Today, June 5, 2017, marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Six Day War which resulted in victory for Israel over the military forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria–and, importantly for subsequent events, the expansion of Israeli rule over all of Jerusalem, the West Bank (often called Judea and Samaria by many Israelis) and Gaza.
Yesterday, tens of thousands marched in New York City in the 53rd annual Celebrate Israel parade, officially deemed a celebration of the creation of the State of Israel, but given its date it seems a clear declaration of support for an Israel that includes territory from the Nile to the Euphrates.
Palestinians and their allies refer to Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza as The Occupation. There is little doubt that it is marked by oppressive military presence, that Palestinians are under military rule in the land of their birth. Such rule is never, by definition, kind and gentle nor does it evidence much respect for the elemental human rights of those under control. With the requirement of border passes for work inside Israel, checkpoints, random searches of individuals and homes, evictions, murder and mayhem by settlers not to mention the growing presence of Israeli settlers, Palestinians feel deep bitterness. Fifty years is enough, they say.
I spent Sunday afternoon outside the White House, not to celebrate Greater Israel but to bear witness to the strength and endurance of the Palestinian people. No matter how many times their leaders have failed in negotiations with Israel (whose leaders failed just as much), no matter how much they have failed to build a vibrant society within the hated control of Israel (and how much Israel, from its position of economic and military dominance has made sure to cripple Palestinian institutions), I admire them for their fortitude and patience, for their attachment to the land of their fathers.
They deserve my respect and honor. They deserve that from all of us.
Sadly, it was a very small group at the White House, with little or not visible organization and leadership. According to the email invitation I received, it was to be a silent vigil, but mostly people just talked to each other. At one point, one of those present got some of us to sing a few protest songs, with lyrics he devised to focus on the Occupation and the need for liberation and peace. I left about 30 minutes before its scheduled conclusion, not sure it had ever begun.
I have wondered if this was an organizational fluke–the listed sponsors were four groups, Arab American Institute (AAI), Arab American Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC), United Palestinian Appeal (UPA) and American Palestinian Women’s Association (APWA)–or if it reflects deeper disorganization within the Palestinian and Palestinian-American community. I hope it was a fluke. We need a strong Palestinian voice in the Middle East and here.
There was one presence at the White House that was clearly organized and in charge: The Secret Service. When I arrived at Pennsylvania Avenue–it is blocked for through traffic between 15th and 17th Streets and has become essentially a pedestrian mall adjacent to Lafayette Park (except for official vehicles going in and out of the White House)–just before 3 pm, there were hundreds of tourists taking pictures of themselves and their companions with the White House in the background. It was a good-humored gaggle of humanity speaking several languages, doing tourist-y things. I noted uniformed Secret Service agents moving through the crowd.
I found the one lone man with a pro-Palestinian sign and we chatted. Several others joined us. Eventually, our small group moved across the street, closer to the park and in the shade (it was a hot sun), waiting for some others we were told were on their way.
Here’s what it gets informative. When we all–no more than 25, maybe 30 including quite a few teenagers/college students, regrouped on the street directly in front of the White House, many of us with signs protesting the Occupation and other Israeli policies and practices, we were approached by two Secret Service agents. One asked what our purpose was. One of the men in the group who seemed to know more than others said, “We have a permit.” The agent nodded and repeated his question. I did not hear the answer but assume it was to say we were doing what our signs said, protesting the Occupation.
The agents moved away and I, naive and trusting soul that I am, thought that was done . I was disturbed, however, by the question. The right of Americans to gather, the right of public assembly guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, is not dependent on the content raised by those gathering.
Fifteen or so minutes later, the agents moved in more authoritatively and begin telling everyone–tourists, our group and the few individual purveyors of amusement (including the man putting on a Donald Trump mask and getting his picture taken while in some sort of Trumpian pose, and a Christian evangelist–to move across the street. It was done quietly, but it was done efficiently. Pretty soon we were all across the street behind yellow police line tape. The street was empty but for some Secret Service agents, several of whom held automatic weapons in their hands. Earlier, I had noticed holstered hand guns but not these more lethal weapons.
A few minutes later, one white SUV emerged from the driveway from the White House and drove down the street. I’d like to think that was why agents cleared the street, but there probably were easier ways than closing three blocks containing hundreds, probably more than one thousand, people. For one thing, a few honks and orders from an agent would easily have cleared a path.
We small band of Palestine supporters were the only organized group, the only group with signs who had been in the street. I realized after about 30 minutes of being held behind the yellow tape, and the the agents’ eyes mostly aimed in our direction, that we were the focus, the cause of the herding. I felt for the tourists who just wanted their picture taken as close as possible to the White House.
Then, just as quietly as before, an agent released the tape. It seems logical to me that after the agents watched our rather ragged attempt at singing protest songs–if someone said 10 of us sang I would be surprised (even with a portable speaker we made very little noise)–and seeing that our number did not grow, they decided the President was safe from marauding Palestinian freedom fighters (or terrorists as many would say).
After re-grouping, several of us took a few pictures (I took picture on left of three of our group), and then I began the journey home. I had donned a black and white keffiyeh at the vigil and I wore it home on the Metro to Greenbelt. No one asked me why, on a hot day, I had a large scarf over my shirt, but if they had, I would have told them I was showing solidarity with, and honor to, strong, patient Palestinians who still seek the respect of the world, and most especially of Israel and my own country, the United States of America.
I’ll be back, at the White House or not, and I am sure our numbers will grow. It does not take a multitude to remind me of what is important, even as I know that many will not join until there is a multitude. So we have work to do.
And as Christian theologian, I know that dignity for all, abundant life for all, is God’s charge to us. And it does not matter whose God that is. God says it in every tradition, in every religion.