Friday, April 13, 2007

Last Night's World Affairs Council Post-Play Panel

Last night, Nevet Basker and I presented the moderate Israeli viewpoint in relation to My Name is Rachel Corrie, a post-play panel of sorts at the Repertory Theater in Seattle. The event was sponsored by the World Affairs Council. The ground rules (see at bottom) were such that we were limited in our presentations to four minute narratives of personal stories. While this can be an effective mechanism for opening up the possibilities for dialogue, we were hampered by time constraints and no opportunity to challenge conflicting narratives. Nonetheless, the panel was a good start at dialogue and listening. Below are Nevet and my unexpurgated introductions.

I grew up in Israel with liberal values and left-leaning politics. In school, we sang songs about peace, like “I promise you, my little girl, that this will be the last war” and “A Song for Peace,” Shir LaShalom, which urged us to not only say that “the day will come” but to actually bring it about. I really believed this, and sincerely wanted to bring about peace, human rights and political freedom for people everywhere. If I had grown up in Seattle I might have had a ‘free Tibet’ bumper sticker on my VW. In Israel, I was active in Peace Now, vehemently opposed to the ‘occupation,’ and supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

My wake-up call was the failure of the Clinton peace plan in 2000. Despite huge Israeli concessions on every major issue—borders, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem—the Palestinian leadership refused an agreement that would have ended the conflict and given their people their long-awaited state. Instead, they launched a bloody war of terror that has claimed the lives of over a thousand Israeli men, women and children and maimed and mutilated thousands more. In the relative magnitude of casualties and the collective trauma, it was the equivalent of a 9-11 tragedy every month. It got to a point where going to a movie, eating at a restaurant, taking a bus in Israel became a game of Russian roulette. Parents made their children promise not to ride a bus together and would wonder every morning whether they’d see them again in the evening. You never knew where the terrorists would hit next. Suddenly, everybody’s cell phones would be ringing with “Are you okay?” and “I’m okay, I wasn’t there” to preempt the news. I was living in Seattle, but spoke often with my family in Israel and could feel the tension. Even here, my phone would ring in the middle of the night; it was my sister, calling from a city south of Tel Aviv, saying, “We’re okay, it wasn’t us.” Not this time, anyway.

We were asked to speak tonight about our emotional experience, so here’s how I feel.

I feel betrayed to learn that what I thought was a territorial dispute, where the challenge is how to draw a reasonable border between two states, is in fact an existential one, in which the Palestinian leadership will settle for nothing less than the complete annihilation of Israel.

I’m furious that legitimate grievances are being used to promote an illegitimate goal, the destruction of a sovereign state, through immoral means, terrorism and murder.

I’m offended that liberals like me are being misled and used.

I feel moral outrage that people compare the unintentional deaths of Palestinian civilians with the intentional targeting of Israeli ones, as though the former justifies the latter.

I’m disturbed that well-informed and well-intentioned people would consider check points or the security fence—purely defensive measures—to be acts of aggression, while excusing the murder of teenagers at a party or babies on a bus as understandable responses to some perceived injustice.

I’m afraid of latent anti-Semitism when people who would never agree that American presence in Saudi Arabia justifies ramming airlines into skyscrapers or blowing up trains in Madrid and in London accept that logic when the targets and victims are Jews.

But mostly, I’m profoundly disappointed that my dream of peace was shattered.

David Brumer is a geriatric social worker and psychotherapist. He is also a media analyst, writer and consultant on Middle Eastern affairs. In 2005 he was awarded “Congressional Recognition for Excellence in Public Diplomacy in Support of Israel” on behalf of his work with The Israel Project (TIP), an international non-profit organization devoted to educating the press and the public about Israel.

David’s background in film (he is an honors graduate of Binghamton University’s School of Cinema, 1977) also informs his advocacy work. His blog, BRUMSPEAK, , “Advancing the Prospects for Peace and Security for Israel & the Middle East,” includes film reviews pertaining to Israel and the Middle East. David is married to an Israeli of Sephardic background and visits Israel regularly, where he has a large extended family. He also has ongoing contacts with Israeli professionals in journalism, government, and other walks of life.

