I SPENT MY 21ST BIRTHDAY, in 1973, in Jerusalem, months before the Yom Kippur War. As part of the college junior semester abroad, I lived and traveled in Israel for nearly five weeks. In preparing a thesis called "U.N. Resolution 242 and the Viability of an Independent Palestinian State," I interviewed Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.
Once, while walking through the Old City, I noticed a couple of kids, who later called themselves Palestinians, following me. In those days, I sported a big Afro, a la "Linc" from the old "Mod Squad" television series. I wore an Army jacket from an Army-Navy surplus store in the states, and to these kids this American cut an interesting figure. As I continued walking, the gathering of Palestinian kids grew from a handful to nearly 25 or 30. I stopped and conducted a "press conference," with one kid, probably no more than 10, serving as interpreter. The kids asked three questions, the significance of which escaped me until recently.
First, they asked whether I knew Muhammad Ali. "Personally?" I responded, "No, I don't."
They next asked whether I knew Angela Davis, the communist, anti-Vietnam War protester and Black Panther sympathizer. But again I asked, "Personally?" "No," I said, "I don't."
Third, they asked whether I knew karate. Karate? Again, I said, "No." At that point, nearly all the kids walked away. I told that story many times before Sept. 11. But after that date, the story took on new significance.
The impasse in the Middle East remains as long as Palestinian and non-Palestinian Arab adults, teachers, schools and media teach children to hate. The three questions posed by the young Palestinians, I belatedly realized, exposed their ignorance and narrow-mindedness regarding America, American principles and American culture.
They knew only of Americans who spoke out against America. They considered people like Angela Davis "freedom fighters" who take on an unprincipled, exploitative United States. Does this worldview enhance the prospects of an independent Palestinian state? No. As far back as 1960, King Hussein of Jordan said, "Since 1948 Arab leaders have approached the Palestine problem in an irresponsible manner. They have not looked into the future. They have no plan or approach. They have used the Palestinian people for selfish political purposes. This is ridiculous and, I could say, criminal."
Peace depends upon willingness and a desire on both sides to achieve it. Do the Palestinians truly seek peace? A recent New York Times article questioned several leaders of Hamas, the Islamic terrorist organization that openly takes credit for suicide bombings. Did these leaders envision a side-by-side peaceful coexistence with a Jewish state called Israel? No.
Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the "spiritual leader" of Hamas, said, "Our equation does not focus on a cease-fire; our equation focuses on an end to the occupation." After the Israelis leave the West Bank in Gaza, what then? Another leader, Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar said, "(Jews could live) in an Islamic state with Islamic law. From our ideological point of view, it is not allowed to recognize that Israel controls one square meter of historic Palestine." Another leader added, "There are a lot of open areas in the United States that could absorb the Jews."
In the wake of the recent Israeli incursion into the West Bank, President George W. Bush dispatched Colin Powell to the Middle East. Bush refuses to condemn Arafat for supporting if not engaging in terrorism and urged Arafat and the other leaders to "do better." But, according to the Israeli government, Arafat personally approved expenditures for suicide bombers. While publicly condemning suicide bombing, Arafat, in Arabic, praises the bombers as martyrs, while urging "jihad, jihad, jihad."
The New York Times article also quoted Abu Samhadamah, the commander of Fatah, an organization headed by Yasser Arafat. In the past, Arafat made faint-hearted attempts – just for show – of arresting, at least temporarily, members of Hamas. "But now," Mr. Samhadamah said to The New York Times, "we are not going to arrest them."
What, I recently asked a Palestinian, is Israel's ultimate goal? He replied, "The complete elimination of Palestinians." "What," I responded, "in the over 3,000-year history of Jews and Judaism suggests a desire to exploit, colonize, enslave or even proselytize?" No answer.
Golda Meir, the former Israeli prime minister, predicted continued hostility until Palestinian mothers love their children more than they hate Israelis. She said that Israelis might someday forgive the Palestinians for killing our children, but that Israelis may never forgive Palestinians for causing Israelis to kill theirs.
Hardened hearts require bold leadership. But where are the Arab Thomas Paines, the Patrick Henrys, the Martin Luther Kings? When will someone teach the Palestinian children, "However you feel about the establishment of Israel, resolving disputes through killing innocents cheapens our cause and diminishes our moral stature – enough is enough"?