Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Occupation Occultation

With an unexpected Tuesday off, I decided to make the trip to Jerusalem’s Holocaust History Museum. In the West Bank, it’s easy to witness the suffering of the Palestinian people as a result of the Israeli occupation. I thought it would be good to get out and remember the suffering of the Jewish people that occurred as a result of the Nazi occupation of Europe. Any educated outsider who lives in the West Bank long enough is aware of the parallels that exist between the Nazi treatment of Jews and the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Sara Roy, an American Jewish academic who is the child of Holocaust survivors writes in her book Failing Peace: “I have always felt that if people ‘outside’ knew, saw and lived – even in small part – what Palestinians do every day, they would be transformed and the boundaries between them would shift, creating possibilities that now remain abstract.”

I knew that directly facing the parallels between the two occupations would be a morally jarring experience.

My day started at the Qalandia checkpoint, which must be passed through to get into Jerusalem from Ramallah. Qalandia is a gloomy place. Sometimes it’s easy to get through – a matter of 15 minutes – and other times, like today, it’s an hour-long ordeal of metal bars and detectors and faces behind glass. Qalandia is intentionally unpredictable, irritating, and controlling. It will quickly turn your attitude from upbeat to anger. After 20 minutes, the line I had chosen still wasn’t moving, for reasons unknown. When standing in line, you can’t see the soldiers behind the glass ahead; the only way to know to enter is by a clicking noise that indicates that someone has released the turnstile. Three people, maximum, get through at a time. Sometimes it’s one. Or like today, it’s none.

There are about 30 of us waiting in this motionless line; through the glass to our left and right are other lines of 30+ people. The people in my line start getting restless, including me. There’s no reason to hold us up, except to remind everyone who is at the mercy of whom. In front of me, older men and women stand solemnly silent. They’ve been dealing with this for a long time. Finally, a Palestinian man starts banging on a locked metal door next to the turnstile. He continues banging. No response. I feel like joining him, but instead I move to a different line, thinking the soldiers checking the first line must have decided to go to coffee without telling anyone. Naturally. We all stand there like idiots, unable to access the information we need to make a basic decision on which line to choose to get to our destination. My impatience is turning into anger and sadness at this reality and the larger picture that it reflects. I’m reconsidering my trip to the Holocaust museum. Why should I honor the past suffering of a people who are now inflicting suffering onto another?

Finally, the line I was previously in starts moving, as does my current one. As I wait in the turnstile to enter the space for showing passports and permits, I can hear the harsh tone of the soldier on the other side of the glass. He is yelling at an older Palestinian man through the glass. The man just bows his head, continuing to place his permit against the thick glass. The soldier looks about 18 years old. My blood boils as I watch this 18-year-old boy dishonor and attempt to humiliate a man far into his years, who has probably already suffered plenty at the hands of Israelis. I enter I.D. check with two young Palestinian men; the soldier yells at them too. Not every Israeli soldier is like this, but those that are breathe ignorance and perpetuate hate. He doesn’t scream at me, the foreigner, but I scowl at him. I want to ask him why he’s yelling at the Palestinians, why the other line wasn’t moving, why . . . but I don’t. The worst part about being a foreigner here is recognizing your impotence to do anything about the injustice you see all around you. And, worse, knowing your country blindly supports it.

After an hour, I make it through the checkpoint and look for the buses that wait on the other side to carry us to Jerusalem. The IDF have detained a group of four young men. Flustered and still angry, I go back and forth about whether or not to visit the Holocaust museum after a direct experience with the Israeli occupation this morning. I go anyway.

Once in the museum, the discomfort begins. The parallels between Nazi occupation of Europe and its treatment of Jews and the present Israeli occupation of Palestine and its treatment of Palestinians are glaring. I’m close to tears several times, not because of the past suffering of the Jews, but rather the recognition of the hate that has been perpetuated long after the Holocaust’s end. In her essay Living with the Holocaust, Sara Roy writes:

“Israel's occupation of the Palestinians is not the moral equivalent of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. But it does not have to be. No, this is not genocide, but it is repression, and it is brutal. And it has become frighteningly natural. Occupation is about the domination and dispossession of one people by another. It is about the destruction of their property and the destruction of their soul. Occupation aims, at its core, to deny Palestinians their humanity by denying them the right to determine their existence, to live normal lives in their own homes. Occupation is humiliation. It is despair and desperation. And just as there is no moral equivalence or symmetry between the Holocaust and the occupation, so there is no moral equivalence or symmetry between the occupier and the occupied, no matter how much we as Jews regard ourselves as victims.”

