Promise to tell what you have seen

In front of me sit the little children in their black and white or red and white checkered scarves, which still struck us as hostile symbols. They wore them under the pressure of fashion. They knew nothing about the tradition of the keffiyeh. A Palestinian scarf? – Never heard of it. The fact that Arafat wore one and thus, it becoming a thing to wear … but who is Arafat? The story of his murder might sooner pique their interest. But I am not about to tell that story today.

My story starts at the time when everyone who wore a keffiyeh in the West was still regarded with suspicion. That time was after the Six Day War, the euphoric time when Israel was popular. Little David, badly weakened by the Holocaust, has just vanquished the mighty Arab Goliath. People empathized with the Israeli soldiers, who, after years of off-limits to them, again stood by the Wailing Wall. And one shared the happy and proud emotions of the Israeli people—the Jewish, obviously. Palestinians were at the time not yet part of the vocabulary. There were Arabs but weren’t they guilty of their own misfortune? And did they not intend to drive the Jews into the sea?

Meeting Trips to Israel were promoted by the state but warnings about the dangers of the general area left young people unconcerned. People knew the story of the Exodus, had read the book, had seen the film and sang Jerushalayim shel sahav. I, too, participated in such trips with the intent to get to know land and people. A Working Circle for International Encounters (German: AIC) had appealed by radio for people to get involved. Such involvements consisted of a one week round trip and two weeks of working on a kibbutz.  I do not know whether participation in this working encounter, which shortly after the arrival in Israel was re-named Working Circle of Intimate Connections (German: AIC), called to mind anything beyond the geographic beauty of the country, the sun and sunburns, the juicy Kibbutz apples. What had we understood and internalized about the intricate Jewish-Arab network of relationships?

My repository of memories is practically empty with the exception of a small segment which had asserted itself and the image of which has strongly emerged in me during the last two years. Final meeting at the kibbutz. The farewell gift to everyone was a book by Theodor Herzl, Old-New Land. Then, “Any questions?" I no longer know the question asked, but I still remember the words the young man added to his question, when he saw himself confronted with protesting faces, "but yes, they have been dispersed", and I still hear and see the vocal protest of the kibbutz inhabitants, "we have indeed seen them leave." Who was right? At the time this was completely clear, the Israeli witnesses of the time were right.

The realization that even witnesses of the time were incapable of looking in all directions simultaneously arrived a few years later, 1978, during the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The Israeli television of my host family showed cheering faces in Lebanon, the Israeli army, the liberators. A day later, the evening of my return to Germany, during the news of the day, the same events were shown --- but with other pictures. Instead of euphoria there was force, frustration, revulsion.  It all depends where the camera, the eye leads you.

Although my eyes had become sensitized, based on the awareness of a new perspective, they still saw only one side and focused on the Jewish-Israeli side of things and were totally unmindful of the Palestinian dimension. As compared to Israeli Jews, we had no hesitation about traveling through occupied areas with our old dilapidated Arab bus which looked more like a truck. We felt the embarrassment of the driver, the Arabian passengers, whenever the bus was stopped by the Israeli military, which happened often. That what was right was on our side, and in that frame of consciousness we traveled through Judaea and Samaria.  A moral sense of injustice was limited to our all too brief mini-skirts, but that was all.

When our family became larger, our trips to Israel lessened. Only once did we as a family in 1980 take a trip. In the meantime I was studying Judaism at the university and attended seminars in language and history and concentrated on deepening relationships to Jewry and Israel. And yet, a distancing towards all this was transpiring in me. Something had become different. Dirt and garbage, pornographic pictures and offers to buy them “cheap”, anonymity and emptiness are typical of all large western cities. Here in Tel Aviv they appeared this year as futuristic signs and symbols, and enlarged the receptiveness for the warning texts of religious philosophers. Martin Buber deplored the loss of ethical values within the Zionist movement and urgently called for peace attempts to be initiated with the Arab population.  Warning signs even emerged from the political perspective. Nahum Goldmann, former vice-chairman of the Jewish World Congress attempted to show how close Israel was edging to the abyss of disaster on account of its own moral disintegration in an article he penned in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

I do not know why I cut out this article and saved it. In any case, it has survived for 26 years, and when the feeling overcame me that the named abyss had become intolerable, I re-read the article and quote from it. Had this abyss not arrived when the Israeli military declared bankruptcy in morality by the extreme fire and bombardment directed at the Gaza Strip and by the horrific bombing raids in Lebanon?  "Unfortunately we punched in the wrong coordinates", came by way of an excuse by the Israeli spokesman for the unfortunate bombardment at which eight women and ten children perished in the Gaza Strip. "In fact, Israel for a rather long time now has punched in the wrong coordinates. For years on end now the political leadership in the Palestinian conflict is intent on resolving it by force only", is how an ARD radio announcer commented on this incident on the Tel Aviv radio.

