Olof Palme was a Swedish politician, statesman and prime minister from 1969 until his assassination in 1986. The Olof Palme International Center, which works to promote democracy and peace, has just awarded its annual prize to Dr. Mitri Raheb, Pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and to Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, “for their courageous and indefatigable fight against occupation and violence, and for a future Middle East characterized by peaceful coexistence and equality for all. By their work they both bring a ray of hope to a conflict that has plagued and continues to plague millions of people and that endangers world peace.”
A pastor in the Lutheran church, Dr. Raheb’s message to the young generation of Palestinians is a simple one: “We want you to live, not die, for Palestine.” The author of several books, he is also founder of Dar al Kalima University College of Arts and Culture and is co-founder and President of Bright Stars of Bethlehem. “Our hope,” he says, “is that our people, who admire the stars, will dare to look up and dream, that they will believe in goals to strive for, and develop a new sense of hope, community, beauty and faith.”
Gideon Levy is a rare voice of courage in an Israeli media environment generally supine toward the political establishment. Since 1988, he has written the “Twilight Zone” column for the Israeli daily Haaretz, documenting the myriad cruelties inflicted on the Palestinian people under occupation. In his latest book The Punishment of Gaza, Levy utters phrases that by his own admission are considered “insane” by most of his compatriots. He likens Israel to an addict who lives off the financial aid from the USA in order to feed its ‘occupation’ addiction.
CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), a pro-Israeli watchdog group, lambasts Levy for many of his remarks especially when he promotes the economic boycott against Israel. “Boycott was very effective in South Africa…the regime of the West Bank and Gaza is an apartheid regime. What is it if not apartheid when one people does not possess anything, not resources or rights. And I ask you, why is it legitimate to boycott South Africa and it’s not legitimate to do it against Israel? For me, as an Israeli, a call for boycott is problematic but I can tell you that you have to shake Israel because it needs someone to save it from its own hands.”
Each of these men represents what is best about the majority of courageous Palestinians and Israelis who work nonviolently against the Israeli occupation. I met many of them on my first trip there in March 2002 and I compiled their voices in Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides.
And like Gideon Levy, my criticism of Israel was a slow process. In fact, long before I visited Jerusalem and the West Bank for the first time, my opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shifted several times. I attribute this metamorphosis in large part to the fourteen years I lived in Beirut. Between 1969—when I moved there as a self-absorbed young American—to 1983, when I was forced to leave because of civil war—I went from de facto supporter of Israel to having sympathy for the Palestinians. I became embarrassed at the extent of my own ignorance and set out on a life-long journey—which remains very much a work in progress to understand one thing properly—and the Middle East was the obvious choice. From my studies it became clear that the most stable times in this region had occurred when the inhabitants adhered most closely to the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.’ However, whenever extremism, fanaticism or fundamentalism raises its obdurate head, the Golden Rule is quickly set aside, the bloodshed begins and human rights and dignity are pushed aside.
I think Olof Palm said it best: “Democracy is a question of human dignity and human dignity is political freedom. It is the right to freely express opinion and the right to be allowed to criticize and form opinions. Human dignity is the right to health, work, education and social welfare. Human dignity is the right and the practical possibility to shape the future with others. These rights are not reserved for a select group within a society. They are the rights of all people.”
Get more insights in my book, Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides.
The book is available for purchase here: