Dave Reed: An American Jew Among the Palestinians
Disclosure: Readers should know that the author visited the West Bank under the auspices of the International Solidarity Movement in 2002, which lends a particular framing to this story. Also bear in mind that the experiences and the perspective of the protagonist of this story are by no means shared by all Americans who have visited Israel or the occupied territories.
The Palestinians, joined by dozens of international activists who came to the West Bank to protest the occupation of the territories seized by Israel in 1967, had successfully crossed through Qulandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. It was August 2004, and they celebrated the completion of a three-week march along the route of a separation wall under construction by spray-painting political slogans on the Israeli side of the barrier.
Among them was Dave Reed, an American Jew from High Point. Reed and his fellow activists from the United States, Western Europe and Japan act variously as human shields, humanitarian aid workers and non-violent direct action protesters under the umbrella of the International Solidarity Movement. One of their aims in 2004 was to halt the construction of what they call an ‘“apartheid wall’” that zigzags through the West Bank, separating Palestinian communities from Jewish settlements, cutting off Palestinian farmers from their fields and appropriating Palestinian land to Israel proper. The Israeli government considers this a ‘“security wall’” critical for deterring suicide bomb attacks against Israeli civilians by Palestinian militants.
Reed and about 75 others had faced off against armed Israeli soldiers and pushed through the checkpoint, but more activists were still behind them on the other side when the shooting started.
‘“There were these Palestinian kids from the local refugee camp that joined the march,’” says Reed, a lanky young man with a mop of brown hair and wire rimmed glasses that underscore a look of earnest idealism. ‘“The situation really deteriorated. The Israeli soldiers moved very quickly from tear gas to live ammunition in response to stones that were being thrown by the kids.
‘“Live ammunition directed at children is totally disproportionate,’” he adds.
The International Solidarity Movement maintains a policy that international activists will withdraw any time children start throwing stones because the organization presumes the youngsters are either using them as a cover, or trying to impress them. They aren’t worried about the Israeli soldiers’ safety, but they don’t want to be responsible for a Palestinian child’s death.
But by the time the shooting started, the situation had escalated too far for retreat to be an option, Reed says. A pre-designated decision-maker made the call to intervene.
‘“We put ourselves between the soldiers and the kids,’” he says. ‘“Leaders from the refugee camp were able to calm down the kids. I wouldn’t say it was the wrong decision.’”
This was Dave Reed’s tenth day on the ground of a war zone that continues to be a deadly fault line in world politics ‘— with Israel and the United States on one side, and Arab nations and much of European political opinion on the other side.
He would spend another two months in the West Bank, accompanying Palestinian farmers in Jenin as they completed their olive harvest under conditions of military harassment, and spending weeks in Hebron establishing a field office for the International Solidarity Movement.
For Reed, whose mother attends synagogue in High Point and whose Caucasian father converted to Judaism for a time, there is no contradiction in being Jewish and acting in solidarity with the Palestinians who live under Israel’s occupation.
For the 26-year old man ‘— temporarily living with his mother in Randleman as he looks for work and saves money to go back to college ‘— joining the International Solidarity Movement caused minimal conflict within his family, but he knows his viewpoint falls outside of the mainstream of Jewish, or for that matter, American opinion.
‘“There is a deep level of dehumanization of Palestinians,’” he says. ‘“To break through it and talk about them as having the same level of humanity as Jews is hard for some people. My parents were both active in the civil rights movement. How I grew up I was always looking out for the underdog.’”
Jews who side with the Palestinian cause are less an anomaly than one might think, Reed says. He estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the members of International Solidarity Movement ‘— founded in part by a biracial Palestinian-Jewish couple, Huwaida Arraf and Adam Shapiro ‘— are Jews, and many Israeli Jews have demonstrated against their country’s policies.
Not that Jewish participation has insulated the organization from criticism.
The website of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization dedicated to combating prejudice against Jews, describes the International Solidarity Movement as ‘“a well-organized movement that spreads anti-Israel propaganda and misinformation and voices support for others who engage in armed resistance against Israel.’”
The ADL correctly notes that some International Solidarity Movement members have stayed in the homes of Palestinian suicide bombers to deter the Israeli military from punishing their families with house demolitions, and that Arraf and Shapiro have described armed struggle as a right of oppressed people.
‘“As a movement, we do not agree with the suicide bombing operations or any violence against civilians and noncombatants, but we stand behind the Palestinian right to armed struggle,’” Arraf told me in July 2002. ‘“We don’t criticize it, but ours is a nonviolent movement.’”
With the world’s three major monotheistic religions claiming their roots in the land of present-day Israel and the occupied territory and many thousands of years of mutual displacements of Jews and Arab groups in the area, religion and ethnicity are certainly combustible elements in the conflict. Both Jewish and Islamist fundamentalist groups have claimed a divine mandate to make exclusive claims on the land.
But Reed insists that the conflict revolves around a basic question of justice stripped of the complicating factors of religious and ethnic identity.
‘“Most Palestinians will go out of their way to say it’s not a conflict of religion,’” he says. ‘“They don’t harbor any ill will towards Jews; they just don’t want to live under occupation. During Ramadan, I was in Hebron and I broke the fast with Muslims.’”
Reed also rejects the secularist argument that because of the horrors of the Nazi holocaust and the intractable nature of global anti-Semitism, Jews’ national security needs outweigh the interests of their Palestinian neighbors.
‘“I’m Jewish; I’m American,’” he says. ‘“I feel perfectly safe in this country. The imagery of the holocaust is all over Israel. It doesn’t mean they have to do what they’re doing.’”
As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon implements plans to evacuate Jewish settlers from Gaza, a section of the occupied territories on the Mediterranean Sea, Reed says some of the more militant settlers have started to voluntarily wear yellow stars reminiscent of those Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule in Germany.
‘“They’re trying to say that the state of Israel is like Nazi Germany,’” he says. ‘“It’s just not accurate at all. It’s pretty offensive to me, in fact.’”
Reed wants to change the way Americans view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he has an effective plan over the long haul to do that. He will start classes at UNCG in the summer and earn a bachelors degree in history. After that, he plans study for a graduate degree in Middle Eastern history.
There was never any epiphany that led to his dedication to justice for Palestinians, he says. He contributed money to the International Solidarity Movement for years before he made the trip to the West Bank. He has always been interested in Middle Eastern politics.
‘“I don’t really know how this gets a hold of you,’” he says. ‘“Yeah, I’m Jewish, but this is just a fascinating subject.’”