On Empathy, Yom Kippur, and the NFL – October 3, 2017

first published in Mondoweiss

Last week it was Yom Kippur when religious Jews and their twice a year compatriots crowd the synagogues and some secular types like me get a strange yearning for challah and are nudged by an insistent internal voice that ponders the very insane state of affairs in which we find ourselves. This voice asks: What exactly are you doing about it anyway? I mean really doing; it is after all Yom Kippur, not a good moment to dance around the truth.

At a time when there is so much ridiculously bad news on an almost hourly basis, (latest tweet, shooting, private planes, private emails, alt-right, health care debacle, global warming, tax cuts, hurricanes, earthquakes, genocide, nuclear weapons, Koch Brothers, father and daughter Mercers, Betsy Devos, Syria, Yemen, you pick…) it is easy to feel utterly outraged, overwhelmed, numbed, out-financed. It is also easy to do nothing: let’s just throw up our hands, go for a walk, hug our children, watch another episode of Game of Thrones, fold the laundry, toss back another glass of flavonoid rich Pinot Noir and head to the gym. Let’s just focus on self-improvement and prayer if so inclined.

When the bullies are in the ascendency and when the oppressed and the oppressor are equated as equally at fault, (anti-fascists vs.KKK and Puerto Ricans vs. hurricanes-big banks-Jones Act-the inheritance of colonialism for starters), how do we change the narrative and the beliefs and behaviors of the society in which we live? And how do we nurture and support ourselves and our friends (and even the people with whom we totally disagree who are our neighbors and coworkers). How do we create a beloved community that is also empowered and resourceful and aiming for justice in a world trending in the opposite direction?

U.S. Jews are at a particularly difficult moment. After decades of anti-Semitism, we have successfully joined White America in a big way; we can pass. We can go to medical school, join the country club, live in any neighborhood, marry almost anyone’s daughter with a minimum of fuss. As we crawled out of the Jewish ghettos of the Lower East Side, went to school on the GI bill, moved to the suburbs, we flexed our liberal-minded political muscles. One of the bargains we made in the years of the civil rights struggle, in our joining hands with our black brothers and sisters, in our laying our bodies on the line for voting rights, union rights, women’s right, gay rights, was to believe that discrimination directed towards us no longer applied and that we ourselves were beyond racism and discrimination within our own communities. Not us! We’re Jews, we know better!

At home we now face an unleashing of extremely dangerous anti-Semitic attacks and attacks on Muslims, African Americans, and basically anyone perceived as different from white, hetero, Christian people. At the same time there is a new phenomenon: anti-Semites who are “pro-Israel.” Even within our own communities, as long as someone supports the policies of the State of Israel, we are urged by many of our own leaders to ignore the ugliness that may come along with that. For the alt-right, neo-Nazi, fascist types who are dreaming of a white Christian nation (where Jews, Muslims, Blacks, people of color are not welcome), Israel looks like a perfect solution: a place for Jews to go (solves that problem) while being an example of an extremely successful nation whose goal is ethnic purity. And for extra credit the Israeli government is eager to destroy “Muslim terrorists,” African asylum seekers, and Iranians in the neighborhood, and to serve perceived U.S. foreign policy in general. What’s not to love?

This is all highly problematic. With the mounting awareness of Israeli occupation, in the context of our growing understanding of colonialism, racism, immigration, and Islamophobia, older Jews are increasingly disenchanted with their Hebrew school, Exodus version of Israeli history and younger Jews never bought the glorious mythology in the first place. It is becoming increasingly and painfully clear that today’s Zionism is a movement where people who ran away from existential danger, created a homeland for those victims on the backs of an existing indigenous people. History shows us that the people who have intruded on this Jewish dream will be gotten rid of through genocide, expulsion, segregation, and dehumanization. The mainstream Jewish community does not do well with that particular historical fact. The problem is that no amount of incredible Israeli dance, theater, music, computer technology, devastating weaponry, great pharmaceuticals, gorgeous desert hikes, or spiritual moments can erase the facts of Israeli dispossession, occupation, siege, and institutional discrimination. These facts are deeply corruptive to Israeli Jewish society and Jews in the diaspora as well, and obviously deeply destructive to its victims.

So how do we change the old narrative and challenge the very core of our Jewish self-image: We are the good people, the victims of anti-semitism, the Holocaust. We deserve our own country; maybe even promised by the Almighty himself. Our victimhood gives us permission to do whatever is necessary to feel safe. Security is a holy word and the rest be damned.

On Erev Yom Kippur, I found myself at a benefit dinner for the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), a growing organization that works to provide US journalists with accurate and contextualized stories, facts, and analysis of Palestine and Palestinians. See a story in the New York Times or CNN that has unusual depth and understanding of Palestinian life? Thank the IMEU. I had prepared myself for a long evening of speeches, networking, and overcooked salmon but was unprepared for how moved I was, particularly in the context of my holiday.

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, an amazing poet and essayist of Palestinian, Syrian, and Jordanian heritage, spoke eloquently of the Palestinian struggle, the growth of media coverage in the US, and the role of the IMEU. Noura Erakat, human rights attorney, activist and professor at George Mason University, talked with passion and brilliance about the parallels with Black Lives Matter, the long tradition of nonviolent resistance in Palestine, the power of the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement, and the need to address the US role through campaigns designed to re-educate the public. The evening’s honoree was Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks football player and activist who turned down an Israeli government sponsored trip to Israel. He quoted track star John Carlos (black power salute on the Olympic podium in 1968), “‘There is no partial commitment to justice. You are either in or you’re out.’ Well, I’m in…It is never the wrong time to do the right thing.”

This was a fundraiser, a celebration, a showcase of the active, committed Palestinian community, but also a uniquely Yom Kippur moment. Clearly my role as a white Jewish woman with all the privilege and entitlement that entails was to step back, listen, ask: What do you need from me? At that moment: to join the celebration of a movement of creative, thoughtful, very visible Palestinians who are building their own powerful voice in US society, linking arms with others in the struggle for justice. It seems to me, this is how we build empathy, increase understanding, face conflict honestly, and build the resistance. This is how we take steps to make this world a better place. To quote Martin Luther King, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I want to be a friend and I do not want to be silent.

The evening ended with raucous dabke dancing, snaking around the hall, young and old, reminding me of the hora at every Bar Mitzvah and Jewish wedding I’ve attended. It seems, everyone loves to dance.

Ten Days of Awe: Standing with whom? – September 21, 2017

Also published by Just World Educational https://justworldeducational.org/2017/09/ten-days-awe-standing/
and Mondoweiss https://mondoweiss.net/2017/09/days-standing-with/

So it’s Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment and Remembering, and we of the Jewish persuasion are beginning ten days of intensive reflection that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We are urged to engage in self-examination, both of our personal lives and of our behaviors and attitudes in the complex world in which we live and contribute. This introspection and renewal involves taking personal responsibility for our destiny and the destinies of our communities, being unsparingly honest, and actively apologizing and forgiving. I love this part of my tradition because words are not enough; there are no Hail Marys, there is no forgiveness from on high, and at the end of the day, we actually have to DO better in our relationships with ourselves and our world. If you are a spiritual person, you have to work on that too in the here and now; there is no backup heavenly place where everything will come out fine.

As a secular Jew who finds our traditions and culture part of the bedrock of my psyche I am obsessed by a topic that is most fraught and perilous in the Jewish community. We are besieged by forces right and left with the message that Judaism is Zionism and uncritical support of Israel is a core Jewish value, in fact the only nonnegotiable ticket to community acceptance. For these reasons at this time, I cannot ignore my relationship to Israel/Palestine. For me, this annual introspection invites an honest evaluation of history in all its voices, a recognition of the behavior and policies of the pioneers and fighters who created the State of Israel, an examination of the foundations of modern political Zionism and its current day consequences, and ultimately a willingness to express regret and apology. This is a perfect topic for the Ten Days of Awe and fully within our prophetic tradition which is focused on issues of justice.

So, how do we define ourselves as Jews in the Diaspora while living in the era of a hyper Jewish nationalism? For the me the first step is examining the realities and framing of history and claiming it in our own voice. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, in his A History of Modern Palestine, notes that early Zionism was a European phenomenon with a clear disregard for indigenous populations. Early Zionists relied (cautiously) on the goodwill of colonial powers. (The Jewish homeland could have been in Palestine, Argentina, or even Uganda.) The Zionists carved out territory in Mandate Palestine as a haven from European persecution, (which was an understandable motivation given the pogroms and anti-semitism of the time), and this became a clearly settler colonial movement when it focused on a national revival in the land of Palestine for Jews at the exclusion of the people actually living there. This was both an intellectual concept focused on the predicament of European Jewry (which was largely described as endless persecution and anti-semitism despite Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Einstein, etc.,) and also a practical solution for getting rid of the Jews in Eastern Europe and plopping them someplace else.

The work of Theodore Herzl, one of the leaders of this movement, was based on an intellectual Jewish proto-Zionism born in in the 1850s in Eastern Europe. This was the first invention of Judaism as an ideology of a nation rather than as a religion guided by scripture and history. Leaders like Chaim Weizmann who mixed nationalism and revolutionary socialism, heightened by the fact of pogroms and the policies of the Russian czar, were called called territorial Zionists.

Bolstered by the Dreyfus affair in France, Herzl became convinced that assimilation was impossible, European anti-semitism inevitable, and it was time to leave for Zion. He developed the imperative that Jewish survival depended on the colonization and building of a nation state using the model of a European nation state, but with Jewish farmers, laborers, engineers, skilled workers, the new muscular, bronzed, fighting Jew. This was all intermixed with Jewish socialist movements and the right wing drifting towards fascism types like Jabotinsky. Much was funded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, (no relation).

At 1897 at the First Zionist congress in Basel, the rabbis sent to check out the Holy Land, famously telegraphed back, “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.” Exclusive Jewish sovereignty in a foreign land was controversial and opposed by religious rabbis as well as many intellectuals. Everyone knew this was not land without a people. The religious and thinking folks believed that the Jewish people were essentially a spiritual group and that the creation of the state, which entailed guns, politics, bureaucracy, and money, would mean the empowerment of Judaism and the death of Judaism as a philosophy, an ideal, and a faith.

One of the most well-known thinkers was Martin Buber who advocated a bi-national Palestine based not on a colonial alliance but on cooperation and parity between Jews and Arabs. He saw Zionism as the self-expression of a rebirth of a Jewish collective that could only exist on its own soil with its own language, unpolluted by the trappings of a modern state. In a 1949 letter, he clearly warned of what was to come (and did).

“And when this hollow peace is achieved, how then do you think you’ll be able to combat ‘the spirit of militarism’ when the leaders of the extreme nationalism will find it easy to convince the young that this kind of spirit is essential for the survival of the country? The battles will cease — but will suspicions cease? Will there be an end to the thirst for vengeance? Won’t we be compelled, and I mean really compelled, to maintain a posture of vigilance forever, without being able to breathe? Won’t this unceasing effort occupy the most talented members of our society?
Yes, a goal has been reached, but it is not called Zion…[The] day will yet come when the victorious march of which our people is so proud today will seem to us like a cruel detour.”

Yehuda Magnes wrote that Diaspora Jews and Jews living in Eretz Israel were equally important to the Jewish nation. He worked for years on reconciliation with the Arab population and before 1948 objected to a particularly Jewish state. He and the group Berit Shalom, found in 1925, advocated a binational state where Jews and Arabs would share equal rights. Magnes also predicted that even if Jews won the war, that this would produce a series of wars that would never end. While neither Buber nor Magnes used this language, they both understood on some level that as Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi described, ethnic cleansing was to be Zionism’s “original sin.” Neither understood the colonial aspects of Zionism.

(Much of this summary thanks to Eve Spangler, Understanding Israel/Palestine: Race Nation, and Human Rights in Conflict.)

I would like to point out that the death knell for the anti-Zionist movements of the Jewish left and right was the Holocaust. In the wake of the most awful example of the evil of Jewish powerlessness, the anti-Zionism of all camps felt untenable and most Jews endorsed a need for Jewish power above all else as a survival strategy. Most Jews became Zionists, although few Jews packed their bags at LaGuardia, waved goodby to Lady Liberty, and headed for Ben Gurion airport. Israel became an insurance policy, a just in case kind of place for the largely upwardly mobile Diaspora.

If we come back to Rosh Hashanah, why is this conversation so hard? At dinners across the land, after the candles are lit and the pot roast and vegan alternatives are on the table, voices will be raised as families argue about Israel, it is almost a tradition. Look at our cultural self-image, our idea of who we are. We Jews do not commit genocide or massacres, or rapes; we are the “light unto the nations.” My mother was very clear on this: that is how the goyim act, but not us.

So it is exquisitely painful to acknowledge, (particularly after the Holocaust) that one of the consequences of founding the State of Israel was the destruction of an indigenous people who had lived there for centuries, (Jews, Muslims, Christians). These folks were not interested in being colonized or losing land so this conflict is not really about Arabs fighting against Jews, it is about Arabs challenging Zionism which is a political, national movement that privileges Jews over everyone else. This not only challenges our cultural self-image, but acknowledgement of the Nakba, the Palestinian dispossession, devastation, and death in 1948, and the Naksa, the Palestinian dispossession, devastation, and death in 1967, also entails apology, recompense, and reparations. I would argue that this is one of the critical tasks for the Ten Days of Awe.

And these traumas are not a thing of the past. Political Zionism now in practice has produced a settler colonial state founded on the basis of establishing an Arab free state, where Jewish trauma, aspirations, and history are privileged at the expense of everyone else and this continues to this moment. A brutal occupation is celebrating its 50th year of “reclaiming Judea and Samaria” while 800,000 Jewish settlers mostly live well in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Netanyahu promises more. Gaza is dying under ongoing genocidal policies, what Netanyahu calls, “Mowing the lawn.” Since 2008, there have been three massive assaults that have destroyed the infrastructure, much of the function of civilian society, taken or damaged the lives of many thousands of mostly civilians, not to mention the provision of electricity and drinkable water. Add this to the crushing economic and human siege and the utter disregard for the ongoing and deteriorating human catastrophe that I personally bore witness to in March 2015 and January 2017. This cannot be justified by the argument that given the injustices of the world, we have to do this to save ourselves. We are morally corrupted by being able to do this.

In May 2016 the webzine +972 announced that the Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, had lost all faith in the Israeli military justice system and was no longer cooperating on behalf of Palestinian victims. “They said 25 years of working with the military ‘has brought us to the realization that there is no longer any point in pursuing justice and defending human rights by working with a system whose real function is measured by its ability to continue to successfully cover up unlawful acts and protect perpetrators.’” NGOs are now viewed as enemies of the (democratic) State of Israel.

