Posted by: MC | July 29, 2012

Mary Says, Mitt Says

My 19-year-old niece Mary is in Israel.  So is Mitt Romney.  Mary arrived almost 4 weeks ago to assist with rebuilding homes of Palestinian people that have been destroyed in the areas of the country historically populated by Palestinians now being displaced.  Many of those lands are occupied by Jewish settlers.

These are complicated issues from the standpoint of local, national and international politics.  They are less complicated but more urgent and problematic up close.

I saw this for myself three summers ago in July, when I had the profound privilege of visiting Israel with a group of friends from the Shir Tikvah congregation  here in Portland.  Thanks to the friendships Rabbi Ariel Stone (Voice # 097 in 100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change) has maintained from her years living in Israel, our predominantly Jewish group spent time with an alliance of Palestinian and Rabbinical leaders in Jerusalem. These leaders spoke about and later showed us the way they work daily to take action together for preventing or, if prevention cannot be had, redressing displacement of Palestinians in the Holy City.

My niece Mary spent time in Jerusalem, but she helped rebuild a house in the West Bank where the level of conflict and damage in all directions is amped up several notches. So, back to the ‘more urgent and problematic up close’ part – even with political violence all around the Palestinian and Jewish people in the West Bank, the violence that results in Palestinian families being awakened in the night, removed from their homes and then left to witness to those homes being bull dozed – that is horror.  It is not complicated.  It is wrong.

Today in Jerusalem, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney (R) carefully referred to the city as Israel’s capital, a distinct political move since the city is technically held in common by Jewish, Christian and Islamic Israeli citizens, leaving Tel Aviv as the functional capital of the country.  Romney continued by saying “We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself,”   These comments echoed his words from earlier this year during the Republican Presidential Debate in Florida (January 26, 2012 see EX:C blog SC TO FLA), “The best way to have peace in the Middle East is not for us to vacillate and to appease, but is to say, we stand with our friend Israel. We are committed to a Jewish state in Israel. We will not have an inch of difference between ourselves and our ally, Israel.”

It’s all in who does the defining.

So there you have the stated political position of this man, Mitt Romney.  In his view of international policy, Israel can do pretty much whatever it wants.  Again debating in Florida, but last September, Mr. Romney voiced a weak caveat:  “If you disagree with an ally, you talk about it privately. But in public, you stand shoulder-to-shoulder.”  To place all of this in ‘real time’ context, Mr. Romney may question London’s readiness for the Olympics, but his senior aide briefed reporters today saying, “if Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision.”  I guess that means Romney’s concerns about security and such don’t even come into play when it comes to Israel’s readiness to bomb Iran.

Another unfortunately logical extension of Mr. Romney’s positions on Israel is support for occupation and demolition of Palestinian homes.  I haven’t spoken with the gentleman, so can’t know that for sure, but this is what he said also on September 22 in an early Florida debate, “The president went about this all wrong. He went around the world and apologized for America. He — he addressed the United Nations in his inaugural address and chastised our friend, Israel, for building settlements.”

Seems a good moment to turn back to my niece Mary.  She was in the West Bank village (which she says we’d call a city) of Anata.  She and the others volunteering to build this home learned that theirs was less a humanitarian than a political act since there was no guarantee the home, Beit Arabiya, would not be destroyed again.  Here’s what she writes in her blog.

Jan 23rd 2012 –  after 9 years of existing Bait Arabiya was demolished for fifth time along with 6 houses of Bedouins in the middle of the night.  Everyone thought they had left but, at 3:30AM they showed up at Abu Omar, the house rebuilt last year, woke the parents and their 13 kids and demolished the house.

Hearing this story straight from the source, getting this first hand emotional insight is extremely valuable.  As much as you know that home demolition is terrible, when you hear it living in a US suburb it’s almost entirely impossible to create for yourself a believable parallel.  Sitting five feet from the destroyed foundation after spending the day cleaning up the rubble of the past and looking into the eyes of Arabiya as she shows you how to cut tomatoes and potatoes for lunch and you don’t just see the possibility, you feel it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s more contrast between the perspectives of these two American visitors to Israel.  On September 20 of last year, two days before all those words in Florida, Romney for President posted this: “If the Palestinian Authority succeeds in gaining any type of U.N. recognition, the United States will cut foreign assistance to the Palestinians, as well as re-evaluate its funding of U.N. programs and its relationship with any nation voting in favor of recognition. Actions that compromise the interests of the United States, our allies, and all those who desire a lasting peace must have consequences.”

My niece Mary has been living among the actual people – the peaceful Palestinian people who sometimes tire of being stripped of their dignity – who have the human right respectfully to assert that dignity – its authority.  My 19-year-old niece sees something else when she looks on the Israeli situation.

Being here and seeing everything I have; an entire population that is internationally generalized as terrorists opening their homes, their lives, and their arms to me has triggered something in my perception of fear.  Talking for an hour with a Jewish American kid who just finished his Birth Right trip about how he’s scared every time he gets on the bus, of the Palestinians radicals who all want to get their land back, and then watching the conflicted shock on his face when I tell him I’ve been welcomed into their homes and temporarily adopted into their families.  Reading news articles where the comments actually say word-for-word that all Palestinians are terrorists only to be interrupted by Mohammad offering me coffee even though it’s Ramadan and he has almost 12 hours before he can eat or drink anything.  Remembering all the tourists from all over the world that have realized I’m alone walking in the Arab quarter of the old City, East Jerusalem, or toward a residential street here in Bethlehem and given me concerned looks or told me to be careful and then, then minutes later, I’m being offered tea or returning a nod of recognition by the people I walk by every day.

Later in her stay, Mary accepted a car ride from a young Palestinian man on a hot day in Bethlehem and spent some writing time considering the socialization for safety that is also socialization for mistrust and persistence of estrangements that fuel ongoing systems of oppression.

 I’ve started to wonder about the ripple effect of populations following widely accepted norms (“don’t go to that side of town” “don’t make eye contact with strangers”) created to increase personal safety while at the same time reinforcing separation and the idea not just of  “the other” but “the dangerous other.” But do we ever think about what is lost in the way of a sense of community, a sense of the good in humanity, conversations never had, connections never made,

 But what I am saying is that we need to loosen up the definition of danger at least enough to leave room for critical analysis.  We need to look at why we deem things in an absolute manner without questioning it and be conscious of the unintended consequences of our best intentions.

In a matter of hours, Mary will be in the air on the way back to the U.S.  She’ll see her dad when she arrives.  He has been afraid for her being in Israel.  His fear has been for her safety, largely because of his generalizations about Muslims, about Middle Easterners, about Palestinians.  He equates them with terrorists and, as we are all warned, avoidance is best.  Better safe than sorry.  But here comes his daughter Mary home again and she’s talking seriously about going back next year.  She’s also talking about taking her dad along.

Instead of running out arguments in favor of his shifting his opinion, she wants him to decide for himself in the context of these good people doing all they can to live and support others as they too do all they can.  All fine people.  People who laugh and cry and cook and joke, who build and survive destruction to build again.

Next summer to rebuild Palestinian homes in Israel; could be a great trip for Mitt Romney, too.

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