Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lucky You Come Hawaii

Lucky You Come Hawaii

“Lucky you come Hawaii!” locals exclaim in their pidgin English in a mix of welcoming and bragging about their blissful paradise. And it never felt more welcoming in the scores of times I have been in the islands: a combination of friendship and family bliss and of suddenly basking in a mini-celebrity status of media attention to my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee. Within the span of one week in Honolulu my book has been the subject of one live radio program, one TV show, one newspaper op. ed., one bookstore reading and one talk to a church group. And today, with our children and grandchildren, we arrived in the island of Kauai, the island on which Didi and I had honeymooned eons ago. As we stopped for a snack it dawned on me that I had not paid for a single meal since we arrived in Hawaii; we had been wined and dined by friends and relatives for the whole period, one celebration after another.

Honolulu, Hawaii was the best place to launch my book. In fact the memoirs start while we were here for a two-year break from the strife-ridden career that I have chosen for myself. And Hawaii is the perfect antipode for Israel/Palestine not only geographically but also socio-politically. Despite Hawaii’s current governor being a Zionist, or at least a Zionist-supported Republican, Hawaiians are so far removed from the conflict that has shaped my life that they can justly claim innocence of any preconceived idea about it. It felt absolutely refreshing to speak to a group in America lacking the usual sprinkling, if not majority, of deeply opinionated pro-Israelis. Not only was I able to express my particular point of view on the subject uninterrupted but also to elicit valid comments and relevant questions regarding needed additional factual information. I have since used this inadvertent advantage to rework my presentation and to incorporate the various points raised in the Q&A period of the different presentations to live Hawaiian audiences. I decided to retain my original heading in recognition of the group that was the first to invite me to speak. Here is the outcome:

Talk at the Church of the Crossroads, Honolulu, Hawaii,

June 14, 20081,

Sponsored by the Friends of Sabeel

Good evening, Salam and Aloha,

Let me start by thanking my hosts, the Friends of Sabeel, and specifically Mr. Ramsis Lutfy and Ms. Margaret Brown, who have been kind enough to arrange for this wonderful occasion. Before leaving home I spoke to the Rev. Naim Atik, the Palestinian founder of Sabeel in the best tradition of proactive liberation theology. He asked me to convey his regards and blessings to you. Some of my friends here tonight, including my protestant wife Didi and my two brothers, the Catholic Indonesian Djon and the Hindu Jagy, will recall the good old days of the early 1960s when, as foreign students at the University of Hawaii, we used to seek warmth at the Church of the Crossroads thanks to the hospitality and humanity of our friend and host at the time, the late Rev. Del Rayson.

I am touched by the interest of so many people in this island paradise in a subject relevant to the hell burning half way across the globe, though the hell is perpetrated with the full support of the USA and its fire kept is burning with your tax money. It has been asserted that nowadays a person’s stand on the suffering of the Palestinians is the test of his or her humanity. Tonight I salute your humanity.

In his book Palestinian Walks, the Palestinian lawyer and author Raja Shehadeh states: “Perhaps the curse of Palestine is its centrality to the West’s historical and biblical imagination.” He then goes on to declare: “There is no place like the Holy Land to make one cynical about religion.” It is not comfortable being on the receiving end of fabrications issuing from the West’s fertile imagination especially when these are further augmented by clever spin-doctoring targeting the native population of the Holy Land. Cleverly twisted, facts have yielded to fiction rendering our history one long series of blood feuds, our land empty –a country without people-, our civilization pure savagery, and all of us terrorists by definition. According to this creative narrative, in 1948 we collectively left our homes on an extended vacation to allow the establishment of the ‘only democracy in the ME’, the ‘Jewish and democratic’ state of Israel. Except that, as reality would have it, in the Jewish and democratic state there is a near 20% minority of Palestinians, a fact rendering it an oxymoron by definition. Israel is a democracy for Jews only; it lacks a constitution that guarantees us, the minority Palestinians, protection from the draconian laws supported by the majority.

