Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Peace Activists, Self-Defense and Other Frothy Dillusions

Here we go again... My inbox is filling up with youtube clips of how things "really" happened in the international waters just outside of Gaza one week ago, photos of what the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is "really" like and what positions I reasonably ought to have, as there "really" isn't much to explain....


As usual, people want to find a simple way of understanding what is going on between Israel and Palestine. They want to adopt a Position and to have an Opinion on the topic.   It's easier that way, saves time and face and makes our chests puff up impressively. In the words of J. Wagoner, "For every problem, there exists a simple and elegant solution which is absolutely wrong." And although the simplistic hand-washing going on regarding the flotilla among Israelis, Palestinians and Europe's "enlightened" and well-meaning liberal-minded citizens feels like the higher moral ground, it is, in fact, absolutely wrong - because these arguments only shed light on an aspect of the whole balagan.  So I've tried to put together a description with some historical and political perspective so that we can gain a more nuanced picture of the situation. Let's start with the Israelis:

It was self-defense. Our boys were threatened and they did the only thing they could: defend themselves. True, we've all seen the clip (couldn't resist, the clip includes some fun Fox bashing) of them being lowered onto deck and attacked. But you have to wonder how they decided that the best way of stopping a large boat with ca. 600 people on board, who really don't like you, was to lower individual soldiers into a pack of club-wielding activists. Where did the point of the project, the, 'let's stop the boat' part come into this plan? Ok. I'm not a naval officer, not a soldier, but in the wise words of Louis Black, "I have thoughts." Similar flotillas, seeking to break through the blockade on Gaza and hoping to deliver humanitarian aid have been successfully stopped before by the Israeli Navy, without violent incident. With regards to sunday night's chaos, Isabel Kerschner reporting for the New York Times wrote, 

"Einat Wilf, a Labor Party member of Parliament who sits on the influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that she had warned Mr. Barak [the Israeli Minister of Defense] and others well in advance that the flotilla was a public relations issue and should not be dealt with by military means. “This had nothing to do with security,” she said in an interview. “The armaments for Hamas were not coming from this flotilla.”"(May 31, 2010)

So, why on earth did they board the boat in the first place - in international waters? Why did they endanger their young men, who, once on the deck of the boat, clearly had to defend themselves? Why did they risk committing (successfully) political suicide? And why! Oh why... did they allow the situation to escalate in such a way that lead to the death of nine people? If I am to follow the advice of some of my more well-lathered e-mail correspondents, then I suppose, the answer to this question could be that the "Israelis" (that would be the collective term, government and civilians alike) are terrorists and they think they can do whatever they want. 
But again, I have thoughts... 

And how about those activists, eh? Well done! Peace, love and happiness! They just want to deliver aid... I am not suggesting that the organizers and passengers aboard this "aid convoy" were actually smuggling arms (although some sources claim to have proof to the contrary - but if this "proof" were true, it would be screaming from the headlines of haaretz - and its not) or planning a terrorist attack, but their agenda was clearly two-fold: 1. deliver aid and 2. challenge and break the blockade. Their agenda is political and they were and continue to be quite vocal about this, as the launching of the Rachel Corrie  only a few days after the original flotilla situation bears witness. But did they ever ask why the blockade was made in the first place? In the meantime, the media has dug out quite an impressive list of cv's among those involved with and onboard the Freedom Flotilla and they're not all well-meaning ladies like this one....
Israeli soldier helping an activist disembark from the 'Rachel Corrie' aid ship in Ashdod on Saturday June 5, 2010.

Woman disembarking the Rachel Corrie at Ashdod port earlier this week (

In fact, the Iranian Navy has jumped on the aid bandwagon and plans to send off a few ships of their own, while also offering to escort other aid ships who might need "assistance". Should they have trouble breaking the blockade, the Iranian Navy has kindly offered military reinforcement, just in case....

For now, however, my concern is civilian opinion and not what militaries, governments or talking heads have to say. And so, although we'd rather not, I suggest we take a messy look at the story behind the blockade - something that the activists and their protesting friends seem eager to avoid. 

We have to go waaaay back to 2005, when there were thriving settlements in Gaza. Israelis lived there and built homes, schools and synagogues. Due to internal and international pressure, Ariel Sharon and his government adopted the Disengagement Plan. It is important to remember that the disengagement from Gaza marks for many the end of the 2nd Intifada, a bloody and terrifying period of time for Israelis, regardless of their religious affiliation or political convictions, by the way. Bus bombs and suicide bombings were everyday occurrences and no one knew where they would hit next. The disengagement plan entailed dismantling all of the Israeli settlements in Gaza and four villages in the West Bank. Settlers who did not accept the government's compensation offer  (they owned homes there and were offered compensation so they could relocate elsewhere in Israel "proper") and refused to leave the strip, were removed by force by the IDF in August 2005. 

The strip was then left over to the Palestinians, which was politically split between two squabbling parties, Fatah and Hamas. "Squabbling" is probably not the right word... Anyway, it came to an election in 2007 and Hamas won.

Now, Hamas is an interesting organization - very messy indeed: I have a friend who refers to them as "saints", others who call them "terrorists".  Hamas was elected because, opposed to Fatah, they were seen as uncorrupt and non-elitist. They have provided Gazans with invaluable aid and infrastructure. They built schools, hospitals and subsidized life-saving operations for Gazans who couldn't afford them. Sounds like a bunch of nice guys, right? Well, that's why they won. But they didn't like the Israelis and just for good measure, they wrote a rather unfriendly charter stating that they did not recognize the existence of Israel (a position that Swedish author Henning Mankell, who was on board the flotilla, shares) and would fight the Zionists until all of "Palestine" was under Muslim rule. Hamas is an acronym meaning The Muslim Resistance Movement; their name and raison d'ĂȘtre is defined by religion and resistance. 

