Rabbi Amy Eilberg struck a responsive chord when she described the fear and pain Israelis and Jews around the world feel when people make pronouncements about wiping Israel off the face of the earth. The largely African American audience connected with her description of a mindset created in response to incessant, unrelenting global hostility.
“When I hear negative words about Israel, it feels like my family and my being is under attack. So when you hear Jewish leaders refuting such attacks and responding to physical threats, they are feeling their family has been attacked,” Eilberg said in a broadcast of “Conversations with Al McFarlane” Public Policy Forum March 3 at the Glover Sudduth Center for Neighborhood and Community Development.
Eilberg joined US Rep. Keith Ellison, D-MN, and Father Michael O’Connell in a program that explored the local community’s stake in the brutal and costly conflict in the Gaza Strip in the Middle East. Ellison recently returned to Twin Cities following a visit to the region. He said he was the first Congressman to visit the area in over three years. Ellison was in January appointed to the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee.
Eilberg’s powerful testimony followed a session in which Black Minneapolis residents passionately defended the purpose and need for an aggressive and effective Civil Rights Department. While Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak attempted to assure the Black community that Minneapolis was not abandoning its commitment to civil rights and enforcement of civil rights laws, Black residents said they view public pronouncements about the need to reduce the size and or scope of the Civil Rights Department by transferring parts of its responsibility to the beleaguered State Human Rights Department, in much the same way Rabbi Eilberg said Jews see public pronouncements that amount to attacks on Israel and Jewish identity.
“Because of a 2,000 year history of persecution, genocide and suffering, the psyche –collective memory– of Israeli people is very scared with memory of being hurt. When someone says we want to wipe your country off the map, some news analyst might say ‘that is just rhetoric. Don’t believe it. He is just mouthing off….’ As Jews, we have to believe they intend to try to do what they say. We are profoundly afraid. It may not look like that when you read the statements made in the press, but Israelis see themselves at the David in a David and Goliath scenario,” Eilberg said. “We have a lot to be afraid of when Hamas is ruling next door.”
Eilberg’s passion matched that of the Rev. Randolph Staten, who in the preceding interview told Mayor Rybak that the mayor’s plan to downsize the Civil Rights department amounted to retreat by the City of Minneapolis from its commitment to protect Black people.
Staten said because of the history of blatant racial discrimination, and persistent efforts to deny and derail opportunity and civil rights advancements and protections, the Black community looked at plans to dismantle or reduce the responsibilities of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department as an attack on Black people.
Eilberg said rockets from Gaza into Israeli towns cause fear and trauma in children and families. “I wished they had responded differently,” she said, referring to Israel’s overwhelming military response to the rocket attacks. “Understand there is so much fear. We thought we could make peace. Then there was an election and the guys who got elected are those that won’t even recognize Israel. They won’t even say Israel’s name. That feeds fear in Jewish populations.”
Staten said Minneapolis has a history of serious problems in racial discrimination and he said public pronouncements that won’t recognize the legitimacy of Black people’s protestations against discrimination and illegal treatment even by city government feeds fear and distrust in the Black community.
“Even the Black police officers have filed race discrimination lawsuits against the City of Minneapolis,” he said. “Black people didn’t get genuine access to Fire Department jobs until we protested and filed lawsuits against Minneapolis City Government,” he said.
“Minneapolis continues the illegal practice of awarding construction contracts to companies that are not meeting the requirements in law for inclusion of Black sub-contractors and Black workers,” he said.
Congressman Ellison, in the panel on the Gaza Strip and Palestine/Israel conflict, emphasized real connections between US policy in the Mideast Region and what happens locally in communities across America.
“We may think the Mideast conflict is far away and doesn’t matter to us,” he said. “But if you look at the trouble in the Middle East, you’ll see it is driving so many things that affect us directly. In 2001 the US military budget was $290 billion. Now it’s $690 billion. Martin Luther King, Jr., said ‘defense of war is the enemy of the poor.’ It deprives us of domestic expenditures that we have to have. So peace is in the interest of everybody, not just those directly involved in the conflict.
“The fact that we don’t have peace in the region drives so much of American foreign policy, which commits dollars and soldiers to the region. Between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea there are 200,000 American soldiers in various deployments. And billions of American dollars follow them and support them there.
The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians needs to be solved so we can try to reshape our whole world. It is not the only conflict in the Middle East. But it is the conflict that everybody points to. So it is in our interests to try to solve it,” Ellison said.
Ellison said he visited Gaza, Jordan, Israel and Doha, Qatar, “the heart of the Arab world.” He said he visited Israeli towns that were getting bombed by rockets every day, and he visited Gaza communities where he saw bombed out hospitals, schools, and factories.
“One guy had a factory that employed 250 people. His family had owned the factory for three generations. It was bombed out. Those families lost their income. Gaza has been rendered inaccessible to the outside world during the Israeli blockade of the past 18-24 months. People have survived by creating a network of tunnels to move consumer goods from across the border into the country,” he said.
“Israel has legitimate concerns about security,” Ellison said. “A small percentage of Gaza residents belong to Hamas, which the US government calls a terrorist organization. But they have the guns.”
That notwithstanding, Ellison said, “I stand for opening the borders, now.”
“I don’t want people blaming only Palestinians or only Israelis. There is plenty of blame to go around. We need people standing with us for peace in the region, so we can have our money put to work here at home to solve our housing crisis,” he said.
Father O’Connell said he is working with interfaith groups of Christians, Jews, and Muslims who want to bring peace to the Middle East. “There is a peace group that is courageous and that has fought opposition on both sides. It has been able to stand up and do the right thing,” he said.
“I have less sympathy with religious groups that choose to point fingers at one side or the other,” O’Connell said.
Eilberg said she agreed with the analysis that the conflict was not fundamentally a religious conflict. “But religion gets hijacked to fuel what is, at base, a political conflict: two peoples struggle over a land,” she said. “We know the answer. Bill Clinton negotiated the border. Later written accords defined borders and what sharing Jerusalem should look like. The only question is how many on both sides must die before we can put the solution in play.”