Letter from Bethlehem: An Open Letter to My Detaining Officer
You might not recognize my name, but I am one of the half-dozen people who you and your fellow soldiers “detained” for a few hours last month. It happened in a place that I call Oush Ghrab and you refer to as Shdema. Even as I type this letter, I realize that the gulf that exists between us extends even to the language we use to refer to the exact same spot of ground.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that we don’t understand each other at all. You most likely see me as a left-wing radical, an anarchist, or an anti-Semite. I see myself as one who cares for the oppressed, works for justice, and loves Palestinians.
You see yourself as a brave young man who is defending his country. I see you as an instrument of an unjust system that is perpetuating the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Now, after thinking about how to bridge this gap, I think I see where this misunderstanding is coming from: you see yourself as oppressed, I see you as an oppressor.
You talk about the history of anti-Semitism in the world, and you have a point. Throughout history there have been those who have hated, persecuted, and killed Jewish people. You see yourself as an heir to that legacy. You also tell me that you have no choice about whether you want to put on a military uniform. Your country requires you (and every other 18 year old) to serve in the army. Your opinion is not taken into consideration. You see yourself as a powerless victim.
I once saw you the same way. My opinions of Israel were the same as many Evangelical Christians in America. I visited Yad Vashem. I have listened to and read the stories of Jewish persecution that have taken place over the centuries. As a child, I was taught that the country of Israel was birthed out of the discrimination and persecution that took place in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was taught that Israel was the only friend of democracy and justice in the Middle East. I saw you as a victim trying to defend yourself.
Now, please try to see what I see today:
I see my best friend in Palestine unable to visit the ocean for years, even though it is only 30 minutes from his family home. I have seen him accosted and kicked out of a pub in Israel (one out of the two times he was allowed to enter Jerusalem during the year) because he is Palestinian. I have seen him tell, in a matter-of-fact way, about the time Israeli soldiers pulled him from a car and beat him because he didn’t show them the 'proper' respect. Last month, I saw you arrest him because you didn’t like his tone of voice.
I have seen the funeral of an 11-year-old boy who was killed by soldiers when they entered Bethlehem to arrest someone.
I have seen a 12-year-old student arrested from his home in the middle of the night.
I have seen an orphanage in Hebron raided and looted by soldiers.
I have seen a beautiful 11-year-old girl (my daughter is named after her) who suffered head trauma and hearing loss because she ran from soldiers who were occupying her family’s home for 5 years.
I have seen a middle-aged Jewish man with an assault rifle stop 20 Palestinian kids from going on a nature hike. I saw you back him up.
I have seen 200 settlers attack a group of about 30 Palestinians and internationals (including me). I saw you respond by treating us as the aggressors and corralling us into a corner until the settlers decided to leave.
I have seen a settler with an automatic rifle yell death threats to me and my friends, and then go on his way. You were there for that one too.
I have seen that 194 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli troops since I moved here in August of 2006.
I see that Israel has the power. Your government decides who can go and who can come, who can defend themselves and who cannot, who can live where, who can do what and when.
When you hit, kicked, and mocked my friends and me, you saw yourself as defending a people who have been hated and persecuted for their entire existence. To you, each word, each blow, was a step in evening the score. To me, each blow was a blow to the face of justice.
When I refuse to move out of your way, demonstrate against new settlement construction, and live and work in Palestine, you see me as contributing to the story of injustice that has been the story of your people. I see myself as trying to rewrite the story without injustice.
As far as our chances of understanding each other are concerned, I’m afraid I don’t see much cause for hope. I tell you that I am here because my God commands me to stand up for the oppressed, and therein lies the rub. My very presence here calls into question your view of the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a sectarian conflict. My presence reframes it as a struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor. You do not see yourself as oppressing anyone. Until you do, you will not be able to understand that my love for Palestinians is not hatred for you. Until you do, you will always see me as an enemy.