Since Hamas took over in Gaza they have, in any case, lived up to their promise of fighting Israel. Thousands of Qassam rockets have rained down on Israeli cities close to the Gazan border since 2006, which was clearly not the case when Israel lived in and occupied Gaza. Although the rockets have not claimed many lives (under 30), they have sent Israeli citizens into bombshelters on a regular, in some places, daily basis, some of them built within playgrounds for convenience. Homes and property have been destroyed. Another significant detail in this story is that these rockets and other weaponry are provided in part by Iran- whose current government proclaims it's love for Israel regularly. And how did these armaments get into Gaza in the first place? In part, by sea. Given this history, Israelis ask, rightly so, why should we allow unknown cargo into Gaza? And why should we leave the territories and or end the blockade in Gaza, when the response is violence? 

This position, by the way, is inherantly different from those who claim that the territories should belong to Israel, well... just because. But that is material for another article...

Of course, your reaction may be, but they're getting shot at anyway - the occupation and blockade are not fulfilling their "purpose"! This is true. Thanks to Moshe Dayan, Israel has really gotten herself into a pickle, with regards to the territories. They should never have stayed in Gaza and the West Bank after their success in 67. That land should have been used as leverage in peace negotiations - and given back once clear borders were defined. But they didn't. Now they get shot at for being there and they get shot at when they leave.

So, now what? I see two strategies, a short and long term one.

Short term: With regards to the current security concern, it is not so much a  question of whether the Israelis should or have the right to defend themselves, and here I'm referring to the many armed struggles that have come to pass in recent years, not just the flotilla flop. It is more a question of how and to what extent, that is of essence. The flotilla tragedy and certainly the colossal loss of civilian life in Gaza a little more than a year ago during Operation Cast Lead, clearly point to problems of proportionality and appropriateness. In terms of the ongoing blockade, Israel needs  to address and react to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza for which they carry a significant amount of - though not exclusive -  responsibility. Many innocent people are suffering and of course, the blockade needs to be ended. In turn, the international community needs to put more pressure on Hamas to recognize the existence of Israel as a sovereign state, just as Fatah does (within the pre-67 borders, among other things) and to enter into peace negotiations with them. 

And for the long term plan: As soon as all Palestinians categorically refuse to use violence as a tool of resistance, as is the case to a great extent in the Fatah ruled West Bank, Israel will not be able to withstand the pressure from the international community and will be forced to take a seat at the negotiating table. The blockade will end, as will the continued harassment at checkpoints, settler violence, and house demolitions and relations with the neighboring Arab countries will surely improve, putting, in turn, pressure on Iran. Finally, once viable and internationally recognized national borders are agreed upon, they will be much more easy to defend and this eternal messiness of whether it was self-defense, who started it and who the underdog is, will begin to fade. So if its so easy, why isn't anyone following my expert advice?

There are several loopholes: 

1) There are fringe groups affiliated with the Palestinians who don't want peace with Israel; they want Israel to go away (such as  sub-groups in Hamas). Although these violent groups are a minority, they cause a lot of trouble. There are parties on the Israeli side who are similarly uncooperative and categorical in their views. Borders are not of interest to either of them, unless those borders represent the entire area, devoid of their enemies. 

This is a factor that cannot be ignored and the reason why the "land for peace" equation that well-meaning westerners like to talk about is bogus (there are other nationalist voices who also argue that the equation is bogus for racist reasons, but we won't get into this here). This does not mean that land should not be exchanged and given back. It just means that peace will not be the outcome of such a step. It may help or it may also make things worse, but it should nevertheless be done because it is ethically the right decision. Peace is a separate project.

2) Each side is completely unable to actually lead because they are are are not willing to risk voter support - they don't want to lose power.  Its all about politics, not religion, not ethnicity or "culture". If the populations rose up and demanded that the violence stop and a peace agreement made - these politicians would be falling all over themselves to be the first ones in line to implement such a change. 

In Israel, the current government is held together by a rocky coalition with right of center Likud (Bibi's party) taking the lead and two ultra nationalist right-wing parties Yisrael Beiteinu (non-religious) and Shas (orthodox religious affiliation). The more moderate Labour also plays a role in this confederacy of dunces, but they seem to be regularly bullied by their coalition bedfellows, so that it begins to look more like a three stooges skit than high-powered governing.

And so government in Israel does not seem to be about what is right and good for Israel, but what policies minority parties can push through by throwing their political weight around. This scenario may sound familiar to my Danish readers- only the consequences in Israel are not just maddening and ethically questionable, but deadly. Granted, there will always be shenanigans (that's new Yiddish, in case you're wondering) and some degree of crab antics, but the way things are run now is beyond absurd. 

I don't know much about Palestinians politics, but it seems to be defined by a matrix of hidden agendas and alliances that can be traced to influential clan ties that continue to exist and date back to the various empires that have left their marks on the region. Here I am referring to the Ottoman Empire, Jordanian rule, the British Mandate and a host of other stakeholders over time throughout the Middle East. What you see is anything other than what you get - especially when trying to see Middle Eastern politics through a western optic.

So, where does all of this leave us? From an Israeli point of view, ending the blockade in Gaza would mean bringing themselves into unnecessary danger. At the same time, I detect a slow awakening to the fact that the blockade has played a big role in the daily misery that Gazans live in and Israelis do not want to be part of this either. Seen from this perspective it is pretty clear that simplistic answers and moral hand-washing are counter-productive.  Whatever the solution will be, it will have to protect Israel from physical threat, so they can concentrate on saving themselves from their impending moral demise.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Thank goodness that after my last posting, Purim was not far off. Fieldwork is challenging and I clearly was in need of cheering up - Purim did the trick. Purim dates back to the 4th century BCE,  during the Jewish exile to Babylon. Its generally seen as another "they tried to kill us, they didn't succeed, let's eat" party. There are some other interesting nuances to the story of Esther, Mordechai and Haman, such as killing off the adversary's family and stealing their things- just for good measure - but upon mentioning this part of the story, I have been surprised that some were unfamiliar with it.

