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.
“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.