Voices of Dissent and Coping with Kassams
Tel Aviv and Sderot
Alternative Israeli Voices
Tel Aviv: Sunday, August 3, 2008
After leaving Nazareth we drove to Jaffa where we had lunch (delicious, abundant and vegetarian!) in a little dive with Tal Dor. She is a first generation Israeli, born here, who is now pursuing a Master's degree in France. She works with human rights organizations here in Israel trying to further the cause of human and equal rights for Palestinians, both in the Occupied Territories and in Israel proper.
Her story was very moving. Born to parents who immigrated here from South Africa, she grew up a Zionist Jew in Israel, fully supportive of Israel and the narrative that goes with the settlers of Israel.
When she was 20 she visited South Africa for the first time and began to question the version of history that she had learned about Israel growing up in Israeli schools. Her recitation of her journey was spellbinding as we learned how she began to probe, to ask questions, to critique the version of history that had been told to her. As she learned more she became an activist working for Palestinian rights because she loves Israel and wants it to be the kind of democracy it says it wants to be. She was very eloquent, well spoken, courageous and engaging. It was fascinating to hear from her how and why many Israelis manage to grow up here really clueless about some of the less admirable pieces of their history and blind to the issues of discrimination against Palestinians.
Once again I saw parallels to the United States. How many white suburban Americans grow up clueless about the conditions in which African Americans in the cities live their lives or of how Mexican immigrants have to survive in a country that wants their labor but won't make it possible for them to provide it legally? This trip is as informative about United States culture as it is about Israel, because I am seeing in Israel many of the same blindnesses and obsessions and misguided ideologies as are part of our American culture.
We then went to the offices of Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization that works on behalf of Palestinians in the Gaza strip. They are bringing lawsuits against the Israeli government to contest the barriers that the Israeli government puts up against Palestinian students who want to travel abroad to study. The recent case of the Fulbright Scholars is just one of many that this organization takes on.
From there we drove to a kibbutz, where we met with three amazing women who founded an NGO called New Profile, which helps Israeli youth who do not want to serve in the Israeli army. All Israeli Jews are required to serve in the Army, three years for men, two years for women. Orthodox Jews are exempted and Israeli Arabs (Christians and Muslims) are exempt, but everyone else must serve. These women spoke eloquently of their journeys from committed Zionists to political activists, challenging the military machinery of the Israeli government. Ruth Hiller got into this when her 15 year old son told her he did not want to serve in the military because he was morally opposed to it. Israel has nothing close to the Conscientious Objector status that the United States offers, and to go against the very core of Israeli identity and culture by refusing to serve in the military is a major step for any young Israeli to take. When the organization was founded 10 years ago, there was no forum to discuss the idea of not serving in the military. As Ruth explained to us, the people who live on the kibbutz are died-in-the-wool Zionists and military service is an inherent piece of that identity. When she agreed to help her son find a way to avoid military service and then went on to found this organization, she put herself on the outs with the other members of her kibbutz. It was clear as she told her story that the steps she has taken have been at great personal cost. We looked at some literature that her organization has written about the militarism that is woven into the fabric of Israeli life and again I was struck with how congruent that is to me as an American. It's no wonder the US and Israel are such close allies. We are remarkably and uncomfortably alike!
“Other Voices” Striving to be Heard
Sderot: Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Today we travelled south to Sderot, an Israeli town right on the border of the Gaza Strip. Sderot is well known as a town which regularly is bombarded with Kassam rockets shot from the Gaza. We met with representatives from two different kibbutzim, and one representative of a community organization that tries to work with marginalized groups in Sderot.
Gvanim is a community organization located near Kibbutz Migvan, an urban kibbutz in Sderot, that has been in existence only 21 years. Chen Abrahams gave us a presentation on the work of Gvanim, which is a mixture of programs for pre-school children, for youth, for disabled children and youth, for parents, for the elderly and the like. The Kibbutz Migvan community and much of Sderot is a multicultural community, comprised of Jews from Morocco, Russia, Ethiopia and other countries. The standard of living is lower than in many Israeli settlements and the social issues they face are more complex because of the diversity of the population they serve.
