Shifting Gears

March 24, 2009

We’ve now begun our third and final month here and are noticing subtle changes in our mood and focus. We’ve completed the revision and update of the ‘astonishingly detailed Handover Report’ that I spoke of in one of my earliest postings, and this will be sent to Yanoun Team 31. team_30_-_yanoun1We’ve been trying to figure out if there is a way to make the three-day “Taste of Yanoun” less overwhelming for them, but suspect that it’s just the nature of the beast. And we find, to our delight, that we do feel comfortable and confident in our roles. We remain committed to our tasks here, but are now beginning to think about how we will best tell of our experiences when we get home. And we know that saying our goodbyes will be difficult.

These people have taken us into their hearts and their homes unconditionally and it has been such a privilege to share this small window of time in their and our lives. Last week we were honored to be invited to the engagement party of our young shepherd friend in Nabi Nun whom we visit three times a week. We dressed in our best (cleanest) jeans and shirts, scraped the worst of the sheep dung from our shoes, and began walking to Aqraba where the party was to be held. We hadn’t gone more than a couple of kilometers when we were offered a ride. The driver spoke no English, but we managed to convey that we were going to Ahmed’s engagement party. Upon arrival in Aqraba, a town of approximately 10,000 people, the driver stopped several times to ask where the party was being held. Very quickly he deposited us triumphantly and with characteristic genuine pleasure at having been able to help, directly at the doorstep.

We were greeted with a great deal of excitement and and ushered into the house, Peter to the men’s room and Rachel, Birgitta and I to the women’s room. The room was small, crowded, noisy and hot with the older women seated in chairs against the walls and the younger women dancing in the center. We were given soft drinks and joined in the dancing until the arrival of Ahmed and Fatan.

eappi_0331We scarcely recognized Ahmed since we are accustomed to seeing him on the hillside, in rough work clothes, with his sheep and goats. He is a handsome young man at any time, but in his suit with a fresh shave and haircut he was absolutely ‘kwayyes, kwayyes’! His fiancee is 17, a second cousin, and just lovely. I was told that this is one of the two times that she will appear in ‘public’ with her hair uncovered, the second time being her wedding day. (Unfortunately, pictures were not permitted).

Poor Ahmed was clearly embarrassed by being the center of attention and we realized that he probably hadn’t been in a women’s room since he was a young child (children move freely between the two rooms). The couple was greeted and congratulated by each of the women present (kisses on each cheek). The engagement ceremony consisted of Ahmed’s presenting Fatan with gold jewelry (in case the marriage should not work out she will not be left without resources), the exchange of rings (which are worn on their right hand until they are married, at which time they will switch them to the left), and a drink with linked arms, each drinking from the other’s gold goblet. This was followed by another round of congratulations. The music resumed with Fatan dancing for Ahmed in the center of a circle of women, and Ahmed joining that outer circle for just a brief bit. Conversation flowed easily, especially with the high school aged girls who were eager to practice their English. And the schools in Aqraba must be using the same textbooks that our young friend in Burin had purchased for herself, since I heard the phrase “Your eyes are enchanting” more than once! Unfortunately, we had to be back in Yanoun by dark so we missed the rest of the party and the meal which, judging from the aromas floating in from the kitchen, promised to be delicious.

dsc003431When we next visited Ahmed in Nabi Nun, we found him more relaxed and happy than we have ever seen him. In our usual patchwork combination of English, Arabic and sign language he expressed his pleasure that we had come to the party and joked about his discomfort there. eappi_062After tea and coffee, he was clearly reluctant to have our visit end and walked a part of the way back with us, naming in Arabic some of the new spring flowers that have appeared and quizzing us to be sure we had the pronunciation correct. I repeat…we know that saying our goodbyes will be difficult.


A Nice Change of Pace

March 16, 2009

On Saturday morning we returned to Yanoun where we spent the day restocking the pantry and catching up on the events that had taken place while we were away. The news was sobering since our villages, other than Yanoun, had all experienced increased activity with ‘mischief’ ranging from new home demolition orders to demonstrations and settler violence. We knew that we would be busy the following week making visits.

On Sunday, after church and lunch in Nablus, I went to Tulkarem for the first of my required placement visits (we are each to visit two sites besides our own as each has different tasks and challenges). Tulkarem is a Palestinian city of 60,000 people and two refugee camps with a combined population of another 20,000. eappi_aptThe Tulkarem team consists of four women, Heidi from the Swiss Alps (married to our team mate Peter, reminiscent of one of my favorite childhood books), Elisabeth from Sweden, Sapna from Germany, and Randi from Norway. At the risk of seeming mean-spirited I will simply say that they live in the ground floor apartment of a lovely modern home with a garden patio in the back, and have a cleaning woman. (But I wouldn’t trade Yanoun for any of it!)

I happened to get the front passenger seat in the service (pronounced sairveese) between the Beit Iba checkpoint and Tulkarem…my least favorite spot. As I sat in my usual white-knuckled terror while the driver raced along at 70 mph, simultaneously talking on two mobile phones, making change (fares are passed forward from the seats behind), riding the bumper of the vehicle in front of us, or passing on hills and curves, I had no idea of how that front seat would play out later. tulkaremOn arrival in Tulkarem we left the bus a block or so ahead of the usual stop because Elisabeth wanted to stop by the UNWRA office for some literature. I told her I would like to find a sweet shop (bakery) so that I could bring some treats for her team. We debated about going directly to the house to leave our bags and backpacks, and that’s when Elisabeth realized she had left her bag containing her camera, wallet, etc. in the service!

In a panic we ran to the station to see if our vehicle was still there. While Elisabeth tried to locate someone in the office who could speak English, I ran up and down the rows of parked services hoping to find the one we had taken. They all look alike and I suddenly realized that I was looking for the items I’d seen on the dash…a length of decorative fringe, a small globe, a miniature ceramic Koran, and a stuffed white shaggy dog. By this time Elisabeth had found a young man changing tires in a garage across the street who spoke excellent English, and I relayed this information to him. As he translated to the crowd of drivers standing around us, they immediately began to smile and nod their heads. Within minutes they reached our driver, on his way back to Beit Iba, by phone. He stopped and checked and found the bag on the floor in the back and promised to return it on his next run to Tulkarem. Unfortunately for Elisabeth’s nerves, he didn’t return until late that evening. But the next morning, when we arrived at the station, we were told that he had left it at the sweet shop across the street. Our same young friend then phoned the owner of the sweet shop who came and opened his shop early. All of Elisabeth’s belongings were intact, and all of those involved in our little drama just seemed inordinately pleased that it had all worked out!

On Monday morning, Elisabeth and I taxied and walked to Shufa, a nearby village, for an English conversation session with the women’s group. It was a beautiful day for a walk through the fields of wild flowers that had appeared after the recent rains. On the day before our visit some of the women had attended a combined political rally and celebration of International Women’s Day in Ramallah and were bursting to discuss the experience. Afterward we had lunch with one of the women who is studying literature at the university. Over tea and a delicious warm bread laced with fresh thyme leaves, I helped her sort through the ‘thees, thous, and doths’ of Elizabethen poetry. It was such a good day, one of those you just hate to see end.

razor_wireThe following morning we awoke at 5 a.m. to go to the agricultural gates (a variation on checkpoints) at Attil. Attil is a village caught in one of the ‘seam zones’, the areas between the 1949 Green Line and the Wall, and separated from its agricultural lands. The fields are surrounded by a fence with razor wire. eappi_094The gate is open for an hour between 6 and 7 a.m. and that morning there were 15 farmers waiting when we arrived with a total of 45 men, 3 donkeys, and 5 tractors passing through during the hour. The men each carried a small black plastic bag containing bread and cheese for their lunch. They greeted us cheerfully, and many commented that they had missed Elisabeth during our absence the previous week. We had a brief conversation with the two young soldiers when they came to close the gate (to be reopened for an hour late in the afternoon to let the farmers out again). One spoke fair English, the other only Hebrew. They were new to the gate and unfamiliar with our role and purpose, but polite.

We returned to Tulkarem and after breakfast I journeyed back home to Yanoun. It was a good visit and a nice change of pace from the exposure week!

Rethinking ‘Democracy’: Israeli Exposure Week – Day 5

March 15, 2009

On Friday morning we left Haifa and journeyed to Nazareth for our final exposure week activity, a meeting with Muhammad Zeidan, Director of the Arab Association for Human Rights. There we learned about the situation of the more than one million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, who make up approximately 20% of that population. They hold Israeli ID cards and passports, can vote in elections and be elected, and yet they are not equal .

For generations, prior to the war in 1948, they farmed the lands in historic Palestine. During the war they became refugees and internally displaced persons, and afterward those living within the borders of what is now the State of Israel became Israeli citizens. However, Israel emerged from the 1948 War as a Jewish state and its citizens are designated as Jewish or non-Jewish. This means that non-Jews are a minority not only in numbers, but in identity. And a number of laws and practices maintain separation and discrimination.

