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Rosengarten in Gaza: I was far more afraid of Israel than of Hamas

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Lillian Rosengarten is a New York activist and poet, who was on the Jewish boat to Gaza that was stopped by the Israeli navy in Jan. 2010. Last week she returned from a successful trip to Gaza, entering and leaving at the Egyptian border. Rosengarten was born in Germany; her family left after the Nazis came to power. A Q-and-A.

How did you go to Gaza?

I had an invitation from a German group. I went with eight others. Three of them had been passengers on the Mavi Marmara. And of course I had been on the Jewish boat to Gaza. I was the only Jew in our delegation.

How long were you in Gaza?

Four and half days.

Were you surprised by what you saw?

No. I know the situation in Gaza. I didn’t go there with any illusions. But what I was surprised about was the beauty of the people and how happy they were to see our delegation, because they see so few people from the international community. It’s difficult to get in. And as miserable as the situation is– the emphasis on construction, on rebuilding, on hope, the feeling that this land belongs to them, and they are staying there, is incredible. The tradition of Islam is fascinating to me. I was ignorant about so much, but I learned from the people I spoke with directly. Over here we get such myths and lies. It seems through fear, the religion and culture are distorted in terrible ways to demonize Islam.

Did they know you were Jewish?

I always identified myself as Jewish. I never pretended to be someone I am not. The people are just like us. They want to live in freedom and dignity and they have suffered enormously.

I was always greeted with such love. Such open hearts. Young people congregated around me as we gave peace signs, saying Viva Palestina. No one seemed to care that I was Jewish. They cared that I was among them and wanted their freedom.

The women in Gaza are just phenomenally strong. Many are college graduates but there is a lack of jobs and opportunities. There is also a class system, and many families became prosperous in the nineties when import and export was possible. The families are close knit and there is strong male bonding with the male children. Fathers are very much in the picture. Following Islamic values gives the family hope and structure. It is striking the similarities I observed between Islamic families and the religious Jewish tradition.

Where was your hotel?

On the beach. It looked out on to the Mediterranean and every evening at dusk one can see on the horizon rows of fishing boat lights not daring to go beyond the three miles allocated by the Israeli navy who are on the alert constantly. Fishermen run the risk of being shot at, sprayed with water hoses or having their boats taken if they venture out of the 3 mile zone. The water is heavily polluted with sewage as the treatment plants have been bombed. Wealthier families have their own filter system to supply them with usable water.

Once the fishing boats are taken by force to Ashdod, these poor fishermen must buy them back (with help from Palestinian NGO’s). Upon return, I saw the boats were wrecked, smashed and without engines. It’s horrible.

Some people will read this and say, You were being used by extremists.

I don’t know what that means. This is completely false, completely distorted. The only terrorists I was afraid of were the Israelis. They have their eyes on everyone, and you don’t know when the bombs or missiles are coming, morning, noon and night. You go to the tunnels and you realize, you could be bombed standing there. And everything in Gaza comes from the tunnels. There are hundreds of tunnels, miles and miles. Recently Israelis flooded some them. The danger of death is near and yet the people are resilient as hell and thank god for the tunnels. Because otherwise there would be starvation.

We went to the border in the north, what is called the buffer zone. A weathered farmer had his house bombed five times. He has no more citrus plants, they’ve been destroyed. A grandfather and his grandson had been recently blown up by a missile for walking too close to the border.

No! I an not being used by anyone. There is so much misinformation. Hamas is protecting and helping its people, it has never been recognized by Israel, and the split between Hamas and Fatah is a way to prevent a much-needed Palestinian unity. People are misinformed. They are fed lies. The ardent supporters of Israel do not know what is going on. They want to believe in the good of Israel. They are told Muslims want to take over and destroy Israel. Jews are taught to hate Muslims.

I believe fear and denial propel Jews to incorporate the Israeli lies. Tragically, for many people who identify themselves as Jewish, to witness the crimes of the Israeli government would be too unbearable, too painful to believe. And I have to believe if they really knew, they would rise up.

