"A return to the epistolary."
Telling stories through letters was once a popular form of literature. Although letter writing has become a lost art, email has come to take its place. Siince my return from Israel and Palestine in 2006, I have had numerous email exchanges in response to my writing about my experiences. I find that they often provide the opportunity for a more free, passionate expression of the truth than more formal writing. Several examples follow.
Isaac Yehuda (not his real name) is a Conservative Rabbi in Connecticut. In October, 2006, I visited Old Lyme CT with Jerusalem Women Speak, a group of two Palestinian women and one Israeli woman touring New England speaking about their work for peace in Israel and Palestine. We were hosted by a Congregational Church served by Rev. David Good, around whom a group of Christians and Muslims devoted to peace had gathered. I met Hassan Fouda, a member of that group, who had recently been viciously attacked by this Rabbi in the press for having circulated a petition calling for a change in US policy toward Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine. In this email, the Rabbi had called Hassan "the most hated-filled individual I have ever met." He went on: "It is people like you who have sought the destruction of the Jewish people through the ages and I only pray that, like the others before you, you will be consumed by your own hatred." This attack elicited horrified responses from many members of the community, Jews and non-Jews alike. I weighed in. What follows is my first email to Rabbi Yehuda (in which I establish my Jewish "credentials,") his response -- turns out we knew each other as children! - and my response to him. He never responded to the second email.
From: Mark Braverman [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Sat 11/4/2006 10:10 PM
To: Isaac Yehuda
Cc: 'Hassan Fouda'
Subject: RE: Your email to Hassan Fouda
Dear Rabbi Yehuda,
I am the grandson of a fifth-generation Palestinian Jew. My grandfather, a direct descendant of the Lubavicher Rebbe, was born in the Old City of Jerusalem. He emigrated to the USA early in the last century. I was born in 1948 -- Zionism was mother's milk, together with love for and connection with my family, almost all of whom live in Israel. I was raised as a Conservative Jew -- I was a product of Solomon Schechter Day School, President of Philadelphia Region USY and National Vice President, and a camper and then counselor at Camp Ramah. I first went to Israel with Ramah in the early 60's. I lived on Kibbutz Sasa after college. I last visited the region this past summer with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I am a proud Jew. I love Israel. And I am heartsick about her.
I understand your anger, and I understand your fear. I actually want to thank you for expressing it, instead of burying it within, which is what most American Jews do. Traveling throughout New England this past month with three women - two Palestinians and an Israeli -- speaking to many groups about the Isaac-Palestine situation, I heard this fear and this anger often from Jews in our audiences. I heard it in the college student planning to make Aliyah, who, in tears, protested that we must have it wrong about Israel - how could we smash her dream? I heard it from the many Jews who demanded, indeed pleaded for a "balanced" picture, who wanted "equal time" for consideration of the violence from Palestinians that presumably creates the basis for Israeli retaliation in its various forms. But Rabbi, the situation is not balanced. Palestine is being destroyed. Israel has all the power. The Palestinian people - good, patient people - are being ground into the dirt -- their leaders killed or imprisoned, their young people impoverished and robbed of a future, and any possibility for nonviolent protest all but made impossible by a brutal military occupation that restricts movement and carries out illegal, summary executions. We are doing wrong. We have blood on our hands.
I was shocked and angered by your attack on Hassan Fouda - a man I know and respect. But although I would not have acted as you did, I write to tell you that I was in your place a short 9 months ago. When I would hear talk of the Nakba, when I heard the terms "ethnic cleansing" and "apartheid" applied to Israel, I was angry and afraid. I too looked for a "balanced" discourse: where was the acknowledgment that the 1948 was a war of self-defense, a war to prevent yet another extermination? Didn't they attack us? Didn't they reject Partition and by so doing bring the Catastrophe upon themselves? Is not the occupation, although lamentably abusive of human rights, necessary for creating defensible borders and a level of security for Isaac's civilians? I now see that responsibility for denial and the distortion lies equally, if not more, with us. The 1948 "War of Independence" was part of a larger plan to displace the Palestinians. Policies post-1967 are a clear continuation of this plan. Oslo and Camp David were not carried out in good faith on Israel's part. Israel is not a partner for peace. This reality, the real narrative, is now clearly documented by books appearing, in Israel, by academic researchers and a growing chorus of Israeli journalists and writers. The truth is surfacing, slowly, inexorably.
