Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hebron Fund raises money at Citi Field (NY Mets' stadium)

The following Op-Ed, ultimately published by Electronic Intifada, was first rejected by the NY Times, NY Post, NY Daily News, Newark Star-Ledger, the Forward, Jewish Week, and Tablet Magazine. I'm no Faulkner, obviously, and just because I write something it hardly means anyone is obligated to publish it! In this case, though, we have funds being raised at Citi Field for terrorist activities in Hebron, and no local paper of which I'm aware published *any* Op-Ed or editorial piece in opposition. Even worse, neither did any mainstream Jewish publication, nor did any mainstream Jewish organization or leadership figure speak out on the issue.

Where are you, my people? And, if you can't even take a stand against fundraising for the Hebron settlers, *who* are you?


When I first learned that the New York Mets were hosting a fundraiser for the nonprofit Hebron Fund at Citi Field in support of the Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, I honestly assumed it was a joke, albeit a poor one. When I realized this was an actual, planned event, I still found it almost impossible to believe. This is because, even aside from the devastating impact of settlement expansion on the prospects for peace in the region, I have had the misfortune to see, repeatedly and at first hand, the fruits of the Hebron Fund's labors.

During the summers of 2005 and 2006, and very briefly in 2008, I spent several weeks working as a human rights observer in the Tel Rumeida section of Hebron, home of the Beit Hadassah and Tel Rumeida settlements that are supported by The Hebron Fund. During that time, I encountered racist graffiti with such statements as "Gas the Arabs" and "Fatimah, we will rape all Arab women." I repeatedly observed settlers throwing stones and clods of earth at young Palestinian girls on their way to elementary school; yelling racial epithets at Palestinians walking in the streets; pushing, kicking, and spitting on Palestinian children and (occasionally) adults who were quietly minding their own business; and hurling large stones down on Palestinian homes and residents from settlement balconies.

I have witnessed this behavior by men and women, boys and girls, from pre-school-aged children to middle-aged adults. I was myself assaulted, on Shabbat, by a group of six teenage settlers, when I came between them and their intended victim, an elderly Palestinian woman who also happened to be the proud mother of a US Navy fighter pilot (the picture of her son standing by his plane was prominently displayed on her living room wall). The settler youths then turned to attack my companion, a young Scandinavian woman who was videotaping the original assault. I have heard and read numerous, credible reports of far worse violence than I personally experienced from other human rights observers, who were in the area for different and/or longer periods.

The Hebron settlers engage in this violence for the express purpose of driving out Palestinian families from Tel Rumeida, site of the Cave of Machpelah, or Cave of the Patriarchs, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims. Settler leaders have said as much in at least one published interview, and a young man from the Beit Hadassah settlement confirmed it to my face in September 2006. The settlers' efforts have been remarkably successful: of more than 600 Palestinian families originally living in the neighborhood, probably less than 100 remained when I was last there in 2008. If the settlers continue to receive free reign, and full funding, we may soon add a new chapter of completed ethnic cleansing to the troubled history of this ancient city.

According to the US Code, Title 22, Chapter 38, S 2656f, our country defines terrorism as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." The Hebron settlers' violence is certainly premeditated. It is, by their own admission, politically motivated. It is perpetrated solely against noncombatant targets (overwhelmingly children), and it is obviously the work of a subnational group -- the settlers themselves.

The business of the Hebron settlers is terrorism, pure and simple; not quasi-terrorism, crypto-terrorism, neo-terrorism, potential terrorism, or something akin to terrorism, but the very thing itself. And the business of the Hebron Fund is funding terrorism. This does not mean that all, or even most, donors knowingly support these actions; many may be innocent victims misled by the fund's innocuous marketing materials. Although the fund's staff and Board member attempt to maintain a cloak of respectability, they are another matter entirely.

This year's Hebron Fund dinner will "honor" Hebron settler and spokesman Noam Arnon (whose picture is featured with other "Hebron Fund and Hebron Community Leaders" on the Hebron Fund website). In 1990, Arnon told Israel Radio that three Jewish militants, convicted of car-bombings that killed three Palestinians and maimed two Palestinian mayors, were "heroes" who sacrificed themselves "for the security of Jews." In 1995, Arnon was further quoted by the Associated Press when he called Baruch Goldstein, another settler who slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron and injured more than 100 others, an "extraordinary person" denied "historical justice."

The 2008 Hebron Fund dinner honored Board member Myrna Zisman, who accepted her award on behalf of Yifat Alkoby, an "extraordinary woman" who received international attention in 2006 when she was videotaped repeatedly calling a Palestinian woman and her daughters whores and telling them to stay in their "cage," as the family sought refuge in their own home, with bars on the windows to protect them from recurring settler attacks.

I could say something about how the Mets, as a treasured New York City institution, shouldn't be lending their facilities, or their name, to such practices, and that would certainly be true. I could say something about the extraordinary irony of such an event being held on top of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, and that would be true as well. Yet the larger truth is that no American team, no American business, and no American individual should be providing material support for terrorism, or assisting those who provide such support. Unless and until the Mets reverse their terribly ill-considered decision to host this event, that is precisely what they have chosen to do.

Monday, November 09, 2009


In 1944/45, Lifta was a large Palestinian village of 2,550 residents. Like most Palestinian villages, it was depopulated in 1948 as part of the sweeping ethnic cleansing that accompanied Israel's creation. Perhaps the most unusual thing about the village is simply that so much of it is left. Many of the buildings were destroyed, but many others were left standing, although 60 years of brush, shrubs, and littering Israelis have taken their toll.
I don't really know all that much about Lifta, but then, that's not really the point. I didn't go to this village because it is somehow unique, quite the opposite. Lifta matters to me precisely because it is simply one cleansed village among hundreds. There were more than 2,000 people living here, and I know almost nothing about those individuals, either, but again, that's not the point. They were just people, only 2,500 out of the roughly 700,000 Palestinians who were driven or (if they were lucky) fled into exile in '48. My hope is to recreate a virtual Lifta on the web, so people who want (or need) to remember can see this beautiful village, 'walk' among its buildings and history, and have a chance to connect in some limited way with the Palestinian families who lived here. It's a big project, though, and it's going to take a long time, so for now I'm simply appending the brief pre-1948 history and description by Walid Khalidi, and the summary by Benny Morris of the village's depopulations. Take a few minutes to read what they've written, and perhaps a few more to view my photographs, and then please join me in a prayer for the rebirth of this beautiful village, and the swift return of its exiled people to their empty homes.
From All That Remains, by Walid Khalidi:
"The village stood on the slope of a steep hill and faced north-northwest, overlooking Wadi Salman (see photo). The
Jerusalem—Jaffa highway ran immediately southwest of it, and dirt paths linked it to a group of neighboring villages.
Although the identification of the village has been debated by biblical scholars, Lifta is believed to have been established
on the site of Mey Neftoach (Mey Nephtoah), a source of water near Jerusalem (Joshua 15:9, 18:15). The site retained
this name during the Roman period and was called Nephtho during the Byzantine era. Almost nothing is known about
the village in the early Islamic period; however, during the Crusades the village was referred to as Clepsta. In 1596, Lifta
was a village in the nahiya of Jerusalem (liwa’ of Jerusalem) with a population of 396. It paid taxes on a number of crops,
including wheat, barley, olives, and fruit, well as on orchards and vineyards. [llut. and Abd.:l15] In 1834, the village
was the site of a battle in which the Egyptian army under Ibrahim Pasha defeated local rebels led by a prominent local
ruler, Shaykh Qasim al-Ahmad. [D 8/2:103] The family of Qasim al-Ahmad remained powerful, however, for years after
this battle. They ruled the region southwest of Nablus from their fortified villages (Dayr Istiya’ and Bayt Wazan) some 40
km due north of Lifta. [Scholch 1986:173, 196, 201-203] In the late nineteenth century, Lifta was situated on the side of a
steep hill, with a spring and rock-cut tombs to the south. [SWP(1881) 111:18]
The village houses were built mainly of stone, along the contours of the hill. The old streets of the village also ran in
curvilinear fashion. The village expanded markedly towards the end of the Mandate; construction spread east, up the
slope of Mount Khallat al-Tarha, linking the village with the buildings of the Rumayma neighborhood in the northwestern
quarter of West Jerusalem. Construction also expanded towards the foot of the hill in the south and southwest, along
the Jerusalem-Jaffa highway. Lifta’s population was predominantly Muslim; its Christian residents were estimated at 20
out of a total of 2,550 in the mid-1940s. The village had a mosque, a shrine for Shaykh Badr (a local sage), and a few
shops at its center. It also had an elementary school for boys and a girls’ school that was founded in 1945. There were, in
addition, two coffeehouses and a social club. The village was in effect a suburb of the city of Jerusalem, and its economic
ties with the city were strong. The farmers of Lifta marketed their produce in Jerusalem markets and took advantage of
the city’s services. Their drinking water was drawn from a spring in Wadi al-Shami. Their lands were planted in grain,
vegetables, and fruit, including olives and grapes; olive trees covered 1,044 dunums. The rainfed agriculture of the village
was concentrated in Wadi al-Shami, in the depressions lying to the southwest of the village, and on the slopes. In 1944/45
a total of 3,248 dunums was planted in cereals."
From The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, by Benny Morris:
"The following day [after a Jewish mob fired Arab houses and a theatre in West Jerusalem], the IZL [Irgun] warned the mukhtar of Lifta, a suburb-village just west of Romema, that the village would be bombed if any Jews were harmed in Romema...On 4 December, some Arab families evacuated Lifta...Lifta was apparently told by Arab authorities to evacuate its women and children and to prepare to house a militia company...More Arab families were seen evacuating Romema...
The first mass evacuations of Jerusalem neighborhoods took place in December 1947 - January 1948 from the suburb-villages of Lifta and Sheikh Badr, and the Arab area of Romema. Initially, Haganah patrols were ordered to patrol the outskirts of Lifta, not to enter the village, and to 'put up posters'...But the patrols occasionally sparked firefights with the village's militiamen, and [Irgun] and LHI [Stern Gang] operations, from the start, were more aggressive. [It seems reasonable to assume that operations 'more aggressive' than armed patrols, carried out by one sporadically terrorist and one consistently terrorist group, involved killing Palestinians]. Already in mid-December, irregulars from nearby villages had taken up positions in Lifta, to defend the site but also to harass neighbouring Jewish areas. The older activists wanted peace but the youngsters, according to an HIS [Haganah Intelligence Service] informant, 'were all activist'. By the beginning of January, Lifta was suffering from a shortage of bread and already on 28 December women and children were reported evacuating the village. By 1 January, most of the villagers had apparently left (for Ramallah), but armed irregulars or Arab Legionnaires were still in place. On or around 15 January, the villagers were ordered to return home and apparently some, or most, did. A week later, the village was visited by 'Abd al Qadir Husseini, who ordered the menfolk to stay put and 'the children, women and old' to leave. Women and children were seen leaving. The Stern Gang raided the village and blew up three houses on 29 January. By early February, all or almost all of Liftah's inhabitants were back in Ramallah (where they complained that the locals were 'mocking them' and that, in Lifta, they had been trapped between the irregulars, who used their homes to attack Jews, and the Jews, who destroyed their homes and killed them in retaliation).
The cycle of violence that precipitated Romema's evacuation begain with attacks on Jewish traffic leaving Jerusalem and the Haganah killing on 24 December of Atiya 'Adel, the owner, from Qaluniya village, of the petrol station at Romema who, using a motorcycle, [was believed to double] as a scout and informant for the Arab irregulars about Jewish convoys. The following day, villagers avenged the attack by throwing a grenade at a Jewish bus. From then on, there were daily exchanges of fire in and around Romema (and Lifta) and the Haganah, Irgun and Stern Gang repeatedly raided the two sites. Romema was struck by two Haganah raids on the night of 26 December and by the Irgun (which destroyed a petrol station and coffee shop, killing at least five Arabs on 27 December. Some inhabitants apparently evacuated under British protection and in orderly fashion. By the beginning of January, HIS reports spoke of Romema as empty, though some militiamen had apparently stayed and inhabitants kept returning, at least for brief visits, to inspect their property. Threatening letters and telephone calls by the Haganah and Stern Gang also, apparently, contributed to the neighbourhood's depopulation."
NOTE: The photos of Lifta I took on this trip are at . also has great pictures of the village ; I suspect the oral histories are even better, but they're in Arabic, so I can't be sure. You might also want to check out my blog at, which has all of the posts for all of my Israel/Palestine trips since 2004.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Shabbat in Jerusalem

