Last Day In Jerusalem

I woke up and felt the gnawing emptiness almost immediately. Trying to imagine what it might be like to walk around Jerusalem, missing Betty’s warm smile and the short walk to the Old City. A Jerusalem, deformed and misshapen, devoid of all of my love. It felt too scary to squirm out from under the covers, so I stayed in bed for a while, staring up at the white paint on my ceiling.

The morning was spent cleaning and packing. Four garbage bags of garbage in my apartment – cottage cheese, almost-used-up shaving cream, a dusty and torn B’tselem report. I took my final shlep to the Shuk to pick up some wet floor towelettes.   I couldn’t look at the warm baked breads and fresh fruit juices.

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As I hauled down the third garbage bag, I took a break at the intersection between Betzalel and Nehar Prat. The breeze whispered over my body and toward Gan Sacher. The Palestinian family that had offered me orange soda and coffee would not be going back there… Posters seeking revenge and war hung from the entrance to the park, and next to them, posters of biblical dissent placed by Rabbis for Human Rights. I will miss the park that taught me to love evening runs.

And then I was walking up to Nocturno, one of the first cafes that taught me the meaning of hip political cafes (well, two years ago…it’s gotten bigger since then). I sat with an old friend and we ate lots of pasta and chocolate…the best foods for goodbyes. And then we hugged and walked off. Another goodbye.

And then I was rushing to Ha-Chavatzelet to say goodbye to Einat. As I surveyed her spacious one bedroom, I mused aloud that I would be a smarter apartment renter next time around. It was obvious that there would be another time around.

“My wish for you is that you just let things go,” she said.

And we talked about Tel Aviv and the ocean and jobs in public policy. And then we hugged and said goodbye. Another goodbye.

And then a phone call from Aviv. Another goodbye.

I took a pause on Ben Yehuda, a place that has played with my emotions over the years. I still remember my first time there, with my NFTY-in-Israel teen tour. It was hopping with live music and ice-cream parlors and Judaica shops; it was love at first sight. These days, I walk around Ben Yehuda and notice the “Kahane Was Right” stickers and Lehava activists handing out anti-miscegenation flyers. The NFTY teen tours and Birthright groups continue to drop coins into guitar cases, oblivious to the violence lurking in the corners. But this time, for a short pause…I lost my breath.

Love. I love these people. I love everyone walking up and down this strange midrachov. The Palestinian garbage collector who gave All That’s Left a thumbs up at our anti-occupation street theater action. The American seminary girls, giggling and chatting over ice cream. The young Israel boys wearing “Jews Love Jews” shirts and spray painting “Death to Arabs.” The anonymous passersby. I love them all. I have faith in them all. That might sound strange, or even wrong. But I was knocked breathless by the sudden realization of love. I would miss this assortment of complex humanity.

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I rushed back to my apartment to meet Eran. My transition out would be his transition (back) in. This Israeli husband and father had taken a much-needed break in France with his family. Now he was returning to Jerusalem out of a sense of duty. He was back to work for love, compassion, coexistence. As we transferred my oven, futon, and kitchen supplies into his car, I was content to know that the modest commodities of my home would nourish another family, another activist in this place.

And then a call from Betty. As we talked, I mused to myself that I would have to get used to the sound of her voice on the telephone. Thank goodness it was a clear and kind voice…another goodbye. Perhaps one that would have been just too hard in person.

And then a knock on the door. It was Eran again, and my landlady. Apparently, they were friends, and she had offered to sell him the remaining contents of my apartment. Oddly, I had wondered all year if my landlady was bothered by the B’tselem posters and anti-occupation paraphernalia all over my room. Clearly not, if she was friends with Eran. I let them both back in, and we laughed over the smallness of our little world.

And then Yaffa returned my security deposit.

 I have a feeling you’ll be back,” she said.

“Thank you for all of the home-cooked meals,” I said.

“You’re like a daughter to me,” she said.

And then we hugged and did the double kiss. And then she closed the door behind her. Another goodbye.

And then I was running to see a friend who had just returned from fighting in Gaza. It was late at night by this point, but I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye. I wanted to see him, safe and sound.

I walked back up Betzalel (“my last trek up Betzalel,” I thought) and towards the Aroma on Hillel. I ordered a blended iced coffee with crumbled Oreos, a delicacy. It was Thursday night, and the streets were filled with drunken teenagers. I eyed the Palestinian workers in the coffee shop and said a silent prayer for them as I walked toward Zion Square.

And Zion Square, predictably, was packed. There were three women sitting alone on the steps below the Bank Ha-Poalim, and so I decided to join them as I waited for my friend. The woman a few steps beneath me looked familiar.

“Tamara?”

“Yes?” she looked up at me, a bit confused.

“It’s Leanne, from Ir Amim.”

“Oh, right, hi!”

She was out patrolling. Ever since the dangerous lynch mob on Jaffa Street, a bit over a month ago, Jewish left-wing activists in the city had set up a discreet patrol system downtown. They spent nights monitoring the city in shifts, keeping an eye out for violence against Palestinians in the streets. They were ready to dial the police, intervene with nonviolent methods, escort Palestinians through crowds…things have gotten very bad.

I had personally refused to participate, scarred by previous brushes with violence in the downtown area. Tamara updated me on the patrol, explaining her own methods and mentioning other activists involved.

 “Oh, shoot! I didn’t say goodbye to Lyle! Please say goodbye to her for me?”

Suddenly, Tamara perked up. “I hear chanting.”

She rose and walked toward Ben Yehuda Street. I followed, approaching the source. It was a group of teenagers and young men chanting “Death to Arabs.”

“Fuck,” I said aloud. (This place has a way of making me curse much more than usual.)

“So what do you do about this?”

“No, this is fine. This is them amping themselves up to look for Arabs to attack.   They can say whatever they want, I step in if they try to act on it.”

The ring-leader of the group, a teenager with a buzz cut, stood and began to change the slogan.

 “Death to Leftists! Leftists to Sakhnin!”

(If you think about it, it was a dumb chant. Leftists are often told to “Go die in Gaza,” which makes sense. But Sakhnin is an Arab-Israeli city, just as safe as any other city in Israel. No one would go to die in Sakhnin.)

“You know, it’s my last night in Israel,” I said to Tamara.

“Oh God, and this is how you’re spending it? Go have fun,” she said.

Just then, my soldier friend called.

 “Don’t come here,” I said. “I’ll come to you.”

I quickly hugged Tamara goodbye. As the teenagers continued to chant death to Arabs and death to leftists, and tourists continued to mill about oblivious to the genocidal incitement, I felt secure in Tamara and the Jerusalem-based civil patrol. I have faith in them. I have seen them risk their own personal safety to protect others. I know they will do good. I just wish I could be there by their side…

My friend was waiting for me with a shaved head and a slightly lost look in his eyes. As we began to walk, I pointed toward the Lehava booth. He had never heard of the Lehava.

“Oh, you know, they try to prevent Jewish women from dating Arab men. They always have a booth set up here.”

“What’s it to them?”

“I don’t know, protecting the girls of Israel?”

It was odd. The first time I had encountered the Lehava, I had gasped and snapped photos of their stickers. Other times, they had made me cry. Now, I was explaining them matter-of-fact, unemotional, almost unbothered.

“I guess I’ve seen them so often, I’m desensitized.”

“Well, I’m not desensitized, I’ve never seen them before!”

“Well, let’s go over and check them out.”

We took some flyers and walked off. He was clearly jarred.

Another goodbye.  And then I knew it was time to say a final goodbye to Jerusalem.  By now it was almost 1:00 in the morning. My inner instincts had always pulled me indoors at these hours, wary of the effects of alcohol and femaleness and dark corners. I was painfully aware of being alone. But I walked past the Municipality.

“We’re not done with you,” I thought, smiling back to the Ir Amim office.

Past the Jaffa Gate. Past the old French hospital. Past the entrance to the Armenian Quarter.

I sat down on a bench situated exactly on the Green Line, separating Jerusalem, East from West. Directly in front of me was a giant Lehava sticker, pasted high on an electric pole. A final challenge.

I don’t know how long I sat on that bench staring down the sticker. It was late, very late, and I had been physically and verbally harassed for pulling down such stickers before. And I was alone. Nothing could save me if I was attacked. But how could I leave this city without pulling down this last bit of paper hatred?

It became a compulsion. I stood up and walked toward the pole. The sticker was high above my head. I would have to climb the pole to pull it down. This would draw attention. Tears in my eyes, I returned to the bench. I was hyperventilating now. A young Palestinian boy walked past me on his way home. He was tall, tall enough to reach the sticker. I contemplated asking him to pull it down, but I knew I couldn’t put him at risk that way. Anyways, it was my hatred to remove, not his.

And then a moment came when the air was still. No cars, no people. I sprung forward, climbed the pole, and tried to pull down the sticker. I missed and fell back. Climbed the pole again, reached high, and pulled. Bingo. It was down.

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I returned to the bench, heart pounding, and threw the ripped shreds into the garbage bin. The sprinklers came on. The grass and mud and stone bathed in the cool night air. And I knew I needed to cry, one last time, in this city that had so often made me cry.

“Stay strong, Jerusalem,” I prayed. My mind shifted to the young men chanting “Death to Arabs” down the road, eyes gazing toward the glittering neon lights of Palestinian shops outside the Damascus Gate.

“Stay strong, Jerusalem, you will survive this.” I thought of the powerful women I had interviewed in Shuafat and Beit Hanina. Maybe they were lying awake, pondering this city, like me.

“I have faith in you, Jerusalem, I know you can grow and love with or without me,” I whispered, thinking of the harassed women on the light rail, of Tamara, of Betty and Oshrat and Aviv and Einat and Yudith and Shalom and Ahmad and Neria and Dana and Micah and Omar and Anwar and Joseph and Daniel and all those who would fight for love and compassion in this place.

And then, just then, in my prayers and tears, I received a final Whatsapp.

“I really miss you. I had gotten used to seeing you almost every week. I wish you a good trip and much luck in the work that is surely waiting for you there…I will always be in touch with you. I will never forget you. I hope to see you again. I hope you enjoy the trip, and your life in your country. Please say hi to Sam. I am so happy that life has given me the precious opportunity meet you (and Sam). We will be in touch forever. I love you. Your friend who loves you always.”

And just like that, it was time to say goodbye to the only city I have ever loved like a human being.

Until next time.

 

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They’re all just children in the end.

We stood at top of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, looking out to the city before us.

“This will be a good parting,” he said.

“But I’ll be seeing you again, soon!”

“I mean, from Jerusalem.”

I looked out to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque: Friday afternoon and empty. The Mount of Olives sloped up from behind, not a hint of a movement in the air.

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“You know, I was home for Eid, and my father was sitting in front of the television crying over the children in Gaza. Every time they would announce more deaths, more numbers, he would cry and repeat over and over, ‘It’s such a pity, these children.’”

I looked over to Halim, a sneaking smile on his face. This precious friend of three years has been nothing but a comfort and joy. He continued, starting to chuckle.

“And then, every time an Israeli soldier would come on TV, he would begin crying and wiping his eyes all over again, repeating, ‘Such a pity over the children!’

“I turned to him and asked, ‘Which side are you on, dad? You’re just crying here over everyone!’

“And he turned to me, still in tears. ‘They’re all just children, in the end.’

“You know, that concept Orwell speaks of? Doublethink?” Halim was laughing now.

“I think we Arabs, especially the Israeli Arabs, have this doublethink.”

We looked out at Jerusalem together, shifting to all sides of the tower, pointing to Issawiya and Jabel Mukaber and Abu Dis and Azarieh and French Hill and Mount Scopus and the steps of the Damascus Gate. God, I could trace the lines of this city in my sleep. It was all gold, and eerie silence.

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 ~

We lay down on the grass outside the Damascus Gate, staring up at the clear sky. Our bellies were content with the sweet post-Ramadan qatayef, and our feet satisfied to sink into the earth after an afternoon of wandering. Halim began to muse aloud.

 “You know, I don’t think any people, anywhere in the world, can claim any piece of land…I mean, the Finnish people happen to find themselves on Finland, but does that mean the land belongs to them?”

I sighed in noncommittal agreement.

“And especially here, there is so much history, so much rich, complex history. It is just impossible for one people to claim it as their own, and only their own. It belongs to everyone.”

I wish we could both live in a world like that.

It was eerie, too, the emptiness outside the Muslim Quarter. We stared up at the sky, contemplating the pain of the universe. Comforted by the presence of our bodies, one beside the other.

~

The cab driver was all smiles.

“I take it you haven’t had very many customers today?”

“No! All of the tourists got scared away. Too much violence.”

“It’s really sad, such a shame.”

“Well, it won’t stay like this forever.”

“No, you’re right, it’s unsustainable. Things will change.”

We chatted nonstop, all the way from Jerusalem to Mevaseret Tziyyon for Shabbat dinner with my family. He gave me a short history of the land from the river to the sea, explaining how Judaism came first, and then Christianity, and then Islam, and all had come to control this land in turns. And then, completely unsolicited, this cab driver gave me a most delicious metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I had ever heard.

“You know, this place is like a cake. And everyone wants the whole cake, not just a piece. And you know, when you have a regular cake with a metal knife, it’s okay, you can cut the cake. But this is a whole metal cake! It’s made out of metal! You need a very strong metal knife to cut a metal cake. But our leaders, you know what they are? Plastic knives! They are trying to cut a metal cake with plastic knives! Each one for himself.”

He went on,

 “That’s it. This place will be better than Finland!”

(What’s with all this talk about Finland?)

 “Just, that’s it! No Jewish state, no Palestinian state, just a democratic state. Just clean it all up, send all the soldiers home, clean up the roads. Give everyone a vote, khalas. It will be even better than Finland, I tell you!”

I explained that people want there to be a Jewish State, that of course it’s not that simple.

 “Well, this is something we need to work on. It’s not working, it’s not fair.”

We drove on as the sunset over the Judean Hills, talking about his daughters’ university studies. He asked if I had children, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

~

After knocking for a few minutes, I simply walked into my cousins’ house for Shabbat dinner. I was greeted by the blaring sound of Arutz 2, Channel 2 Israeli TV. The news was constant coverage of the ongoing assault on Gaza: an endless round of military commentators, startling footage of the action, interviews with bereaved mothers’ of soldiers. I knew Vered’s boyfriend was also fighting somewhere in Gaza. I braced myself.

As usual, my cousins did not talk to me much. No matter that I had spent the morning agonizing over thoughtful parting gifts at the Betzalel Artists’ Fair, or that I had come for dinner to say goodbye at all. These ones have not been the kindest to me, to put it lightly. At one point, Shiri’s boyfriend quite obviously encouraged her to come talk to me. She came over and asked if I wanted to make Aliyah.

“Well, I’m considering moving here.”

“What do your parents think?”

“My dad is okay with it, my mom would rather I not live in a conflict zone or send her grandchildren off to war.”

“But you’re not afraid…you go among the Arabs, right? Like, you’re not afraid of them.”

It’s hard to know how to respond to that.

As we sat around the dinner table, everyone took turns calling the leftist protestors in Tel-Aviv idiots and traitors. They knew full well that I was one of those protestors. I passed my plate along to Gal. “Chicken, please?”

After dinner, we re-glued ourselves to the TV (which had merely been turned down for the meal). The news focused exclusively on Israeli soldiers killed in the fighting, and of course creative defenses of Israeli military action in the face of international criticism. I was surprised when, for a couple of minutes, Arutz 2 screened videos of Palestinian parents crying over their children in Gaza. Men and women sobbed openly, sitting amidst the rubble of neighborhoods reduced to ash.

 “Don’t think for one moment that they aren’t coached,” Moshe said.

“There’s nothing they say in front of the cameras that they haven’t been told to say. This is all just a big show for them.”

I fought to keep my tears from welling over.

The news played a segment on Khaled Meshal, a chief Hamas operative. It showed a home video of his eight or nine children at home, smiling and playing. Shiri’s boyfriend remarked,

“They’re all going to grow up to be terrorists.”

Perhaps he was right. But this is also our inner rationalization for killing children.

As the news continued to blare, more tearful interviews with mothers and siblings and friends of dead soldiers, I felt like a live pin cushion. Every sound bite another pinprick, piercing my nerves, my soul, my throat. I felt like crying and vomiting at the same time.

Eventually, I gave my cousins my parting gifts. Shiri gave me a half-hearted hug. Vered walked off without a second glance. As Moshe and Gal drove me back home to my apartment in Jerusalem, I offered one last bit of familial gesture.

 “You know, I may not be back in Israel for a long time. I know you’ve been considering a trip to the United States…maybe you should come visit.”

Moshe, in his first words to me all night, bristled from the front seat.

 “How dare you even suggest that I leave my country in a situation like this.”

“I was just, I didn’t mean right now, I meant maybe in a year or two.”

“Well, it’s just so inappropriate to even bring that up right now, to even think of going on vacation. It’s our obligation to sit in front of the TV, stay updated on the news, be here.”

Moshe did not give me a hug goodbye. Gal’s embrace lasted about half a second. As they drove off, I hobbled to the steps in front of my apartment and sat down. The tears couldn’t stay down any longer. I haven’t sobbed so hard for as long as I remember. Gasping for breath, I trudged my way up to the fourth floor, let myself in, and collapsed in a tearful ball on my bed.

~

My head was pounding the next morning. My eyes hurt. I put an ice cube in a plastic bag and held it against my left eye, hoping the puffing might go down. It was time for another goodbye.

“Can we move this up to 11:30?” I texted.

“Sure, no problem.”

As I trudged to the Old City in searing heat, I grabbed a cup of orange juice and downed two Excedrin Migraine. I had so wanted to greet Anwar with love and happiness, but I still felt sick from the night before. When I finally got to the Educational Bookshop, she was already waiting for me.

It had been over a month. Ever since the violence in Jerusalem had started, following the murders of Eyal, Gilad, Naftali, and Muhammad, neither of us had ventured into each other’s side of the city. I had been afraid to enter East Jerusalem, fearful of getting caught in the middle of some crossfire. Anwar had missed all of her final exams, terrified of walking around West Jerusalem in a hijab. We had stayed in touch via Whatsapp. I especially worried when there were sirens, knowing that she did not have a bomb shelter. There are only 2 public bomb shelters in all of East Jerusalem.

July 9, 2:01 AM: I can’t sleep

July 9, 2:45 AM: Me neither.

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 We finally met and the words came quickly, pouring out the miseries of the past month.

 “In all my life in Jerusalem, it has never been like this,” she said.

“I’m too afraid to take the bus. Everyone has stopped shopping on Yafo Street. Everyone is just staying inside.”

I had never seen her near tears before. I had never cried in front of her before. We both cried. The Palestinian men in the shop turned around, surprised to hear us wildly talking in Hebrew.

After a long, depressed, animated conversation, Anwar produced a small black notebook. We didn’t know how long it would be until we saw one another again. And so despite Facebook and WhatsApp, we decided to also share this notebook, shipping back and forth with handwritten letters and pasted photos and newspaper clippings. Our own international keepsake until next time…

After we wrote our first notes, I picked out an Arabic/English book of poetry by Mahmoud Darwish and bought myself my only souvenir. The owner of the bookshop implored, “But how will you practice Arabic over there?” He suggested that I keep up with Al-Jazeera. The waiter promptly burst out laughing.

Anwar dropped me off at the Damascus Gate in her car, and we hugged for one last time.

 “Be well,” she said.

I blew her a kiss and walked off.

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These Are My People

On the one hand…

I have never been so inspired in my life.

Tonight, over 7,000 Israeli protestors gathered in Rabin Square to demonstrate against the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza.  (Even in my words, I have thrown my own interpretation of the demonstration into the mix.  Some call it a war.  Some call it a genocide. Some call it an operation.  All of these interpretations were present.)  The message, despite the pluralism of opinions, was clear: violence is not the answer.

Amidst the crowds, it was beautiful to see familiar faces abound.  There was no shortage of hugging and smiling, friends greeting friends:
-an Israeli professor who had helped advise my undergraduate thesis
-a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace rabbinical council
-an Ir Amim intern
-another Ir Amim intern
-a member of the Ir Amim staff and their partner
-former Solidarity activists whom I had interviewed for my thesis
-a staff member turned friend from the Jerusalem Open House
-All That’s Left activists
-a dear Ta’ayush activist

I had never before surrendered to the release of chanting at a demonstration.  But tonight, waving my sign (Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies), I could not help but be swept away by the energy.  I chanted, with all of my might, surrounded by thousands of other Israelis, demanding an end to the violence.  There were elderly women.  There were young political activists.  There were mothers with children.  The most touching were the children.  I looked to them as we chanted together,  “In Gaza and Sderot, children just want to live!”

And the speakers.  The Israelis and Palestinians from Combatants for Peace who shared their stories.  The French-Israeli professor Eva Illouz.  The Israeli woman from “Kol Acher” (Another Voice), living on a Kibbutz bordering Gaza and demanding a nonviolent, political solution.  Ben Kfir, of the Bereaved Parents’ Family Forum, whose daughter was murdered by a member of Hamas in 2003.  And the amazing, amazing MK Dov Khenin.  Hands down, the best public speaker I have ever heard.

After weeks of roaming the streets in fear, nearly being attacked at a demonstration in Tel-Aviv, and watching helplessly as hundreds have been wounded and murdered, this the sort of deep affirmation that I needed.  I looked to the crowd, awed by the courage of so many to come out despite the threat of sirens & right wing attackers, and knew: these are my people.  And in the grand arc of Jewish history, human history, I’ll be damned if I don’t seize this moment to be a part of it.  I am so damn proud.

Toward the end of the protest, as the crowd dispersed, a small group sat around a candlelit vigil for the dead.  Photos of Israelis and Palestinians, killed in recent weeks, laid strewn among candles on the ground.  The lights spelled out the words “I’m Sorry,” in Hebrew and Arabic.  Almost in a whisper, the group began to sing “Shir LaShalom” (A Song for Peace).

I flashed back to high school, when my Hebrew class put on a play for “Israel @ 60.”  The entire school sang a rendition of Shir LaShalom together, parents and children, singing at the top of our lungs.  It’s strange looking back at it…we were both so innocent and so cruel.  Singing songs of peace, genuinely believing in our own sincerity, while simultaneously putting on a one-sided play about Israeli independence with no acknowledgement whatsoever of the Palestinian people.  It’s odd…while former classmates and teachers from my Jewish day school continue to decry the Left for its betrayal, the Left is the only place in Israel today where we can still sing that classic song of peace we sang as children.  It might be a cheesy, outdated, overplayed song.  But it’s my childhood, and it was a blessing to finally sing it authentically.

On the other hand…

This demonstration was impressively safe.  As left-wing activists & Palestinian citizens of Israel have been targeted by right-wing attackers across the country, some beaten to the point of hospitalization, Israeli police have come under criticism for not doing enough to protect its citizens.  But tonight, things were different.

The buffer zone was wide, delineated clearly by blue dividers.  Israeli border police were everywhere, some riding horses, prepared to keep the aggressive right-wingers at bay.  As the anti-war demonstrations of thousands went on, the the pro-war right wingers remained off to the sides, chanting things like “Death to Arabs” and “Go Die in Gaza.”  So long as they weren’t physically attacking us, I was satisfied.

As the demonstration drew to a close, we began to wonder what the exit strategy might be.  Weren’t the hundreds of right-wingers waiting for just the right moment to attack?  How would we get out of the enclosed Rabin Square and walk away safely?

I asked a border policeman if it was safe to leave.

“What?” he asked.

“I mean, are there people out there to protect us?”

“Yes, yes, there are plenty of police out there.”

My friends stayed close, some joining hands, and began to make our way out of Rabin Square.  The right-wing counter-protesters had rushed to meet us at the exit, and border policemen were struggling to keep them at bay.  In the crowd of people yelling “Death to Arabs” and “Go Die in Gaza,” I saw a familiar face.  It was the man who often makes my lunch sandwich, down the street from the office.  We have developed a friendly back and forth over the past few months…he even met my boyfriend.  And here he was, all of a sudden aggressive and terrifying.  I contemplated turning around and yelling his name, waving.  But it was too scary, and I made a mental note to talk to him this week over lunch…

Over the next few minutes, a scene unfolded in central Tel Aviv that would be shocking to anyone who knows Tel Aviv.  Hundreds of aggressive, angry right wing protestors blocked the main roads, took up whole sidewalks, and began to chase left-wing protestors.  Border police ran through the streets, also blocking traffic, surrounding and arresting them.  My friends quickly hopped into a cab, which couldn’t move.  There were violent confrontations all around us, and I rolled up my window.  Eventually, the cab driver was so fed up that he began to honk and drive head on into a group of right-wingers blocking the road.  They dispersed quickly, chanting together “Let the IDF Win!  Finish Them Off!”

One scene that will forever be etched in my mind:
Right-wing protestors, swarming the sidewalk in front of a hip Israeli bar, waving giant Israeli flags, and blocking traffic.  Border police bombarding the right-wingers on horseback, on horseback!  Israeli patrons of the bar whipping out their iPhones and snapping photos of the insanity.

We sped off in the taxi, the driver cursing under his breath.

“Why did they have to have a demonstration now?  Don’t they realize there is still a war going on?  Is this a time for protests?  Do we need to have two wars, one in Gaza, one in Tel-Aviv?

He said it, not me.

(I wonder what our driver would have thought of this piece, by Israeli writer Etgar Keret.)

Addendum

My friend Mori didn’t fare so well tonight.  Please read his important piece here about getting pepper-sprayed in the eyes, and caring for a young activist beaten in the head by an aluminum crutch.

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Good Night, Left Side

The four us sat submerged in a hellish type of heat, four stories below ground.  We were so far down that we could no longer make out the sound of the siren blaring over Tel-Aviv.  Hannah pulled her long hair back into a bun, and beads of sweat appeared on Jeremy’s brow.  Young Haredi children jumped and stomped around the underground parking lot as their mother wiped her wrinkled forehead.  She seemed worried, and tired.

The situation was eerie.  An hour before, the Israeli public had received a message that Hamas planned to hit central Israel with a barrage of rockets at exactly 9:00 PM.  I had been in Tel-Aviv trying to escape the tension of Jerusalem, and suddenly the evening had turned into a nightmare.  A sense of trepidation and quiet filled the air, as people pre-emptively dipped into bomb shelters waiting for the siren.  But the real eeriness was at Habima Theater.   A group of Israeli activists had set up a demonstration against the war in Gaza & against the occupation.  Despite the expectation of rockets, the protest continued, determined to raise its voice against the violence until the sirens screeched it out.  And still eerier, a group of right-wing counter-protesters had arrived to physically assault the Israeli activists.  One of Israel’s most famous rappers, Yoav Eliassi (“The Shadow”) had called on his people (“The Lions”) to join him for the beating.  There was a palpable feel of fear in the air.

As we sat in the underground parking lot, a pair of young men in black t-shirts made their way down the escalator.  One of them eyed us, dripping in sweat, and then eyed us again.  I knew that Jeremy was wearing his “Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah” t-shirt.  Shit.  I turned to Hannah.

“Look at these guys.  I think they’re looking at us.”

“Yup.”

Hannah turned to Jeremy.  Jeremy turned to Sam.  We all turned back to the young men in black t-shirts.  One shirt bore the words “Good Night Left Side” and a strange insignia.  It seemed ominous.

The guys eyed us for a while, talking amongst themselves, and finally approached us.  For the second time in my life, I worried that Jeremy might be attacked while sitting right next to me.  (I suppose this is a bizarre aspect of our friendship.)  I contemplated lunging in front of him if they tried to punch, thinking that maybe they would be too afraid to hit a girl.  But who am I kidding?

“Nice shirt.”

Silence.

“Who are you?  Where you from?”

More silence.

“You are a traitor.”

We all looked at the ground, not meeting their eyes, not speaking.

“Are you all with this person?”

Still silence.  I think we all shared the same instinct to be as quiet as possible, not to provoke them any further.  It reminded me of being surrounded by a group of men on Jerusalem day as they shouted at me and flicked cigarette sparks into my face.  It also reminded me of almost being chased by wild dogs.  We all maintained our silence.

 “You must all be traitors!”

They pointed to each of us in turn, angrily shouting in the depths of the parking garage.

“You’re a traitor.  And you’re traitor.  And you’re a traitor.  And you’re a traitor.”

My heart was racing but I was very quiet.  I looked at Hannah and back to the ground, back at Hannah and back to the ground.

After a few moments, the men walked away.

“I’m scared,” I whispered to Hannah.  “What if they come back?”

