I attended a private high school in New York City during World War II. I was one of a very few students who were not Jewish. One of my closest friends was Daniel Lourie, son of Arthur Lourie, who prior to the creation of the State of Israel represented the “Jewish entity” in the United States.
One weekend Danny took me to a farm in Cream Ridge, New Jersey, where a group of young people were preparing to make “aliyah” by settling on khibbutzes in Palestine. Sunday morning found me hoeing in the garden with another man. He had a weather-beaten face: probably about 30, he seemed to me (I was 14 or 15) very old. In my youthful idealism I said to him, “What’s with this Zionism? What happened to socialist internationalism?” My companion put down his hoe and turned to me. He said, “We’ve done enough dying on other people’s barricades.”
When I graduated from high school, I considered the emerging Israeli society in Palestine the very model of decentralized socialism. I defended it passionately to all comers.
Then, one day at Harvard, I fell into conversation with a man whom I remember only as Jimmy. I believe he had spent time at the American University in Beirut. He looked me in the face as had the man with the hoe and said, “No, you’re wrong.” Jimmy said that Jewish immigrants were taking away the land of Palestinian Arabs.
During the 1950s I unexpectedly had the opportunity to hear a lecture at the University of Michigan by Martin Buber. I recall a small, stocky man with a great white beard speaking to a vast assemblage of listeners. Like myself, Martin Buber believed in decentralized socialism: he had written a book entitled Paths in Utopia. My memory is that he advocated a bi-national state in which Jewish and Arab citizens might encounter one another as equals.
Then there was a long period in which I was caught up in other things: helping to write the history of the American Revolution from the bottom up, opposing the Vietnam war and losing my career in history as a result, becoming a lawyer for rank-and-file workers.
My wife and I renewed an interest in Palestinians and Israelis during Gulf War I. It happened that Passover, Easter, and Ramadan fell close together that year. An occasion was planned at the Arab-American community center. All participants were instructed to speak only of personal experiences.
Professor Jules Lobel, our colleague in many legal battles, testified that his family on one side goes back to Jews who have lived in what is now Israel since the 18th century. The most dramatic narrative was by a young man whom I will call Mazin. He was in his early twenties, living in a refugee camp, when Israel invaded Lebanon in the early 1980s. The Israeli Army arrested all males between the ages of 16 and 60, and imprisoned them at a concentration camp known as Ansar. Mazin recalled that during interrogation, a bag was put over his head and Israeli soldiers urinated on him.
Later, my wife and I tape-recorded an interview with Mazin. At the end I asked him what he made of his experience. I expected a tirade. In fact he said the following (Homeland, pp. 121-122):
“When I lived in the [Ein El Hilweh] Camp, I never met a Jew, I never met an Israeli. The propaganda was that they were all killers. The first time they bombed the Camp, I was eleven years old. They destroyed a lot of houses. What would you expect me to feel about Israelis? I felt that they were killers, that they had taken our land, and so on. I never felt that they were human beings.
When I went to prison, I met some Israelis. I changed my attitude. When we heard that an Israeli killed himself because he could not stand the situation and was very sympathetic with us, and when I met that friend [an Israeli sentry] — he was really a very nice person! He was a human being! I started distinguishing between one person and another.
Before, I had an attitude that came from living through all the hardship and shelling, living from one invasion to another, having our house completely destroyed by the Israelis. But violence breeds violence. I had some friends in Ansar who attacked Israelis after their release to get revenge. They are all dead now. . . .
I would like to start a school for Palestinians and Jews so they could learn to love one another.
We as a people have to make the change. Sometimes it hits me. Sometimes I cry. Why can’t people live together? Who do we have to torture each other?”
Mazin was not the only Palestinian Arab who spoke in this way. An old woman remembered how, before 1948, she would light the cooking fire for her Jewish neighbors on the Sabbath. A young lawyer said that his place was in Jerusalem “perhaps to be in peace together. That is the dream of everyone who believes in peace (Homeland, p. 305).“
Not long ago I was a speaker at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio against the Iraq war. I said that I first heard of indefinite administrative detention, without criminal charges, when speaking to Palestinians who had been imprisoned by the State of Israel. The speaker after me was a Jewish representative to the Ohio legislature. He said I was an anti-Semite.
No, I am not an anti-Semite. I consider that humanity owes many of its most exalted ideals to the experience of the Jewish people, including Jesus of Nazareth. I believe in the words that appeared above the stage of the school in New York City that I attended with my Jewish friends. The words were, “The place where men meet to seek the highest is holy ground.”