I’m still traveling in Israel, basically among relatives, but I wish to reflect briefly upon a couple of memories that perhaps together crystalize the difficulty in arriving at peace, which we explored last week on the Meretz USA Israel Symposium. One involved our visit to Ramallah (the West Bank Palestinian capital) which included an amiable chat with the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad. It was not Dr. Fayyad who was in any way problematic. Indeed, he was gracious and upbeat about his work to build Palestinian institutions in anticipation of being ready to forge a two-state solution by the end of 2011.
When meeting earlier that day with the Haaretz reporter in the West Bank, Amira Haas, I asked her whether she could discuss ways in which the Palestinian Authority had made mistakes, such as the recent dedication of a square in the memory of a slain terrorist who had led the attack on the coastal road in 1978, in which 38 Israeli civilians were murdered—including 13 children and the American photographer, Gail Rubin. Ms. Haas spoke with insight, but I’m honoring her request for an off-the-record conversation.
Waiting in the wings was our next speaker, Dr. Samih al-Abed, a leading figure in the Palestinian Peace Coalition, the Palestinian partner organization that promotes the Geneva Peace Initiative. Designated to introduce him, I found that his resume–as an engineer, planner, academic and official–is quite impressive. But Dr. Abed began with an emotional rebuke aimed at me for having brought up this matter of the square. As if by way of excuse, he mentioned the shrine at Baruch Goldstein’s grave in Hebron, the Israeli who slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer, early in 1994, one of the critical turning points against the Oslo Peace Process.
Later, I tried to clarify that I was in no way defending the Goldstein memorial. I had also wanted to mention that–unlike the square in Ramallah–it was not an official government monument; but I had no sooner begun than I was emotionally interrupted by Dr. Abed who simply would not entertain any questioning of the recent Ramallah event. The session proceeded to a polite conclusion, but such a defensive reaction from this Palestinian, who has in fact dedicated himself to forging a peace agreement with Israel, was disturbing.
My other disturbing memory, a very complex one, was at the great Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem. Both our very earnest guide and the museum official who addressed our group later, made references that progressives like ourselves had to find uncomfortable. The deputy director in particular, referred to the severe wounding and recovery of her son, a soldier injured during the Lebanon war of 2006. The tone, subtext and text (in some instances) of the remarks we heard connected the tribulations of the Jewish people during the Holocaust to more recent situations that challenge Israel today, with something of a right-wing nuance.
Our guide referred contemptuously to Iran’s president Ahmadinejad (although she would not mention his name). It occurred to me that rather than simply being contemptuous of this Holocaust denier, the State of Israel, or some intermediary, should invite him to visit Yad Vashem. Who knows? The man might actually learn something and even be moved.
Someone else in our group reacted to my idea by saying that he’d just repeat what he’s already said, that regardless of the Holocaust, why should the Palestinians pay the cost? A good question, but one that requires a thoughtful response: No, the Palestinians were not responsible for the Holocaust, but this doesn’t mean that they had no responsibility when it came to trying to shut off Palestine as a haven for Jewish refugees and survivors.