A Letter to President Obama

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Maya Rosenfeld

Dr. Rosenfeld is an Israeli sociologist and anthropologist living in Jerusalem. Her research focuses on Palestinian society and politics in the occupied Palestinian territories and in the Diaspora. She teaches at Ben Gurion University, the Hebrew University and Sapir Academic College.

Dear President Obama:

I have been tempted to write to you ever since your first days in office and increasingly more so as the policy of your administration vis-à-vis the Israeli Palestinian conflict unfolded. Yet the personal format, enticing as it might be, also repelled me. After all, writing a letter to a world leader is widely and justly considered an act of last resort, reserved for those who lack other means. And I am not there yet, I used to say to myself as the months went by. But thoughts about the shattered hopes, the opportunities that could have opened and never did, the time wasted and the retrogression it carried in its wake kept returning and refused to let go. Now that your first four years in the White House are coming to a close, I finally surrendered to the initial urge.

It was your splendid victory speech, on the eve of Election Day, November 4, 2008, that inspired me to write at first place. More specifically, it was your allusion to the 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper, who had cast her ballot for you earlier that day. Ann Cooper, who was born only one generation past slavery, who reached adulthood facing double discrimination as a black woman in a segregated society, and who became a renowned activist in the civil-rights movement lived to help bring about the election of a black American Democrat as president of the United States. Yet, as your sentences were vividly portraying stages of the historical struggle that shaped Ann Cooper’s life and became identified with it, I found my thoughts drifting away from Atlanta, Montgomery and Washington to the familiar settings and people of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and of my country, Israel. And while there are no centenarians in my family or among my friends and acquaintances, the lives of many had spanned wars, displacement, misery, the cruelties of military occupation, and decades-long struggles for freedom, justice and a better future.

I was thinking of Malika and Naim Abu Aker, better known as Umm and Abu Nidal, both in their mid sixties, from the Dheisheh refugee camp, just to the south of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.  Naim was a toddler and Malika a baby when, in the course of the 1948 war, their families were uprooted from their village of Ras Abu-Ammar, on the western slopes of the Judean mountains. Together with thousands of other villagers, they fled to the Bethlehem area, where they eventually settled as refugees. Malika and Naim grew up, came of age, married and brought up six children in the Dheisheh camp, which fell under Israeli military occupation in the aftermath of the 1967 war. In 1988, at the height of the first Intifada (the Palestinian popular uprising), Mohammad, the couple’s third son, then a school boy in the tenth grade, was fatally shot by an IDF soldier while taking part in a demonstration just across the street from home. Complicated surgical operations and endless help and support from his family and friends enabled Mohammad to survive for more than two years, a sort of miracle that earned him the title of “the living martyr.” He succumbed to his injury in 1990, at the age of 18. Malika and Naim’s eldest sons are twin brothers, now in their early forties. The two were first detained by the Israeli military at the age of 13 on grounds of their activism in the outlawed Palestinian national movement. Each of them has since then spent dozen of terms in Israeli prisons. In fact, at the time you were giving your speech, one of the twins, Nidal (the literal meaning of the name is “struggle”), by then a university graduate, a longtime community and political activist, and a father of three, was being held as an administrative detainee for the seventh successive or nearly successive time. Whenever he and his mates had access to a smuggled cell phone he would call me and talk about the inhumanity of being detained without trial, wondering whether the public in Israel was aware of this injustice.  At some stage, Nidal’s Israeli lawyer, a veteran and highly acclaimed human-rights attorney, appealed in his name to the Israeli High Court of Justice, but to no avail. The court accepted the request of the GSS (General Security Service) to extend Nidal’s detention.

