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The Arts

Is Middle East peace possible? Anna Baltzer says yes

Jewish author talks about Israel-Palestine conflict in Brattleboro on Sept. 10

BRATTLEBORO—In 1997, Nelson Mandela said, “The U.N. took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years, an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system. But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

If nonviolent tactics and economic sanctions worked in South Africa, why not try them again in Palestine, says Anna Baltzer, 31, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, an award-winning Jewish author and a full-time independent Palestinian civil rights worker. She will be speaking on Friday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m., at the Centre Congregational Church on Main Street.

Baltzer’s Brattleboro talk is titled “Is Peace in the Middle East Possible?”

She believes it is.

“What is happening in Palestine is not that different from South Africa under apartheid,” Baltzer said in a recent phone interview. “This is about a population denied civil rights on the basis of their ethnic background. And there’s very good news.”

There’s a huge movement of people trying to bring change,” she continued. “There are extraordinary acts of nonviolent resistance. There have been huge marches — Martin Luther King-style marches — people singing freedom songs and holding hands with Israelis and internationals who stand beside the Palestinians in their struggle for liberation. Large number of Israeli activists come to work with them. I want to tell the people in Brattleboro what I found in the West Bank — some of the things that surprised me and some of the things that gave me hope. I do believe that peace is possible.”

In 2007, Baltzer published “A Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories.”

Noam Chomsky said of her book, “Even those who are familiar with the grim reality of the occupied territories will quickly be drawn into a world they had barely imagined by these vivid, searingly honest, intensely acute portrayals.”

On her Web site, AnnaInTheMiddleEast.com, Baltzer describes the beginning of her journey:  “Like many Americans and many Jews, I grew up with a positive view of Israel as a peace-seeking democracy. Israel symbolized to me the one protection that Jews had against the type of persecution that had plagued families like mine throughout history. I saw the Jewish state as a tiny and victimized country that simply wanted to live in peace but couldn’t because of its aggressive, Jew-hating Arab neighbors.”

She was teaching English in Turkey on a Fulbright when she first visited the Middle East on a backpacking trip.

“Sept. 11 had just happened,” she said. “And I was a big traveler. After a while I went south to Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Especially in southern Lebanon, I started meeting Palestinian refugees. I developed friendships with families and began to learn their stories. I heard for the first time a totally different narrative from the one I had been told growing up in America. I didn’t believe them. I thought they were nice people, but it was propaganda that they had fallen for. So I decided to do research and show them. And as soon as I did, I realized I was the one who had been misled.”

In the West Bank, she began to witness and document civil rights abuses.

“Jews and Palestinians living there are treated differently under the law,” Baltzer said. “To maintain the delicate demographic balance of a Jewish majority is to deny the same rights to Palestinians. And then multiply it by 100 in the West Bank.”

These issues are hugely complicated, controversial and emotional. They involve wars, territories that have been occupied for decades, Jewish settlements on Palestinian land and a towering, snaking wall that sometimes surrounds entire Palestinian villages and cuts families in half.

“Farmers are separated from their olive groves that they and their families have been living off of for hundreds, sometimes thousand of years,” Baltzer said. “It’s devastated the economy and the everyday life of Palestinians. Children have to get through the wall to go to school. Mothers can’t go to work and know they’ll be able to get back.”

Baltzer collected many tragic stories.

“Getting to a hospital is a really big problem,” she said. “I know of a woman who went into labor and was unable to get out of her village. This was before the wall, when there were checkpoints. The checkpoint was closed when she arrived, and she was stopped and held for hours in the cold.”

“Eventually she gave birth to premature twins,” she continued. “They were born alive, and if they’d gotten to a hospital they might have lived. But both died on way to hospital. These stories are happening every day because people can’t get to the hospital. Meanwhile more and more land is being taken by the wall and these settlements.”

Commonly, Americans tend to think of this as war between Muslims and Jews. This is incorrect, Baltzer said.

“About 20 or 25 percent of the Palestinian population is Christian,” she said. “They’re not all Muslims. This is not a war about religion. It’s a conflict over basic rights and the struggle of Palestinians to achieve equal rights regardless of religion or ethnicity."

This is where economic sanctions, similar to the ones that changed South Africa, come in. Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian doctor, politician and peace organizer who some call the “Palestinian Ghandi,” started what he calls the “BDS Campaign” in May of this year. BDS stands for boycotts, divestments and sanctions.

Baltzer and Barghouti appeared on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart in October of 2009 to make the BDS Campaign’s case. (See the interview on Baltzer’s Web site.)

“The boycott is very clear,” Baltzer said. “It holds Israel accountable. And the minute that Israel ceases to commit these human rights violations is the minute the boycotts, divestments and sanctions end.

Baltzer knows this will not be an easy struggle.

“Up until the very end, more than 90 percent of the South African population did not favor integration,” she said. “But it wasn’t up to white South Africans. And likewise, it’s not up to the Israelis.”

“Palestinians have human rights,” she continued. “These are nonnegotiable. And if there are people who don’t believe in equal rights, then I’m sorry. They’re going to have to live with the reality that Palestinians are human beings who will achieve their full rights. This is a global movement. It has grown extraordinarily. And it’s exciting to become involved. People can leave my talk and feel that everyone can play a part. It’s a lot of what gives me hope."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #65 (Wednesday, September 1, 2010).

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