A Garden in New York: Thoughts on September 11th

A few days after I arrived in New York, I walked past a startlingly beautiful garden.  It was only a few yards long, and not carefully manicured but filled with an overflowing bounty of flowers and plants.  It filled the narrow strip of space between the sidewalk and a fire station, and on the wall of the building was a plaque dedicating the garden to the memory of the listed firefighters.  Then I understood why there was such a beautiful garden wedged in there.

There are circles of grief, circles of how close you are to the center of us.  When the US reacted in horror and outrage to September 11th, most of us were in quite peripheral circles.  This garden was built by people who had lost friends, colleagues, and probably family.

The TV in the hospital cafeteria is reading names, slowly working its way through the alphabet.  They are up to the “W” names.  Sometimes relatives are speaking for moment about the people they miss.  Others use the old clichés, tired meaningless phrases we assume we ought to hear.

What can I say. What can anyone say.  There is nothing to say after a massacre. 

Rage is an anesthetic, so it hatred.  I think about the outrage in the US in 2001, about the hatred, particularly the vile Islamophobia that took root (and also the vile rumors about Jews that I won’t repeat so as not to give them life).  These are such human responses, though often they responses of people in the outer circle, the people least affected.  The people most affected are often trying to get through the day, and the next day.  The TV is up to the “Y” names now.

I think about the day I realized that the number of civilians killed by the US in Afghanistan had surpassed the number of Americans killed on September 11th.  That was over a decade ago, the numbers have only gone up.  I don’t mean to weigh one group against another, I just want to say: enough.  I am deeply opposed to the idea that the American killings of civilians in the Muslim world justified the September 11th attacks, and I am deeply opposed to the idea that the killing of Americans, in the past or in the future, justifies the continued attacks of drones bombing, killing, civilians in Pakistan and Yemen.

Is there a worse memorial we can build than to continue the killing in their name?  Let’s plant more gardens.  Let’s make sure the families who lost loved ones continue to receive whatever help and support we can give.  Let’s make sure that the traumatized survivors, particularly rescuers, received the support that they need.  And in memory, and in honor, of those who were killed, too young, let’s stop the killing. 

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Yes to recognition, no to uprooting the Bedouin villages

I am frantically coloring in letters, and double-checking my spelling via google, because my ability to spell in Hebrew is atrocious, when my friend Lauren calls me, asking if I know where the protest against the Prawer plan is. I guess I’m not the only one late- she is at the correct intersection, and a moment later she says that a group with banners and a megaphone just showed up.  I finish coloring in my poster, which read “Yes to recognition, no to uprooting, no to Prawer.”  (It sounds better in Hebrew, I promise.)

Look at all that nice spelling. (translation: "yes to recognition, no to uprooting, no to the Prawer plan")
Look at all that nice spelling. (translation above”)

It’s a small crowd when we get there, and it never really gets bigger, so I’m extra glad to be there, and to see Lauren and Dave.  Most of the protesters are Bedouin, and then there are a few stalwarts from the Negev Coexistence Forum, as well as a few English speakers.    A little boy runs up to me and gives me a big sticker that says “we are all al-Arakib”, in three languages, referring to a Bedouin village not far from here that has been demolished 49 times, and rebuilt 48 times.  I sound out the Arabic letters, but just for practice- I already know what it says “kulna al-araqib”. It helps when the Hebrew and Arabic words are almost the same.

Someone is passing out postcards to sign and mail in.  We look them over.  We’re sending these to Netanyahu, observes Lauren.  I try to read it over; I like to know what I’m signing.  It’s pretty straightforward, calling on him to oppose the Prawer-Begin plan, and I sign it.  I sign it for the same reason that I’m here, because there is legislation before Parliament, expected to pass, that will give official recognition (and the niceties that come with it, like water, electricity, roads, and maybe a school) to about half of the currently unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, and will demolish the other half, evicting their residents and moving them into development towns.

Yeah, I’m against that.  Because I can’t imagine it ending well for anyone in this region, not in three years, not in ten years, not in fifty years, because when you lay the seeds of inequality this deeply, we will all pay the price.  Because maybe a lot of countries treat the Bedouin poorly but the Egyptian government (both Mubarak and Morsi) is not my ethical standard.  Because I don’t care how messy people’s legal claims are, if their great-grandparents didn’t register their land properly under the Turks, or if they were displaced more recently by the Israeli military, or by being on the wrong side of conflicts or judgments by tribal leaders, there are better solutions that taking away from the country’s most vulnerable citizens what little they have.

