Just walk away.
Ok, um, guys, seriously we need to just walk away.
It is hot. I am confused. My shins pre-hurt. My stomach feels twisted and odd. Over the last three years of activism and direct actions, I’ve been yelled at, shoved, spit on, detained, whacked with a baton, cursed out, dragged, arrested and nearly urinated on, but this was by far the most upsetting and unexpected counterprotest I’d ever experienced.
I was standing on a kitchen chair when it happened.
All That’s Left: Creative direct action. Street theatre. In the middle of a sea of people in Jerusalem’s Machaneh Yehudah market at 2:40 PM on a Friday afternoon.
We are here, I say in loud American English, stepping up onto a chair.
(We are here), respond the other activists, the form inspired by Occupy Wall Street’s “Mic Check,” an eminently portable, eminently free, eminently intriguing grassroots type of Megaphone.
To announce that from this day forward, I yell, my assumed Voice of Authority growing louder and shriller.
(To announce that from this day forward), respond the others. Four of them are holding two large American flags in a V-formation, others are waiting nearby with flyers and cameras.
This piece of land belongs, I am only half looking at my surroundings. The other half of my looking is directed, somehow, at the space between my eyes and the world, a space that I’ve come to know as my “zone,” first experienced in theatre as a young kid, and later during spoken word performances as an older kid. It is a place of extreme focus and echoic silence. I’m in this. I am vaguely aware that we are people are yelling and that a crowd is growing, but I don’t or can’t or won’t pay much attention: I have words to say.
(This piece of land belongs!)
To Americans only, movement in the crowd, a flash of yellow, murmurs, raised voices. The flyer-ers have begun distributing. I later find out that All That’s Left member Daniel Roth (who is an superb writer, photographer and pursuer of justice) encountered someone who told him to give him all of his flyers, and when Daniel refused, the man took a half-hearted swing at him.
(To Americans only!)
If Israelis want to be here,
the sound of a wheels and a small motor
a sharp cry of “Go away!” in English.
(If Israelis want to be here!)
They are welcome to apply for a per-CRASH.
(They are) –what’s going on?
–Oh my God –(welcome to) –hey,
stop, please –
At first I am only vaguely aware of what’s happening, still in the zone, fuzzy, focused, removed, and then I feel myself losing balance, the chair jerking violently under me, as if alive. Then I almost fall. Lucidity and fear pull me out of the zone, back to alert. Even alert, it still takes me a few seconds to process. I am being rammed by a man in an electronic wheel chair. I jump off the chair and land on my feet. Unsure what else to do, I try to continue.
Does this seem unfair?
The group is trying, also. They are confused, too. The “response” is fainter and scattered. Everyone is thrown off.
He rams directly into me, and the yellow, handwritten sign attached to the back of his wheelchair is directly in my line of vision: Please Help. I am Collecting for 10 Needy Holocaust Survivors. Oh God. “Go away!” He screams.
Please stop, I say to him, breaking character, and changing my voice from bombastic to as gentle as I can muster on a confused dime.
Taken aback by being addressed directly and softly, he stops ramming me for a moment. What are you doing here? He asks.
We’re raising awareness about the occupation, and unfair Israeli policy of takeover of Palestinian properties in places like East Jerusalem and Hebron.
I hope he had simply misunderstood us, that our protest wasn’t seen as a protest, but rather some strange, genuine attempted-takeover.
They have 22 countries! He yells, his eyes wide and his voice raised. This is our only country! Go away!
And he begins to come at me again with his wheelchair.
In one moment, I am simultaneously filled with a wash of hurt-shame-anger-guilt-confusion- directed at him, at myself, at this situation, at his talking points, at our talking points- and with a few clearer thoughts: This is not good. This is not what we were aiming for. We didn’t mean to make him this angry- or anyone, but yes, especially him, a man in a wheelchair with a sign raising money for 10 Holocaust survivors. On a personal level and on the “public” level of our public action level, this feels disastrous.
Ok, um, guys, seriously we need to just walk away.
We begin to walk. He follows us.
We’re going, please stop. Everyone is watching.
