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What May Come of the Tragedies

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Last week I sent out a story about a Gaza woman being asked to choose which five of her children would live and which five would die--an unmistakable parallel with the famous story of Sophie, a woman who had to choose which of her children to give to the Nazis to kill. When I first heard the story from Gaza, I could hardly believe it, and indeed many readers have responded incredulously to my post over the past week.

The author of the report, Barbara Lubin of the Middle East Children's Alliance, is someone whom I respect and trust completely. True, we can never know with certainty that the mother was telling the truth, yet one has to wonder why a mourning woman would make up such a story? What would be required to give the account legitimacy--confessions by the soldiers? Was Sophie's word accepted or were Nazi officials consulted to corroborate her story?

What strikes me is the unspoken sense many of us have that surely an Israeli soldier would never do such a thing. We would not question the same story coming out of Darfur, or Rwanda, or Sri Lanka… but Israel? Is it that we don't believe a Jewish person capable of something so cruel? Is it our collective memory of the Holocaust? Or is it that we want to believe that people like us--Westerners, whom we can relate to--would never stoop so low, that we are different?

The truth is that everyday people of any background in any place are capable of unthinkable crimes. Germans were not born Nazis. Palestinians were not born suicide bombers. When you give 18-year-old boys big guns and tanks and send them into an area full of people they fear (and consequently hate), the result is predictable. It doesn't matter where you come from. The story is not anti-Semitic; it's just one story of many, all testimonies to the dangerous power-dynamic created by unmonitored occupation and ethnocentric nationalism. And it's a call for us to change the circumstances that can lead to the repetition of history.

Comparing Israel's actions to anything done by the Nazis is something I almost never do, because it is rarely accurate or useful. However, I am tired of pretending that similarities do not exist. Obviously there is no comparison between systematically exterminating 6 million Jews and dispossessing or imprisoning 10 million Palestinians (and killing tens of thousands more). Still, the ghettoizing, the massacres, the humiliation tactics, the torture, the religious and ethnic profiling… they all feel so horribly familiar. I might add that the official definition of genocide extends also to the destruction of a cultural or national identity, something of which Israel is surely guilty.

My last post was tainted with hopelessness, but I am as sure as ever that things will--must--change, that Israel's unfettered control and transformation of Palestinian areas are unsustainable. Israeli commentators such as Uri Avnery assert that Israel's onslaught against Gaza will hurt Zionism in the long-run, and I tend to agree. I'm reminded by people involved in previous struggles (eg. for civil rights in South Africa and the United States) that things often get worse before they get better, and ultimately I believe the recent events will only contribute to the inevitable downfall of Apartheid in the Holy Land.

One hopeful thing to come out of these tragedies is that the Palestinian people seem more unified than they have been in a long time. In the West Bank, demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Gaza continued, even after a protester was killed in the village of Nil'in. The Palestinian hip-hop group DAM, based in Israel where they live as second-class citizens, immediately put out a new song for their brothers and sisters in Gaza.

In addition, multiple Jewish Israelis have recently written and joined my mailing list, saying it was the recent attacks on Gaza that finally forced them to confront their government's crimes. Outside Palestine millions stand in solidarity with frequent demonstrations around the world, even now as Gazans begin to put their lives back together. In the US we tend to get only a fraction of information about the atrocities and the global movement against them (I've heard more about certain demonstrations in the US than the local media in the exact same town reported!). But even that has been enough to inspire many to join the movement, just as the death of Rachel Corrie and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and so many other horrors stimulated the movement in the past. It is little consolation to the victims of course, but can at least motivate us to prevent future horrors.

I want to describe the feeling in Syria during the attacks, where I watched everyone from 7-year-old children to minimum-wage janitors donate money, clothing, and blood to the people of Gaza. A woman with nothing left to give put her wedding ring into the charity basket. A friend of a friend raised more than $1,000 but was robbed on her way to delivering the money to an aid organization. Her purse was delivered to the police, with her personal cash stolen (amounting to about $100), but the envelope labeled "Money for the Children of Gaza" was left untouched. There is a great feeling of universal solidarity with the people of Gaza, transcending social, class, political, or religious differences.

In the capitol, every day enormous protests flooded the streets. As we marched past, shop owners would close their shops and hurry to join, students would rush from school to take part, and the constant chant "We are all Gazans" grew louder and louder. Each day had a different theme, ranging from law to health to education. Women held other women on their shoulders to lead cheers and floats with speakers played inspiring music to energize the completely nonviolent crowd.

What struck me--aside from the sheer size and constancy of the marches--was how empowering the events were. Rather than leaving hopeless or angry (as I often do after frustrating protests), I left with the knowledge that tens of thousands of others around me were equally outraged, and that we would not be silent until something changed. This unity is something very powerful and important for the movement, and I'm watching it happen all around the world.

The question is where to put this energy, and I think I have an answer. We are at a crucial moment for change in the US and beyond, and it's time to take the next step. For years I have wondered what this next step should be, and the answer has become increasingly clear. It's a campaign that deserves its own voice.

More on that in my next article.

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Anna Baltzer is a Jewish-American Columbia graduate, former-Fulbright scholar, the granddaughter of Holocaust refugees, and an award-winning lecturer, author, and activist for Palestinian rights. As a volunteer with the International Women's Peace (more...)
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