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:

3949632_orig

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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Welcome Home?

I inched toward the passport control station in trepidation.  These days, when I find myself face to face with the Israeli security establishment, my heart seems to race against its will.  I know my passport is American, my religion is Jewish, and my skin is white.  At this point, I even have a work visa.  But oddly, I can’t shake my fear of military checkpoints or clerks at the Ministry of Interior.   Only a few years ago, I stood in this same line at Ben Gurion airport with my high school class, and before that with my summer camp, and before that with my family.  At the time, I had no idea what the line was even for…just another step in the process of leaving the airport.  Now, I was nervously gripping my passport wondering what I would say if asked where I work.

“איפה את עובדת?”
[Where do you work?]

“הקרן החדשה לישראל.”
[The New Israel Fund]

Am I just imagining the visa officer’s narrowed eyes?  Or was that a smirk?  Or narrowed eyes and a smirk?

And then I put my finger exactly on what was so nice about spending a week in the United States with family and friends.  I mean, lots of things were nice:  sleeping in my childhood home, spending time with my parents, seeing my brother, catching up with dear friends from college, holding my boyfriend’s hand… But in a general sense, I felt so deeply comfortable back in the States and couldn’t exactly decide why.  And it was this:  not being treated with suspicion.

And because it’s hard to know how much I am truly treated with suspicion and how much I have internalized my experiences of being treated with suspicion, perhaps it would be more accurate to say:  not feeling suspect.  I loved flashing my American passport at the American passport control and getting sent through with a good-natured “welcome back.” (I have a whole new appreciation for the privilege of living as a citizen in your own country, and having a “home airport.”)  I loved telling people what I do in Israel and not worrying if they would call me a traitor.  And I loved walking through the streets of Manhattan and smiling at strangers, feeling like I could totally belong in New York City, no questions asked.

***

Of course, I got through the passport control just fine.  I actually felt a deep sense of calm as I settled into my seat on the sherut (shared taxi) ride back to Jerusalem.  The sun was setting, the weather was warm and breezy, and the air was quiet.  I relaxed into my seat and stared out the window to the views between Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem for almost an hour, until the man behind me decided to give us all a political lecture.

First he asked the taxi driver,

“How many Arabs live in Marseilles?”

“I don’t know…a few million?”

“And how many are Muslim?”

“I don’t know…probably a few million.”

“The Europeans slaughtered six million Jews, and in return they got millions of Arabs.  Well, bon appetit to them.  They should go right ahead.”

I waited for someone on the sherut to object.  After all, one of our fellow passengers was invoking a call for genocide in the same breath as memorializing another genocide (actually, our own).  Nothing.  I debated whether I should say something, warily noting the heavy traffic ahead and my desire not to get yelled at in my first hour back in Israel.  But he continued.

“You know, I grew up here, but now I’m a professor of Jewish history at a university in Germany.  You know, because they need a Jew to explain to them what the deal is.”

Silence.

“But still, I think the best place in the world for a Jew to be is here, in the land of Israel.  And the Arabs won’t even let us have that!  They have 22 other countries, and we don’t have any land to give of our small portion, and still this they demand!”

A woman with accented American Hebrew piped in, “Yes, that’s what frustrates me the most!  The Arabs have 22 countries of their own!”

“Indeed.  And then there are Jews who would actually give away pieces of this place, as if we have land available to give.  I mean, who are these Peace Now people?”

I thought to myself, lord, this guy would not like the critiques of Peace Now I hear from my friends on the Left…

“I mean, they do it out of good intentions.  But they’re naive, they think that the Arabs will make peace with us if only we give away land.  But there is no peace with the Arabs!  They just wanted their own state as a first step.  The next step is conquering all of Israel!  They want it all!”

The woman interjected, “Yes, they act with the innocence of small children…”

“Yes.  But then there are those who have just crossed every red line, who are total traitors, who just make a bad name for us in the world.  Like David Grossman.  Who is David Grossman anyway?  Has anyone ever read a word of his?  There is this obscene obsession with the intellectual elite who really have no intellect.”

