I posted this video a while back, but now there’s a subtitled version. Definitely worth watching if you haven’t yet!
In the past few weeks, I packed up my belongings, got rid of a lot of them, and put much of them in storage. On Wednesday, I boarded a flight to Israel, with a suitcase bursting at the seams and a large backpack almost as full.
I’m back in Israel now, and plan to be here for a while. I left Germany just as winter was starting in earnest, and arrived just as what is called “winter” here is starting – which has a lot in common with late summer or fall in Germany, and nothing at all with German winter.
I’m thrilled to be back, and wondering how long the euphoria can last. I will finally resume posting in the coming days, and hope to be able to share with you some interesting thoughts and experiences.
If there’s something in particular you’d like to hear my take on, don’t hesitate to leave a comment!
Moriel Rothman, activist par excellence, poet, and blogger – whom I was glad to get to know during my last visit to Jerusalem – wrote a post much like one I’ve often considered writing:
I do not have a positive vision as to what should be here, in terms of political “solutions,” arrangements, et cetera. I do, however, have a very strong sense of what should not be here (for a more detailed list, see: Rothman, Blog About Things That He Thinks Should Not Be, Everyday, All Pages, www.thelefternwall.com). Here’s a metaphor I made up for this friend: let’s say Israel is a garden. There are some people who will try and plant flowers of solutions, of development, of progress here in this garden, and I think that is a good thing and I support them. However, I see my role not as planting flowers, but rather as weeding, weeding out violence, weeding out racism, weeding out oppression, weeding out hatred, et cetera. The weeds here have grown quite powerful, and probably by the fault of no single gardener or even group of gardeners but rather by the breezes, rainfalls, insects and chemicals of history and political circumstance. Someone needs to take them out so that there will be room for others to plant the flowers. If you try to plant a flower of “solution” in a garden overrun with weeds of violence or racism, the flower won’t have much of a chance to grow.
I can only imagine good coming out of my articulating for readers what it is I love about living here, whether to complicate the picture for those who are overly-excited about Palestine/Palestinians (if you will notice, I don’t often write positive things about Palestine/Palestinians either, and I am not a Palestinian Nationalist, even as I support Palestinians’ right to live in freedom, like everyone else), or to clarify for readers who find my work too critical that I truly do what I do out of love and concern, and a desire to build and improve, even if I think that building needs to come from weeding dangerous phenomena (phenomena, and never people […])
I will indeed make a list of things I really like. Which is fun for me too.
1. The people. In general I really like Israeli people, even if I disagree with many of them re: politics/Palestine. I like their directness, I like their humor, I like their warmth, I like the diversity of history and of journey and of identity and of belief, I like the way we all share a sort of nutsness, especially Jerusalemites.
I love the garden metaphor, and I also love most of the things on Moriel’s list. Many of them really capture why I miss Israel and care so much about what goes on there. This post, like many on Moriel’s blog, is well worth reading.
Meta note: the lack of posts lately was mainly because of some drama I had, which I won’t get into here. The important thing is that everything’s fine now, even better than fine, and once I’ve finished catching up on some things, I expect to be posting again, for real.
I recently finished reading an amazing book about Israel and Jewish history, written over 20 years before I was born. The Source, by James A. Michener, is a thick tome spinning an intricate web of fictional stories spread out through the realistic history of a fictional tel1 called Makor (Hebrew for ‘source’) near Acre, in what is now Israel. In retrospect, I probably should have kept a reading diary, because there are so many things in this book I would like to comment on. Continue reading Book Review: The Source, by James A. Michener (1965)
- A tel is a hill composed of layers over layers of civilization; these things are everywhere in Israel. [↩]
Three hundred translators watched transfixed as an assortment of colleagues, speaking from their isolated studies across the globe in their respective languages, faced the camera and opened a narrative vein: out poured their stories of how they got interested in the Hebrew language, the years they spent cultivating their peculiar passion, the emotional relationships they maintained with the dead and living authors with whom they spent their waking hours, the daily warfare they waged against the Hebrew language’s obstinate refusal to fit its rhythms and archeological layers to the structural and cultural molds of their far-flung nations.
The film was “Translating,” by the Israeli filmmaker Nurith Aviv, a series of in-depth monologues by translators from Hebrew into other languages, and the occasion the annual conference of the Israel Translators Association in Jerusalem. The audience, whose linguistic gaps were filled by Hebrew subtitles, could identify with the speakers’ singular strain of obsession, their solitude, and their implicit surprise at being for once in the spotlight instead of the shadows wherein they normally lurk. The symphony of the dozen or so languages in which these unsung laborers told their stories, all referring to the one language they shared and revered, was mesmerizing. Continue reading Word Thieves
May each of the 37 “parliamentarians” who voted for this thing die slowly, and alone. Preferably of thirst, in the desert.1
- Note: I am strongly opposed to any action intended to cause any person to die in such a manner, and this is not to be interpreted as incitement to murder. It is merely that I would find it a fitting fate if they were to suffer that way, especially if they had nobody to blame for it but themselves. [↩]
Max Blumenthal has been raging against the official inclusion of the massive, strategically placed settlement of Ariel in the #J14 housing protest movement. (See Max’s Sunday post and Twitter stream.) I have to strongly disagree with his position, and I would argue that social justice for all, even the settlers, is a good goal and a good start.
I should preface this by saying that I’ve been following Max’s blog for months and this is the first time I ever strongly disagree with him; I think Max is an excellent journalist and activist and I believe we share many core values. I also agree with his assessment that the settlements, Ariel in particular, are unacceptable on multiple levels: they are built on stolen land, make people’s lives miserable (to put it mildly), and have done much to intensify and prolong the conflict.
However, the fact that the residents of Ariel are part of a horrendous crime does not mean they are not the victims of the Israeli socio-economic and political system along with the rest of us. No doubt, any person who knowingly makes the choice to move there is making themselves part of the occupation. But the fact that the settlements have grown so slowly despite massive government support, and the fact that only about a third of the West Bank settlers are ideological, tells me that the West Bank is hardly anyone’s first choice for location. Since stolen land tends to be the cheapest kind, especially when it’s also subsidized, there has always been a strong economic incentive to move to the settlements. The people who end up making that choice are people who, like the rest of us, were not able to achieve the standard of living they aspired towards, but made a dubious choice (one supported by many vocal members of society and government.)
Let me be clear: nothing can justify the choice to be part of the colossal crime of the settlements. But making that wrong choice does not make a person or their family less of a victim.1
But making this about the wrongs perpetrated or perpetuated by different parts of Israeli society is the wrong way to go. I’d say it plays right into Netanyahu’s hands, and goes along perfectly with the economic and social system of Israel, pitting sectors of the populations against one another. If Netanyahu had his way, J14 would exclude the settlers (alienating big parts of the right), it would exclude non-Jews (alienating big parts of the left) and it would be almost entirely a movement of spoiled young Ashkenazis whose parents and grandparents were part of the old elite (alienating almost everyone else). With that kind of movement, Netanyahu could just sit tight and wait for it to blow over.
But since the movement is radically inclusive – going both against mainstream prejudice (e.g. that the Arabs are not part of this society) and the prejudice of many activists (e.g. that all settlers are the enemy) – it is able to actually achieve something, and so far has not made an enemy of any major sector of society. Only the government and some far-right nationalists seem strongly against the whole thing. And this openness is undermining vital underpinnings of the occupation – whether J14 acknowledges the connection or not.
How? First and foremost, it has ended the prevailing apathy in much of society and made it possible to discuss almost anything. People are very publicly talking about racism, the division of resources, even the use of “security” to silence social movements, and many people are actually listening. This won’t end the occupation tomorrow or in a month, but then nothing else could, either. In the longer run, it sets the stage for major changes to happen, and we may find many more people willing to listen than we did before. The movement seems to be redefining “left” and “right” so that for many people, being a “leftie” isn’t the absolute worst possible thing ever anymore.
