Letter to Alice Walker

Alice Walker, author of 'The Color Purple', had an article in the Guardian, June 25th 2011, explaining why she is taking part in the next flotilla to Gaza.  The Guardian article is here http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/25/alice-walker-gaza-freedom-flotilla and her full blog, which offers a rather different perspective, can be found here: http://alicewalkersgarden.com/blog/ This is a letter in response to her blog, but I have been unable, for technical reasons, to post it on her website.
Dear Alice,

I have to confess that I don’t know you; even, with some embarrassment, that I have neither read any of your writing nor seen ‘The Color Purple’.  But I read in my English newspaper, the Guardian (Saturday 25th June 2011), an extract from your blog about joining the flotilla, felt moved to read the entire piece in your blog and now to write to you.

Let me introduce myself.  I am an English Liberal rabbi.  I won’t bore you with a lengthy definition of Liberal Judaism, nor with stories of how I have often found myself vilified by many in my own community for my choice of newspaper, politics and many of my statements deploring Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.  I thought, perhaps, that I might have found sympathy with your views as expressed in the extract that appeared in the Guardian, but when I read the whole piece on your blog, I found myself dismayed.  I was dismayed for two reasons.  There were the harrowing descriptions of your treatment by the Israelis at the border crossings where you endured such inhuman treatment, and observed the kind of attitude so routinely handed out by Israeli soldiers who have themselves become dehumanised – German-esque as you put it – in the way they deal with the ‘other’; the Palestinian people, whose passage into their land they seek to frustrate and deny.  Please be assured that I am as distressed and appalled as are you at the shameful treatment meted out by those who ostensibly represent the same religious heritage that I hold so precious.  It is a travesty, a contradiction of every Jewish value I cherish, every element of the ancient faith whose voice I seek to make heard in our troubled world.

But I was also dismayed at some of the language you use, language that emphasises the division between these people, exacerbates the hatred and gives voice to only one narrative when there are – and always have been – several stories vying for attention and supremacy in the ‘holy’ land.  When you use words like ‘the catastrophe of 1948’ and ‘Zionist terrorists’ you betray the one-sidedness of your vision, a very narrow perception of this protracted and bitter struggle that is far older than the sixty years you mention.  If the ‘Zionist terrorists’ were so determined to separate themselves from their Palestinian neighbours, why did they not simply build a wall after the ‘catastrophe’ of 1948?  The answer is, I think, that although there were exceptions (there always are), there was a genuine will among those establishing the state of Israel to establish peaceful relations with their Palestinian neighbours and with those Arabs who remained on the ‘wrong’ side of where the wall now divides this ancient land.

But there is no point in indulging in the rights and wrongs of history; you of all people should know that what matters is not what happened, but what will happen – and the role those with influence can play to fashion justice out of injustice and peace out of strife.  You say that your intention is to deliver letters to the children of Gaza.  Perhaps you would be so kind as to include some of the following observations in the letters you wish to deliver.  Because if the tone of your blog is present in the letters you send, then the angry rhetoric will simply be repeated and the narrative of hatred and division will be sown in the hearts and minds of yet another generation.  Of course, these are children whose world has been shattered and destroyed time and again by the actions of their neighbours, I do not for a moment seek to pretend that this is not the case.  But before you dismiss my words as the ramblings of another narrow-minded Israeli-sympathising Jew (which I don’t think I am), please consider incorporating some of the following messages in the letters you deliver to Gaza.

You say that the teenagers who shout so disrespectfully at elderly Palestinian men and women, and Palestinian children, were once children themselves and wonder if their mothers agree with the bad way in which they were raised.  I suspect that their behaviour is not a consequence of how their mothers raised them, but rather of the situation in which they find themselves.  I have never been faced by people who would like to see me, my family and my entire country pushed into the sea and wiped off the face of the map; whose government actively promote that view and ingrain its message of hate into the minds of even the youngest children.  I don’t think that Israeli children are taught in schools to hate Palestinians, or trained from an early age to dress up as suicide bombers.  As far as I am aware, the Israeli version of Sesame Street contains the same fluffy lovable characters as its American counterpart, teaching letters of the alphabet and silly songs, unlike those versions broadcast in Gaza and the West Bank (Occupied Territories if you prefer) some of whose cast carry weapons, and die as martyrs, wrapped in high explosive belts, and encourage their young viewers to view them as role models.  I believe that the plays and performances in Israeli schools (where, except among the ultra-Orthodox, boys and girls are taught together) are about celebrations of Jewish holidays and messages of hope rather than parades of small boys dressed in combat gear demonstrating their ability to take part in guerrilla warfare while chanting slogans of hate.

So, Alice, if you truly want to send letters to the Palestinian children in Gaza, please ask them not to take into their hearts the messages of hate that their leaders and teachers, their parents and preachers would have them believe.  Because if they do take those messages to heart they will forever confront the disrespect and hostility you describe in your blog, because they will be face to face with the very people they have been taught to despise, whose land they have been told must be wiped from the map, its inhabitants pushed into the sea.  And I would imagine that the only response when confronted with such hatred is to behave in the inhuman way you experienced, the way that is, to use your words, ‘wrong and bad' for the teenage Israeli soldiers.

It is wrong and bad for all of us, Alice.  And like you, I believe that only children can change the way we treat one another, only children can recognise the humanity that is common to all of us, and, in so doing, help the rest of us find a way to respect, justice and peace.  Golda Meir once said that there would only be peace between Israelis and Palestinians when the Palestinians loved their children more than they hated the Israelis.  Teaching their children to hate will bring only more disrespect, more hate, more injustice.  Highlighting only one part of the complicated Israel/Palestine narrative serves only to increase that hate.  Please write about this to your children of Gaza: give them a message of possibility and hope, not one of hatred and despair.

Yours in the audacity of hope,


Rabbi Pete Tobias