So what happens when someone like me leaves the comforts of my bubble and ventures out into the universe of mainstream Jews? Third Place Books in Seattle is located close to four temples, two Ashkenazi and two Sephardic. When my book reading from Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine was announced, StandwithUs and some local temple folks called to express their displeasure at my invitation, but didn’t ask to cancel the reading. I planned some stories from the book interwoven with blogs from my trip in January 2017 and some political analysis. The book store works hard to have good relations in the neighborhood but said it supported an open and civil discussion of important issues. Half the people at my reading came to oppose me.

At the beginning, there were some disruptive folks, one yelled, folks harrumphed and walked in and out and made exasperated gestures, and then when it became clear I was not going to engage in a screaming match and that I was going to continue reading, a number of folks walked out.

During the Q&A, there was a long rambling statement/question from a Jewish Israeli former settler now Seattle-ite who said the conflict is over, no one cares, Israel won, why bother, this is basically a non-issue. I reviewed the various unstable conditions, siege of Gaza, occupation, inequality within Israel, both for Palestinian citizens and Jews of color, immense ongoing human suffering, and said this was inherently an unstable situation, so it was far from “over”. In fact, the more repressive the Israelis get, the more hopeless the Palestinians will get and the more young men will turn to militancy which is very dangerous for Israel. Additionally there are millions of Palestinians in refugee camps and the diaspora living in a political/economic limbo, desperately in need of a resolution. I wondered, if the Germans paid restitution to Israel why is Israel not held to the same standard? Are Palestinians less human? How can you just write them off?

Then there is the question of American Jews whose dedicated support and uncritical love has been central to the Israeli success story. These mostly liberal Jews are finding it increasingly difficult to support Israel and its policies on many fronts. Witness the frantic explosion of hasbara (propaganda and message control) efforts on campuses and the aggressive muzzling of dissent in our own communities.

Some were puzzled over my framing, (they shortened it to “Israelis bad, Palestinians good” which was not at all what I was saying). I tried to reframe (based on my own research and the reading of Palestinian and Israeli historians and writers) that this is a settler colonial struggle over land, indigenous people do not usually welcome colonizers or efforts to divide their land, plus the Bible is being used to justify political aims. But attitudes run deep, there was a question about some racist Arab Sesame Street show (didn’t happen) and why would anyone name their kid “Jihad” when it means Holy Warrior. The name is common and actually means struggle, both external and personal to be a better Muslim.

(And by the way, the name Mark is derived from the old Latin “Mart-kos”, which means “consecrated to the god Mars”, i.e., the God of War, i.e., war-like. Now why would anyone name a cute little baby boy that? Give me a break.)

These questions clearly came from the Arabs are distrustful, violent, out to destroy us, not to be trusted until proven otherwise department.

I was told that Palestinians had refused their own state eight times, starting with Sykes/Picot (code Israelis want peace, Arabs are impossible) and I responded, “Why would indigenous people accept colonization by an outside group organized by British colonialists, Jews, the UN? Besides, Yasser Arafat accepted the two state solution in 1988, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League agreed to a two state solution in 2002 and Hamas tacitly accepted two states when it agreed to be part of an election. Plus a recent study looking at Israel and Gaza found that 79 percent of all conflict pauses were interrupted when Israel killed a Palestinian. The tragedy is that Israel rejected these offers and was unable to imagine that 78% of Mandate Palestine was actually a very generous offer.

This led into a question about how Jews are indigenous and have a right to their own state. I reminded the questioner that we can’t use biblical claims to justify modern day states, Jews were a small minority until Zionist immigration, Palestine was a multicultural region with Muslims, Christians, and Jews, living together fairly peaceably until the forces of British colonialism and Jewish privilege (Zionism) arrived. I do not see why this gives the Jewish state the right to Jewish dominance and privilege, perhaps the only realistic approach is best to share land and resources as equals.

I was challenged by a questioner stating that anti-semitism and criticizing Israel are the same and I explained at length the difference between hating a people/organization/country solely because it is Jewish from criticizing a state that speaks in my name. I was told that I did not have “skin in the game” like an Israeli citizen or settler. That does not ring true to me when the Israeli government claims to speak for all Jews, when repressive and aggressive Israeli policies act as a trigger (though surely not an excuse) for rising anti-Semitism in the world, where thousands of US police are being trained in Israel, learning how to be an effective army of occupation in Ferguson and Baltimore, and where the annual US foreign aid to Israel (to the tune of $3.2 billion and counting) could well be spent on my schools and bridges and public transportation.

These are the kinds of questions and attitudes coming from a religious community of Jews that are very reflective of the usual Israel messaging that I encounter in this country. Despite my lack of rabbinical creds, as we do the work that inspires these high holidays, I hope that my sisters and brothers will examine Israeli exceptionalism and come to understand that is an obstacle to honest conversation about human, civil, and political rights in the Middle east and impedes a positive search for improving human rights and ending colonialism in this century. I believe political Zionism is a violation of our religious and secular/cultural principals. After centuries of powerlessness, how we as a community handle our new position of power and privilege is critical to the survival of an ethical Jewish tradition as well as a just resolution to a more than century old struggle in historic Palestine that is being fought in our name.

Senator Cantwell: Are you listening? September 10, 2017

first published by Mondoweiss: https://mondoweiss.net/2017/09/senator-cantwell-listening/

Senate Bill 720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, (and its twin in the House of Representatives, Bill 1697), are currently wending their ways through the national legislative process with all the usual front and backroom big money pressure from AIPAC, StandWithUs, and Co., as well as pushback from the less financially endowed citizenry. S. 720 is part of a host of national and state level legislation that seeks to suppress criticism of Israeli policy, to destroy the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement (as anti-Semitic hate speech dangerous to Israel), and to erase Palestinian history and narrative. Washington Senator Cantwell who claims to support freedom of speech and human rights is a cosponsor of S. 720 and we have a problem with that.

Six constituents (including myself) met with a staffer on September 7, 2017. We are activist Jews, a Unitarian, an Episcopalian, and an Anglican; we are a building contractor, doctor, Palestinian educator, psychologist, and folks active on community and social justice issues. Most of us have had personal experiences bearing witness and working in Israel/Palestine. The staffer was welcoming, interested, but clearly not well versed in the topic as that is the turf of the DC office. So we started with the basics.

Cantwell claims that S. 720 is narrower than opponents of the bill have stated and she is unfortunately mistaken, most likely bending to the talking points furnished by AIPAC and Co. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act amends the Export Administration Act (EAA), passed in 1979 in response to the Arab League boycott of Israel.

According the ACLU:

That law prohibits “U.S. persons” — a term that refers to both individuals and companies — from taking certain actions to comply with or support a boycott imposed by a foreign country against another country that is friendly to the United States.
The 1979 law responded to the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. At the time, countries in the Arab League would require U.S. businesses to boycott Israel and Israeli companies, and furnish information to verify the boycott, as a condition of doing business. To prevent foreign countries from dragooning U.S. businesses into these compulsory boycotts, the 1979 law prohibited U.S. companies from complying with foreign boycott requirements.

EAA prohibits US persons who are doing business, from boycotting a “friendly country.” (Friendly is not defined… are we talking France? Saudi Arabia? Philippines? Is Israel really friendly when it flaunts US demands to halt settlement construction, opposes the Iran deal, humiliates Obama, trashes Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas, the presumptive other “peace partner”?). EAA also prohibits the “furnishing of information” about US business persons’ relationships in the boycotted country. S. 720 takes this further.

Written in response to the UN Human Rights Council March 2016 resolution which called for a database of companies working in the occupied Palestinian territories, the bill’s statement of policy claims that these policies are part of BDS activities against Israel. The new bill prohibits US persons from boycotting Israel and Israeli businesses including in the territories, in response to calls from international governmental organizations like the UN and EU. It would make even requesting information about businesses in relation to boycott activities illegal. Now let’s remember that the construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, the Israeli colonization and industrial development of the West Bank, and the extraction of resources are all illegal according to international law and this is not controversial outside the US. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even the Israeli group Peace Now have made similar calls for boycott of settlement products. According to a Brookings Institute poll 60% of Democrats and 46% of all Americans support sanctions or stronger action against Israel because of settlement construction.

Senator Cantwell states, “Any allegation that this bill creates potential criminal or civil liability for individuals or organizations refusing to do business with Israel for these reasons is incorrect.” Senator, this is just not factual. I know you have your hands full with Trump and DACA and North Korea, and Harvey and Irma, but did you actually read the bill?

According to the ACLU:

The bill states that violators shall be fined in accordance with the penalties laid out in Section 206 of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. That section provides that violations are punishable by a civil penalty that could reach $250,000 and that willful violations are subject to criminal prosecution, which could result in a fine of up to $1 million and 20 years in prison.

By expanding from boycott calls from foreign governments to calls from UN or other human rights groups, the bill explicitly attacks political speech. So it’s Passover, you’re thinking about liberation, and you would really like to honor the UN call to avoid settlement products plus you are feeling a little squirmy about the upswing in settlement building. You would rather not buy Israeli wines that are grown in vineyards on occupied land. So you search the web or post a question on Facebook requesting information…That request could make you vulnerable to a fine of up to $1 million and 20 years in prison. And even if it doesn’t happen to you or your Uncle Morris, there is a definite chilling of the political environment and the very real risk of self-censorship, a First Amendment harm.

Now put this in the context of more than 20 state legislatures working to criminalize BDS in the US, governors organizing campaigns opposing BDS, (including our Governor Inslee), the muzzling and attacks on US campuses of students and professors, the frenzy of activity in Hillels to train students to stand up uncritically for Israeli policy and denounce BDS, similar activities amongst Christian Zionists, a proliferation of McCarthesque groups like Canary Mission, and the rightward swing under the current administration, and we are on a slippery slope.

We explained the BDS call to the staffer, the difference between Judaism (the religion), Jews (the people, cultural group, lovers of matzah balls, ironic self-deprecating jokes, Iraqi food, Ladino, you make the definition), and Israel (the state) and why criticizing the policies of the state is different from anti-Semitism. We explained that as Jews and Christians and social justice activists concerned with the well-being and future for Palestinians as well as Jewish Israelis, that after decades of failed wars, UN resolutions, peace processes, violent resistance, peaceful village protests, dialogue groups, etc., the BDS call is the most hopeful nonviolent resistance movement that has captured the hearts and imagination of many in the international community. As those of us who have traveled to the region know, it is clear that Israel has destroyed much of the Palestinian economy on the West Bank, totally crippled Gaza, created a second class disadvantaged status for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and thrown off any responsibility for the growing refugee crisis, that now numbers millions of people waiting in limbo for a resolution to their displacement and loss of land.

Huda Gibbens, a Palestinian whose family fled Jerusalem and Haifa in 1947-1948, pointed out that the Israeli government demanded compensation from Germany and other countries for the losses of Jews who were forced to flee. While she has no plans to return, she does recognize her right of return and demands compensation for her family’s extensive property. She brought a folder full of the original documents proving her claims. After the ’48 war, the Israeli government passed the Absentee Property Law and claimed that any property not inhabited at the time became the property of the state. She has never been able to return.

Thus the discussion turned to issues of ethnic cleansing, growing Israeli apartheid behavior, of the moral questions facing the US which is supporting the occupation and multiple violations of human rights. These are basic issues of equity, justice, and compassion.

Senator Cantwell, we are asking you to reconsider. Study the on-the-ground and historical realities that highlight the experiences of Palestinians as well as Jewish Israelis. Think about the historic role of the US as a defender of human rights, think about what we have learned from the study of our own indigenous peoples and our civil rights movements. We have been told you are “not a slave to AIPAC,” that you support human rights and freedom of speech. Even if you do not feel comfortable supporting the BDS movement, let’s start with defending our first amendment rights at home. Withdraw your sponsorship to S. 720. And then learn more about the issue of Israel/Palestine with a truly open mind. We would be happy to send you more resources and meet with you in the future. We are your constituents. That’s what democracy is all about.

A not so slow genocide – July 11, 2017

first published in The Globe Post

While the world is appropriately focused on the massive humanitarian crises in places like Syria and Mosul and South Sudan, two million Gazans face a growing manmade disaster that is largely invisible. After 50 years of occupation, a decade of strangulating siege, and multiple high and low-intensity Israeli assaults on an almost daily basis, a power struggle between Hamas and Fatah, aided and abetted by the Israeli government, now threatens the very lives of these beleaguered people.

The longterm Israeli policy of severe restrictions and closure is being exacerbated by a cynical manipulation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority which has resulted in a 40% reduction in the already limited supply of electricity by Israel. This comes on top of a dramatic 30-50% cutback of salaries for the estimated 58,000 PA civil society workers in Gaza who were ordered to stop work in 2007 when Hamas came to power while continuing to receive their salaries. In Gaza, unemployment rates of 44% are already among the highest worldwide with rates up to 60% among educated youth, a number that will only rise with the loss of salaries.

These facts and the ensuing health risks are mind numbing. There are deficiencies of essential medications, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and sewage treatment. In the midst of the hot summer months, most Gazans are receiving erratic electricity two to six hours per day and water six to eight hours every four days while desalination plants are functioning at 15% capacity. The UN reports that 34% of essential drugs at the Central Drug Store in Gaza are out of stock. 186 critical facilities providing health, water, and sanitation, and solid waste collection services are being supported by emergency fuel delivered by the UN reserves which are expected to last until October. More than 108 million liters of untreated sewage is flowing into the Mediterranean daily due to electricity and fuel shortages, and the damage to infrastructure from recent wars.

While permits to leave Gaza for medical care have been severely restricted for years and sometimes available only through collaboration, the referrals of hundreds of patients for medical treatment outside Gaza have been disrupted since March 2017, following the PA’s apparent suspension of its payments for this service. Operating on largely backup generators, medical facilities are facing an imminent lack of fuel and thus only critical surgeries and emergency services are being provided.

There are cutbacks on sanitation and sterilization of equipment, patients are being discharged prematurely from hospitals, and essential machinery such as neonatal incubators, ventilators, imaging and dialysis machines are breaking down as a result of frequent, intermittent power outages as well as the lack of maintenance and replacement parts. Health care has also suffered from years of de-development and restrictions on professional training outside the Strip, as well as direct targeting of infrastructure by the Israeli military during the war.

Visiting Gaza as a physician in 2015 and 2017 made these statistics tangible. What this means in real life is that computer work, answering emails, taking exams, refrigerating food or medications, running dialysis machines or respirators, cooking dinner, cleaning, and a thousand things that 21st-century people expect to be able to do are now not reliably expectable. There are reportedly only two functioning mammograms; women with breast cancer are routinely treated with mastectomy due to the lack of other options. There is no plastic surgery, lumpectomy and radiation are not available. Gazan women with breast cancer are dying at two to three times the rates of women receiving first world care.

