Gaza moves New York City mother from apathy to activism

Debbie Mardon (left) and her Palestinian-American husband Mahmoud Bitar (center) attend a demonstration on 31 May demonstration in Times Square against Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. (Ellen Davidson)


Last New Year’s Eve, Debbie Mardon did not celebrate with noise makers or confetti — instead, she headed to Cairo’s main square to participate in the Gaza Freedom March with her daughter Jenna Bitar, 18, and son Joel, 23.

Amid police violence aimed at protesters and Egyptian security forces blockading them inside their hotel, Debbie, 55, a native New Yorker, said that protesting in Cairo “was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

It was an unlikely place to be for a previously apolitical mother who voted for George W. Bush and as recently as three years ago relied on right-wing radio hosts Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh to help her make sense of the world.

More than 1,300 activists from 43 countries traveled to Cairo to take part in the Gaza Freedom March, a demonstration aimed at bringing attention to the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Since 2006, after the Islamist movement Hamas won democratic elections, Israel and Egypt have completely blockaded this besieged coastal strip on the Mediterranean, only allowing in basic humanitarian aid. The situation worsened in December 2008, when Israel invaded Gaza, eventually killing about 1,400 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians.

Debbie and her children, like the rest of the activists who participated in the Gaza Freedom March, were outraged at what many have labeled the “Gaza massacre.”

The three-year journey for Debbie, her husband Mahmoud and their two children from political indifference to passionate involvement in the Palestine solidarity community has brought them closer together as a family, and they now regularly attend demonstrations together.

For Debbie, things came to a head during the attack on Gaza in the winter of 2008-09. It was a personally harrowing time — both she and Mahmoud had lost their mothers and a good friend had been placed in a nursing home, and Debbie decided it was time to find out more about what was happening in Palestine.

She started attending talks and lectures about Palestine, and one in particular, featuring Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert at Columbia University, left an indelible impression.

“It was jaw-dropping. He showed us photos of dying and maimed children, children burned from the white phosphorous, and the photos had me in tears. Then he said, this suffering is not caused by a natural disaster, it is political, it is foreign policy and you can no longer be silent while your government supports this. After that I made an effort to find out how I could get involved,” Debbie said.

Native New Yorker

Debbie, tall, outgoing and buoyant, can be found in her fifth floor walk-up apartment on the Upper East Side. She is welcoming and quick to offer dinner and drinks. The apartment she shares with her Palestinian-American husband and two kids is snug, with enough room to feel comfortable but not enough to avoid each other if everyone’s home.

There are pictures of Jenna in a Halloween costume in the kitchen, plants around the living room, a comfortable couch and a black cat named Blossom. Their bookshelf is filled with the works of Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges and Norman Finkelstein and flyers advertising leftist events in the city are posted near the refrigerator.

Three years ago, Debbie would have been on the couch watching Bill O’Reilly and reading conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan.

Debbie took comfort in Fox News’ slant on the world. “I wanted to know that someone out there was watching so our country wasn’t torn apart by unpatriotic voices,” she said.

But for most of Debbie’s life, politics were not important. One of five siblings, she grew up in the Bedford Park neighborhood in the Bronx and attended Walton High School. Her mother was a homemaker and her father worked as an electrician.

Debbie went to the City College School of Architecture, where she first met her future husband, Mahmoud Bitar, a Palestinian-American, at the end of their sophomore year. Mahmoud was taken with Debbie starting with the first time they met.

“We talked under a tree in the rain on campus. I saw her heart and fell in love,” Mahmoud said.

When Debbie first met Mahmoud, she did not understand what it meant to be someone from Palestine. Mahmoud was uncomfortable with his heritage, and he let people, including Debbie when they started dating, think he was Jewish or Italian. Debbie recalls how “people said things to him like, ‘You’re not a Palestinian, you’re too nice.’”

Born in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1958, Mahmoud was brought up immersed in the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He lived in Jericho, a city in the West Bank, for the first ten years of his life after his family moved there because his father had set up a station in Jericho selling fruits and vegetables. In 1967, when the war broke out, Mahmoud and his family returned to Jerusalem after Israeli bombs killed three of his relatives.

As soon as Mahmoud and his two brothers were college-aged, their parents sent them to the United States. Mahmoud, now a US citizen, arrived in the country in 1977 on a student visa.

After getting married in 1980 and graduating from college three years later, Debbie and Mahmoud had their first child, Joel, in 1986, and their second, Jenna, in 1992. Debbie worked part-time at an architectural firm while raising their children.

Mahmoud, who has curly hair and seems to always have a twinkle in his eye, speaks in calm and at times airy tones, a contrast to Debbie’s more forward and pointed way of talking. He currently works as an architect for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services.

For most of their marriage and while raising Jenna and Joel, Mahmoud rarely talked about his childhood in Palestine.

“I never got a greater picture, it was just bad things were happening to the Palestinians, or at least my family that was Palestinian,” Jenna said. “I visited there before I knew what was going on, for three weeks, with my grandparents when they were alive. I lived the life they lived for a bit, saw the checkpoints, but I didn’t understand.”

11 September 2001

The 11 September 2001 attacks jolted Debbie’s political perspective, and made Mahmoud more nervous about his background as a Palestinian, especially as thousands of Middle Eastern men were profiled and arrested throughout New York City.

Debbie had just dropped Jenna off at school when she returned home and watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center on television.

Debbie turned to Fox News for clarity.

“That was the first time I started learning about foreign policy, and why someone would attack us,” Debbie said.

But Debbie and Mahmoud rarely discussed post-11 September politics.

