ITT update

Apologies for the sparse, or should I say non-existent updates during the last week. ITT, or independent travel time is the time after an OG trip when people split up, get lost, spend more than they expected on hostels or find amazing homestay situations. My ITT has been a mix of a rocky start in Tel Aviv, followed by great times with friends and meaningful exploration of the West Bank, staying in Qalandia and Ramallah.

I made it to Jenine, where we met with Canaan and the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, who together help organize Palestinian farmers in the cooperative production, sale and distribution of high quality organic, fair trade olive oil. In Toronto you can purchase this olive oil at Beit Zatoun.

In Hebron I met Waqf officers outside the Abraham mosque, who explained the tense relation between the Islamic security and the IDF, and the history of the partition of the mosque after the Goldstein massacre in 1994, when a jewish extremist opened fire on worshippers and killed 28 inside the mosque, 70 outside, and injured 700 more. We got a tour by some kids of the occupation of Hebron, showing the different areas and the ways the settlers attack Palestinians in an effort to get them to leave. One of the kids had two baby brothers killed in an attack in which settlers with the protection /cooperation of the IDF threw a molotov cocktail into a room in his house, setting the confined space ablaze.

I have other stories, but time is short. I will write later.




Tel Aviv Military Museums

Today in Tel Aviv I visited the museum of the Eztel, also known as the Irgun, as well as the IDF museum. The artifacts don’t interest me much – I don’t like weapons of war, and I don’t find the particularity of “this gun as opposed to that gun” to be significant compared to the motivations behind armed conflict. Unfortunately, the IDF museum was mostly artifacts – in quantities and sizes that are designed to impress. Rows and Rows of captured tanks, as well as Israeli tanks, and artillery pieces everywhere.

The most interesting thing about the IDF museum was the presence of Palestinian scarves on many of the mannequins. At first I thought it was a prank, but then I saw them on mannequins in several different areas of the museum, and noticed that they were old, faded, dusty – not a recent prank anyway. I wonder if no one who works there has noticed in months, even years, that they have been placed there?

The Etzel museum was much more interesting. It tells the story of the emergence of zionist paramilitary groups in the twenties, and their eventual split into three separate movements. The Etzel, also known as the Irgun, was an extremist off-shoot of the original Haganah, caused by an unwillingness of the Haganah to engage in pre-emptive attacks against Arabs. The Irgun, however, stopped the arm campaign against the British during the war, and even fought alongside them. The group which became the Lehi refused this temporary peace with the British, and insisted on maintaing the armed campaign against British presence in Palestine. After the military defeat of the Nazis the three factions joined together to form the Hebrew Resistance Movement, but tensions between them remained. These tensions culminated in the sinking of a Etzel arms ship off the coast of Tel Aviv by IDF (Hagannah) artillery. It is significant that this infighting did not break into a fully civil war.

The crest of the Etzel depicts the original borders of the British mandate of Palestine, along with a hand grasping a gun. The significance of those borders, which include the area known today as Jordan, is that these were the borders of mandatory Palestine when Britain issued the first white paper calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and these were the borders when the league of nations approved the mandate and zionist goal set out in the white paper. Irgun faithful rejected the legitimacy of the partition of Palestine into Palestine and trans-Jordan, maintaing the Jewish claim to the “East Bank”.

All over Israel, you can find the crest of the Irgun. From the war memorials I’ve seen, I’d say they are more prominently commemorated than the pre-state Hagannah, although this might be simply because their crest is more recognizable. I’m not sure how related commemoration of the Irgun is to faith in the original basis of the Irgun – a Jewish state according to the League of Nations mandate, and therefore to include Jordan. I feel this might be part of Israel’s repeated attempts to legitimize to its own people its claim to territory far greater than its 1948 borders, and therefore to experience the giving back of territory gained in war as “painful sacrifices”.

