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June 5th, 2016 – Where the Mountain Meets the Sea

This blog post was brought to you by Dania…

All packed and ready to go, we started our day bright and early with a single backpack on each of our backs and a lot of traveling on our horizon. We said a brief goodbye to the beach yesterday and parted with Tel Aviv today with plans of returning after a few adventurous and promising days in the Golan Heights. In honor of our little Hayarkon 48, I snapped a quick picture of our room before leaving:

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Yuval (our tour guide) and Mustafa (our bus driver) awaited us in the bus as we stored our suitcases and unnecessary supplies in the hostel’s lockers. Once we were done, we all headed into the all-too familiar bus and got comfortable in our usual seats. Our travels began with an hour-long trip to Haifa. Most of us dozed off with our music playing through our headphones but some stayed up, grasped by the gorgeous sights of Tel Aviv, the green hills, the Mediterranean, and the yellow valleys passing us from our windows. Once we neared Haifa, those of us who had dozed off were awakened by Yuval. Although I managed to take a few pictures of the gorgeous sights passing us early on (see below!), I was one of the tired ones and I fell asleep during most of the ride.

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But upon waking up, I immediately took out my phone to take pictures of the breathtaking sights that greeted me:

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We were in Haifa – the legendary city where the Mountain meets the Sea!

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Yuval introduced us to the city as we passed through it. Haifa, including its suburbs, is Israel’s third largest city. During the Late Bronze Age, the Ottomans had built a port in a city then called Tell Abu Hawam. The British had followed suit during the Mandate after the Ottomans lost the city in 1918 and made it so that Haifa became the industrial port city it is today.

Today, the city divided into three parts: the lowest part, the one directly by and around the port, is where the financially poorest of the city reside and work, the middle region of the city is the business center and residential hub of the city where those in the middle class live and those in the upper class often work, and the highest region of the city is appropriately the one where the most affluent join together at (in Yuval’s words) “the top of the cake”. An appropriate geographical representation of the city that I read about recently in the Jerusalem Post is one of a fair bride whose long dress flows into the ocean.

The “platter of the cake” or “the dress”, which is the lowest region by the port, currently suffers from the threat of urban decay and it’s an ongoing struggle the city has been fighting and trying to counter. Nonetheless, this city remains steadfast in its glory. Aside from the bustling tourism evidently prominent there, this city is also the only one in Israel with an underground subway system called Carmelit, which is quite similar to that of Boston. It’s so modern of a city that its McDonalds has a “Mac Walk” in place of a Mac Drive.

Most importantly and the main reason as to why we visited is the fact that, despite the “divide” of the city by class, Haifa is the city of the most coexistence between Palestinian Citizens of Israel and Jewish Citizens of Israel. For one, both Arabic and Hebrew are spoken equally within the city. This coexistence is often attributed to the large labor movement in which people in the city had adjoined to fight for issues that were more important to them than national issues. We were taken into the city’s Women’s Coalition Center to see the coexistence for ourselves. We were greeted by Hana and Shorsheh and were lead into a white room with beautiful art works done by a women whom had donated her collection to the center to showcase. After being invited to help ourselves with some coffee and tea by our lovely hosts, we sat in a circle in midst of the beautiful exhibition and bright windows facing the ocean.

 

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Hana and Sorsheh are both volunteers in Isha I’lsha –one of the four organizations in the center which translates to “women to women”. The remaining three organizations are Aswat and Kaneyein (which are both largely Palestinian solely because they are Arabic-speaking) and “With You” (an organization mixed with both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis). Each of the five organizations is autonomous and independent but they are nonetheless shared within the center’s community. For instance, the organizations are often mobilized together in participating in demonstrations to causes the center advocates for or against. This model of a shared independence has allowed for the coexistence of the two identities and the five organizations and is deemed a “microcosm” to the solution of the conflict by those who work in the office.

The Women’s Coalition center started after Peace Now, a mainstream organization that supported Prime Minister Menachim Begin’s invitation to President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, wouldn’t allow a female member of its organization sign the letter of agreement in fear that she, as a female, would discredit the letter in the eyes of governmental officials by signing it. She shortly left the organization after telling the story in an interview and went on to become the Educational Minister and the founder of the Women’s Coalition. The women of the new organization, not too long after it was founded, looked at the situation around them and said that if they wanted the society to be different to women, they couldn’t sit still when other groups are oppressed especially after recognizing the different layers of oppression on both sides; they realized that merely saying Palestinian was not enough, just as it was when it came to speaking about Lesbians. So, the women of the movement began taking part in the peace and resistance movement to end the occupation in 1998. Palestinian women became curious about the Jewish women joining them in their fight so they gradually approached them. History was made.

