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A Jew among Christian Peacemakers, Part 5

Simone Zelitch
October 20, 2015


by Simone Zelitch

Read other installments in this series.

EARLY IN OUR TRIP to Israel and Palestine, I came up with an imaginary drinking game. We’d take a shot every time someone said the word “hope.” Later, I determined that we’d have better luck if the magic word were “privilege.” In any event, given our accommodations in conservative, Muslim East Jerusalem and Hebron, there wouldn’t be much drinking going on, and most of the time, I managed to keep my snarky comments to myself.

Maybe it’s not surprising that after our intense time in Hebron, when our schedules allowed for a free day, I arranged for a little time alone, to decompress, to try to make contact with a relative, and to explore Jaffa. The rest of the group took a Palestinian bus to Ramallah to hang out in cafes and visit Mahmud Darwish’s grave, and I felt a little as though I were going rogue as I stepped onto extremely Israeli transportation and headed towards Tel Aviv.

Alone with my big, creased touring map, I looked out the window. Then, without warning, I started to cry. It came all at once, and who knows what my seatmate in her Orthodox head-snood made of me as snot came out of my nose and I rooted around in my bag for tissues. I was looking at the mist rising from Jerusalem, the hills giving way to the coastal plain, the fields with their green stubble, and I knew that against all logic, I felt connected to this place. What we — and yes, I use that pronoun — accomplished here has been extraordinary, and the things I’ve witnessed in Hebron feel so fucking unnecessary.

Did it have to be this way? Could there have been a return to Zion — which is not irrelevant to us, which evokes and actualizes what is most complex about us and challenges us to figure out who we are when we are no longer victims — could we have returned differently? Call it an imperialist, colonialist, irrational, Apartheid mindset. Say, in fact, that Jews like me are probably descended from the Khazars. Remind me that I recently wrote that facts trump feelings. But I kept sobbing all the way to Tel Aviv.

And here’s what kept going through my head: Is what happens when Jews have power?

[caption id=“attachment_39700” align=“aligncenter” width=“300”]Political bookshop and cafe-- much like the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem -- but they had no maps of pre-48 Jaffa Political bookshop and cafe in Jaffa -- much like the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem -- but they had no maps of pre-’48 Jaffa.[/caption]

YET I’D COME to explore a different path, in fact to try to find some hope. Jaffa is one of the cities mentioned in Menachem Klein’s Lives in Common, and his final chapter has a few paragraphs about Jaffa’s mixed communities, neighborhoods where Israeli Jews and Arabs manage to interact in ways that approach relationships of equals. I didn’t have much more than the address of the Yafa, a bookstore and cafe that Klein mentioned, and once there, I found out that an alternative tour wasn’t feasible. Eventually, I walked further south and left the Tel Aviv/Yafo insert on my map altogether, in search of an Ajami Street, before I realized it was the name of a neighborhood. I walked my feet raw searching for a kind of White Whale of civil equality, an indisputable sign of a possible future. Then I gave up, went to the beach, put on a bathing suit, and briefly let rough, warm ocean waves crash over me.

If I’d gone to Ramallah, I might have seen a different possibility, a functioning city under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. My fellow delegates enjoyed mint lemon aides and cappuccinos on the top floor of the Palestine Trade Center, sampled knafeh ice cream, and got to be lazy and relaxed in a place where Israel had no jurisdiction. I regretted missing the ice cream. I also wondered if I’d missed a chance to see the Palestinian Authority doing something right, and to up-end my own cynicism about its role in the West Bank.

Of course, this trip was not designed to make us cynical. We ought to return waving a banner that reads “Existence is Resistance!” We should celebrate incremental steps by Palestinians to make life on the ground marginally more tenable: a roof repaired in Hebron’s Old City, a greenhouse in a refugee camp, women slipping cameras past Israeli border guards by disguising them as babies wrapped in blankets, and then using those cameras to record human-rights abuses and to share those images all over the world. In my blogs, there hasn’t been space to name and honor every pocket of nonviolent resistance we witnessed, or every story we heard. The boys who rammed their bikes through the Saturday Hebron Settler Tours, shouting at the top of their lungs, and zooming down alleys as soon as there was the slimmest opening, their fearlessness and joy — surely that’s resistance too.

However, says Jeff Halper, it’s not enough. The founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a long-time activist with an abrasive cut-through-crap manner, he met us prior to an ICAHD tour of home demolitions in East Jerusalem. He began by saying, “ICAHD is not an NGO. We’re a political organization.” He went on, without apology, to let us know what he thought of NGOs and their effect on Palestinian society. Palestine, he said, has become “NGO-ified,” domesticated by the international community, and he claims that Palestine has no real economy. Essentially, he says, NGOs and the Palestinian Authority itself deal in “conflict management.” ICHAD is interested in ending the Israeli occupation, completely and totally.

