Saturday, August 26, 2006

From Garden To Ghetto: A History of Bethlehem

O Little Town - By Nicholas Blincoe
Published in Drawbridge Magazine, Summer 2006.

As a child, studying O' level geography, I was given a list of every conceivable city-type: the fortress, the port, the market town and so on. I remembered the list when I first visited Bethlehem, my wife's home town.

Many of the cities of the Levant claim to be the oldest continually-settled sites in the world: among them, Jericho and Nablus in Palestine, and Beirut in Lebanon. Bethlehem is somewhere in that ballpark, between four and six thousand years old. It began as a Bronze Age settlement named after the fertility god Lacham, a kind of Middle Eastern Green Man whose garden temples served as camp-sites for visiting strangers. It is plausible to imagine the Holy Family staying in the one-time garden of Lacham on their visit to Bethlehem, just as Christ stayed in the garden of Gethsemane on his visit to Jerusalem. The site of Christ's birth, marked by a bronze star in a cave within the Church of the Nativity might once have been Lacham's garden temple. I suggest this, not because I want to resurrect a pagan god, but because until very recently Bethlehem was a green and fertile city. When my wife was a child in the 1970s, her whole family would decamp to their orchards in the hills at harvest time, to sleep beneath their trees. This local tradition is echoed in the Jewish Festival of the Booths, when Jews are required to eat a meal beneath a canopy of leaves. Today, my wife's orchards have been stolen by Israel and nationalised by the Jewish Land Agency. The fertile hills have been built-over by the settlements of Gush Etzion and Gilo, and though the Jews who live there no doubt continue to celebrate the Festival of the Booths, the age-old traditions they mimic have been destroyed.

Ancient Bethlehem was a modest walled town, an oasis at the edge of a wilderness that stretches to the Dead Sea. All of ancient Bethlehem is now contained within the walls of the Church of the Nativity whose Crusader battlements stand on the foundations of the older Bronze Age walls. Bethlehem grew over the centuries, prospering as a city of pilgrimage and, since Thomas Cook's package tours in the 19th Century, a modern holiday destination. It was once a thriving, open city: it is now sealed behind a wall, imprisoning the 170,000 Christian and Muslim citizens, while annexing their forests, farmlands and fresh-water springs to the Jewish settlements. There is no more brutal dictatorship than a military occupation. I have been shot at twice by soldiers, once in a group and once when I was alone on the streets during a military curfew. I have even had a pistol pressed to my head for straying too close to the Israeli wall. A renewed cycle of Israeli invasions that began in 2001 have brought closures, curfews and economic blockades and led to a sharp spike in emigration, notably among the Christian population. In the past five years, four hundred Christian families have left the city. Within a generation, the Bethlehem I know will have disappeared, and a bastion of Christianity in the Middle East, as well as a home to an open, multi-faith democracy, will have been wiped out.

According to one historical source - let's be honest, the Bible - Bethlehem has been ruled at various times by Amorites, Philistines, Judah and possibly the Hittites, the Moabs, the Jebusites among others. The Bible is confusing, but it is less a history than a kind of legalistic aspiration: it makes the case that Judah, alone, can claim the leadership of the tribes of Israel. The Bible was composed during and after the Jew's Babylonian exile. Though written in Hebrew (at the time, a dead language outside of the temple), the scriptures use the Aramaic alphabet. As English is the language of the age of the internet, Aramaic was the language of the first age of law, chosen by Cyrus as the language of his empire's legal code. This is one of the ironies of the Bible, that while it claims to be an account of Divine Law, handed from God to Moses, it rests upon codes of inheritance, ownership and property derived from Cyrus. The scriptures are filled with painfully spelled out geneaologies, meticulous detailed land purchases and claims to water resources. When Cyrus allowed the exiles to return in 538BC, these legalistic claims became the justification for the dispossession of other people, splitting the religion of Israel's tribes into two factions: the Jews and the Samaritans.

