Category Archives: JRC I/P Study Tour 2010

Aziz Blogs: “My Brother’s Kippah”

You might remember my post last week from Palestine, in which I described how Aziz Abu Sarah, our Palestinian tour guide, put on my kippah in order to enter the Jewish-only section of Hevron.

Now Aziz himself has just written a moving piece in +972 about his experience:

As we approached Shuhada Street I was thinking of a way to stay with the group. I wanted to show them Abu Seneineh neighborhood, where my ancestors came from before moving to Jerusalem 80 years ago.  I wanted them to see my aunt’s house and share with them my childhood memories about Hebron. So, I found myself devising a plan that would allow me to pass through without raising the soldiers’ suspicions.

Before arriving to the street, I asked Brant, the congregations’ rabbi, for his “kippah” (skullcap). I put it on my head and walked straight up to the Israeli soldier at the entrance of the street. I told him (in Hebrew) that I have a  Jewish group touring from Chicago that wants to walk through. He only had one question: “do you have any Arabs with you?”  I answered confidently, “No, they are all Jews,” and that was all we needed to get inside the “Jewish area.”

I was amazed by what a kippah could do. Suddenly, I was not suspicious and was transformed for the soldiers from an enemy to a friend.  The kippah became my entry visa, my access papers. I felt like it was my “shibboleth” into an elite club and the kippah was like the card I swipe to get in.

JRC in Israel/Palestine: My Final Thoughts

JRC Israel/Palestine Study Tour Participants 12/21/10 (Photo: Rich Katz)

My turn:

Our JRC Israel/Palestine Study Tour has been over for almost a week now, but I think I speak for everyone when I say it was a transformative experience for us all. I’ll also say that I am bursting with pride and admiration for my fellow JRC travelers.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain this was an unprecedented Jewish congregational Israel tour. Most trips of this kind generally offer what I’d call a “hermetically-sealed” experience of Israel: an itinerary that remains largely west of the Green Line, offering participants a decidedly Jewish-centric perspective. I think most would agree it’s unusual for a rabbi to bring nineteen of his congregants on a trip that focused almost exclusively on East Jerusalem and the West Bank, spending the night in refugee camps, meeting with Palestinians, and learning from Palestinian civil society activists.

If I ever had any doubt, the reaction we encountered from those we met along the way drove this point dramatically home for us. Whenever we introduced ourselves and explained what we were doing, we’d invariably get the same open-mouthed reaction from our hosts. As the Israeli reporter Orly Halpern wrote me immediately after meeting with our group:

It was great meeting your open-minded and courageous congregation, Brant. Courageous because they were willing to hear the Other.

So yes, I’m very proud. Proud that we could take such a trip, and particularly proud of the congregational members who stepped forward to participate in it. Each and every one of them was willing to be deeply challenged – to lower their their ingrained defenses enough to face very real and painful truths – a reality that often directly contradicted the image of Israel with which they were raised.

Jewish Settlement in the heart of the Muslim Quarter (Photo: Rich Katz)

To be sure, it’s one thing to read about Israel’s oppression of Palestinians in the newspaper or hear about it second-hand; it’s quite another to witness it right in front of you where it’s impossible to rationalize or explain away. These congregants were willing to go places – literally and figuratively – where most American Jews remain resolutely unwilling to go. They were ready to let down their guard and be touched and transformed by what they saw.

And they were. Over and over and over again.

There will undoubtedly be those who will criticize us for taking a trip such as this, who will claim that our tour was “not balanced,” that is was unduly “biased,” that we didn’t take time to hear from the “other side.” I can’t help but be struck that these kinds of concerns are never raised when Jewish congregations organize Israel trips that pay scant attention to Palestinians and Palestinian life. And I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone in the American Jewish establishment criticize Birthright trips for being too “one-sided.”

I also believe that in our obsessive need to achieve balance, we conveniently ignore the fact that this is an inherently unbalanced conflict. As trip participant Marge Frank so eloquently put it in her previous guest post, “When one people is being oppressed and occupied by another, there is only one side to the story: that of the oppressed.” For most American Jews, it seems to me, the truth of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is impossibly difficult to admit – and so we habitually explain it away, rationalize it, or deflect it in the name of balance.

