[Boycott - Other News]
What Christians Don't Know About Israel
Grace Halsell, Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, May/June 1998, pages 112, 126
1 June 1998
American Jews sympathetic to Israel dominate key positions in all areas of our government where decisions are made regarding the Middle East. This being the case, is there any hope of ever changing U.S. policy? President Bill Clinton as well as most members of Congress support Israel — and they know why. U.S. Jews sympathetic to Israel donate lavishly to their campaign coffers. .
I hand-delivered a letter to Frank Mankiewicz, then head of the public radio station WETA. I explained I had taped interviews with Palestinians who had been brutally tortured. And I’d make them available to him. I got no reply. I made several phone calls. Eventually I was put through to a public relations person, a Ms. Cohen, who said my letter had been lost. I wrote again. In time I began to realize what I hadn’t known: had it been Jews who were strung up and tortured, it would be news. But interviews with tortured Arabs were “lost” at WETA.
The answer to achieving an even-handed Middle East policy might lie elsewhere — among those who support Israel but don’t really know why. This group is the vast majority of Americans. They are well-meaning, fair-minded Christians who feel bonded to Israel — and Zionism — often from atavistic feelings, in some cases dating from childhood.
I am one of those. I grew up listening to stories of a mystical, allegorical, spiritual Israel. This was before a modern political entity with the same name appeared on our maps. I attended Sunday School and watched an instructor draw down window-type shades to show maps of the Holy Land. I imbibed stories of a Good and Chosen people who fought against their Bad “unChosen” enemies.
In my early 20s, I began traveling the world, earning my living as a writer. I came to the subject of the Middle East rather late in my career. I was sadly lacking in knowledge regarding the area. About all I knew was what I had learned in Sunday School.
And typical of many U.S. Christians, I somehow considered a modern state created in 1948 as a homeland for Jews persecuted under the Nazis as a replica of the spiritual, mystical Israel I heard about as a child. When in 1979 I initially went to Jerusalem, I planned to write about the three great monotheistic religions and leave out politics. “Not write about politics?” scoffed one Palestinian, smoking a waterpipe in the Old Walled City. “We eat politics, morning, noon and night!”
As I would learn, the politics is about land, and the co-claimants to that land: the indigenous Palestinians who have lived there for 2,000 years and the Jews who started arriving in large numbers after the Second World War. By living among Israeli Jews as well as Palestinian Christians and Muslims, I saw, heard, smelled, experienced the police state tactics Israelis use against Palestinians.
The day the book was scheduled to be published, I went to visit MacMillan’s. Checking in at a reception desk, I spotted Griffin across a room, cleaning out his desk. His secretary Margie came to greet me. In tears, she whispered for me to meet her in the ladies room. When we were alone, she confided, “He’s been fired.” She indicated it was because he had signed a contract for a book that was sympathetic to Palestinians.
Later, I met with another MacMillan official, William Curry. “I was told to take your manuscript to the Israeli Embassy, to let them read it for mistakes,” he told me. “They were not pleased. They asked me, ‘You are not going to publish this book, are you?’ I asked, ‘Were there mistakes?’ ‘Not mistakes as such. But it shouldn’t be published. It’s anti-Israel.’”
My research led to a book entitled Journey to Jerusalem. My journey not only was enlightening to me as regards Israel, but also I came to a deeper, and sadder, understanding of my own country. I say sadder understanding because I began to see that, in Middle East politics, we the people are not making the decisions, but rather that supporters of Israel are doing so. And typical of most Americans, I tended to think the U.S. media was “free” to print news impartially.
"It shouldn’t be published. It’s anti-Israel."
In the late 1970s, when I first went to Jerusalem, I was unaware that editors could and would classify “news” depending on who was doing what to whom. On my initial visit to Israel-Palestine, I had interviewed dozens of young Palestinian men. About one in four related stories of torture.
Israeli police had come in the night, dragged them from their beds and placed hoods over their heads. Then in jails the Israelis had kept them in isolation, besieged them with loud, incessant noises, hung them upside down and had sadistically mutilated their genitals. I had not read such stories in the U.S. media. Wasn’t it news? Obviously, I naively thought, U.S. editors simply didn’t know it was happening.
On a trip to Washington, DC, I hand-delivered a letter to Frank Mankiewicz, then head of the public radio station WETA. I explained I had taped interviews with Palestinians who had been brutally tortured. And I’d make them available to him. I got no reply. I made several phone calls. Eventually I was put through to a public relations person, a Ms. Cohen, who said my letter had been lost. I wrote again. In time I began to realize what I hadn’t known: had it been Jews who were strung up and tortured, it would be news. But interviews with tortured Arabs were “lost” at WETA.
The process of getting my book Journey to Jerusalem published also was a learning experience. Bill Griffin, who signed a contract with me on behalf of MacMillan Publishing Company, was a former Roman Catholic priest. He assured me that no one other than himself would edit the book. As I researched the book, making several trips to Israel and Palestine, I met frequently with Griffin, showing him sample chapters. “Terrific,” he said of my material.
The day the book was scheduled to be published, I went to visit MacMillan’s. Checking in at a reception desk, I spotted Griffin across a room, cleaning out his desk. His secretary Margie came to greet me. In tears, she whispered for me to meet her in the ladies room. When we were alone, she confided, “He’s been fired.” She indicated it was because he had signed a contract for a book that was sympathetic to Palestinians. Griffin, she said, had no time to see me.
