[Much Shorter] A Letter to The Post

Dear Washington Post Staff,

The illusions about Israel in our popular culture all came to a crashing end, for me, when I lived and worked in Bethlehem for eighteen months. I am not writing to tell you that the State of Israel is a supernatural root of evil; I believe Israel is a state making poor decisions that are illegal under international law and the United States is playing the part of an ‘enabling’ friend who helps perpetuate misbehavior. The occupation and its methods are unconscionable. Palestinian scholars called for the ASA’s boycott of Israel’s institutions, though not to hurt Israeli scholars but to highlight that academia in Israel is co-opted by an ethnocentric, violent agenda, advancing because of right-wing political coalitions in the Knesset that rely on fear appeals and bombast performances. The settlement enterprise has been, is, and will be a hobble for Palestine and a stain on Israel. Though the problematic nature of a ‘Jewish State’ will remain, Israel needs to at least respect the movement to desist from building settlement blocks in the West Bank, withdrawing its military chokehold. More stall tactics will not bode well for them, economically. Thank you for receiving my letter.

Sincerely,

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An Open Letter to an American

[Dear Respectable Church-Person],

Thank you so much for your comments. It seems, to me, that we are on a journey with the same issue but from different angles, in different amounts, and at different points in our lives. The fact that you engage me in a conversation about the situation in the Holy Land is more encouraging than hearing only things I ‘want to hear’. You actually touched on some important issues to think about.

Beyond the propaganda tools that might be in force I feel like there is another force at work in all of us: the golden mean. In most situations, taking a middle position is just plain smart. It’s much rarer that a situation gets enough out of control that we find ourselves over-riding that guideline to match the disproportion of the situation. It creates a challenge of proportions — how much do we pressure one side or the other? Activists can drift entirely and devotedly to one side and we know that is not wise. I lived out of my outrage and am focusing, this Advent, on living from my compassion instead. I confess it with my lips: I was so upset, it was hard to gain clarity the past two weeks.

The temptation is to look at the death-toll: there were at least thirty Palestinian deaths for every one Israeli … but what if that one were from our family? We also know, through Jesus, that it is in God’s shepherding character to leave 99 sheep to look for one. If there are disproportionate portrayals of the conflict it is, indeed, because the conflict is so disproportional. However, your compassion for Israelis in fear and desiring a peaceful solution is not at all misplaced. It’s exactly the perspective I need or I might be tempted to blindness.

We are not completely blind about Hamas. Actually, we met a physician who just left Gaza two days ago and she compared Hamas to the Congolese government: receiving massive aide (from Qatar, in Hamas’s case) but not distributing it well to the poorest people. Hamas is under constraints but it is a legitimate criticism. As Islamists, they are not ideal for women’s participation, nor adept at working in pluralist or secular settings. In short, I wish they were not the prevailing force in Gaza and I believe under different circumstances they would be out-competed by other parties. At the same time, the “terrorist” brand from the US government seems misleading because it associates them with international terror-groups like Al-Qaeda rather than placing them in a category with small, inept governments which they resemble more closely. They have their tactics and rhetoric to blame, of course. The IRA was similarly branded, though they now have an uneasy truce in Northern Ireland. As a pacifist, I am philosophically opposed to pipe-bombs and rockets.

Yet if Hamas set the proverbial fire-in-the-theater then it was the Israeli & Western media who yelled “FIRE!” instead of reaching for an extinguisher. We were sitting in the West Bank smirking at the coverage of the Tel Aviv bus-bombing. No one died but it floated to the top of the headlines — yet people were and still are dying in Palestine from Israel’s excessive military force. The Western media pushed the non-fatal bombing unusually hard — that creates fear in Israel and creates a problem of proportion for the rest of the world: people in the US and Canada begin to ‘feel’ that Israel is in greater peril. The Hamas arsenal is notoriously inaccurate, ineffective, and statistically unlikely to hurt anyone. So, I was left feeling ambivalent about the numerous public service announcement on Israeli television — do they promote safety or increase the perception of danger? When people live so constantly in fear, it can put viciousness in their hearts. It it heart-breaking.

My final conclusion on rockets is that they have nothing to do with a solution: neither their presence nor their absence seems to make a difference to bringing dignity back into the region. Hamas cannot be the heroes their people need. Israel will only strengthen them by continuing in violence.

