Menajem Perez's family bar mitzvah trip to Israel
posted by Israel Maven tours on facebook
Most of my Sept./Oct. trip to Israel and Palestine was demoralizing. The two societies are utterly separated and have zero sense of shared community. The Israeli community is contained in its values and beliefs and privileges and has no idea about Palestinian conditions, and Palestinians in the occupied territories are utterly contained in a segregated world. The sense of impending conflict is overwhelming. I found myself hating the Israelis for their colonialism and racism and apartheid but not wanting to jump into the bath of Palestinian resistance completely. It is not that I differ with the Palestinian analysis, it is only that the emotion is so raw, sore, victimized, and revolutionary, and the denial involved in referring to Israel as "'48" seems a kind of blindness.
I found this separation of consciousness and community so scary that at times I said to myself, I’m American, this isn't worth dying for; I need to get out of this mess and tiptoe away.
Then at the end of my trip in Ramallah I got a glimpse of hope, in an Arab Spring social media way. I had dinner with Abir Kopty and Joseph Dana and others and had an upward mood swing, to the belief that the same forces that upended the fear of Mubarak's unending totalitarian order in Egypt could also upend the fear in Israel and Palestine of the unending segregation order. A new idea has come, borne by a new generation. But that's at the end of this story…
This was my fifth trip to the area and I spent less time in Israel than ever before. I realized that I am unconsciously boycotting Israel; I want little to do with the place. But Israel feels like a geographical anachronism, a New-Jersey-Austria teeming with guns and North Face and Ben and Jerry’s, implanted in the Arab world.
Here are two of my West Jerusalem walks:
I walk out of the Old City at the Jaffa Gate, and there are two young women at a little kiosk handing out cards to send a care package to an Israeli soldier. The appeal is entirely in English. Notice this language: "Express... our unity." Thank them! Message: You live a protected life in the U.S. so we are defending the Jews.
I walk down to the David Citadel, a forbodingly lavish hotel designed by Moshe Safdie, and draped over the bronze and granite façade is a weatherproof banner for Menajem Mendel Perez’s bar mitzvah tour, organized by an Israeli touring company called Israel Maven tours with the M&Ms logo on the banner-- you can glimpse it at right.
I go back to my room and find Israel Maven Tours' facebook page and there is Menajem and his family firing guns on his bar mitzvah tour. (picture at top)
And look: Here's a video of Menajem's grandmother firing an automatic rifle, on facebook.
So that’s what he did on his bar mitzvah. Now you are a man. Go fire guns.
I walk up the hill to the King David Hotel to taste the history of the British mandate period and famous terrorist Zionist attack on the hotel in 1946 and the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. Instead I find myself walking down a long hallway in the hotel reading a row of tiles with celebrity guests’ signatures. I am thinking of world history and standing on Candice Bergen and Metallica.
I go to Rosh Hashana services at an English-language synagogue in Jerusalem and come out afterward as a sandy-haired youth in green Teva sandals is showing off his M16 to friends and family. Actually his father is showing the gun off. The little bearded father is telling the friends what rifle barrel is longest, Uzi, M16, Kalashnikov. “I was trained on a Springfield .303,” the kid says in a New York accent.
There is such a worship of guns in Israel, and so much fear-- fear of this historical moment, of the Arab spring, of Turkey, of democracy. I felt as if the Israelis intended to recreate the Warsaw Ghetto, this time with guns. For the historical framework of the Warsaw Ghetto rationalizes Jewish ethnocentrism and militarism-- and expiates the survivors’ guilt so many Jews feel because they lost their whole family in the Warsaw Ghetto.
This framework explains why Israel has done so much to alienate Egypt and Turkey. The isolation fulfils the Israeli emotional baseline: the world hates us. And now opposition to the UN statehood initiative is just isolating Israel more.
There is something self-destructive about Zionism. The myths of Masada and the Warsaw ghetto are romances of self-destruction. And now the Zionists are isolating Jews from any larger ideal, and embracing hatred, and there is no way this can end happily…
I spent most of my time inside the occupation, observing the treatment of Palestinians. This is crushing to see. Every American Jew should get a little taste of what I saw. And every American. I've described some of my journeys inside the occupation here and here and here.
Palestine is cut up into different sections, A B and C, and whenever you are on the border of Area A you see big red signs warning Israelis not to go there, it's dangerous. There is a feeling inside Israeli society that if you even walk into these areas you will be torn limb from limb-- Palestinians are teaching their children to hate you in squalid refugee camps that are nests of masked terrorists.
This is part of the segregation of Palestinians. It is like the fear that white Americans used to have of the ghettoes, but reinforced by law and the "security" wall. I know that I had that fear too. I’d never been to Nablus before this trip, I thought of that as Deep Dark Palestine. Who would be able to pull me out? The Marines won't help me!
