It’s June 1993 and, traveling with a faculty group through Syria and Jordan, I break away from my companions in Amman to walk alone through the huge and sprawling Palestinian refugee camp.
We say “camp,” but it’s been there long enough to have crowded huts rather than tents. Suddenly, a young man, about 24, jumps out and confronts me. “Please,” he pleads, “take me back to the United States with you.”
I was struck, moved, but helpless. He actually believed that, as an American, I had the power to save him. When I think back on it, I realize that in a way I could help him. I could tell his story.
When President Donald Trump said Dec. 6 that the U.S. Embassy in Israel will move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he achieved four things:
1. He undermined America’s role in the peace talks for a two-state solution.
2. He pleased his followers among American conservative evangelicals.
3. He alienated Palestinians, Arab states, and members of the United Nations.
4. He triggered broader Palestinian interest in the one-state solution in which Israelis, Palestinians and others would live together as equals, retaining their own cultures but with all civil rights.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, wrote in a news release of the decision: “To ignore [the facts on the ground], and instead play to the most reactionary element of the Israeli people and of the Jewish people around the world is to not only be ignorant and arrogant, but also terribly destructive to the possibility of the United States playing a constructive role in bringing an end to the Israeli/Palestinian struggle.”
Israeli intellectuals have the courage to remind the country they love of its weaknesses. An example is the Mor Loushy and Amos Oz 2016 documentary “Censored Voices,” based on interviews with soldiers who fought the Six-Day War in 1967. It was a “pre-emptive war” against Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
In the film, Arab corpses sprawled in the streets and fields, shot dead, according to the soldiers, needlessly. One soldier reflects, “Zionism is tragedy from the start. The existence of Israel depends on expelling the people who lived here. Even though I knew the war was just, I could not shake that feeling.” In a newsreel broadcast from the refugee camp outside Amman, the reporter says, “What we hear about is brutality, prisoners forced to walk miles holding their hands in the air.”
In a new single state, Israel would pull down the wall that separates them and open up the highways connecting the settlements. They would raise their children in the same schools, respecting their Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions. They would face the fact that, as Jewish intellectual Tony Judt wrote, “A state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”
In 1984, I went to Masada, where in AD 73, more than 950 Zealots killed their families and themselves rather than submit to Roman rule. Today, the elite troops of the Israeli armored battalion gather at Masada and swear in a quasi-religious torchlight ceremony that “Masada must never fall again.”
Later that afternoon, I swam in the Dead Sea. Then while I was taking some pictures, two local young men came out of the water and asked me to take their pictures. As I wrote down their address to mail the pictures, I asked one whether he was an Arab or a Jew.
“We should not use those words,” he said. “We are all the same people.”
The Rev. Raymond A. Schroth, a former Fordham University professor, is editor emeritus at America magazine.