Palestinians Facing Uncertain Future


Standing in the Muqata, Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, on his funeral day made me believe that we Palestinians must overcome a hurdle if we are to move forward.

Our youth face uncertainty, our people feel lost and beaten and our elders are sad to think that their children and grandchildren will share their same destiny — never to live in peace in an independent Palestinian state.

Events on the Palestinian streets will have to be shaped by the combined efforts of Palestinian, Israeli and American leaders. Palestinians must rise to the occasion, put aside our differences and make unity a top priority.

Israelis must act to ease Palestinian conditions so that a new, legitimate leadership can be elected. And Americans must seize the opportunity and invest serious efforts with heavy backing from President Bush to bring about a fair and honest solution to the table.

What kind of change is Israel willing to make in an effort to ease conditions and allow Palestinians to elect a new leadership?

In the short term, Israel will play a pivotal role in the transition period by allowing Palestinians to elect a new leadership. It is crucial that Israel follows through and facilitates Palestinians holding free elections.

Unless there is full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and Palestinians in East Jerusalem are allowed to take part in the elections, it will not only be impossible to hold elections, but it is a safe bet that we are heading toward a more chaotic situation — something that Palestinians and Israelis can no longer afford.

Despite the anger and despair among our people and the actions of militants, the Palestinian leadership is prepared to work for peace. The first step is to elect a new leadership with a mandate to make peace. This was a very clear point Rawhi Fatooh, acting president of the Palestinian National Authority, stressed in a meeting I attended with him a few weeks ago in Ramallah.

The only person in the Palestinian leadership that I believe embodies the kind of leader that can maintain continuity and bring us to the next stage is Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. Are we more concerned about electing another leader that we can rally around and “worship,” or are we concerned about a leader that can rally international support and deliver what others could not?

People I spoke with believe that Abbas will be the right candidate, especially because of the deep desire and understanding that we must be realistic in order to move forward.

We cannot afford to elect a new leader who is serving time in an Israeli jail and make our focus an effort to free the president, rather than a national agenda for statehood. Marwan Barghouti should withdraw his candidacy for president, and instead Abbas’ agenda should include Barghouti’s release.

Every step Palestinians take must be coordinated on the Palestinian national level and international Arab level. Abbas is already taking a step toward that.

Talks with Hamas and other Palestinian groups, as well as talks with other Arab leaders, such as King Abdullah of Jordan, President Bashar Assad of Syria and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, are being conducted. Such talks must remain and continue to be the focus of any effort as we head for a new path.

The only person that can actually deliver this task is Abbas. He enjoys the support of the Arab countries, which is extremely important in any future negotiations with Israel. And beyond that, he is already working to strengthen the Palestinian-Arab relations as seen in his visit to six of the Gulf states.

The fact that a person from the old guard may be elected as president is irrelevant. Palestinians have a clear desire for reforms that must and will have to be included in the agenda of the next Palestinian leadership. Abbas has been one of the first people to speak of reforms and move toward implementing them.

Barghouti on the other hand is a man that everyone I spoke with seems to trust — even security service personnel who were in charge of the funeral arrangements for Arafat in Ramallah spoke highly of Barghouti. Nonetheless, Barghouti’s intentions to run for president from an Israeli jail cell, where he is serving a life sentence, will not only weaken the Fatah movement, but will also weaken the prospects of peace with Israel. It could also affect international support that is crucially needed to make the transition for the next stage in the peace process.

The problem is this: Every person I spoke with, whether they are a student, a mother, a father, young or old, had the impression that it is hard to trust Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, also known as Abu Ala, as leaders, because of the medical, political and economic confusion that surrounded Arafat’s final days. Nonetheless, the fact that Barghouti and Abbas are tied in the polls shows that despite the obscurity that surrounds the death of Arafat, the idea that he may have been poisoned has not impressed itself on many Palestinians.

This is a clear indication that people are willing and ready to move on.

Abbas may or may not be the best candidate from the standpoint of legitimacy, but this is not the point Palestinians must be concerned with. I believe Palestinians are aware that Abbas is a transitional figure and represents the candidate of continuity, not dramatic change. That must come later.

We must consider the fact that the formal succession process is less important than the changes that are now possible in Palestinian politics — changes that include the shift from politics based on individuals and the cult of personality to institutions. We need a leader we can respect and hold accountable; this will introduce the change from governance based on centralized and arbitrary authority to governance that is good, transparent and accountable.

Finally, for any overall improvement in the situation, a clear, sincere and serious American involvement must be present to help rebuild the Palestinian Authority’s institutions and exert the necessary pressure on Israel to move forward. Although it came in his last days in office, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the region was important, but the president must put full weight and personal effort to make this work.

All parties have so far endorsed the “road map” peace plan, but as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, “The road map was never taken out of the glove compartment.”

The road map should be the framework from which the Gaza pullout plan is implemented and a good starting point for any further negotiations to come.

