The "Everyday-ness" of Resistance: Jenin, Beit Sahour, and Tel Aviv
More Impressions from Jenin; Meeting Israeli Activists in Tel Aviv
Olive Branches: 2 Sketches and a Poem
Nassar abu Farha is a tall man with a open, youthful face. His brow is furrowed, and his hair has thinned out considerably, but today he is a happy man. It is the official end of the Olive Harvest in Jenin, northernmost in the West Bank, and he is sponsoring the celebration. An entrepreneur and a Ph.D. economist, with a degree from the University of Wisconsin, Nasser is the director of the Canaan Fair Trade Company, and as such is the guiding force behind the Palestinian Fair Trade movement in the Jenin area.
Nasser works with 43 olive oil producing collaboratives consisting of some 1,700 farmers from Jenin down to Ramallah. Nasser also works with several women’s cooperatives that produce sun-dried tomatoes, couscous, and Za’atar, the delicious, thyme based spice that Palestinians use with bread and olive oil. See photo here.
For those of us who have not been all that alert to the Fair Trade movement worldwide (and I am one), it comes as a gently pleasing shock to see how explicit and real the effort is to guarantee that farmers are paid fair prices for the products of their labor and that local farmers are empowered to become stakeholders in the business of getting their goods to markets in the broader world beyond. And there is reason for Nasser to celebrate the 2008 harvest. It is, I believe, his third or fourth year in Fair Trade operations, and Canaan has just opened a small but new olive processing factory in a village just outside the Jenin refugee camp. Our group has driven up from Jerusalem in the morning, passing through two checkpoints, past the illegal Israeli hilltop settlements, and now the road has released into this agricultural valley carpeted with ripening cabbage and cauliflower. The new factory houses a retail store, and the olive trees and picnic spaces all around the building tell us that Nasser clearly hopes this will become someday a tourist stop. For now, however, the internationals seem to be comprised of us from the Interfaith Peace Builders group, and various olive oil importers from Europe. There are, however, plenty of folks from the neighborhood. Nasser brings all of us on a tour, shows us the processing machines, and the still empty parts of the building. We walk into the olive grove and look at some ancient ground presses—holes in stone where a spindle and another stone might be turned. I keep thinking as Nasser speaks that the olive trees have a fragrance. They really don’t, but they are so beautiful and bounteous you can’t help but marvel at a centuries-old tree blossoming like a flower. With silver gray leaves and darkening fruit, these gnarly trees are indeed the flowers of this hard land, and the nectar is this oil we dip our bread into.
Palestine, so Nasser’s brochure tells me, is the original home of the olive tree, and the harvest is a main source of income for a large sector of the population. For many farmers it is up to 50% of their income as well as a major source of food. As the sun starts to go down, more local folks arrive. Nasser has ordered up a chicken barbecue for everyone. We sit in the olive grove, on rocks and under trees, and soon some of the adolescent boys begin to sing. One has a hand-held drum, and soon they are dancing. It is a vigorous folk dance, all men, and all display. But the dance has intricate foot movements, and much serious stamping and stomping. The feet seem to declare—here and nowhere else. I borrow that memorable phrase from my friend, the writer Jane Brox who used it as title for her memoir about her family’s farm. It is the farmer’s creed, universal. Here and nowhere else. But in Occupied Palestinian Territories declarations on that order are wired into The Conflict. All through the dancing, I keep thinking this isn’t a dance of nationalism, but it is a dance of radical stubbornness. (See photo here). That too is what I sense in Nasser’s talk about Fair Trade, and in his pamphlet that Canaan Fair Trade “gives farmers a sense of purpose, ownership—and honor.” You can hear echoes of dispossession and loss, but you also hear dignity and hope. It makes you think, despite the facts, that the olive tree, and its radiant bounty, has something like a perfume hovering about it.
II. The Freedom Theatre
No dance “means” anything more than any other. I would bet there is an Israeli dance that conveys the same radically stubborn attachment to the red clay and light limestone as the Palestinian Debke. The reality here is more painful than a matter of artistic statement and interpretation. There is heartfelt rage and despair that hovers over these boys dancing. We learn later that one out of four Palestinian young men have seen the inside of an Israeli jail. I don’t know the number of the “martyrs,” and still less the number of young men who have in fact picked up a rock or a pistol or a rifle at one point or another. And beyond that, just imagine the number who have been tempted to violent resistance to the occupation.
