Nov 21, 2012 Delegation in October 2012 since I came home

The Podium

Mideast peace — one chick pea at a time

By Alice Rothchild

November 21, 2012

While fears of a large Israeli invasion of Gaza mount and representatives of Hamas threaten not to “back down,” there is much frustration and weariness with the lack of any positive developments coming out of Washington. Despite President Obama’s inaction, there is growing awareness that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the intense blockade of Gaza are serious impediments to peace and that US military and political support make this all possible. At the same time we have a cautious president, not willing to expend his newly earned capital on this morass, a fractious Congress, and an increasingly belligerent Benjamin Netanyahu, threatening to extract a “heavy price” if Palestinians renew their bid for observer status at the UN, as he also seeks reelection.

One positive development in this evolving catastrophe is the growing citizen activism that is turning to grassroots organizing, merging socially responsible investing, food justice, and peace activism to create another voice that offers a way forward. Universities, businesses, investors, and citizens are increasingly interested in their social responsibilities, from investments to grocery shopping. Consumers are beginning to understand that supporting a corporation that not only makes cell phones but also high level security apparatus, makes the consumer complicit in the use of that equipment and its consequences.

Internationally, boycotts in Europe have caused several important industries to move out of the West Bank settlements, pension funds have divested from military companies, universities have severed ties with Israeli universities that work on military research and development. Agrexco, Israel’s largest fresh produce exporter is facing bankruptcy because the company markets 60-70 percent of the fruits and vegetables grown in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Nationally, Quakers, United Methodists, and Presbyterians have debated and moved toward ethical investing, divesting from companies that directly profit from the Israeli occupation. Universities are increasingly debating these issues, with student groups taking the lead. These efforts are supported by a number of trade unions as well as outspoken members of the African American community, like Angela Davis, who are drawing parallels between a segregated and discriminatory Israeli society and US civil rights struggles. Spearheaded by Jewish Voice for Peace, there is also a national campaign to pressure TIAA CREF, one of the largest ?nancial services in the United States, to divest from a similar list of companies.

Mirroring a campaign in Philadelphia, a coalition of Boston area groups focused their efforts on the Harvest Co-op, a food co-op that prides itself in its social responsibility. The group collected signatures for a referendum to deshelve Sabra Dipping Humus. Sabra operates under an Israeli company, the Strauss Group, which proudly supports a brigade in the Israeli Defense Force, the Golani Brigade, known for particularly egregious treatment against Palestinians. Members of the coalition stood outside the Co-op for over a year and talked to thousands of shoppers, the vast majority grateful for information regarding Sabra and its ties to human rights abuses. Many Co-op shoppers pledged to stop buying Sabra, to tell their friends, and to learn more about the US and corporate ties to Israeli violence. While the call for a referendum was recently rejected after a less than open process, the Co-op also announced that it will no longer stock Sabra Humus because of lack of consumer demand; shoppers voted with their pocket books.

All these actions are responding to a call from over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations for a campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions until the Israeli government abides by international laws. The efforts serve to educate the public about realities on the ground, to create economic and political pressure, and ultimately to reach a tipping point in public discourse and political behavior.

The campaign offers a welcome, nonviolent, creative grassroots challenge to the status quo. It is based on a long tradition, a form of resistance that has been used by people of conscience going back to the antislavery movement. After all the dialogue groups and peace songs, the calls to congress-people, letters to the editor, agonized conversations in temples, standouts in front of AIPAC, what progress has been made?

Ultimately, respecting human rights and honestly addressing long simmering conflicts that threaten to explode within Israel and the territories, rather than defending Israeli exceptionalism, can only enhance the security of all Israelis and Diaspora Jews, as well as improve life for Palestinians. I just spent two weeks in the region with the Dorothy Cotton Institute, a US civil rights organization rooted in the work of Martin Luther King. We met with Palestinians and their Israeli allies engaged in nonviolent resistance, working to protect village lands from the encroaching Jewish settlements and the separation wall; working to change Israeli policy one bulldozer, one olive tree, one chick pea at a time.

Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician, author and filmmaker. Her book, “Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience,’’ was published in 2010.

Oct 21, 2012 Making your presence felt

The insanity in Hebron does not happen by accident; someone has to make and enforce the policies we see.  (Ironically I am writing this on the shuttle from New York to Boston, sitting next to a clean shaven Jewish man from Long Island, wearing a yarmulke, and holding a prayer book and legal article in his hand.  He is praying. I cannot help noticing an insert in bold type in the legal document: Check your ego at the door. Your job is not to know all the answers. (I definitely need to sharpen my spying skills as well as my glasses.) I guess my trip home has just begun.

But I digress. Sitting on the dusty steps of a Palestinian home just beyond a checkpoint in Hebron, we meet Nadav Bigelman, an earnest young man born in Jerusalem from a lefty family and now a member of Breaking the Silence, an organization that started in 2004 and now has 850 members, mostly combatants.   As a young high school graduate, Nadav wanted to serve his country and he wanted to serve in Hebron where he was stationed in 2008. He felt he was sent by his own society as a soldier and he now feels he has to show his society the truth of the occupation. Breaking the Silence collects testimonies from fellow soldiers about their experiences in the occupied territories.  They examine several aspects: governmental, legal, IDF behavior, orders, and the mindset of the soldiers, and they have taken thousands of Israelis on tours.

He explains that from an Israeli point of view, this is a very religious area and repeats much of the history we have heard. I learn several new details: Jews and Moslems lived peaceably in Hebron for hundreds of years; the 1929 massacred of Jews was done by Palestinians mostly living outside of Hebron. When Jews returned in 1967, the Israeli government initially denied their request to (re)settle, understanding that this would set a precedent for dispossessed Palestinians demanding their return home.  He also discussed several murders of Yeshiva students in the 1980s by Palestinian militants.  Hebron is unique because it is the only settlement inside a Palestinian city. He has a fascinating map in a pamphlet called Ghost Town which categorizes areas in H2, the old city, in relation to Palestinian use: 1. Closed shops, 2. Travel forbidden, 3. Shops closed and travel forbidden, 4. Completely closed to pedestrians, cars, and shops. 42% of the Palestinians living around the settlements have left H2 due to the horrific difficulties in conducting a normal and safe life. There are nightly Israeli incursions; the army is everywhere, on street corners, on roofs, on patrols, at checkpoints. There have been hundreds of days of curfew where Palestinians are confined to their homes.

So what is life like for an Israeli soldier?  Nadav recalls times when settlers attack soldiers and then invite these same nice Jewish boys to their homes to celebrate holidays, so it is complicated.  He did 17 days of six to eight hour shifts, and then had a few days home and then would return to do it all over again. Like many soldiers, he stopped caring, “80% of my shifts I was sleeping.”  He had always been against the occupation, but this was the first time he felt it so closely, was part of it, realized that it was being done on his behalf with his (and my) tax dollars.

He explains that from the start of the Second Intifada (2000) until 2007, Palestinians killed five Israeli civilians and 17 soldiers.  During the same period, Israeli security killed at least 88 Palestinians, 46 were not involved in hostilities at the time of their death.  Two Palestinians were shot by Israeli civilians.  Shuhada Street was closed in 2000 to decrease the friction, (mostly settler attacks on local Palestinians), there were some brief attempts to have the IDF escort Palestinians in the area, but that conflicted with their primary job of protecting settlers, and ultimately the Israeli Supreme Court declared the closure legal.

As we walk, Nadav seems a bit edgy, hustling us along.  He had to get police permission to do this Breaking the Silence tour.  As we pass a police vehicle with four officers just hanging and watching, he points out that we have reached a spot where Palestinians can no longer walk.  This was a corner where settler children would clash with Palestinian children when they all got out of school at the same time, (last year I witnessed settler children here throwing rocks at Palestinian children while the Jewish parents stood passively).  Now the Palestinian children have to walk up several flights of stairs and around the area of previous conflict. Only approximately 100 of the original 500 students remain. In the parking lot there is a military van parked with brightly painted lettering and stencil like pictures: “Hebron Hospitality.” This is basically a mobile coffee house with the inscription: “To the Israeli Soldiers in Love from the Settlers of Judea and Samaria and Gaza.”

He takes us to the once thriving gold district which has been completely smashed and trashed, piles of rubble and decimated dreams, and then we sit in front of his old military base.  There are three settler families that actually live on the base, the children growing up with military equipment and IDF in their community. In 2010 on one Friday night, settlers wanted to enter and told the soldiers that since it was Friday, the Sabbath, the soldiers were not allowed to use electricity to close the gate, so they demanded that the gate be left open.  A huge argument ensued and the settlers got angry and pulled the gate down. (I wonder if this is appropriate behavior for the Sabbath, but what do I know about God’s commandments.) No arrests were made (on an army base!!!) and a separate open entry passage was built for the orthodox settlers.  This is how the system works; problems are bypassed and the settlers get more and more entitled and out of control. Even more frightening is the settler policy of instituting a “price tag.” If Palestinians resist (let’s say demanding to harvest their own olive trees), then the settlers will commit an act of violence in retribution called the price tag. The Educational Minister (remember it is the Palestinians who “teach their children to hate” and the Israelis who have a modern tolerant educational system) has developed a program to bring high school students to Hebron to understand the (I am at a total loss here….) the most racist, intolerant city in Israel…no that can’t be right, I’ll try again, to understand Jewish exceptionalism and fascism….no… Sorry, you can fill in the blank.

Suddenly a large frightened goat, its udders bulging, bolts down Shuhada Street. My first thought is I hope it is a Jewish goat, given the rules around here. I can’t imagine a goat could get a permit. Later we see a Palestinian shepherd, escorted by five soldiers, in search of the animal that apparently refused to stay on the segregated road, the goat equivalent I guess, of the back of the bus. (I secretly name her Rosa!)