The Etzel, and the pre-state Hagannah, were paramilitary forces who’s victories were gained largely through the use of terrorism, and other military tactics outlaws by the Geneva convention. But there is nothing in either of these museums which expresses regret at the tactics used, acknowledges responsibility for civilian deaths, or even expresses regret. The narrative is bullet proof: anything in support of the cause of zionism is greatly commendable, and anything that stands in its way is evil and inhumane for all the normal reasons, in addition to the evil of anti-zionism. The fact Israeli state narratives still look this way, even after zionism is secure and strong in the region, suggests to me that Israel is in a state of structural dishonesty as regards its paramilitary past (to say nothing of its occupation in the present). What has not happened is the moment of victor’s reconciliation, as reached by Gutsy Spence when he expressed “full and complete regret” for the innocent civilians killed over the years by the UVF. I believe that it is essential at the end of a conflict for both sides to recognize the way their own partisan narrative has corrupted their ethical sensibilities, and attempt to redress these hypocrisies. Because I’m a Hegelian, I think the agressor/victor has to do it first. Maybe the problem with Israel is as simple as this – it’s never grown up to its own place as “the winner”.

Narratives in Israel/Palestine: Simplified

People will tell you that this is a place of thousands of different narratives, and that you couldn’t imagine putting it all together in one lifetime. In a sense, that’s true. But in another important sense I think all the perspectives fit into a few important categories.

In essence, there are two kinds of narratives about what has happened/is happening here. The two kinds are: serious and unserious. Serious narratives get the facts right, and don’t concoct complex lies to cover up the evidence inconvenient for their values. Of serious narratives, there are really only two: Zionist and anti-Zionist. The serious zionist narrative does not lie about the history, does not challenge the new historians uncovering of the facts of the Nakba, and does not pretend that the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians is not racist or not oppressive. The serious zionist narrative uses the same facts as the anti-zionist narrative, but justifies the historical violence and ongoing oppression of the Palestinians in the name of the idea of a Jewish state. Once the Jewish State is truly proclaimed as the highest value, there is no need to lie about the facts to justify it. On the other hand, the serious anti-zionist narrative cites the same history, and interprets with anti-colonial values. It does not pretend that all Palestinians are nice people, or that anti-semitism does not exist. This does not mean all anti-zionist narratives recommend the same solution or the same course of action, nor does it mean all zionist narratives envision the same settlement. However, since they are not willing to lie about the reality and the history, all serious people have potential common ground in the content of the world.

There are of course hundreds and hundreds of un-serious narratives. If you are willing to fudge the facts to justify your position, there is no limit to the number of combinations of values and stories you can come up with.

Thoughts by a Tel Aviv Tourist

The independent travel time portion of this trip was supposed to start yesterday, but for lots of reasons almost everyone stayed at the apartment an extra day – so really, today is the first day of ITT. I tried to stay with some people we met while volunteering, but it didn’t work out so I’m at a hostel. I don’t feel fantastic about contributing the extra funds to the Israeli tourist economy, but I suppose it is good to have the experience of an average traveller in “Israel”.

I’m not crazy about travelling individually; I get lonely and bored. But our hostel is near the beach, so I found a funky mexican bar on the water and chilled for a few hours reading the book on religion and violence which Jordan (an IDF soldier) lent me. Trying to get into contact with people is frustrating without a cell phone, so I eventually gave up and found some pizza and a beer (you can drink beer on the street in Israel – have I mentioned this?) and watched the sunset.

I eventually met up with Sadiah who is staying about a 40 minute walk from my hostel. We decided to meet halfway, in Rabin Square. This was a bad idea – the square was packed with people, and it took me ages to find her. Thankfully things were made easier by the fact she was the only muslim woman in the entire crowd. We talked about politics and religion, but especially we talked about how to talk to people you disagree with. I made improving my skill at “talking with zionists” a personal goal on this trip, and I think I’ve made real progress. Unfortunately, you can only improve your own ability to talk to people you disagree with respectfully – the problem of people you disagree with being disrespectful towards you is out of one’s control.