“It’s okay,” she responded.  “They won’t hurt us.  There are lots of people around.”

How could we have known that immediately above us, outside, The Shadow and his army of right-wing protesters were attacking Israeli left-wing activists and breaking chairs over their heads?  How could we have known that these violent men had raided a nearby coffee-shop, turning over tables and breaking coffee cup in search of their prey?  How could we have known that four left-wing activists would be injured and one hospitalized?

We were very, very lucky.  When the sirens died down, we ascended to ground level.  Jeremy turned his shirt inside out.

But what scares me most is what I found out the next day.  As I scoured the Internet, devouring stories of left-wing activists attacked in Tel-Aviv, I found an explanation for the odd “Good Night Left Side” t-shirt.  As it turns out, the slogan and insignia were adapted from neo-Nazi t-shirts in Europe.  These Israeli right-wingers had actually put in the effort to redesign the logo, replacing crosses with Stars of David.  Several of them, including our personal would-be attackers, had worn them to the demonstration.  As photograph after photograph circulated the Internet, I struggled to absorb what had happened.  The first time in my life that I had ever felt threatened by some form of Neo-Nazism had been in Tel-Aviv.

The first time in my life that I had ever felt threatened by some form of Neo-Nazism had been in Tel-Aviv.

It brought me back to a conversation I had had two years ago with a beautiful young man on the grassy quad of Hebrew University.  My Residential Advisor had called on him to comfort me after my first brush with an angry Israeli security guard calling me a traitor.  (I have since had many of these experiences…but back then it was a fresh wound.)  This young man was a Solidarity activist, an experienced left-wing activist in Israel, and had some validating words to say.  But what scared me about our  conversation was his certainty that fascism was taking hold in Israel.  As I forced myself to imagine it, I simultaneously recoiled from the idea, thinking it couldn’t be possible.  This is what I wrote on May 5, 2011.

“I looked at Shai*, and somehow, I imagined him disappearing into the air. And when he really was gone, off to class, I looked at the spot that his body had filled just moments ago, shocked that he had come into my life so quickly, changed it so drastically, and then just walked off. It felt surreal, almost as though he was some sort of angel. Although, to tell you the truth, it also had an eerie feel. We talked about the Holocaust, how personal it was to him. We talked about fascism, and the increasing fascist discourse in Israel. And he said, as long as we can still raise our voices together to work for this cause, we will. It was scary, terrifying, in the implication that we may be silenced. That we may do to ourselves what was done to us, what has been done to so many others. I imagined the death of the Left, the blowing of the wind, and him, sanitarily gone. All of us, missing from the natural beauty around us. When I look around me, I can imagine empty spaces. People who would be walking beside me had they not been placed in administrative prison. Had their grandparents not been murdered by Nazis. Had they not been shot for having a difference of opinion, or a difference of skin color. Could that happen to us? To Shai?”

Last weekend, a group of left-wing Israeli activists were attacked by right-wing Israeli thugs wearing neo-Nazi t-shirts.  The police ran away at the sound of the siren.  No arrests were made.

I’m afraid.

(Photo Credit: Ha’aretz, http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.605234)

 

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I have never been more conscious of my womanhood.

I have never been more conscious of my womanhood.

1. I stood and looked on in the center of Zion Square. A bizarre scene unfolded before my eyes.  Orthodox men (both modern Orthodox and Haredi) stood in large crowds, facing off against solitary left-wing Jewish Israeli men. Compared to the violent mobs of the day before, this was child’s play. But their voices were loud.

“You don’t understand! The Arabs hate us because we are Jews. We hate that Arabs because they are murderers!”

I feared for my friends’ safety, each one standing alone encircled by crowds of angry Kahanists. The crowds began to close in. I prayed it would not come to blows. But as a woman, I felt excluded from this manly exchange. There were no women arguing in the crowd. I couldn’t help but wonder – if these men began to attack my friends, could I somehow use my woman-ness to intervene?

As we were about to leave, a Haredi man began another argument with my friend. I stood by, silent, safe in my status as an onlooker. But then he turned to me, unexpectedly, and said,

“Hey, I remember you! You have one of those annoying, unforgettable leftist faces, you leftist bitch.”

I stood there, shocked for a moment. I had said nothing to provoke this, but I suppose my association with other left-wing men was provocation enough.  I attempted to use “I” statements and the communication techniques I had learned to defuse tension in difficult conversations.

“Well, I’m insulted that you would say that to me. I literally didn’t say anything to you…and I think you have a nice face.”

“Well if you like to fuck Arabs so much, go die in Gaza.”

And again, excluded from the political conversation because of my womanhood. This man felt the need to tie my left-wing political views to his perceptions about my sexuality.  And he felt justified in voicing his assumptions about my sexuality as an insult to my face.  Not to mention that his very first words to me were a comment about my physical appearance.  That’s patriarchy, and it’s dangerous.

But then, I had already known that the insults hurled at left-wing women in this country are always much more sexualized than the insults hurled at men. While men are generally called “traitors,” women are more often called “sluts” who like to “fuck Arabs.” Unless men are insulted by being likened to women.

2. I walked home to Nachlaot with Jacob, my very tall friend. As bands of Kahanist youth roamed the streets at night, he sought to tear down their stickers and paste messages of peace on lamp-posts and empty walls. While I would have certainly done this in broad day light (and often do), the darkness and violence in the air terrified me. But Jacob was unfazed, and I felt safer in his presence.

Each time he ripped down an anti-miscegenation sticker, or a “Kahane Was Right” sticker, my heart bopped in anxiety. I would hold the stickers as he would climb high to find a good, safe spot to stick them. My neck would twitch back and forth, eyes darting crazily around the streets, looking for possible trouble. The first few times, we were fine.

I was starting to feel good. We found a “Kahane Was Right” sticker pasted to the sidewalk and leaned down to peel it off. As we kneeled to the ground, it felt like we were simultaneously mourning and building. The act of peeling, digging into the cement with our finger-nails, felt like a prayer. Until I felt a hard kick against my arm.

A young Kahanist teenager stood above us. He had actually kicked my arm. Now, his shoe was resting squarely over the sticker, blocking our prayerful fingers. Afraid, I edged away while Jacob stood (sat) his ground on the sidewalk.

“Why are you taking down this sticker?”

“Because it makes us uncomfortable,” said Jacob.

“Well you make me uncomfortable! You’re a Jew hater!”

“Well if you hate me, then you’re a Jew hater too!”

I looked the aggressive teenager squarely in the eyes.

“Do you know what makes me uncomfortable? As a woman, I’m uncomfortable with the fact that you just touched me without my permission.”

“Oh yeah? Go file a complaint. See if anyone cares.”

Terrifying. The terrifying knowledge that violent men know full well that society will protect them if and when they attack women. The terrifying knowledge that this man was unashamed to use this knowledge against me.

I started to walk away, beckoning to Jacob to follow. We didn’t finish peeling off the sticker. As the aggressive teenager walked away, he yelled out, “I hate you!” I yelled back, “It’s not mutual!” But over the din, I don’t think he got my message. I somehow wish I could have told him I loved him. I know that might sound strange.

