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Israel, PLEASE Stop Killing Palestinians!

I have set up a separate web site where you can read about my position and get in touch:

www.notinmyname.org

October 25, 2000

AP picked up my presence and sign at an evening (10/24/2000) protest:

AP caption: Steven Feuerstein stands with members of the Chicago Palestinian community protesting the speaking engagement of Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2000, at the 13th Annual Dinner of the Chicago Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. (AP Photo/Stephen J. Carrera)

It was an interesting evening, as I recount below:

I had a busy day today. I was invited to speak at a rally at the University of Illinois Chicago campus (near downtown) protesting Israeli attacks on Palestinians [meanwhile, more Palestinians die. Here is an excerpt from a report by Suzanne Goldenberg published in the London Guardian: Malake Kafishe was seven months' pregnant and happily looking forward to the birth of her second child. Then, last Thursday night, as on so many nights in Hebron's old city lanes - among the fiercest battle grounds in the West Bank - she heard gunfire. She froze. There was shooting, and then I heard the helicopter gunships coming in and my heart just stopped.' She began to bleed and ran for the stairs, stumbling over the last few rungs and collapsing in a heap on the doorstep. Her family rang for an ambulance. Because of the shooting and a curfew imposed on 40,000 Palestinians in Hebron's old city, it took an hour to arrive. Two soldiers insisted on examining Ms Kafishe. There were four more checkpoints before the ambulance arrived at Alia hospital. At each roadblock, soldiers swung open the vehicle doors and peered at the ashen-faced woman inside. By the time she reached the hospital, a journey that normally takes five minutes, one and a half hours had elapsed. The baby was dead. The doctor told me If you had got here 20 minutes earlier you could have saved the baby',' she says.] So I spent the morning writing my speech, which seemed a little weird. I so like to be spontaneous! I will send out the speech under separate cover (FT13), but the best-received part of it went like this:

"Why have I come to this point in my life? [speaking out on the issue] Because I am Jewish. Because Jews are taught: THOU SHALT NOT KILL. The Torah does not say: Thou shalt not kill only Jewish people. The Torah does not say: Thou shalt not kill only those who agrees with Jewish people. And the Torah DEFINITELY does not say: Thou shalt not kill anyone but Palestinians."

Many people came up to me afterwards to thank me for the talk; the Chicago Sun Times and a Metro News reporter also followed up for more quotes. I was immediately reminded (from my days of being a full-time activist in the 80s around El Salvador) of how hard it is to package up one's words so that you get your point across in an unambiguous way that cannot be chopped up and distorted by the media (even if unintentionally).

We found out at the rally that the Deputy Defense Minister of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would be appearing this very night at the Chicago Sheraton for a fundraiser organized by the (can you believe it?) Chicago Friends of the IDF. This was exactly the kind of event I have been feeling was absolutely CRUCIAL to have a Jewish presence at. I arrived at 6 PM; a crowd of 50 protesters stood on the north side of the street, held back by barricades and police. The hotel was on the south side, with a whole bunch of policepeople and taxis between us.

I stood next to the crowd holding up my sign: I AM JEWISH AND I WANT ISRAEL TO STOP KILLING PALESTINIANS. Now, doesn't that seem like a non-controversial enough position to take? The reporters, however, were quite interested and I did several interviews. One well-dressed couple came out of the hotel and after watching us for a moment, came across the street, expressed their support and stayed for ten minutes.

By 7 PM, traffic had quieted down and I figured that the event must have started, so I left the protest, went down the street, folded up my placard, put it under my jacket and strolled into the hotel, unrecognized by the police who lined both sides of the street. I strolled up to the escalator leading up to the ballroom and told the fellows standing there that I wanted to hear the deputy minister speak. Suddenly a security guard appeared at my elbow and said "Him?" to a women thirty feet away and scurrying towards me. "Do I know you? Do you know me?" I called out to her. She frowned. I repeated that I would like to hear the IDF official speak. She said I needed a ticket. I said oh and walked off, trailed by the guard. I went outside the hotel and stepped to the sidewalk. Then I opened up my placard. The protesters across the street cheered loudly. Cops and security guys looked around in bewilderment. I walked down the sidewalk, towards the corner and intending to join the protesters across the street, waved on by the cops.

Suddenly the cops were saying: "What? You want to hold him?" And they did, stopped me there, then walked me around the corner to get me out of sigh of the protesters who were, well, protesting loudly at me being detained. After a while, two hotel security officers joined the cops, and then Lieutenant told them to take me down to the river walk (the sidewalk down by the Chicago river, below street level. I was DEFINITELY not happy about that and stopped before the stairs and demanded that they tell me what was going on.

The hotel security wanted me to hand over my ID so they could issue a warning that if I ever set foot in the hotel I would be arrested. Otherwise they WOULD press charges. "Why? What did I do?" "You trespassed. The hotel is private property. You were not there on hotel business." So I debated with them back and forth about that one for a while, as in: "So if I stopped at the front desk and asked for a room, it wouldn't be trespassing?" They stuttered about that one for a bit and I said: "Well, I did stop at the front desk and ask for a room." "No you didn't. We have cameras." "Great, let's check the cameras." More stuttering, then: "You folded your sign and hid it. You were being deceptive." The cops pleaded with me to hand over my ID, don't make trouble. "THEY'RE the ones who are making trouble. I'd already left the hotel. They didn't have to stop me." The cops really  didn't want to arrest me. I pushed it as far as I could, until the head of security said "All right, turn him around." [for handcuffs] then decided to let them take my information. There didn't seem to be much point to getting arrested by that point. I don't have a frequent guest card with Sheraton, anyway. No points lost. Though I will call and make a reservation and see if it raises any flags.