When I was just on the edge of adulthood (it's hard to believe how long ago that was!), I became involved with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Judaism. Chabad is one of the largest of the 'ultra-Orthodox' Jewish groups, and the most accessible for people not
raised in that world. The movement puts tremendous effort into reaching out to Jews who are not traditionally observant, and the outreach rabbis speak the language of their country of residence, rather than Yiddish, as do many of the more inward-looking ultra-Orthodox groups. For many people, including myself (and particularly at that time), the Chabad movement has tremendous appeal. They offer extraordinarily close and supportive communities, a sense of moral certainty (or close approximation), and mindful living via a framework of ritually and ethically informed behavior that infuses life's mundane details with spirituality and religious significance. This is all my take, of course, and not an official description, but I
think it captures the essence.

While many people find traditionally observant Judaism to be inordinately restrictive, I did not, and will paraphrase another author's simile from a different context: traditional Judaism is like
a sonnet, there is a rigid order and structure that must be followed, but within that structure there is room to create a life of great beauty. I ultimately decided to leave Chabad, primarily because the intimate sense of spiritual community that I loved seemed to come at
the price of widespread (though by no means universal) negative attitudes and outright bigotry directed towards non-Jews. For me, this was a deal-breaker, but the positive aspects of Hasidut maintain
their strong appeal for me, and there are many elements that I still miss, all these years later. Foremost among these are the wonderful
Shabbatot I experienced: evenings and days of prayer, song, study, and warm candlelight.

So, while the following can not really be considered an insider account, neither is it simply the report of a disinterested or hostile outsider. My present tale is not a pleasant one, but I hope that readers unfamiliar with the subject matter will not take this to be
the whole story regarding traditionally observant Judaism, in general, or Chabad-Lubavitch, in particular. The struggle that we, as Jews, face today is as much for the soul of these movements, and of our
people in them, as it is for the fundamental rights and dignity of Palestinians in the refugee camps, Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel.


On several occasions, when I've made my trips to Israel/Palestine, I've taken advantage of the opportunity to recapture a bit of my old Chabad experience by having Shabbat dinner with an observant family. If you go near the Western Wall on any Friday evening, looking Jewish and preferably a bit lost and/or American, you will almost certainly
be approached with invitations to dinner. There's often a 'match-maker' involved; one of several observant folks who do this regularly as a religious 'mitzvah', or divinely sanctioned good deed.
I've had good luck with a few past attempts, dining with a traditionally observant couple or family, and perhaps another guest or two. The discussion is apolitical, as befits Shabbat, so I can take a break from the near war-zone of Palestinian advocacy within the Jewish community. Last Friday, when I was introduced to a kindly, grey-bearded Hasid as my host for the night, and particularly when I was told that he was a well-respected teacher of Torah, I figured I
was in excellent shape for the evening.

My heart sank a bit when my prospective host asked me what brought me to Israel, but when I replied that I was involved in Palestinian human rights work, he was unexpectedly complimentary. A young American man who already knew the way to our host's house was also joining us, and we headed off while our host waited to meet a third guest...or so I thought. It turned out that our host family was particularly
committed to Shabbat hospitality, and wound up with some twenty people at dinner. I'm not much for large groups, even in situations less fraught with potential tension, but it was too late to reconsider without being quite rude, so I settled in for the duration. Here is the cast of our dining party:

1) My initial companion, an young American from the US who volunteered for a 14-month enlistment in the Israeli army (now almost complete) without even taking Israeli citizenship.
2) Another young American IDF volunteer in the same program, serving in a sniper unit.
3) Two Israeli soldiers: one an Israeli-born conscript, and the other a foreign-born 'only son' (normally exempt from combat duty) who volunteered for a combat role. Both are serving in a search and rescue
unit that provided humanitarian assistance after earthquakes in Kenya and elsewhere {all four of the soldiers present served in the recent, apparently war-crime plagued, invasion of Gaza}.
4) A North American couple who have been in Israel for several years.
5) A small family who I never really got to meet.
6) An older woman from North America studying Torah in Jerusalem.
7) Two young men and two young women, all from North America, all
studying Torah in Jerusalem.
8) Two young men from Australia, also studying Torah in Jerusalem.
9) Our host and hostess and their young daughter.
10) {the invisible other}

Most of us were already seated and chatting when the soldiers arrived, carrying their automatic weapons. One of the Australians almost immediately asked a soldier, "Hey, can I use your gun to kill an Arab?
After Shabbat, of course." I don't remember the exact response, but the soldier certainly didn't chastise him, and neither did anyone else. A few minutes later, I turned to the speaker and told him that I didn't find his joke remotely funny. His only response was to say, "I wasn't joking", at which point I told him that the joke wouldn't have been funny coming from an Arab who was speaking about a Jew, it would be even less funny if the Arab were serious, and so it was in his
case. I think the speaker looked at least a little abashed, though that might be wishful thinking on my part. {Slightly off-topic, I've noticed that pro-settler Australians visiting Hebron seem to be particularly racist and aggressive, even relative to the high pro-settler norms in those areas. I've wondered whether this is due to Australian anti-aboriginal racism that translates easily to Palestinians, which theory came up in a discussion with a Kiwi couple a couple of nights ago. They thought my theory seemed pretty
plausible, and told me that Australian aborigines were still classified under the Flora and Fauna Act(!), and could be legally hunted(!!), until passage of a 1967 Referendum(!!!).} A bit later, our host asked the soldiers to set their guns aside during dinner;
while deciding where to put them, the American sniper joked that maybe we shouldn't trust the Australian with them, which drew a hearty laugh
from the assembled diners (myself excluded, as you might imagine); apparently, race-based murder was seen as a risible subject. Somewhere around this time, there's a go-round of the table, in which everyone
says something about what they're thankful for this Shabbat. Our hostess leads off, and is the first of five consecutive diners who wax eloquent in their admiration of the soldiers at the table, with
additional appreciation of being in Israel/Jerusalem, and some for other topics. There is no tempering, much less criticism, included in the soldier love-fest, and even the soldiers look a bit uncomfortable
with the adulation. The next several speakers also fete the soldiers, though in lesser proportion to the rest of the universe; I'm the first speaker for whom neither Israeli soldiers nor the wonder of being in Israel arise. Everyone, including myself, thanks our hosts for their
hospitality, etc.

