Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Occupation Occultation

With an unexpected Tuesday off, I decided to make the trip to Jerusalem’s Holocaust History Museum. In the West Bank, it’s easy to witness the suffering of the Palestinian people as a result of the Israeli occupation. I thought it would be good to get out and remember the suffering of the Jewish people that occurred as a result of the Nazi occupation of Europe. Any educated outsider who lives in the West Bank long enough is aware of the parallels that exist between the Nazi treatment of Jews and the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Sara Roy, an American Jewish academic who is the child of Holocaust survivors writes in her book Failing Peace: “I have always felt that if people ‘outside’ knew, saw and lived – even in small part – what Palestinians do every day, they would be transformed and the boundaries between them would shift, creating possibilities that now remain abstract.”

I knew that directly facing the parallels between the two occupations would be a morally jarring experience.

My day started at the Qalandia checkpoint, which must be passed through to get into Jerusalem from Ramallah. Qalandia is a gloomy place. Sometimes it’s easy to get through – a matter of 15 minutes – and other times, like today, it’s an hour-long ordeal of metal bars and detectors and faces behind glass. Qalandia is intentionally unpredictable, irritating, and controlling. It will quickly turn your attitude from upbeat to anger. After 20 minutes, the line I had chosen still wasn’t moving, for reasons unknown. When standing in line, you can’t see the soldiers behind the glass ahead; the only way to know to enter is by a clicking noise that indicates that someone has released the turnstile. Three people, maximum, get through at a time. Sometimes it’s one. Or like today, it’s none.

There are about 30 of us waiting in this motionless line; through the glass to our left and right are other lines of 30+ people. The people in my line start getting restless, including me. There’s no reason to hold us up, except to remind everyone who is at the mercy of whom. In front of me, older men and women stand solemnly silent. They’ve been dealing with this for a long time. Finally, a Palestinian man starts banging on a locked metal door next to the turnstile. He continues banging. No response. I feel like joining him, but instead I move to a different line, thinking the soldiers checking the first line must have decided to go to coffee without telling anyone. Naturally. We all stand there like idiots, unable to access the information we need to make a basic decision on which line to choose to get to our destination. My impatience is turning into anger and sadness at this reality and the larger picture that it reflects. I’m reconsidering my trip to the Holocaust museum. Why should I honor the past suffering of a people who are now inflicting suffering onto another?

Finally, the line I was previously in starts moving, as does my current one. As I wait in the turnstile to enter the space for showing passports and permits, I can hear the harsh tone of the soldier on the other side of the glass. He is yelling at an older Palestinian man through the glass. The man just bows his head, continuing to place his permit against the thick glass. The soldier looks about 18 years old. My blood boils as I watch this 18-year-old boy dishonor and attempt to humiliate a man far into his years, who has probably already suffered plenty at the hands of Israelis. I enter I.D. check with two young Palestinian men; the soldier yells at them too. Not every Israeli soldier is like this, but those that are breathe ignorance and perpetuate hate. He doesn’t scream at me, the foreigner, but I scowl at him. I want to ask him why he’s yelling at the Palestinians, why the other line wasn’t moving, why . . . but I don’t. The worst part about being a foreigner here is recognizing your impotence to do anything about the injustice you see all around you. And, worse, knowing your country blindly supports it.

After an hour, I make it through the checkpoint and look for the buses that wait on the other side to carry us to Jerusalem. The IDF have detained a group of four young men. Flustered and still angry, I go back and forth about whether or not to visit the Holocaust museum after a direct experience with the Israeli occupation this morning. I go anyway.

Once in the museum, the discomfort begins. The parallels between Nazi occupation of Europe and its treatment of Jews and the present Israeli occupation of Palestine and its treatment of Palestinians are glaring. I’m close to tears several times, not because of the past suffering of the Jews, but rather the recognition of the hate that has been perpetuated long after the Holocaust’s end. In her essay Living with the Holocaust, Sara Roy writes:

“Israel's occupation of the Palestinians is not the moral equivalent of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. But it does not have to be. No, this is not genocide, but it is repression, and it is brutal. And it has become frighteningly natural. Occupation is about the domination and dispossession of one people by another. It is about the destruction of their property and the destruction of their soul. Occupation aims, at its core, to deny Palestinians their humanity by denying them the right to determine their existence, to live normal lives in their own homes. Occupation is humiliation. It is despair and desperation. And just as there is no moral equivalence or symmetry between the Holocaust and the occupation, so there is no moral equivalence or symmetry between the occupier and the occupied, no matter how much we as Jews regard ourselves as victims.”