Nadav explains that a critical role of the military is to make their presence felt, to remind people, “We are in control.” He explains that this is done by mapping the houses. At 2:00 am he and his fellow soldiers would get into (break into?) someone’s house.  He was told to bring his camera.  They would pick an ordinary family and do five to six houses a night. They would search the house, closets, upturn furniture; the officer would write down the ID numbers and names of each person in the house and draw a map of the house.  Nadav was asked to take a photo of each person (remember, people have just been awaken by a big commotion, they are scared, in their night clothes, probably young children are crying and teenage boys are seething, the soldiers are in full military gear,) and Nadav would match the photos to the names.  By the end of the mapping, he usually had about 20 photos.  He waited for weeks, but no commander asked for his photos and he finally realized that this was the meaning of making your presence felt, of spreading suspicion. The taking of photos was part of the intimidation. (Why did the soldiers pick that family? Are the family members collaborating?  Is a big operation being planned?)  Then there are mock arrests. The soldiers would arrest a random Palestinian for two hours, just for training purposes. This kind of psychological warfare goes on all the time and is quite effective in intimidating the entire population.

We ask Nadav how he felt as a soldier. He said he was following orders; he never enjoyed being a bully. He tried to be a “nice” soldier, handing out candies at the checkpoints, but then he would find himself breaking into a house at night and terrorizing an entire family.  “The occupation cannot be nice.  The issue is not the soldier in the checkpoint, it is the checkpoint itself.” He recommends a book by Breaking the Silence: Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000-2010.  (yes is it on amazon) He feels the soldier testimonies contribute to the discourse within Israeli society.  He prefers not to discuss his plans regarding his annual military reserve obligations.

We head back to the bus parked near the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Hungry children are begging, selling trinkets.  Finally one of our delegates reaches into his pocket for a few shekels and we are swarmed by a small crowd of desperate kids. As we try to back out of this sorry moment, a large armed military policeman rapidly moves into the crowd and violently grabs one of the little boys by his tee shirt.  The policeman is aggressively yelling, the boy is screaming in fear, wriggling out of his shirt, we are trying to hold on to the child, the policeman tells us off to back off and a thin withered man who has been peddling cheap bracelets yells, “Leave us alone, get in the bus. You are no better than settlers.” The child’s face is filled with such a fierce terror it is seared in my memory; soon ?his mother and other women are involved with more arguing.  Everything exploded so suddenly, so brutally. We get on the bus, shaking.  I think the boy got away, this time.

Oct 21, 2012 Greetings from the Brownshirts and Klansmen of Hebron

The day starts grey and edgy for me, not only because we are going to visit the alternative universe of Hebron, but also because the visit will start out with meeting David Wilder, a spokesmen for the (most aggressive intolerant) Jewish community in Hebron. Some in our group feel that morally they cannot sit down with this man, (would I meet with a Klansmen?); others feel this is an unusual opportunity to observe and understand the enemy.  For a delegation devoted to nonviolent struggle, I am finding little love and tolerance in my heart; in fact, I do not know if I will be able to be remotely civil.  We agree as a group to be civil.  I will bite my tongue, sit on my hands, and be grateful that I (unlike David) do not carry a gun.

We head south from the Paradise Hotel in Bethlehem, past stores with pomegranates, bananas, junk food, overly upholstered furniture, car repair shops, and Chinese made plastic stuff spilling onto the sidewalk.  I realize that not only am I holding my breath, but I have already started wheezing, the feeling of suffocation is beginning.

Ironically Hebron or Al Khalil is derived from the word friend. The city is a major economic center with limestone quarries, grape production, glass factories, and a vigorous commercial center. Strangling on its own history, I think it is interesting to note that in the Bible, when Abraham came as a refugee to Hebron, he wanted to buy property and paid 400 shekels (or whatever the silver coins were called) from the Canaanites, (no hostile occupation, stone throwing, well poisoning, Jewish exceptionalism). He bought the double cave of Machpelah and as they say, they rest is history. I will fast forward to the Arab massacre of Jews in 1929 one week after Zionists raised a Jewish flag at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall (with many questions regarding the role of the British in this catastrophe) and also note that many Jews were saved by their Arab neighbors. After 1967 a group of very right-wing Jewish settlers led by a charismatic rabbi from Brooklyn came to a hotel in Hebron to celebrate Passover and declared they would never leave. A deal was struck with the Israeli army which ultimately led to the establishment of the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba in 1971. In the 1990s, a group of 400 settlers (which included 250 yeshiva students) decided to move into the Old City, into homes that they claimed were originally Jewish, and in 1994 a physician, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 29 and injured 200 Muslims praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the middle of Ramadan. He was killed by the angry mob, but none of his supporters were prosecuted and the Palestinians were put under curfew for months. With the Wye Agreement, Netanyahu divided the city into two parts: the Old City of H2 under Israeli control and the western area of H1 under Palestinian control.  There are now 250,000 Palestinians living in Hebron and approximately 500-850 Jewish settlers under the protection of 500 security forces of one kind or another.

We travel through rich farm land, with neat squares of vineyards and other vegetables and pass one of the 20 entrances to H1 that have been blocked by concrete blocks, leaving three to four open for traffic. We turn into the settlement of Kiryat Arba, an Israeli flag hanging from a balcony, the houses are neat and orderly, there is a row of caravans, guards at the checkpoint are chatting. When they learn we are tourists from America, they wave us through. This is a residential settlement of ideological settlers and I am told many of the apartments are empty.

At Beit Hadassah, David Wilder greets us and takes us on a tour of a “museum” of Jewish history, multiple cave-like rooms with photos and historical timelines. He is a short, compact man with a trim beard, kippah on his head, Glock at his waist, a New Jersey accent.  I study him carefully; he has an easy, friendly manner, “Don’t be bashful, I’ve heard everything. I can’t promise you will like my answers,” and projects an air of authority and warmth that could be disarming to the misinformed, I can imagine him as one of Romney’s PR handlers.  He presents us with a context-free history of the Jewish people that is a complicated mixture of half truths, outright lies, and racist paranoia. His basic message is: there is abundant evidence that this place  belongs to the Jews from time immemorial, we must learn from the past (Holocaust, pogroms, betrayals), in 1967 we came back to our rightful home, the Arabs want to kill us and cannot be trusted, (we gave Gaza “sovereignty and they gave us bombs”), we need to take care of Iran before it is too late, (remember the Holocaust), the Jews are always the victims (we only have 3% of Hebron, here the Jews continue to be the victims). I was astonished to learn that the separation wall was necessary not only to prevent suicide attacks, but also car thefts, (message: Arabs are thieves). There is no acknowledgement of anyone else’s suffering, loss, rights, etc, and he plays dumb when asked about Jewish violence or aggression or culpability for anything.  He was unaware that the local settlers celebrate Goldstein’s actions; are you kidding? Just google David Wilder, or even better, Youth Against the Settlements for something approximating reality. He states he is happy to engage in dialogue with Arabs who are interested in peace; he is a reasonable man who is only here to protect his people and what is rightfully theirs. Unfortunately he has many grandchildren.

Luckily for my coronary arteries, we next meet up with Issa Amro from Youth Against the Settlements. He is an electrical engineer, born in the Old City in a house that is now a closed military zone.  He is married, owns a house, and has a wife and eleven month old son. He describes the 550 Palestinian shops that have been closed by military order on Shuhada Street, once a vibrant market and city center. Because of the flying checkpoints and enormous military presence, a host of other shops are closed due to lack of shoppers, afraid for their own safety.   Settlers have freely attacked and humiliated Palestinians and defaced and destroyed their homes and shops. In the small area where we are standing, there are twenty checkpoints, and he describes humiliating body searches, two to three hour waits, a “killing from the inside.”  He talks about Israeli military preventing him from helping his 70 year old ill mother out a side door of her home because she is also forbidden to go out the front door onto the (Arab-rein) street. He points to the graffiti ridden concrete wall at the end of the street, blocking access to the Muslim cemetery on the other side. As he talks, his energy and sense of outrage about all the obstructions rises, as he explains, “I can jump!”  I look up and spot a soldier watching us from a roof top; the eyes of security are everywhere. When Issa and his friends get arrested at demonstrations, his Israeli friends are released in 24 hours, (Israeli civil law); while he sits in jail for up to eight days before seeing a judge, (Israeli military law).

We gather at a long table facing a courtyard where I have eaten before, the falafel with fresh lettuce, tomato, and tahini sauce topped with French fries (why do they taste so good here?) arrive along with the mandatory Coke and orange soda.  In 2000 during the Second Intifada, seven shops in this courtyard were closed by military order.  The adjacent building is desperately in need of restoration, but the Israeli military will not grant permits so the building will gradually collapse and then the IDF will seize the land, although there is strong evidence for Palestinian ownership.  He predicts settlers will get into the building and through various machinations, the land will be declared public and ultimately become part of the settlement He adds that the role of  the IDF is not only to get rid of Palestinians in Hebron, but also to destroy Palestinian identity here.

Talk turns to David Wilder, “ The crazy man,” as Issa remarks.  According to Issa, two weeks ago on Olive Day, settlers attacked Palestinians harvesting their own olives and as usual the Israeli soldiers dismissed the Palestinians. David took photos and film of the event, describing Issa on his website as “the head terrorist in Hebron.”  Three months ago, according to Issa, David directly threatened him at Tel Rumeida Street and David told him that he will be hanged by a ledge and eaten by birds.  This was all captured on video: (google: Hebron human rights press). Such a lovely man, David Wilder! Issa talks about a protest in June where international, Israeli, and Palestinian women dressed in traditional Palestinian dress and walked down the forbidden Shuhadah Street. February 25th is now an international day of action to Open Shuhada Street. Youth Against the Settlements has a samoud project where volunteers choose a home close to the settlers (which has been repeatedly attacked, defaced, etc) and help with repairs, painting, and gardening. They teach human rights journalism and have a center for teaching Hebrew, English, law, and nonviolence. They act as Hebron defenders, forming human shields when settlers attack.  He worked with the Freedom Bus where six activists went inside a settlement and boarded a Jewish-only bus. “We were beaten.” Memories of freedom marches, sit-ins, and bus boycotts from the 1960s clearly come to mind. I shudder at the parallels Jews faced in Germany, only the roles here are reversed, victim becomes victimizer. I know in my head that anyone can be a fascist given the right economic/political/psychological circumstances, but this is still emotionally wrenching and enraging to witness, particularly because the settler community is protected and funded and used as a spearhead by the Israeli government.