From Dheisheh my thoughts travelled to Gaza, to Abu-Jameel, my phone pal at the time (we never actually met), and a resident of Rafah.  Abu Jameel, then in his early fifties, had been a day-laborer in the coastline cities of Israel for nearly two decades, until the mid 1990s, when Israel first imposed wholesale closure on the Gaza Strip. With savings from his meager earnings he managed to build a spacious two-storey house for the young family he had started.  Then, in 2001, following the eruption of the second Intifada, Israel began to implement an extensive demolition policy in the southern Gaza Strip, along its densely populated border with Egypt, in an attempt to create what it then called a “sterile buffer zone.” Hundreds of homes were razed and vast agricultural property was destroyed and leveled, leaving thousands of people homeless and devastated. Members of the International Solidarity Movement, among them Rachel Corrie, arrived in Rafah and acted as “human shields” in effort to prevent further destruction. Abu Jameel and his neighbors hosted Rachel and her friends in their demolition-threatened and bullet-perforated homes for several months. Rachel was crushed by an IDF bulldozer in March 2003. Abu Jameel’s new home was demolished nine months after her death, in January 2004. He, his wife and their young children eventually moved to an improvised shelter on a distant, family-owned vegetable plot. It didn’t provide protection from the repeated Israeli air raids, but they managed to survive, subsisting on garden vegetables and occasional assistance they received from the UN World Food Organization (WFO). Yet — astonishingly, despite the repeated disasters that befell him, his family and his community — when he spoke with me, Abu Jameel never lost his simple human kindness and always carried a message of friendship and brotherhood. He often recalled the years he toiled in the streets of Tel Aviv and Herzlia, which he recalled with nostalgia as “the good old days,” highlighting the cordial relationship he maintained with one of his erstwhile employers as proof of the basic affinity between Palestinians and Israelis.  In November 2008, neither of us knew that worse was still to come for Gaza, and that it was just around the corner.

Wandering back from Rafah to Jerusalem, my thoughts now moved to my father, Henry Rosenfeld, whose death in April 2007, a year and a half before your election, was still very fresh and painful. Henry, who grew up and went to college in New York City in the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s, and who served in the American Army during World War II (1942-45), first arrived in Palestine in 1946 as a radical socialist Jew and somewhat of an “explorer.” Following volunteer service in the Israeli army during the War of Independence — the same 1948 war that made Malika and Naim refugees — he went back to the United States and earned a PhD in social anthropology (one biographical element I share with you, then, is the impact of an anthropologist parent). Henry returned to Israel in the early 1950s and eventually became one of the founders of anthropological research in the country. His professional work was never detached from his political and humane commitment. For several decades, he studied the social situation of the Arab national minority in Israel, the dwindling Palestinian community that remained in the Jewish state in the aftermath of the war, and the exodus of their fellow countrymen. He was among the very first who raised their voices against the state-sponsored discrimination that privileged the Jewish collective and dispossessed the Arabs.  Together with my mother, a sociologist and his lifelong intellectual partner, Henry devoted the major part of his academic work to an investigation of the interrelationship between state and class in Israel. According to their analysis, at the time of its establishment in 1948, Israel held the potential to become a progressive state, in terms of both social order and political orientation. Yet its leadership opted for the reverse course, resulting in the displacement of socialism by bureaucratic statism and the concomitant emergence of what the two termed a “state-made middle class.” These changes were ultimately coupled with Israel’s turn to ultra-nationalism, militarism and territorial expansion, the spoilt fruit of which has been shaping the lives of Israelis and Palestinians for so long. To his very last days, my father remained an unwavering supporter of a just solution to the Palestinian problem. The frustration of leaving this world without having witnessed any progress was engraved on his face. 

Staying in Jerusalem, my thoughts shifted to my friend Victoria Buch, a brilliant chemist and an indefatigable fighter against the Israeli occupation, who was struggling with cancer at the time. The two foci of her adult being — science and activism — developed separately and came to co-exist with each other relatively late. Victoria was born in Poland, where she spent her childhood and early teens. She arrived in Israel in the late 1960s at the age of 15 as a new immigrant and was swiftly assimilated. She studied chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and, being a gifted student, was quick to complete her PhD and embark upon a career in theoretical chemistry, making a significant contribution to the field in due course.  The Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was more or less absent from Victoria’s concerns until the mid 1990s, when she was first introduced to the realities of everyday life in a Palestinian village that had lost its best lands to Israeli settlement expansion. Ironically, her belated discovery of the evils of the occupation took place in the midst of the Oslo era, when many activists in what used to be the Israeli peace camp had quit public protest, believing that the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state was a matter of only a few years at the most. Indeed, engaging in anti-occupation activism in the Israel of the late 1990s was quite a lonely mission, but this did not deter Victoria, who entered the scene with the utmost eagerness. The second Intifada, which erupted in September 2000, was met with unprecedented repression by the Israeli military and a corresponding intensification of the occupation regime. New Israeli human-rights organizations and protest groups emerged, and dormant older ones saw a revival. Victoria lent herself generously to all. She helped rebuild demolished homes with the Committee against House Demolitions, stood at Friday vigils with Women in Black, went to checkpoints with MachsomWatch, supported conscientious objectors with Yesh Gvul, and helped many a Palestinian on an individual basis. In a paraphrase of President Kennedy’s self-righteous request that people ask themselves “what you can do for your country,” Victoria urged all her friends to ask themselves at the end of each day, “What have I done against the occupation today?” She would have definitely scored highest in the count of good deeds.