The holiday promotes boisterousness, sillyness and drunkenness  - its actually commanded - and people enjoy turning conventions on their head. Costumes are a must and it offers people an opportunity to cross borders and be who they wouldn't dare be otherwise. As a result, we saw quite a few cross-dressers and "ultra-orthodox." This little fellow is not in costume (I found the photo on the net), I'm afraid, but the cigarette hopefully marks a clear divergence from his otherwise successful career as a first grader.

My celebration was wonderful. First I went to Tel Aviv with friends, to a party that had been announced via facebook (I feel so hip). The evening afterwards, we went to another party in Jerusalem. The holiday is celebrated on different days depending on whether you live in a walled city or not - the original event happened in Persia, within a, hence the difference. Not that this really explains anything, but still... So Tel Aviv is not a walled city - so off we went on Saturday evening for celebrations in the unwalled, untethered and unorthodox city of sin. A friend commented that he thought we broadcasted our Jerusalemness - I guess he thought that we stuck out as particularly frum thumbs. Speak for yourself, but I was tickled to be included in the description. Next day, safe within the morally superior walls of Al-Quds, I heard the Meggilah reading at kol haneshama (more about that soon) and later we took off for Boogie, a place that had been mentioned to me by several sources as The Place to go dancing on Purim.

I had actually planned to go as a mad scientist - I thought that this would be particularly appropriate - a way to poke a little fun at myself, while having a good excuse to write field notes during festivities. But getting a lab coat proved to be difficult and so with no time to spare on saturday evening, I shoved some plastic flowers in my hair, jumped into the backseat of a friend's car and we sped off down Road 443 for Tel Aviv. The driver had never been that way before, but she was advised to take this route by another friend in the car, so off we sped, unknowingly thumbing out Purim noses at those who are prohibited from using the road. Another friend commented that she was not very adventurous when it came to the territories. Indeed driving on 443 wasn't very exciting: there wasn't even any traffic except for when we got to the checkpoint, where we had to slow down briefly to send out our "we're the good guys" vibes to the gum- chewing, machine-gun toting kid at the border, bringing us back into Israel proper.

I wonder if those kids at the border post would have stopped us if any of us had been dressed as a Dubai assassin? This story has been all the rage in the newspapers in Israel over the past many weeks and has inspired many a creative Purim Costume this year.

The story goes like this: On January 20th, a head Hamas man, Mahmoud al-Mabhouth, was murdered in his hotel room in Dubai. As the story began to unfold, more and more suspects emerged in the investigation. They were men and women who had entered the United Arab Emirates on false passports. The passports were supposed to be German, English, Irish and several others. The pictures in them were of the people carrying the passports, but the names were "stolen" from existing Israeli civilians who share a resemblance with the supposed assassins. They had all entered the country on pretexts, of course, some of them for vacation, others for business conferences, etc., but the main reason for visiting Mr. al-Mabhouth, was apparently to "liquidate" him - that's spy talk for "kill him". Nobody, at least in the media, seems to know who dun it and apart from some cute comments about the pictures published in the local newspapers, many of those whose identity has been stolen are quite nervous about the repercussions of this mix up on their family lives. But all this didn't stop many a young Israeli from dressing up as a "Mossad agent" for Purim. This was achieved by donning vacation clothes, such as tennis shorts and a t-shirt, accessorizing with a tennis racket and then adding the obligatory secret agent sunglasses, plus a gun = bingo. Some added the fake passport photo to their t-shirt. Brilliant.

I run into this kind of humor all the time and it is wonderful. You can buy a t-shirt in the Arab suq that reads: Mossad: My job is so secret that even I don't know what I'm doing. Very apropos. But the background for such jokes are quite chilling - but then again, you've got to laugh about something. Humor seems to be a major coping mechanism here, among other things. Just to see how far such humor could be stretched, I asked a friend if anyone ever dressed up as a suicide bomber for Purim, but we agreed that this wouldn't be so funny.

At both of the parties, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, security was top notch. The kid at the border barely scowled her purim salutations at us. She was probably mad that she was on duty. Besides, her soldier outfit was soooo 1967. But the security guys at the party in Tel Aviv made an effort to peek in every woman's bag and to feel up every guy. The place was packed and we wiggled as best we could to the inane beat, like sardines, post- canning.

The next night was more fun. Firstly, I went to kol haneshama, a reform synagogue in Jerusalem to hear the Megillah reading. I think I went as Queen Esther or Vashti, but truly, I designed my costume based on what I could find in a friend's Purim box, and this was the result:

Some of the best costumes at the synagogue were the guy dressed up as a haredi man holding a sign that read: "Haredim for diversity and tolerance". That's a really good joke in Israel among the more progressive and secular Jews... Then there was an "ultra-orthodox" woman who looked like she was pregnant with at least sextuplets, who behaved garishly during the reading. There were of course, the above described "Mossad agents" and the Rabbi was dressed as Captain Kirk - complete with kippah. The reading was punctuated by calls of "Go Vashti!" and the ever eager kracher, boo-calling and ululations when evil Haman's name was mentioned. Well, I admit, the ululations were mostly me - but that's because I didn't have a kracher and it makes me feel cool to ululate (I love saying that - it sounds so....). People really get into this stuff. It's delicious to be allowed to be rude and vulgar in a religious setting.