With Daoud Nasser in one of the natural caves on his family farm, Tent of Nations (Photo: Rich Katz)

At the end of the day, the experiences I wrote about on my blog this past week weren’t mere isolated examples of Israeli bad behavior. The home demolitions in Silwan, the attempted expropriation of Daoud Nasser’s family farm, the dehumanizing checkpoints, the racial separation and settlers’ harassment in Hevron – in the end I believe these are all part of a larger fabric of persecution. As painful as this might be for us to admit, these are not merely exceptional blemishes on the face of an otherwise healthy state. If any of us had any doubt about this, it became painfully difficult for us to deny once we saw it with our own eyes.

Kobi and Aziz, Hevron (photo: Rich Katz)

While our group experienced some profoundly dark truths, however, we also bore witness to very real signs of hope: the resilience and dignity of the Palestinian people and the inspiring example of those Israelis who stand in solidarity with them. In this regard we had no more powerful example of than Aziz and Kobi, our Palestinian and Israeli tour guides – two very courageous men who have transcended their own painful pasts and are now devoting their lives to reconciliation, justice and peace. As every member of our group will agree, they were truly our guides in every sense of the word.

For myself, I’m irrevocably committed to this journey now – and I am heartened beyond measure to know that there are American Jews who are willing to take it with me.

Busy Hevron street, (H1) (Photo: Rich Katz)

Shehadeh St. in Hevron (H2), now rendered completely off-limits to Palestinians

Demonstration at Silwan Peace Tent, E. Jerusalem 12/24/10 (Photo: Rich Katz)

Translation: "There is no holiness in an occupied city." Silwan demonstration, 12/24/10 (Photo: Rich Katz)

Jerusalem Has Other Lovers, Too: A Guest Post From Palestine

Silwan, E. Jerusalem, 12/24/10 (Photo: Rich Katz)

Here’s a guest post by Liz, another participant from our trip:

Looking back, it becomes clear to me that I fell in love with Jerusalem years before I would ever meet her.

We finally did meet for the first time in 1987, when I went to Israel on a high school summer program. Arriving instantly confirmed my feelings. I saw the forests of trees that I helped to build as a little girl all those times I answered the JNF’s call to give money to plant a tree in Israel. I saw the beautiful Jerusalem stone buildings everywhere. I saw Jews, feeling safe after the Holocaust, walking around proud to be there. I knew I was in love.

Subsequently, now that I was in love, I planned to spend my Junior year of college abroad in Jerusalem. But the Gulf War was launched the semester I was supposed to go and I was stuck in the US, separated from my lover. I missed being in Jerusalem so much that I told myself if I couldn’t go Junior year, then I would go for graduate school. I lived in Jerusalem from 1992-1996 and received my Master’s degree in English and Hebrew Literature from Hebrew University.

I was still in love. I was a young woman in my twenties living in Jerusalem walking the streets with pride — as though my whole life had led me to live, work, and study in this beautiful city. I deserve to be here, I am welcomed here, I need to be here.

Having just returned from the JRC trip to Israel/Palestine, I can’t get two things out of my mind. First, that my love for Jerusalem still runs very deep. And second, that it does for others even more so. Having stayed in the West Bank once before as a facilitator for Hands of Peace (a Chicago-based Israeli-Palestinian coexistence program), I was not blind to the Palestinians’ plight. For many of the Palestinians with whom I stayed, I was the first Jewish person they had met who wasn’t a soldier. They were hospitable, generous, and hungry to tell their stories. I listened, and when I returned to Chicago, I read everything I could.

This JRC trip, however, was very different. It was incredible to go with a group of Jews who had agreed to put themselves in emotionally vulnerable, uncomfortable situations which would require a lot of thinking, reflecting, and feeling. It was as though we all walked out onto a tightrope, knowing we could not go back.

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From the Side of the Oppressed: A Guest Post From Palestine

Here is a guest post from Marge Frank, one of the participants from our trip:

Brant asked me to post on his blog, as the only Israeli-American on our tour, in order to add this perspective to the discussion.  I am honored to do so, albeit a bit overwhelmed as to how to choose what to share. This has been the most amazing, depressing, overwhelming, and transformative experience of my life and I’m still reeling from the multitude of emotions I’ve experienced.

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A Day in Jenin, Return via Checkpoint

On our final full day in Palestine, we spent the morning and afternoon in the Jenin refugee camp. Our first stop was the Jenin Freedom Theatre.