It is with this in mind that I want to declare my full secularism and my support for a single secular and democratic state in all of historical Palestine. The two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been rendered totally impractical by the facts on the ground that Israel has created with the full backing of the US. Any such fiction has been relegated to the realm of posturing of puppets in a children’s comic show. The reality of the two independent states is not unlike the USA on one side and the Native American reservation residents on the other, except that the Native Americans in this case are not permitted to leave their reservations, are not allowed to use Federal and State highways and General Custer and his troops have free range. And the two ‘states’ are left to settle their differences through direct ‘negotiations’. The two-state solution and its ‘rejection by the Palestinians’ is well on its way to becoming another in the series of myths the West is willing to buy into so as to soothe its conscience about the historic evil it had committed against the Jews. Making up for the holocaust by forfeiting the rights of another Semitic people is hardly a lasting cure.

My goal today is to introduce to you the little known community in the Middle East that has had a vested interest in peace and which has been ignored by all parties to the ongoing conflict, my community, the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel [This is the equivalent of saying ‘the Hawaiian Polynesian citizens of the US’. It is the term we prefer in contradistinction to the Israeli term of ‘Israel’s Arabs’.]

Here I want to distinguish clearly between this little known group and other parts of the Palestinian people: those under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, those in Refugee camps in ME countries, and those in the Diaspora across the globe. In the process of violent dispersion of the Palestinian nation in 1948 we were the lucky ones who inadvertently stayed in our homes in the part of Palestine that became Israel and thus we became citizens of Israel since its establishment.

This small group of less than 150,000 in 1948, or some 15% of the population of Israel at the start, has multiplied tenfold since, through natural increase. It has proportionately outstripped the majority Jewish population increase to become nearly 20% of the total population. This, despite Israel’s massive international recruitment efforts of Jewish immigrants with special laws, attractive economic enticements, and underhanded contrivance.

Land, Population and Housing:

Our natural population development has brought upon us the wrath of Zionist policymakers who invented the term ‘demographic time bomb’ for it. This offensive term, the related discriminatory Law of Return, and the three dozen land confiscation laws especially formulated to usurp our land, all presented to the world as part of Israel’s enlightened democracy, are some of the most insulting tactics used against an indigenous population anywhere on earth.

The rapid population increase, together with land confiscation, has led to excessive overcrowding in our towns and villages. I should explain here that in Israel the two population groups live in segregated communities with the exception of a few ‘mixed cities’ where Jews and Arabs live in segregated neighborhoods, oftentimes separated by high concrete walls and barbwire.

Subsidized housing exists exclusively for members of the Jewish majority. In Nazareth Elite or Upper Nazareth, established in the 1950’s to offset the historical native city of Nazareth on land confiscated from its residents and those of surrounding Arab villages, young Arab couples have been buying homes from disgruntled immigrants who prefer the central Jewish cities, this prompting a Movement to Keep Nazareth Elite pure.

Two further related phenomena are house demolitions, exclusively practiced against Israel’s Palestinian minority, and the over one hundred Unrecognized Villages, Arabic communities that often predated the establishment of the state but that were made retroactively illegal and denied government services and public utilities, including drinking water.

Who are the Palestinians and where do I fit among them?

M My best guess at our historical background is described in the last page in my book of memoirs, A Doctor in Galilee. I will read a couple of paragraphs from the entry in my memoirs describing my successful transplanting of a millennia-old olive tree from a neighboring valley to my front yard:

The horrific sense of history inspired by this continuous biological link between me and my land is simply awesome. Are the Palestinians not the historical descendants of the Minoans of Crete? Were the Minoans not the first olive farmers in recorded history? Did Minoan culture not revolve around the trade in olive oil? Was the trade by way of Phoenicia? Could the Phoenicians, Canaanites, Israelites, Egyptians, Hyxos, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Moguls, Crusaders and Turks have played a role in influencing the life and physique of my own tree? Yes, indeed, they may have. Any or all of them may have enjoyed the afternoon Mediterranean breeze in its cool shade. Any or all of them may have tied their trusted mounts to its sturdy trunk and cut a fresh shoot from its base to hurry the steed along -- the reason, most likely, for all the beautiful, football-size knots on its trunk. Any or all of them may have seduced, or raped, one of my maiden progenitors, leaving his telltale imprint on my amalgam of genes. And any or all of them may have dictated their rules and regulations to my ancestors, who submissively incorporated them as “ours”.

