“And a witness of her household bore witness ”–from the Quran
In her book, “Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine” (Just World Books, 2017) Dr. Alice Rothchild emotes courage and sincerity to a degree that begs analysis: Who is she addressing and to what end? The book’s title answers the latter of the two interrelated questions: All those who are genuinely concerned with Israel/Palestine should better rush to resuscitate their critically ill charge before it is too late because “the Israeli government is on a suicide mission.” All through her book Dr. Rothchild bears witness to how critical and unjust the condition is.
In her preface the author answers my first question as well. This is an American Jewish book: author, subject matter and intended audience:
“I found I had to re-examine the meaning of my own Jewishness in light of the uncomfortable consequences of Zionism, and I started to grapple with my own personal responsibility as a Jew and a US citizen in a world rife with contradiction, fear, and conflict.”
Ultimately, that is her target readership to which she addresses herself. As she goes on she stands her moral ground courageously. In the epilogue she even dares justify and defend the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel:
“As a Jewish person, I find this history shameful, immoral, and profoundly unrelated to what I learned as ‘Jewish values’ and the legacy of Jews in a variety of progressive and intellectual movements. … I suspect, in the tradition stretching from the Quaker-led fight against slavery to the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa, this nonviolent resistance movement may be the most promising and productive international effort to date.”
Such courage and uprightness are particularly striking in light of the media and political power of the author’s chosen audience. Yet in one sense she seems to make a critical concession to their sensitivities, as I shall attempt to clarify at the end of this laudatory review.
The book is a chronologically ordered series of blogs that Rothchild had penned onsite, in the process of leading several fact-finding missions of concerned Americans, many of them no doubt Jewish, to Israel/Palestine between June 2013 and April 2015. The successive blogs she writes are basically a mix of two categories of reporting: The first is her straightforward account of what she sees, hears and experiences as she leads her American companions through the gruesome reality of life in Israel/Palestine and the occasional peek into Palestinian intact homes and their guest-receiving tradition. And the second is her interspersed intellectual and moral analysis of the background to that reality. It is in this vicarious discourse and exposure to Israel’s and America’s aggression against the Palestinian natives that Alice shows her exceptional daring. Not only does she sympathize with the dehumanized Palestinian underdog but she also insists on acknowledging the wrong done them by “her people”.
All along Rothchild gushes with acclaim for her Palestinian hosts and colleagues. Her narrative, like that of all those who are received by Palestinians in their homes and are subjected to their hospitality, is rife with heart-warming praise for their genuine generosity. What is especially noticeable is how fully the author manages to humanize her Palestinian contacts, whether professional colleagues or run-of-the-mill children, mothers, fathers and grandparents contrary to the prevailing view in her home community of such creatures as subhuman vermin and terrorists.
On her last visit to Gaza Rothchild tries to portray the mayhem, the loss of hope and the total insanity that dominates life in the hellhole that Israel has been experimenting with creating there, whether with the physical and mental control mechanisms it employs or with the weaponry it tests periodically on the captive population for daring to breath. A simple indicator of the level of despair it has created is that “50 percent of mothers suffer from depression, and that the [Quality Of Life Index] of preschoolers in Gaza was worse than it was for kids in the United States with cancer or renal failure.” The author bemoans the fact that here “the Star of David [is] now a symbol of racism.” In fact one gets the impression that the author was on the verge of “losing it” as well:
“In fact, it is a country that claims to speak in my name, funded by my tax dollars, that has destroyed their families and their lives. My sense of utter inadequacy clings to my tongue as I look at their tear-stained faces, … It is almost more than I can bear.”
By the end of her tour Rothchild is so outraged and distraught by what she has witnessed and by the airport security treatment that she seems ready to trash the whole world. Nothing has the needed dose of hope and humanity. I know that after those trips she suffers from insomnia, malaise and a post-travel kind of PTSD before readjusting to her regular life.
“I listen to all of this in my post-travel exhaustion and think once again I have arrived in a land of official insanity! Then I remember the Jewish state’s overarching goal: to force Palestinians, one way or the other, to leave their historic and ancestral homes.”
After all, that is the effect of the occupation and the zionist style settler colonialism on everyone involved. True, in rebelling against “the tribe” she is committed to speaking truth to zionist power. But at some level she is also reaching out and speaking to the world at large.
As we saw above Rothchild does not shy away from promoting BDS, something that may get her in legal trouble in several American states and in some European countries. While doing this and in all of her superbly frank and ethically framed arguments, she repeatedly reverts to anchoring her views in her Jewish tradition. As one reads those lines of discourse one is struck by the ferocity of her intellectual honesty and moral outrage. And yet she never ceases to declare her sense of belonging to her American Jewish community, a seeming contradiction that had alienated some from their ethnic and religious roots and earned them such titles, even if devalued by overuse, as an “anti-Semite” and a “self-hating Jew.”