The Freedom Theatre was founded by Israeli political and human rights activist Arna Mer Khamis in the wake of the First Intifada. Arna’s project used theater and arts to address Jenin’s childrens’ trauma, chronic fear and depression that resulted from the violence of the Intifada and the Occupation. Arna passed away in 1995 and her work has since been carried on by her son Juliano.

The Freedom Theatre’s theater building was destroyed during Israel’s military invasion of the Jenin refugee camp in 2002. It was rebuilt in 2007 and now flourishes with an array of amazing programs, performances and cultural events.

JRC member Joel Gratch at the entrance to the Jenin Freedom Theater

What makes the Freedom Theatre truly special is at the end of the day, it is about Palestinian solidarity – not simply another example of coexistence, dialogue or Israeli noblesse oblige. All who work at the Theatre, whether they are Palestinians, Israelis or internationals understand that above all, the Freedom Theatre is a form of Palestinian cultural resistance.

As part of our tour, we viewed these two films (at top and below) about the Theatre’s work. The films elicited a deeply emotional reaction from our group. When you will watch them you will understand why – and why we must learn about and support invaluable projects such as this.

After our visit, we toured the refugee camp, which has only partially been rebuilt since the Israeli military invasion in 2002. We then boarded the bus for our ride back to Jerusalem. When we arrived at Bethlehem (though we technically didn’t need to) we got off the bus and walked through the checkpoint in order to get a first hand look at this daily, signature Palestinian experience. We had the luck of arriving before rush hour – and of course of being American tourists who were undoubtedly being given preferential treatment by the IDF.

We waited in line and eventually arrived at a long, narrow chute that forced us into single file. One by one, we filed through a huge steel turnstile, which locked frequently with the flash of a red light and a loud buzzer. Once through the turnstile, were in a kind of an antechamber, in which soldiers spoke to us through a loudspeaker from a control room on the other side of thick glass. We were instructed to put our packs and metal objects on a conveyor belt/x-ray machine, and eventually emerged on the other side.

Those who have never seen an Israeli checkpoint cannot fathom how massive and extensive they are. This is something far beyond a mere road block or airport security line. Everything about this experience reminds you of your abject disempowerment; of the fact that you are utterly, frighteningly at the mercy of an armed power much greater than yourself.

It was impossible for us to begin to comprehend what it must do to Palestinians who has to endure such humiliation on a daily basis. And again: we weren’t even asked to disrobe, step away form the line, or wait for literally hours on end.

I didn’t take any pictures, but here are some images of the Bethlehem checkpoint from ActiveStills. They’ll give you a good solid sense of the scale of this massive checkpoint:

Stay tuned for some guest posts and final thoughts.

West Bank Realities Beyond the Headlines

Palestinian nonviolent leaders Iyad Morrar (left) and Bassam Tamimi (right) address our group, Ramallah, 12/26/10

On Sunday morning we visited a cafe in Ramallah where we had meetings with a variety of Palestinian leaders. We gathered into the upstairs room of a coffee house and met first with an official from the Palestinian Authority. But the highlight of our meeting was as visit from two prominent Palestinian nonviolent leaders: Iyad Morrar from the West Bank village of Budrus and Bassam Tamimi from the village of Nabi Saleh.

Iyad’s leadership in Budrus has recently become the subject of a new documentary film, which powerfully demonstrates how he brought together a wide coalition of villagers and solidarity workers to successfully keep the construction of the Separation Barrier from destroying their village. When I saw the film, my first impression was that while it was undeniably inspiring, it didn’t explain that Budrus is largely one isolated success story – and that the IDF is going its level best to suppress the Palestinian nonviolent movement through brutality at demonstrations and the widespread imprisonment of their leaders.

When I mentioned this to Iyad and Bassam, they agreed without hesitation.  There are in fact numerous examples of Israeli soldiers firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets directly at protesters. Just a week before our visit, an international protester in Nabi Saleh was severely injured after directly hit in the back of the head with a canister as he was trying to take cover (see below).

