Yanoun Revisited … searching for a glimmer of hope

March 12, 2010

Ten months after completing our term as Ecumenical Accompaniers in the West Bank, teammates Rachel (UK), Birgitta (Sweden), and I gathered again in Jerusalem. We had maintained contact after leaving the country and dreamed not only of a reunion, but of a return to our beloved village of Yanoun. Consequently, we had arranged to ‘cover’ the village while Team 34 was away for their Midterm Orientation and we set out in high spirits.

We could not have been more warmly received, especially considering the fact that four teams of four EAs have served after us and the villagers cannot possibly remember all who have inhabited the International House. But the broad grin of our friend and driver Ghassan when he met us at the Zatara checkpoint and the equally delighted smile of villager Kemal, who stood at the entrance to the village holding up a newborn goat for our inspection, were a true “welcome home”.

After tea and a brief status report from Team 34, we began visiting families and fell back into the rhythm of village life as though we had never left. Over the next several days we drank enormous amounts of thick Arabic coffee and sweet tea, and relished every morsel of the bread from the taboun and fresh cheese as well as the other treats that began to appear on our doorstep. On the surface, the village was the same as we remembered. The children are naturally a bit taller and village matriarch Adla is a bit more stooped and now uses a cane to help navigate the uneven ground in front of their house. But it wasn’t long before we sensed a new tension and a kind of watchfulness just under the surface of the conversations and daily activities. Though we had followed the reports of the teams that succeeded us, we weren’t prepared for the changes that have taken place since we left.

There has been a marked expansion of the outposts on the surrounding hilltops. While the outposts are illegal even under Israeli law, they have government provided electricity, telephone lines, water and military protection. There are increased incursions into the village by armed settlers and by the military. While there has been no violence, they are very intimidating and dehumanizing. The settlers rarely speak, but peer into the homes and other buildings without even acknowledging the presence of those who dwell there. On one occasion, the men between the ages of 15 and 50 were ordered out of their homes at midnight by the military and forced to stand outside in the bitter cold for three hours because a settler reported that someone had been seen near their sheep shelter and was “thinking of stealing a sheep”. There has also been additional confiscation of agricultural and grazing land, and more restrictions have been placed on the maintenance and harvesting of olive trees. Sometimes when the men are out with the sheep, armed settlers ‘suggest’ that if they “don’t want trouble” they should take their sheep and return to their homes. Internationals are no longer permitted to help with the olive harvest in Yanoun. All of these things have directly and negatively impacted the economic viability of the area and its residents. One family has moved to Aqraba and two others are considering moving. The others feel they have nowhere else to go nor should they be forced to do so.

We took daily walks to Nabi Nun to visit Ahmad, the young shepherd, and his family. Ahmad now spends most of his time in Aqraba doing day work, trying to earn enough money to marry Fatan (we attended their engagement party last April). His younger brother, Yusef, looks after the sheep and goats. Settlers have been coming down to their land every day after Yusef has left with the flock and their mother often keeps her youngest son, 12-year old Fouad, home from school because she is frightened to be there alone.

Although it was a joy to be with Rachel and Birgitta and the Yanounis, and the weather was glorious, it was also a difficult time and we found ourselves searching desperately for some glimmer of hope. And we were very conscious of not wanting our despair to spill over onto the people. We would be leaving while they must remain. After five days, Anders from Team 26 and Hilary from Team 29 arrived to cover the remaining days and we traveled on to Nablus. While in Nablus, we arranged with Ghassan to take us to visit our other villages.

In Burin, our contact family, refugees from 1948 whose home is separated from the rest of the village by a settler road, reported the same pattern of increased harassment and destruction. Twenty-three olive trees were burned during the summer. Settlers also entered their home and attempted to set fire to it. Last year there were water storage tanks on their roof, but the settlers protested and the military removed them. Whereas last year settlers came in twos and threes, they now come in groups of twenty to thirty. But there is a new baby to cuddle, and coffee and tea and fruit and popcorn … and for a brief time we were able to laugh and reminisce and put aside the grim realities. Iman, the daughter with whom I used to practice my Arabic and she her English, confessed that in her dreams she flies away from all of this but that she knows it will never happen. Two days after our visit to Burin, another family had forty-three olive trees destroyed. The EA program is now considering placing a team in Burin.