Then you go in and it is another human place. People are working, or they are walking with their families. People smile at you and want to help direct you to your destination. The famous hospitality is just that-- deeply welcoming.
But everyone’s life has been touched by military occupation, and the stories never end. These people hate the occupation. I can't blame them.
I met Saed Abu-Hijleh, an American-educated lecturer and poet, whose mother was gunned down right next to him outside their hillside villa in Nablus 10 years ago. His father is a leading surgeon in Nablus-- his father is like the surgeon you'd want in an American hospital, stony, neat and precise. His wife was gunned down by Israeli soldiers as she was doing embroidery on the stone terrace. Their house in Santa Monica would go for $5 million. During the first intifadah young Saed was shot in the stomach at a demonstration and imprisoned, and beaten in prison till the stomach wound opened up again. When he got out, his father shipped him to American schools to save his life.
I met the mayor of a village in the Jordan Valley who was shot three times when he was 15 when he was walking out to his family’s fields to visit his parents. Haj Sami Sadeq was paralyzed.
He showed me around his village, and at the women's clinic, I met a young Palestinian American woman in a sequined belt and designer handbag whose brother was killed when the Israelis blew up a police station during the second intifidah. She had come to the clinic with her mother, who wore traditional clothing. The mother says a prayer for her son every morning. The young American is suburban; she is afraid to come back here.
“The way I look at my country, I like rules. I want people not to live in chaos. In America there is freedom because there are laws. I like the law. Here they live under chaos because there are no rules.”
These are not unusual meetings. Yes, Abu-Hijleh and Haj Sami are leaders, I sought them out. But meeting that woman was entirely random. The sense of lawlessness is pervasive. Israel is trying to take their lands. That is the largest truth of the occupation. It is a "slow-moving... ethnic cleansing," Bill Fletcher Jr. says accurately; and fear and uncertainty and despair fill every molecule of political consciousness. The American government paves the roads and builds clinics and puts up huge billboards, normalizing the occupation-- but it does nothing to stop the neverending theft of lands by violent settlers supported by the army.
“These people need one thing—“ says Gilbert Carlson, a tall young idealistic American teacher in Nablus. “Exposure. They need their story to be told to the outside world. What they need is for the people from the governments that support Israel to wake up and realize what is going on here is beyond absurd. The word absurd doesn’t begin to characterize it.”
Carlson tells me of the frustration he experiences trying to describe a checkpoint to friends back in the States. Imagine hundreds of people standing waiting in the cold, women and children up to their ankles in mud, as Israeli teenagers in uniform sort though their documents, he says. But Gilbert doesn’t feel he can ever convey that scene.
“Before I set foot in Palestine I would have said, ‘the occupation is fucked up,’ but really I had no idea what was going on here. There really are no words. Or I’m short on words for what I’ve seen. There are too many emotions to put across, that words don’t allow. And in the end I say, You just have to come visit a checkpoint.”
I experienced that emotional battering time and again in Palestine. I wondered what I could say or do to convey what I was seeing to Americans. What picture could I take? What wail could I record?
And what struck me most of all was that where you would expect to see an international force protecting a vulnerable population, you see 24- and 25-year old international idealists, like Gilbert Carlson. Where some international legal body ought to be separating the populations and protecting the weak from the fourth largest army in the world and airlifting supplies to Gaza, there are 24-year-old kids—like Morgan Bach, a teacher from Seattle who lives in Haj Sami's village so that it is not wiped off the map by Israeli military bases that surround it and have demolition orders for the town. The courage and sacrifice of these young people is inspiring. I would never be capable of it. Some day their deeds will be recorded in history books: that when governments failed to do anything to protect people, they stepped in.
My side is frequently accused now of trying to “delegitimize” Israel. And I know that some on my side see no legitimacy in Israel and work to delegitimize it by calling it ‘48 and Palestine. But when you visit the place it is clear that Israel has done most of the work for them. Its complete indifference to the 1967 lines of international consensus, which its advocate Alan Dershowitz described as “Auschwitz borders,” as Abba Eban did before him, justifying the Warsaw ghetto with guns and Candice Bergen-- well, they showed the same indifference to the 1947 lines of international consensus, UN Partition. And the ethnic cleansing and colonization that Israel carries out today in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and the Negev serve to undermine the liberal idea that the establishment of the state was a blow for human progress, rather than just a chapter in the story of colonization and expulsion and the white man's burden.
“1948 is still going on every single day, but that’s a tough narrative to sell in the U.S.,” Gilbert Carlson says.
I told Carlson that the American view is changing. The statehood initiative and Obama’s collapse have woken a lot of Americans up to the issue. Henry Siegman recently used the word colonialism in connection with Israel. And the New York Times is doing stories about Israel’s international isolation with the thrust that Israel has brought this situation on itself. America has been damaged; Netanyahu’s humiliation of Obama at the United Nations has shocked our liberal Establishment. And Nicholas Kristof’s piece reluctantly calling for democracy in the entire land is animated by awareness of this isolation.