Tear Gas in Nabi Saleh, Dec. 10, 2010 Photo: Joseph Dana

I’ve been trying my level best on this blog to highlight the growth of nonviolent popular committees in the West Bank, which are enormously important and eminently worthy of our support. It was deeply gratifying to bring congregants to meet leaders such as Iyad and Bassam, who are resisting daily oppression with principled, moral steadfastness. Where are the Palestinian Ghandis, asks the American Jewish community?  Well, we just met with two of them in a Ramallah coffee house.

From Ramallah we headed due north to Jenin. It took our bus driver several attempts to find the right route as it is never immediately clear which roads are open and which are closed. We did however, sail through a checkpoint, which had been eased in honor of the Christmas holiday.

After passing through Nablus, we arrived at the town of Jenin, and gathered in the main office of the Palestinian Fair Trade Association. JRC has been selling PFTA olive oil for years, thanks to the leadership of member Lynn Pollack. The PFTA is the largest fair trade producers’ union in Palestine, with over 1700 small Palestinian farmers joined in fair trade collectives and cooperatives across the country. They work with olive farmers’ cooperatives through the northern West Bank and women’s village cooperatives that produce cousous, za’atar, sun dried tomatoes, olive oil soap, etc.

We then visited the PFTA’s main exporter, Canaan Fair Trade and were given a tour of their impressive facility by Administrative Manager Ahmed Abufarha (below). This multi-level operation is where coop farmers bring their olives to be pressed, stored, packaged and shipped and where their other products are prepared for export as well.

Much like our visit with Iyad and Bassam, our visit the Jenin fair trade community is an important reminder that there is a West Bank reality beyond the headlines that we read every day. Our job, we now realize, is to bear witness to these realities – to cultivate these relationships, and to do our part to extend them to the world upon our return.

After touring the Canaan Fair Trade facility, we broke up into groups and went off to our home visits. I was in a group of four JRC men who stayed with a family in ‘Anin – a West Bank village 15 minutes west of Jenin, just east of the Green Line.

Just like in Deheishe, we hit it off immediately with our hosts. For several hours, we sat in the living room of Awad – an olive farmer and retired captain from the PA police. Awad has ten children and received us with incredible graciousness. That’s Awad and his youngest, below, flanked by JRC members Ray Grossman, left, and Danny Newman, right

During the course of the evening, several men from the village gathered in the living room to meet us. Between our mutual English, Hebrew, French and pigeon Arabic, we were able to communicate quite well. At one point, we mentioned that we were American Jews and that I was a rabbi – a revelation that stopped them in their tracks somewhat.  After the initial bewilderment, however, our freewheeling conversation continued on and on. At one point, they pulled out the nargila pipe and we puffed away, I confess, with a fair amount of abandon.

Danny Newman, who is a High School math teacher talked extensively with another young man from the village who teaches High School Physics, comparing notes. Michael Deheeger, who speaks fluent French, spoke with another man who studied engineering in Algeria. I talked politics with a young man who wanted to know what I thought of Obama and if I thought he would be able to broker a peace treaty.

After a while, the young men asked us if we’d like to go for a walk through the village. While it had been a long day for us and it was starting to get pretty late, we all readily agreed. It was a mild evening with a dazzlingly clear night sky as we walked through the winding roads of ‘Anin. They showed us two of the natural springs of the village, which produce sweet, fresh water that runs off from a nearby mountain. We then stopped on the side of the road, built a campfire (which we were told was lit up there every evening) and sat around chatting, smoking locally made ‘Anin cigarettes.

'Anin by day

Like our experience in Deheishe, our visit was extraordinary for its simple ordinariness. For our part, we were taken by the humanity of our new friends, which is readily evident despite the obvious turmoil of their day to day existence. We were also moved by their genuine curiosity in us, their desire to get to know us better and host us in their village again. For me, and I think most of the members of our trip, this has been the most transformative experience: getting to know new friends and breaking down the politically-driven barriers that have long kept us from connecting in such a simple but immensely important way.

I do not hesitate to say we will continue to nurture these connections and will return to visit these new friends as soon as we can.

My next post will describe our final day in Jenin and offer some final thoughts. I’ll also post some thoughts from trip members, all of whom had been profoundly transformed by this journey.

Jaffa’s Bereavement Past and Present

Friday began with a trip to Jaffa – once a thriving Arab port city, now part of the Tel Aviv municipality. Jaffa was emptied of its residents in 1948 and today “Old Jaffa” is has been turned into a quaint artist’s colony. For most tourists who frequent Jaffa’s galleries and restaurants today there is little indication of the rich Palestinian cultural history of the city. And even fewer have any idea that there is a Jaffa slum neighborhood, Ajami, which is populated by internally displaced Palestinians and their descendants.