Later, I met with another MacMillan official, William Curry. “I was told to take your manuscript to the Israeli Embassy, to let them read it for mistakes,” he told me. “They were not pleased. They asked me, ‘You are not going to publish this book, are you?’ I asked, ‘Were there mistakes?’ ‘Not mistakes as such. But it shouldn’t be published. It’s anti-Israel.’”
Somehow, despite obstacles to prevent it, the presses had started rolling. After its publication in 1980, I was invited to speak in a number of churches. Christians generally reacted with disbelief. Back then, there was little or no coverage of Israeli land confiscation, demolition of Palestinian homes, wanton arrests and torture of Palestinian civilians.
The Same Question
Speaking of these injustices, I invariably heard the same question, “How come I didn’t know this?” Or someone might ask, “But I haven’t read about that in my newspaper.” To these church audiences, I related my own learning experience, that of seeing hordes of U.S. correspondents covering a relatively tiny state. I pointed out that I had not seen so many reporters in world capitals such as Beijing, Moscow, London, Tokyo, Paris. Why, I asked, did a small state with a 1980 population of only four million warrant more reporters than China, with a billion people?
I also linked this query with my findings that The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post — and most of our nation’s print media — are owned and/or controlled by Jews supportive of Israel. It was for this reason, I deduced, that they sent so many reporters to cover Israel— and to do so largely from the Israeli point of view.
My learning experiences also included coming to realize how easily I could lose a Jewish friend if I criticized the Jewish state. I could with impunity criticize France, England, Russia, even the United States. And any aspect of life in America. But not the Jewish state. I lost more Jewish friends than one after the publication of Journey to Jerusalem — all sad losses for me and one, perhaps, saddest of all.
In the 1960s and 1970s, before going to the Middle East, I had written about the plight of blacks in a book entitled Soul Sister, and the plight of American Indians in a book entitled Bessie Yellowhair, and the problems endured by undocumented workers crossing from Mexico in The Illegals. These books had come to the attention of the “mother” of The New York Times, Mrs. Arthur Hays Sulzberger.
Her father had started the newspaper, then her husband ran it, and in the years that I knew her, her son was the publisher. She invited me to her fashionable apartment on Fifth Avenue for lunches and dinner parties. And, on many occasions, I was a weekend guest at her Greenwich, Conn. home.
She was liberal-minded and praised my efforts to speak for the underdog, even going so far in one letter to say, “You are the most remarkable woman I ever knew.” I had little concept that from being buoyed so high I could be dropped so suddenly when I discovered — from her point of view — the “wrong” underdog.
As it happened, I was a weekend guest in her spacious Connecticut home when she read bound galleys of Journey to Jerusalem. As I was leaving, she handed the galleys back with a saddened look: “My dear, have you forgotten the Holocaust?” She felt that what happened in Nazi Germany to Jews several decades earlier should silence any criticism of the Jewish state. She could focus on a holocaust of Jews while negating a modern day holocaust of Palestinians.
I realized, quite painfully, that our friendship was ending. Iphigene Sulzberger had not only invited me to her home to meet her famous friends but, also at her suggestion, The Times had requested articles. I wrote op-ed articles on various subjects including American blacks, American Indians as well as undocumented workers. Since Mrs. Sulzberger and other Jewish officials at the Times highly praised my efforts to help these groups of oppressed peoples, the dichotomy became apparent: most “liberal” U.S. Jews stand on the side of all poor and oppressed peoples save one — the Palestinians.
How handily these liberal Jewish opinion-molders tend to diminish the Palestinians, to make them invisible, or to categorize them all as “terrorists.”
Interestingly, Iphigene Sulzberger had talked to me a great deal about her father, Adolph S. Ochs. She told me that he was not one of the early Zionists. He had not favored the creation of a Jewish state.
Yet, increasingly, American Jews have fallen victim to Zionism, a nationalistic movement that passes for many as a religion. While the ethical instructions of all great religions — including the teachings of Moses, Muhammad and Christ — stress that all human beings are equal, militant Zionists take the position that the killing of a non-Jew does not count.
Over five decades now, Zionists have killed Palestinians with impunity. And in the 1996 shelling of a U.N. base in Qana, Lebanon, the Israelis killed more than 100 civilians sheltered there. As an Israeli journalist, Arieh Shavit, explains of the massacre,
“We believe with absolute certitude that right now, with the White House in our hands, the Senate in our hands and The New York Times in our hands, the lives of others do not count the same way as our own.”
Israelis today, explains the anti-Zionist Jew Israel Shahak,
“are not basing their religion on the ethics of justice. They do not accept the Old Testament as it is written. Rather, religious Jews turn to the Talmud. For them, the Talmudic Jewish laws become ‘the Bible.’ And the Talmud teaches that a Jew can kill a non-Jew with impunity.”
In the teachings of Christ, there was a break from such Talmudic teachings. He sought to heal the wounded, to comfort the downtrodden.
The danger, of course, for U.S. Christians is that having made an icon of Israel, we fall into a trap of condoning whatever Israel does — even wanton murder—as orchestrated by God.
Yet, I am not alone in suggesting that the churches in the United States represent the last major organized support for Palestinian rights. This imperative is due in part to our historic links to the Land of Christ and in part to the moral issues involved with having our tax dollars fund Israeli-government-approved violations of human rights.