At some point, all the diners go to wash their hands in the kitchen, where a very petite, dark-skinned, "foreign worker" (maybe Thai, or possibly Filipino) is washing dishes. I actually caught a glimpse of this woman earlier in the evening, but her presence has been so completely ignored by everyone else that I thought I might be mistaken. Presumably, hiring a foreign worker is better than employing a potentially 'uppity' Palestinian who might feel she has
actually has rights in her homeland. I find it extraordinary that, in our round of thanksgiving, nobody (notably our hostess) has even mentioned this woman. I thank her, now, and it takes some time and a second attempt for her to even recognize that she's being addressed, though she has a great smile when she does realize I'm expressing my appreciation for her work.

As dinner progresses, the soldiers actually turn the table to a discussion of sniping techniques, the relative merits of different automatic weapons, and whether the IDF should issue bayonets to its troops. I'm a bit flabbergasted by this content at a Shabbat dinner, and wait for our host to redirect the conversation, but no such luck. After a considerable period, and to my relief, he does invite explications of the week's Torah portion (Lech Lecha: Abram and Sarah go to Egypt, Abram rescues Lot from Sodom, Sarah gives birth to Ishmael) from a couple of the students in attendance. The first 'vort' (a 'word', or short lesson on Torah) is by one of the young American students, and involves Lot's curiosity and overconfidence in his own righteousness, which lead him to reside in sinful Sodom, where he is ultimately dragged down by the corruption surrounding him. It's not a bad lesson, but I'm listening to this and getting more and more incredulous that the speaker sees no applicability to one's company at Shabbat dinner. The next vort is given by the older American woman, who tells how the Ba'al Shem Tov (a uniquely influential Jewish mystic and teacher) and his companions see a man stealing a bridle. The Ba'al Shem Tov tells his companions not to say anything, because the man
obviously needs money for Shabbat; he also says that a Jew should not accuse another Jew of a crime, because, after death, Satan will call the accuser as a witness against the accused before G-d's judgment.
Our host speaks up at this point, quietly pointing out that one isn't permitted to use stolen money or property for a mitzvah (such as honoring the Shabbat), and the story is rather suspect. Again, it's a
good lesson, but all I can think is that the espousal of cold-blooded murder didn't warrant even a similarly mild correction.

A bit later, my original companion asks me privately to explain something I mentioned to him about mapping work I was doing in the the village of Lifta. At this point, I am fervently wishing that I had never come, swearing to myself that I never will again, and the last thing in the world I want is to be subjected to a gang-bang on the supposed evils of Palestinians. Hoping I can still salvage some small positive from the dinner, however, I present my case: Basically, I
say, I have come to perceive Israeli Jews/Zionists as seeing no inherent human value in 'the other' (in this case, non-Jews, and primarily Palestinians), but viewing them basically as a contaminant of the Zionist ideal, a 'demographic time-bomb', or what have you.
They are hated and persecuted by some, 'tolerated' by others, but viewed as a vital and desirable piece of the tapestry by almost no one. This kind of world view led to the ethnic cleansing of Lifta, a large Palestinian village west of Jerusalem, in 1948. It is also, in
my mind, the same thinking that lay at the core of Nazi atrocities against the Jews, and all the other persecutions of our people over the centuries. My hope is to show the beauty and history of the
village, its life and its people, and use that beauty to remind Israelis/Jews of the humanity and inherent value of its inhabitants. This is largely because I find it intolerable that the mindset of our persecutors has so thoroughly infiltrated Jewish life, not only because these things were done to our people, this point, I pause to search for words, and my interlocutor actually finishes my sentence for me: "it's just not a good way to be!". He then tells me that he completely agrees with everything I've said, and he thinks what I'm doing in Lifta is amazing and important work. I'm absolutely delighted, of course, but also utterly amazed, and ask this guy how in
the world he wound up volunteering for the IDF. He tells me it was due to "first year in Israel-itis"; he was super idealistic and caught up in the romance of the 'Jewish state'. Now, he says, he's still idealistic, but his experience in the Army has shifted his views and
the nature of his idealism 180 degrees. He's obviously about to go into more detail when he visibly stops himself with an upward hand gesture, which I take to mean that he is worried about violating the Shabbat, or starting a firestorm with the other diners, or both, but I can't be sure. I give him a brief description of Zochrot, and urge him to seek out the group before he leaves Israel, and that's pretty much the end of my evening.


Several days ago, a dear friend asked me if, in an earlier post, I meant to compare present-day Israel to Nazi Germany, which she would find very offensive. Both the question, and the answer, are too important for evasion or self-deceit, no matter how difficult and
painful an honest appraisal may be. I will give a more complete, and less pleasant, answer in a later post, but for now, here is a partial response. Please bear in mind while you're reading this that Chabad in no way represents the far right, or racist extreme, of the Israeli political spectrum. Our host for the evening, who complimented my work on human rights issues, was almost certainly on the 'left' of the Chabad continuum, and my army companion's views on Lifta were unique for this group, at least in my experience. We are not even close to talking about the worst of the worst, but only a relatively positive instance of a moderately negative demographic.

So, close your eyes, and imagine a scene in 1930's Germany. It is, let's say, mid-1938, after the annexation of Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but before the war in Europe began in earnest. Anti-semitism is state policy, and the persecutory Nuremberg Laws are in force, but Kristallnacht is yet to come, and the death camps are
not even under discussion.
A group of Germans are gathered around for lunch after Sunday services at the German Christian Church. There's a reasonably good-hearted
pastor at the head of the table, joined by a number of civilian congregants and a few soldiers...not SS or Gestapo, just regular army with widely varying levels of commitment to the Nazi Party. One of the civilians, more enamored of the Nazis than some, takes a good swig of Pils beer, and calls out to one of the soldiers: "Hey, can I use that gun to kill a Jew? Not on Sunday, of course!" The soldier only smiles a bit, neither joining in the joke, nor expressing any disapproval. An anomalous bleeding-heart says, in an aside, that the joke isn't funny, but the joker says he wasn't kidding in the first place; beyond the initial chuckles, nobody else responds. The pastor, in particular,
doesn't want to spoil the festive mood, and certainly not over the Jews! A few minutes later, most of the lunch group starts fawning over the soldiers, listening closely as they discuss the more technical aspects of killing Jews and other enemies. The pastor encourages the soldiers to put down their guns and relax for a while. One of the soldiers jokes that they shouldn't put them too near the Jew-killing joker, who seems a bit *too* eager; his jest is met with hearty laughter (almost) all around.

So, does my Shabbat dinner sound like an echo of Nazi Germany? You tell me, or, more important, tell yourself.


Shortly after the exchange about Lifta, I said my goodbyes and left for the night. My host and hostess saw me to the door, and warmly issued a standing invitation to return, and I may well do so. Because the point of this post is not that these are 'bad people', like the Nazis or Cossacks, separated by a safe and reassuring moral space from 'good people', such as myself. It is, rather, that the distance between any of us is so small, and that eternal vigilance is required of all of us, both for ourselves and for each other, Jew or Muslim, man or woman, North or South, East or West, capitalist or communist, to avert the short, easy slide into evil.

Friday, November 06, 2009

At Latrun with Zochrot

First of all, here's the link to Zochrot's English homepage: For those of you who
have wondered where to donate your money so it will have the greatest
impact for peace, this is the place, or at least I give them the best odds.

I met the founder of Zochrot, Eitan Bronstein, at a talk he gave in
NYC some time ago. He's a bit young (just shy of 50), casual, and
irreligious for a tzaddik hador, but then he may still be growing into
the role. Before starting Zochrot, Eitan served in the Israeli Army,
later doing three jail terms for refusing to serve in the first
Lebanon war and the original Intifada in the late 80s. Starting in
1991, he was a teacher at Neve Shalom, a village "established by
Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, that is engaged in
educational work for peace, equality and understanding between the two
peoples" (I'm pretty sure that Neve Shalom was described to me as a
"kibbutz" many years ago, but maybe that was wishful thinking on
someone's part). At any rate, when I finally got free of Ben Gurion
airport, I visited with Eitan at Zochrot's offices in Tel Aviv, and he
invited me to accompany him on a Zochrot outing the next day, which I
gladly did. This is the story of the trip, in a few of my words, and
the story of the park, in rather more of Eitan's.

