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Residents call for Mideast peace

By Matthew Lorenz Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday May 22, 2001

On Sunday – three days after Israel used U.S.-supplied, F-16 fighter jets to attack Palestinians in the West Bank (the deadliest day of violence in the conflict so far this year) – well over 100 people, most of whom were Jews and Palestinians, gathered at Cedar Rose Park in north Berkeley, calling for an end to Israeli oppression in Palestine. 

The gathering, led by an East Bay organization called Jews for Justice in Israel and Palestine, joined in a symbolic gesture of peace by planting an olive tree in the park. 

Jews for Justice was formed by Bay Area Jews who were angered by what they said was the injustice of Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestine. The organization demands an immediate end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and advocates a shared Jerusalem and full equality for Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

The olive tree is a universal symbol of conciliation and good will, and it resonates as an important symbol of peace within the Jewish faith. But the significance of the symbol runs still deeper for those who attended the tree planting. The olive tree has very real and concrete implications within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

The ceremony was part of Jews for Justice’s larger Trees of Hope campaign, which seeks both to raise awareness of what they call the Israeli occupation (Israelis refer to Jewish enclaves in Palestine as settlements) and to raise money to replace the more than 1,500 olive trees which have been uprooted by Jewish settlers and Israeli military in the Palestinian village of Hares. 

Rabbi Burt Jacobson, founding rabbi of Kehilla Community Synagogue in north Berkeley, contended that neither Jewish scripture nor rabbinical commentaries could ever abide by such acts. 

“To destroy the trees is an act of insanity,” Jacobson said. “It’s an act of extreme cynicism. It’s an act that says there is no hope.” 

The levels of symbolism that the olive tree represents take place, therefore, on several levels. The olive tree is first, a traditional, Jewish symbol of peace; second, a symbol for the other trees Jews for Justice intends to replace in Hares; and finally, a symbol for the desperate need for healing between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the Middle East right now. 

The ceremony functioned as a rally, seeking to create the kind of support and activism that will begin to move toward such healing. 

One of the ceremony’s speakers and organizers, Ilan Vitemberg, spoke candidly about the need for Jews to challenge Israel and denounce its treatment of Palestinians. 

“It is okay to be a Jew who criticizes Israel,” Vitemberg said. “You can support Israel and still criticize its actions. Let’s not kid ourselves.” 

Attendee and Berkeley community-member E. Arnon concurred with the critical thrust of Vitemberg’s words and those of others who spoke.  

“I think it’s important for the Jewish voice to be vocally and visibly showing opposition to the policies of the present government of Israel, which violate not only international law, but Israeli law as well,” Arnon said. 

“It’s a war they’ve declared on the Palestinian people,” Arnon said, “and it’s got to end.” 

Dan Spitzer, a travel writer who spent five years in Asia, Africa and Latin America, contends, however, that Palestinian leadership has appeared intent on prolonging the conflict and provoking Israeli retaliation. 

“Former Prime Minister Barak offered better than 90 percent of Gaza and the West Bank as a Palestinian state, along with a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem,” Spitzer said in a phone interview Monday, “but that was unacceptable to Arafat who responded with violence. 

“For Arafat, only the reintegration of 5 million Palestinians into Israel, which of course would make it no longer Israel, will bring peace to the Middle East,” Spitzer said. 

Hanan Rasheed, national executive director for the Palestinian-American Congress, spoke at the ceremony, and she spoke little of Palestinian leadership. She spoke of the sufferings of the Palestinian people and of the land she was born in before coming to the United States. 

Rasheed urged American citizens to challenge not only Israel’s actions, but the U.S. government’s present role in enabling these actions, supplying weapons such as the F-16 jets Israel bombed the West Bank with on Friday. 

“Israel is America’s only strong ally in the Middle East, and the American government sends over $3 billion in American-taxpayer money to Israel in weapons only,” Rasheed said. “We are helping Israel kill innocent children.”  

Rasheed was a welcome Palestinian voice at the ceremony, well-received by the crowd, but this wasn’t because she spoke guardedly about what is happening in the Middle East. She posed some earnest questions which audience-members, in their applause and cries of agreement, showed they seek answers to as well.  

“How are the Israelis going to face their God?” Rasheed asked. “How are they going to face their children at night after killing a Palestinian child?  

“If you are an Israeli, ask your country: Why are they changing the system of nature and adopting the laws of the jungle?”