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Exploring Complexities of the Conflict

Wednesday, May 30
Report on “Jews of other hues”

As I have traveled for the last few days it is apparently clear that the agenda for the power elite of Israel is to give an image of a WIJ – White Israeli Jew, not unlike their counterparts WAJ – White American Jew and WASP – White Anglo Saxon Protestant.

There are Jews of other hues, but you wouldn’t know it if you relied on the American and Israeli media. Let’s go way back to the most famous Jew of all times, Jesus (pbuh). The bible by all accounts says he had feet of brass and hair of lamb’s wool. Last time I checked that would exclude most European and American Jews. Why am I citing this at all? Well, have you ever heard of the Mizrahi Jews? Sephardic Jews? Falasha Jews? As this is not a rhetorical question, I would answer easily, for most of us, no. You are probably only aware of Ashkenazi Jews who are primarily from Russia and Eastern European countries. These would be the “white” Jews you have seen in many of the Holocaust films or Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Barbara Walters, et al. Let me say here before going any further that racism is a very big issue here, but classism is also evident in this “land of milk and honey.” The concern for the Mizrahi has a taste of racism and classism.

The leaders (traveling with our delegation and stateside) of the Interfaith Peace-Builders and American Friends Service Committee have coordinated an incredible line up of presenters and speakers from numerous Palestinian, Jewish and Israeli individuals and organizations.

Our delegation met with one such group of representatives from the Mizrahi community earlier on our fact-finding journey. Mizrahis are Arab Jews from the Gulf states (Middle East), North Africa, Iran, Turkey and elsewhere. Upon first meeting Smadar Lavie, a Mizrahi of Yemeni extraction, one would think you just met a “progressive” Latina sister from an activist community in the Bay Area in California. Well, that’s almost the case because she was a professor at UC Davis and she spent time in the Bay Area. She has a real “olive” complexion with a beautiful shock of medium length, salt and pepper hair. She is an average height and size. Her face is graced with wire-rimmed glasses giving her a seriousness, but shared with a smile that appears when she finishes each sentence. As she spoke she reminded me of my personal community experiences in the Bay Area’s 70s and 80s when I would go to multicultural events in San Francisco or the East Bay. Invariably, there would be an individual or panel comprised of someone like Smadar speaking of the struggle of “disenfranchised” people.

She is very passionate about letting people know and understand that there are several Jewish communities in Israel that are kept “invisible” with shades of the story of author Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ms. Lavie and several other Mizrahi community members from Hakeshet Hademocratit HaMizrahit met with us in southern Tel Aviv. We spent a good portion of the day and evening hearing the story of “taxation with no representation” of the Israeli government, the Mizrahi history in Israel, their connection with other misrepresented Jews and the mistreatment through house demolitions, never being able to own their own homes (after sixty plus years of residency), unemployment, and separate but unequal benefits.

Along with Smadar a young, Mizrahi man named Rafi spoke about the mistreatment dealt to Mizrahis. Smadar, Rafi and a handful of others took us on a walking tour where we observed a “temporary” park which once was homes. This is one of the tactics used to eventually establish permanent settlements of the “white” Jewish settlers. We saw several community synagogues, one of which had its front entrance destroyed by Israeli soldiers. Additionally, we visited homes and spoke with some residents that have been notified that their homes are part of the Israeli house demolition program. So they are preparing for possible, immediate removal. In fact, this tour reminded me of a blighted area in any urban district in the United States.

The treatment of Mizrahi Jews is just one of the ill-effects of a system that has now been cast as an apartheid system which if not addressed soon will explode or implode depending on how or where you’re viewing this situation.

-- Zarinah Shakir

Thursday, May 31

The founder and director of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), Jeff Halper, joined us at dinner on Thursday May 31. Earlier that day, during our visit to the settlement of Efrat near Hebron, we had been told by an Israeli settler that house demolitions were a thing of the past. We were skeptical about the truth of that claim, and were fortunate to learn much more about this over dinner with Jeff.