Eitan was leading a field trip for a Palestinian girls' high school
located in East Jerusalem. They showed up on one of those gian tour
buses, full to the brim with a great mass of irrepressible Palestinian
teenage girls, mostly in sweatshirts and bluejeans, several of their
teachers, and the school's headmistress (or some title to that
effect). They were overwhelmingly polite and attentive, and generally
unlike myself (or anyone I knew) at that age; Eitan had the same
thought relative to his usual Israeli groups. Even when it started
raining, and then when it started *really* raining, everyone just
huddled around and listened to Eitan do his thing. I did pretty much
the same, but tried to stay out of the way, since it was the girls'
trip and he has a very quiet speaking voice.

Eitan related the story below, along with an account of Zochrot's
multi-year struggle to get signs posted that merely acknowledged that
Palestinian villages once existed on the site. I strongly encourage
you to read the complete booklet, which is available at the following

Quoted from "Restless Park: On the Latrun villages and Zochrot",
by Eitan Bronstein, translated by Charles Kamen:

'One of Hochman's photos [an Israeli photographer who happened
to stumble upon the cleansing of the villages] shows two soldiers
standing in the doorway of one of the houses, next to an Arab woman
- perhaps one of the occupants. Laundry is still hanging outside on
the line. Such a meeting was unusual at the time the villages were
demolished, for most of the residents had already left. That’s what
Zakaria Sunbati, who lived in nearby Beit Laqiya, told us during one
of our visits to the area in 2001. At the time I was still working in the
School for Peace at Neve Shalom, and I had organized a tour for
high school students from the Brenner Regional School. One of their
teachers had taken part in the capture of the villages. He agreed to
come and tell his story. Zakaria began by telling us that a few days
before the war the inhabitants received word of plans to capture the
villages, and warnings from the army that all residents of dozens of
villages in the area should leave. At the time Zakaria was nine years
old. He remembers that they fled from their village and took shelter
in caves and under the trees nearby. War broke out, and the Israeli
army stampeded toward Ramallah. There were no Jordanian forces
to oppose the attack. On the second or third day of the war [4], Israeli
soldiers had already begun demolishing the buildings of Yalu, ‘Imwas
and Beit Nuba [5]. Zakaria remembers seeing from a distance the
buildings being blown up. A few days later the villagers were permitted
to return, except the ones from these three villages. They were razed
to the ground. After the war Zakaria, the child, came to see what was
left. He saw the destruction, and recalls that he also saw bodies under
some of the ruins. In other words, some of the houses were demolished
while people were still inside.

The teacher from Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Heh told his story next:
“Everything Zakaria said is correct, except for one thing. We didn’t
demolish buildings with people inside. On the contrary - we took care to
insure that no one was in them, and when we found people here and there
we At the same time the remains of the village of Latrun, whose residents
had been expelled during the Nakba and settled in ‘Imwas and Yalu, were
also razed. We removed them. It’s important for me to tell you what
happened here, because it was the blackest hour of my life. Things were
done here which should not have been done, and I participated in an
action that I shouldn’t have been a part of. I don’t come here to enjoy myself,
and in fact I haven’t been here since it was captured in 1967. Today
is the first time I’ve come, to tell you what I did.

I was part of a unit whose job was to insure that no people remained in the
buildings before they were demolished. We went from building to building,
and occasionally found an elderly man or woman whom we removed, and
the building was demolished. But then we came to a building with an old
man inside. He told us that for him to leave would be like dying, and he
preferred to die inside his home. At that moment the coin dropped. In that
second I realized the significance of what I and the others were doing here.
I knew that demolishing the buildings was intended to prevent the area from
ever being returned to Jordan or to the Palestinians. I also knew that the
destruction was revenge for Israel’s defeat here in 1948. But none of that
was worth destroying the life of that old man and the lives of thousands
who were expelled. I demanded that my commander stop the action. They
refused to listen to me, of course. We removed the old man and
demolished his home. I shouldn’t have done it.”'

4 That the destruction began at such an early stag indicates that it
was planned in advance, and establishes the capture and destruction of
the Latrun villages as the link between the Nakba and th occupation
beginning in 1967, between the massive destruction of villages in 1948
and the events of 1967 in which relatively many fewer villages were
5 At the same time the remains of the village of Latrun, whose
residents had been expelled during the Nakba and settled in 'Imwas and
Yalu, were also razed.'

This is essentially the story that Eitan told that day at Canada Park,
but then he added one critical piece of new information. Some time
after the Zochrot booklet was published, the old diary came to Eitan's
attention, written by a Lebanese monk who had lived in the area at the
time of the cleansing. Inside the pages of his diary was found a
recounting of the Brothers' efforts, together with villagers who
managed to return to the village sites shortly after their
destruction, to pull decomposing bodies out from under the rubble of
their destroyed homes.

Ben Gurion airport, or "Who's your grand-daddy?"