As I walk around and read the panels explaining the displays behind them, I’m shocked, dumbfounded, overwhelmed. It hits me that if the words such as Jews and Nazi occupation are removed and replaced with Palestinians and Zionism, the history being told remains true for the present. One panel reads:

“Despoiling the Jews was an integral part of the Nazi policy. Property and possessions of Europe’s Jews, who had been part of their countries’ economic and cultural life for hundreds of years, were systematically plundered. With their rise to power, the Nazis progressively began banishing Jews from economic life, and, in 1938, established confiscation of Jewish property into law.”

Today . . .

“Despoiling the Palestinians is an integral part of the Zionist policy. Property and possessions of Palestinians, who had been part of their countries’ economic and cultural life for hundreds of years, are systematically plundered. With their rise to power, the Israelis progressively began banishing Palestinians from economic life, and, in 1948 - , established confiscation of Palestinian property into law.”

“In Eastern Europe, the Germans incarcerated Jews in severely overcrowded ghettos, behind forces and walls. They cut the Jews off from their surroundings and their sources of livelihood, and condemned them to a life of humiliation, poverty, degeneration and death.”

An excerpt on Jewish ghettos under Nazi occupation: “surrounded by walls, and under strict and brutal surveillance, the Jews were cut off from the outside world.”

Palestinians live behind forces and walls. They live under strict and sometime brutal surveillance. Palestinian communities have been split in half by cement walls, cut off from their families and friends. Palestinian landowners and farmers have been cut off from their sources of livelihood – denied of their land and water. Palestinians’ homes continue to be demolished by Israeli forces. Palestinians constantly suffer humiliation, poverty, degeneration, and death. Just look at Gaza.

Familiar words and present day realities were everywhere in that museum – “refugee camps, expropriation of land, occupation.” Palestinians live in the shadow of the Holocaust; they are the heirs of this tragic human history.

I cannot eloquently put into words the moral discomfort, and at times, repulsion, I felt walking through that museum. It’s like trying to grasp the worst of humanity, because only through knowledge and truth can we overcome it, but feeling terribly afraid of full comprehension. This truth is so ugly. No wonder why most people prefer to stay blind, ignorant. We are all guilty.

I return to my side of the wall and to confusion, naturally. I had fallen asleep on the bus ride home – my mind exhausted from thought and emotion. I wake up to a bus that hasn’t moved in awhile, and jammed traffic as far as I can see. I get off the bus with the rest of the Palestinians, following their lead, not really knowing what’s happening or where we’re headed. We’re just outside the checkpoint again, and for some reason, all movement has ceased. A lot of people are walking – an exodus on foot from vehicles and towards Ramallah. We continue walking for 15 minutes. The road leading to Ramallah is motionless. No traffic moves on it. The side of the road headed to the checkpoint is packed tight with cars. The bumper-to-bumper traffic extends for at least two kilometers. I’m still clueless as to what is happening, but everyone around me seems to think it’s normal. After a kilometer or so, a man points me to a bus that will take me into the city’s center. I ask him what’s going on, and try to memorize the word he says since I don’t know its meaning. When I get home, I ask the Palestinian couple I live with what the word means and I explain what I saw. “Ahh,” they say, “they shut down the checkpoint. That’s normal. Happens all the time.”

“Today, Jewish identity is linked, willingly or not, to Palestinian suffering, and this suffering is now an irrevocable part of our collective memory and an intimate part of our experience, together with the Holocaust and Israel. The question then arises, How are we to celebrate our Jewishness while others are being oppressed? . . . . “What have we as a people made from our suffering and perhaps more importantly, what are we to do with our fear? Are we locked into repeating our past while continuously denying it? . . . . if we hate, then Hitler wins.” Sara Roy

Monday, June 27, 2011

A bit of humanity in Hebron . . . of all places

Today I took a trip south to Hebron. Hebron is a controversial city, in which some hundred number of Jewish settlers have taken residence in the old portion of the city, often right on top of the Palestinians (see picture below). Hebron is home to the supposed tombs of Abraham and the rest of the biblical patriarch and matriarch gang, so it’s a holy site for Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Besides religious reasons (go figure), it’s also controversial because of the way Jewish settlers have treated the Palestinian residents over the years. The city is divided into two areas of control, H1 and H2. The Israeli military controls H2, the old city of Hebron where the tombs are located and where Jewish settlers have taken residence. Over the years, due to the burden of living with curfews, settler harassment, checkpoints, and a foreign military presence, the Palestinians have mostly moved out of H2, leaving the old city of Hebron devoid of its former life.