It’s easy to imagine how this will end.  There will be only a slight outcry, and minimal attention, it’s not for nothing that this blog is named “In the Periphery.”  The Prawer-Begin plan will become law, the police and bulldozer operators are already used to their roles from the steady trickle of demolitions and evictions that have been going on for years.  The 35 villages slated for demolition will be a memory, a story parents tell their children, a few ghostly traces visible in satellite images.

And then I imagine, what if next week’s protest (Monday, 5 PM, the corner of Metzada and Rager, next to merkaz morim, and steps from the second bus stop in the city for any bus coming from the north) is a little bigger, and the week after, there is a bigger one still?  Maybe there will be an outcry.  This past Thursday, eight houses in the village of Atir, outside of Hura, which is itself not far from Beer Sheva.  Merav Michaeli, one of the higher-profile members of the Labor party in the Knesset, was there with the villagers during and after the demolitions.  Maybe we’re not that far off the radar, maybe something can still be done.

I find protests a bit of an awkward thing, and I’m glad Lauren and Dave are here.  I keep wishing there were more people, especially more Jewish Israelis, here in solidarity.  The youngest boy is now sitting in the grass playing with the stickers, a slightly older boy is hamming it up on the sidewalk passing out Negev Coexistence Fliers to people walking by; I want these kids to know, whatever happens, that there were people who stood by their side.

Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron, which is al-Khalil

“Thank you for what you said earlier,” said the Doctor travelling with us, as we got off the bus in Jerusalem. I was confused for a moment, then I remembered he was referring to the scene outside of maarat ha-makhpela, the tomb of the patriarchs in Hevron. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron, and Abraham came to mourn for her.

Our guide, Mahmoud, had brought us as far the entrance to the synagogue portion of the building, and told us that he could go no further- he had once asked if he could but they did not let him. Twenty steps or so down the path, the soldiers came back and stopped us. Mahmoud spoke with them in Hebrew on behalf of the group. At one point, he identified us as a group of tourists, which included both Jews and non-Jews. At this point the soldiers said that anyone who was Jewish could present their documents and would be allowed to enter. I wondered how he had known that a few of us were Jewish.

Mahmoud presented this offer to us in English. Of our group of about forty, I was one of three Jews. I hesitated for a second, then barely knowing what I was doing, or maybe knowing exactly what I was doing, I ran up to Mahmoud and to the doctor. “I think we’re travelling as a group, as friends, and I’m one of the Jewish students here, and I don’t think some of us should go where others aren’t allowed.” The other two Jews nodded in agreement from where they stood. So we walked back to the mosque entrance. I wondered if I was allowed in there. I wondered if they would ask if we were Jewish, and if so, if this would be a dumb place to admit it. But no one asked anything except that us women don hooded cloaks, that gave us the appearance of extras from the set of Hogwarts, and that we remove our shoes. Remove your shoes from your feet, for the ground where you stand is holy.

I could read enough Arabic to identify the tombs- Sarah by the entrance, Rebecca and Isaac side by side in the middle.

pretty sure that says "rifka, wife of the prophet is'hak"
pretty sure that says “rifka, wife of the prophet is’hak”

The front of the room- with its calendars, religious calligraphy, and bookshelves with jumbles of crumbling books painting with gold leaf reminded me more of synagogues than I expected, so much so that I picked up a book to confirm that the writing on the spine was in fact Arabic and not Hebrew. Mahmoud pointed out a bullet hole in the wall- it was from the Baruch Goldstein massacre, he said. The past isn’t gone, it isn’t even past.

the bookshelf and calender at the front of the mosque
the bookshelf and calender at the front of the mosque
bullet hole at the front of the mosque, courtesy of Baruch Goldstein, ימחוק שמו
bullet hole at the front of the mosque, courtesy of Baruch Goldstein, ימחוק שמו

A short story: there is a soup kitchen near the mosque entrance, because Abraham is called “al-khalil” in Arabic, “the friendly one,” and kindness to strangers is one of his attributes. They say that no one is ever hungry in Hevron; I don’t know if it is true. The root of the Hebrew name is also “friendship.”