So, I fly into Tel Aviv from Prague at 4:30am, having slept about three hours out of the previous 48, stagger off the plane and over to passport control, and wait for an agent. I haven't had any problems getting into Israel for the past two or three years, even though I've been very open about the purposes for my visit: "volunteering as a human rights observer in the West Bank", and things to that effect. This is counter to the standard activist primer advice, but it's served me in good stead, and I greatly prefer it for reasons I'll get into shortly. Anyway, the agent refers me to a security guy (or gal), the security guy asks me if I'm Jewish, how often I attend synagogue, or whatever, and either just lets me through or actually wishes me luck. I'm particularly unconcerned about getting in this year, because most of the stuff I'm doing is (or should be) well within the permissible area, even by Israeli security standards. My first few days I'm planning to take measurements and photographs of Lifta, a Palestinian village just west of Jerusalem that was ethnically cleansed in 1948, but of which many of the buildings were atypically left standing. After that, I'm traveling with Menachem Daum, an observant Jewish documentary filmmaker (who made an Emmy-nominated film related to the Holocaust, for crying out loud), to the West Bank, where I'll introduce him to some Palestinians, international volunteers working on the olive harvest campaign, and the like. I'll be helping out with olive harvest, myself, for a few days, but that's probably the activist work that's least frowned upon by the Israeli government, and basically involves accompanying Palestinian farmers to their lands so they hopefully won't be attacked by settlers (or attacked as frequently, or as fiercely, anyway) while they gather in their olive crops. No problem.
I lay this out briefly for the agent, who asks me a few of the usual questions. From here on, however, I will just try to give you the dialogue as best I remember it. Nothing is intentionally misrepresented or exaggerated, and there should be no substantive inaccuracies; if I really didn't remember much of something, I left it out.
Agent: What's your father's name?
Me: Joel, as in Yoel.
Agent: And his father?
Me: Huh? Err...grandpa [My paternal grandfather died 37 years ago, when I was 2.5 years old]. Oh, right, Herbert...sorry, it's been a long flight.
Agent: [Some more questions, then] OK, go sit over there and someone will talk to you.
Intel1: [Very young woman shows up maybe half an hour later, and asks all the same questions as the agent, except for my grandfather's name, and then] OK, sit here.
Intel2: [Half an hour later, a marginally less young woman shows up and leads me into her tiny office, where she asks many of the same questions, and then] Are you Jewish?
Me: Sure am; Jewish name, see?
Intel2: Aaron can be many kinds of name.
Me: Err, Aaron Jacob Levitt, as in Aharon Yakov ha'Levi? OK, whatever.
Intel2: Where have you been in the West Bank?
Me: [Long list]
Intel2: What groups have you worked with in the West Bank?
Me: [Give list of Israeli and international groups I've worked with.]
Intel2: Write down your address, your email address, your phone number.
Me: [Done] This is my US phone number; my Israeli cell is in my checked baggage and I'd need to get the number from it.
Intel2: Suuure it is.
Me: Yes, it is. If you let me at my baggage, I'll be happy to give you the number.
Intel2: Oh, suuure you'll give me the number.
Me: It doesn't matter to me. You seem nice enough; you can call me any time. [A hint of sarcasm, perhaps, but only a hint]
Intel2: Have you engaged in illegal activities in Israel or the occupied territories?
Me: No.
Intel2: Are you sure?
Me: Yes.
Intel2: Reeaaallly.
Me: Yes, really.
Intel2: Do you have friends in Israel?
Me: Not many [mention a personal friend], Arik Ascherman with Rabbis for Human Rights, Jeff Halper, a couple of other political folks like that.
Intel2: Don't tell me about *rabbis* [voice practically dripping with scorn]; who are your friends?
Me: Well, some are rabbis. Like I said, I don't have a lot of personal friends in the country.
Intel2: What about in the West Bank? You've been there six times, you must have lots of friends there, right?
Me: I know very few people there well enough to really call them "friends". They're extraordinary folks; I'm just not there that long.
Intel2: So they're not friends, huh? So what do you call them?
Me: I don't know, "colleagues", I guess.
Intel2: Colleagues! So, they're colleagues! What do you mean, colleagues?
Me: Nothing much; they're activists, I'm an activist..."colleagues".
Intel2: What do you mean, they're "activists" [practically sneering]. What do they do?
Me: Um, organize, speak, demonstrate. You know, activist stuff. They're non-violent activists.
Intel2: So, who are these colleagues of yours? What are their names?
Me: Sorry, I'm afraid I can't give you the names of any Palestinians.
Intel2: [Menacing, I think was the idea] You're not going to tell me who they are?
Me: No.
Intel2: Why wouldn't you do that?
Me: Because I know that Israel often targets non-violent Palestinian activists, and I'm not going to help you to do that.
Intel2: So, you're an "activist"!
Me: Yes, like I said...mostly observing, trying to dissuade settlers, and sometimes soldiers, from attacking Palestinians.
Intel2: Have you ever been to Bil'in [or maybe Ni'lin] on Friday?
Me: What?
Intel2: Have you been to Bil'in on Friday?
Me: [Tired and getting a bit irritated] What? I'm not much on dates. What?
Intel2: I'm asking if you've been to Bil'in on Friday.
Me: [The lightbulb comes on: Bil'in has scheduled, weekly protest demonstrations; I think they're on Fridays, though I really didn't remember.] I've been to a demonstration in Bil'in, if that's what you're asking. As an observer, like I said.
Intel2: I didn't ask that, I just asked if you were there on Friday. So, you were at a demonstration!
Me: I certainly was.
Intel2: And you were "observing", were you?
Me: Yup, that's about it.
Intel2: [Probably a few other questions, and then] You know, I know what you've really been doing.
Me: I've told you what I've really been doing.
Intel2: We know everything, you know. We have all the information about you. And I'm sorry, but everything we know, we pass to your government and *they* know it too. [In a tone clearly meant to bring home my great peril]
Me: [Trying not to laugh] Well, I'm fine with my government knowing about anything I do, but thanks for the warning, anyway.
Intel2: I know you're lying.
Me: [A bit heated] I'm not much for lying, and if I were inclined to lie, believe me, I would have started much earlier, and we wouldn't be having this conversation. On top of which, if you really know everything I've been doing, then you know I'm telling the truth, don't you?
Intel2: Well, I'm not sure about that.
Me: Then you don't know what you're talking about.
After this charming interlude, I was returned to sit in the same waiting area for another hour or two. After that, I was brought to a different waiting area, all of 75 feet away, and waited *there* for around an hour. At this point, I was finally informed by a representative of the Ministry of the Interior that I had been determined to be a security risk, and would only be allowed into Israel under three conditions: first, I would have to sign a pledge not to enter the occupied territories; second, I would have to give a $1350 cash deposit that would be forfeit if I violated that pledge; third, I would only be given a ten-day visa. I had ridiculous phone troubles, and the Ministry of the Interior people were very sympathetic, both to my purpose and my immediate difficulties. They offered me water, took time to chat occasionally, and let me use their phone to make a number of in-country calls. I'm pretty sure they would have let me call the U.S., as well, but the phone was incapable.
After an hour or so of trying to reach and then consulting with other activists, and trying to contact an Israeli attorney, the security people pressed the Interior people, and the Interior people pressed me, saying that if I didn't make a decision, it would be made for me, and I would be put back on a plan to the U.S. I told them they'd have to carry me to the plane, that I knew perfectly well no captain would let me on board if I told him I would disrupt the flight, which I would most certainly do, and that they could either wait until I was sure of my decision, or they could transfer me to the deportation jail and eat the horrible PR that would result, which I had half a mind to do anyway. As expected, that ended the pressure, and I sat tight until I heard back from a friendly Israeli attorney who advised me to agree to the entry conditions and fight them, if desired, once I was in the country. It was 8.5 hours, in all, before I was allowed to leave the airport; nearing the end of a *very* long day.
So, I am now (still) writing to you from Jerusalem, as I no doubt deserve, representing as I do the curious type of security threat who poses a terrible risk if he is allowed *near* Israel for seventeen days, but is harmless as a teddy bear if he is actually *inside* Israel for 10 days. You'll understand, I hope, if I'm a tad skeptical.
You may wonder whether, as several of my fellow activists have pointed out, it would really be that hard to get to the West Bank and back without being detected or forfeiting my deposit. The answer is no: I'm not a security threat, and neither are any of the other activists working in Palestine, and the Israelis know that perfectly well, and pay little attention to any of us unless we happen to get arrested at a (perfectly legal!) demonstration. The odds of getting "caught" are extremely low away from the demonstrations. I have, however, what seem to me compelling reasons not to do this. First, I haven't signed my name to anything in bad faith since before I was seventeen (and I'm not sure about before then); it's not a practice I intend to start now. Second, the great majority of the Jewish community would be delighted (if I, or any of this, ever came to their attention) to have even a slim reason to believe that I am lying about what happens over here, which would make it that much easier for them to get back to vigorously lying to themselves, instead. I just saw a terrific penmanship exercise from the (Jewish-taught) children's school at Terezin concentration camp with a practice phrase something like: "Whoever once lies is not believed". When you're working in support of Palestinian human rights, that goes double, and four times on Shabbat! The other, equally important, issue is that some of this appears to be deliberate manipulation by Israeli security. By making people sign non-entry statements on arrival, they can deport any internationals they pick up at a perfectly legal demonstration simply *because they lied on the statement*. At one time, at least, this appeared to be standard operating procedure, and I am entirely uninterested in giving Israel an (additional) way to cloak the State's illegal activities. Finally, I just turned 40, and I fully expect to be engaged in this work for the next 40 years. If this trip was compromised, I can live with that, but deportation includes a ten-year ban on entry into Israel, and that would be a serious obstacle to discharging my responsibilities here.

