Lillian Rosengarten, the only American on the Jewish boat to Gaza, lives near me in the Hudson Valley, and the other day I visited her to interview her about her experience on the British-flagged catamaran that the Israelis had intercepted on the high seas on September 28.
I hoped the activist/therapist/poet could answer a big question. How did she reconcile two important events in her life: her family had fled Nazi Germany when she was a toddler, but now, 73 years later, the state created to rescue the Jews had deported her and said she could never come back?
It was Wednesday afternoon. The door was open and Rosengarten was in her kitchen. There were three pots on the stove. She was making beans and soup for a sick friend.
We sat down in the living room near a carving from New Guinea. Rosengarten was rested and relaxed, and I thought of how fretful she had been before she left, as she waited to hear from the secretive boat organizers in Europe. Her friends and family had been afraid for her, we kept hearing rumors that she was on the list or off the list, she had nearly taken off on a trip she’d planned to Indonesia. Since then she’d had an adventure on the high seas and become a public figure. She’d been quoted in the New York Times, people were calling her from all over.
I asked her whether she’d been afraid to go.
“I was afraid from the beginning. There was some ambivalence, and on the other hand I absolutely had to go on this mission. I knew damn well this is dangerous. I knew what happened on the Mavi Marmara, I knew what happened in Dubai. I am not a martyr and I wanted to survive the trip. But if I were to die, I thought, so be it, I have to go.”
From the moment when she had first heard about the German Jewish boat (its original name) early last summer, she had felt called to be on it. “I thought, I have to be on that boat. It was completely emotional, not intellectual.”
Rosengarten was born in Frankfurt in 1935. By 1937 her father had seen the writing on the wall and arranged to get most of the extended family out. Today her relatives are scattered around the world, on several continents. Many live in Israel. Though she was never a Zionist, Rosengarten went to Israel a half dozen times, the first time in 1971, when she fell in love with the country.
“Finally I was a Jew in a place where I felt no prejudice, no anti-Semitism.” Even on that first trip though, writer Hans Lebrecht, her father’s first cousin, a resistance fighter in World War II, now a member of Gush Shalom, pointed out to her the racism in Israeli society toward Mizrahi Jews– they were seen to be inferior– and she found it shocking. Later on she made Palestinian friends, and saw their lands taken and their houses demolished, and was appalled, and never shy about expressing her views.
Rosengarten said that the feeling on the Jewish boat had been wonderful for two days. The six passengers and three crew had melded around the hope that their dream would come true, that the Israelis would recognize the importance of reconciliation and of their symbolism, and allow the little catamaran to go on to Gaza. The passengers would come up on the beach into a crowd of Gazans and say, “We are Jews, and we find it despicable what’s going on toward you.”
They carried relief supplies, but these were largely symbolic. A high-tech device for purifying water, children’s books from a German’s school, backpacks, and musical instruments. Holocaust survivor Reuven Moskovitz brought harmonicas. In the evening, Moskowitz played one, and the group sang—traditional Jewish songs, American freedom anthems.
Yet they prepared for the worst, put off their arrival in waters twenty miles off Gaza till daylight, because they did not want to go through the Mavi Marmara’s experience of having percussion grenades and rubber bullets fired on them in the dark. So it was daylight when the Israeli boats came on to the horizon, and then surrounded them.
“We saw 9 or 11 warships, some with guns, and then they were at the front and the back and the side of our little boat—and why!? It was inexplicable to me. Inexplicable. That our little catamaran with nine Jews, survivors in their 70s and 80s and all of them human rights activists, that they should send nine boats with guns pointed. Because they were looking at us with binoculars and they had all this radar equipment, and machine guns.”
It had seemed so obvious what the Israelis ought to do, for “optics.” They would have served themselves best by sending a small boat out to intercept the catamaran. No guns, but an ambassador coming on to the deck, to say, Sorry folks, we can’t let you through.
“How is it that we are surrounded by – these soldiers dressed to the gills with the boots and the Tasers and the helmets and the gloves with the fingers showing?” Rosengarten said. “This to me was completely incomprehensible. That this platoon of soldiers and guns and everything else surrounded us as if they were looking at the face of the enemy, and they had to protect thmselves from something.
“And that is when I realized it was war. What war was this? Who were they fighting? They are fighting each other, and themselves. I did not know that you cannot dissent from the Israeli government position. You cannot say no. And since I got back I read Gideon Levy saying, that each year of occupation has made the Israelis harder. Gradually they have become dehumanized. And their enemies also are dehumanized.
“That it was day made it less ominous. Still they came on board with their boots and we were all sitting there, and Reuven, he was holding his bag of harmonicas, and they had scattered them on the deck of the boat. And their heavy boots were very close to the harmonica, I think one of them was smashed, and Reuven lost it. He was screaming. ‘Give me my harmonicas!’ They were so symbolic. At this point, they had kicked Glyn to the ground to get him off the wheel [captain Glyn Secker], and I was so afraid for Reuven. I thought, Oh my god they’re going to hurt Reuven, he’s lost it. But then he got his harmonicas, and later I thought if it hadn’t been for the Mavi Marmara, they might have shot this old man.