While Israel and its dedicated U.S. Jewish supporters know they have the president and most of Congress in their hands, they worry about grassroots America — the well-meaning Christians who care for justice. Thus far, most Christians were unaware of what it was they didn’t know about Israel. They were indoctrinated by U.S. supporters of Israel in their own country and when they traveled to the Land of Christ most all did so under Israeli sponsorship. That being the case, it was unlikely a Christian ever met a Palestinian or learned what caused the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is gradually changing, however. And this change disturbs the Israelis. As an example, delegates attending a Christian Sabeel conference in Bethlehem earlier this year said they were harassed by Israeli security at the Tel Aviv airport.
“They asked us,” said one delegate, “‘Why did you use a Palestinian travel agency? Why didn’t you use an Israeli agency?’”
The interrogation was so extensive and hostile that Sabeel leaders called a special session to brief the delegates on how to handle the harassment. Obviously, said one delegate,
“The Israelis have a policy to discourage us from visiting the Holy Land except under their sponsorship. They don’t want Christians to start learning all they have never known about Israel.”
Washington, DC-based writer Grace Halsell is the author of 14 books, including Journey to Jerusalem and Prophecy and Politics.
Note: Grace Halsell died on August 16, 2000, In Washington, DC
Book Views: Journey to Jerusalem, by Grace Halsell
Rabbi Elmer Berger, The Link - Volume 14, Issue 2
Journey to Jerusalem
by Grace Halsell
This is a different, perhaps, unique, book about the Palestine problem. The majority of present publications about the Middle East consist either of weighty tomes on geopolitics, oil economics, or legalistic and/or theological polemics; or sentimentalized, romantic, self-serving biographies or memoirs of the principal combatants....
Although Halsell addresses all these “big-ticket” issues, her front-and-center concern lies with humans whose daily lives have been--and will be--affected by super-power politics, local power plays and the lobbying in capitals distant from “Jerusalem.”
The power-brokers involved are no strangers to Halsell, a distinguished journalist. Her questions directed to the less prominent interviewees are disarmingly sophisticated. The answers come back in the same style: fear, arrogance, vision, despair.
I have not given up America, only added Israel. Gush Emunim is not a movement where you go into an office, sign up, get a membership card, and pay dues. Still it is a growing movement. We are dedicated to one goal: to drive the Arabs out and create a greater Israel.... We do not see lines on a map. The border will be made after we settle the area.... We want all the Arabs to leave, and if coming to settle here means we must be in a continual state of warfare with the Arabs, then so be it.
Bobby Brown - zionist settler, formerly from Bronx NY, living in illegal settlement of Gush Emunim in the West Bank
None of the settings for the interviews included crystal chandeliered halls of state structures or some historic conference table. Rather, they took in disparate locations—schools, synagogues, mosques, a convent, shops, “refugee” camps and Zionist “illegal settlements.”
On the Israeli side, Halsell features two couples: Aviva and Reuven within Israel proper and Jewish settlers; and Linda and Bobby in the Arab-inhabited West Bank.
The first couple think, “The internationally recognized boundaries of Israel are fixed and they do not want to risk war to extend those boundaries.” When her youngest son was born, Aviva “did not bother” to pray he might not “go into uniform....There will always be wars,” she despairs.
Aviva’s despair is in direct contrast to the attitude of Bobby Brown. Formerly from the Bronx, NY, Brown now lives in a Gush Emunim settlement near Bethlehem in the West Bank. Brown tells Halsell:
"I have not given up America, only added Israel. Gush Emunim is not a movement where you go into an office, sign up, get a membership card, and pay dues. Still it is a growing movement. We are dedicated to one goal: to drive the Arabs out and create a greater Israel.... We do not see lines on a map. The border will be made after we settle the area.... We want all the Arabs to leave, and if coming to settle here means we must be in a continual state of warfare with the Arabs, then so be it."
In New York, Halsell read her taped interviews to Dr. Aaron Cohen, a psychiatrist “who had made a study of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank.” The psychiatrist explains the settlers “are a cementing agent in Israeli politics and that is why they are tolerated.” If these settlers “were really contrary to deep beliefs by the Israelis, they would be stopped.... The situation of allowing them to take Arab land has a unifying factor or a unifying feature in the society.”
The analysis is reminiscent of the recently published segments of the Sharett Diary which disclosed that the highest government levels considered Israeli provocation of “the Arabs” necessary to maintain Israeli morale.
They take 80 percent of our West Bank water supply.... They pump about 30 percent into Israel. Then they pump about 50 percent.... desperately needed by our Palestinian farmers into their illegal Jewish settlements here on the West Bank.
Palestinian mayor of Nablus
Zionism was intended to inspire “Jewish unity” by accenting and revitalizing affirmative “Jewish” values. Ironically, Jews in the Zionist state commonly believe the society still needs the unrelieved pressure of the old Herzlian dialectic of real or fabricated non-stop, universal hostility to unify “Jews.”
Halsell knows that most of the Zionist land-grabbing which sustains Arab hostility is made possible by American money, either public or private in origin. She is not reticent about reporting the fact in pertinent contexts.
Halsell’s interviews with West Bank Arabs bristle with deep—and despairing—resentment of Israeli occupation. Their bitterness extends to the United States which continues generously to indulge the Israeli policy.
Sentimental and starry-eyed tourists rarely see the existing differences while they are tenderly shepherded by Israeli guides or supervised by their uninformed American or European tour organizers. Arab taxis must be painted a different color from “Jewish” taxis. Arabs are employed in menial labor. According to Israeli information, Arabs are “better off economically” than they were under Jordanian sovereignty. But unskilled Arab labor is plentiful partly because Zionist policy has expropriated Arab lands and uprooted so many Arabs. They now earn a livelihood only by moving (or being shuttled) back and forth from their agricultural “homes” to urban centers where they fill menial jobs.
