new article in shalom

this article was published in the newsletter for the jewish peace fellowship in the may issue of their newsletter, “shalom”

read it here on their website, or read it below…

1-5-13: Day three of Birthright, Negev desert

 

It’s a meditation exercise to sit on the ground and imagine how supported you are.  But sitting here, in the desert in the Negev, you don’t feel supported by the earth, you feel engulfed by it.  Like it might crack open and swallow you at any moment in its teeming, shifting crust.  The shadows of the clouds are massive countries super-imposed on the yellow-brown sand like oil slicks, and the clouds themselves move like steamboats, slowly, but perceptively through the vast ocean of this massive sky.  They’re not so much mountains, but rather, harsh scabs on the arms of war, wounds that don’t heal but merely change form.  This place offers nothing like the mothering comfort one feels in the dank and mushroomy cocoon of the redwood forests of my native California.  It offers only you, alone with yourself and the knowledge that others have also known solitude and survived, regardless.  

….

 

At this point, most people who are at all interested in Israel are familiar with Birthright, the free 10-day tour of Israel provided to young Jews from around the world. The pro-Zionist lobby hails it as a fantastic success story; an incredible opportunity for young people to get in touch with their Jewish ancestry, feel connected to Jews their own age, and gain an appreciation for Israel.  Those on the left who are critical of Israel tend to view it as a terrifying source of propaganda and brainwashing that uses creepy forms of manipulation to make young Jews support Israeli policies, perhaps even to the point of “making Alliyah,” emigrating to Israel.

 

I certainly identify more with the latter category, which is why I had mixed feelings about attending Birthright in the first place.  Not only did I not want to legitimize the idea that I actually had some kind of birthright to the land of Israel and Palestine just for being Jewish, but I was nervous that I would be forced into situations that would bother me, like having to sing along to lots of Jewish songs that I didn’t know, or cry about the Holocaust in some kind of ritualized group catharsis, or be surrounded by people who nodded vigorously when outrageously racist comments about Arabs were made.  I decided to go for two main reasons: I had never spent any time around Zionists before, and I felt that it was important for me to try to understand their point of view and I wanted to go to Palestine afterwards, and I didn’t think it was likely that I would make it there if not for a free trip.  So I hesitantly arrived at the LAX airport on January 1st, armed with an open and patient mind, took a deep breath, and hoped for the best.

 

My experience was complicated.  I can’t say that what I went through amounted to brainwashing or propaganda, at least not in the traditional sense.  I believe that part of the reason for this was the particular trip I was on; a niche trip, of which there are more and more.  The group I participated in was the “outdoors” – themed East Bay trip.  (East Bay refers to the Eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area in California, which includes Oakland and Berkeley.)  I actually believe there was more to this niche than we initially realized.  Here’s an excerpt from my journey on the fifth day:

 

1-7-13: I’ve never been surrounded by so many atheists my own age.  Who would have thought?  Maybe it’s because Jews come around to secularism easier than Christians?  And I’ve never really kicked it with a bunch of Jews before.  How ironic that that’s how I ended up relating to my fellow Jews.  That’s how I’ve found community amongst the Jewish people.  Through atheism.  

 

Even our tour guide was an “out” Atheist.  I considered the possibility recently that we were all selected to be on this group together partly because we were either atheists or “spiritual.”  I think that our American trip leaders were the only ones who were full-on religious Jews.  So they avoided a lot of biblical talk that I’ve been warned about on Birthright.  There was no reference to the “holy land” and they didn’t try to talk about the stories in the Bible as if they were real history.  In fact, there was no reference to the Bible at all.  It was like they knew that these triggers would immediately turn us off, so they avoided them.

 

Our tour guide was also very willing to admit that the Palestinians had some legitimate complaints.  He didn’t get into any of them, but he didn’t vilify the Palestinians either.  His attitude struck me as sort of a courageous but cynical libertarian, who mistrusted government of any kind, and who had a somewhat pessimistic view of humanity as a whole, but a strong sense of respect and integrity about the humans whose paths he crossed, including his “Arab friends” whom he mentioned vaguely on more than one occasion.

