What About Palestine? A Statement on “Israel At Fifty”

Against the Current, No. 74, May/June 1998

The Michigan Committee on Jerusalem

This statement is initiated by the Michigan Committee on Jerusalem, an intercultural and interfaith Michigan group concerned with issues of the future of Jerusalem and peace in Palestine/Israel. The Committee is seeking signatures and endorsements from clergy and community leaders. For further information on the struggle around Jerusalem we suggest that readers contact the American Committee on Jerusalem, 4201 Connecticut Avenue, Suite 302, Washington DC 20008, Phone (202) 237-0215.

IN APRIL AND May, we will witness widespread celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. This occasion will be widely covered in local and national media, with numerous tributes to Israel’s military and economic successes. Mayors from all across the United States have been invited by Ehud Olmert, the Israeli mayor of “united” Jerusalem, to attend festivities there.

This 50th anniversary is a highly one-sided celebration. It is particularly important today, as difficult as this may be in the midst of the official euphoria surrounding “Israel at 50,” to call upon all our communities in the Detroit area to hear the voices of those who are silenced as clearly as those that are widely broadcast and amplified.

The founding of the State of Israel is presented to us only as the noble and profound national redemption of a people who had suffered centuries of persecution–culminating in the greatest crime of modern history, the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Europe.

Yet there remains a still-suppressed part of this story, the experience of several million people for whom the 50 years from the founding of the State of Israel to the present time have brought not Redemption but Disaster.

Indeed, new Israeli historians have provided details of the well-documented fact that Israel’s military victories in the 1948 War of Independence were accompanied by large-scale ethnic cleansing—the expulsion of roughly 750,000 peaceful Arab Palestinians (and thousands more in the 1967 war), never to be allowed to return to the “Jewish State.”

What matters today is not only to understand this tragic history but even more important, to understand the present-day facts that are destroying the possibilities of peace for both Palestinians and Israelis.

•The Israeli state is advertised as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Yet this “democratic” state, which proclaims Jerusalem as its “permanent and undivided capital,” has systematically deprived the Arab population of East Jerusalem of housing permits or land for growth. Tens of thousands of Arab residents of Jerusalem are threatened with the loss of residency rights in the city of their birth.

•Meanwhile over 165,000 Jewish Israelis have moved into the heart of East Jerusalem and into settlements built on confiscated Palestinian land surrounding the city. The obvious and systematic intent of Israeli governments of the last thirty years (and especially Olmert’s current municipal administration) is to turn Jerusalem from a multi-national and multi-communal into an effectively “for Jews only” city. A few Muslim and Christian religious shrines will remain, but the Palestinian population will be marginalized and encouraged to leave. (The Christian population of Jerusalem in particular has dropped from 27% in 1967 to less than 1% today.)

•Since March 1993, Jerusalem has been closed to Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the West Bank and Gaza. Their access to medical centers, economic and cultural activities, and access to holy sites in Jerusalem has been curtailed. East Jerusalem businesses have suffered an 805 drop. Hundreds of shops have closed in bankruptcy.

•Within this same “democratic” Israeli state, over 90% of the land (and even 50% of the land in the Occupied West Bank) has been designated “state land,” administered by the Jewish National Fund, which by law can be leased only to Jews (whether Israeli citizens or not), but not to non-Jews even when they are Israeli citizens! Not only does this discriminatory structure create a semi-apartheid system inside Israel, where overcrowded Arab villages suffer alongside prosperous Jewish-only towns; it also makes impossible the creation of a viable independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Undoubtedly the desire for security and a homeland in the wake of the unspeakable catastrophe of Nazi extermination was widespread among the Jewish people. No one who understands the Holocaust doubts the authenticity and legitimacy of this yearning. Indeed, this explains why Israel has been widely celebrated, and not only by the Jewish community.

It should not surprise anyone, however, that in the conditions outlined here the prospects for peace that seemed bright a few years ago have turned to despair. This is bringing new bitterness between the Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian societies, and giving a frightening rise to fanaticism in the name of religion within both of them.

It is not for us, thousands of miles away, to decide for Palestinians and Israelis how to arrive at a solution of peace and justice. We must recognize, however, the bottom-line reality that political independence and security must be enjoyed by both Israelis and Palestinians. Our responsibility at this moment, in our own country, is to help remove barriers to peace. We therefore issue the following appeals:

TO ALL OUR COMMUNITIES, we ask that in place of the one-sided celebration of the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel, we listen to the voices and experiences of those who have been and are being dispossessed, and who need understanding and solidarity.

TO OUR POLITICAL LEADERS, we request a respectful but firm decline to invitations to join the celebrations of “united” Jerusalem, until that city is truly free for all its people.

TO OUR LEGISLATORS, we insist that you stop spending U.S. tax dollars that subsidize Israeli settlements and the continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. We also demand that the attempt to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem be stopped.

ATC 74, May-June 1998