You Don’t Understand! Ferguson, Palestine and Terror

Fig TreeI had sawdust in my eye. You know, actual saw dust. I was drilling holes in wood beams that support new guest rooms being built in the vast sand and rock of southern Israel, and sawdust blew from the beam into my right eye. Irritatingly, it wouldn’t come out.

Maybe farming and light-construction work is a strange way to engage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that’s what we’ve done for the past two months, working the land with a Palestinian family in the occupied West Bank (or, Judea and Samaria as my Jewish friends call it), and then among religious Jews in the Negev, a few miles from the Egyptian border. We came to listen and hear and know and love. But in those shifting sands, among the religious Jews come to bring prophecy into reality as life blooms in the desert, tensions mounted:

Our conversation turns to politics, baiting words about Obama and democracy and the Middle East and I find myself taking the bait and gently pushing back, giving another perspective, tactfully critiquing to minimize the tension, and the conversation turns to discussion with history and religion and ownership and rights and Biblical truth and land and I keep pushing back and speaking up, and the conversation turns to debate and words about Muslims and Arabs and barbarism and stupidity and Holocaust and war and rage and defense and ‘fuck you Europe and America and your moral superiority’ and I say you’re right on that one but the stakes are raised and the heat is on high and our critiques are dismissed as uninformed and our sources can’t be trusted but it’s the sweeping generalizations, the right versus wrong, the good versus evil that keep me pushing back because I know some of them, they are people, they are my friends, and I cannot remain silent and finally, he says ‘I need to smoke,’ and we laugh and the tension breaks but lingers.

And I just keep thinking, you don’t know what it is like. You don’t understand what it is like to be a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation. And then I want to tell them about a town called Ferguson.

Ferguson, Context and Criminal Justice Systems

As a white US American I can look at the response to one killing in Ferguson, Missouri where public knowledge of the specifics is limited and facts are disputed and see the news of riots and looters and be truly baffled. It may have been a terrible incident or Darren Wilson may have even been justified, but why the hell are you throwing a molotov cocktail and burning car dealerships? How does that help? How is senseless violence and vandalism a justifiable response to this? I don’t understand the black response to a single incident.

And that is the kicker. We don’t understand the molotov cocktail because we don’t understand the context of what it is like to be a black US American. I don’t know what it is like to grow up as a young black man and be treated as something dangerous. What does it do to the psyche to have people cross the street when they see you coming? Or to consider pat-downs by cops as a normal part of life? One black pastor, Leon Crance writes,

I am 6’5”. I weigh 270 pounds. I’ve been called imposing. The police have stopped me, both walking and driving, nearly once a year since I was 15 years old. Though I have been asked to leave my vehicle, thrown to the ground and against my vehicle, interrogated, frisked, and cuffed on these occasions, I’ve not been cited. Not once.

I have never and will never experience this. I don’t understand what it is like to be a black US American in US America.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander asserts that the discrimination faced by young black men today is in many ways on par with Jim Crow era New Jim Crowsegregation.

More African American adults are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War. (180)

Alexander explains that this is the case because our system targets young black men, largely through the War on Drugs.

African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct.” (197)

These men are then subject to long sentences for non-violent crimes (usually possession of drugs) and then they are spit back onto the street with no resources to provide for a family, into a society that is free to discriminate against them by denying housing, food assistance, jobs, and even the right to vote – all because they are convicted felons (for possession of drugs).

A black minister in Waterloo, Mississippi, explained his outrage at the fate that has befallen African Americans in the post-civil rights era. “It’s a hustle,” he said angrily. “‘Felony’ is the new N-word. They don’t have to call you a N— anymore. They just say you’re a felon. In every ghetto you see alarming numbers of young men with felony convictions. Once you have a felony stamp, your hope for employment, for any kind of integration into society, it begins to fade out. Today’s lynching is a felony charge. Today’s lynching is incarceration. (164)

White US America, we don’t understand what it is like to be black in US America.