The Absentee Property Law passed in 1950 decreed that land not occupied for three years would become the property of the State. Since Palestinians were not granted the right of return to their homes following the war, as stipulated in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of Dec. 1948, they were termed absentee and their land was confiscated. Mr. Zeidan remarked wryly that Palestinians are “present absentees…present in matters of the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, but absent in the rights of citizenship”. They are not free to live anywhere in the State, but are confined to one of seven ‘recognized townships’ (ghettoes with inferior services). The Planning and Construction Law of 1965 created something known as “unrecognized villages”. A list of villages was drawn up, but if a village didn’t appear on the list it didn’t exist, was therefore illegal and also not eligible for any services.

From 1948 to 1966, Palestinians were under martial law based on the British Mandatory Law concerning ’emergency regulations’. This created two separate legal systems and severely restricted all basic freedoms. And though the military regime was theoretically abolished in 1966 and a single court system put in place, nothing has really changed. Discrimination continues in the following ways:
(1) Direct legal discrimination – the language of many laws contains the words “for Jews” (i.e. land taken under the Absentee Property Law and given to the State is now reserved for Jews).
(2) Indirect legal discrimination – the language is hidden. Some basic rights, as well as job opportunities, etc., are linked to military service. The ‘Catch 22’ is that the Minister of Defense has the sole authority to reject people and Palestinians are virtually always rejected (there are a small number accepted into noncombat units). Orthodox Jews are ordered to appear but are automatically exempted on religious grounds…however, enjoy all the rights of those who have served. Palestinians don’t begrudge the ‘perks’ for those who have served actively in the armed forces (similar to our “GI benefits” of college tuition, health care, etc.), but resent the fact that basic rights are denied.
(3) Institutional discrimination – involves policy, not law. The decisions of the ministers of all departments are final and can’t be contested in court. The impact of this is seen in the budget for example, where funding for repair and maintenance of infrastructure, health care and education are vastly unequal.
(4) Public sphere – stereotypes still exist on both sides and our own country’s history has shown that these are most difficult to modify or eradicate.

While there is not a universally accepted definition of democracy and many forms of democratic government exist, there are elements that are considered fundamental. These include (1) power is held directly or indirectly by the citizens under a free electoral system, and (2) the will of the majority is recognized but there is legal protection of individual and minority rights. In the United States, Israel is frequently described as our “democratic partner/friend/ally in the Middle East”. As usual, I am left with more questions than answers.

The remainder of the day was spent sightseeing in Nazareth. We then returned to Jerusalem and the following morning to our placement sites.

Israeli Exposure Week – Day 4

March 11, 2009

On Thurs. morning we boarded our bus and traveled southeast of Haifa to the Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, and the area lush and green with well-tended flourishing crops and unlikely (at least to me) combinations of olive trees, varieties of palms, and evergreens growing side by side. But the most striking thing was the absence of rocks…everywhere else in this land the terrain is mountainous and rocky. I wondered where they had put them and still have visions of (neat) piles of enormous rocks on the ‘backside’ of the mountains where they can’t be seen!

Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek (Guardian of the Valley) was established in 1922 by Polish immigrants. It is a socialist and secular community (though Jewish religious holidays are celebrated in the traditional way and “some people probably pray to God in case there is one”-Lydia) with more than 900 residents. eappi_0911We began with a visit to the small museum which houses the historical documents and artifacts of the community. We then walked through the kibbutz to the home of Lydia Aisenberg, our hostess and guide.

On the way to Lydia’s home, we met and spoke with a group of international youth who are living there and participating in a one-year study program. Lively and articulate, they described their life there which includes Hebrew studies and daily communal chores,as well as teaching English to their contemporaries in neighboring Palestinian villages, and shared their hopes of breaking down stereotypes on both sides. They were a delight and once again I felt hope for the future.

lydias_gardenWe then assembled in Lydia’s garden with refreshments. She is a small, intense woman and an engaging speaker. While she is well-known for her wit, humor and cynicism, on this day she was also pensive, reflective and vulnerable as she wove her personal story into the history of the kibbutz.

