Local activist in Palestine for solidarity work
Known as Port Orford on the inside and Jack Rose on the outside, this 20 year old Portlander has been in Palestine for about a week. He's a activist intent on doing everything possible to make his voice heard as a Jew against the occupation. Enclosed is the first installment of his experiences as he e-mailed them from the frontlines.
Known as Port Orford on the inside and Jack Rose on the outside, this 20 year old Portlander has been in Palestine for about a week. He dropped out of Lincoln as a junior but got a GED and enrolled at Evergreen. As a dropout, he was instrumental in organizing public school funding rallies and the youth show titled The Underground on KBOO. He was arrested at UC Davis this summer for protesting the university's testing of GE trees and biological weapons. His dangle from a forty-foot tall model of DNA while locked to the neck of another activist garnered a front-page story on the Davis newspaper. He says he now wants to do anything he can to promote peace in Palestine as a Jew against the occupation. His family, worried for his safety, refused to help him financially so he raised money from his friends and members of his congregation, Havarah Shalom. Enclosed is the first installment of his experiences as he e-mailed them from the frontlines. Send him your words at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am here in Israel courtesy of many individuals and organizations that gave me money, and largely the Zionist movement, embodied in an Israeli governmental organization called Birthright Israel. Birthright Israel (www.birthrightisrael.org) contracts out with other non-profits to bring Jews of all stripes between the ages of 18 and 26 to have a look-see at the place called Israel over a ten-day tour with heavy commentary. I came to Israel primarily to be able to spend time in the Palestinian Territories as an activist. I recognize that many of the people who gave money to birthright would not be particularly happy that I were using their money to develop close relationships and friendships with "the enemy" but I‚m allowing them to subject me to their share of Zionist propaganda on the way, just like everyone else. Whether or not my politics support the preferential support of Jews over other folks in Israel, Zionist politics do, and who am I to say they can't bring me to Israel for free, not to mention the new friends, political converts, hotels, and meals that I will enjoy on the trip? This is a complex matter.
Here's an interesting article from the Jerusalem Post about the way Birthright has been addressing our (activists‚) "impure intentions":
link to www.ccmep.org
In the beginning of the year 2004, in a faraway land called Eretz Yisrael*, there once was a Birthright trip called The Search for Peace, renamed Behind the Headlines, organized by a non-profit group called Shorashim*, and about 35 young Jews from North America came to explore the wonders of the holy land, as presented by the organizers. The organizers were Shira, a young Jew who does work with a subsidiary of the World Zionist Organization, and Shlomo and Yaniv, who are Israelis in graduate studies.
Most of the folks on this trip are international business majors, in a graduate studies program, or are in their third year studying international relations with a focus on the Middle East. I identified myself tonight as a political activist; I put the flag up, got a supportive response from a couple of folks. Now, I have a better idea of who to trust in certain ways, but I also gave myself up. I can no longer engage folks and pretend to be indifferent to the various human struggles of the world. I can't offer an alternative opinion solely as "the devil's advocate". To many of these people, certainly, my politics embody and embrace the devil.
(*- Eretz Yisrael = The land of Israel, Shorashim = Roots)
In some ways I still feel like the rebellious kid, I think after I "outed" myself last night that maybe the leader doesn't trust me as well or like me as much. I look around and am very critical of what is happening around me. I don't voice these criticisms yet, for a couple of reasons: they would be unwelcome, and they aren't critical.
There have been a couple of interesting experiences that have colored my trip so far. The first is that two people with machine guns slung over their shoulders (who the leader just called "gunmen") are going with us everywhere. In case not everyone knew that we are a group of tourists, this helps make it obvious.
The second is the map we were given of Israel. There is absolutely no delineation of the "green line" no mention of Palestinian Territories, Palestinian towns are first transliterated from Hebrew, then the Palestinian name is listed in parentheses (First Schekhem, then Nablus). It is very difficult as an American to know where the West Bank is on the map. The map goes to great lengths to obfuscate any of the borders, including those between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, and of course there is no mention of any of the territories as occupied.
Today, an IDF spokesperson showed us the wall around Qalqilya. We actually crossed the green line at one point, and he explained in detail each component of the security fence. I was surprised that birthright felt comfortable showing this ugly side of the Zionist project. The IDF guy was pretty down-to-earth, and didn't use any overtly racist terms, which I appreciated. I got a good sense of reserve duty from this guy: as soon as he was done talking to us, as an "army guy" about the fence, he drove back home, went back to his job as an electrician, and probably won't put a uniform on again for another couple weeks until he has to talk to some other tour.