What this also means is that the shortage of power and fuel to operate water and wastewater treatment facilities and the subsequent reduction in access increase the risk of waterborne diseases. The limitations on water pumps and desalination plants have led to a decrease in water consumption and standards of hygiene. The decrease in sewage treatment has led to increased pollution along the Gaza coast (which by the way, does flow north to Israel) and an increased risk of sewage back flowing onto streets, creating additional flooding, displacement, and disease.

There are also the psychological costs to living in this environment. In January 2017, Dr. Yasser Abu Jamea, executive director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, noted that patients treated for PTSD post one war easily relapse with the first reminders of bombing in the next war. Children who were doing well are suddenly bedwetting again and waking screaming in the night. The cues for the traumatic events are everywhere and can trigger trauma that goes back to the occupation in 1967. He calls this “delayed onset PTSD.” The war in 2014 was the worst and was experienced by a population with an accumulation of traumatic events and an inability to escape the war which has been continuously present. Patients talked of reliving traumas back to 1948.

A Gazan human rights worker said to me, “It is not burning us out. What burns us out is the repetition of what we are doing, the endless journey, never, never the last round. Either by the Israeli bulldozers, the lack of coordination with Ramallah, the mission is never accomplished. People are suffering from food insecurity; they can’t access their land. If they do, they can’t access resources. If they do, then there are land restrictions and they are afraid of rockets. If they do, they are not sure if the harvest will be a good profit at a local market because Israel will not allow the food to go outside. It is endless.

“That is the source of our frustration. We should have burnt out a long time ago. We believe the people in Gaza deserve that we just keep working to keep them standing. In Gaza, we [UN] are supporting 1.3 million people.”

The right to health requires a functional health care system and public health infrastructure and is internationally recognized as the responsibility of the occupying power, Israel. The power battle between Hamas and Fatah is also unconscionable and undoubtedly manipulated by powerful outside forces as well as internal dysfunction. The steady deterioration of the lives of the people in Gaza in the face of occupation, siege, internal discord, and the willful blindness of the international community can only be described as a not so slow genocide that is obvious to anyone who chooses to see.

Radiation and ringworm: a tale of social policy, racism, and health care – July 9, 2017

first published in Mondoweiss https://mondoweiss.net/2017/07/radiation-ringworm-social/

On June 14, 2017, the Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom, published an extraordinary report documenting medical experiments on mostly Yemenite children who subsequently “disappeared”; those who died were autopsied without parental consent, the parents were often not allowed to see their dead children, and no death certificates were provided. Since Operation Magic Carpet, 1949 to 1950, when 49,000 Jewish Yemenites were airlifted to Israel to grow the Jewish population and counteract the procreating Palestinians, there have been three official inquiries exploring egregious and unethical patterns of behavior towards Yemeni children by the medical and social service communities. Previous Israeli committees concluded that no children were kidnapped, although some children died or were adopted by Ashkenazi families without the birth parents’ consents. Parents were simply told their children had died. Israel Hayom also documented an experimental treatment on four malnourished babies who subsequently died from the injection of a “dry protein” created from plasma as well as an attempt to prove (using faulty assays and assessments) that Yemenite children were of African descent by testing dead children for sickle cell anemia, again without consent. (There was no evidence for sickle cell but the researcher published a scientific paper before he was proven wrong.)

Despite the Israeli state’s efforts to delegitimize and silence this information, (no investigation, no crime), the kidnapping of up to ten thousand Yemenite babies in immigrant absorption camps for adoption by Ashkenazi families was well documented in 2013 and 2014 by the Israeli webzine +972. In the 2013 article, the information is based on the 2009 book by Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber, Israeli Media and the Framing of Internal Conflict: The Yemenite Babies Affair. While the Israeli press largely stood by the official state narrative (nothing could have happened and besides, data was classified or lost), this attitude was reinforced by racist stereotypes towards Yemenites as primitive, ignorant, and uncaring towards their children. In short, adoption was “doing them a favor.” Additionally, the fact that the cover-up persisted for decades reflects the continued racism within Israeli society and the medical establishment. The forcible transfer of babies is also defined by the UN as genocide and clearly no one in Israel is going to admit to that.

The 2014 +972 article is centered on revealing and painful interviews with adoptees about their experiences, abducted from their families via a variety of official and unofficial mechanisms, (shall we just call this human trafficking?) devoid of a paper trail, with devastated parents searching for years for their biological children, a theft unchallenged by the legal system. Some adoptive parents even registered their childrens’ birth certificates as their own biological children, retroactively with collusion from Ministerial clerks. Of course there was always the problem for the pale skinned Ashkenazi parents trying to explain their connection (which was usually loving and healthy) to their dark offspring and that was how the secret was often revealed.

Richard Silverstein in his June 15, 2017 blog added more tortured details: because Yemenite parents did not speak Hebrew and medical staff did not speak Yemeni-Arabic, children were assigned a number rather than a name, numbers were sometimes lost or confused, leading to further mistreatment and misidentification. More significantly, he notes the scandal involved the US National Institutes of Health “which paid Israeli hospitals nearly $1-million (in current value; then it was 160,000 Israeli lira) to provide fetuses of dead Yemenite babies and corpses of adults which were used in medical experiments to determine why Yemenites did not develop heart disease.”

Silverstein references the corollary tragedy of the Ringworm scandal which led me to his 2014 blog. I was vaguely aware that newly arrived Yemenite children were treated with radiation for ringworm, a benign fungal infection that resolves spontaneously during adolescence. This treatment caused longterm adverse consequences, but I have to admit, I had no idea of the gravity of this crime. Silverstein links to The Ringworm children, a damning investigative documentary that won the award for “Best Documentary” at the Haifa International Film Festival and was featured as a documentary at the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2007. (Don’t say you did not know.) In the 1950s, approximately 100,000 Jewish immigrant children from Arab countries were taken from their parents and without parental consent, their heads were shaved, their hair was plucked, they were placed on a table, sometimes in restraints, and given radiation doses up to 600 rads. The dangers of leukemia were known in the 1920s and by 1952 scientists understood that 0.3 rads was the maximum safe weekly dosage. The now adult victims speak with sorrow and rage of the thousands who died (buried in unmarked graves), either as children from radiation poisoning or in early adulthood from cancer, of a lifetime of scalp pain, open sores, high cancer risk, epilepsy, infertility, and social and psychological damage. It was gripping testimony that left me in tears and shock and I am hard to shock. It is worth watching.

The program was run by Dr. Shiba, Director of the Health Ministry, Division of Social Medicine, who was not only obsessed with ringworm as a contagious fungus, but more as a symbol of a social disease, a “black plague,” and of children that needed to be decontaminated, medically and socially. He was part of the Israeli medical establishment that viewed eugenics as a positive force and described Moroccans as “primitives,” “backwards,” “human rubbish,” and “defective people.” He believed that Ashkenazi Jews were genetically superior to Mizrahi Jews and that health disorders reflected a genetic weakness in the susceptible population.

Dr Shiba traveled to the US to fundraise and acquired a collection of Picker x-ray machines, old, outdated, and possibly army surplus. Treatments were performed by nurses with no training in radiotherapy and the machines were certainly not designed to treat ringworm with high dose radiation. In 1952 the Israel Radiologist Union acknowledged the safe doses for radiation, based on experiments in Nazi Germany, data from Hiroshima, and other countries such as the US. According to the documentary, radiation was used in the US to treat ringworm in the 1930s, but by the 1950s, the medical establishment was well aware of the medical harm, radiation damage, and ensuing court suits.

Beyond the obvious ethnic discrimination and undervaluing of the human life of children of color, the other sinister issue raised by the film involves the US military’s desire post-Hiroshima to understand the effects of high levels of radiation exposure. (Remember US troops were used as guinea pigs.) When that became socially unacceptable in America, the documentary suggests that Israeli officials might have been willing to offer some of their “human rubbish” as research material. Very strangely, during a time of economic impoverishment and rationing in Israel, more money was spent on the ringworm radiation “treatments” than the entire Israeli national budget, and these numbers are “off the books”. It seems records were hidden or filed under state secrets or “lost,” what appears to be an official conspiracy of silence. Picker still supplies Israel with x-ray machines and efforts by victims to open records, prove state culpability, and receive compensation have been stymied by the Knesset and the bogus Ringworm Victim Law.

To put this in historical context, eugenics was very popular in the US in the early 1900s, in fact we were a model for the Nazis. Lower doses of radiation were used to treat ringworm elsewhere in the world and elite Ashkenazi Zionists continue to share their racist views toward people of color and Arabs in particular with much of the Western world. US health care is guilty of many egregious practices. During my residency in the early 1970s we fought against sterilizing poor women, African Americans, and Native Americans without their consent, and then there were the decades of forced sterilizations of people with low IQs, “imbeciles.” And let’s remember similar racist and outrageous adoption practices for Native American children in the US who were wrenched from their “inadequate” families. Many recall horrendous medical experiments in the US like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study where for decades, African American men, without their consent, were observed rather than treated for syphilis which is a devastating disease.

Beyond these human, social, and political tragedies, important questions remain. Internationally, the Israeli medical system is considered first rate and the source of significant therapies and research, but no amount of success can mask the egregious treatment of Yemeni children and the subsequent cover-up. How can the adoption and radiation victims gain access to whatever records remain? If this is how the Israeli establishment treats Jews from Arab countries, can we imagine how they treat Palestinians? What is the US contribution to and complicity in this crime? And for me as a physician, why didn’t one doctor just say, NO.

Between Life and Death: The Propaganda of anti-BDS Campaigns May 30, 2017

first published in Palestine Square, Between Life and Death: The Propaganda of anti-BDS Campaigns

Between Life and Death: The Propaganda of anti-BDS Campaigns
May 30, 2017 Alice Rothchild News & Analysis

A May 19th Boston Globe full-page ad from the AJC Global Jewish Advocacy, an organization claiming to “advance human rights and democratic values in the United States and the around the world,” has used a photo of an ill child and worried parent to undermine BDS, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement for Palestinian human rights. The dramatic visual asks “could an academic boycott put a child’s life at risk?” The advertisement uses fear and misinformation to oppose the growing international academic boycott of Israel and the more immediate state and national legislation to criminalize the call for boycott under the accusation of anti-Semitism and delegitimization.

An anti-BDS bill masquerading as an “anti-discrimination bill” will soon have a hearing in the Massachusetts legislature. The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), an umbrella organization consisting of independent groups including the AJC, just sent out an urgent action alert in support of the bill, and their own lobbyist described it as an “anti-BDS legislation” needed to “support Israel.”

Bill S.1689/H.1685, “An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts,” purports to target discrimination, but actually is intended to penalize BDS activism. Republican Sponsor Steven Howitt said “this bill clarifies to businesses that either support BDS or who boycott Israeli-owned businesses and products that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not engage in commerce with them.” The JCRC action alert states: “The S.1685/H.1685: Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts bill prohibits the state from contracting with companies that are engaged in discrimination, including those that boycott Israeli businesses solely based on their nationality. Singling out and refusing to deal with a business owner based on an immutable characteristic —national origin in the BDS context— is a form of discrimination and taxpayer funds should not be used to subsidize this conduct… This bill echoes similar anti-BDS laws passed in several other states as well as an executive order in New York and underscores the strength of the Massachusetts-Israel relationship.”

However, the bill is likely unconstitutional as the right to engage in peaceful boycotts for political purposes is protected as a form of free speech under the First Amendment.

Equally problematic is that neither the advertisement nor the bill is accurate. Many Israeli universities and businesses are complicit in Israeli policies because they are involved in developing weapons systems, military doctrines, and moral frameworks for the Israeli occupation; are often located on stolen Palestinian land; and have aided policies that violate human rights and international law. Such policies include continued settlement growth in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, extra-judicial killings of Palestinians, a brutal siege of Gaza, and a host of other serious concerns. Palestinian civil society organizations have called upon the academic world to boycott Israeli academic institutions to focus attention on these issues, to counter normalization efforts (which lull the international community into accepting the unacceptable), and to pressure the Israeli government to change its policies.

The call for boycott explicitly rejects censorship and supports the universal right to freedom of expression; this is not a boycott of individuals, but a boycott of institutions complicit with Israeli occupation and human rights violations. Individuals who are recruited as part of an effort to “rebrand” Israel (the multibillion-dollar Israeli hasbara campaigns) or who have agreed to act as a representative or cultural/academic ambassador of the state (and thus have promised not to criticize state policy) are also subject to boycott as they are actively part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

There is no question that “[Israeli] life science and healthcare academics engage in life saving research that drives medical breakthroughs,” as the advertisement explains. The problem with this statement is with the politics behind it: Who benefits from these breakthroughs? Why are children hungry, dying, and desperately in need of medical care just miles from these medical miracles? Why are Gazans asked to be collaborators in exchange for permits to receive medical care in Israel? Why are health care professionals who are so concerned with health not concerned with the lack of drinkable water in Gaza, the contamination of Gazan agricultural land by a host of newly tested Israeli military armaments, the chronic malnutrition due to the siege, the fruits and vegetables rotting in the sun at Israeli checkpoints, and the women giving birth and sometimes dying at checkpoints? Surely these are major health issues that cannot be ignored.

And what about “delegitimization?” How do countries acquire legitimacy? Do countries have a “right to exist”? Countries exist due to a complex coalescence of military might, aspirations, mythology, and historical movements. Legitimacy is derived from the behavior of the state. The real question is: What is tarnishing the reputation of Israel as a Western democracy with aspirations for acceptance in the modern world (not that Western-style democracies are doing that well either)? What does it mean to be a Jewish state? What happens to the 20% of the population who are not Jewish and the millions living under an endless military occupation? Can a Jewish state ever be democratic if, by definition, Jewish exceptionalism, chronic wars with neighbors, and suppression of indigenous Palestinians are part of the very foundation of the state?

A growing number of academic associations, faculty unions, and student governments are finding the boycott to be a powerful strategy. If academics involved in the life sciences and health care are really so concerned with lifesaving research and academic breakthroughs, then they need to be equally concerned with the political context in which they work. They need to be championing the cause of Palestinian academics in the West Bank and Gaza who struggle to obtain grants, scientific materials for research, permits to bring in visiting professors, and permits for themselves to travel to outside scientific meetings.

The AJC advertisement cites a letter that was signed by more than 100 prominent life science and health care academics. This letter worries that the academic boycotts “single out one nation, Israel, while overlooking all others.” Israel is being singled out partly because Palestinian civil society has called for an international boycott in response to longstanding egregious and anti-democratic behavior. Israel is also singled out because it occupies a unique position in the universe: the country receives billions of dollars in military aid and for years the US government has bowed blindly to the pressures of the pro-Israel lobby, providing Israel with political cover at the UN despite its serious violations of international law. So yes, Israel is a special case and deserves special attention. The fight for Palestinian human rights is also central to resolving many of the conflicts that now roil the Middle East and beyond, and there is a desperate need for creative nonviolent strategies like BDS to address these problems.

