Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2005, pages 50-51

New York City and Tri-State News

The Fate of Jerusalem: “An Inevitable Tragedy?”

By Jane Adas

Haaretz columnist Meron Benvenisti (staff photo J. Adas).

PROFESSOR RASHID Khalidi of Columbia University and Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, are in agreement: where Jeru­salem is concerned, “xenophobic bigots exploit religion as a political tool.” The two men spoke at a Nov. 10 event entitled “An Inevitable Tragedy? Jews, Palestinians, and the Fate of Jerusalem,” sponsored by The Israel Forum at Columbia University.

What are essentially nationalist claims to Jerusalem, Khalidi said, have in recent years become tinged by radical religion. Extremists of each faith see only the archeological strata that concerns them—the first and second temple periods for Jews, the Umayyad layer for Muslims, and the Crusader epoch for Christians—and are blind to the physical remnants of the presence of others. If the effort is not made to understand the connectedness of the three religions, Khalidi warned, we will be left with Jewish, Christian and Muslim fanatics, all of whom are obsessed with Jerusalem.

People think Jerusalem is a geographical location, Benvenisti noted—but, he asked, which Jerusalem? The Old City comprises a mere square kilometer. After 1967, Israel redefined the city’s borders to include 124 square kilometers, an area two and a half times larger than Paris. Israel gerrymandered the boundaries, Benvenisti asserted, to include the maximum land and the minimum number of Palestinians in order to preserve a two-thirds Jewish majority. In a further attempt “to expand and exploit the sanctity of Jerusalem,” the city has expanded beyond its 1967 borders to include, for example, the “neighborhood” of Har Homa, an illegal West Bank settlement on the outskirts of Bethlehem and 13 kilometers from Jerusalem. And now, he said, Israel’s “security wall” is returning Jerusalem to its pre-1967 condition: a ghetto at the end of a corridor.

Although a lifelong resident of Jerusalem, Benvenisti said he feels it may be good news that all of his children have moved out of the city. While Jerusalem may be important for the American Jewish community, he explained, today no Israeli figure is interested in fighting for Jerusalem. It would be better, he said, to go beyond the symbolic level, and look for practical solutions for the provincial town that is today’s earthly Jerusalem.

Asia Society Screens “Brothers and Others”

Filmmaker Nicolas Rossier (staff photo J. Adas).

Documentary filmmaker Nicolas Rossier, who was near ground zero on 9/11, first thought he would make a film about spiritual reactions to the attacks. Within a month, however, he began hearing stories about the backlash, and changed his focus to explore the hidden tragedy of the aftermath of 9/11. The result is “Brothers and Others: The Impact of September 11th on Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians in America,” which was screened at the Asia Society in New York on Oct. 27.

U.S. Congressman Thomas Tancredo (R-CO) tells the camera, “Fundamental Islam is our enemy. We are in great peril. More has to be done.” “Brothers and Others” explores some of the personal, human costs of policies engendered by such attitudes.

Zahida, a Pakistani woman whose husband disappeared into the American prison system soon after 9/11, tries to run the family store on her own. For lack of money, she sends two of her sons to live with relatives in Pakistan. “My family is in pieces,” she says, as she is forced to close the store, then sell it. An Egyptian woman’s husband and brother-in-law were arrested two weeks after 9/11 on visa violations. Too embarrassed to let people know, she sells everything for food. Her children, who were born here, ask “why are they mad at Daddy?” A young Iranian legal immigrant is arrested in Montana while on vacation with his American fiancée. He has a stroke while in solitary confinement and she loses her job. Released on a $30,000 bond and awaiting a deportation hearing, he thinks he may change his name from Ali to Tony.

Immigrants with U.S. citizenship are only marginally better off. An Egyptian-born storekeeper says, “People here think I’m a bad person.” After 9/11 his business dropped so dramatically he is no longer able to pay the rent. His wife is afraid here, and wants to move to Egypt. Two weeks after 9/11, a 28-year-old Pakistani computer engineer was interrogated at his workplace by the FBI. They accused him of questionable Web use for reading sites like Counterpunch and Free Speech Radio. Two months later he lost his job. He describes himself as a “pseudo-citizen,” without the rights and privileges of regular citizens.

To find out how to arrange a screening of “Brothers and Others,” contact Nicolas Rossier at <[email protected]>. The video is also distributed by Arab Film Distribution (<www.arabfilm.com>).

Columbia Forum Hears “Alternative Voices in the Middle East”

Dr. Jessica Benjamin (staff photo J. Adas).

An ambitious day-long forum entitled “Impasse? Alternative Voices in the Middle East” was held Nov. 20 at Columbia University. While the 13 panelists were in broad agreement in advocating a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they differed in whether pragmatism, justice, or ethics should be given first priority.

Among the pragmatists, Yossi Beilin, chief Israeli negotiator for the Oslo accords and, as a private citizen, the Geneva Initiative, said that making a moral solution a prerequisite would postpone a political solution for generations. He acknowledged that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposal for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is part of a plan that has been in existence since 1982 to confine Palestinians in enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza. But, he argued, the only thing worse is for Israel to remain in Gaza. Now, with Sharon hated by the settlers and talking about a Palestinian state, Beilin urged people to seize the opportunity and demand that the Gaza withdrawal be part of the road map and not a rogue operation.

Nadia Hijab, executive director of The Palestine Center, urged re-framing the Palestinian struggle as one for justice, in the knowledge that peace will follow. Because of the International Court of Justice’s July 2004 decision declaring Israel’s separation wall illegal and the West Bank and Gaza occupied territories, Hijab recommended channeling efforts toward upholding human rights and international law, both of which have been missing from all previous peace processes. Israel cannot be part of the state system and simultaneously undermine it, she argued. Israel’s existence is not in question, Hijab emphasized, but it must adhere to international law.

Dr. Eyad Sarraj of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program was one of several Palestinians either prevented by Israel from leaving or denied a visa by the U.S. government. He was to have given a presentation with Dr. Jessica Benjamin, a psychoanalyst and professor at New York University, on “Recognition and Acknowledgment.” According to Benjamin, neglecting the ethical and emotional dimensions of the problem allows those who fear or hate to suppress empathy for suffering, deny the value of the other’s pain, and to repudiate responsibility. If Israel were to acknowledge the 1948 nakba and the post-1967 occupation, Benjamin said, and Palestinians were able to accept Israel’s apology, both sides would be empowered to restore the moral balance and move toward reconciliation. Such a move, she emphasized, would not delegitimize Israel, but would replace the false choice of being victim or perpetrator.

Professor Yoav Peled of Tel Aviv University argued that morality and pragmatism lead in the same direction: achieve justice and peace will follow. To an irate audience member who said the organizers should be ashamed because the forum lacked balance, Peled replied that there was indeed imbalance, which he described as emblematic of the problem: the two invited Israelis came with no problem, but not a single Palestinian or their replacements were able to attend. 

Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.

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