Wafa’s parents thanked us, but I only felt deep shame (How I became an activist)

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A central function of this website is to pass along the stories of Americans who awakened to the issue and slowly took steps to become engaged. Pat Carmeli lives in Cazenovia, New York and is a member of Central New York Working for a Just Peace in Palestine and Israel.

I wasn’t born to be an activist.  I can even say that I sometimes resent the events in my life which have torn me away from common-day ignorance into the light of some understanding and compel me to speak out.  I arrived in Israel after making aliyah in the summer of 1992 – two kids, a dog and a cat in tow.  Catholic-school girl, recent convert to Judaism, makes aliyah so her Israeli husband can assist in the family business back home.  He was a student at New York Polytech when we met.  We married two years later, lived in Brooklyn and later upstate New York and had two kids. My commitment to reside abroad was for five years and I agreed to relocate.

What I knew then of Israel/Palestine can probably be summed up briefly as follows: There’s a lot of fighting  between Jews and Palestinians.  Obviously they are fighting because of their different religious beliefs, and of course, the Palestinians must resent the Jews for coming to their land and making it green and prosperous, the proverbial “land of milk and honey.”  Annoyed with the changing demographics, the Palestinians left in a hurry following the bad advice of their leaders after the 1947 UN vote for partition, despite the newer Jewish inhabitants begging them to stay and be friends. 

My first several years in Israel were spent acclimating, raising my kids, and having two more.  I remember beginning to take more notice of the political landscape when I was taking a Hebrew class and our instructor was very excited about the new peace talks between Rabin and Arafat.  Shortly thereafter, Rabin was murdered (1995) and the peace talks abruptly ended as those who’d inspired Rabin’s murder intended they would.  Sharon’s stroll through the Dome of the Rock (2000), which anyone could see was intended as nothing less than a provocation, led to the second intifada after IDF troops shot to kill the understandably angry rock-throwing protesters.  The more I paid attention to the unfolding events, the more I was beginning to understand the conflict. Consequently I began to see blood on my own hands as a voting citizen of both the US and Israel.  I could no longer claim to be a disinterested observer.
I can’t remember the date of the first demonstration I attended, but I do remember the circumstances.  Hundreds of homes were being demolished  in Gaza along the Egyptian border. I was so outraged that for the first time in my life, I had to do something.  I drove alone from our home in Caesarea to the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and with about fifty other protesters, stood chanting against the injustice which rendered many homeless. With eyes just beginning to open, my opinion of the conflict was changing drastically.  
I met a woman named Dorothy Naor, an American who’d made aliyah probably 40 years earlier and now was a staunch and outspoken critic of Israeli policies.  She asked for help transporting Wafa, a young Palestinian woman, from a West Bank village who was diagnosed with cancer and needed treatment in Israel. Wafa’s parents and siblings could rarely attend her treatments because they lacked permits from the Israeli military. They relied on others to transport their daughter. Sometime afterwards, I heard from Dorothy that the young woman had died and her family had expressed deep thanks for the help given their daughter in her time of need. Upon recollecting this episode, I am not filled with any sense of pride in my participation, but with a very deep sense of shame that the actions of my adopted country, Israel, directly caused this family’s hardship and that the US was totally complicit in enabling Israel’s actions.
I was fortunate to experience helping with olive harvests in the occupied West Bank.   I found it personally healing to spend an afternoon in solidarity with the village farmers and to demonstrate that there were Israelis and citizens of the US who stood with these farmers against injustice. Common language unnecessary/Solidarity obvious.  Together we participated in picking the olives or knocking them off their branches, gathering them in the blankets beneath the trees, and then partaking in refreshments in the shade. We were there not for the value of our labor, but as shields against threatening settlers.   I was like a small drop in the proverbial very large slowly-filling bucket for a just peace. At least, I felt that I was doing something to contribute.
I demonstrated against firing on ambulances, stayed overnight in a home targeted for demolition, and transported goods to the border of Gaza.  I was shot by a tear gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier at a peace demonstration and witnessed the beatings of many of my fellow protesters. I stood with Women in Black against the illegal occupation every Friday near my home. I was inspired by the humanity and bravery of Rachel Corrie and had to hear my neighbors defending the actions of the bulldozer operator who snuffed out her young life (2003). As a mother who didn’t want to provide the Israeli military with more fodder for their cannons, I decided to return to the US in 2004 before my 16-year-old daughter was obligated to serve.
Back home, I spoke out when I could to educate my neighbors about the realities of the conflict.  But it was after the atrocities of Operation Cast Lead which killed and injured thousands of Gazans, that members of our community in the central New York area were compelled to come together in shared purpose to form CNY Working for a Just Peace in Palestine and Israel.  Our group has hosted a variety of speakers including Anna Baltzer (Witness in Palestine), Professor Norman Finkelstein (This Time We Went Too Far), Bashir Bashir (co-editor of The Politics of Reconciliation in Multicultural Societies) , and Richard Becker (Palestine, Israel and the US Empire). We’ve held demonstrations outside our federal building to bring attention to the ongoing atrocities being funded by US tax dollars.  We write letters to the editor of our local newspaper to counter those AP articles which often show a very biased analysis of events, and we now liaise with local colleges and universities to bring speakers to their campuses.
As frustrated as we are by continuing events including the ongoing settlement building, the arrest of peace activists, the blockade of Gaza, and the constant distorting of media reports which depict Israel as the sole victim, our group is dedicated to seeing an end to the injustice.  As much as I miss the direct involvement I had when I lived in Israel, I see a greater use for my activism right here in the US.
We need to educate our neighbors and encourage them to become active participants for justice, to use the power of their votes to demand that our elected officials cease their unwavering support for Israel’s actions especially when faced with evidence of callous disregard for the lives and human rights of others.  We will stand with those in Israel and Palestine who yearn for peace and will not rest until it is achieved.

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