Talking to a Wall
Palestine in the Mind of America
By KATHLEEN and BILL CHRISTISON
You would think that showing maps clearly delineating the truncated, obviously non-viable area available for a possible Palestinian state and showing pictures that define Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories would have some kind of impact on an audience of astute but, on this issue, generally uninformed Americans. We recently spoke to a small foreign affairs discussion group and devoted much of our presentation to these images of oppression — images that never appear in the U.S. media — in the probably naïve hope of making some kind of dent in the impassive American attitude toward Israel’s 40-year occupation of Palestinian territory.
But our expectations that these people would listen and perhaps learn something were sadly misplaced. Few among the elite seminar-style discussion group seemed concerned about, or even particularly interested in, what is happening on the ground in Palestine-Israel, and the event stands as starkly emblematic of American apathy about the oppressive Israeli regime in the occupied territories that the United States is enabling and in many instances actively encouraging.
The maps that we displayed of the West Bank, prepared by the UN and by Israeli human rights groups, clearly depicted the segmented, disconnected scatter of territorial pieces that would make up the Palestinian state even in the most optimistic of scenarios — Palestinian areas broken up by the separation wall cutting deep into the West Bank; by large Israeli settlements scattered throughout and taking up something like 10 percent of the territory; by the network of roads connecting the settlements, all accessible only to Israeli drivers; and by the Jordan Valley, currently barred to any Palestinian not already living there, making up fully one-quarter of the West Bank, and ultimately destined for annexation by Israel.
The maps make it clear that even the most generous Israeli plan would leave a Palestinian state with only 50-60 percent of the West Bank (constituting 11-12 percent of original Palestine), broken into multiple separated segments and including no part of Jerusalem. The photographs, taken during our several trips to Palestine in recent years, depicted the separation wall, checkpoints and terminals in the wall resembling cages, Palestinian homes demolished and official buildings destroyed, vast Israeli settlements built on confiscated Palestinian land, destroyed Palestinian olive groves, commerce in Palestinian cities shut down because of marauding Israeli settlers or soldiers.
We have shown maps and pictures like these myriad times before, but have never been received with quite such disinterest. Here was a group of mostly retired U.S. government officials, academics, journalists, and business executives, as well as a few still-working professionals — all ranging in political orientation from center right to center left, the cream of informed, educated America, the exemplar of elite mainstream opinion in the United States. Their lack of concern about what Israel and, because of its enabling role, the U.S. are doing to destroy an entire people and their national aspirations could not have been more evident.
The first person to comment when our presentation concluded, identifying herself as Jewish, said she had “never heard a more one-sided presentation” and labeled us “beyond anti-Semitic” — which presumably is somewhat worse than plain-and-simple anti-Semitic. This is always a somewhat upsetting charge, although it is so common and so expected as to be of little note anymore. What was more noteworthy was the reaction, or lack of it, among the rest of the assembled, who never disputed her charge but spent most of the discussion period either disputing our presentation or trying to find ways to accommodate “Jewish pain.”
Our brief conversation with this woman progressed in an interesting fashion. We tried to engage her in a discussion about what exactly was one-sided in our depiction of the situation on the ground and what she would have liked to see to make it “two-sided.” She did not answer but indicated that she thought whatever Israel did must be justified by Palestinian actions. “Someone had to have started it,” she said. We laid out a little history for her, noting that the first action, the “who-started-it” part, could be traced back to Britain’s Balfour Declaration pledge in 1917 to promote the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, at a time when Jews made up no more than 10 percent of the population of Palestine. Then we came up to the 1947 UN partition resolution, which allotted 55 percent of Palestine for a Jewish state at a time when Jews owned only seven percent of the land and made up slightly less than one-third of the population.
Her answer was, “Well, but it wasn’t Jews who did this.” We disabused her of this and briefly detailed the deliberate Zionist program of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian population conducted during 1947-48 war, as described by several Israeli historians, including particularly Ilan Pappe, whose The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine is based on Israeli military archives. Her eyes actually began to bulge, but she held her tongue. Apparently deciding that she had no way of refuting these facts, she finally decided that going back in history was of no utility — a common Zionist dodge — and that Israel had not been established in any case to be a democracy but was a haven for persecuted Jews and as such has every right to organize itself in any way it sees fit. The moderator finally called on others who wanted to speak, and the discussion moved on.
But not very far. The talk now circled, for over an hour, around what passed for profound discussion: around someone’s curious remarks about Zeitgeist, someone else’s equally curious insistence that there was “something out there that no one would talk about” that was influencing the situation, a few remarks about Palestinians as terrorists and how even if Israel made peace with the Palestinians Hamas would still try to destroy it, a lot of talk about how to accommodate Jewish pain and, taking off from this, a psychologist’s attempt to draw an analogy between Jews who live in fear of persecution and the rape victims she counsels who live in constant fear that they will be raped again or worse.
A few people did ask interested questions about the situation on the ground and about various aspects of Israeli policy. After the discussion had centered for quite a while on Jewish pain, one person pointed out that Palestinians too feel pain and live in fear, but no one else picked up on this. No one challenged the first speaker’s personal charge of anti-Semitism against us, and in the end there was almost no mention of the destructive Israeli practices that had been the subject of our presentation.
We had occasion to email several of the participants the next day. In one message, we lodged a mild complaint with the three group organizers about the fact that the charge of anti-Semitism was allowed not only to stand but to set the tone for much of the discussion, with no refutation of the substance of the charge by anyone except us. In another message, sent to a man who had expressed puzzlement over why the Jewish vote was thought to be important in U.S. elections, we forwarded without comment an article from Mother Jones about Barack Obama’s difficulties with the Jewish community and his concerted effort to demonstrate his bona fides by pledging fealty to Israel and justifying Israel’s siege of Gaza.
Finally, to the psychologist, we wrote a comment on her analogy between Jews and rape victims, observing that as a psychologist she undoubtedly did not encourage her rape victim clients to perpetuate their fear or adopt an aggressive attitude toward other people, but most likely gave them tools to help them regain trust and move beyond fears for their personal safety. This kind of restorative therapy for Jews has never been employed, we noted, but on the contrary Israeli leaders and American Jewish leaders have encouraged Jewish fears, along with an aggressive, militaristic Israeli policy toward its neighbors.
These were all gratuitous overtures by us, but they were not inappropriate or uncivil. Yet not one of these people saw fit to answer our missives or even acknowledge their receipt — indicating, we can only assume, the general level of unconcern among Americans about the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, including the siege and starvation imposed on Gazans. Then, too, the lack of response probably reflects feelings on the part of most attendees that we are somehow responsible for having involved them in a discussion that turned out to be fairly unpleasant for them.
Why is this interesting to anyone but us? Because this in-depth discussion with a small but representative group of intelligent, thinking Americans is indicative of a broad range of U.S. public opinion on foreign policy issues, and their level of disinterest in the consequences of U.S. policies is quite disturbing. The self-absorption evident during this meeting, the general “don’t-rock-the-boat” posture, the overwhelming lack of concern for the victims of Israeli and U.S. power amount to a license to kill for the U.S. and its allies. The same unconcern allowed the United States to get away with killing millions of Vietnamese decades ago; it gives license to mass U.S. killing in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is the reason Democrats still, after seven years of Bush administration torture and killing around the world, cannot fully separate themselves from Republican militarism. It gives Israel license to kill and ethnically cleanse the entire nation of Palestine.
Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. He served as a National Intelligence officer and as director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis.
They can be reached at email@example.com.