Passions normally run high when Israel is being discussed within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and all the more so when a heated and controversial play like ‘My Name is Rachel Corrie’ is produced in the backyard of the young woman whose life was so tragically cut short. Let me extend my condolences to the Corrie family on the untimely death of their loved one. I’m sure I am joined by all in this room in wishing that she were alive today. Since so much has already been written and said about the play, let me just briefly add that I firmly support the freedom of artistic expression that is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. But as the old saw goes, with freedoms also come responsibilities.

As a student of the cinema and other dramatic art forms, I am under no illusions that art or drama is under any obligation to provide balance or even-handedness. Dramatic expression is often the highly personalized and subjective reflection of the dramatist, and that is how it should be. However, when we enter into the realm of the docudrama, the generally accepted parameters change. Then, the audience rightfully expects to be provided with some context that offers perspective to the larger historical reality being presented. Sadly, this play does not provide any such context, which in such a controversial subject only serves to obfuscate rather than clarify the larger backdrop to this agonizing conflict. The last third of the play is such a one-sided polemic against the state of Israel that it would be hard for someone who dropped down from another planet to not view Israel and Israelis as heartless militarists who randomly destroy life, limb and property of defenseless, innocent and peace-loving Palestinians.

I would like to present another perspective and share personal stories that will hopefully shed some light on a very different Israel than the one portrayed here. I will start with my own story, the story of a social worker and psychotherapist, no stranger to fighting for the social and political rights of the downtrodden and dispossessed. I have quite naturally leaned to the left my entire adult life, believing in the empowerment of the individual, the universal rights of all people to self-determination, and to live in freedom and dignity. I still believe in those values, but they have been tempered by harsh realities that I have seen since the beginning of the 2nd Intifada. Those realities have moved me, and I might add, many other Israeli and American Jews, more to the center, where I now find myself more comfortably understanding the intricacies of this very complex conflict. I realize this will come as something of a shock to my co-panelists who come from a more fringe worldview, but I consider myself a moderate and see that the only solutions that will ultimately be effective are those that reject the extremist positions of either the far-right or the far-left.

So what changed? The turning point for me was the Netanya Park Hotel Passover suicide bombing in late March 2002 that left 30 completely innocent men, women and children, among them grandmothers and grandfathers, obliterated in one cold-blooded and calculated moment. And let us not forget the 140 wounded, some maimed for life, and of course, the emotional scarring the all the survivors and their families will bear for life. My brother-in-law, Ofer, told me how his best friend Dani, a captain in the Israeli police force, was called away from his family’s Passover Seder to rush to the scene, and he related the unspeakable horror of seeing people’s skin and bones and flesh being scraped from the ceilings and walls. Shaken and jolted, I returned to my peaceful existence here in Seattle, and began to observe the reactions of the Jewish elders at the nursing home where I work, as the terror war continued unabated well into 2003. Many of these Jewish elders are survivors, from war-torn Europe, the Pogroms of Russia,and some, of the concentration camps themselves. As they watched the nightly news and saw buses and pizzerias, malls and discos, cafes and restaurants blown up by suicide bombers, they began wondering if it all wasn’t happening again. Some, at various stages of dementia, could not articulate their terror, but it was written all across their faces. Others, more cognitively intact, asked me if Jews were again at risk of extermination. Was it indeed all happening again, perversely, ironically, in the one place that Jews thought they could now call home? With a new resolve, I determined to do all I could to ensure that they would feel secure and to know that Israel was strong and would not succumb to the inhumane tactics of those that would harm us. I reassured them that Israel remained intact and that the morality of her cause would ultimately help sustain her. And so I began to speak out and challenge those who would denigrate, demonize and de-legitimize our very right to exist.

As a social worker, I intuitively understood that one of the first casualties of this new war was truth. Moral equivalency became the new order of the day, with the arsonist being confused with the firefighter. Media reports continued to vividly depict the unmitigated suffering and punishment that the Palestinian population was subjected to, but often with little or no context within which to understand the state of affairs. A collective amnesia seemed to permeate the West, and long forgotten was the offer of a Palestinian state, with a contiguous West Bank, all of Gaza, Palestinian control of the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, with the Palestinian capital to be established there, and $30 billion in compensation for those Palestinians who chose not to exercise their right to return to the new Palestinian homeland. I bring this up because we must de-mythologize the romantic vision of what did and didn’t happen in order to be able to move forward. While we must not stay mired in the past, the only way to make progress is to understand why and how things came to be as they are. There is plenty of responsibility to go around, and yes, Israel is far from perfect, but the fact remains that despite all the terror, all the renunciations of Israel’s very right to exist, Israelis, by a strong majority, still wish to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors, in two states for the two peoples.

