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Willy Gutman: An open letter to the people of Palestine

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Posted: December 20, 2008 4:45 p.m.
Updated: December 21, 2008 4:55 a.m.
This letter should have been written years ago, when the incident that prompts its belated publication took place.

More than a letter, it's an apology, heartfelt and long overdue. I have been haunted by its urgency for more than three decades.

I cannot wait any longer and hope it is neither too late nor in vain.

Some 30 years ago or so, as I absent-mindedly browsed the merchandise in a Times Square novelty shop in New York, a young man, clean-cut and neatly attired, asked me if I needed help.

I thanked him and said no, not for the moment. I detected a familiar accent and asked him where he was from.


"There is no such a place," I replied. I had uttered these incredibly cruel and humiliating words without a hint of animosity, without the slightest passion, the way one talks about some banal occurrence, like the weather.

I knew better.

I had lived in Israel as a boy, and several of the kids I played with in the Greek Colony in Jerusalem were Palestinians. My first girlfriend - my first young love, Leila - was my age, beautiful, smart, educated and proud.

Her father was a respected local businessman. My parents, who didn't have a prejudiced bone in their bodies, took an instant liking to Leila and neither said nor did anything to discourage what was my first teen romance.

Our neighbors were not quite as fair-minded. Circuitous and irresolute at first, the community's resentment toward my parents, first for sending me to a Catholic French school (going to a Hebrew public school would have set me back to first grade) reached a furious pitch when I befriended Leila.

One day, a delegation of about a dozen persons headed by a rabbi came to our house unannounced and uninvited. The rabbi addressed my father in Yiddish.

He admonished him for keeping me at the College St. Joseph and asked him to discourage me from "fraternizing with the enemy." He meant Leila and the other kids.

My father, a physician and a man of unimpeachable integrity who served Israel with distinction in later years and who was never to be trifled with - especially by bigoted busybodies - stood his ground. He was magnificent.

I don't remember his words and won't attempt to reconstruct them for fear of diluting what must surely have been a knockout riposte. What I vividly recall is that he opened the door and asked the "delegation" to get out of our house.

Predictably, my father's uncompromising stance did not help mend fences in the Greek Colony. Acrimony and ugly rhetoric festered for the duration of our stay in Jerusalem.

Leila ceased to visit. I looked for her. Her father told me she was no longer allowed to see me. "It's best this way," he said. There was sadness in his voice.

I was heartbroken. We soon left Jerusalem for Ramat-Gan, and I later left Israel on my own for good.

It was the same look of mortification and sadness that I saw in the young salesman's eyes more than two decades later in New York, where I lived. It didn't take long to realize the ugliness of my gaffe.

I had not only offended a human being, depersonalizing him, but I had trivialized his national identity and stripped him of the one thing stateless people aspire to most: the hope of nationhood, security and self-determination.

I returned to the store the next day, eager to apologize, in need of the kind of moral cleansing that only sincere expiation of a wrong can provide. The young man had left his employ. His co-workers, also Palestinians, volunteered no information as to his whereabouts.

Time, personal and professional preoccupations dulled the memory of my unforgivable affront. But they did not erase it. It kept surging in my mind like a recurring abscess, and every time it did, fresh pangs of conscience filled me with regret and remorse.

I am now 71 and semi-retired. I will not dwell on the partisan politics that continue to cleave that region. I will not comment on the hegemonic objectives that doggedly retard the prospects for peace in a land bloodied by years of hatred and violence.

I have family in Israel and I wish that nation well. But in the name of decency and justice, as a human being and a journalist, I cannot silently watch the continued dismantlement, expropriation, marginalization and, yes, dehumanization of a people who have just as much right to selfhood and dignity and peace as does the state of Israel.

As for the recent actions by Jewish "settlers" in Hebron, I join P.M. Ehud Olmert in characterizing their obscene behavior as nothing short of a "pogrom," something worthy of Hitler's thugs. As a Jew, I, too, am deeply ashamed that Jews could do such a thing.

What I did nearly a lifetime ago in a Times Square souvenir shop may seem trivial to some. I have been haunted by it ever since. Call it a matter of scruples, of conscience, of principles.

It is with sincere good wishes for a brighter, secure and prosperous future that I offer my most sincere apologies to the people of Palestine, in their homeland and in exile, for the stupidity and cruelty of idle, unreasoned words.

Palestine exists. In body and soul. I hope the young man, and by extension the people I once insulted, read this letter and find it in their hearts to forgive.

W.E. Gutman is a widely published veteran journalist and a former press officer at Israel's Consulate General in New York. Since 1991 he was on assignment in Central America, where he covers politics, the military, human rights and other socio-economic themes. From 2002 to 2007 he was a Signal columnist. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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