Banned from Boston, December 3, 2015

I was planning to reflect on the last few months during which the international community has awakened to the horrors of the war in Syria, the millions of internally displaced and fleeing Syrian refugees, (some Palestinians forced to flee again), the ISIL shooting down of a Russian plane, bombings in Beirut and Paris, the “knifings” of Jewish Israelis and the state and settler sponsored shootings and “extrajudicial killings” of Palestinians and the horrific backlash in the US. A Palestinian doctor friend of mine is flying all over the US applying for residencies. Not only does he routinely get picked for the “random” check of people with Arabic names, he is now fearful because more than six people of Middle Eastern background have been forced off domestic flights because the white person sitting next to them didn’t feel safe flying next to an Arab. Meanwhile, I have been on the road, feeling the pulse in the great out there, doing a record 26 events from Richmond to Seattle.

But today something happened that was so extraordinary, I need to start with that. Months ago, I was invited by a longtime 87-year-old activist (I should be so spunky 20 years from now) who wanted me to show my documentary film at her retirement community in Seattle. She stressed the general excitement she was feeling from other residents as well as folks from the “outside.” People were cancelling their ophthalmology appointments and skipping mahjong, but the potential for conflict with lovers-of-all-things-Israel, Holocaust and kinder transport survivors, and older liberal Zionists who tend to see Palestinians as incorrigible terrorists despite their intense dislike of Netanyahu and occupation, hovered over the event. The activities organizer who lately had sponsored a popular four-part series on Islam by a respected Seattle professor was very supportive. “Bring it on!” she is reported to have said. So this week the flyers went out, the mailboxes were stuffed, there was a lot of chatter and expectation in the halls. But on the morning of the event, I got an excited call from my activist friend explaining all hell had broken loose, she had just gotten out of a tense and painful meeting with the movers and shakers in the Jewish community at the retirement community and the apparently intimidated activities director.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived and found hanging all over the halls and doorways:

Alice Rothchild: A Special Kind of Exile
Due to the sensitive nature of this discussion the 2 o’clock presentation is postponed until further notice. We are truly sorry for the inconvenience.

My casual catch-up lunch with my friend was now a private luncheon meeting with these wounded and anxious folks. Over melted cheese and tuna, I listened to their concerns and fears and why they felt postponing the event was critical. The gist of the somewhat agonized conversation was that they were afraid that a critical discussion of Israeli policy would encourage the latent anti-Semitism that lurked within their “Gentile” neighbors and that I would just drop in, cause havoc, and leave them with an uncomfortable mess. One woman was upset that the flyer said “belligerent,” as in “Israel’s increasingly belligerent occupation…” One of the less liberal residents also felt a need to rehash the history of the “conflict” with this kind of framing: We gave them Gaza and they gave us bombs, the Palestinians have prevented the two state solution, they are always the aggressors, etc etc. There was this underlying feeling that there are dangers in airing “our” dirty laundry in front of the goyim and that the behavior of Israel was a private Jewish meshugas best kept in the family.

I shared my personal Jewish journey from nice Bat Mitzvah girl, (yes I did learn the rules on keeping a kosher home) to critical activist, my understanding that thoughtful analysis of Israeli policy, (just read the new Israeli historians) was different than anti-Semitism; that Judaism the religion, Jewish the culture/ethical community, Zionism the political movement, and Israel the country were different categories that needed to be approached separately. That this conversation was an international human rights issue. I urged people to be “brave” and described the documentary as a telling of history through the voices of people who are usually not heard, ie., Palestinians. They worried about “balance.” “How many Israelis did you interview? You have to live there to really understand.” I talked about the Jewish tradition of studying and arguing and the dangers of refusing to discuss difficult topics, (think American history without the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans or slavery). They talked about wanting to see the film first. When I asked, “Then what? This feels like a censorship board,” (and I explained the long list of cancelled events, rabbis muzzling my events, etc); feathers ruffled, one man threatened to walk out. I worried that the act of cancelling (OK postponing until further notice) would only feed the impression that “the Jews” have some powerful kind of control over the retirement community’s events, that they have something to hide, that they act in secretive tribal ways…. ie. feeding just the anti-Semitism the machers were afraid of provoking. Tensions rose until the now thoroughly reconstituted activities director decided that they were welcomed to watch the film first, but the event would be rescheduled and publicized and people could chose to attend or not. That seemed like an excellent plan and a blow for free speech. I am hoping for an overflow crowd eager to see this almost-banned documentary. Who knows how dangerous understanding history may be?

My fall events reached a wide diversity of ages and settings from havurahs to universities to the American Public Health Association. Mostly audiences were open-minded, sympathetic, struggling, emotionally moved. We talked about the two trauma narratives and the massive power discrepancies, how Israelis need their own civil rights movement to confront their own racism and Palestinian expulsion and occupation, but the Jewish community is not even at square one in relationship to recognizing the Nakba and its ongoing consequences. Within our own communities, I proposed that challenging the dominant paradigm is the task of the Jewish Diaspora and our youth, but that political change will only come from international pressure and the boycott, divestment and sanction movement. No country gives up power voluntarily.

I remain fascinated, of course, by the level of pushback. Two events were cancelled in Richmond, Virginia after pressure from a rabbi and the Richmond Jewish Federation which I am told was “warned” by the Boston Federation. Dovid Asher, rabbi of Keneseth Beth Israel, attended some of my events and wrote a letter to the organizing group objecting to my being invited in the first place. Doni Fogel, the Director of Jewish Community Relations & Israel & Overseas Programming for the Richmond Jewish Federation, attended one of the private classroom events and took numerous notes and photos. The word spy comes to mind, but I guess that is how the opposition keeps track of people like me. Even at the well-funded mostly mainstream tech and business oriented Harvard Arab weekend, one donor pulled out due to last year’s discussion of BDS and the hosting of Noam Chomsky. And then there is Brookline High School, my alma mater, where I was invited to show my documentary but the event has yet to be scheduled as the principal is reportedly afraid the school will be attacked, like “what happened in Newton.” A quick google reveals that the oddly named Americans for Peace and Tolerance accused Newton high school of an anti-Semitic, Saudi funded, pro-Hamas curriculum. Check it out:
peace & tolerance. Really?

Silencing anyone?

With all due respect to Harry Potter, November 4, 2015

Dear JK Rowling,

To be honest, I am probably one of the few people on the planet who has never read your books. But I know your stories of fantasy are based in morality and have inspired millions. I read the letter from Mia, the young Palestinian, who framed her concern over your statements on BDS and the need for a culture of coexistence in the metaphors and characters drawn from your work. (letter to JK Rowling) I cannot obviously do that, but I speak as a long standing Jewish activist, a physician who has worked in Israel and Palestine since 2004, a mother of two daughters who has witnessed the crushing impact of the occupation on Palestinian children, and as an author, filmmaker and blogger. (see my website Alice Rothchild website)

When I started my focus on health and human rights work in Israel/Palestine in 1997, I believed in the importance of coexistence work, diplomacy, and understanding dual narratives as the building blocks for peace and understanding. I even started with a Jewish/Palestinian dialogue group. I came to understand and support the BDS movement out of a deep frustration with coexistence projects and a corrupted political process that has only left an increasingly brutal military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and siege of Gaza, multiple Israeli incursions and attacks, and a massive Jewish settlement project. When Palestinian civil society called for a peaceful nonviolent resistance to the status quo through the tactic of BDS, it was clear to me that the time had come for the international community to pressure the Israeli government (and its US supporters) to change their policies as previous strategies had failed miserably. It was also clear to me that an apartheid like system had been created in Israel/Palestine and that there were serious parallels with the struggles in South Africa where BDS was highly effective in changing the political equation.

I understand that you are troubled by the academic/cultural boycott and here is why I think you should rethink your stand. There are of course many liberal minded Jewish Israelis academics, singers, dancers, etc., (only I would venture most have not struggled with the consequences of living in a country where Jews are institutionally, legally, economically, and socially privileged over all other citizens), but they are a part of a system that continues the grave injustices that are oppressing Palestinians and brutalizing the occupiers. For instance, many Israeli universities are located on land seized from Palestinians or on land in the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, Israeli universities often have major contracts with the military and security companies that maintain the occupation, performers who go abroad understand as long as they are funded by Israeli institutions, they are Israeli ambassadors and are not to be critical of the policies of the government. The Israeli public educational system does not teach anything about the Nakba, the Palestinian expulsion in 1948 or subsequent Palestinian history. Thus this is all part of Israeli hasbara, a well funded program to create a positive Israeli brand, to white wash the occupation by presenting a “pretty face,” to control the messaging, ignoring the gravity of the racism, militarism, Islamophobia, etc. that is corrupting the country. If Israeli academics or artists condemn the occupation and do not take funding from the government and complicit institutions then they are not subject to boycott. Additionally, the Israeli government has repeatedly closed Palestinian universities. Israeli academics never suggested that this threatened academic freedom or stood up for their colleagues across the Green Line. Palestinian academics and performers face grave difficulties getting permits to perform abroad, attend conferences, etc., and again Israeli academics and artists have never thought this was a problem worth fighting for. They need to wake up!

The cultural boycott is a powerful tool to awaken people who do not usually pay attention to this conflict and to make them think, what is actually happening and why is this powerful international movement growing in strength. I would also suggest that if you do not support this strategy, then you are complicit in the Israeli PR machine, and that is a position I am sure you do not want to take.

I urge you to rethink your stance.

Alice Rothchild, MD

In memoriam: Hashem Al-‘Azza October 29, 2015

On October 29, 2015 The Boston Globe reports 11 Israelis killed, 127 injured, 58 Palestinians killed, 2100 injured in what is usually referred to as the current “uptick in violence” or as an NPR commentator reported last week, something to the effect, Palestinians attack a Jewish man/woman/child and Israel continues to “defend itself against terror. For me, this kind of purposeful omission of the decades of individual, organized, state sponsored, settler, proxie, social, legal, economic, bureaucratic and whatever other kinds of violence that form the cauldron in which these current moments are flaring is as painful as the actual loss of lives. At the same time I struggle to keep my humanity, to feel the gut punching horror, the pressure in the throat for every child, woman and man on that deadly roster.

Reality helps. Today I receive the following email from a young doctor friend working in East Jerusalem:

“For the third consecutive time, the Israeli special forces attacked Al-Makassed hospital, throwing tear gas all over the place, without caring about the patients inside the hospital. Yesterday, they attacked the neonatal ICU, obligating all the nurses and doctors working there to leave the place.
Today, Al Quds University was attacked again, leaving nothing smooth in our life.”

“Since yesterday, 4 Palestinians were killed in Hebron, the last one was killed 3 hours ago while he was walking in the street, after they killed him, they put a knife next to him and said that he was going to stab a soldier. Settlers are happy in that area, dancing and giving chocolates for others because of the murdered guy.”

“Things are going crazy all over, it is unbearable.”

The largely invisible “facts on the ground.” Last I checked, attacking a hospital, (let alone a neonatal intensive care unit) was a war crime. On the other hand we seem to be doing that kind of thing lately, so why not Israel?

In the floods of email that drown my mornings, two days ago a particular name caught my eye: Hashem Al-‘Azza, killed by tear gas inhalation. He was standing in front of one of the green metal doors sealed shut by the IDF on Shuhadeh Street in Hebron, his face peering at me with a pained, determined expression. He looked familiar. Could he be the same man that I had met while visiting the West Bank city of Hebron with a group of health and human rights activists in 2010?

A quick email to a friend from Hebron doing a Fulbright in the US confirmed my worst anxieties.

Google yielded three reliable articles.

The International Mideast Media Center reported:

“Palestinian Man Dies Of Tear Gas Inhalation In Hebron”

“Medical sources at the Hebron Governmental Hospital, in the southern West bank city of Hebron, have reported on Wednesday evening that an elderly man died of severe effects of tear gas inhalation, after dozens of soldiers invaded the Zawiya area in the city.”

“The sources said the Palestinian has been identified as Hashem al-‘Azza, 54 years of age, from Tel Romeida neighborhood.”

“Medics rushed to the scene, and tried to stabilize his condition, before moving him to the hospital, where he died of the severe effects of tear gas inhalation.”
Hasem Al Azza IMEMC

Alternative News noted:

“The 54-year-old father of four was near his home, situated close to the entrance of the infamous Shuhada Street which is closed to Palestinians. Israeli forces shot tear gas and al Azza, who had heart problems, was overcome and collapsed.”

“Al Azza’s family attempted to take him to the hospital through the checkpoint on Shuhada Street, which is the fastest route. Israeli soldiers delayed the ambulance, during which time al Azza’s situation deteriorated. He eventually reached the hospital in critical condition, and soon afterwards doctors pronounced him dead.”

“Hundreds of Palestinians and internationals attended al Azza’s funeral Thursday afternoon, and a mourners’ tent has been set up for the next three days in Hebron’s University Graduates Hall. Al Azza was a well-known political militant, active in the local Hebron Defense Committee and in popular resistance against Israeli military and settler attacks. Al Azza and his family faced innumerable attacks by soldiers and settlers over the years as his family home is situated close to the Ramat Yishai settlement in downtown Hebron.”

