Overcoming Isolation in Gaza: A Report Back

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Gaza City, 10/8/17. The Bakr children were killed on this beach by Israeli military forces on 7/16/14.

I’ve been writing a great deal on this blog about Gaza for over ten years but until this past week, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit in person. I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity to experience Gaza as a real living, breathing community and I’m returning home all the more committed to the movement to free Gaza from Israel’s crushing blockade – now eleven years underway with no end in sight.

For the past ten days, I’ve been attending strategic planning meetings with staff colleagues of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to sharpen our vision for our Israel/Palestine programs in the US, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We began with three days of meetings in Ramallah – with our Gazan staff members joining us via Skype. Following these meetings, six of us spent two days in Gaza, hosted by the two full-time members of the Gaza staff: Ali Abdel Bari and Firas Ramlawi.

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AFSC Israel/Palestine staff meeting in Ramallah (with Ali and Firas joining us from Gaza via Skype).

It’s extremely rare for Americans to receive permission from Israel to enter Gaza through the Erez Crossing. Permits are generally issued only for journalists and staff people of registered international NGOs. Though I was technically allowed to enter Gaza as an AFSC staff member, I wasn’t 100% sure it would really happen until the moment I was actually waved through the crossing by the solider at Passport Control in Erez.

Quakers have a long history in Israel/Palestine – dating back to before the founding of the state of Israel. The Ramallah Friends School for Girls was founded in 1889, and their School for Boys in 1901. The two schools subsequently merged into one; now well into the 21st century Ramallah Friends remains a important and venerable Palestinian educational institution. (The former head of the school Joyce Aljouny, was recently appointed AFSC’s General Secretary.)

AFSC has a particularly significant connection to Gaza. In 1949, immediately following Israel’s founding and the start of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the organization was asked by the UN to organize relief efforts for refugees in the Gaza Strip. Their efforts continued until the United Nations Relief Works Agency started its operations there a year later. Since that time, AFSC has retained its programmatic presence throughout the Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Up until relatively recently, AFSC’s Palestine youth program focused largely on Public Achievement, seeking to strengthen the civic ties of youth to their communities. Our current program, Palestinian Youth Together for Change (PYTC) is a more ambitious project, working to combat Palestinian geographical, social and cultural fragmentation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It’s difficult to overestimate the devastating impact of this fragmentation – particularly on Palestinian youth who are growing up with increasing separation from one another. This isolation is most keenly felt of course, by the youth of Gaza who are literally imprisoned by Israel inside a small 140 square mile strip of land.

When we met the Gazan youth who participated in the PYTC program, they spoke powerfully about their experiences growing up with a strong sense of Palestinian identity while isolated from their peers in Israel and the West Bank. This particularly hit home for me when I heard one young woman speak of entering into Israel through the Erez Crossing for the first time to travel to the West Bank for meetings with her fellow participants. She was eighteen years old and had never seen an Israeli Jew in person in her life. Up until that time, she said, she had only seen them as “helicopters, planes and bombs.” Needless to say, this contrasted dramatically from the experience of her West Bank peers, who encountered Israeli soldiers as a very real, everyday presence in the streets and at checkpoints.

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With current participants of AFSC’s Palestinian Youth Together for Change program.

It’s also important to bear in mind that this isolation is not a “humanitarian” issue that can be fully addressed by greater NGO and civil society investment. Rather it is the result of very real and very intentional policies promulgated by Israel to purposefully divide and weaken Palestinian society. By the same token, the PYTC program is not a merely a youth service project – it’s ultimate goal is to strengthen Palestinian identity in order to counter the brutal and unjust occupation of their people. In this regard this program is connected in important ways to AFSC programs in the US that promote “co-resistance:” initiatives that support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, advocate for Palestinian children held by Israel in military detention and educate the public about the devastating costs of the Gaza blockade.

There’s so much more I could write about my experiences in Gaza. As I prepare now to head back to the States, I’m struggling to give voice the myriad of emotions that are flooding through me. At the moment, I’m thinking particularly of Ali and Firas, our Gaza staff members, who were not only gracious and wonderful hosts (although they were entirely that); but also talented and visionary organizers who teach us a great deal about how to do this work effectively in the most extreme of circumstances.

