In what now seems like a different era because of the coronavirus pandemic, a few months ago in February I went on a second trip to the Gaza Strip with Washington state’s Physicians for Social Responsibility. My work there was to facilitate train-the-trainer workshops, offering tools for stress reduction. Mental health counselors in Gaza requested these trainings to add to their already existing amazing skills and resiliencies. Their community, both patients and practitioners, have to cope with the brutality of the Israeli military siege over their lives.
One day after a stress reduction class I led in the Bureij refugee camp, one of the adult students, Ahmed, was pretty choked up. “When I think about my children, the situation they are growing up in, and what the future holds for them, I sometimes wish my wife and I hadn’t had children — not because we don’t love them, but because we love them so much.”
Ahmed and all of the other participants requested to be identified by first name only.
Another participant in the class, Omar told me that after the sounds of recent airstrikes, his four-year-old son, in a quivering voice, asked, “Would it be possible to go back into your belly, Mommy?”
At the end of the same class one more father, Mohammed, related that his nine-year-old daughter a couple of months ago pensively remarked, “Grandma and Grandpa were lucky. Because they’re dead, they can’t hear the bombings.”
After ten days in Gaza, our two-week trip was cut short a few days. While no COVID-19 cases were reported in Gaza at that time, the unknowns of that moment were palpable. Our delegation debated whether we would try to stay and finish the medical and mental health work we were committed to offering. The first COVID-19 cases were reported in Israel on February 21 and shortly after new cases were confirmed in Bethlehem in the West Bank, causing the city to shut down. Flights began to be canceled globally and it was unclear how that would impact our leaving Gaza. Our entry and exit was controlled by the Israeli military through the Erez checkpoint. With a great deal of disappointment and sadness that we were leaving friends to face the unknown of the virus, we departed Gaza the following morning.
We were of course aware of our privilege to come and go, freedom those in Gaza can only dream of. Ismail, my translator who asked for his last name to be withheld from publication, reflected, “It’s like the prison warden told the visitors to leave, and now we’re back in the reality of our prison.”
On our way out of Gaza, as COVID-19 was turning the world upside down, I thought about Palestinian-Canadian lawyer Diana Buttu. She reminds us that in her father’s Palestinian village the pine trees, planted by the Jewish National Fund, are dying off from the arid climate as the native foliage returns. This COVID-19 pandemic shines a light on inequities at the core of the obscene systems in Palestine and the U.S. under which we live, and it compels the need to nurture emerging growth.
Months after my trip George Floyd, who is black, was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer. The killing took place within a few days of an Israeli border police officer shooting to death an autistic unarmed Palestinian man Eyad al-Halaq. These deaths are just the tip of the iceberg of countless murders of black Americans and Palestinians by authorities who instead, although sworn to protect life, protect corrupt and rotting systems.
It is long past time that we Americans who are white – or pass for white – proactively step up and ensure that anti-racism becomes our foundation and that we support the courageous activism of progressive organizations led by people of color on the front lines. And for those of us who are Jewish, the essential Jewish teaching, “Justice, justice, thou shall pursue,” demands that we proclaim from the mountaintops – and everywhere else – that working for a free Palestine is absolutely part of our work and is connected to every other liberation struggle; the most Jewish thing we can do is to support this struggle.
Back in Gaza in February, I led a relaxation class for 20 girls in high school. Nadia, a vivacious 14-year-old, told me, “We have to live our lives. What choice do we have? But I sleep with a towel over my eyes because if the bombs start falling, I don’t want to see them.”
The school psychologist explained to me, “Although much of the ‘outside’ devastation from the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza has been cleaned up, the devastation that is now in these children’s hearts – largely unseen – runs deep as a bomb crater.”
When I think about Gaza I am outraged that more than 2 million people, some of whom I met and fell in love with, are literally trapped in an open-air prison. The UN describes Gaza as unfit for human habitation. People in Gaza face a potentially devastating COVID-19 outbreak because their healthcare system has been strangled by a lack of access to critical equipment and medications. Not only have nurses and doctors been denied COVID-19 training due to the Israeli siege limiting the entry of goods and people to Gaza, but Israel has a history of targeting hospitals and emergency responders. As the occupying power, at a minimum, Israel needs to immediately provide Gaza with access to COVID-19 test kits and ventilators. With this in mind, it is well past time that millions of us around the world who believe in justice proclaim our commitment to one democratic state in all of historic Palestine, a state that includes the right of return for refugees, and dignity, equal rights and respect for all.
How long until American Jews see that we, who are descendants and relatives of those who perished in the Holocaust, can do tikkun olam (the spiritual and essential work of repairing the world) through standing proudly in solidarity with not only our Palestinian sisters and brothers but also our black sisters and brothers as they cry out that Black Lives Matter?
Thinking about George Floyd, Eyad al-Halaq, and my recent time in Gaza, I am overcome with a rage that runs deep. But in that rage, I see glimmers of hope.
From Gaza to Minneapolis, from all of Palestine to virtually every city in America, it is one huge interconnected, powerful struggle for justice and liberation that is being birthed! The pine trees are dying and the native vegetation is bursting forth not just in the rubble of demolished Palestinian villages, but in the largest protests over civil rights in America since the ’60s. It is undoubtedly time to break with the systems of death and destruction and to proactively nurture a bold transformation to a more just and equitable tomorrow — from Palestine to the streets of America.