Note: for the voyeuristic and/or media-savvy, hit the "Mega Webcast" link from the front page of birthrightisrael.com. I think it could be really fun to tweak with the audio/video for commentary purposes. It's DEFINITELY something you won't see anywhere else.
We arrived in Jerusalem this evening, and looked at it from a look-out. Off in the distance was the area of Jerusalem that was part of Jordan in 1967. Looking further West, we saw a great walled in area: the old city of Jerusalem. There was a shining gold dome that dominated the area: the Dome of the Rock. We stopped by Eldan Hotel to drop off our things before going to the Birthright "Mega Event" On the bus, many of us sarcastically talked about how "mega" the event would be, and how we weren't sure we would be prepared for it. As it turned out, many of us were right.
Upon approaching the convention center where the event was being held, we were greeted by large numbers of security guards with rifles slung over their shoulders. "Taglit- Birthright Israel" buttons were distributed among us, and we went in. I immediately noticed not a hundred, not five hundred, but somewhere around two thousand young Jews. It was the most young Jews I had ever seen in my life in one place. It was quite amazing. We hung up our coats and proceded towards the informational booths upstairs.
The walkway to the informational booths had glowing screens with dance music playing loudly, and pictures of Birthright displayed unabashedly. Some young people were dancing like crazy. Maybe they were having fun. Jeff, another guy on the trip, questioned why our generation felt the need to "scream their tits off" at things like this. I didn't see real amazement or joy from these faces; almost every last one of them were acting.
Then, the mega-event started. It was a stadium atmosphere, with a stage and bright flashing lights and fireworks. The announcer's voice came on extremely loud over the loudspeaker. This guy was Mr. Hollywood down to the tuxedo, the only discrepancy was his name: Jonah Chazanow. Two thousand Jews were screaming. Jonah made some mention of Canada, and every Canadian in the place yelled and waved Canadian flags; they had come prepared. People cheered for their home country, many booed for someone else's home country, almost everyone screaming, "I love Israel!" My group, the political group, was decidedly cynical. People weren't clapping or engaging in much of the propagandistic display of patriotism, which had swept through the crowd.
Today I woke up in Jerusalem and got breakfast around eight o' clock. The first event of the day was walking to a nearby hotel to listen to Former MK Michael Melchior speak.
The man, from Norway, who used to head a division of immigration within government, was involved in the creation of the Birthright Israel program. He talked about how much hope it gives Israelis that American Jews are willing to come to Israel "in these times". He was a representative of a religious party which favored partition (ending the Occupation), and was somewhat left-leaning, in contrast to the Orthodox ultra-conservatives who lobby for not only keeping the current lands and illegal settlements, but even expanding out further in "Greater Israel"
He started speaking modestly about his feelings about the role that Jews need to have in current events as they are happening in Israel. His demeanor quickly shifted, and soon he was barely able to contain his passion as he said how important it was to look at the issues, not see anything as "black-and-white" and to not take anyone's, not Birthright's, not Sharon's, not Arafat's, and certainly not his, word as the word of God. He was incredibly eloquent and nondivisive, a person who would be very good at speaking to fairly conservative folks and inspiring them to do some research of their own. For me, it was an extremely confirming speech; I am incorporating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict very strongly in my life.
While, quite differently than on the first night, I am no longer am afraid of speaking my opinion or what my plans are to do after the Birthright trip, I am understanding the bias of Birthright better. It is not so simple as that they only present one side of the argument (although this has been true so far). They do not challenge in any way the extreme racism which is so common among American Jews; most people on the trip are so terrified of the Palestinians that they consider it very aberrant behavior to go to buy something in an Arab neighborhood. There is a strongly institutional reason for which they do not challenge these false perceptions of Palestinians. In the name of security, the policies of Birthright include keeping one or two armed gunmen with us at all times; along this thinking, "exposing" American Jews to the threat of being on the same sidewalk as a Palestinian is entirely unacceptable. So I go anyways, before the next planned group event takes place, and don't tell the leader of my group. Even so, it's very hard to find time, they really packed our schedule tight.
