Harriet Gimpel

Biden and the German Ambassador – Non Sequitur for the Week

Friday night, we gave our full attention to every word of Pres. Biden’s message. His opening remarks entirely about the U.S. judicial system: Trump’s trial, how the jury was chosen like any jury, how attempts to delegitimate or politicize the judicial system and the courts undermines the foundations of democracy. I looked at Haim, not knowing the subtle connection to what Biden had yet to say, and I said, “Now there’s a message for Netanyahu.”

The next part of Biden’s address was the most hopeful moment in my life in 239 days. The President of the United States of America informed us that Israel placed a three-stage ceasefire proposal on the table with U.S. backing pushing Qatar to ensure Hamas accepts it. Biden made a plea to the people of Israel to support the proposal. For any Israeli that translated into understanding that Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and the constituency they represent in our government were not likely privy to the drafting of the proposal.

It was Biden’s call to the extreme-right in the Israeli public to refrain from opposing this proposal because it’s not going to get any better! It will bring home the hostages (which may not be the priority of the extreme right in the bigger picture of their dreams of conquest, and Netanyahu’s empty words about a victory that will never be). It will bring security for Israel and Gaza, and the Palestinian people. Without further presumptions at commentary, I restate my feelings – a first surge of hope in 239 days.

In the magnetic field of democracy, unsaid, charged connections between Biden’s opening remarks about the courts met the electricity of the three-stage ceasefire proposal. When political camps negotiate over legislation and the executive branch succumbs to extremists in tug-of-war, the confidence of the people (despite political pressure convincing some to the contrary), requires a stable, professional, judicial system. Thank you, Pres. Biden, for the reminder to the Prime Minister of Israel and to the people of Israel.

The next item on the news included an interview with the daughter of Keith Siegel, an Israeli hostage in Gaza. Keith Siegel is me. All the hostages are me. Keith is 64 (ok, so I’m 65). Keith is American. Keith made aliyah, idealistically committed to living in Israel. Keith is held hostage in Gaza. I never heard of Keith before October 7. I never heard of Hersh Goldberg-Polin before Hamas kidnapped him on October 7. His mother Rachel is younger than me, but the first time I heard that she, like me, is a Brandeis alumnus, I felt another ping of identification. Before October 7, I had never heard of Liri Albag, Noa Argamani, or Carmel Gat, nor any of the 124 hostages still in Gaza (37 known to have been murdered). I have next to nothing in common with most of them. Yet, Keith Siegel is me, they are all me, all hostages in Gaza are me, in helpless despair. Some of them lived in the Otef, the area bordering on Gaza. Some were simply visiting for that fateful Saturday, October 7. It could have been any Israeli. Keith’s daughter followed Biden’s message. Silent tears – despair and hope – dampened my cheeks.

Earlier last week, I drew inspiration at conferences I attended. One conference of organizations belonging to the peace movement included a panel with German Ambassador to Israel, Steffen Seibert. He provided the framing I only inadequately suggested last week for how to look at the establishment of a Palestinian state – not a prize for Hamas, a declaration of the defeat of terrorism. That indeed, it must be!

The ambassador was asked by a member of the audience if Germany and the European Union could not do more to boycott Israel, presumably an effective tool for protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank. I’ve been known to say I can’t support such ideas, but if that would jolt Israel into reconsidering its policies, I wouldn’t condemn them. Once again, the German Ambassador articulated a wiser reaction. He apologetically responded that as the representative of the Federal Republic and as an individual knowing his history, he could never, would never, agree to boycotting businesses owned by Jews. I stifled my tears.

Ambassador Seibert fails to see what boycotts accomplish. He added that during his term in Israel, he has befriended Israelis from the left and right, artists and scientists, academics. All have reported that they are no longer welcome, no longer invited, if not uninvited, to conferences in Europe and collaborations with Europeans. He fails to see what this achieves, and who has anything to gain from reducing shared fields of cultural, scientific, and academic exchanges.

The day before that conference, I attended the annual Co-Impact Inclusion conference. Co-Impact, an Israeli NGO promotes equal employment opportunities for Palestinian citizens of Israel, commensurate with their qualifications. Once employed, Palestinian citizens of Israel should feel as comfortable speaking Arabic with another Palestinian in the office kitchenette as the Jewish employee feels comfortable speaking Hebrew. Yet, Israeli society is segregated with separate school systems and narratives filled with fears and suspicion of the other, perpetuated by the combination of terrorist attacks against Jews and profiled discrimination coupled with aggressive behavior against Palestinians.

Israeli NGOs promoting shared society have their work cut out for them, intensified since October 7. It’s complex and complicated, laden with fears. Shared society means normalizing the sound of the language of the other, anticipating and accommodating religious holidays of the other when planning staff meetings and setting project deadlines. It means management modeling mutual respect and equality. It means more Jewish Israelis should hear the stories I heard from middle-to-senior level management at the Co-Impact conference.

Each of the roundtable panelists, two women and four men, were Palestinian citizens of Israel, representing Teva pharmaceuticals, the Deloitte accounting firm, the Strauss and Tnuva dairy conglomerates, Netafim irrigation systems, and the Osem-Nestle dry foods manufacturer. They each spoke about company policies enforced from October 7 to ensure all employees feel comfortable in the workplace. They described their roles enforcing the policies, bridging gaps, yet representing and symbolizing the often suspect minority.

One mentioned his anxiety on October 7: he has two brothers, doctors, working and living in Sderot, a city one km. (approx. 6/10 of a mile) from Gaza. It was clear on October 7, that Hamas did not distinguish between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Hamas massacred and kidnapped Israeli citizens. That escapes some Jewish Israelis.

The reps of the dairy and pharmaceutical companies understood that on October 8, fresh products had to be on the shelves in supermarkets and pharmacies. One of them explained that he went from central Israel to a company plant under constant missile attack from Gaza on October 8 to serve as a role model for other employees. He reported reminding Palestinian members of his team that their Jewish team members received “tsav shmoneh,” something every Israeli understands. It’s the call to report for military reserve duty. He told them the civil “tsav shmoneh” was theirs – to keep the economy functioning and products on the shelves.

The rep from Netafim, responsible for company-community relations, understood that agricultural products – on the trees and in the fields – had to be saved at the kibbutzim and other communities in the Otef and surrounding areas. If the residences were not destroyed, they were evacuated, and available, capable hands enlisted for reserve duty. During the first few weeks of the war, schools were closed, and Israelis demonstrated their volunteer spirit. This Palestinian citizen of Israel organized Netafim employees and their family members to volunteer and save produce at the kibbutzim in the Otef. Initially, he made calls, at first skeptically received by kibbutz reps seeking volunteers hearing his unquestionably Arab name. Within a day or two, his phone number spread, and kibbutz reps anxiously awaited his calls, or return calls, scheduling the arrival of volunteers. When he returned home at night, he brought the horror stories he heard on site from the Jewish residents of the Otef. Then, he heard the stories of the devastation Israel was inflicting on Gaza from his family – because Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel listen and watch different news, each in their own language.

Shared civil society in Israel is critical. Shared civil society in Israel will serve Israel in relating to the citizens-to-be in the State of Palestine that must emerge, as a declaration of the defeat of terror.

Harriet Gimpel, June 1, 2024

About the Author
Born and raised in Philadelphia, earned a B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University in 1980, followed by an M.A. in Political Science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harriet has worked in the non-profit world throughout her career. She is a freelance translator and editor, writes poetry in Hebrew and essays in English, and continues to work for NGOs committed to human rights and democracy.