Chen described life in Sderot as a hard life, despite the fact that these people seem considerably better off than the Palestinian villagers we’ve been talking to the past few days. Sderot is so close to the Gaza strip that it has been the locus of continuous attacks by kassam rockets for several years now. Chen described how the entire population is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, particularly the children. There are cement shelters all over the neighborhoods and many people have cement shelters in their homes to which they flee when the sirens go off signaling an attack by kassams. Chen described how her 9 year old son will not sleep alone because he is so afraid of hearing the siren during the night that he won’t sleep away from his parents. Apparently, he is not alone in that chronic fear. And it is not unfounded fear. These Israelis are justifiably fearful because rockets really do land in their backyards with alarming regularity. Chen was quite candid when questioned about what she hopes for in terms of a future for Israel and Palestine. She expressed a hope for a one state solution. She understands why the Palestinians resent the Israelis and she expressed a desire to find a way for all of them to share the land and live in peace. She was very clear that she would love to see them find a path to non-violent co-existence and was adamant that she wishes her child could grow up in a climate not marked by fear and not polluted by hatred.
We then heard from Eric of the Migvan Community who has founded an organization called “Other Voices,” dedicated to instigating and facilitating dialogue between Israelis and Gaza Strip Palestinians. This is a group of citizens on both sides of the border who want to engage in dialogue to find a solution to their conflict. They believe that violence is not the answer and that neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Israeli government are capable of fixing the problems. They are a real grassroots movement, and they have recruited members from diverse constituencies in both Israel and Gaza.
Other Voices is staging a bike rally this Friday to draw attention to their call for peace through dialogue. Eric told us how frustrating it is that the folks on the other side of the border will not be able to participate in the bike rally. Gazans are under house curfew due to recent violence that has broken out in the Gaza strip amongst Palestinian factions there. He did say some of his contacts in Gaza are hoping to participate by phone on Friday, even though they can’t come to Israel or even stage their own parallel event. He related how the Palestinians in Gaza have difficulty even meeting together as a group because of the ban on public assembly. Listening to him gave many of us hope. His willingness to befriend Palestinians in Gaza and his witness that there are groups of people on both sides of the border who want to work for peace was very encouraging. The reason Other Voices has been founded is because the people on both sides of the border have concluded that their governmental leaders are not going to bring peace. They really believe that they have to form relationships and build bridges at the grass roots level and hope that they can bring about change from the bottom up.
We then visited Kibbutz Zikim, a traditional agricultural kibbutz that is a stone’s throw from the Gaza border. There an older woman, Edna, who came to the kibbutz in 1957 spoke to us about kibbutz life. This is truly an old-school kibbutz – “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” Everyone works on the kibbutz and all receive the same “salary” whether they serve as a janitor or the principal of the school. Children go to school on the kibbutz but now live with their parents, unlike in the early years when they were raised in a children’s house so as to free their mothers up to participate fully in kibbutz life. Now, because of the kassam rockets and the fear that that incurs in both children and parents, the raising of children has returned to the private nuclear family unit. Kibbutz members get housing, medical care, social and cultural events, household services like cleaning and laundry. They are now into the third generation on the kibbutz, and while things have changed since Edna arrived in 1957, she believes they have more or less kept to their original principles and ideology. She described them as very “left wing” politically.
She also described the constant bombardment with kassam rockets and how that affects their lives. There are cement shelters all over the kibbutz so that people can dive for cover if there is an attack. When asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Edna was equivocal. To some degree she seemed to give the Israeli “party line” and yet she also acknowledged that the Palestinians in Gaza are suffering at the hands of the Israelis. But she believed that Israelis have no choice given the constant rocket bombardments. She is of the belief that the only solution is a two state solution, because she believes the two sides are just too antagonistic ever to be able to live together in one state. It was clear listening to her and to Mayan, the guide who drove us around the kibbutz, that they are affected by the atmosphere of violence in which they constantly live. They manifest a kind of bunker mentality – rightfully so given the realities on the ground for them – which colors their view of the bigger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and leaves them disinclined to be critical of the Israeli government or military.