My Israeli wife, an avid peacenik, and her friends of a similar ilk, all former members of Shalom Achshav or Peace Now, want nothing more than to be able to live in peace with all Israel’s neighbors. Our nephew Amir, now an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces in his third year of service at the young age of 21, is as fine a young man as I have ever met, and I can tell you, he and his comrades do not relish serving at checkpoints, imposing curfews, and seeing Palestinians suffer in their day to day lives. He has told me that he wishes he could be studying at college, perhaps at Hebrew University, side by side with Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs. That he does not get his jollies from seeing the hardships endured by too many Palestinians.
But he asks me, “what should we do?” Qassam missiles continue to rain down into southern Israel, Hamas, the ruling power of the Palestinian government, vows to liberate every inch of Palestine, by which they mean all of Israel proper. Arms continue to be smuggled into Gaza from Egypt at an alarming rate, through the very same kind of tunnels the IDF was attempting to uncover and destroy back in the spring of 2003. A culture of hate and incitement continues to permeate Palestinian society, with over 300 schools named after suicide bombers and textbooks with no mention of the state of Israel. Amir tells me that terror has been largely eliminated because of the construction of the separation barrier, a non-violent intervention, and that the checkpoints and other restrictions continue to keep Israelis safer. He goes on to say that when the Qassams stop, when the incitement and culture of hate ends, when the refusal to accept Israel’s very existence ceases, when Palestinian leadership re-embraces the two state solution, all the suffering can come to an end for the Palestinians. That the ball is in their court, and Israel remains ever ready and willing to make painful sacrifices in the name of real peace.

And I will end with this thought. Perhaps if Israel were not so embattled by an Iran threatening to destroy it, by a worldwide movement that is already trying to get the international community used to the idea of a world without Israel, and by a United Nations, which, while ignoring genocide and human rights abuses in places like Darfur, China and much of the Arab world, spends most of its time denouncing Israel, we would not feel so up in arms about this play.
David Brumer
April 2007

This evening’s post-play program is dedicated to learning through listening – to a move towards deepened understanding of many sides and perspectives. We acknowledge that there are disputed facts and varying narratives about this situation. We want to surface some of those differences in a new way, in a way that does not break into arguing or get stuck in a blame game, but tills the soil for something new to arise.

It is well known among historians that there have been four key players in the creation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The Israelis and the Palestinians and the Western and the Arab powers. Tonight we are not here to debate who is more to blame (there are many venues and listserves where that occurs)...we are here to see if we can broaden our understanding, in human terms, by hearing stories of the impact of the conflict on the lives of the individuals who will speak tonight. We honor the courage and deep commitment it takes for each speaker to participate.

In order to do that, we want to create a space for deep listening and understanding, with no expectation for agreement.... We believe it is vital to understand the view and suffering of each side.

We will ask the speakers to “Tell us a personal story that will help us understand the source of your passion and deep motivation and connection to these issues.” A group of listeners trained in Compassionate Listening™ will reflect back the feelings, deep values, and essential qualities they hear underlying the speaker’s story.

We will do this by asking the speakers and the audience to honor the following guidelines...

Ground rules
w Speak and listen with an intention of understanding (this does not imply agreement or approval)
w Be open to hearing other perspectives
w Speak to be understood, not to persuade
w Tell your personal story: Speak for yourself, from your own story and personal experience, using I statements
w This means we will strive to avoid…
o lecturing
o judgment and blame (such as ascribing motives; name calling or mud slinging)
o polemics or political agenda of trying to prove/disprove
o recitation of historical facts


Lao Qiao said...

Rachel Corrie was a soldier who had volunteered to fight against Israel. The tank that ran her over was trying to destroy the entrance to a tunnel that was used for smuggling weapons. By choosing to try to block the tank, she was fighting in favor of arming Palestinian terrorists. She risked her life in a war. It is tragic that she died, but she chose to risk dying for her cause: the destruction of Isarel.

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