Even good people need to hear history and context
Defending Israel in Whistler BC Canada
My second home is in the Mountains at North America’s number one rated ski resort, Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. I am not here anymore for the skiing, that train has left the station, but for sheer natural beauty and for 50 degree humid less nights away from the liquid hot air of the South Florida summer, this is a mechaya. The town has about 11,854 permanent residents and about 3 million visitors a year. The resident Jewish population may be less than 100 people and the town’s unifying communication is a weekly newsmagazine called the Pique( www.piquenewsmagazine.com). With that as background you can imagine how surprised I was reading last week’s issue which in addition to the usual articles about ecology,local zoning hearings, business and tourism concerns and even a ransomware attack on the municipality, there appeared an interview with a local resident on the “Israel-Palestine narrative, and how misguided it has been. Knowing that most natives knew little about the background and coming out of a war that the media presented as Israeli aggression and war crimes I had to defend Israel with my narrative.
In this blog I am reprinting with permission the interview that appeared (without the picture of a Gazan playground that was destroyed in the conflict) and my response in the form of a letter to the editor. I was hoping for an article as I explained to the editor that the limit of 250 words was about as long as it takes me to say hello. She commiserated with me and gave me an increase to 550 words. After editing and editing and leaving important arguments on the floor I submitted my letter of exactly 550 words but with an option for one more paragraph to better conclude the letter. It was her choice and I was pleased to hear that she would add it as well. It comes out on Thursday, and I am curious to see what the response will be.
Below is the interview and my letter.
It was impossible for him to know it at the time, but it was a spot of bad weather that launched Whistlerite Keith Reynolds’ 35-year connection to Palestine.
On a globetrotting backpack trip in 1985, he was enjoying some uzo with friends on a rainy day in Greece, when a plan was hatched. “Somebody said, ‘It’s been raining here for too long. If it rains tomorrow, let’s go to Tel Aviv.’ And that was it,” Reynolds recalled. “I had no idea that that little side trip was going to impact the rest of my life.”
Reynolds admits his initial window into Palestinian life was limited, at best. Like so many Westerners, he saw the Palestinian people as something of an abstraction, a symbol of a geopolitical conflict too long and complicated for any outsider to truly grasp. “At that time, part of it was that I was misled,” he said.
Reading Israeli and Western news, Reynolds said he was fed a narrative that has largely persisted since the end of the Second World War “creating Israel as this wonderful place [representing] the struggle of a nation.” The Palestinian perspective was much harder to find, until, that is, he met a young Palestinian man named Sami at a hostel who invited him to his hometown in the West Bank. “A big impression was when we went by some Israelis in Hebron. He said, ‘I think these people will cause trouble.’ That stuck with me to this day. He was correct,” Reynolds recalled.
“I came back to Canada and [realized] it wasn’t quite the narrative that I had been told and taught about.”
In the years since, Reynolds has visited the Palestinian territories more than a dozen times, first as a private citizen eager to learn more about the situation on the ground, and later as the founder of Playground Builders, a Whistler-based non-profit that builds playgrounds in war-affected areas of the Middle East, including 31 in Palestine. He has been a guest of the Knesset, Israel’s national legislature, met with Palestinian leaders, and has had a sitdown with Israel’s consul general.
Through the years, the ever-curious Reynolds has always sought a deeper understanding of the plight of the Palestinian people, and as he has watched the latest tensions unfold, which, until last month’s ceasefire, had resulted in the deaths of at least 254 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, he saw it as his responsibility to speak up to counter the common prevailing narrative in the media.
Stacked on a coffee table at his home overlooking Green Lake is a pile of journals, each representing a different trip to Palestine. “It’s not easy for me to go back there,” he says, looking over his notes, “but it’s something I feel I need to do.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pique: You said you first noticed the differences in how Israelis and Palestinians lived on your initial trip in 1985, but when did the realization fully set in that the narrative you had heard about the State of Israel was misguided?
