I haven’t felt an urge– a need, even– to write like the one I am feeling now for a long time. My fingers are a bit stiff from the February Jerusalem air and from the Goldstar beer I just opened (partially for ritual purposes, filling in for the wine usually used for Havdalah, differentiation, transitioning from Shabbat, the day of rest and reflection to the beginning of the week, of creation, of production, of doing, of writing, and partially because I like the idea of writing about politics and religion and philosophy and meaning and love and struggle while drinking a beer– slowly, grimly, maybe a bit ironically) aren’t colliding with the keyboard as fast as I want them to, my thoughts are bouncing around rapidly and a feeling at the bottom of my stomach is telling me “write write write” afraid that I will lose some of them. I want to write about this past Wednesday, as a starting point, and from there, to include thoughts I’ve been having about everything here. As with every time I sit down to write, I have certain ideas about what I want to say, but also plan on being surprised at what comes out of my mind and soul and through my fingers and on to my NotePad document (I find it lest clunky than Word). So. Last Wendesday was Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish festival of trees. At a Tu B’Shvat seder at a friend’s house the night before, we talked about the concept of renewal, sitting on the cusp of winter, our fingers still stiff, we celebrate the earth and its trees and its majesty and also our symbolic readiness to throw ourselves- or, alternately, to be thrown- into newness. What happened the next day wasn’t new- in fact, it was a combination of much of what is old and familiar and sick about this place, and yet, I want to keep the concept of renewal in my mind as I retell this story and try to understand what it means, for me and maybe also on a larger level.
Wednesday. Tu B’Shvat. Rabbis for Human Rights, the organization I’ve been working for over the past five months, had planned, as in years past, to take a group of Jewish Israelis and internationals out to the West Bank, to a village called Al-Jeniya to plant trees in honor of the festival of Tu B’Shvat and in a symbolic act calling- maybe pleading- for justice. The plans had been in the works for weeks, but three days before hand, on Sunday night, a house at the edge of the village was added to the rapidly-growing list of Palestinian recipients of “Price Tags.” This name, “Price Tag,” has become a sort of catch-all term in Israeli public discourse for different types of Jewish Settler attacks -carried out at random- on Palestinian property. The basic foundational idea behind the attacks was that anytime the Israeli government acted in a way that would harm any part of the settlement enterprise, such as dismantling an “illegal” outpost (I put “illegal” in scare quotes because it is important to remember that under international law and in the eyes of virtually the entire world, perhaps excluding Micronesia, Palau and the Republican Party of the American, all settlements are illegal), a “price” would be enacted against a Palestinian target. Any Palestinian target. “Price Tag” has grown, and the attacks are now a fairly regular occurrence that don’t necessarily correspond to any Israeli government action (not that these attacks’ correspondence to government action would make them any less sick or more justified, it’d just be nice if the frequency of Price Tag attacks was indeed correspondent to settlement outposts being dismantled and the settlement enterprise cracking. Ha.) The attacks have ranged from spray painted graffiti all the way to torching mosques, and have been carried out on both sides of the green line, mostly targeting Arabs, but also Jewish Israeli peace activists are not out of range, either, and recently Hagit Ofran, the director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project, a friend of mine and one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I know here, had her house spray painted with the slogan “Rabin in Waiting For You.” The Jewish-Arab bilingual pre-Kindergarten at which I started volunteering a few weeks ago and which is part of the only bilingual (Hebrew/Arabic) school in Jerusalem was spray-painted with “Death to Arabs” and “Kahana was Right” last Tuesday. The attack on the house in Al-Jenia was worded similarly: “Death to Arabs,” “Mohammad is a Swine,” and, relevant to a later part of the story of Tu B’Shvat, “Closed Military Zone” (I just got shivers. I did not think of the connection between that slogan and what happened on Wednesday until just now. Wow. I guess that is why it is important to write. Thanks to my friend Sarah Thompson, who reminded me of how important it is to write all of these things down as we sat for Chinese Food on Thursday night. The Civil Rights archives are invaluable, she said, and