“We didn’t discuss it, I just listened. Debbie’s a leader by nature, so she always led with the remote control,” Mahmoud recalled. “She had the remote control with her so she would pick the information, and I would retreat when I had really had enough of it.”

Joel was apathetic about politics at the time, and Jenna stayed by her mother’s side as she watched Fox.

Debbie’s close attention to post-11 September politics did not last for too long after the Iraq War started in 2003, though, as her trust in the government slipped when the US did not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

However, a series of events in 2008 would bring politics back into the family’s life in a prominent way, and they have not turned back since.

Injustice and transformation

Debbie’s family started attending the Redeemer Presbyterian Church almost twenty years ago. While they were initially drawn to the church, which met at Hunter College, by a smart and interesting pastor, over the years the congregation became a second family for all of them.

However, they were forced to leave this community in March 2008 after Mahmoud, who worked at the church on Sundays, was accused of stealing a CD of a church sermon. He was arrested by a City University of New York security guard and charged with assaulting an officer, resisting arrest and misdemeanor theft — charges that Debbie and her family say were ridiculous and were later dropped.

“It was a small thing in the larger world, but it happened to us,” Debbie recalled. “I thought that we would be immune to all this, and that the community we were a part of would care about truth and care about justice being served, but they didn’t care about either of those things. It opened my eyes to greater injustices. I used to think that people who went to jail were probably guilty. But now, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness! There are all these people in jail that are probably innocent.’ Michael could’ve gone to jail, but he had a private lawyer. What happens if you’re poor?” she said, using the nickname that Mahmoud had used when he first came to the US.

Nine months later, on 27 December 2008, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip, beginning what would be a devastating assault.

“It was during Gaza that we started to awaken,” said Joel, who at the time was first foraying into politics by joining an antiwar organization at Hunter College and reading books about US foreign policy and the Israel-Palestine conflict. “Killing civilians indiscriminately with US weapons, paid for with our tax money, seemed to be so hideously wrong.”

During what Amnesty International called “22 days of death and destruction,” Debbie could not avoid the Gaza conflict, especially because Mahmoud’s brother Farid, who was glued to Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the assault, was emotionally devastated.

Joel, who was reading books like Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, also started to talk with Debbie about the detrimental impact of US foreign policy on Palestine.

After those 22 days were over, Debbie started going to lectures and protests about the conflict and soon found herself enmeshed in the world of Palestine solidarity activism. Although described as the “leader” of the household, she was the last person to finally call herself an activist.

The assault on Gaza also made Mahmoud become more engaged with the Palestine solidarity movement.

“It’s a natural conclusion to what happened in Gaza,” Mahmoud said. “Our breath is being taken out of us. I felt an urgency to start having a voice.”

In the last two years, the household has been transformed. Jenna described how sometimes, before she goes to sleep, Debbie will run into her room and “just read me books out loud,” including passages from the work of Chris Hedges and Michael Parenti. “She’ll come and say, ‘I have to read you this passage, it’s so good’ and it’ll be something sad and depressing,” Jenna said, laughing.

These days, it is nearly impossible to miss Debbie and members of her family at activist events related to Palestine. The actions they frequent include protesting with Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, in the group’s campaign against Lev Leviev. An Israeli billionaire who owns a jewelry store in Manhattan, Leviev is involved with companies that invest in and construct illegal Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land.

“She’s really knowledgeable. She has really educated herself on Palestine,” says Helen Schiff, a New York-based activist who has become close friends with Debbie over the past two years. “She has a voracious mind, and she’s very, very smart.”

However, her transition into political activism has not come without a cost for Debbie and her family. Her passion for politics has “caused a lot of stress on our relationship,” said Mahmoud. “There’s always a cost to anything, and it’s drawing from our reservoir.”

Some of her friends worry she is on the “wrong political track.” One friend, Debbie said, told her, “I’m worried for your children.”

Debbie believes that this kind of reaction stems from the fact that the life she and her family have chosen to live is unconventional.

“We’re looking at the world from a whole different perspective, and it’s a harder way to live. Most people that I know would not want that — they would want a pretty status quo type of life,” Debbie said.

While some of Debbie’s friends avoid discussing Mideast politics with her, Debbie is eager to talk with friends who are interested in learning more about Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

In 2009 Debbie took her brother to a talk by scholar Norman Finkelstein at the Brecht Forum, a political and social educational center on Manhattan’s west side. Her brother, a Democrat and strong supporter of Barack Obama, said he was “shocked” by the realities of the situation in Gaza.

But for Debbie, knowledge is just the first step of many — she helped raise money for students participating in the Gaza Freedom March in 2009, and helped organize a protest outside a Friends of the IDF fundraiser at the Waldorf-Astoria earlier this spring.

With Jenna attending college in the fall and Joel working as a doorman in the Upper East Side, Debbie plans to continue her part-time job, as well as her involvement in the Palestine solidarity movement.

“It is essential that the movement continue to grow. Hopefully, in this economic climate, Americans will decide that there are better uses for their money besides supporting unending wars that will fuel terrorism, not end it,” Debbie said.

She used to think individuals could not change anything in the world. And she still thinks that.

“Over a long time you can change [the world], but personally, me? Coming along and changing anything, it’s unlikely,” Debbie said.

“But I can have a part … I want to change things badly, but that’s not even the thing that motivates me any longer,” she said. “It’s just that I can no longer sit by and watch things happen and not speak out and at least be a voice shouting out there.”

Alex Kane is a 21-year-old college student, journalist and blogger based in New York City. He is a reporter for the Indypendent, and a frequent contributor to Mondoweiss. His articles have also appeared in Common Dreams, Red Pepper (UK), and Palestine Chronicle.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Indypendent, a free New York City-based newspaper.