The question I got asked a lot about my Palestine trip

This is part of an occasional series about my experiences with the American Jews for a Just Peace Health and Human Rights delegation to Palestine in June 2014. You can read all posts in the series here.

One question/comment that I got a lot about the delegation, before and after, in various forms, was about my own safety, from simply expressing concern to asking whether the delegation had an armed guard (no, it did not). This is not necessarily an unreasonable question, as travel in a foreign country and culture, especially if you don’t speak the language, means some amount of risk, and there are many dangers in Palestine. However, it was sometimes clear that the real question was whether I was in danger from Palestinians, and that the speaker was speaking from an assumption that Palestinians are unusually dangerous [for an American Jewish person] people to be around.

To answer these questions, to the extent that there were dangers, they weren’t coming from Palestinians, but from the IDF, and to a lesser extent from settlers. That has come up in other posts. I found Palestinians as a group to be extremely friendly and welcoming, even very protective, toward internationals. In most places I wasn’t even concerned about normal street crime. Sometimes there were little kids trying to sell us cheap crap, but it was no worse than the requests from street canvassers that I might get walking through Boston’s Downtown Crossing shopping district in the middle of the day. When our delegation, which had no men, got lost after dark in (gorgeous) Beit Sahour walking back to our guesthouse from dinner, a group of rambunctious teenage boys on bikes came across us, figured out where we were trying to go, and led us there. When I was by myself in Ramallah trying to navigate the Service (pronounced sehr-VEESE, the Palestinian shared taxis that serve as a sort of Palestinian public transit in the West Bank) system, a random man helped me find the garage where the Services were leaving from and then find a driver who was going to Abu Dis for a fair fare.

Pretty much everywhere we went as a delegation, including into Services shared with random Palestinians off the street, we introduced ourselves as being from American Jews for a Just Peace, and nobody had an issue with this. When fellow delegate MF and I were on the bus in East Jerusalem chatting about our Qalandiya experience with some random English-speaking Palestinian that we met, he knew that we were Jews from the US and didn’t blink. The biggest threats to my health posed by Palestinians were probably being overfed to the point of bursting any time we went to someone’s home – regardless of the time of day or whether the visit was pre-planned, our hosts wanted to feed us a meal and dessert -­ or maybe overcaffeinated from all the coffee.

There was one time when we were in a potentially dangerous situation on the road, as our vehicle drove into a situation where Palestinian teens with rocks were on one side of the road, and armed, threatening IDF soldiers were on the other. We shut the windows and all ducked down, our driver (a Palestinian refugee camp resident) drove us through, and in fact the rock-wielding teens stopped throwing to let our van through safely.

At one point, AR, a highly experienced delegate, was showing a movie that she made to teach US Jews about the Nakba, to an audience of Palestinian college students at Al Quds University. While most of the comments were positive, the first person to comment, an assertive young guy, started his review by welcoming AR and the other delegates to his country as honored guests. As I told AR (who took his irate criticism with grace) later, “I knew, when he started out by welcoming us like that, that he was going to say something really negative -­ if it was a positive comment he wouldn’t have bothered to spell his welcome out, it would have been assumed.” She laughed and agreed with me. Incidentally, while we encountered many people who favor one or more binational states during the delegation, that guy was literally the only person I met who expressed a view that Jews should just leave Israel altogether. Most Palestinians who told us their views made a point of emphasizing that that wasn’t what they wanted, that they wanted equal rights with Jews and to be able to return to ancestral towns, not to run anyone out.

I wrote this post because I think that the assumption that Palestinians are especially dangerous is a politically important one. There’s a strain of liberal thought that I’ve heard often, that I would summarize as “Israel’s being a big bully with its Occupation and it needs to stop that, especially since it aspires to be considered a peer of Western liberal democracies, even though Palestinians are unreasonable, violent, unsympathetic people who make doing the right thing hard.” This is a pretty racist (or Islamophobic, depending on your basis for it) sentiment, and even when it’s held by people who are anti-Occupation, it props up the oppression of Palestinians. It makes it easy to believe Israel when they claim that there’s no partner for peace, or when they try to blame all the atrocities that they commit in Gaza on Hamas. It makes it easy to blame Palestinians when peace talks fail, and to assume that if they get arrested by Israel they must have done something terrible to deserve it. It scares people away from supporting Palestinian Right of Return. ­I’ve been accused several times, since the delegation, of magical thinking, for supporting Right of Return, by people who think that adding a bunch more Palestinians to Israel, even gradually and with heavy international monitoring, would mean genocide against Israeli Jews. It puts Palestinians at a permanent disadvantage in US discourse. And that’s a real problem given our historically large role in attempting to address the Israel/Palestine situation.

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