Sunday, December 28, 2014 Tevet 6, 5775

Standing for Humanity

August 1, 2014 By:
Rebecca Harris
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A wounded Palestinian woman arrives at al-Najar hospital in the Gaza Strip on August 1, 2014. A 72-hour ceasefire took effect today in Gaza but was immediately threatened by deadly shelling as diplomats pressed for a more durable end to 25 days of devastating violence. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib of Flash90.

As an American Jew born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, I was taught that the ability to recognize and help those suffering from humanitarian crises is a mitzvah, a good deed. I have watched American Jews perform tikkun olam—repairing the world — by organizing events to raise funds, awareness and advocacy about worldwide humanitarian crises, making the world a better place through their generosity.

When it comes to the Palestinians, however, the American Jewish community refuses to acknowledge the irrefutable existence of a man-made humanitarian crisis in the occupied Palestinian territories.

As an international affairs professional, it disgusts me that when I speak with fellow American Jews about this situation, their comments attempt to show that this humanitarian crisis is exaggerated by the media, should be downplayed, or is somehow less important than the government of Israel’s national security concerns.

In public school and religious school, I learned about the Jewish historical narrative of displacement, suffering, genocide and resilience; about the formation of the state of Israel in 1948; and the struggles with neighboring countries that exist today. As a part of this narrative, Israelis do indeed continue to suffer death, injury and displacement from Hamas rocket fire, but they are not alone in their suffering at the hands of another.

Acknowledging that Palestinians have a historical narrative of their own, which includes prolonged humanitarian injustices, does not weaken, counter or threaten the Jewish narrative. Man-made actions also have resulted in the death, injury and displacement of Palestinians. Illegal settlement building in the West Bank regularly destroys Palestinian homes and damages local infrastructure. The economic blockade on the Gaza Strip prevents economic growth and has pushed unemployment well above 40 percent, with nearly 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line. These are just some of the facts of the Palestinian humanitarian crisis that remain unacknowledged by the American Jewish community in fear of being perceived as “pro-Palestine” or “anti-Israel.”

While working with a humanitarian organization providing relief to Palestinians, I had the privilege of meeting several middle school students from Gaza. Despite their extensive personal losses as a result of the ongoing conflict, they remained committed to peace and to making the world a better place. We can all learn from these students’ experiences.

To me, Judaism calls upon Jews to uphold the highest standards of humanity. Instead of living in a perpetual state of fear, which breeds ignorance and hatred, educate yourself by reading on-the-ground analyses by credible humanitarian relief organizations that work with Palestinians such as B’Tselem, Gisha, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Al-Haq.

Standing silent in the face of a humanitarian crisis is complicity. When you speak out in recognition of this crisis, you help bring the realities of the man-made humanitarian situation facing the Palestinians to the public. Fear is the ultimate obstacle to overcoming ignorance.

As a humanitarian worker and as a Jew, it is my duty to learn about the experiences of suffering people all over the world. I have a duty to look beyond the political conflict and genuinely acknowledge how this violence has shaped the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. While I support Israel's existence as a Jewish state, I also recognize, understand and empathize with the Palestinian humanitarian crisis. I pray that the rest of the American Jewish community will recognize its duty to uphold the highest standards of humanity and speak out about this issue, as they do over humanitarian crises faced anywhere else in the world.

Rebecca Harris is an Elkins Park native who recently graduated from American University's School of International Service, where she earned a master's in international affairs with a regional focus on the Middle East. She has written several academic reports about the region that address gender, public diplomacy, refugees, youth empowerment and other subjects. 

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