Switching back and forth from these meditations to the deserving Ann Nixon Cooper, I could not help making the admittedly childish, yet nonetheless troubling, comparison with my beloved ones. It’s too late for my dead father, but what about the Abu Akers, Abu Jameel and Victoria? Hadn’t they long ago earned the right to a secure, sustaining, occupation-free Palestine and to a law-respecting, peace-keeping, post-colonialist Israel? Not that I fooled myself that justice for Palestinians and Israelis would be the first item on your presidential agenda, but I did cultivate a sound hope that with you in office, our day will come.

Almost four years have passed since these thoughts tormented my mind in November 2008. By the end of that year, before you set foot in the White House, Israel waged a full-scale war on Gaza. The onslaught came as retaliation for a weeks-long rocket barrage by Hamas on Israeli communities in the southwestern part of the country. The latter also came in retaliation for a gross Israeli violation of a months-long ceasefire between the parties. That ceasefire had been brokered in the wake of an escalating violent cycle of Israeli air raids on Gaza and Hamas rocket firing on southern Israel, which continued against the backdrop of the years-long Israeli-imposed siege on the Strip. But the war on Gaza, sickeningly dubbed “Operation Cast Lead” was not more of the same in a bilateral — albeit highly asymmetric — exchange of violence. It was a unilateral 23-day attack with the most sophisticated aircraft and war machinery against the all-but-defenseless 1.5 million people of this tiny (139 square miles) strip of land. It cost the lives of more than 1,300 Gazans, including hundreds of children and women; it left thousands maimed and injured; it wrought the destruction of four thousand homes (leaving tens of thousands without shelter) and of hundreds of schools, clinics, mosques and factories; it ruined much of the already rundown infrastructure of Gaza; and it continued, almost uninterrupted, in the “no-man’s weeks” that preceded your official inauguration. I lost contact with Abu-Jameel for a long time, finding out months later, to my great relief, that he and his family survived the war and were all safe.

Very few Israelis protested against the war on Gaza. Self- initiated wars stir public rage only if the toll is considered too high, and this was certainly not the case with Cast Lead; the number of IDF casualties was the lowest ever in the history of Israel’s comparable military operations (of the ten soldiers who were killed, four lost their lives to “friendly fire”). No less important, while the UN fact-finding mission set up in the aftermath of the war concluded that Israel had committed serious violations of international humanitarian law and human-rights law, Israel was never made to pay any compensation for the colossal devastation it brought upon Gaza. Indeed, the international community was quick to absolve the aggressor and to organize a “donors’ conference” for the rebuilding of Gaza. Ironically enough, in light of the blockade that remained intact, very little of the more than $5.2 billion that were pledged were actually disbursed and utilized at the time. The so-called “ordinary Israeli citizen” learned once again that her/his country is “sui generis,” singular amid the world of nations, standing high above international law and exempt from abiding by its rules. In short, why take a stand against the war, when the world lets Israel get away so easily without paying a price for its actions?

Victoria was among the few who did protest. Because of her illness, her anti-war activism took place mainly through the new medium she herself had created several years earlier and ran enthusiastically as chief editor: the “Occupation Magazine,” an internet site devoted to the dissemination of information and critique of the Israeli military regime. Tragically, Victoria’s medical treatment failed to save her life. She died in June 2009, leaving behind a long list of alarmed and heartbroken companions, both Israeli and Palestinian.

June 2009 was also the month of your famous Cairo speech. I listened to excerpts on the radio several hours after you delivered it, as I was driving back home from Sapir College (adjacent to the town of Sderot), where I work as part-time lecturer. I liked what you said about the great debt of our civilization to Islamic culture and the detailed enumeration of historical inventions and innovations that followed. I appreciated your comments about the unbearable suffering the Palestinians have endured and your definition of their situation as intolerable. Then, just as I was about to relax in satisfaction and enjoy the beautiful landscape that stretches from the inland planes of the northwestern Negev to the western slopes of the Judean mountains, you called on the Palestinians to abandon violence.