There’d become four main groups within the organization: Lesbians, Palestinians, Jews from Arab states, and Jews from Israel. Each group wanted to develop their own new organization but at the same time, they recognized that there were layers of oppression on both sides. So in 1999, they created a policy of equal representative that is currently operating today – one that understands that feminism comes in different forms and that coexistence can happen if they “live in four states, but have one homeland”. Although the center has no connections to Haifa’s orthodox Jew community, they do have relationships with religious Jews in the community. Hana explained to us that the structure of the Center was a feminist collective. On a monthly basis, they sit in a circle monthly to discuss a topic until they reached a concession. The center was nonhierarchical in a sense that it had no director. Instead, every employee has a veteran activist she can consult with on logistical issues and issues with staff members.

In current times, one of their latest struggles is about an Israeli Law that grants the women full custody of her child automatically in the case of a divorce during his or her early childhood until the age of 6. On the one hand, men don’t pay alimony if they gain equal rights and women need the alimony because, after birth and especially after divorce, they often loss status in society. But on the other hand, one can’t pick and choose – equality needs to be achieved for both sides and this isn’t fair to them.

Likewise, Isha I’lsha’s main project is one that’s fighting trafficking and prostitution. They started working against trafficking in the late 2000s. Women of trafficking have been sold by weight and smuggled through Egyptian borders to become slaves. Upon arriving, the women were treated as criminals mainly because they didn’t have their passports (which were stolen by traffickers). Police would often lock the women up and deport them to God knows where. The organization worked to raise awareness in Police officers so that they know how they treat the woman. The ladies we met told us that through their work and the changes they had managed to achieve in the legislation, trafficking has decreased. But as a repercussion, local prostitution has been increasing -as long as there is demand, there will be supply. The main goal of the organization now is to try and cut the factors that lead to prostitution from the roots.

We were introduced to Kholoud, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, who has recently become responsible for the Coalition’s fundraising but has also worked with another Palestinian Israeli women in the coalition named Reem to help break the silence against sexual violence in Palestinian communities. Sexual violence is a very taboo topic and although there are multiple rape centers throughout the country, the space where the women could speak was missing. Palestinian women today are scared to go to these centers or the police because they’re still scared for their people and the repercussions of them trying to protect themselves would have on their families. So, they opened a Facebook page in Arabic through which they had currently received 34 stories that have been published anonymously. The page is solely in Arabic because they fear backlash that would criticize the “primitive” Arab society.

Kholoud, also an author of a book called Haifa Fragments, talked to us about her own political views as well stating that she doesn’t care what this land is called so long as the Palestinians have equal rights. Hana agreed, saying that she doesn’t need a Jewish state either. She said how angry she was that there is refusal to recognize the occupation of 1948 as the watershed between the conflicts of both sides because even the oppressor suffers, albeit in different ways. More so, she was angry about a law that prevents any talks about the Naqba, which in her words “legally goes against any grain of hope.” She said that there many inequalities in the society. For one, she spoke of how, regarding the hypocriticalness of the right of return, she had gone away in 1991 when the Israeli war broke out and a bomb hit Israel but she was allowed to come back. She spoke of how men on both sides need to stop trying to be “macho” to showcase their national identity. Peace could be achieved in other ways.

Likewise, in a response to a question Amelie had posed, Hana spoke about “pink washing the occupation”, a topic she wrote an article about called “No Pride in the Occupation”. She defined the term as the state taking the achievements of the gay community to portray liberalism in the state of Israel – a liberalism that is not available in the rest of the Middle East. But really, the state was never in support of the gay community. She was there as movements had to push the state to action. Even now, those in the gay community have no legal rights. Gays can’t move to Israel to live with their gay partners, for example. Even if they are allowed to move, more women are allowed in than men but nonetheless, the partners are not allowed to work and they don’t have social services or even driving rights. “It’s still an oppressive state,” Hana said. “It’s absurd to say how wonderful they are and to compare themselves to respective neighboring countries.” Sure, they were small victories but she said that the state had used these small victories to hide the fact that they are abusing the rights of the members of the community.

To reach Hana, you can contact her through email at [email protected]!