Moreover, the movement’s focus on the division of resources will make it very difficult for future governments to act as if the settlements are the only part of the country worth their attention (as this government sometimes has). The movement may well work against the interests of the settlement movement while at the same time working in the interests of individual settlers. These interests are not identical.
Finally, with general welfare now at the center of the public agenda, and general disillusionment about the government’s narrative, many people will be reminded of how peace is in their own interest and refuse to buy excuses for maintaining the current line of policy.
I think it is unrealistic to expect immediate solutions from J14 – whether for social issues or political ones. There’s a lot of work ahead and absolutely nobody can predict how things will go. But looking for excuses to distance oneself from J14 plays only into the hands of the status quo.2
- In the same way, the generation that started this country was both victim and perpetrator, and the two do not cancel each other out — the victimhood does not cancel out the atrocities as the right would have it, and the atrocities do not cancel out the victimhood as some in the far left would have it. [↩]
- And anyone who doesn’t see their position or background represented in the movement should stop whining, go out and make their voice heard. The only thing stopping you is you! [↩]
I had the pleasure of translating an important post (Hebrew) by the always-excellent Shalom Boguslavsky. Here it is in English:
Should you strengthen the van, you will weaken the rear.
Should you strengthen your right, you will weaken your left.
If you send reinforcements everywhere, you will be weak everywhere.
“The Art of War”, ca. 500 BC
Fifteen years ago I didn’t know what “Nakba” means. I was probably more politically involved than today, I had already entered into dialog with Palestinians, I was familiar with the Palestinian National Covenant and all that stuff. I wasn’t exactly an ignoramus in these things, but I didn’t know the term “Nakba”, for the simple reason that nobody around me was using it.
Now it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know the term. It’s in every mouth and in the headlines of every paper. Netanyahu gives a special speech in its honor, “Im Tirtzu” distribute a brochure full of bullshit about it, and the very best publicists write articles about it. It doesn’t matter that most Israelis’ response varies between curling up in a whimpering ball in the corner and vehement denial. The central thing is that the issue is on the table. Because political success is measured in what’s being talked about even more than in what’s being said. Almost nobody in the Jewish political system wants to talk about the Nakba. They would not have brought it up on their own initiative, and nonetheless they have been forced to deal with it.
The credit for this success belongs mainly to Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Oslo two-nation-states doctrine left them as dead weight, and so, unrepresented by the government of the Jewish state and neglected by their Palestinian brethren, they started moving to turn the Arabs of 1948 into a political group demanding recognition as such, from the Palestinians, from Israel and from the international community.
Here there is an interesting parallelism between them and the settlers. The settlers, too, have been required to pay the price for a solution that does not address their needs. The settlers, too, have been pushed to reorganize and make themselves present in the public discourse, and they too have used 1984 to do this, and for a similar reason: floating the issue of ’48, reminding everyone that the heart of the conflict lies there, is the best way to float the limitations of a solution based on the 1967 lines. So the settlers, like the leaders of the Arabs of ’48, make sure again and again to remind us that Sheikh Munis is conquered land, and that a solution will not come without seriously addressing this fact. In this respect, the the most radical thing in today’s politics would be if the settlers and the Arabs of ’48 started to talk. Unlikely? Maybe, but stranger things have happened and I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened too.
In 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote his exemplary essay “The Iron Wall”. Besides being a master’s class in political writing, the article was quite on target for its time, and to a significant degree for ours as well. Jabotinsky presents the Zionist movement as a colonial project no different from the familiar European colonialism (today some would call him “traitor” and “anti-Zionist” and demand to check his funding over this). He argues that the attempts at dialog with the Arabs are fantasy, as no nation – and he recognizes them as such – would agree to a foreign entity being established on its lands, and his conclusion, which he called an “iron wall”, is that the Jews must become such a force as to make it impossible to move them elsewhere or hinder them from realizing their aspirations. But the “iron wall” has an expiration date: when they realize the Zionist project is a fait accompli, Jabotinsky wrote, the moderates will come to us with offers of mutual concessions, and then the conflict can be solved in dialog.