“Al Azza worked closely with the Alternative Information Center (AIC), as he did with numerous Palestinian, Israeli and international associations promoting justice and human rights for the Palestinian people. He was a singular source of information about the explosive situation in downtown Hebron and was an essential stop during the solidarity visits of internationals to Hebron.
Despite the innumerable attacks by Israeli soldiers and settlers against him and his family, Hashem al Azza retained the spirit of resistance throughout his life. He was further a strong proponent of a life of equality and justice for Palestinians and Israelis. “I was born here, live here and will not leave here,” he used to say.”
Alternative News Al Azza

From Al Jazeera:

“Palestinian old man killed during al-Khalil clashes”

“A Palestinian old man died on Wednesday from excessive tear gas inhalation fired by Israeli occupation forces during clashes that erupted in al-Khalil.”

“The clashes erupted at Container checkpoint following the funeral of a Palestinian teen who was earlier shot and killed by Israeli gunfire.”

“The old man was identified as Hashem al-Azzeh. He was rushed to hospital where he was pronounced dead after suffering from excessive tear gas inhalation.”
Al Jazeera Al Azza

Apparently 54 years of age is now old in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Living under occupation is a deadly (though preventable) chronic disease. Keeping it real, paying attention to the “facts on the ground,” stating the context. Keeping our humanity despite the very human tendency to blur death and catastrophe, I offer the following:

I would like to honor the memory of Hashem al-Azzeh by reprinting the blog essay I wrote reflecting on a tour of Hebron in January 2010.

The most painful part of this tour is the visit to Hisham’s friend, Hashem Azza, who not only cannot access his house from the main street, but also lives next to one of the most rabid anti-Palestinian settlers. He has been told, “If you want peace, go to Gaza, Egypt, Saudi Arabia,” has been cursed viciously, and particularly after the severe curfews from 2000-2003, many of his neighbors gave up and left. He states that there is a 90% poverty rate and minimal available employment. We clamber up a rocky hill, through several back yards and back stairs until we reach his home. He points to the stone stairs and garden that once were his backyard, but this has been repeatedly destroyed by his Jewish neighbors who not only have attacked his home and his family, but have also cut his fruit trees, water and electricity lines. They too throw garbage and once hurled a washing machine that we see rusting amongst the trees. Only recently has he acquired water again and we see a new bright blue pipe snaking through the various backyards. His little boy comes scampering outside chasing a pink ball, watched carefully by his wife. In his home he shares more horrifying personal stories, shows us a series of videos documenting racist, violent attacks against Palestinians, primarily women and children, often by settler women and children, with no response from the Israeli security nearby. A committed nonviolent activist, he and his wife and nephew have been personally attacked, their home repeatedly trashed, his children suffer from bedwetting and other signs of post traumatic stress disorder, and he has unsuccessfully pursued his case in Israeli courts. He is determined to persevere, to document the realities in his beloved city, and bring this to the attention of the international community. We listen stunned and drowning in shame, outrage, and heartbreak.

Our sobering taste of life in Hebron includes other devastating stories and the presence of Israeli guard towers, camouflage netting, checkpoints, a wall spray painted with graffiti that includes a tribute to the Golani brigade, one of the IDF’s most aggressively violent units, and to Betar, a rightwing youth organization. I pass a concrete block obstructing the road, spray painted with an arrow and the words: “This is apartheid.” There are occasional PA police, but the consensus is that they are mostly useless.

So what do we do with this shameful reality? While most Israelis do not support these settlers, they receive full support, protection and encouragement from the Israeli government and military, and this has not changed in the past 42 years, no matter who is in power. They have made the lives of the Palestinians in Hebron a living hell, and they have never been held accountable. This does not happen by accident. From the moment Goldstein massacred the Palestinians in the mosque, it was a political decision by the Israeli government to put the Palestinians under curfew and protect the Jewish settlers who now celebrate his murderous actions. While these settlers are clearly the most racist, religiously fanatic, possibly deranged, and fascistic element in Israeli society, they both use and are used by the government as a wedge in the never ending land grab and Judaization of the West Bank.
Alice Rothchild Al Azza

May you rest in peace, Hashem. It is now the task of the survivors, the truth tellers, the people who refuse to be silent or intimidated to continue the work that you inspired, the efforts that nourished and ultimately killed you.

A Busy Week: Bringing Gaza home, October 2, 2015

This has been a busy week with four presentations on Gaza in Albany, Hartford, and West Barnstable, the latter two as part of the Ninth Annual Tree of Life Conference (Tree of Life). The audiences were largely sympathetic with some concerned that I did not give enough attention to progressive Jewish Israelis and their power to impact change through dialogue groups and increasing connections and negotiations with Palestinians. We discussed the legacy of colonialism in the region, the post war division of the Middle East (it is only “Middle” if you are a Western colonial power gazing eastward) into countries with little regard for the indigenous peoples, installing minority groups beholden to the West to rule over majority populations. This was all complicated by US invasions, the establishment of failed states, and divisive local leadership, often propped up by various international benefactors.

We reviewed the role of racism in Israeli policy and attitudes and the problems with the special treatment of Israel’s nuclear program when it comes to trying to stop Iranian nuclear aspirations. The fact that Israel developed its program in secret with the international community largely conspiring to “not notice,”added to Israel’s refusal to sign on to nonproliferation treaties, monitoring, etc, only triggers the appetites of neighboring countries for nuclear power and sinks Israel’s credibility. I see the recent defeat of AIPAC’s efforts to stop the Iran agreement as a major positive development, but it seems the Israelis will now exact a “price” to be paid in military support from Obama, et al, so the struggle is far from over.

People asked, What is the Israeli strategy re: Palestinians?” and I reviewed the perverse idea of “contained conflict” and repeatedly “mowing the lawn in Gaza.” I think it is abundantly clear that since the founding of the state, the strategy has been to take as much land as possible with as few Palestinians as possible. Today we see talk of annexing area C, which is 65% of the West Bank, as well as Israeli control of the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem. I reviewed some of the founding ideologies: the socialist/Bundist/kibbutzniks and the Jabotinsky right wingers who actually flirted with the Nazi party in terms of ideology, but then backed off when the extermination of the Jews became apparent. I discussed that while the Bundists were politically left, their treatment of the indigenous Arab speaking population was racist and exclusionary; the Jabotinsky types now dominate much of the political discourse and are strengthened by the influx of Russian immigrants unfamiliar with the democratic process and the growing ultra-orthodox population. This is partly due to a parliamentary system where the winning party coalitions with many smaller parties to achieve a majority; Netanyahu and his buddies repeatedly coalition to the right. This gives the ultra-religious and ultranationalist parties a disproportionate amount of power and allows Netanyahu to play the fear-Holocaust trauma card very effectively.

People were concerned about the growth of Hamas and I agreed there was much to be worried about, but as usual it is complicated. Hamas coalesced in the First Intifada as a form of Palestinian resistance to occupation. The group had a militant/suicide bomber side as well as a focus on social services, building schools, hospitals, and taking care of a beleaguered forgotten population. The fact that they agreed to be in an election in 2006 (despite their disturbing charter) implied a tacit acceptance of the fact of the State of Israel and a willingness to engage in political give and take. Indeed there are multiple examples of back door negotiations with Hamas diplomats that offer examples of a willingness to be part of the political process. Hamas won the legislative election as a vote against Fatah that was seen as corrupt and ineffectual. Many Palestinians have said to me that due to the crippling siege and repeated military attacks, Hamas never had a chance to govern and politically evolve (like many “freedom fighters” in the past: see the founding of the State of Israel). If they did not deliver, they would have been voted out in the next election, but of course that was never allowed to happen.

I talked about focusing on the struggle for human and civil rights for everyone and that this is indeed the focus on the boycott, divestment, sanction movement. Some worried that BDS would only push Israelis further to the right, but I pointed out that the Israeli populace has been moving to the right for years without BDS and that nobody gives up power voluntarily, international pressure is critical. In essence, what I see now is functionally a one state from the river to the sea, but it is a state characterized by a form of Jim Crow within the ’48 borders and apartheid beyond those borders. This is the challenge.

I urged people to reflect on the price of Zionism as it is currently practiced, the privileging of Jewish trauma, history, power, aspirations, over the non-Jewish population. Ultimately, I do not think that creating a State with this foundation is a recipe for keeping Jews safe, Jews have historically flourished in multicultural and Islamic societies. Not only do I fear for the future of Palestinians, I worry for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. Additionally we see younger generations turning their backs on Israel because they cannot reconcile their concerns for justice and tolerance with the ongoing occupation, siege, and second class citizenship of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

Bedford’s Third Friday Film Series, September 19, 2015

Thirty five people came to the kick off for Bedford’s First Parish Peace and Justice Committee as the “Third Friday Film Series” for 2015-2016.  After viewing my documentary, Voices Across the Divide, we had a lively and broad ranging discussion focused mostly on the politics of the region as well as roles and attitudes of the American Jewish community and US foreign policy. A number of people were concerned about rising anti-Semitism and the fear that is the foundation of many Jewish attitudes around supporting Israel.  I reflected on the differences between Judaism (the religion), Zionism (the political movement), and Israel (the state) and the importance of thinking of each of these separately.  This led to a discussion about what does it mean for Jews to feel safe. I questioned the idea that creating a militant state that privileges Jews over everyone else and has a longstanding history of expansionist policies creates “safety,” and in fact, historically Jews have flourished mostly in tolerant multi-cultural and Islamic societies.


I was asked about my recent trip to Gaza and gave a detailed description of the facts on the ground and the massive humanitarian catastrophe as well as the astounding levels of trauma and resilience in the general population.  I also reviewed the history and complexity of Hamas and the danger of more radical elements coming to power when there is no hope and repeated military assaults as well as a crushing siege. Some wondered why Israelis support Netanyahu and we reflected on the roles of fear and racism in the political process, in the US as well as Israel, and the role of Iran as the enemy to deflect attention away from the ongoing occupation and maltreatment of Palestinians.


When asked about what Israelis think about the Nakba (the Palestinian experience of 1948 and beyond) I talked about the Israeli organization, Zochrot, which seeks to educate the general population about this history which is largely invisible. On the question of hope, I found some optimism in the broadening of the general discourse, the development of the internet, smart phones, youtube, etc so that nothing is invisible (as it had been for decades), and the international growth of the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement.


Breaking the siege, one video camera at a time, September 1, 2015

It is not often that one has the opportunity to break the siege of Gaza without getting into the crosshairs of the Israeli navy. On March 25th of this year while on a medical delegation organized by Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, I had the extraordinary experience of seeing a performance by the Gaza Parkour and Free Running group in the bombed out wreckage of Beit Hanoun and Shejaia in northern Gaza. The young men explained that they really need a video camera to record their remarkable feats and share and compete with other Parkour groups outside of Gaza, especially in France. I mentioned this at one of my talks and a friend in the audience said he had a new camera which he was not using and happy to share. I bought a universal charger for the battery, and when I was in Seattle a few weeks ago, I met up with Marwan Diab from Gaza Community Mental Health Program. After a visit with his mother in Canada and friends in Seattle, he was on his way to the airport for the endless flight home. He took the camera and brought it back to Gaza and got it to the Parkour group who sends the following photos and thanks!



Here is my blog post written from Gaza on March 25, 2015, about Gaza Parkour:

I return to Marna House and join some of the delegates for a drive to Beit Hanoun, the northern most city tucked into the eastern shoulder of Gaza, just adjacent to the Israeli border, ie., not a good place to be these days. We drive through death defying traffic, a constant game of playing chicken with folks who already feel they have nothing to lose. There is pavement and rocky dirt roads, donkeys trotting along with massive piles of grasses, flowers, and produce, multiple rotaries, mountains of rubbish. We pass Salahadine Street, a route thousands of years old from Morocco to Turkey, industrial areas, a huge building with bags of cement (Gaza gold), sheep trundle across the road, there is a bombed out juice factory, (juice? really?) massive bomb craters and piles of harvested rebar that is painstakingly straightened and reused. Everywhere Palestinians are living their normal lives, going to school, in the markets, walking the streets, sweeping the dust, mundane life goes on despite the post-apocalyptic surroundings. We pass one of the UNRWA schools being used as a shelter, clothes and rugs, hanging from the balconies, the smell of unwashed bodies. There are 29 of 89 UNRWA schools still be used as emergency housing.

We pull up to a massive scramble of crushed concrete jutting out at all angles, house after house crushed into deformed skeletons of a former life, hills of dirt and sand and toxic military waste, garbage, “You’re very welcome to Beit Hanoun.” We park in front of Banksy’s famous cat; a British graffiti artist who is rumored to have arrived via the tunnels and painted an enormous kitten on a slab of vertical concrete, a wall to somewhere, a bullet hole in the cat’s neck. He knew that people would repost a photo of a cute kitten a million more times than a hungry displaced Gazan child. We are soon surrounded by those very children, barefoot, dirty, ragged clothes, beautiful open faces, blank stares, borderline terrible teeth, sullen teenage boys flirting with us uncovered wild Western women. An Arabian horse gallops across the horizon, donkeys graze in open fields, a truck with a familiar jingle, oh my God it’s Fur Elise! Ice cream? No this is the water tanker making the rounds. There is no running water here. A horse trots by with a cart piled with fragments of concrete to recycle. Someone asks if I am Israeli. An older man, face dark and creased with some kind of leg deformities sits cross legged on a mattress surrounded by some of his family. He is mostly toothless but has a warm smile and a twinkle in his eye. He has two wives and 42 children and grandchildren. A UN prefab “house” is tucked in the concrete rubble, what kind of bombs create such massive destruction?