The AJC letter ends: “Without offering an opinion on any given conflict or political debate, we believe that academic boycotts aimed at advancing narrow political interests do great harm to the work we do and the integrity of the institutions that we serve.” Fighting a 50-year-old occupation is not a “narrow political interest.” Academics need to consider the individual and public health of Palestinians with the same urgency and passion as the health of Jewish Israelis and the institutions that serve them. Palestinians need human rights as desperately as they need medical care.

A tale of two cities – May 22, 2017

published in Mondoweiss, May 22, 2017

A tale of two cities

The invitation was warm and welcoming and came via twitter, this being the twenty-first century. A teacher at a prestigious private school in New England asked me to present as part of a speakers’ program in an informal coffee house setting that usually attracts 20 to 30 students and adults in the community. He said he tries to offer educational experiences “outside the ‘bubble,’” beyond the world of the classroom, and cited as previous invitees a Vietnamese author and a Peace Corp volunteer. He stated that he was particularly interested in my work on Israel/Palestine and refugees and assured me it would “be a great experience” for the students.

This seemed like an excellent opportunity to open young minds and I set to work updating a presentation I had recently given at a college in Washington where I explored the dominant narrative on Israel: the thriving democracy, haven for the oppressed, center for culture, arts, universities, high-tech, gorgeous beaches; the remarkable success story in a dangerous neighborhood Israel. I suggested that this framing is the narrative of the victor and that much important history has been lost or deliberately expunged. Inspired by the words of James Baldwin, I noted, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” and then I plunged deeply into the contradictions, institutional racism, and violations of international law that are screaming for attention when it comes to the realities of the 1948 and 1967 wars and their consequences.

My main thesis is that the current occupation is actually a continuation of more than 69 years of colonization of Palestine, of treating Jews as more deserving, more human, than Palestinians, and of Palestinians periodically (like many indigenous peoples) fighting back. I analyzed the inherent inconsistencies in the idea that Israel can be a democracy and at the same time be grounded in Jewish privilege. I included the new McCarthyism that has seized college campuses and the odd post-Trumpian development of the alt-right that is both anti-Semitic (white supremacists who want to make Amerika white, Christian, and male again) and “pro-Israel.” These folks blindly support the policies of the Israeli government both because encouraging Jews to leave the US for the “homeland” solves the “Jewish problem” and because Israel is a shining example of a very successful, militarily powerful country whose goal is ethnic purity. Plus of course everyone hates the Muslims.

Arrangements seemed to be going along swimmingly when the teacher wrote that while we were definitely “on for that night,” the administration wanted to view my PowerPoint first. That seemed suspicious to me and I voiced my concerns around the question of censorship. I have had too many experiences where local Jewish groups or rabbis or alumni have pressured institutions to cancel my talks because I do not approach Israeli policy as something that needs to be supported right or wrong and I do not blindly support Jewish exceptionalism. I also explained that my message about understanding the dominant paradigm and exploring how historical events are framed is a useful political lesson when learning about any historical event. I was reassured not to worry and reluctantly sent off the potentially inflammatory material.

Almost on cue, the apologetic email arrived. The presentation had been shared with more administrators and “it seems that they do not believe our students are educated enough on this topic/situation to be able to truly understand your position on this issue (as they do not have the story from the other side at all really). [As if there is not a multiple billion dollar Israeli messaging industry that permeates the media, cultural events, politics, and the very air we breath.] They wanted to postpone the talk, “to arrange for a more in-depth speaker series that may involve activists that approach this situation from both sides. They see this as a polarizing issue and want to ensure that we educate our students fully/from all sides so they can be knowledgeable and form their own opinions.” Is there any other historical moment where all that dancing around is considered necessary?

Why am I not surprised at these developments? I responded to the chastened teacher that there are some lessons to be learned here, that the current tendency is to shut down any discourse that is outside the mainstream. I wondered if there were Jewish donors who might have been offended or a threatened faculty person who stands with Israel, right or wrong.

And then I went on to explain:

The tragedy for me is that first there is this framing that there are “two sides” when there are actually many sides, this being a complicated historical time, and that anyone who says, let’s step back and look at the forces of colonialism, ethnic cleansing, explore the narrative of Palestinians, question the framing and dominant paradigms of the Israeli government, AIPAC, Christian Zionism, this person (who is often me) is immediately perceived as causing conflict or needing to be balanced by the “other side”. I suspect that if you had invited someone from the Israeli consulate who was going to present on the glorious history and accomplishments of Israel, no administrator would have said, “But what about the Palestinians, the devastating siege of Gaza, the growing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and their support by the Israeli government, we need to educate the students more generally so that they can make thoughtful, intelligent decisions.” There is always a double standard when it comes to this conversation.

The other tragedy for me, is that my power point was designed to be an object lesson for studying any historical moment, the importance of exploring primary sources, the narrative of the folks who lost the war, the way the media frames the issues. I was hoping to help the students learn to think independently about events, to ask how we understand what has happened, to look at our biases in the context of mainstream messaging.

In other words, I wanted the students to be educated, thoughtful citizens. By contrast, several years ago I tried to show my documentary film, “Voices Across the Divide,” at a New England public school but administrators were also nervous and there was talk of the need for “balance” and probably concern for the fragile psyches of the Jewish students who had grown up on Israeli hasbara. But sometimes things change. So it was with excitement and a bit of trepidation that I accepted the invitation to show the first 20 minutes of my documentary film which highlights Palestinians talking about their lives before the 1948 war, (this was not a land without a people by any stretch of the imagination) and their dispossession and losses in the years that followed. An independently minded history teacher lined up six freshmen and sophomore classes and the following day I repeated the presentation in four more classes.

The very good news is that the sky did not fall, no administrator came by, no parent called to protest, and a very diverse group of students engaged in thoughtful, civil conversation about challenging issues. There were kids with families from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain (one branch were Muslims and one branch were Jews and they all converted to Catholicism probably around 1492). There were Asians from a variety of places, some probably adopted from China into Jewish families, some from all varieties of mixed marriages, as well as African Americans,

Hispanics, and white kids. In other words they looked like America. I talked about dominant paradigms and the framing of history, the importance of language (War of Liberation versus al-Nakba, the Catastrophe, Israel as refuge and homeland versus settler-colonial state). I asked, what happened to the tens of thousands of Palestinians who stayed in Israel and what happened to the 750,000 who fled? I talked about the critical importance of developing a “usable past,” a term promoted by Howard Zinn that avoids a past steeped in glory and patriotism and searches for a past that is truer, more honest and attuned to the dynamics of the powerful and the voices of the weak. I argued that it is this kind of history telling that allows us to truly understand social movements and events and also provides us with the tools to address present day issues. We cannot understand the Black Lives Matter movement if we are not thoroughly grounded in the facts of slavery and institutional racism in the United States.

The questions and discussions reflected a wide range of knowledge and sophistication ranging from the young student who said, “I’m Jewish but you mean there were people living there and we came and took their land away, that doesn’t seem fair,” to students who had lived in Israel and were able to spout the usual “talking points” but often lacked the depth to reflect on questions like indigenous and refugee rights, state terrorism and brutality, democracy and Zionism. “Arab towns in Israel like Abu Ghosh are flourishing because they didn’t fight against the Jews in 1948,” i.e., peaceful villages were rewarded with economic investment. “So are you suggesting that the indigenous population should not have resisted losing their land? Do you think people who are oppressed by a colonial power have the right to resist?” One student literally almost fell out of his chair when I mentioned I had been in Gaza in January and when I asked why, he explained that you can only get in through the tunnels from Egypt and another noted that Hamas were terrorists, so what is there to talk about. One student was shocked to learn that our taxes are used to fund foreign military aid and wondered if you had to pay your taxes. We discussed nonviolent resistance, tax revolts, and the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement. Another who was very happy with the class said that when he asked his parents about Israel “when I was young, I mean eleven,” they showed him a video. He described the messaging as: “If the Jews disarm there will be a bloodbath and if the Arabs disarm there will be peace.” Even at that age, he knew that could not be the whole story.

Many felt that history really came alive when they heard personal stories and watched BBC and UN footage from the war and saw the photos of large Palestinian families who were abruptly displaced from their lives and looked eerily like the photos of great-great-grandparents from Eastern Europe. Some students were energized and very positive about the class, a few (being teenagers) dozed through the film. We talked about anti-Semitism, the Armenian genocide, and the reality that the high school was built on Algonquin Native American land. We explored Zionism and the global military-industrial complex. We reflected on Jewish trauma and victimization and the pattern where traumatized people inflict trauma on others. We talked about Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, and Sephardic Jews and their very different histories and the impact of racism within Israeli society. In other words, we talked about everything and the students and teachers listened and argued and grappled with a history that begs to be understood in all of its complexity. And that was fine, and in fact, that is how education should be.

It was very heartening for me to know that it is possible to have an open conversation about Israel/Palestine, that educators and school administrators with courage and patience can facilitate challenging and complex conversations. I found that students did not necessarily agree with each other, but they were mostly curious and thoughtful and able to tolerate confrontations with their world views and questions about Israeli hasbara. My hope is that we can reach a place where it is possible to study Israel/Palestine like we study other countries and areas of conflict, without fear of censorship or false ideas of “balance,” that together we can create a usable past that helps us think about the present. This is a source of hopefulness and inspiration to me and a sign of the changing times.

– See more at: https://mondoweiss.net/2017/05/a-tale-of-two-cities/#comments

A Victory for the First Amendment – March 29, 2017

A Victory for the First Amendment
Blog published in Palestine Square, a Project of the Institute of Palestine Studies.


Editor’s note: Alice Rothchild, author of Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine, recently spoke at the Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning (SILL). “Pro-Israeli” groups attempted to suppress her speech and led a campaign to coerce SILL into cancelling the event. This is the second of two articles where Rothchild recounts her experience. Read the first article: “A Hint of Trouble: How “Pro-Israeli” Organizations Work to Suppress Freedom of Speech.”

Despite a campaign by the Jewish Federation and StandwithUs to suppress my freedom of speech at an event organized by the Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning (SILL) in Florida, over 1,000 people came to hear this “dangerous person,” a Jewish woman in solidarity with Palestinians. So, how did the audiences respond? One event was leafleted by someone whom I presume was from the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee or StandwithUs. Although he had not heard me speak, his unattributed pamphlet was titled: Facts About Israel You Won’t Hear From Today’s Speaker.

It was filled with highly misguided statements like:

“Israel is a vibrant democracy…the only one in the Middle East”;
“Israel is a multicultural, liberal democracy whose independent judiciary upholds and enforces equal rights, liberties, and protections for all its citizens”;
The “25% non-Jewish minority has always had equal voting and political rights”;
The Security Barrier is designed to protect all of Israel’s citizens…Arabs and Jews alike”;
“Since Israel began building the barrier, casualties from terrorist attacks have dropped by over 90%”; and
“97% of the barrier is chain link fence, 3% is wall, mainly to prevent snipers from shooting Israeli drivers.”

So, just briefly, Edith and Howard—the authors of the original damning letter from the Jewish Federation that sought to suppress my speech—Israel is primarily a vibrant democracy if you are Jewish and even better if you are an Ashkenazi Jew. But, this is a country that privileges nationality over citizenship and has over 70 laws that explicitly privilege Jews over non-Jews. Palestinian citizens in Israel have never had equal rights and protections. They lived under military rule until 1966. Their towns and villages are marginalized and segregated by the State, which has led to less funding, poorer schools, and fewer resources than their Jewish counterparts. The Bedouin in the Negev often live in unrecognized villages without electricity and water, and suffer repeated home demolitions.

Around 85% of the so-called security barrier —more aptly named the apartheid wall—was built in the West Bank to loop around the major illegal Jewish settlement blocks and to include as many water aquifers, as much agricultural land, and as few Palestinians as possible. The wall has devastated tens of thousands of Palestinian families, reduced them to poverty due to loss of land and commerce, and made movement within their lands even more hellish than it was with “just” bypass roads, checkpoints, and a strict permit system. The “terrorist attacks” almost stopped in 2004, two years after the wall was begun and long before much of it was constructed, because Hamas and other militant groups decided to halt violent resistance. The wall is still quite porous, and I know a long list of medical and graduate students, common laborers, and everyone in between who continue to “jump the wall” to get visas in Jerusalem or work in the black markets in Tel Aviv. A “chain link fence” does not come close to describing a metal fence topped with barbed wire, lookout guard towers, military roads on either side, and sophisticated security tracking devices. This is not a Robert Frost kind of wall. And it doesn’t matter what it is made of, but rather its purposes and illegality. All this and we have not even begun to describe the impact of military occupation, military courts, mass incarceration, separate roads, child arrests, and torture.

The term “alternative truth” comes to mind when it comes to presumed Federation “facts.”

I also found a little booklet of “Israeli pocket facts” being passed around, produced by StandwithUs, a well-funded Israeli hasbara group that routinely attacks people like me. The main message? Tiny Israel lives in an enormously big bad world, everyone else gets a country, why not the Jews? There has been a continuous Jewish presence for 3,000 years and this is testimony to the exclusive rights of Jews in Palestine—you can forget everyone else who passed through. So it is time to restore the Jewish homeland, to applaud Israel for taking in fleeing Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Never mind that when they arrived in Israel they were sprayed with DDT and housed in tent cities reminiscent of the Palestinians in 1948. Despite many who were highly educated and from formerly wealthy backgrounds, they only were welcomed when the majority of eastern European Jews were destroyed in the Nazi Holocaust. They left or were forced to leave when people in various Arab countries, where many Jews had flourished, angry at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, took their rage out on their Jewish citizens. In Israel, they were mostly viewed as second class Jews, sent to less desirable border towns, and still suffer from the institutional discrimination towards Jews of color.

My two favorite explanations as to why Palestinians fled in 1947-48 include: “tales of alleged Israeli atrocities caused panic,” and “a small minority of Arab residents were forced from their homes in sensitive, strategic zones vital to the survival or the Jewish state.” Edith and Howard, do you mean the alleged atrocities in Lifta, Deir Yassin, Jaffa, Ramleh, Lyd, Tantura, Haifa, the 450 villages and towns destroyed? Do you mean the 750,000 refugees fleeing, walking, and jumping onto boats?

Trump and Kellyanne would be proud.

There was much that made me shake my head in dismay, but perhaps the most egregious alternative fact that grabbed my attention was this:

Israel built settlements to ensure its security, and Israelis resettled lands their families had owned in the West Bank, where Jews had lived for millennia until the 1948 war when they were expelled.