My last bit of Purim fun was the next day, when I was invited to sudat Purim - the Purim meal. I was given several mishloach manot and was really touched that people went out of their way to give me these traditional gifts - they are usually baskets with sweets - in order to mark my first Purim in Israel. I met lots of lovely people, the food was delicious, and the conversation lively - oh, and yes, we drank.

And here, a final Purim picture - also found on the net. A friend has suggested that it is iconic and I must agree. The combination of goofiness, sweetness and a deadly weapon is actually pretty standard fare.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Basic Training

I don't really know why I'm here. Getting to know people's everyday life seems unrealististic and I don't feel useful. I am frustrated that I allowed myself to be talked out of taking a part-time job here. As a result, I don't feel that I have a place in society here. I hang out during the day, read the newspaper or relevant literature, sleep late and go out in the evening when people have more time to meet with me. I shop a little and drink too much coffee. Tell me, how is this like everyday life? 

And what of the content of my project? Perceptions of safety and danger. People tend towards racist positions regarding what they think "the Arabs" believe and how they will act. This is explained by way of their "culture" and "religion": "Given the chance, they would kill us all. As a Jewish woman, you have to know this." And the worst is that I'm beginning to fall for this rationalization myself.  Recently, I got lost in the old city - in the Muslim quarter. It was evening and I was with a female friend. The winding alleyways were abandoned by the tourist throngs which crowd the area during the day and now there were only a few men on the dark streets and some little kids kicking a soccer ball over the ancient stones; a last burst of energy before their bedtime. Why is it I preferred to ask the Jewish men in the streets for directions rather than the other men who I assumed were Palestinian? It's not because I think they know the city better. It's because I trust them more.The Jewish men were easily recognizable, as they were wearing kippot (yarmulkes) or they were soldiers or policemen, and thereby also Jewish-Israelis. These men were easy to spot as members of the tribe (Here I refer mostly to group identity and not religious beliefs). The conflict and fear of violence makes racism and prejudice a good survival strategy. Yuck. I'm having a hard time tolerating myself. 

The next day I was also in the old city, this time during the day, and asked some Palestinian guys how to get to via dolorosa, but there I was a tourist. The night before, though, I was a Jewish woman.

And its not like violence is rampant, no, no. It almost doesn't exist in everyday life in western jerusalem, but there is a conviction that violence is a potentiality - and only a matter of time before it bubbles over again. By the way, what counts as violence is very fuzzy, especially as a woman, because imagined violence has many facets. You must understand that  "Arab" men are not only violent for political reasons- they are just generally dangerous. As a woman you are especially vulnerable because you can be sexually harassed (been there, done that) or become a victim of sexual crimes (I have an informant who has). And then there's the petty crime that many speak of which is attributed to Palestinian construction workers who work in West Jerusalem. Plus, you've got the political aspect which is, of course, also a component in this briar patch of perceptions...And these criminal acts happen- there is factual evidence for them and they have an influence on me: I am afraid.

And reading the local newspaper confirms these prejudices.  An example: today there was an article in haartez about a man who is the son of a top Hamas leader. The son became a secret agent for the Israelis and was able to avert many suicide bombings over the last ten years. He converted to Christianity and has since moved (fled) to California. He says: "Palestinians! They do not hesitate to massacre people in a mosque or to throw people from the 15th or 17th floor of a building, as they did during the coup in Gaza. The Israelis would never do such things. I tell you with certainty that the Israelis care about the Palestinians far more than the Hamas or Fatah leadership does." 

Thanks a lot. You are not helping this leftist author deal with her own prejudices....

But at the same time I'm living in this bubble and violence and the conflict are not - physically, at least - a part of my everyday reality. I don't experience violence personally, but I'm afraid of it anyway. I have taken up the local practice: I am aware. And that awareness is directed towards specific people with certain outer characteristics to which I attribute some kind of imagined potential morality. The conflict turns us all, on both sides, into racists because we become convinced that this is how to protect ourselves.  The lines are drawn simply and clearly, they infiltrate our practice and become thereby reality. I'm having a hard time challenging these categories. And so my concern now is not so much for my academic project, but for my moral integrity. 

So I sit here in relative luxury in a safe house that once belonged to a Palestinian family (I don't have a problem with this, in case you were wondering. It was bought legally. But it's existence and look remind me of the history and reality that brought me to Israel in the first place). I have too little to do, am apathetic and am slowing getting sucked into a rationalization that I hate, but am beginning to understand and practice myself.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I'm back.

It's been almost year since I last wrote and now I'm back in Jerusalem to do fieldwork for my master's degree inAnthropology. My topic is embodied perceptions of safety and danger among families in the German Colony in Jerusalem. So far, however, the most dramatic things that happened have been a mega thunder storm and I got sick.

The picture to the left, by the way, is the entrance of the old Arab house in which I'm living. It was taken over by the Israeli government in connection with the 1948 war and was used as a police station. It has since been sold to private citizens. Very apropos.

So, I've been chained to my bed and have only had a chance to talk to my flat mates who certainly have some interesting perspectives on the topic. It seems that their current perceptions are directly and most personally connected to the second Intifada which is still fresh in their minds - with all the technicolor you can imagine. It ended about five years ago. There have been some gruesome talks around the kitchen table while I sipped my tea and tried to remember what they were saying, despite my fever.

Otherwise, there are some boring, practical things that need to be taken care of, like getting health insurance (done), buying a dictaphone, and trying to finagle an academic affiliation with Hebrew University. I haven't much to report yet. My Hebrew is slowly coming back and I've had hummus.

