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March, 2009



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Can Israeli Jews Be Saved From Themselves?
by Annette Herskovits

Five weeks after its assault on Gaza ended, Israel has yet to allow into Gaza construction materials to rebuild all the "busy neighborhoods flattened into moonscapes" (as Amnesty International puts it), and spare parts to repair the water and sewer treatment facilities.
Several times during Israel's 22 days' offensive, I awoke at night, heart beating violently, with images of young children in the dark flashing before my eyes, and the roar of bomber planes in my ears. It happened first after I received e-mail from a Palestinian friend with a photograph of his family in Gaza; it showed children holding candles-there was no electricity because Israel had cut deliveries of fuel.

But the panic had other triggers: my own memories of living under aerial bombardment. When I was almost five years old, in 1944, ten months after my parents had been deported to their death in Auschwitz, my 17-year old brother and I were hiding in a hotel room in Paris. The Allies were bombing a nearby train station, the end point of Nazi supply lines. I remember clearly an alert during which I was alone in the room, listening to the whine of the sirens, the roar of the planes, and finally, the explosions.

The Palestinian children have endured much worse: 22 days and nights of bombing. Nowhere to take shelter. Israeli tanks on every street. Scarce water and food. What will become of these massively traumatized children?

As a holocaust survivor, I often receive literature from Jewish organizations calling on "memory": "We must never forget." But Israel's leaders, and the 78 percent of Israelis who told pollsters they supported the attacks on Gaza, have forgotten the one important thing there was to remember: "You must not dehumanize/demonize another people."

The Israeli offensive killed 1400 Palestinians. About 700 were civilians, including 450 children. There were thousands of injured, half of them children. Many will be maimed for life.

Following Israeli withdrawal, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barack appeared on Israeli TV, smiling broadly as they congratulated each other on a job well done. Very low Israeli casualties were essential to keeping public support for the war, and here too they "succeeded": ten soldiers were killed, four of them by friendly fire, casting doubts on Israeli claims that a terrorist hid behind every Gaza civilian.

How are we to understand such callousness? General Moshe Dayan, one of Israel's "fathers," said "Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother." And so it has become, or always was-establishing itself by expelling 750,000 Palestinian Arabs from Palestine, in a series of war crimes, such as forcing the inhabitants of the cities of Lydda and Ramle on roads to the east in the heat of August. No one knows how many died.

The crimes of Israel's beginnings-the 1948 Nakba, or "catastrophe" to the Palestinians-were almost inevitable consequences of the West's malfeasance: from 2000 years of persecution culminating in genocide, to giving away a piece of land that was not theirs with characteristic colonialist insouciance. So it is hard to blame those Jews whose hopes for collective rebirth rested on the idea of a Jewish state.

But to remain blind to the injustices Israel has committed against Palestinians requires massive denial. Most Israeli Jews remember every Palestinian act of violent resistance, but they seem to have forgotten the suffering, many times greater, that they have inflicted on Palestinians. Thus many cannot comprehend Palestinian "violence": "What have we done to them?" said a Jewish settler in the West Bank. A young woman clerk in an Israeli Embassy complained to me: "We built such a beautiful country; but the Palestinians will not leave us peace."

Yes, "we" had beautiful dreams: we only forgot they involved clearing the land of another people. The Palestinians might in time have forgiven 1948, but the expulsions resumed in 1967 and continue, as settlements grow and multiply in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and 2.3 million Palestinians are treated like intruders on their own land.

Only those Israeli Jews who opposed Israel's slaughter have learned the one true lesson of the Nazi genocide, in the words of sage Rabbi Hillel: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor." These relatively few, passionate dissenters-they refuse to serve, demonstrate alongside Palestinians-need our help.

It is understandable that survivors of the Nazi genocide welcomed a nationalist ideology emphasizing strength. But Western countries, the United States in particular, have indulged Israeli governments' militarism and greed. Because Israel is located in the midst of oil-rich countries, where people yearn to free themselves from US supported regimes and to control their own resources, it became US' "foremost ally in the region," with US and Israel's defense industries and militaries thoroughly intertwined.

Our allies must be innocent, always, so US politicians and media insist on disguising Israel's violations of Palestinian rights as self-defense. As the number of Palestinian children murdered by Israeli troops during the offensive kept rising, the US Congress passed Resolutions (unanimously for the Senate, by a large majority for the House) titled: "Recognizing the right of Israel to defend itself against attacks from Gaza." The text following focused on Hamas' violations of international law-principally its launching rockets into Israel that caused 28 deaths in seven years.

Evidence of Israel's war crimes was simply overlooked: the collective punishment of 1.5 million people, 500,000 of whom are children under 12; knowingly targeting civilians by sending missiles into densely populated areas; using phosphorus shells and new weapons (DIME) which cause untreatable wounds. Also overlooked was Israel's three-year long blockade of Gaza-another violation of international law-, which denied food, fuel and medicine to the entire population.

The fact that Hamas scrupulously observed the ceasefire was turned on its head. The Resolutions falsely assert that Hamas first violated the ceasefire. As reported by CNN, Israel violated the ceasefire on November 4 by sending troops to destroy a tunnel supposedly dug to kidnap Israeli soldiers. In fact, Israel had prepared its December attacks for months, so the tunnel was only a transparent pretext.

So what now? February's elections confirmed Israel's sharp move to the right. The party of Avigdor Lieberman, an advocate of "transfer" (read "ethnic cleansing") for the Palestinians, won 15 seats. But just as disturbing, Tsipi Livni, the leader of Kadima, winner of 28 seats, recently said she would only support an agreement "that represents our interests," including "maintaining maximum settlers and places that we hold dear such as Jerusalem-not a single refugee will enter."

And to the right of Kadima, Likud, with 27 seats, has a platform stating that the West Bank's Jewish settlers communities are "the realization of Zionist values," and Likud "will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their uprooting."

So Israel will not deviate from its disastrous course without strong US pressure.

On introducing George Mitchell as a special peace envoy to the Middle East, President Obama said: "Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who've faced suffocating poverty for far too long." Hopefully, these words mean that Obama intends to stand up to Israel's greed and belligerence. But he will need public support to succeed. In particular, peace activists should pressure Congress to abandon its blind support for Israel.

I also see as legitimate calls for cutting US military aid to Israel and boycotting Israeli products. A member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a US organization which calls for security and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians, suggested replacing "military aid" to every state in the region with "peace aid." I think that is a splendid idea.

February 25, 2009
Annette Herskovits, PhD, became a writer and peace activist after a career as a linguist and college professor. She is the daughter of Holocaust victims.

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