In 1923, all of this was science fiction. But as befits a text that reflects sober recognition of reality more than some political ideal or another, we got to see it come true. The “iron wall” was put up, the Arabs failed in their attempt to hinder the Zionist project, suffering catastrophe in the process, and since the 1970s the moderates have been coming to us with offers of mutual concessions. They don’t do it out of recognition of the rightness of the ways of Zionism – this they will never do – but because it is clear to them that the presence here of Jews as a national group is a fait accompli. They regret it, but will clench their teeth and find ways to co-exist. Just as Jabotinsky knew they would.
But his self-proclaimed heirs on the Israeli right have substituted the practical “iron wall” of force with an ideological “iron wall” made of fear.
My right to exist here comes from the fact of my existence here, as ending it would be an unjustifiable wrong. The right of the group to which I belong to define itself in terms of nationality comes from the right to self-definition and not from anything else. Where is such a thing to be heard, that such basic rights depend on some belief in the “righteousness of the way”? Who would ever think, for example, to make the right of the United States to exist dependent on the belief that the catastrophe imposed on Native Americans was justified? What’s this bullshit?
The international community recognizes the rights of Jews in the Land of Israel due to the fact of their presence in it. Even the Arabs, for the most part, are willing to recognize them on this basis, and of all people the Jewish politicians, wannabe patriots that they are, are shouting from every hilltop and under every tree that if it were only proven that our history does not excel in justice and morality or that our narrative is not absolute truth, we would have to pack the suitcase and swim back to the Ukraine. And you know what? Our history is no less ugly than others, and full of glorious atrocities. Those who believe recognizing that cancels their right to exist here are welcome swim to the Ukraine themselves. I am not here because of blind faith in some lie, and I intend to stay here even if it were proven that the fathers of Zionism were vampires from another planet that came here to conduct medical experiments on the local villagers.
So this is my “iron wall”: the rights of human beings do not depend on the purity of the historical circumstances that brought them where they are. This is a position we can defend. If we need to defend every misdeed of Zionism if not all Jews everywhere – as the Right wants us to – we will fail. And that is exactly what is happening now.
I am actually rather conservative as regards the Palestinian catastrophe. I do not accept, for instance, the claim that the status of refugee can be inherited. If it were so, all residents of planet Earth would have to receive such status. I also think it’s important to remind everyone that the ethnic cleansing of 1948 was bi-directional: the Jews were expelled from areas seized by the Arabs. I think the ethnic cleansing we committed was more a matter of circumstances than a dark conspiracy, and I certainly don’t beat myself up over the crimes of Zionism.
But I certainly admit and acknowledge them, do not presume to justify them all and certainly think we should take responsibility for them and resolve the matter in conjunction with the Palestinians. Not because there’s a matter of absolute justice here but because this is unfinished business between us, and we will have to resolve it. And yes, this will have a price that I don’t necessarily like. That’s how it is.
But for us to deal with it, we need our politicians to cease their endless paranoid prattle. It may help their career to tie our very right to exist here with their personal ideology, but it does not serve any Israeli interest. Just the opposite. Their constant din is what’s eroding the justification of our existence and what gives tailwind to the delegitimization of Israel. Of course it also serves their career pretty well. Dealing with the Nakba does not scare me at all; our politicians’ stupidity does. They are the only existential threat around.
(June 10, 2011)
Today I had a small taste of confronting the Israeli occupation from the Palestinian side, and I confess that even my brief exposure was traumatic.
Heeding the invitation of my friend Gershon Baskin for Israelis to join him at the weekly non-violent protest in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, in the hope of mitigating the brutal force the Israeli army exerts against the protesters, I set out early Friday morning with most of the things on the list Gershon sent me – food, water, sunscreen, a towel against tear gas – in my backpack, and a sense of foreboding in my heart.
When I said I was afraid of being hurt, Gershon replied “you’re right. It can be dangerous.” He had no words of comfort, except for repeating that he was going to call the army command before the demonstration started and tell them that dozens of Israeli supporters were going to march with the Palestinians, and ask them to take that into consideration.