My project this time is radically different from when I was here last last year. My time was very structured through the university and the research that I did "on the side" (it was a big project), was for an organization, so the guidelines were given there, too. This time, the only structure is the one that I create and it's a bit daunting - especially when my sore throat has kept me inactive. What I need to do is establish contact with local families. I have made preliminary contact with the community center here, which has a program for teenagers, so that could be useful and otherwise I'm leaning on the local contacts that I have from my time here last year who have expressed willingness to help me.

One of the stumbling blocks I may run into is the fact that some people may not want to talk about the conflict. It seems to be important to get on with things and not always live in fear. So, if it's possible to put on blinders, then people do it. This is quite a feat, considering that in the area where I am, East Jerusalem, refugee camps and all that goes with them is only a few - I'd say ca. 5 - kilometers away. So, I will have to dig through some layers to get to the information I want. And the fact that denial is so rampant and clearly a necessary coping technique, is interesting in and of itself.

I'll be reporting on my adventures here, but because the data I'll be collecting is personal, I won't be discussing it directly on the blog. I'll let you know where you can buy my thesis though...:-)

I'm hoping that I'll be ready to roll by sunday. But as always, questions and comments are welcome.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


So I'm back from my almost half-year sojourn to Jerusalem. Back to the suburban silence of Hvidovre, only interrupted by the ridiculous ringing of an ice cream truck in winter. I use my fancy coffee machine and worry about the brakes in my car that need fixing. I went to hear my son's rock band play a concert and told him he shouldn't be out on school nights.  I watched tv with my daughter and braided her hair.  I slept in my own bed next to and with my wonderful husband.

But I'm not quite here. My mind travels back to Jerusalem and my browser to, al-jazeera and the NYTs online. My e-mail inbox gets filled with invitations to either denounce the evil Zionists or to show my support for Israel's right to protect itself. I haven't responded to any of them. I just can't seem to find a place that feels comfortable within all the zero-sum/us-them arguments. It pisses me off.

On one hand I receive e-mails describing the fundamentalist nature of Islam, as if such explanations could provide some kind of helpful perspective on the situation in Gaza. Or I'm confronted with comments like: "The Jews said they would never forget, and now they're doing this". And then there is : "Gaza is like a concentration camp." Or try this one on for size: "When the Arabs love their children more than they hate us, there will be peace." 

Wtf? Can we really understand what is going on by asking "Are all Muslims fanatics?"  or "Are Israelis using Nazi tactics? " 

No. And we are doing ourselves, Israel and Palestine a great disservice by feeding this kind of discourse.  Couching the situation in such terms makes it easier to assign guilt and victimhood and so we grab onto these explanations for dear life because they give us a way to understand a very complicated conflict. But it is wrong and we must not buy into it. I don't care if your Rabbi or Imam says so. You know it is wrong.

So, if what is presented in the media, on facebook and from the bimah/pulpit is wrong, what is really going on? And where the hell do I get off discounting "expert" analysis? 

I'll cut to the chase: Israel and its its supporters need to accept that the Palestinian cry for autonomy is legitimate. No ifs or buts. By constantly pulling the Islamic extremism card, we push their reasonable demand for respect and freedom under the carpet and buy ourselves a clean conscience - at bargain basement sale prices. "They're extremists; you can't negotiate with them." Clean and easy.

I have met many Palestinians who accept Israel's existence - they do not want Jews to be pushed into the sea.  In fact, they want to continue going to their universities and being cared for in their hospitals. They want the developments that Israel has made over the past 60 years to be a part of their lives.But when they are consistently disempowered and humiliated by Israeli policy, both public and private, "down with the Zionist evil" seems to be a reasonable reaction.  It was not different in the United States during the civil rights struggles of the sixties. Should darky just shut up if he wants to be treated nicely? I wouldn't shut up and neither would you. I do not in any way condone making innocent civilians pay the highest price for our "leaders'" ineptitude - on either side. But I understand the need for agency behind resistance. 

More tacheles: Palestinians need to differentiate between legitimate resistance and the blind violence perpetrated by the few, but powerful extremists that abuse the cause for their own purposes.  It is a despicable and dirty game that Hamas is playing. Palestinians that I spoke to recognized that Hamas was not doing them any good in the long run.  Hamas offers them desperately needed health care but they also recruit their boys for suicide bombing. Many Palestinians recognize the sickening irony of this, but they have not accepted the consequences and taken action. Hamas is unwilling or incapable of  protecting its citizens. Innocent civilian casualties become the most powerful weapon that Hamas has in their fanatic struggle against Israel. And this weapon is not to be underestimated. But Hamas' struggle is not the struggle of the Palestinian people, although they will try to convince them that it is. If Palestinians want autonomy and peace they need to mobilize and offer their citizens a viable alternative to Hamas. Now.

And you ask: What about Israeli rights?  Yes, they have the right to a life free from terrorism, from missiles raining down on their towns. This right needs to be taken very seriously and should be protected. However, it cannot and should not be compared to the structural violence and discrimination that Palestinians are subjected to by the Israeli occupation on a daily basis. Apples and Oranges each have their own claim to legitimacy and rightly so, but as we know, they cannot be compared because they are not in the same category. The Israeli's right to be safe in their own country is not protected by thumping Gaza. It may disarm them now, but the danger is not the stockpiles of weapons, its the stockpiles of hatred.

And another thing about rhetoric: If the suffering caused by Qasam rockets pummeling southern Israel cannot be compared to the structural violence committed against Palestinians, then it follows that Israeli defensive-offensive maneuvers (whatever you want to call them) cannot be compared to Nazi crimes or Holocaust suffering. They are different and recognizing that difference is important. The IDF and the Israeli government, no matter how critical I allow myself to be, have no intentions of exterminating the Palestinian people. End of discussion. Evoking Holocaust imagery to legitimize or condemn current violence is inappropriate and deeply provocative. 