Even under the brutality of Israel’s blockade, we could not help but be struck by the beauty of this place and the dignity of its people and culture (which includes, I hasten to add, the deliciousness of its cuisine). As it happened, our visit occurred immediately after the beginning of reconciliation talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, brokered by the Egyptian government. Most of the Gazans we spoke to expressed a guarded sense of hope that it might result in some easement of the blockade – particularly in regards to freedom of movement, drinkable water and electrical service. Of course this optimism occurs within a constant context of isolation and vulnerability. The next Israeli military assault is altogether possible at any moment – and every Gazan must contend with this horrible reality every moment of every day.

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Left to right: AFSC staff Jennifer Bing, Lucy Duncan, Erin Polley, Brant Rosen, Mati Gomis-Perez, Aura Kanegis and Firas Ramlawi. Kneeling: Ali Abdel Bari

I’ve posted below some additional pictures (and one video clip) of memorable moments from our visit. My staff colleagues will be writing more about these moments and I will be sure to share their posts here. For now, I’ll end on a note of gratitude: to AFSC for giving me the opportunity to participate in this sacred work; to our gracious hosts in East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza; and to my US staff colleagues who are true travel companions in more ways than one.

I took the picture at the top of this post during our final hours in Gaza. As we debriefed on a beautiful morning over coffee at a seaside cafe, three young boys who likely should have been in madrassa came down to the beach to hang out and have fun together. The loveliness of the moment was both very real and very illusory. There was no mistaking the beauty of the place and people with whom we were sharing this moment. At the same time, however, we were aware that we were in the affluent tourist part of town and that we were privileged enough to soon be leaving Gaza to travel without restriction. We were also well aware that not far from the place these boys were standing, Ismail Mohammed Bakr (9), Zakaria Ahed Bakr (10), Ahed Atef Bakr (10) and Mohamed Ramez Bakr (11) were murdered by Israeli naval fire while they played soccer on the beach on July 16, 2014.

There can be no illusions where Gaza is concerned. As I leave for home, I’m more convinced than ever that we are all complicit in this cruelty – and that we are the ones who must end it.

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The almost mile-long corridor between the Erez Crossing in Israel and the entrance into Gaza.

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Our meeting with the Gazan Fishermen’s Union. Ali translates the presentations of Zakaria Bakr – chair of the union and uncle of the murdered Bakr boys (Center), and Amjad Shrafi, President of the union (Right). Below: video from our morning excursion with Gazan fishermen:

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At the Rafah crossing, on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.

Rabbinical Support for the End of Unconditional Military Aid to Israel

Cross-posted with The Palestinian Talmud:

The undersigned members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council stand with our American Christian colleagues in their recent call to “make U.S. military aid to Israel contingent upon its government’s compliance with applicable US laws and policies.”

We are as troubled as our Christian colleagues by the human rights violations Israel commits against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of US – supplied weapons. It is altogether appropriate – and in fact essential – for Congress to ensure that Israel is not in violation of any US laws or policies that regulate the use of US supplied weapons.

The US Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act specifically prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of US weapons to “internal security” or “legitimate self-defense.”  The Christian leaders’ letter points out, in fact, that the most recent 2011 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices covering Israel and the Occupied Territories detailed widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of US – supplied weapons such as tear gas.

It is certainly not unreasonable to insist that foreign assistance be contingent on compliance with US laws and policies. Mideast analyst MJ Rosenberg has rightly pointed out that during this current economic downturn, Congress has been scrutinizing all domestic assistance programs -– including Social Security and food stamps –- to ensure that they are being carried out legally in compliance with stated US policy.  Why should US military aid to Israel be exempt from the same kind of scrutiny?

While some might feel that requiring assistance to be contingent with compliance would compromise Israel’s security, we believe the exactly the opposite is true. As Israel’s primary ally, the US alone is in a place to create the kind of leverage that might challenge Israel to turn away from policies that impede the cause of a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians –- and true security for all who live in the region.

As Jews we acknowledge that the signers of the letter, and the churches they represent, have ancient and continuing ties to the land of Israel just as we do, and that their concerns for the safety and dignity of Christians in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories is as compelling as our concern for the safety and dignity of Jews there.

