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Gaza Life Lessons

A Palestinian American high school teacher explains crisis to her pupils

New America Media, Commentary, Riham Barghouti as told to Leslie Casimir Posted: Jan 14, 2009

New York -- It was the day after an Israeli bomb killed some 40 women and children who had sought refuge in a United Nations school when my high school students began peppering me with questions: "Isn't that where you are from, Miss Barghouti," asked one of my pupils as class began in our classroom in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Earlier, my assistant had brought in a copy of the Daily News that depicted yet another graphic front-page photo of dead Gazan children, amid rubble and blood-splattered floors.

"Yes, that is where I am from," I told the class.

They asked why they were fighting. I drew a map on the board of historic Palestine - which includes present-day Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I labeled the map and explained to the teens that Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. Ever since, there have been a number of conflicts between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In 1993, the Palestinians and the Israelis signed a peace treaty that was to end the occupation. However, the occupation never ended and in 2000 the fighting between Palestinians and Israelis began. According to Israeli officials, the latest attacks are in response to Palestinian militants firing rockets into southern Israel where four Israeli civilians were killed. At the time of the UN school attack, Israel's bombinga in Gaza had killed about 600 people. Now, more than 900 lives have been lost.

"Why is it called Gaza and not Palestine," another student asked. I told him that Palestine was the name of the land before 1948 and that the only place to find the name now is in the Bible and in old maps made before 1948.

After giving my measured responses, we went on with the day's lessons. But the answers I gave them haunted me and made my blood boil.

I should have told them about my own fear, anger and desperation when I lived in the West Bank city of Ramallah from 1995 to 2005. I should have described to them how I had to undergo the daily humiliations of searches and interrogations at the Israeli checkpoint to reach work at nearby Birzeit University. One day in March 2002, a colleague of mine, Dahlia, who was walking with me was shot in the leg with shrapnel after a scuffle started between protesters and Israeli soldiers. I should have described to my students my daily prayers for water, electricity and survival. How after 10 years, I was fed up with this life and fled back to New York. But I didn't.

If my students had asked me to explain why there was apartheid in South Africa, I would have explained how white European settlers and their descendants -- the Afrikaners -- had oppressed blacks with racist policies and were desperate to hold on to power. I would have told them how the disenfranchised blacks staged uprisings and how the world watched in horror. Government leaders eventually stepped in and imposed political and economic pressure on the racist leaders in South Africa, forcing them to back down.

No school administrator would reprimand me for that explanation, nor would a parent complain that I was spreading a message of hate. But to explain the story of struggle in Palestine is different. Somehow, our leaders -- people like Mayor Michael Bloomberg - have taken it upon themselves to go to Israel and blatantly support Israel's right to defend herself by killing civilians. Bloomberg and the others ignore the hundreds of thousands of Arab Americans living in New York now worried for their relatives besieged by fiery bombs and rockets.

No sympathy, solidarity moments for us. The only time leaders like Bloomberg approach this community is for when authorities need information and names of potential terrorists in our communities.

But this, too, will past. American slavery had to end. So did South African apartheid and the Jewish Holocaust. These colonial, racist policies were abolished because people had said, enough. Someday soon, that will happen with the Israeli colonization and racism that has plagued Palestine these past 60 years. It has to. And when that time comes, I will stand before my students and finally teach them the truth about my people. But until that time, I will continue to recite these vague lessons of half-truths.

Riham Barghouti, 36, was born in Amman, Jordan. Her family moved to New York when she was four. She teaches special education at a Brooklyn high school.

Leslie Casimir is an editor at New America Media. She can be reached at lcasimir@newamericamedia.org

Related Articles:

My Heart Cries for You, Palestine

In Gaza, Shortage of Basic Necessities Worse Than Threat of Death

Israel Loses War on Middle East Airwaves

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