Sderot and the Struggle for Peace
The Contrary Voices of “Other Voice”
Other Voice is an Israeli organization founded two years ago in Sderot by Kibbutz Migvan founders Nomika Zion and Eric Yellin. Other Voice is a collection of many voices who speak with one voice against the violence and siege of Gaza.
Before the wall around Gaza was closed to all but a trickle of traffic four years ago Gazans came to Sderot, an Israeli immigrant town, to shop, to seek medical care, to visit their Israeli friends. Many Sderot residents maintained these friendships and so were devastated when their government launched its attack on Gaza in December 2008.
During the cease-fire which existed for six months prior to the Gaza siege Nomika and others felt that their government was meeting her security needs by honoring its commitment to a cease-fire with Hamas.
But on November 4, 2008, Israel broke the cease-fire by going into Gaza and killing six Palestinians, a highly provocative act by the Olmert government. Nomika and her friends felt betrayed. Nomika began a campaign of letter writing. Journalists from the world over appeared on her doorstep asking for an interview. Her message to one and all was clear and succinct: Not in my name. Not for my security.
In early May Nomika received the 2009 Niarchos Prize for Survivorship, an award bestowed on her in New York City by Survivor Corps, an international NGO, for her courage to speak out against the violent siege of Gaza.
Today was an excellent view into how progressive Israelis think. In the morning we drove to the Erez checkpoint into Gaza and took photos of the elaborate security measures in place, then drove a few miles into Sderot. On the way into Sderot we saw the ubiquitous yellow and pastel blue bomb shelters every hundred yards or so, and we noticed that the city was fairly empty.
At Nomika Zion’s house we met with her and Eric Yellin, founders of Other Voice (http://www.othervoice.org/info/eng/about-us.htm). They call for peace between Palestine and Israel despite having first-hand experience with Qassam rockets. Zion began by explaining what her collective does, her family’s relationships to Zionism and kibbutzim, and leaving the kibbutz to establish an urban collective. She discussed the people who make up Sderot – a large Uzbek population, Ethiopians, Moroccans, Palestinian collaborators who were allowed to leave Gaza, and a variety of social progressives and religious groups.
The one thing that unifies this disparate community is the fear of rocket attacks.
From December 2007 to June 2008 when a ceasefire was agreed to, Zion says roughly 10-60 Qassam rockets per day were lobbed at Sderot. Because these homemade weapons were so unpredictable, no one ever knew when they would hit. The bombings started at 7:00 in the morning, just in time for school. Zion reported that virtually everyone in the community suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Then she clarified that it is not “post” anything, as the community continues to suffer from shock and anxiety. For 3 or 4 years, residents had been sleeping in “safe rooms” which altered family dynamics, intimacy, and broke down even people’s immune systems. (We heard similar accounts in the Dheisheh refugee camp regarding the frequent surprise Israeli Defense Force raids which occur in the middle of the night).
Zion recounted the moral dilemma of a parent transporting a van with her and other children to school when it suddenly became necessary to take all the children out of their safety seats and rush them into a bomb shelter. Which one to take first or leave last?
She said that Israel has become a much more violent and racist society and that most Israelis didn’t even want to know Palestinians. “No voices, no faces, no names.” She described Gaza as a ghetto and said of Gazans, “they are not our enemies, they are our neighbors.” Zion recounted the days when the Moroccan Jews of Sderot would visit Gaza to do their shopping and when there were much closer relationships between Jews and Palestinians.
Zion pointed out how the blockade of Gaza had cut Palestinians off from moderates in the West Bank, had starved them, and driven them into the hands of Hamas, for whom their situation was a political opportunity. “Desperate people will grasp at anything, and the Israeli government’s actions were incredibly stupid.” In Zion’s view, it was in Israel’s interest to stall peace. “The greatest fear of the Israeli leadership is peace,” she said.
