Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Listen to BOTH Narratives

Dear Friend of Israelis and Palestinians,
Saliba Sarsar was a colleague of mine when I served a Presbyterian congregation in NJ (First, Red Bank). He spoke at a class I organized there. He teaches at nearby Monmouth University.
Below is his usual even-tempered comment about his friend, Dan Bar-On. Professor Sarsar was raised in the Russian monestery on the side of the Mt. of Olives (dedicated to Mary Magdalene) and is a Greek Orthodox Christian Palestinian.

Overcoming our whirlwinds
Saliba Sarsar
September 12, 2008

Dan Bar-On had a story about how he learned to see things through Palestinian eyes. An Israeli Jew, born in Haifa to refugees who had left Nazi Germany in 1933, Dan was a psychology professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and he had long been interested in seeing his nation live in peace with its Palestinian neighbors. At a certain point back in the mid-1990s, however, he realized, as he told me in a formal interview I conducted with him last year, that "I could not live my life in this region without seeing Palestinians, without feeling their pain."

Unable to tolerate such a situation, he began to watch the interactions of Jewish and Palestinian Israeli students as they participated in dialogue workshops under the auspices of BGU's behavioral sciences department. Over a three-year period, Bar-On observed their encounters through a one-way mirror. "That was a painful study for me," he told me. But he felt compelled "to test my own stereotypes about Palestinians."

Bar-On had already made a name for himself with his studies of the intergenerational after-effects of the Holocaust on the children and grandchildren of both survivors and Nazi perpetrators. Now, by watching the Jewish-Palestinian groups, he explained, he saw how it was easier to do Holocaust-related studies, "because I come from the victim side ... the good side." When it came to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, "I was much more involved [and] under the pressure that I belong to the side that occupies the Palestinians, who prevents them from having their own state, and it was difficult morally for me to be in that role." While he had no doubt that the Jews had a right to their national home, he realized that it was essential to find a way to also "accept the Palestinian need for such a right, and it was not an easy task for me to understand."
But Dan Bar-On, who died on September 4, at age 69, did not shrink from the task. And as a consequence of combining his professional pursuits with his political convictions, he was not only a psychologist but a peace builder, someone who used his voice and his touch to help change Israeli society in support of social justice, for both his own people and the Palestinians.

I first met Dan in 1999, when I invited him to speak to a New Jersey group of Arab Americans and American Jews working for dialogue and peaceful coexistence. As a Jerusalemite raised in Palestinian culture, I was impressed by his empathy, his capacity to listen, and the depth of his knowledge, not only of history, but also of how to go beyond victimhood. He always maintained his professional composure, but, as he explained in his book "Tell Your Life Story," he sometimes felt "overpowered by unpredictable whirlwinds ... [and had] to work my own way through in spite of them." In reality, Dan sometimes felt politically estranged in Israel, "due to the growing political animosity in Israel toward the Palestinians and toward my own work with them."

Our relationship evolved into joint publications and co-teaching. In one of our articles, we suggested that, for Israeli Jews and Palestinians to conduct dialogue, "each national community must acknowledge and respect the other's painful memory, whether or not it was party to its creation." Sometimes, in their pain, both peoples have a tendency to see only their own victimization, a blindness that only serves to perpetuate the conflict. But we were convinced that "an inclusive act of communication and faith [would] prepare the way for reconciling the past and for building a better future, one to which our children and grandchildren are entitled."
To this end, Dan and Palestinian educator Sami Adwan, his co-director in the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME), with the help of Israeli and Palestinian teachers, put together three sets of booklets in Arabic, Hebrew and English for high school students. The booklets, published between 2002 and 2007, presented the narratives of both sides, one next to the other, with a space in between the two narratives for students to write their own comments. In describing it to me, he observed that initially, students from one group, in encountering the story of the other, "usually see it as propaganda. They delegitimize it, they say that their narrative is morally superior." Being presented with both narratives at the same time, however, "they are faced with both narratives in a way where they can read both of them, can compare them, and have to learn to respect the narrative of the other side just as they respect their own."

In the current political environment, where expediency, narrow self-interest, and cynicism reign, it behooves Israelis and Palestinians to find the inner strength, as Dan did, to cross the border and find a workable solution to what is ailing them. Like it or not, they are destined to be neighbors forever. The quicker they realize it, the better their relationship will become. Bottom-up peace builders, leading without power, are urged to maintain their struggle for peace and to synchronize their plans with top-down peacemakers. Toward that end, today, hope may mean, as Dan concluded in "Tell Your Life Story," "giving up the romantic, monolithic desires of the idealized past in favor of a less perfect but more complex understanding of the world and ourselves, an understanding that can create new possibilities for dialogue within our selves, among ourselves within a collective, and with the Other."

Dr. Saliba Sarsar is professor of political science and associate vice president for academic program initiatives at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

I, John Kleinheksel, have been in Omar's home!

