by Mark Chmiel
The following is a short reflection, which grew out of a talk the other night at Karen House, the Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in Saint Louis.
Think of phrases and words you typically hear in mainstream discussions and media reports on the Israel-Palestine conflict. I recently asked some friends, and they mentioned the following: “fighting terrorism,” “the peace process,” “Israel’s right of self-defense,” and “suicide bombers.” Occasionally, “the Holocaust” will appear in these discussions because of the concern for Israel’s security.
An expression that doesn’t get mentioned in mainstream discussions is a crucial one—al-Nakba, Arabic for “the Catastrophe,” which refers to the events of 1948: with the establishment of the State of Israel, Palestinians experienced a catastrophe, including the destruction of 400 villages and the creation of 750,000 refugees.
Last year at the time of the 60th anniversary of al-Nakba, scholar Joseph Massad noted that the policies of Israel’s on-going confiscation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem constitute the continuance of the catastrophe.
In her searing account of the effects of the Vietnam War on the United States, Winners and Losers, journalist Gloria Emerson writes, “The war began like this: one man died, then another, then one more, then the man next to that man. The dying was one by one.” So, too, for the Palestinians, the calamitous experiences of 1948 and the recent past (the massacres at Shabra and Shatila refugee in Lebanon in 1982, for instance). The Nakba, past and present, is a collective experience made up of millions of stories: the land stolen from one family, the murdered son of another family, the imprisonment of two brothers of a third family. One, then one more, then one more still.
Back in the fall of 2003, I worked in Rafah, Gaza for six weeks with the International Solidarity Movement. Our team had members from Sweden, Canada, and the U.S. One Saturday we took a taxi to Gaza City to meet a family. The father, in his early 40s, had been shot in the back during the first intifada and then was later severely beaten by Israeli soldiers. At that time, the mother miscarried as a result of their home being shot at and tear gassed. The father could not lift heavy weights and had been suffering from the trauma of both incidents; he had long been unemployed, not uncommon in Gaza. He and his wife had eight children.
Their eldest son, Mahmoud, 13 years old, served as the family breadwinner by catching birds and selling them at the souq. The week before we arrived, he was catching birds when Israeli soldiers shot at him and a companion. According to eyewitnesses, the boys were 600 meters from the Green Line, which is the border between Gaza and Israel. Mahmoud’s friend got away with being shot only in the foot but Mahmoud did not get away: He was beaten and kicked so often by the soldiers that their boot prints were left on his face.
The soldiers then drug him close to the Green Line, and shot him a total of seventeen times, in the heart, stomach, and legs. Eye witnesses presume dragging him close to the border provided the soldiers with their rationale for killing him; he could then be considered guilty of menacing Israel.
His mother had identified him at the morgue.
As she was telling us this story, his mother Umm Mahmoud held up the jacket he was wearing that day with the bullet holes in the front and back of the jacket. She told us, “My son was doing his work, catching birds in order to survive.” The father then brought out three cages with various birds Mahmoud had caught. She continued, “Don’t they love children? How can they kill him in cold blood? We love all children, Israeli, Palestinians, all. Why?” That question long lingered as I meditated on the shaheed [martyr] poster of Mahmoud that was taped to their wall.
Shortly thereafter, we went out to buy some food to bring back for the Ramadan fast breaking late in the afternoon. When we returned the family had already made food, so with what we brought, it was a bountiful feast. Having been in Gaza for eight months, Lora, a young American Jew, and I stayed the entire night with them, Laura translating the mother’s Arabic for my benefit. We heard from two uncles who had spent 20 and eight years in Israeli prisons. The next day, the mother told us she so grateful for our presence, the eating and sharing with us helped the family, she said, to forget their pain for a while.
Those experiences that day and night in a home of mourning reminded me of an acquaintance, Catholic nun and medical doctor Ann Manganaro, who worked for years in El Salvador during the civil war. When members of the murderous Atlacatl Battalion would come through her village of Guarjíla, she could see the contempt on their faces for the villagers and she pondered, “Where did such malice come from?”
Seventeen bullets in Mahmoud’s body? Stomping on his face? A thirteen year-old?
What happened in 22 days in December and January in Gaza is an extreme intensification and malicious escalation of the continuing Nakba faced by the Palestinian people. Who knows how many of the million and a half Gazans have experienced such lacerating nightmares as that endured by Umm Mahmoud’s family?
The language of the U.S. and Israeli politicians and diplomats cannot contain the excruciating truths of the past and current Nakbas. These truths are exiled, negated, and denied. The powerful—with their nuclear arsenals and their state of the art military machinery of death—blame the incalculable destruction of Gaza on the decisions of Hamas. The lamentations of the relatives of the victims of White Phosphorus won’t reach those in the White House. The photos of children riddled with shrapnel won’t invite a deeper reflection by those Senators who solemnly profess to stand by Israel. The heart-breaking testimony of the heroic doctors working in impossible conditions won’t manage to stir the consciences of the heads of elite editorial pages across the United States.
In his commentary on the prophet Isaiah, Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan wondered, “Where are the Isaiahs of our day? Could they be found among the outsiders—a prisoner or a widow or an orphan or a homeless one or an ‘illegal alien’ or someone driven mad by the system? The vision often starts among such persons who can cut to the essentials in matters of life and death, of compassion and right judgment, while the rest of us know nothing.”
The Palestinians are outsiders to the American political economy of memory. Their Nakbas are not deemed worthy of attention, remembrance, much less protest and interference in the present.
Even at a distance, will we seek out the testimony of the Palestinian widow, the orphan, the homeless, and those driven mad by the Israeli domination of their people? Will we learn something of the essentials of life and death from the Gazan furnace of affliction?
Or will we be at ease, at peace with diversion, knowing nothing of the real world?
Mark Chmiel teaches at St. Louis University and Webster University. Mark’s first book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership, was published in spring 2001 by Temple University Press. He is on the Board of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis in St. Louis, Missouri.