Do you come away from this trip with a fresh commitment?

It has morally clarified my position, where I stand as a human being and a Jew. I am clear that I, as a human being who comes out of a German Jewish refugee experience, as a person who admires the history of the Jewish people and traditions, must at the same time stand up and say NO! Not in my name can the brutal government of Israel do what it’s doing. It is my feeling that Jews in America who are supportive the Israeli governments’s actions are frightened. Here in the US and in Israel, Muslims are demonized. Therefore, people are afraid. They rest their argument on this whole idea that Muslims want to throw Israel into the sea.

Listen, if someone were taking your land and moving into your house and growing stuff on your land while making you a refugee, you might have negative feelings. But they know that’s not the way to resolve anything. I believe Israel operates out of fear. The security system operates out of that fear.

Do you have a clearer understanding of the situation?

Yes. Because I have spoken to Hamas, to the NGOs, to Palestinians, I’ve spoken to Fatah, to a Fatah minister who happened to be in Gaza. I’ve spoken to many many people. They are not demons. The people I feared in Gaza were the Israelis. They scare me because they are so violent, using collective destruction and with this racist overtones. It’s some kind of genocide. Netanyahu’s government do not want to acknowledge that Palestinians exist.

Are there good parts of Israeli society?

Of course. When I originally saw the moshavs and the kibbutzes, early on before I really knew anything, I was amazed, I loved what I saw. I loved it and was so proud and happy to say, here’s a place where Jews will not be discriminated against. Then I learned from my uncle that the kibbutzes were built on Palestinian land. I didn’t know early on. Americans go to Israel and they don’t see anything.

Are you going to speak to Jews about what you saw?

Yes but I do not want to push what I see and know down anyone’s throat. I’m not going to give information unless there’s interest and I am asked. I do not want to have to deal with someone screaming anti-Semite. It’s not helpful. But with my writing and poetry, I can convey everything from my heart, from the core of my being.

I used to think, after the Jewish boat, that I could speak at synagogues and so forth. People do not want to hear. I don’t think it’s useful to antagonize people who are not open. I want to speak to people in an open way where I’m not pushing any agenda. Wherever there’s a window of opportunity, I’ll take it. I’ve had to learn this.

How does this compare to work you did during the Vietnam war or the feminist movement?

I was part of a university then, it was collective marches to Washington, teach-ins and and so forth. My intention was there but a did not have a strong voice. I was not a leader. Now I have found my voice for I have no choice.

It feels more lonely?

Yes. I feel I’m taking a very unpopular position in a country where Jews and many other people do not want to hear and also call me a traitor. I evolved in the Vietnam war and the feminism movement where I admired the strong protest voices of others. But here I can feel the crimes against humanity and the importance of Palestinian self determination. I am driven in combination from my own background as well as the struggle to put a voice, yes also a Jewish voice to the suffering of Palestinians through the actions of the Israeli government.

By your background, you mean that your family escaped the Holocaust in Germany?

Yes. I see this, the Israel Palestinian question as the final chapter of the Holocaust. Either this will be resolved, or there will be a catastrophe. It will hurt Jews, it will hurt Palestinians– both.

What about the peace process?

There can not be a peace process. History has shown it has failed. From my view, the Netanyahu government does not want it. They are not willing to give land to the Palestinians. Settlers have become an integral part of the police force, brutal and vicious. Perhaps one day through the UN– but I don’t see any possibility of brokering again with the US supporting Israel so completely.

Did you believe in the peace process?

I think perhaps I was naïve with Clinton, and with Camp David and after Oslo. I believed in peace and desperately wanted it. I think the settlement building is meant to disrupt any peace process. There is no give and take. There is no looking at the other side. There is no empathy towards a common humanity. And when the government of Israel announces refugees can not come back, I say this is crazy. What do you mean, no return?