talked about how studying movement strategy from one movement could inform another. Of course this is not the Civil Rights movement, although I do often (and will in this piece) make comparisons, but it is important to remember that what we are doing matters, even if it feels like we are running our heads into walls, and no one is listening, or listening closely enough. It gave me a lot of strength to hear Sarah say that and to think about the ways in which my documentation could be read twenty years down the road, when the Occupation is over and activists and historians are trying to figure out how it ended and why. Or, alternately, when historians look back on the days in which Israeli Jewish dissidents could still write and criticize freely. Or the days in which “Price Tag” attacks still referred to death threats, and not death sentences. God, let them remain as threats, and let them fade off of the walls and out of hearts…)
The house that was attacked on Sunday night belonged to the brother of our contact, a Palestinian activist named Ayed, who is probably around forty-five and has gray hair, dark skin, hard hands and a glowing, deep and frequent laugh. Our worry was that the attack on his house was because of us, but there was nothing in to indicate as much in the graffiti sprayed by the vandals– vandals? Vandals… Vandals makes me think of the punk band, or of kids who break things for fun, not of racial hatred and intimidation, but maybe, really, they’re the same kids, just the situation is such that the vandals here in the reality of the Occupaiton, the kids who want to break things, to find action, have absorbed just enough of the Otherization necessary to justify a system of forced separation, checkpoints, walls and military rule, that the most logical course of vandalism they can think of is spray paint calling for the death of the Other. It is perfect, brilliant, devastating: they are able, at the same time, to break the rules on a micro-level and also to support the macro-level rules of the system of occupation which requires that the military now allow the Arabs to “lift their heads” too much, to quote a common line (“sh’lo yarimu rosh”). The attack was horrible, the attack was infuriating, the attack was all of those words and descriptors, but here’s the catch (and I mean this only a bit sarcastically, as I am deeply aware that people need action, myself included, that the story of slow-land grab and the constant presence of a foreign military and the dull fear that comes along with it, that story is common, old, abstract): the attack helped us double our recruitment for the tree planting on Tu B’Shvat, and turned our outing from humanitarian and symbolic into an action that was deeply, inescapably political.
Wednesday morning, we gather at Gan HaPa’amon, the usually pickup spot in Jerusalem for Left Wing Occupation Escapades, whether it be a protest against the wall, a tour, or a group of Rabbis and the supporters going to plant trees for Tu B’Shvat. We gather, 35 or so people, at the usually simulutaneously slow-and-hectic pace I have come to know so well in my mere five months of activism and organizing here. We get on the road, and are already past the checkpoint and our our way to the village when we realize we’d forgotten someone, a journalist from the army, at the train station in Modi’in, which was supposed to be our second pickup point (but then wasn’t because there was a strike, and the trains had all stopped, so we told people to go to a point nearby, but somehow forgot this fellow. Interesting note on the strike- the trash workers have been striking in Jerusalem also, and the dumpsters have started to overflow, which made me think two thoughts: (1) amazing how we take the people who pick up our trash, and the fact that we just put our trash in a dumpster and then it’s gone, so much for granted, and (2) now West Jerusalem looks a bit more like East Jerusalem, where the trash service, like all other Israeli services, is much more shoddy). We stop on the side of the road, and call the journalist, telling him to take a taxi out to us. As we are waiting, a police car and an army jeep pull up behind our two mini-buses. Our driver opens the door, and the police man walks in. “Where to?”
“Where did you come from?” I said. Just kidding. I didn’t say that. I actually stumbled over my words, not sure whether to lie or to tell the truth, and ended up sort of doing both “Just going to visit friends, sir, yes sir!” (I didn’t actually say the “sir, yes sir” bit either). “Right,” he said, and walked away and over to the group from the second bus, where Rabbi Yehiel Greniman was standing. “I am giving you a fine for standing on the side of the road,” he said. “And you have to go back to the checkpoint.”
“I called into my commander, who said that they are expecting problems in Al-Jeniya, and so I’m making you turn around.”