Are you saying that the hundreds of thousands of settlers who hail from the Soviet Union, Brooklyn, or Eritrea once owned land in the West Bank? Didn’t Abraham and Sarah once own some property along the Euphrates? This is not a reasonable argument.

Alternative facts do not make historical truths. It does not serve the cause of honest discourse, understanding of history, or the ability to move forward to engage in this kind of, if you will forgive me, propaganda.

Nonetheless, much of the Q&A at SILL was respectful and informative, although there was one presentation where members of the audience let their anger and their inability to let me speak without interruption get in the way of civility and thoughtful reflection and debate. After the events, I received two emails, one “angered, outraged and horrified,” accusing me of “adding fuel to the anti-Semitism fire and hurting the Jewish people throughout the world.” The other, “very concerned about the plight and state of the Palestinians,” apologized for the behavior of the audience and closed with: “People like you are what change the world. Bear up and keep going.”

This is not a task that anyone does alone.

I applaud the organizers in Sarasota for standing up to the McCarthyesque tactics of “pro-Israeli” organizations like the Federation and StandwithUs. No amount of dishonesty, soundbites, or celebrity PR spins can erase the facts of occupation, siege, and institutional racism. The BDS movement is a response to decades of frustration over multiple failed peace processes, ignored UN resolutions, and aggressive Israeli attacks. As James Baldwin said about racism and discrimination in the United States: “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” For Jews, in our new position of power and privilege, that is the least we can do to be in solidarity and co-resistance with our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

A Hint of Trouble: How “Pro-Israeli” Organizations Work to Suppress Freedom of Speech – March 27, 2017

Alice Rothchild March 27, 2017 News
A Hint of Trouble: How “Pro-Israeli” Organizations Work to Suppress Freedom of Speech

published in Palestine Square, the blog of the Institute for Palestine Studies


Almost one year ago, I received an invitation to speak in Sarasota, Florida, and two nearby communities as part of the Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning (SILL) Global Issues Series in March 2017. SILL hosts prominent speakers, ambassadors, and experts in many fields as well as a music series during the winter months when the snow birds arrive from all over the United States and Canada, looking for some sunshine, culture, and intellectual stimulation. We agreed on a talk that mirrored the title of my book, Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine, and I signed the contract. That all seemed very far away.

My first hint of trouble came on February 27 with a kindly email from the SILL leadership letting me know that the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee had sent out a blast email warning of “The Spread of Anti-Semitism into Sarasota-Manatee.”

The broadside went on to deplore the uptick in awful anti-Semitic attacks in the United States and to state that “now in our community, the SILL (Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning) Global Issues Series, whether intentionally or not, has added fuel to this anti-Semitic campaign by presented [sic] a speaker who is a purveyor of hatred – Dr. Alice Rothchild” (i.e., me).

They went on to note: “Dr. Rothchild, a member of Jewish Voices for Peace [sic] and a proud BDS supporter” will be speaking in three towns in the area and “unlike other SILL speakers, what Dr. Rothchild will impart to the audience is propaganda, not education.”

They continued with the assertion that BDS (the boycott, divestment, and sanction campaign against Israel that began in 2005 as a nonviolent call for actions designed to put pressure on the Israeli government to ensure Palestinian human rights) “is no different than any other form of bias. BDS is part of a world view that seeks to treat Israel differently than the rest of the world, since NO OTHER COUNTRY or people is the object of an international movement that could result in its destruction. The BDS movement may cloak itself in the language of human rights, but it is the economic arm of a rising tide of anti-Semitism [underlined and bolded] that is sweeping the globe.”

The Federation promised to “oppose anyone in our community who participates in this campaign,” and urged the horrified faithful to contact SILL “and let them know your thoughts.” This letter was signed by Edith Chaiftez, Chairwoman of the Heller Israel Advocacy Initiative, and Howard Tevlowitz, Executive Director. I learned later that serious pressure was applied to the organizers of SILL to cancel their “dangerous speaker.” However, the organizers in a show of both bravery and principle refused to bend, and for this I am extremely grateful.

Edith and Howard, do you mind if I call you by your first names? I feel like I know you. I must confess that being lumped with the racists and crazies who are desecrating Jewish cemeteries and calling in bomb threats to Jewish daycare centers is very tiresome. Let us also remember that Muslim and Palestinian Americans have been working to counter this tide and that one of the suspects behind this trend is a Jewish Israeli teenager who was arrested in Israel for making bomb threats to U.S. Jewish community centers. I have seen this hateful verbiage and heard these threats before. It is fine if we disagree, but this kind of McCarthyesque email and subsequent bullying with intent to prevent a presentation is also a grave disservice to anyone who is interested in advancing peace and safety for Jews and Palestinians alike. Your threatening email also flies in the face of the U.S. constitutional commitment to freedom of speech.

Using the accusation of anti-Semitism to muzzle those with whom you disagree seriously threatens to weaken the actual charge of anti-Semitism, which is a dangerous ideology aimed at Semitic people (in this case Jews) and institutions solely because they are Semites, an ideology that must be vigorously identified and condemned, along with Islamophobia, discrimination against people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQI community. That is very different from speech critical of the policies of the Israeli government which is, after all, a state and not a religion. If you want to talk about changing “the Jewish nature of the state” or the contradictions inherent in the idea that Israel can be both “Jewish and democratic,” then let’s talk about that without demonizing each other.

So what happened?

I was warmly welcomed by the SILL leadership and gave three whirlwind presentations in one-and-a-half days in an increasingly sunny Sarasota, Lakewood Ranch, and Venice. I explained my journey from nice Jewish girl going to Hebrew school three days a week, to outspoken critic of Israeli policy and Palestine solidarity activist. This was triggered by my serious commitment to tikkun olam — healing the world — and by my expanding understanding of history; my almost annual trips to the region since 2004, exploring health and human rights issues; and my concerns about Israeli policies, the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the siege of Gaza.

I got back from my third trip to Gaza and my twelfth trip to the region in January 2017. As a student of history and political movements (colonialism, racism, Islamophobia, Holocaust), I have come to understand that the supposed precious miracle of Israel “born out of the ashes of the Holocaust,” the “light unto the nations,” had, like many countries, committed and continues to commit serious injustices and human rights violations. Additionally, I’m personally responsible because the State of Israel speaks in my name as a self-proclaimed “state of the Jewish people,” and I live in the country that provides cover for the Israeli government and funds the occupation— $3.8 billion per year at last count.

My presentation explored the “dominant paradigms” that frame this conversation and the contradictions that are obvious to anyone who is actually willing to look and see. I also stressed the importance of seeking out the narratives of dissenting Israelis and Palestinians and seeing the so called “other” as a fellow human being with aspirations, mistakes, rights, and suffering that has largely been eclipsed by Jewish privilege and Israeli military dominance.

My primary thesis is that the current Israeli occupation is a continuation of more than 68 years of colonization of Palestine, of treating Jews as more deserving—more human—than Palestinians, and of Palestinians periodically fighting back, as is the case with many oppressed native peoples. And thus to have a real understanding of the issues, we are compelled to learn about the expulsion, dispossession, and war against the indigenous Palestinians that started long before 1948 and was disguised in the language of Jewish victimization and Biblical privilege. I urged my audience to examine the endless, stillborn “peace processes,” the racist demonization of Palestinians, and the impact of Jewish exceptionalism on everyone.

This was not an easy presentation to give or to receive. I challenged, educated, commiserated, and urged everyone to ask critical questions, to understand that honoring Jewish trauma does not negate the critical recognition of the legitimate rights, concerns, and trauma of Palestinian people. Ultimately, I asked people to understand that the fates of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians are inextricably bound together; that discord and gross inequity will never be resolved if the dominant militaristic power continues to demonize and force a captive population into an inhumane surrender agreement that involves vast power differences and corrupted leadership on all sides. In fact, that is a prescription for rising levels of racism and violent discrimination within Israeli society from the prime minister down to ultranationalist settlers, and for more Palestinian hopelessness and potential radicalization despite their famed ability to persevere.

Edith and Howard, if you are still with me here, I suggest you check out the work of the Israeli organization, Zochrot, which means Remembering. While you are at it, go see The Gatekeepers to hear a critical analysis from the heads of the Shin Bet and then read the testimonials from Breaking the Silence, Israeli soldiers who were once celebrated as the conscience of Israel until the country lurched further rightward. And if you are still interested, take a look at the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and Taha Muhammad Ali. Lastly, I wish to ask you both to understand that mine is not the only Jewish voice. In fact, as a second article of mine will reveal, a growing number of Jews, including many who attended my presentation, share my sympathy with and commitment to Palestinian rights.

Why Gaza? – January 20, 2017

Writing as therapy. Shabak, if you planted a bug in my computer, listen up! But I am jumping ahead of myself.

Yesterday afternoon was lost in the ritual of endless slowpoke uploading of photos and blogs and notes and the cleansing as best I could of any evidence of the past two and a half weeks. I am returning to my nice Jewish grandmother with the nice Star of David identity, with the added nice husband with a nice Jewish name and a crinkly white beard.  We should pass but this is a challenge given the level of rage and despair that has kept me up much of the night.

This morning we set off for Ben Gurion airport over three hours before our flight. The first brush with a security officer, leads to her calling the next level up.  He is a tall, thin, brusque young man who is unhappy that I have done volunteer work in Gaza. Never lie. “Why Gaza? There are poor people in Africa.” (I have heard that line before.) “Why not?” I reply. “Did you wear the Mogen Dovid in Gaza?” Yes, I was openly Jewish in Gaza.  That lost me some credibility.  “Do you work with groups? What groups?” Is he really expecting me to say Hamas? How about: the Gaza Community Mental Health Program that provides psychotherapy for all the young people you have bombed and maimed? Take a deep breath. Then there are the: are you Jewish enough questions: “What organizations do you belong to, what holidays do you celebrate, what special foods do you eat on Yom Kippur?” I knew that was a trick question because you are supposed to fast on Yom Kippur. I mean, really? He keeps coming back to the question of why Gaza.  I talk about health care and helping women and making peace.  He is not happy.

Turkish Airlines welcomes us and we trek three floors up and fall into the alternative universe of more airport security, Israeli style. The bags are opened, all electronics and devices removed and the people are x-rayed. But because this is Israel, the bags are then laid out on tables and every zipper and pocket is opened, the underwear and plastic bags of medications and embroidered pillows are fondled and swept for explosive material repeatedly. Medication caps are unscrewed, cameras turned on. A small jar of Vasoline and two tubes of prescription medication for arthritis are removed.  I demand to talk with the supervisor and he assures me, “It is forbidden.” End of discussion. My blowup lumbar support pillow seems particularly problematic.  My computer is taken to another area “for more x-rays.” Why do I doubt that explanation?

The process is excruciatingly slow, the staff dawdle, consult, re-swab, there is no sense of urgency or privacy.  We are captives in this tiny hole of paranoia and control. A kind of bureaucratic torture or at least a bureaucracy that wants us to know who has the power.  For unclear reasons (no explanations are offered for anything), they confiscate my husband’s new backpack and give him some cheap plastic bag to stuff his belongings in. “We do not explain our procedures.  It is for security.” It is not a home demolition, but it is collective punishment nonetheless. He seems to have terrible luggage karma, but he is traveling with me and I am obviously trouble.  The security agents claim that this innocent bag will go out on the next flight and show up in lost luggage in Boston.  Insha’allah.

More waiting, another x-ray of my dangerous boots, another x-ray of my dangerous body, a pat down and it is finally over.  We get to the departure gate one half hour before boarding. At least I didn’t get a body cavity search, although I suspect my poor computer may have suffered that indignity.

At passport control I discover I have a biometric passport with a computer chip (who knew?) so if I smile just like my passport photo they will let me out.  I do.

As a student of the Israeli messaging industry I am always intrigued by the final exhibit on the walls leading into the duty free shopping area.  This year it is a gift from the heavens: inspirational murals and statements celebrating “120 years of Zionism.” The history lesson headers include:












Nicely laid out, very thorough and consistent, truly inspirational, the graphics are fabulous, evocative, multi-cultural. They really know how to sell a product.

That final quote is from Herzl. 1904, “For Zionism…encompasses not only the hope of a legally secured homeland for our people…but also the aspiration to reach moral and spiritual perfection.” This is a problem.

I am just going to give you a taste of the panel titled MINORITIES:


The Zionist movement sought to establish a model society in the Jewish State, where non-Jews as well as Jews would enjoy complete equal rights.


The Law of Citizenship (1952) granted full citizenship to all residents of Israel. All minorities enjoy complete freedom of religion and worship, and are free to participate fully in the countries society, economy, culture, politics, and legal system. Arabic is recognized as an official language of the country.

There is much written about a tolerant, progressive culture, a Jewish and democratic state, a just society, the two thousand years of yearning for Zion. I cannot find the “P” word (Palestinian) anywhere, and needless to say, there is no colonialism, no Nakba, no dispossession of 750,000 indigenous people and destruction of over 500 villages, no ghettoizing the Palestinian citizens with fences and checkpoints until 1965, no stealing of Jewish Yemini babies for adoption.  And of course, no occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and no siege of Gaza and no right wing fundamentalist Jewish settlers living like megalomaniacal fascists in the ancient city of Hebron.  Dear lovers of Israel, this is a real problem for me. How can we imagine the future if we cannot agree on the past?

I pick up a copy of The Jerusalem Post, it is the only paper in English. The big headline is: “Donald Trump to become 45th US President today,” (as if I can forget – my plan was not to be in actual physical touch with planet earth during the inauguration), with the sub-header that the US embassy is moving to Jerusalem soon. Palestinians (and anyone with a vague understanding of the complexities of history) are protesting. Jewish groups are marching on Washington fearing an attack on civil liberties.  Bedouins allege that Yacoub Abu Al-Kaeean, the teacher who was shot by police (documented on video) and then lost control of his car and killed Erez Levi, a police officer, is being framed.  Israeli spokespeople are calling him a terrorist possibly related to ISIS. They demolished his house and ten others as part of a plan to build a Jewish village on the site of Umm al-Hiran. A Jewish democracy? Equal rights?

A great wave of sadness sweeps over me. I weep for my people and I weep for the people we are destroying one by one, son by son, house by house. And I fear for my country which is about to plunge into an even more dangerous direction than usual and cause even more havoc in this fragile, contested, precious, and battered place.

A war against Arab citizens – January 19, 2017

It is 5:30 in the morning and I am awakened with another nightmare.  Israeli soldiers are cutting off my hands and feet.  I am negotiating while they’re hacking through my lower leg, all my muscles and tendons are hanging loose and my foot is only attached by the bones. I feel no pain, I am quite upset, but I still have my voice.

