972 Magazine posted an article last week about the civics textbook newly released by the Education Ministry in Israel. The text makes absolutely no mention of the military occupation of the West Bank. This enormous political reality that violates international law and causes so much suffering to the Palestinian people is missing in action in Israeli school children’s history classes.
When a people’s history disappears, so does a piece of their humanity. Their suffering becomes invisible and, in fact, so do they. The oppressor doesn’t see the oppressed and so doesn’t see his or her own role in the oppression. When Israeli children grow up and hear about unrest in Palestine, they will understand nothing of the historical context for that behavior and will have precious little to guide their political response.
When I traveled to the West Bank in 2013 with Project Peace, I observed the occupation firsthand. The photo above shows the wall that surrounds most of Bethlehem. The wall fascinated me because the Palestinians have made of it an enormous canvas . While the Israelis erected walls that, in effect, made the Palestinians invisible, the Palestinians reclaimed this blank canvas to express their own reality and claim their human dignity. They were famously successful when Pope Francis visited Bethlehem in 2014 and prayed by the wall.
Another people’s history: MLK and the Vietnamese peasants
Today on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’m thinking about King’s efforts in the last year of his life to call attention to the history and experience of another oppressed people, the Vietnamese peasants who suffered horrendous death, displacement, and destruction in the Vietnam War. In a speech at Riverside Church April 4, 1967, he told the inconvenient history that was missing from our nightly news programs.
I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
King told how the Vietnamese proclaimed their own independence from French and Japanese occupation in 1945, followed by our government’s efforts to help France recolonize them. He spelled out Vietnamese peasants hopes for desperately needed land reform and how those hopes were repeatedly dashed as the years of conflict wore on. He asked his audience:
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
King sought to restore the voices of these voiceless ones, to restore their history and experience that the war-makers sought to erase. And one year later to the day, he was dead of an assassin’s bullet.
His efforts remind me of today’s activists all around the world who travel to Palestine to collect the stories of the Palestinian people, to learn their history, and to tell it widely with the dignity and respect it deserves. I feel certain that if Dr. King were alive today, he would surely be right beside us telling those stories as well.