We are troubled that several Jewish organizations have cynically attacked this faithful and sensitive call – and we are deeply dismayed that the Anti-Defamation League has gone so far as to pull out of a scheduled Jewish-Christian dialogue in protest.  We believe that actions such as these run directly counter to the spirit and mission of interfaith dialogue. True dialogue occurs not simply on the areas where both parties find agreement, but in precisely those places where there is disagreement and divergence of opinion. We call on all of our Jewish colleagues to remain at the table and engage our Christian colleagues on this painful issue that is of such deep concern to both our communities.

We express our full support for the spirit and content of this statement and likewise call upon US citizens to urge their representatives to end unconditional military aid to Israel.

Signed (list in formation):

Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Margaret Holub
Rabbi Alissa Wise
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton
Rabbi Lynn Gottleib
Rabbi Brian Walt
Rabbi Julie Greenberg
Rabbi David Mivasair
Rabbi Joseph Berman
Cantor Michael Davis
Rabbi Shai Gluskin
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone
Jessica Rosenberg, Rabbinical Student
Ari Lev Fornari, Rabbinical Student

Creative Women’s Empowerment in Rwanda


Tuesday began with another return visit: this time to the Ineza Woman’s Sewing Cooperative in the Ramera district of Kigali. Ineza was founded in 2006 by WE-ACTx, who helped group of women with ten sewing machines to create an income generation project for their community.  They were initially supported by WE-ACTx, who helped connect them with the Latin School in Chicago and eventually Ineza dolls were sold at (of all places) the swanky Barney’s store in Chicago’s Gold Coast for $50.00 to $100.00 a piece.


Now a thriving women’s craft cooperative, Ineza sews a variety of items out of beautiful African textiles, including handbags, clothing, laptop cases, wallets, etc. They have now grown to the point where they are financially independent of WE-ACTx and maintains their own bank account. Their gorgeous merchandise has also become available via the internet through Manos de Madres, so as soon as you finish reading this post you should check them out and buy their products.

After lunch, the youth members of our delegation joined the young people of the WE-ACTx youth program for the afternoon while the rest of us volunteered at another WE-ACTx  income generation project – a new women’s jewelery cooperative in Nyaconga (below).

The women of Nyaconga make lovely glass beaded bracelets as well as recycled paper necklaces and earrings. Right now their work space and showroom is located in a large drab space that does little to show off their beautiful work.  So with the help of our new artist friend William (who designed the mural painted last Friday at the WE-ACTx children’s library) we were mobilized to paint the walls of the space in colorful shades of light purple, pink, green and yellow (below).

I have to say we’re getting pretty good at painting – and it’s been enormously satisfying to help support these economic empowerment efforts in this way.  Four of us will return to the showroom on Thursday to finish assembling the showcase and arrange the large amounts of jewelry inside.

Our teenagers reported that they had an amazing, joyful afternoon with the WE-ACTx young people. I’m going to try to coax one or more of them to write guest posts about their experiences. Stay tuned…

How to Support Relief Efforts in Somalia

From the NY Times:

Much of the Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, has been struck this summer by one of the worst droughts in 60 years. But two Shabab-controlled parts of southern Somalia are the only areas where the United Nations has declared a famine, using scientific criteria of death and malnutrition rates.

I commend to you this report from Charity Navigator, which includes essential information about this tragic, urgent crisis along with the highest rated orgs currently doing relief work in the region.

Volunteering + Values: What’s Motivating the Jewish Young Folk?

Repair the World, has just released “Volunteering+Values,” a report commissioned  “to understand the full extent of Jewish young adults’ volunteer habits and preferences.”  I’d say its findings/recommendations contain implications that North American Jewish communal institutions would do well to heed.

Conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis
University and Gerstein|Agne Strategic Communications, V+V surveyed a sample of Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and investigated their volunteer commitments and attitudes.

Among the findings I found notable:

Only a small portion of Jewish young adults prefer to or actually do volunteer with Jewish organizations … The minority of Jewish young adults who volunteer through Jewish organizations do so to support their own people and community. By contrast, the vast majority of Jewish young adults say it does not matter if they volunteer with a Jewish or non-Jewish organization.

Hand in hand with this finding, the report noted a growing universalist identity among Jewish young people:

Jewish young adults are primarily drawn to service through universal rather than Jewish-based values or identity … Only a very small portion of Jewish young adults volunteer as a means to represent the Jewish community to the larger society.

