Tag Archives: Sami

The Anti-Normalization Shroud Descends

By now we’re all familiar with the new world of physical distancing, stay-at-home orders, and the feeling that everything has come to a standstill.

Palestinians in Gaza have experienced a similar (not the same) life since June 2007 when Israel severely tightened the restrictions on the Gaza Strip after Hamas took control.  Palestinians can’t exit except with approval from both Israel and Hamas, turning the Gaza Strip into the largest open air prison in the world. Palestinians can’t export their produce except under very limited strictures. Palestinians can’t import many essential products, and they remain reliant on Israel to determine what things can and can’t be brought into Gaza. Many times the Palestinian fishermen can’t safely bring home their catch without being fired upon by the Israeli gunboats. And the list of restrictions goes on and on.

Gaza is tiny. At 139 square miles, it’s about the same size as Detroit (138.8 square miles), Philadelphia (134.1), Las Vegas (135.8), or Portland, Oregon (133.4). We’re talking about more than two million people, the largest majority being youth under the age of 30, confined to a Very. Small. Place.

Any Palestinian in Gaza older than 12 years has lived through three devastating Israeli military operations: Operation Cast Lead (in 2008-2009 Israel killed 1391 Palestinians in Gaza in 23 days); Operation Pillar of Defense (in November 2012 Israel killed 167 Palestinians in Gaza in 8 days); and two years later Operation Protective Edge (Israel killed 2,251 Palestinians in Gaza and wounded more than 11,000 between July 8 and August 26, 2014). Since March 2018, Israeli sharpshooters have killed and maimed hundreds of Palestinians participating in the Great Return March every Friday at the fence that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel.

This violence and physical separation has occupied the Palestinian souls in Gaza for a very long time, a deliberate military strategy pursued by the State of Israel. There’s little doubt among human rights lawyers that it amounts to collective punishment, a war crime under the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

So this happened recently.

A Palestinian in Gaza connected on Zoom with an Israeli in Tel Aviv about 40 miles away but they could have very well been light years apart because it’s official government policy on both sides that there will be no communication “with the enemy.” The Zoom meeting included friends on both sides. It went on for over an hour. I watched part of it but the audio quality and heavy accents prevented me from understanding the entire exchange.

A young Palestinian woman later saw the video of the Zoom meeting and tagged Hamas leaders. They arrested the organizer in Gaza on grounds that his conversation with the Israelis was a form of normalization.

I’ve heard different definitions of normalization; it appears to sweep the gamut from the very denunciation of any contact between any Israeli and any Palestinian to a more tailored and nuanced criticism of people-to-people programs.

The definition I find most helpful is:

Within Palestine, normalization is generally defined as any project; initiative; or activity in Palestine, Israel, or internationally that aims to bring together Palestinians and Israelis without addressing structural and power inequalities and/or without having its goal be opposition and resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Read this article published two years ago in the Friends Journal, a Quaker publication, by Mike Merryman-Lotze for a deeper understanding of a very complex subject. He writes:

It should be understood that the push against normalization is not about closing off communication because of issues of identity. Rather it is about identifying the principles and processes through which discussion and communication occur so as to not reify power imbalances or do harm to those who are already vulnerable or abused. It is about ensuring that when people come together, the focus is co‐resistance to the structures that oppress people, and not coexistence within oppressive systems.

The woman who alerted Hamas to the Zoom meeting appears to ascribe to a very blunt definition where any communication between Palestinians and Israelis is verboten. Here’s what she later posted on her Facebook account. She’s received a lot of support from Palestinians inside Gaza and outside.

As a Palestinian born and raised in the Gaza Strip, under endless blockade, survived two aggressive wars, covering the Great March of Return I believe that the worst sin any Palestinian can commit is Normalization; which is any joint activity between Palestine and Israel.

In other words, no form of joint activity, cooperation or dialogue with Israelis is unacceptable, even engaging with Israeli “Peace Activists”.

These actions are collaboration with enemies of us, the Palestinians.

No one ever taught me that Israel is my enemy, but every airstrike I heard told me that.

No one ever told me that talking with Israeli’s is unacceptable but every single body shattered into pieces covered with blood said it all.

It is not my intention to make an argument in support of normalization. Normalization is a matter writ large for the Palestinian community to explore and decide for itself collectively and as individuals.