The attempted dispossession by Judah of all other people of the Holy Land - Israelites and non-Israelites alike - continues to be a feature of Judaism. The Bible remains the key legal document. It is true, Israel recognises a panoply of other legal codes. It has used British military law to administer the occupation for almost forty years. It recognises Ottoman law, which is used to confiscate private land prior to Jewish nationalisation, and international law, insofar as it accepts it is engaged in 'belligerent occupation', though it disputes the clauses that forbid civilian colonisation. In short, Israel accepts a smorgasbord of laws, picking and choosing which ones it will obey. But above all, Israel recognises the Bible.

It ought to be possible to write a history of Bethlehem that does not rely primarily upon scripture.
Although few other historical documents exist, the landscape and the archeology represent a kind of document. The problem is, archeology is influenced by the military occupation as much as any other facet of life. In Israel, the only purpose of archeology is to support the Bible. Israeli archaeologists are like the fireman in the novel 'Fahreneheit 451'; their job is to erase the traces of non-Jewish civilisations, not to investigate them. Another strategy might be to read the Bible for holes and evasions: a kind of deconstruction. Take the confusion over the people of Bethlehem, for instance; all those Amorites, Moabs, Philistines and Hittites. In order to establish the primacy of Judah, the Bible has to continually admit other peoples, multiplying their numbers even as it insists they are long gone and have no further relevance. This stratagem bears comparison with the Biblical claim to the primacy of Mosaic Law and Hebrew, which itself depends upon a prior, furtive recourse to the law of Cyrus and the alphabet of the Aramaic language. In both cases, the attempt to aggrandise one people requires the Bible to posit a universal legal code and a pluralistic society that it simultaneously suppresses and erases.

Bethlehem began life as a walled citadel, and will end as a prison town. Beside it, looms Israeli Jerusalem which has redrawn its boundaries constantly since the occupation. As far as Israel is concerned, Jerusalem's borders now encompass all the settlements surrounding the city of Bethlehem. As an ex-deputy Mayor of Jerusalem has said, the expansion was planned according to Talmudic law which states that a city is defined by sightlines: if a collection of buildings can be seen from another point, then each constitutes a part of the same city. By grabbing the orchards of Bethlehem, Jerusalem has doubled and trebled in size over the past two decades, like a concrete amoeba, whose pseudopodia absorbs and digests everything they encircle. Modern Jerusalem - the city of Israel's forty-year-long occupation - is gruesomely ugly. It is also an entirely new kind of city, unimaginable in the 1970s when I studied O' level geography. But, strangled within this modern city, Bethlehem remains an archetype. It is no longer the place it was, but it is a recognisable type familiar from Venice, or Warsaw or Lodz: a ghetto.

Monday, August 14, 2006


Jews for a Just Peace
“There is no such thing as a benign occupation.”

Submission by Jews for a Just Peace, Vancouver, B.C. to the 39th General Council of the United Church of Canada August 13-19, 2006 regarding Proposal GS 2,”Ethical Investment for Peace in Palestine and Israel”.

Jews for a Just Peace, Vancouver, believes in the right of both Israel and the Palestinians to live in peace and security. The Palestinians have the right to establish a viable independent state in the whole of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip. (This does not preclude the eventual establishment of one democratic bi-national state, with equal rights for both peoples.)

We support the principles of human rights and self determination and oppose all violence against civilians, whether perpetrated by the state or by others. We deplore all racism and ethnic hatred, whether directed against Jews, Arabs or any other group.

The most urgent problem is the Israeli occupation and the refusal of the Israeli government to recognize the right of the Palestinians to self-determination, in all its forms, under their own leadership. Occupation is violence. The occupation must end before there can be hope for a lasting, just peace.

We wrote those words years ago and since then, we’re sorry to say, the situation has only become worse.

Israel has chosen not to recognize the Palestinians’ democratically elected Hamas government and, with the support of the U.S. and other western countries, has been withholding funds from the Palestinian government. This has resulted in further deterioration in the already deplorable living conditions of Palestinians.