It needs to be said again that suicide bombers and “martyred” guerilla fighters are clearly people for whom the conditions of life on this planet have become intolerable. When we were at Birzeit University the other day, we met with two students who wanted to live, wanted careers, wanted the Occupation to end. One of these students simply declared that there is nothing she can look forward to. It all boring, she said, and she feels dead. No, she corrects herself, and says: “I am dead. That’s it.” Now it is true that I felt the clarity with which she voiced her despair made me think that this young woman knew she had a lot to live for, but still, that sense that life was empty and dead does come up far too often when one talks to Palestinian young people. Checkpoints, rolling checkpoints, roadblocks, watchtowers, The Wall, semi-permanent refugees in semi—permanent camps, cantonized units of Palestinian control, intrusive and illegal settlements, intifada in response, and more military presence in further response, all this is enough to make anyone feel dead inside.
I learn from Jennifer, one of our group leaders, that young men in the refugee camps can get totally absorbed in learning and stylizing these folk dances, and her remark reminds me that practicing an art in a war zone can do more than create mere propaganda or mild distraction. What it does above all is deepen one’s own sense of personhood, of being a creature who is more than the sum of his or her circumstances. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film Arna’s Children, directed by Juliano Mer Khamis and Danniel Danniel. Arna, a Jewish Israeli woman, founded of a youth theatre program in the Jenin refugee camp in the 90’s, and for a time was a marvelous success in attracting young people to it. Arna passed away from cancer, and then the second intifada erupted.
The IDF flattened the theatre, but worse, several of the youngsters had grown to be “martyrs,” one by a suicide bombing. Juliano returned to Jenin, and rebuilt the theatre, and now it is thriving more than ever.
The theatre is down a wide alley, with an office in one building and a whole new theatre space in rehabbed grain warehouse. Juliano greets us, serves us coffee and tells us that he views the creative process as itself the very stuff of life, only psychologically for the individual youngster, but for society itself and social change within it. At the core the practice of an art helps us all question the accepted wisdoms and conventional truths. This is what he is teaching in his theatre, and though his students of course all want to be great actors, it is clear that he thinks the theatre is a space where they can experience genuine freedom in an overall oppressive, prison-like environment. See photo here.
III. The Olive Harvest
It’s true, the tree itself is scentless, but the gray green leaves,
Their slender fingers.
And the thick, infinitely twined trunk, and some riddle in the roots
That lets it drink from stones.
Even the place where a limb has been lopped off, and the shoot
That springs to life the next year,
The stumps that burn for hours and hours, and thin, discard twigs,
Pliable as flesh,
That you can pick up and press to your face or your chest
Or inside the cover of a book.
And above all the fruit that hangs from young branches and old,
A green reddening to black.
This fruit that has seen enough bloodshed, enough twisted
And hardened human behavior
To make it turn away in disgust, year after suffering year
Comes back saying here . . .here . . . here. . .
Two Families: Two Different Worlds
One family Muslim, the other Christian
Jenin: meet Leila and Ahmad; Olive growers in Al-Taibeh, proud parents of six boys, one girl; five boys still living at home. Their farm covers acres of olive trees, carob trees, flourishing bee hives, hills. You wander down a lane within minutes of their home and there is the fence, electrified wire as far as the eye can see.
One side of the family lives on the other side of the fence. Used to be, the families would visit almost daily, a ten minute walk. Now it takes five hours to go from Al- Taibeh to Jerusalem and back on the other side to get to the village. One of their sorrows, but life goes on.
We were greeted our first night with joy- outside faces, Americans taking an interest. Auntie Fawz, an English teacher at the girls’ school nearby, lives downstairs with Sofia, the mother on the Dad’s side; came up to translate. Uncle Mohammad, the Dad’s brother, came by. Another teacher, he spoke of the hardships the occupation causes. Mohammad has not been paid for two years, still he stays. The work he does is important to his community.
The five boys, ages 11-17, listened eagerly to the conversation. One boy, still at home works, one studies in Algeria, one, the girl married, lives nearby. We drank tea and ate cakes and at 11:30 PM, a feast was laid out for us. And while both Dad and Uncle sat with us and ate, Mom, Leila and the boys stood and watched us eat and were happy to do so. Leila was proud of having made every bite of our meal, the olives from their groves, the honey from their bees, the carob syrup, their trees, fresh yogurt, hummus, freshly baked bread. And when we finished Mom cleaned up while the men folk sat and talked with us. I commented, Leila come to the States with me. No her husband and the boys cried, you come live here with us!
Next day- after cleaning up-one bathroom, sink to wash up in the kitchen- a public event, we walked through the village. The fence was a short 10 minute walk away. Neighbors stopped and spoke with us. Back home, a feast awaited us. We ate and laughed and talked politics, and hugged and exchanged presents and took photos. And Mom, hugged and kissed me and I promised to come back. I had a new sister. And a great cook to boot!