Issa explains that Israeli soldiers have two roles: protecting Jewish settlers and harassing Palestinians. Issa has been personally beaten by settlers twice and required five stitches. He has had his life threatened, and is the target of frequent verbal abuse. He admits that Palestinians do attack settlers, but it is rare, (I have yet to see an armed Palestinian, while armed nonmilitary settlers are commonplace).  Additionally settlers do not get punished for their appalling behavior. When a settler broke Issa’s nose, he was suspended from coming into Hebron for one month.  That is about as punitive as it gets. Ironically, Issa notes, the oppressors are afraid of the oppressed.

Issa tells of receiving a phone call at 3 am that Jewish settlers were picking olives belonging to the local Palestinians. “Who picks olives at 3:00 in the morning?”  The next day a group of activists ambushed the settlers at 2 am, the settlers took their cameras, soldiers arrived, more soldiers, stones were thrown by both parties. No charges. The impunity is official.

Issa insists that Jews and Moslems can live together if they have the will; he understands that there are many Jewish holy sites in the region, but they have to live together as equals without occupation.  He has no problem with Jews living anywhere they want, but if they wish to live in the West Bank, they should have Palestinian citizenship. He is proud that his father (of the Abu Ayash family) protected Jews in 1929; now the same families are suffering at the hands of the settlers.  He observes thoughtfully, “Settlers are not Jews.” This comment somewhat parallels the opinion of many Israelis that the right wing settler movement has hijacked Israel and the opinion of an increasing number of progressive Jews in the US that Judaism has been corrupted by Zionism.  And then I am reminded of the comment made by a respected member of the Jewish community in Boston: “You don’t understand, Israel is Judaism.”

Issa introduces Sundus Al Azzaeh, an 18 year old student at the Al Quds Open University. She confirms Issa’s descriptions and adds that water and electricity are also under Israeli control, and are provided unreliably, at a fraction of what the settlers receive. She can’t move freely, has to go through at least two checkpoints daily, and lives near the notorious Barukh Marzel who regularly throws stones, eggs, vegetables, and physically attacks her neighbors and family. Sometimes the IDF does nothing and sometimes they join in with the settlers. Two months ago a big hulky (Brooklyn) settler attempted to run over her 13 year old brother and then beat him. The IDF did nothing. The diminutive Sundus tried to protect her brother and was arrested and charged with attacking the settler. She and her brother spent five hours in the police station, are now faced with a fine, and a police record that may interfere with their ability to get future permits. Another settler woman grabbed her six year old brother and shoved a stone into his mouth and then crushed his jaws together, breaking his teeth. There were no charges. This up close and personal violence is breathtakingly painful, but is the daily reality here. Sundus is studying English, wants to be translator, although she admits she may end up teaching. She laughs shyly and says, “I hope to be famous for helping people, especially the poor.”  For many in our delegation, traveling with a group of US civil and human rights leaders, this kind of resilience, determination, and dignity  remind us of the legacy of Martin Luther King and the brave souls who worked with and after him in the long struggle for justice and equality.

Oct 19, 2012 Guns and Moses

Like millions before us, we explore the Old City of Jerusalem, absorbing the conflicting communities, the array of conquerors, the building and rebuilding, the ethereal light and dusky cream stones, the symphony of church bells and babble of tens of languages and hassled Japanese and Italian tour guides. A group of white southerners carrying a large wooden cross seems to be walking the Via Delarosa. Religious pilgrims, priests in long robes, Hassids clutching prayer books, young Palestinians running home from school in neat blue uniforms, prowling cats, the pungent aromas of spices. All of our senses are touched in this place basking in and gasping from the weight of its own history. The tee shirts take shots: “Guns and Moses,” Obama in a kaffiya, nationalism run amock.  Even the street and historical signage joins in the conflict: the Hebrew, Muslim, and English names deliberately mistranslated to suit the messaging of the authors. Embracing my devout secularism, I am reminded of a comment by Vincent Harding to the effect (forgive me), “I have no interest in sacred sites.  I have interest in how people behave in sacred ways.”

And then one of our delegates suggests we visit Saint Anne’s Basilica located next to an archeological dig at the site of a healing spring, the pool of Bethesda. True to the general history of this city, my understanding is that the church was built by the Byzantine Eastern Christians at this site, destroyed by the Persians, restored by a monk, destroyed by a Caliph, and then rebuilt by the Crusaders 850 years ago. A large Romanesque church was constructed, then changed to a school for Koranic law, and finally restored by the French in the 1800s.  But our interest lies in what is supposed to be the churches perfect acoustics.  As we gather near the nave, peering up at the arching columns and listening to the hushed background shimmer, we do what we have been doing every morning and every evening, we start to sing, first quietly and then with full and open hearts and the sound is truly magical. I am learning about the emotional and political strength of song, a heritage from the civil rights movement that I openly embrace. “We’re gonna keep on walking forward, keep on walking forward, never turning back, never turning back….” never sounded so powerful and so (forgive me) sacred.

Beyond the limits of the ancient walls, I am curious as to what it is like to live here in the present with modern consciousness and concerns. I meet up with a friend, early 30s, with a coy 1 1/2 year old daughter who is intent on chewing the edges of “But not the hippopotamus,” which I have brought her from the US. She and her husband are physicians. After years of frustrating attempts to start a residency program (there are few quality programs inside Palestine and the Israeli Medical Association does not recognize her MD from Al Quds University) and disheartened and chronically enraged by the difficulties of living in East Jerusalem, they decide to try a new life in Australia.  They leave behind a lovely apartment, the grave of their first child, family and friends, as well as the separation wall near their house. But rural Australia is challenging for two urban Jerusalemites, and my friend returns home to have her second baby.  They also want to be sure that their daughter has an East Jerusalem ID which allows her to be in her parents’ home, grow up here if they chose to return, and maintain her Palestinian identity and connection to family. After the birth, the Israeli authorities deny her the ID.  The baby’s father has to return to Australia and her mother engages in months of demoralizing, costly legal battles that end up in the Supreme Court where she is once again denied an ID for her child. My understanding is that the argument not only centered around where is the focus of life for this baby, but also on falsified papers that the government presented regarding how long the mother was actually out of East Jerusalem; (correct answer: less than one year). We sip mint tea, build barriers with the baby carriage so the child cannot escape from our corner of the cafe, and marvel at the personal price of emotional and physical homelessness. My friend is not at ease in Australia but has to return for training and her husband’s work, East Jerusalem feels like home but is too restrictive, and now she has a child who is stateless. I can only marvel at how Israeli policy gets rid of Palestinians, one by one, actively, passively, and at immense human cost, ethnic cleansing in cruel slow motion.

Another couple I know lives in the same neighborhood of Beit Hanina as my other friends. He is a Palestinian psychiatrist from Nazareth who works for the UN and she is a writer and mother of three daughters. We drive to their apartment, past the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrar where right wing Jews are moving into Palestinian homes in the steady Judaization of this Arab neighborhood.  There are weekly demonstrations here and last year I met a Palestinian family living in a tent opposite their property, watching Orthodox Jews of the black hat, long coat variety hurry into their recently acquired homes.  My friend points out a long swath of undeveloped rocky land which he explains is owned by the Abu Jibneh family, but the Israelis will not allow him to build here and there is rumor of plans for a Jewish settlement to be built on his property.  Their lively, talkative daughter (eight or so), points excitedly and exclaims, “Look at the yehud license plate!” Her mother remarks wearily,  “Even the license plates have religion.” I note that even in this enlightened family  the little girl has confused “Jewish” with “Israeli.

For years my friends have been looking for better housing.  They tried for years to buy a place in French Hill a former Arab neighborhood that is now an upscale Jewish area near Hebrew University, until they were finally told, “We don’t sell to Arabs.”

Over tea and cookies while the daughter pops in earphones and watches a Disney movie and then  creatively braids my hair, we discuss the role of the UN agencies, most working in the territories in partnership with Ministries of the Palestinian Authority or other NGOs. These humanitarian agencies were all designed to be temporary, so the question remains, while Palestinians are very dependent on aid given the catastrophic political and economic reality, does the UN facilitate occupation by relieving Israel’s responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions as an occupying power and does the presence of the UN distort national movements? Seven people are dependent on the salary of each Palestinian Authority employee and because locals are also hired, an even greater number depends on the salary of each NGO employee.  My friend finds that UN employees are incredibly stressed and depressed, people worry that Israel is going to annex Area C on the West Bank, people wonder if the Palestinian Authority can be reformed or should it be demolished. Most families are focused on daily survival and getting ahead, the movement is disempowered. Interestingly, no one is obsessing about Iran.

My friends juggle a complicated life.  Two daughters attend school in Ramallah, so there is the daily bus ride and checkpoint, they are having trouble finding a good dance teacher, a house with a permit in Palestine can cost $1 million. The hassle level is high. They drive me home on what is referred to as a “settler road.” This translates into a road that connects Jewish settlers in the West Bank to their work and life in Jerusalem. Palestinians from the West Bank cannot access this highway, it is what the Israelis call, “a sterile road.” Apartheid anyone?

Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated.

Oct 19, 2012 Bullets and Stones

Nabi Saleh blog            Bullets and Stones

On a hot Friday afternoon, I am sitting on a lovely balcony high on a hill in the village of Nabi Saleh, whose population is descended from local villagers and refugees from Lyd, Ramle, and surrounding villages destroyed in 1948. We are looking out over a breathtaking landscape, creamy yellow Palestinian homes tucked between rocky terraces and olive trees on the left, boxy white homes of the Jewish settlement of Halamish in semicircles up the opposite hill on the right. In front of us are a military guard tower and a check point, followed by a curving road into the village which is blocked by three rows of stones, several hundreds of feet apart. Three military vehicles are parked at the checkpoint and a group of boisterous protesters is marching toward them, waving flags, carrying handwritten banners, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” “A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.” MLK is alive and well in this West Bank town. A little boy in a spider man tee shirt carries a Palestinian flag, a teenager’s face is wrapped in a kaffia, an older man wears a black tee shirt, “Boycott the occupation,” with the iconic cartoon character, Handala, kicking a wall. The chanting protestors march towards the Israeli soldiers who start firing tear gas and rubber bullets.  I quickly learn that the boom followed by the swirling white tail and burst of white is tear gas, but the boom without the tail is a rubber bullet. That one can kill you more easily although a direct hit with a tear gas canister can be pretty disastrous as well. There is lots of time to worry about both. I am haunted by all the young people we met before the demonstration:  Are they safe? Will this be the day that changes their lives? Will there be a young martyr?  How do their mothers’ handle this fear and uncertainty?