At the far end of the marker, we regroup.
[Update: to read the response from Morris, the man from the Market, please go here. It is beautiful and touching, and changes the tenor of this whole interaction].
* * *
Oh my God. Is everyone Ok? Sort of yeah. Sort of no.
Well that couldn’t have gone worse. Ha. Yep.
That was insane.
Did we do something we didn’t intend to do? No, I think we were fine. We weren’t attacking him.
Was this a bad idea?
We knew that the shuk would be intense, but…
Yikes. It would have been easier if some burly fanatic in a muscle-shirt had just punched me, though, right? Whoa. Jeez. Ok.
We all agree that there was about a zero point zero per cent chance we could have anticipated that happening. We had gone through scenarios: verbal aggression? Likely. Physical violence? Possible. Arrest or detention? Could happen. But this?
It takes us a few minutes, but we shake it off and agree to try the sketch again. Elsewhere. We walk for a bit, back through the marker, hoping not to see this man again. We don’t. What we do see, though, gathered at the far end of the market, is a group of about 40, backwards baseball hats and orange lanyards on display for all to see: Birthright.
Ok. There’s our audience. Let’s do this.
We set up near the group, and another All That’s Left member takes a turn on the chair. She makes a similar speech, and the Birthright group pays attention almost immediately. They look confused, and rapt, and maybe angry? We sing a screeching rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. The flyer-ers begin moving, and the group begins to catch on. A woman who has come to film the action is yelled at and shoved. Some members of the group begin to jeer and curse.
Fuck you all, go home!
The Israeli guide is livid. The veins are bulging in his neck as he tries to drown us out by singing another American tune. Improvising, pulses high, we join him. Later, someone reported that he had yelled to the Birthright group: This one’s for the IDF! Ha! I got them to sing for the IDF! Not everyone’s aggressive, though. Others are more curious or confused. What is this? What’s going on? We hand out more flyers.
You all have no idea what goes on here, one of the Israeli guides says in a heavy accent.
Another activist, the amazing Emily Schaeffer, and I break character, pulled into responding. Switching to strong Hebrew (especially hers: Emily’s a lawyer, and an incredible one, at that– follow the link above), we get into our points: we are highlighting the situation taking place just a kilometer from here on Salah a-Din where exactly the same thing is happening in the post office Ateret Cohanim Irving Moskowitz have you heard of this have you heard of them google before you tell us that we don’t know what we’re-
Ah, come on, one guy says, they’re just Leftists.
The group is herded onto the bus. Some of them rip up the flyers, others give us the finger, a few of them [males] tell us to “suck their balls” and still others are quiet.
* * *
We begin to walk, and now our chatter breaks loose, like a herd of animals let out of a small cage.
Whoa. Oh my God. Do you see that? Are you OK? Why did he push me? I’m allowed to take pictures, no? That was crazy! They were so angry. Not all of them, though. That was: right on, let’s do this again. Oh wow.
One of the activists in our group, Leanne, (also an excellent blogger and poet) asks: What’s going on? Why were they so aggressive? This is crazy. Is this supposed to happen?
I am reminded of a brilliant teaching on nonviolent direct action by Christian Liberation theologian Walter Wink. I summarize it then to Leanne, but I will quote it here in full:
‘’Non-violent direct action elicits violence, unmasks the structural violence of an unjust system and forces the system to attack or repent… The goal of non-violence is not tranquility, but God’s domination-free order, of which tranquility is merely a by-product. As long as injustice, inequality of opportunity and hatred exist, we are obligated to initiate conflict in order, if possible, to eradicate it. We cannot be content, therefore, with reactive non-violence; it must be proactive, aggressive, militant.”
These kids on Birthright are not the unjust system. But Birthright is. And the anger and near-violence that they displayed towards us is. The man in the market was not the system, and in fact, was trying to address one part of the system’s oppression (can we take a minute to think about how insane it is that in a country whose leaders say the word Holocaust every other sentence, there are not only 10 but tens of thousands of needy Holocaust survivors?!), which is why the best thing we could have done in that situation was what we did do: fold up and leave. Leave but not quit. Leave and find a group of forty tourists, munching falafel on a free trip to the Middle East where they learn a very specific narrative, to put it gently. The force of their reaction surprised me, too, though: What made them so angry? Why was this action such a threat? We wanted to find out more, and we walked onwards, towards Ben Yehuda Street, reinvigorated.