There is so much fear– the existential fear of extinction by the Palestinians, by Islam. This fear is something the Israelis have to examine. The Palestinians want freedom, they want the right to live in dignity and in peace.

Did you feel any threat to your safety from Palestinians?

Never, never, never. My daughter said, Aren’t you afraid, I’m afraid when you are there with Hamas, you can be hurt. I told her I am more afraid of the Israelis with their missiles and their bombs. The Palestinians were so welcoming.

Compare this to the way the Israelis treated our Jewish boat. A navy came to stop us. Nine Israeli warships stopped a little catamaran with harmonicas.

What about your rights as a refugee from Germany?

We lost family property. Everything. We didn’t get our property back. There was some restitution. But I can relate to the Palestinian refugees.

You didn’t get a right of return, though–

That’s completely not understanding the situation. When a foreign agent comes and takes your land and takes your trees and your life, and forces you into a foreign land without anything, and takes away your identity, this is a very traumatic experience. It’s not comparable from my point of view. Here are people living on their land, here are foreign people saying this is my land, get the hell out. Many became homeless, many ended up in refugee camps. There are many in Gaza, 60 years later, and they have no right to return. What’s fair about that? Why should they resettle? Whose land is this?

I’ve heard American Jews call the right of return Israel’s nightmare.

What is the nightmare? How? Is it one of those fear things about being annihilated? I don’t know what the problem is. I think Palestinians must come back and they will then live in peace, both of them together in separate areas. They have to find some way to live side by side. They used to be friends, collaborators in work.

The dehumanization of the other must stop. I’m really afraid of what will happen if there isn’t a peace initiative. A just peace initiative. I’m scared for both sides.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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11 Responses

  1. stevieb on October 17, 2011, 10:44 am

    All the hasbara crew need to read this piece. What wonderful observations from Ms Rosengarten…

    • Woody Tanaka on October 17, 2011, 12:46 pm

      “All the hasbara crew need to read this piece.”

      It wouldn’t do any good. They’re beyond help.

  2. justicewillprevail on October 17, 2011, 11:31 am

    Great interview. Factual, clear, compassionate and immediately recognisable to anybody who has been there. Palestinians are warm, welcoming and dignified people. Unlike their neighbours and oppressors.

  3. dimadok on October 17, 2011, 12:43 pm

    Oh I have read her quotes, quite full of them by far.
    Here are some samples:
    “I am an assimilated Jew as were so many German Jews so that my “Jewishness” as a religion meant nothing to me. I haphazardly identified as a “cultural” Jew. In this way I held onto some vestige of my Jewish identification. I married a socialist and politics became my religion.”

    And yet she knows that:” What we see in Israel is a distortion of Judaism and an attempt by the Israeli State to insist that Israel professes Jewish values as well as moral superiority. (Note the oxymoron “moral army”) Nothing could be further from the truth. True Judaism opposes the stealing of land, the occupation and the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. ”
    What a pitiful human being, desperately looking for her identity, despised by her own family, who actually been in Dachau and suffered.

    Loves the Palestinians , hates Israelis to the pathological levels-great humanist, isn’t she?
    Playing Holocaust card, whereas people who survived the horrors, came to Israel and died fighting for their freedom and for THEIR country.
    Despicable and shameful example of human being.

    • KDLN on October 17, 2011, 1:41 pm

      Dear dimadok,

      The only “pitiful human being” I can see here is YOU.

      WHO the FUCK are YOU that you feel that you have the right to police the political views, feelings towards religion and Judaism of a Holocaust survivor?!?

      And yes, I agree that Israel is distorting Judaism. How come that a high percentage of Israelis of Jewish origin are not allowed to identify as “atheist”, although they do not believe in God? How come that Reform Jewish institutions in Israel are attacked? Judaism is a religion, not a political ideology. It’s a shame that you don’t understand that.

