Before the death of former Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi at the hands of revenge-seeking Palestinians and before the 18 September Israeli invasion of six Palestinian towns, 72 Israeli high school seniors wrote to their Prime Minister and Minister of Defense refusing to enlist in the three-year mandatory military service required of them after they graduate. Evidently, they understand that agreeing to join the army means giving their government the freedom to use and, if necessary, sacrifice their lives while making it legal for them to harm or kill others (in particular Palestinians). The students firmly object to their government’s political agenda and treatment of the Palestinians-their government’s enemy-just because they happen to live where their government and the radical Zionists it serves want to possess.
Translating their letter from Hebrew to English, this is what I read: “We protest against the aggressive and racist policy pursued by the Israeli government and its army, and inform you that we do not intend to take part in the execution of this policy. We strongly resist Israel’s refusal to abide by human rights acceptable to the free world. Land expropriation, collective arrests, executions without trial, house demolition, closure, torture and the prevention of health care are only some of the crimes the State of Israel carries out in blunt violation of international conventions it has ratified. These actions are not only illegal, but they also do not even achieve their stated goal-to increase Israeli citizens’ personal safety. Such safety will be achieved only through a just peace agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian people.”
The students’ letter took courage and an understanding gained through the experience of living here with us Palestinians. It reflects a moral maturity that challenges the nationalistic and classic prejudice against us-the Christian and Muslim Arab Semitic people. Israeli youths who have stood so tall among their own people have great potential to lead. They give me hope. Is it possible that they are saying that the whole earth is a sacred gift for humankind to treasure and that no section of this earth is set aside for one group or another as a special gift to them alone from a God who cares more about them than the rest of humanity? Have they come to realize that encouraging all those of Jewish faith to move to Palestine makes no more sense than motivating all Presbyterians to move to Scotland, all Catholics to fill up the Vatican or all Lutherans to stuff themselves into Germany? It’s a silly issue, yet, for this we go to war! Hope lies in the will of these Israeli students and what the world makes of their actions.
Like me, these 72 young people were born here in the womb of a political conflict. They are the children of those who immigrated to our land in hope of isolating themselves on this land, the only way they could imagine as a fail-safe way to escape persecution. Unfortunately, the immigrants followed directives from their Zionist leaders that told them to do unto us what had been done unto them. Revisionist Zionists felt it was their turn in history to oppress, murder, rob and express unbelievable disdain for the other-us Palestinians. They went so far as to tell the rest of the world that we didn’t exist.
The students who wrote the letter, however, are not their parents or their ancestors. Each student is his or her own person. At 18 years old, each stands responsible for his or her own behaviour. Each realizes, as I do, that the knowledge we have today, knowledge of the whole world, should nudge us beyond a primitive urging to annihilate and replace. Surely, we are no longer so naéve that it requires a king like Solomon who once held up a child claimed by two mothers and threatened to cut the baby in half to bring us to our senses. That’s a good story, though. If we cut the Holy Land in half or if neither side will bend to essential concessions that allow us all life, will we totally destroy the land we say we love? This is the question Israeli and Palestinian youths of this generation must decide before our elders decide for us and set us up for impossible futures.
I grew up believing that every person belongs to the place where he or she was born. I know that few Americans understand the intensity of this belief. Most Americans, like most Israelis, came from immigrant populations. They fled oppression willing to make the most of a new land while packing their old world far away in their memories. For us, however, maintenance of our property is not only a right but also a duty. Sometimes staying rather than going is a painful option, but remaining, keeping a family together and caring for our land is as much a part of our collective personality as moving from place to place is for Americans. I do not mean to sound xenophobic. I’m not suggesting that our land should be closed to those who come in the hope of living in harmony with us. It’s just that whether through my genes or environmental heritage I cannot help resist expulsion and displacement any more than Americans choose to move hither and yon, where their careers take them, regardless of family left behind.
Of course, human expulsion and takeovers have occurred time and time again throughout history. Revisionist Zionist Jabotinsky spoke of it back in 1923, as the Holocaust began to loom and events were brewing that would, finally, give credence, imagined or real, to Zionist demands. Does that make it right to allow Israel to continue to harm us, to modernize the punitive concept of winner-take-all, or to dispel indigenous people whose only crime is to be where they are? Are Zionists and religious zealots still so determined that they can only act upon the idea that might-makes-right, even if that means the death of us all? Are all those living here today like the helpless baby Solomon threatened to destroy until the true mother spoke up? Here are 72 students willing to speak. I want to join them.
