January 4, 2024
If I were a Palestinian, what would I do?
That’s the question I found myself thinking about for quite some time.
If I lived in the refugee camps that I saw on my first drive along the Jordan River almost 50 years ago, and saw the poverty and the isolation of their lives would I have accepted this second-class status? How would I have reacted to being looked down upon by the surrounding population and the armed soldiers who patrolled the roadways? And, If I did react, what would I have done about it? 50 years later, how would I have answered my children and grandchildren when they asked me what I had done about their plight?
There were similar moments on each trip since that first, moments when I came face to face with the difference between my life, and the lives of my Jewish Israeli friends, and those of those lived by Palestinians. The walls and fences that separated people who had once been friends and neighbors from each other told me I was different and privileged, and they were not. When I returned to Israel from a trip to Petra, Jordan I was whisked through the details of the border crossing at the Allenby Bridge and whisked past long and slow-moving lines of Palestinians who were being put through a grueling challenge on their way back home — a challenge that I was immune from.
What would I do if I were living, as Palestinians do, in a land where those in control see me as an interloper, lucky to be allowed to remain? What would I do if I were living, as Palestinians do, on a land that I believe is mine but is controlled by others who tell me I have no claim to it and I should be grateful for whatever way of life I am allowed to have?
In September, a month before the horrors of October 7th and the beginning of the now more than two months of destruction of Gaza and its people that Israel has felt to be the proper response, I thought about this again when I read in +972 about the reality of being a Palestinian farmer:
“Israeli settlers arrive with their herds and prevent them from grazing on land where Palestinians have grazed for decades; then armed settlers would proceed to harass them day and night, even entering houses, without the army or police intervening. Everyone described the same, overwhelming feelings of fear and distress under the shadow of these settler invasions…The Israeli authorities, along with the settlers, have played a central role in the displacement. For years, the occupation apparatus has banned the Palestinian communities from construction; demolished their homes; denied them connection to water and electricity; stopped them from paving roads; issued demolition orders for schools built with funds from the European Union; established and recognized Jewish settlements; and, of course, stood by during settler violence…The whole system is being mobilized for the settlers…his is not a 16-year-old boy deciding on his own what to do…People plan and think about where and what to build. There is legal support, money, experience, and motivation. And right now the political conditions are a dream. They’re exploiting this opportunity [while] at the height of their power. This would not be happening without the support of the most instrumental entities on the ground, such as the regional councils, Smotrich’s settlement administration, [and] the Civil Administration.“
If those farmers were you, what would you do when you are so far away from justice?
If you, like me, reject violence, then you reacted with horror to the rampage of October 7th, when people broke out of the “gated community” that Is Gaza and raped, kidnapped, and murdered. This is not an answer. Though they acted in the name of liberation, I say this was not the path to freedom. No matter how bad your life is, this was not the way to protest and get the freedom and rights you are entitled to.
But, then, if you reject violence, what would you have done? What would you tell your children and your grandchildren that you did to break free from oppression?
When I suggest that non-violent protest remains the way forward, even under the severe repression that is Palestinian life, I remember just a few years earlier, in March 2018 Gazans attempted to protest peacefully in what they called the “Great March of Return.” Emulating Dr. King they tried to confront the power they believed oppressed them through civil disobedience. And, like Dr. King crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma Alabama, they too were greeted with violence. Here’s how Amnesty International described that effort:
“The protests were launched to demand the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees to their villages and towns in what is now Israel and to call for an end to Israel’s blockade. They culminated on 14 May, on the day of the US embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, when Palestinians commemorate the displacement and dispossession of hundreds of thousands in 1948-9 during the conflict following the creation of the state of Israel. On that day alone, Israeli forces killed 59 Palestinians, in a horrifying example of use of excessive force and live ammunition against protesters who did not pose an imminent threat to life.
“The organizers of the “Great March of Return” have repeatedly stated that the protests are intended to be peaceful, and they have largely involved demonstrators protesting near the fence that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel. Despite this, the Israeli army reinforced its forces – deploying tanks, military vehicles, and soldiers, including snipers, along the Gaza/Israel fence – and gave orders to shoot anyone within several hundred meters of the fence.
“While some protesters have engaged in some forms of violence including by burning tires, flying incendiary kites or throwing stones and Molotov cocktails in the direction of Israeli soldiers, social media videos, as well as eyewitness testimonies gathered by Amnesty International, Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups show that Israeli soldiers shot unarmed protesters, bystanders, journalists, and medical staff approximately 150-400m from the fence, where they did not pose any threat.”
If the March of Return was not peaceful enough for you remember that the act of calling for Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) has also been deemed unacceptable and antisemitic. This is how ADL CEO Johnathon Greenblatt put it in a speech he made back in 2016:
“Let me be clear: at its core BDS is an anti-Semitic movement. It is part and parcel of the larger effort to delegitimize the Jewish state. That is to erode its basic foundational legitimacy and weaken its morale in the face of great external threat….BDS and the delegitimization of Israel have nothing, I repeat, nothing to do with legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies. Its aims are out of all proportion to the discourse of legitimate criticism. Despite the claims of the BDS crowd about the taboos that inhibit criticism of Israel, is there any state that is more widely criticized than Israel? Despite the protestations of pundits who express their indignation that they supposedly cannot critique Israel, is there any nation that attracts more self-righteous indignation than Israel?
“So let’s see BDS for what it is –a continuation, a modern version if you will, of an irrational hatred of the Jewish people.”
And, in the days following October 7th it is clear according to Israel and its supporters there is no way for a Palestinian to protest on their behalf, violently or nonviolently. And there is no way for those of us who wish to stand with them to do that either. Condemn the violence, deservedly so, but also condemn the hopes and dreams of the Palestinian people? There is no vehicle to protest that is acceptable unless you give up your history and your aspirations.
Any call for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes they were displaced from in 1948 as part of the modern state of Israel’s birthing pains is unacceptable. It is more than unacceptable it is hateful, antisemitic speech.
Not only is violent protest unacceptable, but using the wrong language is unacceptable. You must agree to allow Israel and its supporters to define the terms of what you can dream. Even as the portion of the land that Israel once seemed to agree would at some time in the future be yours is stolen, even as members of Israel’s government talk about forcefully pushing Palestinians out of the Gaza strip, you can only speak, only protest, within the terms and limits set by Israel and its supporters.
That’s the lesson that we are being asked to learn by folks like Rep. Stafanik; that’s the lesson Harvard’s former President is being punished for not learning. Having not agreed with the premise that protestors shouting “River to the Sea” she came under severe attack that she described in a recent NY Times opinion piece: “My commitment to fighting antisemitism has been questioned. My inbox has been flooded with invective, including death threats. I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to count.”
I think about what the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King would say in this moment. What did he say to those who told him that it was okay to protest as long as he stayed in his neighborhood, as long as he did not insist on walking over that bridge and down that road to Montgomery? What would he have done if he had been told that he could not expect to fully get voting rights protected or schools desegregated? He was, and he said no.
Writing to those who told him to go slower from a jail cell in Birmingham, this is what DR King said:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
So, putting yourself in a Palestinian’s shoes, what would you do?
Give up? Live on as a displaced people with no home or dignity?
I look forward to your answer.