I was jumpy on this trip. I wasn’t worried about violence as our group looked sufficiently international and non-Jewish. I was jumpy because of my own internal conflicts. I don’t want to have a “side”. I don’t want to ever see things as “us” versus “them”, especially not when “us” means Jews, and “them” means Palestinians. At the same time, I share a religion/ethnicity, though not a nationality, with one group of people there. And I don’t understand how they reached the point that they did, but the behavior of settlers in Hevron is regularly horrifying, as is the behavior of the soldiers assigned to guard them (often to the soldiers themselves, as one can see in the testimonials of soldiers from Breaking the Silence.) I don’t know how many settlers in Hevron who would not consider me a traitor, a self-hating Jew because of how frequently I run my mouth on the subjects of coexistence. The proportion of followers of Kahane is high among the settlers of Hevron, some of his followers have included left-wing Jews among their assassination targets, which, I guess if you look at it right, is sort of an honor.

wall between Jewish and Arab streets.
wall between Jewish and Arab streets.

The doctor’s son was one of our guides, and he had lived in Hevron for two months with a team of Christian observers, documenting the random yet routine friskings, harassment, and arrests by soldiers. He told us stories from his time there, and it was clear to me that he had come to love the Palestinians there, and was mostly horrified by the soldiers and settlers he had encountered there, that in principle he believed he should love them, but he could not internalize it.

I don’t mean to single him out, I often get jumpy around international activists, in a way that I don’t around Palestinian activists. I worry that my people are invisible to them- our fears, our dreams, our humanity. I worry they can’t see further than a soldier’s helmet, to look into peoples’ eyes, I worry that they conflate the settlers in Hevron with all Israelis. I worry when they say “oh, I have a side here,” when I have seen Israeli and Palestinian activists, who have so much more at stake, and have endured so much more, who have overcome that sort of thinking, when I believe that overcoming that sort of thinking is the only thing that might ever make a difference here.

And then I chide myself for that jumpiness. Many of them are doing a lot more than I am to document and prevent human rights abuses. It’s often at a certain amount of personal cost, and they often start to carry personal baggage. I know a little something about carrying the weight of things you’ve seen. I know I have my own blind spots. I squirm away from the doctor’s son’s stories, and have to remind myself that they jibe fairly well with the testimonies of IDF veterans collected by Breaking the Silence, that I have no reason to doubt him. Maybe just recognizing our blind spots is a good start.

I ask the doctor’s son how it is for him being back in Hevron. He says it is hard, his stomach has been twisted up in knots all day. I nod in recognition. I know something about that too, Derech Aza in Jerusalem used to do that to me, but that was years ago and last time I was there I was ok.

Maybe I talk about that too much. Sometimes I don’t know how not to talk about it. I probably would have the same views that I have now if I hadn’t been there in the bombing’s immediate aftermath. But just as a tattoo or a piercing modifies the body, there are things that modify the soul, and what I believe is burned into me with fire.

As trauma, scars, and emotional baggage go around here in Israel and Palestine, I got off easy.

I don’t remember how it came up, but someone asked me at dinner how I stopped being a Zionist. I told him that I did not consider myself anti-Zionist, but that my attachment to the land was personal, not governmental. I told him my views in general took form when staring at blood and death, and the moment I knew that I didn’t wish it on anyone.  He said that my perspective was pretty cool. I notice that my hands are shaking.

Also at dinner, a classmate raised the possibility that only violent resistance would change things. I hadn’t really been part of that conversation, but I jumped in, and said that it was the worst thing that could happen, the second intifada had decimated what remained of the Israeli left, had created another traumatized generation. I don’t know why I made a utilitarian argument; it wouldn’t matter to me if I thought a violent third intifada would end the occupation. Maybe I have my own blind spot here, if so I don’t think I can change it.

entrance to the mosque
entrance to the mosque (was a little distracted at the synagogue entrance, so didn’t get a picture.)

There were three Jews today in Hevron who did not behave as soldiers or as settlers. Three Jews refused the privileged status the city offered us. We weren’t the first to do so, or the last. A tree fell in a forest. Did it make a sound?

On the bus, I apologized to my classmate who had made the violence comment for jumping down his throat. He told me he didn’t really support violent resistance, he raised it as more of a thought experiment, because he didn’t know what would end the occupation. I didn’t like this theoretical violence, because at the end of the day it is not theoretical people with shrapnel wounds, or theoretical burnt flesh and a stream of blood trickling down the pavement, and this is true in Jerusalem, and it is true in Jenin and in Gaza. It is not theoretical families who are bereaved, in Ashkelon, or in Hevron. So I pushed him on this line of argument a little further, I made my classic pitch, by which I mean deeply held belief that as future doctors, we have to transcend sides, because we have to be ready to fight to save the life of any patient who comes into the hospital, even if we consider them our worst enemy. Otherwise, how are we different from that which we claim to hate?