“And the two refuseniks, Yonatan and Itamar [Shapira, brothers and crew members]. Itamar’s being tied up on the other boat, and they’re tasering Yonatan. He was screaming. It was just fascistic. It could have been Haiti under Duvalier, it could have been Chile under Pinochet, it could have been Franco’s Spain.
“Then after all that, when another boat came to the side, and they handed off a big plastic bag, and what comes out of it, but sandwiches!”
“Did you eat them?” I asked.
Rosengarten glared at me. “NO! Why would we eat something from the Israeli army, why? Why would we eat their food? After what they had done to us? We were doing active resistance. Eating the sandwiches, that would be like turning the wheel when they asked us to turn the wheel. It was unbelievable. But you know– they were probably told to bring them to us, to the Jews.”
I laughed hard. “Were you afraid?”
“Of course. But physically was the least of it. I wasn’t afraid of being killed. Some of the soldiers, their eyes had softened, and you could see past the indoctrination. I was afraid for all of Israel, and all of Gaza.
“I saw first hand the dehumanization and the brutality and the single vision and rigid tunnel vision. I could see the truth of the most moral army in the world. No army is moral. And this army, it is brutal, not only to others in Palestine, but to Jews who dissent.”
I said, “I keep seeing a little sailboat surrounded by gunboats.”
“Yes. Why? Why? This is a really important question. What kind of political statement is it? What is this paranoia? What is this fear?”
How did she answer those questions?
“It’s very simple. What was revealed was really the most powerful component of this trip– Jews against Jews. I saw the side of the Jewish experience that will do anything to preserve the myth of Israel. And the Jews who dissent–against the Jews who’ve become a military state that seized Palestinian land and that has a siege of the entire Palestinian population and enforces collective punishment– well they lose their humanity, and that dissent has to be crushed, to keep the myth of Israel going. Look at Yonatan. When a man of conscience decides he can’t bomb Palestinians, he says, no I can’t do it, he is seen as a traitor instead of a patriot. And now it is to the point that a Jew who doesn’t go along with the right position is deported.”
She had brought up my question. I asked her what it means that she fled Nazi Germany as a young Jew and now she has been kicked out of Israel as an older one.
Rosengarten lowered her head and cried.
“That’s exactly what I’m feeling, behind all these words. Because Israel always did exist in my mind as an ideal. My image of Israel was this place of return, a refuge for all the Jews, a place where Jews are good to one another, a country where they can be free and safe.
“Now I think, what was it all about? That this country, that’s supposed to be a haven to Jews, where Jews are going to be safe, can act like this. Not just to us, but the way it treats the Palestinians, their land, their water. And this issue of deportation, it is absolutely horrendous. I thought that all Jews have a right to be in Israel. To be cared for. To be safe. But as soon as we voice a dissent against the actions of a government that is brutal, that dominates another people, that commits collective punishment, when we cry out, No that’s not right, we’re deported.
“I’m weeping because– you know, I think about my mentor Hans. He is 91. I can’t ever go to visit him. I can’t go there if he dies. And my Palestinian friends, I can’t see them again either.”
“So you are feeling grief?”
“Oh I’m feeling tremendous grief, but mostly it’s grief about Israel. The road that it’s taken.”
Rosengarten is a person of broad experience. She has been married and divorced, had three children, lost her first son to drug addiction. She has lived in beautiful places and had a fulfilling professional life. She has traveled widely, crossing many cultures. To Irian Jaya to see the bush, to Borneo to see the rain forest, to Vietnam to see the cu-chi tunnels that the North Vietnamese used in their resistance, to Cambodia to see the killing fields, to India, Ladakh, Kashmir, Mexico, Greece. But this trip had given a new arc to her life, it had connected her childhood as a refugee with her adulthood. I asked her how that felt.
“It’s surreal. It’s Felliniesque. The reality and the non reality of this experience are flowing through one another. I’m trying to come to terms with the reality of my own refugee background and of Israel. And my response is sheer nausea–at the truth of what Israel has become.”
Some relatives are angry at her. One was in Dachau, another was in the kindertransport that saved children from Germany even as their parents stayed.
“I understand. They are coming from a deeply personal background where they need to believe in that Israel. There’s no way to crack their dream of Israel, to change their dream.”
Her own understanding is different. “I feel like I’m transported. I’m not the Lillian I was, and I have a mission in life to speak up for human rights in Israel and I feel driven to do this.”
I said, “You said on the phone that you want to go back, to Gaza.”
“I’d love to go back. I want to see my Palestinian friends and my Israeli friends. I want to have dialogue with perceived enemies. I want to talk to them and have them talk to us.”
It sounded like she was going to be taking a more public role.
“How can I not be? I’ve gotten a taste. I was in the experience. Some things that were speaking to me unconsciously from my own childhood have surfaced since that first email, and they are growing ever since. I have to speak out. I have to speak out for as long as I can. To say, there are Jews who do not support what is happening.”
Rosengarten doesn’t have a political program apart from getting each side to see the humanity in the other side.
“I do believe in one state. Really, I think it can only be one state. People tell me, well it has to be in steps. OK, I understand that.
“But I’ve always been an activist and now I’ve found something to struggle for. A different sort of Israel. Wait what is that–”
Rosengarten jumped up. The beans were burning. She rushed into the kitchen.