On the anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, I am reminded of a day in April 2008 when I was about to co-lead my first delegation to Israel-Palestine. My first trip to Israel/Palestine took place in March 2002 and it was from that trip that I documented the unheard voices which I recount in Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with both Sides.
I had the privilege of hearing Representative John Lewis, leader of the Black Caucus in the US Congress. During his interview at the Washington Cathedral, Congressman Lewis was asked how, in the face of the violence and persecution he suffered during the civil rights movement, he was able to practice non-violent resistance.
“For me, non-violent resistance was never a technique I pulled out of my pocket when I needed it,” he said. “Rather, it is a deeply held belief I have adopted as a way of life because I realized long ago that hatred is too heavy a burden to carry.”
Everywhere I traveled, whether I was in Israel proper or the occupied West Bank, I saw John Lewis. I saw him in the Palestinians who were obliged to walk through checkpoints on a daily basis to get to work or school. I saw John Lewis in every Palestinian who had been thrown off his land, had his house demolished and his three hundred year old olive trees uprooted to make room for illegal Israeli settlements. I saw him in the faces of the Palestinian people who maintained their dignity, their humanity and more importantly their sense of humor in the face of daily humiliations.
When I went through the Qalandia checkpoint at the entrance to Jerusalem from Ramallah in the West Bank, I encountered an angry Israeli soldier. When she demanded my papers in the harshest manner possible, and refused to understand that it was the metal in my knees that made the alarm go off, my first instinct was to respond to her crassness by screaming back at her. I quickly realized that those Palestinians around me simply shrugged off such treatment. Outside the checkpoint terminal I asked one woman how she managed to stay so calm. “It is very simple,” she replied. “No matter how badly the Israeli soldiers treat us, they will never be able to defeat us. Knowing that gives me my strength.”
Sderot is an economically depressed immigrant town that borders on the Gaza Strip. Until a recent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, its residents lived in fear of Qassam rockets coming down on their homes from Gaza. Frustrated because their government refused to negotiate with Hamas, the people of Sderot decided a citizen initiative was needed because they and their counterparts in Gaza shared a commonality of challenges that desperately needed to be addressed. Both communities lived in fear; both suffered economically. They faced bleak futures and their children were traumatized. The Sderot residents I spoke with acknowledged the presumptuousness of such a grandiose plan but felt they had no other choice.
“It’s up to us to make things work if we want to live in peace with our Palestinian neighbors,” said Erik, the leader of the group. He remembered a time when he and his Palestinian friends from Gaza swam together in the sea, when they played soccer and carried on as best friends. He wanted these same happy memories for his children.
Erik and his neighbors were from all political persuasions. It was unlikely in normal times that they would have ever spoken or acted with one voice. But act they did! To counter the shrinking food supplies in Gaza, they organized a convoy of huge dump trucks. Filled with food supplies, the trucks backed up to the wall on the Sderot side of Gaza. On the other side, the Gaza residents did the same thing. A conveyor belt was then used to transfer grain and rice from one side of the wall to the other.
“Anything is possible, said Erik, “when people are willing to work together to end the suffering and stabilize their lives.”
In the words of John Lewis, hatred is too heavy a burden to carry. A lesson we can all learn.
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