But the Israelis, even the good ones, are incapable of sorting this problem out for themselves. The occupation is "lovely" for them, as Nabil Sha’ath put it. A leftwing Israeli Palestinian friend who hates the occupation has started ignoring politics and says that it is a time of hopelessness: she has to live here and there is nothing she can do to change things. You stop even thinking about it, she says, because you can’t see any good coming from any of the players, the Quartet, Obama, Netanyahu. They are all so incapable of doing any good.
She is in her 40s. One of the problems with the conflict is age. The old are all locked in their generational understandings, and those understandings are failures. Nabil Sha’ath is locked inside the great saga of Palestinian resistance, compromise and Oslo—the failed saga of his lifetime, and no one wants to admit that the saga is a failure. Anyone over 45 or so in America who cares about the issue has also been trained by a group of experiences that begins with terrorism and ends with an olive branch and historic compromises and the dream of two people living side by side, oh how can we achieve it.
Partition has a generationally ordained quality. Sha’ath in his 70s supporting Partition as the climax of his life's arc. I’m 56 and sometimes support Partition. We have old eyes. Young people have a wisdom born of new experiences and assumptions. It is no surprise that the most interesting voices on the struggle, from Adam Horowitz to Ali Abunimah to Max Blumenthal to Susie Abulhawa, are in their 30s.
My last night in Palestine I spent in a Ramallah restaurant courtyard under a pomegranate tree with young social media activists, Abir Kopty and Joseph Dana and others. Kopty is from the Galilee and Dana from the US and Israel. They say that their crowd is a small one, but what inspiring belief and esprit de corps they have. They remind me of the Egyptian facebook revolutionaries: they have a new idea they truly believe in and don’t see why it can’t be brought about. Democracy-- really, is that such a hard idea to absorb?
And though their movement ramifies in a lot of different ways (nonviolent protest, international voluntarism, boycott, the statehood initiative, etc) it is really in the end a mental struggle, they are resisting old ideas, and they must convince millions of people who are set in an old way to say I am for democracy.
Tahrir could not have happened without western media-- without the worldly young revolutionaries using facebook and the American networks to leverage their struggle; and in the end Kopty and Dana are also seeking to leverage western media. They are up against the same kind of generational opposition that Tahrir faced. Because of their heroic battles, the old think that two states is a good and legitimate outcome. There is that attitude to overcome. Not just in America and the Israel lobby, but in “international consensus."
Well Mubarak had international consensus behind him, didn’t he? Ideas and attachments can dissolve in a few seconds. Nicholas Kristof and Daniel Levy, both fairly young, are saying the same thing: We have to talk about the possibility of one state.
One big wall the dreamers must tear down is Israeli fear. Israelis know that they have done wrong. When Micha Kurz of Grassroots Jerusalem came to the United States and talked about the occupation a year or so back, he visited a conservative synagogue where wise men acknowledged everything he told them about Jerusalem. But they said their great responsibility in political life is to protect Israelis, and they are afraid that when the Israelis lift their boots from the neck of the Palestinians there will be a bloodbath. The Palestinians will turn on the Israelis.
At our dinner under the pomegranate, Joseph Dana said that this was the big emotional play of the Israel supporters in the U.S. But he said that Ali Abunimah has shown that the same fears prevailed in South Africa, and were used as a dam against progress; and in fact when apartheid was ended, there was not a bloodbath. While Abir Kopty pointed out to me that if Palestinians had wanted to slaughter Israelis, they could have done so on any number of occasions before now. They could do so right now, and they don’t, she said. They have generally always sought another means.
Of course historical models don’t mean that much in the end. We can look at the American civil war and Algerian independence, or for that matter the battles against tyranny in World War II, and predict that there will be great bloodshed in Israel and Palestine. Kopty nodded. In the end we have to take the risk.
These young people’s ideas are stronger than their parents’ generation’s ideas. The idea of a liberal democracy embracing both Palestinians and Jews is exciting and in line with western ideals and the Arab spring. The model on the showroom floor is about racial separation and colonialism. It simply cannot win. Even Hillary Clinton says it is unsustainable.
And maybe I am caricaturing Israeli society when I describe it as the sum of Menajem Perez’s bar mitzvah and the M16 in the American shul-- or the young pretty border officer I saw standing in her booth at the Allenby Bridge crossing to scream at a Palestinian woman with her children. I am seeing the worst aspects of that society. I am sure that Israeli society has many good points that I am missing from being in the community on the other side of the green line. But I know that I will be indifferent to them, and even must be indifferent, until Palestinians are free.