I, like many, chose for most of my adult life to ignore this truth. Then I saw it with my eyes. Rabbi, you must go and see. Go and see the Separation Wall - not the sanitized Isreali section, but the real story of the Wall, snaking through the West Bank on stolen land, separating Palestinians from Palestinians, and tell me then if you think its purpose is security. Visit the checkpoints and feel the shame and disgust which are the only emotions one can feel for the baseless humiliation and oppression being perpetrated in our name. Go and see the villages being destroyed and the land taken to build a system of Bantustans and erect towns for American Jews who believe we have the right to do this. Take up Jeff Halper's generous offer to meet with him in Jerusalem. Meet the women of Machsom Watch and the men and women of New Profile who are struggling to preserve a shred of moral conscience in Israel, who are truly frightened for what is happening to their society. I assure you - these are not haters of Israel, these are lovers of Israel. I add to this list people who circulate and sign petitions in order to raise awareness of what is going on and to demand accountability from Isaac, the West, and all people of conscience. These, Rabbi, are our present-day Shomrei Yisrael.
But if you choose to argue or to avoid the moral issues, then consider simply the pragmatic issue of security. The "violence" brought upon Isaac (and do you really consider that acts of popular resistance that cause casualties in the hundreds over a period of decades a threat to Israel's survival?) is a direct result of the Occupation. We began the cycle of hatred, and we are breeding more violence and hatred daily. Look to the cause. Consider the path we are on and what it really means for Jewish survival. Go and see. Go and see.
From: Isaac N. Yehuda
Sent: Monday, November 06, 2006 11:04 PM
To: Mark Braverman
Subject: RE: Your email to Hassan Fouda
I believe I know you. I was a counselor and rosh edah in Ramah in the Poconos at that time. Was your father the owner of the drug store across from the quad at Penn? Did your mom work for years at the camp? Where are you now and what are you doing?
I am sorry to hear your accounts of what Israel is doing in the West Bank and Gaza. I was there too and saw some of what you describe. I have one simple question: Why won't they accept Israel's right to exist and live in peace?
I'm sure there are many violations of rights and abuses, but the bottom line is the shells keep coming from Gaza despite the fact there Israel withdrew, and they kept coming from Lebanon. What do these people demand? What is their justification? Have you read the Hamas charter? It is the most outrageously anti-Semitic piece of literature I have read since the Protocols. Will you now say that they really don't mean what they say? Can we afford to say that? Has any Hamas leader renounced the charter? I know that you will dismiss all of this as pro-Isaac propaganda, but Israel is my country and I won't stand by and see it decimated. I'm sure that you are aware that in 1948 Israel was attacked by the Arab nations who refused to accept the partition plan. How you turn that into a premeditated attempt to displace Arab populations baffles me. What are you thinking? Sure many were displaced. So were many Jews from Arab lands. That is history. The refugee camps were created, if you recall, not by Israel but by Jordan and Lebanon and Syria. Israel even tried to dismantle some of them and was thwarted by the Geneva convention and by Arab objections.
Hassan Fouda has one goal: The destruction of Israel. Believe it. He wants to fan criticism of Israel to such a degree that the US will stop aid to Israel. He has joined forces with groups seeking the return of displaced Palestinians to their original homes. I don't see how you can ally yourself with these sworn enemies of Israel.
I surely wish you well, but I hope you can see the difference between legitimate debate within Israeli society and what Israel's enemies are trying to do with that debate here in America.
All the best ,
Yes, I have read the Hamas Charter and it’s an ugly thing, certainly a scary thing for Jews to see. The Hamas issue is an important one and a tough one. If you read Hroub’s work on this, which is researched and intelligent, it helps, and I recommend that. The 1987 charter has to be seen in the context of the idiom it uses, and in the political context of a response to the secular PLO regime which was not working. The first political point to be made is that Isaac helped establish Hamas in Palestine in order to neutralize (yes, sabotage would be the word) the PLO. Again this can be argued but it’s important to put it out there as a balance to the simplistic anti-terrorist fear mongering frenzy we are subject to over here. This point alone should resonate with American audiences who are liberal enough to have taken in the history of the US and Saddam. Then you need to follow Hroub’s description of the documents Hamas put out after it decided to join the political process. Substantially moderated – no more talk of destroying Isaac. Focuses on social reform. Trying to balance playing to some of its constituency with moderating so it can be part of the political process and ultimately negotiate a truce with Israel. When you look at Hamas, don’t be led by fear. It was elected democratically, by a population that according to polls does not support its anti-Semitic, anti-Isaac charter, but simply voted against the corruption and ineffectiveness of the PLO (who shares responsibility for that is another story, no time for that here – enough to say that Isaac and the US, screaming for a “moderate” government to talk to now that Hamas is in power, effectively ignored and neutralized Abu Mazen for the two years he had in office. The point is, Isaac, there is another story here).