After talking with the MK, we went to the kotel, the Western Wall. Hundreds of orthodox, dressed similarly with black hat and black-and-white suit, stood before the wall. This monument is the holiest place for Jews in all of Jerusalem. In the time when Jews weren't allowed in the Old City, the closest they could get to the site of the original Second Temple was the Western Wall. We went through tunnels, where huge stone blocks were excavated some forty years ago, and we saw the 488 meters of Western Wall where it mostly stands now: underground.
A felafel pita (with french fries in it) and some mango nectar to drink sufficed for my lunch. We walked back through the Jewish quarter, grabbed the bus, and came back to the Eldan Hotel. On the way back we passed the Faisel Hostel, and I asked the driver for a landmark to get back there. The Damascus Gate (or Sha'ar Schekhem in Hebrew) served me well. It was put up to us whether or not we wanted to go to synagogue as it was Shabbat. I thought it would be nice to go, and put on some decent clothing, but when I got downstairs, they had left already. No big deal, I'll have time yet to go to a shabbat service in Jerusalem.
I had a little over an hour and a half before we were supposed to meet back for the next event so I took advantage of this time to walk to the Faisal. This was the first time I had walked in Jerusalem alone. It was wonderful. I am not well-suited to manufactured consent. I think I am doing a good job of being supportive of the of the leaders (basically Shlomo's calling the shots), but I definitely feel a strong pull to rebel. After asking directions three times in two languages, I got my bearings as compared with the map. Jerusalem is really small. I was extremely surprised at how quickly I was able to walk, skip, and jump over there.
I eventually found the entrance to the Faisal, and asked for Hisham, who arranges for ISM trainings. I asked to make sure he was the same Hisham that I was looking for. "ISM, they are terrorists, you're not talking to the right person" he told me. "Susan," he asked a European woman across the room, "do you know any Hisham around here?" She snickered and shook her head dutifully. I sat down next to him.
"Nice to meet you," I said, and shook his hand. I felt somewhat paralyzed by having no Palestinian Arabic vocabulary to engage him with, except for "shukran", "mar haba", and a couple of other things. I told him about Birthright and how I came to be there. "Thank you, Israeli government, for bringing Jack to me!" he said cheerfully. He told me some about Palestine, about what is happening with ISM. He is hopeful, as I am, about the possibility of my getting into Rafah. His English was fairly difficult to understand, unfortunately, but I liked listening to him talk. He offered me a drink twice, I think coffee. I told him I needed to leave soon, and wanted to concentrate on any questions I wanted to ask him. He asked me if I knew Steve Niva, and I told him that I did. "We're good friends", he told me. Finally, when I took my leave of him, we said our goodbyes, and he shouted that he loves me down the corridor after me. I don't think any Israeli has said that yet. The first Palestinian that I had a conversation with told me it after 20 minutes.
At 6:30 we met downstairs and discussed a story from Talmud about balancing earthly and spiritual endeavors; a parallel with questions about keva and k'vanah. We ate a nice shabbat meal, with fist-sized challahs, in different flavors (sesame seeds, poppy seeds, some baked/braided differently). The meal was good, and afterwards we had discussion about what Jewish identity meant to us; what were three things we identified strongly with being Jewish, and three things that are commonly associated with being Jewish that we disliked most. Or something like that anyways, we stretched it a little. I played facilitator/notetaker for my group (thanks to my laptop, it's an easy role to grab), and I think we were the only group that had a facilitator, because we were the only group to come up with a consensus. Yay facilitation skills. Everyone reported back from what their group had come up with, which unfortunately dissolved into a strange argument and sounding board for people's thoughts and feelings about Jewish identity. People said some really shitty stuff, the internalized anti-Semitism was a wee bit much. Unfortunately, although Shlomo is very good at entertaining people and distracting people, he is not a very good facilitator, and generally did nothing to prevent interruptions, and when he tried summing up ideas of the group (which makes sense to do as facilitator) he consistently threw his own tangential thoughts in to "ice the cake" (which doesn't make sense at all as facilitator). This lasted awhile, I wanted to leave, but instead I put on some headphones and listened to music from my laptop. Later I heard a sad story about one of the Zionists on the trip... he got a picture taken of himself flipping off a mosque. It made me sad... I hope that no religious Muslims saw him.
Peace, Shalom, Salaam. More day after tomorrow.
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