On our way out, we stopped by the Baha’i Garden in Haifa:

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Once we left Haifa, we began a whole new learning experience – this time, regarding the Druze. Once again, Yuval gave us a lecture during the bus ride and told us how the Al-Mowahideen (the Druze’s original name which translates to the United in Arabic) is a group of outsiders whom are in fact insiders because they can connect with everyone on the inside whilst they reside on the outside. Originally, they had split off from Shia Islam in Egypt 1000 years ago. 500 years later, when the Khalifeh disappeared and came back as the Mutwahed (which is the Messiah of the community that translates to the Unifier in Arabic), the Druze created their own religion. They no longer prayed in mosques, went to hajj, or fasted. They started believing strongly in reincarnation within the community.

After the Al-Mowahideen were kicked out of Egypt, they moved to the borderlands of Syria and Lebanon, but due to the harassment they were facing, they moved to live on mountain-tops instead. The door to join the community opened then but has since sealed to converts. One can’t marry or convert into the community but must be born from the originals converts. So, the communities remain firm and are still there today. Five Druze communities remain in the Golan Heights. But some towns have both Druze and Muslims and one of the towns also has one Jewish family. They still practice the same practices as they had previously. Today, in everything but their faith, they are Palestinian yet they are the most patriarch Israelis and are in fact the minority that joins the army most. For that, they are condemned. But the community is commanded by their religion to be loyal to whatever regime is controlling them. More recently though, younger Druze have taken on a more Palestinian identity because of the present radicalism they have had to endure.

For lunch, we were taken to a 20% Muslim Druze community called the Sophia community and into a home of a member of the community. We were served a glorious feast of typical Mediterranean dishes and had a breathtaking view to accompany it.

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After our lunch, our host sat us down and explained to us more about the community and the religion. He told us how Druze, whom also call themselves Bani Ma’roof, believe in one God, in a heaven and a hell, in Gender equality in all its essence, and, most prominently, in reincarnation. A mystical religion that can be traced as far back as the ancient Greek gods, they don’t believe that deeds of one life dictate the characteristics of the next life, and that you can be born rich and live kind in one life but still be born poor in the next. The only restrictions to reincarnation that they believe in is that it can only be done from human to human of the same gender and of the Druze community. The concept of constant rebirth stops them from mourning their lost loved ones; in fact, in the community, they often bury their dead under gravestones that don’t say a name or give the birth and death dates of the person beneath because there is no point in grief –their loved one will be reborn in a Druze village soon enough. He told us of a story of a boy who had died in a village near by Sophia in a tragic death but was reborn in Sophia. He spoke of how the boy, at the mere age of five, could speak the names of all the family members of his past life and, upon visiting his old home, was able to retrieve a toy he had hidden as the boy in his past life.

He told us that there were 22 Druze villages, with the majority of them in Upper and Lower Galilee and the Galon Heights. The Druze are very attached to the soil of their land and to their family homes. At home, they speak Arabic but they learn Arabic, English, and Hebrew. They started serving since 1929 and 1948 and it has become mandatory for them to serve since 1956 just as it for most other Israelis. Our host told us that he believes he is treated well in Israel –receiving 90% of his proper rights- and that if he wanted something, he’d only have to ask for it. As an example, he told us that the same educational ministry applies in the Sophia community as in the rest of Israel.

Elaborating further on the religion, he told us that the Druze are divided into two. The first group, the O’kal (which translates to Brains in Arabic), are the educated folk who practice their religion and make up 30% of the population today. The second group, the Johal (or Jaheleen, which translate to Ignorant), make up 70% and are generally defined as “non-religious” although some of them still are. The O’kal men shave their heads, grow a mustache, and wear baggy pants with a cap, and the O’kal women, and religious women in general, wear a white head scarf. Anyone in the community can become religious. At the age of 15, an individual chooses which path to undertake and if they choose the O’kal path, which less and less are doing in modern times since 1970s, they go through exams to prove their knowledge. Once they enter into the O’kal group, they are allowed to learn their true Religion, which only the principles of are told to those outside of the O’kal group, including those in the Druze community who are religious but had chosen the path of the Johal.

He ended the talk by explaining to us how each of the Druze’s five holy profits are represented by the five colors present in their flags and symbols.

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After the talk, we celebrated Professor Waxman’s birthday by gifting him with two presents from the group – a Pistachio cake and a Poster of Tel Aviv which we all had signed on the back!

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Afterwards, we were on our way to the Golan Heights and the view was as breathtaking as ever – a promising end to an enriching day!

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I hope you enjoyed your birthday, Professor Waxman!