We are viewing this action from a relatively safe place, bizarrely sipping Sprite and sweet tea and hiding in the shade on a roof top.  Despite the gravity of the situation, I almost expect popcorn to appear, but this is Palestinian hospitality even during a protest. The demonstrators march forward, the Israelis respond with gas and bullets, people retreat, mostly the young men run up and down the surrounding  hillside, the bullets and gas, and sometimes a group of soldiers follow, hunched forward, weapons ready. As the demonstration continues, it is mainly nimble young men hurling slingshot launched stones at heavily armed young men, a bizarre game of cat and mouse, David and Goliath mostly between 20 year olds loaded with testosterone.

We are joined by popular resistance coordinator, Manal Tamimi, a mother of four who is anxious for her children but proud of their bravery and resilience. Israeli soldiers killed her father when she was young and she has had more than her share of injuries, arrests, and detention in Israeli jails. Her son Osama was once arrested for hours; another, Hamid, at age twelve was shot with tear gas, with damage to his liver and kidney. He was taken to a hospital in Ramallah (they refused care in Israel) and after recovery he was troubled by the trauma. She talked about helping him get over his fear and rejoin the demonstrations; she does not want her children to be afraid of the army.  She adds that the soldiers enter the village nightly to intimidate and awaken the sleeping townsfolk with sound grenades, lights, and dogs. A few days ago, they invaded her house at 2 am and searched the house.  Surprised that her six year old son did not wake up, he later told her that he heard the commotion but thought, “Oh, just soldiers,” then turned around and went back to sleep. That is the resilience his mother is building.

I am sickened by the news that one boy was shot in the stomach today, but reassured that it was not serious.  In a normal world and a normal child’s life, any shot in the stomach is serious, but this is not a normal world.

After the demonstration and a tasty feast of chicken, msakhan (flat dough flavored with olive oil, onions, sumac, and pine nuts), a lively group of villagers, children, and internationals gather on Naji and Boshra Tamimi’s patio to talk and share history, personal stories, and songs.  We learn that the 500 people of Nabi Saleh have a long and arduous history, united through kinship and the violent experience of occupation. Since 1967 they have watched their lands and their water, their ability to travel, farm, attend university, raise their growing families, not to mention lead a normal predictable life, constricted by continued land grabs, military incursions, home invasions, arrests, and detention.

After Oslo the West Bank was divided into Area A (Palestinian civil and military control, major cities), Area B (joint control), Area C (total Israeli control and the location of the Jewish settlements, involving about 61% of the land).  The villagers watched the settlements sweeping across the West Bank, now totaling approximately 253, inhabited by some 500,000 Israeli Jews. At one point the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the nearby settlements to stop, but the decision was reversed by a Likud government.

The town originally responded with armed resistance to this assault. They have mourned and celebrated 19 martyrs, and produced the first female Al Qassam fighter, (who was released from prison in the Shalit exchange.) As the Second Intifada slowed, with the constrictions tightening, they noticed that Israel began to link their armed resistance to terrorism in the world.  They began to rethink armed resistance and came to believe that nonviolent popular resistance against the occupation, (defined as any resistance that does not result in killing), is a third alternative that they could embrace.

The popular resistance was born in 2009 when villagers planted olive trees on their own land and the Jewish settlers ripped them out; weekly demonstrations were born. Since that time 150 villagers have gone to jail for two to fourteen months, including 33 children, nine less than 15 years of age.  300 people have been wounded or injured, 40% children, and 13 houses are under demolition order.

Naji explains that his house is in area B but his land is in area C so he is not able to farm the land adjacent to his home.  He has a nephew whose house is partly in area B and partly in area C. I am trying to figure out why everyone is not psychotic given the insanity all around them. Woman, who traditionally have protected the sanctity of the home, have been very important to the resistance and resilience. Israeli soldiers target them with the same brutality and arrests they reserve for the men and children.  The women were unnerved when soldiers grabbed their head scarves, but they returned and are an enormous source of energy and samoud. Not only do they have to deal with the threat of home demolition (which may or may not happen at any time) but every house in the village has had windows broken and damage and fires from tear gas thrown into the home.

The call to prayer hovers over us and the lights from Halamish twinkle on the hill; another round of sweet tea appears. We talk about one of the other core issues which is water.  There are five villages of 15,000 people that rely on a local well that is “shared” with the Jewish settlements.  The Palestinians are allotted one day for seven to twelve hours, (depending on whom I talk to) to fill their water tanks which is utterly inadequate for their daily needs.  The settlers have 24 hour access.  During the demonstrations, soldiers have shot the roof top water tanks or sprayed them with “skunk water” to contaminate the supply.  Villagers explain the soldiers also spray skunk water directly onto demonstrators and into people’s homes causing a terrible stink for days.

The pain of the evening is broken by a sharing of song; after such an emotional day, with great determination we sing from deep inside ourselves, Vincent’s resonant voice inspiring us: “We shall not be moved, just like a tree standing by the water, we shall not be moved….” The Palestinians, mostly the young people, begin a series of rousing melodies, laughing, taking photos, sharing our joyful voices, common humanity and determination.

We gather our things and walk up the sandy road to the expansive home of Bilal and Manal Tamini where we will be sleeping on mattresses on the floor. We watch Bilal’s documentary footage of the Israeli military’s outrageous interactions with the villagers, (a jeep that shoots 64 tear gas canisters in rapid succession, children sobbing from pepper spray, tear gas tossed into a safe house for children, IDF invading a home in the middle of the night and taking photos of and registering all the children, to create a map for future identification and arrests, an army jeep chasing children, and the macabre list goes on). I wonder about the young children sitting attentively in front of the TV until I remember, this is their personal experience, perhaps this even  helps manage their fear. A brave six year old girl walks directly up to the soldiers, yelling and scolding them, reads them a poem and then notices they are laughing at her. She never loses her sense of outrage. And then we listen to the diminutive Manal’s arrest and detention experiences. There is no limit to human suffering. On the wall is a poster: “Free Bassem Tamimi!” We discuss the meaning of stone throwing in Palestinian culture; Bassem explains that a stone cannot cause a major injury (particularly when thrown at a tank or totally armed soldier), but the stone also represents the land which is claimed by the stone thrower, it is a symbolic act of defiance that is central to Palestinian resistance. I wonder if the slingshot is also a mark of Palestinian manhood, a reclaiming of dignity in the face of so much humiliation.

It occurs to me that today’s demonstration (by Nabi Saleh standards) was easy: no skunk water, no major injuries, no soldiers roared into the town and broke into people’s homes. Perhaps like frogs in a slowly boiling pot, surrounded by a strange malignant insanity, a new sense of normalcy is creeping into our consciousness. But then I look around at my colleagues and new Palestinian friends who are very clear that this life is neither normal nor acceptable, the occupation must end with respect for universal human rights, and doing that work is our greatest political and moral challenge.

Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated.

Oct 18, 2012 Making Popular Resistance

10/18 Budrus

After the tour of the wall, we gather to meet in a large municipal community room, U shaped table, ceiling fans stirring the hot air, thin young men in jeans sit near older men, some heavy set, mostly from Budrus, (population 1600,) and nearby Qibya. There is embroidery on the walls, large faded posters. A group of young women students arrive, each more beautiful in artistically draped, colorful hijabs and long coats; they sit in their own circle in the back, “by choice” we are assured by an older male English teacher.

Ayad expresses his warm feelings that we are visiting and outlines general introductions and the history of struggle that resounds from village to village, the understanding that Palestinians have learned from the US civil rights movement, although they have to express their resistance in their own particular way.  We learn from the popular committee that the adjacent village of Qibya was the site of a horrific massacre in 1953 when the IDF entered, led by Ariel Sharon, and killed 77 Palestinians in an attempt to drive them from their land. They are still here. I look at the surrounding faces, wrinkled sun-cracked farmers, sweet young men, hungry nervous looks, a friendly shy smile, eyes hardened from years of difficulty, easy hugging and warm physicality among the young men. A few men are rolling tobacco and smoking, others  sip Coke or Orange soda, as we all feast on rice, chicken, and vegetables prepared by Nami, Ayad’s wife, and a number of other village women and daughters who are not at the meeting.

Ayad explains that in 2003 there were three checkpoints between Budrus and the “mother city” of Ramallah, and people often waited at least one hour at each checkpoint.  The solders would demand that he stand ten meters from his car, take off his clothes, turn around, and this ritual was repeated at each checkpoint.  When in 2003 the Israelis began building the apartheid wall in Budrus, uprooting trees and tearing a path through their farmland, the people decided to take the path of Martin Luther King and Gandhi.  They decided to struggle, but not to kill, to create political pressure to convince the world that they are not terrorists, are not against Israelis or Jews, but against occupation.

On the first day of the demonstration, an Israeli said to Ayad, “Are you crazy? What you are doing here? You think a small village can change Israeli governmental decision?” The villagers jumped on the bulldozers that were protected by three soldiers, 30 minutes later, seven border police jeeps arrived and the bulldozers turned away. The next day many more men, women and children came, chanting, “We can do it, we can do is,” faced down by many more soldiers. As the struggle continued, sometimes they demonstrated daily, or three times per day, or weekly, a fierce battle of endurance between bodies and bulldozers. The IDF killed a 17 year old boy, 200 people were injured, 150 arrested.  Ayad and others spent years in and out of jail, the village was often under curfew.  Ayad talks about the price of nonviolent struggle, “We must be ready to pray this price; freedom is expensive. We were very sorry to lose this kid, all the people in the village crying, a huge funeral, three days condolences, and then we must keep going.”