And, since we're talking tacheles, it is also an effective way of provoking a fight. A man who lost his 14 year old daughter in a suicide bombing told me once that this excruciating pain of his was like a nuclear power plant: it could destroy a city or provide it with electricity.  What will it be, my friends (click on the link and you'll see which route he chose)?

The infuriating reality of this conflict is that human loss of life, on either side, is completely in vain. There is no military solution to this conflict - only a political one. Let me repeat that: Peace will not come to Israelis and Palestinians by exerting violent force. What will happen is that the Israeli army will kill hundreds of Palestinian civilians and many of those soldiers - those boys who are as old as my own son- will leave their lives in the process. For nothing. That is the only result that the war in Gaza will bring.  I'm sorry, soft fuzzy fantasies of heroism are in for a rude awakening. as I write and you read, there are families  in Palestine and Israel who are living through a hell that most of us cannot begin to imagine, that could have been avoided. 

For the sake of clarity: Military tactics will not bring Israel and Palestine any closer to a lasting peace agreement; it brings them further away from one. 

So you ask, what should Israel do? They can't just stand by while Hamas rains missiles, 8000 and counting, on Israeli citizens. No they cannot. But the answer is not to beat the crap out of Gazans. The answer is to make a reasonable deal with Palestine. The agreement has been on the table for years. It "just" needs to be signed. And yes, it will be costly. Israeli leaders need to take responsibility, be role models and do what needs to be done. The longer they mess around, build walls sectioning Palestine into tiny little disconnected enclaves and harass Palestinian civilians at check points,the more anger will grow and violence will escalate. That agreement will become less and less the well-respected document it was and more and more a cynical text not worth more than the paper it was written on.

Similarly, Palestinians need to swallow their pride and ask for international help in extracting themselves from their disastrous relationship to Hamas. They need to take responsibility for their people's well being because victimhood is not a sustainable commodity. It is not enough to point exclusively at Israel as the scapegoat. The combination of internal squabbling, corruption and the united struggle for autonomy form the base for Palestinian misery. Not just one or the other.

At the beginning of this little sermon, I asked, where the hell do I get off discounting "expert" analysis?

I refuse to define this conflict by the cheap rhetoric clogging our radios, tvs and historically accurate chit chat.  And so to all of the friendly people who have invited me to join Palestinian or Israeli "support" groups or to forward e-mails spreading what I can only define as racist material, I will answer my question, in line with good jewish tradition,  with a question: 

Where the hell do you get off?

Please post your comments.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


I have many opinions, most of them conflicting, regarding what is happening in Gaza right now.  But it is important to remember that the problems there are not limited to the present military campaign that no doubt has been broadcast into your living rooms over the past many days.  It is one tragic and confounding event within a long succession of similar events, dating back to the pre-state period. 

Instead of however offering my own opinions now, I've inserted some comments that others have shared with me. I have edited them slightly, by leaving small sections out that were either difficult to understand linguistically or would reveal the identity of the person quoted. We are all familiar with the rhetorical political ping-pong connected to this conflict.  And so instead, I ask you to try and suspend your judgement  and your historical knowledge for a few moments while you read and to try to slip into the emotional mind set of the authors of the following lines:

"A lost cause

Suddenly everything about life becomes nothing but either existence or death, and it is all death that we see popping from TV screens. People still having chances of survival, losing it with lack of any help, no medical resources or any kind of appropriate help.

Scrutinizing human lives being lost while we watch, a whole world watching, and still Palestinian factions fighting and arguing over who is what, and Israel announcing this is the beginning, and Washington asks Israel to avoid civilians and Hamas victoriously announces a death of an Israeli, and we keep roaming in this cycle of death.
Our death and their death...
Two hundred Palestinian souls for one Israeli soul, how cheap our souls are and how expensive theirs is.
And our leaders and theirs, using out lives to endorse their agendas. As if people's lives are the sacrifice to their politics. As if we do not exist. Hamas announcing that resistance is ongoing, of course the sacrifice is those people who are being collected in cars like rice sacks. 
The world cannot see these people any more, our leaders do not see them. People only transform, onto numbers.  
It is so heartrending to witness, human lives being hovelled, with disregard to human veracity.

Shame on us who watch. Shame on us for looking into the tragedies of life and moving as if it is nothing except another episode of that is natural in life.
Resistance is something profound, even sacrificing one's soul for a cause is even more intuitive, but our cause is a lost cause, a cause lost between Palestinian factions and Arab acquiescence, under an enormous force of domination and despotism, higher in power than ours within our meekness and fragmentation.

Today Hamas is threatening, and we know, and they know, that the only asset have is the loss of those lives. As if these people are wiling to sacrifice those poor people until the last person. as if Gazas asset is with the people Hamas is willing to sacrifice.
I wish, God is really up there just sending us any message telling us that all what we have is down here.
Hamas is using ht e same ways of Iraq, but they ignore the fact that we know, we know the Qassam, who cares if they fired 60 or 6000 missiles when the are more peaceful in their effects than their announcements.
And Fateh s calling for the release of their prisoners from the Hamas prisons,
And Egypt condemning Hamas for not listening, and the Arab foreign ministries will set their emergency meeting after six days.
And the number of people killed increase.
And we are still scrutinizing.
Israel justifying its actions, Palestinians mitigating theirs, and victims are falling down.
In a world of injustices, yes, it appears that our victims are dissimilar than theirs; apparently an Israeli soul is more, much more, 200 times more important than a Palestinian soul.
Those children running for their lives, rushing in streets from schools, with death surrounding them from everywhere.
Those wounded victims, who could have survived of they were properly moved out, those still missing under the rubble of the attacks, those packed in hospitals waiting in a station for a closer stride up to paradise.
Is it resistance, or is it a waste of lives.
perhaps this is how all occupied nations resisted, maybe this is how Omar Mukhtar led his revolution, and all resistance groups did. But at some point all was too faraway.
Too far from seeing it all to thump from our living rooms, it was all too far from our current present and becoming a just so close yesterday.
Another intifada?
For more lives to get lost, for what,
Even the occupation is left behind in all this scene of cruelty.
And it doesn't really matter to any further extent,
Those lost lives,
For which cause have they been sacrificed?
It is all nothing but a lost cause.

