Student Union opens ‘hasbara’ room in effort to fill public diplomacy vacuum.
A week before I departed on a solidarity mission with my mother to Gush Katif with new York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, I was sitting in a restaurant in Brooklyn and told an Israeli waitress where I was going. She looked at me in utter astonishment and asked me open-mouthed, “Why?!” That reaction crystallized for me not only the dilemma that Israel is now facing, but at the same time defined my purpose in going. If a fellow Jew, and an Israeli one at that, could not understand why I would want to visit the residents of Gush Katif at their moment of peril, then we Jews have indeed arrived at a juncture where such a visit is most vital.
My belief that the hazards Israel now faces are to the largest degree self-inflicted was confirmed upon our arrival at Ben Gurion airport. As I handed my passport to the passport agent, I instinctively suspected that our group’s visit to Gush Katif would not be welcome by any officials representing Prime Minister Sharon’s government. And so, in a moment of weakness, I did not initially divulge the true purpose of my trip and told the agent that I simply came to tour Jerusalem.
When pressed further, though, I realized that to evade telling her the destination of my mission was to defeat its entire purpose. I then proudly told the agent that I was headed for Gush Katif, and she promptly confiscated my passport and detained me, along with my mother. So much for my sincerity. It was only after Dov Hikind intervened on our behalf and on behalf of the approximately fifteen other honest co-travelers, that our passports were returned to us and we were released
The press that this incident garnered, however, certainly made it worthwhile. It illustrated, at least to those present and hopefully to those who read about it or saw it on television, the extent that anti-settler and, consequently, anti-Zionist sentiment has taken hold in Israel. The behavior of the passport agent was more reminiscent of a former Soviet state than a democratic one. Is this the one democracy in the Middle East? Is Sharon a democratic leader – one who reverses his campaign pledges, fires cabinet ministers who confront him, reneges on promises, and refuses a referendum of the people for fear of being rejected?
Strangely enough, this occurrence did not set a negative tone for my trip but gave me an added measure of resolve. Having listened for years to family and friends in Israel describe their very real apprehension of publicly disagreeing with the government for fear of being branded an “inciter,” I understood their fear. If I cannot publicly announce my intention to visit an area that should be considered as much a part of Israel as any other without suffering repercussions from fellow Jews, what should I expect from the rest of the world? If the government of Israel offers to relinquish Gaza, a portion of the tribe of Judah, of its own volition and without recompense, can one condemn the nations of the world from accepting such an offer and then demanding more?
The purpose of my trip couldn’t have been made more clear. And neither could the sight of the electrical towers of Ashkelon in the horizon when we first reached the northern area of Gush Katif. With such proximity to a major city in Israel, a mere few miles away, the Sharon government is handing the Arabs in Gaza a haven with even Tel Aviv literally and figuratively in their sight. Has the sense of security among the proponents of the disengagement plan been eclipsed along with their common sense? One need go no further than the entrance to the Erez Industrial Zone in Gush Katif, our first stop, to see the haunting results of an appeasement plan gone awry. There, lined up next to defunct Egged buses needing repair, were the bombed-out shells of buses attacked by suicide bombers. It was a sight I will take with me forever.
I will also forever remember meeting a family, residents of the Elei Sinai settlement, who had been forced out of their home in Yamit in 1982. They described their agonizing experience and the bitter disappointment they felt at having been betrayed by their government. They built their life anew in Gush Katif, only to now face a similar threat. We met with another neighbor with a tombstone in front of his house. He had buried his daughter and her friend, murdered right outside their home by Palestinian terrorists.
Yet they both were adamant in their resolve to stay in Gush Katif. Their determination was echoed by everyone we met, despite the daily threat to their existence from shootings, mortar shellings and Kassam rockets. The fired mortars that decorate the dining room where we ate at the midrasha near Neve Dekalim were testament to the battles these people lived through. But there was not one family with whom we met who cowered under the pressure of their daily struggle and desired to abandon Gush Katif. And not one person voiced any declaration of violence or an intention to strike back with weapons if they were indeed forced from their homes. These were not the rabid fanatics or “Wild West” settlers the media in Israel and elsewhere are so fond of portraying.