My last meeting during this visit to the Holy Land is with Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, located in a nondescript office in Jaffa. This is another extraordinary group doing critical human rights work in an utterly hostile climate with very little resources. There is a staff of 28, 3,000 clinician volunteers with a few hundred active clinicians and an involved board of directors. Ran Goldstein, the executive director, explains that PHRI is expanding, continuing to work in the West Bank and Gaza (only the Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are allowed into the forbidden Strip). They provide medical teams, perform surgery, training, and conferences. They still run a Mobile Clinic every Saturday in the West Bank, providing health care in some needy village in conjunction with Palestinian colleagues and local residents.

PHRI is monitoring the denial of access and outright attacks by Israeli forces against medical teams (which is against international law). Just recently he notes there was a case at Kalandia, a woman was accused of stabbing a soldier, she was injured, and the medical team was denied access. PHRI documents these incidents and complains to the military police or the border police or whomever, but it is not actually very useful in the immediate sense.  “Mostly nothing happens, sometimes investigation, but rarely any accusations.” The main purpose of this work is to clearly document the extensive lack of accountability of the security forces. The media may pick up the story and this is important; occasionally a case makes it to the Supreme Court, and this may also contribute to cases brought before International Courts in the future, although that is not part of the strategy or work of PHRI.

Another PHRI focus is on the prison system, particularly prisoner hunger strikes. The Israeli prison health service is planning to establish a new hospital inside the prisons that is supposed to be for hunger strikers.  This is bad from a human rights perspective and also from a medical perspective. Most likely, the physicians in the prison service will not know how to handle the emergencies and necessary intensive care that is needed when a person refuses to eat and is near death. The new hospital may become a tool out of the public eye to force feed prisoners, a tool to break the strikers.  Force feeding is recognized as a form of torture and despite a new law permitting the practice, no force feeding has occurred since the 1980s. Israeli physicians in general refuse to participate (which is good) and at this point, Israeli security really does not care if someone dies.  Ran comments, “It is not a big public relations disaster.” Sometimes the Israeli authorities will make deals with the prisoners but it is not always good for the prisoners.  A journalist, Mohammed al-Qiq, launched a hunger strike while in administrative detention, (which can be extended indefinitely, no charges, no trial), and he struck a deal, finished administrative detention with the agreement that he would not be rearrested. But he was rearrested anyway.

PHRI has also issued a report on the use of solitary confinement. The international legal framework has changed and confinement is now increasingly used, not only against political and security prisoners, but also against Jewish Israelis with mental health problems.  There have been cases of solitary confinement lasting several years, which is pretty much guaranteed to make someone psychotic if they are not already deranged and raises serious human rights issues, not to mention just basic decency and common sense.

PHRI receives 300-400 calls per year, 70% from security prisoners.  PHRI issues complaints, defends the prisoners right to health, and works to get them to doctor’s appointments and assist with a more humane transport system.

Asylum seekers and refugees are served in the PHR I Open Clinic.  Israel provides good health access in the public system and PHRI is working to change the policies so that asylum seekers and refugees deserve national health insurance. These folks are treated in the Clinic and then their cases are submitted to the Ministry of Health to find solutions, to treat their cancer or kidney disease.  In many cases, the state will take responsibility, but it is always in the framework of being the exception to the general policy. Ran is hopeful that this all may be changing. Additionally the 40,000 foreign migrant workers receive private insurance from their employers, but this is hugely problematic, the treatment is limited, and the workers are often sent back to the Philippines or Sri Lanka or whatever poorly resourced country they came from where there is no treatment available. Israeli employees only want these workers when they can work and then they are discarded like workers all over the world.

PHRI is also working to close the gaps in healthcare in the periphery of the state, especially in the south of Israel. The South Health Forum for the past ten years has offered training advocating for justice and equal rights in the south; they offer courses to Bedouin women, Jews from Beersheva, kibbutzniks, and develop projects. PHRI is working with civil society, more on the policy level.  Today a group is going to the area of yesterday’s shootings and house demolitions in the south to express solidarity to the community that is repeatedly on the losing end of resources and justice.

Another focus for PHRI is in the area of medical ethics with the education of medical teams, students, social workers and in other university settings to talk about racism in health.  Their general approach is to say, “You are not isolated from your outside world.  If in society there is racism, then there is racism in the health care.”  He points to the kidnapping of Yemini babies in the 1950s where nurses and doctors were involved in stealing the newborn babies and offering them for adoption to families deemed more suitable. In the last two years there has been much attention on this grave transgression and two weeks ago confirmatory archives were released. The medical community (like many medical communities) tends to be conservative and the students (like many students) tend to be more open to examining these difficult ethical challenges. Of 80 students in Jerusalem that had to choose a volunteer placement, 40 chose PHRI. He sees social work students educated by PHRI calling for advice once they are in the workforce, facing violations of human rights and trying to figure out how to behave in a complex and fragmented society.  Ran believes in the power of education to highlight medical ethics and change clinicians’ behavior.

Last year the Israeli Medical Association changed one of its ethical codes, “Charity begins at home,” which is translated to mean that in the case of mass casualty events, when faced with injured Jewish and enemy (read Arab) patients, the Jews get taken care of before the “enemy” Arabs, no matter the severity of disease or injury. This is in violation of basic medical ethics and was changed in 2015.  “The doctor is not judge or police.” Health care must be offered in a human rights framework, the sickest get care first; it does not matter if someone is the attacker or the victim of the attacker.

Another social issue is the segregation of maternity wards between Jews and Arabs. This is not hospital policy, but obstetric patients represent a profitable and steady source of income so hospitals are eager to please these women. When a Jewish woman demands a Jewish roommate because she feels “more comfortable” or just doesn’t like Arabs, the hospital complies. PHRI contends that this is racist behavior and is working to establish with hospitals that this behavior is unacceptable.

In particular, they are also working on educating staff about racism in health care with Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba where the patients and staff are mixed, the hospital is near many Arab villages in Israel.

Ran is concerned with the changes in Israeli society, the attacks against NGOs and their funding. He notes that Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli soldiers that collect testimonials and are critical of the occupation, is facing opposition to entering schools and they have received personal threats and death threats. When they started in 2005 they were celebrated as the conscience of Israel, invited to speak in the parliament.  Now they are considered enemies of the state. The government is a leader in this rightwing phenomenon, monitoring progressive groups, taking statements out of context, and leading attacks. With the training in southern Israel to promote equal rights, the Beersheba municipality pulled out of the effort after pressure from rightwing groups. There is less tolerance for human rights organizations, not only those working against the occupation.

The NGO Law passed last year states that if your funding is more than 50% from foreign governments (like the EU or foundations related to the government) then you have to declare yourself as a foreign agent.  This is mostly an attack on progressive organizations and leaves out the right wing groups that receive many millions from the likes of Sheldon Adelson and Christian Zionists who are obviously not governments (yet anyway). This kind of hostility is also reflected in the PHRI Facebook page.  When there is information about the health of Israelis, they get lots of positive comments.  If they focus on the health of Palestinians, they are showered with hostility and branded as traitors. It is difficult to challenge racism in a society when institutional racism is normative.

Ran leaves for a meeting and Dana Moss continues the conversation.  Today there is a general strike in Arab towns in response to the demolition of eight houses in Umm al-Hiran and to troubles in Qalansua. The Arab schools are open but the teachers will take two hours to talk with the students. (FYI there are Arab and Jewish towns; Israel is a highly segregated society.) The general feeling is that the Israeli government has launched a war against its Arab citizens.  The latest killing of the school teacher hit a nerve as he is being framed by the government as a terrorist when he clearly is not. This is provoking anger in Israeli Arab society and the Negev is a very sensitive area after 70 years of suffering, lack of infrastructure, inadequate health care, or even ambulances.

In the occupied territories PHRI deals with the right to health in its widest interpretation. One of the projects focuses on freedom of movement for Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank. 200-300 cases per year apply for medical permits and are denied, and then ask PHRI for intervention to change the Israeli authorities’ decisions. PHRI collects the details, talks with the army, sends letters and puts pressure on the authorities. In 2014 they succeeded in 47.5% of the cases, 2015 62%, but in 2016 25% (due to policy changes). Patients are generally denied “for security reasons. We understand most decisions are arbitrary, there are no security decisions to deny a cancer patient or a pregnant woman treatment.  One of the problems is the interrogations of patients. Patients are ‘invited’ to a meeting with Shabak and clearly told that if they want their permit for medical care then they have to be collaborators with the Israeli authorities, spying on family and friends. Patients who refuse are denied the permits and do not get desperately needed care.”  PHRI not only deals with specific patients, but collects general information and reports trends to agencies and diplomats.

The monitoring of attacks on medical teams started in October 2015 after the Palestinian Authority, Ministry of Health, and Palestinian Red Crescent Society reported a large number of assaults on medical teams, more than 400 physical attacks.  (So let’s stop a minute.  You are a Palestinian doctor or an ambulance driver or a nurse attending to patients that are bleeding or have broken bones or are unconscious and you are at risk for being physically attacked doing your job because your patients are viewed as less human, less deserving, less less…. in the democratic State of Israel). This is clearly a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of medical personnel in conflict settings. PHRI collects the stories and information, sends complaints to the investigatory departments in the army and police, details that they are not responding according to local and international law. Lately, the army sent them a letter nine months after 18 complaints were submitted.  Dana states, “This was attributed to a ‘technical delay.’ This is very problematic.  The same with the police.” PHRI does this work to highlight the culture of impunity, to bring this to international groups and the press. Dana feels “things are getting worse. This is the beginning of a very dark period.”

Between Netanyahu and Trump I couldn’t agree with her more. There is so much to do, from protecting the right to health of the individual to creating a healthy, less racist society. Ran and Dana want to know if I have any ideas for funding.  Ah…. NGOs….Perhaps we could get another one of those tanks…..

previous blog posts about PHR – I

June 22, 2013 Symbolism meets solidarity: the Saturday mobile clinic

June 30, 2014 Zionist Doctors and Jewish Values part one

Guilty until proven innocent – January 18, 2017


I awaken early with a nightmare.  I am at Ofer Prison and the security guards have flushed my clothes down the toilet.  I am very freaked out.

News: Today two Palestinians and one Israeli police officer were killed and a Palestinian Israeli MK (member of the Knesset) was shot in the head during a home demolition in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev.  The Israelis are talking ISIS and terrorism, the Palestinians are saying this is ridiculous, a beloved teacher and father of twelve was killed by the IDF, there was no car ramming, he was shot by the soldiers and lost control of his car. The Bedouin should not be dispossessed from their lands.  This is an old story that happens daily.  Protests are planned all over the country and in particular at the Clock Tower in Jaffa where I am headed in the afternoon.



First, Ivan Karakashian, advocacy unit coordinator of Defense of Children International Palestine (DCIP), is taking me to that very Ofer Prison, an Israeli military pretrial detention center just outside of Ramallah.  This is not a usual stop on the Holy Land tour, but I am particularly interested in military detention and in particular, arrests and detention of Palestinian children and those who are doing the holy work of trying to keep them safe.  DCIP consists of an office of three lawyers who handle 140 cases per year. The children are tried in military courts, but one lawyer covers East Jerusalem so he works through the civil courts, because Palestinians in East Jerusalem are technically not under occupation. As we drive from Bethlehem, Ivan explains that children who are convicted serve time at Megiddo which is the only Israeli military prison that has a juvenile section that usually houses 60-70 children at a time. The children are in the care of four adult Palestinian prisoners who are serving long sentences. This arrangement is considered preferable since they are less abusive to the children than the Israeli guards. Of course they have no special training but they have a lot of useful experience surviving in the so called military justice system. The older prisoners accompany the children to the medical clinic or to lodge a complaint. Most of the documented torture happens in the first 24-48 hours after arrest before children actually get to Megiddo.

In prison there is minimal psychosocial support or rehabilitation. The prison provides teachers (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) who are permitted to teach Arabic, Hebrew, and math.  Topics like history and literature are considered too dangerous (ie. potentially political and actually useful) to offer. The children are divided by the teachers’ assessment of their intelligence level and then all the high functioning students of all age groups are grouped together, midlevel together, etc. Unfortunately the education is pretty basic and students who miss more than 30% of the school year at home, (two months), are required to repeat the entire year.  Stone throwers on average serve three to twelve months.

Because of the trauma, many children on release do not ever return to school; they feel too adult to be in a classroom with younger students and tend to do vocational training, entering the market place at a young age and easily exploited. Some do continue and Ivan notes that many of the DCIP staff are former prisoners who have law degrees or are human rights activists.

During the sentencing phase, the child may receive a custodial sentence, a fine, or a suspended sentence. The average fine is 1,560 NIS (approximately $390) and if the family is unable to pay, the child receives an additional four weeks of imprisonment for every 1000 NIS. You could call this a money making racket; Palestinian families support the system that imprisons their sons and daughters. The suspended sentence is like a probation period for two to five years during which time if the child commits another crime, he faces significantly more imprisonment. Many of the families are already impoverished, “the children are almost street children,” so this represents significant shekels.  The suspended sentence has had an unexpected impact; many children are so afraid of arbitrary arrest, they refuse to leave their homes. “So the children imprison themselves.” Some lawyers argue for longer suspended sentences in order to reduce the length of imprisonment. It’s hard to know what is worse.

DCIP has found that torture and ill treatment of children in Israeli prisons has decreased, but there are more children in prison overall.  In February 2016, there were 440 Palestinian children in Israeli military prisons, the highest number since they started collecting statistics in 2008. Approximately 700 children are arrested, prosecuted, and charged per year. Even more are arrested and detained sometimes for up to a week, but not charged.

2016 has also been the deadliest year for child fatalities, 32 dead children from the West Bank and Jerusalem. In 2013 there were five. In 2015 the Israelis reintroduced administrative detention for minors; a policy of detaining people without charge or trial for indefinite periods of time. (think, maybe Guantanamo?) This is legal when a person presents a threat to the security to the state, the “ticking bomb,” but these children have been detained for much less substantial reasons. Five were interrogated about Facebook posts. Then three months later they are released without follow up, so exactly how dangerous can they have been?

Ivan also notes that children are sometimes held in solitary confinement during interrogation before charges are made; this is legally recognized as a form of torture, isolating the accused in order to break them to make a confession. There were 161 cases of child solitary confinement in 2016. The longest a child was held was 26 days; in 2015, 45 days.  This is mostly used against 16 and 17 year olds, which brings us to the question, who exactly is a minor? Around 2012, the Israeli military defined a minor as a child less than 18 years of age, although “criminal responsibility” beings at twelve. But sixteen and seventeen year olds who are convicted are sentenced as adults. There is no consistency.  This is, after all, military justice. Younger children are detained, harassed, and released, but traumatized nonetheless.  Every child in military court has to have a lawyer, but children are denied a lawyer prior to interrogation in 97% of cases.  The same numbers apply to access to their parents prior to interrogation. So again, imagine the frightened 14 year old, he may or may not have thrown stones at a passing jeep, maybe his cousin implicates him, he is told to confess, he has faced two days of intense interrogation and psychological pressure, and all he wants is to see his mother and father.