“How can you do that? Do you have an order?” Yehiel asked. Indeed he did have an order. It was a pre-written order, which included a law from the period of British Occupation that allowed police extra powers in cases of traffic violations, or something like that. From the British period. I remembered what a Palesitnian farmer had told me once earlier this fall: “We are living under four laws here: Israeli, Jordanian, British and Ottoman.” In the occupied territories, the government uses whichever law is most convenient to its purposes, and through the combination of these four systems of law, Israeli authorities can do basically anything and call it “legal.” Frustrated, impotent, and aware that what we were going through- the application of arbitrary law, being at the complete mercy of a single police officer- was barely a sliver of the daily reality Palestinians face at checkpoints and in general, and that our privilege was still immense, as we could yell at and argue with the police officer, and not for a second worry that he would raise his hand to hit us. Nonetheless, frustration is frustration, and we made followed the police car back to the checkpoint, where we pulled aside and waited.
The officer began making calls, and as he was doing so, one of the young soldiers at the checkpoint, skinny and with red hair, turned to Jesse, my brother, and quietly asked him:
“Is this Rabbis for Human Rights?”
“Yep,” Jesse answered.
“Oh… well… I’m your friend on facebook.”
It turned out the kid was, in his civilian time part of Meretz Youth, and was a supporter of what we do and what we were doing. It was a nice, cute moment, punctuating the frustration, but also odd and problematic– it’s nice that he supports us, but he is helping the system make sure that we are unable to do what we meant to do– plant trees with Palestinians in honor of a Jewish festival. I don’t mean that as judgment against this kid, or against any individual who chooses to enlist. I know how much pressure there is to enlist here, and I thought very seriously for a very long time about doing it myself. And if I had, I bet I would have been a lot like that kid, standing at checkpoint, trying to make it known to the leftists who my commander had stopped that I was on their side, and trying to make sure that the people around me acted justly. But ultimately, and this took me many years, I became convinced that an individual can’t really be just in an unjust system (although an individual can be extra-unjust, like those who carried out the Price Tag attacks on Al-Jeniya). Here’s an excerpt from this piece I wrote this past summer, which was part of a longer piece I wrote over the year prior to then, a sort of dialogue between me and myself about whether or not to join the army:
Mori: So, let’s start out by putting this out there: I am feeling much stronger than you are.
Mori: Then, let’s get right to it: are you fucking kidding me? Join the army? You must be joking. You had a hard time wearing the same gown as everyone else graduation. Your whole purpose in life is pursuing peace. Reading Jesse’s thesis, you found King’s radical pacifism to be so… right, whereas Niebuhr’s “recognition of the need for power and force, etc,” just sounded so cynical. And I’ve definitely tended left lately, through becoming part of the Slam scene, and doing that poetry and translation project with Professor Huda Fakhreddine. And things going so badly in the larger political scene lately, with Netanyahu’s horrible speech to congress and September looming… And growing my beard out and wearing that bandana. Ha. My new theory: Beards make ideology, not the other way around. Heh.
Moriel: And reading David Grossman’s To The End of the Land–
Mori: Which was the most stunning.
Moriel: Yes. Wow. Anyway, reading it-
Mori: Haha. Isn’t that funny? I even interrupt myself.
Moriel: Shut up. Let me finish a sentence. Reading that book just solidified the stupidity of wars, the horrifying capacity of militaries to brainwash. The situation is so bad. What will I gain or give by getting even more deeply mired in it, getting brainwashed myself?
Mori: But, at the same time, we’re all brainwashed. I’m brainwashed by liberal America, by college, by my friends, my family.
Moriel: But your brainwashed to think that killing and hurting others is [almost] always wrong. That sounds like the most… God-oriented position one can hold, as far as my belief in God goes. That all life deserves to be treated with dignity, and to quote Arthur Green, that all life is actually God. Not just has God in it. Is God. Would there really be any way to uplift God with a gun?
