W. E. Gutman: An open letter to the Palestinian people

By Signal Contributor

Last update: Monday, January 1st, 2018

This letter should have been written years ago, when the incident that prompts its belated publication took place.

More than a letter, it’s an apology, heartfelt, and long overdue. I have been haunted by its urgency for more than three decades.

Some 30 years ago as I browsed in a Times Square novelty shop in New York, a young man asked if I needed help.

I thanked him and said no, not at the moment. I detected a familiar accent and asked him where he was from.

“Palestine.”

“There is not such a place,” I blurted out. I had uttered these incredibly cruel and humiliating words without a hint of animosity or ulterior motive, the way one talks about the weather.

I knew better.

I had lived in Israel as a boy, and many of the kids I played with in Jerusalem’s Greek Colony were Palestinians. My first girlfriend, Leila, a Palestinian, was my age. She was beautiful, smart, educated, and proud.

Her father was a respected community leader in a nearby Arab village. My parents, urbane, liberal and tolerant, took an instant liking to Leila. Neither said nor did anything to discourage what was my first teen romance.

Our neighbors were not quite as fair-minded. Devious and irresolute at first, the community’s resentment toward my parents, first for sending me to a Catholic French school (going to a Hebrew public school would have set me back several grades) reached a furious pitch when I befriended Leila.

One day, a delegation of about a dozen men led by a rabbi came to our door unannounced and uninvited. The rabbi scolded my father for sending me to a Catholic school and enjoined him to discourage me from “fraternizing with the enemy.” He meant Leila and my other Palestinian playmates.

My father, a physician and a man of unimpeachable integrity never to be trifled with, especially by bigoted busybodies, stood his ground. He was magnificent.

I don’t remember his words and won’t attempt to reconstruct them for fear of diluting what must surely have been a knockout punch. What I vividly recall is that he opened the door and invited the “delegation” to get out.

Predictably, my father’s uncompromising stance did not help mend fences. Acrimony and ugly rhetoric festered for the duration of our tenancy in Jerusalem.

Leila ceased to visit. I looked for her. Her father said she was no longer allowed to see me. “It’s best this way,” he sighed. There was sadness in his voice. I was heartbroken.

It was the same look of mortification that I saw in the young salesman’s eyes a decade later in New York where I then lived. It didn’t take long to realize the ugliness of my gaffe.

I may have uttered a historical fact – there is no such country as Palestine – but in so stating, I had offended a human being, trivialized his national identity, and stripped him of the one thing stateless people aspire to: nationhood, security and self-determination.

Time, personal and professional preoccupations dulled the memory of my unforgivable affront. But they did not erase it. It kept resurfacing like a recurring abscess, and every time it did, fresh pangs of conscience filled me with regret and remorse.

Regret and remorse turned to outrage following President Trump’s capricious, despotic, ill-advised and potentially catastrophic decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

I am 80 and retired. I will not dwell on the partisan politics that continue to cleave the Middle East. I will not comment on Israel’s hegemonic objectives that doggedly impede the prospects for peace in a land bloodied by decades of violence and acrimony. I have family in Israel and I wish that nation well.

But in the name of decency and justice, as a man, a Jew, and a veteran journalist, I cannot silently watch the marginalization and, yes, dehumanization of a people who have just as much right to selfhood and dignity and peace as do Israelis. Call it scruples.

Jerusalem is no more the capital of Israel than it is the exclusive domain of Christendom or Islam. It has become the epicenter and bloodstained symbol of the discord and hatreds that only politics, dogmatism and religious zeal can spawn.

Palestine exists – in body and soul. I pray the Palestinian people find it in their hearts to forgive me.

To all, I say Salaam.

W. E. Gutman is a widely published journalist and author, a former press officer at Israel’s Consulate General in New York, and a former Signal commentator.

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W. E. Gutman: An open letter to the Palestinian people

This letter should have been written years ago, when the incident that prompts its belated publication took place.

More than a letter, it’s an apology, heartfelt, and long overdue. I have been haunted by its urgency for more than three decades.

Some 30 years ago as I browsed in a Times Square novelty shop in New York, a young man asked if I needed help.

I thanked him and said no, not at the moment. I detected a familiar accent and asked him where he was from.