There are only three vocational technical and teacher-training schools in the West Bank. Although the Palestinians have attempted to build more, the Israelis have “blocked” all such initiatives. Israeli interference with and interruptions of even the meager facilities for secondary (or university) education have been rather widely publicized in connection with incidents at Birzeit. The thinly disguised objective of all such Israeli policies is to discourage the young generation of Palestinians about their future. To the extent the strategy succeeds it will expedite “voluntary” expatriation from the coveted territories of “Judea and Samaria.”
Sentimentalists who sympathize with Israel’s claim that it needs the West Bank for “security,” or theologians who endorse Begin’s corruption of the “divine promise” as another basis for the Israeli claims, may be somewhat sobered by some economic facts conveyed to Halsell by Bassam Shaka, the Palestinian mayor of Nablus. Although Israel requires the West Bank to buy 90 percent of its imports from Israel, she takes only 2 percent of her imports from the West Bank and Gaza. Water is the primary reason why Israel wants the West Bank. They “take 80 percent of our West Bank water supply.... They pump about 30 percent into Israel. Then they pump about 50 percent.... desperately needed by our Palestinian farmers into their illegal Jewish settlements here on the West Bank.”
There are many tragedies within the grand tragedy of Palestine. Only a foolhardy soul would dare to choose the greatest among them. But it is difficult to put aside Halsell’s absorbing humanization of the problem of Palestine without—perhaps rather sardonically—observing that, in a sense, the tragedy of Zionism may head the list. The dreamers and the idealists of the movement believe Zionism would “normalize ’the Jewish people’” and therefore the lives of individual Jews. But a theme running through Halsell’s interrogations of Jews in Israel, and some in America, connotes fear, insecurity, even paranoia. The problem of Palestine qualifies as one of those grim episodes in history in which, “Never was so much good intended by so many people only to produce so much tragedy and suffering.” The worldwide tensions radiating out from this cockpit of anger, frustration and periodic warfare make it a universal tragedy.
Halsell has the political sagacity and the literary reticence to conclude with a prayer rather than with the certitudes of some political formula for peace. “I always was aware of the stars over Jerusalem, Bethlehem, over the refugee camps, and over the Jewish settlements on the West Bank,” she says. “Perhaps these same stars that inspired Moses and Christ and Muhammad in their desert homes will inspire new leaders who will embrace one another with confidence, faith and trust, saying, ‘we are truly one people.’”
A crusty, perhaps cynical observer and analyst of the old problems is inclined to add another “Perhaps!” and Ensh’allah! (“God willing!”).
Rabbi Elmer Berger is President of American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism.
Excerpted from Journey to Jerusalem - Life in a Palestinian Refugee Camp
It is predawn, and Sameetha has overslept. Bashir, her husband, calls her. He speaks in Arabic: “Come on, you’ve overslept. Get dressed. Make my coffee. I must be off to work.”
I do not understand the Arabic words, yet I understand his tone, gestures, and the diurnal pattern: Bashir rises early; Sameetha wants to sleep.
Bashir, forty-eight, thinks his job important. For three decades he has lived in the refugee camp, and he has been out of work as often as not. Now, through a United Nations agency, he has a porter’s job. With a protective leather pad on his back, he hoists and carries steamer trunks, huge bags of produce, or pieces of furniture. As a one-man moving van, he earns the equivalent of fifty dollars a month.
Sameetha and Bashir are the parents of five children, the youngest named Nahla. Meeting Nahla, who is sixteen, I at once feel an affinity for her. Like Kareemi [a young Palestinian woman, who Halsell stayed with several times], she is tall and slender and has dark hair and dark eyes. Unlike Kareemi, she is painfully shy, turned in on herself, even furtive, like an animal in a cage. About her there seems to be the humility that comes with knowing you are living in a very limited space belonging to others who are more powerful than you.
I come to know Nahla in this way. I am visiting Bir Zeit campus and mention to one of Kareemi’s professors, Lisa Tariki, that I would like to live awhile in a refugee camp. “No problem,” she replies. “We have many students here who live in refugee camps.” And she introduces me to Ahmad, twenty, a scholarship student, who is Nahla’s brother. It came as a surprise to me that Palestinians from refugee camps were at Bir Zeit. Until then I had somehow imagined all the refugees were removed from the mainstream of life, perhaps like Indians on United States reservations whom we Anglos for so long kept hidden from sight.
I talk with Ahmad, and he agrees at once that I will be welcome in his family’s home. About a week later we meet in Ramallah. We walk along streets crowded with Arab Palestinians, looking into shop windows filled with TV’s and even commodes, and I realize anew that the world is divided between those who can buy and those who cannot. Then we board an ancient bus and after a fifteen-minute ride get out on the outskirts of town and walk a short distance to the camp.
Entering the refugee camp, I feel I am entering some medieval ghetto. I walk along a narrow alleyway, skirting an open sewage ditch. I pass tens of dozens of one- and two-room houses, each leaning on the other for support. I am in a ghetto without streets, sidewalks, gardens, patios, trees, flowers, plazas, or shops—among an uprooted, stateless, scattered people who, like the Jews before them, are in a tragic diaspora. I pass scores of small children, the third generation of Palestinians born in the ghetto that has almost as long a history as the state of Israel itself. Someone has said that for every Jew who was brought in to create a new state, a Palestinian Arab was uprooted and left homeless.