Again, the woman agreed, “Yes, you’re right, the problem is that you can’t have just intellect with no faith…”

I squirmed in my seat and came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to say anything.  This man was clearly on a tirade and had at least one woman vocally on his bandwagon…I just didn’t want to waste my energy and my first night back getting into a fruitless battle in a shared taxi.

I think I regret not saying anything.

***

After the driver dropped this man off, I shrunk into my seat and wondered what he would have thought if he really knew the young woman sitting in front of him.  Based on his categorical definitions, it sounded like I would be the cross-all-the-red-lines-total-traitor type.  He had been chatting with me good-naturedly at the beginning of the ride about Purim and traffic and his neighborhood in Jerusalem.  Would he have berated me as a traitor?  Would he have suggested that I go to Europe to be slaughtered along with the rest of its Arab and Muslim inhabitants?  Or would he have grilled me and demanded that I answer every last one of his accusations throughout the entire ride home?

Which got me thinking, for the 434090th time, how can this place really feel like home if it makes me feel like that?

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On Nurturing Community as Political Resistance

I sat down for dinner the other night with Irle, a veteran American Jewish progressive activist who has spent much of his life shuttling back and forth between the US and Israel.  He wanted to take some time to reflect on how my fellowship has been going so far, and in his words, “to be inspired.”

Of course I insisted on my favorite restaurant in Jerusalem, Tmol Shilshom.  Named after famed Israeli poet S.Y. Agnon’s novel, it is both a restaurant and cultural hub, covered floor to ceiling in books of all genres and host to regular lectures and poetry readings.  As we both savored our sweet potato gnocchi, a strange, surprising sentence suddenly popped out of my mouth:

“The act of building community is, in essence, a political act.”

This gentle, friendly man, maybe a bit older than my parents, put his fork down.

 “You should really write this stuff up.  I mean, really.”

***

I told myself before I came to Israel this year that, this time, I would have to feel better.  That in order to feel safe, I would have to find my community.  I’ve now been here for about five months, and imperceptibly, I suddenly find myself feeling protected.  In a new twist of events, I am no longer Leanne facing her insecurities and fears alone.  I am Leanne: loved, nurtured and protected.

I started to realize my newfound sense of security gradually, and then all of a sudden.  At first, it was noticing myself becoming less worried about articulating my thoughts and beliefs to others, even strangers.

“Oh, you’re from New York!  Are you planning on making Aliyah?”

“Not really…”

“Why not?”

“I would feel guilty using that privilege knowing that thousands of Palestinians living in Jerusalem can’t even obtain residency status, much less get citizenship.  Not to mention the Palestinian refugees who don’t even have the option of making Aliyah.”

Just like that.  I noticed my responses becoming more natural, less fraught…

And then I noticed myself becoming more confident walking alone to Shabbat services at my favorite synagogue, knowing that I would inevitably run into strangers-turned-friends.  It was about three weeks ago that I marveled at my strange sense of rootedness in this place.  As I cheerfully walked from my neighborhood in Jerusalem to the German Colony, my mind wandered to the people who might be there.  Sure enough, from Hadar alumni to Pardes students to Women of the Wall activists, I felt surrounded by easy familiarity.  When did Jerusalem start to feel like my college campus?

And then I noticed myself becoming less vulnerable to attack.  I have begun to trust myself, to have faith in my own integrity and thinking, and to begin to question others rather than automatically questioning myself.  Last week, I was directly confronted with all of the classic critiques that I’ve been showered with over the past few years of my life:

  • What occupation?  How can you occupy your own land?

  • You are collaborating with the enemy.

  • You have come all the way from the United States just to do damage to this place.

  • You don’t care about the blood of IDF soldiers or Jewish victims of terror.

  • You get your information from lying media sources.

  • You are just a tourist and who doesn’t know anything about this place because you didn’t grow up here.