“Palestine.”

“There is not such a place,” I blurted out. I had uttered these incredibly cruel and humiliating words without a hint of animosity or ulterior motive, the way one talks about the weather.

I knew better.

I had lived in Israel as a boy, and many of the kids I played with in Jerusalem’s Greek Colony were Palestinians. My first girlfriend, Leila, a Palestinian, was my age. She was beautiful, smart, educated, and proud.

Her father was a respected community leader in a nearby Arab village. My parents, urbane, liberal and tolerant, took an instant liking to Leila. Neither said nor did anything to discourage what was my first teen romance.

Our neighbors were not quite as fair-minded. Devious and irresolute at first, the community’s resentment toward my parents, first for sending me to a Catholic French school (going to a Hebrew public school would have set me back several grades) reached a furious pitch when I befriended Leila.

One day, a delegation of about a dozen men led by a rabbi came to our door unannounced and uninvited. The rabbi scolded my father for sending me to a Catholic school and enjoined him to discourage me from “fraternizing with the enemy.” He meant Leila and my other Palestinian playmates.

My father, a physician and a man of unimpeachable integrity never to be trifled with, especially by bigoted busybodies, stood his ground. He was magnificent.

I don’t remember his words and won’t attempt to reconstruct them for fear of diluting what must surely have been a knockout punch. What I vividly recall is that he opened the door and invited the “delegation” to get out.

Predictably, my father’s uncompromising stance did not help mend fences. Acrimony and ugly rhetoric festered for the duration of our tenancy in Jerusalem.

Leila ceased to visit. I looked for her. Her father said she was no longer allowed to see me. “It’s best this way,” he sighed. There was sadness in his voice. I was heartbroken.

It was the same look of mortification that I saw in the young salesman’s eyes a decade later in New York where I then lived. It didn’t take long to realize the ugliness of my gaffe.

I may have uttered a historical fact – there is no such country as Palestine – but in so stating, I had offended a human being, trivialized his national identity, and stripped him of the one thing stateless people aspire to: nationhood, security and self-determination.

Time, personal and professional preoccupations dulled the memory of my unforgivable affront. But they did not erase it. It kept resurfacing like a recurring abscess, and every time it did, fresh pangs of conscience filled me with regret and remorse.

Regret and remorse turned to outrage following President Trump’s capricious, despotic, ill-advised and potentially catastrophic decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

I am 80 and retired. I will not dwell on the partisan politics that continue to cleave the Middle East. I will not comment on Israel’s hegemonic objectives that doggedly impede the prospects for peace in a land bloodied by decades of violence and acrimony. I have family in Israel and I wish that nation well.

But in the name of decency and justice, as a man, a Jew, and a veteran journalist, I cannot silently watch the marginalization and, yes, dehumanization of a people who have just as much right to selfhood and dignity and peace as do Israelis. Call it scruples.

Jerusalem is no more the capital of Israel than it is the exclusive domain of Christendom or Islam. It has become the epicenter and bloodstained symbol of the discord and hatreds that only politics, dogmatism and religious zeal can spawn.

Palestine exists – in body and soul. I pray the Palestinian people find it in their hearts to forgive me.

To all, I say Salaam.

W. E. Gutman is a widely published journalist and author, a former press officer at Israel’s Consulate General in New York, and a former Signal commentator.

About the author

Signal Contributor

Signal Contributor

  • CC

    Commending story!

    • Gil Mertz

      Only if you find antisemitism compelling.

  • Steve Lunetta

    Willy- so happy to see you are writing again! As always, your prose is masterful and helps educate
    all of us who aspire to be writers. While I don’t always agree with your thesis, it is compelling and
    thought-provoking. Thank you, Willy.

    • Gil Mertz

      Only if you find antisemitism compelling and thought-provoking.

      • Steve Lunetta

        Gil- I think its clear that I am in the Zionist camp. I was merely commending Willy, an 80 year old retired master journalist, on his writing. If you look back at the archives, Willy has written many brilliant pieces that show his expertise and skill. He has a breadth of knowledge and experience that is truly remarkable. He marries personal experience (he lived in Jerusalem) with a political viewpoint, one which I do not necessarily agree with but can appreciate the quality of the presentation.