As planned, we arrived at 8 a.m. for the 1 p.m. event, hoping to get into the village before the army sealed it off. But it was too late: soldiers blocked the entrance and waved us off. They had also put up a sign declaring the village “Area A” – under control of the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords, which Israeli law forbids Israelis to enter. The village is really Area C, which Israelis are allowed into. The sign was a lie. We parked a ways up the road and then the dozen or so activists who had arrived hiked into the village through the fields for twenty minutes. On the way, Gershon advised us to speak quietly and silence our phones. The village had been declared a “closed military area,” and we were violating the law.
We soon found out that two activists who tried to enter the main way were arrested and charged with “attempting to break through an army barricade.”
After gathering in the village square, we were invited to the home of one of the village leaders, a friend of Gershon’s, with whom he had coordinated our solidarity visit. Over coffee in his spacious salon our host briefed us about the village’s struggle to reclaim its land on which the settlement of Halamish was built. He said the Israeli High Court ruled in their favor but they never got their land back or were allowed access to their fields abetting it. Settlers took over Nabi Saleh’s spring and for the past two years the villagers had tried to march to it every Friday but had been held back by the army.
Gershon told us that at first a lot of Israelis had signed up for this action, but as the week went on they started cancelling out of fear. He said he didn’t blame them. I didn’t either: after being the first one to sign up, as Gershon told me, out of a sense of outrage at the army’s brutality and my wish to join the campaign to challenge it, my fear took over. As the day neared I slept worse every night, and the last night I hardly slept at all.
While we waited for the march, there was less talk of principles of non-violent resistance than of practicalities: what to do against tear gas and how to behave if arrested. My friends and I agreed we were here to make a point by our presence but our cowardice would keep us at the back of the crowd where we would be less exposed. I kept thinking of my family worrying about me at home and couldn’t wait for it to be over, even before it started. An Israeli journalist who was with us felt that we were insufficiently welcomed by the villagers, that they could have been more appreciative of the effort and gesture we made in coming out. An activist answered her that it wasn’t for us to tell the Palestinians how to behave. I admit I had also expected a little more visible appreciation for what in my society is an extraordinary show of solidarity with those most Israelis see as enemies. But when I considered how badly they had been treated by Israelis for so long – and where were we then? – I understood their complex feelings. Besides, they did welcome us into their homes and tell us they would do everything they could to protect us.
In one of the homes we visited, our host told us his 19-year-old daughter had been beaten up by Israeli border police last month and put in the hospital. In an unusual turn of events, the police were put on trial and she was summoned to testify against them. When the same young woman admired my new wide-brimmed straw hat, I gave it to her in exchange for her showing me how to wrap my scarf around my head Palestinian-style. An activist offered me jasmine perfume to spray on the front of my scarf as an antidote to the anticipated tear gas. Another advised us to buddy up and a third said the most important thing about tear gas was not to panic.
As the event drew near, Gershon made his phone calls to the army but was not successful: at the two offices he reached – the local and regional commands – he was unable to speak to the officers in charge and left messages with unreliable-sounding young soldiers. It looked like the central plank of his initiative – informing the army of our presence and asking them to be gentle – was falling apart.
At 1:15 people started streaming out of the mosque and amassed for the march. A young man with a megaphone said a few words and I translated for my fellow activists: “Today we are marching for the martyrs who died on Israel’s borders with Syria,” referring to a protest earlier in the week. We looked at each other in confusion. Weren’t we marching for an end to the occupation and allowing the villagers to access their spring?
We didn’t have long to ponder this because within 100 meters and 60 seconds the first tear gas canister was fired from far off at the entrance of the village into its center. Immediately everyone started running back, away from the soldiers, but, as it happened, towards the tear gas: it had landed behind the group, and the only way to get away from it was to run right through it. I found myself with two of my buddies, one particularly affected and, sure enough, panicky. Although I too was gagging and tearing, this put me in the position of being the abler one and my attention was on helping my friend. The three of us found our way to the home we had been invited to use for shelter, and there we were cared for until we felt better. Our hosts had much experience with gas, as it was used in the village in large quantities every week and often fired at or into homes. When this happened, the effect lingered for days. Sometimes, furniture caught fire.
