In just a few days a gathering begins in Washington D.C. where people of divergent views will try once again to take those first tentative steps toward two interdependent, free states in the conflicted Middle East. If I had direct access to my President Barack H. Obama, this is a little of what I would say to him on the eve of these talks.
President Barack H. Obama
The White House
30 August 2010
Dear Mr. President:
As do so many people throughout the world, I see you as a man of honesty, integrity, and courage. I also see you as a leader who knows full well the agonies of the people in this tiny place westerners call The Holy Land. But I also see you as one more individual in the long, long line of presidents, statesmen and women, religious leaders, and politicians who have boldly strode toward the beast, intending to stare into its fiery maw, but have felt the intense heat generated by tens upon thousands of extremists, and have retreated to the seemingly safer climes of statecraft and diplomatic meanderings. Mr. President, I write these words with all due respect. I do understand your plight. Your good intentions are clearly visible, undergirding your public actions and pronouncements. But, Mr. President, you cannot see the truth from where you are standing.
A few years ago I reached the conclusion that little would improve here until all “black-and-whites” were abolished. These are the vehicle plates issued to diplomats, religious institutions, United Nations agencies, and many non-governmental organizations. They enable the drivers and passengers in such plated cars and vans to bypass most all of the human congestion, the hourly abuses of checkpoint power, the endless humiliation, and the despair that comes when one realizes that he has no hope left. If the individuals–who carry on their person the full might of the nations they represent, or the weight of the religious bodies they lead, or the millions of Euros and Dollars in relief and development aid they administer–are forced to stand body to body with the desperate workers who queue in the “cattle chutes to jobs”, those so benignly-labeled as checkpoints, they would rip aside the facade of decency which we allow to be draped and which shield us from the ugly realities. I expect this will never happen. I understand the concepts of security and safety, of convenience, efficiency, and priorities, of privilege and precedent. I also grasp full well the need to shield one’s eyes from the repulsive sights of oppression and fear. Without such a shield the world would be forced to deal with an entirely different set of human rights issues and needs.
Mr. President. I would never suggest that the cause of justice would be better served were you to stand for hours in the freezing rain at the Bethlehem checkpoint beside a poorly-paid worker from el-Walajeh whose family’s home has been demolished and who now live in a tent. But I do suggest that you just might catch a glimpse of the truth from there. And I do suggest that if you were to encounter the reports of ordinary Americans who do stand in such queues, and that these reports had not passed through the labyrinths of cleansing political and bureaucratic filters which lurk between the observer and your desk, that same glimpse might emerge.
The painful and unsightly truth of living under an occupation of fear and intimidation and humiliation can not be seen, not where the people of power are looking. The truth is not to be witnessed in proximity talks and pre-conditions, nor in Quartet delineations and negotiated agendas, nor in the proclamations of Netanyahu and Abbas. The truth can be seen in the eyes of an Orthodox Jewish woman who laments that the soul of her faith is being torn from her when it is used as pretext for taking land and home from another. The truth can be seen in the story of an international who came to help others find a way to peace and found only the bone-shattering iron bar wielded by a righteous settler quoting from the same holy writ that brought the peacemaker here. The truth can be seen in the deeply empty eyes of a child who has stood in silent horror as his house–the only home he has ever known–has been crushed by a monstrous machine with a stainless steel probe that the Palestinians call a dinosaur. And you can see it in the narrowed eyes of a cowardly, craven settler who covers his face with a mask so that not even he can see himself attack a child or a mother, or witness himself set fire to a farmer’s field in mindless revenge because an illegal shed was taken down. The truth can be heard in the voice of the elderly Jewish Israeli who came from Tel Aviv to protest the unjust eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah so that settlers might gain one more foothold in East Jerusalem, “When it happened in Hebron, we could ignore it. But when they did the same in front of us, in Jerusalem, we could no longer remain silent.”
None of these are isolated instances; they are the norm.
Mr. President, I believe deeply that if you could see the naked truth from these lives and through these eyes, you could not rest until there is peace–until there is justice.
Thank you for listening and thank you for your compassionate leadership.
Russell O. Siler