Witness in Palestine -- Review

Anna Baltzer, Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories. Revised Edition. Boulder: Paradigm Press, 2007. 399 pages.

The story of the Palestinian people rarely gets told in the West – at least not in a positive way. Israeli’s tend to frame the conversation, and American politicians have followed their lead. Palestinians are seen in the popular mind as unrelenting violent terrorists intent on driving Jewish Israeli’s into the sea. It is also assumed that Palestinians are Muslims, but while a majority are Muslim, there has always been a significant Christian minority, and many are secular. It is assumed that the current conflict is an ancient one, but in many ways the current conflict is of recent vintage that is rooted in the arrival of Zionist European Jews late in the 19th century. But, again the Palestinian story remains largely untold.

The Palestinian story is a complex one – and must take into consideration both the Arab Israelis, who are citizens of Israel but live limited and regulated lives, and Arab Palestinians (Muslim, Christian, secular) living under Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. It is the residents of the Occupied Territories that comes into view in Anna Baltzer’s book Witness in Palestine. Baltzer is a young Jewish American woman who first encountered the Palestinian people during a visit to the area while a Fulbright scholar in Turkey in 2003. What she found that first visit was very different from what she expected. That visit led to a vocation – that of advocate for non-violent change in Palestine. Over the next several years she would return again and again working with the International Women’s Peace Service. Working with this group, she not only discovered the realities of Israeli occupation and found ways to be an advocate for Palestinian rights and freedoms, but she would use her unique vantage point as a Jewish woman, to tell their story through text and pictures.

The text is arranged as a diary – recounting her encounters with Palestinians, telling the story of the daily inconveniences and dangers of checkpoints, road blocks, and settlements. She recounts her encounters with both settlers and with soldiers. Through her accounts, we hear the story. But perhaps more important are the pictures. Throughout the book we see the roadblocks and checkpoints, bulldozed olive groves and houses, and the faces of Palestinian people – men, women, children. We also see roads reserved for Israeli’s only, settlements encroaching on Palestinian communities, and a “security fence” that looks a lot like a very imposing wall – 25 feet of concrete fit with watch towers, and more. We discover people cut off from hospitals and their lands.

Even if one might question an interpretation here or there in the book, the book remains a powerful statement. Yes, some of her resources might be considered on the fringe – Noam Chomsky is a highly controversial character – and her views of the political situation might be at least a topic of conversation, but the pictures and the stories should push us to look at both sides of the story. She’s Jewish, but she’s an anti-Zionist. Her advocacy of the Palestinian cause suggests one need not be anti-Jewish to support a just and fair resolution to the Palestinian situation.

Whether you agree with her interpretations, her most important advice is simply to check things out. If you don’t believe her, then do your own research. Look at all sides. Listen to all voices. Maybe what you’ve heard isn’t the whole truth. And if your research opens your eyes to a different reality, then perhaps you too will become an advocate.

The book is composed of diaries, pictures, and maps. The first edition was published after visits in 2003 through 2005. The most recent edition came out after a summer 2007 visit. It includes several appendixes that range from what one might do, a list of resources, a time line, a recounting of myths, and a collection of quotes that will give a different cast to the story.

As depressing as the story can be at times, Anna is optimistic that peace can occur. She’s not na├»ve, she understands that the solutions won’t be easy to attain. She recognizes that some Palestinians have turned to terrorizing violence to advance their cause – but she chooses not to focus on that. What she wants us to see are the nonviolent responses and the debilitating effects of an illegal occupation.

Because we live in dangerous times, it is important that we know the full story. It is not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish to raise questions about Israeli policies. It is appropriate to ask the question of whether it is possible for a nation to be a true democracy, but limit the rights of some of its citizens. Then there are the settlements – which continue to expand, limiting the territory available to Palestinians. While not popular, it is also appropriate to consider whether the Israeli occupation has similarities to apartheid.

Anna’s story won’t be popular with many Americans. Her own community – indeed members of her own family have difficulties with her choice – but again, one need not agree with her at every point to have an eye opening experience as one reads the book. But, I think that every American would benefit from reading this book.


Britney said…

Aunt Linda e-mailed me the link to your blog to read this post and I'm very glad she did. During my last semester of high school, we watched a video in school called "The People and the Land" (you can google it and watch it, or use YouTube) which is about the Palestinian struggle in Isreal. It was footage shot in 1996 about what was happening by supporters of Palestine, so you see what the U.S. will not show you in the media.

After learning about the Isreali-Palestinian conflict, I feel very motivated about the issue, which not many Americans know about.

I strongly suggest that video to you. It's a very powerful documentary.
I recently read a new book, "American Priestess." about a 19th century American "colony" in Jerusalem. The word colony was used in the time but it was nothing colonial. Reading a history of that time when Zionism was rising was sobering. Many militant Zionists were doing the same things that Palestinian "terrorists" do now. Namely fighting the only kind of fight that the powerless can fight.

I'm glad you found the review of interest. And thank you for the suggestion as well.

This is a most important issue, and the more we know the better.

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