4. I decide to walk past Zion Square on my way home from work. I am leaving the office at 10:00 pm…things have been busy. I know that Kahanist and Lehava activists have been gathering on Zion Square each night for the past few days, and I’m curious as to what they are up to. I also know that left-wing activists have been discreetly (and not so discreetly) roaming the area in an attempt to prevent incitement and violence. Some people have been patrolling all night, into the early hours of the morning, desperately trying to protect the unfortunate Palestinian who might be walking around West Jerusalem at night. The police have been, needless to say, ineffective.

The Lehava is an organization set up to “prevent intermarriage” between Jews and Palestinians. They post stickers in Arabic all over East and West Jerusalem stating, “Do not even think about a Jewish woman.” They provide a hotline for Jewish women supposedly “trapped” in interfaith relationships, or for families and friends to “report” on Jewish women who may be dating a Palestinian. They insist that they can help. And they have been among the most active groups in Jerusalem of late, selling t-shirts that say “Jews love Jews” and setting up protests in the streets. Many of their followers are Kahanists.  But they insist that they are not racist.

I walk to Zion Square and notice that the Lehava have set up a booth, complete with pamphlets, stickers, and t-shirts for scale. I spot my friend with his bicycle.  He approaches me and says, “Look, the fascists have set up a booth!” His voice cracks with pain beneath the humor. I decide to get closer, maybe take a flier. Before I even reach the table, a Lehava activist hands me a sticker. It says, “The women of Israel for the nation of Israel.” I look up at him, smile, and say thank you.

What I really want to say is, “Why do you think my body belongs to you?”

And I know this is dangerous. I know that throughout history, women’s bodies have been used as markers of communal and political boundaries. That men have expressed their anxieties about social mixing through the policing of female sexuality. When law and society become more misogynistic, more controlling of women and their bodies, it is a sign of crisis. Not to mention that it is structural violence against women.

Not to mention that for much of history, it was considered dirty and offensive to have sex with a Jew.

5. A group of young men and women meet on the sidewalk, next to a low-key neighborhood bar. We have organized with a mission:  to tear down the patriarchal stickers in Nachlaot. And, if need be, plaster them over with feminist stickers. We are tired of walking the streets of our neighborhood and feeling harassed and ashamed about our clothing choices. Women’s clothing and bodies should not be policed in the public sphere, and we are taking our neighborhood back.

I meet my roommate and her sister, and invite another young Israeli woman to join our team. We roam the streets of Nachlaot ripping down the so-called “modesty” stickers. It feels like guerilla feminism, and we are giddy in our power. It’s the first time I have felt powerful as a woman all week.

As we post one feminist sticker on a lamppost near the market (How Am I Dressed? Call 1-800-None-Of-Your-Business) a young woman approaches us. She stares up at our sticker intently, smiles, and asks if she can have one as well. We smile wider, flash our stickers like a deck of cards, and invite her to participate. One woman explains the rules.

“For example, if you see a Lehava sticker, and you can’t rip it off, you can put this sticker over it.”

“What’s wrong with the Lehava?”

Oh, fuck. My heart sinks as our moment is destroyed. As it turns out, this young woman is a member of the Lehava steering committee. She explains that there is nothing anti-feminist or racist about the Lehava. “What if they just want to protect Jewish women from Arab men?”

 “But I don’t need their protection,” I say.

“Maybe you don’t, but other women might not make the same choices as you.”

“Listen, my first boyfriend was an Arab. I really loved him. I don’t feel like I needed protection from him.”

She looks at me dumbfounded. Silence. Then she turns to the Israeli woman next to me and starts to argue with her. Not another word in my direction.

As I walk home, I begin to contemplate the insanity of the situation. In the context of Jerusalem, and what has been happening in this city of late, this was a completely normal encounter. Lehava activists and Kahanists have been all over the streets every single day. But in the grand scheme of life, this was NOT normal. What if I had encountered a young woman in New York, affiliated with the KKK? Telling me she was not racist? And telling me that she considers herself a feminist? Perhaps this could happen in New York.  But it would be abnormal at best.  Traumatizing at worst. What kind of reality am I living?

I have never been more conscious of my womanhood. I have never been more conscious of the intersection between being a left-wing activist and a woman. I have never been more conscious of what this means specifically in Israel.

As I start to tiptoe around my fears and traumas, piecing together what this all means, I am reminded of something I once learned about fascism. In fascist political movements and societies, the authorities begin to determine and enforce traditional gender roles. Men are seen as warriors of the nation and women are seen as child-bearers. While this is typical of most societies, fascism takes it to an extreme. Sexuality is heavily policed, and deviant sexuality is punished with violence or death.

The deepest parts of myself know that I am experiencing the undercurrents of fascism in Jerusalem, and Israel.  And I know that I must listen to myself.  It is hard to grow and love in a place where I am so afraid.  Often, I am tempted to silence my voice as a woman, especially a political woman.

But even as my voice wavers, still I speak. And write. I have too many stories to share.

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As if the civilian population committed the kidnapping.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 

2:00pm

“I’m parked in front of the market.”

I have no idea what Manal is talking about.

“Do you mean, on the way to Kufr Aqab?”

“No, I live in Kufr Aqab.  I am parked in front of the market.”

Alright then.  Manal is waiting for me in front of some market somewhere.  I hazard a guess that it is indeed on the way to Kufr Aqab, and start walking in the direction of Ramallah from Qalandia checkpoint.  We stay on the phone as I describe my surroundings.

“Now I’m passing a café.  There are only men inside.  There is a gas station on the other side of the road.  It looks closed.  Wait, no, it’s open.”

Soon enough, I run into a parked car with a woman on her cell phone, smiling in my direction.

“Ahlan!  So sorry I was confused!”

“Not to worry, not to worry.  Today, you are my guest.”

I shake Manal’s hand and hop into her car, chuckling a bit to myself.  I thought I was coming for work.  Now I am certain that I will be invited to dinner.  What did I expect?

2:45pm

“I don’t want my children to see what I have seen, to experience what I have experienced.”

Manal was a young woman, about my age, at the time of the Second Intifada.  As she speaks, I am shocked to hear her memory of the ordeal.  It feels so familiar.

“When the jets would fly over Ramallah, the sound was awful.  And then we would know, when the jet stopped in the sky, that it was going to release a bomb.  We would all run and take cover, stay away from the windows.”

“Did you have shelters?”

“What is that?”

“You know, in Hebrew it’s called a miklat, a protected safe-room, usually under ground.  It protects you from bombs.”

“No, no.  Actually, my uncle had something like that built into his home.  But no, we have no shelters here.”

I was silent for a moment, reflecting on how the Second Intifada had shaped the psyche of my generation.  Israelis my age still speak of instinctive fear when they step onto a bus.  I see the collective jolt every time someone screams or cries from a seat in the back.  I see the constant vigilance over lost shopping bags and abandoned pieces of garbage: suspicious objects.

“If there is a Third Intifada, I will take my children away.  Maybe to Dubai, or Canada.  But I do not want them to see what I have seen.  I will protect my children.  I am still afraid of the sound of airplanes.”

3:15pm

 An endless array of fashion sketches are spread out before me.  Penciled super models wearing spiky high heels and backless dresses, some with horn-rimmed glasses, some with leather handbags.  Farah peppers me with commentary about her drawings, explaining how different fabrics are handled in the textile factory and what it takes to be a fashion designer.  Her own clothes are all handmade, including a pair of wild patterned flowing pants that definitely belong on a runway.

