In 2004, the end of one of my first journeys to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, I endured a shocking experience at Ben-Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. I never imagined that Israeli security forces would abuse a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor, but they held me for five hours and strip-searched and cavity-searched every part of my naked body. The only shame these security officials expressed was to turn their badges around so that their names were invisible.
The only conceivable purpose for this gross violation of my bodily integrity was to humiliate and terrify me. But it had just the opposite effect. It made me more determined to speak out against abuses by the Israeli government and its military.
Yet my own experience, unpleasant as it was, is nothing compared to the indignities and abuses heaped on Palestinians year after year. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is based not on equal rights and fair play, but on what Human Rights Watch has termed a “two-tier” legal system — in other words, apartheid, with one set of laws for Jews and a harsh, oppressive set of laws for Palestinians.
This, however, is the legal system and security state AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) will defend from 22-24 May at its annual conference in Washington, DC. And, despite this grim reality, members of Congress will converge to hail AIPAC and Israel. The Palestinians’ lack of freedom is bound to be obscured at the AIPAC conference with its obsessive focus on security and shunting aside of anything to do with upholding fundamental Palestinian rights.
Several years ago near Der Beilut in the West Bank, I saw the Israeli police turn a water cannon on our nonviolent protest. As it happened, I recalled Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 and wondered why an ostensibly democratic society responded to peaceable assembly by trying, literally, to drown out the voice of our protest.
In Masha, also in the occupied West Bank, I joined a demonstration against the wall Israel has built, usually inside the West Bank and occasionally towering to 25 feet in height. I saw a red sign warning ominously of “mortal danger” to any who dared to cross in an area where it ran as a fence. I saw Israeli soldiers aiming at unarmed Israelis, Palestinians and international protesters. I also saw blood pouring out of Gil Na’amati, a young Israeli whose first public act after completing his mandatory military service was to protest against the wall. I saw shrapnel lodged in the leg of Anne Farina, one of my traveling companions from St. Louis. And I thought of Kent State and Jackson State, where National Guardsmen opened fire in 1970 on protesters against the Vietnam War.
So as AIPAC meets and members of Congress cheer, I hold these images of Israel in my mind and fear AIPAC’s ability to move US policy in dangerous directions. AIPAC does a disservice to the Palestinians, the Israelis and the American people. It helps to keep the Middle East in a perpetual state of war and this year will be no different from last year as it keeps up a steady drumbeat calling for war against Iran.
AIPAC pretends to speak for all Jews, but it certainly does not speak for me or other members of the Jewish community in this country who are committed to equal rights for all and are aware that American interventionism is likely to bring further disaster and chaos to the Middle East.
Israel, of course, would not be able to carry out its war crimes against civilians in Lebanon and Gaza without the United States — and our $3 billion in military aid — permitting it to do so. At 86 years old, I use every ounce of my energy to educate the American public about the need to stop supporting the abuses committed by the Israeli government and military against the Palestinian people. Sometimes there are people who try to shout me down and scream that I am a self-hating Jew, but most of the time the audience is receptive to hear from someone who survived the Holocaust and now works to free the Palestinians from Israeli oppression.
The vicious discrimination brought to bear against Palestinians in the occupied territories deserves no applause from members of Congress attending the AIPAC conference. Instead, they should raise basic questions with Israeli officials about decades of inferior rights endured by Palestinians both inside Israel and the occupied territories.
Hedy Epstein is a Holocaust survivor, who writes and travels extensively to speak about social justice causes and Middle Eastern affairs. She will be participating in Move Over AIPAC, a gathering in Washington, DC from 21-24 May 2011, to expose AIPAC and build the vision for a new US foreign policy in the Middle East (www.MoveOverAIPAC.org).