We enter the door of a dwelling, not distinguishable to my eyes from hundreds of others like it, and I see two women on their hands and knees, both in shirts and pants, scrubbing a concrete floor. They rise, one somewhat laboriously, as she is heavy with child, and the other, the mother of Nahla and Ahmad and other sons, a woman made old before her time by endlessly making do in a makeshift home, a home that is only this room with a concrete floor and blankets stacked against the walls for beds. And, for a toilet, a closeted hole in the floor. Nahla has never known the convenience of a tub or a commode, nor do any members of her family enjoy that greatest of all luxuries, a room or even space into which one can for an hour or a few moments of each day retire, and in solitude meld mind, body, and soul.
The United Nations provides funds to meet basic needs, such as medical clinics and schooling. But no one has extended the kind of help that would allow people like Sameetha and Bashir to somehow help themselves, to somehow propel themselves into a bigger space, a fuller life. Americans, for example, annually give five hundred and twenty-eight dollars per capita to Israelis and three dollars per capita to the Palestinians.
“We are only seven,” Nahla comments the first evening, as we sit on the floor. Members of the family-in addition to Nahla, her parents, and her brother Ahmad, include her eldest brother Zayid, twenty-four, a construction worker, and his wife, Rima, nineteen, who is nine months pregnant. Nahla has two other brothers, Abdul and Salah, who are not at home. She does not tell me immediately, but in time Nahla says they are both in Israeli prisons.
Living with Nahla and her family, I am astonished both by their poverty and also by their will to survive under the weight of being a people without a political party, a government, a land, a people without an identity and without a promise for tomorrow. I learn they unite through the shared experience of exile. Once Nahla introduces me to an old man in the alleyway near her home, and she tells me he is the head man of the camp, having once been a village mukhtar in the area of Lydda. Her parents and others like them from Lydda wandered from camp to camp until they found this old man, their mukhtar, and other friends from home and then they set up the same kind of community, as best they could, that they had known before the 1948 war that disrupted their lives.
Upon Lydda's and Ramla's occupation on July 11-12, 1948,
the Israelis were surprised to find that over 60,000 Palestinian
civilians didn't flee their homes. Subsequently, Ben-Gurion
ordered the wholesale expulsion of all civilians (including man
women, children, and old people), in the middle of the hot
Mediterranean summer. The orders to ethnically cleanse both
cities were signed the future Prime Minister of Israel, by
Yitzhak Rabin. Many of the refugees died (400+ according to the
Palestinian historian 'Aref al-'Aref) from thirst, hunger, and
heat exhaustion after being stripped of their valuables on the
way out by the Israeli soldiers. More..
I sit beside Nahla listening to her read her English lesson. On the sides I hear a cacophony of radios, loud voices, and wailing babies. Nahla, like every child in this camp, is handicapped in her attempts to study. Moreover, Sameetha constantly asks Nahla’s help in household chores. She has no time to think or plan a future outside the camp.
“I feel buried here,” Nahla tells me. “I know there is a world out there”—and her eyes seek space beyond the ghetto walls.
Nahla’s family does not own a television set, but hundreds of camp refugees do, and Nahla sees, in regularly rerun Hollywood movies, luxurious homes with carpeting and bathrooms and kitchens, and a thousand amenities missing in her life.
For so young a person, she seems uncommonly perceptive about human nature and the unnaturalness of the crowded conditions in which she lives.
“My brothers knew when I began my period. Living so close, none of us is ignorant about the changes in our bodies, about life,” she confides, adding that often she must undress before Ahmad and that he trains his eyes not see, psychologically, what in truth he sees. “Once, removing my dress I deliberately studied his face. I saw that his features did not change. I knew he was ‘not seeing.’” Only in this way, she explains, does each member of the family give the other a sense of space, of living in a room of one’s own.
Nahla hopes to go beyond the nightmare of her parents’ past. And she has one dream—to continue her education, and then—her eyes widen at the possibility—to leave the camp and get a job. I ask casually, What kind of job? And then I realize I am thinking of Nahla and her future as if she were living in America, in a land that still provides alternatives. But I am in Nahla’s world, where as many as three generations are born in a cramped room, and their only alternatives are to survive or not survive.
Also, I am in a world where women have traditionally never left home, and those who work outside the camp are liberated only to the point of being “free” to labor in Israeli factories and return to what is too often called woman’s work.
I watch Sameetha, seated cross-legged on the concrete floor, mixing flour and water, and kneading dough into flat, round, pizza-sized loaves. She has only a hot plate, no oven. She must send the loaves outside her home to be baked.
For meals, we sit on the floor around a low table. We do not use spoons, knives, or forks. At each meal, Sameetha distributes freshly baked bread loaves, the main staple at all meals. I place my loaf on my lap, tear off a chunk and use it to spoon spicy crushed chickpeas with garlic sauce. I lift small bits of food such as olives, eaten at most meals, with the fingers of my right hand. Sometimes we eat sliced cucumbers seasoned with mint and mixed with thinned yogurt. Most frequently, we dip chunks of bread first into a bowl of olive oil—a big staple in the diet—then into another small bowl of thyme.
Once, we are all sitting on the floor, eating. Sameetha brings a pot of hot tea. As she bends to serve, Bashir inadvertently turns and hits the pot, sending the boiling tea pouring down Sameetha’s thighs. She screams, curses, and slaps Bashir, who cowers like a beaten animal.
