Travel Diaries from the Nobel Women’s Initiative in Israel and Palestine: Part Two

We are really excited to have Jaclyn Friedman share with us her travel diaries from her current travels to Israel and Palestine with the Nobel Women’s Initiative. This is part two, you can check out part one and an introduction to the initiative here.

Friday, Oct. 1

Hebron. Sorrow.

We toured Hebron this morning. It’s one of the primary sites of conflict between Palestinians and settlers, the latter of whom have built an outpost right in the middle of the Old City, destroying 1,000 year old homes, overtaking farms and running many people out of their houses. Our first stop was to a home which had been cut in two – one half remained with the Palestinian family who owned it, the other had been claimed as part of the settlement. Up on his roof, we could see settlements on two sides, and Israeli soldiers on more than one roof nearby, watching our every move. Not such a way to live.

We left his home and went down to the market – one of the only ones left, as the main Hebron markets had been destroyed. Even in this market, many shops had been seized and their contents destroyed, leaving the shopkeepers without assets or income, their families living in utter poverty. Then we headed to the mosque, just as noon prayers were starting. Because this mosque is also a holy site for Jews, everyone must pass through a checkpoint to go to worship. We passed through as a young Israeli soldier trained his machine gun on each of us in turn. I have never before stared into the barrel of a machine gun, I don’t hope to experience it again.

(I’m sorry. I feel like I should be saying what it felt like, but I’m having a lot of trouble expressing what any of this feels like. It was scary. I felt mortal.)

And then, as we were walking toward the mosque, someone told me that this was where Abraham and Sarah are buried, and I began to sob. It’s hard for me to say precisely why – in part it was gratitude and awe that I was at the tombs of my original ancestors. I was so overwhelmed to have come home. I’ve been wondering how it would feel to me to be in the Holy Land – I’m not exactly the worlds’ most observant Jew – but there was something visceral and ancient about this feeling of home. And then to have it – this sacred space – be the location of such misery. For the Hebronites, to be sure, but also for the soldiers, who were as tense as we were and so very young. They haven’t chosen this service, and it’s hard to know how any given soldier feels about it. But there was really no one who seemed happy or at ease there.

Still, most of the misery is borne by the Palestinians, and inflicted by Jews. In the names of Abraham and Sarah, who lay buried beneath our feet. They could not have wanted their children to act this way.

At one point we tried to walk up a road near the mosque and were blocked by Israeli soldiers. Jody Williams and Dr. Barghouti tried to engage with them, to no avail. The press scrum that had gathered around us since we set foot in Hebron – partly because Dr. Barghouti is a hero to many in the West Bank, and partly due to the presence of Jody and our delegation – closed in to capture the conflict. The whole situation felt so fragile, like anything could happen at any moment. In the end, the soldiers stood firm and we backed off, and had to get on a bus and drive a full ten mintues to get where we could have gone in 2 minues walking up that block.

There are moments, when we’re on long drives through the hills and valleys and towns, that I can feel myself allowing what I’m witnessing to sink in a little bit. To think – right. This is just the day-to-day life here, these are just the basic (though not innate or immutable) facts of daily life. It’s hard to stay grounded at this pace and intensity, but when I do ground I remember that this is no extraordinary experience I’m having – it’s only an experience that few want to know much about, given the choice to ignore it. I certainly have been guilty of making that choice until now.

The afternoon was more inspiring. We visited two villages, Ni’lin and Bi’lin, which are actively resisting the Israeli government’s occupation (via the wall and the settlments) using non-violent resistant techniques. They’ve had some successes – Ni’lin forced the wall closer to the actual border with Israel, which meant they get to keep more (though hardly all) of their land. And Bi’lin has forced the Israeli government to leave their gate (the way they get through the wall to other Palestinian lands beyond) open all day long, as opposed to the situation in most villages, in which it’s only open for a few minutes a piece a few times each day. We visited that gate, which is the site of regular peaceful demonstrations, which are sometimes met with violence from the Israeli border guards – the place was littered with tear gas canisters, and featured a memorial to a peace activist who was killed there when a soldier fired a tear gast canister directly into his chest. Even in the face of such personal risk, they continue their protests. It’s amazing to see the growing strength of the nonviolent movement here, and that it’s actually resulting in some victories. Again, I’m blown away by the hope and determination in the face of what can seem like a hopeless situation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my role in all of this as an American Jew. Last night I gave an interview to a Palestinian TV station, in which I said unequivocally that the Israeli government is guilty of international war crimes, and that there is no justification possible for their ongoing actions. I believe that entirely, and I stand behind the statement, but I was shaken afterward – I’ve never before spoken so publicly my criticisms of Israel. I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m betraying my family, or my people. I’m worried about what my mother will think. Old habits die hard. But feelings are feelings, and justice is justice. I can’t let one prevent the other.

