A must-see Jerusalem Book-Shop

The Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem is a place not to be missed if you are an English speaker interested in Palestinian solidarity work, or even just someone interested in Palestinian perspectives on the conflict in historical Palestine. If you are used to seeing only a few books at a time on the Israel-Palestine conflict you may go into sensory overload here – the place is literally packed ceiling to roof with books on the situation here. The place is also a coffee shop, so it’s a good place to find a book, and then chill for an afternoon.

But, you’ll probably have trouble finding a book at the Educational Bookshop, not because they don’t have what you are looking for, but because if you are used to only seeing a few titles at a time, chances are you don’t know what you are looking for. If this conflict interests you, you will go into a kind of panic where you want everything and can’t decide what to just buy and sit down with. That’s where the staff become helpful – if you spend a few minutes deciding what exactly about the situation you want to learn more about, simply tell the people behind the desk and they will jump out and magically pull the three books on that topic off the shelves for you. I asked for books on zionist paramilitary activity and palestinian street art, and without hesitation the staff member pulled the relevant books off the shelves.

I’ve been to the bookstore once so far, and I picked up Refusenik!: Israel’s Soldiers of Conscience. I will definitely drop by a few more times, and I might pick up a few more titles – although I am a bit worried about taking dissenting literature back through Israeli security at the airport. Either way, I will definitely go back there to take a coffee.


A Christian Holy Place in Jerusalem? (The Church of the Holy Sepulchr)

I’ve spent a week in Jerusalem, but I’ve only visited Jewish and Muslim holy sites. I’ve spent some time at the wailing wall on two different days. And to be precise, I haven’t actually been up to the Temple Mount to where are the holiest Muslim sites – but I’ve approached and been turned away from the mount several times, which is itself an experience which gives a sense of the importance of that place. Today I wanted to visit the church of the holy sepulchr, which is the holiest Christian site in the old city of Jerusalem. I thought that going there would be like coming home. I am not religious, but since I am a person of Christian heritage I thought going there would be in some sense similar to the wailing wall, but in the contexts of beliefs and narratives I am more familiar with.

The church itself is very beautiful. It has a long history, which I won’t bore you with but you can read it if you want on wikipedia. The experience of visiting the church, however, was totally different from the wailing wall, or even being near the temple mount. It is crammed with tour groups. Not just tourists, but “hello my name is” tourists, complete with stickers on their shirts which correspond with the number on a sign held up by the tour guide.

Talking to Chris, my catholic friend on this trip, helped me understand why this place is so different from the other holy sites in Jerusalem. While a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is traditionally an important part of Christianity, today it is seen as totally optional, and as more of a tourist trip than a religious experience.

Maybe the place is so different because there is a much smaller Christian community in Jerusalem and Palestine than Muslim or Jewish. This doesn’t correspond with the map of the old city, which has two large Christian quarters (the Christian quarter, and the Armenian quarter). Maybe the real Christians who live around here don’t pray here regularly because of the massive number of tour groups. There were real Christians there, obviously, priests and nuns, praying and reading and solemnly practicing rituals in the midst of a thousand white and poorly dressed tourists.

It made me somewhat upset, visiting this church today. I wanted the Sepulchre to be a spiritual place that I could relate to. But maybe it isn’t there anymore – destroyed by years of infighting between different religious groups, and by the failure of Christianity to as a community take a stand on the conflict here. Destroyed by a million tourists who come here for personal reasons, and who come “for the experience” more than for religious reasons or to relate with the local community here. The failure of the majority of Christians, or at least north American Christians, to stand in solidarity with Palestinian Christians, is I think a strong demonstrable failure of Christianity to act on its principles.