Not surprisingly to me, many Jewish young people seem to be turned off by what they perceive as the overly tribal concerns of the organized Jewish community:

Today’s Jewish young adults have grown up amidst and are at home with ethnic and religious diversity … As a result, most are concerned for all victims of poverty or injustice, not just those who are Jewish. It appears that they do not believe that Jewish organizations share this concern for universal causes.

I was particularly struck that Israel ranked consistently at the bottom of the list of priorities of young Jews. According to one graph, only 1% of those surveyed cited Israel/Middle East Peace as an “issue focus of primary volunteer work” (at the top of the list: “Material Assistance to the Needy.”) Another graph charted the geographic focus of primary volunteer work thus: 79%: Local Community, 13%: Domestic Non-Local, 4%: Developing World, 3%: Israel. (This trend is particularly noteworthy since the primary sample used by V+V was the Birthright applicant pool – a data base of 300,000 young Jews who either participated or applied for a Birthright Israel trip between 2001 and 2010.)

Among the many strategic implications identified by the study, this one resonated for me in particular:

Efforts are needed to educate Jewish young adults of the deep connection between Jewish thought and volunteering without implying that it is an exclusively Jewish perspective or only pertains to support of the Jewish community. Jewish young adults, regardless of denomination or level of religious involvement, should be encouraged to “own” a Jewish perspective on service. Widespread efforts are needed that draw attention to and link the universal and Jewish values that Jewish young adults already hold with the causes about which they care most deeply.

As always, I’d love to hear reactions.

Israel in Haiti: More Perspectives

Some more interesting features on Israel’s relief (and public relations) efforts in Haiti…

The Jewish Forward:

(On) the ground was a retinue of Israelis dedicated to making sure people heard about their country’s humanitarian mission and spreading the word. Press officers from the Israeli military were flown in, as were photographers and a video team to document the work of Israeli medical and rescue personnel. They distributed daily footage to the press. Representatives of Israeli and foreign media were embedded with the group, and other reporters were invited.

A day after the Israeli field hospital opened, two Israeli officers in uniforms canvassed the row of TV producers sitting in their broadcast positions along the city airport’s runway. “We’re telling them about our hospital,” one said.

A feature from The Media Line by Brian Joffe-Walt:

Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli public opinion researcher and political strategist … (said) “Israelis hate when they are seen only in light of the conflict, especially when they are seen as aggressors, and they feel that most of the world is against them, with the possible exception of America.”

“As a result, Israelis are extremely supportive of anything that shows them in a better light because it’s so rare that they get any good news about how they are viewed in the rest of the world,” Scheindlin said. “We see this whenever there is global attention towards Israel for anything other than the conflict. This happened recently, for example, when an Israeli won the windsurfing gold medal or when an Israeli astronaut died.”

“That said, do I think the government participated in this aid effort for publicity? Absolutely not,” she said. “I don’t think it was a cynical move. Israel would have participated anyway. But Israelis do try to use these things to try to leverage a better image for themselves around the world.”

A very trenchant article by Ha’aretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer:

The fundamental reason that Israel is routinely treated much more harshly than its adversaries, despite the fact that they very often carry out far worse atrocities, is that Israel puts itself out to be so much better than them. If in almost 62 years of existence, Israel had succeeded in evolving into a tinpot dictatorship, like most of its neighbors and many of the countries that achieved independence during that period, no-one would be holding it to such high standards, sometimes perhaps, unfairly. Israel is not condemned regularly in the media just because it keeps millions of Palestinians under occupation and embarks on a another mini war every other year, but because it is a country aspiring to be a western democracy while doing so.

Various pro-Israel advocacy groups publish glossy pamphlets detailing the manifold benefits Israeli technology has brought the entire world. Every word there is true and in the next editions, there will be an extensive chapter on the IDF’s international humanitarian missions, complete with photographs of the field hospital in Port-au-Prince. But that won’t improve Israel’s international image one iota. Quite the opposite.

We are a disproportionate country, and the difficulty is to reconcile a tiny brave democracy capable of such acts of greatness with an occupying regime constantly at war with its neighbors will continue to bring us bad headlines. Once the delegation comes back from Haiti.