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Contreras ’11: Shalom-Salaam: dialogue as distraction or dialogue as action?

Guest Columnist
Monday, March 7, 2011

Israel’s public relations machine is working full force on campus this month in the form of the Watson Institute for International Studies’ conference “Israelis and Palestinians: Working Together for a Better Future” and Brown-RISD Hillel’s Israeli-Palestinian Peace Week. The events’ respective goals are to “bring together Israelis and Palestinians to foster better understanding between them” and to “talk to Brown students about religious pluralism and the value of building inclusive communities on campus … and to create a forum for dialogue without pushing any political agendas or sides.” Pluralism, understanding, peace and dialogue — sounds good, right? 

Unfortunately, the sound of Caterpillar bulldozers mowing over Palestinian olive gardens and homes for the construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Israel’s unmanned drone attack on the southern Gaza Strip in late February do not sound quite so good. Consider this — in the West Bank today, over 400,000 Israeli settlers live in over 120 illegal settlements despite the fact that Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention clearly states, “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” 

These settlements are built on prime agricultural land confiscated from Palestinian farmers and over key water resources such as the Western Aquifer basin. Amnesty International has accused Israel of denying Palestinians access to adequate water by maintaining total control over the “shared” water resources and pursuing discriminatory policies. Israeli daily water consumption hovers at 300 liters per day, much of which is used to fill the settlements’ swimming pools and irrigate their lush lawns. Meanwhile, Palestinians barely get by on 70 liters a day.

Today in the West Bank — an area the size of the state of Delaware — 74 percent of the main routes are controlled by 699 road blocks, including permanent or “flying” military checkpoints, where Palestinians often wait for hours and must show their identity cards or passes, while settlers are granted immediate passage. Since 2000, 69 women have had to give birth at these checkpoints in some of the most unsanitary and inhumane conditions imaginable. Thirty-five of the newborns have died, and five mothers have perished. 

Palestinians in Gaza — who have lived under Israeli blockade since 2007 — are afflicted by a 70 percent poverty rate, a 50 percent unemployment rate, lack of medical equipment and physical deformities in children from malnourishment. In the winter of 2008, the Gaza Strip was bombed to smithereens. Unlawful white phosphorous burned through children’s skin to their bones, and over 1,400 Palestinians were massacred. The Israeli death toll? Thirteen. 

To what end, may I ask, does Hillel propose to “create a forum for dialogue without pushing any political agendas” when it is institutions like our University that invest in companies like Caterpillar that profit from the occupation and when it is our government that sustains these horrors through its annual $3 billion aid package to Israel? They are the ones who have chosen through their capital investments to push an agenda — the daily dispossession and violent subjugation of Palestinians. 

I am pro-dialogue, but only if the dialogue begins with the acknowledgment of the horrific reality on the ground and the irrefutable fact that Israelis and Palestinians do not stand on equal ground. This type of dialogue is a necessary part of the process to end apartheid, and it is happening all the time. 

It includes Palestinian-Israeli journals and joint demonstrations like those in the occupied Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah that protest the colonization of East Jerusalem. It includes community meetings, joint documents, bilingual poetry readings — all organized between Palestinians and Israelis against the occupation. The growing, grassroots, global and nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel — supported by a diverse coalition of organizations ranging from Palestinian Queers for BDS to Israeli Boycott from Within and the U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace — is the most promising case in point. Its goal is Israeli compliance with international law, and it has come to Brown in the form of a selective divestment campaign from the occupation. It holds the greatest potential for ushering in productive dialogue, and it is one that we should support and publicize at Brown. 

Unfortunately, these movements receive no air time whatsoever in the United States because they fly straight in the face of the U.S.-Israeli portrayal of the conflict as rooted in either some kind of “ancient hatred” between Arabs and Jews or some kind of natural Palestinian proclivity for terrorism. Too often, many well-intentioned groups insist that if we could just sit around a table and talk about it, then the conflict will simply disappear — unfortunately, if this approach ignores the imbalances of power, then it is destined to fail.

If you get invited to Israeli-Palestinian Peace Week’s role-playing activity “that will ask participants to embody different political, ethnic and religious identities,” ask yourself if you would ask Tibetans and Chinese to engage in interfaith dialogue to resolve their long conflict. Ask yourself how any one of the 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians barred from using Jewish-only roads on their own land or subjected to Israeli military law while Israelis in the same territories are subjected to civilian law would respond. Or even better yet, go to their events, raise your hand and ask, “What about systematic violations of international law and occupation?”


 Francesca Contreras ‘11 is a Mexican-American Jew who spent her childhood in South Africa and Israel.

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  1. Multinkamaru20 says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article! It makes sense. Would it have made sense to ask black South Africans and Afrikaners just to have panels and forums to resolve the conflict? Brilliant article!

  2. AH! probably the most sane BDH article i have ever read regarding Palestinians and
    Israelis. thank you!!

  3. Lex Rofes says:

    I also want to thank you, as one of the organizers of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Week. Although you clearly don’t see as much value in our event as we do, I personally hope that those people out there who read this article can learn a little bit about the situation and help clarify their own beliefs. I personally agree with much of what was said, perhaps more than some of you out there might believe, but there are parts with which I disagree, mostly about our strategy. We are not attempting to solve the conflict. We are, instead, hoping to create an environment on Brown’s campus where people who are less informed than Francesca Contreras can seek to learn in a comfortable setting. People can read the news all they want, but there is no substitute for the perspectives of others, however different they may be from your own. As an added note, I would just say that the closing question, “What about systematic violations of international law and occupation?” will be perhaps the most ubiquitous question of all throughout our week, so I would encourage you not to look at our event as some sort of monolithic presentation of the “pro-Israel” idea, because I personally do not believe in that idea. Instead, I would encourage you to put aside a little bit of cynicism, come to our events, and voice your opinions. The worst thing (and perhaps the most likely thing) that could happen is that we don’t improve our situation on campus, and without any attempt at all we would be doing that anyway. So I see this as a no-lose opportunity.

  4. Lex Rofes says:

    I’d like to add that I do not necessarily represent the opinions of all organizers of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Week, as we, like any other group of people, have a ton of different views about this issue and I would not want anyone to assume that we are by any means monolithic.

  5. victoriamruiz says:

    wow this article is a prime example of dialogue as action! We must stop using pluralism, peace, and dialgue as an excuse to depoliticize and diminish our process of learning about this situation. There is no such thing as a “comfortable setting,” when it comes to learning about Palestine-Israel (or Mexico-US for that matter) if you are comfortable while you are learning about it, then there is something wrong. There is nothing comfortable about the violent subjugation of people. Comfortable discussions on this issue are but what Francesca calls, dialogue as distraction. Addtionally, while variation in perspective is important for our dialectic, there is no variation in the fact that there is an uprising of people, states, and nations recognizing Palestine. Israel and its imperialist mentor, the United States are not only ignoring this, but continuing to perpetuate systematic oppression through trying to blockade resources, international legality, and a voice. Recently, Washington abandoned efforts to persuade Israel to agree to a partial renewal of the settlement moratorium in exchange for security guarantees. Netanyahu’s response: “I welcome this American decision. It is good for Israel. It is good for peace.” I feel like Francesca points at that what is good for Netanyahu and the U.S.’s Israel is NOT GOOD FOR PEACE. What is good for peace is the consistent and necessary taking, moving, and igniting of power by Palestine, which Chile, Argentina, and millions of organizing Palestinians and allies are showing is possible and happening through dialogue (which ranges from words to feet on the ground in protest to divestment) as action.

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