We arrive at Ofer Prison, a large concrete wall topped with barbed wire and guard towers encasing the prison where pretrial hearings are held.  Behind the central structure is a maze of caged corridors, turnstiles, and security checkpoints.  Ivan advises me to leave my watch, rings, phone, paper, and pen in the car, just bring my passport.  My first impression is of the crowd of families waiting to pass security, the fear and fatigue etched on their faces. Some have traveled for many hours to see their loved ones have their moment in court. A loud male voice barks on the speaker, ordering them to back away from the security system. After the metal detector and the x-ray of my coat, I am patted down by a security guard who interestingly, apologizes. Does she apologize to the Muslim mothers and sisters or does she see them as terrorists? She makes me toss out my tissues and cough drops, apparently grave threats to the great State of Israel.

We enter an open cage bordered by metal wiring where family members who have been told by their lawyers that this is the day of the hearing, wait and smoke and pace and wait.  They are not given a time for the hearing. The space is bordered by planters with unhappy geraniums that are mostly squashed from people sitting on them.  There is no way to make this place beautiful. Periodically an upscale looking lawyer (definitely class distinctions here) comes through and is swarmed by anxious family members. Beyond the turnstile are seven large caravans where the court cases are heard, and clusters of military prosecutors in green, military police in black, and the swanky men and women (ie. lawyers). The mood is mostly bleak and intense, with occasional gallows humor.

Ivan finds a lawyer who agrees to our sitting in on a hearing and we enter one of the caravans and sit in the back.  Four young men sit behind a wooden bannister, their legs shackled. Children are also shackled and I am told appear wearing the bulky adult jackets as there are no clothes their size.  I try to imagine being a skinny 15 year old in a giant overcoat with shackled legs appearing before the crunch of guards and judge and lawyers, meeting a lawyer for the first time, scared and lonely.  One man is also handcuffed when he leaves. The military judge wearing a kippah sits on a raised platform with a stenographer, both pretty much glued to their computers.  The military prosecutor, (a young woman with a long pigtail), sits opposite; they are not actual lawyers, but military people trained in military law. In the middle are a cluster of real lawyers and guards that go in and out.  The translator is a soldier, often a Druze who serves in the army. There is nothing that resembles a “trial” going on here.  No evidence or witnesses are called. Some lawyers know their cases; others are meeting their clients for the first time. There are several groups that provide lawyers, like DCIP, as well as private lawyers and they spend a lot of time striking deals with the judge, negotiating with the prisoners. There are smiles, angry voices, frustration; it all appears pretty chaotic.  In minutes, major life decisions are made by the powers that be and the prisoners leave.

We return to the big group cage and talk to some of the families. Some are here for the first time, others have done this trip many times as cases are often postponed. If a family member is unable to attend, the child’s case is postponed. We talk with a girl who was arrested in front of the Ibrahimi Mosque, detained for one day, and released without charges. Basically Palestinian children are guilty until proven innocent. A woman’s son has been in detention for four months on seventeen charges. Ivan explains that charges can range from throwing a stone at the wall, a jeep, a soldier, insulting the honor of a soldier, attending a political protest, to being a member of a political group. The lawyer and the prosecutor could not agree on the plea deal so the case was postponed. Two other women are here for their brother who was arrested four months ago.  Initially they couldn’t locate him and they do not know what the charges are. There are no happy stories here.  I am mostly struck by how routine and banal this whole process feels.  The Israeli military has succeeded in normalizing the arrests, detentions, and imprisonment of children and adults who are resisting an oppressive occupation that is strangling their lives and their futures. And the Palestinians arrested understand that a good day is when a deal can be struck, maybe prison for five rather than ten years, maybe a suspended sentence and huge fine that devastates the family but let’s the guy go home in six months rather than six years. No one asks if children throwing stones at a heavily armed military force is a crime deserving months to years of imprisonment.

I am feeling very weary, watching families waiting, watching the comings and goings through the turnstile, some smiling, some in tears.  We return to the car and I ask Ivan about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the arrested children.  The data is anecdotal, but support is offered through the Palestine Counseling Center and the YMCA Rehabilitation Program.  The latter reportedly visits 80% of released children, but there is no referral system and no long term care.  “The family fabric provides support and shared experience with older kids, [prison] is seen as a rite of passage.”

Ivan notes that children arrested for crimes like stealing, rape, and murder of another Palestinian are taken to PA prisons and are not celebrated by their communities like those in Israeli jails.  They are a source of shame for their families. The Palestine juvenile justice program is improving.  In 2016 the Protection Law was created with an emphasis on rehabilitation, reintegration into society, and alternatives to detention, in keeping with international standards. But many in the justice system are unaware of these changes and organizations like DCI and Unicef run capacity building programs to inform those who provide juvenile care. There are now juvenile police officers who treat children well, but arrests are still being made by those ill equipped to do so.

Unfortunately the Israeli military justice system is not a proper legal system according to Ivan.  Military commanders issue orders that are added to the rules, but there are no amendments to older conflicting rules; there is no body of case law and precedents on which to build a system. DCI has been working on cases for the International Court of Justice and in two years they will complete their preliminary investigation.  It takes up to 15 years to come to a final recommendation so this is very much a long haul kind of effort.

Ivan drives my husband and me to Jerusalem; we take a sherut and then a taxi to Jaffa where we hydrate, shower in lovely hot water, (which aquifer in the West Bank was this water stolen from?) and enjoy the luxuries of a first world double shot espresso. I am having trouble traversing so many worlds in one long afternoon.

At 7:00 pm we are at the Clock Tower with a group of chanting Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and a scattering of lefty Israeli Jews and children. I spot the Palestinian actress Ruba Blal in the front lines. The crowd grows to almost 100, mostly young Palestinians, and the police presence grows as well. There are undercover agents and several officers tasked with filming the protest and taking photos of each of the participants. People are drawing handmade signs, “We are all Umm al-Hiran,” and the chants are all about freedom from occupation, racism, dispossession, and Israeli domination.

The crowd moves into traffic as the cops begin to converge, but retreat before there is trouble and return to the Clock Tower, apparently this tactic annoys the cops but prevents them from taking control of the demonstration.  After an hour, we march into the street, but the demonstrators reach a phalanx of police officers who are clearly creating a barrier.  More chanting and tension; we return to the Tower where it all fizzles out.

A general strike of the “Arab sector” has been called for tomorrow. An older Jewish Israeli activist notes that the younger Arabs in Jaffa are so brave to demonstrate; they are finding their voice and refuse to be intimated. A longtime Palestinian activist tells me, “We do this for ourselves.” He is not optimistic that the Israeli state is going face its racism and aggression anytime soon.

What do we say to our daughters? January 17, 2017


Today is the funeral for Qusay Hasna al-Umour, killed yesterday just outside of Bethlehem.  I keep hearing comments like, “This is our life,” “What can a stone do to a jeep?” My cousin was killed like this two years ago.” The rage, agitation, and despair are brewing just below the surface of what is now normal in Palestine.

Today I am meeting with a group of women at Al Rowwad for a health education session and general discussion. We set up two tables end to end, the juice and wafers are distributed, and seventeen women from the camp arrive, chatting, quiet, or giggling nervously, and a couple of children who are encouraged to leave. Staff from Al Rowwad and a friend from Ramallah provide translation and we set the tone: a confidential open conversation about women’s health issues.  Periodically a tour comes through or a photographer stops by and we all go quiet, waiting for the intruders to leave. Slowly the discussion grows as the women become more comfortable, the married women much more willing to talk than the unmarried women. I learn that reproductive health and sexuality only seem to begin for many at the time of marriage and they are often ill prepared for what lies ahead.  Their mothers are their chief sources of information and much of it sounds more folkloric than fact based, with due respect for the rich tradition of herbal treatments and women helping women. Soon we are deep into the topics of menstrual cramps, infertility, Clomid treatments and IVF, cupping therapy for back pain, premenstrual syndrome, menopause, postoperative cesarean section pain, and using contraceptive pills to delay menses during Ramadan. (If a woman has her period, she cannot fast, and must make up the time later, so many try to delay their period with hormones.) There seems to be less concern here if a virginal woman is taking pills for a medical reason.  This is new.

There is a burst of interest when one woman asks how to deal with facial hair which seems quite prevalent in this crowd, everyone starts talking at once.  So I begin with basic genetics and standards of beauty in this culture, (ie. no hair). I review hormonal disorders, various treatments and the use of electrolysis and laser.  No one can afford those treatments and waxing seems popular.  It seems to me the underlying problem is a lack of acceptance and love of their faces as they are, a desire to look like the airbrushed models that they see on TV soap operas and female newscasters. This is a universal female dilemma and soon someone comments that it is actually a problem with the men who want women to look a particular way and make them feel ashamed when they appear as they are.  Another universal dilemma. There is an enthusiastic response to this comment and lots of talk, women educating and empowering each other.

Soon a young woman asks, with obvious laughter and embarrassment, what exercises can she do to do to prevent breasts from sagging after nursing. The crowd gets pretty raucous. I explain basic anatomy (the breast is a gland not a muscle), and one woman loudly suggests wearing an uplifting bra which provokes lots of laughter and chatter. Again the conversation quickly shifts to the male partner, “This conversation should be for the men!” and the expectations that are placed on women and their bodies: to be the alluring sexual partner, have many children without any consequences, and always look sixteen.

A member of the Al Rowwad staff wants the women to focus on their own empowerment and the education of their daughters and sons. One woman asks about pain with intercourse and I can see several younger women listening intently as I openly discuss sexual issues, vaginitis, and pelvic pain. The staff member questions: “What do we say to our daughters? Even about periods?” She suggests that there is an individual and collective responsibility to educate the children about these intimate matters. “Mothers neglect their daughters, don’t talk about this. Old Islamic literature and folklore deals with these issues. It is not an issue of lack of information.” She explains that in this culture, young women may experience harassment and even rape and that is their first exposure to sexual experiences and then they are not allowed to discuss their trauma.  They take that trauma to their wedding night. Some of the younger (virginal) women say that intercourse sounds disgusting and they don’t want to talk about it. I privately wonder how many of these women are afraid or have experienced some trauma, or if the assumption of heterosexuality does not work for everyone, but exploring such issues would require a lot of work and trust. The staff person urges the women to talk to their sons and daughters about safe and traumatic touch, to raise awareness amongst their sons not to assault women and in fact to protect them. We discuss some recent studies about rape and molestation amongst family members and one woman urges the group to be vigilant with how the father plays with his daughters.

I am honored and amazed that the women are willing to delve into such challenging topics and to trust each other with this conversation.  Consciousness raising 101.  I am told that ten women sent their apologies.  They were unable to come because, as families of martyrs, they needed to attend the funeral of Qusay Hasna al-Umour who was killed yesterday. As often happens in distressed societies, women’s concerns always come second. The facts of occupation make women’s liberation even more challenging than just facing a conservative culture largely dominated by men and their unreasonable expectations.

Cultural resistance and throwing stones – January 16, 2017

News that you probably have not heard: Today a 17 year old named Qusay Hasna al-Umour was killed by Israeli soldiers in Tuqu, a village just east of Bethlehem. He was 17 years old, throwing stones.  He was shot three times, the first bullet to his heart. There is a photo circulating amongst my friends here showing four fully armed soldiers carrying his limp body, one man holding each extremity as if he were an animal, some kind of prey just shot in the wild. This is clearly a blood sport and the IDF are out to kill and maim as many angry, frustrated, hopeless men as possible. The photo reminds many people of a similar episode in the Second Intifada. According to the Ma’an News Agency, the Palestinian Red Crescent claims al-Umour was detained for an unspecified amount of time after he was shot before he was handed over to the Palestinian paramedics for treatment. J Post had the following headline:

Border Police shoot and kill Palestinian stone-thrower near Bethlehem


Trolling the internet I find a report by WAFA:

Forces used live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets, tear gas canisters, and stun grenades toward residents, shooting and injuring at least five people, including a female, with rubber baton rounds.https://english.wafa.ps/page.aspx?id=DfORbJa52114187268aDfORbJ.

FYI: Stone throwing Israeli youth (read Jews) do not get shot or even arrested for that activity. Their parents are called, maybe there are charges, a lawyer is hired, but their lives are not ruined or extinguished. The racism is screaming at us.

The Al Rowwad Cultural and Arts Center is located in Aida Camp in Bethlehem and we are greeted by Ribal Alkurdi, the energetic executive director, who started as one of the young participants and participated as a dabke dancer for years.

Founded in 1998 in two twelve-meter square rooms, the current building was begun in 2006 with support from groups in Germany through the UNDP and Norway.  In 2004, Israelis built the eight meter high concrete wall surrounding the Aida refugee camp and north of the city of Bethlehem.  66% of this camp’s population of about 6,000 is under 24 years of age.  There is minimum employment and no room for expansion.  Are you feeling like throwing a stone yet?

The activities of the center have moved beyond the camp and now reach all of the West Bank, providing benefits to 35,000 children in 2015. In 1998 it was only a theater and in 2000 with the start of the Second Intifada, they began developing many departments including art, theater, dance, music and choir, developing cultural resistance through the arts.  There is a women’s program with education, embroidery, artisan crafts, a fitness hall started in 2006 and now servicing 250 women (when trainers are available or affordable). Images for Life is a central program that teaches women and children photography and documentary film making as well as photo development. The educational curriculum offers Arabic, math, and English, volunteers teach classes for one week to three months and there is a creative new library with 3,500 books. The Playbus travels through the West Bank offering the children educational games and enjoyable activities. I look around the jumbled office and on the wall there are quotes from Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela, a very respectable heritage.  The work of the center is grounded in “beautiful resistance,” a respect for human rights and the right of return for refugees. The newly renovated library includes a welcoming reading space, educational game area, and computer lab. A smart board and tablets are coming soon.

We learn there are two UNRWA schools in the camp, 550 boys and more than 800 girls up to ninth grade.  After that students can go to public school or to private school (which is unaffordable for these families).  This week is school vacation so the center is filled with boisterous children doing Winter Camp. With the emphasis on Palestinian culture, the walls have paintings of May Ziadah, (Lebanese-Palestinian poet and essayist), Edward Said, (Palestinian-American professor of literature at Columbia who wrote extensively on Orientalism and post-colonial studies), and Fadwa Toqan, (Palestinian poet). We walk into the Image for Life department where women and youth learn how to do photography and documentary filmmaking to chronicle the life in the camp, the impact of the wall, and the yearning for the right of return. We pass a museum with traditional dresses, pottery, and artifacts, a multipurpose women’s fitness hall lined with sewing machines, the main hall for dance and theater, and the gift shop.  There is a pile of empty brightly colored pots, part of an UNRWA project to brighten the camp with potted plants. The center has grown impressively since I was last here three years ago.

