In early December 2008, before Gaza monopolized all our thoughts here in Israel, our media bandied a big story about the settlers in Hebron ‘turning’ violent. The following were my thoughts on the subject when I first read the headlines:
“La-di-frickin’-da!” to quote from Saturday Night Live! What news we have here? Settlers riot in Hebron! Settlers suddenly turn violent!
As if the settlement enterprise ever meant anything other than violence.
As if unmitigated crude violence wasn’t a foundational element of the settler movement in the Palestinian Occupied Territories since its establishment in the nineteen-seventies with the full theological, political, and emotional blessing of every Israeli politician who participated in government ever since. And as if crude violence by settlers wasn’t actively promoted and aided with free access to arms by the Israeli state system and bankrolled by its Zionist sponsors and their ever-ready American taxpayer base.
As if raping the pristine hills around my village was anything but violence by the settlers in Galilee.
As if the Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 was anything other than violence.
As if military rule under which we lived for eighteen years was something other than violence.
As if the daily discrimination against me and my people is not violent.
As if the starving of 1.5 million Palestinians imprisoned in Gaza is not violent.
As if the carpet bombing, from the air, sea and land of entire neighborhoods for housing those who think otherwise, whether in Beirut or Gaza, could have any name other than willful violence.
Believe you me, the only new element that makes this newsworthy is the fact that the settlers’ violence was directed this time, in part, against the Israeli armed forces that are there in the first place to protect, aid and abet them. Much harsher and unprovoked settler violence often amounting to veritable pogroms against the local Palestinians in Hebron, al-Khalil to us Palestinians, is part of their daily life, as any independent observer, such as any member of Christian Peacemakers Teams (CPT) will testify.
I often marvel at the power of words and how their use is so pregnant with preconceived ideas and internalized value systems. Take my use of the term ’pogrom’ as a case in point. It is a concept that has been historically associated with racist violence against Jewish communities in ghettos in Eastern Europe. The mere mention of the word evokes sympathy for the classic Jewish underdog in the minds and hearts of Western audiences. Even I, a Western educated Palestinian, find it difficult to cleanse the term of a twinge of guilt and a measure of sympathy for the poor Ashkenazi Jews unjustly attacked, abused or killed in their Shtetles. So, even when I am trying to showcase the plight of the Palestinians in al-Khalil and the savagery and violence of their Jewish tormentors, I end up promoting sympathy for the Zionist cause. There is always that subconscious dividend for Zionism when one uses their standard terminology, the brainwashing, including mine, is so thorough.
And here is another case in point: the name ‘Hebron’. I don’t even know its exact derivation. But it is a biblical name and in the Christian West one automatically associates it with the Old Testament and the history and heritage of the Jewish people in ‘their rightful homeland’. Very few in the West know the Arabic name for the city or appreciate its less conflict-imbued meaning. Al-Khalil refers to Abraham, the common ancestor of Arabs and Jews who is buried in the city. The name derives from his very revered position in Islamic tradition as Khalil-u-Allah, the friend of God. With the one democratic state for Jews and Arabs in all of historic Palestine becoming the default option, we have to look for such quaint nuggets to promote real coexistence.
Yet, falling back on three-millennium old myths, fanatic Jewish fundamentalists picked and chose from the constituent elements of their tribal legends to dehumanize ‘the other’, native Palestinians who arguably have a much more convincing claim to Jewish origins than all the kippa-wearing gun-toting young immigrants from Brooklyn. Their narrowly focused theological scholars dug deep and came up with ‘Amalik’ the best identity to frame this other in, expressing in the process their own vilest and most revolting inhumane sentiments and transferring them to the other as the deserving victim who brings Jehovah’s wrath upon himself to such a degree that the lord demands not only the destruction of his home, his orchards and the crops in his fields and the killing of his cattle, but also the bashing of his children’s heads on rocks. Fanatic Rabbis that publicly preach this wild menu of violence against me and my people and politicians that build their popularity on calls for our expulsion from our homes go unchallenged by Israel’s guardians of ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’. At the same time, those who advocate equality under the law of a state for all its citizens are hounded out of the country, witness the case of ex-parliament member Azmi Bshara.
True, the settlers can be looked at as, and often are made out to be, the extremist fringe of the long-oppressed Jewish minority in the West, and hence Western society owes it a level of understanding and forgiveness when it turns to the use of its own standard genocidal tactics, no worse, let us admit, than the violence committed by ‘pilgrims’ against native Americans for example. And there too, God’s inspirational favors were sought and apparently granted in pursuit of the liberation and settling of the ‘Promised Land’, the lives and property of the ‘heathen natives’ trampled and pillaged at well in the process.