The problem of proportion is second only to the problem of responsibility. Of course I can denounce Hamas, for good reasons, but I want to take the moral high-ground with a purpose. We, as a United States citizens, have no stake in Hamas. Nothing Hamas does has come in contact with our tax dollars and both the UM church and the government do not endorse them. For me, as someone who believes they would be defeated in a free-democracy, I feel sometimes like my denouncements of Hamas could distract from the conditions under which they hold power. Those conditions are Israel’s responsibility: they came from the occupation and now from the blockade. Since military aide comes for the United States to Israel, I feel responsible for raising awareness and changing our culture so that the blockade and occupation can end and peace can be achieved. The dream was closest when Prime Minister Rabin made the Oslo accords in 1994 but subsequent Israeli governments have taken the region further from a solution and now the middle-East is changing rapidly. This is why I have felt like I needed to weight my criticism of Israel more heavily. Again, how heavily is right?

So, we have a problem of proportion and a problem of responsibility when we talk about this conflict. I thought Hamas’s best tactical move (disappointly) was to continue firing rockets to get more global attention (I hoped nobody would be hit) but since they did not end the blockade with their rockets it’s fair to say the tactic failed for them and I am edified. It succeeded for the Fatah government as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) made a push for Observer State Status at the United Nations and won by a land-slide; we think that the world saw the PLO’s legal push as a middle-road. Only 9 countries voted against them. Some of the 45 abstaining countries said they would vote “yes” if Palestine promised not to pursue a case against Israel in the international criminal court. I think pursuing that case is the best thing possible, in spite of the short-term careers of politicians in Britain and elsewhere. There really have been many war crimes committed here since 1948 and I fear that by failing to lower the gavel we leave space for others to raise the gun. The over-do case is akin to cleaning a closet — there will be a bigger mess before things get better. Yet I believe the needed peace is locked in that closet. They needed to establish a truth-telling commission in South Africa, whose work is not yet over.

I do my best and try to keep learning. Thank you for your message of peace and your prayers.

Sincerely,

[Daniel Xavier]

An Open Letter about recent Palestine-conflicts

Mr. Ms. [Respectable-Person],

I know you are on a journey with the Palestinian question — and I have known. It’s not an easy journey. My journey has been trying to develop the maturity to be helpful on that journey. It’s a process that I have not finished. I know it: I only, just now, saw that my primary emotion has been outrage. The outrage is justified — but my primary emotion? It should be compassion, not anger. So, I admit that I was living in the former emotion. I don’t want to cause you distress but sometimes we feel bothered during our journey when our frameworks are challenged. You even anticipated how I might challenge you — that says something. I am going to do my best to challenge your framework in a different way.

I am and have been a pacifist. I shy away from having to reiterate that I condemn rockets at much as bombs because I feel like I should not have to do that. The solution to this conflict has never been in bombs or rockets — that would be easier. No, the solution is in laws and in boycott campaigns: in less glorious channels. That’s the point I am going to make today:

The air of Hamas legitimacy is an obvious mismatch with the terrorist image. That’s because terrorism is not an appropriate label: they are militants fighting on a particular territory. I am pacifist so I don’t believe in militarism as a long-term strategy — I also don’t believe it solves problems for Israel. However, I think we can draw a distinction between Hamas and Israel: Israel is supposed to be part of the United Nations whereas Hamas is a faction whose popularity hinges on resisting Israel in violent ways. If there were a legal channel to challenge occupation in Gaza, rather than a suffocating blockade, then Hamas would be what they are in the West Bank: a second or third party behind PLO member parties. I hold Israel responsible not just for escalating but for creating an environment of desperation via the blockade and then, at their leisure, escalating more. We hold children and adults to different standards about using their fists: when an adult uses force, that’s considered assault and it’s a criminal charge.

The power difference is also in-line with that analogy. I can feel compassion for Israeli parents but their fear is not because of actual Hamas capabilities but because of their supposed capabilities, as presented by Israeli and Western media. Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense-system is more than a match for rockets, according to their own leaders’ boasting. Those rockets are little better than fireworks and they killed 5 during the entire eight-day conflict. God help those families. Still, the death-toll on Israel’s account (just from those eight days) has climbed over 150 — and reports indicate that it inches upward even after the cease-fire. Hamas is complaining to Egypt rather than sending rockets because they already declared their petty ‘victory’. If I did not berate Hamas it is because they lack real control and I have no financial stake in their killings. US aide dollars go to Israel so I feel a sense of collective responsibility for those killings. Demonstrators in the West Bank who never raised arms have also been killed, imprisoned without warrants, and generally abused for the duration of my stay. Hamas is certainly not GOOD for Palestine’s future… but it would be a distraction from the real issue to keep-up the sense of false balance. It’s not a matter of guilt but of responsibility: the powerful party must be held more accountable. I will not waste breath on Hamas, in praise or condemnation.

