Thursday, April 12, 2012

Not Everyone

I must have met Aziz Abu Sarah over a year ago. A few of us from J Street Chicago had dinner with him and Kobi Skolnik. At the time Kobi and Aziz were traveling around the United States making the case for Jewish-Arab co-existence. Their personal narratives made their presentation quite compelling. Kobi had come from a religious background and grew up on a settlement in the West Bank. Aziz grew up outside of Jerusalem; Israeli interrogators killed his brother. Usually, the way you see that phrased is "died in Israeli custody." I remember over 20 years ago in Israel reading in the Jerusalem Post that after having his hands  restrained with a belt a Palestinian was "subdued to death." Not a whole lot has changed since.

So back to Aziz. I came across a video of Aziz's presentation at +972 and posted it here. I showed it to my wife. I showed it to my two teenage daughters. I sent it to the Hebrew teacher at the public high school my girls attend. And I sent it to the woman in charge of post bar/bat mitzvah education at my synagogue. (The high school teacher, an Israeli, showed it to the Israel Interests Club. My synagogue has yet to show it.) The presentation made two compelling points for me. The first is that there is hope. That even after having your brother killed, you can still speak about co-existence. The second, and more personal, is that I wanted to be sure that my girls and my community were exposed to Palestinians in a way that doesn't caricature them as suicidal terrorists bent on Israel's destruction. I understood that I could not leave it to my community to teach co-existence, and that I would have to take a hand in it, however small.

Then a couple weeks ago at the J Street Conference, I ran into Aziz in the hallway at the DC convention center, and re-introduced myself to him. Clearly, he had left a greater impression on me at our first meeting than I on him. He smiled and feigned a hint of recognition. I told him that I had greatly appreciated his presentation and had sent the video around, and asked if he would be willing to come back to Chicago. He gladly said yes. In fact, one of his partners in Mejdi, a company that conducts dual narrative tours to Israel and Palestine, is from a Chicago suburb.

Later that night I saw Aziz at the gala dinner. Someone told him that I had won an election to fill an open seat on the J Street Board of Directors, and he congratulated me. When I half-teasingly asked him if he had voted for me, he half-teasingly said that being a Palestinian he didn't want to interfere in our internal elections. I laughed."Everyone could vote," I told him. "Not everyone," he reminded me. Of course. Not everyone. Could it be any plainer than that?


My community largely has no interaction with Palestinians and doesn't see their suffering, or if it does see it, it rationalizes it somehow. As a result, when making the case for the urgent need for a two state solution (as opposed to, oh yeah I support a two state solution, but right now we have to attack Iran, and then fight the delegitimization of Israel, and then whatever the next excuse will be), I focus on why it's in Israel's self- interest to do so.Which is absolutely true. I also think it's absolutely necessary to frame it this way, because sadly we're just not able yet to process Palestinian suffering. But it's not the only way to frame the matter, and we must do a better job getting those in the American Jewish community to see what is happening on the other side of the green line. Maybe then they too will be reminded that it ain't only about us.

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