Jeff stated that since 1967, 18,000 Palestinian houses have been demolished. He confirmed that one type of demolition—punishment for crimes—which constitutes a small proportion of the total (approximately 5%), was indeed discontinued about three years ago, when the Army decided that destroying the family home of a convicted offender did not deter terrorism. Jeff explained that since l967 approximately 60% of house demolitions were the result of the Army’s continuing to practice another form of collective punishment. During the invasion of Gaza, for example, hundreds of houses were destroyed, in disregard of international law. The other type, which accounts for about 30% of demolitions, depends upon using various legal and administrative mechanisms to support an Israeli political agenda of control of the Palestinians living in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Zoning is one of these mechanisms; in East Jerusalem all unbuilt upon land is classified is “open green space.” To get a permit to build, one must prove the building site is not such a space and pay expensive fees and permit costs in addition. Moreover, Israelis are permitted to build on 80% of the plot, where Palestinians (in order “to preserve the village character of East Jerusalem, since “Arabs prefer low density”) are restricted to 25% in general. Thus, many Palestinian houses are built or added onto illegally, due to the enormous difficulty of getting a permit, and many if not most of these are declared illegal and threatened with potential demolition. ICAHD rebuilds some of the demolished houses as an act of political resistance, defying the Occupation which attempts to assert Israeli government control of Palestinians’ home ownership.

Jeff shared exciting news that will be publicly announced in the US on Sunday, June 10, in a full page ad in the New York Times, and half-page ads on Tuesday, June 12 in the Times, the Guardian, and Israel. ICAHD has received a one and a half million dollar contribution from a Holocaust survivor who envisioned building a house for every Palestinian whose home was demolished for lack of a permit. While that exceeds the scope of even so generous a gift, the donation will fund the rebuilding of many homes and make possible a significant new level of political resistance. On the 40th anniversary of the Occupation, ICAHD will be focusing attention on how an entire neighborhood was demolished in the dead of night on June 11, the last of the Six Day War. ICAHD is planning a major demonstration, involving survivors who live nearby, followed by a walk to Silwan where a demolished house will be rebuilt.

Jeff called our attention to a petition we can help with, based on the UN Security Council motion 252 which calls Israel to desist annexing Jerusalem. (Two members of the Council abstained—the US and Canada). He also urged the importance not only of talking to members of Congress when we go home but of somehow influencing greater numbers of constituents to support a more critical position by their representatives and senators. Besides the fear of being seen as weak on terrorism and of being seen as anti-Jewish, Congressional members must deal with Israel’s involvement with the arms industry and weapons development. If Israel’s military budget is responsible for half the jobs in your district, it is hard to talk about this “elephant in the room.”

Noting how churches can make a difference in the US mentality about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Jeff pointed out sadly that the UCC (United Church of Christ) was the first to adopt divestment, but now is involved in a struggle over that strategy aimed at ending the Occupation. In whatever ways we can, he asked us to widen the circle of support for ICAHD’s work. Private donors are needed; because of its use of civil disobedience, foundations won’t fund ICAHD. Some attested to how easy it is to hold a fundraising event (such as a houseparty) since ICAHD will help with plans and materials, including an excellent video. Jeff distributed several copies of a short book he has recently co-authored dismantling the various claims offered to justify Israeli government Zionist policies.

Before this encounter, Tony had informed us that we would be meeting both the American Friends Service Committee’s nominees for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize-- Jeff Halper. a Jerusalemite Jew who emigrated to Israel from the US, and Ghassan Andoni, a Palestinian from Bethlehem who is one of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement. What a privilege it is to be learning from these visionary nonviolent activists and infectiously committed teachers! In fact, day after day we are struck by the clarity, passion, and depth of the presentations.

-- Beth Keiser

Friday, June 1
Vad Vashem

The IFPB delegation's first visit of the morning was Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust (in Hebrew, "Shoah") Memorial museum, located in West Jerusalem. The museum is comprised of multiple buildings containing exhibits, and outdoor monuments, such as The Avenue and Garden Of The Righteous Among The Nations, The Valley of the Communities, and The Children's Memorial.

Not surprisingly, our trip leaders warned us before entering that our few hours would be insufficient time to witness the entirety or even a significant fraction of what Yad Vashem offers. This was almost immediately apparent when I first started into the main exhibit hall, and had moved along its length only a few dozen feet in the first half-hour.

The main exhibit hall is striking (maybe some would say radical) in its architecture. The central space is a long, narrow hall with an open two-story triangular cross-section. Entering the hall from the side, you face one end of the triangle, of which the entire wall is used as a video screen. Black and white footage of pre-Holocaust Jewish life and Jewish neighborhoods pans across the triangular screen, the people often projected to larger-than-life size.

