During the height of the holiday season, my brother and I embarked on a journey to see my failing father in the Gaza Strip. After an entire day of travel, we stood in front of an Israeli military checkpoint, the gateway to Gaza, which is but a 15-minute drive from my parents’ home. After presenting our American passports and explaining the reason for our visit, we were denied entry. Despite countless efforts to present our case as humanitarian, the presiding officers remained steadfast on their decision. Our trip failed and we returned back to Chicago one day after arriving in Israel.
On Dec. 24, upon arriving in Oak Park, it truly hit me. It became clear that I might not say goodbye to my father the way I wanted to. Anger, frustration, hopelessness, and deep sadness penetrated my soul. On Christmas Day, though physically present, I was mentally and emotionally absent. Amid family and friends, I remained in solitude, disheartened by the arduous journey that ended in failure. The following day I went away to soak in the emotions. I didn’t know why, but for whatever reason, I didn’t want those emotions to go away yet. I wanted to hang on to them, to reach deeper and to sort through the meaning of it all.
I thought about the military checkpoint and the emotions that the Israeli soldier evoked in me. I distinctly recall how this time, for the first time, I looked straight into his steady, dark brown eyes. Even after 34 years away, that feeling of fear, defenselessness, and helplessness abruptly returned.
I thought about the inhumanity of certain Israeli policies — how collective punishment, discrimination, and segregation of an entire people are often practiced and that this is predicated on the violent actions of rogue individuals. I thought about the millions of Palestinians, one-third of which are children under the age of 15, who are isolated from the outside world by a 750-kilometer barrier. It’s more than a physical barrier — it is economic, social, and psychological. The wall forces them to rely on channels of tunnels, excavated 90 feet beneath the earth to smuggle in even the most basic of necessities. I thought about the military checkpoints that further restrict their movement.
I thought about the utterly corrupt Palestinian “leaders,” their incompetent political agendas, their incapacity to inspire economic viability and stability, let alone prosperity, and most of all their inability to motivate the Palestinian people toward a peaceful resolution of this crisis, regardless of any Israeli maneuvers that may have hindered such resolutions.
I thought about the filibustering that occurs on both sides of this conflict and the insincerity of this so-called “peace process.”
I thought about my mother, who had waited for us a few blocks away from the barrier. I thought about my dying father, his struggle, his remarkable life, and his journey of living through all of these wars. I thought about how the inalienable human rights that we know so well have been perpetually compromised and consistently ignored for the duration of his life. My father was now being denied his last rights — the comfort of having his children at his bedside.
But I also thought about the Israeli woman who had traveled with us to be with her dying 94-year-old mother, how she was able to relate to our trip and how she sincerely apologized on her country’s behalf. I thought about the empathy that overwhelmed an American I met in a Tel Aviv hotel when he heard our story. I thought about an Israeli travel agent who worked endlessly to help us with our travels. I thought about how Israelis constantly fear for their security, that these fears are entirely legitimate, and that it is understandable that many Israelis distrust Palestinian leaders.
These thoughts I have come to grips with. But what I cannot and will not come to grips with is that I was thought of and perceived as the enemy. I was not only stripped of my feelings and of my rights, I was stripped of my humanity and my dignity.
Today, more than ever, I wish to be thought of neither as an enemy nor foe, but as an ally and friend. Today, I am a more ardent believer of peace and justice than I ever have been, and being an enemy is a title that I will not bear.
Anan Abu-Taleb is the owner of Maya del Sol restaurant.