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I am a Jew

Daniel A. Linder Nov. 2014


I am a Jew, an American and a psychologist, and I just got back from my first visit to Israel and the West Bank. I was there.


As I ponder the question I continue to be asked, “How was it being there?” I can see that I’ve become cynical and suspicious, “gun-shy” to talk about it. What was I going to say? That it was a tense situation, intensely tense, pressure cooker, a powder keg, when all the people here, where I returned home to where I live and am with closest to me were completely removed. All they knew about my trip was that I was going to Israel. They knew little of the Palestinian people and couldn’t care less about them, and who never heard of where or what the West Bank is. Many though also sound like they know a lot about what is going on there, have read a lot about it, have a lot of opinions, but who have never been to the West Bank, nor plan to be there anytime soon.


What I didn’t want to do was to get into another long-winded, intellectual debate about what is going on in Israel and the West Bank with people who seem insulated and unaffected, and removed from the horror of what is happening there right now, and who glorifies and remains loyal to Israel as the Jewish homeland and who want to protect the Jews at all costs, regardless of how they treated the Palestinians whose land the Israeli’s occupied. I don’t want to have to keep repeating, “I was there. You have to see it with your own two eyes!” to deaf ears.


There is a foreboding sense of powerlessness pervading my consciousness. Having to witness the injustice of repeated human rights violations, injustices the Palestinian people are subjected to on a daily basis, the systematic destruction of Palestinian homes, the taking over of Palestinian lands, evidently in an effort to drive them away so to make room for more settlements, and not be able to do anything about it, was, and still is, an unbearably bitter pill to swallow.


To be so close to the abused and the abusers, to see tragic and horrifying ironies playing out, and perpetuated, triggers my protective instincts, but to no avail. I don’t seem to be making much headway in my efforts to achieve a level of acceptance of my powerlessness, which is a stark contrast to my college days when I was demonstrating against the inhumanity of oppression, violence and imperialism, and which reminds me of the painful reality of “That was then. This is now.”


I need some kind of pressure release for the upheaval building inside, like trying to stop the volcano from erupting after it’s already begun. My inner guide had advised to let myself erupt on the page.


Glad that I’m a psychologist, as I’ve naturally remained in the process of assessing what was going on inside of me, and what attracts my clinical attention; identifying the issues that need to be addressed, the dehumanization that is weaved into the tapestry of their daily lives, and the pain and suffering that needs to be tended with compassion. Being a psychologist also affords me a way of better understanding the unfathomable insanity on both sides.


“I was there.” The West Bank is a place where the occupied and occupiers, the oppressed and oppressors, the abused and abusers, captives and captors, are clearly defined. It felt like I was in a prison living amongst the prisoners – a déjà-vu of sorts for me - that brought me back to my internship at San Quentin some 30 years ago, when I was working the prisoners, behind prison walls. So I know what it’s like in a prison, so that even if it doesn’t look like a traditional prison with steel bars and cells, even if it is a designated plot of land where thousands of people live, I know a prison when I see one. Everywhere we went in “occupied” territories, there was a relentless military presence; everywhere they went, everything they did, they were watched and controlled, a system that forces the inmates to live in sub-standard conditions, as sub-standard people who deserve no less, and must be treated as such as long as they are there.


Through the lens of psychologist, I saw a traumatized people, generations of people who have been and continue to be disempowered, the theme of powerlessness is running deep into their psyches. The Palestinians I saw was a group of people whose oppression had become imprinted in their psyches, and part of their DNA. The degradation and brutalization inflicted on them has only worsened over time, while no outside agency has stepped in to protecting them, and they remain unable to protect or defend themselves.


Their children are growing up witnessing their parents and grandparents being violated, humiliated, seen and treated as sub-human. They are raised to never forget who their oppressors are, and never surrender their fight for dignity and respect. I believe that how to cope under such conditions everyday of their lives, dominates their conversations within their families and strengthens their bond.


I saw symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome for the whole group of people who had experienced, witnessed or was confronted with events that involved threatened death or serious injury, or persecution.  The trauma is persistently re-experienced in the form of recurrent and intrusive recollections of the events, including images, thoughts and perceptions, and feeling as if they are reliving the trauma in flashback episodes.  


There was gross perceptual distortion coming from both sides -- Israel seeing and treating the Palestinians as “them” and “they” and – Palestinians seeing and treating all Israelis and Jews as “them” and “they.” The traumatized Palestinians can no longer discriminate between Israeli and Jewish, nor can they see them as anything other than their hated captors, the cause of their hardship and threat to their very existence.