Military Service and Common Courtesy

Before I write the next two posts from my trip, I thought I should briefly explain my thoughts regarding two, otherwise unrelated issues that influenced the events to be described. The first part concerns the ethics of military or security service under an unjust or crimimal regime. The second regards the conflicts between the duty of advocacy and the courtesies due as a guest, particularly in a religious context. Neither of these are intended as arguments in support of my views (though I obviously think they have some merit, or they wouldn't be my views!), but are merely an attempt to provide context for what might be a pretty confusing narrative.
Serving an unjust regime
It seems to me that every sovereign nation, even the very worst, has legitimate security needs. Where, exactly, one places the line between legitimate and illegitimate needs is a more complicated question, and fortunately not one that I need to address here. Instead, I will take what I view as the easy case: lethal attacks that target, or make no attempt to spare, young children neither engaged in nor supporting combat activities. One may argue that, in some cases, the regime need only cease its own illegitimate behavior in order to eliminate the relevant threat, but this fails to resolve the problem in two respects: first of all, neither policy changes, nor the responses to those changes, are instantaneous, and the security need, even in a best-case scenario, will remain in force for some significant period. Second, I am primarily concerned, not with political decision-makers, but with regular 'grunts', who have very limited ability to change the bigger picture, and must make their ethical decisions in the world that presents itself to them. So, a typical citizen is left with a number of choices, though the exact list and the penalties associated with each choice may vary widely. For my purposes here, I will rely on the following options that pertain in Israel at present:
1) Non-citizens or citizens not required to perform military service can volunteer for such service.
2) Citizens normally required to perform military service can agree to serve.
3) Citizens normally required to perform military service can (fairly easily, and without significant penalty) avoid service for reasons other than moral.
4) Citizens normally required to perform military service can refuse such service on moral grounds, generally suffering very serious penalties.
5) Citizens not required to perform military service can simply not serve.
Some people would argue that, under an unjust regime, the only moral options are to avoid or refuse to serve. I understand their perspective, but disagree, for several reasons. First of all, military service typically involves risks and personal sacrifices not associated with other occupations. To refuse to serve when refusal carries comparable risks may well be preferable, but is it really better to avoid, or simply not volunteer for, service, placing the burden of legimate security needs on others, than to shoulder one's own share of that burden? What if avoiding service requires that one give false testimony regarding disability or ineligibility? Does it matter if the testimony is mostly ritual, and nobody is truly deceived? The answers to these questions are not at all clear to me.
For those who do decide to serve, however, even more difficult decisions may remain. One possibility (and, in my view, the most honorable of all choices) is to agree to serve the legitimate needs of the regime, thus subjecting oneself to military discipline, but then refuse to join the regime's illegitimate activities. In most countries, however, I believe the penalties for this kind of action are truly severe, usually much worse than those imposed under civilian law for refusing to serve. This is relevant when the illegitimate activities are explictly sponsored by the regime: death squads, collective punishment, land appropriations, etc. Sometimes, however, it may be the manner in which legitimate activities are conducted that renders them illegitimate: harassment and humiliation during border checks, beatings when taking police reports, live fire for crowd control, etc. In these situations, there may be ethical paths that are not quite so grim, but they may still be terrifying, and even truly dangerous. Simply standing aside from such activities is not, in my view, a moral option, but it may not be so different from simply avoiding service in the first place. Is verbally discouraging illegitimate activities sufficient? That can be harder than it sounds, but it's not much to expect of a person who chooses to serve an unjust regime. Is it necessary to physically intervene to stop abuse? This is frightening and potentially dangerous, even when only one member of a unit is involved in illegitimate activities, which is usually the exception; it is far harder when a majority of a unit are complicit. Or must one threaten and/or pursue public, legal action against those responsible? When problems are widespread, this is a truly terrifying, and potentially lethal, course of action.
Now, it is well-established that there are (or have recently been) people who satisfy the easy case I describe, and this, in my judgment, gives the government of Israel a legitimate security need to prevent such attacks. {I in no way mean to imply by this that the Israeli regime is, as a whole, in an ethically superior position relative to these hypothetical attackers, which is an entirely different question.} All too often, when I encounter a member of the Israeli military, border police, or intelligence services, they are clearly involved in illegitimate activities: supporting illegal settlements, harassing or abusing Palestinians, attacking demonstrators, preventing farmers' access to their land, etc. At all other times, however, based on the reasoning described above, I assume that they are serving with honor, unless and until I have reason to believe otherwise.
The duty of advocacy versus courtesies as a guest
I consider myself, in my idiosyncratic and frequently paradoxical way, a very religous person. Since my religion is Judaism, that means I consider myself a very religious Jew, which isn't always an easy role, nowadays. Over the past several years, I have rarely, if ever, attended a Jewish religious gathering of any kind that did not make me significantly uncomfortable in some way related to our treatment of the Palestinian people. I see politics and religion as (rightfully) separate things, and emphatically prefer to keep politics out of Shabbat observance (one of the areas where I think halachah deserves more respect than it gets). Beyond some threshold, and even on Shabbat, I have a duty to advocate for Palestinian rights and for decent behavior in general, but where that threshold lies and with what vigor it is appropriate to respond when it is crossed is rarely clear.
When I'm invited as a guest to a private home, in particular, then, unless my host knows exactly who he/she is inviting, I tend to hold my tongue until something truly egregious is said or done. This isn't a particularly reasoned stance, just a visceral reluctance to 'sneak up' on somebody and shatter a religious gathering to which they invited me in all good will.
Another (completely unrelated) thing I try to avoid is publicly embarassing someone, particularly a host in their own home, and most particularly a host in an area where they are thought or expected to be knowledgeable/competent/etc. For this reason, if I am in the company of a rabbi or other religious figure (from whatever religion), I may speak out if I feel something inherently wrong is going on, but I will rarely say anything about behavior that is only (or primarily) problematic in the particular religious context. If a Catholic priest hands out soggy wafers, I'm not going to object; nor, if an observant rabbi ignores it, am I going to criticize table discussion that seems clearly inappropriate on Shabbat, but that would be more-or-less acceptable in another setting.

Terezin concentration camp

When I arrived in Prague, I wasn't sure whether I would have time to see both Jewish Prague and Terezin concentration camp. I wound up starting with Prague, in part because there was no direct transport from the airport to Terezin, and in part, frankly, because I badly needed at least a trickle of optimism regarding the human condition. It was already early afternoon when I reached the bus stop [wrongly] identified by my guidebook as the departure point for Terezin. By the time I realized what was going on and located the correct stop, it was 3:00pm, and the ticket seller told me there would be no returning buses from the camp after I got there. I was sorely tempted to drop the whole thing and just relax until my flight, which was only eight hours later, anyway. Ultimately, though, it felt wrong to come so close and turn away, so I rode out, figuring I'd be able to sort out some return transport in time to catch my plane. As it happened, the timing was a blessing in disguise, and I had an experience of the camp that I almost certainly would have been missed had I simply returned the following year.

The first thing to know about Terezin is that it isn't really a place; it's two places. The first was originally Terezin town, named after Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa. I felt terrible for her (what a mark to leave on history!), but a quick check revealed that the empress was arguably the most anti-Semitic leader of her time. Terezin was a fortified town erected as a defense against the Germans, but it wound up the site of Terezin concentration camp. The other Terezin was the massive "Small Fortress" (small only in relation to the nearby town), a Gestapo prison that held 32,000 people between 1941 and 1945, including 1,500 Jews.
I started with Terezin, the town turned concentration camp, and it a town. I've spent considerable time thinking about concentration camps, but not so much about the physical locations. On some level, however, I always somehow assumed that there would be a 'genius loci', or spirit of place, shared among these damned sites...some pervasive vibration of death and despair. I found none of that as I walked through Terezin, and the absence was deeply unsettling. Terezin was just a small, very quiet town, and easily confounded my expectations. I was fully aware of the evil and suffering of the place, but it was an awareness I brought with me; Terezin was silent. I visited several of the camp's memorial sites: the Magdeburg men's barracks, the museum holding art by child prisoners, the moat where Jewish slaves grew food for their Nazi masters. Only in the hidden synagogue did I really feel a connection between the place and its history: just a single, empty, windowless room, hidden behind the camp bakery, with scriptural quotes in Hebrew inscribed on two walls.
It was starting to get dark, and the remaining museum sites were scheduled to close in an hour, when I left Terezin town to see the Small Fortress. From the outside, at least, whatever the town and camp lacked in grim presence, the fortress made up in spades. A Czech national cemetery fills the land in front, with large Christian and Jewish sections, marked with a giant cross and a giant Star of David, and it is an eerie place at dusk. Past the cemetery, a small, black and white striped gate is set in one massive, dark-grey wall. Just inside the gate is a replica of the infamous sign: "Arbeit Macht Frei"...Work Liberates. The museum, it turned out, had closed early (it was Czech Independence Day), so I never actually saw the sign, but the ironic quote brought to mind the Palestinian Presidential Guard, who I've been loosely following as they recently reformed and retrained under U.S. Lt. General Keith Drayton. These men have been working hand-in-glove with Israeli forces to guarantee Israeli security, under circumstances that must burn like the very fires of hell, all on the promise that they are creating the foundation for a soon-to-come Palestinian state. Perhaps these men's work will make them and their people free; I certainly hope so! I expect, however, that this promise will prove as false for them as it once did for the prisoners of Terezin.
So, dusk had fallen, it was approaching full night, and I was standing in front of the Small Fortress gate with no bus ride back to Prague and sanity. Not realizing how isolated Terezin was, I had hoped to catch a taxi despite the cost, but there was hardly a car in sight, let alone an empty cab. There was, however, supposed to be a small train station in one nearby town and, as it turned out, the road to that town ran through Terezin. I started back to the camp under dark and cloudy skies, with the full moon nearly obscured, and the sodium-lit tunnel through the town's fortifications no longer looked innocuous. The cute muskrats in the moat were gone, as were the few parents with children, and the two dog owners out for a walk in the square. A scant handful of people remained, half-cloaked in darkness and in mist, and the same buildings that seemed almost indecently ordinary in the light of day were quite different now, and it was all too easy to imagine the dead of Terezin. There was one location in the camp that I hadn't yet seen, set as it was on a trail beyond the clustered buildings. The crematoria was marked on a small, free map I had picked up at the museum, and it seemed right to seek it out. The right trail was hard to find; minimally lit, and that for only part of its length. I had a small flashlight with me, but the batteries ran out early on, and it was difficult to distinguish the trail from small service roads and such in the area. I wandered around for some time before I finally stumbled upon a gate to what I believe was the crematoria. The gate was locked, however, and I still can't be sure that the building beyond was the one I sought.
In hindsight, it doesn't surprise me that I couldn't find the dead of Terezin in daylight. If I ever visit another concentration camp, I will be sure to go again at dusk, and try to find my way through the night. I suspect that the camps were always dark to most of those who passed through their doors, and that they were often truly lost, no matter how much light appeared for those who could walk back out again.