Whether the results of the elections will be seen by Palestinians and the international community as a vote for peace and reform is another factor in determining what comes next for the Palestinian people. Giving the new president the ability to move forward with a mandate for internal and external action should remain our focus as a united people, as we make our path toward a brighter future.

Fadi A. Elsalameen, 20, is founder and co-director of Voice of Arab Youth and a full-time college student in the United States.


Face to Face

Before he was the Buddha, or Enlightened One, Prince Siddhartha lived a luxurious life behind the walls of his family castle. But each time he ventured out, the legend goes, he discovered the lame, the halt, the dying. His squire, Chandara, convinced him to ignore such things, as the world was full of suffering. Then his wife gave birth, and Siddhartha, at 29, was struck by the inexplicable mysteries of life and death. Late one night, he kissed his sleeping wife and newborn son goodbye and wandered out of the palace with Chandara to find the answer to how one overcomes suffering.

I read this legend in the home of my friends, John and Jip, in Seattle last weekend, and it struck me why I would make a lousy Buddhist. I imagined Siddhartha’s wife as she awoke the next day and was told her husband left her and her newborn to find the meaning of human suffering. I imagined what if Siddhartha’s wife was Jewish. He did what? He wanted to find out what? Suffering? Let him stay, I’ll show him suffering….

My friend John is a school librarian. Jip — her name is pronounced Jeep, the sound of a young bird — was born and raised in a village near Chaing Mai in Thailand. She was working as a nurse in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border when she met John, who was teaching English at the camp.

She came with him back to Seattle, where she earned her master’s in public health at the University of Washington. They married. Not long afterward, doctors diagnosed Jip with multiple sclerosis.

That was 13 years ago. Now Jip — a beautiful, bright, luminous, raven-haired and almond-eyed 42-year-old — is a quadriplegic. She has lost feeling below her chest, lost the use of her arms and legs, and she has gone almost completely blind. Her limp, recalcitrant body is confined to a medieval assortment of wheelchairs, body lifts and standing platforms.

Weekdays, home-care aides come and assist her. Nights and weekends, John tends to her. The financial toll of home-care on a middle-income couple is simply bankrupting.

The emotional toll is something I tried my best to fathom, as I watched John manipulate Jip’s spasmodic legs, lift her in and out of their car for a picnic, bring her food and drink. They disappeared behind their bedroom door for hours, as he bathed and dressed her and took her to the bathroom. This was my weekend; this is their life.

They have friends, literally. Their community of Quakers has formed a "care committee" to provide practical and spiritual support. The committee makes sure someone brings over dinner four nights each week. The committee meets on Sunday to help them strategize on medical treatment, deal with mundane errands, help make life-and-death decisions. It is bikur holim, the prescribed act of visiting the sick, taken to yet another level. "They’re there for me as much as for Jip," John told me.

John and Jip’s home has acquired many of the same books my cousin’s apartment had after he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gherig’s disease: "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," Anne Lamott’s "Traveling Mercies," numerous volumes by the Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, books on healing and nutrition.

If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few dogmatists facing serious illness. In the cereal aisle of American spirituality, people can pick through great traditions to find the little parts that work for them — antioxidants, acupuncture, meditation, snippets from the kaballah, quotes from Thomas Merton. Whatever works. To be fair, though, Jip was a practicing Buddhist long before she ever walked into a Barnes and Noble.

When John disappeared with Jip into their room, I plunged through their books; I needed them all. Intellectually, I know people have been on this wheel of birth and suffering and death for thousands of years, and no one has figured it out, no one has escaped, and no one has resigned him or herself to it.

Faced with what John and Jip have to endure, I was wondering if any of those books on their shelves offered, well, The Answer. When my cousin was dying, I’d read many of these same books, but the wisdom doesn’t stick, and every anguish seems fresh and inexplicable.

I read like a fiend but stopped short when I came to that story of Siddhartha. I know little of Buddhism and apologize in advance for insulting readers who do, but it struck me that John and Jip, by staying put, by facing the suffering in their own home, were on a path as holy and transcendent as any Prince Siddhartha undertook.

If Siddhartha were Jewish, I’d like to believe he would have turned back to the castle to be with his wife and son. The Book of Isaiah speaks of a time when God will "swallow up death forever … and will wipe away tears from all faces." But that will be then, this is now.

In the face of sorrow, suffering and death, Judaism puts aside the big questions for prescribed practices: rituals, traditions, prayers. Confronting her father’s long and difficult illness, historian Deborah Lipstadt reflected once that Jewish traditions are "the exact antithesis of the tendency to separate oneself from reality." Understanding is not the aim. The key is to face it, not fear it.

John, a young and vibrant man devoted in his care to his ailing wife, was the embodiment of that. If Suffering thought it could scare off this son of the Midwest with gentle blue eyes and broad smile, it thought wrong.

As for any Big Answer I sought, the closest I came was on the flight back to Los Angeles. I was watching the movie, "American Splendor," about the middle-aged Jewish American comic book author Harvey Pekar. "Life seems so sweet and so sad," Pekar says, "and so hard to let go of in the end."

