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.