Palestine, Occupation and Struggle

I want to tell my Jewish hosts about Ferguson, because I think Ferguson is like Palestine. We see the instances of violence, the rock-throwing, the riots, the anger, the knife, the bomb, the car and we see a madness that is inexplicable. We see rockets and murder and terrorism and it is intolerable. There is no justification for this violence. But like we see in Ferguson, there is a reason for the rage. We don’t understand because we don’t live under a military occupation.

What is it like to grow up under military occupation? To be detained and interrogated and harassed or beat up and slapped around for throwing a rock at a tank? What is it like to have the military enter your home in the middle of the night, terrifying your family and taking their teenage son or father with no explanation? To live under military rule while the neighboring Israeli settlers live under civil rule; to see the vast economic differences between your lives and the lives of Israeli settlers in gated communities on the hills above you?

What is it like for my friends who have owned land for generations to be refused (or rather delayed indefinitely) building permits, denied access to public water and electric systems while near-by Israelis have swimming pools, to have 1500 fruit trees bulldozed illegally (illegal by both Israeli civil and military law), to be in court for decades trying to keep their land? All this is, presumably, to get them frustrated enough to leave and let the surrounding Israeli settlements take more land in the West Bank. At what point does sadness and frustration turn to anger and rage? At what point does complete disillusionment with the established system set in, where courts and rule of law fail and violence seems like the only solution? I am not amazed by the violence. I am amazed there is not more.

The following are excerpts from Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000-2010, compiled by Breaking the Silence.Our Harsh Logic

“One time we grabbed a ten or twelve-year-old boy, and we explained what he had to do by pointing with the barrel of the gun … and he has to go and move the these blockades. And he’s working and crying . . . then the patrol jeep commander decided that maybe they’d done something like that farther down the road, we’ll take him with us. There’s no place to put the boy inside the patrol jeep, so what he does is throw him in the back, and the boy is on our legs and our equipment and the grenades, and he’s crying the whole time, lying on us and on the equipment and our feet. I could feel through his pants that he’d peed out of fear . . . After we’d driven ten kilometers from the village and it was clear that they hadn’t walked ten kilometers with a load of furniture to make a blockade, the commander decided it was enough, we could let him out. He stopped the jeep . . . pulled the kid out, threw him at the side of the road, the kid’s crying again, and now he has wet pants and a ten-kilometer walk back, and we keep going to the settlements down the road.” (Armored Corps, page 73)

“We had a commander in the unit who would just say in these words, and it’s awful, he used to tell us, ‘I want bodies. That’s what I want.’” (Golani Brigade, 79)

“We had a talk with a division commander when we got to the Shomron Central Brigade. He said, “You’re not ranked by arrests — you’re ranked by the number of people you kill.” (Paratroopers, 80)

“The truth is that the Shimshon Brigade did the worst of the things I saw. That house where they destroyed a wall, they went like crazy looting it… they shat on the couches, They stole suits, they lifted all of the suits in the closet … They’d leave behind, like deliberately, a house that was totally wrecked. They’d turn the house upside down, like when the family’s locked in a room …(Engineering Corps, 84)

“That’s what we do: We go into the homes of innocent people. Every day, all the time.” (Field Intelligence, 87)

I don’t think Israeli soldiers are any more violent (or for that matter, more noble) than any other military. This is the ugliness of war. But the Israelis of Breaking the Silence give testimony to the ongoing inevitable violence of military occupation – to the daily interruption of life, the degradation of everyday Palestinian civilians through checkpoints and home invasions, the ongoing treatment of an entire group of people as dangerous, evil, something less than human.

We do not understand what it is like to be degraded day after day, month after month, year after year by an occupying military. How long before the frustration turns to rage and the rage turns violent?

We may not justify the violence, but there is a reason for the rage.

Israel, you do not understand what it is like to be a Palestinian living under military occupation.