 

What it FELT like we were getting on this trip was a very a-political, fun, first-hand experience of Israel.  Furthermore, as has been documented by other writers who attended Birthright, the social dynamics end up taking up a lot of your focus.  First of all, each evening ends around 5 or 6pm and you’re not allowed to leave the hotel so there’s nothing to do but get drunk and hang out, a situation ripe for a regression to high school.  Crushes develop, cliques form, some people struggle to make friends, gossip starts; what else are we going to do with our time?  At a certain point on the trip, participants began to ask: Why can’t we have a structured conversation about Judaism or the Israel-Palestine conflict?  A few evenings we were told that we would have some kind of group discussion, but nothing actually happened.  This puzzled me until I read more about what others have written about Birthright.  It’s apparently common practice for the organizers to avoid anything too heavy that might lead to critical thinking about Israel.  They like to keep it light and fun while occasionally hinting at the tragic cross the Israelis have to bear by living in a war zone.  By avoiding any kind of detailed discussion of the conflict, but keeping a hint of tragedy in the background, the organizers made it feel like our fun-loving attitude was courageous, rather than indulgent.

 

What was tricky about Birthright’s biased message was that it came in the form of omission, which is inherently hard to spot and even harder to criticize, especially when you’re tired and hung-over, and preoccupied with why your crush didn’t sit with you on the bus.  My fatigue and social stimulation paired well with my decision to keep a low profile on the trip.  I didn’t ruffle any feathers.  I just enjoyed myself.  And though my Pro-Palestinian views stayed intact, I didn’t feel particularly obliged to share them with anyone, unless I was talking to someone one-on-one.

 

But once you cross that wall into the occupied territories, you want to vomit up all the Kool-aid you realize that you’ve just swallowed over the past 10 days.  I didn’t so much feel as if I’d been lied to; I just felt sheltered.  The diary that I kept on my experience in Palestine has a totally different voice than the diary I kept while in Israel.  It was as if I had been thrown head first into an urgent and tangible reality where what was happening around me mattered.  Instead of extended soliloquies about my new friends or thoughts about home, I was writing pages and pages about the wall, villagers whose homes had been demolished, how the universities have to have their lab equipment smuggled in, what sustainable agriculture looks like in Palestine.  I felt as if I had come out of a cocoon and realized that there were all these flowers that needed pollinating.

 

Returning to the U.S., with all my feelings of urgency and inspiration, I tried to pin down exactly which flowers were meant for me to pollinate.  I’ve decided that I want to put my energy into helping Birthright participants get to Palestine.  I feel strongly that young Jews need to visit Palestine, and though I obviously have my problems with Birthright, I think it’s a pretty amazing and informative trip to go on as well.  This is why my recommendation for anyone considering a Birthright trip, from any political point of view at all, is to go on the trip.  Enjoy it, get everything you can from it, but afterwards, visit Palestine.  You won’t know that you’re in a container until you see what’s outside of it, and that it all begins with checking out the other side of that wall.

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Leaving Palestine

i thought my last diary entry would have been the end but… a brief last one to close things up.

just quickly.. more fun facts innocently omitted from the birthright tour!  remember sderot?  it was built on the palestinian village of najd.  the palestinians were driven out of that village and into gaza.  so when you form a mental image of gazans brutally firing rockets on the people of sderot, add to your mental image that they used to be the people of sderot.

aaah, and now here i am in the pleasantly civilized town of binyamina, just outside of tel aviv.  it’s pleasant and eery.  here i am in a house that wouldn’t be out of place in my parents’ neighborhood in western massachusetts.  i can take hot showers and do laundry.  the streets are paved and nice (so in that way maybe it’s more developed than my parents’ town…).  and just yesterday, just a few miles away, i was in one of the more impoverished places on earth.  what makes that even more weird is the idea that my host, mazin, can’t legally travel here and experience what i’m experiencing right now.
so i’ll just tell you about our fun adventure leaving bethlehem.  joshua wanted to go through the walking checkpoint and catch the bus on the other side of the wall.  when we had dropped off elliott and brett there had been no line and no problems so we didn’t expect much of a hassle.  within a few minutes we were questioning our decision.  see, we could have gone through the bus checkpoint, which is easier with bags because you don’t have to go through turnstiles or x-ray machines.  on the bus checkpoint, sometimes they make all the palestinians get off the bus and search them but white people are usually left alone.  in the walking checkpoint, we’re all in the same boat.  so we walked through the first concrete ramp and showed our passport to the first soldier who waved us through as soon as he saw that our passports were blue.  he didn’t even look at our picture.  but as we turned the corner to the next serpentine walkway leading to a turnstile we saw a big crowd gathered.  we heard an amplified israeli soldier’s voice screaming, literally screaming at people.  we asked someone what she was saying and they rolled their eyes and said, “she’s yelling, ‘back! back!’ like we’re dogs.”  it was a shock.  i’ve never been spoken to by an authority figure like that before.  i couldn’t imagine being treated that way in the usa.  i guess maybe people in poor communities have experienced cops talking to them like this, but even i find it hard to believe that it’s the norm.  people in the usa have an expectation of a very basic level of respect, which is completely absent in palestine.  the soldiers do not feel obliged to be polite or respectful in any way.  more people showed up behind us and we were shoved into the horde.  we couldn’t figure out why no one was moving.  someone told us that they had closed the checkpoint.  ‘what do you mean?  for how long?’ i asked.  again, they shrugged and rolled their eyes.  above us a soldier was on a second story holding the biggest, craziest gun i’ve seen yet, just looking at us.  some palestinians were waving at him and trying to ask him what was going on.  he didn’t respond.  we waited that way for maybe 10 or 15 minutes until slowly people started moving through the turnstile.  after every 2 or 3 people the turnstile would buzz and stop moving, sometimes with people inside the turnstile and they would just have to wait like that for a few minutes until they were allowed through.  we waited in that line for about 35 minutes and just when we were a few people from the turnstile the israeli soldier who had been barking and screaming this whole time screamed some more stuff, and we observed everyone around us collapse with sighs and shrugs and start turning around.  ‘what’s going on?’ we asked someone.  ‘they closed this turnstile. we have to go to the other one now.’  i ran up to the now-abandoned turnstile and yelled, ‘slichah!  excuse me!  can you tell me what’s going on?’  no response.  a few of the palestinians laughed at me, charmed and amused.  so now that everyone had moved, we were at the back of the line whereas before we were at the front of the line.  joshua said to me, ‘screw it, let’s just go get the bus.’  i said i wanted to stay and see how this panned out.  after another 40 minutes or so, we made it to the next turnstile.  when it was my turn to go in the turnstile froze and buzzed as i was going through so that i was caught inside of it.  i’m so glad i’m not claustrophobic, cause it would have totally freaked me out.  it was like being in a tiny cage with my suitcase.  i banged on the turnstile but nothing happened.  by the way, this wasn’t the kind of turnstile that just has one bar at your waste that you turn.  it’s a series of horizontal metal bars that you push like a revolving door so that when you’re in there you’re completely caged, head to toe.  so that was fun.  it only lasted maybe two minutes.  then we were through the hard part.  we got our bags x-rayed and were on our way.  the whole process took about an hour and 20 minutes.  not bad by local standards.
well, i think i’m going to leave this little diary here, folks.  it’s been a really important adventure, and i thank you guys so much for sharing it with me.  writing this diary has helped make it real.  looking forward to seeing all of you when i return!
much love,
*rachel*

palestine day 3

some things about yesterday…

something i forgot to mention about abraham’s tomb: On February 25th, 1994, an American-Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire inside the then-muslim mosque of abraham’s tomb (or the cave of the patriarchs) and killed 29 worshippers while wounding 125.  After he ran out of ammunition he was apparently beaten to death by survivors.  This set off riots throughout the west bank, and 19 more palestinians were killed within 48 hours by the IDF.  At this point, even though Goldstein was condemned by the Orthodox Rabbinical institute as well as the Israeli government, the mosque was closed for several months and then re-opened with half of the building (which included the grand main entrance) sectioned off as a synagogue, something the palestinians think of as a slap in the face.  this was the mosque i talked about yesterday, where only non-palestinians can enter on the jewish side.  i realized after i re-read the explanation that it must seem really weird that there would be a synagogue in a mosque.  and it is!  really fucking weird.  so… yeah, the explanation is even weirder than the present reality.  so it goes here in the holy land.
last night we skyped with mazin, who, like his wife, seems to have unlimited energy and patience.  we asked him about his position on the “one state solution.”  basically he believes that the settlers have made a two-state solution impossible.  they’re here and they’re not going anywhere and there’s 600,000 of them so at this point, everyone might as well try to live together.
mazin is a hopeful guy.  i like his optimism.  i don’t share it, but i like it.  today we heard another lecture from him on the roof of bethlehem university, a lovely campus, by the way, with women making up about 75% of the student body.  why?  because the men are either more mobile and able to leave, or less mobile and in jail.  as we looked out on bethlehem, so much of what we had learned the past few days sank in better.  we could see the odd, squiggling path of the wall, and the surrounding hills dotted with olive trees.  it’s a pattern you don’t see in very many cities.  a bustling, overpopulated city, surrounded completely by hillside, and then more bustling city on the hilltops.  basically the population of bethlehem has been choked by the wall, leaving a relaxing amount of hillside for the israeli settlements.  we all walked inside and picked mazin’s brain a bit more.  he pointed out that the three biggest sources of revenue for the israeli government (1. security and military exports  2. international aid and 3. the captive market of the palestinians) are all dependent on conflict.  so there is a vested interest in the conflict continuing.  however, he believes that this is unsustainable.  israelis are getting fed up and leaving.  he pointed out that many israelis have european passports and are leaving en masse.  the country with the largest percentage israeli population growth is germany, ironically enough.  so he believes that peace is inevitable because as the israeli government starts to see that the israeli population is leaving and doesn’t like living with conflict, they will seek a resolution.  i pointed out that though it’s not sustainable, it seems to me like a game of chicken, where the israeli government is banking on the palestinians getting fed up and leaving faster than the israelis do.  i should really keep my pessimism to myself.
it was time to say bye to brett and elliott.  jessie said we needed to walk them through the ‘walking’ checkpoint to get a sense of what it was like.  it’s a pretty impressive structure, with multiple hallways and two different times when you have to show your passport.  that is, usually.  i actually didn’t have my passport and i just showed my state id and they didn’t seem that interested.  i think to get the real experience you need to travel with a palestinian.  but still, i could imagine what the compound must be like if it were crowded, which it is every morning, apparently.  there were four or five long hallways with roofs and bright fluorescent lights, making you feel like you were in a slaughterhouse.  everything was metal and cement.  when you walked through the metal detectors, you couldn’t see the israeli soldiers but they could see you, from behind thick glass and with cameras.  there was very little interaction with them.
when we left the checkpoint we went to aid camp.  aid (pronounced ah-eed) camp is a refugee camp in bethlehem, which, like most of the refugee camps in the west bank, has existed since 1948, on rented land.  so there are generations of people living there going to UN-run schools and essentially living in limbo.  apparently the people in these camps originally lived in tents from about 1948 until the late 50s when buildings were finally constructed for them.  but even now, the architecture is so unsound that if an earthquake were to strike (which is due to happen any day now, since this region is supposed to get them every 80 years and it’s been almost 100 since the last one) the buildings would topple immediately.  we were told that there was a clash going on at the entrance to aid, so jessie said we needed to enter from the back entrance.  we tried the front entrance first just to see what was going on and their were israeli soldiers at the entrance telling us we couldn’t go in.  keep in mind that this is supposedly ‘area a’ which means ‘under palestinian military control.’  anyway, jessie told the soldiers ‘we need to go in there.’  the soldiers just shook their heads and told us to leave.  josh yelled ‘what happened?’ and a soldier answered ‘kids threw rocks.’
we circled the camp and arrived at the back entrance to go meet the organizer of Alrowwad, a community center for children and women in aid camp and throughout the west bank.  they do incredible stuff there, including children’s theatre productions, dance classes, fitness classes for women, photography and video classes, sewing and vocational training, all kinds of shit.  the organizer believes in what he calls ‘beautiful resistance.’  the idea of teaching children to express themselves through art and also project a different image of palestine to the world.  so they tour with their theatre and dance troupe and have many international volunteers and funders.
my ulterior motive in meeting the people at this organization was to find out what i can do to help.  i had already begun my egocentric fantasies of starting some kind of songwriting program here, or maybe bringing volunteers from the bay to start a girls rock camp.  but as i listened to this guy speak i realized that this culture is so rich, and so different from my own.  better to help fundraise so that palestinians can be the ones teaching these workshops than to come with my own music and expect palestinians to connect to it.  so my brain switched gears and started scheming for ways to fundraise or organize support for the people at this organization, who are palestinian, to continue doing what they’re doing.  i was in the midst of this organization fantasies as we walked down the stairs and was jolted back to reality when we opened the door and took our first breath and our lungs were filled with tear gas. it was the first time i’d ever experienced it, and though it was a mild dose it immediately burnt my throat all the way down to my chest.  apparently it’s common for the children of the camp, more out of boredom than anything else, to throw stones at the watch tower, which has no one in it.  whenever that happens, the soldiers come down into the camp with riot gear and get super pissed.  so that had been happening the whole time we were talking about children’s theatre on the second floor of this building.  we quickly covered our faces and ran to the car.  jessie got us out of there pretty quick and we made our way back to their home.
after dinner, joshua and i went to smoke some of that amazing fresh hookah and drink some taybeh (palestinian beer.)  we spoke a little to ashtaf, a security guard who had popped up at the felafel restaurant we frequented.  i told him i wanted to come back, to volunteer in some way, maybe teach music.  he said, in quite a friendly way, ‘do you think it’s good for you to teach here?’  i asked him what he thought.  he said, ‘no i don’t think it’s good.’  why not?  ‘many people come here to help, it’s not good.’  i interpreted this to mean that when people from outside come out of charity to ‘help’ it creates dependency.  palestinians need to help themselves, essentially.  well i don’t know.  i’m perplexed.  on the one hand, i feel like horrible shit is happening in my name and i, as a jew, have an obligation to do something.  on the other hand, i’m not a palestinian, so to act like i know what’s good for palestinians is ridiculous.  so i think i know where my place is in all of this.  i think that i need to help people that go on birthright go to palestine.  i have various ideas about how to make this happen, and i think there’s support to help make it happen here, but i wont’ get into the meat of my plans here.  the point is, sometimes the best ways to help a cause are not necessarily the most dramatic or heroic.  maybe i don’t need to come back to palestine to do my part.  maybe my time in palestine was exactly enough to teach me what i needed to learn.  but the fact that i saw this place for myself means that now i have to do something.  there’s no choice anymore.
thanks so much for reading.  for all my birthright buddies, thank you for sharing this experience with me even though you couldn’t be here physically.  it means a lot.  i can’t wait to continue to process everything we went through back in the bay.  love you all!

