Book Review: Alice Rothchild's Broken Promises, Broken Dreams

Working against her heritage, Alice Rothchild takes an anti-Zionist stance in her latest book, Broken Promises, Broken Dreams.

TVR Books | Anthony Loewstedt | July / August 2010

Refusing to Be an Enemy

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela makes a little known and seldom quoted observation. South Africa’s iconic liberation hero pays tribute to Bram Fischer, a white Afrikaner lawyer who defended Mandela and his ANC comrades in court against charges of terrorism, sabotage and high treason.

The grandson of an apartheid prime minister, Fischer made what Mandela called ‘in many ways…the greatest sacrifice of all:’ He went underground to continue resistance after his clients had been sent to work camps with life sentences. Then, he was arrested and himself sent to prison for life. With terminal cancer, Fischer was eventually let out of prison on humanitarian grounds a few weeks before his death.

Alice Rothchild belongs to these, the perhaps bravest, resistance workers, people belonging to the elite racial group, who nevertheless stake their existence on legally or illegally overthrowing the system that provides them with so many privileges and advantages. Nothing would have been easier for them than to accept the privileges with which they were born, and to defend them against those people who are so naturally and easily seen as outsiders, people like the Blacks in South Africa under apartheid, or the Palestinians under Israeli rule today.

But Rothchild is not Israeli. She is an American Jew, who is certainly no born revolutionary. She works in quiet and humble ways, as a physician and mainly an activist in favor of the Palestinian people, but also in favor of Jews. This book, Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience, is perhaps the most revolutionary thing she has ever done.

Rothchild grew up a Zionist, like most American Jews, and only gradually became involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, first as a medical doctor and a campaigner for women’s rights, and increasingly as a human rights campaigner. Her opinions slowly became radically anti-Zionist by simply visiting the Occupied Palestinian Territories, hearing the stories of Palestinians, and then experiencing Palestinian reality herself.

Sometimes life does this to you: the more you know, the more you want to overthrow.

The book has the form of a thematically, rather than chronologically ordered autobiography. Her description of the Tel Aviv airport ordeals for travellers to and from the Occupied Territories – interrogations, searches, more interrogations, more searches, and more interrogations – is brilliant, and painfully familiar to any non-Israeli who worked and lived there. This is where she gets closest to carrying out illegal resistance activities.

Broken Promises, Broken Dreams is dedicated to "children who have lost in this conflict," to one Israeli soldier who was killed in the 2006 war in Lebanon, the son of an Israeli peace activist, and to four Palestinian girls killed together in Gaza 2009, three of whom were daughters of a Palestinian peace activist.

We often forget that soldiers are children, too, and that they are also people. Rothchild does not forget.

She is a refreshingly consistent humanist, who approaches the issue very differently from politicians and military and militant leaders, whose actions and words still drown out almost all the other voices, the majority voices. She pays particular attention to the most powerless, to children and women, to the marginalized victims of the conflict. She is particularly critical of the most powerful, of the Israeli, U.S., and European elites, who together bear most of the responsibility for the conflict in her view. But she is also critical of Palestinian and other Arab leaders and of Palestinian patriarchy.

Always nuanced and reflective, Rothchild does not waste the reader’s time. She says she refuses to be an enemy. Without listening carefully to voices like Rothchild’s, the combatants, the victims, and the many involved outsiders will, in my view, never be able to achieve justice or peace. That is why I wholeheartedly recommend this important book to anyone interested in the conflict.


Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience

by Alice Rothchild

Pluto Press, 2nd Edition, 2010

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