Reynolds: 1987 was the first intifada, and that was shocking when I was listening to our local radio station say that an eight year old and an 80-year-old were killed in violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How does an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old get killed in a war? I started looking at it a little bit more, and I was a lot more curious, followed it and followed it, and then went back. Then I really started to see some changes even from that period. In 2000, big changes. In 2002, the separation barrier was built, which, if you’re gonna put a fence up between neighbours, you’d probably put it on the property line, but 85 per cent of this wall is on Palestinian land. So little things like this and you’d see all of the differences between people.
I think that sometimes the public is perhaps naive or hasn’t done enough research themselves to see what it’s about. There was even one time I was so curious about suicide bombers. I thought, ‘Wow, who would want to be a suicide bomber?’ I’d go and talk to families and I would gain an understanding of the hardship … You know, somebody said to me, ‘It’s easier to get to heaven than it is to get to the end of the street.’ That struck me.
Pique: I think that’s one of the things people don’t often get about life as a Palestinian: so many aspects of their lives are out of their control. Can you give me a sense of the day-to-day controls they live under?
KR: [There are roughly 60 checkpoints and multiple “flying,” or temporary, checkpoints] inside the West Bank. You don’t just say, ‘I’m going to Jerusalem to pray.’ You get up really early in the morning; people will get up at three or four in the morning and start the journey to hopefully get there by 10, 11, noon, which, normally if you drove, would be an hour and a half max from, say, Jenin … Almost always there are restrictions on who can enter. It is always changing. Then you talk about water rights: if a Palestinian can obtain a well permit from the Israeli military it comes with restrictions. Meanwhile the Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law, I’ve been in them, and some of them have swimming pools. It’s very frustrating.
It’s also got to be very difficult to be a Palestinian living in a home, wondering if you’re going to be able to live here. What’s been happening in this whole last conflict seems to stem from this area called Sheikh Jarrah, which is in Jerusalem, and people are being tossed out of their homes. That’s just one incident. There’s been multiple times where people had their homes destroyed. I’ve witnessed it. I’ve seen it. Fifteen minutes to get all your belongings and go, and you could have been there for generations — and it’s gone. You have nothing. So, what’s it like to be a Palestinian? Wow. A lot of them are obviously displaced internally or in neighbouring countries. When I meet Palestinians in the street, they know the best way for them would be to have another passport from someplace else, and still maintain their identity. How long are they going to fight for?
Pique: Often in conversations about this, criticisms of Israel are conflated with racism. How do you counter that perception?
KR: It’s really difficult sometimes to talk about Israel because people are immediately tossed under the same bus that you’re being anti-Semitic. I was baptized Catholic. I don’t agree with the Catholic stance on lots of issues. It doesn’t mean I’m anti-Christian. I will criticize Saudi Arabia or Iran, or you will, over human-rights issues that are happening, and it doesn’t mean that I’m anti-Muslim. We’re just doing the correct thing and saying, ‘You guys should have a look at this.’ … We definitely have to be aware and every news media should be balanced. We’re seeing deaths on both sides, but if it’s wrong to kill Israelis then it’s got to be wrong to kill Palestinians.
Pique: What do you think the average Canadian gets wrong about Palestinians?
KR: Well, there’s this division, thinking that all Muslims want to kill all Jews and all Muslims want to kill all Christians. There are [nearly 2] billion Muslims in the world. If they wanted to kill us, we’d all be dead by now. So I don’t think we really have to fear them. I really enjoy staying in the Palestinian territories; these people are incredibly kind. If you say something like, ‘I really like that coffee cup,’ they’ll say, ‘Here, you can have it.’ And there’s nothing in their fridge. They’re very kind people. But I do get the frustration. You can imagine being a youth with no employment possibilities … Palestinians want hope. Going back to a line somebody said: ‘Yesterday was better than today and tomorrow will be worse than today.’ This is their belief, so there’s really nothing optimistic in their lives. It’s very frustrating. Everybody wants the same thing as everybody else does: stability, they want a car in the driveway in a secure house. It’s pretty difficult for them to achieve that. Building permits in the West Bank alone are almost non-existent; the permits are controlled by the Israeli authorities in certain areas. Gaza is called the largest open-air prison in the world. There are people who’ve gone through four wars in the last little bit, so by the age of 13, you’ve already been through four wars?