In the west bank, Israel’s expansion into Palestinian territory continues at a rapid rate. This has nothing to do with security or prevention of attacks against civilians. To quote Jeff Halper, of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, in a recent statement:

“Israel’s occupation is being institutionalized and made permanent. Neither security nor terrorism are really the issue; Israel’s policies of annexation are based on a pro-active claim to the entire country. Virtually no element of the Occupation — the establishment of some 300 settlements, expropriation of most West Bank land, the demolition of 12,000 Palestinian homes, the uprooting of a million olive and fruit trees, the construction of a massive system of highways to link the settlements into Israel proper or the tortuous route of the Barrier deep in Palestinian territory— can be explained by security. Terrorism on all sides is wrong (let it be noted that Israel has killed four times more civilians than the Palestinians have), but to demand that resistance cease while an occupation is being made permanent is unconscionable.”

In Gaza, the siege continues. Israel has kidnapped elected Palestinian officials, shelled and bombed, conducted military operations resulting in civilian deaths, and destroyed civilian infrastructure power grids, bridges, government buildings and more. Still understood as occupation under international law, Israel controls Gazan airspace, borders and ports.

The appeals to the Israeli government to end their harsh treatment of Palestinians appeals from Israelis and from around the world - for justice and compassion, employed in the past have simply not worked. That’s why stronger measures are called for, measures such as selective divestment. That’s why we support the proposal coming before your council “Ethical Investment for Peace in Palestine and Israel”.

We strongly disagree with the address to your gathering from the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) opposing the motion on ethical investment. The CJC’s claim to represent Canadian Jews is invalid. They certainly do not represent us.

There is no such thing as a benign occupation. We support the views of the prominent Israeli writer, the late Yeshayahu Leibovitz, who wrote: “We must free ourselves from the curse of dominating another people.”

Respectfully submitted by Jews for a Just Peace

Saturday, August 12, 2006

It's Time for Jewish Dissenters to Challenge Israeli (and U.S.) Policies

It's Time for Jewish Dissenters to Challenge Israeli Policies
by Henri Picciotto

I grew up Jewish in Beirut. Although I left nearly 40 years ago, my memories of Lebanon -- vibrant and multicultural -- have stayed with me. And so, my wife and I had started talking about taking a trip there.

I would show her the neighborhood where I grew up, the beaches where I swam in the warm Mediterranean waters and the small mountain hotel we loved to stay at in the summer. I would also show her my school, where Jewish, Christian and Muslim children learned and grew together.

After the past few weeks, we may never be able to take this trip. Israeli bombings have killed more than 700 Lebanese civilians. Hundreds of thousands -- more than one-fifth of the population -- have become refugees, uprooted from their homes. Lebanon's civilian infrastructure has been systematically destroyed.

We, as Americans, bear a special responsibility for this carnage. If Washington would withhold its unconditional military, economic and diplomatic support for Israel, the Israeli government would waste no time in starting genuine negotiations. Current U.S.-backed cease-fire proposals are so unfair to Lebanon that the Lebanese government has already indicated it cannot accept the terms, which do not even include a full Israeli withdrawal.

This one-sided U.S. policy is the result of a combination of factors, but it thrives on the myth that all American Jews stand uncritically behind the Israeli government.

Many believe that American Jews unanimously and unconditionally support the Israeli government. That what we learned from the Holocaust is to shoot first and ask questions later. That our commitment to justice and equal rights is a quaint feature of our past.

There is a saying ``two Jews, three opinions.'' Now we are told ``1 million Jews, one opinion.''

In fact, our community is profoundly divided:

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews all over the country have demonstrated to demand an end to the bombing of Gaza and Lebanon. In one of these demonstrations, 17 Jewish protesters were arrested in an act of civil disobedience.

In the past few days, thousands of Jews have signed a petition demanding that the United States intervene to stop the wanton killing of Lebanese civilians by the Israeli war machine.

