The foreign education of Chris Christie: Palestine is part of the Holy Land

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf

Chris Christie arrived in Israel Monday for a visit billed as a “Jersey to Jerusalem: Economic Growth, Diplomacy, Observance” – accompanied by his family and a delegation of 14 business and Jewish leaders. Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Republican governor, is in Israel for a four-day trip that mixes official and personal business. I had Tweeted to our governor on Saturday, March 29, extending an invitation to visit my mother in the Palestinian refugee camp, Kalandia, which lies at the now-infamous checkpoint that separates Israel from the occupied West Bank: “@GovChristie, please visit my Palestinian mother in Kalandia camp to really learn the story of democratic Israel.”

I sent the invitation because I learned that the governor had no plans to visit the Palestinian territories or to meet with average or official Palestinians. For a governor who said he will “tread lightly” and that he wanted the visit to be an opportunity to inform him about the world, ignoring the elephant in the room, the Palestinians, seems at odds with his principled political outlooks. Moreover, it is a regrettable oversight not so easily brushed aside by the large Arab and Muslim residents of New Jersey.

The governor, I believe, has received the wrong advice about the obvious political insensitivity, even if unintentional, exhibited by his decision to forgo a visit to the Palestinian territory. In fact, most if not all foreign dignitaries, incumbent, or aspiring politicians have attempted not to appear to take sides in the volatile Israel-Palestine conflict by visiting both areas. After all, no one can honestly expect to become even familiar with the inexorably linked past and future of both the Jewish and the Palestinian people without seeing firsthand the outcome of de facto decisions that have changed both the demographic and topographic landscape of historic Palestine. As it happened, when the governor visited the Mount of Olives overlooking the golden Dome of the Rock, he was, in fact, standing in occupied Arab lands, which Israel conquered in 1967.

That is why I invited the governor to visit my 87-year-old mother in her refugee camp. My mother has been living in this wretched place since she and my late father were forcibly expelled from their native village, Allar, which was destroyed in 1948 by Jewish terrorist groups. That is why I wanted our governor to appreciate the entirety of Israel’s miracle: A modern, “democratic,” prosperous country built on the ruins of another people who, still, after sixty years of dispossession, yearn for a homeland of their own. That is why I wanted our governor to visit my elderly mother who can still recall the simple but joyous childhood years in her native village. Without visiting my mother, the governor will miss an opportunity to learn the price that millions of Palestinians continue to pay. I remain hopeful that this message will still reach our governor.

The inaugural foreign trip of our governor has been billed as an opportunity to raise the stature of our governor as he seeks national positions.US political pundits have long argued that visiting Israel and saying and doing certain scripted things significantly elevates the American visitors in the eyes of American Jewelry. As such, Israel has been determined to meet the criteria for such a logical foundation of a future world leader.

Explanations vary, but four reasons were given to justify the choice of Israel. 1- Israel is a significant trading partner with which New Jersey has long-term commercial relationships. 2- New Jersey has a sizable Jewish population- the fourth largest in the nation. 3- Visiting Israel is a rite of passage required by aspiring politicians who, consequently, can count on the generous flow of pro-Israel votes and money. 4- Finally, the governor indicated that New Jersey and Israel have so much in common, the least of which is the size of the two states. Let us and briefly, examine the four reasons in some detail. At the risk of alienating some pundits, I take issue with the validity of these pretenses.

1- Israel is not a significant trading partner with which New Jersey has long-term commercial relationships. The governor and his staff have signaled the commercial relationship between New Jersey and Israel as a reason for his visit. However, according to the 2010 US Census data, Israel is a not a significant trading partner with New Jersey. In fact, Canada is our biggest trading partner and Israel is number 14. Total New Jersey exports to Canada in 2011 were $7,046 billion while exports to Israel were only $741 million, which represent a 9% decline from the peak year 2008. If trade was a motivation for the governor’s visit, he should have chosen to visit our biggest trading partner, Canada.

2- New Jersey has a sizable Jewish population- the second largest in the nation. At around 507,000, the New Jersey Jewish community is sizable, entrenched, and politically connected. But these attributes do not add up to justify such a visit. If they did, the governor would be better suited to visit England, Ireland, or Italy. Besides, pointedly, there are far more Muslims and Arabs in New Jersey than Jews. Moreover, the number of New Jersey Palestinians, according to the American Arab Institute, is no less than 100,000.

3- Visiting Israel is a rite of passage required by aspiring politicians who, consequently, can count on the generous flow of pro-Israel votes and money. On this point, I concede. History is replete with examples of American politicians making their pilgrimage to Israel declaring their absolute support for its policies viz. the Palestinians. Obligatory helicopter tours of the West Bank are offered to show the lack of the ‘“geographic depth” of the country’ as a reason for the need to control more Palestinians lands.

4- And finally, the governor indicated that New Jersey and Israel have much in common, the least of which is the size of the two states. In fact, there is little in common between Israel and New Jersey. Israel is one of the few countries in the world that has never defined its boundaries. While the world, including the United States government, does not recognize Israel’s legal right to Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israel has, and against the international will, annexed a significant part of Arab Jerusalem and made it part of Israel not subject to negotiations with the Arabs. In the rest of the West Bank, Israel has built hundreds of illegal settlements for Jews only -on expropriated Arab lands.

Israel is an occupying country, and since 1967 has controlled the lives of millions of Palestinians under an oppressive military regime whose legal system is not designed to procure justice but to serve the interests of the occupying forces. Unlike New Jersey, Israel is not a country for all its citizens. Israeli laws most fundamentally favor Jews, while Arabs, Christians and Muslims alike are treated with disdain and are subject to hideous and systematic discriminatory practices. While the governor will be able to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, he should know that thousands of Arab Christians are denied that right by Israel. Most, unlike New Jersey, the foreign country of Israel receives over $4 billion in aid from the United States, while New Jersey taxpaying residents receive a fraction of what they pay in taxes.

I am certain that the Israeli hosts will not share these facts with our governor, but I know my mother would. Sadly, the governor will not even meet with leaders from the Israeli peace movement who disagree with Israel’s continued control of Palestinians and who support the two-state solution. In a February speech before the all-powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), he touted Israel’s democratic experiment by saying that he judged Israel by its enemies. Well, dear governor, get to know one. My mother awaits, Governor Christie. And your foreign education will be more complete.

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