Palestine: A Challenge to Humanity

Service (opening words, reading, closing words) conducted on May 10, 2009 to an address by Michael Shaik, Public Advocate for Australians for Palestine.

Opening Words

The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the last century, but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure. There is no greater testament to the basic dignity of ordinary people everywhere than the divestment movement of the 1980s.

A similar movement has taken shape recently, this time aiming at an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. We should hope that average citizens again rise to the occasion, since the obstacles to a renewed movement are surpassed only by its moral urgency.

Yesterday's township dwellers can tell you about today's life in the occupied Palestinian territories. To travel only a few blocks in his own homeland, an elderly grandfather waits to beg for the whim of a teenage soldier. More than an emergency is required to get to a hospital; less than a crime earns a trip to jail.

If apartheid ended, so can the occupation, but the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined. The current divestment effort is the first, though certainly not the only, necessary move in that direction.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, from "Build Moral Pressure To End The Israeli Occupation Of The Palestinian Lands"

Beit Oren was founded in 1939 by the Hebrew Socialist Adolescence movement; it is a small kibbutz with a population of only 320 in 2005, but it has some big ideas.

In the April 29 edition of the Christian Science Monitor there is the headline "In Israel, Jews and Arabs aim to bridge 'independence' and 'catastrophe' narrative".

Near Haifa, the third largest city in Israel, this kibbutz every year Israelis and Palestinians are gathering for a two-day event that incorporates both the narratives under the banner of "Together in Pain, Together in Hope." A program marking both Haatzmaoot and Nakba – "independence" and "catastrophe," respectively – aims to expose participants to the experience of the other while not denigrating one's own. For some, this is one small route to the elusive Middle East peace that many of their compatriots see as passé.

Another round of Fatah-Hamas unity talks ended fruitlessly Tuesday in Cairo, with Palestinians still unable to reach consensus on how to respond to international demands for peace negotiations. On the Israeli side, the rise of a new center-right government that has not affirmed its commitment to a two-state solution. This diplomatic stalemate has resulted in a dominant perception among Israelis and Palestinians that things are only going worse. The least one can do, many feel, is to spend these emotionally charged days with others who think like them.

While Jews and Arabs at this joint event don't claim to be the majority, they do appear to be growing in number – from 40 when the gathering started in 2003 to 230 participants this year, not including scores of latecomers who had to be turned away for lack of space. What's also noticeable, both the organizers and returnees note, is that the event is continually drawing new faces, including more "mainstream" people and not just year-round specialists in peace and coexistence work.

Just last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Washington's Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, that peace with the Palestinians will come only if they recognize Israel's existence as a Jewish state. Translation: Only if Palestinians give up the demand for a right of return for refugees from 1948. Israel's controversial foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has extended his definition of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by saying that it must include a solution to the tensions over Israeli Arabs, who have increasingly come to identify as Palestinians.

Eyeing Israel's Arab minority as a demographic threat, Lieberman suggested that a peace deal should include a land swap, in which areas of Israel with a high concentrations of Arabs close to the West Bank be transferred to the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

Lieberman's meteoric rise makes it clear that this week's joint event has relevance even though its participants don't include Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most Palestinians from those areas can no longer obtain permits to enter Israel. But even if they could, the conditions for such a meeting is are not ripe, says Michal Talya, the founder and organizer for the annual gathering.

"I think coming to an event like this takes a level of inner awareness and an ability to step out of your national identity and see beyond," says Ms. Talya. Their reality of living under Israeli occupation makes it almost impossible to have the kind of eye-to-eye conversations that happen here.

"Jewish Israelis feel threatened by Palestinians, and I'm talking about just the Palestinians inside Israel. So the idea is to come together on these two days, the time when we're at the height of feeling far away from each other, and to try to heal the wounds."

Some Palestinians who came in previous years, she acknowledged with some sadness, found it harder to come this time around, given the events of the past year. "Hope seems to be shrinking, so instead of destroying, we're trying to build."

Closing Words

The time for illusions is over. The time for decisions has arrived. We love the entire land of our forefathers and in some other time we would have wanted to live here alone. But that will not happen. The Arabs, too, have dreams and needs.

We cannot keep a Palestinian majority under an Israeli boot and at the same time think ourselves the only democracy in the Middle East. There cannot be democracy without equal rights for all who live here, Arab as well as Jew. We cannot keep the territories and preserve a Jewish majority in the world's only Jewish state - not by means that are humane and moral and Jewish.

Do you want the greater Land of Israel? No problem. Abandon democracy. Let's institute an efficient system of racial separation here, with prison camps and detention villages. Qalqilya Ghetto and Gulag Jenin.

Do you want a Jewish majority? No problem. Either put the Arabs on railway cars, buses, camels and donkeys and expel them en masse - or separate ourselves from them absolutely, without tricks and gimmicks. There is no middle path.

Do you want democracy? No problem. Either abandon the greater Land of Israel, to the last settlement and outpost, or give full citizenship and voting rights to everyone, including Arabs. The result, of course, will be that those who did not want a Palestinian state alongside us will have one in our midst, via the ballot box.

That's what the prime minister should say to the people. He should present the choices forthrightly: Jewish racism or democracy. Settlements or hope for both peoples. False visions of barbed wire, roadblocks and suicide bombers, or a recognized international border ... and a shared capital in Jerusalem.

From: Avrham Burg, A failed Israeli society is collapsing: The end of Zionism?, International Herald Tribune, Saturday, September 6, 2003. Avrham Burg was speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003.