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This column did not appear in the Brookline TAB as I planned because editorial policy prevents responding to letter writers. So it goes.

Back from Jerusalem

Dennis Fox

February 3 , 2004

After returning from my month-long visit to Israel and the West Bank, I read the half-dozen letters to the TAB criticizing my last column, "From Brookline to Jerusalem." I'll respond now to those letters before returning next month to this column's primary focus on local issues.

When I became a teenage Zionist in the mid-1960s I fully accepted Zionism's underpinnings despite skepticism about some Israeli policies. I routinely defended Israel, much as my Brookline neighbors blast what I write today. My skepticism grew as the Occupation continued. Only in the past few years, however, after returning to Boston from the Midwest and living amidst Brookline's Jewish community, did I push myself to consider what I had avoided for too long.

Returning to Israel after 32 years was part political education, part re-connection with old friends, part nostalgia-tripping to a place I had loved. I sought to personalize what for three decades I had known second-hand. I knew I wouldn't bring back a Grand Plan to resolve every difference, but during my visit I was encouraged that some Israelis and Palestinians were willing to cut through the cliches, superficialities, and defensiveness that typify discussion about this complex conflict.

Some letters critical of my effort raised essentially irrelevant issues. That other countries have worse human rights records than Israel and have oppressed or killed more innocents is true, but beside the point. It is also beside the point that Israeli pioneers, scientists, and humanitarians have made the desert bloom, built a technologically advanced society, and offered considerable aid to tsunami victims. None of these achievements mitigates injustice.

The sole relevant argument is the claim that Israel must do whatever it takes to reduce terrorist attacks. I understand this argument. I, too, worry about friends and family, and now I've seen them worry about their own loved ones. Living under constant threat tends to focus the mind on one thing: Survival.

But simply dismissing Palestinians as terrorists or terrorist supporters who somehow deserve whatever Israel does to them ignores the fears, the pain, the humiliation of millions of ordinary people. Israel's Brookline supporters who insist that all fault lies east of the Green Line demonstrate not just a faulty view of history but a lack of empathy at odds with the American Jewish tradition of liberalism and humanism.

Because Israeli civilians are not allowed to visit Occupied territory, Palestinians see Israelis only as soldiers, as occupiers with power; Israelis see Palestinians only as threats. A Palestinian student who managed to get permission to attend a conference in Jerusalem last month told the audience "I'm 25. This is the first time in my life I'm out of Gaza. How can you learn about what things are like there if you can't come to Gaza and I can't come out?" An Israeli on the panel said he had never met a Palestinian as an equal human being until he left Israel to study abroad.

My group met in Tel Aviv with Courage to Refuse reservists who refuse to serve in Occupied territory. We met others from Breaking the Silence who, after serving in the West Bank city of Hebron, accumulated photos and written testimonials recounting their everyday abuse of innocent Palestinians. These reservists remain anguished not just by their actions but also by being told they should resolve their moral qualms and grow up. Are morality, democracy, and humanity really expendable?

Unlike Israeli civilians, Americans can cross the West Bank checkpoints. We can meet Palestinians and see for ourselves the consequences of Israel's actions -- building the Separation Wall well over the Green Line, for example, thus separating villagers from their fields; confiscating those fields within Jerusalem's expanded borders because under laws designed to favor Jews over Arabs the new wall makes their owners legally "absent"; fostering a myriad of indignities that encourage middle-class Palestinians to pack up and leave.

According to news reports, Ariel Sharon wants to discuss only security when he meets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas next week, despite Abbas's interest in resuming peace talks aimed at a just long-term solution. Abbas has it right, though. Without justice, security is impossible. Israel's supporters here at home should join with Israelis who have reached the same conclusion.

More on Israel and Palestine

Blog entries on visit to Israel & West Bank (click on Israel/Palestine)

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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