But if the shroud of anti-normalization can be stretched so far and wide as to smother any communication between Palestinians and Israelis, I fear for the future of everyone in the Holy Land. 

I would never have met Sami, a Palestinian from Gaza who was a high school exchange student in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I wrote about Sami and his meeting with an Israeli security official in that U.S. high school many years ago.

I would never have read the Palestinian doctor’s book from Gaza, I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish.

I probably would never have traveled to Gaza in 2012 and learned so much about life under occupation, and the beautiful culture of sumud and determination, because my opportunity was sparked by Sami, Izzeldin, Mohammed and many others who connected with me.  I’ve had my difference of opinion with some in Gaza over the years, but if they choose to shroud themselves in darkness by condemning any connections between Palestinians and Israelis as haram, then I must part ways with them. My voice and actions in solidarity with Palestinians will fall on deaf ears.

For the time being, I’m hoping that there are many more Palestinians inside Gaza, the West Bank, and the diaspora who reject this mindset. I suspect they may feel it is safer to remain silent.

I also hope there are Israelis who recognize that “it’s the occupation, stupid!”  Speaking with Palestinians may be an important first step, but it’s certainly not the last. Israelis must have the courage to take action to dismantle the occupation.

 

 

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Filed under Gaza, Hamas, Israel, nonviolent resistance, Occupation, People, Politics, Video

Easter & Passover Travel

 

Ghetto Jewish store

Store window in the Venice Ghetto

Movement is on my mind.  Or the lack thereof.

A middle-aged American woman, married to a Palestinian from Bethlehem, was stopped at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport last week, interrogated for hours, and then put on a plane back to the United States. (The news is here.) The Israeli authorities denied her permission to enter Israel to reunite with her family in Bethlehem where she has lived and raised a family for over 30 years. Why this treatment?  She was told “because she married a Palestinian.”

A young Palestinian-American woman, originally from Gaza but now living in the United States with her husband and baby, was stopped at Istanbul’s new airport from boarding her connecting flight to Cairo where she planned to travel by bus to the Rafah crossing into Gaza. She and her young son were looking forward to spending Ramadan with her family but the airline authorities told her the Rafah border was closed, and she would not be allowed into Egypt to wait for the border to open.

Notre Dame interior 5

Notre Dame Cathedral

The news reports that Israel has imposed a week-long closure of the West Bank and Gaza ahead of Passover, and is preventing hundreds of Palestinian Christians from Gaza from traveling to Jerusalem or Bethlehem to partake in their Easter celebrations.

The irony certainly does not escape me.

Jews worldwide celebrate Passover to mark their exodus from slavery in Egypt. Their freedom of movement is called Passover because, as explained by the Chabad Jews:

They were also instructed to take the blood of the lamb and smear it on their doorposts, a sign to G‑d that this was an Israelite home, to be passed over, while death was visited upon the firstborns in all other homes. This is what gave the Passover sacrifice (and holiday) its name.

Their exodus so long ago saved them from suffering and bondage, but what lessons were learned? What are Jews celebrating in the Twenty-First century as the State of Israel keeps millions of Palestinians oppressed and under occupation, preventing them from moving freely?

For those who are awake, I suspect their discomfort is growing.

As Cohen writes in Patheos:

But for a growing number of Jews around the world our relationship to the Palestinian people has become the greatest challenge to our Jewish identity and values. How can we celebrate our ‘feast of freedom’ and tell the story of our Exodus from the ‘narrow place’ of ‘Mitzryim’ while we deny, or stay silent, about the oppression of Palestine? It’s a profound challenge to our faith and the understanding of our own history.

Attempting to uphold a Jewish ideal of justice and freedom is not easy when you’ve just read that Israel has detained, kidnapped or jailed 1,000,000 Palestinians since 1948.

For those Jews who are not awake or prefer not to see, I think their journey must also be difficult because it takes a good bit of energy and struggle within to ignore the suffering of others.

I remember the wise words of a young Palestinian exchange student from Gaza who I met in Albuquerque, New Mexico over a Passover Seder many years ago. Reading from the Haggadah, a Jewish woman said “I don’t believe Jews are the Chosen People,” obviously to ease the discomfort she thought this young Palestinian Muslim might be experiencing. His response was genuine and thoughtful: “I believe Jews are the Chosen People. I believe God chose the Jews to be the people to show mankind how to treat one’s neighbors.”  (I wrote about Sami from Gaza here.)