But we are actually here to see an amazing group of young men doing a form of acrobatic gravity defying skydiving called Parkour. They mostly wear black sweatshirts with PK GAZA: Gaza Parkour and Free Running. They dream of starting a school to teach their skills, of buying a video camera to record their feats, of entering Parkour contests all over Europe. They understand that jumping off of buildings, flipping backwards, forwards, twisting their supple bodies in various gravity defying acts is actually a positive channeling of their enormous energy and macho aggression. When too much of a crowd interferes with the show, not much entertainment actually happens here, they insist we drive to Shejaria, the devastated city that was described to me by the six women this morning.

I will not attempt to put into words the experience of walking into a nightmare, massive amounts of concrete rubble, floors collapsed onto each other, bomb craters many stories deep, in every direction. Young children clamber over this military jungle gym, living on the edge of serious injury and death. The eleven young men seem unfazed and soon, totally against my better judgment, I am holding on to the powerful hands of various young men, hosting my aching back and tired knees onto a ragged pile of rubble so that we all can have an excellent view of incredibly brave, athletic Gazans leaping across shattered roofs, tumbling and twisting through the air to precarious landings covered with rock fragments and jutting rebar. Their skill and energy is captivating, their hands are soon oozing blood. They explain that when they jump, they feel like birds, forgetting the war, exercising their positive male power, connecting with Parkour groups all over the world.

LIKE Gaza Parkour and Free Running Facebook to keep up with them (figuratively). Watch on After Banksy: a parkour guide to Gaza from the Guardian. And watch them on YouTube:


Report back from the White Mountains August 29, 2015

World Fellowship Center in the White Mountains of New Hampshire is a warm and welcoming family retreat that has provided a place for progressive folks to discuss the issues of the day since opening in 1941 with the theme, ‘In a Time of War, Prepare for Peace’. For several years the portraits of Robert Shetterly, part of a project entitled Americans who Tell the Truth,, have graced the halls of the main house and this summer my portrait was included, along with folks like Edward Said and Peter Kellman.

This week I was invited to present a reading from On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion and I combined this with readings from my most recent blogs on Gaza and the UN reports on the realities of the Gaza assault. I provided an on-the-ground picture of the run up to war and the consequences of that war, as well as an examination of the impact of racism within Israel and an intimate portrait of the occupation. The following morning I screened my documentary film, Voices Across the Divide.  

I found the audience interested, engaged, somewhat knowledgeable and eager to discuss issues ranging from the Intifadas, the boycott, divestment, sanction movement, the impact of the Birthright program for young adults, and the US military industrial complex. We explored the making of the film, the importance of understanding nondominant narratives. People wondered how Netanyahu could get elected, why Israel is moving right, (think fear, racism, neoliberal politics, growing power of the ultraorthodox and the Christian right, US support, and don’t forget to examine our flawed political process. Reagan? Bush x 2?). We examined US foreign policy in the Middle East and the continued inheritance from European colonialism and many wondered, what is the strategy for Gaza. Clearly “mowing the lawn” and restricting reconstruction will only continue the catastrophe and the dangers of rising militancy.

I reviewed the growing “intersectionality” in the movement; the real estate company ReMAX was selling a house down the street from WF but you can also go on their website and (if you are Jewish) buy a home in occupied East Jerusalem or a settlement! The private prison industry, G4S, builds prisons in the US as well as Israel and has a poor track record when it comes to human rights, child prisoners, torture, etc. Our police, funded by the Jewish organizations ADL and JINSA are receiving training in Israel and coming back to our cities and acting more like militarized occupiers (think Black lives matter) than protectors of civilians. The big question is how to counter Israeli hasbara and how to get this discourse into temples.



The day ended with a presentation and conversation with Robert Shetterly, Peter Kellman, and myself as we sat in front of our portraits. (Pretty amazing.) Robert has traveled all over the US exhibiting his portraits in schools and teaching young people about activism. Peter is a longtime civil fights, labor, and antinuclear power activist, member of SNCC and Clamshell Alliance. We were asked to reflect on our lives, our inspirations, our need to speak out on challenging concerns. I stressed the importance of basing activism in a supportive community; this work can never be done alone. The evening was interrupted by a torrential downpour beating on the metal roof, as if the weather goddess was also demanding to be heard, or perhaps applauding our efforts, maybe reminding us to pay attention to global warming.


Gaza comes to the Berkshires, August 2015

I just completed two events in Western Mass, one at Café Palestina in Great Barrington and another at a private home in Montague. In total almost 50 people, ranging from Jewish Palestine solidarity activists to a Buddhist nun to a college student just back from the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine, heard my powerpoint presentation on my March trip to Gaza, Eyewitness Report: From Disaster to Resilience. The audiences were receptive, engaged, curious, and sometimes emotionally stunned at the level of humanitarian catastrophe and trauma and the profound resilience of many of the war survivors. People wanted to know what they could do and we reviewed staying educated, monitoring the mainstream media, contacting social media, radio, TV, and written media through calls and letters to call attention to both inaccuracies and the frequent lack of context in which stories are presented.

We discussed the boycott, divestment, sanction movement and how to counter the accusation that BDS is anti-Semitic. I stressed that the strategy of BDS overtly opposes all racism including anti-Semitism, and is critical of the policies of the Israeli government, not of Jews as Jews. I talked about the importance of framing, of keeping Jews as a people sharing a religion, culture, history, etc., separate from Zionism, a national movement (with a variety of philosophies), from Israel the country. We talked about the criticism that BDS delegitimizes Israel and will change the “Jewish character of the state.” I noted that countries do not have some God- (or otherwise)-given legitimacy, Ecuador or Germany or Japan do not have legitimacy a priori. Countries exist for a complex combination of reasons related to wars and treaties and aspiration and resources, etc. Thus I would say that it is a fact that Israel exists as a country, but the real question is what kind of country will it be. The policies of occupation and repeated attacks on Gaza and racist laws towards Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are the issues that really “delegitimize” Israel and destroy its reputation as a country. So when people worry that Israel will have to change, the answer is yes, of course, that is the point, that is what all of this political organizing is about.

The eternal “Jewish character” of state is also a troubling fantasy. Maintaining a Jewish majority in ’48 Israel (ie within the Green Line) is magical thinking due to demographic realities, unless Jewish Israelis are willing to transfer or otherwise remove their Christian and Muslim citizen-neighbors. Also, the current reality is that the Israeli government already controls Israel ’48 and the occupied territories, from the River to the Sea, so at this point the split is really close to 50:50 and the Jewish leadership will soon be holding power over a non-Jewish majority, not exactly the pinnacle of democracy.

It is also unclear to me what “the Jewish character” actually means. Israeli foreign policy, citizenship laws, mass incarceration of Palestinian men, destroying olive trees, price tag attacks by right wing settlers, etc., etc., does not seem particularly Jewish to me. So, it is important to tease apart the language of discourse and to be honest about the full complicated painful picture.

We also had a vigorous conversation about the long term consequences of post Nazi Holocaust Jewish cultural PTSD and feelings of permanent victimization, the impact of colonialism in the Middle East, factionalism and tribalism in the Arab world, and US support for reactionary regimes. One man commented that this was the best combination of rational intelligence and passion that he had ever heard.


But your name is Rothschild…. August 2, 2015

I am sometimes asked, “How can you do what you do when your name is Rothschild?” Or I get a facebook comment: “Never trust a Rothschild, they’re all Zionists…”

Some background: The Rothschild family was a powerful banking dynasty that started in the 1700s in Germany and became immensely wealthy, powerful, and politically influential in Europe. Some of the family were ardent Zionists, supported the Balfour Declaration, eastern European settlers in Palestine, bought thousands of acres of Ottoman land, and funded the infrastructure of the early state. You will find their names on street signs, buildings, and parks all over Israel. Hence the “never trust a….”

Well, sorry to disappoint, I come from the other side of the tracks. I hail from some tiny shtetl in Eastern Europe, my grandparents came to the Goldene Medina in steerage in the early 1900s, they lost the “s” at Ellis Island in the process of Americanization. My grandfather ran a tiny corner store in Williamsburg where he sold tobacco products; my other grandfather worked in a sweatshop. No money in anyone’s pockets. They lived in tenements a la the film Hester Street amongst the poorest immigrants and chaos of New York.

So my early Zionism and love of Israel did not come from my name, it came from growing up just post Nazi Holocaust in a family that bought the myth of the “light unto the nations,” kvelled at the early socialist leaning kibbutzim, and the uncritical idea that creating a place (that was essentially empty but for a few backward Bedouins) where Jews could finally be safe was a really good idea. Add seven years of Hebrew school, a Bat Mitzvah steeped in love of Israel, and a magical family trip when I was 14 and the deal was emotionally sealed.

But it gradually became clear to me that because I value the commitment in Judaism to justice and fighting for the oppressed, and because I was involved in other struggles against US military intervention and for women’s rights and health care reform, I began to question the pernicious roles of colonialism, imperialism, militarism, and racism. I began to understand that this “homeland” was far from empty, to see and grapple with the ongoing Palestinian Nakba; ultimately I could no longer support the policies of the State of Israel.  Thus it is my responsibility to speak out against a state that claims to speak in my name, (however it is spelled), and because I am a citizen of the country that funds and politically supports much of that oppression.

So, even though I have an archetypal “Jewish name,” I do not have an archetypal Zionist Jewish brain. I make a major distinction between Judaism the religion and Zionism the political national movement and Israel the country. I now understand that the Zionism of Herzl and Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky and everyone who followed in their boots, is the fundamental problem; that there can be no justice and no safety when Jews are privileged and empowered over indigenous Palestinians who are equally deserving human beings. The victims have become the victimizers. I also do not act alone; I am part of a growing international community that is engaged in speaking out, supporting each other, and taking our cues from Palestinian civil society activists and the Israeli Jews who support them.



Freud meets Palestine – July 27, 2015

As a physician/activist interested in the political as well as psychodynamic foundations of the ongoing struggles in Israel/Palestine it was an incredible pleasure to be invited to attend a panel on “Israel, the West, and the Palestinians” at the International Psychoanalytic Conference in Boston and then to show my film to some of this most unusual audience. The panel consisted of psychoanalysts and psychologists from Egypt, Israel, the UK, Saudi Arabia, some now living in the US, all involved in a 12 year old working group. They focus on exploring issues of guilt, dehumanization, emotional defenses, victimhood, shame, and compassion on individual and large group dynamics when it comes to the history and politics of Israel/Palestine. On its most basic level, these are the reasons why many of us cannot say the “P” word at Passover, why mentioning the call to boycott Israel provokes a level of rage and yelling that is uncharacteristic of many of our otherwise progressive, educated friends, why everything feels so stuck. So there I was, observing Jews and Arabs crowded together on the analytic couch, fighting for space, the wounded and the co-wounded, the victims and victimizers all jostling for attention. The insights were breathtaking; needless to say, the members of the audience still could use a lot of therapy. I can only hope the patient can begin the difficult work of recovery.

This conversation continued through post panel brainstorming, dinners, and then the Q&A after the screening of Voices Across the Divide. So what did I learn? (These interpretations are my own.) I know that Israel/Palestine is a nidas for the conflict in the Middle East with its dizzying array of factions, fighters, religious fanaticism, and lately ISIS, and that the Nazi Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba created shared communities of trauma and suffering that are in deep trouble and unable to see each other. The challenge for us is to generate respectful, empathic discussion, or as they say “to stay in charge of our countertransference,” and at the same time to recognize the inheritance of colonialism, militarism, racism, (of the anti-Semitic and anti-Arab/Islamophobic varieties), and the ongoing asymmetrical power imbalance, the brutal occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the siege of Gaza.

One of the enormous contradictions is that post World War II, there was a growing commitment on the international level to universalism, anti-racism, preventing genocide, defending human rights, and at the same time Nazism had laid bare an immense failure in western societies to protect Jewish people. Thus it is understandable that to defend against the guilt of such widespread anti-Semitism, at the same time that colonialism was being challenged and the rights of indigenous peoples applauded, Zionism got a pass. In the midst of an international universalist consciousness haunted with sympathy for the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was erased from historical memory and the dehumanization and blaming of Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general became the established framing of this painful and ongoing piece of history. At the same time the speakers made it clear that understanding this erasure does not mean that we should accept it.

I learned that between the times in Spain from 700-1400 and then later in the Ottoman Empire, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in mostly peaceful coexistence for a total of 1200 years. So what gets in the way now? This is where it gets really interesting to be in a room full of analysts! My understanding is that Israeli Jews deal with their guilt over the dispossession and massacres of Palestinians by displacement and aggression, by transforming their guilt into aggressive military action and an ideology awash in racism and mythology that covers up the reality. This almost delusional collective psyche preserves Jews as the only real victims and fantasizes that the Palestinian student blindfolded at the checkpoint or the mother weeping over her bulldozed home or the farmer clinging to his uprooted olive trees, only wants to kill Jews and drive the remaining survivors into the sea, ie., to do what has been done to them.