“Get the paste!” Sameetha shouts to Nahla, who runs to a small cardboard box of possessions and returns not with a medication but with the only salve they have, a tube of Crest toothpaste. Sameetha, still grimacing in pain, lifts her skirt and Nahla applies the paste.
After supper, Sameetha sits on the floor before an old sewing machine with no legs. She motions to a space beside her on the floor, and she shows me how she changes a bobbin, threads the machine, and turns its wheel. She is using these gestures to tell me that the storm—with her angry unleashing of words and her blow at Bashir—is past, and she and her husband will continue to care for the family and continue in the way they know to survive, and that her striking out at Bashir was her desperate attempt to hit not him but the fate that had brought them to this level.
Often Sameetha conveys a hatred for Bashir. Or rather, a hatred for what life has done to him. In more than three decades, Bashir, who looks twenty years older than his age, has never been able to find himself, which is to say he has never been able to find a means to extricate himself and his family from the slough of poverty and despondency in which they seem mired. He comes home from his porter’s job looking demeaned, brutalized. He reminds me of a bewildered Navajo Indian I once saw in a crowded city. Separated from his land, the Navajo lost his sense of Indianness, his sense of self. Now Bashir, separated from his “mother earth”—an expression both the Navajos and the Palestinians repeatedly use-feels orphaned, alien, lost.
I meet other men who feel brutalized by living in the camp. They talk of their villages where they “grew up and laughed.” Laughter is only a remembered experience. Ibrahim, the baker is an example.
I accompany Nahla, with a tray of pie-shaped dough, to a small shop where refugees pay a few pennies to get the dough baked. I find myself in a cramped, dark room with a low ceiling. The room is filled with smoke and seems like a dungeon. Ibrahim, a stooped, dark-skinned man of about fifty who seems at the end of his tether, says he starts work at 5:00 A.M., finishes at 7:00 P.M. and bakes about a thousand loaves a day.
“I am on my feet all day, my legs ache, and my head aches from the smoke, fumes, and heat. I work fourteen hours a day to make enough to feed my family. My health, perhaps also my mind, is breaking from the strain. The camp produces one generation after another of people who are trapped.”
Is he training his eldest son, I ask, to take over as baker?
“I am trying to teach him to get out of this camp!” he bellows, as if I have hit his sorest nerve. His eldest son is named Fouzi. He is seventeen and has been invited to Russia to study art.
“Wherever he goes,” Ibrahim says, “I am glad to see him escape from the camp.”
Walking back to her home, I ask Nahla: Is Ibrahim a Communist?
“I don’t know. The Communists reached in to help him,” Nahla replies, adding, “Many Israelis claim that if we recover a portion of our Palestine we will create a Communist state. But I do not think so. We are Muslim, and there is a big difference between the beliefs of our religion and Communism.”
One morning I walk with Nahla to her school, and she shows me several of her classrooms and takes me to the office of one of the administrators, a Palestinian in his late fifties, who invites me to stay for a coffee. Nahla leaves us, and the administrator begins by telling me he earned degrees in Boston and Chicago universities, and that he was a teacher “in Palestine” before the creation of Israel.
“This is one of ninety-four schools for thirty-five thousand refugee children on the West Bank,” he tells me, adding that West Bank and Gaza refugee schools, as well as all Palestinian refugee schools in the Middle East, have for three decades been operated by the UN Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA).
“Overcrowded classrooms are our worst problem. We have not been permitted by Israeli authorities to build new schools since they occupied the area in 1967. Our school population, now more than one thousand in this school, has more than doubled. Consequently, we have to use our schools on double shifts.
“Censorship is another problem,” he continues. “We made a list of 117 textbooks we think necessary for the elementary and preparatory cycles. But the Israeli government censored 42 of these. As a result, our students in several courses must rely entirely on classroom lectures.
“About ninety percent of our resources come from voluntary contributions by governments,” he continues. “The remaining ten percent is provided by the UN. The Arab countries saved us from bankruptcy in 1979 when Saudi Arabia provided the money we needed at the last minute. But the Arabs believe that the refugee camps were created by the West, and that the Western countries must finance UNRWA.”
The administrator pauses to sip his coffee, and I glance around his office, bare save for his desk and three chairs. I see no wall docorations, no photographs, diplomas, or books. What, I ask, does he need most? It is a perfunctory question, and pencil poised, I await a perfunctory answer, such as, We need more books. But he is done with discussing school needs as such.
“Our freedom! Our freedom!” he replies fervently. “We are a people exiled and held under the yoke of tyranny. We number nearly four million. Three million of us now live in exile—in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Persian Gulf countries, and in scattered groups throughout the world. Only six hundred thousand of us remain in that part of Palestine that became Israel.
“About half of the Palestinian people living outside Israel are still considered refugees, and about twenty percent continue to live in refugee camps. In our refugee school, I see the psychological effect of the prolonged stays in camps: an atrophy of initiative, an increased tendency toward passivity and fatalistic attitudes. It seems contradictory to say our young students are passive, with loss of self-confidence and increased dependence, and at the same time to say that they have mounting drives of vengeance. But their hatred builds on their lack of freedom. Israel forcibly produces a generation of tongueless people, and we will, in the end, speak with fire.
“For thirteen years, the Israelis have chosen not to hear us and not to see us. An Israeli premier, Golda Meir, said ‘There are no Palestinian people.’ But ignoring us does not make us go away. Nor will the Israelis prevent our attaining national independence. Since Israel became a state scores of nations have won national independence, including some that number no more than a few hundreds of thousands. No power on earth can stop a people from throwing off foreign rule, once they have made up their mind to do so. Israel with all its guns and power will not stop us.