Road Tripping through Southern Palestine

This weekend our group went on the first of our mini weekend trips. On friday we picked up rental cars and drove to a Bedouin community where Bustan is helping build an eco-tourism lodge, which will include several eco-domes and a larger building, as well as a billeting program to house larger numbers of guests. We helped work on one of the eco-domes, which is basically an igloo made from long bags of dirt, covered in layers of mud and straw. It’s a relatively ingenius building method, using lots of labour but virtually no resources other than the continuous bags in which you put the local earth. The work was divided into three teams – “mud people” who throw and smear mud on the walls, “dirt people” who dig dirt into buckets and pass them up to the “roof people”, who fill the bags on the roof to build up the walls. I worked up on the roof a little, but as it’s a bit precarious I mostly worked with the “dirt people”.

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The Normal Streets of West Jerusalem

Yesterday I realized that I hadn’t spent much time alone since the start of this trip. I do this sometimes – I enjoy other people’s company so much that I don’t take much time alone, just to spend time with myself and reflect on the situation in general rather than being engaged in a specific taking-care towards goals. So I took off my keffiyeh, grabbed the soccer ball, and went strolling down the streets of the neighborhood which is my temporary home here.

The first thing you notice around here, once you start trying to blend in, is how normal the place is. Sure, there are security guards at some of the restaurants, and if you’re attentive you can see some signs of what was here before 1948 (hopefully we will have a tour of the history of this area at some point). But in general, it’s just a normal upper-middle class neighborhood, similar in feeling to Kitsilano in Vancouver, or the Beaches in Toronto.

I can see how people might be lulled into, might want to be lulled into the sense of security and normalcy present in this neighborhood, and others, since the construction of the Separation wall and the successful victory of Israeli security forces over suicide bombings. Why would someone living here want to think about the Kalandia refugee camp and the conditions there, the lack of opportunity, the lack of proper medical and dental services? Is this so different from Toronto where it is easy to live in the Annex and never think about underprivileged neighborhoods which are victims of structural injustice. Of course it’s different – the structural injustices here are much more extreme: military occupation, differential citizenship rights, and what amounts to state-approved racism against Palestinians.

But just walking down the street, you can start to forget the facts and the international law. This normalcy is part of the tragedy for Palestinians. When the IRA declared its ceasefire in 1994 it mattered to all people in Belfast, because nothing about that place was normal when terrorist attacks were ongoing. The Northern Irish republican’s military capability was one of the contributing reasons forcing the British to recognize the legitimacy of their political project, and allow them to continue the war by other means. But here, the Israeli security forces have successfully reduced terrorist attacks to near zero with the annexation wall and the blockade of Gaza. This means they can continue the war against the Palestinians indefinitely, at marginal cost to their own population.

No one likes to see violence. But it’s even worse to see violence that is structurally one-sided, where the lack of parity between the parties might be a factor contributing to the difficulty of achieving a just peace.

Narratives, Facts, Pathologies

Perhaps because this trip is Canadian, there is a lot of emphasis on “perspectives”. Everyone’s understanding is just their “perspective” and no one’s perspective is true and no one’s is false.

I love the idea of a “perspective”, because I think it’s an incredibly powerful way to talk about a piece of understanding. According to Nietzsche, perspectives are values, and preservation-enhancement conditions of will to power. In other words, perspectives are the transcendental condition for engagement in the world, and with other people, within motivational frames by which the world is shown up and dealt with by us.

But, I don’t think perspectives are all of equal worth. I think perspectives engage with other perspectives – they meet each other, and affect each other, transform each other. Because perspectives are values, I think they are essentially something moral. Our perspective on a situation is at the same time our moral stance towards it, which includes at the most basic level whether it is a situation which demands our attention or not. It’s great to have an open mind – but that means being open to transforming one’s perspective in relation to other perspectives which challenge us. I don’t believe “having an open mind” means not having a perspective, not having a take, a grip on things. It means that your grip isn’t so tightly wound that you can’t hear when it is being put into question. I think when your grip because this tightly wound, this is a form of pathology.

Pathological narratives are narratives which frame the situation we are in in a way that is so inadequate to the reality of the situation that we are forced into a series of ever-complicating lies in order to keep out the criticism which might otherwise force us to change our narrative.