And I learned more about the impact of British and US powers, the forces of colonialism, dependency, control, guilt, prejudice, trauma, and the “narcissistic wounds” for the Arab world; the humiliation and shaming that occurred after the Arab armies were defeated with the founding of Israel and in subsequent catastrophic (if you are an Arab) wars. As we explored additional psycho-social consequences for Arab societies, the presentations became even richer with a discussion by an “Arab Jewish Israeli” of Iraqi/Moroccan parents. As an Israeli, he was expected to conceal his Arab identity while in his world, his Iraqi grandmother felt superior to other Arabs, his Moroccan Jewish friends claimed to be French and sought to disappear their dark skin by marrying light skin spouses, and everyone embraced the superiority of European Ashkenazi Jews. Thus this colonization of the Jewish Arab mind, this splitting of reality into good (Jewish) and bad (Muslim/Christian) Arabs, adds another layer to the cycle of violence, projection, and splitting of identities. Ultimately everyone is mired in this conscious and unconscious soup and of course, the Palestinians are at the bottom of the pot as part of the racist characterization of them as members of a chaotic, unstable, and violent Arab world.

The last therapist spoke of traumatic erasure, prejudice, and the role of “compassion resistance” in the Middle East where Israeli Jews live in one reality and the rest of the Arabic speaking world, either by proxy or actuality, lives in and with relentless and inescapable images and experiences of Palestinian humiliation. This deep sense of defeat, inferiority, and the conspiracy of western powers continues as the colonial legacy of the 20th century. When the perpetrator feels he is the victim (a fully armed Israeli soldier shooting at children throwing stones), the erasure and dehumanization of the children is made possible through powerful unconscious dynamics, supported by the aggressive narrative of the occupation, the collusion of Western powers, and the one sided messaging of the mainstream media. According to analysts, this is fueled by guilt that prevents an awareness of the suffering of the other and the compassion that would follow. One speaker called for “compassionate witnessing” on both an interpersonal as well as political level creating the possibility the victimizer might consciously see the human being at the end of his gun as a victim, to be able to empathically suffer with him.

This unique mix of the psychological and the political, (the film discussion ended with many supporting the BDS movement), was extraordinary and gave me insights into the power of bearing witness compassionately. This then creates the possibility of changing the psychological and physical erasure of Palestinian reality, building a discourse that is not angry and triggered, but uniquely based in reality…. A kind of therapy on a global scale.

April 6, 2015, The Great Escape

I have been saving this Kalandia escapade from April 2 and now I have a follow-up story four days later to share as well.

My Ramallah host drives me to Kalandia checkpoint for a bus to Jerusalem and I am once again struck by this chaotic, depressing monument to the lack of urban planning and to traffic chaos.  He informs me that the Israelis do not allow the PA to patrol this area and the Israelis surely do not care how many Palestinians are stuck in gridlock honking traffic, so sometimes folks from the Kalandia refugee camp nearby (villages, refugee camps, and checkpoints often share the same name), try to manage the vehicular pandemonium.  I am struck by a sudden surge of palpitations, tremor, and shortness of breath.  I am having a low grade panic attack as I approach the oppressive metal barred corridors and turnstiles and take my place in the line of men and women and children waiting for the turnstile light to turn green. Red-green-wait-red-green-wait. One young man keeps setting off the metal detector, the Israeli security lady behind the bullet proof glass is barking at him, he finally takes off his shoes, walks through in socks, okay, grabs his shoes, but she barks, and he puts his shoes on the x ray machine. A young woman with two small children tries to fit them all into one segment of the turnstile, the kids are climbing the bars. They get to the barker and are all turned back, their faces blank and passive.  I can only imagine what rage and hatred is brewing behind that mask.  There are minutes of down time when nothing happens and no one gets through.  Waiting as torture.  My lips are getting numb, I start singing We shall overcome (very softly) and trying some of those tapping things the TRCtold me about, breathing deeply and trying to appear normal in a deeply abnormal place.  And I am just visiting. Finally the turnstile swings with me in it and then I set off the metal detector.  Coat off on the dirty ramp to the x ray. Watch off. Bracelets off.  Beep-beep-beep.  Finally it dawns on me that my dangerous hair clip must be the trigger and I am released. The sign on the other side says: “Have a nice day.”

April 6, finally time for the grueling trip home to sleep in my own bed preferably with my own cat and husband, (with a nod to the Wampanoags and whatever other Native Americans we – as in white people, not my own personal zadie shvitzing in a sweat shop in Williamsburg – displaced hundreds of years ago).  I have been plotting my escape, emailing everything that I would regret losing should it inexplicably “disappear” at Ben Gurion airport, (yes that does happen) or should the hard drive of my trusty computer suddenly develop a fatal error in the hands of the lovely 20 year old security officer, (yes that does happen too). My host debates whether I should get a bus from Ramallah or Kalandia (I am looking for a bus with yellow plates that can travel into East Jerusalem from occupied Palestine.) He decides it would be faster to get one at Kalandia checkpoint (my fave as you know) so we creep through the sardine can traffic, pull into the dusty parking lot, only to find that there are no busses here to Jerusalem.  So…I need to schlep my two suitcases and backpack through the checkpoint and try my luck on the other side.

I am wearing a scarf from Gaza to keep me calm and fierce and I am prepared: money belt off, hair clip off, I leave the watch and bracelet on because they were not the offending items last time, right? It turns out it is very challenging to wheel two full suitcases down the narrow metal corridor but it can be done, especially because Palestinians are so helpful.  I get to the turnstile and (clever me) load each suitcase separately into the turnstile, push furiously until the bag plops on the other side and then do the next suitcase.  I am feeling like wonder woman incarnate. Why hadn’t I thought of this, like ten years ago? At the next turnstile I ask the soldiers to open the door which they do, which by the way, is a lot easier and less humiliating for the schlepper.  Then everything up on the x-ray machine and I saunter confidently through the metal detector. Beep-beep-beep.  But I am feeling fierce and I am wearing a scarf from Gaza and just decide to ignore that alarm and stride confidently up to the window and aggressively shove my passport onto the bullet proof glass.  The bored young man on the other side just waves me through!!!! Attitude is everything and of course it helps to be white with a face from the shtetle.

I avoid the next turnstile by opening the adjacent door which is unlocked, (there is a goddess), but there is one more turnstile at the very end.  An unhappy man and woman with six suitcases are waiting at the end pushing the button to open the door, but to no avail.  I try the button,nada.  I show them my suitcase/turnstile technique and then we start taking their suitcases (which are large and heavy) one by one through the turnstile. I find myself heaving furiously with all my weight against the metal bars, violently nudging each bulky bag to freedom.  It takes three of us to accomplish this task and we are feeling quite victorious and unified in our micro struggle against the vast forces of occupation.  I feel like a wild woman; this is my final act of defiance and power.  Khalas.  I am so done. I wander out into the sun and hear gun shots, no one seems to notice but me, but then I look up and see tear gas wafting above the wall.  Ho hum, another day at Kalandia.

I find the Jerusalem bus, get the suitcases loaded on, and sit down in front of a nice redheaded lady and her daughter who I soon find out are from Portland Oregon, now living in Germany.  They have just been to Ramallah for the first time, “It wasn’t as bad as we expected,” so we start talking and my experiences in Gaza just pour out of me like I am going to explode.  She listens intently and then says,” You know, but there are two sides to every story.   If Hamas would just stop shelling southern Israel…”  I resist an incredibly strong urge to punch her in her nice little nose, but take a deep breath and say more abruptly than I intended, it is much more complicated than that.  I wrote a book on the topic, I suggest you read it. Like I said, khalas. And I am not even home yet.

My colleague of the Traveling while Muslim variety and I arrive at Ben Gurion airport, take a deep breath, find our inner wonder women, and saunter into the airport smiling and laughing, carefree tourists coming home from the Holy Land after a quick stop in the Tel Aviv bubble (actually to have dinner with a very left wing activist who is working on a new organization called DE-COLONIZER shhhh). At the first security screen, there are two serious young Israelis, the usual identity-where are you coming from questions, I can honestly say Tel Aviv. My face is open and friendly, but I cannot control my annoyingly rapid, pounding heart. One of them explains very sternly “This is for your safety. If someone gave you something, they could blow up the plane.” Really? Shocking! It is hard for me to keep a straight face and I feel a little bit sorry for him. I bet his job satisfaction is really low.  The other woman keeps apologizing for all the questions, “Anything sharp that could be used as a weapon?” I reply earnestly that I do have a nail clipper.  She apologizes again and again, and I must give her credit.  In the past few years the airport folks have called off the attack dog type screening and I must admit it is refreshing to hear an Israeli say “I’m sorry,” as I know how hard it is for them.  Honest. I breeze though the first checkpoint, streaming wonder woman vibes all over the airport. Heart rate slows down.

My colleague has a less, shall we say, breezy experience.  The security guy asks her name, say your middle name, say your last name, where is your name from, origin of your name, (she answers smiling that her name is pretty international, it can be a Hebrew name, etc, that’s why her parents chose it), this drives him a bit crazy, but we are playing cat and mouse. Why are you here, where did you go, why Gaza, will you come back, did you have armed guards, (he asks this repeatedly and I realize that he cannot imagine being in Gaza without a full armed battalion or else we must be with Hamas, right?), where did you stay, do they have hotels in Gaza, (really), did you have armed guards (again and again), parents name, (she asks which one, mom or dad?) When he hears her father’s name is Mohammed, he actually says: “Oh now I understand.”  Bingo!


So it seems they are not actually asking if you are a Muslim, but they are using all the usual racial profiling techniques to extract that bit of information. Having established that she is indeed a (dangerous) Muslim American physician who has done humanitarian aid, he asks where did you volunteer, she responds: Everywhere.  Where? It’s a long list. But where in the Middle East? She starts listing countries: Sudan, Nepal, Bosnia, Iraq, and he says okay. He asks her what kind of work she does and she responds that she is a pediatrician and a Fulbright Scholar. (Soldier man, she is a FULBRIGHT SCHOLAR! Get that? And what exactly do you do for a living???) But I keep quiet and smile.  I am a nice Jewish doctor traveling with a nice Muslim doctor and we are peace loving friends. Back to: how long has she known me? We were on the same delegation.  Who do you work for, (over and over), how do you know each other. Interestingly,  she clearly indicates that she and I traveled together to Gaza, but they never come back to re-interrogate me probably because of the iron domed protection of my last name: Rothchild.  The Baron Rothschild bought a big chunk of historic Palestine pre ‘48, really. Not my family, but check it out.

Our bags are tagged with a blue strip, not sure that is a good thing.

Then we get on line for our plane tickets.  Eesy Peesy.

Next is the physical security screen, our bags are x-rayed, (FYI I just want the record to show that we both have TSA pre-check which is a pretty meaningless blessing here.) My colleague is immediately pulled aside, told to go to a different place, chastised that she went to the wrong place first.  She is placed in a separate containment area with three to five security guards, it is semi-open with a partial wall.  She is questioned with a repeat of the previous interrogation.  This time when she lists where she has done humanitarian aid, she gets to include Afghanistan and Pakistan. She is asked if she is carrying bombs. (Really.) She is told to take everything out of her suit case, all electronics, batteries, over and over again: empty your pockets.  (They do not find her other passport with stamps from all the forbidden countries slipped within a pack of sanitary pads, small victory and great place to hide stuff, just saying ladies). She is aggressively patted down by a gloved woman with special attention to her arms and legs, her shoes are off, she is x-rayed and her bags are x-rayed for a second time. Everything is wanded and I mean the inside of her camera where the battery sits, every book, all her papers, the inside of her computer.  They take her computer, say that they are putting it through the x-ray, (again?)whatever it is, it is now out of sight so anything can happen. They wand all her audio material, all the wires, sim cards, all her medications. After all of her carefully backed belongings are piled in a jumble, they say you can clean this up now.  She reminds them that they have not returned her computer which they finally do. Through this 30 minute interrogation, she remains “super nice and cooperative.”  The computer is finally returned, insha’allah. Who knows what the Israeli forces or the Shin Bet or for that matter the NSA has done to it. So, dear reader, is this about Israeli security or Israeli intimidation and racial profiling and surveillance?

I am pulled aside and wanded in a public area just beyond security.

After I wait, pacing back and forth, my colleague emerges and we get on line for passport control, the final hurdle.  The blond woman in the box is chatting loudly in Hebrew on the phone, barely looks at our papers, her stamp bonks on our passports, and we are in the international area.  Free at last.

4-6aEntering the international area of Ben Gurion with my
traveling while Muslim colleague, fellow physician and writer

But I am not done with you quite yet.

There is a walkway down to the shops and fountain that always has some kind of exhibit, the PR companies’ last opportunity for some flashy hasbara, a tourist’s air brushed goodbye  impressions of the Promised Land.  This year’s exhibit is called: Beautiful Israel in Green: An Exhibition of the Council For a Beautiful Israel and features a series of enormous high quality photos of truly gorgeous flowers and trees. As much as I love flora and fauna, (which I really do) I am much more interested in the language, framing, and inherent messaging of the exhibit. I have to admit that green is not usually the color I associate with Israel given the hot summer sun, extensive rocky hills, and the Negev which last I checked was a desert, but what do I know? The captions speak of the: “Intense flowering that carpets the landscape in spring,” notes the wide diversity of plants in the “Mediterranean Basin” and the “considerable destruction of natural habitats.” (By whom exactly?)