As I walk around and read the panels explaining the displays behind them, I’m shocked, dumbfounded, overwhelmed. It hits me that if the words such as Jews and Nazi occupation are removed and replaced with Palestinians and Zionism, the history being told remains true for the present. One panel reads:

“Despoiling the Jews was an integral part of the Nazi policy. Property and possessions of Europe’s Jews, who had been part of their countries’ economic and cultural life for hundreds of years, were systematically plundered. With their rise to power, the Nazis progressively began banishing Jews from economic life, and, in 1938, established confiscation of Jewish property into law.”

Today . . .

“Despoiling the Palestinians is an integral part of the Zionist policy. Property and possessions of Palestinians, who had been part of their countries’ economic and cultural life for hundreds of years, are systematically plundered. With their rise to power, the Israelis progressively began banishing Palestinians from economic life, and, in 1948 - , established confiscation of Palestinian property into law.”

“In Eastern Europe, the Germans incarcerated Jews in severely overcrowded ghettos, behind forces and walls. They cut the Jews off from their surroundings and their sources of livelihood, and condemned them to a life of humiliation, poverty, degeneration and death.”

An excerpt on Jewish ghettos under Nazi occupation: “surrounded by walls, and under strict and brutal surveillance, the Jews were cut off from the outside world.”

Palestinians live behind forces and walls. They live under strict and sometime brutal surveillance. Palestinian communities have been split in half by cement walls, cut off from their families and friends. Palestinian landowners and farmers have been cut off from their sources of livelihood – denied of their land and water. Palestinians’ homes continue to be demolished by Israeli forces. Palestinians constantly suffer humiliation, poverty, degeneration, and death. Just look at Gaza.

Familiar words and present day realities were everywhere in that museum – “refugee camps, expropriation of land, occupation.” Palestinians live in the shadow of the Holocaust; they are the heirs of this tragic human history.

I cannot eloquently put into words the moral discomfort, and at times, repulsion, I felt walking through that museum. It’s like trying to grasp the worst of humanity, because only through knowledge and truth can we overcome it, but feeling terribly afraid of full comprehension. This truth is so ugly. No wonder why most people prefer to stay blind, ignorant. We are all guilty.

I return to my side of the wall and to confusion, naturally. I had fallen asleep on the bus ride home – my mind exhausted from thought and emotion. I wake up to a bus that hasn’t moved in awhile, and jammed traffic as far as I can see. I get off the bus with the rest of the Palestinians, following their lead, not really knowing what’s happening or where we’re headed. We’re just outside the checkpoint again, and for some reason, all movement has ceased. A lot of people are walking – an exodus on foot from vehicles and towards Ramallah. We continue walking for 15 minutes. The road leading to Ramallah is motionless. No traffic moves on it. The side of the road headed to the checkpoint is packed tight with cars. The bumper-to-bumper traffic extends for at least two kilometers. I’m still clueless as to what is happening, but everyone around me seems to think it’s normal. After a kilometer or so, a man points me to a bus that will take me into the city’s center. I ask him what’s going on, and try to memorize the word he says since I don’t know its meaning. When I get home, I ask the Palestinian couple I live with what the word means and I explain what I saw. “Ahh,” they say, “they shut down the checkpoint. That’s normal. Happens all the time.”

“Today, Jewish identity is linked, willingly or not, to Palestinian suffering, and this suffering is now an irrevocable part of our collective memory and an intimate part of our experience, together with the Holocaust and Israel. The question then arises, How are we to celebrate our Jewishness while others are being oppressed? . . . . “What have we as a people made from our suffering and perhaps more importantly, what are we to do with our fear? Are we locked into repeating our past while continuously denying it? . . . . if we hate, then Hitler wins.” Sara Roy

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