The Worthy Dispossessed

This past week saw much coverage and commentary on Israel’s “pull-out” from the Gaza Strip.  It was only a matter of time, I thought, before Elie Wiesel would weigh in on this “historic” occasion.

Now in his mid-seventies, Elie Wiesel—acclaimed Jewish writer, Nobel Peace laureate, and internationally recognized Holocaust survivor—still rises on occasion to defend Israel from its carping critics. In an op-ed in this Sunday’s New York Times(August 21), entitled, “The Dispossessed,”  Wiesel trots out the themes he has fine-tuned for close to forty years: sadness, optimism, tears, Israel’s nobility, and the moral onus always being on the Palestinians to prove their trustworthiness, given Israel’s inspiring magnanimity.

Wiesel’s “dispossessed” refers to Jews who “lived in Gaza for 38 years. Successive governments, from the left and the right, encouraged them to settle there. In the eyes of their families, they were pioneers, whose idealism was to be celebrated.”  Predictably, Wiesel doesn’t mention the political fact of the illegality of these pioneers being on Palestinian land, and he seems incapable of making the connection between the settlers’ presence there and the consequent dispossession of the Palestinians. Perhaps the Nobel Laureate hasn’t heard of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In 1986 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel offered this simple guide for moral behavior: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.  Sometimes we must interfere.  When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.”

Except in the case of Israel.  When Palestinian lives in Gaza and the West Bank have been endangered.  When Palestinians men have been beaten and tortured because beingPalestinian makes them a threat to Israel.  When the “apartheid” wall has threatened Palestinian livelihood and mobility. When Palestinian dignity has been humiliated at checkpoints by soldiers, some of whom were at least capable of tears this past week. When Palestinians have died as “collateral damage” as a result of Israel’s policy of extra-judicial assassinations.  When Palestinians are tormented by the settler-pioneers who invade and make mayhem in Palestinian olive groves.   When the health of the Palestinian people declines because of unemployment, closures, curfews, home demolitions, and all the other amenities of a military occupation. When the tormentor arbitrarily decides which Palestinians can work their fields, which need permits nearly impossible to obtain to pass checkpoints, and which Palestinians must remain in their homes for days or weeks at a time. When the Israeli settlers’ departure from Gaza doesn’t change the status of the Strip as one vast prison, since Israel will still control the borders. When not U.S. neutrality, but U.S. munificence helps the oppressor, with generous grants and loans, knowing smiles, and supportive words.  When Israeli national sensitivities are deemed ultimately relevant and Palestinian national sensitivities are derided.

In the current climate, however, Wiesel counsels something other than interference:  “The tears must be allowed to dry and the wounds to heal. Haste, in this delicate moment, is dangerous. Any pressure from outside risks being counterproductive.”  Not surprisingly, like many in the U.S. government, Wiesel is concerned only with Jewish tears and wounds, not thirty-eight years worth of tears and wounds experienced by the Palestinians.

While Wiesel appears clueless as to the real facts of oppression and domination in Gaza and the West Bank, one can turn to Amira Hass for the requisite sobering background.  Hass is an Israeli journalist who’s long covered Gaza and the West Bank; interestingly, she and Wiesel have something in common: the Holocaust. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors who moved to Israel after the war.

In her book, Drinking the Sea at Gaza, Hass writes, “To me, Gaza embodies the entire saga of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it represents the central contradiction of the State of Israel – democracy for some, dispossession for others. It is our exposed nerve.”

Wiesel ignores this nerve.  Some people, nevertheless, do not.  Israelis like Hass, Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee against Home Demolitions, Women in Black and many others interfere with the business-of-occupation-as-usual, chronicle with specific details the bitter truths about Israeli society and policy, and stand in solidarity with the Palestinian victims who continue to be ground under by Sharon’s relentless policies.  They live out Wiesel’s mere words, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.  Sometimes we must interfere.”

Saint Louis Post-Dispatch 8.26.2005

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