So one of the first things I notice is that the borders of Israel are unclear, the exhibit repeatedly mentions Samaria and the Jordan Valley as part of Israel thus actually referring to the land from the river to the sea, there is no mention of the messy details of occupation and settlement building, the takeover of the Jordan Valley as a military zone, the details and politics are intentionally vague. There is an oak tree from the Odem Forest in North Golan (translation: occupied during the 1967 war, some 200 Palestinian villages wiped out.) The captions note that the Common Olive Tree is the “national tree of Israel which characterizes its landscape, and especially the ancient terraces in the mountain region,” and there is an exquisite photo from the Galilee of an olive tree easily 1,000 years old. So the invisible text includes the inconvenient fact that an indigenous Arab population terraced the land, planted these ancient olive trees, and that the Israeli Defense Force and the more rabid Jewish settlers have been involved in uprooting many thousands of these national treasures, supposedly for “security.”

There are also a number of subtle reminders that history started during the Old Testament and then whoosh, skipped to modern times and that many flowers (like the Jews) can survive as tubers or shoots from a dying tree, (and reappear hundreds of years later), like the Common Cyclamen which happens also to be the national flower. “The Carob Tree is not mentioned in the Old Testament. [just reminding]…Was it here from time immemorial, or was it brought to the region by nomads from the south?” [translation: Arabs?] The Common Almond: “The root of its Hebrew name – Shaked – comes from the word for being industrious since it precedes the other flowers in its flowering. This is an ancient crop mentioned in the Old Testament.” [in case you forgot, just reminding]

In another ahistorical reference: the Aleppo Pine is described as “one of the common trees in Israel.  It is quite rare in nature, but due to its quick growth it is frequently planted in forests. It is an extremely inflammable tree [do they mean flammable?] and consequently problematic.” Think Jewish National Fund forests planted over destroyed Palestinian villages.  Think the massive forest fires in the Galilee a few years ago. Think big problem.

I love some of the names: Persian fritillary, Sodom apple, obviously poisonous given the Old Testament reference (just reminding again), and then there is the true Rose of Jericho, (which is guess where) and the Euphrates poplar: “This tree is common along the banks of the Jordan River…” (you know, the closed military zone in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.)

Which brings me to the Common Date Palm: “The date is one of the Four and Seven Species in Jewish tradition…The date palm has turned into an important crop in the Arava, the Dead Sea Region and the Jordan Valley.”  A quick glance at Wikipedia (my seven years of Hebrew school missed a few critical items) informs me that the Seven Species (Hebrew: ???? ???????, Shiv’at HaMinim) are the seven agricultural products, two grains and five fruits, that are listed in the Deuteronomy 8:8 as being special products of the Land of Israel, back when God was getting everything figured out. The seven species listed are wheat, barley, grape (wine), fig,pomegranates, olive (oil), and date (honey). The unconscious message, of course, is that in the last few thousand years since God did his figuring, no one (and I mean no Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans, and a host of other colonizers and locals), loved these seven species as much as the Jews. Right? Forget that Palestinian families often name their beloved olive trees and revere them as much as their children.

In the chutzpah department I think the awards go to the Prickly Pear which “serves as a live fence, for marking fields, and as an edible fruit,” these “live fences” mark the borders of pre-Nakba Palestinian homes all over Israel, and especially in the middle of JNF forests.

And second prize to Citrus: “The citrus trees symbolize Israeli and Mediterranean agriculture.  They were brought to the country by Arab in olden times and the coastal plain –especially Jaffa – became a world citrus growing center.” So: brief translation, the Arabs were growing their Jaffa oranges and involved in a major export business until 1948 when the Palestinian population was largely dispossessed of their land and fled for their lives if they were lucky and the Jews took over their citrus industry.

Forgive my sarcasm, but I will just highlight the pertinent parts of the remainder of the exhibit before I have a seizure in the airport.

“About the council for a beautiful Israel, The Council for a Beautiful Israel (CBI) is a public, nonprofit environmental and nongovernmental organization promoting quality of life in Israel through safe guarding the environment and the landscape’s aesthetic façade. It adopts a positive nonconfronting way of operating….through cooperation with governmental and private bodies from all sectors including the IDF…with emphasis on the more vulnerable parts of the population and the country’s periphery.

Preserving the countries landscape and its natural treasures is the prime concern of the exhibitors…only a few decades ago, Israel was a natural wild landscape dotted here and there with a few settlements. Today the opposite is true. Many large settlements developed, industrial zones were built, and agricultural areas grew larger. Now they encroach on the few pristine islands of green that can be found amidst the densely developed populated areas.” (Now, how and where exactly did that ever happen?)

Is it just me? I feel like I have taken some kind of hallucinogenic drug in the mind altering, history rewriting, hasbara department.  We crash in the VIP lounge (thanks to my well-traveled dangerous Muslim friend with TCA pre-check) for a well-earned glass of wine.  Ironically Norah Jones’ (full name Geetali Norah Jones Shankar), lyrical music wafts across the room.  Her father is Ravi Shankir. Another dangerous non-Jewish brown-faced terrorist?

But I am not quite done. As we wait on line to board the plane, an Israeli woman, curly hair, maybe early 50s, is arguing loudly with the stewardess, she does not want to dump out her water bottle.  The woman keeps pouring out a bit and then arguing, pouring out a bit then arguing…. She is oblivious to the backup she is causing, the entitled edge to her voice, and the taunting ridiculousness of this public argument.  See: Israeli, I’m sorry.

So…I settle into my United Airlines seat, adjust the head rest, take a cleansing breath and decide to wait for takeoff by scanning a throwaway magazine, United Hemispheres, April 15 edition. How dangerous could a puff piece be?  I am looking for something entertaining and hopefully meaningless, I am tired and I am done with all this political detective work. An article catches my attention, “The World’s Next Great Cities,” and sure enough after Rotterdam, Houston, Bogota, and Fukuoka, there is Tel Aviv, pop. 404,000, “The Next Great Tech Hub.” The article gushes with comments like: “And now, Tel Aviv boasts Silicon Wadi (that’s Arabic for ‘gully’)” Forgive me, but I think Wadi actually means valley which has a less, well, third world ring to it. And such smoke and mirror historical magic tricks: “You might assume a country that’s home to such ancient stalwarts as the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock would be stuck in the past, [God gave this to us, everyone wants it, Holocaust, Holocaust, every threat is existential and will be the next Holocaust, but who is stuck in the past???] but Israel has its eye firmly on the future…Youthful, fun-loving Tel Aviv – a ‘startup’ city itself, having been founded in 1909…[as a Jewish neighborhood north of the thriving city of Jaffa](It’s not difficult to see the logical progression from the communal culture of the kibbutz to the collaborative, open-plan workspaces of the modern high-tech sphere). [from the Bundist, back to the land, joint ownership, muscular and bronzed, to…Google?] Where do I begin?

Who needs drugs?

April 5, 2015, Home Visits In Jalazone

M. has been a psychologist at the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture for six years. After a lively supervision session with four other psychologists, we walk through the jostling streets of Ramallah and pay three-and-a-half shekels for a service to the Jalazone Refugee Camp just north of the city.  The camp is crowded into a quarter of a square kilometer, some 15,000 to 20,000 people descended from 36 villages in the Lydda/Ramleh area pre-1948. UNRWA lists its major challenges as a lack of a sewer system and overcrowded schools. The UNRWA school was renovated in 2014 after years of double shifts. On the radio, a man sings verses of the Quran and Mohammed urges me to “Just listen, the Quran teaches peace, just listen.”

At a rotary near the Jewish settlement of Bet El, there are burned/blackened areas, the sites of frequent conflicts between stone throwing Palestinian young men, burning tires, and heavily armed IDF soldiers.  We reach a concrete road block with two Israeli soldiers, M. informs me we are 20 seconds from Jalazone, but we have to make a wide detour on a poorly maintained, narrow, bumpy, circuitous road, the traffic slows to a crawl.  M. talks of a cousin in Omaha, his wedding in July, of the poverty in the camp, and the strength of the people.  He is coming to make several home visits.

43aCenter of Jalazone refugee camp

43bJalazone refugee camp

 First we stop for what seems to be a slow paced schmooze at the Rehabilitation Center for Disabled Children, checking in with the lively director, chatting with two patients.  I tour the facility, the small children’s arts and crafts and play therapy center and a larger area for physical therapy. M. has run weekly group therapy sessions here, but all the talk is about the 20 year old young man who was shot dead in the street one week ago, throwing stones, can M. add his family to his case list? His family is very poor. A poster on the wall features a man crouched in a bottle and the words: Thirst for Freedom.  A smart phone rings with the same jingle as mine, a staff person works at a computer, chain smoking. Lots of people smoking here, men and women.

43cRehabilitation Center, physical therapy unit, Jalazone refugee camp

 We head out to the first family and I am struck by the bleakness of the camp, all chalky concrete and winding streets, no green space, many martyrs posters, a rare scrawny plant, houses against houses.  M. is well-known, he laughs when I say that he is the camp psychologist and I can see he is enjoying his rock star status. He greets a number of former clients, ex-detainees, mothers of detainees, there is much embracing and strong handshakes and conversation.  An older woman who has had two sons in prison bemoans her life, asks to have a picture taken with me so she can be famous in America, and boasts of the many children she has, the exact numbers are a bit lost in translation, but what I can gather is that she has 75 children/grandchildren/etc., which seems about right for a place where girls marry young and have large families who do the same.

43dwoman at Jalazone refugee camp, mother of two ex-detainees

 We walk up the stairs to an apartment where the living room is a separately locked room across from the rest of the house and sit in a room with plump stuffed chairs and a shelf lined with certificates, like diplomas or sports awards.  But this is Jalazone and these are the certificates of everyone arrested in her family.  M. estimates that a very high percentage of the males in the camp have been detained, often the first arrest is as a young boy caught throwing stones or just caught being a young Palestinian boy.

43eJalazone refugee camp, certificates of arrest for one family

We are joined by a woman maybe in her 40s and a large older woman of indeterminate age (everyone looks older than they are) and a buff young man who wanders in and out, smoking. The younger woman has a son arrested one year ago, the older woman lost one son to the IDF and another is imprisoned serving ten long years. The women serve us tea and when I do not drink mine (in my chronically overhydrated state) she urges me to drink, there is no saying no. While the session is in Arabic with a minimal amount of translation, there is a lot of talking and a lot of listening. I watch the body language, the sighing, the gently rocking back and forth, the agitated young man. They discuss the arrests and M. does what he calls narrative therapy, reconstructing their stories which are obviously filled with pain and anguish to find the moments of strength and pride.

The younger woman’s 21 year old son is imprisoned in the Negev, they are allowed to visit monthly though obtaining a permit is difficult.  The whole trip starts at 6 am and ends at 9 pm.  She spends 45 minutes with her son, staring at him through a glass panel and talking via telephone. No gifts or food are permitted, but they bring shekels for his canteen account.  The older woman’s son was first arrested at 23 by the PA, served two years, and then he was arrested by the Israelis while at his home.  He is now 28 years old. Hearing that I am a doctor, they ask me about blood donations.

At the second home, two very overweight women sit on a wooden platform with a thin cushion, one is smoking; the room is under construction.  Three men are applying concrete, tiling the walls, a woman and a child come in, the men stop to smoke and drink coffee, there is no privacy and a chronic level of chaos. One woman with clearly African features has a son in detention for 30 months, the older woman has a son who is now an ex-detainee.  When he was arrested the Israeli soldiers smashed down the door of the house and caused extensive damage. The ex-detainee underwent psychological and vocational training at TRC, but now he sits at home without a job, like many men in the camp. The women are clearly very depressed, there is a general flatness of affect, and M. suspects PTSD though it is hard to be “post” when it is really “ongoing.”  It is also clearly impossible to do a session under these conditions.  After we leave he reflects on how challenging it is to work with this population, the lack of privacy, the inability to plan visits, it all sounds to me like working with any poor disorganized population who have chaotic, unpredictable lives, an enormous amount of trauma and a mountain of need.

M. decides to visit the mother of a boy paralyzed by an Israeli soldier who shot him in the spine, but the boy is in the hospital in Hebron, so that visit is also cancelled.  We wait for the Ford Transit, watching the flood of children getting out of school, often arms draped over each other, with their large Micky Mouse backpacks, some fighting aggressively in little boy ways, one boy kicking an empty box of sanitary pads, (he clearly needs a soccer ball), many yell, “Hi!” and openly stare at me. M. may be the rock star, but I am obviously the stranger and the camp once again has made the decades-long refugee crisis real and urgent for me.  I watch the sweet faced little boys parading past and wonder what is their future, do they still dream of anything but a life in the camp, no job, a cycle of arrests and detention, their face on a martyrs poster, what pain and disaster awaits them and when will this end?

43fposter of young man killed by Israeli soldiers
one week ago in Jalazone refugee camp

April 3, 2015, What’s Mine Is Mine And What’s Yours Is Mine

It is Good Friday and Erev Pesach and I am celebrating the day by taking you, dear reader, on an exploration of the landscape of occupied Palestine.  The sun is in its glory, birds are singing with the passions of spring (after all, what do they know of occupation), and I am eating some freshly made pie concoctions of oregano and goat cheese, all drenched with the life force around here, olive oil produced on the ancestral lands belonging to my host family.  These urban folks have invited me to their village of Sarta and I am taking you there, mile by occupied mile.