      “People who survived the horrors came to Israel and died fighting”…
      What nonsensical drivel. Holocaust survivors are human beings. Human beings have different opinions. Yes, also on Israel. Some Holocaust survivors identified with Israel, some did not. That is their RIGHT. And you jerk can’t take it away from them. In fact, Holocaust survivors and their direct descendants are probably even overrepresented statistically in the Peace Movement. They know what it means to loose one’s home.

      “Playing Holocaust card” Israel does not have a monopoly on that.

      • on October 17, 2011, 4:47 pm

        Ms. Rosengarten’s mention that she was “invited by a group from Germany” is intriguing. I wonder if she would care to say more?

        Karen Armstrong writes compellingly of how Achilles, a man of philotes, great love, lost his humanity — and himself — in his rage at Agamemnon. In his rage, Achilles kills Hector, defiles his body, and refuses to permit it to be buried, despite the piteous pleas of Priam, Hector’s father.
        After much nurturing of this rage, Priam humbles himself before Achilles, touching Achilles’ core humanity, and the two weep together over their losses. In recognizing the suffering of the Other, each reclaims not only his own virtue and identity but also a sense of shared human identity.

        A few days ago someone linked to a book by Ralph Raico; in a section that I read, the starvation endured by Germans at hands of British is reported; over 750,000 Germans starved to death as a result of the 1917 British blockade. A German nakba. They were German civilians in their own state. Further, the blockade was not lifted until Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. And even further, Germans endured another round of starvation-to-death in the period of post-WWI hyperinflation. The book mentions that some scholars have theorized that the experience of that starvation, intentionally inflicted by western powers, likely had some affect on survivors that inclined them to seek revenge, or at least to fail to have strong enough psychic filters in place to resist an Achilles-like descent into rage.

        Lillian Rosengarten has recognized the humanity of the Palestinian people and she seems to indicate that the Arab and Muslim world with whom she shared tears, recognizes the humanity of Jewish people. Rather than perpetuate the hatred that is intended to break the spirit of humanity, its time to break the cycle.

    • justicewillprevail on October 17, 2011, 2:29 pm

      No, you are the despicable and shameful person, who is unable to respond to an unthreatening, honest appraisal of Palestinians – a concept so far from your ingrained racist selfish worldview that all you can offer is hatred, spite and smears. A Jewish person who doesn’t toe the apartheid line? Oh look at the inner Klan come out. What you have just spewed makes me like Lillian even more, if this the crap she has to put up with – for threatening no-one, not badmouthing anyone, and being concerned for all of the people in the area. It’s called being human, not something you would understand with your pitiful twisted worldview with room for just one little tribe of victims.

    • tree on October 17, 2011, 5:24 pm

      Playing Holocaust card, whereas people who survived the horrors, came to Israel and died fighting for their freedom and for THEIR country.

      I take it you never read “In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The struggle Between Jews and Zionists in the aftermath of WWII” by Yosef Grodzinsky? I believe it was published first in Hebrew in Israel under the title “Good Human Material”, the Zionist term for the type of Jews they wanted in Israel.

      According to Grodzinsky, the Jewish DP camps in Europe were mostly controlled by Zionist organizations, who at first attempted to recruit volunteers to join the Haganah and fight in Palestine and then, when only 700 volunteered, out of a DP population in the hundreds of thousands, the Zionist organizations, with the blessing of Ben Gurion, et al, instituted forced conscription of the European DP camp residents.

