The Great Wall of Denial

A few nights ago, I was awakened at 11 pm by the sound of a loudspeaker blaring from a police car in the street near my home in Jerusalem. I thought I heard a demand for someone to come out of the house and into the street. I wondered if a terrorist was loose in the neighborhood, as had happened more than once in various parts of Israel. I kept the light off, and ran to confirm that the front door was locked. Then I turned on the radio to hear if anything newsworthy was happening in my neighborhood. When I heard nothing, I crept back into bed, and lay there waiting for the next thing to happen.

After a while, I thought of how many perfectly normal and law-abiding Palestinians are awakened in the middle of the night by loudspeakers from army vehicles, lie in bed waiting for events to unfold, and end up hearing the sounds of a neighbor being arrested and taken away…or being taken away themselves. A few weeks ago, a loudspeaker in the village of Beit Lahiya called residents out of their homes in the middle of the night, and 200 neighbors – including small children and two women who had given birth 2 days earlier – were forced to huddle together for hours in the cold winter night until the army let them return to their homes. This is not uncommon in Palestinian neighborhoods, though the information rarely reaches the newspapers of Israel. In my neighborhood, it turned out to be the police searching for a missing child. In the Palestinian neighborhood, it can be a search for someone on the ‘wanted list’… or just plain harassment.

The lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories have been thoroughly disrupted since Sharon came to power, far more than under any preceding Israeli prime minister. The mystery, however, is not the reign of terror – this is no mystery under Sharon – but the indifference of Israeli citizens to that behavior. How is it possible that through two and a half years of increasingly cruel conduct of our army, the Israeli public has had almost nothing to say about soldiers…

*** urinating on school computers and defecating on the rugs of homes they have garrisoned for use; *** accidentally demolishing the homes of innocent people that happen to be near the homes deliberately destroyed *** preventing the residents of entire cities from leaving their houses for weeks on end (no exceptions – not for chemo, dialysis, childbirth, buying food, attending school, or visiting your sick mother); *** damaging 27 Palestinian ambulances beyond repair and wounding 187 medical personnel [www.palestinercs.org] ; *** and assassinating people without the niceties of trial and due process, not to mention reckless shootings in which 126 innocent children aged 13 or younger (including 19 toddlers and infants aged 5 or younger!) have lost their lives [www.btselem.org].

Why, I am trying to understand, are we Israelis so blind to this brutality? Where are the expressions of revulsion by decent Israelis? Why don’t the major newspapers report these heart-wrenching stories (not just the liberal and much smaller-circulation Ha’aretz)? Why didn’t a single Jewish political party in the recent election criticize the government for its policy of collective punishment? Why are the brave young men and women who refuse to carry out these crimes disparaged in the media, while even Peace Now and the Meretz party don’t come to their support? Why are only a handful of people willing to apply the label ‘war crime’ to the deeds of the army – deeds that merit this designation under any objective reading of the international instruments of law?

The lack of outrage and compassion in Israel is difficult to understand. Is it a reflection of the fact that Israelis are uninformed? Or are they aware and indifferent?

I believe that Israelis do know the truth. They know because some stories – the most poignant – do reach the media. A month ago, they saw a scene on Israeli TV of a young boy on crutches forced everyday to scale a muddy checkpoint wall to get to school. They know because they do reserve duty in the territories – or their family and friends do – and some even brag about the dirty tricks they saw or did. They know because some watch CNN, the BBC, or other foreign media, even when they dismiss these reports as anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. But enough stories do get through for Israelis to know what is happening, to understand the brutal reality.

So the question is, why is there indifference? Here are three reasons, though I’m sure there are more:

First, the media gets some of the blame. Although facts and figures are reported, the media fail to convey the human suffering behind the iron fist policies. Journalist Gideon Levy points out [Ha'aretz, 2 Feb 03] that when 15 Palestinians were killed in Gaza in one blood-drenched day last week (February 19th), the Israeli newspapers were wrapped up in the story of the Qassam shells that landed in Sderot, wounding one. Journalist Amira Hass speaks of the ‘routine of calamity’ [Ha'aretz, 26 Feb 03] in Palestine as disasters spiral, which I believe has also routinized the reporting of them and our response. When 25 homes were destroyed in Gaza last month, making 200 Palestinians homeless, not a single TV or radio clip conveyed the story of these people with anything approaching compassion.

Second, Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians provides the cover for Israelis to focus on our own pain and fear, and to frame the pain of the Palestinians as ‘just desserts’ or an inevitable byproduct of our ‘war on terrorism’. Furthermore, innocent bystanders have been killed on our side, too, making it harder for Israelis to feel compassion for those they regard as supportive of the attacks. Nevertheless, the completely lopsided balance of power and suffering has not penetrated the consciousness of the Israeli public as a whole. The violence on both sides is reprehensible, but most Israelis behave as if only our people are its victims them, are the perpetrators of the crimes.