A seven to 16 member committee met daily in open meetings, but the media didn’t arrive until 70 Palestinians and seven IDF soldiers were injured.  After that, reporters from all over the world starting showing up and internationals from 35 countries including Israelis, came to support the effort.  After a long struggle, the fence finally was moved close to the Green Line, 1200 dunams and 3000 olive trees were saved, and the nonviolent resistance movement spread to other villages threatened by the wall.

Ayad explains that the goal of these efforts is to live as normal human beings, with justice, peace, and freedom between equal people. He understands that Netanyahu wants peace between a slave and a master and he will never accept that.  The popular committee also understands that the struggle needs everyone.  In Budrus, the committee reached out to the women of the community, “We opened the doors” to the women and discovered they didn’t need much encouragement.  Most of the demonstrators were women and the media focused on them because this was so strange and because they were so brave and strong.  People would ask, “Where are the men?”  The women inspired their men both to outdo them and also to protect them from the IDF, (this being a conservative culture in the men not touching women department).

Ayad tells us that at first the women wanted to march alone, but Ayad felt very responsible and decided to accompany them.  It was pouring, one woman carrying a child in the rain. He urged them to go back, “You’ve made your point,” but the women claimed they were as brave as the men and kept marching, soon reaching bulldozers and workers.  Again he urged them to go home, but they said, “Let us stop that truck,” which was filled with stones.  The women ran and jumped in the way and ultimately the truck gave up and all the bulldozers followed him. I think of the film, Budrus, and Ayad’s daughter standing directly in front of a massive bulldozer, putting her body and her life on the line.  She is now studying abroad to become a physician and he is proud.

In this part of the world, darkness comes suddenly and we walk to Ayad’s graceful house, lit up at the end of a dusty road.  At first I think it is a school or municipal building with its elegant, arched windows and dramatic lighting, but he explains that he is an engineer and he and his family have been working on the house for seven years. The outdoor garden looks like a little Garden of Eden, with limes, lemons, pomelos, grapefruit and other lush fruit trees, a palm tree in the middle, lower branches trimmed to create an arched canopy of wide fronds, bougainvillea, and splashes of flowers, another family project. A welcome coolness settles in and we can see a Jewish settlement lighting up on the next hill. There is a call to prayer and later boisterously loud wedding music nearby.

After another over-the-top Palestinian meal, (cooked by the same women who we now get to meet, thank, engage, embrace) we join in conversation with a group of Israeli and US activists, to share the work of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, and to struggle with the issues at hand, while dogs bark, cats howl, and an occasional motor cycle drowns us out. Kobi Snitz explains that for Israelis the movement is defined by Israelis joining on the ground struggle in solidarity with Palestinians fighting for their human rights. This has been transforming and invigorating for the Israeli peace movement.  A rich dialogue ensues: each Israeli talks about the transformative process that opened his or her eyes to the brutality of Israeli occupation, whether an event, (attack on Gaza), a personal experience, (serving in the army, doing media work for an NGO), seeing the movie Budrus, participating in a group (Machsom Watch, Taayush). We explore the meaning of privilege, the challenge of being inclusive, the lack of mindfulness and spirituality in the movement, the role of Anarchists Against the Wall (and how they chose their name), the shock of discovering the realities and that soldiers and settlers are much more frightening and dangerous than the Palestinians they had been taught to distrust and despise.

More older Palestinian relatives and friends pull up chairs and the smell of smoke and roses permeates the air.  Ayad explains that to be organizer, he must be responsible and strategic, must know the details of the culture.  The people are full of anger and oppression.  It is not enough to choose nonviolence “because we are polite; it is a more useful tactic and more powerful and it will stress the enemy more.” It is not easy to snake through the sensitivity of different partners, and factions, but strong leader believe in partners. He sees the role of Israelis, (a relationship which is fraught with difficulties), must be based on trust between people and leadership. In the popular committees, the people must trust each other, to work in solidarity. Palestinians know Israelis are settlers and soldiers; they know there are others but don’t see them.  Ayad decided to take a risk and open the doors to Israeli solidarity and he immediately knew how useful and how welcome they would be. When the Israelis were deeply upset after their first demonstration, they did not want to return home, he knew that he had made a good decision; this would be a strong alliance.

Our conversation moves on to how to create a tipping point where societies change even when the individuals within that society may not have changed, (think the Egyptian leader, Sadat coming to Israel or civil or gay rights legislation in the US).  We end reflecting on the politics of fear which is the same in our own country and “the tool of empire.” We examine the weariness of popular struggles, the effectiveness of the IDF, the impact of constant intimidation, incursions, arrests and detention, the lack of emotional and physical reserves in the village populace and the absence of support from the cities.

Our African American elders begin speaking from the deep well of their experience. We are reminded that we don’t know when the next big wave is coming; we need to keep building capacity, we cannot predict where breaks will come and we have to be prepared and ready for those breaks: the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, then Rosa Parks refusal to sit in the back of the bus, her act of courage growing out of a connection to a black women’s organization and a long yearning for change.  When King came, people asked him to represent them. “You have control over staying ready and not let despair and hopelessness beat you down. Be ready because we need our countries to be different….Once you take your enemies hope away, they are defeated.”

It is late, the Israelis need to head back and we need to find our home stays where we are warmly greeted, fed again, and play with a cast of lively children.  Soon I am asleep on a Dora the Explorer bedspread, curled up in what is obviously the four girls’ bedroom with two of my sisters in struggle, dreaming of our extraordinary day.

Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated.

Oct 18, 2012 Another Pilgrimage: Budrus

Dorothy Cotton keeps referring to “our pilgrimage” and as we set off for the village of  Budrus, Vincent Harding starts us singing, voices blending, harmonizing, “On my way to Budrus, stayed on freedom…Gonna tear down the wall, stayed on freedom…. Hallelu, hallelu, halleluiah.” Against my better judgment, I am starting to agree with Dorothy.  Our guide informs us that Israeli news announced that AIPAC had cancelled a meeting with the board of Protestant churches because the leaders had issued a statement claiming that the Israeli government is violating human rights and the Evangelical Lutheran Church called for an end to unconditional military aid to Israel.  I am beginning to rethink my atheism, or perhaps I have spent too much time in Jerusalem.
We pass Birzeit and the Arab villages of Nabih Saleh, Um Safa, Qibya, Ni’lin and the Jewish settlements of Ateret, Halamish, Nahali’el,  Much of the road is high above the rocky hills and valleys, so it is strategically important and thus the placement of the settlements.  I am beginning to understand that rarely does something happen accidentally, particularly in the department of acquiring Palestinian land. I can see Ateret, a neat row of red roofed houses, surrounded  by electrified fencing and a military outpost, all built on the former Palestinian town of Atara, the name neatly Judaized using some Orwellian sense of historical continuity. The Palestinian villages are more of a jumble of houses, reflecting their age, lack of civil planning and resources. On the left is the Jewish settlement of Halamish;  I immediately spot the forest of tall straight pine trees, a Jewish National Fund forest which means that it is likely covering a destroyed Palestinian village or two and that the land is available for Jewish use only. This is a neat and fairly cynical trick to allow the state agencies involved in land to avoid the accusation of racism and discrimination, as the land is owned, controlled, managed (name a legal maneuver) by the JNF which is a private charity. This highway leads to Route 443 which conveniently gives the settlers in the heart of the West Bank a straight ride into Tel Aviv. We pass our first Israeli checkpoint on the road to Nabih Saleh, and gaze at a row of Palestinian cars.  In the distance we can see the high rises of Tel Aviv. Everything is amazingly up close and personal.  Dorothy belts out, “I’ve been in the storm so long…” and our voices carry us forward until we see the sign for Budrus, a village famous for its nonviolent resistance to the wall and the focus of a powerful documentary of the same name.

There are two plants that always grab my attention: the spiky, yellow-green saber cactus growing profusely, often six to eight feet tall with egg shaped orange fruit. This cactus was used to denote boundaries and is the living memorial to a Palestinian home.  Like the Palestinians, this cactus refuses to die despite efforts to eradicate its presence, so it inconveniently pops up in JNF forests, in the midst of settlements, and other Jewish only areas.  I am also constantly fascinated by the olive tree, growing resiliently on terraced rocky groves, along the road, in rusted metal cans, accommodating to the environment and adversity; some thick, sturdy, pock marked with gnarled limbs and a shimmer of leaves, one to two thousand years old, others more like quirky defiant teenagers or toddlers sprouting from the center of a protective rubber tire; the whole family is here. For Palestinians the olive tree is almost holy, passed down through generations, a major source of oil, food, and income, and a treasured inheritance. The older they get, I am told, the more they produce. They seem to die only when attacked, bulldozed, or burned to the ground, which is a regular occurrence in these parts.

Budrus has the distinction of being located on the Green Line and has been encroached upon by the settlement of Modi’in Illit which was built on the no man’s land created in 1948.  (It is now apparently some man’s land.) A small hilly village, Budrus is 35 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea and we can spot Tel Aviv and Jaffa from the top of the hill, while standing near an ancient sapphire domed mosque.  The wall is of the electrified fence variety and we can see a military jeep at the bottom of the hill, watching us, periodically moving when we move.  The village is also adjacent to the largest Israeli military training camp, so there is the frequent sound of the machinery of warfare, in case anyone was not already stressed by the loss of land and years of demonstrations. We are here because Rabbi Brian Walt showed Budrus at his temple and one of the Dorothy Cotton Institute fellows suggested that DCI organize a delegation of African American civil rights leaders to visit Budrus, meet with Ayad Morrar and other village leaders featured in the documentary and engaged in nonviolent civil resistance.