I muse aloud that I seriously have no sense of fashion.  Farah shuffles through her drawings, seizing on one woman dressed simply in jeans and a t-shirt with a scarf.

“This one looks like you.  She dresses simply, but sometimes less is more.”

I look at Farah and want to cry a little bit.  I remember my first trip to Israel as a thirteen year old girl.  That was the summer I met my Israeli cousins for the first time.  It was shocking to see my family living in a parallel universe over here, divided by the Atlantic into two totally different realities.  But still, our smiles bore some genetic resemblance, some mystical connection difficult to articulate.  When I met my cousin Neta for the first time, she ran up to her bedroom to collect a sketchbook of fashion designs.  My mother and I had flipped through the pages, marveling at lifelike portrayals of fashion models in skinny zebra patterned jeans and colorful pink scarves.

“I want to go to fashion school when I grow up!” she had insisted. At the time she was 12 years old.

In fact, when Neta was serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, she got time off once a year to design specialty Purim costumes at a fancy boutique in Tel-Aviv.  Now that she has finished her military service, she will begin a program in Gender Studies & Fashion Design at Tel-Aviv University.  Her sketches are every bit as daring as they were ten years ago.

Farah snatched up the designs as her mother brought out food for dinner.

“I will go to study fashion at the Hebrew University.  I do not speak Hebrew, but I will learn it.”

I looked at her skeptically.

“I might have to cross the checkpoint to go study there, but it is worth it.  It is the best fashion design school in the world…Sometimes, they use the racism at the checkpoint.  But I will design clothing like my uncle.”

Farah’s uncle is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison.

5:00pm 

Manal wishes me luck as we had back in the direction of Qalandia in her car.

“There is a lot of traffic right now, around rush hour.”

I’m a bit stressed.  I hadn’t planned on staying for dinner, although I was truly grateful for the hospitality and warmth.  I just had a bunch of work to get done, and it was getting late.

“Every time there is an attack, we start to think about the checkpoint.  Every time there is a political event, we start to wonder what might happen at the checkpoint.  It could take two, three hours for the kids to get to school.”

I notice that traffic is moving fairly smoothly, for 5:00pm.

Thursday, June 12, evening time 

Eyal Yifrah (19), Gilad Shaar (16) and Naftali Fraenkel (16) are kidnapped in the West Bank.  They were apparently hitchhiking home from their yeshiva in Gush Etzion.  A burnt out car is found at the suspected site of the kidnapping.

Friday, June 13

12:35pm 

My boyfriend, Sam, is visiting from the States.  I bring him to the Old City to meet Anwar, one of my best friends in Jerusalem.  She is a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, and we met years ago in class at Hebrew University.  We try to get together once a week for coffee.

“So, did you hear about the kidnapping?” I ask.

“You mean the three boys in the West Bank?”

“Yeah.”

“Yes, yes.  I was in Bethlehem yesterday for my sister’s friend’s graduation ceremony.  There were Palestinian police everywhere.  Weirdly, I thought it was to direct traffic because of the graduation ceremony.  But then I heard about the kidnapping.  I guess that’s why they were there.”

“Hm.  Weird.”

“Yeah, it was weird.”

Anwar takes us to her favorite kebab place in the Muslim Quarter.  It looks like nothing special from the outside, but local Palestinian residents are crowding around waiting for a table.

“This isn’t Abu Shukri, tourists don’t know about this place.  But it’s the best kebab in the Old City.”

We sit down and eat our hearts out.   It really is the best kebab in the Old City.  My stomach hurts until the next day.

6:45pm

I am sitting in Gan Sacher in the cool evening breeze.  Sam is running around the track, blowing me a kiss every time he passes by.  I am typing away at my laptop, trying to think out some life decisions.  As I struggle to keep calm, a Palestinian family nearby gazes in my direction.

“Hey, do you want some orange soda?” says the father in Arabic-accented Hebrew.

“No, thank you!”

He mutters to his younger son, “Go, give her this cup of orange soda.”

Despite my protestations, I am presented with a bubbling plastic cup of orange soda.

“We also have some hot coffee if you like!”

“No, really, it’s okay!”

I sip at my orange soda until Sam is done running.  Time to shower, change, and head off to Shabbat dinner with my cousins.

“Shabbat Shalom,” calls out the Palestinian family.

“Shabbat Shalom,” I call back, giggling.  What’s the proper response to people who don’t observe Shabbat?

Later, after Shabbat dinner, we crowd in front of the TV and watch news coverage of the kidnapping.

I wonder how Manal and Farah are doing in Kufr Aqab.

Tuesday, June 24 8:51pm

I sit at Nachla, one of my favorite neighborhood cafes, sipping a crushed mint lemonade.  The night breeze is cool and the streets are alive with World Cup fans.  There is nothing amiss in the air.

Except that Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali are still not back.

Except that I have been too afraid to enter the West Bank lately.

Five young Palestinian men have been killed by the Israeli Defense Forces in the past two weeks:  Ahmad Sabarin (20) in the Jalazone Refugee Camp, Muhammad Dura (14) in the Qalandia Refugee Camp, Mustafa Aslan (22) in the Qalandia Refugee Camp, Ahmad Khalid (36) in the al-Ein Refugee Camp, and Mahmoud Atallah Tarifi (30) in Ramallah.

Dozens of Palestinians have been wounded.

Almost 400 Palestinians have been arrested, many associated with Hamas.  None have been charged.

At least 2,000 IDF troops have been deployed in Hebron.  Approximately 600,000 Palestinians living in Hebron are under lockdown.  Their homes are being raided systematically as part of the search for the teens.  Their kitchens look like this:

10492134_670474429696128_4282080876466242802_n (1)

Over 1,500 Palestinian institutions have been raided, many associated with Hamas. Notably for me, the offices of “This Week in Palestine” were also raided. That’s a fun guidebook for concerts, restaurants, and cheap hostels in the West Bank & East Jerusalem…

Ramallah looks like this:

10492382_617622201645557_1501401726232050259_n

A prominent Defense official has stated:

The West Bank civilian population is ‘beginning to realize’ the price they’ll pay for the kidnapping…Three hundred thousand people are under curfew, and after eight years of relative prosperity they are beginning to realize [the implications].  Thousands, each of whom support six or seven family members, possess permits to work in Israel.  Because of the curfew, they can’t work, and this has a visible impact on the population.  With two weeks left before Ramadan, the population’s preparations for the holiday have taken a hit.

As if the civilian population committed the kidnapping.

I wonder if Farah was able to make it to school this week, with Qalandia closed multiple times.  I make a mental note to Whatsapp her mom.

I wonder about Benjamin Netanyahu’s final thoughts before he drifts off to sleep tonight.  The kidnapping of these innocent Israeli teenagers has been the greatest political boon to his administration all year. It seems that this kidnapping, this act of terrorism, has handily served to justify a massive incursion into the West Bank, further entrench the occupation, and arouse mass public support around racist propaganda. Does that bother him? Does he feel guilty, somewhere deep down, that this kidnapping has served him well? Nothing is “a-political” in this place.

I wonder why Palestinian lives are cheaper than Jewish Israeli lives.

I wonder about Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali.  Are they breathing?

 

 

 

 

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“Go Fuck Yourself,” and Other Gentle Words

(Photo Credit:  A. Daniel Roth)

I can probably count the number of times that someone has told me to go fuck myself.

