Friday, December 14, 2007
As tangled as one can get in the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hannah Mermelstein views it, at its core, as a simple beast:
In the wake of the Holocaust, Zionists seeking a Jewish state won approval from the United Nations. The Arabs fought. Israel won the war. The Arabs, by and large, fled or were forced elsewhere.
Six decades and many conflicts later, Arabs remain displaced from their homelands in refugee camps in the West Bank or in towns and villages foreign to their ancestors, living as second-class citizens under the oppressive thumb of the Israeli government.
This pro-Palestinian viewpoint may sound surprising coming from Mermelstein, an American Jew. Perhaps it shouldn't. According to this year's Annual Survey of Jewish Opinion by the American Jewish Committee, 46 percent of American Jews favor the establishment of a Palestinian state, while 43 percent oppose it.
Each year Jews from all over the world travel to Israel through Taglit-Birthright Israel, an organization that sponsors first-time trips for any Jewish person between the ages of 18 and 26. They experience a variety of Israeli culture during the 10-day trip but, naturally, it's from a Jewish, pro-Israel perspective. They aren't exposed to much of what life is like for the Arabs living in Israel and the West Bank.
Three years ago, Mermelstein and Dunya Alwan, an Iraqi-American woman of Muslim and Jewish descent, were working in Palestine with the International Women's Peace Service, a group that supports nonviolent Palestinian resistance. In response to Taglit-Birthright, they decided to start their own tour of Palestine, aimed at North American Jews. They called it Birthright Unplugged.
They don't have the money, government backing or security of Taglit-Birthright-people pay their own airfare plus $350-$500. Since Mermelstein and Alwan put their plan to action in 2005, 80 people have gone-a microfraction of the nearly 147,000 Jews from 52 countries who Taglit-Birthright has taken to Israel since 2000.
Mermelstein lives in Palestine four or five months of the year, giving six-day tours of Palestinian refugee camps, towns and villages. She says it's important for Jews, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, to expose themselves to the Palestinian viewpoint rather than making a blind decision to support Israeli policy. The 10 or so people she takes on each trip meet with Palestinians and stay in refugee camps or with host families. Despite the images of suicide bombers that the region might conjure up in American minds, she says it's safe.
"There's not necessarily any reason why either Jewish people or American people should be welcomed into Palestinian communities, considering the things that some members of those groups have done," she says. "And yet we have found that overwhelmingly we are welcomed into the communities. Everyone we ran the idea by a couple years ago said, 'Yes, this exactly the group of people-American Jews need to hear this, need to go back to their communities and work on this.' So we go into the communities and we do travel openly as Jewish American people with the folks that we meet with. :
"We find that, for the most part, being welcomed or not into Palestinian communities doesn't have to do with who you are but, really, what you're doing. If I were to show up in the community wearing a soldier's uniform and carrying a gun, I might not be welcomed. But that would be because I'm a soldier rather than because I'm Jewish or because I'm American."
Mermelstein is discussing her experiences as part of a tour at 6 p.m. Saturday at 612 W. 17th St. It's open to the public.