“The Israelis give two reasons for not allowing refugees to return to their homeland,” the administrator continues. “First, the Israelis say the Palestinians who returned home would create a problem of security in case of war with the Arab states. But Palestinians within Israel are peaceful and quiet compared with Nahla and the thousands like her trapped in refugee camps. The Palestinians within Israel do not wish to be punished or expelled. The refugees such as Nahla, however, have nothing to lose. She will risk life itself to escape.
“The Israelis say, as the second reason why they will not permit Palestinians to return to their homeland, that to do so would make Israel bi-national and they don’t want that. They want the state to remain Jewish. The Zionists from the beginning, although they themselves were secular, wanted a totally Jewish state. This is why they felt forced to drive out the Palestinian Arabs in 1948. And that is why they rejected the Palestine Liberation Organization’s solution of a democratic state in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims would have equal rights.
“High school students are among the most politically active in the West Bank,” the administrator says. “In America, high school students, even college students, are not politically aware, especially nowadays. Here, on the contrary, students are the most vocal group. The high school students are much more numerous and more visible. Teenagers originate almost all the demonstrations and protests. They are very politically aware, and the teenage girls, particularly, are always out demonstrating.”
Nahla, he continues, helped stage a demonstration on the school grounds. “It was at the time of the arrest by the Israelis of the mayor of Nablus, Basam Shaka. She and other teenagers marched near the school one day carrying a placard stating, ‘We are Palestinians. We must be free.’
“Six armed men who spoke Hebrew—later identified as religious zealots from a nearby Jewish settlement—jumped from a car and chased them onto the school grounds. They fired their pistols and rifles around the students who were in class.
“The assailants chased Nahla and the other girls from the school into the refugee camp and began throwing stones at women and children who were outside their homes. They even threw stones at one woman who was holding her six-month-old infant in her arms. She ran into her house, but the attackers threw stones through her windows and fired shots into a water tank on the roof.
“The civilian religious zealots left. Then Israeli soldiers carrying guns rushed onto our school grounds and arrested Nahla and other teenagers and kept them in jail for two days.”
Later, when I ask Nahla about the arrest, and whether she and her family have felt humiliated about her having been in jail, she replies, “No. Nowadays it is kind of a badge of honor.”
That evening, Nahla and I walk with Rima—her face chalk white—to a nearby clinic, where Rima gives birth to a boy, who she names for her husband, Zayid. Rima returns home the next day. There are only 293 hospital beds available for all the refugees in all the West Bank camps—one for every thousand. And there is only one doctor for every ten thousand refugees.
Zayid looks like all newborn babies, amazingly small and fragile. Yet Rima and the other members of the family insist I hold him and join them in their celebration. They all accept another mouth to feed as a marvelous gift of God. And where will this life end?
Bashir and Sameetha had come to the camp as teenagers, had married, had five children, and had now become grandparents of a child born in the camp. And would the child in two decades foster more children in this same camp?
We in the West are easily critical of those in refugee camps who have many children. Such families have few amenities and forms of recreation save perhaps, the finest of all—building a family and surviving through the strength of that family. The diaspora of the Jews and their suffering in ghettos did not destroy their families. Neither has the diaspora of the Palestinians and their suffering in refugee camps destroyed the strength and unity of their families.
Nahla learns poetry by heart, and one evening she quotes a poem by a Palestinian, Tawfiq Zayad, as expressing her determination to live, free of occupational forces.
As if we were a thousand prodigies
In Lydda, in Ramallah,
In the Galilee...
Here we shall stay,
A wall upon your breast,
And in your throat we shall stay,
A piece of glass, a cactus thorn,
And in your eyes,
A blazing fire.
The walls of the room have one decoration, a calendar with a drawing of olive trees. Nahla takes the calendar from the wall and translates its Arabic inscription:
I believe in a tomorrow.
And in the struggle;
I have faith in olive trees.
She explains the olive tree represents the future and the past of the Palestinians. “The olive tree has strength because of its long, tough roots. Our Arabic literature mentions the olive tree as the cure of all diseases, and in the holy Koran, the Prophet Muhammad says, ‘Take care of the holy olive tree; from it you will gain your benediction.’ The color green and the olive trees represent our future. We have roots here. This we know is our homeland.”
That evening Bashir tells a story he must have repeated many times. The year is 1948.
“We were about fifty thousand Palestinians living in and near Lydda [near the present Tel Aviv airport].
“The fighting rages around us, and we saw the Israelis advancing. We heard shouts and an Israeli soldier told us they were ordered not to leave any Arab civilians at their rear-to leave no one in or near Lydda. The Israeli soldiers at gun point drove us out.” The decision to drive out the Palestinians, he adds, had been taken by David Ben-Gurion, one of Israel’s founders and its first prime minister.
“We were all villagers and none of us, none of the people like my mother and father or anyone in my family, had ever owned a gun, nor did I know anyone who was a soldier. We had nothing to do with the war or the struggle of the European Jews to find a homeland. Yet we were being collectively punished.
“I was same age as Nahla—sixteen—and I remember the armed Jewish soldiers encircling our home and firing shots and shouting in Arabic that they would kill us if we did not leave at once. Yet no one obeyed; it was as if we felt ourselves tied to our soil. Soldiers dragged women by their hair, and my father shouted he could not leave his garden, his trees, and a soldier knocked him to the floor. I had a pet lamb, and I ran to hold the lamb. I was not thinking of my mother or father or our home but of that small animal.