What do I ask in terms of giving up my end of the struggle? I ask you, the Jewish people of Israel and you Zionist supporters in America, to do to us as you have asked the rest of the world to do to you. If Zionists living in Israel or elsewhere demand compensation for the rights, land and money lost in the Holocaust, I ask for reparation for rights, land and money lost in our Catastrophe started in 1948 and continued with a vengeance in 1967 and is still continuing. There are too many human beings on both sides of this conflict to unilaterally reject a win-win outcome.
It’s difficult for any of us to admit the wrongs of our ancestors and hard to feel guilty for wrongs committed before our individual births, but we can quite easily not repeat what we know to have been wrong. Those who pay attention to this war of ours and theirs and to the human rights struggles all over the globe know that real freedom is possible only when multinational, multi-religious and multiethnic acceptance is a reality. I say to you 72 students, only a few years younger than I, “Help manage this land of ours, not destroy it. Keep responding to the wrong so that our land becomes a haven in which all people, men and women, Muslim, Christian or Jew, former citizens of other countries who come and those of us born here, have a voice, a vote, in what happens next. I call for my people’s freedom to return and for releasing all the Palestinian political prisoners who paid with long years of their lives as a price for freedom. We may not be able to reverse the past, but we have it in our power to serve all the people who are here now.
As for concessions, consider that 30% of 20% of the land taken from us through the mandate of those who did not own our land in the first place is not satisfactory. Expecting more compromise from us when settlement building continues to secretly and publicly expand is not reasonable. The arrogance of “allowing” us Palestinians to have our own State on land where we’ve lived long before the arrival of Zionists is not the word of those who concede themselves to a genuine wish for peace. Expecting Gazans, many who lost their livelihoods when Israelis seized their land, to work for “Israeli masters” for substandard wages and no chance of reeducation or advancement with which to aid their struggling and starving families is wrong. Forcing proud Gazan men to come and go through prison thoroughfares is neither compromising nor wise. That the people of Gaza and the West Bank have undergone such crushing intimidation shows, indeed, the kind of oppression you, Israelis, have put us into, again and again.
Let’s look at the words everyone is hearing now and how we Palestinians hear them. Terrorism, the catchall word for evil today, can come from a State as well as an individual. Who knows that more than you-the 72 Israeli high school seniors-and us-the people of occupied Palestine? Propaganda is dismissed as a negatively prejudiced word if applied to Zionist techniques, but a standard reaction to anything good said about us. Judeo-Christian is the connection that binds America to Zion, but in truth there are three great Abrahamic religions. All three of these religions propose the idea that we must care about each other as much as we care about ourselves. All three religions have unique ways of expressing themselves, but all share a common view of God as one entity. All three subscribe to a nonpartisan human relationship to God and to human responsibility for stewardship of a shared earth. Isn’t it time for us to always say, “Judeo, Christian, Muslim” instead of denying our commonality? Whether we have become secular or remain religious, we’ve all learned, one way or another, about truth and justice as taught by Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. I fear the future, yet, my hope persists, buoyed by the letter from 72 Israeli high school seniors. It is time for all of us who want happy and productive lives to reject the lies our governments or religious institutions teach through curricula construed to make the other side look evil. Isn’t it up to us to demonstrate to the warlords that evil is neither comprehensive nor good? How is it possible that our leaders have not experienced evil and good together in all the trivia of life, as well as in discoveries of science? Mankind should have gotten that point when fire was discovered and that was a long time ago.
If our elders choose not to see truth or continue to selfishly insulate themselves from what they know about wrong, then we, the youth of the region, must take control of our own destinies and make our own choices about our own futures. You 72 youths want to end occupation. We young Palestinians do as well. It’s up to you and to us to stop violence committed by slingshot or military tank in the name of government. If we hope to carry on without unbearable shame, we must seek freedom from what has been and reach out for what can be. You cannot continue to live amid endless political conflict, fearful that every action of some branch of the Israeli government or some Zionist zealot will lead to renewed violence and potentially your death. Resist, I ask you, the financial aid sent from American friends who say they want a promised land, but not enough to come live with you in your distress. We Palestinians cannot continue to live in the unnatural phenomenon of occupation amid the anger and resentment of concessions unwillingly made to a government who simply does not care about us no matter what we give up.
You are a beginning for me. Are you willing to live in harmony with me and other Palestinian youths here in this land of red earth, cacti, olive trees and orange groves and, yes, computers and technology that has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction? You are not the zealots who come eager to transgress upon us so that you can transcend the marvels of our wonderful earth in favour of heaven. You give me hope. When can we get together?
(Samah Jabr is a freelance writer and medical student in Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)