That piece, on that day, was the first time I was able to fully understand that I was going to refuse army service when they called me up (still hasn’t happened, but my determination is even stronger than it was then). But I don’t judge this kid who probably did think that he could serve justice in the army– I empathize with this kid, really deeply. I would have been like him even down to the specific– Meretz is the most Left-Wing of the Zionist parties, and is definitely who I would have voted for two years ago, or maybe even last year. But now, if there were elections today, it’s clear to me that I would vote Hada”sh, the Arab-Jewish communist party. Not because I am a communist. I am not. But because Meretz still operates under the illusions of old, that the Israeli public can do what it takes to end the occupation, that one should serve in the army and be the “moral soldier,” that Zionism based around statehood is still save-able as an ideology. (I would also certainly not vote for Balad, the Arab party one “left” of Hada”sh. For all of the ways in which I am sympathetic to Palestinians, and critical of the Israeli state, and think Palestinians should have their own state, I am not a Palestinian Nationalist, and I don’t think replacing one nationalist ideology with another is the way to solve anything here, and I have no doubt that Palestinian nationalism has immense potential to be dangerous as well. The only flag hanging in my house is the queer rainbow flag. In my post-nationalist consciousness (which I must say is pretty new for me), I am finding myself stunned again and again how much people connect to these flags. It is a nice thing, to have a flag, because then it means you are part of a collective, that you can die for a nation and a cause, and kill for that nation or cause also. So, what I’m saying is… Nationalism and violence are intimately connected? Great, Mori, College 101! Gold Star! No, but seriously, it was a hard realization to come to, and a painful process. I used to see Israeli flags and feel nostalgic for the days of the pioneers, of campfires and braids… actually, this is a good cue to insert a poem I wrote a few months ago:
A Eulogy for my Zionism and Virginity; The Visions They Held
(A Poem, with Translation)
After Chris Abani
Yesterday I saw palm trees
And the arteries in my eyes grew
Hands to stroke away
The sadness that once danced
Circle dances around
Small fires and heavy braids
That I never knew but also
Did once know
When I write palm trees, I mean 16-year old nationalism
Or orientalism, or sex
When I write arteries, I mean to write about everything that
Pushups in the hallway and dog-eared biographies of soldiers
Still don’t let me write about
When I write hands, I notice how much my own
Look like a woman’s, slender, and dotted with perfect
When I write sadness, I taste the minerals- iron, Vaseline, concrete
Za’atar that my body rejects or longs for
Surfacing behind my eyes, bulldozers on the crusted horizon
When I write eyes, I mean to write about eyes
When I write dancing, I mean graffitied basements and
Stale beer, baseball caps and hallucinogens and how her nipples grew and
Other American Anachronisms
When I write fire and braids, I mean sex, again
Or war- perhaps I meant to write “berets”
When I write about knowing, I am back before
The palm tree, a breeze is broken around my wrists
fading orbs of bright hum and my eyes
Anyway. Enough about me. Back to the story. I’ve been writing for almost two hours and I still haven’t even gotten to the main even of what happened on Wednesday. And I still haven’t finished my beer. The police officer came back to us, and told us that he needed to “see our list of volunteers.” I gave him the list, and he scoured it, clearly looking for something to make into a problem. “Two journalists from the army, huh?” He asked, and called them over. “You’re not allowed to be going with them,” he said.
“What? Of course we are,” the replied, “this is our job in the army. To work as journalists.” He called them over, and they talked in private for a while. I don’t know what they said, but when we finally left the checkpoint, and stopped at a gas station before trying an alternate route to get to Al-Jenia, I saw the two journalists walking away from our buses, and they did not join us in the end. Did the policeman convince them that they weren’t allowed to come? Were they actually not allowed to come? Were they simply unable to put up with waiting for two hours to do a story about some Leftist group planting trees? Dunno. But they were gone, quickly.
We did manage to find a different route, as it is not so hard to get into the West Bank (no one stops you, usually, going in. Kind of like the US-Mexico border, the US border guards don’t care who goes out of the US, they only care who tries to come back in. A major difference, though, is that Mexico is its own countrrrry, and could put tighter restrictions on its border if it wanted to, whereas not so with Palestine… qu’est que c’est Palestine these days, anyway? My friend Edo challenged me the other night when I said that I didn’t like when he called Israel proper ’48 Palestine. “What about the settlements,” he asked, “are they Palestine?” When I responded no, he said, “So, are they Israel?” I didn’t have a response. “As long as the situation is what it is, undefined, occupied, unresolved, I think we can call all of it everything,” he said, or something like that, and I thought that that was a pretty good point). Following this different route, we made our winding way to the village. We lost cellphone service, and then when we got service back, we received calls from people who had made it before us, in private cars, that soldiers had started throwing stun grenades at the villagers who had gone down and begun to plant trees. They had also set up a “flying checkpoint” outside of the village, perhaps to stop us from getting in.
Huh. Somehow, I wasn’t expecting all of this. We got to the village successfully, and the air was buzzing and nervous and confused. We met some of the villagers, who showed us the parts of the house that had been “price tagged,” and then pointed down into their fields (on the other side of which sits the settlement Talmon. Talmon A, to be precise. A thousand meters to the left is Talmon B. And then Talmon C. And then Talmon D/Zeit Ra’anan, the newest Talmon outpost established in the middle of Al-Jenia’s olive groves).
“You see that second Palestinian flag,” they said (in these contexts, I can definitely understand why one would latch onto a flag) “the army told us we couldn’t go plant any farther down than that.” Fine. No problem. Frustrating, but we won’t plant any farther down than that.
The farmer who owned the land and a few of his friends each grabbed a small tree, its bottom cased in plastic, and a spade, and motioned for us to do the same, and to follow them down the terraced earth, and to start planting. As I am digging my first hole, focused on chipping through the soft rock enough that the hole can hold the sapling, I hear click-clack-click-clack, look up, and see a group of about ten soldiers, recognizable immediately as the border police by their uniform, fully armed and wearing helmets, knee pads, a few holding billy clubs and tear-gas guns (ha! I am delighted to say that it took me a second to think about how to even title the “tear-gas guns” as I have no knowledge of the nuances of military equipment): they are dressed in full riot gear. The commanders begins to read from an order he has in his hand. He has an Arab accent to his Hebrew (as if the cognitive dissonance of this place was not enough. Explanation: often times the border guards are Druze, an Arabic-speaking minority in Israel whose communal ethos is basically (although there are also those Druze who refuse service) loyalty to the ruling power, and whose young men do serve in the IDF, unlike most Christian and Muslim Arab citizens of Israel). He reads:
“You have five minutes to clear out. This is a closed military zone. The Palestinians can work, but you have no right to be here.”
“This is a closed military zone?” I ask. “No way.”
“You want to see?” He replies, his voice beginning to raise, “Come up here and see.” I climb up onto the stone wall and look at the map attached to the order he is holding. There is a strange and curvy blob that symbolizes the closed military zone, and it takes me a second to understand what I am looking at.
“You mean that all of the land owned by Al-Jenia is a closed military zone?”
“You see those people back there,” he gestures towards Talmon A, “there might be clashes between you.”
“So, wait,” I say, feeling calm even as the anger is rising inside of my chest, “you are telling me that because the settlers from Talmon are going to attack us as we work, you have declared the Palestinian land to be a closed military zone, and are telling us we need to leave?”
“I don’t have to answer your questions,” he replied.
“Are you serious?” I ask, looking around at the faces, half hidden under helmets, of the soldiers grouped around the two of us. They are young. They are very young.
“You have three minutes.”
I jump back down, and begin to consult with the other members: do we stay? Do we get arrested? Do we go back? Will they hit us? As we are talking and debating, the soldiers jump down from the stone wall also, and begin to line up in formation. I had been arrested a few days before, for sitting in front of a bulldozer that was going to do illegal work in Issawiya and A-Tur, in East Jerusalem, where the Israeli government wants to build a “national park” (a “nationalist park,” my friend Yael joked to me yesterday at a demonstration against the park in Issawiya), and it hadn’t been bad at all. Maybe I’ll do it again, I thought, and I felt a sort of hyper-masculine competitiveness rising inside of me, alongside the adrenaline and frustration. Those who are making the decisions for our group decide that we should go back, and regroup. Fine, I thought, no problem, and I noticed that I was feeling, suddenly, a bit more scared by the weapons and sticks held by the kid-soldiers. I go to finish planting the tree that I had started, and the commander gives his order, and then there is mild chaos. The soldiers start pushing us, and everyone is yelling, we start walking back toward the village, but not fast enough, and the soldiers are pushing more. One hits me with his night-stick in the back of my leg, and I don’t feel so much pain at the time, but later, when the adrenaline has subsided, it starts to hurt and I think back on the faces of the kids, and how much they wanted to fight us, and to hurt us. I get it, I think. They feel like they are doing something good, something righteous, that we are causing problems and “provoking.” And they are trained to fight. This is the point to armies- force. Strength. They are doing what they are trained to do.
