Ever since Bible stories were read to me as a child, I’ve dreamed of visiting the Holy Land. I’ve imagined going to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee and Jerusalem. I’ve listened breathlessly to accounts of relatives and friends who’ve been there.
I remember listening to the radio with my father as he followed the coverage of the 1973 Arab-Israeli (“Yom Kippur”) war. Most of the world media available to us (with the exception of Radio Moscow and Tass), Time magazine in particular, put forth the narrative of a young Jewish nation being attacked by Arab nations encircling it, and putting up a valiant fight despite seemingly impossible odds. David versus Goliath.
There seemed so much to admire about Israeli chutzpah, and the brilliance of its scientists, artists and thinkers.
India’s policy in the Middle East almost from our Independence had been to be a staunch supporter of Palestine. India voted against the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947, and voted against Israel’s admission to the UN in 1949.
In my own medical class of 1984, there was a Palestinian exchange student. I don’t remember ever discussing the issues in his homeland with him; I guess I felt I knew too little on the subject then.
In 1992, there was a thawing in India-Israel diplomatic relations. I remember signing up for a newsletter titled ‘Shalom’ from (if memory serves well) an Indo-Israel Friendship Society.
During my England years, it was a lot easier to make the trip to the Holy Land, and I could afford it as well. But this is also when my eyes were opened about so many things I had unquestioningly accepted until then.
I remember walking in London with a work colleague to his apartment (which he shared with an Israeli, also a doctor). On entering, he sorted his mail, and finding an envelope addressed “To The Occupier”, he flippantly tossed it to his flatmate, saying “It’s for you!” The friend took it in good humour, but the point (about the territories “occupied” by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, in violation of international law: the Syrian Golan Heights, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip, and Jordanian-annexed West Bank) lingered with me.
After that, I found myself learning more about the troubled region, through reading up, watching documentaries and speaking to doctor-colleagues from all over the Middle East, including Israel.
I stumbled upon the writing of American polymath, historian and political activist Noam Chomsky by accident. Impressed by his lucidity in an article on linguistics, I began to read more by him.
His book ‘The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians’ was an eye-opener. I have subsequently watched him online, speaking at lectures and interviews; his grasp of the sequence of world history, its significance, and the chronicling on injustices against vulnerable, oppressed people everywhere, not just the Middle East, and his untiring campaign for justice on their behalf is truly inspirational.
Expatriate Israeli historian-activist Ilan Pappé, American political scientist, professor and author Norman Finkelstein and Israeli-American activist Miko Peled are more recent discoveries. Significantly, all four (Chomsky, Pappé, Finkelstein and Peled) are Jewish. Finkelstein’s mother survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the Majdanek concentration camp and two slave labour camps, and his father was an Auschwitz survivor, but every single other member of both sides of his family perished in the Holocaust. In an impassioned response to a question following a lecture, Finkelstein elaborates that “it is precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings that I will not be silenced” when the Israeli government commits its crimes against the Palestinians.”
Peled’s grandfather signed Israel’s declaration of independence, while his father fought in the 1948 war, and served as a general in the 1967 war. The latter became an ardent advocate for peace, and condemned the 1967 war as a “cynical campaign of territorial expansion”.
Miko Peled initially carried on the family military tradition, serving in Israel’s Special Forces after high school and earning the red beret, but quickly grew disillusioned. Disgusted by the 1982 Lebanon invasion, he buried his service pin in the dirt.
In 1997, when political mileage was sought to be drawn after a suicide attack killed his niece, he countered: “Why not tell the truth … that this and similar tragedies are taking place because we are occupying another nation and that in order to save lives the right thing to do is to end the occupation and negotiate a just peace with our Palestinian partners?”
In his 2012 book ‘The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine’, he describes how he, “the son of an Israeli General and a staunch Zionist, came to realize that “the story upon which I was raised … was a lie.”
This year marks the centenary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration issued by the British government. While it stated that it “view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” it also categorically specified that it was “clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
When British PM Theresa May last month said Britain was “proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel” at a gala dinner attended by her Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, to ‘celebrate’ the milestone, there was a deafening silence over the shameful, failed Balfour promise to the “non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
What has unfolded in the last century in Palestine is another messy legacy of colonialism, leaving tinderboxes as they left, as in Cyprus, the Partition of India and elsewhere.
But although successive Israeli governments (with tacit, steadfast American support) continue to flout international law, pressure is building among its own Israeli Jewish people. ‘Breaking the Silence’ is an Israeli NGO founded by armed forces veterans who are speaking out about their experiences in the Occupied Territories.
Also, more and more young Israelis are risking much in disobeying orders to serve in the Israeli Defence Forces. And abroad, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement gathers momentum, despite allegations of anti-semitism.
An overwhelming 128 countries voted in favour of the UN draft resolution against the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, braving overt threats and bullying by both countries, demonstrating how isolated the two have become in the international community. To its credit, India was among those 128; 35 countries (including Australia and Canada) abstained, while only seven countries (Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo) voted alongside the US and Israel.
Although ‘Make in India’ might have been the dominant factor causing India to scrap the $500 million missile deal with Israel last month, the move was hailed by the global movement to boycott Israeli industry.
In the documentary ‘Disturbing the Peace’ (2016), a band of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian freedom fighters “promote, with rare, often controversial evenhandedness, the notion that only nonmilitary action can bring peace to the region.”
Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women (‘Women Wage Peace’) marched through the West Bank last October, on a ‘Journey to Peace.’
At a time when we wish “Peace on Earth to men (and women) of good will”, let us pray that peace and goodwill come someday soon to the Holy Land. Amen.
I would love to fulfill my childhood dream of visiting the Holy Land, but only when true peace and justice and equality reign there.
A peace-filled Christmas to everyone everywhere.
(An edited version of this article was published on 24 December 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)