So I handed the hotel fellow my "business card". That's in quotation marks because my card is, well, a hoot. It is dominated by the wacky photo montage of yours truly produced by my son Chris and featured at my website (www.stevenfeuerstein.com), plus website address and phone number. I can't even begin to guess what went through this guy's head as he looked at it, but that head shook slowly and he demanded a drivers's license.

As they jotted down my ID (which I must assume will be passed right on to the Jewish Defense League, which also had a snoop at the UIC rally), another guy walked up and tried to snap a Polaroid of my face. The heck with that! I raised my sign in front of my face, and the cop told him to forget the picture. Then the cops escorted me the LONG way around to my car, so that I wasn't in front of the protesters again. We chatted about the Presidential elections (one of them guessed right off that I'd be voting for Nader. I guessed right off that they'd be voting for Bush. One of them agreed that he might be incompetent, but he will "make decisions from his heart." Hokey, dokey!) and kids. They were nice enough, and they really liked my car, a Honda Insight (electric-gas hybrid).

I plan to make more such appearances. Do you know of any Chicago-area Jews who would like to join me? Please pass the word, and tell them to drop me a note.

I think for the next time out I will make a large banner that says simply:

THOU SHALT NOT KILL

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October 24, 2000

I have just returned from a rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I gave the following speech (afterwards, I was interviewed by the Chicago Sun Times and a Metro News Reporter; I was also braced by a member of the Jewish Defense League who wanted to know how to get in touch with me. I BET he does!):

Why I Am Here Today

This is the first time that I am speaking out publicly against Israeli policy. I was born and raised an American Jew, which means I was raised to reflexively and uncritically support Israel. I became disillusioned years ago, but limited my criticisms to within family circles which just got family circles mad, really mad, at me.

Now I feel compelled to take a public stance and call on Israel to stop killing and brutalizing Palestinians! And I believe very strongly that we, the American Jewish community, must take the lead in calling on Israel to change its policies, to stop the occupation of Palestinian lands, to seek a lasting and just peace in its own country.

Why have I come to this point in my life? Because I am Jewish. Because Jews are taught: THOU SHALT NOT KILL. The Torah does not say: Thou shalt not kill only Jewish people. The Torah does not say: Thou shalt not kill only those who agrees with Jewish people. And the Torah DEFINITELY does not say: Thou shalt not kill anyone but Palestinians. The Torah, the guiding light of the Jewish people, says:

THOU SHALT NOT KILL

And Jews are very big on this rule: you can break other sacred laws, such as those honoring the Shabat, the Sabbath, if breaking that law will help save a life. And yet, after thirty years of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, after thirty years of the Israeli domination over the Palestinian people, we have come to this:

Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlers who are able to rationalize without any noticeable effort, without any noticeable remorse, the persistent shooting and killing of Palestinian children, the destruction of Palestinian homes, and the continual, growing occupation and dissection of Palestinian lands.

An Israeli government that, after years of "negotiations" with the Palestinian Authority, is ready and able to imprison an entire people in their small, isolated towns whenever the Israeli government feels it is justified.

And the Israeli government explicitly justifies its actions as necessary to save the Israeli state, to save worldwide Judaism. Well, I am hear today to make sure that Israel and other American Jews and other Americans know that this American Jew will not accept the killing of Palestinians IN MY NAME, ON MY BEHALF. Israel must stop killing Palestinians. Israel must seek a real peace and to do that it must take real, concrete steps to demonstrate its commitment to peace.

I am not an expert on the Middle East. I am an expert on the Oracle PL/SQL computer language. I cannot "hold my own" in an extended and complex policy discussion on the Oslo accords nor on the final status of Jerusalem. I am really only good at telling you about the best way to write a bunch of code.

I do not believe, however, that it is necessary to be a policy expert on the Middle East in order to recognize that Israel is visiting a grave injustice on the Palestinian people. One clear, physical expression of that injustice are the settlements that Israel has built throughout Palestinian territory. These settlements are obviously designed to maximize Israeli control over Palestinians even as they are supposedly granting them their autonomy. These settlements are provocative and as long as they exist, there will never be peace between Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

So I call on Israel to unilaterally announce the stoppage of any new settlements and to immediately begin dismantling the existing settlements. I believe that if Israel takes this one step, Palestinians will recognize the real possibility of justice, stop the al-Aksa intifada, and work with Israel for a lasting peace.

Israel, with the seemingly unanimous support of American Jews, is now able to rationalize ignoring one of its most sacred beliefs - THOU SHALT NOT KILL. The clear and most awful result is death and destruction for Palestinians, but there is another victim of this degenerate Israeli policy:

The killing of the Jewish spirit of justice and love of life.

The survival of the Jewish people, of Judaism, it seems to me, is very much dependent on the way that Israel responds to the current crisis and whether it can admit its mistakes, whether it can make a real gesture towards peace with Palestinians.

But Israel will not change its policies unless and until the United States changes its policies, and applies real pressure to the Israeli government. That is the reality. Our government sends over $3B of our tax dollars every year to Israel, much of that for military aid. Israel cannot, in the current state of affairs, survive without us. Our government can insist on substantial changes in Israeli policy. But it will not do so unless American Jews speak out, and call for that change.

And that is why I call on the many other American Jews who feel like I do to take a public stand and criticize brutal Israeli policies. Yes, it is hard for American Jews to criticize Israel. When we do, we are intimidated and harassed by our very own community. But it is even harder for me at least to tolerate the killing and torture and destruction that is being done in my name.

I believe, in conclusion, that the more I (and others) speak out, the more other American Jews will feel they can speak out.  We can then create a "safe place" in the public eye for Jewish criticism of Israel, which will allow a real debate to occur in this country, and hopefully a real change in our policy towards Israel and Palestinians.

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© 2000 Steven Feuerstein. All rights reserved.