“I watched families fleeing as from a fire, and soldiers shot around them and over their heads, driving them like cattle. Soldiers pushed us out of the house with their guns. We soon found ourselves among thousands of women and children. Some old men could barely walk and mothers carried babies in their arms, and led small children. The children were crying and begging for water, all of us fleeing we knew not where. No one was given time to collect even the necessities, no food or provisions. I mindlessly grabbed my baby lamb, and another neighbor boy carried a pigeon. On the first day of the march I lost my little lamb. Others carried a chicken, a blanket, or a sack of flour that represented their entire possessions on this earth. My mother begged to return to her village to recover her small stove, her few heirlooms, but she was forced to keep moving. On the third day I saw my mother fall. I thought she had fainted. I felt her heart and she was dead. Then later, my father died. The other Palestinians dug holes in the ground and buried first my mother and then my father. I saw many old people and children fall and die because of the heat and exhaustion.”
He sighs deeply, and goes on, “One day we were Palestinians living in Palestine; the next day we were Palestinians driven from a land called Israel.
“We were tens of thousands kicked out by force, our villages destroyed. Even the Jews admit there is not a single Jewish village in their country that is not built on the site of an Arab village. They built the Jewish village of Nahala on the Arab village of Mahloul, and the Jews built Gifat on the Arab village of Jifta.
“The drove us out, they bulldozed our homes, and they built new villages.
“In 1948 I lived in one of about six hundred Arab villages in the part of Palestine that was taken by Israelis. My village was one of about five hundred bulldozed and destroyed. Now you will not find more than one hundred Arab villages in the part of Palestine taken by the Zionists. The Israeli leaders admit they did this. They are not ashamed. They do not try to undo what they did to us. They justify their acts and glorify them.”
Once again he speaks of his family’s farm and admits he was never able to find himself, “living on a slab of concrete. I tried—but I failed. Now my spirit is gone.”
He looks to Nahla as he talks, wanting her to understand his burden and hers. Bashir knows he is spent by life, but he says, “Nahla, you, and others like you, will make the struggle.”
In Memoriam: Grace Halsell 1923-2000
John F. Mahoney, The Link - Volume 33, Issue 5
In the late 1960s, as a White House staff writer for President Lyndon Johnson, Grace Halsell overheard LBJ’s favorite cook, Zephyr White, tell of the time Johnson, then a senator, had asked her to transport two dogs overnight in her car. “You have no idea,” Ms. White told Johnson, “what it is like for a Negro to try and get a decent hotel room — and you are asking me to take two dogs?”
Grace Halsell and Lyndon Johnson
The questioned haunted Grace. She left the White House and consulted with dermatologists at Yale and Harvard Universities. They told her about a medication which, when taken in conjunction with exposure of the body to intense tropical sun, would darken one’s skin.
Soul Sister by Grace Halsell
sold over a million copies
Grace took the medication and headed for a Caribbean island. “One day,” she later reminisced, “I looked in a mirror and saw a ‘black’ woman looking back at me.” For the next year Grace learned — “the hard way,” as she put it — what it was like being an African-American woman. Her book “Soul Sister” sold over a million copies.
In the late 1970s, Grace decided to go to Jerusalem to live with a Jewish, Christian, and Muslim family. She approached Macmillan publishers who gave her an advance on a book that would be titled “Journey to Jerusalem.” It came out in 1981.
It did not sell a million copies. Grace learned — the hard way — that criticism of Israeli policies in our country easily translates into charges of anti-Semitism. Macmillan did little to promote the book, and Grace’s lecture agent, reacting to “strong pressure,” dropped her.
That’s when she embarked on her shoe-leather apostolate, literally knocking on the doors of any one and any organization that might help her. When she came to our office and I met her for the first time, I took the copy of “Journey” she left with me on my train commute home; I nearly missed getting off at my station stop. It wasn’t that what she had written was news to me — it was all too familiar; it was the unprecedented fact that it was being said by a respected journalist in a mainstream publication.
A short time later, the directors of Americans for Middle East Understanding invited Grace to join them on the board of directors. At the time I remember thinking that, most likely, she would decline the invitation out of professional concerns. After all, we were prominently listed by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in its directory of “Pro-Arab Propaganda in America.” Why on earth would a journalist who wrote for a living need that kind of “baggage?”
Clearly, I did not know Grace Halsell. Once she felt another’s pain — walked in their shoes, as she put it — money was never an overriding factor. Grace joined our board of directors and for 18 years remained one of our most active members. In addition to authoring four feature articles (“Yasser Arafat: The Man and his People,” 1982; “Shrine Under Siege,” 1984; “Bosnia: A Genocide of Muslims,” 1994; “In the Land of Christ Christianity is Dying,” 1995), she inspired and challenged the rest of us with her fortitude and steadfastness.
I picture Grace, a young “black” woman, standing on a Jackson, Mississippi street corner, waiting for a white housewife who had hired her as a maid for $5 a day. And I picture her standing in a back room at Ben Gurion airport, refusing, in her mellifluous Texas accent, to tell her Israeli interrogators who she had met during her visit.
The irony, of course, is that once back in Washington, D.C., where she had a modest apartment, Grace spent just about all her time, through books, articles, interviews and lectures, telling all of us who she had met and what she had seen.
Grace Halsell died on Aug. 16 from multiple myeloma. Her voice — and the courage that infused it — will be truly missed.--John F. Mahoney
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