Negotiating “Surreal Juxtapositions”
Jerusalem and Bil'in
May 28 - 31, 2008
Prophets and a New World
May 29 and 30
1. I Am Eve
Carved into a hillside overlooking Jerusalem, Yad Vashem is Israel’s stunning memorial to the Jewish Holocaust of the 20th century. Words are insufficient in explaining its impact. But words are everywhere in the museum itself: scraps from recovered journals, videotaped testimonies from survivors, letters and poems. An hour into my tour, I came upon this, written by a condemned Jew on the wall of a sealed railway car in the 40s:
“Here in this carload
I am Eve
With Abel my son
If you see my older son
Cain, son of man,
Tell him I…”
Strangely, almost defiantly, the condemned reaches back for an old biblical story. And sadly, she insists that war is a family affair; so too, genocide and racism and bigotry. “If you see my older son…” It’s not one people marking and slaughtering another. It’s not one race blaming and cleansing another. It’s not one tribe making war on another. It’s Eve’s son, Cain, in humiliation and rage, sealing his mother and brother in a railcar and sending them off to ovens and Auschwitz. One family, shattered. One family, slaughtered. But Eve will not be silent. For a photo from the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, click here.
2. Combatants for Peace
That one verse, written hastily on a deadly wall, weeps across the intervening decades, demands my attention, my response. Tell Cain what? How do brothers, sisters, mothers confront inhumanity and cruelty? How do we intervene? In a lot of ways, it’s the question that frames, even defines this journey in Palestine, in Israel. Tell Cain what?
On Thursday our interfaith delegation met a most remarkable man – a kindred spirit, perhaps, of the defiant prophet who wrote that single verse in the 40s. As a Palestinian combatant, Bassam Aramim spent 7 years in an Israeli prison during the first intifada. Sixteen years later, he’s a founding member of a group called Combatants for Peace, Palestinian and Israeli fighters who’ve given up the fight and joined energies to seek peace together.
Bassam says that it was difficult, at first, to meet the same men who’d harassed and even tortured him and others, in prison and at checkpoints. One Israeli had been an officer at an especially notorious checkpoint. When they met years later, he was well-dressed, kind, polite. “I told him,” Bassam says now, “that he looked nice; but I told him that I knew he was, in reality, a criminal, even a terrorist.” Two combatants meeting, shaking hands, searching for a future together. And the ex-officer said, “Yes, that’s why I’m here.” If peace has a chance in this holy and anxious land, it finds light in moments like this.
“He had made peace with himself,” Bassam says, “so he could say to me that he’d been wrong. And we could begin something new.” It’s a remarkable moment with a remarkable man. And I realize, all over again, just how much courage and strength peace requires. An Israeli and a Palestinian, enemies devoted to one another’s destruction, risking friendship and reconciliation! Bassam looks around the room at our U.S. delegation, at the impact of his testimony. “Our stories,” he says, “are our new weapons in this fight against despair.” A photo of Bassam with the group is here.
3. Justice Has a Future
Two years ago, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers (“kids,” he says). Around the father’s eyes, I see edges of anger, grief and determination. I can’t help thinking about Fiona, my 10-year-old daughter, at home, in school, memorizing lines for a class play. Bassam adds quickly that 971 Palestinian children have died in occupation-related violence since the year 2000.
He tells us that his daughter (Abir) had participated in Israeli summer camps, in Tel Aviv, that she’d just begun to use some Hebrew words in conversation. “She was no fighter,” he says. She was a child learning to live in a complex land.
He doesn’t linger over the details – but reminds us that Abir was “killed by American bullets, shot from American M-16s, out of American jeeps.” He’s sitting just across the table, 19 Americans listening, aching, shifting in our seats. It’s another extraordinary moment, and I think again about Fiona. What would I do? How on earth does a father continue? Then Bassam says this: “To stop the cycle of violence, we must stop the pattern of revenge.” More than words: a man’s commitment to his daughter.