It was only last week that this phenomenal jumble-mumble of myth, tradition and fertile imagination pricked at my innermost sense of self-worth and humanity to a degree that I felt uncomfortable in the midst of a crowd of presumed supporters of my cause. I attended a well-organized and well publicized benefit for Adalah NY, an organization that seeks justice for the Palestinians. The evening of music by Simon Shaheen, a fellow Galilee native who has made the impossible climb to international prominence without abandoning the Palestinian flavor of his music, was held at a church belonging to a well-intended liberal activist Protestant congregation in New York. In the intermission the middle-aged woman next to me occupied herself with leafing through the hymnal book in front of her. Out of curiosity I did the same. My conscience was jarred to discomfort by the title of the first hymn I glanced at; Its name was ‘Marching to Zion.’
Back in 1960, when I first arrived in the USA, at Yankton College in South Dakota I had to listen to those hymns every Sunday. Much as I lacked a full understanding of their meaning, given my new familiarity with the English language, I still sensed a certain alienation from the general flavor of quite a few of them. Back then I roomed with two newly-acquired friends, Djon Lim, now a respected cardiologist by the same name on the Island of Hawaii, and Gabor Zappanos, now Gabor Boritt, a well-respected Abraham Lincoln historian at Gettysburg University. Both were exempted from Sunday chapel hour. When I sought the same privileged treatment as my two fellow foreign students, I was told by our foreign student advisor that the regulations acknowledged the prerogative for both Catholics and Jews but made no mention of Moslems. So I had to suffer on instead of sleeping late each Sunday morning.
At the time I didn’t fully appreciate this clue to America’s general lack of familiarity with, if not rejection of, Islam and Muslims. Then I was still in my seeking mode; I hadn’t shut my mind to all religions, except perhaps for Gandhi’s passive resistance, if one can call that a religion. Don’t be quick to judge me, please! I am a non-practicing Muslim who has shared long and happy years of marriage to a non-practicing Christian and raised two beautiful children, both now married and raising families in the same non-denominational secular, if not agnostic or atheistic, tradition. But we all are proud to be the heirs, to varying degrees and admixed with Christian, Jewish and Buddhist influences, of the rich and humane tradition of Islam that reached its peak of intellectual and artistic expression in Andalusia.
And there, perhaps, is another seed of my and the West’s discomfort with each other’s heritage. After all, Andalusia was a colonial and settler project of the Moslem Moors. The flip side of this long and bloody history of conflict goes back to ‘our’ repealing by the sword ‘your’ Byzantine hegemony over the Middle East, followed centuries later by four consecutive Crusades, still axiomatically sacred to you, witness George W Bush’s recent usage of the term in justifying his invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Then came the Napoleonic campaigns and, in modern times, ‘your’ colonization of ‘our’ Middle East, and your casting away of your deeply seated guilt for visiting the Holocaust upon the Jews by rewarding them with ‘my’ piece of land, etc. etc. … ad infinitum.
Yet all of this is a tangential issue, believe me! What I had in mind when I started writing was to focus my and your attention on the commonality of violence, physical, mental and moral, in the daily lives of those settlers that the Israeli media has suddenly shone its lights upon for the obvious reason that they have openly threatened the Israeli armed forces who still are their protectors and mentors. Yet nothing that the vile and violent settlers do and preach is unique to them. Again, they are there in the first place due to formal decisions of Israel’s successive governments with specific generous budgets. Their outrageous incursions on Palestinian private lands are done with open support and knowing collusion of government officials, IDF heads of staff and Israeli heads of state. As if this were not enough, the apartheid wall was constructed with the famous philosophy of “we are here and they are there” leading in the process to the loss of massive tracts of Palestinian farmland.
Even when not openly approving or financing the Settlers’ violence, one Israeli leader after the other have consistently shown their less than hidden violent thoughts towards us, the Palestinians. The famous statement of Golda Meir, repeated more recently by Elyakim Rubenstein in his capacity as the head negotiator with the Palestinians comes to mind: “We will never forgive the Palestinians for forcing us to kill their children.”
What clearer message of the mental and moral messianic zeal of such leaders can one come up with to justify the Settlers’ violence? How much cleaner can one wipe his or her hands of the blood of a victim? How better can one free his or her mind of guilt for killing children? What convoluted logic!