While the film beautifully documents their years of resistance and the ultimate moving of the fence to the Green Line, Ayad remarks, “They built the fence to protect themselves, now they have to protect the fence.”  There is an intensive security system with cameras that are so powerful they can take clear pictures of villagers’ faces and then the soldiers easily identify leaders and arrive in the night to drag them off to administrative detention and prison.  The hill and the cemetery are littered with tear gas canisters; we stop and sing at the grave of a martyr in the struggle, a shahid. On the way back to the community center we stop to marvel at an olive tree that is almost 2000 years old, some of the holes in the trunk packed with stones that get imbedded as the tree grows. It seems that trees are often named for women and this tree is called Hadra.  Ayad explains that when the army or the settlers uproot an olive tree, they are killing so much more than a tree, they are attacking a beloved member of the family, a source of food and income that is often hundreds of years old, a symbol of the Palestinians attachment to the land and the rhythm of the seasons. That is why the village women gather to wail and keen such an intense heartless loss.  There is an Arabic expression that if anyone uproots an olive tree, God will damn them twenty times.  The mythology of the holes in the older olive tree trunks lies in a story that when the Prophet Mohammed died, the heart of the olive trees burned in grief and created the holes.  Once again in the unforgiving Mediterranean sun I am walking, sweating, and stumbling on sacred ground and marveling about the power of villager resistance; the ugliness of the occupation is palpable.

Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated.

Oct 16, 2012 Bil’in: Hozon (Sadness) and Farah (Happiness)

The last time I went to Bil’in was in January 2011 for a frightening, exhilarating tear gas filled Friday demonstration against the wall. This time, not only did we arrive on a Wednesday, (no demonstrations), but conditions have changed dramatically, though not barely enough. From Birzeit we headed southwest, past the infamous Ofer Prison in the distance, through stunning rugged, rocky landscape, terraced with silvery olive trees, contrasting dark green figs, up and down ear popping hills, winding through tiny towns with tall thin minarets, lush fuscia colored bouganvia, mansions built by wealthy US Palestinians erupting from the hillsides. As we approach the tiny town of Bil’in, the Jewish settlement of Modi’in Illit appears like a mirage in the distance, a haze of tall apartment buildings dominating miles of hilltops. This is as close to a pilgrimage as I get.

We are met by Iyad Burnat, the brother of the man featured in the recently released film, Five Broken Cameras. Smart, focused, handsome, and deeply committed to nonviolent civil disobedience, he takes us through the area of the previous demonstrations, now littered with tear gas canisters and other military detritus. His young daughter gradually warms up to her latest guests, smiling for photos, and holding onto her father. Ironically Caterpillar bulldozers are rebuilding the terraces and farming areas that were destroyed by the previous wall, ie, the high security fence, sensors, and military roads. This was built to separate the town of Bil’in from the rapidly expanding settlement of Modi’in Illit, simultaneously stealing much of the land belonging to the village.

In some strange way this feels like sacred space, where unarmed men and women, local villagers and internationals, famous leaders and unknown teenagers, people chanting, singing, yelling, beating drums, waving flags, faced down one of the most powerful, aggressive military powers in the world and won a small significant victory. Now that the wall has been taken down, I see a playground with brightly colored slides and climbing structures, near completion by the side of the road.  Such dangerous terrorists these villagers! Imagine building a playground. What will they think of next? What a strange mix of bizarre and extreme. What an immense tragedy for the Palestinians fighting this battle and for the soldiers so brutalized that they are able to fire and beat and tear gas and violate unarmed civilians: just following orders.

While Iyad described the popular struggle, the violent response from the Israeli military, the horrific cost to the villagers and their families, I walked along the current wall, this one concrete with double rows of wide loops of barbed wire beside the off limits military road. The cranes from Modi’in were easily visible over the wall, the struggle is far from over, the land grab continues all over the West Bank.

Filled with emotion, horror, encouragement, we gather in Iyad’s living room, meet his four friendly children and gracious wife serving thick Arabic coffee followed by painfully sweet tea. They have spent seven years building this house and recently moved in. He turns on the VCR and we find ourselves watching Five Broken Cameras, reliving the stories, the violated landscape, the spirited villagers, the brutality of the soldiers.  It is surreal and almost too painful to bear.

The conversation afterwards, however, is powerful and inspiring. Iyad is focused on teaching and building a nonviolent movement for civil action throughout the territories. Other villages are joining the struggle. He will be touring with the film in the US shortly. He is absolutely clear that he is not fighting the Jews, he is not fighting for a few more dunams of farm land, he is fighting the occupation. He is not only doing this for himself, but for his four children who have grown up tasting tear gas and fearing Israelis. He is determined to create a better life for all of them.

Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated.

Oct 15, 2012 We have nothing to lose

We leave Ramallah, winding our way past vendors unloading cartons (with Hebrew names) lush with persimmons, bananas, pomegranates, grapes, and smaller boxes piled with lettuce, scallions, parsley, and greens. In the chaos and cacophony of this bursting city, shop windows stream by: faceless mannequins in tight jeans and low cut sparkling blouses, chains of gold jewelry catch the morning light, ridiculously pointy high heels vie for attention, coffee vendors dance at corners with tall plastic flowers above their heads. I catch a Pizza Hut, an ad for Betty Crocker, “Always the sweetest moment,” billboards for computers, smart phones, the latest IT whatever. Men and women of all styles jostle in a sea of cars, taxis, buses, and street vendors; roads blocked for construction, lots piled with rubble and trash, cranes hovering over the city. I remember a puff piece in the travel section of the New York Times calling Ramallah, the Paris of the Middle East.

We are heading north to Birzeit University, founded by Hanna Nasir, whose family fled Jaffa in 1948. Starting as a small campus, since the 1980s it has grown into a large national university impressively situated on a hill, with large cream white buildings dedicated to science, art, law, technology, a women’s center, and more. Birzeit is in the forefront of Palestinian education due to the quality and diversity of both its faculty and its 9000 students and it has also graduated most of the members of the leadership in the Palestinian Authority.

We gather in an auditorium, rows of tables and chairs, with a table in the front with chairs and mikes for a video presentation and discussion with several students. There is an intensity and seriousness amongst the different young men and women. They all feel compelled “to defend our country,” talk about the NGO, development bubble in Ramallah, the lack of jobs, and 21% unemployment rate in the West Bank. 60% of the students are women, 30% come from towns and villages beyond Ramallah. They differ from college students in the US in several important ways. They bear the history of living under occupation; since the first graduation in 1976, the school has been closed down more than ten times by the Israeli military, the longest for three years during the First Intifada when popular committees helped keep the educational system alive with professors meeting in homes, churches, mosques, rented houses, and sometimes outside under the trees. The Israeli government forbids students from inside Israel (’48 Palestinians) or Gaza from attending Birzeit, and has “deported” students that are caught.

They discuss the lack of a viable economy; they are only “rebuilding what the Israeli military has destroyed.” Those who study commerce often work in companies in Ramallah, engineers tend to go abroad to work in places like Saudi Arabia. Women find jobs more easily, often in an office work, in the service economy, banks, accounting and marketing. Living under occupation, visiting professors (from the US for instance) can only get three month permits to teach, cannot be guaranteed payment due to the dire financial situation, and may be deported at the will of the Israeli government. There is an active political life at the university which is a reflection of the politics of Palestine as a whole, with students joining Fatah, Hamas, or sometimes groups that cross lines like the Palestinians for dignity campaign. Most disturbing, there are currently about 80 students that are currently in administrative detention, most likely arrested for their activism but with no charges filed, their lawyers unable to have access to their “security files.” Because the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) cannot enter the campus, the students are arrested at the gates of the school, at flying checkpoints, or at home, often in the middle of the night. The entire university community endorses the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel (BDS), which functionally means they do not buy Israeli products unless it is the only alternative and do not communicate with Israeli institutions; many products come from Europe and Arab countries. “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

We break up into small groups for our campus tour. Our guide is a 23 year old former accounting major who is now in sociology. He is thin with a neatly trimmed beard, deep black eyes and a sincere manner. Despite the oppressive sun, he is determined to point out every building, library, and student union, as well as the memorial for the 20-year-old student who was killed by Israeli forces, Abdullah Khalil Salah. Our guide started his education at Al Quds (in Jerusalem), had some political differences with a professor and then missed a final exam because he was detained for hours at a checkpoint and was thrown out of school. He came to Birzeit where he majored in accounting as his father recommended, did not feel challenged, and after two years transferred to a university in Jordan. After a year he went home to visit his family and the Israeli security would not allow him to return to Jordan to complete his studies. He returned to Birzeit, changed his major to sociology, and returned to work on his father’s farm (mostly olive trees) as well as a host of other odd jobs to support himself. Because his father spent 19 years in Israeli jails and started his married life late, he is eager for grandchildren. As we begin to talk about more personal matters, the student’s phone rings. It turns out, he is in love and one of his friends is letting him know the location of his love interest. He explains that she does not have a boyfriend, “and that is good for me,” and he is attracted to her because she does not gossip and is focused on her studies. She is “very cute and beautiful.” He talks about wanting to marry her, the high cost of traditional weddings, and his desire to be able to support a family. When we ask how she feels, he confesses that she does not yet know of his feelings but he is hopeful she will notice him. She is majoring in sociology and when he signed up for his courses, he first found out what she courses she planned to take and then he signed up for the same. His optimism and yearning feel so quintessentially Palestinian to me; on the other hand, he may just be another young man, hopelessly in love.

Oct 13, 2012 If Walls Could Talk

I have a confession to make; we are still on the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions tour with Ruth Edmond, but my Israel/Palestine PTSD was flaring up and I needed a break. Standing on terraces, looking at the ravaging of the landscape, staring up at blocks of concrete walls  splattered with graffiti and topped by curls of barbed wire, the wall (don’t call this a fence) weaving between homes and stores, I experience a kind of grief and exhaustion. We are witnessing the rape of Palestine, and I feel such a sense of violation that is worse each time I am drawn back, like a reoccurring bad dream, stimulating old memories and adding to a growing list of new outrages. Back at the hotel our voices join Vincent Harding’s powerful tenor once again, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, Builders Must be strong…. Don’t get weary…” The music from the past propels me into the present, re-energized.