He has announced, he says, that he seeks no revenge for Abir’s murder. That’s not what he’s about. He wants to see justice done. He wants to know that Abir’s death means something. Bassam tells us that Israeli officials have said they’re sorry for what’s happened, for the grief his family’s been through. But this is a private apology, he says. It’s harder – and far more important – for justice to be done, for the killer to be brought to justice. “We need to prove,” he says, “that there’s a difference between revenge and justice.” Something huge is at stake. Revenge is madness. Only justice has a future.
There’s been no response, no commitment to prosecute. “I can’t think about forgiving,” Bassam Aramin says, “until I see the man who’s done this, until I talk with him. Then, perhaps, I will know him and he will know me, and we will work together as combatants for peace.” His openness to this last possibility seems outlandish, crazy and prophetic. Combatants for peace.
His is extraordinary focus: Israeli and Palestinian, Jew and Arab must create a new and nonviolent intifada – together. There must be a nonviolent campaign against a common enemy: occupation, an occupation that provokes violence, instability, despair on all sides. “This conflict,” he says, “cannot be solved militarily. That’s been tried.” Again, almost prophetically, Bassam insists that Israeli Jews cannot talk about freedom and democracy on High Holy Days without joining Palestinians in a fraternal struggle for freedom and democracy now. “What we all want” he says, “is simple and uncomplicated: our children growing wise and healthy in safe, nurturing schools.”
4. Yad Vashem
There’s a picture in the Holocaust History Museum, taken in 1937 somewhere in Poland. It’s a wedding celebration, an extended family of friends gathered to bless a newly married couple. Long arms are thrown around angled shoulders, smiles reveal deep joy and thanksgiving, generations delight in one another’s eccentricities. Just beneath the picture is this note: Fifty-four of the sixty-four were murdered in concentration camps. Within a few years.
Yad Vashem takes its name from a verse in book of the prophet Isaiah: “I shall give them in My house and within My walls a memorial and a name (yad vashem) that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5). How is a people to remember, to memorialize, to honor the millions who died in the horrific Holocaust of the 20th century? It’s a huge question and a stunningly contemporary one.
Bassam Aramim says that our stories are the new weapons, new weapons in a nonviolent intifada. We rehearse those stories as if our lives depend on them: stories of mothers crying out for children in places like Auschwitz and Dachau; stories of the Christian church’s silence during centuries of anti-semitism and the terrible unfolding of the Jewish genocide; stories of the “nakba” in the Holy Land, the catastrophe that sent millions of Palestinians into exile; and, yes, stories like Bassam Aramim’s, resisting occupation and living for a different world. Stories break our hearts into a thousand pieces and shatter our complacency. Prophets begin to make sense. Visions begin to come clear. And a new world seems possible.
Beginning our Journey
Our journey to the Holy Land began with two flights on British Airways. There is little to say about the flights except that British Airways provides its passengers with precious little legroom but enormous entertainment options. In David Ben-Gurion Airport the trip became eventful.
The day after checking into the Mt. Scopus Hotel and enjoying a night of horizontal sleep, we embarked on a guided tour of the Old City of Jerusalem. The streets seemed to reverberate with thousands of years of history. This energy centered around such key sites as the Western Wall, where believers murmured prayers in the physical presence of G-D's spirit, or the Via Dolorosa where modern-day pilgrims retraced Jesus' route to execution, carrying a large wooden cross and singing hymns.
After I came dangerously close to committing the major faux pas of striding into the women-only section of the Western Wall, our group traveled to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs where a representative stolidly recited the economic and humanitarian effects of the various forms that the occupation has taken. PowerPoint slides of the West Bank, for example, showed the successive layers of governmental control over the movement of Palestinians between their increasingly fragmented communities.
Some members of our group were disappointed by the spokesman's apparent lack of indignation, but I actually found his dispassionate presentation refreshing. In a conflict where the terms of debate can become so emotion-driven with words like terrorism, apartheid, and colonialism, I felt like it was important to have a grounding in meticulously gathered and coldly delivered facts. Different sides may offer different explanations for the 89 internal checkpoints and 550 miles of fence, but the existence of these obstacles and the effects they have are facts on the ground which are both undeniable and absolutely necessary for understanding the terms of this ongoing conflict.