Dear Friends of This Blog,
You can imagine my amazement when Doug Dicks sent this piece from the Guardian (UK)! It didn't hit me right away. Then I realized this was probably the very Qassis family in whose home Sharon and I stayed when we visited Isr/Pal in June, 2000!
This is an interesting story. Do you have time? We were guest of the Abuna (Father) of Holy Sorrows RCC in the little village of Aboud, West Bank. After worship, we went to various homes. Sharon (my wife) and I were hosted by the Qassis family, the widowed mother (whose young husband died in Ohio a few years earlier) and her sons, Hanna (a student at Beirzeit U) and Omar, maybe 11 or 12 years old at that time.
I pledged to stay in touch with Hanna, a bright young man, in hopes of getting schooling in the US. After a little over a year, I lost track of him. His email address would no longer accept my messages. He had been accepted at an American school, but couldn't get a visa to leave Palestine.
Now Phil Leech, a PhD student at Exeter U in the UK, found Omar, now himself in jail, but previously at student at Beirzeit as well as his older brother.
I have tried to contact Mr Leech (see article below), to no avail. The Guardian refuses my enquiries, and Exeter does not list its students online. What follows then, is the update on the Qassis family: JRK

Education, occupation, incarceration
The story of Omar Qassis, a Palestinian student detained for more than a year without trial, is far from unusual

Phil Leech
Monday September 08 2008
The Guardian (UK)
I first met Omar, a final year student at Birzeit University near Ramallah, in the summer of 2007. I was taking part in their Palestinian and Arabic studies programme for international students. Omar was their chief volunteer. He was particularly helpful to me when, in his own time and without payment, he helped me by arranging and translating interviews with young Palestinians. Without his kindness, I could not have completed my research.

In the early hours of March 27 2008 Omar was arrested at his family home by the Israel Defence Forces. Since being taken into custody he has been transported across territorial borders from the West Bank to Mascobia detention centre in West Jerusalem (contravening the fourth Geneva convention), and was denied access to his family or legal counsel. Omar's detention was then extended several times and access to legal counsel was systematically impeded.

On May 1, Omar was formally placed under administrative detention and charged with throwing stones on an unspecified date between 2001 and 2002. The charges do not make reference to any specific incident making it impossible to defend against them. They also refer to Omar as an adult, even though he would have only been 16 at the time.

Omar managed eventually to contact the right to education campaign at Birzeit. His full statement is available on their website. With the campaign's permission I include a short extract here:

I saw soldiers beating other inmates and fear that I could be next. I'm also very disoriented, I hear sounds of dogs barking and people screaming at night. I think these are recordings but they affect me ... I have no idea how long I will be in prison. I have no idea what they are doing or claiming. All I know is that I'm not a threat to security but I was still being questioned about all sorts of things, so anything and everything is going through their heads. I basically just want to know when I can see my family again.
Omar has since been moved to a prison in the Negev, inside Israel. His family have again been denied visitation rights. His case has not been to trial and neither he nor his lawyer has been shown evidence.

Omar's case is nothing unusual. Over 80 other students from Birzeit University are similarly incarcerated, 35 have not faced trial. In the last 5 years, nearly 350 students studying there have served time in prison. Widespread arrest and detention is only one example of the occupation forces' systematic attack on education in the occupied territories, and Birzeit is only one hundreds of schools, colleges and universities under occupation. The use of checkpoints, the separation barrier, arbitrary curfews, rigidly controlled resources and even extra-judicial killings are all measures which cause extensive and critical damage to academia at all levels.
A book by the Defence for Children International's Palestine section in 2004, Stolen Youth, documents the route for detainees though the distinct system of law operating in the West Bank which governs matters between Israeli settlers, the military and secret services, and Palestinians. Prisoners are subjected to poor conditions, malnourishment and torture. Access to family, medical attention and legal counsel are restricted arbitrarily.

Furthermore, legal procedures in military courts are so biased that many Palestinian lawyers can only really supply psychological counsel for their clients rather than any effective defence.
Omar's incarceration is based on secret evidence from the Israeli general security services which was shown to a military judge. The law provides that he may be held for up to six months, on a renewable basis (in violation of the international covenant on civil and political rights).

Omar's health is suffering because of poor conditions, ill-treatment, psychological stress and solitary confinement, but his case is not the worst nor the most emotive story of Palestinian prisoners under the Israeli occupation. However, it highlights the absurdity of the occupation particularly in relation to the peace process. It is too easy simply to regurgitate the old leftwing argument that if Israel treated Palestinians a little better this would eliminate all threats to the state. The situation is vastly more complex than that. But, unquestionably, a viable, independent and prosperous future for any prospective "state of Palestine" is the key to a lasting peace.

