Humanizing Palestinians

Palestinian demonstrators throw stones towards Palestinian police during a protest near the municipality building in the West
Palestinian demonstrators throw stones towards Palestinian police during a protest near the municipality building in the West Bank city of Hebron, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. Palestinian demonstrators fed up with high prices and unpaid salaries shuttered shops, halted traffic with burning tires and closed schools throughout the West Bank on Monday in the largest show of popular discontent with the governing Palestinian Authority in its 18-year history. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

Insulted by Republicans, abandoned by Democrats, who speaks for the stateless people?

The Democratic Party's 11th hour move at their national convention this week to reintroduce language in the party platform that refers to the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel's capital upset Palestinians and human rights activists, but it should not have surprised them.

Neither of this country's two major political parties has taken concrete steps in recent years to support the Palestinian push for statehood. This formal, albeit symbolic, declaration of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is likely another step backwards -- and actually contradicts the official position of the U.S. government, which is that the city's status should be determined in a negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. The political status of Jerusalem is one of the most contentious issues in any potential peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with both sides asserting that the holy city is their capital.

To be sure, Democrats have steered clear of the kind of incendiary comments uttered by Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who implied while on a fundraising trip to Israel in July that Palestinians were culturally inferior, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said last December that Palestinians are an "invented people". ("I am here, born here, and my ID says I am from Bethlehem," Ibrahim Shomali, a Catholic Priest in Bethlehem in the West Bank, said in response to Gingrich's provocative claim.)

But the party of Roosevelt, Kennedy, Clinton and Obama is no mantle bearer, either, for the Palestinian cause. New York Democratic Congressman Steve Israel introduced a bill last year that would deny "Foreign Military Financing program assistance to countries that vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state." Meanwhile, Rep. Howard Berman, ranking Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, "should the Palestinians pursue their unilateralist course, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual assistance that we have given them in recent years, will likely be terminated."

Israel and Berman aren't rogue voices of their party, either. While still Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi insisted that the conflict is about "the fundamental right of Israel to exist" and that it is "absolute nonsense" to claim it has anything do to with the Israeli occupation. Furthermore, it appears that this week's order to call Jerusalem the Israeli capital came from President Obama himself -- likely in an effort to win Jewish-American votes and prevent a Republican attack.

By standing exclusively on the side of Israel -- whose illegal occupation of the West Bank has choked economic progress, political development and the path to statehood -- Democrats have served to further dehumanize Palestinians, a people whom American politicians, the mainstream media and electorate too often view as, at best, foreign and, at worst, dangerous. Are we disoriented by our nation's unconditional support for the Jewish state, and perhaps still blinded by the trauma and anti-Arab hysteria wrought by the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

In order to give Palestinians a face, and to shed light on their struggles living under occupation, I co-produced a documentary with filmmaker Aaron Dennis titled The People and the Olive, which premiers next week in Traverse City, Michigan, and will appear at upcoming film festivals in Boston and Chicago. The documentary follows this past February's Run Across Palestine, an effort by the Michigan-based nonprofit On the Ground, which works to support sustainable community development in farming regions across the world. The Run featured six U.S. ultra-marathoners who ran 129 miles in five days across the West Bank while replanting uprooted olive trees in farming villages and illuminating the struggles of Palestinian farmers.

The People and the Olive explores these central questions: What do olive trees mean to Palestinian farmers? Olives are their livelihood, their source of sustenance and the way they root themselves, historically and spiritually, to the land. But Palestinians are denied access to nearly 30 percent of their beloved olive trees in the West Bank as they struggle to live under Israeli military occupation. How do they persevere? And what should the international community understand about Palestinian olive farmers, who love their land and harvest it every season to feed their families -- just as farmers across the world do?

"They planted so we ate. Now we plant so they eat," Palestine Fair Trade Association founder Nasser Abufarha expressed a local proverb. "Past generations planted these trees that we're eating from and are supporting our lives, and we plant trees for our future generations to support their lives."

Click here to learn more about The People and the Olive, including upcoming screenings. To find out more about Aaron Dennis' and Jacob Wheeler's project, please visit their Kickstarter campaign.