These are our self-sacrificing brothers and sisters who built an oasis in the desert and made the sand bloom. They were welcomed by the Arabs who first met them. These Arabs, unable to cultivate anything in the sand dunes, called Gaza the “cursed land.” Yet, encouraged by the very people in the Israeli government who now want to expel them, the Jews turned the sand into a “blessed land.” They developed beautiful, expansive neighborhoods, established synagogues and yeshivot, and built industries that now account for substantial exports throughout the world.
I saw hothouses filled with exotic flowers for sale throughout Israel and in many countries of the world. I walked through the packaging houses of Alei Katif, where the lettuce, peppers and tomatoes I buy in Brooklyn first start their journey. I took pictures of cucumbers and parsley growing miraculously from the sand. It is no wonder that the Palestinians want Gaza now that it has been transformed into a veritable Garden of Eden.
The inexplicable, almost Kafkaesque wonder is the Disengagement Plan itself, which intends to uproot families who have been living and building in Gush Katif for nearly thirty years and turn their homes, their businesses, and their lives over to their murderers. Even the cemetery we visited would have to be dug up. And all in the name of an elusive “peace.” If peace were really attainable, Arab and Jew would be able to live together in harmony. There would be no need to make Gaza Judenrein, which is the goal for this magnificent portion of land.
Whatever I had read about Gush Katif or viewed in pictures cannot in any way compare to seeing it firsthand. I was struck by the beauty and vastness of the land and the extent of its development. The many and various trees and greenery that adorn the surroundings were all planted by Jewish hands. The coast that winds along the blue sea is dotted with new settlements like Shirat Hayam, yet stripped of tourists, who once filled a now empty hotel on the beach. We ate lunch in a pagoda overlooking that sea, and the experience was bittersweet. If only all the citizens of Israel would be as dedicated to the settling of the entire land of Israel as the residents of Gush Katif.
This devotion of these residents, however, dispelled some of the gloom that hovered over us. I was touched and cheered by the encounters we had with these residents and the dignitaries who spoke out on their behalf. Those who had lost the most, including David Hatuel, whose pregnant wife and four daughters were brutally murdered, and Chana Barat, a terror victim who was shot at in her car and left paralyzed from the waist down, were the most dignified. David Hatuel’s suffering and despair did not prevent him from continuing his life in Gush Katif, and Chana Barat defied the terrorists’ goal by amazingly bringing another child into the world.
Benny Elon, Effie Eitam, Pinchus Wallerstein, Rav Tal of Yeshivat Torat Hachayim and the many other personalities we heard from stressed the strategic importance of Gaza from a security viewpoint. They emphasized too the message the withdrawal would send – a reward for terrorism and an incentive for the Palestinians to want more. Gaza is just the beginning.
They also conveyed the struggle between pro- and anti-disengagement as not only a substantive one, but a spiritual one as well. The Zionistic, self-sacrificing spirit that once permeated the national persona in the early stages of Israeli statehood has been replaced by a largely materialistic lifestyle. This new attitude is antagonistic to the concept of “yishuv haaretz” and challenges the Jewish state to be a state like all other nations, rather than a “light” onto other nations. It is this indifference and, worse, the hostility of many in Israel today toward their Jewish identity that is the root cause of the decline in national self-pride and consequently the endangerment of the state by its “piece by piece” abandonment of it.
Seeing the marvel in Gaza that is Gush Katif only intensified my pain at the thought of relinquishing it. Yet, perhaps because of that pain and the disillusionment I felt regarding the current crisis in Israel prior to my visit, the inspiration I gained from its residents was all the more meaningful. The emunah and devotion that the people of Gush Katif display at this most difficult time of their lives instilled in me a reason to hope and a cause to pray. And the dedication of people who recognize – and act upon – the plight of Gush Katif as a forerunner to the plight of all of Eretz Yisrael is uplifting and heartening. Dov Hikind is one such individual. I thank him for providing me with the opportunity to visit Gush Katif. And I thank my mother for inspiring me by her devotion to rightful causes and for prompting me to join her on this expedition.
The sights I saw, the people I met and the voices I heard serve as an affirmation of all that is righteous among our fellow Jews. I hope that the memories I now cherish will strengthen me in the coming months to face whatever the outcome may be.
Sara Lehmann, formerly an editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, is currently a mother and freelance editor residing in Brooklyn.
About the Author: Sara Lehmann, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, was formerly an editor at a major New York publishing house.
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