Today I encountered two aspects of personal narratives which feel pathological. One was when talking to a Rabbi who works for Rabbis for Human Rights, when he said that the terrorism of the Irgun was justified by the manner in which the British were preventing unlimited migration of Jews to Palestine. The other was talking to an Israeli soldier who told me that the ethnic cleansing of palestine never happened.

Whether and why these beliefs are signs of pathological narratives is something I could only say with much more investigation. But I am already getting the strong sense that “conflict” (problematic term – better “sustained oppression”) is actually maintained through these and other lies. And I don’t mean lies in the “factual” sense, although that too – what I mean is that they are/might be lies in the sense that people who hold them are forced to close themselves off from reality in order to maintain faith in them.

One way people maintain faith in their lies is through the idea of multiplicities of perspectives. This is also a great way to make a situation more complex than it is – just assert the situation “is complicated”, and you’ve removed yourself from responsibility for anything you might have thought you could do. Of course you can’t do anything; the situation is complicated.

On the other hand, I don’t want to paint the people I met today as wholly gripped by their narrative to the point where they were impossible to engage with. Both the Zionist Rabbi and the Zionist militant expressed doubt – the rabbi at the idea that the situation is a “conflict” rather than “colonization”, and the soldier at what he thought of refusenicks.

It’s an intense trip (Rabbis for Human Rights, Jaffa, IDF Soldier)

Today we met with Rabbis for Human Rights in the morning. RHR might be able to use a photographer for some of its trips to the West Bank, and I’ve volunteered for that position. Meeting the Rabbi was interesting – I was surprised to learn that RHR is a zionist organization. I asked him if he thought it was actually fair to call the situation a “conflict”, and that it could also be called a situation of colonization. He said I might be right, but he gave his perspective which was in terms of a conflict between two parties. I later got the chance to ask him how he felt about zionist terrorism agains the British mandate forces, and he said they were justified because the British were limiting the numbers of Jews entering Palestine after the holocaust.

Our session with RHR was filmed by some French documentary film workers. I started speaking with them afterwards in French, and they ended up interviewing me, in French. I told them about Operation Groundswell, my academic project, and my connection to this place through my grandfather.

We then took some buses to Jaffa, where we met with someone from the group Shuk. We sang some songs, and were talked to about the importance of a pluralistic Israeli identity. This took place in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, which is the Arab quarter but also very mixed between Jews and Arabs.

We were lucky enough to get a tour of Jaffa as part of another documentary film being made – which was given by someone doing their PhD on the history of Jaffa from a Palestinian perspective. Actually, this guy tries to give both sides perspectives, and openly acknowledges the problems with the historiography on both sides due to lack of access to the “enemies” language and archives. The history of Jaffa during the ancient period and middle ages is interesting, but the history during the mandate period and 48-49, and afterwards, is just sad. In ’48 many Palestinian Arabs left Jaffa due to the war, and atrocities commited by zionist paramilitaries against Arab populations. In ’49 any resident not in their house at the time of counting was dispossed of their property. Many of these Arabs had not fled the country, but were simply not in Jaffa while the counting of the houses happened. Those who had managed to stay in Jaffa were then forced to concentrated in the Ajami neighborhood, which had a fence around it and was guarded with soldiers and dogs. The next period was called “co-existence”, where Arab families (both Christian and Muslim) were forced to give up rooms in their houses, and apartments were divided up, so Jewish families could move in. There were many incidents where Arabs lived with soldiers who were committing acts of terrorism against their friends and family in other regions of Palestine/Israel.

After the tour we had coffee with the guide. I spoke with him about the idea of “conflict”, and about the way approaching things with a positive outlook can be dishonest and oppressive. He was very agreable to my questions. He suggested I come visit him in Jaffa and he can introduce me to other activists there. I think I will do this.

