Sam Bahour speaking to an Encounter delegation of Jewish Americans in Bethlehem
(image by Sam Bahour)
It was recently reported in The Daily Jewish Forward (Bloomberg To Dedicate $1M Genesis Prize to Boosting Israeli-Palestinian Trade, Josh Nathan-Kazis, December 02, 2013) that New York City Mayor and billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, was awarded the first-ever Genesis Prize, $1 million "which is meant to honor an exceptional Jew."
In his acceptance speech, given at an official Hanukkah party in New York, Mayor Bloomberg remained true to U.S. Jewish American politics and thus, before making his speech, cleared his intention to donate the money to "promote commerce between the people in Palestine and the people in Israel" with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As a Palestinian American businessman on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territory for twenty years, I did not know whether to laugh or cry at this seemingly generous announcement. This well-intentioned act is flawed for several reasons.
First, "commerce between the people in Palestine and the people in Israel" is not hindered by lack of funds; it is stifled due to 46 years of Israeli military occupation, each year of which has been squarely supported by the U.S. Every single strategic economic resource needed to build Palestine, from water, land, borders, trade routes, frequencies, airspace, and so much more are 100% micromanaged by the Israeli military. Until the dirty boot of military occupation is removed from the necks of Palestinians, joint commerce can only serve to beautify a status quo which is creeping toward a state of Apartheid, not peace.
Second, with Israel's military occupation and structural discrimination against Palestinians on both sides of the green line intensifying over the past few years, there is no appetite in the Palestinian community for more commerce with Israel, given that Palestine's economy is already massively dependent on Israel's economy by sheer fact of the military restrictions that Israel places on Palestinian economic development.
Today, the only appetite in Palestine, and many corners of the world, is to intensify boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel until Israelis feel the pain of occupation enough to want to end it. This cost-based approach is being more and more articulated by progressive Jewish Americans too, as was recently penned by Kathleen Peratis in the Daily Beast's Open Zion ( If You Want Two States, Support BDS, October 16th, 2013 ), as well as by enlightened Jewish Israelis such as journalist Gideon Levy in Haaretz (The Iran case proves it: Sanctions will get Israel to end the occupation, Nov. 30, 2013).
Instead of wasting $1M on trying to promote commerce between an occupied people and their occupiers, I have a much more constructive suggestion for Mayor Bloomberg: transfer the funds to the New York-based Jewish American organization, Encounter.
Encounter was founded by two rabbinical students and has two rabbis on its board. Jewish American political pundit Peter Beinart recently mentioned Encounter in his recent piece in the New York Review of Books (The American Jewish Cocoon, September 26, 2013). Encounter is an amazing group of dynamic Jewish Americans who are breaking the divide, not by chumming up to the reality of separation, discrimination, and occupation, but rather by mobilizing Jewish Americans from all walks of life, with the bulk being rabbinical students and mainstream Jewish American leaders. The group brings delegations of Jewish Americans - Orthodox, Conservative and Reform - to the West Bank and engages them in active listening to hear directly from Palestinian community members and leaders from the "other" side of the conflict, viewpoints that most have never heard before.
This is not about normalizing the occupation -- far from it. It is about sharing a reality that most Jews around the world have had purposely excluded from their education. It goes without saying that I too learn a lot from engaging the participants.
For nearly six years I've been a speaker to these delegations. As a matter of fact, I usually drop what I'm doing and head to Bethlehem to participate in the program because I see real education and progress being made. By looking into the eyes of the participants, even though many may not agree on much of the politics, I have come to learn that Mayor Bloomberg's own Jewish American community can't stand what they see on this side of the Separation Wall, if given half a chance to experience it.
Indeed, we in the Palestinian business community can take care
of ourselves, as soon as our economy can breathe freely. In the
meantime, and toward that end, I urge Mayor Bloomberg and those
like him to empower those doing the nitty-gritty, behind the scenes
education to enable equality, freedom, and independence to take
root, for all of our sakes.
Sam Bahour is a business consultant living in Ramallah. He frequently provides independent commentary on Palestine and serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka , the Palestinian Policy Network. He blogs at www.epalestine.com.