I add on, to this state of loss, some words written by Edward Said maybe to add some light to this darkness:
"Consciousness of the possibility of resistance can reside only on the individual will that is fortified by intellectual rigor and an unabated conviction i the need to begin again, with no guarantees except the confidence of even the loneliest and most impotent thought that 'what has been cogently thought must be thought in some other place and by other people.' In this way thinking might perhaps acquire and express the momentum of the general, thereby blunting the anguish and despondency of the lost cause, which its enemies have tried to induce. We might well ask from this perspective if any lost cause caver really be lost.""

And here is another response to the situation in Gaza:

"I think that it has been clear that one of the guiding principles in the work I do has been my willingness to expose the complications and layers of truth which exist in every situation we encounter. For me, education, good education has always involved giving plenty of room to the other voices around me as well.

Your screens will be filled over the coming days with people attacking us in Israel for using our military might against the people of Gaza. You will see countless pictures of civilian casualties, and many will actually be civilian casualties. You will see scenes of homes destroyed and farmers fields in ruins; and over and over again the narrative you will be told will include the phrase 'disproportionate response'. Israeli casualties, and I know sadly there will be Israeli casualties, will be dismissed as soldiers who die in war, something perfectly normal in a situation of conflict, you will be told.

And you will be helped to forget that this conflict, this awful conflict which will take the lives of many who are non-combatants, is the result of a group of ruthless terrorists who are so determined to destroy is, so caught up in their fundamentalist version of the world, so sure that Allah will lead them to victory just as he lead the prophet Muhammad to victory also most 14 centuries ago, that they are prepared to sacrifice their own people in a  scenario which can only lead to death and destruction for so many of the Palestinian people.

No one will make mention of the over 8000 missiles launched at the civilian population of the south of Israel. No one will make mention that even as Israel was pounding military targets fro the air, close to 300 trucks were crossing the border from Israel to bring supplies to desperate Palestinian civilians. No one will mention that Israel's blockade was put in place as an alternative to military action to try and get the message across to the Hamas as they continued firing rockets at Sderot and the kibbutzim in the area during the 'ceasefire'. No one will mention that 690 people from Kibbutz Kfar Aza fled over the last week as the could no longer deal with the rockets falling around them all the time during the 'ceasefire'.

We too deserve to live in peace without the threats of rockets aimed at us for the sole purpose of destroying us because the fundamentalist ideology of the Hamas does not allow for  Jewish State. As much as we want peace, and as much as  don not want my son to ever be on the field of battle, my sense of who I am and my sense of what  I am entitled to after such a long and complex history will not allow me ti turn the other cheek we the first one gets slapped to hard.

If I had  a magic wand, i would wave it and ensure that not one innocent Palestinian civilian gets caught up in the cross fire. unfortunately, such wands do not exist so I will trust that the IDF will do its best to avoid casualties to civilians and at the same time I will stand by the ethically sound position which places the lies and well being of the young men we send into battle as the first priority in this situation of conflict.

So, this rant is I suppose to ask you to understand our situation this evening, or at least my understanding of our situation(...). I believe that all people who believe in an open and free society where terror is not allowed to determine how we behave, we all have to in our little way fight that terror. As Jews, we have always been commanded to choose life. I urge you all to do that both my Jewish and Gentile friends,and for those of you who pray, please pray that this conflict ends with as little loss of innocent life as possible, on both sides. "

I will be returning to Denmark next week after having immersed myself in this society for five months. When I return, I will be taking a piece of Israel home with me, with all of its complexities, beauty, idiosyncrasies, double standards and energy.

Please post your comments. 

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I've been meaning to write for quite some time as I've had lots of exciting experiences I've been wanting to tell you about. As a matter of fact, I had just come home from the last evening of an ARZENU conference, which was very very interesting, opened my e-mail and gained a very different kind of perspective. 

Not the kind that academic exegesis enables or political activism allows for. The famed cultural relativism went flying down the wadi and brought me to Okmulgee, Oklahoma. The e-mail message was from my Dad.  He wrote: "Dad died this morning about 11:30 eastern time. I'm en route to Oklahoma." 

My paternal grandfather died on Wednesday. Robert Emmet Sharp. I've collected a few memories sitting here clear across the world, amidst palm trees, hummos and failed cease fires, and I feel very far away from all of my family.  My husband says I have a memory like an elephant. But like many of us this particular talent only kicks in for the things we want to remember. I have a lot of memories of Grandpa Sharp.

Grandpa would sit in the armchair in the living room on North Grand, with the bookshelves behind him, and sometimes he would read to us with his sonorous voice and oddly British accent, reserved for story time and saying grace. Sometimes, if we begged him enough, he would cross his legs and give us a horsy ride; a little kid perched on his foot, being tossed wildly up and down, his knee cranking the "horsy". I must have been very little.

We would come to visit in the summer, commuting between grandparents. It was always, very, very hot, much more so than in New York where we lived.  Grandpa would sometimes set up the sprinkler in the yard and we kids would cool ourselves in the refreshing shower of water, racing in and out of its spray.