After coffee, we met with Zach, one of David’s (one of the trip’s leaders) friends, who just finished his service with the IDF. This session was intense. I confronted him on the violence done to Yonatan Shapiro during the Jewish Boat to Gaza. Zach said he didn’t believe Glyn or Yonatan’s explanation of what happened – but said that if this narrative was correct, then what happened was illegal according to his understanding of illegal orders. My friend Sadiah confronted him on Cast Lead and the collective punishment that happened there, but it was no use – he has his own understanding of the Gaza Massacre and it’s iron clad, or at least well defendable against the kind of criticism it is appropriate to make in the context of many different people in a group who are at different levels of knowledge and engagement.

I actually managed to relate quite positively with Zach, and I think I will email him to continue our discussions. He told me he wasn’t sure how he felt about refusenicks, and he agreed with Obama’s recent speech that a settlement must be based on the ’67 borders. On the other hand, he believes that no ethnic cleansing ever happened to the Palestinians, and that a settlement will never look very different from the one that the PA offered and Israel rejected, as per the Palestine papers.

I’d like to write more, but it’s late and I’ve had a very long day. This trip is not always easy – there is a lot of moral weight to hearing about the history of what happened here, and a lot of pathology in the zionist narratives. Trying to weave things together, while being respectful of people’s experience, is tricky in a situation where “people’s experience” needs to be balanced against the realities of oppression which support for the status quo perpetuates.

Why I wear a keffiyeh in Palestine

Yesterday I visited Ein Kerem, an Arab/Christian village which was depopulated during the 1948 war. Today I visited Kalandia refugee camp, and met a Palestinian who is disillusioned with the PA and Palestinian statehood, and just wants to go home to the village his family fled from in 1948.

My grandfather was here between 1946 and 1948 with the British forces in mandate Palestine. Britain pulled out and the Zionist paramilitary forces captured Israel up to the ’49 armistice lines. The depopulation of Arab and Christian villages in areas of Palestine now in the state of Israel was a direct result of the British withdrawal.

By withdrawing, the British let the Palestinians down. They could have stayed and fought the Zionists, and allowed the states of Israel and Palestine to be formed according to the Partition plan, which included a corpus seperandum for the administration of Jerusalem. His friend wouldn’t have been killed by an Israeli soldier in the second intifada, because a situation of systematic and ongoing oppression might not have come into being.

Much of the privilege I have in this world comes from having family who had the privilege of British citizenship – which meant easy immigration to British North America (Canada), and access to lucrative employment based on the theft of land from its inhabitants and the unsustainable extraction of resources.

If the British had stayed to fight the zionists, and not withdrawn in may ’48, my grandfather might have been hurt or killed. Which would mean I might not exist.

I am not pro-British, and yet I feel the pull of responsibility which the British renegad upon when they failed to protect the Palestinian residents, both Arab and Christian. I benefit daily from my British heritage, and this binds me to this history whether I identify as British or not.  To speak simply: we failed them, and in refugee camps all over the West Bank you can meet those who are still effected by this failure to protect. In relation to this, I feel intense feelings of shame, regret, and obligation.

This is why I wear a keffiyeh in Palestine.

Names and Perspectives and East Jerusalem and the Annexed Palestinian Territory

“I don’t consider territory to the east of the Green line to be Israel, I consider it to be the West Bank of Jordan, captured in 1967 and ceded by Jordan to Palestine in 1988”

“Sure, but that’s just your perspective”

“Well, few international states recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, not even Canada”

“Ok, but that’s just a perspective. And we haven’t heard any local perspectives yet”

Names are a problem in Jerusalem. The city was divided by the 1948 war, and re-united when the West Bank of Jordan was occupied in 1967. On july 4th 1967 the borders came down, and the city of Jerusalem was re-united. And yet, few international states recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem because of the  foundational principle in international law that you can’t acquire territory through war. On the ground the Green Line (the Eastern Border of Israel from 1948-1967) is invisible, you really have to know what you are looking for to recognize where it was. Once you do, you notice plazas where previously there were no-go zones, and you see how the thickness of the no-go zones vary with the geography. You can even imagine what it might have looked like in 1948, when Jordanian fighters successfully defended the old city of Jerusalem against the Zionist army – firing from parapets and fortifications at the top of the wall, the steep hills of the old city would have made it difficult for Israelis to take the city. (If we do in fact meet with an Irgun fighter, I will surely ask him about his feelings as regards not capturing the old city in 1948, and the status of Jews in Old Jerusalem between 48-67).