I wasn’t surprised by their actions or by the way they were acting: this is how the army is here, how the law functions here, how they are meant to be, and yet there was still something shocking about all of it, also. First, that the claim that the Palestinians could work, along side the fact that they had thrown stun grenades at them earlier when they’d tried to. Next, that they acknowledge that the settlers will come and be violent towards us, so as a result, they tell us that we are the ones who have to leave. Civil Rights parallel: this morning I was reading Pillar of Fire, a history of the King years from 1962-65, and I came across this line, from 1964, “A waitress unhappily notified the Freedom School table of management’s improvised policy, saying “We have to serve the colored, but we are not going to the whites who come with them.”” Obviously there are a thousands differences between the two situations, but the similarity is the way in which the Powerful Party (be it Whites or IDF) realized that it had to answer to some semblance of law (Civil Rights Act or Israeli Supreme Court Decision in 2006 which said that Palestinians have the right to work their land (ha! the fact that a Supreme Court case was need for such a thing… Oh man…), and decided that the best way to do that was to focus on the “trouble-makers,” on how “if only the Whites hadn’t come with these group, we would certainly serve them,” or “if only you Israelis weren’t here to plant with the Palestinians, we’d let them plant, no problem!” And there are the similarities of racism, of people of certain backgrounds not being allowed to go places allowed for people of other backgrounds, of violence, of separate privileges and rights… The metaphor is not 1:1, but it is also not irrelevant.
They arrested two members of our group, one who was moving to slow in finishing to plant his tree, another who talked back to them. If ever I had any doubts about whether the army waited for “provocation” before getting rough and violent, they were all erased. Let me just state this one more time, clearly: We came to plant trees with Palestinians land-owners on their private land, and were told we had to leave, we started to leave, and they started pushing, hitting and arresting us. It was really as simple as that. Really. Really. I know there is a popular discourse of complexity, of multiple sides of the story, but this one didn’t feel so complex (unlike most of the other stories from the day), or so multi-sided. We weren’t there to demonstrate and chant slogans and “provoke” (which would have been legitimate). We certainly weren’t there to throw rocks (which is more complicated. I do not support it, as I do not support any violence in the Israeli-Palestinian 2012 context, but it also needs to be seen within the context of occupation, and to be recognized as fundamentally less violent than guns and bombs, and not equal, even, to rubber bullets or tear gas canisters), we were there to plant trees for Tu B’Shvat. To bring about a renewal of justice, to object a bit to this reality in which Jews are against Muslims and Israelis do not work side by side with Palestinians.