Sawdust, Israel and Terror

Of course, I had sawdust in my eye. I told you that. I stuck my head into the sink and let the water run over it, then showered, but the sawdust lingered. Irritated, I dressed and started walking back to our host’s home for dinner, with the setting sun in front of me, rubbing my eye.

Fine, I thought. I get it. I’ll listen. I have a plank in my eye. I have a plank in my eye and I am standing in righteous judgment against Israel. God knows my heart is full of judgment. What is it, exactly, that I am judging them for? What do I want from them?

I want them to see that Palestinians are people with real hopes and dreams and emotions, to consider what it would be like to live as a Palestinian under military occupation, to understand there is a reason for the rage.

Then if I am going to dislodge this plank from my eye, I must see Israeli Jews as people with real hopes and dreams and emotions, and consider the reality that I don’t know what it is like to be an Israeli Jew.

I don’t know what it is like to be a part of a people who have lived thousands of years of oppression, to be hated and despised and rejected and persecuted all over the world, century after century. I do not know what’s it like to be a people surrounded by enemies who have it written in their charter to drive them into the sea, to wipe Israel off the map and the Israeli people from the world, to fight wars of survival decade after decade. I don’t know what it’s like to go into bunkers or put on gas masks when the sirens blare, wondering if this will be the time, or to sit fearfully at a cafe wondering if a suicide bomber will choose this moment.

We can speak nobly about turning the other cheek, but the Jews know about passivity, and passivity leads to annihilation. This is not just an assumption, they’ve lived it. And I do not understand what that is like. I have never known their fears or their anger or their grief. I do not understand.

I do not understand.

Would you believe me if I told you the sawdust disappeared as soon as I processed that?

My Promised LandIsraeli journalist Ari Shavit begins his book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel this way:

For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear… I always felt that beyond the well-to-do houses and upper-middle-class lawns of my hometown lay a dark ocean. One day, I dreaded, that dark ocean would rise and drown us all.

About the Gulf War, while Saddam Hussein was firing missiles at Tel Aviv, he writes,

“I listened closely with dismay at the terrified eyes of my loved ones locked in German-made gas masks.”

After a terror attack during the second Palestinian Intifada he heard an explosion nearby and encountered the aftermath of four dead men and women enjoying a drink.

As I looked at the hell around me in the glowing lights of the blown-up pub, the journalist I now was asked, “What will be? How long can we sustain this lunacy? Will there come a time when the vitality we Israelis are known for will surrender to the forces of death attempting to annihilate us?

Shavit speaks of Israel,

Intimidation and occupation have become the two pillars of our condition,” and “the truth is that without incorporating both elements into one worldview, one cannot grasp Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bolstering Self-Esteem by Demonizing the Other

We do this thing where we join groups or teams, we pick sides or are born into them and then give them our allegiances and slowly develop demonized and dehumanized perceptions of other groups.* At times of crisis we defend the righteousness of our groups and condemn the unrighteousness of the other. We all do this, naturally and unwittingly. I came here being – in theory – pro peace, pro-Palestine and pro-Israel, but I have realized that I had picked my team. I identified (and still identify) with the Palestinian under occupation. The question is, will I also identify with the Israeli under terror.

Palestinian Elias Chacour’s words are for me:

You who live in the United States, if you are pro-Israel, on behalf of the Palestinian children, I call unto you: Give further friendship to Israel. They need your friendship. But stop interpreting that friendship as an automatic antipathy against me, the Palestinian who is paying the bill for what others have done against my beloved Jewish brothers and sisters in the Holocaust and elsewhere. And if you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians – oh, bless your hearts – take our side, But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, back up. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy… for God’s sake.

If we want to die to self, if we want to move beyond talk of loving our enemies to actually doing it, if we care about peacemaking, we must start by seeing our enemies as people and opening our eyes to the reality: We don’t understand what it is like to live their lives.


*My thoughts on group identity are aided by Dr. Christena Cleveland’s book, Disunity in Christ.


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