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Brookline, Massachusetts

From Brookline to Jerusalem

Dennis Fox

January 6 , 2005

Note: This column also appeared in my blog. Blog entries related to my trip to Israel/Palestine were then excerpted and published as an article using the same title in Publio Magazine (September 2005). Publio's cover photo was one I took on the West Bank.

Over the past few years, my views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have progressed in the absence of recent Middle East experience. Some Brookline residents have claimed that's reason enough to dismiss my criticisms of Israeli policy.

Today I write from Jerusalem. It's reassuring to see that my political analysis is supported rather than diminished by being close enough to get blown up by a suicide bomber or shot by an Israeli soldier. Of course, I've only been here two weeks, and will be home in three more. Some will insist that's not long enough to see what's really going on, but I doubt they'd change their mind no matter how long I stayed.

It's been 32 years since my last visit to Israel. Since then, the Occupation has progressed along with the violence that maintains it and the violence that it spawns in turn. My discussions with old friends and new contacts, my solo travels and my meetings organized by Faculty For Israeli-Palestinian Peace, have not reduced my pessimism. But I am relieved to find hope and optimism on both sides of the Green Line.

In Brookline, despite our town's openness to discussing just about everything, Israel's treatment of Palestinians is glaringly ignored. Efforts to raise the issue by Brookline Peaceworks and Visions of Peace with Justice in Israel/Palestine (both of which I belong to) frequently fail to reach mainstream audiences. It's a relief, thus, to experience Israel's broader spectrum of political debate. Here, advocating an end to the Occupation marks one as neither a traitor nor an anti-Semite.

The real advantage of coming here is not the greater exposure to Israeli opinion, which we can easily ascertain in Brookline, but to Palestinian opinion. Pro-Palestinian voices exist in Brookline and Boston, but pro-Israel pressure makes it hard to hear them. We can find details on the Internet, but doing so takes more initiative than simply absorbing whatever it is the mainstream media decide to tell us.

Israel's claim that security mandates all its policies seems unreasonably broad when standing on Palestinian ground. Being dwarfed by the Separation Wall is a different experience than reading about it in the Boston Globe. I've been on a 20-minute drive in the West Bank that lasted two hours because of delays at Israeli checkpoints. I've met with a psychiatrist and social worker at a center that treats Palestinians tortured in Israeli jails, and I've toured refugee camps where Israel's collective punishments leaves innocent families homeless. From Hebron to Bethlehem to Ramallah to Nablus, in small villages and in East Jerusalem, the stories are depressingly familiar.

Imagine Brookline as a West Bank town next to an Israeli Boston. Getting to our downtown job three miles away might sometimes be quick, if the soldiers at the Fenway checkpoint are unusually lenient and the walk across the Fens is unhindered by rain and mud. Often, though, seemingly arbitrarily, the checkpoint will hold us back for hours, sometimes for so long we can't get to get to work at all, or to our classes at Boston University, or to our Longwood pediatrician. A movie, a Red Sox game, a dinner with friends all become impossible.

Even worse, Israeli barriers and checkpoints don't just prevent Palestinians from entering Israel. There are also internal checkpoints. Palestinians in villages can't routinely reach their nearby urban jobs or universities or other appointments. It's commonly said here that any suicide bomber can reach Israel through back roads. It's ordinary residents whose lives are made untenable.

So where's the hope and optimism? In every West Bank city and town my group has visited, residents are focused on this weekend's election to replace Yasser Arafat. The expected new Palestinian Authority President is Mahmoud Abbas, whose campaign posters are everywhere and who has firmly called for an end to violence. One Palestinian after another tells us they hope the election will spark lasting peace and a return to normality -- a hope, one former Israeli ambassador insists, that Israeli public opinion shares as well.

Two speakers have told us they think the election euphoria reflects over-optimism, because Israel won't likely agree to the just solution Palestinians expect Abbas to deliver. Yet to say there's over-optimism is itself a sign of hope. Sitting in Jerusalem, that's good enough for today.

See my blog for more reflections about this trip to Israel and Palestine.

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Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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