If Sami is correct, then clearly the Chosen People have a steep learning curve. Israel’s occupation and subjugation of millions of Palestinians for the past 70+ years is merely a tick in humanity’s clock but it’s unbearable for those waiting for their moment of liberation, for their exodus.

Cohen concludes by saying:

“Tonight, we’ll conclude our family meal with this passage written by Aurora Levins Morales, a poet and activist. I discovered her writing in the 2018 Jewish Voice for Peace Haggadah.

“This time we cannot cross until we carry each other. All of us refugees, all of us prophets. No more taking turns on history’s wheel, trying to collect old debts no one can pay. The sea will not open that way. This time that country is what we promise each other, our rage pressed cheek to cheek until tears flood the space between, until there are no enemies left, because this time no one will be left to drown and all of us must be chosen. This time it’s all of us or none.”

May minds and hearts be moved this Passover and Easter, so that next year everyone has freedom of movement, a life of dignity with compassion, and we treat our neighbors as we wish they would treat us.

 

 

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Filed under Israel, Occupation, Spiritual - Religion, Uncategorized

My Passover Seder with Sami

Chag Sameach! Greetings to all of my friends and family who celebrate Passover.

I am remembering two Seders I have attended in Albuquerque, New Mexico —  both in homes filled with many warm people who were strangers to me at the beginning of the Seder, but certainly not at the end.

The first Passover Seder was an invitation by my law partner to join her and her friends at someone’s home (I wish I could remember the name of the host).   They patiently taught me the rituals, and the significance of the food on the table.

 

The Passover seder celebrates the Jewish people’s freedom from the Pharaoh and the larger issue of the immorality of slavery. As Jews, we have a long history filled with suffering, oppression and slavery, which has informed our choices as a community to work with other groups to help their own oppression. Jews have played roles in the civil rights movement, women’s movement, gay rights movement and feel a deep connection to suffering of others.

My second Seder was also in Albuquerque, a few years later, at my friend Melinda’s house.  Again, there were many strangers sitting at several makeshift tables, we read another version of the Haggadah, we shared the matzohs, horseradish and the rest of the Seder meal together while making new friends.

One young man at my table was from Jabalya Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip!  Sami was a Palestinian boy only 16 years old, an exchange student attending Manzano High School.  Before he arrived in Albuquerque, the only Jews Sami had ever met were the soldiers carrying weapons in Gaza.  My friend Iris writes:

Now he had Jewish friends in school and several Jewish mothers ready to take him home. For Passover, we invited him to his first seder. The ritual required one to ask questions. That night was different from all other nights because Sami translated the four seder questions into Arabic and Croatian, the language of his Yugoslav mother. Another person asked them in Spanish, another in French, and of course they were asked in Hebrew and English. An Israeli woman, expressed her belief that all people were “chosen,” not just the Jews. Sami responded by saying he believed the Hebrew tribe was chosen to bring the highest law to mankind–– how to treat your fellow humans. And the law was for everyone.

I don’t know how to find Sami now.  I am in Gaza City, only minutes from Jabalya but Sami could be anywhere on this planet.  That Seder was 10 years ago.  Iris continues:

It was easy to forget he was only sixteen, especially the day he brought an Israeli Major to his history class for a Middle East teach-in. It was a moment of face to face dialogue. Major Stav Adivi, a leader in the Israeli refusnik movement, was speaking in New Mexico, explaining why he refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza, although he would gladly defend Israel with his life. Having little prior knowledge of the issues, the history students were confounded by the discussion but for Sami it was the opportunity of a lifetime. He had been given a chance to have an honest and public dialogue with a major in the Israeli Defense Army, the same army that had brought death and destruction back home. They stood as equals in front of the classroom, both speaking from their hearts, both wanting to end the occupation, the injustice and the deaths.

Major Adivi believed that security for Israel would come with the creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. A defensive wall should follow the Green Line, he insisted, the 1967 international boundary between Israel and Jordan. Sami boldly walked to the chalkboard and erased all the separation lines drawn by Stav, and stated his dream. “I wish to live with the Israelis in one unified country, where everyone is treated equally before the law.”  His faith in that vision was breathtaking.

Sami, wherever you are, I hope your vision comes true.   I hope you are safe.  I hope your life is unfolding as you dreamed.  I hope we will reconnect one day.

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Filed under Gaza, Peaceful, People