American rhetoric, Palestinian rights

Alex Shalom gave the following speech to win the Wendell Phillip’s Award and the opportunity to be today’s commencement speaker. Shalom is a graduating senior majoring in political science.

When I told my father that I wanted to give this speech on the role the United States has played in the Israeli settlement of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, I could see that he thought it was a bad idea. He probably remembers when the magazine Jewish Frontier reported that a Jewish scholar who criticized Israel was driven by “deep-rooted urges of sadism, masochism, cannibalism (of both mother and father), and fratricide.”

More generally, my dad knows that when Jews criticize the actions of the State of Israel, they are often called everything from self-hating Jews to anti-Semites. On the contrary, I’d argue that Jews have a special obligation to speak up against injustices committed by Israel – just as men must fight sexism, straight people must be particularly active against homophobia, white people must work to eliminate racism, and gentiles should be especially concerned about anti-Semitism.

Wendell Phillips argued that “the agitator must stand outside of the organization, with no bread to earn, no candidate to elect, no party to save, no object but the truth.” Indeed, we must put truth above national or ethnic agendas and certainly above political popularity. With that in mind, allow me a few minutes to shed some light on the current situation in the Middle East.

I spent part of last Spring living with a pharmacist named Yousef Hassan and his family in the Palestinian village of Burka Ramallah. I can’t begin to retell the stories of subjugation, oppression, and repression which I heard from the Hassans and other Palestinians I met on my trip – there are simply too many. All I can tell you in my brief time is that despite seemingly confrontational rhetoric, the United States supports the continued occupation of Palestinian territories through its tacit approval of Israeli settlers’ presence there.

A little history: almost immediately following Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, it began to create settlements in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The United States joined the international community in condemning the practice – referring to Israeli settlements as “an obstacle to peace.” Recently the Clinton administration expressed the continuity of the American position on settlements when US envoy Dennis Ross called Israeli settlements “very destructive to the pursuit of peace.”

Rhetoric is one thing, however, action is another. As you will see, the US pays to entrench settlers and displace Palestinians. In 1993, when the Oslo Accords were signed, the decisions on several contentious issues were designated to be postponed until final status negotiations – among these topics was the question of settlements. The Israeli government argued that though they needed no assurances about the permanence of the settlements, they needed to be assured that settlers would be able to travel safely to and from Jerusalem.

Fair enough, one might think. The problem, however, with the Israeli proposal – which has been accepted and funded by the Clinton administration – was that it called for the laying of several permanent, multi-lane highways, through Palestinian lands. Palestinian property was confiscated, crops uprooted, and houses demolished to ensure the safe passage of settlers. While the Oslo Agreements declared that the question of settlements would not be decided until the final status agreements, there are now a few thousand tons of asphalt that make me think that the Israeli government believes that question to be moot. The total American tab: $660 million, at last count. Needless to say, none of those funds went toward compensating Palestinians for lost land, crops, or homes.

It is not just via funding that the United States signals its support for Israeli settlements. Look, for example at American voting on United Nations Security Council resolutions condemning the settlement policy. In March, 1980 the US cast its only vote against Israeli settlements. A few days later, it disavowed its vote. That’s hardly a scathing condemnation.

The US talks a big game. But a wink here, a nod there, and bypass roads everywhere and we see the real agenda of the United States.

To those who argue that exposing the truth about the American role in Israeli settlements is harmful to the Jewish State, I respond with Wendell Phillips’ own words: “Only by unintermitted agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered.”

I’m proud to be part of that tradition of agitation.