As for 1948, you need to get your history straight. Read Sachar, Benvenisti, Morris, Marc Ellis (especially Ellis, his “Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation.”) The jury is out on to what extent a complete plan to take all of Palestine was written down and agreed to in 1947, but the true story is, I’m sure you realize, not what we were fed in Hebrew School, Camp Ramah, United Synagogue Youth, and synagogue. OK, put aside ‘48, start with ’67. Read Gershom Gorenberg, The Accidental Empire. It will make you angry, it will make you sad. Or it should. I don’t understand, Isaac, given your background, which was a liberal Judaism, grounded in a commitment to social justice and universalism, given this background, why you are on a crusade against voices who speak up against injustice, why you call such people enemies. These people accept Israel. What they don’t accept – and neither do I – is the Israel we’ve got. It’s not good enough, Isaac! Israel has to be called to account to abide by the basics of international law, it has to behave itself decently toward the people of Palestine, and it has to act in its own self-interest in pursuing diplomacy that will get it to a peaceful resolution. It has to stop the madness. Frankly, I don’t think Israel is capable of doing any of these things now. Which is why we have to work on getting the US to change its policy of an unconditional green light. Ah yes, “divestment,” that hot button, that scary dirty word. Do you really think that if the US puts some economic pressure on Israel, it is going to destroy the state? Do you think that if some groups succeed in getting some economic pressure going through private channels that this is going to bring Isaac to its knees, cause widespread starvation, riots in the streets, and the collapse of the military? If you want to look at that, look at the economic toll of militarization on Israeli society. One third of children in poverty. Forty percent of holocaust survivors in poverty. High suicide rates among IDF veterans.
Here’s my question to you: exactly how is Hassan Fouda going to “destroy” Israel by advocating justice for the Palestinians who have been displaced from their homes, calling for a US government policy which forces Israel to negotiate as an alternative to a military policy that is escalating the violence, and for an end to the illegal colonization of the West Bank? Do you honestly believe that any of this will “destroy” Israel? Israel is doing a nice job of digging its own grave now – we need to save it from itself. If we don’t Isaac may indeed survive, but do you want this Israel? An Israel that looks, feels, and acts like apartheid South Africa?
So think about it, Isaac. Israel, in full view of the whole world, is bombing civilians, with new, highly destructive anti-person weapons, in an attempt, in Olmert’s words, to put an end to the “terror” of Kassam rockets hitting in Israel. Two Jews have been killed by these rocket attacks in the last two weeks. Over 300 Gazans have died, most of them non-combatants. As a result, Hamas has ended the cease fire and directed its military wing to resume suicide attacks inside Israel. Israel is seeing to it that acts of popular resistance (which the West calls “terror,”) will continue. Which Israel can then use as a reason for continued decimation (to use your word) of Palestine, and so it goes.
As for “destroying Israel” by negotiating some kind of return or compensation for land taken from Palestinians, consider the word Israel uses for this issue: “demographic threat.” Remind you of anything?
Just for argument’s sake: What if Israel no longer had a Jewish majority, what if it were no longer a Jewish state as we now know it? So what? The point of Zionism was to establish a haven for Jews against anti-Semitism. It was not to set up a Jewish hegemony in historic Palestine which would then severely compromise – to put it mildly – Jewish values and ethics. What kind of Israel do you want? If we fight to maintain a majority, just what do you envision? What is the cost?
I am not a debater, and I don’t have a degree in Political Science or History. I am just a guy who sees things with his own eyes and feels with his heart.
We are wrong – can you hear that? And also stupid if we think this will work. As stupid as the ideological, cynical neocon cabal running our own government. All this talk about destroying Israel and annihilation. Who can really think that Israel, with the best Army in the world and the full backing of the US, is on the verge of destruction by a ragtag popular movement with basement bombs? This is our victim complex talking, it’s the legacy of the trauma of the Holocaust. I say to you that it is a betrayal of the Holocaust to use it as a justification for the oppression and ultimate destruction of another people. It is Israel who is being destroyed by pursuing its present course, if not in this generation then in generations to come, and it will happen unless Israel changes course and becomes a true partner for peace. I assure you, Israel won’t get a bad deal. She just has to stop going for the whole enchilada. If she gets it – and my fear is that she will succeed in this – Israel is the ultimately loser.
Your question to me, "Why won't they accept Israel's right to exist and live in peace," -- putting aside the question of who you mean by "they," is a tired question, a bankrupt question. Israel has a right to exist in peace, as does every other people and nation in the world. This is not in dispute, certainly not by good people like Hassan Fouda and David Good, whom you attack. But Israel does not have the right to illegally, brazenly and egregiously stomp on the rights of others -- in the name of "security" and invoking the sacred battle cry of "Never Again." The question becomes absurd, ultimately. Israel isn't going anywhere. The question I would put to you in return is: what kind of Israel do you want? As a Rabbi, what kind of Jewish people do you want?
Mark Braverman, Ph.D.
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