When listed as a series of sanitized bullet points, these critiques might sound stale and innocuous.  But when packed into a punch and articulated by a human being directly against you, they can really hurt.  I remember two years ago, when confronted in person with all of these accusations at once, I burst into tears and considered leaving Israel forever.  But last week, when it happened again, I was strangely unruffled.  Yes, my heart pounded a bit heavy.  But in a deep sense, I was able to recognize the hurt and trauma beneath the attack, as well as the enormous gap of ignorance.  Perhaps for the first time, my anxiety was not about self-doubt.  It was about the best way to respond with empathy and kindness, but still out of a deep sense of stability and confidence in my own position.  I am not invulnerable, but I have begun to grow a durable shell that is really understanding that is really confidence that is really faith.

It’s true, this growing sense of security is related to the accumulation of life experience and the natural trajectory of self-awareness that comes with growing up.  But is also has a lot to do with the building of community.

*** 

When I first arrived in Israel, I immediately inserted myself into three communities:  the NIF-Shatil Social Justice Fellowship cohort, the staff at Ir Amim, and the anti-occupation collective All That’s Left.  It was an act of preemptive self-preservation;  I knew that if I were to really come back here, I would need to feel nurtured in order to survive.  The fellowship was my automatic avenue; the ATL collective was my choice.

It took time to get to know people.  Ir Amim was the quickest; the entire staff was so incredibly warm and welcoming from the first day.  In truth, just having the privilege to be surrounded by each of the individual staff members of Ir Amim for an entire year is one of the most amazing opportunities I have ever been afforded.  They inspire me every day.  In short, Ir Amim provided me with a community of activists who are on the same political wavelength and work towards the same goals.  And they truly lead by example.  At Ir Amim, I will always have a someone to laugh with, cry with, meditate with, and celebrate with.  And the staff that enjoys chocolate as much as I do.

And then the fellows;  I was inspired by each and every one of them from the start, but developing closer relationships took more time because we see each other less often than we see the staff at our respective placements.  But over the past few months, I have come to savor the moments we have together, the way that they can make me laugh unlike anyone else in this country, and the words of wisdom that flow seamlessly into our easy conversations.  Not to mention that these are the people who I can hug in exhaustion at 11:27 at night, or host for sleepovers, or call just to ask for an impromptu coffee date.  I remember last week, I was waiting with a friend for a group of the fellows to arrive at a vigil.  When I saw a few them walking toward us, my face completely lit up.  My friend turned to me and remarked,

 “Wow, you seem really happy to see these people!”

I paused for a moment.

“Well, in Israel a friendly familiar face means a lot more than it does back at home.  It really does make me this happy to see them, every time.”

The fellows are the people here closest to my own experience.  Not to mention that I have had the added perk of being the youngest.  I have gotten to learn from everyone else’s life experiences and look to them as role models as I make my way through my own first year out of college…

And then there’s All That’s Left, a collective unequivocally committed to ending the occupation and focused on building the Diaspora angle of resistance.  It began as a group of Diaspora Jews living in Israel (permanently or not) working together on direct actions & online media campaigns against the occupation.  As alumni of ATL have returned to various locales in the Diaspora, satellite groups have popped up around the world with the same mission.  At first, I was skeptical.  The group contains one-staters and two-staters, BDS proponents and opponents, Zionists and non-Zionists.  I thought, what can an activist group do with no coherent vision for the future?

Well, as it turns out, lots of things.  But I’m going to focus on the building of community.

***

A few weeks ago, I felt attacked and afraid.  Without giving too much detail, I found that I was able to call friends, new and old, even immediately, even late at night.  All were ATL activists and NIF-Shatil fellows.  I found comfort and support, and the confidence one can find only in the knowledge that you are a part of a community, that there are people who will put themselves on the line to protect you.  I found that news of my situation spread quickly.  I woke up to text messages with encouragement and strategies for the next day.  I woke up with the affirmation that I was loved and cared for.

And for that reason, I felt safe in continuing to do the work that I do.