Born in Wales, she worked in London as a young adult. She related stories of her own experiences with anti-Semitism…at age 11 she was brought to the front of her school classroom by her teacher who asked her to explain to the class “why you killed Jesus”…in another childhood incident other children accused her of “drinking the blood of Christian children killed by her parents for the Passover”…as a young adult she experienced loss of jobs and/or job discrimination because of her religion. At one point she paid 10 British pounds to change her surname from Greenburg to Green, and for a time “was accepted”. But she was unable to live with this and later paid another 10 pounds to restore her name.

lydiaLydia moved to Israel in 1967 to study Hebrew and at the end of April will have resided in the kibbutz for 42 years. She subsequently married a Holocaust survivor and they had 5 children. Her husband died a few years ago. She regaled us with stories about her early days and chores there (“gave up a career as a journalist to collect eggs”) and her desire to be accepted. She still identifies herself as a committed Zionist, but then observes that it’s hard to know what that means anymore, asking…”what is Left, what is Center, what is Zionist?” She is also a staunch advocate for justice for Palestinians. She says she is not hopeful regarding the current conflict and cites the fear of terrorist attacks as a major stumbling block. She further knows that philosophical changes are inevitable in this community that she loves and that Mishmar could well become ‘privatized’ as so many other kibbutzim have done. Young married women in particular want to continue to live in the kibbutz but not turn over their paychecks to the community and simply pay expenses as incurred.

Lydia is a complex and fascinating woman at a kind of crossroads in her life and it was a pleasure to spend this time with her.

The remainder of our day was free and the majority of the group decided to make a trip to Akko (see A Brief Respite). Since Scott and I had been there, we opted to get off the bus and walk from downtown Haifa back to Mt. Carmel. Four hours later, I warned Scott that if I heard the words “nice day for a walk” coming from his mouth ever again, I would surely run screaming in the opposite direction!

Israeli Exposure Week – Day 3

March 10, 2009

haifaThe following morning, our entire group climbed into a tour bus and traveled north to the beautiful port city, Haifa. We stayed two nights at the Stella Maris Hotel, a hotel-monastery-church complex on the upper slopes of Mt. Carmel. The church has two altars, the lower one being the cave where the prophet Elijah is thought to have lived.

On arrival, we went directly to our exposure session, a meeting with representatives from New Profile. The goal of this group is to demilitarize Israeli society. It is their belief that the current situation is maintained by decisions made by politicians and not by external forces to which they are passively subject. They feel that while they were taught to believe that the country is faced by threats beyond their control, they now realize that the words “national security” have often masked calculated decisions to choose military action for achievement of political goals. They are concerned about the future of their society, which they believe institutionalizes and normalizes violence as the primary way to solve problems.

The session opened with small group discussions centered around three questions: (1) “What is militarism (not in the context of army)?”, (2) “What is civil society?”, and (3) “Where do you see evidence of militarism here?” Our presenters were two Israeli women, mothers of children both serving in the military and conscientious objectors. They shared their personal stories…”traditional lives in which as a parent you are supposed to guide your children on a path to the military, that were turned upside down” when some of their children refused to serve. This caused tremendous turmoil within the family, rethinking and reshaping of values, and the subsequent formation of New Profile.

The discussion then moved to examples of subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the mindset of militarization is maintained. They stated
that their schools are obligated to identify students who appear to have low motivation for military service. Plain-clothes soldiers come to the schools, befriend these students, and attempt to “bring them around to the right way of thinking”.

A series of magazine advertisements was especially interesting. One showed a young boy with a gap-toothed smile carrying a school bag. The text reads “Philip Azachi, six years old, goes to first grade: “An Israeli is someone like me, who goes to first grade, and waits to go to the army to protect the land of Israel”.” Another depicts a bra made of camouflage material and reads “You’re not alone in this war” and in small print, The Israeli Cancer Society. The first picture in an ad for Macabee Beer shows a young man and young woman backpacking in the countryside while the second shows the same couple marching in uniform. The text reads “To be a bit of this and a bit of that. To be Israeli”. An ad for baking yeast shows a young man standing with his mother in the kitchen munching on a pastry; the text reads “When my boy is home on his usual leave, he deserves some unusual baking”.

Other issues included the fact that when a child turns 16, he/she is “no longer under the control of the family” but is registered with the Defense Ministry. Weapons are visible at all times in all settings. Soldiers returning from checkpoint duty are tense, drive too fast, and also bring the tension and weapons into the home (families must provide financial support during the years of service; some live at home, others spend time on bases).

New Profile doesn’t try to dissuade young people from entering military service, but provides counseling, support, and legal advice for those who don’t wish to serve. They accept that they are viewed by many as naive, foolish, and/or ignorant. They are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians under the occupation and commended our work, but stated that their focus must remain within their own society since ending the occupation wouldn’t get rid of the mindset of a militarized society.

That afternoon, each of the teams gave a presentation on their particular placement site, its challenges and the work they do there. jayyous_teamThe presentations were critiqued by the staff, the other teams and visiting family/friends which will help us enormously when we prepare our presentations at home.