        • Gil Mertz

          Never heard of him so this was my first exposure. I just found it irritating how he would say he would not comment on something and then squeeze in a cheap shot or how he wouldn’t get involved in the politics of it all, only after he gave his partisan political opinion. It looked very amateurish to me.

          • Steve Lunetta

            I hear you, Gil. But Willy is anything but an amateur. I find it fascinating that, even in the Jewish community, there can be such a wide variety of opinion on the Palestinians. Willy’s experiences have definitely shaped his world view. As an Israeli I knew used to say “Different views for different Jews. Different styles for different Gentiles.”

  • Brian Richards

    Jerusalem has been the capital of Judaism for 3,000 years. That is a fact. Our policy of not recognizing where a country can place it’s capital has not worked. That too is a fact. Palestinians have shown repeatedly they are not interested in peace and have walked away from deals giving them their own state several times. I continue to find it amazing that anyone cannot support the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. A democracy that recognizes the rights of Muslims, gays, and women. What’s worse is that the lack of support for Israel is manifested into support of tyrannical and corrupt regimes that have repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel. Do Jews, women, gays, and non-Muslims enjoy the same rights as male Muslims in many of these countries? No! This makes no sense to me.

  • Gil Mertz

    The Palestinians have a long, bloody, and extremely violent history in this area of the world. And yet, this writer only condemns Trump and Israel while asking forgiveness from the Palestinians.

    He contradicts himself by writing “I will not dwell on the partisan politics” immediately after expressing his “outrage following President Trump’s capricious, despotic, ill-advised and potentially catastrophic decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.” Sure looks like partisan politics to me.

    He further contradicts himself by writing, “I will not comment on Israel’s hegemonic objectives that doggedly impede the prospects for peace in a land bloodied by decades of violence and acrimony.” Uhhhh….don’t look now but you just made a comment.

    It’s apparent this guy doesn’t care about America, or America’s strongest ally in this troubled region. Only about “offending” Palestinians. What a bunch of worthless tripe.

    • Brian Richards

      I’m not going to comment about what a terrible, naïve, and ill informed column this was Gil. I swear I wont!

  • Brian Richards

    If the “Palestinians” gave up their guns, there would be peace. If the Israelis gave up their guns, there would be a second holocaust.

  • Ron Bischof

    “Regret and remorse turned to outrage following President Trump’s capricious, despotic, ill-advised and potentially catastrophic decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.”

    This is intellectually dishonest revisionism, Mr. Gutman.

    It has been the US policy to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for decades.

    S. 1322 (104th): Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995

    The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress.

    10/24/1995–Passed Senate amended. Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 – Declares it to be U.S. policy that: (1) Jerusalem remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic religious group are protected; (2) Jerusalem be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel; and (3) the U.S. Embassy in Israel be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999. States that, subject to the President’s waiver authority granted below, not more than 50 percent of the funds appropriated for FY 1999 to the Department of State for “Acquisition and Maintenance of Buildings Abroad” may be obligated in the fiscal year until the Secretary of State determines, and reports to the Congress, that the Embassy has opened. Makes specified amounts of such funds available until expended in FY 1996 and 1997 only for construction and other costs associated with relocating the U.S. Embassy Jerusalem. Requires the Secretary of State to report to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate on: (1) the Department of State’s plan to implement this Act; and (2) progress made toward opening the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Authorizes the President to suspend for six months (with possible subsequent six-month extensions) the 50 percent limitation on the obligation of funds with respect to the opening of the Embassy if he determines and reports to the Congress that a suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States.

    https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/104/s1322/summary#libraryofcongress

    Here’s are statements on recorded video by former Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama affirming that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg-bxpZWj3I

  • Richard Birchoff Mertz

    Israel = correct
    Palestine = wrong

  • Ron Bischof

    Is that fully factual, Mr. Hess? Like Mr. Gutman, you omit important details.

    The partition of Palestine dates from 1947 and the Arab partition didn’t include Jerusalem either. The date you reference is the expiration of the British Mandate over a portion of the former Ottoman Empire and withdrawal of Britain from the territory.

    https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-n-votes-for-partition-of-palestine

    https://www.prageru.com/videos/why-isnt-there-palestinian-state