Khirbet Tana had received a total demolition order in January, 2009. On Jan. 8, 2010 the village was indeed razed with the exception of the mosque and one house. The villagers are now living in Red Cross – Red Crescent provided tents which are stifling in the heat and leaky in the rain. But they are determined to stay and rebuild, and began to dig through the rubble for anything salvageable even while the demolition was taking place. Over tea they reported that several families that had moved to nearby Beit Furik following the first demolition of the village in 2005, have now decided to return. Last year’s “freshly born child” was toddling about and the other children were laughing and playing amongst the rubble. The resilience of these people is both astounding and humbling.

Tawayel had also received a total demoliton order while we were there in 2009. We were delighted to hear that the order has been temporarily rescinded. But military considerations trump any civil decision and the military has always coveted that particular piece of land. While visiting with the mayor’s wife, whose home has been moved three times by the military, we noted that their well had been destroyed. Water must now be purchased and stored in tankers that are towed into the village by tractors.

While in Nablus we worshipped at the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd, our ‘home congregation’ during our term of service as accompaniers, and were welcomed warmly by Father Ibrahim and the congregation. We also visited Project Hope where we learned that there is an effort to discourage/prevent internationals from working and volunteering in the West Bank. Hakim, the director, reported that ten international volunteers have been denied entry in the past three months. Other organizations, including the EAPPI, are experiencing the same problems. Hakim’s wife, who is French, has been denied entry for ten years. Hakim has dual citizenship, but this ruling puts him in the position of having to leave Project Hope or incurring the expense of traveling back and forth periodically to be with his wife.

A glimmer of hope? The closing of the Huwarra checkpoint has been a definite improvement, easing restrictions on movement in and out of Nablus and permitting improved access to medical care among other things. The Zatara checkpoint, just a few miles away, regulates vehicles only and is not nearly as restrictive. However, there is a bit of a downside even to this event in that the business/income of the taxi and service drivers that served the Huwarra checkpoint has decreased.

This was a bittersweet visit. The villagers were pleased that we have not forgotten them and we assured them that we are telling their stories and advocating for an end to the occupation … but it feels like so little.

The following week, Birgitta returned to Sweden and Rachel to her volunteer position in Beit Jala. I spent several days in the Beit Jala – Bethlehem – Beit Sahour area and found it even more difficult. Whereas Yanoun and the surrounding areas are pastoral and open and visually lovely, the Bethlehem area is surrounded by large, well-established settlements and nearly surrounded by the Wall. It is crowded and oppressive and “in your face”. And the tension was even more palpable as there were announcements of new restrictions by the Israeli government each day. A ban on internationals traveling to Jerusalem on Palestinian busses without first going through checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem, which had been previously lifted, was reinstated. It was announced that Rachel’s Tomb, the Ibrahimi Mosque, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Herodian and others, sites important to all three monotheistic faiths, are to be taken as Israeli Heritage sites. And another 600 (Israeli) homes were approved for building in East Jerusalem in addition to the 900 recently approved. There is a terrible sense of a relentless “picking at an open sore”, and many Palestinians think the Israelis are trying to provoke violence. It is impossible to envision the resumption of meaningful peace talks in this current atmosphere.


Why Do I Still Look for Logic?…or “Down the Rabbit Hole”

April 3, 2009

Since our first week in Yanoun, teammate Rachel has said “We’ve fallen down the rabbit hole” a la Alice in Wonderland. And this has become our team mantra. There have been many evenings when I have been grateful for the book of Sudoku puzzles I packed in my suitcase. After a day of no logic to any of the things we are seeing and experiencing, I find comfort in the fact that at least on that page there is one right answer and I can find it!

eappi_244This week we were elated to hear that the Yanounis had been given permission to plow the olive fields and that IDF protection would be provided if necessary. Plowing aerates the soil and (unfortunately for Birgitta and I) gets rid of all those beautiful wildflowers that compete for the precious water. Of course this was good news and we spent several hours yesterday working with the villagers, hauling away large dead branches from around the bases of the olive trees. But this is only the first step, and in another month or so there is no assurance that they will get permission to prune the trees. And if that weren’t enough, in October or November there is no guarantee that they will be permitted to harvest the olives. The pattern over the past few years has been to allow two or three days for harvesting instead of the two weeks needed, and the remainder of the fruit is left to rot on the trees. Whereas the potential yield is in the thousands of tons of olives, they are now lucky to get a single ton.