Pique: What advice do you have for people wanting to gain a better understanding of the situation?
KR: Like I say to people, ‘Go and you’ll know.’ Take every bit of information you can gather, throw it in the blender, push it on and see what you get. Don’t just read one newspaper, read ’em all, read as many as you can, and then you can get a good balance. Look at the facts. It’s very misguided. I was just looking at my notes and some of my quotes that I wrote from the last 25 years, and they’re pretty shocking. I just saw something that I wrote: ‘If the UN knew in 1947 what Israel is doing today, the vote would never have passed.’ From what is going on, the way the UN is having to step in now, I think that’s true.
What follows below is my letter to the editor.
Keith Reynold’s shared his narrative on the Israel- Palestinian conflict. Here is mine. It can be summarized as; actions have consequences and stories need context.
Israel was created by the UN in 1947 as part of a partition plan to create a small Jewish State of Israel and a bigger State of Palestine, with an internationalized Jerusalem. Israel accepted and declared a state in May 1948. Palestinians and 5 Arab nations declared war. Israel survived and by the armistice had enlarged its size.
The West bank and Gaza were 100 % Palestinian but ruled by Jordan and Egypt. The Palestinians turned down a state to destroy Israel and ended with less land and no independence. This was the status quo for 19 years.
THERE WERE NO SETTLEMENTS, THE TERRITORIES WERE CONTROLLED BY EGYPTIANS AND JORDANIANS, AND JEWS WERE NOT ALLOWED INTO EAST JERUSALEM EVEN TO WORSHIP AT THE WESTERN WALL.
In 1967 Syria and Egypt were mounting troops for a war of annihilation. I was having trouble studying for grade 12 finals in Toronto, with nightly news showing Egyptians calling for Jews to be thrown into the sea. I was looking at a second holocaust, 22 years after 6 million Jews were killed. My female cousin in Jerusalem told me of sitting in a shelter, and with gallows humor her friend said, “they will rape you last since you are so skinny”.
Israel won the 6 Day War, a defensive war, and captured the old city of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Once again, the Palestinians and their Arab “allies” had chosen to destroy Israel and ended with less land and no independence.
Seven years after the Oslo agreements ( 1993) recognized the PLO and the legitimacy of the Jewish state, Arafat came to Camp David with President Clinton and PM Barak to finalize a peace arrangement and establish a Palestinian State that shared East Jerusalem. Everything the Palestinians now claim to want. Arafat abruptly left and the 2nd intifada ( an attack of suicide bombers against Israeli civilians, restaurants, buses etc) was unleashed on Israel. About 1000 Israelis were killed, mostly civilians just living their life until a bomb exploded in their faces. To stop bombers from entering Israel the barrier wall was built. What sane nation in the world would not do the same?
By 2001 Israel had a right-wing PM, Ariel Sharon. In 2005 he gave up Gaza. Around 9000 Israelis were forced to leave their homes and businesses, and all was turned over to the Palestinian Authority. By 2007 the terrorist group Hamas in the Battle of Gaza, took over, dividing Palestinians into two entities. Soon bombs were flying into Israel from Gaza.
In 2007 PM Olmert would offer even more and the Palestinians refused. The peace movement was dying.
In 1974 I was in Israel for the academic year. My dorm was near the western campus of the Hebrew University. Some nights Katusha rockets flew over our heads trying to hit the University. These were relatively primitive rockets. Today Gaza sends rockets to Beersheva that attack residential civilian buildings near where my Canadian born daughter and her family live. Israel hits back at the source of those rockets while trying to minimize collateral damage. Do I really have to justify that kind of self-defense?
Keith Reynolds ends by saying, “if the UN knew in 1947 what Israel is doing today, the vote would never have passed”.
I would say, “if the UN knew in 1947 what Israel is doing today, they would have partitioned Palestine into the small Jewish state and put the larger state of Palestine under UN control until they could successfully govern themselves, and live in peace with their neighbour Israel. Can you imagine how prosperous and peaceful that region would be today?”