But not nearly all German listeners agreed with that scenario. And many, who did agree did not have the courage to speak openly. They feared being stamped as anti-Semitic.  Others, again, such people believed, that in light of the Holocaust experience, they were obligated to express uncritical solidarity with the State of Israel. One would have thought that criticisms from Jewish circles would have found easier access to public media and would have encouraged a reduction in the inhibition barriers of inhibition. Only Rolf Verleger, member of the Central Council, has managed to do so. In an open letter to the chairman of the Central Council he criticized the Israeli military measures against Lebanon and appealed for a peaceful solution for the Palestinian conflict. Many Jewish fellow citizens expressed solidarity with his position in writing. So did I, along with a commentary which was meant for publication. "Just how badly is Israel protected?" The title is in reference to Heinrich Heine’s "Rabbi from Bacharach". Rolf Verleger invited all who had assured him of their solidarity to a meeting in Berlin. Together we formulated a position in which we demanded that the federal government (of Germany) follow the fundamentals of Humanism and People’s Rights regarding its Palestinian policies. As the first Jewish signers of a petitioning letter, we hoped to gather many signatures, which we named after the upcoming Jewish New Year’s Feast Shalom 5767 on which day we intended to submit our collection of signatures. The press showed little interest and so, in spite of some informational rallies, we managed to get only 13,000 signatures. The churches reacted controversially, apathy won the day.  This unsuccessful effort was possibly partially our own fault. Twenty Jews (how many opinions does that amount to?) took too long in the formulation of the letter and the indignation regarding the Lebanese War had dissipated in large segments of the population.

During the preparations for our meeting and under the impression of daily news descending upon the scene, I realized how little attention I had paid to the Palestinian side or dimension of Israel. I had not visited the occupied areas for a long time and I had not visited the core country of Israel since 1997; explicitly I had visited Jerusalem (which also does not quite represent the core area). Here Heine’s birthday was celebrated, for the first time in Israel, and I wanted to participate in this celebration. The many successful events were all very well attended. Prominent representatives from the ranks of research, literary and politics were all there and together we sang Heine’s Song of Spring; birthday fever was in the air. However, it appeared to me that the birthday child himself would not have been all that elated about it all, possibly even angry, maybe even mad; or happy and mad simultaneously, since some of those Heine, the social critic, was close to, namely the Arabs from close proximity in Jerusalem, were not even invited.  His poem "To Edom" was not read, nor recited. The final line "And I have become almost like you" has become more ingrained in me from day to day. Gaza, that monstrous open air prison had not yet been totally walled in, and still enjoyed a minimum amount of freedom. It was Heine’s aim and mission to assert freedom, freedom for all mankind and he knew that his Messiah wanted to save not only Israel “as the superstitious Jews presumptuously believed, but all of suffering mankind."

Only after our meeting in Berlin did I visit parts of the occupied areas. I saw, heard, discussed and promised to return. I did return and I was allowed several times to avail myself of the wonderful Arabian hospitality and, as a Jewess, did not have to hide myself. I lived with enclosed Palestinians behind walls, and was a witness to their daily humiliations, their rationed water allotments and their disappointments. "You have to promise us that you will tell what you have seen."

But who wants to hear it? I started a Study Group Abraham’s Daughters and maintain contacts with peace workers from both sides. In January of this year we supported an Israeli convoy which was to take essentials of life to the enclosed Gaza Strip. This mission failed. Initially! These essentials were stored for a week in a kibbutz for safekeeping; this kibbutz was located close to the border. It was my kibbutz, the one on which I stayed when I first came to visit Israel, and now I no longer knew where it lay, but in which the words flight and dispersal were anchored in my memory.

I still wear the chain with the Star of David which I bought at the Encounter Trip in an Arabian store right by the Jaffa Gate. “Is that a Jewish Star?” the students ask, those with and without the keffiyeh. No, this is not the Jewish star. God forbid!