On Gratitude, Shame and Persistence

Guest Post: Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man

I often think that I have become too skilled at building mechanisms for smoothing over the difficulties of life in Israel: everything from chauvinistic jeers on my daily bike commute, to racial slurs against Arabs spouted comfortably and shamelessly in the grocery store, and all the way to the injustices that I cannot keep up with either in my work as a human rights lawyer or as an activist – whether it’s the indefinite imprisonment of thousands of African asylum-seekers or the ever-increasingly pervasive restrictions on basic rights and freedoms that the occupation places on Palestinian lives.

I sharpen these skills as I spend much of my time describing my legal work from a realistic yet optimistic perspective to student groups, diplomats, donors, and foreign delegations on alternative tours (from JStreet to the Telos Group). In a way, by describing the successes of the work in which I’m involved I am repeatedly encouraged to continue in my pursuits. I am forced to zoom out from my daily arguments with the police, government bureaucrats or opposing counsel representing the state or the army, and I am reminded that I am fighting the good fight – the one that caused me to transplant myself from my perfectly fulfilling life in the States just under a decade ago out of a sense of passion and obligation to pursue justice in this tiny place that has had such a huge hold on my heart and head since I was a young child.

By ליאור גולגר Lior Golgher (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tel Aviv Kiosk – Rothschild Boulevard By ליאור גולגר Lior Golgher (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

If I spent my first cadence in this place (over 15 years ago) feeling betrayed and disillusioned by what my Reform Jewish community outside of Boston had taught me about Israel, the next incarnations of my life here were full of optimism about joining a small but vibrant community of those dedicated to radical change. Any anger or shock I experienced at policies and actions taken by the State of Israel against equality, democracy and human rights I translated instantly into fuel for the fight. Even when I saw Israeli society slipping further to the right, speaking less in a language of peace and resolution and more in a language of Jewish national supremacy, repression of resistance and unharnessed (and unabashed) expansion of territory, I saw the international community awakening and beginning to put its proverbial feet down.

But over the last several years, negotiations over a two-state solution have come and gone, each one feeling increasingly limp and insincere, until even the ever-persistent US threw in the towel. And no one here seemed to bat an eyelash. All the leaders in Israel, at least, have either had their fingers crossed behind their backs during negotiations, or lost momentum themselves. The Palestinian leadership was already working on Plan B — international recognition as a state and the more recent accession to the International Criminal Court. Among the Israeli public, it would seem that even those who believed in two states were no longer putting all their eggs in that basket. And since the status quo has become so comfortable for (Jewish) Israelis for so many decades, no one was concerned about checking off another year of the now 47 year-old occupation.

Israel Housing Protests Tel Aviv August 27 2011 By meowArt.com (27/8/2011 מחאת האוהלים) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Israel Housing Protests Tel Aviv August 27 2011
By meowArt.com (27/8/2011 מחאת האוהלים) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

And then the indifferent, complacent, quietly nationalistic trance that had fallen over the country was rudely interrupted by an event so devastating that it set into motion a frightening series of dominoes. In June of this year, three Israeli Jewish teenagers (students of a “yeshiva”/religious school in a West Bank settlement) were kidnapped and murdered by two Palestinian Hamas-supporting residents of Hebron. The day after the bodies of the three teenagers were found and the news of their murder announced, a 17 year-old Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem was kidnapped, beaten and burned to death.

The country was in total shock by the series of events. The streets of Jerusalem were literally on fire as riots broke out (sound familiar?). And, yet, a great opportunity presented itself: a moment to address head-on the deep-seated political-ethnic tensions within Israeli society; a moment to unpack racism and fear and violence before they erode the country once and for all. Prime Minister “Bibi” Netanyahu called the murdered Palestinian 17 year-old’s family to express his condolences and declared that terror is terror no matter who the victims or perpetrators are. And in a profoundly moving act, Israel’s outgoing President Shimon Peres and its then-President-elect “Rubi” Rivlin jointly called on the country to stop the escalation of hatred and violence and to accept Arabs and Jews as equals. They boldly stated: “The bloodshed will only stop when we all realize that we have not been sentenced to live together, but destined to live together.”

My first moment of positive shock in years, of deep optimism, healing and even relief, was brought to a violent halt the very next day when Israel launched a massive assault on Gaza, which would be dubbed “Operation Protective Edge” and last seven brutally long weeks. The assault represented the escalation of various exchanges of attacks between Hamas in Gaza and Israel over the previous months, but it was inflamed by Israel’s mass arrests of suspected Hamas members in the West Bank following the murder of the three teenagers, what it called “Operation Brother’s Keeper” (in my view an irresponsibly used biblical reference that surely augmented the polarization between Jews and Arabs). And of course, the public was ready for widescale “revenge,” given the events of recent weeks.