For several years, now, I've been wanting to schedule an encounter with at least one of the Nazi concentration camps on my way to Israel and the West Bank. Palestinian rights work certainly isn't the first time that the Holocaust has driven me to engage on an issue, but it's the first time I've traveled abroad to do so. It has often felt...'disjointed' isn't quite what I want, here, but I can't come up with anything travel so much in support of Palestinian rights, without ever paying my respects 'face-to-face', so to speak, to the people whose stories drew me into this work in the first place. In the past, though, the added cost and time involved just weren't workable, and I never managed to do this. This year, I got lucky: Czech Airlines changed my flight and I wound up with a 15-hour layover in Prague, an important center of European Jewish life, and located just 40 miles southeast of Terezin (German "Theresienstadt") concentration camp.
I won't get too deeply into Prague's Jewish history, mostly because I knew nothing at all about it before this trip, and know little more now. In a nutshell, the Jewish community in Prague dates back to at least 970 CE; it thrived for a while, and was then persecuted with varying intensity from 1096 through 1563. A two century "golden age" followed from 1564-1744, at which time Prague boasted the world's largest Jewish population. The Jews were then thrown out of Prague (again) in 1745 by yet another new despot, but returned in 1780 to a far better and steadily improving situation that generally persisted through the 1920's. In the late 1930's, of course, the Nazis overran the city, and that was that.
During the Nazi occupation, Jewish historians/archivists negotiated with the Germans to collect Jewish artifacts from across the region to create a museum of the extinct Jewish peope (that's what the Nazis agreed to, though presumably the Jews responsible had other hopes). The work began and a great deal was done, though it was happily interrupted before completion by Germany's surrender. After the Holocaust, two Czech Christian denominations (the Bohemian Brethren and the Czechoslovakian Church) used many of the smaller, empty synagogues as prayer rooms. Where this was done, the Christian congregations took care of the Jewish cemeteries, and apparently even read a special prayer dedicated to those occasions. The extraordinary, multi-site Jewish Museum begun under the Nazis is fully staffed and open to the public; it holds one of the world's largest collections of Judaica and related items
Around 10,000 of the area's 120,000 Jews did survive the Holocaust, and the city still hosts the oldest functioning synagogue in all of Europe, the Old-New Synagogue, which (except for 1941-1944) has been in continuous congregational use since 1270 CE. Prague's present-day Jewish community of several thousand holds weekday services there (Jewish visitors are welcome, though I unfortunately missed out this time). On Shabbat, services are held at the much larger and visually mind-blowing Jerusalem Synagogue, which opened on Simhat Torah, 1906. The official pamphlet I picked up says the synagogue is "an interesting example of Art Nouveau stylisation of the morphology of the Moorish style." I won't even try to describe it here, but I will be posting all the pictures from my trip on the web when I return, so keep an eye out if you're interested.
To sum up: There were non-Jewish Czechs and there were Jewish Czechs. Too often, the former saw little human worth in the latter, but they finally got their act together in the late 1800s and kept it that way into the 1930s. Then there were Nazis, non-Jewish Czechs, and Jewish Czechs; the Nazis were happy to preserve the Jews' history and culture, but only on the assumption that they would all be safely dead at the time. In the end, though, the Prague Jews are still alive, and the non-Jewish Czechs are helping to preserve their history and culture, anyway. The lesson? If you want to be better than a Nazi, then you'll need to help preserve your victims' history and culture while they're still alive to see it.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

More of the Same

Let's see...what to tell? Mousa's High Court case went about as expected, maybe even a bit worse. Shin Bet showed the Court their secret evidence, based on "a secret source"; the Court did nothing to evaluate the evidence, but merely said that they had to assume that "Shin Bet was acting honestly and in good faith," and left Mousa indefinitely imprisoned without charge. A supreme court that safeguards against security service abuses by assuming that the service always acts "honestly and in good faith"; you can't ask for better oversight than that! Shin Bet actually stated before the Court that they intend to extend Mousa's detainment by another six months when the first six are up. I assume they were trying to avoid additional hassle by showing Mousa's attorney that she needn't bother refiling later, but it could have been simple sadism...hard to tell. Bekah's trying to put a good face on things, but this is incredibly difficult for her. Mousa is talking about going on a hunger strike in protest, which I gather he's done at least once before. Everyone hopes he won't do it, since the Israelis couldn't care less and will just ignore him, cancel any family visitations, and force feed him if he looks like dying.

The fundamental question of life in Palestine: what do you do when doing nothing is intolerable, but doing anything is impossible?

I've now participated in two more events in Ni'lin: a demonstration against Barrier construction and land annexations on Thursday, and a general protest against the Occupation on Friday. In each case, Palestinians participating in non-violent activities on their own lands (together with internationals and Israelis) were assaulted by Israeli troops using a variety of means: bare hands, sound grenades, tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets (black and cylindrical), plastic-coated steel "grapeshot" (light-colored and spherical), and truly vile stink sprays (these are new, apparently, and only work at very close range).

Bruised activists of various origins are a dime a dozen at the demonstrations, as are low levels of tear gas inhalation. One Palestinian youth went into convulsions (which I saw), apparently after being shot in the head at close range with a rubber-coated steel bullet (which I didn't). Thankfully, we haven't had any live fire injuries in the past week; presumably the soldiers have been told to tone it down after murdering a young boy a bit earlier. It probably goes without saying, but no protestor has used any form of violence against the soldiers, no matter what the provocation. We will try to "de-arrest" people who are being dragged away by holding on to each other and thinking heavy thoughts, but other than that, we basically stand (or lie) there and take it. Palestinians, or people who look like they might be Palestinians, "naturally" tend to get the worst abuse.

Shortly after each demonstration, Palestinian youths and young men not affiliated with the demonstrators came out to sling stones at the soldiers from 50 to 100 yards, or so. Well, they hurl stones somewhere near the soldiers, anyway; the slings were wildly inaccurate at these distances. The soldiers responded with bunches of tear gas grenades and varying numbers of rubber-coated steel bullets, which are designed for use at these ranges, and don't kill anybody. Serious injuries were (and generally are) rare, so long as soldiers don't break out the live ammunition, although one Palestinian youth did have his hand sliced open by a flying tear gas cannister.

The good news is that the demonstrations get some genuine media attention. We had CNN out the other day, a couple of major French and German TV channels, and an assortment of minor players I can't identify. Presumably, somebody somewhere is seeing this footage and empathizing (or at least sympathizing) with the Palestinians, as well they should. The bad news, of course, is that it isn't anywhere close to enough, nothing has really changed, and nothing is likely to. The bulldozers churn forward, the seizures continue, the olive trees go down, the Barrier goes up, the water goes to the settlements, the soldiers abuse the Palestinians, etc.

So, what do you do when doing nothing is intolerable, but doing anything is impossible?

Militants in Gaza launch useless rockets, Mousa refuses to eat, the people of Ni'lin hold demonstrations, the youths sling stones.

And I? I travel to the West Bank for a couple of weeks each summer, and write this pointless blog.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Back at the scene(s) of the crime(s)

Oy, vey. Here we go again.

I'm back in the West Bank, this time based out of Beit Omar with the Palestine Solidarity Project (PSP). The PSP is an entirely non-violent anti-occupation group founded by Mousa, an experienced Palestinian organizer, and Bekah, a Jewish organizer who is a friend of many years from NYC and Jews Against the Occupation (JATO). These organizers work in close collaboration with a steering committee from the local community, in order to make sure that the organization's activities reflect the priorities of those most directly affected by Israeli actions, and whose families are at the greatest risk of reprisals, etc. Everything is done with limited resources and against impossible odds, as is the case of pretty much all work in support of Palestinian rights. As if that weren't enough, Mousa was arrested several weeks ago on secret security charges (read, in this case: 'pure fiction that will never be challenged, because there's no way to find out what it is'). He remains in administrative detention, which amounts to open-ended imprisonment intended to disrupt his non-violent organizing. A pretty effective disruption, obviously! Unlike the overwhelming majority of Palestinians held in administrative detention, Mousa has managed to get a High Court hearing this coming Thursday on a point of procedure. Nobody expects that the High Court will actually stop his detention, which would be virtually (and perhaps literally) unheard of, but there is some hope that they will set explicit conditions under which the detention can be extended beyond an initial six-month period. Since there was no real basis for holding Mousa in the first place, this would amount to a six-month prison sentence for absolutely nothing; a grim example of what passes for 'victory' if you're a Palestinian caught up in the Israeli 'legal' system.

Yesterday, our team of activists (sans Mousa) went to Ni'lin, a Palestinian village that has been holding a series of non-violent demonstrations in resistance to the 'security' barrier being built on village property, annexing yet more Palestinian land to illegal Israeli settlements built nearby. The demonstrations have been supported by international and Israeli activists (the latter mostly members of the amazing Anarchists Against the Wall), whose presence is believed and intended to limit the degree of violence inflicted by Israeli soldiers on the Palestinians. Nonetheless, soldiers have beaten, shot, and arrested a number of Palestinian and international (and possibly Israeli) activists over the past few weeks. Most recently, on 7/29, Israeli soldiers murdered Ahmed Mousa, a 10-year-old boy who was pulling at razor wire strung across his village's land; Ahmed was shot through the head at close range with live ammunition, and died instantly. On 8/1, following Ahmed's funeral, villagers heaped stone and scrap across the main entrance to the village in order to deny entrance to the Israeli army, which had no business entering the village in the first place, particularly at such a time. When the army did decide to force a path into the village, they were met with a shower of thrown stones, to which they responded with a hail of rubber-coated steel bullets (fired at short range, where they are known to be frequently lethal). Two rubber-coated steel bullets penetrated the skull of one 18-year-old youth, Yousef Amira, who was completely non-responsive on arrival at a hospital in Ramallah. Yousef's body died yesterday and he was buried in Ni'lin following a large funeral procession.