Along with many Palestinians and activist Israelis, after the Oslo Accords, he had faith in the idea of a two-state solution, but he now feels it’s dead. In fact, given the realities of infrastructure, water rights, and military control, Palestine and Israel are already one country. Jeff laid out two options. The first is a continuation of the status quo on the West Bank, an apartheid state where one population is kept completely separate from the other, with distinct sets of laws that control people and resources. The second option is this: Palestinians say to Israel, “You’ve won. It’s all one state. Now we want equal rights.”

[caption id=“attachment_39701” align=“aligncenter” width=“300”]Jeff Halper of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, with visual aid. Jeff Halper of Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, with visual aid.[/caption]

Essentially, what Halper was suggesting was turning the Israel/Palestine conflict from a national-liberation struggle to a civil rights struggle. Just now, he feels, there’s utterly no progress on any front; Israelis on their side of the Green Line consider Palestine to be as distant as Haiti. The Palestinian Authority tortures its political enemies and acts as Israel’s policeman. If the struggle were reframed as a struggle for civil rights, the “wind would be at the Palestinians’ backs.” Halper admits to push-back from Palestinians for whom national identity is central to their concept of resistance, and he acknowledges that any movement must be directed by Palestinians themselves, but his impatience is clear.

He says of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment campaign, “What are you BDSing for?” He has his answer: “Bi-national, Democratic State.”

It’s easy to parody Jeff Halper, the old male leftist with his slogans and his certainty. Of course, he’s not the first to advocate for a binational State. Martin Buber, the cultural Zionist, took that position in 1925 and maintained it long after Israel was established. The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said advocated for it in an editorial in the New York Times. Yet Jeff knows that even if it were prefaced by a Palestinian admission of defeat, Israel would never swallow this idea without a fight. Given the demographic realities of a combined Israel and Palestine, Jews would soon be a minority. Still, he has models of binational states, such as Belgium and Canada, and more to the point, the example of South Africa and the African National Congress Freedom Charter, which guaranteed full rights to minorities.

JEFF HALPER’S WORDS stayed with me during the last stretch of the trip which was spent with Israeli activists as guides, visiting the sites of demolished homes in East Jerusalem. Palestinians there are Israeli residents rather than citizens; citizenship would mean pledging allegiance to Israel’s symbols, and renouncing any other citizenship (a limitation not placed on Jewish citizens of Israel). The residents pay a disproportionately high share of municipal taxes while being denied many basic services, like water and trash collection. Ironies abound: Israel plans to build a tolerance museum on the ruins of a Muslim cemetery; Palestinians actually have to pay Israel to demolish their homes (they get a discount if they pay for clearing rubble in advance).

[caption id=“attachment_39702” align=“aligncenter” width=“300”]ICAHD’s Sharon Caspor shows us rubble from demolished house East Jerusalem, one of 25 thousand homes demolished there since 1967 ICAHD’s Sharon Caspor shows us rubble from demolished house East Jerusalem, one of 25,000 homes demolished there since 1967[/caption]

As Jeff’s colleague, the young Israeli anarchist Sharon Caspor, relayed this information, I found myself considering three ways to look at Palestinians, each well-supported by people we’ve met on our trip:

  1. Palestinians are like Jews. Stateless, haunted by a catastrophe, they carry their memories with them. In their diaspora throughout the Arab world and in Europe, they’ve proven to be part of the cosmopolitan class, stressing education and often serving as a revolutionary vanguard. They want a homeland.
  1. Palestinians are like all indigenous peoples. They have been forced off their land, and herded into quasi-reservations, where their culture is devalued, and their traditions are erased. The colonial powers insist that this is a way to bring them into the modern age and assure that women have equal rights.
  1. Palestinians are like African Americans. Subject to a distinct and unequal set of laws, attending separate and unequal schools, faced with both institutionalized and casual discrimination, they are literally invisible to Israeli Jews, and I would not be surprised if DuBois’s concept of double-consciousness applies precisely to their circumstances, particularly if they live on the Israeli side of the Green Line.

Of course, all three are simultaneously true, and nowhere did they converge as fully as on our final day-trip to the Negev. Taking a van, we scooped up Amos Gvirtz and Kessem Adiv from the Negev Coexistence Forum, and we traveled south to an area just above Beersheba, to visit unrecognized Bedouin villages. The analogy with indigenous people feels obvious. Israel assumes the Bedouins are nomads who have no fixed residence, and these romantic misconceptions make it easy for the Israeli government to literally refuse to acknowledge their villages exist. As in the West Bank, infrastructure bypasses these unrecognized communities; in one case, we saw electrical lines pass right by a village to an Israeli-Jewish ranch and dog cemetery. Everywhere was evidence of the work of the Jewish National Fund, which expropriates village land deemed “uninhabitable” and plants their famous forests, part of the Zionist ethos of “making the desert bloom.” Once their villages are leveled, the Israeli authorities solve “the Bedouin Problem” by resettling them into planned townships, which — predictably — have some of the highest poverty and crime rates in Israel.

