Report One >
Stories & Narratives – Initial Impressions
Vienna and Jerusalem: July 29 & 30
A day in Vienna on the way to Israel/Palestine. A long layover and a trip into the city. The focal point of the Judenplatz (Jewish square) in Vienna is a large square mausoleum called the “Nameless Library.” It serves as a memorial to those who died in the Holocaust. Behind it is the door to the Judenplatz Museum. The museum houses the remains of the ancient synagogue of Vienna. It also hosts changing exhibits. The exhibit during our visit is a commemoration of Israel’s 60th anniversary and features 60 photographs by David Rubinger.
The plaque introducing Rubinger’s photos explains that he “takes a critical view of political events and has always insisted on documenting the shady side as well.”
The photos chosen for this particular exhibit, however, do little more than reproduce dominant narratives. Walking along the rows of photos, we see Israeli leaders “redeeming” the land with shovels in hand; Yemeni immigrants settling “frontier” hillsides; and Israeli soldiers offering aid to Palestinians and Lebanese. There is no mention of the other narrative of the last 60 years; nowhere does the word “Nakba” (the Palestinian catastrophe) appear and at no time is there a visual representation of the realities of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.
After lunch at a Viennese café, we meet Hans Koechler in the restaurant of the Vienna Hilton. Koechler, the head of the Austria-based International Progress Organization (IPO), speaks of the international obstacles to peace in Israel/Palestine (photo). The IPO bases its work within the framework of the UN and Koechler has been working within that framework for many years. His main point is simple: despite an international consensus that the Israeli occupation is illegal and that the most basic rights of the Palestinian people are being usurped, there is one major obstacle to a UN brokered peace. That obstacle is structural and manifests itself in the United States’ use of its Security Council veto. Using the veto, the US has stymied any progress towards reigning in Israel’s illegal actions and the emergence of a stable peace. The onus, Koechler explains, is on us. As Americans, the question is what will WE do to pressure our own government?
These visits do more than pass the time in Vienna. They provide context for our journey. Rubinger’s photos are not new. Rather, their subjects remind us of the Israeli narrative we have heard many times before. Hans Koechler, on the other hand, points out that there is a broader context to the events we will witness over the next twelve days. The Palestinians and Israelis we will be meeting are acting in their own communities and in their own context and, as Americans, we must do the same.
The Transcendent Power of Story
What does a career diplomat in Vienna, bus driver in Jerusalem, poor Palestinian homeowner and tour guide have in common? They all ask that American visitors listen to their stories, witness with their eyes and feel with their hearts the reality of life in the Holy Land, then return to the United States and simply tell their stories.
Nowhere in the US media does one have the opportunity to find the lived reality of Israeli and Palestinian life. It is not newsworthy. At most one hears of the geopolitics of heads of state and maneuverings in reality and rhetoric.
I came to simply witness the grassroots stories of Israel and Palestine. In only a day themes have merged.
The Security Barrier / Wall of Separation has an overwhelming visceral reality (photo). Standing in their courtyard is a Palestinian woman whose family is threatened with dispossession telling her story to young adults from around the world. In virtually the same words, all request that US guests simply tell their story.
The diplomat, bus driver, and home owner all express equal powerlessness over their lives except the power of telling their story, having that story carried and told and retold.
Peace in the Holy Land is both near and far away. It is far away from Oslo Accords, Camp David Peace Process, and UN resolutions. It is as near as people meeting people and telling the truth of their lives in stories. The man from Nazareth two thousand years ago taught through stories. His Father taught through reconciling redemptive action in His life. The transcendent story continues to be told in the words and lives of simple people in the Holy Land seeking a way to peace and dignity in their lives.
Evil at the Airport
I sit here at the airport, past security
Breathing more lightly than 5 minutes ago,
When I was stressed and tired.
But now I am tired, but my stress is gone.