Beit Sahour- near Bethlehem. We were picked up by our host family, Nagila and George. A bustling town, their home, on a busy street had 4 bathrooms and 6 bedrooms. All four of their children were gone, two at university in Dublin, Ireland. Once again a feast, this time at 6:30 PM. Both our hosts work outside the home, Nagila travels to Jerusalem, a 15 mile distance, it takes her 2 hours, checkpoints and sometimes circuitous routes. Once again we talked politics and of their hardships. This time it was the lady of the house doing most of the talking. And when dinner was done, George cleaned up. He made the tea, Nagila served us in the living room, the TV set on as we spoke. Mama- George’s Mom, sat on the couch, Margaret, a Welsh woman and a boarder, joined us wearing her fuzzy slippers and orange robe. Nagila showed us the embroidered pieces she and her co-op made, and of course who could pass up the good prices. By 8:30 PM, with an early morning ahead we all went to bed.
Our hosts told us that they would be gone, breakfast laid out for us, George would make Turkish coffee before he left. And with the traditional kiss we said our goodbyes. Two very different ways, both welcoming. A snapshot into a way of life we have no frame of reference for. Both involved in politics of the country as a way of life. Both angry at the injustices. Both in a way affected in the very same ways, even though one family are city dwellers and one in the country. Both made us welcome and we left enriched and wiser.
Our IFPB group of 21 delegates has traveled for over a week by bus throughout the West Bank meeting with many representatives from Palestinian organizations as we learn about Israel’s occupation and its effects on the Palestinian people. We also visited Israel communities. One day we went to Sderot, a Jewish Kibbutz named Midvan near Gaza, then to a socialist Kibbutz, Zikim, near the Mediterranean Sea.
Last Sunday we visited Kibbutz Haogen where we met New Profile, an Israeli woman’s peace group that focuses on changing the militarization of Israel to build a civil society. In Israel all Jewish high school graduates have to go into the military, the boys for three years and the girls for two years. New Profile provides support and materials and some legal service for those young people who do not want to serve. I was reminded of the GI Rights hotline in our state. These Israeli women were very critical of their society. They want to encourage the youth to ask questions about Israeli society and how to make changes. But trying to change people’s minds in this militarized state is very difficult. They said “people are brainwashed here.” The Holocaust has much influence in preventing people from asking questions about their militarization, the direction of the society and the effect the Occupation has on the Palestinians. Dorothy said that “Israel is one of the worst things that has happened to the Jewish people.” New Profile studies all the militaristic symbols in Israeli culture. We delegates have seen the soldiers carrying their weapons everywhere they go. Ruth, one of the New Profile members we met, told us that the soldiers are taught that their weapon is their best friend; they have it with them at all times, even taking it home with them at night. And remember, these soldiers are usually very young, between the ages of 18 to 22 years old. Ruth also said the largest industry in Israel is weapons and Israel is the fourth largest supplier of weapons in the world. See photo here.
We delegates often ask our speakers, both Israelis and Palestinians, what the U.S. should be doing in this conflict. A few days ago, Paz, a political science Ph.D. candidate at Hebrew University, offered his view that since the U.S. is Israel’s main economic and military supporter, it needs to put a hold on Israel’s actions with restrictions on how their aid is spent. “Israel is like a child that plays around so some grown-up has to make them stop their bad policies, and mean it.”
More on New Profile
Yesterday we visited a Jewish Kibbutz. A focused community who live and work together. They are a small and focused group working on demilitarizing Israel.
Consigning to the Israeli army is part of the education system. We heard about a school trip to the Golan Heights to watch tanks do target practice. From the age of 12, children are encouraged to begin to think about their involvement in the army and what part they might play. Every young person is issued with a military number. The military provide no information for young adults who do not wish to sign up and make the process of refusing conscription very difficult. For some they are the sole bread-winner; a below minimum wage of $100 per month is just not enough (and non-uniformed officers get paid less). Most soldiers are supported by their families. We heard about a young man who took up his right as a refuser at the age of 16. His case took 6 years to go through the tribunal.
'New Profile' work to provide information and support for young people and parents about their rights to refusal. This includes legal aid teams that work with young people to give them legal advice and representation, a parents support group and a youth group and summer camp to give space for young people to ask important questions about. Every military personnel has a profile number, ranging from 21 to 97. 'New profile' propose that non-military persons and refusers should have a new profile and their contribution to society should not be measured only by their involvement in the army.
My feeling is that the presence of organisations like 'New Profile' is very important in the current climate of a militarized society. I don't know that there is anyone else asking the questions that they're asking. No society should get used to seeing armed soldiers on public transport and on every street corner.
-- Joff Williams
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