“It is the innocence which constitutes the crime,” wrote James Baldwin some 50 years ago in My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the one Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation. I didn’t fully understand this somewhat obscure combination of purity and wrongdoing when I first read the sentence as a teenager, but over the years I learned to recognize criminal innocence. Preaching the virtues of nonviolence to victims of systematic violence of such intensity clearly belongs to the type of innocence that Baldwin had in mind. It struck me that, just as was the case with your predecessors (George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice), in your lexicon the word “violence” was reserved for Palestinian rocket shooting (“at sleeping children,” you added) and failed to include the 5,400 bombs (81 percent of which were smart bombs, says Wikipedia) that the Israeli air force directed at one of the most densely populated and least sheltered urban habitats in the world during the 23 days of Cast Lead, a mere five months before your Cairo show. The bitter taste of disappointment began to rise inside me as I continued my drive through the wide open, bountiful spaces of the Yoav and Lakhish regional councils. Thousands of Palestinians lived in this rural countryside before the1948 war. The remains of their villages still stick out, here a half-ruined mosque, there a once-tended terrace, an olive grove, an almond orchard grown wild.

In October of that year (2009), Nidal was finally released from prison. His administrative-detention order, which had been renewed over and over again through an all-but-automatic procedure, was not extended this time, and the ordeal that began more than seven years earlier came to an end, at least for the foreseeable future. His homecoming brought a moment of happiness to the people of Dheisheh, who rejoiced at the return long past the time of the event. Visitors kept streaming to the Abu Akers’ residence, day and night, week after week, to greet Nidal and his family. But, once the celebrations ended, old and new problems surfaced, foremost that of getting a job. Theoretically, the skills he acquired as a graduate of the Occupation’s prison system, on the one hand, and of the Palestinian higher-education system, on the other, should have improved Nidal’s chances in the local labor market. However, the abundance of younger and older people with similar assets long ago outstripped the demand for their abilities. Dozens, at times hundreds, of university graduates compete for each position in a government school or in any government institution, and dozens, if not hundreds of former prisoners compete for each post in the security apparatus. With hardly any job-creation on a national scale taking place, it’s small wonder that Nidal is still without a job today; three years after his release. Forgive me for turning once again to your Cairo speech. Another well-meaning piece of advice you gave the Palestinians on that occasion was to proceed with “institution building,” the new goal to strive for, according to the prevalent discourse of international decision makers. Farewell to independence and sovereignty, goodbye to national liberation, and hello to institution building! Yet, while the decades spent on the promotion of institution building have not brought the Palestinians any closer to a viable state (capable at least of creating employment and providing adequate services), they allowed the Israeli occupation regime and its settlement project to prevail and thrive.

My account is coming to a close, as I find little need to go beyond 2009.  In retrospect, considering the path you have followed over the past three years, I wish now that the declarations you made in your Cairo speech, disappointing and insufficient as they were, had become the guidelines for your administration’s policy.  In Cairo you gave your word that “America will not turn her back on the legitimate Palestinians’ aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.” In reality, you kept your back turned on the Palestinians throughout. You had the power, the legitimate authority and the international support needed to change the course of history and trace Israel’s path out of the occupied Palestinian territories. Instead you got trapped in Netanyahu’s plan of deception. Some of your unwavering supporters tell me that the abandonment of active intervention on behalf of a two-state solution was never your deliberate choice, but rather a result of the enormous internal pressures you faced, which constrained and hampered your ability to act. Yet others suggest that my initial expectations were way too high, given the myriad issues on your foreign-affairs agenda. Indeed the attempt to understand why you surrendered and gave up on our issue deserves a separate analysis.

Leaving the reasons aside, what concerns me most is the disastrous outcome. To speak about it in terms of time wasted (four years) underestimates the damage and misses the point. The interests of the occupier and of the occupied are diametrically opposed. This implies, among other things, that every delay in setting up a timetable for Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories benefits the occupation regime and reinforces the settlement project. Every such delay not only frustrates the Palestinians’ hopes and aspirations for liberty and statehood; it also ruins their economy and livelihoods and weakens their ability to achieve independence in the future.

President Obama, I wholeheartedly hope that you will win the upcoming elections. It would be a shame if you did not. Allow me to end this letter with the hope that, once you start your second term in office, you will find the will and determination to embark upon a new road that would advance a just solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Let it be a solution that would finally release the Palestinians from the oppression and exploitation of the Israeli occupation and enable them to rebuild their history. Let it be a solution that would finally relieve the Israelis of the destiny of being occupiers and enable them to engage in a new phase of their history. Let it be a solution that would have delighted my late beloved father Henry and my late beloved friend Victoria. Let it be the solution that the Abu Akers, Abu Jameel, and millions of Israelis and Palestinians deserve.

Sincerely yours,

Maya Rosenfeld

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top