At Death's Door: a Story of Gaza
by Michael R. Burch,
an editor of Holocaust and Nakba poetry
The image above is William Blake's "Death's Door." The great American poet Walt
Whitman had his death-crypt modeled after Blake's creation. Blake was the first
truly great poet and artist to make child advocacy a central theme of his work.
He was also a staunch believer in equal rights for women and minorities. Whitman
was also an advocate of humane treatment of children and equal rights for women
and minorities. So I will invoke their spirits in telling what I believe to be a
very important story about the Death's Door of Gaza, and how it casts a
perpetual shadow over the lives of multitudes of completely innocent Palestinian
women and children ...
The picture above is of Walt Whitman's tomb. Death is a serious business. The
second line of Blake's inscription reads, "We make the Grave our bed, and then
are gone!" We mourn when an elderly person dies a natural death. But when a
young person dies an unnatural, unnecessary death, we are even more horrified,
and rightly so. When such a death is the result of foul play, we call it murder.
When someone executes large numbers of women and children, we call the
perpetrator every name in the book: vile, evil, serial killer, mass murderer,
etc. If someone attempts to wipe a people from the face of the earth, we speak
of ethnic cleansing and genocide, perhaps the most disturbing terms in the
English language, because they speak of an unspeakable depravity we know some
men are capable of: men like Hitler, Himmler, Eichmann, Goering, and Mengele.
Is there a Death's Door in Gaza, with the people on the outside being free, and
the people on the inside ― including multitudes of innocent
women and children ― facing unjust deaths and the possibility of extinction?
Please allow me to tell my story, then you can be the judge.
A few months ago, I agreed to help a teacher financially by paying her for
articles about her experiences in Gaza. She was trying to raise the funds
required to travel to Gaza and take a teaching position there. I was interested
in hearing what the children of Gaza had to say, in their own words. So we
struck a deal: I would help her financially, if she would provide me with the
accounts of the children of Gaza, in their own words.
We agreed that the children's names should not be revealed, as the government of
Israel has been known to treat Palestinian dissenters and their families
brutally: for instance, demolishing their houses and leaving them homeless and
destitute. I didn't want to be responsible for the children and their families
suffering repercussions for anything I published, so it seemed wise to keep the
children's identities confidential. Therefore, I will also keep their teacher's
name confidential, as revealing it might lead back to the children. I will call
the teacher "Esther," because Esther was a courageous woman who saved her people
from possible genocide, and I hope "my" Esther will do the same for the children
Once Esther made it to Gaza and started teaching there, she kept her word and sent me a number of pieces written by her students, along with
her own thoughts. We were off to a good start. You can read what she sent me by clicking this link:
The Children of Gaza Speak: Who Will Listen?
But then some time passed without me hearing from Esther. She had sent me a poem
written by one of her students and I had made some suggestions about the poem,
but she hadn't replied. I remember hoping that she was just busy, and not put
off by anything I had said. But then a mutual friend emailed me, saying that
Esther had become seriously ill. From what I was able to gather, her life was in
danger. I was very concerned and worried, but since my only methods of
communicating with Esther were email and Facebook, I was "out of the loop." All
I could do was hope and pray that she would be okay ...
Finally, after what seemed like ages, I heard from Esther. She had contracted
encephalitis and had nearly died. The hospitals and doctors of Gaza were not
equipped to save her life, so she had been rushed to a hospital in Tel Aviv. The
doctors there had been able to save her life, barely. She informed me that she
was in good spirits, but faced many months of recuperation. She would be
returning to Canada as soon as she was able to travel.
Of course I was very happy to hear that Esther was alive, and on the road to
recovery. But I wondered what would have happened if she had been a Palestinian
woman, rather than a Canadian citizen. Here's what she emailed me back in
response to my question ...