I believe Hamas was put in a tactical position where they could be expected to use violence. I say with some sadness that they made their only rational move. The ultimate solution is not by rockets nor by stopping the rockets. Rockets have no part in the solution, by their presence of absence; it’s a matter of money-trails and legal battles. The best way to under-cut both the Likud (Israeli party) and Hamas is to support the PLO’s statehood strategies in potent ways. The Palestinian Authority government, despite all the criticisms aimed at them for being ‘collaborators’, have defied Israel by applying for Observer State status (similar to the Vatican), getting nay-votes from only nine countries — sadly, the US and Canada are among the pariahs. Forty-five nations abstained, which was the politically ‘correct’ thing to do… and well over 100 voted in favor of upgrading Palestine’s status. I want the PLO to do exactly what some countries in Europe do NOT want them to do: pursue a successful case against Israel in the International Criminal Court and gain some restitution for the Palestinian people. It will be an unpopular move in Israel… but I don’t think Israelis realize what peril they are really in, right now. They are losing legitimacy quickly. The legal wound might seem terrible, at first, but if that restitution were significant enough it would under-cut Hamas and simultaneously collapse Likud’s coalition.

Where we fail to lower the gavel, someone else raises a gun.

But to answer your challenge: the Palestinian to Israeli death-tolls compare as 30:1. If I failed to meet that ratio, then I am guilty. Did I fail to speak a sentence against Hamas for every thirty I spoke against Israel? It could be. I recognize that I am sympathetic with Palestinian resistance. It may very well be. For the record, I never want Hamas to gain permanent control of any part of Palestine. Were Palestine united and free, I doubt they could; fundamentalism grows under pressure and fades when exposed to the wonders of life. So, I say what I believe will move us closer to ending the occupation. I try not to hold Americans personally responsible but we are collectively responsible for the misused aide, for the vetoes at the UN, for putting muscle behind and apartheid government, and for allowing delusions to abound. Look at the UN vote: isn’t there something that we grew up not knowing?

Cordially,
–[Daniel Xavier]

A Bridge and a Baptism

I was in the footsteps of Mary & Joseph, pacing along Star Street to my favorite barber. His shop is nestled into an alcove on that fateful street in the antique narrows of Bethlehem. I greeted him in simple Arabic (“مرحباً” ) and he welcomed me to his chair.

                Why do you not have more Israeli friends if you are here so long?

 

From that chair I admired his shop, as he brushed and oiled the electric clippers. There was a clock with an embroidery face, cacti growing in tiny pots, scissors bathing in fragrant alcohol, newspaper clippings taped to the mirrors, a faded pink towel by the sink,

                Do you have plans to visit the territories? Jenin? Hebron? Bethlehem?

and snapshots of his baby grandson scattered around a portrait of his father. He commented to another gentleman that I stayed with the Zoughbi family, cracking a warm smile. He gestured to the clippers and I nodded: (“قصير, من فضلك ”). Short, please.

                What do your parents do for jobs? What is their phone number?

Wavy, buckskin locks feel free to the floor in piles. They grew in Ireland, through Jordan, across Asia to Hong Kong, and washed in Filipino waterfalls before coming to rest in Palestine. I would not let anyone cut my hair or shave my beard. I was waiting for a special day:

                You want to get into Israel, so tell me the truth right now.

 

the day I crossed the Sheikh Hussein bridge.

* * *

Last Monday I sat outside of the Israeli embassy in Amman for four hours of pressure-cooker meditation. I prayed for every person I could imagine, and not myself, to detoxify the concoction of fear and impatience gushing through my arteries. My passport returned to me with a cloud of excuses but no visa stamp. Two days later I called Yousef the taxi-driver and breathed slowly for two hours as he drove me to the Northern Bridge. We drank coffee and he mused about each town we passed in his native Jordan. I took another deep breath, walked up to the counter at the Jordanian border station and presented my passport. They charged me an eight-dinar exit tax, asked three questions, and said “okay, bye-bye now.”

A pathetically short bus-ride separates one nation’s reception lobby from the other’s. Mere meters from Jordan, where they sent me through the X-ray machine with my belt still on (beeping all the way) is Israel, where security personnel circle a bulky piece of luggage like a pride of lions. I brandished my best idiotic smile as the security guard pulled me from the herd. In five minutes I was holding my pants up by hand while my jacket, shoes, every article in my pockets, and both bags were going through the machine. Then they reversed the conveyor and looked again. Then they rotated both bags in every conceivable direction to run additional scans.