Saturday, October 2

We started the day meeting with the lawyers who are representing Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Laureate for her work in Northern Ireland, and one of the leaders of our delegation. Mairead was on the Rachel Corrie, one of the boats in the Gaza flotilla earlier this year, and has practiced nonviolent resistance alongside Palestinians many times. On those shaky grounds, the Israeli government has seen fit to deny her entry to the country, so she’s been detained at the airport since her arrival on Monday. She had a hearing on Friday, which didn’t go well, but she’s refusing to go back to Ireland as the government wants. Instead, the lawyers are filing an appeal and she’ll have a new hearing on Monday or Tuesday. She’s 66 years old, and she’s been in an airport jail for a week now. So incredibly brave. You can read more about her case here – I’m given to understand that the American media has covered this story not at all.

Afterward, we had the most amazing meeting with Israeli and Palestinian feminists at Isha L’Isha, the oldest grassroots feminist organization in Israel, located in Haifa. (Also, I should mention that Haifa is gorgeous. Everything overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I kinda wanted to play hooky and go to the beach, but alas.)

The minute I walked in the room I felt at home. Women of all ages gathered around a modest community room in a big circle, with women’s rights posters all over the walls (including one of two women kissing). Plus, many of them looked like they could be related to me. (My friend Danya told me before I left that I would feel this in Israel, the singular relief of being in a place where everyone looks like me. And she was right. I’ve never experienced this before outside of being at temple or in other explicitly Jewish places – not in entire cities.)

The meeting was electric. Women spoke of their work to broaden the definition of security from a military one to one which focuses on freedom from violation, economic security, civil liberties, environmental security, etc. They talked of the victim mentality which both Israelis and Palestinians use to silence critics. They heatedly but respectfully debated the merits of boycotting Israeli companies – evidently the boycott has affected their ability to get funding, and they now need funds more than ever. They told us of their work standing vigil every day on the Israeli side of the separation barrier, watching the Israeli soldiers, documenting their actions, and urging them to act like human beings. One mother spoke of the tension she feels as a peace activist who wants to support her son, who’s currently a border guard in the Israeli military. For these women, “the personal is extremely political, and the political is unbelievably personal.” And they spoke of their hope that their coalition, which has been bringing Palestinian and Jewish women together to build community for 30 years, can serve as a model of how the larger peoples can find peace together.

(FYI, Rachel Corrie‘s parents were also at that meeting, and they’re quite the activist powerhouses in the name of their daughter. So cool.)

As we broke for lunch, I started chatting with a woman who had spoken of her frustration with the idea that all criticisms of Israel are anti-semitic. I began telling her how I shared her frustration, and how familiar with it I am, as my mother uses that argument sometimes. She began telling me about her history, how most of her family was murdered in the Holocaust, and what she would like to explain to my mother. And then I took out my recorder and asked her to tell her directly. Which she did, in an incredibly moving plea. We both had tears in our eyes by the end.

Our meeting after lunch was more challenging. We met in Nazareth with a coalition of women who are Palestinian citizens of Israel, working to empower the women in their communities and combat the effects of the structural racism of the Israeli government toward its Palestinian citizens. We expected to hear about their daily work and how we could support it, but as we talked, it became clear that the women had their own agenda: they wanted to challenge us on our plans to visit an Israeli settlement tomorrow. They felt strongly that it was lending legitimacy to the whole enterprise of the settlements, that we should not be talking with them at all, that it would be like talking with the KKK, or the Nazis. They were concerned that we were treating the opinions and perspectives of the settlers as equal to theirs. We were able to reassure them on this point: everyone in the delegation is immutably anti-settlement. We’re not going to hear them out, we’re going to learn what they have to say for themselves so that we can better refute their arguments. And to see their living conditions with our own eyes, so we can testify to how different they are than the poverty in which the people from whom they stole the land are being forced to live. (You can read the liveblog of that conversation here.)

But still – are we legitimizing? Will our visit be spun as an honor to them in the press? Is that a good reason not to go? Would I have wanted such a delegation to visit the Nazis, if I were in a concentration camp? I don’t know. I’m still grappling with it. We’ll be discussing it as a group tomorrow morning, until then, I’m just going to sleep on it.