Jewish organizations that sponsor such demonstrations and petitions, such as Jewish Voice for Peace (on whose board I serve), are experiencing exponential growth. Jews are looking for ways to express their outrage at the actions of the Israeli government, and of the blind support accorded by the Jewish establishment in this country.

We are appalled by the Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli cities, just as we were the earlier attacks by Israel on Lebanese cities. We mourn the loss of Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese lives equally. We are outraged by the destruction of Lebanese airports, roads and bridges, the bombing of homes and private cars, the killing of children, and the other horrors visited by the Israelis on their neighbors.

It is this kind of past Israeli behavior that gave birth to both Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that have strengthened immeasurably in recent weeks. Israeli intransigence has made Israel a pariah state, and is the biggest enemy of all the people of the Middle East -- Arabs and Israelis alike.

Jewish American leaders work tirelessly to promote the myth of Jewish consensus. Their tactics include refusing to rent space to dissenters, threatening funding cuts when Jewish institutions question Israel's actions and canceling meetings when they suspect debate might occur. Their most ubiquitous weapon is the hurtful charge of anti-Semitism, hurled at both dissenting Jews and Gentiles.

Many Jews question Israel's policies, but are afraid to speak out in their congregations or even to their families. But the time has come for Jewish dissidents to challenge the policies of the Israeli government. In the short run these policies kill Arabs, mostly innocent civilians; in the long run, they can result only in disaster for Israelis and Jews worldwide. Our silence in this time of crisis is complicity. We need to help bring about the peace that would one day make my visit to Beirut -- and the visit of all Jews -- possible.

HENRI PICCIOTTO of Berkeley is a mathematics educator and chairman of the board of Jewish Voice for Peace. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.

© Copyright 2006 San Jose Mercury News

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Statement from the American Friends Service Committee


A Statement Issued by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)
Board of Directors, July 21, 2006

Philadelphia — We view the unfolding tragedy in the Middle East with moral and spiritual repugnance. The destruction of precious human lives must end immediately.

We mourn the loss of life in Gaza, Israel, and Lebanon and we affirm the courage of those who daily face the devastation of war. We stand with the people who will live to endure war’s physical and psychological damage. We affirm the right of all people in the region to live in peace and security.

Military action only encourages future violence as hearts are hardened and voices of conciliation are shouted down. The violence must end immediately and unconditionally.
? We call upon the United States government to act at the highest level to bring about an immediate ceasefire and to create an appropriate environment for negotiations.

? We encourage the international community, especially the European Union, the United Nations, and the Arab League, to use their good offices to secure a ceasefire, start a negotiation process, and put in place a mechanism that can help preserve peace along the Israeli-Lebanese border, in the Gaza Strip, and in the West Bank.

? We renew our call that all countries, including the United States, stop sales and transfers of arms to the region.

? We support the state of Lebanon in gaining control of its own territory and sovereignty.

? We ask the leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas to end their missile bombardments of Israeli civilians.

? We ask the Government of Israel to cease immediately its attacks on Lebanon and to pull its forces out of Gaza. We further call on the government of Israel to re-open points of entry to the Gaza Strip and to allow the free flow of desperately needed food, medicines, and other humanitarian supplies.

Israel’s sustained air and threatened ground attacks against civilian populations and infrastructure have caused the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. Neither Israel’s sustained attacks against civilian populations in Gaza and Lebanon, nor Hezbollah’s rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel, can be justified on the grounds of self-defense.

As a Quaker organization working to promote peace and allay suffering in the region since 1948, AFSC knows that peace does not come from war. A real and enduring peace for all people of the region will come only from a rejection of violence and a framework for regional and shared security.

— Approved by the American Friends Service Committee Board of Directors, Friday, July 21, 2006.

The American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker organization that includes people of various faiths who are committed to social justice, peace and humanitarian service. Its work is based on the belief in the worth of every person and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice.