Bewitched, Bothered, & Bewildered by Israel (By Sheila Meyer)
By Sheila Meyer
I just returned from my first trip to Israel. We took a 10 day tour, adding two days up front to visit friends and family. While I have left Israel, Israel has not left me. My dreams are an almost psychedelic hodgepodge of the people and places I saw there. My waking thoughts are spent searching for a way to communicate what I saw, and my grave concerns for Israel’s ability to survive and thrive given present circumstances. Leaning progressive left in US politics, with a strong passion for civil rights, it’s not surprising that my sight unseen position on Israel had been the same, that the Jewish state has to also accommodate the rights of its non-Jewish inhabitants. It’s also not surprising that the tour I chose to take was sponsored by Hands of Peace, a Glenview based nonprofit that brings together US teenagers with Jewish Israeli, Israeli Arab citizens, andWest Bank Palestinians to achieve an understanding of each other’s views and find common ground for peaceful coexistence. The Israeli and Arab teenagers all have to overcome the pressure they get from their communities for participating in such an organization. The Israelis are accused of being anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, self-hating Jews; the Arabs of being ‘normalizers’— accepting normal relations with the enemy. Seeking peace, it turns out, may be a braver act than accepting conflict and war. Indeed, of all the narratives swirling in my head during and after the trip, the dominant one is how to express what I saw without incurring similar accusations.
Our tour included two guides. One is Israeli, Yuval Ben Ami, an author, journalist, and musician with a deep understanding of Israeli political and religious factions and history. You can follow Yuval on Facebook and see his many postings on www.972mag.com. The other guide, Husam Jubran, is a West Bank Palestinian married to an Arab citizen of Jerusalem (an important distinction, we learned). Husam spent time in an Israeli prison for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers when he was a teenager. He subsequently embraced a non-violent approach, receiving a master’s degree in justice and peacemaking from Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. In addition to his deep understanding of the history of Israel and Palestine, he brought a human face to the Palestinian Arab we too often see as the enemy out to destroy us.
We landed in Tel Aviv on Sunday evening 10/12, checked in to the Dan Panorama, and were swept up by Skokie friends who have a condo in TelAviv for a delightful dinner in the nearby Neve Tzedek neighborhood and a stroll through the old train station. We spent Tuesday afternoon with Netiva touring the Tel Aviv market and arts & crafts fair not far from the hotel.
Monday morning we were picked up by my cousin Shuki and his wife Piki for a day of sightseeing followed by dinner with cousins I had never met. Seeing that we were in Israel on a ‘peace delegation’, they took us to Akko (Acre), an ancient northern port and fortress on the Mediterranean Sea, because Arabs and Israelis coexist together there. It was the holiday of Sukkot, so the streets were teeming with both Jews and Arabs. Needing directions back to our car, Piki asked an Arab (she knew he was,I did not), and admitted that she had the confidence to do so because it was in Akko. Check Wikipedia for the history of the town. We then drove a substantial way to their home, near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), where we met Shuki’s brothers and sister, their spouses and a couple of boys in the next generation. Shuki’s grandmother and my grandfather were brother and sister. They immigrated from the Ukraine to the US, and Shuki’s grandmother ultimately moved to Israel. My grandfather and his siblings were all strong Labor Zionists.
Akko and Arnold with cousin Shuki
Remains of Akko port fortress
After a meet and greet facilitation meeting on Tuesday evening, our tour started in earnest Wednesday morning. The tour was cosponsored by Glenview Community Church, of which Hands of Peace founder Gretchen Grad is a member, and which is very active in Hands of Peace. We went on walking tours of neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, the Old City of Jerusalem, West Jerusalem, and the Bahai Temple in Haifa. We saw peace oriented sites (check out Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a cooperative/community of Palestinians and Arabs intentionally formed to live in peace, http://wasns.org), peace activists, and had two visits with Hands of Peace teens and families. We visited sites numerous sites on the West Bank, including Bethlehem, the Deheise refuge camp inBethlehem, Hebron, and Ramallah. We toured Masada and floated on the Dead Sea. We had a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and saw the temple/church excavations there. We met with David Friedman, an artist/rabbi in Tsefat (http://www.kosmic-kabbalah.com), the home of Jewish mysticism. We toured Yad Vashem. We visited Sderot, the Israeli town that borders Gaza. We heard from a Jerusalem city councilwoman and the deputy mayor of Sderot. We visited a Druze (Mowahhidoon) Village on Mt. Carmel outside of Haifa.
So much to process, so little time before the work and home routine drain my energy and blot it from my memory. Highlight, lowlights, and my conclusions:
1. The tour company was Mejdi Tours, www.mejditours.com. It is owned by a Palestinian citizen of Jerusalem and two American Jews. Our driver, Mustapha, is the brother of the Arab owner. He deserves a medal for navigating the big tour bus on narrow, steep, and sometimes unpaved roads. The only damage the bus incurred was from two children in Hebron throwing stones at it because they weren’t satisfied with our donations to their panhandling.
2. Israel is truly a tale of two countries. What we hear about the settlements and the West Bank cannot begin to compare seeing it in person. It is like Bizarro-world. The discrepancy between the living conditions is a constant reminder to Palestinians that they are lesser than. The settlements perch at the top of hills, mostly beautiful developments with well paved roads and reliable utility services. The West Bank homes and villages lie below, with unrepaired or unpaved roads, and poor utility and municipal services, whether they are under Israeli authority (Area A), Palestinian authority (Area C), or in the never-never land of neither where criminals flourish (Area B). Palestinians that would otherwise have the means and ability to improve their condition are inhibited by the Israeli bureaucracy that makes it nearly impossible to obtain building permits, even for minor renovations or upgrades to existing homes.
Garbage is cultivated in West Bank areas with limited or no municipal services. Commercially cultivated and irrigated Israeli fields.
3. Hearing about the security/separation wall and checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank is nothing like seeing it in action. The settlers have their own roads with easier ability to pass back and forth, and see separation fences instead of walls. The Palestinians see huge walls with barbed wire, and have very few checkpoints they can pass through, with very long waits especially in the morning as they are desperate to make it to work so they don’t lose their jobs, or to school on time. When you finally make it through the checkpoint, insult is added to injury when you are greeted by faded signs that talk about Israel as the land of peace.
The full statement is ‘imagine war is over’
4. Perhaps nowhere was the disparity between the settlements and the West Bank more profound than at the Tent of Nations southwest of Bethlehem, http://www.tentofnations.org. The Nassar family of Palestinian Christians has proof of ownership of the land since 1916, yet they have been involved in constant court battles to retain it since the Israeli military threatened to confiscate it in 1991. They are not allowed to make any improvements to the land, so they hold meetings in caves that the original family owners dwelled in. Israelis have placed huge boulders to block access to the dirt road leading to it from the settlement road, and in the spring the military bulldozed at least a thousand fruit trees near harvest time. Yet they remain committed to non-violent peacemaking.
Well developed red roofed settlements hovering over service-deprived Tent of Nations which holds meetings in a cave.
5. It is illegal for Israeli Jews to travel to the West Bank. To protect them from danger, or to limit their exposure to an injustice many would find troubling? It allows them to live in a bubble, accepting limitations on Palestinians in exchange for security, without seeing the cost of that security on other human beings. Yet it only ensures future insecurity by breeding continued anger and contempt among Palestinians for the treatment they endure. The machinations our guides went through to present the tour would have been comedic if the consequences weren’t so real. Each faced arrest if they were caught violating the travel restrictions as we weaved in and out of West Bank areas.
Our Palestinian guide Husam trying to look as dangerous as the sign says he is.
6. If Israel is the tale of two countries, then Israelis are the tale of many competing interests in its future. There are Jewish Israelis, of which some are secular, some observant, some
orthodox Jews who don’t believe that there should be a Jewish state before the Messiah has come, some orthodox Jews who believe there should not only be a Jewish state pre-Messiah, but that land of biblical Israel borders belong to the Jews and no one else has the right to it. (Maybe that limitation would also apply to non-observant Jews, since the most animosity shown to me on the trip was by an orthodox Jewish man who spit and cursed at me for having the audacity to walk in a non-orthodox neighborhood in capris and a t-shirt on a Friday afternoon well before the onset of Shabbot). There are Ashkenazi Jews, who were the backbone of the 20th century Zionist movement and who have elevated stature. There are Mizrahi, or Sephardic Jews, many of whom have lived there pre-Israel and pre-Palestine. There are Russian Jewish immigrants including from the northern Caucasus regions around Chechnya, Jewish immigrants from Arab and African countries, and, of course, Jewish immigrants from the US. Then there are the Arabs, some of whom are Christian, some Muslim. Some Arabs are Druze and Bedouins, both of which have shown allegiance to the Jewish state of Israel and serve in the army but still are treated as second class citizens. There are Arab citizens of Jerusalem, who lived in East Jerusalem before 1967 and who have much elevated status above West Bank Palestinians, so long as they maintain a presence in Jerusalem which they have to prove with ownership of rental documents, utility bills, school enrollments, etc. There are West Bank Palestinians, who in reality are citizens of no country. There are African immigrants seeking asylum who are held in detention camps in the desert. I am certain to be leaving others out.
7. What to say about Jerusalem? Our hotel was just within the ‘green line’ between East and West Jerusalem. Down the road was a demonstration against the expected sale of an Arab home to orthodox Jews who made an offer that couldn’t be refused, and around the corner from the orthodox Jew who spit at me. The day we went to the Old City, the Temple Mount was closed because of recent violence there by Jews against Arabs. The Israeli border police maintain an office nearby. At the Wailing Wall, orthodox Jewish men danced with the Torah in observance of Simchat Torah, while women in a small section were restricted to silent prayer. Israeli settlements perched directly above the Arab market, with settlers leaving their homes via rooftop rather than exiting into the market below. We followed the trail of Jesus with the cross, and saw the church where a ladder has perched from a window for 150 years, because doing repairs would alter the fragile agreements between the various Christian religions that share responsibility for maintaining it. Why can’t the 3 monotheistic religions descending from Abraham just get along, with themselves as well as each other?
Israeli flags mark the apartments of Jewish settlers above the Arab market.
8. Hebron was perhaps the most horrific of the sites we saw. 300 full time Jewish settlers live there; an additional 300 Yeshiva students study there during the year. To protect them and guarantee Jewish access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Israel has direct authority of an area with an ever dwindling population of about 16,000 Palestinian Arabs. They are not allowed access to the main commercial thoroughfare, and as a result most of their shops have closed. Jews living in apartments above throw garbage and urine down to the Arab market that remains below. They physically and verbally harass Palestinian schoolgirls at the only point of exit they are allowed from their school. A history of violence by both sides against the other has resulted in restrictions barring Jews from entering the Moslem site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Moslems entering the Jewish site. Not comfortable disavowing my Judaism, I took a pass on entering the Moslem site.
9. Not surprisingly, some Palestinians who spoke to us favored a one state solution, while others accepted a two state solution. They just want a solution that recognizes the rights of the other. The Palestinians and Israelis were in agreement that the lack of political leadership on both sides was a key element in the failure of finding a solution. As Daoud Nasser from the Tent of Nations said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, not the peace talkers.”
10. History is irrelevant. It renders an endless recitation of tit for tat events that one side suffered at the hands of the other. Some Arabs massacred Jews. Some Jews massacred Arabs.
Incidents on a scale well below the level of ‘massacre’ have routinely occurred. The most moving illustration of that was at a meeting we had with two fathers from the Parent’s Circle, a group of bereaved Israeli and Arab parents who have all lost children in the conflict, www.theparentscircle.org. The Jewish father had fought in the 1973 war and had been bitter over the loss of his fellow tank soldiers. He lost his 14 year old daughter at a bus stop bombing in Jerusalem. As a teenager the Arab father had been imprisoned for use of primitive weapons against Israeli soldiers. In prison he saw a movie about the holocaust that brought him to tears and found fellow humanity with an Israeli guard who saved his life during a beating. His 10 year old daughter was shot by an Israeli soldier. Both refuse to play the history justification game. They quoted the Persian philosopher Rami —“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
11. Our last group dinner was in Haifa at Maxim’s, a restaurant owned by a Palestinian Christian family that is active in Hands of Peace. It is a restaurant where both Jews and Arabs were comfortable frequenting, and seen as a sign of peaceful coexistence. It is also the place of a suicide bombing in 2003 that killed 21 and injured over 50 others. Hands of Peace alumni came with their parents and shared dinner with us. Teens as well as parents spoke. An Arab mother spoke of the harassment they were subject to when they moved into a Jewish neighborhood, and how her child’s involvement in Hands of Peace helped her reach past the tension and form a bond with an elderly Jewish neighbor. An Israeli mom spoke of the dichotomy this summer of having one child in the US on a Hands of Peace program and the other in the IDF fighting in the Gaza conflict.
We sat with Arab kids who had just started their college studies, and spoke to parents about their older children’s recent weddings. If children are our future, there is hope.
12. So I feel compelled to add a disclaimer. My Judaism is woven in every fiber of my being. I came to age reading Exodus by Leon Uris, and daydreaming of being a brave kibbutznik ultimately winning over the devotion of Ari Ben Canaan. Yet as I saw Israel, I felt some embarrassment about how energetically I had once sung the them song from the movie “this land is mine, G-d gave this land to me” without giving any thought of who else might be living on that land.
13. I so want Israel to be that shining light that it promised to be. When touring within the original boundaries of Israel, it seemed to me to be attainable. There were inequities, but inequality is a fact of life here in the US, and we work to lessen it. As a matter of fact, the similarities in political realties between Israel and the US were in my face frequently on the trip–
- a media owned by right wing billionaires. Sheldon Adelson, our very own Jewish American casino owner with dubious business practices who has supported any conservative Republican candidate (a redundancy these days) who promises to support his right wing views on Israel, owns HaYom, a free daily with the largest circulation in Israel that is limited to his political viewpoint, and has been busy adding more–http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/05/01/how-u-s-billionaire-sheldon-adelson-is-buying-up-israels-media/. The circulation of HaYom is 1.5 million. By contrast, Haaretz, a newspaper with a liberal/left perspective, has only 40,000 subscribers in Israel.
- a political system that answers to large corporate interests and uses security fears to deflect its citizenry from rightful economic and social concerns;
- nations of immigrants greeting new immigrants with disdain and abuse; a subclass of citizens with limited rights; racial profiling (which ensnares darker skinned Israelis as well as Arabs). If I were a Palestinian, I would be very angry. To be fair, I have said the same thing about being an African American here in the US. I am guilty of feeling relieved that I don’t have to worry that my child’s life is in danger when stopped by the police.
14. One should not be considered unpatriotic for criticizing policy. Just like in the U.S., it should not be ‘our country right or wrong’, but ‘our country, right the wrong.’ We can
cite history and make excuses until we are blue in the face, but the occupation is wrong and bad for Israel. Who are we as Jews if we are not understanding of the suffering of others? Rueven Rivlin, the current President of Israel from Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party, has recently been calling an end to increasing violence and racism in Israeli society. Perhaps his voice can help lead Israel back into the promised land of peace.