The amount of racism in this country continues to astound me. Whether its people yelling from passing cars, people staring from cafes, or people taking photographs from their cars, Sadiah is singled out, gazed at, confronted, and verbally denounced for being muslim. I find this much more depressing than racism in Canada, however, because it is not an exception. It is instead a perspective that has the force of the state (both ideologically and in terms of administration and policy) behind it. Jews are the “in group”, and everyone not-jewish is treated well only if it suits the state’s needs. This place is a zionist place, which menas it exists primarily for Jews and Jewish migrants, and only secondarily for anyone else, including those who happen to be from here. This is explicitly manifested in a plack outside the Etzel museam, which speaks of the “Liberation of Jaffa” in 1948 – one must simply ask: liberated from who?

Everywhere you go in this country, you see commemorative plaques to zionist paramilitary groups and their actions in the war of independence – but it’s as if everyone’s skull is too thick to see any commonalities between zionist terrorist organizations and palestinian terrorist organizations. The same kind of logic that justifies the armed conquest of Palestine by Jews can justify the armed conquest of Israel by Palestinians, and if you travel through Palestinian territories you see commemorations of martyrs, and of armed groups and their actions.

I wish that both sides – but especially the zionists – would recognize that it is incoherent to pursue a nationalist agenda of armed conquest of a land because the principles that justify it can always be used to justify another conquest.

Is Israel an Apartheid State?

The Crime of Apartheid:

(h)     “The crime of apartheid” means inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime;

Paragraph 1

(a)     Murder;

(b)     Extermination;

(c)     Enslavement;

(d)     Deportation or forcible transfer of population;

(e)     Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;

(f)     Torture;

(g)     Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;

(h)     Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;

(i)     Enforced disappearance of persons;

(j)     The crime of apartheid;

(k)     Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

The Silwan/City of David Conflict: Archeology, Tourism, Paramilitaries

We visited the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan the day after the Ir Amim tour, but I haven’t gotten around to writing about it until now.

Silwan is an Arab neighborhood built during the period of Jordanian control of East Jerusalem. It is directly South of the old city – looking north you can see the Southern wall of the temple mount and the dome of the Al-Aqsa mosque. Like other Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem it is dirty, smelly, without proper sewage or water services, and full of unmaintained roads. However, unlike some other Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, it has another side to it – another name, and another feeling. This is because Silwan is purportedly built on the ancient site of the City of David – the oldest settlement in Jerusalem, originally built by Canaanites. As such, Silwan has two names – Silwan, and City of David. The two names refer to the same area – when you are in Silwan, you are in the City of David and vice versa. Settlers in the neighborhood (of which there is a significant and armed presence, I’ll talk about this later) call their neighborhood City of David, whereas Palestinians call it Silwan. However, the built reality is such that it is often quite clear whether you are in “Silwan” or “City of David”, despite them being the same place. This is because the City of David is a Jewish site, and is therefore clean, well marked, not smelly, and full of historical markers and interpretive signs. When you take the archeological tour of “City of David”, you walk halfway across Silwan, but don’t feel you are in Silwan, because you don’t feel you are in an Arab neighborhood. As soon as you leave the archeological site area, however, you are immediately thrust into the feeling of the Arab village of Silwan.

Continue reading “The Silwan/City of David Conflict: Archeology, Tourism, Paramilitaries”

OG and the Avoidance of the Political

Today is the last day of the group travel portion of the OG Middle East 2011 trip. From now on we split up and travel on our own for a week, after which we’ll get back together for one night for “disorientation”. I’ve been meaning for a while to write something about the group portion of our trip, specifically in terms of how it has engaged the political situation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how it has enabled and disabled discussion about controversial topics. In short, it has largely dealt with controversial topics by presenting them to the group in the form of meeting with locals to gain their perpectives, or by visiting museums and archeological sites, but then avoiding inner-group controversy by not discussing within the group how we feel/what we think about the controversial positions that have been presented to us. This aversion has been talked about and justified in terms of the language of “polarization”.