This kind of ‘logic’ extends to virtually every aspect of daily life under occupation. There is much hue and cry over the opening of a checkpoint with no mention that it has simply been replaced by another two km down the road. And I’m still not sure why Palestinians are required to pay the cost of having their homes demolished!

In another vein, we have been told repeatedly that while our presence and support is necessary and appreciated, especially the advocacy work we do after returning home, it is ultimately up to the Israelis and Palestinians to work out their issues…and I believe this is true. But in order to support and advocate effectively, one must have hope and I think that all of us at this stage in our time here are having to work hard on that piece. Each day is a roller coaster ride. We have seen things that give us hope and things that make us despair; we have witnessed oppression ranging from actual physical brutality to the most callous disregard for basic justice and dignity, as well as acts of kindness and compassion; we have been present during joyful events (one of which Swiss teammate Peter described as “holding a freshly born child”), and held people’s hands in times of great sadness.

eappi_151Last Saturday I attended a protest rally against Israeli policy in East Jerusalem, specifically the intention to demolish 88 homes in the Bustan neighborhood. The event was organized by the group Combatants for Peace and was held at the Wall in Ar-Ram (northeast Jerusalem). It was attended by approximately 150 members of CFP and a smattering of other supporters along with local and international press.

I wasn’t familiar with the group prior to this event, but we had an opportunity for extended conversation with two young women who are members. The group is relatively new on the scene having been formed in 2005. In a earlier blog, I wrote about the Parents Circle – Family Forum organization, made up of Israelis and Palestinians who have come together around shared grief over the loss of family members due to the conflict in the region. eappi_1391In contrast, Combatants for Peace is composed of Israelis and Palestinians who themselves have taken part in the cycle of violence…the Israelis as soldiers (IDF) and the Palestinians as a part of the violent struggle for freedom. Their website states that after brandishing weapons for so many years and having seen one another only through weapon sights, they had decided to lay down their guns and fight for peace. They believe that only by joining forces can they break the cycle of violence, the bloodshed, the occupation and the oppression of the Palestinian people.

eappi_141The group holds monthly meetings during which they tell about the violent actions they have taken part in and the turning point that led them to understand the limits of violence. Over time they have discovered that they have more that unites them than divides them. Like the PCFF they operate in pairs, lecturing in universities, schools, youth groups and other public forums. They have programs both on nonviolence and on the history, culture, and needs of each people. Like New Profile, Breaking the Silence, ICAHD, PCFF, Machsom Watch and others, they give me hope. Though they are often viewed in their communities as at the very least naive and at the worst traitors, they remain committed to their goals and their hope for a better future for all.

And as a counterpoint, I think of the young soldier we spoke with at the checkpoint yesterday. He first questioned our right to be there (that’s OK, it happens) and then stated that we couldn’t cross to the Nablus side of the checkpoint. When we assured him we could and not only had been doing so for three months but actually went into Nablus every week to worship, he asked how we ‘found’ Nablus. We replied that it was a beautiful city and we liked it very much, to which he replied “I hate all Arabs. I would like to shoot them all.” We asked him if he actually knew any Arabs and he answered that of course he did, that he saw them there at the checkpoint every day. He said you couldn’t trust them, that they would smile in your face and then stick a knife in your back. He went on to say that he knew we hated the soldiers and we were only there to take their pictures and spread them around the world to make them look bad. I’m afraid our attempts to stress government policies rather than individuals were not taken in and again I felt despair at the sight of another hard young face. Where did I put that darned Sudoku book?!

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.