Eric Yellin, who described himself as an “ambivalent Zionist,” discussed his wartime blog a bit, then sketched a brief portrait of the politics in Israel. According to Yellin, the Left virtually dissolved after Oslo, when suicide bombings increased, after the assassination of Rabin, with Barak declaring no partner in peace, with the second intifada, and the rise of Hamas.
“We’re not David anymore, we’re Goliath.”
After visiting Sderot we drove to nearby Kibbutz Zikim in Hof Ashkelon and met with Arieh Zimmerman, a man named Dagie , and Mayan Dror. Arieh gave us a history of the kibbutz from its origins from the Hashomer Hatzair (the youth movement) until the present, including the various products its members have produced. Zikim is one of only 80 socialist kibbutzim remaining in Israel (200 have become privatized).
Because of its proximity to Gaza, the kibbutz has been hit by numerous Qassam rockets, resulting in 7 injuries, including those of 2 children. Despite the attacks, Zimmerman is quick to point out that “we’re not David anymore, we’re Goliath”. He blames the government for not acting to end the occupation. In Zimmerman’s socialist analysis, the only solution is for two states to exist, and for Jerusalem to be divided. Both Zimmerman and Dror pointed out that the kibbutz has actually had Arab members.
Zimmerman also faults Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, which represent only 12% of the population, for exerting a disproportionate influence on Israeli politics, which has resulted in racist settlement policies designed to benefit them to the detriment of Palestinians.
When I asked him why Israel’s Left and progressive ranks have thinned, Zimmerman offered two reasons: (1) that the political pendulum swings from time to time, and (2) that there was no response from Hamas to the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, thus echoing Ehud Barak’s claim that there are no Palestinian partners for peace.
I left the Ashkelon area realizing that even Meretz supporters (which both visits were) tend to echo the Labor Party line.
The Qassam Menorah
At the entrance to Kibbutz Zikim is a monument of hope and creativity -- a mennorah made out of Qassam rockets of various sizes, rocket corpses which the residents of Zikim light on Channukah.
About twenty Qassam rockets landed inside the kibbutz in the last seven years, injuring several children and killing some of the kibbutz dairy cows.
Maayan Dror, who was born and raised in the kibbutz, served as one of our guides and hosts. Maayan explained the intention behind the menorah: to turn swords into plowshares.
We walked with Maayan, Dagai, and Arieh to the top of a hill, overlooking the Mediterranean. From there we could see the outlines of Gaza City and the wall around Gaza. Dagai proudly directed our attention to the dairy farm, one of the largest herds of dairy cattle in Israel, which he managed until recently. We could see the Hebron hills on the horizon and the rooftops of an organic greenhouse, owned and operated by former Israeli settlers who left Gaza, to whom the kibbutz sold land during Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005.
Arieh's wife works in the kibbutz high school, which is well-respected by local residents for the quality of the education. Arieh told a story about one of the students, the grandson of a Palestinian family in Ashkelon, one of the few Palestinian families not displaced in 1947-48. Every time a rocket landed in or near Ashkelon, Zikim, Sderot, or surrounding towns, this young man became the target of his classmates' anger and fear. Finally, his grandfather said, "Enough," and enrolled him in the Zikim kibbutz high school. With the first rocket attack, the young man cowered, thinking he would once again become a target. Arieh paused in his story, giving us a chance to gasp its significance-- more swords or plowshares? "Nothing happened to the young man," said Arieh.
Now in his mid-sixties, Arieh came from the United States to the kibbutz at age 30. He was attracted to the kibbutz, founded in 1949 by concentration camp survivors from Romania, by its vision of equality, tolerance, and respect for all. "This kibbutz appealed to me," he said, "because it was ethically minded, socialistic, and argumentative!"
Unlike many other kibbutz in Israel which have been privatized, Zikim is still based on a socialistic economy. The profit from the dairy, the schools, and the other cottage industries is collectively owned. All members of the kibbutz are paid equally for their work.
And it was built on land owned by Arabs before 1948, perhaps owned by the grandfather of the young man who was treated with respect during the rocket attacks from Gaza, in that moment turning swords into plowshares.
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