israeli Defense Force’s assault on Palestinians puts Israel in more peril, not less, they say. To be “in solidarity” means to call for an end to occupation, they believe, but among the marchers for Israel they were a tiny few. “I felt entirely alone, and scared there, too.” Said one.
Grief brought tears to young eyes as well. Kate is quickly becoming a veteran activist through her work with the Direct Action Network of New York. She talked about a woman she knows: 21-year Palestinian American, Suraida Saleh, who was born in Washington DC at George Washington hospital. On April 5, undercover Israeli agents shot Saleh dead as her husband drove her to hospital in Ramallah, Kate explained, through sobs. She died protecting the 18-month-old baby she was cradling in her lap.
Twenty-something year-old Trevor, a visitor from Seattle, was red-eyed when he talked about Hurriya. Hurriya is an eleven year-old Palestinian in whose family Trevor stayed this winter in Ramallah. A member of the ad-hoc International Solidarity Movement, Trevor is returning to Ramallah next week, he told NYSAYNO. Hurriya called him Easter morning to say that Israeli troops were on her doorstep. Her older brother Majid was taken away, she said. He has not returned. Hurriya is “a walking sun,” said Trevor. When the young Israeli soldiers invaded her home, they told her they felt like monsters doing it, she told him. “One told her it made him feel sick,” said Trevor.
Ariel, was born in Israel and served his time in the army there. “I discovered my “enemy” was human too,” he said on Tuesday. “I remember my surprise.”
Is it possible to have a heart-to-heart talk about the Middle East in the heart of Manhattan? It’s by no means easy, but it’s possible, yes. Is there a hunger for this kind of talk? Absolutely. I had the honor of facilitating the conversation I’ve described here. On Working Assets Radio we’ve aired similar conversations with listeners, too.
It only takes two questions to start: What are we feeling? What can we do?
As Americans we’re involved, politically and economically. Jew and non-Jew, Arab, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, WASP, our tax-dollars and our failure to act make the Sharon/Bush alliance possible. And people who believe in peace and justice are particularly summoned right now. Like the Israelis, we live in a nation that is waging war in “self defense.” We too, live in a nation in which the context for what violence has been committed against us is roundly ignored; even considering that context is criticized as “capitulating to violence.”
We too, live in a nation where the overwhelming majority of our peers support the use of violence to respond to violence and those who favor other responses have found no way yet to turn their neighbors around. You hear voices calling for Israelis to rise up against their government — and many thousands have been doing just that this week, and been gassed and beaten by soldiers for their efforts. Do Americans think that Israelis can do in their democracy what we in the U.S. have so far not?
Many peoples of many lands have had unspeakable wrongs committed against them. Those wrongs smolder and will get expressed. Three of the last to speak at this week’s New Yorkers Say No meeting were an African American man, a Persian woman, and a Native American. “I’m going to the West Bank on Sunday,” said the last. “As a Native American I recognize occupation. I feel it.”
A cycle of violence is taking us all down. Can we build a global movement that models a response to political violence that gets beyond talk of “capitulation to terrorism” and gets to the business of righting injustice? Can we begin to air our feelings about what we’re seeing and on the basis of those feelings act? I believe we can.
Journalist Laura Flanders is the host of Working Assets Radio and author of “Real Majority, Media Minority: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting.” Her Spin Doctor Laura columns appear daily on WorkingForChange. You can contact her at [email protected]