palestine diary day 2

thanks for all the positive feedback everyone!  i will keep writing.  we were up til 2am last night, everyone trying desperately to record what they’d been through during the day because we all knew it was way too much to just remember.  elliot and brett were struggling with whether to post their pictures and opinions on facebook, wondering if they would offend their new israeli friends, or start an online conflict that they weren’t up for.  i think they ended up going for it.

i think we’re all struggling with the reality of what we witnessed yesterday.  i’m the only one awake right now, but my stomach hurts and i’m shivering a lot.  did i mention it’s freezing?  no one has real heaters here.  ok, enough rambling.  since you’re all dying for more, here’s something i left out about yesterday.
we learned something awful.  remember yad vashem?  i know that i told some of you guys how troubling i found the holocaust museum.  the way it opened up to a view of jerusalem at the end like israel itself was some kind of happy ending, rather than a violent occupation, really bothered me.  it left me feeling depressed about humanity, about our ability to learn from the past, about the fact that it’s so fucking hard to take pain and turn it into beauty instead of just more pain.  but the irony that i saw in that view of jerusalem was only half the picture.  if you had looked closer, and known what you were looking at at that overlook at the holocaust museum, you would have seen the ruins of deir yassin, the site of a famous massacre during which the israeli military slaughtered at least 107 palestinians, including women and children, according to wikipedia.  now here’s the thing, as i’m looking up information about this, the accounts vary quite a bit.  even the sources for the wikipedia article claim that the villagers fired first and that this was a battle not a massacre.  on the other hand, pro-palestinian sources say that it was a peaceful village and that 250 palestinians were killed.  here’s a blog that provides eye-witness testimony from both palestinians and zionist soldiers.  the testimony includes descriptions of pregnant women who were bayonetted, and other horrific crimes.  personally, i believe that it makes no sense that the villagers would have fired on the powerful israeli army.  that would have been absurdly stupid.  clearly they were outnumbered and overpowered.  meanwhile, this was a village right next to jerusalem, a territory that israel wanted, and furthermore, the israelis wanted to freak palestinians out and get them to leave as quickly as possible.  but you can make up your own mind.  in any case, a tour guide was fired from yad vashem four years ago for comparing the massacre to the holocaust on his tour.
a bit more about jessie and mazin, our hosts.  mazin qumsiyeh is a well-known activist and writer, as well as a molecular geneticist at birzeit university in ramallah.  everyone in town knows who he is.  jessie is his chinese-american wife.  they have lived in beit sahour for four years now.  though we’re not getting a chance to spend any time with mazin, one can get a pretty good idea of what kind of person he is just based on his incredible home.  downstairs there are grapefruit trees, fig trees, orange, lemon, and olive trees.  mazin and jessie make their own olive oil and preserve their own olives, which are incredible.  they used to have a pet bat named stella, but she escaped during the storm.  in the basement they have a pet hedgehog.  on the front porch, a squeaky mattress provides shelter for a small, shivery shitzu-type mut and his 5 feline buddies.  they’re always cuddling together.  further into the basement are the beginnings of mazin’s museum of palestinian natural history.  he has maybe hundreds of specimens, all labeled, including many stuffed birds and preserved lizards, butterflies, and snakes.  all of which mazin stuffed or preserved himself.  jessie says that animals are his real passion.
jessie is a bad-ass.  this little chinese woman will walk up to anyone and start a conversation with them.  she’ll knock on any door.  and that approach seems to work well here, because everyone has welcomed us with open arms.  people are so eager to share.  they have so much bottled up inside of them that they’ve been waiting to tell some american jews.  this morning we went to see another bad-ass woman who is completely self-sufficient from her half acre or so of land.  she has figs, vegetables, olives, an orchard, chickens, goats, grapes, and herbs.  she makes her own wine, olive oil, and wheat, and slaughters her own meat.  after she gave us a tour of her garden, she served us some of her house wine and cookies.  then she proceeded to talk emotionally about the conflict for maybe an hour, until jessie finally tactfully told  her we had to be moving on.  she was so passionate.  ‘everyone living here is a survivor,’ she said.  ‘we are in jail.’  she was one of several people we’ve met so far that advocated for a one-state solution, a topic that jessie promised to talk to us about tomorrow morning.  we’re all too tired to take in anything else at this point.
when we left her house, we went to hebron, a bustling military metropolis that made bethlehem look like a sunday picnic. words can’t describe how surreal this experience was.  it was trippy.  hebron is a city divided into palestinian control (h1) and israeli control (h2).  the israeli section is about 20% of the city and includes about 500 Jewish settlers and 3,000 soldiers to protect those 500 settlers.  we started our little adventure in h1, looking for a bathroom.  jessie led us inside a mall where we ended up at the orange cafe, a little hookah bar and coffee shop.  the owner and his 5 year old brother were there, serving us and making conversation.  jessie invited the owner, named wissam to come and sit with us.  we communicated only through jessie’s arabic.  i don’t know what we got across, but whatever it was, wissam decided that he had to take us somewhere.  we couldn’t figure out where we were going, but he took us outside and suddenly another man showed up.  ‘hello, my name is abdullah.  i’m a tour guide here and i am leading a group from oxford. would you like to come?’  we said yes and eagerly followed him as he led us to the entrance of h2.  he warned us not to say that we were jewish and then we were off through the checkpoint, basically a two-way metal detector.  once in h2, it was like walking into a nightmare.  it was a complete ghost town.  this area that used to be the main commercial area of hebron was now completely shut down.  during the second intifada in 2001 it was ordered that all of the shops be closed and certain buildings were annexed to the jewish settlement.  abdullah took us to the roof of a building that is officially israeli property.  basically, the israelis are allowed to go on the roofs of any building, and the palestinians who own the homes are not allowed up on the roof.  this is because of the strategic position of this part of hebron.  you can see everything from these roofs, and if you wanted to shoot someone, there really wouldn’t be a better position.
pro-israeli graffiti and signs were everywhere.  ‘free israel’ was stenciled on the walls encircling the settlement.  signs that said ‘give us back our land’ hung from military outposts.  israeli soldiers were at every corner, holding their m-16s and chatting.  the only cars allowed in this part of hebron are israeli cars.  so cars full of settlers would come barreling down the road constantly.  this is really hard to explain, but the streets are cut off, seemingly at random points and declared just for israelis, so frequently abdullah would say, ‘ok you guys go along this road and i will meet you over there,’ and then disappear up some steep staircase.  along these roads we saw a building that used to be a palestinian school, which is now a synagogue.  further into h2 we came to the tomb of abraham, a massive mosque, half of which has been occupied now as a synagogue for the settlers.  the palestinians are not allowed to enter on the jewish side and the jews are not allowed to enter on the muslim side.  we walked into the jewish side and i felt profoundly disturbed.  guns were all throughout the synagogue as orthodox men bowed back and forth in prayer.  as i exited, fireworks were going off, which continued to be alarming, even when i knew that it was fireworks and not gunfire.  i looked out at the street.  almost every window was broken.  every shop closed.  facades of storefronts were twisted and knotted.  and jewish settlers were smiling and laughing as they walked confidently down the street.  one of the few palestinian shops was putting everything inside quickly because they heard there would be a settler demonstration and they didn’t want anything damaged.  we went to see what the settler rally was all about and an australian jewish settler came up to jessie and asked what we were doing here.  jessie asked what the rally was all about.  apparently a palestinian building had been taken by the israelis, and the palestinians were contesting it, and now it was occupied only by the military.  the settlers were rallying because they thought they should have the building.  this rally of maybe 60 people was surrounded by several armored cars, police cars with their lights going off, and maybe 30 soldiers.  i started feeling sick as we walked by them.  jessie was laughing.  not sure what about.
when the tour was over we insisted on buying abdullah and wissam dinner, so they took us to a traditional restaurant where i sampled stuffed baby pigeon.  it was pretty much what you’d expect, but i couldn’t eat much beyond yogurt and rice.  during dinner, elliot and brett asked abdullah about violence that he had witnessed.  turns out he’s been shot five times.  also he volunteers with ambulances when demonstrations break out.  he said the last time there was tension he didn’t sleep for 7 days because the injured just kept coming to the hospital.  he said that soon he will go to japan to participate in a conference that japan is hosting which includes israeli students and palestinian students and gives them a space to talk about the conflict.  i asked if he was hopeful and he smiled.  he said that he has done many things like this before and that israelis always start with the holocaust.  he said he believes that the holocaust happened (though he’s not sure it was really 6 million jews…) and he feels for the jewish people but he believes that the holocaust has absolutely nothing to do with him or his people so he doesn’t want to talk about it.  he said that when he says this, the israelis have walked out of the room.
as we drove home, brett told us that one of the guys from oxford on the tour had a really problem with the fact that we had been on birthright.  he said it was all bullshit and he would never participate in something like that.  we all talked about it and came to the conclusion that it was essential that we saw israel first.  if we had just come here, it would have made less sense, we would have no conception of how the israelis even think about this.  i can’t think of a better way that i could have taken this trip.  maybe if i had more time in palestine, that would be good, but really we’ve managed to pack in quite a bit.  tomorrow will be my last day.  i know i’ll be back.  i hope that some of the people reading this, if you ever decide to come back to israel, will seek out the opportunity to see what’s going on over here.  you can read about it, but it’s really not the same.  my perspective is changed forever.

