This is one Tammy urged me to write. And she was right to do so.

As awful as things get in Israel – Palestine, I cling to hope. The reason? If my views could change as dramatically as they have, the views of others can as well. And maybe, just maybe, we’re starting to see that happen.

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I traveled to Israel in 1995. I was on the plane from Phoenix to New York the moment Yitzhak Rabin was shot. Too late to turn back, I spent six days in Israel with other guests of a pro-Israel charity. Israel was in mourning, as this country was after JFK’s assassination. Yet the people we met welcomed us. And we of course saw only the best Israel had to offer. No West Bank. No Gaza.

I boarded the El Al flight back to New York very much the Zionist. Then, ironically, on the America West trip to Phoenix from New York. I shared a row with West Bank settlers on their way to Los Angeles, who didn’t do much to conceal their radical views, their hatred of Palestinians, and, yes, their near elation over Rabin’s death.

Nothing changed in me immediately, but perhaps seeds of doubt had been sown.

Fast forward twelve years or so. 

I became a Congressional candidate in 2007. Early in the campaign, I spoke to a Jewish group about my campaign, with no mention of Israel, at least not intentionally. But I did reference Jimmy Carter’s energy policy in a positive way. Based on the reaction of the group, it was clear I lost half of them because I did not despise every aspect of Jimmy Carter’s being, as they did. I don’t recall whether Carter had published Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid by then. He probably had.

After the meeting, several members of the group decided they should “educate me” on Israel, even though my views were very much pro-Israel. I listened, but my sense was that they’d been exposed to a couple of instances of Palestinian violence and had concluded that all Palestinians were inherently violent. The scientist in me (I was a biochemistry major) told me their sample size was too small.

Perhaps more seeds of doubt, but nothing more. My views on Israel were not going to change because I met a couple haters who happened to be Jewish.

Then, a turning point: The 2008 annual AIPAC breakfast in Phoenix.

My opponent, John Shadegg, was pro-Israel, a raging Islamophobe, and a favorite of local AIPAC members. Nonetheless, I knew several AIPAC board members and was welcomed to the breakfast.

Two things happened. First, Shadegg gave a very short speech, under a minute, dedicated entirely to recommending two books to the crowd: Knowing the Enemy and America Alone. More on those later. Second, the tone in the room was chilling. The substance of the remarks of various speakers, mostly about Iran, was not that surprising. But the bellicosity of the room was like nothing I’d ever felt before in a crowd that large. If they were all of fighting age, 98% of those in attendance would have been ready to march off to war against Iran. The other 2% felt about the way I did.

Since Shadegg was urging folks to read Knowing the Enemy and America Alone, I felt I had to as well. Both were anti-Muslim diatribes. In America Alone, the author actually tried to explain away Serbian atrocities in Bosnia on the basis that the Muslims were breeding too fast.

At this point, I’m stubbornly hanging on to my pro-Israel views, but not as tightly as I once did.

Then, a breakfast with a potential donor, a Republican no less, who whacked me with information about the situation on the ground and the history of the conflict that I’d never considered before.

Then, a meeting with members of the local Muslim-American community, including a Palestinian. Conclusion: They’re just people. And smart. And likeable. Nothing like the sub-humans I was told they are. One point they made has stuck with me: American Muslims live in constant fear that, if there is another 9/11 type event in the U.S., it will be open season on Muslims, and law enforcement will not protect them.

By mid-2008, my eyes had opened a good bit. I stopped courting the AIPAC crowd and instead sought J Street’s endorsement. J Street has moved to the right recently, but back then it was in its infancy and was emerging as the conscience of the American Jewish community. As an organization, it was openly critical of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and a proponent of the two-state solution.

J Street is in my rear-view mirror now. After remarkable early success, the leaders of the organization became fearful of the Jewish American right-wing and, as a result, increasingly cowardly in its pronouncements.

But the journey continues. The more I learn and the more I study, the more I become convinced that the occupation of Palestine is no different from any other occupation in history. The occupier always occupies ground in the literal sense, but never occupies it in the figurative sense, as in “moral high ground.” That ground ultimately goes to the occupied. Without exception.

And if I can make this journey, anyone can. Or so I hope.

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