We are traveling north from Ramallah, there are permanent checkpoints and checkpoints like Jaba’ that are closed about once a week (unpredictably of course to cause maximum havoc), halting all north/south traffic. We pass the Jewish settlement of Psagot and at the DCO checkpoint I see a grey Israeli guard tower and two soldiers; they check the husband’s ID and we are waved through.  It seems there is a cat and mouse game that is played out between occupier and occupied: the soldiers are generally young, unsophisticated, and the Palestinians have spent years developing strategies: where to go, which permit where, fake IDs, real IDs and needless to say they have had a lot of time to practice.

I can see Psagot expanding eastward; we head north on Route 60, an Israeli army jeep just ahead of us.  I notice that all the signs are for Jewish settlements, it seems Palestinian towns and villages have been made geographically invisible. We pass a guard tower on the left, a sign that metaphorically fascinates me: “Caution side winds,” and expanses of spring green penetrating the dynamic grey/brown rocky hills.  It is pretty spectacular. We pass the Jewish settlement of Bet El, the official coordination site of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and formerly the central command headquarters. On the right I spot the impressive settlement of Ofra, circles of red tiled houses and barbed wire and then the sign: Ventra and Tanya Wineries.  Translation: the nice kosher Israeli wine you buy at your local supermarket probably comes from grapes grown illegally in the occupied territories.

On the right there is a collection of beautiful Palestinian homes, Turmus Aia, many houses owned by Palestinian Americans who want a foothold in their homeland; last year this is where an IDF soldier pushed and killed a Palestinian activist. More massive rocks, a single tall minaret surrounded by a cluster of cream colored Palestinian houses, stubby trees clinging to rocky terraces, Israeli flags flapping in the wind, Chag Sameach, this road is used by everyone, but there are obviously no yellow or green flags for you know who.  Lush green farms spread across the valleys, tall cedar trees pierce the landscape, dunums of grape vines fan out before us; it seems that the settlers have a nasty habit of seizing Palestinian farm land for their own under the what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine theory of co-existence.

While we drive by many Palestinian villages I am impressed with the amount of open space around us and I am informed that this is Area C. So a quick Oslo Accord lesson: we are traveling through Area C, about 60% of the West  Bank which is under total Israeli control and the location of the majority of Jewish settlements.  Sarta is in Area B which is under Palestinian Authority civil control and shared Israeli military control, shared being a pretty theoretical concept here.  Someone from Sarta built too close to the edge of B and C and their home was demolished. Area A is the main cities, the urban population concentrations which include thefellahin in search of work in Ramallah or Nablus or what could now be viewed ironically as a people without their land.

Farmers and families are bent over in their fields, the earth a rich red color, the hilltops are scattered with tiny outpost settlements, rows of caravans that will someday be major colonies. (I am just being honest here so take a deep breath.) We pass Zatara, a major rotary with signs to the Jordan Valley as well as Tel Aviv, a mere 53 kilometers away, and of course a major checkpoint that can easily close down the entire area. Grey rock huddle like sheep, the settlement of Ariel on the left is a wide expanse of apartment buildings and continuous construction, surveillance towers puncture the horizons; at the base of the mountain that is Ariel lies the unfortunate town of Marda.  It has had no new construction approved since 1967 and desperate families, who strangely enough have continued to have children, get married, and need housing, are expanding vertically, the air above the roof being the only space not quite under Israeli control.   Ariel really goes on forever and forever.  Another rotary and guard tower, a sign to Tel Aviv/Jafo and we come to the largest industrial settlement in the West Bank. In Barqan, (which is partially on land expropriated from Sarta) there are a variety of major industries including plastics, food processing, wood production, huge yellow cranes, tractors, and construction equipment.  International organizations have documented that industrial parks in the West Bank such as this easily evade Israeli environmental safety regulations, thus contributing to the pollution and devastation of Palestinian land and water resources.  Perhaps I am feeling too emotional, but I call this the slow rape of Palestine.

Another tall Israeli guard tower, signs to Qalqilya on the right, followed by a massive settlement that is under construction and a sea of yellow flowers, spring groundset, completely oblivious to the turmoil around them.  We pass the family’s grandmother’s land that has been taken by settlers, rows of majestic, resilient olive trees; interestingly the original family still harvests the olives. Past the home of the mother, past Bidya, and then a left to Sarta, old winding roads and clusters of Palestinian houses.

We arrive in this 500 year old town of teachers, and farmers, and PA employees, people who have never left, people who are returning, or building their country homes on family land.  Families work in Ramallah or open businesses in Norway or get PhDs in Ohio, but return for the children or the land or the smell of orange blossoms in the spring and the quiet of country living.  It has an old city, ruins and courtyards, and children playing along the street, a mosque and a school.  The old men still wear suits and ties on the weekends and red checkered kaffiyas with the black iqal circling their heads.  At the top of the hills I can see the high rises of Tel Aviv.




 I am completely unprepared for what this family has built here.  On the grandfather’s land, surrounded by brothers and cousins and relations of all kinds, we enter a magical Garden of Eden, white stone paths, gazebos, terraced gardens, roses blooming, metal archways wound with vines that will burst into bloom, and vineyards, olive trees and bushes that sparkle in yellow and red and purple, enormous geraniums; irises and crown anemone spring up between cracks in the stones.  The iridescent sunbird, recently declared the national bird of Palestine (glad those legislators are involved in such important decisions) flits in the sun, drip irrigation winds its way through impending paradise, and walls of volcanic rock frame the paths and terraces. There is a small pleasing white house, a cast of rambunctious well-loved children, and relations to visit.  The nonstop eating and drinking begins early, (a fabulous date cake, followed shortly thereafter by an amazing traditional dish of stuffed squash and grape leaves, lamb, and chicken preceded and followed by tea and coffee on an every hour or two kind of schedule).  I thought we women were “hiking” (at last) while the men were praying at the mosque, but we “hiked” up the hill to the first relation and the date cake. Exercise in Palestine. The only real dose of reality is the Jewish settlement visible on the crest of the mountain from almost anywhere in the garden. It occurs to me that planting this land is perhaps a quiet but palpable form of resistance.

 43iJewish settlement visible on the crest of the hill adjacent to Sarta

 Hours later we head south along the western route, a circuitous snaking mountainous road through Masha, under a modern bypass road (ie for vehicles with Israeli license plates only, translation Jews only), past Israeli jeeps parked ominously along the road, the fortress like settlement of Ofarim, Palestinian wedding parties, Israeli guard towers, Fatah flags, snub nosed goats and braying donkeys, to deliver me to my friends in Aboud, an intriguing village that is half Christian and half Muslim.  I learn that “Palestinians turn stones into gold,” cutting the massive rocks that pervade the landscape and selling them to Israelis and Jordanians, while “Jordanians turn gold into rocks,” buying these stones to build their cities.  We drive by a mountain top that has been flattened, huge piles of dirt, the beginning of a new settlement, through more olive groves and farmers bent towards the earth. Past tiny villages and flashy gated mansions, baby olive groves, replanted after decimation by Jewish settlers or IDF, then left into Aboud.  The sign, “Welcome to Aboud” lies on its side by the road and a rider-less horse gallops by. Reality as allegory.

I am excited to spend Good Friday with a Christian family, another cross cultural experience for this wandering Jew and I am in no mood to celebrate Passover.  As we are warmly greeted, I learn that the Christians in this town are Catholic and Greek Orthodox.  In an unusual show of ecumenical unity, they celebrate Christmas on the Catholic calendar, (December 25th), but Easter (and thus Good Friday and Palm Sunday) on the Greek Orthodox calendar. Thus, I am amazed to learn that in this town, Good Friday is next week.  Fortunately for me, the women have already started cooking traditional cookies and breads for Easter, delicious little cakes filled with dates (the crown) and walnuts (the sponge).  If you are lost, check out The Passion.  Let the eating begin. By 11:00 pm, many cups of coffee/tea/juice/plates of couscous/chicken/special Easter bread drenched with olive oil and za’atar… are you getting the picture? I am discretely wrapping tasty morsels in tissue and dropping them into my bag to avoid offending anyone in this generous, food-is-love you are most welcome kind of place.


April 1, 2015, The Aim Of Torture Is To Kill The Soul

It is a grey, rainy, foggy day, but I first need to describe the view from the lovely apartment where I am staying in Al Bireh, an area just east of Ramallah, encroached upon by the thriving Jewish settlement of Psagot. When the sun rises the terraced hills light up and I drink in the rocky landscape, the multilayers of ancient stone walls, the stark beauty of the place.  But because this is occupied Palestine, nothing is quite that simple. Directly below my gaze is a grove of silver leaved olive trees that end at a road which is accessible by Palestinians. On my left across the road, Palestinian apartments, three to four stories high, rise up on the hill, distinguished by the black water towers that cluster on roofs, (water not being a reliable commodity around here). On my right just across from the olive trees, I note a grey Israeli guard tower draped in camouflage netting sitting beside a water treatment plant for the people of Al Bireh.  (news flash: a brief bit of research reveals that the settlement above dumps its waste water on the surrounding Palestinian land, so the PA has taken to collecting their shit (forgive me), processing it at no cost, and then these settler folks grab the clean water as their own on the other end. What can the locals possibly have against these settlers anyway?) Just beyond that major metaphor is a modern, well paved settler road, (no Palestinians allowed), that snakes up the hill to Psagot.  So most of land that I am swooning over has been claimed by the State of Israel, the famous “facts on the ground.” At the top of the hill I spot rows of red roofed homes for lucky subsidized Jewish families, a guard tower, and on the crest further to the right, a caravan, the malignant vanguard of settler expansion. Suddenly the view (that this Palestinian family sees every morning over coffee and hard boiled eggs and za’atar dipped in olive oil and that weird processed meat that I cannot seem to get used to), is plagued by risk and loss.

4-1aJewish settlement of Psagot on crest of hill


4-1bPsagot, caravan extending the boundaries of the Jewish settlement


4-1cIsraeli guard tower and water treatment plant


Today I am visiting Dr. Mahmud Sehwail, psychiatrist and founder of the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture (TRC). He has that calm and gentle manner that I associate with the wisdom and patience that comes from decades of careful listening and empathy. He explains, “The idea came out of my professional experience as a consultant psychiatrist working at a mental hospital in Bethlehem.”  Starting in 1983, he began treating ex-prisoners from Israeli and Palestinian jails and became aware of a huge demand. “25% of the population of Palestine has been arrested at least once, 40% of males. We noticed torture everywhere. We noticed that 40% of those tortured suffered posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  According to Israel human rights organizations, 85% of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are tortured; according to our surveys, more than 94% of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.” Whatever the exact percentage, the numbers and the level of suffering is indeed staggering.

He continues, “Victims are reluctant to seek services due to the stigma attached to mental illness.  The environment of these services reminds them of the original trauma. Some of them he transferred from prison to a mental hospital said, ‘I would prefer to go back to prison than stay in mental hospital.’” Public hospitals were ill equipped to deal with the level of need. “Victims cannot afford the private sector, there are very few psychiatrists in this country and there is a need for multidisciplinary teams…In 1997 the center was established as an NGO, and we established a board of directors, Dr. Haider Shafi, and Dr. Eyad el Saraj, [late founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program].  The first funds were from a Danish institution, and others, we started alone with Dr. Haider and a social worker.  The first victim we received was a lady subject to torture by Palestinian security forces, a lady from Ramallah.”

Dr. Sehwail takes out a patient folder to demonstrate. “About our activities and the treatment, we have a file for every client,  a TRC case file with demographic details, psychosocial information, domestic violence arrests, psychological testing for monitoring progress of the case, mental status exam, diagnosis category, DSM 4 now 5.  The kind of approach for treatment: cognitive, EMDR, and other services, and then the PTSD symptoms. We have a special form for victims of torture in Israeli prisons, we keep data base, types of torture, psychological consequences on individuals and families and another form for Palestinian prisons.” He shifts through the various forms and files and explains, “We receive here patients, clients, our target is ex-detainees, and organized violence.  Mainly bereaved families, children and women are majority of clients, ie., the families of the men.”  He explains that they treat anyone, “victim or victimizer, for example we treated an Israeli lady married to a Palestinian ex-detainee tortured by Israelis.  We received for example a North American tortured by the FBI who was lecturing in Jenin at the American Arab University.”  He lists other American citizens who have been tortured, Germans, “a Spanish lady whose son was killed by PA, an Egyptian lady, Palestinians tortured in other Arab countries.” It seems that everybody is doing it.

“We use mainly cognitive, behavioral, group, EMDR, psycho-drama, narrative therapy, and medications.  The client is seen by a psychiatrist or general practitioner, some clients suffer from depressive disorder or acute psychosis or anxiety or PTSD so we give medications to reduce symptoms, free of charge.  Then the patient is seen by a social worker, by a clinical psychologist and we make an individual plan.  The client might benefit from different models of treatment, we monitor progress of the patient, and then make discharge notes and a case summary.”  All very 21st century. The cases also get presented to the UN as part of the struggle for human rights and an end to the practice of torture.

But how do you get over something that is not over? “Most of our patients, 80%, suffer from CTSD (continued traumatic stress disorder).  Most have multiple trauma, they are victims of torture, arrested by Israelis and tortured, months later they are re-arrested or his brother is killed, so they have multiple traumas, it makes the treatment more difficult.”

“The bulk of our work is the outreach program: 9,000 visits to homes, families are involved in the treatment.  They suffer, families or detainees, but the effects on families, economic, social, and psychological consequences, their suffering can be much more than the detainee.” This is the <it-takes-a-village concept> to building mental health and resilience.