"Thank you, Mike. Yes, the Canadian rep. told me they
have never moved someone out of Gaza as quickly as they moved me. According to
the medical types, I should not have survived. The doctor in Gaza was trying
hard to soothe [my husband] in preparation for losing his wife. With all the politics
that goes on at the border you can be sure there would be a motherless family in
Gaza were it not for a few factors, one big one being the fact that I'm
Canadian. But I must say, I am so very grateful to be alive! [November 28, 2010]
I have also kept the name of Esther's husband name confidential, above, in order
to protect the identities of her students. What Esther told me confirmed what I
have heard from a number of sources, including Jewish humanitarian organizations
and other people I know who have traveled to Gaza and the West Bank: the lives
of completely innocent Palestinian women and children are constantly endangered
by the so-called "security walls" Israel has used to keep Palestinians "out of
sight, out of mind." Pregnant women and children in need of medical attention
are dying in the shadows of those killing, dividing, conquering walls.
How would we feel, if someone in our family needed immediate medical attention,
and they were denied access to hospitals and doctors? It's hard for Americans to
imagine the horror of a family member needing medical attention urgently, and
having someone armed with a machinegun at a military checkpoint in the shadow of
a wall twice as high as the Berlin Wall say, "Well, it's just too bad, but she
wasn't born Jewish, so she'll just have to die."
Esther has a husband and five children. If she had been the best, most loving
Palestinian mother on the planet, today her husband and children would almost
undoubtedly be mourning her death. She is only alive because she was "lucky"
enough not to be a Palestinian.
How does that make me feel? It makes me feel sick to my stomach. My father is
American and I'm an American citizen. My mother is English and I lived in
England for five years as a young boy. The governments of the United States and
Great Britain have colluded with the government of Israel to deny Palestinians
any chance of attaining freedom or equal rights. So I feel betrayed. But the
betrayal I feel can hardly compare to the betrayal Palestinians who have lost
family members must feel.
So I understand the deep resentment and anger that led to 9-11 and two terrible
wars. If someone had killed my mother or sisters or wife or children by denying
them basic human rights, how would I respond, myself? What do American men do,
when our women and children are endangered? What did American men do to Germany,
to Japan, to Italy, to Libya, to Afghanistan, to Iraq?
I think it's past time for Americans to be honest, and admit that we would never
stand for American women and children being treated the way Israel treats
Palestinian women and children. If Israel treated American women and children
the way Palestinian women and children are being treated today, the American
military would rain down missiles on Tel Aviv, until Israel's government came to
So why should Americans be hypocrites and pretend we wouldn't do exactly the
same thing as Hamas, under the same circumstances? Are American men the only men
entitled to defend their women and children?
If we want peace, we need to persuade Israel that racism and racial injustice
are wrong, and that it's time to stop treating Palestinians the way Jews were
treated by the Nazis, and the way black Americans were treated during the days
of Jim Crow laws and kangaroo courts in the Deep South. As long as Israel
continues its despicable system of Jim Crow laws and kangaroo courts, according
the the American Declaration of Independence, the Palestinians have the right
and duty to resist forcefully. According to the American Declaration of
Independence, the government of Israel is not a legitimate government if it
denies Palestinians equal rights, justice and representative government.
As long as the government of Israel continues to practice systematic racism,
apartheid, and government-sanctioned ethnic cleansing, its government and "laws"
are illegal. It is not a crime to break an illegal law, so Palestinians who
resist the government of Israel forcefully are only following in the footsteps
of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who claimed the right to kill
Englishmen as long as Englishmen denied them their rights.
Does this make violence and war inevitable? Not at all. If the British monarchy
had granted Americans equal rights, the Revolutionary War could have been
avoided. If the confederate states had granted blacks equal rights, the Civil
War could have been avoided. If Germans had granted Jews, Gypsies and Slavs
equal rights, the Holocaust could have been avoided. It is incumbent on the
government of Israel to grant Palestinians equal rights, or to set them free, if
Israel really wants peace.