Israel began to destroy Gaza, wrecking its still shaky infrastructure following the previous two assaults (Cast Lead in 2008-9 and Pillar of Defense in 2012). And Hamas fired its long-range rockets, hitting most of Israel’s major cities other than those in the north. On a personal level, I was thoroughly rattled. Every morning in Tel Aviv we were shaken out of our beds by the piercing sirens warning of rockets and the loud booms when they would either land in open spaces or be destroyed above our heads by “Iron Dome” (thank you Uncle Sam), and it was nearly impossible to concentrate at work between visits to the shelter or “safe room”.

Muhammad Sabah and B'Tselem [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The home of the Kware’ family, after it was bombed by the military – Muhammad Sabah and B’Tselem [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gaza was devastated, with over 2,000 deaths (including combatants, but of whom over 500 were children) and over 10,000 injuries. Six civilians in Israel lost their lives, and 66 Israeli soldiers were killed. And while many Israelis took to the streets in protest of the hostilities, they were met with such violent opposition within Israeli society that even the police could not protect them at demonstrations or when followed home and beaten up afterwards. There was no room to utter the word “peace”, to even mention the destruction in Gaza, or to mourn Gazan lives without being called a traitor.

After the “war” ended the merry-go-round wheels barely squeaked before Israel’s semblance of “normal life” resumed, and once again a moment was lost. There were no more protests, no more demands, and no discussion about what this place had experienced. Israeli human rights organizations B’Tselem and Yesh Din (an organization for which I serve as legal counsel) declared the IDF incapable of adequately investigating alleged war crimes committed in Gaza. But as far as the Israeli leadership is concerned, Israeli human rights groups are at best proof of democracy here and at worst a thorn in their sides. And the international community is all talk. The EU is supposedly drafting a plan to levy sanctions against Israel regarding its settlements, but this feels like too little too late. The US condemns settlement building and the deterioration of negotiations, but protects Israel in every UN Security Council bill, including the Palestinians’ most recent attempt to create a state.

To top it all off, the few weeks of sighs of relief that the violence was over were overly optimistic. Shortly afterward a series of hate crimes, or uncoordinated terror attacks, took place mainly in the Jerusalem area, but also in Tel Aviv and the West Bank. Two events were particularly harrowing: the arson of a one of the few joint Jewish-Arab schools (by Jewish anti-miscegenation elements) and the shooting and killing of four senior rabbis during prayer at a Jerusalem synagogue (by Palestinians from East Jerusalem).

The events of this summer, coupled with the latest rounds of violence, have removed whatever restraints still remained on Israeli society and unleashed the racist, nationalistic, and in some cases fascist, sentiments running not only through Israel’s more extreme citizens’ minds but now also through elected officials’ pens. In November the Israeli cabinet of ministers approved a bill, which if it passes in the next Knesset would serve as the equivalent of a constitutional amendment codifying superior status for Jews, Jewish culture, and Jewish law. Our Prime Minister has also declared that anyone (aka Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel) uninterested in living in the Jewish state (i.e. expressing dissent while being Arab) should have his/her citizenship revoked and should move to the Palestinian territories.

With all of this in the backdrop, I must admit that my coping mechanisms are beginning to break down. I am angry, I am ashamed and I am disgusted. What is more, I’m fighting the urge to give up. I am willing to fight a seemingly Sisyphean fight, but not an actual one. And that I do not want to give up on this place, but it feels like this place is giving up on itself.

By Guy Butavia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Peace demonstration in Tel Aviv – By Guy Butavia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I so desperately want to believe that the lost moments of earlier this summer and of years past can be reached, and that a new generation of sane leaders will emerge. But I fear that only a catastrophe here will force the changes that must be made. And on a personal level, I am struggling to see the impact of my efforts. I do believe that all of the little things that we each do toward peace, justice and equality in the world matter — that the aggregate effect is exponentially larger than each individual act. That we are not alone, and that we must not despair. But the road ahead seems infinitely long, and I want so much more than this for this place and these people.

At the same time, I am full of gratitude. For my life and health, for my family and friends, for you for reading, for the dedicated community of activists from all sides that I have in my life that preserve my faith in humanity, and for the purely good acts, no matter how small, that I witness on a daily basis and that allow me to sustain the energy to create change.

Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man

Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man is a human rights activist and lawyer based in Tel Aviv, Israel. She works as a senior attorney at the Michael Sfard Law Office, primarily representing Palestinians in the West Bank in claims against the Israeli authorities and challenges to various policies of the occupation. She has been profiled by the Haaretz newspaper and by Israeli NGO Yesh Din.

photo credit: Yossi Gurvitz


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