Some exhibits line the sloping concrete walls of the main hall, but most exhibits are found in rooms beyond the side walls, with one-story high entrances cut into the walls along the length of the hall. A pathway leads you into and out of the exhibit rooms, cutting across the long axis of the hall at gentle angles winding slowly down the length of the hall, carrying you to the far end. If you're having trouble visualizing this, then have a look at Amnesty International's logo, which is a candle surrounded by a strand of barbed wire, weaving back and forth along the candle's length. I recalled the AI logo almost immediately upon stepping into the hall and seeing the pathway criss-crossing the open length of the triangular hall, ending in glass doors at the far end. The daylight streaming through the glass reminded me of the flame of a candle, which is a powerful symbol in the Jewish tradition. Or maybe visualize the pathway as one half of a shoelace, weaving in and out of the eyelets, which would correspond to the entrances to the exhibit rooms.

So much for the physical aspect of Yad Vashem... Now the harder part.

There is no written description of Yad Vashem's content I could produce which can do it justice, just as the museum itself cannot encompass the entirety of what was the Holocaust. Exhibit after exhibit--audio, video, or photo--testifies to suffering, cruelty, heroism, apathy, questions posed and left for the viewer to struggle with. I can only describe how this content affected me, and hope that this reflected and refracted view provides adequate testament to the ultimate significance of the Holocaust.

And I found myself affected immediately and powerfully, in a way I wasn't anticipating. The first exhibits chronicle the Nazi rise to power, and present examples of their racist, anti-Jewish philosophies. Painful enough in its own context, I could not avoid the obvious comparison of those policies to current Israeli Occupation policies. Prominently displayed was a description of the Nazi's "Jewish problem"--so similar sounding to the "demographic problem" that Israeli leaders and others use when they speak of the growing number of non-Jews (mostly Arab Muslims) inside the borders of Israel. Another exhibit described the Nazis "Boycott Day", in which Jewish stores were painted with a Star of David to identify them, and boycotted in the hope of ruining their businesses and livelihoods. Just a day earlier, I had taken pictures on Shuhada Street in the West Bank city of Hebron, where many dozens of Palestinian storefronts have been permanently closed by the Israeli military. This was nominally done to protect a small number of Jewish settlers who moved into the heart of the city. Some of those settlers have spray painted the Star of David on many of the metal storefront covers, or have welded shut the metal doors. I had expected to be confronted with the full and awful reality of the Holocaust, but now I was also confronting the current Occupation, and asking myself what was the proper relationship between the two?

An uncomfortable answer came from one of the many tour guides who are frequently seen leading groups through Yad Vashem's many exhibits. A tall, lean young man with a short haircut stopped his tour under a replica of an iron archway with iron-bar letters that spelled out the phrase "Arbeit macht frei." He spoke in a voice that was casual, yet clear and commanding, and with it he caught my attention as effectively as he held the attention of the people in his group. In English, he recounted the meaning of the phrase. Arbeit macht frei--work will make you free. These archways appeared over the entrances to several Nazi concentration camps. Prisoners filing in and out of the camps would see this ironic exhortation, day in and day out, until death or liberation.

After providing this historical information, he paused, then gave a more personal connection to these words. During his service in the Israeli Army, he had been stationed a checkpoint in the West Bank where Palestinians line up daily on their way to and from work. He stated that this checkpoint had been manned in the past by a unit that had acted unprofessionally towards the Palestinians. As a result, an Israeli human rights organization called Machsom Watch had stationed their volunteers at the checkpoint to observe the soldiers and report any abuses. According to the guide, a member of Machsom Watch had spray painted "Arbeit macht frei" on one of the checkpoint's structures. He recounted the anger he and his fellow soldiers felt at what they considered was an accusation comparing them to Nazis, and mentioned that the soldiers in the unit had considered suing Machsom Watch.

I expected him to stop at the end of his personal experience, but he instead confronted the comparison. He rejected any equivalence or similarity to actions by the Nazis. But then he unflinchingly spoke of an inherent, if moderate and necessary racism that results from Israel being a Jewish state--an ethnic minority state in a region with a hostile ethnic majority. He went on to say that security measures would be necessary and justified into the future, in order to protect "our way of life", which was "under attack", as the Jews of the Holocaust were under attack by the Nazis. At that point, he stopped and led his tour onward. I didn't follow, and instead left the main exhibit hall to spend some time alone with my thoughts, while walking the wide, sun-flooded cobblestone plaza, before moving on to some of the other monuments.

I have wrestled with this incident while trying to write this report. My initial reaction to the story of the tour guide was a sense of immense futility, that the lessons of Yad Vashem have no positive net effect. One person is inspired to spray paint "Arbeit macht frei" on a billboard at a checkpoint, out of fear that the society is failing to learn a lesson from the past. One person is inspired to defend the same checkpoint as a testament to a lesson learned from the past.

Is there nothing that can inspire every individual to treat every other human life as sacred? If not this place, this monument, this recounting of the sorrows and horrors of oppression, then what can?

