Twenty-five years ago, after receiving a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago, Berkeley resident Joe Stein went to live in Israel for a year. But he didn’t see any Palestinians.
“You didn’t look. You didn’t see them as people,” said Stein, who now works as a lawyer for the federal government. “I feel guilty about having not seen them. I want to go back and see them.”
Stein is one of 16 Americans, including two from San Francisco, arriving in Israel today to start a week-long peace mission.
The trip, arranged by the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange, will include meetings with Israeli and Palestinian peace groups, a Palestinian prisoners’ rights group and a Palestinian health official. If conditions on the ground permit, participants will tour hotspots of the current conflict, including Hebron and Gaza.
“I was looking for a way, really since late-March, to get over to the territories and Israel in a way that would be effective,” said Stein. “This was the first good opportunity I came across.”
Stein has strong opinions about the conflict and is hoping to make a statement with his trip.
“I personally feel like I have an obligation as a Jew to account for and protest actions by the Israeli government that I feel are anathema to Judaism and morally abhorrent in general,” Stein said, referring to the recent incursions into Palestinian territories.
Israeli partisans have argued that the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is simply protecting Israelis against Palestinian terror attacks. Still, Stein objects.
“I think it’s wrong for them to respond to terrorism in Israel by engaging in what seems to be organized terrorism in the territories,” he said.
The Israeli government claims to be targeting terrorists and while trying to avoid hurting civilians, unlike the Palestinian suicide bombers.
“I don’t know (if that is the case) and that’s one reason I want to go, to see for myself,” Stein said.
Global Exchange has been offering “reality tours” in various parts of the world since 1988. Destinations include Israel, Iran, Cuba, Haiti, Afghanistan, Ireland, India, South Africa, Vietnam, Mexico, and Guatemala.
The last Israeli trip took place in January and February and included a meeting with Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat in his beseiged compound in Ramallah, according to tour coordinator Ladan Sobhani.
Sobhani, who will lead this week’s tour with Palestinian human rights worker Hanan Elmasu, said Global Exchange uses the trips to educate Americans about the U.S. role in Israel and other foreign countries.
“The reason we feel it is so important for Americans to be educated is because the U.S.’s unconditional support for Israel,” said Sobhani, who strongly supports the Palestinian cause.
Sobhani said Global Exchange seeks to produce activists who, when they return, will testify to Americans what they saw.
Stein is already planning to speak out.
“I personally feel a need to speak up and be clear that the Israeli government and the Israeli army aren’t the Jewish government and the Jewish army,” he said.
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