The Omar I knew before his detention was an extremely intelligent, charismatic, and generous young man. He bore scars of the occupation, like all Palestinians, but held no specific ill-will against Israelis, Jews or Judaism. Omar speaks fluent English (with an infectious Californian accent) and was not driven by any religious sectarianism. He was profoundly committed to his family, his education and working towards a better standard of living and greater access to justice for his peers. Despite the oppression of Israel's occupation, he had retained the ambition to contribute to the wellbeing and stability of any future Palestinian state.

It is impossible to fully appreciate Omar's experiences inside Israel's prisons. And I don't know if, or how much, they will have changed him. My profound hope is that he is strong enough to remain someone still with everything to live for, no matter what the future holds for the Palestinian national project. However, Omar's treatment has opened my eyes to the pressures undergone by a new generation of Palestinians which, regrettably, gives them yet another reason to fight Israel. It also provides another reason for peoples all across the region to believe that the celebrated doctrine of human rights is reserved for the west and its allies and for no one else.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The "Iron Wall" Strategy

I'm attaching the last part of an "opinion" from M.J. Rosenberg, because it describes the "Iron Wall" strategy under which Israel has labored since before its Independence in 1948.

Mr. Rosenberg favorably quotes Ian Lustick (Political Science prof at the U. of PA), who argues that the Israelis are abandoning their "Iron Wall" strategy, when it has been working so well for decades!

The latest demand by Olmert and Livni (the foreign minister) is that Israel's Arab neighbors "recognize" Israel "as a Jewish state." Does this mean that Arab Palestinians must "accept" the Zionist nature of the Jewish state (contrary to modern definitions of a democratic state, where "one man, one vote" is the ideal)?

Read on: (with thanks to the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP). JRK

M.J. Rosenberg
Israel Policy Forum
Opinion, Sept. 12, 2008

The "Iron Wall" was the creation of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the father of right-wing Zionism and spiritual leader of today's Likud Party.
Jabotinsky, who died in 1940, believed that the Jewish state would not be able to achieve acceptance by the Palestinians because the two nationalisms were in fundamental and irreconcilable conflict over the same territory.

He wrote this about the Palestinians in 1923: "There has never been an indigenous inhabitant anywhere or at any time who has ever accepted the settlement of others in his country. Any native people views their country as their national home, of which they will always be the complete masters. . . . Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement."

Accordingly the Jews should not even seek Palestinian consent to Jewish settlement. They should, instead, build a Jewish state behind a metaphorical "iron wall." They should build a state so strong that the Arabs would have no choice but to accept its permanence. Peace would be achieved not by any Arab recognition of Jewish rights, but rather by recognition of the Israeli reality.

Jabotinsky wrote: "As long as there is a spark of hope that they can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels, because they are not a rabble but a nation. . . . Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway, and influence transfers to moderate groups. Only then would these moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions. I am optimistic that they will indeed be granted satisfactory assurances and that both peoples, like good neighbors, can then live in peace."

In other words, the Israelis should simply build their state and wait the Arabs out. Once they understood that Israel wasn't going anywhere, the Arabs would agree to peace.

The "Iron Wall" concept was first vindicated in 1977 when, after failing to defeat Israel in four wars, the Egyptians essentially threw in the towel. President Anwar Sadat announced that he would go to Israel and sign a peace agreement. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Jabotinsky's political heir, welcomed Sadat and returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for Egyptian recognition. Begin had no illusion that the Egyptians had come around to accepting Israel, just that they accepted reality. That was good enough.

The Israeli-Egyptian peace has held for almost 30 years, 30 years without a single dead Israeli or Egyptian soldier.

"The Iron Wall" concept was also vindicated when Jordan agreed to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. The Jordanians did not suddenly accept the premise of Zionism; they accepted reality. Most significantly, the Palestinians did the same when the PLO accepted the two-state solution in 1988 and signed the Oslo Agreement recognizing Israel in 1993.

So Jabotinsky's terms have been met. The Arabs (not the extremist minority but the mainstream) are finally reconciled to Israel's permanence. They are, essentially, suing for peace.

But now the Israeli government says that is not good enough. Now there's a new demand.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says that the Arabs must "recognize the State of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state." Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has also said that they "must not only recognize Israel's right to exist but to exist as a Jewish state."

Suddenly, Israel needs not just security, but an endorsement by Arabs of its special character. But states don't recognize each other as anything in particular. The United States recognizes Canada without regard to the special character of Quebec. Germany recognizes Belgium without regard for whether the Flemish or the Walloons are dominant.

Why would Israel need Arabs to recognize its right to exist as a Jewish state? That is nobody's business but Israel's. As the late Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban once put it, "Our right to exist is independent of any recognition of it." That is even truer about Israel's right to exist "as a Jewish state."

Those who seek that kind of acceptance from the Arabs are barking up the wrong tree. Listen to Jabotinsky: it's not going to happen. The Israelis can argue among themselves about the nature of their state. The Arab world, and especially the Palestinians, can only offer security and peace. That used to be enough. It should be now.