I would leave Yad Vashem feeling not a sense of awe or of inspiration from its power, but rather a sense of fear of that power.

In the time since I've left Israel, I've been reading a book that I bought in Hebron at the Christian Peacemaker Team office, called "Hebron Journal" by Arthur G. Gish. Gish, a veteran of the Hebron CPT, recounts his experiences using nonviolent techniques to try to make peace between settlers and the long-time Hebronite Palestinians. He voices the same fears at the lessons being taken from the Holocaust by the Hebron settlers as I experienced in Yad Vashem. I find some small comfort and validation that a man I admire tremendously has had similar thoughts, but a greater sense of fear that these validated thoughts portend some terrible conclusion to the Occupation.

Yet Gish continues to press on with his peacemaking, putting inserting himself in between combatants, absorbing the anger and the physical manifestations of that anger, and returning love to those who may do him harm. Maybe his is the example that humanity needs, the missing piece of a puzzle that will connect the experience of Yad Vashem to the notion of all human life as sacred. Perhaps, if he and his kind succeed enough to be recognized by the larger world, and people can witness his example, they will see an alternative way to checkpoints manned by soldiers. People need positive examples they can learn from, follow, and improve upon.

Yad Vashem's monuments were not all built simultaneously, but rather arose and changed over time. Maybe there is room on the grounds for a future monument--one not testifying to monumental violence and suffering, but rather to the way out of the cycle of violence and suffering. That seems a fitting conclusion to the story told by Yad Vashem.

--Michael Batchelder

Saturday, June 2

“It is neither simple nor straightforward to demonstrate that a system of law was devised to legalize the transfer of lands and property from one people to another…that deliberate discrimination could be embedded in and masked by seemingly “neutral” categories within a legal system which by definition ought to denote impartiality and equal protection.” Further, “…Israel’s creeping annexations of the Occupied territories which has been advancing inexorably since 1967 has foreclosed the option of a viable two-state solution…the complete body of Israeli law is s fundamental to the seizure of land and property from the Palestinian people ever since the State of Israel was unilaterally declared in 1948.”

So begins their opening.

We met with Muhammad Jaradat from the multi-national organization, BADIL, which means “alternative”. He is a Palestinian who, even though he has been arrested 10 times by the Israelis and tortured (he had the cigarette burn scars to show for it), does not hate Israelis, but rather like the Combatant for Peace leader, pities them. He says he understands the terrible crime of the Holocaust and considers it to be a stigma on the world but goes on to state “We Palestinians shouldn’t be punished to clear the conscience of the world”.

Jaradat spoke of the refugee situation, reiterating what we have heard from others that the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 was not just a loss of land but, more importantly, a loss of identity for them.

He reminded us that Israel, in order to become a member of the United Nations, had to agree to UN Resolution 194, which stated Israel would accept the return of the Palestinian refugees to their lands. However, after Israel was admitted to the UN, the Israeli government reneged on the agreement by only applying a right of return ironically to worldwide Jews, who could (and can) become Israeli citizens, but who hadn’t “returned.”

Jaradat has come to believe the future answer to the Palestinian problem will have to be a one state solution. He believes the populations are too interconnected for it to be otherwise. He does not see the problems with one democratic state which apparently many Israelis do, i.e. the Palestinians would out populate them, vote as one block, and enact measures not to their advantage. Jaradat said he would vote for the candidate that offered the most just plans for the people.

Jaradat believes fundamentalist terrorism is a result of the failure of the world to deal with the Palestinian situation in a just manner. He worries about the potential for the situation to evolve into a religious conflict which he believes, if ever begun, would last at least 100 years. He said, “Nothing the Palestinians could do would satisfy the Israelis.” The only way to solve the problem is the return of Arab refugees to their homes. In those cases where the homes/villages have been built upon, reasonable bilateral solutions should be created, e.g. Tel Aviv University was built on a Palestinian village so let the descendants go there for free.

He spoke of the US creating Radical Islam; supporting Jordan and Egypt; and contributing of large sums of money to Israel which he believes should be curtailed. He reminded us that the Israeli government has many of the same problems we see in the US, i.e., privatization of services and income disparity. He said approximately 10% of Israelis enjoy most of the financial benefits of their economy and over 35% are below the poverty line, including, shamefully, some Holocaust survivors.

Jaradat emphasized that the Palestinians seek, more than financial compensation, an admission from the Israeli government that an injustice has been done to the Palestinian people and an apology

Finally and darkly, Israel should pay the Palestinians rent!

--Steve and Linda Bell



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