palestine diary day 1

my mind is blown.  i’m going to impose on all of you a little diary of my experience in the west bank since even i, the skeptic, feel like some unlearning is already taking place.

first myth unlearned – anyone can go to the west bank.  when hagai said that he would be arrested for going to area a cities, it was completely untrue.  there are signs that say ‘no israelis’ outside of ramallah, but apparently they are meaningless.  there are many israeli activists that enter those areas all the time with no consequences.  they volunteer to be arrested during protests because they know that nothing will happen to them.  they are let go immediately, whereas the palestinians might face 3 months in prison.
last night we showed up at damascus gate, which is the gate into the muslim quarter of the old city, to get a bus to bethlehem and discovered that we’d missed it.  a palestinian came up and offered us a ride and said ‘no checkpoint.  no problem.  30 minutes.’  my companions were a little nervous but i had no weird vibes so we went for it, and immediately we were best buddies with this guy.  he taught us some arabic.  shuckron means thank-you.  lazeez means delicious.  anyway, we were super nervous about crossing the border.  would we get questioned?  harrassed?  would i have to lie about the fact that we were jews going to see activists?  the checkpoint was nothing.  it was like a parking garage exit.  no one looked at our passports or asked us any questions.  the driver just flashed an id and was waved through.  meanwhile on the other side, people trying to enter jerusalem were lined up way down the street.  jessie said that in the morning, at the “walking” checkpoint where you can walk across the border, there are thousands of palestinians that either have work permits or permits to receive medical care in jerusalem.  there are layers of turnstiles that they must go through, and the israelis only let three people in at once.  sometimes, according to jessie, the soldiers will decide that it’s time for a coffee break, and sit and drink coffee for up to an hour while people wait.  the process takes hours and hours.
why would israelis be told that they can’t travel to the west bank?  jessie believes it’s because ‘conflict ends when you meet people.’  so better to have israelis believe that all palestinians want them dead and that it’s dangerous for them to travel there and meet them than have them go and actually talk to palestinians about what it’s like to live in the occupied territories.
our ‘toto, we’re not in israel anymore’ moment came when we realized how much arabs love their christmas lights.  everywhere, ‘merry christmas’ and ‘noel’ signs flashed in the best 50’s colors.  massive christmas trees loomed with nativity scene photo ops everywhere.  our driver asked us, ‘you get out? i wait for your friend?’  we hopped out at the church of nativity and elliott was in heaven, taking pictures like crazy.  when jessie showed up we went to an amazing restaurant called the grotto.  it’s built on a cave that’s over a hundred years old where they’ve set up a bit of a museum complete with our favorite bedoin coffee grinder and cushions, traditional palestinian outfits and hookah.  they have a gorgeous wood-fired oven that goes deep inside the wall where they make their pita bread fresh.  they let us go right up to the oven and smell.  it was so strong that it almost, almost, overpowered the intense hookah smoke that filled the restaurant like a steam in a sweat lodge.  they showed us how they make the hookah.  they carve out an apple and stuff it with lemon, mint and the shisha.  it is maybe the best smell i’ve experienced on the trip yet.
there are settlements everywhere.  it’s just incredible.  right next to where we are staying in beit sahour, just northeast of bethlehem, there is a settlement with over 10,000 people.  i wish i could show you guys this map, maybe i’ll figure out a way to do it.  this map that jessie showed us this morning is just covered with settlements.  she estimated around 600,000 settlers living in the west bank.  moreover, the settlements are connected by israeli-controlled roads that cut up the land, making transportation easy for settlers and inconvenient for palestinians.  meanwhile, the palestinian roads are so bad that we actually got a flat tire today.  jessie said that you always need new tires and brakes here.
damn.  this is so hard.  today was sooooo hard to explain to you guys.  but i’m trying.  maybe you’ve stopped reading by now, but whatever, i just want to share as much as i can.  we drove up to a hill in beit sahour overlooking har homah, a settlement with 13,000 people.  the wall between israel and palestine is not always a wall.  sometimes it is a fence.  and that’s what it was in this area, following us on the dirt path up a hill.  the hillside is gorgeous.  terraced olive groves are sectioned off with ancient walls, serving as platforms for bedouin shepherds and their flocks.  but then there’s a massive fucking settlement, looming like mordor, with a menacing fence going straight through peoples’ neighborhoods, cutting up the hillside like a ripped piece of paper.  am i going overboard with the analogies?  i’m just trying to keep you interested.  listen, it was trippy, this settlement.  i’ve honestly never seen architecture that looked more out of place or more evil.  this settlement came into existence after they kicked palestinians off the land saying that now the land was a “nature preserve.”  but instead of protecting the acres of forest, they built a settlement.  and the sounds of construction are constant.  they are expanding all the time, even when they don’t have people to live in the houses.  some wealthy jews and americans just see it as an investment opportunity.  ironically, palestinians are the construction workers.  the unemployment is so bad that there is no other work, so palestinians get contracted to build the houses in the settlements.
we went to downtown bethlehem after that.  we saw the church of nativity, ate falafel, blah blah blah.  then we went to al walaja, a palestinian village, where home demolitions have been frequent.  most of it, mainly the agricultural parts have been annexed to israel in a series of confusing and violent expansions of jerusalem’s borders.  you will not find this village name on an israeli map, nor will you see any sign for it, even within palestine.  we sat in the living room of a man named atta while his wife served us sugary spice tea and za’atar on home-baked pita (or “palestinian pizza”, as our host called it). meanwhile, he showed us maps and told us all about what’s happened to his village.  his house is under constant threat of demolition, and recently, the israelis have taken his olive trees and annexed them to the israeli side in yet another move of the wall.  in his case, he believes that the wall will be an electric fence.  as of now he has to pay 2,000 sheckles a month in “fines.”  the fines are for his house not being demolished.  if he doesn’t pay it he goes to jail for at least 5 months and the fine doubles.  he knows because he has a friend who refused to pay and ended up in jail for 6 months.  he has built and rebuilt many houses of friends, a process that requires knocking on doors and raising funds 5 or 20 sheckles at a time.  and then he’s seen those same houses demolished again.  by the way, when we showed up, his israeli friend was there helping him with his computer.  before we left he showed us a letter written by abdul, his charming 11-year old son, asking the local village council to be more accountable about providing electricity to the school.  he said that maybe abdul would be the next leader of the village and bring about change.  i asked abdul if he accepted, and he just smiled and nodded like he answered that question long ago and many times since.
the wall is the most moving, disturbing, beautiful, hopeful, horrific thing i’ve ever seen.  the graffiti is massive and mystical.  there are pieces with walls within walls, fantasy scenes where peace triumphs and the wall topples.  pieces about liberation and accountability.  pieces urging the on-lookers to free their minds if not their land.  the wall encircles a refugee camp that has existed since 1948 which means that it’s really a city run by the UN.  Scenes of the beach decorate the exterior.
the land here is sacred.  straight up.  it’s the most floristically bio-diverse area per hectare in the world.  more bio-diverse than the amazon or any rainforest.  it’s because the plants are small, apparently, and because the humidity changes are so steep on the land.  we learned this from a guy named Tom who runs a permaculture farm in bethlehem.  he’s an australian and he teaches locals how to farm with limited water (oh yeah, did i mention that they don’t have 24 hour access to water?) in the desert.  this land is home to 6 varieties of oak trees and 5 varieties of pistachio.  19 native trees altogether.  there’s very few of them though, because the oldest remains of any human civilization are here, and the trees have taken a beating.  jericho has ruins that are 8,000 years old.  in a cave in bethlehem they found the oldest representation of two people making love, an 11,000 sculpture called the ain sakhri lovers.  and they have evidence of settled people living in bethlehem 23,000 years ago.  sacred, i’m telling you.  today we were walking on some ruins by the side of the road that we were told later could be thousands of years old.  we saw a cave below some stairs that might have been a tomb.  apparently these ruins are everywhere.  this land is just pulsing with depth and mystery.
ok guys.  i know i’ve written too much and overwhelmed you, and i also now understand why my activist friends who’ve been to palestine wrote way too much to me.  i can’t help it.  this place is unbelievable.  everything that i’ve read makes 10 times more sense than it did before i got here.i’ll write more tomorrow.