“The situation”: that’s what those on the ground call it. On the face of it, the situation is straightforward. It’s a conflict between two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, over land: the Holy Land. In reality, it’s a maelstrom, a tragedy of our times…
This is Emma Williams, an American physician who arrived from New York with her three small children in Jerusalem to join her husband, who was working for the U.N., and to work as a doctor. Their fourth child was born in Bethlehem. They arrived in August, 2000, four weeks before the second Intifada started.
I heard the fears, Dr. Williams continues, all too painfully in a conversation with an IDF [Israeli Defense Force] general, Amos Gilad, military strategist in the Israeli Ministry of Defense. He had described to a friend of mine . . . his straightforward vision of the future: to turn the seven major Palestinian cities into isolated “microcosms.” That would contain the problem. This was to be the strategy, he had said, “this year and for all years.” [xvi-xvii]
I’m reading an endless number of books about this conflict. One of the best is this one by Dr. Emma Williams, in part because she has no dog in the hunt. But there are plenty of others. From a liberal American Jewish perspective, Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land is useful as an introduction to the situation for American readers who have been getting one perspective; Shavit’s own angle is explicitly Zionist but he is honest about the horrors inflicted upon Palestinians going back at least to 1948, and in his acknowledgement that the success of the state of Israel are built on those horrors.
But much stronger is the work of another American Jew, Max Blumenthal, whose Goliath is riveting and devastating (the title says much; we can guess who the Goliath of this story is), and whose more recent book, 51 Days in Gaza, tells the story of the most recent war (Summer, 2014) in great detail and from inside Gaza.
I’m interested in particular in the connections between Israel as Promised Land and America as Promised Land– a good source for the latter is the book by Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz, Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election. Many folks in the Black Lives Matter movement are making these same connections – Ferguson to Jerusalem. The fact that Chicago police (among many other U.S. police teams) have been trained by the Israeli Defense Force brings this connection home quite clearly.
Tent of Nations is a family farm just a few miles west of Bethlehem. They’ve been fighting in the Israeli courts for almost two decades not to lose their land even though they have legal papers of ownership that go back a hundred years. Runs on solar since they have no electricity, survives on catching rain water. I remember sitting in the cave in which the family lived for decades, and seeing other caves fixed up for visitors and interns, with Internet installed by Germans.
Cement floor. Walls painted by children: Jewish, Muslim and Christian.
The family is not allowed to dig a well. The farm is always being observed–helicopters, watchtowers, settlers–there are 22 illegal settlements in and around Bethlehem, with 100,000 people, taking 87% of the land and 86% of the water.
We watch two joggers, settlement dwellers, run past, not afraid, barely noticing us. Jogging in the Bethlehem hills.
Could be American. Could be Russian.
The land of promise.
Borders. Rivers. The Jordan. The Ohio.
Unable to sing.
Unable to cross over.
I thought of the children shot dead by army snipers as they played soccer or sat at their desks in school, their friends splattered with their blood.
I thought of the black-haired firebrand journalist, beating the table at the smart East Jerusalem restaurant with her fists, her bracelets crashing, saying, “The army and the settlers hit us again and again and again and here and here and here and take our land and break our trees and kill our kids day after day after day and then ‘BOOM’ and everyone is surprised?”
I thought of the hundreds of dead whose lives are cut short, and the maimed whose lives are ruined, and all Israelis and Palestinians living in fear, even the general at the top. Everyone trapped, wondering how to get out of the situation. The reality for so many: that, as the journalist said, ‘it’s easier to reach heaven than the end of the street.”
Doug Thorpe is the author of Rapture of the Deep: Reflections on the Wild in Art, Wilderness and the Sacred, winner of the David Family Environmental Book Award, and Wisdom Sings the World: Poetry, Creation and the Way of Dwelling. He teaches literature and writing at Seattle Pacific University.