We walked back near the village and regrouped, and the border guards formed a straight line in front of us. One of the women in our group started signing, quietly, the words of Isaiah, lo yisa goi el goi herev, lo yilmadu od milhama, let nation not lift up sword against nation, let them learn war no more. More members of the group joined in until we were singing fairly loudly, and unitedly. The soldiers looked uncomfortable, some laughed, some would not hold eye contact with me, and eventually they turned around to go. If I were to tell this story in a simple way, I would leave it at that: we sang and the soldiers with guns left. But the story is a messy story, a real story, and even this signing was a layered happening. First, it was strange that the Palestinians could not join in– I looked around at them, and they seemed to be enjoying the song more or less, and some seemed a bit bemused. I translated the song for them, and they said, “that’s nice,” but it was still Jews singing a Jewish songs at other Jews, and I felt strange about, well, fighting out our intrareligious/intraethnic battles on Palestinian soil, with Palestinians kinds of serving as the background or the theoretical basis for our argument. Clearly that is not what the action was, and the whole project was done in complete coordination with Palestinian partners and village leaders, but that thought was clawing at the back of my mind and not allowing me to fully loose myself in the beauty of the song (and it was beautiful, singing it there, in that context). The second layer of why I felt that the singing was not pure relates back, again, to the civil rights movement. I grew up with Freedom Songs as a sort of vague, pleasant part of my elementary school education, singing This Little Light of Mine with Bill by the piano and We Shall Overcome at Yellow Springs village MLK Day services, and then as I grew older, and anti-racism became more of a central and developed part of my identity- both my Jewish identity and my humanist identity, actually- the idea of song as a form of resistance began to strike me as even more powerful and right, especially as song was one of the only ways that I, on a personal level, was able to achieve any level of “spiritual connection,” so to speak, for a long time, and is still one of the most sure ways I know to feel something less explainable and connect to something that is beyond just words and concepts. Thus it has always struck me as unfortunate that there are not a set of Freedom Songs here that people could sing at demonstrations, and at moments of crisis. Yes, there is “Shir L’Shalom” that Rabin sang before he was killed, but that’s been fairly co-opted by the establishment “peace” camp, and yes, the Palestinians have a few resistance songs, but they are usually pretty militaristic/jingoistic, as far as I am able to understand from my Arabic. So when we started singing, I was swept up by the thought that maybe we had found our Freedom Song, at least for the day.
And so I started walking. In the direction of the line of soldiers. I felt that it was the right thing to do, to submit to arrest, to make a statement, to not allow them to bully us, or to claim that we were violent, but rather just to sing. Then started a heated discussion with other members of the group, who thought it was stupid to get arrested, and served no purpose, and simply played into their hands. One of them even told me, “We are not in the American South,” and I was like… “hey, who let you into my mind?” Ha. And then the voice of reason, connecting back to reason #1 as to why the singing was a complex thing, came from the Rabbi who had been doing this work for the longest amount of time: “Anything we do,” he said, “we have to run by our Palestinian partners, as we will go home one way or another, and they will have to live with the after effects.” Everyone agreed that we would go back up to the edge of the village, drink coffee and plan what to do next.
We walked back up, slowly, and the soldiers receded into Talmon, taking the two arrested members of our group with them. As they walked away, one of the soldiers grabbed the Palestinian flag that marked the area where they had said early that the farmers could work until, pulled it out of the ground, and threw it on the earth. The symbolism, I think, was lost on none who saw it.
Back up the village, we began to talk to the village leaders, whose views were split. Some thought we should go back down and keep working, others thought it’d be better just to sit and have coffee, and let the whole thing die down. And then, our decision-making process was brought to a halt by the sight of the soldiers coming back towards us. The Rabbi who had suggested that we consult with our Palestinian partners before proceeding, Arik Ascherman, went down to meet the group of soldiers before they reached the village, to see what they wanted. It was quickly clarified that they were there to get us, the Israelis and internationals, to leave the village entirely.
“If you do not leave in seven minutes,” they said, generously adding two on from the last time they gave us a deadline, “we will come and make you leave by force.” Click-clack-click the soldier-kids shuffled forward with their knee pads and big guns and such serious expressions on their soft faces.
We’d heard of the idea of the army closing off farmland as “closed military zone” before, and knew that it was in their “legal” (again, everything in the occupation is illegal) rights to do so, but the idea that the army would come into the village and kick out all non-Palestinians by force was totally un-kosher, even by occupation standards. Thinking back on all of this, there is something horrifically clairvoyant about the graffiti sprayed on the houses sunday night– the village as a closed military zone. All Palestinian areas as closed military zones.
