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Today, shortly after 1 p.m., I got to Dag Hamaskold Plaza near the United Nations, to look at the 'Coffin Display' arranged by Israeli and Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace. (Two groups cooperated in this project, the Parents' Circle of 200 families in Israel and National Movement for Change in the Palestinian Authority).
There, in the space where on other occasions thousands have rallied for various causes, were over a thousand coffins. 800 coffins draped with Palestinian flags, 250 with Israeli flags. I am a hardened radical but as soon as I saw the neat rows of coffins my eyes filled with tears. I walked down the rows, looked at the banners posted on all four sides of the square - 'Better Have Pains of Peace Than Agonies of War'. I met some friends from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I spoke briefly to a young Israeli woman who had lost her son to a suicide bomber. I thanked her for the action. She apologized for making me cry. I spoke briefly to the Palestinian mother, a relative of hers (perhaps her husband) holding up a photo of their child lost to Israeli fire. And then I walked away from the small crowd, found a concrete bench and broke down.
I thought about why I was weeping, what had 'broken through' my political shell. It was both the simplicity of the action, but also because it had 'called me back' from my anger against Israel, and that I must explain, both for those of you who are younger and so easily throwaround terms like 'Zionism', and those of you who are older and may have chosen one side of the other too firmly.
At UCLA I was the co-chair of a Christians and Jews for Israel Committee (l948, probably). In those days all of us in the socialist movement danced the hora, sang Zionist songs, had friends who were going to or had been in a Kibbutz. Israel, essentially a democratic socialist experiment to repair the horror of Hitlerism, was alone in a reactionary Arab Middle East dominated by oil, by feudal regimes, by Arabs who had sided with Hitler.
Time passed and reality set in. Israel was weak, one country alone. The American Jewish community was large and strong. It helped shape US policy toward Israel. The Anti-Defamation League changed and began to treat anyone who sympathized with the Palestinians as anti-Semitic.
Israel opposed the liberation of Algeria - it meant one more Arab state that would be hostile. But it also meant siding with French Colonialism. (Might Algerian policy have been different if Israel sided with the FLN? But the problem was the French were supplying Israel with weapons - a short-range imperative). When Nasser, part of the proud new Arab nationalism that was breaking with the old regimes, took over the Suez Canal in 1956, Great Britain and France and Israel joined in invading Egypt. In Hungary workers had risen against the Communist Party. Soviet tanks were moving through the streets. In a way I could forgive Israel - she felt it a matter of life and death - but France and Great Britain chose the exact moment when the attention of the world should have been on Hungary to deflect it with this invasion. The invasion failed, and like Israel's backing of France in Algeria, it helped leave a permanent hostility to Israel among moderate and secular Arabs.
More years passed, and Israel made its alliance with South Africa under its old regime, and welcomed the leader of that country - a man who had been sympathetic to Hitler - to Israel.
The refugees sweltered, used as political pawns by the Arab states (if you think the Palestinian refugees are fans of the Arab states you haven't had private talks with them), and ignored - simply ignored - by Israel, as if many of them had not been driven out of their homes by terror.
Time passed and the settlements began in the Occupied Territory. A very deliberate and careful policy - one for which Sharon bears special responsibility, but Labor also - to make any independent Palestinian State impossible.
Time passed and Israel said to the US (I have the clippings from the Times somewhere in my dusty collection) 'let us sell the arms to the Central American dictators - it looks bad if you do it, and we can use the money'.
Time passed and often on key votes in the United Nations the only dissent would be the US and Israel. Never did they disagree.
Israel, under Sharon, invaded Lebanon, was responsible for mass killings by the Christian militia at the Palestinian refugee camps.
It had become clear to us that Israel was now an apartheid state. In some ways worse than South Africa had been. The oppression of the Palestinians was largely ignored by Israelis. The Israelis were doing well. And, let's, face it, let's not play games, there is a deep thread of racism in Israeli society - not only against the Palestinians but also against the North African Jews - who formed the backbone of Likkud.
And how was this different from my own country? A nation much of which was built by slaves. How many Americans cared that the Vietnamese lost over two million people? How many Americans have paused to wonder if the Vietnamese might not also grieve for their Missing in Action? How can we ignore that we, as a people, elected Richard Nixon twice. And Reagan twice. And now Bush. (Except, of course, he wasn't elected - he was anointed by the Supreme Court). How many Americans care about the children dying in Iraq? It only takes a government spokesperson to say it is really Saddam's fault and our minds are at rest. A half million die and we are not concerned. Iraq is an evil country - probably its children and elderly and weak are evil as well.
I have no faith in the majority of Israelis (nor of Americans) to make right choices when the only facts they have are filtered through the mass media.
All of this anger, all of this bitterness, dissolved in tears at what parents had done in front of my eyes. Parents - Jews and Arabs, Palestinian and Israeli - sharing only a common terrible grief of children, or sisters, brothers, parents, gone. Gone by Israeli jet attacks. Gone by a suicide bomber. But gone. And I look out at a display of life size (if one can say of an coffin that it is 'life size') coffins, 1,050 of them. There in the plaza near the United Nations. On a day not yet quite spring.
How dare I give up hope of change within the human heart when here in front of me were these long and terrible rows of flag draped coffins to remind us all of what stubborn political logic had bought. There is no military way out for Israel. It must negotiate. And we must want those negotiations to succeed.
Oh yes, I think every Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories should be yanked out by the roots. Oh yes, I think every inch of the Occupied Terroritories must be returned to the Palestinians, and a sovereign Palestinian State emerge there (even though I don't believe in states, I see no other choice now).
This dreadful collection of death had been made visible here by the work of both Palestinian and Jewish contacts in this country. Shortly before I arrived an orthodox Rabbi had gone over to the Palestinian woman and asked if she wanted to talk to her relatives in Palestine, pulled out his cell phone and dialed - a human contact between an Orthodox Rabbi and a Palestinian grieving over her loss.
Many Palestinians are weary of Arafat but Sharon cannot choose the leader of the Palestinians, nor can I choose the leader of Israel, weary as I know many Israelis are with that man, and wicked as I believe his policies to be.
What we can do is speak with respect of the saving remnant on both sides who continue to work together, to suffer together, to reach out to one another. How dare I not do the same? How dare any of us on the Left, in the Peace movement, not support these elements of life which exist there? Our politics can be clear, but let our language be touched by the compassion of what both sides are living through.
The coffins spoke to me. If I broke down after seeing them, it was because sometimes my anger is so great I forget that the seeds of life are what radicals must nurture - in this case seeds of life glimpsed in a sea of flag draped coffins.