Hoping to share stories from the Holy Land and to urge U.S. citizens to open their eyes to how tax money is being spent in Israel, three women from the Middle East visited Northeastern State University Thursday morning as part of “Jerusalem Women Speak.”
Their program, “One Land, Two Peoples, Three Faiths: Time for Reconciliation, Justice and Peace,” brought together three cultures the women say should have common ground in improving Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Marianna Khoury, a Palestinian Christian, came to the U.S. to escape what she described as a “box of silence” in her homeland.
“I don't have hope. That's why I came here,” said Khoury. “There has been an attempt to silence voices in Israel. There has been another attempt to erase an entire narrative, an entire history of the Palestinian people, within the Israeli society. In the past, I believed the solution would come from Israel. I'm now more a believer that if a solution would happen, it would happen from the U.S., so that's why we're here talking to you today.”
She believes both sides need to work together to “deconstruct the hierarchical structure” of Israeli society.
“Once we realize we're all on the same page, we're all equal, we all have the same rights, and we all deserve to have the same type of life, [that] is when things will change,” she said.
Ruth Hiller, a Jewish Israeli peace activist, said she must have hope as a mother of six children.
“I think... there is a growing movement within Israel that is being silenced,” said Hiller. “Twenty-five percent of children who graduate from a Jewish high school year do not induct into the military, and another 26 percent of all soldiers drop out before their end of tour of duty. This, for me, indicates a growing number of young people not buying into the narrative that we have been accustomed to. There is an indication we are beginning to make a change, that we are scaring the establishment. I'm a little more optimistic.”
Hiller said a willingness to be critical of present-day policy is essential to changing relations in Israel. She said a climate must be created to allow discussion of peace, and people shouldn't be afraid to ask questions.
“What I've found to be most effective is on-the-ground, people-to-people dialogue,” said Hiller. “That's much more effective than present peace negotiations that we're attempting now. I think the change will come from the people.”
Hiller shared a slideshow of photographs and newspaper advertisements from Israel, each depicting what she said is a huge focus on the importance of military. Tanks and military symbols are found inside coloring books for kindergarten children; kids in the photos played on real military tanks, and with real military weaponry. Ads are focused on military symbols that have nothing to do with the product, she said.
Palestinian Muslim Reem Mustafa was scheduled to participate Thursday, but she wasn't allowed a visa, according to Alison Weir, a former journalist and president of the Center for the National Interest Foundation. Samira Hussein, a Palestinian American who now lives with her family in Maryland, took the empty spot on the panel. Hussein expressed a lack of hope that Palestinians living through Israeli occupation might ever seen a change in relations.
“I don't see any hope, and I think if it's going to happen, it's not going to be my generation,” she said.
Peace can't be achieved, she said, as long as Israelis continue to create settlements on Palestinian lands, and as long as roadblocks and checkpoints are set up, and Palestinians are forced to walk on dirt roads while Israelis have paved streets.
Billions of dollars are annually provided to Israel by the U.S., according to Weir.
“This is more money than goes to any other country on the planet, even though Israel has only six million people, maybe seven million,” she said. “That's much more massive than anywhere else in the world.”
Unlike the U.S. aid to other countries, the Israeli aid goes in a lump sum “right at the beginning of the fiscal year, a very bizarre way to pay a bill or give aid,” Weir said.
“That means, since we're operating under a deficit, we pay interest on this money the rest of the year, while Israel makes interest on a substantial portion of it. Some analysts have told us it's costing us about $15 million per day,” said Weir.
Palestinians receive a smaller portion of aid, she said, which itself is n a sense, given on behalf of Israel, because it's largely for humanitarian aid projects.
“So our tax money goes to Israel; it's used to destroy roads, villages, towns, infrastructure, hospitals – and then we have a project that rebuilds the roads, hospitals, infrastructure, and then it's demolished again,” she said.
Weir said a grassroots effort in the U.S. is providing a new level of optimism, and citizens of this country are stepping up to take a role in the peace efforts.
“The most powerful party in this conflict is actually the American public,” she said. “It is our tax money that is funding the Israeli actions, it is our government that is vetoing international efforts to bring a just resolution to the policy, and the majority of our public know nothing about it because our media are not telling us.
“I have no connection to Israel or Palestine, or to the Middle East. I'm not Jewish, or Muslim, or Arab. Ten years ago, I woke up to the fact that I am directly related to it and to a large degree, responsible for the continuing tragedy, because my tax money funds the cycle of violence we're all trying to end. I feel responsible and obligated to take the actions we feel morality requires us to take, and really, our own self-interest.”
“I belong to two communities that are often under-represented when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am a Palestinian Christian, and I am also a Palestinian citizen of Israel,” said Khoury.
Upon arriving in the U.S., Khoury was shocked when others asked her when she had converted.
“I found it a little comical, because I have to remind people that it was not ‘Jesus of Arkansas' or ‘Jesus of Oklahoma' – it is ‘Jesus of Nazareth,' and Jesus was born in Bethlehem and he grew up in Nazareth,” she said. “So the Christian community in the Holy Land is among the first Christian communities in the world – certainly before any Christian communities had been here in the U.S. or in Europe.”
Khoury studied the Bible in Arabic and went to a private Catholic school in Nazareth.
