Reach Out, Take Part, Make Peace

By Moriel Rothman
Middlebury College

Before flying off to Israel a couple weeks ago, I went to hear Peter Beinart speak. Talking with him afterwards, I asked him how, in his mind, young, liberal American Jews should engage the kind of “uncomfortable Zionism” he prescribed in his now famous article of last month. “To connect to the people in Israel who share your values, you know?” Beinart replied. “To be confident in your values, and to reach out to those Israelis who share them and are trying under very, very difficult circumstances to live those same values.”
I arrived in Israel a few days later, and, taking Beinart’s words to heart, I began reaching out -in large part through a network provided by J Street U, the American embodiment, in my completely unbiased opinion, of young, liberal, uncomfortable Zionism- to those Israelis who share my values. The activists. The analysts. The demonstrators. The educators. The tourguides. The writers. The peacemakers.
I met with Ehud Uziel, from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the largest human rights organization in Israel. Ehud is a soft-spoken, warm young man who discussed with intelligence and nuance about the need to educate the public, to inform them about what is going on. In the last decade, according to Ehud, the situation in Israel has become one of lack of belief, of despair, of fear. “And justifiably so,” he added, “after all of the attacks of the last decade.” However, he said, this situation of fear and despair has led to a kind of blindness about what is happening on the other side, the extremely difficult reality that exists there, and the terrible violations of Palestinian human rights over the last decade. The same frustration with much of the Israeli public’s failure to see and feel for the other side was expressed by the representatives from B’Tselem and from Rabbis for Human Rights, two groups that focus primarily on human rights within the Occupied Territories. The blindness these groups spoke of is more than familiar, as someone working on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the American Jewish community. Education, as Ehud discussed, and as I firmly believe, is integral to generating positive, peace-oriented action.
With the goal of learning in mind, I continued on my journey through the world of Israeli peace activism by participating in two tours that presented a picture that was slightly different scenery than that shown on the usual Birthright Beat. The first was with Breaking the Silence in the areas in and around Hebron and South Hebron, and the second was tour of East Jerusalem with an organization called Ir Amim. Even for someone who studies the conflict incessantly, both tours were eye-opening. The tour in the Hebron area was shocking mostly in the ways in which it highlighted the deeply methodical nature of the disenfranchisement and segregation that has gone into supporting the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank. I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in the conflict, or indeed in Israel at all, to tour the West Bank, and see for themselves the products of an Occupation which often feels a thousand miles removed from this side of the green line.
As for the tour of East Jerusalem, without delving too deeply into specifics -I will say that the tour handily refuted a number of commonly held myths about Jerusalem- myths that Eran, our guide, said “are holding Jerusalem captive.” For example, the concept of “a united Jerusalem l’netzach netzachim (for ever and ever)” is not based on the historical, biblical Jerusalem- the municipal borders drawn up after 1967 annexed a number of Palestinian villages that had never before been “part of Jerusalem,” and so the concept of “not dividing Jerusalem” rings hollow in the face of a reality in which Jerusalem is already divided. And indeed, the status of many in the Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem is appalling, from residents losing their residency status upon returning from abroad to villages severed in two by the security barrier -which snakes far from the green line in parts of the city. And of course, there is Sheikh Jarrah.
Sheikh Jarrah is a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem in which a number of Palestinian residents have recently received eviction orders from the Israeli government. These Palestinian families have been living in Sheikh Jarrah for decades- many since being resettled there, as refugees, after the war in 1948. However, based on antiquated documents from the Ottoman period, a settler organization called the Nahlat Shimon International and funded by the American settler patron, Irving Moskowitz, has “submitted legal petitions against the residents.” (Ir Amim on Sheikh Jarrah). Three families have been evicted from their homes to make room for Jewish Israeli settlers. The nature of these evictions is not only morally appalling, but it also sets a stunningly problematic political precedent: There is also another sizable group that agitates for their legal right to return to properties owned before 1948, despite the fact that the people living in the houses have been there for decades and would have nowhere else to go.
However, the Israeli public is not sitting by passively and allowing such injustices to take place. Following the Ir Amim tour, I met up with a large group of Israeli demonstrators, on their way to the weekly Friday protest in Sheikh Jarrah. Hundreds of people, both Jewish and Palestinian, gather every week in solidarity against the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, and for peace. The demonstration was thrumming with energy, with passion, with a palpable recognition of the desperate need for change. The Israeli peace movement is not dead, it has just taken on a new name, and found a new location. The peace movement in Israel may have been decimated by the failure of the peace process in 2000, but it is rebuilding itself, through educators, tour guides, organizers and demonstrators. And I could not think of a better way for those of us who support Israel and support peace to strengthen our own activism than to reach out and connect with our comrades on the ground, to work together for a better, more just and more peaceful future.

Moriel Rothman was born in Jerusalem, Israel and is the President of the National Student Board of J Street U. He is a rising senior at Middlebury College in Vermont.