I missed Angela Davis’s description last month of life on Palestine’s West Bank when she was there on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace. I did, however, read last week’s letters about her talk and Alan M. Dershowitz’s attack of her view of the inhumanity to West Bank residents. I add to the discussion now only because, just six months ago, I, too, was a visitor there.
I went there from Israel. In Israel, it was a time when both ultra-orthodox Jews and Zionist orthodox Jews were much in the news — the former because one had spat on an eight-year-old girl he deemed immodestly dressed and because other ultra-Orthodox men wished women to be forced to sit in the back of public buses. Ultra-orthodox Jews, I learned on that visit, are those who study in religious seminaries and at that time were not required to do the military service required of all other young Israeli men (and women). Now, however, that may be changing.
I also learned that Zionist orthodox Jews do serve courageously in the army and excel as fighters. But they were in the news, too, because Zionist orthodox soldiers were demanding that female singers be banned from army entertainments because the soldiers felt that it was not appropriate that they see and hear them. Also, I learned that it is the Zionist orthodox who make up the majority of West Bank settlers — in both legal and illegal settlements. While I was in Israel, one of these illegal Zionist orthodox settlements had been demolished by Israeli army soldiers with much outcry from the settlers and threats of retaliation against West Bank residents — the Palestinians. And so I decided to visit the West Bank to see and learn whatever I could about life there. The West Bank, of course is the west bank of the Jordan River. It was part of the British mandate of Palestine, annexed by Jordan in 1949 after its war with the burgeoning nation of Israel. Following the unsuccessful Six-Day War of 1967, this land was occupied by Israel as a protection against aggression from Arab neighbors.
While I was still in Jerusalem, a young Israeli woman with whom I was discussing my plans to visit the West Bank said to me: “You must understand what some Israelis believe about settlements. They feel what they’re doing is no different from what you did founding your country. You took the land from Native Americans to do something better with it than they had. We Israelis, too, improve the land.”
But then when I was on the West Bank, a Palestinian challenged the Israeli claim that it was they who had made the desert bloom. “We had citrus growing in Gaza long before Zionism,” she said.
My West Bank visit took me to Ramallah, where a Palestinian Christian whose family lives across the border in Jerusalem told me she is only allowed into Jerusalem for Christmas and Easter. (I was reminded of East Berlin where I had been at the time that the Berlin Wall still stood and only the elderly East Germans were allowed to go to visit their families in the West for special celebrations.)
In Bethlehem, I paid a visit to an Arab refugee camp where the face of a 16-year-old boy was painted on the wall of his home. He had been shot and killed by Israeli soldiers for stone-throwing and is now the martyr of the camp — a refuse-strewn facility that has been home for decades to Palestinians displaced by Jewish settlers.
In the past, this anguish and anger has unfortunately resulted in incidents of violence. This has led to the building of a high wall between the West Bank and Israel.
When I left the West Bank, I passed the graffiti-covered wall. I was told that it seemed to have done some good. There have been no suicide bombings in Israel in the past two years.
Many of the secular Jews with whom I talked in Israel — descendants of the socialist founders of Israel — expressed their fear that there might never be peace in this troubled Holy Land unless there was one Jewish state and one Arab state. But they wondered if that could ever be, with the increasing political power of the Orthodox who are determinedly against this solution.
Among notable Israelis endorsing this two-state solution is the author Amos Oz, with whom I spoke. Was that really a possibility, I asked. There have been so many failed attempts at it.
“I live in a land of prophesy,” he said with a sigh, “but that is something I will not prophesy.”