They conduct thousands of sessions per year.  “There are offices in Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron, the Nablus office closed due to a shortage of funds. We downsized our services, originally 70 employees, now less than 20 due to lack of funds.” (But there is always funding for another smart bomb or prison, but you already know that….)

“We visit victims, families, we have regular prison visits, Israeli or Palestinian. Israeli prisons are not easy to have access.  Every time I go to Israeli prison, I say this is the last time, waiting is part of torture. I remember I used to arrive at 8:00 am and you might wait in severe climatic conditions outside for many hours.  If they don’t bring the patient or the client at 10:00, I will leave, so I feel guilty, no I will wait until 12, 2, 4, you know, it is part of torture.”

“I have attended several hundreds of military courts to testify, to discuss the medical conditions.  You are accused by them, suspected by them, you are enemy. The relations is not the professional, testifying before the court. I remember several times being treated badly.” Equal opportunity torture. He says Palestinian jails are different in their treatment of physician experts.

“We have the training program, we train students coming from different local universities and students of social sciences in mental health and human rights.  [The tiny paper cups of bitter coffee and plastic wrapped sweets arrive.] We consider mental health strongly linked with human rights really and we train professionals from governmental and nongovernmental in mental health and human rights.  We identify traumatic cases in community intervention, referrals, do more advance courses and we monitor, we do evaluation system for training.  We have training for law enforcement agencies.  Why? I noticed from some of my clients, you know when I started there was no human rights organization in Bethlehem, Al Haq started in 1983, so I noticed that some of my clients seen by me in prison, tortured their relatives in the same way they were tortured and 60% of Palestinian security forces are ex-detainees and most of them were tortured in Israeli prisons, dynamic of the victim identifies with the victimizer.” I suggest you read that again slowly and consider the immense implications of that statement.

“So I started this training in 1996 in order to prevent human rights abuses. At the beginning many of them were defensive, but now they come to us.  One of my cases when he was released, he attempted to kill his fiancé, he interrogated her. He had been jailed for one to two years and when he was released, he interrogated her in the same way he was interrogated.  This brought my attention to this. I remember [another] chap was detained by Israelis for one year, a student, and he suffered from severe PTSD, completely detached from reality.  When he got married he stayed with his wife, was in winter, outside the room for many hours, naked, both of them, the same way he was tortured by Israelis, naked. Okay, that’s the training for security forces, really now they come to us and sign memorandum with Ministry of Interior Affairs, to train. We have curriculum, case presentations to show the effect, the psychological effect of torture.

“We have summer camps for affected children from ages 10 to17, in groups, not only recreation, more treatment, group therapies, selected from our target group.  We have camps in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, for more than 300 affected children, boys and girls.”

“We have advocacy, we gather for remote areas.  We cover women, men, children; we talk about the consequences of torture.  When detainees are released, they lost their work, their contact with the community, their personality is destroyed.  The aim of torture is to kill the soul, to spread fear in the person, family and community, to change the mind and character. The family is left alone.  The wife has to work and to maintain family, kids, and really, the woman in this country is the final recipient of any trauma. So they are, they don’t know the consequences of torture, not aware.” So we talk about that, for example, some victims or ex-detainees isolate themselves.”

“We approach newspapers, TV, media, for instance, the June 2014 conference, [I attended that, see 2014 blogs]. April 17 Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, December 10 Human Rights Day.  We invite key persons from the community, big gathering for affected families, bereaved, detainee, ex-detainee families. We organize events in Ramadan, in Ramallah, in Jenin, and other cities. They discuss with key person, with Palestinian legislators, governmental decision makers, they discuss with them their issues. We organize for families groups; we bring sheikhs (open minded sheikhs) and psychologists from our team and they talk about their traumas, how the community doesn’t permit them to talk freely, to vent their anger.  We noticed one knows each other and visit each other and form small groups between them, support groups, those who cannot overcome their trauma are treated in our small groups.”

“We have special vocational training, it depends. We organize with the Ministry of Labor to know the needs of each district; for example in Jenin, we subcontract those who train barbers, in Hebron, ceramics and carpenters. They generate money, through treatment and rehabilitation center, hundreds were trained, supported themselves from vocational training and generate money to maintain themselves.” There is also a small research unit that examines mental health and human rights issues, once or twice a year.

Dr. Mahmud Sehwail trained in Spain and Britain with a subspecialty in geriatric psychiatry, but he found that was not needed in Palestine “because we are an extended family. I came back from Spain in 1983. I wanted to come back, at that time I didn’t have an ID.  I was from a small town here, grew up here, high school in Ramallah.  But the main reason [to return is] I lost my brother, killed by an Israeli at 17.  I couldn’t save the life of my brother so I have to save the life of others, Israelis and Palestinians.  I passed through big trauma, it took many years to get my ID, a long story, five years to get the ID. I had a contract with a mental hospital here. Now we leave this job to the young people.”

He smiles at the medical student who has accompanied me; the young man explains that medical students are not interested in psychiatry due to the stigma of being a psychiatrist and working with psychiatric patients, but admits that Dr. Sehwail  “is really impressive, he is my idol.” I take that as a very good sign.

We move on to more political topics and Dr. Sehwail’s work as a human rights activist. “To change the political, that is not easy to change the environment, Israeli or Palestinian…it is paid occupation. Palestinians pay for the occupation, but the US, Europe, Arabs, (I mean the governments not the people), fund it. It is the last occupation in the world, unfortunately supported by Americans…Palestinians alone cannot do anything, it is not a local responsibility, it is local, international, and regional responsibility. I think what happened in Palestine, in Rwanda or Somalia, it affects everybody in the world, so it is an international responsibility.”

“The last election in Israel, how Netanyahu won the elections? By the extremists, by racist speech.  The Israeli community is moving more and more towards extremists and racism. He gave a speech, if I am elected no Palestinian state. The Americans and the west and the Arab countries they have the answer; I am sure they will continue supporting Israel. It is a shame for the Americans, the leading democratic country, applauding for the racism of the occupation, they have lost their values.”

I keep asking if we are taking up too much of this good doctor’s time, but clearly he needs to talk.  Perhaps this is his therapy? I ask, what is his vision after occupation.  “I think peace for the whole region, and we will be a model for democracy, if justice achieved, peace achieved. Palestinians will build the Arab countries, they have the ability to establish a country.  The factional fighting is not an internal issue, it is controlled by outside powers. The PA has to follow Arab countries and the Americans, Hamas has to follow other regional powers, is not an internal issue. I think Hamas will not refuse the peace with Israelis. Peace is an aim for every Palestinian but, I don’t’ expect any progress in the ‘peace process.’”  We all agree that it has been dead on arrival for many years.

“Israeli is a sick society, they live with their paranoia of being persecuted. [His phone rings and he takes a call from an agitated patient worried about drug doses.] They change their role from being persecuted to persecutors and I think the history might repeat itself.   It is a very harmful state for the Jewish community; we have to differentiate the Jews from the Zionists.  What they are doing for the Palestinians, the same did for the Jews. How come the victim becomes the victimizer?  They don’t have insight into their paranoia, they were persecuted, even before the Nazis, in Spain you know and Russia and many countries. Jews were persecuted victims.  How come they become persecutors and victimizers? I think that is the pathological dilemma. I think Jews everywhere they have to fight with Palestinians, but to give them insight at least what you are doing is harmful for every Jew and for the whole world.  It is the other face of the Nazis, they revive the same scenario, it is so. I think it is our message to the Jewish population everywhere is to fight the occupation, to end the occupation and to live in peace, together to fight the ugly face of the Jewish.”

“I remember more than 10 to15 years ago, a journalist from Canada came to me to talk about the dynamic of suicide bombers. I sent her to the outreach program in the north and south to meet with families.  After five days, [she reported to him] I am potential suicide bomber, there is no need to explain about the dynamic of the suicide bomber. Okay, it is the created culture of hateness among our generation. The Palestinian child cannot identify with the local authority, with a defeated father, or the family cannot protect itself, so the child has to identify with the Israeli soldier or with the extremist, the strong figure.” And thus a militant resistance fighter is created and the IDF arrests more children and demolishes more homes and…..

I ask him what keeps him going? His eyes twinkle and he smiles, “Continue working, helping others, helping myself.  That is the only relief.” At that point a younger administrator arrives to help him sort out his uncooperative computer and they are soon lost in passwords, programs, email, and other tortures of the modern world.

I move to the office of Dr. Haider Shafi, immediately I feel that he is another warm, wise soul and our connection is palpable.  He confirms much of what I have already learned. He expands the meaning of families as secondary victims: “wives, children, parents, in relation of the pain of the arrested person, but they are also targeted.  When they come to arrest, they surround the house with large number of troops, spread fear and terror in the house and in the local area…all the neighboring houses standing on their nerves expecting something might happen.”

I was unclear as to the meaning of victims of organized violence: “injured in demonstrations, or land was confiscated, or house demolished, also school kids who need to pass through checkpoint and who need to be body searched, it is really so difficult.”

He is particularly concerned with children: “I am always worried about children…those children are in normal way if everything around them is normal. What kind of power those [traumatized] children have to compete with other normal children elsewhere?”

I ask how does he inoculate that child and he sighs, clasping his hands together. “In our work, we look at children according to their age group, what we provide for little kids is different what we provide for late childhood.  We develop idea of summer camp, provide crisis intervention, do psychotherapy in an atmosphere that doesn’t make them feel like they are patients. They thrive during the summer camps; we include group therapy, four times per week, that makes 12 sessions during the three week summer camp, as part of their program, we introduce psychodrama.  They like it, and they feel released and at ease and amused.

So what is psychodrama? “We normally initiate a group of 12 to15 children well known to TRC clinical team, we create a group and we set some principals, how to be committed, respect each other, confidential.  We select someone who would like to act his problem, like not say I have a problem but they will say it is so bad when they arrested my father or when I visited my father in prison first time that I thought I could sit with him, hug him, but I couldn’t touch him.  I saw him behind a glass wall, I couldn’t hear properly, time was so limited, it took almost a day to arrive and come back so we spend 12 hours traveling and we couldn’t see him for 45 to 60 minutes. And also some children feel their father’s appearance changed, were cool in dealing with them, (not understanding they cannot do otherwise). They think dad wouldn’t want to see them and they also speak about how life became different because father is longer there and some they miss their dad because if they quarrel in the street or school, they have to solve it themselves or run for mother or cousin.  They also speak about how difficult their financial status is, they don’t have other source of income.”

In psychodrama, “two to three kids, they each have two minutes for what they like to say.  We ask the audience to stand with the person they have the story they want to work on. So the person who gets the most is elected to speak about his problem.  They talk and walk, they act part of it and they also speak about it, they feel debriefed and relieved and they feel good support from their peers.  If a child wants to play arrest of his father, he might select someone to play role of father, mother, soldier, to reenact the real event. Then when that is done, he is debriefed, they usually have emotional release and catharsis. He will feel good; if he failed to say goodbye or might feel guilty that he didn’t do enough to keep dad close to them, or feel bad that they did something during the arrest, we make them feel no longer guilty. They didn’t do anything to cause the arrest, we encourage them to say what they want to say to their dad and whatever words they want to say to the soldiers, and others.  They usually play the role and they speak about their personal experience during the play, they react according to the instructions of the protagonist, and they reflect on their role. It might trigger some of their previous experience or their current fear and anxiety, or remember the blessing that their dad is there, some victims have been released.”

I ask about the level of physical violence I observe on the street especially when boys are playing. “Physical violence in psychodrama, we don’t let them hit with a real stone, he might use a scarf, symbolic play, symbolic objects, never harmful.  Sometimes we attribute children’s fighting and aggression as a reflection of surrounding the aggression.  We need to know that children, especially in late childhood before twelve, tough playing including some physical fight with peers and sisters is not uncommon, and to some extent normal unless the harm is beyond childhood norms.”

“We us other treatment: EMDR, [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing]. I learned it in the US, Francine Shapiro, a Jewish American and wonderful person, founded EMDR in San Francisco. EMDR is a powerful method, at the beginning we thought it is eye movement desensitization, but now tactile, hearing senses as well, can produce similar effect, good for traumatic events. A kind of bilateral stimulation, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, it is kind of bilateral stimulation of both hemispheres of the brain and this stimulation works against the principals of PTSD and direction of PTSD, in short PTSD shuts the amygdala and EMDR opens up the old memories, traumatic memories and help people to talk more about their bitter experiences in a safe atmosphere while they get enough support and assistance and once they are done they feel much more relief and encouraged to continue with their lives.”

“For children we can use butterfly technique, cross arms across chest like a hug, tapping slower is associated to relaxation and faster to reprocessing. Then they start to talk and then tap, we use other practical techniques in summer camp. Children’s tapping hands and play for each other and we also use narrative. TRC is the most specialized center for narrative therapy, we established the Palestine National Institute of Narrative therapy.  You help the persons to narrate his own story but you help him re-author his own. Doing so [there are] many good stories are not remembered and not talked about during a major trauma, but we thicken these small stories and make them form a kind of alternative story, so every time they look at themselves as victim they also discover they are also survivors and warriors.  A victim might speak how weak and embarrassing during torture, his experience with inferiority, forced to bark like dogs, or walk on four arms and legs, but we will help him discover how brave he was to stay in solitary confinement, how he could allow his mind to go beyond the walls of the cell, how strong he was to compose some poems, to hold a lot of love and missing for his family, to think of them despite his fear, weakness, and illness, then they discover that the shame most not be allocated in the them but rather it is cardinal issue of the aggressor. So many people speak about escaping in the very last minute, bombed while others they failed so they died.  We, for example, work with those people, they were not selfish, they were good citizens, they could save their lives and some around them, despite the fear, they were not cowards. They were able to take the essential measures of security. Despite the fear, they carried milk, medicine, and food for their kids, the mother didn’t forget some sweets or a blanket to cover her children.  How strong they were to stay together and not to go out, to tolerate the boredom in a small room for a long time.  They could do that because they were responsible, smart, clever, they could protect themselves.”