The American Jewish community and a wider following in America and in the West and around the globe, are the author’s audiences of choice. Her daunting self-assigned mission is to rescue her terminally afflicted subject, the potentially viable and promising dream of a single, democratic and secular state in historical Palestine. Despite, or perhaps because of their nakba, the Palestinians are known to be the best-educated and most successful entrepreneurs in the Arab world. Imagine the potential of such a partner granting Israel the full legitimacy it will never gain from continuing to oppress and dehumanize them through the power of arms. Such partnership can thrive through justice and equality between two willing partners. That, in a nutshell, is Rothchild’s and my dream. I am thrilled to report that among the intellectual free thinkers on the Palestinian side our dream is gradually gaining acceptance even if in the minds of many Israelis and Americans it is still tinged with criminality.
Throughout Rothchild’s repeated incursions into Israel/Palestine, she is met, welcomed and guided by many prominent Palestinian caregivers, activists and public figures and by the occasional Israeli as well. Yet no Palestinian is featured among the three enthused experts who are quoted on the cover of her book testifying to her courage and insight and to the book’s authenticity and worth. Could Alice and her publisher have made their choice of blurbs, not only with the clear prominence and high expertise of the opinion leaders who penned them but also with the intended audience in mind? Could they have consciously wished not to offend or alienate their target audience? I am discomforted by such possible concession and make a mental note of it from the start. As I read on, I gradually feel confirmed in my suspicion that the decision could not have been incidental. The choice of top experts praising her book was made with the current thinking and sensitivities of such readership in mind.
Here is the place to repeat again: clearly, the American Jewish community is Rothchild’s “tribe,” her default home-crowd and chosen audience for what she has to say. She holds the group responsible for making Israel what it is today. And indeed, the pariah state that Israel under Netanyahu is fast becoming is the responsibility of America and its Jewish Community. The most fanatic settlers uprooting the Palestinians and their olives arrived via America, not to mention America’s massive military, financial and political support, promoted and guaranteed by AIPAC, Christian-Zionists and the lucrative American military industrial complex. Ultimately, this community bears the responsibility of reining in the bully it has unleashed against the Palestinians.
And there is the rub. The one-state solution is upon us whether we like it or not. The struggle for equal rights for all citizens of Israel/Palestine has already begun. Even Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel, speaks of his state encompassing the entire area west of the Jordan River with citizenship for all the Palestinians within its borders. He defaults on the issue of such a state’s secularity and on full equality for all of its citizens. His acceptance of presiding over present-day Israel with over fifty laws discriminating against Israel’s current Palestinian citizens attests to his lack of commitment to full democracy and equality. Donald Trump, the American President, doesn’t mind such a vision, though he also may default on the secularity and equality parts. Sanity dictates an ultimate outcome in line with Alice’s and my vision regardless of politics and politicians. And it is to this end that the author dedicates her efforts.
With the impending struggle for equality, the thread of similarity of such a task to that of her predecessors in the American Civil Rights movement is not lost on the author. “I am beginning to feel like a white civil rights activist working in the Deep South in the 1960s. The parallels are striking and the historical connection revives me. Time to take this conversation home,” she declares. And she approvingly quotes Omar Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian BDS campaign, declaring:
“I understand having Palestinian voices up front, but this is a universal issue. I do not believe in identity politics. The anti-apartheid movement was my movement. I was doing something right as a human; I own this as my own struggle.”
Indeed, the American Civil Rights Movement involved many committed whites, especially Jewish activists. Yet they joined and supported black leaders in their struggle. Whites could have gone on arguing for equal rights for the African American community for centuries to come. Little would have been achieved beyond lip service. Only when the likes of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. addressed themselves directly to white centers of power in America, when blacks marched on Washington, that racial discrimination and white supremacy finally started to really end.
I cannot salute Alice Rothchild enough for daring to speak her (and my) truth so boldly and unambiguously to her American Jewish audience. She does it at the risk of excommunication from the tribe. One is reminded of the degree of pressure brought to bear on the South African Judge Richard Goldstone for daring to speak his legal mind against Israel for its human rights crimes in the 2008-9 war on Gaza. Yet the coming phase is even more demanding of courage and moral fortitude. And it needs greater diplomacy, cooperation and collective efforts, the kind of campaign being promulgated by JVP: It is time for the author and her influential supporters at home to invite and accompany her Palestinian activist counterparts to the halls of Jewish power in the U.S. The likes of Ayman Odeh, Hanan Ashrawi and Omar Barghouti are dying for the chance. It is when they will stand at the podiums in the synagogues of Boston, New York and Miami and in Hillel clubs on campuses around the U.S. that their voices will be heard in Israel.