With life on the ground normalized, at least superficially, what is the proper way to talk about the different areas? Should one call the territory captured from Jordan in 1967 the “West Bank”, or does the “West Bank” start at the separation (annexation) wall? My motivation for precision suggests I not use the term “West Bank” at all, but rather “West Bank Administrative Zone” and “captured West Bank of Jordan”. But using terms in this way makes communication difficult – people here seem to call the West Bank administrative Zone the “West Bank”, and don’t want to recognize that East Jerusalem and the rest of former Jordanian territory to the west of the separation wall is part of the “West Bank”.

One solution might be to refer to the “disputed territory” between the Green Line and the separation wall, and the “West Bank” to the east of the separation wall. I don’t like this very much, because it reduces the conflict between the international consensus and the few countries which recognize Israeli claims to East Jerusalem/territory up to the separation wall to a “dispute”, i.e. one having two seemingly legitimate sides. On the other hand, compromises are required to conversing within the context of groups, especially groups trying to be “politically neutral” like Operation Groundswell.

There are certainly many different perspectives on East Jerusalem and the territory between the Green Line and the separation wall. But I don’t think anyone should be expected to think their perspective is “just their perspective”. Perspectives are potentially general, and the basis of social movements and societal consensus, because people can give reasons for their perspectives that appeal to shared principles. I think everyone is entitled to their perspective, but no one should be told their view is “just their perspective”, in such a way to reduce it to be only as important as everyone else’s perspective. People can navigate the territory of perspectives in such a way as to bring sense to confusions – even purposefully created confusions.

I will not acquiesce to the view that it is “just my perspective” that the territory between the Green Line and the Separation Wall is “disputed”, or that it is territory annexed by Israel by way of war. I can provide reasons for both of these perspectives, which I think are strong enough that anyone should adopt them – even if they have opposite values to me and insist on calling this disputed territory “Israel”, and insist that gaining territory through war is legitimate.

Wearing a Keffiyeh in West Jerusalem

Wearing a keffiyeh in West Jerusalem is not the same as wearing a keffiyeh in Toronto. Tonight on a walk through the German Colony we came across a house with a bonfire outside, celebrating the jewish holiday of Lag B’omer We stood outside for a while, but entered after some other people wandering down the street who thought it would be appropriate to wander in. It seemed like a really nice party – there was a band playing “Won’t you Stay” in a kind of folk-bluegrass style, people were drinking and enjoying a nice bonfire. We went up and introduced ourself to the host, who asked me “Why are you wearing keffiyeh here”? I said “Because I’m in Palestine”. In retrospect, I think it would have been more appropriate to say “in solidarity”. He scoffed at me and walked off, but didn’t display overt anger.

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Vignettes of Jerusalem

The Wailing Wall and Arbitrary Inclusion/Specific Exclusion

I visited the wailing wall for the second time today. This time I was with Paul, and we walked right up to the wall itself, and into the enclosed prayer area at the left side. We were asked to cover our heads, but little white yakimas were provided (for anyone’s use – no problem with lice here?). I thought the hat would fall off, so I walked around deranged-looking holding it to my hair.

It was a very different experience from visiting the wall during the paratrooper service. This time, rather than the israeli theologic-military machine, I really felt I was experiencing a centre of jewish culture – actually a side of jewish culture I respect deeply: its emphasis on study, meditation and reflection. In the enclosed area there were many distinctly dressed jews studying and singing while facing the wall.

At the same time, visiting this area on the north side of the wailing wall breaks my heart. Because of the gender segregation I have visited a jewish site of immeasurable significance which an ultra-orthodox friend of mine has never visited, and will never be able to visit unless the current policies of restricting women to a section of the wailing wall are changed. It seems deeply unfair that me, someone who has no substantial connection to judaism, has the right to visit this deeply significant area and yet someone who has devoted their life to worship is excluded on the basis of their gender.