And it does seem so trivial, the whole thing
Of feeling stressed at the airport:
Why I must fear, at the airport, being singled out
Because of my conscience, and not even that
But because my appearance resembles someone who holds
A conscience that is shunned at the airport,
A conscience that is dangerous at the airport,
A conscience that turns me evil at the airport
But I am not evil:
I am in fact a human, who wants to travel overseas and visit
What I call home: the land where my ancestry runs deeper
Than the oceans over which we travel.
Yet nevertheless I must fear that I may be detained
Because someone fears that I may detain them,
With my conscience,
My “evil” conscience.
But my conscience does not detain them
It is indeed their actions which detain me,
And release my conscience, at the airport.
And make me feel evil, at the airport.
And make me think evil, at the airport.
And make me act evil, at the airport.
So maybe they should detain me after all
And prevent my conscience from contaminating this airport
For maybe I am evil after all
And so maybe, because I am evil, I do not deserve to be at peace,
And I do not deserve to be peaceful
Hence out of their irrational fear of me being evil,
They have rationally turned me into just that: Evil.
Exploring East Jerusalem
Today we met with Jeff Halper, founder and Executive Director of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD). His talk was about what he calls the “matrix of control,” meaning the structural ways in which the Israeli government carries out policies of discrimination against Palestinians (photo). He compared current Israeli policies and their effects on the local population to apartheid in South Africa. The Israeli “apartheid,” like South Africa, exists because there is both separation of one people from another and also domination of one people by another. There is a physical barrier – the Separation Wall or “security barrier” which in Jerusalem cuts Palestinian neighborhoods in half. And there is domination of one people by another embedded in the very fabric of Israeli society. Since segregation is a given, Palestinians who feel discriminated against by Israeli policies have no legal recourse, because the system that administers “justice” is operating from a worldview that sees the separation and the domination as normal and justified.
Halper echoed the sentiments of our speaker yesterday in Vienna with respect to the role of the United States in this conflict. Both these men state unequivocally that the continued oppression of the Palestinians by the Israelis could not succeed as it is without the unwavering support of the US Government, particularly the US Congress. In their view, US congressional support of the domination and oppression of Palestinians enables the situation to continue, indeed facilitates the actions of the Israeli government.
After meeting with Jeff Halper, a guide from ICAHD took us to see Israeli settlements and the Separation Wall. We first stopped by to visit a Palestinian family in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, a small compound where Israeli settlers have moved into a block of buildings belonging to Palestinians, relying on a centuries old claim to the land. One Palestinian family, the Al Kurd family (photo), is still there, having lived in that house since 1956. Just last week, they were issued an eviction order by the Israeli authorities. They are protesting that edict of eviction and their case has spawned a flurry of international media attention. During our visit, there were other tour groups there, and a group of Israeli and international peace activists were literally camping out on the family’s porch to protect them from violence at the hands of the Israeli authorities. It was an eerie experience to walk through the compound past apartments that belong to Jewish settlers (photo), adorned with Israeli flags and then to arrive at this Palestinian home, which, thanks to the media attention given to them in the past few weeks is deluged with visitors who want to hear their story and express support.
Our guide, a young Israeli Jew who has dedicated his life to being a peace activist, talked quite candidly about the role of the United States in this conflict (photo). He reminded us that our country as the most powerful and richest nation on earth leads by example and exports its culture to the rest of the world. Our unwavering support of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians is only a part of the problem – the fact that we as a country do the very things that many of us condemn the Israeli government for doing is even more critical. He noted that the world looks to us as a model of how to be a well to do, affluent, successful modern society. What they see is a country that rules by force, war, domination, economic inequalities, a country that also builds walls to keep out undesirables while exploiting their labor, a country that marginalizes many parts of its own population and sees no way to stop doing so, or simply lacks the will to do so. We support Israel and its policies not only politically but by being the very thing we see Israel having become. If we want Israel to do differently, if we want the world to be different, then we Americans need to change the way we operate in the world, modeling a society built on compassion and justice rather than oppression and violence.
For more detail, see www.holylandreflections.blogspot.com for my daily blog.
I feel its grasp tightening
The city strangling
The old wall, the new wall
The Lion’s Gate, the check point
Which will collapse first?
My voice? My body?
Or this ancient city?
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