On why I painted physician, author, and peace activist Alice Rothchild –by Robert Shetterly
Editor’s note: The artist’s essay that follows accompanies the ‘online unveiling’—exclusive to Common Dreams—of Shetterly’s latest painting in his “Americans Who Tell the Truth” portrait series, presenting citizens throughout U.S. history who have courageously engaged in the social, environmental, or economic issues of their time. This painting of Alice Rothschild—a physician, author, filmmaker, and peace activist—is his latest portrait of those who dedicated their lives to equality, freedom and justice. Posters of this portrait and others are now available at the artist’s website.
I found that for many, publicly stating that Jews could be victimizers as well as victims, and that Palestinians are equally human and deeply hurting, is unthinkable and a betrayal of Jewish loyalty and identity. This Jewish denial combined with the increasing brutality of the Israeli occupation is made possible by keeping Palestinians invisible as fellow human beings. —Dr. Alice Rothchild
For making statements like the quote above, Alice Rothchild has been called a self-hating Jew. When non-Jews express similar thoughts, they are often called anti-Semitic. Both epithets are meant to intimidate the speakers from naming the brutal truth of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the truth of the history that lead to that occupation. Unless we name those truths, we are being complicit not only with the destruction of Palestine but also of Israel.
The reality of anti-Semitism’s long and sinister history should not forbid criticism of Israel’s illegal or unjust policies. Dr. Rothchild emphasizes that for Israel to insist on its right to perpetrate injustice against the Palestinians is to encourage the very anti-Semitism and hatred that endangers Israel.
Dr. Rothchild approaches the Israel/ Palestine conflict with compassion for both sides, knowing that both peoples have suffered great trauma, and also knowing that truth and justice are the the only means to ultimately heal the trauma and make peace possible.
She wants human rights for both sides and the freedom to live lives based in justice, not fear: “We believe that for Israelis to be safe and secure, Palestinians need to be safe and secure, that to be ‘pro-Palestinian’ or ‘pro-Israeli’ is an artificial distinction.”
Alice feels compelled to speak out as a human being who cares about justice anywhere, as a Jewish person, and as an American because the US has for so long enabled the occupation.
Alice Rothchild was born in Boston in 1948, the same year as the founding of Israel, a time celebrated by Jewish people all over the world—their return to the Promised Land. 1948 is, however, commemorated as the Nakba by Palestinians. Nakba means catastrophe, forced exile from their Promised land. Alice was raised in an Orthodox, Zionist family. Her mother Sylvia wrote a book of oral histories of survivors of the Holocaust. As a child Alice’s family took her to Israel to experience the jubilant energy of the Jewish state. No one suggested to her that the triumph of Israel had a dark side.
Alice studied psychology at Bryn Mawr in the late 1960s and then went on to the School of Medicine at Boston University. At both schools she participated in anti-Vietnam War protests and then became active in feminism and health care reform. While she became a board certified obstetrician-gynecologist on the staff of Beth Israel Hospital (now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center) she held an appointment at Harvard Medical School as an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology. She also spent much of her time helping to establish reproductive clinics for poor and underserved women.
It wasn’t until 1997 that Dr. Rothchild began to study the origins of the Israel/Palestine issue, the role of US foreign policy in perpetrating it, how AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) was using money and intimidation to attempt to control US politics towards Israel, and how different the Palestinian narrative of this history was from the version reported by the mainstream American media. A major question for her was trying to understand how a people, the Jews, revered for their sense of justice and their sacrifices for upholding issues of justice could so systematically deny justice to the Palestinians. She says, “Jewish Israelis are often immigrants and have had the experience of oppression, ghettos, and racial hatred at the hands of dominant anti-Semitic societies. How have these Israelis moved to a place where they are able to do some of the same terrible things that were done to them?”
To answer questions like that Dr. Rothchild has written two books: Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Israeli and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience and On the Brink, written in the summer of 2014 while she was in the West Bank during the events leading up to a devastating Israeli attack on Gaza. She has also produced the documentary Voices Across the Divide. Her goal in the books and the film is not to condemn but to understand, to look unflinchingly at the behavior of the Israeli government and compassionately seek its roots in fear and trauma.
Why is this issue important to the ‘Americans Who Tell the Truth’ project? So much of US history and its accumulation of power is tangled up with exploitation and racism. It’s very disturbing to see these same injustices being supported by the US in Israel, where we seem willing yet again to trade our ideals for “interests.” Some of those interests are about hegemony, some about economics. Much of the 3.2 billion dollars given every year to Israel constitutes some form of corporate welfare to US weapons manufacturers.
US taxpayer money is allocated with the understanding that it will be used to buy US weapons. And to keep this gravy train rolling along, American war industries lobby the U.S. government as tirelessly as AIPAC to continue policies that lead to huge profits.
But our involvement represents an opportunity. Because the US interests and economy are so intertwined with Israel’s, the US is in a uniquely powerful position to influence Israel’s policy toward Palestine. Dr. Rothchild’s work with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement through Jewish Voice for Peace and American Jews for a Just Peace is about harnessing the power of American citizens to affect U.S. policy.
I traveled last spring—and will return next month—to the West Bank to work on art projects in a refugee camp in Nablus and a small Palestinian agricultural village in the Jordan Valley scheduled for demolition by the Israelis. Once there, one cannot help but see the ugly face of the occupation: the mammoth indignity of the separation Wall, the steady encroachment of the Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, the appropriation of Palestinian water and resources, the omnipresent military checkpoints, the house demolitions, the constant humiliations. All of this being done with the help of U.S. weapons and equipment. But most of all is the overriding clarity that there is not now nor has there ever been any desire for or possibility of a Palestinian state. When Netanyahu said recently that he had no intention of allowing a two state solution, many people in the US were shocked. But, in fact, that has been the policy all along. The “peace process” has been a mirage manipulated by the Israelis to defuse criticism. And the U.S. has played magician’s assistant in pretending the mirage was real.
Dr. Alice Rothchild is one of the people who have courageously and eloquently insisted on putting our ideals before our interests. When power and control are more important than justice and compassion, we lose all right to the moral high ground. Without Dr. Rothchild, we might not be able to even identify where that high ground is. ‘Americans Who Tell the Truth’ is very proud to include her courageous voice in it’s project.
The quote on her portrait says: “Where are the protests from political organizations, the cries of horror from U.S. ministers as well as rabbis and mainstream Jewish community groups who cry ‘Never again!’ Surely history will teach us that Israel cannot claim a special moral dispensation because of past suffering, and then behave immorally. Misusing the term anti-Semitism to characterize criticism of Israeli behavior ultimately renders the term meaningless.”