It is this arbitrary inclusion coupled with non-arbitrary exclusion that characterizes this city. As a Canadian tourist, I can come and stay for 6 weeks in Jerusalem – no problem. There is no reason for me to have a right to visit this place – I have no territorial roots here, I have no religious connection to this place. And yet, there is no need for a visa, a special permit, or anything. On the other hand there are millions of people for whom this place holds a special religious and historical significance who can not visit here without a special permit, or at all, because they come from a country Israel is at war with, or because they are refugees who fled from Palestine during the Nakba and had their property expropriated by zionist settlers-colonialists.

I found out later that another person on our trip, who is Muslim, was not permitted to enter the wailing wall area because she had no passport. The reason was that Muslims from other countries are permitted to enter the area, but locals are not. Again, this arbitrary inclusion/specific exclusion alienates local places from people who have a stronger connection with the area, while including tourists – people who will come, have interesting experiences, and go home to tell their friends how friendly a country is Israel.

Police Contempt in the Market 

On Damascus Gate street we witnessed our first incident of Israeli police’s attitude towards Arab palestinians. While eating falafel I noticed a police officer kick over some of the vegetable baskets of an Arab street vendor. Apparently there was some issue with their permit, which is a valid reason for a police officer to intervene in the affairs of the street. On the other hand, there is nothing necessary about the cavalier attitude which several of the participants noticed in the police – treating the Arabs with contempt, and smoking a cigarett there with his buddies, in full figure of his authority, as they cleaned up  the mess created by his boot.

This kind of incident is exactly the reason why Jerusalem, at least the old city, should not be under the control of a single state – especially not a state closely associated with a single one of the religions which claims it as holy. In the old city, “on the ground”, the city is as important to Jews as it is to Muslims as it is to Christians – and why should one group’s interests be reflected in matters planning, defence, and policing? International police could have cultural sensitivity training, and could come from institutions where instead of religious ideology they were versed in human rights discourse. The transition from the RUC to the PSNI in the North of Ireland might be a partial model for thinking about how a police force can be de-associated from one particular religious ideology and community.

Emotions and the Green Line

Walking home today from the old city I felt a rush of emotion crossing a bridge which straddles the green line (looking at a map now, I think I might have been off by 100 feet or so, but I basically had the place right). I had the strong feeling that I was leaving Palestine and entering Israel. I realize that Jerusalem up to the annexation wall is Israeli administered, but it is significant to me that even the Canadian government does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, meaning that even according to Pro-Israeli western governments, the green line is the border of Israel in Jerusalem. I have the strong sensation that this line is important – it came into being somewhat arbitrarily, as a result of an armistice between Israeli forces and Arab armies in 1948. On the other hand, it divides Palestine into two regions which are internationally recognized as distinct territories, and for both of which there is overwhelming international recognition of their people’s right to self-determination. Those two regions are the state of Israel and the imaginary state of Palestine. It’s easy to say things like “on the ground, Palestine starts at the annexation wall” – but in reality even the territory in the “West Bank” (in the Israeli meaning of the term) is heavily regulated by Israel through a hodgepodge of exclusively israeli occupied and jointly occupation zones. And to speak about East Jerusalem, i.e. Jordanian territory occupied in 1967 (ceded to Palestinians in 1988) as Israel is to recognize Israel’s annexation of territory through wars subsequent to ’48 as legitimate.

Apparently Obama has given another toothless address stressing the importance of the ’67 borders, which will probably end in nothing because although he’s saying a lot of the right things, the alliance between Israel and the US military industrial complex is so lucrative for defence contractors. At the same time, the fact that he is stressing the importance of this border, even if it will have to be modified through land-swaps, is a recognition of the importance of the green line and the importance of the principle that annexation of territory gained through war is not legitimate.