People often ask me why I am part of a team to organize a U.S. Boat to Gaza that will be sailing this month with the next International Flotilla to break the siege of Gaza. They often make clear they are asking because I am an American Jew, whose family survived the Holocaust with some surviving family members ending up in Israel. And my only answer is: How could I not?
My parents raised me with stories about what happened in Germany and their family’s escape. I came to see that Israel represented for them a safe haven should there be another attempt at annihilating Jews. And yet, at the same time, they worried it was not so safe a haven given the animosity and physical threats and violence in the area.
But no one ever mentioned the displacement of 750,000 Arabs that was the result of the creation of Israel. I vaguely knew there were people living there, but I was never curious about who these “others” were. All I took away from my family’s history and the atrocities endured was that this should never happen again to anyone, anywhere.
Growing up in the ‘60s, I became active in opposition to the war in Vietnam, the anti-apartheid struggle and the women’s rights movement and later became involved in opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a social worker, I was focused on social justice issues but never questioned the relationship between the U.S. and Israel and their policies regarding Palestinians.
Then came the war on Gaza and a real political awakening for me.
Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report were the catalysts. In November 2008, the ceasefire ended: Israeli soldiers broke it in a cross-border raid killing six members of Hamas and, in response, rockets were launched into Israel. Israel, fortified with American weaponry, attacked the people of Gaza. Approximately 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed compared to 13 Israelis. Gaza was pulverized. Judge Richard Goldstone and his team did a thorough report of the causalities on both sides. There was no doubt that the people of Gaza were disproportionally affected.
Right after the invasion in Gaza I realized I could no longer remain silent. I became one of the organizers of a group called Jews Say No! in New York City. We wanted to speak out and to make clear that the Israeli government did not speak in our name as they claimed. I began reading about the occupation, settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the building of the separation wall, Jewish-only streets for Israeli settlers, special identity papers for Palestinian citizens of Israel (one step away from wearing a yellow star) and the other indignities endured by the people of Palestine on a daily basis. And I saw the total collusion by the U.S. government – its unconditional support no matter what the Israeli government did, including giving them 30 billion dollars over a 10-year period for weaponry (F16s, Apache helicopters, white phosphorous, Caterpillar bulldozers used to destroy homes in Bedouin encampments) used ruthlessly against the Palestinians. This was intolerable for me.
I understand the fears and frustrations of Israelis being fired upon by rockets and the resultant deaths and injuries. But what about the thousands of Palestinians being killed and whose homes, schools, hospitals, farms, mills, factories and infrastructure are being destroyed? What about a people living under a brutal occupation who are being denied the right to live with dignity in their own homeland?
The siege and blockade of Gaza continue. The Israeli government controls the land, sea and air of this small area (25 miles long and roughly six miles wide) where 1.6 million people live. There has been no movement in recent years unless Israel allowed it. (Egypt’s partial opening of the Rafah gate to human traffic, though not to commerce, is a positive sign if it is allowed to grow). Most people cannot travel in or out of Gaza because of continuing restrictions, 61 percent of the population is food insecure, the unemployment rate is around 45 percent, one of the highest in the world, and exports remain banned with the exception of limited items like strawberries and carnations for European markets. Gaza is called an open-air prison even by England’s Prime Minister, David Cameron.
Given all this, I can remain silent no longer. Every day Palestinians are confronting the Israeli government at the wall, at check points, at demolition sites. They risk their lives. Like the Freedom Rides our boat is sailing to call attention to the illegal occupation and siege of Gaza.
My humanity and my Jewishness – Jewish history – demand my being part of an organizing effort to end the inhumane treatment of the Palestinians. The U.S. Boat, called The Audacity of Hope, will sail in late June to Gaza as part of the Freedom Flotilla 2-Stay Human. We will be approximately 50 individuals from across the U.S. committed to non-violence, human rights and freedom and justice for the Palestinian people.
To date, tens of thousands of individuals and over 80 organizations have endorsed this U.S. campaign and each day more sign on to travel with us in name. We travel in peace for justice, and I am proud to be part of this international effort.
Jane Hirschmann is a member of Jews Say No!, a psychotherapist from New York City, co-author of three books, and one of the organizers of the U.S. Boat to Gaza. More information about the The Audacity of Hope is available at www.ustogaza.org.
UPDATE: Original headline on this post said that Hirschmann is on the boat. She is not.