As Ricky, the leader of our trip wrote is his expose in Ricky’s Riff’s, Israel/Palestine – A World of Hope and Pain,


The Holy Land is a land of trauma. Old hatreds and fears cover the Israelis and Palestinians like skins. Here is my Israeli patient, a scar in his side from a Palestinian bullet; my Palestinian friend, shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier; the Bedouin family whose home, made of scrap aluminum, was demolished by Israeli bulldozers; the Palestinian teenager sent to prison for throwing rocks at soldiers.


In my effort to better understand and explain what it must be like for the Palestinians, to walk in their shoes, my lifelong interest in the phenomenon of stigma bubbled up from the archives of my compassion, i.e. what stigma is, what it does to a human being and how the phenomena of stigmatization works.


The term, stigma, focuses attention on the social and familial conditioning that adversely affects of self-worth. In an article I wrote some 20 years ago I say,


A stigma is a visible or known attribute that relegates a person or group to a sub-standard or less desirable category of people. When a person is stigmatized, our perceptions and treatment towards that person are affected. Devaluation occurs as the person or group gets labeled as “less than,” “inferior,” and subsequently branded as an outcast.” 


“The phenomena of stigmatization is born out of the political and social power structure that sets the standard for acceptability, worthiness and normalcy. Stigma is the weapon used to restore the norm for the entire social system, enforcing conformity by arbitrarily punishing those who deviate from those standards and rewarding those who uphold them. Desirability is the reward for those who meet those standards and undesirability is the punishment for not living up to the standards of desirability.” 


When I connect what I wrote with what I saw, it’s clear that the Palestinians are a stigmatized people. They are seen and treated as inherently unequal, “less than,” and “inferior.” The process of stigmatization as I described above is akin to what is often referred to as “institutionalized racism.” Inequality is built-into the system run by those in power, who set the standards that dictate who gets what.


If you were there, you would have seen those deemed inferior forced to live an inferior quality of life by those who deemed themselves (Jews and Israelis) superior, and who grant themselves a far superior quality of life, i.e. have more options, get more financial government support, better jobs, homes, education, opportunities and freedom to come and go as they please. And that freedom is never to be granted them. Those who decide who gets rewarded and who gets punished exonerate themselves from any wrongdoing. In their minds, whatever is done, what happens to them, matters little or not at all, and they deserve what they get.


The Palestinians are stigmatized in a variety of insidious and diabolical ways. One is by referring Palestinians as ‘Arabs,’ and using those terms interchangeably. What I got from a number of the Palestinian people I met was that they want their Palestinian heritage to be honored and respected, and that it’s a slap in their faces to be considered in the same breath as ‘Arabs.’ Being thought of as ‘Arab’ is a lot like how most African Americans feel whenever they hear, ‘nigger,’ feeling defiled, degraded, their personage, heritage and ancestry devalued.


In many of the Palestinian territories I visited, Bethlehem, Nablus, Hebron, Ramallah, according to (Israeli) government policy, they are granted 15% access to their own water, water that comes from underneath the land they are living on, land may own, or land designated to them by the Israeli government; while Israeli “settlers” are granted an unlimited water supply. The Palestinians are allowed limited access at centrally located taps, that is, a single tap for a whole neighborhood at a certain time on a certain day of the month, which forces them to conserve and make sure they don’t run out before their next allotment time.


As you either walk or drive around these places, you can tell which houses the Palestinians live in because they’re the ones who have couple of hundred-gallon water cylinders on the rooftops. In the summer, during high demand periods, there are Palestinians who store water and seen selling water to other Palestinians who have run out. 


There were a number of places Palestinians were not allowed to cross a street or go next door to visit a family member, that they had to walk all the way around the block, or else they could end up taken away, in jailed or shot. Doesn’t this sound like segregation that echoes back to similar conditions forced upon the Blacks in the South in the 1960’s, when the civil rights movement was gaining traction.


Not only are the Palestinians in the West Bank not allowed to ever leave their designated area without a permit in the State of Israel, they can not travel to different countries. They are denied access to the Ben-Gurion airport. Our (Palestinian) guide, Elyot, was waiting 8 years to be granted a permit/visa to use the airport so he could get away, go on a 10-day vacation to Barcelona. He had shared about the dilemma he was in. While he was informed that he’s be receiving ‘approval’ or ‘denied’ in a matter of days, unsure exactly when that would be.


In the meanwhile, he had to decide to take a risk and purchase the most affordable airline tickets he could find but were non-refundable in the event that he needs to cancel or can’t go regardless the reason. The planned departure date of his trip was during the same time he was our guide. He notified us that he may need to be replaced if he goes ahead and buys the tickets and they get approved in a timely manner but hadn’t yet decided to take the risk. Then he let us know that he had decided to make the purchase knowing that if he doesn’t get approval in the next couple of days, he’ll have to eat the $700 ticket. We were all rooting for him and gave him a “bon-voyage.”