After a delicious falafel lunch a representative from the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions provided the tangible evidence that the UN's statistics lacked. She also brought an activist's sense of fervor. We took a bus to a hill overlooking a valley outside of Jerusalem where she unfolded a map of the area and explained the significance of what we saw. She identified Israeli settlements by their red tile roofs and as oblong blue shapes on the map. We saw the 30-foot concrete separation barrier snaking its way over hills and through neighborhoods. She pointed out where the settlements have rapidly expanded in the last year, further fragmenting Palestinian communities. This process is a continuing process of creating facts on the ground, entrenching the Israeli presence on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, and problematizing any future possibility of a Palestinian state. Throughout this talk, a billboard loomed behind us on an undeveloped field. It advertised Nof Zion, the settlement planned and approved for the ground we stood on. See photos from the tour with ICAHD here.
-- Delegation member (Anonymous)
Patterns of Surreal Juxtaposition
Thursday, May 29
Passing for the first time through a checkpoint without having to show passports or communicate at all with the soldiers was simultaneously a relief and a bit anti-climatic. For those sitting at the back of the bus it was barely perceptible that we had even passed through a checkpoint. But now I can finally claim that I have been in “Checkpoint Required Territory.”
Most of the day was spent in what had, before the wall, been considered Jerusalem. Our lessons from the previous day were reinforced: the Separation Barrier divided communities. Furthermore, any Arabs whose status changed as a result of the Barrier’s route, from East Jerusalem to West Bank or vice versa, are now subject to isolation from their families and essential services. Especially for new West Bank residents, to access services they previously had nearby in Jerusalem, they now have to take long, roundabout routes, avoiding roads designed almost exclusively for Israeli settlers, through several checkpoints, to arrive at some new, unfamiliar urban center near Ramallah or Bethlehem. We were shown a neighborhood just past the Barrier which was nearly deserted because its residents all attempted to sneak into walled East Jerusalem. There they pay rent over twice as high as it would be outside the wall, when they may have owned their own houses in their former neighborhood.
It was therefore also anti-climatic for me that my first foray into the West Bank was based on a technicality. But what else did I expect?
We met at the Jerusalem Center for Women with two impressive staff women. They spoke to us primarily about their joint Palestinian and Israeli group, which is a group of Palestinian and Israeli women who meet to share their experiences as women in their societies and to mutually empower one another through dialogue and action. The outcomes of this group were not without serious difficulties, but nonetheless impressive.
What struck me, however, was that my description in the previous paragraph was a far clearer (and probably to some degree invented) description of a premise or organizing principle for this project than anything we received in its description. We were presented with experiences and outcomes without being given much of a context, or a specific objective with which the group was originally created. Yet perhaps, in a part of the world where such a daunting amount of work needs to be done, original premises are dispensable as long as work is actually being done.
This sounds terribly unorganized and inefficient; why should JWC run a joint group when it’s not clear what the objective is, or even whether the dialogue was often shunned by the Palestinians while the Israelis often withdrew from participating in actions? Yet we got the unmistakable impression that good was accomplished from this project, so in some sense, who cares what the original goals were or how its organizers first thought it would be run? The good gets done, though it cares little what shape may have been intended for it.
Our next station was at Combatants for Peace, where we met one of the founders. Our host, a Palestinian named Bassam Aramin, stated unequivocally that if the Occupation were ended and a Palestinian state were created along the `67 borders, there would no longer be any incentive for resistance. The violence would stop. This from the mouth of a former combatant, whose own ten year old daughter was killed by Israeli soldiers a year and a half ago. He informed us that he had written a letter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak concerning justice for his daughter and an end to the Occupation. When asked further about the strengths and weaknesses of potential solutions to the conflict, he responded “what does independence mean? Nothing to me. I want to liberate the human being, not the land.”
Then we really entered the West Bank. We took a long drive through Ramallah to reach Bil`in, a Palestinian village that is a focus of the nonviolent protest movement against the Separation Barrier. Bil`in has been cut off from most of its agricultural land by the route of the Barrier and new Israeli settlements are being built on this land aiming to commandeer all of it. Nor did the pattern of surreal juxtapositions cease.