Ruth is discussing the endemic discrimination against Mizrahi Jews from countries like Yemen, Iraq and Iran, who arrived in Israel (were often sprayed with DDT and housed in tents reminiscent of 1948 Palestinians), and ultimately settled in the tough buffer zones at the edge of the State. Now the problems are less pronounced, but Mizrahi are still largely absent from academics and higher positions in society. As has been reported in the news recently, Israel is experiencing a spasm of discrimination against Sudanese and Eritreans who have fled oppressive regimes, walking across the Sinai, entering Israel across the long, poorly guarded Egyptian border.  About a month ago there were race riots in south Tel Aviv where shop windows, cars, houses, and even a kindergarten were smashed.  (I heard whispers of a Jewish Kristall Nacht with poor Mizrahi Jews, the bottom of the economic ladder, turning their rage and racism like thugs on the African refugees.) One of the instigators, (a member of the Knesset?) called the asylum seekers a “cancer.” The Israeli authorities are building a new prison for the refugees who face round ups, three year prison detentions, and deportation.  Physicians for Human Rights Israel recently documented a family that was sent back to Sudan; the Israeli authorities delayed their luggage, two of the four children died of malaria (without their medication) and two were seriously ill at last report.

We stop at a beautifully landscaped Jewish settlement called Ma’ale Zeitim, graceful gardens, stone walls, and neat, well-planned suburban looking red-roofed housing. This looks like a lovely place to raise a family. I, however, am particularly interested in the area of E1 that is visible from the street where we have parked.  There is a wide expanse of sandy rolling hills, blue grey in the cloud shadows, splotches of vegetation, and the occasional highway and bulldozed area, possibly for more wall. When I was last here in January 2011 there was much disputing about a police station under construction in E1. There was also a proposal to build a twelve square kilometer development between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.  This would further isolate East Jerusalem from the West Bank, negate the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, expand the Israeli border, and create a huge buffer zone. With the help of US physician, casino owner, and gambling magnet, Irving Moskowitz, I can see the large completed police station (for Judea and Samaria) in the distance on a roll of hills, three taller white buildings and a row of darker structures. This is an extensive facility; obviously capable of holding many Palestinians detainees should there be an uprising in the territories.  The old police station was purchased in this deal and is now the site of more settlement housing.

Ruth talks about the violent demonstrations that occurred around this controversy, the fact that it is illegal for Palestinians to build over four stories high (another cause for demolition), the sign on top of a garage in the area, “Kahane [a very right wing ultraorthodox rabbi] was right.” She then turns to the separation (security, apartheid) wall, one meter below ground, eight meters above, 702 kilometers, twice the length of the Green Line, and two billion dollars on completion.  Started in 2002, it is 62% completed.  In rural areas it is a “smart fence” with various sensors, dogs, and adjacent military roads on each side. 85% of its path is within the West Bank and multiple villages have been severely impacted. One family’s home is actually divided by the wall with the two brothers meeting on the roof when they need to see each other. Israelis often claim that the wall has stopped suicide bombing, ignoring the fact that such bombing stopped in 2004 when many factions abandoned such tactics, the wall was only partially built at that point, and some 140,000 Palestinians still cross illegally from the West Bank every year, mostly looking for work.  We park on a bend in the Jericho Road; for the first time in 4000 years, the road is closed; the Israelis have completely obstructed the road with the wall.  The graffiti is new since my last tormented pilgrimage: “Israel is a terrorist state,” “We are humans,” “Welcome to apartheid,” “Civil & human rights not white privilege.” For me as a Jew with grandparents who fled the ghettos of Eastern Europe, the most painful one is still there, “Welcome to ghetto Abu Dis.”

She mentions the Palestinian village of Al Walajah which is soon to be totally surrounded by the wall.  She talks of a villager who refused to move and now has a home beyond the wall, his own personal tunnel and checkpoint. She reflects on the 55,000 Palestinians who technically live in Jerusalem but find themselves beyond the wall in Shufat or Anata (within the Jerusalem municipality) and must go through checkpoints every day to get to work.  The disruptive hassle factor often becomes so demoralizing that it becomes easier to work in Ramallah, and then, they lose their “center of life” qualification and their precious East Jerusalem ID. This is commonly referred to as passive or silent transfer, mostly invisible for anyone who doesn’t care to notice.

Which brings us to house demolitions.  Ruth describes three types of demolition orders:

1.            Administrative: due to a lack of a permit (permits are virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain),

2.            Punitive: (which is a form of collective punishment against an entire family)

3.            Military: (like in South Hebron where homes were demolished to build a firing zone.

Not only that, the family is responsible for paying for the cost of its’ own demolition. Ruth notes that more than 50% of suicide bombers experienced home demolitions during childhood. After a demolition, families experience higher rates of drug use, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and mental illness. When Jeff’s ICAHD partner Salim recently had his house demolished, his wife stopped speaking for three months.

Past Hebrew University, we head to the expansive settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, population 50,000. The Bedouin Jahalin tribe lives in encampments along the way, most noted for their poverty and lack of public services. Originally from the Negev, the Bedouins moved north in 1948, and have been forcibly displaced a number of times, including to the garbage dump in Abu Dis. Eighteen clans now live on E1, tucked erratically in the sandy hills. The contrast with Ma’ale Adumim cannot be more extreme: a graceful olive tree (uprooted from some Palestinian village) sits in the first rotary, there are lush gardens, blossoming marigolds, green lawns, palm trees, and upscale housing, what has been called “water apartheid.” We circle the Doves of Peace rotary and I count five more rotaries and five more ancient olive trees, sojourning in this disconnected place, creating a false sense of historical continuity.

I can only wonder how this reality becomes normal; how people looking for good housing and  schools and a nice playground for their children can live in a place where ghettoizing another people, smashing their homes and building ugly concrete walls that devastate families and once deeply inspirational landscape can be considered a reasonable response to the fear and insecurity and land greed that drives so much of Israeli policy. I fully understand that this type of blindness and cruelty happens all over the world; but here, in the land of milk and honey, it is so up close and personal, so many worlds colliding in the space of one brief afternoon.

Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated

Oct 12, 2012 Segregation in the Democratic State of Israel

Ruth Edmonds, another Israeli refuser, is the daughter of a Jewish mother and English father. She came from a political household; both parents were environmental activists. Now 29, she is the high energy, fast talking staff person with ICAHD, (the 26 year old Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions), who is going to take us on a tour of East Jerusalem and the surrounding Jewish settlements. Her body language and ebullient speech has the urgency of someone with too much to do and not enough time.  She is active in Anarchists Against the Wall, Active Stills, Boycott from Within, and ICAHD.  Her youth and her commitment jolt me with a ray of optimism.  Her tee shirt reads: “Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.”

After a review of Middle East history and armed with useful websites and a yearning for lots more details, we board our bus and set out for some stark reality.  This is my third ICAHD tour of East Jerusalem and the surrounding Jewish settlements, but I am never quite prepared for the stunning beauty of the hills, the visually seamless “unification” of Jerusalem since 1967, the malignant intricacies of what Jeff Halper describes as the Matrix of Control, and the outrage that gradually grips my body. Jeff has drawn what he calls the prisoner analogy.  In a prison the majority of the space is claimed by the prisoners: the dorms, the cafeteria, the library; while the guards and the prison authorities only control maybe 5%, but that includes the corridors, the locks, the watchtowers; in other words, they control the prison.  This is how Palestinians increasingly find themselves in the ever expanding borders of the Jerusalem Municipality and the West Bank. And the guards are armed with continuously more sophisticated US armaments and “crowd control” devices that are “field tested” on the backs of the indigenous people and their supporters.

We pass a tall curving white Peace and Tolerance monument that overlooks the Jewish settlements. The irony is stunning.  Stopping at Jabal Mukabar, Ruth explains that before 1967 the area around the Old City was Palestinian agricultural land but it has been largely transformed into an urban setting.  We see a family arriving to pick olives at this popular lookout as we survey a spectacular panorama that includes West Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock, Mount of Olives, and Ramallah in the distance. The grey concrete separation wall meanders between clusters of white houses, black water towers sprouting like mushrooms on the roofs.  Jewish homes do not have these tanks as they have a reliable water system.

Perhaps the easiest way I can share the impact of this tour is with some of the most disturbing pieces of information.

•    In 1967 according to Ruth, after the war with the Israeli unification of the city, Palestinians present in East Jerusalem were offered Israeli citizenship if:

1. They declared loyalty to the Jewish State 2.  They passed a Hebrew proficiency test 3.  They gave up other passports (this is not required of Jewish Israelis) 4.  They could prove that they were willing to migrate to Israel within the 1948 borders.

Needless to say, the majority chose permanent residency status and now they have to continuously confirm their right to that status by proving that Jerusalem is the center of their lives (work, school, activities, etc, etc).  When a child is born, rather than receiving a birth certificate in the hospital like Jewish children, the parents have to go to the Ministry of the Interior to prove their residency status. The bus drops the new parents off at a steep hill with no stairs down to the Ministry. They pay the same taxes as West Jerusalemites but get a fraction of the urban services. Their children have overcrowded crumbling schools, rare playgrounds, and cannot inherit property. At checkpoints, the soldiers have access to whether Palestinians are up-to-date on taxes, fines, etc and act accordingly. This system was created by our own Hewlett- Packard.  If East Jerusalemites are absent for 3-8 years (not clear) they lose their IDs. This does not happen by chance. The Israeli government has a policy of maintaining a 70/30 split between Jews and Palestinians and will do whatever is necessary to achieve that, one Palestinian at a time.

•             The Israeli government has an extensive policy of “green zoning,” ostensibly taking, (buying, stealing, seizing) (Palestinian) property and converting it into public spaces. In reality these spaces are often made into Jewish settlements or are at least off limits for direly needed Palestinian housing.  Only 9% of East Jerusalem is currently zoned for the ballooning Palestinian population, creating a false house shortage and another silent bullet leading to passive transfer of the population.  The Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan with its controversial archeological site and park, The City of David, (find evidence for a Jewish presence, thousands of years ago and throw out the rest), has extensive green zoning and growing numbers of the most right wing Jewish settlers. It is easy to see the large blue and white Israeli flags provocatively flapping between Palestinian homes.  It is quite clear who is welcome here and by whom.  Meanwhile Palestinian schools are short by 1000 classes and 40% of the children drop out.  17,000 children are never even registered. A group recently had to take their case to the Israeli Supreme Court to get a permit to build a girl’s school. A school? (Did I mention that the educational system is totally segregated in the city of peace?)