‘Finding’ Asperger’s Changed His Life

In “Finding Ben: A Mother’s Journey Through the Maze of
Asperger’s,” (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2003) author Barbara LaSalle
writes about her family’s struggle to help her young son overcome a baffling
neurological disorder and have a “regular” existence. Misdiagnosed and
maladjusted, Ben Levinson was labeled as everything from learning disabled to
emotionally disturbed and was even committed to a psychiatric ward before
LaSalle, a marriage and family counselor, was able to correctly diagnose him
with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS).

While AS and autism diagnoses are increasing at alarming
rates, “Finding Ben” presents a frightening portrait of one family in the days
before treatment was widely available.

The book begins with Levinson’s birth in 1969 and goes
through the many torturous incidents that marked his differences throughout his
childhood and adolescence. It culminates in his arrest for threatening a
residential caretaker in a halfway house where he had been placed, and his long
road back to a normal life. It is disturbing to read, but compelling — the book
is as much about a family dealing with the guilt, anger and denial surrounding
caring for a disabled child as it is about Levinson’s unusual life. 

One bright spot in the family’s struggle was their
involvement with Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village. Ben attended preschool
and had his bar mitzvah there, and LaSalle says the havurah in which they
participated was especially supportive. Despite his challenges, Levinson was
able to finish Hebrew school and LaSalle said the family still relies on
Levinson at Passover to read the Hebrew portions of the haggadah.

But, for the most part, life with Ben was a constant
challenge. As he grew, his problems increased to include asthma and Crohn’s
Disease, leading to medication which in turn led him to become morbidly obese.
The family tried motor therapy (an early form of occupational therapy), speech
therapy, even a private school where the teachers followed their students through
each grade level, in the hope that Ben might feel comfortable enough to make
friends. He never did.

All the while, LaSalle never stopped searching for answers.
Finally, when Levinson was 23, Dr. Mark Deantonio of UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric
Institute told her the truth: Ben was autistic. Not autistic in the classic
sense, but his problems put him on the autism spectrum.

Two years later, in 1994, the criteria was established in
the medical community for an even more specific diagnosis, that of AS, a
higher-functioning form of autism in which children have normal or even
superior verbal skills and intelligence.

“Finding Ben” is a modern tragedy — not in an exaggerated,
fictional sense, but a true tragedy in that the people involved are simply
living in the wrong time in history. Even Levinson himself, now 34 and
co-author of the book, acknowledges that, had the diagnosis of AS been
available when he was a child, his life would have been infinitely easier.

LaSalle said she started out writing the book as a way of
making sense of everything that had happened to her, to Levinson’s father (an
attorney, referred to as “Steven” in the book), his stepfather, John LaSalle,
and his brother, David. It is clear from talking to LaSalle and from her
writing that she still carries a great deal of guilt. Her honesty about her
feelings for and against her son are shocking: She opens the book with a
description of Levinson that would seem cruel coming from anyone, especially
from a mother. But LaSalle hopes her honesty will open the doors for readers to
come clean with their families and deal with their feelings, even the ugly ones.

“The most important thing is acceptance — that what is, is,”
she said. “We are required to accept and love our children no matter what. That
is the gift we give our kids.”

It is a lesson she almost learned too late. Only by letting
go of Ben as her “project,” and through volunteer work where she met a stroke
victim with even more profound problems than her son’s, was she able to change
her approach from that of “badgering mother” to one of support and acceptance.

“I saw my son as a job,” she said. “He wasn’t someone to
enjoy. I think we all have that [attitude] at times, when we have children with
special needs. But in treating it like it is a job, we miss out on what’s right
in front of us and our children miss out, as well.”

Levinson and his family seem to have made peace with his
diagnosis. He is currently in a 12-step program for people with weight
problems, which he credits with giving him the structure and social network to
finally not only make friends but learn to be a friend as well. An Orthodox rabbi
and his wife who participate in the program have helped him reconnect with “the
spiritual side of Judaism.” Levinson attends Loyola Marymount University where
he is studying American history with plans to graduate next year, possibly to
become a teacher.

Levinson also runs a Web site (
where he shares his insights on his disability and communicates with others
affected by AS. He feels his experience with AS, while difficult, has given him
a valuable perspective.

“One time I was complaining to my sponsor: Why did God put
this burden on me? And my sponsor said, ‘The reason you have had to go through
this is that one day you are going to meet someone who will require your
personal experience. You will be in a unique position to help another human
being,'” Levinson said. “There are a lot of us out there [affected by AS]. I
tell them, don’t be ashamed of who you are, be proud. Start to talk about it as
much as you can. Find people who understand and talk about it with them.
Asperger’s is a daily struggle, but it’s easier now because I’m not in denial.”

Both LaSalle and Levinson will discuss “Finding Ben” on
Friday, April 18, 7 p.m. at Dutton’s Brentwood Books, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los
Angeles. (310) 476-6263.