I can confirm. Old city Hebron is a. ghost. town. It’s eerily quiet. There are only a few Palestinian shops still open, and they rarely have customers. We chatted over tea with one shop owner, Munir, located just outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs. He has a wealth of knowledge on all that has happened in Hebron old city over the years; he also has a great sense of humor about it all. I left Hebron with the same attitude, actually.

One of the streets that lead to the tomb is divided into two lanes by a short concrete barrier. Palestinians walk on one side, Jewish on the other (see picture below). Now, this barrier is 3 feet tall, maximum. Jews and Palestinians can easily see the other walking; in fact, they could give each other high fives over this barrier (one day?). So, what’s the point in having it?? There are a few soldiers standing around making sure everyone stays on their designated side, but REALLY people!? We have to split them up like little children? We have to make this separation even more artificial? One little boy, Ahmed, decided he was going to walk down the Jewish side with us (as foreigners we can choose either side to walk down). The soldiers ignored his actions at first, maybe because he was walking with us, but once he arrived to their “booth,” they shooed him onto the Arab side. I think he must do this a lot, because they weren’t that serious about shooing him. Thanks to Ahmed for driving home the idiocy of the barriers we build!

About the Israeli soldiers hanging around on this day. Let me restate that old city Hebron is a. ghost. town. In other words, the Israeli soldiers are beyond bored. They have no real unrest to tamp down. Since the streets are empty, there are no suspicious characters to intimidate. So, the Israeli soldiers on this day were pretty much like every other soldier around the world - killing time on some lame assignment. Or, flirting with American girls that walk by. . .

I’ve seen enough to be biased. I’m fully against the occupation and I hope that in the near future Israeli soldiers are not permitted to enter Palestine. But today, in Hebron, I wasn’t able to just throw the IDF into the “bad guy” category (they usually make it pretty easy). Today, they – the “occupier,” the “bad guy” - were much more human to me than they normally seem behind thick glass or sternly demanding IDs at random intersections.

My friends and I were the only people walking around the ghost town this afternoon. Two Israeli soldiers shuffled about on top of a roof nearby where we were standing. I’m certain we were the only people they’d seen in hours, so they were naturally curious. We’re standing in the middle of a deserted round a bout, and we hear from a distance:

“Where you from?” (thick accent; rising intonation rather than the usual bark)

We look up at the soldiers, and move toward the building on which they’re standing.

He asks again: “Where you from?”
Us: “We’re from America”
Soldier: “America?”
-Pause. The two boys exchange something in muffled tones. And out comes. . .
Soldier: “You love Israel?”
-I imagine the previous muffled conversation was about whether or not to ask such a stupid question. Not like they could leave the roof and take us home or anything, so why not leave us totally unimpressed. We’re not sure how to reply to this, because a) we know what they want to hear and, well, they do have guns and power b) it’s one of the dumbest questions we’ve been asked in awhile.
Me: “No, I’m from America. I only love my own country.”
-Even getting that out was hard. Love is a pretty strong word, and my feelings for my country are much more nuanced.
Soldiers: giggles
Me: “And you’re welcome . . . for that gun and for your uniform since my country paid for it.”

I know, I know - such a bratty third grader thing to say, but I couldn’t resist after his ignorant, ethnocentric question. But in the end, we were laughing with the two soldiers. Everywhere we went that day, the Israeli soldiers asked “where you from?” and tried to make conversation.

Now, some Palestinian sympathizers would be quick to make the case that the Israeli soldiers were only being friendly to gain legitimacy with foreigners, when in reality they are actually really evil and do evil things. And while I’m absolutely certain that as a whole the IDF have done horrible things to Palestinians, today they were just boys. Just curious, bored, 19 year old boys flirting with American girls because it’s the most excitement they’ve had in weeks. I bet some of them don’t fully understand what they’re doing, politically, morally, whatever, and maybe some of them understand but also think it’s wrong. Today, in Hebron old city, they were human. And that’s something that’s easily forgotten in the midst of so much “us” versus “them.” We’re all guilty of the destruction that stems from that mentality. 

Above live the Jewish settlers. They throw trash down.
 There hasn't always been a net there.
Barrier. Jews to the left, Arabs to the right. Sound familiar? It's been done before.

P.S. I tried to add the location of this entry via a google map tool, but it only listed "Hebron, Israel"as an option. Ekh. Zionism.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Subtle Yet Pervasive

There’s something about the weather in Ramallah tonight that is especially eerie. It’s chilly, gusts of wind keep slamming my balcony doors together, and the clouds overhead are moving so fast that it’s spooky. My apartment is making new noises and the doors in the house are moving with the wind flowing through. I just heard a cat screech loudly outside, making this night more like the setting for an old-fashioned scary movie than a typical Ramallah evening.

This doesn’t bode well for my mind. I’m processing so much. So much that some aspect of the Israeli/Palestinian issue has been in my dreams every night lately. For the last two weeks, my dreams have been very vivid, often waking me up. One night I dreamt that Jewish settlers were throwing stones at me, then at children, and I was paralyzed with shock, then outrage. . . then I woke up. On other nights, I couldn’t remember exactly what I dreamt, but I woke up with my mind conflicted by my lack of ability to do anything about everything happening here. I see and hear so much that I’m not morally or politically comfortable with, but I’m in no position to act on anything I’m taking in. I think they call it cognitive dissonance. It could just be that my mind is on backlog with all of the thoughts I am working through, and is now using my sleeping hours to continue processing, saving, internalizing.

Just like a haunted house, or scary movie, or otherworldly feeling, the Israeli occupation, absolutely wrong on all levels, causes the observer great distress and discomfort, but yet, it’s often so . . . subtle. Not always - sometimes it’s really in your face, like the Qalandia checkpoint, or when Israeli soldiers pop up out of nowhere and shut down an intersection in the middle of the West Bank for a “flying” checkpoint. No denying the IDF is king of these parts (far inside the 67 borders, be certain). But there are all these subtle, insidious, quietly evil signs of occupation that are as disturbing, if not more so, than the in your face soldiers-with-big-guns-shouting-in-Hebrew signs of occupation. Like, Israeli settlements on the top of hills (good security strategy) deep inside the West Bank, that are marked by signs in Hebrew deep inside the West Bank, that have a road leading to them built by the Israelis deep inside the West Bank, roads which have light posts with the Israeli flag on each of them deep inside the West Bank, that, from the bottom of the hills, where the Palestinians live, in a country they aren’t even allowed to call official, one looks to the top of the hills, above the layers of olive trees that the Palestinians have cultivated for centuries, and one sees a big, bold Israeli flag flapping in the wind amid the red roofs of settlements, deep inside the West Bank.

As I was noticing all of these subtle signs of occupation during a two-hour bus ride to the northern city of Jenin and back, I kept thinking about the power of each one of these reminders, or, as they are more popularly known, “facts on the ground.” I kept glancing at the Palestinian passengers in the bus with me to see if they too looked up as we passed by yet another Israeli settlement, or if they too were curious as to why the IDF had choked off an intersection with their dull brown jeeps and camouflaged soldiers. Nope. Just me quietly disturbed/sad/mad/confused/conflicted/add emotion here. Powerful, yes. So powerful are these signs of occupation that they’re becoming normal. “Accept this.” “Accept occupation.” “Accept that you will never have your own country.” “We aren’t going anywhere – in fact, we’re everywhere, as you can see.”

Subtle yet pervasive. That’s a powerful strategy. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Take-aways from a Discussion with Sandy Tolan

Last night I went to a book discussion event held by Sandy Tolan, author of “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East.” You can read about Tolan here http://sandytolan.com/about and more on “The Lemon Tree” here http://sandytolan.com/the-lemon-tree, but basically it’s a historical narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict told via the collision of two families and two histories – one Israeli and one Palestinian. The book was recommended to me before coming here, and I used it as a “primer” of sorts - an entry narrative into the more than half-century-old conflict that I never learned about growing up, nor during my Latin America focused academic studies.

Of course, I had my copy of the book signed. I also learned that Tolan is living in Ramallah similarly to me, which means I will likely see him around since this place is so small. All of these things are cool in their own right, but the most important impression that I took away stemmed from Tolan’s personal journey into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He, like me, was born in the U.S. Midwest, was raised Catholic, and only has vague memories of any mention of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Such a mention could be summed up as “the Jews needed a homeland after such mind-shocking persecution, and in Palestine (er, Israel), they found one.” No reason to question that.

My parents were undoubtedly progressive and critical thinkers in the sea of conservative America, and as a child I can remember heavy conversations after nightly news with Dan Rather, but the Israeli/Palestinian conflict never stuck out as a particularly important world headline. Why should it, after all? We had no ancestral connection to either side, and it wasn’t at the heart of our nation’s foreign affairs. I can’t remember the first time I heard “Palestine,” but I can promise you it wasn’t before college. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I spent my college years studying Latin America, so news of Israel/Palestine was just headlines that didn’t stay in my mind for long.

Listening to Tolan talk about his former ignorant background on the conflict, and then listening to him speak passionately about his recent and current involvement in this small but twisted part of the world, made me feel better about my own presence here. I often feel ashamed of my lack of historical knowledge on Palestine when I’m sharing food or drink with Palestinians, Palestinian Americans, or Americans with Middle Eastern academic backgrounds. I didn’t grow up reading Mahmoud Darwish, and Edward Said or Sara Roy was never on my syllabi in college. And even though I’m devouring relevant literature on the Israel/Palestinian conflict, I still have a lot to learn. But I’m coming around to the idea that coming in with fresh eyes is an advantage. Cynicism, apathy, boredom, numbness, and jadedness are pretty abundant here – rightfully so. It’s too early to tell the impressions I will take away from my time in Palestine, but I’d like to think that the fact that I’m taking away an impression is important.

I come from the land of Palestinian ignorance. And I’ll go back, at a minimum, with an understanding of what the word “occupation” means for Palestinians. That’s more than what 95% of Americans know. And who knows, maybe this is the first encounter of a life long relationship. It will certainly shape the rest of my life. This place has a force unlike any other country I’ve spent time in.  

All Signs Point to Palestine

I can remember thinking to myself not too long ago that I would never want to work on anything having to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mostly because I was flat out uneducated on the issue, but also because I thought “Aren't there enough people working on that issue? What’s the use in one more person getting involved in something that appears intractable?” I knew some basics about the conflict, but not enough to have an opinion. I was a Latin America girl – I spent high school and college learning Spanish and the history of ancient Latin American civilizations and conquistadors. I planned on spending my life lying in a hammock and taking inspiration from Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Che Guevara's diaries when I wasn’t busy managing education or economic development projects in rural Nicaragua or Bolivia.

But something happened along the way that changed my course. During my three month, solo backpacking trip through Europe, I jumped at an opportunity to step outside of my cultural comfort zone. Andalucia – southern Spain – and its Moorish architecture and mosques turned churches stunned me. Two civilizations blended, perhaps clashed, into a fascinating, eye-pleasing landscape. I knew the Spanish one. I wanted to know the other one. Flights to Casablanca, Morocco from Madrid were cheap, and I bought a round trip without the slightest hesitation. Morocco, as European as it may be, was a new civilization for me - a different language, history, and human story, about which I knew nothing. From that trip I recognized a need to learn about the world outside of the Western Hemisphere.

By the time I moved to D.C., I had mastered the Spanish language. I no longer had to think to speak Spanish. It was time to move on to language numero dos. Stuck between French and Arabic, I finally decided I should go for the tough one first, before I lose such ambition. Then, I needed a summer internship. Then, I started meeting people who knew people in Palestine. Then, I learned of large foreign aid disbursements in Palestine. Then, my other internship plan fell through. All signs pointed to Palestine.

So here I am. Immersing myself in modern history’s largest foreign affairs dilemma after claiming I wanted nothing to do with it. And quite honestly, I didn’t. I didn’t come here to become an activist, to throw myself in front of bulldozers, to go to Gaza (although it's tempting), to protest with the Palestinians, or to sympathize with one side more than the other. I came here to learn the human story behind all the headlines. Politics so infrequently reflects the realities of the common human being. 

Most foreigners that come here - nearly all of them that I’ve met - arrive with an opinion already etched in stone. Most foreigners are not totally foreign to this conflict; they usually have a stake of some sort. I had the advantage of arriving here as fairly impartial, and frankly, pretty politically and historically ignorant of all things Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Three weeks, two historical books, and dozens of checkpoint turnstiles in, I am no longer impartial. I’m trying to stay balanced in opinion, but the combination of historical illegitimacy and hypocrisy and present day Israeli politics inevitably provokes shock, and a bit of disgust and outrage – even for the less opinionated like me. I had no idea what occupation really meant, and I still have much to learn, but with just my tip-of-the-iceberg experience, I can understand why Palestinians have resorted to violence to achieve the ends they have sought. I have yet to visit some of the more contentious areas in the West Bank, or see bullet-pocked and bulldozed Palestinian homes - and I’ll never live to experience an Israeli raid on my home in the middle of the night for no legitimate or expressed reason and a denial of my human rights – but I have a feeling the more I see, the more I’ll feel. At the suggestion of a friend, I’m planning to end my time here by spending a weekend on a Jewish kibbutz in order to round out my experience a little more.