Our tour of Jaffa was led by Sami Abu Shehadeh (above), a Jaffa historian and community activist who was recently elected to the Tel Aviv/Jaffa city council. Sami began by explaining Jaffa’s history as port city and by recounting the long line of occupying forces that have left their mark on the city over the centuries. He then gave us a view into the Palestinian life of a place that only exists today in vestiges: a mosque that is now a fish restaurant, Arab homes that have been converted into stores and high scale art galleries, etc.

Our tour of Ajami was also intensely eye opening. Sami described how in 1948, the majority of Jaffa’s 100,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled in fear for their lives, crowding onto ships that took them to refugee camps in Gaza and Lebanon. Others traveled by foot to camps in Nablus or Jordan. The remaining 4,000 were rounded up and brought to Ajami, which was literally turned into a ghetto surround by fences and guard dogs. Sami said that his own grandfather, who used to be able to drive from Jaffa to Beirut, needed military permission to leave the neighborhood.

According to Sami, the trauma experienced by the Palestinians of Jaffa was really threefold. The first was the total destruction of their social reality as a result of their expulsion from their homes and the lives that they had known. The second trauma was economic: after their expulsion, the new Israeli authorities passed the Absentee Property Law of 1950, by which it could “legally” seize their properties. In many cases, these “absentees’” homes were their taken from them while they lived just a short distance away in their new ghetto.

The third stage of trauma Sami called “coexistence.” After the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, the new State of Israel began absorbing thousands of new Jewish immigrants from around the world by placing them in seized Arab property. When all of the homes in Jaffa had been occupied, the Israeli housing authorities began dividing the homes in the Ajami ghetto into apartments and housed Jewish immigrants together with Arab families. Imagine, Sami said, if you were forced to live together with the very people who were now serving in the army, and quite possibly going own to kill your own family members in Gaza or Nablus before returning home to live with you under the same roof.

Our tour of Ajami also included a neighborhood that was undergoing heavy gentrification, with multi-million dollar beachfront homes, renamed by developers “North Ajami.” Sami pointed out the irony that many of these rehabbed Arab houses used to be home to poor fishermen who lived near the coast – and are now inhabited by embassy workers and billionaire businessmen.

Later in the afternoon, our group attended a demonstration in Silwan, the neighborhood in East Jerusalem that we visited on Wednesday.

There have been weekly demonstrations held in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah every Friday for almost two years to protest the ongoing evictions of Arab residents and occupation of their homes by Jewish settler groups. The Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement sponsored Friday’s protest in solidarity with Adnan Ghaith, a community activist from Silwan who was recently handed a court order expelling him from Jerusalem for four months.

Below is a pic I took of of a young protester inside the Silwan peace tent. The peace tent has been standing since 2008 and has been slated for demolition by the Jerusalem municipality for being a “focal point for incitement.”

At the protest, I had the pleasure of running into peace activists Yonatan Shapira and Rami Elchanan (below). I met Yonatan last May when he visited Chicago and his activism has since become a huge source of inspiration to me. Both Yonatan (right) and Rami recently participated on the latest flotilla of boats attempting to break the siege of Gaza by bringing symbolic amounts of humanitarian aid to its citizens. (Click here to read more about their experience on the flotilla).

On Shabbat, Rami came to our hotel in East Jerusalem to speak together with our tour guide Aziz about their work in the Bereaved Parents’ Circle. I’ve written a great deal about this organization over the years, which I believe to be one of the most important peace and reconciliation groups in Israel/Palestine. Rami, who lost his fourteen year old daughter to a suicide bombing and Aziz, whose older brother died after being tortured in an Israeli prison as a teenager, both spoke movingly and openly about their pain, the anger, and their personal transformations as a result of their work in this amazing organization.

Later in the afternoon, we heard a presentation by Israeli journalist Orly Halpern, who, for my money is one of the gutsiest and most intelligent reporters on the Mideast conflict. Her talk on the pragmatism of Hamas was eye-opening to say the least. (And she did it all with her three month old Adam in a Snugli…) Check out Orly’s blog here.