Two guards informed me I was undergoing a security check. One asked me why I looked nervous and I laughed and said I was embarrassed he could see my underwear (for the second time). When guards say I look nervous it is not an observation but a wish: hoping for a defensive reaction. In December I took the bait and became flustered but these days I giggle and play coy. Once the peep-show was over, I went into the back room for the grand exhibition and story-telling festival. Every pocket was swabbed, every box opened, and sunscreen bottles uncapped as I watched my luggage be gutted. “Are you an actor?” said the  short one with thick glasses. Yes (kinda); I said it helped make English lessons fun for the children in Haifa (lie). I was a substitute teacher, that’s why I carry colored-pencils and dolphin stickers (truth). Those envelopes are addressed to Jerusalem because my friend has a P.O. box there but I don’t know why (lie).  I am learning Arabic, yes (truth). My parents helped me pay for this trip (lie). No, my local church did not send me (truth). The embassy staff told me I did not need the visa ahead of time (half of them); here is paperwork from the ministry of interior in Haifa (a copy). Fiction and non-fiction braided into one.

Repacking bags after a search is a time of quiet, personal privilege. One of the seven sleuths attending to me asked me where my passport was. “I don’t know,” I said coolly. To me, every second at the bridge undenied was a miniature triumph: I spend their time and resources improving my discipline. I parked my bags, sat down, and re-entered the prayer exercise developed at the embassy. I devoted most of my energy to keeping a disconnect between thoughts and physique, sitting in dull tranquility while my emotions seethed for six hours. I literally commanded my body not to shiver. Guards came from the office at intervals to question me and probe for contradictions in my story. By that time I was intentionally staring at a book of Mark Twain stories, watching them with my peripheral vision and looking upward (with a smile) only when they were within two meters. I caught glimpses of Israelis being human beings, drinking Coca-Cola and teasing each other. One with straight hair and narcotic, sapphire eyes almost broke me:

                “You want to get into Israel, so tell me the truth right now.”

My faith in humanity almost ignited. Over nine months of service, I had finally learned to see the guards as people, doing the best they can, worthy of respect and love. After 13 weeks of exile, though, I know that the system which employs them is fundamentally sick. I looked past the lady and saw her role: a guard slaying a maverick. “Jousting” at the bridge is a ‘shoot-the-moon’, ‘all-chips-in’ level of maneuver – epitomized when I pulled a Palestinian flag pin out of my pocket and said, nonchalantly, “oh, the kids gave me this…” Lying felt disgusting but relenting meant failure. I held my integrity in dissonant suspense. I was a beast wrapped in a machine, having the best day of its dystopian life.

The same guard who discovered my stickers invited me to come into the food court under her supervision. She had a name: Roz. She smiled sweetly at me and told me to put my money away when I tried to pay for my soda. I stopped myself from admiring her long curly hair and splashes of freckles; I needed to be perfectly in-character. I visualized myself as a blonde Sean Connery: stirred but not shaken, cool but not frigid. I ate my tuna sandwich with deliberate bites and well-timed sips of orange soda. I had my own sapphire eyes to flash in this masquerade, dressed cunningly as a hippie-seminarian who works with children. I did stroke my beard and throw a few glances toward Roz but my attention was on my primary interrogator, emerging through the double-doors and striding to the counter, then back again with a Red Bull in her hand. Our gaze did not meet. I knew exactly where I was: a short sprint from the Promised Land but several steel doors away from my passport. I was no fool. I followed Roz back into the lobby and resumed my stake-out.

“You have one week to renew at the ministry of interior; do you understand?” (I did: perfectly)

The Galilee palms were bathed in golden, evening sunshine. I overheard to men speaking to each other in Arabic. I asked where I might get a ride to Jerusalem and they offered me a ride, if I agreed to ride with them to Jericho while they visited a friend. The Arabic name for Jerico ( الأرحا) means “The Scent”. I smelled a sweet opportunity. I felt almost human again but I was slow to relax my guard. When I learned they were going to بيت زفافا I asked them to drop me at Tantur”
“Tantur? That is almost in Bethlehem – you said you wanted to go to Jerusalem–”
“Yonni,” said the other, understanding my dilemma, “it’s between Jerusalem and Bethlehem–halas…”

* * *

The barber misunderstood and lathered my face for a shave; I didn’t correct him. I love the feeling of his straight-razor sweeping across my chin. He is the only person who has ever done this, other than me, and his shaves are so expert — refreshing. We walked over to the sink to wash away the excess. Leaning before him, it felt like a baptismal ritual. As I toweled off, he held his index finger up and signaled for me to sit down: the after-shave cologne. It left a sweet, cleansing sting on my exposed features. To my surprise, I was not so baby-faced. With all the camouflage taken away, I saw a grown-man in the mirror and I hoped this one would have the chance to speak frankly, truthfully, and freely from that moment forward.

Just a picture from the barber's.