Alice Rothchild’s work bears witness to life in Israel and Palestine. Through her regularly updated blog, her book (Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience), and forthcoming documentary film (Voices Across the Divide), Rothchild offers an alternative to the biased portrayals of the Holy Land presented in the mainstream media. Her work provides a lens through which we see how real people are affected by the impact of current Israeli policies, including the expansion of Israeli settlements, the destruction of the livelihoods of Palestinians living in contested territories, the terror of crossing roadblocks and border control, and the glaring inequalities in access to land, water, education, and other human rights. Rothchild is driven by the desire to understand the truth and fueled by her own sense of responsibility. As she says: “Israeli policy is a perversion of anything that I treasure about my own Jewish culture and I am a citizen of the US which is funding this dysfunction, so I feel a double responsibility.”
Growing up within a liberal, socially active Jewish household, Rothchild’s political awakening occurred as she trained to be a doctor in the 1970s. The endemic sexism of the medical school forced her to become “tough and feisty” and she specialized in obstetrics and gynecology because she wanted to improve women’s lives. She trained at Boston University and practiced with diverse communities in Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury.
In 2003, a severe back problem rendered Rothchild unable to work as a physician. Unwilling to “lay back and eat bon bons,” a forced period of bed-rest and recovery motivated her to gather the stories she had collected on a recent trip to Israel/Palestine and to publish these as a book, Broken Promises, Broken Dreams. This has subsequently been published in a second edition and translated into Hebrew and German. Rothchild’s writing focuses upon people’s lives and experiences. Her international book tours have provided her the opportunity to teach people about what is happening in Israel. “My experience has been,” she reflects, “that people can hear things about an individual when they can’t tolerate the concept.” For Rothchild, personal narratives are a powerful way of affecting political change.
Rothchild chooses not to critique the paucity of the general public’s knowledge about Israel. She acknowledges that Israel is often seen as a promised land, and that the public fails to perceive many of the atrocities committed in Israel’s name. She wants people to be able to disentangle criticisms of Israeli policy from accusations of anti-Semitism. Once her audience has taken these “baby steps” towards changing their understanding, she wants them to make the leap towards critically assessing how the realization of the long-standing Zionist dream of the state of Israel has been obtained at the ongoing expense of indigenous Palestinians. For Rothchild, it is not enough to observe, see and know: “Dialogue and understanding are absolutely critical, but I don’t think they’re enough.” Knowing needs to galvanize changes in behavior.
Her professional training as a doctor and her natural personality have aided her work as a peace activist: “I was trained how to listen to people and how to walk in their shoes and how to understand their suffering – that’s what doctors are supposed to do if they’re good at it.” And, she continues calmly, “I am able to discuss these things and be heard because of my absolute refusal to yell at anyone. Ever.” Her respected professional identity as a doctor has also opened doors that might have remained tightly closed to a peace activist who had no alternate professional identity.
Being a critical observer of Israeli policy takes bravery and persistence. There are hate blogs that list Rothchild’s name because of the stories that she tells; there are newspapers and other media which will not publicize or publish her work. However, Rothchild also sees shifts in the discourse that surrounds Israel and Palestine. Her stories have, at the very least, encouraged people to get talking, and she sees progress in the direction that those discussions are taking: “Even though this is going at a snail’s pace it looks to me as though there are dramatic changes.” She cites, as an example, the recent coverage by the Boston Globe of the Palestinian hunger strikers.
For Rothchild, the future looks busy. She has a documentary film to be launched later this year, titled Voices from Across the Divide. She has several op-eds pending, and she is keen to start writing her second book. She does, however, have time to offer advice to beginning activists: “First of all, you’ve got to find out what you’re passionate about, if you’re going to be an activist about something, it should be something that you really care about… And then it’s really important to find other people to do it with you. You can’t be an activist by yourself. And it is really important to be strategic and to pick your battles.” You might, she acknowledges, only make baby steps at first. But that’s how the world gets changed.