We ended our travels today by visiting the Erez Checkpoint, the only border crossing that is “open” between Israel and the Gaza strip. Almost no one gets through at this point – usually only people who can prove some humanitarian reason for needing to go across. The checkpoint is a fortress, heavily guarded and the guards shouted at us to stop photographing the checkpoint when we got out of the bus. A few Palestinians were going through the checkpoint, but they had been driven there by a United Nations vehicle, so we assumed that they had somehow enlisted UN assistance in getting across into Gaza for some family reason. The checkpoint was yet another vivid symbol of all that is wrong in this terrible conflict – as if cement and barbed wire and armed guards could possibly bring peace or security to either side.
The Kassam and the Menorah
Sderot: Wednesday, August 8, 2008
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)
“Swords to ploughshares” is a concept in which military weapons or technologies are converted for peaceful civilian applications. The plowshare is often used to symbolize creative tools that benefit mankind, as opposed to destructive tools of war, symbolized by the sword, a similar sharp metal tool with an arguably opposite use. The common expression "beat swords into plowshares" has been used by disparate social and political groups. The most famous sculpture of this phrase can be found at the United Nations, A less famous, folk art version was seen upon our visit to a kibbutz at Sderot on the border with Gaza. Here they have made a menorah from kassam rockets fired from Gaza that landed upon the kibbutz. This kibbutz is the target of numerous rocket attacks. The juxtaposition of the images of the kassam and the menorah captures the two realities of Israel and Palestine. Is security based upon military might, walls and fences, checkpoints and prisons, ethnic cleansing and apartheid, terrorist attacks and suicide bombers? Or is stability and security achieved through dialogue, conflict resolution, economic development?
One great surprise of my trip to the Holy Land was the revelation that very few Israelis know any Palestinians, speak their Arabic language or appreciate Palestinian culture. Many more Palestinians speak both Arabic and Hebrew, come into daily contact with Israelis at border checkpoints, in military outposts in the Occupied Territories and the Israeli settlements that ring West Bank towns choking off their growth and separating farmers from their lands.
The resident of Sderot who gave us a tour that included a look across the fence, security barrier and military outpost into Gaza spoke of their presence as being Israel’s first line of defense in the sense that they establish the boundaries of Israel, serve as an early warning system for any Arab attack upon Israel and contain the terrorists. Later we learned from the kibbutz residents that only a few Gazans ever crossed into the kibbutz, usually in order to steal crops to carry back, hardly the activity of terrorists. Rocket attacks do terrorize the entire kibbutz with its bomb shelters and blast proof roofs over schools. No connection is made however to the terror of residents of Gaza who live under fear of Apache helicopter attacks, jet fighter bombings and armed incursions. Both sides in this conflict have grown to live with post traumatic stress as a way of life.
The kassam rocket menorah was a point of pride to our kibbutz guide. It reminded her of the verse from Isaiah in a totally straightforward way of peace through strength. The irony of the sculptural composition brought to mind the slogan of the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command carrying armed nuclear bombs in flight 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, “Peace is Our Profession”. Living under the threat of mutually assured nuclear annihilation was a strange kind of peace in the 1960’s for Americans. Living under the fear of Arabs (Christian and Muslim) and under the state terror of Israel and the settler terror of Jewish extremists is an equally strange kind of world.
In this context the work of a nearby kibbutz resident to foster dialogue between Israelis and Gazans, the work of the Women in Black to witness every Friday in Jerusalem for an end to the occupation of the West Bank, the peaceful weekly protests spreading across the Occupied Territories saying “No” to illegal settlement expansion and restriction of Palestinian movement are small glimmers of hope in a land dominated by headlines of fear and violence. Seldom are grassroots stories of hope told in the U.S. press. The success of our delegation lies in the body of experience we have acquired listening to people of all types, roles in life and portions of Israel and the West Bank speak of their lives, their hopes and fears, their work for peace with justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the arc of history is long but inevitably tends toward justice. Peace with justice will come to the Holy Land with so many good people trying to find their way out of the impasse of old ways of thinking. It may take decades or longer, but it is inevitable that the people of the Holy Land will eventually have to come to terms to one another’s desire to coexist with human rights administered equally for all.
May the kassam rocket menorah rust away to be replaced by new plows and pruning hooks bringing peace and prosperity to both the new and the ancient residents of the Holy Land.
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