As we left to rejoin our comrades, our host said “please remember us and come back not only in situations like this, but to visit us.” I promised to remember but doubt I will visit.
Outside we could hear the repeated pounding of canisters being fired at a distance, but we stayed in the village center while the confrontation was elsewhere. I informed my friends that I had had enough, I really couldn’t take it anymore, and was ready to go home. They were too, but it was not at all clear there was a safe way out of the village: the army was likely to spread gas everywhere, even in the fields. I felt trapped and hunted. There was nowhere safe to go. It was also clear that there was nothing I could do or say, and it didn’t matter who I was: the military machine was proceeding apace, and its orders were to act relentlessly to contain and especially deter the Palestinian resistance. Activists observed that not only did the presence of Israelis not make things better, it had apparently made things worse. Huge amounts of tear gas were fired for hours and several activists and villagers were evacuated by ambulance.
We were told the village was sealed and there was indeed no safe way to leave. But my friend and I got lucky and got a lift out with a BBC van that had managed to enter the village with its press privileges.
The terror of being exposed to physical harm did not leave me for hours. I know I am not brave in that way. Besides a relatively mild whiff of tear gas I was not even hurt. But worse was the feeling of being trapped and threatened. The activists who have been experiencing this regularly for years can laugh, and the Palestinians who have no choice can scoff at my delicacy. After all, I can decide that I did my bit for the struggle, this is not for me, and go on to entertain my friends with stories of my little adventure. But if I multiply my brush with fear a million times over, I think I got a glimpse of what it feels like to be under military occupation, having no voice and living under the constant threat of violence day in and day out.
In the comfort of my home in Jerusalem, I wonder if the jasmine is blooming outside, or if that scent rising up from my neck is just lingering in my imagination.
Whew. Over a month without a post. And what a month it has been!
Summer is finally here. Summer in Germany is something altogether different from summer in Israel, as I learn anew every year. Winter in Germany is something altogether different from Israel’s so-called “winters”, too. And it all comes down to sunlight, for me.
In Israel, the sun is omnipresent and a real health hazard. It is just too fracking hot most of the year. Here, on the other hand, I desperately miss the sun all winter, and as soon as it’s out I feel like I have to jump on the opportunity and expose my skin to its incredible warmth, the warmth that reminds me that it’s not so bad, the light that reminds me that the world isn’t all that grey after all.
Now, summer here isn’t as reliable as it is in Israel. In Israel, summer is summer. Sunlight, nonstop, every day, all day. Here we get summer rains (an oxymoron to me) and even full cloud cover – in June!! Very strange. But this makes me appreciate the sunlight even more. After waiting for it all winter, summer can be coy, making me wait again. I get suspicious. Has global climate change hit us so hard already? Did the BP oil spill knock out the jet stream like I read it might? I watch the skies. Like a Stark, I know winter will come again, sooner or later. I dread it. Then the sun comes out again and everything looks different.
I have an Egyptian friend and (language-learning) tandem partner – he wants to know Hebrew and I want to know Arabic. He always says he doesn’t want to talk about the conflict, but we end up on that topic every time we meet. Last time we had lunch, the sun was shining bright, and I noted that when the sun shines, I think the Middle East is headed towards peace and prosperity like never before; when the sky is grey, I’m sure Israel is on the brink of fascism or civil war and dread what might become of all the people I love.
Well, we had grey skies and rain for the past few days, and I’m still getting over the accompanying sense of impending doom, but today the sun is shining. The StuTS is behind me, but busy times are still ahead. This weekend two very good friends of mine are getting married (congrats, F&B!); I’m trying to finish an old term paper, practice for Spanish class, and get preliminary reading done for my degree thesis; and, of course, I have to prepare the EUDEC Assembly for this summer.
Time flies when you’re too busy to check what time it is. I might try to write more this month, but maybe not such heavy long posts, and likely little or nothing about Israel/Palestine. The situation there is getting more complicated by the hour and I haven’t been following closely enough to make informed comments lately. Fortunately, there are plenty of other, less despair-inducing topics out there…