Jen Marlowe is a filmmaker, writer and human rights activist currently traveling throughout Israel and Palestine. She explores the lives of Troy Davis, an African American man on death row in the U.S., and Asel Asleh, a young Palestinian citizen of Israel killed by Israeli police.
Troy Davis is a prisoner on death row in the state of Georgia, convicted purely on eye-witness testimony for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer that he has always maintained he did not commit. Seven out of the nine eyewitnesses have since recanted or contradicted their testimony, yet until early this week, Troy’s efforts to get this and other possibly exculpatory evidence a hearing were repeatedly dismissed on procedural grounds. Troy has faced execution three times in the last two years, once being granted a stay less than two hours before he was slated to die. On Monday, to the relief of Troy Davis supporters everywhere, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Georgia federal judge must give Troy an evidentiary hearing. Though the fight is far from over, this could be the difference between life and death for Troy Davis.
Asel Asleh was a seventeen-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel, shot at point blank range in the neck by Israeli security forces during a demonstration outside his village of Arabeh in the north of Israel on October 2, 2000. None of the eyewitnesses at the demonstration (including the policemen, one of whom pulled the trigger) tried to claim that Asel had been involved in any act of violence. The Israeli government set up a commission of inquiry to examine the killings of Asel and twelve other Palestinians inside Israel in the first days of the second intifada. The commission ended with a recommendation that the police conduct an internal investigation. The police closed their investigation before they ever opened it, blaming the families of the victims for not cooperating. On January 27, 2008, the Attorney General of Israel proclaimed the investigations closed.
What links Asel and Troy, one a Palestinian citizen of Israel executed by an Israeli police officer; the other an African American from Savannah, Georgia, imprisoned for killing a white police offer?
Troy’s nephew, a fifteen-year-old young man named Dejaun, spurred me to ask that question. Incredibly poised and articulate for his years, Dejaun recently spoke at the NAACP centennial conference about the racism that he has personally experienced growing up in Savannah, Georgia. “When people hear that I am in the honors program at my school, that I did a summer course at American University, that I plan to study robotics in order to develop medical technology, they tell me that I’m an exception. No, I tell them back. I’m not an exception!”
I’m not an exception. Shivers went down my spine as Troy’s nephew uttered those words. I flashed back to what Asel’s older sister Nardin once told me. She has spoken to me at length about Asel’s life, his murder and her experience growing up and living as a Palestinian inside Israel.
“We are here, they (Jewish Israelis) know we are here, but they try to minimize our place in their consciousness. When I fully get into someone’s consciousness, they are always surprised,” Nardin told me.
“They ask ‘How do you know such good Hebrew?’ and ‘How come you dress like any other Jewish girl? They might live ten minutes away from me, but they feel good with their ignorance, they don’t do anything to fight it. And then, whenever they meet me, they say ‘Oh, you’re an exception.’ They don’t realize how many of our young people go to university, study and get doctorates, become professors, speak perfect Hebrew. They don’t admit that we are at the same level of intelligence and knowledge and motivation as they are, that we are good people, have families, jobs, a normal life. They just dismiss us! And they say, ‘Oh, you’re an exception.’”
Nardin, now a doctor, spoke about her own process of transformation, how as a teenager being told she was an exception made her feel special. It wasn’t until she was in university that she stepped out of feeling special and into anger, and began to answer people with the same sentiment that Dejaun arrived at by the age of fifteen.
“No! I’m not an exception!”
To try and portray the situation and sentiments of African Americans in the U.S. and Palestinians inside Israel as parallel would not only be overly simplistic, but a denial of the communities’ very different origins, histories, experiences of injustice, and struggles.
But despite the differences, the words that I heard from Troy’s nephew and Asel’s sister contain the same cry of anger against the dismissal, invalidation and invisibility they have felt all their lives.
I had lunch yesterday with another friend of mine. Amal is also a Palestinian citizen of Israel. She has been studying in Seattle the last three years, and every time she goes home, she tries to take the political pulse. “People are in despair. It feels worse than I can ever remember, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why,” Amal confided in me. “On the one hand, if you go to the mall or to a Jewish Israeli place, you can see Arabs there more than ever. But there is less true integration between the societies. There is no merging. Shops in the mall are willing to take our money, but that’s it.” She struggled to find the words. “We are barely tolerated…we are definitely not wanted.”
When I visited Asel’s family in their home last week, Asel’s father Hassan similarly expressed his feeling that the Palestinian community inside Israel was preparing itself for a worsening situation. Something, he felt, would soon be coming to a head. I remember talking to Hassan soon after the Israeli Attorney General announced that Asel’s case and the cases of the other Palestinian victims inside Israel would be closed. He was upset, angry and disappointed…but not surprised. “There is justice,” he told me then. “And there is justice for Arabs.”
The justice system in the U.S. is fraught with racial overtones as well. The application of the death penalty is one egregious indicator. The Yale University Law School held a study of Connecticut death sentences in 2007. The study revealed that when victims are white, African-American defendants are three times as likely to receive the death penalty as white defendants. In Georgia specifically, 65 percent of the homicide victims are African American, yet white victims account for 90 percent of Georgia’s death row cases.
The struggle for justice in Asel’s case came to a dead end over a year ago. The struggle for justice in Troy’s case has a new hopeful opening. But the ever-present racism that has made both struggles necessary means that neither Troy nor Asel; Dejaun nor Nardin are exceptions. That Dejaun and Nardin are intelligent, hard-working, high achieving individuals is certainly no exception. That Troy Davis is a black man who has spent 18 years on death row for the murder of a white off-duty police officer though he has compelling evidence to prove his innocence, is no exception. And the fact that Asel Asleh, a seventeen-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel, was killed by police forces who carry the same passport as he, and there was no serious effort to hold the one who pulled the trigger accountable, is no exception.
When racism is combined with mechanisms of power, the result is not only an absence of justice but an absence of equal value for human life, sanctioned by the state. This is also, tragically, not an exception.
– Jen Marlowe
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