Continue reading “OG and the Avoidance of the Political”

Camera Opinions

With the recent theft, I am camera-less. Not only was my nikon D50 stolen, all my nikon batteries were stolen so my other nikon, a D70 I brought as backup, is also out of commission. And my canon A510 pocket camera which I had lent to another trip participant was also stolen, because his bag was stolen at the same time as mine.

So, I have to make some decisions. Either I remain camera-less for the rest of the trip, or I buy something. I could either buy a pocket camera, or buy another battery for my D70. Since my normal zoom lens was stolen with the D50, I’d need to buy some kind of lens to put on the D70 as well.

I’m planning to be in Tel-Aviv a bit this week, it will probably be possible to go to a decent camera store there.

What do people think I should do?

Theft, Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights

These last three days have been a whirlwind. We’ve slept at the mediterranean, on the beach of the sea of galilee, and at a spring far above the sea of galilee. We’ve had our cars broken into and valuables stolen, sang songs in the backlot of an Israeli police station, and paid no money for accommodation but lots of money for parking tickets. We’ve seen the place where just weeks ago Palestinian refugees were killed trying to cross back into their native country, and we’ve drank coffee with a Druze man who thinks the Druze communities in the Golan Heights are better off under Israeli control than they were under the Syrian administration.

Since I had my camera stolen, I don’t have any photos for you. But I do have some stories to tell. Like how Ahmud, a Druze-Israeli led us to the sight of the Nakba and Naksa day protests, in a Majdal Sham, a town which only a week ago was packed with international reporters and is now empty but for its local population. And how he got us up to the ski hill on Mount Hermon where he works despite it being too late in the day (the soldiers opened the gate for him). And then how when we were not able to go up the lift because it was too late in the day, we met his goat-herder friend on the way down who sang and led us in a dance to celebrate Stephanie’s (one of the participants) birthday. He then took us to his house, where he offered us tea, biscuits and cake, watermelon, bananas, perfectly ripe peaches, and grapes. He told us about his job as a ski instructor – how he could make huge sums every day teaching private lessons in Italy and Austria, and proceed blow all of it that night at the discotheque.

The theft itself is a sad story, and especially frightening for the one who had their passport stolen (they had to leave the trip to go to the Canadian Embassy, but it is mostly sorted now and they have temporary documents which will serve their needs). It happened while we were carrying our things back to the car from the beach on the mediterranean – we’d taken one load, and by the time we arrived with the second our things were gone. A local told us: “this is the number one place to get your things stolen in Israel”. We learned a bit about the local police as well – of the two volunteer officers who came to the scene, one forcefully told me the crime had been done by Arabs, and the other told another member of our group that it had been done by Ethiopians. We had to file a police report, and get the windows fixed or switch the rental cars with different ones.  But in moments of crisis there is the positive as well – like when Noah took my guitar out of the cars while the police were fingerprinting them, despite their protests, and proceeded to lead us all in song in the backlot of the police station while the cars were looked over. And magically, we were able to get the windows fixed, and promptly, and not pay for it, despite it not really being covered by our insurance policy (one of our leaders, David, is a wonder at smooth-talking situations like this).

Standing at the Syrian border, at the site of the recent carnage was an intense experience. You could see the trails of disturbed ground where people ran down the slopes of the shouting hill. Ahmud’s explanation of what happened was quite anti-Palestinian, questioning why Palestinian refugees want to enter the Golan heights if they are from Gaza or the West Bank. But it didn’t matter much, most of us had seen video of the event while it was happening, and read reports of the deaths (various figures have been cited, I don’t know which one is the consensus – somewhere between 4 and 30 people killed by some combination of mines and bullets). Standing on the border you can see conflict right in front of you, in the architecture, in the walls and fences, the place is the definition of confrontational.