•             The settlement project is alive and well; for example, with a plan for Kidmat Zion a new settlement of 230 units at the heart of the Palestinian Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis. Ruth explains this will be the furthest eastern Jerusalem municipality settlement and will effectively cut off Jerusalem from the West Bank and be just another nail in the two state coffin, should that not already have met an untimely demise. We also pass the faded billboard advertising sites (call that 1-800 number now, homes still available!) for Nof Tzion, a gated Jewish settlement with a dubious financial history, now owned by a major developer, Rami Levy. Passing the lovely tree lined trees and well paved streets, when Nof Zion ends, the potholes and bits of garbage and plastic bags hanging onto the tumble of weeds announce the end of urban services.

•             Between the current citizenship and changing family reunification policies, the Israeli state functionally dictates where a Palestinian can live, who he/she can love and where they can work.  For example, if a West Banker falls in love and marries an East Jerusalemite, they cannot make their residency in East Jerusalem (where services, health care, education, and the standard of living are better).  Not only does this translate into untold family suffering, separation, detentions, etc, but it is estimated that of the 350,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, many thousands live there illegally, risking imprisonment for attempted family unification.

•             Jerusalem is a microcosm of what is happening in Area C, the area of the West Bank that is under Israeli civil and military control.  There have been innumerable attempts to make life so unbearable that Palestinians will leave and now 150,000 are left.  It is rumored that the Israeli government is preparing to officially annex Area C to Israel proper and then may offer the remaining Palestinians Israeli citizenship as their numbers are too small to affect the demographic war.

One of the delegates shakes her head and says, “This looks like Alabama.”  Welcome to the only democracy in the Middle East.

Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated

Oct 12, 2012 One soldier, two tanks, three guns, four dead Arabs

Sahar Vardi is an Israeli woman who has come to speak to us on a panel with two Palestinian women from another organization, Just Visions. She has long, sandy blond hair, and is wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, black tie shoes, and sports a playful laugh, expressive hands, and a forehead that wrinkles up when she is saying something serious.  She is a few years younger than my daughters.

Sahar was born and raised in West Jerusalem in a Jewish, Zionist environment.  She wants to explain how militarism infects much of Israeli society and begins by telling us that military education begins in kindergarten with a counting book where students match a number to a symbol: one… soldier, four… tanks, six… planes, etc. Soldiers come to primary school and high school to talk about army life, and in eleventh grade the entire class does basic training together, a powerful bonding experience.  (I think my kids were bonding over marshmallows in New Hampshire at that age.)  By 18, she says, it is very clear that it is totally normative to be joining the army.

Sahar explains that young Israelis get used to carrying their M16’s with them, in and out of uniform, that fear is part of both formal and cultural education.  In April the Passover message is basically, “in every generation someone tries to annihilate us,” and then a week later there are military celebrations that lead into Israeli Independence Day. And then of course there are all the tragic and traumatizing personal experiences: a suicide bomb blew up outside of her school during the Second Intifada.

But something happened to Sahar’s indoctrination.  In 2003 at age 13, she joined her father in a Palestinian village in Jerusalem for an action day, planting olive trees, changing water pipes, painting a neighboring school. Each year they returned, witnessing the building of the separation wall, (dividing Palestinian village from Palestinian village), the uprooted olive trees they had planted, the broken water pipes.  She watched Palestinian children waiting at checkpoints to go to school.  She went to her first protest at 14 in the village of Bil’in, marching to the site of the proposed wall, running from the tear gas and rubber bullets shot by Israeli soldiers, finding herself protected by Palestinian villagers.  These experiences challenged the “us versus them” paradigm around her and by 18, she felt she could no longer join the army.

She and a group of friends known as the Shministim decided to publicly refuse their mandatory army service and wrote a public letter explaining their intentions and their critical message regarding the army and the military system.  She was imprisoned for several months and was ultimately released for mental health reasons.

Now, deeply committed to the struggle against directions within Israeli society, she has worked with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and New Profile, (a feminist anti-military organization that supported her through her refusal). She currently works with the American Friends Service Committee, focusing on the demilitarization of Israeli society.

Sahar notes that as long as she can produce concrete small results, in New Profile helping a soldier get conscientious objectors status or just getting out of the army for whatever reason, (often mental health), then she stays hopeful and does not burn out.

But the work is challenging. Sahar mentions her grandmother who asked her where she will go after the end of the State of Israel.  She reassured her,” I’m here, this is my culture, but society has to change.”   I am reminded that while we are focused on the military culture in Israel, this is happening in our society as well. This is partly the byproduct of the increasingly ubiquitous culture of fear, whether it was the red scare of the 1950s or the terror that seized the US after 9/11. This fear is a commodity used well by our politicians and global corporations, producing our huge military budget with a $3.4 billion subsidy to Israel. Let’s remember that 75% of this money must be used to buy arms in the US.  Somehow, it looks to me like our congress is subsidizing our military companies, while Israeli defense companies build our drones and their subsidiaries build our wall with Mexico. Meanwhile most Jewish Israelis are too afraid to venture into East Jerusalem and Jewish settlers in the Old City walk around with armed guards, stepping to avoid the clergy of every denomination, the nuns, the tourists, the children in a variety of school uniforms, and the Palestinians who have lived there for centuries.

I feel my weariness and cynicism going global. I try drinking from the well of Sahar’s youthful energy when I hear the resonant voices of Dorothy Cotton and Vincent Harding, restoring us with the inspiration and passion of music they have been singing since the 1960s civil rights struggles. My heart soars as the delegates join them in song: “Ain’t gonna let nobody (or wall, checkpoint, exhaustion) turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.  Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, marching onto freedom land.” Another day in the long march towards a better society begins again.

Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated

Oct 11, 2012 The Big Hats

I am traveling to Israel/Palestine with a group of African-American civil rights leaders, theologians, scholars, activists, feminists, and fellow travelers under the guidance and affirmation of the Dorothy Cotton Institute.  We are guided by the words and deeds of Martin Luther King and the men and women who continue to walk in his footsteps.  This is a powerful legacy to examine the world, not particularly Jewish or Christian or secular, but breathing with a love and respect for human and civil rights, expansion of democracy, and the uncompromising fight for justice.

But before we even step into the hot Mediterranean sun, the troubles start in the waiting area of the JFK Airport in New York. For me, it is something about the clusters of men with tall brimmed hats perched on top of their heads, (concealing their yarmulkes,) the long black coats, the various frizzy beards , the tsitzit dancing from their shirts. We are in this jumble of travelers and I am horrified to think I am beginning this momentous delegation with a moment of ethnic profiling.  Women with wigs or scarves (in my vernacular, schmatas,) tied at the napes of their necks, herd quantities of children (often ages one, two, three on up…) while their men bend and pray in the central waiting area, davening methodically, hands pressed to their faces, noses deep in prayer books.  For reasons I can’t quite explain, I am awash in this weird blend of embarrassment and hostility. I am filled with an urge to apologize to my non-Jewish comrades for the behavior of my landsmen.

First , I try pretending  they are Amish, or Sikh, or devoutly Muslim, but the body language does not work and I am still searching for my tolerance. Is it too much self-entitlement and too little of the humble supplicant? Is it the spatial dominance? The men do not even acknowledge a brazen hussy like I am beginning to feel. Only men pray, while their women manage the progeny; the feminist in me begins to squirm. During the three hour wait for the nonstop to Tel Aviv, we line up an hour early, bodies crushed together for the second round of security, (does any other country do this?); this time shoes off, but keep your one gallon sealed bag of liquids in the backpack, but yes you take off your jacket: keeping us off balance, conveying that sense of danger lurking, but those Israelis sure know how to protect us.

I suspect Delta already understands this is a difficult group to get into their seats. Many of our delegation are asked to change seats, “I need to be near my husband.” “I do not sit next to women, (not actually spoken but gestured.)” (Are there racial overtones?).  The tenor is generally argumentative, though there are certainly lovely travelers to be found, but it is clear that the ultra-Orthodox are running this plane and their sense of dominance of the space is palpable. There were 150 kosher meals out of 400+, but the overriding accommodation of need went to the men in hats. I will ignore the praying in the aisles, the drawn shades so that morning would not come at an inconvenient time which would only require more praying and more tefillin and blocked aisles.  Let’s just talk hats.

After switching my seat, I watched the endless dance of the hats, each perched in the overhead compartment, demanding space of its own, rearranged countless times with each new piece of overhead luggage; a level of pushing and shoving and entitlement that I have unfortunately come to associate with the caricature of Israelis, an old joke with the punch line, “ the people who do not know how to say, ‘I’m sorry.’”

By now I am torturing myself. Would I be so critical if I was observing some African customs or conservative Muslims turning towards Mecca and praying five times a day or am I angry because these folks are part of my own tribe and I feel responsible? I keep repeating my new mantras: Practice loving kindness. Speak truth with grace. This will be my greatest challenge on this trip, to be an active member of the” beloved community,” to feel nonviolence and kindness in my heart when I much more likely to be enraged.

Delta Airlines, on the other hand, has flown to Tel Aviv with these folks before.  There is a rule (danger lurking everywhere) that when we enter Israeli airspace, everyone must be seated. We get a 30 minute warning to finish with the rituals and the bathroom (they have just filled us with coffee).  This warning is repeated at five minute intervals building to a crescendo.  This goes on for the 30 minutes before we are confined to our seats, as if the stewardesses knew this crowd has a mind of its own. (I think of my children when they were young enough to be testing the limits of parental control: three minute warning, followed by, if you don’t sit down I am counting to ten.) In my sleep deprived state I picture the stewardesses tackling a tall bearded man lost in prayer, wrestling him to his seat, knocking his hat to the floor.

And then a moment of clarity as the caffeine hits my brain: how can I separate the entitlement in the airport, the claiming of space in the airplane, from Jewish behavior in Jerusalem/Al Quds, in the West Bank, in Israeli society.  These ultra-Orthodox Hassidim have come to symbolize for me the arrogant power of Zionism that is making Israel the militaristic, nationalistic country that has broken my heart and made me ashamed.

I look out as the Mediterranean coast sweeps into view. High rises start to sprout from the haze and palm trees come into focus and I am weeping.

Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated.