Ira Glunts: Song Only Obama Hears, Vision Only Obama Sees

By Ira Glunts
PalestineChronicle.com

In an otherwise unremarkable recent speech to members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Senator and Presidential candidate Barack Obama concluded his talk by making a startling reference to his brief January 2006 visit to the village of Fassuta [1] in northern Israel. The Senator spoke of “the signs of life and hope and promise” he witnessed there. Toward the end of his speech Mr. Obama stated,

Peace with security. That is the Israeli people’s overriding wish. It [emphases mine] is what I saw in the town of Fassouta on the border with Lebanon. There are 3,000 residents of different faiths and histories. There is a community center supported by Chicago’s own Roman Catholic Archdiocese and the Jewish Federation of Metro Chicago. It is where the education of the next generation has begun: in a small village, all faiths and nationalities living together with mutual respect.  [2] 

The reality is that the village of Fassuta [3] is not an integrated community as Senator Obama claims, but one that is comprised almost solely of Melkite Christian, Palestinian Arabs. The Melkites, who are Roman Catholics, are part of a greater Christian Arab community, who are themselves a minority among Palestinians living within the pre-1967 Israeli borders.  Of course the vast majority of Arabs in both the Israel delineated by the pre-1967 borders and the Israel delineated by the post-1967 borders, are Muslims.

According to official Israeli government statistics for 2005, there were no Jewish residents in Fassuta.  In a January 11, 2006 article entitled, “Obama Visits Remote Israeli Town with Chicago Ties,” Chuck Goudie, a reporter at the local Chicago ABC television station, states that “[a]ll 3,000 residents of Fassouta are Israeli, Palestinian and Catholic.”   (Earlier in the article Goudie incorrectly states that a majority of Arabs in Israel are Christian.)  This article, amazingly, is posted on Senator Obama’s official Senate web site [4].

The support that the Catholic Archdiocese and Jewish Federation have given the villagers of Fassuta is commendable.  It is only appropriate that Mr. Obama would want to acknowledge the good works of his constituents.  But implying that what he saw there fourteen months ago is an example of present progress toward peace in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict when the region has witnessed so much strife and hardship subsequent to his visit is disingenuous.

Fassuta, like other Palestinian villages, suffers from a lack of services and infrastructure as a direct result of Israeli government policy.  According to the Israeli Central Department of Statistics figures, the average income in Fassuta is 3748 NIS (New Israeli shekels) per wage earner as compared with 6835 NIS for the entire country.  The village is rated as average in a government devised socio-economic scale (5 of a possible 10).   A past resident whose family still live there told me that he “wouldn’t describe Fassuta as a ‘poor’ village, although the authorities treat it the way they treat all other Arab villages – with total neglect and dismissiveness.”

The government of Israel views its Palestinian population as second class citizens at best, and officially sanctioned discrimination against its minority communities is openly acknowledged.  To the vast majority of Palestinians, who are Sunni Muslims, the small gesture of outside support given to a Christian village would not be viewed as evidence of new signs of progress.   But it would be a reminder of the Israeli policy of favoring smaller sectarian groups over the larger Muslim population, in a policy known in Israel as “divide and conquer.”  This policy has been most effectively employed with the Druze community. 

In American foreign policy discussions, the above internal state of affairs tends to go unrecognized.  Sometime this is because we choose to ignore it, sometimes it is because of lack of knowledge.  Often it is because we focus on what many think is the greater, more pressing and more soluble problem –  the disposition of territory Israel acquired as a result of the 1967 War and the possible creation of a Palestinian state.  Obama’s speech conflates both discussions with equal measures of falsehoods and flights of fancy.

I would never expect Senator Obama to champion the cause of the Palestinian citizens of Israel during his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination.   In the current US political climate, if he were to do  so in front of AIPAC, the least of his problems would be alienating his immediate audience.  However, I do expect a Presidential candidate to not draw completely irrelevant and erroneous conclusions about what a town like Fassuta signifies in relation to the “[p]eace with security… [t]hat is the Israeli people’s overriding wish.” 

I wonder if Obama even knows that some seven months after his visit, during the last Lebanese/Israeli war, Fassuta sustained heavy damage from Hezbollah shelling.   I wonder if Obama knows that the Israeli government does not build bomb shelters in Palestinian villages, as they do in Jewish settlements.   This was a particularly egregious oversight in Fassuta since during the last war “Israeli artillery units were stationed in fields near …[the village]…, from where they exchanged shell and rocket fire with H[e]zbollah units.” [5]   I wonder if Senator Obama knows that the residents of Fassuta had to bring the Israeli government to court in order to receive equal compensation to that received by those living in neighboring Jewish towns for damage caused by the shelling. Although the residents won their case, it is not clear if they will actually receive compensation equal to that of their Jewish neighbors. [6] 

Fassuta’s two most famous natives are Sabri Jiryis and Anton Shammas.  Jiryis is a founding member of Al-Ard, a writer, lawyer and political activist.  He is a prominent, long-time member of Fatah, who returned to Israel in 1994 after 24 years in exile.  His classic 1966 book, The Arabs In Israel, was updated and translated into English in 1976. [7]   Jiryis presently divides his time between Ramallah in the West Bank and Fassuta.  Anton Shammas, wrote the highly regarded Hebrew autobiographical novel Arabesques, and has been living in a self-imposed exile in Ann, Arbor, Michigan where he is a university professor.  Shammas has written about his own difficulties living as a Palestinian in his native land. [8]  I do not imagine that Mr. Obama knows about or has met either of these two men, although I remember reading that Mr. Shammas once lived in Chicago .  Maybe if Obama had spoken to them, he would not be so quick to point to Fassuta as “[p]roof, that in the heart of so much peril, there were signs of life and hope and promise-that the universal song for peace plays on.”

American politicians are famous for making outrageous statements which demonstrate that they are totally unaware of the cultural and political realities in the foreign nations they visit.  It is disappointing  that Mr. Obama could be so deaf to the song that he heard, since according to Chicago writer and activist Ali Abunimah, [9] the Senator had attended numerous Arab-American events when he was an Illinois state politician.   To describe an atypical village in northern Israel as a sign of hope and promise, and a kind of paradise of dancing children, is to sing a tune which will grate on the ears of those who are familiar with the region.

Mr. Obama is often depicted as a politician who can communicate a message of hope to his listeners.  But a message of false hope is destructive and shows a disregard for the suffering of the victims.   I do not know what Mr. Obama wanted to communicate to his listeners at AIPAC.  However, what he communicated to those who are knowledgeable about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is that he is not at this time prepared to seriously discuss Middle Eastern policy.

Notes

1.   The name of the village is generally transliterated as “Fassuta,” and alternately “Fasuta,” or “Fassouta”   The latter spelling is used in the text of Obama’s AIPAC speech and in the cited Goudie article.
2.   The full text of the speech is available at Senator Obama’s  US Senate web site
http://obama.senate.gov/speech/070302-aipac_policy_forum_remarks/index.html
3.  Some pictures of Fassuta can be found at:  http://www.pbase.com/pb975/fasuta
4.  Goudie, Chuck,  “ Obama Visits Remote Israeli Village With Chicago Ties,”  January 11, 2006 .
http://obama.senate.gov/news/060111-obama_visits_remote_israeli_town_with_chicago_ties/index.html
5.  de Quetteville, Harry,  “Israel Is Accused Of Racism Over Its War-Payouts,”  Telegraph, September 24, 2006 .
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/09/24/wmid24.xml
6.  See above.
7.  Ettinger, Yair, “The PLO Is His Life’s Work,” Ha’aretz,  November 17, 2004 .
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=502532
Also see Wikipedia entry for “Jiryis, Sabri.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabri_Jiryis
8.  See Kahlil Sakakini Cultural Centre web site entry for “Shammas, Anton.”
http://www.sakakini.org/literature/anton.htm
9.  Abunimah, Ali,  “How Barack Obama Learned To Loved Israel ,”  March 4, 2007.
http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article6619.shtml

-Ira Glunts first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel.  He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992.  Mr. Glunts lives in Madison, New York where he writes and operates a used and rare book business.  He can be contacted at gluntsi@morrisville.edu

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