by David Sklar
(AJNews) – Peter Driftmier was visibly nervous but composed, as he stepped up to the front of Temple B’nai Tikvah’s library on the evening of Monday, February 27th. He was there to present a talk on his month working with Israeli and Palestinian NGOs in the occupied territories.
“What do you mean by occupied?” was the first question lobbed at Driftmier before he could even get two sentences out of his mouth.
He was there to address his experiences working with the Wi’am Centre in Bethlehem, All That’s Left (an Israeli leftist-NGO) in Masafer Yatta, Rabbis for Human Rights, Tent of Nations, and the Centre for Jewish non-violence to name a few.
By simply saying the words, “Occupied territories,” Driftmier knew he was opening a can of worms.
Anytime the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is discussed or even attempted to be brought up within the Jewish community, accusations of disloyalty, self-hatred or simple naivety can be tossed around.
As Driftmier took sip after sip of water between slideshows of interviews and videos he filmed, he discussed some of the logistics behind IDF military training zones in the West Bank, as well as growing settler violence. But, as Driftmier will tell you himself, he is neither a conflict nor political expert and rather wanted to focus on the Israeli and Palestinian human rights workers, who have been putting their careers and lives on the line, defending their beliefs. And it was in these recounted personal moments, that the audience was able to connect with the lecture.
For Driftmier, his connection to Israel began on Birthright, where many young Jews first get their first taste of the Land of Milk and Honey, but according to him, “You only get one side of the story. If you are active in Jewish life you can’t not talk about Israel. And as someone who is committed to human rights, you also can’t ignore the occupation”.
Within his first 24 hours of landing in the Middle East and heading towards Bethlehem, he already felt the stark difference between how Israelis and Palestinians live. “What was once a suburb of Jerusalem now has a wall and a checkpoint that you have to go through”.
“And whose fault is that?” was an audience member’s retort. “The Palestinian terrorists. They brought this on themselves. Israel is just defending itself”.
Driftmier, while conceding that some Palestinians want to harm Israelis and Jews, noted our general perception of them is often caricatured and one-dimensional. “I was taught to be scared of Palestinians, to avoid them. But when you’re able to connect with people on the ground, discuss their day-to-day lives, their fears, frustrations, hopes and joys, the reality is so much more nuanced.”
“Do you know that Palestinians are the biggest recipients of UN funding? Where does that money go?” was an enquiry from another audience member.
Perhaps drifting further away from the personal stories of the lecture, Driftmier stated, “People shouldn’t be mass evicted from their homes, have their towns bulldozed, lack access to water and electricity, constantly be afraid of midnight raids or watch settlers attack rabbis in the middle of the day.”
“But if their homes are constantly being demolished, why don’t they just go somewhere else?” was yet another question raised.
Driftmier wanted to stress the power imbalance that exists between those that have full rights and others that are denied basic human rights. “I close my presentation with a tractate from the Talmud that states, Anyone who is able to protest against the wrongdoing of their house’s people and does not-they are responsible for the wrongdoings of their house’s people. I don’t think the Jewish community is ready to hear that”.
“Well, I don’t agree with that,” was heard from the back.
The tractate or my opinion? Peter responded.
Had Driftmier crossed a line?
Driftmier later told me that he felt some people weren’t there to listen and engage. “It was more of a staging opportunity for people to air their points. But that’s ok. People do that at all kinds of Q and A’s.”
What could someone from the Jewish community, who feels very attached to Israel, but is concerned with government policies, do, I wondered? How can they fight for justice without crossing the line and being accused of being anti-Zionist?
“This line is used by the right to prevent people from taking action. Look for the Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian organizations that are doing human rights work like Rabbis for Human Rights. Learn from them, and look at the different ways you can support it, whether it’s financial, volunteering, or applying political pressure. Don’t worry about the line. It’s imaginary. It’s used to prevent you from taking action and ensure that their agenda ends up winning.”
It wasn’t lost on Driftmier that the day before his talk, settlers rampaged through the West Bank town of Hawara in which the Israeli Central Command chief Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs described as a “pogrom”. Driftmier said that Israelis in the thousands took to the street to protest their government, but there was near silence from the Diaspora Jewish community.
Jennifer Eiserman, who introduced Driftmier at the start of the event, had many more questions than answers. “Why is it that calling yourself pro-Israel means that you can’t support Palestinian rights or being pro-Palestinian means you are automatically anti-Israel? Why is it always so black and white? I thought Peter provided a glimpse of hope into what often seems like an intractable situation.”
Perhaps this night’s lecture stressed how fraught it still is within the Jewish community to even attempt to have nuanced conversation taking both sides into account, but that it is important to do, nonetheless.
David Sklar is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.
interesting and well-written