Then, again, came the agonizing process: Do we stay, sit down on the earth, submit to arrest, and maybe tear gas, and maybe violence, or do we obey their threat-heavy perversion of an already perverted system of justice and leave? This time, it was clear to all of us that the choice was not ours, but the Palestinian villagers. “Of course you stay,” one said, “You are our guests. Let them come.” And then another chimed in, “But they will come in here with tear gas and fists. With all due respect, you [the Israelis] are going home one way or another, we have to live here.” A few more men nodded and murmured in agreement with the second man. “Tell them this,” another one said, “Tell them you will not go until they return the two people they arrested.” It seemed that everyone murmured their agreement. It was a pretty moving moment, all of these Palestinians concerned with the two Israeli Jews arrested by other Israeli Jews, and it felt like we had broken down some sort of wall. And also, like all of these vignettes, this one too is not uncomplicated: it did feel like the whole thing was a certainly manly, military mission, in which our side happened to be nonviolent, but it still struck me as very masculine and tough. Which is complicated. It is complicated that the Palestinians standing with us were almost all men, and it is complicated that afterwards, when we were talking with a few of the Palestinian men about the soldiers, they chose to focus on the one female solider, laughing that she’d be better off cleaning her home. And it is complicated that my own desire to be arrested and fight the forces of oppression was not free of a certain degree of competitiveness, of aspired-to manliness, of machismo. And yet, it was nice. We agreed that Arik would go back down to the soldiers and tell him that we would leave peacefully if they would free our friends, and I had this vision of a medieval scene in which we send our leader down to liaise with the enemy forces and promise retreat if they release our two comrades from their dungeon. The moment’s King Arthurism was enhanced by the fact that the soldiers agreed to the condition only if Rabbis Arik and Yehiel walked with them back to the settlement, where they would negotiate the terms of the others’ release. After a bit of debate “What if they are tricking you?” and our grim reassurance that we were still pretty confident in our privilege as Jews in this system, despite being outside of pale in terms of our political views, they went off with the soldiers, the buses left, and I stayed behind with Ayed, and with Arik’s keys to his car.
In a room filled with plush, bright red couches, we talked about the day, about Islam and its prohibition, like Judaism’s, on uprooting tress (and on killing children, women and elderly, which became relevant in our conversation about the murder in the settlement of Itamar last summer in which two Palestinians went into the settlement and slaughtered a family, including young children). I was fed unbelievably good bread and hummus and olive oil (“this food comes from our land,” Ayed said to me, “It’s not only a symbolic thing that we are so distraught over them stealing our land. This land is everything for us”).
And that’s all. It is now three thirty seven in the morning. I took a break in the middle of writing to go out to a bar for a friends birthday. It was relaxing, and fun, even as this stuff followed me there: sitting with the lovely woman I have been seeing for a bit now, and looking at the posters in the unfortunately-American bar we went to, I pointed out that the Boston Celtic’s mascot’s stick kind of looked like a map of Israel, if it gave Palestine back to the Palestinians, and she countered that the NBA logo also looked like a map of this place. “If we annexed a weird, basketball/arm part of Jordan,” I added. And who knows. Maybe we will annex a basketball/arm part of Jordan. Ha.
All jokes not aside: it was an intense week, but thank God I am feeling supported and loved, and able to laugh still and to hope also and not to fall into despair, remembering that, as Heschel teaches, despair is a selfish state, a state in which you think “how hard this all is for me,” and in which you are consequently unable to serve God, but which he mostly means, I think, serve others and seek justice. So back to renewal: maybe there will be renewal. Or maybe renewal is something we have to bring. Maybe the difference between the spring of trees and the spring of humans is that trees will bloom naturally, while humans have to struggle to bring about spring, and blossoming and beauty and renewal. Somehow I am feeling a strange sort of hope flowing through me right now. That might be because it is three forty eight, or because my friends are great and I’ve been seeing a smart and beautiful woman lately and I get to live with my brother who is the best friend and roommate I could ask for and my dear friend from childhood and from always, Andy, is coming to visit in a total of seven minutes, and I really like this place, despite all of its horrible elements, or because I am able to feel Heschel’s word’s at this moment, and the idea that I can remain non-despairing even after things that are despair-causing gives me hope. So here’s to renewal. And I’m sending this one out with no edits, I think.
So much love.