* * *
On Ben Yehuda, we quickly located another Birthright group. This time, we were more confident as we set up, and we agreed that we would not break character, no matter what. We agreed that most people who “engaged” us were simply looking for a loophole, a way out: “Are you all Jews?” Well, no… “Are you Leftists?” Well, yeah… “Did you serve in the army?” Well, some of… Not all… That’s not… “Why didn’t you protest the evacuation of Gush Katif?” Well… wait, what? And then, like that, they’ve found their way out, they can rip up the flyer, laugh it off- just another one of those _______s.
[We also agreed that we had made a mistake (busy-ness: the enemy of so many things in life) by printing our flyer only in English, and noted that for next time we absolutely needed Hebrew as well, even as our audience (today, and during All That’s Left actions in general) was primarily diaspora-affiliated English-speakers].
A third activist took the chair this time, and as he finished his speech, he concluded with the well-known singsong trope:
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _! (hamevin yavin: the understander will understand… or YouTube)
(_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _!)
Most of the group seemed to get the reference to the popular movie, and laughed. It loosened them up, and there were more flyers taken, less raising of certain fingers. We overheard one Birthrighter turn to her colleague and say, “I think they’re protesting the occupation,” to which he responded, “What’s that?”
Incredible, one of the activists in our group said as we walked away.
What is? we asked her.
This Birthright trip is going to have to speak about the occupation. One of the students, at least, is going to have to ask the guide what that was about, and the guide is going to have to provide some answer, either honest or bullshit, and if its honest, then the occupation has just entered Birthright’s agenda, and if its bullshit, I trust that at least some of these kids will be smart enough to begin to see through it. Incredible.
* * *
Next stop: Zion Square. This time, I was back on the chair, and I announced that we were reclaiming the square, and it would henceforth be known as George Washington Square.
A group of American girls passing by looked at us incredulously.
Get out of here! One said.
Yes. That is verbatim what she said. Cue: heckler.
Another asked: Is this for real?
Responding to her, I decided to improvise while staying in character.
Is this for real?
(Is this for real?) Replied the others, on board and rolling.
It is not for real.
(It is not for real.)
We are not really renaming Zion Square George Washington Square.
(We are not really renaming Zion Square George Washington Square.)
That sort of thing only happens
(That sort of thing only happens)
A kilometer down the road
(A kilometer down the road)
In Sheikh Jarrah
(In Sheikh Jarrah)
On Salah a-Din Street
(On Salah a-Din Street)
One woman, seemingly French, young and blond, came up to us and said: Thanks, you all. This is really important.
Exhausted, pulsating, reeling, we decided to do one or two more sketches and then call it. As we walked back towards the market, we saw another Birthright group. Chair placed, flags unfurled, activist up, cameras on, flyers ready: go. Same deal, same spiel, more confidence.
And we wonder why everyone hates America, one of them said.
Oh. My. Goodness.
I thought: That’s it. Of course I didn’t have time to spell it out there, and it only fully dawned on me as we were furling up and walking away. But that’s it. He said it, not us. “And we wonder why everyone hates America, rudely sticking their flag in places that don’t belong to them and then screaming to the world that they are doing justly.” Please, young friend, please, keep that comment in mind as you return to your college campuses, perhaps having gone through a “How to Defend Israel On Campus” Seminar in your high-school, as many of the members of our group did, perhaps having read all of Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel,” as many of the members of our group did. Why are those Palestinians (and those Jews) and others so upset? Why do they criticize Israel so fervently? Why do they use words like apartheid and segregation and discrimination and injustice? Why do they call for boycotts? Why do they protest? Is it because they hate Jews? Perhaps a few of ‘em, yeah, anti-Semitism definitely still exists in the world. But does that really explain it all? Or is much of it, most of it, the vast majority of it because they are upset and angry when they see a government planting its flags and its extremists, with impunity, directly in the public spaces (fields, post offices, squares) and private spaces (towns, villages, houses, houses, houses) belonging to other people. We pretended to be Americans taking over Israeli space and banning Israelis. People were furious. Just switch out the word “Americans” for “Israelis” and “Israelis” for “Palestinians” and go a few miles East, and there is nothing to pretend.