Stigmatization of the Palestinian people is by associating them as the same as “terrorists,” that is, the whole group of them are seen and treated as “terrorists.” In the minds of the prevailing powers, Palestinians are presumed to be mortal enemies, or ‘religious fundamentalists’ whose Jihad mission is to wipe Israel off the face of the planet. Therefore, “they” – the Palestinians -- must be treated as a serious and impending threat, which justifies their “by whatever means necessary” approach in terms of how their policies and procedures are formulated and get enforced.


Imagine not being allowed to lock your doors at night! That you weren’t allowed to protect yourself from intruders, or be assured of any privacy, that police had the right to barge into your space at any time for any reason! The Palestinians are not allowed to have lock on their doors. I saw on many doors holes where locks were removed, so that nothing can even slow down the advance of Israeli soldiers searching for contraband or subversives.


The Palestinians are not granted permits to improve or renovate their homes, living conditions, which, as you may have already imagined tend to be dilapidated and over-crowded, or unlivable. There are communities of Israeli “settlers’ or residents who moved in right on top of their homes and businesses, on their roof tops, who have their own entrances and exits that circle around their homes, and on bridges across roof tops, the Palestinians literally living right underneath them. Therein is a plan to keep pushing them until they get fed up and leave, so more “settlers’ can move in. I recently read that there are currently 500,000 Jewish ‘settlers,’ and continued expansion, not reduction, of  ‘settlements.’


As Micheal Lerner had stated in his article, A Jewish Renewal Understanding of the State of Israel,


The distortions in Israeli society required to enable the occupation to continue have been yet another dimension of the problem: first, the pervasive racism towards Arabs, manifested not only in the willingness to blame all Palestinians for the terrorist actions of a small minority but also in the willingness to treat all Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent as second class citizens (e.g. in giving lesser amounts of financial assistance to East Jerusalem or to Israeli Palestinian towns than to Jewish towns).


The most glaring symbol of segregation is the visual eye sore of The Wall. Talking about overkill and impact… we visited The Wall, not The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Wall is the actual wall that divides Israel and the Palestinian territories, the wall that is an approximately 400 hundred mile, 25 foot high, a foot thick, battleship grey concrete wall splattered with rebel art and graffiti, and not yet completed, as there are hundreds of feet of fencing to be replaced by concrete, with watchtower stations every couple of hundred meters manned by guards with machine guns. You have to see it to believe it.


On one side, you see “first-world” living, i.e. freedom and prosperity and a free- trade economy, where there is free flow, commerce flowing in and flowing out. On the other side, you see “second-world” living, i.e. rundown, impoverished, underdeveloped, with far less access to the essential resources like water, where there is no free-trade, where everything coming in and going out is screened and controlled by the Israeli rulers. This is the only Wall I know. For me, it’s become a universal symbol of oppression, of a hostile, violent disconnection of gargantuan proportions, representing what is going on in the hearts and minds of both, the Israelis and Palestinians.


Ricky captured his/our experience being at The Wall,

And in the Aida refugee camp, just a few blocks from our hotel in Bethlehem (in the occupied West Bank), we drove under a tear gas cloud, to the Palestinian side of the “separation” wall which is covered in revolutionary art and graffiti. When we came to a street corner, we looked to the right and saw an Israeli jeep surrounded by five soldiers in full battle gear. Our van then turned left into a crowd of Palestinian teenagers, many covered by masks and bandanas, armed with slingshots and rocks. Apparently, this is a typical day in the life of the camps.


When we drove by what looked like large-scale jails surrounded by watchtowers and barbed wire, built strictly to house Palestinian prisoners or ‘criminals,’ I began wondering how many Palestinian children and teenagers were in them, taken away, detained for indefinite periods, sometimes years, charged with a (bogus) crime, or not charged at all; no Miranda rights read to them. Many of them were tracked down for throwing rocks at the soldiers who crossed into “their” space, their land,” which would happen during “routine” military training or because there was some kind of reported threat or subversive activity. The crime of not having the proper permit (either Green or Blue) on their person for whatever reason may be to most common of crimes, immediately punished if they are not where they belong, i.e. outside of designated areas.


Again, I was shocked and dismayed by the rampant indifference of those in power, for these Apartheid-like conditions were in full view for all of the world to see. I remember that there were many moments that took my breath away, wondering in amazement. “Is anyone seeing what’s going? Or, are they looking the other way.  Or, don’t want to look. Or, don’t want to see. Tell me!”


