Generally I’m not optimistic about the Jewish community’s ability to come to terms with the tragedy of the Palestinian experience; I think ethnocentrism hobbles our community, and at this stage in history, Jews need to reach out to others for leadership. But though I can be harsh, I am also a proud Jew, and I know that there are some Jewish leaders who grasp the full moral dimension of what has befallen our community; and I want to tell you about hearing a Boulder pediatrician named Wendy Zerin speak about a recent trip to Israel and Palestine.
Zerin appeared yesterday morning at a panel on “The Crisis in East Jerusalem” at the Rabbis for Human Rights of North America conference in New York. The conference was hosted at the Jewish Federation building on E. 59th Street– i.e., it was ensconced in the bulwark of the official Jewish community.
The daughter of a rabbi and a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, Zerin is obviously a spiritual person. When she was young, she had been an exchange student in Israel. But she hadn’t been back to the country for 15 years, partly because she was avoiding the bad news.
In that time, she said plainly, she “acquired a great deal of ignorance.” And then she went there in October with a group organized by Rabbis for Human Rights.
“I’m not an expert on the situation but what I can offer are my impressions of a 10 day whirlwind trip that was heartwrenching, awe-inspiring, amazing, the whole range of emotion. East Jerusalem is rather hard. Maybe because it blindsided me. And I will cop to my own ignorance of the situation there.”
Zerin told us that the blindsiding began as soon as they got to Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. For they saw a crowd surrounding a car, and a settler in a yellow shirt talking to a police officer. The man had tried to run over a Palestinian. “He tried to kill my cousin,” a Palestinian man was shouting. The Palestinian neighbors had stopped his car when the settler tried to drive away.
And it was explained to the visiting rabbis’ group that nothing would happen to the settler.
“That was a shock to my system. The impunity. That writ large or multiplied a thousand fold, speaks to the situation there.”
The group then met Palestinians who were living in tents on the street after they had been evicted from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers. As they stood talking, the settlers walked past. Zerin showed us pictures of the tent and its denizens in a clinical no-holds-barred manner.
“Something I was not prepared for was the brazenness and the audacity. It was so out there in the open, and that was a shock to me…
“The other thing that haunts me is how easy it would be not to be aware of this situation. You visit Israel and have no ideas of the reality as it is experienced… on a daily basis, by the people who are living there. That is with me… the human price. The cost to the psyche. The humiliation, the indignity, the homelessness…
“All of a sudden his children is sleeping on the street. What that does to them– and what it does to me as a parent.”
Since returning, Zerin has hosted some gatherings in her house, small, so as to bear witness to what she saw.
“I’m not an authority. I can’t engage in debate. I will lose. … For those who might be able to see through my eyes and be moved as I am, that’s what I can offer.”
You won’t lose, Dr. Zerin, please get over that.
She said she will take further action, maybe develop expertise. “I don’t know how it plays out.”
Lynn Gottllieb was in the room. She is an activist rabbi, and she said, “What you see here is just the tip of the iceberg that’s been going on for 60 years. He [the evicted Palestinian] is one of millions of people who have had that experience.”
Gottlieb said that Jews have to think about how we define settler, and insider and outsider. In all her journeys to Israel and Palestine over many, many years, “I’ve seen the exact same situation going on, and we are just waking up to it now. It is very sobering. But I don’t want people to think, this is a new situation. It is not.”