We start a walking tour with Ribal that begins with a stunning bit of information.  Residents of the camp have water every 20 days or so for six hours during which time they are able to fill the dense collection of water tanks that crowd every roof. 

Even with restrictive water usage, there are often two weeks towards the end when there is no water before the central distribution is turned on again. We wend our way down dusty crowded streets with no open green space, hardy trees competing with houses and parked cars; children are everywhere, playing, sitting, bicycling, kicking soccer balls, twirling a sling shot.  They are teargassed by the IDF on a daily basis. Is that stone looking more reasonable?

Ribal unlocks a metal door and proudly invites us into an impressive six story construction project, the new building for Al Rowwad. We tour each floor, stepping around rebar and sandy floors and piles of construction materials and roughed out stairways.  In the downstairs there is an amazing collection of sophisticated woodworking machinery: a computer controlled machine with a 3-D cutter that can be used for making furniture, games, and puzzles, a panel saw, machinery to mill and sand wood.  Someday this will be a training workshop and source of products that can be used in the center as well as a source of income. We go further downstairs into the future museum, an evocative cave that was used by the Palestinian resistance before 1930.  Ribal sees a future history and science museum in an imaginative and historical setting. We creep up the unfinished stairs and bear witness to the dreams of the founder Abdelfattah Abusrour: a women’s department and showroom, media department, recording studio, radio by internet (Rowwad194) produced by children less than sixteen years old, computer room, phone repair room, guest house, soup factory, training kitchen that morphs into a restaurant in the afternoon. He envisions vocational training, future employment, cultural and educational opportunities, and women’s empowerment in a self-sustaining center.  It is a grand vision that has the potential to change the lives of many residents of the camp and beyond. They need $500,000 to finish the structure and then more to fill it with the necessary furniture and equipment. I wonder, a common battle tank costs $8.5 million, surely the US military wouldn’t miss one of those hulking monsters and think of what these folks could do with that money. A military jet would work just as well. They hope to have the women’s department, guest house, and kitchen finished in 2017. Abdelfattah is in Vienna to receive the (well-deserved) Stars Foundation Impact Award.  https://www.starsfoundation.org.uk/blog/2016-stars-impact-award-winners-announced.

We walk onto the roof and look at the tumble of houses, military towers, and the imposing concrete wall that snakes around the camp and through the community.

Back in the street, Ribal tells us that of the 538 villages destroyed in 1948, 41 villages are  represented in Aida Camp. He, like many from the Abusrour family, is from Beit Natif. They represent one sixth of the camp’s inhabitants. The land was rented by UNRWA for 99 years from a cathedral in Beit Jala. No one knows what will happen when the 99 years is up. Hopefully the occupation will be over before then, but the trends are not that promising.



Some of the walls of the homes have been painted bright colors in an attempt to mitigate the grey, over crowded housing. The UNRWA boy’s school is right near the wall and has been repaired ten times since the Second Intifada due to IDF attacks.


The school finally covered up the windows with sheets of wood but there are still bullet holes in the metal doors.  And you ask why children hate the Israeli soldiers?

Shortly we are facing the apartheid wall in all its immense ugliness. The ominous guard tower is blackened and no longer used, but this is the area where the pope was welcomed to Aida Camp in 2009. The Israelis insisted that the performance stage be moved away from the wall as they did not want the international community to see the oppressive concrete as the backdrop, but it is difficult to hide.

Amongst the towers of burned garbage, the wall looms with its painful and defiant graffiti: “We can’t live, so we are waiting for death,” beside a mural of a blindfolded Palestinian being arrested by two Israeli soldiers. To the right of this is a large mural of a young man with a slingshot aimed at the burned out tower. “One day the sun will shine on a free Palestine,” “We are more powerful than they can possibly imagine.” Much of the graffiti dates back to my last visit in 2014.  Not only have conditions not improved, they are in fact getting worse.

A row of black train cars is parked against the wall; in 2016 the Freedom Train packed with refugees drove from the nearby Deheisha Camp to Rachel’s Tomb where they were met with teargas and bullets. https://972mag.com/photos-palestinian-return-train-is-stopped-at-israels-wall/119356/. Stones anyone?


Our tour continues along the wall at the entrance of the camp with its famous enormous metal key symbolizing the right of return for refugees, “nonnegotiable and not for sale.”





The faces of twelve Palestinian men are painted on the wall, all arrested in the two intifadas, some released during the Shalit prisoner swap, and some still in prison. Adjacent to this is a partial listing of the children killed in the 2014 war on Gaza and then the UNRWA distribution center. From this corner we can stare directly down the street to the apartheid wall and the blue metal gate that opens to let soldiers, jeeps, and tanks invade the camp.

In 2015, thirteen year old Abdul Shadi was standing in the street with his friends when an Israeli sniper lifted his weapon, aimed, and fired, the seventh child of Aida Camp to die since the encirclement by the wall. A poster with his young, slightly goofy, wide eyed face stares from the corner where he died. “My soul will remain here chasing the killer and motivating my classmates.  I wonder whether the international community will bring justice to Palestinian children.” And he hadn’t even thrown a stone.

Our next stop is just down the street at the Lagee Center which has programs such as a library, computer lab, cultural tours, recreation, excursions in the West Bank, summer camps, arts, media, and sports.

I am particularly interested in their environmental focus, garden and water project. We meet with Amani, the coordinator of activities, who started at the center when she was ten years old and is now studying law and human rights at Al Quds University.  She is hopeful that now that Palestinians have state status they will be able to use the International Court to focus attention on the occupation and human rights violations. She tells us of the Our Voice project. Amahl Bishara, a professor at Tufts and a Palestinian with an Israeli ID, organized a visit in 2007 of children under sixteen who do not yet have IDs to travel to Israel, to visit and document the villages of their parent’s and grandparent’s. Amani was fourteen, visited Beit Mahsir which is seven kilometers from here, and still remembers this as a very emotional and defining experience, “Each person has three to four dunams. Now everything is stolen, very depressing.” She visited, the village of the center’s director and brought him back a piece of saber cactus which is now growing wildly at his home in the camp. The Israeli authorities understand this knowledge is dangerous. It is no longer possible to bring children without IDs into Israel, the land their families fled in 1948.

We visit a large room where ten students are diligently playing ouds, qanuns, violins, tambourine and tabla, rehearsing a folkloric Palestinian song with a patient teacher. The musicians and the dabke group have toured in Scotland, Ireland, and England. There is a media unit and a football academy for boys and girls.  The soccer team has also played in Scotland.

We are particularly interested in the Lagee environmental programs and the gardens, playground, and soccer field that were developed with support from a US group, 1for3.org, and we are joined by Shatha Alazzeh, the lively and focused director of the Environmental Unit.  She also started as a volunteer, began studying biology and medical science in university, and started collecting water samples in the Aida Camp as part of a project with Tufts University graduate students. After her BA she started working full time at Lajee.  She now has twenty students, ages thirteen to fifteen, involved in science and environmental lectures, recycling organic and nonorganic material and creating compost. The latter two are very strange ideas in Palestine which is littered with plastic bags, tires, and garbage and minimal to no garbage collection. They are also working on a project to build rooftop greenhouses in order to build food security as there is no space for gardens in the camp which is 0.71 square kilometers.

There are now ten greenhouses feeding fourteen families. She takes the children on educational field trips to cities and villages in areas A and B to explore the biodiversity in Palestine.

The water testing project extends to four refugee camps and Aida was found to have contamination with e coli. This is complicated by episodes like last month when the IDF soldiers deliberately put sewerage in the water lines.  75% of their water is bought from the semiprivate company Mekerot and 25% is from the Palestinian Authority.  Palestinians are not allowed to dig wells or collect rainwater in a well. In the summer they tend to have six hours of water every three weeks or so, the camp is divided into four areas which have to fill sequentially. Besides an inadequate supply and issues around contamination, the water pipes are fifty years old and sometimes mix with sewerage.  The Lagee center has created educational brochures about water quality, cleaning the tanks, disinfecting the water supply, adding chlorine tablets and now the water quality is markedly improved. The water project includes collecting rain water from roofs into a cisterns, filtering the water and then distributing the water to homes via a water truck. The program will be operational in 2017.

The Israeli authorities do not allow the Palestinian Authority to have waste water treatment plants so the waste water is transferred to the Wadi Nar valley where it is treated and used by Israelis. In another example of water policy as a weapon, the nearby Jewish settlement of Gilo dumps its waste water into the camp near the wall where the children play and in front of the Lagee Center. Shatha also notes that the repeated spraying of putrid skunk water, (which the Israelis claim is nontoxic, organic, and even drinkable), has killed all the trees in front of the center.

Shatha was born in the nearby Askar Refugee Camp and moved to Aida when she got married.  The IDF arrested her husband two weeks after the wedding and held him for four months, accusing him of making a political statement on Facebook.  She traveled 14 hours for a 45 minute to visit him.  “We had a honeyjail not a honeymoon.” She describes her husband being beaten by the soldiers and her desire to stay strong in front of them.  “My story is nothing.” She witnessed little children visiting their fathers’ in prison and crying because they could not touch their hands.

Shatha has a masters in environmental studies and trained for one semester in Sweden, “The first time in my life to see the sea.” When she explained she was from Palestine, Swedes would look at her funny and say, “Where? Pakistan?” She adds, “It is important to change, the culture, the bad things, to bring the generation to be environmentally friendly.” She was working in the Lajee summer camp for children and only when she threatened to spy on them and fine them, did they stop throwing trash in the garden.  Old patterns are hard to change, but she is inspirational. “We want Palestine to be clean, first clean from occupation, and a new generation thinking environmentally friendly.”

On the roof of the center we can see the Jewish settlement of Gilo, the winding concrete wall, six military towers; 23 surveillance cameras keeping close watch on the 6,000 refugees imprisoned within. By contrast, the garden and playground below is a breath of fresh air, brightly colored, appealing, and bordered by a soccer field that has netting to protect the children from tear gas canisters. Brightly painted recycled tires form a border.  Between the playground and field and the ominous guard tower and wall is the cemetery where those who have finally given up can have a moment of peace. On the roofs we can see three large plastic greenhouses.

In the front of the center we spot the main cistern for the camp that holds the water from Bethlehem.  On a nearby wall are 33 martyrs killed since the First Intifada. Shatha explains that five hundred men and four women have been arrested by the IDF since the Intifada. Resistance and death are everywhere. She takes us past a mural which documents the modern history of Palestine; reminding us that children must never forget.

for more information from previous blogs:


Farah Center: Big accomplishments, minimal resources – January 15, 2017

We drive from southern Bani Na’im (northeast of Hebron) to the northern city of Nablus.  The taxi is 40 minutes late and I practice slow breathing and accepting a fluid Palestinian concept of time. Everyone assures me it will be okay. For the two and a half hour drive I think about the families we have been visiting, the options for educated children, the limits for educated daughters, the fear of daughters studying abroad and falling in love with foreigners,  the fierce enjoyment of small and intimate pleasures (a torrid love, passion, honor, and testosterone driven Bedouin soap opera from Jordan, a campfire under a full moon, all of us sitting on mattresses in a dry lunar landscape, the hills of Jordan glowing to the east, the loving intensity of family relationships). We head up route 60, get stopped at a flying checkpoint, the IDF sets up spikes in the road and then waves us through, we creep through multiple traffic jams.

Every Jewish settlement is marked but there is rarely a sign to the Palestinian villages that have been here long before 1967, a kind of geographical dispossession and erasure.  We pass multiple army jeeps, guard towers, soldiers glued to their smart phones but always ready to spring into action, the combo of youth, boredom, and brutality.  The landscape is dotted with villas (Palestinian Americans coming home) and villages, archeological sites, monasteries, and Bedouin encampments steeped in poverty and a deep attachment to the land. I think about the crazy up and down roads with their death defying hairpin turns, and miles of highway that Palestinians are “allowed” to travel and the resulting excess air pollution, challenged shock absorbers and brakes, and the endless waste of time and money that is the result of a system that keeps Jewish settlers separate from the indigenous population.

We speed through the once formidable and oppressive Huwarra checkpoint with its empty turnstiles and pens and cattle chutes (which can be reactivated any time) and enter Nablus, a dusty bustling city with a rundown feel, a central green park aspiring to grace, and snarling traffic, all sitting like a bowl amidst a circle of striking mountains, white apartments rising from the hills with IDF bases dotting the summits.

We are visiting Raja Abu Rizik Khalilih, the powerhouse of a physical therapist and administrator who runs the Farah Center for Rehabilitation. The center has long accomplished extraordinary things particularly in the world of autism and speech pathology, with very little resources and faces frequent funding crises as a private NGO that offers free care to an impoverished population.  Founded by Allam Jarrar, a visionary physician who worked in rehabilitation, public health, and was a leader in the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, (PMRS), the center is now directed by Dr. Mohammed, director of Rehabilitation Program for PMRS and has the same neurologist, Dr. Elana and staff that we have met before. In 2016 they served 366 new children with neurological illnesses. Raja explains that the Farah Center is unusual as it focuses on education and training for the mothers of the affected children.  They offer workshops with preschools and families as well.

They plan to offer intensive programs and group activities and are hoping for better cooperation with the Ministry of Health. Their main support comes from the Diakonia Foundation in Jerusalem, they used to receive $60,000 per year, last year they received $39,000 and a surprise donation from American Jew for a Just Peace made it possible for programs and staff to continue their work.

The general situation creates additional challenges. Last year there were many closures around Nablus and children as well as three staff from Jenin could not get to their appointments. They have an active Facebook page with education, videos and communication with their families. Raja says forcefully, “We are strong with you. We have future plans, we will keep in touch. If we achieve local contract, we are hoping for bigger developments, hoping for new building for five years.  We are number one with pediatricians and families and education.  This is new for our culture, the responsibility of the family, networking with the child, as well as establishing an appointment system (rather than walk-ins).” The center has many students who ultimately attend university and Rajah feels comfortable with the level of local control they have.  She takes responsibility for administrative reporting and financial management. “Farah is home for us.” Even her own children have started volunteering at the center.

All too soon it is time to go to the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, leaving from the chaos of the main service and taxi station, after raucous negotiations and strategic planning and consultations with a cluster of drivers. Everyone has an opinion: go through Ramallah? Kalandia? Direct? The driver is smoking and seems angry about something. I decide to attach myself to a guy who speaks a little English and is heading to Bethlehem and pile into the van. The service fills up and soon we are off, a bundle of Palestinians and two Jewish Americans heading south across occupied Palestine.