With Amos and Kessem, we visited two of these unrecognized Bedouin villages. Much of their story could just as easily have been told in the West Bank; the similarities to Susiya are striking, from the rationale for demolition — including a claim the land is uninhabitable or needed for military or “green” purposes — to the residents’ defiant commitment to traditional culture which included being gracious hosts. The village secretaries brought our delegation tiny cups of coffee, followed by tea and sweets. Yet there are noteworthy distinctions from the West Bank Palestinians. These Bedouins spoke Hebrew. And they spoke, without question, as Israeli citizens.

In Um El Haran, the village secretary Rael described the Israeli military’s seizure of the original site in 1949. Residents were told they could return in six months, but eventually they were transferred to another area. In 1963, much of the new village’s agricultural land was confiscated to plant a JNF forest, one of the biggest in Israel. Their village chief cooperated with the planting, having been told it would create jobs for the village and their sheep could graze among the trees. However, once it was planted, no villager could enter.

In 2004, Um El Haran received its first demolition order: The Israeli government intends to resettle the population in one of the planned towns, and to create a Jewish village called Haran to take its place. Rael proposed several compromises, one of which was to create a mixed village — Jewish and Arab — where they could live together on this land as citizens of Israel.

[caption id=“attachment_39705” align=“aligncenter” width=“300”]Azziz Al-Turi holds up his Israeli ID card two days after his villages was demolished. Clothing was stored on trees. Azziz Al-Turi holds up his Israeli ID card two days after his villages was demolished. Clothing was stored on trees.[/caption]

The anger and urgency felt far stronger in Ara Kid, settled by the Al-Turi tribe; their land, too, has been claimed by the JNF which uprooted the village’s crops and planted its own forest. We arrived only two days after the latest demolition; residents’ clothing was still hanging in trees. All told, the village had been demolished over seventy times, and residents wait in their ancestral cemetery when bulldozers come so the Israeli army won’t evict them. Aziz al-Turi and his father, Sheikh Saya Al-Turi were both furious. Aziz waved his Israeli identity card. They both described the JNF and Prime Minister Netanyahu as terrorists. The sheikh in particular spoke at length, as the young Israeli woman Kessem translated.

For me, at the moment, something happened. My dormant Hebrew came back to me. The sheikh’s slow voice, his adamantly clear pronunciation, made no translation necessary. We were all hot and tired, and it seemed that Sheikh Saya Al-Turi would never finish, yet there was something breathtaking about hearing this angry village elder rail against Israel not as an occupying power, but as his own country.

[caption id=“attachment_39704” align=“aligncenter” width=“200”]Azziz Al-Turi holds up his Israeli ID card two days after his villages was demolished. Clothing was stored on trees. Sheikh Saya Al-Turi asserts his rights as an Israeli citizen. Sheikh Saya Al-Turi asserts his rights as an Israeli citizen.[/caption]

BACK ON OUR TOUR BUS, Amos Gvirtz, an old Israeli activist, like Jeff Halper, talked about geopolitics, and, with some prompting, about his own political trajectory. Amos was born on a kibbutz, and somewhere along the line became a pacifist and joined an international chapter of the War Resister’s League, which included Israelis and Palestinians. He was part of ICHAD, and fought the increase in Palestinian house demolitions which Israel implemented after the Oslo agreement. When he saw the first home being demolished, Amos said, he became an anti-Zionist. Then, during the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, Amos said, Palestinian factions declared a united front which meant that they could no longer work with Israeli allies like ICAHD. It was around this time that Amos felt called to work in partnership with Arab citizens of Israel.

I think, at least, that this is what Amos said; I had run out of space in my many small notebooks, and despaired of catching these last words, almost the last on our trip. Amos’s comments about his work with Palestinians had striking parallels to stories about the Freedom Movement in the late 1960s, when Black Nationalism became ascendant and white folks were told they should find other work to do. Amos was in that place, a grumpy old leftist who was figuring out the most decent possible way to be an Israeli Jew. He would enter only when invited. He didn’t want to be a “liberal occupier.”

I kept on writing on the white cardboard back of the last little book in my bag as we neared the point where he would leave us. I think he ended this way. “The history of Jews in Europe has been a failure. Jews need to take their fate in their own hands. Yet we cannot base this on the suffering of someone else.”

Finally, he said, “I’m longing for a time when I can become again a Zionist.”

Postscript: A week after I returned, I received bad news about the villages we visited through Amos Gvirz’s email list, “Don’t Say You Didn’t Know.”

The village Al-arakgib was demolished last week for the 88th time. In Umm-Alhiran the government started work on the infrastructures for the Jewish village Hiran (even though the supreme court haven’t reached a decision yet).

You can follow the group’s work at their website.

Simone Zelitch is the author of four novels, most recently Waveland, which follows a Jewish volunteer in the Freedom Movement in Mississippi during the 1964 Summer Project and the years that follow. A new novel, Judenstaat, is forthcoming from Tor Books in the summer of 2016. She lives and teaches in Philadelphia. Learn more about the author at