“So this kind of re-author of stories you need to double listen to what he is saying and to what he is trying to say, the absent but implicit. Like they might not speak about the courage, aspirations they have, but when you look carefully at their acts, their lives today, they discover that the absent is already implicit, they are going towards their goals and aims.  We also use CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) to help people to demonstrate the negative traumatic thoughts and to associate them with dysfunctional beliefs, like sugar with tea,” and ultimately to change established thinking patterns and behavioral activation by focusing on particular problems in the present. He explains that the different methods they use are backed up by evidenced based literature that shows great effectiveness with traumatized populations.

“I want to say a little bit about the entire picture, it is not about children, parents, mothers in isolation.  Any society is composed of parents and children under the same ceiling.  They share similar concerns.  The nature of the Palestinian society is close family members and also children remain children when they are grownups, for example it is not the general picture of children leaving home at 18.  They might get married and live with parents; extended family helps in this situation, we do not fear very much loneliness.”

“So sometimes the part of the problem of the father is he has guilt feeling because he left his family members for a long time or he is too poor to achieve for his kids what he was dreaming of when he was in prison and also for the mother, almost the same thing.  While she herself is suffering the absence of her husband and kid’s father, she has to resume some of his role socioeconomically and emotionally.  Also, she needs to be strong in order to fit these two different roles; so she might not have time for herself to grieve.  So we often say that women in our society are the real heroes but they suffer in silence.  I personally think that the real strength in Palestinian society comes from women, they are the final recipient of suffering and pain.”

Dr. Haider thanks me, and says I am relaxed, easy to talk to.  I get the feeling he is feeling better.  Everyone needs to be heard.

My last interview is with Raya Farsakh, clinical psychologist and project manager, a medical student is translating.  She is younger, vivacious, and has lots to say. “My work is with people in the field, I go to homes and see them, the majority are ex-prisoners, families of martyrs and people who go on protests and are violated, mainly in refugee camps, especially at wall protests like Nabih Saleh.  I see lots of children who are violated at these protests and they need help.  I am not only working with victims of torture, but I help the entire family. I am helping the victim and I get better understanding of the victim by understanding the mentality of the family, so I work with victim by working with the family…At the summer camps, not only are they involved in fun activities, but they also teach the children something and to do something to help them cope with what they suffer with group therapy, hand works, painting, teaching first aid skills.”

She explains that there is a “specific group, prisoners for more than10 years. This group is suffering from being away from their families for a long time, so special situation.   They do not take part as father or husband, are not accepted, everybody is independent, being back in prison is easier.  There are emotional conflicts, for the young group of prisoners, when they get out they want to go back to school and they have to be in class with younger people, so they do not go back. So they learned some skill outside; they do not want to go back and sit next to student years younger than him.  So there are many ways to convince them, put a studying schedule, visit school, meet with teachers, to help accept, use cognitive  behavioral therapy, use learning in process of treatment.”

“Another difficulty in young teen prisoners, they feel guilty for leaving their families, they want to support the family, bringing money, the majority do not go back to school, they want to be productive.”  She cites a specific case in the village of Salfit. [A man was] 24 years in prison, went in at age 24, now 48.  But the thing is he sees life as a 24 year old as if time has frozen, a young person trying to explore life, not living his own age.  Difficulty for him was he was under a lot of pressure and he didn’t experience life. His family wants him to get married immediately, they don’t want him to be alone, so they are trying to be helpful, but in wrong way. His life was as if was continually in prison, wakes up early, like prison, he is not used to hearing kids playing, he gets irritated and angry if any loud noise, always agitated about these new experiences.  There is a strong feeling of guilt for leaving his colleagues in prison, he has betrayed them, wants to call them, is not enjoying life because of this.”

“The patient doesn’t feel himself, doesn’t know that he has weird symptoms to worry about.  The whole society is visiting every day…no time to focus on himself. So we meet every prisoner who is freed, so we go talk with him, he does not know that he is not well.  The subject is not only interpersonal therapy, he may need medications, [psychiatry or psychology visits], after 18 to 20 sessions how I changed his ideas and thoughts about guilt, about his colleagues, had him communicate with the families of prisoners, explained how to work hard during the day and get sleep at night.” She helped his family understand that he should postpone marriage until he asks for it, she taught him relaxation exercises to deal with his hypervigilance. “Another fact is the Ministry of Prisoners gives life time salaries if someone is in prison for five or more years, so [the prisoner] doesn’t care about making a living.  She wants to convince him that he needs to work to feel productive, it is his duty, not just to earn money, he receives 6000 NIS per month. So he is now happily married with two kids, I am satisfied with my own efforts.”

She tells us more stories and I ask if the male prisoners and ex-detainees have trouble seeing a female psychologist? “My duty is to break the ice with the patient so they open up.  I don’t have trouble with the majority of case, even if sexual problems, I go step by step, most of the workers are females and majority of prisoners are males so this is normal”

I ask about sexual violence in the prison, or sexual problems outside.  “It is not a regular thing to happen, not in the literal meaning of the term. In the prisons,  they get physical harmed on specific parts of their bodies so they are worried about dysfunction, because they are mocked, naked in front of soldiers, but usually [sexual attacks] not done by Israelis.”  She reassures me that this doesn’t happen between prisoners, not in this culture.

The interview is over, she needs to go back to work, and there is indeed an endless amount or work to be done.



March 31, 2015, Traveling While Muslim

I am sitting in the Jerusalem Hotel sipping coffee and taking a deep breath for the first time in a while, having had more than the usual interplanetary landings in one long, tiring day.  And it is only 3:30 in the afternoon. I started on planet Gaza, the caravan of vans, roofs piled with luggage emptied of medical equipment, children’s books, and magic markers and reloaded with embroidery and certificates, and brochures and of course my gigantic paper pineapple. I make the drive to Erez checkpoint with that deep seated nausea and anxiety that proceeds any experience with Israeli security.  I can find an infinite number of things to worry about.

We did the Hamas checkpoint, the PA checkpoint, the long walk in the metal fenced corridor across the no-man’s land, passing one of those go-carts mounted with a stretcher, (can you  imagine doing this with cancer or some terrible fracture on astretcher?), a hapless donkey wandering amongst the flowers, most likely beyond the reach of its Palestinian owner. It took an hour to get the suit cases, computers, and various baggage x-rayed, inspected, disappearing into the chaotic machines and ramps, the bodies screened, the sign says it is not dangerous to your health…I wonder about mental health as I watch male security touch women’s hijabs, make them rotate their bodies…that combo of intimidation and helplessness cannot be good for anyone’s health. We do a lot of waiting. I cannot figure out the rules, men separate from women? White people separate from Arabs? It keeps changing and no one is friendly. I try singing We Shall Overcome very quietly. Only the pigeons fly freely back and forth.

And then we finally get to the dreaded security box.  Yes they did go through our luggage and actually put one of the delegate’s purse and passport in a strange woman’s bag, luckily noted before it was too late, but soon enough to make me worry if I really had all my stuff and yes one belt is missing, hopefully that guy’s pants won’t fall down.) Back to the lady behind the glass peering at my passport and her computer screen: Name? Father’s name? Purpose of visit? Where are you going? Where are you staying? I make it clear I am traveling with the woman next in line and that she is my friend. A quick moment, a few stamps and I am on the other side, deep breath.

And then the anxiety really begins: I am learning the real meaning of Islamophobia. What must it be like to travel while Muslim? To have a Pakistani last name? A father and grandfather named Mohammed? To go to a mosque back home that was recently vandalized and burned? (“Fucking ragheads! You want a hate crime?”)  To spend the night before Erez, heart pounding, dreaming of being locked up in an Israeli prison? As I watch my colleague in the booth, I am feeling very white and very Jewish.  After multiple questions and phone calls she is sent back to wait for extra screening and my heart sinks, even though this could be called “normal” for her in the post 9/11 world we live.  Our delegation leader talks with security, trying to intervene on her behalf; she is one of “us” even though she has the wrong name, the wrong religion, the wrong face for this intersection with the people who are supposedly keeping us “safe from terror.” I notice one of the glass panels in a nearby booth is completely shattered, did someone explode with anxiety or was it rage  There is a mezuzah on the door to the exit. God on our side?

So here is the security saga at Erez: (FYI she has a “clean” passport and most of this information has already been submitted on the entry form and I suspect is all in the computer):  Some of this took place in a big open area with a soldier carrying an M16 walking back and forth in front of her, (she quietly said Islamic prayers to stay calm), some took place in a small room, (it always gets more creepy when they put you in a small room, trust me).  They took her scarf and jacket.  (She has been strip searched in Ben Gurion Airport but that’s another story.) Name? Father’s name? Grandfather’s name? Where were they born? Where were you born? (try Louisiana) Where do you live? Home address? Emails, personal and work? All phone numbers (US, Israeli, Jawal)? What groups are you traveling with? Mother’s name? Grandfather’s name? Where were they born? Are you sure you are American (asked twice)?  Who did you meet in Gaza? Show me your camera. (Battery is out, they make her dig through her backpack, find the battery and insert). He reviews her photos, lots of photos.  Give me your cell phone.  He reviews her contacts. Who are you staying with in Jerusalem? How do you know him? What is his address? Who did you meet in Gaza? Hamas?  Jabal al-Nusra?

Did you see tunnels? Where did you go in Gaza?   So, dear white person, are you feeling safer now?

After an hour, they finally release her with some nod to the “intervention” by the white person earlier.  Forgive me for my cynicism.

For reasons I cannot fully explain, we are taking a detour before heading to Jerusalem to visit a kibbutz just north of Gaza, Yad Mordechai. Planet number two. I was last here at the age of 14, BC (before consciousness). This is a famous kibbutz founded originally in 1936 near Netanya by Hashomer Hatzair, basically Polish commies who arrived in Palestine to make a new life connected to the land away from European anti-Semitism.  In 1943, on land courtesy of our friends the Jewish National Fund, they moved for more space to this area and were asked to name the kibbutz in honor of Mordechai Anielewicz, a famous leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We pass many bomb shelters, new schools, a honey factory, an armored vehicle used to rescue the children in 1948, a bakery; the smell of manure is ever present.  I can easily see Gaza in the near distance and I am feeling a bit bipolar. I think of the tens of thousands of Gazans who will wait a lifetime to get that precious permit to drag their tired bodies through Erez to a university or hospital or to travel abroad or visit their grandmother or pray at Al Aqsa Mosque and I have just crossed over without even thinking about that privilege.  I feel like a traitor.

The kibbutz features an extraordinary museum, From Holocaust to Revival, and we are soon on a tour with a cheerful, lively woman who arrived from Baltimore in the 1970s, married a “Persian Jew” and considers herself a lefty and a true believer.  The museum is exquisitely crafted, using a combo of dioramas, technical wizardry, powerful historical photos and footage, and artifacts from Eastern Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto, Mandate Palestine, and early Israel. It is different from other Holocaust museums in that it focuses on the living and the resistance and is designed to educate young Israelis. “Making the dream true.” I am having a hard time listening intently to someone who is such an unambivalently happy Zionist.

She really loses me when she starts discussing the Partition Plan and “all that wonderful real estate that would have stayed with them….but they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity [for peace].” When challenged on some of her history, she responds, “All history is an interpretation.” (Really?) There is an exhibit on bringing water to the Negev that has the subtly racist explanation: “They were not a nomadic people wandering from one body of water to another. [Like you know who.] They laid pipes bringing water from the North to the South, The outpost erected one night soon became an oasis of green. Water flowed in pipes like blood in arteries. And blood spattered and stained the pipes, blood of those who were there at night guarding the life-giving water.”

What the museum does brilliantly is to recreate a sense of the past, (perhaps a bit too Fiddler on the Roof-y for me), celebrate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Jewish fighters (as opposed to the usual sheep to the slaughter), and provide a lucid and emotionally powerful argument for the need for a State of the Jews that must fight for its existence always. I would also argue that the framing particularly after ’48 is not only uncritically Zionist, but a manipulation of Holocaust history and its consequences.  (see Israeli historian Tom Segev’s, The Seventh Million).

My bigger problem is that the ghetto in Warsaw reminds me too much of the ghettos that have been created in the West Bank, and Gaza, that thin starving Jewish children today have their parallels south of the Israeli border, and that the photo of the Warsaw Ghetto fully demolished after three weeks of Nazi attack, looks just like Shejaria or Khan Yunis. And I can’t stand it. So I walk out.

Finally after dragging two ridiculous suitcases across the cobblestone, high curbs, and dirt of East Jerusalem I am on the bus to Kalandia.  A slightly blond woman sits next to me.  She has just arrived from Warsaw, Poland (Warsaw???) and we get to chatting and she is going to teach fencing at Birzeit University for a month.  (Fencing???) Planet number three.