As the tail end of the funeral procession (which transported Yousef's body from Ramallah) entered Ni'lin, three or four Palestinians (who I happened to be escorting) attempted to drape a large Palestinian flag between them, across the village entrance, as they walked towards the mosque where the funeral would be held. This harmless act was met by a barrage of sound grenades from the 20+ Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint at the village entrance. {If anyone is wondering how many grenades constitute a 'barrage', I'm afraid I can't tell you; counting sound grenades while they explode around me is beyond my present capacity. It was a lot.} This response was so bizarrely out of proportion to anything I saw happening that I spent several minutes whirling around and trying to figure out what violent conflict was taking place without my noticing. Finally, I realized (and others later confirmed) that there really was nothing else going on; the entire assault was about three unarmed, non-confrontational guys walking with a flag to a funeral. I located a senior officer and asked him what the hell he was doing; I think that the grenades subsided afterward, but I'm not positive.

So, to sum up: Israeli soldiers murdered a young boy, killed a young man at the boy's funeral, and poured sound grenades on people going to the young man's funeral.

Welcome (back) to the occupation!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Tel Rumeida Story


Haji, as she is politely called, is a 70-something Palestinian woman living on Shuhada Street, between the Tel Rumeida checkpoint and the Beit Hadassah settlement. Her house is similar to many others on the street, with a couple of exceptions of great interest to human rights activists working in Tel Rumeida. First, she is on the shady side of the street. Second, she has a small, concrete stoop just in front of her doorway, with exactly enough room for two international activists, a camera bag, and bottle of water. Because of these virtues, Haji's stoop is the location of choice for the activists on watch at Shuhada Street, the most active spot for violent settler activity in Tel Rumeida. Each day, a couple of scruffy internationals make their way down from the "top of the hill" and settle their tender behinds on the stoop, which, while rock hard, is still considerably smoother and more comfortable than anything else around.

Haji lives alone, now; presumably her husband has passed away, since divorce is almost unheard of in Hebron. She does have one grown son who comes to visit every few days, sometimes with a grandchild, or two, but Haji loves to talk, and this isn't nearly enough company for her liking. So, each afternoon, she brings tea out to the activists sitting on her porch. A silver tea setting is used: three cups (one for Haji), a small platter, and a strainer to filter out all the spices that make Arabic tea so delicious. Haji has a hard time bending very far, and, after a few days of protests, she now lets an activist take the tray from her and set it on the stoop, once the glasses are full. Although her hands shake a good deal, no one has yet managed to pour or strain the tea for her; Haji isn't yet so old that she can't serve her guests properly.

During this whole time, Haji maintains a near-constant stream of Arabic chit-chat, of which we activists catch around one word in one hundred. Haji knows we can't speak Arabic (largely because "la Araby", or "no Arabic", is one of the few things that we can say), but it doesn't seem to bother her. Having guests to talk to doesn't necessarily require that they understand what you're saying. We reciprocate as best we can: frequent repetitions of "shulcran" (thank you) and "quais" (ok), with exaggerated facial expressions which we hope convey that the tea is much better than just ok, but that we've once again forgotten the Arabic word for "great". Saying "very, very quais" has become something of an in joke shared between activists and members of the local community.

After the tea, Haji almost always brings out a couple clusters of grapes, or sometimes a piece of flatbread. This is sufficiently predictable that I've taken to bringing a couple of used plastic bags in my camera bag when I'm working Shuhada. Before the bags, we had to figure out what to do with a bunch of grapes, sans plates or utensils, when faced with marauding settlers.

At some point on most days, Haji goes out for a couple of hours, probably shopping in H1, outside Tel Rumeida. For many weeks, activists watched her spend several minutes testing the lock on her door each time she went out. She would tur her old-fashioned key in the lock, and then push and pull it in various directions, tugging fiercely on occasion, until she was satisfied. In my last couple of days in Tel Rumeida, however, I noticed that these lock-testing bouts had tapered off almost completely. There are of course, any number of explanations, but I like to think that our daily presence on her porch ("just like her children", as Haji loved to tell us when we had Arabic-speakers to translate) helped her feel less threatened by the settlers, and made her ritual less compelling.


At approximately 2pm on September 9, 2006, six young settler men, between the ages of 16 and 19, moved down Shuhada Street, in Tel Rumeida, from the neighborhood checkpoint towards Beit Hadassah settlement. Lena (another activist) and I were watching the street at the time, and we saw that the young men were being very loud and looked likely to be dangerous. The risk was particularly high on Shabbat, when the settlers typically celebrate G-d's creation of the universe by attacking Palestinian women and children, destroying Palestinian property, etc.

When the settlers appeared, an elderly Palestinian woman {Haji, above} was cleaning her stoop across the street from us, and slightly closer to their position. Fearing for the woman's safety, I crossed to her position, pointed out the settlers, and tried to suggest that she go inside her house. She either didn’t understand, or chose to continue cleaning, and I moved to the opposite side of the street, in order to avoid drawing the settlers’ attention to her. Lena remained several meters further down the street, holding my video camera (still in its bag), and prepared to document any aggression by the settlers.

Moments later, the settlers drew within roughly ten meters of the elderly woman’s stoop, and veered towards her, shouting at her in Hebrew. The woman slowly started to withdraw (she doesn't move easily, regardless of circumstance), clearly not comfortable with their behavior. I moved quickly back across the street, and placed myself between the settlers and the woman, hoping to give her time to get inside and lock the door. The settlers started yelling at me to get out of the way, which I refused to do. All six settlers then attacked me, kicking, punching, and at one point shoving me against the wall of the house.

At this point, Lena, about eight meters away, took out a video camera in order to record the attack. The settlers quickly peeled away from me and rushed her, shouting at her, trying to grab the camera, pushing her, and eventually tearing the video camera out of her grip. They then hurled the camera to the ground, and proceeded to kick it along the street down towards Beit Hadassah settlement. We followed them, shouting at them to stop it, and to give back the camera. The settlers, however, kept kicking the camera all the way past the nearby IDF post and into the first section of the settlement. One settler then picked up the camera and ran into a settler building, while the others continued down Shuhada Street, further into the settlement.

This entire sequence of events took place within 25 meters of the manned IDF post mentioned above. The soldier at that post took no action at any time, despite our calls for help, and the passage of the camera-kicking settlers less than two meters in front of his post. When I asked the soldier why he did nothing to help, he replied that he couldn’t do anything. This was patently absurd, given that the soldier was armed with an M-16, while the attacking settlers were unarmed, and clearly in their late teens, rather than small children who may be immune from military detention. I then demanded the soldier call the police, which he appeared to do.

After describing the attack to a series of soldiers, including a 1st lieutenant with some command authority, we repeated the procedure with a number of police officers. The first policeman with whom they spoke attempted to blame the HRWs use of a camera on the “peaceful holy day” of Shabbat. I took an extremely dim view of this interpretation, and pointed out that Lena only removed the camera from her bag to document an unprovoked assault by a violent gang. Eventually, the police took us to view two suspects who they had detained (a remarkable occurrence, in and of itself). Unfortunately, neither of us could be absolutely certain that the detainees were among the attackers, so the suspects were released, and we were taken to the Kiryat Arba police headquarters to file complaints for the assault and for the robbery of the camera.

Would arrests have been made if we had been able to positively identify the attackers? It's impossible to know with absolute certainty, but consider this: over the past year, the Tel Rumeida Project (together with the ISM) has recorded video footage of more than 100 attacks on Palestinians and internationals. To the best of my knowledge (which is rather good in this regard), not a single settler or soldier has been arrested, much less prosecuted, for any of these crimes.

Approximately half an hour after the attack described above, a third international activist observed an Israeli soldier, who was jogging down Shuhada Street, turn briefly aside to kick a small Palestinian boy (probably between seven and 10 years of age) squarely in the chest. The boy was standing in the doorway of his own house when he was attacked. The entire incident took only a few seconds, meaning there is no video record, and no chance of the soldier receiving even a reprimand.

Around three hours later, a number of settler girls strung themselves across the path leading from Shuhada Street to the Palestinian homes higher up the hill, behind the Cordoba school. At the direction of Anet Cohen (one of the most consistently evil settlers), they stood with linked hands in order to prevent a growing number of Palestinians from reaching their homes. A fourth international activist, hands carefully kept at her sides, pushed through the line of girls and led the Palestinians through the blockade. Along the way, she was kicked in the leg by Anet. A little while later, Ms. Cohen called the police and accused the activist of squeezing and/or twisting the arm of one of the settler girls. The activist was arrested and taken for interrogation. When she was finally being released without charges, she asked why the police didn't arrest Anet for kicking her. The police officer responded: "To arrest Anet Cohen, we would need an army." Apparently, it skipped the officer's mind that Israel already has around 5,000 soldiers stationed in and around Hebron, within 15 minutes of Tel Rumeida.