“That This May Never Happen Again…(to us)” Day 2

March 8, 2009

Our second exposure event was a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. When we arrived we learned that Hilary Clinton had preceded us that morning and there was a lingering ‘buzz’ among the staff. eappiOur group was fortunate to be led by Tamar Avraham, an Orthodox Jewish woman, who led our synod group in Nov. 2007.

Flanking the entrance to the museum are the trees of the Righteous Among the Nations, planted in honor of those non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Tamar explained that the museum is built on levels and that as the narrative of the Holocaust unfolds we would be proceeding underground, a symbol of passing from life to death. The historical narrative ends in the Hall of Names, a repository for the pages of testimony of more than 3 million victims who perished. In the center of the Hall is a pit of water, a resting place for the names they will never know. From the Hall of Names, one exits onto a balcony with a panoramic view of Jerusalem symbolizing new hope. The tour takes about 2 hours and was as powerful for me the second time as it had been the first. I emerged, sickened and drained, but with a prayer that I will never become immune to the horror of it. For if I do, it will mean that I have crossed into a psychological space where I don’t ever want to be.

There were many tour groups that afternoon and I found myself particularly watching a group of young Israeli soldiers-in-training that were moving through alonside us. Some had removed their headphones and were paying no attention at all, laughing, joking and text-messaging; some were openly weeping, both the young men and young women; and others wore hard, angry expressions, whether real or feigned, that were disturbing. These are the young people that will be responsible for the checkpoints in not so many months and I wondered what message they were taking with them.

And once again there was the issue of the ‘parallel universe’ I mentioned earlier. The similarities between the early stages of the Holocaust narrative and the current occupation situation are inescapable…separating out a people as ‘other’, attempting to move them or forcing them to move elsewhere, decreasing economic viability, increasing denial of the most basic human rights, ghettos and walls…the list goes on and on. There is a national post-traumatic stress disorder in play here and it is being incorporated into the very DNA of succeeding generations. It has resulted in the establishment of a military society and the oppressed have now become the oppressors. During our meeting with Bishop Younan earlier that day he said “When I speak out against the occupation I am not only speaking for my own people, I am speaking for the Israelis too. They are destroying themselves from within.” There are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ here…and no one is winning.

Israeli Exposure Week – Day 1

March 6, 2009

At about the midpoint of our term here, the entire group returns to Jerusalem from our placement sites for what is known as the Israeli Exposure Week. After 5 weeks of living and working in the West Bank, we are given the opportunity to hear a larger sampling of the Israeli viewpoint (some was included in the initial orientation). The 5-week interval is good as it enables us to ask more focused questions based on our experience on the ground. This week is also the traditional time for visits from family and friends from home. They are encouraged to take part in the program and there is time built in for sightseeing and recreation. It has been a delight to meet the significant others of those with whom we work.

Our first exposure event was a visit to the Efram Settlement which overlooks Bethlehem. Our guide was Bob Lang, formerly from the United States, who has lived in the community since 1975. This was a challenging presentation and one which I will continue to process. Mr. Lang has a wealth of experience in education, politics, and community service and is passionate and articulate about the right of Israelis to the land. However, there was a seeming oblivion and/or total disregard for what I am currently calling the ‘parallel (but unequal) universe’ that exits here.

When asked about the relationship between the settlement and the nearby Palestinian villages, he insisted that they were on good terms and shared water resources, electrical grids, etc. However, knowing that the allocation of water can approach 80% to the settlements and 20% to the villages (one of the refugee camps in the area gets water for 2 hours every Tuesday), as well as not uncommon electrical blackouts in the villages, I’m having trouble with the concept of sharing. Similarly, he spoke about the right of any Jewish person anywhere in the world to ‘return to their homeland’ with full citizenship whether or not they had ever lived here before. When questioned about right of return for the Palestinians who did live here and who are guaranteed such under international law, he replied that that would ‘have to be negotiated’. He categorically denied that there is an occupation and rationalized all restrictive policies as necessary because of the threat of terrorism.

This was a good beginning and generated lively conversation and debate during the return trip and the following debriefing. We are consistently reminded by the EAPPI staff that we are to keep an open mind and to learn as much as we can about the entire situation.

The following morning we were all to have meetings with our consulates. However, Scott and I were unable to get an appointment because Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was in Jerusalem following meetings in Egypt and even the lowest level aide was unavailable to meet with us. As it worked out, this allowed us to meet with ELCJHL Bishop Munib Younan before he left for meetings in Lebanon. In his inimitable way, he ministered to us over tea, apricots and figs as we exchanged stories and shared laughter and tears, joys and fears. We left his office with his blessing and thanks for our work, strengthened and restored in body and spirit.