      The steps taken to draft members of Camp Committees were but the first snowballs that preceded an avalanche. Morale in the camps was low, and as the draft actions broadened, the number of DPs who were reluctant to join the fighting forces in remote Palestine increased. As a consequence, measures against dodgers were escalated, marking the beginning of the final phase of the draft operation: Compulsory conscription, carried out with the use of violence, when necessary. The Z.K., now commandeered by the Giyus committees, used all the power it had: Employees were fired, residents were evicted from their apartments, others were fined, or denied the supplementary food rations that the JDC was distributing to all camp Jews; others were simply beaten up. These are not isolated cases, where “overzealous recruiters switched from convincing to forced convincing to force,” against whom “even the Z.K. was helpless, ” as one historian described this affair, in an attempt to trivialize it. It was the Z.K. itself, acting together with the envoys of all the organizations from Palestine, that took initiative and were responsible for the operation that was conceived by Shadmi, approved by Ben Gurion and the Third Congress in March, and directed from above by Shadmi and Hoffman. Violent incidents were numerous: The archives are replete with hundreds of official documents describing brutal methods and actions carried out in an identical manner in a large number of camps in Germany and Austria, taking place mostly between March and August 1948. The archives also contain testimony and affidavits about “waves of Zionist harassment” in the camps, as well as vile descriptions, coming from various camps, of forced removal of Jews objecting to the draft from Camp Committees, arrests, and beatings. In a camp near Ulm, for example, “a father of Giyus evader Wecker was beaten up, as was the father of one who did not register; in another case an old father-Richter Aizik- was beaten because his son Moshe Richter did not register for the Giyus.”

      We have in front of us a second critical moment in the transition period between Liberation and the establishment of the State of Israel. The first, it will be recalled, was the children’s affair in 1945, in which Zionists prevented the removal of child survivors to England and France. lest it weaken the pressure to open the gates of Palestine for Jews. The second critical event that we see occurred in a brief, yet powerful moment which puts a whole era to the test. In a short six months one can observe the maturation of a conflict of a peculiar kind. Not merely a dispute between two political parties, it is a clash between two very distinct varieties of Jewish nationalism. Zionist interests are interpreted and implemented by recruiters in the DP camps, taking it for granted that all stateless Jews are committed to the Zionist endeavor; however, there are other views of Jewish nationalism, which do not involve Palestine. These are maintained by thousands of Displaced Persons, who make immigration plans to target countries other than Palestine, never abandoning the hope of having a full-fledged Jewish life. The Zionist movement has traveled full circle; Originally defining the creation of a safe haven to all Jews as its ultimate goal, it now took an important turn. It capitalized on Jewish identity, and in its name it now felt justified in expropriating the national rights of non-Zionist Jews, and harnessing them forcefully to its own cause. In the conflict that ensued, there could only be one winner-the side capable of using institutional violence.

      pages 198-200

      Forced conscription, and its accompanied violence, produced an eleven fold increase in Jewish DP draftees into the Haganah, from 700 to 7800. This should be a source of shame for Israel, but some are so imbibed on the propaganda that, like dimadok, they proclaim pride in this instead. Its sad that not only has Zionism decimated the Palestinians, but it also destroyed and abused Jews as well, and yet Zionist Jews are oblivious, or like dimadok, take their hate out on other Jews while trying to pretend they really care about them. They don’t, anymore than white supremacists really care about other whites. They just care about their image and sense of superiority and anyone who threatens that falls victim to their contempt, regardless of whether they share the same ethnic, religious, or tribal group.

  4. gamal on October 17, 2011, 2:22 pm

    ah yes Latrun wasnt it DBG who sent holocaust survivors to their certain deaths, good for morale, and he has the gall to post here.

    ” i am scared for both sides” rosegarten

    Pathological hatred of israelis… er… huh! i think in fairness you should have just used the phrase you were struggling for “arab lover”, ah isnt that better.

  5. James North on October 17, 2011, 4:13 pm

    Lillian Rosengarten. A moral giant.

  6. Pat Carmeli on October 18, 2011, 2:37 pm

    Lillian – thanks for traveling to Gaza to bring more of the story to those of us unable to show our solidarity personally. You’ve done a tremendous amount of good by reaching out to the Palestinians locked in the hell of an imprisoned Gaza, and letting them know that they have supporters outside their dismal existence. Don’t take the hateful words of some commenters to heart. They refuse to learn or see the truth – just too weak to do so. You, on the other hand, are able to face the demons and speak the truth, and stand for justice and humanity. A while back we were in touch about you coming to Syracuse to address a group who would welcome hearing of your experiences. Please consider it. I’ll be in touch.

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