Third, much blame goes to our political and rabbinical leaders who engage in fear mongering and dehumanization of the other. Racism is rampant in Israel, from popular Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who called all Arabs ‘snakes’, to President Katsav who told a group of bar-mitzvah boys, “The Palestinians don’t behave as if they come from the same planet as we do.” The National Union Party, a member of Sharon’s new government, openly advocates ethnic cleansing – the ‘transfer’, as they call it, of all Arabs from Israel and the territories. Is it any wonder that so few pay attention to the suffering of those who have been devalued and dehumanized? Meanwhile, our military leaders repeat the mantra that “The IDF is the most moral army in the world.”

There may be many more reasons for Israeli indifference. Eitan Felner, former Director of the B’Tselem human rights organization, referred to Israel’s behavior as typical of an adult who has been abused as a child and consequently becomes an abusive adult, just as Jews were abused in Europe and now take it out on others [NY Times, date?]. Many Israelis believe they hold exclusive rights to the category ‘Suffering Victims’, and are unable to view themselves as having inflicted suffering and victimhood on others.

But the important question is, how do we penetrate the numbness of Israelis, soldiers and civilians alike, about the wrongness of our actions – wrong morally and stupid strategically. As virtually everyone has recognized by now, the brutal policies only create more bitterness and desire for revenge. How do we get the message across to Israelis that the government is undermining our security in the territories with each act of humiliation and cruelty? How do we convey to Israelis that we are behaving in some ways like the persecutors of Jews have behaved from time immemorial?

Israeli peace and human rights activists have been wracking our brains over how to accomplish this. The young men and women who refuse to serve in the army have done more than their share to raise awareness about the army’s cruel deeds, though they face court martial and prison as a result. Led by the New Profile organization, many peace activists will be holding a rally in April to express our pride in these young people. Ta’ayush and Rabbis for Human Rights lead groups of Israelis into the territories to see the appalling conditions. Machsom Watch takes visitors to the checkpoints to observe the military vise-grip on Palestinians who try to use the roads. Gush Shalom has led the drive to place the “war crime” label on unlawful army behavior, to the wrath of the generals and the Attorney General. The Coalition of Women for Peace placed an ad in the Arabic-language newspapers, letting Palestinians know that some Israelis are aware of their suffering, do care, and are trying to stop it. And a new campaign is shaping up among a coalition of groups under the slogan, “Don’t say you didn’t know…” in reference to the claims of ignorance by Germans during the Nazi regime. And yet with all this effort, will we be able to break through the Great Wall of Denial?

Something different works for each person. What caught at my own heart was a scene captured on video by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization in the territories. It showed a simple conversation between the B’Tselem fieldworker and a well-dressed Palestinian man, standing forlornly beside his car parked at a checkpoint:

“Why aren’t you driving through?” asks the B’Tselem worker.

“I don’t really know,” answers the man.

“What do you mean, you don’t know? Aren’t you waiting to get through the checkpoint?”

“Yes, I’m trying to get to Hebron. But the soldiers told me to wait here.”

“How long have you been waiting?”

“Since 7 o’clock this morning.”

“Since 7 o’clock? But it’s 5 pm! Why are they keeping you?”

“I really don’t know. I was just driving through and they told me to stop and get out of my car and wait on the side. I really don’t know. I’m just waiting for them to let me through.” After a pause. “Did you eat anything yet today?”

“No, I left home early and planned to eat in Hebron…” His voice starts to break and he turns away as he struggles to keep himself from crying. After a pause. “Did you call your family? Do they know where you are?” “Yes, I called several times, the last time around 3 o’clock, but now my battery is dead.”

“Would you like to use my cell phone?” “No, no thank you, I told them at 3 I’d be home in a couple hours. It’s 5 now. I don’t want to worry them.” He turns his head and tries to fight the tears.

There is random violence, there are arrests in the middle of the night, and there are the countless ways to make a person feel powerless, fearful, not knowing if he’ll get home today or still be standing by his car tomorrow, waiting for the young soldier to let him through.

Indifference is not felt by everyone. For those who do care, the only answer is to stand witness to this reality. To share the information with others. To speak truth to power. And, thereby, to break the cycle of helplessness and despair, and create a better place for us all.

Article sent courtesy Israel Shamir, photos of Israel’s ‘apartheid wall’ thanks to Richard Greaves. 220 miles long and over 25 feet high with an adjioning road, ditch and security fences it darwfs the old Berlin Wall, and in some places encroaches several miles into Palestinian territory.

Palestinian properties and businesses are left demolished to make way for the wall
A finished section of the wall