Other experiences of borders on this trip were different, though. We stood at the Dado lookout at the northern tip of Israel, where you can see Lebanon and Syria. There the border looks totally arbitrary; there is a town, and then the farmland right next to the town is Lebanon. We drove up to the border at the “good fence“, so called due to the number of Palestinian refugees who re entered through it in the 70s while that portion of south Lebanon was under Fatah control, and the border seemed to be abandoned with the gate open. Not the hard-core Israeli security apparatus we were expecting. Later on, driving to a point above the sea of Galilee we travelled for a while along the Jordanian border, surrounded by fences with frequent signs that said “Danger: Mines”.

The Golan Heights is not like the West Bank. It is occupied territory, acquired in war and annexed by the victorious power, but Israel does not treat the people there with the same contempt as Palestinians. For instance, there are no Israeli settlers in Druze towns, it is not impossible to get a building permit, and houses are not regularly destroyed. It is refreshing to see the state of Israel treating Arabs decently, but the caveat is that Druze do not necessarily identify as Arab. Perhaps the meta-reason for this situation is the relative unimportance of the Golan Heights from a religious-historical perspective for the Jews.

That said, the Golan is the place where the scars of war are more explicit than anywhere else I have visited in Israel/Palestine. The amount of mines is crazy – wherever you drive there are fences along the side of the road warning you have mines. And for much of the territory there are no inhabitants, just the occasional burned out building covered in bullet holes (I saw one with a Fatah graffiti on the side, actually). Driving down from the Golan Heights to the sea of Galilee feels like driving through old battle fields, where the fighting was fierce and little has been done to the land since the end of the war.

The last night of the trip was spent overlooking the sea of Galilee. From where we stayed, you could easily see the whole lake. What was striking is just how small it is. It has an area of just 166 square kilometers – less than half the area of Okanagan lake (350 square kilometers). But it is not like just any lake in North America – it is much more strategically important (the only large freshwater lake in the region), and is a significant piece in the conflict between Israel, Jordan and Syria over territory in the Golan region. Peace talks between Syria and Israel failed in the 2000s largely due to Israel’s unwillingless to give Syria any access to the Sea of Galilee (during the Mandate period, Syria controlled much of the sea’s eastern shoreline).

I’m not sure how much being in these areas actually helps one understand the conflict better – I don’t think doing local tours and talking to people is any replacement for the work of reading historical documents and trying to get a sense of the motivations and limitations of the different power actors. At the same time, it seems appropriate and human to get a sense of what the major political moves mean for people on the ground, even if you can only meet a small portion of them.

EDIT: a bit more poking around shows another side to the Syrian-Israeli conflict – many villages were depopulated by Israel during the ’67 and ’73 wars, where people were forcibly transfered and their houses and property subsequently destroyed. For instance, it seems that the settlement of Neve Ativ, the site of the ski resort we visited, was built on the ruins of Jubata Ez-Zeit, a Syrian town of between one and two thousand people which was depopulated and destroyed in the ’67 war.

Israel’s “Ethiopian National Project” and the multiple faces of discrimination in the Zionist Entity

Yesterday we were lucky to meet with representatives of the Ethiopian National Project (ENP), an the Israeli NGO which assists the Ethiopian-Israeli community within Israel.

The story of Ethiopian jews in Israel is a compelling one. According to ENP, in 1991 the political situation in Ethiopea was deteriorating and Israel was afraid for the safety of jews there as rebel forces approached the cities. In a covert military operation named Operation Solomen those jews who had not yet left Ethiopia were air-lifted to Israel. Virtually no Ethiopian jews remain in Ethiopia, making this one of the sudden and complete migrations in modern history.

Ethiopian jews in Israel tend to be poor. When the managing director of ENP went to the state trying to find out how many Ethiopian jews there were in Israel, she was directed towards the welfare office. This was unfair – there are Ethiopian jews in all segments of society, but it is also telling; statistically they are far more likely to be on welfare or below middle class status. According to the representatives we met, ENP exists to improve the status of Ethiopian jews within Israel – to increase their education rates, and to push them up into the middle and upper classes of society.