“I prayed to the same Allah – the same Allah Jews and Muslims in my land pray for,” said Khoury. “I said I belong to the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Many people don't know who we are or how we came to exist. We're the community that managed to stay inside the community of Israel after 1948, and so we were granted Israeli citizenship.”
Palestinian Citizens of Israel are treated as “second-class citizens, and often as third-class citizens,” she said.
“There's a lot of discrepancies – mostly monetary – in the budget allocations that they receive,” said Khoury. “For example, my own town of Nazareth, which has been there for at least 2,000 years that we know of, receives a quarter of the funding that ‘Nazareth Elite,' or ‘Upper Nazareth,' the Jewish town nearby, gets. Jewish towns, on average, get a lot more funding from the government than Palestinian towns inside Israel do, although both communities pay the same taxes to the Israeli government.”
Khoury grew up identifying herself as an “Arab Israeli.”
“I grew up with no Palestinian element in my identity. If you asked me, I'd just say I was an Arab Israeli from Nazareth, and it was because an attempt had been done by my own Israeli government to alienate me from the rest of my people,” she said. “We were told we were special because we had Israeli citizenship.”
As a teen, Khoury began to question the structure.
“I found out I was Palestinian. I went to my grandpa and I asked him what had happened to him and his family in 1948. I found out there was a whole part of my identity that was taken away from me for 14 years,” said Khoury. “I found out I belong to a much larger community of Palestinians.”
She was unhappy with how her life would be impacted if she happened to fall in love with a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem or Jordan, or even the U.S.
“I would have a very hard time bringing him in to Nazareth and living with him there, and it would be nearly impossible for him to get Israeli citizenship,” she said. “If I were to fall in love with a Jewish person from any part of the world, I would not have a problem bringing him to Nazareth, and in fact, upon the very first hours of his arrival to the airport, he would be granted Israeli citizenship. That didn't really register well with me. I felt like I did not belong to that country, and that country didn't want me to be there.”
She decided to move to the U.S., which she described as “a very hard decision to make.”
Hiller was born in San Jose, Calif., and was brought up as a Zionist Socialist. She first traveled to Israel when she was in 1972 and decided to call it home. She married and now has two daughters and four sons.
“When our first son – our third child – was almost 15 years old, he approached us and said, ‘I recognize that fact that I am pacifist, and cannot serve in the military,'” said Hiller. “And because we were part of the Zionist collective and had bought into that narrative, this was a difficult statement for us, because we had been conditioned that there was a path that we followed: When our children were born, they go through their education process, through kindergarten, through elementary school, high school, and then to the military.”
Hiller admits it took a while to reconsider her son's statement, but they eventually decided to support him. She became more involved in anti-war activities, and met with other women to hold demonstrations during the first war with Lebanon.
She became part of New Profile, a movement for the civilization of Israeli society, which started 12 years ago and is known for sharing with would-be Israeli soldiers ways they can “refuse” to conscript, or enlist, in the military.
“We wanted to change the militaristic profile of Israeli society to a true civil society, and that is the focus of our work. We want to end the occupation, and we want Israel to be a truly humane society,” she said.
After six years of appearing before military panels and the high courts, Khoury's son was released by the military as unsuitable for service. Her other three sons have also found ways to get out of the military
Hussein lived “a very happy childhood” as the youngest child of her family. Her father was a mayor. She recalls on June 5, 1967, the announcement that war was about to begin.
“I was too young to know about the 1948 war, all these refugees and villages that were demolished by the Israelis,” said Hussein. “We were told by an Israeli commander we needed to leave because they are going to come through the town. They had already occupied two towns before us – we were very close to the border with the division from 1948, so we were the first villages they occupied. Just for a few hours, then we were returned to our homes.”
But later, the Israelis came through, and she and others walked for three days until they settled in another village for about two weeks with nothing but dirty irrigation water to drink. At some point, Israelis told them to “go back where they came from.”
She recalls “100-percent curfews” that meant doors couldn't be opened, so there was no light. There was massive destruction, she said.
“My village was almost demolished. Almost every house was gone. The other two villages, where I went to school, we could see some of them. We were told those towns were also being demolished. The Israeli army told us to leave and never mention those villages again, and the reason is, these three villages sat on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, a strategic location. So they want to secure that as theirs.”
Families were soon forced to leave and go to Jordan, she said.
“On the other side, the Jordanians took us, put us in trucks like cattle,” and hauled the Palestinians to the dessert, leaving them there with tents.
“That became our new home. Many people still live in those camps,” said Hussein.
Because of her father's title, Hussein didn't spend long in those camps, and returned to her country.
“Nothing's more precious than one's land,” she said. “My fig tree, my favorite spot where I used to play with my nephews and nieces, is no longer there. They uprooted all the olive trees. Some of the trees they didn't uproot, they were still burning.”
In 1972, she and her family moved to the U.S. She still lives in Maryland, and is an active citizen there. She also still has family living in the “Israeli-occupied, 1948 Palestine.” And traveling back is nearly impossible.
“The last time I was there, [officials were] asking me where I was born,” she said.
They finally decided to write on her passport that she was born in Ramallah, Israel.
“I was never born in Israel. This is another way to strip us of our identity, so I don't have any Palestinian documents.