I have a side. It’s the human being in front of me, whoever it is. Bullshit, you probably say, and you’re right. But I’m trying. Will you try with me?

Rocks can kill. So can rubber-coated bullets.

Rocks can kill. So can rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, and tear gas itself. So can checkpoints.
Amira Hass wrote an article in Haaretz explaining, and possibly defending, the throwing of rocks by Palestinians at Israelis.
The IDF responded with a statement by their spokesman that rocks can and do kill people.
That is a true statement. I can’t argue with it. Although if you are really setting out to kill someone, there are much better options, like guns, and bombs. One the other hand, if you know that rocks have killed people, and you continue to throw rocks at people, then you made a choice to do something that risks killing people, no matter what your intentions really were.
It’s not a bad start that the IDF recognizes that engaging in tactics that sometimes injure and kill people is wrong, but it’s fairly meaningless unless it is applied more broadly. The IDF also engages in tactics, often called “riot control” that have a history of killing people. That may not be their intention, but they are continuing to use tactics that have killed people.
Things like “justice” and “human rights” only mean something if you apply them beyond the narrow scope of your own interests.

Non-violence, continued.

I wrote last week that I am grateful for the Palestinian non-violence movement. (I still am.)

But what I wrote feels somewhat incomplete.  Non-violence tends not to be popular, or easy.   It is also not a one-way street.

I think it’s often the only decent choice, and often the only option that might lead to a future with equality, justice, and peace, as opposed to just inspiring more hatred and killing, but it is often a lot to ask of people.   If you’re asking it of others, you should probably first be asking it of yourself.

It’s not necessarily an easy place to stand.

Non-violence is staring the aftermath of a bombing in the face, and not wishing what you see on your enemies.  Non-violence is recognizing that the anger you feel is only a mask, and underneath it is sadness.  Non-violence is refusing to be enemies.

Non-violence is remembering, even when rockets are coming toward you in Beer Sheva, that you do not want missiles and bombs directed at your neighbors in Gaza, who are not so different from you, and opposing those missiles and bombs.

It means supporting Al-Arakib, and Sheikh Jarrakh, and Bil’in, whose residents have been peacefully protesting the expropriation of their homes and land.

It includes Israel’s conscientious objectors, from the founders of Yesh Gvul during the 1982 Lebanon war, to Natan Blanc, who has been in jail for over 100 days and counting for refusal to serve, because he is not willing to take part in maintaining Israel’s indefinite military occupation of the west bank.

No one said non-violent protest wouldn’t make you uncomfortable.  The BDS movement is squarely in line with principles of non-violence, and whether you agree or disagree with its goals, it should be respected as such.  There is a tendency to refer to BDS as “economic terrorism” and “cultural terrorism” which mostly just reminds me that I’m happy that people are expressing their views by not buying Ahava skincare products, as opposed to through actual terrorism.

Nb: That last link is pretty much what you’re expecting.  It’s ok not to actually read it; having been present for its aftermath, I barely could.

The New Neighborhood of Bab-al-Shams

I lived in Jerusalem for three months during the second intifada, and then I lived In Beer Sheva for a month, which I thought would be quieter. But also there I did not manage to avoid coming face to face with its violence.
A man from the West Bank had crossed into Israel, and tried to wrestle a gun from a soldier near Beer Sheva’s central bus station. When that failed, he fled and hailed a taxi, and proceeded to stab the driver in the chest.
It’s almost exactly nine years later, and I mostly remember how much blood there was and how the man’s eyes rolled wild and unseeing from the pain as we evacuated him to the emergency room of Soroka University Medical Center.
During this time period I remember people saying “if only the Palestinians would protest non-violently, then we could give them a state.” I suspect I said it too, and I would have meant it.
It’s through this lens, and with a sense of elation, that I read the news this morning of a new tent-protest-settlement-village of Bab-al-Shams in the E-1 area east of Jerusalem.
I don’t know anyone involved, but the way things go in this part of the world, I suspect that many of them have also seen too much blood and too much pain, and are still committed to a non-violent struggle.
I guess I just want to say that I am with them. I admire their strengt. I support them. I wish them success in forging a new path in this land, and in establishing the State of Palestine.