But at bottom, it was those Minoan olive oil traders and their Palestinian descendants, clinging to their land and subsisting in the shadow of their olive groves, that morphed into an ambitious nation laying claim to Arab culture, the last dominant culture of significant impact. My tree knows and attests to all of that; that is how it all started. This horrendous behemoth, with its two-meter wide, beautifully sculpted trunk and over ten square meters of beautifully sculpted exposed root system saw it all. I can prove my belonging to this piece of the earth’s crust through it; its roots are my surrogate roots. And they are taking hold in my land that I inherited from my father, who inherited it from his father,… and so on ad- infinitum.

Now I will attempt briefly to introduce to you my own narrative in the context of the ME conflict, in the hope that I will leave you with some appreciation of the degree of injustice that Israel and the US continue to wreak upon my people, the Palestinians, all of course, as seen from my perspective as an involved witness to the process. Again I will read from my book of memoirs, now from my foreword to it:

'A Doctor in Galilee: The Story and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel' is a memoir arising from my struggle as a physician to bring the benefits of Public Health and community development to my people, the Palestinian Arab minority citizens of Israel. The intimate personal narrative introduces readers to this little known and often misunderstood population that is nonetheless key to understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I was born in 1937 In Arrabeh Village in the Galilee at the height of the Palestinian peasant uprising against the British Mandate for its sympathy with and accommodation of the designs of the Zionist Movement on their land. On my eleventh birthday, Israel was officially declared an independent state, marking the Palestinian Nakba or catastrophe. The vast majority of Palestinians from the area of the new state became refugees in neighboring Arab countries. Their towns and villages were systematically razed or their homes occupied by Jewish immigrants. We, the few Palestinians who remained on their land, found ourselves on the wrong side of the border, a leaderless and alienated minority in an enemy state. For 18 years we were placed under oppressive military rule.

As subsistence olive farmers my family sacrificed much to put me through the Nazareth Municipal High School. Two years later, in 1960, I struck out to study medicine in the USA. In 1970, having obtained Harvard degrees in Medicine and Public Health and turning down several lucrative offers in America, I returned with my Hawaiian wife, a teacher, to Arrabeh and found employment with the Ministry of Health in my field of specialty. The dearth of physicians in my region forced me to double as solo village GP. I lasted for six years before I could take it no more. I found my Public Health work unproductive in light of state systems openly hostile to Arab citizens. This included policies of massive land confiscation that led to a mini uprising by my people, known thereafter as Land Day. Frustrated and angry, in 1976 I moved with my wife and two children to Hawaii.

After two years of vacillating we returned home to the Galilee and to the same setting we had left. I started looking for a way around the discriminatory and antagonistic governmental system in which I worked. Within three years I and three other disgruntled local physicians established a non-governmental organization, the Galilee Society, dedicated to improving the health and welfare of the Palestinian minority within Israel. This NGO became the conduit for my professional endeavors actively challenging the system of which I was formally a part and to which, for pragmatic considerations, I continued to hold for another ten years. The MOH, under Ehud Olmert, eventually ejected me and I became persona non grata in my former professional home. For four additional years I continued to use the NGO service sector as a means of consciousness raising and community mobilization. I reached out to international circles and built alliances with like-minded minority rights activists abroad. This, together with a confrontation with the Israeli military-industrial complex over environmental protection of the Galilee, apparently was beyond the tolerance of all concerned. In 1995 I found myself out of a job at The Galilee Society, the institution I created and led for a decade and a half. On my way to retirement I then served briefly as a consultant to UNICEF’s mission to The Palestinian National Authority before returning to my home village to establish a center for child rehabilitation.