We were shown a DVD of some of the protests and actions held against the Barrier, many of them powerful images of people resisting in some very clever and creative ways, only to be abused and brutalized by Israeli soldiers. Particularly striking was the severe injury of an Israeli citizen, there in solidarity with the townsfolk of Bil`in, by a rubber bullet to the head from an Israeli soldier. Israelis are shooting themselves. This idea shed new light on the Combatants for Peace ideology that the enemy is not the other people, but the Occupation for both people. Click here for a photo and map of Bil’in.
At the same time as we were being exposed to this horrible brutality, our host’s daughter was celebrating her third birthday. She received us like a true dignitary, making sure to shake each of our hands, politely quiet - until we got to the part where it was time to sing birthday songs. She sang songs wishing herself a happy birthday and then concluded with chants often used by the protesters who come weekly to that town. Her brothers, all 10 and under, dutifully served cake and drinks. The profound disjunction between the emotions evoked by the struggle in Bil`in and the joy of the birthday party cannot be overstated. In comparison, the brief spell we spent at the actual site of the protests, by the Barrier, seemed tame and predictable.
This report is an edited version of a longer version which appears on this blog.
Echoes of the Past
Thursday, May 29
Silent screaming streets of Jerusalem violently echoed the past of the Star, Cross and the Crescent. This is the first time I ever stepped on these holy lands of the Prophets and their people. Accompanying me, are young and old, men and women, and the followers of human conscience and of Abrahamic faiths. We are an Interfaith group visiting the Holy Lands for self discovery and learning of the past in the present.
1099 was the year Crusaders reigned.
1187 Saladin (Salah al-Din) reclaimed.
1948 the Jewish State came into being.
Empires are generally rooted in religion. Dominions can only be secured by victory. And victory is always on the side of those who are committed to the unity of purpose.
Self-proclaimed atheists, Moshe Dayan and Ben Gurion had ample unity of purpose in the creation of a Jewish State. After all, they knew of the sufferings of European Jewry, the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and the slaughter houses of Auschwitz. Their hearts were united and coordinated, with the help of God of David and Solomon, Jacob and Isaac.
A thousand years of religio-secular cycle of death, displacement and despair, I thought, as I walked the streets of Jerusalem.
A T-Shirt slogan stared me in the eye. “Don’t worry America, Israel is behind you.” Yes, it was displayed in a shop in the Muslim quarters of Jerusalem.
Ah, the great Untouchable! A nascent country that regularly invades neighboring States, routinely defies UN resolutions, occupies land, treats its people inhumanely and possesses an arsenal of nuclear weapons, enough to light up the entire region, once and for all.
A twenty plus year old bright Irish lady volunteering at a women’s empowerment center summed up well. “North Ireland and South Africa combined is Palestine, with no hope.”
An Arab restaurant owner after catering lunch to our Interfaith group offering baklawa said it differently, “sweets on-house, although we live in bitterness.”
“Abir was barely ten when she was killed by a teenage IDF soldier (January 16, 2007), who perhaps saw her as a terrorist target.” These were the words of her father, Bassam Aramin, co-founder of Combatants for Peace. Kids killing kids!
From Ben Gurion to Yasser Arafat, from Ehud Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas, the Priests, the Rabbis and the Muftis – all need to lend a moment to the Taoist scripture.
“How did the great rivers and seas get their kingship over the hundred lesser streams?
Through the merit of being lower than they: that was how they got their kingship.
Therefore the sage (the leaders and the politicians) in order to be above the people,
Must speak as though he were lower than they.
In order to guide them, he must put himself behind them.
Thus when he is above, the people have no burden, when he is ahead, they feel no hurt.”
The silent cries of the ancient Jerusalem are just as loud in the alleys of Ramallah, the corners of Hebron and the circles of Nablus, as it is in the malls of New York, the cafes of Rio de Janeiro and the streets of Mozambique.
Choice is ours – either we can be deafeningly loud or screamingly silent, merely calling for or fiercely working for peace. Else, the echoes of the past will continue to haunt us in the future as it is the case in the present in the silent screaming streets of ancient Jerusalem.
-- Shakeel Syed
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