Everything I do –my life’s work – is based on the premise that understanding, empathy and compassion brings us closer to reconciliation. In order for change to come about, there must be leaders on both sides who come to the table with some awareness of the backlog of pain that had built up over time on both sides, and do “whatever it takes” to reconcile.


As an American, I identify most with the values and ideals of democracy, and basic principles like separation from Church and State and all men are created equal. This is what America represents to me and what being American means to me. If there was one thing I learned that always made sense to me, when I was in first grade, was that secular government was the only way to run a government. Secular government is itself, a founding principle. Religion was deemed a personal matter, that everyone is free to embrace any ideology, and this ensured that every one would be will be treated equally, none receiving preferential treatment over any of the others.


And when America falls short from those ideals, it registers. On a deeper level, I feel ashamed and responsible, and compelled to upholding the principles of its constitutional foundation. in its political ineptitude or history as the most notorious number one imperialist invader of all time by far as America had As an American, I’ve come to take freedom for granted, as if it were a standard all over the world.


I feel responsible for what’s going on there. The Israeli government can conduct their affairs this way simply because they can, with the backing of the United States. Like I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, and no one wants to know anything about, as if it were politically correct to do so.


The Israeli government is never held accountable for the daily injustices perpetrated on the Palestinians. The Palestinian people’s existence continues to be dictated by Israeli policies and enforcement of those policies by a relentless military presence. Is there a cover-up? Israel justifies itself by the need to protect its own people. This is what they say to the world and makes the most sense to them.


Palestinians became casualties of economic and political realities that were set up in 1948, when the British abandoned ship and designated the State of Israel a Jewish State. My understanding is that approximately 800,000 Palestinians forced off their and relocate to places as last resorts that would take them in as unwelcomed refugees. It’s the American government that provides the financial and military support to “protect themselves” from the ‘terrorists,’  by continuing to develop the Apartheid-like existence for what may by upwards of 50% of the total population of Israel. There are almost as many Palestinians as Israelis who live there, while Israel never ceases from incentivizing more Jewish settlers forcing their way onto the land and homes Palestinians are living on.


Through the lens of being a Jew, the level of depth and complexity of my experience progresses geometrically. I sense a foreboding, a dark, disturbing story of a mutated birth -- how Israel came to be. I’m diving into depths of unbearable, shocking, unexplainable, irreconcilable truths and questions about the linkages and sequencing of events, a scary unfolding I haven’t gotten to the bottom of yet.


It was after spending several hours at Yad Vashem when something deep inside me got shaken loose, that plunged me into depths never ventured. Somehow, I got stuck with the question, “How? How could this have happened?” Six million Jews, one and a half million children, rounded up, transported on cattle trains to concentration camps, where they were gassed and cremated in ovens. “How long does it take to pull something like this off?” Oh yes, that was easy. Six years, 1939-1945. Six years… “How could have this genocide been carried out, uninterrupted for six years, as the whole world stood watch?” Mass executions continued for six years as the Nazis exterminated the “Jewish vermin.” When there were so many Jews needing help, there was no one there.


It wasn’t until 1945 that the Jews who had survived the camps were released, for all the world to see. Then there was an outcry for the pain and suffering the Jewish people had been through. There had to be some “egg on the faces” of the powers that were at the time, i.e. United States, Great Britain and France, who didn’t or couldn’t act sooner, make a concerted effort to stop the Nazi implementation of their plan, for whatever the reason. That they were ignoring what was happening right under their noses. They needed to “save face,” expiate their guilt by showing how much they cared about those Jews, that they were sympathetic, and desperate to help them find a place to go to rebuild their lives.


It appears that it was Great Britain who magnanimously suggested Israel be the new homeland for hundreds of thousands to Jews with nowhere else to go. Great Britain would vacate the land they had controlled, relinquish their claim to that land, and implying that the 750,000 or so Palestinians already living there at the time would be forced to relocate, but only temporarily, promised that they would be able to return, claim the land taken from them at some vague, future time. And this was the birth of the ‘Jewish’ state of Israel.


At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, I saw dozens of Israeli boys and girls in military uniforms following the tragic story of the Nazi genocide; a story that ends “naturally” with the founding of the Jewish state.


In the Israeli psyche, Yad Vashem is more than a memorial to a past that must never be forgotten. It is also a cautionary tale of the present and future. The story goes something like this: The world hates the Jews and has always wanted to be rid of them. The Arabs are a new version of the Nazis and will complete Hitler’s work–if Israel is not strong. Never again! So the deep wounds of the holocaust do not heal, but are passed on to new generations.

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