And then last week.  All That’s Left held a candle-lit vigil in memory of the Baruch Goldstein massacre and subsequent years of devastating occupation in Hebron.  During the planning stages, detailed e-mails kept me apprised of strategies and tactics.  Long bus rides to and from Tel-Aviv after long days at work were made worth it when I could curl up in my bare feet and write press releases with newfound friends and soul mates.  And the silent vigil itself held more meaning than I could articulate in that moment, and I was glad to stand silently with my candle and poster in hand.  To think.  To contemplate the meaning of standing with tens of other Diaspora Jews who have learned and loved in similar spaces, who have all found our way to Israel, who are all wrestling together with what it means to keep our humanity in this dizzying place.  To look to my friends, to know that many of them, like me, grew up surrounded by young boys in colorful kippahs, to know that we have all stared the monster in the eyes, to know that we have all cried in our broken dreams.  To know that we face hatred, misunderstanding, and rejection from the people to whom we were born.  To know that we have each other, to know that it only takes us to begin to build, to know that at least in the end we will always be able to hold one another in our fear and shame and flickers of hope.  The All That’s Left vigil held more for me than just any other protest for any other issue that I hold dear.  It was my life surrounded by concentric circles of variations on Diaspora Jewish life, laced with the differences I have come to embrace and love.  And the very act of building loving community is political in essence.

I remember coming across a quote by Audre Lorde, an indescribably inspirational black feminist queer activist and writer.  She said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”  And I thought to myself, yes.  There are millions, billions of people in this world trying to survive in political, economic, and social systems that were not built for them.  In systems that, in essence, were built explicitly to exclude them.  And so just as deep as loud political activism and community organizing, self-care is an act of political warfare.  Self-care says: I am going to survive, and love myself, even as you seek to destroy me in your hatred.

But as I have come to discover, the building of community is an act of political warfare, too.  And I don’t mean community organizing or strategic thinking or tactical maneuvers (although all of that is important).  I mean the building of a nourishing community for people to find a sense of love and security in a system that seeks to make them feel unloved and insecure.  Yes, I am an upper middle class white Ashkenazi Jew living in Israel.  I am privileged beyond comprehension.  But I am also an outspoken critic of ethnic privilege and anti-occupation activist.  In many ways, I pose a greater threat to the system here than any Palestinian or non-Jewish international activist.  I am a Jew who says no to the existing narrative, which was supposedly meant for me.  And in that way, I am automatically unwanted by the reigning authorities of the Israeli government and mainstream Israeli society, which comprise the system that controls this place.

But I have insisted on finding a nurturing community here.  And there is one!  In our attempt to find happiness and love in the midst of our overwhelming sense of isolation and rejection in the belly of systematic oppression, All That’s Left and the interconnected web of the Israeli Left has created a radical community in and of itself.  In providing a space for left-wing activists to feel protected and understood, this community has allowed us to take care of our souls.  And when we take care of ourselves, we are saying: we will love ourselves despite the hatred we encounter.  That in itself is an amazing feat of resistance.  But then this self-love and sense of security allows us to wake up the next morning and carry on.

***

As we finished our meal, I thanked Irle for his validation and support.  This past week, I was fortunate enough to have three wonderful visits from the United States: one from my college thesis advisor, one from a woman who has spent her long life supporting Israeli civil society and now J Street, and one from Irle.  All encouraged me in my work, reminding me that I was part of a long tradition of social justice activists in the Jewish community and in the land of Israel.  I hadn’t realized how sorely I needed to hear that, not from my peers, but from my elders.  They reminded me that I am not only part of a young, spatially-bound community, but also an intergenerational, geographically diverse one.  Irle pointed out the Jewish activists of Brit Shalom, stretching all the way back to the Mandate Period.  “This isn’t new,” he said.  “You’re just a part of the tradition.”

I think my favorite quote of the night was Irle’s retelling of his own experience growing up and engaging in left-wing activism related to Israel/Palestine.  “You come to learn that if you’re feeling alone, you’re actually doing something right.  It’s all a part of the process.  Yes, you are feeling pain.  But it’s a good pain.”

Looks like I’m the one who left dinner feeling inspired.

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