Grandpa used to take is to a country store, outside of Okmulgee, and there was an Indian man who  worked there. This is where Grandpa used to buy us turquoise bracelets, the kind that I could bend to fit around my little girl wrist. No one at my school had bracelets like these. I liked the store with all its seemingly coincidental wares and foreign smells. Grandpa was talkative with the Indian man. I was curious, but I never learned anything more about him . He was just the Indian man with the bracelets. I wonder where he is and if he remembers Grandpa?

Grandpa had a garden. One summer we found a zucchini that had managed to grow to an enormous size, unnoticed by Grandpa's otherwise careful attention, hidden under a big leaf. Grandpa and I proudly presented it to Grandma in the kitchen, who said she would have to make a lot of zucchini bread out of it. I thought that bread and zucchini sounded like a strange combination.

One summer we made homemade ice cream from Grandpa's strawberries. Even though we took turns, our hands got tired from the crank. In the evening, Grandpa would tell me about the freight train that passed near their house. I loved the sound of the whistle, mixed with the racket of the crickets on those warm balmy Oklahoman nights. I remember a thunder storm on a night like that, and we were allowed to stay up with the grown-ups on the back porch watching the meteorological drama unfold.

In the morning we would get ready to go to church with Grandma and Grandpa and I had to get dressed up.   I thought it was too hot to wear tights, but they told me I looked real pretty. There was a fountain at the church and Grandpa would give me a coin to throw in.  I always sat next to Grandpa in church while Grandma played the organ.  Every time I went to church with Grandpa, his bass voice ( the one reserved for grace and storytelling, and not at all like his everyday voice), warm and impossibly low, singing the hymns, never ceased to amaze me. Grandpa was always chatting with the people at church. The men laughed at his sometimes slightly off-color jokes and the the ladies were charmed by his gentlemanly manner and flirtatiousness. By the time we left, the muscles in my face hurt from smiling at all the new people that Grandma and Grandpa wanted me to meet.

Sometimes we went to a restaurant after church. They had a big buffet and I always got jell-O and fried chicken. But sometimes we came straight back to the house because of the dog and Grandma would make me a pimento and cheese sandwich, which I never told her I didn't like. Then we kids would bolt from the kitchen and explore the house on North Grand, the backdrop for many fantasies and adventures: Like dropping my doll down the laundry shute, about a thousand times. My sister tried to convince me that I too could jump down the laundry shute. "Grandma has lots of laundry down there, it would be a soft landing..." I showed my kids the laundry shute, too, and I think they thought it was a little strange that Mom was having so much fun throwing their toys down it.

We would rummage through the old and mysterious tools in Grandpa's garage, looking for the croquet set. Sometimes we'd go up the rickety stairs to the abandoned apartment above the garage. Someone told me once that it was for servants or for slaves -  my childish perception of history made this seem like a possibility, and set me off on fantasies of myself as a southern belle, like in those movies about the Old South. But it made me feel bad too, because I knew that the people who lived on the other side of the railroad tracks, just near Grandma and Grandpa's enormous house, whose houses were much smaller, whose kids we weren't allowed to play with, were the descendants of the previous inhabitants of this apartment, in a time when Grandma and Grandpa were children.

Grandpa's war stories fascinated us. Sometimes he showed us his war mementos, but he was always a little reluctant to talk about it. He brought out his Japanese flag and the medals he earned once and showed them to my son Emil. It was amazing to see those two, each born on either end of the century, sharing a piece of history together. Grandpa said he still had a bullet shell under his skin, I think on his hand (was it the right one?) and he could jiggle it. We loved how gross that was.

We had secrets together sometimes, like the time he let me drive the car when I was 14. I had no idea how to drive, but we practiced a little and then we hit the streets. After Grandpa's heart attack he wasn't allowed to eat candy, but he showed me his stash in the kitchen and said I could have some. He liked Babe Ruth candy bars. Once he came to visit us in Connecticut and he showed me the long scarlet scar  along the length of his leg from his bypass surgery.

Grandpa made everybody laugh when he took on his falsetto voice and "spoke" for the dog. "The dog" - Collette, Chipper, Lili or Brandy - always teased Grandma and it was Grandpa's chance to say things that were a little scandalous. Sometimes I wasn't sure if he was joking. When the dogs "spoke" in that treble southern twang, they were always very impressed with Grandpa and us grandkids who were "little lambs." Grandma admonished him, but I could tell she thought it was funny.  Grandpa used to say in that same voice that Grandma was "a real piece of work". But once he returned to his normal register, he would say to her "You are good, mate." My husband thought that was such a funny and nice thing to say, that he says the same thing to me today, which sounds really funny, because he's Danish. Now it has a sad ring to it, too.

I saw Grandpa for the last time a few years ago. He didn't know who I was, but I think he sensed that he should. My daughter Ella was with me. It was a hard visit, because I felt the same way about him and I was filled with all these memories, but he didn't know me. He seemed confused a lot of the time, but he still whooped with laughter when we caught him streaking to the bathroom in his underwear at bedtime, just like he always did. And like always, his voice was still filled with that bassy gravity and warmth when he said grace over our Sunday dinner.

In the last many years, Grandma has had to help him with just about everything. If any of us can manage to be as strong as Grandma, at any time on our lives, then we can count ourselves among the elite few.

The last time Grandpa saw me,  I mean really saw me, was a few years before our last visit. I've lived in Europe for a long time and it's hard to get back to Oklahoma. When we said good-bye, standing in front of the house on North Grand in the round driveway, I wanted to make sure that Grandpa knew how I felt about him. His whole face lit up, and he laughed a little shyly and responded, "Well honey, I love you too."