Two notes, in conclusion. I know, I’ve already gone on way too long, and no one reads long blogs, but there is SO. MUCH. TO. SAY. So, for those of you still with me:
(1) The Occupation It Just Under the Surface.
It is incredible how quickly people picked up on what we were doing. We were wearing no “leftist” paraphernalia, no black shirts, no Palestinian flags, and our flyer looked like propaganda, but certainly not lefty propaganda. More like “The Obama the Muslim was Born in Kenya Fund” propaganda, and only halfway down the page was there an explanation of our action. But people got it. The man in the market got it, and reacted strongly. The Birthright trips got it, and reacted strongly. And the Palestinian man picking up trash on Ben Yehuda got it. “Right on,” he said. “Good for you all.” Intrigued, and wanting to make sure I understood his understanding, I stopped to speak to him, in Arabic. I told him more about the idea, and the parallels we saw between what we were doing, and what is happening, say, on Salah a-Din street, for real. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “Keep it up.” The quick pickup (after the crucial moment of confusion and dissonance needed in any successful creative action) from so many different parties indicated to me something pretty profound, and perhaps even optimistic: the occupation is hovering just below the surface of everything here. People shop, they sing, they play sports, they garden, they munch falafel, they take tours, they get in fights, they drink coffee, they drive cars, the go about their days, and to the untrained eye, it could seem that the occupation, the system of checkpoints and night raids and walls and fences and shooting to death anyone who walks in the wrong place and segregated roads and stolen resources and indefinite detentions and changed street names and demolitions and violence and violence and violence is far away. Out of sight, out of mind. Fenced off, over there, no big deal, let’s go study in Ein Prat.
But it’s not: it is [more] out of sight, but it’s not out of mind. It’s there, it’s lurking, it’s everpresent. Like segregation in the 1950s US. Like apartheid in the 1970s South Africa. Not like American Indians today, truly disappeared. Not like today’s megaslums of South Africa, truly out of mind. This one is still present, and so this one is still winnable. Injustice hasn’t clamped its jaws shut yet. We did very little to draw out what is under the surface: ten folks, two flags, one chair and a handful of flyers. But draw it out we did. And draw it out again we shall.
(2) On Our Own Inner-Violence:
Walter Wink continues: “Non-violent action triggers our own latent inner-violence as well. We must learn to assume as second nature that this activation of our inner-violence is inevitable and monitor it as it arises.” And he’s absolutely right. We are not separate from the system. We are not inherently gentler or genetically more peaceful. Au contraire: we are just as capable of violence and aggression as every person who was violent or aggressive towards us on Friday. As one of the members of the collective said afterwards, as we debriefed, the violence of the crowds scared him mostly because he felt his own violent reaction welling up in response. Which takes a lot to acknowledge and is so crucial to acknowledge. So did I. So would many. But there is a difference between feeling and acting, between thinking and doing. We need to remember this as we act, and also to recall how “same” the “others” are to us, as we do actions that could potentially bring out violence. This will hopefully lead us to be more humble, to love more, and to be more compassionate with those who were angry at us, even as we continue to peacefully militate against the systems of oppression.
And today, as I write this, I’m not angry at any of them. I’m not angry at the Birthright kids, even the ones who said horrid things to us and cursed us out and I’m not angry not at the people in the market, even the ones who shoved us and told us to leave this country, and not at the man in the wheelchair. If I see him again, maybe I will ask if I can help fundraise for a few minutes, and maybe then we could try to talk.
* * *
[An abridged version of this piece was subsequently published as “The American Occupation of West Jerusalem” on +972 Magazine]
* * *
To read the response from Morris, the man from the Market, please go here. It is worth it, and this all was a beautiful, surprising and, I think, pretty rare interaction.