Myself and some others found it quite strange that ENP directs itself only towards moving Ethiopian Jews from the “have-not” area of society towards the “have” region, and expressed as far as we could tell no desire to transform Israeli society so as to not have “haves” and “have-nots”, or even to reduce inequality in general.

Some of us also found directing so much energy towards Ethiopians who are fully Israeli citizens to be less than laudible, when many Ethiopians and Eritreans who left their homes under similar or worse persecution and fled to Israel, live here with precarious refugee status, without the right to work or to any of the state’s social welfare programs – which as citizens Ethiopian jews can access. The principle of directing attention towards where the need is greatest is not being observed here – in comparison to non-jewish Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees, the Ethiopian jews are already doing pretty well. It was quite uncanny actually – after the representatives had been critical of the way Ethiopian jews are sometimes seen as an “other” within Israel, they referred repeatedly to non jewish Ethiopians as “the other Ethiopians”.

Since ENP’s presentation concentrated almost exclusively on the socio-economic position of Ethiopian-jews in Israel, I asked about the cultural-religious position: is there discrimination against this group of jews in Israel – since they don’t recognize any of the rabbinical writings of the post 2nd temple period on account of having been split off from the rest of Jewry since the period of the destruction of the 1st temple. The answer I was given is a resounding “no”. Apparently Israelis see Ethiopian jews as arguably the purest form of judaism because their religion has remained virtually unchained since the Babylonian period. There are large gaps in religious practice – for instance there are many holidays they do not share because mainstream judaism stopped celebrating them, or because they hadn’t been invented yet when the Ethiopian jews were cut off from the rest of jewry. However, these differences, according to the ENP representative, are not the source of any social exclusion or discrimination within Israeli society – those problems are purely socio-economic.

Personally, I find the inclusiveness of Israeli society towards Ethiopian jews not altogether normal. As far as I can tell, in a religious sense, they are not jews at all, but Israelites. Judaism is intrinsically bound up with the transformation of the Israelite religion of the temple periods into a religion for a people in perpetual exile by the rabbis, and the transformation of an oral tradition into a written tradition. In terms of what I’ve learned about Judaism here in the state of Israel, it seems Ethiopian jews have more in common with Samaritans – a group which the state of Israel does not recognize as jewish. Samaritans are a group which rejected the transformations of Judaism during the period between the destruction of the first temple and the creation of the second one.

Why are religious differences sometimes the apparent ground for discrimination, while in other cases similarities are emphasized and differences played down? I think here it is simply the case that the state of Israel holds the major power in determining who is in the “in group” (jews) and “out group” (non-jews). If the rabbis had decided that Ethiopian jews were not real jews, I doubt they would be as culturally accepted as they are, and if they had not been accorded citizenship their position would be more similar to the Christian Ethiopian refugees who are called “infiltrators” by the centre and right-wing press. Personally, I find it frightening when the state holds not only military power – but ideological power to decide who is a jew and who isn’t.

I think what groups like Ethiopian Jews reveal is the complexity of layering within exclusionary societies – this is a society  divided in so many ways, there are so many different groups and distinctions between different levels of privilege. It is like there is an order of rank within Israel with white European jews at the top, and non-white Palestinian refugees at the bottom.

During our first week here we had dinner with an IDF soldier and his friend, who had an interesting comment about conflict in Israel – he said that as soon as the conflict with Palestinians is done, the jews will be at war with themselves. I think this is a serious question – to what extent is nationalistic in-group loyalty reliant on a specific conflict with an out-group who must function as the scapegoat, the source of the in-group’s problems? And to what extent will nationalistic in-group loyalty break down if an external scapegoat is no longer available? If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved, how might this affect Israeli public opinion towards refugees, or towards non-mainstream Jews within Israel, or towards the poor?

All of these thoughts tend to confirm my intuitions that nationalism, and especially exclusionary ethnic or cultural nationalism is in-itself a bad thing, and that we should not support states that base their national identity on the exclusion or oppression of “national groups” who threaten the cultural homogeneity of the state.