Israeli soldiers fire tear gas in a West Bank village in January 2013 (Photo: AFP)
Like many Penn students this summer, I, too, traveled to Palestine/Israel. I brought back a cardboard Israeli bullet canister (it looks like a toilet paper roll) that I picked up off the ground among many others and scattered teargas canisters in the West Bank community of Bil’in. The teargas canisters were manufactured in Jamestown, Pa. Bil’in residents have been nonviolently protesting the illegal Israeli apartheid wall being built through their community since 2005, but these protests have been met with extreme violence from the Israeli army.
We met with Emad Burnat, who filmed “5 Broken Cameras,” his family and other Bil’in residents and heard the stories of what they and their families have been through at the hands of the Israeli military. I also brought back countless publications, reports and maps from the fantastic Palestinian human rights organizations and NGOs that we met that are doing work on the ground and documenting their oppression — as well as from Israeli organizations working in solidarity with Palestinians to end the system of oppression and apartheid carried out in their names. There is no shortage of Palestinians and Israeli Jews working for a just peace.
The most important thing of all that I bring back with me, however, is a sense of hope and love in knowing that the Palestinian people every day are working for their liberation and lessening the tragic frenzy of irrational fear inoculated in the majority of Jewish Israelis. Palestinians are doing this by living, by existing, by loving, by joining in solidarity with Jewish Israelis of conscience and by asking the international community to stand in solidarity with them and their chosen form of nonviolent resistance against the system of apartheid imposed on them by the State of Israel. This form of nonviolent resistance is called the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movements.
A virtually unanimous Palestinian civil society has endorsed the BDS call, made in 2005. They ask the world to join them in solidarity until Israel does three things: end the occupation of the West and the Gaza Strip, grant equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel and uphold the internationally recognized Right of Return for Palestinian refugees. Palestinians are not asking for our pity. They are asking for our solidarity.
Our diverse delegation of 34 people, organized by Interfaith Peace-Builders, saw BDS stickers in unexpected places — in the best falafel place in Beit Lahm (Bethlehem), on a cleaning cart at our hotel in East Jerusalem. The Palestinians with whom we met told us that BDS was the most effective way that we could help them, and they wanted us to tell people this when we returned to the United States.
Our group included two other Penn alums, a larger group of Presbyterians from Atlanta, Jews, Muslims and secular folks, and one alumni of Birthright Israel — the program that organizes free trips to Israel for any young person of Jewish descent. Throughout the entire trip, I could not help but think of my fellow Penn students who have taken a Birthright tour of Israel or are there now on Birthright Excel. I know that they do not go where I went. I know that they are told nothing about what they are seeing outside their bus windows through Palestine/Israel. For example, although Israeli soldiers accompany Birthright groups to encourage the identification of young American Jews with the Israeli army, these groups do not visit the more than 600 military checkpoints, roadblocks and barriers that are symbols of Israel’s control over Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Our delegation, on the other hand, walked through Qalandia checkpoint, one of the largest checkpoints in Palestine/Israel. It is not on any border and serves to separate Palestinians in the West Bank from Palestinians in Jerusalem. It is imperative for Birthright’s aims that participants are kept from this reality.
Those of us who are U.S. citizens bear particular culpability, as our tax dollars help pay for the Palestinians’ oppression and our elected officials defend and allow Israel’s actions to continue. In order to start making a difference, we need to start listening to Palestinians. Consider taking a trip like I did or if you’re going to Palestine/Israel, talk to Palestinians. Travel around East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and ask the people that you meet what is going on and what is happening to them.
But you most certainly do not need to go yourself to begin to do this. Seek out alternative media that privileges Palestinian voices and experiences. Check out the work that Palestinian organizations and NGOs are doing. Feel free to reach out to me if you want any suggestions of good places to start. It’s time to start listening, and it is well past time to start doing something. We can make this system stop — without killing anyone and without invading anywhere. By standing in solidarity with Palestinians in supporting the BDS movement and the nonviolent work they do every day to make Palestine/Israel a safer and more just place for all who live there, we can help make it stop.
Editor’s note:This article originally appeared a week ago in The Daily Pennsylvanian, where it is among the most commented upon articles. We publish it with O’Conor’s permission. A former Birthright tour leader, MN Treiger, has responded angrily here. And among the hostile comments at the DP are statements about O’Conor’s physical appearance and this one: “‘Palestinians are not asking for our pity. They are asking for our solidarity.’ Our? Clarissa O’Conor doesn’t really sound like a Palestinian name to me.”