The narrative follows a simple chronological pattern, but is replete with contemplative pauses, flashbacks, village scenes and foibles from rural Palestine and from my childhood days. In terms of its subject matter, the major theme of the book revolves around the politics of dispossession and the nature of Israel’s majority-minority ‘coexistence’ as it plays out in the life of Arrabeh and similar communities and as experienced and recorded by me in real time. Straddling the socioeconomic and political divide between this disadvantaged minority amongst whom I lived and the dominant Jewish majority amongst whom I worked, my daily experience bordered on the schizophrenic. The book delves particularly deep into the struggle over land, which underlies all aspects of the conflict between the two groups that people my two realities.

An introduction by journalist and author Jonathan Cook sets the memoirs in proper historical and political perspective. It also serves as an excellent primer on the Palestinian community in Israel and on its standing in its country of citizenship.

Indicators of Discrimination:

Let me now share with you some facts and figures taken from the most recently available Israeli Yearbook of Statistics. The figures are for the year 2006. Unfortunately, these prove that I have failed miserably to improve the status of my community vis-à-vis that of the Jewish majority in Israel. I will mention only a few indicators for comparison. My emphasis is not on the absolute figures but on the comparison between us, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the Jewish majority, and on the trends of the relative ratios over time.

Let me first speak of the one statistic that I have the authority to speak on as a Public Health expert, that of Infant Mortality Rate (IMR). It is the number out of a thousand live births in a specific year that die before their first birthday. IMR has been shown to be the best indicator of a community’s general wellbeing. It is affected most by such independent variables as the community’s environmental health (as reflected in the cleanliness of its water supply), by the level of income of the heads of families, and by the level of education of the mothers. Our IMRs have run double those of the Jewish majority since the establishment of Israel. Immigrant groups from third world countries with initial IMRs higher than ours have improved to where they fit now within the Jewish majority rates, thanks to intensive targeted state intervention and support programs. No similar program has ever been attempted for us. I recall the program that was once mounted in the Ministry of Health to reduce infant mortality in towns and villages where it was particularly high. Two cut-off lines were selected, the one for Arab towns twice as high as that for Jewish ones. Finally, over the past decade the relative IMR gap has widened to where our infants now die at two and a half times the rate at which Jewish infants die.

And Arab families are three times as likely to be under the poverty line. Such statistics are more damning if one looks at them more analytically. Over time this statistic has worsened as well. Of special meaning is that the intervention of the state in terms of subsidies and support payments elevates relatively three times as many Jewish families to above the poverty line as it does Arab ones, a clear indication of the state’s discriminatory practices.

And the future doesn’t bode well for us. Our young adults (age 20-35 years) are one third as likely to be at an institute of higher education as do their Jewish co-citizens.

What can we do?

This all begs the question of what can we do? I have no easy answer. Your presence here tonight is an indication of your awareness and commitment. More of the same is all I can ask from you: Use your influence, moral, political and social, to make it possible for Palestinians to air their narrative and to debunk the standard myths and spin-doctoring that your media continues to force-feed you. Help free your political representatives from the yoke of financial dependence on dominant lobby groups and agents of vested interest. Use your democratic system to act on your convictions.

The apartheid separation wall continues to be built with your tax money. It infringes on the rights of so many Palestinian villagers in the OTs and robs them of their land and livelihood. Yet, as all separation walls throughout history, this wall will also come down. What we all need to work on collectively is the mental separation wall of fear and hate that permits some of us to put themselves above others. It is the exclusivist mental separation wall that allows the Zionist majority of Israel’s citizens and their dominant political parties, even now, to self-righteously demand my ‘transfer’, my expulsion out of my home, witness the platform of such Zionist leaders as Lieberman, the ex-deputy prime minister, and the statements of Ms. Livni, Israel’s current foreign Minister. It is this exclusivist and elitist mental separation wall that permits the issuing of public theological dispensations allowing, nay even demanding, the slaughter of Palestinians, their women and children and even their cattle and the destruction of their crops and orchards, all based on the old tribal conflict with a group known in biblical times as the Amalikites, now revived in some sick minds as the Palestinians.

It is that worldview that I ask you to take a stand on through political pressure and civil society activism, every day and everywhere. As a secular pacifist I put my trust in the common sense and common decency of humanity at large. At the end these ample human resources will triumph.

In the sixties in this very place we all sang: “We shall overcome, someday!”

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