There are all of those fights I got into with my brother.  We probably said this to each other multiple times.  I’ll collectively call that “one.”

There are all of those people who I suspect secretly dislike me, and might potentially say this to me while perusing my Facebook photos.  I’ll collectively call that “one and a half.”

And then there were all of those Birthright participants yesterday.

Yesterday, I participated in a direct action against the Israeli occupation along with fellow members of All That’s Left.  The action was simple and powerful.  We brought giant American flags to the Shuk, Ben Yehuda Street, and Zion Square—places where American Jews tend to hang out on their trips to Israel.  In each location, we staked out a spot and performed a bit of street theater.  “We are here.  To Announce.  That from this day forward. This piece of land. Belongs. To Americans Only.”  As we forcibly occupied these spaces, appearing to be some really crazy right-wing Americans, curious Israelis and American tourists gathered to watch.  And then we handed out these fliers:

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You can read more about the ups & downs of the action in Mori’s excellent piece here.  Or in his +972 piece here.  I especially urge you to take in the incident of the man in the electronic wheelchair.

But I want to take you on a journey with me through what it means to hear “go fuck yourself.”

As we approached our first Birthright group, I’m not really quite sure what I expected.  I do know that I felt relatively calm.  These were American Jews, my people.  Nothing to be afraid of.  We set up our flags, stood on our chair, and chanted our takeover.  At first, the Birthright group was enthused and attentive.  But then they got our fliers.

“Go fuck yourself!” said the first brave young man.

As the group awkwardly looked to one another for guidance, their trip leader informed them that we were a group of “anti-Israel activists” and began leading them in an IDF song to drown us out.  That was all it took for the “fuck yous” to come out in a torrent.  Also: “go home,” “you’re a fucking embarrassment,” and “get the fuck out of here.” Some of the young women called out to the men in our group, “what you really need is a blow job!” As the Birthrighters began to leave, they walked past us one by one, ripped up the fliers, and threw them in our face.  It felt a bit like Mean Girls.  I also saw a few middle fingers.

(Quick note on the insanity of women using sexualized insults against men:  Way to hop on board with the sexist tactics so often used against us.  Makes me proud to be feminist.)

For some reason, I was really taken a back.  In fact, after the first “go fuck yourself,” I was already done. I stood in front of the Birthright group silently, brow furled, absorbing their anger.  I didn’t want to continue with the action, and I wasn’t sure I would join the group at the next few stations.  This felt worse than getting tear gassed last week in Bil’in.  Frantically, I tried to figure out why.

I thought maybe it was just jarring to get cursed at.  Especially for a non-aggressive, non-confrontational person, I don’t often experience verbal assaults like that.  But that wasn’t it…I actually didn’t feel personally insulted at all.

Then I thought, maybe it’s because I identify with this group.  Warmer.  I identify with them.  I am a card-carrying American Jew, and a proud one at that.  I was once a  participant on a NFTY-in-Israel trip, matching t-shirts and all. And because I identified with them, I was deeply ashamed of their reaction.  I couldn’t believe that in the face of local, on-the-ground anti-occupation activists, all these young men and women could muster was a “fuck you.”  They had come to Israel to learn about the country, right?  Forget the ideological, propagandistic purposes of Birthright.  These young American Jews, as individuals, had taken a trip to Israel to learn about the country.  And instead of asking questions, engaging, disagreeing, all they could do was dismiss us out of hand, and pretty grossly at that.  Despite our exceptionally near-sighted modern discourse on Israel, it is indisputable that the Jewish people have been a questioning people throughout history.  We have a proud heritage of bringing breathtaking intellectual insights and knowledge into this world, rooted in our deep love of learning.  What would Maimonides say to an opinion that made him uncomfortable?  Spinoza?  Einstein?  Certainly not “fuck you.”

Then I thought, in what circumstance would I ever react like that to anybody?  Certainly as a NFTY-in-Israel kid, I couldn’t imagine cursing at anti-occupation activists.  As a curious 14 year old, I probably would have taken the flier, quietly gone back to the youth hostel, and looked up the word “occupation.”  But if a white supremacist Neo-Nazi group marched onto my college campus and starting chanting about racial purity, I can imagine myself saying “fuck you,” for sure.  Does that mean that we basically represent the equivalent of white supremacist Neo-Nazis to our fellow American Jews?  Is that what opposing the occupation has come to mean?  That thought scared me a bit too much, so I stopped thinking it.

But that wasn’t it.  There was more.  Mori spoke about the philosophy of nonviolence, the necessity of creating tension to bring out the structural violence of the system.  That’s all well and good, but let’s think deeper about the implications of that.  Last week, I participated in a demonstration against the Separation Barrier in Bil’in.  This was a form of nonviolent action directed against the Israeli occupation.  In response to the demonstration, the IDF shot tear gas from behind the Wall.  Bringing out the structural violence of the system.  If there were hundreds of nonviolent protests, all along the Wall, every day, the occupation would be unable to sustain itself.  For one, the IDF would run out of tear gas.  But more importantly, the violence of the system would exhaust itself against the ongoing nonviolent protest of the Palestinian demonstrators.  It worked in Montgomery.  It worked in India.  It could work here.  But these were American Jews, not Israelis.  What does it mean when we,  American Jews, get uncharacteristically aggressive in response to a nonviolent action against the Israeli occupation?

It means that the American Jewish community is embedded in a system of structural violence.  It means that we are symbolic soldiers of the occupation, using our Jewish Day Schools and youth movements and Hillels as training grounds.  It means that we, too, have lost our ability to deal rationally with nonviolent protest.  We may not have guns or tear gas, but we do have “fuck you.”  And aggression is all we can really muster when we feel threatened.

I think I was mostly just shocked to watch that play out.

The rest of the action was sad and difficult to bear.  We did one performance in Zion Square, where an American Jewish couple with their Russian-Israeli tour guide wandered over.  The Israeli guide was supportive and took a flier with interest.  The American Jewish woman took a flier and perused it, attempting to figure out what was happening.  Her husband read over her shoulder, and then slowly asked, “Wait, so is this a pro-Palestinian thing you’re doing here?”  A member of the collective tried to explain what we were all about, but the moment he didn’t deny the “pro-Palestinian” label, we were done.  The woman took the flier and gave it back.  “No thank you,” she said with disgust.

I suppose we have gotten to a place where a white American Jewish woman from New York, who probably votes Democrat and considers herself to be a progressive, can throw back a flier in disgust at the mention of the word “Palestinian.”  It’s not racist right?  Just self-preservation.  You know, from a race made up entirely of terrorists.

At performance after performance, we were cursed at and insulted.  I kept telling myself, this is so against my personality.  I’m an introvert.  I like being by myself and reading books.  I hate confrontation.  I hate it when people are mad at me.  Somehow, I forced myself through the entire thing.  Emotional blow after emotional blow, I realized that I may not be the type to stand on a chair and project a commanding voice over the crowd.  But that’s precisely the point.  I made myself uncomfortable this weekend, in an effort to make my fellow American and Israeli Jews uncomfortable, in an attempt to bring out the discomfort that Palestinians feel on a daily basis as non-citizens in a discriminatory system.  I guess that’s why I seem to be such a masochist in this place.

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