Sunday, October 3

What a packed day. We started out with a meeting as a group to decide what to do about the settlement visit. I came to the meeting undecided, but found clarity as we debated: I would go as long as there would be no media present. (We had told our media contacts this was a closed event, and the settlers had also agreed to no media, but one never knows.) If we arrived to find media, I would wait on the bus. In the end, I decided that, had I been in a concentration camp, I would have wanted this group to meet with my guards. Because I trust the intentions of the women in the room. And because there is value in looking your enemy in the eye, to understanding them more fully. (One thing this trip has taught me over and over is that there’s just no substitute for first-hand experience.) And while I was troubled by the concerns that we were legitimizing the settlers somehow, or would be used for that purpose, I was also convinced that the arguments we make for an end to the occupation and an end to impunity for the Israeli government would be seen as more legitimate in the eyes of the unconverted if they knew we had met with all sides. And because I knew that I would likely never have this opportunity again, and I was powerfully curious.

The visit was volatile. Two members of the delegation decided not to go, and the rest of us packed into our little bus and headed over. We were greeted by one of the settlers, a curly-haired middle-aged woman who looked like she could easily have been a long-lost aunt of mine. As we were saying our hellos, she asked for me by name – she had read our bios, and was clearly looking to pay special attention to the Friedman of the group. (Why she didn’t also target the rabbi who is a member of our delegation, or Liz Bernstein, director of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, I don’t know, but I have a few theories.) We were ushered in to the home of another settler, and let me tell you – this home could have fit in in any nice suburban neighborhood in the US – a disgusting comparison when you’ve seen the way the Palestinians who live in the surrounding areas, and on whose land this settlement is built, are living, due to the economic impact of the occupation and the Israeli government’s general racist discrimination against Palestinians.

The contrast only made me sicker when the mayor began to speak to us, bragging about how he moved there “for the sunsets,” as it’s the highest point in central Israel. They seemed to think that the best thing to do was convince us how awesome their community was there, which only made me angrier. One woman went on and on about how well the settlement school had integrated her special needs son. This, after we heard yesterday in great detail how disabled Palestinian citizens of Israel lack any basic care or accommodations, and are generally shunned and silenced.

But I digress. The real show started when Sherri Martel (sp?) introduced herself as a feminist who had worked with Judy Chicago on The Dinner Party, I’m sure as a way of getting us to see her as one of us. She moved here with her family in the 90s, and then in 2001, her 13 year old son was stoned to death by Palestinians. A truly heartbreaking story, but one she uses to justify the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians, (whom they all called “them” with an alarming frequently), going so far as to claim that it’s fine to separate Palestinian children from their schools with the illegal separation barrier because her son was “really” denied an education. She also asserted that “not all deaths are equal,” that “they” target children on purpose, while the Israeli army never does, a claim that flies in the face of overwhelming and nauseating evidence to the contrary that we’ve seen over and over this week.

The women went to great pains to talk about “how well they treat their Arabs” – some of their best friends are Arabs! They employ Arabs right and left and the Arabs they employ never complain to them, always tell them how awesome the Jews are! They even let Arabs shop at their shiny supermarket! The U.S. southerners in our group said later how much it reminded them of the attitude of southern whites toward African Americans. There was just no awareness or acknowledgment whatsoever of power asymmetry or privilege, all the more astonishing given that the structural power asymmetries here are some of the greatest and most blatant in the world. What kind of energy does it take to maintain that kind of bubble? I just don’t know. These women really, genuinely believe they are the victims here – they kept talking about how they don’t teach hate, but the other side just HATES THEM anyhow. I wish I had had the presence of mind to tell them that teaching mortal fear of an entire people is pretty much the same thing as teaching hate. This part of the dynamic reminds me of current dynamics in the US between white folks on the right and people of color, especially Mexican immigrants and Muslims at the moment.

The whole thing devolved into a screaming match when one of the settlers called me out for some facial expression I made when someone made an offensive claim – I’ve never had much of a poker face. I answered, evenly at first, that yes, I was offended and here’s why, and then there was interrupting, shouting, and a claim that “they thought we were supposed to just be there to listen.” Sure lady, after you call me out, tell me to shut up. How’s that work out for you? I left in tears, just so angry and outraged and despairing – they really don’t believe peace is possible in this generation, they literally said that, which of course is a blanket excuse to behave however the fuck they want – and so overwhelmed that, as a Jew, they are doing this in my name. This is not Judaism. This is not what it teaches.

So much else happened today – and so much of it was positive and inspiring! But I’ve got to get some sleep now. I’ll tell you all about it in part 3 of 3, which will be on Thursday.

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